Abridged Editions

Not long ago, while on a Simon Winchester marathon, I accidentally purchased the abridged audiobook edition of Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire. I didn’t realize it was an abridged edition until I listened to Winchester’s introduction, in which he made it quite plain that this was an abridged edition. I was annoyed but I listened to the audiobook anyway, because I enjoy Winchester’s narration as much as his writing, and I will take what I can get.

I don’t understand why books require abridged editions. I am particularly surprised that authors allow such abridgments in the first place. As a writer, I am careful about the words I use, but I am also careful about the manner in which I tell a story, be it fiction, or nonfiction. I try with mixed success to adhere to Strunk and White’s mantra, “Omit needless word.” Why, then, after carefully crafting a piece of writing, would anyone allow it to be abridged? What purpose does it serve?

With print books and e-books, it can be difficult to tell how much a particular book is abridged. It is a bit easier with an audiobook. I browsed some books on Audible to get a look at the differences between unabridged, and abridged editions.

  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven R. Covy clocks in at 13 hours. That’s about 1 hour and 51 minutes per habit. The abridged edition is just 2 hours and 26 minutes. Did they decide to eliminate six of the effective habits in the abridged version?
  • Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow is 36 hours long. The abridged edition is one-third the length at 12 hours. Maybe they left out all of the musical numbers.
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is a hefty 61 hours long. The abridged edition is a much less hefty 5 hours and 9 minutes.

As a writer, I cannot understand why another writer would allow an abridgement of their work. In essence, you are admitting that the same information can be conveyed much more tersely. As a reader, you have to recognize that you are not getting the full story. I suppose that money is one reason why a writer might allow an abridgement of their work. To me, it seems like the ultimate sell out: agreeing to butcher your work for cash.

Years ago, I was asked to cut my self-appraisal for my annual performance review from three pages to a single page. Three pages was the maximum length one could submit. My boss was challenging me to be more concise. The writer in me balked at this abridgement of my self-appraisal. I consolidated it down to a single page, but not without some Puckish humor. I wrote, for instance: “I played a significant role in managing a number of high priority technical projects, none of which I can list due to space constraints.” Sentences like this appeared throughout the abridged version of my self-appraisal. I turned it into my boss, along with the original unabridged version, and said, “Here you go, just as you asked. I’ll leave it to you to decide which one you want to submit.”

If this were the unabridged version of this blog post, I’d tell you which version my boss ended up submitting. Alas, that information had to be cut so that this post would fit within its tighter word constraints.

Five Journalists’ “Assignment In Hell”

Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A.J. Liebling, Hal Boyle, Homer Bigart. I suspect that most readers would recognize the first two names on this list. Walter Cronkite was a renowned anchorman for CBS news. Trusted by the American people so much, that when he voiced his opposition to the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have said, “If we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost the American people.” Andy Rooney was America’s curmudgeon from the moment he appeared on 60 Minutes in the summer of 1978 until his death in 2011. But how many readers honestly recognize the names A.J. Liebling, Hal Boyle, and Homer Bigart?

All five men served as war correspondents during the Second World War, and I just finished learning about them myself from Timothy M. Gay’s outstanding chronicle of their experiences, Assignment in Hell. My primary criteria for judging nonfiction is pretty simple: did it make me want to become whatever it was I was reading about? After reading Assignment in Hell I wanted to be a war correspondent following the Allies into Germany during WW-II.

I’m not sure where my fascination with the Second World War comes from. My grandfather and four of his brother served in the U.S. military during WW-II. For them, it was not something they tended to talk about. I think my interest was sparked from Stephen Ambrose’s book, Band of Brothers. As I have gotten older, and read more history, I also think that the Second World War was the last one in which there was a clear moral imperative. It was good versus evil. Andy Rooney, who had a professor in college who said that any peace was better than any war, changed his mind after covering World War II, and seeing the Nazi death camps. “Any peace is not better than any war,” he wrote after.

The story of these five journalists and their experiences covering the news in WW-II is riveting. Each writer was different, each had a different style. Some covered stories that were large in scope, others wrote about the everyday life of the soldiers. Journalism rose to heights that it had not seen in decades, and set the bar so high, that is has rarely been surpassed since. To that end, I came away from the book envious of Cronkite and Rooney and Liebling and Boyle and Bigart. Where are the journalists like these fellows today? For a brief period of time, journalism seemed to flourish, almost independent of the businesses that they inevitably were.

