A Killer Named Tom

The selfie Tom sent me. I was sitting in the airport when I got this and I jumped. I JUMPED, YOU GUYS. And that's the character I wrote! And the man I know! Still scared me.

In 2010, I wrote a blog post called A Killer Named Skinny. Long story short, my first novel, Truth Be Told, featured a serial killer named Paul. I’d written Paul mostly out of the ether, only very vaguely based on a couple of people I knew. In terms of voice, appearance, etc. he was created out of whole cloth. When my friend Axel Gimenez and I went to film a book trailer for that novel, my friend Dan Dinger introduced me to his buddy Drue Yates, aka Skinny. It was a profoundly bizarre experience – much like a Stephen King novel, it felt as though the author had given life to the creation. Skinny WAS Paul. Voice, appearance, charming personality – the whole bit. It FREAKED ME OUT, YOU GUYS. Ultimately, Skinny became a dear friend of mine, and to my knowledge, he’s never murdered anybody.

Fast forward to January 2013. I’d written my third novel, Ruthless, and was in the process of my first revision. Only, it wasn’t so much a revision as it was an addition. I was adding on to the antagonist, dubbed Wolfman by the protagonist. Getting to the bottom of Wolfman’s psychology was an arduous process, to put it mildly. At the end of January, I started doing stand-up comedy. I began with an open mic in Greenville, SC. A group of guys who called themselves No Expectations Comedy ran the show. Charlie Grey was immediately welcoming, as was Michael Robinette and Craig Holcombe. Jason Farr was polite. And then there was Tom Emmons.

Tom Emmons was not warm or welcoming or polite. He was the opposite of all of those things. In fact, my first reaction to Tom Emmons was precisely the same as my first reaction to Peter Exline. Which, in retrospect, made perfect sense, because I know of few people who are more similar than Tom and Peter. Wildly different in some ways, but remarkably similar at the core. However, where I warmed up to Peter almost immediately, I decided to steer clear of Tom indefinitely. Especially because, much like Skinny, Tom FREAKED ME OUT. Why? Because he WAS Wolfman. I couldn’t believe it had happened twice, but it had. Tom was so eerily akin to Wolfman, I wanted to verify that he had existed prior to my writing of Ruthless.

So, I wound up spending two and a half months staring at Tom and thinking, “I want to make my book into an independent feature film and have THAT guy star in it.” I had never had a conversation with him, but I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he could play the role magnificently. Eventually, Tom and I became friends, and he became my stand-up comedy mentor. (Sort of. I think at this point he’s given up hope I’ll ever write a punchline.) Around that time, I’d made my additions to Ruthless but really no revisions of any significance. I didn’t know where to go with the novel from there and abandoned it. When Tom learned I was a writer, he asked to read what I was working on. By that point, Ruthless had been abandoned for at least a couple of months, but I sent it to him, thinking it wasn’t likely he’d much care for it.

He loved it. You want to know how I knew he loved it? In one reading, he’d memorized all of Wolfman’s dialogue and called me IN CHARACTER.

Which I thought was the greatest thing ever. This is why Tom and I are friends. Because I write creepy things and then Tom goes and makes them creepier, and I’m like, “Dude, I am wicked impressed right now. I thought that was at maximum creepy, but you really bumped it up a notch.”

I asked him what I should change and he encouraged me to go ahead and send it out to agents. So, I did.

The interior of Wolfman's cabin and the other pic Tom sent me while I was stuck in the airport.

And then came a long wait. I thought about making a book trailer again and talked to my filmmaker friend Jeff Martell about it. I mentioned Tom, who Jeff knew as a stand-up comic. He said that he could see it, and that we’d just know that Tom would need some takes to nail it, given he was a comic, not an actor. I was like, “No, dude. You don’t understand. He IS Wolfman.” (In case you’re wondering, I do say “dude” just as frequently as you’d imagine, given this blog post.)

Tom and Jeff and I wound up working on another project altogether, one oriented in the comedy world, and the briefly mentioned book trailer never materialized.

