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.

Latchkey Kid

It occurred to me this morning that in October of this year, John Lennon would have been 80 years old. That is, twice as old as he was when he was killed at age 40 in 1980. It’s strange to think that I am nearly 8 years older than Lennon was when he died.

The reason this was on my mind was because of a tweet by Anil Dash addressed to Gen Xers:

As a Gen Xer, and former latchkey kid, I considered this and decided that I was either 8 or 9 years old when I walked home from school with a key hung on a string around my neck. The variability (8 or 9) is due to some fuzziness of memory. Two events stand out in my mind, and I may have conflated them, but here they are:

  1. I remember walking home from Cedar Hills Elementary school on a mild afternoon, on December 8, 1980. I had to call my mom at work when I got home to let her know I was home safe. I remember the specific date because my mom was crying, and that was when I learned that John Lennon had been shot and killed.
  2. A few months later, on a much warmer day on March 30, 1981, I walked home from school–with my younger brother, I think–and learned that President Reagan had been shot.

I think I have blended these two events together in my mind, but in trying to answer Anil’s question, the best I can do is to say if I was a latchkey kid when Lennon was killed, I was eight, and if I was a latchkey kid when Reagan was shot, I was 9.

Regardless of when I became a latchkey kid, the fact is I was one. I had an actual key on a piece of string tied around my neck. When I got home from school, I walked into the kitchen and picked up the wall phone and dialed my mom’s office to let her know that I had arrived home safely. I don’t remember what time I got home from school, and what time my mom or dad arrived home after. I’d guess I got home around 3 pm and that one or both of my parents was typically home around 5 pm or so.

I did homework, I ate a snack. I’m not sure what else I did early on, but after the summer of 1981, one thing I know I did was flip on MTV and watch music videos.

I do think about this sometimes, with respect to my own kids. My son and older daughter are both at least the age that I was when I was a latchkey kid. But a lot has changed since the days I was a latchkey kid that makes it easier for them to avoid being latchkey kids themselves. For one thing, we can, for the most part, work from home, so that there is no need for them to be latchkey kids. For another, if the kids are home alone, they have phones, they can use to text us, or call us, wherever we are, a luxury that didn’t exist at the time when MTV was born. (We had phones, of course, but not mobile devices that we carried with us.)

Some of the implication here, I suppose, is that latchkey kids are somewhat more self-reliant than kids of a similar age today. I couldn’t say. For me, I never really thought much about it beyond the iron-clad rule of calling my mom’s office once I got home. I wasn’t doing much more than what I would have done if my parents had been home when I got back from school. And I could, at times, engage in questionable behavior when my folks weren’t around. Just ask my sister about the time I convinced her to jump off some railroad ties along our driveway, and the resulting bloody mouth she ended up with–all while I was supposed to be watching her while my parent’s were out.

To hold being a latchkey kid as a point of pride over “kids today” seems rather mean-spirited and pointless. It was as fact of life, that’s all. Looking back, I think I would rather have had that extra couple hours a day with my parents around, and I am grateful to have that time with my own kids. I don’t think it made me any better than kids today who don’t have to be latchkey kids. It just helps me empathize with those that do.

Guest Post Requests Get Meta

For years I have had a set of site policies about things like guest posts and advertising (tl;dr: I don’t accept unsolicited guest posts or any advertising). Occasionally, I post a reminder, but I still get requests. The one I got today deserves to be shared because (1) it shows where automation/AI can fail, and (b) it is so meta that it’s funny. Here is an image of the text of the message (links are not clickable in the image):

A few thoughts:

  1. The article the writer enjoyed where I talk about guest posts is this post, which is a reminder that I don’t accept unsolicited guest posts, advertising, or link exchanges.
  2. They enjoyed it so much, that they added my site policy page to their Flipboard.
  3. Last month (December 2019, presumably), they wrote a 7,000 word guide on the best guest post sites for 2017! Would I consider linking to it? I wouldn’t link to it if it was a 7,000 word guide for the best guest post sites for 2019, let alone 2017. How many of those sites no longer exist in 2020?
  4. Then comes the request for a link exchange (which I explicitly say I don’t do in the article my correspondent enjoyed so much). If I modify my site policy to include a link to the best Guest Posting Sites for 2017, they will include my blog in their post on the Best Blogs to Follow in 2017.

