Category: essays

This is Dungeons & Dragons!

Playing D&D with my kids.

Just about eight years ago, I wrote an essay for the venerable SF Signal titled, “Daddy, What’s Dungeons & Dragons.” In that piece, I talked about getting a copy of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook, and about my son, then five years old, asking me what Dungeons & Dragon was.

This summer, my son and my older daughter both attended a D&D camp. After the first day, they came home asking if we could play D&D at some point. Both had spent the day playing and both had enjoyed themselves immensely. They had created characters and began playing one of the off-the-shelf adventures. A councilor at the camp was the game master. Over course of the week, they continued to ask if we could play, and I agreed that we could. But I had some preparation to do first.

I already had the Player’s Handbook. I ordered a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, as well as a DM’s screen, and two adventure books, The Curse of Strahd and Tales from the Yawning Portal. I spent the next week refreshing myself on the ins-and-outs of the role playing game. I went through the Player’s Manual and then the Dungeon Master’s Guide. I skimmed the adventures, and then decided that it would be best if we began with some kind of practice round so that everyone understood how to play, including me. A few years ago, we got the Starter Set. We never used it, but I pulled it off the shelf and began reading the started adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver.

Meanwhile, hearing us talk about it, my youngest daughter, who is about to turn 6, decided she wanted to play as well. I prepared as best I could. I watched YouTube videos on how to be a DM. I added some useful community plug-ins to Obsidian to make it easy to take notes for the adventure. Then, I went through the first part of Los Mine of Phandelver and mapped it out in detail in my notes, including notes on how to do certain things, like ability roles, advantage and disadvantage, etc.

On Saturday evening at 6:30, the four of us gathered at our dinner table to generate characters for our new adventure. I had outlined the process for that, but even so, it took us nearly 2 hours to complete the process. I frequently had to refer to the rule books for various clarifications on things. My son generated a half-orc paladin, my older daughter a dwarf ranger, and my youngest daughter a gnome sorcerer. By the time we finished generating the characters, I was beat, and we decided to hold off playing until the next day.

On Sunday afternoon, at 2pm, we sat down to play. I had detailed notes for Part 1 of the adventure, but I had no idea how long it would take to get through that part. As it turned out, in the two hours we played, we made it through just the first goblin attack. It was a difficult encounter for the players, but eventually, thanks to my daughter’s sorcerer, they eventually defeated the four goblins. Later, in reviewing why it was difficult, I saw that the adventure was designed for 4-5 characters. We were using only three.

When we started out, I emphasized several things to my kids:

  1. First and foremost, we were here to have fun.
  2. The game is about making up your own story, roleplaying, being your characters. They shouldn’t worry so much about rolling the dice, they should focus on being in the world.
  3. This first time, things were going to move slowly because we were all still learning. I frequently had to pause to refer to thing in the books, despite all of my preparation.
  4. I would explain what I was doing and why each time we encountered something new, so that they understood the mechanics of the game. But I would only do this the first time. After that, I’d just let the adventure unfold.

Everyone had fun. My son was frustrated at times, because chance was not always on his side. Twice, his paladin was knocked unconscious, but twice, he managed to recover, with no “help” from me. It was the luck of the draw in both cases. My youngest daughter appeared to be the most engaged. She would jump up from her seat and act out what she was doing. “I’m going to run 19 feet,” she would say, pretended to run, “toward the goblin that fell on the ground, and then cast my fire bold spell on him.” If she rolled a hit, she jumped up and down in the same manner I do when the Yankees hit a walk-off home run.

My older daughter was probably the most level-headed of the group. She considered her turns carefully, gave explicit descriptions (“I’m going to jump behind the dead horse and then fire my long bow at the goblin behind the thicket.”)

Everyone, myself included, had a lot of fun, and we were all a little sad when we had to bring the session to and end, especially after making it through only a single encounter. However, we are all excited to play again soon.

Sitting there, running a D&D game for my three kids, I thought back to third grade when D&D first captured my imagination. Despite the creativity and inventiveness required by the game, I couldn’t possibly imagine that one day, I’d be playing D&D with my own kids. It was a wonderful experience for all us.

And to that five-year old who, eight years ago, asked me, “Daddy, what’s Dungeons & Dragons,” I could finally gesture to the books and characters sheets and dice spread across out dinner table and say, “This is Dungeons & Dragons.”

Written on August 22, 2022.

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Living Life Offline

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Photo by James Wheeler on

For the first 22 years of my life, I lived offline. Of course, my life straddles the digital divide and the birth of the Internet, which made things a little easier. I can recall a time (college, say) when I had no mobile phone, when I still put dimes and quarters into pay phones, when my IBM PC was not connected to a network of any kind. I can recall keeping an address book, and looking up phone numbers in the Yellow Pages. None of it was particularly hard or off-putting. It was just the way things were.

