The last post I wanted to write today.

Before I start, let me start off by saying there is going to be quite a bit of vulgarity in this post, but I promise that all of it will be 100% justified. I'm writing this for me, to help me vent my feelings in the only way that seems to really work anymore, as well as for anyone that loved my sister in law Kim, so if you're offended by the awkward, angry emotions of others, feel free to skip this one.

My sister in law was taken from us today, and I really don't know how I'm supposed to feel about it right now. I'm writing this piece for two reasons. One, because I want to make some completely inadequate attempt to tell the few people that might know me but not her how incredibly awesome she was-the kind of awesome that nobody ever seems to fully recognize until it's gone, and two, I need to work through some pretty strong emotions, and I'm not someone prone to speaking about my emotions out loud. I feel like a rock star that can't be what everyone expects of them unless they're three sheets to the wind, except my keyboard is my alcohol.

Have you ever met one of those people that always seemed to have a smile on their face, even when they were in the middle of complaining about someone or something? Those people that seem to be having the time of their lives, no matter what might be going on at that very moment? My sister in law was a lot like that.

I'm not even sure as I write this if I am going to publish it. This is the third post that I've written about losing someone in my family over the past year or so, and I fucking HATE that I feel the need to write it. I feel like I'm using their passing as fuel to write, and that makes me feel like the worst kind of sub-human piece of shit, even though I've used their happiness as fuel from time to time as well. So maybe I'm more of a parasite than a piece of shit. Who knows.

I'm sure there will be people that will think that, there are always a few. I don't give a fuck what they think. I hate that every time I turn around lately, my family is shrinking. Maybe it's a natural part of being an adult, if it is, where is Peter Pan when you need his fruity ass? I know it's probably just that it feels that way, but you can't always help what you feel. I hate that the better I get at putting my feelings on paper, the worse I get at sharing them in any other way. I hate that a woman that would have been an amazing grandmother now will never get the chance.

I am sure there are people in this world that deserve to die, but Kim was not one of those people. She made the world better, in a thousand small ways that we won't even fully realize until the next time we come across them. That's the first part of this that bothers me-how it's not just today that we're going to miss her. It's going to be a little here, a little there, drawn out and hurtful in the way only this kind of loss knows how to hurt us.

Today, my brother repeatedly said, "You just don't know," and he's right, you don't. Any given heartbeat could be our last. We aren't promised another, but more often than not, we get one. That we continue to beat the odds, one heartbeat after another, can lull us into a false sense of security. We believe we will all live full, happy lives because most people do, to one extent or another. To believe anything other than that is madness. Believing that tomorrow will always look a lot like today allows us to function.

Shortly after, my father said, "We've had pretty good luck, no one in our family has really had problems with drugs, alcohol, or spent time in jail." And it's true. We're not a bunch of goody two-shoes. We don't go to church, we're not vegans or anything like that, but we try to be decent human beings. I think the underlying message in what he said was that bad things happen, and we've had less bad stuff happen to us than a lot of other families. Maybe it just feels like that looking back on it, but as I looked around, it sure felt like nobody really knew what to say. It was so unexpected, and it didn't really feel that it had sunk in yet for everyone. Sometimes you come to expect things to be good because they always have been, until something comes along to show you how little it takes to flip everything upside down.

We were all still able to find the some of the same things funny that we had the Sunday before, there was just one less cackling laugh in the mix. We all enjoyed sitting in the kitchen and eating as a family, even though there was one seat empty. We did these things, in part because we really didn't know what else to do, so we stuck with what we knew. It wasn't real just yet, though it's starting to feel so for me now that I'm home with my son, alone with my thoughts. I suspect it's a little more real for the rest of Kim's family and friends now as well.

She read my book, even though she doesn't normally read science fiction. She did it for me though, to give me her impressions before I went back to edit it. Just another day in a life full of her doing things for others. Everyone that gave her a fair chance got to know a truly great person. I don't throw around praise like that lightly. She always had a smile on her face, always. That's what I'll remember most about her.

As condolences roll in, I realize that so few of us know how loved we are until it's too late for us to hear. Her life was so much bigger than I ever knew, and I would see her at least every Sunday for our weekly family dinner, at every holiday and birthday, and even other times as well. She was working on a book, and we had spoken several times on that as well. In short, we hung out a lot. Every Super Bowl, the party was at her and my brother's house.

Before every Thanksgiving, she was there for "pie night", where the women would cook pies and make the things that needed to be made before the big day. She went through the Black Friday flyers with the rest of the family on Thanksgiving, circling things they liked and looking out for what everyone else circled for potential gift ideas. She was there on Christmas Eve, and again on Christmas morning. Now, she's not. Everything will feel different now, I'm sure, and there are at least four people in this world that are going to have a larger hole in their lives than I am.

Today, surrounded by family, I caught myself several times wondering where she was, because it hadn't really sunk in that she was gone. In that fraction of a second, I think she must have stepped outside to have a cigarette, before remembering that she had quit a while back because she knew they were bad for her, and she wanted to be around to see her kids grow up. It sounds like a cruel fucking joke to think about that now. I don't believe in a traditional heaven, but it's times like these that I wish I could convince myself otherwise. No thought would make me happier now than imagining her in kicking back on a cloud, wearing a white toga and chain smoking the menthols she enjoyed because they can't hurt her anymore.

