“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

~ Anatole France

Our kitchen table is back in the kitchen. The screen door on our back porch stays closed. I don’t scurry downstairs to turn off the alarm in the wee hours of the morning. Things are back to normal.

Except they aren’t. They never will be.

We incrementally changed our lives to accommodate our aging dog Zoe, which was at times frustrating for all of us, but never burden. She was such an integral part of our family, and deeply seated in our hearts. She passed away March 17, 2016. She was 14 years old.

I haven’t felt this sad in a long, long time.

I’ve had to euthanize pets before, but this was different. This was planned, and it felt brutal.

We celebrated Zoe for days before, knowing full well it was time. She ate cheeseburgers. When I came home on that last day, she was outside playing with Denna and the boys. She greeted me with wagging tail, then slipped around the side of the house and we wound up walking up the street, crossing at the crosswalk, and back down the other side. She struggled, but it was her choice. She led, I followed. She stayed on the sidewalk, no leash necessary. Like always.

If you’re uncomfortable with reading about the death of a dog, you’ll want to stop here.

At some point we had hauled her favorite futon down to the first floor so she didn’t have to climb the stairs anymore, and that’s where we said goodbye. Our wonderful vet and her tech came to us. Zoe always hated the vet’s office (not the vet) and we wanted her final moments to be peaceful.

Our vet asked if we wanted to put a blanket down. She said sometimes an animal’s bladder will empty during the process.

The futon belonged to Zoe, and we didn’t really care, but…

Zoe’s ears perked up and she slipped clumsily from the futon. My heart snapped. I thought maybe she wasn’t ready, that the whole thing was a mistake. I followed her as she scurried through our front room. She led me through the kitchen and our back room, stopped at the back door, tail perked slightly. Zoe looked at me, and though I thought perhaps she would run away, I opened the door.

I would have been okay if she had run off forever. It would have been easier. But she didn’t.

She went to one of her usual spots and emptied her bladder. Then she came right back to me, right back into the house, and right back to the futon. We said goodbye. She was tired and ready.

That’s the kind of dog she was.

Happy International Women’s Day!

In honor of, I’d like to share my reading list from 2015. Except for 2 non-fiction books I read for work, all of these works were written by women authors. Take a quick look:

  1. You by Caroline Kepnes
  2. Fuse by Julianna Baggott
  3. Burn by Julianna Baggott
  4. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
  5. Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
  6. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
  7. Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness
  8. Greenwitch by Susan Cooper
  9. The Cognitive Style of Power Point by Edward R. Tufte
  10. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte
  11. The Grey King by Susan Cooper
  12. The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness
  13. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
  14. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  15. Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper
  16. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  17. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  18. Those of My Kind by Jennifer Loring
  19. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
  20. Habeas Corpse by Nikki Hopeman
  21. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
  22. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  23. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
  24. The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

This is important. Not ground-shaking, earth-moving, sphincter-irritating important, but important nonetheless.

But the important part isn’t that I did this.

The important part is the amount of conscious effort required to do this this. I couldn’t just merrily pick up books along the way like I’ve always done and assume I’d come out with a reasonable amount of balance between male / female.

Some of these are big names (yes, I never read Harry Potter), some are classic, some are relatively new, and a couple I even know personally, but even so, I had to make a super tremendous conscious effort to only read novels by women authors for a year.

I could blame the publishing industry, or big bookstores, or Amazon, or even Trump, but that kind of misses the point. Really, I can only blame myself, because even though I made a big deal about how tough it was to do this just a minute ago, it really wasn’t all that difficult.

I just started asking people around me to very specifically recommend books by women authors, and for the most part, they were able to come up with good choices.

What do I think of these books I read by honorable women-folk? Well, Julianna Baggott’s PURE series (Pure, Fuse, Burn) is a wonderful post-apocalyptic tale, and Caroline Kepnes’ YOU is chilling to the bone, like watching a train full of knives crash into a semi full of kittens. In fact, every one of these books I found enjoyable and have no problem recommending.

This experiment showed that ensuring a reasonable amount of diversity in a reading list really isn’t all that hard. It’s a matter of asking broadly, maybe researching a little, and just thinking about it. That’s all. Think about it.

I’m changing my reading habits from here on out and encourage everyone else who might be lacking diversity to consider doing so as well. I’m planning my year of reading out in advance, taking books from a broad range of recommendations and lists, in an effort to not only shake up the genders on my list, but other forms of diversity as well.

