Category Archives: essays

A Football House or a Baseball House?

Me, on the field at Yankee Stadium in 2012.

Do you come from a football house, or a baseball house? Some probably come from neither. I come from a hybrid, but I quickly found my way to baseball, which is the superior of the two. I have very early memories of baseball. I remember watching parts of the 1978 World Series in our family room. The Yankees won the Series, and I was happy because I was a Yankee fan. I remember drives out to Shea stadium to take in a Mets game, and knew from the start the Mets were a second-division team. What, but a second-rate team would build a stadium under the flight path of a major airport, so that games would have to be paused each time a 727 and L-1011 flew by?

Football was also popular in our house growing up, although I think it was more popular with my Dad than with my Mom. I remember going to a college game at Rutgers. I also attended several New England Patriots games in the early 1980s. I was unimpressed with football from the start. In one of those Patriots games, I seem to recall the goal post in one end zone falling down. How could any respectable football team allow that to happen. My Dad is a Giants fan, and I suppose I would be a Giants fan, too, if I enjoyed football. Interestingly, I don’t ever recall going to a New York Football Giants game at Giant Stadium in New Jersey.

Growing up, I played organized baseball, but disorganized football. I played the former in a league, and the latter with friends in the street, or in a field, typically with a Nerf football. Time was defined by baseball. Spring meant a new baseball season, and fall meant baseball playoffs. Football, on the other hand, always seemed to intrude on life. I grew to hate football in the mid-1980s when, while living in Los Angeles, Monday Night Football often pre-empted episodes of MacGyver. Decades later, when I had season tickets to the Baltimore Orioles (mostly to catch Yankees games), I began to loathe the August games because the scoreboard and sound system would report the current football scores during the 7th inning stretch. Hey, if you want football scores, go to a football game why don’t you?

My relationship with baseball reached its low point in 1986 when the New York Mets won the World Series. I suppose I wasn’t as disappointed as Red Sox fans were.

Thinking back, football and baseball weren’t the only two sports my family watched, although I think they were the preferred sports. I seem to recall a lot of basketball games on the television. Watching basketball seems boring to me, except for the last few minutes of the game. I suppose people think the same thing of baseball. My Dad watched hockey games, but I think he was the only one. I tried, but I could never follow what was happening on ice, and it wasn’t until recently that I learned that basketball, soccer, and hockey are all variants of Lacrosse. I have John McPhee to thank for that.

There must have been some kind of sports hierarchy in our house because if baseball or football or basketball or hockey wasn’t on the TV, then golf was, although I hesitate to call golf a sport. Golf is a mystery to me. I had a golf lessons for my 16th birthday, but I don’t think they helped to reveal the mystery to me. My Mom is a very good golfer. My Dad is a very good golf-watcher. The last time I played golf with him, he got fed up halfway though, and stormed off to the clubhouse, swearing he’d never play again. He left his wallet in the golf bag which he had, just then, willed to my brother.

He did play again.

If golf was not on television, then it was tennis. Tennis was even worse on television than golf. At least with golf there was scenery. Tennis is nothing more than watching two people hit a ball back and forth. And while I am sure there is some valued tradition behind it, tennis has the most ludicrous way to keep score of any sport I know. Keeping score should be simple. In baseball, each time someone crossed home plate safely, it adds one run to the score. Soccer and hockey are also simple. Football and basketball are more complex because different actions have different score values: a touchdown is 6 points, a field goal is 3, a safety is two, etc. Tennis’s scoring system is baroque. Why is no score called “love”? Why do you get 15 points each the first two times you score, but only 10 on the third time?

Boxing was on TV in our house now and then, but rarely any of the so-called “good” fights because those required Pay-Per-View and we didn’t have Pay-Per-View. I had no interest in boxing whatsoever when I was a kid. I had no interest in it as an adult either, at least until I read The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling a few years ago. After that, I decided that if I could go back into time and take in some of the small club fights in the 1950s, I’d do it.

When all else failed, there was horse-racing. I’ve watched a few horse races over the years, and the two minutes during which the race is taking place is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in sports. If the television broadcast started at the bell and ended when the horses crossed the finish line, I might consider horse-racing among my favorite sports. Unfortunately, the broadcasts last forever, and that spoils the entire event.

Many people consider this time of year to be football season. Growing up in a hybrid household as I did, my brother, my Dad, and possibly my Mom consider it so. But really, it’s just baseball’s “off-season” where all kinds of interesting things are happening. You could read about it in agate type in the sports pages, if the sports pages still printed the transactions in agate type, or any type for that matter. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

My Busy-ness Number

There ought to be a measurement, like the temperature, that we can use to easily indicate to family, friends, and colleagues how busy we are. It would be nice to be able to say, “Sorry, I can’t meet for lunch, my busy-ness number is at 8 today.” There are all kinds of tools and gadgets that try to measure this. You can look at a calendar for instance, to get s sense of busy-ness. Last month, our family calendar (not counting work-related events) looked like this:

Family calendar

There are other measurements, too, I’m sure, but none give a good sense of immediacy. How busy am I right now? That’s what I want to know.

It was sunny when I went for my morning walk, early today. The sun was right on the horizon as I walked east. When I went for my afternoon walk, the sky was completely overcast and the sun was nowhere to be seen. It got me thinking. Back when I was flying, I remember studying weather and there were different meanings for cloud cover. The clouds could obscure none of the sky, a quarter, of the sky, half of the sky, etc. It was a good, simple measurement that reflected reality in an accurate and useful way.

Upon arriving home, I returned to my office and looked at my desk. Ever since moving to the new house, I’ve had the fortune of having the u-shape I have always wanted for my working area.