More and more, as I am draw into living my life online, I feel the pull of living it offline. Just as I have this desire to move out of the urban areas that I’ve spent most of my life and into some ideal rural setting, I also find myself day-dreaming of living my life offline. Not completely offline, you understand. That would be impractical. But much more so than I am doing today.

I have been doing more and more to live life offline. For instance, since May, I’ve been doing the bulk of my writing offline. I write in those old marble-covered composition notebooks. For a time I was even writing the drafts for this blog in a notebook, but I gave that up just because I found my time too limited. If I want to get a post written, I’ll just write it here and be done with it.

I subscribe to a bunch of magazines that arrive in the mail because I can sit with them at breakfast and read articles without looking at a screen. And speaking of mail, I’ve been writing more handwritten letters and postcards than I used to. Of course, I’ve been carrying around Field Notes notebooks for seven years now (I am currently filling up my 36th notebook). But I’ve also moved away from looking up contact information online. A friend at work gave me a couple of Muji notebooks six years ago or so. One of those notebooks I filled with notes when my youngest daughter was born. The other I have turned into a pocket address book. Interestingly, I am much more likely to keep the entries in that notebook up-to-date than I ever did in the Contacts app on my phone.

My current journal and my Muji address book.
My current journal and my Muji address book.

Recently, I’ve taken two additional steps to live more of my life offline. First, I am stepping away from Facebook. Facebook used to be a great way to keep up with friends and families. Now, I see more ads on Facebook than I ever saw on TV, in newspapers, or magazines. Then, too, it is too addictive for me, especially the dopamine hit one gets from flipping through Reels. I am not deleting my Facebook account, but I have removed the app from my devices, and I don’t plan on logging in and checking Facebook for the foreseeable future. (Posts from this blog will still automatically post to my Facebook page, but even there I won’t be logging in to check things.)

The other decision I made is to only check my personal email on Sunday mornings. I’ve found that there is rarely an email message so urgent that it can’t wait a few days to be read and responded to. To that end, I’ve added an auto-responder to my personal email. It just lets folks know that I received their email, but that I only check and respond to email on Sundays, so there may be a delay in response.

As I said, I am not completely giving up online life. I’m still writing here (though maybe not as frequently as a I once did). And I’ll still maintain an active online presence on Twitter. If you want to keep up with my goings on (for instance, what I am reading, or how I am cataloging my book collection), Twitter is the place to do that. Those who want to, can follow me there at @jamietr.

Still, I am trying to find more and more ways to live life offline. I’m looking to wean myself off my phone. Today I carry it with me everywhere, but there was a time–the first 26 years of my life or so–when I lived perfectly fine without a phone of any kind. I’d like to see if I can spend more hours in the day without my phone than I do with it.

Written on August 21, 2022.

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Documenting My Book Collection

A couple of shelves from my book collection.
A couple of shelves from my book collection.

Recently, I read 2-1/2 books that were related, in one way or another, to books and book collecting1. The first two books were Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell. Bythell is the owner and bookseller of the Scottish used bookstore The Bookshop. These books were wonderful for anyone (like me) who enjoys used books, used bookshops, and small-town life. They also provided a fascinating look at the life of a used bookstore owner, and interactions with customers, book sellers and book buyers.

Having finished those books, I went seeking more books about books (a perfect example of the butterfly effect of reading). One name came up again and again: Nicholas Basbanes. For some reason, that name was vaguely familiar. Before searching online, therefore, I checked my bookshelves and there, right where it should be in the B-section was a book by Nicholas A. Basbanes titled Among the Gently Mad. My sister gave me the book as a gift years ago, but I hadn’t got around to reading it.

I pulled the book off the shelf to read, and quickly discovered it was not the first book about books that Brasbanes had written. Indeed, his first book on the subject, A Gentle Madness, was an acclaimed book. It had been highly regarded by such varied people as David McCullough and Michael Dirda. I obtained a copy of the book and began reading and was hooked at once. As I write this, I am halfway through the book and eager to read more of it every day.

Reading these books reminded me that I don’t have my own book collection well-documented. Despite various attempts over the years, the best I’ve managed to do is a vague assessment collected in LibraryThing that, if I am being honest with myself, isn’t very good. This week I spent some time looking at tools for documenting personal book collections. Most of them are software-based and none of them seem to meet my own requirements. I’ve decided, therefore, to roll-my-own, as the saying goes.

The first step in the process is to decide what information is important to capture about the books and the collection. Reading these books on books have helped me to clarify what information I want and how each piece of information is useful in some way. I’ve been sketching out data models and am in the process of refining those models so that not only can I properly document my collection, but that it neatly handles edge cases. What edge cases might appear in a collection? Well, for instance, how does one go about documenting a work that is split over multiple volumes. I have several of these, Page Smith’s 2-volume biography of John Adams being just one example.

