Category: essays

2 Annotated Pages in My Field Notes Notebook

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I’ve been using notebooks more and more. I especially like using my Field Notes notebook. I carry one around with me everywhere. I use the notebook for jotting down things I need to remember, but ultimate can discard. This differs from how I use my Evernote Moleskine notebook. The notes there are things I will refer to again and again.

The best way to explain how I use my Field Notes notebooks is to show you. So below is a snapshot of two very typical pages in my current Field Notes notebook. Each entry has a number, and the number corresponds to the numbers below.

Annotated Field Notes
Click to enlarge

1. A blog posts ideas. If I decide to write the post, I’ll cross it out after it is written (see #8 below).

2. A story idea. In this case, the idea is really something that would fit within another story idea.

3. Things I want to do. Here, the note refers to a spreadsheet I want to create that tracks the number of requests I get to write something vs. the number that actually pay for writing. I thought it would be an interesting metric to track in 2016.

4. When listening to audiobooks, I’ll jot down notes that strike me as interesting. In this case, I was listening to Carl Reiner’s I Remember Me, and was struck by his mention of Allaben Acres, because I knew that to be the place that Isaac Asimov and his first wife, Gertrude, spent their honeymoon—at around the same time that Reiner was there.

5. Another blog post idea.

6. An observation I made while eating lunch at an IHOP near Starke, Florida. All of the waitresses in the restaurant would, when asking the cook a question, refer to him as “Sir.” I thought it was unusual, and might be something I could use in a story.

7. Something I read in Carl Reiner’s I Just Remembered. It was a translation of a German quote, and I wanted to look it up. I did look it up, but didn’t have much success finding the original quote.

8. Another blog post idea. I crossed it out after I wrote it.

9. I always write down the name of our server at restaurants. Otherwise, I won’t remember it.

10. After all of the Carl Reiner reading, I found out that he and Mel Brooks had done an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The note reminded me to watch it.

11. I was going over to Cafe Rio to get dinner for the family, so I jotted down everyone’s order.

12. I had quite a few things I wanted to get done on Sunday, so I made a list. I managed to get all of them done, including changing the tire myself.

13. The Little Miss fell asleep watching a movie. I knew she’d want to start the movie from where she left off, so I jotted down the time of the movie when I noticed her asleep, so I’d know where to restart it when she woke up.

14. I saw an ad for something called “Wipe New” that reminded me I wanted to clean the headlights on the car. I ended up getting Turtle Wax instead.

15. I was running to the store, and Kelly asked me to pick up a few other things.

These two pages are typical of what fills my Field Notes notebooks. As I said, it is all ephemeral, a kind of temporary cache for my aging memory. But it works surprisingly well.

A Fondness for Old Things

In my day job, I work with technology. My desk has two large flat screen monitors, plus my laptop screen. I have a fancy Cisco IP phone that can do all sorts of neat tricks. While writing code, I sometimes listen to music streamed from satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Instead of phone calls, I have video chats. I carry a mobile phone that is often smarter than I am. I am inundated by cables and wires of all shapes and lengths. I am constantly checking to see if this device or that requires charging. All of this technology has creeped up on my in steady increments over the years. Perhaps because I have been part of this explosion of information technology for the better part of 22 years, I have developed a fondness for older, simpler things.

Office Desk

I envy those writers who worked on typewriters. It makes no difference to me whether the typewriter was electric or manual, there is a minimalist quality to the idea of writing on a typewriter. I have written on typewriters, but not since I began to write with the intention of selling what I wrote. I own my grandfather’s Royal QuietComfort Deluxe manual typewriter, and instead of hiding it away as an antique, it sits in our living room, and the kids are free to tap on the keys, and watch the typebars strike the ribbon. Writing used to be noisy.

When I was a kid, we had a telephone mounted to the wall in the kitchen. It’s ring was mechanical. A signal would activate a bell within the phone and produce an unmistakable RING! This sound cannot be reproduced by ring tones on an iPhone today because those rings tones are all digital. The mechanical sound of the bell is unique. My grandparent’s had a rotary phone which took forever to place a call. It seemed like every number I dialed had lots of 8s, 9s, and 0s, and few 1s and 2s. When talking on the phone, you were leashed to the radius of the cord. As I tend to multitask when I am on the phone, only half paying attention to what the person is saying, I think a corded phone that leashed me in place would be a useful feature today to help me focus on the call at hand.

