All posts by Jamie Todd Rubin

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

Light Pollution

I prefer darkness when I sleep: the darker, the better. Rather than accommodate this, the rest of the world does what it can to fill my nights with light. Take my bedroom, for example. Just outside the front of the house where two of our bedroom windows face, is a streetlight, spilling a pool of bright light onto the street–and through my windows. We pull down blinds and slide curtains to banish the light.

But light still manages to encroach on my sleep. The darker it gets the brighter even the smallest light seems. And there are plenty of small, and completely unnecessary light that intrude upon my darkness. In the bedroom alone the cable box has a bright white light on the front of the box to indicate that the power is off. Why a device needs a light to indicate the power is off passes comprehension. If the makers of the box felt a power-off indicator was absolutely necessary, couldn’t they have made it a less harsh red light? I’ve taken to placing a ball of socks in front of the box to hide the light. This is what it has come to.

Why is it necessary for TV manufacturers to illuminate their brands when the power to the television is off? The TV mounted on the wall in our bedroom has a glowing yellow VIZIO on it when the power is off. At night, in the so-called darkness of our room, I sometimes awaken and see the letters hovering there. Do these manufacturers think I am going to wake up from a night of unsettled dreams with a desperate desire to recall the name of my television manufacturer. I assure you, if this ever happens, I will write a letter of thanks to the president of Vizio complimenting his foresight. For now, though, it’s just another useless light intruding into my darkness.

Above the door, just inside the bedroom, a small white light glows from the ceiling, blinking at me once per minute to remind me it–the smoke detector–is alive and well. Given that this same smoke detector will alert me when its battery is low (always, of course, in the middle of the night), I see no reason why it needs a light to remind me of the fact. Below it, low on the wall near the closet another light shines steadily throughout the night, assuring me the device to which it is connected is constantly sniffing for carbon monoxide.

They say that if you have trouble sleeping, try counting sheep. I say count the lights intruding upon your darkness. I could wander through the house in the middle of the night without a flashlight, given all the devices that feel the need to illuminate, counting them: televisions, microwaves, stoves, and refrigerators–the latter has a light on the dispenser to let me know whether ice, water, or crushed ice will come out of the dispenser. There are clocks, thermostats, power supplies, printers, cable boxes. Even the dishwasher has a green or amber light, there to answer the ancient question of all marriages, “Is this thing clean or dirty?”

I realize that I could eliminate a lot of these lights by removing them from the bedroom. But we find them useful, and I would argue that they would be just as useful without the superfluous light. I could wear one of those masks that they give you on airplanes to help shutout the light, but again, why should I have to? The lights in question are entirely pointless. Can’t there at least be an option to turn them off?

At times like this, I think about the summer nights we spent at a small seaside town in Maine. We sleep on the upper floor of a cottage, little more than an attic, really. There are skylights looking up into the sky, but there are no lights around anywhere. Not the glow of a clock, not a streetlight. Steps outside the cottage is a short cliff that drops off into the Bagaduce River. On a clear night, you can readily see the milky way, and walking the length of the dirt road that leds to the house can be dangerous without a light. That’s how dark it is. I treasure my nights there. It seems like one of the last truly dark places in the world.

I always get a good night’s sleep in Maine.

Vacation in Colonial America

The news lately is unsettling. On some days, I finish the paper hoping the coronavirus pandemic is just a dream that I will wake up from. I know it isn’t, but part of me looks for ways to escape. Thank goodness for books! Opening a book is like opening the lid to an escape hatch. The rest of the world falls away. I become fully immersed in a way that I never reach with movies or television. My current escape hatch has taken me back to colonial America.

I’ve resisted reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton since it first came out. After reading David McCullough’s masterful biography of John Adams in 2001, I became a great admirer of Adams. My opinion of Hamilton (and Jefferson, for that matter), distorted through Adams’s lens, was not very high. Because of that, I read other books by Chernow, but not the Hamilton biography.

A few weeks ago, however, I read a great book called The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians by David M. Rubenstein. This was an ideal audiobook because it was Rubenstein interviewing many modern historians, among them, Ron Chernow. That book and Chernow’s interview when he talked about Hamilton was the clincher.

And so, a week ago, I set my reservations about Hamilton aside and started to read Chernow’s biography. It came at a good time. News of the coronavirus was growing increasingly grim, and I needed a mental escape. I found it in America’s colonial past. Even though I didn’t always agree with Hamilton–especially his views of Adams–I looked forward to returning to the book whenever I could, often right after finishing the newspaper.

