A Taste of the Vox Populi (A Journey Through Blogging Advice)

The blogging process.

I started blogging because I am a writer and needed a creative way to express myself on a variety of subjects.

Actually, that’s horse pucky – I started blogging because I am a writer and I desperately want people to read what I write and think I’m the most talented thing to ever wear pants while typing. It’s a narcissistic ideal made complex by the large number of other narcissists out there who think they are the most talented thing to ever wear pants while typing. And some of them think they’re the most talented thing to NOT wear pants while typing. Whatever. Bottom line is, I had an ego to feed and nothing at my disposal to feed it. Thus, the idea of blogging appealed to me.

So I signed up for WordPress.com, found a design I liked, and started cranking out little missives. My very first blog was A Southern Gentleman, and I chose this handle because all of the articles I read (yes, I did research on how to become the World’s Most Famous Blogger and Earn $10 Billion a Year By Being a Smart-Aleck) suggested that, to become outrageously famous, you had to have a niche – a thing – that set you apart from other people. Those articles also recommended first-time bloggers “write what you know” and “use humor to lure readers.”

Thus, A Southern Gentleman was born with an inaugural post about sweet tea. I felt great – I was writing what I knew (being Southern), I had created a niche (filling the void left by Lewis Grizzard) and I was funny (never an issue for me). I sat back and waited for the blog hits to pile up. The returns were modest, about 15-20 people per day, a number that I found depressing.

I had followed the rules: niche, know, humor. Why weren’t more people coming to my site? I crashed Google searching for more articles on how to increase my blog traffic. I read about SEO, tags, keywords, and cross promotion. I learned that I needed to read 5,000 blogs a day and comment on every one of them and make sure to link to my URL every time. I became addicted to the Writers Market series of books via Writers Digest via the Absolute Write Water Cooler forum. I suddenly realized that what I wanted would require more hours than I could afford. I needed to dedicate myself to writing if I wanted to become the next Literary Genius.

So I dug in – I tried commenting, linking, tweeting, and everything else imaginable to get my name out there, hoping against hope that I would somehow be discovered and lavished with the praise my frail writer’s ego hungered after.

It didn’t work.

I ran out of steam with A Southern Gentleman. I love being Southern, but there’s only so much you can say on the subject and honestly, I found myself ripping off Lewis Grizzard the more I wrote. I also found myself becoming exceedingly negative about my writing; instead of writing what made me happy, I wrote what I thought would draw an audience. I let imaginary readers I didn’t have drive my voice and ignored the input of my actual readers because they were too few. So I did what all writers do. I quit.

I laid low for a while, but got the urge to write again. Since the non-fiction humor/essay route didn’t work with my first blog, I got the brilliant idea to start a blog dedicated to short fiction. I called it StorySouth (then later, The Southern Muse) and I decided to make things easier (and to increase potential traffic) I would solicit other writers I knew for stories. I would post them on the site, link to them via Facebook, etc., and the authors would in turn pimp the blog out via their social network. Great concept, right?

Except I learned the hard way that some writers are only interested in writing as a part-time gig. As in, they only write part of the time, or to be more accurate, they only write about 1/1,000,000th of their waking lives. This created a content vacuum that I tried to fill. And let me tell you – as easy as it sounds, making crap up out of thin air is HARD. Very hard. And it didn’t help that readership (my life’s breath as a writer) was only marginally better – around 25-30 views per day.

Having learned from my previous blog that when the going gets tough, real writers quit, I opted to take a bit of a break. I lamented. I wept. My ego suffocated, revived, then suffocated again. Finally, I opted to make another name change and start things all over again. Jason Muses was born. I decided that since I wrote both creative nonfiction and fiction, I would showcase those talents whenever I felt the mood (because I am like a cheap 70’s novelty – a mood writer) and wouldn’t worry about readership. I would write because that’s what makes me happy.

And things were fine. Readership about the same, though I did manage to increase little by little. I figured out how to use Facebook and Twitter appropriately (I think). I learned to be happy if I could make 2-3 people laugh or think or read per day. I still longed to be in print. I still hungered to be well known. But I was okay with the knowledge that, if it ever did happen, it would take years of faithful blogging.