I’ve started my 2016 list already, and am balancing primarily on gender, but it’s only a start and I could use help. For instance, I know gender isn’t binary as I’ve made it out to be here, but like I said, this is just a start.

I’m wide open to suggestions on where to go from here, so leave a comment and point me in the right direction, or share whatever tactics you might employ to bring some diversity into your reading life.

I quit smoking this year (yes, even the electronic ones), and like so many of the positive things in my life, this was a complete accident. My last cigarrette was on December 31, 2015. I’ve even kept the pack, which is still half full. I don’t give it a second thought.

I love nicotine almost as much as I love caffeine. I’m something of a stimulant junkie (as much as the law will allow) I think in part because my natural state of being is so low key and laid back that I’m something like half-a-step behind the rest of the world, out of phase.

I started experimenting with an alternative sleep schedule in 2012 and trained myself to where I could work with only 4-5 hours of sleep plus two 20-minute naps per day. This bought me a solid two hours of writing time in the morning before the rest of my house wakes up. But during 2015 I started having more and more difficulty focusing during writing time. Yeah, some of this was clearly due to the hernia pain I talked about in my last post (hindsight is wonderful, eh?), but not all of it.

January 2013 brought with it a much needed job change (coincidentally around the time I started letting this site lag) and with that change came a whole new set of stressors. Don’t get me wrong, the day job is pretty good. I’m lucky to have it and fortunate to be surrounded by good people, but the role challenged my networking and influencing skills in ways I never imagined. In pop psychology terms, for the past three years this introvert has been required to behave very much like an extrovert. I knew this going in, needed the challenge, but man, being something you’re not is exhausting as hell.

In October 2015 I started looking into nootropics, cognitive-enhancing drugs, with a few ground rules: 1) no illegal substances, and 2) nothing I would be embarrassed or ashamed to share publicly. What most of the folks looking into this stuff on the Nootropics subreddit suggest is starting with the main active ingredients in green tea: caffeine and L-Theanine.

I’m not much of a green tea fan, although I’ll drink it when I eat sushi. However, I love coffee, so I had the caffeine part down. I found a well-rated L-Theanine supplement (it’s considered a vitamin) and began to take it whenever I had a cup of coffee. The effects were pretty cool. The caffeine still ramped up my thinking (which is part of why I love it so much), but the L-Theanine cut down some of the less desirable physical effects. Where before I would occasionally be jittery and edgy by the end of the day I found myself remaining relatively calm.

By the end of December I found myself wanting to smoke (both real and electronic cigarettes) less and less. In fact, occasionally smoking either one would leave me feeling slightly nauseous. Recognizing the only recent change I’d made was in taking L-Theanine, I revisited my research and found what I’d overlooked before. Woven in the anecdotal evidence of nootropic value and scientific studies of L-Theanine’s affects were also hints that the vitamin interfered with nicotine. A little more google-fu (okay, not that hard since I knew what I was looking for) uncovered a the abstract of 2012 study indicating as much.

I was looking for a way to combat fatigue and mental strain but found exactly what I needed to quit smoking. I’m still exploring ways of managing my energy, focus, and concentration. Cutting out the nicotine has made this more of a challenge in the short term by making me foggy headed a times, but there’s no safe usage of nicotine at any dosage. I’m okay with the having to work a little harder on the other stuff. I miss the mental boost of nicotine, but hopefully I can find some healthy ways to regain and even surpass what it did for me mentally. Two months since I quit and I’m already starting to feel mentally crisp again.

Nearly four years ago, in early 2012, I started taking Taekwondo. I was overweight, out of shape, but my oldest minion had been taking classes for a year plus and had just turned old enough to start doing family classes. So I buckled down, drank plenty of water, tried not to smoke so much and gave it a shot.

I didn’t just show up to class with him one day, though. The last thing I wanted was for my son to see his old man collapse in a fit of coughing or pass out from exhaustion or wind up twisting himself into so many Gordian knots even the EMTs wouldn’t be able to save him. I took adult classes for a few months to get a bead on where I really stood physically. Turned out I wasn’t in all that bad of shape. Also, apparently very few folks actually went to the adult classes, so I wound up getting a bunch of private lessons at regular cost and getting to know the masters pretty well.

After a few months, I started going to the family classes with my son. And aside from occasionally getting round-housed by a pre-teen, all was well.

