Category Archives: essays

Quality Control

This morning I wrote a post and when I finished, I decided to set it aside, and maybe come back to it another time. The reason: it was a stinker. I’d say that 99 out of 100 times, when I write a post for the blog, it feels right to me and goes up without much second-guessing. But every now and then, I write something and think to myself, you are just trying to get something posted, regardless of how good it is. When I think that, it usually means I should set aside whatever I have written and revisit it later.

This kind of quality control has evolved over the years. If you go back to the early days of this blog (late 2005, but really, 2006 is when things started up in earnest) you’ll find that I wrote about anything that came into my head, no matter how trivial. Since then, I have grown more selective. There are plenty of posts that I have written but have never appeared because afterward, I didn’t like them for some reason. When it happens, it is usually because I was trying too hard to get something written and went about it poorly. That’s what happened this morning.

A lot more post ideas never even get written. I jot down post ideas all the time. Usually, they idea goes into the Field Notes notebook I have in my pocket, and from there it gets transferred to a list of possible idea to write about. But even in that step there are quality control checks in place. One of the best quality controls I have in my toolbox is time.

I’ll jot anything that comes to mind in my Field Notes notebook. Not all ideas from there make it into the ideas list I keep on the computer. Just flipping through the current notebook in my pocket, I see several ideas I jotted down that, thanks to time, won’t make the cut. (“Things I do to avoid maskless people” seems liked an amusing idea when I jotted it down, because there are silly things I do to avoid them, but there just aren’t enough of them to make for a good post.) I have another note about “Sleeping in your own bed” which I jotted down on the long drive back from Florida after being away from home for more than a week. Now, having been back home for a while, it no longer resonates with me.

Even when an idea from the notebook gets transferred to the list of potential ideas, time still works in my favor, protecting me against those ideas that seems great in the moment, but after some time has passed feel stale. Those will eventually get deleted from the list.

Some ideas stay on the list for a long, long time, mainly because there is a lot of research involved, or a lot of time required to put them together in a way that will satisfy me. (One idea, which appears on my list as “Bookstuffing” is an example of this.) Generally, though, if an idea makes it from the notebook to the “curated” list its chances of getting actually written as a post are much higher.

But maybe not right away. Again, time serves as an excellent quality control tool. Sometime an idea that excites me will make it to the list, and I’ll find that I’m not ready to write about it. I like the idea but some of the shimmer has worn off and I need time to find the right pieces to make it resonate with me again. Often this happens one two separate ideas are joined together. Other times, an idea is really just a great title with nothing behind it, and it takes time to find whatever it is that is behind that title.

Once I have written a post, it is rare that I decide not to post it. This is the final quality check I impose: does it feel like a good post? Of course, a feeling a complete judgement on my part, but it is my blog, and I have enough experience at this point to trust my gut. I can go through a number of reactions upon completing a post: Jumping up from my keyboard and pacing in a circle because I am so pleased with what I have written is one extreme. The other extreme happens just as quickly; indeed, it often happens before I finish writing. It’s a feeling I get that I know I just don’t like what I have written.

The most typical reaction is general satisfaction with what I have written. Nice job, check that item off the list and move on.

Today was one of those rare days when an idea made it from my notebook, to my idea list, and finally, into a completed post before I realized it was no good. For those who may be curious about what I’d written about, let me just give you the title: “RTFM Is So 1990s”. Yeah, it was that bad.

Thank goodness for some measure of quality control here.

What is a Project Manager?

Finally, I have come across what I consider to be the best definition of a project manager that I have ever seen. I have written in the past about how I dread getting asked that question, “What do you do?” because (a) it is hard to describe what a project manager does without (b) making it sound like a made-up job.

Reading Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc., this morning, I came across what I consider the best definition of a project manager—one that describes what I do clearly and accurately—but cast in terms of Hollywood production managers. Catmull writes:

Production managers are the people who keep track of the endless details that ensure that a movie is delivered on time and on budget. They monitor the overall progress of the crew; they keep track of the thousands of shots; they evaluate how resources are being used; they persuade and cajole and nudge and say no when necessary. In other words, they do something essential for a company whose success relies on hitting deadlines and staying on budget. They manage people and safeguard processes.

By changing a few words here and there, I have the definition of project manager that I have been seeking for years now:

Project managers are people who keep track of the endless details that ensure software is delivered on time and on budget. They monitor the overall progress of the developmentteam; they keep track of the thousands of lines of code; they evaluate how resources are being used; they persuade and cajole and nudge and say no when necessary. In other words, they do something essential for a company whose success relies on hitting deadlines and staying on budget. They manage people and safeguard processes.

I love this definition. It perfectly describes what I do day-in and day-out on my job. I am particularly tickled by the line, “they persuade and cajole and nudge and say no when necessary.” A project manager who taught me a lot about the job two decades ago summarize this line back then with a simple phrase that I often repeat: “As a project manager, all you have is your charm.”

