My Predictions for the 2016 Baseball Season

CubsI admit it. I’m nervous.

Today is the official opening day of the baseball season (There were three games yesterday, but for some reason, that wasn’t opening day), and for the first time in my life, the Chicago Cubs are the prohibitive favorites to win the World Series. Why does that make me nervous?

First, this is unfamiliar territory. For as long as I can remember, the Cubs were baseball’s lovable losers. Nobody ever expected much out of the team. After all, the Cubs have only had eighteen winning seasons since they were last in the World Series in 1945. For those of you who are math challenged, that’s eighteen winning seasons in seventy years, or about one winning season every four years.  In case you don’t follow baseball, that’s not very good.

Second, I’m uncomfortable with the impact these suddenly high expectations are having on some Cubs fans. These fans—primarily those too young to fully understand the soul-crushing nature of Cubs fandom—are talking trash, as if the Cubs have actually accomplished something already. As skipper Joe Maddon so eloquently put it, the Cubs are a defending third-place team. Why all the unbridled optimism?

Listen, my hopes are high for the 2016 edition of the Chicago Cubs, but I’ve been around long enough to have my hopes dashed on the rocks of defeat, disappointment, and despair by the Cubs over and over again. Now, my hopes are tempered with memories of the September swoon of 1969, the unprecedented loss of three straight games to San Diego in the 1984 playoffs, and the Bartman game (It wasn’t Bartman’s fault) of 2003. I was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2003, and the Cubs collapse against the Marlins in the NLCS was still the worst thing that happened to me that year.

All I’m saying is, there’s no harm in being hopeful, but let’s not celebrate quite yet. The baseball season is very long, and a lot of things can happen. Be excited and enthusiastic. Cheer on the team every chance you get. But don’t make plans for the Cubs’ World Series party in ink. Maybe just pencil it into the calendar for now.

With those words of restraint borne of decades of disappointment, here’s how I expect the MLB standings to look at the end of the season:

American League East

  1. New York Yankees
  2. Toronto Blue Jays (1st Wild Card)
  3. Boston Red Sox
  4. Tampa Bay Rays
  5. Baltimore Orioles

American League Central

  1. Detroit Tigers
  2. Kansas City Royals
  3. Cleveland Indians
  4. Chicago White Sox
  5. Minnesota Twins

American League West

  1. Texas Rangers
  2. Houston Astros (2nd Wild Card)
  3. Seattle Mariners
  4. Los Angeles Angels
  5. Oakland Athletics

National League East

  1. Washington Nationals
  2. New York Mets (1st Wild Card)
  3. Miami Marlins
  4. Atlanta Braves
  5. Philadelphia Phillies

National League Central

  1. Chicago Cubs
  2. St. Louis Cardinals
  3. Pittsburgh Pirates
  4. Cincinnati Reds
  5. Milwaukee Brewers

National League West

  1. San Francisco Giants
  2. Arizona Diamondbacks (2nd Wild Card)
  3. Los Angeles Dodgers
  4. San Diego Padres
  5. Colorado Rockies

Go Cubs!

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The Problem with Chasing Money

Chasing MoneyI have a disease. It causes me to develop an intense, almost instantaneous interest in every business opportunity that comes my way. Flipping houses? I’m interested. Amazon FBA? Tell me more. An Internet business? Hey, I could do that. I even sometimes think about returning to a 50-60 hour per week corporate job. Sure, I’d lose all of my writing time and freedom, but I could make a lot more money. And isn’t money the way we keep score?

That last sentence is the problem. At some point in my life, I bought into the belief that the amount of money I made was the way my success was measured. The more money I made, the more successful I was. And I always wanted to be more successful, so I always needed to make more money. But even more than that, I began to equate my value as a person with the amount of money I was making. Deep down, I think I knew this was wrong, but I believed it anyway.

I also bought into the myth that money equals happiness. Again, I instinctively knew that this belief was wrong–or at least incomplete–but everyone around me had bought into it, so why shouldn’t I?

Money Equals Happiness

In recent years, I’ve been in remission from this economically-motivated disease, but every once in a while I have a flare up, and I need a reminder to resist the urge to chase the almighty dollar. This blog post from author and experiential researcher, Tim Ferriss, does a good job of explaining my struggle, and the reason anyone whose main goal is happiness should fight the compulsion to chase the money.