My dad had a pocket calculator that I used to play with as a kid. In high school I had a scientific calculator, but even then I preferred the pocket variety. Our local Target still sells pocket calculators, but I don’t know if anyone actually buys them. My iPhone has a calculator built into it. What’s more, I can simply say, “Hey Siri, what’s 40 times 52?” and she will respond, “It’s 2,080.”

Music is digitally remastered today, but I sometimes miss the sound of records playing on a turntable, with all of the hisses and pops that went along with it. I listened to the Grease soundtrack over and over again on a turntable. I also listened to Spider-Man adventures on 45s. I miss the sounds of records. I noticed recently that Barnes & Noble carries records. These aren’t old used albums, but newly made “retro” albums. I wonder how they sound.

And what I wouldn’t give for the elegance and comfort of a DC-3 over a 737-900. It might have taken longer to get somewhere, but you went in style. First class today could not approach tourist class on a DC-3.

I feel like an old man, complaining how “back in my day…” But many of the old things I am fond of are things from long before my day. They are things I read about in memoirs and history books, or experienced second-hand, through the stories my grandfather told me. The past always seems simpler. Perhaps my fondness isn’t for old things after all, but for simpler times.

I suppose many people yearn for simpler times. Even the people who lived in simpler times probably sighed, and dreamed of the simpler times of their parents or grandparents.

The Flat Tire

We have been lucky when it comes to flat tires. We’ve driven round-trip from Virginia to Florida four times without a flat. We’ve driven from Virginia to Maine without a flat. We’ve driven dozens of times between Virginia and New York and have never pulled over because of a flat tire. We’ve had tire problems. Nails and screws and things like that. I fill up the tire and then drive to the mechanic to have it patched.

Yesterday, we arrived home from Florida, after 1,100 miles of driving in just 2 days. When I got out of the car, I looked to where our second car had been sitting unused for two weeks and noticed a completely flat right rear tire.

Flat tire

Ah, well, I thought. It was bound to happen at some point. We’d just arrived home and hadn’t even unpacked the car. We were in no rush, so I figured I’d deal with the flat the next day. My initial thought was just to call AAA and have them come by and swap out the flat for the spare.

When I woke up this morning, I had a different thought. The one disadvantage to not having the occasional flat tire is not getting the experience of changing a flat. My grandfather—who had been an auto mechanic most of his life—had taught me how to change a flat. But since I never had a flat tire, I never had the need to use that experience. Laying in bed this morning I thought: forget the Automobile club, I’ll do it myself.

I did it myself, the way my grandfather taught me. I jacked up the car just enough so that the tire was about to leave the ground. I loosened the nuts. Then I jacked up the car enough to remove the old tire, and replace it with the new one. It was easy, save one little mistake.

I should have checked the air pressure in the spare before putting it on. It turned out that the spare tire, having never been used, and having been mounted on the car for years, needed air. After removing the spare, I tossed it into the back of the other car, drove to the local service station, and filled it with air, 44 PSI, as recommended on the tire. I got back, put the tire on car, tighten the bolts, lowered the car, and gave each bolt a final crank. And the spare has now successfully replaced the flat tire.

Fixed tire

The whole process, including driving to the local service station to put air in the spare tire, took under an hour. That might sound long, and perhaps it is, but I hadn’t changed a tire since my grandfather taught me how to do it as a teenager.

And you know what? I’m glad I didn’t call AAA. I’m glad I changed the tire myself. If nothing else, it gave me the confidence to know that, when the time comes and we do have a flat on one of our road trips, I don’t have to wait for AAA or a tow truck to help put on a spare. I know how to do it myself.

Oh, and the reason the tire had gone flat in the first place, even though the car had been sitting there for two weeks while we were on vacation? In inspecting it after I removed it, I found a tiny screw embedded in the tread.

