FINISHING THE BOOK: MOTIVATING WITH SMALL MILESTONES

“The days are long but the years are short.” –Gretchen Rubin

Not bragging, but in high school I scored a role as one of the lusty muleteers in The Man of La Mancha. For those of you who know me, this is totally out of character. For those of you who don’t know me . . . er . . . take my word for it. But I was so good in auditions that I got to throw Aldonza over my shoulder and haul her kicking and screaming from the stage for every one of our shows, musicals and the one-act play. It was great fun, discounting the make-up and tight pants.

 

Aldonza and Muleteers

(I’m not in this photo.)

 

I have one, not-so-fun memory about that production though. I was supposed to play a song on the lute and sing a solo with it. I had a lute. (Dad.) And a decent voice. (Mom.)

But every time I looked at the sheet music and thought about bar chords, time signatures, and picking, I got intimidated. With two weeks to spare, I confessed to my drama teacher that I wasn’t going to be able to play and sing at the same time. She was mildly disappointed, but shrugged and said we could use the pit orchestra, and that everything would be fine. No big deal.

But that moment stuck with me. It wasn’t talent or time that beat me. It was intimidation. This is a lesson I keep learning—one that keeps coming back to me for second helpings.

Earlier this year I told a potential agent that I’d have a rewritten novel manuscript to him by mid-March. It’s taken a lot of work to make it this far, certainly enough to have a little confidence. But every time I looked at the extensive edits required, I felt myself crumbling under the enormity. I’ll never be able to do all that, let alone before March. I kept comparing the few spare hours I have each week with the enormity of project and coming up emotionally short, unwilling to start on a project that “will never be finished.”

Our brains are wired for quick pay-offs. If you don’t believe it, check out the research by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, here or here. En bref, the quick reward of finishing something today is more important today than the promised reward of finishing something large and meaningful several weeks down the road. For the less ambitious, Tim Urban does a funny Ted talk about what happens in the mind of a chronic procrastinator.

When I was complaining about my lack of motivation, my wife suggested, “Why don’t you make a paper chain link for every hour’s worth of work you think it will take. Then you can cut off a link every time you do an hour of work and measure your progress?”  I was dubious about the motivational power of paper chains, but with cheap sub-contracting (my son), I got a chain suspended in my office in no time. It started at 178 links or 178 hours. A bit of depression sets in when you realize your 10th draft needs more than 40 hours a week for four straight weeks. (Obviously, I’d need more than four weeks to make up the time if I was to keep my regular bread-and-butter job and have a family.) But the kids keep begging to cut links for me, and now I have to scramble to keep up with them.

But in another sense, the exercise was very therapeutic: it wasn’t Mount McKinley on the horizon anymore. It was 178 day hikes spread out across as many days as needed to do it right. The real value didn’t come from the begging children, as cute as they are. It came from chunking out the work, parsing it into one-hour units. It came from breaking down the problem into constituent, achievable units and identifying which pieces could be done anywhere with a red pen and a shade tree, and which pieces need two or three quiet hours in front of a computer screen.

Suddenly it was much easier to do a few pages each day, and seeing the redlines materialize on the printed page gave me the small kick of accomplishment I needed to do a little more.

I still haven’t learned to play that Man of La Mancha song on my lute, but I’ve made some serious progress on the manuscript . . .

What are tricks do you use to get motivated on challenging projects?

 

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Anecdote: The Pain of Shaving (Your Legs)

“Legolas! What in Durin’s name am I supposed to do with this thing? »
–Gimli

I need a bigger razor finished

I’ve never liked shaving. It’s too close a compatriot to tender skin and bleeding chin. And now I have another reason to dislike it. . .

Some of you know I like soccer. I play on an Over 30 indoor team and play pick-up on Saturday mornings when I get the chance.  Or perhaps I should say « I played. »

Here’s a bad formula: Uneven Soccer Field +  Trash-talking 36-year-old + Changing Directions = Knee Surgery

One minute you’re an all-star and the next minute you’re flat on your back staring up into the concerned faces of 20 friends, wondering when you got old and what you’ll write about this painful experience. You worry that now you won’t be able to finish your novel by the deadline, and all sorts of other irrelevant things.