Hamilton has impressed me in several ways. I mentally divide impressive or outstanding people into two groups: their success is based on extremely hard work; or their success derives from some innate genius. While I admire genius, it is the hard worker that impresses me most–perhaps because that is something achievable without native genius. Rarely do I find people I’d put in both categories, but Hamilton is one. Even among the many hard workers I’ve read about, Hamilton stands out. HIs energy seemed boundless. His prolific output dwarfs Asimov. Then, too, his vision for America’s economic foundation shows genius. So do his ideas on the structure of government as he describes in The Federalist Papers.

Still, McCullough introduced me to Adams and in the two decades since, my admiration for the man, and his thinking has only grown. As I read of Adams and Hamilton’s disputes, this time through a Hamiltonian lens, I kept feeling the need to jump in and defend Adams. If only Hamilton knew… I’d say to myself.

Indeed, I began to wonder how Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson would react if they all had access to one another’s papers the way we do today. Would their opinions change? Would their feeling for one another differ?

I’m nearly finished with the book, and as I got closer to the end, I worried about my return to the real world. I’ve looked forward to my escapes to colonial America as an anodyne to the uncertainty in present-day America. After all, there is no COVID-19 in colonial America. Instead, they have yellow fever, and their idea of social distancing it to retreat from the cities. I’ve decided, therefore, to extend my vacation in colonial America for now. But I need to turn back to Adams to clear my palate of Hamilton. So I have settled on two books about Adams that I haven’t read before.

The first, just released, is called John Adams Under Fire by Dan Abrams and David Fisher. It is all about Adams’s defense of the British soldiers during the Boston Massacre. The second is Page Smith’s 2-volume biography of John Adams, written in the 1960s not long after access to Adams’s papers was made more widely available. I happened to come across a boxed edition last year at the kids’ school’s annual used book fair.

Our kids, incidentally, will be home from school for the next 5 weeks. All Virginia schools were closed for at least two weeks. Our city’s schools closed down through spring break. They will have virtual classes online. The social distancing can be a real challenge. Last night, I had a virtual happy hour with a bunch of my friends scattered across the country. But with recommendations to avoid large crowds, it makes many of the typical things we’d do out of reach. Fortunately, I am surrounded by books, each one of which is an escape hatch to some other place and time.

Our Modern World

I sometimes wonder what the founding mothers and fathers of our country might think of our modern world. It seems that some (Franklin and Jefferson) would revel in it. Others might be skeptical. Consider that a flight from Philadelphia to Boston takes only 90 minutes, a journey that took John Adams the better part of two weeks. Of course, after factoring in the time it takes to find the best fare online, the commute to the airport and the fight for a half-decent parting space, the crowded shuttle ride from the parking lot to the terminal, the lines at the security checkpoint, the delays in boarding because the aisles are blocked by passengers fighting for overhead space, the wait at baggage claim in Boston because you lost the fight, the airline lost your luggage, the Uber to the hotel through the nightmare that is Boston traffic, it probably seems like two weeks. Maybe the founders wouldn’t be that impressed after all.

There are other modern conveniences that I think the founders would appreciate, chief among them, the modern word processor, or for that matter, typewriter. The founders were particularly prolific. John Quincy Adams, for instance, wrote more than 14,000 pages in his diary alone. Fourteen thousand pages. I am drafting this essay longhand, and here toward to the bottom of page one, my hand already feels cramped and ready to give up the ghost. Certainly, a word processor would have been a boon to our prolific forefathers and mothers. If I think about it, I have probably banged out 14,000 pages worth of email messages. On the other hand, 13,000 pages of those messages were probably completely unnecessary, fluff and filling enabled by the technology that kept my hands from getting cramped and tired. So perhaps the founders were better off with pen and ink after all. It forced a concision in thought and expression that can’t readily be equalled by our lazier modern methods.

So cross of travel and computer technology. Modern medicine–that would be the key to impressing our founders. Something as simple as aspirin for a headache, or penicillin for an infection would be seen by those who regularly gathered in places like Philadelphia as a great invention. After all, these are people who had to flee the city in the summers when Yellow Fever reared its head. There was no other way to treat it, no vaccine to prevent it. The city shut down, and those who could afford to do so, fled to the countryside.

That said, I think that if the founders had a look at our modern medicine, they’d sneer and roll their collected (and uncorrected) eyes. “You are no better of than we,” they would say, the scorn dripping from their words. “You mock us for fleeing from Yellow Fever. But we’ve read your recent newspapers, and we’ve watched your so-called news programs. With this latest virus running amuck in your modern world, the best advice your medical science can offer is to wash your hands and avoid touching your face. How’s fleeing the town during an outbreak any worse than this advice? You really haven’t come as far as you think you have.”

Modern world! Phooey!

