Kris and I spent the weekend in Lincoln City with Michael and Laura and their two children, Ethan and Sophia. We had a fine relaxing time, including good conversation — and a round of miniature golf.

One strange thing we noted: Up the beach from the rental house were several large pieces of driftwood. Driftlogs, if you will. And one of them was burning. There were no flames jutting up from the thing, but it was smoldering with hot embers. This was an enormous log — 20-30 feet long and maybe 8 feet in diameter (though there was a U-shaped gouge down its length) — and it was hot and smoking at both ends. What gives?

Over the course of the weekend, I was able to ply my trade: indoctrination of children. Here we see Ethan and Sophia falling under the sway of a bad, bad man:

Maybe next time I can introduce them to Advanced Comics. Heh.

Speaking of comics indoctrination, Lisa e-mailed me last week and actually asked me to help her indoctrinate Albert. Like I’m going to refuse that? Albert doesn’t know it, but he has some Tintin in his future. And some Little Lulu. And some Disney ducks from Carl Barks.

While we were at Lincoln City, I checked out a couple of bookstores. The first is actually about 20 miles from the coast, almost at the casino. I don’t know what it’s called, but I remember that longer ago — ten years? twenty? — it was a decent bookstore with a fine collection of comic books. It’s not longer a decent bookstore (if it ever was), but it does have some comics.

Unfortunately, they’re all kept in a glass display case. The woman who helped me seemed intent on showing them to me one at a time. Since there were a couple of hundred, I gave up rather quickly. There were some comics I wanted, but they were priced way too high (four times what they ought to have been), and I wasn’t about to spend all day with an old woman piecing them out to me.

Another used bookstore — near the outlet mall — was only rather average. It did have copious collections of railroad and radio books, though. Strange subjects for specialization, but there you go.

But there was one bookstore that took my breath away. It’s amazing. Robert’s Bookshop is located south of the downtown area near the theater multiplex. (Kris says it’s across from the Christmas store.) It doesn’t look like much from outside, but inside it’s a labyrinth of old books. There are paperbacks and hardbacks. There are comics and magazines. There are science fiction books and personal finance books and children’s books and cookbooks.

It’s been a l-o-n-g time since I let loose in a bookstore, but I let loose in Robert’s Bookshop. And I don’t regret it. This store is sort of like what Powell’s used to be back when the latter was a decent bookstore. (Powell’s is a hollow shell of its former self nowadays.)

Our trip to Lincoln City was about more than books and comics, though. I do have some video recorded. If I can find time to edit it, I’ll post a bit to YouTube.

Walk With Me

On my 38th birthday, I made a list of 101 goals that I wanted to accomplish in 1001 days. I last updated my progress on this list at the beginning of July.

One of the goals that means the most to me is “complete a marathon”. I’m not sure why, but I have it in my head that this is a major Life Achievement. Ideally, I’d run a marathon. In the real world, however, I keep getting injured. So far, running hasn’t been an option.

However, I realized a couple of weeks ago that after walking 5-10 miles nearly every day this summer, I just might be in shape to walk a marathon. So I signed up. This Sunday, I’ll be walking the Portland Marathon.

Chris Guillebeau plans to accompany me for part of the course (up to ten miles, he says). This is awesome. Walking and talking with Chris will be an excellent way to pass the time. I would love to walk and talk with you, too. If you’re free on Sunday and want to walk a mile or two with me, let me know. We’ll make arrangements.

Some quick facts:

  • The marathon starts at 7am in downtown Portland. It winds through downtown, then heads up across the St. Johns Bridge before returning to downtown.
  • I intend to walk the entire route. I had entertained the notion of running and walking, but I’m not going to do it. This is all walking.
  • I walk at an average pace. I expect to do approximately 17-minute miles. At this pace, I’ll complete the marathon in 7-1/2 hours. This sounds perfect.

So, how about it? Anyone want to join me for a mile or two — or twelve? Mac? Pam? Andy? Tiffany? Craig? Lisa? Lane? Walk with me!

Through a Glass, Darkly

At book group Sunday, we discussed Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Though the book is not about comic books, comics provide the background for the action. The entire story is informed by comic-book themes. I’d argue that one of the characters (Joe Kavalier) is intentionally drawn as a sort of comic-book hero, complete with a series of comic-book villains and a comic-book secret lair.

