Nontraditional Lullabies

When the kids were infants, I never sang them traditional lullabies. Instead, while feeding them, or rocking them to sleep at night, I sang them Bing Crosby songs.

I can’t recall exactly when or why I became a Bing Crosby fan. I think it was sometime in 1995. I walked into a record store in Studio City, where I lived at the time, and came across a boxed set of Bing Crosby music called Bing Crosby: His Legendary Years, 1931-1959. It seemed to call to me and I bought it on the spot, despite it being expensive for me at the time.

Bing Crosby: His Legendary Years

Twenty years later, I probably know about 150 Bing Crosby songs. His movies are among my favorites. It is a strange thing for someone who was 5 years old when Crosby died. But it served me well when the kids were babies.

When it was time to put them down for the night, I’d take them into their bedroom, and sit in the rocker we had in there. With the lights off, I’d cradle them in my arms, and sing to them. Sometimes, they’d fall asleep after a song or two. Other times, it could take an hour or more before they conked out.

I made a game of it. How many songs would I sing before they closed their eyes and fell asleep? Back in those days, I’d say things like, “Last night was great! A three-song night!” Other times, I’d croak, “Fifteen songs tonight!” On those nights when the kids just didn’t want to nod off, I tested my abilities by trying not to repeat a song, no matter how long it took for the kids to finally fall asleep.

On average, it probably took between six and ten songs before the kids finally slept. There was a core set list that most nights centered around. My go-to songs for a typical night were, in no particular order:

  • Whiffenpoof Song
  • Far Away Places
  • Dear Hearts and Gentle People
  • Sam’s Song
  • Gone Fishin’
  • Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral
  • Blue Hawaii
  • I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams
  • Trade Winds
  • I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Those ten songs could usually get me through the night, but sometimes, I’d have to dig deep with songs like:

  • On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe
  • The Road to Morocco
  • Be Careful, It’s My Heart
  • The Spaniard that Blighted My Life
  • Now Is the Hour
  • Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day
  • Sweet Leilani
  • Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)
  • Change Partners
  • It Might As Well Be Spring

To this day, the Little Man, who has managed to inherit my ear for lyrics and music, still know the words to songs like “Gone Fishin’” and “Far Away Places.”

For a long time, my knowledge of Bing Crosby songs, both popular and obscure, was useful mostly to entertain myself, and later, my kids. That changed last year. Knowledge of Bing Crosby came in handy in a surprising and fun way.

Our friend Melissa celebrated a big birthday and invited a bunch of her friends and family for a weekend celebration at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia. On the second night, she rented out a small local restaurant for a private party. The place was packed, the drinks were flowing, and everyone was having a blast.

Sometime well into the night, the music paused momentarily and was replaced by a brief musical band intro. At once I knew what song it was. I saw Melissa stand up to begin singing and dancing to “MacNamara’s Band” and I couldn’t resist. I got up, and in front of the restaurant full of people, the two of us began to sing, “Oh me name is MacNamara, I’m leader of the band / Although we’re few in number, we’re the finest in the land…”

We sang the whole song, from start to finish, and roared through the chorus, “Oh, the sun goes bang and the cymbals clang, and the horns they blaze away…” It is quite possible we were the only two people in the restaurant (or perhaps all of Hot Springs, Virginia) that knew the words to the song, and could sing them. I had a blast.

And I doubt that ever would have happened, if not for my desperation to learn more and more Bing Crosby songs to sing to the kids when they were babies. The songs served as untraditional lullabies, but they did the trick, and if I had to do it all over again, I would do it just the same.

Going Paperless 2.0: Searching in Evernote, Part 1 of 4: “Who”?

I get lots of questions about how I use Evernote. One of the more frequent questions I get is how to find things in Evernote. Over the years I have accumulated more than 12,000 notes in Evernote, and it is important that I can find any one of those notes quickly. Over the years, I have come up with a framework that makes it possible for me to find things quickly. Over the next four weeks, I’m going to share the framework with you.

My basic framework for searching in Evernote

Although it might be obvious now, it took me a while to figure out that the vast majority of my searches fell into one more of four categories:

  1. Who? I was searching for something related to a specific person.
  2. What? I was searching for a specific thing. A document, a form, a bill, a receipt.
  3. When? I was searching for something in a specific timeframe.
  4. Where? I was searching for something tied to a specific geographic location.

