I am a freelance, nonfiction writer who cares about the environment, individuality, creative expression, and simplicity. I'm glad you've found my blog, and I hope you'll join in the conversation by leaving a comment. Disagreements are allowed, even encouraged, but cruelty, vulgarity, and slander is not.

There's no place like home

November 27th, 2013

I realized that I've stopped taking pictures. Granted, I'm really busy right now -- packing and preparing to move -- but the reason is deeper than that.

I don't want to pick up the camera because I know I cannot capture the image as I see it, as I feel it, and as it appears in my heart. My home for 17 years is a thing that cannot be conveyed in a flat and lifeless format.

I discovered this while I was watching the robins move through my yard last week as they do every year. The correct term for a group of birds is flock, but during the fall migration what came through here felt more like a mammalian herd than an avian flyby. It was breathtaking to watch. And before they left, the bright red berries on the 10-foot holly tree disappeared.

This is one example in a million examples of the cycles and sounds at the home I've come to know so well. Inside, I recognize every creak. I can discern between the smell that means it's time to dust the vents and the one that indicates it's time to call the fire company. Everything is safe and familiar here.

And very soon, in increments now measured in days, I will walk out the door for the very last time.

Do the robins grow melancholy as the temperature drops and they prepare to leave their summer home? Do they wish they could stay when the winter temperatures rise again, pushing them to say farewell once more?

Admittedly, this goodbye will soon become a hello. I'm going to a place as much as I'm leaving one. The cycles, sounds, and smells will be new, and curiosity will replace this reluctance to leave. Friends and family will visit, and new memories will be born.

And back here, a different family will witness the robin assault. Chances are they'll be surprised at first. "Look at all the robins!" they'll say. Then, eventually, the event will become commonplace, like homeland wonders always do.

Nearly two decades of change fill my photo collection. Now all there is to photograph is packed-up cardboard boxes and a sold sign. I'll start another album next month, one freshened with the inspiration to take photos again. But for now more than ever before I'm realizing how it easy it is to take a home for granted, that is until it's time to go.


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Did you do that yourself?

November 13th, 2013

The post is part of the latest SOS Signal, my bi-monthly newsletter which speaks to the career professional.

The time is at hand to set goals for 2014. For each task we must decide if we want to hire someone or if it's something we'll handle ourselves. There are many reasons why a person takes on a job that would otherwise be done by an expert. For one thing, self-reliance is getting easier. The availability of resources and tools for Do it Yourself projects (DIY) have become so commonplace, I wonder if it won't be long before there are DIY lawsuits or DIY facelifts.

Like a hungry person learning to garden, there's value in having DIY skills. But there are also valid reasons to get help. Some professional business services seem costly upfront, until you consider the impacts beyond the total on the invoice. DIY as a way to cut expenses can backfire, resulting in stained credibility, increased stress, and lost revenue.

So how do you decide? You take into consideration multiple angles.

The Case for DIY

People often ask me about my Website. It's a DIY. Here are the main reasons why I originally decided to build my own:

1.) I had more time than money.

2.) I had a good enough skill set to get it done.

3.) I wanted the ability to customize and to be the person responsible and in control.

4.) The knowledge gained helped my career/was a topic that interested me.

5.) I was confident the final product would serve its primary purpose.

After it was done, I found future applications for what I had learned. I customized this Blog. I communicated more easily with professionals in the Web design field. And recently, I offered my knowledge to a fellow sole proprietor, Shannon Miller of Shannon Miller Photography, with whom I had teamed up on an unrelated project. As our business relationship progressed, it became apparent that her success would impact mine. We began to trade services. She took my headshot and other needed photos, and I helped her get an updated Website.

The value of learning a new skill almost always has long-term benefits, ones that may not reveal themselves until farther on down the road.

The Case Against DIY

Meanwhile, let's look at another, less technical example. At home, I'd like to add a shelter for protecting my car from the weather. Four to six posts and roof would suffice. I don't want one of those metal, industrial-looking structures that have become popular around here, but I also don't want to pay more for a carport than I did the car. I found kits online that would give me the instructions (and possibly the materials) to build one myself. Admittedly it would be rewarding to say, "I built that," and I'd prefer to have control over the outcome.

BUT, I do not have decent carpentry or power-tool skills. And the structure's purpose is to protect my vehicle, not collapse on top of it.

So, in this case, just because I COULD build it myself, doesn't mean I SHOULD.

The Gray Area in Between

Back to my Website; I have what I paid for. Although it successfully casts my name and information out into Cyberspace, it doesn't have quality bait on its hook. Ideally, to get more from it, I should hire an expert.

