The Bandsaw

My brother once told me a story about some buddies of his who majored in woodshop and carpentry design. For their final projects, they made elaborately crafted furniture. As the end of the semester approached, their deadlines loomed, and the designers spent more and more time in the woodshop, cutting, carving, and assembling with the various powered tools. One such tool was the bandsaw.

The saw consists of a single, hoop-shaped blade. Vertical wheels above and below the cutting table spun the blade in a continuous downward motion, allowing the designers to quickly make intricate, precise cuts. The single floor-mounted machine in the shop was a popular one, and the designers took turns as they feverishly tried to finish their projects. Soon, it was the day before their projects were due.

And that night there was a storm, and then a power outage. With the snuffing of the lights, every machine in the shop slowed to a halt, and there was no promise of when the power would come back on. The machine din was replaced with a chorus of profanity as the designers panicked about how to finish their designs.

Then two of my brothers’ buddies got an idea. They unplugged the bandsaw, then opened the side casing, exposing the top and bottom wheels.

“I’ll spin, you cut, then we switch,” one of them said to the other. And so he frantically pawed the wheel like a cat, spinning the blade as his buddy made his cuts and a third friend shined a flashlight on the work area. Others bought into the process, taking turns at the wheel, the light, or making their much-needed cuts.

In a pinch, they figured it out.

I find inspiration in that story when thinking about other problems. My day job often requires jury-rigging. My novels present a slew of obstacles to overcome. But when you break down the problem, sometimes the solution is just a matter of reconnecting the fundamental pieces in a different way.

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8 things I learned from playing Fallout Shelter

For those of you who are not geeks, Fallout Shelter is an app game where you manage a post-nuclear-apocalyptic survivor’s vault, trying to keep all of your dwellers alive, fed, happy, and radiation-free. You do this by building rooms, generating power, growing food, purifying water, and maybe sending some lone wolves into the wasteland to scavenge crap you need. After way too many hours of playing, it struck me how many of the strategies that help you survive translate directly to the modern office. Let’s review:

  1. Assign folks according to their strengths, not necessarily where you need a live body. Decide to put them in an area that demands their strengths? That area thrives. Put them where they suck? That area performs poorly (and you need more people to get the same work done).
  2. Give dwellers the tools they need, and they’ll work more efficiently in their given area (duh).
  3. When natural ability gets them only so far, give them advanced training to work more efficiently.
    1. And have enough folks to cover their absence.
      1. And sooner or later, get everyone the training.
        1. And change your training program to meet new needs.
  4. Explore! You can’t survive without looking out your front door once in a while. You might find something wonderfully useful you hadn’t imagined. Or you might get ripped apart by a rad scorpion.
  5. Check in with explorers regularly – pull them out if they’re in trouble!
  6. Arrange your rooms for anticipated growth. If you bunch them up poorly, it costs more to build more or rebuild later.
    1. If you have a sucky arrangement, fix that as soon as you can. The longer you limp along, the longer you have to limp.
  7. Keep track of morale – happier people produce more.
  8. Have frequent ethics/morality checks, or have someone on board as the voice of conscience. (Just because a process is more efficient doesn’t make it right, e.g. human breeding farms for repopulating a nuclear wasteland: totally efficient, but totally wrong.)

This shit seems obvious, right? Yet in the heat of a crisis, I made the mistakes of:

  • Moving people off their strengths just to cover an area, and then never getting them back where they added the most value. Sooner or later, everything went to hell.
  • Not reviewing my people enough to make sure they had the tools they needed. For long periods, they underperformed.
  • Skipping training because it was too expensive, or I was too lazy to reassign folks.
  • Forgetting about my explorers until they died.
  • Not paying attention to morale, and so they underperformed, or wandered off their tasks.
  • Building hastily and then regretting the inefficiency it caused, and wasting a lot of money ripping things down and doing it properly the second or third time.

Bethesda recently deployed an upgrade that makes the game even tougher. Playing it now is like shoveling mud – many of my dwellers are getting killed by invaders, giant roaches, or random fires. Yet it remains addicting, and the lessons still hold. Whether you’re a geek or a manager, you’ll get a lot out of this game. So play it.

If only corporate life were as straightforward as an app game filled with smiling idiots…

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2015 Q3 Progress Report

Well, it’s the beginning of October, so it’s time to stick my head up and take stock of where I am.  Goals and progress for 2015:

Release A Togahan’s Chance (aka “novel #3”): I finished the first revision a couple weeks ago, and it’s now in the hands of my loyal beta readers. I’m already getting phenomenal feedback, and started a “bug list” of things I need to tweak, flesh out, or clip. According to the mega-schedule spreadsheet, I’m 66% of the way through the project, neither gaining ground nor slipping schedule. Final release right now looks like Thanksgiving…2016. I’ll try to stick to that. I also started work on the cover, but have had to relearn some Gimp in the process. I’ve got a few concepts at this point, although I’ve already shitcanned one; I might do a focus-blog-post to gauge their viability.

