Works in Progress

Looking back on 2023: The Year of Tidying Up

Yesterday we hosted a modest gathering by historical standards, but it was a welcome change from the lingering isolation of the pandemic.

In addition to the benefit of companionship, I like having people over because it acts as a spur to clean up the place.  It's easy to get complacent about the state of one's home.  So long as the kitchen sink is clear and the toilets aren't covered in grime, it's all good, right?

No.  I think the accumulation of dust and disorderliness can be felt, even if it isn't consciously seen.  So much stuff get set down here or there and then forgotten and finally buried.  It's nice to clear all that out and replace year-old papers with a plate of snacks.

That's somewhat my feeling about 2023 - it wasn't so much about starting new things as much as clearing out old ones.  While my retirement date was set at the end of 2022, it was not until mid-April that the wrangling with the Air Force was completed.  Only then did I receive my packet, certificates and formal notification.

Similarly, June saw the end of two decades of having kids in school.  I'm finally off the district email list.

Of course, Walls of Men published earlier this year, and due to the current domestic situation, I haven't been able to start anything new.  Walls of Men was something of a commercial disappointment to me.  I figured China's military history was a much more compelling topic than the Spanish Civil War, but I was wrong.

With books being out of reach, I've cranked out quite a few columns for Bleeding Fool, and these are getting more engagement, no doubt a function of their frequency and topics.

While I try to be hopeful and optimistic, I look forward to the coming year with a certain sense of dread.  Politics hold no interest for me, and our electoral system is breaking down.  I've little confidence that it will hold up to the strain.

That being said, God is the prime mover in all of this, and I will continue to work in deepening my prayer life and giving all of my trust over to Him.


Turning over a new leaf: Toxic Masculinity Tuesday

For a while I would note when various items posted over at bleedingfool.com, but I got out of the habit because they were becoming fairly common.

However, I'm making an exception because I've been invited to participate in a new features called Toxic Masculinity Tuesday.  The tongue-in-cheek title is a reference to the unabashed macho character of the films under discussion, and through a series of remarkable coincidences, I ended up penning this week's offering.

For those unwilling to take the click bait, I chose the 1991 Disney Beauty and the Beast, because it features multiple men who demonstrate strongly masculine traits, and these are taken as a matter of course.  Gaston is of course a bit over the top, but of all the Disney villains, he's probably the most liked by other people in the film.  He's actually a popular guy, he just takes things too far.

I intend to do deep dives in my entry, focusing on film noir and Golden Age movies.

Anyhow, it keeps me engaged in the absence of a new book project.


Another lesson from the garden: bait squash triumphant

Six years ago I contemplated how my plans to cultivate raspberries completely miscarried, and yet ultimately succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

I'm now experiencing a similar phenomenon in regards to my garden.

This year I planted three crops within the fenced enclosure: carrots, snow peas and green onions.  The green onions never stood a change, the snow peas produced a little but are now on death's door.  The carrots seem to be doing well, but I'm in no hurry to harvest them.

But there's another crop that seems to be flourishing, and that is yellow squash.  I planted this outside the fence to act as something of a buffer.  Squash plants have tiny prickers so having a line of them (I reasoned) would reinforce my defensive line.

I also knew that one of the first crops I planted was squash and it did really well, with trivial losses to animals. 

Thus the irony: plants that I had no real investment in are now the primary hope for a successful year.  They germinated late because of the drought and I'd actually given up hope on them but now they're just taking off.  Last time we had so much squash that I had to give it away.  I'd love to have the same problem this years.


Vampires of Michigan - the Roar of '84?

I'm once again binge-watching the early seasons of Miami Vice and I'm thinking it would be fun to set the next installment in the World Series Championship year of 1984.  It's an interesting year for a variety of reasons.  Obviously there is the George Orwell angle, but 1984 marked a rare moment of unity in American politics.  The notion of a a presidential candidate carrying 49 states is inconceivable today.

Whether looking at Cold War politics, cultural differences and of course the far superior music and entertainment, I think it would be fun.

As to the plot...well, that's yet to be determined.  I've got a couple of ideas and I'm sure some of the same characters will be represented. 

Of course, nothing may come of it, but that's the fun of being a novelist - not just the ideas that are completed, but the ones that are tossed around for fun.


Living the retiree lifestyle

Today I returned to my old military haunts for the first time since my retirement to attend the retirement ceremony of one of my friends.  I wondered how it would be to visit the base as an outsider, but there was no awkwardness, just a comfortable and happy reunion with old friends.

Naturally, I had to dress the part, so I wore a pair of cargo shorts and an black unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt over a blaze orange t-shirt, topped off with a tan Fedora hat.  This was doubly amusing as most people didn't recognize me at first, and when they did, almost lost their minds at my get-up.

Among many conversations, I had a delightful discussion with the chaplain, with whom I served for a dozen years.  He remarked that he had never seen me so relaxed and content.  I told him that I was very much aware of it, and he should try retirement as soon as possible.  He heartily agreed.

After the ceremony and reception was over, I stopped by the base exchange to pick up a few things (mostly discounted liquor) and ran into another of my old friends.  After his laughter at my get-up subsided, he got serious and said that there was a lot of discussion about how to keep folks like me in touch with the base, and also to tap into our experience and expertise. 

Previous generations prolonged their military service to maximize retirement earnings, but Gen X seems to have decided that 20 years are enough.  Not only is this exacerbating the ongoing recruiting crisis, it is leading to an unprecedented "brain drain" as the War on Terror veterans head for the exit.  (My friend had 20 years plus one month of service.  I retired with 21 years.)

