Saturday, July 16, 2005

The latest house and cat nooze

The house is beginning to take meaningful shape and form in today's complex society… which is to say that the second floor's largely in shape and we're beginning to see the front of things. The thing we're going to be seeing very soon is the windows going in. I think that's going to make a big difference to how "finished" the house is looking,

There's a fair amount of room upstairs. Here's my office looking through the upstairs sewing room to Susan's room.

When we stopped in at the house the other day, there was a stiff wind. Mind you, there was a lot of wind all over Eugene, but I think that it was pretty noticeable at the house site, largely because we're up on a hill and the wind was blowing up.

I think it'll be nice to have this kind of wind generally speaking, as I like the spring and fall weather blowing in through the office and all I'm going to have to do is open my office window and then poof! the papers are going to be flying everywhere. The disadvantage to all of this, of course, is that if there's ever a wildfire anywhere within a mile north of us, the prevailing winds are going to suck the fire riiiiight up the hill and poof! again, although an entirely different and less pleasant kind of poof! it'll be.

The view doesn't change a lot (upstairs or downstairs), but it's always wonderful.

There are things happening downstairs, certainly: there's more stuff going on with the framing here and there.

The stairs are extra wide, about four feet rather than the standard three feet. It's set up to allow for the possibility of a stair elevator years from now, with extra support and wiring and so on. (They call this "aging in place," a phrase I'm getting inured to.)

We're still discussing if the area designated on the basic plans as "Office" is going to be a music room (our original intention) or the primary sewing room. I don't mind if there's a primary sewing room downstairs and a secondary sewing room upstairs, but we're deciding what we're going to put where and how. The upstairs hall linen closet is going to be set up for sewing fabric and I like that a lot: there'll be enough room for aaaaaaaaall the fabric and semi-finished quilts. A place for everything and everything still spread out over several rooms… no, no, not at all, it'll all be clean and neat and put away.

Our bedroom is still framed for a sliding glass door slot, but they'll be fixing it soon.

And, because it's de rigeur, here are some cat photos. BC continues to be a sweet, wonderful cat. Note: I have, in the last couple weeks since I took this picture, cleared off the desk and there are no longer vast piles of paper and debris (and cat hair; when I cleaned up, I found enough cat hair to build another cat).

BC actually tends to sleep on top of the monitor when he can. He prefers the back of the monitor, which sorta works out, because Yang sleeps on the front of the monitor. This is not as workable as it might seem, though: when Yang is up there first, there's no way for BC to leap up on the monitor and settle in on the back. Yang is just too big and sprawly. Secondly, when they're both there, the additional 32 pounds of cat on top of the monitor push the back of the monitor down and the front of the monitor goes up… which is no good if you're actually trying to use the monitor for its intended purpose of displaying stuff on the computer rather than its secondary purpose of Heating Cat Tummies.

I also got a snapshot of Bo the other evening. Bo is normally a difficult cat to get a picture of because you usually need strobe lights and a fast shutter speed. However, this time, he was asleep and being disturbingly cute.


Thursday, July 14, 2005

Being rich and famous

I talked to a judge this evening who's working on a mystery novel based on personal experiences while a prosecutor. (I'm not saying anything more than that because it's not my story to tell.) I may be able to give him a bit of help in figuring out the process for writing and selling a mystery novel, which'd be nice. I wanted to share a thought or two in passing on writing and its compensations.

I've always been fond of a quote from Dr. Johnson, quoted in Boswell's Life of Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." (Isn't it amazing how some things don't change over the centuries?) Boswell cites Johnson as responsible for any number of timeless epigrams (many of which seem to be frequently attributed to Oscar Wilde roughly a century later), including this particularly apt one: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." It's worth looking up some of Johnson's other thoughts, particularly if you're a writer. He's got a lot to say about writing and money, particularly along the lines of how good it is to conjoin the two as much as possible. Along the same lines, someone also once told me that Judith Merrill (noted science-fiction writer) said, "Writing books may get you fame and glory--not money, mind you, but fame and glory."

All these sound bites about writing and money got me to thinking about my own thoughts on fame and fortune. But the most signficant example of what to focus on happened to me directly. They aren't nearly as epigrammatic, sadly, but they make for an okay story naytheless:

Almost 20 years ago, November of 1988, I was in the middle of my 2nd & 3rd books at the same time (hot tip: do not try this at home!). I remember that I was feeling very full of myself and I can still see myself coming home from my day job, walking through the front door, and saying to my then-wife something fatuous about "being rich and famous."

She looked at me and said, "You know, Bill Murray was being interviewed on TV today and the interviewer started flipping him a raft of shit and said 'You know, you haven't handled fame very well.' And Bill Murray got real bristly and looked right into the TV camera and he said 'All you boys and girls out there in Television-land who think you'd like to grow up rich and famous, let me give you a piece of advice: Try "rich" first, and see if that doesn't do it for yuh!'"


