22 September 2011

Observations from a sleepless night

(Author's note: There is language included in this post that I would not normally use in my writing. But sometimes you just have to drop an f-bomb. If this is an issue for you, I suggest you don't read any further.)

It is a morning of struggle for me. I am confused. I am angry. I am sad. And I am tired, because I didn't sleep last night.

The trigger for my sleeplessness was the execution of Troy Davis.

I wasn't suffering from some type of moral angst over capital punishment. I believe that in some cases, execution is an appropriate punishment. It wasn't the method of Davis' execution that kept me awake, either. If a state is going to put someone to death, I suppose lethal injection is a better method than hanging, the gas chamber, or the electric chair.

No, my insomnia last night was caused by two things: the distinct possibility that the state of Georgia killed an innocent man; and my feeling that Davis' execution is simply the latest brush stroke in a much larger picture of of how this wonderful country of ours seems to be going to hell in a handbasket.

First, the Davis case: Four days ago, I had no idea who Troy Davis was. Even now, all I know is what I've read on the Internet. I wasn't party to the original trial, nor did I follow it in the news. But there were a whole lot of questions about his conviction. And they bother me. They bothered me enough for me to stay up and write when I should have been sleeping. From what I've read, Davis' conviction was based on eyewitness testimony from nine people who allegedly saw him shoot the officer. No murder weapon was ever found that linked Davis to the killing, and there was no DNA evidence that tied him to the crime. What sent Davis to death row was the word of nine people who said he did it. According to news reports, seven of those nine people later recanted their testimony against Davis.

That seems to me to be on the shaky side as far as being enough evidence to put a man to death. But it was, despite years and years of appeals. And I have a huge qusetion regarding that appeals process: From what I have read, one appeals court required Davis' attorneys to prove his innocence while reconsidering his case. Read that again. During his appeal, the defendant was required to PROVE HIS INNOCENCE. That seems so very, very wrong to me, especially since our entire justice system is based -- supposedly -- on the accused being considered INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT. And there are doubts here. Big ones.

But Davis' guilt or innocence isn't the issue here. Neither is the death penalty, as far as I am concerned. The bigger picture, as I see it, is this:


Specifically regarding the Davis case, I am certain that the Supreme Court and the state of Georgia had solid legal grounds for making their decisions not to stay the death sentence. And while the grounds may have been legal and proper, it doesn't make it right. And that is what bothers me the most.

What is "right" or "good" doesn't matter any more. It's all about money, and greed, and getting ahead, and screw anybody who thinks otherwise.

Just look at some instances from this summer:

This past week, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia held that it is constitutionally legal for a state to put to death an innocent man. Seriously. In a (thankfully) minority decision in the Davis case, Scalia held that a federal court can do nothing to reverse a verdict in a state court, even when evidence comes to light that acquits the defendant, as long as the state court held a fair trial.

What that says to me is that the system, as long as it dots the i's and crosses the t's, is going to win, no matter what the actual facts of the case may be. So what if an innocent person is put to death? It's the rules, brother, and there's nothing you can do about it. Case closed.

Which brings me to the Republican candidates' debate in Florida a couple of weeks ago. When Ron Paul was asked whether (hypothetically) an uninsured medial patient should be left to die, the crowd whooped and hollered. But not in anger. In joy.

It's sickening.

There are plenty of other colors in the pallette being used to paint this nasty picture: Our political leaders no longer represent the people, preferring to protect the interests of the political action committes and corporations that fund their campaigns; the gap between the rich and poor is growing larger every day (400 families in America control more wealth than 150 million ordinary citizens); our financial system is teetering on the brink of collapse; and it goes on and on and on.

We, as individuals, just don't matter any more. Doing the right thing for your neighbor is unseemly. Ideology trumps pragmatism and finding solutions to problems. To quote "Tones of Home" from Blind Melon:

I always thought that this would be the land of milk and honey
Oh, but I come to find out that it's all hate and money
And there's a canopy of greed holding me down.

This isn't the America I grew up with. I always though we were better than this. But apparently it takes a tragedy, like the tornadoes that tore through Alabama in April, to bring us together as people. Otherwise, screw you.

So is this the kind of country we've become? A modern-day version of ancient Rome, with reality TV and fast food taking the place of bread and circuses?

It's food for thought. And it tastes so very, very bitter.

So, I'm angry. I'm sad. I'm confused. I couldn't sleep last night. And the more I think about it, the less sleep I may be getting.

18 October 2010

Hunter Thompson, NaNoWriMo
and finishing what I started

I’ve spent a good bit of each morning during the past two weeks re-reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Songs of the Doomed. It’s an interesting read, consisting of essays and snippets from throughout the good doctor’s career, beginning in the Fifties and leading through his arrest, prosecution, and successful defense against a variety of drug and other charges in 1990.

I’ve always liked Thompson’s work, especially his books
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell’s Angels. But for me, reading Thompson is almost always certainly a Dangerous Thing – mainly because it puts me in a Cynical and Angry Mood and makes me want to write about the absurdity of both politics and American society in general.

In and of itself, such a temper isn’t necessarily a bad thing to have – I believe I write pretty well when I’m being snarky – but unfortunately, such a mood is in direct opposition to my one of my major goals for 2010. I’m trying to live a More Mindful Life, including taking steps to become a Kinder and Gentler Richard. So far, my attempts are becoming more fruitful each and every day, and getting myself all cranked up over the ravings of my most-admired madman don’t sit well with that aim.

On the other hand, Thompson inspires me to write, and that is most definitely a Good Thing, especially with November looming ahead. As you may or may not be aware, November is home to the annual month-long madness known as National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo for short). It is a time filled with sleepless nights, plot holes, and massive amounts of caffeine as thousands of writers across the world each attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in thirty days.

I participated last year, cranking out a first draft of a novel called Snakebit (coming in at just over 50 thousand words, and just under the wire), and I was thinking about ideas for this year’s event. I’ve got a decent idea for a story, a supernatural detective comedy set in a small coal-mining town in central Alabama during the Great Depression. But as I sat on the deck last week, telling Jean about my idea and what kind of research I want to do, she looked at me with incredible intent, and said:

“Really? You’re going to start a new project when you’ve got two-thirds of not one, but two books written?”

“Uh… well,” I stammered, knowing full well that both
Snakebit and my episodic science-fiction comedy Committed are both crying out for attention and have been for months on end. “It’s – it’s a great idea for a new story, right?”

She sighed. “I don’t know what it is about you and finishing things,” she said quietly. “Something – it may be self-sabotage, maybe it’s something else – but something is keeping you from getting done what you want to get done.”

It’s a fair cop.

I don’t know if it is fear of success, laziness, or something else entirely which has kept me from finishing these projects. In general, I use the excuse that “life got in the way”; it constantly seems as if something more important than my writing requires my attention.

But no matter the cause, it is time to actually complete one of these projects. So, in the spirit of NaNoWriMo and the balls-out attitude of Hunter, I am undertaking a new venture this autumn: Call it FiYoNoAlMo – Finish Your Novel Already Month.

Instead of taking part in NaNoWriMo and beginning a new project (and I really, really want to start something new and pretty and shiny), I am using this inspiration to finish Snakebit. My goal is to have a submission-ready manuscript by December 1. It’s no small matter, but I think I can do this. I mean, I wrote that first draft in a month; surely I can come up with a rewrite in 45 days.

What makes this time different is that I’ve learned a lot in the past year, about how to manage my time, how I trip myself, and what’s really important to me.

This is important. Now is the time. And I have a novel to finish.