If You Ever Take an 11-Hour Drive, Let Carl Reiner Ride Shotgun

If you ever take an 11 hour drive, let Carl Reiner ride shotgun. On Friday, we left Florida after nearly two weeks, and began the 1,100 mile drive home. We decided to try it in two days, instead of three. This made for a 575 mile drive on Friday. Google Maps told me it would take 8 hours and 15 minutes. Factoring in lunch, and a gas stop, I figured 9 to 9-1/2 hours. It ended up taking 11 hours.

On Thursday, having finished both of Dick Van Dyke’s memoirs, I found myself wanting more. Carl Reiner seemed like the natural  choice. I found two of Reiner’s memoirs on Audible: I Remember Me (2013), and I Just Remembered (2014). I began listening to I Remember Me yesterday, and continued listening to it about an hour after we started our drive this morning. When that book ended, I immediately started listening to I Just Remembered.

I Remember Me by Carl Reiner

The books are hilarious. I lost count of how many times I burst out laughing while listening to the books on the drive home. Carl Reiner narrated his own books. I listened to the book for nearly nine of the eleven hours it took us to drive from southern Florida to Santee, South Carolina, and it was as if Carl Reiner was sitting in the passenger seat, regaling me with stories of his more than seven decades in show business. The time flew by.

Part of what drew me to the books was how much I enjoyed Dick Van Dyke’s memoirs. Part of what drew me to it was Carl Reiner’s diverse career in Hollywood: actor, singer, writer, director, producer. Part of what drew me to it is that I enjoy books about hard workers, and Carl Reiner certainly seemed to fit the bill. After all, at 93, he is still working.

By the time we arrived at our hotel in Santee, I’d finished the second Carl Reiner book. We checked in to the hotel, and then headed to a nearby restaurant for a late (for us) dinner. By the time we got back to the hotel room, I was beat. But I wanted a little more Carl Reiner. So I watched the episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee featuring Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. After that, I couldn’t stop. I spent about 2 hours watching episodes of Seinfeld’s hilarious series.

On Saturday, we faced a 7 hour drive. Arriving home just before 5 pm, the trip took 10 hours. Still enjoying the celebrity memoirs, I listened, in its entirety, to Carol Burnett’s This Time Together. I enjoyed it almost as much as Carl Reiner’s books. It kept me laughing for much of the drive home. It even produced a few tears.

The best driving advice I have to offer is: always wear a seatbelt.

The second best driving advice I have to offer: bring a celebrity along with you to regale you with stories of Hollywood.

My Bad Habits

I have some bad habits. Some I notice myself, others people notice on my behalf. Kelly cannot stand that I bite my nails. This a habit that I’ve had most of my life. I don’t even realize I am doing it, which makes it all the more pernicious. I broke the habit for close to a decade, from 2001 – 2011. But it snuck back in, as bad habits tend to do.

I have a bad habit of always wanting to add something to a conversation. Often I feel like I am interrupting, or cutting off others. I don’t mean to do this. I just get excited about what we are discussing, and I can’t help myself.

Other bad habits I have:

When I pick a line at the grocery store checkout, I won’t budge, even if there are other lines moving faster around me. I dig in, and become more and more cemented in my utterly ridiculous position that I picked the line and by God, I’m going to stay in it. Kelly finds this one more amusing than annoying.

Add to that the bad habit that I can’t stand still. No matter how hard I try, while standing, I’ll begin gently swaying from side to side. If I realize that I’m doing it, I’ll stop myself. But standing perfectly still doesn’t not feel natural to me, and no matter my resolve, the swaying will begin all over again. When speaking, I try to avoid this by placing my hands on the podium. That works long enough to get through the talk. But I usually end up tapping my fingers to keep moving.

On elevators, I pull out my phone to avoid small talk with strangers. It might not sound like a habit, but believe me, it is. My mind can be a million miles away, and I’ll look up to find myself checking email or Twitter, and avoiding eye contact with anyone else on the elevator. When I’m conscious of it, I try to stop myself, but walking into the elevator car, my hand immediately goes to my pocket.

