Trains

A train in Florida

Whenever I watch White Christmas, I am always entranced by the scenes that shows trains and train travel. One of my favorite E. B. White essays is “The Railroad,” published in 1960. Compared with air travel today, trains seem an ideal alternative. Of course, seeing trains in old movies and reading about them in essays from the 1960s is to view them through a lens of nostalgia. I’ve ridden on trains myself, however, and I those experiences have all been good ones. I hear people say “I’m taking the train,” but I prefer a different, older phrase. “I taking the railroad.”

I once took the railroad from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, traveling with my grandparents. The train left L.A. in the late afternoon and arrived at Salt Lake early the following morning. We entered the desert in the evening, as the sun was setting, and the scenery, as I recall it was beautiful. I felt like I could reach out and touch the landscape. I never feel this way looking out of an airplane window. The experience stuck with me for a long time. Indeed, it led to my writing a poem for a creative writing class, which in turn resulted in the single worst criticism I ever received. But it was worth it to ride that train.

In 2003, I took the railroad from Oxnard, California to Seattle, Washington. We left Oxnard around noon and arrived in Seattle the following evening. The train made its way up the Pacific coast and watching out the window, I saw the scenery change from coastal views, to forests, and then mountains. There was something pleasant about the rumble the train made through the night, although in retrospect, I might have sprung for a private berth where I could stretch out a bit more.

I’ve taken the railroad from L.A. to San Diego, and from Washington, D.C. to New York, and Boston. I’ve ridden the rails from Grand Central Station to Albany, New York. I commuted on the Washington Metro system for six years, riding the railroad to and from work each day. I’ve navigated the New York Subway system countless times. I’ve ridden the L in Chicago, and the L.A. subway, such as it is. I’ve ridden the Tube in London, and the subway in Rome.

The railroad is more casual than the airlines. Where airline behave as severe grade-school teachers, the railroad acts more like the casual gym instructor. He wants you to make it to gym on time, but doesn’t mind getting started without you and letting you catch up. There is space to spread on a train that seems regal compared to the austere airlines. Unlike the rigid airplanes whose seats all face forward, the seating in trains varies, with some seats facing forward, some backwards, some to the side.

Getting somewhere on the railroad takes time, but they are prepare for that. Instead of a small wedge of plastic that folds over your lap, there are tables you can sit at and work, or converse. There is no need to stay in your seat while the train is moving. Indeed, the design of trains encourages movement. There is often a club car in which you can get food and drinks. On the longer train rides I’ve been on, there’s been dining cars in which you can eat in relative style. The restrooms are spacious. And if you prefer a quieter atmosphere, some trains have “quiet cars” for just this purpose.

I’d love for the railroads to be in the position of the passenger airlines today, and vice versa. The airlines wouldn’t be gone, but they would be used only where the railroads couldn’t reasonably reach. Maybe the travel by rail would help to slow down the pace of life in general.

Railroads have been in decline for more than half a century. They were in decline when E.B. White wrote his somber 1960 essay. It’s too bad. From descriptions I’ve read of the railroads, and from what I’ve heard from people who rode them in their heyday, it seems that the railroads were the best possible compromise for long-distance travel. I would love it if they were somehow resurrected. I suspect it was the car, and not air travel that did in the railroads–and specifically the Interstate highway system.

One of the saddest things to see is a long dead set of railroad tracks cutting through the landscape. There’s one near my in-laws in Florida, overgrown with weeds. Whenever we cross it, I look up and down the deserted tracks and always hope that maybe I’ll see the lights of a train in the distance. Maybe this time? I think as we bump over the tracks. It never fails to cross my mind. And yet I know these tracks are dead, buried beneath the growth of decades of disuse. In my mind, though, they are alive and I want to hop the next train and see where it will take me.

Planes

Clouds above Los Angeles

There is almost no experience I dread more these days than flying from one city to another. It isn’t out of a fear of flying. It is out of a deep sadness for the loss of what used to be a fun and exciting way to travel. Air travel has found its lowest common denominator and from what I can tell, no one is happy.

I had an unusually busy travel year. I made six work-related trips by plane, five of which took me from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles. Air travel, these days, is all about attempting to minimize stress and anxieties. How hard will it be to find a parking place? How busy will the airport be? How much time do I need to leave to get into the airport proper? If you think that last is a silly question, talk to people traveling out of LAX, where the line of cars trying to get into the airport resembles the lines of cars on the 405 freeway at rush hour. How long will the lines be at security? Should I cough up the money to check my bags or roll the dice and hope that there will still be overhead space left in the plane by the time I board?

As far as I can tell, the airlines are doing nothing to improve their service or reputations. I can recall a time when even coach seats were relatively comfortable and spacious. I remember traveling on a DC-10 in the late 1980s when there was a lounge up front. Passengers looked as if they were setting about on some great adventure, bright teeth gleaming within smiles wherever you looked. People talked with their seat-mates about where they were going and what they were doing.

The airlines have changed all of this. I rarely see passengers talking with one another. Instead, they isolate themselves within the cocoons of their noise-cancelling headsets. No one ever bothers to look out the windows any more. Indeed, on most of the flights I was on this year, most of the window shades were shut, and the cabin was dim and gloomy, like a medieval prison.