With a data model in mind, the next step is to document the collection in a set of spreadsheets that map to the various entities in the model. In the past, I think the mistake that I have made is I have relied far too much on automation to speed up this part of the process. That is: I scanned barcodes and used data culled from online sources to pull in information about my books. That is not what I intend to do this time. This time, I plan on pulling each book from the shelf, one-by-one, and cataloging it by hand from the information available in the book itself. This isn’t just limited to publication information. It also includes physical description, condition, as well as annotations (mine and others), autographs, and ephemera found within. It will also be nice to handle each one of the books that I own.

Of course, the later steps are trickier. I have to figure out where and how to store the data, build some sort of UI so that the data is useful and can be maintained going forward. But I’m sure those pieces will fall into place in the time it will take me to document the collection. In the meantime, I’m giving myself a year to get all of the data I want documented in spreadsheets. As I go through the process, I’ll be posting about it on Twitter and anyone who wants can follow along there, but I’ll make an occasional update here as well.

Written on August 20, 2022

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  1. The 1/2 book is still in progress. I am halfway through it.

R.I.P. Vin Scully

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I lived in Los Angeles from 1983-2002 and I was never a big fan of the town. Being from the east coast, I preferred (and still prefer) four seasons to my year. The Hollywood scene was something I could do without. The long drives and traffic just about any time of the day wore on me. Still, I realize in retrospect that there were advantages to growing up in L.A. I was there for the 1984 Olympics, and attended a diving event. I remember wandering around my neighborhood and seeing these small stickers everywhere: A cartoonish ghost with a red slash through it–an early campaign for the film Ghostbusters. And on the radio and TV when the Dodgers were playing, there was Vin Scully.

Each morning, when I wake up, one of the first things I do is check the newspapers: New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times, and The Wall Street Journal. And each time, just before I look at the first headlines, there is this feeling I get that I might see something terrible: a plane crash somewhere; a tornado that destroys a small farming town; another mass shooting.

This morning, it wasn’t the newspaper, but Molly Knight’s newsletter The Long Game that caught my eye. The subject of the email was simply: Mourning the Loss of Vin Scully.

Scully, the voice of the Dodgers since before they moved to Los Angeles, died yesterday at the ripe old age of 94. In many ways, despite me being a lifelong Yankees fan, Scully’s voice was the voice of baseball to me. “Hi, everybody, and a very pleasant good afternoon to you wherever you may be,” meant a Dodgers’ game was about to get underway. Those words were the broadcasting equivalent of the umpire’s terse, “Play ball!”

Vin Scully had an ability to weave a narrative through an unfolding game. Without knowing where the game was going, he could thread his way through the innings, telling stories that tied into a specific situation, making analogies that were sometimes obscure, but always relevant. What’s more, he could paint vivid pictures with his words. Listening to Scully on the radio was, for me, the same as sitting in the stands at Dodger Stadium, minus the smell of the mustard on the Dodger Dogs. In some ways, I preferred listening to Vin Scully call a game on the radio to being there myself. No traffic to fight, no parking, no lines at the concession stands. The evenings were somehow always better when Scully’s voice came over the radio waves.

In the May 4, 1964 issue of Sports Illustrated, Robert Creamer wrote a wonderful profile of Vin Scully titled, “The Transistor Kid.” It is one of my favorite pieces of baseball writing, and probably my favorite piece on Vin Scully. Keep in mind that in 1964 (8 years before I was born) Scully was already in his 15th season as a broadcaster. He had come to Los Angeles with the Dodgers when they made their move from Brooklyn. Even back then, Scully was a force. As Creamer wrote in that piece:

Give a word-association test to a baseball fan from Omaha or Memphis or Philadelphia and suddenly throw in the phrase “Los Angeles Dodgers” and almost certainly the answer will be “Sandy Koufax” or “Maury Wills” or “Don Drysdale” or even “Walter O’Malley” or “Chavez Ravine.”

Give the same test to a fan from Los Angeles and the odds are good that the answer will be “Vin Scully.”

I didn’t make it through the headlines this morning, a first for me in a very long time. Instead, I read Molly Knight’s piece. Then I read David Wharton’s piece in the L.A. Times, “Voice of the Dodgers forever.” After that I turned to Richard Goldstein’s piece in the New York Times, “Vin Scully, Voice of the Dodgers for 67 Years, Dies at 94.” Finally, I read Dave Sheinin’s piece in the Washington Post, “Vin Scully, beloved sportscaster, dies at 94.” After that I’d had enough bad news for one day. The other bad news will still be there tomorrow. It can wait until then.

Vin, all I can think of to say to you right now is to repeat what you said to me on so many occasions: “Hi, and a very pleasant good afternoon to you.” Wherever you may be.

ETA: Joe Posnanski, my favorite sports writer, has now posted on Vin Scully’s passing.

Written on August 3, 2022.

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Crossing the Pond

Looking out over the Atlantic

I recently returned from my second trip to Europe. Fifteen years ago I visited Italy, Greece, Croatia, Turkey, and the U.K. On this latest trip across the pond we spent 12 days in Ireland.

