Category Archives: essays

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.

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?

Oh, the profanity!

In many ways, I still see myself as just a kid. I think the same thoughts I did when I was a kid, I occasionally ask the same questions I did when I was a kid. While reading about a particularly fascinating profession, I will to this day, say to myself, “When I grow up, I want to do that.” Some things, I guess, you never grow out of. Take profanity, for instance.

Let me start by saying I have absolutely no moral objection to profanity. It is just another means of expression. It’s not a means of expression that I use in the ordinary course of my day. My aversion to profanity comes from some deep-seated fear when I was a kid, that if said a “bad word,” I’d be in big trouble. I’m not exactly sure where this came from. But it stuck with me. With the exception of a period of a few years between 7th and 9th grade or so, when everyone around me was using profanity the way we use “like” today, I have avoided it.

Actually, it’s not even that I’ve avoided using profanity. It’s just not something that is in my daily lexicon. Whenever I do end up using a bad word, I almost instantly regret it. Not because it was a profane, but because it was a bad word choice. There’s almost always a better way for me to express a thought other than using profanity.

The fact that I don’t generally use profanity is another of those things that makes me see myself as just a kid. Friends and family use profanity and I think, wow, they’re so grown up; when I grow up, I’ll be just like them. It rarely comes to pass. Indeed, there are three occasions when the probability that I’ll use profanity increases dramatically.

First, in fiction. I’ve said before that writing fiction, for me, is in many ways like method acting. I need to feel what the characters are feeling. And since generally, the people around me use profanity more than I do, characters in my fiction will use it from time to time. I have no problem with profanity in fiction, television, movies, etc. What I find interesting is that people object to this, to the point that they are willing to call you out on it. When my story, “Take One for the Road” appeared in Analog (June 2011), it received several reviews in the usual places. I remember only one of them, however, from someone who objected to the grumpy old man in the story using the word “shit.” It was the only bad word in the story, and in my mind, it was completely in character. Any other expression in that situation by that character would have seen unrealistic. What I find most interesting is that I have no problem writing dialog with profanity, but when I re-read it, I am always a little uncomfortable. It’s that little kid in my thinking he’s going to get his mouth washed out with soap.

Second, while writing code. There are two use cases here. One is where I am deep in the code, in a kind of coma that takes over when I am trying to hold the complicated logic of a program in my head. I’ll finish up a piece and execute it to test it, and something goes wrong. When that happens, I’ll let out a string of profanity that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush. I am always alone when this happens. The second use case is similar, except that when I execute the complicated piece of code I just completed and it works, I’ll usually allow a good old, “fuck yeah!”

Third, is when I injure myself. Bang a knee, step on a Lego. Whenever it happens, it’s usually followed by a “Shit, oww!”

Of course, I enjoy a good dirty joke, but I am especially fond of joke that use profanity in clever ways. Two examples, that I won’t repeat here, can be found in Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor. They are the last two jokes in the books, numbers 639 and 640. If you can find the book, it’s worth looking them up.

We’ve tried not to make a big deal about profanity with our kids. We generally don’t use it around them, but we also know they hear it at school, and see it on TV. We don’t make a big deal beyond explaining that there is a time a place for it, more so with kids. I think they will end up using profanity more than I do. It’s kind of built into the language for them these days. Of course, when they have used it, it is Kelly who handles it calmly and rationally. I am usually too busy rolling around on the floor laughing.

A Moment to Vent on Blogs

Allow me a moment to vent on blogs. If you don’t know want to read a “back-in-my-day” rand a la Andy Rooney, by all means, skip this one. I have a few complaints, in no particular order.

  1. Lately, I’ve been getting way more requests than normal for guest posts and other content for my blog. I have a site policy that says I almost never accept unsolicited guest posts, but no one seems to pay attention to these. Yet it seems like I’ve received half of dozen request in the last few days. Which leads me to wonder:
  2. Are blogs so hard up for content these days that they can only survive by outsourcing their content creation?

