Marley and Me

My wife and I watched Marley and Me tonight. Good movie. Not as good as the book, of course. But I think they did a good job of adapting it to the screen.

I guess the book and movie hit me on three levels, rather than just two. I’m a parent, I have a Labrador Retriever, and I went to school to try to be John Grogan. That last part didn’t quite work out, but that world just doesn’t seem to exist anymore, not with a major newspaper closing its doors pretty much every week now.I’ll get the first question out of the way. Yes, the movie gives a pretty accurate picture of what life is like with a Lab. Some chew more than others. Ours has demolished a curtain, a window shade, and scarred a couple of doors, but not much else. Marley has her beat. I’ll spare you the stories about the fascination with toilets and dirty diapers. The book talks about that more than the movie, and it’s true.

And underneath the mischief is a heart of gold. You see that in the movie in spades, and it’s all true. I think pretty much any dog is capable of that kind of love, and capable of sensing when we really need them the most, but Labs are especially good at it. They may not know everything that’s going on, but they’re perfectly willing to just sit there with you and get through it, and they’ll never, ever hold anything you say against them.

The attachment between dog and child is every bit as strong as in that movie. When we first brought our son home, he was a bit suspicious of that big furry thing, and probably a bit scared of her. I remember him looking at her with those big, wide, not-so-trusting eyes. They weren’t the same big wide eyes he looked at Dad with. It took a little while for the two of them to adjust to one another, but they did. He’s 13 months old now, and he’ll climb on her or pull on her ears, laughing like it’s great fun, and she just sits there, tail thumping the floor in approval, trying to lick him. When he cries, if she’s not sure we hear it, she’ll start whimpering and jumping up on things until she has our attention.

It’s very easy to see the two of them growing up together just like the dog and kids in the movie.

I know from my own experience that his life as a journalist is glamorized. I lived that portrayal at the beginning. While all the other reporters have great stories to chase, his assignment is two paragraphs about a fire at the city dump for the police blotter. Sometimes that turns into a great story. One Saturday I was listening on the police scanner and learned about some guy burning leaves in a BBQ grill in his front yard. Then a gust of wind came, and the next thing we knew, his neighbor’s house was on fire, along with the same neighbor’s barn and field. I rushed out there and found a disaster. I have no idea what it was, but the neighbor really opened up to me, and it turned into a great story. The editors thought so too, and what normally would have been a couple of paragraphs in the blotter ended up taking up most of the page.

I chased a lot of stories of people burning leaves in BBQ grills–you wouldn’t believe how often that happens in central Missour-ah, with an "uh"–but it rarely even merited more than a line in the blotter.

I loved every minute of it. I hated every minute of it. It’s called paying your dues, because nobody wants to do write about misdemeanors and city council meetings for more than a few months. You hate writing meaningless copy, but the worst writing job is still better than doing anything else. Right? Um….

The gruff, bald, humorless, emotionless editor? True. Definitely a stereotype, but this particular stereotype has a lot of truth.

I think that’s what really hit me the hardest. Fifteen years ago I wanted to be a journalist. I changed directions because a computer professional can work pretty much anywhere. I didn’t want to be stuck writing obituaries and police blotters for a small-town newspaper 45 minutes outside of Toledo making $18,000 a year. I wanted to be able to afford a house and a car and a dog. The price I paid for a job that pays a living wage is boring and mundane work (although important). But I can’t write about it because I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement. I’m not even supposed to talk all that much about it, which is a shame because I have some great stories, like the one where a guy who makes three times my salary called me up, complaining that the network was broken because a service running on his computer couldn’t contact 127.0.0.1. (Translation: his computer couldn’t figure out how to talk to itself, so obviously it’s a network problem.)

Not being able to talk about it is the ultimate price. John Gorgan’s stories are funnier than mine, because everyone can relate to kids and dogs. People eat those stories up. I can tell you the story about trying to log into a domain controller and getting an error message that the computer can’t contact the domain controller. I yelled, "Look in the mirror!" The third time it happened, I probably inserted another word before "mirror." A small number of you reading are laughing and trying to diagnose the problem. The rest of you are wondering what on earth mirrors have to do with computers and why would anyone think that’s funny?