I also feel guilty. Survivors guilt, I think they call it. I don't feel that my life brings enough to the table to justify her being gone and my still being here. I doubt I'm as good a person as she was. I also know I don't have a choice in the matter. I feel guilty that I'm even hurting at all, because I know her kids and husband have so much more right to be upset about than I ever will.

Then there's the guilt that I'm not crippled with sadness right now, because it feels like this isn't really happening. I feel that I should be inconsolable, but instead I feel like I will show up next Sunday to my parent's place for Sunday dinner, and she will be there wondering why everyone is so surprised to see her. But then my mind catches up to my heart, and I know that won't happen. I think that's the way these things work, they don't hurt all at once, they hurt a little bit every time you look for them and they're not there. Like I already said above, that's how this works-one little sadistic sliver at a time. It's dragged out for years, and for her kids, my nieces and nephews, it's going to last be like that for their entire life, and that's the part that is so indescribably unfair.

I know my brother loved her more than I have words to describe. During my divorce, I thought that kind of loss might have been worse than if my ex wife had died, because I had to watch her move on with someone else. I know now that I was a fucking idiot. My son gets to speak to his mom whenever he wants, even though they live on opposite ends of the country. I got to temper my loss of her against the anger of knowing that she didn't want me anymore. My brother and his children don't get that. They don't get an easy out. We have a close family, and we tend to circle the wagons well, even if there is not much we can do other than help make arrangements and provide distractions. We can't fill the hole they have now, not really. No matter how much we all wish we could scoop that poison out of their hearts and spread it over the entire family, it's still more metaphor than anything else. It's something they will have to face alone a thousand times over the next 30-40 years.

For a long time, they are going to look for her, to want to share something or ask for her advice, only to remember again that she's gone. Nobody ever leaves this world cleanly, but I almost wish I believed in a creator, so that I would have someone to direct my anger and hatred at for them. I can deal with my portion of her loss. I'm a grown up, but kids should never have to go through what they are going to have to now. I asked her youngest son today if he wanted to go outside and throw the football back and forth, just to do something different for a minute or two outside. I just wanted to try to take his mind off things for a few minutes. He didn't, but later on he asked his father to, which made me feel good. I know he didn't really fully understand what things will be like moving forward, because he's young. Conceptually, he understands, but in practice I think it's even more surreal for him than it is for the rest of us. When he came out and told his father, "She had a good run," I knew. He was just trying to put a smile on his fathers face, because that's what the rest of us were trying to do.

He was right, of course. She might not have had a run anywhere near as long enough as we would have wanted for her, but it was very, very good.

We all love you and miss you so much, Kim. I think you knew that all along, but it doesn't make it hurt any less to not be able to tell you to your face now. Try not to worry about the kids and Earl, if you can read this or read or hear the words of everyone that misses you, know that there are a lot of people here that love them and will do whatever they can to help.

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Book Cover Workshop Tutorial 02: Creating Paperback Spine Art for Createspace

Well, here we go again. I'm having alot of fun creating these videos, and I hope they will at some point prove useful for some of you out there. At this point, I'm just throwing them up, waiting to build a larger collection of them before I start trying to promote them or bring more attention to them. Right now I'm showing them to friends on here and social media, but I will make a more concerted effort to show them once I have more than a couple videos to show.

One thing I am toying around with is the idea of designing a fictional book cover once a month, from start to finish, and posting the video here. I know it's one thing to sit through 45 minutes worth of instruction on one aspect of book cover creation, and it's quite another to see something come together start to finish.

I might even take requests, if someone has a book cover that they are struggling with, so if they just want to do a limited edition of one of their stories but don't have the time to create a entirely new cover for it, let me know. If I use your idea for a video, I'll send you the finished cover in a format of your choosing, along with a release granting you ownership over it (giving you full legal rights to use it for whatever you want). If that sounds like something you might enjoy, drop me a message.

Alright, now on to this weeks tutorial. I wanted to tackle something a little simpler than the tattoo tutorial I did last week, so I decided to go with Spine Art. I'd go into more detail, but the video does a better job of explaining what I mean, and why it's important, so I'll just leave you to it. Oh, and if you watch it in HD, it's REALLY clear. Plus, it took hours to upload the 4.4 gigabyte video file, so if you're not watching it in 1080p, you're just wasting pixels, and a pixel is a terrible thing to waste. ;-)



So, as always, let me know what you think. I'm flying a bit blind here in regards to what everyone might find useful, so in the mean time I'm just going to continue to cover topics that I think are interesting, or that people might find useful.
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Introducing the Book Cover Workshop!


     After a few false starts, I've managed to finally get my YouTube tutorial channel off the ground. It's a chance for me to share the knowledge I've acquired working in computer graphics with the rest of the independent publishing community.

     For my first tutorial, I've chosen an intermediate difficulty technique to give you an idea of the kinds of videos that this channel will be filled with soon. Not all of them will require knowledge of 3D software, and I will always let you know which software is required in the thumbnail at the start of the video, so up front you will know which programs you will need to download to follow along.

     I will try to use as only Free and Open Source software in the tutorials, because there are great FOSS programs out there, and I didn't want to create tutorials meant to help indie authors save money by making their own covers, only to require them to buy software that might run over a thousand dollars.

