290 posts categorized "Me Gassing on About Stuff"

My Crumby Blog

Welcome to my final blog post here at www.stevehockensmith.com. Fittingly, I find that I don't have much to say as I depart the wonderful world of blogging. Partially that's because I already ran through all the whats, whys and wherefores over on the SleuthSayer website, where I used to be (until last week) a regular contributor. The gist of that post: I've been blogging for 13 years, and 13 years is plenty for me. More than plenty. Too much, even. So it's time to stop.

Oh, wait! I just remembered! I do have something to say today.

The White Magic Five and Dime ebook cover 240 pixThe White Magic Five and Dime, the tarot-themed mystery I wrote with my buddy Lisa Falco, is once again available as an ebook. It has a spiffy new cover and everything. So, you know...buy it, if you're so inclined.

If you haven't figured it out already, "Buy it, if you're so inclined" was the general message of all my blog posts, even when I was writing about the weird-ass art I found in a rental home or feeling bad for people who make lame movies. All these blog posts over the years -- they've been bread crumbs in the forest. A trail meant to lead you to a BUY button. Cuz...that's what professional writers do? I guess...? It made some kind of sense when I started. Not so much now.

Blogging is best left to folks with a burning desire to share their thoughts, dreams and dog treat recipes. I have thoughts and dreams, but I'm not convinced anyone other than my wife wants to hear them. As for dog treat recipes -- well, don't tell my veterinarian, but isn't that what leftovers are for?

Let's just say, hypothetically, that you do want to hear my hopes and dreams. Or even that you want to hear "Buy my new book, if you're so inclined." No prob! You'll be able to hear it here. I'll still post updates on a News page when there's something to say. And I'll still be sending out my newsletter and posting random nonsense on Facebook and Twitter, too. So, you know...I'll be around.

This website's about to change, though. Sometime in the next few weeks the current incarnation will disappear in a puff of cyber-smoke, and a new website will take its place. A website without a blog. So peruse the ol' blog vault while you can -- and thanks for following the crumbs.

The Human Adventure does not involve blogging

Man of the West

I love a good ska song. Unfortunately, good ska can be a bit like a good man or a cop when you need one: hard to find. Sturgeon's Law -- which tells us that 90% of everything is crap -- doesn't go far enough for ska. Here's Hockensmith's Amendment to Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap except for ska (which is 99% crap), reality TV (which is 100% crap) and the Star Wars prequels (which are crap to infinity). 

Pick it up pick it upSka, for those of you who didn't grow up listening to not-particulary-popular New Wave/alternative sub-genres of the late '70s and mid-'90s, is the peppy Jamaican precursor to reggae that was appropriated by white kids who weren't angry enough to be punks. It's a deceptively simple style -- it creates a bouncy dance rhythm by emphasizing every upbeat -- which probably explains its appeal to teenagers forming their first garage band. Learn a couple chords and you're halfway to writing your first ska song. The other half: whipping up lyrics that remind the listener that he or she is hearing ska and hence should be "skanking." ("Feel that beat/move your feet/take a chance/get up and dance," etc.)

Clever songwriters -- Chris Murray, Dan Potthast, Tim Armstrong and the guys in Madness and Johnny Socko come to mind -- are able to pull off the neat trick pretentious critics sometimes ascribe to genre authors they wish to pat on the head. They "transcend the genre." Most ska bands can't, alas. They give you the un-cha-un-cha beat and maybe some horns and a lot of "take a chance/get up and dance" lyrics, and that's it. They lack the talent and creativity to offer more...or even just pull off the straight-up-the-middle approach well.

I love a good Western, too, but the genre's got a ska problem. Which isn't to say there are too many Westerns about skanking cowpokes. (As a matter of fact, I can point to at least one album that proves ska and Westerns are two great tastes that taste great together.) Rightly or wrongly, ska is easy for snobs to dismiss because so much of it follows a simple formula, and Westerns are the same way. Good guy + bad guy + horses + hats = Western, some assume.

