Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Mirror: The Real Magic of Christmas

Leaving aside the eternal debate about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie or not (it is in my opinion), most people have a favourite. Christmas movies, in my opinion, are not only those about Christmas, but those set at Christmas time and those which capture the true spirit of Christmas. There is a huge catalogue of Christmas movies which are usually viewed at Christmas time, and so it was that as this Christmas approached we decided to watch a few. We kicked it off a little early with Christmas Jars: a new film for which we had a free double pass. Christmas Jars is a terrific film. Heartwarming and funny and completely safe for family viewing, unlike many modern PG films.

The next one we watched was a film on Amazon Prime called Lucy Shimmers and the Prince of Peace. If you're allergic to Jesus and Christians and people praying in movies, or if you're resistant to the idea that people practicing Christian faith can actually have a major positive impact on their lives and the lives of others, then give this one a miss. Christmas Jars is a Christian film but not explicitly so. It's a story about generosity. Lucy Shimmers is unabashedly evangelical, but lest that turn you off, let me make it clear that the theme of Lucy Shimmers is redemption and redemption is a also a major theme of Christmas. The birth of Jesus Christ was the first stage in God's plan to redeem us.

It's a little hard to talk about Lucy Shimmers without giving the story away, but switched on viewers will figure it out quickly anyway. Spoiler alert. Lucy is a five year old girl who is dying. She starts seeing and talking to her dead grandfather who is an angel. He helps her, more than anything or anyone else, to deal with her illness. In hospital, she meets Edgar a convicted criminal who is also dying. Lucy visits other patients in hospital as well, and makes friends with them all, blessing them with kind words and time. Lucy also writes a book about a dream she had. The way all these threads are tied together is magical. As with Christmas Jars, you will need tissues to watch Lucy Shimmers. Unless you have a heart of stone, this film will mess you up. Lucy Shimmers and the Prince of Peace perfectly demonstrates the power of love and grace.

In a different vein, Last Christmas is also rated PG but it's the kind of PG which makes you wonder what the film classifiers were drinking when they viewed the film. (Lots of sexual references, one night stands, a lesbian relationship, and bad language. While viewers will fall in love with Lucy Shimmers immediately, and not long after also feel great compassion for Edgar, in Last Christmas it's a struggle to feel anything but antipathy for Kate who, like David Lavender in my novel Loathe Your Neighour, is highly skilled at making bad choices. She comes across as reckless, selfish and oppositional. However, once the viewer learns the reason for Kate's behaviour, there is automatic compassion for her. There's real character progression in this story which, apart from the twist which blew me away, is what kept me interested. The catalyst for the transformation/redemption of Kate is her encounter and subsequent relationship with a mysterious person who (spoiler alert) it turns out is also an angel. Incidentally, if you're a George Michael fan, he provides the entire soundtrack for Last Christmas.

All of these films show the viewer something magical and Christmas is magical. It's over now for another year. As I write, we are heading into a New year in which everyone is placing their hope. COVID-19 wrecked 2020. 2021 will be better. It can't be any worse. This is what people are saying, but for me hope is in Jesus and the power of love and grace to redeem us, to save us. The magical thing about Christmas is that God became a man in order to deliver us from hopelessness. Not to make out lives perfect. Not to remove trouble and suffering but to show us the value of it.

It's easy to watch films like Christmas Jars and Lucy Shimmers and the Prince of Peace and dismiss them as corny, feelgood films in which the characters don't act like real people, and the outcomes are literally incredible. It's easy to watch the redemptions of Edgar in Lucy Shimmers and Kate in last Christmas and write them off as glib. It can't be that easy, and let's face it, happy endings only belong in fairy tales, not real life. That kind of cynicism traps people in circumstances which they don't like, but they needlessly accept. The hope of the producers of these kinds of films is not just that the viewer will be entertained but that they will be transformed.

Why not give anonymous gifts (Christmas Jars), befriend lonely strangers (Lucy Shimmers) or volunteer at a homeless shelter (Last Christmas)? Why not try to solve your problems by looking beyond them? Irrespective of whether you believe in angels or not, why not talk about them as though they were real? Why not let hope so take root in your heart that you fell invincible? Why not share with others the grace God has shown you? What harm can be done by being more loving, more kind, more thoughtful and more generous?

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

A Dog's Eye: The Ultimate Investment

I didn't read The Barefoot Investor from cover to cover, but I still reviewed it and I'll
explain why. I didn't read it all because not all of it is relevant to me at the moment. I gave it a five star review because it rings true. Despite the failings it shares with all self help books, it has an undeniable credibility. It is also inspirational, funny and very practical. This is the kind of book you buy and read through, then re visit those sections of most interest depending on where you are at. Later, you'll pull it off the shelf and dive in for some more wisdom from someone who clearly knows what he's talking about. I felt really encouraged after reading The Barefoot Investor. 
If you're a bit messed up with your money -most people are- get yourself a copy.

It's probably a timing's definitely a timing thing for me. I added this book to my 'to read' list two and half years ago when I was in the middle of a financial crisis. I didn't read it then, but as I had hit rock bottom, I sought help elsewhere, entering into a Part 9 debt agreement with a debt consolidation company. The type of company which Scott Pape doesn't endorse, mainly because they charge a lot for the service. It cost me over five thousand dollars in fees to have this company help me, but it has been worth every cent.

