Tag Archives: random musings

(d)Evolution of a Workspace

Over the last ten years, I’ve written three books at my desk in my home office in Maryland. Below is the desk where I wrote Washington Irving over the span of just ten months in late 2006- early 2007.

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My office at that time was in a long, narrow upstairs room, just off our bedroom. When we moved into the house, it was an old and unused kitchen (don’t ask). We removed all the old appliances, laid down some vinyl tile, painted the walls blue and brown, pulled some phone line, and moved in a daybed, IKEA bookshelves and an IKEA workbench (with the unfortunate IKEA designation of JERKER). While the room was small, I could keep nearly any reference I needed within arm’s reach on a bookshelf directly behind me (which you can’t see in this photo). as well as on the low shelf just over my computer screen. At that time, I was writing on a Dell desktop, which we bought new just for me to write on, since our main computer was located in a public space in the parlor.

This was a small, cozy set-up, and I actually enjoyed writing here.  Getting Irving done in ten months meant getting up every morning at 5 a.m, writing until about 7:30, then heading for my day job in local government. I’d return here each evening at about 5:30 p.m. and write until 11 — then repeat the next day for the better part of a year. One of the nicest things about this set-up, however, is that from time to time, Madi — who was barely a middle schooler then — would sometimes crawl into the day-bed and fall asleep while I was working in the evenings.

When I began work in earnest on Jim Henson in 2010, it was immediately clear the space in the upstairs office wasn’t large enough to contain all the notebooks, books, and other resources I was using — including a gigantic white board that I was using to map out family trees and outline chapters. So, in the autumn of 2010, I set up an office in our basement, making a desk out of two farm tables pushed into an L-shape in front of the corner fireplace.

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Sorry the photo is blurry–but as you can still see, it got messy in a hurry. Instead of the Dell, I was now working on a desktop Mac, with a gigantic screen that made it easier for me to look at multiple documents on screen at the same time. For 2 1/2 years, all I did was Jim Henson–the elected official I had worked for had opted not to run again in 2010, which permitted me to dedicate myself to Jim full time. As you can imagine, then, this particular corner got messier and messier, and the piles of books and notebooks deeper and deeper.

Forward now to late 2014-early 2016. Initially, I was writing George Lucas in my basement office, sitting at a new, modular L-shaped desk that took up roughly the same footprint as the two farm tables shown above. However, as I began my work on each chapter, I would pull out all the books and notebooks and interviews anything else I needed, and start making piles on my desk–and it was clear that this was book was going to be more than my desk could handle; I simply needed more horizontal surfaces on which to pile and stack and spread out. By mid-2015, I finally took over our dining room table.

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While I’ve got an old MacBook laptop in the middle of things here, I eventually moved my desktop Mac up here as well. And I’ll admit it: while the hardbacked chair is uncomfortable, there are windows on three sides of the room, making this a much warmer and brighter spot in which to write than the basement. It was also much less isolated; while Madi is long gone, the dog would come in and sleep under the table while I worked, and Barb could come in and check on me every now and then.

I was also back at work full time while I wrote this one (working for a different elected official), which could make for some long days. I’m not the early riser I was when I was writing Washington Irving; instead, I would get up around 7 each morning so I could be at work by 9 a.m.–then, once home by 6 p.m., I would immediately sit down to write, stopping for about thirty minutes for dinner with Barb, then write non-stop again until 2:00 a.m. or so . . . then do it all over again the next day.

What I find so interesting about all this is that as the projects got larger and more labor intensive, my workspace seemed to get less and less formal. While I’m one of those writers who likes a dedicated space for writing (like Washington Irving, I love cozy writing rooms), what I found as time went on is that I preferred a less formal, more spacious, and much less secluded writing area.  Not that it made things any less messy.

Burning a Hole in My Pocket

My mom — who never saw a Sunday newspaper supplement she didn’t like — is one of the world’s most devoted coupon clippers.  She’s the person you hate to stand in line behind at the grocery store, because you’ll be standing there with your two items while my mom hands the clerk a phone book of coupons that pertain to the six items she just purchased.  Usually the store ends up owing her money by the time she’s through.

