Sixteen Days of Freeeeedom!

Posted on 19 December 2014 | No responses

When I left the office around 2:30p today, I began a vacation that doesn’t end until I return on the morning of Mon., Jan. 5. Sixteen consecutive days of vacay bliss.

This calls for a celebration. Bourbon? Check. Cuban cigar? Check. (Thanks to Scott for the generous gift!)

Ahhhh….

Be Glad and Rejoice, for Grand Staycation IV is Almost Here!

Posted on 14 December 2014 | No responses

In just a few days, I begin the fourth annual Grand Staycation. With 16 consecutive days off, I will focus on end-of-the-year catch-up and planning for 2015. I’m much more excited for the vacation than I am about the holidays, but in fairness, I’m in generally good spirits about the holidays this year, so there’s that. Anyway, see below for general updates.

VLO E-200.  Today, Tony and I hit a four-year milestone with the release of episode 200 of our Vice Lounge Online podcast. The show ran roughly 45 minutes; we were blessed with five calls, plenty of pontificating, a Christmas Martony cocktail and even five minutes of outtakes I’ve accumulated over the last year. VLO has been a wonderful experience for us. Our program — a weekly 30-minute show about casino gaming, premium cigars and fine adult beverages — has grown to literally thousands of listeners each week. We’ve been fortunate to make great new friends across the country and even in the U.K. because of it.

Anthology. I wrote my anthology story; it clocked in around 11,300 words and will be the eighth submission to the Caffeinated Press All Goes Dark anthology project. I’m excited about this effort. We have eight fun stories crossing genres, written by authors local to the Grand Rapids area. Part of Grand Staycation IV includes final editorial prep for the anthology — last line edits to the manuscripts, production, ISBNs, cover art, etc. I hope to be done by the 31st of December, for release on the market by early-to-mid February.

[Intermission: Animals by Maroon 5 just rotated up. Am I the only person who wonders whether Adam Levine still has testicles? No adult human male should make noises that high-pitched.]

Literary Journal. Speaking of CafPress, it looks like our plan to launch a quarterly literary journal will actually succeed. I’ll probably serve as publisher and Lianne as executive editor, with Alaric and John as senior editors. I think — lots remaining TBD. Anyway, the journal presents a glorious opportunity to showcase local writers. As well as the sale of advertising or the acquisition of corporate or grant funding to support ongoing operations and payments to writers. The journal is intended to help grow a well-defined literary culture within the West Michigan market.

Novel. I’ve had two weeks away from Aiden’s Wager, and in that time, I’ve figured out how the story will end given the change of direction from the original plan that came through the writing process in late November. I’m excited about this project. I’ll wrap up the first draft over Grand Staycation IV and send it off to various beta readers. My suspicion is that some of the material is far enough askance from accepted West Michigan culture that I won’t try for CafPress publishing, but I think there are some niche markets where the premise makes sense.

Project Management. I did something fun at work. We’ve been swirling so much about which teams in our division will use what one-off project management tools (at one point, we were split among Excel, Project, QuickBase, Rally and Clarity PPM) that we needed to just do something. So last week, I wrapped up what my team will use — a home-grown tool with a back end in Oracle. I built seven fact tables, normalized against several more look-up tables, with quite a few foreign-key dependencies and a fistful of sequence/trigger pairs to generate unique primary-key values. I then imported the data model into Tableau, so reporting about investments, activities, updates, issues, stakeholders, file attachments and time allocations becomes transparent to anyone who wants to look. I don’t have a front-end for the tool — I figured I’d just manually update tables using Toad for Oracle — but it’s got a slick presentation layer with strong internal referential integrity. I’m happy with it.

Surgical Site Infections. This coming week will focus on one  major deliverable keenly desired by our corporate chief medical officer: An analysis of surgical-site infections undertaken in partnership with our largest partner hospital. The hospital’s infection-control team keeps registry data about SSIs, but they don’t have access to the same administrative claims data that I do at the insurance company. Literature suggests that SSIs cannot be inferred from claims data, so I’ll use the surveillance registry to brush it against claim histories to try to calculate the true cost of SSIs to the community. Fascinating stuff, and a great example of proving the value of analytics for health-care quality professionals.

