Around 10 pm last night, Christmas Eve, our dark bedroom grew noticeably brighter. From behind the trees in the east, a full moon gazed down from its perch in the bleachers, a quarter million miles away. My eyes had already adjusted to the dark, and the moon seemed impossibly bright. I stared at it for a long time, trying to make out the mountains and maria. It occurred to me that fifty years ago, three voyagers from earth were orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve.

Back in April, I read Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made the First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson. I’ve read just about every book on the Apollo missions that exists, but this one was new, and I decided to give it a go, and I’m glad I did because I really enjoyed it. Nothing fills me with a sense of wonder as much as the idea that we have actually visited the moon.

Many of NASA’s most famous astronauts have passed away. None of the Original Seven are alive today. Neil Armstrong is gone. 2017 saw the passing of Dick Gordon, and in 2018 we lost Al Bean so gone is the entire crew of Apollo 12–my personal favorite. As of this writing, however, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders–the crew of Apollo 8–are all still alive. I imagine all of them gazing up at the moon last night, somewhat in awe of the fact that half a century ago, they were there making ten orbits around the moon. Last night, as I looked up at the moon that brightened our room, I tried to imagine what the earth would look like from there tonight.

1968 was a tumultuous year. In his book, Kurson writes about an anonymous telegram sent to the crew of Apollo 8 which purportedly read, “You saved 1968.” I wonder if NASA hadn’t given up on the moon, if Apollo 18, 19 and 20 hadn’t been canceled, if we continued to have stretch goals in science and engineering, how would things be different today? 2018 has also been a tumultuous year, but humans haven’t been to the moon since 1972; the space shuttle hasn’t flown since 2011; and there doesn’t appear to be anything on the horizon on the scale of Apollo.

Fifty years after Apollo 8, I am desperate for something hopeful, something like returning to the moon, even if it is just to show that we can still do it. I’d love to wake up on Christmas morning to the news that three humans are once again in orbit around the moon. If telegrams still existed, I’d be the one to send: YOU SAVED 2018.

Driving Interstate 95

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clearing My Head

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

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

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

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

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

Experimenting with a new look

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

What I like about this theme:

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

What I don’t like about this theme:

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

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

An Evolution of First Lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. “The Stone” (1992)

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

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

2. “Plans for Christmas” (1992)

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

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

3. “The Missing Mile” (1992)

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

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

4. “A Byte of Heaven” (1993)

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

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

5. “Amphisbaenid” (1993)

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

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

6. “Carmel” (1993)

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

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

7. “Concatenate” (1993)

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

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

8. “Conscience Stream” (1993)

His head felt swollen as he stared out the window.

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

9. “Incident Eight” (1993)

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

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

10. “No Small Discovery” (1993)

William sat in front of his baby.

At least I used a fairly common name this time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Through the End of the Year

It just so happens that I am on vacation through the end of the year. Since what book I am reading often reminds me of what I was doing when I was reading it, I try to keep things a bit lighter when on vacation, although it doesn’t always work out that way. As we made the long drive down the I-95 corridor from Virginia to Florida, I finished listening to Jon Meacham’s excellent biography of George H. W. Bush, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. I’ll have more to say on this book in a future post.

At present, I am re-reading One Man’s Meat by E. B. White. I think of that as an almost ideal vacation book, since the essays read like little idyllic windows into life on a Maine salt water farm in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

There are two books I’ve been working my way through slowly, savoring each phrase: Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946 by Gary Giddins and A Dual Autobiography by Will and Ariel Durant. I’m planning on finish both these books while on vacation.

There are a few lists that I have been slowly trying to complete. Two of them are Modern Library’s Top 100 Fiction and To 100 Nonfiction books. Another is Sports Illustrated Top 100 Sports Books of All Time. I plan on tackling a few books from this latter list while on vacation, including The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn, and Friday Night Lights by H. G. Bissinger.

I imagine this list will change slightly, as my reading list often does. But this is a pretty good look at what I’ll be reading through the end of the year.

A Vision for Blogging in 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if you like it, tell your friends.

