WTF and Other Global Bewilderments

I had to expose my bedraggled face here to give a pictorial forum for the initial letters of the three sweatshirt words: WTF. Those letters, in all their Anglo-Saxony brute eloquence, are shorthand approximations of my repeated reaction to the calamities befalling our world.

A tiny virus is killing people in big numbers, the globe is either burning or flooding, one of our esteemed political parties is spilling toxins willy-nilly in their headlong rush to eliminate democracy, there is Afghanistan, Haiti and counting. When on the surface, many of these matters seemed to be trending positively just a few months ago, I cut back on all the doomscrolling through which I’d avoided so much meaningful work over the past year.

But the past month has me doomscrolling the leaden news all the more, ratcheting up anxiety and fear, supplying a fine excuse for not applying myself to deadlines and the doings of the days.

Ugh.

For the two cents of what it’s worth: reading about the world’s horrors and injustices, over and over, isn’t healthy. I do overlook this eventuality now and then, but as I understand it, we are all going to die—who’s responsible for this atrocity? Dying slowly by turning into a jiggle of puddled anxiety has little appeal.

There’s a great scene in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much where Doris Day sings “Que Sera, Sera” as a means of alerting her kidnapped son, eventually saving his life. Doris always frightened me as the presentation of the Perpetual Virgin, but she nails it here. I love the duality of the song: she is directly using it to make a significant difference in her son’s life, yet as the song’s refrain tells us:

Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que sera, sera
What will be, will be

That bit of tautology is likely true. I’m not advocating withdrawal from the world’s troubles, far from it. But rather, to not plunge willy-nilly into that dark pool time and again, without checking its temperature or yours. So, I’m not going to enter consciousness every morning by immersing myself in the news of the day. As the Dylan lyrics go “… every time you turn around
There’s another hard-luck story that you’re gonna hear.”

I’m not going to ignore the world’s ills, but I am going to reinforce some of my habits that promote some resilience: daily meditation, exercise, reading, finding moments to savor, and writing down small gratitudes. And writing in general. (And of course, good cocktails on the weekend.) I very much recommend James Clear’s great Atomic Habits on establishing small habits that can make big changes. Some of the links below address many benefits of those patterns.

So, WTF? In the meantime, wave to the neighbors, pet your cat, make faces at babies, and if you’re lucky, like I often am, take a deep inhale of the smell of fresh-baked bread. And goodness, help your community, your family, and yourself—get vaccinated. Godspeed.

Linkability

Here are a few of my recent (except for an older one I forgot) articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Hawaii: 7 spectacular waterfalls turn the Big Island misty

No travel out of California for me for a year and a half, so Hawaii seemed like heaven. Which it pretty much is. Eight days in the Hilo surrounds on the Big Island, including a lot of tramping about beguiling waterfalls. Published in August 2021 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Scotch and Bourbon: The Essential and the Essence

Scotch and Bourbon—brothers, right? Perhaps, but definitely not twins. This looks at the differences in grains, distilling, proof and aging. Bottoms up. Published in August 2021 on the fine spirits blog known as Flaviar.

Five Ways to Get Splashy in Santa Cruz

It’s no secret: Santa Cruz CA sits preening on the big, blue Pacific. There is lots to do on top of, in and under those waters. Published in June 2021 in the San Jose Mercury News.

The Fictions of Our Minds

Hope this doesn’t read simply as a “woe is me” essay, when the woes of the world now have been legion. Thoughts on whether it’s been worth it pursuing writing for a living (and only catching its tail—or tale—now and then). Published by the fine folks at WriterUnboxed in May 2021.

Living Life (and Finding Life) Through Time’s Long Lens

A guy who is an expert on duck calls, rare palm trees, vintage eyeglasses and vintage birding books happens to be the son of Airstream’s most famous photographer. And he ain’t no slouch in the lens department himself. Published in the Winter 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Other Writer’s Posts

Feeling Stuck? Five Tips for Managing Life Transitions
“And that may be the greatest lesson of all: We control the stories we tell about our transitions. Instead of viewing them as periods we have to grind our way through, we should see them for what they are: healing periods that take the frightened parts of our lives and begin to repair them.”

Don’t Approach Life Like a Picky Eater
“This is an instance of a larger truth: Openness to a wide variety of life experiences, from visiting interesting places to considering unusual political views, brings happiness. ‘Only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible,’ Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet, “will himself sound the depths of his own being.’”

How to Build Resilience in Midlife
“Remember Your Comebacks. When times are tough, we often remind ourselves that other people — like war refugees or a friend with cancer — have it worse. While that may be true, you will get a bigger resilience boost by reminding yourself of the challenges you personally have overcome.”

Micro Habit Stacking: 25 Small Changes To Improve Your Life
“A small action daily is infinitely better and more impactful than a massive change you can’t sustain. It’s also a realistic and attainable way to teach your brain healthy habits.”

Why self-belief is a superpower that can be harnessed
“Research backs up the lesson of this story, that the words you say to yourself shape your confidence and, hence, your performance, no matter how fake or cliched those words might feel.”

10 Simple Practices That Will Help You Get 1% Better Every Single Day
“Reading may be the most accessible tool available to us to help us grow. We can learn from anyone in the world, living or not. We can learn from those who have already achieved what we want to achieve. We can learn from others’ successes and mistakes.”

Help—AI Algorithms Stole My Keyboard!

I have seen the future of writing. And it might not include me, but I can always clean up stray punctuation.

We all know automation is threaded through today’s workforce, from Amazon robots picking your favorite paper towels off shelves in a galaxy far, far away, to artificial intelligence (AI) reading your x-rays with a precision that many radiologists can’t approach.

