Category: essays

The Pharmacy and the Tobacco Shop

In my senior year of high school, and during the summer of my freshman year in college, I worked in a local pharmacy. This wasn’t a chain pharmacy. It was large, and in addition to filling prescriptions has aisles with the usual over-the-counter medications, bandages, and other appurtenances of first aid. There were aisles with makeup and hair products, dental products. There was some stationary, and aisle with the latest magazines. There were almost always customers in the store. The pharmacist and owner was a nice fellow, who was good to chat with. He treated us well. He gave me the first and only holiday bonus I’ve ever received.

Since that time, I’ve had a fondness for local pharmacies, few and far between though they are. There are a couple in our town that compete with the dozens of CVSs, Walgreens, and Rite-Aids within a fairly small radius. It’s not that these pharmacies are bad in any way. Indeed, if they keep their employees for any length of time, they can be good. We’ve known the people in our nearby CVS pharmacy for years, and they know us. But I suspect that is rare in a chain pharmacy, and it is what makes the little ones so special.

A few months ago, one of the small local pharmacies put up a “going out of business” sign. I’d never been inside that particular pharmacy (something for which I felt retroactively guilty after seeing the sign). Their customers were transferred to a pharmacy in Safeway just down the street. Afterwards, for months, the place lay empty, with the name of the pharmacy above like letters carved into a gravestone, a reminder of what was once there.

My experience with pharmacies and pharmacists has been overwhelmingly positive. They are a force for good. They not only fill prescriptions (and know all about side-effects and drug interactions) but they get and answer a wide range of questions from customers, will work with doctors, and always put health and safety first.

So there was something of an irony this morning when I passed the old pharmacy to find a new sign replacing the PHARMACY letters that had been there so long. The new sign read “Smoke & Tobacco” and beneath it was a white banner with red letters that read “Now Open.”

A tobacco shop had replaced the pharmacy.

It is so ironic, that if I were writing a story about this, I might have a pharmacist who made a Faustian bargain to obtain his pharmacy, only to discover that when the bill came due, his pharmacy was turned into a tobacco shop.

The pharmacy that I worked in more than thirty years ago is long gone. It was swallowed up by one of the pharmacy conglomerates. For a time, after selling the business, the owner went to work as a pharmacist for the big company, but I think he retired soon after.

I suspect that a tobacco shop will be more lucrative than the pharmacy was. But it also seems somehow to change the character of that little shopping center. Before there was place that helped people get better. Now there is a place that sells things that can make people sick. I was sad to see the pharmacy go, and a little sadder to see the tobacco shop spring up in its place.

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Finished Reading: The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin

The main reason I read so much is to learn. So I couldn’t pass up a book with the title The Art of Learning. The author, Josh Waitzkin, was as chess champion and the subject of the book and film Searching for Bobby Fischer. After his years in chess he moved into tai chi and its martial form, push hands. He became a world champion there as well. In the book, part memoir, part a distillation of Josh’s analysis of his own performance and how he tried to learn from it over the years. This is the art of learning to which the title refers.

When I read, I’m usually on the lookout for two things. The first is pure education: what I can I take away from my reading that I can use to improve myself. Sometimes these are concrete ideas. One example was the way Tom Kelly, in his book Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module, talked about how he used notebooks to capture his work and thoughts on the development of the lunar lander while working for Grumman. I read that book in 2001, and it changed the way (to say nothing of the volume) I take notes. Sometimes the takeaways are more abstract. A books like The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is, one the surface, a history of a scientific and engineering marvel (or terror). Beneath the surface, my biggest takeaways were all on how manage large scale projects. It is why I consider it one of the best books on project management I’ve come across. Finally, education is sometimes just that: filling in gaps in knowledge of whatever subject I might be reading about.

The second thing I lookout for is affirmation. When I read something and recognize that it is something I do that seems to work for me, it often affirms my methods. This is what I found most of in The Art of Learning.

Early in the book, Josh breaks down intelligence into two types, entity and incremental intelligence. He writes,

Children who are “entity theorists”… are prone to use language like “I am smart at this” and attribute their success or failure to an unalterable level of ability. They see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a think that cannot evolve.

Incremental theorists, or “learning theorists”,

are more prone to describe their results with sentences like “I got it because I worked very hard at it” or “I should have tried harder.” A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped–step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master.

The latter definition was the first affirmation I encountered because this is very much my style of learning, even today. The best example I have of this was when I was learning calculus. I remember trying to break the problems in the book into categories: these one use this rule, these other ones are special exceptions to that rule, and so on. Once I had a set of problem types, I didn’t try to just tackle each problem outright. Instead, I tried to develop a set of steps that would work for any problem of that particular type. First do x, then y, then z. When I studied for tests, I would first go through a set of problems and classify them into the types I had identified; then I could attack each one using the method I’d come up with for that type.

