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Today is Great: A Daily Gratitude Journal for Kids

I’ve written quite a bit about diaries, journals, and notebooks over the years. I got a relatively late start with my own diary. I was already 24 and I wish I’d started sooner. A few years back, I tried to get the Little Miss to start a diary, but as with many diaries, it didn’t last very long.

So I was delighted to learn recently that my friend Vicky, who runs the popular Mess for Less blog, has a new book coming out called Today Is Great: A Daily Gratitude Journal for Kids.

Her book birthday is coming on October 1, so if you have kids interesting in diaries and journals, and who are looking for a fun way to ease into the process, be sure to check out the book!

Tube of Holding

Now it can be told! After decades of research, I have discovered the secret toothpaste manufacturers don’t want you to know about. But let me back up. First, my credentials:

I have been brushing my teeth roughly twice daily for nearly five decades. Call it about 33,000 observations. Each time, I am required to take hold of the tube of toothpaste and squeeze it onto the brush. I can’t properly guess how much toothpaste has been consumed in this activity over the decades. Call it a lot.

The reason I can’t properly estimate the amount of toothpaste is the crux of the issue. It is far easier to estimate the number of tubes of toothpaste I’ve run through over the years. Call it half a dozen tubes a year, giving a value of close to 300 tubes of toothpaste. Isn’t it simple multiplication to figure out how much toothpaste you’ve used? I hear you asking.

You would think. But you would be wrong.

After careful observation and analysis over the decades I have come to an inescapable conclusion, one that will shatter your perception of the toothpaste industry forever: The volume of toothpaste in a tube exceeds by a great deal the volume of the tube itself. Yes, there is more toothpaste in the tube than the tube can hold.

How can that be? I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but that doesn’t change the facts of the case. Take the current tube of toothpaste, for instance:

The current "empty" tube of toothpate
My current “empty” tube of toothpaste

The tube has been flat as a pancake for the last two weeks, and yet, twice a day, with a bit of effort, three of us are able to squeeze a blob of toothpaste onto our brushes. Empty though it seems, it keeps producing toothpaste. I suspect a wormhole, or tesseract, or perhaps a twist on the old D&D bag of holding: a tube of holding.

Why then, would the TIC (toothpaste industrial complex) not want you to know about this? Isn’t this a break-through discovery that could revolutionize all kinds of storage and delivery systems? Sure, but at what cost? If the world discovered an infinite supply of toothpaste in a single tube, no one would buy toothpaste anymore. What would four out of five dentists recommend the, eh?

I’m recording all of this in my lab notebook each night and will continue to see how long this empty tube of toothpaste continues to keep my teeth in tip-top shape. In the meantime, do me a favor, will you? Feel free to take full advantage of this incredibly discovery of mine but keep it under your hat for the time-being. The last thing I need right now is to be hunted down and lectured to by the TIC. I get enough of that from my dentist.

Editorial Changes

As my wife will attest, I am a creature of habit. There is nothing extraordinary about this to me, as it seems this is the way I have always been. It does mean that when things change, I can get a little uneasy. This change goes for many things, including the editors of the magazines I read. I remember, for instance, a decade ago when Mariette DiChristina took over the helm at Scientific American from John Rennie. What changes would that mean for the magazine I’d been reading for a long time?

Some months back, after Kathleen Fleury left her post as editor of Down East magazine and Brian Kevin took over, I began each new issue of a magazine by skimming the editorial that month to see, if perhaps, another change was coming. Each magazine gave me a few nervous moments, until I saw that things were continuing as normal. But a few days ago, as I turned to the editorial in the September 2019 issue of Scientific American, I quickly discovered that Mariette was leaving, and the September issue would be her last. She’d been the editor for a decade, and I liked the general direction of the magazine during that time. Indeed, if I am being completely honest here, I was just getting used to her as editor. As I said, I am a creature of habit.

Well, now a new editor will take over, and inevitably there will be changes, and I will wonder about those changes until they are a settled thing, and I have another decade to get used to them.

I suppose this isn’t much different from editorial changes from the writers’ perspective. I sold a story to Stan Schmidt at Analog just a few years before he retired as editor of the magazine after 33 years. When Trevor Quachri took over, I was nervous. But I ended up selling him another story, and two editorial so that worked out in the long run.

Then, too, I suppose the angst I feel at a new editor is similar to when I get a new boss. I’ve been with my company for 25 years as of next month, and I have probably had 10 or 12 bosses during that time. Each time, it is a little unsettling.

