Category: essays

Good Morning

You can tell a lot about someone by how they greet you in the morning. I have a tendency to say an abbreviated “‘Mornin'” to people I pass. I am always impressed and envious of those people who greet me with a bright “Good morning,” clearly enunciated. How to do they find the energy that cheerful so early?

With our kids, the greetings seems to decline with age. The Little Man usually offers a relatively bright, “Good morning” when I makes his way into the living room. The Little Miss also has a fairly cheerful, “Good morning, Daddy,” when she wakes up. The Littlest Miss usually offers a grunt followed by a whiny, “I’m still tired,” or “I’m not ready.”

Days of the week seem to matter. Growing up Sunday seemed to be the grumpiest day of the week in terms of greetings. Unintelligible grunts were the order of the day.

I see a wide variety of greetings on my morning walk. Bright, enthusiastic, “Good mornings,” to my more muted “‘Morning!” to a mumble. Sometimes, a nod and smile can be just as good as an enthusiastic ‘Good morning.’ One person that I frequently see on my morning walk offers a deluxe package, “Good morning!” he says with a wave, “Happy Friday!” Or sometimes, “Good morning! Hump day!” if it is a Wednesday.

No where I’ve been are greetings offered more plentifully and genuinely than in Maine. Walking the streets of Castine, for instance, I’ll pass by a dozen people on my morning walk and get a dozen cheerful greetings and half a dozen offers of conversation. It is almost as welcoming when we visit southwestern Florida, and walk on the path that encircles the community in which my mother-in-law lives. It makes me wonder if all of the snow birds living in Florida in the winter are originally from Maine.

I tend to find the opposite in New York City and its outskirts. Taking the train into the city for a Yankees game, no one offers greetings. The Yankees fans on the train jeer at the few Mets fans they see, but greet one another heartily. Beyond that, no one is saying good morning, or good evening, for that matter. I don’t remember much in the way of greetings in Los Angeles either, although there were a few exceptions. When I lived in Studio City and would take an evening walk around the neighborhood, the late actor Jon Polito was usually out in his yard talking to friends he had over. He would always raise a hand when he saw me and say, “Hi fella!”

With people you know, greetings offer a kind of window into their mood. A cheerful greeting and you know you can expect a cheerful mood. If I get an “I’m still tired!” from the Littlest Miss, I have a pretty good idea what kind of morning it is going to be.

I really am envious of the people who can, day in and day out, offer a hearty “Good morning!” Alas, all I am capable of doing today is offering you my usual: ‘Mornin’!

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Progressives

The word progressive is a dynamic term. According to Merriam-Webster, there are 10 major definitions split over two entries. I guess the first thing that comes to mind when I think of progressives is the movement that took place around the turn of last century, during the Roosevelt and Taft administrations, with magazines like McClure’s and the muckrakers. Whenever I hear someone say “progressives” I think of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s outstanding book The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. That book was so good it made a flight from Washington/Dulles to Los Angeles pass by in the blink of an eye.

It is a versatile term. Back when I was flying, at unfamiliar airports, you could request a “progressive taxi.” Typically, as you roll off the runway, ground control gives you a series of “intersections” to get you to where you are going. They might say something like, “Take Charlie to Charlie 6 and cross 16-right to Bravo. Bravo to Bravo 4.” That can be a lot to remember, especially at an unfamiliar airport. In a progressive taxi, the controllers give you the first step: “Take Charlie to Charlie 6.” Once you reach the Charlie 6 intersection, they give you the next step. And so on.

It occurred to me that our car has something called “progressive” cruise control. I love this feature and use it often on our long drives. You set your speed, like any other cruise control, and then you set your distance in car-lengths. After that the car maintains the distance from the car in front of you, slowing when they slow, speed up when they speed up. When I use it, it is almost like we are tethered by a tractor beam

I was thinking about progressives because I got a new pair of glasses they other day. Like my old glasses, they have progressive lenses. Here “progressive” is a euphemism for “tri-focals” which itself code for “Jamie is getting old.” My vision changed a little in the last two years since my previous prescription. The new glasses definitely help.

