Breakthrough at the Writers Group

It is easy to write about writing when the writing is going well. Words are flowing and there is often the desire to share the joy I experience as a writer when that is happening. When the writing is not going well, it’s not as easy to write about. When the writing is not going well, I become the way I do when I am sick with the cold or flu. I want to be alone, I don’t want to talk about it, and I want the world to fade away until I’m all better. Talking about it just makes it worse. Writing about it is even harder because I am aware that I am deliberately avoiding what I should be writing by tackling something else.

I have been in this position, unable to write stories well, for a long time now. Late last year, I decided to start attending my writers group again. I joined the group back in 2010 just as I was starting to sell stories to some of the bigger science fiction magazines. I stopped going sometime before my youngest daughter (now almost 2-1/2) was born. There just wasn’t time. But time has freed up a bit and I could return if I wanted. I told myself I’d go into it as if I was a newbie to writing, and just absorb as much as I could. Maybe it would jar something loose, and I’d have a breakthrough.

Let me take just a moment to say what a great group I belong to. The group doesn’t focus on any one kind of writing. Last night we critiqued a chapter of a mainstream fiction novel, as well as a personal essay. But the group has a core of attendees that I have known for a long time now, and whose opinions about writing I’ve come to trust.

The group has produced quite a few exceptional writers. Back when I started, Michael J. Sullivan was a member, and has since gone on to superstardom in the fantasy genre. The first piece I ever read by Joanna Castle Miller was absolutely incredible. Joanna went on to Hollywood, and a that first play of hers that I read way back when, “Ash,” has recently completed production as a film. There are talented children’s writers, established journalists and novelists like Thierry Sagnier, screenplay writers. Those are just a few. It is a talented group.

I sat there last night for the first time in years, listening to writers give thoughtful critiques of their peers’ work. It stirred something in me. I’d been struggling for so long that I almost felt as if I forgot how to tell a story. At one point in a discussion of the personal essay we were critiquing, someone suggested expanding on a particular section because it was interesting. Expanding was tough in the group because we usually limit submissions to ten pages. That was when it hit me! I pulled out my Field Notes notebook and scribbled the following:

For the story “[Redacted]” — can I do the whole thing in 10 pages?

I’ve had this idea for a story and for well over two years, I’ve struggled just to get it started. It seemed like a big story to me and I wasn’t sure how to tell it. All at once, however, I decided that maybe it didn’t need to be a big story. Maybe I could do it in 10 pages?

At home, after the group, I headed into the shower. For some reason, it’s in the shower when my story ideas usually crystalize. I’ll stand there under the spray, hair white with shampoo, and I don’t even have to try–I hear the words I need to type. That’s exactly what happened last night. At first, I was sort of stunned. I just stood there listening to them. Then I realized that I needed to write them down. I dashed out of the shower, still damp, and into my office. I opened a new document, closed my eyes and, somewhat nervously, listened.

The words were still there, and I began to write. Before I stopped, I had half the story written. I knew how the other half would go, and how the story would end. What’s more, I liked what I was writing. Attempting to keep it short made it move quickly, and built up tension just as fast. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was on the verge of finishing a story, and a pretty good one at that.

I expect I’ll finish the story tonight. Then I’ll give it a few days before I read it and start the second draft. Once that second draft is done, I’ll submit it to the writer’s group for critique, the first story I’ve submitted to that group in probably four years.

I love the feeling I get when I write the last words of a story. Usually, I type those words, and then jump of from my chair and pace a circle around my office. I’m too excited to sit. I’m looking forward to that feeling once again.

The lesson here, for me if for no one else, is that when the writing isn’t going well, introduce a constraint. In this case, I told myself that I had to write the story in 10 pages or less. That seems to shake things loose. I’ve always written better under some kind of constraint and yet I rarely remember that. In college, I often waiting until a few hours before a paper was due to write it. Imperial data showed that the closer to the deadline, the better the grade I received on average. I was once again working with constraints. I’m hopeful this breakthrough will prove useful on other stories I’d like to write. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now, I just want to enjoy that feeling I had last night getting the story down on the page, and bring it home tonight.

