My brother Todd was a stage magician. He and our best friend Zack Percell were putting on magic shows throughout the Midwest even while they were still in middle school, high school, and college. Like many magicians, when they put on shows, they were well-dressed. In their younger, mid-90s high school days, they had matching purple sports jackets and crazy ties. They looked great, in a sort of Spencer’s Gifts meets GQ magazine kind of way.
As they got older, their magic shows had to be squeezed in between other jobs. They still dressed up for performances, but the uniform became more mainstream mens’ formalwear. They never went full tuxedo, but they did wear the dark jacket, shirt, and tie combo that was popular in the early aughts. They looked great! They seemed equally ready to both make someone disappear on stage or to open a loan for you at the bank.
One day, Todd and Zack had a magic show at a housing project in our hometown. The residents of this housing project were overwhelmingly Black. I wasn’t with Todd and Zack at that show that day, but Todd told me about something that happened there, and I’ve never forgotten it.
He said that while he and Zack were unloading magic show props from the van, a small boy — think lower elementary age — stopped on the sidewalk to watch them. Todd wasn’t wearing his jacket, but he was in his dress shirt and tie. This kid looked at Todd as he walked by and said to him, “You ain’t gonna get me, cop. “
I’d like you to notice two things.
First, when that young boy saw a well-dressed white man in his neighborhood, he immediately assumed he was a police officer. It didn’t matter that the man was college-aged. It didn’t matter that the man was unloading stage magic props out of the back of a beat-up van. If he was white and well-dressed in that neighborhood, he had to be a cop.
Second, this kid — an elementary school kid — assumed that if a white cop was in his neighborhood, that white cop was there to get him. Not to talk to him. Certainly not to help him. To get him. The kid hadn’t even done anything wrong, but that’s the tragedy. His innocence didn’t matter.
That young boy’s reaction was and remains unfathomable to me and fills me with sadness. And that was just a simple misunderstanding between two people on a sidewalk. How much more unacceptable is it that since that encounter, far too many Black persons like George Floyd have been mistreated, beaten, and killed? One such death is too many. The sheer number our country has seen is an indictment of our culture of covert — and often overt — racism and oppression.
I know a lot of change is needed, change at so many levels of our society, and I’ll be honest — I don’t have a lot of answers. But there’s one thing I can and will do immediately, and it’s something everyone can do. We can all be more like this elderly white woman:
All lives matter, and everyone needs to hear that. But right now, our Black brothers and sisters especially need to hear that Black Lives Matter. Spread this message far and wide. But like the adage often attributed to St. Francis says: use words… if necessary. Don’t just say it. Show it with your actions. Live it with your whole life.
If we all do this, then we change the world, and we don’t have to wait on any government, any police department, or any other person or organization. As John Boyega said, “I ain’t waiting.” None of us should.
A couple of months ago, my wife and I got rid of our family’s satellite dish. I hesitate to call this “cord-cutting” because our entire family entertainment system still depends on a rather significant cord — the one that feeds data into and out of our high-speed cable modem-based Internet connection. Nevertheless, like other cord-cutters, our desire was cost savings. We knew there was a vast discrepancy between how much we were using our Dish Network subscription versus how much we were paying for it. We took an inventory of what we were actually watching via our dish and came up with a reasonably short list:
The whole family, but especially the children, watched a lot of the Disney Channel. They especially loved watching it with the Disney Now app on their tablets, which required our Dish Network login to unlock most content
The children also enjoyed a few Nickelodeon shows
Rose enjoyed several Food Network programs
We definitely wanted to keep watching network shows such as The Flash, Supergirl, America’s Funniest Home Videos, and Jeopardy!
And an electronic program guide and DVR were must-haves
That just didn’t feel like $72.12 per month worth of content to us. But what was our alternative? We knew our kids could live without the few shows they watched on Nickelodeon because the Disney Channel gave them so many appealing choices to choose from. And we could take some of the money we were paying Dish Network each month and instead purchase via Amazon Video full seasons of the Food Network shows Rose enjoyed the most — and still save a lot of money.
So that meant all we really wanted were the major broadcast networks and the Disney Channel. And we thought the desire to keep the Disney Channel would be the tether that kept us tied to a disproportionate monthly satellite TV bill. But then Disney CEO Bob Iger announced a little something called Disney+.
I’ve long dreamed of à la carte cable service — pick and choose your own channels. I’d also long given up on that ever being a possibility because offering such a thing just isn’t in cable or satellite companies’ financial interests. But that option is kind of here now! With the plethora of streaming services now (and soon-to-be) available, there’s really no longer any reason for you to pay for programming you’re not going to watch.
With the impending launch of Disney+, Rose and I realized that if we could get our local channels via over-the-air TV, we could drop Dish Network. We didn’t know anything about HDTV antennas, but over the following few months, we learned a lot. In this article, I’ll share the details of how we went about making the switch in the hopes of informing others who might be thinking about taking the same plunge.
We made our cutover via a three-phase process.
Phase 1: Proof-of-Concept We started by purchasing a relatively inexpensive tabletop HDTV antenna just to try it out and see what kind of reception we could get. This antenna was connected directly to our television, so to watch it, we had to switch our TV to the antenna input. It also had no DVR and no on-screen channel guide, but it did let us start to explore what it was like to pick up our local channels over-the-air. We quickly learned a few things:
The basic setup for over-the-air TV is: plug your antenna into the TV, let the TV do a scan to inventory all the channels it can receive, and enjoy.
We live in a northeastern suburb of San Antonio, and all of the major networks have their antennas south of the city. That means we’re about twenty to twenty-five miles from most broadcast antennas, which isn’t bad but isn’t particularly desirable either.