My u-shaped desk

What I noticed about my desk, was that it was like the overcast clouds that had rolled in: much of it seemed to be covered, and in disarray. I tend to turn to the desk to my left to write things down, open books, read magazines, etc. but that part of my desk is hopeless at the moment. It is covered in to-do lists scribble on legal paper, with piles of books, and magazines and Post-Its and other stuff.

Desk in disarray

Whenever my desk is like this, I am usually overwhelmed. I start making lists. I begin to wonder if the critical things that I am working on are more important than clearing up some surface area. That’s when it occurred to me that I have the perfect measurement to gauge my own level of busy-ness: desk-coverage.

It works like cloud coverage and is measured in eighths. A completely empty surface is a “clear” desk and a sign that I’ve got some time on my hands. Next, there is 1/8th coverage, then 1/4, then 1/2. You get the idea. Between 1/4 and 1/2 might be called “partly covered,” and 5/8-7/8 would be “mostly covered.” 8/8th would be “overcast.” The closer to overcast I am, the busier I am. I’d estimate that right now, I’m somewhere between 3/4 – 7/8th covered, which puts me in the “mostly covered” category.

I think that from now on, when someone asks me for some of my time, I’m going to look at my desk, and say, “Sorry, can’t do it. my desk is partly covered today, but the forecast is calling for overcast tomorrow.”

My Menagerie: A Catalog

E. B. White is a hero of mine. I love his writing, sure, but he did what few people manage to do, and lived to tell about it: he left the city behind for a salt water farm the country. I’ve lived my entire life in or near big cities and the older I get the more I want to escape the city for the country. It seems about as likely as setting foot on the moon. Instead, I do the next best thing: I make do with what I’ve got.

We moved into our new house six months ago today. The house backs up to a large park, a good portion of which is woodland. Over the last six months, as I take my daily walks around the park, I’ve been keeping my eyes open, and my Field Notes notebook at the ready, slowly cataloging the wildlife I’ve encountered. I may not live on a salt water farm with pigs and sheep and cows and chickens and geese and fox and raccoons. But here’s what I’ve found in my neck of the woods, so to speak:

  • 7 deer. There used to be five, and I’ve noticed two of them are smaller than the others, one of them spotted like Bambi. There is at least one buck among them. I’ve identified a few of their favorite haunts. On summer evenings, when the sun is low, they particularly like what passes for a “pasture” beside the sub-station on the east end of the park. But I have also seen them by the playground, hopping a fence in precession to nibble at grass in a backyard.
One of my close encounters with the deer.
One of my close encounters with the deer.
  • 6 ducks. A morning walk doesn’t feel right if I don’t see my ducks paddling in the stream. I call them my ducks, but they hardly notice me. Today I noticed that only four of them were out, but it was late and I suspect the younger ones were home, keeping warm. These are smaller ducks than some. At another park, I’ve seen some huge ducks, which I described to a friend as looking “delicious.” I usually encounter my ducks in the stream alongside the ballfields.
A few of "my" ducks.
A few of “my” ducks.
  • Rabbits. It seems Bugs and his friends are everywhere during the summer, not just in the woods, but in our lawn, the neighbors lawns, and across the street, too. Now that it is cold, and the trees are bare, they haven’t been around, and I forgot about them, until one ran across my path in the park this evening. It was nearly dark, but its white tail stood out clearly as it bounded across the path.
  • Squirrels. These are everywhere. You can’t look at a tree or into the shrubs without seeing squirrels. There are two varieties, I think: a typically gray one, and one that looks almost black. They frequently chase each other around, and I can never tell if it is a mating ritual, or if they are playing, or fighting. Incidentally, I refer to all squirrels by their given name, Max. My grandfather fed nuts to several generations of squirrels and called them all Max. Max would come into my Grandfather’s house to get the nuts, and occasionally eat out of his hand. I think they taught this to their young. Squirrels typically live 15-18 years, but it seems to me my Grandfather was feeding them for twice that time.
  • Chipmunks. Not as numerous as squirrels–and much better looking, if you ask me. They seem like they’d make great pets when I watch them scamper around the park. But I could never have a chipmunk as a pet–I couldn’t get used to their high-pitched singing.
  • Fish. On bright days when the stream is calm and clear, there are fish in there. Many of them are very tiny, almost hard to see, but quite a few of them are several inches–I’ve estimated as much as 6-inches long. I jotted down a description of one and then proceeded to find a match, and what I came up with was a sunfish. They must hibernate because I haven’t seen any since the weather turned cold.
  • Fox. Singular. A week or two ago I was walking through part of the part in which a frisbee golf course is set into the woods and watched in amazement as a red fox ran down the long hill, across the bike path about fifty yards in front of me, and back into the woods that lead down to the stream. It is the only fox I have ever seen, and the only time I’ve ever seen it.
  • Snakes. Two of them. I noticed the first one day while looking for fish. At first, it looked like a stick was making its way upstream–against the current. Then it paused by the bank of the stream, its head soaking in the sun. I suspect it had seen some prey and was waiting to make its move. The second one I noticed when the jogger who was about to pass me stopped suddenly. I wondered when, and when I turned to her, she pointed ahead and said, “Suh-suh-snake!” Sure enough, about ten feet ahead on the bike path, a two-foot long snake slithered across the pavement and into the grass. I had walked closer to get a better look. When it disappeared, I turned to the jogger and said, “Coast is clear!” She gave me a wan smile, looked at her FitBit, and replied, “I think I’ve gone far enough today.” She turned and headed back the way she came.