Bullet Journal: One Book to Rule Them All

I recently began using a Bullet Journal. Longtime readers who recall my going paperless days might find this odd. My going paperless experiment was just that–an experiment to see how far I could go without paper. Eventually, I decided that there were good reasons (for me) to continue to use paper. I’ve been carrying around Field Notes notebooks for years. I use notebooks for work, and large Moleskine notebooks for my journal/commonplace book. So why a Bullet Journal, and why now…?

I. Why Bullet Journal?

Moving back to paper

To understand why I opted for a Bullet Journal, you first have to understand how I work today. After going paperless for many years, I opted to circle back to paper. There were several reasons for this, but the most important to me were:

  • I was tired of spending my day staring at screens.
  • I was frustrated by the complexity of apps available for the simple things I wanted.
  • I was impressed by a remark Walter Isaacson made in his book Leonardo Da Vinci.

Isaacson pointed out that more than 7,000 pages from Da Vinci’s notebooks survived to today–a stretch of 500 years. He asked how many of our tweets and Facebook posts will survive even 50 years. Paper, it turns out, is a durable medium of information storage.

My notebooks

Field Notes

Over the last few years, I have used notebooks with increasing frequency. It started with my discovery of Field Notes notebooks in June 2015. Since then, I have a Field Notes notebook with me at all times. I use it as my short-term memory, and in the years since, I have filled 16 of them.

A page from my first Field Notes notebook (June 2015)

Composition Books

A little over a year ago, I began using traditional Composition Books for all of my work notes. I use these for everything:

  • Meeting notes
  • Capturing step-by-step instructions
  • “Lab” notes for when I am coding or trying to figure something out.
  • Outlining presentations I have to give.
  • Notes from conferences

They all go into these Composition Books. I like them because they have 200 page each which means one book usually lasts me a couple of months. The result is a kind of chronology of my day-to-day work. I number each book, and the pages in each book, and have started to do some light indexing of them to make things easier to find.

Commonplace Book/Journal

I have also been using a large Moleskine Art Collection sketchbook as my commonplace book/journal. I’ve filled nearly three of these books over the last year. I use them as a kind of paper-based multimedia collection of longer form writing. I write about my day, or notes and thoughts on books I’ve read. I record kids’ milestones, and paste in pictures from trips we take. I figure that someday, my kids might find it amusing to rummage through these books to see what my life (and theirs) was like when we were all younger.

One thing I did in these books from the start was to sequentially number each entry. This sequencing continues from one book to the next (I don’t start over at 1 again). This means I can index it to the entry number as opposed to a page number. It makes things less complicated.

A typical page in my commonplace book

But something was missing

I’ve grown used to this division of notebook labor. I have my Field Notes notebook with me all the time. I’m always jotting stuff down, and it often proves useful when I summarize my day in my commonplace book.

Occasionally, I’d find myself making to-do lists in my Field Notes notebook. Or I’d note a task from a meeting in my Composition Book. But I had no good way of finding all of these spurious to-do items, and no good mechanism for checking them off and making sure they were completed.

Over the years, I’ve used many different to-do apps. I probably stuck with Todoist the longest, but I found that (a) even that made it too complicated to quickly capture tasks, and (b) it required me to have some kind of device nearby to do so. Several people had told me about Bullet Journal, but it wasn’t until recently, as I started to prepare for our December vacation and felt overwhelmed with tasks, that I decided I needed to do something to manage the work coming out of my notebooks. So I bought the Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll, and read it. It made sense to me, and I decided to give it a try.

II. My Bullet Journal

Filling a gap

Almost at once, I saw exactly where a Bullet Journal would fill a desperately needed gap: the One Book to Rule Them All.

In this revised system of mine:

  1. My Field Notes notebook is still my short-term memory, and I still carry one with me wherever I go. Now, however, if I have a task, I can add it to the Daily Log in my bullet journal so that I don’t lose track of it.
  2. My Composition Books aren’t going anywhere either. They now act as the raw, detailed notes for all work-related things. Tasks can go into my Bullet Journal, and for my larger projects, I now have collection in my Bullet Journal that I use to better manage those projects. The nice thing is that if I have a task in my bullet journal, I can add a reference back to the more detailed notes in the composition book just by adding a number, e.g. “see 4.129” (book 4, page 129).
  3. My commonplace books still acts as the place I do my longer-form writing. If there is something I want to refer to here from my Bullet Journal, all I do is refer to the entry number, e.g. “see #921.”