     So, with no further adieu, here is the first tutorial, introducing a technique that will help you realistically wrap a 2D image around a simulated 3D space, and to combine them back together again into an image that you can then use in your covers.



     It runs quite a bit longer than I originally intended, but moving forward I will be including more introductory tutorials, and they will be in the 5-15 minute range. If there is anything you would like to learn, or if there is a aspect of book cover creation that you would like me to explore, feel free to drop me a message, either here, on facebook, or on the YouTube channel, which you can reach by clicking on the Book Cover Workshop logo at the upper left of this post.
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The importance of Fathers

Alright, this is going to be an unpopular view, but if I can ask everyone to read to the end of my comments before passing judgment, I think it will go a long way towards eliminating any offense that single mothers out there might feel, which is not my intent. There will be generalizations made, because what I have to say is a generalization, and constantly disclaiming every point I make is a waste of time. If you can't read something with the understanding that I'm not talking about 100% of a group, 100% of the time, stop reading now, and with the free time you will have gained by not reading it, grow up.

I believe we, as a population, are failing boys. I feel that we are not doing a good enough job of teaching them to be responsible people, and more importantly, I feel that we are doing a poor job of teaching them to be men. 82% of the male population is starting life off from a deficient position, and I'm tired of everyone patting each other on the back and telling each other how "strong" we are, and how great a job we are doing. If you think that a single mother can teach a boy everything they need to be a man, then you have never understood what it means to be a man. I assure you, it is more than a willingness to kill spiders and open pickle jars. When I say "be a man", I'm holding the ideal above being a decent person. Being a decent person is only a foundation towards becoming a good man, but there will be more on that below. A single mother is fully equipped to raise a decent person, and many of them do. But once the child reaches adulthood, and societal pressures are placed on their back, it's far too late to teach a boy the lessons that he will need to measure up and become successful.

I believe that it is important for all boys to have a father figure in their life. I believe that there are subtle, semantic things that only a man can teach a child, be they a boy or a girl. It doesn't have to be the biological father of that child, but they need to care enough to set a good example. As great as the millions of single mothers out there are, and as much as I respect what they sacrifice and give to their children, there are nuances to living as a man that they will never be able to teach, because at the simplest level, they are not a man. That doesn't mean they are inferior, it just means that society has not levied the same expectations on them as their son will encounter late in life.

A mother can no more teach a son how to deal with those pressures and expectations than a single father teach a daughter what it means to be maternal. Either can teach to love, and either can do their best to encourage morality and the pursuit of becoming a decent person, but neither can be great at knowing what the other will have to be. I was lucky enough to have a great father, someone who taught me everything I would need to know about being a good man. I just hope I listened well enough to be the same for my son.

A good father to a son is at best an example. The best single mothers will never be able to give a first person account of how to be a man, just as fathers will never be able to do a great job at teaching a girl how to become a woman. That's why I feel it's important to have a positive influence in a child's life that can guide them through the expectations of what society will expect of their gender, to a certain degree. As I said, it doesn't have to be their biological father/mother, but perhaps a trusted friend or a grandparent that steps up and helps pass on those nuances of life that the parent might not be aware exists.

We have made great strides in gender equality, and we have made great strides in equality for all sexual orientations, but we are not where we need to be yet. Our children will be expected to navigate the world as adults when they become of age, not the world that we will one day craft.

Your job is not only to instill your morals and beliefs in your child, your job is to prepare them to become an adult, to survive a world that will not always have you there to act as training wheels. It's like the anti-vax movement going on in this country. Parents are skipping vaccinations because they are listening to people with no medical training tell them that vaccinating their child will put them at risk of diseases, and parents believe it because there is a void of information when it comes to the cause of Aspergers and Autism. 

Now, we are seeing a resurgence of many diseases that we had thought to be wiped out a generation or two ago. Even when presented with this, these people would choose their pride over the well-being of their child. This is my fear. I was lucky enough to have an outstanding father, as well as many other positive role models growing up, that taught me how to be responsible and to be a man, and many of them are still here to help reinforce the principles I am cultivating in my son. I am a single father, and while his mother is still in the picture his time with her will be greatly diminished moving forward. I know it's important for him to still see his mother, because there are aspects of life that try as I may, I won't be able to do the best job possible of teaching him. That will mean helping out with plane tickets to make sure they don't ask him to change planes in a busy airport, and that will mean continuing to make sure that he has time with his grandmother and aunts, because you can never have enough positive influences in a child's life.

He is all that is important, not my pride, not my vanity. In the below video, several single mothers on the show "The View" take immediate offense to Terry Crews' insistence that there are parts of the raising of a child they will be unable to provide for their sons. I agree with what he is saying, but perhaps the finer details of his message could be refined further. Everything he describes, from the identity, to the security, etc. comes from the example set by a good male role model. A boy cannot look at his mother and see an example of a man that embodies what is being asked of him. They can see a good person, a good role model, but it's a little like learning how to cook a restaurant quality steak by watching videos of people cooking restaurant quality seafood. Sure, you might be able to stumble through it after a few dry runs- it's still food, but it doesn't inspire confidence in your ability to cook a steak by watching someone cook lobster.