There are all manner of birds, but I am about as bad at identifying birds as I am good at identifying airplanes. I am envious of people who can identify a bird by their call, though I secretly believe they are making it up half the time. I’m quite certain there are two birds I have seen, and one that I have heard. I’ve seen cardinals and robins. And I’ve heard woodpeckers. Usually on a weekend morning. Around six a.m.

And aside from the usual cadre of insects, I’ve seen one, and only one, enormous June bug that crashed into our screen door, while I saw out on the deck one summer evening. It is the 747 of the insect world.

No, no salt water farm, but it’ll have to do for now. We get some variety for a few weeks each year when we head down to Florida. The birds there are more exotic, and there are lizards everywhere. And occasionally, we catch sight of an alligator, although more often than not, we hear the alligator as it crunches the bones of some poor bird in the middle of the night.

“Giving Tuesday” Morning Quarterback

Graduates of my alma mater must, be far more successful than I am. At least, I assume this is so from the 4 emails I got from my former college yesterday asking for money. These were not messages asking for $5, $10, or even $50 donation. These were bold requests. One message told me that two alumni (class of ’70 and ’88) pledged $7,500, inferring that perhaps I should follow their example. Of course, if that seemed too steep, another message told me that by making a gift of $2,000 or more I could get some exclusive swag. I suppose “gift” sounds better than “donation.” It seems to me that $2,000 I have today is better invested now, so that when my own kids head off to college, the money will (hopefully) pay for one semester’s worth of text books.

I have given money to my alma mater in the past, before I had kids, but they have to know what it costs to raise a family these days. A university’s development office probably has good metrics on what people give based on all kinds of criteria. This is what puzzles me about my alma mater‘s messages: are their graduates so successful that a $7,500 donation (or a $2,000 gift) is a drop in the hat? Then, too, with what a college education costs these days, it isn’t clear to me why a university needs funding above and beyond what they get from tuition. Of course, there is always a need for more money, but I haven’t seen this explained well by the universities. No one I know has put out a “giving guide” with the line, “With the high cost of tuitions, why are donations necessary?” and then gone on to give a reasonable explanation. I wonder how many people donating $2,000 are still saddled with student loan debt?

My alma mater was not the only institution requesting donations from me yesterday. It was “Giving Tuesday” so everyone had their hand out. I had requests from hospitals, museums, shelters, and my kids’ soccer league. It seems poor planning that “Giving Tuesday” comes right on the heels of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. For one thing, everyone is asking for money all at once, so they are competing against one another. For another, who has the money to spend after those holiday weekend shopping sprees? Perhaps integrating the giving with the shopping deals would be a better approach: “Get 25% off all purchases, and we’ll donate 5% of the proceed to _____.” People would complain about this because the business, not the consumer, would get the tax write-off. Charity should not be about tax write-offs. Then, too, some families look closely at how much we can give and where we want to make those donations as part of our annual household budgeting. By the time Giving Tuesday comes around, all of those funds have already been earmarked or donated.

Many charitable organizations offer various incentives for donations. I wish they didn’t. Or at least, I wish they didn’t have to. I made a donation to one charity a few months back because they sent me some address labels. I felt bad that they had spent the money on the address labels, but it turned out that I needed new address labels since we moved into the new house. My donation put me on a list of people who responded with cash and now it seems that every other week I received more labels from them. I wish they’d spend the money I gave them on things other than labels.

One offer from my alma mater gave me the opportunity to have my name engraved on a brick on a new building they were constructing with the donated funds. I believe that charity should be mostly anonymous. People should donate out of a sense of charity, not to advertise their generosity. This phenomenon reaches the peak of absurdity at fund-raising events for my kids’ school, which seem to be arranged so that parents openly compete with one another one-upping their “generosity.” That’s not what charity is about. Whenever possible, I make my donations anonymously.

I’m always impressed when I read about multi-million dollar donations made by an anonymous donor, but always disappointed that the recipient doesn’t name the building constructed with the funds the “Anon Library and Study Hall.”

More and more, I’ve noticed that charitable institutions use tactics similar to what hackers use to get information from people–what is sometimes referred to as social engineering. They creation a false sense of urgency by limiting the time you have to make a contribution (“We want to meet our goal of raising $25,000 on Giving Tuesday”), and raising the stakes. Almost no one is better at this than local public television and radio. I’m not much of a television watcher, and I listen to the radio not at all, but I must get a dozen letters a year from our local public television and radio each of which is a desperate plea for funds, and each of which carries the dire warning that the television/radio cannot survive much longer without these funds. While I don’t make use of their services, I know of their value to the community. Still, I’m skeptical. I have been getting these letters for seventeen years now, each one a dire plea for survival, and yet, 17 years later, the broadcasts continue.

I’ve always found it a bit odd that a person forms such a strong bond to their alma mater that, decades later, they are still willing to donate money to them. I got a good education from my school, but it was four years of my life, and I paid for it already. In full. With some interest. Isn’t that enough?

Morning Routines

After six months in the new house, I have finally settled into my morning routines. I use the plural because my routines vary by day of the week. I know this is something of an oxymoron. Routines are supposed to be consistent, and yet this is the world I live in and I have learned to adapt.

Mondays, Wednesdays, and every other Friday share the same morning routine. Tuesdays and Thursdays share a different routine. Tuesdays have on added element missing from all other days. The reason for the variation is that Kelly takes the kids to school and picks them up from school on Mondays, Wednesday, and every other Friday. I take Tuesdays, Thursdays, and the Fridays in-between.

Regardless of the weekday, I am usually up by 6 am. I spend the next 40 (Tuesdays, Thursdays, every other Friday) minutes to sixty minutes (Mondays, Wednesdays, etc.) reading the news. I read three papers. I start with the New York Times because it has the best obituaries and the obituaries is where I begin my day. It sounds gloomy, but I enjoy the mini-biographies, and often find the full lives described within them an inspiring way to start the day. Occasionally, I’m caught off-guard by who appears there.

