J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."


August 2016

So, I’m taking a class on the history of California……

……… And I’m also watching The Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp. Yes, it’s a cheesy film, a total throw-back to the B-movies or serials of the Forties and Fifties, only with better special effects.

That is not the point.

The point is, it occurred to me that if you were going to go back in time and alter a key event, if not out-right change it, then it can’t be a wacky scientist and a high school student using a souped-up DeLorean that does it.

You’re going to need an actual team of historians, to monitor the situation after the key event has been altered.

Alter one thing, no matter how small it is, and everything is up for grabs. The variables that led up to the situation are now in chaos and will cause a ripple effect.

That needs monitoring. Which is where that team of historians comes in, to track those radical variables.

And, okay, yes.

You’ll also need that wacky scientist to get you back in time – both to the past and the present.

The high schooler’s just for show.



The Lone Ranger TV Series
Back to the Future
Parallel Worlds

So, I’m watching ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (2010)…..

…..for the umpteenth time. I’ve read the book a number of times, too, over the years. I got a lot out of both. I’m aware that there are those who feel that Elizabeth Gilbert is a privileged woman, so who is she to feel angst or insecure, hurt or depressed? Well, she’s a human being, so she has every right to feel whatever she feels, just like everyone else does.

There are also those who feel that her travels can’t be theirs, whether for financial reasons or other obligations. This is true – her journey isn’t for them to take. They have to take their journey, wherever and however it leads them. No one can walk your path for you, nor can you walk someone else’s path for them. Walk alongside? Sure. We can all use that support, especially on the difficult and most bleakest parts of the path.

But there’s a line or two in the film (which I refer to as the Cliff Notes version of the book, hitting the highlights and keeping the same truth), that resonate with me. Both lines, spoken by men, have to do with love.

This is interesting, because a man broke her heart and it is men who are giving her the message that love is what will heal her.

In India, Richard from Texas speaks first, saying, “Believe in love again.”

How does she do that? How does one believe in love, when one’s heart is hurting, broken, shattered by another? Or grappling with guilt for hurting someone else’s heart? Does she feel that she deserves love, or not?

But in order to know the answer to those questions, before she can believe in love again, she must first love herself, forgive herself, let go and let love. She has to take down those walls she’d built, make peace with her past, and trust that the path she is on will take her where she needs to go as she does her work.

And while in Bali, she truly does find love. What does she do? She runs from it. Why? Because she was being asked to relinquish the control she’d established for herself, to be vulnerable to this man who was risking his vulnerability for her. His openness frightened her, because she wasn’t ready to be that open with him. In her fear, she strikes out at him and wounds him. And she runs away, with his insight echoing in her ears – she is afraid.

Thus, the second man speaking to her about love.

“Sometimes, to lose balance for love is part of living balanced life,” says Ketut Layer, the little wise medicine man in Bali. And she recognizes this truth to her core, and she races to correct her mistake in turning away love.

Love means handing someone your heart, which gives them power over you, and trusting them to not to break you. By trusting someone with your vulnerability, you risk being unbalanced, but if they honor that trust, there is balance.

What if they hurt you? What if they betray that trust?

What if they don’t?


F.L.Y. = First Love Yourself.*


*Something that’s been said to me a number of times over the last few weeks.

So, I think my passion went on hiatus……

…….because I am feeling less and less sure of what I want to do. Or where I want to go. It’s an overwhelming weight on my chest, trying to sort out what to do, let alone even coming close to knowing what to do.

I’m pretty sure this is a rut. Why? Because I still want to write. Writing is what I do best. I love sinking into that world I’ve created, taking on multiple characters and locations and basically playing god (or goddess) to make the story come to life.

I also love painting and drawing and acting and theater. I love being around creative people – they are the most exciting, challenging and invigorating people I know. It’s like being on some kind of drug, except instead of destroying your life and the lives around you, the creative energy enriches you, fulfills you, makes life brighter. You are lifted up, not dragged down. Your brain sizzles with ideas that inspires you.

That rut I mentioned? That’s the low – it’s all those doubts and negative thoughts that tell you to not keep going, to just quit while you’re ahead and go do something practical. To hell with the practical – do the art. The practical is only good for one thing – paying bills, building a nest egg for emergencies or that maybe-someday trip.

The art is what makes life magical. It pushes through that dull, gray rut and into to the sparkle and energizes your heart chakra.

Whether it’s art or photography or acting or writing or any creative style I haven’t mentioned, it’s like being around an electrical surge that won’t stop.