I’m only a quarter of the way into Catmull’s book, but it has proven its worth with this definition alone. I feel a great sense of relief in having a good, accurate, and succinct way of describing what I do.

Some Notes on Notes

More and more I find myself trying to simplify things. Take notes as an example. I am a prolific note-taker. Wherever I go, I carry a Field Notes notebook in my pocket, along with a couple of pens. (I have ink stains on various pockets to prove this). Why carry a paper notebook when I have an iPhone in the other pocket? To keep things simple.

Over the years, I have not yet found an app that allows me to jot down notes as quickly and easily as a pen and paper. If something strikes me, I pull out the pen and paper and scribble it down. That’s all there is to it. A phone, at its simplest, involves pulling out the phone, getting through its security measures, opening the appropriate note-taking app, and typing in the note1. In the time it takes me to get through the security measures alone, I could have jotted a simple note with pen and paper.

Then, too, many notes are ephemeral. I’ll use them once and never again. What’s the point of filling up a phone with notes I’m only ever going to look at once? In a notebook, I could tear out the page, but what I typically do it just leave the note there, and when the notebook is filled, I added it to the collection of filled notebooks I have on a shelf in my office.

Of course, pocket notebooks get you only so far. If I am sitting in front of a computer, then I’ll use the computer for notes, especially notes that are not ephemeral. In this regard, Evernote would seem like a logical choice for notes. But I have resisted using Evernote for actual notetaking, preferring to partition it for use as a kind of digital filing cabinet. Instead, out of a sense of simplicity (or stubbornness, depending on your point of view), I’ve migrated toward the Apple Notes app, with one important exception2

There are a few reasons why I have settled on the Notes app:

  1. It is a simple app that is easy to use.
  2. It comes installed on all Apple devices and since I’ve bought into the Apple ecosystem, that makes it a convenient tool. I don’t have to install any additional software to access my notes on a new device.
  3. It syncs with iCloud, so notes I create on one device are available on all of my devices.
  4. It integrates with Spotlight so searching notes is pretty easy.

Item #2 above is particularly important because I keep all of my device bootstrapping-related notes in Apple Notes. These notes include, for instance, a checklist of things I do to new machines and devices (configuration settings, software I install, etc.) I have a file for every device we own which makes for easy reference.

I’ve taken to using Notes for personal development work I do. I’ve also started using notes to keep track of articles I read, copying highlighted passages, or my own annotations there. While it is lacking in a few features3, it has been able to do most of what I need. Here is an example of a HOW-TO note I have in my Tech folder:

A sample HOW-TO note from my Tech folder in Apple notes

The purist in me admonishes myself for not using plain text file for my notes, but you know what? I like being able to format my notes, into lists and tables. I like having hyperlinks, and images. True, each note is not a separate file in the file system. On the other hand, the backend is a SQLite database, which I am perfectly capable of accessing programmatically if needed.

The point is, I haven’t had a need to do so. That is the beauty of the simplicity of Notes so far. I don’t worry about tagging, or notebooks. I do have a folder structure for my notes, and it is evolving, but even there, I aim for simplicity. Being able to simply search for a term in Spotlight and see matching notes has been incredibly useful. I recently read an article in Smithsonian by Richard Grant, whose writing I enjoy. I’d created a note for that article, and so I just tried a Spotlight search for Richard Grant:

Spotlight search for Richard Grant

That’s good enough for my purposes.

I also light the lightweight feel of the Notes app. When I use Evernote today, the application feels big and bulky by comparison. Of course, it does a lot more than the Notes app, but for notetaking, I don’t need much more than what Notes can do.

  1. I stubbornly refuse to use Siri or dictation for notes, although I use Siri for other things.
  2. The exception, not worth getting into here in any detail, is my work-related notes, for which I use OneNote because it makes a lot of sense to do so.
  3. I do wish there was a way to add to the list of default styles provided.

Marking time

There is something cathartic about crossing off the date on the calendar at the end of the day. This is usually the last thing I do in the evening before flipping of the lights in my office and closing shop for the night.

For the last few years, I’ve used a small Field Notes calendar for this job. Earlier this month, I realized that the calendar I got back in late 2019 was about to run out. I headed over to Field Notes website but couldn’t find the calendar for 2021. I sent them an email and was dismayed to learn that they had sold out of the 2021 calendars already. I guess a lot people like cross the days of their calendar.

I suppose I could use a different calendar, but I am a creature of habit. Besides, I like the Field Notes calendar. It is small, compact, and I set up against a window so that it is always in view while I am working. It proves useful in quickly looking for a date when my screens are filled with other things, and I don’t want to go hunting for my Calendar app. In truth, I am more likely to use the cal command on the terminal than to go open up the Calendar app. I prefer simple, lightweight, over heavy complexity. Indeed, if cal had the ability to mark off each passing day, I might use that instead. I suppose I could create a script that does that.

But I like the aesthetics of the Field Notes calendar. I like pulling it off the shelf and picking up the red Pilot G-2 pen that I keep beside it and scratching a line through the date. A scripted version of that wouldn’t be the same thing.

