Like to Read? Then Have I Got a Book for You ….

Posted on 14 February 2015 | No responses

We’re launching Brewed Awakenings, the house anthology of Caffeinated Press, on March 1. The inaugural volume of the anthology features eight novelettes written by West Michigan writers.

Not only did I write a story, but I edited the volume and managed the production of the title. Buttload of work, not all of which is completely wrapped up as of this post.

Copies are now available for order; they’ll ship on March 2. But why wait? BUY NOW. BUY, I SAY.

What a Month!

Posted on 1 February 2015 | No responses

January is already a memory. Wow. Let’s recap some highlights.


Around Thanksgiving, I started my GMC Jimmy one morning and heard a bit of a squeal and smelled an odd aroma reminiscent of a mix of oil, burning rubber and ozone. It came, it went, life went on. But Jimmy started to act a little funny — eventually, I’d experience intermittent periods where the charging system would fail. Then it would come back to life, as if by magic.

Over my Christmas vacation, I vowed to fix the problem myself, if I could. I popped the hood and voila! — it was immediately obvious that the pulley on the belt tensioner was broken. As in, chewed to pieces. The entire serpentine belt was chafing and parts, like the alternator, weren’t being properly driven.

“I can fix that!” I said to the cats. So I did. I bought a replacement pulley from AutoZone (1.04 miles from my house by foot) and replaced the damaged part. In single-digit temperatures. Outdoors. Without gloves. Woohoo. So I got that part replaced and what happened? You guessed it — sitting for a few days, in the cold, after having had intermittent charging, left the already worn battery too weak to soldier on. So on one of the snowiest days of early January, I trudged to AutoZone on foot, bought a replacement battery, carried it home through drifts as high as two feet — and, after I installed it, thought, “Geez, why didn’t I just call a cab?”

Battery worked. But still no charge. Damn it.

So back to AutoZone for a replacement alternator. When the weather got a little nicer — as in, the upper 20s — I swapped alternators. Only hard part about that process was getting the bolts aligned on the new unit. So I fired up the ol’ girl and watched the voltmeter go from 11 volts to about 14 over the course of a minute. Then I flipped on the defroster and the system immediately dialed to 11, never to recover.

By that point, any other fixes would be guesses, because I lacked the tools and expertise to diagnose what might have been an odd fault somewhere. I took Jimmy to Community Automotive, whereupon I was informed that the problem was that the alternator wasn’t putting out a charge. Translation: They said AutoZone sold me a defective replacement part.

They also told me that the tensioner was screwed up and the serpentine belt was super worn. So I said, “Fine. Replace the entire tensioner assembly and the belt. I’ll deal with AutoZone on my own.”

I picked up Jimmy from the shop — and lo and behold, the charging system works. I’ve been driving it for a week and my voltmeter is fine and I’m clearly not driving on the battery alone.

My guess? Community Automotive determined a bad charge on the alternator with a misaligned belt. After the belt was replaced and the tensioner re-aligned, the alternator was good to go. But I’m still keeping my eyes peeled for a while for signs of charging-system faults.

Food Deserts, Public Transportation and Good Health

While Jimmy was undergoing repairs, I opted to play it safe and keep it parked until I knew the problems were fixed. That left me to find alternative transportation to work. Daily cab fare runs $50 between my house downtown and the office on the far northeast side of the city. But, I live near a bus stop, and there’s a stop about an eighth of a mile from the office. So, problem solved — for $3/day, I can just Ride the Rapid.

I don’t mind the bus. The Rapid buses are clean and run mostly on time. My biggest gripe with the system is that the metro area consists of an urban core surrounded by inner-ring suburbs that aren’t well connected to each other. The transit system uses a hub-and-spoke model that routes most buses through the downtown Central Station; there are just a handful of crosstown routes that don’t connect through Central. In a practical sense, then, getting most places takes longer than it needs to. My drive from home to office is about 15 minutes; my bus commute, door to door, takes a full hour. We really need more ring routes and crosstown routes to connect disparate parts of the metro area without having to head downtown so frequently.