That was about 2 years ago. Things finally clicked about two weeks ago when my wife went out of town to help her sister after surgery. I opted to blog about my experience as a parent without my wife. Readership went into the 150 range each day that I blogged about my kids and my own ineptitude in parenting them. I suddenly had a large audience – and was writing stuff that was genuinely fun to write. My blogging finally paid off.

Until this past Friday, that is.

I woke up and put in a movie for the kids. For some reason, I got inspired to write about my daughter’s singularly most annoying habit, so I posted a quick blog. My wife and I got the kids together and went to the gym. Normal morning.

But when I got home and checked my email, I had 84 new messages, all from WordPress.com. Sixty-three of them were “likes” for my blog post, a phenomenon that had never happened before for any post. Twenty emails were pending comments on the blog post I’d written that morning (My Daughter, The Writer (I Hope)).

It was the last one that told me the story. “Jason Muses Post Promoted at WordPress.com” The email informed me that my post had been selected for Freshly Pressed and encouraged me to keep up the good work. That was all.

I soon discovered that Friday is a great day to get FP’d because you get to stay on the front page ALL WEEKEND LONG. I’ve averaged 2,250 people each of the last three days thanks to FP and WordPress.com.

I may never see print. I may never be famous. I may never be able to fulfill my dream of walking into my local Barnes & Noble and having a signing for my latest book in front of my friends and family. But for one weekend I was utterly amazed as a writer to know that well over 6,000 people took the time to read what I wrote, and almost 300 took the time to either “like”, comment or tweet my post. My writer’s ego, as malnourished as it was, is now a fully gorged tick in danger of exploding. I have heard from the voice of the people, and it has been an overwhelming, “Good job. We like this!”

And on a Monday morning, that’s a really nice thing to have in your pocket. Thanks to all who’ve read. I hope you’ll come back.

The Queen Has Returned!

Only one woman may wear the crown in our house...

It was a bit of strange week last week, which, if you read any of my previous blogs (like this one or this one or this one) is code for: my kids kicked my butt without my wife around. It was bad. I told Rachel last night that when it comes to being a single dad with two kids, the best strategy to employ is the same that you’re supposed to use if you come across an angry bear in the woods:

Just lay down and pretend to be dead.

It’s not a fool-proof plan, of course. Mainly because the danger levels aren’t the same. A bear will walk past you. Your kids will jump on top of you and one will pull your eyelids open while the other whacks you in the groin with a stick saying, “Wake up daddy!” I’ve found that if you can hold out for more than thirty minutes, the kids will lose interest and you can actually get some rest for at least 45 seconds.

Of course, now that Rachel’s home, I can just go back to what I normally am: useless. It’s quite a relief.

Yes, I picked Rachel up from the airport on Saturday afternoon. I was so excited to see her – nothing makes you appreciate the singular talents and qualities of your spouse like time apart (with you being stuck with the kids). I got to the airport right on schedule and made my way to the yawning maw of Hartsfield, otherwise known as the arrivals lobby. It’s essentially a wide space where five or six escalators dump people out in bunches to scramble for a familiar face or book it to the baggage claim to see if their luggage made the flight. It’s kind of creepy, in a way – since you can’t see the people riding up the escalators, you can’t really keep a sharp lookout for the person on whom you’re waiting. People just fairly explode into view and you have to scan faces pretty quickly to see if your loved one is among them.

One lady off to my right was standing there when I arrived, and was still there when Rachel and I left. I felt sorry for her – she kept mumbling to herself, “Hi, mom. I’m gay.” It didn’t seem like she was feeling confident about the reunion. I wish I could’ve seen how it went.

I didn’t get to, though, because Rachel came gliding into view. She looked fabulous, as always, and she had somehow acquired a new carry-on bag. Turns out, she had brought home two new bags, both stuffed with Easter goodies for our kids and for our three nephews. I quietly noted that it was good I had driven the truck to the airport. We grabbed a bite to eat, loaded up the truck, and booked it to our church for the annual Easter Egg Hunt.

