17 Ping Pong Balls and Reaching Into the Dark and Dank Pit to Deal With a Writer’s Despair

This was the closest I could come to a dark, dank pit. (Photo via Stencil)

I took the dog for a walk the other day. It's winter, here, and it's a much more involved process because of the snow, sleet and cold. I have to put on boots, wear a hat and gloves, and decide whether or not I need multiple layers or just a single coat.

When I walk the dog, that's my thing for the evening, I don't want any other things for me to do. Other than to write.

It's become my habit to write in the evenings, after supper, when the house is relatively calm. Some days I walk the dog earlier in the evening so that not even that hangs over my head. When I'm back, I can put on comfortable clothes, settle into my writing corner, and write.

That's my ideal evening, now. The previous twenty-four years were dominated by family and parenting activities. (I wasn't an effective parent, but I put in the time, which counts for something.)

When I returned home after this particular dog walk the other day, I noticed a sound, like a motor running somewhere in the house. Not loud, mind you. If there was a motor running on the dining room table I'd know right away. No, this was quiet enough to have been outside, like it was in the neighbor's garage.

I removed my winter gear, put things away and was on my way to my writing corner when I once again noticed the sound of a motor running. I checked with my family, "Do you hear that?"

They did.

But no one had a great theory on what might be the source.

I walked around the house and noticed it was louder in the corner of our living room. That spot was closest to our neighbor's garage. Then it hit me: that spot is also directly above our sump pump.

I hurried into the basement and of course that was it. The pump was stuck in the pump mode, sucking air. I pulled the plug and lifted the lid and yanked the plug out of the wall. Smoke was wafting from the pump — never a good sign.

Shining a light down into the pit, the first thing I noticed was quite a few ping pong balls gathered at the bottom. With water trickling into the pit, they took float.

Not me, but I'd love to play at this level (Photo via Stencil)

Years ago, I indulged my love of ping pong with a table bought on clearance when McSporty's went out of business (can't recall the name of the store, now). My son's high school years were full of noisy games there in the basement, and he quickly out-gunned me. Eventually, the table fell into disuse.

Over the course of those years of enthusiasm, we went through a lot of ping pong balls. I bought them by the dozen, and many are still unaccounted for in the recesses of the basement.

But I know for certain that 17 of them went into the sump pit. And one of those finally got pinned in the float mechanism of the pump to tell it the pit was empty.

A lot of life shares that same symbiotic relationship of ping pong and the sump pump. We chase after some fun activity in our life, thinking that this is great and will sustain us forever. Distracted by so much fun, we neglect the actual things that sustain our life, and possibly even abuse it somehow with the jetsam of enthusiasm.

When I first graduated college, I wanted to become a writer, and worked on that as much as I could. But I also had a decent job, and thought it'd be a way to make something great. At various times over the next two decades, I chased business ideas, startups and learned new things. They all fizzled out, however.

In the meantime, I neglected my writing. I gave up on it a few times, but I've come back to it repeatedly because (I now realize) I have a primal compulsion to entertain, and I specifically love the idea of writing to entertain.

Ten years ago, when I realized I wanted to write more than anything, my creativity pump was throwing smoke from the bottom of an empty pit, and nobody liked what was coming out of it.

Since then I've been trying to rebuild that pump, and I hope that within months, or maybe a couple of years, my creative hose will be gushing with stuff that is nothing but pure gold.

And I promise to work at finding better metaphors for my creative writing.

Mickey Picayune

The Plugged Drain Pipe and the Kitchen Sink

We were worried for a while… (Photo via Stencil)

About three weeks ago, on a quiet Friday evening as Mary and I were contemplating what we might do to occupy ourselves, there was a burbling noise coming from the kitchen, as if the faucet had been left on.

Our son was showering upstairs, and we were pretty sure no one else was in the house. We could also hear the water running in the shower. Then my wife started shouting because there was water spilling out from the kitchen cabinet beneath the sink.