During the discussion, Kris wondered aloud why it is that men — or some men — are obsessed with the things of their childhood, stuff like comic books and videogames. Her question implied several sub-arguments, including:

  • Women are not interested in the trappings of their youth.
  • Comic books and videogames are something that only young people are interested in (or should be interested in).
  • It’s somehow wrong to be interested in the things we liked when we were younger.

The group discussed the first point at length. We talked about reasons men might like the toys and activities of their youth. We even noted that some women do cling to girlhood toys and activities: dolls, Nancy Drew books (of which Kris has a large collection), etc.

But I don’t feel like we explored the second and third topics much at all. Since I disagree with Kris’ premise, I’ve given this some additional thought.

Kris calls this fixation on the things of youth “childish”, and she means it with the negative implications of that word. I don’t agree with her. I think it’s fine to like the things we enjoyed as children.

For one thing, I’m not convinced that comic books and videogames (or dolls or Nancy Drew) are meant only for children. Many people come to these things as kids, it’s true, but many come to them as adults, too. It seems artificial to label these things as childish — especially when the labeler doesn’t have much experience with them.

What’s more, collecting the things from our youth, doing the things we used to do, can provide a heady sense of nostalgia, a visceral connection to the past. It’s a great way to feel connected with our personal histories, with our family and friends.

Hobbies kept from childhood can also help us better understand our selves. I’m able to look at my life-long interest in astronomy, for example, and trace its role in my life. I can do the same with comic books, tracking how my tastes have changed — or stayed the same.

I think it’s foolish to just blindly cast off our childhood interests as “childish” simply because we’re older.

Clam Chowder Season

Autumn is here. Or at least it’s trying to be here. I can feel it trying to push summer out the door. “Go home,” it says. “You’ve stayed along.”

But wait! Didn’t I just say this has been my best summer ever? Yes, I did. But I’ll always prefer fall to summer. I look forward to this being my best autumn ever. For one thing, this is clam chowder weather. Kris and I have both been craving the stuff lately. Tonight I made the first batch of the season.

Because I’m that kind of guy, I’ve set down my ingredients here. I’m always fussing with this recipe, trying to find the perfect balance of everything. Tonight’s batch seems especially good (though there’s no way to know until its rested for a day or two in the fridge — I always serve this to guests 24-48 hours old because this allows the flavors to meld I always let this stand for 24-48 hours before serving because it allows the flavors to meld.).

Anyhow, for my own edification, here’s this batch’s ingredient list:

  • Four 8-ounce bottles of clam juice used to boil five pounds of russet potatoes. Also, I added juice from two 6-1/2 ounce cans of minced clams.
  • Four tablespoons of butter (half a stick) used to fry a 20-ounce package of Fletcher’s thick pepper bacon. This produced too much fat. The bacon wouldn’t brown and it wouldn’t stick. I think I need to cut back to two tablespoons of butter for next time.
  • One bulb of garlic (bulb, not clove), one bunch of celery (bunch, not stalk), and two HUGE yellow onions. Also two bay leaves.
  • After combining the bacon and vegetables, I thought I had way too much stuff. The big pot was half full. But after I added half a cup of flour and stirred vigorously, everything was reduced to a pulpy mass. It was perfect.
  • I used a 51-ounce can of chopped clams from Costco as my main meat source (adding the meat from the two cans of minced clams). I used the juice from the big can for the roux. There were about three cups. I added about 100ml at a time and stirred to thicken. It was perfect.
  • After the roux, I added 1-1/2 teaspoons of hickory smoke salt. Previous batches have been a little salty, so I’m trying to cut down. I also added one tablespoon of Tapatío hot sauce. I only used two cups of half-and-half because I have notes that bumping it much higher mutes most of the flavors.
  • After adding everything (including the potato mixture), I ground pepper for a couple of minutes.
  • Things tasted fine, but I wasn’t getting enough hickory flavor, so I added a few drops of liquid smoke. That seemed to help.

As I say, the first tastes of this batch are quite good. Delicious, in fact. The true test will be how the stuff tastes for dinner tomorrow night.

The funny thing (to me, anyhow) is that I’ll be making a second batch of this over the weekend. If my Saturday gathering breaks up early, I’ll make it then. Otherwise I’ll be whipping it up bright and early Sunday morning. We’re serving it for book group on Sunday evening.

Ah, clam chowder season is a happy time of year.

Best. Summer. Ever.