I am reminded of that Groucho Marx quote about not wanting to belong to any club that would have me as a member. I didn’t reply to this message, of course. I rarely do, and when I do, it’s usually to point the correspondent to my site policies. But if I did reply, I’d have to wonder about getting on a list of Best Blogs to Follow that requires some kind of quid pro quo to make it onto the list in the first place.

I have been writing this blog for a long time, and what I have found is that it is good writing, and interesting posts, and not link exchanges and guest posts that helps to build and maintain an audience. If anyone out there is thinking about starting a blog, and looking for tips, here’s one: don’t do what my correspondent did.

A Warm January Day

The weather cooperated with us this year. More often than not, when we leave for Florida in December, the weather here is cold and nasty. By the time we cross the St. Mary’s River from George in to Florida, the skies are clear, and the temperatures are warm. I open the windows to soak it in. The reserve is usually true on the way home. We leave Florida’s sunny, warm January weather and arrive home in sleet and cold.

This time was different. We did, indeed, leave Florida with blue skies and warm weather. But we arrived home with almost equally warm weather. It was 72 degrees here in Arlington, Virginia yesterday!

Our house backs up to the local park, and when I took a walk through the park yesterday afternoon, it was flooded with people; more people than I think I have ever seen at one time. Each of them had dragged out their New Year’s Resolutions and were making their way around the park, walking, jogging, biking, skating. Dogs owners obediently followed their charges. My ducks were out in enjoying the warm air. Squirrels were everywhere. I saw one petrified squirrel trapped in the middle of a playground full of children. It ran one way, and halted, its path blocked by a toddler. It ran another way and found another toddler blocking its way. It hid under a slide, until identifying a clear path and making its way to a tree.

According to this morning’s paper, yesterday’s warm weather did not set a record for this day in January. The record was 75 F and we only reached San Diego weather of 72 F. Still, for us thick-blooded Mid-Atlantians, it felt like an early summer day.

It was so warm that Nature was fooled, and I saw buds in the trees.

Buds in the trees in January.

It rained overnight. I woke up around 2 am and it sounded like an ocean crashing down on our roof. But when the sun came up, the sky was clear and blue and the temperatures were still in the mid-60s. It made for a pleasant morning walk.

We spent 3 weeks in Florida between December and January. We swam in pools, in the Gulf and in the Atlantic. It sort of spoils you for the cold weather when you spend that much time in winter in warm weather. So it was nice to come back to weather that helps to ease the transition.

It will cool off over the next few days, but it will by no means be cold. 56 F tomorrow, 53 on Tuesday, 60 on Wednesday, 54 on Thursday. Next weekend it looks like it will return to normal around here.

When I lived in New England as a kid, I remember an occasional warm period during winter and it was always a treat. I’m grateful that the Internet didn’t exist back then, and that HBO (in its very early days) played Star Wars over and over again. I’d seen it 20 times. It meant that when the weather was unseasonably warm, we were outdoor, playing in the woods, or in the frames of the unfinished houses being built in our neighborhood. Only reluctantly would we return indoors, drowning our sorrows in MTV videos of Duran Duran’s “Rio”, Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey,” and the Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

I shudder to think that was nearly 40 years ago.

The Long Road Home

View from our hotel room on the last full day of our vacation.

We departed our resort at Walt Disney World yesterday morning at 8:15 am and arrived home just before 11 pm, 860 miles of driving. We have driven too and from Florida more than a dozen times, but this is the first time we attempted to drive all the way home in a single day.

The first time we drove to Florida, in 2012, we made the trip over 3 days, spending nights in places like Florence, South Carolina, and Kingland, Georgia. We’d do the same on the reverse run, stopping in places like Savannah and Charleston. After several years of these trips, we slimmed them down to just one night on the road, stopping at a roughly midway point in South Carolina. We’ve done that for years, and indeed, that is what we did driving down in December.

