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How I spend my days

When Hamlet went back to school, I had the idea that I might be able to get at least a little more writing done during the day. Puck seemed better at entertaining himself than his brother had been, and surely the incredible creative synergy I’ve been experiencing this year meant that I’d be able to jump right back into it. Right?

Well… not so much.

Puck is better at entertaining himself. But he’s still 2 and, like most 2-year-olds, still needy. (In fact, honestly, if his entertaining himself was enough for me to write, I’d have him checked for autism or some other pervasive developmental disorder.)

So what am I doing with myself during the six hours we’re alone together–other than our walks, playgroups, other activities, and chasing him off surfaces higher than himself? I’m networking. No, really. Stop laughing! I’m networking! Online! With sources and clients and other writer friends and readers!

Seriously, Maurice Broaddus talked about this recently. “Friends make things easier…. Networking isn’t about using or ass-kissing people, it’s simply about building relationships, for their own sake.” And it’s not, he wrote further, about goofing off; although anyone watching me sit in this chair, toddler on my lap, trucks between him and my keyboard, my hand on the mouse, would think otherwise.

What they don’t see is what’s going on in my head. I read blogs about social media and think how I can apply the subject matter to a column proposal. I read friends’ blogs, their updates on Twitter. I chat and IM, and what blessings those all are, the platforms I can use to dash off a quick note before Puck pushes my hands away. I can build relationships with people, not just prospective sources and clients, but the people who read my stuff, whether it’s for entertainment or education. The people who need what I have to say, in other words, the people I can help.

So no, not much deathless prose going on while I hang out with my 2-year-old. But in the grander scheme of things? Something much more deathless than that.

Love and horror

Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story didn’t resonate with me as much as his earlier works, namely The Shining and Salem’s Lot, but one thing that stood out was his great affection for his protagonist–not meant to be his wife Tabitha, but certainly based on her and his love for her.

At the time I read the book (shortly after its printing) I wondered what it would be like for love to inform fiction to that extent, to write a story meant as tribute (which I think, in some small way, The Shining was also–to fatherhood, if not specific children). The fiction I was writing at the time was very dark indeed, and as the year wore on, I had the sense of writing the same story over and over again. I think this was partly what led to my “block” during the spring and summer of this year–this feeling, and the desire to change it.

In the last few weeks, I got back to writing fiction. And was surprised, when I returned to an old and already-published piece, to realize that I don’t think I could have written it today. Just as I don’t think I could have written this month’s story last year.

The difference? I think this year, I developed a greater appreciation for the people in my life. Last winter was brutal on many different levels–cold, snowy, and worst of all, isolating. I had two young children home with me (the younger of whom couldn’t yet walk well enough to enjoy playing in the snow) and no real adult contact; I didn’t feel lonely or depressed, but when I got back to work in the spring? I felt alive again. Work led to new friendships and, in turn, the realization that strong attachments were the difference between burnout and fulfillment. (Sadly, Rain Dog is experiencing job burnout for just that reason.)

So when Hamlet inspired me to write a story about a little boy who figures out how to “turn werewolves into pussycats” (his words!) I finally got to write a story informed by love. It won’t be published for awhile yet–I need to find a taker–but it was a lot of fun to write, and I hope it will make him proud someday. More importantly, I think it represents a turning point in my fiction, one I am looking forward to exploring during the coming winter.

Promos for my peeps

I can never figure out whether to lead with my own stories, or end with them. Psychologically, what does either choice say about me? What if I buried my self-promotion in the middle?

All right anyway. I have a new story, “Going Gandolfini,” at Demolition. Beware readers: it is one of my darkest. If you don’t mind being shocked and depressed, especially by the end, please read. I’m sure new dad Bryon would appreciate the traffic. While you’re there, read the other good offerings by Kieran Shea, Nathan Cain, and Doug Perry.

Speaking of new dads, I want to share info on two blogs I recently discovered via Twitter. Christian author Tricia Goyer writes about parenting advice for Gen X at Generation Next Parenting, while Dad-O-Matic gives some great insight into the mind of the men in your kids’ lives – dads, stepdads, dads no longer living with kids, dads of toddlers and dads of teens. It has become one of my favorite daily reads thanks to Chris Brogan.

I also want to promote my friend and neighbor’s creations. Aimee recently joined Twitter to promote her SoBenArts bibs and other hand decorated baby items, available on Etsy. Go visit her and buy her stuff!

And finally, I would never have known it was Blog Action Day if not for Taxgirl Kelly Phillips Erb. Read her poignant post, then figure out what you can do for the poor. Back in December I said my New Year’s resolution was to spend $10 or so a week to buy things for our church’s food pantry – the things food stamps don’t cover. And you know what? That’s the only resolution I’ve ever kept for this long. And how much more important it is these days!

UPDATE: Stephen Blackmoore snuck a good one in after I wrote this, but his post about a sudden rash of foreclosure-related suicides (and murder-suicides) is one of the major reasons I admire him. What can you do for friends and neighbors facing financial woes?