ShakyOf course, there's nothing wrong with a formula -- just like there's nothing wrong with a ska beat -- if it's used with skill. I can think of a hundred books and movies that follow the "good guy + bad guy + hats + horses" equation and add up to great entertainment. Unfortunately, one could point to a million that are completely forgettable. I'm not sure if the percentage of good to shaky (or downright crappy) is as low as it is for ska, but Sturgeon's Law most definitely applies.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what I'm going to write next, and a Western...I'm tempted, despite all the misfires. Westerns can be a ton of fun, done right. The "Holmes on the Range" books are obviously Westerns of a sort, though I've always thought of them as historical mysteries first and foremost. What would it be like to double-down on the horses and hats? 

So I've been reading and watching a lot of Westerns, and I've noticed something. My tastes have shifted since I wrote about the genre a few years ago. Two of the Western films I put on my top 10 list back then -- The Searchers and Rio Bravo -- wouldn't even make my top 20 now. And a couple that were M.I.A. before -- The Big Country and Shane -- are now near the top.

Put up your DukeHave I soured on John Wayne? Nope, despite the recent kerfuffle about his less-than-enlightened views on race, sexuality and politics. I simply decided that I don't dig Rio Bravo as much as I used to, and the elements in The Searchers that I always found problematic bother me a bit more now. I'd never have asked the guy to fill out a ballot for me, but I can still enjoy the heck out of a John Wayne popcorn adventure like The War Wagon or The Train Robbers

The Big Country and Shane, meanwhile, grew on me thanks to their more nuanced, thoughtful approach to violence. I'm an old-ish man in a sad old world, so I have a new appreciation for a Western that can be both old school entertaining and grown-up about killing. It makes me want to give High Noon another try. I used to think it was dull. Maybe it's just adult.

Am I going to write a Western of my own? A Western-Western, I mean, without all the "deducifying" stuff in my mysteries? I don't know. If I do, I hope it's got more going for it than "feel that beat/move your feet." In the meantime, I'm going to keep exploring -- and enjoying -- the genre. Finding a great Western, like finding a great ska song, might seem like a long shot sometimes, but it's one I'm willing to keep taking for the sheer joy of the occasional bull's-eye.

My Fave Western Movies, 2019 Revised Edition

(1) Little Big Man
(2) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
(3) The Big Country
(4) For a Few Dollars More
(5) Dances with Wolves
(6) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
(7) Shane
(8) Unforgiven 
(9) A Fistful of Dollars
(10) True Grit (2010)
(11) Stagecoach
(12) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
(13) The Tall T
(14) Man of the West
(15) The Wild Bunch
(16) Fin de siecle John Wayne (True Grit, The Cowboys, The Shootist)
(17) The Naked Spur
(18) Ride Lonesome
(19) Red River 
(20) Meat-and-potatoes late period John Wayne (The Sons of Katie Elder, Big Jake, The Train Robbers)

Honorable mention: Winchester '73, The Man from Laramie, Firecreek, The GunfighterHombre, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Fort Apache, Day of the Outlaw, Death Rides a Horse, Last Train from Gun Hill, Hour of the Gun, Support Your Local Sheriff, Warlock, The Great Silence, The Professionals, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Ox-Bow Incident

More Talk, Less Hock, Audiobook Edition: John McLain

John 2aOnce in a blue moon — or really it's so infrequent it's more like a plaid one — I like to swing the spotlight away from myself here and do a Q&A. This seemed like a good time for it because I already had some Q's lined up for my partner in an exciting new venture: John McLain, narrator of the just-released Double-A Western Detective Agency audiobook. (The audiobook can be found here on Amazon, BTW. You can also listen to it via Audible. Click here if you want to give Audible a try but haven't signed up for it yet.)

John did a great job bringing Big Red and Old Red to life. (If you don't believe me, scroll down to the end of this post to hear a preview.) How'd he get into the narrating game? And what's his secret for reading 75,000-ish words out loud in, like, 30 different voices without losing his danged mind? Read on for the A's.... 

Me: How did you get started as an audiobook narrator? 

