UNDERWATER

When I was twelve, I signed up for Boy Scout Camp.  As explained to me by my older brother, it was the great summer adventure: water sports, merit badges, and exciting new foods.

Our Scoutmaster was one of my life role models, a giant of a man with the ability to make any scouting trip memorable and fun, without letting things get out of hand.  A few weeks before the camp, he handed me a blank form and asked me which merit badges classes I wanted to take.  A few of the choices were easy. I’d always wanted to learn to ride a horse, so I filled one time slot with Horsemanship. Mom did all the Cooking at home, so I didn’t need that one (I’ve since repented), but Leatherwork looked kind of cool, and building your own shelter in the woods for Wilderness Survival sounded awesome.

I had one slot left, and Lifesaving sounded a lot cooler than Emergency Preparedness, so I marked that one down too. One of the other boys warned me it was an aquatic merit badge, but I figured I was in pretty good shape from soccer, and I’d already completed the Swimming merit badge. How hard could this be?

Harder than it looks. For one thing, you never have to hold your breath while playing soccer. . .

Towards the end of the week, we were learning escapes. I went into the water with an instructor about three times my size and built of pure muscle.  Beefy was supposed to act like a panicked, drowning person, and I was supposed to escape his grip and carefully lead him back to the dock while maintaining a safe distance.  It all sounds great in theory, but I was in trouble from the get-go. The moment I hit the water, Beefy latched onto me like a three-hundred pound gorilla and began dragging me down. I took one gasp of air and then all I could see was muddy water. It got colder. I was wrapped up so tight I couldn’t move a muscle.

In that dark place, I wondered if I would just continue sinking forever, if I would ever breathe again, and if maybe Beefy was taking this escape exercise just a bit too seriously. I had a moment of complete and utter fear. It took me a lot longer than it should have to remember the training they’d given us. But eventually I did remember it. I broke Beefy’s grip and dove away from him, creating the safety space required.

In retrospect, I didn’t get out of that predicament on my own. I went in with a theoretical understanding learned from experts and some practical experience in breaking holds. And in retrospect, there was also a safety net. There were lifeguards, if my training, experience, and skill proved insufficient.

We have lifeguards too. We have safety nets.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, I interviewed a friend and licensed marriage & family therapist Matt Brown. We talked about my book The Deep End of Life, finding support, and getting out of the deep end. I’ve been going back through the interview footage, making clips of specific topics kids (and adults) might wonder about before seeing therapist for the first time. Some of the questions are more serious than others, but sometimes laughing a little is just as important as asking for help.

Click here for the interview.

THE DEEP END OF LIFE

Finalist Covers

The New Year is knocking on the front door. I can see him through the peephole with a handful of “bills past due” in his left hand and a wad of cash in the other. Every time I let him in, he knocks that priceless lamp by the door over or spills grape juice on the carpet.

I hesitate. Old Year is comfortable, relaxing on the couch with some luke-warm hot chocolate, re-reading list of unfinished projects. He’s comfortable in the same sort of way that a known misery trumps the unknown. Or comfortable like oft-worn pair of pants with a hole in the bum, and anyone looking too closely can see your undies.

Hopefully, nobody’s looking too closely.

Old Year hasn’t been all bad, though. For example, I finished writing a book called The Deep End Of Life.

It isn’t about dragons, spaceships, or a lonely thief trying feed his kids. In some ways it is a very ordinary book. It’s about an 11-year-old girl coping with her parents’ divorce. It’s about what sometimes happens to kids when their parents break up. It isn’t an autobiography by any stretch of the imagination, but it is real.

I’ve mentioned this before, but 2016 was a difficult year for me, and it was hard for my kids as well. It was the year their parents got divorced.

Sometime during the fall of 2016, while somewhat innocently browsing for internet video games, my oldest, a boy, came across an un-closed browser tab for “divorce attorneys.” He tried to cover up the screen and click away before the younger siblings saw, but they knew right away something was up.

Not how you want your kids to find out there’s trouble in paradise.

That led to some difficult, but important discussions. As parents, we offered to take them to counseling, and mentioned that it had been helpful for us in bringing healing and understanding. Only the youngest seemed open to the idea, but she—if I remember correctly—marched into the elementary school counselor’s office and demanded a session, without parental assistance.

