Category: essays

How a FitBit Encouraged My Daily Walks

I try to walk every day. Walking is the only regular form of exercise I get these days, because it is all that I have time for. Most health authorities agree on the many benefits of daily walks. For me, the most obvious benefit has been a peace of mind. On days that I walk, I feel better, more relaxed, and more alert throughout the day.

I started taking my daily walks around the same time I got my first FitBit device in the spring of 2012. I became interested in wearable devices, like a FitBit, after reading Stephen Wolfram’s essay on “The Personal Analytics of My Life.” I am fascinated by data, and I wondered what some of the charts that Wolfram displayed in his essay would look like for me. I began a search for fitness trackers, and quickly settled on FitBit.

One of the criticisms of fitness trackers is that they discourage fitness as much as they encourage it. The focus is on a particular fitness goal (10,000 steps per day). Hitting that goal feels good, but missing the goal can stimulate strong feelings of guilt. Those feelings can turn discouraging quickly.

That isn’t what happened in my case. I was fascinated by the data I collected, and for the first year or two, I monitored the data obsessively. I started with the goal of hitting the recommended 10,000 steps/day. Then I upped it to 15,000/day. And for a long time, I achieved that goal regularly.

Over time, however, I found that I enjoyed the walks more than the numbers, and my obsession with the latter began to wane. Reviewing my blog posts in 2012 and 2013, you’ll find many more posts on my walking stats than you’ll find in the years since. What really matters to me today are the walks themselves.

At work, I try to get out at least twice a day. The most focused part of my work day tends to fall between 7-10 am. There are few interruptions. I try to avoid email. My goal during those hours is to complete the most important thing I need to get done that day. At 10 am, I go out for my first walk.

A walk around the block on which my office building resides comes to almost exactly 1 mile (just about 2,000 steps, according to my FitBit). I listen to audiobooks while I walk, which allows me to get exercise, fresh air, and read all at the same time.

I walk south to the corner, past an apartment building, and then turn west, for the most scenic part of my walk. There is part to my left and nicely landscaped apartment towers to my right. The street gradually curves to the north, and I find myself in a small retail district, with apartment complexes to my left and shop to my right. This is the single longest stretch of my walk. I walk to the far corner, and turn right, along a street that runs parallel to I-395. This is the least scenic part of my walk, and the only place where I have to pause, on occasion, for traffic. I turn one final corner and I am back on the street where my office resides, and halfway down the block, I return to my starting point.

I try to walk the block twice in the morning, and three times at lunch. It varies depending on my schedule and the weather, but for the latter, I will always try to walk so long as the weather isn’t overwhelmingly against me.

The 10 am time slot used to be inviolate, but my increasingly busy schedule has made it necessary to skip now and then. I always feel worse off on the days I skip walking, not because I am not capturing the steps, but because of the sense of peace that the walk gives me. It is familiar and comforting, and something I look forward to from the moment I wake up. On my walks I see familiar faces, I see how the neighborhood changes with the changing seasons. In the first warm days of spring, the sun feels delightfully warm on my face. In the first days of fall, the cool air is refreshing.

I suspect I would never discovered this particular joy were it not for the encouragement that my first FitBit gave me to get out and walk every day. In the last year or so, my walking has declined as my life as gotten busier, but I’ve also noticed a corresponding increase in my daily stress level. It is no longer the FitBit that encourages me to get out and walk. It is the knowledge—gained from nearly 13.9 million steps since March 2012—that I feel better when I walk every day.

There has been a pleasant side-effect to all of this. As I mentioned, I listen to audiobooks while I walk. I have read scores of books on my walks, and I am often reminded of the books as I walk. The light of mid-summer sun, as I begin a walk reminds me of the few months I spent listening to a 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill. Snow on the ground and my breath visible in the morning air brings to mind the early winter months when I listened to Stephen King’s Christine.

And my walks don’t stop when I am out of town. There are a few places that we go each year which have become so familiar to me that I look forward to the walks there as much as my morning walks at the office. Walking to the town in Maine that we visit in the summers is always pleasant. Walking around the circumferential bike path at my in-law’s is also pleasant, particularly because, despite being December, it is warm and sunny and gorgeous to look at.