Revving the Treadmill of Life

A while back, I wrote a post on letters vs. email in which I considered the pleasures of the former and frustrations of the latter in our current high-paced, highly digital environment. Recently, a friend of mine wrote an excellent post on his blog that was in something of a similar vain: “Navigating the Digital / Analog Divide in Life and Work.” It is a thoughtful post, well worth reading.

On the plane home from Los Angeles, I finished reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I was reviewing my notes from that book and came across this passage which I highlighted that encapsulated my thoughts in my “Letters vs. Email” post, as well as some of what Ken has to say in his post:

Previously it took a lot of work to write a letter, address and stamp an envelope, and take it to the mailbox. It took days or weeks, maybe even months, to get a reply. Nowadays I can dash off an email, send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply a minute later. I’ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more relaxed life?

Sadly, not. Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated. (Emphasis mine.)

Sapiens, p. 105-6, Kindle edition.

It is this unintentional revving of the treadmill that has me rebalancing my digital/analog activities. The problem with this is that it alters only part of the equation. I may be slowing things down on my end, but things are not slowing down outside my little bubble. While on vacation I sent out some postcards. I received delighted email replies from the recipients on the day they received them.

I think I am sensitive to this change because it has paralleled my career. The first email I ever sent was when I started with my company right out of college. All through college, I wrote letters, and it was only during the summer after graduating that I began communicated with friends through AOL (“you’ve got mail!”) In the quarter century that I’ve been with my company, I’ve seen an every increasing volume of email, where any one email these days holds less valuable content than one from 25 years ago.

Communication outside work has paralleled this. I continued to write letters after graduating from college, but stopped around 2000, when my sole remaining correspondent (my grandfather) became too sick to write anymore. Now, everything is via email, and even that is being supplanted by even faster and more realtime forms of communication like instant messaging, which further reduces the art in communication down to something like the hand signals that soldiers use to communicate with one another in silence.

I’d love to slow down that treadmill, but at this point, it seems out of control and I hardly know where to begin.

5 Books I’m Looking Forward to in 2019

Last week was a very busy one in L.A. and it threw me off my game. I had almost no time to read, and by the time I could read, I was too worn out. I hate when this happens because it takes a while to get my momentum back and find something that really sparks my interest and gets me back on track. I’m in the middle of that now, and when this happens, I often looks at the various lists of books I maintain. This morning, I was thinking about books I’m looking forward to reading in 2019.

I no longer read much science fiction, but Jack McDevitt is one of the writers I still read. He was always very kind to me as a fellow writer. He is a modern day Clifford D. Simak in that everyone I know has only good things to say about Jack. He writes two series, and I especially enjoy his Alex Benedict series. In may, the 8th installment comes out: Octavia Gone and I am really looking forward to it.

Octavia Gone by Jack McDevitt

We live a few hours away from Hershey, Pennsylvania and have visited the town, and toured the Hershey museum there a couple of times. The tour in particular has piqued my interest in Milton Hershey. I recently learned of a biography of Hershey released this month called Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams by Michael D’Antonio.

Hershey by Michael D'Antonio

One of the longest, most fascinating books I’ve read is Gotham by Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace. It is the history of New York City from its earliest settled days until 1898. Last year, Mike Wallace released a sequel, Greater Gotham, which is nearly as long, but instead of covering centuries, covers a mere 22 years, taking New York City history up through 1920, the year my Grandpa was born. Greater Gotham was released late last year, but the audiobook version comes out later this month. I’m really looking forward to that book.

Greater Gotham by Mike Wallace

Last year I read a book by Tom Clavin called Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West. I enjoyed it, and was immediately interested in a new book Clavin has coming in February: Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfigher.

Wild Bill by Tom Clavin

This July will be the 50th anniversary Apollo 11 and the first humans to walk on the moon. In April, Douglas Brinkley has a new book that I am really looking forward to: American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race. I can never get enough of this story, and I’ve read just about every book I could find on Apollo, and so I was excited to see another one coming out soon.

American Moonshot by Douglas Brinkley

There are quite a few long books on my list for this year as well. I’d like to finish reading Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization, and I am considering dedicating the month of February to getting through the complete History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But the five books I’ve listed above are ones that I am particularly looking forward to in 2019.

