The Young Couple: A Vignette

One day last week, Curtis (he’s very wonderful) brought me lunch, which we ate under a pavilion at a nearby park in the pouring rain. When we were about half way through our sandwiches, a police car drove by. Window down, driving slowly, the officer stared at us as he passed.

So I waved at him. He waved back.

It seemed like a perfectly normal interaction, but then, don’t they all? If it were in one of my stories . . .


I hate rainy days. They’re too cheerful.

Chuck Friedman took everything seriously. He never told dad jokes, or any sort of joke. It was a running competition among his fellow police officers to get Chuck to laugh at something one of them said—there was even a prize, a free steak dinner for two. The prize coupon hung tacked on the wall where it had been on display for 17 years, still unclaimed.

On the rare occasions when he did laugh, it was like a rusty gate in a silent room. Sitting quietly, he’d suddenly chuckle, then frown and glance around furtively, as if hoping no one heard him. The last time it happened, two years earlier, he was in the office with his partner, McGee.

“What’s so funny?” McGee had asked, trying to mask his look of astonishment with cool curiosity. After several moments, Chuck answered,

“Sure you wanna know?” Responding to the nod, Chuck continued seriously, “I’m laughing in the face of danger.”

McGee raised an eyebrow and let it drop.

This particular rainy day, Chuck swung through the park on his way to lunch. Keenly attuned to his surroundings, he noted the two women walking, the group of businessmen staring at their phones, the person smoking from their car in the parking lot.

Nothing out of the ordinary here.

Rolling out of the park, he suddenly noticed something unusual. At one of the picnic tables, a young couple was eating lunch. The man was smiling at the woman, who looked at him with attentive interest. Chuck slowed the car to a crawl. They triggered a memory in his mind, but they also triggered suspicion. His instincts warned him not to trust happy people, as often they were doing something of questionable legality.

“Hey, McGee, don’t those people look suspicious to you?” McGee was busy reciting the license plate of the car in the parking lot. He’d picked up the habit a few years back, and was trying to memorize the plate numbers of every car in town. It’ll come in handy someday, he’d always say. He replied,

“What people? That couple? Nah, I don’t think so. Looks like they’re just having lunch.” Chuck frowned and coasted past, still staring. Suddenly, the woman waved at him cheerily as if she knew his suspicions. He hesitated then waved back, tilting his head.

The incident stayed in his mind the rest of the afternoon, and later, as he walked out of the office with McGee on his way home, he chuckled. McGee, astonished and instantly alert, asked,

“What is it? The face of danger again?" Chuck nodded slowly, and McGee continued, “What does it look like?” Chuck asked,

“Sure you wanna know?” Responding to the nod, he continued, “That couple we saw at the park over lunch.”


*Inspired by one of you most faithful readers, who wonders what the people in my vignettes are thinking about us.

Handwriting

I recently read a handful of articles about the merits of writing by hand. Longterm benefits include:

  • greater mental retention (you remember stuff better when you write it)

  • the ability to develop your thoughts quicker (you think more about what you’re writing because it takes longer to get it all down)

  • increased mental health in your old age

In addition to those obvious benefits, writing by hand is a classy lost art—one that most people claim to love, but few people practice anymore. Hoping to become better at remembering things and more thoughtful, I’ve decided to handwrite my blogs before I type them out.

After all, as Seth Godin says, “You will not be tomorrow what you are not becoming today,”

Investing in Groceries

Investing in what you’re doing doesn’t have to be expensive.

For instance, the cashier at a grocery store doesn’t need to buy stocks in the store to be invested. For him, investment is how he spends his day at the register. Each morning, he gets to choose. Will he fully engage with every customer, greeting them kindly, serving them eagerly, and making eye contact at the first greeting and the final word? Or, will he slip through the day, mumbling answers, avoiding looking people in the eye, and bagging groceries carelessly?

You get the choice to invest in what you’re doing, and you get to make it every morning. Investment may not yield instant gratification—but when you invest, people notice. Over time, the cashier who shows up and engages will go much further in the game than the one who brings his body to work without his heart.

Making the choice to invest isn’t always easy. But it’s always worth it.

But When You Don't Have a Hammer

When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. But what about when you don’t have a hammer? Then every nail becomes an unsolvable problem.

This morning on my ride to work, I realized my chain was loose. My unexperienced mechanical analysis pegged the issue as a loose screw. Arriving at work, where I unfortunately don’t have any screwdrivers, I assembled my tools: a push pin, an ID clip, my ID, a bobby pin, and a letter opener (I should really keep a multi-tool in my backpack).

