Thursday, February 27, 2014

What Makes A Good Horror Story? (According to me!)

"What is Horror?" joins that long list of subjective questions that include "What is art?", "What is pornography?" and the ever-elusive "What's that blue thing doing here?" Everyone has their idea of what constitutes horror, and by extension what makes for a good horror story. This is mine.

What you're about to read is a collection of things I wish every author/creator of every horror story or movie would keep in mind. Yes, it's very biased, very subjective, and very opinionated, but I come by it honestly. My credentials, submitted for your approval.

And the Groovie Ghoulies. You can NOT forget
the Groovie Ghoulies!
I love reading and watching horror stories. For literature, I usually rely on the Holy Trinity (Poe, Lovecraft, King), with occasional forays into stuff by Peter Straub, Joe Hill, and Dean Koontz. For television, I was raised on The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond, and eventually Night Gallery, Tales From The Darkside, and Monsters. Oh, and let's not forget The Night Stalker. Being a DC fanboy, my teen years' superhero and war comic reading was supplemented heavily by DC's humongous horror line, including House of Mystery, House of Secrets, The Witching Hour, Secrets of Sinister House, Tales of the Unexpected, Ghosts, Weird War Tales, Weird Western, Doorway to Nightmare, Black Magic. And as for movies, way too many to mention. Add to this my tendency to put on makeup and scare people at haunted attractions in October (for fun and profit), my enjoyment of exploring extremely old cemeteries, my forays into horror-based role playing games, and a few turns at writing some niche-market horror, and that gives a good picture of most of my so-called pedigree. In other words, I've shambled around the block a few times.

As far as my ideal horror elements, you'll notice that some of the concepts overlap. Bear with me on that one. Also, although I use "horror story" to include just about anything, it's aimed primarily at movies, and less so with novels, short stories, tv programs, or video shorts. Episodic tv and video shorts have less time to address all of the things I blather about. It's hard to criticize a five minute horror flick for lack of character development, you know?

OK, ready? Here we go..

There's A Difference Between Screaming And Puking
To me, the first and foremost thing about a horror story is that it has to be frightening. This doesn't necessarily mean getting grossed out or repulsed. There are lot of gore fans out there, and sure there are times when it's called for in the story, but really, I'd rather prefer getting the living daylights scared out of me than face the prospect of blowing digested popcorn onto the back of the neck of the person sitting in front of me (unless, of course, the victim is using a cell phone, in which case all bets are off).

Booga booga!
Frighten me. Shake me up. Make me jump. Show me something terrifying. Make me go home and wonder what lurks in the shadows of my room, or what is causing the motion-sensing light in our backyard to suddenly kick on in the dead of night for no apparent reason. When I go running and the shadows lengthen, what's that thing rustling in the woods surrounding the bike path I run on?

And what do I find terrifying? Good question...

Horror Versus Horrible
Let's face it; the whole concept of horror is contradictory to the idea of "nice". Horror by its very nature is meant to create feelings of fear and uncertainty, for entertainment's sake. It involves stories where ultimately, someone meets a bad end, sometimes justly, many times unfairly. I get that. It's not a genre for the hard-core Pollyanna types. It's an adrenaline rush or thrill ride that you should eventually be able put down and/or walk away from, though echoes of it may linger long afterward, making you suspicious of shadows, as mentioned earlier.

But that being said, I feel there's a difference between a story about some cursed item or things erupting out of a crypt, and a story about some pervert that kidnaps and rapes women, then kills and eats them. The first example is horror; the second is just plain horrible; it's nasty disgusting sadism.

The idea of some hulking killer wearing a mask and wielding a chainsaw and/or big knife has stronger ties to reality, because if you read the news with any degree of consistency, you'll inevitably trip over a story about some brutal killer, or cruel SOB that stalks his victims and does very cruel, very real things to them. No thanks.

Some will argue that cruelty is simply another form of horror. "Torture is horrible!" they say. "Rape is horrible! These are horrible, scary things! Stalkers are creepy and horrifying! Brutal murders, chainsaws, or sawing off your leg to escape a trap is horrible! It's scary! And those things could possibly happen!"

Yes, that's true. But to me, horror needs to reside at least partly in the realm of the unreal. There needs to be that "line", that barrier, between reality and fantasy. If I want real-life horror and brutality, I'll check out the news. I don't want reminders that there are real-life monsters running around, committing all sort of atrocities on innocent people.

Although the term "torture porn" gets sometimes overused, in my opinion, it nevertheless sums up for me movies like "Hostel", or "Last House on the Left". Maybe you can call them suspense movies, or thrillers, but I don't know. Does torture and sadism possess the capacity of thrilling some people? I guess it does, but in my opinion there just seems to be something inherently wrong on some level about that idea.

From "Escape Route", the third story in the Night Gallery
pilot movie. This picture STILL! FREAKS! ME! OUT!
I remember, as a kid, one movie that scared the absolute Hell out of me was the pilot to Night Gallery. Well, two out of three vignettes did, anyway...the blind Joan Crawford segment was weak (sorry, Mr. Spielberg). But in any event, there was one bit about this lazy, no-good nephew type (played with scenery-chewing aplomb by Roddy McDowall), who managed to engineer the death of his rich uncle. But he gets his comeuppance in the end, and it's heralded by a large painting of the cemetery outside of the manor house, a painting that keeps changing to show a grave in the cemetery opening up and a body (his uncle) climbing out and coming up to the door. Every time the nephew looks away and then looks at the picture again, it changes, showing a sequence that implies that the dead uncle is in fact heading towards the house. Then there's a knock at the door. We never get to see good old Roddy get his reward; it's left up to the imagination. But the point is pictures don't spontaneously change in real life! Holy crap, that was just freaky and unsettling. Things that are not supposed to happen in real life but happen anyway, whether it's a changing portrait, a kid's doll whose recorded voice threatens a cruel step-father, or a Zuni fetish figure that comes to life and relentlessly hunts down a woman in her apartment, it's all the same; it's damned scary!

I want to be scared, not repulsed.

I Like My Horror Up Close And Personal
To me, the more intimate the setting, the more effective the horror. A horror story that focuses on an individual, a couple, a family, or a circle of friends, has more of a chance to make an emotional impact than something that involves, say, the whole damn planet. Horror to me is best when the locale is limited; a house, a building, a neighborhood, maybe. But when you start getting bigger and bigger, the impact of the horror is diluted. It's sort of in line with the quote from sadistic genocidal dictator Josef Stalin, who said "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic".

