Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Building Fences

There's a towering old maple in our backyard that looks like it might be sixty or seventy years old. I love to sit under it during the summer. Love the way its long branches swish in the breeze. In a world of concrete and brick and florescent lighting, it always reminds me that the world is not closed, that nature exists, even in suburban towns. Unfortunately, our fences reflect the opposite. They look like something from the eighties, green wire and steel poles that look more like sentries on duty than a part of the landscape. A backyard isn't quite the same when the only thing that separates you from your neighbour is some plastic green wire. I've been thinking about adding some wooden lattice to those fences, but seeing as how they're expensive and we're still just renting, it probably won't happen. For now, I have to hope my neighbours aren't outside if I want some privacy.

My wife and I moved to Richmond Hill (about forty minutes north of Toronto) last year, and we liked this house from the outset. It's an old neighbourhood, and I imagine our duplex was built shortly after the Second World War. Many of the people who live here rent (a duplex this close to Toronto now sells for $650K), and it's an open, friendly blue-collar street. We met our neighbours within days, and were invited for beers and barbecues throughout the summer. As opposed to life in our previous place, a twenty-six floor high rise, we were part of a community. I've always felt that this is the way things were supposed to be, this sharing of our life. (If only because it's very difficult to live a Kind Life when the people around you won't speak to you, or think it odd that you want to talk to them.)


By the end of the first month, I had visions of Shane Claibourne's Irresistible Revolution. (Claibourne is a Christian social activist who moved in with a bunch of friends in one of the poorer communities in Philadelphia. The book is inspiring.) I'd heard sermons about helping people and doing it with your daily living and how we needed to be more than just a bunch of religious know-it-alls most of my life. So, I jumped in with both feet. We both did.

A year has passed, and my perspective has changed. Oh, I still believe in a Kind Life. Still believe that we need to, in the words of my missionary father-in-law, "be present," with our neighbours, I also better understand why people (who can afford it) build massive homes with huge plots of land so no one will bother them. A year of living IN, as you might say, and I'm less inclined to judge them. Fact is, if you're going to try a Kind Life in a neighbourhood like ours, you have to be ready for the shit storms that inevitably follow. Because they WILL follow.


In the past month, I've walked past a neighbour telling her teenage daughter to "shut the f*ck up, you stupid, f*cking moron," had to walk over to another neighbour who'd just been thoroughly beaten by her boyfriend and subsequently smashed the front window, and then waited with her while the taxi came, listened to a screaming fight one street over, where the only word you could consistently understand was "f*ck." There are days we can't open the window in our bedroom because the neighbours behind us smoke so much weed our entire house smells like a dead skunk.

And then, of course, there's the noise. Some days, I'm pretty sure I'm back in my hometown and its 1985 and the guy next door is blaring his ghetto blaster to make sure everyone else gets to hear another Steve Miller song. (Middle aged white guys and classic rock stations. Nothing has changed.) The houses are all duplexes, and the people here don't seem to care who might be listening, because they're going to scream at the top of their lungs, EVEN WHEN THEY'RE HAPPY.

It's the arguing that drags you down though. Good grief, sometimes you just feel like screaming back at them. YOU KNOW THAT YOUR YELLING DOESN'T WORK, RIGHT? IF IT DID, YOU WOULDN'T BE YELLING ALL THE TIME! You begin to feel like you're under siege, and your home doesn't feel like a home so much as a few thin walls and that crappy fence separating you from total chaos.

More than once recently, it's crossed my mind that a Kind Life isn't worth it. That Shane Claibourne is full of it. That a one acre lot in the country would look damn fine right now, if only for a few moments of freaking peace. And quiet. Oh blessed Saviour, how we LOVE it when things are quiet. (And by quiet, I don't mean silence, though that would be amazing. I mean the absence of yelling, fighting, and blaring music.)