Foremost in my decision on how to go forward is the answer to the perpetual question, "Does it serve its purpose?" Like a carport in shambles, if the site turns off visitors or never succeeds in catching new business, then it doesn't matter who built it, it's not worth the lumber or labor consumed. Additionally, when my book hits the New York Times bestseller list, and I have to travel the world to give readings and book signings, I won't have the time to keep my site functioning, and thus, I will need to pay someone who can.

Because the process is rarely easy.

Plus, few DIY projects turn out to run as smoothly as intended. The history of how my site came into existence is so long and complicated, I could have written 18 best sellers in the amount of time I've invested in it. My first site was created more than a decade ago using an online template service called SiteStudio. Like with any templated program, I took a risk that mine would look like someone else's, which I tried to reduce by pushing the software to its customization brink. Although clumsy and time consuming, the process did at least give me an online business card as well as a basic understanding of how to talk in computer code.

I revamped the site three times over the years, adding new services and making use of new HTML knowledge. Then, out of nowhere one day, my site's host lost the connection to the SiteStudio files. There was no way to restore them from a backup. All I got was, "Sorry, you'll have to rebuild it." They were fired.

While the crickets were chirping at my URL, I found a new hosting service. They also offered SiteStudio, which I immediately declined. I tried instead an inexpensive, off-the-shelf Mac software program that ran on my desktop. I managed to create something, but my throat still hurts from screaming at the computer. After about a year of trying to maintain files that were impossible to work with, I made the investment in the well known, tried-and-true, Website creation software called Dreamweaver.

I passed over the templates and dug in to learn the fundamentals, granting me the knowledge of exactly how my site was structured, etc. I took advantage of DIY books on HTML and CSS, read a lot about best practices, and invested hours...days...weeks into building a site that I can update quickly and if anything happens to the server, I can reload in minutes.

Beyond the software, hosting, and domain registration fees, the site was built for free. Sounds great, right? Not really. Here's why:

1.) If I had spent that time making money, my profit would have far exceeded the expense of hiring a professional.

2.) My skill set lacks knowledge. I do not speak fluent HTML, a language that is still evolving. I do not have a grasp of the code that mobile devices need to properly display a given Website. I cannot add interactivity. My site is not search engine optimized. And it lacks the graphic punch needed to keep a reader's attention.

3.) Although I may be in charge, I only get what I envision. There are no brainstorming sessions. I'm not able to tap into advice from talented peers and other individuals. All my shortcomings follow me to my online presence. This is the drawback of total control.

4.) While I'm interested in the the trade, I'm not interested in becoming a Webmaster. Having a little bit of knowledge about something so extensive can be a hindrance if you fail to acknowledge all that you do not know. Additionally, software upgrades are becoming increasingly more expensive in the design world, and for this job, you can't use your grandfather's tools.

5.) The primary purpose has changed. Where before my site was designed as a for-more-information followup to a face-to-face meeting or word-of-mouth referral, my career has evolved into one in which strangers must be able to stumble upon it. I must begin to catch some unknown fish floating in the online stream.

The Final Evaluation

There is nothing wrong with DIY. If there were, stores such as Lowes or Home Depot wouldn't be so darn successful. But we must all be careful not to let the DIY craze rob us of the potential that exists in a job professionally done or cripple us with the drawbacks of having one done wrong. There is a reason why someone is called an expert, and hiring the right one almost always pays for itself in time saved, profit gained, and effectiveness achieved.

For my plan in 2014, I expect to keep my DIY Website. But if anyone asks for advice on how they should proceed with theirs, I'll tell them, "It depends." Because decisions such as this really do depend. There are nuances to every task and angles to every project, ones that can only be evaluated by the decision maker. No matter what, the first step starts with setting the goal.


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Tell me your dreams

November 1st, 2013

"That's almost as boring as when people tell you their dreams," my friend said. She was reiterating a comment someone had made to her, hoping that I wasn't disinterested in what her mind had created the night before.

I wasn't. Dreams fascinate me. I can come up with some haunting and ludicrous ones of my own. And while I don't remember all of them, whether conscious of it or not, the story from the night before stays with me as I start my day. It can be a nagging sadness or an uplifting happiness. All because of a dream.

I believe dreams are manifestations of our desires and our worries. Sometimes we can't easily discern why we dream what we do, such a when we experience a rambling, illogical one. But other times, the cause becomes clear after we offer the dream a little attention ... after we acknowledge that lingering feeling in an effort to understand why it is there.

For instance, last night I dreamt that my husband's arms were covered in colorful tattoos. He had been hiding them from me. He was living a double life, and I was crushed. I threw my water glass against a brick wall in response. Then, I spent the rest of the dream picking up scattered shards of glass by myself.

This morning, I woke up sad and suspicious of my husband's love.

As I tried to shake it off, I began to realize the dream deserved some thought. It wasn't just some silly hallucination. My husband and I are embroiled in crossing a milestone. We are taking a leap toward living in a location we always said we wanted. We are about to move from a place that is comfortable and secure to a place that maybe, could be, hopefully will be even better.

