Thursday, April 30, 2015

On Learning New Skills Like A Boss

I've been reading a lot about real estate lately. Exciting! Action-packed! Adventure!

Ahem.

Anyway.

Occasionally, I get these random obsessions, often enough that I've developed a specific procedure I go through.

Sometimes you just need or want to learn about something and it's so large a topic you have no idea where to start. I suppose you could just find someone who looks like they know what they're doing and then follow them around. You could turn on your expensive cable package, find a channel dedicated to what you're interested in and follow that.

Problem is, if you don't know what you're talking about, people will ignore you, blow you off, or try to sell you on something--sometimes literally, sometimes not. Sometimes the person you ask won't know that much either. Sometimes they're obsessed with some esoteric angle which won't be what you need. Sometimes they're just complete fucking idiots, but you don't know enough to call them on it. You get the idea.

And TV? Don't even get me started. If you took, say, all your investing advice from television, you'd get yourself poor very quickly. Ditto on real estate, I'm finding.

The obvious and loudest places are usually the worst.

So, I start with a book. I Google around, read reviews, find blogs filled with people who don't seem to be assholes and find the most interesting-looking book they recommend.

This is the honeymoon phase.

Read the book. Read the hell out of it. Daydream a lot. Get enough of the basics you don't seem like a complete idiot if you ask questions. Get drunk at the end of the book and dream big about all the awesome shit you're going to do.

Then find another book. This time, a more boring but dense and informative one. While you're doing this, find a community of people to join online. Lurk there. Read the posts. Get a broad smattering of the going concerns. Listen to their thoughts and tribulations. Find out what kind of person you'd have to be do the things you want to do.

After you finish the boring book and lurked a bit, you'll have a better idea if this is something you want to be doing. Maybe weight-lifting is too intense for you. Maybe real estate is too risky. Cooking freshwater fish requires you to make sacrifices to dark gods.

This is the end of the honeymoon phase, in other words. If you're still interested, continue.

The most important part is next: wallowing in the culture like the filthy info-pig that you are.

Participate in the community. Wallow in the media. Read blog posts. Specialize in your topic. Don't be a generalist--specializing lets you develop filters so you can sift out shit you don't need to worry about. This is especially important if you're getting into a very broad topic, like finance. Find some aspect of your new shit which interests you and use that as a launching point for the next step which is...

Do it. After the initial wallowing-in-culture phase, you have to get your hands dirty.

You can read about dirt-biking or adventure travel or whatever, but you're going to get to a point where you'll stop learning things from books and have to apply your knowledge for any of it to make any sense.

After the honeymoon phase is over, and you've made up your mind about doing said new hobby, any more reading is just going to be a form of elaborate daydreaming.

I'm currently in the community-wallowing phase on real estate. I suspect this is why my writing is kind of stalled--my job takes such a huge amount of mental space currently that I don't really have much capacity left over at the end of the week to learn a bunch of new stuff or push my boundaries.

I suspect this will normalize. Either I'll run the numbers, do the research and realize that real estate investing isn't my bag or I'll jump into it, learn the ropes and then hopefully it'll become automatic enough that I can go back to writing regularly.

This is the same pattern as any of my other hobbies. Lifting weights. Investing. Coffee. I learned them all the same way I did above (full disclosure: I have not read any books on coffee). I've also picked up and set down any number of other interests through the same procedure. Swimming, scuba, bear-fighting. Okay, maybe not bear-fighting.

On a smaller scale this is also the same pattern I follow when I need to research something I'm writing. Just dive in and swim around in the discourse. At the very least, doing this will turn you into a trivia god if you go through it enough times.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

On Making Things Hard For Yourself

I have decided what I am going to do this weekend: absolutely nothing.

Much like Peter Gibbons, in fact, from Office Space. I am doing absolutely nothing, but in a studied way. Sometimes when you feel a little undecided and bottle-necked, it pays to just step back, take a breath and then do something else for a while.

