Brown River Queen cover art

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Who's Reading My Books?

I've been compiling statistics concerning my readership, particularly of the Markhat books.

How do I collect this data, you ask?

Nosey, aren't you, I reply. But since you asked, I managed to crack Amazon's mysterious book-ranking feature, so I now have access to some data not available to the public. 

Here's how my readership breaks down, ranked in descending order of total impact:

  • Readers chained in my basement.
  • That guy who's been stuck in the Dakar airport in Senegal since 2010.
  • Mrs. M. O. Feinstien, of Flushing, who still disapproves of the name 'Markhat.' Sorry, Mrs. Feinstein, it's too late to change his name now.
  • The pair of NSA analysts who started compiling a dossier on me since I searched 'airports in North Africa' just a few minutes ago.
  • The students of Miss Krieger's fourth-year World Cultures class, who despite being in Liechtenstein were assigned 'Brown River Queen' as required reading material. I think this was a clerical error, kids, but my no-refunds policy is still in play. Deal with it, or, as they say in Liechtenstein, 'komm damit klar.' 
  • The Dalai Lama. Thanks for all the fan mail, dude, and yes we've totally got to 'throw back a few suds' one of these days. You party animal you.

Armed with this vast array of data, I can now fine-tune my marketing efforts. And by 'marketing efforts,' I mean increase the frequency of the beatings down in the basement.

 Way Out West has already garnered reader reviews on Amazon. My favorite of these is the one below, which is a direct quote from the book:

Well done, RedHerrin, well done! And thanks. 

Seriously, book marketing is hard. I really have no idea what to do -- blog tours? Tweets? A barrage of 'Hey read my book' posts (like this one)? 

I've decided against pretty much all of those avenues. My plan is to just work on a new book and hope people like Way Out West enough to talk about it. 

So this is probably the last time I'll mention the book, unless there is an actual need to discuss it. I will announce the availability of the print edition, which should be ready in a few days. It will be priced at $9.99, which is about as low as I can price it without actually losing money on each sale.

That said, here's one more link to the book, and one more picture of the cover, for anyone who missed the previous blog, which announced the book's release.

WAY OUT WEST for Kindle


And the cover, which I love with a love most unseemly:

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Way Out West

Here it is, folks.

The tenth title in the Markhat Files series, Way Out West, is now on sale in Kindle format on Amazon, and as a Kobo ebook from the Kobo site!

Here are the links:

WAY OUT WEST on Amazon, in Kindle format.

WAY OUT WEST on Kobo, in Kobo format.

Other formats will follow, probably later this week. There will be a Nook version, an Ibook version, and a Google Play edition. The print book will also be available on Amazon shortly.

I could have waited to do a full-spread release, but since 99% of my sales are Kindle ebooks, I decided to go ahead and launch today.

That's the cover above. I love this cover; the artist got everything right. I wanted Darla front and center this time, to reflect her equal role in the book. I think her expression is perfect -- she's clearly a woman to be reckoned with. 

The locomotive is there, too. The train in the book is named the Western Star, and I wanted it featured as well, since it's the setting. There's also a clue to a pivotal scene hidden in the cover, but that's for readers to discover on their own.

So what's this book about?

It's about home. About leaving home. About changes. About making those decisions that all of us face from time to time. Stay or go. Fight or flee. Play it safe, or take a chance.

I realized when I finished writing Way Out West that it was heavily influenced by current events. Like it or not -- and I don't -- our world is changing. Every year is the hottest on record. Society is in turmoil. There are storms brewing on every horizon, and unless you've got a vault stuffed with money, places to hide are hard to find.

Darla and Markhat are in the same situation. Old magic is creeping back into their world, changing the landscape as it moves and strengthens. Rannit's walls may have withstood the War, but they'll provide no defense now. Not when monsters stroll the streets.

That sounds dark. Yes, there are dark aspects to the book, but I hope you'll come away from the experience with a sense that there is still good in the world, most often right at your side.

Mama Hog is back, of course. So are Slim and Buttercup, Evis and Gertriss. Magic and murder, guns and sorcerers, wise-cracks and close calls -- it's a wild ride.

I hope everyone enjoys the book. And if you do, (ENGAGE BEGGING MODE) please leave a review. 

I'll post updates when the other versions go live. It won't be long, so if Kindle ebooks aren't your preferred format, don't worry.

