Visiting with Mel Brooks in Florida

cover for Mel brooks all about me

Mel Brooks new book, All About Me: My Remarkable Life in Show Business, made its debut on Tuesday. I had pre-ordered it and awoke Tuesday morning to the cheerful news that the book was available and we might see our first snow of the season. The snow failed to make an impression but the book has put me in a quandary all day: should I start it now, or wait a few weeks?

After a monthlong spell of not being able to figure out what to read, I went with an old reliable and re-read One Man’s Meat by E. B. White for the fifth time. That seemed to get me back on track. I finished the book at lunchtime, and of course, I am eager to start the Mel Brooks memoir. I’ve seen him on TV lately and there are few people I think of as funnier than Mel. But there is reason to wait. In a few weeks, we’ll be heading to Florida for our winter vacation, and I really want to save the book for when I am down there.

At the end of 2015, while on vacation in Florida, I began reading Dick Van Dyke’s memoir My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business. I would listen to the audio book (narrated by Van Dyke) while walking on the two mile loop of a bike path that circumnavigate’s the community where my mother-in-law lives. It was winter, but it was 80-degrees. I wore shorts as I walked, an in these 2-mile spurts, I listened to Dick Van Dyke tell stories of his life, his career, and Hollywood. I like it so much that when I finished it, I immediately began another Dick Van Dyke memoir, Keep Moving, and Other Tips and Truths About Aging. I found that I couldn’t get enough.

I followed those up with two Carl Reiner memoirs, I Remember Me, which I read poolside, and I Just Remembered which I listened to as we began the 1,100 mile drive back home. It was wonderful having Carl in the car with me, regaling me with stories of the borsht belt, New York, and Hollywood. The drive was long and I wanted more, so I listened to Carol Burnett’s This Time Together to finish out the drive.

Still not satiated, upon arriving home, I spent that cold, snowy January reading Norman Lear’s Even This I Get To Experience, Garry Marshall’s My Happy Days in Hollywood, and Tim Conway’s hilarious What’s So Funny?

In 2018, while in Florida for our holiday break, I found myself listening to Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946 by Gary Giddins, and I called it a tradition. In 2019, while walking that 2-mile bike path each morning, I listened to The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Bob Iger, as well as George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones, and also Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-Earth by Peter Jackson. Holiday vacation in Florida had become a time for guilty pleasure reading, and one of my guilty pleasures are Hollywood memoirs.

But a special subset of those memoirs are those by folks who have been in the business for fifty, sixty, seventy years: the Dick Van Dykes and Carl Reiners and, yes, the Mel Brookses.

I recently wrote about my favorite place to read: it is in hindsight. I look back fondly on those sunny, warm walks in winter, passing through the shade of palm trees while lizards and other reptiles (and not a few rabbits) scamper, slither and hop out of my way. I lose myself in those books and in that atmosphere. There is a strange juxtaposition: it is winter and holiday season. Indoors, the air conditioning keeps the Christmas trees comfortable. There are holiday cookies, Christmas masses and dinners, decorations and presents. Yet outdoors it is summer, and there is something out these memoirs that I just enjoy so much.

So while I am eager to listen to Mel Brook’s memoir–which is narrated by Mel Brooks, just as Dick Van Dyke and Carl Reiner and Carol Burnett and Tim Conway narrated theirs–I want to keep my tradition going. So I am going to wait a few more weeks, though it pains me, until we are once again in Florida, the entire family now fully vaccinated, the grownups boosted, carefree for a long holiday, and listen to the book then.

In the meantime, I have to figure out what to read–and hope that Mel Brooks, now 95-1/2–proves that he really is the Thousand Year Old Man, so that I can send him a note when I finish reading the book.

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Terror on the Wing V, Part 2

A few days ago, I wrote about a short film I was part of 17 years ago, when the cicadas emerged. Seventeen years later, with the reemergence of our little winged friends, the good folks at Revolver Films got the band back together and made Terror on the Wing V, Part 2. iPhones didn’t exist when the first film was made, if you can believe that. We were all younger, which, after seeing myself in Part 2 is not hard to believe at all. But it was just as fun as the first time. Here it is, bigger and better than the first, Terror on the Wing V, Part 2.

And Chris and Todd gave me even more lines in this new installment, a challenge to my aging memory. I think we must have done at least a dozen takes of my scenes. The hardest part was not just cracking up in laughter. I don’t know how real actors do it. Oh, and in case you don’t recognize me 17 years later, you can find me around the 8:00 and 10:00 marks.

If you liked this one, check out all of Revolver Films videos on their YouTube channel.

And thank to Chris and Todd for letting me be a part of these iconic motion pictures. I have only one question for you guys: Can I get my SAG card now?