Another affirmation came when Josh discussed how he had to adapt his study methods for chess. Noise had bothered him, and could throw him off his focus, and take his mind down a rabbit hole away from the particular chess problem he was trying to solve. Rather than get frustrated and try to eliminate all noise, Josh took the opposite approach:

I took the bull by the horns and began training to have more resilient concentration. I realized that in top-rank competition I couldn’t count on the world being silent, so my only option was to become at peace with the noise.

This has also been my approach. In my post productive years of writing (in terms of variety of what I wrote and where I sold stories) I wrote every day for 825 consecutive days. I never missed a day. At the time, the Little Man was 4 and the Little Miss was two. The house was a constant flurry of activity and noise. One of the things I had to get used to was working while sitting in the midst of all of that noise. I had to get used to interruptions in the flow of my writing. Up to that time, I always told myself I needed quiet to write, but I had no choice. I forced myself to adjust and that adjustment allowed for some of my most productive writing. Being adaptable was important. I wrote about this for Adobe’s 99U when I had passed 350 days of my streak.

Later in the book, Josh describes his competition for the world push hands championship in Taiwan. Reading his descriptions of the event can be frustrating: he describes how the rules are continually changed (or ignored) to favor the local heroes as opposed to the foreigners. Some of this is tactical. If you can get under your opponent’s skin, you have a clear advantage. So Josh had to learn to anticipate these antics and deal with them without losing his cool. It reminds me of what we have tried to teach the Little Man.

When he loses points on a test for something that he considers unfair (“the teacher said this wouldn’t be on the test”) the Little Man can get worked up. What we have tried to teach him is that life constantly throws curves. Preparing for anything is often more than preparing for just what you expect. You have to prepare for the unexpected as well. When something goes sideways, you have to do your best not to let it rattle you. Good preparation goes a long way here, but even the best preparation can’t anticipate everything. That’s when you sometimes have to let things go. It is actually a great lesson in equanimity.

I enjoyed Josh’s book. His insights are keen and valuable, but most of the lessons in the book seem geared to the highest performers, the elite few who are already close to the top of their game and are looking for that edge to bridge the gap to the top. I am certainly not in that category, but I found many things in the book that affirmed practices I already had, and that much felt good.

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Why Can’t Your FitBit or Apple Watch Pause Your Audio Book When You Fall Asleep?

Kelly is reading Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir for her book club. Actually, she is listening to the audio book version, narrated by Ray Porter, who does a very good job. The problem is, she says, she keeps falling asleep when she listens to it, and then has to go back and figure out what she last remembered hearing. I suspect this is a common problem, although it is not one from which I suffer. I do however, have a solution to offer that I am rather surprised has not already been tackled.

Lot of people use wearables these days. For a long time, I used a FitBit. And it seems to me that many people I know have Apple Watches on their wrists. (What would Douglas Adams have to say about our modern-day descendant of the digital watch?) Now, in addition to given us Jetson-like capabilities on wrists, these wearables do things that the Jetson’s never imagined. They can track how far we walk, how many calories we burn, our heart rates, pulses, and many other things. One of the things I found useful about my FitBit was its ability to track my sleep.

It seems to me that if my FitBit could tell me, based on a variety of biometrics, more or less when I fell asleep, then it should be able to use that same technology as a trigger to pause what I am listening to when it detects that I have fallen asleep. Imagine, you are listening to your audio book (or podcast, or music) and you begin to dose. The minute your Apple Watch detects that you are asleep, it pauses what you are listening to. It then uses its data to figure our how many seconds (or minutes) it needs to rollback whatever you were listening to so that when you awaken, you’ll be right where you left off.

This would be a useful integration feature for people who tend to fall asleep listening to books.

I could also imagine this integrating with devices like Apple TV, or other streaming services so that if your device detects you’ve fallen asleep during the latest episode of The Mandalorian, it will pause the show where you were last conscious of it, so that when you wake up, you can continue without skipping a beat.

I’m surprised that such a capability does not yet exist. Or perhaps it does and I’m just not aware of it. Of course, introducing a feature like this has its problems. I remember, for instance, that sitting still for a long time sometimes fooled my FitBit into thinking I was asleep. It would be annoying to be engrossed in listening to a book and have it suddenly pause because my wearable mistook my stillness for sleep. But these are solvable problems.

