Repeat After Me

Post ideas

I read in the New York Times that Roger Kahn died. The author of The Boys of Summer (the #2 book on Sport Illustrated’s 100 Greatest Sports Books, right after A. J. Lieblings The Sweet Science) was 92 years old. Earlier in the week I read obituaries for Gene Reynolds (M*A*S*H), and Kirk Douglas, who at 103 appears to be out-survived only by Olivia de Havilland. All of these obituaries made me want to write about obituaries.

This, however, exposed an increasingly frequent problem I encounter when writing on this blog: I’ve written about obituaries already. In fact, I’ve written about them more than once. In 2016 I wrote about them in “How I Read the Newspaper.” I touched on the subject again in 2017 in a post aptly titled, “Obituaries.” I returned to the subject last year in “Morning Routines.”

I’ve written about 6,500 posts for this blog—about 2.5 million words, spanning more than 15 years. Since I tend to write about whatever comes to mind instead of focusing on one particular subject, it sometimes seems as though there isn’t anything I haven’t written about. When something occurs to me that seems like it might be worthy subject, the first thing I do these days is a search of the blog to see if I’ve written about it before. I am frequently surprised that I have.

Having written about a subject before doesn’t automatically prevent me from writing about it again. Two conditions typically push me to write again on a subject: (1) I have something new to add; or (2) it has been a long time (a few years at least) since I last wrote about it. Readers come and go, change and evolve, so why not write about it again?

The first condition is most common. Having something new to say is useful. What’s new is often a change of opinion on a subject over time. The classic example of this is my opinion of audiobooks. In January 2012, I wrote a piece on audiobooks where I stated, quite forcefully, that audiobooks were not for me. Reading that piece now is painful now, especially my snobbish reasoning for why I though audiobooks weren’t for me. Eight years, and over 400 audiobooks later, my opinion has changed.

As a kind of experiment, I tried to think of subjects that I might not have written about (or that I had completely forgotten I’d written about) over the years, and then search to blog to see if I had or hadn’t. Here is just some of the results:

At times it seems I’ve written about everything but the kitchen sink. Except—I’ve written about that, too.

Notably absent here is political writing. This sometimes surprises me, given that my degree is in political science and journalism. The truth is that it seems everywhere I turn, people are writing about politics, and anything I have to say has been said before. I don’t particularly enjoy writing about politics, either. I’d just as soon write about something more obscure, but fun: like my inability to locate a paperclip when I need one.

Perhaps all of this is just to say that, while I try my best not to be too repetitive here, some repetition is an inevitable byproduct of the thousands of posts I’ve already written. I ask for your patience with this as I blunder on into the future.

One Title Is Better Than Two

Can we all agree that having more than one title for a magazine article is confusing and counterproductive? I try to read a feature article every day from the magazines piled on my desk and the ones taking up virtual bits on my phone. The problem for me is that the title of the article in the printed magazine rarely matches the title in the digital version. How can one discuss an article with a friend if the same article has more than one title?

Take, for example, an article I read in the January/February issue of The Atlantic. The title of the article (which I read on my phone) was “The Christian Withdrawal Experiment” by Emma Green. At the conclusion of the article is this message: “This article appears in the January/February 2020 print edition with the headline ‘Retreat, Christian Soldiers.’”

Having written nonfiction for magazines, I know that the author’s title is rarely the title that makes it to the page. When I wrote for The Daily Beast, I don’t think any of the titles on my manuscripts were ever used in the actual article. I assume this is because editors are smarter than I am about what attracts online readers with shortening attentions spans. Presumably, if someone is reading the print version, they are in no hurry so a different, less click-bait-heavy title is warranted.

(When I write fiction, editors rarely changed my titles. Indeed, I can think of only one time when an editor requested a minor title change—and it ended up leading to my friendship with the science fiction writer Allen Steele.)

The problem with two different titles for the same article is that it makes it hard to refer to the article when discussing it with friends and family. A few days earlier, I read a fascinating, long piece in the digital version of The New Yorker titled “Quassem Suleimani and How Nations Decide to Kill” by Adam Entous and Evan Osnos. This is a particularly wordy title, and the words, I imagine (“Suleimani”, “Nations”, “Kill”) are specifically chosen to capture clicks and views. In the print edition, the same article has the snappier, shorter title, “Last Man Standing.” Considering the nature of the article, the latter title is far superior.

