Small Towns and Slow Lives

Vermont is offering people $10,000 to move and work there. That sounds appealing to me, although I admit it would sound appealing even without the financial inducement. We spent a week in the hills above Woodstock, Vermont last summer, and the desolation, the quiet, and the slowness of life formed the perfect anodyne to my normally hectic, crowded lifestyle.

I’m not sure when it started, but for some time now, I’ve been dreaming of small towns and slow lives in the same way I used to dream about being a published writer when I was young. I call it my midlife crisis. No sports car for me—give me wilderness, acres without another house in sight; give me small towns where everyone knows everyone else, and news from the town spreads outward from the general store.

Not long ago, I was explaining these feelings to a friend. I couldn’t quite put it into words so I grabbed a napkin (we had just finished a barbecue dinner), pulled one of the ever-present Pilot G-2s out of my back pocket and sketched out the following diagram:

Urban/Frantic

I have lived much of my life in urban areas, or the suburbs of large urban areas. Moreover, since leaving home for college, my life has gotten steadily busier to the point where at times, the pace of things is frantic.

It seems to me, therefore, that my days pivot around two axes: how crowded my space is, and how crowded my time is. The y-axis on the drawing, the urban/rural axis, represents space density. The x-axis, the busy/bored axis represents time density. I’ve lived in that crowded upper-right corner for a long time. It’s no wonder I am craving something different.

I imagine that people who grow up in rural areas sometimes dream of living in the big city the way I dream of moving to the country. It’s the grass-is-always-greener syndrome. In reality (outside my rose-colored imagination), rural living would have its challenges. But I admire people who are able to make the change. I recall reading fondly of E. B. White, who, after years in New York City, gave up writing regularly for The New Yorker and moved to Brooklin, Maine. There, he ran a little farm, which became the subject of his One Man’s Meat column in Harpers, to say nothing of the stage for Charlotte’s Web.

What would I gain from living in the country? Swapping the sounds of car motors and airplanes and helicopters overhead for the sounds of birds, the whine of insects would be a start. I love the sounds of the country as much as I detest the background noise of the city. I’ve learned to tune it out, but it takes an effort. It would be nice to listen for a change.

Life is fast in the big city. I’ve been running that race for a long time, and I’m ready for a slower pace. I used to think busy was a good thing—cramming as much into every day as possible. Just look back at posts I wrote 5 years ago and its everywhere. Now things are different. I’ve been frantically busy long enough. I’m ready to slow things down. I’m ready for a calendar that doesn’t overwhelm me each time I look at it.

But the pace of life isn’t changing (much), and the country will have to wait a while longer. This is part of the reason I started to write again. In stories, just as in my imagination, I can live where I want. My characters can slow down their lives, even if I can’t slow down mine. And while it isn’t quite the same thing, it does help a little.

Still, I am looking for ways to move that stick figure version of me close to that daydream version. I think I’ll get there someday, but the road is still a long one.

Distraction-Free Writing

I have started writing again. After a year off, it feels as if I am starting over from the very beginning. In some ways, I guess I am. This time around, I am aiming for truly distraction-free writing as much as possible.

“Distraction-free” is buzzword I see in many apps today. Word processors have “distraction-free” modes that are supposed to help writers focus on the writing. I’ve tried many of these and found that to a large extent, they don’t work well for me. From what distraction am I being freed?

These days, I find the tools themselves a distraction. Even the choice about which tool to use to write is a distraction that prevents me from writing. I used Scrivener for a long time. Then I used Google Docs. Then I switched to a text editor. All of them had their distractions, no matter how distraction-free they claimed to be.

When I started writing again, I spent days trying to figure out which of these tools to use—days which I could have spent writing, instead of being distracted by the very features designed to be distraction-free. Eventually, I backed away from my computer and considered this. I felt foolish. I decided that for me there was only one way to get a true distraction-free writing experience:

I would no longer write on the computer—at least not first drafts.