Part of what I like about the Field Notes calendar (and this is true of the cal command as well), is that I don’t feel overwhelmed looking at it. It doesn’t show me all the birthdays and holidays that fall on a given date. Best of all, it doesn’t show me all of the various meetings, appointments, school activities, after-school activities, and other reminders that generally fill my day. I can mark time without being overwhelmed by the things that fill it. There is almost always something on my daily calendar that I have to deal with. Indeed, I just looked at the calendar for January (steeling myself for the experience) and discovered that the only day in January where not a single entry exists is Friday, January 8. Why that should be, I have no idea.

The Field Notes calendar says it best right there on the backboard above the pages that I tear out month after month:

Built to last for months and months of reliable service. No maintenance or special tools required.

I’m not sure even the cal command can make that promise, given that it is dependent on an entire Unix-based operating system as a foundation, which is in turn dependent upon a working computer, which in turn is depending on the power grid. As I write this, early on January 21, I see that I have 11 more days to cross out before my calendar runs out. I also means I have 11 days to locate a substitute, although I’m not sure I want a substitute. Maybe I’ll write that cal script after all, marking time until October when I will be sure to place my order for the 2022 Field Notes calendar early this time. 

A New Beginning

I feel a great sense of relief this evening as I sit down to write this. After more than 18 months, my desk is finally clear. Paper had been piling up ever since I upgraded to MacOS Catalina or something like that. At that point, it seemed, my trusty Fujitsu ScanSnap 1300i that I’ve had for nearly 8 years now, stopped working with the OS. I ignored the problem for months, and then, when the pandemic began, I ignored it some more.

Yesterday, however, more out of desperation than anything else, I started searching for replacement scanners, only to discover that the compatibility problem had been resolved. I updated the ScanSnap manager for Big Sur and everything was working again!

That meant I actually had to scan in all of that paper. First, I sorted through it, separating it into stuff that wasn’t worth scanning, and stuff that was. I saw that Evernote had an update, and I updated Evernote, and then I began to scan. I still use the same process, more or less, that I have been using from the start. But I found that in the new Evernote, it took longer to update the meta-data in my notes. Updating the Create Date is tricker, because you can’t type in a date, but have to select from pull-down lists. Updating tags is more cumbersome than it used to be because you can’t just type them in but have to open a popup window first. Minor delays, but annoying, nonetheless.

I got through half of the paper yesterday, shredded that half, and the proceeded to tackle the second half today. Finally, at 5:01 pm Eastern Standard Time, all of the accumulated paper had been scanned, and shredded. My desk was clear, and a great sense of relief washed over me. I can now move onto the other things that I want to work on and check this item off my list. Checking things off lists also provides me with a great sense of relief. 

Coincidentally, it was the second time a great sense of relief washed over me today. The first came just after Joe Biden was sworn in as President of the United States around noon today.

Five Years of Writer’s Block

First admit you have a problem

Of all of the stories I’ve written, my favorite thus far is “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown.” The story was published as the lead story in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show in May 2015. I finished writing the final draft of the story on Friday, March 13, 2015, and submitted to the magazine’s editor, Edmund Schubert, that same day. Just under two weeks later, Ed emailed to let me know he was taking the story. I’ve never been a superstitious person. I never noted (until now) that I finished the story on Friday the 13th. And besides, what did it matter? I sold the story, and it ended up getting the cover of the magazine, and some nice reviews as well.

I haven’t finished writing a story since. 

“Gemma Barrows” was baseball fiction, and baseball fans love their stats. Friday, March 13, 2015 was 2,137 days ago (according to Alexa, who hadn’t yet been born at that time).

I’ve attempted to write stories during that time. But I’ve never finished one. I’ve never really gotten close to finishing one.

At the time I sold “Gemma” I was coming off of what, for me, was a hot streak. I was selling most of what I was writing at the time, fiction and nonfiction. I was also drifting away from what first got me writing: science fiction. More and more my stories were “science fiction” for the purpose of having convenient markets to sell them to. But the stories were less and less science fictional. For some reason, after “Gemma Barrows” my lifelong interest in science fiction waned dramatically. I mostly stopped reading science fiction. And the stories I attempted to write, while containing a fantastic element here or there, were not stories I’d consider to be science fiction.

Whatever the reason, after March 13, 2015, I found that I had problem: I could no longer finish writing a story.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat

That is not to say that I could no longer write. I had, and still have, no problem writing nonfiction pieces, including the pieces I write here on the blog, and elsewhere. I also had plenty of story ideas. My writers block is not for lack of ideas, it seems. And it is not to say that I stopped writing stories. I just couldn’t finish what I started.

In fact, in the nearly six years since that day in 2015, I have often felt like Phil Conners waking up morning after morning to find that it is still February 2. This began with a story that I started to write (so far as I can tell from my notes) way back in December 2013, but that I started on in earnest in 2014, even before I wrote “Gemma Barrows.” This was another baseball story, and was more or less straight fiction, with one small fantastical twist. I wrote and I wrote, and then I stopped. I didn’t like the pace of the story. I knew where it was going, as I do with most of my stories, but I felt wrong to me.

