One word changes everything

A friend read “No mo moping” yesterday and was concerned, I think because it may have sounded like I’m stressing over the dozen or so creative projects that I’ve started over the years and anxious to get them all done all at once.

“You gotta slow down, chief,” he wrote. “At that rate you will slam into the finish wall. Better to gear back, move slowly among the projects and digest all the content that’s flying by. Ease to the end with a full grip on all that envelopes you.”

Sage advice! That’s actually where my attitude has begun to drift.

I replied, “I don’t disagree. The bottom line seems to be I have plenty of ideas to work with along the way.”

I was about to send the reply on its way, but I looked at it one more time and realized, no.

Delete-delete-delete-delete … type-type-type-type.

My revised reply said, “I don’t disagree. The bottom line seems to be I have plenty of ideas to play with along the way.”

THEN I sent the reply.

Did you spot the one word I changed? The one word that changes everything?

Writing is fun. These projects are play, not work. In fact, one reason why progress on creative projects is slow sometimes may be that we don’t prioritize play enough. 

When we work with our ideas, the magic can get lost. When we play with our ideas, the magic grows.

No mo moping

It’s been an odd week. I lay down at 7:30 p.m. Monday — way before my bedtime — figuring I could treat it as an “afternoon nap” and awake refreshed to work on my blog and stuff. The “nap” lasted until 11 o’clock, but I stayed up as planned anyway and ended up filling a dozen journal pages over the next two hours. Part of those thoughts ended up in my Tuesday blog post, “Taking stock,” which I finished around 2 a.m.

The day job has taken up most of my waking hours since then — one of our three-person staff is taken a well-deserved vacation this week — and I’m still trying to digest the notes to myself from which “Taking stock” emerged.

It was quite a meal to digest. I ran through all of my works in progress, assessing and organizing and trying to wrap my mind around it all, perhaps with an unconscious goal of generating some realistic goals for 2024. I concluded that I have nine distinct works in progress at various levels of completion, comprising the beginnings of two to four series — and those are just the novels.

I also have a couple or three ideas for non-fiction books, a collection of short stories, a collection of poems, and a desire to get serious about writing songs again. Doing the Ebenezer podcast has reminded me that I think it would be fun to start making audiobooks, too. Oh yes, and I still have the above-mentioned day job. Is it any wonder that taking stock is a process that takes a few days?

The attitude shift I described in “Taking stock” is a big step. When I got to the bottom of the 12th page that night, I concluded with this advice to myself:

“You are sitting in a modern-day House of Ideas. Stop moping, take the wheel, and enjoy the ride.”

A century of beautiful music

December 3 was a Sunday in 1944, too. That was the day, three years into the U.S. involvement in World War II, when family and friends gathered at First Presbyterian Church in Roselle, New Jersey, to watch Lt. Richard W. Bluhm be united with Miss Hilda Elwell. 

After the ceremony they started their life together in Washington, D.C., where Lt. Bluhm was stationed. He was a couple of weeks past his 21st birthday, and she was going to turn 21 in a couple of weeks. This November and December mark the 100th anniversary of their births.

They both loved music. I have fond memories of waking up Saturday morning to Dad’s big band records booming out of his state-of-the-art stereo system (ironic because he never bought a color TV during our childhoods). 

Like his middle son, my dad in his teens had a penchant for buying a lot of records, and he let me play his dozens of old 78-rpm platters on my portable record player that played only 45s and 78s. One of the most mortifying moments of my life was when I broke his copy of the legendary “Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott. Meanwhile, Mom was often found with a song on her lips, usually a song with a positive message like “Happy Talk” or “Get Happy.”

I’m sensitive to musical cues as a result of all this. The day after Thanksgiving, I walked into the local grocery store, heard “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by Bruce Springsteen, and thought, yep, it’s Christmastime.

At our house it wasn’t the holiday season until Mom broke out Robert Shaw. In 1946 Shaw’s Victor Chorale recorded Christmas Hymns and Carols, an album of familiar and not-so-familiar seasonal classics sung a cappella. She would put the RCA Victor Red Seal LP on the old turntable, “Joy to the World” would burst out, and the season was underway. 

We also had an LP of Christmas Hymns and Carols, Vol. II, by what was now the Robert Shaw Chorale, from 1952, which among other gems features the best-ever version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The mournful way they sing “On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love sent to me” is priceless. You really feel the sadness of Christmas ending.

At some point I got obsessive about owning an original edition of the albums, the first of which was produced two years before LPs existed. It first saw light of day as a four-record album of 12-inch 78 rpm records, and I wanted to hear the songs as they sounded in 1946, sans any processing that may have taken place as the recordings were prepared for 33 rpm or CD.

I found wonderful copies of both albums on eBay, and eventually discovered an even better copy of Volume I in the wild at an antique store. I am a diehard fan of analog recordings, but even I am astonished how great these 77-year-old records sound when played on the proper equipment.

Sunday afternoon I pulled the old Shaw records out of the attic, fired up my beloved Audio-Technica turntable (have I really owned it for five years already??), screwed on the special 78 rpm cartridge and stylus, and gently placed Side 1 of the eight-sided Christmas Hymns and Carols on the turntable.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let Earth receive her king …”

Yep, it’s Christmastime. Happy anniversary and birthdays in heaven, Mom and Dad.