But we visited Walt Disney World at the end of our trip this time, instead of the beginning. We are normally in southern Florida, and being three hours closer to home made it tricky to decide where to stop for the night. I suggested we try to make the run all the way through. So we left Orlando at 8:15 am, drove through some rush hour traffic on I-4, and then onto I-95 where we encountered no traffic for the entire drive.

It wasn’t that hard. It might seem like a small thing, but I am always impressed by the good state of the roads, the quality of the rest stops, and the friendliness of the people at gas stations and restaurants along the way. We stopped in Walterboro, South Carolina for a late lunch, but other than a couple of pit stops, I drove and drove and drove.

I finished 3 audiobooks on the drive: I was almost finished with Ted Chaing’s Exhilation before the drive, and finished it while we were still in Florida. Next, I turned to Chuck Palahniuk’s new book, Consider This: Moments in My Life After Which Everything Was Different. Having finished that, I was still craving more on the writing life, so I re-read John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. That audiobook came to an end as we pulled into our driveway, right around 10:50 pm.

Listening to the audiobooks made the time fly by. So did the lull of the road. I remember when we stopped for lunch, around 2 pm, thinking that it didn’t seem like we’d been driving for nearly 6 hours already.

860 miles is the most I have driven in a single day. I think the runner up is in the 500 mile range. It made sense to do this, coming home, because it gives us the entire weekend to get the house back in order, do laundry (we were gone for 21 days) and settle back into our routines before we are back to work and school on Monday. I’m not sure I’d do this driving down to Florida.

The photo is a view from our hotel room on the last full day at Walt Disney World. We stayed in two different resorts this time, but I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.

After being gone for 3 weeks, it feels good to be home. It does not feel like we just left on the trip, or that the trip flew by. 21 days is a long time by any measure. It’s nice to be back in my office surrounded by my books. It’s nice to have 2 days to settle back in before work starts again.

Decades

Decades are interesting milestones. For one thing, they are rare in the course of a lifetime. For much of human history, the average person lived to see only three decades pass. Today, we might see, seven, eight, or even nine decades, but still that is only seven, eight, or nine events in the course of an entire life.

It is for this reason, I suppose, that decades are so often celebrated as major events. Even so, you can’t flip the calendar page without stirring some controversy. There will always be people who argue over when a decade actually begins and ends: Does the decade begin in 2020, or 2021?

If you are lucky, you were born on a decade boundary. It makes the math a lot easier. For instance, Isaac Asimov used January 2, 1920 as his birthday (having been born in a small town in Russia, he was never quite certain of the date). That makes it easy to figure that he would have been 100 years old on January 2, 2020. My grandfather was also born in 1920. I’m envious of people who are born in a century year: 1900, 2000, etc. It is impossible to forget how old you are if you were born on January 3, 2000, and today is January 3, 2020.

The first time I was consciously aware of the change of decades was in the fall of 1979. We had recently moved to New England, and there must have been buzz in the air because I remember thinking that soon, the 70s would be over and it would be 1980. I thought 1980 sounded very science-fictional.

By the time the next decade rolled around, I was getting ready to graduate from high school. I don’t recall as much of an internal drama about the change of decades at that point. But I do recall going to see L.A. Story–still one of my favorite movies–with my brother in the summer of 1990, before heading off to college. It was billed as “the first great comedy of the 1990s” so even the studios were riding the decade’s coattails.

The next decade was special, not just because it was a new decade, but a new millennium. There was no way that I could be unaware of the year 2000: a big part of my job in the 18 months leading up to that milestone decade was to make sure that the various computer systems that my company used would not be affected by the Y2K bug. On the evening of December 31, 1999, my company threw a big party and at midnight, the party suddenly paused as we all scampered about, making sure that all systems were still up and running.

What is remarkable about a decade is how much things can change between one decade and the next, In 1900, there were no airplanes but in 1910 there were enough planes flying to allow for the first mid-air collision. In 2000, I was trying to make sure the company computers weren’t going to crash, but in 2010, I was fawning over our 6-month old baby, who, yet another decade later, is suddenly 10-1/2 years old.

I graduated from high school in 1990, a nice even decade, making it easy to figure out that this year will be my 30th high school reunion. A friend recently pointed out that 2050 is the same distance in the future as 1990 is in the past.

