Blessings, Old and New

Posted on 25 December 2013 | No responses

Today is Christmas. Ho3.

Once upon a yesteryear, the last six weeks of the calendar marked a magical period of fun, family and festivity. The season kicked off with the trek up the hill to my grandparents’ house on Thanksgiving Day. We’d enjoy a feast that would put any Edwardian glutton to shame –assembling in the White Dining Room, a twice-a-year event, with non-casual attire and rare delicacies stretching as far as the eye could see – then cap it off with the thrill of defeat known as the “Lions’ game.” Heaven help us when it was Detroit v. Green Bay; battle lines formed ’round the TV, with the Michigan Delegation duly singing Nearer My God to Thee as the defense sunk beneath the waves while the Indiana Delegation surged with a wild-eyed ferocity that would make Mel Gibson look as sedate as Ben Stein.

Then, we’d embark upon that Great Interregnum known as Advent, when the spiritual side of Christmas received its due accord. The ancient Christian fathers knew what they were doing when they introduced seasonality into the liturgical calendar; moreso, when they pushed the cycle of readings to three years on Sundays and two years on weekdays. Advent became a period both familiar and yet ever new; in my youth, at a Franciscan parish, by the time a new three-year Gospel cycle began we’d have new friars and thus new perspectives on that year’s narrative.

Times change. My parents divorced, my grandfather died, everyone’s moved to different domiciles, schedules swapped as in-laws proliferated, food lines slimmed down from “extravagant fare on china with silver” to “grab a paper plate for appetizers,” sweaters and ties gave way to pajama pants … and I’m in my mid-30s living with a pair of cats. Over the last few years, the holiday season has crumbled a bit. It became a duty to buy gifts. It became rote to do the same things at church. It felt odd that “family” occurred twice per year, in the Snowy Season.

The last few years haven’t been especially merry. Acedia set in, I suppose. Christmas became just one more thing to plan around, like a doctor’s appointment or annual performance review.  One more thing to spend money on. One more reason to sit down with family you see almost never and pretend like things are a happy, healthy whole. Indeed, my favorite part of the last six weeks of the year is the anticipation over my annual two-week vacation, a time spent not on others but rather myself.

Yet. Yet. Yet. It’s tempting to catch yourself judging today by the impossible standard of yesterday. It’s the fate of mankind — graced, as we are, by mortality; cursed, however, by relentless novelty — to never step in the same stream twice. The things that used to excite us eventually lose their wonder. The things we used to tire of, now bring delight. The challenge of Christmas, then, is to resist treating the holiday like a repeat, but instead to find new meaning every single time, even when there’s no lodestar to compare against.

This year, I kicked off the holiday season with Thanksgiving with my mom and brother. Then I had a second feast with friends at Brittany and Steve’s. We’ve had snow consistently in December, and little things — a gift here, a card there, a party with friends somewhere else — made a huge difference. We had a fun party at my grandmother’s condo last Saturday, and last night at my mom’s was great — especially chucking indoor snowballs at my young nephew. Today I’m drinking coffee with Bailey’s, writing, while the cats sit peacefully on their pillows. I think tonight I’ll make a fire and watch the Doctor Who special.

Christmas isn’t about gifts, or decorations, or cookies or anything else. More than anything, it’s a state of mind that says two things simultaneously. First, in that ancient Christian tradition, we are invited to reflect on the miracle of life and the saving power of innocence in the face of worldly adversity. Second, we are called to impose our own meaning on the world around us, to choose to find reasons for joy … or not. Our call.

Choose wisely. For myself, this year, I choose to enjoy the blessings of Christmas, and I pray that you do, too.

So Far, So Good

Posted on 24 December 2013 | No responses

The productivity trek for this two-week holiday is off to a rousing good start:

  • I got all my Christmas stuff done and wrapped. A day early, even.
  • I deep-cleaned the house and did laundry … even all the blankets I never use.
  • I did my annual goals list, tweaked my fitness plan, cleaned out my OneNote folders and set up the bedroom TV to stream Netflix for when I sit on the exercise bike.
  • Got caught up on news and did some free reading about novel writing.
  • Weighed in at a nice number lower than where I ended up on Nov. 30.
  • Spent some time socializing with friends on Skype, aided by a tasty, tasty martini.

