LeBron is just not that into you, and neither are most other celebrities

LeBron James was caught on camera the other day, shoving away a fan who approached him at an Usher concert.

The fan, a schlumpy twentysomething man or teenage boy, certainly couldn’t have been a threat to the 6’9’’ James. Ask yourself, though: How often does LeBron James get mobbed by fans when he ventures out in public? Probably every time.

LeBron James just dispelled a fan’s fantasy image of him

Online reactions to the incident have been mixed, as is my own reaction. LeBron James has generally proven himself to be an entitled jackass in recent years. And no, I’m not talking about his leftwing politics. I’m talking about incidents like this—when he interrupted a youth basketball game to confront a PA announcer, just a few weeks ago.

Well, if y’all keep kissing his ass, he’s going to feel entitled…

But there is another side to this, as well: our weird obsession with celebrities and celebrity culture. Most Americans spend far too much time absorbed in electronic screens. There are many of us who have built vast imaginary worlds revolving around LeBron, Taylor, etc.

As a matter of fact, I know one 28-year-old woman who has (in my view, anyway) a very odd obsession with Taylor Swift. She is one of the so-called “Swifties”. She not only goes to every Taylor Swift concert she can afford, images of Taylor Swift also fill her social media profiles.

In case you were wondering, then, rabid Taylor Swift fandom really is a thing. I know at least one follower of the cult.

On the darker side, Swift has also attracted numerous male stalkers, including men who imagine themselves married to her. But that’s a whole other bag of nuts.

Get a life, kids!

The reality is that most celebrities just aren’t that into you, even if you are their Number One Fan and can prove it. They don’t want to talk to you, sign an autograph for you, or take a selfie with you. The only exception would be a scheduled public relations event. And even then, most of them just aren’t that into you, on an individual level.

A celebrity, it has been said, is someone who spends half her life trying to become famous, and the other half trying to avoid the downsides of fame.

Downsides like you, and your over-eagerness to approach them in public.

*** 

I’m not a snob who doesn’t like popular culture or mass-market pursuits. I enjoy the output of actors, musicians, and professional athletes as much as anyone else.

(Note: The NBA is not my thing. I had to run a Google search to ascertain which NBA team LeBron James plays for. But I do follow Major League Baseball.)

Since I am not a real person to most celebrities, however, I have made it my policy to repeat the favor of studied indifference.

And yes, I have a story to prove this: the time I ignored Molly Ringwald, more than 30 years ago.

My hometown of Cincinnati is not a place that draws many celebrities. Some do wander in from time-to-time, though. Over the years, Cincinnati has become a destination for filmmakers who want a Midwestern location that doesn’t look like New York or Los Angeles. The best-known movie to be filmed in Cincinnati was Rain Man (1988). There have been a handful of others.

The “toothpick scene” from Rain Man, filmed in a Cincinnati-area Italian restaurant

I was a student at the University of Cincinnati in 1988, when some scenes from the movie Fresh Horses were filmed on campus. The star of the film, Molly Ringwald, was then in her youthful prime. (As was I; Ringwald and I are the same age). For about a week, Molly Ringwald and the other members of the cast, including Andrew McCarthy and Ben Stiller, made some appearances on campus.

I did catch one glimpse of Molly Ringwald from a short distance away. Her red locks—particularly when she was sporting 1980s-style “big hair”—are quite distinctive. She was standing at the edge of one of UC’s quadrangles. She had just arrived, apparently, and hadn’t yet been mobbed with autograph seekers.

‘Fresh Horses’ vintage trailer.

I could have talked to her, I suppose. She was right there, and shyness has never been one of my problems. And while not exactly her Number One Fan, I had seen most of her movies. She made movies for teenagers in the 1980s, after all; and I was a teenager in the 1980s.

I didn’t approach her, though. What was I going to do…ask her on a date?

I did say to myself, “Hey, that’s Molly Ringwald over there. Huh.” Then I kept walking. I had a class to get to.

That’s my rule of thumb: If you see a celebrity in the wild, take a look—that much is probably unavoidable—and then leave him or her alone. Keep walking, and let them do the same.

They just aren’t that into you; and if you’re that into them, then…well, you might want to ask yourself what’s missing in your life, in your version of the real world.

