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
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
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
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
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
Too many of my friends lament their age.
I’m not even sure why. I mention some small ailment or injury, and the older guys will say, “Just wait.” They act as if there’s some demon lurking in the background, biding its time until I hit some predetermined age.
Then, it pounces! “Happy birthday! Welcome to hemorrhoids and scoliosis!”
It’s hard to blame those guys. I’ve been on and off statins already. I’ve learned I have a mild food allergy, and I just finished a prescription treatment to clean up my esophagus. I’ve also learned my thyroid has slowed down, a condition I’ve inherited, and now I have to take a pill for it every day for the rest of my life.
As I type this, I’m sitting in a dentist’s office waiting for my kids to have their teeth cleaned. An elderly couple just rolled their even-more-elderly mother in with a wheelchair. It took them five minutes to get her out of the car, and thanks to a rather loud conversation in the lobby, I learned she lives in a nursing home and the dentist is about to yank her remaining teeth.
This is how we picture old age: a slow decline into physical and mental incapacity. To hear most people tell it, this decline starts at age 40.
I haven’t quite hit that mark yet (it’s coming soon), but I just don’t feel it. Are the bumps and bruises and the joint aches from karate a little slower to heal? Sure. But I’m still on the mat doing it. I’m as strong as I’ve ever been—probably stronger—and I’ve completed the Warrior Dash twice. The key word to my statement about statins is I’m off them again because I’ve managed to get the problem under control through exercise.
I often tell my friends to chill, we’re only as old as we feel. They’ll immediately start bitching about back pain or a tricky knee or chronic heartburn or whatever is bothering them at the moment, and they need to slow down and then can’t do this or that anymore.
“Just wait, Mike. Just wait.”
In 1532, most of us would already be dead. Putting aside minor (by today’s standards) illness or infection, the things we’re surviving now as an inconvenience would probably have killed us. A close friend not much older than I has already had a heart attack. Statins, thyroid meds, and insulin? Forget it. Hell, just twenty years ago this food allergy I have would have been misdiagnosed as an ulcer or chronic reflux.
If I’ve still got half a lifetime ahead of me, I’m not going to let some inconvenience slow me down. By 1532 standards, I’m on bonus time. I’m not going to wait for it get worse, I’m going to work with what I’ve got. I plan to still be running kata when I’m 83, not confined to a wheelchair. If some major illness slows me down, then I’ll find some way to work around it, too.
We say life is short and our average life expectancy is approaching 80 years. If we skip out on activities just because it takes a little longer to get the joints warmed up in the morning and we have to take a few pills to regulate one bodily function or another, then why pad out those bonus 40 years anyway? “I can’t run like I used to” doesn’t mean stop doing it.
Our bodies betray us. We know that. Suck it up and move on.
Our school is cutting back on traditional industrial arts programs and pushing more kids into heavier math and science courses, and it bums me out.
Not because math and science aren’t important, mind, but not every kid is looking to go on to college or to become an engineer. Even if that were the case, what good is an engineer who’s never put his hands on a wrench? Would you trust an architect who hasn’t at least framed up a shed?
Adults shouldn’t be afraid to get their hands dirty. There’s satisfaction to be had in a lot of this work, and in many cases it can save a few bucks.
“I’m not good with tools” shouldn’t be an excuse. If you grew up with cartoons, you have a pretty good idea how a hammer works. I’m not saying everyone should be able to turn a beautiful table leg on a lathe (I sure can’t), but hanging a shelf on a wall should be an easy job.
I’ve changed the brake pads on one car and on my motorcycle. I happened to have the tools for those jobs, and it wasn’t bad. All it took was a manual, a YouTube video, and the guts to tackle the job. Labor for things like that? Usually around $85.00/hour.
Car oil & filter changes are so cheap these days it’s worth it to go to a mechanic, especially when they top off fluids and perform other simple services and checks at the same time. However, I think it’s a job every car owner should be able to handle in a pinch. Tire rotations are too time consuming to do on my own (and most dealerships do it for free if you buy your tires there), but I’ve put on several spares. Nobody should have to wait for a tow truck for a flat tire.