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Shedding Light on Lights

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There are 58 light bulbs within the lights of our house and sometimes it seems that all of them are on at once. There are many things that made no sense to me as a child that I rebelled against as an adult. Turning off a light when you leave a room is not one of them. I’ve tried to get the kids to turn off a light when the leave a room, but it is a lost cause. No amount of threats, bribes, cajoling, blackmail, or pleading can make them remember to flip a switch when they leave a room. All of these lights are energy efficient and our electric bill is never high, but it is the principle of the matter. For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I am disturbed when a light is on in a room and the room is otherwise unoccupied.

After the kids leave for school in the morning, I find myself on light patrol, roaming the house, wrist poised to flick any switch in the ON position. The Little Man always seems to leave on the lights in his room, which is downstairs. He neglected the stair light as well, even though there is a switch at both the top and bottom of the stairs. He constantly forgets to turn off lights in bathrooms he’s been in. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve reminded him to turn off lights on the game room when he is finished, only to find the lights on when I wander down there. I’ve placed a large sign by the door to the game room: TURN OFF LIGHTS. The sign is ignored.

Usually the light in the girls’ room is on after they have left for school. Often the hall light is on, and the hall bathroom light. I turn all of these off on my rounds, but it is like painting a bridge. By the time I get back upstairs, lights have somehow gone on again.

Our Christmas tree and holiday lights are connected to smart outlets and they turn off and on automatically. I think what we need is motion sensors, that will illuminate a room when someone is present and deluminate (to borrow a term from Harry Potter) a room when it is vacant.

In the evening, I put on the light above the stove to act as a nightlight for anyone who wanders into the kitchen in the middle of the night for a late night snack (usually me). But I turn it off in the morning. The light in our bedroom is often on because Kelly works in there, and then forgets to turn off the light when she leaves the room for an extended period.

I have no explanation for why this bothers me as much as it does. There really is no reason for it. Sure, the kids are forgetful when it comes to lights, but I am forgetful with things. When I take the trash out, I always plan to replace the old trash bag with a new one, but something about the walk to the trash bin outside erases that from my memory. Two hours later, Kelly reminds me. How is this any different from the kids forgetting to turn out a light?

To me, forgetting to turn off a light is just another sign of how frantic everything is in the modern world. There is too much going on to be bothered with turning off a light.

Why is it that a lightbulb can’t be built with a motion detector within it? All you’d have to do is screw in the lightbulb and it would go in when people were in the room and turn off when the room was empty. That would solve a lot of frustration on my part.

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A Sunday Journal

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Sunday last: I had been laying in bed staring at the ceiling for several minutes when I heard the THUMP-THUMP-THUMP of the older girl’s footsteps in the hall, signaling seven o’clock. I should have been out the door thirty minutes earlier, but decided that I could give myself a day off from the morning walk. All spring and summer I walked religiously each morning, but when the temperatures dip into the 30s overnight, these days off become more frequent. Instead, I read the news on the tiny screen of my phone, imagining I had the pages of the New York Times strewn across the bed like a jigsaw. Thirty minutes later, I got up.

The house was a mess after the long weekend with family, but we all ignored it for a while. I thought about putting a fire in the fireplace, but we decided we were going to the farmer’s market and it was doing to be in the fifties—not fireplace weather. I wandered into my office, logged onto my computer, and picked out the retro posts for the upcoming week, getting them scheduled first thing so that I didn’t have to worry about that task for another seven days.

I read more of One Man’s Meat by E. B. White, one of several go-to books I keep on retainer for those times when anything else I read doesn’t stick. Andy White hasn’t failed me yet. Meanwhile, the boy began building his elaborate railroad up and into the Christmas tree, a feat of architectural and engineering ingenuity that would have impressed Cornelius Vanderbilt. There was only one problem: construction began without certain zoning permits, so that the track invaded the narrow space between the tree and the couch through which foot traffic normally passes. This has since gone to the courts and a ruling has yet to come down. Knowing the power of the railroads, the court will see things in the boy’s favor.

photo of our 2021 christmas tree
Our 2021 Christmas tree with the boy’s railroad

As we were about to head out to the farmer’s market, some friends told us they were going to stop by. We already had our coats on, but this led to ten minutes of furious cleaning by all five of us. I imagine we looked like the fellows who groom a baseball infield after the third and sixth innings of a ballgame, racing around as we did. The house went from looking like something we’d given up on, to a space that was well-lived in.

In the car, the low-pressure light came on, the third time in two months. There is a slow leak in the right-rear tire. Over the space of 15-20 days, the pressure drops from 42 PSI to 26.5 PSI. I made a mental note to have the service people look at that tire when I bring the car in for service on Friday.