Rachel was so excited to see Ella – she snuck up on her from behind (Ella was busy eating a bowl of ice cream) and tapped her on the shoulder. Ella turned around and screamed, “Mommy!” then jumped into Rachel’s arms. It was a Hallmark Channel movie moment – a happy family reunited at a massive community celebration. It was good to see.

Unfortunately, things turned into a Lifetime movie from there – a female protagonist tries to salvage a family on the verge of collapse and everything is the man’s fault.

To say that there has been some conflict upon Rachel’s return would be an understatement. Now, it hasn’t been bad (we didn’t need the plates that got broken anyway. Kidding!) – it’s just been a re-adjustment for all of us. Jon can’t decide which parent he wants more: the one he’s become comfortable with over the past few days, or the one that he missed so much. That makes him a little fussy and a wee bit hard to deal with. But we’ve managed.

Ella, however, is a different story. She and Rachel have butted heads almost non-stop since we all finally got home. Ella has become accustomed to her role as The Negotiator, and has been trying her tactics out on Rachel. They are not working. Rachel, being a female and well-schooled in the ancient art of successful thinking (what we guys call “getting your way”), doesn’t cave into Ella’s demands. In fact, she can go tit-for-tat with Ella’s attempts to turn the situation into her favor, and Ella gets flustered at the sudden ineffectiveness of her tactics. She’ll look at me as if to say, “It works on that dumb animal, why doesn’t it work on Mom?”

Now, again, keep in mind we have sweet kids, so this isn’t like an episode of Intervention or anything. It’s really been over smaller issues, things that I ultimately will cave on because they don’t seem like that big of a deal. But Rachel views the smaller issues as the gateway to larger ones and is determined to put a stop to it. As Rachel put it yesterday afternoon, “Ella, it seems to me like you’ve had the run of the place since I’ve been gone.”

She’s right – Ella has had run of the place because I suck at single-parenting (see the strategy for single dads as outlined above). I value peace too highly, and sometimes the price for peace is steep. Of course, when Rachel pointed out the fact that I let our five year-old have total sway for a week, I felt tremendously guilty. I felt small and stupid. I felt ineffective. Humiliated. Worthless. Lower than worm poo.

Then I realized I had survived (my ultimate goal, in all honesty) and I immediately felt better. Especially once Rachel made the following statement:

“There’s only one woman that runs this house. And it’s me. Guess we’ll have to re-learn that.”

Yes, the Queen has returned!

Thank God.

Father-of-the-Year! (Won’t Be Me…)

So today’s been fine. Up until nap time. Jon fell asleep early and then woke up a couple of times crying for Rachel. Considering I was really hoping for a small nap myself, I was not the least bit happy with his sudden onset of “mommy-sickness.” I found myself grumbling as I rocked him, and had to remind myself to not be a full-blown jerk to a 2 year-old boy who’s missing his mother. It was a tough conversation.

What added to the grumpiness was the fact that Ella decided that she didn’t want to be in her room today for quiet time. She wanted to watch a movie, even though I’d told her no. So she switched into The Negotiator mode, and began bargaining. I shut her down faster than a barbecued hamster stand. This did not please my strong-willed daughter, who stomped into her pink-quarium and flopped onto the floor like a British soccer player. I told her to stay in her room while I took a nap, and everything was fine, until I made the fatal mistake that only rookie parents make:

I told her I would get her up around 4:00.

For all of you first-time parents out there, here’s a tip – never give a kid a hard deadline for getting up. Sure, it sounds like a practical thing to do, setting expectations and communicating them clearly so the child understands and knows what is acceptable behavior. You’d think that would work.

But the problem is, kids don’t know certain things – like the concept of time. Life to them is just one big meatball rolling along at the breakneck pace of a glacier. I mean, never forget, when you’ve only been on the planet for 1,825 days (and change), a day still feels like a looooooong time. When you’re 35, a day is over in about a minute and a half, but when you’re five, you experience a day in the same way God does: it’s a thousand years long.

