Background Noise

NaNoWrimo is progressing. Straggling behind by about a day, but sticking with it. I could really use a 4-5k word day.

One part of my writing process is that I need noise. It’s kind of funny but silence drives me to distraction. You’ll notice that I’ve been listing a few things in my NaNoWriMo posts (livejournal made it a lot easier, but whatever). Maybe turn on the TV or put in a movie – something that can be in the background. But if I really need to get some progress, it’s music.

Here’s a small selection of the last 24 hours:

NaNoWriMo 2011: Part 3

Okay, I’m going to stop posting these every day, I swear.

Today was shaky. Slept in which left me 1000 words behind. Managed to catch up and actually bounce a bit ahead once I finished chapter 2 and FINALLY introduced my main character.

Playing in the background: Thrice, Mastodon, and Avenged Sevenfold

Quote of the day:

It was this final image, the pair of them gazing out of the rear of an old wood-panelled station wagon, the Carlsbad Special Needs Home fading into the distance, that Hector now scribbled onto the clean white paper. The sound of the charcoal wasn’t quite as calming as the pencils his sister had used, but he found himself relaxing bit by tiny bit. The bare bulb hanging from a cord above his desk wasn’t very bright, widely casting shadows as it swung back and forth. He had jerked it pretty hard in the mad rush from his bed, the nightmares still fresh in his mind.
Current Word Count: 5,342/4,998.

Reading – A Glimpse into My Past

Richard Sugden Library

I love to read. Growing up in a small town, much of my youth was spent in the library, devouring first the children and young adult sections. By the time I was 8 I was a veteran user of the card catalog, spending hours in the adult half of the building. The library was my baby sitter – I loved the solitude, the silence, and, most of all, the access to so much information. When I wasn’t in the library or at school, I was at home, either in front of a computer or buried nose-first in a book. This carried into High School, when I spent long hours in the library at Copley Square, one of the oldest public libraries in the country, while waiting for my train home. While in High School, where community service was promoted to such a degree that we spent every Friday for half our senior year volunteering, I worked at my city’s library. My love for books – particularly good fiction – was the reason I always romanticized being a writer.

The new home of the Worcester Public Library, finished only a few months before I began working there. I actually really liked the old factory that was it's temporary home during construction.

That was one of the reasons I started this blog – to push my reading into writing. It was 2008, and my efforts with creative writing had waned as I progressed through college. I still read quite voraciously, it just wasn’t triggering the urge to create like it had in my youth. So I challenged myself to read and review 100 books in a year. Unless you include graphic novels, which I didn’t, I didn’t even get close. I could make excuses –  I had started late in the year (Around April) and it was also the first time I attempted NaNoWriMo – but the truth was that it’s actually a pretty tough goal.

And there was one massive side effect – I burned out. I’m a bit ashamed of the fact that I didn’t really touch another book till mid-2010. Sure, I kept reading, but 2008-9 marked my return to comics and graphic novels, left untouched since I was a child. I read 3 books in 2010 – 2 of them in airports waiting for connecting flights. It wasn’t until recently, as my interest in graphic novels began to wane and I sought inspiration for the upcoming fustuarium that is NaNoWriMo, that I was really able to pick up a book and lose myself in the pages (in large part thanks to a book gifted by a friend).

BPL Central Branch, where I spent many evenings during High School

 

Honestly, it was a bit like coming home.

So even though NaNoWriMo starts next week, I hope to once again post reviews here. I’ve got A LOT of catching up to do, so there are going to be quite a  few titles you’ve already come across elsewhere. The first two will hopefully go up this weekend. And as NaNoWriMo progresses, in an effort to refrain from distractions like music and television, I’ll probably once again return to my old refuge and friend, the Library, hoping that the embrace of it’s musty scent and yellowed light catches a spark of creativity where only vexing emptiness sat before.

Untappd

This weekend marks the first anniversary of Untappd, a social networking site for drunks beer enthusiasts. It’s a lot like an adult version of Foursquare, allowing you to share favorite locations and beverages with friends. I’ve been a member since February ’11 (some of you may have noticed the badge in my social chainlinks), and find it one of the more useful social applications. For starters, there’s the badges – I know, it’s tacky and shallow, but what can I say, sometimes that’s just who I am. That said, some of the challenges are quite enjoyable and really help expand the beer palate.

And therein lies the real value of Untappd – it is one of the best means of discovering new beers. Whether through badge-chasing, recommendations from your friends, or looking at what’s trending (divided into micro and macro brews, but also can be location based), Untappd does a real good job of expanding your knowledge base. It will even offer suggestions based on your previous beverages.