05 October 2010

Fingers Burned, Lessons Learned

My hands tell the story better than words ever could.

They ache, but it’s a good ache, the kind that comes from hard work and not some arthritic disease that makes the fingers twist and bend like old branches, all gnarled and knobby. No, sir; these hands worked this week, by God, and worked hard. There are nicks and scratches aplenty, on both hands and on both sides, all of them scabbed over by now, a couple still flaring slightly red, others healing nicely. The marks are evidence of the aforesaid work, whether it was outdoorsy-manly work such as sawing dead rhododendron trunks into firewood, or knuckle-busting under the hot hood of the Mazda wagon, or just moving branches away from the trail while Jean and I were hiking.

Looking at the backs of both hands, they’re tan, the veins with their bluish tinge standing out in relief against the brown and red skin. There’s black there, too; despite hours of intense scrubbing, what seems like a day’s worth of OPEC production is embedded in my cuticles and under every single fingernail. When I turn my hands over, it’s no better; the blackness is sunk deep into the swirls and whorls of my fingertips, making it look like a bailiff should be handing me a towel before he leads me off for a mug shot. Add the patches of super glue decorating various fingernails, and it may be weeks before I rid myself of this grunge. Last but not least, the remains of three thin blisters cross the pads of my thumb, forefinger and the middle finger of my right hand, the result of grabbing a pot handle from the camp stove. I think the middle finger might have a permanent scar.

When I look at my hands, I can see an encapsulated version of my vacation, the good, the bad, and the ugly. To be honest, it may well have been my best vacation ever. In any case, it was one hell of a good time.

On the Monday following Labor Day, Jean and I took off for the hills of Transylvania County, North Carolina, for a week of car camping at Cascade Lake. The drive was uneventful yet pleasant, with Americana and Bluegrass playlists from the iPod scoring the trip. We sang along with Lucinda, Loretta, Emmylou and Steve Earle as we drove, stopped every couple of hours for some light yoga stretches or a sandwich, and by twilight we were established at camp with tilapia kabobs sizzling on the campfire.

The next day began our vacation proper. We filled our days that week with all kinds of outdoor activities: Floating down the Davidson River on innertubes, hiking mountain trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway, visiting waterfalls and taking photographs. We drove along twisting mountain roads just to enjoy the scenery. And the nights! They were wonderful: Cooking over a campfire, playing music (Jean on guitar, myself on the washtub bass) to an audience of crickets and owls, gazing at the canopy of the Carolina night sky filled to bursting with stars, and cozying up together in our double sleeping bag in the tent. Life, as they say, was good.

And then came Friday.

We slept in that morning, packed leisurely, and finally got on the road toward home sometime around noon. We stopped for a soda and a snack on the outskirts of Brevard, just before we started into the twisty-road mountain proper, and I said something then that would cause Jean to tell me later, “You know, you really should listen to your instincts.”

What I said was this: “Maybe we should just go back the way we came.”

We didn’t.

U.S. Highway 64 wends it way through the mountains of western North Carolina, twisting this way and that before eventually making its way to Chattanooga. It is a beautiful passage through national forest land, and I wanted to drive the winding mountain roads, see the vistas around the crest of every ridge, and enjoy the scenery along our way home. And we did, for the most part.

Except for one thing: The car started acting up somewhat once we got into the mountains. Nothing major, just some engine hesitation which we thought was due to a temporary repair to an air intake. But the farther we drove, the worse the problem became, and the demanding terrain did not help the situation. I finally pulled over in the small town of Cashiers, where I got to work under the hood. Fifteen minutes later we were back on the road, and it seemed like I might have made things better for a little while. But it wasn’t long before the car was herking and jerking again, so I made another stop in Ducktown, Tennessee, with the intention of making a proper repair before we began the last leg home.

So I got to work. When I removed the air intake, intending to fix it, I failed to notice that three water lines were connected beneath it. Removing the air intake caused me to break a small t-shaped plastic valve. Take it from me: Under the hood at a convenience store in the mountains of east Tennessee on a hot afternoon in late summer is the last place you want to hear a loud popping noise followed by hissing and the smell of antifreeze.

I quickly made a brief review of the situation: It is late on Friday afternoon in bumpus Tennessee; there is no Mazda dealer within at least a hundred miles, and probably not even a wrecker service in town; and Jean is on the verge of either tears or cussing me like a road dog. I cannot accurately convey the emotion I felt at that moment of realization. I might have looked like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” when he dropped the lug nuts into the snow, or perhaps Napoleon on the first day of winter in Russia, or even the Huns on running into the Great Wall of China for the first time. Sort of an “oh-shit-what-now-what-did-I-do-dear-god-what-next-we’re-screwed” look.

Of course, I couldn’t let that happen. With a set jaw and a mind full of determination, I went into the convenience store and returned minutes later with a screwdriver with interchangeable heads, one tube of super glue, a roll of hose wrap, and a gallon of coolant. Twenty sweat-and-grease-stained minutes later, we were back on the road and headed for Atlanta.

For, oh, just about an hour.

To be honest, I thought things were looking pretty good. We were back on four-lane roads and I was babying the car, driving the speed limit and trying not to do anything taxing to the engine or the cooling system. After about 45 minutes, I finally began to relax just the tiniest bit, thinking that we might actually make it home, when I both: a) noticed the temperature gauge swing violently to the hot end of the scale; and b) heard Jean say in my ear, “Oh no… there it goes.”

I pulled over to the side of the road and popped the hood, greeted by a puff of steam. I tried to make the same repair I’d made an hour before, but to no avail. I spent thirty minutes sweating and cussing over the engine before I finally decided to throw in the towel and call a tow truck.

By now it was dark, and a sense of panic was descending on Jean, and with good reason. Our trip home took place on Friday because Jean was scheduled to teach a new kid’s yoga class on Saturday morning in Homewood. Here, sitting in our car in the dark on the side of the road in north Georgia, it began to look like we wouldn’t make it. It was a quiet wait for the two of us.

After about 30 minutes, our tow truck showed up and Jeremy, the driver, had the car on the back of the flatbed in no time. Jean and I piled into the front of the truck with Jeremy and began reviewing our options. Our first choice was to replace the part and get back on the road, so we asked Jeremy to drive us to an AutoZone, which he did. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the part. Neither did O’Reilly’s. Or Advance, the last auto parts store in Jasper, Georgia which stayed open ten minutes late to see if they could help us out.

We brainstormed for a minute, and got the idea that a U-Haul might be in order. If we could get a truck and a tow dolly, we could lug the station wagon home. I know it is hard to understand, but can you believe that there are no U-Haul locations open at 10 o’clock on a Friday night in Jasper, Georgia?

It looked bad. Real bad. So I did what any man would do in such a spot: I called my mom.

As it turned out, we were not far from my Aunt Betty, whom my mom called for us (I know, I’m a bad nephew. I didn’t have her number in my cell phone. I do now). After several back-and-forth calls from the cab of the tow truck, we worked it out so that Betty would pick us up at seven in the morning, then let us use her car for the day. It looked like we might have an answer.

Jeremy dropped us off in the town of Canton, where he deposited us at a Microtel for the night and we tried to get some sleep. I didn’t sleep much, for I couldn’t help worrying about what would happen on Saturday morning.

Turns out I shouldn’t have worried so much. Betty arrived as scheduled, and after we dropped her off at her place in Woodstock (about a 20-minute drive) we were soon on the interstate and headed for Birmingham.