I was never good with money and the yardstick by which I measured success was how often I struggled. For most of my adult life, I have just gotten buy. Always having to make decisions based on the cheapest option, or whether a particular purchase was necessary or not. Saying no more often than yes, and much more often than I wanted to. I learned quite late that I was a stingy person. I had inherited, or absorbed by observation, the parsimony of my father. I also made selfish decisions about how to use my money, some of which had terrible consequences. I am still living with the consequences of those choices.

Over the years, I've learned two major lessons about money.

1. I am called to be generous, not stingy. There are many verses in the Bible which speak against stinginess, but when I read this one, I was convicted. Years and years of calling myself a good steward of money, and being careful, covered up a mean spirit.

"One person is generous and grows all the more wealthy, but another withholds more than he should and comes to poverty."                                                  (Proverbs 11:24)

2. God is my provider. When I lost my job in 2018 and was down to my last two hundred dollars, I recall looking in the mirror, and seeing the anxiety written on my face. God spoke to me, asking a simple question: 'Do you trust me?' For most of my working life, I worked for wages: regular pay deposited into my account. My lifeblood. The second great lesson I learned when I answered God's question honestly with a 'no', was that Christ is my lifeblood. After confessing that my trust was not in God, but in my job, I decided to really trust God instead of just saying that I did. Very soon afterwards, I got a job; a very good job in which I am still employed.

"My God will supply all your needs according to his riches in Christ Jesus."     (Philippians 4:1)

How does this post about financial security connect with Christmas. Simple really. Among other things, Christmas is a celebration of giving. We celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, God's greatest gift to mankind: the messiah, the saviour. His was the ultimate investment; an investment in people. In us, his children. This investment is a gift which keeps on giving because God is so generous.

The Barefoot Investor speaks only very briefly about the virtue of generosity, but it is in fact the true key to financial freedom. God is generous and we should be too.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

A Dog's Eye: Launching Scorpions

My sixth novel was unleashed on the world last week. Scorpion's Breath joins shelf mates, DevolutionLoathe Your NeighborAshmore GriefA Muddy Red River and Love Sick Love.

I started writing Scorpion's Breath while I was working on Love Sick Love, but it got shelved until such time as I could write that kind of story. It was really only an idea, perhaps a dream to write something fun and light; something easy to write and entertaining for the reader. In short, because of how emotionally intense it was to write Love Sick Love, I wanted to write something different. Unfortunately, the circumstances of my life at that time exacerbated my somewhat negative feelings, and strengthened my resolve to get it all out of my system.

When I finally returned to the idea of Scorpion's Breath, I wrote it quickly and easily. Divorced from any auto biographical content, and removed from reality, it was a chance to have a party. Scorpion's Breath is a literary version of a personal happy dance. 

Although not without humour, my earlier novels dealt with much more serious themes. Grounded in reality and focused on dysfunctional relationships, they reflected the challenges of my personal life, as well as the every day sights, sounds and experiences which I have always integrated both into my writing and into my character.

I can't remember the origins of
Scorpion's Breath, but let's just say I love The X-Files and Supernatural, so certain elements from these two iconic television series have no doubt influenced it. However, I've never been satisfied with the post modern narrative which champions relative morality and always raises a human saviour. One of the things I liked about The X Files is that they avoid always needing rationalistic explanations for the weird stuff Mulder and Scully encounter. Funnily enough, Supernatural presents supernatural explanations for everything, and yet our human saviours, Sam and Dean Winchester, always triumph. These exceptional shows blur the lines between right and wrong, between natural and supernatural, allowing the viewer to make up their own mind. I am not a humanist though, so I feel the weight of what is missing.

I am a supernaturalist who is fascinated by religion and mythology. As a Christian, I've chosen my path and made my stand, but that does not stop me exploring the world I can see as well as the one I can't. I view it all through the prism of my faith in Christ Jesus, which means I see echoes and shadows in many people, places and situations. The interplay between the worlds is what I explore in Scorpion's Breath, but that is not all. It's also about relationships, about power and about forgiveness. And did I mention there are lots of demons?

Let the reader extract what they will with respect to deeper meanings, but let them be entertained while doing so. Scorpion's Breath is supposed to be fun, but naturally I have something to say. I always have something to say. I guess that's one of the main reasons I write. When no one but God is listening, or those who do listen don't understand, I can 'put pen to paper' and I have a voice. I'm learning, growing into a better man and writing is an important tool for me to facilitate this growth as I work my way through the rollercoaster ride we call life.

Friday, November 27, 2020

A Dog's Eye: Taught by the court

I've appeared in courts of law four times in my far. Each time I was in a different role, and at a different stage of my life. Only my most recent experience was without considerable anxiety. Many people I know have never been to court and in the normal course of events, most are unlikely to. It is not an experience to which anyone of sound mind aspires, nor is it normally considered positive.

In 1983 I was fifteen years old when I found myself in the Sutherland magistrates court charged with several offences relating to the theft of a motor vehicle. The vehicle in question was the same one in which the police found us pretending to sleep one night. I pleaded guilty to the charges, knowing I was guilty of numerous others for which I had not been called to account. Most seriously, I was guilty of breaking the trust of my parents. Having been sentenced to a two year good behaviour bond and fined, I accepted my punishment and determined to end my criminal endeavours.

In the late 1990s, I was at university. I returned to my car after a lecture to move it because I had been parked in a two hour parking zone. I did this not only because I did not want to be fined but also because I had been cured of 'criminal' behaviour. Unfortunately my effort to do the right thing resulted in a parking fine which I decided, as was my right, to contest in a court of law. At this appearance in the Redfern magistrates court, I was anxious despite believing myself to be in the right. Memories of my previous appearance many years earlier and the not often publicly declared warning about 'little guys' taking on the system in courts of law, played on my mind. The result on this occasion, following the ranger who issued the parking infringement denying that my car was in a different place when he booked me, was a reprimand from the magistrate. His Worship said that although I was not guilty of breaking the letter of the law, I was guilty of breaking the spirit of the law. I was ordered to pay the original fine plus court costs. I have never repeated the action which led to my second court appearance.