To celebrate the anniversary, Untappd hosted parties in three of it’s largest markets – LA, NYC, and Boston. Sadly I was unable to attend last night, but I hear it was a great get-together. I believe they may have even marked their 2 millionth check-in!

Happy Birthday Untappd!

Interested? Well, Untappd is available from your computer, but it really shines when you use it on your smartphone, either through their special mobile-friendly website (same URL) or in their new native app (available for both Android and Apple). If you join up and check in sometime in the next few hours you’ll still be able to get the Anniversary badge! But don’t fret if you miss it – the next special event is November 3rd, International Stout Day! Stout is also my favorite style of beer! Won’t you join me in raising a pint to celebrate it’s glory?!

Hockey Is Here

It’s October – which to me means pretty much 1 thing: hockey. Tonight marks the start of NHL’s 95th season, and in case you weren’t aware, I’m a hockey fan. More than that, I’m a Bruins fan, which means that this last year has been exceptionally phenomenal. Hell, this has been my desktop image since that fateful night in June:

Bruins' Goalie Tim Thomas Hoists the Stanley Cup After Shutting Out Vancouver 4-0 in Game 7

Hockey is pretty much the only sport I follow regularly. I’ll watch football and baseball, but neither really capture me the way hockey does. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve stumbling across the ice, laughing with my friends at all our unskilled play. Not to mention the excitement of going to an IceCats game with the family. I live in Boston, a city known for hosting champion collegiate teams. And, while I’m not too good at it, I even play some fantasy hockey (which has really helped me learn more about the game, not to mention giving me more teams to root for).

I don’t know what it is. Part is the action, the violence, the skill. Part is the sound; the skritching of skates on the ice, the crack of sticks clashing, the brutal creaking of the boards as players slam into each other; the fans as they scream and chant and cheer enough to put any soccer hooligan to shame – they all reverberate so clearly in the arena. Part is the experience – being one of those fans, either when sitting in the cold above the rink kept warm through sheer blood-pounding excitement for the game or at a tavern, cheering at the TV and banging your glass on the bar. Part is the rivalry – sometimes sporting and sometimes bloody. And part is the exhibition of it – the majesty of watching order among chaos; luck and chance playing akimbo with skill, heritage, and passion.

You can truly lose yourself in all of it – something I’ve never experienced with any other sport. While a few of my more hardcore-hockey-fan friends have move away, I’m hoping I’ll be able to use this season and get a few more hooked. After all, we are the defending champs!

Writer’s Block

As a member of this merry Blogenning band, once a week we post about a communal topic. This week’s Blogenning topic, set by Dave, is that dreaded curse known as Writer’s Block.

To be honest, I think everyone’s had a run in with Writer’s Block. Writing a paper for a class or an email to a friend or a part of your NaNoWriMo novel and suddenly there’s this… thing in the way. An emptiness that isn’t empty. Kind of like a Gelatinous Cube in your head, absorbing all your creativity. It’s a moment of furtive inner silence.

At the same time, I think the block can be different for different people. For some it’s the inability to produce any words or thoughts and for others it’s about quality; not being able to figure out the next piece to your satisfaction. But for me, Writer’s Block is caused by something far more fundamental: motivation. Well, more to the point, the lack thereof.

Take this blog. The last few weeks have been woefully short of posts. Sure, I could blame packing, moving, unpacking, not having a computer desk or chair, work, exhaustion, or a dozen other things, but the truth is that I just wasn’t motivated. There was nothing urging me on to write. The novelty of The Blogenning was starting to wear off and all those things just made it convenient to stop.

And that’s what happens when I write creatively. I’m excited, start piecing a plot together, flesh out some characters, and, at some inconvenient moment, lose my muse. The compulsion to create is gone and the story gets shelved.

Honestly, I think that’s the difference between an author and a writer. An author creates, but they do it when inspiration seizes them. Writers do it for a living. They press on. They overcome their obstacles. It’s at that moment when it seems the motivation is gone and hope is quickly flickering out that their best material comes out.

Because that block, whether short-lived or long-winded, is always there, lurking. And there’s no real telling when it’ll strike or what will cure it. You’ve only got two choices: push on through or retreat. And that’s why I restarted this blog – to help me build up the determination to persevere. Sure, I’m going to falter every now and then, but what’s important is that I can pick myself up, dust off, and keep going. If necessary, with the help of friends.