The online titles are inevitably more verbose than their terser print companions. Take the February issue of National Geographic, for instance. Here are the titles of the feature articles in the print and online editions:

Print EditionOnline Edition
“The Last Slave Ship” “America’s last slave ship stole them from home. It couldn’t steal their identities”
“Prairie Divide” “Two visions collide amid push to restore Montana plains”
“Redefining Beauty” “The idea of beauty is always shifting. Today, it’s more inclusive than ever”
“Flamingo Bob” “Meet Flamingo Bob, the poster bird for conservation”
“A Journey with Spice” “This Vietnamese national park is a spice lover’s dream”

If I refer to the online title in speaking to someone who reads the print edition, they might not have any idea what article I was talking about, especially if they haven’t read it yet.

And which of the titles is the “official” title? How does the The New Yorker handle this? Is this the kind of thing that would have driven William Shawn crazy? Of course, Shawn was out at the New Yorker before the Internet and online editions, so it was not something he had to deal with. Do magazines differ in their policies for having an online title and a print title as far as which one is official? What are the standards for citing such an article? Does it matter if you read it in the online edition or the print edition? Certainly, I can imagine some citations referring to the online title, and others to the print title, which creates further confusion.

Also, the online titles are invariable longer and more terrible than their print counterparts. There is an elegance of brevity to the print titles that often infuse them with wit. The Entous and Osnos article in The New Yorker is one example of this. “Prairie Divide” is another good title that succinctly summarizes the crux of the article whereas “Two visions collide amid push to restore Montana plains” is a mouthful, and quite frankly, is an inelegant and terrible title.

I was thinking about this because I have been trying to jot down the articles I read each day in my bullet journal. I started by scribbling just the title as it appeared in whatever medium I happened to be reading. But the notion that this might prove confusing has forced me to record both titles. The first title I write is the one that appeared in the medium that I read the article. Then, parenthetically, I write the alternate title.

I, therefore, make a humble appeal to editors everywhere: call the article whatever you like. But to spare me the extra effort it takes to look up and write the alternate titles in my notes, to say nothing of the confusion it causes, please settle on a single title for all editions.

This post will someday appear in a print edition with the title, “Title Confusion.”

A Bullet Journal Update

It has been a while since I last wrote about my bullet journal experiment. The first year of that experiment was a learning experience. Some parts of my bullet journal worked well; others went completely unused. For 2020, I started a new bullet journal with the goal of incorporating the lessons I learned over the last year. Here are a few of those lessons.

Practicality over artistry

I often learn by example. When I got started with my bullet journal, I went down the rabbit hole looking at countless pictures people had posted of their bullet journals. I often felt like I was walking through galleries of some strange art museum where the works of art were 8 x 6” grid notebook pages full of color and fine design. Everyone in the world, it seems, had bullet journal that was a work of art compared to what I had. I finally resigned myself to a level of artistic competence far below what I was seeing. Instead of fancy multi-colored calligraphic month name with art matching the theme of the month, my monthly spread was headed with a hastily scratched “Dec. 2019.”

 For 2020 this helped me when I set up my new bullet journal. I don’t have the skill or time to produce a bullet journal that is both Instagram-worthy and practical. I settled for practical. The pages in my bullet journal are filled with scribbled blank ink, cross-outs, smudges, and resemble my chemistry lab books from college. Works of art they are not, but they serve their purpose.

Keep it simple

Practicality also meant some changes and simplification based on what I learned in my first year:

  • I found that I didn’t use my Future Log very often. I kept it around in 2020, but I’m not sure it will last into next year. In most months, my future log is blank, and only occasionally did I move something from my daily or monthly log to the future log.
  • My monthly spread has changed as well. I was using this more as a place to record, after-the-fact, some noteworthy events from the day. This year, to make it more useful, I added some habit-trackers to my monthly spread. There are four of them and it may be too many. We’ll see.
  • My daily log is the meat of my bullet journal. I use this throughout the day to capture tasks, and record things that I have done so that I can remember them later. I’ve gotten better at using it for notes and events as well as tasks. These are messy pages, and I envy those bullet journalists who have such neat and clean looking daily logs.
Example of my daily log for 2020
Example of my daily log for 2020

An Article A Day

I had all kinds of unique spreads last year that I never ended up using. Others I used quite well. It’s hard to say what will work and what won’t. I’m trying to minimize these this year, focusing only on those things that are practical and important to me. For instance, I’ve tried off-and-on for a few years to keep track of the various magazine articles I read. I get a lot of magazines, and it is hard to keep up with them. A while back, I decided the best way to keep up was to try reading a single feature article a day. Over the course of a month, I’d read 30 feature articles, a good percentage of all of the articles in the magazines I receive. I’ve wanted to track these for a while, but it’s never worked out. Certainly not the same way that capturing my book reading has.