Everybody’s milling about, telling you to stay down. The doctor in the group has you by the ankle and calf—you don’t remember him picking your leg up—and is checking to see if everything lines back up. The hot Texas sun is pounding on your face and the St. Augustine grass is stabbing into your bare arms. And there’s the white hot pain of filling you with fear.

They help you up, tell you you’re done for the day, even if you think you can play a little more. After a few steps you realize you’ll at least be able to make it to the car.

It’s hard to know right away just how bad it’s going to be, but after the swelling and the denial wear off and the doctor orders an MRI, things come into focus pretty quick: lateral meniscus, medial meniscus, and anterior cruciate ligament, all blown.

I don’t do things halfway.

Now for the humor. Plenty of things to manage during this whole process: recovery time,  family obligations, writing schedules, and telling my indoor team the bad news. But I didn’t expect hair growth to be one of them. On the morning of the surgery, I’m lying in the hospital bed and a nice girl comes in and wants to see a little leg. The hospital smock isn’t exactly modest, but I pull it up past the knee anyway. Best not to argue with the hospital staff, not when they’re holding power tools and you’re in a drafty smock and getting an intravenous drip.)

The nice girl shaves my knee bald-baby in less than a minute. She wipes the area down to sterilize. Because it knee feels cold and and naked, she lets me cover it back up. Then the sleepy drugs kick in. I dream about getting wheeled to out to the car and pretending to eat some food.

I wake up a few weeks later in physical therapy doing an excruciating knee bend.

ME: “Where am I?”
DEVIL: “The place where bad little children go.”
ME: “Really? Why?”
DEVIL: “You missed your shot in that soccer game.”
ME: “Ah. Makes perfect sense.”

During that first hour of therapy I re-notice the hair: my right leg is perfectly normal, but there’s a swath of deforestation, ending mid calf where the nice girl with the power tools left off. The transition from bare leg to hair is so abrupt that every time I look down I forget about the pain of rehab and wonder what might come crawling out of that jungle and onto the empty plain. It’s seriously distracting. I keep waiting for the therapists to say something, but they never do. They see weird stuff every day, I guess. One more half-shaved leg isn’t going to throw them.

But the naked knee and the Black Forest on half my calf is a problem, even if the physical therapists don’t say anything about it. People in Houston are still wearing shorts in December, and I want to fit in. Every time I go out in public, I know people are staring that that transition line and wondering why I didn’t just shave the whole thing. “Doesn’t he know how bad it looks?”

Don’t laugh.

Eventually, the stares get inside my head. This is not the sort of thing I want attention for. People shave their legs, right? I decide I can make two-equally naked legs and grow it all back the same length. Problem solved.

Smart men consult the internet before taking on a job like that. Smart men start with the hair clippers and then use a razor, if they must. Other men (men like me) just watch their wives surreptitiously and then go for it. It can’t be that hard, right?

Well, first off, twenty years of not shaving your legs can make the first outing a bit rocky. Where did all this hair come from? I can’t even grow a full beard, but one little swipe on my leg is enough to put my Gillette Mach 3 out of action.  I sit in the shower for an hour, wiping the excess off my razor, cursing myself for another dumb idea.

I’ve got golf-ball-sized bare spots all up and down my leg and now the shower is running out of hot water, and everything looks just as hairy as before. I can’t let the hair go down the drain because I’m the one who handles the clogs, and I may have teased my wife a bit about her bathroom sink, so if I clog this one . . .

Then I start to notice how cold the bathroom really is. It may feel like summer outside, but a Texas bathroom always knows it’s winter. The tile is cold. The air is cold. The shower curtain is slimy and cold. The lukewarm water only makes the goose bumps worse.

There’s a writing lesson in this, but I’m going to save it for next week. The important thing? It took me three days to finish. I went as high as men’s 1970s basketball shorts and called it quits.

This is why I will never tear my ACL again.

