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A Long Swim in Hell

This summer, I took part in a 5 kilometer open water swim called The Swim to the Moon near the town of Hell, Michigan.

Here’s my account of why I did it, how I trained for it, and what it was like.

Who am I?

I swam competitively as a kid and in high school. Since then (I’m 43 now) I’ve swum on and off, but I haven’t been a serious swimmer at all. In 2011, I swam the Alcatraz Invitational, which is about 2 kilometers. You can read about what that swim did to me here.


My reason for doing the Swim to the Moon was the same as my reason for doing the Alcatraz swim: my sister, Beth. Beth is a very good swimmer, and, unlike me, continues to swim competitively on a regular basis. She asked me (or dared me) to swim from Alcatraz with her, and it was such a good experience that we decided to find new swims to do together — but, in warmer water than San Francisco Bay. Along with Beth’s friend, Brendan, we formed a team and called ourselves “Das Shark”.

How I trained for a 5K swim

I had about 8 months from when I signed up until the date of the swim. I started training right away. At the beginning of my training, I hadn’t seriously exercised since I trained for the Alcatraz swim (4 years ago). I was also smoking and drinking pretty heavily.

I started an intense workout regimen, I lost 30 pounds, I quit smoking, I cut way back on beer, and I was swimming between 1 and 5 kilometers a day, 5 days a week.

I didn’t do any of these things at the same time, however. By the day of the swim, I had gained back much of the weight I had lost (swimming makes me hungry), and I was drinking a lot of beer. But, I was a much stronger swimmer.

The swim turned out to be a great opportunity for a family reunion. We rented a house near the race for the week prior to the swim, and the whole family came out and cooked, swam, fished, and partied. The area around Hell has numerous small lakes, and the house where we stayed was on a particularly small one.

On the first day at the house, Beth and I jumped into the lake for a practice swim. It was warm, shallow, and still — perfect breeding grounds, it turns out, for the dreaded sea lice. I must have stirred them up and they proceeded to attack me. For the next three weeks, my legs were a bumpy and itchy mess. No one else was affected in this way, and so I think I may have just been unlucky or particularly sensitive. Note: I’m not 100% sure it was Sea Lice, so if you happen to be a Sea Lice expert, let me know and I’ll send you a picture!

What was it like?

On the day of the race, we woke up at 5:00AM and drove to the lake, where we got on a school bus that took us to the starting line. At the starting line, there were 200 swimmers and 2 porta potties. All agreed that this was an area where the race organizers could have done better.

We made up a cheer for Das Shark:

“2, 4, 6, 8! Team Das Shark will decimate! Chomp chomp chomp! You! Chomp chomp chomp! Today! Chomp chomp chomp! At 8:40 am! Chomp chomp chomp! For approximately 1 and a half to 2 hours! Chomp chomp chomp! Then we’ll have lunch! Chomp chomp chomp!”

Brendan drew a sweet logo that included a Shark wearing Lederhosen.


The course for the race started in one lake, then went through a narrow channel and into another lake. The finish line was at the opposite end of the 2nd lake. Buoys in the lakes marked the course, and special buoys marked each kilometer of the course.

The water was warm — 79 degrees — which is nice, but probably too warm for most serious swimmers. That early in the morning, there was steam coming off it, which you can see in our team picture below.


At the starting line, swimmers were started in 3 groups according to their self-reported swimming abilities. When the starting buzzer went off, there was a mad dash for position, with 50 or so swimmers in our group trying to get out ahead. The water was murky and shallow, and I kicked other swimmers and was kicked several times during the first 5 minutes.

Once everyone spread out a bit, I got into a groove.

Every long distance swimmer sings to themselves in order to stave off boredom. For most of the swim, I was singing the songs we listened to on the way to the lake that morning. I think it was this album (opens in a new window for your listening pleasure while you read the rest of the article).

