Category Archives: personal

Nine Days in May: 26 Years After the Los Angeles Unified School District Strike of 1989

Twenty-six  years ago today–May 26, 1989–was a bittersweet day for me and my friends. It was the last day of an extraordinary nine days in May when the teachers union of the Los Angeles Unified School District went on strike. I was in 11th grade at Cleveland Humanities Magnet High School in Reseda, California, and it was spring in Los Angeles–probably the most remarkable spring of my teenage years. What teenager doesn’t dream of getting out of school for two weeks and spending that time hanging out with friends.

I’ve written about the strike before, and the 26th anniversary of the end of the strike would have passed by me unnoticed, if it wasn’t for this week’s Big 80s on 8 countdown on Sirius XM this weekend. The countdown was for this week in 1989, and as I listened to the music from the countdown, it was like listening to an anthem for the strike.

The years have both eroded my memories of those nine extraordinary days, and tinged them with the nostalgia of youth and vigor. What I am left with is a kind of idyllic, Ray Bradburyesque of a spring in Los Angeles. The music plays a big part of it. Pirate Radio–KQLZ–was in its amazing infancy, a mere 3 months old, and playing great rock and pop of the day, including its signature, “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns ‘n’ Roses.

During that two week period, my friends and I would meet at school in the morning to plan our day. The teachers would be standing out in front of the school holding up hand-made signs that read NO CONTRACT, NO WORK, and I’D RATHER BE TEACHING. Occasionally, a substitute would cross the picket line and enter the school to jeers of “Scab!” from students and teachers alike. And then we were off–to one of our friend’s houses nearby. We’d watch MTV–Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” video was popular at the time (“I can think about baseball and swing all night, yeah!”). When the weather was particularly good, we’d head to the beach. We’d go to the movies. We’d hang out, and our little gang seemed like the best thing in town.

It really was a remarkable spring. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out around the time of the strike. Earlier (or perhaps later) that spring, we spent several weeks at Cal State Northridge working on a project, and getting an idea of what it was like to be in college. I remember spending a lot of time in the student center, eating junk, and watching Tone Lōc videos. Meanwhile, when we were in school, we were reading books like Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero and Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust.

For me, at least, the strike had nothing to do with better pay for teachers, better contracts, better terms, or anything like that. It had everything to do with the freedom to spend those days with my friends, doing whatever it was we wanted to do. The theme of our 11th grade magnet program in 1989 was “school without walls” and the nine days of the strike gave us plenty of schooling without walls. For a brief time, we were in some kind of twilight, almost grownups, but without the worry of a family or career.

Sometime late during the week of May 21, 1989, we heard that a settlement had been reached, and that we would be returning to class on Tuesday May 30–Monday was Memorial Day. It was a bittersweet day, but we had nine days of freedom that most 11th graders don’t get, so it would have been criminal to complain about it. More than a quarter century later, the strike still remains a bright spot in my memory, which must say something about the impact that it had on us at the time. What’s more: the friends that I hung out with during those halcyon days are still some of my best friends today.

Long Weekend and a New Story

We spent the long Memorial Day weekend up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with my sister and her family, and my mom. The kids got to spend most of the time at Dutch Wonderland, and we spent the weekend trying to keep up with them. We also took a horse and buggy ride through an Amish farm, and I had some homemade root beer, which was excellent. This is our third year in a row getting out of town on the official east coast opening of summer, and heading up to Pennsylvania, and like the last two years, it was a great success.

I managed a little bit of writing on the novel draft, but I also started a brand new science fiction story. I’m not entirely sure where it is going yet, but I will say that the main character is a somewhat overwhelmed project manager who finds himself over his head on a new assignment. And in case anyone wonders where I get my ideas: recently I have felt like a somewhat overwhelmed project manager in over his head on a new assignment.

It’s actually a nice change of pace from the novel draft, and I think I’ve been ready for a chance of pace for a little while now.