John: Well, I spent most of my early career in radio broadcasting as a personality and producer, back in the day when it was really personality-driven. It was a wonderful creative endeavor, and it always felt very, very natural to me. But after 15 years or so, radio started becoming more scripted — more plastic if you will — and it just wasn’t very satisfying anymore. So I began seeking something new. It was then that I discovered the musical theatre. I was in love, but I needed to find a way to make a living. So I began to study voice acting, thinking that I would land in the commercial voiceover world — but then a chance meeting with the legendary Patrick Fraley led to my discovery of audiobooks. Here at last was a medium where I could use my production skills, as well as my newfound love of acting. It’s like doing a play, only I get to play every role! So I studied with Pat, took my fresh demo to New York, and the rest is history. Two-hundred titles later, I probably love it even more now than I did when I first began.

Me: You've narrated all kinds of books. Looking over your audiobook credits I see mysteries, thrillers, horror and non-fiction. And a lot of Westerns! Was that a genre you wanted to get into from the beginning? Or did you just kind of drift into it because, as a narrator, you've got an affinity for it? 

John: I’ll say that if I had my way, yes, I’d do a lot more Westerns, mainly because that’s my favorite genre to read for enjoyment. But I knew at the beginning of my career that it wasn’t realistic to expect to just tell my favorite types of stories all the time. One other thing I’ll say, though, is that I’ve learned to appreciate a lot of genres that I wouldn’t normally read, which I think has helped to make me a better, more versatile performer. But yes, Westerns are definitely number one for me, and I certainly wouldn’t mind narrating a lot more of them. Campfire storytelling at its finest!

Me: Who are your favorite Western authors?  

Zane GreyJohn: Louis L’Amour is my absolute favorite. When I was a boy, my grandfather was seldom without a L’Amour paperback by his favorite chair. When he’d finish a stack, he’d pass them to me. When he passed away, I received his entire collection, and I cherish them. So aside from being a wonderful writer, I’ll always have a very special, personal connection to his work. I also love the legendary Zane Grey, and have been fortunate to have narrated a handful of his titles. I also enjoy William Johnstone, or Jim Thompson if I’m in the mood for something darker. And one other comes to mind -- one that I’ve only recently discovered. An author with a gift for developing wonderfully rich characters and snappy comedic wit. You probably know of him. His name is Steve Hockensmith!

Me: Hockensmith...Hockensmith...Hockensmith. You're right — rings a bell. He does the "Holmes on the Range" series, doesn't he? Speaking of which, how would you describe your approach to the latest "Holmes on the Range" novel? Did it take you a while to get a handle on Big Red and Old Red, or did the characters and vibe come to you easily?

John: A wonderful thing sometimes occurs when working one-on-one with an author. It’s a sort of connection; or, stated differently, we “get” each other. This novel was one of those moments. I knew almost right away what you were trying to accomplish with Old Red and Big Red. Unfortunately, I can’t really explain how this “thing” happens. It just does, organically, and it’s so wonderful for an actor. As a rule, I approach any new set of characters that I meet exactly like I would in the theatre. What are their attitudes? Life experiences? What might they look like? And on and on. And depending on the “connection” that I tried to describe above, a voice begins to take shape in my head. And that’s when the fun starts, because I can then really inhabit that character through how he or she communicates verbally, and in some cases, even non-verbally. Plus, in the case of a comedic work like this one, I can really sink my teeth into how these two brothers interact with one another. You are a wonderful writing partner for me as a narrator, because your characters are so well developed. It makes my job in bringing your story to life easy. It’s very freeing as a performer. So, thanks for that -- because it doesn’t always happen that way.

Burton2aMe: Thank you, John! I could tell you got it right away. Sometimes when I hear narrators trying to do Western-y, "cowboy" voices it makes me cringe because they lay it on so thick. They end up sounding like they're trying to do a Burton Gilliam imitation. That didn't rear its ugly head with you for a second. Did you grow up in the West?

John: Well…sorta. I hail from central Oklahoma, and yes, I grew up in a rural setting. There were cattle and horses, and plenty of room to run and play, ride bikes, shoot, or whatever. And plenty of chores, too. Most weekends were consumed with various work around our place. We grew enough food just for us to eat, and then Grandma put up what was left over. To me, it was idyllic. I remember many nights camping out in the back part of the pasture, and staring up at the stars. I dreamed a thousand adventures out there. In fact, in real life I have a legit Okie drawl, but a lot of that was trained-out during my radio days. But it’s a really handy tool to have as a storyteller. And even today, one of my very favorite things for my wife and I to do is catch a good rodeo.