But, I was also making up stories about how I would become lifelong friends with the 3 or 4 people I was swimming close to for most of the race. We’d help each other out, encourage each other to stick to our swimming, sign up for other races together, and have awesome barbecues. We were just about equal in swimming abilities and we had all been looking for other people to swim with. Maybe we’d even start a band. Note: None of those things actually happened.

The channel between the lakes was the most unpleasant part of the race. It was narrow and shallow. If I wasn’t right in the center of the channel, my hands would drag through the muck at the bottom. Everyone was trying to stay in the middle of the channel, and so collisions with other swimmers were much more likely.

There were a couple bridges that passed over the channel, and spectators stood on these and cheered us on.

After the channel came the much larger lake, Half Moon Lake. There was a dramatic temperature change (from cool to much warmer) upon exiting the channel and entering Half Moon Lake. At first, I thought the person in front of me had peed.

By the time I got to the last 2 kilometers of the race, I could feel chafing under my right arm, so I tried to favor my left arm and change my stroke in order to not make the chafing worse. Other than that, I was feeling good, but I was eager to be done. When I reached the last buoy and knew that there was only 1 kilometer to go, I pushed myself to go faster.

The lake got very shallow about 50 yards before the beach. When my hands started dragging on the bottom, I stood up and started running. I crossed the finish line totally exhausted, and then tripped and fell on my face in the sand. The announcer made a joke about me stumbling but he misread the numbers on my arm and said someone else’s name: “Joe from Kalamazoo is looking dazed and confused!”

chrisandbethchampsI finished the race in 1 hour, 34 minutes (107th overall, out of 217 swimmers) and took 5th for men in my age group (out of 10). My sister finished 2nd in her age group (32nd overall) with a time of 1 hour, 18 minutes.

A few days later, as we were driving to Chicago, Beth and I discovered Jim “The Shark” Dreyer, who has done many incredible long distance swims and holds records for such insane things as being the only person to swim across every one of the Great Lakes. His latest feats include swimming long distances while pulling heavy things (like cars).

Inspired by Jim “The Shark”, Beth and I are now starting to make plans for our next big swim.

What writing death notices taught me about writing

smallnoticeI’ve been a professional writer for 22 years. The first time my writing was published was in 1993, when I was the circulation manager for a small weekly newspaper in Detroit. The full-time reporters considered the job of writing death notices to be beneath them, and shoved it off onto me.

I loved it. Each week, the death notice forms would come in from the funeral homes, along with the remembrance ads from the spouses and loved ones of the recently, or not so recently, departed. Some notices stuck to just the facts: Mr. Volchuck died March 18 at Holy Cross Hospital. He’s survived by his daughter, Anna, and his son, Leon.

Other notices would feature bible verses. Occasionally there would be a line or two of bad poetry or some clip art selected from a binder that was kept at the front desk.

Some death notices would give a bit more information about the person than just the names of their spouses, children, and grandchildren. For example, Jan Kowalski played football for University of Detroit and worked at GM for 30 years.

My job was to put each death notice into a standard format, get the facts and spelling right, and have it all ready to go to paste up (the paper was pasted up when I first started working there) in time for the Tuesday night press run.


The structure of death notice had been the same for the entire 75+ year history of the paper: Last name, first name, middle initial, location, date of death, survived by wife (nee maiden name), children, grandchildren, location and date / time of services.

Although the policy was to stick to the standard format and keep it as dry as possible, I would routinely include as much information into each death notice as I could. A death notice is a very different thing, with a very different purpose, from an obituary. But, I treated each notice as an opportunity to try to fit an obituary into around 50 words.

The challenge of squeezing human details or touching words into whatever small amount of space was left after listing the grandchildren was one that I was particularly fond of and good at.

The readership skewed towards elderly Polish-Americans. They were notorious gossips and wanted to know everything about everyone else’s troubles, illnesses, and ultimate undoing. The paper, however, had a policy of not printing the cause of death.

