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While scanning the news this morning, I came across a story about the Kony 2012 film documentary that has gone viral on YouTube via Facebook and other social networking sites. A large part of my work involves social networks and I’ve seen a lot of these types of campaigns come and go over the years, most not worth the time it takes for the video to buffer.

That’s not the case here.

As I ate breakfast this morning, I watched the film. This is not hype. This is not horse shit manipulation. This is not a conspiracy theory. This is not partisan. This is not Jason Russell seeking fame for fame’s sake.

This is an honest effort to do something good for the world and the people in it. Joseph Kony, a man I admit to having never heard of before this morning, has been waging a private war in Uganda for twenty-six years. His victims are children, thousands and thousands of children, that he abducts from their homes and forces to fight and die for him as part of his Lord’s Resistance Army.

This campaign by Invisible Children gives me hope for humanity because they seek to end Kony’s reign of terror in Central Africa not because it’s profitable, but because it is right. You just don’t see that very much in the world anymore.

Grab your favorite beverage, close the door and invest the thirty minutes it will take to watch this film. It changed the way I look at how people can make a difference in the world.

It’s important.

 

Share this video and make Joseph Kony famous.

 

Memorandum on Mortality

The Main Event

On the morning of Tuesday, February 21, 2012, I thought I was having a heart attack.

I woke up at 6:30 A.M. feeling like a pissed-off construction worked was trying to break out of my ribcage with a jackhammer. At first, I thought I might simply be dehydrated, so I asked my wife if she wouldn’t mind getting the kids off to school, drank a large glass of water and laid back down for an hour or so.

When I got up finally, the pounding in my chest was still there, strong as ever. I went to the kitchen, poured myself a coffee, grabbed my laptop and went to work. I’m fortunate enough to work from my home office when I’m not travelling on business, so I plopped down at my desk and started reading through email.

At 10:30 A.M., four hours after waking-up with this Afro-Cuban pulse pounding away inside me, I sought out some advise from my mother-in-law, a registered nurse. My wife had been pleading with me to go to the emergency room for awhile and, eventually, I succumbed to her wishes. You see, I’m not big on doctors or hospitals. I never have been. I see so many people drag their kids into the hospital when they have a simple cold, and I’m always that guy saying, “They’re just going to tell you it’s a cold. You can prevent it or treat the symptoms, but you can’t cure it.” And most of the time I’m right.

This time I wasn’t.

By 11:00 A.M. I was lying on a gurney in the ER of my local hospital. I had myriad wires attached to my chest and one on the calf of each leg. A monitor just out of my line of sight sat to my left next to my wife.

The ER doc came in. She was great. She smiled a lot and spoke with a very soothing tone. As she introduced herself, she kept averting her eyes to the monitor. Her smile never broke, but it began to look a bit forced. Then, I heard one of the nurses whisper something to the doctor that sent a shudder through my already stressed nervous system:

“BP is 189 over 110 and he’s tachy.”

“Tachy.” I knew that term from watching the show ER all fifteen seasons it was on the air. It was a term used by the nurses on the show to describe heart attack patients. I know now that tachy is simply an abbreviation for tachycardia, which simply means “rapid heart beat,” but it scared the hell out of me at the time.

Holy crap, I’m having a heart attack.

Thirty minutes later, after a painful shot of blood thinner in the abdomen, a needle the size of a whaling harpoon stuck in my arm for blood and an IV inserted into my left hand (my constant companion for the following forty-eight hours), I was informed that I was going to be admitted. This was something that in my forty-one years on Earth had never before happened. I was going to spend the night in the hospital. This was no broken finger or twisted ankle, something they could throw an ace bandage on and send me home with a $45 ice pack and mild pain killers. This was serious shit. Shit they would have to monitor which made it all the more frightening.

I’m grateful I had a private room and that my loving spouse was with me the whole time, but it quickly started to feel like a prison cell. The staff was very kind and attentive, but I had a needle sticking our of my left hand, an O2 hose sticking out of my nose, numerous telemetry monitors stuck to my chest and wraps around my lower legs that would inflate and deflate to aid circulation in my lower extremities. As I tried to sleep, I was woken-up every couple of hours during the night so they could take my blood pressure, stick me with a needle to collect blood, do a “quick” EKG and check the sensitivity of my feet.

I felt like an eighty-year-old man. Most unpleasant.

In the end, I did not have a heart attack. My heart was in a state called “atrial fibrillation,” or “a-fib.” Essentially, the top two chambers of my heart—the atria—were taking tango lessons, pumping up and down the cardiac dance floor to a beat all their own, while the lower two chambers—the ventricles—work horses that they are, continued to keep blood moving through my circulatory system. The result was an uncomfortable pressure and “fluttering” in my chest. There was also the unfortunate possibility that, because the atria weren’t pumping correctly, a blood clot could form in the left atrium and get pushed into my blood stream, the likely outcome being a pulmonary embolism or a stroke.

Good times in the intensive care unit.

After two days of excellent if not exhausting care, my cardiologist decided to release me on my own recognizance. He said that I was still in a-fib, but it had stabilized. He was going to put me on medication for a month in the hopes that my heart would fall back into a sinus rhythm on its own. When I asked him what would happen if it didn’t, he said, “Well, then you’ll come back in here and we’ll use defibrillator paddles to shock it back into a sinus rhythm.”

I was sorry I asked.

