Chez Shaffner

Saturday, March 31, 2007

A Personal Trainer Kicked My Ass

Above: Me trying to get around the apartment this morning.

For the last six years, I’ve been a member of the Boston Sports Club about two blocks from my apartment. For most of that time, I was a member only insofar as a monthly charge showed up on my credit card statements. Since I worked from client sites 4-5 days each week, in the best case scenario I made it to my home gym once a week... (emphasis on best case)

The entire dynamic changed when I terminated my road-warrior lifestyle. Since then, I’ve been awful proud of myself, making it four times on average each week. In fact, I started to think maybe I could even cut back...

Last week, I sought out a spotter for a set of incline bench press, and ended up asking one of the trainers to help me out. Repped out a good set, only to learn that he had a few pointers on my technique. Excuse me???

Next thing I know, I’d signed up for the free hour-long “fitness evaluation” each member is entitled to. Never got around to having mine until yesterday at noon.

How was it? As I told Keryn when I got home: That man kicked the hell out of me.

For sixty minutes he pushed me through a dozen exercises, and the only weight involved was a five-pound medicine ball. Squats, push-ups (at three angles, feet “balanced” on an inflatable ball), power cleans, more squats, hyperextensions, several abdominal exercises for which I have no name but “ouch.”

By the end, any illusions of my own physical fitness had evaporated into the body odor funk permeating the subterranean space. “How do you feel?” he asked. “Like I’m not going to be able to work tomorrow,” I replied.

I was right. I feel pain in atrophied muscles I didn’t know I was supposed to have... I’m fine so long as I remain standing; the moment I go to sit, I regret it. In fact, I’m typing this blog standing at my kitchen stove.

Now the big decision is whether I can afford--financially, physically, or mentally--to let him kick my ass again next week...

Thursday, March 29, 2007

College Wrestling on TV

The last few weeks, I have become addicted to college wrestling on the Fox College Sports channel… First I caught the Division II National Championships, then did a title search in my DVR and recorded the Big 12 conference tourney. A week later, I watched the Division I Championships. The other day, I caught a duals match between two mediocre Division III teams. And yesterday afternoon I worked through the first few weight classes in the NCAA semi-finals…

Keep in mind that all those hours should have been spent toiling on the next Great American Novel, a project that is not progressing as quickly as I’d like. Gee, I wonder why…

Finals tend to be pretty boring fare, which is why I was excited to find the semi-finals listed in the online guide. As it turns out, this year’s finals were tremendously entertaining, heavy on the upsets. Typically, finals bore the hell out of me because the wrestlers prioritize defense, whereas in earlier rounds they take the offensive. The competition is too strong in the finals for either man to pull any of his go-to tricks. Take Ben Askren, the remarkable senior who single-handedly put Missouri on the wrestling map. A four-time finalist (and now, two-time champion), he recorded something like 30 wins by fall this season, including two earlier in the NCAA tournament. Televising only the finals, we don’t get to see that fireworks.

To most people who have not participated in the sport or watched a loved one participate, wrestling can be a difficult sport to understand. The protagonist in my first novel was a high school wrestler. During his review, one of my readers (a former collegiate wrestler himself) noted that perhaps I should explicitly clarify that I didn’t mean the kind of wrestling held in a boxing ring and featuring ornate costumes, scantily clad women, and metal folding chairs.

Every time I watch collegiate or Olympic wrestling, I want to grab the shoes from the closet and march onto the mat. An irrational thought, especially when you consider that I’d have to cut at least 40 pounds even to compete with the rag-taggiest of amateurs. But I can’t help it… Then I think about the cutting weight and the incredible daily discipline required to maintain the requisite conditioning—best conditioned athletes in the world, if you ask me—and the ambition slowly fades, leaving me with nostalgia...and a touch of rage that Comcast didn’t tell me when FCS became part of the crazy-expensive cable package I’ve been paying for all these years…

Monday, March 26, 2007

March Madness (Revisited)

As predicted, last week’s exuberance jinxed me hard. Memphis killed my perfect Elite Eight, and then Kansas and UNC fell apart. Somehow I held on to second place in my pool nonetheless…

Meanwhile, one of my buddies is at 99.8% nationwide on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge. That’s 5900th place out of 3,000,000. Unreal. And probably the closest brush with celebrity that I’ve had in quite some time. (How pathetic!)

The Writer Profile Project

If you’re at all interested in the varied paths that writers travel to become writers, you need to check out The Writer Profile Project over at KellySpitzer.com. She started the project in early March, and is planning to post a new profile ever five or six days through the end of the year!

I’ve found these entries fascinating so far, and they make me feel woefully inadequate… For reasons I still can’t quite comprehend, Kelly invited me to the party, and I’ll be featured in a few weeks. I’m already queasy thinking about it.

