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Kingdom Come

Hey, is anyone out there watching "Stephen King's Kingdom Hospital" on ABC? I am, and I think it's fun, but I'm also a HUGE fan of the original Danish TV show that it's based on: "The Kingdom," which was directed by Lars von Trier.

(I saw the Danish original's first four episodes in a marathon five hour screening at the Nuart, a Los Angeles art house, about six or seven years ago, and the next four episodes a few years later in another marathon five hour screening, for a total of eight episodes. A couple of years ago, I found the first four on video, and have watched them twice since -- once in another marathon five hour screening in my living room, lasting until 4:00 a.m., when the people I was showing it to refused to let me turn it off after just two episodes!)

Now, because of that, it's hard for me to judge how good the new version is, or how well it's standing on its own, because I keep comparing it to the original.

Let me hasten to say, part of the fun is constantly comparing it! it's a treat to see how scenes and sequences that came from the original production have been "Americanized". It makes me laugh with the delight of a child when I see a favorite moment from the original realized with different actors, film styles, etc.

For example, there's the scene in the new ABC version when Dr. Stegman parks his car in the hospital parking lot, and is freaked out by the teens standing nearby -- convinced that they are going to steal his car. He puts "the Club" on his steering wheel, then puts a "boot" on his tire, makes sure his car alarm is armed, etc. This parallels the same scene in the Danish version, in which the Dr. Stegman character also parked his car, convinced that the juvenile delinquints standing nearby were simply going to steal his hubcaps -- and so he actually took off his hubcaps and carried them into the hospital with him.

(In the original, Dr. Stegman was a Swedish doctor, Helmer, "exiled" from Sweden to Denmark due to some unspecified ethical or professional breech. He sees the Danes as backward provincials, and rails against them -- ending nearly every episode by retreating to the hospital's roof so he can catch a glimpse of his beloved Sweden, and screaming to the skies the now-immortal words, "Danish scum!"

(In the new version, Dr. Stegman is a Boston doctor, "exiled" to Maine due to some unspecified ethical or professional breech. He sees the denizens of Maine as backward provincials -- and I could tell, from a quarter-second clip in the teaser at the end of the first episode, that he, too, will soon by screaming the equivalent of "Danish scum" ("Maine-ish scum?") from the roof to the skies.)

Other familiar sights from the original --

the two young people with Downs' syndrome working as hospital dishwashers and acting as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action;

Mrs. Drusse, the malingerer psychic, and her son (Bulder, in the orginal), who works in the hospital as an orderly;

the ghost of Mary crying in the elevator;

the doctors' morning conference, when Dr. Stegman is late and Dr. Hook convenes the meeting -- only to have to go through it all again when Stegman finally shows up, and pulls rank;

the somewhat befuddled Head of the hospital, and his program to lift morale, "Operation Morning Air";

and so much more.

Some of the dialogue is almost identical, word for word, and there are even some in-jokes for fans of the original (such as the "Operation Morning Air" stickers the Head of the Hospital gives out -- barely even explained in the new version).

Now, having said how much I enjoy seeing the parallels -- and after also stipulating that I am also enjoying the remake -- it seems, in every instance, that the new production suffers in comparison to the original.

For instance, in the parallel I mentioned above -- when Dr. Stegman is parking his car in front of the hooligans, the original seemed better on so many levels it's hard to know where to begin. For one thing, there was the pacing. The entire scene probably takes...well, let me check the tape. I'll tell you exactly...

It lasted 20 seconds in the original.

In the American version, is goes on and on and on, clocking in at 3 minutes and 20 seconds!

Also, putting "the Club" on the steering wheel is fine, but putting the "boot" on his own tire is just weird -- and doesn't have nearly the eccentric kick as removing all four hubcaps.

Also, the actors playing the teens are way too old in the American version. In the Danish, they're twelve, maybe fourteen years old. In the American, they look to be over twenty -- way too old to be juvenile delinquents, they look like they'd either just ignore Stegman or carjack him, but they wouldn't stand there and tease him.

Pacing definitely seems to be a big problem with the show overall. Much more was packed into the original's opening episode.

For instance, during the doctors' morning conference I mentioned above, the Danish original featured numerous jump-cuts -- so we just got straight to the dramatic points -- when Dr. Stegman gets angry that the meeting started without him, and that Dr. Hook made other decisions without him -- the film cuts abruptly from phrase to phrase, so we can really feel his anger. It simulates in a very powerful way our own experience of daily life, how we might remember a confrontation -- with all the boring in-between bits cut out. The ABC version simply records the meeting, with all the boring in-between bits included.

The ABC version also lacks subtlety. I don't think there was more than a whisper of anything supernatural in the Danish original, until the very end of the first episode. It just seemed like a hospital drama filled with quirky personalities -- which made it seem _real_. We're not even sure, at first, if anything supernatural is going to happen, which gave the discovery of actual ghosts an amazingly powerful wallop. In the new version, in the first few minutes, we see a reflection of a ghostly little girl in a computer monitor, a moment later her image appears in the window of a sliding door. So now we already know there are ghosts -- all we can do is sit back and wait for them to start acting up.

And -- sorry to keep complaining -- but the new version lacks humor! Oh, there is some sophmoric stuff, like Dr. Hook singing the "Beverly Hillbillies" theme song as he's drilling a hole in a patient's skull -- but nothing like the real, mordant, honest, intelligent, character-based humor of the original.

But the biggest mistake, in my opinion, is the choice Stephen King made to insert a character based on himself into the story. That in itself might not have been a problem -- but the way he did it just seems to throw off the balance of the story.

The character based on King, a painter, is injured in the same kind of accident that happened to the author in in real life -- he was hit by a van while he was jogging. In the show, in the painter's delirium after the accident, he sees visions of an anteater -- a vision that follows him into the hospital. His own personal vision starts to interact with the supernatural doings in the hospital -- which just seems to muck up the logic of the story. How does it work that a person's psychological demons interact with "real" demons? If the story is about the uneasy spirits of Kingdom Hospital -- what does that have to do with a mental state coming from the outside? (As I was describing this to a friend of mine, another fan of the original "The Kingdom", he just starting saying, "Oh that's wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.")

The artist's story also slows down the proceedings to a crawl. While the Danish original seamlessly weaves seemingly dozens of stories together effortlessly, establishing twenty or more characters and their goals and obstacles in the first episode, the first hour of the American remake clunkily revolves around the the painter's story, introducing just a handful of other characters in any meaningful way. Much time is spent on the painter in the first episode, his miraculous recovery, his wife's arrival at the hospital, and the like. Knowing where the story is going, it all seems peripheral and unnecessary. (Unless, of course, this new version changes the story considerably over the next episodes -- but that would wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong!)

Well, having said all that -- even with the stylistic differences and story problems -- I'm having a lot of fun with the show, and I can't wait for the next episode!

Now this is where I'd like your help. I'd love to hear from anyone out there -- especially from you who haven't seen the original -- to let me know what you think of the new version! Let me know -- if I hadn't seen the original version first, would I be enjoying this one even more? Let me know what you think!

The Bug
[originally posted 11/7/03]

You might have read my story last week about the snake (below).

A few nights later, I was up late, working at my desk, eating grapes while I wrote. The only light in the living room, aside from the glowing computer screen, was coming from the kitchen. I was staring at my computer, trying to figure out how to put a few intangible thoughts into words, when I glanced down on the floor and saw, a few feet away, next to the couch, this horible, multi-legged insect.

I had never seen anything like it -- it was hideous, and huge, with all these legs and prickly antennae sticking up -- it looked like something out of a science fiction movie.
I froze, and it didn't move either. I didn't know what to do -- kill it or capture it. I didn't want to go to the kitchen to get a glass to cover it, because I was afraid it would scuttle under the couch as soon as I moved away. It looked like it was too big to kill with a magazine, and I was barefoot so I couldn't stomp on it.

It seemed like minutes, but I'm sure only a few seconds had passed while these thoughts flitted through my brain, and the thing still hadn't moved. Nearly paralyzed with fear I forced myself to stand up, and very slowly walked closer to it to get a better look. It still hadn't moved. The light from the kitchen was coming into the room at an oblique angle, and barely reached the couch. The thing was nearly in shadow. I held my breath and slowly, trembling, bent down.

It was a grape stem that I had dropped on the floor the night before.

Just Like a Good Neighbor
[originally posted 10/20/03]

I was hard at work writing the other night, when I heard a knock at my front door. I opened it, and one of our neighbors was standing there.

"Will you come help me?" she asked. "There's a snake in my bedroom, and I'm terrified."

"Sure," I said. "No problem."

I couldn't reveal that I was terrified, too. I mean, what did I know about snakes? Or how to capture them?

I followed her next door to her house, thinking about what to do. I'd seen snake wranglers on TV working with forked sticks and ropes looped into lassoes, but I had no idea how to do anything like that. Maybe I could I sweep it into a box. Gee, how big was it, anyway?

She led the way back to her house, and I followed her. Anxiously, I stepped into the bedroom. There was no snake to be seen. Did it leave? Holy cow, was it under the bed?

"It was near those papers next to my briefcase," she said, pointing to some loose papers on the floor.

I carefully crept over to them and lifted the top pieces of paper -- sure enough, there was the snake.

It was thin, and only two feet long at most. I looked at the tail -- the Canyon is known to be home for rattlesnakes. But this one didn't have a rattle. It was just a harmless garden snake.

I put the papers back down over it -- I didn't want it to crawl away.

"Do you have a bucket?" I asked. "And something I can use to sweep it in?"

"How about a food container?" she replied.

"Like a tupperware?" I asked. She nodded. "Is it deep?"

She nodded again.

"Let me see it," I said, sounding far more confident, and competent, than I felt. "And also a broom or something."

She brought back a large plastic food container. It was rectangular and about eight inches deep. That ought to do, I thought. She also gave me a dustpan. Perfect.

In one more or less smooth motion, I lifted the sheets of paper, and used the dustpan to sweep the snake into the tupperware container.

"My hero!" my neighbor said.

I looked down at the snake, coiled at the bottom of the container, unable to get out. I smiled. This was going much easier than I thought.

"Let's take it outside," I said, and she showed me to the back door of her room, which led to a deck overlooking the hillside. We stepped out onto the deck Stairs led down to the backyard below.

"Just toss it over the side," she said.

"No way," I said. "That might hurt it, I don't want to do that. I'll just carry it down the stairs and release it on the ground --"

As I was talking to her, I felt something brush against my thumb. I looked down at the tupperware in my hand, and saw that the snake had almost succeeded in climbing out of the container -- it's head and a large portion of its neck was hanging over the side.

I shrieked and jerked the container up, flinging the snake over the rail. So much for my concern about its safety. Last I saw of it, it was flipping end over end toward the hill below.

That didn't seem to bother my neighbor, and she continues to call me her hero every time she sees me.

But somewhere in this canyon, I know, there's a snake who's licking it's wounds, just waiting for its chance to get me.

That's Show Biz: The "Bake-off"

A good friend of mine is a member of the Special Visual Effects branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences -- you know, the organization that hands out the Oscars? Well, last night I accompanied him to the event that the members of that branch refer to as "the bake-off". That's when seven selected visual effects supervisors show the highlight reels from the movies they worked on -- the best 15 minutes of visual effects each film has to offer -- and the members of the branch vote on them to select the three official nominees that everyone in the Academy will vote on for the Oscar. (He himself has one won Oscar for visual effects, and has been nominated several times.)

It's a fun evening. Each effects supervisor takes a few minutes to introduce their reel and explain to the audience -- most of them professional in the special effects field -- what they are about to see. After the reel, each supervisor called up three members of his team to spend a few more minutes answering questions -- often highly technical questions -- from the audience, sharing their secrets and techniques with each other.

