Friday, September 28, 2012

On Vacation

"Too much work, and no vacation,
Deserves at least a small libation.
So hail! my friends, and raise your glasses,
Work's the curse of the drinking classes." - Oscar Wilde

"A vacation trip is one-third pleasure, fondly remembered, and two-thirds aggravation, entirely forgotten." - Robert Brault

"The rainy days a man saves for usually seem to arrive during his vacation." - Unknown

"The alternative to a vacation is to stay home and tip every third person you see." - Unknown

"Babies don't need a vacation, and yet you see them at the beach.  It pisses me off!  I'll go over to a little baby and say, 'What are you doing here?  You haven't worked a day in your life.'" - Steven Wright

"Laughter is an instant vacation." - Milton Berle

"The thing I love most about going on vacation is that I get to leave behind any kind of schedule.  My entire life is scheduled from morning to night, and when I'm on vacation, there is no schedule." - Kelly Clarkson

"I envy people who can just look at a sunset.  I wonder how you can shoot it.  There is nothing more grotesque to me than a vacation." - Dustin Hoffman

"I honestly if I get a vacation I'm gonna go and sit on my couch in New York 'cause that's the one place I haven't been for a very long time." - Matt Damon

...and if you couldn't tell from the quotes, starting today, I'm on vacation. 

No, really.  I know I've said it before, usually as we're driving away on a trip somewhere and I'm checking my e-mails and messages every time we stop.  But this weekend we're flying to Bermuda, a place that's so expensive there doesn't seem to be any point bringing mere dollar bills.  Each call on my cell would cost $1.99 a minute; each text coming in a nickle, and each text going out half a dollar.  None of that really sounds like much till you take into account how tied to my cell phone I've become.  Heck, I burn through 200MB of data a week, and that doesn't include calls or texts. 

I'm turning it off.  Once I get on the plane, that is.  You know how they announce that, despite their being no real documented need to do so, you have to turn off all electronic devices in order for the plane to be able to close its doors and take off?  I will.  That's nothing special--I always do, Mr. Compliant that I am.  But I also am always one of the first people to turn it back on as soon as the plane's wheels are on the ground and they announce that it's okay to use them again.  That, or as soon as the guy next to me turns his on, whichever comes first; I figure I can always blame him if the plane really does explode due to cell phone usage. 

Not this time.

I'm turning it off.  I'm disconnecting.  I'll turn my cell back on when the plane lands back in the states upon my return, but till then the world will get on just fine without me for a while, I'm sure. 

Have a great week!


Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Customer is the Boss

"There is only one boss.  The customer.  And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else." - Sam Walton

If you assume, as I do, that Sam Walton knew what he was talking about regarding business, then that's a quote to take to heart.  And no, I'm not going to use the quote to write another post bashing bookstores over the head.  Well, maybe a little....

...nah.  Too easy these days.  I'll just say--when a customer wants to buy a book, sell him a damn book.  Don't worry about who printed the thing.  Revel instead in the success of satisfying yet another customer's need/desire. 

There, that's off my chest.

And while we're at it--not that I care a whole lot, since neither company is really hurting for market share, but--Walmart, what's up with not carrying Kindles any more?  I mean, honestly, it didn't occur to me to buy the one I own at Walmart anyway.  I go to Walmart to buy Walmart stuff, just like I go to Best Buy to buy computer stuff and bookstores to buy books.  And when I want ebooks and an ebook reader, I go to  That's just how I roll.  Granted, I shop for bargains on eBay--so is Walmart going to stop carrying computers and tablets too because we use those to access a competitor? I don't get the "we're not going to sell this to you because you might use it to buy future stuff from someone else" logic. 

I guess part of me wonders why Walmart would have carried Kindles in the first place; seems to me that the first thought someone would have when deciding to buy a Kindle is "it's an Amazon thing--I should check Amazon."  But they did carry the Kindle, and apparently they did some volume in it.  Which means that somebody, some customer somewhere (knowing Walmart's volume, probably times a few tens of thousands), wanted it and Walmart was able to satisfy those customers' need/desire.  Was able to, anyway.

The article I read from Reuters quoted a "retail analyst" who called the Kindle a "trojan horse" of sorts--apparently the assumption is that people were buying a Kindle in a retail outlet, presumably because they wanted the feel and touch and immediacy of a physical store, and then doing the rest of their shopping online, because--well, suddenly they didn't want all that stuff any more. 

It just doesn't make any sense to me.  Did Walmart forget what Sam Walton said about the customer?


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Parts of Speech

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs." - Stephen King

Yes, I'm pretty sure that's the other Stephen King who said that.  Certainly wasn't me.  How do I know?  Well, after posting on my own blog and on an OPB (Other People's Blog) yesterday I sat down to read some Twain.  Lately I'm really enjoying going back through Mark Twain's Roughing It, and that was no exception.  Twain really was a master storyteller.  Except, of course, that after reading and discussing writing-themed advice in part dealing with overuse of adverbs, I sat down to find that the first page I looked to in Twain's work contained three--in a row!--of the nasty little -ly words.

Poor guy.  Perhaps if he'd learned to speak without the use of the adverb, he'd've made a real name for himself.  *sarcasm*

Hey, look, I'm busting Stephen King's chops unfairly.  It's absolutely true that new writers really like to frequently abuse the unobtrusively simple part of speech we collectively know as the adverb.

