Ideas, Impatience, and Agnostic Prayers

Some people think that the hardest part about writing is getting ideas. I disagree, primarily because I’ve always had ideas (even a few good ones). Furthermore, I know the best way to get ideas: thinking. Bill Watterson said it best: “Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery – it recharges by running.”

Think about anything you want, and the more you think, the more ideas will show up. If you’re a little lucky, they might turn out to be good. If you don’t get any good ideas, stick a few mediocre ideas together in the meantime. If you don’t get any ideas at all, go do something else, but don’t stop thinking. If you only get a stupid idea, it’s better than nothing.

Then you write. Writing will produce more ideas, which will help you write, which will produce more ideas, and so on. Writing, like all art, is a combination of ideas and effort. You can’t just wait for ideas to show up, and you can’t just wait for a novel to write itself.

So I wrote a novel. Like most novelists, I only had a vague idea of what to do next. First, you have to find a literary agent. Then, the agent finds a publisher. Then, something. The process is crystal clear. I wrote a query letter, which is essentially how authors pitch their books to agents. You pitch the book to a multitude of agents, and if one of them finds it interesting, they’ll contact you and offer to represent you. (By the way, if any literary agents are reading this, they should feel free to contact me.)

In the past couple of months, I’ve sent out about 45 emails and 6 letters. I’ve gotten a couple dozen rejections, which I expected. I don’t mind the rejection, because I know how to deal with rejection. It’s the same way I deal with acceptance: action. Action is my greatest ally, largely because inaction has been my greatest adversary for more than a decade.

I hate the waiting. Most agents take at least 6 weeks to respond to a query, for better or worse. I keep thinking of a line from FLCL, my second favorite anime: “Each day we spend here is like an entire lifetime of dying slowly.” It’s a bit melodramatic, but I like it. I can’t shut off my brain while I wait I wait for responses, so ideas keep coming. Some of the ideas are good, of course. I write them down.

But some of my ideas are actually horrifying questions that sneaked up on me. What if the book is terrible? Am I pitching it correctly? Is there an audience for it? What if the ideas aren’t compelling enough? Has it been done before? Will it stand out from the thousands of books that don’t get published?

Then the worst question of all: What if it doesn’t matter? What if there’s nothing I can do to succeed?

I want to act! If the novel sucks, I’ll write a better one! I have the ideas! I’ll make the effort! I don’t know what to do!

I need this.

Of course, there’s always self-publishing. I could self-publish my novel without too much trouble. Then another question sneaks up: If the novel doesn’t interest agents, will it interest readers at large? The evidence suggests otherwise. Setting aside the notable successes of self-publishing (all four of them), I can see that amazon.com is flooded with unfinished and uninteresting novels by tens of thousands of aspiring authors. They weren’t ready for primetime, so they settled for public access.

I’m not ready to settle yet, so during my waiting period, I took action. Next month, I will be lecturing about cryptography and steganography at a science fiction convention in Provo, Utah. It’s called Life, the Universe, and Everything (www.ltue.net). I’m not sure what specifically I’ll be doing, because I’m still waiting for an email response. Sigh.

Anyway, sharing ideas is the central reason I became a writer, and sharing mathematical ideas still counts. I’m looking forward to teaching this material, and hopefully I’ll encounter a lot of people who share my interests. I’ll probably meet some agents and other writers face-to-face, which will be a valuable experience.

As I wait, I’m worrying about the winter weather, the car trip, the expenses, and a million other concerns. If it all falls through, I can at least play 52 Pickup (actually, 100 Pickup) with the business cards I ordered. In the meantime, I’ve been checking my email far too often. Any response is better than nothing, right?

I also wanted to share a coping mechanism with the other agnostic waiters of the world. It doesn’t matter if anyone hears them; the value comes from saying them.

Steven’s Three Agnostic Prayers:

1. I don’t understand.
2. I can’t control everything.
3. I’m not sure what I should do.

Jumping Off of the Face of the Earth

I did a strange thing this week. I dropped out of graduate school before I even stepped in. I washed out before I even got dirty.

Ever since 2006, when I began attending the University of Nebraska, I have been studying math in some fashion or another. In 2011, I finally completed a bachelor’s degree. Since then, I have been taking online classes from Coursera. In 2013, I applied and got into a Ph.D. program in computer science and mathematics. The progression was perfectly natural.