I enjoy the evening, not only because it offers me a little glimpse of the techniques behind the magic on the screen -- but also because I get to see the best 15 minutes of some movies I wouldn't have a chance to see!

The voting is secret, of course. Only members of the SFX branch of the academy are allowed to vote, and it is supervised, as always, by the firm of Price Waterhouse. But here are my impressions of the seven films that were screened, and my predictions,. based solely on the audience's reaction, on which the three final nominees will be.

A great reel that highlighted Spiderman's web-slinging, wall climbing and acrobatic leaping. The effects team explained how much of Spiderman's actions were created using a digital model that matched the actor exactly -- even down to his breathing. The city scapes were created in a computer by taking thousands of photographs of New York, turning them into texture maps, and painting them with incredible detail -- down to the rust stains and bird droppings.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
This reel highlighted the Gollum, but also featured sequences from throughout the film, including the Battle at Helm's Deep. A few interesting tidbits: the team tried about eight or ten different looks for the Gollum, and spent a long time trying to get his skin exactly right. Also, they built three versions of Helm's Deep -- a full-size set and two miniatures. The full size set only included a bit of the central fortress. The first miniature was, I believe, one-quarter scale, and was the whole fortress. The second miniature was 1/35 scale, and included all of the fortress and the landscape surrounding it. Any shot in the film that showed the full fortress under attack was a composite of all three, plus computer animation of the battle.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
Another fun clip. The effects supervisor pointed out how most of the film included digital effects, and there were entire major sequences he was unable to include in the reel. Most interesting revealed tidbit: Watch the climactic fight between Yoda and _______ very carefully. _______, who played ________, was not able to perform the physically challenging light-saber battle himself. Instead, a stunt man was used for his body, and a digital recreation of _____ head was inserted onto the body, and matched move for move.

Men in Black II
This one was a lot of fun. Lots of humor and attitude provided by Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, and a talking pug. Most interesting fact: the subway car that is being consumed by the giant worm-like alien, Jeffrey, was a full-sized replica of a subway car. It was physically crushed and torn away by a combination of hydraulics and mechanical effects. (Jeffrey, the worm, was later composited in, chomping on it.) This apparently came as a great surprise to Will Smith, who was standing about five feet away from the first section of the subway car that was torn away -- the look of shock and surprise on his face in the film is real!

Two major sequences in this film were highlighted -- the scene with Vin Diesel on the motorcycle escaping the bad guys' farm, and the avalanche sequence. Most of the motocycle stunts -- the explosions, the gunfire, the leaps -- were all done for real, with a stunt motorcycle driver. Again, a digital recreation of Vin Diesel's face was created in a computer and pasted on the driver's body.

Minority Report
Lots of effects in this movie, too. Highlights were the mechanical spider sequence and Tom Cruise's escape from the PreCrime unit by hanging onto officer and controlling his jetpack. The spider sequence was shot on a full size set of the apartment complex, built with the roof taken off, so the action could be seen in each room. The mechanical spiders, a digital effect, were layered in later. The jet pack sequence was shot for real, using cranes and wires -- with Tom Cruise doing his own stunts!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
This reel featured the Weasley's flying car, the Quidditch match, the giant spiders, the giant serpent and much, much more. One of the most interesting things: the opening shot of Harry's neighborhood -- the endless dismal vista of tract housing -- was a special effect. (I suspected as much, but I wasn't sure -- I thought it was possible that there existed, somewhere, such a housing development.) Much of the Quidditch match was performed with the actors on wires -- but this was then, sometimes, replaced with "digital doubles."

Well, those were the seven films. Based on my impressions, the nominees will be...the envelope please...

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (a lock!)
Spiderman (I'm pretty sure)
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Well, I guess, looking back at that list, those choices aren't too surprising. Still, we'll see if I'm right.

And the winner of the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects?

That's harder to say, because it will be the entire Academy voting, not just the Visual Effects branch. But if I had to guess (and I have to!), it will be...

Lord of the Rings!

P.S. I Love You!
[originally posted 1/20/03]

Well, we just got back from Palm Springs. Yesterday, on the spur of the moment, my wife and I decided we needed a little mini-vacation, so we headed out to the desert, and spent the night in the coolest, retro-furnished motel in Palm Springs -- the Desert Star.

Last night we took a long walk in the cool of the desert evening, had dinner in a nice Italian restaurant on the main strip (I had the Chicken Marsala -- mmm-mm, scrumscious!), came back to the motel and watched a DVD the owners had thoughtfully provided on the big-screen TV, then feel asleep in the gigantic king-sized bed.

It poured during the night and again in the early morning -- we both woke and listened to the ultra-romantic sound of rain beating on the roof. If we hadn't stayed up so late the night before, and been so tired, I would have suggested going for a swim in the (heated!) pool while the rain was falling.

My wife and I are both interested in photography -- we're taking classes at Santa Monica College -- so we both had our cameras with us. First thing we did when we got up this morning was take pictures of the desert and motel scenery. I took a bunch of photos of the yellow lounge chairs by the pool -- I loved the contrast between the bright yellow cushions and the cool blue water. (When I get them back from the lab, and if they look good, I'll post them here!) (Notice I wrote "back from the lab" -- that's right, we're still using film!)

Late in the afternoon, as the sun dipped below the mountains, we said adios to Palm Springs, and headed back to L.A. But we'll go back to Palm Springs soon, for another desert getaway!

Memory Lane: Whole Lotta Shakin'!
[originally posted 12/01/02]

I was listening to NPR yesterday, and heard a story that reminded me of this incident that happened to a friend of mine...

I have a good friend who's a special effects supervisor in Hollywood. He's worked on many big effects films over the years, and won an Academy Award for his work on one of them.

Some years ago he was working on a science-fiction action adventure film with a scene that took place on the planet Mars. It was being shot in Mexico City, where they have some of the largest sound stages in the world.

The set had been built to look like the inside of a gigantic restaurant on Mars. It was the climax of the movie, and the restaurant was going to be filled with actors reacting to the special effects my friend would provide. At the last minute, the director decided he wanted to add an earthquake to the sequence.

My friend, the effects expert, thought a fake earthquake was unecessary -- there were already going to be a lot of visual effects in the scene. He thought it would take hours and a lot of extra work to get it ready.

Even worse, my friend was afraid that the earthquake would look totally fake -- he knows how hard it is to create a convincing earthquake. He was afraid the actors would all be rocking back and forth in unison, while the film crew would pull wires to shake the lights and tables and chairs, and none of it would look very realistic.

But the director was determined to do it.

So everything ground to a halt while the crew started tying wires to all the tables and chairs and lamps on the restaurant set so they could be shaken to make it look like an earthquake was happening, and an assistant director started coaching the actors to rock back and forth.

A few minutes later, my friend was standing on a catwalk overlooking the set, when he saw they were doing the earthquake scene -- and he was actually impressed. "Wow," he thought, "that didn't take very long to set up." And he also thought "Hey, they're doing a great job!" The set was shaking realistically, the people were jerking around, out of control, like they were really being shaken around.

Then my friend noticed that the people behind the cameras were running toward the exits, and that it wasn't just the set that was shaking, but the whole building.

It was a real earthquake!

My friend suddenly remembered he was on a catwalk high in the air, and that the soundstage was built of unreinforced masonry, which is the kind of building most likely to collapse in an earthquake -- which was why all the people in the building were running for the exits. My friend joined them.

It turned out to be one of the biggest earthquakes ever to hit Mexico City. Luckily the soundstage didn't collapse, and no one on the set was hurt. Unfortunately, the cameras weren't rolling.

When the quake was over, and they were sure it was safe, they finally got back to filming the pretend earthquake.

Just as my friend had predicted, it looked totally fake.

I Own San Diego!
[originally posted 7/25/02]

Well, okay, maybe that's an overstatement, but I did appear on TV in San Diego over the weekend, where I talked about my book, the Alamanac of Alien Encounters, and I did appear at the MUFON - San Diego meeting on Sunday night, where I spoke about the future of UFO investigations.

And if that's not pretty close to owning San Diego, I don't know what is.

Let me tell you -- it was fun, and exciting, and a little bit scary.

It began Friday morning. I had to be in San Diego by 6:45 for my appearance on the "Fox in the Morning" TV show during the 7:00 hour. Since it takes about 2-1/2 hours to drive from L.A. to San Diego, I had to leave my house by 4:15. That's 4:15. In the morning. I had no idea the world was still in existence at that hour -- why, there were trees and streets and houses standing and everything.

Luckily, there were almost no cars on the road.

Because I left for San Diego so early, I didn't have time to grab anything to eat, so by the the time I pulled into San Diego I was starving. But I figured when I got to the studio they'd have pastries or doughnuts or something for me in the "Green Room" (what all studios call the room for guests waiting to go on the air). Most TV studios in Hollywood provide lavish buffets for their guests, and I couldn't wait.

When I arrived, I was directed to the Green Room where I was told I could help myself to "coffee or water." I looked around the small room. There were no doughnuts or pastries, no lavish trays of cookies or cheese danish. I even peeked in the mini-refrigerator under the counter, just in case they forgot to put them out -- but all I saw were the brown bag lunches of some of the studio employees. Oh well. I'd go on the air hungry. Fine, I thought, I can use that.

As I was waiting to go on, I watched the show in progress, to try to get a handle on Marc, the morning anchorman who was going to interview me. He and his co-anchor were discussing a local issue -- UC San Diego had decided to eliminate the school's sports mascot, "Monty" Montezuma, a local youth dressed up like the Aztec ruler. Marc was quite upset -- he felt they were doing away with a grand San Diego tradition. His co-anchor tried to point out that some native Americans were offended by the portrayal, but Marc would have none of it. They opened the phone lines, and people started calling in agreeing with Marc.

I was getting more and more nervous. How was I going to follow the big "Monty" Montezuma bruhaha? But then, as the six o'clock hour ended, they did a teaser for the stories coming up in the 7:00 hour -- and there was the cover of my book, filling the screen, with an animated clip-art flying saucer flying all over as a voice announced that the author of "Almanac of Alien Encounters" would be on soon to talk about UFOs. Hey! That's me!

About ten minutes later they came to get me. The stage director led me into the studio, and clipped a microphone on my shirt. Then Marc came over and sat next to me -- and he started talking to me about "Monty" Montezuma! He was really worked up -- he said he grew up with the mascot, went to school at UCSD himself, and didn't want to see it go. (Since he was going to be interviewing me in a few seconds about UFOs, I didn't think this was a good time to point out that I felt that the portrayal was culturally insensitive.)

So with about a minute to go before air time, we talked a little bit about UFOs and MUFON. He actually seemed fairly knowledgeable about the subject -- he had been in Phoenix a few years back when there was a sighting dubbed the "Phoenix Lights." Marc was very impressed when MUFON came out with a statement saying that they were simply flares, and not actual UFOs. To his mind, this gave the group a great deal of credibility.

Then the cameras came on and we were on the air. All I remember is that I was very nervous, and I felt like I must have looked like a deer in the headlights with dry mouth. I didn't know if I was making any sense or not. All of the things that I meant to say, I forgot, and when I spoke I was just kind of free-associating.

But Marc was a pro -- he was reacting to me like I was making perfect sense, laughed at my one feeble attempt at humor, and definitely kept the flow of the conversation going. He was also talking about MUFON, pitching my book, and he even plugged my website!