But what if you don't know it?

No, I'm not kidding.  At the OPB I was greeted with someone who didn't know adjectives from adverbs.  The shame!  Granted, there's a reason the stereotypical grammar teacher is the stereotype.  We've all experienced one, and that experience falls down near the bottom of list of memories when ranked by enjoyment factor, doesn't it?  Probably the only thing worse in elementary school was learning multiplication tables. 

Anyway, put as simply as I can, here's the key.  You know what a noun and a verb are, right?  A noun is a word that identifies a person, place or thing.  It's the who/what of the situation.  Then the verb is the action term.  It's the answer to "they did what?"  "Students danced": Students is the noun, because it was them what danced.  Danced is the verb, because that's what the students did.  Easy, right?

So, continuing along, an adjective is what modifies the noun, makes it more interesting.  For example, you can sign documents with a pen, or you can sign them with a blue pen.  Now, didn't the adjective "blue" make it more interesting?

It did, didn't it?

Nah, guess not, but at least you know what color the signature was, yes?

So if the adjective tells us more about the noun, then the adverb tells us more about just about everything else.  That's why they're so important.  The students danced, big deal.  The students danced joyfully, though, after finding out that the Dean was suspending final exams (big fat chance of that).  Or perhaps the students danced gaily because it was the first day of spring and they were being let outside for the first time all year.  Or maybe the students danced apathetically because the steps they were learning held no interest with the younger generation, and the instructor was their old grammar teacher with the assistance of the mathematics teacher chanting multiplication factors to the beat. 


Like I said, though, the adverb can modify more than just the verb.  A pen may be blue, but it may also be deeply blue.  Darkly blue.  Vibrantly blue.  Gigantically blue--nah, guess that one doesn't work.  You get the idea, though, right?

But!  But!  But!  The writing purist sputters indignantly--adverbs are the lazy writer's way out.  It's one thing to say that the students danced joyfully; it's another, and in many or perhaps most cases far more entertaining, to show us their joy in your description of their faces, their light steps, the barely-controlled bobbing up and down of their torsos.  Yep, that's true.  In most cases, I must add.  There's a time and a place for such things.  Sometimes the description is needed, but other times the writer just needs to say that the students danced frickin' joyfully and get on with the dang story.

So you, as a writer, will find your challenge a little tougher than you might have thought initially when reading the quote above by Stephen King (the know, right?).  Adverbs themselves aren't bad.  Sometimes it's proper and right to smack one right down onto the page, in fact.  Just don't let yourself fall into the lazy habit of sprinkling them around instead of describing what deserves description, and also keep in mind that a stream of words ending in "ly" can actually distract and bump a reader up out of that Suspension of Disbelief.

Bottom line: use 'em, but use 'em carefully. all the other words at your disposal.


Friday, September 21, 2012


"If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable." - Lucius Annaeus Seneca

I ran New Student Orientation yesterday for--well, for the new students, of course.  In that orientation I always go into some of the basic rules and requirements of life at a career college (e.g., no blue hair, sorry), but the most important bit is right at the beginning when I talk about January 1.  New Year's Day is all of our "Good Idea" Day--we realize it's a good idea to lose weight, to spend less money on frivolous items, to spend time with someone else more often, to import fewer elephants, etc.  So after briefly discussing the whole "I'm gonna get in shape" idea that fills up the gym parking lots, I show a picture I took of a gym parking lot a few days after G.I.D.  An empty gym parking lot, of course.  Why is it empty?  Because all those folks who had a good idea to work out, lose weight, become more fit, suddenly realized there was work involved, and then they had other good ideas.  They didn't truly Decide to do it, and so the winds in life were able to blow them elsewhere.

That's the one thing I ask of the beginning students, and I probably say it five or six times.  DECIDE.  Decide to finish.  Decide to succeed.  Decide, decide, decide.  It's an active process, a choice you make  You have to say "I'm going THERE."  Every year, every graduation, I see smiling, happy graduates who went through their programs buffeted by the same winds that hit those who didn't make it there.  The difference?  They decided; they put a pin in the map and told life, "Hey, that's the port I'm headed to."

Same is true of every endeavor, of course.  The number of people who tell me they're in the process of writing a novel is far larger than I'd thought it would be.  What's the difference between "I'm writing a novel" and "I've written a novel?"  A decision.  Well, that, and a few months, once the decision is made.  It does take time.  But during that time, if the decision hasn't been made, any wind gusts blowing through your life will take you their way instead of toward the final "THE END."

Don't let them.



Thursday, September 20, 2012

Making Excellence a Habit

"Yesterday's home runs don't win today's games." - Babe Ruth

I just finished teaching a course, finalizing and submitting the grades just this evening.  It was a fun course to teach, but all courses are fun to teach if you approach them with the right attitude.  I'm proud to be able to brag that I'm often rated as one of the best teachers on campus--but then again, I should be.  I'm the Dean.  I teach the teachers.

Still, as I read over the students' comments on the informal survey I took the final night, I was pleased at all the positive ones.  I was even more pleased at the students' excellent performance on the final exam.  Clearly they learned, and clearly they enjoyed doing it.