Have any books that you’re looking forward to? Let me know about them in the comments.

Heading Home

I’d intended to have a full post today, but I find I am exhausted from my trip to L.A. and the post will have to wait. I’m presently at L.A.X. waiting to board my flight home and hoping it gets in before the snow starts falling.

I’ll have a new post up as soon as I’ve had a chance to rest and settle in back at home. In the meantime, have a great weekend.

Ghosts of Santa Monica Past

I’m in Santa Monica, California for work this week. This is the town where, twenty-five years ago this October, I started my first day at the company that I am still with today. Back then, I lived in Studio City and commuted into the office, leaving my house at 5:10 am and arriving in Santa Monica 25 minutes later. Traffic was light before 5:30. Now I come out maybe once a year. This time it’s a somber, eerie reunion.

My old office building no longer exists. What I think of as the “new” building (now probably close to 15 years old) is a little southeast of where the old building used to be. All week I’ve been seeing ghosts of that old building. I can see if from my hotel window. It appears almost like a mirage, overlaying the park and palm trees.

A view from my hotel window
A view from my hotel window.

Santa Monica has changed so much that it seems like a completely different city, save perhaps the famous sign at the entrance to the pier. A metro train stops nearby. Colorado between Fourth and Ocean looks like something out of a science fiction movie. Scooters are everywhere. They are like great metallic grasshoppers, some sitting idle, others flitting suddenly this way or that.

If I look hard, though, I see the ghosts of Santa Monica past. Looking out my window through the trees, I see the windows of my old office on the fourth floor, and facing north. The window is open slightly, and I can just barely make out the silhouette of a younger version of me looking back. The new Santa Monica Place fades into the more dilapidated structure that it once was. I can see a group of young people passing through the food court of that old mall, and emerging into sunlight on the other side. They walk down Third Street to the international food court seeking lunch in the distant past.

On the other side of the hotel, just across Colorado, the McDonald’s on the ground floor of what looks like an ornate and expensive apartment building fades into the old McDonalds that it used to be, complete with parking lot and drive-thru. I used to walk from my office down Ocean to Colorado early in the morning just as the sky was growing light, and seek out that McDonald’s. I’d stroll pass Il Fornio, whose ghostly visage I can still make out in the windows of Del Frisco’s Grill, which now occupies its space. Next the Philly cheesesteak place, now a Subway sandwich shop.

The Sears building is still there, although for how long is anyone’s guess. Chez Jay has survived, thank goodness, peanut shells and all. I had dinner there last night, and sitting at the back table, watched as a man at the bar proposed. She said yes, and everyone cheered. Pico between Main Street and Fourth hasn’t changed too much. The bowling alley is still there. So is the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. These are the survivors, but they are few, and the ghosts close in on them.

Change is good, but I can’t help seeing the ghosts, they’ve been out in force this week, and as different as things look, as I retrace my steps across an old route, the familiar begins to emerge, fuzzy at first, then clear, like a stereogram whose image suddenly jumps out from what seems a bunch of random dots, the past overlapping the present.

And for some reason that I can’t quite articulate, perhaps age, nostalgia, or distance, I prefer the ghosts of Santa Monica past.

Unobtainable Books

I keep a wishlist of books that I want to read. It never gets too long. There are 28 entries in the list as of this writing, and having just reviewed them, I can probably eliminate half since the fond feelings I once had for them have passed. There are three levels to my reading wish list:

  1. Books that pique my interest. These are by far the vast majority of the books that make it onto the list. They are books that have somehow caught my eye. I’m uncertain if I actually want to read them, but they go on the list until I have time to investigate further. These books tend to be on the list for a long time because I don’t always investigate right away and the butterfly effect of reading often carries me off in other directions.
  2. Books I know I want to read. These are books I do not yet have in my possession, but that I know I want to read as soon as I do have them. They rarely stay on the list longer than the time it takes me to cash in an Audible credit, or have them delivered to my Kindle, or, if they are on paper, to the house.
Current wishlist sample
A sample of (audio) books on my current wishlist.