Ever since then, I have held to the idea that I would do what I could to go for "rich" first. Fame--well, "notoriety" perhaps--I figured I could take care of on my own.


Wednesday, July 13, 2005

How to be immortal

A prefatory comment here: This is a speech I gave not that long ago to a group of writers and technical communicators in the Society for Technical Communication. While some of the examples in this speech are pitched to writing, it doesn't really matter. You can be immortal anywhere. And while I don't normally worry too much about saying this, I want to make it darned clear that this piece is copyright 2000 by me, John Hedtke. I'm proud of this one and I don't want it passing into the public domain. So there.

I'm going to tell you how to be immortal.

There are several ways.

The first is to live forever. (So far, so good for the lot of us, eh?) The next, which is pretty similar, is to avoid dying. (I think we're all aces on that one, too.) Inasmuch as both of these methods take time -- forever is going to take a while, after all -- I have a method that may be a little faster. It'll still take a while, but when you're immortal, you can afford to take the long view.

(By the way, one of the nice things about immortality is that the opportunity to be immortal is open to everyone. Everyone can be immortal if they want to. This is not a zero-sum game. Everyone can win.)

I'd like to add that, as I present my method to you, there will be several references to concepts developed in Roman times. This proves two things: one, the Romans had a great deal of the way life works figured out several thousand years ago, and two, the time I spent in college wasn't for nothing... it cost thousands of dollars.

The basis for the third method of being immortal is doing your part of the Great Work. If you haven't heard that term before, the Great Work is a mystic thing—you're never absolutely sure that this is The Thing you should be doing, but it'll usually fall into the categories of "I think so" and "It'll do until something better comes along." The difference between our jobs and the Great Work is the difference between vocation and avocation: what we do to keep the cats in canned cat food and what we do to make the world a better place.

There's more to it than this as well: If each person makes their contribution to the Great Work, it brings us to the Roman concept of communitas, the health and well-being of the community. Communitas is not a zero-sum game, either; the greater the communitas, the better the members of the community will be. In fact, communitas is the antithesis of a zero-sum game: if one person wins, then everyone wins! Not only does the Great Work make everyone's life that much better, but it's something outside yourself, a vital element of immortality.

My contribution to the Great Work seems to be helping people get jobs. (As a way to participate in the Great Work, it's not bad; I encourage you to give it a try yourself.) Someone comes to you in need, sometimes rather desperate need, and they need to find a job. The people who most frequently ask me about finding jobs are new folks. We've all heard (and all asked at some point in our careers, so we should remember what this feels like) "How do I get started?" and "Where can I get experience?" We've got some stock answers for this: training, certificate programs, and so on, but we're not usually very good about this: we, after all, are looking for folks with 2+ years experience, some Word and/or FrameMaker experience, a technical background, but surely someone down the road might be able to, uh....? The people who have that 2+ years of experience don't usually need our help a tenth as much as the new kids. The new kids are the ones who need us the most.

I've always felt that helping someone get a job was the best thing you could do for them. Lots of things go into this: coaching them on interview skills, helping them structure their resumes to sell themselves more effectively, getting them up to speed on a new software package that's The Hot Thing, providing internship opportunities, even teaching them basic "Dress-for-Success" skills. You can also give them the hand up that they need by putting them in contact with the person who needs someone with precisely their skill set. They take your advice, they get the job they're after, and voila! They're no longer in need. They feel good and so do you. All of this takes a lot of time and energy, but that's okay; this is my personal contribution to the Great Work and I like doing it.

Keep in mind that nobody ever got where they were in life without someone, somewhere giving ‘em a break they didn't rightly deserve. We need to ask ourselves "How do we pass on what we know and what we believe and what we think should be done?" We're award-winning writers and editors and artists; now that we're so cool, we need to pass it on and complete the cycle.

There are a lot of different ways to extend your energy in the STC to help people get a leg up, including:

  • Being the local job coordinator

  • Volunteering to be hospitality officer or a hospitality deputy

  • Hosting a picnic for the new people in your chapter at your house

  • Posting job information to the chapter job line and the newsletter

  • Sponsoring an internship at your company

  • Teaching a mini-seminar on a special skill

  • Teaching people to write good resumes

  • Helping someone assemble a portfolio

  • Hiring someone for a very small contract assignment for which their experience is a large part of the pay

  • (As a matter of fact, you might even consider judging in next year's competition—you'll have a chance to share your experience with your peers and it'll give you one more opportunity to interact with people.)