Keep doing that art that makes you happy. Even when it feels like the passion packed up and left.

Which reminds me.

I have a violin that I need to learn to play. I have to learn it, even if I suck at it. I’ve had this dream since I was twelve years old. Or maybe I was six, when I discovered Sherlock Holmes. Just the idea of learning the violin makes me happy.

My violin, waiting patiently.
My violin, waiting patiently.

So, I was reading my favorite Shirley Jackson novel…..

…….the terrifying, subversive ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House, while waiting for a friend at my local wine bar. I was finishing up my dinner and was completely engrossed with Jackson’s prose.

“Hello!” came a voice at my elbow and I jumped with a yell, that immediately turned to giggles from both of us. I love scary stories, but don’t often get spooked by them.

This startled reaction was a first for me, as any and all who know me know that I am a lover of horror and supernatural fiction and non-fiction. It also reminded me of how Robert Wise had a similar action while reading the book.

In the audio commentary of the The Haunting (1963), Wise recounts how he was reading the book in his office. He had just gotten to a particularly tense scene when writer Nelson Gidding (who was working in the office next door) burst into the room. Robert Wise “jumped about three feet off the chair” (1) and realized that if the book could inspire such a reaction, then it should make a fine picture.

True horror doesn’t come from gross out imagery that is shoved into our faces – granted, it makes for a squeamish, shocking effect, but it’s also desensitizing. Horror comes from fear of the unknown, that which hides in the shadows and cannot be fully seen. What we can’t see is far more frightening than what is seen.

Shirley Jackson knew this – in reading The Haunting of Hill House, one is never entirely sure if the house is actually haunted or if it is Eleanor who is the haunting. This ambiguity is what lingers in our minds, why we can’t let go of it and why it haunts us. It’s also why some stories, like Jackson’s novel, take on a life of their own and become part of our language.


(1) quote from the audio commentary by Robert Wise

Recommended Reading:

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
A Head Full of Ghosts – Peter Tremblay
‘Salem’s Lot – Stephen King
Hell House – Richard Matheson
Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

So, Toni Morrison once said that……

…….“The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.” To write or paint or sing what you know is a good starting place, as it gives you the foundation and the tools to work with in order to build upon it. Continuing to create what you already know, however, leaves one feeling stagnant and dissatisfied. There is the sense that there is more to be learned, to be exposed to, in order to grow as an artist, whether of words or paints music.

In order to do that, you have to push beyond what you already know. If you love Shirley Jackson’s surreal prose, seek out a writer on the opposite end of the spectrum. If Monet inspires your canvas, look to Picasso. Find something so completely outside your own life experience, whether it’s in a book or in a museum or in an acting class, and embrace it. Tell that frightened voice that doubt is okay, that fear of the unknown is natural, but to kowtow to fear is what keeps us paralyzed in the same place day after day.

We can only grow through movement, through experience. An actor will inhabit many different people – in order to present them as real, rounded individuals as opposed to caricature, the actor will research her character to the last detail, up to and including language and movement. She will create a backstory for the character, something that only she will know, but the choices she makes informs her performance and provides a rich experience for the audience.

An example of this would be Demi Moore in G.I. Jane (1997). To prepare for her role as Lt. Jordan O’Neill, Moore had to undergo training and dietary changes. On top of that, she was sent to boot camp for two weeks, interacting with real military personnel. Keep in mind this was research and training for her character – this is an extreme example of pushing herself so far outside her comfort zone. But through this work, she created a character that was strong, intelligent, determined to succeed despite the odds stacked against her.

I remember seeing this film in the theater – the cheers from the audience when she challenges the master sergeant during her character’s training convinced me that they had wholly bought into her role, her character and were completely on her side to succeed.

This is really what you have to do in order to succeed – to reach for something that most certainly may exceed your grasp. How many times will you fall? You could fall down ten times, and rise up eleven, fall a hundred times, and rise up at a hundred and one. How you define success after that is entirely up to you.


Editor’s Note – this blog post is published concurrently on Citizens Journal VC 

Recommended Reading:

Beloved by Toni Morrison


Excerpt: Mum’s the Word

Long Beach, CA.
Fall. 1926.

I stood just inside the main door, my heart thudding heavily against my ribs as I surveyed the lobby. Outside, the faint sounds of the crowds enjoying the carnival-like amusements of the Pike wafted in just below my range of hearing, cutting out when the main door going to the street shut behind me with a firm thud. I jumped, gasping, nervous, then resumed examining my surroundings more closely.