This comes through particularly strong in movies that feature some kind of global apocalypse or end of the world scenario. I mean, has anyone who's ever written a horror story that involves something nasty that affects the entire Earth ever stepped back and taken a good look at how bloody huge this planet is, and how many billions of people live here? The bigger the threat, the more diluted the impact. Call it the law of diminishing returns, or the law of decreased marginal utility.

It's the whole question of scope that, for me anyway, turned horror fan-boy darling "Cabin in the Woods" from something that I started out loving, to a movie that, when the credits rolled, I wanted to stand up, flash the one-fingered salute with both hands at the screen and say "F**k you, movie! F**k you gently with a chainsaw!"

And that's also why World War Z, in my mind, is not a horror movie. It's a science fiction movie about a world-wide epidemic, and has diddly and squat to do with the original source material. Oh, wait. The title. The title is the same. Sorry about that.

The video on the left by Drew Deywalt is a classic example of up close and personal horror. And wow, is it ever effective! In my opinion, it accomplishes in less than three minutes what many so-called horror movies try to do with 90-plus minutes of time! Since it's a short, it doesn't need character development or explanations. It's just a terrifying little story.

End The Damned Thing!
Many horror movies suffer from the exact same problem: the ending! Okay, you start out with an otherwise normal situation, then something horrific happens, things go straight to Hell, then...what? To me, it's one of the biggest weaknesses of the entire horror genre: most horror writers don't know how to end the story. It also speaks to me of the writers' lack of confidence in the material's impact that they have to make absolutely sure to tack on some stupid "the heroes are they're not! Dun dun dunnnn! What a twist!" ending in the last 10 seconds.

Which means that yes, I also can't stand the "abrupt ending" tactic. The movie's chugging along, the climax hits, then suddenly...boom. Movie over. And usually the movie ends at a point that leaves too many unanswered questions. It's not that I want every mystery solved, every question answered, it's just that I want to leave a movie (or close a book for the last time), and go "Brrr. Wow!", not "Huh??".

And on a related note...

The Unknown Is Cool, But There Are Limits
Here's Cthulhu, otherwise known as the "Latest concept
being overused on social media today".  I place him here
because I want to be part of the popular crowd.
The unknown breeds ignorance. Ignorance breeds fear. Fear breeds some awesome screams and scares. There's a fine line here that needs to be tread. On one hand, a generous helping of mystery brings out feelings of dread...what the heck is out there? What does it want? But on the other hand, when writers just start pulling things out of their asses and throwing them at us (okay, that's a bad mental picture, sorry), you're left there, hands apart in a pleading gesture, asking "What the Hell is this? Why's that happening? What did I just see? Where's my mom?" And it's not enough for the writer to say "It's the unknown! Wooooooooo! Scary!", as they wiggle their fingers in a dramatic gesture and open their eyes extra wide.

Don't Show So Damned Much
I'm am convinced that the average imagination can do a much better of crafting an effective mental picture than any outside agency, even a gifted author, can ever do. Sex seems more erotic, humorous gags more hilarious, and terror far more horrifying, when you don't see everything, but instead you're given just enough clues on what's going on to let your imagination fill in the rest. This way, the reader or viewer goes from a passive role to actually assuming a sort of subordinate partnership with the author, and that's a nice feeling.

The More Realistic The World Is, The More Impact The Horror Has
In my opinion, one of the reasons Stephen King's stories are so effective as a whole is that the people he writes about talk and act like real people, and the horrors are lurking in what is otherwise the mundane world that follows the usual rules and laws of physics that we live with in real life.

When you present a setting that conveys "normal and mundane", you establish a setting that people can relate to, and it makes it easy for them to immerse themselves into the story. Then you bring in the element of horror, and it stands out in sharper contrast, creating more of a shock. I can't tell you how many times I've complained to someone about things that would happen in a horror movie that are unrealistic, only to be told "Dude, it's a horror movie. Reality has nothing to do with it! It's all unrealistic!"

Sorry, but I call "BS!!" to that. It's like the Game Master in a table-top role-playing game session who, when the players corner him or her on a bungled rules interpretation or a nonsensical situation, shrugs and says "Well, it's magic!" (extra demerits if they waggle their fingers or raise their eyebrows dramatically). Nope. That's a cop-out. Construct a setting grounded in reality, and the fantastic element will seem all the more disconcerting and amazing when it manifests itself.

And while we're on the subject of rules and laws...

Follow Your Own Bloody Rules!
And whatever you do, do NOT blink!
Man, talk about something that's genuinely terrifying...
Let's say for example that in the course of a movie's story it's been established that in order for the heroes to absolutely, definitely banish the evil demon BeeEffDee, they need to stick a Popsicle stick in their left ear, put a disposable diaper on their head, eat a five-dollar foot-long sub from Subway that was purchased in the last 24 hours, and recite the Lord's Prayer in Pig Latin. So they follow the rules exactly and the demon is banished, but the last few minutes of the movie...dun dun DUNNNN!!!!!!...the demon's in fact not gone at all! Oooooo, scary! What a twist!

No, I'm sorry. If you create an internal logic, a set of laws, then you follow them. Now, if you want to say that the sub was in fact bought 25 hours ago, not 24, then that's okay, especially if you give the audience even the slightest chance to spot the error although the hero doesn't. For instance, perhaps it's been established that the story is occurring during Daylight Savings Time, and the protagonist forgot to take that into account! Ooooo! What a twist! Daylight Savings Time claims another victim! Aw, tough luck, sparky!

You can't establish the rules, then toss in something at random and call it a day. It's sort of like the mystery writer who establishes a cast of murder suspects then, at the denouement, the murder is revealed as...Cousin Clyde, whose existence up until now wasn't even remotely hinted at! No, sorry, mystery writer; you didn't outsmart the audience. You're not clever; you're a cheating tool who can't write a mystery if your life depended on it. Go write some pony fanfic or something.

Give Me Someone To Root For
While I can derive a certain guilty, visceral satisfaction in seeing arrogant, self-absorbed sluts and bullying, douche-bag jocks get their comeuppance, it tends to get old after a while. I want someone I can root for; someone a little likable. They don't have to be goody-goody perfect, but at least make them someone sympathetic, not just pathetic. In order for horror to have an impact, you have to care about the people who are going through the ordeal, even if it's just one solitary person. Don't just set up bowling pins clad in one-dimensional caricature costumes and knock them down; give me a person or persons that I can identify with; it puts me even more into the story, and thus the terror strikes closer to home.

