It’s been a long, odd Summer already. Not so much bad, but full of ups and downs and several distractions keeping me from the main goals. It’s a balmy night, and though rednecks are already blowing things up around town, my block is quiet. The Rugrats are in bed and won’t be able to break anything
It’s Summer at last! It’s been a long year at the day gig, but though I’ll continue to work through the Summer, things will get a lot easier and I have vacation days to burn before our year rolls over on July 1st. Summer also means I can sit outside and have a cigar more
There's a certain satisfaction in closing the lid on the laptop, walking inside, and seamlessly picking up where I left off on the desktop. — Mike Oliveri (@MikeOliveri) May 26, 2016 The first thing I teach my computer tech students is technology has one goal: to make our lives easier. Whether we’re talking simple machines
Sure, outlining is important. When telling a story, it helps to know where it ends. It helps to understand the setup and plot twists along the way. Or, when writing time is scarce, it gives the writer a clear sense of direction rather than wasting time winging it and having to backtrack or rewrite after a pre-reader
It’s been a little over five weeks since I last hit the weights. I was going to start back again tonight, but pain in my right forearm and wrist is still nagging at me, so I opted to wait a little longer. I beat myself up at first, but then I realized this is the
It’s been a while since I’ve posted a cigar review. It’s not because I haven’t been enjoying them, just that I’ve been too distracted to sit down and write about them. A local bar has an enclosed porch with a heaters and a nice fire pit, so it’s a great spot to relax and hang out with a cigar and a drink.
Of course, rumor has it the laws are changing and anything with a floor and a roof will be considered “indoors” and thus a non-smoking area. I haven’t seen it in the various lists of new Illinois laws coming January 1st, and the wait staff at the bar hadn’t heard anything about it yet, so with luck it’s a ways off for the existing bars—some of whom built enclosed patios to accommodate smokers—or they will be grandfathered in and not subject to the expanded smoking ban.
If the law does change, though, it’ll make for some long Winters with cigars few and far between. Ack. It’s hard to beat noodling on a plot point or a bit of dialog over a cigar.
I’ve certainly survived worse, though. And I’ve certainly had worse cigars than CI’s Drew Estate Copper Label.
CI offered up several Black Friday deals, and the Copper Label looked like a great deal. I got started with their ACID line way back when, and I’ve enjoyed their Natural, Sauza Tequila, and other labels. I felt having something on the mild end of the flavor spectrum would round out my humidor, too, and give me a few sticks to hand to friends who don’t always like darker cigars.
CI describes the Copper Label as a blend of Drew Estate’s Natural and ACID brands, and I’d say that’s exactly right. They smelled both sweet and savory right out of the cellophane, and before I lit up I could taste creamy vanilla similar to the ACID Blondie.
The cream turned bitter on light, but it quickly mellowed again. The strong vanilla quit and gave way to a subtler, creamy flavor that accented the earthy smoke rather than overpowering it. The smoke itself was not unpleasant, and the construction held up well. I think my only concern is going to be burning through them fast enough so the vanilla doesn’t linger in my humidor.
I see now that CI is selling five sticks for $35, so I got them for a little under half price on Black Friday. A steal for a good smoke like this, assuming you’re okay with the sweetness. The Copper Label is not something I’d normally fill my humidor with, but it offers a nice break from the stronger cigars I’ve been favoring lately.
I miss my camera.
I enjoy photography, and for a long time I was striving to get better at it. I especially wanted to improve my post-production game. Unfortunately, I haven’t touched my camera in quite some time. Right now, I can’t even say with 100% certainty where my camera is.
I went through my Flickr photo stream today, and most of it is the Instagram stuff I’ve been throwing around. It’s been a long time since I posted something shot with my Rebel, and even longer since I posted something at least half artistic rather than candid.
So what the hell is keeping me away?
My computer is one problem. It’s an iMac from 2008, and while it still runs well, the software has gotten so resource-intensive that this thing can’t walk and chew bubblegum at the same time. If I’m going to work in Lightroom, I need to shut down everything else. If I’m surfing in Chrome, I need to shut down everything but Twitter. It takes forever to import photos, takes forever to browse and edit them, takes forever to export them, and if I’m lucky it won’t overheat and crash in the middle of it all.
