Category Archives: Grab Bag Posts

Weekly Saturday posts an a variety of miscellaneous topics.

Cleaning House

I just realized that I forgot to post today. Normally I’d have something writing-related posted, but I’ve been busy with work and with cleaning up stuff around the house, particularly my office, which just went through its biggest purge in a few years. I’ll try to make up for this with a post tomorrow.

Currently reading Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls, and this is also my 4th day of trying to read one magazine piece each day. So far, so good.

Things I Want

We are, on occasion, inundated with catalogs: American Girl, Lego, Disney. The kids flip through these with lusty eyes, each repeatedly calling out the things they want. “I want this? Can we get it?” Over and over. When I was a kid, Saturday morning cartoons provided a visual catalog of goodies and I can remember doing much of the same, begging, pleading, and negotiated for an Incredible Hulk action figure or a Batman Utility Belt.

It’s funny how the things I want have changed over time. I was thinking about this and attempted to make a list of things that I want today to see how my desires have changed over the last four decades. Here are six of them.

I want a classic barometer that I can refer to for changes in the weather. I have three different weather apps on my phone, none of which agree with one another, nor with what I can see outside my window on a typical day.

I want a small nearby restaurant that sells nothing but homemade pie and coffee. I don’t drink coffee but I eat pie, or would if there was a small restaurant nearby serving the homemade variety. Apple would be fine. Pecan would be particularly nice.

I was going to say that I want a good pair of binoculars but I realized I already had one. What I want is something natural to observe using those binoculars. The stars are out since I live in a area where light pollution outdoes all other forms of pollution combined. Birds might work, but we live in such a dense area that any attempt at poking around with binoculars might raise suspicions in the neighbors.

I want to visit E. B. White’s grave in Brooklin, Maine. This summer we plan on resuming our annual summer trip to Maine (postponed these past two years for other activities). We usually stay in Castine which is less than an hour’s drive from Brooklin, making such a visit a real possibility.

I want some wood to split. These days I hate the idea of going to a gym to get into (and stay in) shape. I want a practical purpose for exercise. Splitting wood seems just the ticket for this. It has the added bonus of allowing me something to clear my head, to say nothing of providing fuel for the fireplace to keep the house warm in winter.

I want an old-fashioned address book. Each year, come the holiday season, it seems that my Contacts are always missing information. I diligently update them each season, and yet, information still goes missing. Perhaps there is a leak somewhere and the information seeps through a crack in the foundation. Good old fashioned address books don’t have this problem.

R.I.P. Uncle Murray

While in L.A. I learned of the passing of my Uncle Murray. He was the youngest of my grandfather’s five brothers. At 93, he outlived them all, and by more than a decade.

Me and Uncle Murray in 2013

He was the last of that particular generation. All of the brothers are gone now, as are their spouses. It was that thought, last Tuesday night, that made me particularly sad. I thought back to a photo I’d seen once, all of them together at some celebration, dressed up, seated around a large table, laughing. In that photo it seemed impossible there would ever be a day when all the people in the photo were gone.

My grandfather and three of his brothers, Max (who they called “Pat”), Willie (who they called “Bill”), and Murray, owned and ran a service station on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx for more than 30 years. Murray was the baby of the bunch. He was also the jokester and prankster, well known for his, let’s say, biting sense of humor. When I was a kid and would visit the gas station, it was Uncle Murray who would always put us on the car lift and engage the hydraulics, lifting us up to what seemed to be head-dizzying heights.

Four of the brothers served in the military (the all referred to it as “the Service”) during the Second World War. Uncle Max served in the Navy in the Pacific. The others were in the Army. My grandfather told me a “small world” story about how, through the magic of military bureaucratic coincidence, he and my Uncle Murray ended up at the same place at the same time somewhere on the west coast (I think it was an airport). It was an unexpected, and welcome reunion. There’s a picture of it somewhere, a sepia thing, both men in uniform looking impossibly young.