That said, none of their comments involved the previous time I taught that course, and the reason for that is obvious: none of the students knew how I taught the class the time before.  None of them would have cared if they'd known.  In teaching, every course is a new attempt, a fresh canvas upon which to create the designs of increased cognition.  And as in baseball, yesterday's home runs don't win today's games.  True, I learn something with every iteration, and I bring past learnings into every current course I'm teaching.  That said, though, nobody in the classroom at that moment cares how much I've learned in the past.  If I'm not swinging for the fence with each new class period, I'm not doing my job.

Writing is kinda like that too, especially considering the weight of a novel.  It takes hours--days, even--to read one, and in that long period of time the reader is evaluating the novel for its own qualities, not those of the author's previous work.  True, there are some readers who will read the entire series and comment on the stronger entries versus the weaker ones, but that's like talking about the various years and posts in the Bambino's career.  The fact is that while Babe Ruth was playing, people expected every night to be a great one.  Similarly, while you're writing, people expect every novel to be a great one.

Then again, the same principle applies to every endeavor I can think of.  There are a small set of restaurants in our area that we frequently--well, frequent.  We'll sometimes try out others, of course, but we make a habit of going to a few.  Why?  Because they're always excellent.  The food is good, yes, but more importantly the service is impeccable.  Price per plate doesn't seem to have a lot to do with it; a couple of their menus are in the $10 per person range while another is a steak house that charges a fair amount more for its cuts of beef.  But the price you pay is immaterial when it comes to whether or not an establishment makes you feel like a welcome guest or a burden to be served, and the kings of that world are the ones who make us feel like welcome guests over and over and over, consistently slamming the ball out of the park on every visit.

Consistency, then, is vital no matter what field you're in.  But consistency isn't enough; it's possible (and even fairly easy and frequently accepted) to be consistently mediocre.  It's not just consistency that makes you a superstar, it's your habit of excellence.


PS--woo hoo!  another opportunity for a sports metaphor.  And an art metaphor too.  Of course, you can't be a panda (that last for my friend Greg).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Happy International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

"There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island." - Walt Disney

Me fam'ly, th' pirate troop.  Arrrr!

 Avast, me hearties!  Shiver me timbers, mates, it's International Talk Like A Pirate Day.

On one level, the designation represents a lot of fun, as people wander around uttering dicey-sounding phrases and growls ("arrrrr...").  Some people, that is, of course.  I'm sure there are some who would applaud for a short while if the Dean wandered around campus referring to people as bilge rats and scupper-maids, but others would decry it as unprofessional and a distraction from the learning process.  And--they'd be right. Still, it's fun where appropriate.  From the official (more or less) web site:

Do we need Talk Like A Pirate Day?

Make no mistake. We do. But it's a little hard to articulate why, especially when you've made the mistake of referring to your wife as a scurvy bilge rat and tried to order her back into the galley.

Talking like a pirate is fun. It's really that simple.

It gives your conversation a swagger, an elán, denied to landlocked lubbers. The best explanation came from a guy at a Cleveland radio station who interviewed us on the 2002 Talk Like a Pirate Day. He told us we were going to be buried by people asking for interviews because it was a "whimsical alternative" to all the serious things that were making the news so depressing.

In other words, silliness is the holiday's best selling point.

The reality of pirates is pretty dark and ugly.  We've all been treated to media reports of small bands off the coast of Africa who, once they managed to put their hands on the lethal combination of boats and guns, ply the seas looking for death and destruction.  Other peoples' deaths and destruction, of course.  Nobody wants to talk like them, I think.

The fantasy of pirates, meanwhile, is--well, sexy.  All the men swagger like Captain Jack Sparrow as portrayed by Johnny Depp, and the women all look like Keira Knightley.   More to the point, since neither Captain Jack nor Will Turner do much for the holiday vernacular, all pirates in our fantasy world talk like Captain Barbossa. 

Today is the day, then, that we celebrate the fantasy in our lives.  Go ahead and pay homage to the noble tradition of writers crafting people, places, and things that could never exist in the real world in order that their readers' imaginations can revel in them.  We're not just celebrating works like Treasure Island, but rather holding up an entire genre of fiction: thank you, authors, for bringing us pirates, elves, space cowboys, Wookies, and yes, even vampires who sparkle. 

And talk like a pirate while you're at it, and smartly too, y'ken? Else ye'll walk the plank....


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mmm, Bacon

"Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon." - Doug Larson

The Pig, if I am not mistaken,
Gives us ham and pork and Bacon.
Let others think his heart is big,
I think it stupid of the Pig." - Ogden Nash

"Bacon bits are the pixie dust of the food world." - Jim Gaffagan

"I used to have trouble choking down the pills I have to take for controlling my cholesterol, but it's a lot easier now that I wrap them in bacon." - Brad Simanek

"Pork chops and bacon, my two favorite animals." - Homer (Simpson, not the other one)

"Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear." - Aesop

"I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give." - Thomas Jefferson

One would assume the nation's third president could afford a few modest cottages, plenty of books, and as much bacon as he desired. One might assume further that after holding that post for a few long years the sentiment he expressed would be well-earned. 