Around that time, the kids were doing year-round swimming. When I picked them up from practice one day, a coach informed me that the youngest (same kid) had spent “a lot of time” in the bathroom. “I don’t like swim practice,” she said later, and she admitted skipping practice to “do gymnastics” on the locker room benches.

That moment stuck with me—a fourth grader swimming dutifully (mostly) through the winter months, when maybe she had bigger dreams, and it came back to me a few months later.

One evening, the youngest walks into the living room, whips out a piece of college-ruled paper, and accosts the oldest.

“Let’s talk,” she says.

He mumbles something that might, under duress, constitute an agreement.

I grin, because I like listening in on their private conversations, when I can. True, I’m only three feet away, but I’m also washing dishes. Chores (or anyone doing them) are completely invisible to kids. As long as you don’t make any noise or alter your facial expressions when they say outrageous things, they don’t know you’re actually there.

Over the counter I can see the paper she’s holding, and I realize—sadly—that this isn’t going to be one of the juicy ones.  The college-ruled notebook paper has “book titles” written at the top. I can’t, for the life of me, recognize any of them.

“Tell me if any of these are good,” she demands of her older brother.

It takes me a minute to catch on, but apparently they’ve done this before, and none of the titles on her list are real. What she’s written is a bunch of test-case titles to see if her big, mature, well-read junior high brother seems interested in any of them. She’s not even particularly motivated to do anything with the information. She just wants to know.

And for an eighth-grader, he’s remarkably patient. “Yeah, that one’s pretty good,” he says, occasionally. Or he just shakes his head when they don’t meet his fancy.

It’s a fun game, initiated by a ten-year-old. Most of them are acceptable middle-grade mock-up titles, but there’s only one I remember now: The Deep End Of Life.

The moment she read it, I was transported from the kitchen, out of the present, away from the months of co-parenting and breadwinning, and aches and worries that parents feel. For a moment, I was there, watching my daughter dancing across that locker room bench, finding her own peace of mind in a world that had just imploded. And I think of that same kid, striding powerfully into the elementary school front office demanding to meet with the school counselor, a trained mental health professional.

The Deep End of Life is a title written by a fourth-grader. There are plenty of people who could come up with a better one. But it stunned me, reminded me of how little of their lives I actually see. It pulled back the curtain for a moment on the drama of childhood, the drama of fourth grade.

I wanted to catch that image and put it in a bottle. Some authors write the book they wish they’d had growing up. I wrote the book I wish my kids had had. It’s okay—and sometimes even fun—to get help when you’re swimming in the deep end.  

With the day job in the mix, it took me a few years to finish. It helped that my commute in 2020 has been considerably shorter.

Thanks for that, at least, Old Year.

The New Year knocks again, louder this time. Opening that door will bring all sorts of problems. But it might bring some good things too. I look at Old Year, who is still lounging on the couch, eating smelly leftovers. “Yeah,” I say. “Get off the couch.”

He stands up and stretches, makes his way to the front door. His jeans are faded and a pocket seam has burst. There’s a bit of plaid boxer peeking through. He always lingers at the end.

“Undies are showing again,” I say, to encourage him onward.

He turns to look at me, hand on the doorknob. “Did you finish writing another book?”

“Yeah.”

“Do some cool things with your kids?”

“Yeah.”

“Then stop looking at my undies.”

#

Every year is challenging. This year I’m thankful for friends, family, and a finishing another manuscript.

ANT FIGHT 2017, PART 2

May 3rd, 2017

I was at the dentist, fantasizing about my ant problem, also possibly on a stronger-than-usual anesthetic, when I finally came up with a solution for the pavement ant infestation. The kids and I had been talking about Eragon or one of the other books in the Inheritance Cycle by my good pal Christopher Paolini, and realized he could probably help me. So I called him:

Me: “Hello . . .Chris?”

CP: “Yes?”

“This is Ben.”

CP: “Who?”

Me: “Your friend, Ben Hewett.  Soon-to-be-famous author.”

CP: “Uh . . . how did you get this number?”

Me: “Your agent. Listen, I just need a little help. Shouldn’t take long.”

CP: “Er. . . okay. Anything to give a fellow author a boost, I guess.”

Me: “Actually, the writing’s going fine, thanks. I just need help killing ants.”

CP: “Wait. . .Who is this?”

Me: “Ben Hewett. And it’s not unrelated. It’s hard to write when the ants go marching across your fingertips. While you’re typing.”