The farmer’s market was not nearly as crowded as it usually is on Sunday mornings. At the first booth we stopped at, Kelly bought a jar of apple butter because she had recently run out. I think the last jar lasted close to a year, but I might be exaggerating that. This new jar, which set us back $7.16, is about three times the size of the old one and should last us into the next administration. For some reason, the onions smelled particularly good today, and the fresh carrots looked particularly vibrant. Kelly had promised the kids donuts and bought a bag of a dozen bite-sized, still warm, for $6. We headed to the playground where the kids fueled their play with the sugar from those donuts. Then we had to race back home because our friends were on their way.

Back at the house, I put air in the right-rear tire of the car. I assume that will last until Friday. A year ago I bought a small air pump that plugs into a port in the car. It is so much more convenient for putting air in tires that finding a local gas station whose air pump isn’t blocked by cars awaiting repair. It also means I don’t have to go hunting for quarters. The thing has paid for itself in time-saved alone, many times over.

Our friends stopped by briefly, picked up something they left here yesterday, admired the Christmas tree that had gone up overnight, and collected some presents we had for them, uncertain if we would see them again before the holidays. When they left, I went back to the saltwater farm in Brooklin, Maine, with a brief but amusing detour to Flushing, New York, where the World’s Fair of 1939 was taking place.

Lunch was the last of the turkey hash that I made on Black Friday. We spent our Black Friday avoiding shops. We took my sister and her family to Mount Vernon, and then, in the afternoon, I made turkey hash, which I make every year after Thanksgiving. I like the hash more than the Thanksgiving dinner. I’m pretty much the only one in the family that eats it, but I don’t mind because it means more for me. It lasted me two days this year, and a swallowed the last bite feeling a bit of melancholy: it will be another year before I make some more.

turkey has cooking on the stove
Turkey hash underway

After lunch I went down for my nap. The nap used to be something I did because the younger girl needed a nap. She’s outgrown them, and now I’ve grown used to them. I read one more essays and then put on the playlist we (I) listen to for our nap and was sleeping before the first track had finished.

The city leaf collection comes round tomorrow and so we went out front and swept the remaining leaves into the gutter for the big truck to come vacuum up. We don’t bother with the leaves in the backyard. We allow nature to take its course back there and if past years are any measure, the decaying leaves seems to do wonders for the spring grass. The temperature was mild in the afternoon. I started with a sweatshirt and was quickly working in t-shirt and jeans, the sweat of my labors keeping me warm. I seemed to act as a reminder for the neighbors, for as soon as we finished, I saw several of them in their yards, pulling leaves from the lawn and into their gutter frontages.

In the evening, the boy was out with friends. With all of the food we’d consumed over the long weekend we decided on what we call a “whatever” night for dinner. We each pick whatever leftovers we want from the fridge and that’s what we eat. I had the rest of the mashed potatoes and gravy. Just before 6 o’clock, Kelly reminded me that there was a house in the neighborhood, famous for its Christmas lights, that was lighting up at six. Four of us braved the cold to walk over and watch the ceremony. Significantly fewer people than last year stood around with coffee and hot cocoa steaming in their gloved hands while we waited for the lights. Last year there were masks and a countdown. This year there was neither.

By 8 o’clock, after a hot shower, I was beat. I climbed into bed with my book, and the younger girl curled up next to me to watch a movie–Raya and the Last Dragon. I don’t think either of us made it through the opening credits.

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Terror on the Wing V, Part 1 (Remastered)

Seventeen years ago, I experience my first cicada spring. The loud insects emerged from their 17 year hibernation and were everywhere. I’d never seen squirrels so fat as I did that summer of 2004. Some talented friends of mine, collectively known as Revolver Films, made short films and entered those films into local film contests. This was how I found myself with a bit-part in a film called Terror on the Wing V, Part 1. The short film–it’s about 6 minutes–is cast as as trailer for a horror film. The whole thing is a parody. It was a lot of fun to be part of this, and yesterday, a remastered version of Terror on the Wing V, Part 1 was released on YouTube.

You can find (a much younger version of) me at the 5:38 mark, and again at 5:49. This was made in my pre-blogging days, just about a year before I started writing here. Indeed, in searching back through the blog, I found a post that I wrote on the original from back in 2006.

I mention this now because earlier this spring, we had another wave of cicadas and along with their incessant chirping and ubiquitous presence, came a sequel to Terror on the Wing V, Part 1. In this latest release, I find myself reprising my role as an on-site reporter. This time, they decided to give me more lines. I’m not sure what the title of the new release is, or when it will come out, but sources tell me that it should be any day now. And so I thought I’d share the remastered original with everyone in preparation for the new release, coming soon to a screen near you.

(And, of course, I’ll post it here once it is officially released.)