We got home that morning about 10:30, giving Jean just about an hour to shower and leave for class. I also had important work to do. I immediately set about finding the part I needed, locating one at the local Mazda dealership. After a quick bite to eat, I was back on the road to Canton, listening to football and old country music on the radio. It was an uneventful drive, and following a stop at a Wal-Mart for a couple of tools, I was back under the hood of the station wagon in the parking lot of the Microtel.

I was being a good deal more mindful this time while I was working on the car; the thought that I might break the new part I’d just purchased haunted me. I was doing well, however, when I got stuck. A bolt was holding the battery platform in place, keeping me from getting to what I needed to get to, and I didn’t have a socket wrench with which to remove it.

I was just about to walk back across the enormous parking lot to Wal-Mart again, when a man walked out of the hotel exit towards the car.

“I don’t mean to be nosy,” he said, “but could you use some help?”

I looked the man over. I saw “Deliverance”; normally, I’m wary of strangers in small mountain towns. He was burly, with a white bandana on his head, and worn jeans. He looked like a biker; as it turned out, he was a biker. But at that point, with sweat running from every pore and my frustration near the boiling point, I didn’t care.

We swapped introductions; he told me his name was Mike, he was from Texas, and he and his wife were here for a bike rally. I explained my situation, and he motioned for me to follow him over to his bike, where he unlocked a trailer and pulled out a box of tools.

“I don’t know if what you need is in there,” he said, “but you’re welcome to use them.” His wife had come out of the hotel by this point, walking to her own bike parked next to Mike’s. “He’s having car trouble,” he told her as he motioned towards me, then he turned back to me.

“We’re heading out for dinner,” he said. “Can I trust you?”

I nodded dumbly.

“All right then,” he said, and mounted his bike. He called out “good luck!”, and with a rumble, he and his wife were gone.

Turns out there was a socket set in the toolbox, and I was able to quickly get the new valve in place. Once I got some new coolant poured into the system, I tentatively cranked the car and crossed my fingers.

It worked. And it didn’t leak. I literally let out a holler.

I wrote a quick note of thanks to Mike and placed it in his toolbox, which I left for him at the front desk of the Microtel. Then I drove my car back to my aunt’s, turned back around for her to return me to Canton and the station wagon, and finally headed home around six o’clock.

The drive home was tense; I was constantly worried that my repairs would not hold, and I could not get the Auburn – Clemson game on the radio until I was almost back to Oxford. But I persevered and got home just in time to see fourth quarter of the game, and Jean had a cold beer and dinner waiting for me. Not the perfect end to a week of vacation, but definitely a good one.

So what did I take away from all of this? Here are five things:

1) The sense of place has power

At the beginning of our trip, when we left Interstate 20 just outside Greenville, South Carolina on Monday and turned onto highway 25 four the drive into North Carolina, I began grinning like a four-year-old on Christmas morning at the first glimpse of the mountains to the north of us. My grin wasn’t caused only by the knowledge that we would soon be reaching our vacation destination after a long day of driving (which made me quite happy indeed), but also because it almost felt to me like going home after a long visit to a foreign land.

It could be my fondness for rolling green mountains; perhaps it is the little bit of Cherokee blood in me that recognizes these hills and hollows as home; or it could be something else entirely. Whatever the reason (and I don’t think the reason is as important as the feeling), I absolutely love the mountains of western North Carolina. Being there feels right to me. It’s odd, somehow. I’ve never lived in the area, and my family doesn’t come from there (with the exception of my grandparents who lived in northwestern Georgia, but that area is not quite the same), and unless you count infrequent visits to the region for camping trips, I’ve not spent much time in the Blue Ridge. But the place is powerful to me. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find myself living there within the next decade.

2) Sometimes you just have to unplug

One of the major reasons I enjoy camping is the ability to truly get away from it all. For a full work week, I didn’t touch a computer, I was out of cell phone range unless we drove into Brevard for groceries or on our way somewhere else, and I didn’t even think about turning on a television.

It was wonderful.

I’m no luddite; I like having the internet and cable and constant access to information. It’s necessary in today’s society. But for a week, I didn’t worry about updating my facebook status or checking on a gazillion tweets or any of the other electronic distractions that normally fill my days.

As a result, I’ve returned recharged (as it were) with a re-discovered creative energy and determination that I’ve been missing for months now. It feels great. Getting away from it all made me realize how to better use the tools at my disposal.

3) Teddy Roosevelt was the man

Thank goodness for the foresight Teddy Roosevelt had in creating national parks and national forests. We spent hours in Pisgah National Forest and on the Blue Ridge Parkway, enjoying the pristine beauty of the area.

However, not far from where we camped, there was a mining operation on a small mountain. Where the surrounding mountains were green and beautiful, this one was scarred and ugly. I had to think that if it had not been for President Roosevelt, so much more of the area would look like that mining operation. So I am grateful for his foresight in protecting the natural wonders of our country. I believe that if the stewardship of the land had been left to private hands, the hills would be stripped bare in the name of commerce. As it is, our government has protected these lands for the enjoyment of all Americans and for the preservation of true natural wonders. Thanks, Teddy. A grateful nation enjoys your legacy.

4) Mindfulness doesn’t stay at home

While our vacation was in whole an absolutely wonderful experience, I could have made things even better had I been more mindful at times. For one, I wouldn’t have blisters on three of my fingers from grabbing a hot pot handle off the camp stove. For another, we might have avoided the car trouble that led to our misadventures on the way home.

Peace and relaxation are delightful, but you’ve got to keep being mindful about what you do. Otherwise, you end up with burned fingers and a hefty towing bill. Trust me on this one.

5) There are still good people in the world

When we were having our car troubles at the end of the trip, I learned that not everyone in the world is selfish and out for themselves. Jeremy, the tow truck driver, went above and beyond the call of duty in helping us search for a part for the car and a place to stay for the night. Mike the biker showed more faith in a stranger than many people have in their own families, trusting me enough so that he went on his merry way with nothing more than my word and a handshake that I wouldn’t steal his tools. And of course, there was my Aunt Betty who let us use her car while I worked on getting our vehicle back together. With so much animosity in the world today, it’s nice to see human beings actually acting human.

25 June 2010

I've got a fever - and the
cure is more World Cup

I suppose you could call me one of the great unwashed when it comes to soccer. Although I know the game (I played on Homewood High School's club team in 1980 during my freshman year, back when the game was more of an oddity than a varsity sport in Alabama), and I know about some of the more famous names and clubs, but that's about it. I rarely watch games on television (actually, I never watch games on television, because I so rarely watch TV anyway), I don't much care how Manchester United fared this past season, and I can't name a single MLS team other than the Los Angeles Galaxy.

But for the past two weeks, I've watched more soccer than I have during the rest of my life. The 2010 World Cup has caught my fancy, and I've found myself at least checking into the games from South Africa several times a day. And not just the U.S. games, either; I've been watching Uruguay, Mexico, Switzerland, and lots and lots of other teams. But why? I think I've found some answers.

1. The ESPN full-pitch blitz

If you've turned on ESPN any time during the past two weeks, you've seen the World Cup. Lots and lots of the World Cup, in fact, every single game played so far. I doubt any of the previous tournaments have received this kind of coverage in the U.S.
And I have to admit, ESPN has done a great job thus far. ESPN brought in play-by-play announcers and commentators from across the world of soccer to help with the coverage. I'm especially enjoying Ally McCoist, a Scotsman whose brogue has entertained me every time he has called a game. Can't understand half of what he says, but I'm sure it's quite on point.
As an aside, the ads during pregame and at halftime (none are shown during the playing of the game since there is no stoppage) from Nike and Adidas have been also enjoyable.

