Thursday, June 12, 2008

The word of the day is pain

Back pain, to be precise. It's back, worse than ever, despite (or maybe because of) a chiropractor visit today. I had a ton of work I had to do, so I spent many hours in my work office chair, which though good for my productivity only worsened the pain.

I made the mistake once of stretching out on the floor, knees up to relieve back pressure, and enjoying five minutes with almost no pain. When my self-imposed deadline came, I could not get up. I had to turn on my side, crawl to the desk, and pull myself up. This process involved much grunting and suppressed (not entirely successfully) screaming. Fortunately, my office is at an end of the lab without a lot of people nearby today. Unfortunately, I disturbed Gina and probably a few other folks.

Life since then has basically alternated between really bad pain and pain so harsh I can't help but make noises. I'm almost done working, though, so with luck in an hour or two I will be on my back for six or seven hours, hoping my back mends enough that I can be more functional tomorrow.

I hate being weak or slow. I just hate it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A different way to be neurotic about my writing

I'm well over forty thousand words into Overthrowing Heaven. I'm not at all sure how long the book will be--it'll take as many words as it needs--but I figure I'm somewhere near a third of the way along. So, it's only natural that The Dread should visit me. Right now, I should be realizing that everything I'm writing is utter crap, more boring than a nutrition label for a jar of salt.

Except I'm not.

Well, not exactly.

You see, the problem is, I'm really digging what I'm writing. I've carried the overview of the story in my head for so long that I'm very much enjoying seeing how it unfolds in detail, as I write each scene, description, bit of action, line of dialog, or whatever. I'm quite entertaining myself.

Fortunately, I have a new (at least to me) reason to worry. My new neurosis is simple: I'm the only one who will find this entertaining. I've become utterly convinced that should I one day have the temerity to show this piece of crap of a book to anyone else, that person will immediately begin screaming, "Nothing is happening! You've taken how long to get to this point? Don't these people ever do anything? Who gives a hoot about them anyway?" And so on.

I have to confess I like this New, Improved Dread better than the old one, because at least in this one I'm amusing myself. I'm still terrified, however, that I'm producing a turd.

That fear notwithstanding, I'll write more of the book tonight. It's what I do.

Don't put that in your mouth

In a conversation some time ago, Gina observed that if she were able to give her younger self only one piece of advice, it might well be

Don't put that in your mouth.

All dirty jokes aside, if you think of speaking as putting words in your mouth this single line might indeed be the best advice any of us could heed at many points in our lives.

For example, if many of us followed it with food, we wouldn't be so fat. That sure applies to me. If we took greater care with what we said to others, we might do a lot less emotional damage. Smokers could avoid the start of a very dangerous habit. If we creep a tad closer to the dirty joke and apply this to kissing, we might not start some of the less sensible relationships we've had. And so on.

Of course, each act of restraint creates a corresponding experiential loss, but I'm quite certain that many of the experiences I would lose would be fine losses.

What one bit of advice would you most like to give your younger self?

Monday, June 9, 2008

Random walk

If you live in this area and want some incredibly tasty, local-made ice cream, look no further than Maple View Farm. They operate an ice cream store in Carrboro, and from the two flavors I've tried their offerings are competitive with anybody's. The Double Chocolate is particularly good.

Joss Whedon is teaming up with Eliza Dushku for a new TV series, Dollhouse, that's due in early 2009. For diehard Whedon or Dushku fans this is doubtless old news, but I only learned about it recently and am quite hopeful that the team will produce a good show.

Saturday night, a few of us watched the UFC PPV that aired earlier in the day live from the U.K. No fight stood out as great, but they were all good enough that I didn't mind having paid for the PPV. Future hall-of-fame fighter Matt Hughes looked simply out of his depth against his more complete opponent, Thiago Alves, and now many folks are calling for Hughes' retirement. I suspect he won't retire and will at least fight Matt Serra, but I believe this match showed that his skills just aren't as broad as those of the best of the younger competitors.