I had lunch with my friend/colleague Mike today. He told me that his income has really taken a nose-dive this year. His family has had to cut back. He told me that despite the lower income, he’s made some changes to his lifestyle in order to emphasize the things that are actually important to him.

“You know what?” he said. “I’m happier. I’m really so much happier.” Mike and his wife have spent a lot of time discussing the Ideal Lifestyle. They’re asking themselves: In a perfect world — if money weren’t an issue — what would their life look like? And they’re trying to make that a reality.

I nodded in agreement as I listened to Mike’s story. I was suddenly able to articulate something I’ve been feeling lately. “Actually,” I said, “I’m happy now, too. This may have been the best summer of my entire life.

“Tell me about it,” Mike said. So I did.

I’m finally getting my workload under control. I love to write. I love maintaining my personal-finance blog. But I did not love the 80 hour weeks. Those have declined this summer, thanks in part to bringing on two staff writers. In fact, my actual obligation at the site has been reduced from about ten posts per week to about two post per week. I’m still doing work that I love, but now I have time for other stuff.

For example, I’m getting regular exercise for the first time since 1998. (That was the summer I rode over 1500 miles on my bike.) My goal is to walk at least five miles every day — and I’m doing it. I’m averaging about 35 miles per week. At least five days a week, I walk on my errands. And as I walk, I read. (I’m very talented, eh?) So, I’m killing three birds with one stone:

  • I’m running my errands.
  • I’m reading for pleasure (for the first time in years).
  • I’m getting exercise.

I’ve also begun to see more of my friends. For the past few years, my life has been Get Rich Slowly. That dedication proved to be financially and professionally rewarding, but I had to sacrifice a lot of other things. Like reading. And friends. This summer, I’ve finally begun to be social again. I’ve even reconnected with a group of high school acquaintances on Facebook. None of us were really close in school, but we’ve begun to see each other at least once per month. I enjoy this immensely. (I’m hosting the group at Rosings Park on Saturday.)

Meanwhile, I’ve been able to focus on a couple of hobbies. I’m very wary of adding new Stuff to our house. But with caution, I’ve begun to collect comic books again. And vinyl record albums. And old books. I’m being very particular about what I acquire. I’m setting a budget, and I’m targeting very specific stuff. And I’m having a hell of a lot of fun. When I was in college, I gave away all of my comic books. Now I’m looking to buy them back for a buck or two a piece. It’s a challenge that will take years, but I’m up to it!

Speaking of Stuff: Kris and I have continued the slow-motion decluttering that we began two years ago. I may be bringing a few new record albums into my soon-to-be-completed Man Room, but I’m ready to purge hundreds more. Yes to a Johnny Cash record and a Miles Davis record. Good-bye, my vast New Wave collection. I’m also purging a lot of books and comics — and clothes.

Finally, I feel like I’m getting physically fit again. After struggling with my weight for years, I bit the bullet and purchased one of those “body bug” monitoring devices. I strap it to my arm and it tracks how many calories I burn. Every night, I tell the software what I ate during the day. This process is keeping me honest, is helping me to lose weight again.

All of these things taken together yield one very happy J.D. I seem like a completely different man than I was last winter. Last winter I was dull and overwhelmed and depressed. Today I am sharp and happy and invigorated.

Yes, this just may be the best summer I’ve ever had.

A Blogging Sin

Ugh. I have plenty to say, but I’m just not saying it. The problem is that once I let a few days go by without posting something here, it becomes a Thing. It’s a burden. I feel pressure for my next post to be really stupendous and awesome. But that’s not what my next post is going to be, and I know it.

For example, I happen to know that the two things I want to write about at the moment are:

  • How many frickin’ calories there are in a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich.
  • How I’ve begun to use an old-school organization system that gives me the best of both worlds: chore cloud and list of things to do.

But because two weeks have gone by without a single post here, I instead commit a blogging sin: I write about how little I am writing.

Still, now that I’ve got that out of the way, maybe we can move on to more interesting things!

From Blog to Book, part one: Publish or Perish?

I’ve developed an arsenal of stock stories to use when I give interviews to reporters or meet Get Rich Slowly readers. One of my stock bits goes like this:

I always wanted to be a writer. That’s been my dream since the third or fourth grade. But I always thought I’d make my living writing poetry or short stories, or fantasy and science fiction novels. Serious stuff like that. I never dreamed I’d make my living writing about personal finance!

With the right delivery, the audience chuckles. More and more, though, this story isn’t funny to me. I really am a personal-finance writer — even if it’s just for the web.

