Throw Momma From the Train


When given the chance, I would argue that the greatest movie about amateur authors and movie vehicles is the 1987 classic Throw Momma From the Train starring Billy Crystal, Danny DeVito, and Anne Ramsey (as Momma).  It’s not only hilarious, continuously quotable, but nails the pain that a writer can go through when they can’t write  … I mean, is the night hot, is it cold, is it wet or is it dry … or is the Night Sultry.

With that introduction, hello from the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner.  As in, I am literally writing this blog while sitting on a train called the Pacific Surfliner northbound from San Diego to Los Angeles (and continuing on to San Luis Obispo).  While it is slightly random that I am writing this blog today, the intent isn’t random, and the outcome is what it’s all about.

As mentioned in a previous blog post, I am in the midst of another attempt at NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month, an opportunity for thirty days to make writing a priority.  Previously, I sued this activity to actually try to write a novel, but this year it is just about the writing process and to reignite the love I have for creative writing in general.  The visible goal is to reach fifty thousand words in the month of November.  My choice to embrace all things creative this year includes this blog, as well as a mess of short stories and edits.  During NaNoWriMo, there are events set up to help encourage the process.  Most of which, called write-ins, give writers a place to meet, maybe chat about what they do, but mostly to sit in a quiet place and crank out words.

Today’s Write-in offered up was essentially one in three parts.  The second performed in conjunction with a San Diego NaNoWriMo group (who didn’t show up), and it’s bookends happening on the Pacific Surfliner.  In other words, I took a train to San Diego to write for a little bit then rode back all on the same day.

Besides the functionality of the idea, it is a pretty cool way to spend a day.  For those of us committed to NaNoWriMo, we would need significant time on a late November Saturday to make it happen.  In theory, this was a perfect way to set ourselves up a good way to get things done.  The train from LA to San Diego takes about three hours, and with about a three-hour layover, it meant that we could be only somewhat productive and kill it in this program.

In all honesty, I wasn’t productive.  Our train was late, but that really wasn’t an excuse.  The real problem was that it was sensory overload.  Of course, I’ve ridden a train before, just not here in Southern California.  Heck, much of the route was old news to me too, just not from the train.  It was amazing to see things like Angel Stadium in Anaheim, or the towers in downtown Irvine, or the dirigible hangers in Tustin; but from this angle and this direction, it was interesting, all of it.

Then the train hit the coast.  To say the train goes along the coast is pretty on the nose.  For long stretches, the only thing between the train and the ocean is beach sand and short bits of it.  If we weren’t moving at a fast rate, you would see the look of fear on the surfers.  Southbound, during the late morning and early afternoon, swimmers and sunbathers were enjoying the seventy-degree weather.  Northbound out of San Diego, it was the photographers capturing the sunset just out of San Diego, and then the early indications of folks making a camp on the beach.

We told stories about Throw Momma from the Train today, because of its applicability.  Quoting it too.  “Owen doesn’t need friends he has his momma.”  or “I’m going to kill the B, you want something?”  “Could you get me a Chunky.”  or just “OWEN”.  Yet in my head, the thing that keeps sticking there is the look of Larry (Billy Crystal) and he is crashing near the end of patience close to the end of the movie, hovering over a typewriter frustrated that no amount of craziness is going to let him find that part to be productive.  Then it comes.,

Needless to say, I wasn’t productive, but I didn’t care.  I sat back and watched the world go by from the top of a double-decker train car.  The color of the sky changing, the gentle rock of the path mesmerizing, and the challenges of my life put on hold for a few hours.  I am not so rough of shape with NaNoWriMo that I need be frustrated by a less productive day, quite the opposite.  I needed this.  More than anything, I needed this day.

Besides, I have six days left to go.


Engineer Mode


I have what I call “Engineer Mode”.  I don’t like Engineer Mode, mostly because of what must trigger Engineer Mode, but it exists and I have to accept the fact it exists.  I went pretty heavy towards Engineer Mode today, and now that the wine bottles are open I can start to embrace it.

Engineer Mode starts from an idea that was proposed to me almost a decade ago.  One of my managers at work was discussing training they had, where it was identified that people can act a certain way when the world is good, right, and regular – but when stress levels rise, they act in a completely different way.  I think there isn’t a person reading this blog that wouldn’t agree with this idea.  I mean, the whole concept of “losing your S##t” over something is based on that idea.  I’ve seen folks go insane in moments of stress, or shut down, or just become awesome.  When you realize we all change in those kinds of modes, you can start to ask yourself what happens when you go into that condition.

I go into Engineer Mode.

