Day Eight: The damn books

UnknownHere’s Day Eight of the 30-day writing challenge Deana is forcing me to do.

Day Eight: A book you love and one you didn’t

It’s tough to narrow it down to one book I love. I have several, and each of them made me slam them shut and say, “Damn! I want to DO this.”

Writers like to say they write for themselves and no one else–that they’re letting out their feelings and personal truth, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

We’re lying when we say that. It sounds deep and nice and all, but it’s not the least bit true. And Stephen King was the first writer I read who admitted that it was a lie. I’m paraphrasing, but, in his one of his many non-fiction pieces where he discussed his writing, he said: You write to have an impact on an audience. You want to control them and make them feel things. You want to dazzle them with your craft, overwhelm them with emotion, cross them over with a plot twist, but through it all, you want to impose your will on an audience.

I had a drama teacher in college who said something similar about acting. She talked about playing the Rat Queen in the school’s production of the Nutcracker each year, and how, for weekday matinees, they’d bring local elementary schoolchildren in on field trips. She said that, right before her scene, she would peek out from the side of the stage. “I want to see them all sitting there, with their little legs dangling off the seats,” she said, “and think, ‘I’m gonna scare the SHIT out of them.’ ”

I know the feeling, and Stephen King was the first writer to make me feel it. It wasn’t the scary scenes of his books that had the biggest impact, it was simple phrases and words. The first sentence of his that made me slam the book shut and say “Damn!” was in Pet Sematary.

Midway through the book, King wrote a scene about a father taking his toddler (named Gage) to the park to fly kites. He closed the chapter with, “And Gage, who now had less than two months to live, laughed shrilly and joyously.”

Bam! Just an open-handed slap to the face of the audience.

You can knock someone out with a jab, if you time it and place it perfectly, and that’s what King does here. We’ve gotten to know this young family, and that’s how he breaks the news that the kid is going to die.

He did it in The Shining and The Stand too–just grabbed ahold of his audience and took them where he wanted them to go, using whatever it took–jabs, body blows, wild left hooks. It’s just mind-boggling. How can you NOT want to do that?

Then there was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. That was the book that explained to me what writing was. I read it early in high school, and up until then, I had spent my time learning the rules of writing–how a story needed to be structured, what you were supposed to do, how it was all supposed to work. And then Heller broke every rule.

Catch-22 is a glorious mess of a book. The characters talk in circles and the timeline is a muddled mess, and through all of that chaos, an organized, coherent narrative, with strong opinions on everything from war to bureaucracy to capitalism emerges.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”

It doesn’t make a bit of sense … and yet it’s utterly brilliant. The rules are great, but writing really takes off when you break them for a reason.

More recently, Michael Lewis has been the writer that makes me slam the book shut. When I speak at schools, I always open with this (abbreviated) scene from The Blind Side, where Lawrence Taylor breaks Joe Theismann’s leg.

From the snap of the ball to the snap of the bone is closer to four seconds than to five. One Mississippi … Two Mississippi … Three Mississippi … Four Mississippi: Taylor is coming. From the snap of the ball Theismann has lost sight of him. He doesn’t see Taylor carving a wide circle behind his back; he doesn’t see Taylor outrun his blocker upfield and then turn back down; and he doesn’t see the blocker diving, frantically, at Taylor’s ankles. He doesn’t see Taylor leap, both arms over his head, and fill the sky behind him. Theismann prides himself on his ability to stand in the pocket and disregard his fear. He thinks this quality is a prerequisite in a successful NFL quarterback. “When a quarterback looks at the rush,” he says, “his career is over.” Theismann has played in 163 straight games, a record for the Washington Redskins. He’s led his team to two Super Bowls, and won one. He’s thirty-six years old. He’s certain he still has a few good years left in him. He’s wrong. He has less than half a second.

At that point, I close the book, look at the class, and say, “Damn! … Damn!” Dude is writing about sports and can do it like that. How can you not want to do that?

As for the second half of the writing prompt, about books I don’t love … there are plenty, but damn … I can’t think of them right now.


30 day writing challenge: Day Seven–Inked up

As I’ve mentioned a few times, Deana is making me do this 30-day writing challenge, because a month of writing prompts makes everything better. Or something.

Today’s prompt is a fun one, though, and I’m sure I’ll beat Deana with this one.

Day Seven: What tattoos do you have, and do they have any meaning?

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 10.18.16 PM

I have one tattoo, on my left shoulder. I got it two years ago.

It’s the Chi-squared Goodness of Fit test.


I’d talked about getting a tattoo for years, but I was never really sure what to get. Then, after going through several relationship and job-related troubles, I decided it was time to do something permanent, to celebrate coming out the other side.

My sister and I had actually gone out a few months earlier to get tatted up, but, considering it was a holiday (I can’t remember if it was Black Friday or Christmas Eve), the tattoo place was closed.