Brain Drain

I came home from work tonight feeling the way I used to feel 36 hours into an all-nighter back in college. Except that I slept for 8 hours or so last night. My brain is completely drained. I am not normally a project manager, my title at the day job being a senior application developer. But I find myself managing two projects right now, a small one about which I have been excited for a while. And a large one, which I inherited last week from a far more capable project manager who left to pursue other opportunities. In addition, I am developer on a third project, a lead technical consultant on a fourth, a team member of a fifth. My days, recently, have been all about churn. Fifteen minutes of this, twenty minutes of that, ten minutes of this other thing.

Today, I spent six hours in meetings, and the remaining time preparing for them. It’s been like this for a week or so now. My days have been long, and when you add in the writing in the evenings, they have been even longer. I think I set a personal record earlier this week. RescueTime told me that I’d spent 18 hours on the computer in a single day!

RescueTime record

Tonight, my writing was uninspired. I don’t feel much like reading, or even listening to an audiobook. My brain has reached its capacity. I need to disconnect and allow it to cool off a bit. So I am going to try to take the weekend off. I’ll still get in my writing–after 627 consecutive days it is unthinkable not to write. But I may take a break from fiction this weekend and write two nonfiction pieces that I’ve been meaning to write for some time now. It will give me a well-needed break from fiction. And nonfiction is easier on my brain than fiction, so that’s an added bonus.

I am also going to try to stay offline for the most part this weekend. I’m not going to read much. Instead, I’m going to something I don’t do often: sit in front of the TV and watch episodes of Magnum, P.I. and M*A*S*H. Hopefully, by Monday, I’ll feel more like my 2015-self, and less like the 1992-sleep-deprived college version of myself.

Have a great weekend!

The Thrill of the Cracker Jacks

Nats Stadium

On Saturday, I took the Little Man to an exhibition game between the New York Yankees and the Washington Nationals. We took the Metro over to Nationals Park, and found our way to our seats, where my friend, and fellow writer Michael J. Sullivan was waiting for us. I think that Michael told me this was the third baseball game he’d ever attended. As it happens, it was the Little Man’s third game, too. He attended a Nationals game when he was a little baby. Then, when he’d just turned two years old, he attended a minor league game up in Troy, NY, between the Tri-City Valley Cats and the Vermont Lake Monsters. But the game on Saturday is likely to be the first that he remembers as he gets older, if for no other reason than he plays Little League baseball, and has more of a sense of the game than he did when he was two.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the game for the Little Man was the thought of getting Cracker Jacks. He knew about Cracker Jacks from the song, of course, and also because Caillou has them in an episode of that cartoon. But the Little Man had never had them before. So when we arrived at the stadium the very first thing that we did, even before going to our seats, was seek out Cracker Jacks. Eventually, we located a bag (they are no longer sold in boxes, at least not at Nationals Park) of Cracker Jacks. We added to this, two hot dogs, a small soda, and a beer. Then we sought out our seats. We were high up, but had a good view of the playing field, which is what I wanted so that I could explains things about the game to the Little Man. We both wore our Yankees hats, and while we sat among many Nationals fans, there were plenty of Yankees fans to be seen around the park.

The Little Man picked up the rhythm of the game quickly, and even learned to follow the scoreboard for balls, strikes, and outs. When the Nationals would make a good play on the Yankees, he’d say, “Aw, man!” When the Yankees made a good play, he became wildly excited. He saw his first home run that game, and that brought the score to 3-2 (the Yanks had been trailing.)

When A-Rod came to the plate, and the stadium booed, the Little Man wondered why. I explained that A-Rod had cheated, and had not been allowed to play baseball for a year, and that a lot of people (myself included) were upset that he cheated.

We stayed for five full innings before the Little Man got too restless and wanted to head home. We left with the Nationals leading 3-2, and that means that we missed the Yankees comeback home run in the 8th inning. But it was still fun. I mean a lot of fun. At one point, entirely on his own volition the Little Man turned to me and said, “Thanks for bringing me to the game, Daddy.” Really, it was perfect.