Baggage limits and the cost to check bags breeds a poisonous competition, where passengers angle for the the earliest possible boarding on a plane in order to get prime overhead space. I’ve seen arguments break out over the inability of a passenger to fit their bags into the overhead.

You pay for every extra. And those with more means than others can buy advantages others can’t afford. You can pay to check your bags and avoid the stress of fighting for overhead space. You can pay for more leg room at your seat. You can pay for Internet access to distract you while you fly. You can pay for food and drink if you are hungry. You can even pay to move through the faster “premium” security lines. All this seems to do is annoy those who can’t afford to pay for these additions. It doesn’t seem to make those who do pay any happier, probably because they’ve already handed over a pretty penny for their ticket.

I’ve taken advantages of all of these amenities. As a frequent flier, I’ve upgrade my flights to first class, and I have access to the airline lounge. No one I see when I head to the airport looks happy, no one I see on the plane looks happy. No one in the airline lounge looks happy. Like me, they all look resigned to their fate. They are all anxious to get where they are going. It is all about the destination. We want to forget the journey.

The best parts of flying these days are those rare times when I have a window seat (I prefer an aisle seat ) and can spend time with my window shade up, observing the country as it passes below. This lasts until the flight attendant taps me on the shoulder and asks if I wouldn’t mind lowering my shade so that the glare won’t disturb the screens of the other passengers. I took the photograph above early in one flight. Those clouds cover the Los Angeles basin, not long after takeoff early in the morning.

The airlines have made flying extremely safe, which is a good thing for which they deserve some credit. They have also turned around their businesses from bankruptcy, or the brink thereof. They have achieved this rather remarkable turnaround by removing all of the glamour and pleasure from the experience.

I miss the way air travel used to be. I can’t stand the way it is today, and for many years now, I only travel by air for work. When we take our vacations, they have been exclusively road-trips, often taking us more than 2,000 miles roundtrip. We drive up to Maine in the summers. We drive down to Florida in the winters. Traveling by car has improved at least as much as traveling by plane has declined. We don’t have to worry about luggage. We have plenty of room in the minivan. We don’t have to pass through airport security or deal with long lines. We have comfortable seats, and these days the car practically drives itself. We can come and go as we please. We see the country up close. If there’s something interesting that catches our eye, we can stop.

It takes more time to travel by car than by plane, but it is immeasurably more pleasant, and less stressful. Sure, at times we hit traffic, but we can usually time our travel to avoid it. And besides, these days, the navigation software in the car knows about traffic and can re-route us around the bad stuff.

Driving also saves us a ton of money. It could cost anywhere between $1,000 – $2,000 to fly five of us from Washington, D.C. to Florida. Driving costs us about $500 in gas and hotels (we usually make one overnight stop each way), and meals. That’s anywhere from 50-75% less than what it costs to fly. But the costs of savings in terms of stress, anxiety, long lines, and canceled flights can’t be measured.

Honey, I Forgot the Kids

Because we both work, we have a routine for school drops-offs and pick-ups. Having five school days a week makes this routine unnecessarily complex, and I implore the schools to cut back to a four-day school week to allow us a somewhat less complicated routine. Our routine is this: Kelly handles drop-offs and pick-ups on Mondays and Wednesday and I take Tuesdays and Thursdays. For Friday, we alternative each of us taking every other Friday.

The school is 4 minutes from the house by car, and drop-off/pick-up doesn’t take very long, so it is not a burden in anyway. In the six years the Little Man has been attending the school, I estimate I’ve made 570 drop-offs and pick-ups, and I never forgot to it even once.

Until last week, that is.

It started with a trade. I was supposed to go to L.A. for work last week. It would have been my sixth trip to L.A. this year, and I was worn out from the travel. Instead, I decided to run the meetings remotely. It means I needed to be on video calls on Tuesday and Thursday at the times I would normally be picking up the kids. To resolve this, Kelly and I traded days, as we sometimes do. As part of this exchange, I took Wednesday.

I almost never do pick-ups on Mondays or Wednesdays. The problem with Wednesday is exacerbated because the kids get out of school an hour early. On Wednesday afternoon this week, I had everything under control, and felt good about it. I got my youngest down for a nap, attended a meeting, and around 2:30, not long before we’d leave to pick up the kids, I warmed up the car so that it would not be freezing when we got in there.

Five minutes after warming up the car, my phone rang, and I saw that it was our friend, Raquel calling. My first thought was that she was calling to ask me to pick up her kids, and I was a little worried because I had a 3:30 meeting and picking up her kids in addition to mine would mean I’d cut things very close.

Then I saw a text from Raquel that said, “I am bringing the kids home.” Kelly hadn’t told me that I didn’t need to pick up the kids, that they were going to Raquel’s house, but okay. That made things easier for me. Then my phone rang again. This time it was Kelly, and as soon as I saw her name on the display, I knew what I’d done wrong.

“Honey,” I said, “I forgot the kids got out early today. Raquel has them and is bringing them home now.” Everyone thought it was funny. The kids were nonplussed about it. It was the first time in 570 pick-ups that I’d forgotten, a 99.8% success rate.