Tinkering on the motorcycle is fun. Sometimes the narrow spaces in and around the frame and engine are frustrating, but I’ve swapped the battery, installed battery minder leads, changed the oil and filter, changed the brake fluid, and changed the brake pads, all because taking it to a motorcycle mechanic is inconvenient. Soon I’ll be handling the spark plugs and maybe the spark plug wires. The only thing I’ve paid for is tire swaps and a new chain and sprocket install. I just don’t have the proper tools or environment for those, and if I get them wrong, I could be in a world of hurt.
I first learned to get handsy with a water heater. It had a leaky overflow valve, and someone put a scare into me about possibly cross-threading the new valve and having to replace the whole thing, so I called a plumber. He was at the house for less than 15 minutes. The part? About twenty bucks. The total bill? $90.00.
Never again. When the bottom finally rusted out of that water heater, I purchased and installed the replacement myself. We had a misstep with the flux when we sweated the copper pipes, but one conversation with the owner of the hardware store put us in the right direction. Years later, thanks to that experience I was able to help a friend cut an old, broken water softener out of his water line and sweat new pipe in to close the loop.
In our new place, when the thermocouple quit on the water heater (which it did repeatedly until a recall had me replace the whole burner assembly), I replaced it myself. Not difficult at all. Another friend sweated turning the gas on and off when his thermocouple quit, so he paid a plumber. Once again, small job, big bill.
I’m not saying we should take money out of some working stiff’s pocket. We once had plumbers dig up and replace a sewer line to the tune of $4K because it was too big a job. But I’ve replaced toilets and kitchen & bathroom faucets without batting an eye. I’ve helped a friend install a countertop, and I’ve wrestled with a garbage disposal for an hour until I realized the gasket was upside down. These are sometimes annoying jobs, but they are not difficult or highly technical.
In fact, I think a great number of smaller mechanical, plumbing, and electrical jobs are done simply because the car/homeowner doesn’t want to deal with it. Meanwhile, we probably saved hundreds of dollars across all of those jobs, and the sweat equity and satisfaction made them worthwhile.
I paid out to have a furnace installed and several windows & a door replaced because they’re just too big a job. However, I’ll be tackling a laminate floor and building a soffit in the near future. First time for both, but the flooring just snaps together and I’ve helped with a small drywall job, so I have a pretty good idea what I’m in for. Wish me luck.
Now I include my oldest son in all of these jobs, and sometimes his younger brother, depending upon the job. Heck, the boys installed the last two brackets of my desk because I didn’t feel well. I want them to have the confidence to do some of this stuff on their own when they move out, whether or not they have the opportunity to take a shop class in high school.
And ladies, this applies to you, too. My wife may not have had the muscle to break the lug nuts loose on one of those tire swaps, but I’m sure she could have handled any of these other jobs with the same instructions I looked up.
We’re both looking forward to our daughter learning some of this stuff soon. If she ends up having to change a flat tire while out on a date someday, she’ll know she needs to dump his ass, won’t she?
Next time you have a small job around the house or on your vehicle, ask yourself, “Can I handle this myself?” Then dig in and get your hands dirty.
It’s worth it.
I’m wrapping up vacation from the day job this week. Unfortunately, I’ve spent very little of that time on myself.
Time is free, but it’s priceless. You can’t own it, but you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once you’ve lost it, you can never get it back.
I’m not here to dwell on the negative. Most of the problems I’ve had can be summed up by the simple bad timing of my vacation time. One goal was to relax and take time away from the day job, and that part was mostly successful. The other, which I do want to talk about, is taking another look at my creative time.
For one thing, I often spend a lot of time sweating the time I don’t have. That kind of thinking gets counterproductive fast. So rather than pressuring myself to create create create, I spent mostly-idle time thinking about, well, time.
