Novel update

I’m having pretty good success with my new daily routine.

Things haven’t gone perfectly. One day last week I was coming down with a virus and took a sick day—no fiction writing got done. Yesterday’s bitter cold kept me from getting out to exercise—no walking, no lifting, and no taiji.

Today, things went pretty much according to plan. I had breakfast at 6:30, got to work at 7:00, and wrote until 8:30. Then I bundled up (still pretty darned cold) and walked to the Fitness Center, where I did my usual lifting and stretching, followed by about 25 minutes of qigong and taiji. I deviated from my schedule a bit, having an early lunch before getting back to fiction writing, but I did do two 90-minute sessions, which were both reasonably productive.

The novel’s word count has actually been soaring, because I’ve been slotting back in bits and pieces that I’d pulled out in a previous restructuring effort, now that I’ve got a better idea where they go. I’ve just about finished that phase, and it is almost time to settle in for the next major phase of writing new prose. (Which I’m all excited about, because that’s the fun part.)

Another attempt at a daily schedule

One reason I haven’t been more productive these past two years is that I’ve let my fitness activities consume the morning hours that are my prime writing time. I know that, and I want to free that time up for writing, but I’m loath to give up my taiji, because of the way it has been almost miraculous in changing my body for the better.

Five years ago I was starting to feel old. I could still do all the ordinary stuff I needed to do every day, but my spare capacity was shrinking. My balance and flexibility and strength and endurance were all less than they had been—and only just barely good enough. Any unusual stress, such as carrying something heavy up or down stairs, or moving across rough or shifting terrain, seemed dangerous. I had trouble getting a full night’s sleep, because my back would ache after lying still for a few hours.

Taiji (together with lifting) turned that completely around. I feel better than I’ve felt in years. I really don’t want to give that up.

The problem is, I’ve been devoting a huge chunk of each morning to the lifting and the taiji class, and morning is by far my most productive time to write.

Fortunately, I think I’ve figured out a way to deal with that. The key—and I’ve known this for a long time—is to start my writing first. Once I’ve had a solid writing session, taking a break for some exercise is perfect. After that, I can get back to writing. (Whereas I’ve found it very hard to start writing after a long morning of exercise.)

The way we’d been doing it, we’d do our lifting before taiji. We briefly experimented with doing the lifting after taiji, but I found that hurt my knees. (My theory is that the taiji tired out the small muscles that stabilize my knees, making them just a little too wobbly for heavy lifting.) This has been great for actually doing the lifting, but has meant an awfully early start to the day—too early to fit in writing first.

So, during the last week of December and the first two weeks of January, while the taiji class is on break, I’m experimenting with a new daily routine. I’m still tweaking it, but as currently sketched out, it looks like this:

  • At 7:00, right after breakfast, I sit down to write fiction, and work for 90 minutes.
  • At 8:30 I take a break and spend the hour from 9:00 to 10:00 engaging in some fitness activity: lifting or taiji. (Once the class resumes, I’ll do the class on days that it meets, and lift on the other days.)
  • Back home by 10:30, I write fiction for another 90 minutes, then break for lunch at noon.
  • After lunch I get back outside and walk again. Lately I’ve been using this time to play Ingress, but in the summer I may just walk, go for a run, or whatever.
  • In the mid-to-late afternoon, I may do a bit more work on some writing-related activity: Writing non-fiction (such as a Wise Bread post), revising stories, submitting stuff to editors, critiquing work for the Incognitos, etc.

I’m trying to be a bit more careful about social media, because of how easy it is to fritter away a whole morning reading stuff my friends have found interesting, without abandoning it. Right now I’m checking social media briefly before breakfast, then staying away from it until after lunch, then pretty much allowing unlimited checking in the afternoons.

I’ve been doing this for more than a week now (with the modification that on Saturday and Sunday I just do one fiction-writing session, rather than two). It’s going great so far—I’ve gotten several thousand words written on my novel.

I’ll keep you posted.

[The core of this post was originally written as part of my year-end summary of my writing. However, not being about my writing in 2013, it didn’t belong there, so I’ve pulled it out and made it a post of its own.]

Clarion 2001 poster

clarion-2001-poster-framedAll the writers who taught at my Clarion did readings at the Archives Book Shop, a local bookstore in East Lansing. To advertise the readings, the Clarion office folks printed up a poster with the names and dates. And, as one of our little perks, we each got a copy signed by all the writers (and by our special guest editor).