Water spread across the floor.

Water had backed up into the sink and the pipes underneath the sink had come apart at the joints. It seemed that the weight of that water had pushed the pipes apart.

Hilarity ensued.

The next ten minutes were a blur, but I jammed a thermos under the pipes to hold them together, stopping the water. The shower upstairs stopped, and water stopped backing into the sink. And we found rags and buckets to mop the floor.

For the next hour, we dragged things out from under the sink and set them in baskets for later disposal decisions. Then the real fun began.

I went to Lowe’s for new pipes and repaired the pipes under the sink (twenty-one years grime and mold weakened the joints).

Damage under my sink. (Photo by M. Hadick)

Experimentation with running water upstairs determined that only the one shower would overflow into the sink. Better still, a sink full of water would drain in about one hour. That meant we could wait until Monday to bring in a plumber.

I returned to the store to investigate power-driven drain snakes, but the one that seemed long enough was $500. I considered opening up the clean out ports but the clerks at the store advised me against it. 

Come Monday, the plumber arrived and he brought with him that very same $500 drain snake I saw at the store. One hour later, the plugged pipe cleared, life resumed as before. 

I often try to relate these anecdotes to my writing or some other current event. But I’m merely going to leave it as a stark reminder to appreciate the modern amenities of life in the suburbs of America. 

Every morning I write in a gratitude journal and give thanks for clean water, hot coffee, and indoor plumbing. These minor domestic disasters are a fun lark in comparison to the challenges some people face. 

News about me

I've started my 15th year at the place where I work. The day job. The it's-a-living place where I go. I do like the work and my teammates, so I'm very fortunate.

Life here in Lansing, Michigan is interesting enough. The city has a nice mix of cultural events, restaurants, and clever people doing nice things. Sure there are some a-holes, but that's everywhere.

I first started working in Lansing 33 years ago, and the downtown area had some lunch options, but nothing after five o'clock. It's the State Capitol so after those workers left town, nothing happened. All the action was either in East Lansing or the suburban shopping malls.

Now the downtown has a nice bar crawl, if that's your thing. There are two small theaters, and the Michigan Avenue corridor to East Lansing has plenty going on along the way.

There are multiple film festivals in the area, music festivals, and a strong arts movement.

Festive apartment buildings on the Grand River in Lansing, Michigan (Photo by me)

In spite of that, I haven't been getting out as much as I could because I'm a novelist, and have been hunkering down more and more on my writing during my free time.

Update on my writing

Speaking of novels, you may recall that I finished a thriller last year and asked for some early feedback. I have some feedback, but not all. In spite of that, I'll be forging ahead with revisions. In the meantime, I wrote another novel the past three months. It's a short one, and is really the beginning of a bigger story, but I'll package it up as its own thing later this year.

If you're not a fan of multi-novel stories, my apologies in advance. You can give it a miss, and wait until I bundle them all up into an omnibus edition.

By the time you're reading this, I will likely have started a class on writing satire. It runs for the next month, and I hope to improve my humor and ability to get short pieces published.

You may not know it, but I've been attempting to be funny pretty much all my life, since that moment in second grade when the kids laughed at something I said, and I realized that was a thing: making people laugh.

Books I'm reading or which I read lately

I'm going to leave you with the recent books I've been reading or have read.

In the Woods by Tana French was amazingly good. It was as engrossing as it was emotionally impactful. I really was drawn in and couldn't have put that book aside. I read it as fast as humanly possible (for me, which isn't very fast). She's written about ten like this, so I intend to work very hard to make my writing just as interesting as hers.

The Prone Gunman by Manchette started strong and then got a little worrisome, and then, finally, very worrisome. It's a hard-core crime story with high-paced action. The writing is cool and detached, and that's what helped make it enjoyable. The ending is not what I hoped for, but is truthful.

