Thursday, July 31, 2014

Nightmares

I used to have a lot of nightmares about tornadoes, probably because I nearly saw one as a kid.

Something about the weather that humid day back in '79, the way the air turned green and thick, how the rain came in sideways, flipping the leaves in a way leaves probably shouldn't flip, the way the adults around me looked--worried that some random-ass act of God would roll along and ruin their collective shit. The sheer weirdness of the atmosphere stuck with me, I guess.

For years afterwards, I'd have regular tornado dreams. They started out pretty standard: I'd be somewhere, doing something, and then I'd spot a tornado on the horizon and spend the rest of the dream trying to get to shelter or rescue friends or whatever.

The dreams were deeply frightening at first. They got progressively less so as I grew older.  Finally, some time in high school, I had a dream where I was chopping wood in the basement and a six foot tall tornado appeared, flipped me around the room a bit and then left. About halfway through, I realized the absurdity of the situation and started to enjoy myself.

The thing is, I realized that tornado dreams were actually pretty damn fun. The challenge of finding shelter became something like the pleasure a lot of people now get anticipating the zombie apocalypse. I think it probably coincided with the first time I saw a tornado documentary on The Learning Channel, back when TLC would actually show things that weren't awful reality shows. Or maybe it's just that weather-watching is actually hella cool.

Naturally, my subconscious almost completely stopped serving them up to me. Whatever deep and buried part of my psyche is related to dishing out anxiety-fueled nightmares decided to move on to other things.

It's that willingness to adjust that always amuses me the most about nightmares. There's a part of my brain, I think, devoted entirely to the need to brood that switches over to nightmares once I lose consciousness at night. If I have some serious shit on my mind, once the lights go out, that shit simply translates to anxiety dreams.

One time I had a dream I was exploring a haunted house. It was seriously creepy shit: witches hanging from the ceiling, giant spiders, hard-to-locate creaks and groans. I was lost and the only thing I could see through the windows were endless lonely corn fields and a wind-torn empty night sky. My subconscious was having a field day.

I got to the end of the dream, just to the point where if this were a movie, you'd get shanked by the final monster. I knew the source of the haunting was in the next room and I steeled myself and went in.

Right about the time I crossed the door I must have woken up a little, because there was a jump scare, my adult-waking-brain said "fuck this, man" and I jumped the monster and started the beat the hell out of it.When I pulled back to catch my breath, I saw that the source of the haunting was...a giant sunflower with beautiful blue eyes and it was crying because I'd hurt it. It's like my brain said to me "look what you've done with your trying to get out of the nightmare...you big meanie. Is this what you wanted?"

Other times, I'll have the usual anxiety dream about missing the school bus, even though that hasn't been a going concern for over two decades for me. I'll wake up, think "crap, the school bus is coming, I'd better get prepared." Then I'll stop, realize that I actually drive places these days and let it go.

Then I'll drive to school, completely relaxed that I didn't have to worry about the bus. Dream over, right? Nope. I'll realize I can't find my locker. Crap. I'll resolve that, logically. Then my dream will inform me I have no idea what my combination was. I'll work my way around that, then realize I can't remember my class schedule.

At that point, I'll wake up a little, remember I'm not a high school student and then the dream will readjust, informing me that I'm teaching a class. I'll say "hell, no" and decide to leave for somewhere cooler. And promptly be unable to find my car.

That's how nightmares tend to work for me these days. No-pants dreams were a thing until I realized I don't care who sees me without pants on. Forgotten-until-the-last-minute exams, haunted houses, tornadoes, none of these things worry me much. It's been a constant arms race with my subconscious to find things to torture me with and it's largely given up over the last few years.

I rarely have nightmares any more. The only ones that ever get to me are the ones where I "wake up" and find that there's a very large spider on my pillow. And even those happen only rarely, because even the nightmare section of my brain realizes that that's dirty pool.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Demographics

And I'm just back from a glorious weekend in the city of Detroit, proud home of Disneyland, the largest used bookstore in Michigan and more potholes per capita than any city outside of Mogadishu.

Seriously, people have run the numbers. It costs roughly $300-400 more per month to keep a car in running condition in Detroit than just about anywhere else. Driving through the city makes me glad that shocks are a thing, because I don't have enough teeth to spare for the conditions of the roads. It can get pretty bad. Every time I venture through, I'm tempted to bring rope and a grappling hook just in case spelunking is required.