Once I figured this out, I began to alter how I used Evernote to make it easier to for me to quickly answer the “Who?”, “What?”, “When?”, and “Where?” search questions. In this week’s post, I will discuss how I answer the “Who?” question; how I search for things related to a specific person.

Next week, I’ll dive into the “what?” question; I’ll tackle the “When?” question in two weeks; and finally, I’ll address the “where?” question in three weeks.

Relating notes to people

One of the more common ways that I narrow down my search for a note is based on who the note is for. If our accountant says that she needs Kelly’s W-2 form for 2015, I could search for all of the notes tagged “taxes” and then scan through the resulting notes looking for Kelly’s W-2, but that would take a little while.

If, on the other hand, I could do a search that essentially asked, “give me all of the tax notes for Kelly” that would speed things up dramatically.

To answer the “Who?” question and related notes to people, I use tags.

Giving notes name tags

Each person that I need to be able to search for gets a name tag. Because I only need to search for a handful of people, I keep my tag grammar simple: “first name.” Thus, I have a tag for each member of the family, including myself. I also have tags for our pets.

In an organization where there are many people, I recommend using a slightly different version of this tag grammar, calling the tag “lastnamefirstname.” This way, when you look at the Tags page in Evernote, the names are sorted alphabetically by last name.

When I add note to Evernote, I ask myself if the note is related to a particular person, and if so, I tag the note with that person’s first name.

Searching for notes by name tags

With name tags in place, it makes it easy to find notes for a specific person. In fact, there are multiple ways to do this. I can go to the Tag page in Evernote and look for the person’s name in the alphabetical listing:

Evernote name tags

This has the added bonus of showing me how many tags are associated with that person. Clicking on the tag, I can go directly to a list of all the notes tagged for that person.

More often than not, however, I combine name tags with other search elements. For instance, if I wanted to search for all of Kelly’s receipts, I would type in the following in the search bar:

tag:receipt tag:kelly

Instead of just getting receipts, I get receipts that I specifically tagged with Kelly’s name:

EN Search Who 1

For me, a large portion of my searching involves searching for a document related to a person. Kelly might ask, “Do you have Zach’s latest report card?” I could search for the term “report card” and get lots of results, but instead of wading through all of them, I can make things a little easier by searching for

tag:zach report card

This gives me exactly what I am looking for:

Evernote Zach Report Card

More tips for searching by name tags

One my name tag structure was in place and I began using it regularly to relate notes to people, it became much easier to do a variety of searching.

Searching for notes related to one or more people

If I wanted to find notes that were related to me or to Kelly, I could do the following search:

any: tag:jamie tag:kelly

This shows notes that are tagged “jamie” or “kelly”. The “any:” at the beginning of the search make the search an OR search.

If I wanted to find notes that were related to me and Kelly, I could do the following:

tag:jamie tag:kelly

This would only return notes that had both of our names tags on them.

Saved searches

I can speed things up further by creating saved searches using name tag for frequently-searched for things. One example is a search for the kids’ school-related notes. Creating a saved search for each of the kids that returns their school-related notes makes it quick and easy to locate a school document. Since I also tag the kids’ school notes with the school name, it makes the saved searches easy:

For Zach: tag:zach tag:st-ann

For Grace: tag:grace tag:st-ann

I never realized how much I searched by people until I started giving notes name tags. Name tags has made searching much faster. Moreover, I am much more likely to find what I am looking for the first time around when I associate the note with a name tag.

Next week, I’ll discuss tips for searching for specific things: searches that answer the “What?” questions that I often ask.

If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let me know. Send it to me at feedback [at] As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

Last week’s post: Using Evernote to Track Library Book Due Dates.

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Writers Anxiety Dreams

Last night I had my first-ever writer’s anxiety dream. Anxiety dreams are, as I understand it, pretty common. Many of us have woken in a sweat after dreaming we’ve arrived at a mid-term or final exam only to realize we haven’t studied, or done any of the required homework. Long after I stopped flying, I used to have pilot anxiety dreams in which I would take off from a controlled airport, only to realize that I never got clearance to take off.