Anyway, for my entire life, I’ve listened to my mom say — in only semi-jest —  “I have a coupon burning a hole in my pocket!” I always laugh, but I guess I’m my mother’s son, because I know exactly what she means.   With me, though, it’s not coupons — I’m far too lazy to clip those coupons, and far too unorganized to remember to take them with me to grocery store.  But I am one of those people who has a member’s discount card for just about every store I visit. 

You know the kind of card I’m talking about.  You make your purchase at Safeway, or PetSmart, or wherever, and as the cashier is ringing you up, she asks, “Do you have your I’m A Member Of  A Not Really All  That Exclusive Club But Still So Much Better Than You Are Membership card today?”

“Um, no?” I always say, ending my response with an audible question mark.

“Would you like one?” she asks, still ringing up the cookie dough I’ll be having for dinner.

“Is it free?” I ask — and it is, provided I fill out a form that has my name and address and email so they can send me all sorts of ads that I’ll immediately throw away or delete.  Then I’m given a card — or, even cooler, a tag I can hang off my keychain! — that I can scan when I make my purchases and get discounts or deals.

I love these cards, and I love the deals they offer.  But I’m an enormous sucker and I’m easy prey for a cleverly worded come on.  If I’m at Staples, and a sign under gum erasers says “Buy three, get 2 free (with membership card),” well, it doesn’t matter that I only need one gum eraser.  I’ll come home with five.

The other day, my wife sent me to Safeway to pick up hotdogs.  I came home with four packages.  A single package of Esskay hotdogs was 2 bucks — but a red sign just below offered “Buy 2, Get 2 (with membership card)”.  Come on, that’s just way too good a deal to pass up.  Spend four bucks, and get four packages instead of two.  Even I can do that math.

“And just what are we going to do with four packages of hot dogs?” my patient wife asked.

“Freeze them,” I said.  Really, I don’t know why my wife can’t think of these things.

On my way home from work tonight, I’ll be stopping at Borders to take advantage of a 40% off coupon, probably to buy a CD of hoedown calls and Alps yodeling.  It’s not something I would normally listen to, but you can’t beat that price.

And then, of course, I’ll be having hot dog soup for dinner.

You’re Not From Around Here, Are You?

In the course of a recent conversation with a lifelong Marylander — which I am not — I asked if she could provide me with directions that would help me avoid a particularly busy intersection on my way home.

“Which way do you usually take to go home?” she asked.

We live in a mostly rural part of the state, so much of our coming-and-going is via small, two-lane Maryland State Highways with official names like MD 355 and MD 27.    Locally, we sometimes call them “Frederick Road” or “Ridge Road,” but on a map, they’re MD 355 and MD 27.

“Well,” I said, almost unconsciously drawing a map in the air with my hands like I always do, “I take the 355 to the 27, up past the 124….”

She barely stifled a laugh.  “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“Come again?” I said.

“What’s with ‘the’?” she said. “THE 355.  THE 27…”

And you know, that’s actually not the first time that’s been pointed out to me.  I grew up in New Mexico, where the long distances between towns make highways a normal mode of transportation, and we tend to refer to highways as THE 25, or the 40, or the 247.   Ask us how to get from Albuquerque to Roswell, and we’ll tell you to take the 40 east to the 41 south, follow it down to the 42 at Willard — which becomes the 247 at Corona — then take the 285 south into Roswell.

Not Marylanders.  They’d tell you to take 40 east to 41 south, and so on, completely omitting the article “the.”  Is it done in the name of efficiency?  Probably not.  It’s just the way it’s done — and I had hardly noticed until it was pointed out to me.

And that got me to thinking about other local or regional language choices — they’re not even necessarily colloquialisms or colorful turns of phrase distinct to an area — no “you ‘uns” or aphorisms like “white on rice.”  They’re just everyday, informal word choices.

Here’s another one:  at the grocery store, how would you ask for carbonated beverages, which might be sold under names like Coca-Cola or Pepsi or 7-Up?