But we writers thought that soulless machines, bland blocks of code, couldn’t invade the field of creatives. Our work takes a unique combination of insight and awareness, experiment and structure, flash and incubation not afforded to the canned collection of inputs that machine learning extracted from countless texts. Doesn’t it?

Not so fast, me hearties. You may have heard of GPT-3, a language-prediction AI that has devoured mountains of text, fiction and non, so that when fed some kind of text anew, it can draw upon its wide database of how particulars of expression are built, and spit out some new material relevant to the initial input.

This is substantively more clever—and repeatable—than those legendary monkeys finally typing a Shakespeare play after eons of gibberish. But surely the unseen hand here is just dry bones wielding a dull brush, not a vibrant painter of imagery and language? Not exactly. Not Margaret Atwood yet, but if Margaret were a four-year-old today, she might get into weaving as a backup profession.

I had a chance to try a beta of Sudowrite, a creative writing tool based on GPT-3. And the results were intriguing, if not unsettling.

I wrote a couple of goofy paragraphs for Sudo AI to get cooking:

The ogre was moody today. Every one of his horns felt itchy. His mother hadn’t called him in two weeks. His oldest child lit a village on fire yesterday, trying to cook some marshmallows.
But the worst was his painting! All his ideas, bright in the mind, came out derivative and dull. He needed a change.

 
I asked the Wormhole function (which then gives you five paragraphs of distinctly different elaborations on your prompt, trying to harmonize tone, characters and voice) of the software to provide me with some more story strides; I chose one of the five:

Ogre turned to his advisor and asked, “What do you see in my painting?”
The advisor paused in the middle of feeding himself from the tub of acid.
“I see…darkness,” he said, eyes flashing deep within his skull. “I see a tribe of cowards making a garden in a forest. A tribe of cowards—no, it’s actually a tribe of cows. But belligerent cows, with nasty attitudes. I think they are protesting the price of Netflix subscriptions for bovines.

 
I accepted the AI’s first three Wormhole sentences, but then meddled: Sudo gave me a tribe of cowards, but I decided that wasn’t as fanciful as a tribe of belligerent cows, which I edited in. Then I put forth:

The ogre pondered. “Yes, but what does that have to do with me?”

 
My advisor, abandoning caution through the Wormhole, let loose:

The advisor stood on a stool, letting the acid eat from his ripped robe and slippers down to the bone. “You are the darkness in their garden, the anger behind the bovine protest. You are the beast at the doorstep, the teacher that will teach us all lessons. But above all—you are the ooze that will devour this section of the canvas, because no one has made anything creative in ages, and the old ideas stink.”

 
Always good to ponder the words of someone on acid, or someone with acid on them. I agreed and offered my advisor a 10% raise in the story.

The program then suggested that the ogre should fight his oldest child. Here’s part of that:

“Is that wise?” the advisor gagged. “He’s got horns like a gazelle. A merciless killer.”
“If you want me to paint anything worthwhile, I’ll have to win this battle,” the ogre stated.
“Don’t forget my raise.”

 
I should have advised that ogre to never make personnel promises you can’t keep, but too late on the raise.

What if you get bogged down at some plot point? Sudo AI dodges bogs by giving you the Twist function, which supplies you with a number of varying paths. Here are some small excerpts of some twists (the full excerpts are too long for the post):

• The ogre discovers that he’s not an ogre at all; he’s a Tcho-Tcho, a race of dwarves who’ve been living underground the whole time.
• The advisor is the brother, who thinks he is the ogre.
• The king’s brother is really the king’s long-lost son; the advisor is really a demon sent by his father to con the king out of his fortune [Sudo seems to have decided the ogre is a king]

Or left wanting for some piquant spicing, you could choose a word and use the Describe function to elaborate on the selected term. I chose “advisor” here:

• Advisor is a tall man with a tousled beard and approachable smile. His eyes look like a dragon’s—he’s pasty white and jaundiced.
• His breath even carries the smell of old parchment, the stale odor of a library that’s been locked up for decades.

or, with gusto (and a pileus):

• He was a little old man covered in ash and soot, with a wrinkled, crinkled face and skin as taut as a drum. He had a beard of celery, callused hands, and a pileus made of vegetable leaves. He wore plaid clothing from the chest up and straw sandals from the waist down.

If you read the Joanna Penn Sudowrite article linked above, you can see the AI software offers other intriguing story-building functions. That article also looks at some of the broader ramifications and applications of such software. Since the company’s founder is the interviewee, he is judicious with disclaimers about such software “replacing” writers or it being used to flood markets—or at least Amazon—with haphazardly written self-published novels and stories.

I’m agnostic about those matters for now, but in seeing how the program rapidly produced variant story developments and characters in my frothy tale, I sensed both danger and delight. I see how a stuck writer could become unglued by seeing provocative hints on pushing a story forward, or become beguiled by a character trait or behavior they wouldn’t have considered otherwise. And use the suggestions, with modifications. Or none?

Many of the suggestions from software functions were clumsily worded or simply “off,” but many did give me pause to think, “Now that’s a [phrase, character, development, etc.] I wouldn’t have come up with,” or wouldn’t have taken to that degree or style. I should have taken the time to try to write something other than this fanciful tale to see where “serious” writing would go, but my beta ran out before I tried.

Check the software out, if you’re interested. Let me know if this is a great new notion or the downfall of existence. I can fall back on being a bartender if this writing thing doesn’t work out (though I hear that robot bartenders are on the ascendance).

[Author’s Note: All of the manipulated electrons in this post are the handiwork of the writer, other than the specified AI entries. But how can you be sure? Check your pileus.]