Not only are the authors incredibly talented, but Kelly is one helluva writer in her own right, which you can discern in the care she gives not only these profiles, but the regular postings on her blog. Makes me look like a navel-gazing hack (not that it takes much to accomplish that feat)… Anyway, check it out if you’re interested in learning more about what makes short story writers, poets, journal editors, and novelists tick!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

One Year Ago

365 days ago, I took the Green Line to Park Street station. It’s a popular meeting place, and I was one of a dozen people milling about on the sidewalk, waiting for someone to emerge from the station. The problem was that I hadn’t seen this person since 1990. Okay, that’s not entirely true: I had seen a few low resolution photographs on MySpace.

The woman had once been a little girl on whom I had an enormous childhood crush. She moved into my hometown early in fifth grade, and I was smitten to the day she left, midway through seventh grade. Out of the blue, in February 2006, I received an email from an atypically-spelled woman. “MySpace message from Keryn.” Nah, can’t be the same girl? And do I have a MySpace account?

A few weeks later we decided to meet--on March 25. I suggested Park Street station, but neglected to specify which exit she should take. So, as I milled about the plaza, thinking I had been stood up, she was acting out the same sad scene about two hundred meters down the Common.

Fortunately, she called, I ascertained her position (“Tell me what is across the street. McDonald’s? Okay, I’ll be there in a sec.”), and we met face-to-face for the first time in sixteen years... It wasn't supposed to be a date, but become one somewhere between appetizer and dessert.

What a year it has been since that evening!

On March 5th, following something of a whirlwind year (to say the least), Keryn agreed to hitch her cart to this crazy wagon forever. (Bless her heart!)

--The Luckiest Guy In The World

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

So Shocked I Almost Can’t Write

Knowing my ten readers as well as I do, I’m sure that you’re all entered in an NCAA bracket contest somewhere… Although this year’s contests have by-and-large gone the way of the higher seeds, it looks like a lot of people are really feeling the after-effects from last year, when 11th seed George Mason made it all the way to the Final Four. In my bracket group at ESPN (shout out to the Hippie Crap crew), it seems a lot of contestants picked the wrong side of 4-13, 5-12, and 6-11 contests.

My all-time record in NCAA brackets is a solid 0-for-life. Why I bother to enter them, I think, is so that I have a justification for spending so many hours staring slack-jawed at the television and eating Easy Cheese direct from the can.

This year has played out a little differently thus far. Thirteen of the Sweet Sixteen (I missed on a couple of the 4-5 match-ups), with none of my Elite Eight teams yet eliminated. I fully expect to lose half the games on Thursday and Friday, but at least I will have enjoyed four solid days of glory.

Read a brief in SI last week about an NCAA pool at some bar in New York who discontinued the contest after last year’s winner received $1,000,000. Too bad the “Hippie Crap” league doesn’t play with that grade of lettuce...

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Article Live at Being There Mag

I can’t help but jump up and down on the bed, flapping my arms like a drunken seagull, at seeing my byline in print. Last night, the newest edition of Being There Magazine went live, where you can find my review of B.B. King’s recent performance here in Boston.

Check it out and let me know what you think!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

3,000 Words

Today has been an excellent day. Since climbing out of bed this morning a little later than I wished (and about seven snooze-presses after my alarm sounded), I have managed the following impressive tally:

  • Posted blog on Miss America over at NormalGuyNormalGirl
  • Watched the Big 12 wrestling championship finals matches (more on this over the weekend)
  • Watched about two hours of NCAA basketball (I’m doing pretty well so far, only got the Duke and BC games wrong on my best bracket)
  • Ran 5.8 miles
  • Cooked a gourmet dinner (if Shake ‘n’ Bake counts as “gourmet”)
  • Oh, and I wrote 3,000 words of my new novel-in-progress

The last accomplishment is what brings me to Blogger tonight. That word count may sound like a lot (or nothing at all) to some of my readers… Put in another context, it’s about twelve pages (which actually sounds less impressive, so let’s pretend I didn’t offer that conversion).

Let me visit the history of his novel for a few moments, even though I heard on a famous agent’s blog that one should never discuss works-in-progress, because apparently it’s “rude.” [If you agree, please come back tomorrow for a posting that has nothing whatsoever to do with writing…]

The germ for this novel began to develop while I was stationed in Puerto Rico for a long-term consulting project. The culture of the island fascinated me, and I became hopelessly addicted to the food…

In the midst of my assignment, I decided to jumpstart my stalled creativity by participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November 2005. At the time, I had a partial draft of what would eventually become THINGS LIKE THAT DON’T HAPPEN HERE. But I had let myself become hopelessly stymied, and figured NaNoWriMo would be a good way to break free from my cage.

