the builders

The Best Advice So Far - the builders

I was wakened from a sound sleep by the ungodly grinding of a saw cutting through what sounded like concrete or metal right outside my bedroom wall. The whole place shook, setting the nearby jar candles to skittering. It was immediately clear that this was not going to be a situation solved by fingers in the ears or pillows over the head. So I got up.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, there was a loud crunching and a thunk.

That sounds like it’s right in the house, I thought. And then the noise suddenly cut off. Moments later there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find one of the construction guys there wearing grubby jeans, a tank top and a backward ball cap. His ears were studded and gauged, and one tattooed arm leaned against the wall of the stairwell that leads up to my floor. “Hey, um… what’s on the inside of the wall we’re working on?”

I knew something very bad had happened. “My bedroom,” I informed him. “Bedroom closet to be exact.”

I led him through the entryway and into the bedroom. I live in an old farmhouse with open closets, so I had used the bedroom closet for storage, placing a low white bench with drawers and storage cubbies in front of it on top of which a full-length mirror leaned back against the door opening. I took down the mirror.

The workers had broken through the outside wall into the room, a five-foot strip of the wall revealing daylight beyond. But that wasn’t what caused the sharp inhale or widening of my eyes.

It was the…

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elevator

Up and down arrows on an old-fashioned hotel elevator panel

Whenever someone learns that I’m a writer, they inevitably ask the following two questions:

  • What do you write?
  • Who is your target audience?

They’re reasonable questions. And you’d think that after a decade of professional writing, I’d have honed my elevator pitch by now. I haven’t. I’ve tried—really, I have. But it doesn’t seem any easier today than it was when I first started.

You know how people will ask you a question and a response comes directly to your mind, but then you edit it by the time it comes out of your mouth because you know that your first thought isn’t likely to be considered an “acceptable” answer? Like when someone you’ve just met asks why you’re still single or what your family is like. I mean, not everything in life has an elevator pitch (at least not a completely honest one), does it?

Funny enough, I don’t even feel awkward in actual elevators. Talking or explaining things isn’t my problem. It’s that my genre and audience don’t quite fit in any one nutshell.

Most of the problem can be chalked up to the connotations of words. For instance, consider the following snippet of conversation between an imaginary person (IP) and me:

IP: Are you liberal or a conservative?

Me: Yes

Well, that answer is certainly both short and true. But it doesn’t really answer the intended question. Let’s try again.

IP: Are you liberal or a conservative?

Me: I’m both. For instance, I’m conservative with my money but liberal with my willingness to help people.

OK, well, now we’ve got a bit more of an answer. It’s short enough. Yet while it does relay some important information about me, it’s still not what the asker is expecting. What’s more, given the question itself in isolation, my expectation would be that the asker was looking to place me on one side or the other of a line relative to their own understanding of those terms.

In actuality, if someone were to ask me that question, here’s how it would most likely go…

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unmentionables

white cotton briefs/underwear hanging on a clothes line

I’ve always thought it a little strange that we as a culture are conditioned to believe that certain topics are taboo.

Unmentionables, if you will.

I’m not sure who decided what made The List. Perhaps it was the same unmentionable “they” who are so often referred to in cultural lore:

“They say people hide razor blades in caramel apples.”

“They say you shouldn’t swim within thirty minutes after you eat.”

“They say the average person swallows eight spiders a year while sleeping.”

Pure poppycock, of course. But such things have been passed on for so long now that they feel true; and so we continue to live in their shadow, crouching in corners from boogeymen of our own making.

It seems much the same process accounts for what “should” or “should not” be spoken about with…

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emoti-con

Stylized sketched emoticons (happy, mad, crying, love) against random doodle background

Yusif is a talented writer. He’s completed one novel. He’s several drafts into another novel and has two more in the works.

I know Yusif personally. I’ve read his work. We’ve brainstormed together often. He’s creative and his ideas are truly unique, never derivative. What’s more, I’m certain that Yusif’s stories have mass-market appeal.

I was hanging out with Yusif at a museum one day two summers ago. He was looking at a blurry, black-and-white photo from the early 1920s, depicting a nondescript teacher and her students standing outside a one-room schoolhouse in the Florida Everglades when, out of the blue, he spun around and announced, “I want to write a story about this!” Before the day was out, he had completed a full chapter outline for what would be a middle-grade novel. And over the next two weeks, if memory serves me correctly, he was writing a chapter a day.

