My Fragmented Days

All I wanted to do yesterday afternoon was sit down and watch a movie. I’d picked Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy because I’d been listening to John Le Carré’s new memoir and thought it would make for an interesting pairing. The movie isn’t particularly long. But it took me something like five hours to get through it. Kelly had taken the two older kids to the movies, and I was home with the baby, and so of course there were interruptions. I’d pause the movie, and take care of the baby, then return to the movie.

All of this gave the film a disjointed feel that had nothing to do with the filmmaker’s intentions. Some of the pauses were brief—five minutes to change a diaper. Others were more extended—half an hour as I took the baby out for a walk so that they’d calm down a bit. Each time, I’d resume the film, with less and less attachment to it. Each time, I’d come back with less and less interest in what was happening.

It occurred to me at some point during this process that I cannot recall the last time I watched a movie straight through without interruption. If I had to guess, I’d says it’s been years. Even at the rare times I get to the movie theater, the kids are usually with us, and one or both will inevitably need to use the restroom just as things are getting exciting.

I was struck, at some point yesterday afternoon, with the sudden desire to see a movie straight through without interruption. And I felt a bit of momentary despair at the thought that it would not likely be possible for some years to come. In many respects, I’ve accepted this. In my writing, I’ve adapted to it. I’ve learned to be able to write surrounded by noise, and constant interruptions. But still, it would be nice to be able to put on a movie and watch the whole thing, end-to-end, in a single sitting.

This helps describe part of the reason I rarely watch shows on live television anymore. It’s not so much that commercials bother me—many of them are, in fact, very clever. But commercials are like the fragmentation grenades of story-telling. They make hash of the storylines. Their strategically placed interruptions in the story are thwarted by their increasing length. Sure, I want to know what happens next. But after four minutes of commercials, I really don’t care that much about that story.

Interestingly, this interrupt-driven annoyance seems to apply mainly to television and movies. Consider, for instance, reading a novel. That is almost equally interrupt-driven—at least for me, since rare is the time when I can read a novel cover-to-cover in a single sitting. But I do read them, sometimes just a few pages as a time, other times for hours. The kids will come by and ask for things. I’ll stop reading to take them to soccer games, or pick them up from school. Usually, I can pick up and resume where I left off without much fuss. Unlike with television or movies, I don’t lose interest in quite the same way.

But even with reading, I find the interruptions can spoil the enjoyment on occasion. And rarely can I find the tie to read for more than 30 minutes at a sitting without some sort of interruption taking place.

Often times the interruptions are delightful. My kids want to show me something, or the family is heading out for some activity. But these fragmented days do take their toll on my ability to draw enjoyment from something as simple as watching a movie.

Given the choice, I’d rather be out doing things with the family than sitting at home watching a movie. But every now and then, it sure would be nice to be able to sit down in front of the TV, and put on a movie, and watch the whole thing, end-to-end, without interruption.

I have a feeling those days are mostly behind me now.

Taking the Day Off

I‘m taking the day off from the blog. Did some furniture shopping, spent time with the family, and in general, tried to relax today. In the meantime, here’s a picture from the Little Man’s final soccer game of the season yesterday. Could be the last of the fall colors here in northern Virginia?

Fall colors

Re-Reading John Adams by David McCullough to Remember What It’s All About

John Adams by David McCullough
Yesterday, I set aside Stephen King’s Wizard and Glass in order to re-read David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography John Adams. In times of chaos, I often take solace in history, and no book is better at reminding me what this country of ours is all about than McCullough’s biography. This is my third time reading the book.

The first time I read it was when it first came out, way back in 2001. I was skeptical going into it. After all, John Adams was our second President, and where was the interest in that? But I did read it and I was blown away. Adams quickly rose on my list of favorite Presidents. Note that I don’t say best Presidents, just favorites. His intelligence, integrity, honor, and honesty were impressive. And it didn’t hurt that he admired book as much as I do.

I recall a summer evening in Castine, Maine in 2001. There was no moon, and everyone in the house was asleep. I lay in a small bedroom, with a light on, reading and reading, and absolutely loving the book.

The second time I read the book was a few years back in February 2014, and I think I enjoyed even more the second time around. By now, by first edition hard cover of the book is heavily annotated, and I find that I add more notes each time I read the book.

An annotated page of John Adams
I highly recommend this book as a readable, enjoyable, and highly informative history of the birth of the United States of America, the conditions leading up to that birth, and the men and women involved in leading the revolution.