A story where the protagonist wins, whether the victory comes at a cost or not, is cool. Stories with a happy ending and horrifying elements are not mutually exclusive. A story where the protagonist loses, well, that can be good too, especially if there's an element of suspense and uncertainty as to the outcome.

Lay Off The Kids And Animals
Leave us out of your gross horror movie, human!
OK, this one's a blatant personal bias, I admit. But ever since I became a dad yea those many years ago, and also became a Cat Person about a decade ago, I have a strong aversion to seeing bad things happen to kids, babies, and animals, pets in particular. In my brain, I see children and pets/small animals as being among the most helpless targets out there, and even worse, they all lack the proper awareness to comprehend just why they're suffering and dying. No. I don't like it. It tap-dances into the territory of "unnecessary cruelty". In fact, if you've read this far, you can tell for yourself how the whole "kids and animals" thing stems from several of the previous points.

And again, the real news is filled with heart-wrenching stories of child abuse and animal cruelty. No. I don't need to see this sort of thing portrayed on screen or in the pages of a book. Give me escapism, and scare the Hell out of me for good measure. The destruction of innocence is not spooky; it's sad and depressing.

Humor And Sex
Laughing and boinking are two really awesome pastimes (though probably not simultaneously), obviously. Though far be it for me to decry their inclusion in a horror story, any opinions I've formulated on the topic comes from seeing both elements just so horribly, horribly overused.

No one begrudges the use of a little comic relief, especially to serve as a tension-breaking link between really scary scenes. Hell, even Macbeth has humor, thinking here of the scene involving the drunken door-keeper.

"AAAAH! I said "Macbeth"! Hot potato, orchestra stalls, Puck will make amends!"

Here's a hint..
(The Really Cool People will know where that came from)

Humor can be a vital part of a horror story, provided its used at the right time. Look at stuff like Tales From The Crypt, with its gallows humor, for instance. It's particularly cool when the humor is woven into some twist, some irony, or some fitting punishment. Laughs and scares have a long tradition of working hand in hand, and when comedy is used sparingly, it can be a nice little breather from the unending parade of horror that we so willingly subject ourselves to.

As for sex, well, that's a hard one (that's what SHE said!). Like humor, sexuality is one of those things that has strong ties with horror. You can't just pretend it doesn't exist (remember the whole thing about creating a realistic setting?). But the question becomes, does the sexual situation in question really belong? Does it really have anything to do with the story, or is it just thrown in for the sake of grabbing attention? I mean, how many times do we have to see that two people (particularly teens) having sex mean that the conductor is about to punch two more one-way tickets on the Grim Reaper Special?

Sometimes, sex can actually be a central part of the movie, say, for instance, David Cronenberg's "They Came From Within", also known as "Shivers". Of course, that one ventures into "pretty damned disturbing" territory at times.

Speaking of sex, have you ever noticed the disproportionate number of women who are ravished by assorted creepies (invisible entities, heads in baskets, trees, giant worms, humanoids from the deep, household appliances, sentient dummies, et al) as compared to men exposed (so to speak) to the same treatment? And usually, on those rare occasions when an evil entity does get busy with a guy, it's usually some hot succubus or Countess Boobula the Vampire?* Just saying.

And now, some final quick points:

No More Found Footage Movies

Same Goes For Remakes
Stop. I'm begging you here. This means YOU, Rob Zombie!

Fast Zombies Suck
Seriously. They do.

Vampires Don't Sparkle

Moveies That Work/Don't Work For Me
What works for me:
The Changeling (w/George C Scott)
Dead Silence (AAAAAH! DUMMIES!)
Event Horizon (vastly underrated)
Night Gallery (the pilot movie)
The Conjuring
The Exorcist/The Exorcist III
The Woman In Black (the original, not the remake)
The Fog (the original, not the crapfest remake)

::SNORT!::  ::GIGGLE!::
And here's some that do NOT work for me:
House of 1,000 Corpses
Blair Witch Project
The Saw franchise as a whole (though the first one was ok)
Exorcist II
Hostel (and all of its ilk)
Just about every remake

Speaking of Endings....
Does this rambling make me a horror snob? Yes, probably it does. I will sit here and tell people that it's just my opinion and that it's neither better or worse than anyone else's, while quietly convinced that my way is in fact superior. You know, just like most everyone else does when it comes to opinions.

So there you have it: to me, horror means something frightening, something outside the realm of reality, sending me on a nice little dark-filled voyage away from the mundane, then bringing me back again into the light when the time is right. Is that really so difficult a thing?

I'm interested in what others consider scary. What do you define as horror, and what movies are on your good/bad list? By all means, let me know!

* Countess Boobula will soon be a major motion picture, once either my Kickstarter gets approved, or HBO catches wind of the idea.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Cats Aren't Affectionate? Says Who?

Hey baby, come here often?
"Cats don't care about you!", I've heard more than one hard-core dog enthusiast thunder. "They're aloof. They don't show affection! You only matter to them at feeding time and for changing their litterbox! Now, dogs....dogs are affectionate! They love everyone unconditionally, and they show it! They interact with you! They do tricks! Cats don't do tricks! Cats suck!"

I admit that I used to be counted among the multitude that thinks this way. For a good portion of my life, it had been my experience that cats were these quiet, aloof creatures that were more part of the background scenery than an actual pet. They didn't interact with anyone; they simply...were.

Fortunately, I've seen the light and have changed my views, but in the process of doing so have come up with some observations about cats and affection. And I've come to the conclusion that the disconnect may be in most part because of a lack of a common means of communication.

The Language of Love
Sing it out, Dan!
Perhaps the unfair perception that cats aren't affectionate is because cats show affection very differently than dogs do (huh huh...he said "dog do"...huh huh. Sorry, it's hard to pass up on a good poop joke. Or one like this, for matter!).  Cats, for instance, have a slow blink that they do as a way of telling someone they love them. There's also the head-butt, the kneading with front paws, and yes, the rubbing up against the legs, which in addition to contributing to you toppling over head-first, is also how they mark someone that they care about.