One thing I’ve noticed: as my vision regresses, my use of my glasses progresses. I wear my glasses frequently these days. Because of that, as the kind people in my eye doctor’s office were adding the various features I had on my old glasses to the new ones (poly carb, anti-glare, blue-light blocking, etc.) I realized that I had an opportunity. For a while I’d been putting my sunglasses on over my glasses when outdoors. So I had them add “transitions” lenses to the mix. This is a progressive move on my part. It will help my look far less ridiculous when I am outdoors.

“Transitions” feels almost like a sibling of “progressives.” I like these lenses because the UV light darkens them and I don’t need my sunglasses in places where UV light is abundant. (Inside the car is not one of these places.) Of course, as soon as I got home I had to test them out. I went into the front yard, waited while my glasses adjusted, and then took a photo. I then went back into my office, waited for the UV light to die down and took another. There is a noticeable difference.

Progressives seem to be a theme with me these days. I’ve got progressive lenses, and a car with progressive cruise control. I’m not flying planes any more, but I am working on progressively improving my habits.

Thinking about progressives makes me think about progress. That in turn reminds me of a joke I once heard:

If pro is the opposite of con, what is the opposite of progress?

How I Form New Habits

I am in the middle of a fairly significant lifestyle change. As part of my plan to retire in ten years, one of the things I wanted to do was get myself back into shape. When I retire, I want to be healthy and active. Being in good mental and physical shape are big part of this. It means changing habits that I’ve had for many years, and in some cases, for decades and changing habits, for me at least, is always difficult. There are two aspects to this. A new habit can be doing something new. It can also be to stop doing something that I had been doing. So I thought it might be useful to talk about how I form new habits.

Writing about habits abstractly is never helpful to me, so I want to start with specifics. What habits was I looking to form? Brace yourself. The list is a bit daunting, at least to me.

  • Give up sugared soft drinks
  • Give up caffeine
  • Start a daily meditation practice
  • Start a healthy diet that will help me stay lean and full of energy
  • Start exercising daily
  • Write every day

Mapping habits to goals

I usually begin with goals. Before I am ready to begin forming new habits, I need a reason to change. What are those reasons? In my case, my mission statement was along the lines of “Retire in ten years and be able to write full time.” That’s what I began with. From there I asked myself a lot of questions about what it meant to retire, to write full time. For me, writing requires stamina. It is not like my day job where I stop thinking about it (usually) at the end of the day. I am constantly writing in my head, constantly wondering about things, and constantly reading to pique my interest in things that I want to write about. All that work can be exhausting. Then, too, I didn’t want to be someone who retired and settled into a sedentary routine. My routine is more sedentary today than I am comfortable with. So I took that mission statement and came up with some fairly abstract goals:

  • Be in the best physical shape that I can manage so that I have the energy to do what I want to do.
  • Find a good mental balance: especially, reducing my anxiety, being more empathetic, and open to new ideas.
  • Be the best writer I can possibly be.

Now, these aren’t necessarily SMART goals, but they are good enough for my purposes for getting started. The next thing to do was figure out what I needed to do (or stop doing) to start down a road toward these goals. This is where the habits come in. Mapping them to the goals would look something like this:

GoalHabit
Be in the best physical shape I can manageGive up sugared soft drinks
Give up caffeine
Start a healthy diet
Exercise daily
Find a good mental balanceStart a daily meditation practice
Be the best writer I can beWrite every day

Where to start: order of operations

I know from past experience that no matter how much I want to jump in and change everything at once, that is a recipe for failure. So I needed to pick a place to start. Having a long lead time helped me in this regard. After all, I’ve got ten years to retirement (3,755 days, if anyone besides me is counting). There is no need to rush things. Rather, I’d prefer to get this right and allow time for the inevitable adjustments. I ranked the habits I wanted to change from what I considered to be hardest to easiest. Here is the order I came up with:

  1. Giving up sugared soft drinks.
  2. Giving up caffeine.
  3. Starting a daily meditation practice
  4. Starting a healthy diet
  5. Exercising daily
  6. Writing every day

Let me talk about my rationale for this order. I’ve given up caffeine before. At one point, between 2003 and 2010 or so, I’d given up caffeine for 7 years. It was only when we had kids that I began using it again to give me that boost I needed after some sleepless nights with the babies. So I knew I could do it. Knowing that is half the battle, so I didn’t think it would be the most difficult change.

