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.”

Writers Need Patience (or a Good Meditation App)

Photo by Min An from Pexels

It’s more clear than ever: rather than taking on the writer’s life, I should have been a Zen monk. One with patience aplenty. Besides looking good in robes, that ability to sit in stoic silence would give me a handy talent. As the Buddha-inspired protagonist said in Hesse’s Siddhartha, “I can think, I can wait, and I can fast.”

Me, I say, “I think that waiting for my articles to be published is not fast.”

To wit: last spring I spent a month house-sitting in Ecuador, and wrote a long piece about the interesting and wildly talented handicrafts artisans I saw there; I submitted it in early May to the travel section of the Los Angeles Times. They accepted it. And held it for a while, telling me they were waiting to put together an entire South American section. OK.

Then there was some unrest in several South American countries, so they didn’t want to publish any pieces on that topic until that died down. OK. And then, amidst newspapers consolidating and some dying outright, the paper’s managers decided that they were going to have the weekly travel section of one of America’s biggest papers go to a monthly format as of this March.

So, the editors are scrambling to decide where to put their backlog of articles, if they are going to put them anywhere. OK, sort of, but not really.

So, that article (which will only be paid for when published) has now languished for 9 months, sad whimpering thing I, er, I mean, it is. I’ve published 11 articles in the Times over many years, so I know the travel editors, who are reasonable and apologetic (and probably worried about their own skins). But dang, how can I pay for my monk’s robes if the dough just dangles?

The Rip Van Winkling of Writing

The Times deal/not deal is not an anomaly. Let’s look at the fate of several of my articles over the last year or so:

Popular Mechanics has held a piece of mine on a famous steam train since accepting it in October. The editor I’m working with there, a great guy, had published two other pieces of mine on historic trains (and another one on historic vodka) pretty quickly—the vodka one was published three days after submission. But this third train is late to the station, though I hear it’s scheduled for mid-March. One good thing about PopMech: they pay on acceptance, not publication, not the case for many publications.

That wasn’t the case for a piece of mine on pitching articles published in The Writer—they waited until WAY after publication, many months, to pay me. The editor there was profusely apologetic through our long email string, telling me that they were having trouble with incoming advertising revenue and couldn’t pay their writers until that was settled. This is a magazine that was founded in 1887, but being the old print guy on the block don’t get you much respect—or revenue—any longer.

A piece I wrote on Big Sur’s eccentric Henry Miller Library was accepted by Cathay Pacific’s in-flight magazine Discovery last June, but didn’t see print (or payment) until January. Henry’s dead, so he’s more patient, but I do fret.

I could include a couple of other stories from the past year about articles losing their knife’s edge in the current Pandora’s publishing box, but the above should suffice. But my whinging shouldn’t indicate that these situations are a rarity in a freelancer’s world—publications often hold pieces for a while and payment upon publication is not unusual. It’s just that patience until publication is—unusual, that is. For me, at least.

And even when a writer already has the dough, like with me for the Popular Mechanics piece, I still wanted to see the article get daylight. It’s as much the circulating words as the money, always. Writerly patience is a virtue, but goldurnit, these virtues take some work. I suppose I could pivot the dark energy of my impatience to sending out more queries, so I can get this cycle back in gear. In the meantime, I’m shopping for those robes, because clothes make the monk.

Links

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

Fog’s End Distillery Has the Can-do Spirit

A quick profile of Craig Pakish, who works some grain-based alchemy in his one-man distilling operation in Gonzales, CA. And by “one man,” I mean this guy truly does it all. Published in the Winter 2020 issue of Carmel Magazine.

Do Happy Lights Really Work for Seasonal Depression?

The last couple of weeks I’ve been blasting my face with a light therapy box, to treat my winter blues. Does it work? Hah, you’ll have to read it to know. Published in January 2020 on The Bold Italic.

How to Get Major Life Decisions Right
“Second, don’t base decisions on something that may or may not happen in the future…There no way to know what unexpected and wonderful things may happen. Plus, serendipity has an amazing way of changing our lives.”