Dogs jump up and down, lick your face, wag their tails, bark excitedly, and run around with unbridled joy. That's what they do. Cats are more subtle, but the love they have for their people is no less genuine or deep. It seems that a lot of the disconnect between cats and people who don't like them is that cats don't respond in the same way as dogs. As a for huge for instance, a dog wagging its tail means that it's happy (and also a sure sign something is going to get swept off a coffee table). A cat wagging its tail is annoyed. Back away slowly...

There's a lesson here for human relationships too, you know. Two people in a relationship may show and express love in different ways, a result of their upbringing, nature, and experiences. Problems can arise when both people aren't on the same page, and when one doesn't see love expressed in the way they're accustomed to showing it, they may believe they aren't loved. Lesson to be learned: make sure you're involved with someone whose ideas and concepts of love match yours. That's the relationship advice of the day. You're welcome!

It's A Matter Of Trust
Go home, Billy, you're drunk!
Unlike dogs, which as a species can be physically imposing, cats are vulnerable. The presence of a dog on someone's property is enough to give a trespasser pause, while a cat is practically overlooked. After all, how many (serious) "Beware of Cat" signs do you see on property? Cats, I believe, are aware that they're vulnerable, and consequently are more careful, slower to trust.

So cats, aware of how vulnerable they are, are cautious. They have to be. Unfortunately, that caution could be confused for aloofness.

Sure, it's nice when something accepts you wholeheartedly without you even trying, but there's something to be said about earning the trust of someone or something that doesn't trust easily. It's an accomplishment, perhaps even a sign that hey, you're a pretty awesome person!

Cool For Cats
Everyone could use a little squeeze now and then.
So there's a different set of expectations for cats than there are for dogs. Bur it's kind of cool when
you see a cat exhibiting behavior one would normally only associate with dogs. For instance, my cat Kyrion waits for me to get home from work. I've had numerous first-person confirmations that when it gets dark, he can be found perched on the bookcase that affords a view of the driveway and front porch.

When I come in the door, he walks up to me, chirps, and sometimes rubs against my leg. Then, he trots off and goes and does whatever Mysterious Cat Thing(tm) he wants to. He doesn't jump all over me and slobber (although the visual is amusing). It's like instead of being all "Ohmigawd it's SOOOOO good to see you! Hello!Hello!Hello! Missed you! Ohmigawd!", it's more like "My happiness isn't complete until you're here, because you mean a lot to me. Now that you're here, all is right with my world. I'm off now, but I'll be back later to headbutt you and jump in your lap. Kthanksbye!"

In our household, it's clear which of three cats belong to each of us (or should that be the other way around?). Each cat responds to their owner, following them around, sitting with them, jumping into laps, all of that.

In The End
This is a ride at the old Lincoln Park. Think about it...
People ask, "Which is better? Dogs or cats?" That's not a good question, because the two are different entities. It's like saying "Which is better to find on the street? A $50 gift card to  iTunes, or a $50 gift card to Home Depot?" Well, they're both awesome finds; it just depends on what interests you more.

Cats are the sort of pets that give you as much as you give them. If you interact with them, play with them, talk to them, they learn and they develop personalities and an emotional bond with you. If on the other hand you don't really have much contact with them and treat them more as part of the decor, they grow distant and fade into the background. You know, sort of like what happens with people.

Photo Credit: Lincoln Park,

Dan Fogelberg

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Death of a Conservative Christian

After I published that four-part D&D 40th anniversary history series, I've had a few people ask me just what went down with me at Park Street Church. After due consideration, I decided to put the experience into a blog post and run it up the virtual flagpole. I firmly believe that most bloggers who write with any sort of regularity have one Intensely Personal Gut-Punch Story. This one's mine.

What This Post Isn't
This post is a bit of a downer. So here's a picture of my
cat with our remote.
If you're looking for a post that trashes God, Christianity, or religion in general, then please look elsewhere. This account has to do with what happens when you put too much trust in any one church and how they do things, the dangers in micro-managing and over-legislating the Christian experience, and that the biggest obstacle that prevents more people from becoming Christians is, well, Christians.

And this is certainly not a "Oh, poor pitiful me, look what the nasty church folk did to li'l ol' me! Wahh, wahh, wahh!" sob-fest. Something happened to me that had no business happening, based on what was endlessly drilled into my head. And now, I'm calling "BS!" on it, that's all. In fact, some of you reading this may go "Oh, okay, this explains everything!"

In fact, let the record show that my 20 years at Park Street Church did me a world of good. I made a lot of close friendships that endure to this day, and I received a lot of excellent instruction and guidance that helped navigate the maze of modern faith a little easier (and, I have a feeling, a maze that was much simpler, if it existed at all, at the very beginning of the whole Christian thing). The various fellowships really got me through some rough times, especially as a teenager and young adult. Nothing can change that. It's just that, since events that will be relayed in this post, I've decided to hold up a lot of the things I've been taught to closer scrutiny and tougher questioning.

Why Dredge Up Something That Happened 25 Years Ago?
Because if there's even the slightest chance that even one person can walk away from reading this and realize that you can be a Christian without becoming a complete tool and/or committing intellectual suicide, if there's even a small chance that someone who was disgusted by religion reads this and considers giving God another try, or if there's even one person out there who is going through or who has gone through a similar situation and is still trying to make heads or tails out of it, then it's worth posting.

Besides, there wasn't a fully developed social media-oriented Internet back then, let alone online blog, where one could vent and get it all out in the open, so there!

A Call To Service
It all started in the mid-80's. My then wife and I were settled into our marriage, well-situated at Park Street Church, and comfortably set in our jobs at work. Kids were still a ways away thanks to the Glorious Peoples' Five-Year Plan (in other words, no new glorious people in the house for five years). Life had settled down. It was about this time that I thought that I'd like to serve the church in some capacity.

It was brought to my attention that Park Street's high school group needed adult volunteers to serve on staff, and that it would be a good fit for me. After all, I had joined the high school group back in 1974, where I became a Christian in more than just name then, and had found a place where I belonged. The friendships I made there, and the ways that God had worked in my life helped me make it through those tough high school years. Part of this support came from the adult volunteer staff, particularly one staffer named Bob French, who introduced me to Avalon Hill war games.

Perhaps there was some lonely, overweight kid who wasn't fitting in at school and was teased, but was turning to God for answers and help. Perhaps this was my way of giving back to the church. I talked it over with some people, and they agreed that I would be temperamentally well-suited to work with high schoolers because I could easily relate to them (translation: You're just a big kid yourself, JT).

