The Fun They Had

The Little Man (now in middle school) is distance learning this year. The school gave him an iPad with a keyboard. All of his classes use Microsoft Teams. Teachers can see the kids, the kids can see the teachers. More than a month in everyone involved seems to have the hang of things. The main difference for me is that, since I work from home, I can listen in on his classes, something I wouldn’t be able to do if he was in school.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that about 10 percent of each class is spent in technical support. In additional to having to teach the class, the teachers are also expected to be I.T. professionals. I hear the same kinds of issues that I see in my own work from time to time:

“You’re muted. You have to unmute before you talk.”

“Yes, Jack, you have your hand up? Oh, you just forgot to put it down?

“Mrs. Jones, someone just kicked me out of the Teams meeting again.”

There are the more serious issues. Kids don’t show up on time because they can’t connect to the class for one reason or another. Kids haven’t turned in any assignment because the Internet ate their homework. Eavesdropping as much as I have, I think the students have a nice little racket going. Kids can be day-traders in BitCoin, and yet suddenly, they don’t know what the heck is going on, can’t figure out how to start the test, can’t figure out where to turn in their homework.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that there is still six minutes reserved between each class, the same six minutes the students would normally use to stop at their locker before dashing off to their next class. Now, the Little Man moves between the table and the couch. One might argue that the time could be used to use the restroom, but then one would have forgotten all of the hard-earned wisdom of middle school. You don’t go to the bathroom on a break! You go to the bathroom during class in order to cut down on the time you have to spend in class.

I hear the discussions the students have in science class, and in math, and history, and English, and whenever the teacher asks them a question, I have to restrain myself from jumping in to answer. The kids fumble for a response and I’m blue in the face: “For life!” I want to scream, “A Supreme Court justice is appointing for life!”

All of this distance learning reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s classic 1951 story, “The Fun They Had.” (See Earth Is Room Enough.) The story takes place in May 2157. Some kids discover a book–an actual paper back from when “all stories were printed on paper.” They book, it turns out, is about school, which centuries earlier, did not take place in your house with a robot teacher, but instead, took place in a building where all the children gathered together and real people though the classes. (“A man? How could a man be a teacher?” one kids asks, “A man isn’t smart enough.”) Distracted by this wonderful idea for the rest of the day, the main character wonders what school must have been like back then, and all of the fun they had.

We may not have to wait another 137 years. It could be that my kids tell my grandkids about how schools used to be in a building taught by real people, and the fun they had.

6,529 Performances

What is a performance? It seems to me that the basic qualification for something to be a performance is that it has an audience. When I was a kid, my siblings and I would put on shows for family. It was a performance. The family, reluctant though they may have been, were audience members. When I was five years old, my entire kindergarten class ran off to the circus. I was a skinny kid, and so naturally, it occurred to the people in charge of the circus that I should be the strongman. We performed our circus in what seemed to me to be the largest live audience I’d ever seen up to that point. The auditorium was full of family, friends and faculty. It was my largest performance to that date.


I was nervous for this performance. What if I couldn’t manage to lift the thousand pounds? The humiliation! I’ve often wondered if people in the business of performing for a living ever get tired of it? Do they get nervous before every performance, even if they have done lots of them? I used to watch Derek Jeter running out to shortstop at the start of a Yankees game, and wonder if he was thinking, “I could really use a night off. I just want to ditch work this evening and go to the movies?”

Cal Ripken, Jr. played in 2,632 consecutive baseball games without ever taking a sick day. That’s more than 16 years without a day off, performing in front of a crowd every one of those days. Was he ever nervous heading out in front of those crowds, or is it something you just get used to. The best number I could find online for Bruce Springsteen, is that he has performed in more than 2,600 concerts. Does he ever head out on stage thinking, “I just can’t do it, I just can’t bear to play ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ one more time.” Does he ever worry that he’ll suddenly forget the words to the song he’s singing, just draw a complete blank?

I had to give a presentation for health class in college. I had worked out what I thought was a pretty funny little talk. There was one line which I was particularly proud of. I was confident when I took my place at the front of the class. I began my talk, more or less off-the-cuff, building toward my punchline, and when I got there–I drew a complete blank. To this day, I can’t remember what the punchline was, all I can remember is standing in front of the class, ready to deliver the line I’d been waiting for all day, and unable to remember it.

These are the kinds of things I think about in idle moments of the day. Motivational speakers like Tony Robbins always seem fired up and eager, but is that in itself just a performance? Backstage, before the show starts, I often imagine him going, “I can’t believe I’m doing this again.”

I think that about teachers. My oldest (the former “little man”) is doing remote learning this fall. He’s in middle school and so his teachers change with each class. I sometimes listen in to a class and hear the teacher work through the lesson, part teacher, part IT support, and I marvel that they are going to repeat this exact same routine the very next hour. Day in, day out, over and over again.

Stand-up comedians do this as well. I watch a Chris Rock special on HBO and for me, it is the first time I’ve seen that performance. But for Chris Rock, if my experience is any guide, he’s done it so many times that he’s probably sick of it.