So I screwed up. I gave her a fixed time of release. And like all inmates, she began marking time in the only way she knew how: coming and asking me how much longer she would have to rest. Now, I’ll give her credit – the first three asks were spaced well apart at 6-8 minute intervals and she wasn’t whiny at all. Just curious about the time. But the 347 follow-up queries were what got my blood boiling. Not that she was curious to know when she could get up; containing Ella’s curiosity is like trying to curb the Federal deficit – sounds good in theory but is a mess to deal with in practice. What got my goat and tied it to the fence was her insistence – INSISTENCE – on leaving her room to ask me.

You may be wondering, “What’s the big deal? What’d you want her to do, yell and wake up the baby? She’s just being a good sister.”

And you’re right – she was doing what she thought was best in approaching me privately rather than bellowing down the hall and setting Jon off. But it misses the point.

The point is, after making my mistake and realizing what I’d set in motion, I further clarified for her the rules of engagement: go to room; play quietly until daddy comes for you; do not leave room unless it is on fire or a small rabid mammal attempts to gnaw through the sheetrock. So she knew that all I really wanted from her was for her to just stay in her room for a while and play, and that I would come get her.

She knew that.

And yet she chose to persistently leave her room and bug the living snot out of me. On principle.

“Principle!” you say. “You’re being ridiculous. She just wanted to know when she could get up.”

Nope, she wanted to bug me. I know.

“Why do you keep getting up and coming out of your room after I told you to stay there til I came and got you?” I asked.

“Because,” she said. “I wanted to you to just let me get up. And to watch a movie.”

See?

I got upset with her. I raised my voice (which, for me, means I was talking very, very sternly, like a mildly hemorrhoidal Ward Beaver) and sent her to her room with a look that would wither a diamond. She turned, sadly, and slinked back to her room, head low, shoulders sagging.

I felt like worm poo. Lower than worm poo, actually.

I knew in my heart that I’d only snapped at her because I wanted something and wasn’t getting it. And in so doing, I realized that we were behaving in the exact same way – only I’m old enough to know better. I felt my heart sizzle from the acid build-up in my stomach; hard core conviction does not sit well on the sinner’s belly. I tossed and turned on my bed. I got a text message from Rachel and snapped at her too (really, REALLY unwise. The reply text was vintage Rachel though. “Well. Excuse me.” And if you know my wife, you know exactly what tone and facial expression were attached to those words.). I got up. I putted around on the computer. I stared down the hall when I heard her singing sweetly to herself that, yes, Jesus loves me. Daddy, not so much.

I got up and went into her room. I laid down next to her and cradled her head in my arm. She immediately began sobbing, and I twiddled her hair. We talked, me explaining my frustration at not being able to rest, she explaining that she was just too excited about her itinerary (dinner, birthday party, sleepover with my parents) to rest. I was texting Rachel through all of this, and Ella asked me what I was typing.

“I’m telling Mommy about how you weren’t listening to me and kept getting up out of bed instead of resting.”

“Uh-oh,” she said. “I’m going to get ‘The Face’.”

Two seconds later my phone buzzes and it’s a picture text from Rachel, and Mommy is indeed giving Ella “The Face.” We laughed our butts off. I hugged her and told her how much I love her. She hugged me and told me she was ready for Mommy to come home.

That’s how we worked it out. With hugs and laughter and mutual understanding of needs. And now, we sit, me typing this blog, Ella getting to watch a movie on the couch, snacking on strawberries and asking me when it’s going to be time for us to leave.

In other words, exactly what she wanted in the first place. Another victory for The Negotiator.

And one more reason why I’m not winning any Father of the Year awards anytime soon.

Day Four – I GOT This…(Uh, Not Really)

So today I felt like the world’s greatest dad. Got the kids ready on time, managed the day fairly well with regards to meeting some deadlines and appointments, even prepared a home-made beef tips and rice dinner complete with microwaved broccoli with cheese sauce. I even arranged for a fantastic sitter to stay with the kids so I could slip away for a little me-time with the softball team.

So, after four days of single parenting, I think I’ve got this. I’m good. Single parenting, though challenging, isn’t so hard.

Horse manure.