The third level of the list is more pernicious and sinister. Call it my List of Unobtainable Books. These are books that I have a great desire to obtain and read, and yet they seem virtually unobtainable. I might see one listed on Abe Books fro $900 and that is more than I am willing to spend, so the books remain out of my reach. The reason this level is so pernicious is that it feeds upon itself. The harder a book is to obtain, the more I want to read it. The more I want to read it, the harder it is for me to find.

At present, two such book collections glower at me from this level of my wishlist. The first is Arnold J. Toynbee’s 12-volume A Study of History. I first learned of these books years ago when reading Isaac Asimov’s autobiographies. (Fred Pohl, apparently, talked Asimov into joining a Toynbee fan club.) More recently, Toynbee made his appearance in Will and Ariel Durants’ A Dual Autobiography. The historians were mutual admirers of each other’s work. Even Asimov had a difficult time obtaining a complete set of the books. Now they seem to be almost impossible to find, at least in the places I’ve looked, unless you are willing to fork out what would potentially be thousands of dollars. A 2-volume abridgment of 12 books exists, but I’m not interested in abridgments (1).

The other collection is Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China. I first learned about this collection while reading Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China. These books are also very difficult to locate and obtain. Whenever my sister enters a used books store, I get a text from her asking if there is anything I am looking for. “Any volume of Needham’s Science and Civilization in China,” I tell her. Recently, there was a near-hit. The bookshop owner told her that he used to have one, but it was sold.

Now and then I check various places on the Internet to see if perhaps any one of these volumes, Toynbee or Needham, is available for a reasonable price. Usually I am disappointed. But I try to look on the bright side: at least my list of unobtainable books is short.


(1) I am aware that there are editions of these books available from secondhand sellers on Amazon, as well as EBay and other sites. I’ve skimmed through many of them. Some seem reasonably priced, too, but these latter always seem to appear with no image and no corresponding description of the condition of said volume.

My Favorite Vacation Photo

I didn’t take as many photos as I have done on past vacations. I find that when I take a lot of pictures, I am less focused on what I am doing. We were on vacation a total of 19 days and having looked through the photos I did take over that period, this one stands out as my favorite.

My youngest daughter, attempting to land the shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center.

On our drive home from Florida, we stopped at the Kennedy Space Center, spending a full day at the visitor complex. I snapped this photo of my youngest daughter, as she sat in the pilot’s seat of the space shuttle Atlantis. She seemed to know exactly what she was doing, a natural-born stick-and-rudder girl, although she was a little too short for her feet to reach the rudder pedals. She glided the shuttle home for a safe landing at the Cape, and if that isn’t a good metaphor for coming home from our vacation, I don’t know what is.

Organizing My Writing

If computerization has done anything over the last 40 years, it’s made it harder to find what I am looking for. This is anecdotal, of course, but prior to computerization, people seemed to have a much easier time organizing what they wrote. I am always impressed when reading essays or letters by E. B. White, or Will Durant, or Isaac Asimov, or Dumas Malone, or a dozen of other people who wrote in the pre-computer era, how they always seem to have carbons of their letters and manuscripts neatly filed away for easy reference. It’s as if they have a chronological history of everything they ever wrote at their fingertips! Then computers came along, promising so much, and, for me at least, they have made it incredibly difficult to keep track of what I have written over the years.

There are reasons for this. I started writing on an Apple ][e, and my files were stored on floppy disks which have long since vanished. It wouldn’t matter since I was using AppleWorks, which is about as easy a file format to open today as a Microsoft Word for DOS 5.5 document; it’s not that easy and requires a text editor and some dexterity. I moved from that to an IBM and WordPerfect, and then to Word for DOS, Word for Windows, Word, Scrivener, Google Docs, plain text files, etc., etc., etc.

Word for DOS 5.5
Word for DOS 5.5 running on my Mac using DOSBox

Thirty years have passed since I began writing on that long-vanished Apple ][e. Files have been stored on dozens of computers (to say nothing of all those long-gone floppy disks) and many of those computers have also vanished, along with whatever files were on them. Once again, paper proves a more durable form of information storage, or so it would seem when looking back at pre-computer writers.

Cloud storage services seem to offer some persistence from one device to the next (always assuming the service sticks around). But if I store some files in Dropbox, others in Evernote, others in Google Docs, and others still in iCloud, I still have an organization problem.