Me: Wow — it does sound idyllic. And like the perfect prep for narrating a "Holmes on the Range" novel years later. What's your process like when recording? Do you have to pace yourself? I tried to read a story of mine once for a podcast and it drove me crazy. After recording for a few hours and only getting about half-way through, I started to lose my voice — and my sanity — so I quit. How do you keep from burning out on a project? 

John: Audiobook narration is a marathon, not a sprint, and so yes, pacing myself is very important. Honestly, though, my brain wears out long before my voice does. I have considerable vocal endurance, built-up from years of singing in the theatre, doing long radio shows, and now from audiobooks. But there’s a real danger there — I have to be very careful to monitor my mind’s ability to stay in the story. This can be hard to do, especially for a narrator like me who records at home. In my studio, I wear all the hats — along with being “the talent,” I’m also the recording engineer and the director. As such, I must remain very aware of my performance as it’s happening. Am I still fully immersed in the story? Because the moment I drop out of the "suspension of disbelief," so will the listener — and this is absolutely unacceptable. Not only does it destroy the listener’s experience, I believe it also dishonors the author’s art. Every book is different, of course, but if I detect that I’m only 99% in the author’s world, it’s time to call it a day. In terms of burnout prevention, that’s a simple matter of loving what you do, combined with the understanding that you won’t love every book that you are cast to do. That’s all part of the job. But every book, whether I like it or not, carries the same responsibility for me as the storyteller: honor the material with the best possible performance I have in me. This is a covenant between the author, the listener, and myself that I take very, very seriously.

Me: It shows! So what's up next for you?

John: It’s hard to say! One of the fun things about this job is that you never know what’s coming along. Might be a biography, or a chilling crime novel, or a non-fiction book about some topic I’m totally unfamiliar with. Many audio publishers are preparing their summer releases, and are in the process of casting them. Of course, as I mentioned before, I’m always hoping that a new Western (or a classic one!) will ride into the studio. But whatever it is, I’ll accept it with gratitude, and I’ll keep telling stories as long as folks want to keep hearing them.

Click on the file below to get a taste of John's work on The Double-A Western Detective Agency.


The Man from A.S.S.

As I mentioned here last month, I don't have much faith in myself as a salesman. You know the old line about the guy who could sell ice to the indigenous peoples of Alaska? Well, I don't think I could sell parkas and snow mobiles to the indigenous peoples of Alaska.

Of course, that's not quite how the old line went. But apparently "He could sell ice to Eskimos" is potentially offensive if used too loosely. I read up on it on Wikipedia and, frankly, I'm still kind of confused about when it's appropriate. I think this would be acceptable, for instance: "He could sell ice to Eskimos -- by which I mean members of either the Inupiat or Yupik communities of the northern circumpolar region but not individuals associated with the Northern Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group." But that could be wrong. Can we really trust analysis from a website that refuses to acknowledge the existence of energy vampires and Biggus Dickus?

The Man from ASSBottom line: I couldn't sell cold weather stuff to people who live where the weather's usually cold. (There goes any chance of a gig with Alaska Snowmobile Salvage. Which is a shame, since it seems like a fun place to work. Just look at how they've embraced that acronym!) But even if I couldn't convince a window-shopping Alaska Native to take a 2013 Arctic Cat out for a spin -- only 10,000 miles on the snowdometer! -- I could, at least, treat her with respect. By not assuming she's O.K. with the label "Eskimo," for instance.

Convincing people to buy crap isn't my bag. Trying to be nice I can handle.

Which is why, I think, the new "Holmes on the Range" book, The Double-A Western Detective Agency, has done very, very well in one regard. I've sold 300 copies in the month since it came out, which isn't bad considering my marketing plan could be boiled down to this: (1) Announce that the book exists and can be purchased online. 

There is no (2).