I suspect that a large number of tired, overworked, cooped up listeners would love a feature that automatically pauses their media when their wearable detects that they’ve fallen asleep. If nothing else, it would certainly help to improve the quality of book club discussions, what with people actually having listened to the entire book instead of sleeping through it.

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Minecraft Lessons IRL (In Real Life)

Minecraft screen capture -- courtesy of the Little Miss
Minecraft screen capture courtesy of The Little Miss

We went for a hike on the Fourth of July in a state park in upstate New York. It was our family, and my sister’s family. Between us there are five kids, and five very enthusiastic Minecraft aficionados. The weather was perfect for a hike, especially after several days of rain. We had reached our turn around point and had started back when one of the kids (my increasingly fallible memory protects the innocent here) said, “I’m staying here.”

We all kept walking.

“How far would you guys go before turning around and coming back for me?” they asked.

Someone might have said, “Why would we?” (That someone might have been me.) Of course, we were joking.

“That’s okay,” the straggler said, “I’ve played Minecraft in survival mode. I could survive here in the woods no problem.”

And that’s when my writers imagination took over. What I saw was this:

The Little Man and his cousin decided to attempt to survive in the woods overnight applying the lessons and skills they’d learned from countless hours of playing Minecraft in survival mode.

The Little Man, who is nothing if not methodical when it comes to playing video games (if only this were true about, say, putting wrappers in the trash or turning off the light when he leaves a room), takes a look around the woods and says to his cousin, “First thing’s first. We need to make some tools. And the most basic of the Minecraft tools is a pickax.”

“Great idea!” his cousin replies.

Now, the Little Man, who sometimes forgets to put his shoes back where they belong, magically comes up with the formula for a pickax from memory. “First we need three wooden planks and two sticks,” he says.

“Why not make a Netherite pickax?” his cousin asks.

“Bro!” the Little Man says. He says “bro” the way I used to say “dude” when I was thirteen and living in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. “Netherite isn’t real. Besides, we’d need a diamond pickax first, and we can’t get a diamond pickax without getting diamonds and that means having a pickax to begin with.”

Now in my imagination, they somehow locate three wooden planks in the midst of this state park. The sticks are easy. They each collect one, and before they’ve been alone in the woods for an hour, they have the five pieces needed to create a pickax.

“Uh, Bro?” the Little Man’s cousin says, “what do we do for a crafting table?”

“Easy,” the Little Man says, “we’ll find a clearing and use one of these sticks to sketch out a 3×3 grid that will be our crafting table.”

So they hunt for a clearing and after brushing away leaves and other detritus, they carry out their plan and sketch out the grid.

The Little Man wipes his dirty hands on his shorts. “Now all we have to do is lay the three planks across the top, and the two sticks down below the central plank.” He and his cousin set to laying out the planks and sticks as described. They stand, waiting.

“Something’s wrong,” his cousin says.

“Bro, I can see that.”

“What do you think is wrong? Do we need some redstone?”

“I’m getting hungry,” the Little Man says.

“Me, too.”

They stand there while no pickax forms from the material they’ve gathered.

“What should we do?” his cousin asks.

The Little Man considers for a long time. Then his face lights up. “Bro, I’ve got it!”

“What?”

“We’ll use a cheat code.”

“What cheat code?” his cousin says.

A wicked smile draws across the Little Man’s face, and he pulls out his iPhone. Carefully, he taps out the cheat code, which it turns out, is Dad’s phone number.

When I pick up, the Little Man says, “We’re hungry. Can you come get us?”

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200 Meditations

A little over a year ago I began to use the Calm app to start a meditation practice. I tend toward being anxious, wound up, and I’d been having trouble sleeping. I heard that meditation could help with all of this so I signed up for the app and a committed myself to giving it a try.

Yesterday, I had my 200th meditation, which I’m pretty happy about. Clearly, I haven’t meditated every day over the last year. Indeed, until about a month ago, there was a nearly 5-month gap when I didn’t meditate at all. This was when I was working on my big work project, and I was entirely focused on that. Probably I should have been meditating, but I got out of the habit.

In the last month or so, I’ve gotten back into the habit. I meditate every morning as soon as I am back from my morning walk. Usually, I head out onto the deck and do a 10-minute guided meditation using one of Calm app’s meditation programs. The one I like is “The Daily Trip” by Jeff Warren. Jeff also has a 30-day program on Calm for getting started with meditation, and I think I went through that program at least twice when I was getting started.

In my first run, prior to the 5-month gap, I did alright. At one point, I meditated for 72 consecutive days. But I was not seeing the results I’d expected. I thought I’d start sleeping better as soon as I started to meditate. I thought I’d feel less stressed out, less wound up, but that wasn’t the case. Kelly said she noticed a subtle different, but I didn’t.