The lobby was shabby and the building itself had been without heat for months. I stared at the row of phone booths on the far side, searching for and finding the last one. There, I would pick up the receiver and speak into it. I wouldn’t need to drop in a coin or dial for the Operator. The person on the other end would know who I was, why I was here.

My name is Mildred Falls, Millie for short, and I had quite literally stumbled onto this place and my new job. Nervous, I swallowed, took a deep breath, then crossed the lobby’s distance and found myself ensconced in the tiny booth. I picked up the receiver, staring at the rotary dial, shivering. My nipples prickled against the satin dress I wore, its fringed hem falling just below my knees under my long coat.

I wore no brassiere, no corset and the barest of underthings. According to my new ‘employer’, such items were not part of the dress code; indeed, it was intimated quite the opposite. Despite the necessity, despite my skills as a typist, I resented that the only work I could pick up was here, in a speakeasy, as a kind of…..of…..hostess. I thought briefly of my younger siblings, at home with a full meal for a change, and shrugged. It was what it was and I either accepted it or sought other employment.

I resisted the urge to adjust my clothing – it would only increase the sensation and I was already highly aware of how the fabric felt against my skin. I was not used to being so acutely sensitive to what I wore. The garters I had on were too small and dug into my hips and thighs, but they did what they were supposed to do – hold up my very poor stockings. I was grateful that the few holes they did have were hidden by my shoes.

It’s scandalous, I thought, grumbling under my breath, the way girls dress these days.

I sighed. At twenty-nine, I wasn’t much older than those girls, who probably would have seized any chance to take the job I needed and now held. Given the loss of my job in a steno-pool the month before, I didn’t see as how I had much choice in the matter.  I had three younger siblings needed to be supported in some way and, given the uncertain state of the economy, a job was a job.

I could not afford to be choosy.


The Horse Tree

A fierce wind sweeps through the tree,
Stirring branches with restless ease,
Leaves dancing wildly, playing
In coltish movement.
A low creak emanates from the depth of the tree,
As its massive trunk shifts with the wind,
Its uneven fork listing from side to side.

The stallion leaps forward,
Snorting loudly, ears flicking back and forth,
Tasting the wind,
Its coal black coat glistening in the sun.
Tossing his head, elegant and proud,
He trots,
Light as air,
Yet controlled, deliberate.

He spies his shadow –
It grows long, then short
As the breeze dances along the tall grass.
Striking out a foreleg,
He kicks up dirt,
Shrills out his challenge in a long, piercing note.

It hangs in the air, then fades to an echo.
Whirling to face the sun,
The stallion bolts,
His silky mane streaming out behind him,
His long thick tail a banner in the wind.
His strides come
His freedom.

He revels in the wind
That caresses his skin,
His heart swells with joy
And he turns his muzzle to the sky.
Glorying in the beauty of the day,
He heralds his presence to the world,
His pace slowing to a mile-eating trot.
He half-rears, snorting, blowing furiously,
Sees the distance he has come,
And the distance he yearns to fly.

He hesitates,
The fields’ grasses and wild flowers
Beckoning him forward,
Teasing him, whispering to him
To come, play with them, forget the time passing by.

Shaking his head, he nickers, deep in his throat,
Wanting to play,
Wanting to stay,
Wanting to forget that time passes.
He looks again at the sky,
Turns his nose to the wind,
Scenting the air,
And knows that his time grows short.
For the hot yellow of the sun begins
To smolder into burnt orange,
Shadows into bruised purples as daylight fades.

Head and tail high, he dances forward.
One step
Two steps
Three steps.
On the fourth, he rears to his full height,
Screams his dominance,
Then whirls, gallops back to where he had come,
Knowing full well,
That he will return.

His limbs grow heavy,
Thick, as if he had traveled thousands of miles
Instead of a paltry few.
Nostrils swelling as he sucks in air,
The stallion put forth a final burst of speed,
Sweat marking his haunches with the effort it took.
Nearing his starting point,
He whistled his triumph,
Having bought his freedom
For one more day.
He slides to a halt, scattering dirt and pebbles,

Rears high, reaching to touch the sky,
Twisting his body,
His coat begins to harden into rough grooves,
Joining his hind legs,
Growing solidly one with the earth,
Thickening into a single part,
Becoming the trunk.

His forelegs branch out,
Supporting smaller branches,
Bearing leaves.
He throws his head back,
In an eternal cry,
Which the wind will carry
For all time, past and present,
And into the future
As he stands, frozen,
Caught forever in the guise of a tree.


Running horse.
Running horse.

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