I call it soda.  But move a bit further east over on the eastern shore of Maryland, and signs advertise it as “soda pop.”  My cousins in Kansas, meanwhile, just call it “pop,” while some of my friends from the south call it “coke” as a generic.

What do you call it?  And what other quirky word choices do you hear made in your particular area?

Ringing In The New

Happy New Year! And it’s good to be back after . . . yeeks, was it really nearly a week? Well, I missed you, at any rate.

Nothing terribly interesting to note or report at the moment, but here’s what’s on my mind:

. . . The ice storm that was threatening the DC region passed us by with a only drizzle of rain and a scrim of ice on the windshields this morning. This was much to my daughter’s chagrin, who went to bed convinced she would awaken this morning to notices that school had been cancelled. And this is a kid who likes school. She just likes the idea of snow days even more.

. . . It’s horribly annoying to watch newscasters cover the Very Important Story of Sasha and Malia Obama attending their first day of school . . . and then have those same newscasters moan and wail about the media coverage of what should be a private event. Mika Brzezinski on the increasingly loud Morning Joe practically dressed down their own MSNBC reporter for covering the story for their very own show. Here’s some advice: then don’t cover it. You don’t get to have it both ways.

. . . Rock Band 2 for the XBox kicks serious ass. Madi, Barb and I set up our own virtual band (which I dubbed Blind Gravy, a decision I made by fiat, since no one was home at the time) and we spend a little bit of time each evening with Madi on guitar, Barb on drums, and me on bass, wailing away at Bon Jovi, Duran Duran, Jimmy Eat World, and Lit. Barb has perhaps the most exhausting role as the drummer, but just when we think she’s wearing out — and therefore ready to stop — she suddenly brightens and says, “If we can get through a four-song set in Los Angeles, they’ll give us an airplane!” And off we go again. I love my family.

The Santa Dilemma

One of the most pressing moral dilemmas faced by parents is the Santa Claus Problem. You know how this works: as parents, we tell our children they should never lie, because lies make Baby Jesus cry and the world a rotten place. Yet, come Christmas time — the time of the year when lying should be last thing on our minds — we tell our kids an enormous fib — namely that a jolly, bearded man in a red suit — using some sort of mystical power that allows him not only to travel around the world in one night, but also gives him an ability to know whether our child is good and therefore deserving of swag — will come down the chimney on Christmas Eve and leave them presents.

This is a recent dilemma to be sure, born of what I guess one could call liberal guilt. Frankly, I don’t think any handwringing went into my own parents’ decision to fill my head with the Santa story. And to be honest, I never once wrestled with the problem, either. To me, it’s all part of the fun. I suppose if one were really struggling with the issue, it could be argued that parents are merely indulging in a time-honored tradition of passing folklore from one generation to the next, conveying a mythology so persuasively that children are convinced it’s real.

When you think about it, though, parents don’t really have to work that hard at it anyway. I mean, I never needed any help believing a drooling maniac waited in my closet every night after the lights went out, even though my parents did everything they could to convince me that wasn’t the case. If I could believe in something my parents were working like heck to convince me wasn’t real, it didn’t take much of a suggestion that something, or someone, did exist to make me embrace it entirely. I wanted to believe, and therefore I did.

Actually, I believed in Santa for a long time — probably longer than I should have — because my parents were just so darn good at it. They never did anything terribly elaborate, like stomp around on the roof on Christmas Eve, but they always did just enough to convince me that there was something going on that was beyond their control. One year, my dad found a ratty old gunny sack and left it next to our fireplace, with a note from Santa that our house had been the last one he had hit on the block, so he had left the empty bag behind. Nice touch.

Another time, my parents hired a young man to dress as Santa and visit our house a few days early — just dropping by to check on us, you know — and deliver a few presents. Both my brother and I bought it without question, though my parents had to do a bit of scrambling when my kid brother — who even at age five seemed to be able to play all the angles — demanded to see the reindeer.

But it was a masterful bit of misdirection — perpetrated when I was around seven years old, I would guess, when I was already becoming something of a Santa scoffer — that made me an absolute believer.