The Butterfly Flaps Its Wings

It isn’t easy to illustrate the Butterfly Effect of Reading with concrete examples. Too often, when I think of it, I have traversed many branches, come to many forks in the road, and am fairly lost, no longer able to recall the chain of events that led me to the current book. But a recent lull in my reading has provided an opportunity for me to illustrate the BEF in action. I figured I should take it before it flutters away.

I took a break from audiobooks for a good part of January. It wasn’t a conscious decision, just something that happened. There were three John McPhee books that I wanted to read, none of which were available in audiobook form. I read them and enjoyed them all.

When I returned to audiobooks, I started with Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America by James and Deborah Fallows. This was a fantastic book. It is a little like Travels with Charley and a little like Blue Highways. Indeed, both of these books are mentioned in Our Towns. I’d add that it was also like The Cannibal Queen by Stephen Coonts, since the Fallows traveled the country in their private airplane, instead of by car. It was also a little like The Longest Road by Philip Caputo.

Some books serve as reading hubs in the same was that some people serve at network hubs. Our Towns led me to add two other books to my “Read Soon” list:

I was a little bit worried about what to read after finishing Our Towns. The better a book is, the harder it is to follow. But browsings the New York Times Book Review section on Sunday, immediately came across two possibilities:

I raced through The American Story in about a day. It was a collection of interviews with “master historians” talking about their subjects. The historians included: David McCullough, Walter Isaacson, Ron Chernow, Cokie Roberts, Doris Kearns Goodwin, A. Scott Berg, Jean Edward Smith, Taylor Branch, Bob Woodward, Jay Winik, and H. W. Brands. Of course, a book like this is a natural hub, and the following titles were quickly added to my “Read Soon” list:

With The American Story finished, I turned to Author In Chief. It seemed to be right up my alley: U.S. history, U.S. Presidents, and their writings. At this writing, I am more than halfway through and expect to finish tonight. The last chapter is titled, “A Presidential Reading List,” and that is certain to add to my “Read Soon” list.

Meanwhile, I book I had pre-ordered months ago appeared on Tuesday: Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America by Stephanie Gorton. I was fascinated by Tarbell’s story as it was depicted in The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and I’ve been looking forward to this book for a while. Another one on the short list.

I try to read one magazine feature article a day as a way of keeping up with the world and my various subscriptions. On Monday, I read a piece in the February issue of National Geographic called “The Last Slave Ship.” That in turn led me to a book by one of the authors, Sylviane Diouf, called Dreams of Africa in Alabama. That went onto the “Read Soon” list, too. Then, last night, I read a “The Notebook” by Steven Levy in the March issue of WIRED, and now, Facebook: The Inside Story by Steven Levy is on the list, too.

By my count, that’s a dozen books added to my “Read Soon” list in the last week or so. Any one of those books can lead to a dozen others. That is the beauty of the Butterfly Effect of Reading. I’m sitting here today reading about President’s and their books. I think I will be reading about citizen reporters tomorrow. But I might be reading about 747’s. Or I might have to turn my attention to The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. I never know where one book will lead. That’s the best part.

Improper Guidance Is No Excuse for Cheating – Especially When Grownups Are Involved

The New York Times got my dander up this morning with an article on how Houston Astros players apologized for the sign-stealing that helped them win the 2017 World Series. No one seems to call this cheating. They call it sign-stealing, and in baseball, stealing is, after all, part of the game. “What we did in 2017 was terrible,” they said. But they didn’t actually say what they did. They cheated. That’s how I read the statement: how they cheated in 2017 was terrible. It was.

What really raised my hackles was the preposterous pre-apology caveat that Astros owner Jim Crane gave. According to the Times, Crane said, “Our players should not be punished for these actions. These are a great group of guys who did not receive proper guidance from their leaders?”

Did Jim Crane just throw the players parents and guardians and teachers and mentors under the bus? Is he really saying that no one ever told “these guys” that cheating was not okay? That, somehow, this team of players who presumably came from all over, managed to come together in one place, having gone through their entire life not understanding that cheating was bad? Their “leaders” might not have prevented it from happening, but aren’t players held accountable for their actions?

There are consequences if a player is caught (cheating by) using performance enhancing drugs. Is Jim Crane saying that when this happens, it is not the player’s fault, but the fault of their failed leadership? Why then is the player punished in this case, and not the leader? If a player is charged with domestic violence and suspended, is Jim Crane saying that these guys shouldn’t be punished because they didn’t receive proper guidance from their leaders?

I call foul! Every player who took the signs from the electronic source, every player who banged on a trashcan, every player who acted on those bangs knew exactly what they were doing, and they knew the implications. They made their own decisions, whether or not they received proper guidance from their leaders. Because of that, because of the conspiratorial nature of the cheating, the players should be punished, and the Astros should be stripped of their title as message that Major League Baseball and its fans won’t tolerate this behavior.