There are some habits that I have managed to break. I mentioned that I stopped the nail-biting for a decade. I also used to hum constantly. I’d even hum at dinner. I can remember my parents’ pleas for me to stop with the humming at the dinner table. In my early years at the day job, I’d hum as I walked the hallways. People took this as sign that I was happy. Eventually I stopped humming. I have no idea how or why I stopped, but I still feel happy.

New Year’s is a time for resolutions. It’s a fresh start. A clean slate. A tabula rasa (which means “clean slate”). New Year’s is a time for breaking bad habits and starting good ones. If you’re a regular at your gym, you dread New Year’s because the place fills up with people who have no idea what they are doing. You look forward to mid-February when things have returned to normal. Everyone is starting something new, or stopping something old.

I think breaking a bad habit is harder than starting a good one. It was far easier for me to begin writing every day than it was for me to give up the nail-biting for 10 years. That’s how my brain is wired. The wires stretch, but they eventually snap back into place. I have no plans to break my bad habits in 2016. After nearly 44 years, they are a part of me that I’ve learned to accept, along with any shame that goes with them. The best I can strive for is to bite my nails when Kelly isn’t looking, and avoid spreading my bad habits to the kids.

My Ideal Home Office

The other day, while walking, I daydreamed about my ideal home office. If money was no object, and the office could be designed as part of the house, I thought about what I’d want my office to look like. I like a lot of light, so there would have to be a lot of windows. In the spring and fall, when the air is cool, and refreshing breeze is blowing, I wouldn’t want to be stuck inside. I’d want a screened in porch on which to do my work. A fireplace would be nice for those cold winter days. And it would be convenient to have a bathroom close by.

When I returned from work, I sketched something out very roughly:


I then used the Paper App by FiftyThree to turn the sketch into something that looks more like an office design floor plan:

Ideal office floorplan

I didn’t worry about the scale.

I decided that I would need two desks. On desk would be for the computer and the screens. I’d need at least two good-sized monitors in my office. I’d want a good chair of the computer desk. Even so, I think the desk should convert to a standing desk so that I don’t always feel lazy sitting in front of the screens. The camera for video calls would be placed such that the fireplace was in the background, giving my video chats a homey look. There would be only three books on the desk:

  1. Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.
  2. Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary
  3. The American Heritage dictionary.

The second desk would be clear of anything. It would be a flat surface for doing stuff that I didn’t want to do at the computer desk. Writing long hand, perhaps. Reading manuscripts. Thinking deep thoughts while staring out the windows.

I’d have a couch for napping, or for talking with visitors to the office. It would be a plush, comfortable couch. Recessed ceiling lights would allow me to illuminate the parts of the office that I happen to be using. The lights would be bright enough so that I wasn’t straining. But I wouldn’t need any lights on sunny days. Somewhere in the office, I’d have a mini-fridge stocked with water, as well as my favorite soft drinks.

I’d have a scanner, to scan in any paper I might receive, and a printer for those rare occasions where circumstance requires I print something out. But I would not have a phone in the office. I prefer email, chat, or video chats.

On the walls I’d have maps of the cities that I have lived in. I think Minted’s foil-pressed maps would be ideal for this.

I wouldn’t have a TV in the office. I wouldn’t have a lot of bookshelves either. I’d want the office to feel like a working space, albeit a very comfortable working space.

Most importantly, the office would have a door, which would remain closed during the hours which I worked.

The office would look out onto a wooded landscape. It would be far away from the sounds of traffic or construction.

Since I don’t play the lottery, this office will have to wait until I become a bestseller. I can live with that. I have a much better change of becoming a bestseller than I do of winning the lottery.

Vacations and Retirement

When I am on vacation, my thoughts turn to retirement. At 43 years old, I still have 22 years to go before arriving at the magical 65. As I have been with the company for 21 years, I have my entire career-to-date stretching out in front of me. We take a long vacation in December and head to Florida where we can visit with family and enjoy the warm weather. The vacation is long enough that I occasionally forget what day of the week it is, a symptom similar to that suffered by retired persons.