I have most of the next two weeks hard-booked with tasks. That should help. I’d like to start the new year with a clean slate, the lingering debris of 2013 having been resolved.

So far, so good.

Christmas Vacation!

Posted on 22 December 2013 | No responses

Today is day No. 2 of a 16-day excursion into vacationing excellence.

The time-off period started well enough. Yesterday I started the day with coffee with Abbi then a family Christmas party (held at the Cathedral of St. Dorothy the Matriarch), then a trip to the mall for a bit of shopping and then food-court dinner and a movie — Anchorman 2, which was hilarious — with Liz and Brian, Julie, Nichole, and Lianne. Today features a bit of housekeeping — cleaning, podcast production, grocery shopping, last-minute gift-buying — to settle me for the week.

Then … nothing.

Well, not nothing. I have quite a bit planned. It’s better to say that apart from another Christmas party on Tuesday, and a possible planning visit with Tony on Jan 2/3/4, that I’m not leaving the house. Instead, I’ll remain cocooned at home, with the feline overlords, performing sundry tasks:

  • Polishing the novel
  • Reviewing 2013′s achievements and planning 2014′s goals
  • A buttload of cardio
  • Soliciting contract writing work

I’m looking forward to it.

The last few years, Christmas hasn’t been much about the holiday; instead, it’s about the time off to hunker down and re-center myself.  A period of end-of-year renewal, as it were.

And I’m way past ready to get to work.

A Week of Marked Contrasts

Posted on 14 December 2013 | 2 responses

I can kinda-sorta hear the infamous DQW’s iPod singing faintly, “Life is a yo-yo; I want to sling it all night long ….” Then again, the sound is muffled so my apprehension of the lyrics might be off a bit.

But geez. What a week. First the good.

  • I received the electronic notice for the pending balloting for offices within the Michigan Association for Healthcare Quality. I’m the sole nominee for president-elect, so barring some unforeseen difficulty, I’ll soon begin the three-year cycle of P-E/president/past-prez within that august organization.
  • I was appointed the national co-leader of the SIG Team for the National Association for Healthcare Quality, by the 2014 NAHQ president. NAHQ has several special-interest groups — clusters of professionals aligned along some sort of common interest. I spent the last year as facilitator of the Ambulatory Care and Care Transitions SIG; now, I’ve been asked to help at a higher level, providing leadership and coordination to the SIG facilitators.
  • The email for the VI European Congress on Methodology came out this week; my session, about surveying chronic-disease patients to ascertain barriers to effective self-management, is on the final roster. Looks like I’ll be off to The Netherlands this July!
  • I enjoyed a lovely Christmas party with the full complement of my writing group last night. We had desserts, a book exchange and a Secret Santa event. We even Skyped in Mary from PA, which was nice.
  • My boss bought me lunch this week. We had our fourth-quarter birthday celebration, so those of us with birthdays in the latter part of the year were treated on Tuesday. We ended up walking to Gus’s. The place was chock-full of sheriff’s deputies on lunch break, which was rather amusing.
  • I fired up Mint on my Windows Phone. First time in a year that I actually used the site or its services. Turns out, I had a nearly 25 percent increase in my 403(b) account total since last year. I’m actually closing in on the retirement-savings level that industry professionals say is the “gold standard” for my age bracket. Geez.
  • My “post-NaNo” diet is working, it seems. Down about 4 lbs. (or so) in two weeks.
  • People seem to know me. I got the gift of alcohol from my Secret Santa, plus my landlord. And a director at work very generously provided me with a gift certificate to Founders Brewery. Yay.

Now the bad.

  • For the second time in less than six months, a local thief smashed a window on my Jimmy and stole something from the cab … while the vehicle was parked in my driveway, under a bright light. A bag of miscellaneous gear — my first-aid kit, my travel showering bag, my waist pack with some essential hiking gear — was snatched. About $250 in loss for the equipment, plus another $175 or so for window replacement. And it happened on Thursday morning and I couldn’t get an appointment with the glass guys until Saturday morning. Which means lots of driving in 20-degree weather without a window. Yay.
  • Getting over a long-running but fairly mild cold.
  • It dawned on me just how much my monthly insurance and utility payments are, since I paid them in one fell swoop yesterday. All told, my average monthly costs come to roughly $800. Not inclusive of rent, food, gas, savings, etc.
  • I’ve been unusually tired, which means my productivity has plummeted. I spent most of the week coming home, building a fire in the fireplace, uncorking a bottle of wine, and reading the news — usually with a cat on my lap. Peaceful, yes. Productive … not so much.
  • One of my more lucrative clients is on a two-week hiatus at the end of December, so my revenue will take a hit. Right at the same time I’m paying for window repairs, equipment replacement … and a notice that my rent is increasing $100 per month effective 1/1. Yay.

