Mid-Year Updates, 2020 Edition

I haven’t posted any personal updates since March. The days blend together when we’re “social distancing.” So, behold, some highlights from the Life of Jason.

In no particular order:

Cats. The feline overlords who dwell indoors, Murphy and Fiona, are doing well. My outdoor domestic friend, Ziggy, is hit or miss; his weight goes up and down and up and down, and he’s scrawny to begin with. He’s been somewhat less people-friendly for the last few months. Whether it’s a function of him perhaps being ill (or old) or recognizing he’s in territory where he’s lost fights, I cannot say. I am convinced, however, that he’s recently gone fully or mostly deaf, based on changes of his behavior and the way that I interact with him. “My” two new outdoor cats — Kali and Orange, ferals who know each other in some way — went from full-on social distancing to acting like lifelong domestics. In fact, Kali basically lives on my back porch now and every time I go out there, she gets excited and purrs and demands petting. Even Orange (an intact male) occasionally seeks some attention, including occasional belly rubs, and he goes nuts over catnip.

Reading Books. I’m still (usually) doing a Reading Sabbath day on Sundays. I’ve recently completed The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Joel Kotkin), The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (George Weigel), Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despite One Another (Matt Tiabbi), Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race and Class (Charles Murray), Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism and the Future of the West (R. R. Reno) and Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life (Nassim Nicholas Taleb).

Writing Books. Long-time readers of this beautiful, well-honed, sublimely reasoned blog know I’ve been writing several books. One of those projects — From Pencil to Print — has undergone a significant transition. When it slithered up to the 200,000-word mark with several chapters still outstanding, I took a page from my friend Ken’s playbook and opted to split the project into several smaller volumes. Three of them are in a mostly done state … and as of yesterday, one of them is finished. Yes, The Diction Dude Essential Guide to Getting Started as a Professional Writer is complete and available as an advance review copy, should any of you wish to review it. I’ll be out for purchase in print and ebook form in mid-to-late August. This volume is the first in a series of 10 planned volumes in The Diction Dude Essential Guide series. The second volume (Mechanics of Fiction) is probably 70 percent done; the book about short-form technical non-fiction (Service Journalism) is probably 40 percent done. Two of the volumes are at zero percent because they’re new ideas that didn’t fit into the original plan, but the remaining five are somewhere between 20 percent and 60 percent done, thanks solely to me slicing up the Pencil to Print manuscript. Likewise, I’m progressing through Delivering MIRACLES (my healthcare book) and should be done with the first draft by the end of the summer. So excited to see these multi-year projects finally come to fruition. It’s been slow going, running several projects in parallel instead of in series, but I’ve learned that I’ve got a cap for how long in a week I can work on any one project before my eyes roll into the back of my head and I just want to smash some battleships in World of Warships.

Health care. As I mentioned in March, I likely had Covid-19 disease. At the time, I hadn’t been to my doctor’s office in, oh, maybe a decade. (I’m a healthcare quality consultant. Just as auto mechanics tend to drive junkers, we HQCs tend to use spit and duct tape to keep our bodies going.) The nurse on the phone was absolutely horrid to me, so I elected to switch primary-care physicians. My new doc is young and aggressive. My family “enjoys” a long and intimate relationship with hypertension — and I, myself, had blood pressure high enough to compare favorably to jetliner hydraulics — so she ordered a bunch of tests: enough blood work to impress Dracula, a transthoracic echocardiogram, a renal vascular ultrasound. (Pro tip: The ultrasound tech is not amused when you ask, during a renal ultrasound, if you’re having twins.) Anyway, it turns out that I’m not dying. She prescribed some long-overdue meds for blood pressure; that’s my one major genetic inheritance from which there’s no escape. I also was very, very, very low on Vitamin D again, which probably explains the slow recovery and frequent deep exhaustion even after I recovered from probably-Covid. So I’m back to daily supplementing, and spending more time in the Great Outdoors.

The funny thing about blood pressure — I know on paper the factors that adversely affect pressure, but I didn’t know how those things affect me, personally, in the real world. So I ran an informal experiment on myself, testing what happens when I do and don’t enjoy things like fast food, cigars, alcohol and coffee. For the most part, coffee kicks my butt very hard, reading-wise, for a few hours, then the effect dissipates. I can’t see an obvious short-term contribution from cigars. Alcohol matters if I go above two or three standard drinks in a “session” with effects that last at least 36 hours. And fast food? All that sodium makes a huge difference … and that difference lasts for 48 hours to 72 hours.

Moral of the story, kids? No one’s immortal. I’m in good shape under-the-hood for my age and genetics, but as we get older, we must do what we must to avoid falling off the Cliff of Good Health without a parachute. And for most people, the Cliff is kinda obvious, but easy to stumble over by accident. I’m avoiding my cliff, and I hope and pray that you do, too.

Hiking. Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to the woods I go. In the last few weeks, I’ve:

  • Completed a 5-mile loop at Millennium Park (the yellow trail plus the to/from stretch to the trailhead).
  • Completed a 4-mile loop at Grand Ravines Park (the path around the park) with Brittany and Mel.
  • Completed a 4-mile loop at Seidman Park (the outer-ring path), which includes segments of the North Country Trail.
  • Completed a 4-mile loop at Aman Park (the outer-ring path) with my brother and his friend.

Plus, in two weeks, my brother and his friend and I will undertake an 8-mile section hike of the NCT, northbound from Nichols Lake South to 14 Mile in Newaygo County. He’s also suggested that he really, really, really wants to do Isle Royale, so we’ve tentatively planned it for Memorial Day 2021. 

I took pictures at three of those bulleted hikes; check out the photo galleries to view them.

Politics. I was roped into running, for a second time, for the 17th district commission seat for the Kent County Board of Commissioners. My district is something like D+50, so we joke about me being a “sacrificial goat,” but it’s still a good exercise in civic engagement. Similarly, if you haven’t checked out the #Unity2020 ticket information and you’re not a fan of either Trump or Biden — well, check it out.

Church. In June, Sacred Heart re-opened at 25 percent capacity, as authorized by the bishop. Kudos to the parish team for a smooth transition. The parish added two additional Masses on the weekends — both of which are billed for vulnerable populations and thus masks are obligatory — and did a ton of great stuff, including Zoom-based all-parish meetings, to keep everyone connected and engaged. As of July, we no longer need to sign up for services. 

Because Sacred Heart is in tune with the full history of the Church Universal, with a pastor with an admirable degree of erudition and foresight, we actually re-introduced a practice that was common during the Black Death years, centuries ago: Liturgical forceps. Yes. Holy tweezers. When you attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form (i.e., the pre-Vatican II Mass), you kneel at the altar rail to receive the Eucharist on the tongue. In the Middle Ages, with plague sweeping across the land yet lacking knowledge of the germ theory of disease transmission, the Church in sua sapientia authorized (and still authorizes) special liturgical tweezers so that the priest does not risk touching your mouth with fingers that might have touched other mouths. So Sacred Heart busted out the forceps at the EF Masses. (With the forceps, he drops the Host on the tongue, he doesn’t just lay it on, so the forceps themselves never touch you, either.) And with the priest wearing a non-liturgical neck gaiter during the distribution, we actually complied with social-distancing rules even during a moment as intimate as that.