Write 52 Posts in 2015: This post marks my 31st for the year, but this being the 39th week, I’m about 8 posts behind. I took a bit of a hiatus this summer, and getting back in the habit has been difficult. Still shooting for 52 without doing fluff. We’ll see.

Read 20 books in 2015: I’m currently working on Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, a somewhat fictional account of the sub prime mortgage financial meltdown. This is the 16th book I’ve tried to tackle this year. I’ve got roughly 12 weeks to finish that and four more books, at about 2.5 weeks per book after I finish this one. Still do-able, but I need to lay off facebook, app-games and other distractions if I’m going to squeeze in the reading time.

Overall, a little slippage, but not much. Targets are still achievable if I don’t screw off.

Slowly, slowly, we’re getting there.

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Pure Joy

Last week my wife and I attended a magnificent Tanglewood concert. While savoring the music, we enjoyed the big-screen closeups of the various soloists. For the first time, I appreciated the raw emotion driving all of the musicians—from the harpist who looked as if she were about to cry, to the resting flautist’s smile at some inside joke, to the stern concentration of the brass section, to the one cellist who practically slapped his own forehead over some oversight—all of the musicians poured everything they had into their performance. It was breathtaking.

But even they paled in comparison to the raw, over-the-top, explosively pure joy of the conducting dynamo, Andris Nelsons, who led the orchestra in “Throne Room and Finale” from Star Wars, and the 1812 Overture*.

Holy shit, this guy was awesome. Seriously, he could make Happy Birthday kick ass. This barely shows you the exuberance he transmitted that night. During the standing ovation, amidst a sea of enthusiastic but polite clapping, I was the lone idiot whooping it up like it was a Bon Jovi second encore. If I had been holding a beer, I would have lobbed it into the boxed seats in celebration. Seriously—no really, seriously—his energy was contagious. I loved it.

And it reminded me of a fundamental truth: when we bring joy to our creative process, we create joyful things. The more we bring, the better the result.

I’m not claiming that I’m dippy as a four-year-old in a toy store every time I hammer on my keyboard, but as I sit here editing the something-hundredth paragraph, I can tell which days I really enjoyed what I was writing, and the days when I struggled to push like a cheese addict. (Guess what? The latter gets cropped a lot).

But this concert was a good reminder that whatever gets me psyched, jazzed, pumped up, whatever—I need to indulge that when I create, so that what I create melts your face off like an Andris Nelsons performance. Wooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

*Complete with cannons, although I think the cannoneer was drunk, because they were a little off beat with the orchestra, but hey, it’s cannons, so who seriously gives a shit? CANNONS!

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Misbehaving Minds, Connections, and Reflux

There’s a quote, attributed to Oscar Wilde that, “A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.” For me, that takes the form of connecting several unrelated things, until I have an interesting premise, a kernel of something.

Case in point: A few years ago, I flew to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for a buddy’s wedding. While connecting in Denver, I had a quick lunch – this delicious Tuscan chicken sandwich, slathered in a delightful oil dressing (this is important).

I grabbed my connection, and was on my way for the one hour flight.

Usually when I fly, I take Dramamine for motion sickness, but it also tires me out, and I knew I had to rent a car when I landed, so before this flight I took just a minimal dose.

It wasn’t enough.

Right after take-off, we hit turbulence and my stomach lurched. The flight didn’t improve from there. With each jolt and weave, my nausea grew. After forty minutes of suffering, I knew I wasn’t going to make the entire flight, so I reached for the airsick bag.

I filled it.

My kind row-mates nervously handed me their bags as well, and I continued to heave throughout the approach and landing, missing only a couple drops that I discretely wiped up with a tissue. As discretely as you can do anything on these cramped flights.

After we landed, I shuffled off the plane and went with the herd to baggage claim, then took a seat to collect my wits, thought about the whole experience, and recalled a certain detail:

That Tuscan chicken sandwich tasted just as delicious on the way back up.

Seriously, there was not a hint of stomach acid or bile. It tasted exactly the same, as if my stomach had looked at the initial deposit, referenced my flight time, then said, “Eh, this will take care of itself”, and never bothered to start digesting.

The reason is because I take acid blockers for chronic reflux. My stomach produces no acid, instead relying on all the other enzymes for digestion. So vomiting is slightly less unpleasant for me than for other folks (it still sucks). But my mind ran with this. Later I connected the dots and shared this thought with my wife:

“I’m not bulimic, but if I were, taking an acid blocker would be the way to go. No acid, no tooth decay, no Barret’s esophagus. You’d still have bad breath, but….”

She just looked at me, “wtf” written all over her face, then said, “What kind of example do you want to set for our daughters?”

And without realizing it, she provided another connection. Bulimia isn’t something to be addressed flippantly. The tone of a story with these details would have to take into account the complexities around that issue. It’s a kernel though, an idea of a character with a problem who maybe focuses on the small details at the expense of the grander picture.

I’m not sure how or even if I’ll ever grow that into something more, but ideas are free. If you want to take that ball and run with it, let me know what you come up with.