Reading Brian Solis’ “The Socialization of Your Personal Brand,” this jumped out at me:

It’s been said that Google is the new resume. Truth be told, any search engine, whether social or traditional, is the resume – it’s the Wikipedia entry for the rest of us. It’s no longer what we decide to curate onto a piece of paper or onto one traditional one-page digital resume. It really is moot in a world when anyone can practically piece together your story without the help of a document designed to shape and steer our perception.

“Seventy-seven percent of recruiters report using search engines to find background data on candidates. Of that number, 35 percent eliminated a candidate because of what they found online.”

— Kevin Donline, Star Tribune Minneapolis, St. Paul, Minnesota

Not because it made me think about myself, but because it reminded me of an ethical question that’s taken me a long time to answer.

A few weeks ago, as my collaborator and I discussed potential article ideas, he brought up a friend of his. “Great investigator,” he told me. “Very knowledgeable.” And then he had to get off the phone, leaving me alone with my questions–and Google.

What I found frankly shocked me. My collaborator has an excellent reputation as an investigator and trainer. His friend, however, had been brought up on an infraction: supplying alcohol to a minor. He’d pleaded no contest, paid a fine, and resigned from his position at the police department he worked for. The defense attorney representing a pair of individuals took that infraction a step further, however, insinuating that an inappropriate relationship existed between this detective and the minor, a police Explorer in the same department.

I fired off an email to my collaborator: “Tell me there’s another side to this story.” There was. The detective and the Explorer had participated in a sting which resulted in the arrest of a liquor store proprietor. When it was over, the detective bought her something to drink. She picked an energy drink–one that contained alcohol. This was before the demand to repackage alcoholic energy drinks, so neither of them noticed the problem. “I would’ve done the same thing,” my collaborator said.

In the ensuing investigation, “energy drink” became “beer,” and the friend’s union rep gave him what my collaborator called bad advice: to resign before he was fired (a probably unlikely scenario). The friend went to another agency, had no problem getting hired. And the lawyer’s claim? Well, apparently, that was just a defense attorney doing what a defense attorney does best: using any trick available to introduce reasonable doubt.

The problem, of course, is that this presented one hell of a trick. Because it didn’t just affect that case. It also affects my ability to use this investigator as a source. Not only do I have only two sides to a story; anyone else Googling this man’s name (say, to get his contact information) will find what I found.

This makes me contemplate how even the most innocent of interactions can be blown out of proportion. And how the most devious of intentions can seem so innocent. (Think pedophile asking a child to help him look for a lost puppy.) Ultimately, I don’t think I can use this guy as a source. I hate to say that, because I do trust my collaborator’s judgment. Yet even he, not privy to the full investigation, doesn’t have the whole story.

He understands my dilemma, tells me it’s okay. (This is not the first time we’ve dealt with ethics; the reason we call ourselves “collaborators” is to continue our close working relationship more easily than “a source who became a friend” would explain.) Still, though I’m doing my best to be responsible to my publishers’ reputations as well as my own, it doesn’t feel too good to think I might be perpetuating a stain on an otherwise good cop’s reputation.

Had this happened to my collaborator, incidentally, the reader Googling his name would find very different results: news stories about the infraction, and the sheer amount of training he’s done, not just for other cops, but also for community groups and business leaders. It would, in other words, give the reader a hard reason to stop and think about the cop he’d otherwise be so quick to judge.

Solis is right when he says, “Indeed, there are many stories that fuel the urgency for everyone to take control of their online persona.” As I start my own personal branding efforts via various social media, I wonder to what kind of writer, mother, human being people see. And the extent to which what I do online makes as much difference as what I do off. How the two complement each other, and how they contradict. I’d like to think that the online isn’t very much different from the off.

And you? How do you come across to the people you love and the people you serve? How much does it matter to you?

Like many severe introverts, I was bullied in school. My girl-peers picked on everything: my clothes, the way I talked, the way I acted or in some cases, didn’t act. I should have had glasses sometime in third grade, but it took a year for my parents and teacher to find out how bad my vision was because I didn’t speak up. I was too afraid my glasses would get me teased. (They did, but not for as long or as severely as I was afraid of.)

What I don’t talk about much, however, is the fact that I was also a bully. Crap rolls downhill, kick the cat, and so on: when I got home, I brought all the lovely lessons I’d learned with me, and took them out on my little brother–who was also getting it at school from his own peers.

Years later I apologized to him for it, and while I can’t say we’re friends now (our interests and personalities diverge greatly), at least no more bad feelings exist between us. But bullying always strikes a chord in me, so when Chris Brogan tweeted this press release courtesy of Dad-o-Matic, I knew I had to blog about it, too.