Tentative plan is to dive into redrafting Llerg this coming weekend. Maybe I'll even come up with an actual title at some point.

It's funny how you often overthink things and make life far worse than it actually has to be. I had a pretty amusing training moment with my boss a few weeks back to that effect, that I was just making things way too complicated at some tasks, in a way which was making life fairly miserable for me.

So, this is the theme for now. Stepping back and letting life happen at its own pace. Let my subconscious sort shit out, decompress, and hopefully things will fall together and make more sense eventually.

In lieu of actual story-writing progress this week, I'll tell a story instead: the best fiction class I ever took.

This is one of those pivotal moments in life, and, like a lot of pivotal moments, it was one which doesn't precisely make me look like a great person if cast in a certain light. It's one of those stories you throw out there with a slight wince, knowing that a simple Google search by an employer will lead to one of those earnest one-on-one chats where certain probing questions will be asked about capitalized words such as Integrity or Honesty, or what have you.

Let's clear the air before I dive into this: I am excruciatingly honest as a general policy. Probably more than any sane person needs to be. It's easy to say something slightly painful up front than constantly live your life trying to remember all the stories and lies you've made up. Not having to hide things or navigate through a web of lies is worth the discomfort of coming clean. This is true 100% of the time, especially when doing business or establishing long term relationships. If you never lie, then you never have to worry about getting tripped up by a lie.

Got that? Got it.

Back to my story: the best fiction class I ever had.

I had a class in grad school about nonfiction writing. I believe it was more journalism-focused than anything else, because one of the usually-undergrad journalism professors taught it.

He was from the old school. Had a truly impressive mustache back in a time when mustaches were out of style. He was professional and to the point, a ruthless and terrifying dictator of an editor who would call you out on the length of your paragraphs or on your lack of punctuation or for your habit of not using simple and to the point grammatical constructions. He had a hyphenated last name and, in my memory at least, wore bow ties more than your average doctor.

He had that look of someone who was raised in the bull pen, a man who was suckled on newspaper ink, who's written any beat you care to name, whose resume was measured in inches and bylines. He was pretty street.

He would call you out on your bullshit regularly. He assigned long papers with punishing frequency. As the semester wore on, he'd show up for class less and less often. Classes would be short and you got the impression he didn't read your paper so much as threw a dart at a wall full of letters and let the gods decide your grade. But you would always get feedback if you asked for it, and sometimes it would make your ears ring.

One time in class he was served divorce papers. A burly kid with a mohawk knocked at the door with a manila envelope and my professor took off down the hall with the same mien as someone practicing trailer park parkour on Cops. When he came back, he slammed the door behind him, gave us all a hunted look and we didn't see him for two weeks.

I hated him at the time and I hated the class. He was one of the only professors I ever gifted with a one star review during the end of semester evaluation.

But I suspect--after two decades of reflection and growing-the-fuck-up--that he was a damn good teacher, one of the best in the department. He was just Going Through Some Shit. I wish I could go back and bump him up a few stars in my evaluation, or at least take another class with him during a time in which he was in a better place.

The class load, even with an oft-absentee professor was brutal.

He would demand a new article, every week, researched and with interviews. Full length articles, with several interviews with actual people. Anywhere from 8-20 pages.

I was a dirt poor grad student living in a cheap rented box in a bad neighborhood. Two blocks away from a strip club with neighbors who dabbled in drug-dealing and arson. I didn't have many friends and no relatives within easy driving distance. My phone service was abysmal, my energy levels low.

I had a class load so heavy it was measured in megatons. I was teaching two sections of Freshman Comp at the time. If I'm not mistaken, that was the semester I set my office hours at six in the morning because I needed that time to get work done. (Yes, I know. Terrible, right?)

Needless to say, my free time was limited and my social network nearly nonexistent. Asking me to do interviews was a punishing thing to ask: who would I interview? I didn't know anybody. I barely had enough money for gas, and no free time to speak of, so it's not exactly like I could pound the pavement looking for leads. The internet was barely a thing, so it's not like I could just randomly Google leads.