 

 

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CRAFT FAIR DOOM

“Good marketing makes the company look smart. Great marketing makes the customer feel smart.”
—Joe Chernov

IMG_6760 (2)

I woke up to my predicament, palms sweating,  at 9:30am when the customers and crafting ladies started rolling in. My book table was half-buried in the forest of more conventional booths: crocheted “Minion” hats,  fleece blankets with tied fringes, hand-carved wooden crosses, and an assortment of other craft fair products. The vendor to my right was selling custom herbal tea blends and the vendor to my left, homemade jewelry.  I could almost hear someone humming, “One of these things is not like the other…”

That’s what I get for having bright ideas.

The itch started a few weeks ago. I must have been looking for a break from the daily slog of work, parenting, and grinding out edits on Plague Runners , because I actually read the craft fair email advertisement before deleting it:  “JSC Annual Holiday Bazaar,”  it said.

Hmm… I’m not really the crafty sort. Delete.

Sometime in the next 24 hours, the itch got worse. I like to write, but I like to meet and talk to people as well, and cloistering myself to get another writing project done was killing me. So what if the only escape nearby was a certified craft fair? I could go as a vendor. Surely there would be some poor fellow there looking for an oasis of fantasy in that ocean of knick-knacks and Scentsy candles?

So I did the essential research:

Buy-In Cost: $55
Estimated potential customers: 200-300
Demographic: Middle-age craft fair enthusiasts, family members, and assorted NASA employees
Competing Products: ~70 booths, only two selling books, none selling fantasy / sword-and-sorcery
Reference Case:  If you ask nicely. . .
Likelihood of Breaking Even: ???

I contacted the reference case to get  perspective on whether or not the buy-in price made sense for the type of sales I could expect. The reference case vendor was very encouraging once he heard about my books. “You should give this venue a shot.” (I didn’t realize at the time that he was a fantasy enthusiast as well, and would end up buying both my books. . .)

I mulled it over.  It would be a low risk opportunity to get real-time sales experience. Even better, the mix of vendors didn’t threaten to crowd out an up-and-coming fantasy/sci-fi author. And, sheesh, if I couldn’t sell a few books to whichever coworkers happened to wander past, then I’d never amount to anything, anyways.

I bought in, excited at the prospect of sharing DARTS and RINGS with potential new fans and publicizing the upcoming release of SWORDS.

Still, I’m not a fan of cold calls. I dislike being approached by salespeople, and consequently feel very self-conscious about doing the same. And what if my work friends thought my book was silly? What if nobody showed up? What if the people who came to the craft fair actually did only want to buy crafts?

I’d be out $55 and a fair bit of self-respect, that’s what. The thought didn’t thrill me. Why was I going to a craft fair?  What else could I do to help cover the costs of the table, some diversification more relevant to a NASA holiday craft fair?

Multicolored Snowflake Collage (Compressed)

Well?  I like making snowflakes. And I’m pretty good at it, too. Eight-points. Six-points. Spider-web. Eagle Feather.  Something for everyone.  So I made a few at home. My wife suggested that they were elegant, but looked a bit plain for the likes of a craft fair, so I took a few out back and spray-painted them. Then I made a more snowflakes from the black butcher paper used to catch paint. (The “shadow-flake” has overlapping patterns of paint and darkness, and is quite striking.) Even if I didn’t sell any books, I ‘d be able to sell enough of these beauties to offset the cost of the booth.

Wrong again. Sitting at my booth, it quickly obvious that most people don’t consider snowflakes a worthy investment. But I watched their hungry eyes and slowing steps of the ladies as they passed, trying to puzzle out how these beautiful snowflakes came into existence without incurring this particular booth’s sales job.

Ahh.  So crafting people aren’t so different than me? Who wants to be sold to? So I pivoted.

Me: “Would you like to know how to do it?” [With no hint of ulterior motive.]
Craft Lady: “Actually, yes.”

I spent the  whole day helping people make their own. I’d planned to do a mini-course (mostly for friends, family, and bkhewett.com enthusiasts), but everyone else seemed interested in the hands-on too.

Pretty soon I had a swarm of people around my booth, including the other vendors. Lucky thing I brought an extra pair of scissors and some paper. We laughed and joked. They smiled and expressed their own creativity, and occasionally appreciated mine. More people came to see what the commotion was about and started making snowflakes of their own. And once my new friends finished making snowflakes, many of them friends wanted signed books. Others offered one-dollar tips for the holiday craft lesson and promised to look my books up once they got home.