For 2020, I decided to create a monthly spread called “Article a Day.” On the spread, I’d jot down the title, author, and source of the article I read that day. This worked out well in January where I was successful in reading an article every day except January 26. It is continuing to work well in February.

Article a day spread for January 2020
Article-a-day spread for January 2020

My simplified bullet journal is working well for me so far this year. I don’t carry it around with me everywhere I go, as is often recommended. (I have my Fields Notes notebook for that.) But as a way of organizing my day, the work I need to complete, the tasks I have to take care of, and in general, getting stuff out of my head and onto paper, it has been a big help. My bullet journal looks more like a messy lab book than a work of art—but that’s the way I like it.

Reading about Food Makes Me Hungry

I was reading John McPhee’s wonderful essay “Heirs to the General Practice” about rural family practice doctors when I came across a passage in which one of the saw bones described his breakfast as a piece of coffee cake and some bacon. Immediately I craved coffeecake for breakfast. Ignoring the lingering pain for some minor surgery I had last week, I rushed to the grocery store Monday morning to seek out some coffee cake for breakfast.

Naturally, they were all out. Everyone else must have read McPhee’s 100-page essay as well, even though it appeared in The New Yorker more than three decades ago. They all must have read that passage and decided that they, too, must have coffee cake. Maybe a few wanted the bacon, too.

I don’t know what it is, but when I read about food, I want to eat. This rarely happens when I see characters chowing down on a TV show or in a movie. But if I am reading a description about the catering service on set for the Lord of the Rings, or about the food in an officer’s mess in a history on the Second World War in Europe, I am taken by the description, meager as it may be, and I suddenly want to eat what I am reading about.

As you might imagine, I avoid all magazine articles on food, whenever possible. I shudder to think what might happen if I started to read those. I had a book on the recent food trends on my wish list for several months before reluctantly deciding I’d be better off without it.

You might think this is hyperbole. After all, I am a writer, and I write for a living[1]. I need to be entertaining to my readers, and hyperbole helps with this. But I’m not really exaggerating. Let me give a recent example to illustrate this–by way of complaint.

Entenmann’s Coffee Cafe is completely impractical for breakfast. I know this because, upon awakening this morning, the passage in McPhee’s essay had not yet left me, and I was still craving coffee cake. So out I went, this time to a different grocery store. And this time, I struck pay dirt. I bought an Entenmann’s Crumb Coffee Cake.

According to the good people at Entenmann’s, a serving of Coffee Cake is 1/9th of the cake in the box. If anyone in charge at Entenmann’s is reading this, let me just say that you’re kidding yourselves and your customers if you think 1/9th of a coffee is a practical size. I am the only coffee cake-eater in the house. At 1/9th of a slice, it would take me 9 days to consume the entire coffee cake.

So far, so good, right? I paid 6 bucks for the cake, so that’s 66 cents per day for breakfast. A bargain!

The problem is the cake, while satisfying, wasn’t particularly moist when I ate it this morning. Tomorrow, I imagine it will be less moist. By Saturday, I might have to switch from a fork to a knife. Cutting that penultimate slice on day number 8, I fear, will require technology that hasn’t been invented yet.

How to solve this problem? Here’s how:

This morning's coffee cake, annotated
This morning’s coffee cake, annotated

I was craving coffee cake because of that darn McPhee article. So why not have a big slice for breakfast. Instead of 1/9th, I took one quarter. At some point, later in the morning, Kelly decided join the fun. She took the equivalent of about 1/18th of a slice. Then again, she didn’t read “Heirs to the General Practice” and suffer the jealousy of that coffee cake and bacon breakfast.

I was busy with work today. I had a late lunch. The post-surgical pain kept me from wanting to move around too much. I needed something for lunch that would be quick. I remembered the coffee cake. Knowing me as she does, Kelly tried to hide the coffee cake under the loaf of bread. That’s like a fat grizzly trying to hide behind a thin tree. I saw through her charade. I started to cut a small slice of cake, and then decided that if it was too small, and I was still hungry, I wouldn’t want to have to get up again. So, I cut another quarter slice of coffee cake.