And anyone who says otherwise is either lying or not telling the truth. Sure, I’m doing pretty well, certainly much better than I let on (because hey, it’s not as funny to say “Everything’s fine!”), but the truth is I’m struggling, folks. And I’ve been blessed with the help of my father, who’s babysat Jon everyday this week with the exception of Monday, my mother, who helped me with the kids during our revival at church, a gracious employer that allowed for me to have some very flexible office hours, and a wonderful friend/babysitter named Haley Davis who’s stepped in to help me regain some semblance of sanity.

In other words, I’ve had it easier than a career politician.

I cannot imagine, literally CANNOT imagine, what it would be like to do this act truly solo. No help from family or friends, no gracious bosses granting flexible hours, no church providing two meals out of five for the week. I mean, can you? Unless you are a single parent, trying to live off of whatever income you have with whatever resources you can muster, there’s no way to know.

Trust me, I know not every marriage is a picnic, and there are some folks out there who have spouses who might as well not exist. I get it, and it’s a tough row to hoe, and in some ways even tougher. But at least your kids have another person to go to on occasion. At least there’s another person there that you can talk to or discuss things with – even if the discussions end up in screaming matches, at least you were able to speak words into the air for another human being to hear and have to consider because they share your predicament.

But for someone who’s single, there is no one else. There’s only you and the kids and the walls. And the walls don’t give a crap if you can’t pay for them, because they go on being walls whether you live within them or not.

I had a good day, but only because I have a lot of help, and because my kids, by the grace of God, are pretty well behaved and easy-going. Sure, Ella can put me through the Death of 1,000 Questions, but when I tell her to clean her room, she does. When I tell Jon to sit down in his chair, he does (at least 75% of the time). What if my kids weren’t so easy? What if they had a learning or physical challenge to overcome? What if one of them required constant watching because without it, they would hurt themselves?

What would I do then? Where would I turn?

I know I don’t have it all together. I don’t even have it all in the same room. I mean, seriously, look what I did to my daughter’s hair tonight before ballet:

Does a man who has it all together do this to his child? Sure, I would probably get better with practice, but my gracious, look at her! I mean, Lord love her, she took my hand and smiled and said, “It’s perfect daddy! Just what I wanted.” But seriously, wouldn’t a mother know how to make the pigtails at least even on the child’s head? And I know for darn sure that her mother wouldn’t have made her wince in pain as many times as I did; you’d have thought I was giving her a jailhouse tatt with pencil lead and a rusty nail, she cringed so often.

And to make matters worse, when we got to ballet, she explained to her teacher that I did her hair. The teacher smiled, told her she looked beautiful and once Ella was out of earshot, looked at me and said, “Not bad for a dad.”

Not bad for a dad. You may think, “Hey, nothing wrong with that.” But the look in her eyes (that sad, knowing look that women get whenever men venture into historically feminine territory) combined with the tone of her voice told me all I needed to know: “Not bad for someone who doesn’t know what the heck he’s doing.”

And there’s the truth. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m winging it, hoping to heaven that I’m not hurting the kids in some unforeseen psychological way. I’m praying and trusting that my motives are clear: that I love them and would die for them and will do whatever I can to make sure their lives are good and clean and include broccoli because you can’t just eat crap all the time. I’m doing the best I can, only I know that my best isn’t – and could never be – the best there is. There’s a reason why men and women tend to drift towards one another and flirt and woo and fall in love and settle down and make a home and have 2.78 kids.

Because that’s the best – for the kids, for the individuals, for the world. It doesn’t work that way in a broken world unfortunately, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it. It just means that we should treasure it when we see it, thank God for it when we live it, and shut up and grant grace to those who maybe weren’t so fortunate in their lives, but are now doing the best they can with what they have.

Because I guarantee you this: if it ever happens to you, you’ll understand.

The Passage of Time

Today has been a good day (so far). Ella woke me up as usual, right at 7:00, by flushing the toilet in my bathroom. I don’t know why she’s suddenly decided that her bathroom is off-limits for pottying in the early morn, but I’m hoping she’ll break the habit once Rachel comes back.

Of course, the thought has occurred to me that she’s had this habit for a while now, and I’ve previously either slept right through it or sub-consciously decided to let Rachel handle it. Either way, the thought of my daughter habitually creeping into my room to pee while I slumber is creeping me out; it makes me wonder who else might be peeing in my house without my knowledge. Stevie Wonder? Dick Cheney? Special Agent Oso?