Time passed, I got an agent, the super awesome Mandy Hubbard, and she promptly sold it to Simon & Schuster. Months went by and it came time to start promoting Ruthless. And then boom – it occurred to me – WE COULD STILL DO THE BOOK TRAILER! The first time around, I used my book trailer to land an agent. This time around, I could use it for the purpose God intended – to sell books! How exciting! I got permission from Simon & Schuster to film my own book trailer, cast my niece Alyssa Duwe as Ruth, called Jeff, who then recruited John-Paul Newtown as Director of Photography and we were good to go.

And we were good to go, because we already had the perfect location – on Tom’s property. Wolfman’s cabin is probably the third most important character in the book. As it so happened, Tom has the perfect replica sitting on his 40 acres, just a few yards from his house. Again, just for emphasis, Tom Emmons IS Wolfman.

While I was caught up in travel problems in New York City, Tom cleared out a room in his cabin and did an amazing job of dressing the set. He then consulted with me about Wolfman’s look, and put together the perfect wardrobe. I appreciated all of this a lot, especially as I was supposed to help with the effort. Instead, I sat in an airport and received amazing still photos of what Tom had created in my absence. As always, I’d come up with something creepy, and he’d bumped it up a notch.

The day of the shoot arrived and everything came together beautifully. I had no doubt Tom would deliver, and he did – in spades. I was a little worried he’d act Alyssa off the stage, but she wonderfully held her own. Tom has a huge force of personality, so it was no small thing for a 14 year old to go toe-to-toe with him. As always, Jeff was the consummate professional, and John-Paul did an awesome job capturing the scene.

For me, the greatest moment of the day was during Tom’s first full take. He’d perfectly found Wolfman’s voice – the inflection, delivery, the sadistic joy and angry remorse – and as he went through his lines the space filling the cabin got quieter and quieter, as Alyssa, Jeff, and John-Paul and I absorbed the performance. It was awesome. Not only because of what was happening in the present, but because it was exactly as I knew it would be, back when I first stared at Tom in January of 2013 and thought, “I want to make my book into an independent feature film and have THAT guy star in it.” I still think that, by the way. In my not-so-humble opinion, there’s nobody who could it better than Tom Emmons.

Of Hope and Horses, Part II, or, The Story of Battle Damage He-Man

California Chrome at Churchill Downs before the 140th Kentucky Derby. He is a very happy horse.

So, California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby. From 1979 (Spectacular Bid) until 2000 (Fusaichi Pegasus) no favorite won the Derby, so it still feels a little miraculous to me. It shouldn’t, given that Smarty Jones, Street Sense, and Orb all won as the favorite recently. Barbaro was a close second favorite in the betting, so he almost counts, too.

The last time I wanted a horse to win the Derby with all my heart was Smarty Jones. I’ll never forget rooting him down the stretch with my sister Becky. It was a glorious. It was also 2004 and I was in a different phase of life. I’d just moved to South Carolina, gotten married, was unemployed. Life wasn’t easy, it was a big shift from LA, but I had a lot of hopes and dreams.

Here is the part of the blog post where I compare a horse to Jesus Christ. (Seriously. This is about to happen.)

When I first saw California Chrome, I believed. Like the Apostles who saw the burial cloths and no body. That part of the resurrection story has always baffled me. I always think, “I’m pretty sure if I saw the burial cloths and a missing body, I’d believe somebody stole the body.” But back to the horse. I saw him and I believed. Even though he’s just a horse, there is a religious aspect to this experience. Watching him run in one race, I could not know that he would hold his form, that he’d overcome the monster challenge of the Derby, that he was sound, that he would run well outside of California. I could not know any of these things. I could not have certainty. Instead, I had faith that this would be so. The last time I had such an experience was when I saw Rachel Alexandra’s first race.

Rachel, even more than Smarty, was a horse who carried my hopes and dreams with every race she ran. That year I’d written a novel, found an agent, and I was filled to the brim with excitement for the future. I poured a lot of that energy into Rachel. I’d be practically vibrating with anxiety as they loaded her into the gate, I wanted her to win so badly. She never let me down in 2009. She ran a perfect season and won Horse of the Year.

California Chrome was different. Even though I saw and believed, as the Derby got closer I listened to reports that he wasn’t settling well, that his gallops weren’t strong at Churchill Downs. Later, after the Derby, I saw some video of his first day at Churchill and those negative reports were greatly exaggerated. He walked off the track with a beautifully relaxed, swinging walk, and if the walk is swinging, then everything’s good.

