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.

COVID Conversations

There is no escaping COVID-19. Not even in casual conversation. I’m a little reluctant to admit this, given how bad the situation is, but I am tired of all of the COVID conversations. It’s enough having to deal with the pandemic in day-to-day life: working from home, with the kids around, and planning to work from home with the kids home when the school year starts; wondering if there will be a vaccine anytime soon; wondering when and if some sense of normalcy will return. Clearly, the pandemic touches every part of our lives. But now, even casual conversation centers around the virus. It’s become common courtesy to ask someone how they are faring. I’m clearly conflicted over this. I get enough from the newspapers I read each day, and from the updates from our state and local municipalities, from the school system, from the recreation system. I hate to admit it, but COVID is the last thing I want to talk about in casual conversation.

When I lived in L.A., all anyone would talk about after an earthquake was the earthquake. “Did you feel that last night?” “What were you doing when the ground started shaking?” “Anything get knocked off shelves in your place?” Completely understandable, but it generally lasted a day or so and then conversation drifted to other things. No so with COVID. The virus is digging in its proverbial nucleic acids and there’s no escaping it. For instance:

  • The baseball season (if you can call it that) started and normally, baseball is a great topic for casual conversation. When the Yankees played the Mets in the pre-season, I was able to say to Mets fan I knew how impressed I was with the Mets; I was surprised that managed to score 3 runs in that 2-game series. But if you talk baseball now, the conversation turns to how strange the season is thanks to COVID, and how stupid major league baseball was for even holding a season. What’s happened with the Marlins was entirely predictable.
  • “What are you doing for your summer vacation?” is a non-starter. Many people are spending their summers looking for jobs that just aren’t there. Talk of vacation leads to talk of the travel industry and how it has been decimated by COVID.
  • “Any good shows you’ve been watching lately?” I’m not a big TV watcher, but I’ve discovered that even television and movies have ben affected by COVID.
  • Ask what someone’s reading and they are likely as not to say John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza.
  • Even the normally innocuous weather will lead to discussions of COVID. In my area, we set a record for the most number of July days above 90 degrees. Pools are closed or limited so you can’t escape the heat in a pool. People are stuck indoors and at their wits end because of the virus.

I need a break from it. I don’t mean to suggest I want to bury my head in the sand and pretend the virus isn’t there. There’s no way to do that. And I don’t mean to suggest that other people should give up talking about COVID just because I am sick of it. But I’d love to have a conversation about something other than COVID. Each time such a conversation begins, a part of me is crestfallen. How many times can I repeat the same things over and over again? I know that people like to gossip and commiserate, but for me it has reached Groundhog Day proportions of repetitiveness.

Maybe what I should do is create an FAQ here on the blog, and have little cards printed up with a QR code and URL that I can hand out when the conversation inevitably turns to COVID.

The Junk Drawer

I just did something remarkable, so much so that I had to tell you about it right away: I didn’t just toss the junk on my desk into the junk drawer. I was trying to clear off some space as a way of delaying the inevitable work I needed to do. I picked up some junk that had accumulated on the surface of my desk and pulled open one of the two junk drawers beside my desk–and I froze. What am I doing? I thought. I have enough junk in those drawers, I don’t need any more. Instead of tossing the junk into the drawer, I tossed it into the trash.

Having recently completed a big project at work, junk drawers have been on my mind lately. I often compare the rollout of a big software project to the cleaning out of junk drawers when moving from one house to another. The big items–beds, sofas, televisions sets, dining room table–are easy. They are the low-hanging fruit of the moving process as well as the software process. With a couple of strong backs, it takes almost no time to move a sofa, or dismantle a bed. Much harder, and much more time consuming, is the stuff scattered throughout various junk drawers in the house. There’s a ton of stuff in those drawers, and you have to make a decision about each item. And because they are hidden in drawers, you don’t see them and don’t think about them when considering the bigger picture.

I just went through the junk drawers in my office to give some examples of the kinds of things that accumulate within them. Here is what I found:

  • A bottle of lens cleaner. Okay, I use this fairly frequently, along with the microfiber map of the DC Metro System, when cleaning my glasses or computer screens. Can you wash a microfiber cloth? Mine seems to be rather dirty at this point.
Microfiber map of the DC Metro System, dirty.
  • A box of a dozen Pilot G-2 black gel roller pens (0.7) with 6 pens remaining. These, and their blue cousins) are the only pens I use. I go through one of these black pens every 25 days or so. I always have one black and one blue pen in my back left pocket along with my Field Notes notebooks. (Maybe I should refer to that as my “junk pocket”?) But do I really need the box? Couldn’t I dump the pens in to a container of some kind? Well, then I’d need a container and six for one half dozen the other.
  • A bottle of Rite Aid brand allergy relief pills that expired back in March 2017. I probably can get rid of those.
  • 2 NetGear PowerLine ethernet devices that allow you to use the phone lines in your house for ethernet. These were useful in the old house, but we don’t need them in the new house, what with the improved wireless access and Fios. I can probably get rid of these as well.
  • A bottle of Naproxen tablets that expired back in April. The bottle is mostly filled and I can’t remember why I bought these in the first place.
  • Not one but two Geometry and Math kits with compasses, small rulers, protractors, triangles. I can no longer remember when or why I bought these, either.
  • A baggie containing screws from the door to the stairwell that we removed when we moved into the new house. At least the bag is clearly labeled: “For stairway door.” Now if only I could remember where we put the door.
  • A bag of a dozen or so black, thick Field Notes rubber bands.
  • A pair of old reading glasses which don’t come close to helping me read anymore.
  • A single-punch hole puncher
  • A 3/4 full bottle of Target Clinic hand sanitizer. How about that! It expired in 2015, but beggars can’t be choosers, right?
  • An unopened package of 3M Command Brand Damage-Free Picture Hanging Strips.
  • A slightly out-of-focus pin that says “Eat Drink and Be Irish” that would have been a useful accessory on St. Patrick’s Day.
  • 5 ink cartridges for the printer–still useful because we still print things, especially with the last three months of school taking place at home.
  • A family photo from back when our youngest was born.
  • 13 “Forever” stamps.
  • Roughly 100,000 return address labels that St. Jude’s continues to send me after I once donated some money to them a few years back. I thought they used the money to help fight children’s cancers, not make return address labels.
  • Some expired credit cards.
  • A package of thousands of colored dot labels.
  • Boxes that once held FitBits and iPhones.
  • A bag of peripheral cables from the 1990s.
  • A VHS cassette with a label in my grandfather’s handwriting that has faded to the point of being unreadable.
  • An old mousepad.
  • A stapler remover that reminds me of a Langolier.
  • 5 colorful wristbands from our last trip to Disney World

Yesterday, I talked about catching up on my to-do list. I think I should probably add “clean out the junk drawers” to the list. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t. I would only be making room for more junk to accumulate and if I left the drawer full, it would force me to either find another place for the junk or throw it away, whichever is easier.

Catching Up on To-Do Lists

Today, in a pique of nostalgia, I found myself flipping through the 24 Field Notes notebooks that I have filled up since 2015. I’ve had this feeling lately of an accumulated mass of things I have not yet crossed off my various to-do lists.

The first unchecked (or in this case, un-crossed-out) item on the list is from June 2015. It simply reads: “Checkbook on stairs.” That’s okay, though, because even half a decade later I remember exactly what this scribble meant. It meant that I’d left the checkbook on the stairs so that when I headed up to the office, I’d see it and put it back in the drawer. The problem is, we have since sold those stairs, and for that matter, the office at the top of them. I imagine all of the checks that once resided comfortably within that checkbook are now comfortably deposited in other people’s bank accounts.

Here is an item. It says “Code bloopers” which is code to me to write a post about the bloopers one makes when writing code. This particular item remains unchecked 5 years later because I never wrote such a post. I was never able to figure out how to convey they hysterical humor one can find in the absence of a semi-colon, and the hours of hair-pulling havoc that ensue because of said missing semi-colon.

(Much later, I thought it might be amusing to take a look at some of the more outlandish Git commits I have made over the years, but I don’t think I ever put that idea on a to-do list.)

Here’s a note to myself from the summer of 2015 as it appears on the page it iswritten:

In case you can’t read my handwriting, it says “Condoms prevent unwanted minivans.” I saw this on a bumper sticker and thought it was amusing. It may have been intended as a subtle to-do item, but clearly it is not crossed out. In a rather remarkable coincidence, about a year after I scribbled this note, we bought a minivan. We thought the extra room might make our frequent road trips a little easier, what with the baby that came along around the same time.

Ah-ha! Here is one I can cross off. Sometime in August 2016 (before I was dating each page of my Field Notes notebook) is this incomplete task: “Sandman.” It is a reminder that I should obtain and read that Sandman graphic novel that Neil Gaiman created. As it happens, I ordered and received a copy of said graphic novel a few weeks ago. Looking at the list of books currently ahead of it on my to-be-read list, I imagine I’ll get to it sometime in the next 8-10 years. But I obtained it, and that is enough to warrant crossing it off the list.

Quite a few of the incomplete to-do list items in these notebooks appear to be blog post ideas that I never wrote, either because I lost interest, or thought the ideas were not good enough (I have some standards). Here are a few of them:

  • Science fiction’s growing pains (I think this has been done plenty of times by better writers than I).
  • My Wikipedia References – a post illustrating that while I don’t have an entry in Wikipedia, I am quoted in it several times.
  • Simplicity in Technology – I can only thing this was me running away with my imagination since nothing in technology is as simple as it seems.

It occurs to me that some of these notes are not to-do items, but things I jotted down that the kids said that I found amusing. For instance:

  • Referring to her handwriting, the Little Miss said, “I have good penguinship.”
  • Referring to silent reading, the Little Miss said she was “reading in my brain.”
  • Referring to her baby sister in the bathtub, the Little Miss said, “Will she look ugly if she gets her hair wet?”

I could never remember how many bags of mulch I bought each spring to put down in various places around our house. Well, to refresh my memory, on July 1, 2017, I wrote down how many bags of mulch I needed: 16 bags. Too bad I didn’t write down which notebook and on what date I wrote that particular note, making it perhaps, a little easier to find.

There is an unchecked note to myself to take notes on paper. It seems rather meta to add such an item to my to-do list, but as I have been doing this for years, it seems safe to cross off now.