Social events. With the Coronapocalypse still with us, social activities have been somewhat spare. Tony and I went on June 1 to the grand re-opening of the Firekeepers Casino in Battle Creek, Michigan. I enjoyed a lovely Sunday dinner with my friend Patrick a while back, and I got to check out his scrumptious library. Plus I enjoyed a lovely walk around the Grand Ravines county park with my friends Mel and Brittany (and Brittany’s dog, Mischief). The writers’ groups have been meeting virtually since March. We did, however, have a pair of cookouts at my brother’s house — one a few weeks ago, with grilled burgers, and then on Independence Day, with slow-cooked ribs. Both events were faaaaantastic.

All for now.

Some Leap Day Reflections

Something fun happens once every four years—and I’m not talking about the interminable agony of the presidential election cycle. Today marks leap day, the quadrennial recurrence of the 29th of February. To my fellow children of the Ford Administration, I say: Happy 10th birthday. Just think: In 2060 or 2064, you’ll finally be old enough to legally raise a toast in your own honor. Perhaps by then, some of you will even have adulted.

A handful of miscellaneous reflections follow, in alpha order by subject heading.

Cats

Over the last few months I’ve accumulated a second pair of cats. These felines, whom I’ve cleverly nicknamed “Kali” (the calico) and “Grey” (the grey), have grown accustomed to receiving their daily sacrifices of kibble. Both seem semi-feral; they don’t skedaddle at the first sign of their human butler—a red tabby sometimes stops by and it darts for its life even if it sees me in the window—but I can’t get too close. Kali, in particular, shows up on the back porch every morning around 9 a.m. and greets me with alternating meows and hisses, darting to-and-fro but never getting within arm’s reach. That little bugger won’t even go near the food until it sees me on the other side of the kitchen window.

Relatedly, Ziggy d’Cat still stops by intermittently. He remains scrawny, but not as deathly emaciated as he was a few months ago. However, he still expects shredded chicken and will bypass kibble if he thinks I’ll see him and therefore bestow upon him a portion of the holy bird. As such, I keep some of the shredded rotisserie chicken I buy for my lunchtime salads reserved for him.

Meanwhile, indoors, Murphy d’Cat has largely forgotten his trauma of my Bonaire trip, while Fiona d’Cat has discovered that if she’s persistent enough in ignoring my attempts to redirect her, that she eventually will find a perch on my left arm whilst I recline at my work desk. Both occasionally play with the toys Brittany brought for them, and both love the new cardboard scratching posts that she gifted to Their Feline Majesties.

Church & Lent

I’ve grown accustomed to the rhythm-and-flow of Mass in the Extraordinary Form at Sacred Heart, which I’ve attended since October. I think I much prefer the EF to the Ordinary Form that most Catholics experience. Probably the biggest reason relates to being left alone. In the OF, you’re forced to be a “community.” So one must endure congregational singing with insipid 1970s-era Simon & Garfunkel show tunes. You get ad populum priests, who must then put on a “Mass face” as if he were a performer. You suffer the hand-holding and cringe-worthy “prayers of the faithful” and a mismash of ill-trained altar servers. The nice thing about the OF is that you’re there for a purpose, but it’s up to you whether you follow along in your hand missal, or pray inwardly, or line up for Confession, or whatever. And there’s no army of “extraordinary ministers” or hippies with guitars to be found. That said, I still prefer the current Liturgy of the Hours versus the old Divine Office. The Office isn’t as rich in Matins as the LotH Office of Readings, quality of the psalter notwithstanding.

As I occasionally YouTube-surf deep-think videos, I occasionally find some with a religious theme. I’m struck by the intellectual poverty of much of contemporary Christian apologetics. Several examples showcase my frustration. First, I’ve watched a few hours of YouTube videos featuring Dr. Taylor Marshall, a well-known “trad bro” commentator—one of those younger, gleeful traditionalist Catholics who’s into smells-and-bells, lots of babies, the “traditional Latin Mass,” Communion on the tongue, and theories about the alleged assassination of John Paul I by nefarious cardinals affiliated with the Freemasons. Lots of decrying the “Novus Ordo” (more properly, the Ordinary Form) and boasting of their fecundity. Second, I watched a series of lectures from the BeThinking National Apologetics Day Conference from 2011, which was a response to the New Atheism. Distinguished speakers included William Lane Craig, John Lennox, Peter J Williams and Gary Habermas. These videos constitute the cutting edge of Evangelical apologetics, but they’re fighting last generation’s battles. (So are the New Atheists, for that matter; none of them take seriously the problem of quantum probability as a significant blow to the classic formations of the Cosmological Argument.) Third, I’ve watched a series of lectures by Robert Barron, the priest who founded Word On Fire and who, a few years ago, became one of the bishops in the archdiocese of Los Angeles. He seems like a nice guy, and certainly learned, but he can’t stop preaching to the converted.

My biggest problem with apologetics, writ large? It’s only persuasive if you’re already on the inside. No one’s speaking, really, to people who may be sympathetic but not yet within the tent. Arguments tend to rely on Scripture or too-precious argumentative scrupulosity presented as if the conclusions were stronger than they really are. Not a lot of grappling with fundamentals. For that matter, the “apologetics” offered by modern atheists prove similarly defective. I think there’s ripe ground, somewhere, to make an inductive preponderance-of-the-evidence argument for questioning agnostics who enjoy better-than-average knowledge of modern science and who prove capable of thinking themselves out of a wet paper bag. But if such a resource exists, I’ve yet to encounter it.

Granted, it’s necessary and valuable to use Scripture and various parts of the Magisterium to succor the congregation. The problem arises when pastors consistently pick the low-hanging fruit. A person who’s not in the congregation, or perhaps in the pews but doubting, isn’t ever going to be persuaded by an argument that relies on some anodyne phrase in 5 Galassionians 87:331, and isn’t going to care that William Lane Craig believes that the multiverse challenge to the Cosmological Argument is insufficiently parsimonious to be true. 

Anyway, it’s Lent. Last week, Sacred Heart offered a 40 Hours devotion. It launched at the end of the 12:30 Mass last Sunday (a Missa Cantata in the Extraordinary Form), with a Eucharistic procession in the nave and the full, chanted Litany of the Saints. I volunteered for the midnight-to-2-a.m. shift on both Monday and Tuesday morning. Then, Ash Wednesday. So this week I landed 10-ish hours in the nave. I observed the fast-and-abstinence rule on Ash Wednesday and the first Friday of Lent (yesterday). I intend to keep that practice “religiously” this year. 

Diving

I’ve managed to flesh out the remaining courses I’m planning to take through the dive shop. With those courses and their mandatory dives, and a few additional dives over the summer, I’ve set a goal of achieving the SSI Master Diver milestone by the end of this year’s season. I’ve already completed the Nitrox and buoyancy specialties. So the five I’ve asked to get scheduled this year include Navigation, Diver Stress and Rescue, Science of Diving, Search and Recovery, and either Night or Deep diving. Upon logging 50 dives and completing five specialties (of which, Stress and Rescue is mandatory), the Master Diver recognition automatically applies.

Diving is an expensive hobby, but all of these courses were bought and paid for last April, as part of a package for my new computer and new BC. So my 2020 out-of-pocket for all of this is effectively $0, which is nice. (And the same held for Bonaire; the resort package and the airline tickets were bought in mid-2019.)