They’re nucking futs at Harvard again: the Carole Hooven ordeal

Carole Hooven is a lecturer at Harvard, in the field of human evolutionary biology.

That single sentence tells us that Hooven probably isn’t a rightwing ideologue. To begin with, she studies evolution, and any good Bible-thumper will tell you that all of Creation occurred in six days, with the Almighty resting on the seventh. End of conversation.

Hooven also teaches at Harvard. My guess is that, given the Stasi-like environment at Harvard nowadays, you don’t get to teach at Harvard in the first place if your politics are much to the right of Joe Biden’s. The ideological vetting for a new prof at Harvard is probably just as stringent as the academic vetting, if not more so.

***

But Carole Hooven has been denounced as “transphobic” by her Harvard students and colleagues in recent days.

What did she say? It must have been really bad, right?

I’ll let you be the judge of that.

What Carole Hooven—a scientist— said is that there are two sexes, and that biological sex is real.

Then came the usual uproar. The social media outrage. The sputtering denunciations. The shouts of alarm, because such talk could lead to fascism, ya know. Didn’t Donald Trump say something like that once?

Laura Simone Lewis, a PhD candidate at Harvard, took to Twitter and called Carole Hooven’s affirmation of biological sex “dangerous language”.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that if terms like male and female are now “dangerous language”, we’ve become a bit too politically correct. I could be more blunt, and say that we’ve gone stark-raving, over-the-rails, fucking nuts. But I won’t say that. I’ll merely say that we’ve become too politically correct.

I live in Ohio, so I probably don’t know much. But I can tell you this: I spent a lot of time in farm country while I was growing up.

I would like to tell you animal husbandry stories in which two mares successfully impregnated each other. I just haven’t seen it. I also have yet to see two male dogs produce puppies…or piglets or chicklings, for that matter. 

I’ll get back to you, however, when I do see something like that. The horse farms, in particular, would be delighted, as stud fees can be quite expensive. Most of them would think that mares impregnating each other is an excellent idea.

But again, I have yet to see it.

This begs the question: should the farmer now ask the rooster if ze identifies as a hen?

Oh, that’s absurd! you say. Well, in this brave new world of ours, the lines between absurdity and political orthodoxy are extremely blurry. We therefore need to ask: are we still allowed to refer to two animal sexes? Or is that “dangerous language,” too?

Hooven’s Harvard critics would probably nod at this point, and congratulate me for taking instruction. Yes, yes, it is dangerous to speak of roosters and hens as if these terms were anything more than patriarchal social constructs! Say “rooster and hen” today, and you’ll be goose-stepping through the town square shouting “Sieg Heil!” tomorrow. It’s a very slippery slope.

***

I guess I’m kidding…or I wish I was kidding. This is like something out of The Twilight Zone, or maybe Mad magazine.

Am I the only one who can’t decide if manufactured controversies like this are more sad…or more risible?

As a lifelong student of history, this reminds me of the darkest days of the French Revolution, when a person might be sent to the guillotine for inadvertently failing to address a neighbor by the revolutionary title, citoyen (“citizen”).

But at least the Jacobins weren’t offended by roosters and hens. This is more than we can say for the academic cream of Harvard—once a great university, now a far-left ideological loony bin.

Music from the summer of ’88

It remains one of my missions here to remind readers (especially those too young to remember), that our culture wasn’t always as angry, self-destructive, and generally mucked up as it currently is.

Music reflects cultural mores, as noted in my previous post.

But the summer of 1988 was a happy time. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the US economy was booming, and the dominant mood was one of optimism. (You sure could use a bit of optimism nowadays, couldn’t you?)

In the summer of 1988, I was in college. During that summer, I worked as a bagger at Thriftway, a now defunct grocery store chain in the Cincinnati area. (I also did stints in produce and seafood, if you want to get technical about it.)

That was a summer of some great music. No protest music to speak of, just songs about falling in love, getting on a roll, or going for a drive with your girl (or guy) on a summer night. 

Below are some of my favorite songs from that long-ago summer of 1988. These are songs that take me back…and might take you back, too, if you were around then.

