Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How to Be a Man in the 21st Century

Men ain't what they used to be. This is a fact. Males of my generation (I was born in the mid-'60's) and younger have been sensitized, sanitized, and emasculated to such a degree that we're barely the same species as our fathers and grandfathers. In some ways, we don't really WANT to be like them, sure, but it other ways, ways that count, we're less.

We can't go backward to some mythological time when "men were men"-- and I would be remiss not to mention that too many people, then and now, mistake "Giant Asshole" for "Real Man". Masculinity in and of itself is much maligned because too many males haven't understood what it actually means, and have behaved like enormous dickheads.

But being a Man in the manner of our fathers is not something we should want. Being a Man in the 21st century is an entirely different ball game. Here's some pointers, brothers.

-Be decent. That is, treat other people with respect, especially women. Never let the words "whore", "bitch", or "slut" cross your lips. No matter what. NEVER EVER raise your hand to a woman. That makes you a weak little punk.

-Be a man of your word. If you make a promise, you'd better damn well keep it. Be honest and deal square with other people. If you don't have that integrity, you don't have shit.

-Keep your cards close to your chest. Stop talking so goddamn much. You may think you have lots of interesting anecdotes, and maybe you do, but keep some parts of yourself in reserve.

-Stay cool. Don't get worked up. In a crisis, keep calm and level-headed, speak in a low, unhurried voice. Stay in control.

-Don't think you have to go to the gym. A singular fixation on your rock-hard abs might be... over-compensating. Yeah, women dig guys with muscles, but they only dig them on the shallowest level, the way you might dig a girl with a big booty or nice legs. They've been trained to appreciate that, but not take it seriously. It doesn't really mean anything of value; it's eye-candy. If you really want to muscle up, try actual physical labor-- chopping wood or pushing a plow or something. Those are honest muscles, derived from doing something useful, not obsessing on your body.

-Dress like a man, not a boy. Only punk kids wear those big baggy pants, sagging down around their crotch. Only a wuss wears skinny jeans, and tee-shirts with some dumb-ass corporate slogans or hats on sideways. Hair perfectly coiffed with lots of "product" is effete and vain. Have a good haircut, sure, be well-groomed, but not to the point of shallow obsessiveness. Wear clean clothes that are practical but stylish. Have a suit or two tailored, if you can spare the cash.

-Violence is almost never the solution, but sometimes, sometimes, it's inevitable. Learn to recognize when there's no other option, and act on it. Stand your ground in an equal match, control your fear of getting hurt. Don't brag or make threats or try to get cute with the movie-style one-liners. Just fight. Hard. And remember, losing a fight doesn't make you less of a man, not fighting back at all does.

-By that same token, don't be stupid. Know when you can't win. Hey, the guy with the gun or the knife always wins the argument. That doesn't mean anything-- someone who would use a gun against someone who isn't equally armed is a big wussy with some temporarily artificial power. You have to cede to it, though... if only for the moment. Even John Wayne knew when to put his hands up for lesser men.

-Never be the one who starts a fight.

-Don't brag or boast about your accomplishments...

-...but don't pretend to false modesty. Acknowledge, if only to yourself, your victories and your strengths.

-Being gloomy and moody is NOT the same thing as being strong and silent. Pull yourself together, man. Real men smile, even when they don't feel it. If you're having a bad day, that's nobody's problem but yours.

-A real man can admit when he's wrong, and not even mind it (much).

-Don't be snarky or sarcastic. It's a poor substitute for actual wit. Speak plain. When you talk, there should be no doubt about what you're saying.

-Racism, homophobia, and sexism are the mindsets of the ignorant and the insecure. A real man is better than that.

-A real man is kind to children. He's good to animals. He's generous to people less fortunate than himself.

-This one is tricky, if it's not already part of your natural personality-- be stoic. Stay strong and uncomplaining in the face of adversity or pain. Don't cave in. What I'm saying is, stop your pathetic sniveling.

-I mentioned being honest and dealing square with people; equally important is being honest with yourself. The process of "knowing yourself" can be a hard, dark journey, but if you don't wimp out, if you keep going through the darkness, you'll eventually come to some kind of light. The sense of purpose and center-edness that comes with knowing yourself is something that can't be faked-- and people can see it in you.