I was a 22-year old on a break of indeterminate length from college. Full of unearned self-assuredness, I argued with the editor-in-chief and publisher — who had a collective 40+ years of newspaper experience between them — that the cause of death should be listed in death notices whenever it’s included on the form.

Death notices were one of the most-read parts of the paper in this community. Listing the cause of death, I argued, would make the notices even more popular. The publisher considered it tacky to mention the cause of death, and pointed out that doing so would require additional research and permissions from survivors. I eventually saw that the trouble of printing the cause of death wasn’t worth the effort, and my crusade for openness ended there.

From this first experience with being published and having my writing distributed I learned to be concise, to always be thinking about the audience, and to do quality work while balancing the effort and rewards. These are vital skills for any writer to have, and I would encourage anyone who is just getting started as a writer to spend some time practicing the art of writing death notices.

My Writing Cave Quest

A couple months ago, I started a writing group. My vision for the group was that once a week, my writer friends and I would get together to write, talk about writing, act stupid, and share stories. I named the group the Hemingway and Gump School of Writing.

I chose a location that served beer and coffee and that was fairly centrally located in midtown Sacramento. I scheduled the first meeting and invited all of my friends who are writers or who aspire to be writers.

No one showed.

I had a great time and got more fiction writing done than I had in a long time. So, I scheduled it again for the same time and same place the next week.

Again, no one showed up and I was really productive and stumbled home after a few hours of writing and drinking beers by myself.

The next week, one other person showed up and I was much less productive. But, it was fun!

After a while, though, I started to feel like the location and the place I had selected for writing wasn’t the best. The mix of people drinking coffee (probably 85%) and people drinking beer (me) felt strange and I wanted a more mellow scene.

I planned a writing crawl with my trusted friend and counsel, Jeff, to seek out a new location for the writing group. The idea was that we would walk around Sacramento with our laptops, and have a drink and write something in as wide a variety of places as possible.

On the planned day of the crawl, I headed to my local coffee shop (Naked Lounge) to warm up and await Jeff. Unfortunately, Jeff wasn’t able to make it out on the morning of the crawl. So, I decided to embark upon the crawl alone.

What follows is the journal of my quest to find the perfect writing location in midtown Sacramento.

My first stop was Naked Lounge, at 15th and Q.

Naked serves coffee of all sorts, plus some pastries. I had an iced coffee and sat at a small table and worked on a sidebar to Chapter 1 of Coding JavaScript for Kids. Naked has free and open wi-fi (no need to ask for a password), there are plenty of places to plug a laptop in, no one minds if you hang out for hours, the coffee is excellent, and the atmosphere is good for morning or early afternoon. The tables are a bit small and it’s often pretty crowded, however.

After I finished my sidebar and coffee, I moved on. My next stop was University of Beer, on 16th Street. University of Beer has 100 beers on tap and some nice picnic tables outside where you can sit quietly and type. There was nowhere to plug in, and the wi-fi was password protected (and I didn’t feel like asking for the password). This places gets pretty crowded at night, so I don’t imagine it would be a good regular night-time writing spot. However, I wrote my company’s weekly newsletter and had a delicious New Glory Brewery American Country Saison.

At this point, I was getting hungry, so I headed across the street to Uncle Vito’s Pizza. Uncle Vito serves pizza by the slice and has a good selection of beers on tap at great prices. I ordered two slices of pepperoni and a Lagunitas Lil’ Sumpin. Everything was delicious. They don’t have wifi that I could detect, but the University of Beer wifi signal was strong from where I was sitting.

I started writing this blog post while waiting for my pizza, then ate my pizza and enjoyed the atmosphere and beer without writing. Vito’s might not be the best place to get writing done (it’s small, and I didn’t feel like I could sit for a long time and type), but so far it’s tops on my list for places to get together with other writers and not write.