This debacle makes it clearer than ever that Pete Rose should be reinstated in good standing and allowed to qualify for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Unlike the Houston players, Rose received the harshest possible penalty for a crime that, so far as I can tell, was no better or worse than the that of the 2017 Astros. The Astros got off with a title and no players were punished. Rose was banned for life. Last week, in another piece, two law professors made a good case for Pete Rose in light of Houston’s behavior.

Can Houston redeem themselves? Only by making a hard choice: If Houston voluntarily gave up its 2017 title an admission of wrong-doing and act of contrition, they would go a long way to redeeming the character of the team and the players involved. Baseball is a business, so such an act seems unlikely. On the other hand, what benefit it is to Houston’s players, fans and management to have the stigma of a tainted world championship hanging over them. Is anyone affiliated with the 2017 Astros really proud of this?

Repeat After Me

Post ideas

I read in the New York Times that Roger Kahn died. The author of The Boys of Summer (the #2 book on Sport Illustrated’s 100 Greatest Sports Books, right after A. J. Lieblings The Sweet Science) was 92 years old. Earlier in the week I read obituaries for Gene Reynolds (M*A*S*H), and Kirk Douglas, who at 103 appears to be out-survived only by Olivia de Havilland. All of these obituaries made me want to write about obituaries.

This, however, exposed an increasingly frequent problem I encounter when writing on this blog: I’ve written about obituaries already. In fact, I’ve written about them more than once. In 2016 I wrote about them in “How I Read the Newspaper.” I touched on the subject again in 2017 in a post aptly titled, “Obituaries.” I returned to the subject last year in “Morning Routines.”

I’ve written about 6,500 posts for this blog—about 2.5 million words, spanning more than 15 years. Since I tend to write about whatever comes to mind instead of focusing on one particular subject, it sometimes seems as though there isn’t anything I haven’t written about. When something occurs to me that seems like it might be worthy subject, the first thing I do these days is a search of the blog to see if I’ve written about it before. I am frequently surprised that I have.

Having written about a subject before doesn’t automatically prevent me from writing about it again. Two conditions typically push me to write again on a subject: (1) I have something new to add; or (2) it has been a long time (a few years at least) since I last wrote about it. Readers come and go, change and evolve, so why not write about it again?

The first condition is most common. Having something new to say is useful. What’s new is often a change of opinion on a subject over time. The classic example of this is my opinion of audiobooks. In January 2012, I wrote a piece on audiobooks where I stated, quite forcefully, that audiobooks were not for me. Reading that piece now is painful now, especially my snobbish reasoning for why I though audiobooks weren’t for me. Eight years, and over 400 audiobooks later, my opinion has changed.

As a kind of experiment, I tried to think of subjects that I might not have written about (or that I had completely forgotten I’d written about) over the years, and then search to blog to see if I had or hadn’t. Here is just some of the results:

At times it seems I’ve written about everything but the kitchen sink. Except—I’ve written about that, too.

Notably absent here is political writing. This sometimes surprises me, given that my degree is in political science and journalism. The truth is that it seems everywhere I turn, people are writing about politics, and anything I have to say has been said before. I don’t particularly enjoy writing about politics, either. I’d just as soon write about something more obscure, but fun: like my inability to locate a paperclip when I need one.

Perhaps all of this is just to say that, while I try my best not to be too repetitive here, some repetition is an inevitable byproduct of the thousands of posts I’ve already written. I ask for your patience with this as I blunder on into the future.

One Title Is Better Than Two

Can we all agree that having more than one title for a magazine article is confusing and counterproductive? I try to read a feature article every day from the magazines piled on my desk and the ones taking up virtual bits on my phone. The problem for me is that the title of the article in the printed magazine rarely matches the title in the digital version. How can one discuss an article with a friend if the same article has more than one title?

Take, for example, an article I read in the January/February issue of The Atlantic. The title of the article (which I read on my phone) was “The Christian Withdrawal Experiment” by Emma Green. At the conclusion of the article is this message: “This article appears in the January/February 2020 print edition with the headline ‘Retreat, Christian Soldiers.’”

Having written nonfiction for magazines, I know that the author’s title is rarely the title that makes it to the page. When I wrote for The Daily Beast, I don’t think any of the titles on my manuscripts were ever used in the actual article. I assume this is because editors are smarter than I am about what attracts online readers with shortening attentions spans. Presumably, if someone is reading the print version, they are in no hurry so a different, less click-bait-heavy title is warranted.

(When I write fiction, editors rarely changed my titles. Indeed, I can think of only one time when an editor requested a minor title change—and it ended up leading to my friendship with the science fiction writer Allen Steele.)

