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A Quiet Memorial Day Weekend

We are having a quiet Memorial Day weekend this year. The weather turned sour Friday. after having temperatures in the upper 80s and low 90s, they plummeted into the upper 40s and low 50s. Rain followed, and made for a damp and dreary Saturday. The rain has stayed away for much of today, but the overcast and unusually cold weather remain. Many people we know headed out of town for the weekend, with vaccinations finally allowing travel to be safer than it had been. But we stuck around. So it has been a quiet Memorial Day weekend for us.

So quiet, in fact, that I’ve managed to read 2-1/2 books so far (about halfway through the long weekend) which is rare, even for me. I’ve also been jotting down notes for what I plan to write next. I was going to hold off writing until later this summer, but the desire to write has been building in my day after day and I’m beginning to feel like I might burst if I don’t get started soon.

We did watch the Friends reunion, which I thought was a lot of fun. Friend first aired just about the same time I started with the company I’ve been working for every since graduating from college. I hadn’t actually watched the show in years and the reunion show brought back a flood of memories from those first months after graduating from college.

If things have been a little quiet here on the blog today, now you know why. I pulled myself away from the current book long enough to get this written, but now I feel the book pulling me back, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll see you all again here tomorrow.

The Immersive Feel of a Well-Crafted Book

There are many pleasures to reading that go beyond the words on the page. For me, the words tend to fade away, replaced by the story being told, whether fiction or nonfiction. Audio books add another dimension. A good voice actor can add a dimension to even the best books that doesn’t exist in the book alone.

Bibliophiles know the smells of books. Libraries have wonderful smells, when the air conditioning isn’t working overtime. It is a joy to wander around the stacks of used bookstores. I especially enjoy those stores that are put together haphazardly, with additions being clapped on here and there like a child’s Lego assembly. Narrow aisles and tall shelves with an occasional grotto containing an old sofa and older cat are the hallmarks of my favorite used book stores.

But there is a also a great pleasure in feel of a well-crafted book. Over the weekend, I have been re-reading Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. I’m listening to the audio book, perfectly narrated by Ron McLarty. But I am also following along in my limited edition Cemetery Dance copy of the book, the second volume in the Stephen King Doubleday Years collection. The book itself is a work of art. The pages are thick and textured. The book is large and easy to read, but the texture of the pages, and the artwork within makes it something special.

My copy of the Cemetery Dance special edition of Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot

I’ve been ordering copies of Cemetery Dance books for years, and have every one of the Doubleday Years collection produced thus far. (And I’ve already pre-ordered the remaining two volumes in the collection that have not been produced: The Stand and Pet Sematary). There are other special edition Cemetery Dance books I’ve collected over the years, including an amazing version of Stephen King’s It.

I collect books, of course, but these books are real works of art. Sitting down and actually holding a volume in a my hands while I read it is a rare treat. Reading is often about seeing words and allowing your imagination to translate the words into images and stories. Combining the audio book version of ‘Salem’s Lot with the Cemetery Dance edition of the book, brings to bear nearly all my senses: the sound of McLarty’s narration; the sight of the words on the page; the heft of the book in my lap, and feel of the thick textured pages as I turn them; and the smell of the book and accumulated dust. It makes for a truly immersive reading experience.

Some pages in the Cemetery Dance edition of 'Salem's Lot

Often, when I hold an old book in my hands, I think as much of the history of that physical book–where it has been, who has touched it, how many times it has been read–as I do of what the book has inside. There are a thousand smells inside my 1954 copy of Will Durant’s 1935 book Our Oriental Heritage. I’ve had the book for 20 years. Who possessed it for the near half century before me?

Holding the Cemetery Dance edition of ‘Salem’s Lot, I think of the time and effort and artistry that went into creating such a beautiful edition of the book. It is clear that the bookmaker knew what they were doing. As I said, book are more than the words on the page. To me, books are an experience to be felt by all the senses, as much as to be read. I’m grateful to Cemetery Dance for putting out such great works of art.

Taking the Day Off

I am taking the day off from the blog today. We had guests this weekend and it was so much fun to hang out with people again. Now that they have headed home, and things are quiet, I’m just going to sit here, reading my book, and enjoy the afterglow of a really fun weekend. See you all here tomorrow.

Cicada Song

We are in peak cicada season here in northern Virginia. Wandering outside, there is a sound in the background that sounds like the distant warbling of a car alarm. It is, in fact, the cicada’s song. I captured a video outside the house this morning where you can hear it behind the sound of the birds. Enjoy!