Across the pond…

Traveling to Europe–getting to Ireland–is a multistage process. First, an Uber Black conjured from an app on my iPhone took us and our luggage to Washington/Dulles International airport. There, we checked out bags and then passed through the security screening, which by chance, had no lines to slow our progress. After dinner at the airport we boarded an Aer Lingus A321 Neo jet, which climbed six miles into the sky and followed a Great Circle route over New York City, southern Maine, Nova Scotia, and finally, St. John’s in Newfoundland. From there, we crossed the Atlantic, finally descending over the Irish coast, and making a u-turn out of the Irish Sea before landing at Dublin’s airport. This trip of more than 3,500 miles took us 6 hours and 10 minutes, and during that time, we were served another dinner, drinks, and before landing, a snack. The kids spend the time playing games and watching movies on the entertainment systems in the seat backs in front of them, while I stole occasional glances out the window, trying to get a glimpse of the ocean below.

I mention all of this because each time I have traveled to Europe, I am put in mind of the people who did so when it was far from the routine experience modern technology makes it. John Adams, the second president of the United States, made his first trip from Boston to Paris in the winter of 1778. He “crossed the pond” in a mere 47 days, exactly 188 times slower than our crossing. His diaries describe the crossing in some detail, including an attack that he and his ship survived, to say nothing of the storms that are routine in the North Atlantic. That said, our return trip took an hour longer than our flight to Ireland, thanks to some strong headwinds. John Adams’ return trip from France actually took a day less than his outbound trip: only 46 days instead of 47.

Crossing the pond has been routine for far less time than people have been doing it. Columbus crossed the Atlantic several times in the late 15th century, and in the 530 years since, routine crossings have only taken place over the last hundred years or so. While in Belfast, we visited the Titanic Experience. In the early 20th century ships crossed the Atlantic much more frequently than in John Adams’ day, but as we all know from the story of the Titanic it was still far from routine. One day, in Foynes, Ireland, we stopped at the Flying Boat museum. I climbed into a replica of a Boeing 314 Clipper. Even the coach cabin was far more luxurious an spacious than the seats we had on our A321. The Clipper had a honeymoon suite, a dining room, a lounge. Most importantly, it had a range of about 3,500 miles, which could get it safely from Newfoundland to Foynes and pave the way for regular air travel across the Atlantic.

When Ben Franklin crossed the Atlantic on his way to France, he conducted all kinds of experiments along the way, including measuring depth and water temperature, and currents in the ocean. While I sat in my seat as our Airbus hurtled through the night at nearly 600 mph and an altitude of 32,000 feet, I wondered what Franklin would think of the way we cross the pond today. Adams, I suspect, would think it nonsense that someday, humanity would routinely fly over the pond. But Franklin, I think, would find the idea believable. How remarkable would it seem to them, that what took 46 days and a great deal of risk, would be done in 6 hours countless times each and every day, with less risk and far more comfort than what they experienced in their time?

Maybe, some day, travel to Europe will be even faster, just a few hours, as it once was with the Concorde, or perhaps even minutes, or seconds. That might seem silly, the stuff of science fiction, but as Seneca once wrote way back in the 1st century A.D., “There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them… Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come.”

Perhaps once day, travel to Europe will be faster than 6 hours. But I hope not. Six hours seems just the right amount of time to sit in comfort high above the earth and contemplate just how far we have come since our ancestors crossed the Atlantic.

Written on July 30, 2022.

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Beginning at the End

A view of Carlingford, Ireland
Just outside Carlingford, Ireland

If you noticed an absence here on the blog recently it is because I am just back from 12 days in Ireland with my family. It was a trip we’ve wanted to do for a long time. Most of our vacation are road trips here in the U.S. That made this our kids’ first overseas trip. It was my second time to Europe.

I’m still adjusting to being back. There is a five hour time difference between U.S. Eastern time and GMT, which is Ireland’s time zone. Our flight left Dublin at 4:25pm yesterday afternoon, and we got back to Washington D.C. around 7:30pm last night. I didn’t sleep on the 7-1/2 hour flight in order that I’d sleep through the night last night, which I did. I was a little later than usual this morning, and was out for my morning walk around 6 am. The humidity here felt particularly oppressive after 12 days in Ireland’s dry, mild air.

The trip is still something of a jumble in my mind. We were all over Ireland and packed our days full of interesting travel and sight-seeing. I have nearly 70 journal pages that I wrote on the trip, and that helps with the jumble in my mind right now. It also should come in handy for a little project I want to try. I enjoy good travel writing, and now and then, I’ve done a little here on the blog. Indeed, I wrote all about my last trip to Europe, more or less in realtime, fifteen years ago. But I’d like to try my hand at it again, in part as a way of decluttering my thoughts on the trip, and in part to see if I am any good at it. I think the journal entries and notes I took along the way will help with this.

Catching up on my journal
Catching up on my journal one afternoon, with the help of my notes and a Guinness.