I did a lot of driving, for example. I did a lot of manual labor, such as housework, helping people move heavy stuff, or lifting weights. I did a lot of cooking, in particular grilling and all the prep work that comes with it. It’s mostly-idle time in the sense that I’m physically engaged, and thus unable to jockey a keyboard, but my mind is free to wander. So, when I wasn’t concentrating on preventing 265 pounds of iron from crushing my sternum to powder, I considered how I could best free up other time to jockey a keyboard.
Workouts are one of the problem areas. A karate workout is constant activity, but weightlifting includes rest periods. My bench and weights are in my office, and it’s convenient to sit in front of the computer during rest. I keep a timer running, but in trying to turn those rest periods into productive time and get something done, I created a monster: I got distracted, and my rest periods were blown. Sessions that should be an hour or less ballooned into long grinds, which are counterproductive in several ways. I need to refocus and bang out the workouts so I have more uninterrupted time afterward.
I decided, during that mostly-idle time, that thinking, plotting, and research is not wasted time. It’s not as productive as cranking out the word count, but it’s still important. I’ve admitted I’m not a seat-of-the-pants writer anymore. Producing a series like The Pack takes more planning. Working on comics means plotting out the beats, the page breaks, the issue/chapter breaks. Putting all those pieces together is not wasted time, so it must count as creative time. Ignoring or skipping that time is foolish.
Next I put some thought into the best uses of my time. Family time is obviously important, as is time with friends. It’s selfish to deny them—and myself—that time. I also spent a lot of time this Spring and early Summer working out with an attack team to help a pair of nidan (second-degree black belt) candidates prepare for their test. I neither regret nor resent that time, but I have to realize next time around that “a couple of extra hours in the dojo” for me also includes a long drive. I alleviated some of that time by hitting a Starbucks to write before or after practice, but the overall time commitment is still there.
In short, I will need to say “no” more often.
I realized, too, that blogging is valuable. Not so much in the sense that it drives sales or interest (it usually doesn’t, especially these days), but in the way it affects my mood. I like the journaling aspect of it, and it helps both my mood and mindset. I haven’t made near enough time for the blog these past few months, and while it hasn’t affected my page counts and other minutiae a lick, it has negatively affected my mood. Ideally, I’ll blather on like this more often in the future.
The vacation has also allowed me take a good, hard look at my routine. In removing the day job from the equation, I can see where I spend the rest of my time.
My morning routine has become a time suck. I roll out of bed and into the computer chair, which started with productive time but lately has become idle time. My inbox and social accounts were busy following the release of Lie with the Dead, but that’s died down. I also have to take a new pill every morning (more on that in another post) and I can’t eat for an hour, which compounded things by making me to feel like my morning’s on hold. I need to revamp that shit, and I need to work with that stupid pill, not against it.
Next I need to do another culling of my RSS feeds. Reading and researching is great when I’m waiting for a software install or virus scan or hard rive restore at work, but there’s no reason to keep up with all that crap the rest of the time. I’ve developed this weird anxiety over unread feeds, and it’s stupid. I’d get home from an event with the kids and look for some relaxing downtime, but what should be at most ten to fifteen minutes of surfing quickly becomes a major time sink. My delete button is my sword to battle the Feedly demons.
The good news is I resisted the television trap this week. Those new episodes of Hemlock Grove aren’t going anywhere. I finally have access to the HBO back catalog thanks to Amazon Prime, but I don’t feel the need to shotgun seasons at a time of Oz or The Sopranos. Cutting the cord continues to be one of the better decisions I’ve made in recent years.
Last but far from least, I’ve dumped the guilt. I still love writing, but I’m extremely busy. Yes, it’s damned difficult to make time to write, but it’s also not doing me any good to hate myself for not doing it. It’s even worse to hate the act of writing for my lack of time. This revelation (decision?) alone may be the most important difference moving forward.
I started my vacation in a foul mood, but in the end I was able to accomplish exactly what a vacation is meant for: I hit the reset button. I didn’t take a trip, I didn’t do anything fancy, I just used the vacation to reflect and analyze my time.