At this rate, the cake should be gone by tomorrow.

All of this I offer as evidence of my weakness when I read about food. No exaggeration, right? I’ve tried to think of possible solutions to this. I came up with a short list:

  1. Tell John McPhee to stop including food in the profiles he writes.
  2. Stop reading profiles by John McPhee
  3. Stop reading.

Numbers two and three are a lot less practical than a 1/9th slice of coffee cake. Anyone have John McPhee’s phone number?

I have to go now. I just heard the kids ask what we are having for dinner. It may turn out to be a fend-for-yourself night. And somehow, while writing this, that box of Entenmann’s coffee cake has crawled back into sight.

[1] This is not hyperbole. It is pure exaggeration.

Night Noises

One of the worst feelings is waking up in the middle of the night to the echo of a short, sharp CHIRP! I lay there in the dark and wonder Did I just hear that, or was it the echo of a dream? I am about to drift back off to sleep when–CHIRP!–there it goes again, and now I am off on a nighttime hunt for the offending smoke detector. It is never the one you think it is. It always turns out to be the one most inconveniently located–which is also the one that I’m certain I just changed the batteries on last month. It takes an hour to get back to sleep.

Last night, I woke up in darkness to the sound of two faint beeps. What could that be? It’s disturbing to hear noises at night you don’t recognize. I waited for them to repeat. They didn’t. I finally decided it was the sound of someone locking their car remotely somewhere up the street.

Our ducts tick when the heat is on. I’ll sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of that ticking. It is not disturbing at all. In fact, it is kind of comforting. It is a reminder that I am warm, even though it is cold outside.

One of the more alarming night noises is the sound of little feet pounding on the hardwood floors. From the frequency of the pattering, I can tell not only who it is, but whether it is a serious problem, or just the little one wanting to climb into bed with us. Worse is a sound I heard a few nights ago. It was a loud THUD from the room next door. I lay there for a moment wondering if I actually heard the sound. Then I wondered what it might be. Finally, as the realization flooded in, I felt a surge of adrenaline and burst out of bed to find that the little one had fallen out of her bed onto the floor. She was in a bit of a daze, and probably would have been fine, if I hadn’t freaked her out by pointing out that she’d fallen out of bed.

Once, in the old house, we all awoke in the middle of the night when the house alarm went off. A minute later the phone rang. It was the alarm company, checking to make sure everyone was alright. The back gate was open, but I also noticed it was very windy out. I chalked it up to the wind, but it was a long while before I got back to sleep.

Maybe the worst sound in the middle of the night is the rare occasion when I awaken to the sound of someone whispering my name. Logically, I know it was just the echo of a dream. Even so, I look over to see if Kelly is sleeping. I get up and check on the kids to see if one of them called me. Then I get back into bed and my imagination starts to run wild. I remember that scene from Communion where the alien is peeking out of the closet and slowly tries to disappear back inside.

Andy Rooney has pointed out that the house creeks more at night than during the day. I won’t say that this is scientifically true, but it seems like it is.

On once woke up to the sound of an old manual typewriter ticking away in the middle of the night. I could find no ghost writer roaming the house, but when I got back into bed, the idea stayed with me and ultimately found its way into a story.

Writer Envy

Books by John McPhee, Stephen King, and E.B. White

I sometimes wonder if professional baseball players envy their teammates. Does a career average player look to a superstar and wonder: Why can’t I be that good? What’s holding me back? Envy isn’t an emotion that I am proud of, but sometimes that painful awareness of a talent I don’t possess and someone else does creeps in.

The truth is, I envy all sorts of writers, not for their success as much as their pure natural ability and talent. Stephen King is among my favorite writers, and I envy his ability to tell a good story, which for me is the single most important part of writing fiction. I envy Ray Bradbury’s lyricism. When I have tried to write like Bradbury, it always feels forced and phony.

I envy the nonfiction writer’s ability to research their material. E.B. White is among my favorite essayists and I envy the easy of his voice. Another of my favorites is John McPhee. I envy his abilities as well, but I envy something about him even more: I envy his travels, his ability to embed himself with whatever subject he was writing about and make it a part of his life. John McPhee has the rarest of talents: he can take any subject and make it interesting.

I know I shouldn’t be envious. I should be thankful for what abilities I possess as a writer. Those abilities, such as they are, were nurtured by parents who encouraged reading. They are almost entirely developed of brute force, and stubbornness. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I submitted and submitted and submitted, until finally, editors started to buy my stories. No shortcuts for me!