Vacation view

Kelly likes to have a plan for each day. Having a plan helps keeps the kids entertained, but it chips away at some of the vacation-like feel of our time off. I like waking up to no particular plans. I’ll eat something for breakfast, maybe take a walk on the palm tree-lined bike paths before the sun gets too high in the sky. I’ll come back to the house and do nothing for a while. When I am ready, I’ll do some writing. I’ll make a sandwich for lunch. Ham and turkey with Swiss cheese, and maybe mayo and honey mustard. At some point, we’ll head over to the pool, but there is no rush. The water is warm, and the skies are clear.

I try to forget about work when I am on vacation. Usually I succeed too well. It is hard to go back into the office. Email doesn’t interest me. Excitement that I’ve had for my projects has faded over the course of sun-filled vacation days. I’d rather stay on vacation.

Today I am tied to the calendar. Everything centers around Google Calendar. We have a family calendar there. We have our own calendars. The kids’ school calendar is there. Cubs Scouts calendar, and sports activities are there. One look at the calendar can be overwhelming. I used to default to a monthly view, but found it to be too overwhelming. Now I default to a weekly view of the calendar, but even that sometimes seems like a lot. I looked at the calendar for this week, and it was much better.

Vacation Calendar

On those vacation morning walks I sometimes imagine what it would be like to be retired. I could write full-time. I don’t mean I’d write 8 hours a day. But I could write for a few hours a day, and still have most of the day to enjoy other things. I wouldn’t be as tied to the calendar as I am today—or so I tell myself. There would be a certain freedom in knowing that I didn’t have to go into the office the next day. Weekends would be no different from weekdays.

I suppose if I was a full-time writer, instead of a software developer, I would never really retire. It makes working toward that goal that much more appealing. I suspect that if I gave it my best effort, it would only require about 22 more years of trying.

Simple UI Design Is Like Clockwork

I have a theory that the best user interfaces are those proven useful over a long period of time. User interfaces, or UIs, are most often associated with operating systems, applications, and web sites. Over the course of my career in software development, I have built quite a few UIs and I find they tend to get complicated quickly.

UIs have been around longer than computers. Cars have had a user interface (the instrument panel) for over a century. Elevators have user interfaces. The baseball scoreboard is another user interface. So is the ticker for the New York Stock Exchange, or the departure and arrival board in a train station. The best user interface, in my opinion, has been around longer than any of these. The analog watch face remains, to this day, the simplest, most efficient user interface I have ever interacted with.

Recently, I decided that I wanted a watch. I haven’t worn a watch for at least a decade. I explained my requirements to Kelly:

  1. Twelve large Arabic numerals on the face.
  2. White letters on a black background.
  3. Date is nice-to-have, but not required.
  4. Sweep second hand is nice-to-have, but not required.

I’d been eying an L. L. Bean watch that seemed to meet most of these requirements. For Christmas, Kelly found me a Timex that did the same1.

Analog Watch

While watch interfaces can get pretty complicated, I like this one for its simplicity.

First, it is easy to read. Because all twelve numbers show on the clock face, I don’t have to guess at the time. I also don’t have to convert Roman numerals, which I work with very infrequently, to a set of numbers that I work with every day.

Second, the watch face has a consistent user interface. Three of the four pieces of information it provides—hours, minutes, and seconds—run on the same dial.

Third, it is clutter-free. There are plenty of watches that add more information to the watch face. They give the time in multiple time zones. They have compasses. They give you military time. They inform you of high or low tides. But I don’t need this information. I just want to know what time it is, and occasionally, what the date is.

Digital watches might have more compact user interfaces, displaying the digits of the time. But the simplicity of an analog watch gives you more. Instead of seeing the time as 5:25 pm, you see it relative to all of the times on the face of the clock. You can see the distance the minute hand has to travel to get from the 5 to the 12, and intuitively get a sense of the time that must pass. Similarly, you can see the distance that the minute hand has traveled to go from the 12 to the 5, and get a relative sense for how much time has already passed. Digital watches that display just the numbers don’t provide these visual clues.