I already knew Andy Rooney from his spots on 60 Minutes and his newspaper column. I knew of Walter Cronkite. There have been journalists I’ve admired over the years. Peter Jennings on TV. Al Martinez in print. But I’m grateful I had the opportunity to get to know–even a little–Hal Boyle, Homer Bigart, and A.J. Liebling. They serve as role models for future generations of journalists to study and strive toward.

Country Music

Lately, the radio in the car has been tuned to country music. Normally I listen to 80s music, but Kelly isn’t a fan of 80s music, and for some reason, we both enjoy country. This isn’t something I could openly admit a decade ago. Country music carries with it a set of stereotypes. But I realized two things: First, all music carries some kind of stereotype. And second: who cares what other people think? It’s not like I’m in high school anymore.

Kelly chose Sirius XM Channel 55, which on our tuner is the Garth Channel. The filler between songs is Brooks himself, talking about music. There’s something about his voice that is soothing. Perhaps it is the drawl. I’ve always found a Southern drawl endearing. To my surprise, the Garth Channel doesn’t play Garth Brooks music exclusively. It plays a wide variety of music, all of it stuff that Brooks likes himself. But there is a fair amount of country music and that’s why we listen.

Country music seems to come in two varieties: playful and nostalgic. Playful country puts me in a good mood. Songs often involve amusing word play (“I got a bucket list, I changed the B to an F…”) or, as Harry Chapin once said, involve either mothers or trucks. But still, they are fun. The nostalgic songs tend toward cliché. Mothers and sons; husbands and wives; fathers and sons. Think Conway Twitty’s “That’s My Job.” I’m not as fond of the nostalgic songs as I am the playful ones.

When I hear a good country song, it makes me think that of all the types of bars in existence, a country bar is the most fun. It’s true that I’ve been in Irish bars where songs get sung loudly by patrons. I’ve even sung a duet of “Clancy Lowered the Boom” in one such Irish pub. But there is also something somber about most bars that I don’t imagine exists in a country bar. (I have, to my recollection, only been in a true country bar once.)

My first exposure to country music came right around 1980. My parents had recently obtained the Kenny Rogers Greatest Hits album. It seemed to me they played it over and over again. That may not be the case. I can usually remember the words to a song after hearing it just once or twice, so it may have been me, singing the songs over and over again. Sometimes I got the words wrong. It was more than a decade later before I realized the words to the chorus of “Lucille” were not, “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille. Four hundred children, and a crop in the field.”

How can you not smile upon hearing a song like “Friends in Low Places”? How can you not sing along? It would be like staying mute when the crowd at Fenway sings “Sweet Caroline.” This is coming from a Yankees fan. Whenever I hear “Friend in Low Place” I imagine a bunch of friends and casual acquaintances filling some small local country bar, singing together, the aroma of spilled beer and sawdust filling the air. Everyone is momentarily happy. Isn’t that what music is all about?

On the Bike Paths

Arlington, Virginia, and surrounding towns host an abundant network of bike paths. We use them frequently. Not for riding bikes, but for walking. On a warm spring evening, the bike paths are crowded with walkers, joggers, skateboarders, strollers, and, of course, bicycles.

The bike paths serve as the connective tissue for dozens of local parks and neighborhoods. We can walk to the local park near our house, and pick up one of three bike paths. No matter which way we walk, we’ll end up at another park. We often walk in long, lazy circles, but sometimes we have a destination in mind. We’ll drive to the rose garden and then follow a bike path through one park, underneath a highway, to another park. Then we’ll take some side streets to a local restaurant area. We’ll fill up on dinner, and maybe some ice cream. Then we’ll reverse our path.

Bike Path in Arlington
One of the many bike paths we roam.

The variety of bikes I see on the bike path is impressive. It sometimes seem as though each bike is unique, tailored to the rider. Some of the parks have stations were bikeless wanderers can rent bikes by the hour. I often see these bikes coasting along the bike paths. They stand out because they are the only ones that look alike. I see mountain bikes, touring bikes, racing bikes. And recumbent bikes.