 

“You’re nobody here at $10 million,” said Gary Kremen, the 43-year old founder of Match.com, of Silicon Valley.

In the August 5th New York Times article titled, “In Silicon Valley, Millionaires Who Don’t Feel Rich,” he and others in the nation’s wealthiest 1/2 of 1 percent admitted to feeling compelled to work 60-80-hour work weeks just to keep up. Hal Steger, who’s banked more than $2 million and has a net worth of $3.5 million, echoes the sentiments of these “working-class millionaires” when he says, “…a few million doesn’t go as far as it used to. Maybe in the ’70s, a few million bucks meant ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,’ or Richie Rich living in a big house with a butler. But not anymore…

C’mon now.

I live in a nice part of Silicon Valley, and I do whatever I want for less than $5,000 per month. There are more metrics to consider. More important, I’m “happy” by all conventional measurements. But I’ll be the first to admit… it hasn’t been this way for long. Only in the last three years have I really come to understand the concepts of time as currency and positional economics. Before I explain how you can use both to exit the rat race and dramatically upgrade your Lifestyle Quotient, let’s look at some numbers… According to polls on this blog:

46.88% of Americans say they would need to make more than $200K a year to be happy

63.41% of Americans, assuming prices remained the same, would rather earn $50K in a world of $25K earners than earn $100K in a world of $200K earners

74.64% of Americans would rather get Fridays off vs. a 20% raise

Would you be happier if you were richer? A recent study published in Science by a group including Princeton professors Alan Krueger and Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics, indicates that annual income is less important than anyone could have guessed. In fact, it gets less important as the per-capita average continues to grow. Here are a few highlights that foreshadow where we’re headed:

-The ways in which people with high incomes spend their time tend to make them more tense and stressed than their less-affluent counterparts.

-If personal wealth does not necessarily lead to personal happiness, then how well does gross national income reflect a nation’s well-being? Not well at all.

-Economists can add another dimension to their measurements by examining an alternative currency: time, “the coin of life,” as poet Carl Sandburg called it. The study of income and happiness featured in the Science paper suggests that time-use — how one uses one’s time — plays an important role in personal well-being, so national measures of time-use might aid our understanding of well-being on a national scale.

In the study itself, they move into positional economics and answer the question: why does income have such a weak effect on subjective well-being?…Basically, even permanent increases in income have little effect on perceived happiness, as we compare ourselves to those above us, no matter how much progress we make. Material goods give us a short-lived happiness sugar high, and we seem committed to making ourselves miserable. That sucks.

What to do? There are a few ways to use the currency of time, and awareness of positional economics, to your advantage to beat the Joneses on new terms:

1. Focus on “relative income” — defined as hourly income — instead of “absolute income,” misleading annual income that doesn’t factor in time. If you assume a 40-hour work week and 2 weeks of vacation per year, estimate per-hour income by cutting off the last three zeros and dividing in half. Thus: $50,000 per year –> $50 divided by 2 = $25 per hour. Relative income can be increased by increasing total income for the same hours, getting the same income for fewer hours, or some combination thereof. More options with more life.

2. Determine your precise Target Monthly Income (TMI) for your ideal lifestyle — the goal of most rat-race income competition — and focus on structuring mini-retirements to redistribute retirement throughout life. There’s an excellent Excel spreadsheet here for calculations.

3. Determine your “where” of happiness. It’s not necessary to permanently move to a country with depressed currency, but even temporary relocation to a domestic (check out Forbes’ publisher Rich Karlgaard’s Life 2.0) or international location with a lower cost-of-living resets your peer group and positional economics barometer. Being perceived as rich often translates into perceiving yourself as rich. Neat trick and a hell of a lot of fun. Two of my top picks for positional resets are Argentina (see“How to Live Like a Rock Star (or Tango Star) in Buenos Aires”) and Thailand.

4. Develop appreciation in tandem with achievement. Subjective happiness depends on appreciating what you get as much as getting what you want. The first step to true appreciation is perception: cultivating present-awareness. I recommend experimenting with lucid dreaming as tested at Stanford University, in particular the “reality check” exercises of Dr. Stephen Laberge.