It was fun. It broke the ice. I provided people with an opportunity to express themselves  creatively.  I didn’t have to awkwardly pressure anyone into buying a book they didn’t want. They could see the books on the table and ask questions in their own time-frame. The hardest part of the whole day was making sure I gave each person in the crowd proper attention.

I didn’t go out thinking about how I was going to stop traffic at my booth, teach a new skill, engage the creative brain, and then sell books.  I started with the question of how I could cover the cost of the booth if my books didn’t sell. That idea morphed through the day into something that made the venue more enjoyable for others and made the sales experience more enjoyable. What’s more, selling books and meeting new fans put fire back into my cloister efforts, and I’ve been twice as productive over the last two weeks.

What’s my main point here?  Be flexible. Pivot. Run with that crazy idea for a bit. It may be the first step in an even better idea.

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ESSENTIALS FOR RUNNING A BOOTH
Merchandise (including an accurate book count)
Cashbox (with change, and a starting till count)
Posters
Patch Kit (Scissors, Tape, Pens and Pencils)
Mailing List Sign-Up
Back-Order Sheet
Business Cards or Book Marks
Candy Bowl
iPhone Credit Card reader (if you’re that kind of person…)
An event-appropriate talent/activity to share with potential customers

 

PROBLEM SOLVING SUMMARY

  • Identify Need: Change of scenery. Inventory collecting dust.
  • Identify Solution: Holiday Craft Fair
  • Calculate Benefits: New Fans, Change of Scenery, Professional Contacts, Potential Profit
  • Postulate Risks: I might look silly selling books at a craft fair, waste my writing time, and not cover costs.
  • Identify Mitigations: Take a secondary product such as snowflakes.
  • Flex and Pivot: Use the snowflakes as a conversation starter and bonus for book purchases.

Freddy, The Cockroach of Perfection

Ultimate-Adirondack-Lizards-roach

I returned to a very quiet house from a family trip to the Pacific Northwest. It’s quiet because Cami and the kids have reunion duty in California while I pay the bills and tidy up a few stories for publication.

Saturday. The silence is deafening here. I can hear the thunder of our refrigerator and the steady tick-tick-tick of the mantle clock in the absence of exuberant children.

It’s almost quiet enough to hear Freddy, the dead cockroach. He’s on the floor of Cami’s office, begging for a fitting burial, legs up in the air, as poison (or starvation) takes its toll. I try to ignore him each time I check the parakeet, but he’s getting into my head. Did he just move?

On Tuesday he’s still there, and still dead, and now he’s invited a friend, also dead.

Those of you that haven’t lived south of Waco should consider yourselves lucky. There are few things creepier than reaching into a dark cupboard and feeling the skitter of cockroach feet across the sensitive part of your hand. That’s the feeling I get every time I walk past Freddy and wish my kids were here, because they love finding cockroaches. “Dad, you owe me five cents. I just cleaned up another one!”

Nobody’s going to clean up that roach.

On Wednesday I give him extra space, going outside to eat my Jimmy John’s sandwich. The 90 degrees Fahrenheit is a welcome change to my freezing office. The lizards are running across the deck, doing pushups and flaring out a big orange throat flap they use to get the attention of the opposite sex. Not unlike Facebook I suppose.

I relax into my favorite deck chair and enjoy the show, sitting so still that a lizard crawls up the plastic back and onto the collar of my shirt. Unaware of the passenger, I bring it inside with me once I’ve finished my sandwich. He sits on my collar for 20 minutes until the AC starts to cool him down. That’s when I feel the tiny little claws on my neck. For the split second before launch, all I can think about is Freddy and his dead buddy crawling about my neck. The lizard flies through the air and lands among the plants gathered for vacation plant care (another story).

After that, I sweep up the dead roaches. It’s not worth carrying that kind of burden.