I am normally an easy going guy who thinks he’s way funnier than he really is.  I am the guy that is chill, the guy who doesn’t care much about things, or the guy who can laugh at himself first more than anything.

When I come under stress, all of those emotions shut down.  It’s an instinct to a certain point.  Part of that is because laughing or joking around in those situations isn’t going to help anything.  Crying neither.

My mindset becomes about problem-solving.  If facing a stressful, difficult situation, I want to get out of it.  The only way out of it is to analyze the possible outcomes, look for solutions that correct or prevent the problem, and implement changes that take me down that path.  In other words, I engineer a solution.

Today I was faced with a series of situations where Engineering Mode clicked on.  I was traveling to Denver by way of Burbank than Phoenix for an audit I am performing tomorrow.  Because it was an early flight, I dropped Auggie the Doggie off at the Pet Hotel last night, but before I did I noticed he had a bit of a red mark under his eye.  I let them know and left him there.  When my plane arrived in Phoenix for a 2-hour layover, I had a voicemail from the pet hotel – his eye had grown ‘poofy’ overnight, and they moved him to the Vet that was in the store (not my regular vet, but I wasn’t complaining).  When I called in, they hadn’t examined him yet, but I was able to talk to enough people to authorize further treatment.  Meanwhile, folks at work were sending me common work-related questions; so I needed to find a place to log in.  Doing so found that a recent update to our security didn’t go as planned, and I couldn’t get logged into my computer.  The entire layover was now spent troubleshooting with limited success and no new news on the pup.

Engineering Mode put me in an active work through the issues at hand.  Calling the Vet, troubleshooting my work laptop, dealing with the layover.  Those were actions with results that I could manage.  So that’s what I did.  That’s how Engineer Mode works.  Deal with the problem ahead of you, no emotions and no reactions.

Where I let it get to me is when things start to fall outside of my control and/or I have no actions to take.  Without going into detail, the vet that Auggie stayed at was having a ‘stressful day’ … something that the actual Doctor almost hinted to something traumatic, so you knew it had to be bad.  Still, I had to take the initiative to call them for updates.  Normally I would be going out of my mind in those situations because it requires me to rely on someone else to do something.  Not today, because — for one, I was on a plane, what was I going to do; and for two, I had the laptop to deal with, plus driving to a hotel, plus planning for an audit tomorrow, plus everything else going on.  Engineer Mode had control.

Engineer Mode does suck when those actions become out of my control.  Like anyone, I can get swarmed under by life.  For me, it’s regularly related to the things in my life I can’t control.  Most of the time its circumstance; some of the time it’s people.  That’s part of the challenge, I guess, recognizing that as life piles on to us, we don’t let the anchor of our own imposed emotions weigh us down and take us under.  I’m not saying I am an expert from avoiding that kind of outcome, far from it, but it sure does feel like when I can shut down the parts of me that want to cry my way through a problem it seems to make it all move quicker.

As far as the pup is concerned, it’s something kind of minor we will watch.  It turns out, he had a yeast infection in his ear.  He was trying to scratch it, and regularly missed thereby scratching his eye.  There’s an ulcer now in his eyelid, and they will measure it to track it.  Plus he is going to get meds to take.  Plus he will wear the CONE OF SHAME!   In the end, it’s going to be some minor things to pull him through until I can get him poked and prodded by his real vet next week.

Plus I got my laptop running.

When things resolve like this, It’s good, and I am happy.  In fact, it’s an excuse to have a glass of wine with dinner.  Maybe two.  Maybe three.  Engineer Mode also has its way of balancing out my brain.  Dealing with stuff like this means I can enjoy when I let emotions, concern, and happiness back in my life.  So, I can accept Engineer Mode for what it is.

Maybe the fourth glass of wine; I mean, I did skip lunch.


And the Band Played On


This morning, I am recovering from one of the longest band judging days of my career.  Thirty-two performing units spread over nearly 14 hours in Oxnard, California.  Usually shows like this will spread the bands across multiple classifications with band sizes ranging from the smallest to the largest – but this had nearly two-thirds in the same class, specifically the smallest class.  Half of the books & papers in my bag are soaking wet from the constant layer of fog that rolled in last night; including my IPad Pro that shouldn’t have survived the night.  My knees are swollen, my fingers still feel chilled, and I am sunburned with sunglasses shaped raccoon eyes.

And I can’t wait to do it again next week.