2. The drama! The intrigue!

The first two weeks of the World Cup provided plenty of drama and intrigue, and that doesn't even count what happened on the field. France kicked a player off their team, and the side responded by completely falling apart at the seams and going home early, as did reigning champion Italy. The English side, full of global soccer stars, can't seem to play together as a team and endured the wrath of every media outlet in the U.K. And you can't forget about the secretive North Korean team -- their inclusion in the tournament certainly adds a new twist to the term "Group of Death".

3. History and spectacle

It used to be said that "there's nothing like a Grateful Dead show" (with which I heartily agree), but I have to say that there has been nothing like this 2010 World Cup. It is the first Cup to be played on African soil, and the South African hosts have pulled out all the stops to impress the world. Heck, I even like the constant droning of the trumpet-like vuvuzelas!
The fans attending the matches have had a great deal to do with the spectacle as well. I've seen all kinds of costumes, including a few Elvises at U.S. matches. It certainly appears that everyone is having a very good time.

4. Healthy nationalism

It may be only at the Olympics that you see this many people from around the world having such a good time together. Everyone seems to be supporting their own teams while respecting the others. It's almost heartwarming, really. Perhaps, when it comes to soccer, it really is a small world after all.

5. U.S. success

Knowing the history of U.S. soccer in international competition, I'm somewhat surprised that the team made it out of the first round into the knockout stages. But they did, in dramatic fashion. The team has shown tons of heart, a never-say-die attitude, and what the side may lack in talent it makes up for in determination. The team doesn't quit, even when it appears that all hope is lost -- and it certainly looked that way last week when the U.S. went down by two goals to Slovenia, and then again when time was running out against Algeria. Yet here they are, looking to move forward -- and with the way the bracket turned out, there is hope that the team could make some noise deep into the Cup. We'll see starting today with the game against Ghana.

Hand me my vuvuzela, wrap me in a flag and hand me a beer. Kickoff is coming, and this non-believer just might end up being one of the converted before it's all said and done.

17 February 2010

Words to Ponder: Feb. 17, 2010

“We are always getting ready to live, but never living.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last week while working at the Pork Palace, I gashed my thumb open when a wine stem I was carrying broke in my hand.
I was rushing to fill a drink order, and the next thing I knew I was hurriedly searching from something to stem the flow of blood and a broom to sweep up the broken glass. It was a messy cut, and I'm still not quite sure how it happened.

Although I may not know how the glass broke, I know for certain why. I was rushing to finish one task so I could get to another one, and not paying attention to what was right in front of me. A little more mindfulness, and I wouldn't be out twenty bucks for bandages, gauze, and topical antibiotic, and the Pork Palace would have one more wine glass in inventory.

Of course, the incident with my thumb is just one example of how attention and focus would have made my life a little easier. I'm guilty of not being mindful all the time, especially when I'm doing something that doesn't interest me or is in some ways a "mindless" task. I'll be washing the dishes, and my mind will wander off in all kinds of directions. I might start thinking of what I have to do next, or an old college friend, or who knows what else. In general, if I don't focus my attention, I'll think of anything and everything except what is right in front of me.

The funny thing is that when I'm actually focused on the task in front of me, whatever it is becomes more enjoyable and I do a better job. It is simply a matter of paying attention.

I think Emerson is saying much of the same. As humans, we're always looking for what's next instead of what's now, thinking of what else we have to do instead of being attentive to what's in front of us.

That kind of thinking keeps us from embracing the moment and living to the fullest. When we point our effort at the now, we actually start living. Being in the here and now is what it's all about.

So if I can offer any advice, it is this: Start paying attention and start living. Now. It's a great feeling.

15 February 2010

Turning the FM dial yet again

Anyone from the Birmingham area reading this likely knows that Live 100.5 FM is going off the air. Citadel Communications, in a business move, is changing the station's format from adult alternative music to talk radio in an attempt to gain more listeners.

When news of the change hit facebook, a semi-uprising took place online and I am certain the powers that be at Citadel dread opening their e-mail inboxes these days. It was an impressive display, but despite the best efforts of the station's fans, I'm fairly certain I heard the last human being on the station yesterday when Scott register signed off from his "Reg's Coffeehouse" show.

It's a shame, plain and simple.

My favorite station from the past, K-99, went off the air when I was a teenager, and since then I've paid little attention to the Birmingham airwaves. Until Live 100.5 came on the air. That one station came the closest to bringing back the spirit of that old station, taking chances with music and exposing listeners to new music. It was a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere dominated by Bubbas and raving sports call-in hosts.

Of course, there are the obvious reasons why I'll miss the station. Live 100.5 broadcast good music for grown-ups. Scott Register is a fantastic on-air personality. The station brought bands to Birmingham that normally wouldn't give the town a second glance.

But losing the station reaches me on a deeper level as well. In a world that is so busy all the time, and with so much that people have to do, we all need a little joy and peace in our lives. Good music can help with that, like any other art. The derisiveness and hyperbole of talk radio (right wing radio, at that) doesn't fill that need. It's just more blather. We've got plenty of that already. But Citadel sees a chance to make a better return, so a city that needs all the joy it can get is losing it in favor of Sean Hannity. Sigh.

So, thanks, Live 100.5. You were a good station, and you'll be missed. I hope someone else will pick up your standard. We need it.

10 February 2010

Five sites I can't live without
(other than the obvious ones)

There are a lot of websites out there, but I wanted to list a few I can't live without (not counting e-mail, facebook, Twitter or Google -- those are given). Some of these are related to my creative endeavors, some are just for fun. But you will always find these in my bookmarks file.

1. last.fm

It seems like everybody is working with Pandora these days, but for now -- at least until I find time to let Pandora figure out my musical tastes -- last.fm is the internet radio station for me. Type in an artist, and bam! You get an entire radio station built around that artist. You can also create stations built around more than one artist. As far as internet radio goes, I'm first for last.

2. Dictionary.com

I know, I know, there's nothing like a giant-sized hardbound volume of the Oxford English Dictionary sitting on the shelf to impress people with your reference book collection. But when I'm working on the computer, dictionary.com does the job just fine. I use the thesaurus feature more often than the dictionary, and I find that it serves me well.

3. bit.ly

When I first got onto twitter, I sent a direct message to one of my friends asking what all the "bit.ly" links went to. There's nothing quite like showing your ignorance when you're first starting out. I quickly learned that if you're going to share your life in 140 characters, you need something to shorten your hyperlinks. Bit.ly is it. I love this link shortener, especially they way it tracks clicks on your links. It gives me a thrill to see people actually clicking on the link to this blog moments after I upload a new post.

4. Media Matters for America

Last year, when the healthcare debate started heating up, many of my conservative friends started spewing out all kinds of figures and rhetoric, much of it gleaned from talk radio and Fox News. Media Matters, headed by eminent journalist David Broder, takes conservative media to task for distortions and outright lies. I love this site. Keep callin' 'em out, lefties!

5. Scribd

I haven't used this site in a while (thanks to the ongoing-and-unannounced hiatus for "Committed"), but it is an incredibly effective tool for me when I'm posting episodes on my website. Thanks to scribd, I can output a PDF file directly from InDesign, upload it, and then get code for embedding in my site. I'm sure there are better ways to do this, but for a (mostly) non-technical guy like me, Scribd fits the bill.

09 February 2010

Daily Quote for Feb. 9, 2010

Smiles give others hope, joy and strength. Don't forget to use yours today.
Sasha Azevedo

I am often responsible for answering the telephone as part of my duties at the Pork Palace, and I've been told that my telephone manner is very -- how to say this -- distinctive. Some have said my voice is like an answering machine recording, and I do my best to sound both professional and helpful.