But I have never had an anxiety dream about writing—until last night.

The dream went like this: I had found a piece of paper with some numbers on it. For some reason that made perfect sense in the dream, the numbers fit a pattern that gave me an idea for a story centered around the numbers. I wrote the story, and I suppose I published it somehow. Not long after, I began to receive photocopies of the original paper I found with the numbers on it. Over and over and over again, the photocopies came in, and I realized, with sudden horror, that I had used those numbers without permission, plagiarizing them, essentially, and that these photo copies were the revenge being extracted on my increasingly guilty conscience.

The dream went sideways from there, as dreams often do. I tried to find out who created the original so that I could apologize and explain the misunderstanding, but each time I had a lead, I lost it. I fretted with increasing panic that everyone would think I was nothing more than a plagiarist—a fate worse than death for any writer.

I awoke in the middle of the night to great relief that it had all been a dream. But I knew, as with most anxiety dreams, that although it was the first time I’d had such a dream, it would probably not be the last.

If you are not a pilot, you probably don’t get the stress of the pilot anxiety dream. And if you are not a writer, or artist of some kind, you probably don’t get the stress of the panic-inducing plagiarism anxiety dream. But I’ll wager that any writers reading this will shudder in fear and anxiety at the though of having such a dream themselves.

As to why I had that particular anxiety dream, well, I chalk it up to an unusually high level of stress. I don’t put much stock in dream interpretation. I see dreams as a memory function of the brain. That said, I do recognize that I tend to have these anxiety dreams at moments of heightened stress. This dream was a new wrinkle on an old theme, and it infringed on activity that almost always relieves my stress: writing.

How a FitBit Encouraged My Daily Walks

I try to walk every day. Walking is the only regular form of exercise I get these days, because it is all that I have time for. Most health authorities agree on the many benefits of daily walks. For me, the most obvious benefit has been a peace of mind. On days that I walk, I feel better, more relaxed, and more alert throughout the day.

I started taking my daily walks around the same time I got my first FitBit device in the spring of 2012. I became interested in wearable devices, like a FitBit, after reading Stephen Wolfram’s essay on “The Personal Analytics of My Life.” I am fascinated by data, and I wondered what some of the charts that Wolfram displayed in his essay would look like for me. I began a search for fitness trackers, and quickly settled on FitBit.

One of the criticisms of fitness trackers is that they discourage fitness as much as they encourage it. The focus is on a particular fitness goal (10,000 steps per day). Hitting that goal feels good, but missing the goal can stimulate strong feelings of guilt. Those feelings can turn discouraging quickly.

That isn’t what happened in my case. I was fascinated by the data I collected, and for the first year or two, I monitored the data obsessively. I started with the goal of hitting the recommended 10,000 steps/day. Then I upped it to 15,000/day. And for a long time, I achieved that goal regularly.

Over time, however, I found that I enjoyed the walks more than the numbers, and my obsession with the latter began to wane. Reviewing my blog posts in 2012 and 2013, you’ll find many more posts on my walking stats than you’ll find in the years since. What really matters to me today are the walks themselves.

At work, I try to get out at least twice a day. The most focused part of my work day tends to fall between 7-10 am. There are few interruptions. I try to avoid email. My goal during those hours is to complete the most important thing I need to get done that day. At 10 am, I go out for my first walk.

A walk around the block on which my office building resides comes to almost exactly 1 mile (just about 2,000 steps, according to my FitBit). I listen to audiobooks while I walk, which allows me to get exercise, fresh air, and read all at the same time.

I walk south to the corner, past an apartment building, and then turn west, for the most scenic part of my walk. There is part to my left and nicely landscaped apartment towers to my right. The street gradually curves to the north, and I find myself in a small retail district, with apartment complexes to my left and shop to my right. This is the single longest stretch of my walk. I walk to the far corner, and turn right, along a street that runs parallel to I-395. This is the least scenic part of my walk, and the only place where I have to pause, on occasion, for traffic. I turn one final corner and I am back on the street where my office resides, and halfway down the block, I return to my starting point.