Emerging Competencies. Speaking of analytics, I’ve been co-leading an initiative about the emerging professional competences in the field of health data analytics, through the National Association for Healthcare Quality. We’re wrapping up our final report. About a dozen leaders within the analytics field, who are NAHQ members, are a part of the project. Interesting insight into where the industry has been headed.

MAHQ. My one-year appointment as president-elect of the Michigan Association for Healthcare Quality has been extended into 2015 given a dearth of candidates for the role in the most recent election. That means I have to plan the 2015 conference, too — which is fine, given that I’ve already booked the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel for October. These things are easier to pull off when they’re in your own back yard!

Socializing. Been a fun couple of weeks on the social front. Yesterday I spent three hours eating food and drinking beer with AmyJo, at HopCat. Last week, we had the “Thank God It’s Over” party for NaNoWriMo. I spent time chatting with Lianne and Stephen a couple of weeks ago. We had our Write On! holiday party a week ago last Friday — the same day I went out to Founders Brewing with Cindy, Steve and Timothy from the office (Cindy bought — the rest of us are helping her as she wraps up her doctoral dissertation).

Texas, Ho! Looks like I’ll be killing two birds with one rental. The Thin Line film festival, in Denton, Texas, occurs in mid February. I also need to get to close to Dallas to bring Duane his stuff currently in storage. So I figure I’ll rent an SUV, pick up his stuff, drive to him, then spend two nights in the Metroplex. I’m looking forward to it!

Routine Disruption. In 2013, NaNoWriMo utterly wrecked my long-standing weekend routines. This year has dome something similar. Instead of having a nightly cigar and cocktail with the news, I’m reading the news every few days and I’ve had a whopping two cigars since Thanksgiving. I think I’ll use Grand Staycation IV to try to enculturate other habit changes. Maybe exercise. We’ll see.

Web Bifurcation. Although I’ll be keeping this blog active, I’m splitting my personal and professional Web presence. I’ll be retiring Gillikin Consulting and instead using one site (this one) for personal stuff, and http://www.gillik.in for professional stuff. Augmenting the new site is part of the vacation plan.

All for now. 

A Reflection on Winning #NaNoWriMo

Posted on 1 December 2014 | No responses

Remember, remember the First of December — hangovers, and burned by your plot.
I see no reason why this writing season, should ever be forgot.

The stroke of midnight on this, the glorious first day of December, A.D. 2014, ended my fourth straight year of participating in the orgy of nerdtastic masochism known formally as National Novel Writing Month. It also marks my second, and consecutive, win; I clocked in mid-day Sunday with 50,004 words — a whopping four more than I needed to thwart the validation algorithm’s “you must be this tall to win” rule. And all that, with the entire third act left to write.

NaNoWriMo is a hobby for some and a kick in the pants for others. Despite bold proclamations that participants can write a 50k-word novel in a month, the truth is, NaNoWriMo is intended to get the bulk of a “zero draft” written by aspiring writers who may not otherwise have the time or the focus to do it on their own. The promise of the November wordslinger scramble is that if you get a bunch of work done in one massive flurry of drunken and/or caffeinated activity, you can augment and edit later, instead of eyeballing a blank paper with zero words and thereupon becoming the literary equivalent of a cheese-eating surrender monkey.

My first attempt, and my second, ended in Boris-and-Natasha levels of failure. Neither broke 10k and neither was organized in a logical way. Last year’s was better, and although I got the story to about 56k, there was one problem — that damned fourth chapter — that I couldn’t quite work around. One of the hardest lessons for this former journalist to internalize was the difference between fiction and non-fiction writing. Give me a word count and a deadline within the newsroom, and I’ll deliver page-ready copy every time, on time. I became quite adept, when I ran the opinion desk at a small community newspaper, at writing 800-word staff editorials in 20 minutes or so. But fiction? I thought I’d breeze into it. How hard could it be to make shit up? Karma spied my arrogance and rewarded me with humiliatingly low word counts until, having caught that good, old-time fiction religion, I repented of my sins and treated my novels like the precious works of art they truly are.

