Picture It: Spring, 2024

Four-and-a-half months since my last update. The TL;DR: Life is good. This update will be lengthy, and organized in sections that appear in no specific order, so grab your favorite beverage and let’s get down to business.

The Winter That Wasn’t

So, uh, how about last winter, amirite?

In Grand Rapids, we had roughly two weeks of legitimate winter, which wasn’t terrible. But it wasn’t good, either. I was rather excited to drive a full-sized truck with new tires and four-wheel drive through many mountains of snow. But alas, most of the winter was snow-free and hovering within that awkward range of cold that’s too chilly for being coatless but not chilly enough to feel like winter.

That meant that a lot of green appeared unseasonably early — I saw trees budding in early April, when they shouldn’t have budded until the first week of May. Lucky for them, we didn’t experience a meaningful frost after that point, but still.

The view out of my home-office window, that one day we had snow this winter. 🙁

The upside? The Climate Prediction Center suggests that West Michigan will have a 40 percent to 50 percent chance of higher-than-normal temperatures through the November-through-January window, at which time (December-through-February) we’re back to equal probabilities of warmer or cooler weather through the second half of next winter. Also, equal probabilities or wetter or dryer than normal conditions through the summer, and a 40 to 50 percent probability of higher-than-normal precipitation from December through March.

I love Michigan’s climate. I love hot, humid, sunny summers and cold, snowy winters. And everything in between. It felt weird to not really have much of a winter this past season, but perhaps we’ll make up for lost time six months from now.

A Productive Lent and Easter

For several years now, it’s seemed as if I keep trying to have a spiritually enriching Lent or Easter or Advent or Christmas or whatever season. And then — poof. Nothing happens.

This year was different.

I decided to tackle Lent the down-and-dirty way: One day at a time, driven in large part by the gratitude I felt from Cade’s cancer being classified as Stage II instead of Stage IV. I started on Ash Wednesday, partaking of the noon service at St. Mary’s in downtown Grand Rapids. That Saturday, I attended Confession for the first time in a couple of years, at Sacred Heart. Then Mass at St. Anthony.

Holy Week split between St. Anthony for Good Friday and St. Isidore for Easter Sunday as well as for another stint in the penalty box confessional.

Given my weekend schedule as of late, I’ve settled on a routine of Sunday evening Mass at St. Isidore while also observing my normal First Friday Adoration schedule (midnight until 2 a.m., if anyone’s up for joining me!) at Sacred Heart. I’ve been reading the Bible cover-to-cover while in Adoration. I started in 2021 with Genesis and now I’m up to Micah, although I’m reading the RSV-2CE (the Didache Bible from Ignatius Press) so the Maccabees appear after the minor prophets instead of with the rest of the historical books. I figure in another couple of years, I’ll be through Revelation.

Oh, and I’ve been praying the Liturgy of the Hours much more frequently. I’m especially a fan of combining the Office of Readings with one of the major hours (morning or evening). The Psalms are growing on me, it seems.

I’ll probably be a three-parish Catholic going forward, depending on my schedule for any given weekend. I’m technically registered at Sacred Heart, but usually attend the Sunday evening Mass at St. Isidore. I love everything about Sacred Heart (the Extraordinary Form liturgies, the beauty and reverence, the preaching) but it isn’t an especially warm place; I don’t feel “home” there. I do feel at home at St. Anthony, but liturgical practice there is so trapped in the disco era that it’s rarely spiritually fulfilling. I also like the decor and the liturgical reverence at St. Isidore — and monsignor is a thoughtful homilist — but the evening Mass is very sparsely attended and their otherwise divine music director seems to favor the most kitschy folk tunes that the abysmal Gather hymnal can muster, set to organ and delivered operatically. Quite disorienting.

The Church of the Age of Aquarius

Oh! Speaking of the disco era, on a recent episode of The Pillar Podcast, Ed Condon made a point about the state of the Catholic Church in the English-speaking world that I think is profound.

He argues, in short, that a lot of the liturgy wars of the last 40 years have sprung not from disagreements about Vatican II but from “the spirit of the age” that infused the first round of implementation strategies for the Missal of Paul VI. That age was the early 1970s, and so it’s not a surprise that a lot of the trappings of “bad liturgy” are holdovers from that specific moment in time. It would be odd if it were otherwise! And now that the vanguard of that age are starting to die off, the fruits of Sacrosanctum Concilium may flower with the deeper authenticity that comes from its distance in time. Just as has happened after every major council of the Church from antiquity.

Consider all the cringeworthy guitar Masses, felt banners, hand-holding, and jokes from the pulpit. Or the “liturgical dance.” The absence of Latin and any ad orientem celebrations. Proliferating announcements in the middle of Mass. The vast, chaotic horde of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. The communal penance services and the whole “let’s let everyone wash everyone else’s feet” nonsense of Holy Thursday. And don’t get me started on the music, which in many parishes is stuck in ’60s- and ’70s-era folk tunes that are hard to sing but do a great job of either glorifying the congregation (Tom Conry’s atrocious Anthem) or audaciously acting in persona Christi (Toolan’s insipid I Am the Bread of Life).

None of the above was mandated by the Council. None of it. It flowered because a certain class of reformist-slash-hippie experts who surrounded the Council and the implementation immediately after it exercised a disproportionate influence on English-speaking Catholicism. They hard-coded a very “1972” ecclesiology and anthropology into their experimental new rites. It wasn’t for nothing that in November 1985 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops needed to explicitly ban the Clown Mass, after all. But the problem is that 1972 didn’t move forward in conjunction with the calendar. So now it’s 2024 and a large group of modern Catholics formed in the Ordinary Form of the Mass still worship as if it’s 1972. And when the Church moves on, they get mad; the Associated Press, in a much-heralded recent article, shows the resentment of these Age of Aquarius Catholics even as the more mature fruits of the Council — branded as “conservatism” or a “return to old ways” — begin to manifest among younger Catholics with no bone to pick about the Extraordinary Form. The Catholics who were active from the mid 1960s through the late 1990s and haven’t kept up with the times are being left behind even as they clutch their horrid Gather hymnals and natter on about female ordination and synodality and whatnot.

The problem with the “full and active participation of the Faithful” is that the word participation does a lot of quiet heavy lifting. In the 1960s and 1970s, a popular but hollow anthropology arose that equated doing something (speaking, singing, acting) with engagement. The idea that a person could engage quietly, through private prayer, to contribute to the Holy Sacrifice seemed like an outdated notion — an idea best left with the old babushkas toting their mantillas and their pocket missals and their rosaries. But that diversity of engagement is precisely what the Council mandated from the beginning.

Arts-and-crafts decorations and folk tunes and blessings by EMEs are not the authentic fruit of Vatican II. We’re only now starting to see the Council’s fruit blossom, after a transition period where the heralds of the new discover they’re fighting to sacralize the same pop-culture mentality that gave us bell bottoms and brutalist architecture. Parishes that close the door on the Age of Aquarius (e.g., Sacred Heart) will thrive; parishes that don’t will decline along with their Mainline Protestant brethren.

(Oops, sorry — I meant “along with their Mainline Protestant sisters and brothers.“)

Of Cats and Snakes

My four felines are a-purrin’ along. Team Orange (Murphy and Fiona d’Cat, at home) are aging but doing great. Team Grey (Theon and Kali d’Cat, at the office) have settled into a comfortable friendship.

Apollo d’Snek recently came out of brumation; he’s now hyperactive, looking for a mate, instead of burrowing in his substrate. We transferred him to a new, larger enclosure a few weeks ago and he seems to be digging it, although he needs some new branches to climb upon. And Athena d’Snek is growing rapidly. Despite being juvenile, she’s very chill and has responded well to being handled, including by children at the dojo.

Horsing Around

Joining me this month is Tyr d’Horse.

Tyr is a 4-year-old mustang from the Eagle HMA, which is just north of Las Vegas. He’s already 15.1 hands tall. He’s sorrel with a flaxen mane and tail as well as an elegant and controlled gait. He needs a bit more meat on his bones, but we can fix that. And somehow his tail and mane got chopped, but that’s also a solvable problem.

Photos really don’t do him justice, so here’s a video of him with the two-year-old that the trainer purchased in Cassopolis:

Tyr is curious and slightly cautious, but despite being an untouched feral gelding, he never freaked out and never showed signs of distress or anger. For the princely sum of $125 I obtained him through an Internet auction run by the Bureau of Land Management. He was shipped from Wyoming to Cassopolis, Mich., where my trainer and I signed for him. At the trainer’s facility, he got very close to me and Cade to munch a book of hay by our feet, and when the trainer entered the pen, he was alert but didn’t panic. All of this is a good sign that he’ll be calm and easy to work with.

He’ll be with the trainer in Big Rapids for two to six weeks for basic gentling (wearing a halter, allowing hoof inspections, allowing me to approach and touch, and being willing to trailer) before he goes to his “forever home” in Marne. From there, I’ll work with him (and also with a different trainer) to get him trail-ride ready. Of course, he needs to gain some weight and I need to lose some before you’ll see me on his back, but we have all the time in the world. He’ll have a mustang friend at the boarding facility in Marne — Cade’s gelding, Oliver, who followed the exact same path a year ago. (And now, Ollie is super chill and fun to work with. And incredibly smart: he knows which pocket contains the treats and he also knows when all the treats are gone.)

Oliver (L) and Kodiak, Cade’s horses. Ollie is a 5-year-old gelding from Divide Basin who arrived in Michigan last year, along the same trajectory as Tyr. Kodi is roughly 8, small, and dead broke — although he seems to have been a bit maltreated with his former owners, a problem that Cade is rectifying with some gentle care. And don’t let the photos fool you; Ollie is probably only around 14hh.

So stay tuned for equine updates, pardners.

Long Live the King of Statistical Improbabilities

Speaking of Cade — his chemo has been doing well. He underwent surgery in January to remove a large mass. After that, and after two (unnecessary and invasive) lung biopsies, he was cleared to begin chemo. He started on a potent fortnightly drug combo and recently stepped down to something more tolerable. He’s still on a treat-to-cure pathway, which we both see as a gift.

It’s been remarkable to watch his journey of “kicking cancer’s ass.” Since the new year, I’ve been with him through three surgeries, an E/R visit, a half-dozen imaging studies, and countless ambulatory appointments. Together, we’ve had fun (penguin feeding!) and experienced anxiety (a kidney crisis for Chloe the Elderly Leaky Chihuahua). We’ve worked with his horses, set life plans, visited a casino, taken road trips, cared for his mini-zoo, gone on picnics, and enjoyed date nights. Much of what’s happened to him and to Chloe has been highly improbable — which is why I want him to play the lottery! — but he’s kept up a good attitude. I’ve been impressed by his quiet courage, his determination, and his limitless empathy.

Adventures in Zookeeping

After Cade’s surgery, he enjoyed limited use of one arm for a while so I helped him with the maintenance and feeding of The Menagerie. He cares for a dog, two cats, two horses, a rabbit, a chicken, a quail, two rats, a half-dozen mice, a toad, several frogs, a scorpion, a tarantula, an anole, a crested gecko, a couple of bettas, a guppy tank, and a goldfish tank. And did I mention the 29 snakes, ranging in size from a baby palmetto corn to a full-grown female boa constrictor?

Helping him tend to these animals has been eye-opening and incredible, as has working with him to help Chloe the dog with some kidney problems — e.g., by giving her subcutaneous fluids and injectable meds on occasion.

I suspect that starting an animal rescue will be in our future.

Settling Into Paris

For the most part, I’m completely settled at The Chateaux, my new home in the Heritage Hill district of Grand Rapids. One of the last things I needed to do was to attend to the basement. A previous occupant had left some miscellaneous boxes in the basement hallway, so I’m dispensing with those. I’ve moved my storage stuff to the storage room (shocker!) and the big main space has now been fitted with a 12-foot-by-16-foot half-inch foam mat system so I can practice karate down there. I even put up a mini shomen on the north wall, with pictures of our founding masters as well as my own lineage and a copy of my nidan certificate.