I try to walk the block twice in the morning, and three times at lunch. It varies depending on my schedule and the weather, but for the latter, I will always try to walk so long as the weather isn’t overwhelmingly against me.

The 10 am time slot used to be inviolate, but my increasingly busy schedule has made it necessary to skip now and then. I always feel worse off on the days I skip walking, not because I am not capturing the steps, but because of the sense of peace that the walk gives me. It is familiar and comforting, and something I look forward to from the moment I wake up. On my walks I see familiar faces, I see how the neighborhood changes with the changing seasons. In the first warm days of spring, the sun feels delightfully warm on my face. In the first days of fall, the cool air is refreshing.

I suspect I would never discovered this particular joy were it not for the encouragement that my first FitBit gave me to get out and walk every day. In the last year or so, my walking has declined as my life as gotten busier, but I’ve also noticed a corresponding increase in my daily stress level. It is no longer the FitBit that encourages me to get out and walk. It is the knowledge—gained from nearly 13.9 million steps since March 2012—that I feel better when I walk every day.

There has been a pleasant side-effect to all of this. As I mentioned, I listen to audiobooks while I walk. I have read scores of books on my walks, and I am often reminded of the books as I walk. The light of mid-summer sun, as I begin a walk reminds me of the few months I spent listening to a 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Snow on the ground and my breath visible in the morning air brings to mind the early winter months when I listened to Stephen King’s Christine.

And my walks don’t stop when I am out of town. There are a few places that we go each year which have become so familiar to me that I look forward to the walks there as much as my morning walks at the office. Walking to the town in Maine that we visit in the summers is always pleasant. Walking around the circumferential bike path at my in-law’s is also pleasant, particularly because, despite being December, it is warm and sunny and gorgeous to look at.

A walk in the woods with the kids
A walk in the woods with the kids

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned, thanks to my FitBit, has nothing to do with how much I walk, how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed, or how many calories I’ve burned. The most valuable lesson is that I feel better on days that I walk than I days that I don’t. My stress level is lower, I feel more cheerful, and I feel more accomplished. That lesson has been worth the cost of the device, to say nothing of the 13.9 million steps I’ve put on it over the years.

Experimenting with Ulysses

If there is a modern equivalent to a writer collecting typewriters, it is a writer collecting writing software. I have played around with lots of different writing software over the years. Among my favorites are tools like the versatile Scrivener, and the cloud-based Google Docs.

This week, I have added a new tool to my collection: Ulysses. Ulysses is a Mac and iOS-based writing tool that manages to do many of the things that I think are key to a good writing tool:

  1. It separates the content from the presentation layer. This allows me to focus on writing, and not worry about how it will look. Ulysses has all kinds of styles to which it can export a finished document. Scrivener does this very well, too, allowing you to focus on the content, and then “compiling” the finished document into the desired format.
  2. It eliminates distractions. I am not overwhelmed by icons or menus or UI elements that I will never use. It also has a nice full-screen mode. Here is what this post looked like on my 27” iMac screen as I composed it in Ulysses:

    Ulysses Full Screen

  3. It keeps things simple. Besides not having a WYSIWYG interface, the entire application is small and seems to focus only on those features that are absolutely necessary for writing. The files themselves are plain text with markup. They are stored within the application library, which abstracts even the file management to make it easy. It syncs with iCloud so that I can move from this machine to my laptop or iPad and continue my work.
  4. It has a simple theme system that makes it easy to customize the look and feel of the UI. This last point might seem like a small thing, but it is one of the main reasons that I am giving Ulysses a try. I have written elsewhere about how my favorite word process is Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS. I found a theme in Ulysses that made it easy to emulate what the screen in Word 5.5 for DOS looked like. (For those wondering, the theme I am using is a slightly customized version of Blue Screen.)

The last point might seem silly. Yet for me it is no different than a writer who pines for the old Olivetti typewriter they used to work on, and for which they can no longer find ribbon. Call it nostalgia, but something about the way Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS looked and behaved appeals to my sense of happiness in the days that I started out writing.

This is post is the very first thing I have written using Ulysses. I’ll need some time to experiment before I decide if it will work for me in the long run, but I’ve got to say I love the UI so far. If it turns out that it works for me, I’ll begin looking for ways to automate it into my other writing-related processes.