To Write, Get Your Mind Right

Me, realizing there are still some cookies left

Ahh, such a breezy, casual time, of jokes among friends, neighborly relations, and genial harmony within and without the nation.

Not.

If you’ve paid attention and swallowed the acid flush of the news over the past year and a half (and some therapists suggest not swallowing), you know there’s no joy in Mudville. Societies can’t patch up their wounds because the bandages never arrived, and the bullets keep flying.

Even though we’re not actually post-pandemic, the malaise that happens after trauma, the numbness that follows shock, the blur in trying to focus—that’s here. That’s real. As with millions of others, my personal losses have been high, and our collective losses only pile on more bodies.

Doesn’t help much with writing. My work over past months, scattered and sputtering, ain’t nothing to holler about. Whimper about, yes.

So I’m not going to get into any elements of writing craft or craftiness in this post, or enumerate my own efforts at climbing publishing’s walls. Instead, I’ll let some publishing curation speak for itself, things I’ve found helpful in my own recent pursuit of peace of mind.

May you be wearing the best roller skates in your own pursuits, and let’s meet at the finish line and have a martini.

Linkability

Here are a few of my recent articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Cocktails During the Pandemic: Bitter and Sweet
Hunkering down with my galpal during the pandemic made for some fancy cocktailing, with wistfulness one of the main mixers. (After reading this again, I don’t like how overwritten the first two paragraphs feel, but it’s out there, now. Good lesson in developing crisper intros.) Published in May 2021 on The Bold Italic.

Whiskey History Revived As Leopold Bros. Goes Old School With 3-Chamber Still
A piece on a Colorado distillery that commissioned a modern still from 19th-century designs that—with great care and attention—produces whiskey with flair and flavor. Published in May 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

How Tiny Ocean Microorganisms Could Kill Your Plastic Fork
I wrote this Popular Mechanics piece about Newlight, an interesting company that “harvests” a plastic-like but organic material, PHB, from microorganisms that consume methane and CO2 and produce the polymer. The material can be shaped into all kinds of things, from straws to sunglasses, and it degrades naturally in the ocean without harm. Their production processes (and every single product path) are all recorded in a blockchain, and it’s all carbon-negative. Published in May 2021 on Popular Mechanics magazine.

Brother’s Bond: Bourbon Is Thicker Than Blood
Who knew that vampires prefer bourbon to blood? The former stars of “The Vampire Diaries,” Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley, make a bourbon. And they are mighty serious about it. Published in April 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Other People’s Posts

The Mental Benefits of Being Terrible at Something
“Vanderbilt makes a compelling case that learning something new has myriad advantages, including promoting the brain’s ability to rewire itself, connecting you to new people and new communities, and reengaging our innate curiosity and open-mindedness.”

6 Principles for Navigating Challenges in Life
“A far better approach is what behavioral scientists call tragic optimism: learning how to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite acknowledging inescapable pain, loss, and suffering.

Laws of Emotional Mastery
“If, for example, you’ve developed a thought habit of believing that anything short of perfection is failure, then you are bound to judge yourself a failure often, thus experiencing psychic pain. Your actual problem is not imperfection—which is merely a condition of all humanity, excepting Beyoncé—but the distorted automatic belief that perfection is the only form of success.”

This New Book Has A Tip That Will Change Your Life
“Selective ignorance is not the avoidance of learning,” Hardy says. “It’s simply the intelligence of knowing that with certain things and people, the juice will never be worth the squeeze. It’s knowing what to avoid.”

Anti-Fragility as We Train Ourselves to Improve
“See opportunities in everything. It’s an anti-fragile idea to take advantage of opportunities. When good opportunities arise, be able to take advantage of them. For training, it’s good to learn to see opportunities to practice in everything, and then take advantage of those practice opportunities as much as we can.”

Are You Pitching and Missing? My Shoplifting Memoir Can’t Steal Enough Interest


Image by U.S. Army Korea (Historical Image Archive). Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s April Fools’ Day—what better time than to tell you the story of a fool?

I have a colorful high school history: besides the standard bushel of bad judgments and emotional flurries of self-absorption and self-loathing, I had an intriguing job: shoplifter. I was never much for regular jobs, then or now, and my shoplifting work basically fell into my lap. Or, more accurately, into my jacket.

I discovered, through trial and error, that I had a knack for stealing things from stores. So much so that I was a happy reseller of all manner of goods—cassette decks (yep, I’m old), 8-track decks (uh-huh, same), records, books, clothes, liquor, cigars, even gasoline, car parts and briefcases —to high school companions. Easy money.

I spent serious hours determining best practices, escape routes if caught, alterations to my clothing to better conceal goods, casing stores, plotting pilfers, and collecting branded bags from stores for later theft in those bags in those stores. I was so enthused about my work that it carried over for a couple of years after high school, including glories like close encounters with the law and a bit of jail time, and a shameful little resurgence in my first year of college. Old habits die hard.

So many were the misadventures that they screamed to be recorded. Since there was nowhere else to go over this past virus-bespattered year, I went to the memory banks. I’d written a couple of essays on my five-fingering over the years, but never the collected tales. Collect them I did (with the help of many cronies from my past, to argue dates and details) and I ended up with 52,000 criminal words in late summer.

Using resources like the Poets and Writers filterable publisher’s databases of small presses and agents, Agent Query, Writer’s Digest, and Twitter, I found agents and publishers who work with memoir, and sent them a query, or proposal or sample material, as dictated by their guidelines. (Reedsy just opened their own searchable literary agent database, but I haven’t used it yet.)

All in all, I harassed 66 of those buggers, and they managed to say no in various ways. The bulk of them by not replying, politely advising on their sites that “if you haven’t heard from us within [6, 12, 18] weeks, we’re not interested.” Others did send replies, mostly form letters, and a few friendlies sent warm, personal letters of regret that my work wasn’t suitable for their list.