Anyway, on to the topic of today--let's see, what was on my mind--oh, right.  Food.  The food that comes from the cured meat of a pig, specifically.  We're out of my typical breakfast: low-fat, low-calorie, low-everything-that-tastes-good yogurt, washed down with a splended and invigorating helping of Metamucil and then a pot or two of coffee.  Digging through the cabinets, then, I was delighted when my eyes lit upon one of this southern boy's faves: grits.  Thus, I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed a bowl of grits this morning, washed down with hot sauce (the proper way to eat grits has nothing to do with anything sweet, but you already knew that, no?) and the rest of my morning yum-yums.  Mmm, orange-flavored fiber. 

There's nothing that brings bacon to my mind quite like grits.  Or biscuits and gravy.  Or fried eggs.  Or--well, anyway.  Let's just focus on the important part: bacon.

So what's your favorite breakfast?


Monday, September 17, 2012

Happy Constitution Day!

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." - Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

*spoiler alert* potentially political topic is ahead.  Keep reading at your own risk.

Happy Constitution Day!

Many people may not realize this but today hasn't always been Constitution Day, and no, I'm not talking about the obvious years before 1789.  September 17th wasn't an official holiday known as Constitution Day (technically, "Constitution Day and Citizenship Day") until the Omnibus spending bill of 2004 made it so.  And why did a spending bill create a holiday?  Well, because that's just How it Works.

Granted, most people don't even know the day exists.  Few people treat it like a "real" holiday--you know, when we sit around in pajamas until it's time to go watch a parade or drink heavily or something entertaining like that.  But we educators--everybody, in fact, whose institutions use federal funds or allow students access to federal student aid--have to know it exists.  We have to teach our students something about the Constitution every year.  In fact, it's the only thing I'm legally required to teach at my college--I could legally (and stupidly) turn my medical assistant classes into instruction in how to create beautiful basketry, but one day, each year, I must teach something about the Constitution of the United States of America.

Why?  Well, because that's just How it Works. 

It's tougher than it seems it should be these days, mind you.  Everybody from the guy with a Harvard law degree down to the radio talk show host who couldn't finish a semester of college is an expert on the document already, and they all disagree with whatever the other side agrees with.  And that's the funny thing about the document.  It was purposely written a little bit vague.  Ferinstance, it gives our government the responsibility for providing for "the general welfare" among other things.  Have you ever looked up the definition of "welfare"?  Yeah, that's such a general term by itself that the adjective does absolutely nothing for it.  Benjamin Franklin had a helluva time getting the group of men with extremely diverse views to agree on much of anything otherwise.  They probably couldn't even come to consistent decisions on which fast food place to eat lunch at, and thank God they didn't have to ponder the morality of chicken sandwiches, or they'd've gotten nothing done.  Still, people use it as an arguing point: "The Constitution doesn't say anything about _____!"

Even members of Congress get into that argument, so much so that sometimes they'll begin sessions with reading the Constitution itself out loud.  Now, that sounds kinda cool, at first.  Except that I, as a teacher, know that there's only two reasons we make classes read aloud.  The first is if we're trying to break the class in gently for being able to speak in public--reading aloud is Step A on that educational journey.  But I've listened in on C-SPAN, and I can tell you that if there's anybody, Republican or Democrat, in that august body who needs any additional training in the art of bloviation, they sure hide it well.  As for reading in class, the other time we bring it is for punitive reasons, when we know people aren't doing their reading homework outside of class and the material is important enough that we just make 'em suffer through reading it out loud instead of the far more enjoyable process of listening to us talk about it.  But seriously, I have to say that it really bothers me--students are students and they'll always find reasons and ways to not do their assigned work, but legislators make a whole lot more money than I do every year.  If they're not doing their assigned readings before they get there, send 'em home and find someone who will, I say. 

Anyway, back to the document itself.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg raised some Americans' hackles early this year when speaking to the new Egyptian regime.  She said, "Let me say first that a Constitution, as important as it is, will mean nothing unless the people are yearning for liberty and freedom.  If the people don't care, then the best Constitution in the world won't make any difference.  So the spirit of liberty has to be in the population, and then the Constitution, first, it should safeguard basic fundamental human rights...."

All that is great, but what got under peoples' skin was her answer to a question about where to look for examples: "I would not look to the U.S. Constitution, if I were drafting a Constitution in the year 2012.  I might look at the Constitution of South Africa."  Hoo, boy--one of our own Supreme Court Justices saying that our Constitution doesn't make a great example for a new government.  Let the fireworks begin.

Easy, though, folks.  Her point related to the currency of the effort, not value of the overall document, and I think that it's a good one.  Back when our Constitution was crafted, it was written for a rather different world.  When folks like Thomas Jefferson echoed phrases like "all men are created equal," they weren't using the male-gendered noun to meet a purely grammatical requirement.  Women didn't get the right to express their opinions in the voting booth, remember, till the 19th Amendment (Nineteenth!  Not first, not second, but nineteenth!) was enacted in 1920.  That's nearly a century and a half later.  Many of them also weren't talking about anybody who wasn't a landed gentleman of Caucasian descent, by the way, and some were even excluding the Irish immigrants, darn them (my own great-great-and-so-on-grandfather had already immigrated from Ireland several decades previous, so he was okay, and besides, he'd gone south to the Carolinas).  Each of the subsequent equalizations has happened over the years since, many requiring years of protest and push, and one unfortunately even requiring a war.