 

The Cause

And what caused the a-fib in the first place? The best theory is that it was sleep apnea combined with job-related stress. I was diagnosed several years ago with this fairly common sleep disorder, but I’d lost a lot of weight and, when I did, I stopped snoring. In turn, I stopped using my Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. My doctor, in no uncertain terms, informed me it was time to blow the dust off and start using it again.

You see, when you have obstructive sleep apnea, your airway is blocked multiple times a night as you sleep. This blockage doesn’t wake you completely, but it pulls you out of deeper, more restful levels of sleep. It also has more insidious effects that I wasn’t aware of until my doctor explained them to me in the hospital.

Humans are innately endowed with a physiological “fight or flight” response. This evolutionary holdover, when faced with danger, releases a cocktail of cortisol and adrenalin into your system. These so-called “stress hormones” prepare your body for extreme feats of physical exertion. Oxygen is diverted to your extremities, your heart rate quickens to supply oxygen to the muscles, you become more alert. Every time someone with sleep apnea stops breathing during the night, these hormones are released into your bloodstream and these reactions take place.

This isn’t really conducive to a good night’s sleep, obviously. It’s none too good for your cardiovascular system either. When your body is supposed to be down for maintenance, my body was ramped-up, my heart rate and blood pressure climbing because of the stress hormones. My body, overall, was simultaneously deprived of oxygen while needing more than normal. Not a great combination for long-term cardiac health.

My doctor postulated that the cumulative effects of this nocturnal stress finally threw my heart into a-fib. What’s more, it’s highly likely that I was in a-fib long before I really felt it on Tuesday morning. It was just subtle enough that I could dismiss it as indigestion or gas.

In other words, that whole “ticking time bomb” thing you read about in the newspaper or see on the evening news, I had one of those in the left side of my chest and, as such, this story might have had a very different ending.

 

The Aftermath

One of the real ironies of these events is that, Monday night, just as I was laying down to bed, I thought to myself, You know, I’m going to take a jog in the morning. It’s been too long since I had a decent run. I pulled out my running shoes and some warm sweats and went to bed.

Here’s the thing: If my doctor is right and I’d been in a-fib for some time already, I might have headed out for a morning jog along the sparsely travelled country road near my house and thrown a clot from my malfunctioning left atrium and dropped dead along the side of the road. It’s the classic “Guy Running to Get Healthy Drops Dead While Running to Get Healthy” headline.

Sure, it would have been cliché, but clichés become clichés once they happen enough times.

Prior to last week’s events, I’d already been reflecting on reaching “mid-life.” This week, “mid-life” might have ended up being age twenty for me.

I’ve felt mortality before, like when you have to put the break pedal through the floor of your car because the guy in front of you brakes suddenly on the interstate, or when your hand slips out of a hand-hold while rock climbing. But these are events, scary moments that causes your breath to catch in your chest, but from which you recover after a few minutes. Last week? That was the first time I’ve really looked at my body as something that can atrophy and eventually die with no event at all.

It gets a guy thinking.

Many of the things the twenty-year-old me wanted to accomplish have been done, and many not done. Same as everyone, I suppose. There’s a whole list of things I still want to do.

The key, I think, is to stop waiting for the right time to do the things that will fulfill you and make you happy. Time could run out in the next minute, the next year, the next decade. Who knows? I mean, last Tuesday I was planning to go for a jog and, instead, ended up in the ICU for two days.

What comes next? I haven’t figured that out yet, but I’m sure it will provide ample fodder for many future posts. For now, I’m happy to be convalescing at home where I can look out the window and feel the sun shining on my face. I can feel the cold wind and watch the snow melt across the yard. I’m happy to enjoy my time with my loving wife (who never left my side at the hospital), my beautiful and intelligent daughters, and my excellent family and friends. All simple things that, for a short time last week, I thought I’d never get to enjoy again. 

As of 4:30 P.M. CST today, my heart is back in sinus rhythm. That’s a good thing, but the question remains: What comes next? That’s yet to be decided, but I think being here, right now, in this moment, is a damn good start.

I get a lot of email. A LOT. Gratefully, the SPAM filter in Microsoft Outlook manages to filter out most of the crap. Once in a while, however, something gets through.

Normally, I just delete the message and get on with my day. This morning, however, I saw an email with the subject: “Professional Copywriting Services for Denny Boynton.”

“Huh,” I grunted. It’s unusual for SPAMmers to personalize their little electronic turds—it’s too much work for those cyberleeches—so I concluded this must be something legitimate from someone who happened across my technical blog. I get these a lot, people who want to link exchange, advertise, etc.

So, seeing as it contained no reference to cheap Viagra, penis enlargement apparatus, or deposed African princes who need my checking account to park twenty million dollars in temporarily, I opened the email. Let me share it with you in its entirety:

Howdy Denny,

hope you’re keeping well – I’m just getting in touch to ask if you’re in need of any freelance writing at Denny Boynton – if so, it’d be an honor to help out and I would love to get involved if you have any need for me.

I’m 29 have been working full-time as a professional writer and researcher for five years now; in that time there isn’t a lot I haven’t already covered (there are a few samples below for you to check out). Anything I send over would be written with the site’s readership in mind – as long as you’re happy with the resulting material, you’d be welcome to publish it as you see fit and the content will be owned by you entirely (in that I won’t send it to anyone else, either before or after publication).

