New story out: Duck Duck God!

My newest publication came out this week from Book Smugglers Publishing: a short story called “Duck Duck God.” Check out this amazing cover they made for it!

This story goes in several new directions from me. First, it’s much more lighthearted than my usual style. It’s about a kindergarten teacher whose life is turned upside down when one of the little boys she teaches is suddenly gifted with godlike powers. While I got to play a lot with the natural conflict that would entail, I also got to sneak in some poking fun at educational bureaucracy. Since I’m now beginning my twenty-third year as a teacher, this story is probably about as write-what-you-know as it gets!

So check it out, and consider leaving a review for it on goodreads!

Posted in publication, teaching | Leave a comment

At the intersection of exercise and nerdiness

[CW: exercise, fitness, possibly diet, possibly body image]

[Please don’t give me unrequested advice. Talking about exercise, fitness, and body image in a public setting is incredibly vulnerable-making for me, and well-intentioned advice is more likely to prove damaging than helpful. Just trust me on this. I do research what I’m doing and I track my health using a variety of metrics. (On the other hand, cheerleading and celebration is totes welcome.)]

[By the same token, this is a journal entry, not advice for you. I’m just talking about what’s going on in my life, not telling anybody how to become fit or how to do anything else. IANAD and YMMV]

For about three years before my kids started high school, I used to bike or walk to school. (Don’t be too impressed: we’re just talking 1.75 miles each way, so not like biking cross-town or anything.) It was a nice way to feel like I was getting a little exercise, I liked to think it was somewhat good for the environment, and it gave me the flexibility to arrive and leave at whatever time I wanted, without messing up the rest of my family’s transportation needs. When my kids started high school they needed me to transport them, and I didn’t want to fight the fight of having them walk, because reasons, so I quit. Last month they graduated from high school, and I got to thinking that I should try to take up car-free commuting again, but I knew I was in no kind of shape for it, so I decided to try to get back into shape a bit.

My initial, very modest goal was to reliably be able to walk 1.75 miles in a half hour,  so I focused on being able to walk 3.5 miles in an hour. That took less than a week to achieve, and I wasn’t experiencing any soreness. So for whatever reason I got it into my head to start running a little bit around the midpoint of each workout, and see if I could increment how much I ran each time I went out. The first time, I was only able to run a quarter mile before I had to go back to walking. (I felt the need to say only, but then I struck it out, because for me that was pretty good. For someone else that’s nothing, but as in my previous post, about finding your own path to art, everybody needs to find their own aspiration and their own goalposts. Running a quarter mile as an obese 45-year old? Freaking Huzzah.)

For several days I went on this way, feeling pleased with any increment no matter how small. Then I decided to research Couch-to-5k programs. 3.5 miles is a bit over 5k, and if I could run a 5K without needing to stop to walk, I’d feel pretty badass. I have been skinny in my life, but I’ve never been fit in that way. I ultimately decided that C25K wasn’t for me, but I was intrigued by the fact that the program’s goal was to get one 5K-ready in 9 weeks. I extrapolated out my current rate of improvement and saw that I would not be running 5K in 9 weeks, or even in 18 weeks, so I decided I could stand to push myself a bit harder.

I used a spreadsheet to extrapolate how much I’d need to increment by each workout if I wanted to be running 3.5 miles by mid-November (which is a lot more than 9 weeks, but like I said, we all need to set our own goals). Based on this I’ve been pushing myself a little harder and experiencing success and feeling happy about this, and feeling the effects of being more fit. (I’ve also been tracking my nutrition, and the combination is working well, ~45 days in.)

In my research into running-for-new-runners, I’ve learned that C25K variants don’t generally do all the running in a single block, but rather alternate bits of running and bits of walking, with the goal of having the running gradually take over the workout. For me, in the hypothetical case that I am unable to reach my goal on any given workout, then my intention is to break up the goal distance into chunks, and then keep the same target for the next workout, instead of incrementing, but try to be able to do it all in one shot.

The other thing I learned in my research was that the main reason new exercise regimens fail is because people push themselves too hard at first, and find themselves feeling defeated or too sore. (I’d add from personal experience that another issue is not really pushing oneself at all, and thus not seeing results and wondering why one is bothering.) What I’ve found is that the higher goals I started setting for myself were a challenge at first—but this is where only running in one chunk worked well for me, because it was a challenge but then it was over and I could just feel accomplished, and not have to stress about the next bit of running.

