The Self-Proclaimed Expert

ExpertiseI was watching a car show the other day—as I’ve been known to do—and there was a guy who bought one of the original Bandit Trans Ams, which was in terrible condition when he bought it. Now beautifully restored, he was asked about who had done the work, and the owner said he’d done just about everything himself including painting the car black, which for those of you who don’t know, is by far the hardest color to get right. The slightest ding, dent, or wave will show in the highly reflective finish. Did he have previous body or paint experience? Heck no. He said he just did a lot of research and watched a lot of YouTube videos. I dig that!

So, I watch a lot of YouTube videos too, like those on rebuilding brakes, replacing shocks, recovering sofas, disassembling a washing machine, lawn maintenance, small engine repair, making custom car door panels, and how to do body work and paint. Those last two, I have not tried. . . but I just might. Anyway, after seeing this guy on TV, it dawned on me that I may already be an expert at many things. I mean, I can follow what’s going on, I can identify problems that affect the performance, I can comment on how to make it better, and most importantly, nobody has been around to check me on my observations and opinions. Here are some things that I am clearly an expert at, but you probably don’t know that, because I’ve never practiced them in public.

Structural Engineering—I’ve completely renovated four houses to include some foundation work, masonry, plumbing, electrical, framing, drywall, and finishing. But that’s nothing. Shows like This Old House and Holmes on Homes have taught me how to frame a new addition, replace a roof, install heating and air conditioning systems, and operate a crane. I’m also familiar enough with Canadian building codes to throw the red flag if I see something going wrong on TV, because many of the home improvement shows are filmed there. If you need me to slap a new garage or a couple of bedrooms on your vacation cottage in Toronto, just give me a call. I’ve never done this stuff, but I’m an expert nonetheless, eh?

Cooking—It’s just a matter of time before the networks contact me to film the pilot for a new series. We watch all the popular shows, like Hell’s Kitchen, Masterchef, Masterchef Junior, Top Chef, America’s Next Food Network Star, and Chopped. I can easily spot when someone’s knife skills aren’t up to par, or when they’ve taken the chicken out of the pressure cooker too soon, or when they don’t have a proper sear on the steak, or when they’ve put the meat in the pan before the oil was heated. I mean really, who does that? And don’t even get me started on people who would use sauce out of a jar in a cooking competition.

Singing—I yell at the TV enough that these contestants ought to realize that I know what I’m talking about. He’s off pitch. She doesn’t have the range for that song. His arrangement of that song is terrible, and it’s definitely the wrong song for him anyway. Now, I know that I know what I’m talking about, because my words have been verified by the likes of Simon Cowell, Blake Shelton, Randy Jackson, and Alicia Keys. We’ve never actually spoken, but I’m sure they’d all verify my bona fides.

American Ninja Warrior—I know you’ll be surprised by this, but despite the fact that I have expert knowledge of the proper form to successfully navigate the ANW course, and that I am an amazing specimen of physical fitness, I have never actually done the ANW course. It’s true! But, while watching it on TV, I can easily spot when someone doesn’t have the proper grasp on the Rolling Barrel. I’ll call you out if you haven’t set the proper pace when going into the Floating Tiles. Once I’ve seen that you’ve lost that 90-degree bend at your elbows, I will confidently estimate when you will fall from the Monkey Pegs. And of course, if your steps are off, you’re never going to get enough speed to launch yourself to the top of the Warped Wall. I haven’t yet demonstrated my own prowess at navigating the course, but maybe one of these days.

Dancing—This one has taken a lot of time to develop, but I’m there now. When those amateurs perform on Dancing With the Stars, I will often point out those whose moves are not crisp enough, who are sliding their feet, not pointing their toes, not keeping their heads high, or who haven’t reached the full extension of their arms. Heck, I’m such an expert, I can even advise the judges on what score to give each contestant. Bruno and Julianne usually listen to me, and score appropriately. Len, however, likes to think he knows more than me, and usually scores the contestants lower. He’s so harsh.