Rookie mistakes

Choosing the wrong notebook

Though it seems that most Bullet Journalists use the Leuchttrum 1917 notebook (or the official Bullet Journal variant thereof), I decided I would try to use a Field Notes notebook instead.

It took me one day to realize the problem: in that day, I’d filled up 18 pages of a 48-page notebook. I thought it would be useful to be able to carry the notebook in my pocket, but I could see that it wouldn’t be useful to have to carry dozens of them around with me.

At the same time, I saw a number of examples of interesting things, especially the Calendex idea–a combination calendar and index. That wouldn’t work in a small book like the Field Notes version. And so I bit the bullet and ordered a couple of Leuchttrum 1917 notebooks and that is what I have been using since. Turns out, I like it much better than the Field Notes notebook for this purpose.

Smudging the structure

I liked the Calendex and that was one of the first things I Leuchttrum 1917 bullet journal. But I quickly realized the pen I use, a black Pilot G-2, smudges when used for things like the structure of a page:

My calendex, smudges and all

I’m not giving up my Pilot G-2, which is my favorite pen, so what I decided instead was that I would do structure work using a pencil. In the image above, you can see the left page was done in pen (and is smudged) but the right page structure was done in pencil. Works for me!

Look and feel

There are some amazing looking bullet journals out there. It seems to me that for many people, a bullet journal is as much a form of artistic expression as it is a productivity tool. I found myself going down a rabbit hole of sites and videos of incredible journals, and I was flooded with all kinds of ideas–until I put on the brakes and a basic goal:

  • Keep it simple: my goal is for function not necessarily a beautiful book

If I didn’t set this goal, I could spend days envying other people’s examples and not using my own book for the purpose I have.

Four days in

I’m four days into my Bullet Journal, and I really like it. I am still getting used to things like the daily reflections. 

A page from my daily log

At first I was a little confused between what goes in the monthly log, future log, and what goes on the daily log, but I’ve settled on some simple rules that  work well for me so far:

  • Daily log is for capturing stuff without much consideration–just getting down and out of my head.
  • Monthly log/future log is for tasks that I have thought about and decided they are worth recording there.
  • Don’t migrate tasks to the daily log from other places unless it is a priority.

I’ve also managed to create some collections. I have one for planning what we need for our vacation later this month. I have another one for a work project, and yet another for a project in which I am archiving all my old stories. 

I’ve also used it for notes for things like blog posts. Indeed the images of notebooks that I sketched out at the beginning and middle of this post were born on a page in my bullet journal:


I’m just getting started, but so far, I like what the bullet journal is doing for me. It is serving as the central nervous system for all of my other notebooks and already helping me get a better grasp on the tasks that have been growing wild.

And if any bullet journalists have suggestions, please drop them in the comments!

Backlots of the Mind

When I read book, I see what’s happening in my imagination. Over the years, I seem to have developed a stock of stages that serve as the default placeholder for many common settings that I come across. I call these stages the backlots of the mind.

I was recently re-reading Stephen King’s novella “1922” which takes place on a Nebraska farm in the early 1920s. I’ve never been to Nebraska, but when I was a kid, I visited a relative’s farm in Utah on several occasions. My memories of that Utah farm served as the backlot to the farm in Nebraska. King then added the stage dressing required to make that backlot unique to his story. Indeed, any time I read about a farm–the farm into which Ray Kinsella carves a baseball field in Shoeless Joe for instance–I begin with my backlot Utah farm.

When I read of a completely fictional place, like the University in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, my backlot comes from my memories of walking around the Oxford campus on a visit to England many years ago.

This is as true for nonfiction as it is for fiction. When reading John Adams by David McCullough, and picturing John Adams’ farm, Peacefield–a place which I’ve never visited–I use as my mental backlot the New England farms I’ve seen in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. When reading Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener, I used as my backlot memories of my visit to Princeville, Hawaii on the north shore of Kauai.