The whole incident reminded me of the importance of checklists, something ingrained in me when I got my pilot’s license 20 years ago. The value of a checklist is to make sure you follow all of the steps even when the routine changes. The problem in this case is that I’m not sure a checklist would have prevented me from forgetting the kids, unless the list explicitly said that ON WEDNESDAYS, THE KIDS GET OUT AN HOUR EARLY.

I am often making fun of Kelly for forgetting things: keys, phone. I tease our friend Raquel about little things as well. It’s all in good fun. Now, they both have something to tease me about. I wish I could guarantee this would never happen again, but given my past history, I expect to forget picking up the kids in another 570 pick-ups from now, right around the time the Little Man is a senior in high school.

A Completely Ridiculous Amount of Homework for a Fifth-Grader

Tell me if this sounds normal for fifth grade:

  • An average of 2-1/2 hours of homework and study each day–often including Saturdays and Sundays;
  • Anywhere from 5-7 tests and quizzes per week.

At first, I thought this was just a way to get the students back into the school year after summer. But we are approaching the end of December and this relentless schedule has persisted undiminished. Indeed, it seems that nothing can alter this regiment. Discussions with the teacher at parent-teacher conferences don’t seem to make a difference. A meeting with the principal has not yet resulted in any notable changes.

As I see it, there are four problems with this much work for a fifth grader:

  1. It does not encourage learning, but instead teaches them to know what they need to pass the test. The Little Man gets very good grades for his hard work, but I’m not sure that, if tested a week later on the same material, he would do as well. He’s learning to pass a test, not learning to learn.
  2. It breeds competition for time. With so many tests and quizzes each week, and a limited supply of time, each test competes with the other for study time. That means making deliberate decisions about what to study and what to ignore. This adds stress to someone who wants to do well on everything, but can’t because there just isn’t the time to keep up.
  3. It is disheartening to the students to get to the end of a week of hard work, only to realize that they still have to study over the weekend for the tests early the following week. It’s an unforgiving schedule that makes the students feel as if they are never quite caught up.
  4. It creates havoc with work-life balance. Our kids have to start their homework as soon as they get some from school and have a snack. With all of the work and study required for fifth grade, the Little Man gets started around 3:30 pm and is rushing to wrap-up by 6 pm, and often is continuing to study while we are eating dinner.

Granted it was a long time ago, but I don’t recall having nearly this much homework and study in fifth grade. Indeed, I don’t recall having this much homework and study in high school, until I got to my senior year, when AP physics homework took a long time. I’ve read of a rough standard of 10 minutes per grade, which means 50 minutes of homework/study for fifth graders. Our fifth grader is averaging three times that much each day. With a school day that is already over seven hours long, this additional work gives him nearly a 10-hour day.

The value of homework has been questioned in K-5, and indeed, some schools around here don’t assign homework in those grades. I have no opposition to homework, and fifty minutes sounds perfectly reasonable to me. But with so many tests and quizzes competing with one another for study time on top of the homework, it seems almost certain the the law of diminishing returns is at play. Student might do well on a test, but how much are they really learning?

The silver lining to this, I suppose, is that it prepares these kids for the real world. Homework is a part of life in many jobs. Learning to find a balance between work and home life is a valuable skill. It just seems to me that fifth grade is too early to be learning this skill so abruptly.

Kelly jokes that she has a second, part-time job, doing nothing but helping our fifth grader study. I’ve been at a slow burn for what seems like months now, seeing how hard the Little Man has to work each day. What really gets me is when I leave the house around 3:30 pm or so, and arrive back home two hours later only to find the Little Man and Kelly still studying and working on his homework.

Perhaps I’m just thrown because the amount of homework increased very steadily through forth grade–and then jumped dramatically this year. Still, it seems to me that the amount of work and studying the Little Man has is a completely ridiculous amount of homework for a fifth-grader.

Not the Best Books of 2019

With less than 20 days remaining in the year, I debated writing my “best reads of 2019” post, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. This is not the best books of 2019. Best-of-the-year posts start as early as November, and it is a bitter disappointment to books born and read in the last 30-45 days of the year. Books born in the late months of the year get overlooked on best-of lists because of their birthdate. Review editors want the lists in time for the holiday shopping season. It doesn’t seem fair to me and I won’t condone such behavior by participating in it. My “Best of 2019” list will come out after the new year has been put to bed.

Instead, I looked at the stacks of books, physical and virtual, patiently awaiting my attention. I decided to list the books I plan to read before the decade is over and the roaring twenties begin.

Let’s start with what I am reading at the moment: Disney’s Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusment Park That Changed the World by Richard Snow.

I recently read An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson. This is the first volume of a trilogy that describes the liberation of Europe in the Second World War. After the current book, I’ll likely start on The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 and follow that up with The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 both by Atkinson.

Earlier this year, I picked up a copy of Ballpark: Baseball in the American City by Paul Goldberger. The book looks beautiful, almost textbook quality, and looks fascinating. It should also provide a lighter fare from the battles of Europe.

Ballpark: Baseball in the American City

Sticking with the baseball theme, I’ve been wanting to read Jane Leavy’s biography of Babe Ruth, The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created, for some time now. Add that to the list.

Finally, if I can manage it, I want to tackle H. W. Brands’s latest book, Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West.