Here is an interesting item: “Clean up house for cleaners.” After several months without our cleaners, they returned today, and boy was I glad they did. After they left, the house looked great. It smelled clean. The kids rushed inside and immediately took everything that had been put away and spread it across the floor where it belongs. It provided a small sense of normalcy in these anxious times.

One of the to-do items in book 11 is a number: 17,162. There is no context for it and I no longer have any idea what it meant. I’m crossing it off. There is a note reminding myself to read more John McPhee–I think I am nearly caught up on that one.

I don’t know why, but whenever I jot down someone’s name–a waiter, a tour guide–I always put their name in quotes: “Josh”, “Evelyn”, “Kyra”, “Jess.”

There ‘s a note from May 11, 20119 that the “first soloist was off key” but I don’t remember what soloist I was referring to, and I don’t know how I could have gotten them on-key after the fact. On the same day is a note to read David McCullough’s speeches, which I did do, and simply forgot to cross off the item.

On 5/14/19 the main to-do item that day is to sell our house and buy a new one. That, being taken care of, can be crossed off and marked as completed.

Flipping through the most recent pages of my most recent Field Notes notebook are the following items:

  • “Asking for it, wasn’t he?” — there to remind me of the punchline of a funny joke.
  • “Uncle Buck/John Hughes” — there to remind me to watch Uncle Buck, which I hadn’t seen in years until shortly after writing down that little to-do item.
  • “Post on catching-up on to-do items” — and with that, I think I’m call caught up!

How’s your to-do list looking?

We Are Buying a Saltwater Farm in Maine

I know this will come as news to most of my friends, family, and readers, but we have decided to leave the city for the countryside of Maine. I plan on buying a saltwater farm there, preferably somewhere in or around Brooklin, Maine. While it is true that I could work remotely, I feel that a working farm will keep me busy for many hours of the day, and so I plan to support my family by writing a monthly syndicated column of my farming adventures for a national magazine. As it is always good to have a backup plan, if the syndicated column doesn’t pan out, I’ll write about my farming adventures here.

I was inspired to this feat of daring-do by a fellow scribbler named Elwyn Brooks White, who attempted a similar experiment between 1938 and 1943. You can read about his experiment in the pages of Harper’s under the banner “One Man’s Meat.” Elwyn, who most people know as “E.B.” and who friends called “Andy” for reasons only Cornell graduates would understand escaped the hustle and bustle of Manhattan for Brooklin, Maine for many of the same reasons I plan to escape the hustle and bustle of Arlington, Virginia. E.B. was a writer, and I am a writer, so I should have no problem running a small farm. After all, avoiding writing is a big part of every writers repertoire, and what better way to avoid writing than by raising chickens, sheep, pigs, ducks, and possibly a cow or two.

When I proposed this plan to Kelly she said, “What do you know about farming?”

“Well, I’ve read One Man’s Meat at least three times. What else is there to know?”

“It gets cold in the winter,” Kelly said, “can you chop wood?”

“I can split logs with the best of them,” I said confidently.

“We don’t even own an ax!” Kelly said.

I was ready for this. “A decent ax costs about $50. I’ve just finished this story that I am sure Harper’s or The New Yorker will love. They’ll pay me ten times that much at least? Then I can buy the ax.”

“What if they don’t like the story?”

“What’s not to like about it?” I said.

“Make a list,” Kelly said.

“A list of what?”

“A list of all of the things you need to get done in order to move to this saltwater farm in Maine.”

“And then what?”

“And then we’ll talk.”

I decided to take Kelly up on this challenge. Here is my list:

1. Find a saltwater farm for sale in Maine.

I did some searching for “saltwater farms for sale in Maine” and found several that seemed to my eyes reasonably priced pieces of property that fit the description. Each listing, after indicating said reasonable price, then indicated something less reasonable: SOLD. This begs two questions: first, why show the property if it is sold? It doesn’t help anyone. The realtor might think it helps them by indicating they are good at selling property, but it only serves to annoy me and makes me think the realtor is smug. And second, what is this sudden demand for saltwater farms in Maine? I suppose I’ll have to come back to this item. In the meantime…

2. Get our house ready to put on the market.

True, we bought this place a year ago with the idea that we’d be here for the long haul. I hate moving. I hate packing, I hate unpacking. I hate looking at properties. I hate it when people come into my house to assess whether it is up to their standards. I use the term “hate” sparingly, but I hate all of these things. Still, the idea of owning a saltwater farm in Maine is appealing. But before we can think about putting this house on the market there are a few other hurdles to overcome.

3. Find a national magazine willing to pay me a large sum of money to syndicate a monthly column that will support me and the family in our new endeavor.

Hmm? Well, in addition to writing here on the blog, I’ve written a column for the Daily Beast. I’ve written an article for 99U, and of course, there was that review column for Intergalactic Medicine Show. I’ve written two guest editorials for Analog Science Fiction. I’ve had stories published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. The bottom line is that people have, in the past, happily paid me for my writing so there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t continue to do so in the future. Until now, all of this writing was done without the aid of an agent, but if I am going to support myself (and my agent) through my writing, I probably should look into getting one.