Reading

My Sunday Reading Sabbath activity continues apace. In the last few weeks, I finished:

  • Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum
  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl
  • Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall and Afterlife of Socialism by Joshua Muravchik

I’ve been working through Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and Civilization: A New History of the Western World by Roger Osborne. In addition, during the 40 Hours last week, I read—in one sitting each—the Book of Job and the Gospel of St. John

Next on the list, I pivot to St. Augustine, with The Confessions, The City of God and On Christian Doctrine. These books, as I own them, constitute Volume 16 of the Great Books of the Western World series—the second (1990) edition, edited by Mortimer J. Adler. I picked up a mint-condition package of all 60 hardcover volumes a long time ago, on eBay, but until I read some Nietzsche a few months ago, I hadn’t really cracked any of them open except to marvel at the thin paper and minuscule type.

After Augustine, I think I’m going to lighten up a bit. I “liberated” some of the old Write616 library, including some Jim Harrison books that heretofore I haven’t encountered. I’ll probably use Harrison as a breather, then pivot to Aquinas later in the year. 

One thing I’ve learned from Osborne’s book is that you can’t fully understand the last 1,500 years of European history unless you grasp the Augustine-Aquinas frameworks and how the worldviews promoted by these two saints radically shaped the intellectual life of Western Civilization. You don’t get medieval Christendom without Augustine; you don’t get the Enlightenment, the Reformation and the Counter Reformation without Aquinas and the Scholastics. And you can’t rally grok the fundamentals of the modern debate between liberalism and populism/integralism without listening for the echoes of the Augustine/Aquinas tension.

Social Calendar

My social calendar hasn’t been super active lately, which is good. I continue to attend my two writers’ groups, and in February I hosted one. A few weeks ago, I hoofed it to the East Side for cigars and dinner with Tony, Jen, Dr. Jon and the Doctor’s Wife. Had lunch last week with Brittany. I’m going to visit my mother tomorrow. I had a cigar and the “Champagne of Beers” with my former landlord and his wife last week. I enjoyed lunch a few weeks ago with the old crew from Priority Health. I keep missing drinks with Scott because of our opposite travel schedules, and lunch with Patrick keeps getting bumped, however. 

Videos

I generally don’t watch much television, but I have been watching Doctor Who on BBC America. I’m conflicted. On one hand, I’m satisfied with Jodie Whittaker’s incarnation of The Doctor, although following Peter Capaldi, who was my favorite, is a tough row to hoe. On the other hand, I really, really dislike how on-the-nose woke the Chibnall era has been. I can’t improve upon the review recently authored by Simon Danes although I’m not as bearish about Whittaker as he.

Conversely, I’m really enjoying Star Trek: Picard on CBS All Access. I love the pacing, and the plot, and the acting. There’s enough genuinely new material that it’s an eye-popping new perspective on the Trek universe, but the callbacks to TNG are appropriately subtle and well-done. I even enjoy Wesley Crusher’s The Ready Room recap videos.

Weight

Weight loss continues. According to records in MyFitnessPal, I haven’t been this light and airy since 2013.

A while back, I augmented MyFitnessPal with notes I made in various places (including this blog) before the app even existed, so I input data points going back to 2004. It looks like a slow-motion roller-coaster. I started 2005 around 275 pounds, although I believe that even by then, I had lost a fair amount. My guess is that in the summer of 2004, I hovered just below 300, but at the time, I didn’t own a scale. By May 27, 2005, I recorded a weight of 210; that was the holiday weekend where I changed my hairstyle and wardrobe and replaced by glasses with contacts. On May 1, 2006, I logged 160 pounds, although I had achieved that milestone several months earlier. That 157-to-163 weight fluctuated consistently until late 2009. On August 8, 2010, I logged 210 lbs again. And from there, a slow ascent—230 pounds in December 2012, 250 pounds in May 2016, 270 pounds by July 2017.

Lots of those data points directly correlate to various stresses. Over 2009 and 2010, I relocated three times and was involved in a major car crash. In late 2012, I had a ton of work stress with reorgs at the hospital. In mid-2016, I was doing HEDIS. By mid-2017, more work stress with a new boss at Priority Health.

Now that I’m self-employed, work stress goes down. So does my weight.

Funny how that “works.”

Work

Speaking of work—yikes.

I made the executive decision a year ago to prioritize my books above all other tasks. I think that decision proved sound. Of those tomes, one is mostly done, and the other is coming along nicely. Writing books isn’t an easy process; it takes time and research. And if you’re not in the mood, forcing yourself to write usually just subsequently forces you to un-write what you’d committed.

I have been contracting with just one client—a media company—performing content renovation full-time for a year, and part-time for several years before that. The role pays enough, and because it’s through a payroll company, it’s W2 work (with benefits) rather than 1099 work. However, the client shut down with no notice in early December, rebooting again in January. I went an entire month without income. That wasn’t fun. I made it through, but it cut close to the bone. Last week and this week, the same client temporarily restricted everyone to 85 percent of hours. Not helpful.

As a freelancer/contractor, it’s never a good idea to rely on just one client. I’ve always known that, because I’ve freelanced in some capacity for a decade. But I got burned by sacrificing portfolio diversity in favor of focused book-writing time. So over the last week, I’ve been on a mad-dash of client acquisition. This “reach out and contract with someone” process moves faster than I hoped, because I really wanted these books to be done first, but it is what it is. I also thought seriously about going back to a 9-to-5 office job, but the problem there is one of over-specialization. Jobs I could land tomorrow won’t pay more than my current contracting gig. Jobs that do pay more prove more challenging to obtain because they’re (a) more rare in this local market and (b) in different industries than health care. So I’m at something of a competitive disadvantage for Quality or Analytics roles in West Michigan because I don’t have an IT degree and I hail from the health care industry.

So over this week and last week, I’ve been doing a few things to shore up my personal finances:

  1. Set a goal of $10k in revenue per month. It’ll take some time to materialize, but I’ve never actually goal-set in this manner before. 
  2. Acquire new writing-and-editing clients to augment short-term cash flow.
  3. Add two new business lines to Gillikin & Associates to support local businesses with self-funded insurance coverage to better manage employee health.
  4. Launch Diction Dude (likely on Monday), which I’ve been working on off the side of my desk. I didn’t want to launch it until my book was done, but … yeah.
  5. Launch Lakeshore Literary (also likely on Monday). This is the one-man successor to Caffeinated Press, which we closed in December.

Writing

And on the writing front—

  • I penned two short stories for my writing groups. So they’re going to be workshopped next month.
  • Progress is solid on From Pencil to Print.

—30—

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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Birthday Reflection, Part XLIII

A week ago today, I inaugurated my 43rd spin ’round the sun as a tiny fleshy dot upon this big blue marble. Using a process I call “math,” I discovered that such a number is smack-dab between the ages of 18 and 68. Which means I’m at the midpoint between the transition into adulthood from childhood, and the transition from adulthood into that second childhood known as retirement.

Well, then.

Casual readers of this award-winning, fan-favorite blog have no doubt noticed a general decline in posting frequency over 2019. Such relative quiescence isn’t accidental. In fact, it’s coupled with something else I did — banishing Facebook.

(Okay, banish is too strong a word. I deleted the app off my phone and today marked the first time in roughly six weeks that I logged in through a browser. I’m not deleting the app — I administer some business accounts — but for all practical purposes, I’m off FB. This situation will likely endure. So if you’ve got great news to share, please email me.)

Anyway, I’m overdue for an update, given that the last one was five months ago. I’m writing in the late evening, with the windows open an an early autumn rain pounding the driveway and the feline overlords unusually sedate. A perfect environment for writing, so to quote Sophia Petrillo: “Buckle up, slut puppy.” Here we go.