If you’re having the same problems, I suggest you take your own vacation. It will pay off.
It’s been a while since a cigar kicked my ass, and the Uranium from Foundry’s Compounds, Elements, & Musings line came pretty close.
The CE&M line is Foundry’s small batch, a mix of blends that will even vary within the same box. My guess is the names are all about the size and shape of the cigars first, and then the design of their boxes and bands. There were a few different Foundry options in the humidor I shopped, and I opted for the Uranium mostly because it was a large cigar (7×70) at a very reasonable price ($7 and change).
Because the blend changes, I can’t be sure what I had in my hand. Near as I can tell from a Google search, it was probably some mix of Honduran, Nicaraguan, or Costa Rican tobaccos. It lit up easy and had a very smooth draw given the size. Whatever the mix, I enjoyed it.
Two-and-a-half hours later, the cigar was still going strong. I finished up my work on the laptop (wrapping the second short story in the The Pack series started with “Bravo Four”), got up, and walked around for a moment. The buzz hit me pretty good, then, and I realized I was flushed and sweating despite a cool breeze outside.
Well done, Foundry. Next time I’ll know to save this one for after a meal. At seven bucks, I’d say this cigar is a steal. I’ve also tried a cigar from their main line, the one that comes with a metal cog around the band, and I thought it was pretty great, too.
Foundry is going to be a line I need to explore in a little more depth before the Compounds, Elements & Musings line disappears. I can’t recommend the Uranium to a rookie, but for experienced smokers looking for some variety, give it a shot.
At least, I’m done identifying as one.
When people ask me what I do, my response is automatic: “I’m the tech director for a school district.” This typically demands explanation, and I tell them, “I run the network and fix the computers.”
Without fail, this leads them to say, “You know, I’m having this problem with my computer…” Then they want to know how to fix their problem. I just don’t have the time, the energy, or the desire to deal with it, even if they wanted to pay me (which they don’t, especially after I tell them my rates). The conversation then ends in disappointment and frustration on both sides.
Instead, I’m going to go with one of two responses, depending upon the situation or the person: “I’m a karate instructor” or “I’m a writer.”
For starters, both are more interesting conversation topics and I can chat about them with a little more passion. Nobody wants to hear about my squashing a bug in our network configuration, but people are more attentive to the martial arts or what I write. On very rare occasions someone will turn their nose up at the mention of horror, but it still trumps their irritation if I assure them it will take a lot longer than five minutes to fix all the problems with their five-year-old Windows laptop that junior loaded with viruses.
I’m also hoping it will be better for my sanity and self image. In karate, I’m not as athletic as some of the teen-aged and twenty-something students at the dojo, and my skills aren’t as polished as those of the black belts with more experience, but it’s been good for me and I know I’ve had a positive influence on a lot of our students. In writing, it will be a good reminder that I need to hit the keyboard that night.
Finally, both conversations have a better shot at putting money in my pocket, especially over time. If I tell them I write, then maybe, just maybe, they’ll actually buy something (at the very least I can point them to a freebie). If I tell them I’m a martial arts instructor, then maybe, just maybe, they want to do something to improve their own fitness or learn self defense, or they have kids or know someone with kids they can send my way.
If they press and ask me what actually pays the bills (this usually happens at the dojo), then I can say I work for a school district. What do I do? “I teach the students to use Google Apps” (true) or “I help the teachers integrate technology into their classrooms” (also true). They can assume fixing the computers is someone else’s problem.
So goodbye, Mike the Tech Guy, long live Mike the Writer slash Martial Artist.
I’ve tinkered with several productivity apps and task managers, but none of them have been as simple and convenient as Todoist. As an added bonus, Todoist has a tracker they call Karma which tells me at a glance when I’ve been slacking or when I’ve been productive.
My initial needs were simple: speed and convenience. As much as I love Evernote, its to-do list functionality is a little clunky. A note can include checkboxes and reminders, but there are few layout options, different projects have to be maintained on different notes, and opening and searching those notes takes some time.