Why were my brother and I bullied? In large part, I think it was because we were so different from our peers. We moved around a lot as kids–my father worked as a civilian for the federal government, and we moved on the same 2-3 year schedule as many military families–so we were never “of” a neighborhood the way our peers were. And we came from a nonconformist family. Our parents never wanted us to have Reebok sneakers or Jordache jeans or play with Cabbage Patch dolls “because everyone else had them.” And while I’m glad to be able to think for myself now, then it meant just so much heartache. I’m also not convinced that following fads always means a life beholden to groupthink.

I have to wonder, too, whether bullying is the reason we are both socially challenged. I still struggle with how to talk to others and what to say. I’ve been accused of being too cold and indifferent, as well as shooting off my mouth. I overthink and overanalyze every little thing, and the people who tell me I worry too much don’t seem to get that I live in a constant state of fear that I will lose their friendship or their business because I just. Don’t. Get it.

I’m happy to say that I’ve noticed no signs of bullying in Hamlet’s life. He’s loving and kind to his little brother–we do work to instill the Golden Rule in them both–and although my brain often freezes over when I find myself having to coach him through a social situation on the playground or in school, he seems resilient enough that other kids just don’t think to bully him. So far, so good.

October 5-11 will be the Third Annual National Bullying Prevention Awareness Week. PACER, an organization designed to improve the quality of life for children with disabilities, has some great resources for students, parents, and teachers at its website. Take some time to look them up. And please read two articles I wrote for Law Enforcement Technology in April 2006; you can find them here and here (and if you know any school resource officers or Internet crimes cops, please pass them along). Even as I try to navigate the new world of social media for my business, many many children are on its bad side, peers using the Internet to make their lives a living hell. In other words, no longer is bullying confined to school; it’s in the home now, in kids’ heads 24/7. I can only imagine what my and my brother’s lives would have been like if we’d had to deal with a constant barrage of messages “proving” our lack of worth. Therefore, bullying prevention has never been more important.

This week was Banned Books Week. Looking at the list of the top 100 most frequently challenged books between 1990 and 1999 – the years I was in junior high, high school, and college, some of those most formative years – I hadn’t realized how many had been “challenged” that I had read on school lists: Bridge to Terabithia. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. My Brother Sam is Dead. And then I noticed two other titles: A Wrinkle in Time, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

During the fall I spent sitting in our recliner, almost constantly nursing a refluxy and cranky Hamlet, I read a lot: books I’d never read before, books I wanted to revisit, and old comfortable favorites. Those two met the last category. And as I read them, I was struck by their content. It became clear how much they had formed me–my world view, my politics, and my religious faith–and how much they continue to form me. Even though they are commonly seen as “coming of age” books, don’t we all continue to “come of age” throughout our lives, as spouses, parents, and grown children ?

The interesting thing about the challenged books list is that it isn’t just conservatives or liberals who try to ban them: it’s both sides. Little Black Sambo is “racist”; Heather Has Two Mommies promotes “unacceptable” lifestyles. What both sides fail to recognize is that books simply reflect, not form, the culture that produces them. They are snapshots of who we were as a people at any given point in time. So to ban them is to homogenize humanity, to deny ourselves and our children our own history–the good and bad that made us who we were, and are; and the opportunity to learn how to be better people.

Have a controversial book in your community? Buy a copy for your children. Even if they aren’t old enough now, someday they will be–and it may just be the book that changes their lives forever.

Back a few years ago, I quit writing articles. I was burned out, feeling like a hamster-writer on a wheel of articles that changed from month to month. Something needed to change, but I wasn’t sure what. All I knew was that I’d lost the passion.

I wrote a few articles between then and now, but nowhere near the volume I’d been at. This year, though, as I start to build my business back up, I see what was missing: human connections.

Previously my model was this: have an assignment, research and contact potential sources, stress when I didn’t hear back, follow up, sometimes find new ones. From month to month, it was lather, rinse, repeat.

Not until I reconnected with my now-collaborator did I start to get a clue. It wasn’t just because he’d kept in touch with me over the years and we’d built up a rapport. As he connected me with his contacts, I started to see how he incorporated humanness into his work.

It only starts with doing a good job, being someone whom everyone else can trust with work. The rest of it is about being a good person: asking about other people’s lives, sharing values. That’s how we came to be friends. And it’s a key component of Chris Brogan‘s advice about building professional networks.

As I move forward with my revitalized freelance career, I’m focusing on relationships, seeking out people with whom I can have long-term contact. I didn’t think about this before, but when I was dating – and even as a friend – I was, and am, extremely picky. I don’t want to waste time trying to bond with people who will end up being transient in my life, about whom I can sense this transience right from the get-go.

I’m sure I’ll continue to talk to people who will indeed be short-term contacts, but they won’t be the bulk of my business anymore. My core group, my collaborator(s) and their close connections, will be the people I’ll turn to first, the people I trust and – I hope, at least eventually – can use for a sounding board. As a freelancer, this might be the most important change I’ve ever made to my business model.