I’ve been giving this problem a lot of thought lately because I’d like to attempt to organize all of my writing in a single place. How best to do that? A few things seem clear:

  1. The documents should be readily accessible.
  2. The system should work for the long haul.

Of course, one solution would be to print everything I write and stuff it into a filing cabinet somewhere, but my experience going paperless rebels at this thought. I should be able to do this within an electronic medium. Doing so, however, requires a few changes:

  1. All documents need to be stored in the same cloud environment. It doesn’t work for me if some are in Dropbox and others are in Google Docs. I am referring just to things that I write, not all electronic documents.
  2. All documents should use the same file format.
  3. That file format should be something that will be readable a well into the future.

But there is more to it than that. Different documents are often in different states of completion at any given time, and the organization system should make it easy to know if a document I’ve written is still being drafted, if it has been submitted for consideration, if it has been published, or if I have archived it. This suggests a fairly simple structure of folders that would look something like this:

  1. Drafts. Things that are “in progress” whatever they may be (essays, blog posts, short stories, correspondence, etc.)
  2. Completed. Things are are finished. For me these are typically “second” drafts.
  3. Submitted. Things that are out on submissions. Sometimes, a submission draft might differ slightly from the completed draft, but usually in cosmetic ways. This would allow me to preserve those differences.
  4. Published. Things that have been published as they appear in their published form. Editors sometimes request changes so the published versions differ from the submitted versions.
  5. Archived. Anything that (a) was never published and I decided to retire, or (b) was not intended for publication (a letter, for instance) and is being archived.

The documents within each of these folders would require a naming convention that would make them relatively easy to find.

  • Documents in the Drafts folder would have the title followed by a -1, -2, etc. as needed to represent the different drafts prior to completion. I typically go through a total of 3 drafts, (1) telling myself the story, (2) telling the story to an audience now that I know it, (3) post-feedback changes.
  • Documents in the Completed folder would simply be named whatever the title of the thing is.
  • Documents in the Submitted folder would need three things in the filename, the title, the market, and the submission date. Something like: “Gemma Barrows Comes To Cooperstown – IGMS – 2015-05-01”
  • Documents in the Published folder would be named with the title and market where it was published. Some titles would be repeated when a story appears in multiple places (like reprints).
  • The Archived folder is tricker because I suspect it would contain more than just things I wrote for publication. I still have to give this some thought.

With a structure in mind, I need to make two decisions:

  1. Where do I put these folders?
  2. What do I use to create my documents?

I’m leaning toward implementing this structure in iCloud, because that is where I have a lot of documents already. Google Drive would be a good place for the documents as well, but as you’ll see in a moment, I think Google Drive is too complex a tool for my purposes these days.

I’ve hopped around word processors the way a minor league baseball player hops around teams. As I’ve said before, my favorite word processor of all time was Microsoft Word for DOS 5.5, but it is no longer practical to use it, and even if it were, it uses a dead file format. Recently, I’ve been using plain text files which are good for many reasons, but they are just not conducive (for me) for writing. I need to see my text double-spaced. I need to see my emphasized text with underlines. And every now and then, I need to be able to print something out.

I’m leaning toward using the TextEdit app that comes on all Macs. There are several reasons for this:

  • It can default to Rich Text Format, which underneath is just a fancy version of plain text rendered on screen as a minimal WYSIWYG. RTF will be around for a while, and it is easy to parse. This is better for me than Markdown which is tricky to configure to appear on screen the way I want it to look.
  • It is about as minimalist as I can get without sacrificing what I want to see able to see on the screen when I write.
  • I can easily print out what I’ve written, should I need to.
  • I can store the files on iCloud directly from the app.
  • I can access the files from my iPhone or iPad if needed.

There are some sacrifices here. I’ve always love the rich features of Scrivener, and the ease of Google Docs. But when you get right down to it, the tool doesn’t do the writing, I do. Short of a typewriter, I can’t get much simpler than TextEdit and still get what I need out of the system.