I’ve had this poster for more than 10 years now. I always meant to get it framed so I could hang it up, but it was one of many things that I kept not getting around to. But for some reason, this past week it suddenly seemed to be the thing to get around to next, so I did. I measured the poster, went to a local shop that sells ready-made frames in standard sizes, and picked up a frame the right size. It was just what I wanted (simple, black, wood frame), but instead of a proper hanging wire, had some crappy metal bracket for hanging the picture, so I also had to buy a kit with some screw eyes and picture hanging wire, but that was cheap.

It still took a couple of days to get it all put together—picture in frame, screw eyes in frame, wire strung between screw eyes—but now it’s done.

I’m pretty pleased. Maybe having it up will help inspire me to keep at my fiction.

Click through for a picture big enough to read all the details.

Writing in 2013

I’m kind of disappointed with my writing in 2013. I wrote less this year than any year since I quit working a regular job.

I don’t have any new fictions sales. Worse, I don’t even have any stories out, which is just dumb, because I’ve got some new stories that have not yet made the rounds.

I was less productive at my non-fiction writing as well, only writing 15 articles for Wise Bread. (Actually, I’ve written two more that have been turned in to Wise Bread, and that I assume will be published in due course.)

There are bright spots. I’ve got a novel-in-progess that continues to appeal. (Unlike previous novel attempts that fell apart after ten or twenty thousand words.) In the first half of the year, I completed two short stories (plus one in Esperanto). As the year drew to a close, I was back at work on my novel, writing every morning. It feels good. (I’ve started a new post about my new writing schedule, that I’ll post once I have a bit more experience with how it’s going.)

Here’s the list of Wise Bread posts for this year. I’m pretty pleased with all of these, even though there aren’t as many as I’d like. (Can you spot where the Wise Bread editors started rewriting all my headlines?)

 

Snowy day at Kaufman Lake Park, with coyote

Jackie and I decided to celebrate the snow with a walk around Kaufman Lake park—a walk that yielded more wildlife than usual. (There are larger versions of all these pictures except the one of the coyote, which is already full-size.)
Snowy scene

This spot is just 5 minutes walk from our apartment, part of the Greenbelt Bikeway, but on the other side of the Copper Slough from Kaufman Lake.

From there, we crossed the bridge to the ring road around Kaufman Lake.crossing the snowy bridge

After crossing, we turned right and did a circuit of the lake. The only picture I didn’t take and regretted was one right there. The road around the lake is not really narrow—there’s room for 8 or 10 people to walk side-by-side—but in that spot, with the brush that lines the sides of the path in the summer having been cut back, exposing the steep slopes down to the lake on the left and the slough on the right, it looked really narrow.

We saw a lot of wildlife on this walk. There was a great blue heron on the lake that I spotted from a distance, and then saw take off as we approached. A kingfisher landed on a tree just across the slough, then took off and flew down the length of the slough, giving its distinctive chattering call.

Best of all, though, we saw a coyote! The first one I’ve seen since we moved from Philo. (Not that they were common around Philo either.)Jackie looks at coyote

You can just see the coyote there where Jackie is looking, above and just to the left of the center of the frame. It was really too far away to photograph with my little camera, but here’s the best shot of the coyote that I got:coyote

That was probably the peak of the walk, but we were only halfway around the lake at that point. We proceeded around.

I got a couple of pictures looking back across the lake. Here’s one with Jackie:Jackie looks across the frozen lake

And here’s one taken later, looking back toward the bridge through some snowy branches:bridge from across the lake

At the point where the ring road reaches the south end of the park and curves east and then back north, there’s a little picnic area. I thought it was funny to see it buried in snow:snowy picnic spot

Just before we got back to the bridge and headed home, we passed the two fishing piers near the boathouse, and I got this picture of the sign which, if I remember correct, has the daily fish catch limits:fish catch limit sign

Again, I thought it was funny covered with snow.

As we approached home, I let Jackie walk in front of me, so I could throw a snowball at her. She seemed quite outraged that I’d do something so nefarious. And I can see that it would be a surprise. I’m not sure I’ve ever thrown a snowball at her before. If I did, it was probably 20 years ago. In any case, far too long.

She retaliated, as is only appropriate.

The other reason to raise chickens

Backyard Eggs
Backyard Eggs

So, the Champaign City Council legalized backyard chickens a while back. You have to file a form, pay a one-time fee, and get a notarized permission slip from your landlord (if you’re a renter), but it all looks quite doable. As I’d mentioned when I wrote about the issue before, this would have been a determining factor in my willingness to buy a house in Champaign, and now it isn’t. The fee isn’t cheap ($50), but figured into the cost of buying a house, it’s insignificant.

But thinking about the fee got me to thinking about why one raises chickens in the first place.

Probably most of the people in Champaign who want to raise backyard chickens are yuppy locavore types looking to reduce their food-miles to minimize their carbon footprint and know that they’re eating organic and cruelty-free. More power to them. But there’s another category of people who might raise backyard chickens: poor people.