I'm in the middle of reading A Scanner Darkly, by Phillip K. Dick. It is a bit of a mind bender, as great sci-fi stories are wont to do. I started listening to this (audiobook, obviously) but had trouble following the story, and switched to my kindle. That helped, and now I'm enjoying the characters, and worried for their sake.


I'm going to leave you with one more image, of downtown Lansing, near the Capitol, before Christmas, when a few of us gathered to protest and call for the impeachment of Trump. These protests may not change the world, but they help remind us not to let the world change us. The corruption at the top puts our way of life at risk, and erodes our civil liberties. It's not just a story to be told, but a battle to be fought.

Protest at State Capitol, Lansing, Michigan, November 2019 (Photo by me)

Self Improvement

Meditate to train your brain, calm your mind, and awaken your creativity with little fuss and lots of benefits

Meditate anywhere. Don't over think it. Under think it. (Photo via Stencil)

I write novels. That artistic effort requires concentrating on story problems for multiple hours a day. It demands that your mind enters a state of flow and to enter the invented minds of your invented characters as you write down their story. Because of the length of novels, you must pull off these mental miracles for months, or years, at a time.

In the first 25 years of my writing, I wrote a score of short stories, four novels and half a dozen screenplays. I improved with each effort, but never had anything resembling commercial success. I was a rank amateur with only a stack of rejected manuscripts to show for my labor.

Yeah, that's about how many drafts of all my manuscripts I had. (Photo by Stencil)

In the past 10 years, my writing has leveled up, especially my ability to solve story problems, which demands the most creativity of all. When I started, I wrote simple stories with hardly anything happening because that's as much as I could handle in a story. I now write multiple point-of-view novels, juggling personalities like a politician at a Florida political rally, with lots going on in the stories.

What changed? Part of it is just practicing for ten more years. But I think meditation is a big part of my improvement.

Meditation was recommended to me ten years ago by two writing instructors. When I started meditating, I immediately noticed the benefits, calming me and strengthening my mind's ability to focus and let interruptions slip away like ducks over a waterfall.

Of course, correlation is not causation, but I'm convinced that meditating has allowed me to learn to write better during my recent classes. It's not the solution, but a critical part of the solution. (The other parts are exercise and better sleep habits — and meditation is also what helps me keep those habits, as well.)

You should try it.

Breathe. (Photo via Stencil)

How to get started meditating

To begin meditating, find a quiet and comfortable place to sit, close your eyes, and pay attention to your breathing.

If another thought emerges in your mind, let it go. Tell yourself you'll think about it later. Then pay attention to your breathing again.

That's it. Do that and you are officially meditating.

If the simplicity of that seems like it's a joke, it's not. That deceptively easy thing to do is what delivers great benefits to you mind and body.

Try it — right now! — then come back and ask yourself this question:

How can something that easy be so valuable?

If you can concentrate, then you can write. (Photo via Stencil)

Does this sound like you?

We are constantly assaulted by distraction in the modern world. If you work on a computer, you likely check your social media feeds or scroll through email. (I do those, but I'm also addicted to reading the news.) If you have a smartphone, you may check your social media, check your email, read the news and also play a game.

On top of that, you may listen to a podcast or the radio in your car, then watch streaming television in the evening, and go down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos before falling asleep.

If that's you, your brain is dealing with a lot of input that is telling you what to think. Other people's opinions and judgment. Stories that you are expected to enjoy.

None of that input gives your brain a chance to think for itself about something. Maybe not anything.

So a break of as little as five minutes can give your mind a chance to recover and even strengthen itself. That little bit of calm goes a long way, and feels pretty good.

Find a quiet place and meditate. (Photo via Stencil)

How long should you meditate?

You can meditate for a minute, or an hour, or any number of minutes in between. I declared six (6) minutes to be the threshold for me. I set myself a goal to sit quietly once a day and pay attention to my breathing.

Six minutes works for me, but ten or twenty might be better for you. You have to try it and figure out what works for your schedule, even if it's less than six minutes.