Sometimes, I am professional and helpful. Other times, it only sounds like it to the person on the other end of the line.

I'll admit it here and now: I occasionally get very frustrated at my job. For me, it's difficult to be mindful when there are three customers in line at the register, a server wants change for a twenty-dollar-bill, two phone lines are ringing, and the couple at the end of the bar wants another round margaritas and more cheese biscuits. In fact, it's quite easy -- trust me, I've proven it -- at those times to become stressed, rushed and irritable.

The funny thing here is this: When things are at their most chaotic, when I am the most aggravated, that is when my telephone voice is at its most effective and friendliest. I am Mister Chipper Dipper on the phone, bright and professional and the model employee every employer dreams about and every customer wants to be served by. This state lasts until the exact moment when the receiver slams back down onto the cradle and I turn back to the seventy-five other items screaming for my attention.

My coworkers give me a hard time about this. "That's just so fake," they say when they hear me on the phone, and -- sometimes -- they're right. But I subscribe to the theory of "fake it until you make it". If I can act happy in the midst of chaos, that's one step closer to actually being happy in the midst of chaos -- and the rest of the time as well. And if my acting happy spreads a smile to someone else, all the better. Happiness is never diminished by sharing it. Even if I am having to grunt through it.

So use your smile today, even if you don't necessarily mean it. You never know what good might come from it. And it's good practice for when you do mean it.

08 February 2010

Daily Quote for Feb. 8, 2010

When walking, walk. When eating, eat."
Zen proverb

I consider myself a good driver. I've not had an accident since 2001, and that was the first one in years. I can't remember the last time I received a moving violation. Driving is, essentially, second nature to me.

Up until eighteen months ago, I had a habit of multi-tasking while driving. I would often be on my cell phone while simultaneously seat dancing to an old Grateful Dead song and smoking a cigarette. My thoughts were rarely on the driving itself.

All that changed when I purchased an old Mercedes-Benz with the intent of restoring it to its former glory.
I have the car to the point where it starts, runs and stops, but the Benz is quirky. It's a 1987 model, which means it has lots of worn parts that like to break at the most inopportune times. I have to let it warm up for a good five minutes or so before pulling out of the driveway, or otherwise it will stall the first time I hit the accelerator. I constantly monitor the oil pressure, engine temperature and the tachometer for any readings that would indicate a problem, and I strain my ears for any sounds that are out of the ordinary.

In short, I must be attentive -- not only to the road and the traffic around me, but also to my vehicle -- if I want to get where I am going. When I am driving this car, I am focused on nothing else but driving.

It is difficult to maintain that kind of focus in daily life, but it is one of my goals. I want to be mindful of my tasks and how I do them; I want to be focused on the task at hand. When I'm writing, I need to write. When I'm making the bed, I need to the thinking about making the bed.

I think that kind of focus is the key to productivity and a mindful life. Be here in the present. Embrace the moment and experience it fully, no matter what you may be doing at the time.

And when you're driving, drive.

06 February 2010

Daily Quote for Feb. 6, 2010

“Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”

I think this is a most excellent quote, full of truth. Each new day brings new opportunity. All we have is now, and we should make the most of it.

As part of my effort to live a more mindful life, I've been trying to focus on the "now" by paying attention to the moment. It's not always easy, for my mind likes to wander all over the place. I'll be washing the dishes when I start thinking about what kind of shift I might have at work, or I will be working on a writing piece and my brain will meander over to the concert I attended last week.

Of course, I can't know what might happen at work, and what happened last week is of little consequence to what's going on now. Worrying about the future is a gamble at best, and beating yourself up over the past is a useless exercise. You have to be here now.

In short, yesterday is gone.
It's a new day. Embrace the moment in which you are living right now, and make the most of it. You'll be happy you did.

05 February 2010

Daily Quote for Feb. 5, 2010

You can't cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.
Rabindranath Tagore

How simple and obvious the above seems, and how hard it is sometimes to achieve. If you want to cross the sea, you can't do it by looking at the ocean. Steps and action must be taken. Dreaming of crossing the sea won't get you from New York to Southampton, no matter how hard you visualize it. You actually have to cross!

In my personal life, I've often been the "victim" (can one truly be a victim if the victimization is self-inflicted?) of fantastic planning followed by piss-poor execution. Of course, to reach a goal one needs a plan, but if you don't follow the plan and do the work, you get nowhere.

For years, I had a dream of writing a novel. But until I sat down at the keyboard and actually typed the words, the dream was just that: a fantasy, a pleasant diversion, a "someday" thought. But then I got to work, and in a month, I had a first draft.

I don't know exactly what kept me from doing the work. I assume it was a number of things, including some fear, as well as laziness and a lack of self-discipline. But the truth has been knocked into me lately: If I want to reach the goals, I have to do the work -- even the hard, distasteful stuff that I sometimes dread.

As the old saying goes, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." If we take that first step, then follow it with another, then another after that, and so on, pretty soon we can look back in amazement at the progress we've made -- and that goal, that dream, that "someday" will be closer than we ever imagined.

04 February 2010

The traveling Scot and Alabama's Glasgow

I wait on a lot of out-of-towners at the Pork Place. I suppose that shouldn't be surprising; the restaurant is near the interstate and a cluster of motels. On any given night one can find a business traveler from Ohio sipping on a cocktail at the bar while he reviews a proposal for a meeting the next morning, or perhaps a frustrated truck driver knocking back cheap beers while he waits for the shop next door to finish the repairs on his rig. Late fall and early spring bring snowbirds from the upper midwest who stop in for a bite to eat along their migratory route, and the races at Talledega draw people in from all over the country.

Foreign visitors, while not unheard of, are much more rare. Occasionally the snowbirds will include a couple from Ontario in an RV, and I've served wheelchair rugby teams from Canada and Australia who were in town for an event at the Lakeshore Foundation. But until now, I'd never served a Scot. And certainly not one on a quest.

That changed this week with the arrival of one Michael Slavin.

For the past three nights, I've had the pleasant duty of waiting on Mr. Slavin and introducing him to some of the finer craft beers the Deep South has to offer, while enjoying his tales of his journey (he likes Good People's IPA and Sweetwater 420). He has been in the states since April of 2009, on a quite particular mission: He is here to visit each and every locale in the United States that bears the name of his hometown of Glasgow.

At each stop, he does some historical research and writes about his travels in his blog. He's been from New York to California and back during his time here. Birmingham is his eighteenth stop, for there is a small hamlet near Adamsville named Glasgow. From here, he has two more Glasgows to visit before he heads back across the pond in April.

Mr. Slavin has been a pleasant addition to the bar lineup at the Pork Palace. His brogue charms each and every patron at the bar he's spoken with, and with his longish hair and full beard, he looks more the part of an anthropology professor than a retired software programmer. He always has a story, and is more than willing to share it to whomever will listen.

It has been an interesting week with Mr. Slavin holding court at the Pork Palace. I need more regulars like him; it would make the bar a much more intriguing place to work. I wish him well on the rest of his journey, and the bar will be a bit lessened when he heads back home.

Michael, may you successfully complete your quest, and may there always be a willing ear and a strong pint waiting for you at the bar at the end of the day. Come back again, y'hear?

13 January 2010

A moment for Haiti

I was planning on writing something witty and clever today. I didn't. This is more important than whatever drivel I might have placed here.

The earthquake in Haiti is an almost unimaginable catastrophe. Supplies and resources will be desperately needed in the days ahead.