So I’m insanely jealous of John Grogan, but increasingly his life is something that no longer exists. Newspapers are closing their doors left and right. There aren’t enough jobs out there for the best of the best. And the only people this seems to bother are other journalists. I blame Fox News and talk radio, neither of which would exist without credible news sources to seed them, but that will become obvious soon enough.

So I’ll settle for having a son and a dog, and being able to afford to live in a safe neighborhood. And maybe when I’m 40 and too old to be in IT, I can finally tell those other stories.

Being more interested in growth than being Lutheran? Hardly.

On Monday, a group of protesters gathered outside the Vatican, er, 1333 S. Kirkwood Road.

Their complaint: Issues, Etc., a popular radio show on the LCMS’s unpopular talk radio station, got cancelled without warning, and the host and producer were fired.

I know from personal experience that this is how the LCMS does things. About this time of year, people come into work like any other day, and they lose their jobs. The next day, everyone else comes in and finds out a bunch of people are gone. Sometimes there’s an announcement, and if everyone takes it like a man there might even be a little fare-thee-well with cake and punch and a picture for the internal newsletter, but it’s just as likely there’ll be nothing but a few whispers.

Several years ago it happened to me. It still bugs me a lot, since I moved 120 miles, made a less-than-lateral move, and worked for far less than fair market value for those people.

So I feel for The Rev. Wilken and Jeff Schwarz. I’ve been there. And I really hope they find stable employment very soon.

I happen to know David Strand, the LCMS employee quoted in the article. In fact, if my phone rang and I saw it was him on my caller ID, I’d probably pick up. There are maybe a dozen people who work at The Vatican that I can say that for. I spent a fair amount of time with him and I trust him. I also know in the past that his department has been ravaged with cuts. It seems like pretty much every time the LCMS loses money (which they’re very good at doing), his department takes the bullet. So when he throws the monetary figures out there, my inclination is to believe him.

So while I sympathize with those who lost their jobs, and while I’m very disappointed in how it was handled (but not surprised), I very much take issue with what one of the protesters said: “They’d [the LCMS leadership in Kirkwood] like to be more in the mainstream of American evangelicalism as opposed to distinctly Lutheran.”

I’m not sure what Bible the so-called confessional Lutherans read, but my Bible doesn’t say, “Wait, therefore, for 15th-century Germans to come to you, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It says to go–don’t wait, GO!–to all people, all nations, and baptize them.

The church I attend takes that seriously. And we attract an interesting mix of people. A lot of people are lapsed Lutherans, like I was. But we also attract a very large number of lapsed Catholics. We also have a small but vocal group who have, shall I say, some Calvinistic sympathies.

Our church looks more like a library or a community center than a German cathedral, and we don’t have a pipe organ and we put–gasp!–Bibles where other Lutheran churches put those horrible blue hymnals. I’ve had people tell me it doesn’t look or feel like a Lutheran church. But the theology that our pastor preaches is extremely Lutheran. The confession and absolution of sins is as Lutheran as it comes–the difference slaps me in the face any time I go to a non-Lutheran church–and in fact, if anything I hear more references to things like sola scriptura, grace alone and faith alone than I did in more mainline Lutheran churches.

And that’s good, because that’s what the people God brings us need to hear more than anything else. Isn’t that what God wants us to do? Heal the hurting? What could be more healing than the message of God’s grace?

We Lutherans have a near monopoly on perhaps the most potent force in the entire universe. I don’t think anybody understands grace as much as we do, and certainly nobody else has studied it like we have, because perhaps nobody in history needed it more than Martin Luther did. But all too often, we just sit on it. Or we bury it in tradition that people don’t understand.