A Birthday Reflection

I don’t welcome my 43rd year with any bold new insight or special resolution. Instead, I merely observe that the horizon upon which I think and act seems to have lengthened, which has affected how I assess the relative value of any specific course of action. Once upon a time, I thought in terms of days and weeks. Later, I thought in terms of months. Now, I tend to think in years and decades.

What I mean is this: When I was in my 20s, I tended to consider what I was going to do “this week.” Maybe if money was tight, I’d have to think about how I’d pay the rent “next month.” It never occurred to me to think about “next year.” In my mid-to-late 30s, however, I pondered more about the goals I had for “next year” whereas “next week” was largely off-radar. That change of frame proved useful. I had advanced my career to the point where I didn’t need to think about how I was going to pay the rent or my car loan. I could therefore strategize, in the autumn, about a Vegas trip the following spring, for example.

In my early 40s, I find my life-strategy time focused more and more on how I’m going to tee myself up for retirement. Being single with no dependents, I have a lot of flexibility. But I also lose a bit of security because I can’t count on a spouse and maybe a few crumb-crunchers to circle around me when I’m wrinkled and grey. Planning for a transition from prime adulthood into old age means laying plans now. And although I don’t envision ever retiring per se, I do foresee a transition in stages from the burning-the-candle-at-both-ends life I’m now living, to a gradual stepdown in frenzy over many careful years of preparation. I aim to be the 85-year-old man brandishing a cane and a rapier wit, speaking at yet another book-launch party. Not the guy sitting on a rocking chair outside a by-the-month motel, sucking on an oxygen tank and worried about whether I’ll get a new power scooter to help with The Diabeetus.

I’ve been watching several of the YouTube lectures of Jordan B. Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist and faculty at the University of Toronto. He’s recently famous for some of his political controversies as well as his two major books, Maps of Meaning and The 12 Rules for Life. I read the latter book when it came out, and I’ve been reflecting on Peterson’s specific advice. Some of his ideas resonate, like the notion that life’s basically a bunch of suffering — don’t expect to be happy, but at least try to be less avoidably miserable. And that a life worth living takes a lifetime to build, “so get on with it, man.”

One does not become a wise, respected, less-miserable elder by default. So “get on with it,” indeed. More about that subject after we conduct a whirlwhind tour of the last few months.

My Summer in a Nutshell

Life since the tail-end of April has been, as they say, a box of chocolates:

Travel. I’ve gone to Las Vegas twice (May and August) with a bunch of friends from the Vegas-focused podcasting community. Tony and I trekked to Louisville for a long weekend over the Independence Day holiday, for distillery tours and gambling. I spoke at a conference in D.C. in June. I flew to Denton, Texas in late July to reconnect with my DDB/DICKS friends. I made a day trip to Chicago to meet with friends in May. I’ve been out of Michigan for at least part of each month, May through September.

Outdoors. Progress! I started flying lessons, although I’m pausing that initiative temporarily given how often I’ve been bounced among flight instructors (they need to get their $@%^ together). I’ve done a few day hikes, including along the North Country Trail. I’ll be kayaking this coming Saturday on the Grand River with my friend Scott. Went scuba diving a few times in inland Michigan, and gave my updated gear a nice shakedown. Completed some great courses through Fortune Bay Expedition Team, including a hot-weather medicine class and a day-long river-rescue course on the Rogue River.

Reading. My reading slowed a bit over the summer because I’ve been preoccupied with writing — an acceptable tradeoff. But I’ve managed to devour George F. Will’s The Conservative Sensibility and Kevin D. Williamson’s The Smallest Minority. That said, I’ve also purchased a ton of books that sit on my to-be-read shelf. Twenty-four titles await review, ranging from books about moral theory and literary editing standards, to Jim Harrison’s Off to the Side. I look forward to colder weather and its invitation to build roaring wood fires in my office fireplace while enjoying soft Bach, a fuzzy blanket, a good book and a purring lap cat.

Writing. I’ve been writing so much that my fingertips hurt. I’m closing in on the 100k-word mark for From Pencil to Print, my reference book for emerging writers. I recently closed the first draft of the infamous (to me) Chapter 4, which focuses on the most common structural and mechanical problems I’ve encountered over five years of vetting cold queries. That chapter, believe it or not, clocks in at 25,000 words. But they’re good words. (Please, Lord, make them be good words.) I’ve also plunged headfirst into Delivering MIRACLES, a book about the proper staffing and structuring of healthcare quality teams. I’ve really struggled with the organization of this latter book, but during prep for a presentation I’m delivering in October, inspiration struck and now I’m really excited for this book because I think I “cracked the code.” And on a personal front, I recently released one of my erotica novellas on Amazon — under pseudonym, of course. And I really enjoyed the three-night writers’ retreat I did in August as well as my semimonthly meetings of the Grand River Writing Tribe.

Working. Nearly a year and a half after I left Priority Health, I’ve long since found solid contract work that’s replaced my former W-2 income. My major client right now — a New York media corporation — brought me aboard to perform technical document review full-time, and as such, I get to be a temporary W-2 employee of a tiny Florida-based payroll firm instead of a pure 1099 contractor managing invoices. The upshot is that in addition to an easier long-run tax position, I now enjoy decent medical, dental and vision benefits at very nice rates through this payroll firm. It’s still contract work that I negotiate, but through an agency instead of through direct invoicing. In addition, I’ve joined groups like the Small Business Association of Michigan, the Grand Rapids Chamber and the Economic Club of Grand Rapids. In fact, I sponsored a session at SBAM’s annual conference this year and moderated a panel on work-life balance. Professionally, even though I’ve been quiet, I’ve been busy on these books and on earned business.

My Autumnal Re-Centering

So, a good summer. But the autumn? Horse of a different color.

Whilst recreating in the Lone Star State, I had a bit of a health scare in the form of a significant attack of heartburn. So far, so anodyne, right? Happens to everyone at some point — but not to me. Long story short, I’m at a pivot point where an immediate health detour is necessary while a delayed or avoided detour will prove not-okay. Much of what’s going now on re-creates the end of 2004, so it’s familiar territory. Back then, I needed an EGD because I had significant esophageal erosions and scarring arising from mostly asymptomatic GERD. Plus, obesity. Plus, exhaustion. Plus, pre-diabetes. Plus, plus, plus. So in January 2005, I was in a do-or-(eventually)-die moment. So I did — I left grad school, left the newspaper, lost 110 pounds in 2005 (and another 30 pounds in 2006), got a gym membership and used it five or six times per week, started karate, took up long-distance running, etc. And I maintained those gains until mid-2009, when the quadruple-whammy of a major auto accident, several rapid changes of domicile, a new high-drama boss at the hospital, and a significant Vitamin D deficiency brought back something like 60 pounds in six months. Since then, I’ve been on a fairly regular cycle of plateau, stress response, re-plateau.

So, yes. It’s 2004 all over again, but even more so. I now need to repeat 2005, or else.

The funny thing is that I really don’t consciously perceive overt stress. I don’t suffer from depression and anxiety. My stress is more biological than psychological — I do too much and am spread too thin, but I’ve always been loathe to say no to things and to stop doing things that ought to be stopped, so I end up burning the candle at both ends and then dropping a match in the middle. And because there’s so much to do in parallel, everything progresses glacially, frustrating some and creating a negative feedback loop for me, emotionally, that eventually manifests physically.

It takes a significant shock to upset that cycle. And now, for the first time since 2004, the shock has been delivered.