Living on a slow Internet connection in the boonies doesn’t help. If I have to upload a big batch of photos, it’s pretty much a case of walking away and letting it run overnight. Our upload speeds would make a snail yawn, and I sometimes have to repeat batches due to timeout errors.
Then there’s the problem of subjects. I sometimes like to shoot my kids, my wife, or friends & relatives. Unfortunately they’re less than cooperative.
“Daaa-aad, I don’t want to!”
“There’s Mike with his damn camera again.”
“I don’t want to be on the Internet!”
Sometimes it works out and I get nice shots of them anyway, but most of the time it’s not worth the hassle. I got tired of lugging the camera around and not using it. Tired of the bitching while I tried to line up a shot. Tired of exasperated sighs when I asked for help to swap a lens.
The simple solution was to switch to inanimate subjects, or sometimes shoot self portraits. That helped for a while, but I started to run out of interesting ideas around the house, and I found it tough to get out and make time to find other subjects.
As I thought about this all today, I realized the real problem is being susceptible to external influences.
There’s not much I can do about the computer with out the cash to replace it, and there’s not much I can do about the Internet connection aside from packing up and moving. I can either have the patience to deal with them, or I can suck it up and get it done.
Am I shooting photos for my subjects, or am I shooting photos for me? I don’t think it’s selfish to say I’m doing it for me. I enjoy being creative, and if they don’t want to share in that, so be it.
Of course, the subject situation should easily be solved by creativity. I may not get out as often as I’d like due to family and job obligations, but that doesn’t mean I can’t explore some of the same subjects with new angles, or try different approaches with lighting, color, backgrounds, and so on. It’s part of nurturing the creativity.
We can’t allow ourselves to be susceptible to external influences, or we’ll never get anything done. There’s always a better rig available, always someone complaining about something, and it will always be tough to make time for things. If we allow these external influences to run our lives, we have no time to nurture our internal needs.
I think I have two jobs tonight.
First, find and dust off the camera. Check and clean the lenses, charge up the battery, and get it ready for action. Maybe I’ll carry it around again, maybe not, but I’ll shoot something soon.
Second, find out how many of these same external influences are screwing up my writing time, and fix them, too.
Okay, so “skinny” isn’t exactly correct, but I’m lighter now than when I got married so I’ll take it. I’m a lot lighter now than I was ten years ago; I’ve lost just over a fifth of my body weight.
A few weeks ago, I went shopping at a Men’s Wearhouse. The salesperson put me in an XL to fit my shoulders and chest, but then she told me it was a slim. I’ve never worn a slim anything in my life. I’m generally down to size large for most clothing, where I used to shop for XXL.
It’s weird finding clothes on the rack that actually fit. I’m used to sleeves and pant legs being too long, or shirts that are too long and droop around the shoulders. And that’s all assuming some stores even stocked the stuff. Now? Shoulder seams hang where they belong, and while some sleeves are still a bit long for my T-rex arms, the hem is where it belongs.
Now being skinny is expensive because I’m tempted to buy a couple shirts instead of just one.
Then there’s the whole temperature thing. The weather’s already started to change around here, and over the weekend I enjoyed a cigar with some friends on the enclosed patio of our favorite watering hole. I had to ask the waitress to fire up the heater above us. They never did, and by the end of the night I was shivering. My friends laughed, said I lost all my insulation.
Is this what being skinny is like? Being cold all the time?
People are friendlier, too. Maybe it’s social acceptance, maybe it’s just that I carry myself differently, but reactions from others are definitely different. People are warmer, chattier, even in situations where service is their job, like cashiers and wait staff.
How do skinny people protect their quiet time?
Next you’ll tell me I’ll actually fit in an airline seat.
As I type this, I’m sitting out on the porch watching the end of tonight’s supermoon eclipse. Cloud cover had killed the beginning of it for us, but now the clouds are gone and I’ve got a good view of the Earth’s shadow cast across the face of the moon. The red of the totality, the Blood Moon, was fairly dim, but now I’ve got a great view of the contrast between the sunlight and the shadow.
I can’t help but think about some people I know who take no joy in this sort of thing. It’s not an uncommon attitude, but some take it a step further and claim science has somehow ruined these events for them. Eclipse? “Big deal,” they’d say. “It’s just a shadow.” Meteors? “It’s just a rock falling into the atmosphere.”