The problem with two different titles for the same article is that it makes it hard to refer to the article when discussing it with friends and family. A few days earlier, I read a fascinating, long piece in the digital version of The New Yorker titled “Quassem Suleimani and How Nations Decide to Kill” by Adam Entous and Evan Osnos. This is a particularly wordy title, and the words, I imagine (“Suleimani”, “Nations”, “Kill”) are specifically chosen to capture clicks and views. In the print edition, the same article has the snappier, shorter title, “Last Man Standing.” Considering the nature of the article, the latter title is far superior.

The online titles are inevitably more verbose than their terser print companions. Take the February issue of National Geographic, for instance. Here are the titles of the feature articles in the print and online editions:

Print EditionOnline Edition
“The Last Slave Ship” “America’s last slave ship stole them from home. It couldn’t steal their identities”
“Prairie Divide” “Two visions collide amid push to restore Montana plains”
“Redefining Beauty” “The idea of beauty is always shifting. Today, it’s more inclusive than ever”
“Flamingo Bob” “Meet Flamingo Bob, the poster bird for conservation”
“A Journey with Spice” “This Vietnamese national park is a spice lover’s dream”

If I refer to the online title in speaking to someone who reads the print edition, they might not have any idea what article I was talking about, especially if they haven’t read it yet.

And which of the titles is the “official” title? How does the The New Yorker handle this? Is this the kind of thing that would have driven William Shawn crazy? Of course, Shawn was out at the New Yorker before the Internet and online editions, so it was not something he had to deal with. Do magazines differ in their policies for having an online title and a print title as far as which one is official? What are the standards for citing such an article? Does it matter if you read it in the online edition or the print edition? Certainly, I can imagine some citations referring to the online title, and others to the print title, which creates further confusion.

Also, the online titles are invariable longer and more terrible than their print counterparts. There is an elegance of brevity to the print titles that often infuse them with wit. The Entous and Osnos article in The New Yorker is one example of this. “Prairie Divide” is another good title that succinctly summarizes the crux of the article whereas “Two visions collide amid push to restore Montana plains” is a mouthful, and quite frankly, is an inelegant and terrible title.

I was thinking about this because I have been trying to jot down the articles I read each day in my bullet journal. I started by scribbling just the title as it appeared in whatever medium I happened to be reading. But the notion that this might prove confusing has forced me to record both titles. The first title I write is the one that appeared in the medium that I read the article. Then, parenthetically, I write the alternate title.

I, therefore, make a humble appeal to editors everywhere: call the article whatever you like. But to spare me the extra effort it takes to look up and write the alternate titles in my notes, to say nothing of the confusion it causes, please settle on a single title for all editions.

This post will someday appear in a print edition with the title, “Title Confusion.”

A Bullet Journal Update

It has been a while since I last wrote about my bullet journal experiment. The first year of that experiment was a learning experience. Some parts of my bullet journal worked well; others went completely unused. For 2020, I started a new bullet journal with the goal of incorporating the lessons I learned over the last year. Here are a few of those lessons.

Practicality over artistry

I often learn by example. When I got started with my bullet journal, I went down the rabbit hole looking at countless pictures people had posted of their bullet journals. I often felt like I was walking through galleries of some strange art museum where the works of art were 8 x 6” grid notebook pages full of color and fine design. Everyone in the world, it seems, had bullet journal that was a work of art compared to what I had. I finally resigned myself to a level of artistic competence far below what I was seeing. Instead of fancy multi-colored calligraphic month name with art matching the theme of the month, my monthly spread was headed with a hastily scratched “Dec. 2019.”

 For 2020 this helped me when I set up my new bullet journal. I don’t have the skill or time to produce a bullet journal that is both Instagram-worthy and practical. I settled for practical. The pages in my bullet journal are filled with scribbled blank ink, cross-outs, smudges, and resemble my chemistry lab books from college. Works of art they are not, but they serve their purpose.

Keep it simple

Practicality also meant some changes and simplification based on what I learned in my first year:

  • I found that I didn’t use my Future Log very often. I kept it around in 2020, but I’m not sure it will last into next year. In most months, my future log is blank, and only occasionally did I move something from my daily or monthly log to the future log.
  • My monthly spread has changed as well. I was using this more as a place to record, after-the-fact, some noteworthy events from the day. This year, to make it more useful, I added some habit-trackers to my monthly spread. There are four of them and it may be too many. We’ll see.
  • My daily log is the meat of my bullet journal. I use this throughout the day to capture tasks, and record things that I have done so that I can remember them later. I’ve gotten better at using it for notes and events as well as tasks. These are messy pages, and I envy those bullet journalists who have such neat and clean looking daily logs.
Example of my daily log for 2020
Example of my daily log for 2020