I’ve also set up my exercise bike, additional LED lighting, a side table, and a fan. I’ll soon order a treadmill and a cable-driven weight bench, as well as some smaller hand weights to work with my multipurpose bench and its elastic-band system.

The movement of the recumbent bike has led to a cascade of minor changes on the second floor. My Yamaha keyboard has relocated from my office to the Adventure Room, for example. I replaced the bookshelves in my office and bought a new reading chair, so the older reading chair has also moved to the Adventure Room.

I also finished smarting-up the joint. I installed two interior surveillance cameras, both pointing at the exterior doors. I added a video doorbell, an outdoor weather station, a smart door lock for the front door, and a smart thermostat, in addition to a half-dozen smart light bulbs. All of these are controlled through Apple Home. I’ve set several handy automations to instantly transform the lighting depending on my mood and the time of day.

A few things remain to wrap up (seating in the three-season porch; seating on the front porch and planters for my seeds) but the big stuff has been done for a while now. It’s a significant improvement upon The Fortress.

Truck Camping, & Sundry Other Adventures

A few weeks ago, my brother and I camped at Mud Lake State Forest Campground. It was the first time I had set up the truck tent in the back of the Silverado. With his help, I erected the tent and the rain fly, set up my 10-foot-by-10-foot popup tent, and got everything into good order. I even used a cot with a mattress pad and slept reasonably comfortably that night.

Everything worked out well. I brought a two-burner Coleman stove, a couple coolers of food and beverage, a comfortable camp chair, a folding table, and all the other little necessities that made for a much more pleasant camping adventure. We planned to spend three days and two nights there, but a band of severe weather passed through with extraordinarily high winds, so we called it off by mid-day Saturday.

However, on Friday night, we enjoyed a roaring campfire, plenty of bourbon, and a couple of cigars, as well as good conversation. And the next morning, we chatted about his own rig — a utility trailer that he can also use as a more rustic camping trailer.

We definitely want to get out more often. I’ve already scheduled a couple of long-weekend camping trips this summer. Plus, I’m thinking long and hard about Brian’s trailer setup. Ideas, ideas.

Adventures in Analytics

Life on the work front has been interesting. My two biggest clients have both used me for a combination of revenue strategy, analytics, and business-process management. Since I started independently consulting in 2018, much of my time has been spent as a virtual CIO.

One recent takeaway: The SMB market doesn’t use advanced analytics, and I’m increasingly skeptical of the claims that Big Data or Big Analytics (or, I suppose, Big AI) will prove meaningful at anything lower than an enterprise level. And even then, it’s more about the culture of the C-suite than the skillset of the analytic corps.

Give a company a well-designed, well-documented SQL server with a robust, normalized data model and an open-source visualization tool (Metabase, Superset, Redash, &c.), and they’ll do 95 percent of what needs to be done. The real question is whether that extra 5 percent is worth the time and expense to achieve.

In some — many? — cases, I don’t think it is. At least, not for SMBs.

Bookstore Growth …

The bookstore is taking off. I think I’m up to more than 4,000 books in stock and I’m still on deck for my plan to start investing in new local-author titles later this summer.

It’s nice to have a series of regular customers who come in, browse, shop, and chat. We’ve done no advertising — it’s all been word-of-mouth, plus additions to mapping tools — but the reaction so far has been great. And, the weekly seminar program has been a lot of fun. We have a book group, a game night, a writing-craft night, and a big-idea discussion night.

At the end of the month (May 29, to be precise) we’re going to have a community potluck and grill-out for writers and their families. Should be a good time!

… and Publishing Shrinkage

I’ve formally closed Lakeshore Literary, Inc., and have decided to stop publishing long-form fiction. (Some publishing operations, like a reboot of The Lakeshore Review, will restart in a few months under the Foundation as a purely non-profit undertaking.) Some of the admin stuff is still unwinding, but the State of Michigan has endorsed the resolution to dissolve and so I’ve been slowly spinning the company down since January.

The biggest reason is financial. Lakeshore Literary has never made money; in fact, it’s lost me considerable money, in addition to the expense of uncompensated editorial and administrative time. The small amount of revenue we received for published books and journals paled in comparison to the cost of actually running and maintaining the business. I don’t have the bandwidth to manage projects that need hundreds of hours of time, especially when the terms of those projects shift unexpectedly and the cost-benefit ratio is on the wrong side of green.

Relatedly, I’m also closing Diction Dude LLC, my writing consultancy. I haven’t really done much writing consulting and having yet another business entity floating out there, consuming resources without contributing revenue, makes no sense.

I’m kinda-sorta-but-not-really sad about this turn of events. Of all the things on my plate, publishing was the thing that took a heck of a lot of time for no discernible ROI. It was a pricey hobby that must now yield to more productive pursuits.

An Author Alliance

From October 2023 through April 2024, the staff of National Novel Writing Month (which eventually dwindled to just one person) experienced a catastrophic implosion related to a series of scandals involving shady sponsors, incompetent staffers, and the failure to take seriously some complaints about forum moderators who may (or may not) have abused their authority — including, in one case, a moderator alleged to have groomed minors to join a fetish-story community dedicated to adult baby diaper lovers. Over the last few months, all of the staff but one seem to have quit. And the one remaining staffer decided to fire all 800-plus municipal liaisons worldwide who manage NaNoWriMo regionally, with no good plan in place to bring them back aboard.

You can’t make this [expletive deleted] up.

Anyway, our NaNoWriMo region has elected to go independent. As of last month, we formally separated ourselves from HQ and have become the West Michigan Author Alliance, a loose writing group under the aegis of the Lakeshore Literary Foundation. More to come!

Writing Projects

My personal writing has been largely on hold given time constraints, but when I get the chance, I do spend some time re-constituting From Pencil to Print, a book I started in 2017 but then blew up into several smaller books. It’s a book about the craft and business of writing. My revised plan takes the content of two of my manuscripts (one published, one at 85 percent completion) then adds a bit and subtracts a bit to arrive at a more coherent final output.

No sense yet of how long it’ll take to finish; I’m simply taking time where I can to work on it without being driven toward an artificial deadline.

The 17th, Yet Again

I’m running unopposed for the Republican nomination for Kent County Commission for District 17. Although I’m sure to lose the race in the general election (this district is something like D+50), it’s a good exercise in civic engagement to “fill the tree” to ensure that people have options as they cast their ballots.

This is, I believe, my fourth run at this office. We shall see if, this year, I crack my P.R. of 22 percent in the general election. 🙂

The Last Tech Tweak

In my last post, I noted that I had migrated from Logseq to Bear. I didn’t stay on Bear long before migrating (again), this time to Obsidian. So far, Obsidian is everything I wanted from Logseq but with none of the vexing sync errors.

Fingers crossed, this incarnation of a PKM will stick around a while. Using Obsidian and Todoist together, and being more thoughtful about which calendars and email accounts I provision to which devices, has certainly streamlined things for me.

The Discovery Era Ends

As I write this, two episodes remain in the fifth and final season of Star Trek: Discovery. Nerds — especially Trek nerds — will quibble, but the popular reception of Discovery hasn’t been all that hot. There’s a lot wrong with the series; several gifted actors (Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, David Cronenberg, Tig Notaro, Jason Isaacs, Michelle Yeoh) did their best with uneven writing and myriad Mary Sue moments and a push from execs to boldly go (into trans and non-binary spaces) where Trek had never gone (so ham-fistedly) before. Basically, the same problem that Doctor Who experienced in the Jodi Whittaker years.

But I’ll admit: I really like Discovery. A part of it stems from its reboot of the franchise after so many years of dormancy. But another part is that the series brought me joy in a rough time. When Season 1 debuted in late 2017, I was going through a politically toxic patch at work. Weekly Disco drops gave me something to look forward to. Now that the show ends in just two weeks, I find I’m a very different person occupying a very different and much happier personal and professional place. But I will still miss the show, and I will miss Martin-Green’s Captain Burnham continuing to settle into her well-deserved center chair.

Making Time

Connecting over a campfire is more important than Inbox Zero. This picture captures the campfire at Mud Lake, where I enjoyed great companionship with my brother last month.

I’ll wrap up with an observation.

Longtime readers know I’ve had a running personal debate about time and communications. I tried an experiment in January and I’ve found it to be extraordinary helpful. To wit: Consolidating email accounts and calendars, limiting what accounts load on my phone, and suppressing notifications for most communications services (including email).

I’ve only been reading messages intermittently and on a per-account basis. This has been great for keeping me focused on what I planned to do instead of reacting to whatever came into the inbox. I’ve got a lot on my plate and compartmentalizing has been a solid success strategy.

Cade’s cancer diagnosis really whacked me over the head with the value of finding time for the things that are important and stopping things that aren’t. That process starts with getting control over a day. You can have all the insight into emails and task lists that you like; if your day is not yours to govern, then the odds you’ll make progress are greatly diminished.

I’ve found great comfort in having an up-to-date 50,000-foot view of what’s on my plate. But for a long time, other people could add whatever they wanted to that plate on any random day. It’s not visibility, but decisiveness, that frees up opportunities to do the important-but-not-firedrill things that make life worth living.

When I was a hospital chaplain, I often visited the elderly who were close to death. Not one of them — not one — ever lamented having less-than-perfect credit or wishing their car was cleaner. Instead, they felt loss about relationships and about dreams not pursued. They regretted all the time wasted on things that seemed important in the moment but offered no meaningful strategic value. They felt shame about pursuing vendettas or punishing slights instead of just moving on and opening their hearts to other opportunities.

Dreams are real. To live them, you must seize control of your day to ensure you can give the right resources at the right time to manifest them in the universe.

Thanks for reading. May you have a happy and productive summer!

An Update, 18 Months Overdue

I used to maintain this blog with one to six posts per month, but my last post was September 2020 and I’d been flaky since late spring. There’s a reason for that, albeit not a super-compelling one. The pandemic and its associated drama affected me as much as anyone, and it’s only been in the last few months that I’ve been comfortable closing the door on one chapter of my life — running mid-2016 until late-2021 — and moving definitively into the next one. 

Oh, and a blessed Christmas to you and your family. I write this post on Christmas Day, with coffee at hand, classical Christmas music softly playing, the cats docile, and some myrrh incense burning near the window. My family routines were “mostly normal” this year and I hope they’re “fully normal” next year. May you each find some measure of joy this holiday season.

This’ll be a massive update, so buckle up and grab the extra-large-sized beverage of your choice. As usual, subjects aren’t presented in any particular order.

Health and Well-Being. After re-reading my recent posts, I think I was a bit inconsistent with how I characterized my run-in with the coronavirus — mostly to avoid in-the-moment questions or swoop-ins from readers. Here’s how it all ended up going down. First, I contracted Covid-19 (we think; tests weren’t available at the time) in early March 2020. I had come back from the lovely Bonaire diving trip with my friends Jen and Dave and then a few days later: wham. Much of March and April were pretty much lost; I was able to basically sit at my desk and do my contract editing job, but not much else. Exhaustion was pervasive and I had an entire week where my nights were interrupted by high nocturnal fevers and shortness of breath. I never experienced the loss of smell or taste, but virtually every other box was checked. From the beginning of May, when the worst of it has passed, until probably mid-to-late January 2021, I wasn’t quite right. Whether you call it Long Covid or just some lingering malaise, it came and went in fortnightly spurts. I’d enjoy roughly two weeks where everything was right as rain followed by a fortnight of exhaustion and mental fog. During this period, my weight yo-yoed like a sixth grader on the playground. But by late winter, I have consistently felt fine. I’ve been symptom-free since February, and now I sit comfortably in the “double vaxxed and boosted” category.

Ironically, despite the excellent “no sickness” theme of 2021, I’m writing this while battling a mid-grade sinus infection (thanks, dry winter!). I also had a bout of norovirus that first manifested itself on my return flight from Las Vegas this past summer. I am still apologetic to Delta Air Lines for not anticipating that gross liquid sludge would spew from my body from both ends simultaneously a mere 20 minutes out from landing. At least I managed to close the lav door one millisecond before the eruption.