I love Detroit. It's simultaneously grand and run-down, like an aged monarch wasting away in exile or a fine vintage wine which has been corked. It's a crazy mix of small-town and big city you won't see anywhere else, an Alice in Wonderland shattered-mirror vision of what would happen if you set the Red Green Show in Chicago. Whenever I drive over, I get out of my car and wind up chatting with complete strangers about whatever. Hell, even the criminals are friendly, even when they're stabbing, raping, murdering and/or lighting you on fire.

It's one of those places which is impossible to defend. It is smelly, gross, crime-ridden, run-down, has horrible infrastructure. Flint and Jackson look superior in comparison. There are places in Detroit which, in a fantasy setting of the variety containing elves and paladins, would be infested with orcs and beholders. It is a wretched hive of scum and villainy and it's pretty great.

It has more ethnic diversity than just about anywhere in the US. You can get food there you simply can't find anywhere else and for rock-bottom prices. The locals are proud and friendly. You could do something new every day for a year and not run out of things to do. The music scene is incredible. It is very easy to get in and out of the city. Plenty of parking. Canada is just across the river if you're inclined and not barred from entry. I could go on for hours, it's awesome.

The reason I was there was for a concert: Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. Both were great. NIN, in particular, blew my damn head off with their badassity. Incredible show.

But one of the primary reasons I like going to big summer concerts is the people watching. Each band has their own demographic and trying to predict what kind of people you'll see is half the fun.

Go to see Slipknot, for example, and you can count on more facial tattoos and fewer teeth per head than, say, a Dweezil Zappa show. Go to see Blue Oyster Cult and you will feel young and pretty. Go to The Dead Milkmen and you'll see lots of middle-aged IT folk. And so on.

I'm always interested in what kind of people show up for these things, what kind of people fill up the arena. I pick my seating where I can watch the flow of the crowd more than the bands themselves because, as far as I'm concerned, that's where half the action's at.

When I see big heavy metal shows--Iron Maiden, for example--I'll often see lots of gray-beards, accompanied by their adult children who were raised to love heavy metal. Those children will often have kids with them and the kids themselves will be loving the show. Heavy metal has a pretty solid inter-generational appeal for no reason I've ever been able to fully explain. Maybe it's because at any given time there's a great deal of variety in the genre, but with strong continuity with older acts. You get into metal because of, say, As I Lay Dying, and they call back to Sabbath, which you check out and find yourself enjoying.

Families are raised in metal more than any other type of music. My nieces, for example, could sing along with Megadeth before they were four. It's not as uncommon as you might think.

The Nine Inch Nails crowd...not so much. I made a crack earlier that week about how the audience was probably going to be aging goth cougars and I was mostly correct. The crowd skewed heavily white, forty years old, give or take five years and varying degrees of swarthiness. Lots of semi-nudity and fishnets, mostly people who peaked in coolness around 1995.

What struck me the most was the lack of variation in ages. No children. Not many very old people. Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden aren't really being passed on to a younger generation. It's a little startling that Iron Maiden, for example, will be regarded in twenty years much like we think of Zeppelin now: something of a cultural fixture which can be appreciated by a broad audience. Nine Inch Nails, however? Old people music, like Pat Boone twenty years ago.

I suppose it happens to every generation. Nobody in the 50's thought their rock 'n' roll was going to acquire the thick layer of greasy baby boomer kitsch that it did. Strawberry Alarm Clock was probably revelatory and not a punchline at all back in the 60's. The Village People pushed all sorts of boundaries, I guess. I suppose I'd better start bracing myself now for the fact that 90's industrial is going to be fodder for the dentures and hip surgery set sooner than I think.

Not much writing happened this weekend. I managed to crank out some words on Friday before I left and I pounded out this blog post today, but yesterday was spent getting a contact high at a very large concert, visiting an enormous used book store and bopping around the dirty D, getting in trouble.

Totals:  761, 666, 906, 1144, 695, n/a, and 963.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Finish Line

I've been chatting with a coworker lately about fitness and diet. Her approach has been pretty gung ho so far: juice diets and four hour death march cardio and resistance-training sessions. Hard-core to the point that Navy SEALS drop out like flies during her routine, calling her a mad woman. NASA engineers probably have her workout clothes wired so they can develop better materials for space-flights.

Never mind that she looks pretty great already and it's probably a needless amount of pain and misery. She's kicking herself into gear and there's nothing wrong with that as long as nobody gets hurt and there's no UN interventions necessary.