-And finally, a real man of the 21st century knows that he won't always live up to his own standards. At some point, he will fail, let himself down. But he won't abandon his principles. He'll re-commit, get over it, and move on. Because, really, being a better man just means being a better human being.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Blur of Capes and Tights

Hey, comic book fans, remember how excited we used to get whenever we saw a trailer for a movie featuring one of our favorite comic book characters? "Oh, wow, a Spider-Man movie!" or "Holy crap, the upcoming Batman looks awesome!" or "Cool, Iron Man is gonna rock!" As they say, we were such dorks back then.

It all snowballed too quickly is what happened, it all started bleeding together until all we could see was this blur of brightly colored tights and capes and massive CGI destruction. It just doesn't mean anything anymore. I find I've gotten really bored with it.

Yesterday, it was announced that Ben Affleck would be the new Batman in the Superman/Batman movie (which, incidentally, will only exist to help usher in the Justice League movie). Reaction on the internets ranged from mild annoyance to frothing at the mouth. But I found myself shrugging and saying Eh. Who cares.

In the past, I've been really forgiving of these comic book movies, even when they weren't perfect, because I wanted to like them. That goes a long way, man.

Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man film was solid. The second even better. The third one... pretty bad. And even though they felt the need to re-hash the origin, I thought The Amazing Spider-Man was better than Raimi's take.

I enjoyed Edward Norton's Incredible Hulk, but I've always been a little biased toward Hulk.

Christopher Nolan's first Batman movie was great. The second almost staggeringly good. I'm a little ambivalent about the last one. The Batman films of the 90's all suck. Yes, even the first two Tim Burton ones. I don't know what we were thinking at the time, but watching them now is excruciating.

Hollywood's first two stabs at The Punisher left me cold, but you know what? I LOVE Punisher: War Zone, with Ray Stevenson. Yeah, I'm the only one, I know. But that's okay, because it meant I could buy the DVD for four bucks.

The first Hellboy was great. The second mediocre.

Watchmen just made me feel... dirty. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was so bad it made me angry.

V For Vendetta was awesome and I will fight you over it.

The first Iron Man was terrific. The second, not so much. I didn't bother with the third.

Captain America was good. Thor was good. Green Lantern sucked ass. Daredevil wasn't as bad as they say.

But you know, the apex of this whole superhero movie thing, I think, was The Avengers. What a marvelous spectacle that movie is. It hits all the right notes and gives us everything we could want from a comic book movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it on almost every level.

Even while watching it, though, I had a sneaking sense I was seeing the end of the superhero movie genre as something truly interesting. It was as close to perfect as we can expect from the genre, and really, where do you go from there?

Only one way: more of the same. Ad nauseum.

I was excited about seeing Man of Steel, because as un-cool as it may be, I really love Superman. The original Christopher Reeves version still stands up really well, but I felt we were long overdue for a more modern take on the character. And Superman Returns committed the cardinal sin of being boring. So I wanted to like Man of Steel.

And I more or less did like it. More than most of my friends did, anyway. My only real problem with the movie (and it's a VERY BIG problem) is the over-the-top, CGI-soaked, brain-deadening levels of destruction in the last third. The Superman I love would never have allowed that to happen. But more importantly, it was... tedious. Tedious and pointless. Maybe we, the movie-watching public, have been fascinated this century with scenes of total carnage and cities being devastated (the lingering psychological scars of 9-11, maybe?), but I for one am losing my appetite for it. It's not impressive or emotionally stirring anymore. It's dull. I actually would have liked Man of Steel a LOT more if Superman had found a way to avoid having half of Metropolis decimated.

Anyway, all of this brings me back to the Superman/Batman movie, and the announcement of Affleck in the cowl. Affleck won't make or break this movie. If it flops, it won't have much, if anything, to do with him. If it's a huge critical and commercial success, it also won't be because of Affleck. It'll be about how predictable the story is, how much we can suspend disbelief, and how much CGI devastation we can swallow before choking on it.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Writing 300 novels in a roughly 30 year period is a hell of an achievement. Writing 300 that are solid is something else again. But that's what James Reasoner has done. With his new novel, DANCING WITH DEAD MEN, Reasoner has brought his entire bag of tricks to the party, and the fine craftsmanship he's known for is on full display.

The story contains many of the same themes that we see in a lot of Reasoner's work, most notably the idea of the protagonist, a hard man, groping toward something better than what he was and encountering nearly insurmountable obstacles along the way. The biggest obstacle, of course, being the weight of his own past, and his doubts about being able to affect a positive change.