In my third court appearance, (2015) I was representing my fiance at the time in a custody case against her ex partner. I became something of a lay expert on family law, spending hours poring over evidence and legislation to put together a case which resulted in what I thought was a satisfactory outcome: a win. I regret doing that. Although my intentions were good, getting involved to that extent was another sign of the dysfunction of that relationship. The series of mediations, the long trail of emails, and the hearings themselves at the Family Court were intense, emotionally draining and resulted in me sometimes losing the better parts of myself inside the worst parts of myself. The battle to maintain my integrity was constant. That description fits my relationship with that person as well. God forbid, I should ever find myself again in such a situation. 

I've just returned from Brisbane where I travelled to appear in a trial at the District court as a character witness for the defendant; a friend and former colleague of mine. I agreed to help my friend without hesitation, and so it was with confidence that I presented my statement to a jury in the presence of a judge. The case lasted four days. My part lasted somewhere between five and ten minutes. I was one of four character witnesses, but equally important to what I said in court was my presence. My friend had this very heavy dark cloud hanging over his head for well over a year, having been charged with a crime he did not commit. I'm sure the fact we were physically present with him, helped not only his case, but also him personally. I had to return to work so I was not in court to hear the verdict, but our prayers were answered. My friend called me to tell me the outcome. He was so excited and relieved, I thought he might somehow jump through the phone. His main job now will be to forgive his accuser and move forward with his life. This will be very difficult. Very difficult.

In all of these cases, I have no problem with the decision of the courts. There was justice for all, and there were also lessons to be learned. This is not always the case. For me, I am thankful that my appearances in court have helped shape me for the better, and in the most recent case, helped a friend avoid the more serious and permanent consequences of injustice.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

The Mirror: Peace in the midst of angry birds

 I'm almost always behind the times with respect to fashion. Whether it be clothing, technology, music or whatever, I'm not an early adopter. I've even been known to deliberately avoid really popular bands or TV shows. Coldplay and Game of Thrones would be notable examples. I don't like the former and I've never watched the latter. All that is by way of introduction to this post, the title of which obviously refers to the video game, Angry Birds. Released in 2009, it quickly became a sensation. I recall playing it a few times and being angered by it rather than entertained.

In 2016, long after the game had dropped off the radar, Sony pictures produced a film based on the game. Due to its success, they made a sequel in 2019. Which brings us to family movie night last night. My daughter chose Angry Birds 2. When I told her I had not seen Angry Birds, she said she hadn't either, so eventually I was able to explain to her the logic of watching the original movie before the sequel.

The main character in Angry Birds is Red, who has a problem with his temper which sees him sentenced by the judge to anger management classes which is the  most severe punishment available. I'll now point out the obvious irony in case you missed it. Red is an Angry Bird who lives on Angry Bird island, but gets into trouble with the law for his anger fueled actions.

Interestingly, I thought Red's main problem was his negative attitude. He was a sarcastic whinger who ended up living outside of town, on his own, because nobody liked him. Later in the film, the audience is invited to feel sorry for Red because he was orphaned at an early age and was bullied at school. However, and this brings me to my main point, Red had a choice about the kind of bird he became. He could blame circumstances and blame others, but ultimately he was free to choose how he responded and reacted to to the happenings and birds in his life.

It may seem like a long bow to draw; perhaps even an insensitive one, to now talk about Viktor Frankl's powerful and best selling book, Man's Search for Meaning, but it's relevant. There is a connection. Of all the truly profound things, holocaust survivor Frankl says, the one that really struck me was where he talked about the final and ultimate freedom that all men have irrespective of the horrific situations they may find themselves in. The freedom to choose how to react.

"Everything can be taken away from a man, but one thing, the last of the human freedoms-to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Another book I am reading at the moment is called Finding the Peace God Promises. In it, author Ann Spangler suggests that much of what we get angry about isn't worth the energy we expend, nor the time we waste. We rob ourselves of peace by fighting wars that are either unwinnable or unnecessary. In a world where most people are struggling for control, our attitude is one area which causes conflict but one which we can control simply by making good choices.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Snake Oil: Democratic Trump

Based on outgoing US President Donald Trump's strong anti China stance, my wife was hoping he would win another term in the White House. She's from Vietnam, whose government is essentially a Chinese puppet regime. She's one of the proud Vietnamese citizens who resent Chinese interference and control. It was either on my first or second trip to Vietnam that I found myself in an anti China protest march on the streets of Ho Chi Minh's city District One. I remember well the depth of feeling in that crowd.

My wife is so anti Chinese that we are not allowed to purchase products made in China unless there is no other option, and even then, sometimes not. She loves politics and is very up to date with the news, although I would question the objectivity of what she reads. She suspects the Chinese people she meets in her new home, Australia, of being spies and has a general dislike for China's citizens and Australian Chinese immigrants.

She's open minded enough and intelligent enough to be learning from her personal experiences that painting everyone with the same brush is not only only wrong, but quite racist. On the question of the value of Trump there was no point arguing against it. "Make America great again", she would quote at me.