4. Find an agent who can get me a syndicated monthly column in a national magazine.

My friend and mentor, Barry N. Malzberg once told me that if you can get an agent, you probably don’t need one. He should know. He worked for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency for a long time. I’ve heard that Bill Murray–yes, that Bill Murray–doesn’t use an agent. He has a phone number and answering machine and checks it every couple of weeks or so. I kind of like that approach. Isaac Asimov rarely used an agent, and the 10 percent I save on commissions can go toward paying down the mortgage of the saltwater farm. Or is it fifteen percent these day? Did E.B. White have a literary agent? I can’t be sure, but I don’t think he did when he had his saltwater farm in Maine.

5. Write something worth being nationally syndicated.

I mean, how hard can this be, right? I read everything that John McPhee writes in The New Yorker and he has written a lot. E. B. White wrote for the New Yorker. His wife was an editor there and his stepson, Roger Angell was also a writer and editor for the magazine. Andy wrote about dogs and sick pigs and collecting eggs. He wrote about the occasional hurricane and snowstorm. He wrote reminiscences of summers in Maine as a child, to say nothing of the stories he conjured of pigs and spiders in his barn. Look, if you have any ideas of something I might pitch for a nationally syndicated column, let me know.

6. Clean out the stuff in the attic.

I don’t know exactly how this happens, but attic junk accumulates. In our old house, we had a few boxes of clothes in the attic. In our new house, I had install some extra attic boards to store all of the stuff we have up there. We have clothes every one of our kids have outgrown. We have boxes of stuff that I don’t know what’s in them. How is it that we have more stuff in the attic of our new house than we did in our old house? You know what, I need to make sure there is a large barn on the saltwater farm we purchase in Maine. The loft of said barn should be more than adequate to contain anything we might decide to hoard well into the future. I just discovered two boxes of papers in my attic that were once in my parent’s attic. How the heck did that happen?

7. Scan in all the papers in the attic.

One way to pare down the stuff in the attic is to scan in all those papers from when I was in kindergarten that my mom saved. In addition to giving these back to me, she also returned all of the Mother’s Day cards I’d made for her throughout the years. I’m not quite sure how I am supposed to take that. Even if I scanned in a dozen pages a day, it’s going to take me years to get all of these papers scanned in and organized. I guess that’s alright. It gives me time to figure out what I should write for my nationally syndicated column, and possibly attract the attention of an agent.

8. Paint the house.

Before we put the house on the market, we should probably have the interior painted. For whatever reason, these days realtors seems to be recommending a calming gray for interior walls. We had our old place painted in these colors just before we sold it, and indeed, it was calming. But we’re trying to save money to buy the farm, so to speak, so I suspect Kelly will say we should paint the house ourselves, meaning, I should paint the house. I painted much of the interior of our old house when we first moved in and swore an oath that I would never undertake such a torturous endeavor again. In a review of the job I did painting the house, Kelly also agrees I should never attempt it again.

9. Put the house on the market.

It’s true, Amazon is putting their headquarters in our town and home prices are rising. It is also true that we are in the midst of a pandemic. I doubt our house would sell within the first 24 hours on the market as our old house did last year. If it didn’t sell in 24 hours, it would feel like a real defeat. And then there are the real estate agents who want to take chunk for their efforts. If it wasn’t so complicated, I’d try to sell the house without an agent but I’d almost certainly screw something up. Selling the house, as we learned last year, is great incentive for finding a new house–in this case a saltwater farm in Maine.

10. Start packing.

We may still have boxes from last year and–no, I’m sorry, no, I can’t do it. Saltwater farm or not, I cannot pack up a house on year after we moved into it. I swore to myself a year ago that packing up the old house was the last time I’d pack for a long, long time. I’m sorry, I really am. I know you were all looking forward to what would have been an award-winning syndicated column in a national magazine. I know you all looked forward to reading about my adventures as a saltwater farmer in Maine on the blog. But I draw the line at packing up my things. Especially my books. It took me the better part of three days while Kelly and the kids were off at the shore with friends to get the books sorted in the proper order on my shelves. I am not going to put myself through that again.

Consider this post a formal announcement to all my friends, family, and readers, that we have not, in fact, decided to leave the city for the countryside, rumors to the contrary. Don’t pay any attention to what you might have read in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. We are not moving. We are staying in the house we bought a year ago. I mean, come on, who in their right mind would pick up and leave for a saltwater farm in Maine with the idea of supporting a family by writing a nationally syndicated column without an agent, or even an idea? Pure rumor drudged up by the media. Put in a way that too many Americans will empathize with: fake news.

It Must Be A Monday

Mondays are notoriously precarious days. So much so that the Boomtown Rats wrote an entire song about how they don’t like Mondays. I’ve always thought this defect was baked into the fabric of the universe. The reason the week begins on Sunday is to allow for a do-over so that Mondays go more smoothly. Unfortunately, it seems few people take advantage of this chance and spend their Sundays sleeping in, and then waking up grumpy, because tomorrow is Monday. Monday means back to work, and back to school. It is a transitional day between the weekend and the work week and the transition gobs it up.

As I said, I feel this defect is baked into the fabric of the universe. It doesn’t just affect people. Take for example, the poor squirrel I encountered on my walk this morning. Our house backs up to a park. Our yard slopes down to a bike path which enters the park and acts as a dividing line between our property and that of the park. Each morning, I set to walk down the steep slope of that bike path and into the woods. There is a short stretch in which I feel like I am engulfed by nature. It was in that short stretch, for instance, that I recently encountered a barrel owl. Deer occasionally roam down that bike path and find their way into our yard.