A walk in the woods with the kids
A walk in the woods with the kids

Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned, thanks to my FitBit, has nothing to do with how much I walk, how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed, or how many calories I’ve burned. The most valuable lesson is that I feel better on days that I walk than I days that I don’t. My stress level is lower, I feel more cheerful, and I feel more accomplished. That lesson has been worth the cost of the device, to say nothing of the 13.9 million steps I’ve put on it over the years.

The Perfect Storm

Last week’s blizzard turned out to be a perfect storm. Schools closed on Thursday, January 21, a full day before the storm was supposed to start, thanks to a dusting of snow on Wednesday night that everyone seemed unprepared for. Schools closed again on Friday, even though the snow wasn’t scheduled to start until 3 pm. When the snow began to fall Friday afternoon, it didn’t stop until early Sunday morning, and we ended up with over two feet.

Perfect Storm

Our kids’ school was closed for the entire week that followed.

That meant the kids were home. I was trying to work from home, but Kelly was sick, and that meant our usual task-sharing teamwork was out the window. Kelly stayed in bed to get the rest she needed, and I tried my best to keep up with work, and the kids, and the chores around the house. By Wednesday, cabin fever set in, not so much for the kids as for me.

Our cat had also been losing weight, and I grew concerned as the storm approached that if he got sick, I wouldn’t be able to get him to the vet. He made it through the storm, but stopped eating, and grew lethargic. I got him to the vet for an exam on Thursday morning, and it appeared that he was anemic and had an urinary infection that antibiotics and vitamins would take care of. I gave him the first dose of medicine Thursday evening. Fifteen minutes later, I went to check on him. He’d crawled under a table, and I wanted to bring him upstairs to our room. I pulled him out from under the table, and he didn’t resist. In fact, he had died. We broke the news to the kids Friday morning.

I can think of few times in my life when I have felt depressed. But by the end of the week, the perfect storm had gotten to me. I did my best to shake it off. We mourned for our cat. I did my best to keep the kids fed, and Kelly stocked with medication, and fluids. The Little Man raced in his first Pinewood Derby and returned to basketball Saturday morning. The Little Miss attended a birthday party Friday evening. I didn’t worry so much about the house until Sunday.

On Sunday, the temperatures were warmer, and much of the snow had melted. We could drive the car around the neighborhood, and do grocery shopping. Standing out in the warm sun on Sunday, I felt like Superman, recharging. I finally tackled the house. I dismantled the litter boxes. I vacuumed the floors, and cleaned the hardwood floors, and mopped the kitchen floor. I cleaned all of the bathrooms. I reorganized the cluttered pantry. By the end of the day, I felt more or less back to myself.

I am sure that in the years to come, the family will look back on this perfect storm with a nostalgic fondness—“Remember that time that we got 2 feet of snow, and were trapped in the house for a week!” But right now, I am just glad to have made it through to the other side. And still a little sad that our cat did not.

My Favorite Places in Los Angeles

I lived in Los Angeles from October 1983 through July 2002, just shy of 20 years. We moved to L.A. from Warwick, Rhode Island. The two places couldn’t be more different. A multiplex theater—the only one in the entire state of Rhode Island—had recently been built. It was in that theater that I saw Return of the Jedi earlier in 1983. Prior to that, we saw most new movies in Fall River, Massachusetts. Los Angeles contained Hollywood, and multiplex movie theaters were everywhere.

Initially, I was excited about the move. I was moving to Hollywood. I had only the vaguest notions of what that meant. But it was exciting nevertheless. I was also moving to a place where the weather was always warm; warm relative to New England winters, at any rate. Living in L.A. was a novelty at first, but one that quickly wore off. It wasn’t long before I found I really didn’t like L.A. My dislike was, in part, in no way L.A.’s fault. I discovered, for instance, that I liked four seasons. In Los Angeles there are only two seasons: Brown, and a brief couple of weeks of Green in the spring. I didn’t like how big L.A. felt. I didn’t like the Hollywood atmosphere for the town.

I moved back east in 2002, and now that I have been here for nearly 14 years, I have enough time and distance to appreciate some of the places in Los Angeles that I liked.