I’ve got to be honest, the recumbent bikes look absolute ridiculous as they glide along the bike paths, their riders reclined as if sitting at home in a lounge chair. I’m sure they are great for people whose joints can’t take the pounding of a standard bike. To me they just look silly. I think part of the reason is that they stand out so much among all of the other bikes. It’s like seeing someone riding a unicycle down the bike path. It steals your attention and you feel suckered into looking.

I’ve only occasionally ridden the local bike paths. I get the feeling that to ride on these paths you have to be a professional bike rider. Amateurs are not tolerated. Walking along the bike paths, riders zoom by at mach one, the ring of their warning bell reaching pedestrians only after they’ve been passed. When the weather is particularly good, and walkers and runners are out in force, you can see the scowl on the faces of the bike-riders whose pathways we are blocking with are slow perambulations.

I’ve ridden my bike to work twice. It is a very gradual downhill bike ride of about six miles. Easy to do in the morning, even with the slight headwind. The problem is the return ride. For one thing, I’m already tired from work. Then, instead of a slight downhill ride, it is an uphill ride. It seems more uphill going home than downhill heading into work, which isn’t fair. Finally, the headwind in the morning does not turn into a tailwind in the evening. Somehow, I bike into the wind no matter which way I go. That’s why I don’t bike to work.

Still, we are lucky to have our bike paths. I can’t remember another place I’ve lived that has such a useful, well-maintained networks of bike paths connecting parks and neighborhoods. I imagine someplace like Portland, Oregon has a good set of bike paths. But I’ve only ever passed through Portland on the train from Los Angeles to Seattle: two cities were I suspect the bike paths are not nearly as good as what we have here in Virginia.

A Minimalist Clean Install of My MacBook Air

An app, in theory, should do one thing really well. There are two problems with this. First, many apps often try to do more than one thing. Second, even if all apps followed this rule, it would require us to install many apps on our mobile devices to do all of the things we want to do. Apps sprout on my phone like weeds in a garden.

I was thinking about this over the weekend when I decided to perform a clean install on my MacBook Air. I wondered what the minimal installation would be for the laptop to be functional for me, without being crammed with applications I rarely touch. I started from scratch, and kept a list of the things that I installed, with an eye toward keeping things lean. Aside from the basic OS (Sierra 10.12.4), here is what made the cut:

  • LastPass: My preferred password manager. I’ve been using LastPass for years and can only guess at how much time it has saved me, while improving my online security.

  • Todoist: I’ve written about why and how I use Todoist. It is essential for me.

  • Pastebot: I do a lot of copying and pasting, and Pastebot makes it easy to manage multiple clipboards, saving me lots of time.

  • Fantastical 2: My calendar app. I like it much better than the native calendar app that comes with MacOS.

  • MailButler: A plug-in to Apple Mail that adds a lot of useful functionality, like snoozing, delayed send, and much more.

  • Keyboard Maestro: My automation engine. From text expansion to lots of little useful automations, this one saves me a lot of time and retyping.

  • Homebrew for Mac: An simple package manager that lets me install other stuff quickly.

  • Dotfiles: a GitHub repo for managing and tracking my Unix dotfiles, and for making it easy to stay up-to-date with current Unix tools.

  • MacVim: My primary word processor/text editor.

  • Consola fonts: This font is perfect for my “distraction-free” writing in MacVim. Easy on the eyes, and fixed-width, which is what I like when producing copy.

  • Flashbake: a tool that automatically checks my writing into a repo on GitHub every 15 minutes so that I have a running history of what I wrote on any given day, and how it changes over time.

  • Pandoc: for easily taking the Markdown files I produce in MacVim and converting them to a variety of formats, like Microsoft Word, or PDF. I can “compile” my draft through a make script and have a Word document in standard manuscript format in seconds.

  • Microsoft Office 365: For convenience.

  • Evernote: for access to my digital filing cabinet.

  • Skitch: my go-to screen capture and annotation tool.

  • Crashplan: for backups to the cloud.

These were the tools that I installed over the weekend. No others came immediately to mind. I imagine that as I continue to work on the laptop, I’ll find a thing or two missing, but the items on this list constitute 95% of everything I need on my MacBook Air to get my work done.