Anyway, steering around the topic of the 2020 US presidential election, was relatively easy. I find politics fascinating but am more interested in my homeland, Australia, than America. I was quite ambivalent about Donald Trump from the beginning and remain so today. In some ways, I admire him, in others I find it had to respect him or take seriously what he says. It's not my intention to discuss US politics in general or to specifically comment on the one term presidency of businessman Donald Trump. I know enough to know that I shouldn't be writing extensively on topics about which I have limited knowledge. I'm also wise enough to realize that some arguments are not worth having.

The Aussie and US political systems are quite different beasts, despite a number of similarities. Perhaps the most significant difference is that, unlike Americans, Australian's do not vote directly for the leader of their government. Here are some other notable differences:

  • The US President is both head of state and head of the government. The Australian Prime Minister is only head of the government.
  • The executive arm of the government in America is appointed by the President from people outside the congress (ie.,parliament in the Westminster system). The executive arm of the Australian government are elected members of parliament.
  • US Presidents serve fixed four year terms, Australian Prime Ministers serve for around three years and can call early or late elections as they see fit. Unlimited terms for Prime Ministers, maximum two terms for Presidents.
  • Australians must vote in elections. Americans can take it or leave it...and the majority do exactly that.

In the Gettysburg Address, democracy was described as government of the people, by the people, for the people. Churchill famously said that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others. Roosevelt and Gandhi felt that democracy would fail without education. Bertrand Russell though that democracy simply gave fools the right to vote which he contrasted with dictatorships which gave fools the right to rule. Many famous people have made fascinating and insightful comments about democracy since its birth in ancient Greece up until the modern era in which democracy is a popularity contest and its actors men who are regularly lampooned and criticized no matter they do or don't do.

On balance, I'm pleased Donald Trump was defeated by Joe Biden, but America is not a country I hold in especially high regard, and its doubtful that the change of president will result in anything but a return to normal (pre Trump) transmission which if nothing else will be far less controversial, polarizing and antagonistic. What will it mean for me personally? Not much.

Having avoided upsetting my wife by not arguing against Trump and his often embarrassing behaviour, nor being unsympathetic to her views and the background underpinning them, I will continue to enjoy a peaceful relationship with her. I will also continue to be choosy about what I accept as truth, knowing full well that snake oil and politics go hand in hand.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

A Dog's Eye: Publicity at Pee Wee's

"As Mark settled himself at a table inside Peewee’s at the Point, he gazed out through the window across Fannie Bay to Darwin city. He sighed with contentment as he soaked up the exclusive ambience of one of Australia’s top restaurants. His contentment was devoured by the anxiety he felt about the salience of the occasion, and his bewilderment. What was he doing here? Less than a week ago, he had been dining with Lisa at The Jade Palace. This was a significant leap up the social ladder, and the company, although not as attractive as Lisa was bound to be intoxicating. He ordered a James Squire Sundown Lager, and a Puglises sourdough with wattleseed butter and bush tomato relish for an appetizer."

These words were penned some time in 2012 and later published in chapter 22 of my third novel, Ashmore Grief. The year of publication was 2013. I had never been to Darwin, nor did I imagine for a second that I ever would. Mostly set in Darwin, the novel was researched on the world wide web. The restaurant featured above, Pee Wee's at the Point, is one of Australia's top restaurants. I chose it as the setting for the important meeting in the narrative because of its prestige. I sent a copy of Ashmore Grief to the restaurant manager, as well as to television and radio personalities who I reasoned might be interested in this topical novel, and perhaps give it some much needed publicity. Despite the issue of asylum seekers entering Australia being a hot topic in 2013, and some favourable press, Ashmore Grief seemed destined for obscurity. 

In 2016, I moved to Darwin to take up a new job and a commence a new chapter of my life. I never made it to Pee Wee's though, because it never seemed like the right time, and I didn't have the budget for it. (It actually isn't as expensive as imagined). It remained a dream of mine for many years: something I would do when the time was right and I had the right people with whom to celebrate.

Last Thursday night, I finally dined at Pee Wee's at the Point, with my wife, two younger children and my mum who paid for the meal. Mum is her on her fourth visit to Darwin, and said on this occasion that she would like to take us out for a special dinner. I suggested Pee Wee's and the rest is now history.

The restaurant's service was exceptional and the food outstanding. I felt extremely relaxed and happy; it was quite dreamlike. 

My plan was to take a copy of the book to the restaurant and take a few photos. Mum suggested I ask to see the manager, to tell them about my visit and the connection between Ashmore Grief and Pee Wee's at the Point. I went one further by reading the excerpt above to the manager who was quite happy with that. She requested a signed copy which I dropped off to her a couple of days later. At that time she requested a photo with me and the book.

The total experience was mystical and wonderful, and whether it leads to anything or not, I will always treasure it. The new dream about me and Pee Wee's involves an elaborate launch of my 8th novel, Satan's Choppers (set again in the Top End.). I haven't even started writing the first draft yet, so that one is a way off. However, my first Pee Wee's dream took 7 years, and I'm a patient man, so stay tuned.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Snake Oil: Book reviews

What makes a good book review? Do you read reviews before you buy or read a particular book? Or do you read some reviews when you've finished reading the book? Maybe a little of both. Do book reviews influence your decision to purchase/read a book? Do you trust book reviews? Do you write reviews? Why or why not?

Despite predictions to the contrary, the book industry continues to thrive. Bricks and mortar book shops perhaps not, but there is no shortage of books being written, published, read and reviewed. In fact, in the 21st century, the digital publishing age, there are more books available than ever before. Many readers have switched to e-books only, but most use both paper and screens while only a few remain resistant to the use of technology. 