When they were kids they were impressed by such events because they were in awe of what they didn’t understand. I even knew someone who was jealous of primitive cultures who explained the stars away as gods or dragons, of cultures who built stories and myths around these events. He’d lament how astronomy and physics have killed those stories.
So life was somehow better when we were ignorant? I just can’t get behind that attitude.
Ignorance is not imagination. Those cultures were explaining the world in the best way they could. Their ignorance does not make the world magical.
Imagination is still finding the beauty in these events, even though we know exactly what’s happening. Science doesn’t stop poets from romanticizing the full moon. It doesn’t stop writers from using a storm to set atmosphere. It doesn’t stop any of us from finding the beauty in a sunset, even though they occur every day and we know exactly how they work.
Should we not retain our imagination in the face of what we already know? Should we not find wonder in the explained? To me, that’s what real magic is about.
I’ve already talked about what I think of typing two spaces after a period, but there’s really no standard requirement behind it. Double spacing between lines, however, is a whole different animal. Some editors still require double spacing in their submission guidelines, and most teachers still require their students double space their work per MLA format guidelines.
MLA format also says, “Leave only one space after periods or other punctuation marks (unless otherwise instructed by your instructor).” To me, this demonstrates that two spaces after a period is an artifact of academia: some teachers are enforcing it out of habit and because it’s how they learned, not because there’s a practical reason to do so, so MLA takes the middle ground.
Have we reached the point where double-spaced lines of text should be treated the same way? If an editor or a teacher requires double-spaced manuscripts, then of course the paper should be turned in that way, but why? It’s time to discuss letting it die as a standard, if not a habit.
The first argument is for readability, but as with two spaces after a period, that’s subjective. We spend hours a day reading without double-spaced paragraphs, both on the Internet and in print. This is when the argument turns to readability for proofreading, where the eye is better able to spot errors. I’m with you there.
I still prefer to proofread in print, but I don’t double space. For me, a printed manuscript is not so much for readability as it is the feel of taking a pencil (yes, a mechanical pencil, because that’s how I roll) to a manuscript to tear it apart. Some writers prefer the nostalgia of a red pen carving a bloody trail of destruction across their beloved manuscripts.
If a proofreader is reading carefully enough, it shouldn’t matter whether he’s reading on screen or on paper. Our eyes can—and should—be trained for both. So what are the red pen and the double spacing about? Efficiency and clarity in communicating corrections.
Double spacing a manuscript is not for the proofreader’s ease in reading, but for the proofreader’s ease in communicating corrections back to the writer (or to a typesetter if we want to go way back). A red pen contrasts with the black ink so the writer sees every correction, and the double spacing gives the proofreader room to lay down edits and notes. If an editor or a teacher chooses to rewrite a sentence or make a longer note, they’re going to need room to write, right?
Do newspapers still work this way? I wrote and edited for a college newspaper in the ’90s. Our instructor was a former newspaper editor, and we did zero proofreading on paper and never fiddled with double-spacing. Do publishers still work this way? In the last decade, I’ve only turned in one double-spaced manuscript per the editor’s request. I haven’t handled a printed, double-spaced manuscript, proofread by an editor, since high school.
So why are writers and students still doing it? Habit, and because academia says so.
Proofreading marks would make great Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? questions. We all used (or at least saw) proofreading marks in school, but most adults have forgotten all about them. Hell, a college student at my karate dojo tried to remember some of them while we were proofreading a new manual we’re putting together for students.
We’ve replaced all of this with track changes, commenting, and similar functions in word processors. Even Google Docs now offers a Suggesting mode and allows users to see the entire revision history of a document, and the writer and an editor or teacher can see it all happen in realtime. It’s more efficient than passing papers back and forth and is a much faster and more direct way of communicating.
College students already turn in their work electronically, so colleges are already halfway there. Most K-12 schools are starting to make the change, too. 1:1 programs (1 device to 1 student) are the new trend, whether with laptops or tablets, so every student has an electronic workflow. At the school I work for, every student from grades 6-12 has a Chromebook or laptop and a Google Apps account.