As a writer, I am rarely satisfied with what I write. At best, my writing seems “good enough” to send out, and on occasion, it is published, but I often look at what I write, and mentally compare it to those writers that I look up to as role models, and it seems always that we are in different leagues. They are major league superstars, bound for the Hall of Fame. I, on the other hand, bounce around the minor leagues, never quite getting to the level of the majors.

I desperately want to make that leap. I can imagine it, and perhaps that is half the battle. When I was much younger, and just starting to write, I used to daydream that one day, in my wildest imagination, I might actually sell a story to Analog. It seemed impossible, like winning the lottery. Eventually, I did sell to Analog. I could imagine it, and as impossible as it seemed, I made that leap.

The next leap seems much more difficult to make, and it has stymied my writing since late 2015 when I sold my last piece of fiction. I’ve been unsure of my writing ever since. I find myself writing the same pieces of story over and over again, to claim to myself that I am writing, when all I am really doing is going in circles. Part of my problem is that I am not sure where to go from here. Part of my problem is envy and fear. I want to tell stories like Stephen King. I want to write like E.B. White. I want to embed myself in my research like John McPhee.

I suppose there is a danger in comparing yourself to someone at the top of their profession, especially when I am close to the bottom. I try to look at it optimistically: I have a lot of room to grow. But it is a hard hill to climb when you don’t have much time in the day to practice your craft.

This year I have set a modest goal for myself: to get back to writing every day. Even if it is only for five or ten minutes, try to write something every day. I considered a tougher goal of writing a story a month–12 stories in the year, far more than I have ever written before. But that seemed self-defeating. The first step is to get back into the habit, to start flexing those muscles again.

I have a smaller, more subtle goal as well: to try to be less envious of other writers and instead, to appreciate their talents for the beauty they create instead.

I’m Writing This Post on My New Freewrite

I have often daydreamed about buying a typewriter and using it to write all of my first drafts. With a typewriter, I’d have no distractions from email, or social media. I wouldn’t be tempted by the apps on my computer. I’d slide in the paper and start typing. Of course, things like typos and corrections would be more problematic than on a word processor. Then, too, I wouldn’t have an electronic archive of those first drafts, just the paper copies. I suppose I could scan those. Finding the right typewriter is tricky, and maintaining it is trickier.

Enter my new Freewrite by Astrohaus. The Freewrite is billed as a “Smart typewriter for distraction-free writing.” So far, I’ve put a couple thousand words through it, and I think that is enough for some initial thoughts. First, the device itself.

The Freewrite is about the size of my circa 1950 Royal QuietComfort DeLuxe manual typewriter, although without as high a profile. It is significantly lighter than my Royal typewriter, and rests easily on my desk. It has a built-in handle for carrying around, and a full-sized keyboard that feels comfortable to use. Its e-ink screen is divided into to parts: a large upper screen where the text I write appears, and through which I can scroll back and forth to review; and a smaller status window that can show me various pieces of information about what I am working on.

The Freewrite seems to address many of my concerns about using a typewriter: It saves everything I write locally, but can also connect to WiFi for the purpose of syncing documents to a cloud service like Dropbox, Evernote, or Google. The synced documents appear in Word format, and I can use Markdown when typing on my Freewrite to create the basic formatting I want in my document.

The screens on my Freewrite.

What I like about the Freewrite is that it is designed for drafting. There are no distractions. I don’t get email notifications; I can’t check Twitter or Facebook. It is simply a tool that allows me to focus on the first draft of whatever it is I happen to be writing, much as a typewriter would do.

Indeed, the Freewrite has no arrow keys. I can’t go back and edit something I’ve written, only add to it, and that is by design. The idea is to focus on writing and worry about editing and revising later. Not having the arrow keys takes some getting used to, but I kind of like it. It is leading me into a whole new process for writing, one which I haven’t completely settled on yet, but the basis version is:

  • Write first drafts in Freewrite.
  • Print and mark-up the first drafts from the Word documents created by the Freewrite.
  • Revise and edit in Word for final copy.

There is a switch on the Freewrite to allow me to switch between one of three folders that my documents get synced to. Right now, I have them set up as follows:

  • One folder for fiction.
  • One folder for blog posts (like this one).
  • One folder for correspondence.