I have been wearing my watch for a few days now and I love its simplicity. When I look at the time, I am not distracted by other things like how many email messages I have waiting for me. There is also something a little thrilling in knowing that it is the same basic interface that generations before me have used to parcel out the days of our years. And whether intentional or not, the analog watch is a metaphor for time as reflected in the physics of the universe, the earth rotating on its axis, the planets running their courses around the sun. It is a user interface that has stood the test of time.

  1. It doesn’t have the sweep second hand, but I can live without that.

My Old Office Chair

Sometime in 1999 or 2000, the entire company received new office chairs. One day, a brand new Aeron chair was delivered to my office, and my old chair was taken away. Someone came by to make sure that my new chair was adjusted properly, that it was ergonomically correct. They tried to adjust my posture more than the chair, but in the end, the chair fit very well.

That chair saw me through the final months before Y2K. I was sitting in that chair one Tuesday morning when a coworker called to tell me she’d heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Rather than go through the experience of having a new chair readjusted for me, I had the chair shipped across the country when I moved from the Santa Monica office to the Arlington, Virginia office in 2002.

I lost count of the number of computers I went through in the years since I first got the chair. At least a dozen I’d guess, each one supposedly better than the next. Each time a new computer came along, I had to transfer all of my data and programs, a process that often took days, and left me with a productivity debt that was hard to dig out of. My chair required no such costly maintenance. It just worked, happily taking my weight each morning, and never once complaining when, after years at the same slim weight, a steady increase began to take place.

Eventually the wear and tear took its toll. I noticed the chair slumping down to the lowest setting. I’d pull the lever on the side to hoist it back up, but after a few minutes, I’d find myself with my chin in my keyboard. The wheels on the chair no longer rolled smoothly across my office carpet. The bearing had worn down. The right arm rest would not stay in position either, and would rattle as I typed. I tried to overlook these things for a few years, the way one might overlook the slow, but steady decline in a pet.

Finally, it got to the point when I could no longer ignore it. Early in December, I walked over to the Facilities manager’s office. “Fifteen years ago,” I said, “I got a new chair, and it was the best chair I could have wished for. But it is sick now, terminal, and I think it is time to do the right thing, and put it out of its misery. She agreed.

I expected the weight of bureaucracy to give me a week or two more with my old chair so that I could let it down easily, but that isn’t how it worked out. About 10 minutes after I talked to the Facilities manager, someone came by and took my old chair away. I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye. I stood in my chairless office, uncertain what to do. I fidgeted. I tried to check my email, but it didn’t feel right, squatting in front of the keyboard. It lasted just five minutes, but it seemed like an eternity.

A new Aeron chair was delivered. At first glance, it looked no different than the old chair. The differences came when I sat in it. It was firm. It rolled smoothly across the carpet. The right armrest didn’t jiggle when I typed. The chair didn’t sink when I raised the seat to the appropriate height.

I tried typing an email message and it seemed alright.

This must have been what it was like when I got the first Aeron chair back in 1999 or 2000. It felt good. I wondered, fleetingly, where my old chair had gone, and if was at peace (or in pieces). Then the phone rang, and I took the call, seated in my new chair, but I wasn’t paying attention to whoever was on the line. I was staring at my desk. I’ve had the desk for over 13 years, ever since I moved into that office. I began to wonder if maybe it wasn’t time to face facts, and I made a note to myself to seek out the Facilities manager and see what could be done about my aging, decrepit desk.

My new office chair
My new office chair

A Thousand Words on Shopping at the Outlets

Once a year I voluntarily head to the outlets with Kelly and we spend some time shopping together. This year we went as soon as the outlets opened, at 9 am, and already the temperature was close to 80 and humid. We took my in-law’s Prius. The Prius is a marvel of energy efficiency—if, that is, you can figure out how to start the thing. We had trouble and had to make a humiliating call for help from the garage. Not a particularly auspicious start to our morning of shopping together.

We arrived at the outlet mall, and found a parking spot in the shade. As we walked toward the outlets, I wondered if we’d manage to get the car started again.

At 9 am on a weekday, the place was pretty empty. Kelly had a plan, and I simply followed her lead. Our first stop was The North Face. I was excited because I have a North Face jacket, and I recognized the brand. We walked in and were assaulted by the air conditioning. Someone asked if they could help us. They couldn’t because apparently, the North Face did not have what Kelly was looking for.