But here's how The Double-A Western Detective Agency has been a spectacular success: As of the morning of Monday, Jan. 14, it has 25 reviews on Amazon, all of them with five-star ratings. That means nearly 10% of the people who've bought the book took the time to write a review after they read it. That's a spectacular ratio. It's neat for Dan Brown that The Da Vinci Code has 4,956 reviews on Amazon, sure, but that thing's sold 80 million copies. If 10% of the people who read it suddenly tried to review it on Amazon, it'd break the Internet.

So how was I able to beat Dan Brown (in one small, narrowly defined way)? It wasn't my marketing savvy. See above: I ain't got none. But I'm guessing most of those 25 five-star reviews came from people who've read my blog posts and email newsletters and tweets and feel a personal connection to me. Maybe they've even communicated with me directly via email or Facebook or Twitter. (I try really, really hard to respond to every message and friend request I get.) They're happy when I put a new book and assume that giving me the Amazon equivalent of a pat on the back -- by buying and reviewing it -- encourages me to finish the next one. And they're 100% correct.

Do I have a million bajillion readers, like Dan Brown? Nope. Do I have fantastic, wonderful, lovely, supportive readers? Yes indeedy. 

There's a chance I'll finally add a (2) to my Double-A Western Detective Agency marketing plan in a few months. I have to see how certain factors (rights reversions, development deals, book pitches) play out. If I do decide to give the book more of a push, all those five-star reviews are going to make it a lot easier to gain some traction. 

So to everyone who's left a review: Thank you!

To everyone who read the book and hated it and didn't leave a review: Thank you, too! (And sorry. I hope you like the next one better.)

To everyone who read the book and loved it but also didn't leave a review: Thank you, as well. (Hey, I'm not gonna go all hard-sell on leaving reviews now that I've firmly established how chill I am about marketing.)

And to everyone who hasn't bought the book yet: It exists and is available for purchase. Do with that what you will....

The New "Holmes on the Range" Novel Is Here!

There are a lot of reasons I'm not particularly good at marketing. One is a tendency to be too clever by half with my blogging and social media, dancing around any sales pitch with a lot of self-absorbed blather. Like right now, for instance. Here I am writing about my weakness as a marketer when there's marketing to be done.


The Double-A Western Detective Agency is available here as an ebook and here as a paperback. It looks like there's going to be an audiobook, too, but that'll take a while. I'd get into the reasons for the delay, but that would steer me away from the point. Which is this:


Hurry hurry hurry step right upOf course, all this crass, carnival barker, hard-sell self-promotion makes me a bit uncomfortable. I am, after all, a sensitive artist. I'd much rather be using this space for soul-searching explorations of creativity and connection in today's dizzyingly capricious world. You know -- "self-absorbed blather"? But let's face it. You know where this is heading. The gag's been established, and you can see those big, bolded words waiting for you in the next paragraph. So I might as well drop the pretense. Let's say it together, shall we?


Coming Soon to a Pair of Hands Attached to You

This is the part of putting out a book that drives me crazy. Well, aside from brainstorming the plot and outlining all the chapters. That's not easy. And the actual writing -- that can make me a little cuckoo sometimes. And revising and moving things around and trying to remember what the hell I was thinking when I wrote a scene a certain way seven months ago...that really makes my brain hurt.

Like sands through the hourglassBut all of that is a walk in the park -- on a sunny day, yet, with free hot dogs and sodas from all the pushcart guys -- compared to waiting.

You see, the new "Holmes on the Range" novel, The Double-A Western Detective Agency, is done. Ready. Set to go. But the files still need a few minuscule tweaks. How minuscule is "minuscule"? There's a tab missing in the ebook file, and the title on the spine of the paperback needs to be shrunk by one-sixteenth of an inch.

I'm not kidding. That's it. They're tiny changes -- literally -- and I won't have to wait long for them, but you know what comes after that? All the files get uploaded to Amazon, which runs them through its own approval process -- something that takes between 16 and 72 hours. And even if the files get the O.K. (which isn't guaranteed -- Amazon can be persnickety) there's yet another wait waiting for me: It can take days for the book in question to actually appear on the site.