We were set to spend that particular Christmas with my grandparents in Kansas — two whole states away from our New Mexico home — and were scheduled to drive there three days before Christmas. My parents awoke my brother and me at about 6 a.m. and asked us to get in the car, which my dad already had idling in the driveway. As we staggered blearily through the living room where our Christmas tree stood, I carefully checked to make sure there were NO SANTA GIFTS sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace. There weren’t.

This was the test, then: if there really was a Santa, he would show up while we were out of town and leave behind the Mego Batcave I so desperately wanted. But if my parents were Santa, as I suspected, then our absence from town — or so my logic went — clearly meant they would have no opportunity to place our gifts in front of the tree. I was as certain as a 7-year-old boy can be certain of anything that when we returned to Albuquerque a few days after New Year’s, there would be no Santa gifts waiting for us. My parents’ jig was up. Smugly, I settled into the back seat of the car. Several moments later, my parents came out of the house carrying the last of the suitcases. My dad locked the house, loaded the car, and we drove away.

Of course, what I didn’t know was that in the 90 seconds it took my brother and I to pass through the living room and get into the car, my parents had immediately pulled everything out of a front closet and quickly set it up in front of the Christmas tree. When we returned to New Mexico a week later (fighting our way through an ice storm that sealed my dad’s decision to never drive anywhere for the holidays ever again), my brother and I walked slowly from the car into the house, and peeked skeptically into the living room . . . and oh my gosh Santa had come while we were gone!

For the next few years, then — again, for probably longer than I should have — I was one of the Jolly Old Elf’s most ardent defenders, once nearly getting into fisticuffs with Dan Duddingston for daring to challenge the veracity of St. Nick. I think I finally accepted Santa’s status as pure folklore — and then only grudgingly — by the fifth grade.

As I said earlier, I’ve never had a problem perpetuating the Santa story — but my own daughter is far more clever and observant than I ever was, and, despite my best efforts, was a Santa Skeptic by age six. Oddly, though, she had a harder time letting go of the Easter Bunny. A magical rabbit who somehow delivers candy and chocolate eggs? No problem. A white-haired old man in a flying sleigh delivering toys? No way.

Fortunately for me, now that she’s a worldly 12-year-old, she’s willing to indulge in Santa just for the pure fun of it. And for some reason, that’s made him even more real to her — and to me — than he ever was before. Santa Dilemma solved.

Skillful and Habitual Oddities

I always put DVDs and CDs back in their cases with the title straight up and down, for ease of reading.

I can only talk on the phone with the phone pressed against my right ear.

I take notes in fountain pen.

I’m not a great driver, but I can squeeze a car into almost any parking space with room to spare.

When I listen to music, I often try to sing only the harmony or backing vocals. I call this “Singing the John Oates Part.”

I organize my bookshelves by topic — and then I arrange books by height on each shelf, from tallest to shortest.

I consider myself an artist, even though I can’t really do anything but draw cartoons.

I generally force myself to listen to five songs on any radio station before I change the channel.

I can build a roaring fire in a fireplace in no time whatsoever.

My handwriting is terrible, yet I can print beautifully.

I can get lost backing out of my driveway.

I love my coffee strong — but then I fill it full of cream and sugar. Which sort of defeats the purpose, I suppose.

What are your odd skills or habits?

A Great Fall

It might be early November, but you’d never know it from the weather in Maryland. Even as the Midwest is pummelled by a freak blizzard, the Atlantic seaboard (or at least our corner of it) is enjoying temperatures hovering near the 70s. So we get to enjoy the autumn colors in spring-like temperatures.

That’s causing some amusing confusion in our yard. The view from our kitchen window — framed by a walk-under trellis with a wisteria vine — looks like a typical autumn postcard:

Meanwhile, a lone zinnia — a decidely summer-loving flower — has decided to raise its head at the very edge of a cleared flower bed, to give November a blast of summer color. He’s understandably confused, be we’re enjoying him while we can.


How’s your autumn looking?