For about 8 years, I lived in Studio City, a suburb of the San Fernando Valley that sits astride the north side of the Santa Monica mountains. Studio City, and its neighboring town, Toluca Lake, felt different from nearly everywhere else I visited in Los Angeles. The houses were not crowded up against one another. There were quiet neighborhoods. The streets were not jammed with traffic. It was old Hollywood. I used to take walks that would take me past the house used in exterior shots of the Brady Bunch. Around the corner, lived the character actor, Jon Polito, and he would always wave to me as I walked by and say, “Hey fella!” Mike Farrell lived somewhere nearby and I would occasionally see him riding his Harley in jeans and a t-shirt.

Toluca Lake was another place I liked in Los Angeles. I’d often eat at the Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake. Occasionally I’d eat at the Marie Callendar’s there. It was not unusual to see someone like Bob Hope or Garry Marshall. Toluca Lake was a quiet Hollywood town. Walking through the town had a completely different feel than walking through Hollywood proper.

There were two great bookstores that I frequented. The first was Dangerous Visions on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. The other was the Iliad Bookshop at its original location in North Hollywood before it moved closer to Burbank. I could spend hours wandering around those bookstores.

I worked in Santa Monica. My office overlooked the Santa Monica Pier. I’d arrive at work early in the morning to beat the traffic. Around 7 am, I’d head out for a short walk, and I loved walked along Ocean Avenue and across Colorado early in the morning when there was no fog clinging to the Pacific ocean. Sometimes, me and friend would go running along Ocean Avenue in the evenings for exercise. There was nothing quite like jogging while the sun was setting over the ocean.

SM Pier

The commute was part of what I really hated about Los Angeles. I lived 20 miles form the office, but it could easily take 2 hours to get home in the evening. I had about 10 different ways I could go, but my absolute favorite was taking the 10 to the 405 to Mulholland. The 10 and 405 were terrible, but I looked forward to the exit ramp to Mulholland. There was almost never traffic on Mulholland. It took me across the ridge between Los Angeles and the Valley. On days when the Santa Ana winds were blowing, I could see clear across the Valley on my left, and clear into down Los Angeles and out to the ocean on my right. I’d take Mulholland to Coldwater Canyon. I loved that part of the drive.

Though I’ve lived in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area for nearly 14 years now, I haven’t found walk that I enjoy as much as my walk through the quiet streets of Studio City. Nor have I found a drive that I enjoy as much as the drive across Mulholland from the 405 to Coldwater Canyon.

Newspaper Style

One side-effect of the recent blizzard here in Northern Virginia was three days (so far) without newspaper delivery. Yesterday I resorted to reading the Washington Post online. I like getting the newspaper because it means the first thing I read each morning is not on a screen. I read so much on computer, tablet, and phone screens that I welcome any break.

This morning, I needed the newspaper. I walked up to the grocery store, navigated the icy parking lot, and picked up the Washington Post and New York Times. It was nice to sit on the couch and read through the newspapers with the sound of my neighbors digging out of the blizzard. I finished digging us out yesterday.

I prefer the newspaper to online news for several reasons:

  1. While it is not as timely as the instantaneous reporting that takes place online, there is more of sense of certainty in what I read. There has been time to check facts, for instance.
  2. I can read the obituary section and be fairly certain that if someone is reported to have died, they really have, in fact, died.
  3. The quality of writing in the newspaper is, generally speaking, better than instantaneous online news sources.

Actually, it occurred to me while reading both papers this morning that the newspapers—at least the ones that I read—have no real style to the writing. Stories in the Post and the Times adhere more or less to generic reporting style. They stick to the facts. The who, what, when, where are right there in the lead paragraph. I like this lack of style. It reminds me of Edward R. Murrow-like news reporting.

I get annoyed by articles that don’t follow this standard fact-reporting pattern. The more in-depth stories tend to deviate from this pattern, at least in the Post. I generally roll my eyes when a story begins something like this:

John Doe didn’t expect to be stuck in his car for eight hours when he left his job at Acme Corporation before the snow began to fall last night.

I suppose that the introduction of John Doe into the story is supposed to give it a more personal touch. If I wanted that, I’d watch Sunday Morning.