Veterans Day, 2016

This Veterans Day, I am reminded of my visit to the Grave of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey in the summer of 2007. The inscription there reads:

Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British warrior
Unknown by name or rank
Brought from France to lie among
The most illustrious of the land
And buried here on Armistice Day
11 Nov: 1920, in the presence of
His Majesty King George V
His ministers of state
The chiefs of his forces
And a vast concourse of the nation
Thus are commemorated the many
Multitudes who during the Great
War of 1914 – 1918 gave the most that
Man can give life itself
For God
For King and country
For loved ones home and Empire
For the sacred cause of justice and
The freedom of the world
They buried him among the kings
Because he
Had done good toward God and
Toward
His house

Though the inscription is about British warriors, I think the sentiment applies here as well. I’m reminded of the scene in The Lord of the Rings when Aragorn tells the hobbits, “My friends, you kneel to no one.”

My thoughts today are with all those who have served, and those who are still serving our country.

How Do You Write a Story?

The Little Man knows that I am a writer, and the other day he asked me, “How do you write a story?” I gave him a paternal smile. I’d been waiting for this question for a long time and was eager to answer it. I said, “Well, a story has three parts, a beginning, a middle, and an ending.”

“Yeah, but how do you write a story,” the Little Man repeated. “How do you know what the beginning is?”

“Well…” I said, my smile beginning to fade, “you, um…” Here I faltered. I realized that I was giving the Little Man the theory. But he wasn’t asking for theory. He could care less about theory. What he wanted to know what how I wrote a story. And that question is much harder to answer, mainly because I don’t really know the answer.

Here is what I can say about how I write a story:

1. It usually takes two independent ideas for me to get started. At least, that’s the case with stories I consider to be successful ones1. One idea is rarely enough. Two ideas, floating about separately, but coming together unexpectedly is like the flint and steel that creates a spark. When I have that spark, I’m usually ready to get started.

An example of this is my story “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown.” I had an idea that I wanted to write a story about a woman playing professional baseball. That idea by itself wasn’t enough. At the same time, however, I had a strong desire to write a Sports Illustrated-like long-form profile. I wanted, temporarily at least, to be a baseball writer like Roger Angell. It occurred to me that maybe I could write a story that read like a profile—and that the profile would be about a woman who played professional baseball. The result was “Gemma Barrows,” probably my personal favorite of all of the stories I’ve published.

2. I usually have an idea of how I think the story will end. Generally, when I start writing a story, I have some notion of how I think it will end. This is not always how the stories ends. Sometimes, things drift off in unexpected directions. But I’ve found that it is easier for me to get started if I have some target to aim for—even if ends up being a moving target.

3. I usually have some sense of how I want to tell the story. This is a combination of the tone of the story, the voice I want to use, and the structure.

4. I fidget a lot at the beginning. This is the part that is almost impossible to put into words. My favorite description for writing a story—the one that most closely matches how I work—is something Stephen King has said. He describes stories as “found things.” They are like fossils buried in the earth. A small piece is visible to you at the beginning. You slowly begin digging around it, uncovering more and more of the fossil, revealing its secrets as you go. But even I don’t know what that fossil is or looks like until is it fully revealed.

The act of uncovering that fossil is almost impossible for me to describe. About all I can say is that I fidget a lot at the beginning. As I try to find the direction that the fossil is buried in the earth, I flounder. The story is little more than fragments in my head. I’ve uncovered only the smallest sliver of petrified bone. But as I flounder, and dig, I can start to see more and more of it, and eventually, I can see the whole thing.

5. I tell myself the story first. All of this floundering goes into the first draft. I am telling myself the story so that I know it. Once I know the story, I can try to make it interesting to readers other than myself.

6. I rewrite the story. My second draft is always a complete rewrite. I have the first draft on one half of the screen, and a blank draft on the other half, and I begin the process of rewriting the story. This time, however, I’ve told myself the story. I already know what happens. I know that a thing that happens towards the end, might be made even more significant if I add something toward the beginning. This is my favorite part of the writing process because I take the story that I’ve told myself, and dress it up. I imagine it is similar to the raw footage taken for scenes in a movie, that are ultimately edited together, with special effects and a great soundtrack thrown in to produce the final effect.

Once the story is finished, proofread, and sent out, I want to have little to do with it again. For me, the thrill is in the process of creation. Once the thing is finished, and out in the world, it is, in some sense, no longer mine. Readers will add their own interpretations to it, and what I have to say about it matters little. At this point, I am already seeking out the next set of ideas that will spark another story.