An Article A Day

I had all kinds of unique spreads last year that I never ended up using. Others I used quite well. It’s hard to say what will work and what won’t. I’m trying to minimize these this year, focusing only on those things that are practical and important to me. For instance, I’ve tried off-and-on for a few years to keep track of the various magazine articles I read. I get a lot of magazines, and it is hard to keep up with them. A while back, I decided the best way to keep up was to try reading a single feature article a day. Over the course of a month, I’d read 30 feature articles, a good percentage of all of the articles in the magazines I receive. I’ve wanted to track these for a while, but it’s never worked out. Certainly not the same way that capturing my book reading has.

For 2020, I decided to create a monthly spread called “Article a Day.” On the spread, I’d jot down the title, author, and source of the article I read that day. This worked out well in January where I was successful in reading an article every day except January 26. It is continuing to work well in February.

Article a day spread for January 2020
Article-a-day spread for January 2020

My simplified bullet journal is working well for me so far this year. I don’t carry it around with me everywhere I go, as is often recommended. (I have my Fields Notes notebook for that.) But as a way of organizing my day, the work I need to complete, the tasks I have to take care of, and in general, getting stuff out of my head and onto paper, it has been a big help. My bullet journal looks more like a messy lab book than a work of art—but that’s the way I like it.

Reading about Food Makes Me Hungry

I was reading John McPhee’s wonderful essay “Heirs to the General Practice” about rural family practice doctors when I came across a passage in which one of the saw bones described his breakfast as a piece of coffee cake and some bacon. Immediately I craved coffeecake for breakfast. Ignoring the lingering pain for some minor surgery I had last week, I rushed to the grocery store Monday morning to seek out some coffee cake for breakfast.

Naturally, they were all out. Everyone else must have read McPhee’s 100-page essay as well, even though it appeared in The New Yorker more than three decades ago. They all must have read that passage and decided that they, too, must have coffee cake. Maybe a few wanted the bacon, too.

I don’t know what it is, but when I read about food, I want to eat. This rarely happens when I see characters chowing down on a TV show or in a movie. But if I am reading a description about the catering service on set for the Lord of the Rings, or about the food in an officer’s mess in a history on the Second World War in Europe, I am taken by the description, meager as it may be, and I suddenly want to eat what I am reading about.

As you might imagine, I avoid all magazine articles on food, whenever possible. I shudder to think what might happen if I started to read those. I had a book on the recent food trends on my wish list for several months before reluctantly deciding I’d be better off without it.

You might think this is hyperbole. After all, I am a writer, and I write for a living[1]. I need to be entertaining to my readers, and hyperbole helps with this. But I’m not really exaggerating. Let me give a recent example to illustrate this–by way of complaint.

Entenmann’s Coffee Cafe is completely impractical for breakfast. I know this because, upon awakening this morning, the passage in McPhee’s essay had not yet left me, and I was still craving coffee cake. So out I went, this time to a different grocery store. And this time, I struck pay dirt. I bought an Entenmann’s Crumb Coffee Cake.

According to the good people at Entenmann’s, a serving of Coffee Cake is 1/9th of the cake in the box. If anyone in charge at Entenmann’s is reading this, let me just say that you’re kidding yourselves and your customers if you think 1/9th of a coffee is a practical size. I am the only coffee cake-eater in the house. At 1/9th of a slice, it would take me 9 days to consume the entire coffee cake.

So far, so good, right? I paid 6 bucks for the cake, so that’s 66 cents per day for breakfast. A bargain!

The problem is the cake, while satisfying, wasn’t particularly moist when I ate it this morning. Tomorrow, I imagine it will be less moist. By Saturday, I might have to switch from a fork to a knife. Cutting that penultimate slice on day number 8, I fear, will require technology that hasn’t been invented yet.

How to solve this problem? Here’s how:

This morning's coffee cake, annotated
This morning’s coffee cake, annotated

I was craving coffee cake because of that darn McPhee article. So why not have a big slice for breakfast. Instead of 1/9th, I took one quarter. At some point, later in the morning, Kelly decided join the fun. She took the equivalent of about 1/18th of a slice. Then again, she didn’t read “Heirs to the General Practice” and suffer the jealousy of that coffee cake and bacon breakfast.

I was busy with work today. I had a late lunch. The post-surgical pain kept me from wanting to move around too much. I needed something for lunch that would be quick. I remembered the coffee cake. Knowing me as she does, Kelly tried to hide the coffee cake under the loaf of bread. That’s like a fat grizzly trying to hide behind a thin tree. I saw through her charade. I started to cut a small slice of cake, and then decided that if it was too small, and I was still hungry, I wouldn’t want to have to get up again. So, I cut another quarter slice of coffee cake.

