Category Archives: essays

A Moment to Vent on Blogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Owl in the Woods

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

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

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

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

New Writing Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1,000 Books Finished! And It Only Took 25 Years

On Saturday, May 23, I finished reading The Reformation, Will Durant’s 1,000 page book on, well, the reformation in Europe. There was a nice symmetry to the length being about 1,000 pages since this was also the 1,000th book I finished since I started keeping a list in January 1996. That is a span of over 25 years. For those curious, here is graphical breakdown of those years:

For those unfamiliar with my list, I keep it using a few simple rules:

  1. Only a book that I finish gets on the list. Unfinished books don’t show up.
  2. I don’t rank books, but a book that I would read again, or recommend, I’ll make bold on the list.
  3. Re-reading a book counts as a finished book. Thus, the list is a list of all books I’ve finished, even those read multiple times. It is not a list of distinct titles.
  4. What constitutes a book? I use my judgement. There are a few short books (#789 The Testament of Mary is one. But I also counted the full issues of Astounding that I read for my Vacation in the Golden Age as books since they were of equivalent length.)

I finished the very first book on my list, From Earth to Heaven by Isaac Asimov, on January 13, 1996. I was in New York at the time, on vacation. I can no longer recall what possessed me to start keeping a list. It is possible that I had already come across Eric W. Leuliette’s list of what he’s read since 1974. In any case, I managed to keep the list going in various forms and mediums. Twenty five years later, I finished my 1,000th book. The canonical list has, for some time now, resided in a Leuchtturm1917 notebook. Here’s the first page with entries from 1996, and the most recent pages leading up to and including my 1,000th book:

Sometimes I’ll add some additional notes in the notebook that don’t appear on any of the other forms of my list.

So, it took me 25 years to finish 1,000 books. That’s somewhat deceptive, however. From 1996-2012, I read either paper or the occasional e-book. In that time, I completed about 500 books. That’s about 16 years or about 31 books per year, on average. In early 2013, however, I decided to give audiobooks a try as a way of allowing myself to get more reading done. Since 2013, I’ve read an additional 500 books, so that’s 500 books in 7 years or about 71 books per year on average. My page has been increasing!

In 2017, I decided to see how much I really could read, given the freedom audiobooks provided, and the fact that I had slowly been increasing the speed at which I listen to audiobooks. (Today, I usually listen to a book at somewhere between 1.5 and 1.75x normal speed, depending on the narrator). I set a record in 2017, reading 58 books that year. But that record didn’t last long. In 2018 I read 130 books; in 2019, 113 books. So far in 2020, I’m on pace to read 110. Indeed, I sort of sprinted to the 1,000th book milestone. At the beginning of May I’d read 983 books. That means I read an additional 17 books (including 2 books that were over 1,000 pages each) in the first 23 days of the month. It is, by far, a record-breaking month for me, and one that I am not likely to repeat for some time.

Given the pace I’ve set for the last 3 years, I’d predict, assuming no significant changes, that I’ll finish my 2,000th book in July 2029, a little more than 9 years from now. What took me 25 years to do the first time, should be much quicker the second time.

The books that I read run the gamut of the Dewey Decimal System. While I haven’t looked recently, I think nonfiction outpaces fiction about 60/40. In the last 3 years, it’s probably more like 70/30.

Why read so much, and why list it out? Well, I’ve said elsewhere how I look at my reading as my real education. I learned to read in grade school; I learned to think critically in high school; I learned to learn in college. Once college was over, i was finally prepared to learn–and then had to enter the workforce. So reading is my way of learning. The list acts a reminder of what I’ve read (and what I’ve learned), but also a kind of literary autobiography. I can look at the list and for nearly any book on it, I can recall where I was and what was happening in my life when I read it.

And what about before the list? I’ve often wished I started my list much earlier. I was 24 years old when I started it and 2 years out of college. Looking back over that time, and thinking about books I read in college, and high school, books I read in grade school. Books I got from Weekly Reader and checked out of the library, children’s books that I read on my own or with help from my parents, I’d estimate the total to be not more than 500 books, and probably somewhat less than that.