As I went on, though it got easier and easier to reach each new goal, and this is where I realized I’d unthinkingly engaged in some questionable mathematical modeling. I’d imagined my “fitness” (as measured by distance I can run without stopping) as increasing linearly. More realistically, this ability ought to increase logistically, and if I’d been approaching this as a mathematician, that should have been my assumption. Logistic functions have graphs that look like this:

An image of a logistic function's graph.

Your basic logistic graph . . .

This seems to make sense to me. Gains are easier to come by at first, until eventually you reach a point of diminishing returns. For instance, at first it might be realistic to expect an improvement of 5% or perhaps 10% per workout, but eventually sustaining that rate of improvement becomes impossible in any practical sense–you can’t become infinitely strong, or capable of running infinite distances.

(I did want you there would be nerdiness.)

Now, since my total distance has been capped all along at 3.5 miles, I will never see that top flattening. So if I had it to do over again, I would probably increment by a percentage, instead of by a fixed amount each time. It probably would have helped me avoid a risk of finding this too hard at first. On the other hand, what I am experiencing now—that incrementing is getting easier as I go—is pretty good too.


Posted in assorted nerdom, blargety-blog, first world problems, math | Leave a comment

Embrace the great YMMV

I unfollowed a writer on twitter the other day, in an act of self-preservation. Not a bad guy in any way, but he kept tweeting a sentiment I found artistically damaging. Over the course of several days, he kept tweeting that you should only write the stories you couldn’t not write, the stories you had to write. Now, there’s nothing wrong with living your artistic life this way. But for me, well, I don’t have to write anything. I find twitter and facebook and reading pretty fulfilling, actually, so if I were to only write the things I have to write, well I’d pretty much stop. So I decided what I really had to do was unfollow.

Now, I care deeply about the things I write about. I write emotional stories, or at least I try to, and I try to bleed on the page and sell my heart. But I don’t think everybody needs to do this. The world needs clever puzzle stories and comical stories and fun stories and adrenaline-pumping action stories and stories about übercompetent characters who don’t actually have character arcs.

One of the most damaging things I’ve experienced as an aspiring artist is the overly prescriptive nugget of advice. You have to do this. Real writers do that. It’s not worth doing if it isn’t such-and-such. This is the only way. For many years, this was a source of writers’ block for me, as I struggled to fit myself into other people’s boxes.

(I recognize the irony of linking to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “You’ve got to . . .” advice, but despite how prescriptive it is, this was one piece of advice that worked for me. And that’s the thing. It’s not that advice from artists to artists is bad—it’s that it’s not and can never be universal. I think advice should take the form, “This is what I find helpful. You might like to try it and see if it works for you as well, if it matches up with something you are looking to change.”)

These days, when somebody offers me a box, I run the other way.

Posted in artist's life, rants, writing | Leave a comment

Oh hey, Cuba’s in the news again

There’s a certain specific kind of cognitive dissonance I experience every time Cuba’s in the news: when [some] people who share my liberal views lose their ability to do nuance, and start to glorify the Castro regime. (It’s the mirror image of the cognitive dissonance I experienced when I noticed that so many people who had suffered under Castro seemed driven to embrace the worst policies of the right, as if it were not possible to reject one kind of evil without simultaneously embracing another.) So, since I always get asked to give my Official Opinions as a Cuban American at times like these, here are a few reminders:

  • It is possible to reject a communist totalitarianism without embracing fascism.
  • It is possible to reject fascism without embracing totalitarianism.
  • It is possible to think the embargo is a shitty, failed policy while simultaneously believing Cuba’s current regime is repressive and corrupt—my basis for opposing the embargo is not because Cuba’s government is good, but because the embargo has clearly and obviously failed.
  • Fidel Castro was a dictator, a murderer, and a thief.
  • Elections where your only choices are to vote for the party ticket or against it (i.e., where you don’t actually have a choice between candidates or options) (and where your votes are tracked) are not free elections.
  • Cuba’s human rights record when it comes to repression and political prisoners is terrible—and this is not just a back-in-the-day thing. Cuba has continued cracking down on dissidents all the way up to the current day.
  • Che Guevara was at best a duped idealist who was happy to murder innocents for his cause—and at worst another murderous opportunist.
  • Your Che Guevara T-Shirt (bought at Walmart) doesn’t make you a revolutionary, it makes you a sheltered, privileged douchebag.
  • Don’t idolize murderers, kids; it’s a bad look.
Posted in rants, the latino thing, this I believe | Leave a comment

Giving RENT a second chance

I love theatre, and I love musicals. My spouse and I used to perform in our local community theatre troupe, before toxic politics sank it. So gosh, I should really like Rent, right?