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The Myth of the Empty Inbox

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I discovered by test that fully ninety per cent of whatever was on my desk at any given moment were IN things. Only ten per cent were OUT things–almost too few to warrant a special container. This, in general, must be true of other people’s lives too. It is the reason lives get so cluttered up–so many things (except money) filtering in, so few things (except strength) draining out

E. B. White in “Incoming Basket”, August 1938 (One Man’s Meat)

E. B. White wrote those words sometime before August 1938 and they are as true 83 years later as they were when he wrote them. Indeed, it sometimes seems like we’ve made little progress corralling all of the things in our inboxes. In my experience, “inbox zero” or the concept of the empty inbox is a myth, a mirage that rises from apps that tell me when there are no current messages in my email inbox. Announce online that you’ve reached “inbox zero” and a dozen of your friends will flood you with email messages that read, “Not anymore, haha!”

But an email inbox is one of many. Collectively, I don’t expect to see the bottom of my inbox before I leave this world, nor would a want to. A completely empty inbox is a life voice of any activity, any reason for growth, anything to anticipate. It is why I begin to think of ways to add to my inbox in 2022 before my collective inbox is even remotely close to being empty.

I complain about the backlog of little things that I allow to accumulate through a combination of laziness and excuses: changing light bulbs, cleaning out drawers, paying those few bills that aren’t paid automatically, emptying the dishwasher, folding laundry, running to the store for more milk. But only because there are other things in my collective inbox that I want to get to instead. There is a joy to thinking about all of those things that have accumulated that I am eager for: planning the upcoming vacation, writing next week’s blog posts, reading the next book, taking the kids to the farmer’s market.

There is another piece of wisdom buried in E. B. White’s inbox observations from his blind in 1938: only ten percent are OUT things. In other words, for every thing that comes in, one things goes out. This seems to hold true for me. For every ten emails I get, one may require an action from me. For every ten pieces of mail that show up in the mailbox, one may be something I need to look at. For every ten (or one hundred) posts I see on social media, only one requires a reply of some kind.

My inbox will never be empty. To think it will is to fool myself. The real trick is: for every ten things that make their way into my inbox, which is the one that is really worth doing? And once you figure that out, don’t sweat the other nine.

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Practically Paperless with Obsidian, Episode 8: Note Templates for Consistency

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Welcome to my blog series, “Practically Paperless with Obsidian.” For an overview of this series, please see Episode 0: Series Overview.

Let’s see, where were we? Ah yes, when we last gathered, we were discussing a framework for finding notes in Obsidian using four questions. One thing that aids in my ability to frame my searches in terms of these four questions is to ensure consistency in my notes. And one tool that aids in consistency is the use of note templates in Obsidian. In my day-to-day use, I use five templates for the bulk of my notes. Some of these templates are implemented through different tools so let me start there.

Tools for templates

Two of the tools I use for templates are Obsidian core plug-ins available out of the box. The third is a script I have written.

1. Zettelkasten prefixer

For ad-hoc notes, I make use the Zettelkasten prefixes. I discussed this in detail back in Episode 6. The Zettelkasten prefix plug-in allows you to generate a note with a Zettelkasten number in the title. It also allows you to base that note on a set template. In enabling the plug-in, I have selected both the format for the Zettelkasten number and the template I want to use when the note is created:

Figure 1: Settings for the Zettelkasten prefixer plug-in

My template for these ad-hoc notes is simple. It contains a line at the top prompting me to tag the note. Tags, as we will see in Episode 9, are an important tool for helping me find notes. The template itself provides consistency, ensure that every ad-hoc note I create has a place in it for me to add tags as necessary. Here is what my template looks like:

Figure 2: What my ad-hoc template looks like

2. Template plug-in

For several other types of notes, I rely on the core Template plug-in. Like the Zettelksaten Prefixer plug-in, the Templates plug-in is a core plug-in that comes out of the box and can be enabled in Obsidian with a click. Here is how I have configured my template plug-in:

Figure 3: Settings for the Template plug-in.

First, I set a location to store my templates (see A above). In this case, I have a folder in my vault called _/meta/_templates and this is where I put all of my templates. Even the template I use with the Zettelkasten prefixer plug-in goes in here.

Second, I set the format I prefer for dates (see B above). Within a template, you can use certain tags, like the {{date}} tag which will replace the tag with the current date at the time the template is added to a note. I prefer the yyyy.MM.DD.ddd format. That is how the date appears in many of my notes and I like the consistency of it.

Third, I also have the ability to set the time format, but I’ve left it as the default because so far, I haven’t had a need to use it in a template, and if I do, the default seems fine to me.

Finally, I set a hot-key for inserting a template into a note. From Obsidian’s settings, I selected Hot Keys and then searched for “templates” and added a hot key to the “Templates: Insert template” function. I use the Shift-Command-T for this.