For now, if there’s anyone else out there who uses Ulysses, I’d be interested in the feedback you have. Drop your thought in the comments.

The Perfect Storm

Last week’s blizzard turned out to be a perfect storm. Schools closed on Thursday, January 21, a full day before the storm was supposed to start, thanks to a dusting of snow on Wednesday night that everyone seemed unprepared for. Schools closed again on Friday, even though the snow wasn’t scheduled to start until 3 pm. When the snow began to fall Friday afternoon, it didn’t stop until early Sunday morning, and we ended up with over two feet.

Perfect Storm

Our kids’ school was closed for the entire week that followed.

That meant the kids were home. I was trying to work from home, but Kelly was sick, and that meant our usual task-sharing teamwork was out the window. Kelly stayed in bed to get the rest she needed, and I tried my best to keep up with work, and the kids, and the chores around the house. By Wednesday, cabin fever set in, not so much for the kids as for me.

Our cat had also been losing weight, and I grew concerned as the storm approached that if he got sick, I wouldn’t be able to get him to the vet. He made it through the storm, but stopped eating, and grew lethargic. I got him to the vet for an exam on Thursday morning, and it appeared that he was anemic and had an urinary infection that antibiotics and vitamins would take care of. I gave him the first dose of medicine Thursday evening. Fifteen minutes later, I went to check on him. He’d crawled under a table, and I wanted to bring him upstairs to our room. I pulled him out from under the table, and he didn’t resist. In fact, he had died. We broke the news to the kids Friday morning.

I can think of few times in my life when I have felt depressed. But by the end of the week, the perfect storm had gotten to me. I did my best to shake it off. We mourned for our cat. I did my best to keep the kids fed, and Kelly stocked with medication, and fluids. The Little Man raced in his first Pinewood Derby and returned to basketball Saturday morning. The Little Miss attended a birthday party Friday evening. I didn’t worry so much about the house until Sunday.

On Sunday, the temperatures were warmer, and much of the snow had melted. We could drive the car around the neighborhood, and do grocery shopping. Standing out in the warm sun on Sunday, I felt like Superman, recharging. I finally tackled the house. I dismantled the litter boxes. I vacuumed the floors, and cleaned the hardwood floors, and mopped the kitchen floor. I cleaned all of the bathrooms. I reorganized the cluttered pantry. By the end of the day, I felt more or less back to myself.

I am sure that in the years to come, the family will look back on this perfect storm with a nostalgic fondness—“Remember that time that we got 2 feet of snow, and were trapped in the house for a week!” But right now, I am just glad to have made it through to the other side. And still a little sad that our cat did not.

My Favorite Places in Los Angeles

I lived in Los Angeles from October 1983 through July 2002, just shy of 20 years. We moved to L.A. from Warwick, Rhode Island. The two places couldn’t be more different. A multiplex theater—the only one in the entire state of Rhode Island—had recently been built. It was in that theater that I saw Return of the Jedi earlier in 1983. Prior to that, we saw most new movies in Fall River, Massachusetts. Los Angeles contained Hollywood, and multiplex movie theaters were everywhere.

Initially, I was excited about the move. I was moving to Hollywood. I had only the vaguest notions of what that meant. But it was exciting nevertheless. I was also moving to a place where the weather was always warm; warm relative to New England winters, at any rate. Living in L.A. was a novelty at first, but one that quickly wore off. It wasn’t long before I found I really didn’t like L.A. My dislike was, in part, in no way L.A.’s fault. I discovered, for instance, that I liked four seasons. In Los Angeles there are only two seasons: Brown, and a brief couple of weeks of Green in the spring. I didn’t like how big L.A. felt. I didn’t like the Hollywood atmosphere for the town.

I moved back east in 2002, and now that I have been here for nearly 14 years, I have enough time and distance to appreciate some of the places in Los Angeles that I liked.