I wasn’t (entirely) wrong.

I came awful darn close to “winning” NaNo that year, hitting the 30,000 word mark with more than a week to go (the goal is 50k), but my fuel ran dry Thanksgiving week, and I ended at 31k. I didn’t look back at that file for more than a year.

After finishing my other novel on Jan 1st of 2007, I took a few weeks off to start the agent-search process and clear my head (and do some real work resulting in a real paycheck). Frankly, after four months working on my novel several hours each and every day, the left side of my brain needed a long siesta.

Finally, in late February, while hanging out in Baltimore for work, I opened the old draft from November 2005 and butchered it with red ink. I mean, that thing was trash. No way to sugar-coat it: pure garbage. I think I might have kept three sentences thus far. But the ideas were sharp, and the characters came alive in my brain. They came to life fully formed, complete with faces and personalities and speech patterns and POV styles. I felt invigorated, and spent a long night creating a detailed plan of attack.

I have managed to eke out 12,000 words so far (including today’s 3k), which puts me at 15% complete (on the first draft, 1% once you factor in the editing time). At my current pace (that’s 3,000 words per day, natch), I should be done with the whole thing somewhere around mid-April. Or not… Perhaps end of summer is a more reasonable target for completing Draft One.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Ode to Past Athletic Accomplishments

For most of us who played a sport or two in high school or college, the slope toward middle age is greased with trans fats. Sure, on TV they show lots of healthy people living a healthy lifestyle made possible by Whole Foods, antioxidant-rich green tea (whatever that means), and a Bowflex machine in their living rooms. In fact, we all have friends whose strict regimens disgust us. Like my friends Reed and Kelly, who ran the Boston Marathon together a year ago. I saw them one day last March along the Charles River. They glided past me in the middle of their seventh or eighth mile of the afternoon, while I huffed and puffed toward the conclusion of my two-point-seven “jog,” desperate to reach the Mass Avenue Bridge so I could officially begin the cool-down portion of my exercise.

By and large, most of us watch too much TV and postpone the trip to the gym until it’s near to closing-time and casually forget our resolutions on or about the MLK long weekend. Which is why I’m beyond excited that I ran the third mile of today’s treadmill workout in a brisk (for me) 6:43, the fastest time I’ve produced since a cross-country race in Hermon, Maine, October 1992. Can I give myself a gold star for that?

As I sat on my comfy living room couch, one bag of frozen peas on each throbbing shin, I couldn’t help but look back through my personal history.

I grew up a decidedly un-athletic tot. Ask anyone who saw me play basketball for Mr. Woodward in fourth grade, or try out for baseball in fifth grade (the year I met Keryn, when I was, without exaggeration, the tiniest boy in our class). In junior high, the gym teacher, Mike Carter, who also served as the high school wrestling coach, took his first shot at making me a wrestler. He failed. At the time, it would be fair to surmise that the aggregate push-ups performed in my lifetime barely exceeded the century mark.

A year later, his renewed pitch worked. Four years later, I was one of the captains of the high school team, and a very competent athlete. Still couldn’t shoot a round ball through that metal orange loop, but I could bench press 150% of my weight for reps. More importantly, I had become more confident and self-assured, crawling out of my cozy shell and finding a more well-rounded identity for myself. There’s no question in my mind that life so far would have followed very different paths if Mr. Carter had not been the gym teacher in Bucksport. I owe a great debt to him.

In October of my freshman year, I reached the acme of physical fitness, when the Harvard wrestling team jogged a leisurely two miles before tackling Harvard Stadium. 37 sections, sprinting up the 18” seats and jogging down the 9” stairs. After I completed the workout, my leg muscles quivering, I jogged another ten stadiums in moral support of the rest of the team. As I basked in the runner’s high, I realized that afternoon that I would never again be in such condition. The next day, I quit the team to focus on academics and began my slide down that oiled slope.

I resigned myself to thinking that all the high-water marks in my athletic career lay in the distant past. The 81 I shot at sixteen. That 6:06 split when I was fifteen. The 275 pounds I pushed off my chest at eighteen. Twice I have run the Corporate Challenge and set an aggressive target of nine minutes per mile, succeeding once.

With yesterday’s 6:43, that cocky nineteen-year-old boy smiles from behind this chubbier and matured face as if to say: “You know what? It’s all within reach.” I think he might be right. Six-oh-six, consider yourself on notice.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Worshipping at the Altar of B.B. King

Sunday night (March 4), we went to The Opera House in Boston for a transcendent pleasure: watching B.B. King playing Lucille and wailing for two hours. Prone as I may be to exaggeration (I tell Keryn to halve any number in my stories), I do not pepper my writing with haphazard references to transcendence.