If Apple made Terminal available in iOS they way they do in MacOS, I could probably get away with a lot fewer apps there as well, too.

That Thing Where You Texted The Wrong Person

How many times has this happened to you? You are replying to a text message, and click the Send button, only to discover that you have texted the wrong person. Sometimes the reverse happens. You receive a text message from someone that makes no sense at all. It is usually followed, seconds later, by an apologetic message. Whoops, sent to the wrong person by mistake.

We used dial wrong numbers. It was fairly easy to misdial. The buttons on the phone weren’t very large and a 5 could accidentally become a 6. A strange voice would come on the line. You’d ask for the person you were trying to reach and often get a mildly annoyed reply that there was no such person and you must have a wrong number.

The nice thing about wrong numbers is that they were mostly anonymous. You didn’t know who you dialed and they didn’t know you. That generally isn’t the case with text messages. Messaging applications like Apple Messages have this tendency to sort conversations by recency. So if I am texting Kelly, and then I get a text from my sister, the conversation with my sister jumps to the top of the list. When I go to reply to Kelly, I am actually replying to my sister.

One could produce a sitcom based on non sequitur text conversations. A recent one that took place with my old man will serve as an example:

Me: Did you know that Al Martinez died back in 2015? I just found that out today.
Dad: Was he the columnist at the LA Times? No I didn't.
Me: Yes. I'm working on a post about him and I learned that he died in January 2015.
Dad: Good!

It is hard to imagine my dad was saying it was good that Al Martinez died in 2015. It is possible that he was saying it was good that I am writing a post about him. But given my experience with text messaging, it is most likely that the “Good!” my dad replied with was meant for someone else.

You’d think someone would have come up with a simple way of avoiding this, but so far, I haven’t seen one. One has to simply pay extra attention when one is texting to ensure one’s messages are directed to the correct party. This got me thinking about behavior. I wonder how many misdirected texts are composed and sent while driving. Studies show that texting distracts from driving, but the reverse must also be true. It seems to me that a good percentage of wrong-number text messages result from some kind of distraction.

We are good at creating words for strange phenomenon that results from technology misuse, so I wondered if such a word described what I otherwise call “texting a wrong number.” It turnes out, there is. The Urban Dictionary calls this phenomenon textident: Accidentally texting the wrong person; usually caused by texting more than one person at the same time.

Does this happen to you or am I the only one? Text me and let me know. Just not all at once, okay?

A Good Diary

The Little Miss recently got her first diary. She was very excited about it. It came with a small key (certain to be lost) with which she can lock the diary after writing in it. I was pleased to see her get a diary. I wish I had started a diary at five years old. It would be fascinating to see what my five-year-old self wrote about.

Instead, I was 24 when I started a diary, and I kept it going pretty steadily for 10 years. I used red, hard-covered Standard Diaries, and I never wrote anything in them that I would be ashamed of if someone else happened to see it.

Diaries fascinate me. It seems that everyone I’ve read about kept a diary, from John Adams to George Patton and beyond. The historical value of diaries like these must be incredible. My reasons for keeping a diary were less with an eye toward history and more about wanting to be able to remember what I was doing on any given day. As a child, I can recall laying in bed thinking, “When I am older, will I remember this particular day?” I remember having the thoughts, but the days blur together.

My diaries listed what I happened to be reading, or writing; what stories I submitted, or what rejection letters I received in the mail. I noted when I spoke to people on the phone, or had an important meeting at work. Only occasionally did I venture beyond this. They served their purpose, however. I can open one up and get the details of some particular day in my life.

I no longer keep a diary, at least not in the traditional sense, although I’ve tried on-and-off when the mood strikes me. If I am going to spend time writing, I prefer to spent it writing here, or writing stories, or articles. Besides, the amount of data that is captured by our activity these days makes the kind of diary I kept obsolete.