That’s a lot of reading to squeeze into the last 20 days of the year, but I’ll be on vacation for the last 10 days or so and will have more time than usual. The Atkinson books are long, so realistically, I might only manage to make it through those books before the year is out.

I present this list with the usual caveats, especially recalling to you the butterfly effect of reading which more often than not has its way with me.

And I see as I complete this that my monthly Audible credits have arrived, which means I can begin to scout out what books I will read in 2020. The first book I read in the 2010s was C. M. Kornbluth by Mark Rich. I wonder what the first read in the new decade will be?

The Golden Age of Television

I keep reading that we are in a golden age of television. Given how little I watch television these days, I have no direct experience to speak from. I assume that what is meant by “golden age of television” is the programs. But as I wander through my house, I might be convinced otherwise. Somehow, we’ve gone from a couple of televisions to 5 televisions. We have a great big one above the fireplace in the living room; one in our bedroom; one in the guest room/exercise room; one in the family room, and one in the playroom/Xbox room, I’m not really sure how this happened.

These are “smart TVs.” I don’t know how smart they really are, but they are slowly making the remote control obsolete, and anything that makes the remote obsolete is a sign of progress. Maybe we should call them “progressive TVs” instead. I’ve counted 9 remotes for these 5 TVs. Fortunately, most of them can be controlled by voice, so the remotes collect dust somewhere between the couch cushions. It took a while, but I no longer feel awkward asking Alexa to turn off the living room TV, or turning the volume down.

I suspect that when someone speaks of the golden age of television, they are not talking about television sets, but the programming. Specifically, I suspect they are talking about the premium programs that seem to be everywhere. We subscribe to HBO (through the cable company), Netflix, Disney+, and as Amazon Prime members, we also have access to Amazon Prime videos. I also managed to get a year of Apple TV+ for free, although I am still not certain how that came about. All of these produce original programming which, because it is subscription-based, has the potential for being high-quality.

I watched the first 2 episodes of The Mandalorian, and while I am a fan of both Star Wars and westerns, I was bored out of my mind after the first two and gave up.

Most of my entertainment comes from reading. I used to turn to television for something that I could dip into without thinking much about it. The problem these days is that most series have morphed into serials. You can’t dip into one episode, without watching the next, and the next, and the next. And thus, binge-watching is born. I don’t want to spend a lot of time watching. I want something where I can allow my brain to relax for 20 or 40 minutes between books without any cliff-hanger. Then, too, television dramas have become too over the top for me. On those instance when I do watch a drama, I often come away feeling totally wiped out.

The TVs, smart and progressive as they may be, are really just superfluous. I can watch Netflix, Disney+, HBO, and Amazon Prime on my phone, iPad, computer, and on the XBox. Indeed, with our cable, I can watch any of the hundreds of channels we get on my phone, iPad, computer, etc. so long as I am connected to the home network. In that kind of environment, we really don’t need one television, let alone five of them.

Golden age or not, I see a promising future for television, both from the devices and the programming. The nice thing I have discovered about watching a movie like Star Wars on the big TV over the fireplace is that, with the lights dimmed, it feels like I’m sitting in a movie theater. I see almost no value to going to the movies these days. No movie is worth the parking headaches, the cost of the tickets, popcorn, hotdog, or soda. I’d just as soon stay home and wait for the movie to be released on one of the streaming services. And yet… when I do go to the movie theater, usually about once a year, it always seems the theater is virtually empty.

It occurs to me that the ideal solution would be to take advantage of the high quality smart TVs and the streaming services and just send the movies direct to the services, forgoing the theater experience entirely. For me, it would be a win. I’m not sure what people get out of the movie theater experience these days, other than being able to see a picture a few months before everyone else. Eliminate that and there’s really no need for movie theaters any more. Imagine being able to watch Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on release day in the comfort of your own house, with the lights dimmed, and munching on food you already have in the pantry. Even better: when you have to get up in the middle of Act 3 because you drank all of those sodas, you can pause the movie to ensure you don’t miss anything. Gone will be the days of millions of middle-aged men scampering back to their seats in a dark theater and whispering to their significant other, “What’d I miss?”

And what of the movie theater? Many will perish, but I imagine there will be one theater nearby that will show second runs of classic picture, and do so in style. It will be an occasion to dress for. Dinner and show will be an elegant affair the way it once was. All things come full circle.

Little Irritations Breed Big Satisfactions

Little irritations breed big satisfactions. Not long ago I noticed that the hinges of the bathroom door squeaked when the door opened or closed. This was not a problem during the day. In the middle of the night, I always forgot about the squeak and when I heard it, I was certain it would awaken everyone in the house. Today I sprayed some WD40 on the hinges and the squeaking is gone.

The kids’ backpacks and jackets were scattered all over the living room, mainly because there was no good place to put them. Kelly found some hooks and I installed them and now the jackets and backpacks can be hung up out of the way. Can be. That doesn’t mean will be, but it was satisfying to know there was a solution in place.