I was lucky to have been born late enough in a century to allow my life to span across two centuries. I was born in the 1900s and have made it into the 2020s (so far!). It is unlikely I will see another century. But my youngest daughter, born in 2016, has a very good chance of watch the hoverball levitate down the facade of a building in Times Square as the clock counts down to yet another new decade, January 1, 2100.

My Best Reads of 2019

Now that 2019 is officially in the record books, I present my list of best reads of 2019. Keep in mind that this is not a list of books published in 2019. Some of the books on my list are books published in 2019, others published decades earlier. It is, simply, a list of the books I most enjoyed in the last year.

A few stats on my reading from last year:

  • I read 113 books, for a total of 43,820 pages.
  • 80 books were nonfiction, 43 were fiction.
  • The longest book I read was 882 pages.
  • The average length of a book in 2019 was 387 pages.
  • On average, I finished one book every 3-1/4 days; that’s a little over 2 book per week on average.
  • Here is the list of everything I’ve read since 1996. What I read in 2019 begins with #849 on the list.

And now, the best books I read in 2019 in the order that I read them.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games are Made by Jason Schreier

As someone who manages software projects, I’m occasionally interested in how it is done in the real world. I’ve always been fascinated by the construction of video games, even if I am not an avid player, so this book was a perfect mix. It portrayed an array of games and game companies, including Witcher by CD Projekt Red. It was because of this book that, in January 2019, I took the rare move of buying Witcher 3 and playing it, and moreover, winning it and its add-ons. It supplanted the Ultima games as my favorite.

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintrye

This real life story of double-agents and spies was fascinating. It was like The Americans, but nonfiction, and like a good thriller, it kept me reading, virtually unable to put the book down.

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King

I watched Mister Rogers as a kid, and I was delighted by this biography by Maxwell King. I read it while in Pittsburgh for work, so I had a sense of the place where Rogers grew up and where he created much of his art.

American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race by Douglas Brinkley

I’ve read most of the books about the Apollo program and the lead-up to it, so I was excited to see something new. This book took a different approach than many of the other more technical books I’ve read. Brinkley tells the political story of the moon race, with fascinating insights into all aspects of the project from the selection of James Webb to run NASA and much more.

No Cheering in the Pressbox by Jerome Holtzman

This is an old sports classic, but it was new to me, and it was probably my favorite book of 2019. Holtzman collected a kind of oral history from sportdwriters going back to the early 20th century, and published a collection of interviews with those writers that were a fascinating look at the job of sportswriting, and the evolution of that job. It was reading this book that I realized the job of sportswriter (in the 20th century) seemed like the ideal job.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

I often enjoy books on books. I came across Hanff’s wonderful epistolary book at time when I was struggling to find what to read next. I pulled out my copy of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die and went through it page, by page, until I came to this book. It sounded fascinating, a New York bibliophile writing to a London bookshop for recommendations and orders, and the friendship that evolved in the letters across the pond.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I don’t read much science fiction anymore, but I’d been hearing good things about Mary’s book, and Mary is one of those writers I trust, so I decided to give this one a try. What a treat! It is an alternate history of the space program, and it is extremely well done. First and foremost, Mary tells a great story, which is always the primary consideration for me. She narrates the audiobook, and anyone who knows Mary knows what a talented voice actor she is. This book was pure fun, and I’ve had the sequel queued up for some time now. I’m looking to read it later this year.

The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson

I enjoyed the Longmire TV series, and decided to give the original Craig Johnson novels a try. I started at the beginning and was hooked. Although I list only The Cold Dish here, I actually read all 15 books in the series, as well as the short fiction featuring Walt Longmire. I fell in love with the books, the characters, the style in which they are written. George Guidall narrates the audiobook, and he has become Walt Longmire to me, more than Robert Taylor ever was. These books redefined what a character novel could be.

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger

I forget how I became aware of Iger’s book, but I was a little skeptical when I started it. It sounded more like a self-help book, but turned out to be a rather remarkable memoir of Iger, who started in a lowly job with ABC and worked his way up to the CEO of the Walt Disney Company. As someone who has worked for the some company for 25 years, I was impressed by this, and Iger’s story was a fascinating one.