To get myself back on track, I created a new document, and retyped the opening paragraph, which I liked, and which I felt had a great hook. I then tried rewriting the story from there. But it still didn’t work. I tried this again, and again, always keeping the same opening but writing beyond it without looking at what I had done before. I made three attempts, six, twelve. Looking at that folder just now I see a total of 61 drafts between 2014, and my latest attempt on December 13, 2020.

I’d long since given up on the opening I was so committed to. I’d changed just about every aspect of the story, writing and rewriting, trying different things. But never getting past a certain point. I told myself that I just wasn’t experienced enough to tell this story, and I should wait, maybe write about something else.

I started another story, one that had been floating around in my head for a few years. I conceived it as a 3-part novella, and I wrote the first part quickly, and in style and voice different from what I normally write. I reallyliked it. I submitted the first part to my writers’ group—the first submission I’d made in a long time—and got positive feedback from them on the story. I setup a lot in the 4,400-word first part, and there would have to be a big payoff. But for some reason, I could never move on to the second part.

I’d sit down after days or weeks and tell myself that in order to get that voice back in my head, I’d need to rewrite the first part. Re-type it, really. I’d open the draft in one window, open a blank document beside it, and retype what I had written. All 4,400 words. I did this more times than I can recall. I switched word processors and did it again. I wrote out the 4,400 words long hand in a Leuchtturm notebook. This dragged on over several years. In moments of desperation, I’d wonder to myself if the first part wasn’t the entire story. Did I really need anything more?

Growing even more desperate, I decided to return to the draft of the one and only novel I’d ever written from back in 2013. Maybe it was finally time for me to turn that first draft into a second draft. I started reading the first draft, but no new writing ever came from it. Instead, I turned my attention to a fantasy story I’d written but never sold. Maybe I could rewrite it as a play. (A play? Seriously? I’d never written a play in my life, nor had I ever had the desire to write one. What was I thinking?) Or, if not a play, maybe I could expand it into an epic novel, a la Brandon Sanderson? Nothing came of that either, thank goodness.

I couldn’t move forward. That seemed to be the crux of the problem. I couldn’t finish what I started, and when I finally did decide to move onto something else, it was not onto something brand new, but something old that I felt I could make better. Six years of this cycle: Wash. Rinse. Repeat.


I still thought of myself as a writer. After all, I’d sold about a dozen stories, and three times as many nonfiction pieces, right? I filled the time I should have spent writing with writing-related tasks. I told myself the problem was that I didn’t have a good environment for writing. I should do everything in plain text with a simple text editor. When that didn’t change things, I told myself I needed more structure, and went back to Scrivener. When that didn’t help, I started using a Freewrite I’d gotten, thinking that writing on a device like that, completely offline and distraction-free would be the ticket. None of it worked, of course.

I distracted myself with other writerly tasks. I decided I would archive all of my previous writing as far back as I could manage to go (another journey into the past, instead of the future). I had Word files from 1992 including the very first story I’d written when I decided I wanted to try selling stories. I would get all of these files archived, and at least be able to look back over the hundreds of files and demonstrate to myself that I hadbeen able to write.

I distracted myself by writing a set of scripts that would look at the git commits I made of my writing each day to generate word counts, so that I could track my progress. The scripts worked surprisingly well, but scripts like these are really only useful when there are, you know, words to count.

I told myself that the enormous amount of reading I was doing was all laying the foundation that would make me a better writer.

The fiction we tell ourselves

When I was young, my grandfather would often quote Hamlet, saying, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” As I got older, he found what I always took to be an amusing and ironic corollary. He’d say to me, “There are only two people I never lie to: myself, and my doctor.”

I might not be able to finish writing a story, but I could still tell myself stories. Could I ever! Tall tales! Fish stories! I’d tell myself that I was a better nonfiction writer than a fiction writer, anyway, so don’t sweat the fiction. Focus on the nonfiction.

I’d tell myself that I had the perfect outlet for my nonfiction right here on the blog. I’d write posts about writing even while struggling with my own fiction writing. What I’d do, I’d tell myself, is not worry about the fiction and focus on the blog, make it into one of the premier blogs on the Internet.

I remind myself of all the times I’d read about other authors struggling with their own writing. I’d tell myself that quality meant much more to me than quantity. I’d always been a slow writer when it came to fiction. I could finish these stories if I wanted to. Heck, I’d been finishing stories since that first one in 1992. But I didn’t just want to finish, I wanted to write the best possible story I could write. I wanted to take it to the next level. I wasn’t writing stories for the science fiction magazines anymore, I told myself, I was writing for Harper’s—that was my new goal. I justified this by reminding myself that when I started out, I wanted my name on the byline of a story in Analog just like Isaac Asimov wanted to see his name on a byline in Analog’s earlier incarnation, Astounding. I wanted my name in Harper’s just like E. B. White had his name there. Even here I was fooling myself. The stories I was reading in the science fiction magazines, before I have it up were at least as good as the fiction I’ve read in Harper’s.