I said “my experience” and so you may be wondering what experience I am referring to? Well, it occurred to me that if all that is necessary for a performance is an audience, then I’ve been performing here on the blog for these last 15 years. In fact, with this post, I’ve now given 6,529 performances. And I’m able to answer some of my own questions. Do I ever get tired of writing on the blog, day after day? Sure, I do. I used to be much more vigilant about how frequently I wrote here, but it wore me down, so now I do it only when I feel like it. Do I get nervous about performing for my audience? I think I did early one when my audience was growing, but these days, I don’t really. I don’t know why.

These performances of mine may not require the same physical stamina of a 2-hour concert, or a 3-hour baseball game. And while I generally write about what interests me, there is always a little voice in the back of my mind whispering things like, “Yeah, you might think this is funny, but will anyone else?” or “Is anyone really reading this?” Some people call these little flutters of uncertainty “imposter syndrome” and I suppose I experience that from time-to-time. But after 6,529 performances, I think I’ve earned the right to think of myself as a fairly solid performer.

And considering the number of performances I’ve given here, I’m pretty good about not repeating myself too often.

Books I’m looking forward to – October 2020

It has been a while since I’ve written about book that I am eagerly awaiting. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve done it this year so far. 2020, being what it is, has gotten the best of me, and I’m behind in my reading. I’d set a goal of 110 books for the year, and I’m presently about 10 books behind pace (I’ve finished 74 books as of this writing). I will likely finish my 75th book of the year later today. Here are some of the books that I am looking forward to reading over the next several weeks:

  • Is This Anything? by Jerry Seinfeld.
  • The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten Year Road Trip by Jeff Guinn
  • The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser
  • Cubed: The Puzzle of Us All by Erno Rubik
  • The Polymath: A Cultural History from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag by Peter Burke
  • The Furious Sky: The Five Hundred Year History of America’s Hurricanes by Eric Jay Dolin
  • Presidents vs. the Press: The Endless Battle Between the White House and the Media by Harold Holtzer
  • Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck by William Souder

There are other books I’m looking forward to, but they don’t come out until early next year, including books by Simon Winchester, Stephen King, and Cal Newport. But the list is a few of the ones that I’m looking forward to for the fall.

The Glasses Half-Empty

At around the time I turned 40, I went to the eye doctor, and in the silence that followed my attempt to read letters that were impractically small and blurry, I said, “Look, Doc, I’ve had perfect vision all my life. I was pilot, for crying out loud, and I could always count on my eyes never to deceive me.”

“So why are you here?” the Doc asked calmly from his stool.

“I’m having trouble reading the dosage instructions on medicine bottles,” I explained. “Why they print that stuff so small in the first place is beyond me.”

“You guys with perfect vision, you’re all alike,” Doc said. “You turn forty and suddenly you can’t see clearly. It’s the way of the world. It only goes downhill from here, my friend.” I considered that delivery poor stool-side manner.

But it was true. At first I needed a prescription for glasses that my wife scoffed at as “half a prescription” because it was so mild. The next year I needed something a little stronger. A few years later, I needed what the eye doctors today call “progressives”–because even eyeglasses require spin. That took some getting used to, but I got progressively better at look through the right part of the lens when reading and walking down stairs.

These days, although it is not medically mandated, I wear my glasses almost constantly. They are light, but a nuisance. It means taking them with me everywhere I go. My pockets are already filled with necessities. Emptying them out each evening, I find a wallet, a phone, a Field Notes notebook, a black ink pen, a blue ink pen, a mask, my AirPods, and a tube of Chap-Stik. My eyeglasses don’t fit in my pockets. Neither does the pencil that I often carry around to mark up pages in the book I am reading. The former goes into my wife’s purse, if I am with her, or folded onto the front of my shirt if I am not. The latter goes behind my right ear.

Or it used to, anyway.

Of all the problems that my aging eyesight has caused me, none has plagued me so much as the eviction of that pencil from behind my ear. The temples of the glasses prevent a standard No. 2 pencil from resting securely behind my ear. (“Temples” is the technical term for what I might call the “arms” of the glasses.) If I put the pencil there while I am wearing my glasses, it perches precariously, bouncing and bobbing at the slightest shake of my head. It simply doesn’t work with glasses occupying the space. Forty years of habit is difficult to break. I am constantly reaching up to pull the pencil from behind my ear, only to grasp at air. It must look to friends and stranger like I am chasing flies away.

Eventually, I found a place to keep the pencil, although I haven’t grown used to it yet. When sitting with a book, glasses perched on my nose, my pencil now rests comfortably in my jaw.

What about contact lenses? I don’t like things in my eyes. I can deal with wearing my glasses all the time, with carrying them around when I’m not wearing them. I can accept my increasingly blurred vision as a fact of life. But if there is anything that could make me consider the leap to contacts, it is the eviction of my pencil from its proper place.

The Wright Brothers

Last week I read The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. I’ve always enjoyed McCullough’s books (his John Adams is my favorite biography and I’ve read the book 3 times). That said, I’ve avoided The Wright Brothers because I thought to myself what else could I learn about the Wright Brothers that I don’t already know?

Well, I’m glad I read the book because it turns out I knew virtually nothing about the brothers. The book centers on the 10 years that they were developing the first airplane, and I found it fascinating. But perhaps more than anything else, I found in the Wright brothers a set of characteristics that I look for and admire in people. Indeed, they have become role models for the kind of behavior I wish to emulate.