Win some, lose some.

The ABCs of Fame

Posted on 8 December 2013 | No responses

Earlier this week I had laid out a very loose theory (and by “theory” I mean “rhetorical device”) about dancing sprites as an inducement to disquiet. My weekend having been consumed with a trip to East Lansing and back, I had plenty of road time to refine my thinking on the subject.

My original consternation hails from a single source: The recognition that I could be Excellent — capital E, and lauded on the national stage — were I simply to try. When I see people who are Excellent finding happiness and success, I’m not envious of their position, but I am reproachful against the inner demons who conspire against my own success.

Modern-day excellence comes in one of three flavors: Achievement, Beauty or Connection. The connected people are perhaps the easiest to identify; were it not for her sister-in-law being a future queen of Great Britain, for example, no one would know of Pippa Middleton or her shapely derriere. Wealth or family ties foist some people into the spotlight whether they deserve it or not (looking at you, Paris Hilton). So, also, does beauty. Models, musicians, artists, actors — there’s a reason why so few ugly people travel in those circles, and those who do are usually elderly veterans or “character” types who fill a niche. Being of pleasing appearance opens many doors that remain bolted for the merely average.

The achievement category, though — there’s the rub. The ugly and the unconnected can still find success through hard work. A lot of writers fall into this category (cf, “Martin, George R.R.”). So do a lot of folks who wield political or economic power. Bill Gates wasn’t pretty or connected, for example, but he managed to grow a software empire that left him the richest man in the world.

Think of the baseline level of fame it’d take to get automatic VIP treatment at a Vegas nightclub. It’s not terribly high — a B-list actor, a DJ, a model without the “super” status — but there’s nevertheless a bar below which a clubgoer is just another schmuck waiting behind the velvet curtain, and above which you’re acknowledged as being “someone.” This base level of fame is an ABC mix. If any one of the three — achievement, beauty, connection — are high enough, you’re in; if not … the bouncer will check your I.D. in 45 minutes. Maybe.

When I examine my own fame level, I note that although my achievements over the years may put me in, say, the top 10 percent, it’s not enough. You need to be in the top tenth of a percent. I also know that although I’m not ugly, on the “beauty” front I’m fairly average. So no dice there. And connections? Not so much, really.

But the interesting thing is that the formula can change. I can ratchet up my achievements. I can maximize my appearance to be as beautiful as genetics will allow. I can network like crazy, building connections that make future accomplishments that much easier to rack up.

I know all of this. So when I examine what is, and reflect on what could be, I am simultaneously confronted by the excitement to achieve and the lingering fear that it won’t matter no matter how hard I try. Thus the Scylla and Charybdis of Fame: No matter how carefully you set the stage, it’s still a roll of the dice whether you’ll sail through to the other side.

It comes down to one directive: Be excellent. Regardless of the outcome.

Jason’s Playlist, Episode No. 4

Posted on 6 December 2013 | No responses

Seems every year, in November or December, I do one of these: Highlight the songs that are top-of-playlist. This time around (alpha by band name or artist first name):

  • 30 Seconds to Mars, Capricorn (A Brand New Name)
  • 30 Seconds to Mars, Conquistador
  • 30 Seconds to Mars, The Kill (Bury Me)
  • 30 Seconds to Mars, The Race
  • *Britney Spears, Everytime
  • Carly Rae Jepsen, Call Me Maybe [this one amuses people]
  • Chevelle, Forfeit
  • ^Chevelle, The Red
  • Creed, My Own Prison
  • D12, How Come
  • ^Eagles, Hotel California
  • Goo Goo Dolls, Home
  • Hinder, What Ya Gonna Do
  • *Linkin Park, Iridescent
  • OneRepublic, Feel Again
  • *Papa Roach, Burn
  • Pop Evil, Monster You Made
  • *Restless Heart, Fast Movin’ Train
  • ^Roberta Flack, Killing Me Softly with His Song
  • Shinedown, 45
  • Shinedown, Second Chance
  • *^Stone Sour, Hesitate
  • Train, Meet Virginia

Last year’s repeats are marked with an asterisk; the 2011 repeats with a caret.  Only one to make a triple appearance is Hesitate — odd, in that I”m not a huge Stone Sour fan. Maybe I’ll have to go digging through Xbox Music to see if there’s anything in their back catalog I find appealing.

