Category Archives: personal

L.A. Stories

I lived in L.A. from 1983 – 2002–almost 20 years. I come back to L.A. for work every now and then, and it is always an interesting experience, one that fills me with mixed feelings. A lot of things have changed about L.A., but a lot of things have remained the same. Cities evolve. Santa Monica looks very different from the days that I worked here1. People seem to stay pretty much the same. On the east coast, if you tell someone you are a writer, the response if often the reasonable, “What do you write?” or “Have you ever been published.” In L.A. the response, more often than not, is “Do you have representation.” I hate stereotyping, but “Do you have representation?” is stereotypical L.A. for me.

Some things never change–or change so slowly that it is impossible in a human lifetime to notice the change. There is, for instance, the Pacific.

The Pacific

Through a quirk of memory, I can often remember where I was when I read a particular book. I can recall fondly, driving from the Valley to Pacific Palisades and sitting on a park bench overlooking the Pacific and reading William Gibson’s Idoru back in 1996.

I have worked at the same company for nearly 21 years, something virtually unheard of today. It’s funny how often I see TV shows or movies or commercials that take place at the Santa Monica pier. Folks: for 8 years, between 1994 and 2002, my office practically overlooked the pier. Walking home from dinner with good friends tonight, I took a detour and walked past the pier. The view of the entrance to the pier at night has been made famous by television and movies, but it is something that I look at with a wistful eye to the days when I worked in our Santa Monica office.

Santa Monica Pier

The funny thing is that I saw the Pacific ocean and the pier so often that I never really paused to enjoy them. They were tourist spots, much the same way I think of the Washington Monument and the Air & Space museum today. Walking by the pier this evening, with a crescent moon overhead, I felt like I wanted to knock some sense into the 22 year old version of myself, and say, hey, sure this may be something you see every day, but do you really see it?

Moon over the Pacific

When I worked in Santa Monica, my experience was tainted by traffic. I lived in Studio City, 20 miles from Santa Monica. It often required traversing the infamous Four-Oh-Five, and One-Oh-One. I’d leave the house at 5:10 am and get to the office at 5:30, making it in ahead of the traffic. But I’d leave the office at 5 pm and get home at 7 o’clock. L.A. seems glamorous until you sit in eight years worth of traffic2.

The thing is, I met my best friends in the world in L.A. I met them at Cleveland High School, in Reseda, California. 28 years after we first met, we are still friends I went to dinner with two of them this evening3. The friends I made living in L.A. made it worthwhile. The 2,200 hours of traffic I sat in over the course of 8 years was a small sacrifice for those friends.

Steve Martin’s L.A. Story was touted as the first great comedy of the 1990s when it came out4. For all its humor, L.A. Story is probably the best movie about life in L.A. that I have come across in the quarter century since it first came out. There have been great movies about L.A. before, and since, but none of them capture the spirit of L.A. the way Steve Martin did in L.A. Story. As Shakespeare once said (according to Steve Martin):

This other Eden, demi-paraside, this precious stone set in a silver sea, this earth, this realm, this, Los Angeles.


 

  1. There’s a train station that is almost finished where Sears used to be on 4th and Colorado.
  2. Sitting in L.A. traffic not long before I moved back east, I once calculated that over the course of 8 years, I spent about 2,200 hours commuting. 2,200 hours is the equivalent of 1 full-time-employee for a year. A year. Think of what else I might have been able to do with that time if not for sitting in traffic.
  3. At Santa Monica Yacht Club, in case you were wondering.
  4. Writing that line makes me feel old. The first great comedy of the 1990s. The movie is 25 years old, gang.

“So quiet in my Sekrit Writing Room”

My pal, Fred Kiesche (@FredKiesche) made the following remark on Twitter this morning,

and at once I felt guilty for neglecting to post here more frequently. So I figured the least I could do was offer some explanation as to why I haven’t been posting as much as I used it.

1. The day job has been very busy. I’ve been doing more and more project management and less and less hands-on software development, which I think shows career progress, but also means that my days are just busier. Each time I reach a new level of busyness, I feel certain that I’ve finally hit a plateau–only to discover that the trail continues on up and up. More time at work means less time here with you all.

2. My energy level has been a little lower lately. Ten days ago, I gave up caffeine cold-turkey. I did this once before, back in 2004. I gave up caffeine for over 6 years. I started up with it again in 2010 during NaNoWriMo. My relationship with caffeine is akin to how I’ve heard an alcoholic’s relationship to liquor described: I don’t want just one Coke, I want five. The only way for me to cut back is to cut it out entirely. Which I did on the last day of our vacation. I have now been caffeine-free for ten days. The headaches have mostly passed, as has the grumpiness, but I feel unusually sluggish throughout the day.

3. Summer schedule is chaotic. Kids are in camp, hours get shifted to cover the times that they are not in camp. During the school year we maintain a very regular schedule. Right now it is precariously controlled chaos. That becomes a little draining.