"But, Steve," I hear you say, "you've been working on this book for almost two years. What possible difference could a few more days make?"

My reply: I WANT TO BE DONE!!!!!!!!!

"Dude," I now hear you say (as you run away), "switch to freakin' decaf."

My reply: Sorry.

I was going to get all fancy when the book was finally finished and approved and loaded up to go on sale. There was going to be one last waiting period for pre-orders and extra pre-release hype and such. But you know what? Screw that. As soon as the book can be available it will be available. There will be only one final sorta-kinda delay: On the long-awaited day when the book is on sale, the folks on my e-newsletter list will be the first to know. I'll also throw some sort of giveaway at 'em. So, you know...hint hint. If you want in on that, you know what to do.

And fair enough if you don't want in on that. I joined the AARP recently, and let me tell you: You do not want to give those crafty old bastards your email address. Geez Louise, the spam I get now. Apparently, 21st century senior citizens are suckers for (1) dodgy investment schemes, (2) overpriced windows and (3) B.S. "health supplements" (especially -- sign of the times -- hemp oil), because I get approximately 300 messages about them every day. So yeah -- if you want one less promotional email in your life, I get it. Just keep checking this site (or my Facebook and Twitter feeds) over the next, say, 10 days, and eventually you'll see that The Double-A Western Detective Agency can finally be bought and read and (hopefully) enjoyed.

The wait is almost over. 

Just don't ask me how long it'll be before the next book is done....

The Year(s) of Writing Dangerously

In January of 2017, I began working on a new novel. I didn't have the plot worked out yet, but this much I already knew: It would continue my "Holmes on the Range" series and it would be about 50,000 words long -- too short for a traditional publisher but just right for a book I planned to put out myself -- and it would be done by the fall and on sale by December.

And I was right! Kind of. It will be on sale in December. This December. Next month. (Exact pub date coming soon.) The book took an extra year to finish.

Quoth the raven: What the hell happened, Hockensmith? Let me count the ways.

Are you ready to rockExcuse #1: The book was hard to write. Why? Because -- pay attention, now -- books are hard to write. As with every novel I do, I lost faith in this one about a third of the way in. (Sometimes I make it half-way in before I decide it's crap. I never get beyond that.) So, as always, I had to stop and go back to the beginning and work my way through the manuscript and fix the things that weren't working. Which wasn't a lot, actually. News flash: I was wrong! The book is really good! Breaking news update: I'm always wrong! The books are always fine! (Especially after some tweaking...which I can't resist doing before the first draft is actually finished, for some reason.)

Excuse #2: I got back the rights to four of the original "Holmes on the Range" novels and stopped writing so I could go through them again and put them back out myself. The upside: I discovered to my relief that (see above) they're all actually quite good (hurrah!) while re-immersing myself in the series. The downside: It took months.

Excuse #3: I was asked to write some short stories. I turned down the first opportunity because I was being a good doobie and focusing on the novel. But by the time the other requests came in I was distracted anyway, so I figured I may as well be a bad doobie. And since I was already taking a break to write short stories by request, I threw in a few more just for the hell of it. Two of them -- one for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, one for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine -- also come out next month. And I'm thrilled, of course! But it did make me even more late, late for a very important (pub) date.

Excuse #4: The longer I worked on the book, the longer it became. Which might get a big "Well, duh" from you, but I don't just mean that I added words. I added twists and turns and chapters, too. And, yes, lots of words. So that lean, mean 50,000-word book I wanted to write? Now it's a not-quite-so-lean and really-rather-nice 75,000-word book. Just like my usual inescapable crisis of confidence, this expansion always happens: I haven't finished a story or novel yet that was shorter than I thought it would be. Even this blog post is longer than I anticipated. I sat down to type "The new book comes out next month!" and just look where it's gone from there. And geez -- I still have one more paragraph to go! Because there's one more reason this book took a while, and it's probably the most important of all.