Biographies fascinate me because people surprise me. I most admire those people that appear to be hard workers, in part because hard work can offset nature (hard work can make up for lack of genius, for instance), and nurture (hard work can overcome background circumstances for which a person has little control). I also admire integrity, and the appreciation of learning and knowledge. It is no surprise, therefore, that John Adams is my favorite president: he was an incredibly hard worker, had almost unquestioned integrity, and used his accumulated learning for the benefit of the country. (Note that I don’t say I think Adams was the best president, just my favorite.)

Reading McCullough’s biography of the Wright brothers, I saw in both Orville and Wilbur, 5 traits that are among those that I most try to emulate (with admittedly mixed success):

  1. They were hard workers. They never shied away from work, but welcomed it, preferring to perform the most menial and most difficult tasks themselves rather than have someone else do it.
  2. They were self-starters. They found something that interested them, wondered about it, asked questions, and then proceeded to explore it without waiting for the prodding of others. They financed their work from the profits of their bicycle shop rather than look for investors elsewhere and because of that, they had complete control over their explorations.
  3. They were methodical and detail oriented. They were not rushed. They began with small simple explorations of birds in flight, and gleaned what they could from that. They worked in slow, steady increments. They were not trying to revolutionize the world overnight. The invention of the airplane was not a race. They made mistakes frequently and learned from them. They spent time studying their subject, learning everything they could about it until they were unquestioned experts in the field.
  4. They were self-confident without being arrogant. Even after their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, most people around the world believed their achievement a hoax. This didn’t bother the brothers. They knew it wasn’t and they had confidence in their abilities and knowledge. They didn’t complain, calmly going about improving upon their work, knowing that eventually, people would see the plane flying for themselves.
  5. They were even-tempered and humble. They didn’t take offense easily, in part because of the confidence they had in themselves and each other. They were willing to learn from mistakes and be corrected.

There are other traits I admire, but these five are rare to find in a single person, let alone two brothers. Even John Adams lacked some of them (especially 4 and 5). They are traits that I have for decades been striving for, but falling short in various ways that occasionally frustrate me. Seeing them all in a pair of brothers, though, gave me hope. I’ll never come close the success that the Wright brothers had in terms of their inventiveness. But it would be nice to think that I have a target I can use to approach their character.

Final Pages

Whenever I get toward the end of a notebook, I become edgy. The completist in my wants to fill every page before moving onto the next notebook. But another part of me wants to get started in a new notebook. There is something refreshing about cracking open a new notebook and scribbling on the first page. This happens, most frequently, with my Field Notes notebooks. I can fill one of those notebooks in a month or less. And I have so many new ones to choose from. When I get toward the final pages of one, I am eager to start another. I’d say that half of my Field Notes notebooks are filled to the last page. The other half, well…

Last pages in my Field Notes notebooks.
A few last pages in my Field Notes notebooks

I use large Moleskine Art Collection sketchbooks for my journals, and I fill the last page on every one of those volumes. Even so, when I get to the last couple of pages of one, I get eager to unwrap the next from the cellophane it comes packed in, and cracking open the thick pages. I get a little worried that an entry might carry over from one volume to the next, and that might be confusing in the future, but so far, I’ve managed to avoid it, filling every page in those notebooks with little or no margin.

The notion of coming to the end of a notebook is lost in the digital world. You can’t come to the end of a notebook in Evernote, for instance. You just add more virtual pages as needed. There isn’t a hard and fast limit, and of course, in some sense that is good because you can add as much as you need without taking up space. But at the same time, there is a loss of dimensionality with digital notebooks. There is no thickness to an Evernote notebook. There is are no frayed edges on the pages of a OneNote notebook. There is no texture to a page in DayOne. I’ve used Evernote for years, and I use OneNote exhaustively at work, and there is not the same kind of joy in creating a new OneNote notebook as their is in unwrapping a Moleskine, or flipping through the various unused Field Notes notebooks on my shelf to figure out which one I want to use next.

Sometimes, just completing a page feels good. I use a Leuchtturm1917 notebook to track all the books that I have read since 1996 (1,033 of them as of today), and as I get to the end of one page I look back to the completed page with nostalgia for the books I’ve read over the last month or two. But I also look eagerly to the blank page beside it, wondering what books will fill that page over the month or two to come.

The most recent pages in my reading list notebook.
The most recent pages in my reading list notebook

I don’t feel the same sense of possibility when looking at the digital version of my reading list. All I can see is the past, with no blank page promising the future.

I look forward to final pages because, like a tree shedding its leaves, it is a sign of completion, and the excitement of starting something new.

COVID Conversations

There is no escaping COVID-19. Not even in casual conversation. I’m a little reluctant to admit this, given how bad the situation is, but I am tired of all of the COVID conversations. It’s enough having to deal with the pandemic in day-to-day life: working from home, with the kids around, and planning to work from home with the kids home when the school year starts; wondering if there will be a vaccine anytime soon; wondering when and if some sense of normalcy will return. Clearly, the pandemic touches every part of our lives. But now, even casual conversation centers around the virus. It’s become common courtesy to ask someone how they are faring. I’m clearly conflicted over this. I get enough from the newspapers I read each day, and from the updates from our state and local municipalities, from the school system, from the recreation system. I hate to admit it, but COVID is the last thing I want to talk about in casual conversation.