Book reviews are coveted by writers as one of the most effective weapons in their marketing arsenal. This is not only because they are usually free, but because they are personal. Advertisers are always targeting you, even if you belong to a specific demography, they are still trying to sell something to you. It's the power of a personal invitation, a personal call to notice what is missing in your life and recognize from where, or from whom that need can be met. A book review is no different to any other sales pitch. 

What makes a good review?

I've been a member and a reasonably active user of Goodreads since 2009. I've read and reviewed 328 books in that time. I also have an author page. I always try to keep my reviews quite short because I'm a fan of being succinct. I write like I shop. When I shop alone, I know what I want, I go and buy it and then I get out. When I write, I say what I have to say in as few words as I need to make my point, then I finish. Sometime earlier in the year, I taught a class called What a Novel Idea during which I taught my students how to write a good book review. I did some research and found a process which I thought was very simple and very effective. In fact, I still use this style.

  • I write a brief introduction to the review, and a description of the plot or subject matter.
  • I write about the things I didn't like.
  • I write about the things I did like.
  • I write a closing sentence with a recommendation.
Do you read book reviews?

I never read reviews of books before I read the book. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, I'm afraid of spoilers, and secondly, I don't want a review to prejudice me. For example, if a review suggested there was a certain fault with the writing style of the author, I would read the book in detective mode. This would detract from my possible enjoyment of the book. Finally, I have a general suspicion of book reviews. 

On the other hand, I often read some reviews after I finish because I'm interested in other people's opinions. I'm especially interested in hearing different perspectives on what I read. Themes I may have not considered, features of the story or the characters which I missed or didn't think relevant. Stuff like that.

Do you trust book reviews?

I think there are an impossible number of five star books on the market. If it looks like a duck and quacks like one, it's probably a duck. The preponderance of five star reviews looks and sounds like snake oil. I mentioned earlier that I've read and reviewed 328 books in the eleven years since I joined Goodreads. Among that number, less than 10% have received five star reviews. Three stars is a good read, a recommended read, a quality read in my opinion. Four stars is next level: now I'm impressed. It's a cut above. Five stars is the kind of book which frequently stopped me in my tracks, astounded by the brilliance of literary expression. Five stars means it made me feel something to the extent I actually laughed or cried. Or even felt anger or real suspense coupled with an elevated heart rate. Of the books below, only two received a 5 star review from me.

I could be simply a hard marker, or lots of people are super easily impressed, or...these reviews are rubbish. Snake Oil. Call me a cynic, but in the era of the e-book and POD publishing, competition for readers is fierce and five star reviews glitter like gold.

Do you write book reviews? Why or why not?

Especially for unknown writers like myself, I want to help, so I write general positive, but honest reviews for books I rate at three stars and above. If the book is not going to make the cut, I won't review it, but I will reach out to the author with some constructive criticism. If the author is famous or dead, or both, I don't feel the review has as much clout. Certainly not with the author and probably not with any of that author's fans. Neither a good review or a bad review is likely to be noticed. So why do it? Just to join the vox populi? Out of habit? Yes and yes, but also writing a review helps me to remember what I want to remember about that book.

I always ask people who buy my books to review them, but very, very few do. I guess by faithfully reviewing all the books I read, I'm making myself more comfortable with requesting others to do that for me. So now, you're wondering why I care when I said earlier in this post that I thought reviews were generally not trustworthy, and in my case had no impact at all on my decision to read a particular book or not. Again, it's probably my wave of making sure that when I criticize others for snake oil book reviews that I maintain my integrity by writing genuine ones.

How would you answer my opening salvo of questions? I'd love to hear your views.

Friday, October 9, 2020

The Mirror: Instant Drop in Standards

 Back in 1984, my 15 year old friends and I went to see a film which legally we weren't supposed to be able to see. I was able to buy alcohol as well around that time thanks to looking older than I was, and the slackness of those who sold the grog. I live in Australia's Northern Territory and I need to show my ID every time I buy alcohol at a bottle shop. I'm pretty sure I look over eighteen now, but we have a banned drinkers register up here, so no ID, no booze. Late in '84, I'm pretty sure the person who sold me movie tickets to Scarface (rated R) didn't even look at me to see whether I was old enough, and they certainly didn't ask.

How did I feel about seeing a film with sex, nudity, very frequent coarse language, graphic violence, gore, and intense and frightening scenes? Let me just say, there's a reason such content is restricted to adults.

That was 36 years ago. Thirty six years. In the 1980's you never heard swear words on TV. There was no PG rating, but they had one called NRC (not recommended for children under 12), so films with a rating lower than M would generally have been considered okay for older children. There would not have been any course language or strong violence and certainly no nudity or sex, not even suggested or implied sex. TV was also very safe during prime time, generally speaking.

Of course, it's possible, I'm viewing the past through rose-coloured glasses, but I feel like there was a lot of safe, harmless viewing for children, even as recently as the late nineties and early 2000's when my older children were growing up.

I would have bet my life on a PG film being safe for my two younger children, now aged fourteen and eleven respectively. In fact, I tell them when it's their turn to choose, that anything PG is okay for us on family movie night. There's been a not of a blurring, a lowering of standards in my view, but it's been such a slow fade I wouldn't be able to pinpoint when it happened. At what point did someone say it was now okay to use the word "shit" multiple times throughout a PG rated film? When did nudity and strong sexual allusions become okay? Realistic violence? Did I miss something? There's no other way to describe it other than as a slow fade.