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Johnny Storm

I was sitting on a kitchen counter at a holiday party several years ago, having a drink, grazing on snacks, and kibitzing with friends. My buddy Ron provoked me, so I jumped off the counter to get in his face. As my feet touched the linoleum, a series of thoughts whipped through my head in a split second:

  • What’s that smell?
  • I think it’s burning paper.
  • My back is awfully warm.
  • Wasn’t there a candle behind me on the counter?
  • I wonder if I’m on fire?
  • lifts arm -sees flames
  • Holy shit, I’m on fire.

Continue reading

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All I Needed Was a Cape

“You know, Robin’s entire family was killed doing this,” I said to my wife as we watched her sister hook her legs onto the trapeze bar and arch her back as she swung upside down.

“You’re awful,” my wife remarked, albeit with a slight grin.

As writers, we’re often told, “Write what you know”.  I would add to that a maxim I read somewhere, “The only way to know is by doing”. The more experiences we have, the more realistically we write, etc. (and the more connections we can make between experiences, somewhere we’ll find a fresh connection that becomes a story).

It was in this spirit that I agreed to go along on my sister-in-law’s birthday gift: a trapeze lesson! She’s a gymnast, and this sounded fun to her. My wife signed on right away. I was skeptical, but I said, what the hell, it might be fun, or I might injure myself spectacularly. Either way, life gets interesting.

As the day approached however, my hesitation grew, because I’m 42 years old and not in the best shape. I’ve had a couple surgeries, arthritis, some back issues, and a bulging belly. More and more, I thought, “This might end badly”.  But of course, the only way to know, was …to do it.

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2015 Q2 Progress Report

We’re about halfway through 2015. Here’s where I am with the book and other goals.

Release A Togahan’s Chance, (aka “novel #3”): Still working through the first revision. I just wrapped up chapter 14 (out of 21). According to my mega-schedule spreadsheet, I am 58.1% of the way through the whole project. I haven’t made up the time I thought I would, but I’ve pretty much stuck to the scheduled pace. At this rate, I hope to have it in my beta readers’ hands before Thanksgiving.

Write 52 Posts in 2015: This post marks my 26th for the year. This being the 26th week, we’re still on schedule. The posts have helped me flesh out (or fizzle out) a lot of creative tangents, but I want to finish out the year before I pass judgment.

Read 20 books in 2015: I’ve almost finished Woken Furies by Rickard K. Morgan, the third in the Takeshi Kovacs series, which I’m enjoying. I’ve bounced back and forth between his books and some other random ones (including Boundary Crossed by Melissa F. Olson, which has spurred me to read the rest of that series). Woken Furies brings my total to 11, leaving 9 more to read in about 26 weeks, or about 2.5 weeks/book. Still do-able. I’ve had a few chunky books in there, and some light non-fiction, so if I keep mixing it up that way I’m sure I can meet that goal despite my slow-as-shit reading pace.

So far, I’ve stayed on target, but here comes summer with a minefield of a calendar. I’ll have to be more agile with my time to keep the pace. I’ll let you know in September.

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Right now my wife is reading this book entitled What Alice Forgot, where the protagonist gets a concussion and forgets the last decade of her life. Everything that seems recent to her is ancient history to her friends and family. She has children she doesn’t know and a husband she loves who wants to divorce her because of history she can’t recall. The story unfolds as she learns more about the choices and events of her last decade, and the past “her” does not like the present “her”. (I’m in the middle of another novel, and since I read slowly, I’m perfectly happy with my wife relaying the story after dinner each night.)

The story is timely for us because tomorrow we celebrate our ten year anniversary, and my wife asked me the other night: if I did lose my memory that way, would the past me look at my current life with approval or scorn?

Continue reading

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The Painted Spider

When I got out of school, I rented an apartment with a couple of roommates. Per state law, the landlord repainted the place just before we moved in. And they painted everything. Walls, ceilings, window frames, heater registers, doors… doorknobs. And where one of the windows was cracked open and a dead spider dangled by a single strand, they painted the web and the spider.

Yes, there was a thin coat of white paint on this tiny spider. It wasn’t sloppy, it took effort to paint the spider where it hung and not just brush it away.

They painted a dead, dangling spider. On purpose.

At the time I laughed it off, but have since recalled that image when thinking about project quality, especially when reviewing my own work—particularly editing (since that’s the bulk of what I’ve been doing lately).

It takes effort to correct a shitty sentence, but it takes a larger perspective to recognize when the sentence doesn’t belong there in the first place. Editing isn’t just about cleaning up grammar and commas. It’s also about viewing every sentence in the context of the paragraph and the ones before and after. Does it fit? Does it flow?

  • If it repeats information the reader already knows
  • If it interrupts the flow of a particular thought
  • If it drags out a detail that’s not entirely relevant

…out it goes (or if the information matters, I’ll reduce or reorder it into neighboring sentences).

Someday I’ll be done editing, and hopefully I’ll have cleared out all the spiders, instead of just painting them. Stay tuned.

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