Saturday, May 20, 2017

Reflections on Having Been a Writer

Some of you with long memories may recall that this blog was not started as a publicity platform for my books. It was quite the other way around. The books grew out of the blog.

This blog was begun before blogs even existed. Back then, I was uploading essays about my adventures in Britain to a web-log. That was in 2001. Blogs didn’t come along until 2004 or so, and I didn’t succumb until 2006. Even then, there were not so many blogs, and I was riding the crest of the wave. Accordingly, I drew a large following and, when the blog-to-book craze hit, I published Postcards From Across the Pond.

I followed that up a few years later with More Postcards From Across the Pond and Postcards From Ireland. I knew, even then, that I would publish no more essays, as I had said everything I had to say about being an expat.

The essays were good, however, and I was proud of the books. I can say that without reservation. In those days, every event was a delightful surprise, and everything seemed so wonderfully exotic that I couldn’t help but share it. My life was exciting and joyful and it would have been a shame to not let others in on that excitement and joy, and that joy came through in my writing.

Then the culmination of my life-long quest to be a published author came about when I published an actual novel, Finding Rachel Davenport. It wasn’t supposed to be the culmination; when you finally reach a lofty goal, you are supposed to seize that opportunity and build on it and move on to the next, better book, and then the next. But I somehow failed to do that.

When Hemingway stopped being a writer, he shot himself. 
At the time, I recall looking though Finding Rachel Davenport and remarking that it seemed as if someone else had written the book, and that I didn’t know if I could do it again but I did know I didn’t want to try. And, indeed, I have not.

In the years since (six and counting) I have been working on an eight-book fantasy adventure series for my grandsons. Currently, I am having a difficult time with book 5, so difficult, in fact, that I have begun thinking about abandoning the project. It’s not as if my grandsons care about the books, and I think my son and his wife probably wish I would stop, so there is little reason to carry on, except that I started it, and I feel I ought to finish it.

The problem with the series has always been, should I publish it to the wider world. As a published writer, I think I should, but as a published writer I also know that they are not that good. While I am pleased with the story arc, and think the adventures are good, the characters are two-dimensional and my research is, to be kind, a little light.

Sylvia Plath stuck her head in the oven.
What prompted this decision to keep them private (at least for now, I go back and forth on this a lot) was that I just stumbled across a review of Postcards From Across the Pond and realized something shocking: people are still buying those books. And reviewing them.

The books are going on ten years old, and some of the essays are over fifteen years old, yet people are still reading them, and publishing their opinions of them. This delighted me, but it is also humbling.

For the most part, people like the Postcard books, and the reviews—some as recent as last week—are kind. But there are also the detractors, who call me an Ugly American, or someone they would not care to meet, and suggest that I go home and stop whining. Those reviews are few and far between, but it stings when strangers make judgments about you based on something you wrote that they didn’t happen to like.

And poor Rachel. The reviews on her were split between the 30% who hated the book and the 60% who loved it and another 10% who weren’t sure about it. Some of the detractors were so vehement about the book's awfulness that I had to wonder what book they had read. Conversely, the praise some people heaped on it was so lavish that I had to wonder what book they read, as well.

For Rachel, however, the bad reviews won. The final two reviews in the list were both one-star. One simply said, “Stupid” and the other “A disappointment.” And then the sales, and the reviews, stopped. That was in 2014. I have sold hardly a book since.

Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and walk into the river Ouse.
But what does all this have to do with what I am currently working on? Nothing, and everything. A fantasy adventure series is not a comic novel or a collection of humorous essays. It would have a different audience, but they would still be critical, and the criticisms would be valid, if picky. “Who is this so-called author who doesn’t know that shoe-laces weren’t invented until…” or “Everybody knows that Roman soldiers in the era he’s talking about didn’t wear that type of breastplate. What an asshole!” The way I feel right now, I don’t think I want to subject the books to that sort of criticism.

When you publish a book, you willingly open it up to scrutiny by the general public, and I don’t think I want strangers picking over the prose I wrote as gifts for my grandsons. It’s not fair to the readers, my grandsons or the books.