On June 1, I began writing the first draft of a new novel. I have written only one other novel in my life—I wrote the first draft of it in 2013, and never wrote a second draft. It was practice. Perhaps this time is practice, too. But unlike just about all of my previous writing, this draft started on the first page of a brand new 200-page Composition Book.

Almost at once, I learned some things:

  1. I write more slowly than I type.
  2. I am not bothered by the same kind of distractions writing in a notebook as I am writing in a word processor. I don’t have to worry about formatting, fonts, or if my changes have been saved.
  3. Since I am not on the computer when I am writing, I don’t have to worry about going down some kind of Google rabbit hole. If there’s something I need to look up, I just make a note of it and leave it for a time when I am not writing.
  4. I am not distracted by word counts. I used to be obsessed by word counts. Writing in the notebook, I have the general sense that each page I fill is worth about 300 words. Beyond that, I don’t worry about it. I just write.
  5. There are no alerts or notifications popping up to bug me. I try to leave my phone somewhere else when I write so that I don’t have to worry about that distraction either.

There are still interruptions. Kelly or the kids might ask me for something while I am writing, and these are welcome interruptions. I’ve been making extensive use of the margins to jot down notes, especially if I think an interruption will take me away for an extended period of time.

So far, I like using the notebook approach. It is the most distraction-free writing approach I have yet encountered.

What happens when I complete the first draft? At that point, I’ll do what I usually do: I’ll set the story aside for a while. When I come back to it, I’ll read it, mark it up, and I’ll do the second draft—which for me is usually the best part of writing—in Scrivener. I can afford more distractions once I know what the story is about, and I almost never know that until the first draft is completed.

What I Read in May 2018

I set a personal record in May for the most reading I’ve done since I’ve kept my list. I managed to read about 5,500 pages spread over 14 books. Here are the books I read in May (bold titles are recommended):

  1. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
  2. In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy
  3. Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson
  4. Brave Companions: Portraits in History by David McCullough
  5. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester
  6. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of the Lost World by Steve Brusatte
  7. Factfulness: Ten Reasons Why We’re Wrong About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling
  8. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockerfeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow
  9. The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling
  10. The Outsider by Stephen King
  11. Irons in the Fire by John McPhee
  12. Pet Sematary by Stephen King
  13. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
  14. The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing by Norman Mailer

I think the book that most surprised me was The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling. Going into it, I knew it was a book of essays Liebling had written on boxing, but I had no idea how good it would turn out to be.

Through the end of May, I’ve now read 50 books in 2018. The most I’ve previous read is 58 books, and that was for all of 2017. So 2018 is turning into a breakout year in terms of how much I am reading, and I am happy about that.

What did you read in May?

The Nine Billion Names of Science Fiction

I was saddened to learn that Gardner Dozois died over the weekend. I’d seen him on several occasions, at various conventions, but only ever spoke to him once. Many of the online tributes to Gardner speak of his shyness, but I was always wary of introducing myself to him. His was a Big Name and I was virtually unknown.

I was forced to overcome this shyness one evening at Worldcon in Chicago a few years back. I was sitting in the SFWA suite, and Allen Steele pulled me out of a conversation I was having—literally took my arm and said, “You need to come with me right now.” I followed him into the back rooms of the suite, and Allen introduced me to Gardner, saying, “This is the guy I was telling you about.” I spent the next hour our so sitting in a room with Gardner, and Mike Resnick, and others, listening to them talk, just listening, and it was wonderful.

I was present for an amazing “panel” discussion that included Gardner, and George R. R. Martin at Capclave back in 2013. It was standing-room only, and I stood near the back for two hours, laughing harder than I’d laughed in years. Gardner told stories from his days in the army, and the refrain across the convention the following day went something like: “IF YOU DO (X) YOU WILL DIE.” You had to be there.

Gardner’s annual Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies were my crash course in modern science fiction, writing, and storytelling. I came into the field with a very narrow list of authors that I’d read. The stories in Gardner’s anthologies gave me what felt like a graduate degree in science fiction, to say nothing of countless hours of enjoyment.