Fast forward to November 2015. My second son has arrived and earned his dark green belt. My first son and I are both preparing for our black belt tests. Things are seemingly going well. But they’re not.

I’d started experiencing some discomfort early to mid 2015, wound up at the doctor’s in July with back pain, was given some meds and sent on my way. I’m not huge on taking pills, but I tried one anyhow. Didn’t much like the way it made me feel, so I opted instead to put a little more effort into stretching my back muscles. Though intermittent, the pain was not going away. In fact, it actually got worse, but so slowly and so unpredictably that I didn’t really take much notice until November 18, when I wound up going back to the doctor. I’ll spare the details of my visit, but the diagnosis was a left inguinal hernia. My black belt test was already scheduled for December 5.

Needless to say, I cancelled my test and stopped going to classes while I sorted the situation out. I met with the surgeon December 2, had the surgery on December 14, and let myself recover for the following few weeks.

Yesterday, January 9, I returned to Taekwondo. In the space of a month or so, I’d put some extra weight back on and my joints had become relatively stiff and inflexible. The moves were familiar, yet I was clumsy and uncertain in my execution. My performance was less than stellar, at times a little embarrassing considering a mere month prior I was deemed ready to take my black belt test, but I tried my best, and that’s what mattered. I showed up. I tried. And before long I’ll be back to where I was and headed for more improvement.

Why am I writing about this on a blog (using the term loosely) that hasn’t been updated in three years? Because I learned a few things in 2015 that are worth capturing, if for nothing else as a reminder to me going forward.

First, hernias suck. However, mine was relatively minor. The surgeon didn’t have to go through any muscle to fix it, I was in and out of surgery in roughly an hour, and only used pain medication for one day. A really good friend of mine at work had undergone similar surgery a month or so prior to mine, but his damage was more extensive and required a longer recovery time. By the way, talking with him is part of what took me back to the doctor on November for a proper diagnosis. Anyhow, my point here is that no matter how much your tough experience sucks, in all likelihood someone else has it worse. My hernia was tough on me, but not nearly as tough as it could have been. In fact, I’m pretty damned lucky as far as hernias go.

Second, when you feel pain or discomfort, it pays to take time and figure out why. Between July and November I did nothing about my physical pain and discomfort. I tried to ignore it in the hopes it would all go away. Not usually the best tactic to take. The pain was telling me something was wrong, and I should have listened more closely sooner than later.

Third, when getting back into something you’ve stepped away from, you have to be forgiving of yourself. It’s unreasonable to expect to pick up exactly where you left off when taking time away from something. It’s okay to take a step back. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s human.

Those three things apply to a much broader situation in my life, one represented in some ways by the fact that I haven’t posted on this blog in three years. Just like the hernia pain cause so much difficulty in my Taekwondo, I’ve suffered some stresses over the past few years that have affected my writing. Most notably, I took a new role at my company three years ago. If I recall correctly, my start date was January 21, 2013.

In the most general terms, I took a new role that relied less on my strict technical skills and forced me to work more on my people skills. Like the hernia, that new role was, and at times continues to be, a tough experience. Unlike the hernia, I took the role voluntarily precisely because I knew it would be tough in ways and challenge me to work on aspects of my personality that I’ve neglected. And even though the experience was tough, I’m actually very privileged to have a good paying job at a company that cares for its employees and to even have the opportunity for choosing to change roles. This was my choice, and by virtue of that fact alone my tough experience pales in comparison to many of those around me. I have friends and family who suffer, some physically, other emotionally, on a daily basis. Life for them is a struggle. I will not pretend my tough experiences are as bad as theirs, but they are the only experiences I have to share. If you think I have it pretty good, I happen to agree.

Even though the change in role was voluntary, and I expected some degree of pain and challenge, I also underestimated the number and types of new stressors involved. Essentially the role was more work than a single person could tackle. In fact, a couple of months in my boss and his boss asked that my role be split into two. For whatever reasons that didn’t happen until around October 2015, and by mid-2013 I’d mostly forgotten I was doing the work of two. The matter would come up at times with my boss (who’s been a champion for me since day one), but for the most part I soldiered on, did the best I could, safe in the knowledge that I had full direct managerial support in my effort to accomplish what I could. I expected the pain of growth, the stress of having to stretch myself further in ways I hadn’t before, but what I neglected to realize was that the pain and stress were from more than just normal growth. Something more was wrong. The stress affected my productivity, my personality, my happiness, yet it came on so gradually that I failed to notice. These problems manifested most notably in my writing life but the energy drain had affect pretty much across the board: work, family, friends, writing. Three years since I’ve even attempted a blog post. I spent a year plus working on a science fiction novel an effort to help me stretch and grow as a writer, only to scrap it because it was too tough. I started a side project that combines analytics and fiction, only to let that dwindle as well. I’ve been working on the sequel to Tearstone, but that’s been a slog at times and the thought has crossed my mind more than once that I should just give up on it.