Aaron Lewis and country music counterculture

Country music has long stood athwart revolutionary leftism. Back in 1969, Merle Haggard hit the charts with “Okie From Muskogee”:

“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee

We don’t take our trips on LSD

We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street

We like livin’ right, and bein’ free

We don’t make a party out of lovin’

We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo

We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy

Like the hippies out in San Francisco do”

It’s pretty hard to miss the references in Haggard’s lyrics. In 1969, America was at the height of the student revolts, the drug culture, the protest culture, the counterculture. Also known as the hippie movement.

The hippies got quite a bit wrong. But at least the hippies made some great music, and they could be fun at times. They were a long way from the humorless, statue-smashing killjoys known today as the “woke”, the “social justice warriors”, etc.

Or maybe…the Man. In 1969, corporate culture was still conservative. The typical CEO was a country club Republican who would have agreed with Merle Haggard.

In 2021, though, most CEOs lean to the left—especially in the Fortune 500 and tech sectors.

And speaking of “the college dean” of Haggard’s lyrics. Fifty-odds years after “Okie From Muskogee”, our educational establishment leans left, too. Critical race theory isn’t being forced on our educators. Our educators are forcing it on children and their parents.

Ironically, this makes country music the music of the counterculture in 2021, if we define a counterculture as a movement or philosophy that is opposed to the values of those in power.

***

Which brings us to a new country singer for a new century: Aaron Lewis. His traditionalist anthem, “Am I The Only One” recently surpassed Taylor Swift’s latest efforts on iTunes. No small feat, we must agree.

Like Merle Haggard a half-century ago, Aaron Lewis doesn’t waste time with abstraction, or beating around the bush:

“Another statue comin’ down in a town near you

Watchin’ the threads of Old Glory come undone”

It doesn’t take a huge leap of interpretation to realize that Lewis is talking about the summer-long urban riots of 2020, in which mobs tore down statues—including those of Ulysses S. Grant, who fought to vanquish the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Aaron Lewis doesn’t  mince words, straddle the fence, or attempt to appeal to both sides. His concerts often include conversations with the audience about current events:

Music industry critic Bob Lefsetz, who seems to be a total tool, called on the Big Machine Label group to “cancel” Aaron Lewis. The record company politely told Lefsetz to go…well, you know…himself.

Aaron Lewis is one voice of the new counterculture. We can be certain of one thing: Lewis will not be invited to perform at the White House between now and January 20, 2025.

But after that, who knows? We may be in a different world by then.

Should you attend your high school reunion?

A 1986 high school reunion song from Eddie Money: “I Want to Go Back”

A young woman in my extended social circle (I’ll call her Brittany, because that’s her name), attended her 10-year high school reunion last weekend.

That brought back memories, of my own 10-year high school reunion…in 1996.

For those of you too young to remember, 1996 was just before the Internet As We Know It really took off. And as for social media? Well, Mark Zuckerberg was still in junior high in 1996.

I enjoyed that 10-year reunion. By that point, my high school years were far enough in the past, that there was a real sense of nostalgia. Even at my current age of 53, a decade is a long time. At the age of 28, though, a decade is more than one-third of your life.

But that 10-year reunion was also close enough to my actual high school years, that the connections and memories of actual high school still seemed relevant.

Roughly half of the class was married by that time, and a few people had young children. (Several of the married women were visibly pregnant at our 10-year-reunion.) But in 1996, real adulthood was all still very new, for practically all of my classmates.

***

I attended the 15-year reunion, too, as well as the 20-year. (My class has them every five years.)

Something began to change around the 20-year reunion in 2006. By that point, people had solidified into lives that were distantly removed from our school days. For many, this was the full immersion of helicopter parenting, and soccer-momming and -dadding. For a few others, it was immersion in demanding careers.

I remember one young man, who in high school had been extremely bright, but also happy-go-lucky, known for his sense of humor. In 2006, he had become a humorless, harried corporate attorney. A different person, really.

By 2006, we had been out of high school for two full decades, and those old memories, and old relationships, simply weren’t as relevant anymore.

***

But I didn’t swear off high school reunions. Not yet. Unlike many people drawn to writing and storytelling, I had a happy childhood and a basically positive high school experience. Looking back on it, my youth—my adolescence—were pretty close to idyllic, compared to what many people have to go through.