Ultimately, I hope to get as much of a backlog of the stuff I’ve written into this organization system. I’m sure there will be some refinements along the way. In the meantime, I can stop worrying about where to store everything and what to use for my writing and actually focus on the writing itself. I’ll keep you updated on how things are going.

Best Reads of 2018

Now that 2018 is behind us, my conscience is clear and I feel like I can list my favorite reads of 2018. These are the best books I read during 2018, not necessarily books that were published in 2018. I kept my method of selection simple: I reviewed all the books I read in a given month, and picked the one that I liked the best from that month. The result is a list of 12 books, instead of the usual “top 10.

Some reading stats for 2018:

  • I read 129 books.
  • That made for a total of 61,400 pages
  • 49 books were fiction, 80 were nonfiction
  • The longest book I read was 1,344 pages
  • The average length of a book was 475 pages
  • On average, I finished one book every 2-3/4 days; that’s about 2-1/2 books a week on average.
  • Here is the list of everything I’ve read since 1996. What I read in 2018 begins with #719 on the list.

And now, my best 12 reads of 2018, listed in the order I read them:

One Man’s Meat by E. B. White (1942)

In the late 1930s, E. B. White did what I dream of doing: he gave up life in the big city for a salt water farm in Brooklin, Maine. White became a farmer, which, according to him is 70 percent fixing things. In order to insure some income, he wrote a monthly column for Harper’s magazine about his life as a small town farmer. One Man’s Meat collects these columns. These essays are quaint, and often about seeming simple things. But with the clouds of war gathering in Europe, White also wrote about freedom and democracy. It has become one of my favorite essay collection–I enjoyed it so much I recently re-read it.

Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain (2013-15)

At 2,200 pages, and three volumes, Mark Twain’s Autobiography is no small undertaking. But I found it a fascinating read. His life overlaps with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt (who Twain did not like) and Winston Churchill. His friendship with President Ulysses S. Grant was fascinating.

Red Smith on Baseball by Red Smith (2000)

There is no sports writer today like Red Smith. I wish there was. Writers today seem to focus on the technicalities of the game, as opposed to the people who make it up. Smith’s writing had style. He made baseball sound fun, while understanding it was a business. If there were more writers like Red Smith today, I think there’d be a greater appreciation of the game.

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson (2018)

I went into this book with some trepidation. I thought I knew everything about Apollo 8, but Kurson’s book surprised me. This was a great book on an historic voyage to the moon.

The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling (1949)

I have never been a fan of boxing. Not until I read A. J. Lieblings essays on the sport. These essays appeared in the New Yorker in the 1940s, and his dismay with the changes to the sport resonated with me even though I wasn’t a fan. His writing not only made me sympathetic, it made me want to be a fan. This was perhaps the most surprising read of the year.

The Age of Faith by Will Durant (1950)

Volume 4 of the Story of Civilization series by Will (and later with his wife, Ariel) Durant. At well over a thousand pages, this is the longest book in the series and centers on the history of religion and the dark ages. It was a fascinating read, rich in detail, and marvelously written.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin (2012)

A short novel about Mary in the years after the death of Jesus. The audiobook version was narrated by Meryl Streep which added an extra dimension to the voice in the story.

Jefferson and His Times: The Sage of Monticello by Dumas Malone (1981)

The sixth and final volume of Jefferson and His Times. This volume covered Jefferson in retirement and the renewal of his friendship with John Adams. I think it was my favorite of the batch.

Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson: The Life of Dumas Malone by William C. Hyland (2013)

Dumas Malone spent forty years researching and writing the six volumes that make up Jefferson and His Times. Anyone who can do that holds a fascination for me. I searched around and found a biography of the biography and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean (2018)

I grew up in L.A. and lived there from 1983 – 2002. Somehow, I had no idea there was a fire at the Central Library in 1986. Susan Orlean’s book is a history of the L.A. Public Library told using the Central Library fire as a framework. It was a fantastic, and nostalgic read for me.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (2005)

This was my first dose of Cormac McCarthy and I was blown away by the rhythm of the language, despite the darkness of the story.

Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946 by Gary Giddins (2018)

I read the first volume of Giddin’s biography of Bing Crosby when it came out in 2001 and loved it. I had to wait 17 years for the second volume, which came out in October, I read it slowly, enjoying the rich endnotes as much as the main text. This book was as much a cultural history of the early 1940s as it is a biography of Bing Crosby.