When I lived in L.A., all anyone would talk about after an earthquake was the earthquake. “Did you feel that last night?” “What were you doing when the ground started shaking?” “Anything get knocked off shelves in your place?” Completely understandable, but it generally lasted a day or so and then conversation drifted to other things. No so with COVID. The virus is digging in its proverbial nucleic acids and there’s no escaping it. For instance:

  • The baseball season (if you can call it that) started and normally, baseball is a great topic for casual conversation. When the Yankees played the Mets in the pre-season, I was able to say to Mets fan I knew how impressed I was with the Mets; I was surprised that managed to score 3 runs in that 2-game series. But if you talk baseball now, the conversation turns to how strange the season is thanks to COVID, and how stupid major league baseball was for even holding a season. What’s happened with the Marlins was entirely predictable.
  • “What are you doing for your summer vacation?” is a non-starter. Many people are spending their summers looking for jobs that just aren’t there. Talk of vacation leads to talk of the travel industry and how it has been decimated by COVID.
  • “Any good shows you’ve been watching lately?” I’m not a big TV watcher, but I’ve discovered that even television and movies have ben affected by COVID.
  • Ask what someone’s reading and they are likely as not to say John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza.
  • Even the normally innocuous weather will lead to discussions of COVID. In my area, we set a record for the most number of July days above 90 degrees. Pools are closed or limited so you can’t escape the heat in a pool. People are stuck indoors and at their wits end because of the virus.

I need a break from it. I don’t mean to suggest I want to bury my head in the sand and pretend the virus isn’t there. There’s no way to do that. And I don’t mean to suggest that other people should give up talking about COVID just because I am sick of it. But I’d love to have a conversation about something other than COVID. Each time such a conversation begins, a part of me is crestfallen. How many times can I repeat the same things over and over again? I know that people like to gossip and commiserate, but for me it has reached Groundhog Day proportions of repetitiveness.

Maybe what I should do is create an FAQ here on the blog, and have little cards printed up with a QR code and URL that I can hand out when the conversation inevitably turns to COVID.

The Junk Drawer

I just did something remarkable, so much so that I had to tell you about it right away: I didn’t just toss the junk on my desk into the junk drawer. I was trying to clear off some space as a way of delaying the inevitable work I needed to do. I picked up some junk that had accumulated on the surface of my desk and pulled open one of the two junk drawers beside my desk–and I froze. What am I doing? I thought. I have enough junk in those drawers, I don’t need any more. Instead of tossing the junk into the drawer, I tossed it into the trash.

Having recently completed a big project at work, junk drawers have been on my mind lately. I often compare the rollout of a big software project to the cleaning out of junk drawers when moving from one house to another. The big items–beds, sofas, televisions sets, dining room table–are easy. They are the low-hanging fruit of the moving process as well as the software process. With a couple of strong backs, it takes almost no time to move a sofa, or dismantle a bed. Much harder, and much more time consuming, is the stuff scattered throughout various junk drawers in the house. There’s a ton of stuff in those drawers, and you have to make a decision about each item. And because they are hidden in drawers, you don’t see them and don’t think about them when considering the bigger picture.

I just went through the junk drawers in my office to give some examples of the kinds of things that accumulate within them. Here is what I found:

  • A bottle of lens cleaner. Okay, I use this fairly frequently, along with the microfiber map of the DC Metro System, when cleaning my glasses or computer screens. Can you wash a microfiber cloth? Mine seems to be rather dirty at this point.
Microfiber map of the DC Metro System, dirty.
  • A box of a dozen Pilot G-2 black gel roller pens (0.7) with 6 pens remaining. These, and their blue cousins) are the only pens I use. I go through one of these black pens every 25 days or so. I always have one black and one blue pen in my back left pocket along with my Field Notes notebooks. (Maybe I should refer to that as my “junk pocket”?) But do I really need the box? Couldn’t I dump the pens in to a container of some kind? Well, then I’d need a container and six for one half dozen the other.
  • A bottle of Rite Aid brand allergy relief pills that expired back in March 2017. I probably can get rid of those.
  • 2 NetGear PowerLine ethernet devices that allow you to use the phone lines in your house for ethernet. These were useful in the old house, but we don’t need them in the new house, what with the improved wireless access and Fios. I can probably get rid of these as well.
  • A bottle of Naproxen tablets that expired back in April. The bottle is mostly filled and I can’t remember why I bought these in the first place.
  • Not one but two Geometry and Math kits with compasses, small rulers, protractors, triangles. I can no longer remember when or why I bought these, either.
  • A baggie containing screws from the door to the stairwell that we removed when we moved into the new house. At least the bag is clearly labeled: “For stairway door.” Now if only I could remember where we put the door.
  • A bag of a dozen or so black, thick Field Notes rubber bands.
  • A pair of old reading glasses which don’t come close to helping me read anymore.
  • A single-punch hole puncher
  • A 3/4 full bottle of Target Clinic hand sanitizer. How about that! It expired in 2015, but beggars can’t be choosers, right?
  • An unopened package of 3M Command Brand Damage-Free Picture Hanging Strips.
  • A slightly out-of-focus pin that says “Eat Drink and Be Irish” that would have been a useful accessory on St. Patrick’s Day.
  • 5 ink cartridges for the printer–still useful because we still print things, especially with the last three months of school taking place at home.
  • A family photo from back when our youngest was born.
  • 13 “Forever” stamps.
  • Roughly 100,000 return address labels that St. Jude’s continues to send me after I once donated some money to them a few years back. I thought they used the money to help fight children’s cancers, not make return address labels.
  • Some expired credit cards.
  • A package of thousands of colored dot labels.
  • Boxes that once held FitBits and iPhones.
  • A bag of peripheral cables from the 1990s.
  • A VHS cassette with a label in my grandfather’s handwriting that has faded to the point of being unreadable.
  • An old mousepad.
  • A stapler remover that reminds me of a Langolier.
  • 5 colorful wristbands from our last trip to Disney World