Gillikin & Associates. Contract work over the last two years has been — well, inconsistent. I started 2020 with a full-time contract-but-W2 assignment performing content renovation for Dotdash. That contract expired in July. In that peak-of-pandemic period, the employment outlook was double-plus ungood. I acquired another contract gig, for blog-article writing in the tech sector, but it didn’t come within a country mile of paying all the bills. The enhanced unemployment benefits of that period saved me from an ignoble return to the metaphorical “mom’s basement.” By Memorial Day 2021, I landed an analytics-consulting contract thanks to my friend Patrick, and then a curriculum-development contract with a university thanks to my friend Andrew. What had been famine turned into feast, and the second half of 2021 has been one of the most financially well-performing periods of my entire life, with no signs of impending abatement. When you bring in enough revenue that you have to actually put yourself on payroll and provide yourself benefits, you know something is going well. May it persist!

Lakeshore Literary. When we shut down Caffeinated Press in December 2019, it was with some degree of both relief and disappointment. Relief, insofar as a business that didn’t grow quite right was finally allowed to slip gently into the night. Disappointment, insofar as part of the hope and promise of local literary excellence suffered because of the well-intended peculiarities of our business model. I launched a business structure for Lakeshore Literary — a successor company, but without the complexity of business partners — in early 2020 but apart from publishing my friend Lisa’s college-success textbook, it didn’t do anything. That is now changing. My colleague Garrett and I are co-editing a new triennial literary journal, The Lakeshore Review, and I’m re-doing the small press thing, as a part-time one-man shop. Significantly, it’s going to include retail: I’m planning for roughly 250 linear feet of shelf space to play with, to open a hyper niche bookstore focused on literary journals, small-press titles, and strictly curated self-published works. No general-catalog stuff. Plus, cafe seating, coffee and tea, and packaged snacks. Things get moving as of January 3. More about that in the next paragraph.

The L&G Center. The biggest news of Q4 is The L&G Center. It’s a 2,800-square-foot office space located near the intersection of 44th Street and Burlingame Avenue in Wyoming, Mich. My business partner Allison and I co-lease the building through an LLC formed solely to address our real-estate arrangement. I run G&A and Lakeshore Literary out of it; she runs her own business, Fourth Form Martial Arts Studio, out of it as well. The 1,200-square-foot front space is a mix of literary retail and cafe (15′ x 30′), plus an open studio that serves as the karate dojo or for special events (like poetry readings). We make the space available for rent if the situation feels right. The “dojo side” (which is roughly 25′ x 30′) when used as an events space can hold, we think, roughly 80 people auditorium-style or 48 people seated four to a six-foot table. With three generous storage rooms, funky cantilevered cabinetry, two ensuite restrooms, a kitchen, a skylight, a large conference room, and private offices for me and Allison, it’s a comfortable location that we rented for a steal. But it was a steal because we needed to replace the 30-year-old carpet, repaint everything, and perform non-trivial interior maintenance on our dime. We leased the space in mid-September and will enjoy our grand opening on January 3. It’s got a bit of an industrial/rustic feel to it, yet it’s a great multipurpose space with plenty of parking and easy access to US-131, M-6, and I-196.

Karate. So why, pray tell, did we start The L&G Center? Blame karate. 🙂 In November 2020, in the throes of National Novel Writing Month, I connected with a writer named Allison who, as fate would have it, I had met before — in karate class, ca. 2007-2008. She was a shy wisp of a blonde teenager at the time, but she ended up becoming a fierce, whipcrack-smart woman whose favorite word directed at me is a poorly considered “Veto.” When I studied karate in those days, it was at East West Karate Center. It turns out, East West persisted until the pandemic killed it off. One of the sixth-degree black belts rented space at a gym in Dorr, Mich., for twice-weekly informal karate and weapons classes. Allison encouraged me to go to those classes, and I did. I reconnected with so many folks I remembered from those long-ago days. In July, Allison and Muhamet tested for higher-degree black belts. Then in August we had a karate pool-slash-whiskey-sampling party and the subject of moving out of that tiny rented gym arose. I mentioned I was looking for office space, the group had convinced Allison to start a dojo again to replace East West — and six weeks later, we took possession of The L&G Center and she founded Fourth Form. I am the dojo’s most senior kyu student, anticipating black belt testing in the summer of 2022. We’ve welcomed back some of the old East West students and even a few new ones. It’s an exciting time, and my Kent County-based peeps should strongly consider coming to the dojo’s hard launch and karate demonstration at 6p on Monday, January 3. (We’re at 1590 44th St SW, Wyoming MI, 49509.)

Writing. I’ve made minor progress across several projects, but nothing to speak of. I’m focusing next week on my project list, to see if a bit of sorting and prioritizing will make things easier to execute. I think I’m leaning toward spending the entire year drafting The Bear of Rosebriar Creek, which is a literary novel featuring four broken main characters who each find a measure of healing during a community’s panic over a man-killing bear. I’ve been noodling over this story for years but haven’t had the cojones to tackle it. Until now, I guess. No promises.

Top: Round Lake, and the flooding of our campsite. Bottom: Clear skies along the Manistee River.

The Great Outdoors. I haven’t done any scuba diving since Bonaire, nor have I yet resumed flying lessons, but I have done some hiking. Twice this year — once with my brother, and once with my friend Scott — I trekked to the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula for overnight hiking adventures. Scott and I did a section of the North Country Trail between the Fife Lake Loop and Hodenpyl Dam; Brian and I did two nights at Round Lake State Forest Campground. Both trips were “car camping” with day hikes. Scott made delicious food near our campsite overlooking the Manistee River while Brian made delicious food while we hammocked in a hurricane. I also went on a few night walks at Millennium Park. Just me, my headlamp, the critters, and a few meth addicts scurrying through the underbrush.

Faith Formation. I’ve been more active at church lately. I’m a member of the Communications Apostolate, which is a fancy way of saying that I’m part of the volunteer team that prepared our parish’s annual report and helped pull off our “renewal of fidelity” annual commitment program. Sacred Heart is a parish where stewardship is a four-letter word — an approach I find most refreshing. We had a pastor transition this summer; the Rev. Robert Sirico was granted senior priest (i.e., retired) status and the Rev. Ron Floyd was appointed as canonical administrator. I moved to Sacred Heart for Sirico but I’m staying for Floyd. It’s a vibrant, intellectual, humble community with rich worship and a spirit of service. I miss my old friends at St. Anthony but spiritually, the trade was worth it. 

Intellectual Formation. This topic could be a blog post in its own right, but I’ll keep it brief-ish. I started 2020 working full-time as a contract editor for Dotdash, and all the while, I spent countless hundreds of hours background-watching lectures and podcasts on YouTube while I worked. I mostly stopped reading books and flipped to consuming videos over much of 2020. I absorbed such treasures as Jordan B. Peterson’s extended series about the book of Genesis, Joe Rogan’s shows, the Dark Horse Podcast livestreams with Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, and countless other bits of content from the center-right and the non-woke left. Early on, I became enamored with the “Intellectual Dark Web,” but eventually the luster dimmed. Stuff like Weinstein getting on the Ivermectin train and Peterson’s extended illness changed the nature of the beast. Toward the end of 2020 I eventually stopped watching YouTube videos and moved back to a beefier podcast roster, augmented by much more reading.

On the podcast front, I’ve found that tend to not miss many episodes of Sway, Pivot, and Your Undivided Attention (tech-focused); Blocked & Reported and Useful Idiots (media criticism); Left Right & Center, Checks and Balances, and The Argument (bipartisan/centrist issues-focused); Action Unwind, New Discourses, Three Martini Lunch, The Editors, and Mad Dogs & Englishmen (conservative-leaning politics); and FiveThirtyEight Politics, Slate Political Gabfest, The Ezra Klein Show, and The Weeds (left-leaning politics). Fitting imperfectly into the mix are The Glenn Show, Conversations with Coleman, and Honestly with Bari Weiss, each of which comes from an anti-woke center-left perspective. Atop that listening, I subscribe to National Review and have been working through a slush pile of books. Currently on the table: The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie, The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die by Niall Ferguson, and Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals by Tyler Cowen.

I’ve always positioned myself as something of a center-right thinker, although the Hidden Tribes report doesn’t really capture me very well. A lot of the strident, populist, more authoritarian streams of conservatism strike me as both silly and sinister, but the progressive left seems morally bankrupt and incapable of engaging the world outside its bubble. One of the take-aways from my podcasts is that when I disagree with the content of a particular episode, when the podcast hails from the right I tend to disagree on specifics of policy, whereas when I disagree with the content from a left-leaning episode, my frustration sources from the content presenting a caricature of the world. Too many straw men, too little understanding of countervailing arguments. I think that’s why I could never actually be a “man of the left” even if I’m sympathetic to some of the arguments and positions from that worldview.

If you ask where my head’s at and how it’s changed in the last 24 months, I’d distil it to this: I have less confidence in the integrity of the media and less confidence in political leaders to successfully navigate complex problems sourced from several unrelated input streams. I think the fringes of the left and the right are increasingly indistinguishable in their lunacy and their nihilism and that social platforms make this problem several orders of magnitude worse. Enlightenment liberalism (aka “David Frenchism“) is a noble framework worth protecting from integralists, socialists, and all the ne’er-do-wells in between. I’m paying more attention to disciplines like evolutionary biology and econometrics than I used to, and I appreciate how those disciplines help to undermine the superstructure of Critical Theory. And I see that in the absence of a real God to worship, people build destructive religion-like cults out of squishy nonsense like Q-Anon or antiracism. 

Political Engagement. I ran for office again in 2020, for county commission. For the second time, I was persuaded to run in this D+1,000,000 district in the heart of south-central Kent County. The upside was that I returned as a statutory member to the Kent County Republican Executive Committee.

For the 2020 election, I was the sole GOP challenger for the Absentee Voter Counting Board for the City of Kentwood, Mich. I spent 20 hours on-site at Kentwood City Hall, watching the opening and tabulation of countless thousands of absentee ballots. Kentwood even used Dominion machines! And you know what? I saw zero evidence of voter fraud. The loudest voices proclaiming The Big Lie come from people with literally no understanding of how votes are counted and audited — a fact that the shitshow of a “forensic audit” in Arizona proved beyond all reasonable doubt. As I look to candidates for state and local government in Michigan, the first thing I look for are two disqualifiers. Are they invoking the “America First” dog whistle? Are they in favor of a “full forensic audit?” If yes to either, they’re automatically disqualified as far as I’m concerned. As the debacle of the Senate elections in Georgia and the success of the Virigina gubernatorial elections attest, competent-and-sane Republicans will win while voices undermining the legitimacy of the election process will not.

Frankly, I’d rather win than fraternize with the liars and grifters who can’t get past their loss in 2020.

Social Media. Those of you with eyes to see and ears to hear will likely know that I’ve been off social media for most of the last two years. That’s not an accident, and it’s probably not going to be meaningfully changed. I am now convinced that Facebook is a force for evil in the world, and that Twitter has done more to pollute the body politic than any single other factor. I am not in a “delete my accounts” mode because I have businesses to run; I will probably occasionally throw things out there, but also never bother to check feeds or notifications. Increasingly, I’m turning to tools like blogs and Discord for communication and community. 

Winnie_Bot. I’m one of three “core” members of a project team for an open-source Discord bot called Winnie. Winnie_Bot tracks word sprints, goals, and related activities. In addition to serving as the project PM, I was also the translator of Winnie_Bot into Latin and I helped shape the core model for the bot’s database. Our product owner — Dawn, from Melbourne — and lead developer — Katie, from Ohio — have been a delight, and the community has been a big part of our success. That said, our go-live goal of October was sorely missed, at first by a little, and then by a lot. We’re making a lot of changes to the bot to conform to some Discord-specific changes that will take effect in April. We suspect that come 4/1, we might be the only bot left standing in this space. So we’re taking the time to get it right. It’s been a fair amount of work, especially in October and November, but it’s been fun.