I can, from various data sources, produce the following for just about any day in the past four or five years:

  • How many words I wrote, and what those specific words were. (Google Docs and GitHub
  • What code I wrote (GitHub)
  • How far I walked and how many steps I took (FitBit)
  • Who I interacted with (Email, Facebook, Twitter)
  • What important things came in the mail (Evernote)
  • What I was reading (my reading list, and browser history)
  • What events took place (iCloud calendar)
  • What items I checked off my to-do list (Todoist)
  • Where I drove, how long it took, and how much I spent on gas (Automatic)
  • What the weather was like (Dark Sky
  • What photos and videos I captured (iCloud)

I’ve played around with digital diaries like Day One. I like Day One, but it seems to me that a modern diary would simply be an aggregator that took data from all of these different sources and compiled it into a daily entry–one to which I could append my own notes and thoughts, if I wanted to. The closest I’ve seen to something like that is Gyroscope.

I think the reason that I have failed to take up writing in a diary has a lot to do with all of the data that is already available. Sitting down and writing that I was stuck in traffic for half an hour on my way home feels silly and redundant when I know the data exists in Automatic Link, for instance. I can’t help but feel that I am somehow repeating information that has been recorded elsewhere.

That is one reason I like this blog so much. It isn’t really a diary, but it allows me to write about things that I think about without feeling redundant. And if someone invents an aggregator to collect all of the data already available, when I look back at today, I’ll see that I wrote about 600 words in the evening, just before taking the Little Man to Cub Scouts.

600 words is about 100 more than I aim for on these essays. I need to do better.

Distraction-Free?

Everywhere I look in the technology world, people are clamoring for more “distraction-free” interfaces. Yet at the same time we are adding more and more screens to our environments with which to contain things to distract us. Take me for example. As I write this, I have three screens in front of me: two large (30+ inch) flat-panel monitors, and the screen of my MacBook Pro.

On the leftmost screen, I am writing this essay. I write using MacVim, and I run the application in full-screen mode, using a distraction-free plugin called Goyo in order to keep me focused on what I am writing.

MacVim in distraction-free mode
MacVim in distraction-free mode

The left screen is where a lot of my active work happens. But despite the distraction-free mode in which I write, there is still plenty to distract me on the two other screens. The second large monitor contains my productivity apps. Todoist runs there, as does Fantastical 2, which contains my calendar. I also keep a terminal window open on that screen. I do a lot of stuff in the terminal window because I’ve scripted a lot of routine tasks and can perform them quickly from there.

Finally, there is the screen of my MacBook Pro. On this screen I keep my Jabber client and chat windows.

Distraction-free only works when all distractions are truly eliminated. I don’t see how adding more and more screens accommodates this. If I am writing in distraction-free mode, there are still plenty of other things that can distract me. The phone in front of me can ring. I might not answer it, but it’s ring will distract me. I can put the phone into Do Not Disturb mode, but whenever I do that, I forget that I’ve done it and wonder why no one has called me for three days.

Email is a constant distraction, although I have gotten better at checking my email less frequently than I used to. Social media can be a distraction. When I got my new phone, I deliberately refrained from installing Facebook and Twitter, and it’s had a positive effect. I thought I’d check them more on the computer, but I’m probably checking them only about once a day now.

My phone alerts me to changes in the Yankees score, or if it is about to start raining. Every app I install seems to want to interrupt my life with some kind of notification. I turn off the notifications I don’t think I need, and I put my phone into Do Not Disturb mode in the evenings to avoid these distractions.

There are other distractions that distraction-free software can’t address. The baby needs my attention, or the Little Miss invites me to a birthday party for her stuffed animals. The Little Man wants to show me his progress in a game that I don’t understand. I have to bring the garbage cans and recycling bins around to the backyard.

I think the best solution to working distraction-free is to learn to roll with the distractions, to not let them bother you. During the two-plus years when I wrote every single day, I learned to write with the TV blaring in the background, and my kids running around. I learned to stop on a time to help Kelly with something, and then come right back to where I’d stopped and start again. It was one of the best productivity lessons I ever learned. It’s not about working distraction-free, it’s about learning to work in the real world, where distractions are everywhere.

Spoiler Alert!

When someone discloses the ending of a TV show, movie, or book to someone who hasn’t yet seen or read it, we call that a spoiler. But what is the word for someone who gets partway through a movie, TV show, or book, and turns to the person next to them and asks, “Does so-and-so live?” I don’t think there is a word for a person who wants a movie, TV show, or book to be spoiled. Nevertheless, I live with two of them.