At this rate, the cake should be gone by tomorrow.

All of this I offer as evidence of my weakness when I read about food. No exaggeration, right? I’ve tried to think of possible solutions to this. I came up with a short list:

  1. Tell John McPhee to stop including food in the profiles he writes.
  2. Stop reading profiles by John McPhee
  3. Stop reading.

Numbers two and three are a lot less practical than a 1/9th slice of coffee cake. Anyone have John McPhee’s phone number?

I have to go now. I just heard the kids ask what we are having for dinner. It may turn out to be a fend-for-yourself night. And somehow, while writing this, that box of Entenmann’s coffee cake has crawled back into sight.

[1] This is not hyperbole. It is pure exaggeration.

Night Noises

One of the worst feelings is waking up in the middle of the night to the echo of a short, sharp CHIRP! I lay there in the dark and wonder Did I just hear that, or was it the echo of a dream? I am about to drift back off to sleep when–CHIRP!–there it goes again, and now I am off on a nighttime hunt for the offending smoke detector. It is never the one you think it is. It always turns out to be the one most inconveniently located–which is also the one that I’m certain I just changed the batteries on last month. It takes an hour to get back to sleep.

Last night, I woke up in darkness to the sound of two faint beeps. What could that be? It’s disturbing to hear noises at night you don’t recognize. I waited for them to repeat. They didn’t. I finally decided it was the sound of someone locking their car remotely somewhere up the street.

Our ducts tick when the heat is on. I’ll sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of that ticking. It is not disturbing at all. In fact, it is kind of comforting. It is a reminder that I am warm, even though it is cold outside.

One of the more alarming night noises is the sound of little feet pounding on the hardwood floors. From the frequency of the pattering, I can tell not only who it is, but whether it is a serious problem, or just the little one wanting to climb into bed with us. Worse is a sound I heard a few nights ago. It was a loud THUD from the room next door. I lay there for a moment wondering if I actually heard the sound. Then I wondered what it might be. Finally, as the realization flooded in, I felt a surge of adrenaline and burst out of bed to find that the little one had fallen out of her bed onto the floor. She was in a bit of a daze, and probably would have been fine, if I hadn’t freaked her out by pointing out that she’d fallen out of bed.

Once, in the old house, we all awoke in the middle of the night when the house alarm went off. A minute later the phone rang. It was the alarm company, checking to make sure everyone was alright. The back gate was open, but I also noticed it was very windy out. I chalked it up to the wind, but it was a long while before I got back to sleep.

Maybe the worst sound in the middle of the night is the rare occasion when I awaken to the sound of someone whispering my name. Logically, I know it was just the echo of a dream. Even so, I look over to see if Kelly is sleeping. I get up and check on the kids to see if one of them called me. Then I get back into bed and my imagination starts to run wild. I remember that scene from Communion where the alien is peeking out of the closet and slowly tries to disappear back inside.

Andy Rooney has pointed out that the house creeks more at night than during the day. I won’t say that this is scientifically true, but it seems like it is.

On once woke up to the sound of an old manual typewriter ticking away in the middle of the night. I could find no ghost writer roaming the house, but when I got back into bed, the idea stayed with me and ultimately found its way into a story.

Writer Envy

Books by John McPhee, Stephen King, and E.B. White

I sometimes wonder if professional baseball players envy their teammates. Does a career average player look to a superstar and wonder: Why can’t I be that good? What’s holding me back? Envy isn’t an emotion that I am proud of, but sometimes that painful awareness of a talent I don’t possess and someone else does creeps in.

The truth is, I envy all sorts of writers, not for their success as much as their pure natural ability and talent. Stephen King is among my favorite writers, and I envy his ability to tell a good story, which for me is the single most important part of writing fiction. I envy Ray Bradbury’s lyricism. When I have tried to write like Bradbury, it always feels forced and phony.

I envy the nonfiction writer’s ability to research their material. E.B. White is among my favorite essayists and I envy the easy of his voice. Another of my favorites is John McPhee. I envy his abilities as well, but I envy something about him even more: I envy his travels, his ability to embed himself with whatever subject he was writing about and make it a part of his life. John McPhee has the rarest of talents: he can take any subject and make it interesting.

I know I shouldn’t be envious. I should be thankful for what abilities I possess as a writer. Those abilities, such as they are, were nurtured by parents who encouraged reading. They are almost entirely developed of brute force, and stubbornness. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I submitted and submitted and submitted, until finally, editors started to buy my stories. No shortcuts for me!