It's a pretty common approach to getting back in shape and usually almost entirely wrong. Not in the specific details--everything looks fine on paper, the workouts are good, the diet works just fine even if it's rather extreme. Her approach makes a lot of sense. It's mostly wrong in degree and magnitude.

The problem is that going balls deep into a problem is not a long-term plan. It's something you do every once in a while as a change or a personal challenge. It's definitely not something you want to do every day: your resources are fairly limited. You can only recover from so much stress, even if it's the cool kind which makes you stronger.

Willpower itself is a limited resource--usually the average person can follow an extremely inconveniencing resolution for a week or two before it gets untenable.

You have to strike a balance. If you make yourself dread the things you have to do the next day, you're not going to follow through on them. You'll go off the rails, a bit. Then, once you've given yourself permission to go off the rails a bit, you're going to go off the rails a lot. It's just how we're wired.

Any change worth making is worth planning for over the long haul. If you're not happy with your shape, then do a little bit of work every day for a very long period of time. Not enough on any given day that you hate yourself and life, but enough to nudge the drifting iceberg that is your life into a new direction. Find habits that are acceptable, that remove you having to make conscious choices to follow them. If they're actually fun, something you look forward to, so much the better.

For example: I tend to schedule my workouts to last less than an hour, and that's including time spent changing clothes. When I head out to work in the morning, I pack a gym bag so I can hit the gym on the way back from work. This is because I know that if I have to stop home for my gym clothes, that's one more excuse I have to not exercise. Once my ass hits that couch, it ain't getting back up, folks.

When I do exercise, I keep a short list of important exercises to get through and then there's optional stuff at the end that I can hit if I'm in the mood, which I usually am. But even if I have a bad day and I'm hurting or sore or tired, I know that I can go to the gym, just bang out something quick, leave and still feel like I've made progress.

If the weather's nice and I haven't run yesterday, and I have a spare hour, I'll go for a run. No big deal. I don't track mileage or time, I'm simply out there enjoying fresh air and people-watching.

I handle my diet in a similar way: I shop on Sundays when I'm feeling more responsible than usual--Sundays have always been the days I handle random chores and adult stuff. I have no idea why, that's just the way I've always done it. When I grocery shop on a Sunday, I just tend to buy less junk. Less junk in the apartment means I cook more, eat healthier. If I have healthy food available, I tend to resort to restaurants much less, which is cheaper and better for my body fat ratio and ability to fit into my pants in general.

The difference between this and a more gung-ho approach, if you look closely, is that all my fitness/diet routine revolves around very minor cues: keep workouts short. Don't buy junk food, or at least don't keep it in the apartment. Don't get stressed about routines, just do a bit every day or so. Be honest about energy levels and build in points where it's okay to ditch out and take a mental health break. Don't sweat the small stuff.

This is entirely opposite to what you see about fitness in the media.

We live in a pretty goal-oriented society.

When you see people get into shape on television, it's usually part of a montage these days. You never see the day-to-day stuff. It's all part of a challenge, or a contest. People beat themselves flat and come out five minutes later totally buff.

I blame Rocky for this one. It inspired an entire generation to have the attitude that all it takes to really get results is to kick your ass into gear just one time, man. Success is something you can get if you put yourself through several short weeks of misery and then you've won the game and don't have to think about it any more.

Most of the fitness industry these days is geared for this shit: P90X, for example. Get buff in 90 days of total hell. Every office has a weight-loss competition. The Biggest Loser is pretty highly rated and has spawned a ton of imitators.

Problem is, there are some things in life that just don't lend themselves to finish lines. I'm not going to say this is the reason why America's fat. It isn't, but it does contribute to the problem. A lot of peoples' only exposure to how fitness training and diet works is through television and other popular media.

So you get people who have no idea where to start--who've not had any sort of exposure to proper diet and training--go to the first place they see...let's call it television...and the only thing they have are things like the Biggest Loser. They give what they see on TV a shot without realizing that it's entertainment at best, and they fail miserably. Just crater.

You can't really base a major life change around montages. It's all about small daily changes that won't make you miserable over the long run but add up after a while.

Speaking of finish lines, I've definitely got a second wind about the book. Okay, probably a third, fourth or fifth wind. Whatever. Going pretty well. Current section is pretty entertaining. I might just finish this damn thing after all.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Fiction: To Serve The Unservable

And here's my makeup story for last week, a fun little piece in answer to Wendig's current flash fiction challenge, which is to mash up superheroes with one other random genre.