The point of all this is not to brag. Uh. . . mmm-hmm. But, I think there is some level of confidence you can get from these shows and videos. In construction, I might encounter something new, and I’ll recall something from one of those shows and think, “Those guys used a laminated beam and some Narndle bolts in the same situation,” and then I’ll head off to the Depot for Narndle bolts. When it’s on me for dinner, I will sometimes try something I’ve seen on TV. I will even go to the store for ingredients. Specific ingredients! I’ll recall how the TV chefs did their thing, and try to emulate it.

For singing and dancing, you should be thankful that I’ll leave that to the actual experts. Oh, I might break into a goofy dance during the Big Bang Theory opening music, but that’s a different story. As for the American Ninja Warrior course, I’m pretty sure that I’d be wet after the first couple of those angled steps. If I managed to get past those, I’m sure I’d slide down the rope trying to swing onto the platform and smash my face against the edge, and then I’d be in the water. I could also be the first warrior to fall from the Salmon Ladder without ever moving it from the first notch.

Taking all these skills above into account, it’s hard for me to demonstrate my expertise by actually doing this stuff. But, from my couch, I’m killing it.

The Magic of Lines

Sometimes, it’s okay to go outside the lines. Not if you’re coloring. Oh God, no! Neatness counts, so I’ve never been able to intentionally go outside the lines, even when I was a kid, and back then, we had to color in black and white! But lately, I’ve seen a lot of lines, and I’ve been amazed by our difficulty in forming them.

In the photo, you can see me and my family in 20170505_182409line at Disney World. The make it easy. There are railings, chains, curbs, walls, and shrubbery all arranged to point us in the right direction and make us turn where they need us to turn. Sort of like cattle, right? But without the directional aids, humans can’t figure this out.

I’ve witnessed poor line building many times, and it always amazes me. Find any cash register and put a long line of customers in front of it. Guaranteed, there will be one, straight line, that will stretch back to the first immovable object, where it will terminate with a wad of people standing in a clump waiting to get behind the last person. The line will block sidewalks and hallways, it might cross rivers or shallow canyons, and if a door is involved, might reach into the parking lot and across the road where it will block traffic. But it will never, of its own free will, make a 90-degree turn.

You think I’m kidding? You will see this now that I’ve pointed it out for your benefit. I’ve seen it at Wal-Mart when trying to maneuver my cart through the front of the store and trying to squeeze through the line. In Safeway, people look at you like you’re crazy for trying to get through. “Can’t you see there’s a line here?” In Chick-Fil-A, before they put up those Tensa-Barriers (sort of like line-directing seat belts on chrome poles), the line stretched from the register, across the open area, and down the aisle toward the door on the opposite end of the restaurant. One more customer, and they’d have been outside.

Recently, at our Disney World hotel, we had to wait in a fairly long line to get the bus to the House of Mouse, and the line inevitably stretched past the railings into no-man’s land, where the humans did the only thing that seemed safe–they formed a straight line. It reached across the expanse of sidewalk, blocking not only the doors to the hotel, but also the rest of the sidewalk. Potential line fodder actually walked along the curbing that lined the garden in order to squeeze past the line, which of course, did not move to allow them to pass, for fear that they might introduce an unwelcome bend in their beautifully straight line.

The most recent sighting was today at the Farmers’ Market at work, where the most popular (and apparently those with the slowest service) food trucks had lines stretching across the road, blocking the sidewalk, and ending in a blob of humanity at the fence with several potential customers wondering how to get into the line. Some of them left in search of a food truck with a shorter line. Others, just trying to use the sidewalk to get to work, were unable to cross the line, and were forced instead to buy cupcakes from the cupcake truck. Chaos, I tell you.