I don’t read much science fiction these days. Don’t get me wrong. I still love it. But my interests have shifted over time. It means I don’t read many of the bright new writers coming into the field. That skews my perspective. When I saw the news of Gardner’s passing, I thought of the ending of Arthur C. Clarke’s story, “The Nine Billion Names of God.” For me it seems like star after star is winking out of the science fiction world.

I have to remind myself that Gardner himself was a supernova. He was a nursery for new stars. And while his star may have winked out, there are thousands that he helped create that still shine brightly, and will continue to do so for generations to come.

Ringside with A.J.

I’ve never considered myself a boxing fan. Outside of what I’ve seen in the Rocky movies, there isn’t a whole lot I know about the sport. And yet here I am with an unfamiliar desire to sit in the stands with a crowd, and a box of over-buttered popcorn, and see a boxing match for myself. And it’s entirely A.J. Liebling’s fault.

I knew nothing of Liebling until last spring when I read Assignment To Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A. J. Liebling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle by Timothy M. Gay. It was my favorite book of 2017.  Then, in the fall, I came across Modern Library’s list of the top 100 nonfiction books. I scoured the list to see what I had ready, and there, in the midst of some remarkable nonfiction titles like The Education of Henry AdamsBlack Boy, and The Making of the Atomic Bomb (all of which I have read) was The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling.

I looked up the book and learned it was a collection of essays that Liebling, a lifelong boxing fan, had written on the sport. I had no idea what the book might be like. Could essays on boxing be interesting? I decided to give the book a chance. I’m glad I did.

The essays were written in the 1950s. Television was beginning to creep into American life, and Liebling was openly resentful. In the essays that followed, I understood why. Television dealt a knock-out blow to the sport as it had been for several centuries. Liebling wrote about boxing the way the best baseball writers write about baseball. The sport is background. It’s the people who make up the sport that make it interesting. And Liebling’s essay made boxing seem fascinating.

He described the sport outside the ring. It was in small, sweaty gyms, where real names had long been forgotten in place of nicknames. He captured the language of the sport, as rich as baseballs, and so pervasive that there are websites that list the many (50+) common phrases we use today whose etymologies can be traced to boxing. In Liebling’s essays, the action in the ring was postscript, or perhaps parenthetical. He brought the sport to life in a way that seeing it on TV never did for me.

Reading Liebling’s essays, I felt like he was my companion–or I his. I followed him to gyms, climbed into weary cabs and listened to him chat to the equally weary cab drivers about the fight that had just taken place. I went with him to bars and taverns, and to Madison Square Garden and now and then, I watched a fight with him.

It impressed and saddened me. Sportswriting has changed so much since Liebling’s day. This is as true for baseball as I imagine it is for boxing. Shorter attention spans require more glamour. Writers write about the rich lifestyle of quarterbacks, and starting pitchers, and the airplanes that boxers own. But Liebling wrote about people and the kind of symbiotic relationship they had with the sport. The people were the sport. One could not be separated from the other. Red Smith wrote this way. Roger Angell wrote this way. While I can’t say that no one is writing sports this way today, I’ve been hard-pressed to find it.

Maybe it isn’t the writing that has changed so much as the sports. Or the writers writing about the sports. Maybe there’s no longer an audience. Television, Liebling would say in disgust. There was something that A.J. Liebling could do in a few thousand words that captured the heart of boxing in the way a well-trained photography captures the perfect moment in time in single photo. In his essays, I could see everything that boxing ever was, and everything that it ever would be.

Spoiler Alert!

I am reading Stephen King’s new novelOutsider, and really enjoying it. It is the most intense King novel I have read since his 2014 novel Revival. I did, however, want to caution friends and readers who are also King fans that if you have not read the third book in the Bill Hodges series, there are spoilers in this book.