This time around, it’s different. I can’t say why it’s different, but it is. This time, I can feel it helping me. I feel much more relaxed, much less anxious, and I’m deliberately taking the lessons I learn from meditation and applying them to real life situations. Take this past weekend, for example. We drove up to New York on Friday morning. Normally it’s about a four hour drive, but with the holiday traffic, it took us six hours. Normally, traffic like that would throw my anxiety through the roof. When I lived in L.A. I sat in traffic for eight years, to and from work. Today, sitting in traffic activates a kind of post-traumatic stress in me. This time, however, I tried to be open about it. I tried to simply notice the traffic, accept it, and continue listening to my podcast. Little things that annoy me on a long drive didn’t bother me. At times, I drove with a smile on my face.

This is one example, but over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a real change in my behavior, thanks to the notion of equanimity that I’ve learned through meditation. It is really beginning to help.

I’m currently on a 28-day streak, but the streaks don’t matter to me as much as they did. I enjoy the short guided morning sessions as much as I enjoy my morning walk. I’ve even started to add in an evening meditation session, 20 minutes, unguided, where I try to relax and clear my head before going to bed. That is a tricky session so far, because my mind really seems to wander without guidance and I am constantly have to refocus on my home base. But that is meditation, after all.

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Finished Reading: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

cover of haruki murakami's what i talk about when i talk about running

In the long list of things that I would like to be able to do well, running–in particular, long-distance running–is high among them. I’m envious of friends and family who managed to cultivate this particular exercise throughout their life, and for whom it is a pleasure that they look forward to each day. When I consider running, my tendency is to want to skip the hard part, and just be at the level where I could match my friends.

Haruki Murakami’s wonderful memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running changed my mind. The good part of running is the hard part. Murakami is more than just a runner, he is also a novelist, and although I don’t think he explicitly stated this, it came across that running a marathon and writing a novel are really two forms of the same thing. Hard work, day in and day out, leads to results. Even the hard work that is painful. After feeling as if I suffered through five years of writer’s block myself, Murakami’s book made me realize that the suffering is optional. Early in the book, he writes,

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself. This pretty much sums up the most important aspect of marathon running. (Emphasis is mine.)

Hard work is where one finds joy in things. Running is hard work and writing is hard work. Reading this book about running made me realize that if I really did want to start running, then I have to do the hard work, just as I did when I first began to write.

Murakami comes across as an honest writer. He doesn’t try to hide any of his faults or difficulties, but puts them on display in order to see them and learn from them. He writes about the regiment of self-training he did preparing for the New York City marathon, only to perform poorly (in his mind). And yet he tried to learn lessons from that and apply them to the (less rigorous) training for the Boston marathon. He was equally displeased with his showing. The lesson he took from this: he was at the age where he simply couldn’t compete with his younger self and this was simply something he’d have to accept.

He didn’t so much describe his training or running methods as much as approach them almost as an outside observer would, commenting on a difficultly, or an adjustment he had to make. In this way, his descriptions made for a delightfully straight-forward read. He describes himself as “more of a workhorse than a racehorse” and that is often how I have thought of myself.

Perhaps the part of the book that most resonated with me was toward the end when he was summing up his reason for lifelong exercise:

For me, the main goal of exercising is to maintain, and improve, my physical condition in order to keep on writing novels, so if races and training cut into the time I need to write, this would be putting the cart before the horse. Which is why I’ve tried to maintain a decent balance.

This is exactly what I am trying to do for myself over the next ten years as I work toward becoming a full-time writer. I need to maintain and improve my own physical condition in order to be able to continue to write, and when I retire, write more than I have ever been able to write before.

What I discovered in this short memoir was not what I’d expected: a memoir of running. Instead, I found a kind of simplicity in daily habit that allows a focus and accumulation of effort to payoff in a big way. The fun is not in being a great writer, or great musician, or nurse, or project manager. The joy is in the hard work that gets you there, the living in the moment, the journey, not the destination.

Every writer has to start with the first words on a blank page and then put in the effort, day in and day out to become as good as they possibly can. Every runner has to put on a pair of running shoes and take those first strides understanding that the pain (and frustration) is inevitable, but also knowing that the suffering is optional. That, I think, is the nugget of gold buried within Murakami’s book. It will be the mantra I repeat to myself when I finally work up the courage to start running.