Though I’m still within the time boundaries for a few of these lovelies, Route 66 feels like it’s closed down for me, so it’s probably time to pave the self-publishing road again. I’ll likely work with a developmental editor first (making inquiries now), and of course find the right cover designer. I am looking into laying it out in Vellum, which sounds promising.

I originally wrote it in Scrivener, a great program for organizing (and shifting about) chapters and notes. Scrivener does output for print and ebooks, as does the free Reedsy and Draft2Digital for ebooks, but I have had issues with all before (possibly user error) and I am looking for something easy with more power. I hope the links help with your own publishing pursuits.

I might look for marketing help as well (nosing about in that now, since I’m late already), but my budget might not afford a fast carriage with many horses.

The memoir is a reflective work that takes a tangled emotional journey. But it’s funny too, because dribbling new basketballs out of stores is funny. To me, at least. I will likely put out a call soon for readers and potential reviewers, if you’re interested.

In the meantime, keep your hands in your own pockets.

Linkability

Here are a few of my recent articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Brother’s Bond: Bourbon Is Thicker Than Blood

Who knew that vampires prefer bourbon to blood? The former stars of “The Vampire Diaries,” Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley, make a bourbon. And they are mighty serious about it. Published in April 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Bay Area hikes: Devil’s Slide Trail, near Pacifica

The landslides lost are our gain: After many closings of Highway 1 over many years, the old highway was turned into a hiking trail with dazzling ocean views. And then you can go to the Louvre of Taco Bells. Published in March 2021 in the San Jose Mercury News.

The Whiskey Of Pennsylvania Is Something To Take Note Of

Like your whiskey mixed with your history? Here’s a piece of mine on Pennsylvania rye (and though only a bit wry, the article has some deeply distilled history). The first Penn rye guys are from way back and the new craft distillers work from there. (By the way, my suggested headline, “Catchers in the Pennsylvania Rye” was way better.) Published in March 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Other People’s Posts

How to train your brain to be more present
“The value of noticing these thought patterns is that you can intervene. Rather than allowing yourself to follow the track started by the thought that interrupted you, you can refocus yourself on the task you were working on before. In that way, you minimize the influence of these extraneous thoughts.”

The 7 types of rest that every person needs
“Creative rest reawakens the awe and wonder inside each of us. Do you recall the first time you saw the Grand Canyon, the ocean or a waterfall?

The Life Cycle of Thoughts and Why Your Brain Needs a Filter
“Instead of getting bamboozled by whatever pops to mind, reminding ourselves that it is a thought—nothing more, nothing less. When we see a thought for what it is, we are not ensnared by the baggage that typically comes along with it—the drama, glitz, promise, fear, whatever makes it the bright shiny object of the moment.”

This ‘Optimism Training Plan’ Will Improve Your Outlook in Just 5 Days
“The mind can be a junkyard of ideas, as opposed to a center of clarity where you can apply the science of thinking about the future with an optimistic lens.”

How to Effectively XXXX in Your Writing

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

If you use Google Analytics to check out what queens and prime ministers (and bandit-eyed raccoons sniffing the trash) have visited your site, you can discover all manner of stats telling you who found your posts crunchy or crappy, how much time they spent musing over your genius, and if they come back often because you give out free drinks at happy hour.

When you have Google’s tracking code on your site, they also bless you with an emailed monthly report that lets you know that the blog where you posted pictures of the Kardashians mud-wrestling got 1000x more views than the one where you did a mash-up—with you playing all instruments and doing all the voices—of “We Are The World” and “Never Gonna Give You Up.”  There is no accounting for taste.

There’s also no accounting for why a post of mine from 10 years ago regularly gets the most hits on my site. Now my site isn’t like Target when there’s a 3-for-1 sale on toilet paper: I don’t get all that many stampedes here. One issue is that I haven’t been blogging regularly, forgetting to remind people that I’m an avid typist who enjoys almost all the keys (though the circumflex is a bit much). I am going to write more often.

But I’m going to write less often about moaning in your writing. Or my writing. That 10-year-old graybeard of a post I mentioned was titled “How to Effectively Moan in Your Writing.” I didn’t put that as the headline of this post, because I didn’t want yet more queries like “how to write moaning,” and “how to type moans” and “how to describe moaning in writing” to appear as the top searches in my monthly Google tracking, as did last month’s (and the month before, and my goodness on and on). Many other intriguing moan-quest variants grace those reports as well.

Now that infamous post, which is here, probably left these searchers unsatisfied, because it was about my trying to write in a post-surgical murk. For all the thrill-seekers who for 10 years now have been desperately seeking a way to moan in their writing, here:

Uhhhh!
Ooohhhh!
Ahhhhh!
Uh-uh-ohhh!
Eeeehh!

For those alliterative songwriting types, why not try “Eee-eye-eee-eye-ohh”?

I suppose I could start some traffic building by writing posts with headlines like “How to Effectively Shriek When Your Dog Eats Your Wedding Ring in Your Writing,” but that would be pandering. For all those pornographers—er, creative writers—who have sought out my old moan post for clarity on these issues, forgive me. May your moans be answered elsewhere.

Though perhaps I could just put lines like “how to write moans” in every post, and I’d have them lining up at my electronic door. Though it would be more accurate in my case to have “how to moan while you’re writing,” because I do plenty of that.

And yeah, I could just change the subject line on that original post and be done with it, but then I’d be cutting out a colorful selection of my readership, who probably just look at the post and moan, because it’s not what they are looking for. But I do appreciate them stopping by.