At the elementary level, we’re seeing long-form writing replaced by multimedia presentations and blog-style electronic journaling. Elementary students at my school still write papers longhand occasionally, but even proofreading marks are starting to die out. One of my sons saw them in 2nd grade, but the other has never seen them. They had two different teachers, one of which is in her third decade of teaching, and the other has been teaching less than ten years. Guess which one taught proofreading marks?
That all said, I spoke to a second-year junior high English teacher who requires double-spaced papers, even electronically. He finds seventh graders’ run-on sentences and similar issues are tough to parse in single-spaced text. However, he also admits he requires it because “that’s how it’s commonly done,” and because it’s easier to communicate page-length requirements to students.
Readability, again, is subjective. By high school, and certainly on a professional level, students and writers should be past the point where their writing can’t be parsed in single-spaced text. I’m much more interested in the why of things over “because we’ve always done it that way.” The latter is a dangerous statement, and only invites stagnation.
As for his page-length requirements, it’s not hard to say “give me half a page” instead of one double-spaced page. I suggested word count, but he feels if he required 500 words, they’d stop writing at word 501. They won’t do the same when they hit the end of a page? In any event, these things can be corrected through education and grading.
Double spacing is worth debating. If even academia is starting to make the switch, then maybe it’s time to revisit double spacing as a standard. I can see arguments on both sides, but I think we’re better off taking steps to dump it. Let’s start drilling the habit of proofreading accurately in regular text into our students instead.
And by the way, how many of us catch ourselves proofreading websites, books, magazines, and newspapers? We do it all the time, even when we’re not consciously thinking about it. We tell ourselves it’s easier one way or the other, but we read single-spaced text (with one space after periods!) all day.
If double-spacing manuscripts is already a habit for you, by all means, carry on. If a publisher, editor, or agent requires it, then definitely do it! I just see no reason to keep drilling it into students as a requirement, or to require writers to use double spacing if we’re going to use an electronic workflow through the rest of the publishing process.
I imagine pretty soon it will become optional, just like those two spaces after a period.
It’s been a while since I’ve written a Smoke Blog post. It’s not that I haven’t been partaking, I just haven’t had the time to sit down and collect my thoughts. Tonight I selected a 5 Vegas Gold from a sampler pack I purchased recently, grabbed my laptop, and went out to the porch . . .
. . . only to find a giant spider building a web from my chair to the ceiling.
Spiders, we’re done. I’ve tolerated you up to this point. I let you build your webs in your nooks and crannies around the porch, including right next to my table. When one built a web between the bushes big enough to trap my kids, I took him out but I agreed to leave the rest alone.
This, though? This crosses a line. My chair is the DMZ. I turned on the lights, grabbed a broom, and Hell came to Spidertown.
The 5 Vegas is now a victory cigar.
It isn’t half bad, either. It has a smooth, easy draw with a lot of smoke. It has a bit more pepper than I expected from a Connecticut wrapper, and I’ve just read that it’s an Ecuadorian Connecticut raised in Honduras. I’m assuming that accounts for the difference, and why it’s included in the medium- to full-body selection in the rest of the sampler I purchased.
The construction is good, and the wrapper is holding up well. The fine ash tumbled on me, which sometimes results in a hotter burn and canoeing, but I’m not seeing that problem here.
I was looking for something a little lighter and creamier tonight, but this is working out just fine. I’d still favor a Romeo y Julieta Reserva Real over this one, but I wouldn’t turn these down for a good deal or as part of another sampler.
I’ve never been a runner.
I was that kid who hated running in school. Loathed it. I stole all the usual clichés, like, “I’m only going to run if something’s chasing me.”
Of course, we never stop to realize if we’re not good at running, we’re not going to do very well when our lives depend on it.
I digress. Point is, I hated running.
Past tense. When it sunk in that improving my cardiovascular endurance would not only be good for my health but would improve my karate performance, I decided I’d best hit the track.
I’ve been running on and off since (except in Winter, because screw that noise), and I’d get in a 5K (3.11 miles) every session, alternating walking and running. I completed two Warrior Dash events that way in 2012 and 2014, though before long I could hit a mile consistently.
Earlier this year, I was able to hit two miles straight. That felt good. I couldn’t even do a mile as a teenager.
Then, Monday night, for the first time ever, I was able to run the full length of a 5K.