Here’s the problem: I never knew what I wanted to do. I had a lot of talent, and I put a significant amount of work into my degree, but I never had more than a few passing interests. Some were particularly compelling, like steganography, but I didn’t want to do all the extra work in other areas before I could work on what really interested me. Basically, I was going to spend the next two years doing a lot of nothing on the off chance I would get to do something later.

There was a lot involved here, and I was perfectly willing to do what I needed to. I was going to commute from Lawrence to Kansas City, paying for gasoline, tolls, parking, and (naturally) tuition. I would spend 4 nights a week in class, and a significant amount of time doing homework during the day.

Now I’m not going to do any of it, and I’m tremendously relieved. Instead, I am going to abandon the world of academia to pursue a career as a writer. I know that sounds like the life plan of someone who really wants to fail.

The truly wise say you can never become a writer if you don’t write anything, so my goal from here on out is to continue writing. I will also continue tutoring math to pay the bills and such.

I have a bunch of ideas to work on, but I am going to be bold and work on the ones I care most about, even though they might be difficult to carry through. I am confident, and somewhat optimistic. If I can get other people interested, I can make things work. Unfortunately, things won’t work unless I make them work. That’s the cynical part.

Anyway, I will continue to post random updates, but now they’ll be less about graduate school and more about figuring stuff out. And maybe I’ll be a little more excited about it.

How to Substitute Teach: An Informative Guide

I have now been certified as a substitute teacher for nearly 17 months, and I have spent no fewer than 8 days in class as a sub. I feel that these qualifications make me the perfect candidate to tell the world how to substitute teach. I have written a bulleted list of tips and other information on the art of subbing, so you can take the simplest and safest approach to the job. The list is not in any particular order, nor is it intended to be all-encompassing.

– As a substitute teacher, you must always remember that expectations are low. Extremely low. Unbelievably low. You will be considered “successful” if you avoid injuries, felonies, insurrection, alcohol use, and anything involving fire or explosives. Substitute teachers are considered above average if they have an 85% success rate or higher, based on these criteria.

– One of your most important duties is counting the hours and minutes until the end of the day. Try to know the absolute earliest you can leave, and be sure to use that in your calculations. There will usually be a schedule somewhere in the classroom, which will make it easier to count down to the end of the current class or lunchtime.

– Make sure the students know you do not want to be there. Various remarks or facial expressions can make this a great deal more apparent, but a general sense of listlessness and exhaustion is effective as well. Because the students do not want to be there either, this will garner sympathy. Sympathy and pity will prevent the students from acting out, because they will feel a great deal of guilt about making things worse. On the other hand, some students will sense your weakness and go for the kill. Students can smell weakness from miles away.

– Try to look young and naive or old and doddering, whichever is easier for you. This will also help the students feel sorry for you. If you seem to be incapable of controlling the classroom, the kinder students will do so, saving you a great deal of effort.

– Indifference is your greatest asset. As soon as you begin to feel anything approaching an emotion, think instead of what you will do after work, and you will immediately stop caring. Possible things to think about include alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs, cable television, internet purchases, and being around people over the age of 18.

– At no point should you take an interest in the students. It’s really none of your business, and the district isn’t paying you to learn, just to be a teacher.

– The title “substitute teacher” is a bit of a misnomer. If you manage to teach anything during the day, you have probably made a mistake. Note the circumstances so you can prevent similar incidents in the future.

– At the beginning of the day, write your name and the current date on the front board. However, this will not prevent students from asking what your name is and what day it is.

– Around lunchtime, your eyes will no longer be able to focus. This is normal. Whether it is due to hunger or boredom, no one can say, but it will go away whenever you look at the clock, so it is nothing to worry about.

– Remember to appreciate that nothing you do matters. As soon as the regular teacher is back, you will be immediately forgotten.

– The students will try to convince you that their regular teacher lets them get away with absurd things. It’s best to just acquiesce to these requests.

– When students arrive for class, you can expect both disappointment and enthusiasm, which will always accompany the phrase “oh, we have a sub.”