Given how little I watch TV, it irritates me to see cables dangling from behind the screens. On a TV I’d mounted in the family room downstairs, the cable box hung down from behind the TV like a vine because there was no good place to put it. It finally irritated me enough. I duct-taped it to the back of the TV. The next day, the box was dangling again. This time, I duct-taped it to the frame of the mount itself, and did it in such a way that I’m certain it won’t come down any time soon. Now, when I go into the family room, I’m satisfied that no cables are dangling. I just pretend not know know what the jumble of cables and duct tape behind the TV screen looks like.

The flapper in the powder room was worn. In the middle of the night, I’d heard the water turn on and fill the bowl back to level after enough had drained through the flapper. Everything sounds louder in the middle of the night. I went to the hardware store and picked up a replacement flapper and replaced it, and I’m no longer awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of running water.

I was thinking about these little irritations and the big satisfactions I get from them because of something that happened the other day. Kelly and I tend to be modest gift-givers to each other for birthdays and holidays. We take the family on two vacations each year and that seems to be gift enough for both of us. Occasionally, however, there will be something too good to pass up. After some careful research (read: a quick Google search), I announced to Kelly that I’d bought us a Christmas present.

Kelly looked at me with trepidation in her eyes. “What is it?” she said.

“A replacement silverware basket for the dishwasher,” I told her.

“Oh, that is a good present,” she said, both relieved and, I assume, mildly satisfied. The GE dishwasher that came with the new house had a silverware basket that had numerous holes in the bottom. Knives and forks were alway slipping through and either falling into the bottom of the dishwasher, or getting caught so that it made it difficult to pull out or push in the lower tray.

The tray should arrive in the next couple of days and it will be satisfying to have a silverware tray through which no silverware can slip.

The satisfaction I get from correcting these small irritations is out of all proportion to the irritation itself. I think it is because so many things in the world are so difficult to fix, that I take inordinate pleasure at fixing something, no matter how small. I can’t prevent all the bathroom doors in the world from squeaking, but I can prevent my bathroom door from doing so. Now, when I find myself with a thorny problem to solve the solution of which eludes me, I take stroll around the house, looking for little things that irritate me in the hope of finding something that I can fix.

(Not) Getting Things Done

There is so much to do, I hardly know where to begin. Life these days has become so interrupt-driven that I desperately try to recall what life was like when I was a kid in the late 70s, when the only thing there was to interrupt you was the telephone or the doorbell. Not only is it virtually impossible to finish something I start without interruption (I can’t remember the last time I made it through a 20 minute sit-com without stopping), there is no longer a straight line between two tasks. There are roadblocks and detours all the way.

Take this weekend for example. I’ve been reading Rick Atkinson’s An Army At Dawn, his Pulitzer prize-winning book about the war in North Africa from 1942-1943. There was a passage in there in which Roosevelt, hinting at where he would be making a clandestine trip to, showed a group of friends a new film called Casablanca. I scratched a note to myself to watch that movie again. It has been a long time since I’ve seen it and I’ve mostly forgotten it.

There was lots happening on Saturday. Two basketball games (one for the Little Miss and one for the Little Man) as well as a surprise party to attend in the evening. At some point, when I had five minutes, I started to look to see if Casablanca was playing on any of the streaming services we subscribe to. That led me, somehow, to The Dick Van Dyke show, and I was reminded that we never finished watching the last season and a half or so. I decided I wanted to finish that, and made a note of it.

My search took me back to the Apple store, and there I saw that Rambo: Last Blood was out. I’d seen the first movie years ago, but never any of the others. I was curious, but it seemed silly to jump and watch the fifth movie when I’d barely seen the previous four. It turned out, however, that there was a special on the 5-pack and it was ridiculously cheap, so I bought it. I set about watching the first several movies, always fragmented. I never watched one straight through. On Sunday, I watched the last two. I was, of course, no closer to Casablanca.

Atkinson’s book reminded me that I wanted to re-read Andy Rooney’s My War. I read it when it first came out, and I thought it was a great memoir of the war years as a reporter for Stars and Stripes. A few years ago, I read Timothy M. Gay’s Assignment to Hell which was about many of the WW-II reporters, Rooney included. So I decided to start reading it, and put Casablanca on the back-burner. At this rate I’ll be lucky if I ever manage to see the movie again.

My desk is cluttered with pages of lists torn from a yellow legal pad. One list one do it these days. I have a list for things to do today, a list of things I need to get done for a work project, a list of things to do around the house. I wanted to go to the store today to get some WD-40 because the bathroom door has been squeaking. But it rained much of the day and I decided I would squeeze in some extra walking before it became too rainy to go outside. I never did get the WD-40 and the door is still squeaking.

There are all kinds of systems that purport to tell you how to better manage your time. I’ve tried many of them, and am suspect of all of them. Instead of getting things done, I am learning systems. I’ve come to the conclusion that feeling busy is not the same as being busy. I am busy at this moment, as I write this. I am busy writing. Feeling busy is the sense of utter chaos at everything you have to do, coupled with the knowledge that it is hopeless. There’s no way you’ll get it all done.

I managed to write this entire post without interruption. That’s not saying much, since I was supposed to be cleaning off my desk so that it wouldn’t be so cluttered when I start work in the morning. That’s okay. I’ll clear off my desk in the morning, in order to avoid some other task that I should be doing instead.