Recently, the county has been planting trees in the area. Four dogwood trees were planted along the border of our property line, and a dozen more trees were planted just off the bike path within the woods of the park. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of (and because it is Monday, I’m too lazy to check on) the base of these trees are wrapped in some kind of green material, like this:

The floor of this little forest is teeming with wildlife, mostly in the form of birds, chip monks, and squirrels. Walking down the path this morning, I caught motion out of my peripheral vision, and watched as a squirrel dashed across the wooded terrain and lept for one of those newly planted trees. I watched as the squirrel made a graceful, low arc over the ground, something akin to a long-jumper in the Olympics. I could almost hear “Chariots of Fire” playing over the scene. Then the squirrel smacked head first into the green base of the tree. For a moment, it stood there stunned. Then it saw me staring back at and I swear to you that before it turned tail and hid, a crimson pallor had crept up its neck and into its furry face. It is the first and only time I have witness an embarrassed squirrel, and I suspect it’s sub-par performance was because today is a Monday.

I’m equally certain that I know just how that squirrel feels. It is going to wander around for the rest of the day promising itself that it would never tell any of its friends or family what transpired. She’s only hoping that none of them happened to witness her failure to launch. She knows that I saw her, of course, but she must know that I would never tell her friends or family. There’s a kind of bond among all creatures when it comes to bloopers like this. I’m sure that I’d never admit to something as embarrassing as trying to leap onto a tree and missing–unless of course, I thought I might garner an extra click or two here on the blog, and then all bets are off.

Because of incidents like this one, Sundays should, I think, really be reinstated as trial runs for Mondays. Wake up early Sunday, bleary-eyed, shower, put on your white shirt and tie, pour your coffee, take the first sip–too hot!–and allow it to dribble down your chin and onto your freshly pressed and cleaned shirt. No big deal, it’s just the rehearsal, no need to strut about the house cursing profanities that make the walls blush like that squirrel. You’ve gotten it out of your system and you can do it again tomorrow, on Monday.

If we are going to lose our Sundays to rehearse our Mondays, it means we need to make Fridays part of the weekend just to balance things out. So the weekend becomes Friday/Saturday, which is as it should be since according to the calendar sitting here beside me, Sunday is the first day of the week, not Monday. After a while, of course, we’ll get used to Friday/Saturday as the weekend. We’ll lose all hesitation over Monday. Monday will just be another Tuesday. The problem is what Monday represented will now be embodied by Sunday. After all, if Saturday is the new Sunday, it follows that Sunday is the new Monday.

Okay, I admit, I see the problem here. If Sunday becomes the new Monday, we have to make Thursday the new Friday and Friday the new Saturday, which will make Saturday the new Sunday, and once we get used to that… Before we know it Monday will be the new Friday, and Monday’s are not good days for Fridays. Mondays are edgy days filled with failed tree-leaps, and flawed logic.

I shouldn’t have picked a Monday to write this post.

Independence Day

For the last 19 years, the first thing I think about on July 4 is not the birth of the country, it is death. In one of the most remarkable coincidences in the history of the country, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, which happened to be July 4, 1826–the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That was 194 years ago today.

When the first fireworks began cracking last night, my thoughts rolled back to the scene that David McCullough portrayed in his biography of John Adam:

At Quincy the roar of cannon grew louder as the hours passed, and in midafternoon a thunderstorm struck–“The artillery of Heavan,” as would be said–to be followed by a gentle rain… Adams lay peacefully, his mind clear, by all signs. Then late in the afternoon, according to several who were present in the room, he stirred and whispered clearly enough to be understood, “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

That scene was powerful enough in my mind to spin a story around it, one in which a time traveler brings Jefferson and Adams together in their final hours to witness the bicentennial celebration from Liberty Island in 1976. The editor to whom I submitted the story liked it, but said there was something wrong with it and he couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I mentioned this to my friend, Michael Burstein, who asked me to send him the story, confidently stating he would figure out what the problem was. He got back to me shortly there after, sheepishly proclaiming that while there was definitely something wrong with the story, he too, couldn’t figure out what it was. I eventually trunked the story, but I think about it every Independence Day.

I have the vaguest memories of the bicentennial celebration in 1976. I was living in New Jersey at the time, four years old, and fascinated, so far I can remember, with the fireworks. A year later that fascination had turned to fear. I don’t remember being afraid of the fireworks, but the reporter and photographer that captured me in this photo which appeared on July 7, 1977 remembered on my behalf:

At some point, I lost my enthusiasm for big fireworks celebration on the Fourth of July. They always seemed crowded, parking was difficult, the weather was often less than conducive to the event, and it was generally more trouble than it was worth. The notable exception to this was our annual summer treks to Maine, where the small coastal town we visited hosted a delightful New England Independence Day celebration. It started early on the town square with a costume parade, hot dogs, cotton candy and lemonade. Later in the afternoon, the town band performed all kinds of patriotic tunes. Finally, when darkness settled, everyone in the small town gathered at the town dock for a fireworks display while another band entertained the crowds and the small ice cream shop kept us cool. I enjoy those celebrations immensely, not the least because I could walk everywhere and not worry about finding a parking space.