As a writer, I am rarely satisfied with what I write. At best, my writing seems “good enough” to send out, and on occasion, it is published, but I often look at what I write, and mentally compare it to those writers that I look up to as role models, and it seems always that we are in different leagues. They are major league superstars, bound for the Hall of Fame. I, on the other hand, bounce around the minor leagues, never quite getting to the level of the majors.

I desperately want to make that leap. I can imagine it, and perhaps that is half the battle. When I was much younger, and just starting to write, I used to daydream that one day, in my wildest imagination, I might actually sell a story to Analog. It seemed impossible, like winning the lottery. Eventually, I did sell to Analog. I could imagine it, and as impossible as it seemed, I made that leap.

The next leap seems much more difficult to make, and it has stymied my writing since late 2015 when I sold my last piece of fiction. I’ve been unsure of my writing ever since. I find myself writing the same pieces of story over and over again, to claim to myself that I am writing, when all I am really doing is going in circles. Part of my problem is that I am not sure where to go from here. Part of my problem is envy and fear. I want to tell stories like Stephen King. I want to write like E.B. White. I want to embed myself in my research like John McPhee.

I suppose there is a danger in comparing yourself to someone at the top of their profession, especially when I am close to the bottom. I try to look at it optimistically: I have a lot of room to grow. But it is a hard hill to climb when you don’t have much time in the day to practice your craft.

This year I have set a modest goal for myself: to get back to writing every day. Even if it is only for five or ten minutes, try to write something every day. I considered a tougher goal of writing a story a month–12 stories in the year, far more than I have ever written before. But that seemed self-defeating. The first step is to get back into the habit, to start flexing those muscles again.

I have a smaller, more subtle goal as well: to try to be less envious of other writers and instead, to appreciate their talents for the beauty they create instead.

I’m Writing This Post on My New Freewrite

I have often daydreamed about buying a typewriter and using it to write all of my first drafts. With a typewriter, I’d have no distractions from email, or social media. I wouldn’t be tempted by the apps on my computer. I’d slide in the paper and start typing. Of course, things like typos and corrections would be more problematic than on a word processor. Then, too, I wouldn’t have an electronic archive of those first drafts, just the paper copies. I suppose I could scan those. Finding the right typewriter is tricky, and maintaining it is trickier.

Enter my new Freewrite by Astrohaus. The Freewrite is billed as a “Smart typewriter for distraction-free writing.” So far, I’ve put a couple thousand words through it, and I think that is enough for some initial thoughts. First, the device itself.

The Freewrite is about the size of my circa 1950 Royal QuietComfort DeLuxe manual typewriter, although without as high a profile. It is significantly lighter than my Royal typewriter, and rests easily on my desk. It has a built-in handle for carrying around, and a full-sized keyboard that feels comfortable to use. Its e-ink screen is divided into to parts: a large upper screen where the text I write appears, and through which I can scroll back and forth to review; and a smaller status window that can show me various pieces of information about what I am working on.

The Freewrite seems to address many of my concerns about using a typewriter: It saves everything I write locally, but can also connect to WiFi for the purpose of syncing documents to a cloud service like Dropbox, Evernote, or Google. The synced documents appear in Word format, and I can use Markdown when typing on my Freewrite to create the basic formatting I want in my document.

The screens on my Freewrite.

What I like about the Freewrite is that it is designed for drafting. There are no distractions. I don’t get email notifications; I can’t check Twitter or Facebook. It is simply a tool that allows me to focus on the first draft of whatever it is I happen to be writing, much as a typewriter would do.

Indeed, the Freewrite has no arrow keys. I can’t go back and edit something I’ve written, only add to it, and that is by design. The idea is to focus on writing and worry about editing and revising later. Not having the arrow keys takes some getting used to, but I kind of like it. It is leading me into a whole new process for writing, one which I haven’t completely settled on yet, but the basis version is:

  • Write first drafts in Freewrite.
  • Print and mark-up the first drafts from the Word documents created by the Freewrite.
  • Revise and edit in Word for final copy.

There is a switch on the Freewrite to allow me to switch between one of three folders that my documents get synced to. Right now, I have them set up as follows:

  • One folder for fiction.
  • One folder for blog posts (like this one).
  • One folder for correspondence.

I really like the simplicity of the device. I like its portability, too, although I haven’t taken it out with me yet. Part of this is that the opportunity has not yet arisen. Part of this is because the tool is designed to promote distraction-free writing, and I fear that upon seeing the device, people will be curious about it and ask me lots of questions–and I will get very little writing done.

As a use it more, I’ll have more to say about the device and how it is affecting my writing process. For now, consider this post the first official thing I’ve drafted completely on my new Freewrite.

Me and my new toy.