(I think a shuttle service between Standale Meijer and the Grandville Library is essential, as is a park-and-ride lot at Plainfield and the Beltline where Route 11 extends all the way to the Beltline, then a crosstown route connects that lot with Knapps Corner, Meijer Gardens and then Woodland Mall. If the Rapid folks were super clever, they’d run a two-way square ring route starting at Leonard and Alpine, proceeding on Leonard to Plymouth, south to Franklin, west to Godfrey/Market, then follow Wealthy to Straight, Seward and back to Alpine — thus crossing a whopping 19 routes without actually putting in at Central Station, a potential time-saver for folks who just want to get from one part of the periphery to another. But I digress.)

My location, in the South Hill neighborhood, puts me within reasonable walking distance of a small Family Dollar and the small Wealthy Market. Neither establishment stocks an assortment of healthful foods. Family Dollar, for example, offers no fresh fruits or vegetables and the freezer section consists of pizzas, burritos, ice cream and such. Were I to aim for healthy eating, my only real option is to trudge a few blocks to a bus stop, head to the Kalamazoo Ave. Meijer, buy groceries, then trudge back. That’s a lot of time and effort — moreso than most would undertake.

I’m not a huge activist for Michelle Obama’s “food desert” propaganda, but I do note in passing that if I were permanently confined to public transportation, I’d either need to radically re-think my daily routines or acquiesce to less healthful foods. Puts the “chronic co-morbidities” question into a different lens, methinks.

Caffeinated Press

I’ve mentioned it before, but perhaps not in adequate detail. So here goes.

In mid 2014, a group of colleagues and I established Caffeinated Press, Inc., a for-profit S corporation organized in Michigan. Our mission as a small independent publisher is to connect authors and readers in the West Michigan market. I serve as chairman of the board and chief executive officer; in that capacity, I also oversee the acquisitions and editorial processes. The company includes five board members and several outstanding associates who are working hard to build the company.

I’m putting the final touches on Brewed Awakenings, the first of what we intend to be an annual house anthology. Production has been labor-intensive. I’ve had to proofread roughly 85k words, manage layout, design the cover, develop the front matter, etc. Takes a lot of time — indeed, the bulk of my month has been spent on anthology production. Eight local authors contributed novelettes to the anthology; I’m in it too, with “Providence,” a story set on Lake Michigan. Our very loose theme was “all goes dark,” but the work we’re publishing includes some humor, some gore, some romance, some speculative fiction. Good stuff. We’re producing the anthology in both paper and e-book formats; the paper version will appear in the Ingram catalog and the e-book versions on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Overdrive, etc.

The board recently authorized the production of a quarterly literary journal, called The 3288 Review. More details on that, later.

Health Data Analytics; State Leaders Team

I’ve wrapped up most of my work on the Health Data Analytics project for the National Association for Healthcare Quality. With my colleague Tricia, executive director of outcomes for an Illinois hospital, we led a team of health quality practitioners from across the country on an exercise to define the emerging competencies necessary for the next generation of practitioners. Our charge focused on health data analytics — i.e., Quality pros who specialize in analytics. Interesting work. Our report goes next to the NAHQ board of directors.

And on the subject of NAHQ, this year’s president asked me to move my cheese a bit. Instead of rotating into the second-year lead role for the Special Interest Group team, she asked me to begin a new two-year cycle as co-lead of the State Leaders team. That puts me and my new colleague, Andrew, in front of the presidents and presidents-elect of the various state-level health care quality associations across the country. Andrew is a top-notch fellow and our assigned staffer at NAHQ and our board liaison are very easy to work with. Looking forward to this new opportunity.

Surgical Site Infections

With one of our physician medical directors, I recently authored an internal white paper about the costs associated with surgical site infections for patients who are fully embraced within a particular accountable-care organization. The numbers were low — but we recognized that part of the problem was identifying SSIs correctly amid a paucity of accurate physician documentation that works its way into an administrative claim record. Looks like this early report will fuel a broader review of how healthcare acquired infections are managed within our ACO. Potentially publishable research!

Texas, Ho!