I really like the simplicity of the device. I like its portability, too, although I haven’t taken it out with me yet. Part of this is that the opportunity has not yet arisen. Part of this is because the tool is designed to promote distraction-free writing, and I fear that upon seeing the device, people will be curious about it and ask me lots of questions–and I will get very little writing done.

As a use it more, I’ll have more to say about the device and how it is affecting my writing process. For now, consider this post the first official thing I’ve drafted completely on my new Freewrite.

Me and my new toy.

Latchkey Kid

It occurred to me this morning that in October of this year, John Lennon would have been 80 years old. That is, twice as old as he was when he was killed at age 40 in 1980. It’s strange to think that I am nearly 8 years older than Lennon was when he died.

The reason this was on my mind was because of a tweet by Anil Dash addressed to Gen Xers:

As a Gen Xer, and former latchkey kid, I considered this and decided that I was either 8 or 9 years old when I walked home from school with a key hung on a string around my neck. The variability (8 or 9) is due to some fuzziness of memory. Two events stand out in my mind, and I may have conflated them, but here they are:

  1. I remember walking home from Cedar Hills Elementary school on a mild afternoon, on December 8, 1980. I had to call my mom at work when I got home to let her know I was home safe. I remember the specific date because my mom was crying, and that was when I learned that John Lennon had been shot and killed.
  2. A few months later, on a much warmer day on March 30, 1981, I walked home from school–with my younger brother, I think–and learned that President Reagan had been shot.

I think I have blended these two events together in my mind, but in trying to answer Anil’s question, the best I can do is to say if I was a latchkey kid when Lennon was killed, I was eight, and if I was a latchkey kid when Reagan was shot, I was 9.

Regardless of when I became a latchkey kid, the fact is I was one. I had an actual key on a piece of string tied around my neck. When I got home from school, I walked into the kitchen and picked up the wall phone and dialed my mom’s office to let her know that I had arrived home safely. I don’t remember what time I got home from school, and what time my mom or dad arrived home after. I’d guess I got home around 3 pm and that one or both of my parents was typically home around 5 pm or so.

I did homework, I ate a snack. I’m not sure what else I did early on, but after the summer of 1981, one thing I know I did was flip on MTV and watch music videos.

I do think about this sometimes, with respect to my own kids. My son and older daughter are both at least the age that I was when I was a latchkey kid. But a lot has changed since the days I was a latchkey kid that makes it easier for them to avoid being latchkey kids themselves. For one thing, we can, for the most part, work from home, so that there is no need for them to be latchkey kids. For another, if the kids are home alone, they have phones, they can use to text us, or call us, wherever we are, a luxury that didn’t exist at the time when MTV was born. (We had phones, of course, but not mobile devices that we carried with us.)

Some of the implication here, I suppose, is that latchkey kids are somewhat more self-reliant than kids of a similar age today. I couldn’t say. For me, I never really thought much about it beyond the iron-clad rule of calling my mom’s office once I got home. I wasn’t doing much more than what I would have done if my parents had been home when I got back from school. And I could, at times, engage in questionable behavior when my folks weren’t around. Just ask my sister about the time I convinced her to jump off some railroad ties along our driveway, and the resulting bloody mouth she ended up with–all while I was supposed to be watching her while my parent’s were out.

To hold being a latchkey kid as a point of pride over “kids today” seems rather mean-spirited and pointless. It was as fact of life, that’s all. Looking back, I think I would rather have had that extra couple hours a day with my parents around, and I am grateful to have that time with my own kids. I don’t think it made me any better than kids today who don’t have to be latchkey kids. It just helps me empathize with those that do.

Guest Post Requests Get Meta

For years I have had a set of site policies about things like guest posts and advertising (tl;dr: I don’t accept unsolicited guest posts or any advertising). Occasionally, I post a reminder, but I still get requests. The one I got today deserves to be shared because (1) it shows where automation/AI can fail, and (b) it is so meta that it’s funny. Here is an image of the text of the message (links are not clickable in the image):

A few thoughts:

  1. The article the writer enjoyed where I talk about guest posts is this post, which is a reminder that I don’t accept unsolicited guest posts, advertising, or link exchanges.
  2. They enjoyed it so much, that they added my site policy page to their Flipboard.
  3. Last month (December 2019, presumably), they wrote a 7,000 word guide on the best guest post sites for 2017! Would I consider linking to it? I wouldn’t link to it if it was a 7,000 word guide for the best guest post sites for 2019, let alone 2017. How many of those sites no longer exist in 2020?
  4. Then comes the request for a link exchange (which I explicitly say I don’t do in the article my correspondent enjoyed so much). If I modify my site policy to include a link to the best Guest Posting Sites for 2017, they will include my blog in their post on the Best Blogs to Follow in 2017.