I kept (and still keep) my membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America active, telling myself it is yet another sign that I am a writer, proof-positive for anyone who needs evidence–namely me!

I’ve told myself all kinds of stories over the last six years. None of them were true. There’s the old adage that a fiction writer is a paid liar. By that definition, I’m up there with the best of them. Except, instead of lying to my audience, I’ve been lying to myself.

The next page

The truth is, I’ve been struggling with my writing for the last six years. I can’t finish a story. I can’t even move past one. I hesitate to admit this publicly because I fear it comes across as just another excuse, just another distraction, just another gimmick to fool myself into thinking that I am writing.

The first step is admitting you have a problem. But what if the problem has no solution? If I am being completely honest (this above all else), part of me hopes that by writing this post, my problem will go away, and I’ll find that I can write again.  I doubt that will be the case. Writing fiction is hard for me. That’s the way it should be. Why do it if it is easy?

I suspect that writer’s block is different for every writer who experiences it. No one piece of advice will get me over the wall, except, perhaps, stubborn persistence. Writing fiction isn’t about word counts, or word processors, or document formats or union memberships, or contracts. It’s about facing that blank page in whatever form it may take and turning it into a story that you are proud of. Right now, that blank page seems daunting to me in a way that it never has before. Right now, I feel intimidated by all the good writers that are out there who manage to fill that blank page, whatever their other day-to-day challenges might be. It is easy to say to myself, “just sit down and write a story.” It is even easy to begin to fill that blank page.

The hard part, for me, is filling the next page. And the one after that.

Backyard Astronomy, 1979

When did you discover the stars? When did you realize that the sun was a star that was (relatively) close by? When did you first learn that there were other planets–entire worlds, some so big that they could swallow the earth–right here in our solar system? When did you find out that the universe didn’t revolve around our little world, that the Earth was part of a solar system, and the solar system part of a galaxy, and the galaxy part of the larger universe?

For me, it was sometime in 1978, and a chance encounter with a book in the Franklin Township public library. The book was the The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. I’ve written about this book before, but I’ll repeat myself here because it is vital to the story. Indeed, it is the germ from which the rest of the story flows.

The Nine Planets

I no longer recall what drew me to this book. Was it something I picked out on my own? Was it something my mom, who would take me to the library, picked out for me? All I knew is that I liked it so much that I read it again and again. The Nine Planets1 is where I discovered the other planets, moons, and stars. The Nine Planets led directly to the backyard astronomy that took place at our house in the spring and summer of 1979.

Voyager 2 was in the news in the spring of ’79. I was about to turn 7 and I followed the news of the space probe’s approach to Jupiter assiduously. With the help of my mom, I kept a scrapbook of clippings from the Star-Ledger with pictures that Voyager 2 beamed back from Jupiter.

From those images, I got to see, firsthand, the Great Red Spot. I memorized the names of the Galilean moons. And for my birthday that year, my parents got me a telescope.

With my dad’s help, I learned how to setup the telescope, and align the view finder. We would take the telescope out into the street during the day, and point it at a street side so far away I could barely see it. Then we’d use that sign to align the telescope.

But it was the nights in the backyard that I looked forward to most of all. We pointed that telescope up in the sky and I could Jupiter, making out its fuzzy bands as the reflected light from the planet jigged about in the atmosphere. I could see the four Galilean moons as bright pinpricks of light at various distances from the planet.

It was a propitious time to look up at the night sky. I could see Saturn with its rings angled just so, casting a shadow. The thing was I could see Saturn. It was not just a picture in a book. It was there, up above, posing for me.

We pointed the telescope at the moon and I could see the mountains and craters. We pointed the telescope at seemingly dark parts of the sky and there, in the view finder, that small disc of sky was suddenly filled with stars, many of which I could name. I began to recognize the pattern of the constellations in the sky. I was given more advanced books on astronomy, and though I couldn’t make sense of much of what they were saying, I read through them again and again anyway. If someone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “An astronomer.”

This adventure in backyard astronomy led to my discovery of the larger field of science. When I discovered that there were stories that involved spaceships going to other worlds, I felt as if I was in seventh-heaven. Science fiction became a passion, and while I never grew up become an astronomer, I did grow up to be a science fiction writer, at least as an avocation, selling stories to some of the very magazines I loved reading. It all traces back to a forgotten trip to the library, and the discovery of Branley’s book.

In the decades since, I’ve periodically taken to the skies again. In my 20s, I pulled out that same old telescope I’d gotten when I turned 7, and pointed it up at the hazy skies of Los Angeles. The light pollution muted the experience, but I still managed to catch glimpses of Jupiter, its moons, as well as Saturn. Older, and somewhat wiser, I sketched what I saw into a notebook.