Linkability

Here are a few of my recent articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Scuba Volunteers Still There for Monterey Bay Aquarium Animals Amid COVID

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a long history of dedicated volunteerism. The COVID crisis has closed it to the public since last March, but the multitude of animals still need care. See how the dive staff and volunteers keep the lights on. Published in February 2021 by Scuba Diving magazine.

Spirits Of French Lick: Tasting History In The Whiskey

Fascinating interview with an Indiana distiller who is a warehouse’s worth of information on distilling history and practices. For instance, he hunts out old yeasts from long-defunct distilleries to add punch to his whiskies. Published in February 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Trail Mix: San Juan Bautista hike and lunch — distanced but delightful

Goldurnit, traveling is tough these days—lucky there are some places nearby that still hold intrigue. My piece on a hike on a historic trail and lunch and street-hopping in the equally historic Mission town of San Juan Bautista. Published in January 2021 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Acid Rain Isn’t Always What You Think It Is

Woodstock it wasn’t. But they did drop LSD from the sky (with predictable results). My addle-brained account of an infamous 1970 Southern California “Christmas Happening” concert. Published by An Idea on Medium, January 2021.

Other People’s Posts

This 12-Second Trick Trains Your Brain to Be More Positive

“To do this, spend at least 12 seconds recalling a positive memory, image or relationship. Sit with it. Think about all the reasons your brain classifies this memory, image or relationship as something good. Continue to do this any time you feel stressed out or find yourself veering into negative territory. Over time, your brain will train itself to look on the bright side, rather than giving into the negativity of the moment.”

How to be lucky

“You might think of serendipity as passive luck that just happens to you, when actually it’s an active process of spotting and connecting the dots. It is about seeing bridges where others see gaps, and then taking initiative and action(s) to create smart luck.”

How to Create More Clarity in Your Life

“Clarity is a powerful sorting mechanism. It allows us to quickly dismiss that which is irrelevant or harmful.

It’s difficult to become addicted to your social feed when you’re clear about your intentions. It’s difficult to become overwhelmed by media and options when you’re clear about what you’re looking for.”

Stateless

“But there’s another way to approach this: you just do what’s in front of you right now, in the moment. If you’re creating art, you work with what’s in front of you on the canvas, in your heart and mind, and create the art right then. This doesn’t have to be about all art that came before it, and everything else you need to do. It’s just you and this canvas and paint, right now.”

Annus Horribilis: The Toll of 2020

For me, 2020 began in the fall of 2019. Our sweet, crazy kitty, Malibu, with whom we shared companionable company for seven years, disappeared. Not a clear sign of things to come, of course, but it seemed to prime the well of sorrow. Just after Christmas 2019, my old boss, an accomplished skier, skied into a tree and died. From that somber preamble, 2020 unfolded its horrors.

By February, the tentacles of the virus were snaking deep within our shores. In late February, my best friend’s wife Lisa died of pancreatic cancer. Besides being a highly accomplished person, she was a big soul, modest and caring. In June, my mother died. She lived a long life, but the loss was and is a hammer: she was the person who most influenced me to be a writer; she had the rare talent of seeing the good in people and spread her warmth through her life.

More prominent deaths sprinkled throughout the year, some fallen to Covid, some to other ills: Justice Ginsburg, Chadwick Boseman, Alex Trebek, John Prine—the list is long, deep and painful. Just as painful, but out of the spotlight, the thousands—hundreds of thousands—of virus-related deaths in our country and so many more around the world, not helped a whit by the amoral policies of a viciously undemocratic narcissist in the White House.

In October, one of my sister’s close friends, and a friend of mine as well, died. The wife of one of my old pals is dying right now. He was afraid she wouldn’t make Christmas, but their boys were able to come and be there with her, and they were together. For most everyone I know, not being able to be together, because of the cutting scythe of this virus, has made this a year of numbness, and feeling as though an hour were a week, and six months a few days. I’m lucky that my sweetheart Alice has been here with me to share the sorrow and whatever joy we can find.

And, my father—a good man, a good father—died 10 years ago today, so every new year begins with that grey resonance.

My writing was broken this past year too, but I did finish a memoir (out to agents/publishers now) and did publish a batch of articles, as well as sloughed off other writing-related efforts. Because I can slant toward gloom, for some phases of this year I lost hope, but it returned.

I have some vows and plans for the coming year, but in front of those, I simply want to be kind to others and to myself, all of which is hard sometimes.

My best to you and yours in 2021.

Linkability

Here are a few of my recent articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Big Blue Bliss, A Timeless Hawaiian Moment

A moment of clarity and witness at and in the wonder of the natural world. Published by An Idea on Medium, December 2020.

Writing Habits: 9 No-Burnout Practices During a Recession

Ahh, 2020, a vintage year … of anxiety and wretchedness. Writers were not spared. But there are some methods to take some of the pain away, and even brighten your day. Try some! Published in December 2020 on the excellent Make a Living Writing site.

Mark Twain and My Neighbor Swap Books in Heaven

The odd and even tender connections between a dead neighbor, a first-edition Mark Twain short story and a Zen meditation class 40 years ago. Published by An Idea on Medium, November 2020.

Other People’s Posts

33 Things I Stole From People Smarter Than Me

20 Things Most People Learn Too Late In Life

20 Realistic Micro-Habits To Live Better Every Day

How to Stop Constantly Stressing About the Future—And What to Do Instead

Please Add Chocolate Cake to My Apocalypse Order

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels


Samuel Beckett, that existentialist coyote, has a couple of quotes from his stories and plays that are regularly used to shore one’s self up, even if the quotes seem to be wearing black frocks and carrying scythes. There is the pithy “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” which reminds me of the Black Knight in Monty Python’s “In Search of the Holy Grail” who is in a sword fight, gets his legs and arms cut off and says, “It’s only a flesh wound,” and battles on.