I am reminded of that Groucho Marx quote about not wanting to belong to any club that would have me as a member. I didn’t reply to this message, of course. I rarely do, and when I do, it’s usually to point the correspondent to my site policies. But if I did reply, I’d have to wonder about getting on a list of Best Blogs to Follow that requires some kind of quid pro quo to make it onto the list in the first place.

I have been writing this blog for a long time, and what I have found is that it is good writing, and interesting posts, and not link exchanges and guest posts that helps to build and maintain an audience. If anyone out there is thinking about starting a blog, and looking for tips, here’s one: don’t do what my correspondent did.

A Warm January Day

The weather cooperated with us this year. More often than not, when we leave for Florida in December, the weather here is cold and nasty. By the time we cross the St. Mary’s River from George in to Florida, the skies are clear, and the temperatures are warm. I open the windows to soak it in. The reserve is usually true on the way home. We leave Florida’s sunny, warm January weather and arrive home in sleet and cold.

This time was different. We did, indeed, leave Florida with blue skies and warm weather. But we arrived home with almost equally warm weather. It was 72 degrees here in Arlington, Virginia yesterday!

Our house backs up to the local park, and when I took a walk through the park yesterday afternoon, it was flooded with people; more people than I think I have ever seen at one time. Each of them had dragged out their New Year’s Resolutions and were making their way around the park, walking, jogging, biking, skating. Dogs owners obediently followed their charges. My ducks were out in enjoying the warm air. Squirrels were everywhere. I saw one petrified squirrel trapped in the middle of a playground full of children. It ran one way, and halted, its path blocked by a toddler. It ran another way and found another toddler blocking its way. It hid under a slide, until identifying a clear path and making its way to a tree.

According to this morning’s paper, yesterday’s warm weather did not set a record for this day in January. The record was 75 F and we only reached San Diego weather of 72 F. Still, for us thick-blooded Mid-Atlantians, it felt like an early summer day.

It was so warm that Nature was fooled, and I saw buds in the trees.

Buds in the trees in January.

It rained overnight. I woke up around 2 am and it sounded like an ocean crashing down on our roof. But when the sun came up, the sky was clear and blue and the temperatures were still in the mid-60s. It made for a pleasant morning walk.

We spent 3 weeks in Florida between December and January. We swam in pools, in the Gulf and in the Atlantic. It sort of spoils you for the cold weather when you spend that much time in winter in warm weather. So it was nice to come back to weather that helps to ease the transition.

It will cool off over the next few days, but it will by no means be cold. 56 F tomorrow, 53 on Tuesday, 60 on Wednesday, 54 on Thursday. Next weekend it looks like it will return to normal around here.

When I lived in New England as a kid, I remember an occasional warm period during winter and it was always a treat. I’m grateful that the Internet didn’t exist back then, and that HBO (in its very early days) played Star Wars over and over again. I’d seen it 20 times. It meant that when the weather was unseasonably warm, we were outdoor, playing in the woods, or in the frames of the unfinished houses being built in our neighborhood. Only reluctantly would we return indoors, drowning our sorrows in MTV videos of Duran Duran’s “Rio”, Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey,” and the Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

I shudder to think that was nearly 40 years ago.

The Long Road Home

View from our hotel room on the last full day of our vacation.

We departed our resort at Walt Disney World yesterday morning at 8:15 am and arrived home just before 11 pm, 860 miles of driving. We have driven too and from Florida more than a dozen times, but this is the first time we attempted to drive all the way home in a single day.

The first time we drove to Florida, in 2012, we made the trip over 3 days, spending nights in places like Florence, South Carolina, and Kingland, Georgia. We’d do the same on the reverse run, stopping in places like Savannah and Charleston. After several years of these trips, we slimmed them down to just one night on the road, stopping at a roughly midway point in South Carolina. We’ve done that for years, and indeed, that is what we did driving down in December.

But we visited Walt Disney World at the end of our trip this time, instead of the beginning. We are normally in southern Florida, and being three hours closer to home made it tricky to decide where to stop for the night. I suggested we try to make the run all the way through. So we left Orlando at 8:15 am, drove through some rush hour traffic on I-4, and then onto I-95 where we encountered no traffic for the entire drive.