I like a lot of the songs, maybe rising as far as loving one or two of them, but when I finally got to watch the film version, my biggest memory is of being underwhelmed. I remember getting to know these characters, getting somewhat intrigued by their situations, and then a blur and the movie was over, and I didn’t really feel much of anything about what I’d just seen.

I know, watching a film of something virtually never stands up to watching it in its original medium, and particularly watching a film version that tanked and was not well-received critically is beyond unfair to the show. But I’ve never gotten an opportunity to watch it on stage, so this is all I’ve got.

But tonight I saw that the movie was on television, and I got to wondering if perhaps I had misjudged it. It’s only been a little over a decade since the film came out, so I was well into my thirties when I saw it, certainly an adult by any stretch. But I’ve experienced so much since then, it’s hard not to look back at early-thirties me and think, that person was just a kid. Maybe I would get the movie now, in a way that I didn’t back when it was new.

Well, no.

What I do have now, in my forties and a few years into a tiny little “career” as a selling author, is better tools with which to understand why something fails to work with me. I also find that analyzing why narratives fail is pretty useful, and generally less overwhelming than articulating all the reasons why successful narratives do work.

What I see now in the movie version of Rent is a dropped third act. I’m just using the term “third act” as a convenient shorthand. I don’t know that it was written in three acts, and I’m not faulting it for failing to hew to the so-popular-it’s-getting-trite three act structure. What I mean is that I am introduced to a number of characters, I learn what each character seems to need or want, I am shown some highs and lows and invited to care about them, and then, when things look their bleakest, the movie tries to tie the story back up together into some kind of a bittersweet we’ve-all-suffered-but-now-we’ve-grown climax, and it’s a mess and it utterly fails.

I wish I’d glanced at the time when the funeral scene was going on, because that’s where it all . . . well, not where it came apart, but where it failed to come together. Roger moves to Santa Fe and . . . then he comes back. Mark goes back to working on his own film . . . because . . . well, because that’s what the story needed him to do. We don’t actually see the other characters have any transformative moments, unless you want to say that looking for the missing Mimi counts, which, fair enough, but as with Roger and Mark, we don’t actually see the characters grow, we don’t see them move past the separation they demonstrated at Angel’s funeral.

I actually love writing those scenes where characters realize what’s truly important to them, where characters stop focusing on the tangible and learn to value their relationships. It’s not for me to judge how good I am at it, but I live for those moments, and in this film, I can see now that we never get them. Roger comes back to New York because he does. That’s it. So that you can have the climactic scene with Near Death Mimi. Maybe because the film was already over two hours long, but I would have valued seeing Roger and Mark (and the others!) have their little moments where they compared the things they were chasing with the things they’d left behind and realized they’d made the wrong choices. But for that to happen, the funeral scene would have needed to happen around the midpoint of the movie, if not sooner, so there would be time for all those realizations. It doesn’t happen until around 90% of the way through, and so that’s why we get told, instead of shown, that the characters have had these arcs while we weren’t looking.

Character arc by montage.

We talk a lot about earning your end-of-story payoffs, and here’s the quintessential counterexample: the finale scene is completely unearned.

Posted in movies, storytelling, writing | Leave a comment

Take a swim on the wild side

My family and I just spend a week at Madeira Beach, which near as I can tell is halfway between Clearwater and St. Pete Beach. We’ve stayed at the beach before, but for some reason we had a lot more encounters with sea life this time around. Apparently it’s totally a locally-known thing that dolphins pretty much parade down the inlet between Madeira Beach and Treasure Island right at dusk every night, and we were lucky enough to get to see this. I took a picture on my phone, though it’s not very good, because phone and because dusk and because distance, but here it is anyway:

Seen: dolphins, or possibly seaweed.

A couple nights later I went out for my walk-jog and had more or less the same view. Getting to see dolphins was a reasonably fair compensation for the sudden unaccustomed presence of bridges on my route.

I had my closest sea life encounter yesterday, though, when I was actually in the water. I was facing the shore, making sure I didn’t get carried too far from my stuff, when I heard a snort behind me. I turned around to came face to face with a snout, not four feet away. In hindsight, it was a manatee, coming up for air, but I admit, seeing nothing but snout, my first thought was sea lion. Which doesn’t make a lick of sense, I know, but cut me some slack—I was neck deep in the soup with it, whatever it was. So I pretty much blurted out jesuschrist and it turned and went away.