Then there’s Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” adopted by Silicon Valley bro culture as a kind of entrepreneurial mantra. (No bro ever mentions the following paragraphs, with their “Throw up and go … Throw up and back … Throw up for good” and like phrases, which suggest that failing better could necessitate many hot showers.)

Beckett, who had to be a gas at parties, had a bleak outlook on human nature, but leavened it an inch or so with black humor. He never saw 2020, but he would have had some thoughts about it, even if they would be monosyllabic and soaked in bitter herbs. I haven’t thrown up for good, but I definitely feel like I’ve thrown up and back. I suspect much of our country feels the same way.

So, it’s been a melancholic period for me, with inspiration in short supply: a deadly virus, apocalyptic fires in the West and a megalomaniacal president does that to a fellow. I have mostly been working—including trying to get it in front of agents and publishers—on the memoir from my larcenous high school days; you can see what that’s about in the first link below. (By the way, I found a nice resource on querying information at QueryLetter.)

Otherwise, I can’t seem to get my engine started to write any fiction, since truth is not only stranger than fiction these days, it also makes me want to nap. I am going to do some website revamping, and more targeted querying for some articles I am enthusiastic about writing. Enthusiasm, I invite you back.

I hope you are all doing well with your writing work and in your lives. Cheerio!

Linkability

The list is a bit deceiving because I hadn’t put new publications in my last couple of blog posts—lately all I’ve been hearing is “our budget has been cut” and “sorry” from editors (if I hear anything at all). But here’s some of my most recent work. August, sigh, seems like 10 years ago…

Missing Some Memories? I Might Have Stolen Them

Memoirs can take many turns—mine turns towards crime. Specifically, the years I spent as a high-school shoplifter, taking orders and selling the goods. Scandal! Here I go through the mechanics of writing memoirs, best practices and the galling lack of shame I had as a teenage hooligan. Published by the fine folks at WriterUnboxed in September 2020.

The Magic Of Malting Makes For California Whiskey Wonders

Carefully tended malted grains give whiskey (and beer) some oomph. This piece of mine explains some of the techniques, some quite old, in producing quality malts, and the quaffable results. Published in September 2020 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Why the 4468 Mallard Is Such a Badass Train

The speed record for the world’s fastest steam train is held by the Mallard. Set in 1938, at 126mph. Still the record today—that’s steaming. Published in September 2020 on Popular Mechanics magazine.

Pet Sitting Disasters: Read This Before You Apply for Your Next Pet-Sitting Gig.

My account of lunatic, scary, and bewildering experiences house-sitting crazed pets in many parts of the world. Published in September 2020 on The Professional Hobo. (Originally published on the now-defunct Bluntly Magazine.)

Kayaking Elkhorn Slough is a wildlife and otter lover’s delight

My piece on a lovely day amidst the wildlife (among them my girlfriend) of diverse and diverting Elkhorn Slough in central California. Published in August 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Hands-on Ecuadorian Artisans Are Hands-Down Amazing

My belatedly published piece on a pre-pandemic trip to Ecuador, where my sweetheart and I saw the appealing handiwork of impressively talented artists across many disciplines. Published in August 2020 on Dave’s Travel Corner.

A Treehouse for Adults

The next best thing to flying in your Airstream: glamping in one that’s 25 feet up off the ground. Published in the Summer 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Amazing Grace, the Trailer that Makes Memories (and Holds Them, Too)

The inspiring life and early death of a beloved daughter prompted her parents to start foundations in her honor, and name their Airstream after her too. Published in the Summer 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

And on the mental health front, a front I need in the back as well, here are some pieces from other writers that have been helpful.

Take Ownership of Your Future Self

Curiosity: The Key To A Long Life

Optimism Makes Your Brain Work Better

To Do Your Best Work, Use the 85% Rule

Seeking Happiness Won’t Help You Make Major Personal Decisions. Here’s What Will

Stop Procrastinating Today With Behavioral Science

When All Your Article Pitches Are Wearing Masks

Photo by Edward Jenner from Pexels

This was the worst of times, this was the worst of times. For article pitches, things seem out of time. With apologies to Dickens, and apologies to you for using a cheap line—wow! I’ll try to use words to discuss the state of the union, or of the globe, or of the universe, but it’s feeling more like the state of disunion. The coronavirus and its cruelties hit with such a wallop, and now the anti-racist protests rocking the streets have shunted that exceedingly dire and still virulent virus—who would think that anything could?—to the side. And then there is our alleged president. My god.

Despite the stock market’s carbonation—up and down—resembling the days when I put Fizzies candies in an RC Cola and stepped back to see the liquid hit the ceiling, lots of people are out of work, lots of businesses will close, lots of folks will be underwater for some time. To my immediate, workaday interests, the publishing industry isn’t face-masked against these viral contractions either. In the last three months, I’ve sent nearly 40 article pitches, many to publications I’ve worked with before, though the bulk were to those I haven’t.

Some editors have answered with a “sorry, it’s just not happening now,” and some have answered with a “our freelance budget is locked down now.” Most haven’t answered at all, though what I read online tells me some answers: many major publications—Buzzfeed, Atlantic, Vox, too many to list—are cutting staff and wages. The bell tolls for all, writers and readers. I don’t have the sense that conditions will improve in the near future.

Not a one of my queries landed an assignment; I might not be a genius pitcher of articles, but I generally do much better than that. I did get a couple of assignments from editors I’ve worked with over the years, and have had a long memoir to edit for a client, but business as usual has been anything but.