3. Daily notes script

Finally, I have written a script that automates my daily notes so that they are generated with the same underlying “template”. I have written an entire post on how I’ve automated my daily notes, so I won’t get into that here. I’ve also put my automation script on GitHub for those who want to use it.

For our purposes today, it is enough to say that (a) my daily notes are generated automatically everyday, just after midnight; and (b) they look like this (using today’s note as a example):

Figure 5: Today’s daily note

Everything you see in the red box is generated automatically. The Agenda section is pulled from my calendar. The weather on the date line is generated using a command-line command that I call from Python. When the note is first created, there is nothing below the “Today’s notes” section. That is what I add manually each day.

5 templates that I use

Here are the five templates that I frequently use:

1. Daily note template

I’ve already discussed the daily note template above. This is generated automatically and it saves me time because I use my daily notes in Obsidian much like a bullet journal. I am in them every day. Also my daily note titles use the yyyy.MM.DD.ddd format, which means if I add a date to note as link using this format, the backlink appears automatically in the daily note’s backlinks so I can fairly easily associated just about anything with a date and use the daily note as an index to any notes that also have that date in them.

2. Ad-hoc note template

Many notes I create are what I think of as ad-hoc notes. These are quick notes that I am creating and filing away and may do something more with later, but I just want to have a way of creating them quickly. Even though I can create them quickly, I still want enough structure to allow me to tag the notes consistently. So my ad-hoc note template–the same template I use with my Zettelkasten prefixer–is simple and looks like this:

Figure 6: What my ad-hoc template looks like

3. Commonplace template

A lot of my notes come from things that I read. I have a “Reading” folder in my vault, and within that folder, I have two subfolders: one is called “Commonplace” and the other “Sources.” Commonplace is where my reading notes go. I’ve written about how I capture my reading notes in Obsidian, and while the core of this still holds, I’ve been modifying my process as I learn new things about Obsidian.

Let’s say that in a given book (or article, or web page) I highlight 20 passages. Each of those 20 passages becomes a separate “commonplace” note. Each commonplace note has tags, and can link back to a source note as well (see the next section for source notes). My template for commonplace notes, therefore, ensures that I capture at last that basic information in my note. The template looks like this:

Figure 7: My commonplace template

Here is are two examples of commonplace notes created using this template:

Figure 8: A sample commonplace note

There are five elements in my commonplace notes:

  • A: The note title. As I discussed in Episode 6, I try to keep this to-the-point.
  • B: The tags used to classify the note. This is an important part of how I find notes, and I’ll have more to say about how I use tags to do this in Episodes 9-11.
  • C: The source for the commonplace note. In this case, you see a note link to a book where I found the passage. In some notes, however, it is a link to an article or web page. By creating the link here, I can go to the source note and see all of the backlinks associated it with it.
  • D: The passage that I highlighted.
  • E: My own notes and remarks. In this case, I’ve also linked to another note, which means that there is now a relationship not just between this commonplace note and this other note, but also a link between the source note and the other note. Linking is a key part of Obsidian, as we will see in Episode 19.

But we get a hint of the power of note linking in next commonplace note below:

Figure 9: A sample commonplace note with backlinks

This note has all of the elements of the previous one, but I’ve also shown the backlinks panel here so that you can see how Obsidian automatically displaces the related notes based on the links included in the commonplace note itself.

4. Source template

As indicated above, each commonplace note can link to a source. In some instances, this link is a URL that points to a website. In many cases, however, it is another note in Obsidian that I have created to represent the source, often a book or article that I have read. Here is what my Source template looks like:

Figure 10: My Source template

Here is an actual source note based on this template:

Figure 11: An example source note

In this note, in addition to the title, we have the following elements:

  • A: tags, which help categorize the note for searches
  • B: authors of the source
  • C: dates I read the source (E. B. White is a favorite essayist of mine, and I often go back on read his collections when I need something reliable to read)
  • D: notes on the source. Sometimes I’ll put notes directly in here. In this case, however, I’ve included a list of transcluded links back to the commonplace notes I made for this book. Because these are “transcluded” links, they display the full note when you view it in preview mode:
Figure 12: A source note in preview mode

5. Product template

Finally, I have what I call a “product” template. I use this template to keep track of things we buy that are worth keeping track of: appliances and electronics, furniture, etc. Here is what my Product template looks like:

Figure 13: My Product template

For my product template, there are three parts:

  • A: the tags (my template contains some pre-loaded tags for speed; I remove ones that aren’t needed and add ones that are).
  • B: information about the product in question. Here, if there is date, I insert it using my yyyy.MM.DD.dd format.
  • C: a timeline or history of events related to the product. This would be things like repairs, calling supports, etc.