I do hope you enjoy Way out West

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Not Long Now

If you've been waiting for the new Markhat book, your wait is nearly over.
Editing is done. A bit of formatting remains, but not much -- I expect to release the new book, WAY OUT WEST, in a few weeks. Maybe just a couple.
This will be the tenth entry in the series. For anyone unfamiliar with the previous titles, they are, in order, as follows:
And now, WAY OUT WEST.
Markhat has enjoyed quite a career, one I never saw coming the first time he walked onto the page and started cracking wise to all and sundry. He's faced murderous magics, grappled with sinister sorcereries, tackled mad magicians and phantom murderers and flat beers with equal aplomb.
So I'm thrilled to offer this latest adventure, and it's one I truly hope you enjoy.
I will tell you this much -- this one is set on a train. Specifically, a steam locomotive, bound for the wastelands left empty and in ruin by the War. The wastes are slowly repopulating, with towns springing back to life along the railroad, and Markhat's new case takes him to the end of the line.
Darla is a full partner in this story. I've come to enjoy writing her as much as I do Markhat. I've even toyed with the idea of a spin-off series featuring Darla'a own adventures, told by her (The Darla Diaries?). If someone can please provide me with an extra three to five hours a day, I'll get started at once.
Next week, I'll reveal the cover for WAY OUT WEST here in the blog.
Today, though, I'll provide you with an excerpt from the book. No spoilers, no secrets revealed -- just a single scene, to give you a taste until the whole book is available.
The scene takes place shortly after the Western Star leaves Rannit. They've just entered the plains, when the locomotive comes to a screeching unscheduled halt.
The bar car was pandemonium.
Shattered glass and spilled booze covered the floor. Half the occupants had their faces pressed to the windows while the other half made for the door.
Darla and Gertriss, bless them, were back to back by the door, pistols drawn.
“We didn’t do it,” I yelled, over the din. “Evis. Follow the crowd. Keep an eye out for long thin knives or people sneaking into sleeping compartments. Gertriss. Watch Evis. Darla. With me.”
Evis nodded and charged the door, Gertriss on his heels. Darla took my hand and we followed, shouldering our way through the crowd.
By the time we reached the platform between cars, the Western Star was stopped. Her steam engine still chugged, and her funnel still belched smoke, so I was at least reassured we hadn’t exploded. Yet.
I shoved a pair of hesitant riders aside and put boots on the gravel track bed. Darla hopped down after, and together we sprinted past the stopped cars, watched the whole time by rows of worried faces.
Gravel crunched behind us. I turned to see a small mob of brave souls following in our wake, led by the stumbling clown. He saw me turn and honked his red nose at me, nearly tripping from the effort.
The Western Star was nineteen cars, not counting the tender and the locomotive. I was huffing and puffing by the time we drew even with the engine, and unable to cuss when I saw what lay ahead.
“What the hell?” said Darla, who wasn’t even panting.
A mastodon, the biggest one I’d ever seen, was sitting on the tracks, waving its hairy trunk back and forth between its monstrous yellow tusks. And I do mean sitting—its back legs, all forty tons of them, were folded so that the beast’s wide ass was planted across the tracks.
The mastodon’s musk was so powerful my eyes began to burn, and I had to struggle not to gag. Horseflies buzzed thick about us.
“Those are Trolls,” said Darla, lowering her revolver and hiding it behind her skirt.
I nodded. Flanking the mastodon was a pair of Trolls, also seated, remaining still and silent in what I understood to be a Trollish gesture of friendly respect.
Huddled in a nervous mob at the locomotive’s blunt prow was Engineer Stoddard and a pair of sooty toughs I assumed were coal shovelers.
“Trolls and their horse,” I said.
“Why would they park their horse on the tracks?” Darla asked.
“Because they can park it anywhere they damn well please, I suppose,” I said. Engineer Stoddard turned, saw me, and smiled the kind of smile one reserves for delivering bad news to people you don’t like.
“Well, there he is,” he barked, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. “I’ve already sent for the basket of apples. You get to deliver it. That’s the Watchman’s job, dealing with Trolls.”
His burly fire-men snorted until Darla let them see her revolver.
“Apples?” I asked. “Why apples?”
Stoddard shrugged. “Because they like apples. How the hell should I know? They’re Trolls, they don’t make no sense. They stop the train. You give them apples, let them talk Troll bullshit until they get done. They move their Troll horse, and we waste a half a damned day getting back up to speed. That’s the job, fancy man. Now it’s your job. Here’s the apples.”