It made me wonder who really had more fun, him, for me, watching him. I thought about my Dad taking me to baseball games when I was very young, and had a sudden realization that it must have been fun for him in the same way that it was fun for me on Saturday. The Little Man got to see the game, and got to eat a bag of Cracker Jacks, and I got to sit there and watch him do it. I imagine we will be doing it again, before long.

Manifesto 43: Improving My Quantified Self

When it comes to quantified self, one question I frequently hear is “how can this data really help me”? It is a good question, especially since there are huge volumes of data about ourselves available, and it may not be obvious how to put it to use. I have used quantified self data to improve my writing, and help get more exercise, but it seems to me there is more I can be doing to use this data to improve.

I had been thinking about this a lot leading up to my birthday last week. As I approached my birthday, I began to think about the general areas of my life that I would like to improve, and see if there was a way that I could take advantage of data to help me make the improvements. So I put together a simple document in which I began to list the following:

  • The areas I wanted to improve
  • A simple statement or instruction to frame the improvement
  • An initial notion for how I might measure the improvement.

I called the document my “Manifesto:43.” I thought it might be interesting to others, so below are the major areas, along with the “instruction” I gave myself to keep in mind.

I have more detailed thoughts and actions in each of these areas, and I’ll tackle them in separate posts over the next few weeks, but for now, here are the major areas I’m looking to improve.

Play

Play with the kids whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Walk

Prefer walking over other modes of transportation where practical.

Write

Write every day, even if only for a few minutes.

Eat

Make healthy choices.

Disconnect

Make efficient use of online resources. Avoid unnecessary activity.

Simplify

Use the best tool for the job, but avoid overlapping tools.

Save

Look for opportunities to save more.

Relax

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

There are some overarching themes here. These things can be grouped in different ways to reflect overall priorities. For instance, grouping together “Play”, “Disconnect”, “Simplify” and “Relax”, you have what I think of as “family time.” Improving in those four areas helps improve family time. Grouping “Walk”, “Eat”, and “Relax” are all health-related.

For each of these areas, I produced simple examples of actions that I can take to make the improvements I am looking to make. I’ll drill down into those in a separate post. I have also attempted to identify quantifiable ways of measuring the improvements. In some instances (e.g. “play”) it is pretty hard. In others (“walk”, “write”, “save”) it is pretty easy. Some of the actions are one-time and others are ongoing. I’ve already taken some actions and although it is too early to say how well these changes are working, I am pretty happy with my overall framework for thinking about these things.

Stay-tuned for more.

I’m on the Functional Nerds podcast today

Last week, I sat down with Patrick Hester and John Anealio, hosts of the Functional Nerds podcast. It was a blast. We talked books, baseball, writing, productivity, and music. If you are interested, have a listen over at the Functional Nerds.

And a big thank you to John and Patrick for having me on the show.

The Fiction of Mid-Life

My grandfather lived to be 84-years old. If we take 84 to be the new three score years and ten, then later this month, when I hit 43, I’ll be past the literal midway point. I haven’t gone out and bought any fancy cars, or tried to eliminate the gray from my hair (it’s been there since my mid-20s, so I’m used to it by now). But I have had some interesting recurring thoughts lately.

Actually, it started as a recurring image in my mind: a great sweeping, empty plains, with tall, stark mountains in the background. Over time the image has developed into something more: a quiet ranch in a sparsely populated county of some northern state like Montana or North Dakota. I find myself day-dreaming–not of winning the lottery or writing a bestseller–but of living on a small, quiet ranch miles outside some small town, far away from everything. Except my family, of course. My family is always there, the kids playing in the open spaces, Kelly and I talking long walks while the sun hovers low over the western horizon.

I don’t know exactly where these thoughts and images come from. Part of my suspects it is a reaction to living in a metropolitan suburb, and the hyper-connectedness of my daily life. Sometimes it seems to be disconnected, to be outdoors more, working with my hands, would be a welcome change.