At one point I noted that something like 97% of UFO sightings, upon investigation, are found to have ordinary, mundane explanations -- but it's that last 3% that can't be explained that are the source of the mystery -- the rest are only satellites, Venus, airplanes, unusual cloud formations, missile tests --

-- and Marc, wisely interrupting me before I rambled on for another minute of mundane examples, asked me for an example of a case that couldn't be explained --

--and my mind went completely blank. I couldn't think of a single case. I felt my eyes glaze over as I stared at the gaping black abyss before me --

-- and then I started talking about the Kenneth Arnold sighting, the very first one of the modern age of UFOs. (You can read about it here.) It might not have been the best example -- there are more recent interesting cases -- but at least I thought of one. And I was even pretty knowledgable about it, since I'm writing about it for this site. And even better, Marc knew about it -- he knew, before I said it, that this sighting was responsible for the phrase "flying saucers".

We spoke for another few seconds, then Marc thanked me and the interview was over. It seemed like I was on the air for less than a minute -- but I found out later it lasted about four and a half minutes. As the stage director was unclipping the mic from my shirt, Marc asked me if I would autograph the copy of the book I brought for his kids, which I was happy to do.

(Incidentally, the producer of the TV show was kind enough to send me a video of the segment. I just watched it last night and I'm happy to report that I didn't look as nervous as I felt -- for example, while I felt like I had blanked out when Marc asked me for that example of an unexplained sighting, on the tape I nodded and launched right into the Kenneth Arnold sighting story as if it had been rehearsed. Big whew!)

(By the way, when I drove home that morning after the segment, I immediately launched into another adventure: I was putting together a script reading that evening of a screenplay I had co-written, so my co-writer and I could hear how it sounded, and we didn't have an actor to read the lead. How it came together and went down is a whole 'nother story that I may put in this space in the next few days.)

So then Sunday rolled around, and I had to drive back down to San Diego to deliver my talk to MUFON. Since my book is for kids, I decided to talk about the future of UFO investigations -- because the kids who read my book will be the "Next Generation" of UFO investigators. I had given the subject some thought, and had written down several pages of rough notes to use as an outline. I practiced giving my talk in the car as I drove back to San Diego.

I got to the restaurant where the meeting was going to take place, and met Mel Podell, the leader of the San Diego MUFON chapter. Mel told me that people had been calling him about that evening's meeting, and he finally asked some of them where they had heard about it, and found out that there was a notice in the local paper in the "Events" section. He asked me if I had placed that. I told him I had -- that I had whipped up a press release about the event the week before and sent it to all the local newspapers, radio and TV stations. Mel looked at me and nodded and said, "Well, you're a real operator."

We went into the room for the meeting, and as we waited for it to start, more and more people kept coming into the room. Eventually, there were about 40 people there, which Mel told me was a larger than usual turn-out. Yes! All my promotional activities had paid off.

So the meeting began, and Mel went through the usual MUFON meeting business, and had a few other people speak about MUFON matters, and then he turned to me and introduced me and it was my turn to speak. I had the almost irresistible urge to dart through the door, jump in my car, and drive back to L.A. -- but I resisted it, and went to the front of the room with my notes.

I launched into my talk, starting by telling them what I was going to talk about. I also apologized in advance in case I offended anyone by calling one of their favorite cases an obvious hoax, or a UFO writer they really respected a con-man. First I gave an overview of the history of UFO investigations since the Kenneth Arnold sighting, and spoke about how there were many times it seemed like UFOs were starting to be taken seriously -- by the public, by the media, by the science community, by the military -- and then something would happen to change that. Either the government made it a policy of debunking UFOs and ridiculing anyone who thought they might be real, or the UFO community itself would present some absurd claim (such as people who said they went for rides in flying saucers) or produce an out-and-out hoax (such as the alien autopsy hoax that aired on TV), which would cause the entire subject to appear ridiculous.

I told the MUFON group that right now the UFO community is at another one of these turning points -- that it seems like the media recently has been treating the subject of UFOs with a little more respect, that some books and articles have come out recently treating the subject seriously, that some universities have made UFOs a legitimate area of study. I suggested that it was up to MUFON to take advantage of this opportunity to move from the fringe to the mainstream, and I suggested a few specific steps they could take. (I will post the text of my talk on my site in at a future date.)

I concluded by again apologizing if I had offended anyone, and quoted Shakespeare, "If these shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended, think that but you slumbered here, while these visions did appear."

That got a nice laugh and I got a large round of applause. My talk had gone incredibly well, and I was ready to sit down -- but there were people with questions. I ended up spending another half hour or more answering questions and engaging in discussion. When I was done I felt relieved that I was able to articulate my ideas clearly, and even more that the group felt my ideas were worth hearing and considering.

I drove back home that night tired, but feeling good, and proud of all I had accomplished this weekend. Somewhere, overhead, our space brothers were smiling.

Hitting the Road for UFOs
[originally posted 7/19/02]

So this Sunday I'm going to speak to the San Diego chapter of MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network), a national organization devoted to exploring, investigating and ultimately solving the UFO mystery.

I was very honored to be asked to speak to the group. After all, I've been reading about MUFON's work ever since I started researching my book on aliens and UFOs. Much of the material in my book uses their work -- especially the sections on what to do if you see a UFO.

So when I was invited to speak by the San Diego chapter's leader, Mel Podell, I was happy to say yes. I mean, I thought "nothing to it" -- I'll talk a little bit in general about my book, and how I came to write it, and a bit about the writing process and all, and then answer some questions. It'll be fun.

So I was thrown a bit when Mel e-mailed me asking for the title of my "lecture" and an abstract. Lecture? Abstract? (An abstract is a word mainly used when summarizing an academic or scholarly paper or presentation.) And I thought, holy cow, I'm going to really have to put some thought into this.

So I did. And I thought, well, my book is for kids, and any kids reading it are probably interested in learning about aliens and UFOs, so they might be the UFO investigators of the future...hey! There's an idea, I can talk about the future of UFO investigation. So I had a title for my lecture: "UFO Investigators: The Next Generation".

But then I had to think about that -- what does the future hold for UFO investigators? That involved thinking about the past and the present UFO scene, and extending the trends of the field into the future.

As I thought over the research I had done for the book, it seemed to me that there were many turning points in the history of UFOs -- many moments when UFO research was about to be taken seriously by the establishment, but this tentative acceptence was derailed by three things: sensational claims and hoaxes from elements within the UFO community, an official policy of debunking on the part of the government, and widespread ridicule by the media.

The history of UFOs is filled with a litany of lost opportunities for serious study: The Contactee movement, the Robertson Panel, Project Blue Book, the Condon Commission, the epidemic of alien abductions, the Gulf Breeze sightings, the Roswell autopsy film. (Sorry I don't have room to explain all of those -- you'll just have to buy my book!)

But I also realized that today we are at another such turning point. A moment when the future of UFO research hangs in the balance. There have been a spate of serious books out about the UFO phenomenon, taking it seriously but questioning it from a number of different angles: politically, sociologically, philosophically. There have been a number of university and other academic conferences looking into the mystery. And there have been no major hoaxes or sensational claims to distract attention. It seems that the scientific world might at last be willing to start taking the subject seriously.

How the UFO community responds to this pivitol moment will affect the next 20 years of UFO research. And that leads to the future: what can the UFO community do, and not do, to make sure that this time the subject is treated with the seriousness it deserves.

And to that end I thought of a number of strategies -- the first of which is for the UFO community itself to look at the problem anew, to abandon any preconceived notions or cherished theories, and approach the problem like scientists, or, better yet, explorers, approaching a new, undiscovered world.

And that, in a nutshell, will be what I talk about. That's my "abstract," if you will. After I have given it, I will post my lecture on my site so you can read it and, if you wish, comment on it.

I decided to send out a press release to the San Diego media to let them know that I would be speaking to the local chapter of MUFON on some of these topics. I thought maybe a radio host would call me for a phone interview, or at the very least one of the local papers might publish a blurb about the meeting.

To my great surprise, I was contacted by FOX 6 TV. They asked me to appear on their morning talk/news show on Friday, in the 7:00 hour. If you live in the San Diego area, be sure to tune in!

And by all means, if you're in the area, come to theMUFON meeting if you can possibly make it. Here are the details:

July 21, 2002
5:00 P.M. (Presentation at 6:00)
Sizzler Restaurant - Banquet Room
3755 Murphy Canyon Road
San Diego
The meeting is open to the public and there is no admission fee.

Writer’s Notebook: Whew!
[originally posted 6/25/02]

Well, friend, I met a few of my deadlines, and I have a moment to breathe before I dive back in and tackle some more projects. Let me catch you up.

As you might recall, one deadline I mentioned was set by a film producer who called me out of the blue and asked me to write a treatment for him. This producer is working with a director from Hong Kong who wanted to take one of his successful Hong Kong films and direct an American version. The producer sent me a video tape of the film and asked me to "Americanize" it.

Well, I had a lot of fun watching the Hong Kong version and thinking of American equivalents in terms of plot, character, motivation and humor. I whipped up a twelve page outline and sent it to the producer -- and I'm happy to say he was very pleased with it. The next step is to find an American studio to finance it, or an American movie star who wants to be in it, so we can move on to writing the screenplay. I'll keep you posted.

My second deadline was for the book I was writing with my friend, Neal. We finally finished the first draft of the book and sent it to the publisher, and now we're waiting for a response. They will probably send us some notes back and ask us to make a few changes.

Another deadline involved three book proposal I put together. My agent called and told me that several publishers were very interested in one of the proposals, and wanted to see a sample chapter. I spent two weeks researching and then another week writing the sample. Now I still have to write sample chapters for the other book proposals, but there's not as much urgency to getting them done.

I'm also co-writing a screenplay with my friend Neal -- the same friend I co-wrote the novel with. We're almost finished with that, and then we will have a script reading with some actors I know. There's nothing more fun than having a script reading with a bunch of professional actors -- you can really see where your script is alive and is working -- and also where it needs some work!

And finally, I'm having a meeting this week with a production company about developing a reality TV series based on the same kind of material that's in some my almanacs. I had to put together a presentation describing the way the material will work on television.

I used the word "finally" quite loosely in that last paragraph -- I actually have quite a few other projects I'm working on as well. Luckily I don't have strict deadlines on any of those projects. Still, it's important to get them finished as soon as possible, but at least now I have time to update my website, and supply new gross and scary articles. Thanks for your patience! I appreciate it!

Writer's Notebook: Deadlines Shmedlines
[originally posted 6/2/02]

One thing all writers eventually have to face is the dreaded "D" word: Deadline.

A deadline is the date a piece of writing is due. It's just like when an assignment is due in class. If I want to get paid, if I want the work to get published, I have to make sure my work is in on time.

In a way, deadlines are the bane of the writers' existence. If it weren't for deadlines, I'd be leading a happy, if unproductive life of leisure, writing whenever the mood struck me.

Deadlines definitely keep me writing. But they also add tremendous amounts of pressure to my life, and keep me from doing the things I want to do -- like update this website!

However, it's far better to have a deadline than not to have a deadline -- since that means someone is willing to pay me for my writing. The reason I haven't updated this site recently is because for the last two weeks I had two deadlines I had to meet.

One of the projects came out of the blue. A producer I had worked with in the past called me up and asked me if I would be interested in writing a film he was putting together. I was like, "Um...yes!" He was working with a director from another country who wanted to make a film in America based on a film he had made in his home country. The producer sent me a copy of the foreign film and paid me to write a treatment of the adaptation.

A treatment is like a detailed short story, describing the plot of the film to be, along with detailing the character development and discussing the major themes and ideas. It can be very detailed, and run as long as 50 pages, or it can be a lot simpler, and run only about 10 or so pages. The treatment my producer wanted was on the shorter end -- but he wanted it right away.

I watched the foreign film and had to think about how to make all the events of the story "American" -- changing all the plot and character elements that were specific to the original culture to mine. I just finished writing it today and e-mailed it to him -- I'll let you know what he thinks.