Upon completing each chapter, Yusif would read it aloud to me, sometimes in person and sometimes over the phone. His descriptions were masterful without being overwrought. I cared about his characters. His dialog was fresh and authentic.

He was passionate about researching details. He read every book he could get his hands on about the early settlement of the Everglades: the people, their background, customs, housing, transportation, religion, food, relationships with the Native Americans of the area. We made several more trips to area museums, churches, schools and Everglade City itself. We walked together through the actual setting of his story, studying the buildings, the photos on the walls. Eating alligator.

Within a year, the novel was completely written, thoroughly edited and ready to be submitted.

It was an exciting time.

Except when it wasn’t.

You see, there were many, many days during that year when Yusif read his work… and hated it.

The enthusiasm and positive attitude with which he went into querying the manuscript fizzled. As sure as he’d ever been that this book could fly—maybe even become a favorite book for many readers—he was now equally convinced that no agent would want the book. That readers wouldn’t get through chapter one without putting it down, never to pick it up again.

“Be honest with me. It’s awful isn’t it? No one’s going to want to read this,” he moped.

How is it that the very same story and ideas that had thrilled him now felt lackluster? That the characters he’d grown to love—that he’d brought into being, and rooted for and cried over—now seemed like cardboard cutouts? And that the same configurations of words that he’d painstakingly crafted and tweaked, and which he’d read aloud to me with pride only weeks earlier, now sounded bland and trite, even embarrassingly bad?

To quote the Bee Gees:

It’s just emotion that’s taken me over
Tied up in sorrow, lost in my soul

Interestingly enough, while Yusif was working on his second novel (with all of the wide-eyed wonder and hope with which he’d begun the first), we watched a video series where prolific author Judy Blume talks about her process. Her unassuming nature, candor and vulnerability struck me. Here was one of the all-time bestselling children’s writers, whose books have sold over 82 million copies and earned her more than 90 literary awards (including three lifetime achievement awards) saying, “So often, I’ve…

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we are the world

My new book, TRIED & (Still) TRUE, just launched this past week. It’s been cause for much celebration.

It’s also been cause for a major lack of sleep.

And staying in sweats all day.

And not showering some days (which, if you knew me, is really saying something).

And, if I’m being completely honest, I even realized after 4:00 PM one day that I hadn’t even brushed my teeth yet.

So Sunday afternoon, when I ventured out for a trip north to visit my cousin, it felt strange to have the sun on my face, to feel the gravel of the drive crunch under my shoe-clad feet, which during the last few days had been bare.

Driving along the winding bucolic roads, passing apple farms and waterfalls that had iced over in motion, and with the sun playing like an old-fashioned projector light through the bare tree branches, I found myself singing aloud at the top of my lungs a song that’s been stuck in my head for the last few days:

We are the world
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me

If you don’t recognize it, it’s because didn’t live through the ‘80s or at least weren’t old enough to remember what was going on in 1985. “We Are the World” brought together some of the most well-known pop stars of the day to sing what would become the fastest-selling and highest-grossing single in American history, as well as the first song to ever be certified Multi-Platinum (Quadruple Platinum, in fact, selling over 20 million copies).

If you missed it in 1985, you may have heard it in 2010, when another all-star ensemble reprised the song to raise money for the victims of the devastating Haiti earthquake.

Anyway, there I was belting the song in my car. When I reached my destination, I was still humming it. And I got to wondering why. Why was this 35-year-old song stuck in my head? I hadn’t heard it recently nor talked about it with anyone. (As I say, I’d been holed up in my home for days around the book launch.) So why was this particular song burgeoning inside of me on this particular day?

Before I’d even reached the door, I’d figured it out.

I’ve had hundreds of interactions with people during the first few days since TRIED & (Still) TRUE launched. Calls, texts, emails, blog comments. I’ve read each Amazon and GoodReads review. And I couldn’t help but notice that much of the positivity and praise has been shared alongside a common counterpoint that took this basic form:

“It’s so refreshing to read this encouraging, uplifting book with the world being so negative, divided and scary lately.”