National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo 2021 came and went. I spent it as a Municipal Liaison for the OCGR region (Ottawa County-Grand Rapids). I was co-ML with my friend Mel. It was a virtual-only year again, and it showed. Participation and interest were significantly lower. I wrote hardly anything, but then again, I was focused more on Winnie than writing. 

GRWT. The Grand River Writing Tribe diversified at the beginning of 2020. We split into three groups. One, the oh-so-cleverly named “OG Tribe,” contains most of the original cast of characters. The new in-person group, informally named “Bob’s Bitch Lasagna” for Reasons, is also doing well. Then “Group V” — the virtual group — consists of folks from across eastern North America. It’s great to be part of these groups; I’ve learned a lot.

Committee on Professional Ethics. I’m beginning my third year as a member of the Committee on Professional Ethics of the American Statistical Association. Over 2021, CoPE engaged what amounted to a 10-full-month exercise in rewriting our ethical guidelines for the practice of statistics. The process required weekly two-hour Zoom meetings, interspersed with periods of more intense work on a person-by-person basis. I was a member of the Working Group for the revision and was accountable for leading discussion around the revisions of two of the existing principles. We collectively wrapped that work by Halloween, and we’ve since learned that the ASA Board of Directors was satisfied with the work with very little requests for subsequent revision. I have been tasked with leading a similar workgroup in 2022 related to a framework for the application of these guidelines on an institutional basis. It’s gratifying to put my ethics degree to practical use.

Relationships. I think I’ve done mostly OK in maintaining relationships during the pandemic. In some ways, my immediate family got a bit closer, even as the extended family became more — well, extended. I saw my grandmother for the first time in 20 months on Thursday. I see Tony and Jen occasionally and we did enjoy an overnight karaoke party at Dimondale Manor with PPQ and The Good Doctor over the summer. I don’t feel as if I’ve lost friends, although I do think that I’ve lost a degree of connection to the folks from the extended podcasting community.

Roux and I, fleeing the Mounties.

Travel. Since the beginning of the pandemic I’ve traveled twice and received an out-of-town visitor once. In late June 2021, I attended the 360 Vegas Vacation in Las Vegas, in that sweet spot between lockdown periods: Apart from the airports, you’d have forgotten that it was a pandemic, in those pre-Delta days when all the infection lines were crashing and vaccination rates were shooting up. Then this autumn, Roux from Denton flew to Michigan. He and I spent one night at an Airbnb in Windsor, Ontario, then he spent two nights in Grand Rapids. It was good to see Roux as well as the ol’ standbys from the podcast community.

Podcasting. All my grand plans for Vice Lounge and Diction Dude were skewered by the hell that was 2020. I had a great talk with some folks in Las Vegas about VLO, including Tim of The Bettor Life, and I am planning on bringing VLO back in 2022. The format will be a bit different and I’m making changes to a bunch of stuff (no Patreon, less social media, but more stuff like livestreams and community on Discord). It’s on the docket for January, although I reserve the right to bump it as things settle down at The L&G Center after our grand opening.

Kali d’Cat, looking up at me, wondering why I’m taking her photo.

Cats. Murphy and Fiona d’Cat are both doing well. As is Kali d’Cat, the outdoors-dwelling sweetie. I have since discovered that Kali was a TNR kitty (trap, neuter, release). She is super affectionate, a bit skittish, and clever as hell. She also picks-and-chooses when she gets violent with the other larger mammals that approach her food dish. Most of the time, she lets the raccoons and opossums eat away, but every now and then holds her ground. She doesn’t like being picked up, but she does enjoy belly rubs — right up until the second she doesn’t. (He says, with a scratched right hand.) She lives on my back porch and has no real interest in coming inside. I have given her a cardboard box with a heating pad that’s on all winter long. The pad quickly heats to something like 95F when pressure is applied to it. She figured out the box/pad thing in a hurry and spends most of her time there when it’s cold.

OK, all for now. I’ll work on getting back on a regular schedule for 2022. Until then, I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy nude new year.

A Pandemic of Opinions About the COVID-19 World Order

What a difference a month makes. Just 30 days ago, the Wuhan Coronavirus seemed like a distraction from the seriousness of the Democratic beauty pageant. Partisans sniped about whether COVID-19 represented an existential threat to the species or a hoax to get Trump. The Dow was looking to crest 30,000 points. Life offered predictability.

In fact, just six weeks ago, I remember sitting on the porch of our rented apartment in Bonaire, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, enjoying rum and a cigar and talking to Dave (who frequently travels to China) about whether he had been to a place called Wuhan, because the news stories out of China were looking scary. He told funny stories about his travel adventures in China and India.

Now? No one’s laughing. No one with working synapses thinks it’s a hoax.

Where to begin?

The Epidemiology

Let’s start with the science. 

The novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan likely originated with a wet market. That’s a market serving slaughtered animals, many of them exotic. The Chinese government made motions to shut them down after the SARS epidemic but let them persist. 

Some terms: The virus, called SARS-CoV-2, sometimes leads to a disease called COVID-19. People can be infected by the virus and, because they’re asymptomatic, not actually manifest the disease. The math about the dangers of COVID-19 are based on reported cases of people whose infections have morphed into the disease. However, some unknown proportion of the country has acquired and defeated the virus without developing the disease. Keep that distinction top-of-mind when you think about population-prevalence statistics. A good deal of reporting has mixed, willy-nilly, cases of infection and cases of disease.

It’s difficult to get a good sense on how wide the disease has spread, in part because people with very mild cases are likely under-counted in the denominator and in part because some of the worst outbreaks occur in countries with regimes that shade the truth (China, Iran, possibly Russia and Venezuela). For people with mild-to-moderate infections, the disease symptoms are so similar to influenza that only a specific test yields a concrete diagnosis. In general, though, the danger signs of COVID-19 include dry (often extreme) coughing, shortness of breath, and fever.

The CDC offers an online symptom self-checker that helps put your mind at ease about what your best course of action may be. In general, if you experience trouble breathing, become confused or lethargic, show a bluish tint to your face or lips, or feel persistent pain/pressure in your chest, seek immediate medical attention. Those are signs of hypoxemia—low blood oxygen—and is caused by, among other things, acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is a serious complication from COVID-19.  Basically, your lungs fill with fluid, preventing oxygen absorption in your tissues, which is why the number of ventilators is important. (If you’re a worry-wort and you merely think you’re having difficulty breathing and then hyperventilate and then generate the same symptoms of respiratory insufficiency … get yourself a pulse oximeter and learn how to use it.)

However, those big-three symptoms everyone talks about aren’t the only ones that manifest with COVID-19:


When you consider how COVID-19 differs from the cold or the flu, two statistics matter:

  1. The R0. The R-naught of a pathogen marks its replication multiplier. A pathogen with R0 = 1 generally results in one infected person infecting a single other person, in the long-run average. Diseases with an R0 of less than 1 generally self-contain; not enough people get them to cause a pandemic. Diseases with R0 above 2 spread like wildfire. It’s easy to see why: One person infects two. Those two infect four. Those four infect 8, who infect 16, who infect 32. Imperial College London estimates the R0 of COVID-19 to be 2.4. That’s code for “a lot of people will get exposed to this thing in the normal course of business.”
  2. The case fatality rate. The case-fatality rate is the proportion of people infected by a pathogen who will die from the pathogen or complications related to it. A study published 24 February in JAMA suggests a case-fatality rate, as represented by official Chinese statistics, of 2.3 percent. That rate, however, is highly dependent on the age and chronic comorbidities of the afflicted. Relatively few young-and-healthy people die of COVID-19, for example, although they can and do. In Italy, the official case-fatality rate is somewhere above 8 percent, but Italy’s population skews older and they’re classifying any cause of death that looks like COVID-19 to be COVID-19, so that number is almost surely overstated. In the United States, it appears to hover around 1.45 percent with statistics current as of 26 March.

People sometimes ask: Is all this drama worth it? After all, more than 80 percent of infected people experience no or very mild symptoms. In fact, absent clinical testing, doctors can’t tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu. So why worry?

The best way to answer that question is to look at the interplay between the case-fatality rate and R0. The flu’s case-mortality rate is around 0.05 to 0.1 percent with an R0 of 1.3. Compared to the flu, it appears COVID-19 kills 15 to 75 times more people and infects twice as many people. Although it’s true that for a broad swathe of people, COVID-19 infection proves utterly anticlimactic, the public-health concern isn’t with the 80 percent. It’s with the 20 percent who require hospitalization. Of those, 5 percent will die, and a proportion will only survive acute respiratory distress syndrome through the use of a ventilator—and many those extreme survivors will never regain full pulmonary function.

If we leave the disease unmanaged, the prospect that 1 million or more Americans could die from COVID-19 isn’t scaremongering—it’s science. Given that there’s presently no vaccination or treatment, the only tool in our toolkit becomes an artificial reduction in R0 through tactics like enforced social isolation. Because even though the virus might have an average “natural” case-fatality rate of 1 percent in optimal-care settings, if a large chunk of that 20 percent who require hospitalization can’t get a ventilator, the case-fatality rate increases. Sometimes dramatically. In an overstretched healthcare system with inadequate ventilator supplies and fewer healthcare providers (because they, themselves, are sick!), that death rate climbs. And climbs. And climbs.

Are these broad shutdowns scary? Sure. Unprecedented? Yup. Necessary? Absolutely!

In a perfect world, by mid-summer, we’ll all look at these shutdowns and wonder if it was all a let-down. Much ado about nothing. If that’s the case, then congratulations to us all—these measures worked. And if mid-summer comes and the world feels like Thunderdome—well, then, they didn’t. And may God have mercy on our souls.

Shining Points of Light

Resist the urge to see only the bad and the scary, though. Use this moment as a ready-made excuse to connect with old friends (remotely, of course) and to practice random acts of kindness. Stories abound of people doing good things—like people who organized a drive-by celebrating a 7-year-old’s birthday. Or the teenager who delivered dinner and offered an impromptu trumpet performance for an isolated elderly couple. Or the students who use their 3D printer to help create face masks for healthcare workers. You can be the hero of such a story, too.

I’ve been eating my own dog food. The last few days, I’ve been sending occasional text messages and emails to folks I haven’t seen in a while, or who I know might be struggling, or who happen to live in a hot zone like NYC. We each enjoy our web of networks. Now’s as good of a time as any to make sure the strands connecting each node remain active and strong.

Some institutions are doing their best and thereby demonstrating their resilience. My home parish, for example, has followed the orders of the bishop and the governor to suspend public services, but the church stays open for private prayer and individual confession remains available. Plus, the parish has called every registered parishioner to check in, and the pastor has been releasing daily YouTube videos with Lenten reflections on the readings of the day plus a blessing. (And the bishop live-streams Sunday Mass from the Cathedral.)

Arts institutions have offered creative online performances. Even Sir Patrick Stewart has been tweeting a sonnet a day. Because Shakespeare. And corporations are helping, too—Xfinity/Comcast is, for the next few months, waiving all Internet usage caps to accommodate work-from-home activities.

When you’re part of the solution, you’re not part of the problem. You can be a shining point of light. And when enough points of light glow in the darkness, the darkness shall not overcome it.

The Problem of Information

Speaking of darkness, let’s turn to the media.

The most significant gut-churning lesson from the last 90 days isn’t about the virus or the economic aftereffects of it. Rather, for me, the big story has been the utter failure of the press to be serious about, well, anything. Consider:

  • Reporters have repeatedly asked President Trump if it’s racist to call the disease the “Chinese Coronavirus” or the “Wuhan Coronavirus” despite that it’s common practice to name new diseases after the location they first appeared. Think about that. You’re a reporter. It’s a pandemic. You have access to the President of the United States. And your primary goal is to try to dunk on him about terminology? Seriously?
  • The conservative media went on, and on, and on, about how COVID-19 is just the flu and complaining about it is like impeachment all over again. Then they decided it was serious and Trump’s response has been perfect.
  • The progressive media attacked Trump for not locking the country down, days after attacking him for locking down the borders, despite that the president has no authority to lock down parts of the interior—let alone the entire country—except in specific instances of armed insurrection. No matter what Trump does, it’s too little, too late, too corrupt. Even Governor Cuomo has found nice things to say about Washington’s response, for cryin’ out loud.
  • The centrist pundits tried to prognosticate their way into relevance, only to be proven wrong (in the aggregate) at every step of the way.