Yesterday, I talked about catching up on my to-do list. I think I should probably add “clean out the junk drawers” to the list. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t. I would only be making room for more junk to accumulate and if I left the drawer full, it would force me to either find another place for the junk or throw it away, whichever is easier.

Catching Up on To-Do Lists

Today, in a pique of nostalgia, I found myself flipping through the 24 Field Notes notebooks that I have filled up since 2015. I’ve had this feeling lately of an accumulated mass of things I have not yet crossed off my various to-do lists.

The first unchecked (or in this case, un-crossed-out) item on the list is from June 2015. It simply reads: “Checkbook on stairs.” That’s okay, though, because even half a decade later I remember exactly what this scribble meant. It meant that I’d left the checkbook on the stairs so that when I headed up to the office, I’d see it and put it back in the drawer. The problem is, we have since sold those stairs, and for that matter, the office at the top of them. I imagine all of the checks that once resided comfortably within that checkbook are now comfortably deposited in other people’s bank accounts.

Here is an item. It says “Code bloopers” which is code to me to write a post about the bloopers one makes when writing code. This particular item remains unchecked 5 years later because I never wrote such a post. I was never able to figure out how to convey they hysterical humor one can find in the absence of a semi-colon, and the hours of hair-pulling havoc that ensue because of said missing semi-colon.

(Much later, I thought it might be amusing to take a look at some of the more outlandish Git commits I have made over the years, but I don’t think I ever put that idea on a to-do list.)

Here’s a note to myself from the summer of 2015 as it appears on the page it iswritten:

In case you can’t read my handwriting, it says “Condoms prevent unwanted minivans.” I saw this on a bumper sticker and thought it was amusing. It may have been intended as a subtle to-do item, but clearly it is not crossed out. In a rather remarkable coincidence, about a year after I scribbled this note, we bought a minivan. We thought the extra room might make our frequent road trips a little easier, what with the baby that came along around the same time.

Ah-ha! Here is one I can cross off. Sometime in August 2016 (before I was dating each page of my Field Notes notebook) is this incomplete task: “Sandman.” It is a reminder that I should obtain and read that Sandman graphic novel that Neil Gaiman created. As it happens, I ordered and received a copy of said graphic novel a few weeks ago. Looking at the list of books currently ahead of it on my to-be-read list, I imagine I’ll get to it sometime in the next 8-10 years. But I obtained it, and that is enough to warrant crossing it off the list.

Quite a few of the incomplete to-do list items in these notebooks appear to be blog post ideas that I never wrote, either because I lost interest, or thought the ideas were not good enough (I have some standards). Here are a few of them:

  • Science fiction’s growing pains (I think this has been done plenty of times by better writers than I).
  • My Wikipedia References – a post illustrating that while I don’t have an entry in Wikipedia, I am quoted in it several times.
  • Simplicity in Technology – I can only thing this was me running away with my imagination since nothing in technology is as simple as it seems.

It occurs to me that some of these notes are not to-do items, but things I jotted down that the kids said that I found amusing. For instance:

  • Referring to her handwriting, the Little Miss said, “I have good penguinship.”
  • Referring to silent reading, the Little Miss said she was “reading in my brain.”
  • Referring to her baby sister in the bathtub, the Little Miss said, “Will she look ugly if she gets her hair wet?”

I could never remember how many bags of mulch I bought each spring to put down in various places around our house. Well, to refresh my memory, on July 1, 2017, I wrote down how many bags of mulch I needed: 16 bags. Too bad I didn’t write down which notebook and on what date I wrote that particular note, making it perhaps, a little easier to find.

There is an unchecked note to myself to take notes on paper. It seems rather meta to add such an item to my to-do list, but as I have been doing this for years, it seems safe to cross off now.

Here is an interesting item: “Clean up house for cleaners.” After several months without our cleaners, they returned today, and boy was I glad they did. After they left, the house looked great. It smelled clean. The kids rushed inside and immediately took everything that had been put away and spread it across the floor where it belongs. It provided a small sense of normalcy in these anxious times.

One of the to-do items in book 11 is a number: 17,162. There is no context for it and I no longer have any idea what it meant. I’m crossing it off. There is a note reminding myself to read more John McPhee–I think I am nearly caught up on that one.

I don’t know why, but whenever I jot down someone’s name–a waiter, a tour guide–I always put their name in quotes: “Josh”, “Evelyn”, “Kyra”, “Jess.”

There ‘s a note from May 11, 20119 that the “first soloist was off key” but I don’t remember what soloist I was referring to, and I don’t know how I could have gotten them on-key after the fact. On the same day is a note to read David McCullough’s speeches, which I did do, and simply forgot to cross off the item.