There are stylistic differences between papers, but they are superficial. The New York Times refers to every one as Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. I am used to seeing the obituaries in the Metro section of the Post, but the Times national editions has them at the end of the Sports section.

The writing itself in both papers is bland, but bland in this case is good. Like a textbook, the writers are reporting on the news, and the news tends to be a collection of facts, mixed with varying degrees of opinion. I am speaking here of news stories. Columns and columnists are a different matter. In a column, the writer’s unique style emerges. I have yet to find a columnist I enjoy as much as I enjoyed Al Martinez’s column in the Los Angeles Times in the early 1990s. As Martinez wrote in his last column (for the Daily News)

Good writing, as one L.A. Times publisher said when the Otis Chandler era came to an end, isn’t a requirement for newspapers anymore. My writing is just too ornate, too stylistic, too gothic and too soft for those who own newspapers.

Martinez wrote that three years ago, but I think it is still true today—at least in the big metropolitan papers.


The most devastating rejection I ever received came when I was a junior in college. I had been writing and submitting stories to magazines for about 9 months. I started a modest collection of form letter rejection slips, but already I thought of myself as a writer.

I was minoring in journalism and since journalism fell under the creative writing umbrella, I opted to take some creative writing classes as electives. One such class was a with professor Stephen Minot. I was clear from the start that I wanted to be a science fiction writer. Professor Minot came up in the literary fiction tradition. He was a fan of Raymond Carver. I can still recall him reading to us aloud Carver’s short story, “Boxes.” He could not seem to understand why I’d want to write science fiction. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would write literary fiction. I imagine many creative writing students have experienced this.

This course was a kind of buffet of writing lectures and exercises. One of these exercises was poetry. I have never thought of myself as a poet. I don’t understand most poetry, but I am much more comfortable with metered verse than I am with free verse. Naturally, our assignment was to write a free verse poem which would be critiqued by our classmates.

I wrote a poem called “Train of Thought” which was about nothing more than a train ride I’d taken once from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. In the middle of the night, as we hurtled through the desert, my brother and I were certain we could see wolves racing up to the track, and then running back, as if they were trying to chase the train. It was all in our imagination, but it kept us entertained. I wrote my free verse poem about that train ride.

When I got it back from Professor Minot, before the class critique, he was in raptures over it. I got an A+. I was surprised, but delighted to write something that the professor actually liked. I had been nervous about the class critique, and Professor Minot’s feedback boosted my confidence and made me feel good about what I’d written.

Up to this point, I’d collected perhaps a dozen rejection slips from the magazines. This included the science fiction magazines, but also magazines like Cat Fancy (“Cat Fancy does not publish fiction about cats.”) and Playboy. The thing about the rejection slips is that there was essentially an audience of two: me, and the editor or slush reader who rejected my story. No big deal. And, of course, I never took them personally.

The creative writing class critiqued my poem, and for the most part, they hated it. They tore it apart. Cheap imagery, clichéd, unclear. You name it, they said it, and the opinion was pretty much unanimous. I could deal with it. I was, after all, a writer, and I’d received real rejection slips from real magazines. It wasn’t the best critique but my ego survived.

When the last student had finished, Professor Minot turned to me, and in front of the whole class, said, “Jamie, having listened to what your classmates have said about your poem, I have reconsidered my own opinion about it. And I’m afraid I have to agree with them. It stinks.” I may be doing him an injustice here. He may have said, “It is terrible.”

The point is, he did this in front of the entire class. The class had no idea what grade he’d given me, only that he’d changed his mind about my poem, and that it was bad. That stung a little, but I smiled and sucked it up, and ultimately persevered in the class (and in my quest to sell stories). In all the rejections I have had since—whether from writing, job applications, you name it—the rejection I received that day from Professor Minot was the most devastating, and I survived it just fine.

I thought the poem I wrote for the class was lost forever, but it wasn’t. Poking around, I found it buried in an obscure corner of my file system. I reread it and I see a lot of what the class saw some 23 years ago when they critiqued it. But I believe it was the best possible poem I could have written at the time. I did not enjoy writing it, and I didn’t particularly enjoy the critique, so I haven’t written much poetry since. I am fine with this. It is important to know what you are not good at, especially when you don’t enjoy it.