4. I’ve been doing a lot more reading. On average, I probably get in between 50-60 hours of Audible listening1 each month. In June I had over 80 hour, and July is on pace to hit 100 hours. I’ve been reading enormous amounts of nonfiction. I’ve been working my way through a period of American history that I am least familiar with (the Civil War through the Great Depression), although not quite chronologically. I find the reading fascinating, and can almost always been seeing with my earbuds in place, listening to one book or another. Of course that much reading means less time for other stuff.

5. I started reading the newspaper again. After 15 years of not reading newspapers, I started again. I started, coincidentally, right around the time I gave up caffeine, but I really think that is a coincidence. What started me up again was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book The Bully Pulpit, which describes the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as the birth of investigative journalism. Reading about Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker, and muckraking journalism jumpstarted my desire to read the papers again–although I don’t deceive myself into believing I am getting Tarbell, Steffens, or Baker in what I read. Reading the paper takes up more time, however, and is yet another thing I’ve been doing in my Sekrit Writing Room.

6. Fighting tooth and claw with the novel draft. I am still writing every day, although considerably less each day than last month. As of today I’ve written for 725 consecutive days, and will, in 5 more days, hit 730–or two years without missing a day. Novel writing is the hardest thing in the world for me. But I’m not giving up. I’m fighting back with everything I’ve got. Sometimes, thought, it wears me down to the point where I just don’t feel like posting.

7. I’m traveling more. The family recently returned from a vacation in New York and Massachusetts. On Sunday, I fly to Los Angeles for a week for work. Travel takes something out of me, and places writing high on the list of things to get done early in the day so that I don’t miss it later.

8. I feel like I don’t have as much to say as I used to. I used to post 2 or 3 times a day. Many of those posts, however, were frivolous. When I post today, I want it to be about something meaningful. So I’ve hesitated to post here to tell you what I had for breakfast, or to rant about some bad customer service experience I had. There is no originality in that, and I don’t want to bore you. Sometimes, I’ll jot down a note to write about something that captures my interest that moment, only to reflect on it later, thinking, nah, this really isn’t something interesting. I’d love to write more here, but the writer in me does not want to bore an audience.


 

I’ve found that this comes and goes in waves. This blog is nearly 10 years old. There have been periods of time where I posted for years without missing a day, and periods where I didn’t post for a month at a time. The pendulum swings back and forth. When things settle down in my head, things will probably resume something like a more normal schedule here, too.

In the meantime, I am alive, I am still writing, and I am still very much committed to, and appreciative of, the folks who come here each day to read what I’ve written.

36 Years from Jupiter to Pluto

Almost exactly 36 years ago, Voyager 2 made its closest approach to Jupiter. I was 7 years old, and the recent acquisition of a telescope that allowed me to see the moon, and other planets up close thrilled me. I spent what seemed like days clipping photos of Jupiter out of the local newspaper and pasting them into a scrapbook that my mom had prepared for me. I had only the barest sense of the achievement at hand–that a robotic probe had been sent millions of miles into space and was now sending back pictures of what I already knew to be the largest planet in the solar system.

The telescope, Voyager 2, and a book I encountered in the public library called The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley, served as the fuel, flint, and steel that stoked my lifelong interest in astronomy, and science in general.

Thirty-six years later, New Horizons is rapidly approaching Pluto–which was a planet when I was seven, but has since been demoted. In a few days, it will pass within 7,000 miles of the planet. I am no longer clipping photos from the newspaper (although I read with relish the piece in today’s Washington Post). Instead, in keeping up with the times, I am following along with events the way all the cool kids do it today, namely, on Twitter:

Reading the article, and following along with the excitement on Twitter, I can help but be amazed by the achievements we’ve made in science and engineering. A decade ago, we rocketed a robot into space, and based on Newton’s laws of motion, shot it at point in space that would intersect with where Pluto would be nearly 10 years later. Now, we are getting high resolution images from just a few million miles away from the planet, with more to come as New Horizons approaches ever closer.

Looking at the pictures, and reading the excited tweets of astronomers and engineers, and friends, and fellow science fiction writers, I’ve been trying to think of a way to describe the feelings it has generated within me. All I can come up with is this:

I feel just like that 7-year old, 36 years in the past, who eagerly awaited each day’s newspaper hoping for new images of planet unimaginably distant, and yet appearing close enough to touch.

I am Alive, and Mostly Back from Vacation

I realize it’s been a little while since I last posted. I’ve been on vacation, but we arrived home yesterday, and I’m taking today to take care of odds and ends before heading back into the office tomorrow. Expect things to resume here as normal in the next day or two.

In the meantime, here is picture I took from a farm road in Old Sturbridge Village, in Sturbridge, MA, where we spent some time on vacation. Walking this road and lingering at the fence at the end of it was about the most peaceful time I had on my entire trip.

Farm Road
Click to enlarge

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.