At some point, that old telescope vanished, but I got new one, as a gift from Kelly back when we were dating, and once again, I made time to look up at the sky, this time the skies over Maryland, where the light pollution wasn’t so bad.

A few years back, we had a big family reunion at a place we rented in rural Vermont, and I brought a pair of strong binoculars and tripod with me. At night, the sky was clear, and moonless, and the stars I could see took my breath away. I setup the tripod and pointed up toward Jupiter. The binoculars were strong enough to make out the Galilean moons, but not strong enough for the gas giant to appear as much more than a fuzzy sphere. My kids, as well as my brother’s and sister’s kids were all there, and I gave them turns looking up at the planets and stars. They each took their turn, but I could tell they didn’t feel the same sense of wonder that I felt when I seven, and that I still felt when I looked up at the stars on that clear summer night in Vermont. Then again, none of them had read The Nine Planets.

Is there a book that has had a particular impact on you? This question comes up from time-to-time, and I never have to hesitate with my answer. Other books have made stronger emotional impacts, or excited my sense of wonder, but none of them have had the impact that Branley’s book had on me. I’ve often wished I thought to send Branley a letter of thanks for writing the book. He died in 2002, after writing more than 150 books on science and astronomy for youngsters. I can only imagine how many future scientists, astronomers, astronauts, doctors, artists, and science fiction writers he inspired through his writing.

Of course, I would never have discovered the book were it not in the library to begin with. I have tried, in a small way, to payback the Franklin Township library by donating to it every year. Libraries always seem to be on precarious footing, and yet they contain multitudes. They are temples of inspiration just waiting to be tapped. In my case, the library inspired a bit of backyard astronomy in 1979–and a lifetime of discovery ever since.

  1. Now, clearly dated, in not just facts, but in title; Pluto is no longer considered a planet.

Cobra Kai and 80s Nostalgia

A few years back I’d heard vaguely about a new show called Cobra Kai that was a kind of update of the 1984 film The Karate Kid. Specifically, the show starred Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, the two rivals from the original film. I didn’t think much about it at the time. I’m not, as readers know, a big TV person.

Recently, however, I’d heard a lot of buzz about season 3 of the series dropping on Netflix, and the buzz was generally positive. I asked around, and the people I talked to liked it. I needed a bit of a break from the reading I was doing, so yesterday evening, I settled down to watch the first episode.

I can’t think of another television show that has surprised me so much by exceeding my expectations as much as Cobra Kai did. I realize that much of it is an exercise in 80s nostalgia, but for me, it hit all of the right buttons. Consider:

In the original film, Daniel LaRusso had just moved to Reseda, California from the east coast (specifically, Newark, NJ). When the movie came out in June 1984, I had been living in Granada Hills, California, not far from Reseda, having moved less than a year earlier from the east coast. So his character, not much older than me at the time, resonated with me, the outsider in a new place.

I went to high school in Reseda, California. My single favorite line from a Tom Petty song is from “Free Fallin'”, when Petty sings, “And it’s a long day, living in Reseda / There’s a freeway running through the yard.” All those places that showed up in the film were familiar to me, as they would be to any kid who grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the mid-1980s.

Watching the Cobra Kai episodes brought all of that back in unexpected ways. Ralph Macchio and William Zabka are now in their 50s with kids of their own. (I’m not quite in my 50s but I’m getting very close.) But they are still there in the Valley, and still tied to the people and places they knew growing up. There were clever parallels and reversals that made the show that much more enjoyable. And who doesn’t love an underdog story?

The music in the series is perfect, with touchstones to the past. I some ways, I think of the 80s nostalgia in Cobra Kai the way the previous generation likely thought of the 50s nostalgia in Back to the Future. The show is dotted with clever humor. It is, for me at least, a complete delight, a surprise, and I can’t wait to watch more of it. (For those wondering, I’ve made it through the first season, so no spoilers, please).

I’ve been wanting my kids to see the original Karate Kid films for a some time now. They’ve enjoyed other movies from that era–The Goonies, Ghostbusters, Ferris Buller’s Day Off to name a few–and I thought they’d like The Karate Kid and that afterward, the might like Cobra Kai. Having watching it, however, I realize that they’ll lack the sense of nostalgia for the time and place. I think there is something special about The Karate Kid for kids who were around my age and living in the San Fernando Valley in 1984. Everyone else might enjoy the film and the show, but they lack a certain visceral context.

I’m not particularly fond of the trend in movies and television of rehashing what has worked int the past. It shows a decided lack of originality and creativity. But when it is done as well as it has been done in Cobra Kai, it can really be something enjoyable and special.