Maybe if I’d seen footage, instead of just reading about his time at Churchill, I wouldn’t have lost faith in the horse. But I did. Or rather, I transferred my hopes onto my sister’s account. My sister Becky boldly predicted he’d win by open lengths. She never lost hope or her enthusiasm. So I took to thinking, “I hope he wins for Becky.” I wanted her faith to be rewarded.

Perhaps the most admirable thing about my sister, and certainly her most magical quality, is her capacity for hope. She’s experienced challenges in life, like everybody else on earth, but unlike a lot of people, unlike myself, she can still throw her heart into something without reservation. I wish I was like that, too.

A few months ago, I was out with a couple of comedy friends, including a fellow named Camilo Potes. Camilo was 23 at the time, so it seemed reasonable to ask him what his hopes and dreams were for the future. He said he wanted to be a comedy writer, which didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was when he asked me the same question. I demurred, not wanting to answer. He kept asking, saying, “You’re one of the most ambitious people I know, surely you have hopes and dreams.” Little did my good buddy Camilo know, I was about a half a second away from losing it. My hope and dream bank is pretty empty these days.

It seems strange, even to me. In this last year, my wildest hopes and dreams from 2009 came true. I’ve had a great time doing stand-up. I’m working on about a million projects that I enjoy immensely. I have more freedom in my day-to-day life than anybody else I know and I enjoy that freedom A LOT. I like living alone A LOT. I am blessed with a bevy of wonderful friends and a great family. But my life is a life lived firmly in the present. I do not think about the future. AT ALL. I do not fantasize about things I hope will happen. I do not imagine what my life might look like tomorrow, let alone years down the road.


Battle Damage He-Man. Three levels of damage, one action figure!

When I was a kid, I loved He-Man. I had a huge He-Man collection, including Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain. (Again, God bless my parents for letting me be me.) The one thing I didn’t have was the real He-Man. You couldn’t find the original version at toy stories. Instead, I had Battle Damage He-Man. He wore a breastplate and if you turned his arm dents would appear. More and more dents for every turn of the arm. I loved my He-Man figures so much, but I didn’t like Battle Damage He-Man. I wanted clean, pristine, undamaged iconic He-Man.

So, here’s the thing. I’ve written a lot about my divorce on this blog, largely in positive terms. Certainly, my life post-divorce is much better than it was pre-divorce. Evan and I have gone through this process as kindly as possible. We are still friends, and without a doubt, living in honesty is a million times better than living in the anxiety of falsehood.
But divorce – and perhaps more specifically still, all that leads up to divorce – constitutes a lot of turns of the arm, to use the parlance of Battle Damage He-Man. I have a lot of dents, my friends, a lot of dents. But it’s okay. You all do, too. We all have dents. Lots and lots of dents.

That said, I do think it’s hard for a lot of people to wrap their mind around. I do not think I appear particularly dented and there are a lot of ways in which I’m doing great. I mean, hey, just check out my Facebook wall. Nothing but glorious victories, you guys. But that is Facebook. And this is my blog, where ish gets real and the reality is far more complex.

I believe the problem is not the dents themselves, but rather, the temptation to believe that the dents disqualify us from that which we most need. They do not. I know the people who read this blog. I know you to be beautiful people who both love and are worthy of being loved. Just as you are. Dents and all.

Your Handy Dandy Guide to the 140th Kentucky Derby

Wildcat Red is in the yellow bridle. He's super serious, super feisty, and super intense. He likes to fight and win. I adore him.

For me, there’s really only one horse in the race – California Chrome. I wrote about him already, at the end of this blog post. I am rooting for him wholeheartedly and he is beyond a doubt the most talented horse in the race.

That said, Art Sherman did that thing that a lot of trainers do and that drives me crazy – he shipped in late. Chrome will not work over the Churchill Downs surface and he won’t get a chance to feel at home for the big race. As it stands, he’s been anxious in the empty paddock and when he gallops down the long stretch, he’s turning his head to look at the empty stands. He’s going to have a lot more to look at when there are 100,000 people in there. So, that’s disappointing. Or maybe Art knows exactly what he’s doing and the colt will win the race by daylight.