Obtaining good reception meant frequently repositioning the tabletop antenna for optimal reception of whatever channel we happened to be watching at the moment.
We couldn’t receive our area’s VHF channels at all, which meant no PBS and no ABC, which was a big problem because America’s Funniest Home Videos is our favorite family show.
Multiplexed networks meant we now received some fun sub-channels Dish Network didn’t carry, like Antenna and Comet and MeTV.
Overall, we considered the cheap tabletop antenna a considerable success, though it was clear we’d need a far more powerful antenna before all was said and done. But we were ready to move to the next level.
Phase 2: Adding DVR Who watches TV without time-shifting or skipping commercials today? DVR and an on-screen channel guide were musts for us. Luckily, there are a lot of products out there that do this. There’s Tivo, Roku, and a whole ton of others.
We decided on the Amazon Fire TV Recast. The way it works is pretty simple.
The Recast is just a box that contains a hard drive and a CPU. You plug your over-the-air antenna cable into it, and you hook it up to wifi or a wired Ethernet connection.
It uses its data connection to download program guide data from Amazon, and it uses its hard-drive and CPU to record programs for you when they’re on.
Notice I said nothing about any kind of output to your TV. That’s because it has none. You watch TV — either live or recorded — via an Amazon Fire TV Stick. The Fire TV Stick sees the Recast on your home network and treats it as just another source of programming.
Because of its dependence upon Fire TV Stick, the Recast works only in conjunction with Fire TV devices, but since we were already Amazon Prime subscribers, a further step into the Amazon eco-system didn’t concern us. The Fire TV Stick and Recast were both straightforward to set up and use.
As a proof-of-concept, we set up a timer to record Jeopardy! This was a great test program because it airs every weekday, so we were often testing. It airs on one of the channels we were receiving the strongest. And since we still had Dish Network, and since our Dish Network receiver was also recording Jeopardy! for us daily, we had nothing to lose. We planned to watch the Recast recordings of Jeopardy! when we could, and fall back to watching the Dish Network recordings when it failed.
But it didn’t fail that often! The biggest problem was our tabletop antenna would get bumped and moved and positioned in a way that kept us from receiving the appropriate channel well or at all, and so the Recast would fail to record that day’s episode. But when it worked, it worked wonderfully.
Satisfied that the Recast’s channel guide and DVR would work well for us, we moved on to the final step: a more powerful antenna.
Phase 3: Putting an antenna up on our roof We have a two-story house, so I planned from the start to hire someone else to climb up there and mount our new antenna. Also, while I’d learned a lot by this point about VHF vs. UHF and unidirectional vs. multi-directional antennas, I was still far from being an expert, and I wanted someone who would know
What kind of antenna we needed
How to safely install it on the roof
And how to connect it to our existing home TV wiring
We found a reputable local contractor who knew what he was doing. (If you’re in the San Antonio area, I highly recommend Interlyte). He knew how to mount the antenna on the roof, and he knew what kind of antenna we needed — which turned out to be an Antop 400. He knew how to make sure it would be powerful enough to pick up all available channels, including those VHF channels our tabletop antenna couldn’t.
In just a couple of hours, he had our Dish Network dish down and a new HDTV antenna up in its place, fully calibrated and wired into our existing home TV coaxial cabling. This antenna didn’t get bumped and repositioned incorrectly, like our tabletop antenna did. At last, we could receive the VHF channels, and they were crystal clear. We now received double the channels our first proof-of-concept antenna gave us.
We canceled our Dish Network account an hour later.
The final analysis Switching to an over-the-air antenna brought us these one-time expenses:
Original “proof-of-concept” tabletop HDTV antenna ($25)
Fire TV Stick 4K ($35)
Fire TV Recast ($180)
Fire TV USB power cable ($20)
Optional. We have an electrician-installed channel hidden in the wall to invisibly run cables from the floorboard up to our wall-mounted TV, but for $20, this allowed me power the Fire TV Stick off the TV itself rather than running the power cable through the wall
Fire TV Ethernet Adapter ($15)
Optional. When we built our house, I had it wired with Cat 5e Ethernet cable for just this reason. Why stream HD video over wifi when you can do it via fast, shielded wired connection?
Roof-mounted HDTV antenna and professional installation ($449)
We had our Netflix and Amazon Prime subscriptions before we made this change, so the costs of those items remained consistent. We dropped our $72.12/month Dish Network bill and added a Disney+ subscription, which we got at the special D23 member introductory price of $4.24/month for three years.
For $724 worth of one-time expenses, we’re now saving $67.88/month on TV programming.
We’re incredibly happy we made this change. We still get to watch all the TV shows we really care about but at a fraction of the price, and it was far easier to switch than I thought it would be.
Well, 2019 happened, but you wouldn’t know it from reading my articles on this blog because there weren’t any. I’ll get to why that was in a future article, but for now, it’s time for my annual Henry Bemis article. Here are my reflections on the books I read in 2019.
The icon indicates a book I read because one of my children read it for a school book report, and since I’m their homeschool reading teacher, I had to read it, too. All books on the list are fiction unless they bear the non-fiction icon.