A few other notes on what I read in 2019:

The most intellectually challenging book I read was The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. This stretched me to my limits and I’m still not sure I understood all of what Jaynes was saying in that book. But sometimes, I need to push myself, and this was one of those times.

My biggest disappointment this year was Blue Moon by Lee Child, the latest Jack Reacher installment. I’ve enjoyed all of the Reacher books to date, and had been looking forward to this one since it was announced. But the book itself fell flat for me, seeming almost a caricature of Reacher. In part, I think this was do to the extraordinary character and storytelling ability of Craig Johnson with his Longmire books. I got spoiled by Longmire in between Reacher books.

With the first half of 2020, I should finish the 1,000th book I’ve read since 1996. I wonder what that book will end up being? It’s impossible to predict, what with the butterfly effect of reading fluttering its wings.

Some 2020 Books I’m Eager to Read

With just a few hours left in 2019, I thought I’d list a few of the books I’m looking forward to reading in 2020. December is a terrible month for book releases, and January doesn’t look much better, but beginning in February 2020, there are several books I’m eager to get my hands on. Here are just a few:

  • Citizen Reporters: S. S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine that Rewrote America by Stephanie Gordon (2/18/2020). I was fascinated to read about Tarbell in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit and I’m happy to see a book about her and McClure’s magazine come soon.
  • America’s Game: The NFL at 100 by Jerry Rice and Randy O. Williams (2/4/2020). I’m not a football fan, but I always enjoy sportswriting and this seems like a good entry point to learn more about the history of the NFL.
  • Lou Gehrig: The Lost Memoir by Alan Gaff (3/10/2020). I mean, a lost memoir by Gehrig? How could any baseball fan pass on that?
  • Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe by Brian Greene (2/18/2020)
  • The Impossible First by Colin O’Brady (1/14/2020). I read about this book in Outside magazine a few months ago. O’Brady walked across Antarctica. That’s got to make for a book at least as interesting as Endurance or The Worst Journey in the World.
  • Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell by Tom Clavin (4/21/2020). I’ve enjoyed Clavin’s other histories of the old west, and I’m looking forward to his next one.
  • If It Bleed by Stephen King (5/5/2020). King’s next collection of 4 original novellas. His previous novella collections, especially Different Seasons have been remarkable.

So that’s what I am looking forward to right now. What are you looking forward to in 2020? Anything you would recommend I look at?

Happy New Year!

1,000 Hours of Audiobooks in 2019

Given all of the reading that I keep track of, one thing I haven’t managed to track is how many hours of audiobooks I actually listen to in a given year. The Audible app shows only the last 5 months worth of listening metrics, and several days ago, I found myself wondering how much it might be. Today, I found out, thanks to an email from Audible. It turns out that through yesterday, I’ve listened to 936 hours of audiobooks this year.

This turns out to be about 2-1/2 hours each day on average. But the number is a bit understated for a few reasons. First, given that it has to be through yesterday, it doesn’t count today or tomorrow, which, based on the last several days, will add another 10 hours to that figure. So we have 946 hours.

Then, too, it has been a long time since I have listened to any book at normal speed. Indeed, listening to a book a normal speed makes the narrator sound drugged. I typically listen at 1.5x normal speed, with some books (depending on the narrator) at 1.75x normal speed. Call it an average of 1.6x for the year. In that case, in my 946 hours of audiobook listening this year, I’ve listened to 1,514 hours worth of audiobooks. That’s an average of 4.1 hours/day compressed down to 2-1/2 hours a day thanks to the faster listening speed.

I am currently reading (listening to) Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-Earth by Ian Nathan. I expect to finish this book tomorrow, and that will give me 114 books read this year. Of those, the vast majority, 105, are audiobooks.

I’m often chagrined thinking about how much more I might have read if I’d embraced audiobooks sooner. I friend of mine has been using Audible since the late 1990s, while I only got started with Audible in 2013. Indeed, I am on the record claiming I could never listen to an audiobook–which just goes to illustrate the folly of being closed-minded.