– Students will just keep arriving throughout the day. This is impossible to avoid.

– Threats of violence against students are not unheard of, but are not recommended as a matter of course.

– Contemplating suicide is not out of the question either, but verbal threats to do so are only appropriate as a last resort.

– If you like teaching or being an educator, never become a substitute teacher.

In Defense of History

Let’s face it: everybody hates math. Most people would rather have an in-depth discussion about genital warts than even hear the word “mathematics.” Because we are outnumbered, math people have to stick together. Most of us have tried to explain math at some point, but our words fall on deaf ears, largely because mathematicians aren’t good with words. It usually sounds forced and trite, without any real bearing on reality.

Although I understand why most people never liked math, I do. In order to really explore the concept, I’d rather look at something I hate: history. What follows is my thoughts about history and how I have tried to resolve them. Keep in mind that I am not really an expert in this field, but I did what I could.

History is just names and dates.

If I just recited a list of names and dates to you, I doubt you would think I had learned any history. At its heart, history is about people and events. Anyone who fails to make the distinction has also missed the point. Some teachers treat history like a timeline, where events are just dates and people are just the names of those present. Those teachers don’t manage to teach much of anything.

If you treat history like something that is dead and gone, then you will inevitably confine it to a mental graveyard. On the other hand, if you see it as something active and ongoing, you might find a place in your life for it.

There’s no need to know history.

Really, can you describe anything that you “need to know”? Walking? Speaking? Flushing the toilet? What part of education is truly necessary? You could sit somewhere and breathe, with a feeding tube in your gut, shitting your pants, never thinking or moving, and you wouldn’t “need to know” anything.

All education is essentially optional; you do it for your own reasons. If you can’t find a reason to learn history, feel free to stay ignorant. However, if you want to be an educated person, remember that history is the context through which all other knowledge has emerged. No knowledge is independent from its historical context, no matter how objective it seems. Furthermore, history shows us the reasons why we should learn in the first place.

But history is completely useless.

“Useless” is a word with no meaning. There are many things worth knowing that you may never “need to use.” For instance, CPR, self-defense, swimming, fire safety, defensive driving, and the Heimlich maneuver are all things many people never use. Besides, if you only learn those things that are “useful,” you’ll turn out to be a real bore.

It’s cliche but true to say those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it (George Santanaya), although the cynic might argue that history repeats itself no matter what you know. In any case, there is nothing new under the sun (Solomon). Throughout the past are perfect examples of human behavior with endless applications. If you want to know how people will act, look at how they have always acted.

I just don’t get it.

History is not really a “thing,” but a complex process. No event is independent; events do not emerge out of nowhere. The names represent real people with flaws and strengths. But history is often oversimplified. Causes are reduced to broad strokes. People become stock characters with fixed behavior. The process is treated as a natural progression with a specific direction. Most significantly, it becomes something that is in the past. Again, history is not over, nor will it end any time soon.

Well, I’m just not enthusiastic about it.

Of course not. Nothing can force you to be enthusiastic about anything, because passion comes from within. Just give it a bit of a chance, but not by reading a textbook. Talk to someone who does have passion about history, or approach it from the angle of something you are passionate about. I doubt you’ll decide to become an historical expert, but if you discover an interest in history, pursue it. If not, you can always learn what you feel you need to know or want to use. If you don’t want to do that, give up on it. Just don’t pester the people who know what history really is.

True Tales of Human Interest

The following stories from my life are entirely true. Whether or not they are interesting is left to the reader.

I was going to run away with a girl once. It was elementary school, and we had decided after much discussion that we should run away. I believe we got together a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and headed into the wilderness. Unfortunately, before we could make it too far, her extremely attentive mother told us to come back. “There are snakes out there,” she said. We had no choice but to return and play Super Mario World. I’m not sure what we intended to do, but I’m fairly sure we didn’t accomplish it. We didn’t talk much afterwards, and though I saw her around from time to time, we never spoke again.

During my second-grade class, I had to leave the room every day to do math problems in the hallway with a first-grade student. I think it was supposed to better us, but I don’t remember enjoying it or learning anything. One day in November, we had a substitute teacher, and the class project for the afternoon was making turkeys out of coffee filters. Instead of doing that, I was expected to return to the hallway for math problems. I went out and started work, but quickly changed my mind and returned to make a turkey, abandoning the first grader in the hallway.