Still on track, in a few weeks, for a brief excursion to Texas. My plan is to drive from Grand Rapids to Shreveport, LA, and spend the night at a casino there. Then, drop of my friend Duane’s stuff in East Texas, then push through to the Dallas Metroplex to catch some of the Thinline Film Festival shenanigans. I’ll head back to The Mitten by means of Oklahoma City, so I can catch some prominent casinos along the way. Basically, killing three birds with one minivan.

Miscellaneous Updates

Some other tidbits of interest —

  • Enjoyed a lovely podcasting marathon yesterday with Tony. We had sushi at Maru, enjoyed some Japanese whiskey and cigars at Grand River Cigar, and then retreated to my dining room to push out four episodes. The cigars came to us courtesy of Famous Smoke Shop, an online retailer, that’s partnering with our podcast.
  • I get to hire a new intern and a new senior analyst this fiscal year. Yay!
  • One of my contract clients had a change of leadership in my area; the upshot is that I’m being invited to do more management stuff, as a contractor, that had formerly been the sole domain of company personnel.
  • We’ve got a severe winter warning right now. As I write this, I see heavy, blowing snow creating white-out conditions at a quarter mile. Beautiful. If only I had thought to buy firewood so I could have a fire tonight.
  • Looking forward to the county convention next week, in anticipation of the 2015 Michigan Republican state convention.
  • My next writing project might be a textbook about health care quality.
  • Fleshing out my author page on Goodreads reminds me of how little time I have to actually read. That said, I’m about 60 percent done with Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay, the second of two volumes dedicated to revisiting and extending the groundbreaking research of Samuel Huntington into the origin and evolution of political institutions.
  • I cut the cord. After paying Comcast $220 per month for years for TV I rarely watched, a phone I never used and Internet that sometimes crawled to a halt, I gave them the boot and now rely on AT&T DSL for $40 per month. I still have Netflix and Hulu Plus, and Skype and my cell phone, so … yeah.

Hoist Upon Chait’s Petard

Some concluding thoughts about this week’s pundit nerdfight over Jonathan Chait’s essay, “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say.”

The back-and-forth over whether Chait makes a good point or whether he is some sort of hypocrite or whether he is locked in his own view of privilege — well, it’s all already been said. The most fitting coda, I think, is merely to observe that the dour puritanism of today’s Left will, perhaps inevitably, engender a systemic backlash from within the Left itself.

The human mind enjoys a finite capability to accept cognitive dissonance, let alone the doublethink that lets people hold mutually inconsistent assertions to be true without it even triggering that dissonance. Indeed, the New Soviet Man was a creature of this doublethink. But even with relentless propaganda, nuclear missiles and Kalashnikovs, the spark of truth couldn’t ever really be repressed. The events of 1989 bore that out. Yet the Left today is increasingly reliant on authoritarian systems of psychosocial control that require doublethink to avoid cognitive dissonance. At some point, the average Man of the Left will ask: Is this really what I believe? And when that happens, the bottom will fall out.

There’s something odd, for example, in holding that the concept of a gender construct is sufficient to change reality. Were I to announce that I identify as female and henceforth want to be known as Jane, most on the Left will applaud my bravery, call me Jane and use “she” as a pronoun. All that, despite inconvenient reality of my XX chromosomes (and sexual organs). One would think the “science is settled” about biological sex at least as strongly as it’s allegedly settled about climate change, but ….

So, again — the mind’s ability to square the cognitively dissonant circle isn’t without limit. Regardless what you think of Chait, or his arguments, the Thermidor he points to may dawn more swiftly than some expect.