So I would make up interviews. I would invent fictional people for my articles, sometimes at the very last instant. I would write life stories for them, cook up character traits and hobbies and little points of conflict. I would find about the towns in which they lived, gather information to the point I could fool even people I knew who lived there.

And I would write the articles I was assigned. 99% bullshit, yes, but usually pretty entertaining and informative.

Before I started pulling these things out of my ass, I would average a B at best. Once I got comfortable making shit up at the last minute? A's.

It was the best class on fiction-writing I ever took.

Forcing me to write in a journalistic style shook up my technique. Paragraph lengths went down. Sentences got simpler. My writing became more organized. It read better out loud.

And I realized that research improves everything, even fiction-writing.

The need to make a plausible human being up on the spot made me study characterization more closely. As a result my characters became more believable, the dialogue more naturalistic.

Yes, I was cheating, but I was cheating in a way which made me grow.

I suspect my professor knew right away what I was doing. If he were in a better emotional space, he might have sat me down and talked me through things. As it were, everybody in class wound up banding together a bit to help each other out on assignments, as sometimes happens when a professor is absent a lot.

It was good practice. I don't recommend going through a similar situation, but it was definitely a growing moment. Probably the most amount of lying I've ever had to do in a four month period, though.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Missed Deadlines

Well, damn. Life happened and I missed yesterday's post. Early day at work, had a choice between this and waking up twenty minutes earlier and, well, that's the how the flaky bit of confection reduces itself to crumb-shaped chunks. Or something like that.

Funny how quickly and seamlessly arbitrary restrictions creep into your life. Very few people read this blog, because there's, face it, very little reason to do so. It's more something I put out there for my own benefit, that little Doogie Howser-esque moment at the beginning of the day where I write what's on my mind, get a little practice in. Get a load off, so to speak.

Absolutely no consequences to skipping it, other than having less to do in my life.

But it's nice to have these little checkpoints in my week. Little bumps along the rosary of life to remind me that, yes, there is more out there. That I do have other skills than what I put bread on the table with.

So I feel bad when I space out on a deadline that nobody but me knows about. Not because I was raised so incredibly Dutch that even when I have no obligations I invent obligations to feel bad about, but more because it's a bit of routine that I find pleasant which I look forward to, in much the same way that I feel bad when I miss my morning pot of coffee (which I also gave up yesterday for work...and that sucked beyond all possible belief...) or hitting the gym regularly.

So, back on the pony.

I'm a little conflicted about what to do, writing-wise, this weekend. Flash fiction is played out--I think I'm done with that. It's still a little soon to revisit Llerg. I might get started on my next novel or see if there's any short-form fiction that I might try, maybe something out of my comfort zone. I might start another ambitious resolution, because those are great for driving you through the week with purpose. Although at the end of said resolution, you tend to wander around with a PTSD-esque thousand yard stare that you can't quite explain to coworkers and friends without twigging them on to your writing habit.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Short

One of those weekends where I'm short on motivation and energy.

I cranked out a piece of flash fiction, about genetically-engineered dung beetles who'd been abandoned by their human masters as they evolved new and more efficient waste-processing technology. It was mediocre so I'm probably not posting it. One of those things where I wrote it more as a bit of moral victory than out of any particular level of craftmanship.

If anything, the theme of this weekend is pure and utter slack. And I mean that in a J. R. "Bob" Dobbs kind of way.

I watched "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas" on Friday night and then went camping with my attorney. We completely failed to reenact anything from either the film or the book, a fact I am greatly relieved about. Particularly the bit with the ether.

One topic of discussion, as we were strolling by Deep Lake during a spell of unseasonably warm heat, was that modern culture has completely and utterly lost any sort of concept of the value of doing nothing.

People work too long, work way too hard, they go home exhausted and then pursue their leisure with a level of dedication which turns their leisure into something far too much like work.

What's the point?