The practical upshot is that I’m clearing the plate of almost everything. Call it the Great Purge of 2019. On an immediate front, I canceled my travel to Phoenix and Rome (the former for practical reasons related to health management). And I’m unwinding practically everything else. I resigned last week from my role on the Write616 board of directors. I discontinued participation in a peer-networking group online. I’m not yet ready, in the context of this blog, to fully disclose everything that’s changing, given that some readers here will be affected by some things that haven’t yet been announced in their proper context. Let it suffice that a lot of stuff is moving from my must-do column to my stop-do column between now and New Years Eve, but details will emerge in the official channels where those details more properly belong, in the days and weeks to come.

In 2005, I hit the reset button and stopped everything but my day job. What filled the gap proved largely unplanned. Not bad, but not planned. In 2019, I’m hitting the reset button again — but at least this time, I’ve got a strategery.

The Road Ahead

So what’s next?

Well, mid-September through the end of January will be a period of hibernation. No out-of-state travel. A lot of big rocks in my jar will move to different gardens by the end of the calendar year. I’ll be spending my days working and my nights reading and writing. A lot of the stuff that’s clogged my calendar and my to-do list now glides toward the dustbin, with some things — being more significant — requiring several months of transition. My mornings will begin with reflection and exercise; my nights will end with journaling.

My diet’s changing. In fact, it’s already changed, and apart from a beer after an NCT hike last Saturday, I haven’t had alcohol or a cigar since I podcasted with Tony two weeks ago, a fact made glaringly obvious when I stepped on the scale this morning and saw a 5-lb. reduction in just one week. I’m getting back into aerobic exercise with a determination borne of necessity. I intend to take two days each week for myself, a pure sabbath on Sunday and a maintenance Monday for clean-up, errands and personal time.

You are unlikely to see me on social media, but you may come across me at church — I recently joined Sacred Heart. You may find me at a writers’ group or a one-off local cultural activity. You might find me on the trail. Otherwise, you’ll find me at home.

But yes. Autumn began yesterday. I’m taking the season to hunker down. To be quiet. To do and to be and to fix.

Because I’m really excited for what 2020 holds, and I aim to be maximally ready for it.

Six Fruitful Weeks

Where to begin?

Over the third week in March, I traveled to the Crescent City for the 2019 New Orleans Bourbon Festival. Had a great time — stayed with Tony at the Harrah’s N.O. hotel/casino then welcomed the opportunity to meet with a dozen friends from as far away as California and Manitoba. A wonderful time, with wonderful people, and wonderful brown spirits, and wonderful culinary delights.

But here’s the thing: In an attempt to be clever, I opted to save a few hundred bucks by flying out of Chicago O’Hare instead of Grand Rapids. So to maximize my time working, I figured I’d take the Amtrak from Grand Rapids to downtown Chicago, then the L straight into O’Hare. In theory, it was a plan of unparalleled brilliance, foiled only by the fact that the train engineer suffered a heart attack, prompting a three-hour pause in St. Joseph, Michigan, and a sad Jason rebooking his flights to (a) arrive later than planned, and (b) to cost more than just flying outta G.R.

On the way back, given that I had plenty of time both on the train and at the (lovely) Metropolitan Lounge at Chicago Union Station, I waxed internally philosophic about the Big Meaning of Life questions.

Some conclusions:

  • I’d rather experience now than plan to experience later.
  • Bootstrapping big things isn’t a wise idea. To paraphrase my late, beloved grandfather: Anything worth doing is worth appropriately resourcing before you start. Seat-of-your-pants business development is a recipe for mediocrity.
  • My arch-nemesis, the Jonah Complex, thrives in those little minutes when it’s easier to surrender to acedia than to hone one’s game. Yet — just as with training a cat to avoid the near occasion of sin — it’s better to create an environment where the defaults are configured to channel good behaviors rather than indulging in self-flagellation at the point of failure.

In light of those reflections, I’ve spent a large amount of the month of April taking new stock of my portfolio of assets and liabilities — financial, emotional, experiential — with an eye toward (as they say) defecating or abdicating from the throne.

So here’s what’s happened this month:

  • I’ve paid off my car, heavily invested in my business enterprises and wiped away all my credit-card debt. (In fact, I’m writing this post from the Starbucks on Alpine Ave., while said car undergoes a much-needed interior and exterior detailing.)
  • I booked a week-long vacation to Italy for late summer. Never been to Europe, and don’t want to wait until I’m 70 to go. Itinerary includes Rome (my home-base hotel is a stone’s throw from the Vatican), Naples, Assisi and Capri. May take a brief side trip to either Florence or Venice, if time permits. Been doing some Duolinguo lessons to prepare.
  • I wrapped up my notes and paperwork for a paid speaking gig I’m doing in June in D.C.
  • I started flying lessons, out of West Michgian Regional in Holland. Went on my first flight last week and have two more flights scheduled this week, plus I attended a “how to pass your checkride” seminar with an FAA examiner. Cool stuff. On track to earn my private pilot license by the end of the summer, and I’m grateful to the support from my friends Patrick and Jason (both pilots) for their encouragement and advice. I’ve got a great, engaged instructor, which really makes a difference.
  • I replaced the BCD (the air vest) for my scuba gear and registered for enough specialty courses this summer to potentially earn Master Diver certification by the end of the season. I’m already booked for Feburary 2020 to visit Bonaire, a little Dutch island off the coast of Venezuela, for a dive trip with two diving friends.
  • I fleshed out and resourced Lakeshore Literary Logistics, a company that compliments Caffeinated Press. L3’s purpose is book-and-lit-journal distribution, not publishing. Although I still am active with Caffeinated Press, I’ve gotten almost completely out of editorial project management and am instead focused on L3 and distribution planning. On the CafPress front, John is focusing on the lit journal and Brittany is now handling editorial project management in addition to her work as CFO.
  • I’ve developed one of the books I’m working on, From Pencil to Print: Practical Advice for Emerging Authors, to roughly 50 percent complete. The manuscript presently stands at about 65,000 words, and I’ve already enlisted the support of one of my interns as well as a few writing colleagues to examine sample chapters. I might even have a guest author for a special-topics chapter lined up. A complete first draft will likely be ready to go by the end of the summer. Still haven’t decided whether I want to shop a proposal or self-publish, but I have time to figure it out.
  • The other book I’m developing, Introduction to Health Data Analytics, is now fully fleshed and I’ve got a kitchen cabinet of healthcare industry colleagues on board to review sample chapters. I’m expecting to be first-draft ready sometime over the upcoming winter.
  • My work with Gillikin & Associates is going well, albeit quietly. I’ve got a part-time client in New York that’s prompting me to be a bit less aggressive with marketing right now. I recently joined the Grand Rapids Chamber, the Small Business Association of Michigan and the Economic Club of Grand Rapids. Look forward to lots of professional networking over the next few months.
  • Although my travel schedule is fillling — right now, I’m booked for Chicago, Washington DC, Dallas, Las Vegas (twice), Rome, Phoenix and Louisville — I’m slotting in time this spring to do a kayak trip and, I think, an overnight backpacking loop.
  • A confluence of events conspires to draw me back into more regular church attendance. Part of it relates to just shifting priorities, and part of it relates to a dive into the minutiae of the Extraordinary Form (for both the Mass and the Divine Office) that migrated from curiosity to intrigue.
  • The podcast is going well. Vice Lounge released a 4-inch-by-six-inch flyer with basic strategy guides on one side and tasting trees on the other. A nice touch for long-time friends of the show.