Writing is like sexual metaphors: The less you practice, the more you’ll embarrass yourself when you finally pull out and fumble sheepishly for your pants. Over the last few years of doing NaNoWriMo as well as branching into short stories, I’ve learned a few things about my style and my craft:

  1. I do better when I detail my plot and main characters before I write. This year, like last year, I used Scrivener for Windows. That program brilliantly organizes prose and supporting information into one clean interface. I detailed every chapter and every scene, setting 50-word scene summaries for each and even specifying target word counts, points to make, quotes to include and whatnot. Some folks forego planning and just write. I don’t know why they’re not alcoholics.
  2. I start at the beginning and finish at the end; I rarely jump around the story.
  3. I self-edit as I write. During word wars at our write-ins — i.e., when we writers peek out from the shadows and count how many words we can write during a specific period of time — I average about 360 words in 15 minutes, with a standard deviation of 103 words. At the write-in I hosted on every Saturday in November, I logged the results of every war, covering 17 different writers. I had the narrowest SD of anyone as well as the lowest mean; I also had the second-lowest maximum. But my prose is clean, so there’s that. (Point of pride: My write-in incurred a whopping 221,481 logged words in 2014, with a max spurt of 1,317 words over 20 minutes, a grand per-writer mean of 522 words in 15.25 minutes and an average standard deviation of 169 words.)
  4. I tend to write dialogue-heavy, with episodic short scene descriptions. When I relate a series of actions, I tend to use a lot of “after” and “then” — a stylistic affliction I can only really fix on a later cold read. Initial character descriptions focus on physical attributes and wardrobes; mannerisms only get pulled in to break up long passages of dialogue.

This year’s effort was … precious. Having been waylaid by sundry crises in the first half of the month, I arrived at Day 25 (of 30!) with a whopping 17,195 words complete. But, mirable dictu, I had a five-day vacation for the last five days of the month. You want to know what that kind of progress looks like?

All the words.

All the words.

It basically looks like 6,562 words per day. Remember how I said I write at about 360 words per quarter-hour? That tally doesn’t include frequent breaks for peeing, getting more wine, waiting until the cat re-positions himself on my lap, re-reading and editing what I just wrote, checking email, peeing again, looking up bondage equipment on Wikipedia and eating candy. I wrote for eight to ten hours per day, each of those last few days, to eke out the narrowest of wins.

And I’m good with that workflow, because I learned that it’s easier to keep your story straight when you’re plowing through it, instead of dabbling with a disconnected scene here and there every couple of weeks. I got inside my characters’ heads, and actually changed a core part of the story based in large part to how I wrapped up one important, but sad, scene. That scene, by the way, marked the first time I’ve ever teared up over what happened to my characters.

All of the above notwithstanding, let me share with you the gist of Aiden’s Wager. I’ll begin by asserting my surprise at discovering that this was really the novel I intended to write last year. My 2013 effort — a detective story — followed a fairly typical, plot-heavy structure with a few one-off scenes added for color. In the end, though, the plot got in the way of the characters. That incongruity between story and structure was my ultimate problem with the fourth chapter: It tried to fix the plot holes through careful foreshadowing, but the real story by the end wasn’t the mystery, it was the way the main character evolved over a particularly challenging case.