But then, there are these moments. The other side of our duplex is occupied by two single moms. As a rule, I cut their lawn as well as ours. I'm not sure how it started, but this spring I noticed their lawn was pretty long, so why not. It's not a big deal, and it only takes an extra thirty minutes. But when I'm done, the world looks a little different. I don't mean that in a overly dramatic sense, I just mean that for a while, the earth feels a lot more firm beneath my feet. And then there are other moments. Like figuring out where a stray cat can spend the night with the person across the street, or Bethany driving around the neighbourhood for thirty minutes after a finding a lost puppy and experiencing the gratitude of an owner who clearly loved the little guy. (He'd slipped out the door and taken off.) Or having your neighbour's little girl run up to you and give you a hug. ("Hi Steve!") Or spending time in conversation with younger friends on the street, listening to their struggles and offering some advice and encouragement. We never had those moments in the high rise.

Nothing about the Kind Life is easy. It's not. (And it isn't condescending either. Just because Bethany and I try to "be present" doesn't make us one whit better or different than the people around us. They've helped us, too.) And it can't be done in the abstract. Life is a grubby and often nasty mess, and humans are prone to stupidity and cruelty as often as they're prone to kindness and laughter. But is it worth it? You bet it is.

Despite my frustrations, despite our frustrations, my hope is that you stick it out. (Please. I need someone to vent to.) There'll be days when you're fairly certain that if you hear Stairway to Heaven one more time you're going to tear your eyeballs out, but hang in there. Think about the moments that matter, the ones that light you up in a way nothing else does and give purpose to our rambling and often incoherent existence. There's nothing wrong with building a fence or two, so long as we don't start putting up walls. Trust me, you'll miss all the good stuff.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Encouragement for Aspiring Writers

I discovered On Writing by Stephen King shortly after it was released about sixteen years ago. I'd never liked his novels, because I hated his genre. (I'd discover later he wrote many great stories, like the ones behind the movies Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me) But I'll never forget he advice he gave in the beginning of the book. If I wanted to be a writer, I needed to write a thousand words a day, and I needed to be reading and writing, in some form, 4-6 hours a day. If I wasn't willing to do that, I would never become a writer. Writers write, and writers read.

I took the advice to heart, and for the past twenty years or so, I've pretty much kept to that schedule, the only exception being the two years after my first(and only) literary agent abruptly stopped calling me back or contacting me. The devastation of that rejection took a long time to recede. But, as King said, writers write. And I was a writer. By that time I'd worked as a youth worker for a number of years, as well as a plethora of low paying jobs like telemarketing, door-to-door sales, and retail. At the time, it didn't matter, because I was a writer first, even if I was only getting paid for a few articles here and there.

As the years wore on, I remained as steadfast as ever, and kept to the schedule. But I started to get more finicky. (Consistent rejection will do that.) I even finished an entire book, and refused to send out a SINGLE QUERY. Not one. Finally, in 2008, I started Second Blood, an epic fantasy. Many of the books I'd written in the past were thrillers, but when it was done well, nothing beat a comfy chair and a good medieval yarn. I'd begun to doubt the literary gods would ever see fit to give me another magical phone call from the Captains of the Industry, so I figured I might as well write the type of book I loved to read.

The first two years were exciting. I could feel it coming together. With help from my writing friends, I felt satisfied with my work and sent it away. I'd spent a full month crafting the query letter, knowing that I only had a 0.4% chance of being asked for pages. I waited anxiously. Within a few days, the emails began to come, and every time I opened one that held "RE: QUERY, Second Blood" in the subject line, my stomach did a little dance. Some agencies wrote me back, some didn't bother, but they were all form rejections. Not a single personal note. (A sign of interest)

Even accepting my bias, I'd thought my book to be as well written as many I'd read on the market, so I kept trying, revising and editing until my fingers could hardly form a fist and my eyes were blurry from the strain of the monitor. Every year I sent out new queries. Every year I wrote a new synopsis. Every year I received a resounding NO from the Captains of the Industry (Really, it was probably a college student working as an assistant editor with one eye on her phone. Unsolicited queries are slush piles.)

for five years this pattern continued, and during that time I never considered publishing the book myself. "Vanity" publishing was for people unwilling to walk the hard paths, the ones who weren't good enough. it never occurred to me that luck and knowing people in the industry mattered as much or more than talent. My arrogance rested on my naivete.