3 Ways to Manage Worry by Perspective Shifting
“Few things are certain in life, but at the time of this writing, death is still inevitable…It can be incredibly helpful to remember and contrast this fact with the smaller concerns that keep us from appreciating and enjoying our lives. It’s hard to hold too tightly to our more trivial problems when we appreciate our finite time on this planet.”

Curiosity Is the Secret to a Happy Life
“The more that experts examine curiosity, the more they find evidence to suggest that it’s the secret sauce in a happy, fulfilling life.”

5 Powerful Ways to Stop Worrying About What Others Think
“The truth is, other people’s opinions of us are none of our business. Their opinions have nothing to do with us and everything to do with them, their past, their judgments, their expectations, their likes, and their dislikes.”

Good Writing Requires a Guiding Light

And you guys can’t see the crossbow on the right aimed at my head to make me hit deadlines

History has it that Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day. It’s possible that writing The Human Comedy is worth the price of having a stomach shot with holes. I’m a coffee drinker myself, though I don’t bathe in it. But sometimes I need a bit more lift in my days, and I’m not interested in buying any meth.

The thing that needs lifting is my perspective, and here’s why: Lots of people feel sluggish, or moody or just out of sorts during the winter months. For some people who have an inclination toward mild depression, low-light winters can exacerbate the condition all the more. I’ve had mild depression on and off since adolescence, and have dreaded the seasonal smothering of the light for that reason. So, for the last couple of weeks, I’d been exposing myself to 20- to 40-minute daily doses of a 10,000 Lux light-therapy box.

Mild depression is like a winter coat that’s a bit too tight (and that covers your head too). You’re cloaked, but less in warmth than in something that is vaguely numbing. Not good for a dog, not good for a cat, not good for a writer. Interestingly, the device’s manual says you can have an overdose of sorts with the light, with symptoms like feeling squirmy, or over-caffeinated. Or, in the Mayo Clinic’s words, you can experience “mania, euphoria, hyperactivity or agitation associated with bipolar disorder.”

So far, no mania, even though I’m still drinking coffee as well. I haven’t felt like driving my car through the garage door, buying stock in Trump Towers, or starting a chinchilla farm. (Do let me know if these seem like good bets though.) You can see from the image that you need to position the light close to you, at an angle. It’s distracting at first, but after some minutes, I get used to it.

I was amused to see that the model is called a “Happy Light.” Ahh, if only it were that easy! But I’m going to try it over the winter months, and see if I can get a bit brighter, and perhaps have more motivation to write all the pieces that often only get to “I should write about that” before I let them drift off. And even if positive results are placebo-based or in some way psychosomatic, that’s OK too.

I simply can’t spend the same amount of time in which Balzac visited the bathroom after his 50 cups, so the Happy Light will have to do.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Good Festivus to All!

Links

Here are some links to my most recently published articles and a piece from the net that I thought helpful.

Boxing Up the Best of Homemade Nashville

Another script I wrote for Chris Guillebeau’s Side Hustle podcast, where he discusses people who have started successful and often fascinating side jobs. This one profiles who started a business selling subscriptions to homemade and small-production goods (coffee, bed and bath, popcorn, hand towels) made by 300 local vendors. They went from $100 startup costs to $2 million a year. That’s a lot of popcorn. Published in December 2019 on the Side Hustle School.

Adding Aluminum to a Garden of Glass

Dale Chihuly is a glass sculptor of world fame, with roots in Washington state. He established the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition near Seattle’s Space Needle a while back, which includes a glass-blowing studio housed in a vintage Airstream. Local students check out their mind- (and glass-) blowing classes for free. Published in the Fall 2019 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2019 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Texas Banker Teaches Classes on Painting Your Pet

Another script I wrote for Chris Guillebeau’s Side Hustle podcast, where he discusses people who have started successful and often fascinating side jobs. This one profiles a Texas woman who was a banker and MBA graduate who had a mild interest in art, leading to her teaching art in school districts to teaching dynamic painting classes on the side. And the popularity of those classes exploded. Published in November 2019 on the Side Hustle School.