For about 8 years, I lived in Studio City, a suburb of the San Fernando Valley that sits astride the north side of the Santa Monica mountains. Studio City, and its neighboring town, Toluca Lake, felt different from nearly everywhere else I visited in Los Angeles. The houses were not crowded up against one another. There were quiet neighborhoods. The streets were not jammed with traffic. It was old Hollywood. I used to take walks that would take me past the house used in exterior shots of the Brady Bunch. Around the corner, lived the character actor, Jon Polito, and he would always wave to me as I walked by and say, “Hey fella!” Mike Farrell lived somewhere nearby and I would occasionally see him riding his Harley in jeans and a t-shirt.

Toluca Lake was another place I liked in Los Angeles. I’d often eat at the Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake. Occasionally I’d eat at the Marie Callendar’s there. It was not unusual to see someone like Bob Hope or Garry Marshall. Toluca Lake was a quiet Hollywood town. Walking through the town had a completely different feel than walking through Hollywood proper.

There were two great bookstores that I frequented. The first was Dangerous Visions on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. The other was the Iliad Bookshop at its original location in North Hollywood before it moved closer to Burbank. I could spend hours wandering around those bookstores.

I worked in Santa Monica. My office overlooked the Santa Monica Pier. I’d arrive at work early in the morning to beat the traffic. Around 7 am, I’d head out for a short walk, and I loved walked along Ocean Avenue and across Colorado early in the morning when there was no fog clinging to the Pacific ocean. Sometimes, me and friend would go running along Ocean Avenue in the evenings for exercise. There was nothing quite like jogging while the sun was setting over the ocean.

SM Pier

The commute was part of what I really hated about Los Angeles. I lived 20 miles form the office, but it could easily take 2 hours to get home in the evening. I had about 10 different ways I could go, but my absolute favorite was taking the 10 to the 405 to Mulholland. The 10 and 405 were terrible, but I looked forward to the exit ramp to Mulholland. There was almost never traffic on Mulholland. It took me across the ridge between Los Angeles and the Valley. On days when the Santa Ana winds were blowing, I could see clear across the Valley on my left, and clear into down Los Angeles and out to the ocean on my right. I’d take Mulholland to Coldwater Canyon. I loved that part of the drive.

Though I’ve lived in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area for nearly 14 years now, I haven’t found walk that I enjoy as much as my walk through the quiet streets of Studio City. Nor have I found a drive that I enjoy as much as the drive across Mulholland from the 405 to Coldwater Canyon.

No Going Paperless Post This Week – Digging Out!

I have been busy digging out from the blizzard, and taking care of the kids while Kelly is under the weather, and haven’t had time to finish and post the latest Going Paperless post. And given that I have a pile of day job work, and the kids’ school still closed, and lots of cleanup still to do at home, I am going to have to punt on this week’s post. I’ll get the new post out next Tuesday.

Sorry for the hiccup in the schedule.

Newspaper Style

One side-effect of the recent blizzard here in Northern Virginia was three days (so far) without newspaper delivery. Yesterday I resorted to reading the Washington Post online. I like getting the newspaper because it means the first thing I read each morning is not on a screen. I read so much on computer, tablet, and phone screens that I welcome any break.

This morning, I needed the newspaper. I walked up to the grocery store, navigated the icy parking lot, and picked up the Washington Post and New York Times. It was nice to sit on the couch and read through the newspapers with the sound of my neighbors digging out of the blizzard. I finished digging us out yesterday.

I prefer the newspaper to online news for several reasons:

  1. While it is not as timely as the instantaneous reporting that takes place online, there is more of sense of certainty in what I read. There has been time to check facts, for instance.
  2. I can read the obituary section and be fairly certain that if someone is reported to have died, they really have, in fact, died.
  3. The quality of writing in the newspaper is, generally speaking, better than instantaneous online news sources.

Actually, it occurred to me while reading both papers this morning that the newspapers—at least the ones that I read—have no real style to the writing. Stories in the Post and the Times adhere more or less to generic reporting style. They stick to the facts. The who, what, when, where are right there in the lead paragraph. I like this lack of style. It reminds me of Edward R. Murrow-like news reporting.

I get annoyed by articles that don’t follow this standard fact-reporting pattern. The more in-depth stories tend to deviate from this pattern, at least in the Post. I generally roll my eyes when a story begins something like this:

John Doe didn’t expect to be stuck in his car for eight hours when he left his job at Acme Corporation before the snow began to fall last night.