5. Develop competitive social groups outside of work. Participate in games outside of income mongering. Train or compete in a sport where income is a non-factor. That dude makes $1,000,000 a day as a hedge fund manager? I don’t care–his golf swing sucks and he has love handles. Here, it counts for nothing. Oh, and her? I know she just got promoted to national manager for IBM, but so what? I just scored 5 goals on her. In this world, I rule.

Don’t let rat racing be the only game you play against the Joneses. There is always someone willing to sacrifice it all to earn more, so let them. Just remember: it is entirely possible — in fact, common — to be a success in business and a failure in life. Take the red pill and think different.

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Interest vs Commitment

Bacon and Eggs

There’s a difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when circumstances permit. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results. – Kenneth Blanchard (also attributed to Art Turock)

 

Question: In a bacon-and-egg breakfast, what’s the difference between the Chicken and the Pig?

Answer: The Chicken is involved, but the Pig is committed!

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Want to be Happy and Successful?

Brene Brown

Want to be happy and successful? Who doesn’t? Author and University of Houston Professor Brene Brown has seven suggestions to help you (and me) live a happier and more successful life:

Note: These suggestion are from Brene’s Ted Talks, and were compiled in an article in Inc. Magazine.

 

  1. Want to be happy? Stop trying to be perfect.
  2. What would you be glad you did, even if you failed?
  3. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.
  4. What we know matters, but who we are matters even more.
  5. We risk missing out on joy when we get busy chasing down the extraordinary.
  6. Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives.
  7. Authenticity is a collection of choices we have to make every day.

Here’s one of Brene Brown’s most popular Ted Talks:

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Do The Work

Do the Work

 

The following quotes are from Do The Work, the great and inspirational book from author Steven Pressfield:

 

“In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity.Resistance cannot be seen, heard, touched or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential.”

 

“Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you. Resistance will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man.Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get.”

 

“Don’t think. Act. Once we commit to action, the worst thing we can do is to stop.”

 

“Our mightiest ally (our indispensable ally) is belief in something we cannot see, hear, touch, taste or feel.
Resistance wants to rattle that faith. Resistance wants to destroy it.”

 

“Picasso painted with passion, Mozart composed with it. A child plays with it all day long.
You may think you’ve lost your passion, or you can’t identify it, or that you have so much of it, it threatens to overwhelm you. None of these is true.
Fear saps passion.
When we conquer our fears, we discover a boundless, bottomless, inexhaustible well of passion.
When art and inspiration and success and fame and money have come and gone, who still loves us—and whom do we love?”

 

“If you and I want to do great stuff, we can’t let ourselves work small. A home run swing that results in a strikeout is better than a successful bunt or even a line-drive single.”

 

“Start playing from power. We can always dial it back later. If we don’t swing for the seats from the start, we’ll never be able to drive a fastball into the upper deck.”

 

“Do you love your idea? Does it feel right on instinct? Are you willing to bleed for it?
Get your idea down on paper. We can always tweak it later.”

 

“Don’t worry about quality. Act, don’t reflect. Momentum is everything.
Get to THE END as if the devil himself were breathing down your neck and poking you in the butt with his pitchfork. Believe me, he is.”

 

“Our job is not to control our idea; our job is to figure out what our idea is (and wants to be)—and then bring it into being.”

 

“Assistance is the universal, immutable force of creative manifestation, whose role since the Big Bang has been to translate potential into being, to convert dreams into reality.
I ask myself, again, of the project: ‘What is this damn thing about?'”

 

“What comes first is the idea, the passion, the dream of the work we are so excited to create that it scares the hell out of us.”

 

“The opposite of fear is love—love of the challenge, love of the work, the pure joyous passion to take a shot at our dream and see if we can pull it off.
The dream is your project, your vision, your symphony, your startup. The love is the passion and enthusiasm that fills your heart when you envision its completion.”

 

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The One Where I Talk About Regrets of the Dying

No Regrets“Regrets? I had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

— “My Way” as sung by Frank Sinatra

Although this blog is designed to be a place where I can talk about my writing, I occasionally want to post other things that I have on my mind. I read an article recently about what people most regret at the end of their lives. This made me wonder if I was living a life of few regrets, or, if like the people in the article, I would have a bunch of regrets at the end of my life.