I do this too often.  I shy away from things that irritate, intimidate, or feel unclear or difficult to me. Last week I made a comment on one of my favorite podcasts about Fantasy and Science Fiction storytelling, Writing Excuses. For several days my comment stayed in comment moderation limbo. In the back of my head I wondered: Am I not good enough to have my comments accepted? Did my website link offend someone? Was I supposed to do something differently? Eventually I made the effort to reach out to a few people who are familiar with such things. I’m not sure what they did, but within an hour, my comment had been accepted. It’s a small thing, but it reminded me that starting small is sometimes better than waiting until you can see the end from the beginning.

This struggle manifests in my writing. I don’t want to write anything down that’s not brilliant, so I chew on my pen cap or write seven different opening lines and discard them all. I’m trying to be perfect before I’ve even finished draft one. To combat this, I wrote a crappy post this week, start to finish. I slept on it, rewrote it, and sent it to my brother for a second opinion. I took hard feedback, and worked on it some more. Each time, the path became a little clearer, reminding me that sometimes the best advice is to start small.

Right now I’m working through the sixth draft of my novel Plague Runners, and I needed this advice more than ever. “Keep writing Ben. You’re planting ideas that won’t be ripe until tomorrow.” A special thanks to Diann Read and Peter Ahlstrom, who each encouraged me this week in their own way.

Call to Action:
Write a short poem about a preferred topic (lizards, cockroaches, or turnips?). Let it sit overnight, and then rewrite it. Ask a friend to critique it. For the especially brave, post the final poem in the comments here or on Facebook. I’m particularly interested in how your concept changed after a good night’s sleep.

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Personal Essay: Swimming Cell Phones

What drew me to Fantasy and Science Fiction as a child was its emphasis on possibility. You can slay (or tame) that dragon. You can destroy the ring. Good triumphs over evil. New technology forces us to grips with our shortcomings and helps us remember our humanity. Though both genres offer examples where this is NOT the case (I Am Legend, Richard Matheson and A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin), this focus has often pushed me to ask the question “what if . . .” in my own life. Why not challenge overwhelming odds?

“Why not try out for the middle school starting fullback position on the football team? Never mind that I’m 90 pounds, sopping wet.”

“Why not ask that girl out? So what if she is out of my league?”

“What if I audition for the high school musical? Who cares if I’m I a senior and have never taken theatre before?”

“What if I self-publish this story?”

My best experiences come from dreaming big and following through. So when your Nokia 5310 GSM goes for a swim, dream big:

Saturday, November 6, 2010
The lifespan of your average cell phone is longer if it doesn’t go swimming in Clearlake, which is exactly what ours did last week, and all our contacts with it. (Not my fault.)

On Saturday I decide to mount a recovery effort. I pack up the kids and some essentials—socks, flippers, flipper-booties, snorkel mask, trunks—and head on back to the dock. Just so you know, the mask isn’t to see better.  The bottom of Clearlake is actually buried in 8-inches of mud, oyster shells, and alligator droppings. It’s murky as all getout down there. The mask is actually for keeping the icy salt water off my cheeks and eyes.

I get all that stuff on, leaving the kids under a pile of clothes on the dock for insulation.  They promise me they’ll sit. Unfortunately, the water is colder than I’ve anticipated and they giggle and run for high ground when I thrash in the water. They settle down after I assure them I won’t splash anymore. By now I’m too numb. They resume their assigned tasks of watching for alligators, keeping my emergency towels dry, and not falling in.  Some of them shout helpful hints like, “You’re probably not going to find it,” and “I’m cold.”

I agree: it’s cold. I’ve only found a beer bottle. There’s nothing to see. It’s dark and cold down there and the only comfort is the fact that the mud is a few degrees warmer than the water. I climb up onto the dock.

“Get back in the water dad,” my five-year-old daughter, Eve, insists. She’s already said a prayer to help me find the phone, and she’s not about to let me give up. She uses her sweet-and-matter-of-fact-voice: “You need to look a little farther out.”

So I make a few passes a little farther out. I’m 8 feet under and about 10 feet from the dock now. The water is icy and the mud is still black. The oyster shells are still scratchy. I swim as low as I can and hold my breath. This isn’t very long, because my chest keeps shriveling up and forcing the air out of my lungs thanks to the cold temperature. It’s been 15 minutes and staying out any longer would be foolishness. A SIM card is not worth this. . . .