So all totaled, the document has been formally amended 27 times.  True, ten were at the same time, and one of the amendments was to undo an earlier one (the famous Prohibition amendment), thus leaving us with 25, um, "real" amendments.

And then there's the unofficial amendments, more accurately called interpretations.  For over two hundred years the Supreme Court has been responding to questions of law, interpreting the vague verbiage used in the U.S. Constitution in more or less interesting ways.  It's their job, of course, one specifically set out by the document itself.  A tough, thankless job it is, too; every decision they make seems to be hailed as wise and justified by one segment of the population and evil, biased, and an extreme of "judicial activism" by another segment.  Who says which only depends on which side of the population the Supreme Court agreed with.

You know, looking at the revisions that have happened over the years, it's easy, I guess, to think less of the document.  I'd suggest that's the wrong way to look at it, though.  Not only has the U.S. Constitution stood the test of time, but the years, revisions, and interpretations have only served to make it stronger, more just to everyone and not just a specific few. 

All except, of course, the Supreme Court decisions with which I disagree.  Those evil, biased, activist judges....  *ahem*

So, all that said, with 27 amendments and over two centuries of case law muddying the water, I'd agree with Justice Ginsburg that a new nation should look to less heavily-revised documents for the purpose of finding a template to use in crafting their own.  For all other purposes, though, I'm quite proud of the one we have, thank you very much, occasionally-vague though it may be.

Please, join me today in celebrating the United States Constitution.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Trying to Please Everybody

"I don't know the way to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody." - Bill Cosby

I love reading reviews of my books!  I was honored to receive a new 5-star review recently from a kind reader who enjoyed the way I intertwined physics and elemental energies.  I've read others, too, that weren't all rated at the top but did make great points about my writing and made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  What I'm doing matters!

Then, of course, there's the other side of the review scale. Barlow and Moller told us that A Complaint is a Gift in their book of that name, and I agree.  Totally.  One hundred percent, especially at my day job, where that book is one of the central tenets of our customer service lore.  Except, of course, when that complaint is directed at my babies on Amazon's e-shelves, but, well, you know....

Reviews of 1, 2, and 3 stars have been the topic of much debate, hand-wringing, and other (usually vitriolic) stuff.  From the author's perspective, I can agree that it's hard sometimes to objectively receive criticism of the work we've done.  From the reader's perspective, meanwhile, I can agree that the ability and responsibility to award reviews at the lower end of the spectrum are the only reasons the higher reviews mean anything.

But back to Bill Cosby's words for a moment.  A book review, when well- and properly-written, tells us the story of a reader's experience with the book.  That's a very subjective thing, and boils down to whether or not the reader was pleased by it.  As, I admit, I had to remind myself a few days ago.

Here's what happened, in a nutshell: I found my first 2-star review.  Owie, right?  But I read it with as open a mind as a human can muster after being told his baby is ugly, and found it to actually be quite well-written.  What the reader didn't like, for the most part, was that the book "felt like a soap opera."  Okay, I can see that.  Really, I can, especially when a couple other reviews agree.  Fact is, I wrote the book to be that way.  I know most books in the genre are dead-center fantasy books, with the barest of nods to a little bit of emotional conflict leading to the meat, lots of fiery magic shows.  I--didn't write that, though.  I had fun with the emotional trauma, and the magical drama clearly came second.  Some like that; some don't.

Regardless of all that, though, this review--a complaint, of sorts--really was a gift.  It told me rather firmly that I hit where I was aiming.  Hey, I offer what I offer.  There's a reason most of the seasoned authors I've spoken with recommend not reading reviews, or at least not getting hung up on them. 

Same thing happens in business, though, both with what we do well and what we don't.  While I worked at a previous employer, we did extremely well at educating and training students to not only pass their IT-related certifications but also to perform at their real-life jobs thereafter.  As a result of that success I remember hearing, quite often, that it would be nice if we'd open a training program for professionals to come enroll in day- and week-classes.  After all, it was the same curriculum.  Only problem was, it was a different scheduling system, a different marketing system, and a different delivery system.  Nope, sorry.  I'm gonna continue doing what I know how to do well.

And then, we went and started an online school--same curriculum, but different scheduling system, different marketing system, and a different delivery system.  Go figure.

Anyway, as Mr. Cosby said, you can't please everybody, nor should you try.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

On the Lighter Side....

"An author is a fool who, not content with boring those he lives with, insists on boring future generations." - Charles de Montesquieu

Found this little peach of a quote, kind of on a whim.  I was searching for quotes, which I do by typing "____ quotes" into the magic oracle box on, and I got bored.  Being in that state, I typed "boring quotes" and the one above came right up.  It's not that it's particularly boring, but rather that it contains the....  Well, you get it, right?

So usually when I find a quote that strikes me as odd, I probe the ancient oracle further to learn more about it--when it was said, where, and in what context.  Granted, context means very little to many people these days, and even less in an election season, but I often find the discoveries interesting. 

Yeah, I'm a nerd.  But I like it.

This quote, unfortunately, was obscure to the oracle's sight.  I tried everything I could, adding key words on citation and source, but after probing for--heck, six or seven minutes--I found nothing and had to conclude that M. de Montesquieu, an Enlightenment-era French philosopher who's been quoted often on matters of civil liberty and separation of governmental powers, didn't write much for the general Internet. 