And so the books will be just what they were originally intended to be—personal gifts from me to my grandsons, which means I am no longer an active, publishing writer. And I have no plans to become one.

Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in the head.
That’s no bad thing, however. I did achieve my goal. I have four books published* and enough dwindling talent left over to produce a unique gift for my grandsons. That’s something not a lot of people can do, and I’m pleased that I was able to accomplish it.

My life is no less joyous now, but having been here so long, I find little to surprise me any longer and, being retired, my life is a bit more settled. There is, in short, little to write about, so I don’t see any hilarious American-out-of-his-comfort-zone essays on the horizon. And, as we have just decided, the novels I am writing now are not ready for prime time.

I think I’ve known for some time that I am no longer a real writer. When I get into conversations with people about how I find life here, I rarely think to say, “I like it so much I wrote a book about it. Let me give you my card.” And that’s just as well.

Additionally, in preparing for this article, I discovered that I don’t even own a copy of Postcard From Across the Pond. And while I think I should have it in my library, I just can’t be arsed to buy one.

And so, what does a person, who has wanted nothing more than to be a writer since he was eleven years old, do with his life once he realizes he is no longer a writer?

Well, he takes over running a choir, of course.

Mike Harling started a choir.

*Postcards From Across the Pond was published by Lean Market Press, and Finding Rachel Davenport was published by Prospera Publishing. The contracts have since run out so all the books are now self-published on Kindle (begin promo/ for £.99 each /end promo) and as paperbacks through Amazon’s CreateSpace.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

An Era of Music

A year ago I wasn’t even in a choir; now I’m running one.

It’s not my fault, really.

I know I have a tendency to want to be out front, and often throw myself into things with misguided enthusiasm, but this time I swore to myself it would be different. I joined a daytime choir, and made myself content with being one of a group, a cog in the wheel, and applied myself to learning to be the best choir member I could.

I liked it so much that, after a few months, I joined a second choir. I was really enjoying myself, singing in the more challenging daytime choir, and having a ball with the evening choir singing show tunes. It was a fun and exciting time.

Then the rumblings began.

Only a few months into the evening choir, it was announced that we were not making enough profit for the company that ran it. We were facing closure, but we were given another chance after the choir leader agreed to take a cut in pay to keep us afloat.

That worked for a while, but then the choir leader had to quit. Not having anyone to replace him, they told us, again, that they were going to close down the choir. The disappointment was palpable and, as we continued to sing for the remainder of the session, and the others came to terms with their loss, a dark thought entered my mind: “I could run this choir.”

The reason I thought something so undeniably insane was that, as a franchise choir, all I would have to do was lead the songs. All the admin, the venue, the bookings, the equipment, the song selections, the harmonies and how the songs were performed were decided by the couple who owned the choir. I knew I didn’t have the talent for that, but I did have a talent for teaching. All I needed to do was learn the songs the way they wanted them done and show the choir how to perform them.

Easy, right? Well, even I’m not that crazy; I knew it would be a challenge, but I was determined to do whatever it took to keep the choir from folding.

So that night I sent them an email volunteering to take on the choir. The next morning they answered and said, “Yes.”

I was equally delighted and terrified, but my wife had a more pragmatic thought: “Didn’t they even want to hear you sing?” she asked.

So, I met with the leaders. They liked me, they liked what I did, they tried me out with some live choirs; they were encouraged and they encouraged me. Then I had an intense session with the leader to go over the finer points of the songs. This, too, went well, and we parted looking forward to the upcoming rehearsal.

Then, at 10:30 that evening, I was fired. By text.

Okay, not exactly that dramatic. I got a text telling me to check my e-mail. I was fired in the e-mail.

This put me in a horrendous position. The choir’s hopes had been dashed, then they had been raised—by me—and now I was going to have to dash them again. It was a prospect I found unacceptable, and so—because I never let lack of qualifications or any relevant experience stand in my way—I decided to run the choir as an independent, community choir instead of a franchise.

This left me less than a week to put an entire choir program together, which is hard enough if you know what you’re doing, which, of course, I did not. Still, I managed to pull something together, and the first rehearsal went about as well as you could expect under the circumstances. But despite the few glitches and hiccups, everyone had fun and the prospects for next week look even better.