I chose legal work and then promptly ran WAY the hell over the suggested length. On the other hand, 1974 words is a strange coincidence--that's my birth year. It MEANS SOMETHING, MAN.

This was an entertaining story to write. I've always wanted a chance to draw upon more of the weird people I know in real life and this gave me a chance. No, I don't know any superheroes or villains. I do know several professional wrestlers, though, which are even better. Anything I wrote about superheroes in this story applies just as equally to pro wrestlers. They're an odd group of people, to say the least. Whenever I go to a party they throw, I want to bring a notebook and just jot down observations.

Edit: this week's word totals are...785, 760, 630, 1040, 654, 731 and 1188. Damn good progress on the book this week. I'm going to be very, very happy to stick a fork in it and move on to another project, hopefully one that moves more quickly.

Read: To Serve The Unservable

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Ill-conceived Cyberpunk

Writing about freezer poetry last week jogged loose a few memories. Granted, I burned all those things years ago, in a last-ditch effort to save humanity from the awfulness of my 20's-era writing. I didn't save very much from that time at all. Certainly not my poetry--I am to poetry as a chimpanzee is to fine calligraphic instruments.

I do remember some of the ideas I had for fiction, though.

It's hard to define exactly what your worst idea ever was. The selection criteria has to be precise. Sure, all those stories you wrote when you were a teenager ("WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF I WAS THOR AND I COULD CONVINCE SUZY TO PAY ATTENTION TO ME") might qualify, but everybody has those, all the time. Stupid Suzy.

There are also those not-quite-there ideas. That's probably a blog entry in and of itself. Those ideas which, on the surface, seem entirely workable. They're always in the back of your head, waiting to eat your brain and waste your time. You THINK a series of novels set in a world where elephants have rocket trunks and chainsaw feet might work pretty damn well, but every time you sit down it leads you down a path of twisting logic and plot impossibilities ("BUT HOW WILL ARTEMIS PACHYDERM TIE HIS SHOELACES WITH BUZZSAW FINGERS?!").

But, no. At least those have enough of an intriguing seed to them that you keep coming back to chew your way through the logic.

I think the key element to a Worst Idea Of All Time has to be the ratio between how awful the idea is years later and how enthusiastic you were about it at the time.

My worst idea ever is one I came up with while I was in college. At the time, I had a job manning the security desk at the library. It was pretty great: 20 hours per week, $4.35 per hour. All I had to do was wear a rather smelly red sweater with the university logo on it and stay awake through a four hour shift. Occasionally, an alarm would go off and I'd have to recover a book from a sheepish patron. More often than not, it was a videocassette. The local video store off campus used similar technology to us and would trigger some false alarms.

Mostly, though, I just sat and read. Did a lot of homework. Talked to some interesting people. Daydreamed.

And I came up with lousy ideas for stories.

Near the end of my duration as a student, after I started taking writing classes, I developed an interest in writing short fiction instead of bad novels or role-playing games. It happens to us all, I guess. I also wrote a lot of poetry at the time, some of it bad, some of it all right. The peak of my freezer poetry phase wouldn't take place until a couple of years later when I graduated and got a terrible summer job.

I decided I wanted to write a story, maybe something I could blow up into a novel later on.

Now, remember, I was into gaming and this was the early 90's, when cyberpunk was still slightly big. The future was just around the bend and there was this palpable sense that all of this computer technology would blow up in a big way, but the future, as it is wont to do, was impenetrable and impossible to predict. Could be good, could be bad, who knows.

My idea was a story about the "blood chip." It was a virtual reality thing where people would get murdered while a computer recorded the sensory inputs of the participants' brains: killers, victims, bystanders, whatever. Then you'd sell the recording and some chip-junkie would get massive thrills from the adrenaline rush or, uh, the vividness of the something-or-other. Faces of Death for real but IN YOUR FACE, MAN. The ultimate thrill, right?

It's about as 90's an idea as you can get. At the time, I was like "hell, yeah!" Fist-pumping enthusiasm.

If you've watched any sort of television and straight-to-video sci-fi movies or whatever from the 90's, you probably rolled your eyes so hard at the idea you're now looking at the back of your head from the inside.

It's that awful thing that any 90's TV show did when they ran out of steam. X-Files had one, I think. I know Stargate (not actually a 90's TV show, I know, bear with me) and maybe Star Trek: TNG did it. There were an absolute shit-ton of straight-to-video movies about it, if you're willing to dig into the ass-end of crap cinema. I think half of them had Don Wilson in a starring role.