As it happens, I think the September 2019 issue of Scientific American looks particularly good (I’ve only had a chance to read one article so far). It certainly sets the bar high for whoever takes over. I think that is a good thing. As with most jobs, an editor should try to leave things better than she found them. I think Mariette DiChristina did just that.

I’ve Never Seen the Wrath of Kahn

Until last night, that is. Unable to sleep, I took a break from the late Tony Horwitz’s excellent (so far) Spying on the South, and decided to watch a movie. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn was one of the recommended movies. Now, I’d seen bits and pieces of it before, but never the whole thing. I knew parts of the story line, but had no continuity. So I decided to watch it, and see if it measured up to the hype.

It did.

The story was so good, in fact, that I hardly noticed how quaint and dated the special effects seemed. I’m glad that I took the time to see it, even though it didn’t help much with getting to sleep.

Enlightenment

In our new house I am discovering things that I love, and things that annoy me. The things I love are big things, and fortunately, the things that annoy me are little things. But they still annoy me. Take the bathroom on the main floor.

Stand in this bathroom, if you will, and face the window above the toilet. The window looks out into the deck, which in turn looks out down the slope of our yard toward the bike path that dives down into the local park.

Right above you, smack in the center of the room, is a typical bathroom fan. To your right, above the sink is a pair of lights. To your left, above the shower/tub is another light. Okay, now, turnaround. Just above the towel rack, you’ll find a light switch panel with three switches. Turn on the switch to your left. Remember, you are facing opposite to how you started. The left switch is the one closest to the sink. Flip it on. On goes the light above the sink. So far so good.

Next there is the center switch. Of course, the fan is right above your head in the center of the room. Flip that switch on, go ahead… and now the light above the shower is on.

Maybe it is just me, but it seems that if you have a light switch arrangement where the switches are left, center, right, and the left switch controls the light on the left side of the room, wouldn’t it make sense that the right switch controls the light on the right side? And the center switch, with nothing else to do, would control the fan in the center of the room.

When I go to turn on the light above the shower, I inevitably reach for the switch closest to the shower, but on goes the fan. And vice versa. To me this is just bad user interface design. Why would someone do this?

And in case my description hasn’t been clear, I sketched a diagram for you. A represents the light above the sink. B is the fan, and C is the light above the shower/tub. The smaller letters represent the switch positions.

It’s a small thing, I grant you, but it’s one of those things that has continued to annoy me since moving into the house.

New Office, All Done!

Two and a half months after moving into the new house, my new office is now completely setup the way I want it. Yesterday I completed the task of organizing the books on the shelves, as I mentioned. I opted to keep the same sort order I originally used, alphabetical by author and then chronological within an author. It was just easier that way. There are a couple of sorting exceptions where a large book is involved, but otherwise, they are back in order after more than 10 years of disarray.

It took a long time, and I was up late working on this. I didn’t want to quit until I had it done. The sorting was complicated by the fact that the books had been arranged in no real order, beyond how they came out of the boxes. That meant a lot of hunting down a book in order to put it in its proper place. What I did was sort the books in LibraryThing based on their entry date. That way, I had a rough idea of what shelf they were on by where they showed up in the list. I worked one shelf at a time, removing all of the books on the shelf, and then refilling it with properly sorted books. At the peak of the process, this meant I had books scattered everywhere.

Once I was finished, I straightened up the rest of the office, got rid of a bunch of junk I’d been collecting, and after lunch, here is how my mostly-complete office looked:

My office, looking east
Looking east, from a slightly different angle
My office, looking south (and into the living room)
My office, looking northwest

I say “mostly” complete because we still have to have French doors installed between my office and the living room. Everyone will be happier when this is done, given my volume of work-related called and video chat.

While putting the books in order last night, I took note of how many of them were signed. The result: 52 of them: a full deck.

R.I.P. Jim Bouton

I read in the Washington Post this morning that Jim Bouton had died at age 80. He pitched for the Yankees in the 1960s, but was perhaps most famous for his groundbreaking book, Ball Four. It is a fantastic look inside baseball in the late 1960s. If you are a fan of the game and haven’t read the book, you should. I think it is #3 on Sport Illustrated list of best sports books of all time.

My kids knew of Jim Bouton as well. As I took them to camp this morning, I mentioned that he had died. The Little Miss said, “Who is Jim Bouton?” and the Little Man replied almost at once. “He’s the inventor of Big League Chew.”

In an eerie coincidence, last night, I was reading For the Love of the Game, Bud Selig’s new memoir about his life in baseball, and there was some mention of Bouton and his book. Then I saw his name and face in the paper this morning.