What brought this all to a head for me was last week's family movie. I'd previously considered this one, but baulked and, in it's place selected the pathetic Jack and the Beanstalk which I wrote about in a previous post. I hesitated and chose another film instead of Instant Family because of the advisory warning. These are good. These advisory warnings because they add detail to the rating. Okay, it's PG but why? What is it exactly that makes this family film not for general exhibition. Instant Family actually rated M today, but I swear it was PG on Saturday. Anyway, it's rated M with a content advisory saying its suitable for children aged 13 and over...which is what I thought PG was.

My point remains though, albeit minus my star attraction in the witness box. There are PG films with mild sex scenes, coarse language and medium level violence listed on Amazon Prime's ratings list. I reckon PG is no sex, no coarse language, and mild comedic violence only. But I'm swimming against the tide, I know that. When parents take their children to the cinemas to see M rated films, and they say that's okay because they are superhero films.

I admit to being conservative which may lead me to the continuation of this tiresome belly-ache. Rather than making clearer my already completely transparent views, I'll turn my attention to the film which started it all. It's ironic that it appears to have been my mistake which led me to having to try to explain 'dick pic' to my eleven year daughter. I chose an M rated film which contained frequent uses of 'shit'. And there were some fairly intense dramatic scenes and violence. You can see why I was shocked. And you can probably also see why I'm a little sheepish about my protest. Protest? Let's be honest, it was a rant; a baseless rant, (but not entirely baseless).

I'll be more careful next time.

Instant Family, by the way, is a terrific film. A highly recommended heart warmer.

Monday, September 28, 2020

A Dog's Eye: Centimetering closer

It's not even a word, you know. Centimetering. And to make it a word, I have to use the US spelling of metre which is meter, otherwise it reads as metring. This doesn't seem important. In fact, it seems I might be writing a blog post for the sake of it; without any real propulsion via innovative thought. That might be the case. I can certainly see how it might be perceived that way, but perhaps I'm trying to say something really profound. I usually do. At least I usually try to be thought provoking.

Okay, it's time to drop the pretense. On this occasion, I really don't have anything to say, so I'm using a writing technique which has always existed, but more recently become known as pantsing. Many of you will recall that in your school days pantsing was the act of pulling down another person's pants in order to embarrass them. Nowadays, this is considered sexual harassment. Pantsing in writing is the act, someone would say the 'art' of writing with no fixed plot or resolution in mind. In this context, the term itself was born from the expression to fly by the seat of your pants. Whether, I'm working a novel, a short story or a blog post, I don't usually pants it. However, on this occasion I am, but let me explain how I am going to tie these loose threads together.

There are times when life appears to move forward gently and uneventfully. This movement may be rapid, but it won't be perceived that way. There'll be no sense of the frantic, chaotic, full of surprises type of adventure. Things will seem relatively peaceful, not dull or devoid of activity, but steady and manageable. In my experience, it's not typical for life to meander. In my in between period, while I was waiting for my wife to be given permission to move to Australia, I was far less busy than I am now, but life still moved along quite steadily. I had less to do, and more time to do it. I wasn't necessarily anymore or less relaxed or peaceful. She and the children have been here for nine months now. Just like that. Life is much busier and time appears to be moving quickly, but not more or less quickly than it was before.

mpus fugit when you're having fun" is merely a matter of perception. If you concentrate, you can slow down and enjoy what might ordinarily be a blip on the radar of time. You can advance towards the future at a more comfortable and leisurely pace. When something progresses slowly, incrementally we say it inches forward. The problem with that saying is that it's a bit of an anachronism because we've been using the metric system in Australia since 1966.

So, I'll say life is centimetering forward because I choose it to do so. I don't wish away every moment of drudgery so I can get to the next thrill. I don't start work on Monday, gloomy, then proclaim the joy of Friday. Even when I am sick, as I am now, I'm careful not to wish the time away.

Time is one of the many areas impacting on our lives over which we have limited control. I can't create more of it. I have as much of it as I have which is the same as everyone: twenty four hours a day, seven days a week etc. I can make some things happen faster. For example, I can set my alarm and wake up earlier, then brush my teeth faster, but I haven't created more time, I've simply created more space within the time I have to do something else. My attitude can also affect the perceived passage of time.

Scorpion's Breath
will be released in December. I'm slowly working on the sequel, The Sorcerer's Tusk. I had to shelve plans to publish I Used to be an Animal Lover which I thought, and still think is a great idea, but nobody else did and without any money, I can't proceed with self publishing. I've been waiting over 20 years now to make it as an author, but I'm still wandering around in the forest of obscurity. You might say my writing career is centimetering forward, but you might just as easily suggest to say so would be an exaggeration.

There you go, seven hundred and thirty eight words written by the seat of my pants. I hope you don't feel that reading them was a waste of your time.

Friday, September 11, 2020

The Mirror: Indifferent Beanstalks

Here's a quote from someone who I directed to check out one of my books: "I just read the blurb and it filled me with indifference."

Here's a quote from me after discovering a movie which I thought might be a suitable choice for our family movie last Saturday. "I just read the blurb and it filled me with indifference."

One of the above quotes is genuine, the other is an attempt at humourous mimicry.

I watched Jack and the Beanstalk (2009) in spite of my better judgement; a little voice whispering against choosing it. I heard words like 'been done before', 'no A grade cast members' and 'little chance of this being even good let alone great.' Yet, I watched it and to be fair, it had some good moments. Sadly, it had a lot more bad moments, mostly relating to the writing which was so hit and miss it instigated a bout of motion sickness. Christopher Lloyd and Chevy Chase were in the supporting cast but only because they needed some cash and were between real jobs. There was an overall pall of amateurishness.