When a writer describes someone living in a small house, I imagine the house I rented while living in Maryland. If a scene takes place in vast forested land, I often default to memories of walking through Huntley Meadows Oark. Even in a science fiction story that describes something that doesn’t exist today–Asimov’s Foundation for instance–I find myself resorting to familiar backlots for reference points.

Other times, I don’t have backlots adequate to serve my purposes. In these cases, I have to rely more heavily on the author’s descriptions and draw on other related memories. Reading Endurance by Alfred Lansing, I had no experience Antarctica. Instead, I relied on memories of videos and shows I’ve seen of Antarctica to help fill in the blanks. Reading Shogun by James Clavell, I was almost entirely at the mercy of the author’s descriptions. Fortunately, he did a good job and I really enjoyed the book.

I was thinking about these backlots recently because they provide an important insight into the relationship between a writer and a reader. As a writer, no matter how much detail I provide on a scene, the picture I have in my head will never match that of the reader’s. Every reader brings their own backlots to a story and that is what makes the story unique. I’ve recently started to write again, and I am trying to take this lesson to heart. As a writer my job is to provide just enough detail to let the reader fill in the rest from their own backlots. If there’s an important detail, I’ll add it, but otherwise, it seems better to allow the reader’s imagination to do the work. It makes the story more their own. Still, I sometimes think about books like Endurance and Shogun where I had no backlots to help me out. Surely there are people reading some of my stories who have no backlots for what I am writing about. This is one of those things that makes writing a particular challenge. How much or how little do you assume about a reader?

Some of these backlots change over time, but the most basic ones seems to stay the same. I kind of like that. It brings a familiarity to unfamiliar places between pages. Familiarity helps ease me into a book, and I imagine the same is true for readers of my own stories.

Casting a Spotlight on Importance of Use Cases

A few months ago, we started experiencing some problems with the cable box in our bedroom. It had served diligently for seven years there, and who knows how many years in other places prior to its arrival in our little abode. The cable people came out, examined it, and determined that it was an ancient relic. They provided us with a much newer model, and once again, all was well.

The first evening with the new cable box, however, I discovered a problem: the clock display on the front of the unit was so bright in the darkness of the room, that it cast a blue-green glow throughout the room. I like the room to be dark when I sleep, but the eerie  aurora-like glow of the digits bothered me.

 I spent some time the next day seeing if there was some function in the new cable box that allows for dimming the brightness of the clock. I spent 15 minutes or so searching for such a feature, and unable to find one, I gave up. Instead, I came up with a low-tech solution: each night before going to bed, I block the clock using a paperback book (usually a well-worn copy of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens).

This low-tech method has been in place for a few months now, and it got me thinking about the importance of use cases. Lots of people have TVs in their bedrooms, and presumably, many of these TVs are connected to cable boxes. It seems reasonable to assume that some people like darkness when they sleep. That said, it was clear that this was not a use case considered when testing out this cable box model. It has all kinds of cool features, but it lacks the simple ability to dim the clock display.

I try to keep this in mind at the day job when I am the one making decisions about what features to include or exclude from a particular product or system. Considering all of the reasonable use cases (and to me, the brightness of the display is perfectly reasonable, we see it in most major operating systems today) helps to make better products.

ETA: A commenter on my Facebook page pointed to a possible solution. I looked at it and discovered I was looking in the wrong place for the setting I wanted. Now, when the box is off, the clock is off, too! Thanks, Ben Wilson!

Inside My Notebooks

Over on Instagram, I have been posting photos from various pages of my notebooks. I’ve been posting about one a day as a way of giving folks real-world examples of the kind of stuff that goes into my paper notebooks–much as I posted about the kind of stuff that went into my digital notebooks in Evernote. Here are a few samples:

Notes on the order in which I plan to read Stephen King’s short fiction.
A page from my journal with notes from Everything’s Eventual.
Some notes on the best books I’ve read in 2018, so far. 
Some notes from our 2016 trip to Disney World

If this is the kind of thing you are interested in, you can find more over on Instagram (@jamietr). 

P. S.: This was my first WordPress 5.0 post, using the new Gutenberg editor. I love it!

Reading Goals for 2019

I didn’t have a specific reading goal for 2018. That is, I didn’t say to myself, I am going to read 50 books this year. Way back when I started keeping my list of books in 1996, I did have a goal: Read one book per week. It seemed reasonable at the time, and yet I never managed to make that goal until 2013, when I read 54 books.