Someone who’s poor—someone whose budget barely stretches to cover their other expenses, someone who’s on food stamps, someone who uses a food pantry—is another person who might find raising backyard chickens very attractive. Eggs don’t cost much, but someone who raised chickens might be able to save a few dollars a week and get some high-quality protein and have a surplus that they could share or trade. But a $50 entry fee just about blocks this reason to raise chickens.

I guess I’m not really surprised. Local politicians in Champaign have a lot of incentive to help upper-middle class people eat local and organic—those people vote. They probably don’t feel the same pressure to help poor people get a little high-quality food as cheaply as possible, because poor people don’t vote as much—and when they do vote, the legality of backyard chickens probably isn’t a top issue.

It does bug me just a little that Champaign (which thinks of itself as conservative place) has created this whole big-government scheme with forms and approvals and fees and regulations on chicken coops, while Urbana (which thinks of itself as a liberal place) doesn’t have any of that stuff, just a general rule against letting your animals become a nuisance. But that’s just me, asking for consistency from politicians.

So, half a cheer for Champaign legalizing backyard chickens, even if they came up with a way to do it that only helps yuppy locavores and not poor folks.

Achievement Unlocked: Chen 48-movement form

I’ve been practicing taiji for more than 4 years now. Jackie and I started with a 16-week class at OLLI, after which we continued studying with the same teacher, Mike Reed, at the Savoy Recreation center.

philip-brewer-ji
Me teaching the summer Park District class. Photo by Steven D. Brewer, used with permission.

The OLLI class taught an 8-movement form, the same form I taught my students when I taught a taiji class for the Champaign Park District this summer. We continued to do that form in the Savoy Rec classes, but also started learning a form that consisted of the first 12 of the Chen 48-movement form. Fairly early on, Mike proceeded to teach us the second 12 movements, so that we had a 24-movement form.

We stuck with that 24-movement form for a long time—I think we went most of a year without adding any new movements.

Jackie and I and a couple of other students bugged Mike about adding more movements, but he resisted. I think I now understand the reasons. The first 24 movements are pretty easy to do. That is, learning the whole sequence takes a while, and doing them exactly right may be difficult, but no individual piece of any of the movements is physically very challenging. Starting early in the second half of the 48, there are a number of movements that are considerably more challenging: Hops, jumps, kicks, and pivots—sometimes in combinations—that Mike hesitated to try to teach to a class where I’m the youngest guy there.

Eventually, after maybe a year, we wore him down. A year and a half ago, we got through the third 12 movements (somewhat modified, to reduce the aggressiveness of some of the jump-kicks and hopping pivots). This fall, we’ve learned the final 12 movements, doing the last two last week.

Today, for the first time, we did the whole 48-movement form from beginning to end.

I still have a lot to learn, even about the first movements—and, of course, I barely know the last few. But that’s okay. One of the first things I learned in taiji—that I should have learned from my previous studies of martial arts, but somehow didn’t—is that taiji isn’t something that you learn: it’s something that you do.

Now I can do a bit more. That’s all. And yet, it’s kind of a big deal to me.

Boring post: Fiddling around with my website

I started having odd troubles with the theme I’d been using for this website, so I thought I’d look into alternatives.

I tried quite a few, most of which had one problem or another. Among the things that made me reject themes today:

  1. Header image was completely integrated into the design, so it couldn’t be changed.
  2. There was no way to show the full text of each post on the front page.
  3. Post titles were forced to all-uppercase.
  4. A full third of the page was dedicated to showing a featured image for each post, except my posts often don’t have a featured image—in which case the theme showed a dumb icon instead.

This theme isn’t perfect either. In particular, when I use an image in a post and mark it as the featured image, it appears twice, which is usually not what I mean to have happen, but I’ll experiment for a bit and see how I like it.

Intended as a placeholder, the header image is a photo I took of plaster casts made of the Elgin Marbles. (The casts, on display at the Spurlock Museum, were made before the ill-fated cleaning attempt that so seriously damaged the originals. Scholars come from far and wide to study our plaster casts.) Now that it’s up there, I kinda like it. I may just leave it like that.

How is 2% inflation different from 3% or 4%?

In his dedication to educating the public about the zero bound, Paul Krugman has asked several times (most recently today):

. . . what calculation leads to the notion that a target of “close to but less than 2%” is appropriate, as opposed to, say, 3 or 4 percent.

I think I know the answer: An inflation rate of 2% is small enough that price changes due to inflation are unnoticeable in the noise of other price changes, even over periods of a few years.

Among the costs of inflation are those that come from uncertainty about not only future prices, but also about current prices.