Remember the Milk, Producteev, Google Keep, and a few other apps for manipulating Google Tasks didn’t quite cut it, either. They were simple but still a little clunky, especially for managing future tasks, deadlines, or tasks in different projects (or some combination of those).
Todoist, meanwhile, hooked me quick. First and foremost, it has a clean, simple design accessible with a single click of an app or as soon as I fire up the website. I can see all of the day’s tasks at a glance, as well as those for the next seven days and anything already overdue. There’s a daily digest email available for planning, and every day at 9am I get a summary of the day’s tasks pushed to my phone.
Adding a task is streamlined over other apps, too. While some of the task managers require filling out a form and saving it, in Todoist it’s just click, type, hit enter. Done. Changing the deadline (which can be as simple as “tomorrow” or “Friday”) or assigning the task to a project is still right there if you don’t want the defaults, of course, but just this simple tweak saves a lot of time, especially while adding tasks on the fly on my smartphone. It’s the first to-do app that really felt mobile for me, rather than just presenting a mobile portal to my data.
Todoist also gives me ubiquitous access. I have the Todoist website open in a browser tab at all times, and it’s always in sync with the Todoist apps on my Android phone and my iPad. There are checkboxes in both locations for completed apps, but a simple swipe completes a task in a mobile app.
Todoist has a more intuitive and flexible way of organizing tasks. Creating Project categories is a snap, labels can be applied with a click, and there are color codes for both. Adding a subtask is as simple as indenting it, almost like an outline or just tabbing over in a document. On the website, tasks can be reorganized by drag and drop.
Need to postpone something? Done with a click. Need to delete a task? Yup, just a click. I can also add notes or upload files for tasks. I’ve not uploaded anything, but notes have been helpful from time to time, such as when I need a task that follows up on a conversation or involves a website. I’ve even punched in a line or two of dialog into writing-related tasks.
The only feature I don’t take advantage of is sharing tasks or collaborating with others. It didn’t take me long to throw some money at Todoist for Premium, as it has been especially helpful at the day job.
Which brings me back to Karma. When I complete a task, I get karma points. When I miss a deadline, I start losing karma. Other actions, such as postponing a task, seem to influence karma as well, but the deadlines are the most obvious influence.
Karma and deadlines keep me honest. When I blow a deadline, I know where I’ve been slacking. When my karma graph flatlines—or worse, it drops—I know I’ve been really slacking. And when a task says 83 days overdue (which one of my two overdue tasks says), I know I’ve just completely dropped the ball.
This has been a huge benefit at the day job. I have all of my own day-to-day tasks, but I’m also helpdesk so I juggle a lot of other tasks for a lot of other people. Add to that my tendency to see something shiny and go off-task, or to procrastinate and forget about things, and a good to-do manager is a must.
I also use it for daily reminders at home or for family, for things I have to do for karate (whether for myself or for the class I run now), for a side job I have teaching technology to elementary students, and, yes, for writing projects.
On the writing side, it’s been a huge help in prioritizing and planning. It motivates me when I see those looming deadlines. The karma hit is a nice kick in the ass if I blow a deadline, but it also helps me reassess things when I know I’m getting too ambitious in scheduling things. I can leave deadlines open-ended for non-critical tasks, and bump things up after conversations with editors.
Overall it’s been a very helpful tool, and among the first apps I loaded when I changed phones. I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a to-do manager.
And now I can tick writing this blog post off my task list.
Lenore’s front brakes began to squeal at the end of the last riding season. I thought about taking her to a mechanic, but I knew that could get expensive, depending upon the problem. I mulled it over all Winter, and finally decided to man up and tackle it myself.
After a little research, I knew it had to be bad brake pads or it was time to bleed the brake line. One surf through Amazon and I had pads on the way for under twelve bucks, shipped. Tell me I can make that happen through a mechanic!