Excuse #5: No one was waiting for it. O.K., maybe you were. And...oh, somewhere between 500 and 5,000 other people. (I'll find out the exact number soon.) But no one with a contract was waiting for it. No editor, no publisher. Which meant no due date. It would be done when it was done. That was a lovely change of pace from the hurry-hurry-hurry I was used to with deadlines. Then again, the hurry-hurry-hurry meant I couldn't dawdle-dawdle-dawdle, and this time I feel like I did. But on the other hand, so what? What does it matter if it took me two years to finish a book that, once upon a time, I could've done in 10 months? (Even when I'm hurry-hurry-hurrying, I'm not exactly fast.) I'm asking that of myself because the end of one project means the beginning of another. How do I want it to go? What do I want it to be? What am I trying to achieve? What should I have for lunch? There's a lot to figure out. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," the old saying goes. And Lord knows writing a book can feel like a journey of a thousand -- hell, a million -- miles. So what's my first step going to be this time?

I think I know.

Double Double coronary

The Good Place

TMI Alert: This post will tell you more than you want to know. If you want to read something that gives you less information -- that will, in fact, leave your brain emptier than when you started it -- I suggest Break the Simulation, Kanye West's upcoming book of philosophical musings. Which is a real thing and not a joke and leads me to a philosophical musing of my own. Namely:

Anywho, upward (or downward or maybe just sideways) and onward to the TMI....

My wife and I call our relationship style "hearts and farts" because we love each other and there's nothing either of us holds back from the other. There is one thing I try not to do in my gassy beloved's presence, though: watch old movies. I love 'em, she doesn't, simple as that. So while she's in the living room catching up on downbeat TV dramas like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones -- you know, being a normal American adult -- I'll be upstairs in bed watching Gene Kelly learn how to roll his Rs for the 50th time. 

Not everything I watch is a certifiable classic. Some of it is certifiable crap. Or at least certifiably mediocre. But there are only so many classics, you know, and you've got to watch something once you've worked your way through the AFI Top 100 List. Hence some of my recent viewing choices.

Chip off the old green blockThe Omega Man. (Hey, I'd never seen it before!) Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. (Hey, I hadn't seen them in a long time!) Son of Godzilla. (Hey, I...O.K., there's no excuse.) And lots of middle-of-the-road Westerns like The Tin Star and Chisum and Tribute to a Bad Man.

It was that last flick -- a meh Robert Wise-directed Jimmy Cagney vehicle -- that my wife caught me watching the other day when she'd completed her daily dose of modern tele-nihilism. The film was staggering to its extremely wobbly conclusion, so she wasn't even catching it at its best (which wasn't very good anyway). And she asked me a question I sometimes ask myself but don't like to hear from anyone else.

Why do you watch this stuff?

It's a good question. Why would I rather see a kinda lame movie from 1956 than an Oscar winner from 2018? Because most of the time I would. 

It's not just nostalgia. I wasn't alive in 1956, and I don't watch movies from back then through rose-colored glasses. If they suck, I can see it. (Just the other night I gave up on a 1959 Robert Taylor Western called The Hangman after 20 minutes. And it was directed by freakin' Michael "Adventures of Robin Hood/Casablanca" Curtiz! But, man, was it dullsville, as the beatniks of the time might have said.) 

I also don't romanticize yesteryear (as I blah-blah-blahed about a couple months ago). Yet I'd still prefer to hang out in the past than fully partake of the present. Today is so full of fear and disappointment and cruelty and stupidity. Yesterday was, too, yeah...but at least we got through it.

So maybe the past is my safe place. Somewhere I can go that -- though far from perfect -- feels settled, resolved, contained. Unlike now, which feels messy and infuriating and deeply, deeply frightening. I can see how 1956 turned out, more or less. 2018...who the hell knows?

That's all grossly oversimplified, by the way. Escaping from troubled times isn't the only reason I love old movies. I really do prefer the classical style of, say, a top-of-his-game Orson Welles or Billy Wilder or Howard Hawks to 99% of what's being made today. And it's not like I can't appreciate high-quality contemporary stuff when it comes along. In recent months I've seen The Death of Stalin, Deadpool 2, Annihilation, Isle of DogsThe Post, Ladybird, American Made, I, Tonya, The Disaster Artist, Battle of the Sexes, Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk and Baby Driver and dug them all.  