I totally get it. I’ve placed myself on total news blackout for long stretches and turned on ad-blockers so that I can’t even see sidebar headlines when I check my email. If anyone in my friend group happens to mention certain names or events, eyes widen and bodies tense, as if Bloody Mary is on her way through the magic mirror. It’s easy to give in to the sense that “the world” is broken beyond repair. That this is it. The End.

But I don’t believe that.

As I wrote this new book, I delved into the lives of the people who brought us some of the most famous proverbs from history. I didn’t just talk facts. I talked lives, reminding readers constantly that those who penned the words that have become part of our literary legacy were real people just like you and me. They weren’t giants or superheroes. The most famous of them wouldn’t have been known by more of the population than the average person today connects with via social media. They were us. We are them.

And I’m here to tell you—they went through some things.

Subjugation by tyrannical emperors.

Religious purges.

Mysterious and gruesome plagues that killed millions.

Natural disasters on a scale not seen before or since.

They had no running water. No hot water on demand. No showers or baths. No porcelain toilets or toilet paper. No sewage system.

They did not have prenatal care plans and epidurals. Their anesthetic for anything from dentistry to amputation was a few swigs of whiskey and biting down on a stick. There was no counseling or medications for depression and anxiety. No pills to control blood pressure.

No multi-vitamins. No toothpaste and toothbrushes. No Tylenol. No dry skin cream.

In many places and times throughout history, people weren’t out drinking with friends and celebrating on their 21st birthday. They were quietly reflecting on the notion that their life was likely more than halfway over. Living to the age of 40 seemed to them as living to 100 might to us now.

And yet, somehow “the world” continued on, no matter how bad things seemed in the midst of tragedy and hardship.

Here’s a snippet taken from page 26 of my new book:

One thing I have learned is that worry serves no purpose other than to waste otherwise good moments in the present.

I am also convinced, however, that we always have a choice. I cannot choose for a society, or even for a single other person. But I can choose what I myself will do, how I will live—right now.

Let me break down a few lines from that earworm of mine—“We Are The World”—in hopes of…

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where i’ve been

sketched montage of frog on a penny farthing bike, bugs on bikes, a cuckoo clock, key and derby hat

Well, my poor blog has lain neglected for just over six months.

In the past few years, such an absence would have been sure sign that I’d run afoul of some mysterious and prolonged illness or other. I’m happy to report that this time, that is not the case. In fact, I’m quite well!

You may also rule out other culprits such as laziness (never!), boredom (ha!) and forgetfulness due to age (alas, I don’t have a suitable interjection for this one because it’s not that far a cry for me to imagine anymore).

No, the happy reason for my recent silence is actually that I’ve spent the time writing a new book. After a wild ride right to the last minute here, that book—TRIED & (Still) TRUEis now complete.

And it’s available… well, TODAY!TRIED & (Still) TRUE book cover with antique pocket watchBoth the e-book and print versions have launched together (and the audiobook won’t be far behind!).

To celebrate the occasion of my second release:

1. I’ve set the e-book price at just 99¢ for the next three days on Amazon.

2. You can read the opening and entire first chapter HERE right now!

In addition, for those who do get a copy of the book in either format, who enjoy it, and who are kind enough to want to leave one of the vitally important first reviews, I’ve created a super easy, step-by-step guide to writing your Amazon review, which you can grab HERE. (After all, I found with my first book that most readers wanted to leave a review, but were just confused about the process or what they should write; so I took the guesswork out of it with TRIED & (Still) TRUE.)


if i can do it today

if i can do it today - The Best Advice So Far - Barrel of Monkeys monkeys forming a chain across a blue sky

I was a skinny kid with a big butt.

Just calling it like it is.

By skinny, I mean that I’ve been five-foot-nine since eight grade—haven’t grown an inch—and yet, when I graduated high school, I had a 26-inch waist and weighed 105 lbs.

Alas, a disproportionate amount of that sleight weight was carried in the caboose.

For a too-long stretch growing up, I ripped the tags off all my pants, picking the threads apart stitch by stitch with my teeth if need be, just to get rid of the blasted thing. Why, you ask? Well, regular clothes never fit me. And we didn’t have money for alterations. So my mother wound up getting me a “special” brand of “slacks” that, to my recollection, seemed to only make wide-wale corduroys in burnt orange or puce green. But the tag and slogan were the real kick in the pants:

 

HIMALAYAS

For Full-Seated Boys

 

Feel free to cringe aloud as a show of solidarity at the awkwardness and indignity of it all.