So, yeah. I’ve been busy. And although I did pull a back muscle a few weeks ago that laid me up for a while, all is well. The feline overlords are content, and no immediate crises seem to be brewing.

It feels like things are coming together nicely, and that 2019 will be the year that several of my bucket-list items cross off the list.

An Auspicious Start

The new year is a mere 2 percent complete but so far, so good:

  • Kicked the new year off right with a 6-mile hike along parts of the North Country Trail and some horse trails, near Yankee Springs Recreational Area. Went well. My brother came, too, which was nice. The hike was sponsored by FBET; I’ve recently registered for a series of FBET trainings to occur over the next few months.
  • We held a board of directors meeting for Caffeinated Press. John is back from sabbatical. Woohoo!
  • Met the new landlord.
  • Already prepared federal taxes for Gillikin & Associates and VLO Media.
  • Lots of odds-and-ends wrapped up.
  • Welcomed two new members to the Grand River Writing Tribe.

January’s going to be a flurry — lots of stuff that I must wrap up before the end of the month, because starting in February, my daily life is going to take a major change for reasons I can’t share yet.
But as I said: So far, so good.

18 Years Later …

On July 7, 2000, I accepted employment as an administrative project coordinator with the nursing resource center at Spectrum Health. The organization—then just three tumultuous years into the merger between Butterworth Hospital and Blodgett Memorial Medical Center, and under a strict federal consent degree to boot—offered no benefits for my temporary/on-call role, but it did feature a generous hourly salary and flexible scheduling. I wasn’t especially drawn to healthcare; I just needed a job and the hospital paid better than retail. So I signed the employee agreement.
Eighteen years later, I now depart the organization.
It’s been a wild ride. In my first two years, as a resource admin, I performed a series of odd jobs: Medical records filing, documenting a perioperative process improvement project, staffing the donor-records processing area of the Blodgett-Butterworth Healthcare Foundation. Then I did some weekend-only intake work for the Care Management team. From there, I was hired full-time around 2002 as the administrative assistant (and later, the data analyst) for the director of Care Management. Over the next eight years, I stayed with her department as it morphed to include patient placement, registration, scheduling, denials, pre-bill management, etc. In 2010, I became the team leader for the hospital’s Revenue Cycle Informatics group. A while later, a series of executive realignments commenced and by 2012, my team was dissolved and I was transitioned into the corporate Information Services team. I did that job for about a year—mostly Epic reporting for the Spectrum Health Medical Group—until I decamped in 2013 for Priority Health, the organization’s managed-care arm. In 2014 I was promoted into management, leading the Quality Improvement Analytics department. In early 2018, my department restructured and the role of manager was eliminated. I’ve been doing special projects on work-for-home from the last three months. I declined to return to individual-contributor ranks and so have taken the severance pathway.
On April 27, 2018, I turned over my badge and laptops to my human-resources business partner. I’m technically “on the books” as an employee until May 2, but that extra few days is merely an administrative convenience to obtain one additional month of benefits.


I did not expect on that long-ago summer day that I’d begin a career. As a philosophy major at Western Michigan University, I thought I was bound for the seminary, or if not that, then the professoriate. Spectrum Health was a bridge job to launch me to greater things. But funny thing: I liked the organization, the people, the subject. I stayed a while. Then I was entrenched.
Over the years, I’ve been able to stretch myself in various ways that I think helped the organization:

  • I served for four years as the hospital’s administrator for the biomedical ethics committee, putting my degree to use on behalf of patient needs
  • I developed the first Revenue Cycle Scorecard, a 100-page monthly databook, and later the Revenue Cycle Scorecard, an executive reporting package
  • I helped reengineer the patient registration audit program and the process for obtaining access to health plan verification portals
  • I oversaw the implementation of a community EMR to support some outpatient case-management functions
  • I offered primary outcomes evaluation services for the high-risk maternal/infant health program
  • I provided direct operational support to the facility revenue-cycle leadership team for things like budget and labor planning
  • I built complex databases for community case-management resource lists and for daily hospital bed-availability reporting
  • I calculated the 30-day downstream total community cost from avoidable surgical-site infections
  • I assessed decadal trends in the use (and abuse!) of ADHD stimulant drugs
  • I developed part of the process for providing high-level assessments of new corporate initiatives
  • I coordinated the business-side process for HEDIS 2016—which included not only the normal annual process but also a complete codebase revision (PL/SQL to Informatica), a vendor transition and the complete outsourcing of medical-record review
  • I architected a “zero defects in care” member registry that accounted for individual-level insight into compliance with USPSTF guidelines for adult well care
  • I led the business-side implementation of an exploratory virtual server environment for advanced data management and statistics

All the while, I was supported professionally through memberships in the American Statistical Association, the American Society for Quality, the American Evaluation Association and the National Association for Healthcare Quality. In fact, after years of volunteering with NAHQ, I’m now privileged to be in year three of a four-year term on the national board of directors, and a recognized subject-matter expert in the field of health data analytics by my peers across the country.


Next week, I’ll be disconnecting entirely. No email, no texting, no social media. When I return online on May 8, I launch Gillikin & Associates, Inc., a healthcare quality consultancy focusing on analytics, population-health management and quality culture. I’m probably going to spend part of the summer writing a textbook to orient analysts to analytics in healthcare quality management.
In addition, I’ll have a bit more time to offer Caffeinated Press, Write616 and Vice Lounge Online, as well as a few social and political commitments I’ve taken aboard. That includes bolstering my long-running editorial-renovation consulting work for DotDash (which, at half-time status beginning in mid-May, will alone pay my bills). With the stress of Priority Health now off my plate—it’s only now that I appreciate just how emotionally taxing the last year or so has been—I have some mental bandwidth to commit to reading more, exercising often and eating prudently, in addition to the joyful pursuit of a successful consultancy.
That said, I’ll miss my co-workers. I’m proud of the Exploratory Analytics team I leave behind (Satish, Jen, Brad, Brittany) and many dozens of colleagues who’ve challenged, supported and enlightened me during my career.
Eighteen years is a long time. But you know what? It’s also a long time to get dangerously comfortable. Comfort is a toxin, I think. And I’m purging that toxin from my system. Independent consulting will be a challenge, but one I eagerly embrace. Fresh challenges yields new growth.
Leaving is bittersweet, but I trust I’ll be better for it in the long run.