And there's one current TV show I'm keeping up with, too. I like it because it's unique and clever and funny and features deeply flawed characters you can still like and root for. It's called The Good Place, which strikes me as a remarkably apt title. Spoiler/TMI alert: It's named for a place -- and a state of being -- the characters are trying to get to. 

I can relate.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love to Bomb

I'm not feeling groovy these days. Not that I ever felt super-groovy in the past. But there used to be times when I didn't feel like an extra in Rollerball every time I glanced at the headlines. I suppose living in an actual, honest-to-god dystopia should be pretty interesting from a sociological/historical point of view, but groovy it is not. I keep waiting for Charlton Heston to stagger up in a loincloth and damn me for blowing it all to hell. Or maybe scream, "In-N-Out burgers are people! People!"

GroovyNote to film school students looking for a thesis topic: Why is it the 1960s and '70s gave us so many memorable flicks that faced what felt like imminent societal collapse and the 2010s give us The Happytime Murders and The freakin' Meg?

Side note for comedy connoisseurs: I had no idea that The Happytime Murders had already come out until a moment ago, when I noticed its 23% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. When I clicked through to the film's page, the verdict from critic Oliver Jones of the New York Observer caught my eye: "Fatally confuses crassness with subversion." And there we have it -- a diagnosis for half the bad comedy of the last 30 years.

Side-side note for anyone just trying to get to the point of this blog post: We're almost there.

Despite feeling like the Omega Man, I've taken "The 59th Street Bridge Song" to heart. I've slowed down. I was moving too fast. (Or I was trying to, anyway.) No, I'm not trying to make the morning last. (I wish I could skip it entirely, actually.) Nor am I kicking down any cobblestones. But I am looking for fun even if I'm not feelin' groovy...do-do da doo do do do-do-do. Feelin' groovy.

That groovy doo-doo-ing dude in the song -- he's got no deeds to do, no promises to keep. And that's what he and I have in common...at least when it comes to my writing. (Believe me, on a typical day I have many deeds to do and promises to keep. What do I look like -- a dirty hippie?)

A couple years ago, I burned out on contracts and deadlines and branding and sales. I'd spent the previous decade fretting about my writing career, and what did it get me? A lot of books on the shelf, not enough money in the bank and way too many worries on my plate. So I turned my back on it all. I was just going to do the one thing I really felt like doing -- write a new "Holmes on the Range" novel -- and not let the rest of it drag me down anymore.

"Don't worry," I told myself. "Be happy."

Crap! We've segued into a different song. Oh, well. It fits. Or it would if not for current events. You know...the End Times?

For years I dreamed of writing fiction full time. Then for years I did it -- and it made me kind of miserable. I worried about advances. I worried about sales. I worried about reviews. I worried about being liked. I worried about being respected. I worried about my destiny as a writer. Dear god, I thought I had a destiny as a writer!

The wrong weekWorry worry worry. And Bobby McFerrin was right. When I stopped worrying -- by walking away for a while -- I got more happy. Unfortunately, now I'm worried about my country and democracy and the entire goddamned planet. Which makes me wonder if this is a "picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue"-type scenario. Like, did I just happen to get my shit together at the exact moment the world swirled down the crapper, or is my brain so used to worrying it had to find something else to brood about if it wasn't going to be writing?

As the wise man once said, "The world may never know." Because it'll blow up before I figure it out.

In the meantime, here's my booby prize: I've really enjoyed the last two years of writing. I started out to do that new "Holmes on the Range" book and got bogged down and took breaks to do short stories and kicked around other ideas and blogged and generally did what I wanted. Very, very slowly, perhaps, but hey. I'd rather putter along having fun than be a red-hot dynamo burning itself out to pay the bills.

The "Holmes on the Range" book is almost done, by the way. I wanted to be working on the second draft by now, but I got a couple requests for other things, so I won't get back to it for a couple weeks. It was supposed to be out by the end of 2017, then by the end of 2018, and now I'm not entirely sure when it'll be ready. Soon-ish?

If you're a fan of the series and you're worried about it, please don't be. I'm not.