The Work of Mercy by Mark Shea
Artemis by Andy Weir
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Still Amidst the Storm by Conor Gallagher
West is San Francisco by Lauren Sapala
Will Wilder and the Amulet of Power by Raymond Arroyo
The Glass Gargoyle by Marie Andreas
The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
Synthetic Men of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
Men of Iron by Howard Pyle
Madeleine Takes Command by Ethel C. Brill
The House with a Clock In Its Walls by John Bellairs
Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
Little Robot by Ben Hatke
Fluency by Jennifer Foehner Wells
Countdown by Deborah Wiles
Mother Knows Best by Serena Valentino
Sinner by Lino Rulli
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
If All the Swords in England by Barbara Willard
Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry
Conquerors’ Pride by Timothy Zahn
The End and Other Beginnings by Veronica Roth
Conquerors’ Heritage by Timothy Zahn
Conquerors’ Legacy by Timothy Zahn
Saint Rose of Lima by Mary Fabyan Windeatt
Starsight by Brandon Sanderson
The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
2019 shall be remembered as the year I gave Gene Wolfe the old college try. He’s hailed as a titan of science fiction, and he’s a Catholic whose faith is apparent from his work. That should have made his The Book of the New Sun series a slam-dunk with me, but it wasn’t. I’m glad I read the first two books in the series, but I’ve had enough. Everyone says Wolfe is a genius, but challenging to read. I’ll agree with that. Too difficult for me, I guess. When I have to read while switching between my Kindle app and Wikipedia just to get explanations for what the heck is going on, it’s not a good sign.
Mother Knows Best by Serena Valentino
I bought this on a BookBub deal, and I was expecting an interesting backstory for the villain of Tangled. Instead, I felt like I stumbled into the middle of a series. Which I did! It turns out the books in Valentino’s Disney Villains series aren’t just stand-alone origin stories for classic characters like Ursula and the Evil Queen, they’re also an ongoing tale about the Odd Sisters, a trio of evil witches exclusive to this series. That didn’t make this book terrible by any means, it just didn’t make it completely satisfying, either.
There were also two books I just wasn’t getting into this year, so I didn’t finish them.
Red Risingby Pierce Brown (DNF at 31%)
I have friends who absolutely adore Red Rising, and I trust their judgment a lot, so I really wanted to like it. But I just kept feeling like I’d read it before when it was called The Hunger Games and Divergent. I couldn’t get into it. Sorry, Will. I may try it again someday.
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge: A Crash of Fate by Zoraida Córdova (DNF at 35%)
I did love seeing all of the places from Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in A Crash of Fate, but when you strip away the Star Wars veneer, A Crash of Fate is a YA romance novel, and that’s just not my thing.
Timothy Zahn! He’s always been one of my favorite authors thanks to a book you might have heard of called Star Wars: Heir to the Empire, and Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of my all-time favorite villains. So I was eager to finally dig into Thrawn, his take on Thrawn’s origin in the new official Star Wars continuity. What amazed me was seeing just how much his classic Heir to the Empire trilogy influenced me when I read it as a teenager. I heard a lot of my own writing voice in Thrawn, which I guess means I owe a lot of my writing voice to Timothy Zahn. I can think of much worse inspirations.
Thrawn wasn’t my favorite read of the year, but Timothy Zahn was my favorite read’s author. And so without further ado…
The Conquerors’ Trilogy by Timothy Zahn
The Conquerors’ Trilogy is about future humans in a devastating war with an alien race, sparked by a first contact that went horribly wrong. Yes, you’ve read that a hundred times before. But what makes this different is the failed first contact was a huge misunderstanding. One that was deliberately instigated by unknown third parties for their own gain. And this trilogy isn’t the story of how a war was won. It’s the story of how determined individuals — both human and alien — come together to fight for the truth and for peace. I adored this trilogy.
Artemis by Andy Weir
I enjoyed the heck out of Artemis, Andy Weir’s sophomore novel. I felt like it had all the hard science and all the dramatic tension that made The Martian so spectacular. But on the moon. And told as a heist story! What’s not to love?
Also, I’m convinced Rudy, the former Canadian Mountie who now runs security on the moon, was inspired by Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Rest in peace, René Auberjonois.
Starsight by Brandon Sanderson
And the guy who is quickly becoming my favorite author just because he keeps cranking out book after book after book that I love had a new YA novel this year. It should surprise no one that Starsight by Brandon Sanderson was one of my most favorite things I read this year. It took the series in directions I didn’t expect, kept me rapidly turning pages in pursuit of answers I needed, and was just a delightful read.
Honorable Mentions (in order in which I read them)
The Work of Mercy by Mark Shea
West is San Francisco by Lauren Sapala
Madeleine Takes Command by Ethel C. Brill
The House with a Clock In ItsWalls by John Bellairs
Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
Sinner by Lino Rulli
Final Thoughts 2019 also turned out to be the year I stopped caring enough about having a “Currently Reading” widget on my blog to put up with the crummy UI of Goodreads. In the words of Alkaline Trio, “That’s it, we’ve had enough.” I removed the widget from this site, and I’m not updating my Goodreads account any longer. If you want to know what I’m reading, just ask me.
And if you want to know what I read in years past, here are links to my previous reading lists: 2018 | 2017 | 2016.
I promise to write more on this blog in 2020 than just this article.
Most people write their “Year in Review” stories in December, but I’m not most people. I always wait to write mine until the new year has officially begun, especially my look back at the books I read in the past year. Because what if I finish a book on December 31? That book needs to be cataloged in the correct year! And guess what? This year, that policy paid off.
Welcome to the 2018 edition of my annual Henry Bemis article, named after the main character of The Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.” All he wanted to do was have the time to read as many books as he wanted. After he became the sole survivor of nuclear war, his wish came true — until he broke his glasses. In honor (and pity) of Henry, here are my reflections on the books I consumed over the last 365 days.
I finished 37 books this year, up from the 23 I read in 2017. The icon indicates a book I read because one of my children read it for a school book report. And because my children are homeschooled, and because I’m their reading teacher, I kind of felt I had to read them, too.
Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive #3)
Patron Saint of First Communicants: The Story of Blessed Imelda Lambertini
Mary Fabyan Windeatt
St. Gianna Beretta Molla: The Gift of Life
Susan Helen Wallace
Mighty Jack Ben Hatke
Mighty Jack and the Goblin King
The Swords of Mars (Barsoom #8) Edgar Rice Burroughs
Active Memory (Mirador #3)
St. Thomas Aquinas
Mary Fabyan Windeatt
(Beta read for a member of my writing group)
The Small War of Sergeant Donkey
(Beta read for a member of my writing group)
The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1)
Sleep Writer Keith Robinson
(Beta read for a member of my writing group)
One Beautiful Dream
The Door in the Wall
Marguerite de Angeli
The Girl with the Red Balloon
The Winged Watchman
Hilda van Stockum
The Princess Bride William Goldman
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children Ransom Riggs
Hollow City (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children #2)
Library of Souls (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children #3)
The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle #2)
Swiss Family Robinson (DNF)
Johann David Wyss
The Fallen Star (Billy Smith and the Goblins #2)
Robert Hewitt Wolfe
Carve the Mark Veronica Roth
This Tremendous Lover
Dom Eugene Boylan
The Fates Divide (Carve the Mark #2)
Ogre Enchanted Gail Caron Levine
We Are Okay Nina LaCour
Pippi Longstocking Astrid Lindgren
Skyward Brandon Sanderson
There are two complete series in there. I’d wanted to read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for some time, and when I finally did this year, I didn’t stop until I’d read the entire trilogy. (Book 4 wasn’t out yet when I finished.) I also finally got to Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth and immediately went into the final book of the duology, The Fates Divide.
I’d wanted to read both The Princess Bride and The Wise Man’s Fear for some time, and I finally got to both this year. I enjoyed The Wise Man’s Fear very much, but I’m beginning to fear The Kingkiller Chronicle will never be completed. And many consider the film The Princess Bride to be just as good, if not better, than the book, which is rare. But while both are fantastic, I enjoyed the book more, mostly for the details about young Inigo Montoya.
I had no idea Gail Carson Levine, one of my favorite authors, was releasing a new book this year, but I bought Ogre Enchanted as soon as I saw it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the conclusion of Dan Wells’s Mirador series, Active Memory.
Yep, I have a great big “Did Not Finish” in there. My son read Swiss Family Robinson for a book report, but I could not bring myself to finish it. Too many long passages that just described the ingenious ways the family survived on the island and not enough plot for me. The movie was better! (I don’t think I’ve ever said that before…)
I completed a couple of non-fiction books this year. Firefly Magic by Lauren Sapala taught me everything I know about marketing, which isn’t as bad as I thought it was! I strongly related to One Beautiful Dream by Jennifer Fulwiler, which chronicled her efforts to have both an artistic career (as writer and Sirius XM talk show host) and raise a large family. And This Tremendous Lover was one of the best spiritual books I’ve ever read. It is deep, but if you have the patience to slowly walk through it and soak it in, I highly recommend it.
I began the year with Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, and I ended it with his Skyward. And yes, I finished Skyward on December 31, so if I’d written this article early, it would have been incomplete.
And the winner is…
So which were my favorites? Which books I read in 2018 did I enjoy the most? There were three.
The Princess Bride is an absolute classic. It’s required reading for anyone who enjoys stories.
And while I enjoyed the heck out of the Miss Peregrine series, I think I liked Carve the Mark and The Fates Divide just a little bit more. The plot and world of Carve the Mark were just as awesome as Miss Peregrine, but I kind of have a word crush on Veronica Roth’s prose. I could read her books solely to study how she puts words together into sentences.
If you want to jump into the DeLorean and go back in time, here are my past reading lists: 2017 | 2016.
“Representation matters.” Google it, and you’ll find it’s a hashtag. It’s a movement. It’s a message. It’s the idea that all people have a place at the table. These two simple words have numerous applications. People of all races, nationalities, and income levels should be represented in democratic government. There shouldn’t be a gender gap in (to use my day job as an example) software development. And our stories should reflect the diverse world we live in, too. No, that doesn’t mean the characters of everystory must check off as many demographic boxes as possible. But nor does every hero in every story need to be Caucasian.
I’m a white, privileged male, so admittedly, this was a problem not immediately apparent to me. But who can forget this Tumblr user’s post about seeing Star Wars: Rogue One with her Mexican father?
When the film was over and we were walking to the car, he turns to me and says, “did you notice that [Cassian Andor, portrayed by Diego Luna] had an accent?” And I said, “Yeah dad, just like yours.” Then my dad asked me if the film had made a lot of money. I told him it was the second highest grossing film of 2016 despite it only being out for 18 days in 2016 (since new year just came around). He then asked me if people liked the film, I told him that it had a huge following online and great reviews. He then asked me why Diego Luna hadn’t changed his accent and I told him that Diego has openly talked about keeping his accent and how proud he is of it. And my dad was silent for a while and then he said, “And he was a main character.” And I said, “He was.” And my dad was so happy. As we drove home he started telling me about other Mexican actors that he thinks should be in movies in America. Representation matters.
The issue became much more personal for me when I had a conversation with a co-worker, Sarah, in which we got on the subject of Ghostbusters (2016). We talked about how we felt the film was underrated and about how many of its critics didn’t seem to critique the film itself but rather the fact that it starred women. And of course, we talked about how Kate McKinnon’s completely bonkers Jillian Holtzmann is one of the greatest Ghostbusters of all time. Of all time!