Next time I’ll bring a head of lettuce with me.

Posted in blargety-blog, stupid things | Leave a comment

Your AHCA Math Lesson

Every year at some point I end up teaching about mean versus median as measures of central tendency. The mean has the advantage of representing all the data points, but that same advantage can be its weakness, of there are outliers in the data. I typically make up some off-the-cuff example where I pretend I’m an employer and four or five of the kids in my class, usually one of the rows, are my employees, and list their salaries as $10,000/year, $10,000/year, $10,000/year, $10,000/year, and $120,000/year (I often jokingly suggest that this employee is my niece or nephew). I then point out that I can honestly say to prospective employees that they should come work for me because there is a lot of potential for salary growth at my company: the mean salary is $32,000/year. This is technically true, but not a fair representation of the salary situation at my company—the median salary of $10,000/year would be a far better representation of what a new hire could expect to be paid by me.

Well it illustrates the point, but it’s an extreme and far-fetched example, right?

Enter TrumpCare:

The average federal tax cut under the AHCA (read: our collective kickback for dismantling healthcare, such as it was) is $600, and yet more than 80% of taxpayers will get less than this? Why, how is this possible? There must be some truly dramatic outlier to make this—oh, there it is, on the right.

Posted in math, rants | 1 Comment

What are YOU gonna sing?

I’ve blogged before about how much I enjoy karaoke. I’ve been enjoying it more, recently, after a year or two during which I felt my range substantially diminish. I’ve been working on strengthening my voice and it seems to be paying off and I’m remembering what it’s like to really enjoy singing—and only just beginning to realize how much that joy had diminished.

Last night I was out singing and I had an annoying interaction I’ve had before, and it got me thinking about low grade anxiety, and how different people process anxiety in general.

I don’t suffer much from stage fright. I do get a bit of nervousness before I take a stage for any reason, but usually it’s the good kind–the hyper-alert in-the-moment adrenaline-rush that makes being on stage a rewarding experience, not a terror-filled one. So it might seem contradictory to talk about anxiety with regard to singing, but like I said, the nerves are still there, it’s just not particularly crippling.

So once or twice a year there’ll be some stranger seeing me getting ready to sing. Invariably I haven’t sung yet that night, or I sang before they came into the joint, so they haven’t heard me sing yet. And they ask me, “What are you gonna sing?” And I always react in kind of a stand-offish way. “Wait and see!” or, “I’m not sure yet!” And then they always get pissed at me and I’ve got someone in the audience guaranteed to be unfriendly to me.

But from my perspective, that can go one of two ways: 1) It’s a song they love, in which case now they won’t react with pleasant surprise once I start singing it because they already know it’s coming, or 2) It’s a song they don’t like or have never heard of, in which case their unenthusiastic response to hearing what’s coming will harsh my own enthusiasm before I even get to sing.

Or it’s a song they love but I won’t sing it well. Or it’s a song they love and I can sing it well, but I don’t look like the right kind of person to sing it.

(Last night, as it happened, I was getting ready to sing “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” a really obscure Billy Joel song that nobody’s ever heard of. I chose it specifically  because I’d never seen it on a karaoke list before, so I was excited to sing something I’d never sung before. Only then it turned out that even though the song was on the list, they didn’t actually have it. So I really didn’t know what I was going to sing.)

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about my own reaction, why I can’t just deal with it and move on, and I think it’s because it messes with that low grade stage fright. It makes me just a little more conscious of being judged, either on the coolness of the song, the quality of my performance, or on my own presentation. And so that low-grade not a problem stage fright becomes ever-so-slightly magnified by the interaction. Not enough to make me not want to sing anymore, but enough to make the experience just a bit less fun.

And it makes me think about other times when I or other people are dealing with anxiety. There’s this idea that anxiety is very visible—trembling, vomiting, stuff like that—but everyday anxiety can be much quieter than that. I do experience anxiety in other aspects of my life, and I think often people around me don’t know I’m experiencing it.

Maybe I miss the signs when people around me are experiencing their own anxiety, and I fail to be as . . . helpful/accommodating/up-building as I could be.

It’s something to think about.