Shortly after that I picked up some DOT4 brake fluid for around five bucks and two lengths of plastic tubing for a buck and a half. Tuesday afternoon, my eldest son and I went to work.
The old brake pads were definitely shot. I couldn’t tell how much pad they had left before removing them because I didn’t know what I was looking at. Once I got them off the caliper, I could see they were just about down to bare metal.
We inserted the new brake pads, then we bled the brake line. All in all a piece of cake, and I love that the bike came with all of the tools we needed. My son even learned a few things in the process, and for once it was more than just creative cussing.
I took her for a test drive that night. Brakes worked like a champ! Less than twenty bucks and I’m back on the road. Next up she’ll get a bath, a fresh coat of chain lube, and an oil change, and all will be right with the world.
Now the weather just needs to behave.
Ah, modern medicine. Got a problem with your gut? Just run a camera down there and see what’s up.
That’s pretty much how it went for me, anyway. I’d been sweating ulcers or a hiatal hernia for a while, so I finally went to see a GI specialist last week. Today, he ran the scope down my throat.
They told me I’d be awake for the procedure, so I’d hoped to get a look at the monitor, see what the doctor sees. What they didn’t tell me until today was part of the cocktail they use to sedate me for the procedure is an amnesia drug.
Sure enough, as far as I know it was lights out. I remember a few seconds of gagging, and telling myself not to fight it. Chances are I couldn’t have moved if I’d wanted to, but next thing I know my doctor and my wife were standing at the foot of my bed.
On the upside, the doc found no evidence of ulcers or hiatal hernia.
On the downside, I get to learn more about something called eosinophilic espohagitis, which is a fancy way of saying I probably have a food allergy. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out what my triggers are. The doc says to avoid processed foods to start with, which is a good idea in general.
At least I have some peace of mind now. Ulcers could have led to surgery, as would a hiatal hernia. There was no talk of strictures or acid reflux scarring, so I’m guessing that’s clear. I’m fortunate, as this is at least the second time I’ve had some weird symptoms pointing to big problems, only to learn it’s actually something minor.
Works for me. Onward to bigger and better things, as I’ve got a race to train for.
Congratulations to Alyn Day and Jack Finley on winning autographed copies of Lie with the Dead as part of my St Jude Warrior promotion! Thanks, Alyn and Jack, for supporting my run and the children of St Jude.
While the drawing is over, I’m still taking donations until the day of the race and would greatly appreciate the extra support. Simply visit my St Jude Warrior page for more information.
Any Warrior Dash participant who raises $300 for St Jude Children’s Research Hospital is eligible for extra privileges including gear check, lunch, and showers. With your help, I was able to take advantage of those privileges in 2012, and I’m hoping to do so again this year.
As an incentive, I’ll be giving away an autographed trade paperback copy of Lie with the Dead. Anyone who donates $5 or more through my St Jude Warrior page will be eligible for the drawing. If we beat the $300 goal by April 15th, I will give away two copies.
The drawing will be held on April 16th.
For more information on St Jude, or to donate, please visit my St Jude Warrior page.
Thank you for supporting the cause, and good luck!
The Pack Book 2: Lie with the Dead is now available in e-book formats, as well as in trade paperback at Barnes & Noble!
Whichever your pleasure, Evileye Books is ready for you. Lie with the Dead is now eligible for the Kindle Matchbook program, so if you purchase (or already purchased) the trade paperback, you can download the Kindle edition at no additional charge.
Winter Kill is also available in trade paperback at Barnes & Noble once more, now with the new cover.
Looking for additional formats or markets? Please let me know and I’ll see if I can’t make it happen.
I was especially pleased to see the reviewer, David Henderson, mention my short story “All Things Through Me”. I felt the art by Mike S Henderson and colors by Jordan Boyd really made me look good, and David agreed:
This is one of the better stories in the collection thanks to the faith the two Mikes have in their story to let it play out how it does and even give it a heartfelt ending.
Score. Thanks for the kind words, David. And thanks once again to our intrepid editor, Rachel Deering, for putting this book together.