So now I’m a choir director, learning as I go, with—I hasten to add—some invaluable help from my daytime choir director, the ex-choir director and even the franchise owners (who have kindly loaned me the equipment I need).

I feel like I’m heading into a new era in my life. It’s rather scary, but as long as there’s music and singing, it should be all right.

This is more an orchestra than a choir joke, but it
sums it up nicely.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

My Final Say on Brexit

Well, we finally did it. David Cameron loaded the gun, and Theresa May has pulled the trigger. Article 50 was delivered to the European Union yesterday (well, a couple of days ago; I did write this the day after, but I was a slacker and didn’t post it until the first of April) and now we are beginning the job of extricating ourselves from the EU. A process that promises to be the most exhaustive and expensive divorce in history.

For people like me, there is nothing left to do but get on with it. Like it or not Brexit is going forward and all we can do is deal with the consequences. However, there is one thing about this whole Brexit deal I would like to get off my chest once and for all. And, hopefully, once I do, I can stop shouting at the telly every time it comes up (it really startles my wife).

To recap: Two posh boys got into a pissing match and one told the other that he didn’t have the cajones to call a referendum. So he called a referendum. And when he lost, he took his ball and ran away.

His unelected successor is determined to see this through, despite the fact that it was merely an Advisory Referendum and the outcome did not have to be implemented. It merely needed to be discussed and voted on in Parliament. She is within her rights to do this, but she wanted to do it all – issue Article 50, negotiate and implement any deals – without any involvement of parliament, and the courts had to step in to remind her she is not a dictator.

She clings to her decision because it is THE WILL OF THE BRITISH PEOPLE, and when Parliament was allowed to debate and vote on it, she warned them not the thwart THE WILL OF THE BRITISH PEOPLE. She has a moral duty to make Brexit happen because it is THE WILL OF THE BRITISH PEOPLE.

I call bullshit.

Yes, the referendum was passed by a slim margin, and yes, that legally entitles the government to enact Brixit, but please stop telling me you’re doing it because everyone wants you to. Because that is patently not true.

Official Chart -- not one I made up
The British people were asked if they wanted to leave the EU, and the British people pretty much said, “Um, we’re not sure.” The 52% of the people who voted Leave weren’t even sure. Some admittedly voted the way they did, not because they wanted to leave the EU, but because they didn’t want to vote for anything David Cameron supported, while others claimed they voted Leave but didn’t know that it meant to leave the EU. I’m not sure how that is even possible, but let’s for the sake of argument, say that all the people who voted Leave were adamantly in favor of it. You still do not have THE VOICE OF THE BRITISH PEOPLE.

You wouldn’t even have THE VOICE OF THE BRITISH PEOPLE if 52% of the entire population voted that way, which, in fact, they did not.

The Leave voters represent only 52% of the electorate who voted. And the electorate represents only a percentage of the population. In total, the people who voted Leave amount to only 27% of the British people.

Therefore: Dear Ms May, you do not have a mandate—THE VOICE OF THE BRITISH PEOPLE is not screaming for you to save us from the EU—so stop saying you do. You’re doing this because…well, I don’t have a faintest idea why you are, but you are, and you have every right to do so, and you are apparently determined to do it, so just get on with it and stop pissing down my back and telling me it’s raining.

And while you’re at it, lay off the Remainers. They have every right to be ticked off, and every right to shout about it. Tell me, if Remain had won by so slim a margin, would the Leave crowd have quietly gone back to their lives and put all this behind them? Would they hell. They’d be screaming blue murder and demanding another referendum.

So just get on with it. If you’ve got the cajones to take us out of the EU, then you’ve got the cajones to stop pretending you’re doing it because everyone wants you to. Admit that you’re doing it because you bloody well want to and don’t care a wit that you are dragging the other 67% of the British people who either voted Remain or didn’t get to vote at all with you.

There. Now maybe I can watch the 6 o’clock news in peace, and not have to scream at the telly every five minutes.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Cyprus and the Lure of War

War is a strong tourist draw. That’s no surprise to me, I’ve toured many a battle field, from Culloden, to Saratoga, to Gettysburg, the Somme and the D-Day beaches. The one I visited today, however, is the most historically recent, and therefore sparks more genuine indignation.