Here is an example of a completed product note based on this template:

Figure 14: A completed product note

Inserting a template into a note

Inserting a note into a template is easy. As I indicated above, I setup a hot-key for doing this. When I create a note and want to insert a template, I do the following:

  1. Clear out any default text I don’t want from the note.
  2. Set the cursor to where I want to insert the template.
  3. Press my hot key (Shift-Command-T), which brings up a list of templates:
  1. Select the template I want to insert and hit ENTER

Where I store my templates

To keep things simple, I store all of my templates in a single folder in my vault. Off the root of my vault, I have a folder called _meta and within that folder, there is another folder called _templates (/_meta/_templates). This is where my templates go.

It is important to remember that templates themselves are just notes with some tags that can be used to help automate things. The reason I put my templates in a folder with an _ at the beginning is that when doing an advanced search in obsidian, I can exclude from the search folders that begin with the _ so that I avoid noise in my search results.

How templates and consistency help with searching

Templates help me maintain a consistent structure and format to my notes. They remind me of elements I need to include in them, like tags. Templates are liking filling out a form of metadata for each of my notes and this metadata ultimately provides a powerful tool for quickly finding what I need when I search for things in Obsidian.

In next week’s episode, we’ll see this in action, when I describe how I use tags to associate notes with people. See you back here soon!

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Projects To Tackle in 2022

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If anything is the root of modern anxiety it is this: there is always more to do than can possibly be done. Today, for instance, I scribbled out a list of projects I want to tackle in 2022. It is hard to believe that 2022 is almost upon us; that we have been living through a global pandemic for the better part of two years now. That pandemic adds to anxiety, to be sure, but now that our kids have been vaccinated, it has alleviated some of that stress. It is the to-do list, the relentless inbox, the requests at work, the pleas from the kids, to say nothing of the ever-increasing list of books I want to read that add to my anxiety.

Here are some of the projects I would like to tackle in 2022:

Start reading Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best anthologies.

Technically, I’ve already started this. I have this idea of reading all 35 of them. I had one of these volumes in college–I think it was the 10th annual edition–and it amazes me how many writers I eventually got to meet or know. I even met Gardner on several occasions, most notably when Allen Steele pulled me to a room in the SFWA sweet and introduced me a writer that Gardner should keep an eyes on. (I will be forever grateful to Allen for doing this, but honestly, my writing and the stories I tell were never the kind that would arouse interest by Gardner. Still, I was never a regular follower of short s.f. with the exception of Science Fiction Age, which I read religiously during its all-too-brief 8-year run. It seems like going through all 35 volumes of Gardner’s would be a good education on writing short science fiction, now that I am beginning to write again. I am not planning on reading all 35 volumes in 2022, but I’d like to make my way through a few if I could.

Vacation in the Golden Age.

I would like to continue my Vacation in the Golden Age of science fiction. In my original attempts, I got through the first 41 episodes of that series, covering all the issues of Astounding from July 1939 through November 1942. I’ve been wanting to continue this for a long time, but family and work and other obligations have taken precedence. I think in 2022, I may be able to start this up again.

Read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

I’ve been wanting to read this for a long time now. It so long, but from everything I can tell, it is worth the read. This had sort of disappeared for a while, and then, it reappeared, ironically, while I was reading the first volume of Dozois’s Year’s Best series. I read Jack McDevitt’s “Cryptic” in which The Decline and Fall plays a significant role. In that story, Jack wrote the following, which reignited my interest,

Then, in bed, still somewhat dazed, I attempted The Decline and Fall again. It was not the dusty roll call of long-dead emperors that I had expected. The emperors are there, stabbing and throttling and blundering. And occasionally trying to improve things. But the fish hawkers are there too. And the bureaucrats and the bishops.

It’s a world filled with wine and legionnaires’ sweat, mismanagement, arguments over Jesus, and the inability to transfer power, all played out to the ruthless drumbeat of dissolution. An undefined historical tide, stemmed occasionally by a hero, or a sage, rolls over men and events, washing them toward the sea.

Years ago, at dinner with Jack and his wife Maureen, I think we discussed The Decline and Fall. My memory is a little vague because I was having dinner with Jack McDevitt, but Bud Sparhawk was also there and he might remember better than I. In any case, I recently ordered the 6-volume set of hardcover books (I already have the audio version) and maybe I’ll find time to start this project in 2022.