On 5/14/19 the main to-do item that day is to sell our house and buy a new one. That, being taken care of, can be crossed off and marked as completed.

Flipping through the most recent pages of my most recent Field Notes notebook are the following items:

  • “Asking for it, wasn’t he?” — there to remind me of the punchline of a funny joke.
  • “Uncle Buck/John Hughes” — there to remind me to watch Uncle Buck, which I hadn’t seen in years until shortly after writing down that little to-do item.
  • “Post on catching-up on to-do items” — and with that, I think I’m call caught up!

How’s your to-do list looking?

We Are Buying a Saltwater Farm in Maine

I know this will come as news to most of my friends, family, and readers, but we have decided to leave the city for the countryside of Maine. I plan on buying a saltwater farm there, preferably somewhere in or around Brooklin, Maine. While it is true that I could work remotely, I feel that a working farm will keep me busy for many hours of the day, and so I plan to support my family by writing a monthly syndicated column of my farming adventures for a national magazine. As it is always good to have a backup plan, if the syndicated column doesn’t pan out, I’ll write about my farming adventures here.

I was inspired to this feat of daring-do by a fellow scribbler named Elwyn Brooks White, who attempted a similar experiment between 1938 and 1943. You can read about his experiment in the pages of Harper’s under the banner “One Man’s Meat.” Elwyn, who most people know as “E.B.” and who friends called “Andy” for reasons only Cornell graduates would understand escaped the hustle and bustle of Manhattan for Brooklin, Maine for many of the same reasons I plan to escape the hustle and bustle of Arlington, Virginia. E.B. was a writer, and I am a writer, so I should have no problem running a small farm. After all, avoiding writing is a big part of every writers repertoire, and what better way to avoid writing than by raising chickens, sheep, pigs, ducks, and possibly a cow or two.

When I proposed this plan to Kelly she said, “What do you know about farming?”

“Well, I’ve read One Man’s Meat at least three times. What else is there to know?”

“It gets cold in the winter,” Kelly said, “can you chop wood?”

“I can split logs with the best of them,” I said confidently.

“We don’t even own an ax!” Kelly said.

I was ready for this. “A decent ax costs about $50. I’ve just finished this story that I am sure Harper’s or The New Yorker will love. They’ll pay me ten times that much at least? Then I can buy the ax.”

“What if they don’t like the story?”

“What’s not to like about it?” I said.

“Make a list,” Kelly said.

“A list of what?”

“A list of all of the things you need to get done in order to move to this saltwater farm in Maine.”

“And then what?”

“And then we’ll talk.”

I decided to take Kelly up on this challenge. Here is my list:

1. Find a saltwater farm for sale in Maine.

I did some searching for “saltwater farms for sale in Maine” and found several that seemed to my eyes reasonably priced pieces of property that fit the description. Each listing, after indicating said reasonable price, then indicated something less reasonable: SOLD. This begs two questions: first, why show the property if it is sold? It doesn’t help anyone. The realtor might think it helps them by indicating they are good at selling property, but it only serves to annoy me and makes me think the realtor is smug. And second, what is this sudden demand for saltwater farms in Maine? I suppose I’ll have to come back to this item. In the meantime…

2. Get our house ready to put on the market.

True, we bought this place a year ago with the idea that we’d be here for the long haul. I hate moving. I hate packing, I hate unpacking. I hate looking at properties. I hate it when people come into my house to assess whether it is up to their standards. I use the term “hate” sparingly, but I hate all of these things. Still, the idea of owning a saltwater farm in Maine is appealing. But before we can think about putting this house on the market there are a few other hurdles to overcome.

3. Find a national magazine willing to pay me a large sum of money to syndicate a monthly column that will support me and the family in our new endeavor.

Hmm? Well, in addition to writing here on the blog, I’ve written a column for the Daily Beast. I’ve written an article for 99U, and of course, there was that review column for Intergalactic Medicine Show. I’ve written two guest editorials for Analog Science Fiction. I’ve had stories published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. The bottom line is that people have, in the past, happily paid me for my writing so there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t continue to do so in the future. Until now, all of this writing was done without the aid of an agent, but if I am going to support myself (and my agent) through my writing, I probably should look into getting one.

4. Find an agent who can get me a syndicated monthly column in a national magazine.

My friend and mentor, Barry N. Malzberg once told me that if you can get an agent, you probably don’t need one. He should know. He worked for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency for a long time. I’ve heard that Bill Murray–yes, that Bill Murray–doesn’t use an agent. He has a phone number and answering machine and checks it every couple of weeks or so. I kind of like that approach. Isaac Asimov rarely used an agent, and the 10 percent I save on commissions can go toward paying down the mortgage of the saltwater farm. Or is it fifteen percent these day? Did E.B. White have a literary agent? I can’t be sure, but I don’t think he did when he had his saltwater farm in Maine.

5. Write something worth being nationally syndicated.

I mean, how hard can this be, right? I read everything that John McPhee writes in The New Yorker and he has written a lot. E. B. White wrote for the New Yorker. His wife was an editor there and his stepson, Roger Angell was also a writer and editor for the magazine. Andy wrote about dogs and sick pigs and collecting eggs. He wrote about the occasional hurricane and snowstorm. He wrote reminiscences of summers in Maine as a child, to say nothing of the stories he conjured of pigs and spiders in his barn. Look, if you have any ideas of something I might pitch for a nationally syndicated column, let me know.