Did I want to hold on to all that….even as I sensed that it was slipping away? Heck, yeah, I did.

Then, by the 25-year reunion (in 2011) pretty much everyone was on Facebook. I was no longer curious about people from high school, because I saw them on my Facebook feed every morning and every evening. I knew many of their kids’ names and ages, and what sports they played.

I also realized that by the quarter-century mark, high school was really far in the background. Many people had changed, some to the point of being unrecognizable. It was at the 25-year reunion that the reunion committee made everyone wear name tags for the first time.

***

I did not attend the 2016 (30-year) reunion, for reasons that had nothing to do with the reunion itself. I therefore can’t say much about that. But like I mentioned, they’re every five years for my class.

The 35-year reunion is coming up, and…guess what? Half the class is mad at the other half.

Over the 2020 election, of course. And conflicting interpretations of the 2020 Black Lives Matter riots, and the January 6 Capitol Hill protest that became a riot.

Oh, and vaccines, too. I have classmates who call the deliberately unvaccinated “selfish assholes” on Facebook. I also have classmates who are anti-vaxxers.

This year and the last one saw a wave of unfriending on Facebook among my classmates. At least two people unfriended me. I didn’t unfriend anyone myself. (But I lose my temper far less often than I make other people lose their tempers.)

***

And to think that when we were in high school, Donald Trump was a tabloid magazine real estate tycoon. America was locked into the prosperous, stable, center-right consensus of the 1980s.

I don’t remember anyone arguing about politics in high school. What were we going to argue about? Vietnam? We were all too young to remember Vietnam. There were no culture wars in the 1980s, as we know them today. The main issues of the 1980s were the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation. These matters were so big that they were beyond the ken and concern of suburban high school students.

But the 21st-century culture wars have invaded every corner of American life…even high school reunions.

***

My 35-year reunion is coming up in October. I am leaning toward not attending. I’m not mad at anyone about politics, or Facebook shenanigans. But the political squabbles and unfriending of the last eighteen months may have been the proverbial last straws.

When I graduated from high school, Ronald Reagan was POTUS, there was still a Soviet Union, and the fax machine was cutting-edge technology. Whitney Houston, Madonna, Journey, Heart and Van Halen dominated the Billboard Hot 100.

The world is different today, and so are we. My classmates aren’t the only ones who are not the same people they were in 1986, or even 1996. I have changed, too. Somewhere deep down, I’m still the same person that I was 35 years ago. But I’ve settled into a different, older version of myself.

What about the past, though? I would still tell you: I enjoyed my adolescent years, including high school. I am leaning toward not attending my class reunion in October not because I’m mad about high school, but because it was such an idyllic period for me.

The present, however, is not so idyllic.

***

While I maintain regular contact with a few of my classmates, most of them I see only at reunions…and on Facebook. Based on what I saw on Facebook this past year, I might prefer to remember some of them as the adolescents they were, without worrying too much about the adults they’ve become, and what they now believe.

And yes, I’m sure there are at least a few of them who would say the same about me, if asked.

I don’t want the messy, contentious present to pollute the purer, simpler past. That’s a very self-indulgent and dreamy way to assess the matter, I realize. But hey, this is high school we’re talking about. Let it remain what it was, when it was perfectly okay to be self-indulgent and dreamy.

R.I.P. Dusty Hill

I am part of the MTV generation. I turned 14 in 1982, the year MTV took off.

ZZ Top’s breakout album, Eliminator, came out in 1983. The music on the album was certainly quite good, and has stood the test of time. I think it’s fair to say, though, that MTV was pivotal in ZZ Top’s breakout success. MTV, alas, was a highly visual medium.

And ZZ Top was a very visual band. The group also mastered the MTV format.

ZZ Top was known for its two frontmen, Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons. With long flowing beards and fedoras, Hill and Gibbons were anachronisms even in the early 1980s. 

Dusty Hill passed away earlier this week, from undisclosed causes at the age of 72.

Requiescat in pace, Mr. Hill. You made some fine music, which brings back fond memories for millions of Gen Xers like me.

***

And now, in honor of Dusty Hill, my favorite ZZ Top video, for the song “Legs”.