I also read the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. I skim the headlines, and usually tackle features and profiles, then the columns. I look for guest editorials. I sometimes read the letters to the editor to see what people are complaining about. I do this in all three papers, and after an hour or so, I generally feel like I have a good sense of what is going on in the world.

If it’s my day, I get the kids up, make them breakfast, and get them ready for school. We are out the door at 7:30 am, and I’m back home 10 minutes later. Then I go for my morning walk. Our house backs up to a park, and I walk two miles each morning. I walk regardless of heat or cold. Drizzle and light snow won’t stop me. Only pouring rain keeps me indoors. I listen to whatever audiobook I happen to be reading while I walk.

Back home I make myself breakfast, usually scrambled eggs, or oatmeal. I read a magazine article while I eat breakfast. I subscribe to a lot of magazines, and I’ve found that the only way I can reasonably keep up is to read one feature article a day. I cross the article off in the table of contents when I finish reading it so I know what I’ve read. When all of the features of a given magazine are crossed off, it goes in the recycling bin.

With breakfast finished, I turn to my work computer, sign in, and begin my workday. I mostly work from home these days and so I can skip the commute, which saves an enormous amount of time.

What got me thinking about my morning routines was the exception to the rule. Tuesday mornings are different than all other mornings. There is one added feature to my Tuesday mornings. When I wake up, I don’t check the obits first thing. Instead, I go to Audible and see what the new releases for the week are. I can spend 30 minutes sifting through the hundreds of audiobooks released to see if there are any gems that need to be added to my wishlist.

I don’t know how it was decided that Tuesdays would be the day to release new books. It seems like a strange day to do it. Maybe the distributors needed Monday to deliver the books to bookstores. With so many books sold online and in digital formats these days, it seems like a new book could be released any day of the week. But I shouldn’t complain. Publishers and distributors have their routines, just like I do, and who am I to disturb them.

Incidentally, I am usually less well-informed about the world on Tuesday mornings because I have to rush through the news after spending so much time seeing what new books have been released. But I still still read the obits.

And if you are curious, this morning’s article was “Escape from a Black Hole” by Steven B. Giddings in the December 2019 issue of Scientific American.

Some Observations from a Holiday Weekend

I jotted notes throughout the holiday weekend in case I observed anything post-worthy. Looking through my notes, it seems like the notes themselves are enough for one post.

Wednesday

  • It seems like Thanksgiving weekend starts earlier ever years. For our kids, the weekend began Tuesday at around noon after their “Grandparents” show at school.
  • With so many people traveling on the holiday weekend (including us), I’m always surprised that people are traveling to the place that we are leaving. The school has their “Grandparents” show on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, presumably because so many grandparents have traveled to the area.
  • Many grandparents, many being retirees I suppose, and wanting to avoid the holiday travel rush, must decide to come into town much earlier than Thanksgiving. There were quite a few grandparents at the Grandparents show, and that show took place at 9:30 Tuesday morning. I wonder how many calls went out to Grandparents saying, “You better be here to see your grandchild perform in the Grandparents show!” I wonder how many grandparents had to change their travel arrangement to make it to the show?
  • Although I am not a grandparent, I like to avoid the holiday travel rush. We set out for our drive to New York at 5:30 am. We hit no traffic and arrived at my sister’s house at 10 am.
  • E. B. White accompanied me on the drive. I listened to the audiobook version of One Man’s Meat. It was the third time I have read that book, and I never seem to tire of it. Each time I finish it, I think I want to pack it all in and move up to a salt water farm in Maine. I doubt that Harper’s would be pay me the 2019 equivalent of what it paid White for his monthly column, but I could blog about it here, right?
  • The five miles or so leading up to the George Washington bridge are always a little hectic. This time, though, there was no traffic. The signs indicated the faster route was via the lower level. I took it reluctantly. I’ve been crossing the George Washington Bridge my entire life, and the lower level feels a lot less bridge-like than the upper level.
  • Once at my sister’s house, I settled in at her kitchen table and spent the next eight hours working. Thanksgiving weekend–for me at least–didn’t start until about 6 pm.
  • I walked through the main street in my sister’s town after I finished working. The temperatures had been mild, but the winds were picking up. The main street was abuzz with traffic, cars and people. There are dozens of local shops that are fun to look it because they are right there in front of you instead of on a computer screen.
  • The hardware store was my favorite. It was a practical hardware store, with what seemed like hundreds of bins of stuff that is useful around the house.
  • I noted in my notebook about half a dozen barber shops. At 6 pm, not all were all of the seats filled, but the waiting areas were filled as well. It seemed like everyone in town suddenly realized that needed a trim before the holiday.
  • It started to rain while I walked. Passing by the local, family-owned grocery store, I caught of glimpse of what I typically see deep in the City: a street clogged with traffic, and lots of honking horns. Cars double-parked in front of the grocery store while groceries were loaded. I suppose the people were concerned about the rain, but it didn’t bother me.
  • My parents arrived not long after I returned from my walk. We had baked Mac & Cheese for dinner. My sister, knowing that I like notebooks, gave me Rite in the Rain, All-Weather, Universal No. 135 Notebook. I’m not sure what the 135 stands for, but it is a great little notebook with waxed paper that you can write in the rain with. I wish she’d given it to me before my walk. There are smudges on the pages of my Field Notes notebook where I tried counting barber shops.
My Rite in the Rain notebook