I probably should be offended by the quote, I suppose, since I'm one of the fools to whom he's referring.  I don't know about insisting, but I sure hope to bore--er, entertain--future generations.  The alternative--and there are far more examples of this than there are of the baron's suggestion--is that my creations remain on a computer hard disk and eventually give in to the laws of physics, which say that artificially-magnetized spots can't stay magnetized forever.  Well, that, and they also say some things about dropping cats from heights or putting them into boxes, but I'll leave those alone for the time being. 

I wonder if M. de Montesquieu had a cat?

But--yeah, back to the topic--offense--nah, I don't have the energy.  Everything's so offensive these days, it seems.  People I agree with get offended over things I don't.  People I don't agree with get offended over things I do.  Some day, sometime, we're gonna have to take a day off from offense and explicitly recall that we're all residents of ____, and outside of that we're all Americans (except my friends that aren't, and they're all something else), and outside of that we're all members of the only species on the planet who can wiggle our thumbs opposite of our fingers while doing calculus.  Well, dolphins probably could do calculus, but not with the thumb thing going on.  And most of my friends can't do calculus, but their thumbs work.  And--well, you get the idea, right?

Oh, and M. de Montesquieu had another entertaining quote about the importance of mustaches, too.  You should look that one up.  But he spelled the word "moustaches" like the British do.  Those people--you'd think they invented the English language or something. 


Oh, and PS and all that stuff too--Cataclysm is Number 2, right now, on Amazon's list of Epic Fantasy!  Woo hoo!  Thanks for all the help and support you've given me as I push the book out into more peoples' hands in the hopes that they'll also enjoy Ascension, and in just a few short weeks, also enjoy Atlantis.

For other updates:

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Change of Name - TOSK

"They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself." - Andy Warhol

There's a lot to be said for not fearing change, for relishing it as a way to go forward, and so on.

But not today. Today I'm announcing my own change.  Zip on over to my author site,, for details, but here's the skinny: I changed my name.

Well, sort of.  I changed the name that's featured on the front of my books, and I also changed the name readers will search for me at Ama--er, book-selling websites--under.  Why?  Well, mainly because I got tired of telling folks who couldn't find my books to search for my name and the book title, because if you don't, their search engines disregard the middle initial and find the guy who's been selling books for 40 years, and all 8 or 9 pages of his books.

That, and I like the sound of "TOSK."  Been signing blog entries that-a-way for months now.

If you've already purchased a copy of one of my e-books, the cover image won't refresh to the new one; sorry.  Let me know if you want and I'll send you a .jpg of the new one, or you can relish the old version as an itty-bitty bitmap of future-collectable pixels.  Same with the paperbacks--cover doesn't refresh.  And same deal--I'll be happy to send you a .jpg of the new cover.

So anyway--off I go, into the brave new world.  Same writing, different name. 


Whatcha think?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

All that glitters is not gold

The long quote of the day:
"Moralizing, I observed, then, that 'all that glitters is not gold.' Mr. Ballou said I could go further than that, and lay it up among my treasures of knowledge, that nothing that glitters is gold. So I learned then, once for all, that gold in its native state is but dull, unornamental stuff, and that only lowborn metals excite the admiration of the ignorant with an ostentatious glitter. However, like the rest of the world, I still go on underrating men of gold and glorifying men of mica. Commonplace human nature cannot rise above that." - Mark Twain, in Roughing It

How often do you underrate men of gold and glorify men of mica?

You know what I'm talking about.  Every day, each of us chooses to involve a certain group of people in our lives.  Granted, for some the group is big, while for others the group is small.   Also granted, we don't always get to choose the group's membership--sometimes our bosses or our business chooses for us.  Those "granted"s notwithstanding, each of us has a group of people from whom we obtain our pleasure of socializing, our feedback on all sorts of matters both business and pleasure-related, and, to a lesser or greater extent, part of our sense of self and self-worth.

Are these people, these mirrors through whom we see ourselves, men of gold or men of mica?

As I write this, of course, I'm having a hard time defining what a "man of gold" or a "man of mica" might look like.  That's because there are so many different types of acquaintances.  If you're in business you have your workers/partners, your advisors, and others.  If you're a writer you have your beta readers, your other readers, the writers of the blogs you follow, the guy you've never met who just wrote a review of your book on Amazon, and so on.  Each of these people holds a certain place in your world.  Each is in a position to influence you, your thoughts, and your actions, if you allow it of them.  And you do.  We all do.  It's human nature that we allow those around us into our heads and, sometimes, our hearts.

Bottom line, then: you're going to take something in, like it or not, from those with whom you surround yourself.  Are you selecting your circle so that what you take in will give you an advantage?  Or will it take advantage of you?


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Education comes from within

"Education comes from within; you get it by struggle and effort and thought." - Napoleon Hill

Today I suppose I'm meandering in a strange direction for a career college dean to take.  "Education comes from within," Mr. Hill said.  The rest of his quote sounds much like the sorta cliche comment you'll occasionally hear me toss out: "experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted."

So yeah--struggle, effort, and thought.  Experience.  Not college textbooks.  Not sitting in the classroom.  Not listening to vibrant lectures presented with detailed graphics.  Strange direction for a college dean to go, indeed.