Discordant, Dancing Sprites

Posted on 4 December 2013 | No responses

Like a fallen leaf twirled about upon the chaotic eddies of a gentle mountain stream, I spent the evening today grasping — and mostly failing — to draw a coherent, unified insight out of several discordant sprites dancing chaotically at the margins of my imagination.

The spark that lit the pyre of introspection was … well, it was odd. I was enjoying a premium hand-rolled cigar at my local tobacconist’s smoking lounge. I paired an lovely Alec Bradley Nica Puro with a can of cold, refreshing diet Coke. And I sat in a soft leather chair, my tablet in hand, reading the various news of the day while some sort of extreme sports program played silently on the television. Two-thirds of the way through the 1,100 or so headlines that had queued over the last 24 hours, I came across an article in one of the politics-slash-gossip blogs I read, about the frenzied speculation that British diver Tom Daley, an Olympic bronze medalist who’s not yet 21, is dating American writer Dustin Lance Black — a man twice his age so therefore a contemporary of mine. Apparently the Internet was abuzz yesterday with Daley’s YouTube confession that he’s bisexual and has been dating an unidentified man, so of course the tabloids went into overdrive and Black’s the theory du jore because Instagram. I’m not sure why the story struck me, or why, but it did — swiftly and viscerally, but incoherently; I thought something but I didn’t know quite what.

So that was the first dancing sprite. The second was a reflection, on my way to pick up a gift certificate, that the lion’s share of the reason I sometimes can’t get done what I need to get done is because I am apparently pathologically incapable of declining the pleading of others to help them solve their own problems. As I obsessed over all the stuff I’ve meant to do lately versus what actually got done, I realized that a major time sink wasn’t that I can’t deliver, per se, but that I have so little time for myself because I’m doing something else, somewhere, for someone. Nothing heroic — don’t infer a humblebrag — but more like the assumption that I’m everyone’s tech support hotline or personal document editor. No one really abuses the system, I guess, but when enough people want something, and each request in itself is reasonable, the calendar overflows and the bulk of my personal docket gets shuffled off to another day. A day that, increasingly, gets shunted ever more distantly down the road.

The third sprite was a flash of irritation over a well-intentioned question about my hair. Yes, it’s long. Yes, I have a reason for it. Yet I cannot fathom why people feel impelled to comment about it. And my family is the worst of all; I almost want to let it grow down to my ass because I absolutely do not want to have it cut and then listen to them coo about how much better it looks, as if I were some wayward child who finally saw the light.  (I believe Tony’s wife calls this attitude oppositional defiance, except in my case, I’m quite happy with it.)  I’m getting to the “last straw” point with them, a conflagration that’s been smoldering, ready to ignite, ever since my grandfather, St. Frank the Peacemaker, died eight years ago.

Other sprites jigged ’round the noggin — lamentations about dating shared over Bloody Marys with my friend Julie; questions about portfolio diversification as a freelancer; the aggressiveness of my 2014 annual goals; realistic prospects for my novel – but those three took pride of place.

Perhaps the Grand Unified Theory of these discordant threads is time. One of the most fascinating courses I took as an undergraduate was a grad seminar in the philosophy department about the nature of time. Taught by the brilliant but somewhat erratic Quentin Smith, the course reviewed the major logical ways of characterizing time as a thing-in-itself and therefore an object of independent perception. Although we argued mightily about whether we live in A-, B- or C-series time, the notion of time as a companion — a fellow traveler, if you will — stuck with me.