And then Sarah told me something that this father of three little girls will never forget.
She told me how, when she was young, she had all the Ghostbusters toys — the figures, the car, the fire station playset. “But,” she said, “it never even occurred to me that I could be a Ghostbuster since the Ghostbusters were all boys.”
Now I get it that no one, male or female, can wield an unlicensed nuclear accelerator and capture a ghost in ecto-containment. But that’s not the point. The point is: Sarah never even pretended to be a Ghostbuster because she’d never seen a female being one.
Now imagine if a young girl never sees a woman perform a particular real-life profession. Do you think that girl will say to herself, “Well, I’ve only ever seen men do that job, but I suppose I could do it, too”? Some do, for sure, but not all. Not even most. After all, there’s a reason women like Amelia Earhart and Elizabeth Blackwell are heroes.
And then it got personal But even after all of that, I’d only learned how much representation mattered to others. I still hadn’t personalized how affirming representation feels.
Then I came upon a particular paragraph buried deep in Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbriger. It’s a 1000+ page book, the third in an epic fantasy series that so far tips the scales at 3000+ pages, but this passage is the only one in the entire saga I’ve so far highlighted. This passage is written from the perspective of a relatively minor character, Renarin Kholin.
Renarin wears glasses. He’s soft-spoken and doesn’t like conflict. He’s curious. He takes his time before speaking. And this is how he sees himself:
Indeed, he still saw the world differently from everyone else. He was still nervous talking to people, and didn’t like being touched. Everyone else saw in each other things he never could understand. So much noise and destruction and people talking and cries for help and sniffles and muttering and whispering all like buzzing, buzzings.
And I felt it: the warm glow of representation. Because the person that was just described? That’s me. That’s totally me. Renarin Kholin represents me.
Another example: I read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell because I was intrigued by the idea of a story about a fan fiction writer. I don’t read many “chick lit” books — and by not many, I mean zero — but nevertheless, I adoredFangirl. It’s been a year-and-a-half since I read it, and I still think about it all the time. And the main reason why is the book’s main character, Cather Avery. She’s obsessed with the Simon Snow books (a thinly-veiled Harry Potter-like series). She loves to write. She’s shy. She stays home every Friday night. And she nearly starves at the start of her freshman year of college because she doesn’t know where the cafeteria is, and she’s too self-conscious to wander around looking for it, or worse, to — gasp — ask someone for help.
I feel so represented by Cather Avery. And it feels magnificent.
And that’s how I learned representation matters. Renarin Kholin is an introvert like me, but he’s also a Knight Radiant. If Renarin can do great, heroic things, maybe I can, too.
Cather is as withdrawn and as hard to get out of her shell as I am, yet she wins a prestigious award for her writing. So maybe my writing can find an appreciative audience, too.
The main character in my new book, Tomorrow’s Shepherd, also represents me in many ways. Fritz Reinhardt is quiet, a reluctant leader, and a lover of all things breakfast-related. His introspection and intuition make him something of an odd stick to most folks, but they also help him both change and save the world. My sincere hope is that real-life people like Fritz — people like me — can find in him a character they can relate to. A character they feel represents them.
Because for the love of St. Pete, this is important. Everyone deserves to have some stories in which they see themselves. Stories should show our beautifully diverse world as it is — and, where our world is lacking, they should show what it could be.
Stories can teach little girls that only boys can be Ghostbusters, or they can show those young women that they can be anything.
Welcome to the 2017 edition of my annual Henry Bemis article, in which I reflect on the media I consumed over the last 365 days.
I read 23 books last year.
The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks
Arena Mode by Blake Northcott
The Goblin Crown by Robert Hewitt Wolfe
Saturdays at Sea by Jessica Day George
Kingdom Keepers: The Return, Book 3: Disney At Last by Ridley Pearson
Ones and Zeroes by Dan Wells
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls by Raymond Arroyo
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Railsea by China Mieville
A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
Prototype D by Jason D. Morrow
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Between the Shadow and Lo by Lauren Sapala
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Will Wilder: The Lost Staff of Wonders by Raymond Arroyo
Uncertain Summer by Jessica Lee Anderson
Fairy Keeper (World of Aluvia Book 1) by Amy Bearce
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
The list would be longer, except near the end of November, I began reading Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson. And it is a Very Long Book.
Going into the year, I was especially excited for Kingdom Keepers: The Return, Book 3: Disney At Last by Ridley Pearson and Saturdays at Sea by Jessica Day George, as each is the conclusion of a series I’ve much enjoyed. And I liked both of those books, too, but neither one was my favorite in its series.
My two favorites were The Night Circus and When You Reach Me. Both are really unique takes on common fantasy elements — magic and time travel, respectively — and I thoroughly enjoyed both.
Ones and Zeroes and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre were reminders of why Dan Wells and Gail Carson Levine are two of my favorite authors. I’m at the point where I’ll buy any new book from either of them based solely on the byline.
Perhaps the most unlikely-for-me book on the list is Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, but it is one of the books that has stuck with me the longest. It might be the only one on the list this year that caused me to stay up way past my bedtime reading. Months later, I still remember specific scenes, and I’ve adopted some of Cather Avery’s phrases into my personal vocabulary. I adored that book.
I made it to a movie theater four times this year! That might be the most in-theater movies I’ve seen in a year since I was a teenager. Of the four, my favorites were Justice League and Wonder Woman. I really couldn’t pick one favorite between the two of them. Wonder Woman is undoubtedly the tighter, better-focused story, but the sheer fun factor of Justice League makes it equal. Plus, Justice League featured Superman giving The Flash a super-speed side-eye:
The other two movies I saw were Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Beauty and the Beast. I didn’t leave the theater dissatisfied a single time.