Out with 2014; In with 2015 — A Reflection

Posted on 4 January 2015 | No responses

We are now a full 1 percent finished with 2015. Can you believe it? Tempus fugit. Lots of good stuff occurred this past year, including —

  • Earning promotion to management at work
  • Executing successfully our state healthcare-quality conference in Traverse City
  • Finishing my gear-out for scuba diving and getting back under the water
  • Trekking to Boston, Chicago, Nashville and Las Vegas — plus the Detroit/Windsor casino excursion from February
  • Receiving the Rising Quality Star honor from NAHQ
  • Establishing Caffeinated Press, Inc., and pulling together our first product, an eight-story anthology
  • Sponsoring my friend Rob into the Catholic Church
  • Maintaining a perfect track record for our weekly Vice Lounge Online podcasts
  • “Winning” NaNoWriMo with Aiden’s Wager
  • Ending the year about a pound lighter than I started it
  • Seeing my 403(b) account increase more than 6 percent from last year

As I survey the legacy of 2014, certain lessons have presented themselves:

  1. I’m more likely to get things done and to prioritize effectively when I have a lot on my plate. Conversely, the more I have pending, the more likely that fairly routine tasks will be set aside in service to the crisis du jore. Among those routine tasks are the basic “wellness” activities that too often get trumped by an external deadline.
  2. Unlike the heady days of my early-to-mid 20s, nowadays I need regular downtime to recharge. If I burn the candle from both ends for too long, as soon as a free day comes, I just collapse. That sprint-then-stop pace isn’t healthy in the long run. I’ve been tinkering with my normal to-do list to isolate Sundays. I am going to try to make Sundays a day of full and complete rest — no work, no chores, just tranquility. Maybe some reading or Netflixing or walking in the park, but nothing I have to do.
  3. The things that are important and the things that are urgent, rarely overlap.
  4. The older I get, the less I can pretend that bad habits don’t matter.
  5. Having aggressive goals does matter.

I’m not a fan of new-year resolutions — they reek of “lost cause” — but I have identified some goals for the coming year. I need to replace my vehicle and my desktop PC. I’m planning on trips this year to the Dallas metroplex, Philadelphia, Seattle and Las Vegas, as well as a return trek to Isle Royale (weather permitting). I want to learn Python and R, launch a quarterly literary journal through Caffeinated Press, upgrade my radio license to General class, earn SSI’s “master diver” rank by the end of the summer, and publish a textbook about clinical quality improvement. Later this month, discussions will commence about a possible dive trip with the Gang of Four and about a possible visit to see my friend Jared in Abu Dhabi (perhaps, twinning the UAE trip with a side excursion to Bangalore, India). I’d really, really like to try the Metro Health Marathon in October. And despite bobbing around the diocese, including extended sojourns to the cathedral and to St. Robert, I think I’d feel more at home with a return to St. Anthony.

Today is the final day of Grand Staycation IV. I got a lot done, but much remains to be finished. I’m looking forward to 2015, mostly because I have a better sense than last year of the things that are worth pursuing, versus the things I have either always done, or allowed myself to be talked into. So I think the watchwords for the coming year are “triage and consolidation” — i.e., fixing what’s not optimal and doubling down on what’s important.

Best wishes for a safe, happy and healthy new year!

On the Proactive Avoidance of Relationship Regret

Posted on 28 December 2014 | No responses

Posted on my Roadmap is my one-sentence mission: “I will be a contented and healthy man who, upon his 70th birthday, can look himself in the mirror free of the sting of regret.” Easier written than done, perhaps, but thinking about the question 32 years early opens the door for opportunities to avoid incurring regret in the first place.

I’m sometimes asked whether I get depressed about not having married and “settled down” with a brood of crumb-crunchers and a little suburban house with a white picket fence and a used minivan and a slightly dopey golden retriever. Usually well-intentioned, the question nevertheless is curious, insofar as it rests on two rickety assumptions: First, that marriage and family are normative, from which deviation signifies loss or defect; and second, that I am ignorant of what I’m missing so therefore I should pine for it.

As to the first assumption, I can only say that I’ve seen many people marry and remain happy together for a very long time. I’ve also seen friends younger than I who have already divorced. I am aware, through my own family’s experience, of what divorce does to family dynamics. A few years ago, when I more actively searched for a partner, I was dismayed to discover just how many women in the 25-to-35 age cohort are either single or divorced … but with at least one small child. Marriage isn’t the institution it used to be, and most families I know have so absorbed the individualist Gestalt that “family” is perhaps more meaningful as a tribal affiliation than as blood-kin identification.