Thursday

  • I took walk early Thursday morning, and the main street in town looked completely different than it had only 12 hours earlier. It was desolate. Everything was closed. There were handwritten signs on many business letting people know that the business was closed. I found these signs completely unnecessary as there was no one out to read them.
Main Street - Thanksgiving Morning
  • A few years back, while reading a biography of Casey Stengel, I learned that Brooklyn Dodgers manager John McGraw bought a house in Pelham, NY. I looked up the news of the purchase in the NY Times, found the address, and since it was only 2 miles from where I happened to be, I decided to walk there.
  • The street on which the house was on was quiet. No one was out. I felt a little strange taking a picture of the house at 7:30 in the morning, but I love this sort of thing. Here was the place that John McGraw came home at night. I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the house, looking 90 year back into baseball history.
  • John McGraw paid $65,000 for the house in 1930. The house is currently worth about $1.5 million.
  • There is always a lot of snacking on Thanksgiving, but I tried to avoid it because I wanted to be able to sample everything at dinner.
  • “Everything at dinner” included: butternut squash soup w/bacon, a delicious crab dish, orange stuffed with yams and marshmallows, smoked turkey (with my brother-in-law smoked in the backyard), mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green beans, and rolls. I ate it all.
  • Dessert consisted of grasshopper pie, apple pie, and pecan pie. I was unable to eat any of it. I was too stuffed.
  • In the evening, we watching the first half of White Christmas. Halfway through, stuffed to the gills, everyone was sleepy and we decided to finish the movie the next day. Dozing off that night, I tried to think the last time I watched a movie or TV show straight through without interruption. I think it must have been sometime in the previous decade.
My Thankgiving dinner plate.

Friday

  • The day after Thanksgiving is a day designed to be lazy. While everyone is out at Black Friday sales, we just relaxed. Some of us may have shopped online.
  • We watched Home Alone, which I hadn’t seen in years, and which was just as funny as I remembered it.
  • The kids and their cousins went to a nearby park with glider in hand. Five minutes after arriving at the park, the glider was stuck high up in a tree. They spent the next 50 minutes trying various methods to get the glider out of the tree. Eventually, they succeeded.
  • I reprised my Thanksgiving dinner, but this time, for an early lunch.
  • Kelly, along with my sister, my mom, and the older kids went out for a hike. I stayed back in order to make sure our youngest got in her nap. And while she was at it, I decided it would be prudent if I napped, too.
  • I made up for my shameful abstemiousness the previous night, I had a piece of all 3 pies. We then settled in to watch the rest of White Christmas.

Saturday

  • My brother-in-law ran in a half-marathon Saturday morning. We all cheered him on by racing from one spot to another along the course. At times, we ran. It was cold, but some 800 people ran in the half marathon. We cheered them at each place we stopped.
  • My brother-in-law completed the half marathon in 2:06, better than he had expected. We celebrated by heading back to the house and eating.
  • We debated about when we should head home. Rain and snow was expected on Sunday, and so we finally decided to head home around 4pm on Saturday in order to avoid the holiday traffic with weather.
  • When we started the car, the GPS said we’d be home around 8:50pm. I avoided the George Washington Bridge, and took the Mario Cuomo “Bridge” instead. I put bridge in quotes there, because I thought the old Tappan Zee was more of bridge than the eyesore they call a bridge today.
  • We arrived home at 10:24 pm. I suspect everyone else had the same idea that we had. If it took us 6-1/2 hours to make 4-hour drive in clear weather last night, I can only imagine what the drive today will be like. Besides, it wasn’t a bad drive, I spent the 6-1/2 hours listening to the first 9 hours of Eye of the World by Robert Jordan.

Sunday

  • Slept in until almost 8 am. Then I went out for a walk despite the light rain.
  • Went grocery shopping, and picked up a copy of the New York Times. Great article on Amazon. First in a series.
  • Made eggs and toast for breakfast. Then I headed up into the attic to play Tetris with the boxes up there in order to locate and remove the box containing half of the Christmas tree.
  • The tree has now been assembled. It will be decorated after lunch.
  • Speaking of lunch, that rumble you hear is my stomach growling.
  • I mentioned last week that I have been growing a beard. Today I’m 4-weeks in. Here’s the result so far:
My beard, at 4-weeks

Growing a Beard

Some things are easy to do, and others hard to do. You’d think that the easier the thing, the less you’d have to do. Take growing a beard. It involves doing exactly nothing. Not growing a beard should be harder than growing a beard because not growing a beard involves shaving.

I was thinking about this because every year around this time, I get it in my head to grow a beard for winter. I live in a place where it gets cold in the winter, and a beard seems like just the thing to keep my face warm. Every year I give it the old college try, doing my best to do, well, nothing, and every year, somewhere between the 2-3 week mark, I cave. I decide that (a) what beard I’ve managed is too itchy to live, and (b) for all of the hard work I’ve put into growing the thing, I have little to show for it. I usually make this decision while in the shower, and by the time the shower is over, my face is beardless.

But not this year.

This year I decided that, come hell or high water, I was growing a beard. I kept careful notes this time. The last day I shaved was the morning we have our family photos taken. Day 12 was the worst as far as itching goes. Between days 10-12, I was washing my face three or four times a day, because the soap and warm water seemed to ease the itching. After day 12, I no longer noticed the itching. Sunday was 3 weeks, so today is 22 days, and here’s what I have to show for it:

My beard, 22 days in.

It seems the beard should be fuller, given how much time I’ve spent doing nothing. Three weeks of hard work avoiding the razor has produced something, but not much. I’m not sure how I should feel about this. Truth be told, I feel a little annoyed. My brother, for instance, can probably shave in the morning, and have about as much of beard as I do now by late afternoon. I know people whose beards come in full and dark (and much more quickly than my own). Not only is mine slow to grow, but its coming in a variety of shades, many of them leaning to gray and white, but enough darker color splattered here and there to hint at Jackson Pollock.