Days Flying By

A few weeks ago I remarked to some colleagues that it seemed both too early and too late for the beginning of March to have arrived. By that, I meant that so much has happened that time is flying by. But, flip side, it’s only just March. Time’s also draggin’ along.
Some recent highlights, in no particular order:
Windsor Trip. In February, a group of roughly a dozen folks met at Caesar’s Windsor, a hotel-casino property inside of Windsor, Ontario, for a weekend of gambling and consumption. ‘Twas a lot of fun. I ended up roughly breaking even for the whole darn weekend, aided by a hand-pay hit on penny slots and a big win in the high-limit room at MGM Grand Detroit. Tony and I dedicate next week’s Vice Lounge Online podcast to the trip report.
Denton Trip. Got back last week from three nights in lovely Denton, Texas—a suburb of northern Dallas. Great time with Roux, Sparkles, Edwin, Ryan and the whole gang. My trip report will be released as a VLO podcast in roughly a month, and highlights also popped into a Denton Dallas & Beyond podcast last week. (Spoiler: I appear as a guest on the DDB show.)
NAHQ Updates. Been back-and-forth to Chicago three times since the new year. We successfully held a day-long in-person focus group related to the initiative I’m co-chairing to rewrite the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice for Healthcare Quality Professionals. In addition, I’ve been one of the subject-matter experts working through revisions to the Health Data Analytics competency area. Not to mention, I’ve been working directly with our CEO on a board strategy presentation. Meetings galore. Intensely rewarding work.
Get Published! Conference. Last Saturday, the third annual Get Published! conference, sponsored by MiFiWriters and held at Herrick District Library, went off without a hitch. Good content. Emphasis was on voice, POV and self-editing. Three panels and two workshops. The MiFiWriters team gets beaucoup credit for their excellent command of logistics.
Health & Wellness. I returned from Denton with a touch of the flu, it seems. Not pleasant. I’ve been using my elliptical to prep for an upcoming wilderness training. Turns out that ellipticals are not like the treadmills and recumbent bikes I’ve been previously familiar with—my problem on the elliptical isn’t my cardiopulmonary fitness but rather that my quads give out before I can really tax my lungs. Baby steps, as it were.
Caffeinated Press. We’ve been doing a lot, although almost all of it is behind the scenes. Brittany and I are presently running the business as, effectively, a partnership; we’ve established a weekly private office-hours session to get things done. That focused time has been helpful, insofar as we’ve made tremendous progress on things like inventory and author statements and long-term sales/distribution strategy. We’ve had to prioritize shoring-up biz ops ahead of editorial for the last few months, which was a good decision, albeit painful for impatient contributors. The way we see it, we either need to stabilize our income stream or just stop. We’re focusing on the former in the short term so that we can continue to do editorial stuff for years into the future.
Write616. Programming’s off to a good start. I’m hosting the next Get Pressed session (about “Author Media Toolkit”) this coming Tuesday evening. Beyond programming, we’ve been doing a lot of admin stuff related to the GLCL-to-Write616 governance transition.
Hobbies. So far, so good with Vice Lounge Online. We’re fortunate to have had several very generous contributors to our Patreon page to support the show. Over the last few weeks I’ve enjoyed several great conversations with people about potential scuba trips this summer—woohoo! Even if it’s just in concept. I’m working through the study guide to take the FCC exam to upgrade my amateur radio license from Technician to General class. And I’m enrolled in a week-long Wilderness First Responder course in May, in Quebec. Really looking forward to that. This trip is why I wrote my hiking-gear inventory list last month and re-curated all the supplies in my master first-aid kit.
Writing. Still working through my personal slush. Haven’t submitted much in the last month, although I’ve managed to apply for two juried contests and for a slot as an artist-in-residence at Isle Royale National Park. I don’t carry high expectations for any of this; I’m merely writing, and rewriting, and occasionally submitting to carefully selected markets. Like ya do.

All the King's Horses and All the King's Men

Today is the 21st day of January, in the Year of Our Lord MMXVIII. And I sit at my desk, looking at this—

—and reflecting that two months ago today, I was wrapping up time in the office and about to head out for a five-day Thanksgiving Day holiday. I looked forward to it, really; it was my chance to decompress a bit and to amp up my word count on my NaNo novel. All was well with the world. The course was locked; the tiller was firmly set amidships with nothing but calm seas enveloping the horizon.
Much has changed since then. The last two months have been surprisingly eventful—and by eventful I mean in a “I will remember this 30 years from now” kind of way, because this moment serves as an inflection point.
A cluster of storms now thunder in the distance:

  • We’ve had significant board departures at Caffeinated Press
  • We’ve re-branded and re-launched GLCL as Write616
  • Tony and I re-skinned Vice Lounge Online
  • I managed to lose, despite the holidays, about 10 pounds
  • Murphy d’Cat has been puking quite a bit lately, meaning a vet visit is on the horizon
  • My landlord has suggested that he’s about to sell the house where I’ve dwelt for the last seven years
  • My department at Priority Health (I’ve been with the corporation for nearly 18 years) is being reorganized, and the role I occupy of departmental manager is being eliminated, although the “what’s next for Jason” question still hasn’t been answered

As you might imagine, it’s been a wee bit complicated lately. Nearly every major aspect of my life—job, hobbies, domicile, pet health—has been put under a degree of stress that they haven’t before, and to boot, it’s all been pretty much simultaneous.
Funny thing, though. In my head, this is freakin’ exciting. (Well, not the Murphy part, of course.)
Allow me to explain this apparent excursion into cognitive dissonance.
Long-time readers of this award-winning, action-packed blog know that I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 12 years thinking through the whole “what do you want to be when you grow up” question. In fact, my boss at PH has recently put that very question to me—which is odd, given that I’m a year older than she—but I’ve finally concluded that I don’t think that the question makes any bloody sense.
People identify themselves by fixed constants: Jobs, careers, family, military service, volunteer work, etc. Their self-conception is a function of their identity as defined by their role in the economy or in society. And that’s fine. So a person might answer the “who do you wanna be?” question by saying something like “a politician” or “a doctor” or “a data analyst.”
I’ve always found that framework to be deeply lacking. People are multidimensional. We do, of course, have jobs, and families, and personal and professional service commitments. But we’re more than the sum of our parts. Because most people develop deep ties to place and people, through jobs and mortgages and marriage and procreation, they’re fundamentally constrained in their ability to pivot. They’re locked. So they accept the chains and they even come to identify with them. I’m not much of a Nietzsche devotee, but the master/slave dynamic he outlines in Genealogy of Morals has its useful real-world applications.
On several occasions over the years I’ve followed a conservative impulse to not-act despite a desire to act, because it was safer to stay in place than to make progress seasoned by a higher risk potential. In particular, I think about the missed opportunity of setting out for a summer-long sabbatical hiking the Pacific Crest Trail eight years ago, although I realize in general that my list of bucket-list goals and the trajectory of my day-to-day life have been deeply out of sync for quite some time. So even though I wouldn’t have chosen that answer, the “who do you want to be?” question turned, by default, into “Humpty Dumpty.” There I sat, on the wall, waiting for the great fall. Waiting. Endless waiting, believing myself to be in charge yet a slave to comfortable inertia.
The wait is over. No matter what happens at Priority Health, for example, a point’s been reached where stasis is no longer an option. I’ve got some irons in the fire; I may well end up better off there than I am today. Or I might leave, opting instead to finally launch that health quality consultancy I’ve been thinking about (and which, my peers across the country have uniformly encouraged me to do). Who knows?
Likewise, six months from now I might still be here on Prospect Avenue. Or I might not be. Maybe I’ll buy the house. Maybe someone else will, and either I’ll continue to rent or I’ll need to relocate.
I’ve got a ton of new accountabilities at Caffeinated Press with our board turnover and with the re-launch efforts at Write616 still going strong. Do I keep going? Do I bail? Do I do something else entirely?
I’m deeply fortunate to have the economic security to weather this storm and a network of friends, family and professional colleagues who’ve been so generous lately with their time and counsel.
Six months from now, things will be very different. I don’t know how they’ll be different, or what different even looks like. But Humpty finally caught the storm winds. Humpty’s toddling off the wall. Humpty won’t get put back together again. But you want to know something?
I don’t think he wants to be.

An October Update

After a brief stretch of unseasonably warm weather in late September, West Michigan has unambiguously slipped into autumn. I look out my home-office window—the air is nice, with that charming mix of cool and moist that suggests “tailgate season”—and I see more and more orange and red amidst the green. Squirrels scamper with earnestness. Bugs are vanishing. Things slow down.