Even if he’s prepared the horse perfectly, a million things can go wrong in a 19 horse field. And heck – they’re not in the starting gate yet. Hoppertunity, the second choice, scratched today with a foot bruise. Which is for the best. No horse named Hoppertunity should win the Derby.

Here’s the thing about this Derby. It’s always a hard race to handicap. This time around, it’s an impossible race to handicap. The majority of the field are horses that want to race on or near the lead. This is going to be a jockeys race like none other. So, you might as well throw a dart or pull a number out of a hat, because handicapping this bad boy is nearly pointless. That said, here are some that stand out for me.

CANDY BOY: The forgotten horse. He wasn’t fit enough for the Santa Anita Derby and ran like a short horse. He’s fit now, though, and was shipped in early to Churchill Downs, where he is thriving. Very talented, could jump up and take this.

Rajiv loves Wicked Strong. <3

WILDCAT RED: I love this tenacious little fighter! He is bred to sprint and somehow has managed to keep on winning or running a super close second. He has a huge heart to outrun his pedigree. 1 1/4 miles is probably asking way too much, but I’ll be rooting for this underdog!

WICKED STRONG: He looks the part and he’s one of the only horses in the field who comes from out of it. Traffic should go his way. On a sentimental note, I was a big fan very early in his career, so it’s nice to see my belief in him come to fruition. Jimmy Jerkens is a classy trainer and it would be neat to see him win and Rajiv Maragh, his jockey, LOVES this horse. It’s definitely a team you can root for.

DANZA: So this is an interesting prospect. Came out of nowhere to destroy the Arkansas Derby, training lights out in Louisville, looks the part, has a lot of the pieces of the puzzle (breeding, training, etc.) The question is – was his race at Oaklawn a fluke, or is he the real deal? Time will tell. Would not be at all surprised to see him win it.

INTENSE HOLIDAY: I feel obligated to mention him. I’m not into this horse at all, but everybody has been going on about how wonderfully he’s training. So, yeah. The experts say he’s super great. Blah.

MEDAL COUNT: Dale Romans, his trainer, talks as though this horse is an undercover magical unicorn. Romans doesn’t tout horses unless they’re good, and I believe this guy will have a great career, I just think the Derby may be coming at the wrong time and on the wrong surface. (He doesn’t seem to love

The handsome - and very meaty - Medal Count. He kind of reminds me of a tall Seabiscuit, who was also a meaty horse.

dirt.) He’s an interesting looking fellow, though. A son of the late great Dynaformer, Medal Count is a BIG boy who carries a lot of weight. Not the usual body type for a distance horse, but he’s bred to run to China and back and not take a deep breath.

Ultimately, this is California Chrome’s race to lose and I really struggle to care about the rest of the field. (Except adorable Wildcat Red. I do love that feisty fellow.) I hope Art Sherman’s ship-in-late plan pays dividends. If Chrome fails, it won’t be because he isn’t the best horse in the race. It will be because of a terrible trip (which will either be nobody’s fault or his jockey Victor Espinoza’s fault) or it will be because he becomes anxious and burns all of his energy up before the race. If that happens, the responsibility will fall solely upon his trainer.


Today is Saturday. Specifically, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.

I had no appreciation for this date until I started going to The Good Shepherd, where a huge emphasis was placed on the Easter Vigil. It was drilled into my head that Easter Vigil was far more important than Easter Mass, an idea I accepted unquestioningly. The Good Shepherd is in Beverly Hills. There’s a lot of money there, and at Easter the entire sanctuary would be festooned in flowers. It looked like something out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and smelled like heaven. I had mixed feelings about this – it felt like a waste of resources, but at the same time – it was so lovely, and so lovely to experience, it was hard to resent it too much. Easter Vigil was a dark, quiet affair, lasting until midnight. There was a lot I liked about the service. It wasn’t comfortable. It wasn’t meant to be comfortable. It was long. It required patience and reflection. At the very end, we each received a lit candle – a reward for our long, dark wait. Those little lights in the vast darkness felt like hope. And so they were – a flickering promise of Easter morning.

Here’s the thing.