Are you familiar with that adage about how to control your anger? You count to ten before responding. Even that tiny amount is a form of meditation. You are focusing your mind on counting, giving it a chance to calm down.

I recommend you keep track of your mediation efforts because the act of tracking encourages you to keep doing it, turning it into a habit. You can use a calendar, a journal, or a rosary.

Journal to keep track of your meditating. (Photo by Stencil)

What else does meditation do?

By focusing on your breathing, you are training your mind to concentrate on something. It's like practicing scales in music: we play an ukulele with our hands, but the real work is done in our brain.

This modern world constantly interrupts our thoughts, teaching our minds to deal with the next thing, the next headline, the next level in a game. It's become a big casino with bells and blinking lights beckoning for our attention.

Taking five or ten minutes to practice focusing your mind strengthens your ability to filter out some of the noise. Remember how I mentioned that, should a thought intrude upon your meditation, just let it go, reminding yourself you'll worry about it later. Then focus your attention again on your breathing.

Letting go of an interruption must also be strengthened.

So that's two critical things meditation does for you:

  • strengthens your ability to focus
  • strengthens your ability to ignore interruptions

What if you want to do more?

This takes a lot of concentration. (Photo via Stencil)

Take your meditating to the next level

The simplest thing to do with meditation is just do more. Sit in a quiet place for longer stretches of time. I find that, on weekends, I linger after the six minutes are after, often until my crossed legs fall asleep.

Try walking meditation, which is just like normal walking, but a little slower. Pay attention to your surroundings. It's best done away from a busy, noisy street, like in a park. Notice the trees. Look for birds. Watch where you're going, and also what's underfoot, such as grass or gravel or pavement.

If you play music, or want to learn, practicing scales, with its repetitive concentration, is a form of meditation. I play ukulele, and Danieal Ward created a song book of meditations that are delightful to hear, fun to play, teach me chords and finger-picking, and also are a meditative break for my mind.

Finally, there are forms of mantra meditation, during which suggestions are repeated to yourself.

How frequently should you meditate?

Meditating should be at least like bathing, in that you try to do it daily, or more often if you get yourself messy. During particularly frustrating or stressful times, a few minutes of meditation can restore balance and energy, while also strengthening your mind to better withstand assaults in the future.

Meditating can make you smarter. (Photo via Stencil)

What will meditating do for you?

Meditating won't in and of itself make you a novelist, pianist, or surgeon. But if you want to learn any of those skills (any skill, obviously) training your brain to focus, remain calm, and ignore distractions is fundamenntal.
The world needs more people who can use the power of their mind to solve problems.

Give it a try.

Self Improvement

The Eternal Struggle Between Private Time and Family Time for a Writer Like Me

How a Quiet Night Between Holidays Became the Battle Ground Between Me and My Family

Kind of looks like me. (Photo via Stencil)

The Monday following Thanksgiving, my wife realized that we had an evening in which no one had any plans. Not me, not her, nor our daughter or son. This was a rarity because our children are adults, now, and have lives of their own, and my wife and I keep pretty busy. (Side note: I learned from my father that the secret to a happy marriage is to stay the hell out of the house except to eat or sleep.)

As an amateur writer, an evening without an obligation to attend is one of the greatest windfalls. I struggle to carve out the minimum two hours I demand of myself every evening. With nothing going on for anyone, I looked forward to sitting at my desk in the corner for the entire evening, doing the creative work I love and some of the pragmatic work (planning, admin stuff) needed to move my writing business forward.

So what would we do with our windfall of leisure time?

Alas, my wife scheduled a photo shoot for the family. We hadn’t had a portrait done in about twelve years, and it seemed over due. In fact, one could argue it might be the last chance for a family portrait for another dozen years, what with the disparity of schedules and the onslaught of time.

This looks really official. (Photo via Stencil)

I agreed. Family activities are one of the few things I allow to encroach on my writing time.