For you long-time Bear Feeders, you may know I am talking about my most ‘profitable’ of hobbies.  I adjudicate marching band competitions in the fall.  I’ve been doing this for over twenty years, starting off in the midwest before expanding my work as I moved around the country.  Also, your long-time Bear Feeders would be wondering what I am talking about it now.  Prior to this year, the lastest I have ever worked was the first weekend in November, and that was only on limited locations.  Here it is the second weekend in November, and not only am I working, but I’m also not done.

For those of you in cold weather parts of the country, you might find going this late odd – but then again, cold weather is the detail you need to embrace.  Scheduling a State Championship in Wisconsin in November is like scheduling an outdoor hockey game in July.  Indiana had their’s last week, but they had a dome, so bully for them.  Here in California, they can go this late because the weather is warm – even though last year had cancellations due to fires and smoke.  That being said, just because shows are going on this late doesn’t mean I am working them … but I am working on them now.

Let me give you the longer version of how this is all rolling out.  I got into band judging shortly after I stopped my career as a performer and instructor in the mid-90s.  I loved being a performer, but the activity had age limits; then as I dragged my heels to graduate from college I kept instructing marching arts organizations.  I couldn’t keep that up long term because … well, the pay was nothing (like $75 a week for 18 hour days seven days a week).  A friend suggested I get into judging, and invited me to tag along to a clinic.  I walked in the door, met the guy that does show scheduling (a man named Dick Turner, and still a good friend), and without even asking my background he asked if I was available on a given date.  That’s how I got my first gig (1996 FJ Reitz Invitational, Evansville, Indiana).    I did a couple training shows or trialing, including the most brutal day I ever was a part of (41 performing units, including extended instructional critique – a day that began at 9am and ended at 3am).

All of those shows back then and all my shows I judged until 2014 was working for the Central States Judges Association (CSJA).  CSJA is a venerable fraternity who established much of the expectations for a marching band judge in its early days and continues to push for excellence across the markets they support.  I was lucky to find them because the group was awash with long-standing judges who are focused on the training and development of others.  I knew if I wanted work and I wanted to continue to work in this little hobby that I loved, I had to always keep getting better – CSJA provided that to me for literally decades.

The only problem was one of location.  Central States Judges Association is located in, you might guess, the central states.  While shows will pay to fly people in, if they don’t have to they won’t.  This only gets worse the further you have to fly and the more risk of arriving late.  It wasn’t so bad when I lived in Kansas, but when I moved to Alaska, the work nearly dried up.  Moving back to Boston restarted things, but I had to supplement my CSJA work with something else.  That was the first time I started working independently – but only for a single season for the NESBA (New England Scholastic Band Association).   Besides one other purely independent gig I did more as a favor, I still remained with CSJA soley.

Then I moved to California.

California’s marching band circuit is HUGE!  Massive!  In fact, much of it is centralized around the counties near where I live.  All I really need to do was to get a foot in the door, and I could start to find work.  The last couple of years, the foot has slowly made it in the door.

In the last three years, I’ve done work for the Western Band Association (WBA).  This is mostly a circuit for Bay-Area and Southern California bands; though there are a small group of units in the Las Vegas area, and some shows (including their Super Show which I was able to judge last year).  For reasons I am not clear enough to blog about (but I have my guesses), the circuit attracts some of the higher level bands regardless of band size.  It also includes some of the higher-level judges as well, many of which are flown in from across the country blazed with their nationally recognized names and resumes.  One of the shows I did this year, I shared a press box with so people who had worked the biggest of competitions, that I felt like a mouse amongst wolves.  One conversation even went:

Me: Hi, I’m Mitch
Him:  Hi, I’m XXXX
Me:  Yeah I know … I kinda recognize you from talking on my movie theatre screen

Not that is not sarcasm, yes that happened.

Yet the WBA work was limited as well.  So at the encouragement from a couple of other locals, I contacted the Southern California School Band & Orchestra Association (SCSBOA) who are currently considering me as a possible member to judge regularly.  And by “considering” I mean, I am 90% sure I am judging their Finals Championship next week – as in the biggest show of the year.  SCSBOA is a circuit that is Asteroid – small in size but massively dense.  In the midwest, including in Wisconsin where I grew up, it wasn’t out of the question to drive 4 or 5 hours to the closest competition and that show only drew 10-12 bands.  SCSBOA yesterday alone had 6 shows within an hour-and-a-half drive of any band, and the shows all were well over twenty competing units.  My thirty-two band show was massive … I mean massive.  This during a week when some of the bands competed for two, three, or four times during the week.

For the most part, next weekend’s the competitive season.  Not just here, but across the country.  This includes the National Championship in Indiana and State Championships anywhere where it hadn’t been decided already.  Overall, through the three circuits I worked, I had a good season, one with six shows that nearly spread over three months.  I saw a lot of great bands and a lot of fantastic performances.