My second deadline was for the book I wrote with my friend, Neal. If you read the last installment here, you know that I've been hopscotching chapters with him. I just finished my last chapter, and now Neal is finishing his last chapter. Then he will send it off to the publisher.

In addition to those strict deadlines, I have several other projects I'm working on that have self-imposed deadlines. Although these projects don't have actual deadlines, per se, I do have to get the work finished as soon as possible.

That includes three book proposals I'm putting together. My agent brought the proposals to a few different publishers who expressed interest in the books -- but they all want to see sample chapters. So now I'm writing three sample chapters for three different books. Talk about time consuming -- especially since two of them are very research heavy. (The third is fiction, but that's still a lot of work.)

I'm also working on a spec screenplay with my friend Neal, the same co-writer I'm writing the novel with. To write a screenplay "on spec" means we're not getting paid for it yet. We have to finish it, and then send it out to producers, and hope that someone wants to buy it. It's usually a pretty risky proposition to write a screenplay on spec, but in this case I feel very confident that it's going to sell. But first we have to finish the darn thing! Luckily, we're getting close.

So for the moment I can catch my breath, free from deadlines, and take the time, with pleasure, to update my site. Enjoy it while you can -- I know that I'll have more deadlines looming on the horizon any day now -- I HOPE!

Writer’s Notebook: Tracking Projects
[originally posted 5/6/02]

As a professional writer, one of my most important tasks (besides writing) is keeping track of all of my projects. Like most writers I know, I might have anywhere from half a dozen to two dozen projects in active development at any given time. That means I have to know the status of each at all times -- is project A ready to go, do I have to do a rewrite on that article B, is a producer looking at script C, is a production company waiting for story D?

I was going through my notes this morning, tracking the progress of each of my projects, and I thought I'd share them with you.

Currently, I'm collaborating on a novel with a good friend of mine, Neal Shusterman. We're hopscotching chapters -- I just finished chapter 10, and e-mailed it off to him. Now I'm waiting for him to write chapter 11.

Neal and I are also collaborating on a screenplay. We get together every couple of weekends, and spend the two days doing nothing but writing, creating a fantasy world and laughing our heads off. It's great! We're about three-quarters of the way through, and we're going to get together this weekend to write some more.

In addition, Neal and I pitched a TV movie to a cable channel. We're waiting to hear back from the executives -- they should be making a decision soon about whether or not they want to buy it.

Last week I sent three new book proposals to my agent. Two are books on art for kids. (If you know my work, you'll know they're not your typical art books. One is all about the gross, disgusting, weird and unsettling aspects of the world of art, and the other is a quirky take on the stories behind great paintings.) The third is a book of true scary stories -- ghosts, demonic possessions, UFOs, and more. Next week I'll send her an e-mail to find out what kind of response these proposals got from the publishers she gave them to.

I have two reality TV series for kids that have been optioned by production companies. One is a show about gross and disgusting things, and the other is about scary things. I'm going to be having meetings with executives at both production companies this week to discuss our plans: which TV networks to bring them to, how we are going to craft our pitch, if I need to do any more prep work for them, etc.

I have a proposal for a TV sit-com that is being considered by a production company. I have to give them a follow-up phone call to see if they've made a decision.

I have another proposal I am working on for a TV mini-series. As soon as it's finished, I have a number of producers to call to see if they're interested in hearing me pitch it.

A few years ago, I co-wrote a screenplay based on a classic fantasty-adventure tale. I think with all the interest in fantasy nowadays, thanks to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, it is the perfect time to take it out again and pitch it. There's one director I know of who is currently in Europe who I think might be interested in it.

I finished a first draft of a children's novel -- in longhand on a pad of paper. Now all I have to do is a quick rewrite as I enter it into my computer and I can send it to my agent.

Plus I have to keep updating my website every week with interesting gross nuggets, spooky morsels, and UFO tidbits!

Well that's a baker's dozen of projects, and that list is by no means exhaustive! I'm looking forward to keeping you up to date about these projects as they develop -- and as they get sold and made I'll be sure to fill you in with more information about them, such as their titles and plots! In the meantime, stay tuned!

[By the way, if any of you reading this are producers or network TV execs, and any of the projects sound interesting to you, feel free to drop me a line!]

Memory Lane: Bring You Down to Chinatown
[originally posted 3/10/02]

I was trading e-mails with my long-time friend Sue recently about memories we had from our high school days together. I made the point that some of the smallest moments made the deepest impressions, and some of my most cherished memories -- things that made me laugh, or think, or touched me deeply, were things that probably no one else -- not even the people who did them -- remembered.

As an example, I wrote about one of the funniest moments I remembered from my senior year in high school.

It was the night that five of my closest friends and I jammed into a car and drove to L.A.'s Chinatown for Chinese New Year.

The night was absolutely magical and frightening -- I've never seen so many people crowded into such a small area. (I've since gone back to Chinatown as an adult, and I marvel at how small it is -- I keep looking for that fantastic, sprawling, endless Chinatown that I remember from that night, with its countless dead-ends and mysterious alleyways, illuminated by thousands of paper lanterns!)

I remember getting stuck in traffic that was so heavy our car hardly moved for half an hour at a time. Somehow we found a parking space, and the six of us made our way through thick, roiling crowds, and finally stumbled into a random Chinese restaurant, and sat down in the sudden calm of the restaurant's interior. (At least, I think it was a random choice -- I know I didn't pick it. Maybe one of my friends knew where we were going.) I don't know about the others, but going out to a real dinner at a real restaurant with linen tablecloths without my parents was still a fairly new and heady experience for me.

The night was already exceptional and one I would always remember. But the one moment I remember about it most, the thing that has made me laugh over and over again over the years, and something I have quoted time and again was this tiny moment: when the food came, I noticed that my friend Roger was piling a mountain of bean sprouts onto his plate. As I happen to dislike bean sprouts, I commented on this, saying something clever like, "So you like bean sprouts, huh?"

Roger, completely seriously, said, "No, I hate bean sprouts, but I hate the idea of people enjoying themelves even more, and since there might be some people at this table who actually like bean sprouts I'm trying to eat as many bean sprouts as I can." He then picked up a huge forkful of bean sprouts, stuffed them into his mouth, and with half of them still dangling out of his mouth, he said to the others at the table, "Pass the bean sprouts please."

I laughed until I cried -- at the sheer perversity of his statement, at his delivery of the nonsensical punchline, and at the image of him with bean sprouts hanging out of his mouth while asking for more.

I thought for sure I was the only one who remembered that -- but Sue almost immeditely wrote back, telling me that she absolutely remembered the moment, and that she was laughing so hard while she was reading my e-mail her co-workers wanted to know what was going on.

So cherish the little moments as they happen, and know that they will stay with you for a good long time.

Writer's Notebook: Keeping Your Options Open
[originally posted 2/24/02]

If you've been following this column lately, you know that I have several TV and film projects that I've pitched to several different producers and production companies.

I am happy to report that one of the production companies I've approached has optioned one of my TV projects. [Insert hearty cheer here.]

“But hold on a minute,” you might say, once you are finished cheering. “What does that mean, exactly? What is an ‘option’”?

Funny you should ask -- and with such good diction. An option is an agreement between a writer and a producer (or production company). It means the producer likes the project, but for one reason or another doesn't want to buy it yet. Buying a property can be an expensive proposition for a producer, and they usually won't buy a project unless they are 100% sure they can get it made. However, if the producer has a good feeling about a project, and doesn't want to let it get away, one option he or she has it to option it.

The option gives the producer the exclusive right, for a specified length of time (usually six months or one year), to develop the idea some more, to raise money to produce the project themselves, or to sell the project to a studio or TV network. While the producer is working on doing these things -- usually working closely with the writer -- the writer can't take the project to anyone else. At the end of the option, the producer can either buy the project, extend the option for another six months or year, or let the project go.

The company that optioned my project is a well-known TV production company. You've probably seen one of their shows on TV -- and if you haven't, I can assure you you've at least seen an ad for one of their shows!

So this is a good thing. It means this production company believes in my project, and is willing to commit money and resources into developing further. But it's only one step in a long process. And in the end, we still have to convince a TV network that they should put the show on the air!

Writer's Notebook: The Waiting Game
[originally posted 2/18/02]

A big part of being a writer in Hollywood is mastering the fine art of waiting.

As I last mentioned in this space, three meetings that were very important for me took place last week. (Time to get out your scorecards -- can't tell the meetings without a scorecard!)

    One meeting was a "pitch meeting" at a cable TV network in Hollywood. At that meeting, my friend and I "pitched" the plot of a movie we had outlined to a TV executive, to try to convince her to hire us to go write the script.

    The two other two meetings both took place in Las Vegas, at the annual NAPTE convention -- which is a big convention where the nation's television executives meet to buy and sell TV programs. Unforunately, I couldn't attend those meetings personally, but my partners -- very successful television producers themselves -- took two TV proposals I had written to try to sell them there.

All of the meetings, I am happy to report, went very, very well. My pitch meeting was a lot of fun. The executive my friend and I pitched to really got the story, seemed to enjoy it, and laughed in all the right places. And my producing partners who went to Las Vegas called me and told me that they had similar positive reactions from the folks they met.

And now?

Now we wait.

It's out of our hands. All the people we spoke to now have to speak to their partners and associates and bosses, and describe our ideas to them, and they will decide if they want to take a chance on us. There is nothing we can do at this point to affect the decision -- we have already done all we could. We did our best, we gave it our all, we did our job -- and now it's up to them to do theirs.

And there's no telling how long it could take. It could be days. It could be weeks.

How do I cope with waiting? By moving on. I've got more projects to write, more proposals to put together, more scripts to outline, more books to edit. Keeping busy is the best way to pass the time -- without going crazy!

And at the end of the waiting period, whatever their answer is -- I'll have a bunch more projects to go out and try to sell!

Writer's Notebook: Wish me Luck!
[originally posted 1/22/02]

As I mentioned last week, three different projects I've been working on are coming to pivotal moments in their evolutions this week.

Two different producers are taking two of my TV ideas to television executives this week, to try to sell them. And I'm "pitching" another project -- a TV movie -- to yet another network executive on Thursday. ("Pitching" means I'm going to briefly outline the story, and the executive decides if it's something they're interested in--meaning they want to spend the time and money on "developing" it. If they like it, they will hire me to write the script. Whether or not that script gets made into a movie, however, is a whole 'nother story, which I will write about another time.)

So all this last weekend, and for the first few days of this week, I've been a nervous wreck. I'm trying not to get too excited, or anxious, but it's hard. I really believe in these ideas, I've done my best in writing up the proposals and outlines, and now all I can do is hope for the best.

So wish me luck, and tell me to calm down!

Writer's Notebook: Can You Say "Convergence?"

As I mentioned on this page a few weeks ago, when it rains, it pours.

I think there's a law of the universe that governs freelance writers. (Actually, I think there are many laws of the universe that govern freelance writers -- I'll have to catalogue them sometime!) The one I'm thinking of in particular goes something like this: no matter how many separate writing projects you've been developing, and no matter how long you've been developing them for, your best chance to sell them all will arrive at the same time.

Case in point:

  • For the past two years I've been working on an idea for a movie with a friend of mine.
  • About a year ago I had an idea for a TV series, and I've been working on it with a producer partner to get it ready to pitch.
  • About nine months ago I came up with an idea for another TV series that I've been working on with another producer partner.

And next week, for some strange cosmic reason I don't quite understand, I'm going to have the chance to try to sell all three of them. On the movie project, I have a meeting with my friend to try to sell it to a studio. On the first TV series idea, my producer partners are meeting with a network President. And on the second TV series idea, my other producer parterns are meeting iwth another TV executive.