I wasn’t crazy about The Flash season 3, which I watched on Netflix. Savitar, Killer Frost, Doctor Alchemy… all of those aspects of the show were just OK or boring to me. But HR Wells was a gift to humanity. By far, he was the best Wells the show has featured yet. And the first half of season 4, which I’ve been watching every week on The CW? Amazing. The Thinker is the best villain the show has had since Reverse-Flash, and maybe better. This could be the best season yet.
Supergirl season 2 was good, but nothing like season 1. We finally got to see Superman, but we lost Cat Grant, at least for much of the season. And while Guardian is pretty cool, I think the writers have no idea what to do with Jimmy Olson anymore. I like Lena Luthor, though, and I’m glad she’s gotten a bigger role in season 3. But that’s about all the good I can say about the first half of season 3. It’s been OK. But Reign just doesn’t do much for me as a Big Bad. And why does Kara have to spend the season all mopey? Living Ray of Sunshine Kara is always the best part of Supergirl, along with the Danvers sisterhood.
Hey, here’s a game I play when watching Supergirl. See if you can spot all the times some kind of lame excuse is used to explain why Martian Manhunter can’t use one of his powers when that power would solve the current problem in seconds. “Darn, I can’t read their minds — they must have some kind of psychic shield!” “Would you look at that, I can’t phase through that wall for some reason. We’ll have to find another way in.”
The Crown season 1 was really great. Every episode left me eager to discuss it and to read Wikipedia articles about the real-life subjects. What I’ve seen so far of season 2 is equally good. Voltron seasons 3 and 4 were both excellent, but I wish they’d just kept them a single season. I especially loved the flashbacks to the creation of the lions and the original Alfor-led Voltron Force.
Stranger Things 2 is not on this list because I haven’t had a chance to sit down and watch it yet.
In 2018, the novel I’m most looking forward to is book 3 in Dan Wells’s Mirador series, Active Memory. In TV, I can’t get enough of The Flash season 4. I can’t wait to see how Barry’s fight against The Thinker ends… and at this point, The Thinker’s ultimate goal hasn’t even been revealed yet!
There is no movie I am more looking forward to than Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet.
It’s going to be a great year for people who like stories. Lord, please don’t let me break my glasses.
It’s the Christmas season, the season of hope. Around this time last year, when I finished the first draft of Tomorrow’s Shepherd, the sequel to Yesterday’s Demons, I mentioned how grateful I was to finish it at this time of year because hope is the book’s theme. It’s now one year and one draft later. I’ve spent a lot of that time thinking about hope, and I have some observations.
The three theological virtues, famously mentioned by St. Paul in the beautiful 1 Corinthians 13, are faith, hope, and love. “Everybody, everybody wants to love, and everybody, everybody wants to be loved,” as Ingrid Michaelson sings. I think faith is equally well understood. But I consider hope to be the most often confused theological virtue.
The Christian definition of faith is the belief in the truths God has revealed based solely on a personal decision to believe them. In a wider, more casual sense, it’s the belief in something despite a lack of physical evidence. The theological meaning of hope, on the other hand, is confidence in eternal life; its “pop culture” definition is, “I have no proof XYZ will happen, but I believe it will.”
Hope is sometimes incorrectly labeled as faith. “I have faith my team will win the championship!” No, you don’t. You hope your team will win the championship. This is a common confusion. Faith is a belief in past things you can’t see. Hope is the belief a certain future event will occur.
The most romantic of the three theological virtues is… well, it’s love, of course. But hope is a close second! Hope is at the very core of a lot of epic stories. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins is a living embodiment of Middle-earth’s hope for peace. Luke Skywalker is the embodiment of hope in Star Wars, and Rogue One teaches us rebellions are built on hope.
One of my favorite hopeful moments from any story is the ending of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Wish.” Cordelia’s wish for a Buffy-free world takes her to an alternate Sunnydale overrun with vampires. When Giles discovers Anya’s necklace is the talisman responsible for that dark world, he prepares to smash it.
Anya: “You trusting fool! How do you know the other world is any better than this?”
Giles: “Because it has to be.”
The opposite of hope is despair. And that brings me to my final observation. This world needs a lot more hope. We seem far more inclined to despair than to hope, and that’s sad.
I see this all the time in politics. I remember a co-worker in the early 2000s declared George W. Bush to be the worst President ever – “the worst!” I haven’t talked to that guy in some time, but I reckon since November 2016, he has a new candidate in mind for the “worst President ever” award, if you know what I mean. And Democrats aren’t the only ones who despair. Look at how many Republicans didn’t simply consider Barack Obama a President they disagreed with, but a President who was actively trying to destroy America.
Living in despair is no way to live. I’m not saying the injustices and challenges of the world should be ignored, but we should never see them as permanent or insurmountable. We should not despair, especially in this final week of the year.
This is the season of Christmas. This is the season of hope.
Yesterday’s Demons was not my first published work. That honor goes to Batman #455, cover dated October 1990. Did I write the main story in this issue? No. Did I write the backup story? No… it didn’t even have one. What I wrote and what was published in this issue was… a letter!
Dear KC and Denny,
I have just finished BATMAN #450 and I can only describe it in one word. WOW! The art was superb, as we have all come to expect from Jim Aparo, but the storyline was most excellent and intriguing. I could never imagine a Joker who couldn’t laugh at things, or refused to tell jokes. It will be very fascinating to see a three-way duel between the Joker, Batman, and Mr. Base. My only complaint is that Bruce shipped Tim off to Japan. Oh, well. I guess I would do the same after what the Clown Prince of Crime did to the old Boy Wonder.