We chose JC Penney “portrait studios” because they’re cheap, they had an opening, and they accept pets. Huzzah and three cheers for the photographer because the first to arrive, our daughter, was a full ten minutes late. Had she canceled us, it would have been my fault.

When the appointment was made, I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t realize it was JC Penney “portrait studios.” I somehow thought it was a studio on the other side of Lansing and sent my son that address. I arrived on time but to the wrong place, and had to re-route our son.

Not our family. (Photo via Stencil)

Jacque Pene

The photographer, a young lady, exuded chill. (I’m not sure one really exudes “chill,” so much as offers the vibe of chill, and you are free to notice or not.) She liked dogs. She often photographed children and I think had come to prefer animals to babies for getting the money shot.

Not our dog. (Photo via Stencil)

To sit for a portrait is surreal, as you must be painfully aware that you are sitting for a portrait while painfully attempting to look natural. The only people exempt from this are hand and foot models. No matter what they think of their hands or feet, their faces are not in the picture, so they can make all manner of uncomfortable faces, and it’s only minimally expressed in their farthest appendages.

We had chosen dark outfits and this was a sound strategy. I’m not a big fan of the family photos with everybody dressed in matching pajamas, or in sports fan garb or, my least favorite, western costumes.

Am I a Writer or the Father of a Family?

I’m both, alas, and the push and pull between those two realities can cause me stress. Part of me wants to schedule hard blocks of time for my writing that are inviolate. But doing so means I might miss something that happens with my family, and that’s just not how I want to live. Let’s face it, if the only thing I ever wanted to do was write, I would have abandoned my family years ago.

Also not our family. (Photo via Stencil)

But I’m not. So I scramble to find time. Just like the time I found to write this.


Blood in the House and the Natural System of the Universe

Our house has been busy, lately, and we found blood splattered across the floor near the front door, leading across the carpet and into the kitchen as if someone had been cut and was bleeding while making their way through the house.

Obviously, this was disturbing.

The mystery was heightened because our adult children are both living at home. We don't know exactly what they're doing at any given moment.

To digress for a moment, having adult children in the house is fun, really, but not quite how we thought things would be.

I'm not being judgmental when I say, "…how we thought things would be." I had been going on the assumption that circumstances would pull them away from us. Instead, circumstances kept them close.

Allow me to digress just a bit more.

I study Stoic philosophy, and one of its tenets is that we must submit to the natural order of things. Stoicism does not promote the idea of a God or gods, but neither does it preclude them. It is based on embracing rational thought, and dealing with the circumstances you are presented with.

Stoicism also embraces the fact that the natural order of the world — nature, governments and people — can mess with you in ways you never imagined.

For example, my wife dropped a jar of marinara sauce the other day in the kitchen and the jar's lid blew off. The splatter of spaghetti sauce went through the mouse hole I cut in the door to our basement and splattered the stairwell wall. Instead of working on my novel the next hour, I was scrubbing the wall. Something in the natural system of the world presented me with circumstances I had to deal with.

The blood appeared the next day. We thought it might be the dogs, and checked their paws very carefully (no cuts!). The cats were similarly checked and showed no signs of bleeding.

We asked both kids, and no one knew how blood could have been brought in through the front door.

I got a bucket and began scrubbing the blood. I worked from the entrance to kitchen, and noticed the trail continued across the kitchen. Because of the color of the kitchen tile, it was difficult to see the blood, but I kept my face low and cleaned it up.

The trail led me back to the door to the basement, the one with the mouse hole cut in it. Then it hit me: it wasn't blood, but spaghetti sauce. One of the dogs had stepped in the mess while I was getting a bucket to clean the spill.

The dog tracked the spaghetti sauce through the kitchen and towards the front door. We, however, didn't notice for two days. In the meantime, I forgot about the spilled spaghetti sauce, and jumped to the conclusion that blood was in the house.

It bears repeating: no animals were injured when my wife spilled spaghetti sauce.