  1. My definition of “success” is a story that I ultimately sell.

6,100 Posts

This post is actually my 6,101st post. But I happened to notice this evening that the post count for this here blog of mine was sitting at 6,100.

6100 posts

That’s 6,100 posts going back over ten years now, but still, that’s an average of more than 610 posts a year, or about 1.67 posts per day. I’m always skeptical when people refer to themselves as “experts” in one area or another. I see it all the time in the IT world. Someone with 2 years of experience is an “expert” in database management, someone with 3 years of experience is an expert in project management. Maybe they are, but I’m skeptical. There are things I’ve been doing for a long time that I wouldn’t consider myself an expert in.

But I think it’s safe to say that I’ve gotten pretty good at this blogging thing. I’ve got consistency (with a few gaps), I’ve got what I think is pretty good content, and I’ve got a great bunch of readers. I’m not going out to LinkedIn and adding a skill or anything, but I think that with 6,100 posts over 10 years, I’ve gotten in close to my 10,000 hours on this particular skill set. Give me another 10,000 hours and I might be ready to admit in print that I am, indeed, an expert at this.

The Baby, The Ball, and Julie Andrews

Crying babies are designed to get under your skin. After all, they can’t take care of themselves. They need you to do it for them. Ellie is a good baby, but she cries quite a bit. Part of it is reflux, for which we give her medicine, but for which we are otherwise helpless. With our first two kids, the crying often really got to me. But it hasn’t been that way with Ellie. For the most part, I’ve handled it pretty well, I think. In fact, I’ve even learned from past experience. I have a trick that works (so far) 100% of the time to get her to stop crying. There are three phases to this little trick.

  1. Pick up the baby. I whisper to her, tell her that I’m here, and it’s okay. She usually calms down a bit, still crying, but not the high-pitch, chalkboard scratching wail that she’d been doing before.
  2. Put her in my lap, sit on the exercise ball in my office, and start bouncing. This calms the rest of the way, almost at once. I bounce and bounce, and she calms down, and relaxes.
  3. Put on Julie Andrews singing, “Stay Awake” from Mary Poppins. Play it on repeat. This will eventually but Ellie to sleep.

So far this has worked every time I’ve tried it. The only problem is, it is exhausting to me, too. I’m sure it is a good core exercise, but boy-oh-boy do I feel it afterward!

Andrew Sullivan on Distraction Sickness

On this week’s episode of the Track Changes podcast, co-host Rich Ziade mentioned a recent piece in New York magazine by Andrew Sullivan, former successful, professional blogger. The title of the piece is “I Used to Be A Human Being” and centers around Sullivan’s increasing disquiet with the hyper-connected world we live in, and living the online life. As one who has often felt the draw of that online life, and the thrill of seeing the attention that something I say online accrues, I read the piece with interest, and it was a worthwhile read.

Early in the post, Sullivan writes,

We absorb this “content” (as writing or video or photography is now called) no longer primarily by buying a magazine or paper, by bookmarking our favorite website, or by actively choosing to read or watch. We are instead guided to these info-nuggets by myriad little interruptions on social media, all cascading at us with individually tailored relevance and accuracy. Do not flatter yourself in thinking that you have much control over which temptations you click on. Silicon Valley’s technologists and their ever-perfecting algorithms have discovered the form of bait that will have you jumping like a witless minnow. No information technology ever had this depth of knowledge of its consumers — or greater capacity to tweak their synapses to keep them engaged.

In my case, at least, there is truth to this. I’ve been victim to the relentless pull of click-bait from time-to-time, curious by slugs like “20 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Died Before 40,” and similar ilk. None of this is more obvious than in a close election year, when the cacophony of online voices vying for audience is almost deafening. Trying to penetrate is like trying to identify a single voice in the roar of a stadium crowd. No wonder tactics have evolved to grab eyeballs.

Sullivan then goes on to the more practical matter of how this engagement affects us, or him, at any rate, and again, I recognized myself in some of what he wrote.

A small but detailed 2015 study of young adults found that participants were using their phones five hours a day, at 85 separate times. Most of these interactions were for less than 30 seconds, but they add up.