Aiden’s Wager is different. I billed it, on the NaNoWriMo site, as “literary fiction.” Which it is, insofar as the real story eschews an event-driven paradigm in favor of a narrative showing how the main characters progress or regress over three weeks in late autumn. In a nutshell, the protagonist — a 22-year-old named Aiden, first-class-prick scion of an exceptionally wealthy family — gets disowned and disinherited after a brief jail stint, by his reputation-conscious father. Aiden hails from a “Rich Kids of Instagram” kind of social circle of cut-throat young people vying for power and dominance within their tribe of fellow hundredth-of-one-percenters. Aiden maintains his swagger and assumes he’ll come out of his newly diminished circumstances like a boss, but one of his rivals sets him up, blackmails him and treats him like a trophy to solidify his own status within the tribe. Aiden must therefore think about the purpose of his life, the source of moral authority and the way that power dynamics corrupts people and relationships.

It’s not a light-hearted story. The entire middle third of the book deals with the blackmail — its origination, and how the main antagonist deliberately isolates, dehumanizes and subjugates Aiden. That middle third is, in places, vividly pornographic. I try to show how a cocky rich kid gets the rug pulled out from underneath him, and in the emotional chaos that ensues, he becomes a victim who succumbs to Stockholm syndrome and becomes willfully subservient to, even worshipful of, his abuser. The final third covers Aiden’s attempt to repair the damage he caused to himself and his family after forcible intervention by his disgusted older brother. A big chunk of that recovery entails an exploration of moral authority, aided in part by a visiting Catholic priest.

I’m happy with this story. I think it has legs. At the outset, I wanted to write about moral authority in general in the guise of a questioning young man crossing paths with different people. In this story, I accomplished that goal — but concepts like power, coercion, consent, faith, control and teleology also recur. I tried to mainstream bisexuality, present the clergy favorably, touch on the prevalence of antisocial personality disorder among the elite and emphasize the emptiness of a life devoid of meaning beyond one’s own ego. I may have to edit out some content in the middle third; some audiences may not want to read extended and explicit passages of gay torture porn with a strong D&S overtone.

But then again, in a Fifty Shades of Gray world, maybe they might.

#AmWriting

Posted on 22 November 2014 | No responses

#AmWriting

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Jason’s Playlist … Nov. 2014

Posted on 21 November 2014 | 1 response

I do these “Jason’s Playlist” posts annually, usually in late autumn. Writing brings me closer to music.

Anyway, here are the songs surfacing most frequently —

45 (Acoustic), Shinedown
Behind Blue Eyes, Limp Bizkit
Blame, Calvin Harris
Call Me, Shinedown
Chandelier, Sia
Cyanide Sweet Tooth Suicide, Shinedown
Dangerous (feat. Sam Martin), David Guetta
Demons, Imagine Dragons
Forfeit, Chevelle
From Yesterday, Thirty Seconds to Mars
Hesitate, Stone Sour
Hurricane (Unplugged), Thirty Seconds to Mars
Iridescent, Linkin Park
Love Me Harder, Ariana Grande
Monster You Made, Pop Evil
Radioactive, Imagine Dragons
SexyBack, Justin Timberlake
Stay, Thirty Seconds to Mars (cover)
The Thunder Rolls (Long Version), Garth Brooks
Thinking Out Loud, Ed Sheeran

See you next year.

Autumn in Michigan.

Posted on 20 November 2014 | No responses

Autumn in Michigan.

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An Autumn’s Repose

Posted on 9 November 2014 | No responses

Nights in West Michigan have grown consistently colder — in the 30s, usually — and most of the leaves have descended from their perches atop the now-barren canopy. Autumn’s full, glorious array reminds us to be prepared for the winter to come. A few weeks ago, I went for a walk in a county park and saw the transition up-close and personal: Bees going after every fading flower, greens turning into reds and yellows, squirrels building their stashes. All the little creatures, it seems, are fortifying themselves against the frigid desolation to come.

On Halloween day, I had my annual biometric screening. Most of the content — blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol, weight, BMI — met my expectations. No surprises. One measure, fasting glucose, caught me off guard. Not bad enough to freak out over, but not what I expected given that by all lights, I’m in better shape today than I was when I had my first assessment a full decade ago.