Keep the Pitches Groomed Even If No One’s Coming Over

What to do? Look more closely at sites that have regularly updated listings for writing work of all kinds, like Pitchwhiz. Though I’ve been working on article writing more in the last year, go back and check out content writing opportunities. Look at the Twitter feeds of more editors and publications—it’s remarkable how many solicitations for pitches come from Twitter (though try to dodge the toxins on the platform if you can).

I’ll continue to look at book editing potentials—I just finished a developmental and copyedit of a long memoir on the assisted-living industry by an insider. The author is a witty, humane, skilled writer who was a pleasure to work with, bringing me back to enjoy work I’d started to lose my taste for. And I’ll continue work on my own memoir, about my high-school shoplifting years. I’m not certain if I’m as witty, humane or skilled, but it’s worth a shot.

One matter is that I don’t want to write about the virus. So many publications are doing so, and there probably are interesting angles and human-interest stories there, but I’d like to find something else to write about. I wrote about it once, in a whiskey context, and that might be enough for me. I was told by one editor of a general interest publication that they were basically only taking virus-related pitches, but that wasn’t enough to motivate me.

However, I have pitched articles where the virus situation is peripheral to the main story, such as distilleries making and giving away hand sanitizer, but where there’s a deeper story there to expand on as well. And I don’t want to be another white male fumbling around writing about how I’m not racist. The bell tolls for me there as well.

I keep a running list of article pitches, old and new, and I’ll look to refine recent ones, and look to refresh the story angles of the older ones. And I’m going to work on my attitude—I’m still a lucky guy to be able to work from home, and often on writing projects I enjoy.

My mom isn’t doing well, and I’m going to try and see her soon and savor the time that she has left. I’m working on savoring the little things and expressing gratitude in general. It’s not going to cure a pandemic and change institutional racism, but it’s a way forward.

Here’s to making the most of your writing life, no matter if it’s fiction or non, genre-neutral, genre-fluid, published or not, keyboard or quill pen.

Links

Here are a few links to my most recently published articles, followed by a couple of pieces from the net that I thought helpful.

The Shakespeare Society of America struggles to preserve its historic collection

My piece on a deep, eclectic collection of Shakespeareana (including some fabulously illustrated ancient books) in a tiny CA town. Published in the Summer, 2020 edition of Fine Books and Collections magazine.

Make Main Street SHINE: Add 101 Airstreams

Want to boost middle-America commercial and social prospects? Put 101 gleaming Airstream trailers on Main Street. Published in the Spring 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

California’s literary landscapes unfold in 9 — no, 12! — great books

I went through my library for capsule reviews on some selections where California is the setting (and sometimes a character). Published in May 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’ revisited (with a detour for COVID-19)

My piece about a writer on his quashed quest to recreate Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”. Gone viral in the worst of ways. Published in May 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Via Negativa: Adding to Your Life By Subtracting
“Not only can eliminating bad habits be a highly effective way to improve your life, it’s also often a lot easier than creating a new, positive habit. Positive habits take a lot of motivation and willpower to cultivate. But not doing something is much simpler.”

How Your Brain Creates Your Sense of Self
“Studies of people randomly pinged on their cell phone during the day indicate that the average person has a wandering mind about half the time. The more a person’s mind wanders, the more it tends to tilt negatively, toward anxiety, resentment, regret, and self-criticism.”

Nobody Knows Anything (So, Stay Safe, or at Least Well Hydrated)

It seems we’re all riding that horse named Chance (Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels)

There’s an old quote from screenwriter William Goldman discussing the film industry: “Nobody knows anything … Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

The quote has been used in many contexts, from weather forecasting to stock market predictions because, well, nobody knows anything. Not with bulletproof certainty. Fine time to trot that statement out now too, because with this effing virus plaguing the globe and with so many touted cures, predicted courses of spread and the outright lies from our government found out as diaphanous vapors, it’s hard to keep good counsel.

Thank the stars for heroic health care workers and for anyone saying “Let’s continue to be careful,” because—because we don’t know anything.

And instead of writing I’ve found myself looking at things like streaming virtual safaris, and famous old houses and buildings from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and strolling through the Musee d’Orsay, where scrolling through the paintings did soothe.

Even a live streetside cam outside the doors of Wrigley Park, where the viewing might echo the words of a Talking Heads song,

“Heaven
Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens…”

Writing, What Writing?

As for writing work, I’ve sent out a bunch of pitches and the only responses have been from publications telling me they are reducing staff and freelance budgets, and I’m ending emails to people I’ve never met telling them to “stay safe.” At least I’m getting some work done on my memoir of my spectacular high-school shoplifting career. More happens in that than in that Wrigley web cam.

People, stay safe. But if you find a way to dance around the Maypole today, do it. (And I just heard that my 97-year-old mom is in the hospital, test results pending. Hard days.)

Links

Here are a few pieces from the net that I thought helpful or provocative.

Build Self-Discipline By Forming These Habits
“It comes down to this: Do the right thing and have zero expectations of others. If some people don’t want to do that themselves, it’s not your problem. Keep on setting the right example.”

3 Strategies To Get Motivated
“The idea is simple. You want to reward yourself consistently for small accomplishments. When you’ve made progress on your career goals, buy yourself something nice. I don’t recommend materialistic rewards … When I talk about rewards, I limit myself to things that give me inner satisfaction. That’s what I mean by spiritual rewards. Often, those things don’t cost that much. For example, after completing a big project, I take a week off work and just read books, do chores around the house, meet friends, and relax.”

The Practice of Meticulous Attention
“Give the task, action, person or moment your undivided attention. Notice what this is like for you. See if you can deepen your attention even more. Let go of thoughts about the future and past, if possible, and turn toward what you’re facing even more.”