I am not unaware of the benefits of marriage and child-rearing. Should the right situation arise, I’d get married. But I’m not drawn to the institution and I don’t feel incomplete because I live in an apartment with no one except my feline overlords. I’ve seen too many elderly people in the hospital who bet on a spouse and children or grandchildren to look after them in their dotage — and then see those bets fail. No one is guaranteed a loving family surrounding you on your deathbed when you’re in your late 90s. People die; they grow apart, they feud, they have different priorities. When I did pastoral care rounds in the hospital, years ago, it wasn’t all that rare for the older patients to want me to stick around. To talk. Sure, they had families — but, you know, they were busy. Seems odd to structure a life, beginning in your 20s, on the gamble of what you’ll need or want in your twilight years. Yet that’s the message, fundamentally, of family: They’re the ones who will take care of you when you’re back in diapers. Good luck with that.

Life is a series of trade-offs. There’s no such thing as a perfect existence — just a never-ending churn of decisions balanced against each individual person’s proprietary blend of needs and wants. With marriage and kids, you get better income stability, regular affection, family bonding, life milestones. Without marriage and kids, though, I retain the freedom to make major life choices without getting them approved by someone else — I can come and go as I wish, buy or save as I wish, avoid having to live with the inevitable compromises that come with marriage, and if I needed to take care of my mom when she gets old, I’m not subject to the whim of a spouse who may resist or resent it. And certainly not least, if I were to retire to a sailboat and see parts of the world, no one will try to stop me.

The other argument for marriage and family follows from a basic human need for companionship. To which, all I can say is that I do not want for friends. I have a long-term stable core, a middle-ring network that comes and goes, and a large flock of friendly acquaintances. I occasionally have weeks where I think to myself: Self, you need to start declining some social invitations so you can get some work done. So I’m not exactly a lonely recluse.

The second assumption — that I should pine or grieve for what I lack — flows from the first. When you accept the normativity of marriage and procreation, then not having it becomes an emotional struggle, a challenge of self-worth, a grave problem requiring resolution. I think there’s a fairly strong Christian Reformed, West-Michigan-culture thing at play, there, too: If you’re not married by a certain age, then there’s something wrong with you. I know quite a few people who unduly stress out over their lack of a spouse. Anyone who’s spoken to the aspiring MRS candidates at Cornerstone University or Kuyper College or even Calvin College knows the fairytale: You wait for your prince or princess then live happily upper-middle-class forever and ever, amen. Lots of those women end up, several years after their graduation and their weddings, with OKCupid profiles that feature them with their infants. I know; I’ve dated some of them. That toxic culture has wreaked incalculable chaos on the lives of the young and the innocent thanks to the tyranny of impossible expectations.

But I digress.

My biggest frustration with friends who do lust after marriage is that the longer they search in vain, the more out-of-whack their thinking becomes. It’s as if there’s some magical ratchet in their heads that, as the months and years slip away, creates ever-more-unreasonable demands for what they expect in a mate — until they come to obsess after an idealized spouse who could not possibly exist in the real world. In a sense, that ratchet is a defense mechanism, with a twofold task of protecting them having to engage in serious self-examination while precluding relationships that might be “good enough” but are nevertheless avoided because they won’t be perfect. The fairytale always trumps, but the drama never ends.

As for me, I guess I have nothing to pine over because there’s not much related to interpersonal intimacy that I haven’t experienced. I’ve loved people. I’ve woken up smiling with someone else’s head beside mine on the pillow. I’ve known the thrill of a first date, the pain of a break-up, the emptiness of a drunken bar hookup and the joy of bonding with someone over drinks. My closest friends have been with me for going on two decades. If I ever woke up at 2 a.m. with a crisis, I can think of at least five numbers to call off the top of my head where the person on the other end of the line wouldn’t hesitate to leap to my assistance.

I am content. So, having weighed the merits and elected my current path, all I can say is — I think I’ve avoided incurring a regret that would otherwise haunt me in late 2046.

What Would Impel You to Murder?