Clean out the storage closet

Downstairs we have a large storage closet that doubles at the utility room (where the furnace and water heater reside). It is packed to the gills with stuff. For a while now, I’ve been wanting to clean it out. My thought is that in the spring, I’ll pick up about 10-15 attic boards and lay them in the attic along the with the boards I’ve already installed there. With the extra cubic footage in the attic, I’ll then review everything we have in the storage closet, getting rid of stuff we don’t need, and moving most everything else into the attic. Once cleared out, I plan to install shelving on both sides of the storage room. On the ride side, the shelf will cover half the wall and be used for extra dry food storage. On the other half of the wall, we will put an extra freezer. The opposite wall will have shelves for things like wrapping paper, tools, and anything else we need infrequent access to. But the space will be clear and organized once and for all.

These are fairly big projects and I have no idea if it is possible to make much progress on any of them in 2022, but it is at least nice to have a target to aim for What big plans do you have for 2022? Let me know in the comments.

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My Favorite Place to Read Is In Hindsight

Over the holiday weekend we kept an almost constant fire burning in the fireplace. At times, while the kids and their cousins played together downstairs, the grownups sat on the couch facing the fire, and chatted, dozed, and occasionally read our books, the pages softly turning in the gleam of the fire. It seems like a perfect place to read, and I have spent many and enjoyable hour on that couch reading. But it is not currently among my favorite places to read. As it turns out, all of my favorite places to read are in hindsight.

There is a carrel in the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library that I loved to read in when I was twelve or thirteen. During the oppressively hot summer days in the San Fernando Valley, I’d walk the mile from our house to the library, doing my best to stay on the shady side of the street. Stepping into the library was like stepping into an oasis in the desert. The doors would open with a whoosh, and you could feel the cold air pour from the building. After spending a considerable time perusing the shelves gathering books, I’d take my harvest to one of the carrels that patrons used for reading. There, the carrel, the library, everything, would disappear while I read.

Years, later, after I’d graduated from college and started at my job, I would drive from the Valley out to Pacific Palisades, park the car alongside a park that overlooked the Pacific Ocean and sit on a bench to read. There, with an ocean breeze blowing and a quiet surrounding, I read several books, including William Gibson’s Idoru and Damon Knight’s Humpty Dumpty: An Oval.

For many years, on an early April Saturday, I’d head over to the local Swenson’s in Studio City, sidle into a booth, order a chocolate milk shake, and crack open In Memory Yet Green, the first volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography. There, with my shake in a glass and a refill off the side, I would sit for an hour or more reading the first few chapters of that book, oblivious to most of what was going on around me. To this day, however, the smell of an ice cream shop pulls me back to Swenson’s.

Returning from a vacation in Hawaii in 2005, I arrived at the Lihue airport around 6 pm for a 10:30 pm flight back to Washington, D.C. via Los Angeles. The United counter didn’t open until 6:30 pm and once I was checked into my flight, I found my way to an outdoor patio. I’d picked up a mai-tai along the way, and sat on a bench with the mai-tai and a copy of Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda. With the trade winds blowing around me, I read, and sipped, and read, and sipped, and sniffed the air. I began to wish that my flight would be delayed until morning. I could sit there reading and sipping and sniffing all night.

My cousin belonged to a fishing club in Vermont and would take me there from time to time. The club was deep in the Vermont wilderness. There was no electricity at the clubhouse, but there was a generator. My cousin taught me to fly fish there. I would take a rowboat out into the lake, fish for a little while, and then, find a shady spot along the short and read. After a while, I’d return, and we’d clean and grill our catch. When it rained, there was a screened in porch and I would sit on that porch with the sound of the rain tuning everything else out reading.

In Castine, Maine, I visited some family. At night, in my room, I noticed how dark and silent it was. I sat up in bed with a light on, reading John Adams by David McCullough for a good part of the night. The silence and darkness gave me some hint of what it might have been like for Adams in Braintree, reading by candlelight, warmed by a stove. What places those books must have taken him!

But my favorite place to read was on the porch of an apartment I rented for several years in Studio City on Tujunga Avenue between Ventura Boulevard and Dilling St., just around the corner from the Brady Bunch House. It was a first floor, corner apartment and had a wraparound porch. I spend hundreds of hours sitting on that porch with my chair propped back, my feet on the railing, and a book in my lap. I must have read a hundred books on that porch in the years that I lived there. In my memory, the weather was always perfect, the scene always serene, even when the street was blocked off while filming a scene from Magnolia1 there. Of all the places I’ve read, that porch is my favorite.

It may be that in ten or twenty years from now, the places I read today will be among my favorites. I enjoy sitting out on our large deck with a book. I like sitting on the couch in front of the fire. There is a chair in my office surrounded on three sides by my books where I like to read. But for me, a favorite reading place becomes so only in hindsight.

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  1. At the time, the guy in the craft services truck told me that it was “a William H. Macy movie called The Rose.”