In any case, here is the poem for which Professor Minot gave me an A+ on, and for which my creative writing classmates later convinced him that it was terrible.

Train of Thought

I watched closely and it followed
Though at a hundred miles and hour
I don’t know how —

Perhaps my weary eyes deceived me
Playing with the passing shadows
Of a sinking desert sun,

Which moved like a second-hand
To the clack of the tracks
Paining the desert sky
Plum pink and provocative.
I watched closely as the shadows loomed larger
And still
Caught a glimpse of its thick gray coat

Charging through the underbrush
With a billow of smoke
Puffing out its mouth from the cooling air

Which slowly darkened
With the sinking sun
Until I lost sight of it
Disappearing in the dusty shade.
I strained my eyes to watch the dark desert
For a single glimpse of what I saw,

That my eyes had not deceived me
With deserted shadows,

And the constant clack of the track.
And from the corner of my eye
I spied it, a gray coat silhouetted by a graying sun,
Peeking up from behind the passing brush

I could not sleep though the lights were out
And the stars
Were hidden above a mountain tunnel,

Where sounds grew louder
The clack of the tracks

And the howl of the whistle
Of the wolf —
But I don’t know how.

David G. Hartwell

David G. Hartwell had a profound influence on my life in science fiction three times.

The first time was in the fall of 1997. Up until that point in my life, I was not very widely read in the science fiction genre. I read deep within a very narrow band of authors. That changed over the course of a few days between September 19 – 23, 1997. I had a bad cold, and for reasons I can no longer recall, I picked up a copy of Hartwell’s Ages of Wonder at Dangerous Visions bookshop in Sherman Oaks, California, which was not far from where I lived back then. I stayed in bed with a box of Kleenex and Hartwell’s book. The effect that book had on me is best described by looking at what I read in the year leading up to it, and what I read in the month or so after finishing it.

Reading pre-Hartwell

And here are the books I read after finished Hartwell’s book about science fiction:

Reading after Hartwell

For the first time, I realized that science fiction a literary movement that went far beyond futuristic adventure stories. Since reading Ages of Wonder, my reading within (and without) the genre has been much more varied.

The second time took place more than a decade later. Kelly was pregnant with our first child, and I was nervous. I needed something to take my mind off the nervousness that I was feeling. Remembering what a revelation Ages of Wonder had been, I got a copy of Hartwell and Kramer’s The Hard S. F. Renaissance, and began reading. We traveled down to Florida that December, and I can remember sitting by the beach, unable to put down that massive book. I read, for the first time, such standout stories as “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress, “Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson, “Marrow” by Robert Reed, and many more. For the second time, Hartwell jarred my perception of science fiction, and what science fiction could do. By then, I had published a couple of stories, but it wasn’t until after reading that book, that I tried doing more with my own stories—and began selling to places like Analog.

The third time Hartwell influenced me was when I saw him on a panel or two at Readercon. He always came across as extremely knowledgeable, down-to-earth, and funny. He made it look easy, and that helped me when I started doing panels at conventions. I sat beside him on at least one panel at Capclave, years ago. I can no longer remember the subject of the panel, but sitting up there on the panel with him, I was distracted the entire time. I kept thinking, I’m sitting on a panel with David G. Hartwell!

All of this came to mind yesterday after receiving the sad news that David Hartwell had suffered a brain bleed, and was unlikely to recover. He has shaped modern science fiction and has influenced thousands of writers far more talented than I.

This morning my thoughts are with Kathryn Cramer, and David’s family and many, many friends.

7 Hollywood Memoirs

A while back I mentioned my reading for guilty pleasure. I enjoy Hollywood memoirs. I particularly enjoy audiobooks read by the author. I mentioned, back in December, that I was reading a Dick Van Dyke memoir, and that I hoped to get through few of these Hollywood memoirs while I was on vacation.

