Neither free nor brave

I watched the international friendly between USA and Serbia yesterday on television. Of course, before the match, they played the national anthems of the two countries. Of course, “the land of the free and the home of the brave” got a self-congratulatory roar from the home crowd in San Diego. I shook my head.

All over the country, people are being denied their freedom. Bigotry based on fear-mongering is now the basis of immigration law. If all are not free, none are free. And the only people in this country who have the right to call themselves brave are at airports, protesting hatred and bigotry.

The 30 Day Optimism Challenge

My peculiar brain chemistry makes me prone to depression, and toward the end of last year a variety of triggers, internal and external, damaged my equilibrium. Setbacks weighed on me more than they should. Every day felt like a chain of uniformly unpleasant events. When I realized last month what was going on, I knew I needed to change my thinking. The trouble with depression is that it drains your ability to take action, so I chose two simple tasks that I could do each day to change my outlook. I called it the “Thirty Day Optimism Challenge.”

In the morning, I would name one thing to look forward to. It didn’t have to be anything major. Some days, it was as simple as, “I look forward to coming home tonight.” And it didn’t have to be something that would happen that day. One day, I named a weekend trip to Saint Augustine that my wife and I were planning. The idea was to remind myself that no matter what was going on right then, something positive was on the way.

At night, I identified one good thing about that day. It was usually something simple: watching pelicans dive for fish during my morning commute, reading a good essay, or meeting a friend for coffee. It wasn’t about ignoring bad things, but about not focusing on those things exclusively.

I recorded the answers in my pocket diary. Writing them down made them concrete, and my mood began to improve by the second week. I began to make a game of finding something good—how early could I spot something I could use that night? Eventually, I started noticing so many good things each day that I had trouble selecting just one! And in the morning, if I couldn’t think of something to look forward to, I’d make a plan: tonight I will call my best friend. This weekend, I will visit the bookstore. I always had something to look forward to on any given day—whether it was something that night, the next week, or in a few months.

Yesterday was Day 30. The challenge worked. I feel more optimistic, and I’ve decided to keep up both exercises indefinitely. Depression will still surface from time to time, but I hope those incidents will be fewer, rarer, and weaker if I remember to keep my eyes open for the positive things in life.

Sorry, Charlie

On the day Charlie Crist was sworn in as a member of Congress, I saw a video clip of him saying he was eager to work with Republicans in the House. Crist ought to know better.

Crist left the Republican Party in 2010 when it was clear that he would lose the primary race for United States Senate to Tea Party darling Marco Rubio. In 2012, a few months before formally joining the Democratic Party, he said that he left the GOP because it had moved “so far to the extreme right … that they’ve proven incapable of governing for the people.”

What has changed in the intervening four years? Only that the Republicans have become even more extreme than the party Crist left. The GOP agenda seeks to destroy Social Security, dismantle Medicaid, and defenestrate the ACA. On which of these issues does Crist think he can find common ground with Republicans?

Or perhaps it is one of the many other items on the Republican wish list—crippling environmental protection, wiping out protection for workers, and reverting decades of civil rights progress. Are any of these issues that Crist feels he can “work with” Republicans on?

There are no “moderate” Republicans in the halls of Congress. There are only extremists determined to enshrine one-party rule for the sole benefit of the economic elite. You can’t work with them. This is not the time for accommodation. This is a time for resistance.

The Bright Side of 2016

This year, according to popular imagination, has been a particularly bad one. Zika. Celebrity deaths. Brexit. ISIL. And, of course, the horror that was the U.S. Presidential election. An annus horribilis, to be sure. And yet, it is a mistake to view the year solely through that lens.

Dwelling solely on these negative events leads to tunnel vision, so that we don’t see what is good in the world and in our lives. For me, it was a very good year:

  • I completed the first draft of Target Striker faster and with higher quality than any novel I’ve written previously.
  • I got to travel, making trips to San Diego, Santa Clara, Atlanta, New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and Estonia.
  • In Puerto Rico, I fulfilled a long-time dream of visiting the Arecibo Observatory.
  • I experienced professional successes, including teaching well-received workshops on Scrum, attending the Agile Alliance 2016 conference, facilitating meetings of the Tampa Bay Scrum Masters Guild, and finding a new job.
  • I got to attend four Copa America Centenario games, including the final match.

In addition to the major items, the year was filled with smaller joys: good books, evenings spent with Carolyn, and board games with friends, to name only a few.

Was everything in 2016 good? Of course not. But it is too easy to dwell on the negatives, and give in to despair.

2017 promises to be a year full of challenges. Among other things, the United States will install an authoritarian, white-nationalist government against the will of the majority, and good people will have to find the strength to resist it. It’s important not to lose sight of all that is good in our lives, so that we can draw strength from those experiences and memories.

The Social Media Sabbatical

On October 10, I started a one-week social media sabbatical. I logged out of Facebook and both of my Twitter accounts on all of my devices, then deleted the passwords from my password manager. I felt that participation in social media in general, and Facebook in particular, was detrimental to my mental health and cognitive abilities. A week away from it all would do me good.

On the first day, I had frequent urges to log back in and post about the fact that I wouldn’t be posting. I took these urges as evidence that I had made the right decision. The urges diminished after the second day, and over the next week, I was amazed to discover how much free time I had. The stack of magazines on the coffee table? I read them all. I had time to de-clutter the garage. I wrote more. I picked up my guitar for the first time in at least six months. And I often had time left over at the end of the day.