As it happens, I read the first two Bill Hodges books, Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers when they were first released. However, I never got around to reading the final book in the trilogy, End of Watch–at least not yet. However, about halfway through Outsider, I learned (in the broad strokes, but enough to get the gist), just what happens in that third book. One of the things I love about King’s books the vast interconnections between them, and Outsider is no exception. In this case, however, I learned the fate of the characters in End of Watch in a most unexpected way.

If you haven’t read any of the Bill Hodges books, then what you read in Outsider won’t seem like anything other than backstory into some tangential characters. But if you’ve read some, but not all of them–look out for the spoilers!

Changes Coming… And New Posts, Too

You may have noticed a few changes to the site today. I’ve been absent for a while, but the desire to write has been stirring again. You can expect to start seeing new posts in the not-too-distant future.

As for the changes, I am trying to simplify and streamline the blog, strip it down to its barebones. Back when I was writing at my peak (2013-2015), social media mattered to me, though I hated to admit it, then or now. Page counts and views also mattered. I think I’ve outgrown all that, so I’ve stripped away most of the social media aspects of the site, including the sidebar, which had my Twitter feed and links to my Facebook Page. Those seem redundant and cluttering now. There have been a few behind-the-scenes changes as well.

In any case, for those still interested, look for new posts coming soon.

10 Audiobook Recommendations

My mom recently listened to her first audiobook, and enjoyed it. She was looking for some others to try out, and asked me for some recommendations. She said she likes fiction (mysteries, etc.) and history. I have listened to 215 audiobooks as of this writing. I went through my list, and picked out 10 book I thought she’d enjoy, based on the subject and the quality of the narrator. In case there is anyone else looking for recommendations, here is the list I gave my mom:

Biography/Memoir

  1. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (narrated by The Boss).
  2. The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life by John Le Carre (narrated by the author)
  3. Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (narrated by Alfred Molina)

History

  1. The Men Who United the States by Simon Winchester (narrated by the author). As I said to my mom, I love Winchester’s narration. I could listen to him read the phone book, if phone books still existed.
  2. Assignment to Hell: The War Against Nazi Germany with Correspondents Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A. J. Leibling, Homer Bigart, and Hal Boyle by Timothy M. Gay (narrated by Walter Dixon)
  3. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin (narrated by the late Edward Herman)

Fiction

  1. 11/22/63: A Novel by Stephen King (narrated by Craig Wasson). My current favorite book and narrator. I loved Wasson as Jake Epping so much that I have avoided listening to other audiobooks he’s narrated, simply because to me, he is Epping.
  2. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (narrated by Joe Barrett). Barrett does a marvelous job with Owen Meany’s unique voice.
  3. Joyland by Stephen King (narrated by Michael Kelly).

Bonus

  1. The Longest Road by Philip Caputo (narrated by Pete Larkin).

Note that this is not a list of my favorite books, although I recommend all of them. This is a list of 10 books I think mean great listens if you are new to audiobooks and want an idea of what a great book combined with great narration can be like.

Have other suggestions? I’ll pass them along.

Two Sequels

There are two books I’ve been waiting for a long time. No, not The Winds of Winter or The Doors of Stone. I’m talking about two nonfiction sequels. As of today, one of them is in my hands. The other, I recently learned, is coming later this year.

Back in 1999, Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace published a massive history of New York City called Gotham. The book won the 1999 Pulitzer for history. I read the book in 2006 and I absolutely loved it. The 1,400 page book (the longest book I have read) covered the history of New York City from its founding until 1898. Somewhere, I learned that this was just the first of a series of books on the history of the city, and that a sequel was in the works. It took nearly 20 years, but I now hold that sequel in my hands.

Greater Gotham is not as long as its older sibling, coming in at a mere 1,200 pages. Yet, while Gotham covered centuries, Greater Gotham‘s 1,200 pages covers just two decades, 1899 – 1919. The book is just as beautifully done as the first, and I can’t wait to read it, although I fear it will be a while before I get to it. That’s okay. I’ve waiting 12 years. I can wait a little longer.