When inflation is under 2%, the price of a cookie at the local bakery might remain unchanged for years at a time. I can stop by the bakery with exact change, and be reasonably confident that I’ll be able to buy one. The costs of flour, sugar, and chocolate will vary over time—but some will rise and others will fall, and the bakery will be able to hold the line on the price of a cookie. This is a convenience for me. It’s also good for the bakery, because people who are confident that they have enough cash in their pocket to buy a cookie are more likely to stop and get one. If they had to make a stop at the ATM first to get cash—or worse, be sent away to visit an ATM mid-transaction—they might not.

At some point—and I assert that the point turns out to be slightly above a 2% inflation rate—stores find that it’s necessary to raise prices at least annually, just to keep up with inflation.

Even if the inflation rate is known and not a surprise, there’s still the threshold effect of one day the price is $x and the next day it’s $x+3%.

When the inflation rate is below 2%, prices can remain stable for years at a time—long enough for people to learn what they are. And that knowledge can make their day run more smoothly. They can be sure they have appropriate cash on hand. They don’t need to check prices ahead of each transaction.

When the inflation rate is above 3%, stores might need to raise prices twice a year, to avoid falling behind. When the prices of a hundred things are all being raised more often than annually, it becomes impossible to learn what prices are, and impossible for that knowledge to make the day run more smoothly. All of a sudden, you have to pay attention to price changes, because they’re happening all the time. In advance of every transaction, you need to allow for the fact that maybe today is the day that prices went up several percent.

Some prices change all the time anyway, especially where the item being sold is a single commodity, such as milk or gasoline. For exactly this reason, prices of those items are often prominently displayed—to reduce the transaction effort of the consumer who wants to know what the price is going to be.

I think that’s why 2% inflation is different from 3–4% inflation: Because price changes due to inflation begin to stand out from changes in relative prices, adding another whole layer of informational costs on every purchaser, on every purchase.

Obamacared

I was one of the first people to try to sign up for insurance on healthcare.gov. That turns out to have been a mistake. At least, that’s my theory.

With considerable effort, over a period of a couple of days right at the beginning of October, I’d gotten through the first part (where you verify facts about yourself to confirm that you’re you). Then I’d done the part where they ask about your income, etc.

At that point—when I’d entered all the info about my and Jackie’s contact info, race, ethnicity, income, and so on—I clicked the last “submit” button. . . and waited.

After a long time, the submission timed out.

Not wanting to have to go through all that entering again, I just backed up a screen and clicked submit again. . . and waited again. And it timed out again.

I did that over and over again, hoping that eventually I’d get a successful submission. And at some point I did get one. In fact, I got a bunch—many of those failed submissions had apparently gone through before they failed. But (I now believe), something about them had gotten corrupted at some point.

On the first visit after that, I’d gotten through to the point of seeing what policies were available to me and how much they’d cost. I printed the list and reviewed it with Jackie and investigated the networks offered by a few plans and picked a policy (sticking with Health Alliance, but going for one of their new Silver plans). But when I returned, there was a glitch: I could no longer sign up for insurance for Jackie and myself; it offered me a policy only for myself, with no sign as to whether I’d be able to get Jackie signed up after.

Yesterday, I finally gave up on making my way through the signup process, and called the telephone interface.

Turns out, the people on the other end of the phone go through the exact same interface. So, of course, they ran into the exact same problem I did.

After escalating to the senior tech guys, the proposed solution was to reset my account and have me start over. (Something I would have done a long time before, if that interface were available.)

Sadly, I couldn’t make that work either.

Finally, I started over completely. I created a new account (with a new login name, using a new email address), re-verified my identity, and re-entered all the info about me. This time, having already selected a policy, I pressed straight ahead and enrolled.

So, I have successfully signed up for insurance through Obamacare. It took about an hour, once I started over from scratch. I suspect it would have worked pretty smoothly, if I hadn’t tried so persistently to sign up in those first few busy days.

Despite the aggravations of getting signed up, I’m pretty pleased. Obamacare is going to save me hundreds of dollars a month. Our insurance bill had been our largest bill—quite a bit higher than our rent. Now it will be just another monthly expense—bigger than our phone bill, but less than rent or groceries.

And yet, the cost savings is far from the most important thing. Before, I worried constantly that any major medical problem would ruin us—make it impossible to get affordable insurance; trap us in a policy that all the healthy people had fled, with premiums spirally inexorably higher until they consumed all our money. Now, at last, we have some security on that front. Cheap or expensive, at least our insurance is actually insurance. A major medical problem would still be a big deal—one of us would no longer be healthy. But at least it would just be that, and not that and a financial catastrophe too.