My Beliefs Before
The way I felt from the late 70s to late 80's
When I came to a decision to follow God more closely and have my Christianity be more than simply a cultural thing handed down by my family, an evangelistic fervor took hold; that and a strong moral leaning to the right. Let's just say that I was in lock-step with just about all positions embraced by the Christian Right. There were so many "thou shalt nots" out there, and not only did I make sure not to do them, I made sure that the people around me didn't either. My politics were also skewed to the right, but that was more of a side-effect; after all, you vote for the candidates that share your beliefs (or at least claim they do, anyway).

I should also state for the record that my conservative Christianity wasn't "perfect". After all, I had difficulty accepting the idea of women being submissive, and unable to, say, become a member of the clergy. I had the whole SF/Fantasy thing going on, and although I lived my life by The Book (literally and figuratively), I didn't think the Earth was actually created in a week and was only several thousand years old. My credulity had its limits. I also wasn't too keen on the Christian sub-culture. My tastes in music, movies, books, and tv was definitely "secular". I can name two Christian musicians, for instance, that I think are worth the time of day (Steve Taylor and guitar genius Phil Keaggy, for the record).

And, of course, I had been taught that my church was my spiritual family, here to support me and help me grow into an awesome mature Christian. The body of Christ, as manifested at Park Street, was my safe harbor, a source of strength, comfort, and when needed, correction. The secular world didn't understand, and would persecute me. The church was better than that. And not only that, there was even a certain implication that Park Street's way was just a little better. I also won't even go into detail about what many of the people around me thought about the Catholic Church at the time.

Although one of the pastors that led Park Street's college fellowship tried to repeatedly drill into everyone's heads that the attitude of believers when dealing with non-believers was to be "as a beggar telling another beggar where to find food", there was the sense of condescending superiority that manifested itself in certain circles in the group.

Awesomeness Ensues
Me, being a pillar of Christian maturity on high school staff
But anyway, I volunteered for high school staff and I was eagerly accepted in the group. For a while, everything ran smoothly. As predicted, I could relate to the kids very easily. My weird sense of humor, my love of alternative music, and my general outgoing manner served me well. I even started a Bible study for about a half-dozen of the guys, and we met on Friday nights. Yes. I had gotten things to the point where high-school age guys would be willing to give up their Friday nights to study the Bible together.

And so it went, for about a year or so. Maybe two. I don't know, frankly, the dates are a little fuzzy, but I know that my tenure there overlapped with the birth of Adrienne, my first kid, in May of 1987.

Trouble Heads Its Ugly Rear
So sometime after Adrienne was born and we had moved out of our duplex in Boston and bought a house in Randolph, a few of the parents organized a sort of "meet and greet" thing for all of the high school staffers and the high school parents. Hey, sounds great!

Contents: Rulebook, adventure, dice, crayon, and
Now, what needs to be remembered here was that I had already quit my regular white collar drone desk job at Harvard Community Health Plan in order to stay home and be Mister Mom and do my role-playing game freelance writing for Dungeons and Dragons. You just knew that gaming was going to enter into this somehow, didn't you? Of course you did!

So there I was, at this sort-of party held at the house of one of the more well-established church families, when one of the parents asked me about myself, where I lived, how I joined the church, and what I did for a living. I explained that I was a stay at home dad, and that I brought in income as a full-time freelance writer. Intrigued, the parent continued the questions and asked me what I wrote.

And that's when I said the words that would change religion for me forever.

"Oh, role-playing game books. You know, like Dungeons and Dragons."

Cue the needle being dragged across a record.

The smile froze on the parent's face. "Oh, I see. That's...nice," came the reply. Or words to that extent.

I should have known something was up when suddenly a shadow crossed the face of the moon, a vulture alighted in a nearby tree, a wolf howled, and the Eye of Saruman turned its baleful gaze towards me. I may as well have said I ran a baby mill that specialized in selling sacrificial infants to cults around the country.

Nobody Expects The Parental Inquisition; Actually, No, Everyone Expected Them
Our chief weapons are gossip, ignorance, slander, and a
total disregard for the Bible!

Do you know what word drives me completely bonkers when used in the context of Christian social circles? "Concerned". As in, "I'm concerned about Jim; he seems to not enjoy reading the Bible anymore," or "I'm concerned about Regan; her head revolves 360 and she spits up pea soup."

Yeah. Now, people were "concerned" about me. And, in true Christian social etiquette, rather than being approached directly, a small group of parents took their concerns to the Youth Pastor.

Because, you see, Dungeons and Dragons promoted witchcraft, demonology, suicide, and Satan. Kids lives were being ruined by it. And now here's a staff member who not only plays the game, he also writes for them! I'm still convinced that somewhere out there, there's someone working feverishly in an isolated room, trying desperately to prove that D&D was responsible for World War Two.

So naturally, the parents were "concerned". They were "concerned" for my immortal soul, they were "concerned" about the effect that my profession would have on their children. They were "concerned" for their children's eternal souls. So much concern! They had allllll the concern!

And thus, an issue was born. These parents wanted to know even more about me, what exactly I did, and what these role-playing games were. Because, you see, they had anti-D&D pamphlets which exposed the game for what it was. Never mind that the source material they used was from a different game and wrongly attributed to D&D. No, this was Satanism. Wasn't I aware of the fact that I was playing with fire?

Once it became clear that they couldn't force me to quit my job, they asked if I'd be willing to attend a meeting at one parent's house. The meeting would include a bunch of the concerned parents (there's that blasted word again), and they invited this outside "expert" who made his living lecturing at different churches and youth groups about the evils of..well...pretty much everything. In an effort to try and meet these people halfway and perhaps lay the matter to rest, I agreed. Maybe if I played a little ball, they'd talk a walk.

Get it? Play ball? Walk?


Enter The Nutjob
Beware: a Devil-worshipping Druid lurks
within those branches. Also, possibly a squirrel
What followed was a fervent small-group talk, with this "expert" warning me, and the parents too, of evil influences that insinuated themselves into every aspect of our culture. For instance, did you know that:

1. Rock music is Satanic. There's backward messages, and also the beat incites people to violence. Anthropologists played rock music for tribes of African natives, and they grabbed their spears and prepared for war. (huh huh...he said "grabbed their spears". huh huh.. Cool.) On the other hand, when classical music was played, these tribes became happy and pleased (as an aside, who ARE these tribes? Where are they found? What nation in Africa hosts them? Is there a generic African tribe that acts as a sort of litmus test for first-world cultural issues??).