For a long time, China lied about the respiratory illness arising from this virus. Chinese authorities at all levels suppressed information. None of this information is in dispute. As recently as this week, China maintained that a U.S. Army athlete brought the virus to China last November. To mention the duplicity of the Chinese Community Party in allowing the disease to spread isn’t racist. It’s truth.

A Gallup poll taken March 13 to March 22 shows that of nine polled entities, the U.S. news media was the only institution underwater in its approval rates. Overall approval for the media stood at just 44 percent, with 55 percent disapproving. Contrast that to the media’s foil, President Trump, whose approval rate for the coronavirus crisis stands at 60 percent. Even Congress is at 59 percent approval

For an excellent case study in the utter lack of self-awareness “infecting” the media, consider Damon Linker’s March 27 column in The Week in which he wrote:

Over and over again, those who report on and analyze politics at close range have documented the president’s lies, exposed his schemes to enrich himself, taken note of his errors and their consequences, and highlighted his incompetence and cruelty — and at every step of the way they have assumed this would make a political difference. But it hasn’t.
Maybe it’s time to recognize that it won’t.
Accepting this is hard. Journalists, academics, and intellectuals tend to be idealists. They went into this line of work not because they wanted to be rich but because they wanted to make the world a better place in some way. This doesn’t mean their ideas on improving things would always have positive outcomes if they were enacted, or that their favored policy proposals deserve to take priority in our public life. Not at all. But it does mean they tend to assume that most people will recoil from outright lies, deception, malice, injustice, sleaze, and thuggish imbecility when it is exposed and demonstrated to them.
But maybe that isn’t true.

It’s isn’t true at all, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of the tendency of the modern commentariat to loathe Trump and the Republicans so much that bumper-sticker slogans substitute for truth and moral catastrophizing reins supreme. Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines the Intellectual Yet Idiot as “the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking ‘clerks’ and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think and 5) who to vote for.” Sounds a lot like the press corps, from top to bottom, and their fellow travelers in Twitter’s Blue Check Mark Brigades.

I think there’s a lot of truth to Taleb’s framework. And—forget the coronavirus a moment—the prevalence of the IYI crowd in the media and in the commanding heights of academic administration and cultural institutions hints at the weakness of the elite worldview that’s part of the current repatrimonalization of Western institutions. Individual people cannot make prudent decisions about life-or-death choices, let alone inform their economic and political beliefs, when the primary gatekeeper of information is across-the-board corrupt. How much of the populist resurgence roots in some way to a reaction against IYI narratives?

Yet that’s where we’re at. I’ve dreaded this conclusion for a while now, but the systemic failure of the press seems inescapable

Preparing for Tomorrow

Pundits churn out prediction stories like the genre’s en fuego. Every single one of these predictions is utter horseshit. No one knows what lies ahead. No one knows how long it’ll take to get Wuhan Coronavirus under control; no one knows the final death toll; no one knows the secondary toll taken from loss of livelihood in the shutdown; no one knows how long the economy will take to return to pre-crisis levels; no one even knows if the economy will ever fully recover given the presently unquantifiable risk of radical social disruption that renders the Washington Consensus moot.

So I’m not going to offer predictions.

Instead, I do two things:

  1. Hope for the future. Humans tend to rally in the face of adversity. I’m generally bullish on the short-term prospects. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bit of a renaissance in organized religion and in the strengthening of the “little platoons” in hyperlocal contexts. I believe we’ve got it in us to come out ahead. I remain hopeful that human ingenuity will find a way to defeat this virus and that by mid-summer or autumn, we’ll have something like a solution that allows for a significant degree of a return to normalcy. I’m betting that by Thanksgiving, we’ll be giving thanks for the CoronaCrisis receding in the rear-view mirror.
  2. Plan for the apocalypse. I also remain aware that things can always get worse. How much worse? No one knows. But just as the best-case scenario isn’t likely to materialize, neither is the worst-case scenario. That said, if you plan for the worst-case scenario, you’re prepared for everything. So I’ve been slowly working on stocking some non-perishable food items and jugs of water. I’ve made sure all my first-aid kits have been re-stocked and that stuff that’s expired got rotated out. I’ve added recurring tasks to my to-do list to swap and recharge the batteries in my radio and flashlights. I’ve re-inventoried my hiking-and-camping gear. I’ve been making checklists in case I need to get out of Grand Rapids in a hurry—Where will I go? What will I bring? How shall I provision for, and transport, the cats? If I’m traveling by car, what else might I toss in my bags if I’m not sure how long, or ever, it might be before I return home? 

Think about these things. Being prepared for the worst while hoping for the best means that you’ll take whatever happens in stride.

All that said: Stay safe and healthy. 

An Exercise in Plate Clearing

In this year’s annual birthday reflection, I mentioned that I was engaged in a Great Purge. I didn’t, however, go into too much detail about what I meant. That reticence sourced from the practical need to ensure that every major stop-do activity had been fully considered, and relevant people notified before I dropped any bombs. But now, with all the important disclosures having been disclosed, I’m free to be more forthcoming.

I’ll share what’s winding down, followed by what’s continuing or starting in 2020. I will then wrap up with a handful of routine updates.

The Wind-Down/Stop-Do List

Caffeinated Press. Founded in 2014, Caffeinated Press published a dozen books, a dozen issues of The 3288 Review—a journal of arts and letters—and two volumes of the Brewed Awakenings anthology. However, publishing is expensive and time-consuming, and the original business model we developed was more aspirational than practical. The last few years, in particular, have been difficult, with various people coming and going and me, personally, bearing more than 90 percent of all operational costs over the last eight calendar quarters. We did some things very, very well. We also did some things very, very poorly. Caffeinated Press proved to be a tremendous learning experience, but one whose very structure proved an object lesson in how not to run a company. We’ve therefore announced that we’re ceasing business operations effective Dec. 31, 2019.

Write616. I had resigned in October from my board position, at the same time as my colleague Lisa. My understanding is that the organization itself has opted to dissolve.

The Wind-Up/Must-Do List

Delivering MIRACLES. Although Gillikin & Associates—the healthcare consulting company I established in early 2018—appears dormant, it’s not. In fact, it’s how I earn my daily bread! I’ve been working full-time with a New York-based client conducting documentation review. It’s fairly straightforward, work-from-home, set-my-own-schedule kind of stuff. However, my long-term strategy to evolve the consultancy requires a strong “thought leader” approach to programs and services, so as a professional legitimizer, I’ve been working on a book. Titled Delivering MIRACLES: Structuring, Staffing & Supporting a High-Performing Healthcare Quality Team Using the MIRACLES Model, this book addresses what its subtitle asserts. It identifies the industry imperative, then it introduces my own definition about the proper role of a Quality team in healthcare, then it offers a practical framework for both current-state assessment and pathways to arriving at a more ideal future state. I’ve got a ton of plans for growing G&A that have been sitting in reserve for the better part of a year while I complete this book. When it’s released, it’ll set my stake in the ground. But until it’s released, I see no value in chasing the rainbow when I’ve already got a long-term stable client that’s paying the bills.

From Pencil to Print. As of Nov. 30, I’ve written 114k words of this practical guide aimed at helping emerging authors and poets—the very people Caffeinated Press most often worked with—to better level-set their expectations about becoming a commercially viable literary professional. As with Delivering MIRACLES, this book also serves as a legitimizer. It’ll pave the way for ….

Diction Dude. After From Pencil to Print is ready to go, I’m launching a replacement media/publishing company. Something akin to Caffeinated Press, but without the complexity of business partners and the not-very-profit-oriented community service model that CafPress had adopted. It’ll consist of a distribution arm, publishing arm, and author-services arm with a podcast and a paid newsletter. I don’t expect to launch it completely until Spring 2020, when my book is finished. I’ve put some infrastructure in place, but until this last piece of the puzzle is ready, I’m not inclined to launch this endeavor, given that a huge part of it is externally focused. One thing I learned from Caffeinated Press is the value of getting your ducks in a row before you start paddling upstream.

Church. This past summer, I joined Sacred Heart parish and have been attending the 12:30 Missa Cantata of the Extraordinary Form (that’s Catholic-speak for “a sung High Mass, in Latin, from before Vatican II”). I like it. I may start volunteering at the parish; I’ve already been contacted about becoming an usher. With that, I’ve also been re-exploring the structured prayer of the Church. I spent October and November in the 1961 Breviarium Romanum, and now that Advent has arrived, I’ve been back into the current Liturgy of the Hours. From a purely liturgical perspective, I think I like the EF better than the OF for Mass, but LotH better than the BR for daily prayer; regardless, I have printed 2020 Ordos for each. But that’s a topic for a different day.

Sabbath of Books. Beginning in October, I restructured my week to make Sunday a genuine day of rest. My routine is pretty simple. I get up, make coffee, recite morning prayers, read a while, bathe and put on a suit, go to church, stop somewhere for a late lunch, come home, read some more, eat dinner, light a fire in the fireplace, read some more, recite evening prayers, go to bed. I do no work whatsoever—not even light household chores or complex meal preparation—and I don’t touch my computer, tablets, phone or TV. It’s a day of total disconnection. I’m taking a page out of the stricter Jewish tradition. Since the first one of these Sundays, on October 6, I’ve managed to read all three unabridged volumes of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Face of God by Roger Scruton, and Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality by James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky. Plus, I finished a few other books that just needed a nudge to get over the finish line. It’s amazing how much I can plow through when I have six or seven hours in a day, just one day per week, to rest the body, renew the spirit, and challenge the mind.

Weight Loss. I’m down roughly 25 pounds since my birthday and am doing the things I need to do to not become a tragic medical statistic. Much of the last few months have been quiet and heads-down because in late summer it became obvious I wasn’t on the right track. Now, however, I’m trending in a more favorable direction. With continuing weight loss, exercise, and “forced” occasional hikes and kayak excursions, all of this is a good thing. I’m actually riiiiiight on the cusp of being at my lowest weight since mid-2016, which itself is a stone’s throw from my weight in late 2012. It’s truly amazing what happens when one substitutes distilled water for an 1,100-calorie fishbowl of a martini each evening.

Magic Eight Ball Says ‘Signs Point to Yes’

Vice Lounge Online. The podcast that Tony and I started in mid-2010—”where casino gaming, premium cigars and fine adult beverages genuinely equal bliss”—sees Tony hanging up his Golden VLO Microphone at the end of December. Whether VLO continues into 2020 will depend on whether listeners want to participate as on-air talent. If I don’t receive enough offers, the show will wind down the first weekend in January. But given early responses, my guess is that the show will soldier on. A half-dozen people and counting have volunteered to guest host or do special segments, so that’s good.

Grand River Writing Tribe. My writing groups? Still there. Those aren’t going anywhere.

A Summation

So what am I doing right now? I suppose I could call it, with a touch a mirth, a winter of hibernation. Apart from various wind-down activities for Caffeinated Press, my week is fairly routine. I put in 40 hours of document review, Monday through Friday. Evenings, I sit at my writing desk, working on one or the other of my books, distilled water at the ready and a cat close at hand. Saturdays are for errands and whatnot. Sundays are my Book Sabbath. Every now and then, I get invited to dinner or lunch, so that interrupts the week, but I’ll progress in stretches of three or four days at a time where I never leave the house. Just me and the feline overlords. And now that it’s Advent, I’ve also been doing the full daily LotH.

Meanwhile, the pounds roll off my frame, the words roll onto my books, my stress levels plummet, and my tranquility skyrockets.

Come this spring, when the books are ready—well, I’m excited to pivot my dual-career lifestyle to the next level of intensity.

Miscellaneous Updates

A few other things.

Looks like I’ll be soon giving up my social-media fast. It was fun while it lasted, but if VLO is to continue without Tony—who had been handling the Twitter and Facebook stuff—then I guess I gotta saddle up again.