On the other hand, I’d been drinking Coca Cola all my life. I loved it, and still do. I’d hated the diet versions of soft drinks, and wondered why anyone drank them if they tasted so badly. Even when I gave up caffeine, I still drank Caffeine-Free Coke, or Sprite, or other non-diet soft drinks. I figured giving up the sugared soft drinks would be the most difficult for me.

Meditation was another tough sell for me. I couldn’t imagine taking time out of my day, every day, to sit and do nothing. Where was the value in that? I figured getting into that habit would be difficult.

The other three were all familiar to me. I’d worked with a trainer fifteen years ago, and gotten into good shape. I learned to eat better than I had been (although not great). And of course, I had at one point an 825-day consecutive writing streak, so I knew I could write every day.

The next step was to pick a habit and get started. But my mind doesn’t quite work like that.

Warming up to a habit

Whenever I am thinking about starting a new habit, I never just start it cold. It takes warming up. It is often this way for a story, too. I’ll think about it and think about it, but not feel ready. With writing stories, the key I’ve learned over the years is not to get started until I feel ready, until there is a click in my head that says, yeah, now it’s time. The same it true with starting a habit. I could go months thinking about the change I want to make (and often feeling guilty about not making it) but if I start and I haven’t warmed up to it, then I know it won’t last. I have dozens of examples of this in my own experience.

One day last spring, however, at the outside of the Pandemic, when things were looking particularly bleak, something in my head clicked and I was ready to start a daily meditation practice.

A few months later, feeling desperate to lose some weight, I finally felt ready to give up diet soft drinks. These are actually two useful examples because they illustrate the paths that different habits can take. After some experimentation, for instance, I found that I could tolerate Cherry Coke Zero, and once I realized I could do that, I simply gave up sugared soft drinks and started drinking Cherry Coke Zero instead. Within two months I lost something like 18 pounds without changing anything else. It was eye-opening.

It wasn’t quite as dramatic with the meditation, however. I managed to build a daily practice, but after a few months, I felt like I wasn’t seeing any real progress on my part, and I gave it up for a time. Eventually, I came back to it, and it was then that I began to notice some of the changes it brought about in me. I was calmer during the day, less anxious, more open. It was slow and subtle, but I could feel the changes. Feedback like losing weight or feeling the anxiety start to slip away after meditating is self-reinforcing. What I to learn was that not every habit works at the same speed. Sometimes I really have to keep at it before you start to notice a change, and during that time, I just have to believe that it is going to help, even if I don’t see changes right away.

Incremental changes

By mid spring of this year I’d been off sugared sodas for half a year, and I had a regular meditation practice. The next thing I began to think about was giving up caffeine.I knew this would be tough but I also knew I could do it. I just needed to warm up to it. And so over a period of weeks, I did that, telling myself it was time, but also telling myself that “this was my last caffeinated drink” quite a few times. (Looking back I see several journal entries from the day following such proclamations with things like, “Well, that didn’t work out too well.”) Finally, on April 16, I began to feel ready. I wrote this in my journal for that day:

On my walk today I began thinking that maybe I needed to give up caffeine again. I don’t know why I feel the need to give something up. Today I was thinking about it in terms of sleeping better. Maybe I’d sleep much better without the caffeine… if I do give it up it will have to be on Sunday because I feel like I am going to need caffeine to get through tomorrow.

This is typical for me in two ways. First, I’m usually ready when I write it down and give myself a deadline. I’d been thinking about giving up caffeine for some time, but it wasn’t until I wrote it down that I knew I was ready. Second, I always give myself a last hurrah, often hidden as an excuse to start the new habit at the beginning of the week. But on that Sunday, April 18, I started the day with orange juice instead of a caffeinated drink, and I haven’t had caffeine since.