Uncle Murray retired to Florida where he kept all kinds of fish, and became a horologist. He had a small shop filled to the brim with clocks of all kinds. One of those clocks hung on the wall of my grandparents house, and to this day, I don’t understand how the hourly chirping of the cuckoo didn’t drive everyone insane. Another hangs in my parent’s house, a gift for their 25th anniversary.

Uncle Murray was, in my memory, always cheerful, always ready with a joke. The last time I saw him was just over a year ago, at a big gathering down in Florida. He was cheerful and smiling, then, too. His passing represents the end of an era in the family. The living history of that generation is gone now, and all that’s left are the memories, which evolve and alter with time.

Ghosts of Santa Monica Past

I’m in Santa Monica, California for work this week. This is the town where, twenty-five years ago this October, I started my first day at the company that I am still with today. Back then, I lived in Studio City and commuted into the office, leaving my house at 5:10 am and arriving in Santa Monica 25 minutes later. Traffic was light before 5:30. Now I come out maybe once a year. This time it’s a somber, eerie reunion.

My old office building no longer exists. What I think of as the “new” building (now probably close to 15 years old) is a little southeast of where the old building used to be. All week I’ve been seeing ghosts of that old building. I can see if from my hotel window. It appears almost like a mirage, overlaying the park and palm trees.

A view from my hotel window
A view from my hotel window.

Santa Monica has changed so much that it seems like a completely different city, save perhaps the famous sign at the entrance to the pier. A metro train stops nearby. Colorado between Fourth and Ocean looks like something out of a science fiction movie. Scooters are everywhere. They are like great metallic grasshoppers, some sitting idle, others flitting suddenly this way or that.

If I look hard, though, I see the ghosts of Santa Monica past. Looking out my window through the trees, I see the windows of my old office on the fourth floor, and facing north. The window is open slightly, and I can just barely make out the silhouette of a younger version of me looking back. The new Santa Monica Place fades into the more dilapidated structure that it once was. I can see a group of young people passing through the food court of that old mall, and emerging into sunlight on the other side. They walk down Third Street to the international food court seeking lunch in the distant past.

On the other side of the hotel, just across Colorado, the McDonald’s on the ground floor of what looks like an ornate and expensive apartment building fades into the old McDonalds that it used to be, complete with parking lot and drive-thru. I used to walk from my office down Ocean to Colorado early in the morning just as the sky was growing light, and seek out that McDonald’s. I’d stroll pass Il Fornio, whose ghostly visage I can still make out in the windows of Del Frisco’s Grill, which now occupies its space. Next the Philly cheesesteak place, now a Subway sandwich shop.

The Sears building is still there, although for how long is anyone’s guess. Chez Jay has survived, thank goodness, peanut shells and all. I had dinner there last night, and sitting at the back table, watched as a man at the bar proposed. She said yes, and everyone cheered. Pico between Main Street and Fourth hasn’t changed too much. The bowling alley is still there. So is the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. These are the survivors, but they are few, and the ghosts close in on them.

Change is good, but I can’t help seeing the ghosts, they’ve been out in force this week, and as different as things look, as I retrace my steps across an old route, the familiar begins to emerge, fuzzy at first, then clear, like a stereogram whose image suddenly jumps out from what seems a bunch of random dots, the past overlapping the present.

And for some reason that I can’t quite articulate, perhaps age, nostalgia, or distance, I prefer the ghosts of Santa Monica past.

My Favorite Vacation Photo

I didn’t take as many photos as I have done on past vacations. I find that when I take a lot of pictures, I am less focused on what I am doing. We were on vacation a total of 19 days and having looked through the photos I did take over that period, this one stands out as my favorite.

My youngest daughter, attempting to land the shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center.

On our drive home from Florida, we stopped at the Kennedy Space Center, spending a full day at the visitor complex. I snapped this photo of my youngest daughter, as she sat in the pilot’s seat of the space shuttle Atlantis. She seemed to know exactly what she was doing, a natural-born stick-and-rudder girl, although she was a little too short for her feet to reach the rudder pedals. She glided the shuttle home for a safe landing at the Cape, and if that isn’t a good metaphor for coming home from our vacation, I don’t know what is.