When I finished the final words of Will Durant’s The Reformation on Saturday, I was sitting out on the deck, enjoying sunshine. I had a quiet, private moment of achievement. Then I started on the next book. I jumped from the middle ages in Europe to the present achievements in physics with Brian Greene’s latest, Until the End of Time, which I’ll like finish today and mark down as book #1,001.

I occasionally get questions about my reading and my list. If you have any, feel free to drop them in the comments below. I’ll do my best to answer them.

Math Lessons in the Age of Social Distancing

Many of us are acting as teachers or teaching assistants for our kids these day. Schools are closed and remote learning is the order of the day. We rely on teachers and teachers rely on us. There is a kind of symbiotic relationship here that is new and different from the past.

And then, there’s math.

I learned math differently from how it is taught today, and I find some of how it is taught today to be confusing. I suppose that research and studies have shown that kids learn math better the way they teach it today, then how it was taught when I was learning it (or for that matter, when Isaac Newton, or Euclid and others learned it). It still often seems nonsensical to me. Thus we hit upon a problem: my kids are taught math in a way that I don’t really get, but I am relied upon to help them learn math in this age of remote learning. I can’t help but fall back on the ways I know.

The Little Man had a math test yesterday involving fraction. The test focused primarily on multiplying and dividing fractions. For one set of questions, the instructions indicated the answers should be given in simplest form. The Little Man was marked off on three of these questions. He gave answers of 7/2, 8/3, and 11/6 respectively. His teacher marked these wrong and said “close” for each one.

The Little Man came to me puzzled as to why these were wrong. “Well,” I said, “let’s look at the definition of ‘simplest form’ in your text book.” We checked and the textbook gave the definition as a fraction in which the numerator and denominator could not be further reduced; that is, they only have a common factor of 1. Well, this was true in all three cases, so I sent the Little Man’s teacher a question, asking for clarification so that I help the Little Man understand his error and avoid it in the future.

His teacher said that his answers were improper fractions and that improper fractions were not in simplest form. I dove into the ancient and dusty parts of my memory to see if I could recall this from my own math classes, but there was nothing there. Maybe she’s right. Still, the definition given in the text book made no mention of improper fractions. It was generalized to “fractions.” I thanked the teacher for the clarification and then said the following to the Little Man:

“Buddy, you basically got these wrong on a technicality–like evidence of crime being tossed because it was come upon improperly. The thing to remember is, if you were an engineer in the real world, and someone asked you to calculate a measurement, and you came up with 7/2 as an answer, that answer is precise and correct, and would have served whatever engineering purpose it was needed for. Your boss would have been happy, and the bridge you were building based upon the calculation would be structurally sound. Sure, the answer was in improper fraction and might not technically be considered simplest form the way 3-1/2 is, but they are mathematically equivalent. You were mathematically correct, and definitionaly wrong.”

This is small potatoes, I know, but it is a frustrating part of being an amateur teacher. It is virtually impossible to unlearn how I learned math and equally difficult to comprehend how it is taught today. For me, math is a tool and I’m not as concerned about the theory. I use all kinds of math every day in my job. 7/2 is just as good as 3-1/2 and in the real world, when we are all trying to be efficient with our time, it also faster to come up with (one less operation to perform). Kelly has been trying to teach the kids how to study–practical advice that will be useful for them in all of their schooling going forward–and something I think was never taught well in my schooling. I am trying to teach practical problem-solving.

Fractions, improper though they may be, are more practical than mixed numbers.

No Motivation

I woke up this morning feeling completely unmotivated. I’ve got three requirements meetings scheduled for this afternoon. I’ve run 13 of these meetings over the last couple of weeks, with 9 scheduled this week. And three of them are today. I think part of the lack of motivation comes from working ceaselessly for the last 4 months. Normally, by this point in the year, we’d have driven down to Florida for spring break, at which time I would have taken a couple of days off. We may have headed up to New York or out to West Virginia for a weekend family getaway. None of that has happened, of course. The days run together, and the motivation well runs dry without some mental downtime to rejuvenate it.