Over the next few weeks, therefore, you can expect a lot of posts relating to our trip to Ireland. If this is not your cup of tea, well, there are more than 7,000 other posts you can read here, or plenty of other great blogs to read in the meantime. But I really wanted to give this a try. I figured I needed to begin at the end in order to explain my absence, and what I propose to do. You can expect the first of these posts on Sunday.

But, if you want to know how the trip was overall, I can saw without hesitation that it was amazing. We took a 10-day tour of Ireland (details on the tour to come), and padded our trip with a few days in Dublin before and after the tour. Our tour took us all around the country, beginning in Dublin, going into Northern Ireland including Belfast and Derry (or Londonderry, if you will), Sligo, Galway, Limerick, Foynes, Killarney, Blarney, and more. I fell in love with the Irish countryside. An our kids got to experience their first international trip and see what life was like in a country that had castles going back to 1100 A.D. and other structures that dates far earlir than that.

In any case, I hope that explains my absence here. I didn’t bring a laptop with me on the trip, and spent my early mornings filling my current Composition Book journal with handwritten notes and observations from our trip. More details on that coming beginning on Sunday.

Written on July 28, 2022.

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silhouette photography of boat on water during sunset
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I’ve gone sailing (on an actual sailboat) about the same number of times that I have played golf. Golf and sailing are similar in that they are both expensive hobbies. The difference for me is that I didn’t enjoy golf, but I love to sail.

The first time I went sailing was when I was 10 or 11 years old. A friend’s father had a sailboat and they took me sailing. (The first attempt was aborted when, before I left to go sailing, I got nailed in the head with a rock when my brother and I were tossing clumps of dirt and one another, and I ended up in the emergency room with 3 stitches in my skull.) I was living in Warwick, Rhode Island at the time and we went sailing somewhere off Narragansett.

Since then, my cousin in Maine has taken me sailing several times in the Penobscot Bay. It was on these sails that I learned the basics of actually sailing. I loved it. But it was a hobby far beyond my means.

These says, I sail vicariously through a sub-sub-genre of literature: books by people who sail alone. I read the first of these books in 2009, Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan. I think I’d seen him interviewed on a morning talk show and that is how I discovered the book.

A decade later, I read Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World on the recommendation of my sailing cousin. (He is always good for recommendations. He also recommended Cannibal Queen by Steven Coonts, a kind of cousin to the sub-genre, a memoir of Coonts visiting all lower 48 states in his biplane.) I loved Slocum’s book. It sets a high bar for this particular subgenre/

Recently, that bar awas met by another book. While an a long weekend vacation in West Virginia for the Fourth of July holiday, I read Christian Williams’ Philosophy of Sailing: Offshore In Search of the Universe. The book is a memoir of a solo sail from Los Angeles to Hawaii and back. Williams brought along a shelf-full of philosophy books to dip into along the way. He made me particularly happy by having nice things to say about Will Durant’s Story of Civilization.

Sailing has always appealed to me. When we lived in New England, we would occasionally drive from Warwick to Rockland County, New York to see my grandparents. It was a three hour drive along I-95. Once, in 1980, we were driving on I-95 close to sunset, heading west, about to pass through New Haven. On the radio, Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” was playing, and as we came into view of the Long Island Sound, the water, orange from the sunset, was filled with sailboats. To this day, that classic of yacht rock is still one of my favorite songs. When I hear it, I imagine I am sailing along around the world–or at least as far as Hawaii, where the trade winds help out with a little push.

Written on July 15, 2022.

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On Golf

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When I turned sixteen years old my parents presented me with golf lessons as a birthday gift. I don’t recall showing any interest in golf, although there is a photo of my when I was maybe a year and a half, holding a plastic golf club and wearing those horrendous pants.

The lessons took place early on Saturday mornings at the driving range at what is now called the Woodley Lakes golf course, just across Victory Boulevard from Van Nuys airport. I can’t recall how many Saturdays the lessons lasted–six, I think. Each day I would show up and a golf pro would set me to hitting a bucket of golf balls, showing me how to properly grip the club, bend my knees, tuck in my elbow, keep my hips still and my head down.

In the 34 years that have elapsed since those lessons, I can count on one hand the number of times I played golf. Two of those times are particularly memorable.

The first was in the summer of 1999 and took place at the Twin Lakes Village golf course in New London, New Hampshire. I played 18 holes with my cousins in what was the most fun I’ve ever had playing golf. It was pouring rain. I mean buckets. We wore rain slickers. The course was closed, but my cousin scribbled out a check for the cost of three of us to play, and slid it under the locked door of the clubhouse. We had the course to ourselves. There was no need to rush. There was also no need to keep score. By the second hole the scorecard had all but disintegrated. We laughed and hollared and I had a blast.