Posted in blargety-blog, music | Leave a comment

Pretending to still love them

There’s this weird thing about being a selling writer that is obvious in retrospect, but that I totally didn’t see coming. When I write my stories, I feel varying levels of excitement about each one. But on some level, I have some love for each one, some sense that I’ve got something really good here, or I wouldn’t have finished writing it—or at the very least, I wouldn’t shop it. I am really comfortable trunking my own work and just shopping around the stories I think are any good.

So I’ll have this story, and I think it doesn’t totally stink, and maybe I’ll get feedback on it and my first readers—readers I can count on to tell me if something absolutely doesn’t work—will get excited and tell me I’ve got something good here . . . and then I start shopping the story . . .

Now I have had one story sell on its first time out the door (*bounce*bounce*bounce*) and quite a few of them sell on the second trip out, so I’m not talking about those right now. But some stories take a while to find their market. I’m not sure what the longest wait I’ve had between writing a story and selling it, but I’m sure it is measured in years. I think my record before selling a story is seventeen or eighteen rejections, but I think I have at least one still-not-trunked story that’s been rejected more times.

And every rejection carries with it the message, nope, this story isn’t good enough. I don’t need people to reassure me that this isn’t so, to share stories about stories that have been bought after multiple rejections, stories that have won awards after only being bought after multiple rejections . . . the intellect knows all this. Heck, as noted above, I myself have sold stories after multiple rejections. This isn’t an intellect thing, it’s a heart thing. My purpose in posting isn’t to seek reassurance, but to chronicle the things I experience and feel.

So I might spend a year or two being told over and over again that this story isn’t quite good enough, when suddenly it sells. Now the story gets published, and I need to promote it, but I no longer believe in it quite as strongly as I once did. More confusingly, I’ll have people read the story and really like it a lot and tell me it’s terrific, and it’s all cognitive dissonance for me, because I had a quiet year or two of becoming convinced the story wasn’t very good.

This is on my mind because I’ve got a story I’m getting ready to submit in the next few days, a story I care about more than most, but the (merely!) four rejections I’ve already gotten on it have already tarnished my feelings about it. And so there’s a bit of a hesitation I feel before hitting the submit button. Not enough to stop me, because you can’t sell anything if you don’t try. But enough to make me a bit gun-shy.

Posted in artist's life, blargety-blog, fail, writing | Leave a comment

Giving thanks for, or, How Donald Trump is making me a better citizen

Not too long ago, somebody I followed on Twitter was wondering basically where and how our dystopian novel hero would arise. A decade or so ago it seemed we were getting fed a steady diet of dystopian young adult novels and movies, and now here we are seeing the evolution of religious-pandering, right-stealing, corporate swamp-building kleptocracy, and so what are we doing about it besides wringing our hands?

Well making phone calls doesn’t make much for action heroes, but I guess I’m too privileged to start blowing shit up, or too old and fat to be an action hero anyway . . . or maybe I still believe we haven’t quite gone over the precipice yet, and that it’s not too late for raising our voices and demonstrating and asking our representatives to actually represent us instead of their corporate sponsors. I’m probably naïve, but what the heck.

So my answer to the question “What moved you from outrage to action” was, because it basically took away every excuse I had for sitting on my butt and doing nothing. (Obviously 5calls shares my biases, so I don’t know what you do to be more civic-minded if your biases lean in a different direction from mine. I suppose issues are issues, so you could still use 5calls but change the script to reflect your POV. I customize all my scripts anyway.)

Some other online resources that I’ve been using include Town Hall Project and Indivisible. Which brings me to another point. It’s not heroic to spend five minutes making a few phone calls. It’s slightly better than nothing, is what it is. But what is more heroic is the people who are organizing these and other resources, along with the people organizing marches and protests and other actual civic action. And the people setting the example. A big part of what’s gotten me started is watching my friend Mike, who has formed a local resistance group and updates a facebook page with scripts every day on the major issues that are of interest to his group. I don’t live in his area, but I get his updates anyway, and each day’s update comes with an unspoken question from me to myself: What the hell are you doing, Joe?

And to bring this all the way back around to the title of this blog post, no, I’m not grateful to Donald Trump for a single thing, but it’s interesting that all of these years I could have been a more active, vocal supporter of the things I believe in. I donated money to politicians and to causes and groups whose mission I believed in, but I never called anybody, and I never showed up anywhere. I’m reminded a bit about how I got to know my neighbors in Miami so much better after Hurricane Andrew destroyed all our houses and we had to pitch together to share resources. Maybe it takes a disaster, like Donald Trump, to make us see what we’re capable of.

Posted in close to home, first world problems, tech geek, this I believe | 3 Comments