The article itself was prompted by a query posted on the website Quora.com. That post is itself an interesting read, but the article that sprang from the query concentrated on the five biggest regrets. Here they are in order, along with some of my own thoughts:

1.Trying too hard to please others

This regret was also the top regret listed in a popular article from 2012 written by a hospice nurse. In that article, the author quoted one of the respondents as saying “I wish I’d had the courage to live true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Author and investor James Altucher added, “Nobody is more worthy of love in the entire universe than you. I wish I had reminded myself of that more. I could’ve saved all of that time where I was trying to please someone else.”

While I completely understand this regret, I also think that human relationships (especially romantic relationships) require that we do things for others, not just for ourselves. I’m a pretty selfish guy when it comes to meeting my life goals, but even I understand that we all have to compromise and sacrifice from time to time. As my mother used to say: “The world doesn’t revolve around you.” The desires of other people have to occasionally supplant our own.

Having said that, each of us has the responsibility to achieve our own dreams. If something is standing in the way of you getting what you want, it’s up to you to find a way around that obstacle, even if that obstacle is another person. Failing to do what is in your own best interest leads to resentment and regret. You can’t be egocentric all of the time, but pursuing your dreams and passions some of the time can lead to fewer regrets at the end of your life.

2. Too much pointless worry

According to Professor Karl Pillemer, “In our research at Cornell University, I asked hundreds of the oldest Americans that question (about regret). I had expected big-ticket items: an affair, a shady business deal, addictions—that kind of thing. I was therefore unprepared for the answer they often gave: I wish I hadn’t spent so much of my life worrying.”

I’m as prone to worry as anyone else, but it’s always struck me as odd that we often allow the fear created by worry to rule our lives. I like what the Dalia Lama says about worry: “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there’s no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”

Mark Twain said it a little differently: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

Want to have fewer regrets? Worry a lot less.

3. Focusing too much on acquiring stuff

I really struggle with this one. I have been fortunate in my life to own nice houses and fancy cars. But the one thing I noticed whenever I got a new house or car was that it didn’t change anything. I wasn’t any happier. And in fact, I often realized that I could have been just as happy with a less expensive house or car. I was grateful for what I had, but it didn’t change my life for the better. Even so, I still find myself desiring material possessions that I’m convinced will make my life better. Sometimes they do. More often they don’t.

I try to follow Altucher’s advice when he suggests buying experiences rather than stuff. I think there’s a lot of truth in this recommendation. You almost never get buyer’s remorse when it comes to spending money on experiences, unlike when you buy a big ticket item like a television, car or new home.

Researcher Amit Kumar says something similar, but with bigger words: “The anticipatory period [for experiential purchases] tends to be more pleasant…less tinged with impatience relative to future material purchases we’re planning on making. Those waiting for an experience tended to be in a better mood and better behaved than those waiting for a material good.” [Editor’s note: “Better behaved?”]

4. Not taking care of your physical health

I’m (hopefully) not at the end of my life, but I already regret this one. During my first thirty years, I was fortune to have had great health, despite living a relatively unhealthy lifestyle. I drank too much, followed a horrible diet, and burned the candle at both ends. I was definitely a “work hard, play hard” kind of guy. And yet, I stayed physically fit and in good health. Thank God for youth and good genes.

In more recent years, things haven’t been so easy. I have to work like crazy to stay in shape (a battle I’m still fighting) and always have to consider my health when making food, drink, and activity decisions. I’m certainly not alone in this experience. It’s all part of getting old.

I wish I had made better health decisions when I was younger, but there’s nothing I can do about that now. The best I can do is make better decisions today. If I’m consistent in these decisions, I should stay healthy into the future, and have fewer regrets when the end finally comes (in about 100 years).

5. Not traveling enough

“Travel more when you’re young rather than wait until the children are grown or you’re retired,” Professor Pillemer says. “Travel is so rewarding that it should take precedence over other things younger people spend money on.”

I have a split personality when it comes to travel. On the one hand, I think it’s crazy that people don’t travel more. Any American can go just about anywhere in the world quickly, safely, and relatively cheaply. Never before in history has it been this easy to see the world.

On the other hand, there are only a few places I’d really like to see. I’d like to go to Ireland, Spain, Italy, Panama, Brazil, and the Caribbean islands. I’d also like to travel more around the United States and Canada. But the truth is, travel isn’t at the top of my list of priorities. In theory, I like the idea of wandering the globe, but I’m not hell-bent to drop everything and see the world.