Rowdy came charging up, dragging one side of a bushel basket of apples while another conductor dragged the other.
“I’ll go with you, Captain,” Rowdy said.
“Hell you will,” snarled Stoddard. “That’s a Watch job. You’re with the C&E. Get back to your car.”
“Go on, kid,” I said softly. “I can manage.”
Darla stepped up and shot a killing glare at the engineer. “I’ll take this side, dear,” she said. Her revolver had vanished as quickly as a magician’s trick rabbit. “We wouldn’t want to impose upon the C&E by asking them to do a man’s job, now would we?”
I grinned and grabbed the other handle. Engineer Stoddard’s face turned the vibrant red of a ripe tomato.
“No indeed, wife,” I replied. “I’m sure they’ve got a full day of cowering to do.” I tipped my hat to the railroad men as we passed them. “Mind you don’t soil your underbritches, gentlemen.”
If they had any retort, the Western Star herself rendered it inaudible with a long billowing discharge of compressed steam.
Gravel crunched behind us, as the clown raced to catch up. “Don’t mind me,” he said. “Don’t worry about the Trolls, either. They’re friendly.”
“How do you know that?” asked Darla.
“Because we ain’t dead,” he replied. “Here, I’ll go first.”
And he did, charging up to the larger of the two Trolls before breaking into a clumsy, bumbling dance.
“That is either the drunkest man I’ve ever seen, or the bravest,” said Darla.
“Both,” I replied. The apple basket was heavy. We took our time, so I got a good look at both Trolls before stepping within smiting distance.
The rightmost was typical Troll—a towering mass of muscle and fur decorated with foot-long talons and piercing Troll eyes. He was naked, save for a cargo belt and an ornamental necklace made from weathered human skulls, each missing the lower jaw and strung together through ragged holes on each side of the cranium.
The Troll on the left was half the size of the other. His fur was dark, almost black, and though his eyes were every bit Troll warrior, they darted about constantly and something like a grin shaped his toothy maw.
“Is that a child?” whispered Darla.
“I think so,” I replied. “Unusual. They’re shy about bringing their youngsters around humans.”
The adult Troll started clapping in time to the clown’s ridiculous dance. “Ho, ho, ho,” it boomed, followed by a string of wet Troll words that might have been a cheerful greeting or a graphic description of the dismemberment to come.
We dragged the bushel of apples as close as I dared. “Greetings, Walking Stone,” I said, taking off my hat. “May your shadow fall tall and your soul grow to meet it.”
The Troll nodded but kept clapping. The railroad clown danced gamely on, gasping for breath but, by the Angels, keeping his too-large shoes shuffling in the gravel.
“Show him an apple before I have a stroke,” muttered the clown. “I can’t keep this up all damned day.”
Darla snatched up a ripe red apple. “For you and yours, Walking Stone,” she said, holding the fruit aloft. “A gift, given in friendship.”
The Troll ended his claps with a bellow and a laugh.
The clown dropped to his knees and vomited. Both Trolls erupted into fresh gales of laughter.
“It is good to be greeted with mirth,” boomed the adult Troll, in passable Kingdom. “We accept your gifts.” He switched back to a Trollish gargle, and the smaller of the pair marched forward, careful to keep his mouth closed and his fangs hidden.
“We are indeed a mirthful folk,” I said, as the Troll youngster approached. “Mirthful, friendly, and mostly unarmed. My name is Markhat. This is my wife, Darla.”
“I’m Jiggles,” said the clown, still mopping his chin with his filthy sleeve. “Pleased to meet you all, yer lordships.” He gave his false nose a desultory honk.
The elder Troll nodded. “We saw the wounded sky, and knew a hurried iron horse approached,” he said. “My son Iron-in-Legs wished to see his namesake, before we quit these lands.”
The Troll kid took the basket from Darla with a wink. He shoved a handful of apples in his maw and started chewing them before he turned and took the basket back to papa.
“Named after a train, is he?” I replied. “Well, that’s a first. Tell you what, Walking Stone. Why not bring your son on the train, let him have a closer look? He could even blow the whistle. Would he like that?”
The Troll tilted his head at me, and for an awful moment I was afraid I’d unwittingly delivered some dire insult. But then the Troll laughed and exchanged a few words with his son, whose responses were somewhat hampered by his mouthful of half-chewed apples.
“That would indeed be an honor,” the adult Troll replied at last. “Although our agreement with the iron road men does not extend to such liberties.”
“It does today,” I said, while Darla tried to shush me. “The iron road men will do as I say. Isn’t that right, dear?”