All I Want for Christmas Is To Be A Syndicated Columnist

With Christmas just a few weeks away, I’ve been daydreaming. When I daydream–something that occurs with increasing frequency these days–I often find myself having imaginary conversations with people. Sometimes these are people I know, and other times they are constructs, like characters in a story, that allow the conversation to progress the way I want it to. Recently, in on one of these daydreams, someone asked me, “What do you want for Christmas?” Without hesitating I replied, “All I want for Christmas is to be a syndicated columnist.” Perhaps the most telling piece is that, while the conversation was imagined, I spoke those words aloud.

When I grow up, I want to be a syndicated columnist. I love to write, and I need to make a living, and it seems there should be some way to combine those. Of course, I’d need something to write about, and then there’s the matter of people to read what I write. These are details, of course, but perhaps we should consider them.

What would I write about? Given that I have been heavily influenced by the writers like E. B. White and Andy Rooney, it seems like some kind of hybrid would be in order. I am not as much the farmer as E. B. was, and I am not as cynical (usually, anyway) as Andy Rooney was. So perhaps something in between. White wrote a monthly column for Harper’s from 1938-1943 or thereabout. I could write a monthly column. Andy Rooney had a column that appeared in hundreds of newspapers 3 times a week, I think. And of course he had his 3 minutes at the end of 60 Minutes. (Whenever Rooney was on vacation I called the show 57 Minutes). I think my syndicated column should be somewhere between three times a week, and once a month.

Both Andys (White went by the name “Andy” to some of his friends) wrote about ordinary, everyday events, but in their own distinct ways. Indeed, Andy the Second was heavily influenced by Andy the First, and if you don’t believe me, spend time reading some of their stuff. I can probably write about ordinary, everyday events. Occasionally, each of the Andys would write something more controversial. I could probably manage that from time-to-time as well. Indeed, it would be a great way to generate letters, and I’d finally have more than one correspondent to whom I could write real letters.

I imagine there are qualifications one needs to meet to become a syndicated columnist. First and foremost, one must be able to write, and preferably (though not a showstopper based on some columns I have read) write well. I don’t have many talents, but I’ve never had a problem putting words down on paper.

It would probably help if the writing is entertaining in some way. If readers respond to the writing in a positive way that is always a good thing. It also helps sell advertising. I like to think that my writing is entertaining, but who am I to judge.

I suppose it is a plus if a columnist is a journalist, or has some background in journalism. My degree was in political science and journalism, although really my degree was in learning how to learn. An editor would probably want some kind of c.v. for a prospective columnist. You know, have you ever done anything like this before? My c.v., humble as it is would read something like:

  • Wrote a monthly review column for a science fiction magazine.
  • Wrote a technology column for The Daily Beast.
  • Have written a blog since 2005 with 6,468 posts (including this one). Some people even like what I write and occasionally tell me so.

It occurs to me that the kind of column I would like to write is more or less the some kind of thing I write here. How would I pitch that to an editor? In my daydreams (there I go again) I picture that scene in Seinfeld, when Jerry and George pitch their pilot to NBC and when asked what the show is about, George tells them it’s a show about nothing. Well, my column wouldn’t be about nothing, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the stuff that sells newspapers.

I think this blog may be the closest I come to writing a syndicated column, and I guess I should be thankful for what I have. The editor and I see eye-to-eye. No one has ever pushed a deadline on me, or told me I couldn’t say that because it would scare off half the readers (or worse, the advertisers). I have no advertisers to answer to. Really, when I think about it, the only difference between this blog and a syndicated column is maybe a few million readers, and a paycheck.

It’s disappointing, really. It means that the next time I go out walking and start to daydream, and some faceless construct asks me, “What do you want for Christmas?” I’ll have to come up with something else. Maybe a salt farm in Maine?

A Football House or a Baseball House?

Me, on the field at Yankee Stadium in 2012.

Do you come from a football house, or a baseball house? Some probably come from neither. I come from a hybrid, but I quickly found my way to baseball, which is the superior of the two. I have very early memories of baseball. I remember watching parts of the 1978 World Series in our family room. The Yankees won the Series, and I was happy because I was a Yankee fan. I remember drives out to Shea stadium to take in a Mets game, and knew from the start the Mets were a second-division team. What, but a second-rate team would build a stadium under the flight path of a major airport, so that games would have to be paused each time a 727 and L-1011 flew by?

Football was also popular in our house growing up, although I think it was more popular with my Dad than with my Mom. I remember going to a college game at Rutgers. I also attended several New England Patriots games in the early 1980s. I was unimpressed with football from the start. In one of those Patriots games, I seem to recall the goal post in one end zone falling down. How could any respectable football team allow that to happen. My Dad is a Giants fan, and I suppose I would be a Giants fan, too, if I enjoyed football. Interestingly, I don’t ever recall going to a New York Football Giants game at Giant Stadium in New Jersey.

Growing up, I played organized baseball, but disorganized football. I played the former in a league, and the latter with friends in the street, or in a field, typically with a Nerf football. Time was defined by baseball. Spring meant a new baseball season, and fall meant baseball playoffs. Football, on the other hand, always seemed to intrude on life. I grew to hate football in the mid-1980s when, while living in Los Angeles, Monday Night Football often pre-empted episodes of MacGyver. Decades later, when I had season tickets to the Baltimore Orioles (mostly to catch Yankees games), I began to loathe the August games because the scoreboard and sound system would report the current football scores during the 7th inning stretch. Hey, if you want football scores, go to a football game why don’t you?