I'm not sure how what they will come up with, but I enjoyed the visit. 

I was also reminded that Three Weeks with the Coasties was originally supposed to be the opening part of a book about my career, and perhaps after more time to digest it, I'll get to work on that.

 

 


Many ratings, no reviews

Over the last couple of weeks I've notice that a bunch of my books are getting more ratings on Amazon.  Some are good, others not so much.  Indeed, I've been surprised to see the Man of Destiny series pick up a bunch of ratings, but some are the lowest they've ever gotten.

Conversely, both Long Live Death and Walls of Men seem to be improving in their reception.

Perhaps this is the result of me taking on a higher profile at Dakka as well as Bleedingfool.com.  The more people who read my stuff, the more there are who may not appreciate it.  It comes with the territory.

The curious part is the lack of reviews.  The early versions of Long Live Death got punished because of the typos and editing errors.  I think Walls of Men has been spared this because the much more exacting editing process.

I'm aware that the Man of Destiny books are not as clean as they could be.  One of my goals it to release a second edition (perhaps an all-in-one with new cover art and some extra content). 

However, I don't think people are throwing out two- or three-star ratings because of that.  And since there are no reviews, I'm not sure what they could be objecting to.


To fiction or nonfiction, that is the question

It's only a week since Walls of Men went live, but already my mind is turning to the next writing project.  This is because writing is what I do to unwind, and without it I get really bored.  I'm trying to fill the empty hours with chores and watching vintage TV and movies, but that's only a stopgap.

Sooner or later, I'll take on a new project.

I'm thinking it will be fiction.  Long Live Death was actually very easy to write (took 6 weeks or so) and while post-publication corrections were a headache, they were also a function of my desire to see it in print ASAP because of its applicability to the political situation.

Walls of Men, on the other hand, was really complicated and stressful.  Add in the fact that both books didn't really provide the escape from reality that fiction writing does.

On the plus side, non-fiction doesn't take the same creative energy - you set your thesis, do research and write what you find.  No dead-end plots or unconvincing characters.  You have to describe a world rather than create one.

Inspiration is also important.  This is why have never written a "fantasy" book in the style of J.R.R. Tolkien - I don't know what I would say that needs saying.  I've got at least half a dozen story ideas in the genre, but none rise above the level of Dungeons and Dragons-grade fan fiction.

I'm sure in time, this will work itself out and in the meantime I'll see what I can draw from my viewing.


Walls of Men hits #1 for new release on Chinese History

As I'd hoped, Walls of Men: A Military History of China 2500 B.C. to A.D. 2020 has topped the new releases column for Chinese history.

This is wonderful news and I'm grateful to the people who have supported and promoted the work.   

Of course, the next question is whether people like it.  Given it's length, that may take a while to find out.

 


Watching a real 70s show: The Rockford Files

While I've been retro-watching the 80s shows of my youth, my memory does in fact extend into the 70s as well.  Sad to say, the few attempts I've made to go re-watch old programming did not go well.  Hulu had M*A*S*H on about a year ago and I could not get into it.  It was painful to sit through.  Maybe one of the later seasons would be better, but neither my wife nor I could stomach it.

However, The Rockford Files has aged reasonably well.  It's got the usual detective tropes and comically unsafe firearms use that is emblematic of the period and as I'm closing in on the halfway mark of the first season I can see why it was successful.

James Garner is perfect for the role of Jim Rockford and he has the easy charm and charisma that is sorely lacking in today's stars.  He's genuinely interesting to watch.  Such qualities made often made the difference between schlock and decent programming.

The setting is of course iconic - a guy who lives in a battered trailer set up in a ocean side parking lot.  The interior is nice, but it's constantly the target of various break-ins.  While perpetually broke, Rockford nevertheless boasts a sweet ride - a gold Pontiac Firebird.  This of course anticipates the 80s tropes where private investigators have sweet rides and/or helicopters (or speedboats, or whatnot).

Rockford therefore walks the line between being plausible and relatable (perpetually broke, often beat up) but also admirable (handsome, has cool car, total ladies' man).  There is not a trace of the Mary Sue in this show, which demonstrates how far Hollywood has fallen.

I'm not sure how long I will stick with it, but for now it's a welcome diversion while I finish publishing Walls of Men and recharge my batteries for my next creative venture.


Coming down the home stretch - Walls of Men update

The proof copy arrived yesterday and - as expected - there were a few things that needed to be fixed.  The maps seemed grainy, so I both lightened them up (they are monochrome) and I re-rendered them to a higher resolution.  This should result in crisper images.  Certainly they look better in the electronic format.

Other tasks included listing the maps and completing the table of contents.  I made a few final edits to the introduction and the went through making sure the formatting was optimal.  The final step will be completing the final version of the index.  At that point, it will be ready to publish, but I will wait for a second proof to arrive before taking that step.

I've learned the hard way that patience pays off, particularly in the non-fiction genre.  That make sense, because who is going to trust a history book riddled with formatting errors?  There's also the value for money aspect.  I'm going to charge a decent amount of money for Walls of Men because I've put a great deal of time in on it.  It's also more than 360 pages long - the longest book I've ever written.  All of which is to say it is going to be priced accordingly.

One thing I want to avoid is the mad scramble to correct errors that marred the launch of Long Live Death.  For that reason, I'm going to be extra cautious.

That being said, this is a self-published book, and I hope people won't nit-pick it to death.  Anyhow, it will be out soon enough and then I can take a break for a bit.