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Coda: On Standing All Day with an Ear Ache

Today was my first full work day with the new sit/stand desk. I needed a benchmark to gauge how much I should stand and how much I should sit. I decided that, for today, I would stand while working and sit when I wasn’t working. Since I consider my writing work, and since I write as part of my morning routine, I had my standing desk in x-wing formation (this is how I think of my desk when it is in standing formation) beginning at about 7am until a few minutes ago, at 4:30 pm: that’s about 9 hours, with a 25 minute break for lunch, when I sat down.

So how was it? Let me put it this way: the last time I was in Hawaii (some 16 years ago), my friends and I went on a hike on the north shore of Kauai, on the Kalalau Trail. The trail goes to a waterfall, and the hike is 4 hours in each direction. Before we set out, we stopped at a grocery store in Princeville and picked up some sandwiches from the deli. The hike itself was amazing, but incredibly muddy. Two hours into our hike, we reached a beach, and we sat down and fell on our sandwiches. I content to this day that it was the best sandwich I’ve ever tasted. We decided on that beach that we’d had enough, and that the two hour hike back would be sufficient, waterfall or not. When we arrived back at the trail head, I remember walking across the parking lot to the beach, and with clothes and shoes still on, I walked into the ocean. My feet felt completely worn out.

That is how I felt after standing for nearly 9 hours today. Couple that with an ear infection that I’ve been dealing with. I ignored it for a few days, thinking it might go away on its own. But today it decided to call my bluff. The upside was that I was distracted from my aching feet by my aching ear. I finally gave in and went to the doctor and they gave me some antibiotics, but I came home and stood at my desk for the last few hours of meetings of the day. When I finally sat down, it was a great relief. Almost as much as walking into the ocean after that hike back along the Kalalau Trail.

Now that I am sitting, my ear is aching and I think maybe I should stand so that my aching feet will distract me from my aching ear. How long does it take for amoxicillin to start working?

I haven’t yet decided if I will try to stand during my evening routine. I think I need to built up to standing for long duration. Doing so today was merely a test to see how hard it was. Maybe I’ll do something like stand during meetings and sit when I am not in meetings. Or vice versa. I’m still figuring this out.

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A Newer Healthier Desk for My Office

During Amazon’s Prime days, I finally bit the bullet and decided to order a new desk for my office. I had my old desk for more than seven years. It was a glass-topped desk that I thought was great at the time, but I grew to hate it, mainly because I could never seem to keep the glass clean. Also because I hated looking through the surface of my desk to see the mess of wires beneath.

Given my renewed focus on writing and getting into shape, I decided to get myself a sit-stand desk. My idea was that I would stand whenever I was working, and sit when I am not working. Given that the former tends to be more than the latter (especially since I consider writing work), I would be standing more than I would be sitting. I did the usual comparisons and found a desk that I liked. I did not have a glass top. It does have up to 3 pre-settings for the height of the desk, and controls for moving the desk up or down. It also has a good deal of surface area, which is important to me. Here are a couple of pictures, one of the desk in “standing” mode, one in “sitting” mode.

Standing desk
The new desk in standing mode
new desk in sitting mode
The new desk in sitting mode

I looked up the ergonomics for a desk for someone of my height, both sitting and standing. I set the pre-settings based on what the data told me, so now I have an ergonomically sound desk when both standing and sitting.

We had sit/stand desks in my office, back when I would go into the office on a regular basis, and I often used them in standing mode. I will say that after a day spent mostly on my feet, I feel like I have been on my feet all day.

I managed to put together the new desk in about an hour. There was some logistics involved in clearing off the old desk, dismantling it, and moving the new desk into place, but I managed. I am very happy with the result. Moreover, I think I now have space for one additional bookshelf in my office if I close that gap between the new desk and the filing cabinet to the right.

I hate seeing the web of wires and I took an old poster and stuck it against the wall behind the desk to hide the mess. Eventually, I get that cleaned up. For now, it is quick hack that does the trick for me.

For those wondering what desk I ordered, it was the FEZIBO L-Shaped Electric Standing Desk (55″ model in black). Amazon current lists it for $359.99, but when I ordered on Prime Day, it was $70 off, and I got an additional $20 off as part of a “lightning deal.”

It is interesting to see how my desks have changed over the years, from that big, wood desk I had for a long time, to the glass desk I had for seven years after that, to my office today.

Apparently, I am getting closer and closer to my ideal office. Maybe I’ll achieve that right at the point that I retire to begin writing full time.

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One Important Feature that Evernote Still Needs

Evernote has made some significant improvements lately. They have completely reengineered the backend. They have refreshed and improved the user interface. And they recently introduced integrated task management–something users have been requesting for a long time.

There is one feature that I would find incredibly useful that Evernote still needs: a Last Viewed date for a note.

Currently, Evernote provides two dates for each note: a Created date and an Updated date:

An example of Evernote note information showing the created and updated date fields.