These projects are all independent of each other and I'm working on them with different people, so how is it that they all are reaching this pivotal point at the same time?

Only the universe knows.

And it's not saying.

(Feel free to wish me luck!)

Writer's Notebook: A Writer's Work is Never Done

Well, as you might have seen in this space a week or so ago, I've been inundated with writing work. So what happens of course? I get more work!

Now I'm not complaining, you understand. I'm thrilled and excited--but where will I get the time?

As usual, I can't tell you anything about the project (not until the contract is signed and the check clears), except to say that I will be co-writing a horror novel. I'll be working with someone I've worked with before, and I'm looking forward to it. Collaboration in writing can be very fun and fulfilling. Writing is usually such a solitary, sometimes lonely profession. I love it when I get the chance comes to work with someone else.

As I promised, I won't let this additional work interfere with my new policy of frequently updating my site. Write back and let me know how I'm doing! Drop me a line at Click here to send a message to Eric!!


So I'm getting over a minor cold right now, and last night I wake in the middle of the night, thirsty. So I stumble into my kitchen to get a drink of water. I look at the clock on the microwave, and it reads 1:01. As I head back to bed I pass the bathroom, where the clock reads 12:59, so I think, fine, it's around 1:00 in the morning, I can sleep another four hours and see if I feel better in the morning.

I go back to bed, wake up what feels like a few hours later, and I'm thirsty again. I stumble back into my kitchen and glance at the clock on the microwave--it still reads 1:01. For a split-second I think, whoaa--have I been sleeping for less than a minute, and it only feels like it's been hours? That's amazing -- it's incredible how fluid time is. Then I looked at the clock in the bathroom--it showed 5:15.

I instantly realized what happened -- my wife had heated something in the microwave earlier that evening, and pulled it out with one minute and one second left to go on the timer. Rather than setting it back to the "clock" setting, as I am always urging her to do, she left it on the timer setting. It was only by sheer coincidence that 1:01 was the actual time when I first woke up.

Have you ever been befuddled by a coincidence at 1:00 in the morning? Drop me a line at Click here to send a message to Eric! and let me know!

Writer's Notebook: When it Rains, it Pours!

It seems to be a rule of the universe -- at least the universe of freelance writers -- that either there is no work to be found at all, or there is more work than any one person could do.

Right now I am lucky enough to be in the "more work than any one person could do" category. That's great -- because I get to ply my craft, revel in the written word, not to mention feed my family. But it also means my spare time is hugely restricted -- which is why I haven't been able to update my website lately. (However, per my New Year's Resolution on the home page, I vow to budget my time more effectively this coming year, and always make room each week to update this site.)

I would love to tell you all about the writing I have been doing, as some of it is very exciting. I have been working simultaneously on about half a dozen projects.

Unfortunately, I can't give you any concrete details, but I can give you a series of tantelizing hints, and I will reveal the projects in their entirety when they are fully realized -- or at least the contracts are signed!

Two of the most exciting projects I'm working on, and the ones that have devoured most of my time, involves creating two (count 'em -- 2!) TV series. I can't tell you about the shows yet, but I can tell you that I'm working with some of the top people in television, people with TV shows on the air right this very minute. They are very excited about my shows, and so am I. I've spent weeks writing and re-writing the proposals and getting together with my partners to discuss every aspect of the shows. .

Another exciting project I've been working on is the creation of a web-based animated series based on my original scary short stories. I've had many meetings with the animator (one of the top animators at Neopets.com) and two producers, and I've worked on several drafts of a pilot script.

Another fun but time-consuming project I'm involved with is the creation of a new magazine. I've had several meetings with the Editor in Chief, and we've brainstormed article ideas for a full year's worth of issues. If it happens -- and at this stage it's looking very likely -- I will become the magazine's Managing Editor.

Naturally, I have also been working on several more book proposals. Each one takes weeks of research and days of writing to put together. I've sent the ones I've completed to my agent, and she's sent them to the top publishers in New York. I know that if they are accepted, each book will be a blast to write and a lot of fun to read.

And finally, I've been writing a study guide for the Mark Taper Forum/P.L.A.Y. theatre company in Los Angeles. Every year they bring a fully-produced short play to elementary and middle schools in the Los Angeles area. The study guide is given to the teachers so they can prepare their class to see the play and discuss it afterwards. I love writing these study guides because I get to learn so much in the process. For instance, last year the play was in the style of Kabuki theatre, so I learned a great deal about that art form. The year before that the play was about the mass deportation of Mexican-Americans -- including American citizens -- that took place in the 1930s, and paralled that event with the yearly migration of the Monarch butterfly, so I learned a lot about science and biology as well as a little-known tragic episode in American history. This year the play being produced is "Bill's New Frock", based on a novel by Anne Fine, who wrote "Mrs. Doubtfire." The play is performed in a semi-improvised style, so I'm learning all about improvisation and theatre games. I only hope that I can impart to the students who will use my study guide a little something of what I've learned in the process of writing it.

So that's what's been keeping me busy. How about you? Drop me a line at Click here to send a message to Eric! and let me know what you're doing!

Memento Mori - A College Memory

When I was in college, my friend Richard and I took a filmmaking class together. One of our first assignments in the class was a very interesting experiment: the teacher gave each student a shot sheet that we had to go out and shoot.

A shot sheet is a list of individual shots for a movie, describing only what is visible in each shot (for instance, a car driving down the street, a person standing on the corner, two people exchanging a briefcase), and how the shot is supposed to be framed (whether a long shot (that is, from far away), a medium shot, or a close up). It looked something like this:

Shot 1. MS - Actor 1 standing next to a road.

Shot 2. LS - Car approaching.

Shot 3. MS - The car stops near Actor 1.

Shot 4. MS - Actor 2 (the Driver) gets out of the car, carrying a briefcase.

Shot 5. CU - Actor 1's face.

Shot 6. MS - Actor 2 approaches Actor 1.

And so on.

The thing of it was, the thing that made the experiment interesting, was that all of the shot sheets the teacher handed out were identical. All the students were given the exact same assignment.

The shot sheet outlined a very simple story--not even a story, really, but an incident, possibly a moment from a larger story. A person is waiting by the side of the road. A car approaches and stops, and the driver gets out carrying a briefcase. The waiting person hands the driver an envelope, and the driver checks it, then gives the person the briefcase, then gets back in the car and drives away. The waiting person takes the briefcase and opens it--and the only thing we got to decide for ourselves was what was in the briefcase.

So we all started with the same exact script. Of course, when we came back to class the following week, we all had completely different, individual movies. Some were comedies, some were emotional dramas, some had the feeling of a thriller. Sometimes the people waiting and driving were men, in other films they were women. Some of them seemed to be gangsters, others were more ambiguous.

But one thing all the films had in common was that they were all straightforward narratives. Each clearly told an unambiguous story of an exchange of payment for the contents of a briefcase. Even mine, which I frankly don't remember, was pretty boring--whatever original ideas I brought to it, it was mainly just an attempt to get the shots required on film as quickly and in as straightforward a manner as possible. My friend Richard's wasn't much better.

But that night, after class, as Richard and I drove home, we started talking about the film we could have made, if only we had tried, if we'd only taken the time, if we had only put in the effort. The movie could have been ambiguous, and funny, and a little creepy. We started spinning an elaborate fantasia from this little shot sheet--it became a vivid fever dream involving a clown and an Englishmen meeting in the desert, an exchange of fish and strawberries, and an ending that hinted at escape. It made little sense but was filled with indications of deeper meaning. We thought it was hilarious. We were big fans of Bunuel and other surrealist filmmakers at the time, and the more we talked the more we realized that the pallid effort we turned in to fulfill our first assignment did little to reveal our passion about making movies. As we spoke into the night, we realized that what we were talking about wasn't giddy post-production chatter, but a real chance to do the assignment right. We decided we had to make this movie. Even if it didn't count toward our grade, even if it took time away from other work we had to do, we had to go out and make this version, edit it, and show it to our class the next time we met.

Hey, we were college students. It's possible when you're in college to drop everything and follow a crazy dream.

First we wrote out the script to see if it was really doable. I don't have a copy anymore--or if I do, it's packed away in a box somewhere--but it went something like this...

    Long shot. The desert. Vast, a landscape of sand stretching to the horizon, desolate. In the middle distance, we see a figure, dressed in black, sitting.

    Medium shot. Sitting on a bench at a bus stop, an Englishman in bowler hat, with umbrella, reading a newspaper.

    Close up showing the name of the newspaper: the London Times.

    Long shot. Coming down the road, a black sedan. Polished. Menacing.

    Medium shot. The car stops in front of the Englishman, and out jumps a Circus Clown, carrying a briefcase.

    Medium shot. The clown dances around the car and approaches the Englishman, who stands up as the clown nears him.

    Close up. The Englishman reaches into his pocket and takes out an envelope. He hands it to the Clown.

    Close up. The Clown opens the envelope. It is filled with sardines.

    Close up. The Clown makes a face, shakes his head and hands it back to the Englishman.

    Close up. The Englishman looks into the envelope. It is filled with sand.

    Close up. The Englishman nods and hands the envelope back to the clown.

    Close up. The Clown opens the envelope. It is filled with strawberries.

    Close up. The Clown nods and smiles and pockets the envelope. He hands the briefcase to the Englishman.

    Medium Shot. The Clown dances back to the car and drives away.

    Medium Shot. The Englishman sets the briefcase on the ground and opens it.

    Close up. Helium balloons rise out of the briefcase.

    Medium Shot. The Englishman holds onto the Helium balloons.

    Close up. The Englishman's feet get lifted up off the ground.

    Long Shot. The helium balloons carry the Englishman away into the sky.

    The End.

We were laughing so hard as we were writing this out we were crying. We decided we needed a title for our little surrealist masterpiece. I was taking a philosophy class at the time, and a phrase I had just encountered in that class, which had really struck me, was "Memento Mori", which means "reminders of mortality", or "reminders of death." It seemed perfect to ludicrously juxtapose our little comic vision to this portentous, not to say pretentious, title. So we went with it.

(I have to mention that we cheated a little, but only a little, in writing the script -- we were trying to follow the original shot sheet exactly. But we added a few close ups that we felt were necessary to make something clear--such as the close up on the title of the newspaper, The London Times, to make the point that this was an Englishman -- or to add an effect, such as the close-up Englishman's feet being lifted off the ground.)

Now how were we going to accomplish our vision? The first thing we did was call up our friend Vicki to help us. She had just graduated from the USC cinema school and knew a lot more about, and had a lot more experience with, the nuts and bolts of filmmaking than either of us did.

The next thing the three of us did was break down the script. This meant analyzing each scene for props, cast, locations, and any other special needs.

First we'd need a desert location. Endless vistas of sand and cacti -- the traditional, iconic movie vision of desert. No problem, said Richard, he would find the perfect place. (His day job as a delivery van driver meant he knew his way around southern California better than either Vicki or myself.)

The bus stop sign and bus bench were easy -- when we were in high school, all three of us were heavily involved in the theater department, and we knew they had just done a play with one scene at a bus stop, and they still had these set pieces. Vicki volunteered to go borrow them for us--we knew the drama teacher, a good friend of ours by this time, wouldn't refuse if it was in the name of art.

Then we made a list of all the other props we'd need: a London Times, three envelopes, a can of sardines, some fresh strawberries (sand we figured we could get in the desert), and everything else. And then there were costumes: a bowler hat for the Englishman, an outfit and make-up for the clown.

We realized right away that Richard and I would have to be the actors--there was no time to get anyone else involved. (We were shooting this on film -- Super-8 -- and we had to get it developed and edit it before the next class.) Richard had (and has) a much more dignified, reserved air to him than me, so he was to play the Englishman. For some reason, I was going to play the clown.