My next stop was to be the Sheraton Grand. I like hotel lobby bars, and the one at the Sheraton Grand in downtown Sacramento is a particularly nice one. Unfortunately, there was some sort of fitness convention going on and the place was mobbed. So, I walked through and continued on.

My next stop, the Hyatt Regency on L Street did not disappoint. The bar was empty and has plenty of comfortable seating. The beer list is severely limited, but they also have food, free wi-fi, places to plug a laptop in, and high ceilings to look at while pondering what the hell to write next. I wrote the rest of this blog post up to this point at the Hyatt while drinking two Rubicon Monkey Knife Fights.

Could this be the place? No, probably not…although I have enjoyed my time here. Time to move on to the next spot. Stay tuned.

What’s it like to be the 32,284th most popular author?

According to Amazon, there are only 32,283 authors who are more popular than me (on Amazon) today. Updated hourly, this number has fluctuated in the range of 20,000 to 40,000 over the last few months. With somewhere around 5 million titles in the Amazon database, I figure there are at least a million different authors I […]

The post What’s it like to be the 32,284th most popular author? appeared first on Minnick Web Services.

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Maybe I’m America’s 2nd Next Best Bartender?

Last weekend, a reality show called “America’s Next Best Bartender” had a casting call in Sacramento. As someone who is interested in booze production, serving, and consumption, I decided to go and see if I was America’s Next Best Bartender material. There was also some prize money attached to the title, which also helped persuade me to try out.

I have no idea what's going on here.
I have no idea what’s going on here.

The day started at noon, with a line of 20-30 people and some paperwork, followed by a lot of waiting around. This was my first reality TV casting call, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I could tell from the outfits and the over-the-top “attitude” that nearly everyone else there was a professional reality TV contestant.

Imagine, if you will…

Me (thinking): It just struck me that I’m the oldest person here. I hope there isn’t a dance competition as part of this thing. These seem like nice enough people, but they’re pretty loud. Am I not loud enough? Well, I’m sure my knowledge of bartending, beer, wine, and spirits will be far greater than any of these kids and I’ll get to be on this show. Do I want that, though?

Almost everyone else (very out-loud): Hey! Let’s get pumped up! Woooooo!

At around 2:00, I was called in for an interview with the producers and asked why I want to be America’s next best bartender. I said I didn’t care too much, actually, but I thought it could be fun. And, also, I like to drink. They told me to come back at 5 for the 2nd round.

I went back to my office, worked a little, prepared some snappy answers to the questions they were sure to ask (how about: “What qualities make a great bartender?”), and returned at 5.

After waiting for an hour or two in the crowd of other contestants (the 2nd round, oddly enough, seemed to be larger than the first round), I was called in for my 2nd audition, or interview, or whatever.

They asked me if I see myself as “The Parent,” “The Coach,” or “The Underdog.” I had no idea, except that I know I’m not a coach or a parent. I bumbled around a bit and then asked “what do you mean?” They asked me if I’d be able to handle the pressure and I assured them that I’m not afraid of anything, and I’m especially not afraid of being on a TV show.

There were no questions about bartending, or even about what the primary flavor in Galliano is or what’s in a Perfect Manhattan and what should it be garnished with. Ah well, I did well enough that I was invited back for the after party and casting announcement at 10:00.

I brought 3 of my nerdy friends with me to the party and we waited and people-watched. I drank a Gimlet, a couple beers, and some horrible shot from a test tube. The show producers watched the crowd of contestants from a balcony over the dance floor, and I thought my cool and aloof demeanor was sure to win me a spot on the show.

Oh boy was I wrong! At midnight, the chosen ones were called to the stage, one at a time, to dance around. Pretty much every one of them would have been my last choice for someone who would (in my opinion) make a great bartender. These were loud people who could dance and weren’t afraid to take their shirts off (but leave their neckties on, oddly enough) in a club.

I left the after party feeling relieved that I wasn’t picked, but a little disappointed as well. I’d be curious to see what this show ends up being like, but I won’t watch it, because I can’t stand and don’t understand reality TV.