My hand brushes over something rectangular and hard, right where Eve told me to look.No kidding.

I get out and strip down to my trunks, ignoring the “NUTJOB!” looks from passing motorists.

Eve hands me my towel and I hand her the phone. “Hold it carefully,” I say ineffectually as the phone slides down the slanted dock ramp. Luckily, it snags on a traction rail. This time I zip it into the jacket that Carter (7) has reluctantly returned to me.

“I’m cold.”

“Yeah, me too. Can you help me carry some of this stuff?”

Olivia (3) hops around gleefully on the way back to the car. « You did it, daddy! You did it! » Eve’s carrying the wet mask. Carter’s got my pair of corderoys wrapped around his neck like an extra-long scarf.

After a short operation at home, it’s obvious that the SIM card works. I know because we put it in a somewhat drier, older model phone that we’d been using as kid bait for the last few years.

When my wife gets home she is shocked to see the old phone operating under brain transplant. “I thought that phone was gone forever!”

“Some of it may be,” I respond, “but the contact list isn’t.”

Dream big.

Nokia GSM 5310 (2)

Personal Essay: Lizard Bites Cold Man’s Tongue

July 3rd 2015

I caught a lizard today at work. He was sun-bathing outside Building 4S at JSC, ribs rising and falling peacefully, lazy eyes dipping shut for long seconds at a time. I stood in the warm sun and watched him for at least two minutes, watched his eyes dim and re-open.

I’d gone outside because my new office is bitter cold and facilities management is on their third attempt at getting things under control. The room was originally designed for handling the heat loads from a Shuttle Era mainframe computer, and I guess one guy in his mid-thirties doesn’t throw off that much heat. Getting to work is like a sad version of that opening scene from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood: I take off my nice black dress shoes and slip on thick pair of wool socks, soccer length. Instead of loafers, I use thick-hide cowboy boots. Mr. Rogers gets a comfy sweater, while I get a gray hoodie from Old Navy, followed by the black blazer once kept exclusively for important meetings with upper management.

Of all the government agencies, you’d think NASA could get environmental controls right, but we’re just as bad as the next. When we build an office building, we don’t build it like a spacecraft. We build it with the short game in mind. (Or we did in the ’60s and ’80s.)  While the walls are modular, the air handlers, thermostat controls, and ducting are not. Every time NASA re-orgs, the walls are reconfigured, and the thermostats creep farther and farther from the rooms they control. After twenty or thirty years, the temperature control to your office might be in the third floor ladies room (don’t ask me why), while the temperature gauge is in the second floor spacesuit lab. Spare no expense. . .

In my old office, people in the conference room next door used to come beg me to turn the temperature down.  “We’re roasting,” they’d say.

I wasn’t particularly understanding. “Deal with it, suckers. It’s only for an hour.”

Payback stinks. I like my job, but (Boss are you reading this?) my new office is a bit cold. Like cold enough to freeze penguins. At least twice today my co-workers asked if they could just leave their lunches since the fridge is almost full. Very funny, Patrick, and you other guy whose name I can’t remember.

That’s why I went outside to sun myself with the lizards. Call it kinship. I suddenly understood the temptation to lie in the sun all day and blink lethargically.  I watched him blink, and he ignored me because I was too cold to move. I noticed his eye pattern after a while: open for one second, close for three. The part of me that is still ten years old goads my more mature self:

Young Ben:   “Bet you can’t catch that lizard when he closes his eyes.”
Old Ben:         “I’m not as slow as I look.”
Young Ben:   “Yes you are. You’re practically decrepit. You have to sun yourself to stay warm!”
Old Ben:         “Shut up. I’ll show you.”

The next time the lizard closes its eyes, I put my right hand over him quickly and carefully, so he can’t run, and then carefully grasp him by the head with my left hand, between thumb and pointer finger.  Even so, he almost gets away, and he definitely isn’t happy about getting a cold hug from my hand. He opens his mouth wide, griping about the interrupted nap and trying to look ferocious. I notice patterns of blue scaling right under his eyes, and bring him up close to my face to watch his color change from black to greenish brown.