Our next stop was Eddie Bauer. Kelly thought they might have the watch that I want. Why Eddie Bauer would carry an L. L. Bean watch is something that Kelly was not able to explain. We walked into an empty Eddie Bauer and a clerk said, “What brings you in today?”

Let me pause here for a moment to explain that on those rare instance that I do shop, I want to do my shopping in peace. I lost count the number of stores in which we were asked what we were looking for upon entering. I had no idea how to answer the question. Fortunately, Kelly did.

“Do you carry watches?” she asked.

“No,” the clerk said.

And we were out in a flash. We headed over to Gymboree, where our first purchases of the morning were made. There are elaborate sales at all of these stores, and I guess we saved some money. Kelly thought it was a good deal. It was hard for me to say. The signs are confusing. For instance, at Gymboree, the sign said ENTIRE STORE, $12.99 OR LESS.

$12.99 or less

When you look at the fine print, you see that it really isn’t the entire store. “Some exclusions apply.” What’s excluded? Is there a list?

The Nike outlet was more crowded, but we didn’t buy anything there. Instead, we headed over to the Bass outlet. I told Kelly I’d meet her inside. I wanted to take a picture of the sign outside the Bass outlet that indicated BLOWOUT SAVINGS

Blowout Savings

Because—naturally—exclusions apply.

I walked into the store to find Kelly. Before the air conditioning could hit me, a clerk rushed up to me, “Can I help you find something today?”

“Yes,” I said, “my wife.”

Next we walked into Fossil to see if they had any watches I would like. They didn’t. For some reason, non of Fossil’s watches had all of the Arabic numbers on the clock face. They either had twelve Roman numerals, or 4 Arabic numerals. They also had half a dozen other things on the watch that I had no need for. Fossil watches might be good, but they have pretty terrible UIs.

We went to Banana Republic, which is one of Kelly’s favorite stores. How we got out of that store without buying anything is something that I still don’t understand. I was amused, however, by their non-iron shirts, which, to my eyes, looked as though an iron would do them some good.

Non-Iron Shirt

At the Gap, I bought a pair of jeans. They were $60. But they were 50% off, meaning that they were only $30. I thought that was too expensive, but Kelly had a card that gave us an additional 30% off. That was confusing. Did it mean the jeans were 80% off (or $12); or was it 30% off whatever the 50% discount was (or $21). It turned out the jeans were $21, but I bought them anyway.

Let me take a moment to note that there was not one, not two, but three Sunglass Huts at this mall. Why three I can’t quite explain Two were relatively close to one another, and one was on the other side of the mall. I suppose with a name like Sunglass Hut, the stores have to be small. Perhaps if they rebranded to Sunglass Pavilion, they could afford a single store triple the size of the “hut” model.

In Ann Taylor’s Loft, Kelly scored a few t-shirts and a pair of sunglasses. These stores make seasonal pricing so difficult. There are signs all over indicating sales: 50% off, 30% off, etc. But the items are tagged with the original price, and all of the signs indicate that the “Reduction is taken at the register”. This makes sense. It avoids the need to reprice the items individually, but it complicates figuring out how much you’ll pay for your 2 t-shirts and sunglasses. Next time the Little Man asks why he has to do boring math homework, I’ll tell him it’s so that he can figure out the discount he’ll get when he shops at the outlets.

Our final destination was the Osh Kosh outlet. As we walked into the store, Kelly said to me, “Let me know if you see a 4T sweatshirt.”

I glanced at the dozens of clothing racks about the store, and replied, “That is a task that I have no idea how to perform.”

We made it out by 11:30 am, and Kelly was happy at how well-behaved I was. I didn’t complain once about shopping. Part of the reason is that I spent much of the time taking notes so that I could accurately render my shopping experience here on the blog for you.

I can’t believe it is over. I have to wait an entire year before I hit the outlets again. It’s hard to describe the feeling that gives me, but it is remarkably similar to the feeling I get when I leave the dentist after my semi-annual cleaning.