The realities of who did what to whom on a swampy field in Scotland have been softened somewhat by the intervening 271 years, but when your land is still occupied and your house and possessions now belong to some family from the conquering country who moved into it after you were forcibly ejected, well, that can still feel a little raw, even after 43 years.

Our Greek-Cypriot guide started the day with a history lesson to bring us up to date, explaining how Cyprus was, from 1400 BC to 708 BC, under the control of the Greeks, then, from 708 to 333, they were under the control of Assyria, Egypt and Persia before being overrun by Alexander the Great. They were then conquered by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, the British, a Girl Guide troop from Milton Keynes and, for a short time, Harry Styles from One Direction.

I was dozing on and off during the lecture, so I’m not clear on a few of those.

What is clear—our Greek-Cypriot guide assured us—is that on 20 July 1974, the Turkish army mounted an unprovoked and totally unjustifiable attack on the northern side of the island.

The war was brief, but ugly, and resulted in a cease-fire that allowed the Turks to occupy the northern half of the island, while the Greeks held on to the southern half. A demarcation zone was set up along the Green Line (so named simply because it happened to have been drawn in green pen on the map) and is patrolled, in theory, by the UN, though I didn’t see any UN troops when I was there.

See, it's green.
The DMZ remained tightly guarded, and all but closed, for many years. There was only one checkpoint and the only way to get onto the Turkish side of the island was to go to Turkey and take a flight or boat from there, as Turkey was (and remains, I believe) the only country in the world that recognizes North Cyprus.

Recently, however, realizing the advantages of tourist dollars, more checkpoints were added and the restrictions on travel have been relaxed. So now, for the first time in a generation, Greek-Cypriots can travel to the north to see who is living in their family home. I hasten to add that Turkish-Cypriots can also travel to the south to see the same thing; war is never as black-and-white as our Greek guide wanted us to believe.

At the checkpoint, we acquired a Turkish-Cypriot Guide, who was to remain with us throughout our tour of the North, a requirement I associate with totalitarian regimes. But if the North is under totalitarian control, it is totalitarianism-lite, because our guide simply greeted us with a cheery “Hell-o” then settled down in the front seat of the bus and did sod all for the rest of the trip. Never in my life have I seen anyone with such a cushy job, and I was a New York State Civil Servant for twenty-five years.

One of the most interesting features in the occupied zone was the Ghost City. This is a large area of high rise buildings, the ownership of which has been under dispute since the partition. The whole area is surrounded by fencing and razor wire and no one is allowed in except the Turkish military and UN officials.

That's the Ghost Town side.

This is the opposite side of the road, where people actually live. It doesn't look much better.
So the towers stand empty, displaying the effects of war, and time.

But that’s not the strangest thing about it. The strangest thing is, the Turkish government seems to believe it can be made invisible.

We were told as we approached that taking photos was verboten, and that being caught doing so could result in arrest (and, one must assume, a visit to a Turkish hotel ala “Midnight Express”). We were allowed to walk up to the wire, but not allowed to take photographs. And on the beach, we could only take photographs if we were facing away from the enclosed area.

Uh oh, I better not take any photos!
To enforce this, a secret hut, staffed by Turkish soldiers, is located in one of the towers. These soldiers spend all day spying down on the thousands of people on the beach to be certain none of them faces inland while holding a camera. Good luck with that.

You are not allowed to point a camera this way.

You can, however, point the camera this way. The Ghost Town extends as far as you can see. 
Another special feature of the Turkish side is its hospitality and food service industry. During my brief visit, I had what was most certainly, hands down, the worst meal I have ever been served. And, as a bonus, it came with the most appalling table service I have ever experienced.

Long story short:

I ordered a Corona, my wife ordered orange juice. We were brought a Miller (“It’s the same beer,” the waiter told me) and lemonade (“It’s all we have,” he added).

This is what you get when you order a Corona in North Cyprus.