The church I attend does a few things that draw people in, the upbeat, modern music being the most noticeable thing. But I don’t think that’s what keeps people there. Lots of churches have good praise bands. Lots of churches have eloquent pastors. But not a lot of churches have that plus the Lutheran doctrine.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. My church is one of the few Lutheran churches that’s growing, but that’s not necessarily a comfortable place. Growing is painful, and it’s expensive. It’s been a while since I was the one counting attendance, but I believe we can fit about 700 people in our sanctuary comfortably, and sometimes we have to squeeze a lot more than that in there. On Christmas and Easter we have to go to extreme measures to fit everyone in. Some people end up watching the service on closed-circuit TV in another room. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than turning people away.

Our life really would be a lot easier if more churches would make their services a bit more friendly for people who didn’t necessarily grow up in the old German Lutheran tradition. Play a new song occasionally. Preach practical sermons that people can use to apply to their lives, rather than sermons that sound like seminary lectures. Look at the problems we face in life every day and tell people what the Bible has to say about that, and make sure there’s a good helping of grace in the middle and at the end. The word will get out, and people will come. And then maybe my church’s buildings will last 10 or even 15 years before we outgrow them, instead of seven.

I think my church goes beyond what most of the current administration finds comfortable. I occasionally spot some higher-ups in attendance. I don’t know if that’s a sign of approval or if they’re keeping an eye on us. I do know they wish more churches would try an approach like ours, however.

I got a good healthy dose of decision-based evangelical theology this weekend, and it reminded me of how I ended up at this church. CBS News did a special called God’s Boot Camp. That movement is real, and in college it found me. It finally caught me a few months after I graduated. At least it got me in church when I hadn’t been going at all, which I think pretty much everyone would agree is a good thing. But the gospel they preached was very works-based. For a time it was really nice, because I’d never seen a church like this one before, but eventually I realized the burden was literally destroying me.

I found an evangelical-minded Lutheran church that knew what a guitar was, had a pastor who knew how to apply the Bible to daily life and preach a sermon about it, but most importantly, that pastor and his church knew what grace was, and all of a sudden, it was like all was right with the world.

I have a question for the Lutherans who are reading (both of you). Those people are out there. They will find your children. Given a choice between guitars and pipe organ on Sunday morning, your children probably will pick the guitars, unless you’ve somehow managed to spawn a teenager who prefers Lawrence Welk to MTV. So which gospel do you want them to hear? Works, or grace?

I want my son to hear about grace every Sunday. And I couldn’t care less what the rest of the church service looks like as long as the pastor’s definition of grace is something along the lines of “God’s riches at Christ’s expense.”

Speaking of expense, I also have one more request, although I’m pretty sure it will fall on deaf ears. I worked nearly seven years at 1333 and other LCMS office buildings, and I saw a lot of waste–waste that wouldn’t be tolerated in the corporate world (I know, because I’ve worked in the private sector too). By and large, the money that flows to 1333 flows there via the offering plate every Sunday morning. Please remember that it’s offering money that funds everything there, and in some cases it comes from people who really don’t have a lot to give. With that in mind, please use it wisely, carefully, and honestly.

The waste I saw wouldn’t have been enough to make a difference in Issues, Etc. being on the air. But it’s a symptom of a large but solvable problem. If the LCMS had addressed this problem seven years ago when layoffs and huge cuts became an annual event, then it’s entirely possible that Issues, Etc. would be on the air, I would be working at 1333, I wouldn’t be writing my offering check in such a way as to minimize the amount of money going to 1333 to be wasted, and none of this talk would be happening.

Good night.

This is a blog

News flash: This is a blog.

It appears that some people who post their news and opinions online on a daily or occasional basis have problems with the label “weblog” or “blog” and want to distance themselves from it as much as possible.

The argument invariably goes like this: Bloggers aren’t serious. The barrier for entry is low; one need not have much technical knowledge to get started, and since the barrier for entry is low, a blogger may not necessarily be a professional anything, and, by some opinions, might not be qualified to say much of anything. So the people who do what bloggers do but reject the label, presumably because they want to be taken more seriously, try to distance themselves from the phenomenon.