I was living in an apartment, and I commented to my friend Catherine that everyone at the pool had tattoos, but none of them were interesting. I didn’t want any Chinese characters or tribal designs. Knives and snakes and skulls are all, of course, awesome, but I wanted something unique.


That’s where the Chi-squared Goodness of Fit test comes in.

My degree is in math. My graduate degree is in Operations Research. I used the Chi-squared Goodness of Fit test extensively in my Masters Thesis. Then I switched careers, and sides of my brain, and had to leave Chi-squared behind. It was time to bring it back.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell any of you what the Goodness of Fit test is, but just in case:

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 10.28.48 PM

In English, you have a whole bunch of data, and you have to figure out whether it has any type of organization. Chi-squared is a way to test for statistical significance. It involves creating categories and testing to see whether the data falls into categories the way you’d expect it to. In other words, does the data you see fit the way you expected?

Since things weren’t always fitting the way I expected in my life, it seemed like a good parallel. Plus, the Chi-squared distribution is a little bit skewed, which also fits me, and it’s only as strong as its degrees of freedom, which was also something I was becoming acquainted with.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 10.00.21 PMSo I told Catherine I was ready to get my ink. We chose a non-holiday, just to make sure the place would be open.

She took me for a beer first, thinking that might be necessary to get me to go through with it, but there was no turning back at that point.

I handed the tattoo artist a copy of the Chi-squared Goodness of Fit test. He looked at it and asked me, “What is this? Like the formula for crystal meth or something?”

I told him no, and he looked disappointed. I believe he might have kept the piece of paper, just in case I was lying.

It didn’t take long–much shorter than I’d expected–and it didn’t hurt anywhere near as much as I’d thought it would.

And so I now am the proud owner of perhaps the only statistical significance test tat in existence.

ItFullSizeRender-3 got me some puzzled looks at the pool, but I didn’t care.

At some point, I’ll pay tribute to the other side of my brain and get an inkwell tattoo on the right shoulder, but I’ll wait until I feel the strong need.

Until then, I think my one and only tattoo is a pretty good fit.

Getting caught up


OK. I promised Deana I would do this (stupid) 30 day writing challenge. That was five days ago, and I’ve done one post. So, I’m going to cram five days of writing into this one post. Buckle your seat belt … here we go:

Day 2: Your earliest memory.

Memory is a funny thing. I remember when my mother was eight and a half months pregnant with my younger sister, and a drunk driver hit my parents’ parked car, while they were in a restaurant having dinner. My mother had to be held back as she screamed at the driver, who was strapped to a gurney and being loaded into an ambulance at the time, asking how they would be able to drive to the hospital now that he had ruined their car. I remember this, even though I was three and a half at the time and home with a babysitter. Still, I can see the scene plain as day.

I also remember when my dad and Uncle Nick were driving through town and saw a police officer struggling in a fight with a suspect. They pulled over and joined in the fight, helping the officer to handcuff the guy. And even though it occurred several years before I was born, I could show you exactly where the fight went down. I remember the old car that backfired so badly, that my mother had to keep a few of my diapers in the back seat, in case to use to extinguish the occasional engine fire. Clearly, I couldn’t possibly remember that, if I was still in diapers.

That’s how families are: You hear stories and legends told so many times that, eventually, you don’t remember which ones you were there for and which ones you missed.

My daughters could tell you what song was playing in the labor room when their mother and I were sent home and told that the pains were false later. Our first daughter was born a few hours later, after a wild ambulance ride back to the hospital. (It was Macy Gray, and the doctor said, “We need to stop playing this music or it will make the babies scared to come out.)

They remember me using rubbing alcohol to set the dorm room bathroom floor on fire in college, even though it was years before they were born. They remember lullabies (Hey Jude) and climbing out of cribs and Aunt Wendy feeding them bread, because we were too timid to try solid food, sure that they would choke.

Day 3: Discuss your first love and first kiss

My first love … well, crush … didn’t end well. There was some miscommunication, and I take the blame for what went wrong.

It was second grade, and her name was Heather B. (There were two Heathers in the class, hence the need for a last initial.)  I don’t remember much about her. She was small (for a second grader) and had light-colored hair. I’m guessing she had pretty eyes, because I’ve always been a sucker for eyes.

After giving it some thought, I decided I would make my move with a Christmas card. For my birthday in October that year, someone gave me a “color your own Christmas cards” kit. I colored one for my best friend Rob, and one for my grandparents, and then designated various cards for select aunts and uncles. I held one out, however–the best card–for Heather B.

When you’re wooing females, self-scouting is critical. I knew this even as a second grader, and I had a major problem: I’m not that strong a colorer. I found it tough to stay in the lines–I still do. And I also frequently had little patches of white in the areas I was supposed to be coloring, because my attention to detail was lacking.