I have a theory about beards. I bounced my theory off Kelly last night, and she agrees. Men with lots of upper body hair but little hair on their extremities, grow beards more easily than men with lots of hair on their extremities, but little upper body hair. Need I tell you which category I fall into?

I shouldn’t complain. It is something out of my control. All I can do is nothing. So far, that seems to have worked, although I might need two months before this thing fills out. Good thing that winter doesn’t actually start until late December.

I can tell that it is growing, and more than ever before, however. My face does feel more insulated when I walk in the cold. This morning, it even felt like ice might be forming in the moisture collecting in the hair on my face. At night, when I press my face on my pillow, I pause because it seems like there’s something there between my face and my pillow–and there is.

This is a little embarrassing to admit, but I keep looking at myself in the mirror to see if I notice any progress. Even in the car, I’ll pull down the mirror under the sun visor and check the progress. I guess that’s because it is a novelty to me.

I will continue to do nothing for another 3-1/2 weeks in the hopes that this thing will start to fill out. I looked online for tips for growing a beard, but like most things online, the tips seemed ridiculous and largely unbelievable.

A few people who’ve seen me asked if I was growing the beard for Movember. I’m growing the beard to stay warm in the winter when I am outdoors. Given my snail’s pace, Movember probably wouldn’t work for me. I’d need Mocember, Manuary as well.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

This evening, I solved a mystery that has been plaguing me for years, but in order to understand the context, we have to begin with the question that writers often get, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I answered this question eight years ago, but it is worth revisiting here. Harlan Ellison may have gotten his ideas from an idea factory in Schenectady, but I get mine in the shower. Of all the places from which to get ideas, the shower is the most inconvenient. I don’t recommend it. Usually, the idea rises like a soap bubble, just as I have finished lathering up my hair with shampoo. Under those circumstances, it is impossible to dash out of the shower and scribble the idea down. You have to fight for it. And like a soap bubble, the idea is clear but delicate, so you have to keep a close eye on it, and avoid jostling it lest it burst.

This is not as easy as it sounds. If the idea is strong and clear, it is one thing. But if it is a fleeting thing: the perfect line of dialog for a character, worded just right, then it becomes a lot more tricky for me. My shower becomes an exercise in repetition, and I can be heard muttering the line over and over, like someone trying to remember a phone number.

I have often wondered why a shower stimulates ideas at the rate that it does compared to just about any other activity. I think it is because it is the only time in my day when my mind is completely unburdened of other activity. My default idle is reading. If I am not doing anything else during the day, I am reading, whether a physical book, a magazine, a newspaper, or listening to an audiobook. There is no time in my day when I just sit and do nothing, just let my mind wander–except for the shower. I guess my mind, cooped up all day like dog, runs free once I hit the shower. It is remarkable how often I get useful ideas in the shower. These can be ideas for anything–blog posts, stories, dialog, working out a problem I’m having with something I am writing. The shower rarely fails me.

Of course, it is difficult to capture the idea in the shower. You have to treat it carefully. But I’ve learned not to worry too much about that. With the except of the perfect line (or dialog or prose), if the idea doesn’t make it out of the shower, I assume it really wasn’t that good of an idea after all. Or perhaps I just tell myself that to make me feel better.

How does this relate to the mystery that I have finally solved? Well, let me tell you… beginning a few years ago, I started to experience a strange phenomenon in the shower. At some point, I would reach for the shampoo–and hesitate. I could not recall if I had already washed my hair. Washing it twice is no big deal. It just takes more time. But it bothered me that I had been so preoccupied that I couldn’t even remember if I had washed my hair. This didn’t happen all the time, but every now and then, there’d I be, my thoughts drifting and I couldn’t recall if I had already washed my hair.

This evening, in a flash, it came to me–in the shower, of course–that there seemed to be a direct correlation between my absentmindedness and the abundance of ideas that come during the shower. When the ideas are ripe for the picking, I get into that same mental state that drivers get into when they leave the office, end up in their driveway, and have no memory of anything in between. I go on autopilot, my mind completely focused on the emerging ideas, and the lizard part of my brain taking care of the basic functions, like washing my hair.

If you are wondering, the idea that came to me in this evening’s shower–one in which I really had to focus because I wanted to keep the wording precise–was: “Harlan Ellison may have gotten his ideas from an idea factory in Schenectady, but I get mine in the shower. Of all the places from which to get ideas, the shower is the most inconvenient. I don’t recommend it.”

I’m pretty sure I washed my hair twice.

Settling Down to Read

My reading chair

After my morning walk, I took advantage of some quiet time to sit down to read. In one part of my new office is an old rail chair we used when the kids were babies. It is nestled right in between the Q and S sections of my bookshelves, and thus, right where any of my books would be shelved, had I any books with my name on the cover.

It was a cold morning, and after I sat down in my chair and put my feet up, I decided that I needed to take the chill out of my bones with a bowl of hot oatmeal. With the oatmeal finished, I sat down again, took some sips of my Coke, and cracked open the book I am reading. These days I usually read several books at once, and at the moment, I have 5 books in various stages of completion.

I opened to the page where I left off last night, and read less than a paragraph before a wave of guilt washed over me. I had set my empty oatmeal bowl on the kitchen counter because the green light was glowing on the dishwasher, and the green light means that the dishes have been cleaned. I’ve been trying to be better about these things, not leaving it to others to empty the dishwasher, so I took another sip of my Coke, and set about emptying the dishwasher. And since I was there, I took the dishes that had stacked up on the counter and put them in the now-emptied appliance.