The good news is that I’d be able to offer my services at no charge; the only thing I would ask in return is that I’m able to include a link to a site within the article – nothing shady or unethical, just one of the professional businesses I freelance on behalf of. Otherwise I’d be happy to chat about alternative arrangements.

Do let me know if you’re interested, and if so I can get something written for you over the course of the next few days. Needless to say, the offer is open to any other sites you might own as well as dennyboynton.com. I appreciate that this kind of offer is not for everyone however, so if I don’t hear from you, no offense taken and I won’t trouble you again.

Very best,
Imogen

Some samples for your delectation:

http://www.blackpresence.co.uk/2012/01/remembering-a-legend-gil-scott-heron/

http://www.shaanhaider.com/2012/01/urine-controlled-video-games.html

http://britmovietours.com/movie-tv-news/doctor-who-%E2%80%93-where-are-the-lost-episodes/
http://www.cs36.com/the-four-horsemen-of-online-marketing-in-2012/
http://www.tmeink.com/2012/02/my-name-is-might-have-been-my-name-is.html

Wow.

Just…wow.

The email was sent from Imogen Reed (imogen@linegray.com). I did a quick WHOIS look-up and low and behold, the domain linegray.com appears to be a legitimate domain for a business in the United Kingdom.

By all accounts, this is someone seriously offering me professional copywriting services.

I don’t know about you, but I start all my business correspondence by giving the recipient a big old Howdy! Yes sir, nothing connotes professionalism like using cowboy vernacular. Also, that’s some super interesting capitalization in the first sentence. The first sentence. I also especially like the clever use of hyphens as a replacement for periods. Very stylistic.

The second paragraph reinforces something that I’ve said for many, many years:  “Dude, leave semicolons to the professionals.” And need I even comment on the sentence, “I’m 29 have been working full-time as a professional writer and researcher for five years now?” Hey sport, I have a suggestion for you: Why don’t you go research how to proofread.

Could I really trust a writer who informs me that the link he/she would like me to include on my site belongs to “professional businesses I freelance on behalf of” as opposed to “professional businesses for which I freelance?”

And the samples for my “delectation?” Oh yes, nothing delights me more than reading a sloppily written post about urine controlled video games. That’s some good shit right there, let me tell you (pun definitely intended).

All of this, of course, is free of charge.

If this is SPAM, then I’m sorry for giving the bloodsuckers this much attention.

If Imogen Reed is a real person soliciting work as a writer, then I have a piece of sage advice for him/her: Learn to write before asking someone to hire you as a writer, you putz. And while you’re at it, get back to your fryer. The chicken nuggets are burning.

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“It is never too late to become what you might have been.”  ~ George Eliot

I recently arrived at the half-way point in the human lifespan. While reaching this milestone hasn’t given me the desire to go buy a red sports car or have a lurid extra-marital affair, it has prompted a significant amount of thought and reflection.

A “Mid-life Review,” if you will.

I’m not obsessing about it, but I think it’s healthy to stop and consider the state of your life. Are you where you’d hoped you be by now? What have you done? What have you left undone? These are healthy questions to ask. They help you evaluate and make course corrections as needed.

As I go through this process, the word regret seems to cross my mind a lot. Regret is one of those words that’s considered bad, that to regret anything is bad.  People like to say, “I have no regrets. If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.” When I hear that, another word crossed my mind: Bullshit.

People say things like this because they think that if they express regret about anything, about not pursuing dancing or taking that job they didn’t really want or not getting that college degree, they will somehow undo all the good things that their lives have produced, many of which were a result of the things they regret.

That too is bullshit.

The fact is that everyone regrets something. Very few of us make it through our lives without compromising on things that we really wanted for ourselves in order to serve an immediate need. You can compromise for all the right reasons, and still regret that you did, or rather that you had to.

Here are some of my regrets:

  • Changing My Major Freshman Year In College. I entered school as a music major. After a semester, I switched majors because I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make a living as a musician. I saw people who were much better than me and I thought I’d never be as good as them. I was immature and stupid and I never should have given up on that.
  • Not Going After My Doctorate. I got married after getting my M.A. in Renaissance Literature. We actually moved to Champaign-Urbana so I could do post-graduate work with the goal of living the quiet life of a professor. I didn’t do this, opting instead to pursue a job in the business world. The money has been good, but I often wonder what might have been.
  • Losing Touch With Writing and Music. In the years after I got married, my core focus was building a career and  bringing home the bacon. I was very successful at this, but lost track of two passions that drove me during my adolescence: Writing and music. I’ve made huge strides in reconnecting with both in recent years, but I hate that I was so inactive during my twenties and most of my thirties.
  • Borrowing Money From a Relative to Start a Business. In the late nineties, my wife and I borrowed a lot money from her father to start a business. We had some success, but when the tech bubble burst, we had to shut it down. Her father got stuck holding the bag and I was never able to really even make a dent in the debt. It got taken care of eventually, but he’s behind because of some bad decisions we made.

There are more, but I don’t want to get too detailed. You get the idea.

The conventional response to these would be that, if I’d done anything different, taken any other path, I wouldn’t have all the good things in my life. I never would have met my wife and had my wonderful children. I wouldn’t have travelled to the places I’ve travelled, seen the things I’ve seen or enjoy the friendships I’ve made. It’s the “Everything happens for a reason” consolation.