You see, when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. But what if you don’t have a hammer, and you have dozens of nails to pound in? That’s when the real delight of creativity comes in: instead of waiting for a hammer to materialize from thin air, look around. Stop thinking that every problem just has one solution, and find something else that might work. You’ll be surprised how many objects can be repurposed in a pinch.

IMG_9589.JPG

*the bike malfunction ended up being simple enough for me to fix with my bare hands (I know, I was relieved but also little disappointed). But it still inspired a blog, so the whole thing wasn’t a failure (more so because I didn’t get stranded on the bike path at 7 a.m.).

16 Unrelated Thoughts on Biking

During this beautiful Michigan summer of transition, Curtis (he’s very wonderful) and I bought a house that’s 14 miles away from my job. Our house is also conveniently located near a bike trail, so every day I ride my bike to work.

After more than a month of almost 30 miles a day on my swift red bike, I’ve learned a few lessons:

  1. Riding to work is somehow always slower than riding home.

  2. On-time arrival isn’t accomplished by sporadic spurts of speed—it’s earned through steady, continuous pedaling.

  3. There is such a thing as having sore, tired thighs all the time.

  4. Skunks don’t spray humans every time they see them, contrary to what kids books and the media want us to believe.

  5. If you think being chased by a bear is a good speed motivator, try attempting to out-bike a thunderstorm.

  6. Deer aren’t exactly the smartest animals, but they can certainly jump.

  7. If you call out to cows, they will look at you.

  8. Riding four miles on a flat tire is not a good idea.

  9. Biking in 45 degrees without gloves on will make your hands very, very cold.

  10. Greasing your chain makes a major difference not only in ease of pedaling, but also in rattling and squeaking.

  11. Some cars are gracious and pass with a wide berth. Others are less so, and pass a lot closer.

  12. Traveling down a mist-covered path isn’t quite as eerie as it is in movies . . . but it’s close.

  13. Skinny road bike tires + gravel roads = lots of fishtailing.

  14. Bikes are great conversation starters.

  15. Every time I pass anyone else on a bike, I always say, “It’s a great day for a ride, isn’t it?” Once past, I laugh because they don’t know the secret truth: it’s always a great day for a ride.

  16. Biking is easily the best part of every day (besides being with Curtis). Nothing compares to the cheery expectation of miles of smooth path on a sunny afternoon.

If you’ve never ridden your bike to work, give it a shot sometime. If you don’t own a bike, I’m so sorry. If you never learned how to ride a bike, come to my house and I will teach you and we’ll go on an adventure and get ICE CREAM.

All in all, it’s not a bad way to start the day.

All in all, it’s not a bad way to start the day.

You’d be amazed how many people stop and talk about biking when they see a bike. It’s almost the equivalent of walking a dog or a baby. Almost.

You’d be amazed how many people stop and talk about biking when they see a bike. It’s almost the equivalent of walking a dog or a baby. Almost.

Biking in northern Michigan poses slightly different road hazards than biking in downtown Chicago . . .

Biking in northern Michigan poses slightly different road hazards than biking in downtown Chicago . . .

But That's Not What I Was Expecting

Wildest dreams seldom compare with the sunshiny, blissful, sometimes all-too-dreadful reality of real life.

When I imagined moving from Chicago, I saw friends and family lining the curb and waving to us as we embarked on our next adventure. Instead, Curtis and I alone pack-horsed a bunch of suitcases across a few city blocks, crammed our tiny Ford Fiesta full of stuff (wishing at that moment we’d just torched the whole lot and started from scratch), and drove out of the city in a June hailstorm. Well, that’s not how I pictured it happening.

We knew where we were headed, but we didn’t have a home to go to—so when we arrived at our tiny town in northern-ish Michigan late that night, we pulled into the driveway of a house we’d never seen to stay with people we’d only met briefly. This wasn’t exactly how I thought relocating would look.

Shortly after arriving in Michigan, we discovered it was going to take longer to close on our house than we thought. In the exactly 2 months during which we didn’t have a home of our own, we stayed in six different places. I feel like starting out a new life isn’t supposed to be like this.

The brakes on our car went out. We spent a lot of Sunday afternoons sitting in the driveway of the house, looking at it wishfully and praying about maybe someday owning it. I biked a lot, got a flat tire, got it fixed, biked some more. I started a new job. We were farm animals (sheep and donkey) in the local Fourth of July parade. We spent lots of Saturday afternoons at the beach of Lake Michigan. Most of our meals were eaten in the church kitchen. I took naps on the floor of Curtis’s office. Somehow I don’t feel very much like an adult.