With that chore done, and my conscience clear, I returned to my chair sipped some more Coke, and cracked open the book once more. I looked around the room, three sides of which are surrounded my windows. The rising sun in the east was shining in through the back windows, and a beam of sunlight happened to catch on the bottle of vitamins I’d placed by my desk so that I wouldn’t forget to take them in the morning.

Of course, I’d forgotten to take them this morning.

I could have just sat there and continued to read my book, but I knew if I didn’t get up and take the vitamins now, they would slip my mind and I’d forget to take them at all. So up I went, took my vitamins, washing them down with a swig of Coke (the can was now almost empty and I’d barely started to read!) and settled once more into my chair, my book in my lap, determined to start.

And start I did, but I didn’t get through more than two or three pages before I noticed the noises from the kids devices in the next room intruding on my peace and quiet. (We have yet to install French doors between my office and the living room.) I wondered, momentarily, what to do, when I spotted my Bose headset on the desk nearby. I got up, grabbed the headset, sat back down, put covered my ears and flipped the switch on the side. Suddenly, I was immersed in silence.

I began to read and the world fell away, as it often does when I am immersed in a book. One page, two pages, three pages. Then a familiar sensation. I closed the book, set it in my lap, and frowned at the empty can of Coke on the shelf beside me. I looked longingly toward the bathroom on the other side of the house, and got up once more.

With that done, I sat down once again, book in my lap, and began to read. Twenty minutes had passed since I’d started, and I’d gotten nowhere. The quiet moment had passed, but I’m nothing if not determined, and I was going to spend the rest of the hour reading this book. I read a page, and then another one. I kept thinking about the interruptions and how these days, this really wasn’t uncommon for me. Indeed, it was kind of echo to the daily rhythms. After all, often while working on something, I will, for no reason interrupt what I am doing to check what’s happening on Facebook, or Twitter, or to see if there are any interesting new blog posts–eureka!

I dropped the book, sprang up from my chair, dashed across the office to my desk, where I sat and began to write a little essay about the joys and delights of settling down to read on a quiet Saturday morning.

Do Fifth-Graders Still Learn to Read Newspapers?

Sitting in the terminal at Dulles International last week, I happened to look around me at the passengers waiting for their flights. While there were hundreds of passengers, I saw only a single newspaper among them—the one that I was reading. Later that week, while sitting in our Pittsburgh office, a co-worked passed by, did a double-take, and backtracked. “I had to stop,” he said, “because I never see anyone reading an actual newspaper anymore.” I was reading a copy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

The most practical lesson I ever received in elementary school came when my fifth-grade math teacher took it upon himself to teach the class how to read a newspaper. As he model, he used our local paper, the Providence Journal. I remember nothing about the contents of the paper on that particular day, but the lessons he taught us have stayed with me. 

He taught us, for instance, how to identify the lead story in the paper. He taught us the basic format of news stories, and how to tell who wrote them. He described the difference between a news story, an editorial, and an opinion piece. He taught us about sources and the basics of factual news reporting. He did all of this at a level that fifth-graders could understand. (He also taught us how to read the stock page, which I think was his original point, since this was, after all, a math class.) 

Since then, I have been a fairly steady newspaper reader, although there have been gaps. When I lived in Los Angeles, I read the Los Angeles Times. My local paper today is the Washington Post, but I still read the L.A. Times, part out of nostalgia, and part because I enjoy the writing. When I travel, I try to sample the local fare in news reporting, and am often surprised by how good the smaller papers are. You can learn a lot about a place by reading an issue or two of its local paper. 

The Little Man recently turned ten, and by chance, I was ten when my fifth-grade math teacher taught our class how to read the paper. It made me wonder: do schools still teach kids how to read a newspaper? Did they ever, or was my experience unique? In the intervening decades between my fifth grade experience and the Little Man’s, the Internet emerged and grew with all of its promise and problems. Still, with kids spending so much time on screens these days, the importance of newspapers can’t be overstated. I thought about how I might explain this to the Little Man. I started by considering the advantages a newspaper provides over social media, blogs, radio, and television news broadcasts. 

  1. Reading is an important skill to develop and a daily newspaper ensures that practical reading material is available every day. Some of that reading may be a stretch, but like any form of exercise, it’s good to aim high. 
  2. At the same time, newspapers provide a means for keeping up with current events. The Little Man grows increasingly curious about the world, asking all kinds of questions. As that continues, the newspaper can help feed that curiosity. 
  3. Newspaper reporting is not instantaneous. The benefit of a day’s delay allows for more accuracy in reporting. Facts can be checked, multiple sources consultant and corroborated, and in-depth analysis by experts can be brought to bear. 
  4. Editorials provide good examples of persuasive writing. They are brief, and focused. This is a skill that is particularly useful in high school and college. Whether or not you agree with the editorial writer, the model used in most papers is a good one. 
  5. Newspapers provide a mechanism for debate and discussion, correction, disagreement, and expression. If you read something that you think is factually wrong, if you disagree with an opinion piece, most papers provide a means of debate and discussion through their Letters to the Editor page. 

There are intangibles to newspapers as well. You might discover a writer you enjoy reading, and looking forward to his or her columns (always with frustration when they are on vacation and the paper puts out a re-run). The first time this happened with me was reading Al Martinez’s column in the L. A. Times. Then, too, many newspapers still have some great sportswriters, among them, Tom Boswell at the Washington Post

Although many newspapers are now available in digital format, I prefer printed editions, if for no other reason than they provide a daily reprieve from reading on a screen. 