So, please people… it’s okay to turn.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

20170111_133804It might be difficult to see what this is, but I’ll save you from the suspense–It’s replacement razor heads for my electric shaver. What you probably don’t know is that there are three replacement heads in the small blue box, each about the size of a quarter and about twice as thick. I had imagined that I would find a padded envelope in my mailbox one afternoon, and I’d be excited to receive my stupid-expensive replacement heads inside with a note that said they were “Lovingly packed by Gladys.”

I was very excited when I saw a large box on my front step, because for a minute, I thought my wife bought me something cool like a new Dewalt Miter Saw, or a collection of books, or maybe some new chrome parts for my Fairlane that I still hope will have license plates again some day. Then, I saw the label. Oh. It’s from… what? They’ve shipped the wrong stuff. Probably.

Shock One: They shipped that little blue box to me in that ginormous box. The loaded box was actually lighter than the empty box, because they filled it with bags of air. Not just any air, but the special kind of air used to keep UPS trucks filled to capacity. So if you were the UPS guy, wouldn’t you be a little bit ticked that you had to lug around these giant boxes surrounding something the size of three quarters? I could have bought 200 sets of replacement razor heads (except that would have cost me $5,000), and they could have shipped them all in the same box.

But Shock Two: Come on, Philips Norelco… If you’re going to ship the heads with ten backs of self-contained protective wind, at least get the dumb things into the middle of the box.

There’s Bound to Be a Story Behind This

Giraffe on the HighwayMy drive down Route 32 each morning is often eventful, usually tedious, and sometimes there’s just crazy stuff. It’s a major roadway, so as with any major roadway, there are often critters who just weren’t fast enough to outrun one of the vehicles.

Deer seem to be the most cocky. “I can beat that thing,” they think. But they’re usually wrong. About a year ago, one who must have been especially bad at timing his entrance to the highway, smashed into the door of the Lexus in front of me, showering the driver with glass and crushing her door. The deer? Yeah, he didn’t fare well. But in addition to the deer, I’ve seen raccoons, foxes, vultures, and heck. . . I’ve even seen a small black bear once, adorning the shoulder of Rt. 32.

But today was the strangest. The first thing I saw appeared to be a very small deer, which wouldn’t have been at all unusual, except a hundred yards down the road, there lay a giraffe. Another hundred yards, a small bear. And then a hundred yards later, a large yellow emoji (I couldn’t tell whether it was still smiling). You’ve probably figured out that these were stuffed animals. Well, and a stuffed emoji.

So what’s the deal with that? The first thing I thought of was that the Eggman Movers truck from Toy Story was somewhere in front of me and the animals were escaping. I was being extra careful just in case RC was zooming up behind me trying to catch up to Woody and his friends.

Then I thought, well that’s silly. It was probably a pickup truck full of boxes of stuff, and the lid from the stuffed animal box blew off and animals were bouncing out along the highway. I was sure the driver’s wife had told him to tie the boxes down so the lids wouldn’t blow off. I imagined the driver telling his wife that she worried too much, and that there’s no way the lids could blow off. She looked at him, the way wives really look at their husbands when the husband is absolutely confident that they’re not about to make a big mistake. Before you say it, no I . . . okay, yes, I’ve been in almost exactly this situation. Never mind that!

But, what I decided to believe was this—there were two kids in the back of a Tahoe, the older boy (they must be boys) was sitting by the open window, and he was tossing his little brother’s toys out the window. Yes. That’s my final answer. I have no proof of this, but I watched intently the right side of the Tahoe in front of me hoping to see the stuffed projectiles arcing toward the shoulder. But, I didn’t see that at all. Not for real, anyway. In my mind, I imagined seeing a stuffed Olaf, a Mickey Mouse, or maybe Mom’s purse launched out the window. This is how I make this drive bearable every day, pardon the pun.