CP: “Listen man, you’re a writer. Write a  letter to your HOA. They’re responsible for animals that enter your home from the exterior.

Me: “Um. Yeah. How’d that HOA letter thingy work for Thorin Oakenshield?”

[Awkward silence.]

CP: “More like, ‘How did it work for Smaug…’ ”

Me: “Of course you’d side with Smaug.”

[Even more awkward silence.]

Me:  “Listen, Chris. What I really need—besides your endorsement on my next book—is for you to send Eragon over to my house real quick. He can just sort of… you know… do that thing he did in Eldest.  It seemed like a pretty weak plot device at the time, but this idea of sucking the life-force straight outta the entire ant colony has really grown on me in the last few weeks.

CP: “Eragon isn’t like that anymore. He carefully considers the impact of each action and . . .”

Me: “This is sort of important. The pavement ants are recolonizing faster than my neighbors and I can poison them. Faster than Galbatorix learning new, obscure languages, actually. Your guy wouldn’t even have to kill that many. Just like. . . eight ant queens. And anyways,  My neighborhood would be more grateful to him than the whole continent of Alagaësia. Remember how much crap he got just for blessing that poor purple girl? Come to think of it, pest control’s a great fallback position for him. It’s safe, fun, and he could definitely minimize the environmental impacts of pesticides like Termidore and Anthrax.”

Click.

Me:  “Um, hello? Chris?”

See what I mean?

Nobody wants to help.

I once was a 4th Grade teacher.

Shaving Bag on Harry Paper

 

In December 2005, I was teaching 4th grade in Coppell, Texas.

It was a challenging job, and the pay was . . . typical, but I’d made it to my third year, and was really starting to feel the rhythm of the classroom. I remember watching their eyes widen as they grasp concepts for the first time or their tongues stick out as they navigated increasingly complex math problems.

As a teacher, I still had a lot to learn (e.g. the proper execution of a class party), but I always did my best.  It was meaningful work. I had autonomy. And I enjoyed the teacher carpool and our discussions on life and the proper way to motivate tricksy ten-year-olds.

One day we were doing some basic geometry in class and the kids were looking a bit sluggish. So I added facial hair and angry eyebrows to one of the triangles as a reward to the more attentive, fully planning to leave it at that.

Somebody giggled, and suddenly every student was on high alert. Equilaterals are fine and good, but no kid wants to miss a joke.

To build on that success, I adopted a grumpy, sarcastic voice for the rest of the lesson and let Harry the Triangle teach. He was not gentle with the remaining geometries.

I’m not condoning insulting behavior here—insults hurt, whether hurled at a perfectly drawn sphere, or a tall and tan Norwegian isosceles. Instead, I made it abundantly clear that Harry the Triangle was neither role model nor paragon of kindly virtues, and the kids were falling out of their chairs. Laughter crying. Demanding that every math class be taught by Harry.

Math had never been so fun. For me or them. For the rest of the year, they did Harry the Triangle fan-fiction in their notebooks and perked up when math class drew nigh. They even played back that scratchy, sarcastic voice at random, inopportune moments.

Ahhh. The halcyon days of explaining the chorus of scratchy, 10-year-old voices to the school principal. If only my parties had been comparable.

I must have been a special case, because I always had multiple room parents. Shortly before Christmas break, they managed to cut me from my herd.

RPs: “Mr. Hewett, what’s the plan for the holiday party?”

Me: “Uh. . .”

RPs: “Nevermind. You just teach. We’ll handle the details.”

That was the best party my 4th graders ever had. The details are a bit hazy, but there was an abundance of adult supervision, spilled soda cups, and pizza, which was which was still a huge success back then, but you had to wait about 4 hours for it to be hand-molded and delivered on an old Italian bicycle.

And there were teacher-gifts.

Teacher gifts are the second-best thing about being a teacher. Kids are often generous with their favorite teachers, but this year was even more epic. Every kid wanted to thank me for making math less boring. I got beautiful Christmas cards (defaced with hand-drawn images of Harry the Triangle), books for the classroom library, more drawings of Harry the Triangle, gift cards, and chocolate.

And a shaving bag.

—-

Really? Like, for travel?