I don’t know if fifth-graders are still taught to read a newspaper the way I was. But that single lesson stands out more than any other as one that has had a continually positive impact on my life. In teaching me to read a newspaper, my fifth-grade teacher helped me learn how to think better for myself, using what I read in the paper as both a learning tool, and a sounding board. 

I’d hate for the Little Man to miss out on that. 

4 Years of Field Notes

If you have seen me in the last four years, then you know that I am rarely without a Field Notes notebook in my back pocket. I can no longer recall exactly how I discovered these wonderful notebooks, but they have changed my life. A few days ago, I turned to the first Field Notes notebook I ever used, and saw that I started it on June 24, 2015–just about four years ago. In that time, I have become a subscriber to their quarterly notebook list, collected probably around 100 of their notebooks, and filled nineteen of them. These volumes sit on a shelf by my desk where I keep all of my important reference volumes.

My Field Notes volumes

One volume (not among the nineteen) I used as a simple index of the others. Looking at that one, you can see that it took me a while to fill those volumes at first. I filled five of them in 2016, five in 2017, and five in 2018. I’ve filled three so far in the first half of 2019, but that number is going up more rapidly these days as the way that I used these notebook has evolved.

My Field Notes index

When I started, these notebooks served as a kind of short term memory for me. I’d jot down things so that I wouldn’t forget them later. Flipping through the first volume, for instance, I see ideas for blog posts, scribbles from visits to the dentist, and bumper stickers I found amusing (“Condoms prevent unwanted minivans.”) There are some things that I no longer know what they are for. Numbers like 27.975. I think it was for some code I was writing because there’s a reference to a GitHub repo. There’s a surprising amount of math worked out longhand in the pages.

In those early volumes, I rarely dated anything, other than the date I started and finished the volume. It wasn’t until volume 7 (12/20/2016 – 3/18/2017) that I regularly started dating the pages. By then, I’d become more accustomed to pulling out my notebook without feeling embarrassed. Not only are there restaurant names, there are server names (so that I don’t forget). I even occasionally write down what I plan to order.

There are lists of all kinds, including lists of books that I plan to read so that I don’t forget. I don’t always get to the books right away, but I do eventually. Some pages have notes from meetings (before I started using Composition Books for that purpose), more math being worked out, and fairly detailed notes from historic sites we visit. (I am the one on the guided tours, scribbling in my notebook as we move through the 300 year old house.)

The two most recent notebooks have taken yet another step forward in their evolutionary development. I filled these much faster–within about a month, or a rate of 12 notebooks a year. With these, I start each day scribbling the date on the next blank page. Then, my day gets logged as it happens, and the various random lists, math, memory aids is right there among it all. A typical day now fills 2 pages. This has been a great aid for helping me with more detailed journal entries at the end of the day. Since I have been logging what I eat again, that finds its way into the mix. Here’s what today’s entry looks like, so far:

A page from 6/16/2019

I always have a Field Notes notebook in my pocket, along with two pens, one black, and one blue. On rare occasions when I have set it aside, I feel the way I do when I’ve left my wallet at home. I love the variety of the notebooks, and the themes that the folks at Field Notes come up with. Right now, I’m carrying around one of their Mile Marker editions.

Friends and family have grown used to me pulling out these notebooks to jot things down. They only make fun of me a little. But when they want to know something about what happened a few days earlier, I occasionally here them turn to Kelly and say, “Ask Jamie, he’ll know. He probably wrote it in his notebook.”

And I probably did.

Reading Outdoors

When I lived in L.A. my apartment had a small wraparound porch. One side of the porch faced south, the other faced east. The east side was the shady side and the south side the sunny side. I spent countless hours sitting on that porch, chair propped back, feet up on the railing, and a book in my lap. I read The Three Musketeers sitting on that porch. I read 2001: A Space Odyssey on that porch. I read Carl Sagan, and Isaac Asimov, and Tom Clancy, and Agatha Christie on that porch. One of the things I missed most when I left L.A. was reading on that porch.

In the 17 years since, I still haven’t read outdoors as much as I did when I had access to that porch. The places I have lived just weren’t as conducive to reading outdoors: vagaries of the east coast weather, combined with a lack of a quiet place to read outside made it difficult. We had a small area in the back of our old house that I tried to read from on numerous occasions, but it never lasted long. On that porch in L.A., I could spend the entire day reading.

At the new house, we have the deck. A few days ago, I went out there in the late afternoon when the humidity was low and breeze rustled through the trees. I had a book with me, and my youngest daughter, and we sat out there, she watching the birds, while I read. An hour passed in the blink of an eye. It was delightful.

This afternoon, when all of my meetings were over, and the house was quiet, I went out there again. I took along one of the books I’m reading, Jerome Holtzman’s No Cheering in the Pressbox (#93 on Sports Illustrated top 100 sports books of all time). Once again, the humidity was low. A freshening breeze rustled the trees and kept the bugs away. I sat on a deck chair in the bright sun, and propped my feed up on another chair, and read. It was delightful. It might even be better than the porch in L.A. Time will tell.

Reading on the deck

We need to populate the deck with decent deck furniture, but I realized right away that an umbrella of somekind is critical. I forgot how bright a white page is when reflecting the light of the summer sun. Still, I enjoyed sitting out there. The house is situated far enough from main roads so that there is no traffic noise. With the breeze blowing, all I could hear was the wind in the trees. The sun felt warm, and the book, thus far, was excellent.

I have a feeling I’m going to get a lot of reading done out on that deck. I may even get some writing done out there. Heck, it was so nice out today that I considered taking my laptop out there and doing some work.

I still miss the porch in L.A. But I miss is a little less now, thanks to the new deck.