The Secret to Success

You know how sometimes you make a change in one part of your life and it unexpectedly bleeds over into another part of your life when you are least expecting it? I'm there, right now.

For me the biggest key to finally getting into shape was the lesson of moderation. I (or anyone else) really can eat anything, as long as it's in moderation. Ice cream? Sure, but just have an ounce and a half. Biscuits and gravy at a restaurant? Sure - eat half and take the rest to go.

Apparently it's taken me almost 35 years to realize this was possible.

And it's funny, because I can look back over my life and see in many places where, perhaps, a little bit more moderation may have been helpful. From when I was little I've always been a tad obsessive about collecting things. I think it all started in 1987 with baseball cards. This was back before the internet, back when putting together a set of 792 Topps cards was a serious challenge, because eBay wasn't there to satisfy all your needs instantly. I spent quite a hours/days/weeks pouring over that first set and wondering how I was going to find that one missing piece (which just happened to be a Mark McGwire rookie card, the most expensive in the set to buy individually, of course).

That set - that card, actually - started me down a rabbit hole. A friend worshipped Eric Davis at the time, so turned me on to this idea of amassing a giant collection of cards of a single player. I decided Rickey Henderson was my favorite player and became focused on collecting all of his cards. Again, this was pre-internet days, so that mostly involved acquiring all Henderson cards my friends had.

This went on for a few years, and then as high school happened collecting cards fell by the way side (though I still have them all), in favor of hanging out with friends and music. Yep, I started collecting CDs. By the time I graduated from college I had a collection of about 350 CDs and counting (which, yes, are now in boxes taking up space and collecting dust in my attic). Don't ask me where I got the money to get all those, some of them used but most of them $14-$18 at places like Sam Goody and Camelot Music and Music Wherehouse (all of which I'm sure don't exist anymore).

Then I went through a phase of collecting books, which for me is pretty silly because I so very rarely go back and read a book a second time. Yep, most of those are in boxes in the attic, too.

After I moved on from the subsistence-living job to one where I actually had some spending money, and with the full power of the internet (and eBay) unleashed, I got back into card collecting for a few years. At the time the industry was hitting a peak of releases and as the bubble burst, eBay was heaven for a casual collector like me, who really just wanted all of the Chad Johnson cards in existence.

Now I still have all of these collections, and even more.

I want to read all of the books. My Kindle is filling up with these free downloads that look good I may never get to because I have an ongoing list from the library of newer, better stuff (maybe, maybe not) and I don't have enough time to read them all. That's in addition to all the physical books I have and the many that come out every week I keep adding to an ever-growing To Be Read pile.

I want to try all of the beers. That's not meant to sound alcoholic, there are just so many different flavors our there. I find one I like and buy a couple extra. Being in Portland, every time I go to the grocery store there is something new and different from one of the local breweries. Then there are the special releases aficionados look forward to every year, like Deschutes' Abyss or Pelican's Mother of All Storms - you have to pick up a few of those. And if I happen to go to a bottle shop, like Belmont Station or John's Marketplace, it's almost impossible to leave without 3-4 bottles of stuff from all over the country. I usually only drink one a week...so, um, yes, there is quite a collection growing.

I want to eat at all of the restaurants. I want to sample all of the ice creams. And all of the bakeries. If you have followed this blog or me on Twitter or on tumblr for any length of time you know how I feel about the local food. Portland is so full of great options, with more opening all the time, that not only can we not keep up but we almost never get back to places we loved. Just about the only place we get back to with any kind of regularity is The Sugar Cube, which only shows you how freakin' awesome it is and how you must go there all the time.

It's kind of funny - before the decision to change our diet we'd spend our weekends hitting up various spots for meals, desserts, tidbits, drinks...and then we'd bring everything home and eat it over the next couple days. We still do this, but the problem now is we don't eat it nearly as quickly. The freezer is full. The cupboards are full. The fridge is full. We still haven't reconciled our shopping habits with our new eating habits; that's something we still need to work on.

It's a long-term process, that's for sure.

Pulling this all round full circle, at one point there was a certain stress associated with this obsessiveness that, while not clinically debilitating, was a bit of a drain on focus and brain power. I truly believe the secret - if there really is one, which there must be because I keep getting asked about one - to my personal success with weight loss has been coming to terms with moderation, and then embracing it. I'm okay with having just a little bit of something.