This is what you get when you order Orange Juice.
I ordered a burger with French fries. What I got was a stale bun with a post-it note sized piece of lettuce and an equally sized slice of tomato, a pickle and a 1/8-inch-thick burger patty that was literally (not “literally” like most people use it, meaning “figuratively,” but literally LITERALLY) raw.

I took one bite, realized how awful it was, and put it aside, focusing instead on my not-quite-done French fries. All 5 of them (yes, literally).

To be fair, the pickle was ok.

All of this for a mere 15 euro. I won’t be frequenting that establishment, I can tell you that.

They have their share of ancient ruins in the north, but they have bullet holes in them.
From there, we regrouped on the bus, exchanged horror stories (some other people from our group had chosen the same restaurant and had similar experiences), collected our Turkish guide (God knows where she went off to every time we stopped, but she never came with us) and headed south, to the land of the free.

Nothing special, just a lovely view.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Cyprus, Paphos and the DIY Hotel

We made it to our hotel. It’s a nice one, too—friendly staff, good food, clean room, close to the beach. And it has an interesting, and appropriate, motto: “Less like a hotel, more like home.”

I say “appropriate” because when I went to put my clothes in the bureau, the knob came off in my hand. Then I found that the shower was unusable because the metal thingy that holds the shower head in place is wonky.

Leaving Britain
Arriving in Paphos
My Swiss-Army knife took care of the bureau, and I was able to temporarily jerry-rig the shower head in place with pipe cleaners (I always knew smoking a pipe would come in handy some day) but to really fix it, I’m going to need some stout cord, electrician’s tape and a crescent wrench. And so, to that end, we’re heading out to explore the town.

Along the sea front, some guy was making a living by having people pay him 1 euro to have their
photo taken holding this iguana. For 2 euros, you didn't have to hold the iguana, and for a 5er,
you didn't even have to be in the picture. That's the option I bought for my wife.
We’re staying in Paphos, an agreeably smallish city that is not pronounced how you think, because the PH is sounded as F, as in PHISH. Locally, it is spelled Pafos, which makes much more sense.

Seriously, is this a big problem in Cyprus?
Paphos is in an odd sort of limbo right now. Despite the stunning blue sky, relentless sun and 80 degree warmth, it is still winter, and technically, the off-season. Therefore, we—the incomers—are wearing short-sleeved shirts and sun hats, while the locals are still in jackets and jumpers.

Another sign that we are still in the off-season is the continual, minor construction going on along the sea front and surrounding area—new sidewalks are being laid, walls are being repaired and, like anyplace in Britain where the Queen is about to appear, there is a pervasive smell of fresh paint on the breeze.

This may happen every year at this time—a spruce up before the summer crowds arrive—or it may be due to Paphos being a European Capital of Culture for 2017. I’m not sure how these honors come about. Perhaps they put everyone’s name in a hat, or something. This year, Hull is the UK capital of culture, so there you go.

Hull is home to thousands of naked Smufs, so it must have something going for it.

As I pointed out in my last post, Cyprus has a lot of history, but I previously focused on the bloodshed that happened as a result of that history. Those conquering nations, however, did do more than put the indigenous people to the sword, they built some magnificent structures, as well, and when a new conquering nation arrived to put them to the sword, they left these buildings behind. Really, the place is lousy with them.

A Roman Theatre

Another Roman Theatre

Yet another Roman Theatre -- I told you the place was lousy with them.

At the edge of town, they seemed to have randomly cordoned off a section of land (conveniently close to the tourist district) and called it an Archaeological Park. Included within the boundaries are four Roman villas, an early Christian Basilica, Greek structures, a medieval fort, a Roman theatre and lots and lots of columns—all within an area about the size of a city park.

(Okay, it wasn’t random, but it certainly was convenient, and so filled with artifacts that it is now a UESCO World Heritage Site.)

Really, you can't swing a cat without hitting something like this.

There are so many frescoes and tiled walkways that you are allowed to walk on some of them.
Not this one, though.
Found this on the wall of a Roman Lavatory. 

This was a fresco of a Roman family portrait.
Translation:  LtoR Back Vickie, Tony, Nicola, Aunt Amanda and Eric
Front: Cousin Earnie and his weird grildfriend Bertha, Uncle Jake, Bob (holidng Simon) and Sue
at Simon's first birthday party
In addition to all that, Cyprus is the birthplace of Venus – the Goddess, not the famously red planet – and this is where she sprang forth from the foaming sea.