So many of us spend our life living this Saturday wait.

There are our Good Fridays – days where we experience trauma and loss – and then there are our Easter mornings – days of celebration, days where our impossible hopes are made real in the world. But for many of us, our lives are spent in Saturday, coping with the fallout from Good Friday, never reaching Easter morning.

Personally, I believe we reach Easter morning by surrendering to God’s plan for us, whatever that might be. By going with the current of His will, instead of swimming against it with our own plans. Very often, what God wants for us is to be bigger, braver, bolder than what we are. We swim against the current by making ourselves smaller, by surrendering to fear, by not having faith in the idea that we were all wonderfully made. One of my favorite verses is in Matthew: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Here’s the other thing.

I have spent a lot of my life living the Saturday wait. I don’t have life figured out – not by a long shot – but I will say I’m not waiting anymore. The difference is profound. To be fair, it would be massively hypocritical for me to claim any credit for the change. The turning points in my life were wholly outside of my control (my divorce, the sell of my book), and even though I recognized those turning points as opportunities, I still struggle to embrace the freedom I have to live my life fully realized. Nobody understood this curious desire to succumb to the darkness of the Saturday wait better than Dostoyevsky, who wrote, “Man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that great gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born.” What can I say? Change is hard. Tossing aside our crutches is hard. Keeping the faith is hard. It’s hard work to live as our authentic selves. But it’s worth it to be brave, let go, and let God.

Happy Easter and peace be with all of you.

Of Hope and Horses

The photo that started it all. Rachel Alexandra in the Martha Washington Stakes.

In 2009, I saw a photo of a horse. Her name was Rachel Alexandra. She was beautiful and had unusual markings, but that wasn’t what caught my eye. What made me take notice was the explosive energy contained in the photo. Rachel’s stride was so powerful, her entire forehand was launched into the air, almost as if she was rearing. That sometimes happens in the first quarter of a race. What made this so remarkable is that the photo was snapped as Rachel turned for home, when most horses are tiring. I instantly thought something, conjured up a word that I’ve never thought before or since – Secretariat. I watched the race that the still photo was taken from. I got goosebumps. Here is the Martha Washington Stakes.

Comparing a horse to Secretariat is the kiss of death. There will never be another one like him. Certainly Rachel wasn’t. She was, in my humble opinion, something even better – she was Rachel Alexandra. Not possessed of the same superpowers as Big Red, perhaps, but possessed of superpowers all her own. The great sportswriter Bill Nack once said of Secretariat, “We expected so much from him, and then he exceeded our expectations.”

That quote has lived with me in a powerful way. Firstly, it is the perfect summation of Secretariat, who became a superstar in 1973, something pure and decent that a cynical and embittered nation, dealing with Nixon, could hang their hat upon. The country expected so much of him, and then he delivered the 1973 Belmont, a supernatural performance. Secondarily, that quote sums up something important about life. How often does it happen that we allow ourselves to hope as big as we can imagine, and then reality replies, “No, dream bigger.”

A good friend of mine, who we horsey folk call Wooster, is my comrade-in-arms in horse racing fandom. Together, we rooted on Smarty Jones, at every turn saying, “Of course, because I love him, he will inevitably break my heart.” Which he did. Smarty’s Belmont was the most heartbreaking loss I’ve ever seen. But that was after taking us on an improbable fairy tale ride through the Triple Crown season.

Secretariat. There will never be another stride like that one.

I loved Smarty Jones and jumped on the bandwagon fairly quickly, but all the way I had my doubts. I was hopeful, but not fully committed to the cause. I worried about his ability to get the distance, his ability to settle, etc.

The moment I saw that still photo of Rachel, I was a believer. She made me hope as big as I could hope – but the reality was, I needed to dream even bigger. I came to expect so much from her, and then she exceeded my expectations. She was my own Secretariat.