On Harlan Ellison

A few nights ago, trying to figure out what to read next, I landed on some audio recordings of Harlan Ellison stories. These were all stories I’d read before, but they came with these off-the-cuff (so it seemed) commentaries by Ellison. They were great, and for an hour or so, while I lay in the dark listening, it was as if Harlan Ellison was still alive.

I never wrote anything on the blog after learning of Harlan’s death in June 2018. I learned of his death just as we had arrived at the Dollywood Resort for the beginning of 10-day road-trip family vacation through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. I was pole-axed when I heard the news. Harlan was one of those people who seemed like he would like forever.

I knew vaguely of Harlan Ellison when I was in high school. I remember a car commercial he was in sometime in the 1980s. But it wasn’t until I got to college where I began to read Ellison’s stories and essays and got to know him through his words. I had been a pretty sheltered reader of fiction up to that point, sticking to mostly what I knew, which was mostly Piers Anthony. Reading Ellison was a revelation. I couldn’t believe it was possible to write the way he did. I didn’t have money to spend on books in college, but I went to the University of California, Riverside, which hosts the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy. The library had plenty of science fiction and I had the opportunity to check out books for free and read them.

In my junior year in college, I read Dangerous Visions. I read most of it while visiting my girlfriend at the time at U.C. Santa Cruz. I found a cozy spot in a campus library and read while she went to class.

After graduating, and starting my career, I moved to Studio City, not far from the Dangerous Visions bookshop, which became a regular stop for me. It was there that I met Harlan Ellison for the first time, an encounter I had forgotten about, and only rediscovered years later.

The first meeting I remembered was a talk Harlan gave at The Learning Tree in Chatsworth in 1995. I sat in the audience, wide-eyed, and listened to Ellison speak. After a break, he pulled some typewriter paper out and said he was going to read to us a story he’d finished writing that very day. The story was “Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral”. I’d never been to a story reading before, and if anyone has heard Ellison read, you know that I was spoiled from the start. It was incredible. Afterwards, I met him, shook his hand, chatted for minute, asked him to sign a few books, and that was that.

In the years that followed, I met Harlan several more times, mostly at appearances he made at Dangerous Visions. I was there, for instance, when he did one of his bookstore window writing sessions. Chris Carter (of X-Files fame) walked into the packed store with a folded piece of paper in his hand. It was the idea he’d come up with for Ellison to write a story around. He read the idea to the audience: “The 100-year old pregnant corpse.” Ellison sat with his manual typewriter and banged out a story called, “Objects in the Mirror of Desire Are Closer Than They Appear” that later appeared in F&SF.

I went to a talk Ellison gave in Marina Del Rey. He was his usual blustery self, confident, loud, funny–and then a door opened at the back of the room and Donald Sutherland walked in and Ellison became a little star-struck, which was kind of adorable to see.

Long after I moved out of L.A. and began my own writing career, selling stories, and getting to know writers who I admired for so long, I found myself attending a Nebula Awards banquet locally. By then I had become friends with Allen Steele. Harlan Ellison was up for a Nebula in the short story category, which he ended up winning (in a tie, I believe) that night. I was very happy for him, and looked around for Allen, but didn’t see him. Finally, I walked out of the banquet hall, and saw Allen by himself, leaning on a wall with his phone to his ear. “Harlan?” I mouthed. Allen nodded. He got to break the news to Ellison.

As it turns out Harlan Ellison lived just up the street from one of my best friend’s house (my friend’s parents still live there). When I learned that the odd house on that narrow street off of Mullholland that I’d passed so many times was Ellison’s, I was retroactively awestruck.

Harlan Ellison was the first writer I’d ever asked for an autograph. He was also the first writer I’d ever met in person.

As far Ellison’s writing, well, it’s just amazing. There are writers who write in a way that I, as a writer, try to emulate. Stephen King is a good example of this. But I knew as soon as I read Ellison’s writing that I could never emulate it. It is far too masterful for the likes of me. I never even tried. There are all kinds of “classic” Ellison stories, but own person favorite is a story of his called “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore.” I believe that it is possible to write a perfect story, in the same way it is possible to throw a perfect game in baseball. But like a perfect game, the perfect story is extremely rare. “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury is one; “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov is another. Harlan Ellison’s “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” is a perfect story.