It wasn’t that hard. It might seem like a small thing, but I am always impressed by the good state of the roads, the quality of the rest stops, and the friendliness of the people at gas stations and restaurants along the way. We stopped in Walterboro, South Carolina for a late lunch, but other than a couple of pit stops, I drove and drove and drove.

I finished 3 audiobooks on the drive: I was almost finished with Ted Chaing’s Exhilation before the drive, and finished it while we were still in Florida. Next, I turned to Chuck Palahniuk’s new book, Consider This: Moments in My Life After Which Everything Was Different. Having finished that, I was still craving more on the writing life, so I re-read John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. That audiobook came to an end as we pulled into our driveway, right around 10:50 pm.

Listening to the audiobooks made the time fly by. So did the lull of the road. I remember when we stopped for lunch, around 2 pm, thinking that it didn’t seem like we’d been driving for nearly 6 hours already.

860 miles is the most I have driven in a single day. I think the runner up is in the 500 mile range. It made sense to do this, coming home, because it gives us the entire weekend to get the house back in order, do laundry (we were gone for 21 days) and settle back into our routines before we are back to work and school on Monday. I’m not sure I’d do this driving down to Florida.

The photo is a view from our hotel room on the last full day at Walt Disney World. We stayed in two different resorts this time, but I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.

After being gone for 3 weeks, it feels good to be home. It does not feel like we just left on the trip, or that the trip flew by. 21 days is a long time by any measure. It’s nice to be back in my office surrounded by my books. It’s nice to have 2 days to settle back in before work starts again.


Decades are interesting milestones. For one thing, they are rare in the course of a lifetime. For much of human history, the average person lived to see only three decades pass. Today, we might see, seven, eight, or even nine decades, but still that is only seven, eight, or nine events in the course of an entire life.

It is for this reason, I suppose, that decades are so often celebrated as major events. Even so, you can’t flip the calendar page without stirring some controversy. There will always be people who argue over when a decade actually begins and ends: Does the decade begin in 2020, or 2021?

If you are lucky, you were born on a decade boundary. It makes the math a lot easier. For instance, Isaac Asimov used January 2, 1920 as his birthday (having been born in a small town in Russia, he was never quite certain of the date). That makes it easy to figure that he would have been 100 years old on January 2, 2020. My grandfather was also born in 1920. I’m envious of people who are born in a century year: 1900, 2000, etc. It is impossible to forget how old you are if you were born on January 3, 2000, and today is January 3, 2020.

The first time I was consciously aware of the change of decades was in the fall of 1979. We had recently moved to New England, and there must have been buzz in the air because I remember thinking that soon, the 70s would be over and it would be 1980. I thought 1980 sounded very science-fictional.

By the time the next decade rolled around, I was getting ready to graduate from high school. I don’t recall as much of an internal drama about the change of decades at that point. But I do recall going to see L.A. Story–still one of my favorite movies–with my brother in the summer of 1990, before heading off to college. It was billed as “the first great comedy of the 1990s” so even the studios were riding the decade’s coattails.

The next decade was special, not just because it was a new decade, but a new millennium. There was no way that I could be unaware of the year 2000: a big part of my job in the 18 months leading up to that milestone decade was to make sure that the various computer systems that my company used would not be affected by the Y2K bug. On the evening of December 31, 1999, my company threw a big party and at midnight, the party suddenly paused as we all scampered about, making sure that all systems were still up and running.

What is remarkable about a decade is how much things can change between one decade and the next, In 1900, there were no airplanes but in 1910 there were enough planes flying to allow for the first mid-air collision. In 2000, I was trying to make sure the company computers weren’t going to crash, but in 2010, I was fawning over our 6-month old baby, who, yet another decade later, is suddenly 10-1/2 years old.

I graduated from high school in 1990, a nice even decade, making it easy to figure out that this year will be my 30th high school reunion. A friend recently pointed out that 2050 is the same distance in the future as 1990 is in the past.

I was lucky to have been born late enough in a century to allow my life to span across two centuries. I was born in the 1900s and have made it into the 2020s (so far!). It is unlikely I will see another century. But my youngest daughter, born in 2016, has a very good chance of watch the hoverball levitate down the facade of a building in Times Square as the clock counts down to yet another new decade, January 1, 2100.