Since that post, I’ve finished seven Hollywood memoirs. They are:

  1. My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business by Dick Van Dyke
  2. Keep Moving, and Other Tips and Truths about Aging by Dick Van Dyke
  3. I Remember Me by Carl Reiner
  4. I Just Remembered by Carl Reiner
  5. This Time Together by Carol Burnett
  6. Even This I Get to Experience by Normal Lear
  7. My Happy Days in Hollywood by Garry Marshall

Something about each of these Hollywood personalities resonated with me. Experience has taught me that any memoir has to be taken with a grain of salt. Yet the personalities that come through in these seven books seem genuine. They display their good sides and bad. They are forthcoming with their successes and failures. And each and and ever one of the authors came across as down-to-earth. Perhaps that is because every one of the authors is at least an octogenarian. They are, as of this writing, all still alive, and all still active, and that can certainly have an effect on one’s perspective on life. Many of them are on Twitter. Carl Reiner and Norman Lear are virtually tied for being the oldest active celebrities on Twitter. After reading the memoirs I started following both of them, and it delightful to see them in my Twitter stream.

There is a natural evolution to the way I read the books. I started with Dick Van Dyke because he was the most familiar to me. Reading his memoir, made me want to read more about Carl Reiner, who wrote, directed, and produced the Dick Van Dyke show. Carol Burnett had ties to both of them. Norman Lear was mentioned numerous times in the volumes, and so I had to read his book—which was the longest of the bunch by far. And then, of course, there was Garry Marshall. I saw him once, entering a Marie Callendar’s in Toluca Lake near where I used to live. I was in the Marie Callendar’s at the time, and I thought it astonishing that someone of Marshall’s stature would eat in a place like that. Of course, I would have known better had his memoir been published 15 or 20 years ago.

One more thing resonated with me about all 5 of the people who wrote these 7 memoirs: they were all hard workers. Hollywood types are often portrayed as laid back, but not these five. Perhaps it is because of the time they came up in Hollywood, or perhaps it is because they are all multi-talented, but reading the memoirs made it clear that none of them sat back on their laurels. I am always impressed with people who can pack so much into their day.

It turned out that reading these memoirs was far more than a guilty pleasure for me. And I did not want it to end. So I’ve decided to keep it going, at least for a little while longer. I am now well into Tim Conway’s memoir What’s So Funny? My Hilarious Life.

Letters: An Obituary

I have been writing and receiving email for more than 22 years. When I got started with email, it was manageable. I could read every message I received, and respond to it on the same day. Today it is impossible to keep up. I used to try, and it stressed me out when I fell behind. I don’t bother anymore. I do the best I can and if things fall through the cracks, so be it.

Every now and then, writing and reading email makes me years for good old-fashioned letters. I can’t remember the first time I wrote a letter, but it is now probably close to ten years since I’ve written—or received1—one. I loved letter writing. My most frequent correspondent was my grandfather. His letters were always great, and together our letters formed a leisurely dialog that took place over a period of months or years. This is opposite the rushed, terse conversations that take place in email messages.

Letter from Grandpa

Email lacks voice, and attempts to inject voice in email are often met with disdain or confusion. In letters, one could find a voice of one’s own, and hear the voice of one’s correspondent when reading their letters.

My grandfather’s letters came in two forms: handwritten, and typewritten. The handwritten letters were illegible, and it took me hours to parse my way through them. Eventually, I got good at reading his letters, although it has been so long that I am a bit out of practice today. For some reason, his typewritten letters were written in ALL CAPS. He used the Royal Quiet Comfort DeLuxe manual typewriter that I own today to compose these letters. Though I never asked him, I suppose he used ALL CAPS because it was easier on his eyes.

Receiving a letter in the mail was a delight. Anticipation of a letter was also a delight. I don’t know about you, but I don’t wake up in the morning in anticipation of the email that I’ll find in my inbox.

It occurs to my that my kids are likely to grow up not knowing what it is like to compose a letter, or to receive a letter in the mail. Already, they skip the email step and, when they want me to check with Kelly on some point they are contesting, they say, “Daddy, just text mommy, okay?”

Today, the idea of sending a letter seems quaint. There was a time, a decade ago, when some friends of mine moved back to their home state of North Dakota. For a while, we carried on a correspondence through the mails, even though we could have done so much more easily through email. Moreover, we wrote our letters longhand. Perhaps half a dozen letters passed between us before the correspondence faded. Facebook had arrived by then, and we had another way to follow one another’s lives. Almost overnight letters became obsolete.