I’ve often wondered if major league baseball players ever get that feeling. You know, you’re two thirds of the way through the season, there’s still 50 games to play, the team is in the cellar, and you wake up knowing that you’re starting at second base, batting cleanup, far from home, and just feeling like you can’t stay another night in a hotel, can’t bring yourself to swing at another pitch in batting practice. Of course, these are professionals, and are paid to play, so they muscle through somehow. But even those players who are living their dream and love to play ball must have days like this now and then, right?

Baseball is on my mind because it isn’t anywhere else, and I miss it more than I realized. My year is divided into two parts: baseball season, and winter. Baseball provides mental balance for me. The often disturbing news in the morning papers is balanced by the box scores, and sports columns. That’s missing from the papers now and so one place I go each day for a little rejuvenation is gone. Maybe baseball will find a way of coming back this season, but it won’t be quite the same.

These are all small considerations in the face of the larger Pandemic (are we capitalizing this yet?). After all, what is baseball when people are getting sick, people are dying, people are out of work, people are suffering. Maybe it is familiarity during a time of uncertainty that I find comforting. The unknowns pull the levers of anxiety. Because of this, I have to limit myself to thinking about today and not worrying too much about what may happen tomorrow. When I start to think about tomorrow, or the next week, I find that my motivation is sapped just a little bit more.

The show must go on, and so when my first meeting starts early this afternoon, I’ll be ready to go, regardless if the motivation is there or not. I could take a day off at some point, but it seems wasteful to take a day off when all I’ll do is sit at home. Besides, even if I took a day off work, I can’t take a day off from helping the kids get their school work organized, checking their work, answering their questions. If I am doing that, I might as well be getting some work done, too.

Interestingly, my motivation to write has been growing lately and my appetite for reading is as insatiable as ever. This morning I completed my sixth book in six days. It was Frank Deford’s memoir, Over Time. It was, perhaps, the best book I’ve read this year, a complete surprise, and one of those books that I read with absolute delight and dread. The dread came from the certainty that the book would end, and all I wanted was for Deford (who narrates the audiobook version) to keep spinning his tales, making me laugh out loud over and over again. If I ever doubted the value of a book to lift my spirits in troubled times, Deford wiped away those doubts with each delicious anecdote.

My favorite airport

I just finished reading Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker, a wonderful book about air travel written by a 747 pilot. I came to this book via Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows, which I read back in February. Reading books like these often make me wish I’d stuck with flying. Twenty years and a month after getting my private pilot’s license, who knows what adventures might have been tucked into the lines of my logbook?

Approaching London over the Channel in 2007.

Skyfaring had me thinking of airports, desolate places in our current time, and not my favorite places in the world in general. When I was flying, I never minded airports, and indeed, enjoyed flying into smaller airports with pilot’s lounges and the satisfaction of knowing I could grab a burger while the plane was fueled and didn’t have to pass through security on my way back out to the plane (this was in the days before 9/11, of course).

It’s easy for me to list the airports I dislike the most, LAX being at the top of the list. I flew into LAX five or six times last year and always planned my arrivals and departures to be as early in the morning as possible in order to avoid the crowds and the rush of traffic into and out of the airport. On my last trip through LAX, they’d moved the Uber pickup to distant location and things seemed rather chaotic. I wasn’t looking forward to heading back there.

I don’t mind Washington-Dulles that much. It’s pretty easy to get into and get out of. I find it odd that the underground tram system that have takes you far past the D and C gates so that you spend more time walking back toward the gates than you do on the tram itself, but I like to pretend there is a good reason for this.

I’ve always had a fondness for Van Nuys airport, and for Camarillo airport. Van Nuys was my home base back when I flew, and I often flew out to Camaillo and its luxuriously long runway. (Van Nuys has and 8,000 foot runway and a 3,000 foot runway and I can count on two hands the number of times I was able to land on the long runway.)

