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Pushing People Higher

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” – Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV

Monday evening at my Toastmasters club, I was describing to a first-time guest our process for evaluating prepared speakers. “Oh,” she asked, “so you tell them what was good and what was bad about their speech?”

Actually, what we try to do is tell the speaker what they did really well, then suggest ways that they can make the speech even better the next time they give it.

The key is to have a positive, constructive focus. For many new speakers, they have already achieved a personal victory by standing up in front of an audience and delivering a speech at all. Can they improve it? Sure. We can deliver that as good news, however, not as, “Here’s what you did wrong.” Rather, offer helpful suggestions.

“Try to make eye contact with audience members.”

“Be sure your voice reaches the back of the room.”

“Your opening story was powerful. Bring us back to it in your closing.”

Every day is full of opportunities to “stir up one another to love and good works.” Those seemingly small ones are just as important as the big ones. You probably won’t have to save the world today. You do have unlimited ways to speak into someone else’s life. Look for them. Many are hiding in plain sight.

A Christmas Memory

When I was little, the home base for both sides of my family was Leon County in East Texas. My mom’s family lived in Buffalo, and my dad’s father and stepmother lived in Oakwood. However, most of my great-grandparents were still alive as well. Holidays, especially Christmas, could be a little crazy because we had family visits to make all over Leon County. We spent a lot of time whizzing up and down little country roads, going to places that seemed for a kid from Dallas like the absolute middle of nowhere.

The Christmas when I was five was even crazier than usual, plus a little surreal.

My great-grandparents, David and Mamie Richmond, lived in the unincorporated farming community of Sand Flat along Farm-to-Market Road 542, three miles west of the Trinity River and about four miles southeast of Oakwood, the nearest town of any size. My branch of the Richmond family settled in that area sometime in the 1870’s. David William Richmond, my great-grandfather, was born in 1895 and was 72 when I was born in 1967. By the way, yes, I’m named for him (my middle name, Glenn, comes from my grandfather, Glenn Edward Richmond).

It was a typical little two-bedroom country house with a porch taking up the left side of the front and the living room on the right. The door most visible from the road was to the front bedroom. Despite being a small house, they had raised a large family in it. There was an open field behind it and woods behind that.

Forty-five years ago, on Saturday, December 23, 1972, my great-grandfather went hunting with one of his grandsons at a deer lease near their home. While sitting in a deer blind, he fell over and died. According to my dad, we were staying with my mom’s parents in Buffalo at the time. Since the families all knew each other, the call to my dad informing him of his grandfather’s death came there.

Being five, I didn’t really know any of this at the time. I just know that we went to their little country house on Christmas Eve where I had been numerous times before for holidays and family gatherings. This time, though, when we opened the living room door from the porch, it seemed from my three-foot-tall vantage point that the little living room was packed with family members who were staring down into some sort of large box by the front window. I had no time to process this scene as my mother hurriedly ushered me into the bedroom which was also full of people, including my great-grandmother who was sitting and crying.

I believe that I understood as well as any five-year-old probably can that he had died, but I didn’t understand until later that it was his body in a casket in the living room where the family members were gathered. Dealing with a departed family member in that fashion seems really foreign to us now, but that’s how it used to be done out in the country for generations.

I don’t remember the funeral, which was in a small Baptist church up the road. They probably didn’t take me.

That was my first experience with death, and it occurred at the very same time we were also celebrating Christmas, making for a confusing combination of sights for a five-year-old kid’s mind to process. Fortunately, it didn’t permanently scar my perception of Christmas. It did, however, create a rather surreal image in my collection of childhood memories, one that has been with me for forty-five years.

Snow Days

My wife asked last night if I was bringing home my work computer in case of inclement weather. I didn’t, because I knew from the forecast that the likelihood of snow was very low, and I didn’t want to have to haul it back in the morning.

Remember when one of the best things that could happen during the winter months was a snow day?

Remember waking up to the sight of white everywhere outside and the sound of school closure listings coming from the radio? The name of my school never seemed so beautiful as it did when it was coming out of that radio speaker.

Being Texas, it didn’t happen often, which made it glorious when it did.

Now, if there is a genuine weather warning, my manager sends an email telling everyone to plan on working from home. It’s the double edged sword of technology.

Easter 2005

Yesterday, I was trying to resolve a scheduling problem with our international student home meetings when I suddenly realized something. Easter this year is on March 27. That bears a special significance for me.