Some Summer Reading

As one who likes to tempt fate, here is a list of some of my upcoming reading for the rest of June and early July. I say “tempt fate” because as I have said before, my reading is guided almost entirely by the butterfly-effect of reading. In other words, I make plans, and the butterflies laugh. That said, here’s what I am looking at:

  • Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (currently reading)
  • No Cheering in the Press Box by Jerome Holtzman (currently reading)
  • All Those Mornings…At the Post by Shirley Povich
  • The Great American Sports Page edited by John Schulian
  • The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found by Voilel Moller
  • One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon by Charles Fishman
  • Range: When Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
  • Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir by Linnie Marsh Wolfe
  • On Democracy by E. B. White
  • Ten Innings at Wrigley by Barry Abrams
  • Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide
  • The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam
  • An Army At Dawn: The War in North Africa (1942-1943) by Rick Atkinson
  • The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

What are you looking forward to reading this summer?

Heading Home

I’d intended to have a full post today, but I find I am exhausted from my trip to L.A. and the post will have to wait. I’m presently at L.A.X. waiting to board my flight home and hoping it gets in before the snow starts falling.

I’ll have a new post up as soon as I’ve had a chance to rest and settle in back at home. In the meantime, have a great weekend.

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.

Typewriter

Experimenting with a new look

Do not adjust your screen. I am experimenting with a new look for the blog. With the release of the Gutenberg editor (which I love so far, and about which I will have more to say in a future post), I am giving the Twenty Nineteen theme a try–a theme designed specifically for Gutenberg.

What I like about this theme:

  • The large, clear font for the main paragraph text–the text you are reading right now.
  • The clean, minimalist look of the page. It seems ideal for posts that contain a lot of text, rather than a lot of media. As my posts are mostly text, it seems ideal.
  • The seamless way the theme integrates with some of the new editor capabilities.
  • The way the Featured Image is displayed when looking at the individual post.

What I don’t like about this theme:

  • The lack of a header image when looking at the archive pages. It seems to minimize page identification.
  • The way the widgets are only accessible in the footer instead of the sidebar–although I am more than willing to make that tradeoff for a clearer, easier to read screen.

In any case, I figure I’ll try this theme on for size for a little while, making an adjustment here or there. If you’d got any thoughts on the look of the new theme, let me know in the comments.

An Evolution of First Lines

Recently, I’ve been struggling with fiction writing. While the desire to tell stories has returned, I’ve felt as if the ability to do so has fled. I know that this isn’t necessarily the case, but if there is one thing I have learned with this recent bout of–let’s call it what it is–writer’s block, it’s that writing fiction, for me at least, is not like riding a bike. I can’t just get back on the bike and with the same level of skill that I had when I stopped writing.

Writer’s block affects writers differently. None of my struggles have to do with a lack of ideas. I’ve got plenty of those. I know the stories I want to tell. As with most stories, I have an idea of how to start them and roughly how they will end. The rest I make up along the way, often discovering that my original ending is not how the stories wants to be resolved. My problem is with tone and voice. I often have an idea of the voice for story, but just lately, I haven’t been able to find the voices I’m looking for. If I don’t have the right voice at the start of a story, I struggle out the gate.

A measure of progress often helps me, if for no other reason, it shows me how far I’ve come. But writing is a finicky thing, and it is hard to measure progress. That said, I think I may have found just the trick for me. I recently began to archive all of the stories I’ve ever written or tried to write in a single place. I had a few simple goals in mind:

  • Archive every story I could find, no matter how far back it goes.
  • Keep the archive in chronological order.
  • If at all possible, keep all versions, and drafts of a story together.

I decided that for my purposes, Google Docs was a good place to maintain this archive. I started with a repository of stories I wrote beginning in my junior year in college. That’s when I first began writing stories with a vision toward submitting them for publication. Converting those stories was not easy. Current version of Microsoft Word do not recognize the Word for DOS 5.5 file format (a good reason for plain text files). So I used a text editor to pull the text out of those documents and put them in Google Docs using a standard manuscript template I created for the purpose.

So far, I’ve archived 27 stories from 1992-1994. The conversion process forced me to look at these stories for the first time in several decades. And that had the interesting side-effect of allowing me to measure my progress in terms of all sorts of aspects of my writing–from the quality of the stories (which is fairly subjective) to the effectiveness of my opening lines. This latter often sets the tone and voice of the story. It was painful to read through some of these old opening lines, but it made me feel good. If nothing else, I can write a pretty good opening line these days.

I thought it might be interesting to publish a kind of evolution of my opening lines. Below are 10 opening lines from some of these stories, along with some comments. Enjoy how awful they are. Though I cringed when I read them, I felt pretty good, too. I’ve come a long way since then.