I’ve met many writers in the years since I first met Harlan Ellison. One of the fun parts of being a writer is meeting so many people you admire. I’ve gotten to know some of these writers well, and call them friends. That was never the case with Harlan Ellison. But as a presence, I’ve never been in awe of someone as much as I was when I was around Harlan.

Which is why, I think, hearing him gab about the origin of story on a sleepless night a few days ago hit me the way it did. Even now, nearly three years later, it is hard to believe that Harlan Ellison is not out there somewhere, sitting in a bookstore window and banging away at another story.

BREAKING NEWS: I Have the Weekend Off!

ARLINGTON, VA. This is just in: having successfully rolled out the big software system I’ve been working on for the last 441 days, I have the weekend off. These are my first days off in a month. I worked 126 hours in the last 2 weeks alone. I am tired, worn out, elated, relieved, and happy that I have a couple of days off where I don’t have to think about work. Really, I don’t. The rollout was clearly as success. After giving a briefing to my department management today I was asked to brief senior management, which I take as a good sign.

This really was a team effort. Much of my team, alas, doesn’t have the web presence that I do, such that it is, but I want to call attention to the most talented programmer I’ve ever worked with: John David Parsons. If you are a writer, looking for a tool to help inspire your writing, you should drop what you are doing and check out his Story Ghost, which he’s somehow managed to build while also building a complicated corporate system as well, all during the middle of a Pandemic. It’s definitely worth checking out. It’s also on Twitter at @storyghostai.

For now, I’ve ordered pizza and wings, had a few beers, and I am going to enjoy the weekend with my family.

Basking

Over the weekend we rolled out a software system that my and my team have been working on for 14 months. Today, it is running, and being used (successfully, so far) and I am just basking in the good feelings I have about the whole process and the system we’ve put together.

For the first time in a couple of months, I don’t feel pressed to squeeze as much work as I can every minute of the day. Last week along I worked over 80 hours to get the system out the door. It feels good to finally not feel under such a crunch.

So I hope no one minds if I just drop this short post here today as I take it easy and try to reintergrate myself in normal hours and normal life.

Some Notes About Footnotes

Why are footnotes generally composed of compound keys instead of being primary keys themselves? I’ve noticed that in most books I read that contain footnotes, the footnote renumbering restarts with each chapter. That means in order to uniquely identify a footnote you need to know the chapter and the note number. Wouldn’t it be easier to just to number them incrementally throughout the whole book?1

I’ve been thinking about this because I noticed this is exactly what happens in Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun. The footnotes are not renumbered between chapters but just continue on. I love this and can’t understand why this isn’t standard behavior in the footnoting industry.

Another thing I’ve noticed about footnotes is that often times, they are the most interesting part of the book. It is for this reason that I follow every footnote and try not to miss them. I think of a footnote as the author pausing in his storytelling to lean over to me, hand to the side of his mouth, and whispering something like, “Joe himself told me this story after drinking an entire bottle of vodka2.”

This begs the question: what makes a footnote a footnote? Why is such interesting material relegated to a smaller font, often at the back of the book? Clearly it was worth including in the book, or the editor would have suggested cutting it.

You don’t see footnotes much in fiction. Isaac Asimov made good use of them in Murder at the ABA. I understand David Foster Wallace did something similar in Infinite Jest3.

When footnotes aren’t offering a specific citation, they are often much more informal than the main text. Some of Will Durant’s funniest lines in his Story of Civilization come in the footnotes.

I think I speak for everyone when I say that a footnote that simply reads, “ibid” could save some confusion by changing “ibid” to “ditto.” It would save the trouble of having to lookup what “ibid” means. I can’t always remember that the Latin word ibidem means “in the same place4.”

E-books have made it much easier to navigate footnotes. When reading a paper book, I am forced to use two bookmarks5, one to keep my place in the text, and one to keep my place in the footnotes. But with e-books, I can just tap on the footnote and have a little popup appear so that I can read it.

Footnotes are a crap-shoot when it comes to an audio book. Some readers will read the footnotes, others don’t. I don’t know where the decision is made, but I wish it was more consistent one way or the other.

When footnotes come at the bottom of the page they are called footnotes. When they come at the end of the book, they are called endnotes. They are are one of the few things I can think of that are identical in meaning, but are called different things based on where they are located.

Do “footnotes” even make sense in an e-book, or do we need a new term? E-note, maybe6?