Guest Post: Remembering Tommy Lasorda’s World Championship Mouth by Jason Ashlock

When I saw that Tommy Lasorda had died, I knew I had to write something about him. He was an icon of the game for 70+ years, and especially of the Los Angeles Dodgers. I lived in L.A. for nearly 20 years, but as a lifelong Yankees fan, I didn’t feel I had the chops to write about Lasorda. Fortunately, I know someone who does. Jason Ashlock has a great Tommy Lasorda story to tell, and he tells it below in a way that epitomizes Lasorda. In addition to being my brother-in-law, Jason is a creative director at big ad agency. You’ve probably seen his commercials before (this is one of my favorites), but unfortunately, commercials don’t run credits. I’m delighted that Jason agreed to my request to write something here about Tommy Lasorda. Enjoy! –Jamie

When the news hit that Tommy Lasorda had died, the very first thing that came to mind was, “Fucking Tommy Lasorda.” And I mean that in the most loving way possible, because as a kid I loved the Dodgers. I loved Tommy Lasorda. I loved everything about his no bullshit f-bomb-laced approach to the game. 

Tommy Lasorda was the living embodiment of profanity. His expletive laced exploits are well documented. But, I like to think that his greatest set of swear words were directed at me. That’s right. I got cursed out by Tommy Lasorda. I was twelve years old at the time. 

In the early 1990’s, every year for my birthday my Dad would reserve the first two rows behind Dodger dugout. My Dad worked for Unocal 76 and those were the corporate seats. Every Dodger fan knows the orange 76 logo above the scoreboard—a staple of Dodger stadium since its inaugural season in 1962. 

But the first two rows behind Dodger dugout! Those were amazing seats. So for my birthday I’d invite a group of friends and we’d go early for BP and get autographs. Hershiser. Scioscia. Piazza. Strawberry. Pedro Martinez. Brett Butler. So many great players. 

During the game we’d buy Cracker Jacks, malted ice cream and giant soft drinks. We’d place it all on top of the concrete Dodger dugout during the game. This was before cupholder technology became ubiquitous in baseball stadiums. 

One year, some random lady bumped into one of my friends and knocked over one of those giant soft drinks. Imagine, 50 ounces of sticky soda pouring down into the dugout. It didn’t take long. 

Out pops Tommy Lasorda. He’s full-on red in the face. His cheeks are vibrating. And he singles me out. “What the fuck are you doing, kid. My fucking players are covered with your fucking soda pop. Get that shit out here. Fuck you.” It’s still one of my most vivid and enjoyable memories. I loved every moment of it. 

Fuck you back, Tommy Lasorda. You will be missed.

Democracy in America

Yesterday was a remarkable day. It was terrible to see rioters storming the Capitol, interrupting democratic processes. It was horrifying to hear there was loss of life, and injuries. It was eerie when a curfew was put in place in our town, a few miles across the river from the District. But it was also heartening to see Congress come back together hours after to complete the job they started. It was heartening to hear talk of unity, even if it was just for the cameras. Listening to the quavering voices, and seeing the shaken faces, I don’t think it was all just for the cameras.

A lot of thoughts ran through my head as these events unfolded. I thought a lot about John Adams and other founders of the country. I thought of their strong beliefs in a free and open society. John Adams (not the best president we’ve ever had, but my favorite) defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre when no one else would. He did so because he believed strongly in the right to a vigorous defense, even for those he might disagree with. As I watched the rioters try to shout down the news reporter with calls of “fake news!” I thought of how much education and learning meant to the founding of the country. The founders saw education as a fundamental part of democracy. It reminded me of something else Adams famously said:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children the right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

I couldn’t help but think of the last time the Capitol building was breached during the War of 1812. I thought of the soldiers who fought defending our freedoms from the Revolution right down to the present moment.

I felt ashamed.

I viscerally felt the judgment of all those who came before us who managed peaceful transitions of power, in times of war and in times of peace in an unbroken chain from Washington’s retirement after 2 terms as President, through Obama’s last day in office.

Our kids watched these events unfold on the TV. They experienced the curfew that resulted. This morning, I can hear my son’s virtual class discussing those events, the teachers helping the students try to understand what happened.

I woke up this morning to see that Congress confirmed the electoral votes, and confirmed Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the next President and Vice President of the United States. Democracy in America won the day, despite those who tried to see it fail. But I can’t escape that feeling of shame. I feel the eyes of history, the eyes of past Presidents and of future generations looks at us, taking us by the collective collars, and saying, “How could you let this happen? How could you let it get this far?”

Years ago, I used to go for walks along the National Mall, stopping at the various monuments. I especially liked walking through the Jefferson Memorial, and standing in front of the statue of Lincoln at his Memorial. I had an urge to do that today. I feel our entire history when I stand in front of Lincoln and it is a powerful feeling. But I can’t do it now, not because of curfews or rioters downtown.

Right now, I couldn’t bear to stand under Lincoln’s solemn gaze. The shame I feel wouldn’t allow it.

Game Show Trivia 101

We were watching Jeopardy last night, and as is my won’t, I was answering the questions aloud, and more often than not, getting them right. My kids asked me how I knew the answers to all those questions. I paused before answering, flashing back to myself as a youngster in a similar situation.

I was pretty young, probably 7 or so. I remember that my mom would always seem to have the right answers to the trivia questions that they asked on game shows. After a suitable period of being really impressed, I finally asked her, “How do you know all of the answers to these questions?” Even then, I wanted to know things, and I figured she would tell me the secret. She did.