If I ever got super nostalgic and did a fake 90's sci-fi show, this would be episode numero uno.

I mean, think about it. It's an incredible amount of infrastructure just to produce something that would get you instantly nailed by law enforcement. A brain tape recording would be evidence so solid a prosecutor would get a wet dream just thinking about it.

And that's just the crap-tip of the shit-iceberg of reasons why it's a lousy idea for a story. It's a lurid idea, yes, like any of the plot seeds for classic pulp are, but not in any sort of appealing way.

And that's really the true reason why it was a crap idea. Like a lot of young science fiction fans, I'd blown it up into a huge thing, but with absolutely no character or thematic work. It was a fetishistic excursion into setting, like a young George Lucas writing up a five-hundred page treatment of how lightsabers looked and worked without actually mentioning any of the characters in his movie or sort of conflict.

I put a huge amount of work into that idea and the REST of the story wasn't anything more than "BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, TRENCH COATS AND GUNS AND MAYBE A GIRL SOMEWHERE."

So there you go. My worst story idea ever. And the thing is, there's still an inner 19 year old Mike who just high-fived an even-more-inner 18 year old Mike and is pestering me to use it somewhere as an "homage" or something.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Inconsequentia

Trying to do a short story week now was rather ambitious and I should have known better.

My parents were here over the weekend and I spent most of the time acting as a tour guide, which was a weirdly exhausting activity. I feel like I've done daily marathons for the last three or four days or spent several hours crushing logs with my forehead. Insult to injury, a bee stung me on the way back home when I was scratching my butt. It no longer hurts, but I feel guilty that I inadvertently pissed someone off so much they killed themselves trying to hurt me. Have I ever mentioned I like bees?

Considering those two--my parents, not my butt or the bee--are both seventy, you'd never think they could run you flat like that. I pointed out as much to them and they both had a good laugh, since they were complaining about me in much the same way. What can I say? When I plan activities, I prefer to plan things that are outside and require a hell of a lot of walking.

I always look forward to their visits, though. One thing I've learned over the years is that nobody in your life will ever be as young as they are now, so smoke 'em while you got 'em.

I use their visits to head to all the places I can't rope friends into going to. Things like museums, uncool activities that wouldn't look great on reality TV and aren't magnets for young, sexy people, places only peripherally related to hobbies of mine but I still find interesting.

For example, we checked out the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan, home of the largest non-David-Copperfield-owned magic souvenir/paraphernalia collection in the western hemisphere. For $5, it's a blast. If you go, make sure you talk to the staff--they are weirdly knowledgeable, hilarious and friendly. You can see all sorts of great things--lots of Houdini and Harry Blackstone artifacts.

So, not much in the well today. I've been sandblasted of all ambitions. I don't even have the usual blog entry material in me. Nothing to add about making coffee, or zen, or why having a ton of stuff is a bad idea, or notions about writing, creativity, the best way to groom a unicorn or whatever the hell it is this blog is about.

My original plan was to do the Wendig flash fiction challenge this week, as usual, because his prompts are usually pretty awesome. Apparently, there's a Twitter bot who gives you randomized equipment lists drawn from classic Infocom text adventure games. It's all brass lanterns, gem-encrusted eggs, bits of fluff and babel fishes.

It's a worthy thing. I loved those games, as difficult and maddening as they could sometimes be. They were all extremely well-written and colorful and HARD. Sometimes punishingly so. I recall one where time in the game passed in real time, EVEN WHEN YOU WEREN'T TYPING.

I even had some preliminary ideas for a story. Edgy things where the interactive fiction plays YOU, man. It would've been epic.

But of course I couldn't get it to work. Twitter and I don't get along, in much the same way that cats and water don't get along. Lots of yowling and mutual ignoring going on whenever an attempt is made.

This is unsurprising. I'm weirdly technophobic for someone who works in IT. I think something about having to deal with it day in and day out in a professional context turns me strangely Amish when I'm not making money from technology. I would live in a teepee if I could get away with it.

And social media is even worse for me. Beyond blogging, basic email and light Facebooking, it's mostly like sandpaper on my brain.

Twitter is a firehose of information and I have mild focus problems. Too much constant information, too quickly. It tickles my ADD, and when I write "ADD", I mean in the wholly jocular undiagnosed sense that people mean when they actually mean "easily bored."