I am urging my friends and readers who can help financially to do so. Personally, I like the American Red Cross effort (also linked from the White House web site): from your cell phone, text "HAITI" to 90999. It's simple, your donation is needed, and just about everyone I know can afford an extra ten bucks on their cell phone bill next month.

I don't normally shill for causes, but this tragedy has reminded me of both how interconnected we all are as human beings, as well as how fleeting life can be.

Lives and dreams will be rebuilt with our help. Please help if you can, and keep the people of Haiti in your thoughts and prayers. Thank you.

11 January 2010

Resolutions are for suckers

"New Year's Day - Now is the accepted time to make your annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual."
Mark Twain

It's the second full week of 2010, and I'm feeling pity for the salad makers at the Pork Palace. This time of year, ticket after ticket cascades from the printer in the kitchen, running nonstop like a faucet which can't be turned off. Chilled bowls are lined up, waiting to be filled with vegetable goodness to fulfill the high-minded intentions of the customers in the dining room. Lettuce flies, tomatoes roll, and the company makes a killing on a very low-cost product. It's a busy, busy time for the salad makers.

Of course, this bit of stress and extra work is only temporary. By February, the salad maker's workload will ease, slowly at first, but eventually returning to a normal pace as only the people who eat salads the rest of the year continue to order them. All those extra salads being made at present go away, as
all the "I'm going to lose weight this year" resolutions devolve into a heaping basket of crispy, battered onion rings.

Why does this happen?
The problem lies in the whole idea of resolutions themselves.

Think about it: Once a year, we look at our lives and decide to change something about it. "I'm going to lose weight." "I'm going to stop smoking." "I'm going to quit whatever."

Bleah. That's no fun.

I think the best resolution I saw this year came from a comment on facebook: "I want to drink more and put on weight." At least make your resolution attainable, right?

I think the issue is that people generally make resolutions that are restrictive and chock-full of ways to deny oneself. Of course, the intent is always noble, but the practice... well, the practice just seems to say "don't" over and over again until the resolver is doomed to fail.

So I made no resolutions this year. Nor did Jean. Nor have we for the past several years.

It's not that we don't want to better ourselves; we most definitely do. In fact, we work on it just about every day. But rather than making a list of near-impossible achievements and denying ourselves, we're making plans. Turning negatives into positives. Setting goals and then determining the actions we need to achieve those goals.

I have a fairly extensive and far-reaching list of goals I want to achieve this year. They include living a more mindful life; becoming a non-smoker; becoming a published author; and enhancing my relationships with Jean, my daughters and step-daughters, my aging mother, and the rest of my extended family. There are others, many of which are lofty, but all of which are, to me, attainable.

In addition to my goals, I'm thinking through the actions I will need to undertake in order to achieve them.
Thoughtful consideration of what needs to be done is the hard part, but I am doing my best to be thorough with my plans. I'm consciously phrasing the plan in a positive manner (you will find neither the word "don't" nor "stop" anywhere in the plan), I'm plotting out baby steps and attainable plateaus, and as I work I am finding that many of these actions (even more than I first thought) intertwine to reach multiple goals.

So, there it is. Resolutions are out (again), and planning is in. There is much work to be done, and I am eagerly anticipating not only the results but the work itself.

If I have one word of advice, it is this: Punt the resolutions in favor of a plan, and then follow through with it. Make 2010 your best year yet. And eat the onion rings. They're delicious.

18 December 2009

Holiday film preview: The blockbusters I'll (probably not) see

The holiday movie season is here! The holiday movie season is here!

Okay, sarcasm doesn't read well. Yes, the holiday movie season is upon us. Everyone is talking about James Cameron's "Avatar" and Hollywood is gambling that millions and millions of people will get so tired of dealing with Aunt Sarah and her dog stories that they will flee family gatherings in droves and head to the theater. It's a good bet.

I probably won't be one of those people. I simply don't make it out much to the movies these days. In the past, I never was one to go to the movies often, and now a trip to the cineplex is an incredibly rare treat. I might make it out to see a first-run film once, maybe twice a year at most.

Of course, there are good reasons for this. For one, I'm pretty much a homebody. One of my favorite things to do is to lounge on the sofa at home with Jean on the nights we have together, watching a DVD on our tiny TV.

For another thing, I'm not an early adopter of gadgets, social trends, or any thing else, so it follows that I'm not one of those people who has to see a movie when it first comes out. I'm generally happy to wait to see a film until I can get it at the movie store, or even better, for free at the library.

A few more advantages of staying in over heading to the multiplex are that I can control the temperature of the room (I usually come out of the theater with my lips having turned blue), I can drink beer instead of six-dollar buckets of soda, and I can pause the action whenever my tiny bladder demands. And, of course, there's the cost. A trip to the Rave in Vestavia for the family will set me back a quick fifty bucks, easy.

So it's no mean feat to get me out the door to the movies. A film must significantly tickle my fancy for me to plant my butt in a theater seat. This year, there are a couple of likely candidates.

Sure, everybody is going to see "Avatar" (Roger Ebert likened it to an event movie, like "Star Wars" or "Harry Potter"), and it looks good to me, but I'll wait for the furor to die down a bit. What should be an easy ticket is the new Terry Gilliam film "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus".

Gilliam's movies work best when he's dealing with the fantastic (See "Brazil", "Twelve Monkeys"... hell, just watch anything he's done), and from the trailer it seems that he's headed in that direction once more. This film might just be another "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen", but the cast -- including Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, and Colin Farrell -- should ensure that nothing like that happens.

Another flick that might find me out of the house on Christmas Day is "Tony Stark Goes to Victorian London", also known as "Sherlock Holmes". In "Iron Man", it seemed like Robert Downey Jr. found his acting niche as the charismatic, intelligent, tech-savvy playboy. The trailer for "Sherlock Holmes" appears to be more of the same:

Guy Ritchie is directing (I wondered about that when I saw the fight scene, and is that Bullet-Tooth Tony I saw in there?), and the cast includes Jude Law and Rachel McAdams. It should be fun to see the long-historic character of Holmes turned into an action/supernatural blockbuster.

So there you have it. I probably won't see you at the theater for these, but you can bet that by March, I'll have been to Blockbuster and you'll find me on the sofa enjoying these two films.

17 December 2009

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

During our weekly visit to the Homewood Public Library this past weekend, Jean and I picked up the DVD of "The Deep" episode of the BBC's fantastic documentary "The Blue Planet". After work last night (and following a bit of universal remote finagling on my part), we sat down on the sofa and watched as Sir David Attenborough described some of the strangest creatures found on planet earth (a sample is below):

It was interesting to learn that not only is the sea bed the least-explored part of our planet (more people have been to outer space than have been to the bottom of the ocean) but also that every expedition discovers new and ever-more-odd species of life.

Most of these species fall into two categories: Hunter and hunted, just links in the food chain. At that depth, it's a short chain and the different species have evolved in strange ways to ensure their survival. There are some ugly mothers at the bottom of the ocean, to be sure. As we watched some of the more violent-looking creatures, Jean turned to me with this thought:

"They look so murderous," she said. "I wonder if that's some sort of karmic hell."

It's an interesting, albeit sobering, thought. In my humble opinion, you would have to lead a seriously horrific life to be reincarnated as a creature found only on the cold, dark sea bed, never seeing the light of day, with your previous transgressions manifested in your appearance.

My bigger question is this: If that is a karmic hell, how would you get out of it?