Could this place be worth the trouble it takes to move?

This is it. We won't be moving again until we grow too old to live independently.

Thus, I must acknowledge that my soul needs reassurance. I need a reconfirmation of my husband's commitment, and I must assume that he needs the same from me. Neither of us wants to be left alone to pick up shattered glass.

September 17, 1994

Boring? No. Dreams are a person's connection to their most personal thoughts, ones he or she may be able to successfully push aside during the day, one's that escape when consciousness is asleep.

Any friend who cares to share a dream with me will find an ear that understands just how valuable our dreams can be. With Technicolor vision, they make us pay attention to that which we try to ignore. And like a creatively told story, they give us inspiration to act in a way that is right for our hearts.


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Killing ourselves with stress

October 18th, 2013

It's enough to eat you alive, from the inside out. Stress can kill. And if you've ever gone through a particularly stressful event, you understand just how true that can be.

The human body responds to stress in harmful ways. I'm not entirely sure why. The addition of corrosive acid to the stomach is just one effect. There are plenty more that come when danger strikes. Short bursts are not a problem. Remedies, such as drinking peppermint tea, can soothe those rough spots. But when stress is prolonged for days, weeks, months, or years, no medicine in the world can cure it.

And when you're pacing the floor, wringing your hands, or banging your head against the wall, the knowledge that the stress you're experiencing is harmful to your health -- that it might even take years off your life -- only makes the stress more stressful.

“I've got to calm down,” you tell yourself. “Don't pressure me now, I've got enough to worry about,“ you respond. It's vicious and self destructive, and all the advice in the world can't make it stop. The only method to ensure it truly goes away is to resolve whatever is causing it.

In the last two weeks, I experienced what I believe was the most stressful period in my life so far. It wasn't a matter of life and death. It was just stressful. Now that the worst is over, I can see why I was bothered so much. What it came down to in this instance, in a single word, was uncertainty.

Horror writers know all about the human tendency to dwell on "what's going to happen?" Suspense is big business. People get profoundly frightened by the unknown, that some thing which may or may not be around the next corner.

You can try to breathe deeply. You can exercise, sip wine, be in the moment, or visualize something beautiful. But the real cure doesn't come until the shadows are lifted and the uncertainty is banished.

The best example is the medical test. Doctors are now questioning the hyper preventative state of mind that today's technology has driven. It feels as if it won't be long before a scientist will be able to run a test to tell a mother how long her infant will live, whether it be ten months or ten decades. Wouldn't you like to know? Really? Would you survive the stress of waiting to find out the results? There are a lot of diseases and defects in the human condition. At what point does our need to know result in so much stress that we become unable to enjoy the life we've got?

My uncertainty was related to the current task of selling our house to buy another. Were we going to move or not? Either answer would have been fine. We love our house now and the neighbors who surround it. But the house we hoped to buy held a key to a lifelong dream. Which one was it going to be? I just wanted to know.

It appears now that we will be moving, although we won't know for sure until December. With each passing day, with each hurdle cleared, with each test result reported, I knocked down the cause of my stress. The relief that came from resolving the problem -- the uncertainty -- was far more beneficial to my state of mind than any temporary remedy could offer.

Of course, we must take the doctor's advice and do the things that help us cope, but to truly tackle stress, we must identify its cause and then find an end to it.


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A Few Comments About Those Comments

October 10th, 2013

Since I write a blog, I read multiple blogs. You probably read a few too, although sometimes you might not even know it. Online news is often presented in Blog format today. How do you know? The simplest way is to check if comments can be read or posted after each story. If so, then it's technically a Blog.

Two icons from the bottom of a Blog post. The one on the right was for Twitter. The one on the left indicated comments. Twenty-five had been made; if you clicked on the link, the comments would appear.

Through this technology, we don't just get our news or information, we can read immediate reaction to it from a medley of news-reading people.

It's a great concept, but the sight isn't always pretty.

A Brief Blog-Versus-Website Primer

For those who are still a little confused, a Blog is a crazy name for a journal on the Internet. Blogs are not really Websites, but some Websites are Blogs. Since you can start a Blog for free, it's becoming popular to build one instead of a Website (although you can build them for free these days, too). But the primary difference is that a Website contains static information that is pushed out to the reader (beyond the occasional form to fill in), and a Blog is a two-way street.

When used in this fundamental way, a Blog is all about feedback, like a conversation. The reader can interact with the writer by posting a comment, to which the writer can respond. Facebook and YouTube have blog-like functions. There are Blog communities, such as LiveJournal or WordPress, in which sites are accessed and promoted through a common portal. This helps readers find and keep track of the ones they like and helps writers connect with an appropriate audience.