The clock waits for no man. I’m still young — 37 is hardly elderly — but it occurs to me that many of the things I really want to master require the vitality of youth. I really do want to do a marathon. I really do want to dive the Great Barrier Reef. I really do want to hike Denali. But the window of opportunity doesn’t stay open forever, and when I examine both the professional and personal success of someone like Black, and I stress over having to dance to everyone else’s drummer, it occurs to me: At some point, I’m going to have learn to say no, so I can enjoy the privilege of saying yes to life’s Meaningful Things.

Life after #NaNoWriMo 2013

Posted on 3 December 2013 | 4 responses

I crossed the 2013 National Novel Writing Month finish line with just above 50,100 words, with 13 hours to spare. This was my third year participating, but my first “win.” Herewith some lessons:

  1. I do best when I have an outline of the work in mind before I begin, including scene synopses and character sketches. I use Scrivener for Windows, so all of this info is readily at hand. Before Halloween, I plotted out 25 scenes over 12 chapters (with a prologue) with a goal of putting a minimum of 2,000 words in each scene, one scene per day, with five days off in the month. I didn’t stick exactly to that schedule, but getting slightly ahead of target early in the month gave me some slack later in the month. All I really had to do was treat each scene like a module; it’s less daunting to write a 2,000-word scene than to write “a novel” in exactly the same way it’s easier to eat calamari instead of a giant squid.
  2. The more I finished, the easier it was to write. After about the 30k mark, the words flowed easier because I better understood the nuances of the story and the personalities of the characters. By the end, I had so much stuff I wanted to stick in that I had to discipline myself to stick to the original plan of getting all 25 of the originally planned scenes done.
  3. Syncing my novel files to SkyDrive (and removing the Office Document Uploader, the bane of my existence) means I can seamlessly pick up the work on my Surface Pro or on my desktop PC. No worries about not backing up, losing a hard drive, breaking a USB stick, yadda, yadda ….
  4. Writing with a group means you’re disciplined about it. I give credit to my friends Julie and Roux for their consistent encouragement, as well as my whole chain-gang of WriteOn! colleagues who made things more palatable and certainly more pastry-filled. I hosted a Saturday-morning write-in that, over the month, logged almost 95,000 words among our motley cast of characters. Plus, I won the “Word War Benevolent Leader” award at the Ottawa County/Grand Rapids regional TGIO party and the “Most Likely to Carry a Sub in His Car” award from Jessica’s Kentwood Library write-in. W00t.
  5. I’m a reviser. I write fairly slowly, perhaps 1,000 words per hour if I’m focused, because I write fairly clean prose on the first pass. It’s easier to reach the end if you resist the urge to re-revise already written work and instead just get things on paper.
  6. The folks who conduct the annual event remind us that, really, NaNoWriMo isn’t about writing a novel. It’s about getting the first 50k words of a novel’s “zero draft” down. The real work comes with subsequent addition, revision, editing, etc. I agree with this sentiment: I “won” but I haven’t yet written a novel. But I’ve got enough of a novel done now that to decline to finish would be a tremendous waste. The 50k mark gets you not to the end, but to the point of no return: You’re committed, so use December and the months following to wrap things up.

So what’s next? Well, I’m taking two weeks off for the end-of-December holiday season. I have sundry tasks planned for myself, but chief among them is to bring the novel up to roughly 85,000 words, plus or minus five grand. And there’s plenty of opportunity to augment it — I have some notes about scenes I need to beef up, one whole scene I need to add for context, some holes to plug … and I must straighten one of the two subplots so it’s got a stronger element of interpersonal struggle about it.

Beyond that, I’ve got a few folks who have volunteered to read the draft. I intend to give it to them so they can hack it to pieces (I don’t want nice reviews, I want mean ones — the mean ones help improve the quality of the final draft).

The novel is straight genre: It’s a detective fiction, set in modern-day Grand Rapids, with a not-entirely-loveable main character who, I think, grows a bit by the end. Sex and violence are present but muted and not at all graphic – this is probably a PG-13 book — and expletives are reserved for occasional bits of dialogue for certain characters. I’ve left the door open for this concept and the primary cast of characters to turn into a series. Maybe volume No. 2 comes with 2014 NaNo?

I think I can get this into a form ready for release to an agent. Assuming I win the 1-percent-chance lottery of finding one. If late spring rolls around and I have no bites on the manuscript, off to Amazon it goes at $2.99 a pop.