You need non-time to relax, let your brain decompress, gain perspective. If you don't give yourself a chance to uncoil, you wind up, get tight. After years, like a rusty spring, you lose the ability to unwind or worse, you crack or crumble into bits.

Ridiculous.

There's value in getting bored the old-fashioned way. Just sitting on a hill and watching traffic go by or seeing things in clouds. There's value in not reading a book with any sort of attention, letting the TV play while you completely fail to wash to dishes for an hour too long. Putter more. It makes you looser.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Next Steps

Okay, one more week of fiddling around and then I think I'm going to get back into the brawl.

Still unsure what book I'm going to do next or if I actually want to start another book right now. It might make more sense to go back and redraft the one I just finished on the general theory of striking while the iron's hot.

For one thing, the last book doesn't even have a freaking title yet. I've just been calling it "Llerg's Book."

That's monumentally lazy. I mean, my previous book (and the half book before it) both had titles by the time I finished the rough draft. Or in the case of the book before that, before I spun out halfway through the first draft.

I kind of stink at titles. I'm sure there's some sort of formula that the professionals use. Like, you have your first book actually published by a real publisher and they hand you a little gizmo, a bleeping black box with a crank on one end that you feed your manuscript into. You pull the crank and a little slip of paper comes out the back with the title of your book on it.

I haven't gotten that box yet. Maybe I should check Ebay or something. Of course, being Ebay, you'd get the counterfeit version which only outputs in Engrish, which I'd be fine with.

Anyway. That's what it comes down to. Go back, redraft Llerg's Book, find something to call it, make it better, as much as possible. Rip apart the Cameron story and redo it as an actual story that has protagonists, antagonists and forward plot movement, instead of the seven digits worth of random bloviation.

Or do something else, either from the slush pile or something else completely new. Maybe something that's not even mystery-oriented (gasp!).


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Flash Fiction: The Hammer's Fan Club

Another piece of flash fiction this week. 1000 words or so.

This one wasn't part of any challenge. Instead, I used Wikipedia's random article feature to pull up a story idea. I got this one.

The internet's a pretty strange place, that just about everybody can have their own encyclopedia entry. The discovery led me down a strange train of thought, and this piece came out of that.

It's about the discovery of the galactic internet and what having an exponentially larger contribution size might do to internet flame wars...

Read: The Hammer's Fan Club.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Invisible Walls And The Story Of The Treasure Hunter

A long time ago, I had a friend, Heather. Still do, as a matter of fact. We just haven't stayed in touch that well over the last few years.

She was a complicated sort of person. Imagine me saying "complicated" with a pause and pursing my lips a little.

Very cool, but complained all the time. Made a career out of being artfully unhappy, so we used to refer to her as "The Goth," even though her wardrobe didn't have a whole lot of black in it. If she was the sort of person who got noticed in high school, she'd probably have won the "Most Likely To Kill Herself Tragically By The Age Of Thirty To Make A Point" nomination.

She believed odd things and would get angry with you if you respectfully disagreed. She stopped talking to me for six months because I disagreed with her notion that the Statue of Liberty was black. She may have been right on that point. I was probably messing with her. Who knows?

Anyway.

Anybody who's known The Goth for more than a few years has a million awesome stories about her--she's one of those people who's collected her own personal mythology, much like Batman if Batman was a pretty girl and messed with your head when she was drunk.

My favorite one was the time she hooked up with a treasure hunter and moved to the other side of the country.

The Goth had gone to college. Picked up some advanced degrees in social work. She had the job she went to school for: awesome benefits, job stability like whoa. Worked with troubled youth. This was a salaried career path government job with decades of advancement and possibilities ahead of her. It paid really well, too.

She complained about it all the time. In much the same language she complained about boyfriends, weather, bad music, her fingernails, that guy who did that one thing with that stuff she bought while shopping the other day.

You get the idea. Several years of this.

Suddenly she goes to Florida with a coworker. Comes back, announces she'd met a guy. The guy was a treasure hunter. Seriously, an actual honest to God treasure hunter who dives for pirate gold. He eventually got on a short-lived reality show about people who dive for sunken treasure. It flopped after two episodes.