Oops! I mean Aphrodite.Venus is the Roman equivalent.
Exciting as all this is, I still have a wonky shower back at my hotel. I managed to acquire some stout cord by purchasing a braided bracelet and unraveling it. But it proved impossible to find a souvenir crescent wrench and there are no Paphos-themed rolls of electrician’s tape on display anywhere, so I guess I’m just going to have to improvise.

Next time: The DMZ

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


I’m waiting to check my bags at the airport and it has just occurred to me that I am paying a premium to fly due to my short stature.

Think about it, I’m flying to Cyprus, and allowed to take a single bag with me that weighs no more than 30 pounds. Now, I weigh 160 (ish) pounds, so that’s a total of 190 pounds added to the weight of the aircraft at a cost of £X. So for each pound, it is costing me £X/190.

In front a me is a guy who, to be kind, weighs at least 200 pounds. So his cost per pound will be £X/230, meaning he is getting a better deal. Given this, it stands to reason that I should be charged less, or allowed to bring a suitcase weighing 70 pounds, to even things out.

(For you folks who went to school after the invention of calculators, lets say X=£200. So I’m paying £200 divided by 190, or £1.05 per lb, while the guy in front of me is paying £200 divided by 230 or only £.87 per pound.)

I understand why the airlines don’t charge people by how much they weigh, but you can see why I think they should.

So, why Cyprus? To my American friends, it must seem an unlikely destination, especially since, as I recall from my life in America, Cyprus doesn’t exist. In America, the world pretty much consists of America. If pressed, most of us will grudgingly admit to Canada and Mexico, and others might recall hearing about a place called Europe and a vague area known as The Rest of the World.

But Cyprus? Not heard of it. Did we ever invade it? No? Oh, that’s why I never heard of it.

Left to Right, Top to Bottom: Canada, Europe, America, the Rest of The World
Tiny little island: Cyprus

Cyprus, I understand, is an island in the Mediterranean, located somewhere between Europe and the Rest of the World, and rather closer to Syria than I should like it to be. For Brits, however, it offers the ideal holiday destination—it is sunny, warm and a member of their erstwhile empire, which means the indigenous population speaks passable English and you can get a breakfast that includes baked beans and fried tomatoes without anyone thinking you’re weird.

Nice enough island, but some dodgy neighbors. 

The selling point for us was, my wife had already been there and had found it agreeable. So that’s where we are going.

In order to avoid being the ugly American, I did some quick research on Cyprus (because, as mentioned earlier, Cyprus did not exist in my world until my wife showed me the travel brochure) and found it to be a rather intriguing place.

Any patch of land on the planet can only hope to realize a few good selling points: it can be strategically located, rich in resources, or both. The downside is, it will also be forever drenched in the blood of people fighting to control it. On the other hand, a patch of land might find itself inaccessible and/or desolate, in which case it will perpetually play host to a tiny population living in endemic poverty. (I’ve left “Stunning vistas” out of this equation because that was never really a selling point until the invention of tourism. You don’t think the Romans were up in Cumbria fighting the Picts because they liked the view, do you?)

At any rate, Cyprus had the good fortune (or the bad luck) to be the former. As a strategic stopping off point between Africa, the Middle East and Europe—with fertile soil, an agreeable climate and some really pretty beaches—it fell, at various times, under the control of the Assyrians, Romans, Greeks, Persians and the British, before gaining independence in 1960.

As an independent nation, it lived a quiet life until July 1974, when Turkey decided it looked interesting and blood flowed once again. The reasons were varied and complex but the result was rape, pillage and massacres on both sides and an uneasy truce that sees half of the island occupied by the Turks and a DMZ patrolled by the UN.

The bloodshed has stopped, however, and a generation has passed, so now the DMZ and the occupied zone have become tourist attractions in their own right. I’m looking forward to seeing them.

And that time is getting closer, as it is now my turn to check my bag. I wonder if I can convince the young woman behind the counter to give me a discount because of my size.