My relationship with baseball reached its low point in 1986 when the New York Mets won the World Series. I suppose I wasn’t as disappointed as Red Sox fans were.

Thinking back, football and baseball weren’t the only two sports my family watched, although I think they were the preferred sports. I seem to recall a lot of basketball games on the television. Watching basketball seems boring to me, except for the last few minutes of the game. I suppose people think the same thing of baseball. My Dad watched hockey games, but I think he was the only one. I tried, but I could never follow what was happening on ice, and it wasn’t until recently that I learned that basketball, soccer, and hockey are all variants of Lacrosse. I have John McPhee to thank for that.

There must have been some kind of sports hierarchy in our house because if baseball or football or basketball or hockey wasn’t on the TV, then golf was, although I hesitate to call golf a sport. Golf is a mystery to me. I had a golf lessons for my 16th birthday, but I don’t think they helped to reveal the mystery to me. My Mom is a very good golfer. My Dad is a very good golf-watcher. The last time I played golf with him, he got fed up halfway though, and stormed off to the clubhouse, swearing he’d never play again. He left his wallet in the golf bag which he had, just then, willed to my brother.

He did play again.

If golf was not on television, then it was tennis. Tennis was even worse on television than golf. At least with golf there was scenery. Tennis is nothing more than watching two people hit a ball back and forth. And while I am sure there is some valued tradition behind it, tennis has the most ludicrous way to keep score of any sport I know. Keeping score should be simple. In baseball, each time someone crossed home plate safely, it adds one run to the score. Soccer and hockey are also simple. Football and basketball are more complex because different actions have different score values: a touchdown is 6 points, a field goal is 3, a safety is two, etc. Tennis’s scoring system is baroque. Why is no score called “love”? Why do you get 15 points each the first two times you score, but only 10 on the third time?

Boxing was on TV in our house now and then, but rarely any of the so-called “good” fights because those required Pay-Per-View and we didn’t have Pay-Per-View. I had no interest in boxing whatsoever when I was a kid. I had no interest in it as an adult either, at least until I read The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling a few years ago. After that, I decided that if I could go back into time and take in some of the small club fights in the 1950s, I’d do it.

When all else failed, there was horse-racing. I’ve watched a few horse races over the years, and the two minutes during which the race is taking place is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in sports. If the television broadcast started at the bell and ended when the horses crossed the finish line, I might consider horse-racing among my favorite sports. Unfortunately, the broadcasts last forever, and that spoils the entire event.

Many people consider this time of year to be football season. Growing up in a hybrid household as I did, my brother, my Dad, and possibly my Mom consider it so. But really, it’s just baseball’s “off-season” where all kinds of interesting things are happening. You could read about it in agate type in the sports pages, if the sports pages still printed the transactions in agate type, or any type for that matter. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

My Busy-ness Number

There ought to be a measurement, like the temperature, that we can use to easily indicate to family, friends, and colleagues how busy we are. It would be nice to be able to say, “Sorry, I can’t meet for lunch, my busy-ness number is at 8 today.” There are all kinds of tools and gadgets that try to measure this. You can look at a calendar for instance, to get s sense of busy-ness. Last month, our family calendar (not counting work-related events) looked like this:

Family calendar

There are other measurements, too, I’m sure, but none give a good sense of immediacy. How busy am I right now? That’s what I want to know.

It was sunny when I went for my morning walk, early today. The sun was right on the horizon as I walked east. When I went for my afternoon walk, the sky was completely overcast and the sun was nowhere to be seen. It got me thinking. Back when I was flying, I remember studying weather and there were different meanings for cloud cover. The clouds could obscure none of the sky, a quarter, of the sky, half of the sky, etc. It was a good, simple measurement that reflected reality in an accurate and useful way.

Upon arriving home, I returned to my office and looked at my desk. Ever since moving to the new house, I’ve had the fortune of having the u-shape I have always wanted for my working area.

My u-shaped desk

What I noticed about my desk, was that it was like the overcast clouds that had rolled in: much of it seemed to be covered, and in disarray. I tend to turn to the desk to my left to write things down, open books, read magazines, etc. but that part of my desk is hopeless at the moment. It is covered in to-do lists scribble on legal paper, with piles of books, and magazines and Post-Its and other stuff.

Desk in disarray

Whenever my desk is like this, I am usually overwhelmed. I start making lists. I begin to wonder if the critical things that I am working on are more important than clearing up some surface area. That’s when it occurred to me that I have the perfect measurement to gauge my own level of busy-ness: desk-coverage.

It works like cloud coverage and is measured in eighths. A completely empty surface is a “clear” desk and a sign that I’ve got some time on my hands. Next, there is 1/8th coverage, then 1/4, then 1/2. You get the idea. Between 1/4 and 1/2 might be called “partly covered,” and 5/8-7/8 would be “mostly covered.” 8/8th would be “overcast.” The closer to overcast I am, the busier I am. I’d estimate that right now, I’m somewhere between 3/4 – 7/8th covered, which puts me in the “mostly covered” category.