We all need to get over ourselves. We need to swallow our pride, and understand that we are not able to provide 100% of what our children will need to grow to adulthood ourselves. If you are a single mother raising a boy, it is your responsibility to provide a good male role model in their life to help them learn what the world will expect of them. If you are a single father of a daughter, the same applies. Find time for them to spend with an aunt/uncle that you trust, or a grandmother/father, or even with an adult friend. Suck it up, acknowledge that you are not the bee-all and end-all for them, and provide examples of good people of both genders to show your child what they can become if they work at it.

Now we have reached the part of the post that might piss off a few people (of both genders), but I'm going to say it because it needs to be said. Don't worry, I will back up what I have to say with numbers. Given that birth rates "gender ratios are still around 1:1", and that 82.2% of custodial parents are women (meaning the child lives with the mother more than the father), out of 21.8 million children only live with one parent. Only 18% of the population is married (I didn't remove female same sex couples from this figure, because same sex marriage numbers are still statistically a minority due to the low number of states that support marriage equality, and the fewer number of same sex couples in general.), that means that roughly 9 million boys are not living in the same household with their biological fathers. 

The problem has progressively gotten worse, with historical data showing "that from 1900 until around 1970 about a quarter of American sixteen year old's did not live with both of their own parents. By the 1990's the proportion had risen to almost half."

By itself, that's not necessarily to say they do not have a positive regular male influence in their lives, but I'll get to that. This is just to frame the argument. 9 MILLION of the men growing up today are not seeing their fathers more than half of the time, a figure that is likely to grow exponentially, because the problem is more prevalent within poor areas of the country, and the poor areas of the country are expanding exponentially themselves.

Let that sink in before we move on. 9 million boys spend the majority of their life away from their fathers.

The divorce rate is back on the rise, the population is growing every year, and the number of boys that are being pushed into the world every year are more and more, while most are still loved and cared for, are not being shown what a responsible man even looks like.

Now, I will agree that it is most likely close to a 50/50 split when it comes to blame in the cause of a divorce, where blame can be established. Many more children are fathered out of wedlock, and even more are abandoned by their fathers, at a much higher rate than they are by mothers. Men are certainly a major contributor to this issue. But women are not devoid of blame. Many women are choosing to reward men with their time that are more exciting, and less responsible. It's the unspoken responsibility of being a single mother. Most single mothers wear their sacrifices as a badge of honor, (and they should, being a single parent is hard) but many of them have a "I don't need a man, I can do anything a man can do, and better" attitude that is a severe disservice to any boys they happen to be raising. It's a holdover of the women's rights movement, and I understand it because by and large, women can do anything a man can do. Each gender has it's predispositions, but when a boy grows up hearing a steady stream of bile for men from his mother, about how insignificant men are, he will grown up thinking that's what is expected of him.

How many times have you read, seen, or been witness to a woman with children choosing a man that makes her feel young again, or that looks good, over a man that will be a good role model for her children? How many are unable to break the routine of choosing men for them, as opposed to men for their children? The men are responsible for their own actions, but we have the choice to throw up our hands and say, "Well, it's HIS fault.", or we can take it upon ourselves to make sure that our children don't grow up just like them. Demanding that a child show their mother respect goes a long way, but I give single mothers the benefit of the doubt when I think that most of them have already been doing that.

So why is the number of incarcerated males so far beyond the number of incarcerated females? Are women just inherently better people? I hope you don't really believe sexism of that magnitude. All people are created equal, and given similar moral instruction and demonstration, they will become equivalently moral. There is nothing "broken" in the male chromosome, it is we as a society that are "broken".

We are failing them. The men in this country (in general) are not providing enough positive male role models for children, and the women are ( in general ) either ignorant of the importance of a positive male influence on their sons life, or bitter or arrogant enough to think they can provide all that their child needs to become a productive, well rounded member of society.

Both genders need to stop being so damn selfish, and start putting their children first again. No, the world is not ideal, and being a single parent is hard. I know, I am one, and I have my son 100% of the time. I know your struggle, and I'm not trying to tell you that you are doing a poor job. I'm trying to tell you (in general) that we can do better.

Men need to do a better job of fighting for their children, and being there for them even if they live elsewhere. The problem has gone on long enough that the court system has begun to arbitrarily give any children in custody disputes to the mother, unless the father can produce documented evidence that the mother is unfit or a danger to the child. This happens almost automatically, and for every successive generation that we allow it to continue, the problem will snowball. Men are seen as the more likely one to run out on their family, and perhaps we've earned that. If we ever want this world to improve, crime rates to go down, and to turn this country around, we need to be more supportive and educational to our children. We are not going to fix this world, they are the ones that will have to do it, but we can give them all the help we can before they have to.

Women need to do a better job of not rewarding irresponsible, narcissistic men. See them for what they are, and understand that your first priority is your children. If you have children, be there for them more often than you are at the bar, and don't bring men home unless they have proven to be respectful and decent. Every time you bring home a man that ends up treating you poorly and then leaving, you are teaching your son that it's okay. Hold men responsible for their actions. Make them walk the walk, so to speak. There is no rush to shack up with anyone, though I can understand how you might be looking forward to the help another adult in house would provide. There is much more weight on your mistakes here than there is benefit to your success.

The fascinating thing about genetics and breeding is that whoever holds the power in the "partner selection process" dictates what traits are carried on to the next generation. In humans, that honor is usually the woman's. There are certain pockets of thought in this world that think that the rise of women's rights is signalling the downfall of our society, or is more likely than not the cause of it's downfall.