Requirements for a Home Office

As I work from home more and more, I’ve given a lot of thought to the requirements for my idea home office. To get a sense of what I want in a home office, it probably helps to know what my current home office is like.

My present home office resides on the top floor in a spare bedroom painted a light pink because we were too lazy to repaint it when we first moved in. My glass-topped, L-shaped desk sits in a corner. My personal laptop faces the window in the room, looking eastward. My work laptop faces a wall, facing southward. On the corner between the two computers is a scanner. To the right the desk is a small table with a printer. Under the table is a table of roughly 100,000 cables of various types. Above my desk on the south wall are two shelves that contain frequently used books: my journals/commonplace books, Field Notes notebooks, Fowlers and Mirriam-Websters, a World Almanac, and The Elements of Style.

I can work pretty well in this environment, but I often daydream about what my ideal home office would be like. Considering my experience so far, here are my requirements for an ideal home office:

  • Separate desks for computer work, and non-computer work. While I spend a lot of time working on a computer, I also spent a good deal of time doing work off the computer. If I am on a call, for instance, I might have a web meeting open on my computer, and my work notebook (paper) open in front of my to take notes, or to review items that I want to discuss in the meeting. There’s no good place to set the notebook. The desk isn’t big enough. Ideally, I’d have a separate desk with a large flat surface for non-computer work.
  • More bookshelves. Most of my books are on shelves in our living room. Ideally, these books would be on shelves in my home office, surrounding me as I work.
  • Ideally, my home office would be isolated from the rest of the house, perhaps in a barn converted into an office. E. B. White did a lot of his writing in a barn; I don’t see why I couldn’t work in one as well.
  • A place away from my desk where I can sit and read. If this was in my imagined barn, it would be nice of this place were near a fireplace or stove for keeping warm during the winter.

One thing I do not need in my home office is a sit/stand desk. We have these desks in the “hoteling” spaces in my work office. When I go into the office I can check out one of these offices, and I’ve used the sit/stand desk. Though I have tried to stand while working, I am more comfortable when sitting, and I think comfort is a big part of productivity.

My home office suits me pretty well as it stands, but every now and then, I like to daydream.

Road

Driving Interstate 95

We recently made our semi-annual trek from Virginia to Florida. The drive, which we spread over two days, gives me plenty of time to think. This time, I was thinking about the many faces of Interstate 95 as you pass from one state to the next.

We’ve driven I-95 from as far north as Bangor, Maine, to as far south as Fort Lauderdale. Nothing illustrates the unique character of the road better than the 1,000-mile stretch from northern Virginia down to southern Florida. Part of it has to do with the seasons. We left Virginia in a cold rain this year, as opposed to the light snow that we left in last year. We arrived in Florida in warm, breezy sunshine. That itself makes for a dramatic change. But it is the smaller, state-by-state changes that captured my attention this time around.

We live a just outside Washington, D. C., the seat of federal government, and home base for many government-related contractors. Northern Virginia has some terrible traffic, so much so that they have implemented premium traffic lanes in several places, including on I-95. These EZ-Pass express lanes run between the north and south lanes. Traveling on them can cost anywhere from a buck to $20 or more, depending on traffic conditions and time of day. Since I hate to start a road trip in traffic, I immediately entered these express lanes, coughing up the four bucks, despite no obvious traffic. The five main lanes of the southbound I-95 had only light traffic. The express lanes were empty and for a long stretch we were the only car there, making me a little uncomfortable. There was something eerily familiar about it, and I was reminded of a movie I’d seen in which there were special lanes on the highways in and around Moscow, lanes which carried only VIP traffic.

If you’ve ever wanted to visualize what happens within an artery when it becomes clogged with cholesterol, all you need to do is drive down I-95 south to Woodbridge, Virginia. The five lanes of I-95 calcify down to three lanes, and even light traffic slows and becomes heavy for a few moments as it pushes through this narrow passage. The red glow of brake lights give the impression of blood flow. Here, the express lanes act like a bypass, and we zipped along at 70 MPH.