But even that qualification — “just for the web” — is becoming a thing of the past. I’ve now had pieces appear in several books, most notably:

Now, it seems, I’ll be writing a book of my very own.

I can’t reveal the details yet (I don’t even know the details yet). I have a verbal agreement with a publisher and I’ve begun to work with my editor, but I haven’t seen a written contract. Once the paperwork’s behind me, I can start work.

In the meantime, I thought it would be useful to set down a record of the process. A lot of people have questions about what goes into writing and publishing a book. Maybe my experience can help answer some questions.

How Things Usually Work
The first thing to understand is that fiction books and non-fiction books are sold in completely different ways. In both cases, publishers like for an author to have a “platform”, a built in reader base. Michael Jordan has a huge platform. Barack Obama has a large platform, too. My own platform is modest — but I have one. Publishers view platform as a way to project sales. Basically, they usually — though not always — want to see a built-in audience.

With fiction books, you generally produce the entire work first and then send it out (via an agent or by yourself). The publisher wants to see the finished work.

That’s not how non-fiction works. With non-fiction, publishers want to see a book proposal before the author begins her work. The book proposal contains a general outline of the book, a sort of market analysis providing info on how many copies might sell, and perhaps a chapter or two. (I’m vastly over-simplifying this. Book proposals are an art.)

In general, the non-fiction author writes a book proposal, and then shops the proposal to various agents. Once she finds an agent that things the idea is marketable, the author then works with him to hone the book proposal to appeal to publishers. Then the process repeats itself: The proposal is shopped around to publishers. If a publisher buys the idea, it’ll then suggest changes to the book based on its knowledge of the market.

Basically, there’s a standard sequence of events that lead to publication.

If you’re fortunate — and I’ve been fortunate — you can bypass one or more steps in this sequence. In my case, I’ve had publishers and agents contacting me for the past couple of years. That is, I haven’t had to write a proposal and shop it around in the hopes that somebody might be interested. Instead, they’re already interested, and they’re coming to me in the hopes that I might go with them.

Established authors repeatedly tell me how lucky I am. And I believe them.

That’s how things usually work (for selling a book, anyhow). As I say, my path has been a little different.

Meeting a Mentor
In December 2007, I was contacted by Tim Clark. I’d never met Clark before (I hadn’t even heard of him), but he asked to meet me at a Japanese bubble tea shop along SE Woodstock in Portland. I was nervous about the meeting. Back then, this sort of thing was strange and new and gave me a severe case of nerves. It didn’t help that I had some Japanese bubble tea, which gave me a belly ache even before the meeting started. I almost ditched before Clark arrived. I’m glad I didn’t.

Clark introduced himself as the author of several books, including The Swordless Samurai. He wanted to chat with me because he’d just written a personal-finance book called The Prosperous Peasant with Mark Cunningham, a member of the writing group I belonged to. Clark wanted advice on how to market his book to bloggers.

We discussed The Prosperous Peasant, but as the conversation progressed, I realized that I was getting more out of it than he was. Clark was enthusiastic about the possibilities of a Get Rich Slowly book. “You should do this,” he said. “You should do it now.” He told me it was crazy that I wasn’t replying to agents and publishers who were contacting me. “Other writers would kill for that,” he said.

After our meeting, I thought about things for a while. Then I gave Clark a call. I asked him to describe the publishing process. He did. He also introduced me to his agent. Over the next few weeks, I talked to several other agents. I was trying to get a feel for their interest in the project. I liked all of the agents I spoke with — and they were each interested in working with me — but I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I was scared.

To learn more about the process of writing a book, I spoke with some of my friends and colleagues who had written one. I talked with Matt Haughey, Ramit Sethi, Leo Babauta, and Penelope TrunkPenelope Trunk. All of them (except Leo) advised against it. “It’s not really worth it,” they told me. “It takes a lot of time and there’s not much chance of a financial payoff.”

Clark acknowledged that the chances of making any real money on a book project were slim. “But it’s not about the money,” he told me. “Like it or not, a book lends credibility to your work. You do this to open other doors.”

Still, I was hesitant. Very hesitant. I didn’t actually have an idea for a book, so I couldn’t begin to create a book proposal. And I couldn’t choose between the agents I had interviewed. They were all great. Plus, Get Rich Slowly was taking all of my time and was producing a decent income. The book seemed unnecessary.

I put the project on hold for a year.

[To be continued…]