That last sentence possibly helps explain why I didn't like Jack and the Beanstalk. It also offers a potentially valid reason why the man who read the blurb for my best novel to date (in my opinion), had the temerity to be honest about his level of interest in reading it. Although he started off saying he didn't like reading romance in any form, I was ridiculously overconfident about the power of Love Sick Love's blurb-did I mention it is without doubt my best literary work so far?

What is of most interest here, as I wind my way with painful sloth towards the point of this post, is that I ignored my indifference and watched the film. I decided to give it a crack. My Twitter mate was not willing to go there, and as someone I know often likes to say, that is the problem.

In my endeavour to sell my work, I have a lot of competition. What is my point of difference? How do I raise my voice above the noise of the crowd? How do I stand out on the canvas of life? Even having a quality product does not ensure success. The cream does not always rise to the top.

I suspect most people aren't like me. They will judge a book by its cover and not read it, or if the cover works and carries them to the back of the book where lies the blurb, they may still pull out of the deal if said blurb leaves them feeling indifferent. Furthermore, if they buy or borrow the book there is no guarantee they will finish it. Finally, once they've read the book they won't write a review. They may not even tell anyone about it unless it was outstanding.

Since joining Goodreads six or seven years ago, I've read and reviewed 326 books. On only five occasions have I decided to give up and not finish a book I had started. I review every book I finish reading. I ask people who finish reading my books to review them, but very few do. Even when it was a condition of several giveaways which I have run on Goodreads, people still don't review. I'd settle for mediocre or even bad reviews if only people would talk about my books.

If only every one was like me. I make connections with authors on Twitter and buy their books, then review them. I've done that on a number of occasions, hoping for reciprocation, or at least a thank you...hoping in vain. I share people's posts, help promote their businesses and their causes. For many of my friends on Facebook, it's one way traffic. I must be mad to expect so much of people.

There's too much to do, too much to know, too much to share, too many books, too many movies and TV shows, too many variations of the same product on our supermarket shelves. There are too many re makes, too much re branding, too little innovation. If I gave you three magic beans in change for your cow what would you do with those beans. There just aren't enough Jacks in this world. Most of us are too comfortable with what we have, and either too lazy or too scared to try new things. Indifference. Apathy. Let's plant those beans and ride that towering beanstalk to the great unknown. Read a book by an author you've never heard of. Write a book review and post it on Amazon. Support a cause just because someone asks you too.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

A Dog's Eye: Seekers V Truth Seekers

There are some people who seek truth and some people who just  seek. I want to examine this profound quote of mine by writing about two men from completely different worlds. One is living while the other is long dead. One is a very famous philosopher; the other a moderately famous philosopher. The former was a writer of books, the latter is a writer of songs. Both men thought very deeply and reflectively on life-origins, purpose and endings-before they put pen to paper. 

Here is just one sample of the lyrics from a song written and performed by American metal core band, As I Lay Dying of which one of our two men, Tim Lambesis, is the front man.


What is certain I have ignored
I have spent most of my life
Trying to complicate everything that I believe
So that while paralyzed
In thought I will always have an alibi
Just another excuse (just another excuse)
To hesitate (to hesitate)
Delaying true progress with passivity

The answers that I've found
Are all the same
They uncover questions
That still remain.

The other man, who lived in the 4th century, is Saint Augustine. His mother was a Christian but he dismissed her faith as a crutch for simpletons. He then began a search for higher happiness via the medium of education, investigating the philosophical teachings of Aristotle and Plato and those who followed, to re interpret or re imagine what had already become the chief pursuit of man: happiness. One of the key questions was whether happiness should even be a goal of life, and if so, was it possible to achieve?

Most people nowadays will honestly and easily tell you that one of the main purposes of this thing we call life is happiness. You will no doubt have heard someone, perhaps many people, say as an addendum to a conversation about choices and consequences 'as long as you are happy.'

Augustine searched everywhere for the elusive key to happiness-the meaning of life, if you prefer. In the end, like Solomon he found nothing truly worthy of his attention. Every thing was vanity and chasing after the wind. Naturally this discovery made both men miserable. Augustine ultimately returned to his faith and wrote his most famous book, The City of Godin which he very clear outlines the case for why the earthly quest for happiness is an exercise in futility. The lasting influence of Augustine on the universal Christian church cannot be overstated. At age 76, he died a champion of the Christian faith and remains so to this day.

As I lay Dying frontman, Tim Lambesis seems to have been on a journey himself, and this is most clearly seen in his very honest and introspective lyrics. His struggles with faith resulted in him abandoning his belief in God, and hiring someone to kill his wife after their marriage broke down. The hit did not occur, but Lambesis,was arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder. He was later convicted and spent six years in prison, before rejoining his band and producing another high quality metal core album: Shaped by Fire. His current standing on matters of faith is unknown and entirely his own business.

For most people the search for happiness as the ultimate goal and purpose of life results in disappointment, at best, or devastation at worst. Although, the search for happiness is doomed to failure, still we pursue it. Everyone searches for meaning in life, for happiness to help ease the inevitable pain, but not all of these seekers find what they are looking for.

When Jesus said that those who seek would find what they were looking for, he wasn't talking about happiness. What are you looking for? And what kind of seeker are you? 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

A Dog's Eye: L plates

L plates are squares of magnetic vinyl or plastic which are put on cars and other motor vehicles to indicate the driver of that vehicle is learning to drive. It is a legal requirement for the L plates to be displayed on both the front and rear of the vehicle. Except for motorbikes, the learner driver must also be accompanied by, and supervised by a fully licensed driver.