Back in 2005, I devoured Gary Giddins’s Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, covering Bing’s life from his birth to just before the Second World War. That was another book for which a sequel was promised. I waited and waited. Now and then I searched message boards for hints of when the book might come out. There were always rumors. It was on; it was off; it was written, but there was no publisher, etc., etc. Then, after learning of Greater Gotham, I thought I’d search for “Gary Giddins” and see what came up.

What came up was Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946. The book comes out in November, just in time for me to read on my winter vacation.

I’ve been looking forward to both these books for a long time. Now I have one, and before the end of the year, I’ll have the other. And I have a feeling that both will be worth the wait.

Speed “Reading”

I started listening to audiobooks five years ago. I wanted to read more. With an audiobook, I could read while doing other things: exercising, walking, driving, doing chores around the house. Since then, I’ve listened to nearly 200 audiobooks. The switch to audiobooks has allowed me add an additional 4,200 pages per year over my reading without audiobooks.

But I am still not entirely satisfied with how much I am reading. Every now and then, I see a statistic that puts me in my place. I recently saw some stat that claims Stephen King has read well over 10,000 books. King is older than me, of course, but even at my recent pace, I’d never make it to 10,000 books in my lifetime. About 18 months ago, I began listening to audiobooks at 1.25x speed. This allowed me to finish a book faster and squeeze more reading into the same amount of time. It required a minor mental adjustment, but I’ve since grown so used to it that 1x speed seems artificially slow.

Not long ago, I did some math. After seeing that Stephen King stat, I wondered what I could do to squeeze in more reading. What was in the realm of the possible, given the reality of my busy life? According to my data, the average time length of an audiobook that I read is about 19 hours. This translates roughly into 450 printed pages. What if I tried to commit to getting in 3-1/2 hours of reading every day?

The math told me that at that at a speed of 1.25x, a 19 hour audiobook can be listened to in about 15 hours. At a rate of 3.5 hours per day, I can finish a book, on average, once every 4 days, or so. Beginning in November, I put this plan into effect, with a good deal of success, as the chart from my Audible app below illustrates.

At that pace, in a full year, I should be able to get through about 90 average length books. I tend toward longer books, but all things being equal, I rounded that number to 80 books per year. That’s 800 books in a decade. Given that I’ve already got 720 under my belt since I started counting in 1996, and if I can hope for four more good decades, I can expect to read about 4,000 books. Still, nowhere near Stephen King’s number.

This weekend, I started reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, a massive 1,100 page volume, which, in terms of audio time is nearly 50 hours. I decided once again, to up the pace, and began listening to the book at 1.5x speed. I thought this would be too fast, but after a year and half at 1.25x speed, 1.5x did not seem so bad. About 20 hours into the book, and I’m completely used to it by now. Doing this required me to reevaluate my math to see how it impacts my reading in the long run.

At 1.5x, I can finish a 19 hour book in about 12-1/2 hours. At a pace of 3.5 hours per day, that’s a book every 3.5 days. This translates to about 100 books per year, 1,000 books per decade, and perhaps nearly 5,000 books in my lifetime.

At this point in my life, 3.5 hours of listening/day is my theoretical limit. There are days when I manage 4, 5, even 6 hours, but there are an equal number of days where I manage only 2 or 2-1/2 hours. I’m also skeptical that listening at a speed beyond 1.5x would gain me anything. I think at those speeds, my enjoyment, and understanding would suffer.

I’m content with these number, for now. It is the best I can do. But I do marvel at people who can read 10,000, or 15,000 books in a lifetime.

Essaying on Essays

I am reading E. B. White and thinking a lot about essays. Last week I read Essays By E. B. White. Today I am reading One Man’s Meat. White has rapidly become one of my favorite essayists, along with Andy Rooney, Al Martinez, John McPhee, and Isaac Asimov. One Man’s Meat is a collection of essays White wrote for Harpers in the early 1940s. Reading the book makes me wish I was an essayist, too. I suppose, to some extent, I am.

As a recent commenter pointed out on an earlier post, “semantic shift” is a fancy way of describing how the meaning of words change over time. “Post” has, in my mind, evolved into a kind of synonym for “essay” and since I’ve written more than 6,000 posts on this blog, I suppose I could make a legitimate claim at being an essayist.