The result is I'm pickier about what I do eat, which is worth my time. I'd rather wait than eat something I won't truly enjoy. I'll go without beer if I don't like my options somewhere, even if I want one. I used to never quit on a book, ever, but in the past year I've decided at least three weren't worth the fifth or sixth chance to improve. I have a finite amount of time and plenty of options, so why force myself to read a crappy book?

I apologize if that simple word - moderation - isn't the secret many want to hear. When I tell people in person they say, "Oh." And change the subject, like they are disappointed. It's not magic, unfortunately; it's just a mind set and it takes work, it takes focus. And really, for me, it almost feels like I had to give myself permission to be moderate in my choices. For a culture that values so highly the drive for perfection, accepting less can sometimes make one feel like their are a failure, or that they are accepting a life of mediocrity. That's not what's happening at all. At the risk of sounding like a motivational speaker, it's about striking a balance point.

Now, if I could just apply this idea of moderation to my writing: I don't have to write all of the words now, just an hour's worth of them. Or a half hour. Or ten minutes. If I could be okay with that, I might have had another book done now, rather than not started with just words and ideas bouncing around in my head.

It's a process!


Hiking Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake is one of those places we've driven by many, many times but never stopped at, usually for good reason because we are on our way to somewhere else.

We were missing out.

The access to the trail is just after civilization ends on Highway 26 east of Portland. The highway says goodbye to Welches, narrows to two lanes, and heads through some forest before widening to four lanes again and starting towards Government Camp. Off to the right the land drops steeply into a valley for awhile, but then you go around a curve and suddenly that same side of the street has a steep hill. Usually here you will see a mess of cars parked with no real signs - this is where you park to head to Mirror Lake.

This hike is a little over three miles round trip and is generally referred to as "easy." To be honest, calling this easy is a bunch of crap. Easy is walking on flat sidewalks. This hike involves steep hills and uneven surfaces, so to call it anything less than moderate is plain wrong.

Most of the hike is uphill over a myriad of switchbacks, crossing a creek or two on narrow bridges, over ground riddled with stumps and rocks. Going up the terrain isn't a big deal, but going down following a crazy little Shiba named Misaki who apparently would rather run it's kind of dangerous. Be careful! (As always, click the pictures to see larger versions.)

One example of a switchback.

I wanted to get a picture down the hill, but the trees were too dense and they didn't really turn out.

There is a rock slide that the trail switches back and forth across about three or four times on the way; Misaki was quite pleased with herself for conquering the boulders.

Misaki is quite proud of herself.

Here's a pic of one of the bridges, this one just before the trail splits to go around the lake. Misaki continues to amaze me at how fearless she is. The creek rushed underneath, but she took a measure of what it would take to hop onto the narrow bridge and just did it. Most dogs, especially smaller ones, would hesitate, but not her.

Fearless pup.

Guess who was the first one to see the lake?


And what did she see, a little over a mile and a half into our hike? It's breathtaking, really. They don't call it Mirror Lake for nothin'.

No words.

Wifey and I had packed a lunch, so we sat on the rocks at the water's edge. We tried to enjoy the quiet, but it was shattered by a bunch of out of control kids with no sense of personal space.

One interesting note: You can make this a longer hike. Turning away from Mt. Hood, if you look up to the right there is a ridge - Tom Dick and Harry Mountain (really) - far into the distance (another four miles each way, I think). Someday, when I'm better prepared, that would be a fun (you know, if by fun I mean exhausting, mentally draining, and likely to induce massive hamstring cramps) hike to do. I can just imagine the amazing pictures one could take.

We had some chipmunks hang out with us for lunch, as well as this little guy and some birds we'd never seen before.

Our dining companion.

Misaki generally leaves the wildlife alone, but I was wondering if maybe she was going to go after some of the fish darting around in the shallows.

Looking for noms.

We had a great time. It's a great workout (moderate, not easy - I want to see their definition of easy) and not too far away. However, get their early, especially on a nice day on the weekend because that parking area can fill up and you don't want to be forced to park on the very edge of Highway 26 as cars fly by at 60+ miles an hour.

It's worth the effort, especially when you see something like this.


What I Want to Write

It's been quite a while since I posted an update on the book, so now it's time.

Let's get the bad news out of the way first: I'm not writing nearly as much as I'd like, partly because my main focus over the past four months has been getting the weight off. That's necessitated more time spent on what I'm eating and naturally more time spent on working out. (I haven't been blogging nearly as much as I'd like, but I do have a backlog of topics - and one of them is about distractions of my own making.) The plan is to get back into it here very soon. Like, now.