The Created date is the date on which the note was originally created. (I often change this to match the date of a document to make searching by date range more effective). The Updated date is the last time the note was modified. What’s missing in the “Last Viewed” date.

Why is a “Last Viewed” date important? Evernote is not just static storage for me. It is a living memory–a repository of digital documents and other notes that I have been collecting for more than ten years now. I call it a living memory because I am always looking for ways to improve the value I get from what I have stored in there. Currently, I have over 13,000 notes stored in Evernote. Despite the methods I have come up with for making searching as easy as possible, it can sometimes be hard to narrow things down when there is a lot of noise.

A screen capture showing Evernote's count of my notes, currently at 13,263.

This is where a “Last Viewed” date plays a crucial role. If I had to guess, I’d say that three quarters of the notes I have in Evernote have never been looked at after their initial scanning or input. The question I ask myself is: if I never have to look at note that I am storing, then why am I storing it?

Certainly some notes are worth keeping, even if I haven’t looked at them in months or years. But there are also things like phone bills and Amazon receipts, and countless other documents that I probably will never have a need to look at. I don’t know this for sure at the outset, so I put them into Evernote just in case. But I would love to do a yearly review, looking at how many notes I haven’t viewed in the last, say, five years. If I could get such a list, I might simply move all of those notes to an Archive notebook, export that notebook to a file, and then delete the notebook from Evernote. This would remove a lot of noise that comes up in searches. And it really is noise, since they are notes that I have not looked at in the last five years.

The problem is, of course, that Evernote does not have a “Last Viewed” date to query on. I suppose this would be the equivalent of the “Date Last Opened” on MacOS. It seems like it would be a simple matter to add the functionality for this information, although I suspect there would be no way of implementing it retroactively.

Still, I think this would be a useful feature, and one that corresponds to real memory, where things that we have no need of recalling are “erased” so that we can more readily remember other things.

The Game We Missed

The family and I spent this holiday weekend in New York. We had the true holiday weekend experience, which included barbecues, fireworks, and a hefty helping of holiday traffic. Driving up Friday morning, the normally 4 hour 10 minute drive took us just about 6 hours. It was not a wasted six hours. It gave me the opportunity to put to practice some of the techniques I’ve been learning through meditation–particularly that of equanimity. Bad traffic raises my blood pressure, but I think I dealt with it calmly nearly the whole way up. (The merge on the upper deck of the GW bridge always gets me.)

Friday evening, my brother-in-law and I had tickets to the Mets v. Yankees game at Yankee Stadium. We had good seats and it was going to be the first major league baseball game I’d been to in a few years. We hopped on Metro North, changed trains and got off at Yankee stadium with what seemed like a few thousand other Yankees fans (and a sprinkling of Mets fan) screaming at the top of their lungs. The pouring rain outside the train station did nothing to dampen their spirits. We lined up to get into the ball park, entering at Gate 2, about 20 minutes before first pitch. The tarp was still on the field, so rather than go to our seats–which were field level up the third baseline–we wandered around the stadium. We bought a couple of $17+ beers. The beers come in only one size: Giant. This is 25 ounces of beer in a can. We then found a dry place to stand, and chatted while we waited for the game to begin.

It never happened.

Just before 8:30 pm, got in line for some food, and while standing in line, the game was postponed. We had about 2 hours inside Yankee Stadium (only my second time at the new ballpark) and spent $35 on beer. We took Uber to a restaurant not far from where my sister and brother-in-law live, and we had a nice dinner. I was back at their house around 11:30pm.

The game was rescheduled as part of Sunday day/night double-headers. We opted to exchange our tickets for a game later in the season. I think we made a good choice. While we sat out on my sister’s deck eating a great Independence Day barbecue, and while our kids played tag (or possible, “the floor is lava”) all around the yard, the Yankees got battered 10-5 by Mets, and Chappy blew another save.

It felt a little strange being back in Yankee stadium. I still think of it as the new stadium. It is not the stadium I remember from my youth, where you could look to the outfield and see the top of the Bronx court house. They players I know are all gone. Baseball, for all of its player longevity, is still a fleeting game, a game of youth, and those still clinging to their youth. I couldn’t even say that I felt the ghosts of former Yankees wandering the great causeways among the tens of thousands of fans. Those ghosts are anchored to a different piece of land.

No, the game we missed–the game I missed, always seems to be the one that is already long over, the one I can recreate in my mind just by looking at a messy, food-stained scorecard, with the sound of the imagined crowd like the sound of the ocean in seashell, ringing in my ears.