I miss letters, writing them and receiving them. But I feel lucky to have lived through the final phase of their existence as a tool for keeping friends and family abreast of the goings-on in one’s life.

Letters still exist, of course. They will never completely die off. Still, the only letters I get these days are from banks, all of which seem to be trying to convince me to refinance my mortgage at a historical low rate—which turns out, suspiciously, to be higher than the rate I am currently paying.

For these letters, I think we can all agree, the time has come to lay them to rest.

  1. The exception is holiday letters, of which I still get one or two a year.

Life In Pieces: Chapbook Television at its Finest

Regular readers know that I am not a big television-watcher. I can no longer take dramas. And well-written sitcoms are few and far between. I enjoy Modern Family. And I like The Big Bang Theory. But I rarely watch either of them when they are broadcast. Often I’ll watch them months later. Recently, however, I discovered Life in Pieces, a new sitcom on CBS. And for the first time in a very long time, I find myself looking forward to watching an episode when it actually airs.

You may be wondering how I discover a show if I don’t watch TV. In the case of Life in Pieces, it happened this way:

After the kids go to sleep, Kelly will put on the TV for a little while. The kids are usually in bed at about 8 pm. She’ll watch TV for an hour. Usually, I’ll sit in bed and read, and since the TV is on, reading consists of listening to an audiobook. I can’t concentrate on reading words on a page with the TV in the background. So one day she was watching Life in Pieces, and something caught my eye as I listened to my audiobook. After each commercial break, the show would resume with some text that read something like, “Story #2: Gym.”

“What they mean, ‘Story #2’?” I asked Kelly.

“They do these short stories,” she explained.

As a writer of short stories, that intrigued me, and after watching an episode, I was hooked.

There are five things I really like about Life In Pieces:

  1. The format. I like the idea of telling four short stories in 21 minutes. No, make that, I love the idea.
  2. I like how the show is shot. It is not a studio audience sitcom, and there is no laugh track.
  3. I like the actors. I especially like Colin Hanks, who in mannerism and expressions is the spitting image of his father.
  4. Each story is written like a comedy sketch, but produced like a Modern Family-style sitcom.
  5. There isn’t an arc.

This last point is a big with me, and one of the reasons I can’t take dramas anymore. I don’t want to have to invest in watching all of the episodes that came before to understand the current episode. I want to be able to pop into any episode, and enjoy it on its own terms. The characters have clear relationships to one another, but the stories stand on their own. And you get four stories per episode. It is chapbook television at its finest.

I’m already looking forward to next Thursday at 8:30 pm. My only concern is whether or not I’ll still be awake at 8:30 pm.

The Scariest Part of Writing is Acceptance

When I decided to become a writer my biggest fear was that I’d never have an idea worth writing about. Experience taught me this was a needless fear. I found ideas everywhere. The trick is figuring out which ideas are worth pursuing.


When I had an idea worth writing about my biggest fear became the blank page, a fear often magnified by a deadline. Repeated experience taught me that a blank page isn’t that scary after all. Eventually I’ll fill it.

When I filled the pages my biggest fear was that what I’d written might not be good enough to submit for publication. I reminded myself that I was a writer, not an editor. I decided to let the editor make the call, and away the story went.

When I submitted a story my biggest fear was that I would be rejected. Although I knew a rejection was not personal, they sometimes felt personal. I reminded myself that I wasn’t being rejected, the story was. After that, rejection was no longer scary.

The scariest part of writing for me is acceptance. I would never have guessed this when I was starting out.

Until the story is accepted, only a few people have read it: me, a couple of beta readers, a slush reader, perhaps, and an editor. The delay between acceptance and publication is agonizing. It is like that moment half-in and half-out of the airplane door, with a parachute strapped on your back, and the ground little more than colored squares and rectangles far below. Instead of a handful of people, thousands of readers will see my work.

Then the story is published, and the fear vanishes. The story is no longer mine. Like the skydiver, I have lost control. I am at the mercy of a kind of literary gravity. If people enjoy the story, I feel good. If people don’t enjoy the story, there’s nothing I can do about it. All I can do is breath in the experience, look in momentary amazement at what I created, and then begin the search for the next idea worth writing about.