Some airports seems too big–Atlanta and Denver come to mind. WhenI fly somewhere, I’ve been on a plane for a while, and want to be out and on my way to my destination. I the quicker I can get from the plane and off the airport property the better. Airports that make you take shuttles and trams from one part to another slow this down and annoy me, although I’m less annoyed if I can pick up train into town directly from the airport. (I know you can do this in Denver now, but the last time I flew in there, the train was closed for some reason.)

In all of the airports I’ve flown into, both as passenger and pilot, there is one that stands out in my mind as my absolute favorite: LIH, also known as Lihue Airport on the southeastern short of the island of Kaua’i in Hawai’i. I’ve flown in and out of this airport twice. My most recent trip to this airport was in 2005, right about the time this blog got its start. But my memory of that airport has stayed with me, and I judge all other airports by it to this day.

At the time Lihue was a fairly small airport. The long runway was 6,000 feet. Much of the airport was open or outdoors, which was new for me. The single best experience I’ve ever had in an airport took place in Lihue at the end of my last trip there. My friends who I’d vacationed with had left earlier in the day. I had a red-eye to LAX and then a connecting flight to Washington Dulles–a long flight. The day before, I’d picked up a couple books in a local bookstore. One of them was Alan Alda’s Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. I got to the airport fairly early for my 10 pm flight. The United counter hadn’t opened yet. Once it did, I checked in, and then headed to the gate to make sure I knew where it was. From there, I went to the bar for one final Mai Tai.

There was an area outside the bar and some other shops that was a kind of open air sitting area. Almost no one was around. The sky was the kind of blue I’ve only ever seen in Hawai’i, and the trade winds were blowing. The air smelled amazing, and the silence was interrupted only occasionally by the rumble of jet engines. It was still something like 2 hours before my flight. It was still sunny. I found a bench, sat down, and began reading Alan Alda’s book. I was lost in words and in the feeling of the trade winds. I think if my flight had been delayed or canceled, I wouldn’t have minded in the least. I could have sat in that spot all night and been happy. It was one of the more peaceful moments I can remember, and certainly the most peaceful, relaxing time I’ve ever had in an airport.

That’s why Lihue Airport remains my favorite airport. I haven’t been back there in 15 years and I imagine it has changed some. But I’ll always remember it as it was on that day.

What are you reading back there?

There was an amusing item in the New York Times on what famous people’s bookshelves reveal. Whenever I see someone with a book, I have to know what it is. I almost never ask, since I almost never know the person in question, but I usually try to get a view of what it is they are reading. Sometimes I just wonder if it is something I have read before, sometimes I wonder if it is something that will interest me down the road. This extends to movies and television. I sometimes pause a show to see if I can identify the books on the shelves (who would have thought Isaac Asimov would show up in The Wire?) The Times article refers to the bookshelves behind the famous people in their Zoom, FaceTime, and other video chats that they are doing in this time of physical distancing.

Above is the view people see of me and one corner of my office during Zoom and Team meetings. Like many of the famous people, I have bookshelves in the background. They aren’t designed to be for show, and indeed, the two that appear in the background are 2 of 10 that encircle 3 sides of my office. That said, people may wonder, as I do, what books are on these bookshelves. The two behind me are the first alphabetically in my collection. (I arrange my books alphabetically by author, and then chronologically within a given author.) 9 of the 12 shelves in these bookcases contain books by Isaac Asimov. But there are some other interesting books here as well:

  1. A first edition history of the Civil War published in 1865.
  2. The official 4-volume chronology of the Apollo spacecraft.
  3. Asimov’s Annotated Don Juan
  4. A signed copy of Asimov’s Murder at the ABA
  5. Several signed copies of Ray Bradbury books (The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Ahmed and the Oblivion Machine, which he signed for me in December 1998.

I’ve read many, but not all of the books on these shelves.