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Small Efficiencies in Workflow

With my recent plan to focus on my writing and improve my overall well-being (a.k.a. Project Sunrise), I have been hunting for small efficiencies in workflow that can have an outsized impact on my day. My morning routine takes about two and a half hours to complete. While developing the routine, I teased out actions or tasks that I could eliminate or improve upon to maximize the use of my time. Two examples come to mind.

Writing in my journal: content versus medium

Since 2017, I have been writing my journal longhand in large Moleskine notebooks. I’ve written about the advantages and disadvantages of having a paper journal versus a digital one in a piece called The Paradox of Journaling. I like the feeling of writing longhand, and I understand and believe in the durability of paper. But there are two tradeoffs to consider when time is limited and my goals depend on data:

  1. The speed and clarity with which I can write.
  2. The speed an accuracy with which I can find what I wrote about.

With limited time, I had to consider what is more valuable to me now, the content of my journaling or the medium in which it is stored. Today it is the content. Since I can type much faster than I can write longhand, since my typing is more clear than my handwriting, and since I express thoughts more clearly through a keyboard than a pen, it seemed prudent to switch my journaling to a digital form instead of a paper one. This is why for the last week, I have been composing it as a text file using Obsidian, despite what I wrote in February when I initially rejected the idea. The reasons I rejected it were valid then, but circumstances have changed, and I think this little efficiency will have long-term benefits.

One of those benefits is the speed with which I can find what I wrote about. It is much easier to search a text file than volumes of journals, even when they are roughly indexed. And time is the key. I want to spend as much of my time as possible on creative tasks. That said, to improve, I need to look back at the data I’ve collected so that I can apply it going forward. I can do this much more quickly searching a text file than books. Practical considerations–speed of input, clarity, and speed of retrieval–have overridden my desire to continue writing my journal longhand, at least for the duration.

Composing in WordPress

For a long time, I composed my blog posts in an external editor. That editor has changed over the years. I’ve written drafts in Scrivener, in Word, and most recently, in Obsidian, my current editor of choice. With my recent migration to WordPress hosting, and conversion to a modern WordPress theme, I have found WordPress’s native Gutenberg editor to be comfortable and easy to compose in directly. This saves a good deal of time. Prior to composing directly in WordPress my process looked like this:

  1. Write the post in Obsidian (or other editor)
  2. Copy the text out of Obsidian
  3. Paste it into a blank WordPress post
  4. Fix any formatting issues
  5. Publish.

For the last week I have been composing directly in WordPress which allows me to eliminate the administrative steps I was doing before. This shaves a little time spent on each post, which I get back for creative work, like writing the posts themselves.

These are small efficiencies. They don’t save huge chunks of time each, but the affect is cumulative. I journal in the morning and evening, so I am saving a little time each journaling session. I tend to write in the mornings, sometimes one post, sometimes more than one, and I save a little time with each draft. In a cumulative sense, over the long haul, I think small efficiencies like these have outsized results.

I am always looking for small efficiencies like these because of their magnified results over time. Do you have small efficiencies that you have discovered? If you feel like it, share them in the comments.

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Project Sunrise: Ten Years to Full-time Writing

Sunrise over a lake

Today is the first day of my creative new year. It is also the first official day of an effort that I have calling “Project Sunrise” for short. Project Sunrise is a plan to transition to a full-time writer ten years from now when I retire. It involves three key elements:

  1. Improving my writing. Seriously improving my writing.
  2. Improving my overall health and well-being. Because I want to be in good shape when I retire.
  3. Improving my overall effectiveness and how I manage my time. So that I can make good use of what I have left.

I can see a lot of hands up so let me take some questions.

What do you mean by “improve my writing”?

I hinted at this in an earlier post, but I do have a specific plan in mind. I’ve always wanted to write, and I’ve had small successes writing short fiction and nonfiction. That said, I am most proud of the writing I do here on the blog than any other writing I have done. When I retire from my day job, I’ll be 59 years old. That is still relatively young. I’d like to try my hand as a full time writer, and what better way to begin than with the writing I enjoy most: the writing I do here.

Writing well takes practice. It took me fourteen years of practice before I made my first sale. I’ve been writing on this blog for 16 years already, and while that seems like a lot of practice, I’d like to take it to the next level. I’d like to see if I can not only get this blog back to where it was in its heyday, but surpass it. There was a time when I was commissioned for other writing gigs because of the work I did on this blog. I want to see if I can get there again, and where it will lead.