I don't agree with that. As I said above, we are ultimately judged in this life by the character of our actions, not the color of our skin or who we choose to marry. I do think that, in a general sense, women are still getting their legs under them in regards to the rights they have won, since historically they have not had them very long. They're still figuring out what they want the world to look like, and in some ways are making choices that women in another hundred or two years will not. They are overjoyed by the right to choose their own partners in life, which they have historically not been able to do, that as a society (yes, women have circled the wagons in their way to have developed a society among themselves) they haven't settled into a set of criteria to look for when presented with the choice of finding a partner.

If you're a woman reading this, that last sentence probably pissed you off. Don't worry, men are still learning to deal with the social changes of this as well, and by and large, we aren't handling it well. We aren't used to having to pull our own weight in a relationship. We're used to coming home to a well cooked meal, a kept house, and a wife that has spent all day keeping up the domestic side of things so that we don't have to. For every woman that hasn't figured out what she wants (how many times have you heard a woman say that, be honest), there's a man that "just doesn't understand women", and as a consequence doesn't know how to treat them well.

That chivalry is still appreciated tells me that parts of the old way of living will always remain, even as men and women meander their way to equality. People still appreciate being taken care of, and having nice things done for them. They also appreciate respect, though they don't always hold it in higher regard over celebrity and a toned body (don't even try to lie if you do this, your actions speak louder than whatever excuse you can come up with).

If human society is going to come back from the precipice of failure, it will start with teaching the young to be better than we are, because most of us are beyond the point of no return when it comes to our ability to change. If we concentrate our attention where it can do the most good, in teaching our children to be worthwhile adults, with a proper perspective on life, how to treat people, and to behave, then eventually all of the numbers I've thrown around above will start moving in the other direction.

That means recognizing that we are not the center of the universe. That means understanding that our children are what is most important, and that means providing positive role models for them to emulate, an ideal for them to shoot for or surpass. That means recognizing that in our push to provide equal rights for women, that we don't neglect a generation of boys that will be expected to be men when the only examples they have to go on are great women.




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Commencement

Normally, around this time of year, millions of High School and College students are either about to go through a rite of passage, or already have/ I'm talking about graduation. I've listened to a few great commencement speeches, and it's always something I feel I'd enjoy doing. Well, I'd like to WRITE one, anyways. I have not the ego to stand in front of that many strangers and pretend that I have the charisma or wit to entertain and enlighten them when all they really want to do is get out of a stuffy gymnasium.

I have another four years or so before my son graduates High School, and not nearly enough fame or fortune to warrant being asked to speak anywhere, so what you read below is likely the only commencement speech I'll ever write, unless one of my stories require one. In that case, it will have to serve the story first, so this will only ever be the one that contains what I would say if I were given the chance to address a group of freshly minted adults. Knowing "me" as well as I do, it's probably wisdom best left on this secluded corner of the internet, because I'm not sure how well it would go over in a room full of academics and family.

I wanted to condense all of the advice that I have been saving up for my son, waiting for that day when he has to throw off the mortar of student and start making choices as an adult. So here it is, my first, and very likely only, commencement speech, written as a writing exercise to shake off a bit of "Writers Malaise", which is what Writers Block would be if it could only block you from writing anything good. I have a few pages of bad writing to dispose of, so I can't really call it a block.

The excessive comma's, italics, and parenthesis are there because I wrote it in the same poorly structured manner in which I would read it. That's my story, anyways.

Regardless, on with the show.


-------------

As I look at the group of young men and women behind me, I'm reminded of the time when it was my turn to don the cap and gown, walk down that aisle, and experience the eclectic combination of emotions that is commencement.

I had no idea what to expect, but I knew it was going to be a blast. At 17, as I was when I graduated High School, I hadn't seen enough of the world to know that the fun parts were going to be a lot harder to come by from there on out. Oh, they were still out there, but they weren't free anymore, I would have to earn them.

Mixed in among the congratulations from family and friends, there were plenty of warnings as well. Warnings about my future, what it could be, and what it should be. Like most people my age, I blew most of this advice off with a smile and a nod of my head, and it's right that I did so.

Not that the people giving me advice wanted me to fail, or that their advice wasn't sound. It was. Well, most of it, I'm sure. The reason I say that is that what was right for them, might not have been right for me. I thought I was a fairly respectful person, a well adjusted young man, if you will, and whatever the big bad world had in store for me, I wouldn't be able to prepare for it no matter what I did, so I might as well live my life the way I thought best, and clean up my messes as best I could when I screwed up.

I didn't expect to have all of the answers, but coming from a family well versed in the ability to improvise on the fly, to "figure it out" as I go along, I thought I was as well equipped as anybody starting off. I'd already learned that it's better to have tools than answers, and that's really what I'm trying to impart on you today.

Answers are all anyone cares about in public education nowadays. If you can pass the test, if you can produce the correct facts in the correct order, it is assumed that you are more intelligent than those that filled in the wrong circles on that sheet of paper.

I'm going to tell you a few shocking truths about the "Real World" while I'm up here, and this is the first one. Outside of education, nobody will ever hand you a sheet of paper and ask you to color in dots on a page. Not while you are stocking shelves at a department store, not while you are performing brain surgery, and not when you are laying concrete. It's a marginalization of the education process that even the teachers that are forced to administer them hate. Look at the teachers in the crowd, and tell me what you see in their eyes. Their bosses are sitting with them, so don't look for them to nod, but read their eyes.