Setting a goal

Having a book count as a goal is tricky. Books vary in length. This year, for instance, the average length of books I read was 473 pages. But there is wide variation. The shortest book I read this year was The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, which came in at 96 pages. The longest book I read this year was The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, which exceed 1,300 pages. I read 16 books this year that I consider to be “long” book, each exceeding 700 pages. Such variation makes it difficult to set a specific number of books as a goal.

As most of the my reading comes through audiobook, I rely more on how much time I can spend listening to books each day. Audiobooks makes it easy to listen to books while doing other things: working out, commuting, doing chores around the house, waiting in line, watching your kid’s soccer or basketball practice. Audiobook turn out to be one of my best productivity tricks. Early in the year I set a target of 3-1/2 hours of listening time per day.

From that start, I looked at what the average length of a book I’ve read since I started listening to audiobooks in 2013. It turns out to be 453 pages, which translates into an average of 17 hours, 45 minutes of listening time per book. Well, knowing that, and with a target of 3-1/2 hours of listening time per day, I knew it would take me about 5 days on average to finish a book. And knowing that, I could make a reasonable estimate of how many books I could listen to in a year. That came out to about 73 books, far more than any previous year.

Adjusting the goal

At first, that number seemed completed unreasonable. In 22 previous years the best I’d ever done was last year when I finished 58 books. 73 books would be a 25% increase over last year.

Two things combined to change my outlook:

First, I found that I was regularly exceeding my daily goal of 3-1/2 hours of listening time. For instance, last month, I averaged 4-1/4 hours of listening per day. I keep a little heat map of this data, and here’s what it looks like for November:

Reading Heatmap

Second, over the last 5 years that I’ve listened to audiobooks, I’ve steadily increased the speed at which I listen. I started at 1x and after a long time, moved to 1.25x. Early this year, I moved to 1.5x. Then, this fall, when a new Audible app update introduced the 1.75x speed, I started listening at that speed. Each jump takes some getting used to initially. For the most part, these days, I listen to nonfiction at 1.75x and fiction at 1.5x. When I try to listen to a book at 1x these days, the narrator sounds as if they are on quaaludes.

This had a significant impact on how much I managed to read this year. At 1x speed and an average of 4 hours 15 minutes per day, I can get through 7 book in a month. By comparison, at 1.75x speed, I can get through almost 13 book in the same month. Over the course of an entire year, that’s 150 books! But as I didn’t make this change until more than halfway through the year, I adjusted my goal to something I still thought of as a stretch: 120 book for 2018.

The Goodreads Reading 2018 Reading Challenge

Goodreads has an annual reading challenge where you can set a goal and track your progress, along with that of your friends. So I went into Goodreads and set of goal of 120 books. It looked to be a lot more books than what I was seeing for many people. Indeed, it turns out that the average goal for the Goodreads challenge this year is 59 books. My goal of 120 books is double that. I figured I’d come close, but fall a few books short.

Then, over the weekend, this happened:

2018 Reading Challenge

I finished my 120th book in early December. It’s hard to believe, even with the evidence right there in front of me. And given that I’ve been averaging 14-15 books/month for the last few months, and that the second half of December I’ll be on vacation, I think it is safe to assume that I’ll finish 2018 in the neighborhood of 135 books.

Goals for 2019

So what is my goal for 2019? I’m tempted to set a goal of 148 books for 2019. That may seem like an odd number to pick, but there is some logic to it. Assuming I finish 14 more books this year, 148 books next year means that my last book of 2019 will be my 1,000th book since I started keeping my list in 1996.

Reading History

That is a stretch goal if ever there was one, but I think stretch goals are good, and it gives me something with extra meaning to aim for.

Anyone else have reading goals for 2019? Let me know in the comments.

And for those wondering about the best books I’ve read in 2018, I’ll have a post on that–in January. I don’t think it is fair to put out a “best of” list for 2018 before the year is over. Back in 2016 the best book I read that year was Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen. I didn’t read that book until the end of December. So look for my “best of” list in January.

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