Some of the time I spent listening to books this year did not go into completing a book. I give up on quite a few books each year, and if I give up on a book, it doesn’t make it to my list of books I’ve read. I’ve never kept track of the books I give up on so I don’t know how many or how often it happens. I’m considering keeping track in 2020.

I’ll have more to say on the books I read this year later in the week, after the year is over. I plan on posting a list of my 12 favorite books of the year, as well as a separate post on the 10 best books I read this decade. Stay-tuned.

End of Year Surprises: Robert Iger’s Book

The biggest reason that I wait until January 1 before writing my “best reads” of the year post, is because I never know what book might catch me off-guard and really surprise me. Often, in late December, I’ll read a book that turns out to be one of the better books I’ve read all year. This has happened on a number of occasions. Among the best books I read in 2018, for instance, was the second volume of Gary Giddin’s biography of Bing Crosby, which I didn’t read until late in December.

Yesterday, I needed a break from WW-II. I’d torn through the first 2-1/2 volumes of Rick Atkinson’s massive “Liberation” series of histories about the Second World War. I’d been through North Africa, and Italy and was now on the verge of crossing into Germany, but like those solider push the Germany army back, I needed a break. I had, at some point, picked up Robert Iger’s memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, and decided to give it a try.

I couldn’t put it down, and before I went to bed last night, I’d finished the book. It was unexpectedly good, so much so that it has created what I call a reading vacuum–a period in which I feel a desperate need to read something just as good, but have difficulty finding something to fill the void.

I’m fascinated by the job of Chief Executive Officer. Like President of the United States, I don’t believe it is a job someone can properly prepare for through formal education. Iger’s moves up through the ABC structure, and his on-the-job education seemed like a model for how one trains to become a CEO. The one CEO that I know personally seems to have followed a similar path (though not in the entertainment world) and has similar qualities to what I saw in Iger’s book: a hard worker, dedicated to the mission of the company, unusually smart, a gifted communicator, a natural leader, and someone with empathy and a genuine concern for the people who work for him.

As it happens, there is a chance I’ll finish another book or two before the year is out, and in that case, there are still some opportunities to be surprised again. So anyone interesting in knowing my best reads of 2019 will have to wait a few more days.

Thrones of Bones, and Other Problems with the Modern Toilet Seat

As I get older, certain changes become more noticeable. Take toilet lids, for example. Overnight, it seems that good, solid lids have been replaced by these flimsy plastic imposters. Sitting on them courts slapstick disaster. Where did all of the good, solid toilet lids go? I imagine some young, up-and-coming business school graduate at Kohler or American Standard looking at the cost of manufacturing the plastic lid versus the solid lid, and selling their boss on the idea that the company could save millions by switching from one to the other.

Note that I specified young. A middle-aged innovator would never have made this suggestion. They would know, as I know, how useful the traditional solid toilet lid is. Every days, after emerging from the shower, the toilet seat is the perfect place to sit while I pull on my socks, something I can no longer do as easily standing up. It is ideal for sitting while tying one’s shoes. From a solid, sturdy toilet lid, I can sit and keep an eye on the Littlest Miss as she plays in the bathtub. It is much easier on my knees than kneeling on the floor. The toilet lid has served as an excellent step-stool when changing a lightbulb or cleaning out the fan.

Our old house had nice, solid toilet lids in each of the bathrooms. The new house has these flimsy things that creak inauspiciously under my weight when I perch them. I find myself sitting only on the edges, slightly off-balanced when pulling on my socks or tying my shoes.

I’ve noticed this trend in hotels across the country, a particular disappointment, because a toilet lid is a convenient place to sit and read while everyone else in the hotel room is sound asleep.

It seems that toilet manufacturers have replaced good solid toilet lids with what they call “slow close” lids. The “Slow Close” is a clever engineering gimmick to prevent reminding us of the satisfying THUD a solid toilet lid provides.

The names given to toilet lids are a mouthful. I was just looking at some to see if they give any sense of heft or solidity. Here are a few examples:

  • BEMIS Slow Close Round Closed Front Toilet Seat in White
  • American Standard Cadet Slow Close EverClean Round Slow Close Toilet Seat in White.
  • Brondell LumaWarm Heated Nightlight Elongated Closed Front Toilet Seat in White

Toilet seat names are longer than peers in England.