Killing My Darlings

As many of you are aware, I’ve written a full, young adult, Sci-Fi adventure, called SubAqua. Technically, I wrote it in November of 2014 during the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) event. I wasn’t registered for the event, but who cares? I did it anyway. Long story short, I have beaten this manuscript to death. I probably have about a dozen distinctly different drafts, and even more first chapters. I had a critique of my first ten pages from a professional literary agent, and although it was generally positive, I still (as always) had some work to do. So, I did it. It took me about six months, but I finally got through the whole manuscript, which now sits at just under 87,000 words.

I’ve submitted to around 15 agents, and entered the manuscript into #PitchWars, which is a Twitter event designed to hook up writers and mentors, and eventually agents. I submitted to an additional six mentors. I’ve not had any requests for additional pages. As an aside, my new goal is to get someone to ask for page 11, as almost everyone wants the first 10 pages of a manuscript for submissions. (Mine will go to eleven. Get it? Spinal Tap? Anyone?) I’ve been given some good feedback and positive comments, but I also get comments like, “I couldn’t get fully absorbed in the story.” So in my mind . . . let’s fix those ten pages. In Stephen King’s book, “On Writing,” this is what he calls killing your darlings—all those words you worked so hard to get right.

I recently read my first ten pages to some new critique partners, and was advised to rethink where I started my manuscript. I’ve tried this before and absolutely hated . . . HATED . . . what I’d done to my story. This time, I was advised to start with the actual explosion rather than the aftermath (I know this is kinda cryptic), and I was having trouble putting the story together from that point. But, I thought about it overnight. I thought about it while trying to sleep. I came up with a plan.

So, I dragged my laptop into my basement writing lair, fired up the Keurig, put on a “Coffee Shop” soundtrack (Yep, that’s a real thing), and stared at the screen. Damn you, fingers! And then, I got some words to come out. It started to gel, and I wrote about six completely new pages to start my story from where my critique partners thought it should start. I split the previous first chapter into two, and rewrote parts of that. I found a great new place for chapter breaks, and I even found a “better motivation” for why my protagonist is getting drawn into the story in the first place. All this rewriting stuff has happened today, so I’m sure I have a really “Shitty First Draft” (as it is commonly known) of the first couple of chapters.

But the result of all this was that I was fired up about my manuscript today. It’s hard to stay excited about anything after thirteen revisions, but today, I was all pumped up about tearing holes in (a copy of) my manuscript. I want to share two relevant quotes:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” —Thomas Edison

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” ― Thomas Edison

I’m not giving up on this until you see a hard cover book with my name on it on the shelves of your local Target.

Potty Humor

We have had indoor plumbing in our country for about 150 years. Suffice it to say, the plumbing we have today should work pretty darned well, don’t you think? For the most part, it actually does. The plumbing in my house works just like it’s supposed to. Turn the handle, out comes water. Easy. Peazy.

So why, then, does the plumbing system at work have to be so complicated? Keep in mind, our building was built in the 60’s (the 1960’s), and we still have pull chain lights. But the plumbing fixtures in the men’s room are all relatively new. What got me in this goofy mood was Sink #2. It doesn’t drain, so someone put a trash bag into the sink (The universal sign for a broken sink. . . kind of like hanging a t-shirt from your car window to signal your car is broken, and not that you just decided to park on the shoulder at Mile Marker 27 and try to find a Royal Farm Store at Exit 12 fifteen miles down the road. But I digress.) The bag isn’t that funny. It was the sign fastened to the faucet that read:

“Do Not Use. Sink Broken.”

You see, I figured this out without the sign. Then I thought about the sign. Like the warning label on the hair dryer. . . a device used to dry hair. . . cautioning me to NOT use it in the shower, where my sole purpose is to get wet, never mind the fact that I know—even without trying—that electricity is no substitute for shampoo. Someone, somewhere, must have plugged that hair dryer in and walked into their shower, so now. . .WARNING!  I pictured someone standing at the broken sink, filled with an empty plastic garbage bag in the bowl and wrapped around the faucet, trying to wash his hands, getting frustrated. . . then pissed. (Sorry. . . you can use ‘agitated’ if you like)

WASHER: “So if it’s broken, I should NOT use it, right?”