It’s similar in a way to my typical argument against talk radio. Most of the people whose opinions matter to me don’t have time to be calling in to radio talk shows.

The difference, I think, between blogs and talk radio is the way you filter through the stuff you care about. You can’t really do that with stuff that’s broadcast to you, other than blindly fumbling through station presets, but there’s no guarantee that the guy talking on the next station is going to have anything better to say than the one you came from.

Finding the good blogs is much easier. Visit a site like blo.gs and click on the most popular link. Search for a blog you read and like, and you can find out what blogs are “related” to it, based on what other blogs people who track that blog also track. You can go here to find some blogs that people who like my stuff also like.

And almost every blog–including mine, now–has a blogroll: a list of blogs the owner reads and recommends personally. See the same blog on multiple blogrolls, and you’ll start to get an idea who regularly has compelling things to say.

Or you can use Google. Google searches blogs just like it searches any other Web site. So far this month, more of my traffic comes from Google than from any other way. I have no way of knowing how many people who stumble upon this site from Google become daily visitors. That depends on whether I consistently deliver content that’s meaningful to them. It has nothing to do with what I call myself.

And getting back to the argument that serious professionals don’t blog, if the likes of San Jose Mercury columnist Dan Gillmor, professors Lawrence Lessig and Ed Felten, software pioneers Dan Bricklin and Ray Ozzie, InfoWorld columnist Jon Udell, and former Byte columnist Scot Hacker aren’t serious professionals, then frankly I don’t know who is. I’d be flattered to ever be mentioned in the same sentence as any one of them.

Compare their work to that of one large blog-like community, some of whose members violently reject the blog label as too amateurish. There you’ll find people who post new content every few months or so (or who have abandoned their sites altogether), or you’ll find people who talk about their household chores or their pets or what they ate for dinner as often as they talk about serious, professional matters.

And if you examine the typical blog versus the typical daynotes site, most blogs have sophisticated navigation, comments systems, archiving, integrated search, categorization, centralized notification (so you can visit one place, such as blo.gs, set up a list of favorites, and find out when your favorite sites have updated) and other niceties that make it easier to sift through the information they contain. That’s rare in the daynotes circuit. But without those niceties, given a few years’ worth of entries, the information contained inside can be at once substantial and overwhelming. Wisdom and insights are nice things, but they’re worthless if you can’t find them.

To compare the two aforementioned lists is to invite a butt-kicking. Who looks amateurish now?

Let’s face it: “blog” or “weblog” is just a word. Nothing else. To use a pretentious metaphor, you don’t see Rolls-Royce distancing itself from the word “car” just because they don’t want to be associated with Kia uses the label now and Yugo used the label in the past. Rolls-Royce raises the bar and Yugo definitely lowered it. But both products are machines with four wheels, an engine, and seats, designed for transportation.

Whatever the label, you’re talking about someone who keeps a journal online for all comers to read, and whatever the label, there’s no guarantee who has or doesn’t have compelling things to say.

Memoirs of writing a book

Book memoirs. I got e-mail yesterday asking me to reflect back on dealing with a publisher while writing a book. I’ll never talk publicly about specifics, and I’m not even positive how much I’ve told my closest friends, for that matter. But it got me thinking.
And, as it turns out, it was two years ago this month that I sent my manuscript off to O’Reilly, and it was in late October that I got a set of PDF files to read and correct. In hindsight, I should have asked for a hardcopy, because I would have found more mistakes. But in hindsight, I’d do a lot of things differently.

First, I’d ask for more money. That’s not as much about greed as it is about raising the stakes. Supposedly, my advance on my first book was on the high side for first books in the computer field. Whether that’s true or whether that was my agent trying to stroke my ego after the fact, I’m not sure. Fact is, I took their first offer, and I’m pretty sure I took it the same day. Big mistake. I was staying up nights wondering if O’Reilly was interested in me. Nothing a first-time author can do will make an editor do the same thing, but the author needs to give the publisher a little time to wonder. I’m sure if I’d been sitting at my desk when the offer came in, I’d have responded immediately.