South of Stafford is when I generally relax. I put on the progressive cruise control and generally don’t have to touch the gas or brakes for another 200 miles. The only question is which path will be faster, the I-295 bypass around Richmond, or continuing on I-95 through the city. On this latest journey, Apple Maps told me to stay on I-95 and that is what I did.

Incidentally, while the car has its own built-in GPS system, I’ve grown to prefer Apple Maps. It’s got more accurate traffic information, a cleaner interface, and best of all, it automatically pauses Audible when it has something to say so that I don’t miss any of the book I happen to be listening to on the drive.

The transition from Virginia to North Carolina is the most subtle of the four state boundaries we cross on our way down south. Sometimes I miss it, and realize I am in North Carolina only because of the sudden proliferation of adult store billboard signs that appear at the side of the road. If there is anything that distinguishes I-95 in North Carolina, it is those billboard signs.

We usually stop for a bite to eat around Roanoke Rapids. The kids can stretch their legs, and I can top off the car so that we have enough gas to make it to our stop for the night. Then it’s back onto I-95, as we pass alternating billboards, one reading “Adult Den next exit”, the next reading “You will meet God” as if some vast philosophical debate were taking place right there on the roadside.

You can’t miss the transition from North Carolina to South Carolina, since you are warned about it in Berma Shave fashion more than a hundred miles in advance. I tried counting how many “South of the Border” signs I saw before actually passing by South of the Border, just over the border into South Carolina. I lost count and gave up.

Interstate 95 in South Carolina is a quite, 2-lane affair with generally light traffic. Eighteen wheelers play leap frog with one another–a moving van passes a tanker and ten miles later that tanker passes the moving van. But the road is merely a cut between trees. Stare at that cut long enough, and it begins to look as if someone has taken a giant set of hair clippers and run them down the head of the earth, clipping away the trees to make two neat rows for pavement.

Walterboro, South Carolina is about the halfway mark for us, or close enough to it. We exit I-95 for the night, fill up the car the next morning, and we’re right back where we left off, as if someone simply paused the video that appears in the car windshield. I’ve learned that there are certain times when I-95’s trees cause problems. One of those times is just after sunrise if you happen to be driving south. The flickering sun to my left reminds me of the way the sun looked through the idling propeller of a Cessna as I headed west on a base leg at sunset. It was back then that I learned about something called flicker vertigo, and it seems that sunrise on I-95 in South Carolina is a perfect breeding ground for that rare, but dangerous condition.

There are two ways to know you’ve crossed the border into Georgia. First, the two-lane road grows a third lane almost at once. Second, Georgia wants you to give truckers plenty of space. There are signs all around informing drivers to give plenty of space to trucks when passing. It’s the only state on I-95 in which I have seen these signs.

I-95 slices through Georgia, catching a sliver of the state and to me, it always seems like we pass through Georgia faster than any other state on the trip. I-95 also seems to have more significant water crossings than Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. And the median between the northbound and southbound lanes always seems to be in some state of repair. This time, it looked recently denuded of trees and what remained was a swampy mess. Gas prices reach their lowest point in Georgia. I saw several signs advertising gas for $1.999

The border from Georgia into Florida is marked by the St. Mary’s river, but you know when you are getting close because the land begins to flatten out well before you reach the river. I always get a little thrill crossing the river into Florida. A day earlier, when we piled into the car, it was rainy and 38 F. Now it’s sunny at 72 F. I roll down the window for a moment just to feel that warm Florida air.

We take I-95 as far south at I-4, which we then take west toward Orlando. We usually spend a few days in Orlando before heading down the Gulf coast to our final destination. Interstate 4 is about the worst interstate I’ve ever driven on. It is always under construction, so the road zigs and zags for miles at a time. We’ve been driving this route since 2012 and it seems to me that I-4 has been under construction that entire time. What’s more, it seems to me that the construction is not improving things. It is, in fact, making them worse. I imagine this is one of those times when local politicians tell their constituents that things will get worse before they get better–and for wonder, they are right!