Young Ben: “Bet you can’t poke him in the face with your tongue.”

. . .

Have you ever tried to swear with a lizard clamped to the tip of your tongue? You’re better than that?  Good. ’Cause it’s pretty dang hard.

“Owthh! Thammmit!”

You can say whatever you want ’cause they will literally hang from your tongue for hours, grinding their tiny little jaws as you shout poorly-enunciated expletives. They. Don’t. Let. Go.

Every few seconds his legs would windmill a little bit to see if he could get traction. I gave him a good perch on my finger, but that didn’t seem to make him any more secure, so I took my finger back and gave him a little tug—not hard—but the tug  only pulled my tongue out farther.

I’m nailed to the spot, trying to breathe through my nose, imagining what might happen if someone comes out the back door at that very moment. My mouth is hanging wide open and my tongue is trying to waggle the lizard loose, and he’s holding on tighter for it, tail swinging back and forth. I can’t close my mouth either because I don’t really want the flavor of lizard underbelly in my mouth, and I wouldn’t be able to close it fully anyway.

“Owth.”
“Owth.”
“Owth.”

A couple of odd thoughts cross  my mind: What would the pierced gentry down at Hot Topic say about this? I could try stuffing the lizard in my mouth and then approach them all casual like, “Tongue-ring? Yeah, thaths pretty cool, but beat thith!” and then unfurl my tongue-lizard with great pride.

Or even better, tell my seven-year-old to keep a straight face while I try to read her Green Eggs and Ham or Fox in Sox. Or one of my terribly serious fantasy stories.

What works in the end is a firm, steady grip on the little monster’s head and a steady pull. He doesn’t give up without a fight, but I do prevail, and we’re both happier once he’s scurried back into the bushes. Of course he probably told the story a little differently when he got home from work that day: “And that, you little lizards, is how the tiny dragon slew the giant knight!”

. . .

That’s another thing. Stories are usually better in retrospect, after a bit of self-examination, and that same reflection can give rise to interesting insights. DARTS is based on a dinner I had with some work associates after a Space Shuttle Quarterly Review.  RINGS came from my wife’s comment  that I had ended a late draft of DARTS wrong and my brother’s insistence that I had too much story for one story. Plague Runners (in editing) was born from seeing my then-two-year-old daughter put her tongue to the black rail of a moving walkway in an airport and watching in horror as it slid beneath her tongue for several seconds before I could yank her away. (Like father, like daughter?)

At first, these things frightened me, suggesting I was inadequate, but when I realized only my ego had been harmed, they drove me to examine more deeply and to see more clearly. Observation is the knack for seeing things right in front of you and thinking about them in a new light. “What would happen if. . .”

What’s something you’ve wondered about? Funny, strange things happen when you ask questions and look for tiny details. Things worth writing about. Try it. Stir the pot. Lick a non-venomous lizard. Tell me about it.

A different lizard

Rapport de mon voyage à New York

 

Le carrelage de la petite chambre d’hôtel est toujours chaud quand j’y traine mes pieds, fatigué après une journée passée à arpenter la ville, ou encore endormi d’avoir veillé trop longtemps sur mon argumentaire pour Immuno. C’est ce que j’aime le plus dans ma chambre. Le sol est chaud et me rappelle le soleil du Texas sur un tapis hivernal.

A cause de la vitre de la douche, il est difficile d’atteindre la commande de la douche sans avoir à grimper dedans (tout habillé), et ce premier jet d’eau froide a soif de vouloir me surprendre. Ca ne me laisse pas longtemps pour me faufiler derrière la vitre, mais trente-cinq ans, c’est encore jeune… Tant que je ne glisse pas. Tandis que l’eau chauffe, je ferme mes yeux fatigués et me glisse dessous pour me réveiller ou me réchauffer, selon si j’arrive ou repars.

Pendant le déjeuner, je dis à mon ami Matt qu’il dormirait mieux si il mettait des boules Quies la nuit et il rit sur ses tacos. Nous mangeons à côté de Penn Station, profitant de la neige de mars et de la foule.