I’m pretty damned happy with that. The pace is nothing to get excited over, but speed will come with time. Meanwhile, I’m in better shape now than when I got married.
The Wife and I took the Rugrats to the Peoria Riverfront Museum yesterday, and we checked out their Dome Planetarium for the first time. They’ve got a great setup, and one of their features was the short film Back to the Moon for Good, featuring the Google Lunar XPrize.
When people ask why our students need to be studying in the STEM fields, this is just a part of what it’s all about. We need to have goals again, to have big dreams to follow. To reach for the stars and beyond. To solve human problems like cancer, or a loss of drinkable water.
If we told the NASA engineers who sent us to the Moon in the ’60s and ’70s what the space program would look like today, they’d be beyond disappointed. People can blame the government, and politics, and money, but it really comes down to the people themselves. The people who ask, “Yeah, but what has the space program done for us?”
If they were to be honest, they would ask, “What has the space program done for me?”
I have two responses. First, here’s a list. Second, get your head out of your ass.
The school district I work for held a parent meeting for our technology program, and inevitably the anti-technology set had to put their two cents in. One complained we were only making our kids dependent upon technology, implying technology makes kids dumb and lazy. Another was from the “back in my day” camp, proudly proclaiming he wouldn’t touch a computer if we bought it for him.
Both speak from a position of ignorance. They honestly have no idea what technology has done and can do for them and their children, so they breed contempt and complacency rather than inspiring dreams.
Saying “I’m not good with technology” in 2015 is the same as saying “I don’t know how to read” in 1915. If you think it’s funny that you can’t operate the smartphone in your hand, then congratulations, the world has officially left you behind.
If you have trouble with technology and you just don’t get it, I’m sure you’ll get by. But don’t let your headaches get in your kid’s way. Let your kids start dreaming again, and aspire for bigger and better things, because the rest of us have no desire to return to Bronze Age savagery.
I’ve spent the last six months practicing for my latest rank test last weekend, and that prep consumed a lot of the time I’d otherwise have spent writing. The good news is I passed the test, and I’m now a nidan (2nd degree black belt) in Shuri-ryu karate. The bad news is the only real writing I got done in that time is for the papers I had to write for the test.
But hey, the test’s done. Hurdle cleared. While the school year has kicked off at the day job, things are going a lot smoother than they did last year. Between the two, it’s as if a huge weight has been lifted.
Now it’s back to productivity. Not having the time to sit down and hammer on the keys has been driving me crazy, and has only served to compound other stresses. The harder, smarter decision was to wait, though, because the writing would have suffered, too.
That’s not to say I wasn’t working on anything. I’ve been chatting about ideas with artists, there’s a pitch out there, and I’m going to have to pick a prose project to concentrate on by this weekend. I also plan to get a few short stories to some editors in the coming months.
The next step is to establish a writing routine as solid as my workout routine. I’ve got an idea of what it will look like, and it feels doable. I’ll tweak it over the next few weeks, and with luck, I’ll have something to share with you all soon.
It’s not uncommon for people to ask me what took so long between the publication of The Pack: Winter Kill and The Pack: Lie with the Dead. Then they’ll realize how much time passed between The Pack series and Deadliest of the Species and really get to wondering what the hell my problem is.
Non-writers often make the same assumption: “You must be suffering from writer’s block.”
Writers know better: “Writer’s block is bullshit, Mike. Do the work!”
It is and isn’t that simple.
I tend to be in the writer’s block is bullshit camp. There’s a whole lot of precious and pretentious bullshit artists have to wrestle with aside from writer’s block, but really, the fabled block is nonsense. We’re either creative or we’re not. The real problem is some combination of how the process affects us, what our routines are, and how we feel about the outcomes.
I find most people are either creative or analytical. Everyone has a different degree of each, but I think we all tend to lean firmly to one side or the other. Some of us enjoy creating, others are content to consume (not in the dollars sense, but in the sense of simply enjoying the creations of others). Some of us explore new ideas, others are more comfortable with what already exists.
I’ve always leaned heavily to the creative side. Even in my day job, I tend toward the creative. I’m a lot happier working with teachers and students, or finding ways around technological obstacles (like crashed servers), while a number of my colleagues in the same job would rather fiddle with hardware and sift through buggy code.