6 Things Your Life Is Infinitely Better With

“An infinitely better life includes these six components: a clear purpose, a core team of business partners and close friends, full confidence and awareness in yourself and meaningful role models. It’s all attainable right now and you might be closer than you think.”

Freelancing Fluctuations, from the Gaps to the Gravy and Back Again


Photo by Lum3n.com from Pexels
 
Freelancing rolls in odd waves, sets of growth and sets of ebbs, but not as consistently (or mostly predictably) as the waves surfers rely on. The last couple of months I’ve had several articles published in national magazines, but not from my usual pattern of sending out flurries of queries and getting the standard higher percentage of “no thanks” or no reply at all—and the occasional “yes.”

Instead, out at dinner, I had a train enthusiast friend rave about the biggest steam train in America being restored after years of dormant slumbers. Because I’d recently seen a solicitation for pitches from an editor at Popular Mechanics, I queried and got a yes, thus this article steaming down the tracks.

And from that friend’s little story, now my collection of train articles on PopMech are three.

A little later, I thought the story of me selling an empty bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon on eBay might make an amusing tale. So when I pitched it to an editor at Vox, she countered, asking instead for a broader industry piece on the world of collectible whiskey. That was a much more interesting (and lucrative, for me) dip into a weird world.

Not long after publication, a PR person in LA who read the whiskey story pitched me (wonder of wonders) on the story of a company she represents that’s producing the world’s first carbon-negative vodka. Because I’d seen that Popular Mechanics had also been publishing some pieces on the spirit world, I approached the editor who’d done my train pieces, and he went for it.

That’s a strange, not-quite-round circle of call-and-answer, and none of it would probably have happened had I not eaten dinner with my friend who had the old steam train on his mind.

That breaker was rather a rogue wave in those steady sets of freelancing queries and responses and one that had unexpected ripples.

So, next time someone tells you an interesting story over your rigatoni, make a note or two. You never know where that tale will take you.

Lost Kitty Update

I wrote earlier about my sadness over my cat Malibu having gone missing, at that point 12 days in on her absence. As of today, she is gone two months, and it’s still hard to reconcile that we probably won’t see her again (though there are many tales of cats returning after longer absences). It’s startling to me how thoughts of her jump into my mind unprompted, and how nondescript things around the house remind me of her absence.

I hear of parents who are crushed, devastated when something happens to their children. I can only imagine, woefully the depth of that kind of loss. But Malibu was so much a part of our family that her absence is a harsh void. I’m happy to have known her.

Links

Here are some titled links to my articles mentioned above (and a bonus LSD trip!), and a couple of pieces from the net that I thought helpful.

This Is the World’s First Carbon-Negative Vodka

The weird world of whiskey collecting, explained

Why the Big Boy 4014 Is Such a Badass Train

Acid Rain Isn’t Always What You Think It Is

How to Become the Best in the World at Something

Four Ways to Calm Your Mind in Stressful Times

Good writing and reading to all!

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Sadder

Malibu chilling

 

Animals have an uncanny gift: they can bypass your brain and go directly to your heart. And they do this without guile, and thus are all the more captivating.

My kitty Malibu has been missing for 12 days now, and the weight of her absence is heavy. She was semi-feral when we found her six or seven years ago, and has always been an indoor-outdoor cat, often spending the warmer nights outside. So her not being around in the morning a ways back was concerning, not alarming.

Now we are alarmed.

The Soul of the Beast

When you get close to a creature, and get to know its behaviors, its whims and its eccentricities, you see that some animals have fully developed personalities. You know when a meow means contentment or annoyance, an arch of the back means alertness or calm.

Animals have a sense of humor, moods and aspirations. Look into the eyes of an animal you know well, and you can see their consciousness looking back. I know that this would prompt argument from many corners, but I believe that some animals have a soul, that they have an eternal spirit aside from the blood and bone.