Both the song and the video are everything the 1980s was, and the present decade is not: sensual, unashamed, and (most of all): fun

 

The Olympics, quitting, and what people tell us when we quit

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, to put it mildly, have not gone well.

To begin with, the 2020 Olympics are being held in 2021 instead of 2020, because of the COVID pandemic. But only about 14% of the Japanese public is fully vaccinated at the time of this writing. Many Japanese aren’t happy about holding an international spectator event under these conditions, and there are signs that the Tokyo Olympics may be turning into a super-spreader event. There were news reports of Japanese citizens protesting their own Olympics.

For Americans, one of biggest disappointments came when champion gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of the competition. Biles did not drop out due to a physical injury, but for (in her words) “mental health” reasons.

This generated a controversy, along the now usual lines. On one hand, Jayson Tatum, a forward on the Team USA Olympic basketball team, called Biles a “hero” for prioritizing her mental health over competition. Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist, called Biles “weak” and “a shame to the country.” Folks on both sides have been making similar arguments on social media, especially on Twitter.

Biles, Tatum, and Kirk are all much younger than me. Simone Biles was born in 1997, Jayson Tatum was born in 1998, and even Charlie Kirk was born in 1993. Kirk is a Millennial; while Tatum and Biles are Zoomers.

I’m a bit older than that—a member of so-called Generation X.

Perhaps these three are arguing about what competition and perseverance will mean to the next generation. Perhaps that is an argument for the younger generations to work out among themselves.

***

Likewise, we should all acknowledge that whatever her success—or lack thereof—as an Olympic competitor, Simone Biles is a world-class gymnast who has worked hard to get where she is, even if she moves no farther. Furthermore, gymnastics is a sport that requires extreme mental concentration. A gymnast who is not mentally present could potentially harm herself, given the heights and aerial acrobatics that gymnastics involves.

This is my way of saying that I don’t know enough about what Simone Biles does to pass judgment on her, one way or the other. What I can tell you is what happened to me, when I dropped out of a competition, more than 35 years ago.

***

It was September 1985. I was a senior in high school, and also a member of my school’s cross country team. I was a good runner, if I say so myself. That season, I would qualify for the Ohio state championships. The previous spring, I had done well in the 1-mile and 2-mile events in track. One of my 2-mile runs from the 1985 season would remain a school record until 1993.

But on the particular day in question, the weather was unseasonably warm. Early September in southern Ohio can be as brutal as the dog days of July or August. That day, the mercury soared to perhaps 90 degrees Fahrenheit. There was no breeze, and a high level of humidity.

A high school cross country race is 3.1 miles long. Under competitive conditions, that is not an all-out sprint, but it’s fast. To keep up, let alone place, you aim for 6-minute miles.

I was about halfway through my run when I felt the full impact of the heat and humidity. I had run in the heat and humidity many times before—all during that previous summer, in fact. But there was something about the heat and humidity that day that had a particularly potent effect on me.

I began to feel light-headed, even as I was falling behind. I lost my mental edge. I choked.

And I dropped out. I exited the path where everyone else was running, and I walked back to the starting point.

***

I apologized to my teammates and my coach. Cross country is both an individual sport and a team sport. What the individual competitor does—or doesn’t—accomplish affects the placing of the entire team.

The captain of the team was another senior. His name was George. When I told George what had happened, he said simply: “You should have finished.”

George did not berate me, he did not go on and on about how I had failed. He didn’t call me a quitter or a loser. He let it go at that: “You should have finished.”

***

Nothing more was said that day about my performance—or my failure to perform. I remember thinking, in the days after the race, that I had let my teammates down that day.

Not that I hadn’t wanted to complete the race. I had. But to complete the race would have required me to dig deeper into my mental and physical reserves. The simple truth was: I hadn’t wanted to dig that deep.

I might also have been guilty of resting on my laurels. After all, I was a good runner; and by this time I had a reputation as a good runner. What was the big deal, I figured, in choking in one race, and dropping out?

The big deal was that I let my team down. And I let myself down, too. More than 35 years later, I still regret not completing that run.

***

In the years since then, I have often looked back to that hot September day in 1985, and what George said to me: “You should have finished.” But what if George had called me a “hero” for dropping out? What lessons would I have learned instead?