Also, while taking the parents around, we saw a banana truck you could rent for rides. It was pretty cool. The guy who was driving looked about as pissed off as you could possibly be while driving a frelling banana truck. Apparently, a slow weekend. Not many people retain fruit-related transport in the middle of June, I guess.

Totals: 512, 521, 878, 810, 601, 599, 738. Weirdly steady progress.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Freezer Poetry Revisited

There's always an urge to write what's on your mind. You've got something eating at your brain and you've got to get it out on paper, man. The paper is your pedestal; the world is your pulpit. You're telling it like it is, enlightening the world on What's Really Important. You're going to take that stick, by gum, and beat shit up with it. You're on a mission.

This is almost always a terrible idea.

I think I've hit on this topic before in my post on the "power of not giving a shit." I call it "freezer poetry," in reference to the terrible, no-good, very-bad job I had during the summer of '96, where I spent much of my time being broke--physically, financially and emotionally--and mostly just sat around all day watching my life unravel.

I wrote down a lot of things back then which were on my mind. They were uniformly crap. I saved none of it because I burned it all in effigy a few years later when I came to my senses.

Also, I think I wrote it all on an aging Apple IIc and didn't feel like going through the rigmarole of converting from Appleworks on a 5.25" floppy drive to something more contemporary, such as Microsoft Works on 3.5" floppy storage, or whatever format my ancient System 6 Macintosh LC preferred to use.

It was bad, though. Uneven line-break non-rhyming poems written in trochee about the treacly quality of darkness. How life is a never-ending road of pain and heartbreak. Tortured metaphors comparing life in a warehousing job to...something. Just sheer, pants-shittingly awful crap.

The fiction was better, but only barely. It was before the internet really took off, so at the very least I'm spared the shame of cached websites.

Life is always like that, though. There's always something you're brooding over or worrying about or obsessed with. The thing is, writing is not passion. Writing can PRETEND to be passionate, but it is not. Writing thrives on objective decision-making and craft. It is very much a measure-twice/cut-once activity.

When you're in the throes of whatever, you're too close to make objective decisions. You write down all the things you wish you were saying to everyone involved (l'esprit d'escalier). You've got a magpie-eyed attention to detail to all the bits which are standing out to you in in your crack-headed obsession. Maybe you're jacked full of adrenaline. You fist-pump at the end of every sentence. You go on and on about all the bits that your monkey brain is convinced the world should damn well care about.

What you aren't doing is making objective decisions about your audience. You're not being economical with your words. You're pacing your writing to your own emotional needs and no one else's. You're writing to the choir, that imaginary one in your head who cheers you on Jerry Springer-style every time you bang out another line.

You're just too damn close to things.

I constantly try to watch out for these topics. Blog posts on how annoying I think meetings are. Short stories about mid-life crisis-ish topics, such as selling it all and going on permanent vacation, posts raving about whatever thing I've just discovered which I've decided is the new shiny.

Sometimes they slip through anyway. That's okay. You just need to watch out for the warning signs when you're about to shit freezer poetry all over the empty page.

Does this mean you can't write about shit that's important or that you care about? No, not at all. There'd be nothing worth reading if that's the case. You just have to stop and ask yourself about how close you really are to what you're writing.

If this means you just shit out a rough draft and then shelve it for a week so you can pick it up and laugh at how awful it is later, fine. If you have an objective third party who can read it and tell you that maybe you should go back to the drawing board or go for a walk or something, that's also fine.

Me, I try to shoot these things down in the planning phase. If I get an instant sugar rush off of an idea, that sort of instant "HELL, YEAH", that's a sign that maybe I'm a bit too close. If it's just a continuation of what I've been thinking all day, then that's also a sign. I'll write both down in my idea file and revisit them later, but I most assuredly won't blow them up into a full piece until I can view it in a cold Sunday-morning hate-the-world objective frame of mind.

In other news, I think this week is another short story week. Book's going well. I am DEFINITELY running way over word-count-wise and need to reign myself in.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Keystone Habits

I make my bed every morning. I didn't use to. Back when I was a kid, it was something my parents made me do, along with eating breakfast, taking regular showers, brushing my teeth, going to school. The sorts of things kids don't do automatically because they think it's silly or don't see the point.

When I got older, left home, I stopped for a long time because I still didn't see the point. After all, it's kind of silly. Not many people see your bedroom, after all, if you're a social antibutterfly* like me. My friends aren't the sorts of friends who spelunk through the cordoned off rooms of my apartment in my absence. I go on dates over periods best measured by geologic time scales so I don't often have to contend with the girlfriend factor. You can't walk into a crowded room and tell which of the troglodytes within make their beds and which don't.