Keep up the tremendous work — this is the best comic on sale today.
That right there is thirteen-year-old me trying to sound studious, professional, and about double my age at the time. If you want to know what I was really like at that age, check out the contribution I made to Uncanny X-Men #282 about one year later. Uncanny X-Men #282 features the first appearance of Bishop and the first appearance of my name in a Marvel comic. Here I am not making any effort at all to appear calm and rational. This is just me being the fourteen-year-old fanboy I was.
Concerning UNCANNY X-MEN #277, I can’t do a single thing until I write you on this issue. Incredible! First-rate! Phenomenal! Superlative! Gambit!
I know you’re sayng “Huh?” to this last remark, so let me explain. Gambit is my favorite X-Man and this issue featured him the most since #273, where the Wolvie fight was great. To see him say to the fake Wolverine, “Bang, you dead” nearly brought tears to my eyes. That’s how much I like Gambit. Keep him around for a long time, but keep him mysterious.
More reasons UNCANNY #277 was great. The script (“Bang, you dead”), the art (namely page 6, frame 7; page 19, frame 3, and, of course, page 24, frame 1), the return of Colossus in metal form (even if he is controlled by Shadow King. But could Piotr rejoin the X-Men? Please!), Gambit, Professor X’s return to Earth (do I see the leader the mutant teams need so badly?), Gambit, and Gambit.
You don’t know this, but I like Gambit.
So, make Colossus and Rogue X-Men again, and keep Gambit in the team. Or I’ll meet you in a dark alley and say, “Bang, you dead.”
Hoo boy, I should have won the Pulitzer for that one, shouldn’t I?
What I remember most about these letters is that I just knew both of them would be accepted for publication. I remember arriving at the comic book store’s parking lot the day Batman #455 was available and thinking to myself, “The letters on this issue’s editorial page will be about #450, and mine will be there.” And after I bought it, I remember returning to the car and just casually mentioning to my dad, “Yeah, so they published my letter in Batman.” And I just knew they were going to publish my Ode to Gambit in Uncanny X-Men, too. It was an early example of the intuition I would learn to listen to more often later in life.
Another memory of having these letters published was that they got me a pen pal! A man from Nigeria wrote me a letter after seeing my name and address published in Batman #455. I exchanged a couple of letters with him until the letters started to request that I ask “Mommy and Daddy” to send him money and American clothes. To make this easy for me, he even included his clothing sizes. It was like an early 90s, pre-Internet version of a Nigerian prince email scam.
I’m not sure whether or not they’re even still publishing letters to the editor in comic books these days. Maybe such discussion now takes place entirely on message boards and on Twitter. But having these letters printed in two of my favorite comic books sure was a thrill to me back when I was a teenager. And you know what? It still is.
When published five years ago, Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking opened the floodgates of articles, blogs, and more books on the topics of introversion and extraversion. For me, this discussion has been eye-opening and life-changing. I understand things about myself I never did before. It turns out I am profoundly introverted, so much so that I’ve earned perfect scores on “How introverted are you tests?” and ranked 90% introverted or higher on personality type surveys.
I read a lot about my fellow introverts and our challenges and victories, and I’ve found one common theme in particular that bears mentioning. This is purely unscientific, but in my experience, I’ve found that when it comes to parenting, introverts tend to favor small families. I feel like the ideal number of children for many introverts is zero to two. And I’ve definitely gotten the impression that anything considered a “large” family is nerve-wracking or downright horrifying for a lot of introverts.
So all that being said — hi, I’m the world’s most introverted introvert, and I am the father of six children. Being the highly introverted father of a large family carries with it lots of challenges, but even more rewards.
Noisy people everywhere, everywhen The number one challenge: you’re always with a large group.
One of the primary differences between extroverts and introverts is the effect of social interaction upon us. It’s energizing to extroverts and draining to introverts. Some introverts unwind after a day of work in a chaotic, loud, open concept office by going home and spending a quiet evening with their partner and children, or with a small group of friends, or — the introvert cliche — alone. This downtime is necessary. It’s how we recharge, so we’re able to return to our busy, busy, busy job the next day. But for me, there is no such thing as retreating home to myself or to a small group. I live with seven other people. Some days, I’m with smaller groups during the work day than in the evening.
My situation is perhaps compounded by the fact that all six of my children are nine years old or younger, and they’re perfectly normal for those ages — which is to say, they demand a lot of attention. They need interactions with me, guidance from me, fun time with me, discipline from me. They each need this every day, and not just for a few minutes per day. And did I mention there are six of them?
The lack of solitude or even small group time can be overwhelming. The demands put on my attention can be overstimulating. And then there’s the noise. My three-year-old and one-year-old are loud. They can’t help it. They don’t understand “inside voice” and “outside voice.” When they are angered or wronged, their reaction is always an 11; they don’t know how to respond at a lower, more subdued level. And as for the older children, sometimes they fight and yell loudly, as kids do, but most of the time they get along and play together with so much excitement they… still yell loudly. They shout when they’re excited, they all talk at the same time, and their raucous belly-splitting laughter is the best sound in the world… but it’s still loud. Regular, normal familial contact — conversation, a family meal — can be tiring at best and overwhelming at worst due to volume level and the number of overlapping voices.
Most meaningful relationships If my unscientific guess is right, and most introverts prefer zero-to-two children, I’ve just outlined a scenario that is highly unappealing to most introverts. If so, let me tell you, my fellow innies: you’re missing out.