We started gathering props--Richard had a theatrical bent, and had a bowler hat on hand. I had a friend who was a professional clown for birthday parties and such, and he let me borrow his clown outfit. I picked up some clown make-up at a theatrical supply company -- most importantly the "clown white", which is the base of every clown's make-up, and comes in a small tube.

We set up a schedule for ourselves that called for shooting the entire movie in one day, so that meant getting up early and driving out to the desert. We all slept over at Richard's house the night before so we could get an early start.

We woke at three o'clock in the morning and loaded all our props and equipment into the car. We knew it would be hot in the desert (aren't deserts always hot?) so we wore t-shirts and shorts, and filled several thermoses with ice water.

We had to make one stop along the way -- at a 24-hour news stand at the corner of Pico and Robertson, where we would pick up a copy of the London Times. But when we got there, we realized we had a slight problem: the London Times isn't called the London Times. It's not even called the Times of London. It's just called, "The Times". We had a quick discussion. If it's just called, "The Times", we wondered, how will anyone know Richard is supposed to be an Englishman. We decided that the bowler hat and his formal manner would have to do the trick. And besides, we figured, everyone would just know that "The Times" obviously meant the London Times. Right? Wouldn't you?

Perhaps this was a portent that things weren't to go exactly as planned, but if so we paid it no heed. We bought the paper, then drove to the freeway and headed off to the desert. We had a movie to shoot.

Next time: The shoot.

October 30, 2001
Dark Daydreams: A Peek Inside the Writer's Mind

Listen. The reason I'm a writer is that I have an imagination that will not quit.

At any time of the day or night, whenever I find myself in an ordinary, everyday situation, I start imagining some bizarre, fanciful, funny, or scary scenario that could happen -- purely to entertain myself. Place me in any commonplace setting, under any banal set of circumstances, and I can't help but think, "What if..."

For instance, just the other night, I returned to my car which was parked in a dark lot in a semi-seedy area of town. It was about ten p.m., and no one was around. The lot was dimly illuminated by just a few streetlights. I remembered that I wanted to grab my bag out of the trunk, so I walked to the rear of my car, turned the key in the lock, and lifted the lid. Behind me was a dark alley, filled with shadows and piles of empty boxes. At that moment, I imagined, what if two hoodlums, hiding in the shadows, leapt out of the behind me, grabbed my bag and body slammed me into the trunk, crashing the lid down over me. What then? Would they take my bag and run? No, better -- they take my car and drive around town committing heinous crimes of all descriptions, while I am still helplessly trapped in the trunk...

Another example: Just last week, I was planning to meet a friend for lunch at a new restaurant downtown. He had suggested that I meet him at his house, and that we take the subway downtown to the restaurant. As the day for our meeting approached, I realized his plan wasn't going to work -- I still wanted to meet him for lunch, but I didn't have time to take the side trip to his place and take the train. So I called him and told him I'd just meet him at the restaurant. "Oh," he said, evenly. "Okay. That's fine." I hung up the phone -- then imagined him on the other end, hanging up his phone -- and then bellowing with rage, throwing things over in his apartment -- picking up his table and overturning it, knocking down his video rack. Later, when I met him at the restaurant, he was, of course, completely normal, smiling. "Hi Eric, good to see you, sorry I'm late" -- which only reinforced how psychotic the fictional character was who I had created in my mind!

One more: in the apartment where I lived for many years, the bathroom mirror over the sink was straddled by two narrow windows. The windows didn't close tightly, and sometimes the wind blew them open. Often, as I brushed my teeth or shaved, I imagined something crashing in through those narrow windows and grabbing me -- sometimes it was an evil, intelligent branch of a possessed or magical tree, sometimes it was an alien entity or demonic creature. Whatever it was, it always gave me a chill, and did lend to my teeth-brushing a somewhat greater urgency.

Of course, none of those dark scenarios ever actually happened. But imagingings like these get me in touch with powerful emotions, and give me ideas for scenes in books and movies.

Okay, just call me Walter Mitty. I mean, I know everyone likes to daydream. But writers take it further. We aren't afraid to pursue darker, more frightening aspects of our daydreams.

And then, of course, we write it down.

(Remember, having the idea is just one part of writing. Another time I'll talk about the other major element of writing: execution.)

In the meantime, next time you're walking to school, or waiting for dinner, or practicing your pitch in the backyard, or hanging with your buddies at the mall, let yourself start to imagine, "What if..."

Have an imagination that will not quit.

And then write it down!

October 6, 2001
Back to the Mundane

Well it's time to move back to the point of this column--unusual issues that interest me, mundane issues that irritate me, and a space for me to rant about it all.

For instance...

Last month I bought a brand new Sonicare electric toothbrush, my first electric toothbrush since I was a kid. The thing is fantastic. It's a marvelous marriage of electrical engineering and dentistry's art. It feels good in your hand. Best of all, not only does it clean your teeth better than a traditional brush, but the sound waves the brush produces as it vibrates back and forth occurs at a precise sonic frequency that actually breaks apart bacterial colonies before they can form on and corrode your teeth.

So what irritates me about it?

The kit I bought came with two separate brushes and handles that share one recharging base, so my wife and I can both use it at the same time. For convenience, the brushes are distinguished by color-coded tips just below the brushes, one blue and one green, so we'll be able to tell them apart at a glance, so we don't accidentally wind up using the same brush.

But the colors the marketing geniuses at Sonicare chose are a pastel blue and a pastel green that are so close to each other they are virtually identical to the human eye. In the morning when I wake and make my bleary-eyed way to the bathroom sink, I have to pick up both brushes and hold them right next to each other to try to figure out which is which. At night, when I just want to brush my teeth and go to bed, I pause before picking up the toothbrush I think is mine, and then have to spend anxious seconds comparing it to the other.

And each time I'm thinking, "Didn't they notice? How could they make a bone-headed, pointless decision like that? Was their marketing consultant colorblind?"

If you have any guesses, or inside knowledge--or any similar experiences with products that leave you irritated and puzzled at the same time--let me know! Drop me a line at Click here to send a message to Eric!!

September 27, 2001
Still Out of It

I'm sure it's not just me. Now that life is beginning to return to normal, at least for those of us who don't live in New York or Washington, D.C., do you still find yourself just a little bit out of it?

For me, sometimes it comes out of nowhere. I'm driving someplace, or I'm writing something, and suddenly, for no obvious reason, the memory of the images I saw on TV a few weeks ago come hurtling back. Other times I'm reading the news or listening to the radio, and the reports fill me with emotions.

Yesterday, for example, I was reading an article on Slate.com about sports, and the author suggested that, for the rest of the football season, all the NFL teams should be re-designated to represent New York--call them the New York Rams, the New York Steelers, the New York Cowboys, etc, so no matter who wins, it will be a victory for New York. As ridiculous as this suggestion was, just seeing the name New York repeated over and over down the list, and imagining such an act out of solidarity and respect, made me almost cry.

And then today, I was reading an article about the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, the Windows on the World, and all the people who worked there, many of whom are now missing and presumed dead. It was just so sad, my eyes began to well up with tears.

A few days ago, a friend of mine e-mailed me a photograph that someone had e-mailed him. It shows a tourist at the rail of the observation deck of the WTC. He's smiling at the camera. At first I didn't notice it, but then my eyes zeroed in on American Airlines 757 in the photo that seemed to be seconds away from hitting the building.

My first thought was "This photo is a hoax." I didn't see how such a photo, if it were taken, could have survived. I also seemed to remember, from a visit years ago to New York, that the observation deck isn't open that early in the morning. [NOTE: I later found out that the photo is a hoax. In case you're getting all kinds of e-mails from friends about the attack (Nostradamus predictions, odd coincidences, etc.), check out this excellent website: http://www.snopes2.com/rumors/rumors.htm
There are many claims going around the net right now, and this site separates the true from the bogus.]

But even though this particular photograph seemed suspect, the event it portrayed really happened. Some people, from their office windows, probably did see this something like this, seconds before the plane hit. Real or not, the photo really hit home.

But most of the time, I'm not even aware of my general feeling of being "out of it." It's like I'm walking around in a daze, with my emotions under wraps. That is, until something unexpected happens, and I'm suddenly aware of how out of it I am. For instance, this afternoon, someone approached me and put his finger near my watch. For some reason, I assumed he wanted to know what brand of watch I was wearing.

"It's an Esquire," I said, "E.S.Q."

The man looked at me, puzzled. "What?" he asked.

"It's Swiss," I explained.

The man still looked puzzled. Then it dawned on me what he really wanted.

"Oh," I said. "It's 4:30."

September 17, 2001
Oh the Humanity

It's difficult to find words to describe the emotions I felt while watching the horrible attack on New York and Washington, D.C., and its aftermath of death and destruction. Gut-kicked, sickened, horrified, grief-stricken, enraged. No words seem to serve to fill the void, to cover all the angles. But then again, maybe I don't have to find the exact right words, for I'm sure you all felt much the same thing I did.

If ever we needed a sense of community, this is it. It's just so tragic it took an event of this magnitude to bring us together. For this wasn't just a crime against America, it was a crime against humanity.

In addition to the pain we are all reeling from, the pain we all share, I'm sure many of you have your own personal tragedies to endure. My heart goes out to all of you. As I listened to the stories of many of the individuals who lost their lives, my eyes welled with tears--they do so, now, as I think about them.

I had my own close brush with personal tragedy. As we were watching the events unfold the morning of the attack, glued to our TV, my wife turned to me and said, "Isn't your mom in Boston right now?"

This was true. I hadn't even thought about it. My mom was in Boston, visiting her sister, my aunt. "So?" I asked. "What does that have anything to do with anything? This isn't happening in Boston."

"Two of the planes that were hijacked came out Boston, they were Boston to L.A. flights."

This was true. My mom lives in L.A. , and when her trip was over, she would be flying from Boston to L.A. "Nah, she's okay," I insisted, "she's not leaving yet, she'll be in Boston another week or two."

But as I sat there, I started thinking, is that true? When did she leave on her trip? When was she due back? I realized she had been gone a few weeks already. How long was she staying--oh, then I remembered, she's coming back mid-September. So she's definitely okay. I sat there in silence for about another half minute before I realized, hey, it is mid-September. But what are the chances that today is the day she's leaving? I thought. What are the chances she could be on one of those flights?

Trying not reveal any growing concern in my voice, I said, "Let's just call my aunt, just to be sure." Of course, all the phone circuits cross-country were busy and we couldn't get through. Then we called one of her neighbors in L.A., a close friend of hers--and found out that she actually was scheduled for a flight that day--but it was a flight that was leaving that afternoon, rather than that morning.

So my mom was fine. Her flight was cancelled, and she was safe and waiting at my aunt's. But I couldn't help thinking how close she came. And I couldn't help thinking of all those other moms, and all those other people who lost their moms, and how I was mercifully spared from what they were now feeling. Looking into that abyss was dizzying.

For the first few days after the devestation, my wife and I watched the news nearly non-stop, in awe, in fear, hoping the rescuers would find more survivors, feeling so, so moved by the policemen, the firemen, and the ordinary citizens, risking their lives to do what they could, listening to the stories of people who called their loved ones in their last moments, just to say they loved them.

We finally had to get out of the house, so late on Wednesday afternoon we went for a walk on the beach. It felt so good to be doing something normal, so reassuring to watch the waves roll in, to feel the sand between my toes. And it felt so good to hold my wife in my arms, and to realize how lucky we were to be alive, and to have each other.

And now we wait and watch for what happens next. Are the assaults over? What is our country going to do in response? How will it all turn out?