Now, I’m not quitting my job and moving my family to some small town in the mid-west or west. Instead, these recurring images are finding their way into my fiction. In two recent works-in-progress, characters are dashing off to isolated areas to get away from something. It wasn’t intentional–at least not in the sense that it was anything plotted. It’s just how the stories have worked themselves out. And whether or not the stories ultimately sell, I’ve found a great deal of satisfaction in living vicariously through these characters. It’s my way of escaping, I guess.

This was brought to mind in a stark kind of way, when I realized how much I was enjoying the two books I am currently reading. One is fiction, and one is nonfiction, and I am enjoying both far more than expected.

The first is Stephen King’s The Stand. I’ve read the book before, but this time, I’m reading it as it was originally published in 1978–not the “uncut” version that was released in 1990. In any case, despite the horror of Captain Trips, and the plague that decimates the human population; despite the battle over good and evil, I find myself mesmerized by the descriptions of the trip across the desolate country. It is, yet, another expression of this strange desire for isolation.

The second book is The Longest Road by Philip Caputo. This is a road trip book, much in the manner of Blue Highways, about a man, his wife, and two dogs, who take a four month trip from the southern most point of Key West, Florida, up into the Arctic Circle in Alaska. It is an absolute pleasure to read. I found it interesting that I happened to be reading these two books at the same time1, and I think that is what brought to mind those recurring thoughts about the open space, and the tall mountains.

This is one of the true advantages of being a fiction writer: I can send my characters off to do the things that I can’t, living vicariously through them, and it is almost as good as doing it myself.

  1. I am reading the paperback version of The Stand in the evenings, and listening to the audiobook version of The Longest Road during my daily walks.

On the Value of Practice

Once upon a time, I couldn’t read. I practiced sounding out the words, and each day seemed like I was making no progress. Then one day, I could read–haltingly, but I could read.

Once upon a time, I couldn’t write a line of code. I’d see these long elaborate programs listed in the early computer magazines and wondered how people figured this stuff out. I practiced, and practiced, and one day, I wrote a simple program. And then another, and the programs got more complex, and the languages changed, and I get better and better at it. Today, I make a living a software developer.

Once upon a time, I couldn’t fly. Then I took flying lessons. I practiced as much as I could. I passed my written, and then my oral test, and finally, my practical test, and came home from the airport that day with a private pilot’s license in my pocket.

Once upon a time, I couldn’t write. My stories had no identifiable beginning, middle, or end. They- characters were carved out of thin cardboard. The language was in primary colors. The dialog dripped adverbs. The plot was an overly complicated Rube Goldberg contraption. I practiced. I read a lot. But I practiced a lot. I tried to learn from my mistakes when that was possible. I sold a story, and then another, and then another, and then more.

Without practice–a heck of lot it in my case–I would never have learned to read, or write code, or fly a plane, or tell stories that at least a small number of people seem to enjoy. If there has been any overarching lesson in my life, it has been this: don’t underestimate the value of practice.

28 Days of Crazy Busy

I just punted on my Feedly list.

2,469 posts had accumulated, and I had to face the fact that there was no way I was going to catch up. So I punted. I skimmed the list, sent a few items that caught my eye to Pocket, and marked the rest as read and moved on. Full reset.

That digital footprint, however, provided an interesting insight into how long I’ve been crazy busy with the day job lately. Usually, I skim Feedly at least once a day, and either send to Pocket the stuff I want to read later, or clear it out, so that each day starts more-or-less fresh. When I looked at Feedly this morning, however, I saw that the last time I had cleared it out–the last time I had really looked at it in earnest, was 28 days ago. I’ve been so busy that not only have I not had time to read the articles in Feedly, but I haven’t even had time to review or clear them out.

Well, it’s done now, and I’m back to a clean slate, although I did so essentially by “rebooting.” I shudder to think of all of the good posts I’ve missed sin simply skimmed the 2,400+ pieces that had accumulated in that time.

The Little Man and the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

I was in the shower when the Little Man let out a shriek that would raise the dead. He had been sitting on our bed, watching Power Rangers Megaforce when a bug that had been crawling along the wall landed on his knee.