I suppose, though, that first I should clarify what I'm talking about when I use that word.  The dictionary's not much help; Merriam-Webster defines education as the act of educating.  Thanks, guys.  And the verb "to educate" merely means to provide schooling for or to train.  That shallowness of the definition is probably why the deeper meaning of the term has been confounding educators and legislators for decades.  When I say that I'm in the business of educating, does that mean I ensure that students receive the skills and knowledge necessary to obtain employment, or that I work on more important concerns such as critical thinking, citizenship, and intellectual pursuit instead of delving into the mundane topics?

Yeah, that's a tough one.  That question is gonna have to wait for a later post.

See, here's the thing.  I've been conversing with employers for years, and believe it or not I've been listening for most of that.  It started during my days at the Arizona Technology Incubator, when I listened to what the president of the company thought made good entrepreneurs and good team members for building a company. Later, as a senior IT instructor, I attended advisory councils for that program and listened to dozens of local employers talk about our grads' successes and shortcomings.  Now, as a dean, I attend and run advisory councils for all programs.

You know what?  The surprising thing, at least early on, wasn't what they were saying.  It was that they were all saying the same thing.

I mean, I wouldn't have assumed that an accountant and an entrepreneur and an information technologist and a medical assistant and a construction manager would share the same keys to success.  It's not intuitive.  But they do.  Everybody requires skills, of course, and those skills are different as you go from one field to another.  Skills are also trainable, and the reason that many practitioners of higher education turn their noses up at mere skills is that people can, in fact, often learn them through on-the-job training.

Knowledge, too, is vital for success, and I differentiate that from skills because I'm talking cognitive gain rather than psychomotor gain.  Skills are about doing things; knowledge is about understanding why things are done the way they are.  In a medical assisting classroom, a skill is taking blood pressure, while knowledge is understanding why you put the stethoscope head where you do.  For an IT person, a skill is knowing how to delete your boss's user account; knowledge is understanding why you probably shouldn't do it.

That leads, then, to the similarities between the requirements for success in the fields, which I was fascinated to find were usually more important in senior managers' minds than the differences.  They're also dang hard to teach in a classroom.  Yes, I'm talking about "soft skills," which are, in the above examples, the ability to talk to the patient and explain why you're wrapping something around his arm and squeezing it tight, or the ability to discuss account management concerns with users who really only want to be able to get to their e-mail and files.

We educators and managers often talk about "soft skills," but where do we learn them?  Communication is a biggie, for example, but most programs at career colleges don't have a course called "communication."  Granted, some of ours boast a course titled Communications, but students rarely learn how to actually communicate in that course; instead, they learn the fundamentals of rhetoric and other heady theoretical stuff that does you no good when staring down a toddler who's destined to receive a shot in the butt. That's why we career college educators often have to approach soft skills obliquely, sometimes even tricking the students into learning them.

All that said, then, what is it that really makes a difference between succeeding or not?  Is it having an appropriate skill level?  Is it obtaining a certain amount of knowledge--after all, they (whoever "they" is) are always telling us that knowledge is power!  Or is it the soft skills helping you get through life's tough situations?

Frankly, I think none of the three, my meaning being what Napoleon Hill was getting at in the words I quoted above.  Granted, all of the three are (usually) necessary in order to make success a possibility.  It's just that they're the kickoff, not the touchdown (there--can't have a success talk without a sports analogy).  In other words, they're the start line.

The finish line is what I've been talking to my students about at orientation and then later on in a success-themed class they all take, but I'm never sure how many of them really get it.  I speak of skills and everyone nods--it's what they're there for, after all.  Then I speak of knowledge, and they wince, knowing that I'm talking about such enthralling topics as Anatomy & Physiology.  Then I discuss the soft skills and receive some grudging nods.  Sure, okay.  But when I talk about personality traits that lead to success, I often get a lot of blank stares.

Into the bucket I call "traits" I lump things like professionalism and reliability, because that's really where I want my students to focus, but that container also includes things like stick-tuitiveness and sound decision-making.  That's the stuff that makes for a success story, no matter which story you read.  And it's stuff that, as Mr. Hill points out, you gain through experience, through life, through struggling and pressing through.  The May 2012 issue of Entrepreneur magazine held an opinion piece that made a strong case for would-be entrepreneurs right out of school to start off by working for someone else.  In the July 2011 Fiscal Times there is a similar article--different author, same point.  Young people aren't as prepared to succeed as older ones who've been through the battlegrounds and fought the good fight a few times (and there's my war analogy--I'm batting a thousand today!). 

It's not that young people can't succeed.  The business world--and the writing world--are alive with success stories of young Mark Zuckerbergs and Amanda Hockings.  It's just that they're the exception rather than the rule, and for a good reason.

On a related (believe it or not) note, I never did learn to play the guitar.  When I was younger, I received one as a present because I'd been telling everybody that was what I wanted.  It's easier and cooler to whip out a guitar than a trumpet to play a song in most social gatherings, you see.  But then I started trying to learn to play the darn thing, and--well, it hurt.  It's supposed to, apparently.  In order to play guitar you have to build up small calluses on your fingertips that allow you to grip the strings, I was told.  Building calluses requires pain, though.  It requires frequent abrasion to the skin.  Learning the guitar wasn't important enough to me to go through the pain, so I didn't. 