15 December 2009

Writing and momentum (or lack thereof)

Fellow blogger (and really smart guy) Wade Kwon made the point in a recent blog post that "perfection kills". Essentially what he said was that if you try to make everything perfect (especially in the blogging biz) that you'll never get anywhere.

But what hit home with me was this quote: "Although I’m not a fan of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, the event has at least one great takeaway lesson: Your momentum matters... Those who finish their 50,000-word novels in 30 days are rewarded with two things: a mass of sloppy, unedited writing, and the use of momentum to accomplish a once seemingly impossible accomplishment."

In my writing, momentum is -- simply put -- huge. Way huge. Godzilla-like ginormous, even. Once I get going, I don't want to stop. It's a great feeling to get thousands and thousands of words out of my head and into the computer.

But once I stop, getting back on track is damned nigh to impossible.

I'm in the middle of such a period right now. On November 30, when I hit my 50,000-word goal for NaNoWriMo, I decided I needed to take a little sabbatical. A week, at most, I thought. It would give me time to get some ideas flowing for other projects, and besides, I deserved it. I knocked out those 50,000 words in twenty days -- I was due some rest and relaxation.

But before I knew it, one week had melted into two, and the situation threatened to keep stretching until the holidays were over -- and I am certain that by then I could find one or two more reasons to keep from getting to the keyboard. I hadn't written a thing since December 1, not a blog post, work on Committed, or anything else of substance other than the occasional Tweet or facebook status update.

But thanks to the nagging voices in my head, I'm back at it -- even if the first steps are nothing more than some hand-scribbled notes in a spiral notebook and a blog post about how important momentum is to me. It's a start. And like the wise man said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

I can guarantee two things: Those steps won't be perfect. But one will follow another until I get someplace. It might not be my initial destination, but I will journey far and wide before it's all said and done.

03 December 2009

Lessons from NaNoWriMo

For the past couple of days I've had time to think about this whole NaNoWriMo experience and what it has meant to me. I think it is a wonderful, crazy idea to get authors from around the world to write a new novel in 30 days. To be honest, NaNoWriMo 2009 turned out to be an enjoyable, challenging, and -- at times -- frustrating experience for me. I'm glad it did it. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

NaNoWriMo made for a most memorable November, and one I'll likely not forget for a number of reasons. But the main reason is simply this: I have a first draft of my first novel. That was my goal for the month, and reaching it has given me an incredible sense of fulfillment -- as well as expectation for what I will do next with this story of Snakebit. It made me feel like I can be a writer, if I just sit down and do the work. It's a fantastic feeling. I imagine many of the other participants feel similarly; at least I hope they do.

And there were a lot of participants. I remain amazed at the sheer scale of the entire enterprise. If NaNoWriMo signifies anything, it's that there are a whole lot of people out there who want to write. The final numbers weren't up on the NaNoWriMo site the last time I checked (and please don't hold me to my recollection), but I think something like 170,000 people took part in the madness with around 16,000 people "winning" by hitting the 50,000 word mark. In total, there were more than TWO BILLION words written for NaNoWriMo. In a single month.


It felt good to be a part of that enterprise, sharing a common goal with so many people around the world. I enjoyed seeing what other writers had to say about the experience, how they were faring, what techniques they used during the month. It was enlightening and informative, and a learning experience in many ways.

Lessons learned

The most important thing I think I learned is that I actually can can start and finish a first draft of a novel in a month. I can have completion, as long as I work for it. This has been a problem for me for years. My writing, before November, was generally a long, drawn-out process. For example, I've been working on my other major project, Committed, for nearly three years -- and I think I've only hit about 80,000 words in that epic. To start something like Snakebit -- almost on a whim, I might add -- and finish it in 30 days is incredibly encouraging for my writing career.

Also, NaNoWriMo hammered it into my thick skull that there is no substitute for sitting at the keyboard and writing. You write even when it's not fun, even when it's not easy; you just keep writing, one word after another. This sounds ridiculously simple (and it is), but I only really got the point this month. The ideas in my head are not going to magically transfer themselves into engaging prose in the computer. It's up to me to sit down and do the work. And it is work. Hard work. But I like this work, and NaNoWriMo reminded me why.

Imperfection is okay

The pieces on this blog may not always be evidence of the following, but I am pretty picky about how I write what I write. It's not the just the story I want to tell, but I want to tell it in an engaging and entertaining way, using just the right words to get my ideas across. This pretty much hampers any pretense of productivity, and such behavior is completely useless during NaNoWriMo. Learning that I can tell my inner editor to take a hike for a month is probably the most liberating thing I discovered in November.

Ditching my inner editor allowed me to get my story down, and that was the important thing. Good prose can wait. The draft I have now is undoubtedly a mess; there are holes in the plot the size of Connecticut, my main characters sometimes seem to be no more than cardboard cutouts, much of my descriptive work has all the flair of and vigor of cold oatmeal, and much of what I wrote is quite likely gramatically offensive. I can accept that. This is a first draft. I will edit, rewrite, and edit some more until the story is told exactly how I want to tell it. A good story isn't at its best with the first telling. Only after the tale has been retold, perhaps many times with details and embellishments added with each telling, does it get better. I have a foundation to build upon, and that is exactly what I wanted out of this adventure called NaNoWriMo.

I could not have finished the draft had it not been for some serious planning and scheduling. This point was driven home right at the beginning when I took off five straight days from writing at the start of November. I planned for the days off and I eventually overcame the word deficit, but not without some serious ass-busting at the end.

So why was the plan so important if I still had to pull off the literary equivalent of a cramming for an exam during the last three days of the month? Because without that plan, I wouldn't have been in position to pull off those last three days. I didn't always stick to the plan, but I worked with it and tweaked it as circumstances dictated. I will continue to use this kind of planning both for major projects and daily work.

All in all, I have to say NaNoWriMo 2009 was an overwhelmingly positive experience, and one that I will remember. I accomplished much and I learned much. I liked it so much that I plan to do it again in 2010.

But that's a year away. What do I do now?

What's Next?

For the time being, I'm going to let Snakebit settle. I plan to leave it alone for the month of December, at least for the most part. I'll walk away from it and come back to it for editing and rewriting when January comes. I'll admit that I probably won't walk too far away from it; I had an idea while I was taking shower this morning that filled up a big plot hole and I ran to the computer, still dripping wet, to get it down before it flitted away. I have committed to not reading the draft until at least January 1. Then I'll get back to work, and I'm shooting to have a manuscript ready to submit to potential publishers by March 1.

I'll also be getting back to work on Committed, putting up episodes on a more regular basis than readers have been used to seeing in the past. I learned quickly during NaNoWriMo that I can crank out some verbage when I just sit down and type. This should help a lot with the episodic nature of Committed. And that story is about to start being all kinds of silly fun, not only to read, but also to write. I sense some serious craziness about to happen for Tal and Liv and the bunch.

I'm also considering making some changes to my website; it's been static for too long, and I want to try some new ideas to get things hopping over there. Content will be a priority, but I also want to look at some technical things. I'm also considering changing the site so that Committed is available only to registered users -- this might be a way to save my rights of first publication when I get the story ready to submit to publishers, but it may be too late for that now. I'll be doing some more study on that issue soon.

Another avenue I want to explore is getting some paid freelance work. Momma needs a new pair of shoes, you know? I'm looking to do some short story work (I've got one idea for a story about a new arrival to heaven that tickles my funnybone) and possibly some other articles for submission to a variety of publications.

So that's that. One project done, another begun. I'm looking forward to the rest of December and the upcoming New Year. Should be a good one.