“I sincerely hope it is,” Darla said.
I made a sweeping gesture toward the Western Star. “Please, be my guests,” I said. “Bring your horse, if you wish. Our tender car has great big water tanks. He may drink from those.”
Darla bit back a snort.
“That is indeed most generous,” replied the Troll. He turned, and bellowed to the mammoth. It replied with a loud, clearly annoyed sigh and rose from its haunches to lumber up behind the Trolls.
I turned. “Follow us, friends,” I said, and I set off at a good clip.
“Mister, you should have been a clown,” said Jiggles. “You’ve got the damned mouth for it.”
“Never got the hang of juggling,” I replied.
“That engineer is going to be livid,” Darla whispered. “No wonder we’re never invited to parties.”
“Merely doing my part to establish trust and cooperation with our Trollish brethren,” I replied. Indeed, as the thunderous tromping of the mammoth and the Troll’s happy booming conversation reached the Western Star, dozens of faces turned our way. Most of the crowd milling about outside the train cars made their way hurriedly back inside.
Stoddard was the only man standing by the time my impromptu parade reached the locomotive.
“This is Engineer Stoddard,” I said, turning to face the Trolls. “He drives the hurried iron horses. He is delighted to meet you both, and he welcomes you aboard his train with open arms and a smiling, eager heart. Isn’t that right?”
“What the hell—” Stoddard began.
“Furthermore,” I added, “he invites your mighty horse to slake his thirst from the C&E’s complimentary and no doubt sparkling water. See that the tank car’s water cover is removed, Engineer Stoddard, that’s a good man.” I pushed the sputtering engineer aside and gestured for the Trolls to climb aboard. I’ve not spent much time around mastodons, but this one either knew the word water or his snout functioned as an exceptionally keen nose, because he was already pacing beside the locomotive, exploring its intricate workings with his trunk. “Follow me, gentlemen. Mind your heads. The opening may be a bit low for Trollish persons.”
Stoddard cussed but barked out orders. The mastodon eased tensions by lifting its tail and depositing a steaming ten-bushel heap of dung damned nearly in Stoddard’s face.
I swung myself up on the locomotive’s step and offered Darla my hand. I moved quickly inside to make room as a furry Troll foot came down on a locomotive’s iron bones for the first time in history, I guessed.
The pounding of human feet charging for the back cars sounded over the steady chugging of the steam pistons.
“It stinks,” opined the adult Troll, squeezing his nostrils shut. Even stooped and huddled as best he could, the adult Troll could barely fit his massive frame through the Western Star’s cramped locomotive gangway.
The younger Troll, though, managed to sidle his way all the way to the front of the engine. He gurgled out words that I’m sure meant ‘Look, Papa, shiny machines!’ before he charged directly into the engineer’s cab.
Stoddard, his face the color of burning coal, managed to squeeze himself past the Troll and plant himself firmly in front of the brass levers and wheels that operated the train. “If Trolls wreck this train, I swear I’ll see you pay for it,” he growled at me.
“Show him the whistle,” I replied. “The kid wants to blow it.”
Stoddard’s eyes bulged, but he reached up and pulled hard at a worn iron lever.
The Western Star’s steam whistle blew, three short blasts. “Tell him not to tear it out of the works,” said the engineer.
The kid didn’t need any prompting. His furry Troll paw closed on the lever and he yanked and let the whistle sound until Poppa Troll muttered something in Troll.
The kid let go. My ears rang, but I kept my smile.
“You can tell everyone you made the hurried iron horses sing,” I said. The elder Troll translated for me, and the kid responded finally with a single solemn Trollish nod.
“You do us honor,” said the elder Troll. He clambered down from the train and stretched, his briefly extended claws flashing bright and white in the sun. “Walk with me, as we depart.”
We walked. The kid took up the rear, stealing glances at the train and munching down apple after apple.
Darla came too, and didn’t bat an eye when the mastodon’s massive trunk, still dripping from his drink at the tank car, took a curious sniff at her hat.
“The hurried iron horse stank of more than the coal,” said the adult Troll as soon as we were well away from the train. “It stank of the magic your folk employ. The dark magic. You have a special word for such stinking magics…”
“Sorcery?” I asked.
“Yes. That word. Be warned. Such a stench alone is cause for alarm, for turning, for seeking a new path. But your peril is threefold. The radiant child approaches from the east. The gray fate from the west, drawn by the dark. This thing you call the train, it is to be a meeting place. You would do well to come with us. My horse may bear the happy burden of many friends.”