The thing about autumn is that the beauty of the landscape proves so charming that you aren’t forced to reflect on the clear lessons hidden beneath the surface. Instead, you repose quietly, enjoying the scenery or sipping the cider and relaxing in anticipation of the busy holiday season to come. So too with aging. We change styles and behaviors, but the danger that counts is the one locked deep within — we obsess about which sweater to wear but never think to check our biometric values. Like the parable of the grasshopper and the ant, at some point, the flurries will fly, and only the well-prepared will make it through. Wellness is a beast that requires daily diligence even in the warm summer sun, because if you come up short when a health blizzard hits … well, it is what it is. Now, then — some general updates, in no particular order.

  • Work continues to be busy. I just oriented my first official new hire as a department manager. Went smoothly. Our division is undergoing a significant restructuring, so it’s been “interesting times” around here in the fullest Confucian sense of the term.
  • It’s November, which means National Novel Writing Month. I’m again participating, and again hosting a write-in on Saturday mornings in downtown Grand Rapids. This year’s novel, should it be polished to the point of shopping, is literary fiction — a tale of a young wealthy man from a dog-eat-dog competitive social circle who, after he’s cut off from the family money, must develop his own life goals and set of morals while fending off the predation of his former friends, who now see a turn-about opportunity to further humiliate him. The meta-narrative of the story focuses on the main character’s investigation of the various classic sources of ethical meaning from the perspective of someone who’s working through a mash of antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders while drowning in a rich, hypermasculine peer group with similar tendencies. Given the language and very strong adult themes, if I ever publish it, it’ll be under a pseudonym. Probably my porn name, which actually makes a great author name, too.
  • The wrap-up activity after my conference took more out of me than I thought. I had to develop and compile surveys so I could issue continuing-education credits. That work, and the resulting time crunch, contributed to my inability to attend a much-anticipated Halloween party at PPQ’s house. CEs are time-consuming.
  • The election was … interesting. I volunteered a bit this year for the GOP, given my status as an elected precinct delegate. Did some door-to-door campaigning a few weeks ago for the MRP in eastern Kent County then spent seven hours as an election challenger in one of the busiest precincts in the City of Grand Rapids. Good experience, but it highlights how so much of the ground game is being run by very young people with very high self-regard who lack any substantive political experience.
  • The publishing company is humming along. We’re in the edit phase of our anthology and are actively looking toward starting a quarterly literary magazine in 2015. There’s much enthusiasm for that journal by several contributors, so I hold out hope that it’ll launch with sufficient love and nurturing.
  • The boy cat has started tunneling under my blankets at night to curl up next to me. It’s adorable. I get a little ball of fuzzy, purring warmth showing up at unexpected times.
  • Hard to believe, but Tony and I are closing in on our 200th podcast episode next month.

No pet, no type.

Posted on 12 October 2014 | No responses

No pet, no type.

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Out for a Walk

Posted on 11 October 2014 | No responses

I completed this afternoon a six-mile nature walk along the Kent Trails near Millennium Park, a favorite activity of mine that I haven’t had much time to enjoy this year. Gorgeous weather — upper 50s, sunny, light breeze. Got to watch, up-close, several bumblebees on a pollen run.

I love autumn. The air is getting a bit more dry, a bit more crisp. The leaves are moving from green to yellow and red and the nights have dipped into the 30s already. October and April are West Michigan’s transition months: We can get very cold, but also very warm, and the life cycle spins afresh. November through March are the chilly, wet months; May through September are the pleasant, dry months. But October and April? The best of both worlds.