When my regular teacher returned, she found out what I had done and forced me to apologize during recess. It was extremely awkward, but I followed the instructions on our social skills poster (“How to Apologize”) and got through it. Being intelligent was one of my biggest problems at that age.

While I was in elementary school, I had several friends in my age group, but when I skipped 3rd grade, I had to leave them behind. Oddly enough, my first-grade math buddy skipped a grade too, but still ended up behind me with the rest. I had to make friends from scratch in my new grade, but still did stuff with the others outside of school. We would have sleepovers and all loved pokemon (first generation only, thank you very much).

In middle school, my friend Joseph, who was fond of bicycles and dirty jokes, would walk home with me. Actually, I would walk and he would ride his bike crookedly to stay at my pace. We talked about a lot of things, including PG-13 movies and video games of all kinds. I don’t remember being a very good friend. I remember being short-tempered and impatient, although I was still pretty funny at times. For all my scholastic skills, I still had no emotional maturity. I don’t know if I’ve improved since then or not.

One week, I suggested an impromptu sleepover at my house, but it was the night his family went on a bike ride together. As they were driving from the VA Cemetary to Dairy Queen, Joseph took the lead and was hit by a truck. He was taken to the nearby hospital and died there overnight. I didn’t find out until the next morning, when my family woke me and told me that either Joseph of his brother had been hit and killed. They weren’t quite sure which, but I sincerely hoped it was his brother. I went upstairs to get dressed, and my own brother met me in the hall. “I heard your friend Joseph died,” he said. “How did you know?” I said, and collapsed in his arms, crying.

I spent one year at East Middle School, the dilapidated former high school in Leavenworth. They were building a new middle school to be used the next year, and everyone was thrilled to be moving on. The building was in terrible shape; it had asbestos, broken ceilings and walls, and no air conditioning. I did take several classes there, including home economics, band, choir, and the class for gifted students. I learned to bake stuff, a bit about nutrients and sewing, to play the trombone, and how to build a roller coaster out of wire. I sang tenor then, and later on I even went to a statewide choir competition with 5 other students (“Thanks for the great sex…tet!” the instructor told us).

My biggest conflict was with the math teacher, who was always frustrated that I never showed my work. I was good at math, but I was supposed to be showing steps I didn’t know I had to do. The problem was all in my head. On one particularly chaotic day, everyone was just goofing off like true middle schoolers. For some reason, there was a pair of girl’s underwear on the floor, and I took them to the instructor and said “Mr. ___, you dropped your panties.” He sent me to the office.

I bragged about the experience to my peers, who were all quite impressed. The teacher is now an administator at the new middle school, and they are finally demolishing the old one. I also learned to be less of a bratty snot. Sort of.

Like most freshmen, I had a hard time adjusting to high school. I had taken 2 high school classes as an 8th grader (which is where I was on 9/11, in case you’re keeping track), but there is a big difference between being a part-time and full-time high schooler. One key change was lunch. Instead of going through a typical slop line, high school students could spend their lunch money on just about anything. We had vending machines, pizza, fries on Friday, bread and cheese (actually quite good and popular), snack cakes, fruit snacks, and the usual sandwiches and chips. Oh, and there was a slop line, too.

When I started as a freshmen I got 10 dollars a week for lunch. With my daily 2 dollars, I would eat (look away, Mom) a Milky Way candy bar, an Otis Spunkmeyer Chocolate Chocolate Chip muffin, and a can of Barq’s Red Cream Soda. Later on, I would get bread and cheese, and when I was a senior I usually got a turkey sandwich with chips and juice. It’s still hard for me to believe I dodged a diabetic coma that first year, though.

I also had to take freshman gym and health. At the very end of the year, thrilled to be finished with an idiotic health class, I wrote “Righteous!” on the cover of my health textbook without thinking. When I was due to turn it in, the coach was greatly annoyed to see my remark, and claimed that they wouldn’t be able to use that book again (which was bullshit). I lied blatantly to avoid paying for the book, claiming it was already there. The next year, that teacher went to another school. I have a feeling the textbook was used long after he left.