Which brings us back to the 2020 Olympics, and the controversy over Simone Biles withdrawing from the competition. I can’t speak for Ms. Biles and I won’t attempt to. But for my part, I’m grateful that I wasn’t praised as a hero for dropping out of a race in 1985.

How Kindle Unlimited readers behave

Written Word Media, which owns both Free Booksy and Bargain Booksy, recently published a study on Kindle Unlimited (KU) readers, and how they behave. 

Here are the big takeaways:

  • While Amazon does not reveal KU enrollment numbers, there are probably about 3.3 million active members. (That is approximately the 2021 population of Utah.)
  • Kindle Unlimited readers most eagerly devour romance, fantasy, and mystery.
  • Many Kindle Unlimited readers are “whale” readers. (Especially the romance readers, one suspects.)

The study suggests that horror doesn’t do well in KU. On the contrary,  I’ve found that my horror titles do get a fair degree of love in Kindle Unlimited. The Rockland Horror series has done well in terms of KU page reads, with relatively little advertising. 

On the other hand, my espionage thriller, The Consultant, draws more buyers than KU readers. And my corporate thrillers, The Eavesdropper and Termination Man, barely get any KU page reads at all. 

Readers read what they want, and writers write what they want. No harm, no foul. If I were writing romance or urban fantasy with young adult protagonists, I know that I would be getting a ton more page reads. But…I just can’t. 

The preferences of KU readers are neither good nor bad. But they are something that every writer should consider, when deciding whether or not to enroll a specific title in the program. 

***

Are you a writer? Read the full report from Written Word Media here.

Are you a reader? Click here for a FREE Kindle Unlimited trial.

Listening to ‘Fevre Dream’ by George R.R. Martin

Long before he was known as the novelist behind the HBO series Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin wrote a vampire novel called Fevre Dream.

Fevre Dream is set on the Mississippi River, just before the American Civil War. Abner Marsh is a riverboat captain who is down on his luck. Joshua York is a vampire who needs a human partner for an atypical “mission”.

Originally published in 1982, Fevre Dream is one of GRRM’s best works. I understand that A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones has become a veritable force of nature in recent years. But many of Martin’s earlier works are just as good, and require much less of a time commitment. (Martin also wrote tons of short stories and novellas, many of which have been compiled into two collections that you can get on Amazon.)

The vampire of Fevre Dream is not a supernatural creature, but a separate-but-similar race of quasi-humans. This alternative interpretation of the vampire is now common, but it would have been innovative in 1982. 

The interplay between the two main characters is the best part of Fevre Dream. Abner Marsh is a gruff but good-hearted riverboat man. Joshua York is an urbane antihero who is trying to overcome his bloodthirsty nature. Abner and Joshua need each other, and yet their basic worldviews are very much in conflict. The perfect dramatic setup.

Throughout the book, there is a competing group of evil vampires in Louisiana, who will ultimately come into conflict with Abner and Joshua (who gathers other “good” vampires to him). This plot device, too, is now common. But once again, it would have been original in 1982.

The Mississippi River is also a character in the book. George R.R. Martin is originally from New Jersey. But he spent some time as an instructor at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa during the 1970s. Dubuque is situated on the upper Mississippi. Martin would have gained a familiarity with the river during his time in Iowa, and that familiarity definitely shows up Fevre Dream.

I initially read Fevre Dream back in 2009. My rule of thumb is: If ten years have passed since I read a particular book or saw a particular movie, the story may be worth experiencing again. None of us is the same person we were a decade ago, and so a story will mean something different to us after an interval of ten years. (We’ll also, in most cases, have forgotten significant portions of the plot.)

Another difference is that this time, I’m listening to the audiobook version of Fevre Dream. As I noted in a previous post, I have developed the habit of listening to audiobooks while I mow my lawn and do other yard work. And this is July, the season for such things. 

**View George RR Martin’s Fevre Dream on Amazon**

‘Major Tom (Coming Home)’ by Peter Schilling: 1980s rock moment

A handful of German musical acts made the US charts in the 1980s. Most of them were in the genre of new wave/synthpop. 

Perhaps the best known was Nena, with her “99 Luftballons”. Then there was Falco, with “Amadeus”, in 1986. 