That knowledge does give me some comfort, yet I ache for Malibu’s physical presence.

We have combed the neighborhood again and again, put up posters, gone to the shelter, notified the neighborhood online group, called for her endlessly. I’ve twice seen the shape of her head in the neighbor’s field, but that was just gathered grass. I’ve heard her meow, sometimes plaintively, but the the meows were just trilling birds or the squeaks of farm equipment. Twice I’ve awoken to her meowing in dreams, and rose in bed, only to realize that it was a phantom call.

Not knowing her fate is the hard part.

So, Malibu, my sweetheart, my companion, my friend, if you are out there, come home; if you are gone, rest in peace.

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Five Fiction Sites That Tell the Facts


Once in a while I do a round-up post that lists my go-to sites for fiction-writing advice. Maybe not so oddly, some of the same names come up over and over—not because I’m lazy (don’t roll your eyes), but because the people that populate these sites know their stuff.

And that stuff is all about how to write, how to think about writing, how to write about thinking. As well as all that gritty craft stuff: story arcs, theme, setting, character development, side plots, secondary characters, beginnings, endings, denouements and other fancy words that might be spelled “climax,” and maybe even how to use a semicolon once in a while. (Hint: use tongs.)

Most of the solid citizens below have newsletters that will remind you, with pleasure, why you subscribed.

Writer Unboxed

Consistently good pieces on craft and craftiness (and an occasional jeremiad on the trials of the writing life), written by established writers, up-and-coming writers, and writers who recently realized that every letter of the alphabet is theirs. This is a strong writing community: the comments section is often the heart of the writerly dissection, and that’s saying something, because the posts are gold.

Steven Pressfield

Frank discussions on writing foibles and follies, from a guy who made “The Resistance” mean more than just rolling your eyes at the White House. Pressfield is a novelist and nonfiction writer who writes with succinct zing on what keeps us from writing, and how to wipe the cobwebs off your keyboard and get going.

Jane Friedman

Friedman covers all things publishing, which is a lot of coverage. Tons of info on self-publishing and indies, with example best practices and how-tos. Her material ranges from good cover design to Amazon analytics (and speaking of Amazon, her information covers the industry practices as well). There are also guest posts on matters of craft for fiction and nonfiction writers alike.

The Creative Penn

An established thriller writer and writer of nonfiction books on writing subjects (many on self-publishing), Penn seems tireless, since she also puts out a great podcast on publishing matters. Good tools/resource lists on a spectrum of writing concerns. Do check out her free Author 2.0 Blueprint book. Penn, who probably couldn’t stand still as a child, now has a travel and writing blog and podcast too.

Funds for Writers

No, they aren’t just going to dole out dough to you, you underfunded writer you—I already asked. But the free newsletter lists lots of writing grants and retreats, writing contests, job markets and guest columns on writing, both fiction and non. Hope Clark, the author of many mystery novels (recommended!) who runs the joint, is tough and charming at the same time. Her column is personal, sometimes blunt, and always worth the read.

Bonus Lie
K. M. Weiland

Hah, I lied, so I could preserve the alliteration in the subject line. I must recommend six sites, because the sixth provides some sixth senses about writing fiction. Weiland, writer of speculative fiction and nonfiction writing guides, gives solid advice on pretty much every brick in the writing castle, from outlining, to writing scenes, to understanding the differences between plot and theme to every little way a character can wiggle. (And I have to say, “and much more,” because there really is a lot more on her site as well.)

Discount Shrubbery!

For the next 5 days, my novel set in Prohibition Boston, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub, is discounted to $2.99 for the ebook version. You can get a lot of background information on the characters and the time period Rick Wilson (my co-writer) and I put together at www.swirledshrub.com.

Buy the hundreds of copies you crave here on Amazon or here through other online retailers. And if you already bought a copy, please consider a review at the retailer of your choice—we do so crave attention (and it really can help sales).