On July 17, exactly two months after Curtis graduated with his MA and we moved out of our apartment in Chicago, we closed on a house in Michigan. It had been owned by an older gentleman who now lives with his son near Detroit. He left the house abruptly two years ago, so it was still full of all his belongings. Including lots of deer skulls. And 11 vacuums. Seven mattresses. Hunter orange countertops in the kitchen, yards and yards of retro wallpaper, and even some schnazzy camouflage carpet. A few acres. An apple orchard, grape arbor, and a semi-trailer container buried in the back yard. I guess this sort of qualifies as move-in ready.

Sweat equity is a gentle way to describe the amount of work we’ve put into the house in the past month, and it still feels a little like it’s just the beginning. Somewhere in there we acquired kitties. A hot water heater. A water pressure tank. A new well screen. A half dozen gallons of paint. Home ownership doesn’t feel very much like Pinterest makes it look.

Exactly a month after closing, last weekend we got the rest of our belongings from a storage unit in Indiana, where we kept them all summer long. Our furniture didn’t fare too well, but to my great ecstasy all my books are back with me. This is definitely not what I had planned.

Nothing about the process has happened the way I expected it to. It has taken longer. Been more expensive. Required more sweat, more patience, more creative problem solving. Between full-time jobs and house renovations, we’ve put in a few 70-hour weeks. In every way it has challenged my idyllic expectations of Our First House Together.

And in every way, it has been better.

Not because it’s been more pleasant—a few times, it’s been just the opposite. But because I know a few key truths:

Our house and everything in it is a gift from God. How could two poor college-students-turned-adults afford enough furniture for a whole house unless God gave it to them?

I get to take this adventure with my best friend. Curtis (he’s very wonderful).

We are not alone. We’ve entered into a community that loves us generously, serves us tirelessly, and can’t wait to do life with us.

Life will continue to be one thing after another that is different from my expectations. But I am learning that’s going to be okay.

Our new house!


Flea Cat

Interestingly enough, I posted Why You Can’t Write about Fleas and a few days later Curtis (he’s very wonderful) and I acquired a flea-ridden kitten. I was wrong. You can, under extenuating circumstances, write about fleas.

Curtis first noticed the unwelcome parasites in the car after picking up the kitty. He saw a small black dot moving through the white fur. By the time we got home, he’d seen quite a few more of them. Prepared to wage all-out war on the fleas, we found a basin, squeezed about an entire bottle of Dawn dish soap into it, and filled it with warm water.

De-fleaing a cat is a fascinating (and disgusting) process. Crying and yowling, the orange and white kitten fiercely resisted the suds. But after several moments, she resigned herself to a watery fate, and crouched in misery in the tub, almost as if she knew we were helping her in the long run. Dawn miraculously kills fleas on contact—so as soon as we submerged her into the water, there were dozens of dead fleas floating around.

What we naively assumed would be a fifteen minute process turned into a three-hour escapade. Filling basin after basin with fresh warm, water, we combed hundreds fleas out of kitty’s coat until around 11 p.m. Still a few stuck in her fur, but we determined that enough was enough.

After pulling her out, we blowdried her, named her Brave (because really, what’s more brave than a parasite covered cat taking a three hour bath?) and put her in a turkey roasting pan* with a blanket in it. (she’s fully recovered now)

If you can avoid it, don’t get a kitty with fleas. It’s only barely worth having the experience to write about.

Left to right: Brave, Scout.

Left to right: Brave, Scout.

*Curtis and I recently made a purchase that included two turkey roasting pans.

Why You Can't Write about Fleas

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.—Herman Melville

Not every big idea needs to be in a big package. Often, the things that we remember are the short phrases and concepts. That was the thought behind Ernest Hemingway’s original six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

You can read that story, short and haunting, in a matter of seconds.

On the flipside, it takes hours—maybe days—to read all of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It’s 587,287 words.

If you’re not familiar with book lengths, I’ll lend a hand.

  • The King James Bible has 788,258 words

  • Fahrenheit 451 has 46,118 words

  • The Hobbit is 95,022 words long

  • Oliver Twist is 155,960 words

  • East of Eden is 225,395 words

A long story isn’t guaranteed to be better or worse than a short one—in fact, length often has nothing to do with the merit of a tale.

I know you have a burning desire to know: what, then, makes a good story?

Obviously, all the factors everyone already knows: lovable (and despicable) characters, a hearty plot line, good writing. But at the end of the day, none of those are the defining factor that weeds out a classic from pulp fiction.

It’s the idea.

If you want your writing to last, you need to write about a subject that lasts. Technology, trends, style . . . the list goes on and on, and it’s all transient.