Tweaker Taboo

For those unaware, I work the night shift. I pull at least one 24-hr day a week (hitting hour 22 as I write this). After 6 years I’m used to it, but I won’t lie, it isn’t easy. First, there are the obvious sacrifices: a social life, conducting affairs during normal business hours, solid sleep schedule, daylight

But there are other considerations, the biggest being your health. When you work the night shift, you eat like shit. Not only is good food typically unavailable (after all, this is when business caters to drunks chasing salty, greasy goodness), but you’re also trying to satisfy a need to stay alert. Because rule #1: no one gets completely used to sleeping during the day and being up all night, every night. I know people that have worked night shifts for decades and they struggle just as hard as everyone else when 4am rolls around.

The layman’s solution: caffeine.

Coffee, tea, energy drinks, maté, cola, even marshmallows and gum. I’ve seen and used ’em all. Hell, when I really need it, I’ll go straight to the bean (though I’m pretty sure most of the pickup is actually from the chocolate).

But the truth is that caffeine isn’t actually an upper. Instead, it blocks the receptors in the brain that monitor tiredness, letting your naturally produced stimulants work more effectively. But there are two important factors: First, caffeine cannot boost you past your natural level of alertness. And second, you build a tolerance, forcing you to imbibe greater and greater amounts for the same effect. (LifeHacker has a pretty awesome article on the science of caffeine if you’d like further information.)

But let’s face it, you can only drink so much coffee before your kidneys pickle.

So what do most people resort to?

The desperate solution: sugar.

If you stay up all night, whether to study, work, or marathon a gaming session, sooner or later you’re going to resort to the white powder. Candy, chocolate, soda… there are just so many ways to chase that rush. But, as we’ve all experienced as children, sugar only takes you so high before you crash.

Well, you could binge – stay awake by combining the constant act of consumption with the perilous peaks of processed foods. But that’s a short lived road – literally. Diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, even cancer can all result from this dangerous practice.

So what’s left?

The “healthy” solution: sleep and exercise.

Sounds really common-sense, doesn’t it? But you would not believe how difficult it is. First, let’s take sleep. If you’re working the night shift only one or two nights a week, the strain of the unfamiliarity will go a long way toward making sure you sleep afterwards. But it isn’t necessarily good, restful sleep. Instead it either falls into light, restless napping or deep, recuperating rest. Neither is ideal, either leaving you weakened and irritable or taking more time out of your day.

And if you’re working five days or more on the overnight, it’s even more difficult – not less.

I’ve found that the only way to sleep with any regularity is to establish a routine. In bed by the same time every day, and awake much the same. Doing this, I can typically manage 6-8 hours a day. But even the slightest upset in the routine can have dire results. Miss a bus or eat a snack too close to bedtime and I’m lucky to catch 4 hours.

Outside of pharmaceuticals, there is one way to get a bit of an edge: exercise. For me, the ideal time to hit the pillow is right after exhaustion hits but before catching my second wind. Physical weariness helps broaden that window, giving me a bit of a handicap. Turns out there’s even some research to support me.

Exercise, of course, has other uses. For starters, it’s the best means of remaining awake during a night shift. Run in place; do some push-ups off a desk; or, if your position allows, go for a walk in the brisk night air. Music, if allowed, can be a great assistant (so long as it doesn’t compromise your situational awareness). What’s important is to get the blood pumping and the metabolism running, helping trigger the necessary chemicals to keep you awake without the need for manufactured stimulants. Simultaneously, by expending the body’s resources, exercise sets you up for a needed rest and recuperation period.

The danger with exercise, however, lies in over-exertion. Push too hard and you won’t be able to recover by the next night’s shift. Just as with sleeping, it’s important to establish a routine and maintain it.

Now, all this is well and good, but it isn’t fool-proof. As I mentioned at the top of the post, I still typically spend at least one day a week awake for an extended period (anywhere from 20-30 hours). This is partly by design, allowing me to capitalize on my “weekend” days and hot-wire in two nights of a “normal” sleep pattern. But primarily it’s a side-effect of fighting human nature – we’re simply designed to run heliocentrically. To do otherwise causes friction and the stress takes time to dissipate (every few weeks I get a day/night where I sleep for 10-12 hrs).

That said, I’m not ready to pass on such a unique experience. I have the opportunity to see the city of Boston like few others. I’ve watched the sun set over Fenway Park only to rise again over Castle Island. I’ve sat on the Longfellow Bridge and watched a blizzard blow into the 3AM silence of  the city. I’ve been the first to plow a path through snowdrifts on the Commons and the only passenger on a T-ride through the inky darkness of the pre-dawn.

These moments may seem lonely to you, but to me they’re exhilarating.

Which is why I want to leave you with this last video: a time-lapse recording from the ISS on a night-time orbit. Rare is the night I don’t look up hoping to catch a glimpse as the station glides overhead. I recommend watching it full screen and at the highest definition your computer can handle.