Sadly, if things don’t change in the coming years, this may be a regret I have at the end of my life. I hope not. Since travel isn’t a priority to me now, maybe it won’t be that important to me on my death bed. Just to be safe, I’ll be doing a little traveling in the coming years.

I’m a big believer that our lives are the sum of the choices we make. If we want to reach the end of (hopefully) long and productive lives, we have to make good decisions today. It’s not a guarantee, but I do think it helps us to live lives of gratitude and satisfaction, rather than spending our final days living with regret.

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January Update

JanuaryHappy New Year!

I woke up this morning to frozen pipes in my house, and I’m waiting for the local water company to come fix the problem (God, I hate the cold!). Not being able to take a shower first thing in the morning tends to throw off my whole day. Since I haven’t posted anything yet this month, I thought I’d give you a quick update. It will make me feel like I’m accomplishing something, when in fact I’m mostly just running in place.

I’m currently working with a graphic artist on the cover for my next book, Back on the Road. I hope to have that done by the middle of next week. Final edits took much longer than anticipated, which is why the process is running a week or two behind. Barring catastrophe, I still plan on having the book published by the end of the month.

I’m also working on putting together Road Stories, a collection of my first three novellas. The collection will be available in both print and digital formats, and soon will be available as an audiobook. Road Stories will be available in February, with the audiobook soon to follow.

For both Back on the Road and Road Stories, the remaining work involves formatting, cover design, recording, etc. The writing is all done for both books. That means it’s almost time to turn my writing efforts to A Good Life, a novella due out in April, and Driven, a novel that is scheduled for publication in June. I’ve done quit a bit of work on both already, but I’ve put them aside to work on getting Back on the Road and Road Stories ready for publication. I’m looking forward to once again having big chunks of time available to write.

Time to get back to work. Hopefully, my water pipes will thaw soon.

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The Ten Best Books I Read in 2015

As we approach year’s end, new “best of” lists seem to pop up every day. Those lists got me thinking about the best books I’ve read this year. I was fortunate to read around sixty books in 2015. Some were great, others not so good. Some were new releases, others published years ago. As I reviewed the list of books I read this past year, I came up with the ten I thought were the best of the bunch. Here’s my list, along with a few thoughts about each book:

10. Book -- The Accountant's StoryThe Accountant’s Story by Roberto Escobar – This is one of just two nonfiction books that made my list this year. I’ve been researching a novel about the drug trade in the 1980’s, and I was interested in the structure of the Medellin Cartel. The Cartel was headed by the infamous Carlos Escobar, and his brother, Roberto Escobar (the author of this book) handled the group’s money. In truth, the book is not particularly well written, but it tells an intriguing story that I really enjoyed. If you’re interested in the 1980’s drug trade, I would also recommend the Netflix original series, Narcos. It’s fantastic.

9. Book -- All The LightAll The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, so you know it’s got to be pretty good (ASIDE: I’m often confused by how the Pulitzer committee chooses the winner of the literature prize. I’ve read a bunch of the winners, and I don’t see a common thread that runs through all of the books. In fact, I’m often disappointed in the winners, but that’s a story for another day.) All The Light We Cannot See is about Marie-Laure, a 14-year old blind girl living in Nazi-occupied Paris. Her father, the Master of Locks at the nearby Natural History Museum, disappears, and Marie-Laure must navigate her way through World War II, all the while protecting the museum’s most valuable artifact: a gem the Nazi’s covet.

8. Book -- The Storied LifeThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin – This was one of the last books I read in 2015, and I enjoyed it. However, my recommendation doesn’t come without reservations. It’s a slow read. For much of the book, nothing of consequence happens. I don’t need car chases and gunfights, but I’d like some forward moving action. There’s a joke that claims that in literary fiction, nothing happens, but it happens in great detail. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry fits this description. Even so, I was taken by the book. Not much happened, but I cared about the characters, and I kept turning the pages. The book stuck with me, and it made my top ten list.

7. Book -- Demon CampDemon Camp by Jennifer Percy – I had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer Percy before I read her book (I also paid her $1000. Another story for another day.). Jennifer is an attractive young woman, who is in no way imposing or threatening or seemingly unusually brave. Because of this, I was mesmerized by her stories of traveling throughout war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan. I was amazed that this slight young women travelled by herself to tell the stories of American soldiers and local citizens. To see what I mean, check out this story from Jennifer that was published in the New York Times this past October. In Demon Camp, Jennifer tells a rather weird story about Caleb Daniels, a former soldier, who uses a type of exorcism to treat his and other’s PTSD. It’s a crazy story, and Jennifer does a fantastic job of telling it.