Heather left her dream job, announced she was moving to the Florida Keys to hook up with this guy.

We laughed. Good lord, we laughed. Ultimate flakiness. More Heather than anything Heather had done previously. We knew it was useless talking her out of it, so we mostly just mocked her mercifully behind her back.

I come in to work the following week, as the carnage was shaking out, and I told the story to one of my friends. My friend cocked her head and said "Aw, that's romantic. More power to her."

I was immediately like, "Nooooo, it's a bad idea. It's terrible because...uh...because..."

And then I thought about it, objectively, from her framework.

A career doing things she hates, in an endless state of being comfortably miserable. The winters in Michigan are dreadful, particularly in those parts--cold, gray, slushy and miserable much of the year. She'd been through a string of dead-end relationships. Her coworkers were everything you're afraid government job coworkers might be (for the most part). Her job was depressing, dealing with horribly broken families. It was grinding her down.

Rebooting her life wasn't the worst idea.

I dropped my finger, told my friend I'd think it over.

Seven years or so later, she's still with the pirate hunter, except they're now in a rather pretty part of California. Sure, she spent some time in the Florida Keys, working terrible low-paying jobs, but she's back on her career track and spends much of her free time (of which she seems to have a lot) hiking around in achingly-beautiful scenery.

It was an absolutely daft idea which made no sense at all to anybody who didn't know her.

Thing is, sometimes those are exactly the sorts of things you have to do. We build up these barriers in our heads, get used to the arbitrary barriers in our lives.

We make up stories about what would happen if we change the most minor things, expect everybody to be mortified if we do something different. Maybe they'll judge us. I get that new haircut, or whatever, and they'll point and laugh at me all day long.

Thing is, it doesn't matter. Sometimes you just have to do the thing your gut is telling you to do, for bizarre and hard-to-express reasons which feel right.

Last year, I found myself suddenly between jobs. So I just picked up and went to Asia for two weeks, to visit a friend I hadn't seen in twenty years. No warning. Most people who knew me found out because my Facebook updates just got really weird all of a sudden.

It was random, looked like it was horribly expensive (it actually wasn't) and made no damn sense. I wasn't even employed then.

Thing is, I save like a mofo during the best of times and I had several months of severance owed me from my previous job. I needed the trip, emotionally, to clear the waters of being laid off. I wanted to remember that year decades from now as "the year I got a better job and traveled a lot" instead of "the year I lost my job and played a lot of Skyrim." So, I just did it.

It was fucking terrifying. First time out of the country, particularly in parts of the world where English isn't necessarily a thing? Good lord. Even when I was there, I was on my own a lot. I had to figure out what to do, where to go, how to do it. Explore new places. Holy shit. I still get stressed out thinking about it.

But it was worth it. Pushed me out my comfort zone in many ways. When I went back to work on my current job, I think my experiences travelling overseas prepared me for many challenges.

I've been thinking about investing in real estate lately, which is what made me think of this post. It's unprecedented. I've told many people, many times, that I think home ownership is a lousy idea (for me, it still is), but rental property? The math is compelling.

It's a new thing. I'm going to have to learn a lot--I'm still in the "reading a hell of a lot about it" phase, but I think that's the next step. Maybe I should go find myself a treasure hunter to fall for while I'm at it.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Flash Fiction: Captain Reptile Takes A Break

Decided to write a piece of flash fiction this week. As usual, I headed over to Chuck Wendig's backyard to see what he had to offer.

Today's challenge:

1000 words, based on an image chosen randomly from the comments section. A bit of superhero fiction about bureaucracy and being stuck in a rut.

Read: Captain Reptile Takes A Break.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Wot I Learned Going From 15 Minutes Of Meditation A Day To 30

I've written before on this blog that I practice daily meditation. Nothing fancy. Not doing it to gain mystical powers or turn into Buddha or something. I just find it makes it easier to approach and deal with life. Sometimes I let it go for a few months, but usually I practice daily. It's a centering point in my routine, much like that first pot of coffee or your morning commute.