The other memorable round came in late October 2005, just after my sister’s wedding. I played a round with my parents and my brother at the Camarillo Springs course in Camarillo, California. It was a memorable round because on the 8th hole, my Dad, a lifelong golfer, quit the game in a rather dramatic fashion. He walked off the course swearing he’d never play again. To show he was serious, he gave his clubs, bag and all, to my brother on the spot. My Mom, brother and I finished the round.

Gold is one of those games that I want to like. I love the idea of playing the course. But it is more complicated than it looks, and the culture baffles me. Plus, it seems expensive and time-consuming–which may be features if you really love it. I enjoy reading about golf now and then, but I am happy to leave it at that. Even so, if I do ever play, those lessons from 34 years ago will come in handy.

Years after those lessons, the Woodley Lakes golf course became a notable feature when I was learning to fly. Taking off south out of Van Nuys, my instructor would point out the course as one possible place to land in the event of an engine failure.

And my Dad eventually resumed playing golf, too. Today, he and my Mom live on a golf course.

Written on July 15, 2022.

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Reading A Place to Read by Michael Cohen

Great books, the best books, almost always sneak up on me out of obscurity. In 2020, the best book I read was James and Deborah Fallows’ Our Towns, which seemed to come out of nowhere to sweep me into the skies over the country. In 2021, it was Joe Posnanski’s The Baseball 100 that caught me by surprise. I read the former early in 2021, and it remained my favorite book of the year, despite dozens of book I read afterward. I came to Posnanski’s book late in 2021, and it beat out dozens of books that I’d read before it that year.

Midway through 2022, I have just finished reading A Place to Read by Michael Cohen. It is the 49th book I’ve read so far this year and it is also the best.

A Place to Read is a collection of essays by a retired professor of literature. Essay collections, I have been told again and again, are poison at the box office. And yet the essay has become my favorite form of writing–both as a writer and reader. Good essays are well-written, and yet feel natural. Think E. B. White. Cohen’s essays do more than that: that appeal to me on a personal level. He writes about thing that I enjoy. He writes about things I have written about. And he does a far better job than I could do.

The table of contents reads like an advertisement tailored specifically to me: “A Place to Read,” “Notebooks,” “A Fountain Pen of Good Repute,” “Flying Lessons,” “Selling My Library,” “On Not Being E.B. White.” Even when Cohen writes on subjects that are not in my personal wheelhouse, he writes with such charm and conviction that I not only enjoy the piece, but it makes me more interested in the subject than I thought I could be. Take, for instance, his essay on golf, “A Round with Friends.” Reading hat piece not only made me wish I enjoyed golf more, but afterward, I jotted the following in my idea file: “write post on my experience with golf.” Cohen is clever, too. HIs essay on golf is made up of 18 parts.

I didn’t want the book to end. I kept checking to see how much was left. And even as I finished the book, I wanted more. A good essayist is a rare artist and I collect them as one might gather treasure. Sitting down to write this essay, I lamented that Cohen hadn’t included more essays in his book.

I went online to check the publication date of A Place to Read (2014) and was surprised to find that Cohen had published a second essay collection in late 2020, this one titled, And Other Essays. Relief washed over me. For a little while, at least, I can continue reading Cohen’s essays.

It is an enviable power that a writer like Cohen has, one that makes me want to read more. It is even more enviable when you consider he is not writing thrillers or romance novel, but rather the humble, lovable essay.

Written on July 13, 2022.

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How Much Is Left?

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There is one question I ask myself to determine how much I am enjoying (or not enjoying) the book that I am reading: How much is left?

When sitting with a paper book it is an easy question to answer. One look at my position in the book tells me that I’ve just gotten started, or I’m halfway though, or I’m almost to the end. With hardcover book, pages move in different ways at different points in the book. At the beginning of a book, the pages want to flip to the right. At the end of a book, the pages want to flip to the left. Only the middle of the book do the pages stay put when I open the book on a table or on my lap.

With ebooks there is a percentage or page count that answers the question “how much is left?” But the most accurate of all is the audiobook, which tells me, to the second, how much longer it will take me to finish the book.

When I’m not enjoying a book, the question comes out in a kind of incredulous, annoyed tone: How much is left? Too much. This is when I am most likely to bail on a book, usually with little or no regret. There are too many good books to read to waste time on ones that are slogging.

For a really good book, on the other hand, I am so absorbed by what I am reading that I completely forget to ask the question. When I finally come up for air, the question comes out in a kind of panic: How much is left? Too often it is very little. The book is almost over, and the Audible app tells me with deadly precision that there is only 10 minutes and 15 seconds remaining. That’s not the answer I want with a good book. I want to see hundreds of pages, or dozens of hours still laid out ahead of me.

Today, for instance, I have been reading a wonderful collection of essays, A Place to Read, by Michael Cohen, a retired college professor. I’m not sure how I came to find the book, but I have have been charmed by it. His essays–which range over a wide variety of subjects–are delightful. As I arrived home from an afternoon walk, I happened to ask the question–how much is left?–and discovered, much to my dismay, there was just over an hour of book remaining. It means that I’ll finish the book on my morning walk tomorrow. That’s sad. This is the kind of book I wish would go on forever.