You can stay connected with ones you like by signing up for notices via email, or by following Blogs, reading them via RSS feeds, utilizing Blog tracking/reading services, etc. It depends on your work style and the features available on each.

The ones I favor are written by friends or like-minded individuals or offer insight that I find useful. I usually share something in common with the other readers, too, because I often agree with their comments.

That's not ALWAYS the case, though, especially when it comes to online news Blogs.

Blogging's Impact on Journalism

I call them journalistic blogs because they are written for newspapers and the like. They can be produced by the local news service or a firm such as The New York Times. Some limit the coverage to a particular topic, such as StateImpact, which is said to be "a reporting project of local public media and National Public Radio," and covers energy, environment, and economy surrounding the Marcellus Shale industry.

The posts present the facts as known, quote a few sources, and include the opposing view if needed -- the typical journalistic structure. It's written for a broad audience: anyone who wants to know more about what's going on with the topic at hand.

The Way it Was

For most of my life, Americans collected the paper from their doorstep or mailbox every morning and retreated to the breakfast table to read about what happened yesterday. Neighbor might have waved to neighbor, said a friendly hello, or asked if she knew if the Phillies won, but beyond that, little was known about what the other thought of the news. Some might have engaged in debates over the issues, but they always knew exactly who they were talking to, because they were looking at each other's face or hearing each other's voice.

The News Today

Thanks to the Blogosphere we can retrieve the news in secrecy. And we can tell the world our opinion while hiding in the same shadow. Today, we can essentially write a passionate letter to an editor without divulging our identity or our place of residence. And because this can be done in an instant, readers can see into our reactionary mind, as well as those of a broad spectrum of readers.

It has often been the case that a well-articulated opinion will force me to challenge my own. Commenters may shed light on a fact not included in the article. Or they bring up a historical event witnessed before the writer was born. This collective knowledge can enhance the story, and the perspectives show just how wonderfully diverse we all are. Thanks to the Blog format, a whole new dimension has been added to the news.

The Bad and the Ugly

But sadly, too often the comments make me shudder. They leave me thinking "Am I totally alone? Has the world gone mad? Does this ugly sentiment represent that of the average citizen?" I'll tell you, there are days when the comments leave me feeling distraught. I think, "maybe I should just stop reading them. Ignorance is bliss, so they say."

Then I began to look closely. And I found a pattern. A few specific phrases or tactics were used, especially among the most disturbing opinions. With light shed on their faults, the credibility of the commenters who used them disappeared. Now I can quickly reject them and move on. So that you too can weed out the croakers and trolls to make way for intelligent debate, I share these with you here:

1.) Commenter to journalist: "Do your homework."

Unless the commenter is a respected journalist himself, he cannot know how impossible it is to capture every angle, every fact, and every piece of information related to every story. If this was a prerequisite to publish, nothing would reach the public's eye. Why don't they just say, "I know more than you about this, you ignorant bastard, so the paper should fire you and hire me to write just about this one topic every day, all day."

Of course I don't appreciate lazy journalism -- that's a rampant problem today -- but a reader should be able to add what he or she knows without throwing insults. And besides, no matter how good the reporting, the journalist can never know it all, and even if (s)he did, the editor would have cut the copy sooner or later.

2.) Commenter to journalist: "Who do you think you are?"

They probably think they're the writer of the story.

3.) Commenter to writer, "This is typical [insert paper name]-style reporting."

This one is just looking for a fight with the network or the conglomerate. If you don't like the paper's slant, don't read it or take up the issue with the executives or the editors. The commenter probably disliked whatever would be written before he or she even clicked on the link.

4.) Words like "arse" or "sh_tface" are used, because they know ass and shitface won't make it through the vulgar filter.

5.) The commenter has an inclination to use words like ass or shitface.

6.) Outright verbal attacks are used.

They might have something to say about the story, but it is so buried in direct insults, its difficult to figure out the point.

7.) They rewrite.

The person copies an excerpt from the story, pastes it into their comment, and then rewrites it as if their version would have been better. Like in #1, they try to insult the writer with this tactic. It usually unveils the fact that they have no understanding of how difficult it is to present information in an unbiased fashion.

Although these types of comments are rampant, they are NOT an accurate representation of public opinon. Frankly, of the people I hold in the highest regard, many are too shy to comment. Or they care so greatly about the English language, they don't have time craft a letter that would meet their own standards. That leaves us with folks who are 1.) not intimidated by Blog technology, 2.) brave enough to share their thoughts with the entire world, 3.) carefree enough to accept that Blogs are forgiving when it comes to grammar, spelling, and typos, and 4.) ignorant tyrants who like to hide behind a screen name.

So for those of you who get your news via Blogs today, don't let those aggressive and ugly commenters get you down, and never fall into the trap of thinking they represent the average reader. They don't. They represent the average bully and, since every playground has one, we all need to learn how to ignore them until they go away.


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