For awhile, everything else will seem to fade into insignificance. For awhile it will be hard to do the things that once we took for granted. For awhile it will be hard to write about non-essential subjects. But we will try. We will go to work, we will go to school, we will try to find pleasure in the simple things. And we will do all we can, in our own way, to fight against the terrorists.

Every time we laugh, it is a strike against the terrorists' goals. Every time we walk without fear, we beat them. Every time we take pleasure in a sunset, enjoy an ice cream cone, or do an act of kindness for a friend or stranger, we defeat them. For the terrorist's goal is terror. And we can't let them win.

Have courage.

January 20, 2001
Big Sur Memories

Can you believe it's the year 2001? Or that January is already over? The year is speeding by so fast! The only way to slow down time is to make each day memorable--which is exactly what I did to stretch out the first week of the year.

My family spent the first week of January in Big Sur, which is on the California coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is such an incredibly beautiful area. As you drive up the winding Pacific Coast Highway, around each corner the coastline just keeps getting more and more breathtaking, until you almost can't breathe. Once we got to Big Sur we hiked, we laughed, at night we stayed in a little cabin in the woods.

As we hiked it became our running gag, at each beautiful vista, that we were the first people to ever set eyes on the incredible sight. "And to think," I would say, after passing a sign that clearly pointed the way to a vista point, "that we are the first human beings to ever see this!"

Here are some snapshots I want to share with you (which I just got back from an incredible new internet service called "Snapfish"--they not only develop 35mm film for free, they also scan them and post them on the web for you--for free!). Let me know what you think!

Lagoon at Andrew Molera State Park

Garrapata State Park from Highway 1

Julia Pfeifer Burns State Park, facing north

Big Sur Rocks at Andrew Molera State Park

Sunset, just south of Nepenthe

And to think--we were the first people to ever see such incredible sights!

December 22, 2000
Master of Theatre Trivia

I am a theatre buff. I love the theatre.

I love going to the theater, I love reading about the theatre. I love reading plays and criticism of plays. And, although I haven't "trod the boards" since high school, I really love acting in plays. I come alive on the stage. (At least, that's what I've been told.)

So, when my friends have a question about the theatre, they usually come to me.

That's what happened just the other day. A friend of mine is a drama teacher at a high school. He was thinking about putting on a particular play at his school, but he couldn't remember the title. He had loaned his only copy of the play to a student a few years ago and never got it back.

Knowing that I'm something of a theatre buff, he asked me if he could describe the plot of the play to me to see if I knew the name.

"It's the story of five couples" he began. "One person from each couple has been taken away and is being held in a camp or prison of some kind. We're never told why--we don't know if they've committed a crime, or if they are sick, or what. The other person from each couple comes for a visit, and gets to spend a short time with their loved one. The entire play is about what happens at those short meetings."

I told my friend I had never heard of that play, had never seen it, didn't remember ever reading about anything that sounded like it.

"But," I said, hesitatantly, "is it...The Shadowbox?"

"YES!" he screamed. "That's it!"

Now I still have no idea where that guess came from. The Shadowbox is a play that was originally produced in the mid-to-late 1970's, I think. Michael Cristofer is the playwright. I've never read it. I've never seen it. And although I have no conscious memory of it, I must have read a review of that original production over 20 year ago and somehow, mysteriously, when I heard the plot described, somewhere in the recesses of my brain connections were made and the title burbled up.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire here I come!

Have you ever known something and didn't know you knew? Are you a theatre buff, too? Drop me a line and let me know!

December 15, 2000
Poking Around the Innards

I have to share this with someone.

I conquered my computer! I am the king! I rule the desktop!

Let me explain.

I am not a computer expert. I am not particularly technically inclined. I am a writer. My computer is a tool. Just like a pencil. And although I can sharpen a pencil, I wouldn't have the foggiest idea about how to put one together. Preparing graphite, drilling wooden dowels, attaching an eraser with a metal flange--all that's beyond me. The same with my computer. Oh, I can load software, and I can troubleshoot a glitch, but opening it up and poking around inside the innards? What's that about?

But once in a while, I have no choice. And this was one of those times. I am using a Macintosh PowerBook 1400. A decent little laptap, now a couple of years old. Still in excellent condition. Just look at these fonts. But it's processor was getting a little, how shall I put this, wheezy. A 117 Mhz 603e, probably 1/10 the speed of today's processors. And I was starting to feel its pain. For instance, it would seem to take certain programs forever to load. And in other programs, like the one I'm using for this website (Adobe GoLive), I could type faster than my computer could handle. Now that's sad.

Finally came the last straw--I upgraded to Microsoft Office 2000. My computer just about gave up. Office's bare bones minimum requirements were 3 Mhz more than my computer's (a 120 603e). What's 3 lousy Mhz, I wondered. What difference could that make? Plenty, as it turned out.

So I wasn't ready to buy a new laptop (I'm saving my money for a shiny new G4 desktop--so I can edit video). Besides, I like my 1400. A lot. It has personality--not to mention a spiffy leather top.

So I bought a processor upgrade. A 333 Mhz (megahertz) G3--about 8 times the speed of my original processor. The only problem--I was going to have to install it myself.

I read over the instructions 3 or 4 times, till it seemed pretty clear. Then I was ready--or so I thought.

There is nothing more frightening to the non-computer expert than opening up your computer. One slip of the screwdriver and you might destroy hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of equipment--not to mention the hours of hassle involved in getting it fixed, the embarassment of having to explain to a real computer pro what you did, the days spent being without it, or the expense of buying a brand new computer if the damage you did was so great it's not worth repairing.

All of these thoughts, of course, are going through my mind as I open up the case.

Luckily, the instructions were good and the diagrams were accurate (not always the case, as you will find). I lifted the keyboard from the laptop, revealing the innards. I proceeded to remove the "heat sink", and there was my dinky old processor. Four fasteners held it in place. I removed them, and gently lifted out the processor. All had gone well so far. Then I started to insert the new processor.

It would not go in.

I could not get the pins to line up. I could not get the plastic guides to fit. I couldn't even get the darn thing to sit still--every time it came close it would wiggle and slip out of alignment! The instructions warned me not to touch the processor's top or bottom surfaces, warned about not forcing it, or pressing it in the wrong place, or bending any pins. It wasn't working. I was in trouble.

I was starting to sweat.

Oh great, I thought. Now what? I have writing to do, projects to finish, deadlines to meet. Until I get the processor installed, my computer is a very nice looking paperweight. I can't quit now! I have to make it fit!

I got down on my knees, so my computer was at eye level, and carefully lined up the pins with the guides, trying to look at the bottom of the processor card for as long as I possibly could as I positioned it. This time, when I started to press down on the edge of the card, it felt different--it was moving smoothly downward with the pressure. It wasn't wiggling. I pressed on all four edges, and I felt the processor seat firmly in place. Success!

I did it! I am the king!

I put all the pieces back in place--the fasteners, the heat sink, the keyboard. I fired up my computer--and voila. It worked. Not only was it working--but it was speeding. It was crazy fast. All my programs that took forever to load start right up now. I can even type in this program and it can keep up with my typing. Pretty cool.

Well, I just wanted to share with you my adventures in computer upgrading. I get such a sense of satisfaction when I try something new and it actually manages to work.

Let me know if any of you have tried to upgrade your computers--or do anything else that you didn't know much about when you started, like changing a bicycle tire, or launching a remote controlled plane--and how it went.

October 17, 2000
Another Embarassing Incident

I'm putting together a list of other people's mistakes, goof-ups, and blunders, so I thought it only fair that I make public some of the silly little gaffes I've made over the years. I wrote about one a few months back. This is another that happened just recently...

My wife, Jan, is a genius when it comes to remembering names. I, on the other hand, have a hard time remembering the name of someone I met five minutes ago, let alone someone I met last last month or last year.

We were discussing this in the car on our way to a recital by a talented young jazz pianist named Jennifer. We met Jennifer when she was in a jazz competition with our son, Robby, who plays the saxophone. Even though they were competitors, Robby and Jennifer became good friends, and have since performed together. We spoke to her father at a few of the jazz events they played in. He was a fascinating person and my wife and I really enjoyed talking to him. But here we were, about to see him again in a few minutes, and wrack my brains though I might, I couldn't recall his name.

"What's Jennifer's dad's name again?" I asked my wife.

"David," she answered.

"Thanks," I told her. "You're so good with names."

This was all my wife needed to start on a rant. "You think I'm really good with names," she said, "but I'm not. I'm good with people. When I meet someone, I don't spend any time at all trying to remember their name--I get to know them so completely that I don't have to. Their name is so thoroughly a part of who they are, such an integral part, that it becomes a part of how I know them. Then when I see that person again, I don't have to try to remember their name--I just know it because I know the whole person."

She continued, "Take David, for instance. Each time we talk to him he is so throughly and completely David. That's just who he is--he's David through and through. I don't even have to think about it. He's David--it's like it's a physical part of him."

I was impressed. Yeah, I thought, she's right. That's how you do it! That's how you remember a name!

A few minutes later we arrived at the recital, and I saw Jennifer's father standing by the door.

Now, usually when I see someone whose name I can't remember, I will mumble something like, "Hi there, how are you doing?" because I don't want to let on. I will usually say the same thing even when I think I do know the person's name, because I don't want to be embarassed if I'm wrong.

But this time there was no doubt at all in my mind. He's David through and through, I thought, smiling. I approached him with confidence, stuck my hand out, and said loudly, "Hi there David, it's really good to see you."

Jennifer's dad took my hand, a slightly puzzled expression on his face. "My name is Mark," he said.

September 18, 2000
Unsere kleine Stadt

First off, I want to apologize for not updating the Gross Nugget or Spooky Morsel for the past few weeks--I've been extremely busy with a few projects, and simply haven't had time. That's going to change this week, though--come back on Wednesday and Friday for new installments.

In the meantime, I have to admit--sometimes, when I need a little break, or a little boost, I go "ego surfing" on the web. You know--you plug your own name into a search engine, and see what it turns up.

Well, I did it the other day, and found a couple of very interesting items. The first I already mentioned on my home page--Amazon.com has listed my newest book, Almanac of Alien Encounters, and made it available for pre-orders. That's all well and good, but the truth is it's not going to be published until next summer--so all you anxious fans (and UFO buffs) may as well hold onto your money a little bit longer.

But another item that I found my name on, which is available now, is very interesting indeed--especially to my German speaking friends. Amazon.com has a branch in Germany (Amazon.de), and they are offering the German translation of my X-Files novel, Our Town, or "Unsere kleine Stadt". They've posted a synopsis which was very fun to read (or I should say, try to read)--since it's in a foreign language. I found myself looking for familiar words or names in the gobbledygook. ("Fragen über Fragen, aber keine Hinweise, Dana Scully und Fox Mulder sind ratlos") At least I now know how to say "chicken inspector" in German (Der Geflügelinspektor)!

But still I was not satisfied--so I ego-surfed on--and then I found the most interesting thing of all. Something I did back in high school and haven't thought about or seen in years. It's true what they say--nothing you've done will ever go away--eventually it will all get posted on the web. Luckily for me, this was a good thing. I don't want to say any more just yet--instead, watch this space, because in the next few days I'll either link to it--or post my own copy! (Oooh--a mystery!)

August 5, 2000
Punched Up Hamlet

As a dramatic writer, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing professional actors perform your work and having an audience appreciate it. I was lucky enough to experience that last week.

Some time ago, just for fun, I had written a very short, maybe 10 minute long play, asking the question, what would William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" be like if it were rewritten, or "punched-up," by today's top screenwriters? I adapted scenes from movies like "Chinatown" and "Pulp Fiction" for the characters of Hamlet, Ophelia, and Horatio to speak, and threw in moments from "Jaws" and "Psycho" for good measure. I thought it was hilarious.

