Storytelling

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.

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.

Storytelling

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.

Mickey Way

How to Secure Your Digital Life and Maybe Relax (But Don’t Relax Too Much)

A Primer on Treating Digital Assets More Like Physical Assets to Protect Valuables

Our lives are wrapped up in a digital world. We have scattered usernames, passwords and personal information all across the internet. We have created and stored a lifetime of documents stuffed with banking info and tax information on personal computers.

Then we use smartphone to connect our personal repositories with internet destinations, where we conduct day-to-day living.

Protecting those three digital worlds is of utmost importance. If you're overwhelmed by the thought of it, or just not sure how to get started with protecting them, the rest of this article will get you started.

What me worry?

Bad things can happen that severely disrupt your ability to function. Some threats come from bad people. Other threats are just bad luck. For instance:

  • If your computer crashed right now, do you have a notion of how to fix it or at least recover your files?
  • If your computer is infected with malware or ransomware, how will you get it fixed?
  • If you accidentally delete important files do you know how to get them back?
  • Do you password protect your computer? What about your wireless network?
  • When you travel, do you use just any old wireless network you find?

What should I do to feel secure?

There are a few principles of safety from real life that you should follow in your digital life as well:

  • Be wary when you talk to strangers, especially those bearing gifts
  • If need to visit a place you know nothing about, try to learn about it before you go there
  • Lock your doors
  • Don't leave valuable out in the open

That won't prevent any bad thing from ever happening to your digital life, but they are things you can control and taking a few easy steps of prevention will protect you from some obvious risks.

Let's cover these security principles one by one.

Secure your valuables

The first principle of securing your digital assets is backup and recovery. Whether you use your computer for managing your family life or earning a living, you need to backup up your data at a minimum. Ideally, you would also backup the system so that, in case of a disk crash, you can recover and get back to work.

Backing up data

The easiest way to back up your data is to use a cloud service such as DropBox or OneDrive. You place your critical files in the folders managed by those services, work from those folders, and let the cloud service manage the versions. It's affordable and effective (but not perfect).

Using a cloud service means you have to be connected to the internet to get the benefit. That's doable.

The bigger challenge is that, should someone hack the cloud service, or steal your password, your critical data is vulnerable. That caveat notwithstanding, I think the risk is worth it, and use both services myself.

Backing up a system

Slightly more challenging is effectively backing up your system so that it can be recovered. if you've ever purchased a portable external hard drive, they frequently toss in a free backup and restore software system. I have never found one of those to be effective. They require you to actively backup the hard drive, and I would forget. I would forget for years at a time.

That was so useless, I went in search of a better way.

I found Macron systems, which has both a free and a reasonably priced solution, called Reflect, that will schedule the backups automatically, and can be used to recreate the hard drive should it crash and have to be replaced. It demands a slight learning curve, but once you get it set up it's okay to forget it because you don't have to worry. Once again, here is the (non-affiliate) link to Macron Reflect.

You purchase an external hard drive, schedule the system backups to be made on that external drive, and let it rip. If you use a laptop, as I do, you'll need to plug the external hard drive in whenever you're back home, and the software will continue the backups at that point.

Lock your doors

Windows Login

If you use a laptop and take it with you places, you should have a password on your Windows account. If it's lost or stolen, at least make someone figure out your password to access your files.

Wireless Network

If you have a wireless network in your home, assign a password to gain access to the network. Almost all recent wireless routers come with the network password protected. However, you should still log into the router and change the admin password. Once you're there, change the wireless network name and password to something of your choosing.

Learn about the place you're visiting

If you travel and hope to use wireless networks you encounter along the way, be extra careful. A recent exploit is for bad guys to set up wireless networks in public settings — coffee shops, libraries, etc. — that sound like the locally hosted network. Something like "Starbucks 2" or "Barnes and Noble Alt." sounds legit. It may not be. By routing your wireless network traffic through their machine, they can stiff the traffic, crack encryption, and steal your passwords.

If anything unusual takes place while connecting to a new wireless network, don't give them a second chance. Find another source, or wait until you're in a safe place before connecting.

How to surf the web safely while traveling

The safest method is use a mobile hot spot of your own. If you have unlimited data on your cell phone, you may be able to use the mobile hot spot feature on your phone to provide your own private and secure connection. Just remember to use a password on the wireless network.

You can also purchase a mobile wireless network hot spot and take it with you.

Beware strangers bearing gifts

The greatest modern risk today comes in the form of email attachments or website downloads that are malware, spyware or ransomware in disguise. The bad guys use social engineering tactics to convince you that the attachment or download is low risk and very routine contents. Once activated though — usually by opening a Word document, Excel spreadsheet, or executable-in-disguise — the exploit works in the background to establish itself on your computer.

Then it gathers information and sends it back to the bad guy. Or it encrypts your computer files, holding them ransom.

Beware USB charging cables too

As if all this weren't enough, there are USB cable in the wild that have a chip in them that will potentially exploit your smartphone. If the connector looks a little weird, or your not sure about the person offering you the connector, or the place you found it, try to find one you trust.

You can purchase charging-only USB cables to be safe, if that peace of mind is important. (I always carry extra cables, so I've not been presented with this one.) Here's the (non-affiliate) link if you're interested.

Reprisal: What should I do to feel secure?

We've discussed the dangers, so let's review them again about how to secure your digital life:

  • Beware of strangers bearing gifts — don't open attachments or downloads unless you're confident about the source.
  • When traveling, use only trusted networks.
  • Use passwords on your computer and wireless network.
  • Have a file and computer system backup routine that you can trust

If you are lax in any of these areas, start now to lead a more secure digital life. Backup your files. Use passwords. Connect only to trusted networks.

Oh, and beware of attachments from strangers. They aren't gifts.

If you have any questions or comments, post them below. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Storytelling

Middle Age Reckoning for the Holidays

You probably can't tell from this blog, but I'm well into middle-age. I'm not horrified by the prospect as I feel fine and my mind seems sharp.

But a thing happened this past week that give me pause.

Family photos at JC Penney

Our adult children, both out of college, are living with us at the moment. It gives a weird vibe to things, as routines from 20 years ago have now morphed into very different things, like we still watch television together but, instead of Dexter's Labratory or the Power Puff Girls, it's Ru Paul's Drag Race and Japanese language soft-porn anime with subtitles.

We decided to get a family portrait done for our holiday greeting cards. Next year may see all of us in different places. This could be one of the last such portraits we take (you just don't know).

JC Penney is cheap, true, but we chose them also because they allow pets. The photo shoot was a testament of all things Americana:

  • Each of the four adults drove separately
  • JC Penney is a department store that has seen better days
  • It's located at a mall that has seen better days
  • I had the wrong location, and led my son astray, but thanks to our cell phones, he and I were only fifteen minutes late for the appointment
  • ¬†We used coupons to save money on a thing we really didn't need in the first place

Someday, far in the future, our portrait might end up in a Ken Burns III documentary about the demise of department stores and shopping malls. I hope he uses the one with the dogs looking up at the camera.