How about this one:

  • BEMIS Affinity Round Closed Front Toilet Seat in Bone.

Bone? Is there a demographic of people who desire throne made of bone? Or at least appear to be made of bone? Please let me never be a guest in their house. If my choice is between plastic and bone, I’ll take plastic. But what I’d really like is the nice, solid lid that used to cover all toilet bowls.

I try to embrace change, really I do, mostly. Kind-of. But I draw a line at plastic toilet seat lids, and so should you.

Quiet Places

A quiet place in Vermont
A quiet place in Vermont

With all of the noise we are surrounded by every day, I have been thinking about quiet places. They seem hard to come by in metropolitan areas, but when I look hard enough, I can’t occasionally find them. I feel as if I should start a collection of them, listing them out carefully so that I don’t lose them, and have access to them when I feel the need for quiet.

There are some basic requirements I have for quiet places. The first is that they have to be naturally quiet. I’m not talking about places where you can pop on your noise-cancelling headset and listen to quiet. A quiet place shouldn’t have to be artificially enhanced. The best quiet places are natural quiet.

Second, a quiet place does not have to be silent. Silence is the complete absence of sound. Quiet, on the other hand, is when only soft, natural sounds intrude on an otherwise peaceful environment. The sound of winds through trees or the rustling of leaves is quiet in my books. The low whir of a ceiling fan is quiet. The distant sound of a baseball game on the radio, pleasant though that is, is not quiet, nor is the rumble of distant traffic. Birds singing at first light is not particularly quiet, while the occasional bird song in the middle of the day is quiet.

Third, a quiet place acts as a natural deterrent to intrusion. It is a place where, if you are spotted by someone else sharing the space, they will be unlikely to intrude on your quiet.

With these requirements in mind, I have started a list of quiet places. It is a short list at the moment, but I am hoping to grow it over time.

  1. An empty church. This is an excellent quiet place. I discovered this last week when we arrived at our church an hour before the kids’ Christmas pageant in order to get front-row seats. There was only two other people in the church when we arrived. It was quiet, and very close to silent. Not long after we arrived, someone began to play the piano, getting warmed up for the pageant, but in those first few minutes, I thought how nice the quiet was. The noise grew exponentially louder as more people arrived.
  2. A cemetery. Cemeteries seem almost ideal for quiet places. There are often benches scattered throughout the cemetery and I almost never see anyone sitting on them. I suspect cemeteries creep out a lot of people, but if you are looking for a quiet place, you can’t get much better than a cemetery. Not all cemeteries are equally quiet. The bigger ones are often near a busy road, and nothing destroys quiet as quickly as traffic noise. Old cemeteries built with stone wall, with large trees growing among the scattered headstones are much better suited to quiet, although these often lack benches.
  3. Libraries. Libraries have a pleasant quiet about them, but there is often a hushed murmur that ripples through them at times, a kind of constant background noise, not unlike the hum of a ceiling fan. I sometimes fantasize that the ideal quiet place is a library after it closes. I used to imagine getting locked in the library overnight, and the utter quiet of the place, and the delight at roaming the stacks of books, knowing that I could choose any one I wanted, and find a comfortable couch and read uninterrupted until clink of keys in the door the following morning.

My collection is meager, as you can see. Some places that seem like they should be quiet often are not. Parks seems like good quiet places, but too often unwanted sounds intrude. Our back deck is occasionally a good quiet place, at just the right time in the early morning or late evening, but only when the wind is rough and the sounds of it through the trees masks the low rumble of traffic from a few blocks away.

Our house, despite its many good qualities, is not a particularly quiet place. The kids are often running around. A TV is often on somewhere. It seems that the dishwasher is running when the house is otherwise quiet, or that the washing machine or dryer are humming along. If I want a real quiet place, I have to rely on the deck, or one of the places I’ve listed above.

As it happens, the place where I am writing this is unusually quiet. Or it was, until the Little Man asked Siri to play some music that I now hear thumping away on the other side of the house.