When I’m creating, I’m happy. When I lose time to a crashed server, I get real cranky, real quick (just ask my coworkers). When I go for extended periods of time without working on some piece of writing, my fuse gets shorter and my mood darkens (just ask my family).
Once I’ve spent some time at the keyboard, or even with a pencil and a notebook, the whole world changes. Things are sunshine and rainbows until something drags me away again.
Which comes to routine. A wise friend of mine calls it the ritual. Every creative person has their own way of making it work. When we’re fortunate enough that it’s our job, routine may go out the window because we have to produce or we don’t eat. For the rest of us, though, we need a ritual.
Yeah, it sounds pretentious. I kind of thought so at first, too. But bear with me, here.
When creating is not our job, we’re forced to live on the analytical side of our brains. We punch a clock somewhere, grind away for a paycheck, doing what we have to do to eat. We have to not create, whether that means troubleshooting servers, bending wrenches, driving trucks, serving up sides of fries, or picking up garbage.
Don’t misunderstand me, here: there’s nothing inherently wrong with these jobs. I know a guy who honestly loves his job riding on a garbage truck. I know a father and son who are perfectly content and extremely competent as auto mechanics. But for those of us who lean toward the creative side of things, it’s tough.
Want to know true misery? Talk to someone who learned programming because he wanted to create games or apps and wound up coding accounting and insurance software instead. They’re working within their dream, even within the degree that cost them a small fortune, yet they’re flat out miserable and don’t even know why.
I digress. The point is the ritual brings us home. We flip the switch from that tiny analytical portion of our brains—our souls or spirits, if you prefer—to the broader creative side. While our colleagues have various ways of decompressing so they can relax, we have to decompress so we can start working on the other side.
I think I deny myself this ritual far too often. When I sit down on a night like tonight, and I light up a cigar and sit out on the porch with the laptop, people assume it’s the cigar that’s doing the work. They think I’m being pretentious again, that I want to have the smoke and fulfill some image of what a writer looks like.
Nope. It’s because I know I’m not going anywhere for a good hour or so, and I can get some goddamn work done.
But I have a day job. I have a clock to punch. Two, actually: I have officially been getting paid to teach martial arts part time since January. I’ve got to get to bed by a certain time because I’ve got to get up at a certain time. We can nitpick the making time versus having time thing and balance it with family, friends, and so forth, but in general the late nights are my best creative time and I often have to deny myself that time for the day job.
I have to suppress the creative and deny the ritual to satisfy the analytical, which is the biggest reason you haven’t seen a short story in a while, and you haven’t seen The Pack: All They Fear or any number of other projects yet.
Last summer was an usual summer at the day job, and I didn’t have as many of those nights available. And boy was I an asshole as a result. This summer is looking to be more relaxing again, so maybe I’ll have more nights like tonight to massage the creative side. We’ll see.
Which brings us to outcomes. Some of us creatives, we spend too much time thinking about analytical things: sales figures; Amazon ranks; reviews and reader feedback; goddamn Twitter follower counts; blog stats; the money our work does or doesn’t bring in. It goes on and on, and it needs to stop.
I need to stop.
Tonight I banged out a blog post for the day job. A creative one. As I near the end of this post, and I exorcise this little demon, I find myself firmly in the creative zone. I feel comfortable, content. My cigar’s almost done and I’ll go back inside, but I feel content. I feel good, even.
And what better outcome can there be than that? I’ll bang on another short piece for a bit. You’ll probably be able to read it before too long, but hey, maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s not the outcome I need to be searching for. I just need to satisfy my creative side.
So no, it’s not a block, folks. It’s a matter of working on my creative side.
I’m getting there.
School year, that is.
The students at the day gig finished yesterday, and the teachers will wrap up tomorrow. I work all summer, but I’m looking for this year to be much quieter and more productive than last year.
One teacher has been very helpful in helping me push technology into our district, but he’s retired as of tomorrow. As a parting gift, he handed me a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel.
Score. Thanks again, Steve! I owe you a good lunch this Summer, both for this and for all the assists.
Now I’m kicking back on a Whiskey Wednesday with a bourbon and a smoke, reflecting on good times, and getting ready to pound on a short crime piece.
Gotta kick Summer off right.