  1. Maybe there is concern about footnotes numbered into the thousands, but I don’t see how that can be a problem from a technical standpoint.
  2. In audiobooks, I often wish the narrator would read the footnotes in a mock-whisper. Instead, they tend to just say, “Footnote,” followed by whatever the footnote is
  3. I seem to recall that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers did this as well.
  4. I had to look this up just now to remind myself what this means
  5. Business cards
  6. Way back in January 2008, I wrote about footnotes. I’m getting repetitive in my middle age.

Field Notes 2021 Work Station Calendar

Two weeks ago, I lamented how I missed ordering the 2021 Field Notes work station calendar, until it was too late, and they were all gone. Over on Facebook, my friend Kevin pointed out that a Canadian stationary store, Noteworthy, had them in stock. I ordered one immediately (I was sure I’d be too late), and the calendar arrived today.

My 2021 Field Notes work station calendar

I can now rest easy. I am set for an entire year (well, 363 days at this point.)

A Quiet Day by the Fire

It was cold here today, the temperature down into the 20s when I woke up this morning. So I built up a fire in the fireplace, and planned to spend my day sitting in close proximity to the fire, reading, and not doing much else. To that end, I was mostly successful.

I finished reading Simon Winchester’s new book, Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World. A good book, as I find just about all of Winchester’s books to be. The book rekindled my yearning for wide-open spaces. A passage on suburbs, which could describe the area in which I live just south of Washington, D.C., highlights the artifice which, like a poorly fitting show rubbing away at a heel, bothers me more and more.

In the suburbs beyond the urban limits, the degradation of the land has been more insidious, its demoted status often cunningly disguised. Such land as appears to exist is mostly artifice, a simulacrum of countryside, the greenest of its expanses available at great expense to the golfer or more ironically to the members of what for the past two centuries have been called country clubs. These last are institutions placed well beyond the real country they seek to resemble and offer a reminder—for a considerable annual fee—of the rural dreamland that some old-timers recall went before.

Meanwhile, I kept warm in my suburban home by my neat fireplace, with wood I avoided chopping myself (I enjoy chopping wood but there is no practical way for me to do it here) and every now and then, paused to dream of wide-open spaces.

Next up, for those curious, is Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace’s book, Creativity, Inc., about which I have heard many good things. Winchester’s Land had me leaning toward something by or about John Muir, but I don’t have the heart for that at the moment.

Movienite.txt

In an effort to watch movies I’ve never seen, and to avoid making decisions, I wrote myself a little script the other day called movienite I grabbed a list of 600+ movies under the TCM Channel on HBO Max. I randomized1 the list and created 2 text files: movienite.txt and watched.txt.

I wrote a little command-line script (hat tip that to that decades-old, but reliable sed command) that shows me the first line of the movienite.txt file: the next movie to watch. Since it is very unlikely that I will watch a movie every night, I wrote a second script that that moves the first line of the movienite.txt file to the end of the watched.txt file.

The first movie that popped up (and, yes, I did watch it) was a Charles Bronson film called 10 to Midnight, a police thriller which was pretty terrible writing, and pretty bad acting, but that made it that much more fun to watch. Wilfred Brimley was in the film as well.

I like the randomness of it. It’s once less decision to make. I joked with Kelly that it’s like the old Saturday Night Movie in the 1970s: you get what you get, that’s it.

If you are curious, here are the next 9 movies that I’ll be watching at some point. I did peek at the first ten, but I haven’t looked at the list after that, and I don’t plan to. I like the element of surprise too much.

  • Hobson’s Choice
  • Gone with the Wind
  • The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
  • The Kid
  • Modern Times
  • The Man with the Golden Arm
  • How to Be a Player
  • Cheyenne Autumn
  • Swordfish
  1. It’s pseudorandom in that sequels aren’t picked before the previous film has been watched. So movienite won’t put Superman II before Superman: The Movie.

BREAKING NEWS: Disturbance in Christmas Village

I’ve got a busy day today, but I didn’t want to break my streak of posting every day. So here’s some breaking news. There has been a disturbance in our Christmas Village that I noted when I woke up this morning. Fortunately, there were no casualties. The NTSB is on-scene investigating. This story is evolving.

Footage of the disturbance in Christmas Village

For the record, I suspect the Little Man, who was last seen attempting to fly this plane after dinner last night. The Dairy Queen escaped unscathed.