Little man, meet Halyomorpha halys; brown marmorated stink bug, meet the Little Man.

After he calmed down (his jets had launched him well beyond the orbit of the moon), he asked what it was. “A stink bug,” I told him. You’d think a five year old would instantly fall in love with anything that had the word “stink” in it. Perhaps I should have called it a fart bug.

It was really a minor thing, except the Little Man now worried that Mr. Halys might somehow find his way into his room, and worse yet, into his bed. Kelly tried to assuage this by giving the bug an exciting ride down the toilet. This seemed fine for a little while. Then, after the Little Man used the facilities, he said, “Daddy, we have to make sure to close all of the toilets in the house to make sure that the bug doesn’t come up.” We made sure all of the toilet lids were closed. Stephen King, eat your heart out.

Once in bed, the worry crept in that this bug would somehow come back, and bring its legions with it.

“I’ve got it covered,” I told the Little Man, “Zekie (our cat) will patrol up here tonight.”

“What will he do?”

“Well, if he see the bug, he’ll eat it.”

He’ll eat it?” the Little Man said, shocked.

“What’s your favorite food in the whole world?” I asked him.

“Candy.” Of course.

“Well, for cats, stink bugs are like candy.”

“Not uh,” he said.

“What happens when you eat too much candy?” I asked.

“You get a tummy ache.”

“And don’t we come home sometimes to find that Zekie has been sick on the floor?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what you do think made him sick?”

That seemed to make him feel better. I tucked him in, gave him kiss, turned off the light. His brow furrowed, “But Daddy, how will Zekie see the bug in the dark?”

Stop obsessing over the bug, I wanted to say, you’ll give yourself nightmares for no reason. “Well, Zeke is cat, and cats are nocturnal. Do you know what nocturnal means?”

He nodded, “It means that they don’t sleep at night, and can see in the dark.”

“There you go.”

He considered this logic for a long time, and then seemed satisfied. “Okay, Daddy,” he said, “just make sure you bring Zeke upstairs right now, okay?”

“Okay,” I said.

The Little Man slept soundly through the night.

His father, on the other hand, had dreams of stink bugs swarming his bed, crawling all over him, and getting in between the keys of his keyboard, making it particularly difficult to write.

Winter Sunset

Numbers often provide objective measures of performance. In baseball, sabremetricians have been using the vast numbers produced by the sport to improve performance for decades. It seemed to me that I could do the same with the data that I produced. But I set a fairly specific scope when I started out: I'd focus on objective measurements; that is, things for which I did not have to make a judgement call. I'd use only data that could be collected automatically, without me having to do anything beyond my normal activity. The things that fell into this category--the low-hanging fruit--was, for me, things like physical activity (walking, sleeping), writing (word counts), computer activity (how long I used various applications throughout the day

I noticed a particularly nice winter sky this evening, one of the nicer ones I’ve seen so far this year. So I thought I’d share it.

Aborted rollout and other things keeping me busy

Last weekend was supposed to be a big milestone. We were finally rolling out some software we’d been working on for nearly a year. Unfortunately, late in the day Saturday, we ran into problems that forced us to abort the rollout. We are now scheduled to rollout next weekend (Valentine’s Day, actually). In the meantime, I have been having these really long days trying to work with the vendor and address the issues that prevented us from rolling out in the first place. Here is what a typical day has looked for me this week, according to RescueTime:

RescueTime

12 hours days with an 80+ productivity pulse for most of the week has been draining me. My writing is down for most of the week, although my streak remains unbroken.

Fortunately, we are getting away this weekend, to a resort in western Virginia to celebrate a friend’s birthday. My workday ends at noon today and I’ll have a few days to relax.

I’ve got 3 new Going Paperless posts planned for the coming weeks, and putting those together have been keeping me busy as well.

Anyway, just a quick note here to say that I’m still busy, and haven’t been as active here as I like to be. I’m hoping that this unusual level of activity will end soon, and things will get back to normal.