I think that from now on, when someone asks me for some of my time, I’m going to look at my desk, and say, “Sorry, can’t do it. my desk is partly covered today, but the forecast is calling for overcast tomorrow.”

My Menagerie: A Catalog

E. B. White is a hero of mine. I love his writing, sure, but he did what few people manage to do, and lived to tell about it: he left the city behind for a salt water farm the country. I’ve lived my entire life in or near big cities and the older I get the more I want to escape the city for the country. It seems about as likely as setting foot on the moon. Instead, I do the next best thing: I make do with what I’ve got.

We moved into our new house six months ago today. The house backs up to a large park, a good portion of which is woodland. Over the last six months, as I take my daily walks around the park, I’ve been keeping my eyes open, and my Field Notes notebook at the ready, slowly cataloging the wildlife I’ve encountered. I may not live on a salt water farm with pigs and sheep and cows and chickens and geese and fox and raccoons. But here’s what I’ve found in my neck of the woods, so to speak:

  • 7 deer. There used to be five, and I’ve noticed two of them are smaller than the others, one of them spotted like Bambi. There is at least one buck among them. I’ve identified a few of their favorite haunts. On summer evenings, when the sun is low, they particularly like what passes for a “pasture” beside the sub-station on the east end of the park. But I have also seen them by the playground, hopping a fence in precession to nibble at grass in a backyard.
One of my close encounters with the deer.
One of my close encounters with the deer.
  • 6 ducks. A morning walk doesn’t feel right if I don’t see my ducks paddling in the stream. I call them my ducks, but they hardly notice me. Today I noticed that only four of them were out, but it was late and I suspect the younger ones were home, keeping warm. These are smaller ducks than some. At another park, I’ve seen some huge ducks, which I described to a friend as looking “delicious.” I usually encounter my ducks in the stream alongside the ballfields.
A few of "my" ducks.
A few of “my” ducks.
  • Rabbits. It seems Bugs and his friends are everywhere during the summer, not just in the woods, but in our lawn, the neighbors lawns, and across the street, too. Now that it is cold, and the trees are bare, they haven’t been around, and I forgot about them, until one ran across my path in the park this evening. It was nearly dark, but its white tail stood out clearly as it bounded across the path.
  • Squirrels. These are everywhere. You can’t look at a tree or into the shrubs without seeing squirrels. There are two varieties, I think: a typically gray one, and one that looks almost black. They frequently chase each other around, and I can never tell if it is a mating ritual, or if they are playing, or fighting. Incidentally, I refer to all squirrels by their given name, Max. My grandfather fed nuts to several generations of squirrels and called them all Max. Max would come into my Grandfather’s house to get the nuts, and occasionally eat out of his hand. I think they taught this to their young. Squirrels typically live 15-18 years, but it seems to me my Grandfather was feeding them for twice that time.
  • Chipmunks. Not as numerous as squirrels–and much better looking, if you ask me. They seem like they’d make great pets when I watch them scamper around the park. But I could never have a chipmunk as a pet–I couldn’t get used to their high-pitched singing.
  • Fish. On bright days when the stream is calm and clear, there are fish in there. Many of them are very tiny, almost hard to see, but quite a few of them are several inches–I’ve estimated as much as 6-inches long. I jotted down a description of one and then proceeded to find a match, and what I came up with was a sunfish. They must hibernate because I haven’t seen any since the weather turned cold.
  • Fox. Singular. A week or two ago I was walking through part of the part in which a frisbee golf course is set into the woods and watched in amazement as a red fox ran down the long hill, across the bike path about fifty yards in front of me, and back into the woods that lead down to the stream. It is the only fox I have ever seen, and the only time I’ve ever seen it.
  • Snakes. Two of them. I noticed the first one day while looking for fish. At first, it looked like a stick was making its way upstream–against the current. Then it paused by the bank of the stream, its head soaking in the sun. I suspect it had seen some prey and was waiting to make its move. The second one I noticed when the jogger who was about to pass me stopped suddenly. I wondered when, and when I turned to her, she pointed ahead and said, “Suh-suh-snake!” Sure enough, about ten feet ahead on the bike path, a two-foot long snake slithered across the pavement and into the grass. I had walked closer to get a better look. When it disappeared, I turned to the jogger and said, “Coast is clear!” She gave me a wan smile, looked at her FitBit, and replied, “I think I’ve gone far enough today.” She turned and headed back the way she came.

There are all manner of birds, but I am about as bad at identifying birds as I am good at identifying airplanes. I am envious of people who can identify a bird by their call, though I secretly believe they are making it up half the time. I’m quite certain there are two birds I have seen, and one that I have heard. I’ve seen cardinals and robins. And I’ve heard woodpeckers. Usually on a weekend morning. Around six a.m.

And aside from the usual cadre of insects, I’ve seen one, and only one, enormous June bug that crashed into our screen door, while I saw out on the deck one summer evening. It is the 747 of the insect world.

No, no salt water farm, but it’ll have to do for now. We get some variety for a few weeks each year when we head down to Florida. The birds there are more exotic, and there are lizards everywhere. And occasionally, we catch sight of an alligator, although more often than not, we hear the alligator as it crunches the bones of some poor bird in the middle of the night.