So I’d tackled meditation, sugared soft drinks, and caffeine. I let those settle in for a while before I decided to tackle the next two items: a healthy diet and daily exercise. Typically, I need to make sure that a habit is set before moving onto the next. And I avoid trying to being more than one new habit at a time, but in this case, diet and exercise go hand in hand. I’d been warming up to both for some time and around the time I was writing my post on Project Sunrise, I knew I was ready. I’d done a bunch of research and decided to tackle the slow-carb diet. I started this a week ahead of exercise just to avoid too much at once.

There are two things I like about the slow-carb diet: first, I can be a few meals that I eat regularly and so in addition to losing weight and fat, and slimming down, I also have less decision fatigue. Second, cheat day! The first week went well, so on this past Sunday, I began to develop my exercise habit.

Habits themselves can be incremental. When I last worked out regularly, with a trainer, I was 15 years younger than I am today. What I did not want to do was injure myself at the outset. So I decided to be incremental about exercise. I would exercise 6 days a week (my cheat day would also be my day off). Rather than start with a mix of cardio and weights, I decided to begin exclusively with stretching. I researched videos I could watch and then on Sunday, I did my first 30 minute stretching workout. And wow, I felt as flexible as a steel bar when compared to the person leading the workout. But I kept reminding myself that it takes time, and for some habits, more time than others to see results. Every day makes a difference. And so I repeated my stretching exercise last night, and will do it again tonight.

My plan going forward is to continue the stretching routine 6 days away for the next two to three weeks. After that, I’ll layer in cardio 3 days a week, and after a few weeks of that, I’ll add in light strength training on the 3 days I’m not doing cardio.

What about writing? That’s a tricky one because it is so difficult to judge if I am improving. There are two things that I can do and that I have been doing pretty well at so far this year. First, I can write every day. I am writing this post on the 194th consecutive day that I have written this year, for instance. The second things I can do is get my writing in front of an audience and take what feedback I can manage to find. So far, in the first 194 days of 2021, I’ve published 213 posts totaling 128,000 words. I’d say that’s pretty good practice on both counts. I’m not sure there is more that I could do, except to keep it up.

Habit tracking

One thing that helps me maintain my habits is tracking them. There is a benefit to this, as well as a cost for me. The benefit is in seeing the day-to-day progress, and patting myself on the back for a particular streak. An added benefit is looking closely at the data to see if there are things I can do to improve.

These days, I have a notebook that I use to log all of this. A typical page looks like this:

A page from my habit journal
A page from my habit journal

Along the way, I’ve been making little notes to myself about what works and what doesn’t. I’ve noted when I felt hungry or a craving, which workouts were tough and which too easy. I’m hoping that these notes will help me make informed adjustments along the way.

I used to track habits like this in a spreadsheet, so that I could see the unbroken streak (the Seinfeld method). But one thing I learned from my 825-day writing streak is that the streak itself becomes an end, and it weighs upon me. I’d rather focus on getting things right each day, and not worry so much about the streak or consecutive days. If I miss a day, it is a lot easier for me to recover when the streak doesn’t mean much, but the habit does.

Planning for the unexpected

I’ve found that habits work really well in regular, repeatable environments, but things can go sideways if something changes. What if I am traveling? What if we have plans one evening when I am supposed to do my workout? What if we go to a restaurant during the week? Or what if we go to a friend’s house for dinner and it isn’t my cheat day? In addition to settling into these new habits incrementally, I’ve also tried to think about these alternatives so that I don’t go into these situations cold. I have a plan, simple as it may be. One example of this is illustrated on my morning routine.

Then, too, as new situations arise, I made adjustments, note what works and what doesn’t and revise these plans. Just knowing that I have some idea of what to do in these common edge cases helps to take the edge off of them.


It has taken me nearly fifty years to get to the point where I understand how habits work for me. Maybe I am slow learner in this regard, and I certainly haven’t perfected this particular adventure. But I am trying to be honest about it this time. In my notebook I note my successes, but I also highlight my failures. For the latter, I try to learn from them and adjust.

The other thing I am constantly trying to keep in mind is that these habits build slowly. Some are faster than others (it took me about three weeks before I felt I no longer craved caffeine), but generally, the end goal comes slowly. Fortunately I’ve got time to improve and I’m hoping to use that time as best as I can.

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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.