The two-hour jaunt also gave me time to think about a handful of disconnected topics:

  • Lately my little friend, Murphy d’Cat, has taken to sleeping on me when I’m at my desk. Fine. As of yesterday, however, he’s now also sleeping on me if I should recline on the couch. Cute little kitty. And warm, too.
  • I am digging Peter Capaldi’s turn as The Doctor.
  • I think I put my finger in why I hate — viscerally hate — telephones. It’s because that now that email and other asynchronous communication methods are prevalent, there’s a certain arrogance in assuming that whatever you need in the moment trumps whatever I might be doing in that same moment. Immediate communications in non-planned, non-emergency situations are, in a sense, an act of aggression that says: “I don’t give a rip what you think/want/need, you must cater to my needs.” Nowadays, I usually keep the ringer off and I never check voice mails, so if you need something … the only effective way of guaranteed contact is email.
  • I’m not worried about Ebola, but I am worried about the federal response to whatever nasty disease comes next.
  • It’s probably good that Tony and I are moving toward marathon podcast sessions instead of doing two or three every two or three weeks — I enjoy my time with ol’ T-Bone, but I do also like catch-up time on Saturdays.
  • I think I might be excited for a decent holiday season this year.

The Serenity After the Storm

Posted on 11 October 2014 | No responses

I love storms — the malevolence of the sky, the crash of the thunder, the relentless drive of the rain. But after the storm passes, the damp stillness brings its own charms in the form of chirping birds, the smell of fresh rain and the juxtaposition of peace lightly scarred by the storm’s damage. After the deluge, there’s tranquility.

But not all storms show up on Doppler radar.

Two weeks ago, at long last, the Michigan Association for Healthcare Quality conducted its annual educational conference. For this year’s event, we trekked north to The Park Place Hotel in lovely Traverse City. As president-elect of the organization, the role of conference chairman fell to me. Aided by a delightful team of volunteers from across The Mitten, we continued our long, storied tradition of yanking a three-day educational event from ‘twixt our buttocks.

I was worried, though. Paid registrations nosedived — we had no idea what moving from Frankenmuth to Traverse City would do — and as late as one week before the event, much of the important stuff like menus, brochures, etc., hadn’t been wrapped up (i.e., I hadn’t gotten to it yet). And don’t get me started on the damnable attrition clause with the hotel!

Now that it’s over and the results are tabulated, I can breathe again. It appears that attendance was, indeed, down a slight bit — we ended up with 50 total attendees for the main conference plus a healthy eight for the CPHQ review course — but evaluations came back very positive. The attrition clause wasn’t enforced, so not only did we have a highly regarded event, but we probably will end up turning a small profit off of it, too, despite that I spent like a drunken sailor on things like branded messenger bags and speaker honoraria. In other words: The conference went off without a hitch!

The event, though, was just one drip in a much larger bucket. Add to that a bunch of out-of-state travel activity this summer, plus work on the anthology, plus volunteer stuff with NAHQ, plus the promotion at work, plus extra contract assignments, plus a more robust social calendar, plus deeper political engagement, plus, plus, plus … well, it’s been a wild ride. An embarrassment of riches, actually — the “busy stress” wasn’t because of bad stuff, but because of new opportunities.

Starting roughly last October, and continuing to today, I’ve experienced something I hadn’t really felt in a decade: Overwhelming workloads. Especially this summer, I’ve had to-do lists so long that I realized I just wasn’t going to get everything done, no matter how hard I tried. I don’t like swimming in that pond! So some things suffered — including, alas, my plan to attend VIMFP in Las Vegas next weekend.

But things are winding down. The conference is done, I’m getting more settled at work, the contract assignments are becoming more routinized, and the anthology is humming along. This weekend is the first since late August that I haven’t had any calendar commitments to deal with. Although National Novel Writing Month will be here in a scant three weeks, I have an idea ready to go and a plan for making things happen.

So now the storm has passed, and as I survey my task list for the next week, I can breathe the clean air knowing that the list isn’t impossible, or even that much of a strenuous exercise. It can be done!

I therefore sit, blogging, with Murphy laying on my lap and coffee on the desk and Skype open for occasional chats. I’m going to go for a walk today. It’ll be grand.

Long-hidden serenity is starting to shine through the dissipating storm clouds of 2014. At last.

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