And even when you do make your bed, you just mess it up the next time you sleep in it. It seems to be an exercise in futility. It's stupid and a waste of time.

The thing is, it isn't. After some time, I learned about keystone habits.

Keystone habits are minor things you can do every day which encourage you to make better decisions later on. In and on themselves, they're pretty trivial. But if you do them regularly, your whole life improves.

Making your bed, for example.

The first thing I do after I wake up (after relieving myself of roughly three quarts of urine, that is) is straighten out my bed. It's something I can do on autopilot these days. While I'm making my bed, it gives me a chance for my brain to wake up. I'll consider what I'm going to do next. Make coffee. Shower. Knock something off my to-do list. Write. Maybe plan ahead to the things I'm going to take care of at work.

If I make my bed, it makes my bedroom neater, more tidy. I'll see a mess on the floor (cast off jeans, socks, whatever) and straighten it out, if only to make the rest of the room as neat as my bed is now. If I've tidied up my bedroom, I'm more likely to pick up other shit around the house later on.

When I go to bed, I see that it's made and it reminds me of everything else that's not quite pleasant I've taken off my list today. Also, I sleep better in a made bed than the rat's nest I used to fall asleep in before I got back into the habit.

That little spark of neatness trickles out to the rest of my life, in other words.

More than that, that little something, that thing you "have to do" first thing in the morning, gets the ball rolling for the rest of the day. You're less likely to procrastinate. If something comes up that you can take care of, quickly, you tend to take care of it rather than putting it off. After all, to paraphrase Mark Twain, if the first thing you do in the morning is eat a live frog, then nothing worse can happen to you that day. It's preparation.

In itself, it's nothing. Easily the least important thing I do every day as part of my routine. It's not like brushing your teeth, for example, which adds years onto your life and vastly improves the quality of your health. It's not even as important as daily meditation or reading something every day, or exercise or laundry or what have you. But if you do that one minor thing, it'll make you 10% more likely to do other, more useful things.

Keystone habits take all sorts of shapes and forms. Not buying much junk food, for example. By not having chips and cookies around, I tend to snack on fruits and vegetables more. I pack my gym bag first thing in the morning, put it right in front of the door so I have to trip over it on the way out. That way I don't forget my gym clothes when I go to work and I'm much more likely to go work out at the end of the day. Things which are kind of silly and minor, but they set you up to make better decisions later on.

Without these things, I go to my default behavior which is largely determined by my stupid monkey brain, the part of my subconscious which hates exercise and healthy food, which has lousy hygiene and wants me to fail at a lot of things. My monkey brain is closely related to the Oatmeal's Blerch.

Keystone habits are sort of like primitive fulcrums. Things which require very little effort which you can do almost on autopilot. They are the equivalent of force multipliers for your lifestyle. It's a very minor thing which has enormous trickle-down effect, like automating your savings contributions or using the magic of compound interest to pay for your retirement. You have a specific trigger situation (roll out of bed), a very little amount of perceived work (takes 30 seconds) and then a long tail afterwords (well, I did THAT, I might as well do THIS).

So make your damn bed.

* A social antibutterfly is the quantum opposite of a social butterfly, a strange creature made of positrons and dark matter, whose very presence can annihilate parties and relationships.

Totals: 759, 863, 615, 515, 1121, 595, and 917. Solid effort.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

One Sane Year

Tomorrow, it'll be one year since I decided I'd had enough of over-drinking.* It feels like yesterday.

I suppose in Internet terms, it's been a year of not-quitting. Or maybe failure. I'm not sure how others keep tally of resolutions dealing with moderation. Is it a constant stream of minor failures or a trickle of almost successes?

We live in a culture of absolutes. Go big or go home, as they probably say on a bumper sticker somewhere, most likely on the back of a big truck in some dustier state more full of corn than Michigan.

Either you give things up, period, full stop, or you don't even bother. Either people have a big house or no house at all. Eat all the food or go on a binge diet using some faddy approach you saw on The View or page 16 of a muscle magazine.

America is profoundly uncomfortable with the concept of moderation, so sometimes I have a hard time explaining—really getting across—where I'm coming from. We're trained to see things as black and white. The concept of "do what you were doing before except maybe 50% of it but forever instead of for a few weeks" is somewhat alien to our mindset.