That's another tool I'd like to pass on, probably the most important thing I have learned in my decade and a half on the outside- pay attention. I know, I know, you've got that bit down, right? You've been harassed into paying attention for almost two decades of your life. That's not what I mean, though. I don't mean pay attention as in listening to what someone is saying, to take the information from the board and from your teachers mouth and file it away, so that you can channel it into those lettered circles of the next test placed in front of you.

I'm speaking of paying attention to the details. Paying attention to the details will help you learn motivations, what people want. The main difference between this world, the manicured properties and carefree weekends of school, and the world outside these walls, is that here, people are paid to care about you. Sure, many of them care because they want to do their part in improving the world, and education is one of the best ways to go about that, but on the outside, people don't care about you, by and large. They care what you can do for them. I realized that during my first college class, a Biology lecture at the University of Maine.

I sat there in an amphitheater, surrounded by hundreds of other students, and the lack of support I felt was palpable. I remember thinking, "How is this any different than watching a movie, or reading a book, and then being asked to know it?" The safety net had been removed some night when I wasn't looking, and it was a bit of a wake up call. It did keep me from being more surprised when I would have been a few years later, when I was given a job, a minimum of training, and expected to make sure it got done.

I knew how to run the machine (assuming no problems arise), when to show up, and when lunch was, but other than that, I was expected to figure it out. Like I said earlier, I was raised with a baseline level of ingenuity, so I did manage to figure it out. I had a few jobs like that, early on, the kinds of jobs that will inevitably be taken by machines because they don't miss sleep, come in hung over, or otherwise make mistakes out of inattention. No doubt many of you will have jobs like that as well, if you're lucky. The rest of you will have to figure something else out, because most of those "horrible and under-appreciated" jobs are now being done elsewhere, by people who started out with less, and as a result will work for less.

Then, in a manner of speaking, I "graduated" to white collar work, where I was judged on what I knew and how good I was at getting others to "figure it out." In most ways, this was better, but not in every way. The blue collar work force is a lot like a sports team. You're stuck in a taxing situation, all given a shared goal, and everybody learns early on that it's going to take everything they have to get it done, so people making waves are dealt with directly because they make everyone's job harder/impossible.

In these jobs, "paying attention" means keeping your eye on the machine and your coworkers so that you don't get hurt, or cause one of them to. It's simple, but it's rarely easy. Eventually, fatigue or someone dropping the ball will cause someone to get hurt, they will reset the "This workplace has gone ___ many days without a lost time accident" board, and everyone will be a little more careful for a while.

In white collar work, it's less honest. I don't mean white collar workers are crooks, but there is less of the "team" atmosphere in most places. That's not a mark against any of the places I've worked, but it is a fair enough observation in general. Here, "paying attention means making sure that your good work is noticed, and that you notice the few people (there's always at least one) that will try to take you down a peg or two by claiming your work as theirs, or that your work is not as good as it appears to be, or by pointing it out when you inevitably fuck up.

And yes, everyone fucks up. (This is the part where I would likely be excused from the rest of my commencement address.) The goal is to do what you can to minimize it, and hope that enough of it slips through the cracks unnoticed for you to keep your job, or until you actually "figure out" just what the hell you are doing.

But it's not all bad. There is still fun to be had. I'm sure you've seen all of your adult friends on facebook talk about "being happy", like it's some secret bestowed on only a few. Anybody can be happy, and I've found the secret to be both incredibly simple, and incredibly difficult/impossible for some people. You want to hear it?

You do things that make you happy, and eliminate the things that don't.

That's it. If you enjoy painting your face purple and running through the field lathered in honey, go do that. If you enjoy helping out at homeless shelters, go do that. Happiness isn't all, "Everyone thought I was the prettiest/best looking person in the room, so I felt good about myself for five minutes, then went back to self loathing". It's a lot less complicated than that. It doesn't require you to be the best at anything, thought the world will try to convince you otherwise.

The world, and by world, I mean the media, reality television, and most of the people that care about either of them, need you to beat yourself silly trying to compete against everyone else. Reality TV, which has devolved into a ever broadening array of televised competitions, needs fresh starry eyed, egomaniacal fodder to operate each season. Thousands of people line up at America Idol tryouts, knowing that only one of them will win. And no matter how much you hear them talk about how happy they are to have reached Hollywood/top ten/finals/final three, they're still pretty damned disappointed when they fail.

Am I saying that we should stop competing? Absolutely not. What I am saying, is that somewhere along the way, we were taught that winning was the only way to be happy. If you fail, you're supposed to look up at all of the people who beat you in awe, and look at yourself in shame. We place so much emphasis on winning, most people think that if they don't win at something, they are a failure. So maybe it's not the competition that's the problem, it's our expectations. Expectations, in and of themselves, are fairly useless. The best you can do is meet them, or beat them slightly. Even when you're right, you're really just doing what you said you would.

"Type A" personalities are running things right now, but they tend to be pretty miserable for all they achieve. You might ask yourself, why would people that have achieved so much be so unhappy? I mean, they set out to do things, and they did them. Isn't that the very definition of satisfaction?"