But redemption, restoration, courage—those themes have been around forever, and they’re not going anywhere.

Whether you’re writing Leo Tolstoy or Ernest Hemingway style, write about the big ideas. They’re the ones that stick around past the end of the year.

Creating in a Vacuum

Every person needs heroes in their field. Young basketball players think of Michael Jordan (or, as Curtis—who’s very wonderful—tells me, perhaps LeBron James). Painters remember Monet and Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Cooks perhaps think of [insert famous chef name here, as I’m not a budding culinary specialist, I don’t know any . . . ], ballerinas have role models, even businessmen look up to those who have been successful before them.

Most of us would probably agree that iron sharpens iron, and that two are better than one—but why? What’s so special about working with like-minded people or studying someone who’s been successful in the past?

Because it’s nearly impossible to create in a vacuum.

Imagine yourself as a sweaty farmhand (or, if you are a sweaty farmhand, just imagine yourself as yourself). One day, your foreman brings you to a new plot of land the farm has just purchased and tells you to build a fence. He walks you along the fence line, shows you where he’s marked the corners, and wishes you good luck.

Then, he leaves. You begin to plan, but suddenly everything crashes to a halt. You have no wood. No money. No way to contact him. No pickup truck to drive over to the main farm. All you have is your lunch pail and a shovel that you happened to bring along.

Seems like you’re going to have a pretty tough time building the fence.

Creating (or doing business, or a sport, or anything, really) is just like that. If you don’t have the tools and supplies to make something, it’s pretty tough to make it.

And if you can’t observe someone correctly using a technique, it’s pretty hard to get the technique right yourself. That’s why we send children to school, and engineers to the Colorado School of Mines (BEFORE we let them build bridges and buildings and stuff like that).

That’s why it’s so important to constantly be practicing, researching, learning. It’s why athletes spend hours a day in the gym with trainers, and why musicians practice from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with instructors, and why writers should always be reading the old classics and the new ones.

If you’re always practicing and learning, you’ll find it easier to perform and speak. If you’re trying to create in a vacuum, you’ll find it hard to come up with anything to say.

*Related only in my mind: Curtis and I are in the middle of a big purchase, and it includes ELEVEN (yes, 11) vacuums.

How to Write a Good Blog Post

I have started at least four different posts. I’ve been convinced each time that, “This will be the one that takes off, this will be the right one for today.” Instead of taking flight, each post has jumped off the picnic table and crashed to the ground.

Probably, it would be smart to stop trying and to watch cat videos instead.

Everyone says that novels are supposed to write themselves, without the author even trying (that’s definitely not true). What is true is that when you write a novel, you develop characters and throw them into sticky situations to see how they react. Unfortunately, when you write a blog post, you can’t just slap a sentence up there and see what happens. If you want to write a good post, there’s a six-step sequence you should follow.

How to Write a Good Blog Post

The Idea. Most good ideas start out as snippets of thought. The Idea can go one of two places to grow: the brain, or the mouth. If you’re an internal processor, you’ll think through the idea and decide what to do with it. External processors will take The Idea to a forum, where the group can mull it over and point out finer qualities and unnecessary points. If you can stomach it, both processes are very helpful in developing The Idea.

The Write. After thinking through The Idea, it’s important to write it out. Get it all on paper, from beginning to end. Don’t leave anything out, and don’t trouble over how to say it. Think of The Write like cleaning the fridge: dive in, pull every single thing out of there, and slap it all on the counter.

The First Edit. Unfortunately, many people stop at The Write—but wait! When you’re cleaning your fridge out, you don’t just leave all your food on the counter! You look through it, realize you have four bottles of open soy sauce (three of which expired before 2015), and throw them in the trash! This is your opportunity to look at your words on paper (or screen, probably), see what’s working and what’s not, and get rid of the excess.

The Second Edit. Often, The First Edit refines The Idea and eliminates smaller errors of thought, while The Second Edit purges whatever smaller misdemeanors are still lurking in the neighborhood. You may be tempted to skip The Second Edit, but don’t. It might save you from something really embarrassing, such as a run-on sentence or a misplaced modifier.

The Proof. If you’re posting on a traditional platform, there should be an option to preview your content before it goes live. It is always best to read your content the final time in its complete form—it will help you spot things you missed in the drafts. So hit preview, then slowly and carefully, comb the words, sentences, and paragraphs for any errors. Catch them before you post it so you can avoid any really bad publicity from misspelling dog or house.

The Post. Once you’ve triple-checked and are sure your content is error-free, post that article with pride. Sit back as it goes viral and you become an overnight sensation.