OBSERVER: “Well, it isn’t that you’re not allowed to use it. It’s broken, so you CAN’T use it.”

WASHER: “Wait, I thought you said I could?”

And so it goes. . . It made me laugh. Sadly, it’s not the only thing in there that ever makes me laugh, so I’ve decided that it is socially acceptable to laugh in the men’s room. Also related to plumbing, Sink #3 only started working when Sink #2 stopped. I can’t explain that. But then there’s Sink #4. It has the sensor so the water starts when you place your soapy hands under the faucet. Once there’s a stream of water (coming from the faucet), the water itself is now triggering the sensor, so it runs on and on. Sink #5, as we all know, provides water hot enough to make tea, while #6 will turn your fingers blue.

But the other plumbing phenomenon is the waterless urinal. I know, it sounds gross. But there’s a sign over it that touts its water saving superpower. Something like, “This waterless urinal saves the environment 64,000 gallons of water every year.” That would be great, except the toilets flush three times before you can get out of the stall. It’s like they’re telling ol’ waterless, “Don’t worry, buddy! We got ya covered!”

This multi-flush tendency is well-known by the regulars, and we all know to avoid Stall #1. Stall #1, you see, flushes at random times. It seems to sense that precise moment when you’re distracted, and then suddenly, WHOOSH! It’s like Russian Roulette. Probably the best part is when a newbie is in Stall #1 and you’re in Stall #2. You hear the WHOOSH! And see the other guy’s feet come up off the floor. Now that’s funny right there, and I don’t care who you are. . .

I Visited My Shop This Morning…

My wood shop calls out to me like a haunting voice across the moors. “Mi-ike. . . Miiii-iiike.” It’s three in the morning, and I wake up in a cold sweat, shaking. I throw of my CPAP mask, unrestrained air barges from the flexible tubing. I whip off the covers and fold them back neatly against my pillow.

“What’s wrong?” She’s not really awake. I could say anything here, and she won’t remember. Oh wait, strike that. There was that time I woke up and told her I imagined a spider was hanging over the bed. We flipped on the lights and had to strips the sheets off the bed until we were sure there was no spider. I learned from that.

“Nothing, honey. Go back to sleep. I’ll be fine.” I grab the flashlight that magnetically clings to the bottom of my bed rail. My wife has already fallen back to sleep. I ease the door closed behind me, inch down the stairs, and creep through the kitchen.

I twist the knob on the basement door, and hear the hum of a distant table saw echoing up the stairs. At the bottom, a beam of light oozes from beneath the door. “Mi-ike.”

Cobwebs cover the doorknob, and cling to the door frame, stretching in front of me as the door swings wide. Foolishly, I walk through them anyway, and then claw at my face to get the cobwebs out of my eyebrows and off my lips. The faint image of an old man laughs at me from behind the ShopSmith.

“Have I always looked that clueless?” he says to me. “Ha ha HA! Ha huh huh huh HAAA!” Then, he disappears, leaving a twinkling outline of his body—sawdust, that falls to the floor a second later.

For a moment, I’m excited. Did he finish the blanket chest? You know, like those elves made all those shoes while the shoemaker slept? Nope. I sift through the pile of incomplete projects resting on the sawhorses and pull off the boards I glued up a few months ago. Warped. Damn you, evil, incompetent, eerie, dusty shadow of myself! Now I’ll have to cut it apart, re-joint the edges, re-glue, and re-sand it! I’ll get you!

That’s when my wife smacks me on the CPAP mask. “That thing’s making that stupid noise again!”

“What?” Oh. I’m still in bed. I readjust the mask so it doesn’t make that fart sound, and seat it against my face in such a way that it doesn’t force cold air under my eyelids. “That better?” My voice is muffled under the mask.

“Yeah.” Then she rolls over and goes back to sleep. I spend the next hour awake, wondering if that board really is warped.

It is, by the way. And I still have a blanket chest to make.