Imagine sitting twenty rows, center orchestra, from the stage, in a moderately large venue, and feeling like you are one of an intimate audience of fifty friends listening to one of the greatest blues musicians ever to pluck a guitar string.

It may not be surprising that the first B.B. King song I ever heard was “The Thrill is Gone” way back when I was fifteen or sixteen. I couldn’t tell you where I got the blues survey cassette, but it blew me away. There was Buddy Guy, Ike Turner, Eric Clapton, the brothers Vaughn, and other luminaries. In such esteemed company, B.B. King shone brighter than all.

But then, I have to confess, Blues was not a genre I embraced. Occasionally I have seen great live shows (in Chicago, Paris, and Boston to name a few) in clubs and bars, and there are twenty or thirty Blues songs in my iTunes, which includes an eclectic assortment of music, but too few Blues tracks. For reasons I can’t hope to explain, my focus has migrated through many genres, from heavy metal to classic rock to progressive trance to punk to alternative to downbeat electronica. After seeing this concert, I realize I need to spend a long vacation in Bluesland.

Mr. King played “The Thrill is Gone” as his swansong, after a fun two-hour set that included a number of entertaining tales, and an indirect endorsement of a certain New York senator (noting that a woman president would be less likely to take us to war).

In recent years, King has been hobbled by diabetes and the inevitable decline in mobility that comes with age. But you should see his fingers on the frets, nimble and precise, producing the kind of sound only a virtuoso can coax from the instrument. On the way out, I saw a woman in tears (he had autographed a book for her), and listened to strangers take inventory of the show. I was not alone in my reverence.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Agent Search Update

Thought I would spend five minutes going over my agent search so far…

Things started out great. From my initial three queries I received one request for a partial and two for the full manuscript. One of those requests came from my top choice agency; he still has it and I’m eagerly awaiting a response…

Initial success stalled me. Partly because I naively let myself think--“Hey, this could be it, the fastest agent search in history!”--but mostly because I hoped to receive feedback, maybe one sentence worth, that would help me prospectively. No such luck. Form rejections trickled in.

Spurred to action by rejection (I don’t deal well), I re-read the opening of my novel and lopped the first chapter off clean. That sounds dramatic, but with each previous draft I had whittled the opening chapter down another page. What started at 15 crafted pages about young Billy Jones unloading boxes from a U-Haul truck became 6 meager pages when I “finished” my book on New Year’s, and with a single keystroke I purged the remaining lines before the latest round of query letters.

Several of my friends (non-writers) have asked about the process of finding an agent. Some have the impression it’s an easier task than it is. “I spend two to three hours researching an agent,” I tell them, “just to write one tiny paragraph explaining why I’m contacting her and why she is right agent for me. Most of the time, they won’t agree.”

“That sounds like a lot of work,” they say. But in truth I have sugarcoated it for them. I don’t explain that prior to that agent-specific research, first I had to build my list of potential agents, which requires searching Publishers Marketplace for recent deals on books similar to mine, reading MediaBistro profiles, figuring out which agents are in the market for queries, etc. They say you have to be very cautious whom you query, so you’d better aim for the right bull’s-eye.

(NOTE: I have heard of some services that blast email your query letter to every agent in the business. This strikes me as a disservice to all the authors out there who are spending time narrowing in on the right agents. This business is hard enough without making the agents even busier reviewing spam.)

Agent selected, it is time for research. I review Publishers Marketplace again for recent deals. I look at the agency’s website, if it has one, and check out the agent’s official client list. With luck, I read something the agent represented. Unfortunately, this is not always the case (poring over these lists of published authors whose names I do not recognize can be rather humbling, a reminder that becoming famous is not quite so automatic).

Next, I check Agent Query, because sometimes they have more info than the website, especially for some of the Dark Ages agencies out there. Next, I make sure her name doesn’t have any red marks on P&E. Then I Google. Thanks to Google, I have found some interesting stuff: a podcasted interview with one agent, a detailed transcript for a seminar in New York last fall with several agents, Q&A hosted by certain agents on random blogs, testimonials by an agent’s clients on what a fantastic job s/he has done. From all this information, I craft my personalization. On several occasions, I have found that a star agent would not be the right agent for my project and skipped to the next agent in my ordered list… And I’m not just saying that for the benefit of any agent who may have followed the link to this website from inside the query letter, I promise.

I will refrain from listing statistics today, except to say that I have approximately ten outstanding queries. Perhaps one or two of them will request the first three chapters. Maybe one will ask for the full manuscript. If those requests come in, I will smile and let myself become giddy for at least ten whole minutes, before remembering that in all likelihood, they will reject me.

Boy oh boy, will they be some kind of upset when they see me on the bestseller lists…