Like, for carefully gathering and arranging toiletries so you knew you were perfectly packed before going on an actual airplane trip? The kind that helped you ensure your toothbrush, paste, razor, floss, chapstick, deodorant, nail clippers, soap and shampoo were all packed and ready for that big, important business meeting in Detroit? I mean, I knew what it was intellectually, but I didn’t travel. I was a teacher with small kids at home and a single income.

I smiled graciously at the student though. I made sure she knew how much I appreciated her gesture. When her shy smile came out, I relaxed just a hair, glad to see that my bemusement hadn’t shown through. What if you were the only kid to give your teacher something different. . . like a shaving bag . . . and then he didn’t like it?

As a teacher, it is important to be diplomatic.

When I woke up this morning, and grabbed my gear to get ready for a day of panels and networking, I stopped and laughed at my younger self. There it was. The 15-year-old Adidas shaving bag from my outside-the-box thinker.

The shaving bag I thought I didn’t need.

The one I take on every trip.

 

 

-February 15, 2020

 

 

 

 

 

Miranda Rights for Parents

Olivia 24-7 Amalgam.jpg

“Anything you read can and will be used against you.”
-Any seasoned parent.

It’s been a while since I had a four-year-old at the house. It’s been a while since I walked into a room and felt the punch-gut fear that comes from seeing your oldest make a speedy get-away, smelling of smoke and clad in nothing but whitie-tighties and a cloak of guilt. It’s been a long time since I’ve pulled a smoking pillow or pink blankie from the top of a halogen lamp.

But I still remember the good old days, when the light was hazardous but the books were not.

Now, my kids are reading things they shouldn’t. The bills and alumni magazines piled on my kitchen counter. The books hidden in my closet. Or—most infamously—the copy of How To Negotiate With Kids left carelessly at the top of the bookshelf.

I suspect they’re skillfully applying these things against me, but since I haven’t read the source material, I can’t be sure. And all this mature content just falls from their hands into a giant, ever-growing pile of slush I’d love to read but can’t.

As a dutiful father, I’ve tried to provide kid-appropriate reading alternatives: Alcatraz versus The Evil Librarians, The Hobbit, and Calvin and Hobbes (sigh). But in spite of my redoubled efforts, they still manage to find the dangerous stuff.  For example, the other day I caught my youngest  reading Safety 24/7.

I’m told that kids like to try out adult stuff sometimes. “Don’t worry about it,” the experts say. “It’s part of growing up.”

Really? Safety primers for heavy industry?

And my nine-year-old daughter didn’t  “get bored and put it down.” Does this make anyone else uneasy? When a fourth grader can read and take pleasure in standard-fare management lit, shouldn’t we worry about the intelligence of the American management community? (Or maybe we just need to add more trendy business words to keep kids confused.)

She was still reading Safety 24/7 the next day. I know because she was walking around the house making annoying safety comments. In other words, I basically got to read Safety 24/7 twice, because I’d already read it for work. And I hate doing work twice.

When I took my kids in for an annual doctor’s check-up, the nine-year-old brought Safety 24/7 along for the waiting room. She was already on page 60.

Me: “I didn’t realize you liked that book so much.”

Daughter: “Daa-aad!”

M: “Seriously.  You haven’t given up yet. You must be learning something.”

D: “I liked how Kurt got the painter on the ladder to be more safe without saying something that would make the painter mad.”

M: “Anything else?”

D: “I liked how he got people to use the word ‘incident’ instead of ‘accident.’ That way they remembered to have responsibility.”

In this moment I realized we could have our own little safety teaching moment. I pointed to her bare—I blame California—feet.

M: “What about you? Do you know the risks of going barefoot into the
doctor’s office?

D, grinning: “There’s  always more risk this way, but I can mitigate some of
that risk by my increased awareness of the problem.”

Her words, not mine. I should probably be a little more careful about what books I leave lying around.

 

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Three Hawk Aerial Combat

Dropped the kids off at their mom’s tonight. Was sitting with her and our daughter in my Toyota Sienna, doing the usual co-parent scheduling, windows open, because it didn’t feel like Houston in June.

And the hawks started screeching.

I stuck my head out the window and looked up to see three hawks wheeling, cursing each other. Down came something fresh, like two golf balls spinning on an axis, a bloody mess of feathers and meat.

Glad it hit the grass and not the pavement. . .

And then this hungry beauty was there, closing one claw around the kill, balancing awkwardly on her other foot. I say “her,” but I don’t actually know.