6 Strategies for Becoming a Better You from the COVID-19 Crisis
“One of the best “medicines” for dealing with a crisis is to take action, any action. It can be related to school, work, hobbies, home, or helping others. Instead of hanging around feeling sorry for yourself, take action on a plan to make yourself a better person, colleague, spouse, parent, friend, what have you.”

Freelancing Twists and Turns While Ducking the Coronavirus

Photo by Alex Fu from Pexels

Man, going viral has never seemed so lousy. I shouldn’t joke about it much, because it’s no joke, but it beats crying. Unless crying is called for. This is an unusual moment for long-time freelancers, because we are very used to working from home, thus presumed equipped to deal with (most) technology issues, and being productive when we could be eating bonbons. Or being productive while still eating bonbons.

Not being rabidly social myself, I’m not sharply hampered by the coronavirus lockdown; my sweetheart Alice and I still get out for some—socially distanced, of course—exercise, shop while veering away from other shoppers, as they do us, and since she is a freelancer too, both hang out lot at home.

My heart really goes out to those who are suddenly jobless, and particularly those with health issues. Or those struggling with kids at home and trying to be a productive remote worker on the fly, and trying to make their hair work for video. And to those people directly affected by the illness themselves—wow, this is as rough as it gets.

Viruses Throw Curveballs

Here are a few oddities, both positive and not, about being a freelance writer like me, one who often writes one-off articles for various publications, in a time of social disruption. Like I suggested above, I’ve got it easy compared to many people. But here are a few recent things that have happened related to my work that were unpredictable:

I had set up an article interview through Jameson Distillery’s PR people on a Prohibition-themed piece (Jameson almost closed for good then) for a spirits site article. At least I thought I’d set up an article interview. They’d wanted it to be through email, with their Marketing VP. So, I’d sent the emailed questions and then waited. And waited. Then waited some more.

My PR contact was professional and apologetic in a long email thread, but finally said that my interviewee was too busy, with all the recent coronavirus madness, to do it by deadline. Damn. But a week later, a bottle of Jameson and a bottle of a Jameson whiskey/cold coffee infusion arrived in the mail. I was sorry to not get the article in, but I was soothed by their offering.

Freelancer 1, Virus 1
Then, I’d sent a pitch on another subject to another spirits site I’d written for before. The publisher turned that down, but, virus-minded, asked me if I could find an infection specialist to discuss how many people had tragically died because of a mistaken belief that drinking large amounts of alcohol could stave off coronavirus infection or provide a cure.

I located a University of Nevada, Las Vegas epidemiologist through a ProfNet request (also asking that they be a whiskey drinker) and we did a Q&A on the subject. Whiskey drinkers are apparently whiskey readers too, because the article has 85K views and 1.6K shares.

You win on a virus article, you lose on a virus article: I finished a piece for Vox on the proliferation of profanity that you can see on all kinds—shirts, socks, books, desk calendars, pencils—of products now, which was assigned five weeks ago, turning it in last week. But right now, Vox is only publishing all-things virus, and my editor, who liked the piece, said it has to be shelved indefinitely.

They did give me a 50% kill fee, which is 25% higher than most publications, but still, it was a fun piece to write (including an interview with a marketing psychologist) and I’d love to see it out there. Virus-willing, maybe I will.

Freelancing has a lot of unpredictability built in already, but take an uncontrollable situation like a pandemic, and all bets are off.

Stay safe out there, and wash your hands. Really.

Links

Here are a few links to my most recently published articles, followed by a few pieces from the net that I thought helpful.

Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me
What better time to spill on death than a time of global terror? (Yes, I’m a riot at parties.) Some personal reflections on the cruelties of the passings of friends, and examples of how death works as a plot and revelation factor in literature. Published by the fine folks at WriterUnboxed in March 2020.

Whiskey Is a Bad Chaser for Coronavirus
Some people have some mistaken—and tragically dangerous—ideas about using spirits to prevent or help with curing coronavirus. Nope. This interview with a whiskey-drinking epidemiologist sets that straight. Published in March 2020 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Redwood Hikes and a Whimsical General Store
A hike in the redwoods should be part of the prescription to cure whatever ails you (let’s ignore the coronavirus context part of that). But you have to follow that redeeming stroll with a visit to the odd and unusual San Gregorio General Store. Mom and Pop’s it ain’t. Part of my Trail Mix series (note: pre-virus shutdown of the parks). Published in March 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Getting Steamed Has Never Been So Cool
Oh sure, sure, you can have a fancy TV in your Airstream, or a sink that rules them all, but a steam room? That’s cool. Or hot. Published in the Winter 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Freelance Writing Funk? 3 Mindless Productivity Hacks from a Pro
How scribbling a few vivid words or phrases—“word seeds”— on a story or article idea can prompt your brain to work on expanding them, often to a rich level, while you dawdle. Published in February 2020 on the excellent Make a Living Writing site.

From the Net

Want to Be Successful? Stop Thinking About Failure
“You put your mind through every scenario where failure is possible to the point where it feels real. You’re simulating these experiences so frequently, it feels real, even though nothing has actually happened. After a while, your mind tricks you into believing you have all this “experience” around failure, when you’ve never actually experienced it — just thousands of simulations of it.”

Neuroscience Reveals 50-Year-Olds Can Have the Brains of 25-Year-Olds If They Do This 1 Thing
“However, the neuroscientists also found that the meditators had more gray matter in another brain region, this time linked to decision-making and working memory: the frontal cortex. In fact, while most people see their cortexes shrink as they age, 50-year-old meditators in the study had the same amount of gray matter as those half their age.”

Why Happiness IS Just a Choice
“Happiness is not something that happens to some people and not to others. You get to choose.”