I nodded, choosing my next words carefully. “I am honored, Walking Stone, to be named among your friends. I must remain with the train, though, as my own friends are bound to it, and I am determined to see them safe.”
The Troll shrugged. He reached into one of the pouches attached to his belt, and produced a small bundle of weeds and sticks bound together with twine.
“Take this,” he said, tossing me the bundle. It smelled of sage and Troll. Mostly Troll. “You gave Iron-in-Legs a boon. I give a boon to you. This was blessed by a word from the Wise. Burn it in an hour of need. The smoke will bear the power of the word. May it serve you well.”
I nodded gravely. “I thank you, Walking Stone. You do me and mine honor.”
The Troll blinked, and we set out again, still meandering through the tall plains grass.
“You said earlier you are quitting these lands, Walking Stone,” said Darla, after a time. “Might I ask why?”
The Troll swiveled his big dark eyes about, and his voice fell to a hoarse Troll whisper. “Many things, dark and light, are awakening,” he said. “Waking, to walk. More join their number with every sunrise. The day is approaching when the old tales will be flesh, the old terrors born anew.” The Troll turned to look at me. “Do your folk not see this too?”
“We’ve seen,” I said, thinking of river monsters and the Slilth. “But what are we to do?”
“My folk seek our old lands, the lands of the low sun, the lands of ice and the skies of the cold fire,” said the Troll.
His son spit out a gob of apple-seeds and the elder Troll batted him casually on the back of his head.
“Just how far north are you heading?” I asked.
“As far as there is land underfoot,” he replied. His voice fell even further. “Though the wise among us say that may not be far enough. Even the face of the Moon is troubled, friend. This is a new thing that even the Wise have not seen.”
Darla’s hand closed on mine.
“We wish you well,” I said, when the mastodon halted, and the Trolls gathered by its side. “Safe travels, and warm beds.”
“It is a brave man who chooses to walk with death,” the Troll replied. “A brave wife who walks beside him. May your shadows fall tall and your souls grow to meet them.”
Darla gasped. She knew enough about Trollish etiquette to realize what a profound gesture the Troll just made by speaking the traditional blessing to us.
Both Trolls made flat-footed flying leaps from the dirt to the mastodon’s furry shoulders. The elder Troll bellowed, and the mastodon turned and trundled away north, trailing horseflies and stink.
Darla and I watched them go.
I didn’t realize for a moment she was shivering. It wasn’t cold.
“Look, that was all a lot of frontier hooey,” I said. “Trolls are worse than Mama Hog when it comes to seeing boogeymen behind every bush.”
“That’s absolutely factual,” said Darla. “But you know damned well everything he said was true. Every word of it.”
I frowned. “Radiant children? Gray dooms? Sorcery on the train? Someone knifed a Watchman, sure, but that’s just plain old murder.”
She turned to face me. “Even Bel Loit won’t be far enough, will it?” she asked. I could see her eyes moving, see her taking in the empty grassy plain, the wide blue skies, the retreating mammoth and its riders.
“Nothing coming but tomorrow, hon,” I said. “It’ll be just another day. Only difference is that I’ll be slightly more distinguished, and therefore irresistible.”
She kicked me in the shins, but her heart wasn’t in it. I grabbed her up in a fierce hug about the time the Western Star’s whistle began to blow.
“That man is furious,” Darla said as we put our backs to the retreating Troll horse and made for the train.
“Railroad men,” I said with a dramatic sigh. “Always angry, always in a hurry. They’re not serene like us.”
The mammoth bellowed in a long, sonorous reply to the train whistle. We marched on, the grass whipping about our knees.
A pale gray disk of moon rode high in the cloudless sky. If the face of it was troubled, I couldn’t discern it. I did wonder if Stitches was still up there, cataloging her trove of wonders, all alone.
The whistle sounded again, three short blasts, and then the Star’s steam engine groaned and roared. Great billows of steam shot from her undercarriage. A fat plume of black coal smoke began to pour from her funnel, and as we watched the mighty pistons stirred and the great iron wheels squealed as they turned.
We had to run to catch up and haul ourselves aboard. Darla was laughing, and I suppose I was too, and we stood there on the steps for a long time just watching the endless plains quickly pass us by.
....continued in WAY OUT WEST!
That's just a very small excerpt from the book. I do hope you'll come along for the ride. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Real Life Hero