If we are watching a movie, and there is some tense, dramatic scene involving the main characters, the Little Man will inevitably ask, partway through the movie, “Does he die at the end?” Kelly sometimes asks similar questions about a show we’re watching that she knows I have already seen. They seem like perfectly innocent questions, but I find them painfully difficult to answer. I often find myself muttering, “Just watch the movie and find out,” not wanting to spoil things.

Wanting to know the end of a story before reaching the end is alien to me. I watch movies and read books for the drama of the story. Knowing what will happen spoils some of that drama, so I can’t understand why someone would want to know this before the story reaches its natural conclusion. But this is a fairly common phenomenon in our household.

Even when I write a story, I don’t plan it out ahead because knowing for certain what is coming steals the fun. The first draft of a story is like watching a movie for the first time. Everything I am learning is new, and I am often surprised by the twists and turns the story takes. But having written many stories, I also understand (or at least have glimmering idea) of what it takes to keep a reader interested and entertained. An important ingredient is to keep them guessing.

Kelly and the Little Man are more practical. They want their expectations set early on. I have trained myself, over decades to gradually unveil a story, drawing in the reader, and it kills me to have to answer questions about what happens later in a story. Interestingly, the Little Miss is more like me in this regard. She gets totally and completely absorbed in the shows she watches–to the point where interruptions annoy her. And she never asks what happens next. She grasps the thrill of storytelling, and it wouldn’t surprise me if she tried telling her own stories as she gets older.

Spoilers have been around forever but have become more effective thanks to the megaphone effect of the Internet. But spoilers have never interested me. I can’t recall a time when I felt tempted to look at a spoiler. It requires a certain amount of impatience to reader a spoiler, but savoring a story over a long period of time is something I love about stories. It is why my favorite books tend to be longer books. I want to the story to last as long as possible. I am in no hurry to get to the end to find out what happened. I’ll get there in good time.

That said, let me close with one spoiler: Next time the family sits down to some dramatic movie or TV show, you can be sure that either Kelly or the Little Man will ask me what happens well before the end.

New Blog Schedule Begins on April 10

Beginning on Monday, April 10, the blog will have a new schedule. There will be a new post Monday through Thursday each week. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, things will be quiet.

There are two reasons for this change:

  1. As much fun I have writing these posts (and I do have fun–more fun than any other type of writing I do), it isn’t easy to come up with something new every single day of the week. My brain needs time to recharge. Otherwise, I end up forcing things, and write posts that aren’t as good as they might otherwise be.

  2. Several months of stats have shown a pretty consistent pattern. People read the blog Monday through Thursday, but readership drops pretty dramatically (by several hundred readers per day) Friday through Sunday. The change ensures there are quality posts on the days people are reading, and I don’t feel forced to post something on the days people are not.

I’ve been consistently writing a post a day since November. The new schedule cuts things down by 4/7ths. I’ll still likely continue to write in advance and build up a decent backlog of scheduled posts, but I also hope that the decreased output allows more time for better posts. We’ll see how it goes.

Obituaries

I was sad to read that Don Rickles died earlier this week. He was 90 years old, and vibrant to the end. The New York Times had a good obituary. He died on April 6, 2017, outliving Isaac Asimov by exactly 25 years.

Obituaries fascinate me. When I sit down to read a newspaper, I almost always turn to the obituary pages first. Why this is I can’t say. The only exception comes when I read small regional papers while traveling. There, I am curious about local color and save the obits for later.

It would be wrong to say that an obituary was a miniature biography produced posthumously in the immediate aftermath of some notable’s passing. For one thing, biographies are usually strictly chronological. For another, it is sometimes hard to tell why one person warrants an obit in the paper, while another does not.

A typical obituary starts like any other newspaper story: with the who, what, what, when, and where. About half the obituaries I read include the “how”, i.e., the cause of death. In Mr. Rickle’s case, it was kidney failure. Once the basics have been established, an obituary proceeds directly to the thing about the person that makes their obituary noteworthy. I call this the “Why Do I Deserve An Obituary” section.