It boggles the mind.

Speaking of boggled minds, if this post ends up being really, REALLY bizarre, well – that’s what crazy tends to produce. And right now, I’m five shades of crazy, bordering on ludicrous (I had to really think about how to spell that last word there; my fingers wanted to type out “Ludacris”).

Anyway.

I was going to write about the passage of time and the theory of relativity, how one’s experience of time does not necessarily correlate to the actual movement of time. I was going to get all philosophical and sound smart and stuff, but my brain vomited into my nose and I just don’t have it in me to get all scholarly. Sorry. I know some of you Tech grads were hoping for a good laugh as a UGA grad tried his hand at physics, but we’ll have to get our laughs the old fashioned way: poop jokes and self-deprecation.

As I started out mentioning, today has been a relatively good day. After Ella flushed me out of bed, I was able to get both kids fed, dressed, medicated and happy with 15 minutes to spare. This is where the time thing kicked in: for most of the week (ok, all of this week) I have felt like a man with his hair on fire – running, running, running with no relief in sight. Every minute seems to press against the next one and my head has steadily grown more and more compressed with the various duties I’ve been trying to juggle. I have realized that part of the benefit of marriage is having someone to split the insanity with; fifteen minutes can actually feel like fifteen minutes when someone else is there to absorb part of the chaos.

Not so when you are alone. The chaos, even as sweet tempered as my kids’ brand of chaos is, belongs solely to you. The result? Time moves by wicked fast, where you barely get one thing completed before the next thing has finished and each successive duty or appointment only serves to drive the nail deeper, to pound on your head like a mallet until you finally disappear into the insanity.

That’s what made me notice the fifteen minutes this morning. I stopped and realized, for the first time since Rachel had left, that I didn’t have anything immediately pressing on me. Sure, we had to hustle out the door and on to school, but I didn’t HAVE to do that for another fifteen minutes. This is where my experience of time expanded, suddenly, like the guy who finally gets his fill at the China King all-you-can-eat buffet. Each second seemed bloated, like bread left to proof. I felt curious, as my brain screamed at me something needed to be done but my body felt free of all weight. It was delightful.

It lasted maybe 35, 40 seconds total, but that brief time of freedom from the clock was like a full night’s sleep or a restful swing in a shaded hammock. It made me think of heaven, and how eternity might not be as boring as we think (for those who believe heaven will be nothing but a non-stop sing-a-long of “Jesus Loves Me”).

The opposite end of the spectrum has been my experience with Jon’s diapers. I don’t know if I just don’t pay attention when Rachel’s around or if her absence somehow shrinks his bladder, but my goodness – that boy pees a LOT. It seems like every five minutes I’m having to change a diaper, which – praise the Lord – have mostly been pee-pees. The boy has a very healthy and functioning bladder, let me tell you. But pee-pee diapers, though abundant, aren’t funny. The solid laughs are in the poopies, and honestly he’s only hung one or two on me.

They’ve not been bad in and of themselves, certainly no worse than any other toddler deposits, but its the theory of relativity all over again when I’m trying to change him.

Let me say this delicately: the boy has quick hands. I don’t. So each exchange has been an exercise in horror as I try to clean before he can get himself into his mess. It doesn’t help that the baby wipe people know that there are frustrated fathers out there in a hurry to clean their kid, yet they still choose to manufacture wipes that take TWO hands to remove from the box. I literally have flung baby wipes up onto the wall in an effort to break one free before Jonathan escalates the situation. Ella walked in on the last service check and asked, “Daddy, why are you throwing baby wipes everywhere?”

Thus far, I’ve intercepted him about .1483 picoseconds before he scars us both for life. If I cut it any closer, I’d be sponsored by Gillette. I sincerely feel as though I’m moving like Superman – a blinding blur of blue light – and yet my eyes are telling me that I’m moving more like Miss Daisy. I know my days are numbered, and when it comes due, I’m positive things will switch suddenly and a moment that was moving too fast for me will suddenly decelerate into an eternity of horror. It will simply be a matter of perspective.

And after this long without my wife, brother – I’ve got perspective in spades.