I suppose that the introduction of John Doe into the story is supposed to give it a more personal touch. If I wanted that, I’d watch Sunday Morning.

There are stylistic differences between papers, but they are superficial. The New York Times refers to every one as Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. I am used to seeing the obituaries in the Metro section of the Post, but the Times national editions has them at the end of the Sports section.

The writing itself in both papers is bland, but bland in this case is good. Like a textbook, the writers are reporting on the news, and the news tends to be a collection of facts, mixed with varying degrees of opinion. I am speaking here of news stories. Columns and columnists are a different matter. In a column, the writer’s unique style emerges. I have yet to find a columnist I enjoy as much as I enjoyed Al Martinez’s column in the Los Angeles Times in the early 1990s. As Martinez wrote in his last column (for the Daily News)

Good writing, as one L.A. Times publisher said when the Otis Chandler era came to an end, isn’t a requirement for newspapers anymore. My writing is just too ornate, too stylistic, too gothic and too soft for those who own newspapers.

Martinez wrote that three years ago, but I think it is still true today—at least in the big metropolitan papers.

Snowed In!

No posts yesterday or today (except this one) because we are snowed in. Kelly has been sick, and I’ve been busy with the kids, and shoveling snow. Schools here are closed through at least Tuesday and the Federal government is closed tomorrow, so there may be another day or two of absences here on the blog, but I hope to resume normal service soon. And I will do my best to have the next Going Paperless post out on schedule.

In the meantime, here is a picture of what our street looked like earlier this afternoon.

Blizzard 2016


The most devastating rejection I ever received came when I was a junior in college. I had been writing and submitting stories to magazines for about 9 months. I started a modest collection of form letter rejection slips, but already I thought of myself as a writer.

I was minoring in journalism and since journalism fell under the creative writing umbrella, I opted to take some creative writing classes as electives. One such class was a with professor Stephen Minot. I was clear from the start that I wanted to be a science fiction writer. Professor Minot came up in the literary fiction tradition. He was a fan of Raymond Carver. I can still recall him reading to us aloud Carver’s short story, “Boxes.” He could not seem to understand why I’d want to write science fiction. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would write literary fiction. I imagine many creative writing students have experienced this.

This course was a kind of buffet of writing lectures and exercises. One of these exercises was poetry. I have never thought of myself as a poet. I don’t understand most poetry, but I am much more comfortable with metered verse than I am with free verse. Naturally, our assignment was to write a free verse poem which would be critiqued by our classmates.

I wrote a poem called “Train of Thought” which was about nothing more than a train ride I’d taken once from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. In the middle of the night, as we hurtled through the desert, my brother and I were certain we could see wolves racing up to the track, and then running back, as if they were trying to chase the train. It was all in our imagination, but it kept us entertained. I wrote my free verse poem about that train ride.

When I got it back from Professor Minot, before the class critique, he was in raptures over it. I got an A+. I was surprised, but delighted to write something that the professor actually liked. I had been nervous about the class critique, and Professor Minot’s feedback boosted my confidence and made me feel good about what I’d written.

Up to this point, I’d collected perhaps a dozen rejection slips from the magazines. This included the science fiction magazines, but also magazines like Cat Fancy (“Cat Fancy does not publish fiction about cats.”) and Playboy. The thing about the rejection slips is that there was essentially an audience of two: me, and the editor or slush reader who rejected my story. No big deal. And, of course, I never took them personally.

The creative writing class critiqued my poem, and for the most part, they hated it. They tore it apart. Cheap imagery, clichéd, unclear. You name it, they said it, and the opinion was pretty much unanimous. I could deal with it. I was, after all, a writer, and I’d received real rejection slips from real magazines. It wasn’t the best critique but my ego survived.

When the last student had finished, Professor Minot turned to me, and in front of the whole class, said, “Jamie, having listened to what your classmates have said about your poem, I have reconsidered my own opinion about it. And I’m afraid I have to agree with them. It stinks.” I may be doing him an injustice here. He may have said, “It is terrible.”