And then there was this guy: Peter Schilling. The above song, “Major Tom (Coming Home)” has been a bigger deal since the 1980s have been over, than it ever was during the 1980s. The song was used in the 1980s spy drama The Americans, and several other films about the last decade of the Cold War.

Honestly, I was very into music in those days, and I barely remember this song. It peaked at 14 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1983. I should remember it better. Perhaps the two FM pop/rock stations in Cincinnati weren’t very enthralled with it. (I do vaguely recall seeing the above video on MTV.)

That said, this is a song that captures a key part of the musical zeitgeist of the 1980s. Rock musicians in those days were not afraid of doing bombastic songs with overly ambitious themes. This was not only the over-the-top 1980s, it was also the Cold War. Thanks to Carl Sagan, there was a renewed interest in space, and the space shuttle was still a relative novelty.

That all came out in the music. Themes of space travel and nuclear war were therefore common, as well as all manner of futuristic themes.

***

‘Major Tom’ is a quirky, moody song, with a refrain that I find oddly captivating.

There is no love plot in this song, so far as I can tell. Nor can I tell you exactly what Peter Schilling was trying to say here. But I like the result.

Speaking of Peter Schilling: I understand that he has had a long, successful career in his native Germany. In the US, he is mostly known for this song. 

***

Note: Before someone emails me…Like all good music fans of the 1980s, I am aware of the Scorpions. But the Scorpions were not new wave. (They were heavy metal.) The Scorpions were the biggest German musical act of the 1980s; but they are in a completely separate category, and in a class by themselves. 

 

Kindle Vella: some reactions from writers thus far

I haven’t yet taken the plunge into Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. This isn’t because of any principle-driven objection on my part. I actually like the idea of serial fiction.

What I don’t like are the genres that presently dominate serial fiction on sites like Wattpad: YA romance, teen werewolf fantasies, and (of course) endless stories about teenagers with super-powers.

Nothing wrong with any of these categories, mind you. But I’m a 53-year-old adult. I don’t play in those fields, and have no interest in starting now.

***

Vincent V. Triola is another 50-something writer. Having perused his online footprint, I suspect that his politics are a bit to the left of mine. (That’s okay, most writers have politics to the left of mine.) But we’re both old enough to remember the pre-Amazon, pre-Internet literary world. I suspect that Mr. Triola, like me, spent some time in mall bookstores in the era of Ronald Reagan and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Mr. Triola is pessimistic on Vella, having dipped his toe into it. Writing on Medium, he describes Vella as “a writer-driven marketplace”. What this basically means (for those unfamiliar with Wattpad) is that most of the readers in a given literary marketplace are fellow (and competing) writers.

This is perfectly acceptable on Wattpad, which is youth-centric and mostly free. Wattpad also appeals to the generation that loves social media, and lots of step-by-step peer group engagement. My teenage years ended long before Instagram and TikTok, but I can easily imagine hormone-soaked, teenage brains lighting up with every social media “like”. We are all pack animals below the age of twenty-one or so.

But this community-based, social media-esque approach isn’t as appropriate for a paid platform like Amazon, where most readers aren’t hawking their own books and stories, too. There is nothing wrong with readers who are also writers, of course. But when that becomes the entire basis for a marketplace, the marketplace tends to become incestuous and spammy. (I’ve definitely seen this on YouTube, with all the “sub for sub” comment spam.)

As evidence for his claim, Triola notes that Vella has been almost exclusively marketed to authors thus far. This is a fair observation. I interact with Amazon as both a reader and a writer. I’ve received all Amazon’s communications about Vella so far via my writing communication channel.

Finally, Triola mentions that Amazon emphasizes the youth-centric genres that comprise most of Wattpad. There is only one tag for nonfiction. But “nonfiction” includes everything from historical biographies to automotive repair, to horticulture.

***

On the other side of this coin, some of the writers in several Facebook groups where I lurk are quite bullish on Vella. Almost all of them, however, write in the YA fantasy and/or romance fields. Back to some of Mr. Triola’s points.

Also, Amazon does now have a large banner ad for Vella on the front page of the Kindle store. So if Amazon isn’t exactly pushing Vella at readers, it isn’t exactly hiding it, either.