There is a trifecta of the reading experience, elusive, but something for which I yearn. I start to read a book and (1) it is amazing almost from the start; (2) it is very long, preferable over 800 pages; and (3) I recognize these two things early on and delight in knowing that I have an outstanding book to read, spread out in front of me, possibly for days.

I sometimes wonder if this is a common phenomenon among readers, but I hesitate to ask. I’m afraid someone will say, “Yeah, I ask myself ‘how much is left?’ every time I see one of these posts.”

Written on July 13, 2022.

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Back to the Beginning: Composition Notebooks and Microsoft Word

My favorite word processor of all time is Microsoft Word for DOS 5.5. This is the word processor I was using circa 1992 (30 years ago!) when I first began to write stories with the intention of submitting them for publication. I liked the simplicity of the interface: whitish font on blue background; neat, clear menus that were easy to navigate; simplicity of functions that I used most commonly (spell check, searching, etc.). I still have many of the original Word for DOS files that I saved back then. They not only include drafts of those first stories, but letters I wrote, class notes, as well as papers for various classes.

Since then, as readers of this blog know well, I’ve tried just about every word processing tool out there. I was a long-time user of Google Docs; I was a long-time user of Scrivener. Both of these are outstanding word processors, and each has their own particular speciality. Google Docs excels at collaboration, and I’ve used it more than once in working with an editor to prepare a story for publication. Scrivener is like word processor and project management tool combined, and I’ve probably written more of the stories and articles I’ve sold using that tool than any other.

I’ve tried other tool: Ulysses and IA Writer, for instance. And since January 2021, I’ve done the bulk of all my writing using Obsidian. Indeed, I’ve done just about everything in Obsidian, from writing, to notes, to lists. You name it.

But the thought of Microsoft Word for DOS’s simplicity–the way it simply got out of my way and allowed me to write when I wanted to write, and print when I wanted to print–has alway stuck with me. One of that old word processor’s best features was that it was naturally distraction-free, before that was the trendy concept that it has become. As I recently “rebooted1” my fiction writing, I was looking for something that would allow me to focus on my writing and not distract me with settings and features and bells and whistles. I wanted something that would stay out of my way, let me write, and when I was ready, let me print.

I’ve solved this problem in 2 ways:

  1. I’m using composition notebooks for the first two drafts of everthing I write.
  2. I’ve returned to Microsoft Word for the third draft and beyond.

Composition notebooks for composing

I struggled for so long with writer’s block when it came to fiction writing that when I finally got back to writing, I wanted something completely different. I felt that I needed to slow down, and I felt that I needed to avoid distactions at all costs and harness whatever creative inspiration I had without the intercession of a keyboard, a CPU, and a screen. So I bought myself a dozen composition notebooks2, scribbled the word “Stories” on the cover a yellow composition book, and I began writing.

What a joy it is! Each day I write, I begin by scribbling the date in the margin of the place that I begin for that day. I alternate between blue and black ink each day, a tip I took from Neil Gaiman. It makes it easy to distinguish one day’s work from the rest. I write in cursive, not worrying about how much or how little I get in. I’ve estimated that a complete page contains about 270 words, but I tend to note how many pages I’ve written on a given day, as opposed to word counts–another break from the past.

I also make lots of notes as I go along, something that is note nearly as easy to do in a word processor or text editor, at least not in the way I prefer. I’ll scribble notes in the margins after completing a scene, giving myself instructions for how to improve it. Or I’ll go back to an earlier scene and add some notes to myself. Occasionally, I’ll think about the story structure or something conceptual that requires more notes. In these cases, I’ll simple insert them after whatever it is I have just written, but always do so in red ink to distinguish it from the narrative of the story itself.

A typical page from my composition notebook, with writing, markup, marginal notes, etc.
A typical page from my composition notebook.

When I complete a draft in the notebook, I read through it, and jot circled numbers (in red ink) in the margins which refer to longer assessments that I make on the pages that follow the story. With those notes completed, I can start on a second draft, also in the pages that follow. The first story I wrote this way I began on May 13, 2022. I finished the first draft 13 days later, on May 26. Over the next 6 days, the pages in my notebook are all red: my notes on the first draft of the story. Then, based on that first draft, on page 43 of my composition book, I jotted an outline of 14 scenes for the second draft of the story and I began that second draft on page 44 of the notebook on June 2, 2022.

Having this all together in the composition book is delightful. It is, in many ways, easier than using a word processor to achieve the same. I can easily flip back and forth between the pages, see my writing and my notes, and my corrections all at a glance.

And when I completed the second draft of the story (on June 22), and made my notes (June 23-26), I began writing the third draft in Microsoft Word.