“Winter is coming,” I’m told. And I hope it does. I’m excited for this year’s holiday season. In my head, it kicks off with my mid-September birthday, which marks for me the end of summer (Labor Day doesn’t do it for me) and the beginning of “winter Lent.” Then October sees the tree transitions and sweater weather and writing prep that culminates in Halloween—holiday season kickoff!—and the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. Thanksgiving re-grounds me with family and marks a pivot point for NaNo. And as soon as the mad-dash of writing is over, I pivot to Christmas and then take two or three weeks off from the day job to recharge, etc. It’s a great time of the year, even in years when I’m not “feelin’ it.”

So today seems like as good of a time as any to offer some updates, offered as usual in no particular order, but as always under the watchful gaze of my feline overlords.

VLO’s Summer Vacation. Tony and I took a half-vacation (i.e., work slowdown) in late July and throughout August; as of September, we were back to a normal weekly podcasting schedule. The upside to VLO now rolling in its sixth year is that we’re stable and mature. And, of course, that we have thousands of downloaders and hundreds of engaged listeners on Twitter, Facebook, the blog, etc. Given that we don’t monetize this program—it’s a hobby and labor of love—the response by people all across the world has been fantastic. And for almost all of the shows for September and October, our alcohol segments came to us free of charge courtesy of gifts from our listeners. It’s a ton of work, but it’s a joyful thing.

NAHQ @ Cincinnati. On my birthday, I flew to Cincinnati for the back-to-back board meeting and educational conference for the National Association for Healthcare Quality. It was a professionally rewarding experience. Being a board member means that the conference is tightly scheduled for us. Six days, five nights. But what made it personally rewarding was the deep camaraderie among the current members of the board and the great cadre of seasoned, senior volunteers who work with us. NAHQ is about to go into a very tight period where the organization pivots from an association-management model (i.e., a separate company “manages” the association, hires the staff, provides the office, etc.) to a fully stand-alone model where the association itself handles all its own operations, leases its own offices, hires its own team, stands up its own I.T., etc. This is a huge deal. We’re bigger than most groups that make the independent pivot and we have only about a quarter of the time the average group enjoys to make the move … but our staff are awesome (almost all are leaving the management company to be hired by NAHQ outright) and our finances are rock-solid. It’ll be a heavy lift, but it’ll be done with finesse and—we expect—utterly transparently to our thousands of dues-paying members.

Jot That Down. I’m pleased to share that Jot That Down: Encouraging Essays for New Writers has been successfully released. I worked with A. L. Rogers, the book’s editor, to get it produced in print. It’s a great resource for new/aspiring writers, covering a variety of topics and genres in an easy-to-digest manner. Currently available for purchase for $14.95 from Caffeinated Press or by special order from your local independent bookseller.

Other CafPress books. And speaking of Jot That Down, I’ve wrapped up Isle Royale from the AIR, an anthology edited by Phillip Sterling that collects stories, poems and art from former artists-in-residence at Isle Royale National Park. I’m also in the production phase of Brewed Awakenings 3, our annual anthology, and Off the Wall: How Art Speaks, a collection of poetry and art co-developed by Elizabeth Kerlikowske and Mary Hatch. And final edits are due from the advance review copy for Ladri, a novel by Andrea Albright. Barring disaster, each of these books should be in-scope for a boost event we’ll host at the end of the month. Two more novels await this year—Kim Bento’s Surviving the Lynch Mob and Barbara David’s A Tale of Therese—plus Jennifer Morrison’s local-history book The Open Mausoleum Door, then I’m caught up with production across all of our lines of business.

NaNoWriMo. NaNo’s coming, so that means that I’ve had to (a) re-curate my author page and (b) think about what I’m going to work on. I think my technical focus will be on sharpening conflict and using that conflict to be the primary driver of the plot (instead of my usual, which is to let the plot drive the conflict). The story itself will be another bite at a Jordan Sanders murder mystery because I’m well-acquainted with the characters in this universe. But I still have three weeks to nail down my idea.

Grand River Writing Tribe. The Tribe has been together for 10 months now, and it’s been going gangbusters. People are participating. Getting published. Supporting each other. Without a regular, focused critique group, a writer stands at a significant disadvantage. GRWT meets twice monthly for three hours, combining critiques, focused education and dedicated writing time. And we still welcome potential new applicants!

Juicing. So this happened. On October 1, a scant week ago, I began a significant diet program. I had purchased a juicer and accessories. For several days, I had nothing but fruit and vegetable juice. Then, on the advice of clinicians at work, I’ve migrated to a part-juice, part-good-food regimen. So it’s been juices with a little bit of, e.g., shredded chicken or sushi or carrot/celery sticks. The thing is, I’m avoiding all processed sugars, alcohol, refined carbs, etc. Not even doing my traditional Lean Cuisines. It’s either juice I prepared myself, or plain shredded chicken or sashimi without the rice. (Tonight, I’m making a salmon fillet with asparagus.) Already down five pounds in a week. And although the diet part isn’t hard—I really like what I’m consuming—what’s been more interesting is the level of planning I’ve had to do. Actually preparing a shopping list (“I need this many swiss chard leaves, this many pears, this many ounces of blueberries …”) and planning my evening schedule around my dinner schedule has been both illustrative and challenging. And now that I bought an elliptical, which just got set up in my living room—whoa! Credit to my friend Tony who did a 30-day juice diet in May (and lost a ton of weight!) and who remains incredibly supportive even when I mock him unfairly for becoming a vegan.

The Great Outdoors. Tomorrow, a half-day kayaking trip beckons, with Jen, Brittany and Steve. Next Saturday, I’m doing a day hike on a section of the North Country Trail in the Manistee National Forest.

Home Shopping Spree. With the annual management bonus we received at the day job, I was able to pay off some bills, pay other bills early and invest a bit in both Caffeinated Press and my own home front. Of note, with the mid-summer swap of my bedroom and my office, I had to buy all new bedroom furniture. That’s done: Dresser, headboard, vanity with bench. Then some odds-and-ends, including the aforementioned elliptical, some knickknacks like candles and new lamps, a full-length mirror and a stool for the bathroom, and a replacement computer. My “normal” all-in-one home computer is very old and has been intermittently hostile, so it’s been retired to be a dedicated writing machine at my dedicated writing desk. The new machine—the first upgradeable tower PC I’ve owned since, I think, 2005—is an iBuyPower box with a quad-core i7-7700 processor, 16 GB of RAM and a 3GB GPU (GeForce GTX 1060). In all, a decent if not bleeding-edge machine. The only real hesitation I had with it is that it appears to have been designed by a 13-year-old boy, with proliferating LED lights (that I covered with electrical tape!) and a keyboard that looked like a l337 toddler toy. Picked up a 27-inch monitor for it; almost got two but I’m glad I didn’t because with it and the 17-inch aux monitor I already had, I’m literally out of room on my desk. I literally cannot fit two 27-inch monitors. Anyway, Duane, if you see this: “SIXTEEN GIGS OF RAM.”

Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters. It’s an exciting time at GLCL. The board has been discussing a very, very robust programming schedule for 2018 as well as rebranding and an expansion of the board. A ton of work, to be sure, but I think it’ll help focus the organization and promote local literary citizenship. More to come.

All for now. May your autumn Winter Lent warm your soul even if it chills your toes!

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