6. Clean out the stuff in the attic.

I don’t know exactly how this happens, but attic junk accumulates. In our old house, we had a few boxes of clothes in the attic. In our new house, I had install some extra attic boards to store all of the stuff we have up there. We have clothes every one of our kids have outgrown. We have boxes of stuff that I don’t know what’s in them. How is it that we have more stuff in the attic of our new house than we did in our old house? You know what, I need to make sure there is a large barn on the saltwater farm we purchase in Maine. The loft of said barn should be more than adequate to contain anything we might decide to hoard well into the future. I just discovered two boxes of papers in my attic that were once in my parent’s attic. How the heck did that happen?

7. Scan in all the papers in the attic.

One way to pare down the stuff in the attic is to scan in all those papers from when I was in kindergarten that my mom saved. In addition to giving these back to me, she also returned all of the Mother’s Day cards I’d made for her throughout the years. I’m not quite sure how I am supposed to take that. Even if I scanned in a dozen pages a day, it’s going to take me years to get all of these papers scanned in and organized. I guess that’s alright. It gives me time to figure out what I should write for my nationally syndicated column, and possibly attract the attention of an agent.

8. Paint the house.

Before we put the house on the market, we should probably have the interior painted. For whatever reason, these days realtors seems to be recommending a calming gray for interior walls. We had our old place painted in these colors just before we sold it, and indeed, it was calming. But we’re trying to save money to buy the farm, so to speak, so I suspect Kelly will say we should paint the house ourselves, meaning, I should paint the house. I painted much of the interior of our old house when we first moved in and swore an oath that I would never undertake such a torturous endeavor again. In a review of the job I did painting the house, Kelly also agrees I should never attempt it again.

9. Put the house on the market.

It’s true, Amazon is putting their headquarters in our town and home prices are rising. It is also true that we are in the midst of a pandemic. I doubt our house would sell within the first 24 hours on the market as our old house did last year. If it didn’t sell in 24 hours, it would feel like a real defeat. And then there are the real estate agents who want to take chunk for their efforts. If it wasn’t so complicated, I’d try to sell the house without an agent but I’d almost certainly screw something up. Selling the house, as we learned last year, is great incentive for finding a new house–in this case a saltwater farm in Maine.

10. Start packing.

We may still have boxes from last year and–no, I’m sorry, no, I can’t do it. Saltwater farm or not, I cannot pack up a house on year after we moved into it. I swore to myself a year ago that packing up the old house was the last time I’d pack for a long, long time. I’m sorry, I really am. I know you were all looking forward to what would have been an award-winning syndicated column in a national magazine. I know you all looked forward to reading about my adventures as a saltwater farmer in Maine on the blog. But I draw the line at packing up my things. Especially my books. It took me the better part of three days while Kelly and the kids were off at the shore with friends to get the books sorted in the proper order on my shelves. I am not going to put myself through that again.

Consider this post a formal announcement to all my friends, family, and readers, that we have not, in fact, decided to leave the city for the countryside, rumors to the contrary. Don’t pay any attention to what you might have read in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. We are not moving. We are staying in the house we bought a year ago. I mean, come on, who in their right mind would pick up and leave for a saltwater farm in Maine with the idea of supporting a family by writing a nationally syndicated column without an agent, or even an idea? Pure rumor drudged up by the media. Put in a way that too many Americans will empathize with: fake news.

It Must Be A Monday

Mondays are notoriously precarious days. So much so that the Boomtown Rats wrote an entire song about how they don’t like Mondays. I’ve always thought this defect was baked into the fabric of the universe. The reason the week begins on Sunday is to allow for a do-over so that Mondays go more smoothly. Unfortunately, it seems few people take advantage of this chance and spend their Sundays sleeping in, and then waking up grumpy, because tomorrow is Monday. Monday means back to work, and back to school. It is a transitional day between the weekend and the work week and the transition gobs it up.

As I said, I feel this defect is baked into the fabric of the universe. It doesn’t just affect people. Take for example, the poor squirrel I encountered on my walk this morning. Our house backs up to a park. Our yard slopes down to a bike path which enters the park and acts as a dividing line between our property and that of the park. Each morning, I set to walk down the steep slope of that bike path and into the woods. There is a short stretch in which I feel like I am engulfed by nature. It was in that short stretch, for instance, that I recently encountered a barrel owl. Deer occasionally roam down that bike path and find their way into our yard.

Recently, the county has been planting trees in the area. Four dogwood trees were planted along the border of our property line, and a dozen more trees were planted just off the bike path within the woods of the park. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of (and because it is Monday, I’m too lazy to check on) the base of these trees are wrapped in some kind of green material, like this:

The floor of this little forest is teeming with wildlife, mostly in the form of birds, chip monks, and squirrels. Walking down the path this morning, I caught motion out of my peripheral vision, and watched as a squirrel dashed across the wooded terrain and lept for one of those newly planted trees. I watched as the squirrel made a graceful, low arc over the ground, something akin to a long-jumper in the Olympics. I could almost hear “Chariots of Fire” playing over the scene. Then the squirrel smacked head first into the green base of the tree. For a moment, it stood there stunned. Then it saw me staring back at and I swear to you that before it turned tail and hid, a crimson pallor had crept up its neck and into its furry face. It is the first and only time I have witness an embarrassed squirrel, and I suspect it’s sub-par performance was because today is a Monday.