So there you go. A few mildly interesting stories from my scholastic career. Happy Labor Day.

Prepare for Excitement

I have a bunch of books I should start reading. I also have many movies in a pile, but I’ve seen most of them, so I am not as eager to work through that stack.

I finally finished the Keys to the Kingdom, a book series I started in high school at some point (junior or senior year, I believe). It had a pretty solid ending, and I’m glad I read it. Reading kids’ fantasy made me want to go through Harry Potter again to relieve memories from a simpler time, so that’s on the list. I also have some mainstream novels, some esoteric stuff, a few graphic novels, and some essays and stuff.

I’m still doing the online classes, and they still suck. Nothing makes me question the education system more than attending a community college (and working there as well. Yeah, I got a job as a student helper, so I do pretty much whatever no one else wants to do and read the rest of the time. 15 hours a week at relatively little pay. While I’m mentioning work, I’m also tutoring math (elementary algebra) for two students. I hate it. Never be a tutor.).

With online classes, the bar is extremely low and people still fail to meet those meager expectations. It amazes me. In my general biology class online, people are supposed to make a (weekly!) original post about the current topic that only has to be 5 sentences. I’m no expert, but I think that’s probably between 50 and 100 words a WEEK. Yet people still don’t write that much. They post 1-sentence responses to other people’s posts that contain amazing typos (I didn’t know there were that many ways of trying to spell some of those words.). I can’t believe this counts as a college-level class.

I’ve managed to go to the gym 3 times a week so far this year, which is pretty good. I’m noticing a bit of progress, but it’s still a huge pain in the ass as far as I’m concerned.

I’m doing paperwork and shit for all of my various pursuits. I had to fill out more forms to be a merit badge counselor, and I had to accept a scholarship for Park University (75%, a pretty impressive bargain. I’ll only be taking like 24 hours next year for a math B.A. Then, who knows.).

I finally found a piano teacher and I’ve taken 3 lessons. I have mixed feelings about it. I like playing the piano, but I hate all of the nitpicky shit she wants me to work on. I hate using the pedal and I don’t pay much attention to dynamics until long after I can play the song.

I hope to visit Lincoln over spring break, and I should work on a campaign for D&D Day. I still don’t have anything in mind for that.

I was going to write a note about cowardice, but I couldn’t get it to work right (maybe I wasn’t courageous enough). Basically the punchline is that I don’t like to take risks and that’s not likely to change. The world is just too dangerous. Better to just relax.

Discussing Oneself

Today was my second day in group therapy at Research Psychiatric Center. Compared to many other patients, my problems are far less pressing or serious. Most of the time I talk about what’s going on in my life, I feel like I am wasting everyone’s time. I also talk about how I feel like I’m not getting anything accomplished when I’m at home, largely because I just surf the net and watch television. However, I have been going to the gym three times a week, as planned, and I also meet with a trainer to keep my fat ass accountable.

Anyway, I’m hoping to get around to taking care of stuff soon, and I am actively making plans to get back to being active. You heard me. I’m hoping to return to playing the piano, and I want to find a place in town to take lessons. I’m looking at a couple of places, and I’m planning on taking it more seriously than when I did as kid.

In terms of other desires, I have decided I want to pursue psychology, at least for now. I don’t know what I will think about it, having taken only general psych, but I’m taking a couple more classes online from KCKCC this spring, so hopefully that will give me a good experience. I’m still looking at finishing my math degree at Park University next school year, and I recently applied for financial aid for transfer students. Because my cumulative GPA is above 3.9, I have a pretty good chance of getting a full ride, at least for one year.

My other random dream is to actually write something, like a complicated novel or really anything that another human being might actually read and enjoy. I’m not sure I have the talent at this point, but I’m going to start working on it if it kills me.

When I finally finish the partial hospitalization program, I will be able to return to reading, movies, and video games. I am still holding off on those activities until my memory seems to be mostly back to normal. I will also have more time to spend doing such things, as well as my fascinating (I hope) online courses. I’m sick of being in Kansas City after these two months of treatment, and I’d just like to be more active. Maybe soon.

Of course there’s other assorted shit going on, but none of it is really worth mentioning. I suppose the above doesn’t really qualify either. Sigh.