Thanksgiving was fun. My Indiana relatives and my grandmother, St. Dorothy the Matriarch, all showed up at my mother’s house. As if by a miracle, no one spilled food or wine. A dozen people around the table, and the all-too-familiar scene of the Lions heroically snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, made the day complete.

I had been a bit sad that my long-time outdoor companion, Ziggy d’Cat, had been absent for most of November. I saw him a few days after Halloween, then not again until last week. When he showed up, he was skin and bones. Then he came yesterday, again. Still skinny. But then today, too. I’ve been giving him some shredded rotisserie chicken breast, which he wolfs down, as I sit beside him and give him some gentle scratches. I don’t know if he got sick, or maybe lost one too many territory fights, but the future isn’t looking good for him, so chicken and affection he gets, for as long as he continues to paw at my windows.

Speaking of tragedy: In late September, roughly 15 square feet of my dining-room ceiling collapsed. No major structural damage, but when 40 pounds of plaster comes down at 4 a.m., it’s a rude awakening. Believe it or not, the contractor my landlord hired is still working on it—he decided to simply drywall over the entire dining-room ceiling instead of re-plastering the hole. So for the last six weeks, all the stuff from the dining room has been in my living room, rendering it unlivable, and my dining room is a dusty mess with rock-hard joint compound littering the floor, the cabinetry and my rugs. Amused, I am not. At the rate this work is progressing, I’m skeptical it’ll be done before Christmas. But given all the dust, I’ve learned that when I’m not watching, the cats tread in mysterious places.

Last week, I enjoyed cigars and cocktails with my college friend Matt, who’s now a state representative. It was delightful to get some insight into how the wheels of gummint have been turning in Lansing lately.

Finally: In November I hosted my usual Saturday-morning write-in for National Novel Writing Month. Our stats were pretty good given that I had to cancel two of the five Saturdays on account of region-wide events. We were just a few thousand words short of clocking in at a half-million words earned at this write-in since it started in 2012. I’m guessing I’ll hold it at least one more year—to cross that threshold—and we’ll see what happens in 2021 and beyond.


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Announcing: The expansion of the Grand River Writing Tribe

In 2016, I launched the Grand River Writing Tribe, a collection of West Michigan-based writers who were focused on publication and willing to put in the work that a deeply engaged writers’ group entailed.

The Tribe grew. People got published. Their craft improved. We hit our membership cap. Yet more and more people said: “I want in! I want to join a writers’ group, too!”

It turns out, a lot of people want to join a group, but they don’t know how to find them and they aren’t sure they’re ready to start one. For a long while, not a week went by where I didn’t receive (either personally, or through Caffeinated Press, or through Write616) some inquiry about open groups.

So the Tribe talked about it and we agreed: Expansion is in order. Not just for the heck of it, but because:

  • The region boasts many groups, most of which are disconnected from each other and therefore reducing natural opportunities for peer networking and info-sharing.
  • We’ve got a ton of first-class writers and poets in the area whose need for community is real yet largely unmet.
  • People who are “looking for group” are, in many ways, out of luck given the lack of a directory or clearinghouse of opportunity — driven in part by over-reliance on a byzantine network of Facebook pages.
  • Many groups operate by email, which means that new participants have no insight into the group’s history.

Thus: We’re re-casting the Tribe into a sort-of Tribal Confederation, where many different (autonomous!) writers’ groups may congregate using shared infrastructure to promote discoverability and ease of use.

The New GRWT

The “new” GRWT isn’t just a single group. It’s an umbrella for — potentially — many groups, from all walks of life, who journey partly on their own and partly as members of a larger local literary community.

We think the benefits are many:

  1. The GRWT site runs on NodeBB, a popular forum system, that’s managed on everyone’s behalf at no cost or obligation to participants. With NodeBB, each writers’ group obtains its own set of permissions (so no one else can peek in!) while sharing some space in common with all other groups plus the public. NodeBB supports granular user-defined settings for notifications, email and related matters, thus allowing each user to customize his or her own experience.
  2. Public-facing forums let people sign up to signal interest in joining a group.
  3. Some public-facing content helps to expose new opportunities, events or activities of particular interest to writers and poets in the region — without having to go spelunking in 87 different Facebook groups and 23 different general-purpose event sites.
  4. Periodic newsletters from the GRWT to all registered account holders will promote the craft of writing plus expose a curated list of events and opportunities.

Getting Started with the Tribe

Eager to get going? Visit the GRWT website. The home page includes introductory information.

Writers Looking for a Group:

  • Register an account on the GRWT site, then visit the Looking for Group category within General Discussion. A note about registration — because our domain is very new (June 2019!), some email providers route the account-confirmation email to your Spam or Junk folder. In some rare cases, the provider refuses to deliver it at all. If you can’t see a registration-confirmation note after a few minutes, don’t worry. We’ll swing by once a day to manually verify legit-looking email addresses.
  • Read the How to Join a Writers’ Group post for information, then post an introductory thread.
  • GRWT moderators will actively work to pair you with a group, although in some cases, it may take weeks or months to align the right people in the right cohort under the right circumstances.

Groups Looking for a Home:

Writers Willing to Start a Group:

  • To ensure that new groups within GRWT are positioned to succeed, we’ll meet personally with potential group leaders to set up a game plan and offer resources to promote effective facilitation.
  • Need a place to meet? If your group consists of eight or fewer members, you’re welcome to make free use of the conference room at Caffeinated Press, located at the intersection of Kalamazoo Avenue and 32nd Street in south Grand Rapids.
  • Write616 hosts a five-hour training course for people willing to lead new groups. The next training is scheduled for Sunday, July 14, from 2p to 7p. Registration is $50 and supports Write616.

Writing Update: Post-NaNo '18

National Novel Writing Month came and went. I logged a “win” with my highest wordcount ever, just shy of 52k. This year marked my eighth consecutive year of participating and my fifth overall win, so now I’m batting 0.625.
But this year wasn’t really a win so much as it was a cleanup for several fiction and non-fiction projects. I didn’t work on any single manuscript, but rather revised and extended several things concurrently then dutifully logged my daily word count. (I pasted the exact same number of words from a Lorem Ipsum generator to validate in the NaNo system.) In fact, the only reason I attained 52k is because non-fiction writing, for me, is an order of magnitude easier and faster than novel-length fiction composition. I spent less time writing this November than in any previous year — mostly because I’ve been focused on book production for CafPress. That, and I was out of town for several one-off days as well as a week early in the month focused on prepping for, then speaking at, a conference in Minneapolis.
Here’s what I accomplished on the penmonkey front:

  • Finished not one but two of the erotica novellas in the series I write under pseudonym, one of which I started in 2016 then set aside, three-fourths done. And got a decent amount of sales out of them, too, in just a few days of November.
  • Revised a flash story, which I submitted to the Write Michigan contest.
  • Wrote several chapters in a non-fiction book I’m developing, Introduction to Health Quality Analtyics.
  • Also wrote several chapters in the other non-fiction book I’m developing, From Pencil to Print: Practical Advice for Emerging Authors. Both of these non-fiction chapters mostly went to non-controversial stuff that I can use as samples when I shop the proposals for both, later this month. (Non-fiction books generally aren’t written in advance; they’re researched and planned, then pitched, and if a publisher picks it up, only then does the book get written — exactly the opposite of fiction writing.)

I also learned a few things worth passing along.
First, my recent practice of writing in Visual Studio Code, in Markdown (well, CommonMark), works fine for most straightforward material. But the more complicated book-length content doesn’t work quite as cleanly. For starters, Markdown isn’t so much a standard as a bunch of competing standards that don’t always translate the same way. Second, Markdown doesn’t really handle citations well. And third, Markdown tends to be less strict about some things that, for a technical non-fiction project, probably ought to be strict.
So, as I spin up the next novella, I’m writing not in Markdown but rather in AsciiDoc, using the Asciidoctor toolkit. It’s a different workflow, and Visual Studio Code doesn’t natively support AsciiDoc like it does GitHub-flavored Markdown, but after tinkering last night with a sample book-type project, I think I’m migrating to AsciiDoc anyway, and converting my existing non-fiction projects to it, too. Case in point: E-book construction. Asciidoctor runs on Ruby, so after I installed Ruby (then installed an older version of Ruby, because Dependency Hell), I could install the AsciiDoctor-EPUB3 gem to natively generate EPUB3-compliant e-books. And the rules for developing these e-books are fairly precise — you must use a spine document, specify includes, specify metadata in the spine, declare folders, cite image locations, etc. — but after you get that figured out, then a perfectly formatted e-book awaits with just a single command. I opened the resulting sample EPUB in Edge, Calibre and Sigil and it was flawless, inside and out. So there’s that. And because AsciiDoc supports conversion to DocBook, you can use AsciiDoc to create very complex technical documentation at book length without any interoperability problems.
So “mark me down” as a convert from Markdown to AsciiDoc. And it’s not even hard to parse, either:

So you can convert the AsciiDoc source to HTML5, XHTML5, DocBook5, DocBook4.5, Manpage, PDF, EPUB3 and LaTeX. Plus, bolt-on gems support conversion to other formats, too. Nifty. And because AsciiDoc source is a plain-text document, I’ll continue to sync it with my private GitLab CE repository like normal. Oh, yeah, it natively works with BibTeX files with another plugin, allowing for both unique citekey references as well as bibliographies that can be rendered in any of the major citation styles.
So, good learning. And a good November.

Planning to Write: One Dude’s Approach

At a recent education session of the Grand River Writing Tribe, our merry little band of literary miscreants enjoyed a brief sidebar conversation about planning-vs-pantsing in light of the impending NaNoWriMoPocalypse.

pants. Vt. 1. To write a book without meaningful preparation, letting the story and its major elements evolve as the author drafts them. 2. To “fly by the seat of one’s pants” while writing a work of (usually dubious) literary merit. Colloq.

I’m a planner. I have to be; I tried pantsing it, many years ago, but failed miserably. Suitably chastened by that traumatic ordeal, I’ve honed my planning to the point where I think I’ve got a system down that’s worth sharing.

But first: As a publisher, I can usually tell after the first few pages whether a submitting writer is a planner or a pantser. The biggest tell comes from conflict. Insofar as there ain’t no conflict, hoss, in most pantsed stories. Very many pantsed stories rely on plots that consist of one event after another, with pacing mimicked by the introduction of new events in a linear cadence, until a word-count goal illuminates the finish line and the final manuscript stumbles, sweaty and mildly incoherent, through the denouement victory ribbon. Alas, these new events are not tied to a core conflict linked to the eventual identification and resolution of the protagonist’s frustrated desire. They’re just one damn thing after another until “the end.”

The sublime editors at MiFiWriters honed my sensitivity to conflict as the primary driver of plot. I can still hear Sue Ann’s voice echoing in my head: “What does the main character want, and what’s stopping him from getting it?”

With a question that meaty, how can anyone start with backstory?

Pick Your Purpose

One question must set the stage: Is the story intended for private, creative purposes, or for publication? If the former, then to some degree, the sky’s the limit. Writing for yourself offers myriad opportunities to experiment with forms and techniques. But if you think you’d like to shop the manuscript, stop. Don’t ask yourself what story you want to write but rather, what story you want to sell.

Writing for yourself frees you of the rules of genre conformance, word-length targets and whatnot. Do what you want! Shamelessly incorporate whatever silly, tangential writing prompt lands in your Twitter account that morning. Hone your craft by stretching your limits. But if you’re writing for publication, you must pick a genre, strictly plan for that genre’s conventions, and execute with disciplined precision. Otherwise, no editor or agent will pay you the slightest bit of attention.

Earlier this month, I spoke with USA Today bestselling author Zoe Blake. She writes dark romance, and like any genre writer, she knows that if you’re writing to genre, agents and editors welcome very little deviation from the script — especially by emerging authors. (Her insights into this part of the process made our October Get Pressed! event, which she attended, a much richer conversation.) So if you want to write for publication, follow your genre’s standards with religious fervor.