(I'm not always a pompous jackass,
 but when I am, I prefer Dos Equis)


I came across Wool, by Hugh Howey, and everything changed, even as the industry began to shift. Self-
published books were no longer the field of vain lawyers writing yet another self-important memoir. The discrepancy between what the publishers charged and royalties paid to writers (about 1$ for a 15$ trade) was shifting the playing field. So were e-readers. Amazon tapped into the market first, and soon writers were uploading their stories, and charging customers a fraction of the price they'd have paid in the bookstore. And the writers were finally (let all gods be praised) making money, even though the books themselves were being sold for a fraction of the price.

This past January I started to seriously considering publishing my work myself. It'd long been known that most writers had to market their own work anyway, even through a traditional publisher. I investigated for months, reading different sites, combing for information.

And as of now, it would be insane for me to consider pursuing a traditional publisher. In the next few months, I'll publish Second Blood Part I. And while I'm hard at work finishing the edit to Part III, I've also started two other novels, both urban fantasies. Knowing that I am not going to have to scale a wall to get my work out has changed everything. I'm turned forty a couple of years ago, and in the traditional route, that's a bit old to think about having a writing career. But now? Well now, I have to write. And read. And write some more. The work is going out, and I need to be ready.

These days, I've upped my words ante to 3000 a day. Plus this blog. Plus the social media activity. It's a lot, but for the first time in many years I'm excited about the process again. I'm excited about sharing my work. And I'm excited that I might be able to provide a little more for my family. Be encouraged my friends, Stephen King was right.

Writers write.

Writers read.

And now, writers publish.


NOTE: For my writing friends, self-publishing sensation Hugh Howey has a great blog. Here's his post on his advice to young writers. And JAKonrath has a great blog as well.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

So... What Did I Learn This Year?

At the end of every school year, I try to take a few minutes to figure out what I learned. (Literally, I take like five minutes. When you work in a elementary school you associate with small humans who are always asking you things that you already know, and at the end of a ten month stretch you begin to accept the truth that perhaps only Google knows more than you do, but it's probably a toss up). Today was that day for me. I chose a few free minutes when my bagel was toasting in the staff room to stop and consider my yearly lesson, with as much humility as I could  muster. (Really, it's a trip. You forget how much kids don't know, and by extension, you realize how smart you really are when you compare your own hard earned knowledge to blank slates that yell and gossip and can't drive a car yet. Of course, most of us adults are pretty ignorant, too. We just know how to BS our way around questions so we don't look like a collective group of mindless worker bees. For proof, see elections. Most of them.)

After about two minutes, I could smell the smoke. Good grief, there had to be something-- that's when I realized it was actual smoke, not my brain, and that my bagel had jammed the toaster. I pulled it out, one side black, the other warm and soggy. So, the 'Bagel' setting produced a half-burnt piece of bread that looked like it had been cooked with the moral integrity of a FIFA executive. Well, I could use that. Chalk one up for "Don't use the Bagel setting."

Or if I were to go bigger, perhaps I could suggest the moral I'd learned was that I needed to make more money so I could order out all my lunches.

What did you learn this year at school, Steve?
I learned that I need to make more money!

No. Making bigger bucks sounded good. I know my wife would love to have a couch that didn't shed fake plastic leather bits. And hell, I'd been promising our cats that water dish that worked like a fountain for two years. But really, that could be my lesson every year. If making money was a test, and one considered where I'd been born and under what conditions, I was probably among the ten biggest failures in the history of five civilizations. (Uh, I'm taking that back to Ancient Greece. I get books from the library. They're free. Also, no social life to speak of. See finances, above.)

After I'd eaten my bagel, (Yes, of course I ate it. See finances, above.) I finally figured out something I'd learned this past year: the difference between a personal pronoun and a definite article. Oddly enough, I learned it during basketball season.

I've coached for a long time. This year I coached both the junior and intermediate boys' teams. Like any coach, I have a few pet peeves regarding how practice should be run, and I enforce these rules with a strictness that causes teachers to break out in jealous warts. (Sports are a privilege. I don't have to put up with the nonsense a regular teacher does because I can just kick them off the team. It's really, really amazing, and most people don't know this, but sports are the last reserve of truly well-run dictatorships in Western Civilization. Well, aside from the Industrial Military Complex, but that's more a council of power hungry, morally absent narcissists and not a true dictatorship, but I digress.)

One of those pet peeves is that when I'm talking, no one can bounce the basketball. No one can twirl it on their finger or flip it from hand to hand. I don't simply ask for silence, I demand stillness. Usually the players get this by the end of the first week. This past year, my LESSON TO BE LEARNED happened in week two.