Success in life is like that.  You have to build up mental, emotional, and psychological calluses that will shape your interactions with other people--not in a "callous" way, but rather in an experienced and thoughtful way.

So.  All that said, if you're going through some of life's pains right now, rejoice!  You're building up the calluses of success.  Soon enough you'll be scoring the touchdowns of success while taking the hills of the business world.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

It's good to not be perfect

"Let's be honest.  There's not a business anywhere that is without problems.  Business is complicated and imperfect.  Every business everywhere is staffed with imperfect human beings and exists by providing a product or service to other imperfect human beings." - Bob Parsons

Hey, I've done business with GoDaddy, the Internet registrar, before.  That experience proved Bob Parsons, its founder, one hundred percent correct in the quotation above.

That said, I stuck with GoDaddy through my years of running an ISP from my home.  Registered dozens of domains with them.  Why?  As imperfect as they were in some ways, they provided what I needed: low-cost domain registration that worked just fine. My author-related domains aren't registered through them now, but that's primarily because a friend recommended a different company while I was bringing them up.  Know what?  The company I'm with now is imperfect.

Writing is the same way.  I've commented before on the horrors of finding continuity and grammatical errors in works by none less than the great Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Stephen King (the other one, of course), for all of his campaigning against adverbs, sprouts one or two rather frequently throughout his books.  In my own writing, I've spent minutes--hours, even--looking at passages, wondering whether it would be perfect if I left a phrase where it was or moved it over by a few words.

At the end of the effort?  It really doesn't matter.

Have you ever heard the Charley Pride version of the song Kaw-liga?  He starts off talking about adding the song (originally written and recorded by Hank Williams Sr.) to his album, and says "I put one verse where maybe it don't suppose [sic] to be."  Imperfect, that is.  Number one on the charts, it was, regardless.  But then again, it told a good story, despite (or perhaps because of?) its imperfections.

If you're a storyteller, then you need to tell stories.  Period.  Stop worrying over whether or not they're perfect.  Too many people sit and look at the first page of their first novel, worrying over whether or not it'll be great.  I'll settle that now--it won't be.  First drafts stink.  So settle in and write.  And then revise.  Make it as good as it can be, but don't worry about perfection.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Keep on keepin' on

"Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all." - Dale Carnegie

There are times in everyone's life--everyone who seeks to achieve, anyway--when the smart thing to do is to give up and move to another endeavor.  As Mr. Carnegie points out above, those are the times when you really have to look deep inside.  Are you quitting something that really has no hope, or are you quitting something because it's easier to do so than it is to continue pressing toward your goal, useless though the effort may seem? 

Take writing, for example.  Creating a novel takes months, and all you have while you're doing it is a dream of things to come.  "I'm writing a book" has nearly become a punch line rather than a statement, and that's really no surprise because the challenges involved in creating a literary object that large are quite nearly impossible.  You reach a point where there's really just no hope that you're going to finish it.  But you'll find that if you press on, suddenly--poof, it's done.

Then the really hard part begins.  There are two paths to go down, one involving attempting to beg, cajole, and/or wheedle your way into a traditional publisher's lineup, and another involving publishing it yourself.  Door number two is deceptive, as just past it are a whole lot of learning curves you must climb before you can relax and sit to watch nobody buy your book.  Still, I think most people turn to the first option--well, first.  It's easier, or at least it seems so, to pour your heart and soul into a single-page letter and send it to people who very likely will never, ever respond, than it is to beat your head against the concepts involved in formatting and designing and self-publishing.  And the simple brutal truth is that most first-time authors who get a yes, which is a small percentage of the whole, get it on, say, the 60th attempt (with The Help) or later.

Sixty attempts!  And yet The Help won several awards.  And then there's the tragic story of John Kennedy Toole, who wrote a couple of novels that were rejected over and over.  Famously, he decided it wasn't worth trying any longer and ended his own life.  His mother, though, was unconvinced and kept trying--for ten years.  Finally the novel came to the attention of the right person, and A Confederacy of Dunces was published.  It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Then there's the Path B that I mentioned earlier--self-publishing.  All rosy and yes-filled, right?  Nope.  At first, nobody but your immediate family wants to buy your book, and most of them probably aren't going to read it anyway.  So you keep trying and trying, and you continue watching the sales figures stay very small.  Some people get lucky, just like some people win the lottery, but most people end up watching this multi-month project sit and fester in Amazon's shelf-graveyard.  There are some successes, granted, among self-published authors, but they're the ones who understand that it takes time, and it takes patience.  Konrath reports that it took him twenty years.  Twenty years!  You have to march boldly right up to the point where any sane person would quit, and then keep on marching.  

Writers aren't the only ones who have to do that.  Many, if not most, successful entrepreneurs have similar stories to share, regardless of the industry they're in.  The founding father of the college where I got my start in academia, in fact, told the story several times of having to cover payroll from his own retirement account.  And that's not that unusual.  Any sane person would've quit, but they didn't.  They kept at it.

And that's the secret.  When you feel like it's time to quit, that just might be life's way of seeing if you're really devoted to it, and when you don't quit you become one of the people Carnegie was talking about.