Of course, no one can say with certainty that had I studied music through all fours years of college that I wouldn’t have met my wife in 1993 and spent the next eighteen years deliriously happy. Maybe I could have done all these things and ended up with roughly the same life I have today. Maybe even better. Then I would have been writing this saying, “I regret not pursuing a career in business. Who knows what a captain of industry I might have been?”

There’s no point denying that we regret decisions we’ve made and not made because, regardless, we’re going to have them. No matter what.

So as I sit her at my Mid-life Review, I’m wondering what to do with all this. I have left things undone. I have left certain paths that looked dangerous unexplored and taken the easier way. I’ve made bad decisions as well as good ones that didn’t work out the way I planned.

I think the only thing to do is to take a close look at these things I regret, decide which are really important and then do something about those. I’ll use them to chart my course from here forward and try to gain a little wisdom along the way. It feels like I may be a little too late for some of them, but as the saying goes, every day on this side of the dirt is a good day.

“Regret” is not a four letter word. “Quit” is.

 

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You Can Go Home Again, But…

I haven’t posted in awhile, and here’s why…

I grew up in northern Illinois. I lived here twenty-nine years. It was my home and I’d never known anything or anyplace different. My friends were there, my family was there. I went to a small high school in a small town called Hampshire. I went to college in a small town called DeKalb at a big university called Northern Illinois University.

And then we moved away.

Seeking a change of scenery and a new life, my wife, my two daughters and I moved to a western suburb of St. Louis. There it was called “the boonies.” In the Chicago area, they’d call it “the near west side.” We went and bought a home, completely out of our element, swimming in the deep end of the pool without exemplary swimming skills. And we made it.

Through thick and through thin, in good times and bad, we made it on our own. We had a tremendous amount of pride in this accomplishment. We made good friends, great friends. We bought a modest house and made it our home.

Four months ago, we seriously considered an offer made by my father-in-law to buy his old house in rural DeKalb country. It was the house in which my wife lived while she was in high school. It was the house in which I’d met and become a part of her family. Our wedding reception, a party of historical significance by local measure, was held in a gigantic Morton shed on the property. This house has been in her family for four generations. It has tremendous history and a good deal of property. It was exactly what we’d been looking for and, as such, we decided to move away from the St. Louis area and go back home again.

It was the right decision.

Tonight my wife drove my daughter back to St. Peters to spend a week or so with her friends there. She was nervous about going back. It is the first time in nearly two months since she’d been back to the place where we’d become individuals and staked our own claim. She called me a short time ago to let me know the road she was on, that she was passing the Costco near our house, that my daughter was really excited to be back.

I didn’t think these things would affect me. I love this house. I love how close we are to family and that we get to see people we’re close to so often. But her call made me sad in a way that I haven’t been since the day I drove away from our home down south. It brought many memories back that hit me in a way I didn’t expect. I thought of friends I couldn’t easily see anymore, of things I couldn’t easily do anymore, of times that were long gone.

Don’t misunderstand, I don’t regret our decision for a moment. I love our new house. I thoroughly enjoy that I can sit on my back porch in the evening and listen to the crickets sing while a cool breeze washes over me like a wave on a hot day at the beach. I love that I can see my mother, my sister, my aunt, my father and mother-in-law, all my in-laws whenever I like, that we get to spend quality time together in the way my friends down in St. Peters could with their families.

But tonight I feel a little melancholy. It’s the first time I’ve really missed my home down south. The people that I was close to down there were easy to reach. A dinner with our friend Silvia was a five minute drive away. We could drop in at the taekwondo Dojang where we spend so much time with our kids and Master Brad Chapman whenever we liked. I had a band with guys I loved to play music with. There was so much there and there is so much here.

You can go home again, but time can be cruel, and so it has been. So many people that we knew and loved here were so excited when we announced we were moving back. We’ve seen virtually none of them. There are so many places we used to go when we lived here before. We’ve visited virtually none of them.

I know this will change. Eventually, this will feel like home, like someplace we’ve always been. I can still remember going through this same process when we moved to St. Peters in 1999. I think the difference is that I’m much older and wiser than I was then. When we moved away, we were running, trying to get someplace, anyplace different. This time it was a very carefully thought out decision, and it’s those types of decisions that can give you the most pause.

We made this move for all the right reasons. Perhaps that’s why on nights like tonight, it feels like we’ve given up more than we’ve gained.

Sometimes rationality is overrated. Time will tell.

I think I’ll slip out to my back deck, listen to the crickets sing, and consider the almost cliché axiom:  “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I’ve recently rediscovered my love of writing, and by “recently” I mean in the past couple of years. I started out as a teenager wanting to do nothing but write, but life happens, side roads are willingly and unwillingly taken, and it can take awhile to get back to the main path again.

After writing several short stories, I got an idea for what I thought would make a good novel. Indeed, I started to write it as a short story first and quickly found that there was no way I’d be able to flush out the characters and their story to my satisfaction in under 10,000 words. I sat in my desk chair staring at the screen and actually said aloud, “Right, I’m going to write a novel.”

That was a year ago.

Since coming back to the craft, I’ve had the good fortune to meet several published novelists and I ask them about their experiences writing their first novel-length work. It’s split right down the middle:  Half say it was easy, a great experience, and to the other half it felt like an eternal root canal procedure. Thus far, I would have to side with the latter group.

blankslateI’ve been working one idea after the next for about thirteen months now. The longest manuscript I’ve managed to write peaked at about 42,000 words, and then I set it aside because I felt it wasn’t really going anywhere. In each one of my projects, I could feel the dry rot of writer’s block set in and I just couldn’t seem to find a way around it. Each attempt to add something to the story felt contrived and phony. I felt like I was forcing it.