I’m equally certain that I know just how that squirrel feels. It is going to wander around for the rest of the day promising itself that it would never tell any of its friends or family what transpired. She’s only hoping that none of them happened to witness her failure to launch. She knows that I saw her, of course, but she must know that I would never tell her friends or family. There’s a kind of bond among all creatures when it comes to bloopers like this. I’m sure that I’d never admit to something as embarrassing as trying to leap onto a tree and missing–unless of course, I thought I might garner an extra click or two here on the blog, and then all bets are off.

Because of incidents like this one, Sundays should, I think, really be reinstated as trial runs for Mondays. Wake up early Sunday, bleary-eyed, shower, put on your white shirt and tie, pour your coffee, take the first sip–too hot!–and allow it to dribble down your chin and onto your freshly pressed and cleaned shirt. No big deal, it’s just the rehearsal, no need to strut about the house cursing profanities that make the walls blush like that squirrel. You’ve gotten it out of your system and you can do it again tomorrow, on Monday.

If we are going to lose our Sundays to rehearse our Mondays, it means we need to make Fridays part of the weekend just to balance things out. So the weekend becomes Friday/Saturday, which is as it should be since according to the calendar sitting here beside me, Sunday is the first day of the week, not Monday. After a while, of course, we’ll get used to Friday/Saturday as the weekend. We’ll lose all hesitation over Monday. Monday will just be another Tuesday. The problem is what Monday represented will now be embodied by Sunday. After all, if Saturday is the new Sunday, it follows that Sunday is the new Monday.

Okay, I admit, I see the problem here. If Sunday becomes the new Monday, we have to make Thursday the new Friday and Friday the new Saturday, which will make Saturday the new Sunday, and once we get used to that… Before we know it Monday will be the new Friday, and Monday’s are not good days for Fridays. Mondays are edgy days filled with failed tree-leaps, and flawed logic.

I shouldn’t have picked a Monday to write this post.

Independence Day

For the last 19 years, the first thing I think about on July 4 is not the birth of the country, it is death. In one of the most remarkable coincidences in the history of the country, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, which happened to be July 4, 1826–the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That was 194 years ago today.

When the first fireworks began cracking last night, my thoughts rolled back to the scene that David McCullough portrayed in his biography of John Adam:

At Quincy the roar of cannon grew louder as the hours passed, and in midafternoon a thunderstorm struck–“The artillery of Heavan,” as would be said–to be followed by a gentle rain… Adams lay peacefully, his mind clear, by all signs. Then late in the afternoon, according to several who were present in the room, he stirred and whispered clearly enough to be understood, “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

That scene was powerful enough in my mind to spin a story around it, one in which a time traveler brings Jefferson and Adams together in their final hours to witness the bicentennial celebration from Liberty Island in 1976. The editor to whom I submitted the story liked it, but said there was something wrong with it and he couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I mentioned this to my friend, Michael Burstein, who asked me to send him the story, confidently stating he would figure out what the problem was. He got back to me shortly there after, sheepishly proclaiming that while there was definitely something wrong with the story, he too, couldn’t figure out what it was. I eventually trunked the story, but I think about it every Independence Day.

I have the vaguest memories of the bicentennial celebration in 1976. I was living in New Jersey at the time, four years old, and fascinated, so far I can remember, with the fireworks. A year later that fascination had turned to fear. I don’t remember being afraid of the fireworks, but the reporter and photographer that captured me in this photo which appeared on July 7, 1977 remembered on my behalf:

At some point, I lost my enthusiasm for big fireworks celebration on the Fourth of July. They always seemed crowded, parking was difficult, the weather was often less than conducive to the event, and it was generally more trouble than it was worth. The notable exception to this was our annual summer treks to Maine, where the small coastal town we visited hosted a delightful New England Independence Day celebration. It started early on the town square with a costume parade, hot dogs, cotton candy and lemonade. Later in the afternoon, the town band performed all kinds of patriotic tunes. Finally, when darkness settled, everyone in the small town gathered at the town dock for a fireworks display while another band entertained the crowds and the small ice cream shop kept us cool. I enjoy those celebrations immensely, not the least because I could walk everywhere and not worry about finding a parking space.

Two years ago, on a family road trip, we had a perfect view of the fireworks celebration in Nashville, Tennessee from our hotel room. This was perfect since earlier in the day it had hit nearly 110 degrees in Nashville. I didn’t mind that experience either.

I never got the fireworks bug as a kid. I know quite a few kids my age right now who still have the bug and can’t wait to light off firecrackers, fountains, ground-spinners and sparklers. I prefer to imagine the celebrations in Quincy, Massachusetts 194 years ago, with cannons accompanied by nature’s own fireworks, thunder and lightning. Indeed, I sometimes think that the perfect Independence Day celebration would be a loud, flashing thunderstorm passing through just as night falls over the town, a humbling reminder that despite all of our independence and freedom, we are still at the mercy of the whims of nature.