Two years ago, on a family road trip, we had a perfect view of the fireworks celebration in Nashville, Tennessee from our hotel room. This was perfect since earlier in the day it had hit nearly 110 degrees in Nashville. I didn’t mind that experience either.

I never got the fireworks bug as a kid. I know quite a few kids my age right now who still have the bug and can’t wait to light off firecrackers, fountains, ground-spinners and sparklers. I prefer to imagine the celebrations in Quincy, Massachusetts 194 years ago, with cannons accompanied by nature’s own fireworks, thunder and lightning. Indeed, I sometimes think that the perfect Independence Day celebration would be a loud, flashing thunderstorm passing through just as night falls over the town, a humbling reminder that despite all of our independence and freedom, we are still at the mercy of the whims of nature.

Overchoice

Earlier this week, I completed a work project that I had been managing for more than two years. 937 days from my first meeting to rollout to be precise. Any software project like this has a tail, but it felt good to actually have the thing completed and out in the world. The good feeling came more from the former than the latter, I think.

Whenever I finish a big project, I go through a list of things that I have accumulated over that period of time–personal projects and other things that I have put off doing for a lack of time. This inevitably leads to a period in which I flutter randomly between items on my list, wanting to do all of them at once, and not making progress on any of them. Alvin Toffler called this “overchoice.” I’ve also heard it referred to as “analysis paralysis” but I think I like overchoice better because it accurately describes the feelings it raises in me.

Software projects tend to have crunch periods as you get closer to rollout. It’s hard to describe what’s involved in these intense periods of work to people not involved in software rollout. I often think of these periods as the loathsome part of moving where all of the big stuff–furniture, televisions, books, etc.–is packed away and ready to move and all that’s left is the stuff in the kitchen drawers, the top shelves of closets, and the attic. It always seems to take longer to deal with that stuff than everything else put together. It makes for long hours and over the last month or so, 60 hours weeks were not unheard of. (My peak was 68-1/2 hours in one week.)

It meant that no only was this weekend a 3-day holiday weekend, but it was my first days with no work (weekends included) since sometime in May. I would have an entire 3 days off–what would I do with my time?

More often than not, we are on vacation this week. We’ve spent many Fourth of July weekends in small town coastal Maine. Two years ago, we spent our Fourth in Nashville, Tennessee as part of a 10-day road trip we took. This year, things are different. We are home for the weekend and while Virginia is doing alright compared with many states, people are still appropriately cautious and so things are a little subdued. I thought this would be a perfect time to flip through my list of personal projects and figure out what I wanted to work on. I took care of a few of the smaller ones (WD-40 the sliding glass door, replace a few lightbulbs around the house) and then looked at the two big projects I have been ignoring for some time–in many cases–years.

  1. A unified way for capturing notes and annotations from my reading. You’d think that by now, we’d have a standardized system that allowed us to highlight and annotate any text we find in electronic form, whether a Kindle book, a magazine , newspaper, website, etc. No such standard exists and, indeed, some tools, like Kindle, make it particularly difficult to programmatically extract your notes and highlights. I’ve thought about ways of building a system for myself that would do that–a kind of standardized digital commonplace book.
  2. A personal digital archive of all of my papers (digital and actual). A lot of this is in Evernote and I haven’t ruled out building a curated archive in Evernote. But I’m not fond of the way Evernote currently presents this data, so I thought I’d investigate what it would take to build a local searchable archive myself.

I got to thinking about both these projects this week. The ideas began to fly, and I began messing around with some of the technology I planned to use to implement these systems. I spent hours testing out little concepts here and there. At the end of the day, however, I’d made no real progress and I was worn out and frustrated. Two things occurred to me:

  1. I had a serious case of overchoice. In addition to the two projects above, I am teaching myself some new technology required to implement these projects the way I want, which itself spawns off many little sub-projects. And there were other smaller things on my list that I was ignoring.
  2. There was one project I was avoiding. Steven Pressfield would call this losing out to resistance. I was focusing on other things in order to avoid the one thing I should be doing: writing.

Once I realized what I was doing, I felt better. I’d make my focus writing. It’s not that I don’t want to do the other projects, but that I want to write and have been avoiding it because it sometimes is hard to do. It is certainly harder (for me at least) than managing a complicated software project. But it is also much more satisfying. I have worried about my writing lately: the stories that I have been writing or want to write are not the kind of stories I used to write. I no longer think of the science fiction magazines as the right market for me–but I don’t know what the right market is. I worry about the lack of writing I’ve done here on the blog, and whether or not what I do write is of interest to anyone but me. Recent comments and emails have perked me up on this concern and that makes me happy.

Knowing that my big rollout would happen at the end of June, I told myself that beginning on July 1, I’d beginning writing in earnest again. I’d try to write every day and see what I could manage to produce over the second half of the year. July 1st and 2nd drifted by without a word from my at the keyboard. Finally, on July 3, this post is my return to the world of writing. I’m pretty sure I have the capacity and energy to be prolific over the next 6 months. The question is: will what I write be any good?

For that we’ll have to wait and see.