    What you do doesn't have to be done in the STC; it can be in almost any venue. (I know, that's nigh unto blasphemy with this group, but it's true.) Go talk to a class of wannabe writers—I've talked to English and writing classes in high schools about the joys and wonders of being a freelancer and a non-fiction author. Even Creative Writing classes will be interested. You can be the treasured memory of some high school student's junior year. Volunteer to be a job contact for your college through their alumni office: Lots of people who are in college are interested in asking questions of people who are working in a field that they're interested in.

    Helping people get jobs has an immediate payoff: both of you get a good feeling right away. Suppose you've been doing this for a while and helping people get started, move up, and move on to new jobs and experiences. Three, four, five years later, you'll be looking for a job yourself. And the people that you've helped find a job are out in the community working, possibly not at the same job, but they're launched on their own careers and moving ahead. The people you helped in the past can tell you about jobs that they now have to offer or positions they've heard about from peers. And if nothing else, they can provide references about what you've done for them and others in the past. You get to network a lot and meet a lot of great people. That'll feel good, too.

    When you're immortal, it brings a lot of other things into perspective and we're able to identify what's important and what isn't. Our jobs aren't the important stuff. Here's a case in point: At one point a few years ago, I'd added 5 books to my bibliography in about 15 months and I was talking to my agent about the difficulties I was having juggling my rather pressing book schedule and the need to spend time in my relationship. My agent clarified things for me by saying "You know, when they're lowering you into the ground, nobody's going to be saying ‘Wow, that Hedtke! He got all his chapters in by May 31!'" The stuff we pump out during the day is what we do and how we pay the bills, but it's not the really important stuff.

    As a matter of fact, the things we do in our jobs tend to be of extremely limited value. We're in a profession that makes what we do transient and even ephemeral. The things we write and draw usually have a lifespan of maybe a year or two; sometimes even less—a mere moment to someone who's immortal. For example, when I was starting out in this business many years ago, I did documentation for tax preparation software. I knew that my writing was of finite value: after tax day on the 15thof April (which is another Roman concept, by the way, for those of you taking notes), none of it would be of interest to any but a handful of late filers. (I see a few of you here tonight.) The value in this regard of the things we do in this regard is building a corpus of work and experience, but the value of individual old pieces is pretty small. At this point, I've got over 7 million words published, in the form of 24 books and about 100 magazine articles and heaven alone knows how many manuals and online help systems since 1984, and, like the chambered nautilus, all but the most recent simply serve to show how much I've grown.

    What is important is what we do when we're immortal. We have an idea that the future is something we can see, sort of. If we just squinch our eyes up enough and peer into the sunset, we'll be able to see what's going to be happening. The Romans, you see, believed that the future creeps up on you from behind. No matter how much you looked over your shoulder, you could never see it. Anything you see in front of you is just going to be a pale shimmery reflection of what's coming at you, sorta like trying to navigate when you're driving at high speed by watching road haze on a hot day. And that's why we're so frequently surprised by the future: we can't see it. So it's a good idea to start working on being immortal now because no matter how much you may want to, you cannot start being immortal if you're dead.

    20, 30, 40 years from now, I hope that you all will have careers full of satisfactions, awards, and recognition. This will be wonderful, but your true measure of fame, your success in life, your immortality, is measured in how much you have helped other people and are kept alive for it in their memories and hearts.

    And that brings me at last to the real secret of becoming immortal: decades from now, you're going to be remembered by dozens, hundreds, possibly even thousands of people who you've been able to help get a new job, break into a new career, or publish their first book, and thereby start the cycle all over again. They'll remember you fondly for the help you provided without strings, the energy you added to their lives, and the opportunities you gave them. You made a difference.

    That's immortality.

    And it doesn't get any better than that.


    Changing careers

    A recent comment on the local Unitarian Universalist church listserve about career changing prompted to write the following story about changing careers.

    Many years ago (19, to be exact), I was out looking for a job. I'd been a tech writer at Accountants Microsystems, Inc., (who've long since vanished from the scene) for a couple years. As a matter of fact, it was my first official job as a technical writer. I'd survived three layoffs at AMI but not the fourth, so I was on the streets. I was interviewing with someone by the name of Susan.

    At one point during the interview, Susan asked the old "Where do you see yourself in five years?" question. (I'd never thought much of this question even before this incident.) Well, it'd been quite a while since I'd interviewed and I hadn't thought about this for some time, so I thought… and I thought… and I thought some more. About 20 seconds had passed and I was still thinking about this very hard and Susan was looking very nervous and finally said hurriedly, "That's okay; you don't have to answer that!" and I burst out laughing and said "Actually, Susan, I just realized I have no idea where I'm going to be in five years and I'd like to tell you about it."