Do you ever notice how terrible many of these requests are?

  • Do you accept guest posts? If yes, I’ll provide you a well-written article and 100% related to your website niche.
  • I’m a blogger and freelancer, so you’re website is such a find for me. I’d like to contribute a guest article to your blog because I believe your audience will find my ideas interesting and useful.

In my head, I invent interview questions for these guest-blogger candidates:

  • What makes your article well-written?
  • If it is so well-written, why not put it on your own blog?
  • My blog has over 6,500 posts ranging across countless subjects. Tell me how your well-written article is 100% related to this “niche.”
  • What, in your opinion, makes my website “such a find” for you?
  • What makes you believe my audience will find your ideas interesting? Half the time, I don’t know if my audience finds my ideas interesting.

Some of these folks are persistent. Many of them, when they haven’t gotten a response from me, ask to speak to my manager.

Why my blog? Certainly, it can’t be the numbers; they are not what they were five years ago, but I gave up caring about the stats on the blog a long time ago. This is a place, where I can sit down and write about what’s on my mind. If people read it, I’m delighted. If people comment, I’m even more delighted. But the act of creation is what satisfies me, and anything beyond that is gravy.

Then, too, I’m skeptical that any of these potential guest bloggers have actually read what I write, or for that matter, have even looked at this blog. If they had, they’d notice almost at once the absence of any kind of advertising. They’d have to go back a long way to find a guest post (there have been a few over the years, but always at my request, not the other way around). If making money is the object of these guest posters, then I’d think one look at my site would scare them away.

Which brings me to my second complaint. I find myself visiting blogs less and less because, more often than not, they seem almost preposterously monetized. I’ve seen single articles take 30 seconds to load because that’s how long it takes all of the ads to load around the three or four hundred words of text. I stumbled onto Boing Boing recently, after a long absence, and, man, what happened? The site felt almost unusual under the weight of ads and pop-ups. I imagine the articles are still as good as ever, but it seemed impossible to get to them.

And what’s with all of the pop-ups? You get halfway through an article and suddenly there’s a pop-up asking you to for the love of God subscribe to their newsletter! You know what those pop-ups remind me of? They’re the digital versions of those annoying magazine inserts that I have to tear free from the paper copies of magazines I get. But the pop-ups are worse: I can’t tear them out!

Look, I get that people want to make money from their blogs. It seems to me that the real money comes from skill and value, not from buckshot guest post requests. I’ve never put ads on this blog, heck, I don’t even use that Amazon thing that earns you money when you recommend books. But that isn’t to say I haven’t made money as a result of the blog. I’ve been paid to give talks, and write articles for magazines because of things I’ve written about here. I like that better than choking the screen with ads and pop-ups. Even so, I’d be happy just writing.

Which brings me to my final complaint: I wish I had time write here more. I can’t quite describe the enjoyment I have sitting down and bashing out a silly post on bird-watching, or toilets. I don’t even mind announcing big goals to the world, uncertain as to whether or not I will meet them. I just like writing here, and I wish I could do it more.

Forgive the venting. There are always going to be people wanting to find a shortcut. Given that I enjoy writing here so much, it’s just hard for me to fathom why a shortcut would be necessary. That, and recently, it seems that everyone in the world is requesting to write an article for this blog.

The Owl in the Woods

This morning, I can add another creature to the menagerie I’ve encountered in the woods behind our house. I’ve heard owls (or perhaps, this one owl) hooting around the neighborhood from time to time, but until this morning, I’d never seen one. Then, while on the final leg of my morning walk, making my way up the hill that leads back to our house, I saw a huge bird swoop down out of the trees and land on this broken stump. At first I thought it might be an eagle (I’ve admitted elsewhere that I am no birdwatcher). Then, as its big eyes followed me on a swiveling head, I realized I was looking at an owl.