But I won’t.

Like I mentioned above, my role was finally split in October 2015. A second person was brought in and roughly half my responsibilities were given to him. Again, I’m lucky. He’s smart, trustworthy, and very capable. During November and December I gave myself permission to slack off on the writing, not because I was giving up but because I realized that I needed to let myself recover from the stress I’d only recently recognized. I needed to heal.

I had originally planned on having the first draft to the Tearstone sequel done by the end of 2015. I’m only half-way through, but I’m back at it, and I’ve brought with me something I haven’t typically been good at - the capacity to forgive myself for not being perfect. I cannot pick up exactly where I left off in my writing, but I will get back there, and probably much sooner than I think.

I will have this first draft finished well before June rolls around, but if I don’t, I’ll forgive myself and keep working at it.

I wrapped up a first draft of my next novel in early December, and I decided to make 2013 a year for building my short story skills. I love short stories but I’m more inclined toward novels and long fiction, I think in part because they’re, well, longer. I like robust stories with full worlds and deep characters.

I write 3-4 shorts a year, which isn’t a lot, and they reflect my inclination toward longer stories. In fact, one of the most common critiques I’ve heard over the years of my short stories is, “This feels like the start to a larger piece.” And truth be told, most of them were, because it’s how I think. Too big, too much.

In prepping for my 2013 focus I began by doing a review of common story structures, convinced I’d missed something peculiar to short stories. Much of what I’ve read over the last month was familiar, but then I came across this older post by Philip Brewer on Story Structure in Short Stories.

Like Philip, I’m no stranger to story structure. I’ve attended several courses and read a few books on the subject. I still have notes from a wonderful lecture on Conflict, Plot, and Scene by Timons Esaias, in which he provided a classic structure for use to help a writer get started. You might recognize this as a common structure for fairy tales:

  1. A Person
  2. In a Place
  3. With a Problem
  4. Protagonist Strives & Fails
  5. Protagonist Strives & Fails
  6. Protagonist Strives & Succeeds (or Fails)
  7. Resolution

It’s a valuable structure, but with my approach to storytelling I’m looking at easily 5K words. This isn’t a problem with the structure, it’s a problem with my thinking, and until I read Philip Brewer’s post I was convinced I’d never quite get it.

Philip has this to say:

…short stories tend to have parts of the structure pared down: Not all steps are shown in full-blown scenes. It is important that the steps “take place” in the context of the story—that’s what makes it a story. But it isn’t necessary to show each step. It is enough simply to mention them. In fact, it can be enough simply to imply them.

I’ve heard this before, or something similar. A lot can and should be implied in a short story. My problem is in figuring out what can be implied and what’s essential. I can see this struggle as I look back over my work. But it’s what Philip says later that cracked it for me. An honest-to-god short story structure that makes sense to me:

It was less important to me to learn the answer to my first question, about the structure of a successful short story, once I understood how those structures relate to “complete” stories: I could now build up my own successful structures. But, as it happened, Geoffrey A. Landis had a pretty good description of the essential core of a short story. A story needs to:

  1. Require the character to make a choice,
  2. show that choice by actions, and
  3. those actions must have consequences.

I put this to the test in December as I was working on a short targeted at a specific anthology. I won’t know if the story’s been accepted for a few months, but for this first pass I was more interested in whether the structure helped me tell the story rather than whether it helped me sell the story.

It worked. I managed to write a first draft in a few hours, which for me is record time as I generally feel the need to throw everything in up front and edit out later. But this time, those three essentials kept me so focused on what needed to be there that I found myself naturally implying parts that I normally would have tried to include.

I now have a good model to help me move forward through the year. By no means would I say this is a universal model, but it’s workable and practical:

A short story must imply a full story structure while demonstrating a character’s relevant decision and that decision’s consequences.

Hopefully this will help another writer struggling with the same issue. And thanks to Philip for his brief yet insightful post.