Using Notebooks

It might seem strange that, as the paperless guy, I find myself using old-fashioned notebooks more and more frequently. But that’s just what I am doing. I wrote a post over the summer about the qualities of useful paper. Since then, I have continued to use notebooks to capture quick thoughts, ideas, to-do lists and other things.

I use two types of notebooks: An Evernote Moleskine notebook, and a Field Notes memo book.

My notebooks

The Moleskine notebook goes with me to every meeting, whether it is a work meeting, a homeowner’s association meeting, a meeting with an editor. I also use it as a kind of lab book while writing code or planning requirements for projects. And I use it for taking notes when I am reading articles, or learning something new. I try to maximize the use of each page. I single line across the page separates one thing from another (meetings, notes, sketches). A double-line indicates a change of date. I try to record the date for each day I have notes. Eventually, I use Evernote’s Scannable app to get these pages into Evernote for longterm safekeeping.

I carry a Field Notes memo book with me wherever I go. I use them so much that I have taken to wearing shirts with pockets just so that I have quick access to my notebook and pen.

Pocket shirts

This memo book has become a substitute for my short term memory. I’ve found that, as I get older, I remember things better if I write them down, as opposed to typing them in. Besides, these are short-term things. They are not the kind of notes I’d store in Evernote, as they would just clutter things up. I capture blog post and story ideas, to-do lists, and things I need to remember in the very short term—like the office number of the person I need to visit. A typical page will often combine many of these things.

Field Notes pages

I don’t worry about dating the field notes because they are short-term notes. But I do check off boxes and cross out ideas once I have used them.

Most apps that I have tried for taking quick, disposable notes have not worked well for me. Even Evernote, which I use for many other things, puts up too many barriers to taking quick notes. I am much more likely to record a note if I can just pull the notebook out of my pocket and start writing.

I have gotten used to pulling out my notebook in public to write a note, or capture an interesting observation. I suppose this is something that journalists are used to, but it took me a little while to get over the looks that I sometimes get. I did get over it. When I look back through my notes, I find that I have often captured everything I need, and no longer have to flex my memory to try to remember a particular fact. This comes in handy for things like writing blog posts. It also makes Kelly happy when I come back from the store with everything she asked me to pick up.

This may seem like a step backwards—going from digital notes to paper notes—and perhaps it is, but I enjoy jotting things down in my notebooks more than I ever did on my iPhone.

The Essential Geography of the USA Map

Last night, I finally had time to sit down and explore my new Essential Geography of the United States of America map. Produced by Imus Geographics, the Essential Geography map is designed to bring out basic geography of the country, and is different than traditional maps in several ways. I got the folding version of the map, and when it is unfolded, it is huge—53” x 35.3”. I settled down with the map for about an hour last night, and the amount I discovered about the country that I didn’t already know was astonishing. Here are 5 of them.

Three Mile Island is in Pennsylvania!

For some reason, I thought that Three Mile Island was in New Jersey or New York. Perhaps I confused it with Fire Island. But as I browsed the map, I spotted it, right there not far from Hersey.

Three Mile Island

The highest point in Florida.

Anyone driving through Florida can’t miss the utter flatness of the state. The Essential Geography map includes the high point in every state, so I searched Florida until I came across Britton Hill in the panhandle. At an altitude of 345 feet, Britton Hill is only about two-thirds the height of the Washington Monument.

Florida High

Route 66 begins in Chicago

Here’s another tidbit I learned. The old Route 66 begins in Chicago. For some reason, I thought it spanned the entire country, from east coast to west. Perhaps I was confused by I-66 which is the toll road that goes into and out of Washington, D.C.

Route 66

Idaho has some strange time zone boundaries.

There is a place in Idaho where the time can be 5 pm where you live, and be 4 pm to the east and west of where you live. Don’t believe me. Check this out:


It’s not Purdo Bay!

What I’ve always through of as “Purdo Bay” Alaska is actually Prudhoe Bay. I feel like an idiot for referring to it as Purdo Bay as many times as I have.

Prudhoe Bay  

I can’t wait to spend more time pouring over this map, and discover more things bout the geography of the country that I don’t already know.