Desperate to find an solution, I scoured the Internet and copies of Writer’s Digest and The Writer magazines, read article after article, but nothing seemed to help. So, I made sure to archive my in-flight manuscripts and held out hope that someday I might go back and finish them.

Two weeks ago, I had an idea for a new story. It was inspired by a dream (cliché, I know, but true) and wrote it down before it faded into the ether of consciousness. I was excited about the idea and I rushed to my laptop to start pecking out the first paragraph. But I paused. I realized I’d been in love with all my other ideas as well, and none had worked out. Like Dennis Hopper used to say in those financial planner commercials, “You, my friend, you need a plan.

So that’s what I did. In two weeks I’ve managed about 20,000 words, and the story is still rolling along like wildfire. For the first time, I feel like I have nothing but a green field in front of me and that, this time, I’m really going to do it.

What magical solution did I find for my writer’s block? If only it were magic; now that would be a story. No magic, just a new combination and arrangement of practices that seem to be working well for me this time around. I’ll share them here (and thus, provide another discoverable guide for future writers struggling with the all-consuming Block) in the event that they might help you too. I hope they do.

  1. Know Thy Characters As Yourself. In past efforts, my focus was on plot. I knew characters were important, but I figured that they would reveal things about themselves to me as the story progressed. I pictured building a relationship with them as we spent time together, the same way I would forge a new friendship or business relationship in the real world. Unfortunately, the world of my story isn’t like the real world. The fictional world of my book needs to be created and it will be my characters that will do this. If I don’t know them intimately from the start, I’m lost. The story can only go so far. I’m not saying you even have to know all of the characters that will eventually be in the story, you just need to really know them before you write the first word about them in your piece.
  2. Nail Your Beginning, Evolve The Ending. Traditionally, I’ve always attempted to layout the full scope of my tale before I start writing. I know that many of my favorite writers (Dan Simmons, for one) work like this, but unfortunately, I’m just not wired that way. I start out going in one direction, but inevitably, some subtle plot twist introduces itself and I feel obligated to chase it down. More often than not, this leads me away from where I originally intended to land. Once I realized this about myself, I stopped worrying about. Now I focus on really nailing the beginning of the story, on creating an irresistible hook that will compel my reader to follow me on my journey. If I can do that, then the story that follows seems to fall into shape nicely.
  3. First Draft “Analysis Paralysis.” One of my greatest strengths as a writer is that I have always sought to write near-perfect prose. My greatest weakness as a writer is that I have always sought to write near-perfect prose. When I looked back on my other attempts at writing a novel, I found that I had fallen into the tar pit of analysis paralysis: The need to get the quality of a second draft in the first draft. Shedding this behavior, more than anything else, has helped me propel this new project forward. The purpose of my first draft is only to get the story out of my head and into the computer. I’ll worry about grammar, imagery, simile and metaphor, exposition, etc. when I get to the second draft. This has actually given me motivation to finish the story so I can focus on the more juicy tidbits later on.
  4. Write Something Every Day. If you’re going to be a writer, this is something you need to do anyway, but it’s especially important if you don’t write fulltime. Some days, when I’m finally done with my day job, when I’ve made dinner and spent some time with the family, the last thing I want to do is sit down and write. My brain is oatmeal. But it is so important to write something. Even if you can only manage a couple hundred words, that’s fine. If you need a break from your book, spend some time working on something else. Often a block in one story can be shaken loose by writing about something completely different. Answers can be found in the most unlikely places. When it’s all said and done, writing is like keeping a tidy home:  A little bit of work each day is easier and yields better results than trying to clean the whole house just once a week.
  5. Work Your Plot When You’re Not Writing. My standard modus operandi before was to walk away from the keyboard after a writing session and clear my head completely of what I was writing. This was a common practice in other jobs I’ve had in my life and I always felt that it allowed me to come back to the work with a fresh perspective. Of course, writing fiction isn’t like other jobs (or at least I’ve never felt it was). Now, as I go about my daily business, I try to work through the next section of the story. I don’t try to tackle the whole thing, just what I would like to get written the next time I sit down at the keyboard. This makes my writing time much more productive, enjoyable and actually increases the continuity of my work.

I make no guarantees that any of these tactics will work for you—everyone works a little differently—but they have paid off in spades for me. If you keep finding that you are the biggest blocker to achieving your writing goals, it will be worth your while to give these tactics a try. Please, don’t keep the results to yourself. Let me know in the comments section below if they worked for you or not.

Happy writing.

 You’ve read the books. You’ve downloaded the iPhone app. But do you have the 2011 “Bunny Suicides” calendar and organizer.

Yeah, you read that right. Andy Riley’s hysterical franchise on self-homicidal hasenpfeffer has followed in the large footsteps of Gary Larson and Scott Adams and published a book calendar and organizer for 2011 featuring many of my favorite moments in Leporidae suicidium, including:

  • The bunny sitting on a power drill pushing the On button with a stick
  • The bunny getting ready to ram a butcher knife attached to a remote control car into himself
  • The bunny throwing himself through the strings of an orchestra harp (while the harpist is still playing, of course)

I have a pretty black sense of humor, so this calendar will soon adorn my desk. I just thought I’d pass the good word around.