6. Book -- Train ShotsTrain Shots – Stories by Vanessa Blakeslee – Author Vanessa Blakeslee is a friend of mine, and I purchased her book almost as soon as it became available (If I remember correctly, I bought her book at an event a few days before it was available to the public). Even so, I didn’t read it. I had a bunch of books in my reading queue, so I put Train Shots on the shelf. It was still on the shelf when I learned that Vanessa’s book won the IPPY Award for Short Fiction, and was long-listed for the prestigious Frank O’Conner International Short Story Award. Then this past summer, Train Shots came out as an audiobook. Better yet, it was narrated by Vanessa herself. I bought the audiobook and immediately listened to it. Vanessa has a gift for creating intriguing characters, and she puts them in interesting and difficult situations. I thoroughly enjoyed Train Shots, and I recommend it highly. (NOTE: Vanessa’s debut novel, Juventud, is out, and I hear it’s really good.)

5. Book -- Tree of SmokeTree of Smoke by Denis Johnson – Denis Johnson is one of my favorite writers. I loved Train Dreams, and thought Jesus’s Son was fantastic as well. Tree of Smoke wasn’t as good as these earlier books, but it was still a great read. Tree of Smoke is about Skip Sands, a CIA operative in-training who is stationed in Vietnam in the early 1960’s. He is the nephew of an infamous character known as “the Colonel,” who is running an off-the-books psychological operation. Sands is caught up in the hurricane surrounding his uncle, and he follows his uncle’s lead, even when he doesn’t understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. Like much of Johnson’s writing, the story in Tree of Smoke is weird, and at times, confusing. But throughout, the story is terrific and the book is well worth reading. (NOTE: I also read Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters this year. I didn’t like it as much as Tree of Smoke, but it came close to making the top ten list, maybe number eleven or twelve.)

4. Book -- The Enchanted Life of Adam HopeThe Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley – I still can’t figure out why I read this book. I didn’t know anything about it or its author. Someone must have recommended it, so I put it on my wish list. When it came to the top of the queue, I read it. Initially, I was disappointed. I read mostly realist fiction, and The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope involves a little magic realism. Even so, I got caught up in Riley’s inventive story, and I came to care about the characters. Even now, the story sticks with me (which is a little unusual). It’s not the type of book I usually read, but I’m glad I read this one.

3. Book -- The FlamethrowersThe Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner – I’m cheating a little bit with this choice. I originally read The Flamethrowers in 2013, and I liked it so much I read it again this past year. The book was a finalist for The National Book Award in 2013, and it was named to the New York Times Book Review and Time magazine’s Top Ten Fiction Books of the Year lists. The Flamethrowers takes place in 1975 and follows Reno, a young artist who leaves Nevada and moves to New York to build a career for herself. Along her journey, she becomes an unintentional motorcycle racer, and ends up setting the womens’ motorcycle world speed record, on a motorcycle manufactured by her boyfriend’s family’s company in Italy. Complications ensue. In The Flamethrowers, Kushner has written a captivating story that is one of my favorite books ever.

2. Book -- BastardBastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison – I was working on a short story that takes place in South Carolina, and I wanted to read a book that captured the grit and determination of poor South Carolinians. I asked my friend and South Carolina native, Dianne Turgeon-Richardson, for a book recommendation, and she recommended Bastard Out of Carolina. I am thankful she did. Bastard Out of Carolina was published in 1992, and immediately stirred up controversy. Although the book was nominated for the National Book Award, and earned its author favorable comparisons to Faulkner, O’Conner, and Lee, Bastard Out of Carolina was banned in several school districts because of its depictions of rape, drunkenness, and what education administrators called a lack of “substantial educational value.” To my mind, it’s exactly the opposite. I not only enjoyed reading Bastard Out of Carolina, but I was educated by it. What a fantastic book.