2. Disney movies are Satanic, especially Fantasia. Because one character practices magic (Mickey in the Sorcerers Apprentice), and there's demonic imagery.

3. Christmas trees were created by Druids as a way of mocking Christ's crucifixion.

4. Christmas wreaths were also created by Druids to mock Christ's sacrifice. See, the wreath represents the crown of thorns, with the red holly berries representing the droplets of blood from his forehead.

5. D&D was evil because it had spells and demons.

Well, that settled that. Right? Because this is how Satan influences society. He plants things in stuff that's just so freaking ludicrous and/or hard to decode unless you were very clever.

I don't know...sounds like a dumb plan to me. But then again, who was I to question my Dark Overlord?


That's Me In The Corner...
Since I was unmoved by this expert testimony, the group of parents increased their efforts. Now, what needs to be said for the record is that, of all the parents of the kids in the group, half of them didn't care one way or the other what I did for a living. Roughly a fourth of the parents thought I was the greatest thing to come along since sliced bread. The last fourth were the concerned parents who were convinced I was playing with the tiddlywinks of the Devil, or something.

So this concerned 25% pushed the matter. They approached the Youth Pastor with their concerns, and asked that more be done. So, an appointment with the Head Pastor of the whole freaking church was made. Just the pastor and me, having an honest and frank sit-down. The Big Guy and me.

The result? The Pastor declaring that I was a fine, God-loving young man who loved serving the church, and whose heart was right with God. And that's a pretty good paraphrase, by the way.

And so, the concerned parents said "Oh, okay. We'll drop it then!", and everything was great. Crisis averted.


No, actually, the difference it made was "diddly" and "squat", and diddly left town. You see, Park Street is a Congregational church, which means that the Pastor simply can't make unilateral declarations. The congregation has a say. Okay, that's a gross simplification, but it was explained to me that form of church government did have a bearing in it. These parents wanted a meeting of all of the parents, and the Youth Pastor.

Everyone, in fact, but me. Because, you see, everyone was trying to spare me the public embarrassment.

Are you kidding me!?!?!

Concerned Park Street parents gather for the big meeting
Everything I had done in and for the group was now being called into question, and I was being portrayed as either a willing or unwitting tool of the Devil! People, it doesn't get more embarrassing and humiliating than that! I felt like that guy in Life of Brian who was about to be stoned, and he mouthed off, and John Cleese as the High Priest says "Don't make it worse for yourself!" to which he answered "How can I make it any worse for myself? You're about to stone me!"

But I stayed away, like a good little soldier. From all accounts I heard afterwards, parents were actually shouting at each other. Tempers flared. When one parent was accused of behaving in an unBiblical manner, his quote, and I kid you not, because this gem burned itself into my brain by weight of its sheer outrageousness was, "I don't care what the Bible says! This is my child I'm talking about!" This from one of the established church families. Nice Christianity you got there, big guy,,,

Hey, I did have my supporters, bless them, and they were determined to defend me. But it was to no avail. The parents who supported me were furious, and tried to point out that I had done so much good, and the Bible itself said that you can't get bad and good fruit from the same tree. Apparently, though, these concerned parents weren't very interested in spiritual botany.

That's Me In The Spotlight...
I told you! I told you, "Stay away from writing for TSR, mate!"
But did you listen? Oh no. Well, cheer up, JT! Worse
things happen at sea! Look on the bright side of life!

The discussion yielded nothing. But it was becoming clear that these parents were going to keep harping on this, keep causing trouble, keep having their embarrassed kids stuck in the middle, until I relented. So, the "Satanic" guy, the one whose behavior was suspect, the one who was supposedly operating under an antic-Christ influence, rather than subject the kids to any more of this disgusting display of ignorance and non-Biblical behavior, did the Biblical thing and stepped aside.

People would use the word "resigned", and I had no qualms about correcting each and every instance I heard of it, and told them "No, I was forced out." I didn't quit. I was pretty much emotionally blackmailed into stepping aside. And I'd be damned if I'd let revisionist history get a foothold.

We were allowed to stay at the church, though. We could continue worshipping there and such, maybe even get involved in another area of ministry that simply didn't involve children. Wow. Thanks. That was mighty white of them. So in other words "We really can't find or prove any wrong-doing on your part, but just the same we want you to stay away from impressionable children."

Oh, and for the record, let's just make sure it's known that there was never even a hint of impropriety on my part in terms of inappropriate touching and such. The most that can be said in that area was that a couple of the girls developed crushes on me, and the knowledge of that made me take extra measures to make sure that there could never be any confusion in that area. Just needed to be said.

I honestly hope that those Christian parents who were so keen on controlling every minute aspect of their children's lives, ended up alienating them on some level and forcing them to think more for themselves. I hope that the tighter those parents closed their grip, the more star systems slipped through their fingers.

Losing My Religion
 I'll be blunt. The incident destroyed me. I had done nothing wrong, and the one group of people who were supposed to be my "family", had done me an enormous amount of harm. And as far as I was concerned, this completely upended a lot of what I was led to believe. At least the birth of my first son, John, in March of 1989 was such a happy occasion that it pushed a lot of the bad feelings away for some time.

But when the hoopla over the birth had receded and life returned to normal, there was still that big issue, reminding me that things were not as I had been repeatedly taught that they were supposed to be. I had been taught that things were black and white, with very few gray areas, if  any. It's right or wrong. It's Godly, or not. Good or evil. And yet what had happened was enormously wrong, and spoke very badly, in my opinion, about modern-day American Christianity.

"But John," I'm sure some would exclaim. "What did you expect? Did you expect the church to turn to those five families and say 'Leave if you want, but this guy's innocent, and we're not going to throw him under the bus!'"?

Yes. Yes, that's exactly what I expected. If I was doing nothing wrong and was actually adhering to the standards of the Bible and they weren't, then they were wrong, and they are the ones who should just shut up and go away. Or at least just shut up.

But what's the loss of one young married couple compared to a group of five well-established church families?

Because nothing bad can come from appeasement
God didn't dictate what had happened to me; numbers and expediency did. And the one person I had hoped would stand up for me, instead of being my Winston Churchill, wound up being a Neville Chamberlain.

That's when things started to change. Because even though, on the surface, everything looked as okay as could be expected, there was a LOT of damage below the waterline. Any attempts to repair that damage were insufficient. Water was rushing in, and this ship was listing.