Posted on 27 December 2014 | 1 response

Statutes recognize several distinct grades of legal culpability when one human kills another. Deaths resulting from the acts of a perpetrator who didn’t intend to kill and had no ill will for the decedents — i.e., the crime lacked intent and malice — may end up with a manslaughter charge, whereas a death arising from the perpetrator’s failure to exercise due care might be charged as a negligent homicide. When a death occurs because of the willful act of the perpetrator, then the charge becomes murder and falls into one of three degrees. Many crimes of passion get charged as second-degree murder. Premeditated killings earn a first-degree murder charge. Layered into the mix are a host of defenses — insanity, self-defense, accident, impairment, victim retaliation, etc. — that attempt to minimize the mix of intent and malice that lead to specific charges and specific sentences.

The law’s judgment, however, imperfectly squares with moral judgment. To many ethicists, killing in reasonable self-defense — including during combat — and killing that follows from an unforeseeable accident, both carry minimal moral culpability. A person’s moral burden increases when a death results from an avoidable set of circumstances, like intoxication or reckless driving. It increases further when a killing that might legally be justified nevertheless could have been avoided with non-lethal approaches to conflict resolution. It increases still further when the perpetrator put himself into an environment where there was a known and avoidable risk of violence, like when an angry husband returns home to confront a cheating wife. When you cross into the threshold of first-degree murder, an ethical distinction follows from the reason for the crime; this reason may appear in sentencing memoranda but usually not in the charge. In general, the more the act of murder depersonalizes the victim, the higher the level of ethical censure.

Let’s shift gears. I’ve been doing a lot of editing of short stories for the Brewed Awakenings anthology. As part of my prep, I’ve visited libraries and bookstores to browse recently published novels and anthologies, to get a better feel for how certain plot devices unfold or how other authors manage the flow of dialogue and contextual information within a scene. What I’ve taken away from that exercise is that for many writers — although, to my satisfaction, none in our anthology — killing is something that just seems to happen, often without malice or intent. Murder becomes a plot device that’s divorced from any real grasp of what the crime actually entails in the real world. (It’s curious how many contemporary novels rely on killing and rape as staple plot conventions, despite near-universal condemnation of the practices. Perhaps there’s something significant in that.)

For an average person, the innate prohibition against murder is so strong that the only realistic way he’d kill another is by accident or through avoidable impairment. So when authors craft tales about premeditated murder, the killer rarely works when he’s an archetype of Joe Sixpack. Premeditated murder by a psychologically competent offender occurs for only a small number of reasons:

  • Financial or reputational gain (contract hit men, insurance windfalls, gang violence, failed drug deals, prison murders)
  • Revenge (grudges and other personal animosities against a known victim, honor killings, failed marriages)
  • Jealousy (knocking off a rival for someone’s affections, envy over the good fortune of another, killing a scorning lover)
  • Service to a cause (ideology, religion, sociocultural tribal codes)
  • To avoid exposure (cover up other crimes, silence whistleblowers)
  • To gain exposure (school shootings, serial killing, police-assisted suicide)
  • Bias (hatred of known or unknown others who exhibit a disfavored characteristic, tribal initiations, out-of-control bullying)
  • Thrill (killing for fun by a person not psychologically compromised, BDSM snuff activity)

Of course, reasons for premeditated murder by the psychologically incompetent run the gamut — “the voices made me do it,” etc. — but that class of perpetrator is less interesting because they’re acting out on disordered compulsions, so their actions are rarely voluntary in the sense they rationally consider their motive, means and opportunity to kill another absent any legal justification for doing so. In this sense, although some serial killers are impaired, certain diagnoses within the DSM-V don’t rise to the level of acute psychological disorder that removes moral culpability. A person with antisocial personality disorder, for example, has a diagnosis that may well be admissible at trial, but all but the most severely afflicted can still function normally and make rational choices about first-degree murder.

All of the above having been established, the question for authors is straightforward: Can you explain why a rational person willingly ended the life of another? The cultural and even instinctive taboo against unjustified homicide runs deep. A person rarely just wakes up one day and snaps into Murder One (that’s what Murder Two is for); the sequence of events leading to the pulling of the trigger or the wielding of the knife take weeks, months or years to develop. Introducing a premeditated murder at random makes for a thin plot.