One of my bucket-list items was “Write a novel.” The draft of Sanctuary is rough, but in good shape. I’m happy with it. I crossed the NaNoWriMo finish line, now I need to bring November’s work product past the finish line, too.

Thanksgiving Blessings

Posted on 28 November 2013 | No responses

The last time Tony and I recorded a podcast episode, he tried to wish me a happy Thanksgiving but stumbled his way toward telling me “Thanksgiving blessings.” Which, then, degenerated into a series of giggles at the odd turn of phrase. But Thanksgiving does, indeed, provide a window for at least reflecting on the blessings we do enjoy. I’m grateful for:

  1. Living in the United States, which — despite the bitter partisan nature of contemporary electoral politics — remains a beacon of hope for so many poor and oppressed souls around the world.
  2. Enjoying a nice home with modern utilities and antique charm, courtesy of a landlord who’s also a friend.
  3. Having a family with whom I may happily break bread tomorrow, or at least talk to by email.
  4. The opportunity to write this blog post with two sweet feline overlords within arms’ reach, who are sleeping peacefully upon their pillows.
  5. The chance to make my world-famous spicy sausage jambalaya tonight, which I’ll enjoy by a wood fire with a book, a glass or two of delicious Spanish wine and Bach playing in the background.
  6. The drive to “win” NaNoWriMo this year and, next month, polish a draft of a real, honest-to-goodness novel.
  7. A meaningful job that brings ample opportunity to explore and implement ways to improve public health.
  8. My friends in West Michigan, especially the motley crew of writers with whom I associate.
  9. A reliable four-wheel-drive SUV that can plow through the snow accumulating outside my window.
  10. Our podcast and the friends across the world we’ve made because of it.
  11. Knowing that if I had an emergency and had to place a dreaded 3 a.m. call, that people would answer.
  12. Experiencing the joy of being the inaugural house guest of PPQ and The Good Doctor this week.
  13. Having a life plan and making progress toward achieving Big Things.
  14. Cigar and cocktail evenings and the relationships built from them.
  15. Having finally made that Isle Royale trip earlier this year.

We can always find things to complain about, or discern opportunities to make things better. Thus shall it always be. Harder is the task, though, of reflecting upon what is and finding joy in it — joy without caveat.

Today, be grateful. Without reservation or evasion. Be content with what is, and let tomorrow worry about what will be.

Thanksgiving blessings to you all.

Another Quick Recap

Posted on 17 November 2013 | No responses

Time flies when you’re noveling.

So my participation in National Novel Writing Month is proceeding  better than I expected. I’m actually above my target word count for this point in the month, coming in somewhere just north of 27,000 words. I like my story: It’s mainstream detective fiction, set in Grand Rapids, about a murder and a neo-pagan cult that’s not what it seems. My main character is a private investigator whose primary subplot revolves around his dating foibles, with some color commentary on bisexuality in West Michigan.

With the time off I intend to take around the December holidays, I plan to get the novel to roughly 80,000 words and streamline the prose well enough to admit to editing by others, with a goal of pitching it to an agent or self-publishing on Amazon. The choice of straight genre and localization were deliberately planned to improve potential commercial prospects for the final manuscript.

Because of the writing, I’ve had little time for much else. I’m behind on emails and I’ve effectively shut down the Jason Help Line this month. The only things other than writing that I’ve continued to handle are the podcast and some very light contract work. Oh, and setting up a Facebook group for my 20-year high school reunion. Lord a’mercy, I’m getting old. Graduation day is closer to my date of birth than to today.

One of the big time-sinks from NaNoWriMo isn’t necessarily the writing, but the community of writing. Every day but Friday and Sunday I have a November writers’ event — and the one on Saturdays, I host. It’s great for camaraderie and for bolstering word count, but it’s time not spent on the myriad other things that would normally occupy my time in any month other than November. Last week’s Day of Knockout Noveling was fun (but given the high sugar content, not super productive). I do try to write from home, but Fiona d’Cat has taken to laying on my forearms and chest whenever I recline in my office chair.

On the bright side, I’ll have some focused time the week after next. With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, I’ll have some catch-up time (if I need it) and because I’m making classroom visits to the east side of the state for the International Year of Statistics that week, I’ll have some time at Detroit-area cigar bars to write, enjoy a premium cigar and possible a dram of Scotch or five.


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