So which is my favorite? Like I tell my kids, favorites vary with my mood. In the spring, I might say my favorite was The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling. If I was feeling nostalgic, I think my favorite would be The Library Book by Susan Orlean.

Requirements for a Home Office

As I work from home more and more, I’ve given a lot of thought to the requirements for my idea home office. To get a sense of what I want in a home office, it probably helps to know what my current home office is like.

My present home office resides on the top floor in a spare bedroom painted a light pink because we were too lazy to repaint it when we first moved in. My glass-topped, L-shaped desk sits in a corner. My personal laptop faces the window in the room, looking eastward. My work laptop faces a wall, facing southward. On the corner between the two computers is a scanner. To the right the desk is a small table with a printer. Under the table is a table of roughly 100,000 cables of various types. Above my desk on the south wall are two shelves that contain frequently used books: my journals/commonplace books, Field Notes notebooks, Fowlers and Mirriam-Websters, a World Almanac, and The Elements of Style.

I can work pretty well in this environment, but I often daydream about what my ideal home office would be like. Considering my experience so far, here are my requirements for an ideal home office:

  • Separate desks for computer work, and non-computer work. While I spend a lot of time working on a computer, I also spent a good deal of time doing work off the computer. If I am on a call, for instance, I might have a web meeting open on my computer, and my work notebook (paper) open in front of my to take notes, or to review items that I want to discuss in the meeting. There’s no good place to set the notebook. The desk isn’t big enough. Ideally, I’d have a separate desk with a large flat surface for non-computer work.
  • More bookshelves. Most of my books are on shelves in our living room. Ideally, these books would be on shelves in my home office, surrounding me as I work.
  • Ideally, my home office would be isolated from the rest of the house, perhaps in a barn converted into an office. E. B. White did a lot of his writing in a barn; I don’t see why I couldn’t work in one as well.
  • A place away from my desk where I can sit and read. If this was in my imagined barn, it would be nice of this place were near a fireplace or stove for keeping warm during the winter.

One thing I do not need in my home office is a sit/stand desk. We have these desks in the “hoteling” spaces in my work office. When I go into the office I can check out one of these offices, and I’ve used the sit/stand desk. Though I have tried to stand while working, I am more comfortable when sitting, and I think comfort is a big part of productivity.

My home office suits me pretty well as it stands, but every now and then, I like to daydream.

Letters vs. Email

The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters.

Lewis Carroll

If I were making a New Year’s Resolution, I’d resolve to write more letters. In several recent books I’ve read (E. B. White On Dogs, Bing Crosby, Swinging On A Star, Will & Ariel Durant: A Dual Autobiography) letter-writing is the main form of communication. I am envious of all of that letter-writing.

I know that Lettermo takes place in February. But I don’t want to write letters for the sake of writing them. I want to write them for practical purposes, be it general communication, or responding to official business. The problem is that’s just not how things are done anymore. Email is faster.

The problem with email is that it is devoid of art. Letters are an art form. Why else collect the letters of E. B. White or Andy Rooney or Isaac Asimov or the countless other men and women whose letters have been collected in book form over time? Few email message have any style. The only exception I can think of are the email message I receive from my friend and mentor, Barry N. Malzberg. His email messages, though brief, have a style uniquely Malzbergian. Others who have received email from Barry will know what I am talking about.

Letters can be historic: reading just a few of the letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson demonstrates this point. They can be pointedly funny and acerbic, as we find in some of the letters Andy Rooney has written. They can be complete works of art as I’ve seen in some of the letters of E. B. White. They can be flirty and beautifully written, as I’ve seen in some of Will Durant’s letters. The more I’ve consideredt this, the more I’ve grown to despise email as a form of communication. Even the interoffice memo, which email has supplanted, had more art and grace than the electronic message.

Through college, letters were still the primary way in which two people at a distance corresponded. I must have a hundred letters between me and my grandfather. Back then, a long distance call might go for 10 cents a minute, but a 5 page letter cost only 22-cents.