The point is, he did this in front of the entire class. The class had no idea what grade he’d given me, only that he’d changed his mind about my poem, and that it was bad. That stung a little, but I smiled and sucked it up, and ultimately persevered in the class (and in my quest to sell stories). In all the rejections I have had since—whether from writing, job applications, you name it—the rejection I received that day from Professor Minot was the most devastating, and I survived it just fine.

I thought the poem I wrote for the class was lost forever, but it wasn’t. Poking around, I found it buried in an obscure corner of my file system. I reread it and I see a lot of what the class saw some 23 years ago when they critiqued it. But I believe it was the best possible poem I could have written at the time. I did not enjoy writing it, and I didn’t particularly enjoy the critique, so I haven’t written much poetry since. I am fine with this. It is important to know what you are not good at, especially when you don’t enjoy it.

In any case, here is the poem for which Professor Minot gave me an A+ on, and for which my creative writing classmates later convinced him that it was terrible.

Train of Thought

I watched closely and it followed
Though at a hundred miles and hour
I don’t know how —

Perhaps my weary eyes deceived me
Playing with the passing shadows
Of a sinking desert sun,

Which moved like a second-hand
To the clack of the tracks
Paining the desert sky
Plum pink and provocative.
I watched closely as the shadows loomed larger
And still
Caught a glimpse of its thick gray coat

Charging through the underbrush
With a billow of smoke
Puffing out its mouth from the cooling air

Which slowly darkened
With the sinking sun
Until I lost sight of it
Disappearing in the dusty shade.
I strained my eyes to watch the dark desert
For a single glimpse of what I saw,

That my eyes had not deceived me
With deserted shadows,

And the constant clack of the track.
And from the corner of my eye
I spied it, a gray coat silhouetted by a graying sun,
Peeking up from behind the passing brush

I could not sleep though the lights were out
And the stars
Were hidden above a mountain tunnel,

Where sounds grew louder
The clack of the tracks

And the howl of the whistle
Of the wolf —
But I don’t know how.

David G. Hartwell

David G. Hartwell had a profound influence on my life in science fiction three times.

The first time was in the fall of 1997. Up until that point in my life, I was not very widely read in the science fiction genre. I read deep within a very narrow band of authors. That changed over the course of a few days between September 19 – 23, 1997. I had a bad cold, and for reasons I can no longer recall, I picked up a copy of Hartwell’s Ages of Wonder at Dangerous Visions bookshop in Sherman Oaks, California, which was not far from where I lived back then. I stayed in bed with a box of Kleenex and Hartwell’s book. The effect that book had on me is best described by looking at what I read in the year leading up to it, and what I read in the month or so after finishing it.

Reading pre-Hartwell

And here are the books I read after finished Hartwell’s book about science fiction:

Reading after Hartwell

For the first time, I realized that science fiction a literary movement that went far beyond futuristic adventure stories. Since reading Ages of Wonder, my reading within (and without) the genre has been much more varied.

The second time took place more than a decade later. Kelly was pregnant with our first child, and I was nervous. I needed something to take my mind off the nervousness that I was feeling. Remembering what a revelation Ages of Wonder had been, I got a copy of Hartwell and Kramer’s The Hard S. F. Renaissance, and began reading. We traveled down to Florida that December, and I can remember sitting by the beach, unable to put down that massive book. I read, for the first time, such standout stories as “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress, “Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson, “Marrow” by Robert Reed, and many more. For the second time, Hartwell jarred my perception of science fiction, and what science fiction could do. By then, I had published a couple of stories, but it wasn’t until after reading that book, that I tried doing more with my own stories—and began selling to places like Analog.

The third time Hartwell influenced me was when I saw him on a panel or two at Readercon. He always came across as extremely knowledgeable, down-to-earth, and funny. He made it look easy, and that helped me when I started doing panels at conventions. I sat beside him on at least one panel at Capclave, years ago. I can no longer remember the subject of the panel, but sitting up there on the panel with him, I was distracted the entire time. I kept thinking, I’m sitting on a panel with David G. Hartwell!

All of this came to mind yesterday after receiving the sad news that David Hartwell had suffered a brain bleed, and was unlikely to recover. He has shaped modern science fiction and has influenced thousands of writers far more talented than I.

This morning my thoughts are with Kathryn Cramer, and David’s family and many, many friends.