Because it occurred to me, if they were wrong about this, if the whole "We're here for you and we're your family who loves and supports you" was not exactly true, if the whole "Well, there's right and wrong, but sometimes things get a little more complicated" was the way things in fact ran, then what else was up for debate and questioning? Perhaps things weren't as absolute as I had originally been led to believe.

Let me tell you, nothing cures someone of being judgmental like having those same guns of judgement being trained right back at you, and by the very people who you were working side by side with.

And that's why, aside from the core Christian beliefs of the Trinity, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, you know, pretty much what the Nicaean Creed puts forth, I started questioning and re-evaluating everything else.

It didn't help that, as time went on, I was increasingly aware of some extremely nice people who weren't Christians; good, moral, considerate, decent people. And on the other side, I became increasingly aware of a number of Christians who were, not to put too fine a point on it, miserable assholes, some whose behavior should at least be raising some eyebrows amongst even the most tolerant rank and file.

There was this big to-do in the nineties about teachers who were gay and how some parents were up in arms over this, not wanting their kids to be exposed to that. I think they were afraid that their kids would be exposed to those notorious Gay Waves(tm) that everyone knows that gay people radiate, and can affect anyone who's not wearing a tinfoil hat. But what happens when you have gay friends, and they are some of the nicest, most articulate, polite, creative people you've met, while there are some Christians you know that are kind of sketchy, and you wouldn't trust them in a room alone with your kids for all the money in the world?

And even though the act of abortion is an evil, do you really want to set the precedent of allowing the government the authority to determine what you can and can't do with your body? Once you allow the government (at any level) start making those choices for you, you open a door that can't be shut again. Is that really okay?

And what about the whole God and country thing? Is this really a Christian nation, or is it a nation with a lot of Christians? If we were to pass laws that are based on concepts beyond the basic Judeo-Christian tenets, then which branch of Christianity do we base those laws on? Catholicism? Baptists? Lutherans? Congregationalists? Whichever we chose would mean one sect would be happy, and the rest would be pissed, possibly feeling disenfranchised or excluded.

No. No, there was a lot to think and pray over. Something wasn't right here. Everything was unraveling save those aforementioned core beliefs. And mostly because I was starting to see that many of the things I had subscribed to, the attitudes and forms of behavior extrapolated from parts of the Bible, simply didn't make sense.

Exclusive photo of my faith circa 1994

Unless, of course, Christianity is supposed to be "Everyone else can twist the Bible to justify their actions, as long as they have the power and influence to get away with it." Somehow, I don't think so.

The Ship Goes Down
By the late 90's, everything fell apart. My marriage, going to church, it all went away. The bedrock I had ostensibly built my life on had turned to shifting sand, and everything came crashing down (wow, how many more metaphors can I cram into this blog entry?). I pretty much went insane during this time and acted out in ways I never imagined myself doing.

I don't want to sit here and say "Because things didn't go my way in 1989, I chucked out everything I believed in and pretty much went berserk." That's not the case. But when everything you've been taught for the past 15 years, everything you believed, the expectations that grew inside of you as a result of what you were told, suddenly comes crashing down in a major crisis, a situation where your ideals and the church that instilled them in you were supposed to step up to the plate and deliver but instead utterly failed, well, yes, you will undergo a seismic shift, and begin to question just how much BS you've been fed without realizing it.

God didn't give up on me. My kids didn't give up on me. And a small circle of Godly, dedicated Christian friends didn't give up on me. Although it is amazing just how many Christians, when faced with the presence of sin, go absolutely berserk and end up making things far worse. Or at the very least, take the opportunity to show just how Godly they are by shunning the offender completely. Yeah, I'm sure Jesus is positively impressed with that. Three cheers and a tiger for you.

But the slow process of recovery had begun. And as it did, it began to occur to me that once you had the whole Trinity/Crucifixion/Resurrection part nailed down, and you were on board with the Ten Commandments and Christ's two commandments of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself, the rest of it is up for discussion between you and your conscience, which, if the Bible is to be believed, is now influenced by the Holy Spirit.

And the final word on the whole parental D&D crisis was this: a glimmer of hope. Of those five sets of concerned parents, only one mother, just one, came up to me when the dust had settled, and, looking genuinely upset and contrite, said that she was sorry and asked for my forgiveness. She had said that things had been handled badly, and definitely not according to Biblical principles. She said that this wasn't the result she had hoped for, and asked again for my forgiveness. It was clear she was honestly bothered and sad about what had happened. So yes, I sincerely and honestly forgave her. And, as Christ commands us to forgive even those who don't ask for it, I've quietly forgiven the rest.

But I haven't forgotten, and the two things aren't mutually exclusive. I haven't forgotten, and the experience has colored my perception of churches, organized religion, and people who walk around with such holy airs where everything is "Jesus this" and "God that" and "Hallelujah amen!" I trust God. His people, not so much. More like a case by case basis. And the more they go out of their way to show their piety and holiness, the less I trust them. No, I've learned the hard way that the hands raised in public worship one moment can put a dagger in your back the next. Not all of them are like this, not even most of them. But all it takes is just a few to make your life a living Hell. Outward piety, in my opinion, is no longer a guarantee that you will be treated compassionately, decently, or in any way shape or form that Christ intended.

I should also say for the record that it wasn't just this one big nasty earth-shattering incident that drove me away from the conservative right-wing viewpoint. It accounted for only about 80% of it, and was the catalyst for the change, yes. The other 20% was made up of other things, including a few "Hey, wait a minute" moments, and a minor clash with the Board of Deacons of a conservative Baptist church.

And So Today...
Here is Truth. Everything afterwards is just guesswork.
I'm a Christian. Moderated somewhat, but still a believer. I'm no longer in the "raise your hands high and give me an amen, brother!" camp, but I'm not in the "Jesus was a nice guy; too bad he was killed; oh and the Bible is a nice piece of mythology" camp either. And I'm definitely not in the "this is all there is" camp.

I am in the "pray without ceasing every day, study the Bible, don't be a dick to people, and stick up for your faith if it's getting unfairly dragged through the mud" camp. Like when people on Facebook say things like "Those stupid Christians and their narrow-minded judgmental ideas. Anyone who believes in some big invisible guy in the sky is ignorant and superstitious!" That's when I speak up and go "Ahem. Christian here. Care to amend that just a tad?" It always disgusts amuses me when I read people's comments like "All Christians are bigots and hypocrites". Read that sentence again and let's ponder the irony of it.