Retro Posts, Week of 11/21/2021

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For those who don’t follow along on Twitter or my Facebook page, I post a link to “retro post” once-a-day, selecting from one of the thousands of posts I’ve written here on the blog over the last 15+ years. Here are the retro posts for this week. My general rule is not to link to anything I’ve written in the last 365 days. This week, you’ll find some holiday-themed posts from the past.

You can find last week’s posts here If you want to see these as they appear each day, you can follow me on Twitter or my Facebook page.

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Thankful for Books

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This time of year we often reflect on those things that we are thankful for. Toward the top of the list are things like family and friends, good health, good fortune. Below that level is where things often start to vary for people. I was trying to think of about the things that I was thankful for after family and friends, good health and good fortune. What I came up with was books. I am thankful for books.

From a young age, my parents emphasized the importance of books and of reading. My mom told me that books could take me anywhere and teach me anything. I was four or five when she told me that and I took it to heart. My dad read to me often. Because of this, I learned to read quickly and from an early time, books have been an important part of my life. Indeed, for the last 25 years, books mark important events in my life like a kind of bibliographical calendar.

More recently, I’ve come to realize something else about book that I am thankful for: that I am in the fortunate position to buy one whenever I feel like it. This wasn’t always the case. I can remember many times when I was younger where I would look longingly at books, but not have the money to buy them. When I did buy a book, it was a weighty decision to buy a new hardcover for $19.95 when money was tight and that $19.95 was really needed for the gas or electric bill.

Today, however, if there is a book that I want, I buy it without worry. We don’t spend a lot of money on fancy cars, or expensive clothes or furniture. But when it comes to books, I allow myself some extravagance. I might buy an audio book and then decide I want the Kindle edition as well. Sometimes, for books that I really like, I’ll pickup a paper version in addition to have on my shelf. Sometimes, I’ll discover a rare edition online and spend a little more than I might otherwise spend to get it. By doing this, I am taking small advantage of the good fortunate we’ve had to act on what my parents taught me when I was a youngster. Because of that, I sit in my office today, surrounded by books that have taken me everywhere, and taught me countless things.

No investment I have made has given more of a return than books. Twenty dollars spent on a hardcover returns not only hours of enjoyment in reading, but countless times its value in the lessons I take from it, whether the book is fiction or nonfiction. Books taught me the difference between a specialist and a generalist, and have turned me into the latter, something else for which I am grateful this time of year. Reading books taught me how to write and writing has become my avocation, more for me to be thankful for.

I am surrounded here in my office my somewhere around 1,200 books, collected slowly over a lifetime. On my digital bookshelves, there are another 1,200 audio books and 500 or so ebooks. I could go on and list why I am thankful for each and every one of them, but I will spare you that. Instead, I’ll just say that I spent a lot of time thinking about how lucky I am to be able to read, to have passion for reading, to enjoy books, and to be in the incredibly fortunate position to acquire and accumulate them. For much of my life, I knew what it was like to look upon bookshelves with envy and longing. To be able to own my own books and read them is something for which I will be forever thankful.

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Best Books of the Year Lists

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Impatience seems to get the best of us when it come to best of the year. We are ready for the year to be over in October. November and December seem abandoned when it comes to the best-of-the-year.

A year, as I understand it, is 12 months, which in turn represents 365 and one quarter days, or a single trip of planet Earth around the sun. I mention this because the Best Books of the Year lists are starting to come out. Here is one from the Washington Post. Here is one from the New York Times–the Times refers to these books as “notable.” Goodreads has their voting going on now, with winners announced on December 9. None of these lists seem to be for a full year. For instance, for the Times and Post, what happens to books that come out today, or next week, or in a month? Are books that come out in November and December in some kind of limbo from which they can never emerge? These best-of-the-year lists remind me of cereal boxes that, when first opened, appear to be only three-quarters full. What happened to the rest of the cereal? At least the cereal boxes have an excuse: product may settle while shipping.

I also list the best books I read each year, but I’ve taken to doing that in January of the following year. So the best books I read in 2020 was posted on January 1, 2021. Why can’t newspapers and websites wait until they year is over before posting their best-of lists? One argument that I have heard is that these lists come out before the holidays in order to drum up sales for the books in question. Fine, but then don’t call them “best of the year” lists.

Early best of the year lists make it so that no one wants to release books in November and December. It means that there is a dearth of interesting books coming out the last two months of the year. When I search for upcoming books in, say, March or June, or October, I can often find a dozen or more than I want to read. In November or December, I only ever find a few. What does it say to an author about the priority of their book when a publisher announces that it will be published on, say, the last Tuesday of November? I often end up re-reading books in these months, something reliable like One Man’s Meat by E. B. White, or 11/22/63 by Stephen King.

I don’t think I am going to convince the Times or the Post or Goodreads, for that matter, to change their ways, but I am going to continue to hold my own best-reads-of-the-year lists until early January.

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