She spread her wings almost immediately to shield the kill (or steal?) from prying eyes.

“Nothing to see here folks.”

I took a picture anyways, my 11-year-old passing me a phone as quick as you can say “raptor.”

“Dad!”

Hawk

And then it was gone, friends in hot pursuit.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. About a year ago another bird dropped a one pound mullet (fish) in my lap. The mullet was still alive after falling a hundred feet or more, but the seagulls weren’t as gutsy as this hawk, or maybe they figured we’d cook it up ourselves.

Instead, we put the it back in the water. . . It didn’t float, but it didn’t exactly swim either. Oh well.

It’s a beautiful—and sometimes weird—world we live in.

 

Closet Secrets.

Closet Schlock.jpg

My son found them in my closet, stashed  behind my least favorite dress shirts.

I knew, because I caught him trying to sneak them out.

“Those are mine,” I said.
“I just want to read them.”
“I know. That’s why I hid them in my closet.”

This is the kid who—as a six-year-old—singlehandedly  loved my entire Calvin and Hobbes collection into oblivion. There’s a reason six-year-olds aren’t supposed to be good readers.  The parts of the books that  eventually made it back to the bookshelf were only spared the rubbish pile because I couldn’t afford to replace them, and because a house without a Calvin and Hobbes book (or scrap pile, as case may be) is a house not worth living in.

So it was normal for me to hide my newly-purchased Schlock Mercenary books in the master closet. A guy should be able to read a book at least once before the cover falls off. And my plan would have worked if the meddling kid hadn’t noticed the mailer-receipt I’d carelessly abandoned on the kitchen counter. After the hunt began,  no room was sacred.

I’m not a big connoisseur of comics, but this one has stuck with me.  I’ve followed the online iteration for several years now. Schlock Mercenary delivers a sci-fi punch line in every strip, and it’s written and drawn by one of the smartest people I know.  And I work at NASA.

Incidentally, I got to sit with Howard Tayler  and his chief of staff Sandra for an hour at LTUE in February and plug them about the do’s and don’ts of quitting your day job. They gave me some good advice, signed the previously-mentioned closet copies, and told me random stories about bog butter and what it takes to maintain the creative genius under duress.

Interviewing Howard and Sandra Tayler was definitely in my top three for the LTUE conference. (Getting there  in a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr  ranks fourth.)

So there’s the setup.  I have a box of funny books in my closet from a funny cartoonist. I also now have a funny thirteen-year-old in my closet reading through the 700+ page collection because I told him the books don’t leave my closet until I’ve read them all. And while I still have a full-time job, he only leaves the closet to forage for Cheez-Its.

If you like medium-hard  (yes, I made that up) science fiction / space opera humor, check out Schlock Mercenary. The early cartoon drawings are “rudimentary,” Howard insists, but that makes them even funnier in my opinion, because I’m super mature.

I’m also super glad Howard quit his day job.

–Ben

Howard and Sandra Tayler1

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FINISHING THE BOOK: MOTIVATING WITH SMALL MILESTONES

“The days are long but the years are short.” –Gretchen Rubin

Not bragging, but in high school I scored a role as one of the lusty muleteers in The Man of La Mancha. For those of you who know me, this is totally out of character. For those of you who don’t know me . . . er . . . take my word for it. But I was good in auditions. Really good. For every show, I was the guy throwing a kicking-and-screaming Aldonza over his shoulder and hauling her off-stage.  Great fun, discounting make-up and tight pants.

 

Aldonza and Muleteers

(I’m not in this photo.)

 

I have one, not-so-fun memory about that production though. I was supposed to play a song on the lute and sing a solo with it. I had a lute. (Dad.) And a decent voice. (Mom.)

But every time I looked at the sheet music and thought about bar chords, time signatures, and picking, I got intimidated. With two weeks to spare, I confessed to my drama teacher that I wasn’t going to be able to play and sing at the same time. She was mildly disappointed, but shrugged and said we could use the pit orchestra, and that everything would be fine. No big deal.

But that moment stuck with me. It wasn’t talent or time that beat me. It was intimidation. This is a lesson I keep learning—one that keeps coming back for second helpings.