That was the scene in my front yard last February. I post it here because I'm tired of the relentless Mississippi heat, and it's a reminder that the stifling muggy days of summer will soon give way to autumn.

Of course autumn here generally means a quarter of an hour of cool, crisp weather followed by weeks of rain, but the temps do dip down below those required to bake a cake, and I for one will welcome the change.

 Of course, it could be worse. Much worse. Not too far south of here, a storm dumped three feet of water as it passed over the Baton Rouge. I saw one parish sheriff report that most of the residents of his parish, some 155,000 of them, had lost their homes and most of their possessions to flooding. People were trapped on tiny hills along I-55 for days, with nothing but rising water on all sides. 

Out of all this, the so-called 'Cajun Navy' took shape, as commercial fishermen and anyone with a boat took to the water, rescuing trapped residents when no one else could. I was heartened to the people out in boats going after trapped and starving animals, too. There are still kind and brave souls among us, who risk life and limb simply because it's the right thing to do.

An Instagram user named Troy Green took this photo. Here's what heroes look like:

Amid all the ugliness and violence we see every day, just remember -- there are still good people in the world. People who will brave flood waters to rescue strangers. People who will pull exhausted dogs and cats and even horses and cows from the flood. People who do good.

Black and white red and yellow, I think this picture says it better than I ever could -- we're all quite literally in the same boat.


The new Markhat book, WAY OUT WEST, has finished its last editing pass. The final manuscript is now off to the formatters, where it will be magically changed from a Word document to a ebook-friendly file. And a print version file. This will take a few weeks, but after that, it'll be ready for release. I'll announce a release date right here in the blog, so keep watching!

A week before the release, I'll also reveal the new cover. I've seen it, and it's beautiful. Darla joins Markhat on this cover, and I think it may be the best one yet.


The new Mug and Meralda book, EVERY WIND OF CHANGE, is now halfway complete! 

A few readers have noted that we know nothing of Meralda's life before she became Mage. This book will address that gap, and introduce a new character rumored, by me right here, to be Meralda's mother. It's not a happy reunion. But it's way too eraly to be posting spoilers, so I'll shut up now.

In fact, I'd better get writing, or the book will never get finished. Take care out there, everyone!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Let the Games Begin

I'm riveted by the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Riveted to the precise same degree and to the exact extent that I am riveted by State Farm commercials. Actually, that isn't a fair statement. I might actually watch a State Farm commercial, whereas I can't be bothered to even glance at a screen displaying anything Olympic-related.

I know, that's a terrible, awful, unpatriotic thing to say. These athletes have spent their entire lives preparing for this event.  Nations have put aside their differences to participate. Fortunes have been spent preparing for the games. I stifle a small yawn.

Sorry, but for me, the Games are just a vast waste of time and resources. But keep in mind I'd make the same claim about most sporting events, all of which ultimately boil down to people chasing balls around. I just don't care who scores the most touchdowns during a tennis match, or which team manages the most home runs during the Super Bowl. American football has cheerleaders, which is nice, but the camera keeps cutting away from them to show the game. 

I understand I'm in the minority in this regard. I don't begrudge people who do enjoy sports, although during football season everyone assumes I love them too, which leads to a lot of one-sided conversations about this quarterback's throwing ability or that defense's overall strategy. My neck gets sore from making the 'knowing nod' I've perfected over the years. I've tried politely saying "I don't follow football,' but that phrase is always met with a moment of confusion followed by the same 45 minute diatribe on football I always get. 

The Olympics might be more interesting if the sports featured were more in line with the current geopolitical situation. Here are a few events I'd like to suggest.

1) SCAVENGER HUNT. Ignoring the filth and pollution of Rio's waterways is the wrong choice. Instead, embrace the environment! Instead of swimming and kayaking through the pestilence-ridden sludge, assign each team a list of items they must retrieve from the murky waters. Human body parts, dead animals, cast-off furniture, specific bacterial pathogens -- imagine the thrill of watching swimmers drag limbless torsos toward the finish line while their rivals struggle to push an old Barcalounger ahead. Now that's a dramatic finish.

2) RUSSIAN ROPE-A-DOPE. If there's anything the Russian teams enjoy more than vodka, it's a solid regimen of performance-enhancing chemicals carefully designed to maximize physical prowess and evade detection by pesky drug tests. Let's make a sport of that by allowing rival teams to simply beef up with good old-fashioned crystal meth before a special one-on-one matchup. Play Benny Hill background music during the meets. 

3) MIXED MEDIA. Let's add the element of surprise to the Games by randomly assigning each athlete to a different team before the contests take place. Watch sprinters try to dive. See hockey players compete in bicycle races. Strap ice skates on weightlifters and fire up the Celine Dion tunes. I might even watch that.

4) MINEFIELD AND TRACK. I think the name says it all. Pole vaulting is a lot more fun to watch when explosions are involved. They needn't be lethal explosions, just ones designed to finally give these guys some real altitude. 

5) URBAN ENDURANCE RUNNING. Forget the boring oval track -- send the runners right through Rio, after strapping belts filled with cash around their waists. What is it the Olympic ads always say? "Records will be set. And broken." Darn right they will.

6) ROCKET ASSISTED LUGE. Sleds sliding down an icy track. Boring! Rocket-powered sleds blazing up the icy track from the bottom before being launched into the sky? Now that's athletic. All right, all right. Give the teams parachutes. Way to take the fun out of everything, Captain Buzzkill.

7) DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS. A table, some dice, pens and paper. Just play D&D the way it was meant to be played, but with dramatic lighting and a John Williams musical score. Still better than curling, which is just bloody silly. 

8) CALVINBALL. From the comic strip 'Calvin and Hobbes,' a game in which the players make up the rules as they play. Ghost bases! Invisible runners! Opposite zones! Scores of eleven hundred and sixty to blue. Listen, if people can get so excited about a game they'll actually sit still for three hours of soccer, Calvinball will take the world by storm. At least the inevitable post-game riots will be amusing to watch as furious crowds fight over whether a Phantom Double-Secret Fire Goal is valid if scored inside a five-point Silent Spy Zone. 

9) FASHION FOOTBALL. Play soccer -- but play it dressed in the formal attire of each nation, right down to the dress shoes and the corsages. Play must be executed while weddings, funerals, and other somber events take place on the playing field. Include the players in these events as ushers, caterers, even celebrants. Seeing pall-bearers defend their goal while carrying a coffin would add drama to the match. Huddle up, bridesmaids!

10) ARMS RACE. This will really shake things up. Before each Olympics, a single nation must agree to surrender a randomly chosen military asset as the prize in this bout. Athletes might be competing for a North Korean rowboat fitted with an antique SCUD missile, or they might be vying for a US-built Casablanca class aircraft carrier -- but they won't know until after the winner is announced. Great fun, especially as the cameras zoom in on the faces of horrified diplomats as they realize they must now deal with a nuclear-capable People's Free And Very Much Yes Democratic Republic of Lower Violencestan. 

You're welcome, International Olympic Committee. Please use any of these suggestions as you see fit, and as you have time to consider them amid the press of fraud scandals and bribe-laundering.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Frank's Handy Guide to Living in the Wasteland, Part 1

Regardless of where you fall (or more likely crash-land) on the political spectrum, one thing seems certain, at least according to every single internet comments section I've read -- we're doomed.

This is it, boys and girls, cry the naysayers. Western civilization is about to grind to a halt, topple over, and leave us all standing bewildered in a smoking, acrid ruin.

I don't believe that. But, just in case my cheerful optimism turns out to be wrong, there are things we all need to know about living in a Mad Max dystopia. As usual, I'm here to help.

So gather round! I'll start a fire in this rusty oil drum (cast-off oil drums are, of course, a staple of post-apocalypse settings), and we can discuss how to best survive once the Rule of Law goes the way of the dodo, the VHS tape, and people who sat quietly in movie theaters.


The first thing you'll need to learn is how to maraud properly. There is an etiquette to the practice, and perhaps just as importantly, a style. Take a quick look at what you're wearing, right now. Then, after putting on pants, (and I'm truly sorry I remotely activated your laptop's camera), think about how your outfit will hold up while you roll around on the parched dessert sand wrestling for the Earth's last intact box of chocolate fudge Pop-Tarts.

Not going to work, is it? Forget the Dockers, the thin cotton Beatles tee, the flimsy deck shoes. No, you're going to want leather, and lots of it. Leather pants. A leather jacket. Biker boots with extra-stompy heels and soles. I'm just assuming leather underwear also comes into play. 

Too hot, you say?

Well, buttercup, get used to sweating, because the Wasteland doesn't have any patience with your pre-apocalypse ideas about air conditioning or comfort. In fact, start each day by rubbing the slightly radioactive soil right in your face. First, it makes your skin less reflective, and therefore less of a target for the mutant snipers hiding in the ruins of that Costco you're planning to raid. Second, grunge is the new squeaky-clean, and if you think your social life is lacking now just you wait. 

Look the part, people. Get dirty and stay that way. Super-Glue your hair into spikes. Paint your face with whatever will serve as a pigment. You want to look fierce, because you aren't the only one out there scavenging for gasoline. 


Speaking of gasoline, you'll want some. All you can get, because your heavily-armored Toyota Corolla won't run on radioactive rainwater.

What? You haven't started welding spikes to the hood of your car yet?

Sigh. Yes, I know what that will do to the resale value -- but we're talking the End Times here. Start strapping armor to your car RIGHT NOW. If you don't have a car, okay, use whatever you've got, but don't come whining to me when you try facing down rival gangs on your militarized Craftsman riding lawn mower only to face a barrage of hurtful sarcasm. 

Motorcycles are another favored form of transportation in the Wasteland. You'll look good, speeding down the eerily quiet streets, and you'll be glad you're wearing all that leather when you get knocked over by the nice lady who used to run your book club. Of course now she calls herself Queen of Fifth Street and she's aiming a bazooka at your head, but due to your cat-like reflexes and the fact that she's pointing the thing backwards, you've got time to compliment her hair spikes before making your getaway on foot.