How I Plan

Every author plans a major work differently, so if you’ve seen one approach, you’ve seen one approach. I encourage you, as you review my approach, to recognize that some parts of it might work for you and some of it might not. I’m not suggesting you should do it my way; I’m merely sharing my well-honed process for the benefit of those pantsers out there who’re lost like a fart in a whirlwind on the subject of novel planning.

Let’s begin, then, with the assumption we’re developing a novel-length work of fiction intended for publication.

  1. Identify external constraints on the final work product. If you’re writing for a contest that features a word-count range or a mandatory subject or theme, those parameters control everything else that follows. In the absence of any word-count constraint, investigate average counts for your genre. Research from a few years ago suggests that the “average” debut author’s work clocked in at roughly 85,000 words. Put differently: That 55,000-word NaNo novel won’t cut it unless your genre generally supports that small of a manuscript.
  2. Catalogue the attributes to be interwoven into the story. At this stage, I don’t know what I want to write, but I’m starting to get ideas about what I want to write about. For example, in one piece, I wanted to work on character development, so I decided that a primary character needed to be bisexual. In another novel, I set the story in Grand Rapids. In yet another, I explored the concept of regret at various stages in a person’s life. In a recent prototype novel, I wanted the protagonist and antagonist to have wildly divergent childhood experiences that shaped their response to the story’s core conflict. I usually collect, over a period of three to six months, a list of a dozen or so completely unrelated aspects or subplot themes that — later in the process — coalesce into something resembling a fully formed story idea.
  3. Settle on a person, story archetype, genre and targeted word count. Think of an archetype as a meta-story, or a story scaffolding. Lists of archetypes vary; a common one, developed by Christopher Booker, lists seven: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Author Ronald Tobias lists 20 “master plots” that go even deeper into the archetypical weeds. Identify the right genre for the work. A single genre, mind you; hybridizing a story into several genres — a process called fusion — is a kiss of death for metadata and is likely to render your story unmarketable. For the purpose of this step, we’ll consider literary fiction to be a genre in its own right. This is the spot, too, where you’ll pick a voice for the narrative (e.g., first person or third subjective distant or whatever).
  4. Generate a thesis statement of not more than three sentences. This part is tricksy. You’re summarizing the story as if it were a short paragraph in your cover letter, but you’re doing it before you’ve developed any characters, plot or conflict. That’s okay. At this step, you’re still working through a high-level concept. It’s a high-level stab that you’ll revise over time. Address the basics of genre, archetype and market differentiators while remaining sensitive to the external constraints you’ve identified and the attributes you intend to include. For example:
    • Magellan Ascendant is an 85,000-word classic science-fiction quest in which a 300-year-old colony ship from Earth arrives at its destination only to discover that humans have long-since colonized it. The crew of the Magellan must make sense of their new circumstances while forging new alliances with their now-exhausted homeworld and keeping peace among a crew still on edge from tensions that predate their launch. 
  5. Wait two weeks. Let the thesis statement percolate a while. Come back to it in a fortnight with fresh eyes.
  6. Re-evaluate the thesis statement. Tweak the statement and your various required attributes as you like. Then ask yourself: Is it done? Are you happy with it? If you’ve made changes you deem to be significant to the structure or the content of the statement, wrap up your work and return to Step 5. If you’re satisfied that your changes were minor, proceed to Step 7.
  7. Wait two more weeks. Even when you’re satisfied with your high-level concept, you’ll find value in waiting another fortnight before beginning the next, crucial phase of planning.
  8. Sketch a mind map of the characters. You don’t yet know the plot or the people, so start with the people in light of your thesis statement. I like to work with a whiteboard — a physical whiteboard with dry-erase markers. Then I start mind-mapping. A character starts in the center. I don’t know who it is, yet. Then I draw circles around it for other primary characters. Then I start to give the circles names and roles. And then they get lines connecting them in some way, with the nature of the relationship documented on the line. By the time I’m done, I still don’t know what the plot is, but I have a high-level sense of who the characters are and what conflicts simmer among them — in effect, the state of the universe before the words “Chapter One” grace the manuscript. The finished work product from this step in the process includes:
    • Brief bio — No more than a sentence or two for each character, often just a name, occupation, age, body type, personality quirk, etc. Remember, no one’s impressed with complex names that are spelled in goofy fashion and defy the laws of English phonics. No one.
    • Role in the narrative — What does this character do for the story? A main character? Secondary? Does the character warrant a POV perspective?
    • Relationships — How is each character related to every other character? What’s the relevant historical backstory for the relationship?
    • Motivation — What’s the character’s main (and perhaps one or two secondary) goals or motives within the narrative?
    • Conflict — How do these motivations and relationships engender conflict? Do several conflicts arise? A preliminary whiteboard sketch, without the bio/motivation/conflicts explicit, looks like this:
  9. Solidify the period and setting. Identify when and where the story takes place. If you’re inventing a fictional world, jot some basic notes (you’ll flesh them out later) about the mechanics of the universe, including rules of magic, social relationships, levels of technology, etc. If you’re writing contemporary or literary fiction that’s not tied to an explicit place, pick a place anyway just for your own purposes.
  10. Sketch the plot arc. Stick with your genre’s norms. Readers generally expect a three-act story with the first act setting the stage, the second act increasing the tension and the third act leading to resolution. I’ve found that starting the arc with conflict — i.e., starting with what the main character wants, then unfolding how he or she overcomes the obstacles to achieve it — makes the “events” part of the process significantly easier to work through. So with a sense of period, setting, characters, relationships, motivations and overall thesis, I return to my trusty whiteboard to sketch a plot arc:
  11. Create relevant computer files. Now it’s time to use the computer in earnest. I generally write in plain text with AsciiDoc using Visual Studio Code and my own private GitLab CE repository. Most folks will likely use Microsoft Word or Scrivener unless they’re doing something technical like a math textbook or a computer-science manual. Regardless of your tools, a few base files will likely prove handy:
    • 01_chapter-title.adoc to nn_chapter-title.adoc — I allocate one text file per chapter, naming it with a standard logic of a two-digit chapter number offset by an underscore with a hyphenated chapter-title slug. The contents of each chapter go into each file. (A slug is a journalism term; it’s a one-to-three-word abbreviation of a longer title, hyphenated. For example, if Chapter 3 were titled “The Messenger Speaks at Midnight,” a slug might be something like messenger or midnight or messenger-midnight and the resulting filename might be 03_messenger.adoc.)
    • notes.adoc — I create a single text file with reference material, including character sketches, scene sketches and facts about the universe.
    • control.adoc — This file holds the project’s table of contents (annotated at a scene level, in the next step) as well as a manual record of word counts and to-do items.
    • references.bib — (optional) a list for the references. Usually, it’s a placeholder in my non-fiction writing for shortcode ties to a JabRef citation library.
    • spine.adoc — in AsciiDoc, a spine file knits all the chapter files together into a single unit for exporting to different formats including DocBook. The spine includes all the metadata about the story, including metadata you’d need to self-publish the work as an e-book. (AsciiDoc supports natural conversion to HTML, DocBook XML and EPUB 3).
  12. Translate the plot/conflict arc into an annotated chapter-and-scene structure. With the files in place, it’s now time to go into control.adoc (or, if you’re using Scrivener, the Binder/Outliner tools) to set up the chapter-and-scene structure of the novel. My goal in this step is to plot to the scene level, with a paragraph describing what happens in the scene as well as context like who the POV character is, how long the scene is, what’s the status of the scene, etc. Keeping the synopsis at about 1/35th of the scene length (e.g., a 2,000-word scene should have a 57-word synopsis) means you can aggregate the scene synopses into a unified traditional novel synopsis without incurring extra development work. #ProTip
    • Because scenes are generally self-contained units of narrative, I’ve taken to dividing my project target word count (e.g., 85,000 words) into 10 to 15 chapters of roughly 5,500 to 8,500 words, with two to four scenes per chapter. Keeping scenes relatively compact yet balanced, length-wise, helps to not only keep the action going, but also to facilitate productivity. It’s easier to write a planned 2,000-word scene in a day than to just “sit down and write.” Put differently: Plan the novel’s structure not just to facilitate your content but also to match your unique style of writing.
    • In addition to a scene synopsis, I’ll take notes in this file about plot points that must or must not occur in that scene, and enter a placeholder for follow-up tasks that I should address “later” but which I shouldn’t lose track of. When I write, control.adoc is always open in a panel next to the chapter file.
  13. Develop relevant contextual notes about characters and settings. Just as the plot/conflict file found its expression in control.adoc, your various character, setting and universe sketches should find a home in notes.adoc — or, if you’re in Scrivener, as cards in the Research folder of your project. I generally put in some bare-bones basics here (mostly around characters), then I augment the during the writing process so I don’t contradict myself later. For example, I might include a paragraph of description and history about an important character, and then in Chapter 5 when the character references that she’s afraid of spiders, I’ll add a bullet to her character sketch that stipulates that she’s afraid of spiders, so that in Chapter 9 I don’t misremember her arachnophobia as agoraphobia.
  14. Wait two more weeks. Don’t start writing as soon as your prep is done. Give all this literary goodness ample time to percolate ‘twixt your earholes.
  15. Revise. Look at all your notes: Check your files, re-examine pictures of your whiteboard, whatever. Think about the project in its entirety. Does the conflict make sense? The plot? Are the characters compelling? Do you meet genre norms? Most importantly: Are you excited to write this book? Answer no to any of these questions, revise then return to Step 14.

When you’re done with Step 15, you’re ready to write.

My flow works for me. It won’t work for everyone. But I hope you’ve found something to take away that will help you grow your craft.

Writing a Book in AsciiDoc with Version Control

I’ve long enjoyed a love-hate relationship with Scrivener, the all-in-one writing platform for novels, short stories, textbooks and other written endeavors. I love it because it offers excellent outlining and note-taking features, plus it integrates with programs like Scapple for mind-mapping and Aeon Timeline 2 for timeline management. Scrivener supports many different compile settings, so exporting content is never a challenge.

hate it, though, because Scrivener’s full-screen editor is abysmal—the worst “distraction-free” implementation I’ve ever seen in any app that supports this feature—and because Scrivener projects are essentially a giant cluster of Rich Text Format files named by number and stored in a byzantine file-tree structure, separating me from my work by requiring the application to mediate my content.
My preferred approach to writing is to enter a full-screen, distraction-free mode. (Usually after dark, in an unlit room, working with an amber-on-chocolate color scheme, with soft music playing and either the windows open to the breeze or a fire roaring in the fireplace.) Over the years, I’ve played with different approaches to writing in Markdown and AsciiDoc with a dedicated text editor, but these efforts haven’t proven satisfactory because the apps tend to take a single window and full-screen it, cutting me off from my notes.

Until recently, that is—for now Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code allows for multi-pane windows, even in distraction-free mode. I know you can open multiple simultaneous buffers in Emacs or whatnot, but my willingness to learn Emacs or Vim syntax remains too weak to justify the technical debt of mastering these systems just to write. So VS Code, which is much simpler, fills me with joy.

I played with it and got hooked. And because VS Code does a great job of working with the git system, I explored even more deeply with version-control on my text documents. I’m now far enough into the process to have decided that I’m migrating all of my writing out of Scrivener and into my new infrastructure.

I’ll share how I set up this environment in the context of a book I’m writing about healthcare data analytics, and then why I think plain-text writing with version control makes more sense for complex writing projects.

The Setup Process

After initial testing seemed favorable, I created a DigitalOcean droplet with a one-click install of GitLab Community Edition. GitLab CE is a free, open-sourced platform for storing and sharing computer code, with enhancements designed to make the code-writing job easier. I’m paying $10/month for the DO droplet (a droplet is a virtual server, in this case, an implementation of Ubuntu Linux that already has GitLab CE configured on it, so I didn’t have to do any tedious manual installations). I use DO to host this website, and the jegillikin.com domain name, so I mapped the new droplet to a subdomain—code.jegillikin.com. This approach is significant because I can add new users to my GitLab environment with permissions to participate in one or more projects as collaborators, without having to email Word documents back-and-forth. Less tech-savvy collaborators may simply use the built-in Web editor to work, without having to download or install or configure anything.