The Death of Manners

I’m not a prude. Anyone who knows me personally, especially my family, will attest to that. I have, however, noticed a disturbing trend in recent interactions with my fellow human beings. It all came to a head while shopping at the local grocery store yesterday.

One is hard-pressed to observe good manners in a grocery store anyway, but this was unusual even for that harsh environment. I was standing in the frozen food aisle looking for a bag of frozen peas for the shepherd’s pie I was going to make for dinner. As I scanned the shelves to see if the store actually carried “English peas” (I do so love Alton Brown and his attention to detail in his recipes), a woman pushing a cart walked in front of me, and then stopped.

When I was a child, I was taught that, should you need to step in front of someone who is clearly looking at something, you say, “Excuse me.” I don’t know how my parents got that to stick, but I do it to this very day. It would never occur to me to not excuse myself, no less stop directly in front of someone without a word said.

I opened my mouth to say something, and then decided to wait and see if she would eventually acknowledge what she’d done. Not having my stopwatch with me, I had to guess at the time that passed, but I would have to say it was a good ten to fifteen seconds, which is a veritable eternity in the grocery store. She eventually opened the freezer door, took a bag of frozen corn, tossed it nonchalantly into her cart and went on her way as if I’d never existed. That was the part that disturbed me the most:  She never even acknowledged I was there.

This is just one case, and an extreme one at that, but I think it calls out a disturbing trend in our society:  The death of common manners and courtesy.

Why God, Why?

Of course there’ve always been rude assholes in the world. It just seems like there are way more of them these days, and they’re coming in all shapes and sizes.

So what is causing this proliferation of pricks? I’ll leave it for the sociologists to publish the definitive paper (if you can ever wake them up at the party), but I’ll propose a few theories of my own:

Technology

The Internet. Wireless devices. Cellular telephones. What wondrous things these are. They bring the world together in ways my generation could never have dreamed when we were children. They’ve also created a preoccupation with a vast network of people that are everywhere but where you are.

It’s almost become a cliché, people walking around staring at a small, black device in their hand, oblivious to the turning and churning of the world around them. When you value the company of virtual people more than those immediately around you, courtesy dies. I often think of my teenaged daughter and her cell phone. She considers it extremely rude not to reply to every text message she gets, as if not sending an immediate reply would cause some lasting damage to the sender’s delicate self-confidence. However, as she taps away on the keyboard of her phone, she hears nary a word coming from my mouth and, of course, can’t understand why I’m irritated when I have to repeat myself. Look around you right now. I’ve got a ten-spot that someone nearby is interacting with a screen instead of the real, carbon-based beings physically near them.

Technology is a wondrous thing and enables us to do many things better than we used to, but it is absolutely a double-edged sword that will disembowel us all if we’re not careful.

Television

Like it or not, television is the predominant form of entertainment in this country. It is the bringer of information and the babysitter of children. Karl Marx would burst and aneurism to see that television has replaced religion as the opiate of the masses.

This is not going to be a bash on television as a concept. I watch some television and I don’t buy into the in-vogue idea that not watching television makes you somehow to superior to everyone else who does.

That being said, I think that the programming on most television stations is reminiscent of a poorly maintained cow pasture littered from fence line to fence line with steaming piles of bovine shit:  There might be a flower growing out there somewhere, but it’s going to be very hard to find and it’s certain your shoes are going to smell bad when everything is said and done.

The proliferation of so-called “reality TV,” an interesting idea at its inception, has rolled forward completely out of control. These days, for every drama or sitcom on the air, there’s a show about competitive baking, admonishing people for not dressing stylishly enough or, God help us, being a promiscuous drunk in New Jersey.

Interestingly, the worst that television has to offer appears to be the most popular. With the constant reinforcement that putting yourself first and others second is not only okay, but lands you a big-time television gig, what motivation is there to maintain simple respect for others? Answer:  None.

In the same way that television has desensitized a generation to images of violence, now it is slowly eroding our sense of courtesy and appropriate behavior.

And then, of course, there is the matter of television political pundits, but that’s for another article altogether.

Parenting

Is it just me, or does it seem that active parenting is becoming a lost art form?

I’m not saying that I am, by any means, a perfect parent, because I’m not. I don’t think such a thing has ever existed. I am, however, an active parent, probably much more so than my children care for. I’m involved in their daily lives. I care about what they do, where they are and with whom they’re spending time.

These don’t sound like extraordinary things for a parent to do, but as I meet the parents of my children’s friends, I’m astounded how unusual my parenting style seems to be these days. The idea that one of my teenaged children could be out until past midnight and that I would have no clue as to where they were is beyond me. I can’t even imagine it. Yet I keep encountering parents who are right there in that situation and, what’s worse, they don’t seem bothered by it. I keep hearing statements like, “Kids will be kids,” and “You have to let them learn for themselves.” While I agree in spirit with these sentiments, children are not supposed to learn about life and the cold, cruel world by themselves. The entire purpose of keeping them in your home until adulthood is to guide and teach them, even when they resist it with every fiber of their being.

With the combination of ubiquitous connections via technology, the wasteland of content on television and laissez-faire parenting style that seems to be evolving into the norm, it’s really no wonder that basic respect for other people is going the way of the mastodon.

What to Do?

This isn’t about opening the door for a lady, or keeping your napkin in your lap. This isn’t about laying your coat down over a mud puddle for your fair lass to cross or even insisting the other guy go first at the four-way intersection, even though it was your turn.