In DEAD MEN, the hero is one Logan Handley, former gun-for-hire, now crippled by the onset of a paralysis affecting his left arm and right leg. He travels to Hot Springs Arkansas in search of a cure and finds himself almost inadvertently entering a new, kinder phase of life, making friends and working like a normal person. That is until he foils a bank robbery and finds himself in the employ of a rich lumber baron-- next he knows, Logan is pulled back into the role of gunman. When an old enemy of his hooks up with the lumber baron's business rival, and Logan's new friends are threatened, all bets are off and our hero has to reconcile both sides of his nature to save the day.

The whole thing unfolds at a pretty breakneck pace. Reasoner excels at building momentum from scene to scene, never skipping any opportunity for action, and making the reader feel a real emotional investment in the characters. This is what he's always done, and it's the reason why he's a writer's writer.

Here's to 300 more.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Just some of my favorite Elmore Leonard covers

Quite a few years ago, along with at least a couple hundred other people, I met Elmore Leonard at a book signing at the old Borders in Birmingham. His signings there were something of a tradition. He seemed very frail, very tired, but his acerbic wit was on full display. He spoke briefly, and spent the entire evening signing books for a never-ending line of fans. As clearly exhausted as he was, he shook everyone's hands and smiled. When it was my turn, I asked if it was okay to get a photograph-- he stood up slowly (he'd been up and down and up and down all night, fulfilling photo requests), put an arm around my shoulders while my friend Carole took the picture. I said to him, "Thanks, Mr. Leonard." He smiled, shook my hand, and said, "No, Heath (he knew my name from signing my book), thank you," before shuffling back to his seat to sign a hundred more books. Not the greatest Elmore Leonard story, I know, but his graciousness, even when he so clearly was not having a great time, stayed with me.

So long, Mr. Elmore Leonard.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

My place to write

After a while, you pretty much train yourself to write anywhere you have to write, but there's always one particular place that feels most natural for it. It's good to have your own private space for that. I'm fortunate that I do. Here's my study/library/cave, if you're interested. I tried to do a sort of panoramic thing but I suck as a photographer, sorry.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Because America, that's why

Once upon a time, I waved the American flag. I was what you might call a liberal patriot. For all its problems, I really believed in our country, and I believed that America would come through in the end with its values intact. I don't believe that anymore. I don't see how any reasonable person could.

We were founded on the blood and bones of an indigenous race, we grew fat on the flesh of oppressed and abused minorities. But surely, I thought (once upon a time) we could rise above our genocidal, hateful origins and become something great.

I should've known better. We ALL should've. If you build your castle in a swamp of shit, don't expect not to eventually be sucked down into it. All great empires fall, and most of them have the seeds of their own destruction sown right from the beginning. America certainly did.

If we ever had a chance, it was utterly destroyed on 9-11-01. The terrorist attacks ruined us. Maybe there was a brief moment of "we're all in this together", but it was quickly squashed by hate-mongers and opportunistic power-seekers.

Now what are we? We're a nation of
perfectly willing to do what our corporate-owned government tells us, all for the sake of some perceived outside threat. Our government SPIES on us, for Christ's sake. Who are the bad guys?

We think there's a significant difference between a Democrat in office or a Republican. We've totally bought into this bogus and twisted form of government.

We think our Right to Own a Gun is something God-given, and takes priority over the rights of children not to be fucking Killed by an Idiot with a Gun.

We believe climate change is a lie, because "scientists are part of a vast conspiracy against free enterprise". We don't trust intelligence.

We believe what's good for mega-corporations is good for us, because, well... because we are idiots with no knowledge or understanding of history.

"But it's America, by God, and we're still number one!" Yeah, except we're not. We no longer lead the world in ANYTHING, Jack. Unless you count obesity, or the most number of citizens in a so-called First World country in jail. Or how many people don't understand the goddamn Theory of Evolution.

And all your flag-waving won't change that.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Hawthorne Poster #1

My friend Kimmy Dee took time out from being hysterically filthy and funny to make the above image at my request. We'll see if the meme-thing works as a promotional tool on social media. Thanks, Kimmy!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Writing Hawthorne

There isn't anything else I enjoy writing more than the Hawthorne stories. They're just amazingly cathartic for me, and I approach them in a different way than I do my other work.

The goal with each Hawthorne tale is intensity and brevity. Those two qualities are something I always strive for anyway, but with Hawthorne it's even more important. I want the stories to reflect the character himself-- that is, stripped down, unsentimental, harsh. If there's any humor at all, it's a very dark humor. The few times the reader finds Hawthorne smiling, it usually involves something gruesome.