It took roughly 10 minutes to fine-tune the GitLab installation after the droplet was set up. Perform the usual Ubuntu security-hardening steps, and voila. Good to go.

I downloaded the most current release of Visual Studio Code (the app receives updates monthly) and then installed a few specific extensions to make my drafting process easier:

  • Active File in Statusbar—to show the file path in the status bar
  • Amber Theme—the colors I want, amber-on-chocolate
  • AsciiDoc—adds rich language support, syntax highlighting, live previews and snippets for AsciiDoc files
  • Better Comments—manages specific comment types with configurable formatting
  • BibManager—Manages BibTex bibliography files
  • bibtexLanguage—adds syntax highlighting for BibTex files
  • Bookmarks—ability to mark specific lines and then jump between them
  • Clock in Status Bar—adds a small clock, useful in the distraction-free mode
  • Code Settings Sync — syncs your complete configuration to GitHub (not GitLab) so you can clone your setup on a different computer or a re-installed computer
  • Epub Tools—inserts epub-specific syntax and output support into VSC
  • Git History—views the git log and file history to compare versions over time, within VSC
  • RTF—adds native RTF support to VSC (helpful if you’re migrating RTFs from Scrivener)
  • Spell Right—a lightweight spell checker
  • Todo Tree—shows your comments (todo, fix, cite, etc.) in a project-level tree
  • VScode-Spotify—integration so I can manipulate a Spotify playlist from the VS Code taskbar (so no more getting out full-screen mode just to adjust my tunes)
  • VScode-Timer—a simple configurable countdown timer that sits in the statusbar
  • Word Statistics for Text—runs a frequency analysis by word on a particular file or folder
  • WordCounter—a counter, in the status bar, showing the number of words, characters and lines, as well as the estimated reading time for the file
  • YAML—support for YAML blocks (helpful for ePub files)

I also tweaked a few VS Code stock settings to my liking, including font choice (I’m a fan of monospaced fonts for writing, so I use Liberation Mono) and color swaps for the statusbar.

You’ll also need to down the Github for Desktop client. The Github client works just fine with a GitLab server. The client installs git on your computer. VS Code uses git to push and pull content between your local machine and the GitLab CE server.

With the server and the software configured, the next step was to create a project. More than one way to do it. I opted to create it in the GitLab CE control panel, then I used the Github for Desktop client to clone repository, selecting the URL of my GitLab project and a folder on my PC. (Bonus: I sync the local folder witihn my OneDrive structure, so there’s yet another cloud backup lurking out there.)

Using AsciiDoc

AsciiDoc is one flavor of a text-based markup language. In AsciiDoc, writers focus on the text, not the formatting of the text. It uses a straightforward syntax for noting formatting through coded characters. For example, to italicize text, wrap it in a pair of underscores. To indicate a header level, prefix it with an equals sign.

AsciiDoc requires installation. The most common toolkit, AsciiDoctor, requires installation of Ruby on your local machine, but the stock tooklit requires Python 2.6 or higher.

Writing in plain text with markups offers several advantages over writing with a visual word processor:

  1. You’re not distracted by how the words appear on the page.
  2. Using markup elements like underscores and asterisks permits fine-tuning of formatting moreso than double-clicking text.
  3. Elements like admonition blocks (text call-outs like “warning” or “note” boxes) require no additional work.
  4. The appearance of the final document is governed by a stylesheet, so you need not fuss with formatting while writing.
  5. Plain-text files support version control to facilitate collaborative writing and to avoid 85 differently named copies of the same file.

Some people prefer Markdown or MultiMarkdown for plain-text writing. Although I first started plain-text writing in MMD, I learned the hard way that the Markdown syntax consists of too many competing flavors with too weakly typed of a syntax. AsciiDoc is much more strongly syntax-coherent, and as a bonus, it naturally outputs to formats including HTML and DocBook.

(DocBook is significant. It’s essentially a giant XML file—but one that cleanly imports into Adobe InDesign for layout with the hard structuring work already complete.)

The Writing Process

With a cloned repository, whatever you write on your local computer—as long as the file is stored in the folder you selected when you cloned it—will sync with the server. Unlike tools like OneDrive or Dropbox or Google Drive, syncing with git isn’t automatic, however. You only sync when you want to. When you do sync (in a process called a commit), you’ll be prompted to add optional change notes. I find it helpful to offer a sentence or two summarizing what I just did. Every sync creates a new revision, or current-state snapshot of the project, and all of those revisions are maintained. So if you work on the same chapter over three months and commit changes 36 times, you’ll be able to check all 36 versions and even compare them—like “what’s different between version 23 and version 32?”.

That said, writing is straightforward. Just write. Don’t worry about formatting or margins or fonts: All of those concepts are superfluous during the drafting process when you’re working with Markdown. Instead, just write. And commit changes frequently. Any specific formatting requirements, like headings or bold/italic typefaces or lists, are effected in a straightforward manner using AsciiDoc syntax within the file.

Why AsciiDoc Plus Version Control Rocks for Complex Writing

One thing’s for sure: You must be reasonably comfortable using a text editor (instead of a word processor) to write in order to thrive in this production model. And you must possess some expertise in working with a version-control system, although you’re free to either use GitLab’s free online service or subscribe to GitLab or GitHub so you don’t need to run your own server.
But the benefits to this drafting process are substantial:

  • Although Microsoft Word is a very capable application for writing complex long-form projects, not many users know how to use Word optimally. As such, file corruption and the need for complex reformatting can suck away at precious writing/editing time.
  • Version control means you don’t need to save a billion different copies of a file, each with a slightly different name. And, you can compare those files easily. And because your files are committed to the repository, you don’t run the risk of losing “all your work” if your thumb drive gets lost or your hard drive crashes.
  • A VCS with an online portal—like GitLab CE—opens the door to tightly controlled access to specific files, protecting your intellectual property and facilitating broad collaboration with other contributors, without the need to email drafts back-and-forth and then harmonize them by hand. In fact, GitLab CE contains an issue-management system, so edits and questions remain with the project and accessible to all contributors.
  • Tools like VS Code (and, admittedly, Emacs, Vim, Notepad++, Atom and countless other text editors) support high degrees of customization, so you can write how you want without being locked into the fixed interface options of Word, Scrivener, etc. Don’t be misled into thinking that text editors are only for hard-core computer programmers. Plain-text writing in Markdown is absolutely a valid and supported use case for these software platforms.

Christ's Body, Christ's Wounds; Double Take; Get Published! Conference

Have you yet had the chance to pick up the two books I’ve been published in this year? And have you planned to attend a great craft conference that’s just over a week away?

Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church

From the back cover:

In every church—in every pew, it sometimes seems—there is someone who has been deeply hurt in the Catholic Church. And yet these people find themselves coming to church, wondering if anybody else can understand their experiences, their questions, and their needs. This book brings together twelve authors who describe the pain they’ve experienced in Catholic institutions—and the pathways they’ve found to healing and renewed faith. In poetry, memoir, pastoral guidance, and practical advice, these authors explore issues ranging from racism to sexual abuse to gossip and judgment. They offer support and encouragement to all those for whom the church has been a place of harm as well as holiness.

Spoiler alert: I’m one of the 12, with my essay “A Moment of Clarity.”
Available from Wipf and Stock Publishers or on Amazon.

Division by Zero: Double Take

From the back cover:
The mirror is just another abyss into which we gaze.

We all wear masks, swapping them out one for another as we move between worlds. Hero. Villain. Teacher. Boss. Lover. Soldier. Healer. Are people truly who we imagine them to be? Are we? Sometimes we wear these roles for so long, we forget. If we let the mask fall away, will we remember? We may not even recognize that which remains.

My story, “Conversion Therapy,” forays into fun territory for me: Genre fiction that’s a wee bit over the top yet carefully constructed to delight readers.
Available from MiFiWriters.

Get Published! 2018 Conference

Mark your calendars for March 10. That’s when MiFiWriters hosts the third annual Get Published! conference at Herrick District Library in Holland, Mich. The event runs 9:50a to 4p and will focus more heavily on craft and writing, with panels and workshops related to voice, point of view and self-editing strategies.
Caffeinated Press is a participating publisher.
The conference is free. Registration is requested if you want to have first-page critiques by the editors.

Writing Tools

I’ve been on a bit of an electronics consolidation tear lately. A few months ago, I bought a new desktop computer rig (7th-gen Core i7 processor, 16 GB RAM, 250 GB SSD, 1 TB HDD and an Nvidia GTX-1060 GPU) to replace my all-in-one machine with aged specs and a failing connection between the integrated video card and the motherboard. That old computer was banished to my writing desk, where it (usually) worked just fine for light-duty activities.
Today, I bought a higher-spec’d Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (7th-gen Core i7 processor, 8 GB RAM). This new device will retire my Caffeinated Press laptop—which, while decent, is a bit underpowered—and several older devices I still intermittently use. Like an HP convertible that was awful from Day One. And like the Surface Pro (as in, “Surface Pro 1”) I’ve been carrying around in my bag. And the iPad Mini 4. And my Surface 3, which I now only use for reading the news on the back porch. Oh, and the old all-in-one PC, which joins its siblings on the storage shelf, its footprint replaced with a gorgeous new 28-inch monitor and a Surface Dock, so I can just plug the new tablet in with a single cable and voila life is good at my writing desk, too.
If you forget the iPhone for a moment, I’m now officially a two-computer household. Instead of six.
As I’m setting up this new Surface Pro 4, I’m reminded of how much stuff I have to migrate among devices. And in particular, of the stuff that’s essential to my writing toolkit.
Here’s what I use:

  • Non-Electronic
    • An old, trusty Cross fountain pen filled exclusively with Montblanc Irish Green ink—it’s my go-to device for editing content on paper
    • Moleskine classic notebooks, black, XL, either plain or squared rules—these I use for notes when I’m away from my electronic devices (often, while hiking or on airplanes)
    • Pilot G2 7mm mechanical pencils—I take notes in pencil inside my notebooks
  • Electronic
    • Aeon Timeline—a simple but powerful timeline tool that plugs cleanly into Scrivener projects
    • InCopy—part of the Adobe Creative Suite, InCopy is the text-editing component designed to interface with InDesign
    • InDesign—one of the foremost document-design platforms on the planet; I use it at Caffeinated Press (duh!) but it gets surprisingly frequent workouts in my personal projects, too
    • JabRef—a bibliography/citation manager (multi-platform)
    • KDiff3—compares or merges files and directories; useful for checking differences with plain-text files like my short stories written in Markdown
    • MultiMarkdown—support files for working in MultiMarkdown
    • OneNote—the godfather of note-taking software; I rely on OneNote to take notes, plan and organize before I’m ready to load things into Scrivener
    • Pandoc—converts between file formats; especially useful for taking Markdown and making it something else (like Word, PDF, HTML or … wait for it … Adobe InCopy)
    • PhraseExpress—a freemium software (I bought a license) that’s like the Windows version of the Mac’s Text Expander, but on steroids; I use it for repetitive phrases or templates
    • Q10—a bare-bones full-screen plain-text editor, optimized for creative writing
    • Scapple—a delightfully curious hybrid between mind-mapping and note-taking software, released by the people who produce Scrivener
    • Scrivenerthe platform for creative writing; I use Scrivener pretty much exclusively for long-form writing and fifty-fifty (with plain-text) for short-form writing
    • Sigil—a powerful ebook editor
    • Sonar 3—a very simple, but quite useful, submission-tracking tool
    • Visual Studio Code—an all-purpose text editor, optimized for computer coding but quite useful for complicated Markdown projects like a novel

Credit’s also due to the tools that aren’t directly part of the writing process but nevertheless support it, including Spotify for the tunes, Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop for the art, and Bing for the research lift.
And, of course, much love to my typewriters, which I actually sometimes use: The Royal KMM and the Royal Safari.
Here’s my toolkit. What’s in yours?

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