The very fact that a letter costs money helps you to decide if what you have to say is worth the price of a stamp. I also think that what I say in a letter is better thought out than what I say in an email–although for anyone wondering, my letters more often than not read like these blog posts, because that is how I write.

Perhaps more than anything, letters slow down the pace of life. I often feel compelled to respond briefly to an email message that appears in my inbox just to clear it out of the way. There is no joy in the response. I’m just getting it done as quickly as I can in order to move on to what’s next without it nagging at me. Letters take time to compose. They take time to get where they are going and take time in getting answered. I see a letter correspondence as a kind of pace car to the speed at which I want to live my life.

I picture myself setting aside one morning a week to handle all of my correspondence. Without the sense of urgency, there is no need to respond the moment a message arrives in the mailbox. It seems like a pleasant way to spend a morning. I could do this with email, I suppose, but it somehow isn’t the same, just like reading an e-book doesn’t feel quite the same as reading the same book on paper. Letter writing is an art; email is a chore.

Letters are easier to organize than email. I’m always groping for a particular message, and with more than 100,000 emails in my archive, finding one is often tricky. Filing letters (even scanning them and filing them electronically) is far simpler. Also, I doubt the volume of my letter correspondence would come within two orders of magnitude of my email correspondence. Also, I think, “I have in my hand your letter of 23 December, and…” sounds much better than a reply to an email in which the only context is the thread of the email exchange itself.

I suppose I could write email messages as if they were letters, but they don’t look like letters and the look is part of the art. I suppose I could write letters, but in recent years, when I have tried this, I’ve received emails in response, often curious as to why I would resort to such an archaic form of communication. I feel a strong sense of rebellion within me, however, and something has to be done about it.

Perhaps I should just start writing letters, damning convention, even if I don’t expect to receive any in return. I can design a special letterhead that would have a link to this post by way of explanation.

Then again, I often feel like doing whatever it is I see happening in the books I read. If I read a book about an entertainer, I want to be an entertainer. If I read a collection of sports columns, I want to be a sports columnist. Maybe this recent longing for writing letters is noting more than my reaction to reading lots of letters in recent books. I’ve read a lot of letters, now I want to be a letter-writer.

Requiem

Around 10 pm last night, Christmas Eve, our dark bedroom grew noticeably brighter. From behind the trees in the east, a full moon gazed down from its perch in the bleachers, a quarter million miles away. My eyes had already adjusted to the dark, and the moon seemed impossibly bright. I stared at it for a long time, trying to make out the mountains and maria. It occurred to me that fifty years ago, three voyagers from earth were orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve.

Back in April, I read Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made the First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson. I’ve read just about every book on the Apollo missions that exists, but this one was new, and I decided to give it a go, and I’m glad I did because I really enjoyed it. Nothing fills me with a sense of wonder as much as the idea that we have actually visited the moon.

Many of NASA’s most famous astronauts have passed away. None of the Original Seven are alive today. Neil Armstrong is gone. 2017 saw the passing of Dick Gordon, and in 2018 we lost Al Bean so gone is the entire crew of Apollo 12–my personal favorite. As of this writing, however, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders–the crew of Apollo 8–are all still alive. I imagine all of them gazing up at the moon last night, somewhat in awe of the fact that half a century ago, they were there making ten orbits around the moon. Last night, as I looked up at the moon that brightened our room, I tried to imagine what the earth would look like from there tonight.

1968 was a tumultuous year. In his book, Kurson writes about an anonymous telegram sent to the crew of Apollo 8 which purportedly read, “You saved 1968.” I wonder if NASA hadn’t given up on the moon, if Apollo 18, 19 and 20 hadn’t been canceled, if we continued to have stretch goals in science and engineering, how would things be different today? 2018 has also been a tumultuous year, but humans haven’t been to the moon since 1972; the space shuttle hasn’t flown since 2011; and there doesn’t appear to be anything on the horizon on the scale of Apollo.

Fifty years after Apollo 8, I am desperate for something hopeful, something like returning to the moon, even if it is just to show that we can still do it. I’d love to wake up on Christmas morning to the news that three humans are once again in orbit around the moon. If telegrams still existed, I’d be the one to send: YOU SAVED 2018.

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