02 December 2009

NaNoWriMo Update: Days 25-30 -- An End

Daily Stats

Days 25-30 Word Quota: 15,100
Days 25-30 Words Written: 15,167
Cumulative Word Count: 50,067

Reaching an end

At midnight on Monday night, NaNoWriMo 2009 came to an end. I have been woefully lax in blogging about my progress for the past week. I'll end the suspense early: I achieved the 50,000 word goal, and I am a winner (I have the PDF certificate to prove it).

I hvae perfectly good reasons for not providing an account of my doings over the past seven days, and although Thanksgiving is over, I'd like to share with you my recipe for How to Make The Last Week of NaNoWriMo Really, Really Difficult.

1. Start from behind

If you want to make the last week of NaNoWriMo as difficult as possible, you want to be behind schedule. Take my experience. After renewing my excitement about the story on Day 24 and writing a quite impressive 3,300 words, I found I was still far behind where I needed to be. To that point I was somewhere just under 35K words total; which meant I would need to knock out some serious word count over the next six days. Difficult, yes, but hardly impossible. I needed to add some more challenge.

2. Throw in a Holiday mix

I found that challenge in the approaching holiday weekend. I love Thanksgiving. It is one of my favorite holidays; there is something about family and food and the cool weather that touches me. It does not, however, make for good writing. Nor does an incredibly busy day at work the day before. Add in the Iron Bowl on the Friday following the annual gorge-fest, and you can make things really hard in that last week.

I knew both Wednesday and Thursday would be busy days, so I scheduled accordingly. I set small goals of 500 words on each day -- not where I needed to be, but I would make some kind of progress on the story. It was part of the plan.

Of course, on Wednesday, I completely blew off writing, thanks to work. The day before Thanksgiving is a big day at the Pork Palace for carry-out business. We sell a lot of smoked turkey breasts and side items, as is to be expected, but also a surprising amount of ribs (I imagine I could eat ribs on Thanksgiving, but it just seems very, very wrong to me. I'm a turkey man). As such, I ended up working a double shift of Wednesday, both to help out with the increased business, but also to make up for the shift I would miss when the restaurant was closed on Thursday. By the time I got home on Wednesday night, I was exhausted and had to call it a night without even looking at the computer.

I made up for it on Thursday, mostly writing in the morning. We had great dinner that afternoon with Jean, Caroline, Katie and Juliana, and after one of the best Thanksgiving Days in recent memory, I had ended up writing almost 1,100 words. Good for a holiday, but not good for my cumulative total. I was still just under 36,000 words with only four days to go.

I expected to gain some ground on Friday, or at least that's what I told myself. I scheduled a 3,300-word day, and I was eager to get some good writing done.

Yeah, right. It was Iron Bowl day.

I did some writing that morning, but most of the time I spent on the computer was taken by checking on pre-game information and reading articles about both Auburn and Alabama. Once game time arrived, any more writing I had hoped to do simply wasn't going to happen. I went to work during the third quarter of the game, came home after the Pork Palace closed early, and went to bed. I had written 1,500 words for the day.

3. Mix in new projects

At this point, I had three days left to write and more than 13,000 words to go.
The task before me was daunting. Scary, even. That's a lot of words-- a whole lot of words -- to knock out in three days. And not to just type them into a computer; I needed them to make sense and advance my story. Ah, yes; the story. I was rapidly running out of ideas for the story as well. By then I had only one phase outline completed for one of the chapters, and another phase outline sketched out in a raw form. The rest of the story was wandering around aimlessly in my head, making itself incredibly difficult to find.

But that just wasn't enough difficulty for me. Something else needed to be thrown in to make things really, really hard. Namely, a newsletter and a website.

Not only would I be typing like a madman over the weekend, but Jean would need a significant amount of computer time herself. Magic City Blues News, the newsletter Jean and I lay out each month, was behind schedule and needed a lot of work. Jean is also building a website for a client of hers, a gentleman who hand-builds guitars from cypress knots (more about that later).

Instead of panicking (to be honest, there was a little panic. What do you mean we have to do all this by Monday?), we planned. We plotted. We scheduled. And by early Saturday morning, we had a strategy that might -- just might -- let us get most everything done, if we stuck to it.

4. Hit your stride

Time was slipping away and there was too much to do. If I was going to hit that magical 50,000-word goal, something would have to happen -- and soon.

I guess I was exactly where I needed to be.

Maybe it was the deadline pressure, or perhaps the structure; it might have been the synergy I felt from working with Jean, but I hung in there and Saturday was the day when I hit my stride. We swapped time at the computer, each of us working in shifts that lasted between 45 minutes and an hour, and we each made the most of our time. And during my shifts, the words just started flowing. I was hammering out a lot of material, completely focused on the task at hand. If I got stuck with something, I just moved on to the next idea. Quantity was the important thing here, not quality.

I made a decision to work with the story in sections; trying to tell the story from start to finish wouldn't work. There was just too much story left to write; I figure that telling all of Snakebit will take 80,000 words or more. I took a hint from the NaNoWriMo website and worked on pulling together a decent beginning, middle and end, with highlights in between and the details to be filled in during the editing process.

And it worked. By the end of the day on Saturday, I had written more than 5,000 words. My cumulative total was over 42,500 and I could not only see light at the end of the tunnel, I could also make out the exit and what lay beyond. After Saturday, hitting the 50,000 word mark was practically a foregone conclusion.

Sunday was another very busy and super productive day, following the same pattern as Saturday. I knocked out more than 4,000 words on Sunday, working mainly on the ending of the story.

5. Bask in the glow of success

Monday was more difficult than the other two days, mainly because I almost ran out of things to write. I was happy to type out the words "The End," but when I checked my word counter afterward, I was still 800 or so words short. I ended up adding two more sequences to the middle of the story, and sometime around 3 o'clock that afternoon, I became an official NaNoWriMo winner.

That's 50,000 words in the month of November. For me, that ended up being twenty writing days. And there there is still much work to be done on Snakebit. There are plot holes to be filled, characters and descriptions to be fleshed out, and probably two months of editing work to do. It is a book that is far from complete, and I know it. Yet I also know this: I have a foundation. A good one. My first one.

I am eager to see what happens next.

Tomorrow: What NaNoWriMo taught me

25 November 2009

NaNoWriMo Update: Day 24 -- Renewed efforts

Daily Stats

Day 24 Word Quota: 4,000
Day 24 Words Written: 3,300
Cumulative Word Count: 34,861

Renewed efforts

After Monday's realizations, I decided to take a long, hard look at at Snakebit and where it stood with regards to the remainder of NaNoWriMo. I knew I was behind, but I didn't know exactly what I would have to do to finish 50,000 words by midnight on the 30th.

I know now.

The first thing I did on Tuesday was to review what I needed to do to reach my word goal on time. It wasn't pretty. It looks like I'll need somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 words per day to reach my goal (not counting two days mostly-off for Thanksgiving). I'll also need more phase outlines, because I'm running out of things to write. So I made a plan, and I'm working it.

I also became un-bored with the story. That happened when I figured out that it was entirely up to me to make the story fun. Throwing in a redneck wedding to a Mississippi stripper upped the fun quotient to be sure.

So even though I'm behind, I feel good. I have a plan, and although it will be difficult to attain, it is far from impossible. I guess the most important thing is that I want this. I really, really want it. I not only want to hit that magic 50,000 word mark, but I also want a first draft finished by the end of the month. Can I get a draft finished by then? I don't know. But I will at the very least finish 50,000 words by the time the clock strikes 11:59 on the night of the 30th.

You can take that to the bank.