R.I.P. Carl Reiner

I learned this afternoon that Carl Reiner died yesterday at age 98. I read several Reiner’s books over the years, including I Remember Me and I Just Remembered. The Dick Van Dyke Show, which Reiner created, was one of my favorite TV shows, despite its originally airing a decade before I was born. The episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee featuring Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks is one of my favorites.

Rest in peace, Carl Reiner.

Fan Mail and the Law of Coincidence

I woke yesterday morning to find an unusual email message in my work inbox. The message was from someone in my department with whom I have never worked. In her message, she told me she was “an admirer of my work,” referring to a requirements document that I recently produced, and praising its clarity. I replied with a thank you, and jokingly said that while I’d received fan mail for my fiction and nonfiction writing, this was the first piece of fan mail I’d ever received for a technical requirements document.

In truth, it had been quite a while since I received fan email of any kind (not counting comments I get here on the blog) mainly because I haven’t written much outside the blog lately. So it was delightful to awaken to such a message and read that first thing in the morning, instead of some kind of emergency related to a pending rollout I’m working on this weekend.

Then, in an odd coincidence, I received two more emails from various work colleagues yesterday, praising various documents I’d written for this recent project. One person told me how nice it was to have someone on a project that could write. Another called a different document I wrote “fantastic.” Keep in mind that writing documentation is an ancillary part of what I do, almost an afterthought. But it is still nice to hear that people find the documentation useful, and to hear from three different people in the same day–well, in more than a quarter of a century at the company, I think it is the first time that has happened.

It was more than enough to make for a happy day, and lift my spirits from the stress of the current rollout effort. As it happened, it didn’t stop there. Just before heading to bed last night, I received another fan email. This time, it was from someone who had just read my story, “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” (now freely available on InterGalactic Medicine Show’s website). It was a sweet message, and it meant a lot, considering that “Gemma Barrows” is my favorite of all of the stories I’ve sold to date.

It amuses me that my day began with fan email–and by purest coincidence, such mail seemed to sprinkle throughout my day. It brought a smile to my face when I woke up, and put a smile on my face just before I went to bed. That’s what I call a pretty good day.

The New Baseball Season

Major League Baseball should do everyone a favor and forgo the 2020 season. I say this as a lifelong baseball fan, a former player (as a kid), and a student of the history of the sport. There are three reasons why baseball should take a deep breath (wearing a mask, of course) and forfeit the season. There’s only one reason that they won’t.

Let’s start with why they should forgo the season:

  1. The baseball season is a marathon, which is part of the magic of the game. Whether its the current 162 games played in regular season, or the 154 games played in an earlier era, it is still a long road to the playoffs. Each game is itself a marathon, being played without a clock, and 162 of those clockless games are packed into 6 month regular season. The entire dynamic of the game is centered on this stable arrangement, like planets orbiting a star at the center of a solar system. Change those dynamics and chaos ensues. Planets fall inward to crash into the star, while other are flung out of the system entirely. We’ll see this in a 60 game season:
    • A 10 game win or loss streak can have a disproportional effect on the outcome of a season for a team.
    • Batting records will be skewed by the shortened season. Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak went 56 games, which is 4 games shy of the entire new season.
    • Being hot and being in a slump take on new perspectives in a grossly shortened season. With “hot” hitters, we could conceivably see much higher batting averages from we are used to. It’s even conceivable that for a period of 60 games, a batter could hit .400. The opposite is true of batters in a slump.
    • If your teams wins the series in a 60 game season, is that something to celebrate? Or, like Houston’s dubious win a few years ago, it is something to be humiliated by?
  2. The entire 2020 record book will be one big asterisk. Meanwhile, I can’t imagine anyway really believes that the stats produced in a 60-game season will have any meaning or value in a record book where the average season length over 120 or so is between 154 and 162 games. If a player does finish the season at or about .400 in hitting, does that show up without a note in the almanacs? Is such a feat deserving of an batting title? Does it even make sense to award batting titles, Cy Young awards, Golden Gloves and the like in a 60 game season? With nearly every stat and achievement from a 60 game season questionable when compared with a season that has 2.7 times as many games, I can’t see the value of the record book for 2020. I imagine that sabermetricians will find ways of attempting to compare apples to apples, the way they do with “field effects” and different era comparisons, but still, really?
  3. The draw of the season will be about the novelty not the game itself. I suspect there will be a fair amount of interest in the games played in 2020, but not for the games themselves, but the novelty of the situation. Managers can’t bump umpires–you have to keep your 6 feet of separation; batters hit by a pitch can’t charge the mound. But will they? The novelty of the situation will keep us watching more than the games themselves, which is a shame. Baseball is an elegant performance to watch, but we’ll miss the performance in lieu of the theater in which it will be played.

The reason that baseball won’t cancel the 2020 season? Come on, you already know the answer: money.

The real question for me is: will I watch any of the games? I don’t know. Late in the winter, I get this eager feeling in my belly. Spring is just around the corner, and I can smell baseball in the air. The first games of the season, when the air is often still chilled, are fun to watch. The players are easing back into things. Any one game doesn’t matter that much at that point. Now, the spring is behind us, and the players will start playing in the heat of summer. Each game will matter more than in a regular season. Indeed, each game will matter 2.7 times more than normal, and that will put pressure on the players and change the way they perform.