Basically, coloring is stupid, is what I’m trying to say.

I turned the problem over in my mind and came up with a potential solution. Bear in mind I was in second grade at the time. I would color the entire card black. It was a bold statement, and the color choice would make her less likely to notice the little flaws in my craft.

Not what it looked like

Not what it looked like

So I colored a black Christmas tree, with black ornaments, a black star on top and black presents beneath. “To Heather B.” I wrote in shaky black letters. “Love Shawn.” I then put it in an envelope and wrote “To Heather B. Love Shawn” on the outside as well.

For two months, the card sat on my dresser. Finally, on the last day of school before Christmas break, I put it on her desk.

This is when the miscommunication took place.

A short time later, she came up to me, holding the card. “Did you make this for me?” she asked.

I looked at her, looked at the weird black Christmas card she was holding, and there was only one thing I could do.

“Nope,” I said and walked away.

Day Four: 10 interesting facts about yourself

1 .In high school, I accidentally accepted someone else’s award at a school-wide ceremony, because I thought they called my name.

2. I once memorized “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” for an English class.

3. I shook hands with Bill Clinton when he was standing all by himself on our college campus while campaigning early in 1992.

4.  I voted for George W. Bush three times (I lived in Texas when he ran for governor) and he sends me Christmas cards.

5. I built a computer model to determine how long you would have to wait on hold when you called your credit card company’s customer service department.

6. I’ve been golfing once, and sliced a ball into the Pacific Ocean.

7. I was escorted out of a former job by security.

8. I was a finalist for the reality show “Faking It.” They wanted me to try to go to Vegas and learn to be a Chippendales dancer in 30 days, but they ended up picking someone else (although I can still do the “tip over a chair with my foot & ride it as it falls” move)

100_48269. My first new car was a magenta Geo Metro convertible. The first person that saw it said to his daughter, “Look, honey, it looks just like your Barbie car.”

10. I hate food with bones or shells, because it’s just too much effort, and I’m always afraid I’m going to bite into a piece of bone/shell, which makes it impossible to enjoy.

Day Five: A place you would live but have never visited.

lionheart_catamaran_1As many of my close friends know, when the going gets tough, I’m ready to go to Costa Rica. I’ve never been there and know nothing about it, other than the fact that there are beaches there, and I could probably get a job as a catamaran captain (even though I’m afraid of boats and water) and just live on the beach, hiding from my old life, while the natives and tourists keep a respectful distance.

I’d wear unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts and live on pineapples and rum. I’d grow a scraggly pony tail that I’d tie back with a scrunchee.

Day Six: Someone who fascinates you and why

Kassim Ouma.

He’s a former boxing champion that I had the privilege of covering. He was born in Uganda and kidnapped by the National Resistance Army at age six. He spent five years as a child soldier before he became an amateur boxer. He made the 1996 Ugandan Olympic boxing team but was couldn’t afford to attend the games in Atlanta.

Later, on a trip to the United States with Team Uganda, he defected. He was a wanted fugitive in his home country and supposedly would be arrested immediately if he ever returned. He claimed that his father was beaten to death as retaliation for his crime of leaving.

After surviving five years as a soldier in Uganda’s civil war, Ouma arrived in Florida and was promptly shot twice. He recovered from the injuries and became a boxing champion.

ouma-phillips12When he was fighting in main events, I once wrote, “No one loves what they do as much as Kassim Ouma loves his job.” Despite his brutal, tragic childhood, Ouma was the happiest person I’ve ever met. Joy seemed to radiate off of him, during interviews, and even in the ring. He would smile ear-to-ear at the end of rounds, seemingly wanting to hug his opponent for giving him a fun three minutes.

I remember on a conference call one time, someone told him his life would make a great movie. Ouma promptly gave everyone on the call his cell phone number, in case they wanted to be part of the movie. He was open and trusting and saw no reason not to give a few dozen writers his personal number.

Since his retirement, Ouma’s life has taken some interesting turns. He once struck up a conversation with a man in a bar and accepted the man’s invitation to come back to his house and have a drink, which seems completely in character for Ouma. The man then made several passes at Ouma, attempted to sexually assault him, and Ouma was arrested or knocking him out.

Ouma also made a return to Uganda in recent year. He wasn’t arrested as soon as he set foot on his home country’s ground, but a warrant for him was issued in the United States, while he was gone, for missing a court date on drug charges.

Everything about his life seems to be a contradiction, which fascinates me to no end. Someday, I’ll finish that screenplay. Hopefully he won’t have changed his number.

Five problems with social media

So Deana is making me do this 30 Days of Writing project. We have a different prompt each day which is supposed to help fill the internet with joy and insight. Or something.

Let me just say that I hate writing prompts. Coming up with an original idea or angle is an important part of writing. Why do most American Idol contestants fail? The number one reason cited is “song selection”. Writing prompts are the song selection of the craft. Idol would have been a very different show if they said, “This week, everyone has to sing Mele Kalikimaka.”