My mom passed away on March 26, 2005, after a 17-month fight with pancreatic cancer. On the day she was diagnosed, which is easily one of the worst days of my life, the oncologist advised that she might only have weeks. Despite all the challenges that came with it, that 17 months was a blessing for which I’m grateful.

During her last three weeks, she was in the care of the Hospice of East Texas in Tyler. My mom’s sister lives in Tyler, and that was the best in-patient facility around. It still is, to my knowledge. It’s actually a rather beautiful, special place where all the staff work hard to help the patients and families through one of the most difficult times any of us face.

The evening that she passed was right before Easter Sunday. When we all woke up the next morning, my aunt asked if we wanted to attend the Easter service at her church. I’m sure she would have understood if I had declined. But on that day, of all days, the thought of celebrating the resurrection of Christ and all the promise that it brings seemed more timely and appropriate than ever.

This year, for the first time in eleven years, the anniversary of my mom’s passing falls on a Saturday before Easter. On Easter Sunday, I will again celebrate the resurrection of Christ and all the promise it brings.

And if I’m a little distracted in the next few weeks, now you’ll know why.

“A Technical Writer? What’s That?”

For over seventeen years, I have been answering the question of what I do professionally by replying that I am a technical writer.

You can probably guess the question that is frequently spawned by that answer:  “What is a technical writer?”

Answering that question can be more challenging.  The greatest challenge can be making it sound interesting.

As a technical writer, companies pay me to glean information about a product from highly technical source material and put it into a form that is understandable and usable for a particular target audience.  The target audience is generally made up of equipment installers, operators, and maintenance technicians.  I will be the first to admit that it is not terribly exciting reading, not even for the people who need to read it in order to do their jobs.

I originally got into technical writing because I liked writing and had a strong technical background.  In college, I had majored in physics and spent several years working in a research lab.  During that time, I realized that while I still loved science, something wasn’t quite right.  The daily grind of lab research didn’t excite me as much as I thought it would.  At the same time, the college courses I was enjoying and excelling in were ones that had heavy writing requirements.  That’s not the way it’s supposed to work when you are trying to get a doctorate in physics.

Around the same time I was wrestling with the question of how to modify my educational and career aspirations, an older friend suggested I look into technical writing.  Ironically, I first asked the question I’ve been answering ever since:  “What’s a technical writer?”  After learning what it was, and finding out that companies paid technical writers rather well, I completed my master’s degree with a different emphasis: Interdisciplinary Studies.  It allowed me to take some courses with heavy writing requirements in order to expand my qualifications.

My first paid writing job after college was as a freelance script writer for a television production company.  I got paid to write scripts for five-minute segments on companies which were featured on a television show called USA Corporate Profiles.  Strictly speaking, what I was writing was not technical writing.  It did, however, enable me to put something on my résumé that said I had been paid to write something.  That first writing job helped me get my first actual job as a technical writer.

For someone who loves writing, working as a technical writer can produce some conflicts within one’s soul.  In the “plus” column, the pay is good, the work is generally steady, and there is great satisfaction to be had in producing something that is accurate and usable.

There are, however, a few items in the “minus” column.

First of all, few writers dream of writing to a comparatively tiny audience.

Second, that audience will likely never know your name.  I’ve never heard of a tech writer going on book signing tour for the latest release of the ACME 321 System Installation Manual.

Third, as a technical writer, the scope of your writing is dictated by the needs of the company.  If you want to write the Great American Novel, do it at home.  That’s assuming you have the time and inclination to write when you get home.

Fourth, sometimes technical writing doesn’t seem much like writing.  A lot of time is spent updating existing product documents, adding new information and deleting old information, editing massive tables and poring over figures and diagrams looking for errors.  Depending on the type of document you are “writing”, you can go for days sometimes without actually writing a new sentence.

Anyone who got into technical writing in order to be a writer may need to find a creative outlet or two in order to retain their writer’s soul.  Some tech writers get into similar fields, such as marketing writing.  Some have a novel or short story they are working on in their off hours.  Some may join a Toastmasters club, where they can work on their speech writing skills and practice speaking before a live audience.  Some write books about technical writing.

Some may start a blog.

Angela’s Bath Time

Never thought this would become a major component of my evening.


Trying This Again

The last time I did a blog, it didn’t go anywhere.  Let’s try it again.