Exhaustive research* into the effectiveness of L plates for learner drivers has shown two things to be inarguably true.

  1. L plates have zero impact on the learner driver.
  2. L plates, despite the intention of law makers, have minimal impact on the behaviour of other drivers.
  3. L plates should be worn by adults, irrespective of whether they are driving a vehicle or not.    
In one sense, everyone is a work in progress. Nobody's perfect is a cliched often used by those who make mistakes or those who overlook the mistakes of others. However, cliches become cliches because they contain truth and hence are often repeated. Everyone makes mistakes. 

Mistakes may have one of two primary causes: carelessness or recklessness. Carelessness implies a lack of forethought to the potential consequences of one's word or actions. Recklessness suggests the consequences may have been considered but not seriously. Reckless people often believe they are immune from normal outcomes. There will be some degree of selfishness involved in decision making. A reckless person may predict possible negative consequences, but will decide the potential benefit to themselves outweighs the danger.

The next level in this progression is the heartless person who deliberately chooses to hurt people. Calling such harmful actions 'mistakes' would be a ridiculous understatement.

How do we live? How do we fit in? How do we get on in the world? How do we achieve contentment and live peaceable and productive lives? L plates please, while we figure it out. L plates for those who are still learning life lessons. Do I mean all of us? Or am I perhaps referring to special cases? Particular circumstances which may have happened to me recently?

My wife is learning to drive a car in Australia. She's an experienced and quite skillful motorcyclist who's used to driving on the right hand side of the road. Controlling speed and acceleration with her foot is something she is still familiarising herself with. We may have ventured into traffic a little prematurely. My wife may not have been ready for what she encountered in her first few driving 'lessons.' This may have been a mistake on the part of her instructor, and I may be that very person responsible for pushing her a little hard.

Nevertheless, there we were waiting to make a right hand turn from our street onto the main road. To cut a long story short we ended up stopped in the middle of the road, blocking cars coming from both directions. Immediately to the right of my wife was an angry driver. No harm had been done. We had simply delayed him, but he was going off his brain. If was difficult for my wife to shake off this experience and keep driving, but she did, because she's awesome.

The driver of the other car thought of nothing except the impact of the incident on himself. His anger and verbal abuse achieved nothing. No doubt he recounted the story to the next person he spoke with, and has probably retold the story many times since, with all manner of embellishment. He might often explode like that when people upset him, or we may have caught him on a bad day. However, the point is that uncontrolled expressions of rage are not uncommon. Moreover, such lack of self control is symptomatic of someone who is still learning how to manage their emotions.

Emotional intelligence is taught to children in schools nowadays, and so it should be, but teaching something -whatever it is- does not guarantee people are learning. We could wear L plates to indicate we are learning how to navigate some aspect of life or life in general, but that very action requires the kind of humility which is obviously absent in may people I encounter.

Despite all this philosophizing, it's possible the non L plate wearing driver who blew up at my L plate wearing wife is simply a tool: a rude, thoughtless and selfish man. Never mind. No one's perfect,

*I am not aware if any such research


Sunday, August 9, 2020

Snake Oil: Two monumental lies

I believed two lies which informed my life practice for decades, underpinning every decision I made. I learned these things indirectly, by observation and experience, and in the case of one of them, I was so deceived that I didn't even realize I was enslaved to a false and harmful philosophy. Both parsimony and lasciviousness ruled me as secret tyrants.

While these powerful, yet hidden lessons controlled me, I proclaimed my normalcy. It is not an unusual thing for a man to be careful with money, especially if he has a family to support. Saying no is a crucial sign of strength. It is also quite normal for a man to be frequently having inappropriate thoughts of a sexual nature, and even acting out these thoughts in some way. Saying yes is a crucial sign of strength. I learned these things from my father.

1. A man is not generous. He is stingy and controlling.
2. A woman is a thing for a man's pleasure. In sexual matters, a man does not deny himself, and women should accept that.

To be fair, Dad improved with age. he mellowed and became a better man. When he died, I lost one of my best friends. I still miss him and the great friendship we built over my lifetime, through many challenges. But dad taught me to be mean with money and to objectify women. 

I believe I was in my forties when I read this verse in the Bible: "One gives freely, yet grows all the richer, another withholds what he should give and only suffers want." (Proverbs 11:24)  I had considered myself a good steward of money, prudent and sensible, but upon reading this verse God told me I was stingy. I have been working on becoming more generous ever since.

In 2015 with my marriage over, partially as a result of infidelity on my part, I was sitting in church when an ad popped up on the big screen during the announcements segment. Upon hearing that this course, called Valiant Man, was about sexual discipleship, I felt God wanted me to do it. The course switched the lights on, exposing my slavery to the god of sex, and ever since I have been working on becoming a better man, a purer man, an honorable man who respects women.

One of the things I learned in the course was the value of emotional honesty and humility. Recognizing my behaviour in the arenas of 
money and sex, I had to admit I was a long way short of where I wanted to be. I wanted to understand myself and I wanted to change. I wanted, and I still want truth to change me.

In the individualistic and hyper-eroticized West, money and sex have become weaponized commodities. The great lie is that this is okay. This is the lie I believed most of my life because my father lived it out in front of me. I swallowed the snake oil, but I didn't know any better, nor did he. Now I've spat it out and rejected the lie.