Don’t do that. Sleep on it. Then, I’m inclined to suggest you should make a counter-offer. What are they going to do, withdraw the offer if they don’t like your counter-offer? Get real. If they offer you an $8,000 advance and you demand $120,000, they’ll be insulted, yes. They’ll probably tell you you’re being unrealistic. Me, I hate haggling as much as I hate schmoozing, so I can’t give you any meaningful advice on how to dicker. It’s like asking a girl out. You go with your instincts and hope you don’t send off unwelcome I-want-you-to-have-my-children signals. Just as I wouldn’t trust anyone who claimed to have a sure-fire way of asking girls out, I wouldn’t trust anyone who claimed to have bulletproof negotiating technique.

I wondered if any publisher would be interested in me, and that was why I bit so quickly. Once again, a dating analogy helps. If one girl seems semi-interested in you, chances are there’s another girl somewhere who’d be semi-interested in you. Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, but having O’Reilly interested in me was like having a Prom Queen candidate come sit down at my lunch table. Any overconfident and annoying stud knows when that happens, he’s got a chance with any unattached pretty girl in the room. And there are a lot of pretty girls who were never a candidate for Prom Queen. Likewise, there are a lot of good publishers who aren’t O’Reilly.

I found that out after publishing the first book. Macmillan wouldn’t give me the time of day before then. They were an early candidate for my second. IDG wanted to do my third book, but they wanted it to be a Dummies book and I wanted it to be a standalone, so that one never got beyond proposal stage. No Starch and Sybex also expressed interest in my work at one time or another. That experience made me realize that I didn’t have to marry O’Reilly. Just one date was enough to bring plenty of other suitors.

The issue of representation comes up. I had authors tell me I was a fool for writing my first book without an agent. That makes sense. An agent is better-equipped to play hardball than you are. He knows what his other clients get. He knows what else the publisher is working on. He knows what the publisher’s competition is working on. He’s emotionally detached from the work, so he can afford to make an editor sweat a little. And he knows what risks are worth taking and what he has to do beforehand. (I just realized I implied there are no female literary agents. There are. Every agent I’ve worked with happens to be male.)

But there’s something to remember about agents. Your agent doesn’t just work for you. Your agent has to maintain a good working relationship with every publisher in the business in order to stay in business. So when things get really ugly, your agent might not stand beside you the way you’d like. And no, I’d really rather not elaborate on that, other than to say I worked with an agency, but recently I’ve negotiated all of my magazine contracts myself, sealed deals my agent never would have, and I feel like I got a fair deal on them considering the amount of work required on my part.

I guess the other mistake I made was not talking about the book enough. Sure, all my friends knew about it. Pastor announced it in front of the congregation a couple of times (and he still introduces me as “Author Dave Farquhar” sometimes but not as often now that there’s another author in our congregation who’s published a lot more books than I have), so it seemed like the whole church knew about it. That was the problem. Everyone knew what I thought of the book and its prospects, except my publisher. Yeah, my editor and I talked about the prospective market, and we argued about the title. I backed down way too quickly–I still hate that title, and it takes an awful lot for me to hate something enough to put it in blinky text. Sorry Netscape users.

My editor and I should have talked a lot more about it. We talked some during the negotiating period. We talked briefly about the title once the ink was dry on the contract. I wrongly spent the majority of my non-asleep time just working on it. The result was a critically acclaimed book that sold about as many copies as it would have if I’d hawked it myself on a streetcorner. I should have sat down for three hours, written down every possible title that came to mind, and e-mailed it to my editor. I should have had the courage to suggest that hey, I know it’s not The O’Reilly Way, but this book is targetting consumers, not sysadmins, so why not do a more consumer-oriented cover? Sure, sysadmins will buy it based on the publisher, but there are a lot of consumers out there, and they don’t know Tim O’Reilly from Adam Osborne (sorry, that was bad).