I’m talking about the kind of courtesy that comes from respect, pure and simple.

Wait staff in restaurants are always complimenting my children for their manners. Why? Because my wife and I require them to order food by saying, “May I please have…” as opposed to what I typically hear, “I’ll take the…” or “Gimme the…” These latter two examples are demands, where as the former is a request. What’s the difference? If you were addressing an indentured servant, then a command would be entirely appropriate-there would be no true expectation of respect. However, men and women working in restaurants are not indentured servants. They are people doing a difficult and tiring job and, in most cases, not making a lot of money doing it. The simple act of asking for your food (and yes, the word “please” is required) makes all the difference in that interaction. I’m fairly certain I’ve never been served food with spit mixed into the cream sauce.

Seeing as this seems to be such a rampant problem in our society, and I’m not big on bitching without proposing potential solutions, here are some tips that will facilitate more pleasant and respectful interactions:

  • Say “Please.” Say “Thank you.” A simple acknowledgement that someone has done something for you goes a long way. I consistently get smiles from waiters and waitresses because I will pause in a conversation at the table to thank them when they refill my water glass. Not only does it feel good to make someone else feel the same, I find that I get much better service from people. Courtesy should be a win-win for everyone involved.
  • Leave the cell phone in your pocket. I always have the cell phone with me. I will admit that. However, it’s important to note that FCC imposes no penalties on someone who opts not to answer their cell phone when it rings. All cellular plans have voicemail. If it’s important, they’ll leave a message. If they don’t leave a message, there’s always caller ID. You have options;  one of them should not be to disrupt other people’s lives with your phone. Sometimes I wish they never left the kitchen wall.
  • Say “Excuse me.” Let’s face it, we all get in each other’s way sometimes. Had the woman I introduced at the beginning of this article simply said, “Excuse me, I just need to grab something real quick,” I would have said, “No problem,” and you would likely not be reading this. It only takes a second to let someone else know that you know that they’re there, and it can make all the difference.
  • Remember, other people don’t care about your personal life. You personal life is just that:  Personal. Keep it that way. My family and I don’t want to hear about your most recent pregnancy scare. Nor do we care to listen to you say “Fuck” three hundred times in a four minute conversation with your step-brother. Have some decorum. If it’s not something you’d sit down and tell me one-on-one, then you should probably avoid yelling it into your cell phone in the middle of a restaurant.
  • The “Golden Rule.” ‘Nuff said.

In the end, there’s no great secret to bringing back manners and civility to our culture. Any time more than a few people choose to live in close proximity to each other, these things just start to make sense, or at least they should.

I have a challenge for you:  Try to incorporate one act of common courtesy into your routine each day. Start simply. Hold the door some someone coming into a building behind you, even if you have to stand there for a few extra seconds waiting for them to arrive. Tuck your suitcase under your table in the crowded airport bar instead of leaving it in the middle of the aisle. When someone yells, “Hold the elevator!” as the doors are closing, reach down and hit the button. You can tell him or her when they board that they should have said, “Please.”

It’s not hard. If we all start thinking outside of ourselves and remember that we’re all just ameba living together in this big blue petri dish, then things will start to take care of themselves. So please, remember your manners. If you can’t, contact me. I’ll help you remember them.

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Strength in Numbers

For the past three weeks, the world has sat and watched a true, modern-day peaceful revolution begin, expand and, in the end, force a change in Egypt’s long-standing and oppressive government. There were skirmishes throughout, but they were brought on by hired thugs paid by the establishment to break the protesters’ will.

But their will was not broken.

They stayed until the end and learned the one golden rule of citizenship:  The government, regardless of how it was created, is ultimately subject to the rule of the people. Millions of Egyptian citizens, having suffered under decades of oppressive rule by Hosni Mubarak, realized that they outnumbered the bureaucrats, the police and even the military. Also, they didn’t sink into mindless violence, destroying their own neighborhoods and business. They simply took to the streets and made their voices heard and, in doing so, changed much more than the leadership of their country.

This morning, I saw in the news that protesters in Iran are clashing with police in the streets of Tehran. The leaders of the so-called “Green Movement,” Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest since last week. They are positioning these marches as being supportive of the Egyptian people, a stance the Iranian government took as the crisis in Cairo was reaching its climax. Now the government is trying to crack down, going so far as to surround their homes and keeping them from joining the marches.

Of course, all despots in the Middle East should have been thinking about this as events were unfolding in Egypt, especially Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmandinejad. After the world-wide condemnation of his stealing the 2009 election and then the brutal methods used to crush the opposition and their calls for justice in the aftermath, I should think he would have already had a plan. Perhaps he did, but the hypocrisy of supporting the people of Egypt and Tunisia in their revolution and then restricting his own people from gathering in public to do the same can’t be missed and should certainly not be a surprise to anyone in the world now.

The point is this:  We citizens far outnumber the members of out government. We think of ourselves primarily as being dependent on them, but actually, they are equally dependent on us. This symbiosis is what gives us our strength. If we don’t work, our government doesn’t work. Iranian security forces can fire rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds, and they will stop some of the protests, but what the events of the past few weeks have proven is that, eventually, they will run out of tear gas and bullets and be overwhelmed, or perhaps they will do what the Egyptian military did and refuse to fire on peaceful, unarmed people.