Microsoft Word for drafting the manuscript

Not too long ago, I wrote about my process for managing my writing in Obsidian. In the first use case of that post, I talked about drafting stories in Obsidian–doing the actual writing. I demonstrated the templates that I use for first and second drafts, and how I tied these to the overall project I kept in Obsidian, all the while, using just plain text files. This works well, but after some trial and error with it, I decided it was far too much overhead. I was constantly distracted by the mechanisms that held everything together. Rather than writing, I was tinkering with templates and tweaking scripts that would take a markdown document and covert it to a neatly formatted manuscript using Pandoc. This–at least for me–is the fatal flaw of a tool like Obsidian for creative writing. There is too much ability to tinker.

This is one of the things I loved about Microsoft Word 5.5. for DOS. That tool no longer exists in any practical sense, so I have been using the latest version of Misrosoft Word for Office 365 for my drafts. I have a template for standard manuscript format, so I that I spend no time tweaking formatting. I open a new document, spread my composition notebook pages open before me, and begin typing.

When I have a completed draft, I don’t have to do anything special to print it (I do tend to print a hardcopy and mark it up with a red pen), nor do I have to jump through hoops to share the draft. Because, it is often the third draft of a story that I will share with trusted friends for an initial reading beyond my own. In Word, I can click a Share button, and the friends I share the draft with have access to the manuscript at once; they can add their own comments, correct things, etc.

Finally, when the manuscript is ready for submissions, I can email it off to whatever market I am sending it to. No special conversions involved.

Back to the beginning

I see this latest round of my fiction writing as a restart for me, after a long drought. I wanted to take lessons from my earlier writing, as well as lessons from that period of writer’s block. The composition books have been a huge help to both my creative flow and productivity. And going back to Microsoft Word has removed the friction caused by many of the other tools that I have worked with over the years.

I am still using Obsidian for almost everything else, including tracking my writing projects, submissions, etc. But for the actual writing, notebooks and Word seem to be the ideal mix for me.

Written on July 12, 2022.

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  1. I’m not particularly fond of that term, but it does a decent job of conveying my meaning here.
  2. I’ve also started using these notebooks for my journal, a change from the large Moleskine sketchbooks I’d been using, but that is a story for another day.

Writing and Writing

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Forgive me readers, it has been ten days since my last blog post. Things seem to have gone off the rails a bit here, and I am now trying to get the trains–or posts in this case–to run on time again. What’s happened, I think, is that I have been writing and writing, but not writing posts.

Maybe it is a character flaw on my part, but when my fiction writing is going well, I don’t feel the same compulsion to write here on the blog. I have to force it, and when I have to force something, I have a tendency to skip it instead. Like I said, a character flaw. I suppose the well of creativity I draw from has its limits. I can use it for writing blog posts, or stories, but when I try using it for both, it diminishes each. I noted this to myself in my journal back on May 19. I’ve been aware of it for some time, I suppose.

Back in the day–say, 2013-15–I was writing and selling fiction and writing on the blog every day, and I have looked back on that time lately wondering how it was possible then, and not possible now. The answer, I think, comes in two parts: (1) was nearly ten years younger and had more energy (and fewer kids); and (2) I didn’t hold myself to as high standards as I do today when it comes to my writing. In other words, I didn’t mind drawing from the well for both fiction and blogging. I knew what I was doing wasn’t quite as good, but I did it anyway.

I love writing for this blog, but it has also always been fairly easy for me to do it. Finding stories to tell, finding the voices of the characters, all the pieces that eventually come together, that is much harder, and more elusive. When it comes, I don’t want to lose it. And that probably explains the lack of posts these last ten days.

Back on June 27, I mentioned that after three drafts, I set aside a story I was working on in order to give me some room to think about the problems with it, especially problems in the second half. Instead, I decided to start the first draft of another story. That is what I have been working on each morning. This is a much longer story, or so it seems at this point. Since that time, I’ve got 26 handwritten pages of the story and it seems like I am just getting started. I look forward to working on it each morning. It is the first thing I do after returning from my morning walk, during the quiet time that exists in the house before everyone wakes up and starts their day.

At the same time, I have been missing writing here, and I am working on making some adjustments to my routine to ensure that I can keep it up: three posts a week, as I had been trying to do before this most recent interruption. Lists often help in this regard and I’ve listed out a bunch of topics for posts that I’ve been wanting to write. Getting ahead of things also helps, so I am determined to get several of those posts written and scheduled today–after I finish my day’s work on this story later this morning.

Currently, I am only writing for about 30-60 minutes each morning. I don’t force things if I can help it. But I am looking for ways to build my stamina when it comes to my writing. I’ll be retiring from my day job in about 9 years and once retired, I’ll have a lot more time to write, which means I’ll need the ability to sustain my writing for longer periods of time. I look at this time as practice leading up to that, the way a marathon runner might start out running a mile each morning, and working their way up from there.

Right now, I’m no marathon runner, but I hope to at least be able to get my fiction writing done each day, and get a few new blog posts published each week. We’ll see how that goes.

Written on July 10, 2022.

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