The benefit of this little side-trip on I-4 is that it makes me appreciate the uninterrupted fluidity and smoothness of Interstate 95. The abandoned construction vehicles, and STAY IN LANE signs everywhere help me to appreciate the “Adult Den this exit!” and “Flying J – $1.999/gal” signs. I-95 has roadside farms to look at, and entire log cabins built at the side of the road just for advertising purposes. I-4 has nothing but orange cones, construction warning signs, and traffic.

Clearing My Head

We spent the last 4 days at Walt Disney World. We drove to our final destination late yesterday afternoon. Today was for relaxing and recuperating. It has been what in Maine they call a “rough day,” with high winds and occasional downpours. But around 4pm the wind died down a bit and the skies clear and I decided to head out for my traditional walk around the complex here.

I went with the idea of clearing my head. I made it about a quarter of the way around the loop and encountered this sign, which is new since our visit this summer.

I spent the remainder of my walk puzzling over who would win this particular battle. To me, the alligator looks like it’s laughing at the snake. The snake is the one that looks dangerous, although it appears to have looped its body over its neck, making it difficult to attack. I decided that was why the alligator was laughing. Then I realized that perhaps the snake was angry because the alligator was laughing at it, and that prior to tying itself in knots, the alligator and snake were perfectly content.

I continued my walk, attempting once again to clear my head, but I decided that perhaps there was some kind of analogy in this sign, the battle of the alligator and snake. I spent the rest of the walk trying to puzzle out what that analogy might be, and when I finally determined that no such analogy existed, and I could finally clear my head, I had completed the circle, and arrived back at our temporary home.

I’m not sure there is a moral here, but I’d certainly advise against reading signs while out on a walk to clear your head.

A Vision for Blogging in 2019

I’m climbing back into the blogging saddle. It’s a slow climb. At my peak I was writing multiple posts per day, and at times went years without missing a day. Those days are in the past, but I’ve been working up to posting 3 days a week.

The slow climb began in September with a weekly Tuesday post related to my reading. This week I added a Thursday post on some aspect of my writing. And going forward, I plan on a Saturday post on some miscellaneous subject that catches my interest. I suppose you can consider this the inaugural Saturday post.

I stopped writing for a while, but the desire to write never went away. Fiction has been more problematic. When I stopped writing, it was in part because I had started to write stories that no longer seemed to fit the markets to which I used to sell. Starting up on fiction has been more of a challenge. I feel like I am starting from scratch, and at times, I’ve felt almost as if I’ve forgotten how to write. I’m trying to overcome that. One way is by writing here, even if what I write is mostly nonfiction. In January, I’ll be returning to my writing group after an extended absence, and I’m hoping that will help.

Writing for this blog had always been fun. At times, it has been stressful. At its peak (2013-2014) I was getting more than 100,000 visitor a month, which for me was a big deal–that’s a huge audience. It also made things a bit daunting. I was writing about things that were hot topics at the time–my Going Paperless series was surprisingly popular–and I suspect many people came for that. Now, I’m writing about things that may not be hot topics to the rest of the world, but they matter to me. 

I’ve given a lot of thought to what I want this blog to be, and I finally have something of a vision for it.  I want this space to the be a kind of One Man’s Meat for the blogging age. In the late 1930s, E. B. White wanted to escape Manhattan. He and his wife fled New York for a farm in Maine. There, over a period of several years, White worked his farm, and wrote a column called “One Man’s Meat” about his life there for Harper’s magazine.

I’m not farming, but reading and writing are my analogs. I like the tone White captured in his essays, and while I am no E. B. White, it is that sense of making the mundane interesting–in reading, in writing, and anything else that comes to mind–that I am aiming for. That’s my vision for this blog in 2019. I hope you’ll stick around for it.

And if you like it, tell your friends.