I like the word essay better than post. One seems more formal than the other. Posts can often be little more than incoherent ramblings, where essays have structure and purpose. Someone like E. B. White is a master of the form, and though I’ve written thousands of essays, I feel like I am as far from being a master as when I started writing on the blog 13 years ago.

What strikes me as interesting is that the essays that I read by White, Rooney, Asimov, and others, don’t seem to follow the form of essay that I was taught to write in school. Back then, the Five Paragraph Essay was king. In the first paragraph you would state your thesis. In paragraphs two, three, and four, you would defend your thesis with argument. Paragraph four was to contain a counter-argument, which you could then rebut, e.g., “Some might argue that… however, when one considers…” The fifth and final paragraph was to restate your thesis. Except when a grade depended on adhering to the form, I’m not sure I ever deliberately wrote an essay like that. The five-paragraph form is to an essay what color-by-numbers is to art.

E. B. White occasionally described his struggles writing essays. So did Andy Rooney. Draft after draft would come through the typewriter until the result was satisfactory. Never great in the author’s mind, merely satisfactory. When I write fiction, I always write at least two, and often three drafts. However, when I write essays, it is almost always the first draft that goes out the door. I’ve often thought this is a bad habit to be in, but it’s a difficult habit to break. I often want to write more than one draft of an essay, but on those rare occasions when I do, they seem to lose some of their liveliness. I’ve learned to leave them alone. Maybe that’s why I wish I was an essayist, instead of feeling like I am one.

The Scantron Test

Sitting in the school carpool, waiting to drop off the kids, I said, “Good luck on the Scantron testing today.” It is Scantron testing week at their school, a time when students are urged to have a good breakfast before school each morning, presumably because that will improve their Scantron test performance.

“Thanks,” said one voice.

“We’re not doing it in first grade,” said the other.

“Scantron tests always bugged me,” I said. “I worried more about whether I was filling in the bubbles correctly than I did about selecting the correct answer.”

“We don’t fill in bubbles,” came the voice from the back.

“What do you mean?”

“The test is on the computer.”

This remark stunned me. I was only the honking of the cars in line behind me that brought me back to my senses. I pulled into the carpool lane, saw the kids off to their classes, and drove on. For the rest of the day, I brooded. How can a test be called a “Scantron” when it is computerized? Isn’t Scantron a portmanteau, combining “scanning” with the ubiquitous “-tron” that gives words a futuristic flavor. You fill in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil, and the completed sheets are scanned through a machine, which records the correct and incorrect responses. There is no scanning involved when you take the test on a computer.

The drive back to the house took five minutes. I spent the entire time thinking about words that have lost their original meanings, as well as words that have been replaced by other, lesser words. As I was in the car at the time, I considered how I always liked the word “motorist” better than “driver” and “automobile” better than “car.” It occurred to me that “automobile” could make a comeback when self-driving cars hit the scene with regularity. “Self-driving” is awkward. But what we think of as a self-driving car is truly an automobile.

I prefer “motion picture” or just plain “picture” to “movie.” Movie has a slang feel to it. It is not the Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences that hands out the Oscar Awards each year. Going to see a picture sounds more glamorous to me than going to see a movie. I still refer to self-contained collections of music as “records” instead of “albums” or “playlists.” I would love to keep “banker’s hours” even though bankers no longer do.

I looked at Scantron’s website, and they are all about the digital age. It looks like they still provide the “Classic” version with the white and green sheets, but I suspect its use has waned. It makes sense that Scantron would keep up with technology changes. What bothers me, I suppose, is that what I know as Scantron no longer exists in the world my kids live in. It is one more sign of the relentless passage of time.

This phenomenon needs a name. What do you call a word that no longer means what it once meant? Probably there is a word for that, too. But what do you call the mechanism by which you see if a word no longer retains its original meaning? I think we should call this the Scantron Test.