A brief tale of owls: (I’ve certainly told this story before so forgive me if you’ve already heard it). After I sold my story, “Take One for the Road” to Analog, I got a request from Dr. Stan Schmidt to make two small changes to the story. One was so minor I can’t even remember what it was. The other involved owls. It seems that in one point in the story, I’d referred to the hooting or shrieking of a night owl in the distance. Stan asked if I wouldn’t mind changing the phrase “night owl” to “owl” since, “the ornithologists among Analog’s readers would find the term “night owl” redundant. Of course, I made the change.

This morning, however, as I walked past this night owl at 9 am with a hazy sun overhead, I wondered about Stan’s request.

Incidentally, I have no idea what kind of owl this is, and if anyone can identify it from my poor picture, taken at distance, I’d love to know.

New Writing Project

Today, I am beginning my final attempt at writing this story that I have tried to write off and on for nearly 7 years now. It is, I think, a novel, but I won’t know for sure until it is finished. If I can’t do it right this time, I’m giving it up as too difficult for me. That said, I’m not giving up without a fight. I have a plan this time, which I didn’t have in my previous attempts. I also have a secret weapon that I hope will make this last attempt a success.

The plan: I’m giving myself a season to write the first draft and a second season to write the second draft. Start today, I plan to be finished with the first draft by August 31. At that point, I plan to take the month of September off from writing and not even look at what I wrote during that time. Then, beginning on October 1, I’ll start the second draft with an aim to finish it by December 31.

The secret weapon: this time, I have an outline.

That may come as a surprise to longtime readers. In the spectrum of plotters versus pantsers, I’ve been a proclaimed pantsers for a long time. Indeed, all of the short fiction I’ve sold was produced without outlines of any kind. And therein lies the rub: I have, to this point, written only one draft of a novel, way back in 2013. I never moved beyond that first draft because it seemed relatively incoherent. I’ve made numerous attempts at the story I intend to start today, and all have failed. In considering why this may be so, I decided to swallow my pride, and assume that at least part of the problem was that for something so big, I need an outline to provide waypoints for where I am going. My pal, Bud Sparhwak, will be pleased.

Armed with an outline, I plan to get started today and see how things go. I’m feeling pretty good right now, but that just may be the excitement of getting started. We’ll see how I’m feeling in mid-July, when I am deep in the middle of this thing–and on August 31, I’ll know once and for all if I am capable of writing this thing.

I don’t plan on doing any updates along the way. There just isn’t the time, and given my schedule, any time I can spend writing, I want to spend working on the story. But I will post an update by August 31, letting you know one way or another, if I succeeded in completing the story.

Never having used an outline before, I don’t know what a novel outline is supposed to look like. Mine consists of many sheets of yellow legal paper with a rough outline of all the chapters, and more pages that break each chapter down into things that I think need to happen. There’s also random notes scribbled here and there and various arrows point this way and that. I could have typed it up, I supposed, and brought some more order to it, but I like the chaotic feel of it. It feels like I am less locked in to a specific line of events, and have a kind of fuzzy map of how things are supposed to happen. If the outline works, and the story is a success, maybe I’ll post those pages someday as an example of an outline that worked–for me at least. (I suppose, it would be equally useful to post the outline if the story doesn’t work out, as an example of something that doesn’t work, but I don’t know if I’d have the nerve to do that.)

I’m trying not to think in terms of metrics on this go around. You can do the math and figure that for a 90,000 word novel, I need to write about a thousand words per day, on average. If my past experience is any guide, I’ll be well ahead of the curve in the first week or two, then I’ll hit the curve for a while, before falling off. I’m hoping that outline will serve to protect me somewhat from that falling off, but only time will tell.

So what’s the story about? I’m not really sure myself. I usually can’t answer that question until after I’ve written the first draft. But from what I know right now, it’s about baseball, and growing old, and the strange effects of… well, if I ever sell the thing I don’t want to spoil it so for now, you’ll just have to use your imagination.