I suppose the real winner in all of this is the Houston Astros. Remember what happened in the offseason after Houston was caught cheating in the World Series? I can imagine Houston players were looking forward to road games, especially road games in Los Angeles. What they needed was a major distraction–and that is exactly what they got. What pitcher is going to make his displeasure known by throwing inside on an Astros batter, when getting tossed from a game means sacrificing 1 of the 10 or 11 starts you’ll get this season–assuming your aren’t suspended for hitting the batter?

My Journal in the Days of COVID

Toward the end of 2017, I switched to a new format for my journals: nice big Moleskine Art Collection Sketchbooks, the kind with 96 pages of heavy paper in each volume. These are, by far, my favorites of all of the various journals I’ve used over the years, from simple notebooks, to the brick red Standard Diaries.

This morning, I closed out the 6th volume in this format and cracked open the 7th (I buy these Moleskein notebooks four at a time because I have this silly fear that they will stop making them). As I was closing out the 6th volume, labeling the front cover and spine, I noted the dates: February 6 – June 25, 2020. I started this volume just before the COVID-19 pandemic set its teeth upon us. I noted something else, too. The date range is small than most of my previous volumes of equal length. I wasn’t certain so I went back to check.

Charting my recent journal volumes by days per volume.
Number of days in each volume of my journal since 2017

Each volume has 98 usable pages. With the exception of my first volume in this format, where I was excited about the new format and writing more than usual, this most recent volume contains significantly fewer days than my average, meaning I have been writing more each day since February. Skimming through the volume bears this out. Indeed, my entries are considerably longer, often detailing the news of the day as it relates to the pandemic. Rarely in previous volumes do I report on the current news, other than to call out notable events to provide context for when they happen in my life. But in this most recent volume, events unfolded so quickly that I sometimes had to make bulleted lists of all that happened, like this example from March 13:

A list of current events in my journal

I also find that I used this most recent volume as a way to vent my concerns and frustrations about the pandemic as a way of relieving stress. Sometimes I go on for a page or more venting these concerns. I don’t generally do this in my journals, so this is an indication of particular stress on my part, I suppose.

This made me wonder how many other people are recording their experiences during the pandemic in a similar fashion. So much history is captured this way that rarely sees the light of day, I imagine. Sometimes, it finds it way into public view, often long after the face: John Adams and John Quincy Adams diaries paint fascinating pictures of life in Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America; war letters from during the Civil War, World War I and II have a similar collective effect. I wonder if, a century from now, a Ph.D. candidate will make a study of life during the pandemic and turn to those journals that still exist for a look into what the world was like? Of course, digital records and journals may exist was well, but I’m still skeptical of their durability compared to paper.

I did make one interesting experiment in this most recent volume of my journal. Beginning on March 5, influenced by both the beauty of John Quincy Adams’ handwriting in his journals, and my desire to write more during the pandemic without growing tired, I switched from my normal mode of printing, to cursive entries. (see above). This experiment lasted until June 10th, most of my 6th volume. I stopped for one reason: I found it difficult to read my own handwriting at times. These journals are a reference book for me, and I sometimes imagine my kids (and perhaps, one day, their kids) reading through these. They need to be legible first and foremost, and try as I might, my cursive writing is less legible the faster I write.

Experiment tried, experiment failed.

The Adams Family

I have been fascinated by the Adams family since reading David McCullough’s biography John Adams in the summer of 2001. Adams, to me, was a remarkable man. I’ve often named him as my favorite president (careful to point out that I say my favorite president, not the best president). From time-to-time, I’ve browsed John Adam’s diaries with great delight. I enjoyed reading about Adam’s from Jefferson’s perspective in Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Jefferson. The story of Adams’ and Jefferson’s tumultuous friendship–captured in Friends Divided by Gordon S. Wood–is remarkable for its time. In any case, McCullough’s biography of John Adams has for nearly twenty years now been one of my favorites, and one I’ve re-read on several occasions.

This morning, I finished reading John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub, and have found a biography of the son that matches McCullough’s of the father. What a great read. I’ve often felt that there are two qualities that drive people to greatness: genius, or extremely hard work. John Quincy Adams is the rare result of both, and his accomplishments bear that out. JQA was a more prolific diarist than his father and I have now started to immerse myself in Vol 1 of his diaries, with Vol 2 waiting in the wings.

I read The Education of Henry Adams two years ago. Henry was the son of Charles Francis Adams and thus the grandson of JQA and the great-grandson of John Adams. The family had its share of tragedy, and yet it continued to produce some remarkable people.

A paragraph toward the end of Traub’s book sums this up as follows, astounding when you think of John Adams relatively humble beginnings 285 years ago:

The Adams name rolled on in gently ebbing waves of distinction. Charles Francis Adams III, who married the granddaughter of the secretary of the navy under President John Quincy Adams, served as Herbert Hoover’s navy secretary. (He had prepared for the role by successfully defending the America’s Cup.) His son, Charles Francis Adams IV, served as president of the aerospace firm Raytheon. The Roman numerals have marched all the way down to our own day in the form of John Quincy Adams VII, surely one of the very few “VII”s in a nation that has forsworn a hereditary aristocracy. This John Quincy Adams has a blog.

What would John Adams have thought of blogs, I wonder?