***

What is Amazon’s longterm strategy with Vella? Vella is obviously intended to be a Wattpad-killer, and Wattpad, as noted above, is all about YA fantasy and romance.

My guess is that Amazon realizes that YA fantasy/romance readers and writers tend to be “different” from readers and writers in other genres.

For one thing, the boundaries between readers and writers tend to be a lot more fluid in these genres. Note the prevalence of YA fan fiction. No one writes fan fiction based on the novels of John Grisham, Michael Connelly, or Clive Cussler. But there are online oceans of fan fiction for Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games—all of which are focused on a predominantly youthful market. The Wattpad format is appealing to writers of fan fiction because of the low barriers to entry.

Also, this group, being younger, usually has less disposable income. As noted above, Wattpad is a mostly free platform. Amazon is probably uncertain about the long-term monetization prospects for Vella, beyond the writers who are presently participating. (As an adult reader, I have very little interest in paying for serial fiction installments, for whatever that’s worth.)

***

We shall see. No one knows how Vella is going to turn out, or if it will even exist a year from now. After all, Amazon has in the past killed initiatives that proved unprofitable or unmanageable, like Kindle Worlds.

For now, I’m going to continue my wait-and-see approach with Kindle Vella.

‘Neverknock’: quick review

On Halloween 1986, three young people lose their lives in a series of supernatural events at an abandoned house. The house becomes an urban legend. In the present day (circa 2017), a group of teenagers accidentally awaken the house’s dormant powers. The forces inside the house take the young people down, one-by-one. 

That’s the setup for the Syfy original film, Neverknock.

When viewing (or reviewing) any “Syfy original” movie, one is wise to set the bar low. That’s what I did when I sat down to watch Neverknock

The urban legend is an inexhaustible source of horror film and fiction. I can’t fault the premise of Neverknock, but there are some issues with the execution.

The opening incident involves some over-the-top phenomena, making it difficult for the viewer to suspend his sense of disbelief. It only gets worse from there. There is a monster that appears repeatedly throughout the film that looks like a leftover from a 1980s horror film.

The cheesy special effects are a big part of the problem with this movie. Watch A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) today, and the special effects will look amateurish by today’s standards. But A Nightmare on Elm Street was made almost 40 years ago. Viewer expectations have changed since then. (That’s even true of older viewers like me, who can remember A Nightmare on Elm Street when it first debuted at the cinema.

The bottom line is this: If a filmmaker doesn’t have the budget for modern special effects, the best option is to not attempt them.

And this is quite possible. Sometimes the best horror is found in what is left unseen, to the imagination. But Neverknock shoves it in all your face, and what it shoves at you simply isn’t credible. As I watched the movie, I could not help noticing the figurative zipper in the figurative monster suit.

The acting was decent, given that this was a movie about mostly vapid teenagers who are killed off in rapid succession in gruesome ways. I especially appreciated the performance of Dominique Provost-Chalkley (of Wynonna Earp fame). Hers was the only character with any real depth.

Some movies linger with you for days, for reasons both good and bad. This is a movie that you’ll forget within a few hours of watching it. 

‘The Empty Man’: quick review

In 1995, four twentysomethings are hiking through remote Bhutan. Once of them is infected with a tulpa, a spiritual being that is created through deep, mystical concentration, according to Tibetan lore.

The other three young adults are killed.

Decades later, in 2018, young people in a Missouri River town begin acting strangely. Then some truly horrific things happen.

That’s about as much as I dare tell you without getting into spoilers.

This movie had a very interesting premise, certainly an original one. There were a few genuinely creepy moments. The mystery within the film, moreover, was so tightly concealed that it kept me guessing till the end. 

There was a noticeable problem with the pacing, however. The screenwriter and producer tried to pack too much story into a 2 hour, 20 minute-movie (which was already long, by today’s feature film standards).

The result was an uneven progression of the plot. There were portions in the middle that seemed to drag. Meanwhile, the ending was kind of rushed.

This is an example of a movie that would have been better as a miniseries. There were multiple storylines, and a complex premise to begin with. A lot to tie up in a little more than two hours, and the the makers of The Empty Man didn’t quite succeed.