Earlier this year I told a potential agent that I’d have a rewritten novel manuscript to him by mid-March. It’s taken a lot of work to make it this far, and I continue to get positive feedback from other writers and editors, but my confidence went way down every time I looked at the forward work. “I’ll never be able to do all that, let alone before March.” Comparing the few spare hours I have each week for writing with the enormity of project left me emotionally bankrupt. How can I even start on a project that “will never be finished?”

Our brains are wired for quick pay-offs. If you don’t believe it, check out the research by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, here or here. En bref, the quick reward of finishing something today is more important today than the promised reward of finishing something large and meaningful several weeks down the road. For the less ambitious, Tim Urban does a funny Ted talk about what happens in the mind of a chronic procrastinator.

When I was complaining about my lack of motivation, my wife suggested, “Why don’t you make a paper chain link for every hour’s worth of work you think it will take. Then you can cut off a link every time you do an hour of work and measure your progress?”  I was dubious about the motivational power of paper chains, but with cheap subcontracting (my son), I got a chain suspended in my office in no time. It started at 178 links or 178 hours. A bit of depression sets in when you realize your 10th draft needs more than 40 hours a week for four straight weeks. (Obviously, I’d need more than four weeks to make up the time if I was to keep my regular bread-and-butter job and have a family.) But the kids keep begging to cut links for me, and now I have to scramble to keep up with them.

And the exercise made writing therapeutic again. The project wasn’t Mount McKinley on the horizon anymore. It was 178 day hikes spread out across as many days as needed to do it right. The real value didn’t come from the begging children, as cute as they are. It came from chunking out the work, parsing it into one-hour units. It came from breaking down the problem into constituent, achievable parts and identifying which pieces could be done anywhere with a red pen and a shade tree, and which pieces need two or three quiet hours in front of a computer screen.

Suddenly it was much easier to do a few pages each day, and seeing the redlines materialize on the printed page gave me that small kick of accomplishment I needed to do a little more.

I still haven’t learned to play that Man of La Mancha song on my lute, but I’ve made some serious progress on the manuscript . . .

What are tricks do you use to get motivated on challenging projects?

 

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Anecdote: The Pain of Shaving (Your Legs)

“Legolas! What in Durin’s name am I supposed to do with this thing?”
–Gimli

I need a bigger razor finished

I’ve never liked shaving. It’s too close a compatriot to tender skin and bleeding chin. And now I have another reason to dislike it. . .

Some of you know I like soccer. I play on an Over 30 indoor team and play pick-up on Saturday mornings when I get the chance.  Or perhaps I should say “I played.”

Here’s a bad formula: Uneven Soccer Field +  Trash-talking 36-year-old + Changing Directions = Knee Surgery

One minute you’re an all-star and the next minute you’re flat on your back staring up into the concerned faces of 20 friends, wondering when you got old and what you’ll write about this painful experience. You worry that now you won’t be able to finish your novel by the deadline, and all sorts of other irrelevant things.

Everybody’s milling about, telling you to stay down. The doctor in the group has you by the ankle and calf—you don’t remember him picking your leg up—and is checking to see if everything lines back up. The hot Texas sun is pounding on your face and the St. Augustine grass is stabbing into your bare arms. And there’s the white hot pain of knowing you screwed up.

They help you get to your feet and tell you you’re done for the day, even if you think you can play a little more. After a few steps you realize you’ll at least be able to make it to the car.

It’s hard to know right away just how bad it’s going to be, but after the swelling and the denial wear off and the doctor orders an MRI, things come into focus pretty quick: lateral meniscus, medial meniscus, and anterior cruciate ligament, all blown.

I don’t do things halfway.

Now for the humor. Plenty of things to manage during this whole process: recovery time,  family obligations, writing schedules, and telling my indoor team the bad news. But I didn’t expect hair growth to be one of them. On the morning of the surgery, I’m lying in the hospital bed and a nice girl comes in and wants to see a little leg. The hospital smock isn’t exactly modest, but I pull it up past the knee anyway. Best not to argue with them, not when they’re holding power tools and you’re in a drafty smock and getting an intravenous drip.)

The nice girl shaves my knee bald-baby in less than a minute. She wipes the area down to sterilize. Because my knee feels cold and and naked, she lets me cover it back up. Then the sleepy drugs kick in. I dream about getting wheeled to out to the car and pretending to eat some food.

I wake up a few weeks later in physical therapy doing an excruciating knee bend.