(And doesn’t it just figure that burnt orange wide-wale cords are now considered fashionable, all these years later?)

In the 80’s, I discovered the magical properties of mouse and a hair dryer. So at least my hair was big enough to balance out top and bottom.

Still, the voluminous do did nothing to stem the comments and “nicknames” people attributed to me on account of my backside. Basketball Buns. Rhino Rear. Or the more straightforward Big Butt.

The nicest thing anyone ever said to me about it was “Don’t worry about your big butt. Everyone likes them in New York.”

Alas, the closest I would come to New York for many years was driving through on my way to college—where the coach for my freshman gym class wouldn’t allow me to do the one-mile timed run, because my body fat percentage was less than 3% and he feared a law suit.

Bobby was one of my early college roommates. Bobby had a feathered mullet like Don Johnson. He was also the first person I’d ever met who was a serious “weight lifter.” I remember lying on my bunk one day when Bobby came back from the gym. He peeled off his string tank top and started “making muscles” in the mirror.

Turn. Flex. Make tough face. Shrug. Turn. Flex.

I liked Bobby, but this peacocking irked me. (In retrospect, I wonder if it was mostly due to the fact that I was the skinny big-butted kid and he was the movie star.) Rather than scoff, I simply asked him about it. “Hey, Bobby, I’ve seen guys flex at themselves mirrors before but never known any of them well enough to ask why. So… why?”

I’ll never forget Bobby’s response. He didn’t stop his flexing. He didn’t seem the least bit irritated, just took it in stride. “Well,” he said matter-of-factly, “you write music and compose it on your keyboard, right?”

“Right…”

“And I’ve seen you work and work on a song that sounds fine to me. But you keep tweaking it. Listening to it again. Changing this one note or volume or sound or drum hit. Because it’s your song and so you know it best. You know what you want it to sound like in every detail. Well, my body and muscles are my song. I might look fine to you. But I know what I’m looking for, whether everything is even or not, proportioned, weird looking or whatever. So I’m ‘listening’ to my body in the mirror and then I know what needs fixing when I ‘compose’ my workouts.”

It was one of the first times I remember being aware that I’d judged someone unfairly. Bobby was no “dumb jock.” He knew what he was doing and expressed it eloquently.

In fact, the way he answered that question caused me to follow up with, “Would you mind if I… went to the gym with you sometime and tried it out?”

And so, at the age of 18, I swallowed my pride and shuffled my skinny-big-butt self behind Bobby into a gym full of clanging metal and grunting and sweaty socks smell and people I wanted to be. And I picked up a dumbbell and put it down again.

Bobby was unbelievably patient with me. A good teacher. Protective even. He introduced me to people I never would have thought were like me at all. And I made many friends who all seemed to make it their personal project to get the big-butt beginner buff.

I went irregularly at first, but I stuck with it. And by the time I graduated two-and-some years later, I thought I’d really arrived when I tipped the scale at…

… 112 lbs soaking wet.

But it was a different 112 lbs somehow. My butt didn’t look quite so much like the Himalayas in context of the rest of me.

I was sold. And ever since, I’ve continued to hit the gym, pick stuff up and put it down. It’s more than a hobby; it’s a way of life. And while I still haven’t grown an inch in height, I’m now generally in a weight range considered “borderline obese” on the BMI chart, even though my body fat is still quite low.

Yay, me.

Before I lose anyone who isn’t a gym-goer, this post isn’t about working out. I use that only as an example.

There are things each of us enjoys doing, things we’ve worked hard at, invested time in, grown to love and depend on.

For me, in addition to working out, I’ve studied languages for a lifetime.

I’ve played the piano, sung, composed music and recorded original songs.

I’ve mentored hundreds of teens and young people.

I write (obviously).

Your “thing” might be gardening. Or painting. Or dance.

Playing chess. Jogging. Surfing.

I’m talking about pursuits that take time. Skill. Endurance. Dedication. Brain space.

Things we get good at. Take pride in. Things we become known for.

Maybe even things that have become integral to our identity, a core part of who we perceive ourselves to be.

Are you with me now?

Keep your “thing” in mind as you continue…

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