But the larger question rolls beyond authors and includes everyone. What stops us from killing? For some, it’s that pre-rational inhibition rooted in culture, religion or instinct. For others, it flows from a panhumanist love for all living things. And don’t forget the fear of arrest, trial and incarceration and the deep loss of friends, family and freedom that follow. Or about the physical difficulty that comes from subduing another and the exposure to blood and internal organs that may dissuade the squeamish. Authors rarely seek recourse to the rich literature on ethical paradigms; if they did, they’d realize that certain ethical frameworks justify the don’t-murder injunction using starkly different logic models. (Consequentialists, I think, have the hardest time with this problem.)

There’s no such thing as a random killing. Each murder has a reason for its commission that outweighs the relative risk of its consequences. For authors, there’s probably some wisdom in avoiding the rape-and-murder trope unless you can paint a compelling character sketch of the perpetrator — why did he do it, and why didn’t the fear of consequences deter him?

For everyone else, it’s a useful exercise to consider the circumstances that could lead you to cold-blooded murder. And if you find that you cannot list any, then follow up with the question: Am I deceiving myself?

An Exercise in Self-Identification

Posted on 22 December 2014 | 1 response

Twice each year, at the beginning of July and the end of December, I review a document I call the Roadmap. This one-pager sits in one of my OneNote notebooks, serving as a reminder of my priorities and as a course correction for when I stray. The Roadmap consists of seven sections. The first answers, to my satisfaction, the question of what the whole point of life, in general, is all about. The second section — “vision” — distills into a single sentence the one major goal I have for my own tiny existence. The third section answers the “who am I?” question with a succinct list of attributes. Then I have the bucket list, a list of seven core strategies for attaining my vision, a seasonal outline of objectives for the coming year and a “why bother?” section that presently consists of six quotes that resonate with me.

Today marks Revision No. 10 of this document; the first version appeared in December 2009. As I pored over it and its prior versions (!), it occurred to me that I’ve been perhaps overly cautious, even to myself, about how I elect to define myself. The mental pause on this revision lies in section No. 3. I keep tinkering with the list, trying to keep it succinct enough to fit as a description on my Twitter handle. But I think I’m guilty of the fallacy of accent.

My own thinking about my own Roadmap is of no real significance to the smart, sexy readers of my blog. However, I do think there’s a point to be made about the exercise in general. For as salutary as it may be to wrestle with The Big Questions, I think there’s a risk when people cannot answer one very basic question: “Who are you?”

Picture yourself in an elevator with a prospective employer, or at a fancy restaurant on a first date, or at a writer’s workshop where people do introductions. In fact, you need not imagine it; just pay attention the next time you’re on a conference call where people do introductions and ask for something annoying like a fun fact about yourself. How many people struggle to define themselves? How many pause uncomfortably, or babble, or apologize that they have nothing interesting to say?

The people who can’t come up with anything to say are usually nice folks who get by. Perhaps they’re just modest. More often, you’ll get answers shaped in the context of the moment. At a meeting, for example, a person might reply with a job title or a supervisor’s team. On a date, he might reply with hobbies or a brief biography. And all that’s fine, to a point.

The people who respond with tribal affiliations are a whole different ball game. They’ll usually pick one or two aspects of their identity and use those routinely, regardless of circumstance, if the question is sufficiently open. You see this a lot with LGBT crowds who self-identify by their sexual orientation, or with Evangelicals who loudly assert that they’re Christians. Elite athletes, professional or amateur, fall into the same paradigm. The risk attendant to tribal litanies is that they tend to cascade into non-overlapping hierarchies that serve as dog whistles to the like-minded.

Consider a situation where a total stranger, in a neutral environment, earnestly asks who you are — as a description, not as a name. And consider further that you’re inclined to respond. What do you say? Do you stutter? Do you begin your tribal litany? Do you declaim your resume?

Perhaps the contents of your response are less relevant than the fact that you are prepared with a well-considered answer.

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!)


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 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.


Posted on 22 November 2014 | No responses


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