ME: “Where am I?”
DEVIL: “The place where bad little children go.”
ME: “Really? Why?”
DEVIL: “You missed your shot in that soccer game.”
ME: “Ah. Makes perfect sense.”

During that first hour of therapy I re-notice the hair: my right leg is perfectly normal, but there’s a swath of deforestation, ending mid calf where the surgery prepper left off with her power tools. The transition from bare leg to hair is so abrupt that every time I look down I forget about the pain of rehab and wonder what might come crawling out of that jungle and onto the empty plain. It’s seriously distracting. I keep waiting for the therapists to say something, but they never do. They see weird stuff every day, I guess. One more half-shaved leg isn’t going to throw them.

But the naked knee and the Black Forest on half my calf is a problem, even if the physical therapists don’t say anything about it. People in Houston are still wearing shorts in December, and I want to fit in. Every time I go out in public, I know people are staring that that transition line and wondering why I didn’t just shave the whole thing. “Doesn’t he know how bad it looks?”

Don’t laugh.

Eventually, the stares get inside my head. This is not the sort of thing I want attention for. People shave their legs, right? I decide I can make two-equally naked legs and grow it all back the same length. Problem solved.

Smart men consult the internet before taking on a job like that. Smart men start with the hair clippers and then use a razor, if they must. Other men (men like me) just watch their wives surreptitiously and then go for it. It can’t be that hard, right?

Well, first off, twenty years of not shaving your legs can make the first outing a bit rocky. Where did all this hair come from? I can’t even grow a full beard, but one little swipe on my leg is enough to put my Gillette Mach 3 out of action.  I sit in the shower for an hour, wiping the excess off my razor, cursing myself for another dumb idea.

I’ve got golf-ball-sized bare spots all up and down my leg and now the shower is running out of hot water, and everything looks just as hairy as before. I can’t let the hair go down the drain because I’m the one who handles the clogs, and I may have teased my wife a bit about her bathroom sink, so if I clog this one . . .

Then I start to notice how cold the bathroom really is. It may feel like summer outside, but a Texas bathroom always knows it’s winter. The tile is cold. The air is cold. The shower curtain is slimy and cold. The lukewarm water only makes the goose bumps worse.

There’s a writing lesson in this, but I’m going to save it for next week. The important thing? It took me three days to finish. I went as high as men’s 1970s basketball shorts and called it quits.

This is why I will never tear my ACL again.

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CRAFT FAIR DOOM

“Good marketing makes the company look smart. Great marketing makes the customer feel smart.”
—Joe Chernov

IMG_6760 (2)

I woke up to my predicament, palms sweating,  at 9:30am when the customers and crafting ladies started rolling in. My book table was half-buried in the forest of more conventional booths: crocheted “Minion” hats,  fleece blankets with tied fringes, hand-carved wooden crosses, and an assortment of other craft fair products. The vendor to my right was selling custom herbal tea blends and the vendor to my left, homemade jewelry.  I could almost hear my fifth grade teacher humming, “One of these things is not like the other…”

That’s what I get for having bright ideas.

The itch started a few weeks ago. I must have been looking for a break from the daily slog of work, parenting, and grinding out edits on Plague Runners , because I actually read the craft fair email advertisement before deleting it:  “JSC Annual Holiday Bazaar,”  it said.

Hmm… I’m not really the crafty sort. Delete.

Sometime in the next 24 hours, the itch got worse. I like to write, but I like to meet and talk to people as well, and cloistering myself to get another writing project done was killing me. So what if the only escape nearby was a certified craft fair? I could go as a vendor. Surely there would be some poor fellow there looking for an oasis of fantasy in that ocean of knick-knacks and Scentsy candles?

So I did the essential research:

Buy-In Cost: $55
Estimated potential customers: 200-300
Demographic: Middle-age craft fair enthusiasts, family members, and assorted NASA employees
Competing Products: ~70 booths, only two selling books, none selling fantasy / sword-and-sorcery
Reference Case:  If you ask nicely. . .
Likelihood of Breaking Even: ???

I contacted the reference case to get  perspective on whether or not the buy-in price made sense for the type of sales I could expect. The reference case vendor was very encouraging once he heard about my books. “You should give this venue a shot.” (I didn’t realize at the time that he was a fantasy enthusiast as well, and would end up buying both my books. . .)