More importantly, my ability to focus returned. I began studying a new programming language. I retained more of what I read, and comprehended it more easily. When I wrote, my prose was clearer and better.

I also felt more relaxed without the constant barrage of political memes and manufactured outrage.

When the seven days expired, I was reluctant to give up these gains, and I didn’t log in for several more days. I used the @dreadpiraterowdie Twitter account for Rowdies games, then logged back out when they ended. I’ve been back on Facebook for a few minutes each weekend. I’m not going to say that social media is all bad, but I’m happier with it taking up less of my head space. Meanwhile, planning for my new novel is coming along rapidly, and I recently wrote a 750 word piece of flash fiction off the top of my head. I haven’t done that in years, and it’s much more satisfying than reading yet another political meme.

Rowdie No More

Last weekend was the last Rowdies home game for the 2016 season. It was also the last one I’ll attend, at least while the current ownership is in place.

Carolyn and I have been Rowdies fans since 2011, and season ticket holders since 2012. Last year, after the atrocious way Edwards treated Thomas Rongen and Farrukh Quraishi, and the dismal results on the field, we weren’t certain we would renew our seats. It wasn’t until the day of the renewal deadline that we decided to give it one more year. We liked Stuart Campbell personally and hoped he could succeed as head coach. And we would never have such phenomenal seats—front row next to the Rowdies bench—again.

It didn’t take long for me to feel like a sucker.

Off-season signings were mostly uninspiring, and once the season started, it was clear that the team wouldn’t succeed. The star striker, Heinnemann, managed to find the next only four times. Freddy Adu, arguably the team’s best player, rarely made the bench, much less saw action on the pitch. The only bright spots were the signing of Joe Cole and the acquisition of Diego Restrepo. But Restrepo didn’t play a minute, in spite of starting keeper Matt Pickens’s objectively awful performance throughout the season. Joe Cole’s valiant effort wasn’t sufficient to make up for duds like Heinnemann, Vingaard, and Michael Nanchoff.

The atmosphere in the stadium was also disappointing. The introduction of a brass band—the “Loudies” was supposed to supplement the chanting and singing of Ralph’s Mob. They were only supposed to play when the Mob was silent. But that arrangement evaporated. The Loudies started playing whenever they felt like it, sometimes while the Mob was in mid-song, drowning them out with one of the four or five pieces that made up the band’s entire repertoire.

And our phenomenal seats turned out to have a serious drawback.

During the 2014 season, we complained that people were allowed to walk in front of us while there was play on the field. Eventually, a new rule fixed the situation: no entry through the midfield tunnel after five minutes into each half.

This year, though, that went out the window. Edwards likes to sit behind the Rowdies bench (the better to give his laughably bad advice to the coach during the game). He not only allowed but encouraged his guests to parade past us any time they felt like it. The sentries couldn’t say anything about it without losing their jobs. When we said something, we’d get at best a goofy smile and a shrug, but no change in behavior.

At the final game, I said something to Edwards when he marched past. “I didn’t pay a premium to have you and your guests walking in front of us all the time.” His response was a snarling, “That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” and, “Maybe I’ll give you different seats next year.”

He can go to hell.

I’m done spending money on this team. Edwards gave us a crappy product on the field and a lousy game day experience in the stands. Next year won’t be any better, with the Rowdies moving to USL so they can play a bunch of MLS II sides. No thanks. I can get a lot better value for my money elsewhere.

First Draft Complete

Yesterday, I completed the first draft of Murder on the Pitch, a novel I began on June 16. I’ve never written a first draft that quickly, nor enjoyed doing it so much. My last effort produced an unsalvageable mess after a painful, three-year slog.

I have tried a variety of ways to prepare to write, ranging from not planning at all to rigid outlines, complete with scene sketches. I always went off the rails within a few chapters. If I pushed ahead with the plan I had, the result was a disorganized mess. If I stopped to re-plan, I felt frustrated because I wanted to be writing, not planning. And a chapter or two later, I’d go off the rails again, anyway. This time, I tried Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. Obviously, it worked.

With the Snowflake method, it never felt like I was planning. Each step re-told the story in increasing detail that allowed me to uncover hidden assumptions and unforeseen contradictions that I could correct on a limited scale. Each iteration helped me discover new ways to develop character and plot and made the story better.

I made one modification to the method. After creating a four page synopsis, Ingermanson recommends making a scene list. I tried it, and it felt like previous, failed attempts to plan. Instead, I expanded the synopsis once again, doubling its length. It helped. The four page synopsis contained a few problems that would have required drastic changes and knocked me for a loop if I’d discovered them while writing the first draft. When I completed the expanded synopsis, I felt ready to write, confident that no major flaws lurked in the story.

I still discovered new things along the way, but I understood the story so deeply after so many iterations that new ideas were easy to weave into the story. Each day, before I started working on the draft, I wrote for ten minutes about what I would write that day. The draft kept chugging along. I enjoyed the work. And when life force me to step away for two or three days, getting back into it was never a problem.

Now that the first draft is done, I’m going to set it aside for a while. I’ll have a free-lance editor look it over in the mean time, and I’ll develop the foundations for a new novel. Around January, I’ll start revising Murder on the Pitch.

Statistics for those who are interested in that sort of thing:

Number of days from start to finish: 108
Number of days I actually wrote: 80
Final word count: 74,405
Average words per day, inclusive: 689
Average words per day on days I wrote: 930
Worst day: 114 words
Best day: 1825 words