The remaining 8 bookcases cover the C’s through Z’s. The only book I have within reach while working are Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition), Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern Usage, The Concise Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (circa 1993), 2019 World Almanac (I’m due for a new one), and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

And what am I reading while stuck at home? Yesterday I finished Camino Island by John Grisham, and today I finished The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. It’s not all light reading though. I’m currently reading The Black Ice (also by Connelly), John Adams by Page Smith, and A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram.

My Bologna Has a First Name

Being a creature of habit in these times has its advantages. Daily routines, regardless of how tedious they are, provide a measure of comfort amidst all of the uncertainty. Take lunch, for instance. One of my all-time favorite lunches is peanut butter and jelly. But after a few weeks of that for lunch, I needed a change. Kelly was making a run to the store so I asked her to pick up some turkey, cheese, and bologna. She raised an eyebrow at the latter, but she brought it home. And for the last several weeks, I have been enjoying a turkey, bologna and cheese sandwich for lunch everyday.

I have the construction procedure down a few simple steps. While making the sandwiches (I often have two), I found myself singing the Oscar Mayer song that I remember from when I was a little kid. I remember the song perfectly, although I forgot what the commercial was like–with the little kid singing as he fishes and eats his lunch.

My kids found it amusing that I’d sing this strange song while making my lunch. The girls, in particular, were intrigued by the song, and each time I set about making my sandwich, they’d ask me to sing the bologna song. They would then try to reproduce it, with mixed results. Over the weekend, however, I had apparently passed some threshold, having made something on the order of 50 of these sandwiches over the last 3 weeks or so. (I will admit to occasionally crawling out of bed in the middle of the night, feeling hungry, and unable to resist making a sandwich.) I started to sing, “My bologna has a first name…” at which point the girls took over the singing, and completed the entire tune perfectly, including the spelling of b-o-l-o-g-n-a at the end.

A typical lunch

This impressed me, but something else occurred to me that impressed me even more. The commercial with “The Bologna Song” first appeared in the 1970s. The song was created by Jerry Ringlien, who died in 2007. It seemed remarkable to me that my kids would be singing a song from a commercial that aired more than 40 years ago. I wonder what Jerry Ringlien would think of that?

During an extended family video chat over the weekend, I mentioned by turkey and bologna sandwiches and was bologna-shamed. Apparently, bologna isn’t particularly good for you. It tastes like a hot dog to me. I imagine it is not the healthiest meat out there, but I also know that I’ll grow tired of it soon enough and switch back to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. For now, at time when the world is under quarantine, and we can’t visit family and friends in person, the smallest pleasures help to boost morale. And that small pleasure for me? It has a first name, and it’s O-S-C-A-R…

Bird Watching

Birds

I’m the world’s worst bird watcher. I like watching birds every now and then, but I can rarely identify them. It seems like everyone else is aware of the difference between an oriole and a cardinal at a glance, but not me. I like listening to birds, too. Many people can identify the bird by the sound it makes, but all I can do is tell that it’s morning and time to wake up.

My and the Littlest Miss name the birds we see around our backyard. There’s Woody, Mercedes, and Belvedere. We spot them now and then, but I doubt it is the same Woody we saw yesterday, or the day before. Birds are like a river in that way. I’ve learned to recognize a woodpecker through brute force. I followed the sound of one until I finally saw him (or her?) high up in a tree.

I’ve never been a particularly avid bird-watcher. There are people I see in parks and nearby wetlands that stakeout birds with binoculars and cameras with telephoto lenses. I don’t have the patience for that. E.B. White wrote an essay entitled, “Mr. Forbush’s Friends”. In it he reviewed The Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States. That essay made bird-watching sound like a fascinating sport. But I still think I’d be no good at it.

Bird-watchers “collect” birds, which I understand means they collect observations of birds in the wild. What does this look like, I wonder? I there journal with a checklist where you can mark off the bird and note the date, time, place, and conditions?