I started briefing them on the offense after our shooting drills, and a ball hit the floor.

"Hold the ball," I said.

Another ball hit the floor as one of my other players started messing around. I spun to silence them, when yet another ball on the other side of the court hit the floor. I fumed. Didn't they understand that I was speaking? I might be an invisible "helper" during the day with the bank account of a seven-year-old, but here on the court I WAS THE KING. If they'd just listen to me, they'd have a chance to help me earn some self-respect back and live vicariously through their achievements by claiming my superiority as a coach and vindicating my own career that wobbled between sub and super-sub. Those little pricks!

"Okay, everyone hold YOUR balls! Just hold 'em!"

I heard something else that sounded like leather hitting the tile floor, and this time I didn't bother turning.

"If everyone would just hold their balls, there wouldn't be any noise! Grab your balls and hold them!"

Silence. Stillness. Ah. A great coach getting the proper response from his players.

"Okay, much better. Now then..."

I started talking about the offense, and it didn't hit me until after practice what I'd said. I asked the other coach, Al, if I'd told the twelve and thirteen year old boys under my care to 'hold their balls.' He nodded, grinned, and told me he'd walked out of the gym because he couldn't contain his laughter.

"They're going to mock me about this in the dressing room behind my back, aren't they?" I said.

"Yup. You deserve it, too," he grinned.

Sigh. So that's my lesson. If you get too big for your britches, you forget your grammar, and the next thing you know, you're left holding your the bag.


Friday, June 20, 2014

Training Tip; Just Show Up

There's an old adage that eighty per cent of life is showing up. When I was younger, I would have said that eighty per cent of old adages are a load of crap, including that one. Or in my (self proclaimed) infinite wisdom, I would have suggested that the problem with our society is that there were too many people convinced that showing up was all that was necessary. But as I grudgingly enter “middle age”, that adage rings far more true than it did as a young man.

Life is busy. There's work. Family. The occasional night out with friends. More work. Learning how to hold a sword properly. Chores. Learning a second language. More work. Other kids. More chores. Baseball. More work. And oh yeah, no sleep. (That's why adults are always annoyed with energetic children. Hey, we'd be energetic too if we got eleven hours sleep every night and other people made our meals.) So with all that, hell yes, showing up matters. Whatever bruised, hungover, exhausted state we might get there, when you're older, getting there is a freaking win.

Next to a terrible diet, the inability to find time to work out regularly is the biggest obstacle for people who want to get in shape. They'll find one long window of time during the week, make the commitment, and have a great workout. They find another ninety minutes in their schedule six days later. Another great workout. And so it goes. Unfortunately, you won't make any progress that way. As a trainer, I feel my clients frustration. After seven or eight hours working with crazy loud Grade Sixes all day, my first inclination is not to go to the gym. (Usually, it runs something along the lines of wanting to pour myself a very strong drink, weep softly as I stare into nothingness and wonder why they insist on shouting ALL DAY.)

Even after twenty five years of working out, the only way I get there regularly now is to make a small promise to myself. I call it the Twenty Minute Rule.

It doesn't matter how I feel, or how much time I DON'T have, I can spare twenty minutes. Let's be honest, twenty minutes is a coffee break. It's a stop at the grocery store or a too long conversation with that guy at work who never stops talking about himself. We can all squeeze in twenty minutes. And we can do it three, four, or five days a week. As long as you get there, you'll see progress.

Two things to remember. One, twenty minutes IS enough. Don't start lengthening out your workouts and somehow change the promise. If you go one day for sixty minutes, you still owe twenty minutes the next day. You can't borrow time. Second, make it a hard twenty minutes. Don't stop, don't wait between exercises, and superset everything. Waiting around is boring, and you won't accomplish very much in twenty minutes if you only do seven or eight exercises.

It still surprises me when these old adages are true. Maybe I'm getting old. Maybe I underestimated how busy life would be as an adult. Or maybe I've suffered minor brain injuries working with young people for nearly twenty years. Whatever the reason, getting to the gym after school for twenty minutes has helped keep me fit and (mostly) sane. I can't make any promises regarding your sanity, but you'll definitely feel better.


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