I have no solid proof in the existence of God. I have no answers to things like "Where did Cain get his wife?" I don't know if Adam had a navel. All I know is some of the profound changes in me are things that cannot be explained away as "you did it yourself", or "that's just natural growth".  I know myself well enough to know what I'm capable of doing, sensing, feeling, and learning. There is a peace that transcends all understanding, and other matters of mind and soul that have no other explanation. I know He lives, and that's enough for me, and I will never be dissuaded from that.

And someday, we'll find a church that we're comfortable attending.  A church where the biggest concern about us is "Are you folks walking with God?" and less "How many beers do you have when you go out to dinner?", "Do you still game?", "Do you guys really dress up for Halloween?", or "Do you think gays should marry?" (For the record, the answers are: "Yes", "2 or 3 depending on the glass size", "Hell yes", "Yes, and sometimes on other days too", and "absolutely!").

In Parting, Some Lessons Learned
"This may come as a shock to you, but I
love that chain-smoking drag queen
just as much as I love you, Mister Bible
Study leader/church deacon!"
God is perfect; God is love; His people (myself included) are the biggest collection of mixed up, irrational, untrustworthy, imperfect, contrary individuals out there. There are atheists out there that are genuinely sweet, nice, kind, generous people. There are Christians out there that are loving, considerate, compassionate, and would give you the shirt off their backs. There are atheists out there who are wretched, nasty, judgmental people who actively hate religion so much that they want to see every trace eradicated. And there are Christians out there that are miserable, holier-than-thou hypocrites that try to show how "Godly" they are by looking down on others and shutting them out.

Tolerance doesn't mean that you compromise your own beliefs. But you can't thrust those beliefs on others, nor can you use your beliefs as a way of determining who has the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in our country. Get 20 Christians together and poll their opinions on 20 different issues, and I can guarantee you there will be far from unanimous agreement. And if that's so, then how can you honestly try to legislate Christian behavior into our society?

I think Christianity in our country has severely dropped the ball when it comes to politics and social issues. Rather than approaching society as a compassionate helping hand, too many of its members come across as cold, joyless, dogmatic, reactionary, intolerant, Rethuglican fossils who use the Bible as a crowbar to pry their way into people's private lives instead of as a means of spreading comfort, wisdom, and the good news.

The Bible says "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling'. It does NOT say "work out other people's salvation..." Take care of your own issues, but by all means help out others when asked. Follow Jesus' words and don't judge. You'll be surprised as to who you see in Heaven (and who you don't).

As a for instance, I recently saw a link on Facebook to an article called "Should a Christian get a tattoo?" Seriously? This is a thing? Frankly, I don't think God gives a damn if a Christian has ink, unless it's having "Satan Rules" (or, if the person is uneducated, "Satin Rulez") tattooed on their face. Now, me, I have no use for tattoos. But I also have no use for hunting, guns, smoking, or the Charismatic Christian movement. That doesn't mean I should go looking for Bible verses that somehow validates my tastes and positions, and inflict them on others. Hey, are you Christian who's a gun-toting, tattoo-wearing dude who enjoys going out on Saturdays and vaporizing a random deer every once in a while? Knock yourself out, God bless you. Enjoy. As long as you and God are on the same page. It's not my cup of meat, but it's also none of my business.

So, in other words, love God, love everyone around you, don't be an ass, and mind your own damn business, and let other people work out their own lives, hopefully with God's help. Oh, sure, there may be times when intervention is needed; heck that principle applies to situations that have nothing to do with religion. And if people ask for your help, your advice, your opinions, whatever, then absolutely, by all means you do so without hesitation.

G.K. Chesterton was right: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”  This world needs more Pope Francises, and fewer Pat Robertsons. For that matter, fewer Richard Dawkinses as well.

Yeah, I believe in Jesus. So!?!?
And as for arguing/debating Christianity, I'm through. As Chuck, the youth pastor at Park Street's high school group (and eventually the college-age group) once said: "No one's ever been argued into the Kingdom of God." No one can dissuade me about God's existence, or Jesus' death/resurrection. I've heard every argument, and am not moved. In terms of trying to persuade others, it won't be by arguing or debating. If others can't see God's work in me, then it's my deficiency, not theirs. I refuse to get into the pointless back and forth of religious arguments, especially with the advent of social media, when people who I know in real life, face to face, generally nice people, can become screaming jackasses online. You want me to evangelize and proselytize? No thanks. You want to get together for a few beers and have an earnest discussion about faith? I'm there.

Here's a tip: if you do find yourself getting into an argument about the existence of God, and the doubter says something like "So you believe in some old bearded white guy who lives in the sky and punishes evil?", then stop the argument right there, and walk away. This person is not interested in intelligent discourse; rather, they just want to belittle you and your beliefs by painting them in the most ridiculous manner they can think of.

It's like my wife has said: "Never try to teach a pig to sing; it's a waste of time, and it annoys the pig."

Anyways, I'm done. Frankly, that felt good. It's my sincere wish that I enlightened and/or entertained more people than I pissed off. It'll be interesting to see if there's a drop in my Facebook friends or GooglePlus followings.

Oh, and one last thing. If there's anyone out there who was hurt by any words, actions, or attitudes I expressed back in those days, I am genuinely sorry and embarrassed for any grief I caused. I thought I had my head up in the clouds, communing with the angels; turns out instead I had my head up my ass.

Peace, and God bless.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Top Opening Phrases That Tell You Things Are About To Go Bad

If anyone starts a conversation with any
of these phrases, run as if this guy was
chasing you
This is a quickie blog post. It's something that recently occurred to me. There is a series of phrases used to start a conversation, and by their very nature you just know that the conversation is not going to end well. If you hear any of these, don't walk but run to the nearest exit, preferably with your hands clapped over your ears.

  • We need to talk
  • We have a problem
  • There's something I've been meaning to tell you, but I've only just now worked up the courage
  • Are you sitting down?
  • Okay, before I go on, promise me you won't freak out
  • Okay, before I go on, promise me you won't lose your temper
  • Before I say anything else, I need to establish the fact that I was rather drunk at the time
  • Is our insurance paid up?
  • I've been trying to find the right time and way to tell you this
  • Did you get an extended warranty on the (insert name of expensive electronic device here)?

Photo Credit: Rakesh JV