The good news is I finished the fourth draft of a 275-page novel. I am now letting someone read it, which  is at the same time freakishly scary but also comforting. It's comforting because Wifey is my first beta reader of this revised version, and it's scary because I'm a little worried she may think I'm a deranged lunatic.

Maybe she already thinks that. Yeah. Probably.

See - no worries! If she's still here now, I'm probably okay.

This past round of editing really hammered home to me the slow part of the process. There were many days where I really didn't want to do any editing, but I almost always found that once I actually sat down, opened up my Word file, and started working I would get engrossed in my story.

I see the latter point as a good thing, because I figure if my own story couldn't hold my attention I would be screwed.

I follow a lot of writers on Twitter and had seen the general sentiment that the writing of the story is the easy part. Now, 18 months after I started this process, I can say that yes, absolutely, it's pure truth.

It's funny because when I wrote my first draft I was pretty proud of it. Not just because I'd never done it before, but because I thought it was pretty good. Then I started editing and there were parts where I was like, "What the hell were you thinking?" It's even funnier because those usually came out in scenes I thought were good, and in the scenes I didn't remember as being good I ended up pretty happy with. I have no idea if that means anything or not - just an observation.

I surprised myself with how many major changes the story underwent between drafts one and four. Some characters I planned disappeared. Some new ones came in. The roles and prominence of almost all of them changed. Their relationships changed dramatically. In the end the two versions follow similar arcs , but the details, the meat of a good novel, are very different. It's grittier, edgier than I expected to be, and while it wasn't what I intended that's okay. It's good. It's not perfect, but it's good.

This may be me telling myself what I want to hear, but I think my story stands up to many I read that have been professionally edited and published. Why not me too?

I try to read a decent amount, to get through at least a book a week. I read all sorts of stories, books that are like mine and books that are not. I read a surprising amount of YA fiction (surprising to me anyway), I read thrillers, spy novels, mysteries, dramas, even the occasional romance. They help me develop well-rounded characters and offer possible different spins on what one of my characters my do in a given situation.

It also gives me direction on what I think I want to write.

The world is full of writers who claim to be out to write the Great American Novel, something that will be regarded as a literary work of art. I am not one of those. For me, it's enough if someone picks up my book and is entertained, if it helps them step out of their daily life and makes them feel something, whether that something is fear, excitement, loss, or any other real emotion.

People who set out to write a literary masterpiece, in my opinion, will be disappointed. Why? Because you don't get to decide that. Readers do. Other writers do. The media. Any number of factors are involved, but almost none of them are in my control. All I can do is to the best of my abilities write a story that you can't put down and write characters for which you will feel empathy. But a masterpiece? That's for someone else (or many someones) to decide.

Frankly, those who decide that aren't my target audience.

I get asked every so often what kind of stories I write and I struggle with an answer. It's fiction, yes. But what kind? Thriller? Mystery? I think the best way to describe is action-packed with good character development, sort of like a good action movie. There should be an element of fear, though, times where you genuinely feel for the life of the characters. It's not horror, per se, because for me that implies the supernatural on some level, but I do want to freak the hell out of you. I want to make you uncomfortable (though not like Chuck Palahniuk - not out to make people throw up).

Horror novels rarely scare me. I don't believe in ghosts or vampires or those kinds of supernatural beings, so how can I be scared of them? That doesn't mean I don't enjoy those stories - they just aren't scary.

You know what's scary? The shit you can't make up. Serial killers are scary. The idea of getting wrongly arrested, framed for something you didn't do, and tossed in prison is scary. Buying a lottery ticket and getting stuck in the middle of a robbery with a drug-crazy thug - that's scary. Having a child dart out in front of your car is scary. The general fragility of the human body combined with any number of loose wires in the heads of the general population is scary. Losing the person you love in a freak accident is scary. Losing the person you love because they want to leave? Scarier.

How easy it is to sneak inside someone's house? Super effing scary.

This is my pledge to my readers. You won't get the supernatural in my stories, but I will make you stop and think about how fragile your perception of the world is, and about how life can change in an instant. One moment you could be putting dinner together. The next you could be having to save your life from a junkie with only the paring knife you were using to cut an apple.

Or maybe it's not just a junkie. What then?

My stories resolve around the idea of "What if?" That's my inspiration.

I want my readers, when they finish a story, to ask themselves this: "What would I have done?"

To me, if I can do that, I've accomplished my goals.

(Lest we ignore the elephant in the blog, I won't lie and say selling stories for six figures isn't a goal too. It is. Not likely, but you have to have goals, right?)