A guy who’ll post every bizarre idea that’s ever crept into his head on his web site should have been willing to send a few bizarre ideas to Cambridge and Sebastopol and be shot down. The idea isn’t so much to get your way as it is to make everyone else think. There’s a fine line between insanity and genius, and it doesn’t matter much which side of the line you’re on, as long as someone involved in the project ends up on the right side.

So yeah. I should have been talking to my editor about the book. I should have found out who the marketing director was and talked to him or her once or twice a month, so that each of us knew what the other was thinking. I still don’t know who the marketing director for Optimizing Windows was. I never did.

Once the thing was on the shelves, I made another mistake. One of the marketing gals got me a gig on a talk radio show. I don’t remember which one anymore. The host flaked out–dropped off the face of the earth the week before my scheduled appearance. He wouldn’t return my calls or hers. As soon as the possibility of being on the show arose, I should have asked for a phone number. That’s fine if she wants to make the arrangements, but I should have talked to the guy–or at least someone with the show–at least once. That way he knows I’m serious, and he’d better be serious.

A little while later, ZDTV’s The Screen Savers came calling. They wanted me to appear, but they wanted me to pay all my own expenses. Well, flying to San Francisco from St. Louis on short notice isn’t cheap. Neither are the other accomodations. I asked her if the appearance would sell enough books to justify the expenses. She talked it over with the rest of her cohorts and said it’d be a ton of fun and I’d get to meet a bunch of interesting people and my Web site counter would go ballistic, but I’d be lucky to sell a couple hundred books based on the appearance.

I turned them down, and rightly so. They had nothing to lose if they bumped me, and then I’d be out the money and everything else. But in retrospect, once again, I should have talked to someone at ZDTV. That way, we’d have at least gotten a feel for how serious the other was.

It seems to me that authors who sell lots of books spend an awful lot more time on the phone than I did. I assumed that if I put my time and effort into making a quality product, it’d sell itself. I underestimated how many titles it was competing with. There are plenty of mediocre (or worse) books that outsold mine, and by a landslide. And it’s pretty obvious why. Their authors were more serious about selling books than I was.

I guess there’s one other question worth answering. What publishers should you work with? I’m hesitant about big publishers. They tend to pay less, and they market whatever they feel like marketing. For every Dan Gookin (DOS for Dummies) and Andy Rathbone (Windows for Dummies), there are plenty of authors who sold fewer books than I did. The stakes aren’t high enough. When you publish hundreds of books a year, only a few of them can be bestsellers, and the potential blockbusters seem to get all of the marketing effort. They can afford to take a chance on a long shot, and you might get your hopes too high. Or they can afford to pick up a book just to keep a competitor from getting it, which is what I suspect happened with my second ill-fated book. That’s not to say I wouldn’t work with a big publisher, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.

Unfortunately, I think O’Reilly’s gotten too big. The stakes weren’t high enough with Optimizing Windows. A company like No Starch publishes a dozen titles a year. Realistically, every title, or nearly every title, has to make money when you publish in those quantities. I think that’s part of the reason why O’Reilly doesn’t release nearly as many new titles now as they did two or three years ago, and why they’ve pulled out of certain markets. Too many titles were losing money, and the big sellers weren’t making up the difference.

If I had it to do all over again, I’d probably still go with O’Reilly on my first title, for the same reason that everyone wants one date with the prom queen. Everyone craves prestige, and the sooner you get it, the better off you think you are. For the second book that never happened? Lots of possibilities, but No Starch seems attractive. No Starch is a cool company, and they’re smaller. Presumably, they’re nicer because they have to be. And while it was cool to be seen with the beauty queen, when there’s another girl who seems nicer, the smart guy will go see what spending time with that nice girl is like.

So when will I write another book and do it right this time? Keep in mind writing a book is like a bad relationship. It has a lot of high points, but nothing feels better than the moment it’s over. And keep in mind that after one bad relationship, I waited four years before starting my next one.

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