But Deana said I have to do it, so, with my objection registered, here’s my crack at topic number one: Five problems with social media.

OK, let me just also say that this is a terrible prompt. Not only are you telling me what to write about, but your big idea, to spur creativity, is a Buzz Feed article? You’re leaving out the click bait portion though. Today’s prompt is actually Five problems with social media that will cause your JAW to DROP. And you won’t BELIEVE number four!

Did I mention I don’t feel well, and I’m not in a good mood? Also, I don’t believe I’m being paid for this. Let’s get started.


IMG_7232Ohhhhh my gawd! Did you see that??? Un-friggin-believeable. GAAAAAAAA!

Sometimes Twitter is a party you weren’t invited to. And when it is, it’s awfully tough to figure out what you’re missing.

I assume from the cursing and capital letters on my timeline that Daniel Murphy just hit another home run.

Last Saturday, I was in the Kenan Stadium press box when suddenly it became clear to everyone present that …. Um … something happened in the Michigan game.

Think before you tweet. We get it. You’re excited. But does GAAAAAAA really add anything to the discussion? Can you maybe use your words to convey your excitement. I’m also not a big fan of the “this is so amazing that I’ve lost the ability to type coherently” brand of tweets. “K38f8$*%*#!” Yeah, that added a lot, Laugh Shack. Thanks for that.


  1. You Probably Think This Plea For Attention Is About You, Don’t You?

When Deana first invited me to participate in this exercise, I wasn’t sure if I’d have time. So, as anyone would do as a key first step in the decisionmaking process, I went on Facebook. “Facing a tough decision,” I statused. “What to do???”

When I found out it involved writing prompts, I went back to Facebook. “So frustrated right now!” I wrote.

It’s a simple rule. Share, or don’t share. That’s entirely up to you. But don’t half-share and force people to show they care by asking, “What’s wrong sweetheart?” “Praying for you!” “It’ll be okay.”

  1. Everyone you know is there.

Remember when you were in college, and you told your roommate, “You should TOTALLY meet my BFF from high school! You two would get along SO WELL!” And why did you think that? Because they both liked you. But then, when the big meeting finally took place, they were both like, “Yeah, you’re kind of a chump. And I don’t get any of these inside jokes. And the stories you two can’t get through without collapsing in laughter? They don’t sound that funny.” Yeah, that’s what Facebook is like. EVERYONE YOU KNOW IS THERE. That means your college buds, and your aunt, and your boss, and, depending on your age, your mom or kids (or, in my case, both). This is why you spend so long making seating charts at weddings—so these people don’t get too close to each other. And yet they’re all there, sharing their thoughts on your latest status update. That’s just a lot of fun, right there.

  1. Made-up Holidays

Hey hey hey… did you hear that it’s National Foot Rub day? That means that EVERY FREAKING PERSON ON EARTH has to go on Twitter and Facebook and try to say something original about foot rubs. Yes, even Arby’s has to come up with a way to tie their horse-meat sandwiches (I’m assuming, based on the name of the sauce they offer) to foot rubs. “Groans from a vigorous foot rub are wonderful. Groans from your car’s undercarriage are not. Get checked out at Meineke Muffler today!”

Pi Day. Star Wars Day. Back to the Future Day. Seriously. Just stop. None of it is funny.

Unless you’re giving out free stuff. You can tweet about how to get the free stuff.

  1. It’s all an intricate science

I’ve been to meetings at two different jobs this month where I was told the importance of reaching out to Twitter Influencers. You need to compile a list of the T.I.’s (as marketing consultants call them) and incorporate them in your tweeting.

Remember in the early days of Twitter, how people would write to celebrities and beg them for a retweet? That’s basically what “reaching out to Twitter Influencers” means. You want these influential taste makers to retweet your stuff, so all their followers will know you’re cool, and follow you too.

And how did these T.I’s get so I on T? Probably by following a formula laid out by a marketing expert. That’s usually how that works, right?

I remember, years ago, UFC champ Jon “Bones” Jones retweeted a link to my story on him and his football-playing brothers. I tagged him when I tweeted out the link, not because he was a Twitter Influencer and his followers could help my Social Media Reach. I did it, because I thought I’d written a pretty darn good story, and I thought he might like to read it.

I also benefitted from a number of Twitter Influencers (Ben Swain, Richard Averitte, Jim Young) when I moved to North Carolina and had to build an audience. But they didn’t start retweeting me because I compiled a list and systematically won them over … first by retweeting THEIR stuff and then by strategically tagging them in MY stuff. No, they thought my tweets were either informative or entertaining (or, on rare occasions, both), and, when I linked to stories, they liked them too. So they recommended me to their followers.

I know, what does quality have to do with marketing? My fault.