Good writing builds to a climax. Obituaries routinely break this rule. Just as they get interest, there is a sudden and dramatic change of subject. The recently departed is then formally introduced to the reader: “Benjamin Franklin Pierce was born in Crabapple Cove, Maine, on April 1, 1922 to Dr. Daniel Pierce, a lobsterman, and the former Edna…” The rest of the obituary is biography.

Obituaries of famous people are interesting, but we often already know the details of their lives. I find the obituaries of less famous people far more interesting. I wondered if anyone had ever bothered to collect obituaries in book form. A quick Google search made it clear that I am far from the first person to have that idea.

Back when I was in college, I minored in journalism, and I seem to recall that new reporters were often relegated to write obituaries, as if it was some kind of proving ground. Decades later, I find this rather remarkable. Obituaries are themselves small works of art, capturing an entire life in a few hundred words (maybe a thousand for someone really notable). The job has to be stressful. Moreover, it has to be somewhat grim. Don Rickle’s died on Thursday, April 6, and the New York Times posted its obituary probably within minutes of the story being confirmed. A lot of the material had to have been in place already. It was just up to someone to fill in the when, where, and how.

I’m often fascinated by how long people live, or how short their lives have been. Obituaries encapsulate so much in so little that I often come away from them with a desire to live my life to the fullest. Each obituary is a reminder that the subject is out of chances… but I’m not. At least, not yet.

Rotors Of Unusual Size

We have a pest problem and I’m not sure that an exterminator can help us. The creatures are nocturnal. They hide by day and only come out at night. They only come out, in fact, just as we’ve finished spending thirty minutes or so getting the baby to sleep.

The baby–now seven plus months old–sleeps well at night. Recently, getting her to sleep has been the trick. The older kids are in bed by 8:30 or so, and we are usually so worn out from our days that we are ready to follow on their heels. But the baby seems to get a second wind just as her big brother and sister head off to dreamland. She sings. She sits up. She turns herself over and over. She does everything but lay down and go to sleep.

I’ve gamified the situation. As I did with our other kids, I often sing the baby to sleep. I spurn the traditional lullabies for Bing Crosby tunes. My game is to see how many songs it takes before the baby falls asleep. Anything under four is a good night. I have a set list in my head. I usually start with “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral,” which the baby seems to like, and which she recognizes as a “sleeping” song. She sometimes gets grumpy when I start singing this, knowing it means she’s in a battle to stay awake. I follow that with “Far Away Places,” and then move onto “Now Is the Hour.”

A few nights ago, I could tell the baby was tired and fighting in, so I pulled her into my arms, and sang these three songs. By the time I got to the final refrain in “Now Is the Hour” she was asleep.

Enter our R.O.U.S.

Not a minute after she was asleep, and I carefully wiggled my blood-starved arm from underneath her, out pest emerged. It made its WHACK-WHACK-WHACK-WHACK-WHACK sound, starting from a distance. As it drew closer, the windows began to rattle, and as it passed overhead, it seemed the walls themselves began to shake.

It turns out we live under the flight path of military helicopters on their way to the Pentagon. At some point between 8:30 and 9:00 pm each evening, one of those waspish beasts is heading home for the night, and wants everyone to know it.

As it passed overhead, the baby, who had been gently snoring, lifted her head and looked blearily around, wondering what all the ruckus was about. It took me another nine or ten songs to get her back to sleep. I lost count, but I know I was getting into the weeds when I was belting out songs like “It Might As Well Be Spring.”

Who does one complain to about a noisy helicopter passing over every night? The FAA takes noise complaints, but I am not sure what they do with them. Back when I was a pilot, flying in L.A. there was some pretty strict noise-abatement procedures in place for airports like Van Nuys and Santa Monica. But those are public airports. Our R.O.U.S. is a military helicopter on a–presumably– military flight path.

The problem is that this particular chopper seems to know when the baby goes to sleep. If she dozes off twenty minutes earlier than usual, the chopper flies by twenty minutes earlier. If she can’t get to sleep and keeps us up for an hour or more, the chopper waits until all three of us are on the verge of sleep before doing its noisy flyby.

In the end, complaining is probably more trouble than it is worth. The baby seems to mind less than her mom and dad. I’ve always disliked helicopters, though, and this certainly isn’t helping their image.