Supremely F*%#ing Funny

I loved this story in today’s Washington Post, about the Supreme Court’s discussion of whether the government can fine television networks for a one-time, “fleeting” expletive on television. The case came about in response to Cher inadvertently(?) dropping the Queen Mother of Swears on a live awards show in 2002.

I got a kick out of government’s attorney arguing that overturning this policy could lead to “a world where the networks are free to use expletives . . . 24 hours a day,” including “Big Bird dropping the F-bomb on Sesame Street” — a hilarious bit of hyperbole — but more than anything, there’s something really funny about the Supreme Court justices trying gamely not to use the dirty words in question in the courtroom, falling back instead on more delicate terms like “F-bomb”, “freaking” and “the eff word.”

And then there was this:

…88-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens asked whether the FCC would sanction a broadcaster if the indecent remark “was really hilarious, very, very funny.” Solicitor General Gregory G. Garre said the commission would, along with “whether it’s shocking, titillating, pandering.”

“Bawdy jokes are okay, if they’re really good,” Justice Antonin Scalia cracked, to more laughter.

I don’t know how this is going to turn out, but this is one Supreme Court opinion I’m going to read. But only to see if they left in all the dirty words.

Monday Miscellany

Hard as it may be to believe, we’ve made the turn into the final week in October. The weather in central Maryland has finally turned distinctly fallish — though it was still nice enough this weekend that I could do a quick mowing of the lawn, zipping around the yard like Richard Petty to trim the grass and mulch the fallen leaves. This afternoon, it’s back on the ol’ mower to aerate before the ground finally hardens for good.

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We managed to finish up the office this weekend, and I’ll have some pics up tomorrow. We experienced a slight delay when a Saturday rainstorm exposed some previously-unnoticed cracks in the masonry where the water was attempting to push its way through. But a late-night visit to Home Depot for some Kwik-Plug appears to have taken care of the problem, and we’ve returned to our regularly scheduled programming. Next up: the new walk-in closet.

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It’s taken me a while, but I’m nearly finished with Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner of Heaven, a book that’s at once fascinating and infuriating. I knew only the basics of the Mormon religion, and had no idea of its rather bloody history. I was expecting more of a crime novel than Mormon history, but Krakauer blends it all together mostly seamlessly, though the lexicon of similar names often makes for some confusing reading. (As Linus once said of The Brothers Karamazov, sometimes you just have to bleep over the confusing names…)

Up next, Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, which I’ve wanted to read since the moment it came out, but didn’t pick up until this weekend. I’m lame.

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As the parents of a ‘tween aged girl, Barb and I were obligated to see High School Musical 3 with our daughter this weekend. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet but know you’ll have to and may be dreading going — yes, you know who you are — I’m pleased to report it’s surprisingly good. I didn’t find any of the songs to be particularly memorable, but the plot is actually compelling enough that I found myself wishing we could get through the songs quicker so we could get back to the story. And Zac Efron was awesome. Oh, shut up.

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I’ve decided I’m not watching any more talking heads news shows until after the election. It’s starting to sound like Rocky Horror, what with all the shouting at the screen going on in our house lately.

An Update On Why I’m Not Updating

Good grief, have I really let this thing slide for three days? When I first started blogging, I was content to post maybe once or twice a week. Now I don’t like letting it sit idle for more than a day or two, tops.

Anyway.

The main impediment here is a lack of computer. I’m in the process of relocating my home office, and several days ago, I unplugged my computer and all its attachments (i.e, printer, keyboard, iPod, wireless receiver, and what I think is a bugging device attached by the RNC), thinking I would be moving it to its new location quickly. Three days later, my CPU is still sitting upstairs in my old office — sans keyboard and monitor and everything else — still unplugged and still unused, all of which makes blogging rather difficult. The delay in moving it downstairs is due largely to the fact that it’s taking longer to pull telephone in the new office than I thought, mainly because the wiring in the old house is — typically — not up to snuff. So we’re taking apart, and putting back together — which, given my patience, takes quite a while.

The end is near, however, and I’m hoping to be back up and running by this weekend, so I can get back to juggling projects. At least now I can do so in a room that actually has heat in it.