“I took class in college on game show trivia,” she said. Those might not have been her exact words, but her response was in that spirit. I had an ah-ha moment. It all made sense now. This was one of the things you learned in college.

Now, I may know a few things, but when I was younger, I took what people said at face-value. My mom was joking, of course, but I didn’t know that. Indeed, her response seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I remember trying to imagine what that class must be like. I decided that it was probably like spelling: each week, you’d get a list of questions and answers that you’d have to memorize, and at the end of the week, there’d be a test. Maybe there would be a buzzer involved.

I am ashamed to admit that I believed this story for far longer than I should have.

The Final Jeopardy question came and it was a surprisingly easy one that I answered for my kids before (the now late) Alex Trebek read it for the contestants. The category was something like, “Literary characters of the 1600s.” I was sort of appalled by the answers the contestants gave, as none of them were from the 1600s. Anyway, my kids were impressed that I got the answer right and asked how I knew all those answers.

After pausing to consider my mom’s answer to that question when I was younger, I was tempted to provide the same answer as a joke. But a better, more truthful answer presented itself to me. In a coincidence, my brother and his family had gotten me a t-shirt for the holidays, and I happened to be wearing that t-shirt as we watched Jeopardy. You can see a picture of me in the t-shirt above, but in case you can’t make out the legend, it says, “I read and I know things. That’s what I do.”

I pointed to my new t-shirt and said, “Well, I read a lot and I know things. That’s what I do.”

Andy Rooney On Masks

I wonder what Andy Rooney would have made of COVID-19 and the mask situation. I can imagine him at the end of 60 Minutes, sitting at his desk, holding a typical mask that people wear these days. I imagine him complaining about how uncomfortable the loops for the masks are around his ears. “People will call me ‘Ear-ny’ Rooney,” I imagine him saying. But who cares about how you look, he would say. Early in the day the masks aren’t too bad, but as the day wears on, the cloth of the mask gets caught on stubble and can be annoying and painful.

Why, Andy would wonder, do the masks come with those tags that pop out from between the two layers and tickle your cheek? Does anyone really look at those tags? What are they for? Andy would pull out the tag for all of us to see. The camera would pan in on the microscopic writing. “Made in China,” Andy would read. There are a lot of conspiracy theorists out there, Rooney would say, and I’ll bet some of them think COVID is marketing ploy by China to sell a lot of masks.

He would note that most people have to buy masks. They are not something that the government provides. Businesses, he would point out, are cashing in. He’d pick up a baby Yoda mask and frown at it.

Andy would turn his wrinkled, jowly face to the camera and say, “I’m old enough to where I can barely hear someone speak as it is. When sometime talks to me wearing one of these masks, they sound like the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoon, “Wah-wah, wuh, wah-wah.” It’s difficult to read the morning papers with my mask on because it is constantly fogging up my reading glasses, Andy would tell us.

I day-dreamed this imagined 60 Minutes segment as I drove the family on an unexpected trip down to Florida. In Virginia, where I live, everyone wears masks, they are required indoors, and people seem generally okay with it. I noticed more or less the same in North Carolina, and in the hotel we stayed at outside Savannah, Georgia. Florida has been a different matter. It’s been like stepping back in time a year or. so, when masks were for Halloween, and a global pandemic was the furthest thing from our minds. The people I’ve seen in the stores I’ve gone into aren’t wearing masks. The cashiers that work behind the counter aren’t wearing masks. In fact, you can more or less tell who is out of state and who is local by who is, and who is not, wearing a mask.

I’m not sure what the fuss on masks is all about. I wear a seatbelt even if I find them uncomfortable. I wear “nice clothes” on the holiday, even though I prefer shorts and a t-shirt. I thought it might be hard to breath with a mask on, but I breath fine. I imagine there are some who have difficulties with that. I’ve heard that there are people who believe that masks just don’t work in preventing the spread of the virus. That reminds me of a story about Neils Bohr.

Bohr was a renowned Danish physicist who studied the underlying quantum structure of the universe. He was a scientist, and rationalist, and by all accounts, brilliant. A visitor coming to his office one day found on his wall a horseshoe with the opening tilted up toward the ceiling to catch luck. “Surely, Dr. Bohr,” the visitor said, “you don’t actually believe that horseshoe will bring you luck?”

Bohr shook his head, “No, I don’t believe it,” he said, “But I am told it will bring me luck whether I believe it or not.

My imagined 60 Minutes segment ends with Andy Rooney telling us, “I’ve got a bunch of errands to do this weekend. I have to go to the hardware store to pick up some new washers. I’ve got stuff in the trunk of the car that I need to take to the dump. I need batteries for the flashlight.” At this point, Andy slips on his mask. “I’ll be doing all of these errands, wearing this ridiculous mask, despite its discomforts. I’ll wear because it will help protect you and me from COVID, whether we believe it or not.