What the Egyptian people did transcends their immediate goal of ousting Mubarak from office. They set an example for all the people of the Middle East, of the world for that matter. They showed that ordinary men and women can force the change. It requires sacrifice, it requires courage, but it can be done. And you don’t need another country to do it for you.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

~ First Amendment of the United States Constitution

On Saturday, January 8, 2011, Jared Loughner walked into the midst of a crowd of people outside a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona, approached Representative Gabrielle Giffords, drew a semi-automatic pistol, and shot her in the head. Loughner then turned and proceeded to kill six people, including federal Judge John Roll and nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green. Thirteen others were injured.

westboro%20baptist%20church.jpgLater that same day, the Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kansas, led by the Rev. Fred Phelps, issued a statement on their web site stating that they would be traveling to Tuscan to perform one of their now infamous protests at the funerals for the shooting victims. In bold type across the top of the posted flier, the “Christians” of WBC proclaim, “THANK GOD FOR THE SHOOTER-6 DEAD!” It goes on to say that God sent Loughner to kill these people because the U.S. government has been trying to silence them, that the government has been trying to keep them from proclaiming that we’re all doomed. But the most disturbing thing was their announcement about protesting at these funerals of innocent people killed for no other reason than being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now, I need to go on the record here and say that I personally believe, like most people with a reasonably well-wired cerebrum, that these people are complete nutcases and should be locked away in a home for the Christianically insane. In fact, I chuckle when I hear the term “Christian” applied to these inbred attention-seekers. What they’ve done is discarded the New Testament all together and gone Old (school) Testament on us. You know, those inspiring old stories about God wiping out cities, condoning the slaughter of children and the keeping of women as chattel? To these self-righteous wing nuts, they refer to those stories as “The good ‘ol days.” I am truly a pacifist, but the part of my brain that descends from a monkey would love to see a biker gang show up at one of WBC’s protests and beat the shit out of anyone holding a sign that says, “God Hates Fags” or “Thank God For Dead Soldiers.” That would bring me great satisfaction indeed.

But that’s me personally. As Americans, the WBC stands as an important lesson for all of us, and it has nothing to do with religion.

The good people of the WBC remind us that America is a great place to live because even the nut jobs have the right to express themselves, regardless of how distasteful their message may be to the rest of us. Read the text of the First Amendment above. It doesn’t say, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, unless most people think it’s ignorant, bigoted bullshit, then it’s okay.Every citizen gets that right, even the people we don’t think deserve it.

This is why it makes me uncomfortable when I hear the popular outcries for the government to put a stop to WBC’s protests. Again, I detest them for what they do, but they are Americans, and we cannot revoke their rights just because we all think what they’re doing is wrong. In reality, they are not breaking any laws. They follow local ordinances and apply for permits to peaceably assemble. They confine their imbecilic protests to the area permitted for their use. The members of the WBC are Americans, whether the rest of us are comfortable with admitting that or not, and therefore, their rights should be protected as verdantly as we would want ours protected.

That being said, I want to touch on the term “Free Speech.” It’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot. If history has taught us anything, it’s that speech is anything but “free.” As good parents teach their kids at an early age, every action you take in your life, everything that you say, everything that you do, has consequences. They may be good or bad, but they’ll be there waiting for you. Smart people know how to think about the consequences of their actions and respond accordingly.

From what I can tell, the WBC has very few friends. They feel they are on a sacred mission to…well, that’s the part that seems confusing. The natural conclusion would be to say they’re trying to save the rest of us from eternal damnation, but that doesn’t come through in their rhetoric. Rather, they seem to simply be trying to tell us we’re fucked. No matter what we do, God actually hates us. We’re incapable of living in His law, so we better get ready for an afterlife under the broiler. In this respect, the WBC is the equivalent of the scruffy, dirty caricature of the city bum wearing the sandwich board that says, “The end is nigh. Repent or be doomed.”

Their hateful diatribes will come back to haunt the WBC at some point. I’m not making any kind of prognostication here, just drawing from historical fact. If you keep pushing the right buttons long enough, somebody or something is going to come along and break your fingers. Speech is not free; a toll booth eventually turns up.

Something that is deemed a right demands responsibility, personal responsibility, to not abuse it, to take advantage of that right for the good of you and your fellow citizens. This is where WBC falls far short. However, it is not the place for the government to impede theirs rights, regardless of how badly they abuse it. It is our responsibility to set things right. And no, I’m not talking about putting on biker gang outfits and beating the shit out of them.

I’m talking about what ordinary citizens, outraged at WBC’s protests at military funerals, have already done. The mass organization of communities to form a human wall between WBC’s hateful demonstrations and the grieving families of dead soldiers is exemplary and, frankly, inspiring. It’s an example of ordinary American citizens using the same right the WBC abuses to do the right thing, not for themselves but for their fellow citizens. In fact, such an action was already planned for today by a group of people planning to block the shooting victim’s funerals while wearing giant “angel wings” so the WBC protesters would be unseen.

We don’t need the government to save us from the WBC. All legislative solutions do is draw more attention to these sub-human ass-bags, and that is what they are ultimately seeking, as proven in the Los Angeles Times report from last night saying that the WBC has called off their protests of John Roll and Christina Green’s funerals in exchange for airtime on two radio stations.

The WBC has the inalienable right to proselytize their decidedly fucked-up view of the Christian faith. We have the right not to listen. This, I think, the Framers would agree with one hundred percent.

 

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