Stephen King’s 11/22/63 on Hulu

My current favorite novel is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I read it when it first came out, and have read it a total of five times since. Each time I read it, I like it more. I can’t say that it will always be my favorite novel. Favorites change with age and experience. But whenever I am asked for my favorite, this is the book I refer to.

11/22/63 Audiobook

Hulu is doing an 8-part miniseries of King’s novel premiering on President’s Day, starring James Franco and directed by J.J. Abrams. For fans of the book, that seems like exciting news, and it probably is, but I won’t be watching the miniseries. I have nothing against Abrams, or Franco, or any of the cast and crew. I don’t have anything against Hulu. I am in no way boycotting the miniseries. But I can’t watch it.

The reason is Craig Wasson.

The first two times I read the book, I actually read the book. The last three times, I listened to the audiobook. The voice actor for Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is Craig Wasson, and the first time I listened to the audiobook, I knew that Craig Wasson was Jake Epping/George Amberson. No one else could possibly be that character. The story is told in first person, which makes his performance that much more powerful. The actor entirely disappears, and you are listening to a man tell his tale.

It is the best voice acting performance I’ve encountered.

And that is why I can’t watch the Hulu miniseries. James Franco is a fine actor, but he is not, in my mind, Jake Epping. Nor would I want him to be. I’m afraid that if I watched the miniseries, it would interfere with my image of Epping as portrayed by Craig Wasson. Once watched, the show cannot be unwatched.

I once had a similar dilemma nearly twenty years ago. A second Foundation trilogy was announced. I’ve always loved Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and I thought he finished it off perfectly with Forward the Foundation. But I was intrigued with the new series because each book would be written by a different author. Gregory Benford wrote Foundation’s Fear; Greg Bear wrote Foundation and Chaos; and David Brin wrote Foundation’s Triumph. I agonized for months over whether I’d read the books. I finally decided to take the chance, and I had mixed results. Benford’s book was so-so. Bear’s book was better. But Brin knocked it out of the part with Foundation’s Triumph. Indeed, the ending of that book was a rare spark of literary genius.

I lucked out in that case, but I have grown more risk-averse as I’ve aged, and I don’t want to take the chance with the Hulu series. The truth is, I don’t think I can separate out the two mediums in my head as well as other people can, and I just adore Wasson’s performance in the audiobook.

If you haven’t listened to the audiobook version, I highly recommend it.

If I Had a Billion Dollars…

I read that the Powerball jackpot now stands at $1.3 billion. Lots of people are buying tickets in the hope of winning. Today, I thought I’d talk about the lottery.

1. If I won the lottery, Take One

What I would do:

  1. Take the lump sum.
  2. Set up a trust fund for the kids.
  3. Buy the American Heritage dictionary. I’ve been putting that off for a few months now.

What I would not do.

  1. Quit my day job.
  2. Alter my daily routine.
  3. Make any big purchases for at least a year. I’d need that time to think more about what I’d want to do with the money.

2. If I won the lottery, Take Two

If I could get away with it, here’s what I’d really do:

  1. Take the lump sum.
  2. Set up a trust fund for the kids.
  3. Go on a nice vacation with the family.
  4. Buy the American Heritage dictionary.
  5. Take whatever money was left over to the IRS, and say, “Here is more than $1 billion. Never bother me again1.”

3. How I would get a bigger share of the lottery money

I would buy, say, 100 lottery tickets, and pick the same set of numbers for all hundred. When my numbers came up as the winners, along with, say 10 other people, the winnings would have to be split 110 ways. $1.3 billion divided by 110 winning tickets comes to $11.8 million per ticket. And since I’d have 100 tickets, I’d get about $1.1 billion while the other ten winners would split around $110 million. Clever, right?

4. Why I won’t win the lottery

Sure, the odds are small. But my odds are far, far worse than anyone who plays the lottery. My understanding is that to win, you have to buy a ticket. And since I don’t buy lottery tickets, I have no chance of winning. On the hand, I do have all of the money that I might otherwise have spent on lottery tickets. Come to think of it, I could use that money to finally buy the American Heritage dictionary I’ve been wanting for a few months now.

  1. I can’t claim credit for this idea. Isaac Asimov once gave this answer when he was asked what he’d do with a billion dollar. I just like the answer