I am far from the days when I could be considered a young adult, but I can related to the person Sullivan describes. Silence of any kind compels me to check my phone. Elevator silences, standing among a car full of vertical writers, draws my phone from my pocket the way the moon draws the tides. I crave quiet moments, I find myself envious of people like Henry David Thoreau. And still, the relentless gravity well of the Internet draws at me. Part of the reason, is the social animal in all of us. As Sullivan writes,

The interruptions often feel pleasant, of course, because they are usually the work of your friends. Distractions arrive in your brain connected to people you know (or think you know), which is the genius of social, peer-to-peer media.

But there is a darker side to this, one that I’ve been hesitant to admit to myself:

We were hooked on information as eagerly as sugar. And give us access to gossip the way modernity has given us access to sugar and we have an uncontrollable impulse to binge. A regular teen Snapchat user, as the Atlantic recently noted, can have exchanged anywhere between 10,000 and even as many as 400,000 snaps with friends. As the snaps accumulate, they generate publicly displayed scores that bestow the allure of popularity and social status. (Bolded text is mine)

How many more followers will this tweet garner? How many likes will I get? How many people have seen this post today? What, not enough? Do I need to write something more to surpass the thousand, two thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand views I had yesterday?

This is an ugly side to social media (not the only ugly side) and one that I’ve been reluctant to admit that I am guilty of participating in. Another dark side to this life on the Internet is the life you are missing all around you:

But of course, as I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it.

I have been equally guilty of this. I’ve sat in my home office, while my kids have asked me questions, or asked for help, and I’ve put them off with, give me five minutes to finish this post. Give me a few minutes to wrap things up online. Then, when we’re out doing things together, I find my mind wandering to, “Hey wouldn’t this make an interesting post?” and “I should take a picture of this and put it on Instagram.”

This distinction between online life and real life was a clear wake up call to Sullivan. And while I don’t think things are quite as extreme in my case (or perhaps, I am just unwilling to admit it), I found myself reading this piece, nodding, and saying, yeah, yeah, that’s it. That’s it exactly. As Roland of Gillead might say, “You understand me very well.”

Don’t expect an overnight change. And don’t get me wrong. There are things about social media that I love. Blogging, especially, is a creative outlet that I wish I had even as a kid. No matter how often I hear that the blog is dead, I still come here and write because I love the medium. But, small changes here and there… are they even possible?

Since graduating from college way back in 1994, I feel like I’ve changed from someone who was perfectly okay with down time to someone who feels the need to be doing something at every waking moment of the day. Even doing nothing, I feel like I should be listening to an audiobook. I find it almost impossible to sit in silence and do nothing. Or, as Sullivan writes:

Yes, online and automated life is more efficient, it makes more economic sense, it ends monotony and “wasted” time in the achievement of practical goals. But it denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes with accomplishing daily tasks well, a denial perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom such tasks are also a livelihood — and an identity.

In any event, Sullivan’s piece is worth reading and pondering. His might be an extreme case, given his voracious appetite to produce content, but it does stand as a cautionary tale that we can all learn from. I find myself wondering:

  • Can I manage to walk to the grocery store without take my phone with me?
  • Can I stroll around Burke Lake with my family without feeling the need to snap photos of the fall foliage and immediately post them to Instagram?
  • Do these experiences need to be shared in realtime with the rest of the world as if I am on some kind of stage?

And perhaps, most importantly: Where is the right balance? One of Kelly’s favorite expressions is “everything in moderation.” What does moderation look like in an infinite galaxy of ever-changing content?

Election Results, 2016

I generally try to avoid politics here, but it given the gravity and global impact of yesterday’s election, it would be a noticeable omission to say nothing about the election results.

I’m still processing this, and like many people (on both sides I imagine), I’m pretty stunned. I think it will be a few days, or a week even before we start to see how things shake out, and how the reaction is absorbed by the country as a whole. There will be initial jolts, pendulum swings, but I expect they’ll be moderated over the course of the next several days. In the meantime, John Scalzi has written up some early thoughts that I think are worth reading.

A Question for My U.K. Readers On a Post I Wrote About Marigold Churchill

A little over 2 years ago, in the summer of 2014, I read William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill. While reading that biography, I wrote a post titled, “The Death of Marigold Churchill” in which I described how reading about the Churchill’s daughter’s death at nearly 3 years old affected me. I wrote,

Today, while on my morning walk, Churchill’s youngest daughter (at the time), died. Marigold Churchill was 2 years and 9 months old at the time of her death, and the descriptions of the scene, with her asking her mother to sing the popular tune “Bubbles” to her, brought a flood of tears to my eyes, making it almost dangerous to continue walking.