    I said, "Five years ago, I was a programmer and I really loved programming and I wanted to know more about programming and do more with it. If you had told me then that in five years that I would have given up programming forever to become a tech writer, I would've thought you were high. And if you told me that I'd give it all up in three years, never to look back, I'd have been sure of it. But that's exactly what happened. So when you ask me where I'm going to be in five years, I can honestly say that I don't know, but it's going to be something bigger and grander and more glorious than I can possibly imagine."

    Ummmm, so, I didn't get that job. (Susan didn't think that not knowing where I was going to be in five years was such a hot flippin' answer.) But five years later, in June of 1991, I thought about that interview. In the intervening five years, I'd become a freelance writer and had worked for Microsoft and a lot of other clients, I'd written and published a number of magazine articles and three books and was already working on books #4 and #5, I'd managed a writing department for a couple years, I'd won a number of writing awards, and I'd done training and some consulting for companies, and I had helped found and then run a very popular group for freelance writers in the Puget Sound area. Most of this had been great fun and it had certainly been profitable. I'd grown enormously as a writer and a professional, but there's no way I could have predicted this from where I sat in June of 1986.

    And, as it turned out, I wasn't able to predict the next five years, either. Or the five after that, or the four since then that bring me up to the present. At this point, I figure if I can accurately predict next week, I'm doing okay.

    So the point of all of this somewhere is that, when it comes to career planning, I'm reminded of several things:

  • Be open to change. If you try to solidify your plans too much, you're going to squeeze out every opportunity for serendipity to happen and you need serendipity in your life or there's Just No Point.

  • Be ready to grab a new opportunity and take a few risks. If you haven't fallen flat on your face in a muddy heap at least once, you've probably never risked anything meaningful. (Writing that line makes me feel better about some of the flat-out failures I've had.)

  • Things will happen you didn't plan on. I'm going to post something about how to be immortal shortly that talks about this, but figure that there will be bumps in the road.

  • While it's true that the unexamined life is not worth living, it's also true that the unlived life is not worth examining.

  • I called this blog "Don't Ask Me; I'm Making This Up As I Go Along" for a durned good reason: I am making this up. I haven't a clue where this is going to end up, but I'm determined to have fun and make money along the way. As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."


    Sunday, July 10, 2005

    It's amazing how the week flies by

    I keep meaning to post things here and there on the blog, preferably on a daily basis, and the week has just zoomed by... again. Sheesh!

    Tbe STC's Board of Directors has had a busy week this week. The Executive Director resigned and we've had a lot of extra work to do already and there'll be a lot more, I'm sure. Meanwhile, of course, there's everything else that I need to take care of: tracking construction on the new house, working on a bunch of Framemaker files for someone, a few other miscellaneous and sundry items that are designed to keep me from sleeping. Oh, well, we got out and danced twice this week, which is lovely, although we did not make it to the Oregon Country Fair, alas.

    I have a couple of web sites for you to look at. The first is Turn Your Head, a web site that lets you order a sculpture of your profile. It's the old optical illusion of "Is it a vase or a silhouette?" only someone's actually done it. Not too shabby--I might get one made myself just because it's so fun.

    The second web site is The Canonical List of Banjo Jokes. For all those who know banjos for what they are (fun but reeeeeally low class), this is a lovely page. There's a fair amount of dross in the list, but there are some real gems. They don't have one of my favorites, though: about 13 years ago, I was doing a concert in Portland. Previous concerts, I'd done sung along with guitar or banjo but for this one, I decided I'd do nothing but instrumental stuff and then just talk in between the pieces. I was telling a bunch of banjo jokes about halfway through the show--banjo jokes were still a relatively new phenomenon at that point--and getting some good laughs with them.

    Well, I'd gotten through eight or nine banjo jokes, just kinda rattling them off one after another, and I got to "What's the difference between a banjo and an Uzi?" The answer I was going to give (which is the one appearing on the jokes page) is "The Uzi only repeats 40 times," but just as I was about to say the answer, a guy in the 3rd row jumped in with "The banjo clears the room faster."

    FACED! Absolutely faced right there! The audience (and I) exploded laughing and I mimed tipping a hat to him.

    I've been drinking a lot of tea lately (and enjoying it, of course). I'm going to be ordering some more tea from the Seattle Teacup soon. I couldn't remember what the name for that unusual green tea with the bits of roasted rice in it is; Elisabeth told me that it's called genmaicha ("Duh!" [he smacks his forehead in disgust for forgetting this]) and the question "What's that tea with the rice in it called?" is actually one of their top 10 questions at the store.

    Enough of this. It's getting late and I've hit my work benchmarks for the day. I have the last bit of a mystery to read (Lawrence Block's "The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart") and there are a few hours of sleep in my future. I hope.