UPDATE: It occurred to me later I could have added the music!

I like silly. So?

Yes, I like Godzilla and comic-book superheroes and Tommy James and the Shondells. I’m sorry if you have a problem with that.

I suspect it’s hard for some folks to take me seriously because my taste drifts toward, well, Godzilla and superheroes and pop music. Do you trust opinions about the weighty issues of the day when they come from a guy who voices opinions on which version of Captain Marvel is the best one? 

Well, that’s me. I can’t help being me. Back in the sixties I would argue that comic books have the potential to be great literature, based on what I was reading in Spider-Man and Fantastic Four. I enjoy finding significance in seemingly unlikely places. Nowadays that’s not a particularly controversial opinion. 

Horace Walpole said it best, anyway: “I have never yet seen or heard anything serious that was not ridiculous.” I take silly stuff seriously, but a lot of serious stuff, examined carefully, is pretty silly anyway.

6 o’clock

“There’s something special about 6 o’clock in the morning.” What a great first line for a song. I’m not sure John Sebastian quite pulled it off — it’s not one of his most memorable songs — but many mornings at 6 o’clock, I sing the first line. 

This time of year, 6 o’clock in the morning is dark and cold and quiet, and I think the dogs are nuts to want to go out there. But I remember 6 a.m.s when the sun is shining and birds are calling to each other and the air is bright with the promise of a new day.

I’m guessing Mr. Sebastian wrote that first line in the summer.

Still, warm or cold, 6 o’clock represents the beginning of the day for most people, a proverbial and literal fresh start, a time for reorganizing and refreshing and preparation and taking a deep, quiet breath before plunging into the chaos of another day.

There’s something special about that moment.

Something, anything

The value of establishing a writing streak is enormous. Making the commitment to write something, anything, every day, creates a habit that is hard to break, and especially once you have sailed past 1,000 days, then 1,100 days, and then 1,200 days. You just don’t want to go back and start counting from 1 all over again.

Still, inevitably you’ll have a day like this one, a day when you can’t think of anything to write about except the streak.

It’s weird. You might have just finished your first significant bit of fiction in almost a decade and published your first significant bit of fiction in nine years.

It may, in fact, be your first published book of any kind in more than a year.

You might have all sorts of ideas rolling through your head.

And yet still, some days, you find that none of your ideas are formed well enough to convert into a coherent blog post.

You kick yourself for not working far enough in advance, despite your best intentions to work ahead and especially never to leave the blog until the end of the night. 

But you made a commitment, and so you sit down, reluctantly, to scratch out a little something about writing for the sake of extending a writing streak. 

“This is the 1,215th day in a row that I have posted something here — three years, three months, 28 days,” you write. “And isn’t that something?”

And you realize, why, yes, it is something, isn’t it? After decades of writing intermittently and thinking how good it must be to develop a regular writing habit, you did it. You’ve been writing and posting something here every day for so long it’s second nature to write something, anything.

You know there will be days that you write something more interesting or thought-provoking or entertaining, because you’ve already had days like that. You know there will be days when you come up with three and four and a half-dozen blog posts, because you’ve had those, too. 

In short, if you follow through on a commitment long enough, the days when the words barely trickle out don’t trouble you all that much, because you’ve also had days when the floodgates open. 

And so you write a few words about not having much to write about today, and you sleep well, looking forward to what you will write next.

Lessons in inflation

Comic books taught me everything I needed to know about inflation.

It cost more than it used to to make a 10-cent comic book, so they had to charge 12 cents. They had been 10 cents for more than 25 years, although as costs rose, they held the 10-cent price by cutting pages. The standard length of a comic book went from 64 pages to 48 pages to 32 pages. Finally they decided 32 pages was the minimum, and so the price had to give.

Twelve cents held for about seven years, but then inflation kicked in and they went up to 15 cents. There was a little experimentation with offering 48 pages for 25 cents, but that was quickly abandoned and it settled back to 32 pages for 20 cents, and then 25 and 30 and 35 and 40 cents. By 1980 a 32-page comic book was 50 cents.

Eventually other factors than inflation affected the price — the starving writers and artists won the right to be paid as if they were writers and artists, and better paper and printing techniques became the standard — so it’s not fair to say the 10-cent comic book of 1960 morphed into today’s $3.99 product, but inflation was the main culprit in the 1960s and 1970s.

I want to show you something about percentages and inflation.

That first price increase, from 10 cents to 12 cents, inflated the price by 20%.

When it went to 15 cents, that was a 25% increase.

The rise to 20 cents was 33%. Yikes!

Going to 25 cents was a 25% increase.

Going to 30 cents? Only 20%.

And 35 cents represented a 16.7% raise.

The hike to 40 cents raised the price by 14.3%.

Do you see? After a while, the inflation rate went down. But make no mistake, the price never went back. You could buy 10 comic books for $1 in 1960. By 1980 you could buy only two.

Don’t ever be fooled when the politicians announce that the inflation rate is down as if that’s wonderful news. The damage is already done.

The 10-cent comic book is gone forever.