You might be inclined to think so, but you'd be wrong. The problem is that Type A personalities are constantly driven. They accomplish one thing, they start looking for something else to conquer. It makes for great deodorant commercials, but if you're never able to satisfy yourself, to reach a level of contentment that will let you say, " You know, I'm at a really good place now, I'd be happy if I could just maintain this level of happiness the rest of my life", then you'll probably die with happiness being the only thing you haven't achieved.

That's probably my most important piece of advice. Stop to enjoy things every once in a while. Don't be one of those nomadic "Type A's", who have a hole somewhere in their soul that can never be filled. I don't care if the economy needs their mindless production because it itself is so horrible inefficient that the only way it can succeed is to continue to grow in order to hide all of the places where it doesn't work right. Yeah, ever wonder why the Government is so quick to bang the drum for more economic growth? That's why. The economy is a "Type A" personality, it can't function at equilibrium either.

Find things to enjoy, even if it's just a special lunch you packed yourself or a story you get to go back to once your job is over. Don't let your work define you, unless it's a career that you choose to devote your life to because it gives you happiness, like teaching. Find the little things that make you smile, and make sure you don't forget those as you wind your way through the world.

Stop to smell the roses,metaphorically as well as figuratively. Make something. Try new things in order to find the ones that you enjoy. And remember that the only "kinds" of people in this world that matter, the only distinctions that we should even worry about, are happy people, and miserable people.

The world has plenty of miserable people, and most of them don't even realize they are miserable. There are even different types of miserable people you will come across. Let me give you a heads up, so that maybe you can recognize them for what they are before they suck you into their unhappiness.

There are the grumps, people so obviously miserable that everyone spots them right away. They sound angry most of the time, assuming that everyone is going to do or say something to piss them off before they even have a chance to, because, well, more often than not their grumpy demeanor pushes people to treat them that way because both sides expect the other to be the asshole. It's an asshole snowball rolling down a hill, picking up steam. Push these people as far out of your life as you can.

Then, there are the deniers. These people appear happy, but eventually you will hear how the world is out to get them, how nobody helps them, and that no matter what they do, the only kind of luck they have is bad. These people are miserable because deep down, they think they deserve to be. Maybe they did something bad and feel the need to self-flagellate until Jesus (or whatever deity floats your boat/ark) tells you you've had enough. Maybe they just had a run of poor luck along the way, and didn't have enough support to dig themselves out before they started thinking that is just the way their life works. Once they lose the ability to see a life free of the drama/misery of their present existence, they become lost in their own snowball of misfortune rolling down a hill. They expect things to go wrong, so the good things that still happen don't have an equalizing effect because they are too busy waiting for something to go wrong. When it does, it feeds back into their expectations. These people will ask for advice, but rarely take it, because they think you just don't understand how hard their life is. Their life might be a lot harder than yours, but ultimately they are the ones that will have to choose to be happy, you can't do it for them.

And then there are the people that can't have anyone do better than them. You'll see many variations on this. From the people that fabricate wild stories so that everyone will be impressed with them, to the people on facebook bragging about how great their life is, hoping to cultivate jealousy sufficient to drown out anything that might compete with their accomplishments, to the people who treat every mundane part of their life like front page news, because they crave attention. Nobody can be the center of attention for long, and when their 15 minutes of fame run out, they spend the rest of their life trying to recapture it. The "Type A's" I spoke about earlier fall into this category, because nobody can keep up that kind of pace forever. There are people that relentlessly chase world records, because their drive to be the best is like a drug or Chinese food. Before long, they need more. Always more. Eventually, either the body or the spirit break down, and then they are left with unfulfilled expectations, breeding resentment.

The only way to be happy is to balance your accomplishments with a level of contentment. By all means, go out and attack life. Try stuff out, kick the tires. Don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, but also don't lose fact of what you're really trying to do with your life. You're trying to find some level of enjoyment from it. Somewhere between a hedonistic Las Vegas party and the two old people rocking their remaining years away on a porch somewhere.

Enjoy life, whatever form that might be, and don't set goals that are so far off that you can't make pit stops along the way to celebrate minor victories. Enjoy things because you understand that they are not owed to you. You are one of many, and that's okay. Your life will be better for it, and you will be surprised how little you miss the things you gave up because you decided there were other things you'd rather spend your time on.

So be happy. Do great things, but not because you owe it to anyone. Do them for yourselves, for the joy of discovery and the magic of selfish altruism. But most of all, enjoy the journey, I have it on good authority that you'll regret not taking the time to do so if you don't.

Thank you, and congratulations to the class of __________.



 


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Are you writing for the wrong reason?

I want to speak to everyone a bit about writing, and why I think a lot of us are doing it for the wrong reasons. No, I'm not accusing you of this, I'm merely floating a concept, though anyone immediately offended by the suggestion should probably skip the rest of this post, because it's only going downhill from here. 