Up until the beginning of the year, I did fifteen minutes at a time. I'd always finish up with a vague feeling it wasn't quite enough. My brain could be more settled. I could be more relaxed, that kind of thing.

So I decided to ramp up to a full half hour. This is what I learned.

0. Meditation? What's that?


1. Positioning is key.

I tend to meditate in a kneeling position because the various lotus positions make me feel silly. Kneeling is how I learned it and it's the one I'm most comfortable with.

For the most part, you should just go with what feels right. So long as your spine is straight, you don't feel completely ridiculous while doing it and you're not in danger of falling over or asleep, it really doesn't matter. Some people meditate while walking or sitting in a chair, for example.

In my case, kneeling was fine for fifteen minute stretches. I'd take a couch pillow and put it behind my knees to raise my butt up a bit so my ankles didn't go numb, but that was all I needed.

Not so much in half hour stretches--I wound up upgrading to a buckwheat-filled meditation pillow, which has more vertical lift and support. Much better.

It's not quite enough, though, so I've been mulling over getting a cushion to sit on. I find myself shifting around during the halfway point because my feet still get numb. It's a process. I most likely will simply have to gut it out and get used to it.

2. Meditation Is Not Exercise

There's a temptation to treat meditation like, say, running for distance. You'd think that going ten minutes is twice as good as going for five. It's not quite that simple.

When I began to ramp up my meditation length, I decided to add five minutes to each session, taking a week to get used to each length.

I probably shouldn't have bothered. If you can sit and clear your thoughts for fifteen minutes, then a half hour really isn't that much more. It doesn't feel noticeably longer while you're doing it.

I was approaching this as if meditation were an activity with a directly-correlated result, like lifting weights or walking. It isn't. Time spent meditating is either sufficient for your needs and emotional space or it isn't. It really is that simple. Take however much or as little fits into your schedule and needs.

3. Your Brain Will Hate You And That's Okay

When I was doing fifteen minutes, I'd notice my thoughts would usually be pretty squirrely for about ten minutes and then would settle down for the last five and be tranquil. I'd walk out of the session feeling like if only I could sit five more minutes, I'd spend five more minutes in that tranquil, centered state.

Boy, was I wrong.

Instead I find it goes in waves. Squirrely. Calm. Squirrely. Calm. I thought there was something wrong with what I was doing, that I was approaching it the wrong way. Maybe I needed to learn a new breathing technique.

After some time, though, I realized that's exactly what it's all about. The main takeaway from meditation is that it's the ultimate non-activity. You don't have a goal other than it's a good habit to get into. You don't have milestones. You can't meter it.

You simply sit and practice transitioning into a state of mindfulness. And if your brain is making noise? That's part of it, too. Just observe, be grateful you noticed your brain is being a little hyper and then clear the thoughts away. Ad infinitum.

There's a certain Western tendency to overthink activities and occasionally I have to stop bringing that mindset into my meditation practices. There's no progress in meditation, per se. No ultimate goals or milestones. Just that simple act of clearing time out of your day and being in the moment.

Meditation, at least for me, is the ultimate non-metered, unstructured place. All that stuff, all that noise and clutter and hurly-burly of practical adulthood? It has no business within the time I've set aside for sitting in mindfulness. There really is nothing more to it than what I bring with me.

4. The Benefits Are Still Hard To Quantify

Regular meditation doesn't really give you any specific benefits you can point your finger at. At least not in specific terms.

What I mean is, I can't say anything like "Well, I now have a five hundred pound deadlift." Or "I wrote an entire book of haiku."

But I can say that I definitely feel more centered and resistant to stress. My skin is thicker and I don't really procrastinate as much anymore. How much? Hard to say. Better than when I was going for fifteen minute chunks? Yes.

But I do know that I'm highly resistant to giving it up, so I'll stick with it for now. It's hard to chisel that time out in the morning, but definitely worthwhile.