1. Book -- Fortune SmilesFortune Smiles-Stories by Adam Johnson – Author Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, so it should have come as no surprise that Fortune Smiles is incredibly well written. This is especially true considering that Fortune Smiles won the National Book Award. Even so, I didn’t expect it to be this good. Johnson reminds me of a smoother and slightly darker George Saunders (one of my favorite authors). They both write intelligent, provocative stories that speak to the heart as well as the brain. Fortune Smiles consists of six very original stories that deftly look at political and technological issues from a very personal, individual perspective. I heard great things about this book before I read it, and it definitely didn’t disappoint.

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Getting to Know Mercer

MercerAs you drive north on U.S. Highway 51, you see the water tower, painted white, sticking up above the trees on the left side of the road. It announces that you’ve arrived in Mercer, Wisconsin. It would be easy to ignore the announcement made by the water tower. After all, there are no buildings in sight, no homes and no people. Just white birch trees and towering pines. But make no mistake, once you see the water tower, you’ve arrived.

I was first introduced to Mercer when I was fourteen years old. My friend, Brad Lyon, had invited me to spend a couple of weeks with his family at their summer cabin in the Northwoods. With the exception of a trip to the Wisconsin Dells when I was three years old, I don’t think I had ever been more than a hundred miles away from my home in Aurora, Illinois. Mercer was more than six hours away by car, but I was riding a bus, and if I remember correctly, the trip took more than nine hours (Can you imagine letting a fourteen year old kid ride a bus alone that far now?).

It was late at night when the bus dropped me off at the Mercer Post Office. I hadn’t seen the water tower on the way in, and I was too tired to much care what the town looked like. Brad and Pop (Brad’s grandfather, Ralph) met me at the post office, and we headed to the cabin in Pop’s white VW Beetle.

Sleep came quickly that night, and I awoke to a beautiful, sunny day. Looking down at the lake through the trees, I was struck by how the sun seemed brighter in Mercer, sparkling on the surface of the water.  The air was lighter and fresher, the lack of humidity making each breath invigorating. I didn’t know much about Mercer then, except that it felt good to be there.

In the following days, I saw what there was to see of the town. There were a few stores, a bank, a gas station, and several bars. Mercer didn’t have much in the way of a downtown, but they had plenty of bars.

I also learned about supper clubs. There was the Ding-A-Ling, Club 51, and a place I think was called The Lilypad, which sat on Pike Lake, north of town. When we’d go out to eat, I’d always order the fried chicken. One night, Brad’s mom told me I could get whatever I wanted from the menu, provided I didn’t order the fried chicken. Not knowing any better, I ordered a twenty-four ounce porterhouse steak. I think it was the most expensive thing on the menu. Mrs. Lyon never gave me a hard time about ordering fried chicken after that.

The majority of my time in Mercer was spent out on the lake. Weather permitting, we would swim and water ski every day. A typical day involved sleeping in and having a late breakfast, then we’d go down to the lake to warm up the boat. For the next several hours we’d ski, with Brad’s dad driving the boat, and Brad, his sister Pam, me, and other guests, taking turns skiing. Toward the end of the day, we’d often head across the lake to enjoy one of the several saunas that dotted the shoreline. Then it was a quick boat ride back for a relaxing bath in the lake (I still love taking a bath next to a boat dock). As the sun set around nine or nine-thirty, we’d head into town to have dinner (Northwoodsians call it “supper”) at one of the local restaurants, or we’d sit at the big claw-footed dinner table to eat while watching the last remnants of the sun set over the lake.

I’m not sure when I made my first trip to Lake of the Falls County Park, but the experience stuck with me. Back then, there was a wooden covered bridge that spanned the Turtle River, at the head of the falls. During the day, bats slept in the rafters on the underside of the bridge roof, and at sundown, they flew out of both sides of the bridge by the thousands. As snowmobiling became more popular, the covered bridge was replaced by a flat concrete bridge that was more conducive to snowmobiling, and the bats had to find a new home. The park was quiet, and felt like a place to relax and reflect. Even today, I find solace every time I visit the park and sit next to the falls.

I spent parts of the next three summers in Mercer with Brad’s family, and I loved every minute of it. I’ve returned many times as an adult, including a few times with my own kids. Each time, I’m reminded of the salad days of my youth, and the love I’ve never lost for Northern Wisconsin. I am eternally grateful to Brad and his family for introducing me to Mercer, and I hope that Lake of the Falls gives readers a glimpse of what the area is like, and why I love it so much.

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