Vehicles to avoid, even in the Mutant Badlands, include tricycles, those bloody stupid hoverboards, and of course Jeep Wranglers.


I'm sure you've heard someone say 'anything can be used as a weapon.' Which may be true, at least figuratively, but the guy wielding the salad tongs is unlikely to emerge victorious no matter how well-executed his face paint might be.

No, you'll want guns. One on each hip, a rifle slung across your back, a snub-nosed .38 stuck down your right boot, and a second small handgun secreted down the back of your leather pants. If you lack such an arsenal, well, do the best you can. Comically large hammers look imposing. Swords too, although if the blade falls off the hilt every time you draw it the effect is certainly lessened. 

Look around your garage. There's probably a golf club or two out there. Maybe a hockey stick, or a baseball bat. Do NOT yell 'Fore!' before you swing the golf club. A muttered 'Batter up!' is acceptable when employing a baseball bat. 

Every kitchen has an assortment of knives. Decorate the handles and blades with permanent markers. Skulls are a favored motif. Avoid the depiction of smiley faces or motivational poster messages. This is the Wasteland, and nobody wants to be reminded that 'Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.' 


There are no Mr. Joneses or Miss Twilleys in the Wasteland.

Start referring to yourself as 'Cruncher' or 'Crazy Teeth.' Everyone in the Wastes has a catchy new name. It needs to be vaguely threatening but also contain just the right touch of gallows humor. Don't lay it on too thick; calling yourself 'Lord Deathstrike, Emperor of Lower Duluth' invites both scorn and small arms fire. Stick with one or two words. Forget what you did before it all fell apart -- Larry the Accountant is not a suitable moniker when you're competing socially against a mad-eyed cannibal named Crazy Teeth.


There is no "I" in Apocalypse, unless your face-paint is so toxic you can't remember how to spell. In any case, you'll need a tightly-woven gang of at least a half-dozen fellow survivors to have any chance at keeping the desperate hordes at bay.

The people you'll need most will be a mechanic, a doctor, a demolition expert, a Mafia assassin, and a taciturn sword-wielding Ninja. The people you'll have will be a copier repairman, Betty from Payroll, a homeless guy who hasn't even noticed the world just ended, the real estate salesperson you found hiding in your closet, and the shady dude who used to operate the kiosk at the parking garage. 

Still, that's what you've got. Maybe if you maraud mostly at night no one will notice shady guy's pot belly or Betty's insistence that everyone stop what they are doing and look for a functional expresso machine. 


You'll need a place to store your looted snack foods. You'll need somewhere to shelter from the roving bands of bikers angered by the sudden widespread adoption of their preferred wardrobe style. Your tidy two-story faux-Tudor house simply won't do, and anyway that half of town burned to the ground during the first night of rioting. 

Instead, locate an underground missile silo with foot-thick steel doors and concrete barricades blocking the gate. If you can't find one, okay, I guess a derelict Subway sandwich shop will do. Reinforce the doors, avoid showing any lights at night, and ignore the real estate person's endless lectures on how the property is sadly undervalued in today's bullet-based economy.


When the last checkout lane in the last Walmart shuts down, you'll find that toilet paper is the new gold, and dented cans of Van Camps Beenie Weenies command the sort of economic clout huge wads of cash did in the Old Days. Sure, money is no more, but homeless guy's shopping cart full of dollar-store tuna is now worth more than an old world yacht.

Be smart with your meager supplies. Your gang has tuna and one-ply. The gang down the street has ammunition and a vending machine filled with Snickers bars. Establish a dialog, after a polite exchange of gunfire. An exchange rate will work itself out, and if you play your cards right, you'll be dining on chocolate by the light of a flickering trash fire. That's a good day, in the Wasteland.


In between all the running and shooting and arguing over who is mutating faster, don't forget to have some fun, now and then. 

Prank rival gangs by egging their makeshift tanks. Restore an old radio station, and then play nothing but the same Nickelback song. Exceed the recommended daily allowance of carbohydrates. It's the Apocalypse, you guys. Nothing is going on your permanent record. You don't have to file taxes, or set the alarm for six, or even change your leather underwear twice a week. It's a Nihilist free-for-all, at least until the alien attack armada arrives, but that's a different TV show.

Look me up, after the dust settles. I'll be known as 'Frank,' since nicknames just don't stick on me. I'll be the pale guy tugging at his itchy leather pants and still pissed that he never binge-watched 'Game of Thrones' when he had the chance.

Now start hoarding Charmin, folks. We don't have much time.