Online Learning Through the Instructor’s Eyes

I’ve been teaching an online course for several months now. For a year prior to that, I was writing the course and working with the team at Ed2Go to make it sparkle. My course gets an average of about 150 students each month.

Since I get asked about it pretty often, and since I feel like I’m starting to get a pretty unique perspective on online learning, I thought I’d share my experience with you, my excellent readers.

My course is called Creating Mobile Apps with HTML5. Needless to say, the course has to cover a LOT of technologies. To further complicate things, I designed the course to be useful for a very wide range of people — from those with very little web development experience to those with tons of experience, but perhaps not so much with HTML5 technologies. To elaborate and further set the stage….

I must teach:

  • HTML, JavaScript, CSS, JQuery, JQuery Mobile, JSON, web browser fundamentals, AJAX fundamentals, web performance tuning, offline database, web APIs, PhoneGap, and more.
  • In just 12 lessons.
  • To 150 students
  • Who are located all over the world
  • And who have varying levels of experience and knowledge
  • On the Web.

This is quite a daunting task…but I only have myself to blame for designing the curriculum and taking it on. When I first signed on to be an Ed2Go instructor, I was just finishing writing my book (WebKit for Dummies), and I was high on my knowledge of all things HTML5 and so I plowed on, despite my previous less-than-perfect experience with online learning.

I’m somewhat of a veteran of online teaching, having taught my first online course (for a community college) back in 2001. At the time, I was frustrated with the format and the lack of ability to really communicate with the students. After one semester, I threw up my hands and pretty much decided that online teaching was way more difficult than live teaching, and that it wasn’t worth the effort for the teacher or the students.

But that was then. Today, pretty much the exact same classroom software is being used for my online course (a learning-oriented forum system), but the entire process for developing and teaching the course has been very different.

I wrote my first online course (on web application development) over a period of about 2 weeks. It consisted of a sloppy powerpoint deck and some links to more information. There were no standards, no editorial review,  and no assistance from the school. I don’t think anyone else at the school knew what I was teaching.

Ed2Go, on the other hand, is extremely process-oriented. Deadlines are tight, and quality standards are very high. More importantly, both are strictly enforced. I consider my editor at Ed2Go to be one of the very best I’ve ever worked with. She kept me honest about whether I was doing my best work, edited me where I needed it (always making me look better than I am), and put up with (and maybe understood) my sense of humor and why I thought it was important to keep certain jokes in the lessons. Writing my course was probably the most difficult writing project of my career, and it took almost a year, during which I worked on it for 4 hours a day and got paid nothing.

Now I’m teaching the course (and getting paid, thanks). My students get a new lesson every Wednesday and Friday. The lesson contains 5 chapters of pre-written instruction, an assignment (usually a little programming task), some frequently asked questions, a list of additional resources, and a quiz. At the end of the 12th lesson, students take the final exam, which consists of 25 multiple choice questions. I’m available to answer questions in a forum area during the duration of the course, but the students’ successful completion of the course is based solely on how they do on the final exam.

The format really works, and the vast majority of my students that I get to interact with seem to get a lot out of it and have a good time. They rank me highly on the surveys at the end of the class and say really nice things in the course feedback.

So, where’s the big “but”? There really isn’t one. I enjoy interacting with my students and I firmly believe that I’m teaching them some really valuable skills and passing on some great information.

There is an occasional challenge brought on by a software dependency that suddenly makes part of the course obsolete or incorrect. Sometimes, a student may get frustrated and take it out on me (that’s what they make the delete button for!), and sometimes I may come home from happy hour too late and fail to do as good of a job explaining the inner workings of JavaScript arrays as I could have done several beers back. But, all in all, I’m really happy with my latest online teaching experience and I’m feeling really positive about the potential for affordable and high-quality online learning.

psst…Want to take my class? A new session is starting soon. Click Here!