Initially, my plan was to try to write 10 novels in ten years because I admire novelists. But the more I considered it, the more I realized that the writing I most enjoy doing is shorter form, be it articles for magazines, short stories, and especially what I write here. Writing 10 novels might be enough practice to allow me to write full time. But I just don’t enjoy it the way I do shorter writing. And I think I’m better in shorter doses anyway. So rather than attempt 10 novels in ten years, I decided to focus on different aspects of my craft, and building on them year after year so when retirement comes, I have the chance of writing full time, and have built up the experience, credits, and stamina to do so.

This first year, which begins today, July 1, is focused on my writing here on the blog. Subsequent years will continue to build on what I’ve done here, but also look toward branching out. My long-term plan is to use the blog as my personal university for improving the writing I most enjoy so that more and more readers enjoy it as well.

One of the key elements to this is finding ways to measure my improvement. This goes beyond standard metrics. The number of views isn’t worth much because it doesn’t tell you if people actually read it. I want to learn from each post I write, figure out what worked, what didn’t and why so that I can improve next time around. The nice thing about writing here is that each post is opportunity to learn and improve. What matters most (after my own enjoyment, of course), is what my readers think, and I’m counting on you to provide honest feedback. This is part of the reason why I re-opened the comments on all 6,700+ posts here on the blog. Over this first year, I’m hoping to develop a set of metrics that I find useful in measuring quality and improvement, and of course, I’ll pass long what I find to you.

At the end of ten years I should have a lot more focused experience. Who knows, maybe this blog will have more visibility than it does today? And I am hopeful that it will lead to opportunities that will allow me to work as a full-time writer once I retire from my day job. That is the sunrise that I look forward to. Worst case is that when I begin my full-time job as a writer, I’ll have is ten years of experience working consciously to improve my craft.

What do you mean by “improve my overall health and well-being?”

In order to have the stamina to spend a decade writing while working a full time job and raising kids, I need to be in better shape than I am today. I need more exercise. I need to eat better. I need to find ways of clearing my mind so that I sleep better and respond better to challenges that come up. I see this as a practice as well, just like writing, a slow and stead one that will improve my overall health and well-being hand in hand with my writing over the next ten years. The result, I hope, is a more healthy decade, but also, I look to coming at full-time writing health and in good shape.

Why the name “Project Sunrise”?

When I was fleshing out this idea, I kept referring it to my “ten novels in ten years” project. That was too long-winded, and it became moot when I reconsidered and refocused my goals. So I made a list of possibilities, something short and simple that I could refer to and know what it meant. I came up with Project Sunrise, because a sunrise is a new beginning. Each creative year is a new beginning. And at the end of these next ten years, there is a new beginning for me as well, retiring from my day job to become a full time writer.

What do you mean by a “creative new year”?

One problem I have found with beginning new habits is that the traditional new year is a terrible time for me to start them. It is cold and dark in December and January and that does something to both my motivation and mood. It’s much easier for me to begin something new when the sun rises early, and sets late, when the temperature is warm, when I don’t have to deal with the activities that come with kids in school. This is true for writing as well as habits. It seemed to me, therefore, that to being my creative year on July 1 meant I was beginning when the air is warm and the nights are long, and getting up early to exercise doesn’t mean freezing in darkness.

Of course, darkness and cold will come, but by then I hope that my new habits, health and writing, will be well-established and it won’t matter.

Do you really think you’ll make it as a full time writer? What happens if you don’t?

When I started out writing, I was pretty haphazard about things and didn’t look closely at how I worked or ways I could improve. I just moved on to the next thing. It was probably part of the reason it took so long to start selling stories. Now, I have the confidence of knowing that I can write well enough to sell what I write a short length. Approaching this with a focus on practice, craft, and continuous improvement is the best shot that I have.

And if I don’t make it? Well, I can still write. There’s this blog. It’s been around for 16 years so far, and I don’t see why it would have to go anywhere. Besides, I’ll be retired. There won’t be pressure to find a means of employment. Still, my attitude going in is that I will make it. I may not be a bestselling writer, but I think I’ve a better than even shot of being able to write full time if I really try. I can visualize it, the way I did when I was young and imagined I would sell a story to Analog or get my private pilot’s license. It was never a question of if, but when.

Of course, along the way I’ll provide progress reports and lessons-learned. Part of this involves really looking at the work I do and how I do it and see how I can make incremental improvements over time.

Okay, I don’t see any more hands at this point, but if you still have questions about this, come find me. I’ll be waiting in the comments below.

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If so, consider subscribing to the blog using the form below or clicking on the button below to follow the blog. And consider telling a friend about it. Didn’t like it so much? Let me know why, either in the comments, or by reaching out to me directly. I’m always looking for ways to improve. Already a reader or subscriber to the blog? Thanks for being a part of this community!

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