J’adore marcher dans la ville et écouter toutes les voix, des gorges d’un autre monde, rauques et fortes, calmes et timides, rouler dans l’air presque gelé d’une manière qui m’est nouvelle.

Bien entendu, je vais voir un spectacle. Je travaillerai sur ma conférence jusqu’à trois heures du matin s’il le faut, mais j’établis désormais une tradition : une comédie musicale sur Broadway, ou je meurs… Je me retrouve immergé dans une foule d’adolescents japonais, assez âgés pour sortir seuls mais pas assez pour abandonner le troupeau d’amis. Ils rient, observent et attendent tandis que les membres du groupe qui parlent le mieux l’anglais essaient de négocier vingt billets pour le Roi Lion qui joue déjà à guichet fermé.

Adolescent japonais : « Vonte RRRoi Lion ? »

Ouvreuse Mal Tournée : « Désolée. Il n’y a plus de billets pour le Roi Lion. »

AJ :   « Vonte RRRoi Lion ? »

OMT (agitant les bras) : « Plus de billets ! Zéro ! Rien ! Pas cinq ! Pas un ! Ils sont déjà tous vendus. »

Zut. C’était le spectacle que je voulais voir. Mes propres compétences en anglais, bien que loin d’être sans failles, me permettent de me rabibocher avec les Dieux de l’Inévitable et d’accepter mon destin. Je ne reproche rien à qui que ce soit, même pas à moi-même. Ce soir, j’aurais pu diner avec les autres participants de la conférence (ce que j’étais quand même arrivé à faire) ou travailler sur mon prochain livre. L’un ou l’autre.

J’adore les voix et les personnalités : Ralph. Rachel. Jason. Nina. Clarissa. Erik. Jessica. Sami. Et les étrangers. Anglais. Irlandais. Mexicains. Français. Japonais. Américains. Je parle avec tout le monde, parfois juste avec les yeux.

J’adore la chaleur des gens qui voyagent, leurs yeux étincelants et leurs esprits libres qui disent des choses comme : « Incroyable ! Je viens de Yokohama et vous êtes de Houston et nous sommes là au Fantôme de l’Opéra ensemble. »

En fait, c’est plutôt comme ça : « Vous voulez venir Japon ? Chez moi. Mon email. » Hidenobu cherche un stylo.

C’est épatant tout ce qu’on apprend sur quelqu’un pendant une attente de 30 minutes avant que le spectacle commence, les moments qu’on peut partager.

Les voix françaises sont plus faciles à comprendre que les japonaises, les russes et les italiennes, mais c’est quand même difficile de dire quelque chose au début. Et si mon français est mauvais ? (Je sais d’ores et déjà qu’il est pire que mon anglais.) Mais Mathieu et Julien n’en reviennent pas que quelqu’un des Etats-Unis puisse tenir une conversation, qui aurait pu durer plus longtemps, mais je dois absolument aller me coucher et vraiment dormir. J’ai quand même le temps de les prévenir d’être au guichet sur Times Square deux jours à l’avance pour prendre des billets pour le Roi Lion. Ils sont surpris de l’entendre.

Moi, non. Ce sont des mecs, et ils pensent comme moi, apparemment, et finiront coincés dans un tas d’adolescents japonais trop grands pour être… Oh, mais j’ai déjà dit ça.

C’est mon humeur. L’air froid me fait tousser et la neige me pince la gorge. Il y a de la neige mouillée sur l’asphalte et des nuages de vapeur et de fumée de cuisine dans l’air. Des noix de cajou grillées. Vous les sentez ?

Les lumières des écrans de télé sur Times Square sont aussi fortes que la lumière du jour et j’entends encore l’Irlandaise assise à côté de moi chanter le Fantôme de l’Opéra alors que je rentre chez moi.

Mes boules Quies m’attendent à mon chevet, prévoyant de me faire dormir au delà de la sonnerie du réveil, alors je le mets pour trois heures, au cas où et me glisse dans mon lit. Ou la douche.

Sommeil.

Et oui, New York veut le manuscrit !

Madison Towers