Automobiles

The open road

I have owned four cars since turning sixteen and getting my drivers license. I got my first car, a used Ford Taurus, after graduating from college. Since then, I have bought three more cars, all of them new: a Saturn, which lasted me 14 years, a Kia Sorento, and most recently, a Kia Sedona. Each car has been a step up from the one before it, each adding more features and comforts that help offset the frustration one feels from sitting in traffic.

My grandfather called movies “pictures” and he called cars “automobiles.” Automobile is a better word than car, just as railroad is a better word than train, archaic though they both may be. Automobiles give you a freedom that few other forms of transportation can offer. As a youngster, new to driving, I remember thinking how I could get in the car and go anywhere I wanted. There was always a road that would take me to where I was headed. I never took much advantage of it then, but today with my own kids, our primary mode of travel has been by automobile.

In the summers, we pack up the minivan and drive up to New England. In the spring and winter, we drive down to Florida. These are long drives, but they are comfortable. There’s nothing like climbing into the car on a cold winter’s day, sealing yourself in and heading for the freeway south. Early in the morning, especially south of the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, the traffic is light. I can set the progressive cruise control on the car, and not have to touch the gas or brakes for hours at a time. Everyone has a comfortable space to sit. Kelly has a bag of snacks, juice and water if anyone gets hungry or thirsty. The kids stare out the windows, or play on iPads. I listen to audiobooks as a I watch the countryside roll by.

On these trips, we never worry about how much we have to pack, or how much it will cost to bring out bags along. There are no baggage fees and what we need aways fits into the back of the minivan. As we drive, we can pull over if we see something interesting. Sometimes we do. On our trips down to Florida, we routinely stop at new places on the way down or back home. We’ve stopped in Charleston, Savannah, St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Jacksonville Beach, the Kennedy Space Center, Kingsland, Georgia.

On our drives to New England, we’ve stopped at many places along the way as well: Albany, NY and Saratoga Springs, Mystic Seaport and Aquarium, Sturbridge Village, Warwick, Rhode Island (to visit my old house), Freeport (to visit the L.L. Bean store) and Portland, Bangor, and Acadia. We’ve also stopped at many roadside places, little ice cream shops, and big barns with hand-painted signs with two of the most alluring words in the English language: “Used Books.”

A map of the country shows just how much our cars lets us get around. Kelly got me this map for our 10th wedding anniversary. It came with a tin of pins that we use to mark places we’ve been together, or as a family. Every single pin you see along the east coast from Bangor down to Fort Lauderdale and as far west as Nashville, Tennessee, we’ve visited during one of our many roadtrips.

A map of our travls

Automobile travel isn’t always fun. When I lived in Los Angeles, I commuted from Studio City to Santa Monica, a 20 mile drive. Traffic was terrible. If I left the house at 5:10 am, I would be at the office around 5:30 am. If I left the office at 5 pm, I’d be home, on average, at 7 pm. I did this for eight years, and when I moved back to the east coast after that, I didn’t drive into my office again for another 6 years. I took the railroad.

Traffic in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area is bad. I don’t like driving around here during rush hour. But once we are outside of the area, the roads open up and the scenery quickly changes. I love it when we head down to Florida in the winter. It is either very cold, or gloomy and damp, sometimes snowing as we make our way onto the Interstate to head south. The traffic is often bad from Arlington all the way down to Fredericksburg, about 45 miles south. That can be mitigated by taking the HOV lanes, if they are open, and if you are willing to pay the surge pricing. I’ve sat in enough bad traffic in my life that I am usually willing to pay.

As we drive south past Stafford, the traffic begins to thin out, and past Fredericksburg, the roads open up. The weather changes as we head south. We stop for the night at a halfway point in southern South Carolina. The next morning, as we cross the border into Florida, I usually open my window to feel the warmer air on my skin. It’s a wonderful transition. Of course, we experience the opposite on the drive home.

Sometimes it rains, and even downpours, while we drive, but being in a car while it is raining out is comforting. You can hear the rain pelting down, and watch as it is whisked away by the wipers, but you remain dry and comfortable.

There is a pleasure to driving that I just don’t get flying by plane or riding the railroad. Part of it is being in complete control of where we are going and when we decide to go. Part of it is being close to one another as we travel. And part of it is the joy of the open road and where it might take you.