My problem was never THAT I was drinking, it was HOW I was drinking. It was more approach and degree of extremity rather than whether I fell into category A or category B.

I truly enjoy beer and I like getting buzzed occasionally. The problem was, "occasionally" turned into "frequently" and "buzzed" turned into "blackout drunk" more often than I'd like to admit.

It also doesn't help that my social group, at least for a while, was famously inebriated most of the time. There were very few moderating voices to be heard. Most outsiders would proceed along a fairly predictable trajectory when introduced to us, going from mildly amused, to impressed, to kind of horrified that we drank as much as we did.

Hanging out with my people was a Boston Marathon for your liver. Parties would occasionally be measured in days, as work schedules allowed. If you were around, you were constantly bombarded by calls for shots, beer runs and drinking until you saw the sun set twice in a row.

Combine that with my inherent lack of impulse control and you're not going any place good. When I buy a bag of chips, for example, I tend to finish it, no matter how ambitious said bag's size is compared to my appetite. If I have a great video game I tend to go until exhaustion, if it's compelling enough. If I have a great book, I'll read until I can't read anymore then wake up and continue reading. You get the idea.

I am to binge behavior what Genghis Khan was to kicking ass across vast swaths of Eurasia. It's awful and more than a little embarrassing for a grown adult. Adults are, by definition, supposed to be able to say "enough." To be like the five year old who empties the bag of M&M's and makes himself sick is somewhat humiliating, particularly if you have to explain to a bunch of people that you can't do anything today because of a dreadful hangover. You're supposed to, as a grown-up, know better.

One of the ways I've learned to get around it is to simply ask myself when I'm buying something what I'll FEEL like if I finish off the whole damn thing in one sitting. An entire bag of chips, an entire six-pack of beer. That's usually enough to stop me from buying whatever it is or looking for an option which comes in a smaller package.

The last year has been nothing but learning and relearning habits. Identifying triggers, when I can get away with having a beer or two, when I should pass. It helps that the less I drink, the less I really want to. It also helps that I've become much more of a light-weight. If I drink more than three beers in an evening, I WILL have a hangover, full-stop. I know that and since I hate hangovers down to the very core of my being, it will usually lay a spike strip across any drinking plans I may or may not have.

It was difficult, over the year, to drive home to my friends that I couldn't really allow myself to drink that much any more. I couldn't even tell them I was an alcoholic or anything like that, because I wasn't. I simply felt the constant level of drunk was unhealthy. Physically, emotionally and in a more general lifestyle sense of the word: drinking too much causes a ton of fallout across the rest of your life. Poorly timed hangovers. Risk of drunk-driving. Bad decisions in general. A general feeling of malaise as your body tries to tell you that maybe you're overdoing it.

But after a while, they got it. And I think our level of drinking has also fallen. I don't think it was all due to me, but more of a zeitgeist thing. People started getting more DUI's. A few of us spun off and burnt out into full-blown drinking-Listerine-in-your-aunt's-bathroom terminal alcoholism and subsequently dropped out of the group. Others had kids, moved on. The more of us pulled back on the drinking, the more we realized we could have just as much fun without the sauce. Or at least with a more healthy amount of it.

Two, three beers a week. That's fine. I enjoy good beer far too much to ever stop, but I don't enjoy being drunk or all the other things it entails.

It makes for a lousy resolution, though. American culture thrives on overcoming massive obstacles. You climbed that mountain. You lived a year in a shack in the woods, subsisting solely on grizzly bear shit and sunshine. You lost two hundred pounds. Whatever.

Resolutions of moderation, keeping a lid on bad habits without actually getting rid of said bad habits, are weak sauce. I occasionally find myself at parties, sipping a beer and telling someone that I've given up most of my drinking and they kind of blink at me, confused. I'm drinking now—aren't all drinking-related resolutions supposed to be full-stop-I'm-going-dry-from-now-on-hail-Jesus-praise-the-lord types of things? That's okay, though. My life is a series of corrections and this is just the latest.

One year feels pretty good. The only real problem is that my bottom happened on Fourth of July, which means that I'll probably never be able to drink on the Fourth again, simply out of self-respect and that kind of sucks because it's the perfect summer holiday for a beer or two.

Such is life.

* Technically, I resolved to quit on the fifth, the day after I bottomed out. But the fourth is too good a day to pin my resolution on. Independence Day vs...whatever the fifth is. Poplifugia, according to Wikipedia.