What I want to ask all of the bird-watchers out there is this: how do you get a bird to sit still for a photo? This morning, there was a bright red bird on the powerline outside my house when I went for a walk. It was twenty feet above me. I stood still and causally reached for my phone to take its picture. As soon as my hand moved toward my pocket, the bird took off. I’d call it a coincidence, except that this seems to happen every time I try to take a picture of a bird. Are they camera shy? Even perched twenty feet above me? Maybe this explains all those binoculars and telephoto lenses.

I’ve lost count of all of the amazing photos of birds I would have had were the birds not camera-shy. Now that I think of it, maybe it’s not the camera. Maybe it’s me.

I’m not cut out to be an ornithologist, even an amateur one. This was pointed out to me ten years ago by the (then) editor of Analog Science Fiction, Stanley Schmidt. Stan had just accepted my first story for that magazine, “Take One for the Road.” (It appeared in the June 2011 issue.) He asked for two small edits. One was so minor I’ve forgotten it. The other has stayed with me right down to the very moment. I had a sentence in the story which referred to “night owls.” Stan said, “Do you mind changing this to just ‘owls’? The ornithologists among Analog‘s readers will object to ‘night owls’ as redundant.”

I made the change, but I think it would strange to refer to someone who prefers working at night as just “an owl.”

Light Pollution

I prefer darkness when I sleep: the darker, the better. Rather than accommodate this, the rest of the world does what it can to fill my nights with light. Take my bedroom, for example. Just outside the front of the house where two of our bedroom windows face, is a streetlight, spilling a pool of bright light onto the street–and through my windows. We pull down blinds and slide curtains to banish the light.

But light still manages to encroach on my sleep. The darker it gets the brighter even the smallest light seems. And there are plenty of small, and completely unnecessary light that intrude upon my darkness. In the bedroom alone the cable box has a bright white light on the front of the box to indicate that the power is off. Why a device needs a light to indicate the power is off passes comprehension. If the makers of the box felt a power-off indicator was absolutely necessary, couldn’t they have made it a less harsh red light? I’ve taken to placing a ball of socks in front of the box to hide the light. This is what it has come to.

Why is it necessary for TV manufacturers to illuminate their brands when the power to the television is off? The TV mounted on the wall in our bedroom has a glowing yellow VIZIO on it when the power is off. At night, in the so-called darkness of our room, I sometimes awaken and see the letters hovering there. Do these manufacturers think I am going to wake up from a night of unsettled dreams with a desperate desire to recall the name of my television manufacturer. I assure you, if this ever happens, I will write a letter of thanks to the president of Vizio complimenting his foresight. For now, though, it’s just another useless light intruding into my darkness.

Above the door, just inside the bedroom, a small white light glows from the ceiling, blinking at me once per minute to remind me it–the smoke detector–is alive and well. Given that this same smoke detector will alert me when its battery is low (always, of course, in the middle of the night), I see no reason why it needs a light to remind me of the fact. Below it, low on the wall near the closet another light shines steadily throughout the night, assuring me the device to which it is connected is constantly sniffing for carbon monoxide.

They say that if you have trouble sleeping, try counting sheep. I say count the lights intruding upon your darkness. I could wander through the house in the middle of the night without a flashlight, given all the devices that feel the need to illuminate, counting them: televisions, microwaves, stoves, and refrigerators–the latter has a light on the dispenser to let me know whether ice, water, or crushed ice will come out of the dispenser. There are clocks, thermostats, power supplies, printers, cable boxes. Even the dishwasher has a green or amber light, there to answer the ancient question of all marriages, “Is this thing clean or dirty?”

I realize that I could eliminate a lot of these lights by removing them from the bedroom. But we find them useful, and I would argue that they would be just as useful without the superfluous light. I could wear one of those masks that they give you on airplanes to help shutout the light, but again, why should I have to? The lights in question are entirely pointless. Can’t there at least be an option to turn them off?