Throughout 2009, Rachel was unbeaten. Some of her races took tremendous heart – she did not like the surface at Pimlico, had to go fast early, but still won the Preakness Stakes, becoming the first filly to do so since 1924. Her final race of the year, the Woodward, against older males, was no fun for me to watch. It took everything she had to win that race. Afterwards, she was exhausted, leg weary. She had made history in that race – no three year old filly had ever beaten older males in top competition in New York – but it broke her. During her time off between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, I started to hear rather terrifying reports of how her new trainer Steve Asmussen was handling her. Basically, she was just on stall rest. For months. Not injured. But they were so paranoid something would happen to her, she got no turn out. A hard horse to handle in the best of times, she was hand walked drugged out of mind on ACE. I stopped hoping for more miracles out of Rachel. Not because the horse was any less miraculous, but because her owner, Jess Jackson, was a crazy person and her trainer, Steve Asmussen, is the worst. Always has been, always will be. If Jess Jackson had kept her with her original trainer, the not-at-all-famous but genuinely great horseman Hal Wiggins, I have no doubt Rachel would have put together two sterling seasons. Wow. That was 2009, and I’m still angry.

I’m going to keep ranting, though. Her original owner, Dolphus Morrison, sold her the day she won the Kentucky Oaks. Here’s something I’ll never understand. You’re an old, rich man. Your horse does this, WINNING THE OAKS BY 21 LENGTHS, and then crazy person Jess Jackson comes up and says, “Hey, rich old man. Do you want more millions of dollars? I’d like the horse you named after your granddaughter.” And Dolphus apparently said, “You know what, with those millions of dollars, I bet I could buy an amazing life experience! Maybe I could buy an incredible racehorse or something like that.” If you’re already a millionaire and you’re not that long for the world, why do you need MORE money? What could you possibly buy that’s better than what you already have? Also, if you want to give it to your grandkids, here’s a tip – they can make their own cash and the most important thing you can pass on is the idea that there are things more valuable than money.

You know who knows that lesson? The owners of California Chrome, this year’s favorite for the Kentucky Derby. They’ve already turned down $6 million for him. They’re not rich people. They’re working class folks who bought a cheap mare, bred her to a cheap stallion, and BOOM! their first horse ever – California Chrome. The name of their racing stable is DAP Racing, which stands for Dumb Ass Partners. Apparently, the groom who took care of the cheap mare told them, “Anyone who buys this mare is a dumb ass.” They decided she needed to be with some people who would appreciate her. The mare, Love the Chase, has richly rewarded their good faith.

California Chrome pricks his ears forward as he wins a race. A sign of a smart horse who loves his job.

Two days before Love the Chase had her foal, her owner had a dream that she would have a coppery chestnut colt with a ton of white markings. Lots of white is referred to as “chrome” in the horse world, so the man came up with the name, “California Chrome” before the colt was even born. When he was still very young, they wrote to Art Sherman, a 77 year old veteran trainer and said, “We have your Derby horse.” Art thought their enthusiasm was adorable in a sarcastic sort of way, but was still willing to take their money. As it turns out, the Dumb Ass Partners knew what they were talking about. They always believed in Junior, as they call him.

The first time I saw California Chrome was much like the first time I saw Rachel. I watched him run and it was an unqualified yes. Yes, this horse was special. Yes, he could get a distance. Yes, he had the mind, the athleticism, and the heart. It’s so, so rare for all of these things to come together. I’ve been following horse racing my entire life and those special horses don’t even take up one hand.

When he first appeared on the scene, Wooster and I compared notes. We had both fallen in love with California Chrome. We agreed that this would inevitably lead to disappointment, because that’s what we always say.

Here’s the thing about great horses – they force you to hope anyway. Even jaded ol’ racetrackers like Wooster and myself, who have been let down a million times over. They force you to hope, to dream big. Once in a blue moon, they come back and say, “You’re not dreaming big enough.” That’s what California Chrome said in the Santa Anita Derby, where I expected him to regress after destroying four races in a row. Instead of regressing, he did this.

This June I will be at the Belmont Stakes with my family. It’s the first time any of us have ever been to a Triple Crown race. We bought tickets before I had ever watched California Chrome race. The Kentucky Derby hasn’t even been run yet, but this horse is making me hope anyway. Sometimes, as with Rachel’s perfect season, what is inevitable is a dream come true.


For no real reason, I want to share some pictures of Secretariat’s stride. Because it is freakish and supernatural and mind blowing. All of these pics are from the Preakness, where he set yet another new record, but the clock malfunctioned and he didn’t get credit for it.