Now, most posts like this get some views for a day, maybe a week, and then vanish into the noise. After all, with nearly 6,100 posts, not much stands out.

But this one has been different. This one frequently appears at the top of the list for a given day, and sometimes, spikes remarkable high. Here is a history of the views of this post over the last two years.

Stats for Marigold Churchill Post

Take note of February, March, and September 2016. There were thousands of views of this post each of those months. And while 2016 is not quite over, there have been over 10,000 views of the post just this year alone.

A large portion of these views appear to come from the U.K. I was wondering if any of my U.K. readers could explain the strange popularity of this post. It is definitely an unusual volume of views for a post I’ve written on something that I’ve read.

If you have any ideas, drop them in the comments. I’m honestly curious.

We Voted!

I voted in my 7th Presidential election today. Kelly and I walked over to the polling place together at 10 am. There was a line–a first for our polling place–but it took only 5 minutes to get through the line. Probably because of the time of day.

We voted, got our “I VOTED” stickers, but even better, we took the baby with us, and she got a FUTURE VOTER sticker, which was pretty cool! Who knew they even had such stickers.

Future Voter

I’ve still got all election news filtered out of my Twitter feed. I’ve got a lot of work to do today and need to avoid the distractions until later this evening. Then I’ll start to peek at how things are going.

Getting Into Shape is Like Writing a Novel

Ten years ago, I was probably close to the best shape of my life. I’d been working with a personal training, learning the right way to exercise, and eat healthy. I posted my workouts regularly back then, and I did so ten years ago today–which also happened to be an election day (mid-term election).

Over the course of the last year, I’ve felt increasingly out-of-shape. It is amazing how much can change in ten years. I was always a skinny kid, and until I turned 40, a relatively skinny adult. Since turning 40 my weight has steadily climbed, and more than that, I’ve felt out-of-shape. I see other people in their mid-40s who seem to be in good shape, and envy them. And so I finally took action, and started working out again.

I’ve done it just twice so far, Sunday and Monday, and I’m starting out easy. 30 minutes of cardio, some crunches, and some very light weights. This time around, I noticed something funny about trying to get into shape: the process is remarkably similar to writing a novel.

  1. You start at the beginning, from scratch, with nothing but an idea of what you want to be or achieve. This isn’t much different from starting a novel, facing the blank page, and knowing that the thing won’t be done until hundreds of those blank pages have been filled, edited, proofread, revised.
  2. It is a cumulative process. Any single day doesn’t make much of a difference. I got off of the elliptical machine on Sunday, and was not in shape. One workout did nothing. It’s like a single writing session in the course of a long novel. You write page, five pages, ten pages. But on that first day, all of you have is a small fraction of what you need to get there.
  3. Each day makes a huge difference in that it is part of a cumulative effort. I know this seems to contradict the previous point, but in my experience, the main reason novels (or short stories, for that matter) don’t get written is because they are never started. The significance of that first day on the elliptical was as important as the first day writing a novel. I actually got started. I got off my butt and took action. It’s just one day, but there will be a second, and a third.
  4. Results creep in over the long haul. Write a little bit every day, as I’ve learned, an before long, you have half a novel, and then a full novel draft. The same is true with getting into shape. The first workout seems almost ineffectual. But it is an important part of the long haul. The long haul is made of individual efforts.

I’ve been so spoiled by the instant gratification of Amazon, iTunes, and similar services, that I’ve come to expect it with everything. But there are some things that you have to work hard for to see results. Like writing a novel, or starting from scratch in your mid-40s to try to get back into shape.

I look at some of the workouts I used to do, like this one, and wonder if I’ll ever get back there:

Group 1                1st Set      2nd Set      3rd Set
-------                -------      -------      -------
Chest press              7/160       11/120       12/120
Kickbacks              12/30LR      15/30LR      15/30LR
Crunches                    30           30           35

Group 2                1st Set      2nd Set      3rd Set
-------                -------      -------      -------
Lat pull                 12/90        12/90        12/90
Seated row               12/90        12/90        12/90
Jumping jacks               30           30           30

I just keep telling myself that it is a cumulative effort, just like working on the novel. You get in the days work, do the best you can on it. There will be good days, and bad days, but they’ll even out over time. And that is the key. Getting back into shape will take time. I think it probably took me a year when I did it 10 years ago. I’m ten years older now, so I expect that it might take longer.