At times like this, I think about the summer nights we spent at a small seaside town in Maine. We sleep on the upper floor of a cottage, little more than an attic, really. There are skylights looking up into the sky, but there are no lights around anywhere. Not the glow of a clock, not a streetlight. Steps outside the cottage is a short cliff that drops off into the Bagaduce River. On a clear night, you can readily see the milky way, and walking the length of the dirt road that leds to the house can be dangerous without a light. That’s how dark it is. I treasure my nights there. It seems like one of the last truly dark places in the world.

I always get a good night’s sleep in Maine.

Vacation in Colonial America

The news lately is unsettling. On some days, I finish the paper hoping the coronavirus pandemic is just a dream that I will wake up from. I know it isn’t, but part of me looks for ways to escape. Thank goodness for books! Opening a book is like opening the lid to an escape hatch. The rest of the world falls away. I become fully immersed in a way that I never reach with movies or television. My current escape hatch has taken me back to colonial America.

I’ve resisted reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton since it first came out. After reading David McCullough’s masterful biography of John Adams in 2001, I became a great admirer of Adams. My opinion of Hamilton (and Jefferson, for that matter), distorted through Adams’s lens, was not very high. Because of that, I read other books by Chernow, but not the Hamilton biography.

A few weeks ago, however, I read a great book called The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians by David M. Rubenstein. This was an ideal audiobook because it was Rubenstein interviewing many modern historians, among them, Ron Chernow. That book and Chernow’s interview when he talked about Hamilton was the clincher.

And so, a week ago, I set my reservations about Hamilton aside and started to read Chernow’s biography. It came at a good time. News of the coronavirus was growing increasingly grim, and I needed a mental escape. I found it in America’s colonial past. Even though I didn’t always agree with Hamilton–especially his views of Adams–I looked forward to returning to the book whenever I could, often right after finishing the newspaper.

Hamilton has impressed me in several ways. I mentally divide impressive or outstanding people into two groups: their success is based on extremely hard work; or their success derives from some innate genius. While I admire genius, it is the hard worker that impresses me most–perhaps because that is something achievable without native genius. Rarely do I find people I’d put in both categories, but Hamilton is one. Even among the many hard workers I’ve read about, Hamilton stands out. HIs energy seemed boundless. His prolific output dwarfs Asimov. Then, too, his vision for America’s economic foundation shows genius. So do his ideas on the structure of government as he describes in The Federalist Papers.

Still, McCullough introduced me to Adams and in the two decades since, my admiration for the man, and his thinking has only grown. As I read of Adams and Hamilton’s disputes, this time through a Hamiltonian lens, I kept feeling the need to jump in and defend Adams. If only Hamilton knew… I’d say to myself.

Indeed, I began to wonder how Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson would react if they all had access to one another’s papers the way we do today. Would their opinions change? Would their feeling for one another differ?

I’m nearly finished with the book, and as I got closer to the end, I worried about my return to the real world. I’ve looked forward to my escapes to colonial America as an anodyne to the uncertainty in present-day America. After all, there is no COVID-19 in colonial America. Instead, they have yellow fever, and their idea of social distancing it to retreat from the cities. I’ve decided, therefore, to extend my vacation in colonial America for now. But I need to turn back to Adams to clear my palate of Hamilton. So I have settled on two books about Adams that I haven’t read before.

The first, just released, is called John Adams Under Fire by Dan Abrams and David Fisher. It is all about Adams’s defense of the British soldiers during the Boston Massacre. The second is Page Smith’s 2-volume biography of John Adams, written in the 1960s not long after access to Adams’s papers was made more widely available. I happened to come across a boxed edition last year at the kids’ school’s annual used book fair.

Our kids, incidentally, will be home from school for the next 5 weeks. All Virginia schools were closed for at least two weeks. Our city’s schools closed down through spring break. They will have virtual classes online. The social distancing can be a real challenge. Last night, I had a virtual happy hour with a bunch of my friends scattered across the country. But with recommendations to avoid large crowds, it makes many of the typical things we’d do out of reach. Fortunately, I am surrounded by books, each one of which is an escape hatch to some other place and time.