1. “The Stone” (1992)

Flint made his way across the freshly settled snow, his feet covered in the skin of a black bear.

I believe this was the first story I wrote after I decided to begin submitting stories, sometime in December 1992. It featured a caveman named Flint. How original!

2. “Plans for Christmas” (1992)

Mia climbed into her Jeep four-by-four and tossed the two long black tubes into the back.

For some reason, when I started out, I avoided common names. It looks silly to me now. Once again, nothing of interest happens in the first line.

3. “The Missing Mile” (1992)

The road opened up endlessly before him as Kyle merged his car onto the empty stretch of the countryside highway.

I think my creative writing professor commented for this particular story, “Not only does the road open endlessly, but the story goes on endlessly.” This is what happens to my stories when they start poorly and have no direction whatsoever.

4. “A Byte of Heaven” (1993)

Malcolm stared blankly at the cold white walls of his bedroom, trying hard to ignore the pleas of his son.

I’m almost certain that when I wrote this opening line, I was staring blankly at the cold white walls of my bedroom, trying hard to ignore the pleas of a roommate.

5. “Amphisbaenid” (1993)

Doctor Egerton stood anxiously on the dusty wooden balcony atop a flight of dull gray stairs.

You know that old saw, show, don’t tell? Well, this is pretty much the opposite. How does one stand anxiously? And why did I need to mention that the dusty wooden balcony was at the top of a flight of dull gray stairs. And why does everything in my stories seem to lack color.

6. “Carmel” (1993)

The room was dim, its dull white walls gently illuminated by a small window on the far side.

I’m beginning to see a pattern. I am trying to set the physical scene in these stories at the outset. No action, just telling the stagehands how the set should look when the curtain opens.

7. “Concatenate” (1993)

The Human Ex-Why walked across the carpeted floor, in its unique bi-ped fashion, one paw lifting off the ground and striding forward, while the other paw held back, waiting its turn to go.

Funny thing about this story, aside from its atrocious opening: It’s a story about a cat. I submitted it to Cat Fancy magazine, and several weeks later, received a rejection slip explaining that Cat Fancy does not publish fiction about cats. (Although they did, at the time, publish fiction.)

8. “Conscience Stream” (1993)

His head felt swollen as he stared out the window.

I’m fairly certain I wrote this opening line just after taking a final exam.

9. “Incident Eight” (1993)

It was the deafening sound of silence that started him from his sleep.

This may be the worst of the lot. The story was pretty bad, too, despite its nearly 17,000 words. Stories that start with a character waking up (or a character dreaming) are generally considered to be no-nos. There are always exceptions. This is not one of them.

10. “No Small Discovery” (1993)

William sat in front of his baby.

At least I used a fairly common name this time.


Eventually, I learned, and improved. By 1996 I was writing openings that were pretty good. After about 100 stories or thereabout, I hit upon an opening line that sold for the first time:

From “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” (IGMS, July 2007)

When I kissed the learned astronomer, I never expected to fall in love, discover intelligent alien life in the universe, and end up in jail. 

I always liked that opening line because it hits on all of the things I need for a story to work for me.  It sets the tone (a little light) and it introduces the voice of the narrator, a voice which works well for the story. Incidentally, when I started writing this story, I had no idea what would happen. I wrote this opening line, which more or less says what will happen in the story. I then went to see where it would lead.

From “Take One for the Road” (Analog, June 2011)

There was only one person on Earth who knew what really happened on that mission to Mercury

I think I was getting better. I like this opening because it gets right to the point and establishes that something unusual happened on a mission to Mercury, and there was only one person who knew what it was.

From “Lost and Found” (Daily Science Fiction, October 2012)

The mailman delivered the unusual package as the young man who visited me on occasion was leaving.

Here I am getting a little more nuanced. It wasn’t just a package that was delivered. That wouldn’t be all that interesting. It was an unusual package.

From “Meat and Greet” (IGSM, January 2015)

So there he is, Borges, returned from the dead and sitting across the table from me smelling of dust and moldy books as if he’d spent the last quarter-century scrambling through the stacks of an old and cavernous library. 

I think this is my longest opening line. And it helps prove my point (at least to me) that I need to find the right tone and voice for a story. I tried writing a version of this story in 1994. It took 21 years for me to find just the right tone and voice.

I often think that when a writer (especially this writer) begins to take themselves too seriously, problems arise in the writing. Perhaps that is what I have been doing lately. In any case, I think it helps to look back at how awful I used to be in order to see how far I’ve come.

And if you think you have opening lines worse than those above (something which I think is virtually impossible), feel free to share them in the comments.