I mulled it over.  It would be a low risk opportunity to get real-time sales experience. Even better, the mix of vendors didn’t threaten to crowd out an up-and-coming fantasy/sci-fi author. And, sheesh, if I couldn’t sell a few books to whichever coworkers happened to wander past, then I’d never amount to anything, anyways.

I bought in, excited at the prospect of sharing DARTS and RINGS with potential new fans and publicizing the upcoming release of SWORDS.

Still, I’m not a fan of cold calls. I dislike being approached by salespeople, and consequently feel very self-conscious about doing the same. And what if my work friends thought my book was silly? What if nobody showed up? What if the people who came to the craft fair actually did only want to buy crafts?

I’d be out $55 and a fair bit of self-respect, that’s what. The thought didn’t thrill me. Why was I going to a craft fair?  What else could I do to help cover the costs of the table, some diversification more relevant to a NASA holiday craft fair?

Multicolored Snowflake Collage (Compressed)

Well?  I like making snowflakes. And I’m pretty good at it, too. Eight-points. Six-points. Spider-web. Eagle Feather.  Something for everyone.  So I made a few at home. My wife suggested that they were elegant, but looked a bit plain for the likes of a craft fair, so I took a few out back and spray-painted them. Then I made a more snowflakes from the black butcher paper used to catch paint. (The “shadow-flake” has overlapping patterns of paint and darkness, and is quite striking.) Even if I didn’t sell any books, I ‘d be able to sell enough of these beauties to offset the cost of the booth.

Wrong again. Sitting at my booth, it quickly obvious that most people don’t consider snowflakes a worthy investment. But I watched their hungry eyes and slowing steps of the ladies as they passed, trying to puzzle out how these beautiful snowflakes came into existence without incurring this particular booth’s sales job.

Ahh.  So crafting people aren’t so different than me? Who wants to be sold to? So I pivoted.

Me: “Would you like to know how to do it?” [With no hint of ulterior motive.]
Craft Lady: “Actually, yes.”

I spent the  whole day helping people make their own. I’d planned to do a mini-course (mostly for friends, family, and bkhewett.com enthusiasts), but everyone else seemed interested in the hands-on too.

Pretty soon I had a swarm of people around my booth, including the other vendors. Lucky thing I brought an extra pair of scissors and some paper. We laughed and joked. They smiled and expressed their own creativity, and occasionally appreciated mine. More people came to see what the commotion was about and started making snowflakes of their own. And once my new friends finished making snowflakes, many of them friends wanted signed books. Others offered one-dollar tips for the holiday craft lesson and promised to look my books up once they got home.

It was fun. It broke the ice. I provided people with an opportunity to express themselves  creatively.  I didn’t have to awkwardly pressure anyone into buying a book they didn’t want. They could see the books on the table and ask questions in their own time-frame. The hardest part of the whole day was making sure I gave each person in the crowd proper attention.

I didn’t go out thinking about how I was going to stop traffic at my booth, teach a new skill, engage the creative brain, and then sell books.  I started with the question of how I could cover the cost of the booth if my books didn’t sell. That idea morphed through the day into something that made the venue more enjoyable for others and made the sales experience more enjoyable. What’s more, selling books and meeting new fans put fire back into my cloister efforts, and I’ve been twice as productive over the last two weeks.

What’s my main point here?  Be flexible. Pivot. Run with that crazy idea for a bit. It may be the first step in an even better idea.

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ESSENTIALS FOR RUNNING A BOOTH
Merchandise (including an accurate book count)
Cashbox (with change, and a starting till count)
Posters
Patch Kit (Scissors, Tape, Pens and Pencils)
Mailing List Sign-Up
Back-Order Sheet
Business Cards or Book Marks
Candy Bowl
iPhone Credit Card reader (if you’re that kind of person…)
An event-appropriate talent/activity to share with potential customers

 

PROBLEM SOLVING SUMMARY

  • Identify Need: Change of scenery. Inventory collecting dust.
  • Identify Solution: Holiday Craft Fair
  • Calculate Benefits: New Fans, Change of Scenery, Professional Contacts, Potential Profit
  • Postulate Risks: I might look silly selling books at a craft fair, waste my writing time, and not cover costs.
  • Identify Mitigations: Take a secondary product such as snowflakes.
  • Flex and Pivot: Use the snowflakes as a conversation starter and bonus for book purchases.