Have you written a great book that no one has read, even though it's been on sale for a decade? Then most in the industry would consider you a failure. Now, I would argue that you didn't fail. You wrote a kick-ass novel. You DID your job. That most every author, independent or traditional, is taught to measure their success against the New York Times bestseller list is beside the point, which is that many of us are writing for the wrong reasons. Some of us write because the promise of wealth is just too tempting. That we are so damn special that once everyone else discovers it, they are going to buy everything that comes out of our gifted hands because, well, they should. We're awesome. Why wouldn't they? You do that because our culture is unevenly trained to respect a small number of elite at whatever metric you aspire to succeed against. It's the "lottery mentality". We sell ourselves on the long odds because all of those endless zeroes on the right side of the "1 in 10,000,000,000" aren't nearly as deserving of winning as you are

Some of us write for fame. They've grown up hearing about their favorite author, how interesting everyone thinks they are, and how they really just want everyone to respect them that much. I've fallen victim to this. I've struggled my entire life with a terminal case of "know-it-all-itis", and while I like to think I'm making progress, I'm really not capable of the proper perspective to say it with any sort of validity. Shit, just read this blog for a while, there's no doubt hours of proof of it. 

I had a friend say to me, not too long ago, that "You don't always have to be the smartest person in the room (even if you often are)" The parenthetical portion was included in the original quote, I didn't add it now. I have a ton of respect for this person, and while he was worried about me being upset with him over it, he needed to be reminded of two things.

A: I'm nearly impossible to offend. Seriously, I don't give a shit. Really.
B: I'm aware that I like to share the things I know, and that sometimes (despite an honest effort) it comes across as being smarmy. 

He knows me well enough to understand that I don't have an insatiable urge to be right, I just enjoy sharing stuff that I think is cool, that I read a lot, and thus have a lot of cool stuff to share. Stuff I accumulate while everyone else I know is busy having something called a "personal life" (whatever that is, pssh).

And it's this need to share things that drives my desire to write. It's not about getting rich, it's not about gaining notoriety, it's about that feeling you get when you show someone something they've never seen before, teach them something new, or help them shift their perspective a little so they can see the world in a new way. I can almost guarantee that I will never become rich or famous. I'm not wired that way. I spend money faster than I can make it. I give big, dumb gifts sometimes because it's fun. I won't be famous because I don't care to be so, and I seriously doubt that the writing ability I have is so profound that it will transcend my introversion. I'm not one of those people that walk into a room and am instantly the center of attention. 

I don't need that. It's like I posted recently on my twitter account, I don't want to be the one tasked with fixing the world. I just want to say my piece, and enjoy the show. (Yes, autocorrect totally boned me in the misuse of peace/piece in the original.) I want to write my stories without any pressure of financial expectations. I have written two, and will continue to write. I strive to improve because I want to write more entertaining stories, not because I think it will make me more money. I will keep my day job, unless lightening strikes , and despite my best effort to avoid it, I reach a point where I am making considerably more from writing than I do at my day job. 

I do this because I enjoy doing it. For me, that is the right reason to write. As far as I'm concerned, it's the only indefensible reason to devote as much time as I do to it. If you are doing it for fortune and/or fame, you might just get it. You might become rich, or you might become famous, but it won't last. The only way either of those qualities stick around is if they appear as a secondary result from doing something that you LOVE. Because you have to love it to do it enough to succeed. The love has to come first, because writing is such a poor investment for your time otherwise. 

It takes hundreds of hours to write a novel. Hundreds more to edit it, create the cover art (if you do your own), etc. If you do that expecting it to pay off with J.K. Rowling's checking account balance, well.....I won't even tell you how unlikely that is. You're better off dumping half of your paycheck each week into the lottery, and once you win, doing the same thing again and again. That's how long the odds are. 

Write because you love it, and any chance you had to achieve that will still be there. 

You can't force it. 

There is an entire cottage industry that has arisen around the independent publishing phenomenon. Thousands of companies wishing to teach you or help you build an online presence, to the point where you will spend more time peddling yourself online than you ever did writing. I'm not even arguing if these companies can even do what they tell you they can, I'm simply telling you that any time spend doing self promotion that is one foot outside of who you were when you are writing is not going to prove out useful. 

There are people out there that can do it. People so media savvy that they can manage ten social media accounts and appear omnipresent online. These people would be doing that even if they hadn't written a book, I think. It's who they are. It's who they were, are, and always will be. Yes, they make it look easy, and it makes you fucking hate them because you wish you could be that outgoing. You know they gain a profile faster than you for equivalent writing talent, will sell more books because of it, etc. 

Get over it. If you were meant to be that person, you would already BE that person. Stop trying to jam your square-peg personality into the round-hole of the internet. 

That's another piece of universally useful advice-be yourself. You are the best version of you you will ever find. Sure, in time, with appropriate levels of hard work and good advice from people you trust enough to put int practice, you will get better at being you, but if you weren't fairly close to being good enough before, you're never going to close the remaining gap. 

Does this mean you should give up? Never write another word? If you can actually do that, you weren't really a writer to being with. Every writer I've actually had a chance to sit down with and get to know has the same problems I do. They try to stop, but eventually the story ideas, the (fictional, mostly) voices keep piling up until you are forced to find a way to purge them onto something capable of recording them. How much money you can make or how famous they could make you don't really come into it. I've heard it called a curse, I've heard it called "your muse speaking to you", but whatever you choose to call it, it's a part of you. 

Money and fame aren't the reason you write in those circumstances. If you never feel that uncontrollable urge to write, and it's always been work to you, write news columns or magazine articles or something, because you really need to not be able to help yourself to create something from nothing, and writing is as close to that as there exists in this world. That blank sheet of paper when you sit down to start writing? Sure, it's scary, but if it's still blank because you're thinking of how awesome it's going to be once you become rich and/or famous, I think you can save yourself a ton of heartache and find a new hobby. 
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