The directness and lack of adornment in these stories has come gradually, too-- if you read them in order, you might notice that each one gets leaner than the one before; I didn't really do that on purpose, but it's been a result of my realizing what sort of writer I am and what sort of man Hawthorne is.

I've also discovered that I enjoy writing about the bad guys Hawthorne comes into conflict with. Three of the four published stories on Kindle have a heavy focus (at least in the first half) on Hawthorne's quarry. Again, this wasn't something I did on purpose. I didn't realize I was doing it until after the fourth one, "Bad Sanctuary", was complete. But I think spending some time with the bad guys, getting inside their minds a bit, seeing how they react to the merciless and scary scarred gunman, is great fun.

For all the enjoyment I get out of writing Hawthorne's adventures, getting each one started is like pulling teeth. Without fail, there are at least three false starts, sometimes as many as five or six, before I finally settle on where to begin. It's important to me with Hawthorne to take the most direct route possible, not waste the reader's time with extemporaneous stuff. That means beginning as close to the action as possible. These are unapologetic pulp stories, focused on action and horror.

But you know, once I get the beginning worked out (which I swear to you is about HALF the writing time for each one) things just roll along like crazy. The shit practically writes itself at that point. Afterwards, I spend a lot of time going through, striking out unneeded paragraphs, unneeded sentences, unneeded words. I'm especially careful with Hawthorne's dialogue-- each and every word he says is measured for import, because it's better, I think, when he doesn't talk. If he's speaking, I try to make absolutely sure that the words are vitally important.

Right now, I'm working on "Scarred", the fifth Hawthorne story for Kindle. It's kinda-sorta his origin story, plus. About twice as long as previous stories, it will end what I think of as the "first cycle" of Hawthorne tales.

But I'm far from done with this "hard-eyed righter of wrongs".

*image by Kevin Walsh

Thursday, August 8, 2013

What's the deal with Humans, anyway.

If you've been following my Facebook posts lately (and why wouldn't you be, a-haha), you may have noticed I've been obsessing a bit over the way the World and I interact with one another. And I've been trying to determine how I really feel about the Damned Human Race.

It's not an important issue. Not to anyone but me. So really it's sort of a selfish obsession, one that betrays my self-absorbed side-- and yeah, I know I can be self-absorbed. Not always, but often enough.

Anyway, my point: Humans. What's their goddamn deal, anyway? And why do I sometimes feel like I hate them with a passion and other times I feel almost tender about them? Granted, I feel tender about them when I don't have to be around them much. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, or at least more forgiving.

I guess, for the most part, it's more a phobia or uneasiness about people than an actual hatred. Except when it is hatred. Which it is, sometimes. When I'm forced into dealing with them directly, handling their inability to, say, follow simple directions or know when to stop talking or when they don't seem to realize they believe amazingly stupid things or when they are cruel and petty. When they are willfully ignorant, clinging to some unreal and idiotic version of reality. Yeah, that inspires some loathing in me and tries my patience beyond anything. And my ability to stay friendly and easy-going under those circumstances erodes more the older I get.

But the other side of it this is: I hate seeing anyone in emotional pain. I want to help (even though I'm not great at it), I want the person who is suffering to have some peace. I hate injustice of any sort (and this old world is full to the back teeth with injustice). Would someone who really hates humans feel that way? I don't think so.

And finally, most of the people I feel like I hate are very removed from me. My interactions with them are brief, or even non-existent. I hate them from afar-- Michelle Bachmann or Deepak Chopra or Dr. Phil or Glen Beck or Fred Phelps. It's a very intangible kind of hate, and I've realized it's not them I hate so much as what they represent.

Among the people I interact with on a regular basis, there are very few I actively dislike. And you could argue that most humans are basically decent, anyway. The Boston Marathon bombings-- If those two scumbags responsible made you feel negatively about humanity, then surely all the normal people who rushed in to help the injured restored your faith in the human race a little?

So no, I guess I don't really hate humans. What I hate are the stupid, senseless things humans get up to sometimes. I hate the closed-minded, delusional, bullying, self-important, deceitful actions we're capable of as a species. It's easy to mistake that for some kind of misanthropy.

Don't misunderstand me-- I'm an introvert by nature, and being a social creature is always an exhausting challenge for me, even with people I know and like. Smiling, talking, being friendly, take a lot out of me sometimes. But I recognize its value, and I get that it doesn't have much to do with what humans are like. It's all on me.