A big advantage writers have over fighters is that we can, barring horrors like Alzheimer's, keep growing our skills even as our bodies age. Slanted Jack is a better book than One Jump Ahead, and I believe Overthrowing Heaven will be better than Slanted Jack, because I'm learning and improving as a novelist. I believe I can continue to do for a very long time. I certainly intend to do so.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The hardest working man I've ever known

I'm a lucky guy. I get to make my living largely with my mind. It wasn't always that way for me. I started working young, and I worked several physically hard jobs. I think of those jobs when someone with a cushy tech position complains about how hard the work is or how long the hours are. When someone really pitches a fit or just manages to get under my skin, I think about the hardest working man I've ever known.

I don't remember his name. I feel bad about that. He deserves more respect from me than that, but there it is: I can't remember his name.

I can, though, still picture him vividly. I met him the summer I was seventeen, when I worked construction in the scorching summer sun. He was just under six feet tall, all ropy muscles and tendons, almost no body fat, skin tanned like leather, hands so rough he might as well have been wearing work gloves, black hair in a buzz cut. When we had to move concrete forms--four foot by eight foot pieces of three-quarter-inch plywood with a three-quarter-inch piece of heavy foam covering one side--everyone on the site carried one at a time. Those suckers were heavy. You stood one up, squatted next to you, got it on your back, and walked it across the site to where the foreman told you to go.

He carried two. If he was pissed at something--we never knew what, because he never complained, but we could tell when he was angry--he carried three. Guys twice his size feared his strength.

We all worked from seven-thirty in the morning until four o'clock, or later if we were pouring concrete and couldn't stop or if the job demanded it; we were all hungry for the overtime. As soon as the foreman dismissed us, he left the site and drove straight to a gas station, where he worked until it closed at eleven. He then joined a demolition gang and worked until two or three in the morning, when he headed home and grabbed four hours of sleep. On the weekends, when the site was closed (we were working at a VA center), he worked only the other two jobs.

When I knew him, he had worked at least part of every day--and I do mean every day--for over twelve years.

I didn't come from money--far from it--and I was a hard worker, but he was a breed apart, and I was curious about him. Over the course of the summer, we talked a bit here and a bit there, and I got a little more information about him from the foreman.

He was the oldest of five kids. A few months after he turned sixteen, his parents and one of his siblings were in an extremely bad auto accident. I never learned how it happened, but what happened was clear: it crippled both parents and left the sibling forever mentally challenged. Neither his father nor his mother could ever work again.

The disability money from social security wasn't much, as you might expect, and they had no insurance, as you also might expect. This man dropped out of school and started working. He took care of his parents, he paid for everything he could, and he made damn sure that each and every one of his siblings finished high school and went on to some higher education, either a state university or the local community college. He was fiercely proud of their achievements--and he always spoke of it that way, their achievements, not his.

So I was sitting here tonight, feeling sorry for myself. My back pain has recurred big-time. I suspect I have a hiatal hernia. My weight is up sixty pounds in eighteen months from stress. I'm fretting over my novel, as always, wondering if I'm doing well enough. My kids are out of school and I worry about whether I can give them enough time, if I'm a decent dad. And so on.

As I often do in such moments, I thought of this guy, this man, the hardest working man I've ever known.

People who get to know me wonder what makes me so driven. They ask why I work so hard, care so much, act so fierce.

I'm not fierce, not really. I'm a wuss--at least compared to that guy. That guy taught me what it meant to work hard. I grew up largely without a father, but in him I saw what a man does to take care of those who are his to care for. I witnessed a truly noble sacrifice, a hero, an ordinary one but a hero nonetheless, not one of the super-powered heroes I loved in comic books but one whose only power was his utter determination to do what he believed he should.

I wish I remembered his name, but I don't, and I can't fix that. I've told his story to friends but never, before now, publicly. I can't honor him any other way.

Except this: I can try to teach others to carry their loads and do their jobs, and I can stop my complaining, get back to work, and try to be half the man he was.


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