I just get the opportunity to do one more.


This Counts


Today is November Seventh, Two Thousand, and Nineteen.  I am writing my blog to tell you specifically, right now, here and now, as I write, that it is November.  November, as it turns out is the National Novel Writing Month, or known colloquially (which means in common terms) as NaNoWriMo.  During this month, participants attempt to write enough words to create first drafts of a novel; specifically with the goal of fifty thousand words across the thirty days of November.

Which if you are asking yourself why I seem to be throwing a bunch of garbage words intentionally with the unintentional garbage words … I’m counting these as part of my fifty thousand.

All honesty, some of you who might be long term Bear Feeders may remember that this isn’t the first time I have posted about this event.  NaNoWriMo has been a bit of crazy I’ve been attempting going back six years.  Like I mentioned, the concept is simple – try to support the creative process by encouraging participants to crank out as many words as possible.  For most writers, especially those new or wanna-be writers, the hardest thing is to get started with words on paper.  NaNoWriMo becomes that vehicle to make it happen.  The process encourages volume over quality – some call it “word vomit”.  The program comes with methods and tools to encourage creativity and bonding with others in the process to help work towards the shared word goal.

That being said, the goal of NaNoWriMo is not easy.  If you break it down, 50,000 words over 30 days mean you need to write 1667 words a day.  When this blog post is over it will be about eight to nine hundred words and while easy for me to write will take about forty-five minutes to complete.  That means that I have to find about a half-hour to an hour to put down enough words to reach that 1667 a day goal.  Then once the clock strikes midnight, I do it again tomorrow.  Then average that for 30 days.  Thirty days that always includes three weeks of work, travel for work, band judging, and Thanksgiving holidays.  It’s not easy, in fact, it’s downright insanity.

That’s not to say I haven’t been successful.  In fact, I’ve reached 50,000 the last 4 years in a row.  There were obstacles along the way in all of those too.  Like once I quit my job and put my house up for sale during NaNoWriMo.  Once I had one of the biggest professional chew-outs of my career while living out of a hotel room.  Heck, one year I had surgery during NaNoWriMo and still met the final goal.  Making it always required focus, diligence, and routine.

When I get asked why I do it, I tend to answer “it’s an excuse to drink too much coffee in the morning, and too much whiskey at night”.  More serious questions are if I am actually writing a novel.  The truth of that is yes and no.  Every year I do NaNoWriMo, I am trying to write a novel, but it’s not like my intent is to output a novel I want to publish let alone share with anyone.  For starters, remember that this process is about a first draft – and a first draft is horrific.  You turn off spell checkers, grammar checkers, and any logic in your head.  To take that and turn it into something publishable means you have to grind it through your own editing, critiquing by peers, professional editors, and then rejection after rejection after rejection.  I am not saying I may be interested going down that path, but right now what is fun for me is creating these stories – so anything else is something I can wait on.

The problem for me, and the problem specifically this year is things have changed in my life.  As some of you know, I had a bit of a health scare this summer.  With that, my doctor has set me up with a new cocktail of prescriptions; some of which have affected my ability to write.  I mentioned before, NaNo is about focus and diligence, and both of those were most affected.  Many times I find myself staring at a blank screen with just a few lines typed and the ideas still locked away in my brain.  I love the creative process in NaNo, but fear I am losing the ability to make that come out.  Heck — while I was writing this paragraph I got distracted by someone sending me notes about CubeSats (thank you, Jeremy Phillips).  So my goal with NaNo this year is trying to find that spark again.

To do that, I am making everything count.  Not just the novel I was working on, but this blog, side stories, or whatever comes my way.  In fact, the other night I was driving my car, got an idea on a different novel, and essentially pulled up a chair to crank out a 1200 word treatment to get the voice of the main character.  Now I cam considering throwing out my current novel and starting this one from scratch even though I am six days into NaNo.  I am trying to write every day, but that will be dang near impossible (especially this Saturday, when I have a seventeen hour day of band judging).    Also, while I have always gone home for Thanksgiving, I usually came back with a few NaNoWriMo days to spare to finish up – but my flight home is on the 30th this year, so the battle there is real.  In the end, my goal is to write every day, find the spark, find what I love about writing, and let the rest of it come.

In the meantime, this counts.  All Nine hundred and sixty-three words, or sixty-five, … now sixty-seven.    Whoops, I did an edit, it dropped to sixty-six.

Okay. that’s it.

Nine eight three.