After I wrote it, I let some friends read it, and they all agreed that it was very, very funny. Then I sort of forgot about it. Then, just a few weeks ago, I heard that a theatre in Los Angeles was going to let people read short pieces they had written--poetry, short fiction, or drama. Although I had never thought about anyone performing my short play, I decided to submit my "Punched-Up Hamlet" just to see what would happen. Well, it was accepted.

I put together a cast of four actors to perform it (even though there are ten or so parts, each person played two or more roles). I directed the play myself, telling the actors where to move on the stage and how to read the lines. I'm glad the play was only ten minutes long--for my first experience as a director in years, I don't know if I could have done anything longer or more complex. It also helped that the actors enjoyed what I had written, and got the jokes themselves, and thought it was funny. Plus, they were great actors, and really brought out the humor of what I had written.

Finally, it was the night of the performance. I was incredibly nervous because I was going to have to be onstage while my piece was being performed. I was only going to read a little introduction explaining why I had written the play, and then read the scene locations and some stage directions, but I felt like I was going to throw up. See, it's one thing being in the audience watching other people perform my work. And I also enjoy being on stage performing someone else's work. But it's a completely different feeling being on stage and performing something I've written.

The evening began, and in no time at all it was my group's turn. We all went up on stage, and I began my introduction. I was still nervous--until the audience started laughing at what I was saying. I instantly calmed down. After all, I thought, if they're laughing at me, wait until they see my actors--they're really great.

And sure enough, my little play went great. The audience got almost all the jokes. (All except one fairly obscure reference to "Chinatown" which was one of my favorite gags in the play. Oh well.) They also groaned at some of the bad puns I threw in. And at the end, we received a hearty and enthusiastic round of applause.

I was going to post my "Punched Up Hamlet" here on the site, but I'm going to try to get it published first. If I succeed, I'll let you know where to look for it. If I don't, I'll go ahead and post it here.

July 20, 2000
A Silly Episode

So the other day, I do one of the silliest things I've done in a long time.

I'm at an art museum, and I'm walking along down the corridor, and as I'm walking between the galleries I get to thinking about how comfortable my shoes are. Now, I'm thinking about this because when I first bought this particilar pair of loafers, they were as uncomfortable as anything. Oh, they looked good, but the backs rubbed roughly against that little bridge of skin between my heel and my ankle, cutting deep. And the fronts held my toes in a stiff, unyielding grip.

I knew, because they were leather, they would eventually loosen up and feel fine--but it had taken a long time before I could comfortably get through a day. And now, I marvelled as I walked along, because they felt incredible--they had broken in so completely they felt like a pair of comfortable old house slippers. I smiled as I looked admiringly down at my shoes--yes, I knew it was only a matter of time, but I never expected them to feel this good--

I kept walking, kept staring at my feet, the smile not leaving my face, as I saw that I was wearing two different shoes. On my left foot was the loafer. On my right foot, however, was an old boat shoe that I keep just to wear around the house. It's so old and beat-up that it is about as soft and comfortable as a bedroom slipper.

Other than their both being brown, the two shoes couldn't have been more different. The loafer had a stylish metal band across the top. The old boat shoe had a leather lace going up the middle. I was tired that morning, and I must have seen two brown shoes lying more or less next to each other, and without paying attention put them on.

Trying to maintain solid eye contact with everyone I encountered, so they wouldn't look down at my shoes, I made my way to my car, . I drove home, changed the wrong shoe, and returned to the museum before the rest of my party even knew I was gone.

Whew! That was close!

Have you ever done anything that silly lately? An embarassing goof? Let me know about it. And let me know if I can post your story on my website! 

The Wizard of Menlo Park

I've been doing a lot of research lately for a book I'm writing about people who've accomplished great deeds, discovered or invented things that have changed our lives, researched or explored or excelled or succeeded in a variety of ways.

One of the most fascinating stories I've come across so far is the life of Thomas Edison. Now, we all know that Edison invented the lightbulb. But did you know that he also invented the phonograph (more or less by a fluke), the motion picture camera, talking pictures, and that he also improved the telephone to the point that it was actually practical for everyday use? His life is a story of luck and surprise, of being in the right place at the right time--and making the most of it. It's also a story of persistence and hard work--for instance, by his count, he tested over 6,000 different substances to find the perfect filament (the glowing wire) for his lightbulb. In the end, Edison applied for and received 1,093patents (legal recognition that an inventor invented an invention)--more than any other single individual in the history of the U.S. Patent Office.

I will post my story on Edison here when I'm finished with it. Let me know if you want to see who else I've been learning about--or if you have any suggestions!

Announcing ElfmanWorld.com

Well, I've done it. After months of false starts, I've just fully transported my website over to my new URL: www.elfmanworld.com.

Ta da!

Good-bye old "www"-less URL that no one could remember! Good-bye "o"-less "elfmanwrld" because AOL could only handle 10 characters in their site names! Let the hits begin!

Sorry, sorry, I'm getting carried away. But why shouldn't I? This is very exciting. Just you wait and see--I'm going to have downloadable movies, stories, unpublished novels, interactive fiction, works in progress, audio, video--nothing can stop me now. Bwaa-ha-ha-ha! It's a whole new ElfmanWorld!

Oh, there might be some broken links that happened in the transfer, but that's a small price to pay for the potential that awaits, right? Right? (If you do find any broken links, though, please let me know at the Write to Eric page. Thanks!)

I Believe in UFOs

I believe in UFOs.

Now before you start thinking I've lost my marbles (or "gone off my nut" for all my friends in England), let me explain.

I just finished reviewing the "galleys" for my new book, ALMANAC OF ALIEN ENCOUNTERS. (See my previous entry, below.) Now, whenever I tell people that I'm working on this book, the first question they always ask me is, "Do you believe in UFOs?"

I used to hem and haw, and say "Well, I don't know, heh heh, there are lots of interesting sightings, you know, heh heh, and not all of them have been fully explained. Heh heh."

Well, as I went over the pages of my book, it came to me--that's the very definition of a UFO: an unsual sighting that is not only puzzling to the original witness, but remains unexplained even after it has been properly investigated. (I'm paraphrasing the words of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, one of the U.S. government's first official UFO hunters.)

So you see, a "UFO" doesn't mean "flying saucer" or "alien spaceship" (although people often misuse the term to mean just that.) No, a UFO is an object of mystery--there's no telling what it could be. And as I reviewed the pages of my book, I remembered just how many objects have been reported over the years that remain unexplained. And so, using that definition, I think there are few who would disagree that UFOs exist.

In the coming weeks and months I'll share with you some of the interesting cases that I didn't have room for in my book. And if you have ever seen a UFO, or any unusual object in the sky--even if it was later identified--tell me about it! I'd love to hear your story. (And let me know if it's okay to share your story with others.)

Update: 6/15/00
Galleys Ahoy!

Hi! I'm back! And boy am I excited. I just got the "galleys" for my new book, The Almanac of Alien Encounters.

(Galleys, or "galley proofs" are the pages of a book that have been run through the printing press, to show exactly how they will look when the book is published. The publisher checks the galleys to make sure the book is just the way they want it before they publish tens of thousands of copies, and they usually let the author look them over to make any last minute changes or corrections.)

(The name comes from the long metal trays, also called "galleys", in which metal type was set in the days before computers took over printing.)

So I've spent the past few hours looking over the galleys for my book, and I can't believe how good it all looks. For years I've been living with this book in manuscript form--just a hundred or so printed pages in one boring font--and suddenly it looks like a real book: with illustrations, boxed text "call-outs" and "sidebars", artfully designed headlines, the works. They even sent me a copy of the cover. It looks fantastic.

Unfortunately, it will still be several months before the book is ready--in fact, it might not be in the bookstores until next year. I, for one, can't wait. I'll let you know when you can buy it.

I've also been working on several other projects. Some of them look very promising, but I can't say any more about them until they happen. Bummer--I'm almost bursting with excitement about a couple.

In the meantime, I've got some exciting things planned here at ElfmanWorld--not the least of which is my new www.elfmanworld.com address! I'll keep you posted as they materialize!

Drop me a line, and let me know how you're doing.

One Minute Movie Review:

Behind the Screen

Last night a friend of mine invited me to visit a movie set where one of the major motion pictures of this summer was being filmed. I got to watch as a very exciting special effects sequence was shot in front of a "blue screen." (A "blue screen" is exactly that--a giant blue screen that stretches across the wall behind the action. Later, through the magic of special effects, the background will be placed behind the actors so it looks like they are dangling hundreds of feet in the air.) The two movie stars in the scene were suspended by ropes and dangling from the rafters. It seemed like a hundred people were involved in shooting the scene--from the director to the technicians running the cranes that controlled the ropes suspending the actors. What a thrill!

My Hands Are Full

Hoo boy, kids, have I been busy. My hands are full juggling potential film and television projects. They're all only in the first stages of the development process, so it's too early for me to name them, but I can give you some tantelizing hints:

  • I'm working with another popular writer to create two new TV shows;
  • a screenplay I wrote is being sent out to a bunch of Hollywood producers;
  • I'm writing a pilot for a TV series based on my "Three Minute Thrillers" books;
  • and a certain cable channel is considering an idea of mine for a TV movie.

Believe me, the instant any one of these projects happens, you'll hear about it here first!

And don't forget my novelization of the NBC-TV mini-series "NOAH'S ARK" should hit the bookstores any day now. (Maybe someday I'll even get paid for it!)


Hi everyone at Stanford Middle School in Long Beach! I had a great time speaking with you. You're the greatest!


A big hello to all my new friends at Mesa View Middle School in Huntington Beach. Thanks for making my visit so memorable!

Did anyone see the "Alice in Wonderland" that was on TV last Sunday night? Did you happen to notice the coming attractions for "Noah's Ark"? Well, "Noah's Ark" is my next book -- a novelization of the TV mini-series. Look for it in bookstores around the time it appears on TV --which should be early May.


WOW: Here's a fun magic trick on the web. Check it out! (But be sure to come back!)



FLASH: I just sent my latest book to the publisher: "NOAH'S ARK". It's a novel based on a Hallmark Hall of Fame mini-series that will be on T.V. in May. Look for my book in bookstores mid-April!


NEWS: I just joined a theater group called the Write Act Repertory Company. So in addition to everything else I'm doing, now I'm going to start writing plays. Wish me luck! (Or, in theater lingo, tell me to "break a leg!")


Did you make any New Year's resolutions? I resolved to get more organized in 1999. So far, so good! How are you doing with your resolutions?


Happy New Year! Wow! 1999! Can you believe it? Are you ready for Y2K? Not the bug -- I mean the year! You only have 362 days to prepare!


WRITING TIP: Ask yourself "What if?" and then finish the sentence with anything at all. It doesn't matter what. "What if pigs could fly?" "What if bottles could talk?" "What if dogs were invisible?" Then ask yourself "What then?" Answer that question, and you've got yourself a story.


Well, its been another busy week. More Hollywood meetings, deadlines looming, and lots and lots of writing to be done. If any of you are thinking about becoming writers, let me tell you: it can be very rewarding, but it can also be hectic and frustrating.

FLASH: I'm almost finished with my newest almanac. If you want me to drop you a note when it's in the bookstores, click on "Write to Eric" and leave me your e-mail address!


Have I been busy! I was hired to write a new book, but I was given just two weeks to do it! So everything else had to be put on hold until I finished it, which I just did yesterday. Whew! It's a novelization of a TV mini-series--but I'm not allowed to say what it's about yet. Let's just say, it's a story you all know, uh, okay? I'll tell you more about it when I can! How have you all been? Drop me a line!

Have a comment or question? Click here to send a message to Eric!

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