Despite the challenges, I wouldn’t trade my situation for any other, and the primary reason why has to do with another defining trait of introverts: we crave meaningful relationships. We hate phoniness, we hate superficiality. Instead of idle chit-chat about the weather, we’d rather have a deep conversation about our innermost thoughts or dreams or those of others. By our choice, we may have far fewer friends than many others, but after we’ve decided on a friend, we go all-in.
Our spousal relationship is probably the deepest, most meaningful one we’ll ever have, but we all have at most just one spouse. (Well, except for polygamists, I guess.) Having a large family means having more of the most meaningful non-spousal relationships you’ll ever have: parental ones. Your relationship with your child is one in which the child is entirely dependent on you for physical care, affection, spiritual guidance, and education. Your children are young and innocent, and they want to hear and grok everything you have to say. It’s an introvert’s ideal relationship!
It is an honor and a privilege — and a great responsibility — that I get to provide an example to six little ones. Many introverts feel we’re misunderstood by society, possibly even marginalized. The thesis of Susan Cain’s Quiet is that the world has an extrovert ideal and doesn’t place enough value on introverts. As a parent, you get to change that… at least for your children. I try to show my children that a leader doesn’t have to be a tyrant and that words spoken softly can still have a loud impact. If we want the world to look at introversion and extraversion as two separate but equal ideals, we have to start teaching it somewhere.
How to focus outward when we want to focus inward? There’s so much more I could say on this topic, and I will. This is the first in a planned series of articles about being an introverted parent. This series is not intended to lecture anyone, or to tell anyone how many children they should have. I hope that it speaks to introverted parents with any number of children. This also isn’t meant to brag about how great introverts are, or about how great I am. Quite the opposite, it’s part of my self-discovery journey, because — confession time — I often don’t know what the heck I’m doing.
But here’s a hard truth that no amount of self-deception can change. While I might not like to admit it, left unchecked, selfish and self-centered is precisely what I can become thanks to my introversion. And being selfish doesn’t jive very well with parenthood, a rather permanent state of life that demands near-constant sacrifice for the well-being of your children, especially in their first couple of decades. So how can I balance the sacrifices I must make (and want to make) for my family, while at the same time reminding myself that self-care isn’t selfish and is necessary to keep me in a state of being a responsible, loving, unselfish parent?
If you’re an introverted parent, I’d love for us to figure out the answer to that question together. What are your biggest challenges? What brings you the most joy? Leave a comment here, send me a message on Twitter, or use the Contact page to send me a direct message.
I did my taxes last month. This was the first year I got to report royalty income on a 1099-MISC form, thanks to sales of Yesterday’s Demons. That was a nice problem to have.
Let’s take a look at the current status of my Project Tracker:
I’m 7% done with the second draft of Tomorrow’s Shepherd, but honestly, that number is a little high. I bumped the bar to that percentage last month after I thought the first two chapters were done, but then I spent the rest of the month going back through chapters two and three, fixing up a few more things. I’m still not done with those two.
I mentioned in my 2016 Year-End Status Update that for a while during the drafting of the book’s first draft, I experienced some writer’s doubt. I wasn’t sure what I was writing was Not Crap. Specifically, that time was while I was writing the book’s first few chapters. I’ve finally zeroed in on what the problem was. It’s a writing problem I’ve never had to deal with before.
Tomorrow’s Shepherd is the sequel to Yesterday’s Demons, so characters and plot points from Yesterday’s Demons will inevitably be mentioned. But I also want the book to stand on its own for readers who — for some odd reason — haven’t yet read Yesterday’s Demons. And since I like that book so much, I want to tell these new readers all about it. Or more accurately, I want my characters and narration to talk all about it.
But I don’t have to go into the incredible level of detail I want to. And it’s bad if I do. The problem I finally realized was this: the early chapters of Tomorrow’s Shepherd were just telling too much about Yesterday’s Demons, and it was slowing down the pace of the story. And that’s an especially big problem because Tomorow’s Shepherd starts with a fun three-chapter action scene.
To sort through the mess, I wrote on my whiteboard “TS Chapters 2 and 3 — justify your existence.” Underneath that, I wrote down every reference to Yesterday’s Demons in those two chapters. And once I did that, I performed a brutal analysis. Every reference on that board was only allowed to stay in the story if (1) it was absolutely necessary and (2) it was communicated at exactly the right time — no earlier, no later. If it failed the first test, I said to it, “See ya.” If it passed the first test but failed the second, I found a new, more appropriate place for that particular item.
This might sound like a dull exercise, but this is actually my favorite part of writing. It’s like refactoring in software engineering — all the code you need is already there, you’re just making it better via improved syntax and more accurate placement. So that’s what I’ll be doing for a while on this new book. I can’t wait for you to read it, but only once I make sure all of its elements are in the proper order.
I spent two weeks of last month in the best possible way: at Disneyland! My beautiful bride, our children, and I had a great trip to my favorite place in the world. It had been two years since we’d been there, and SoCal was calling to me. I love the drive across I-10 from Texas to California, through the beauty of New Mexico and Arizona, and right past the splendor of Joshua Tree National Park. While there, we stayed at our favorite vacation rental home, and besides Disneyland, we managed to get in a day at Huntington Beach. Overall, it was fantastic. I still wouldn’t want to live anywhere but Texas, but no matter how many times I go, California remains near the very top of my list of places I want to visit.
Oh, and this trip was the first time I’ve ever been able to experience that tiny slice of paradise called It’s a Small World Holiday. I have always loved It’s a Small World. I didn’t think it could get any better. But every December and early January, when the attraction is decorated for Christmas, and the dolls sing “Jingle Bells,” it does.
And then we got home, and I got back to work.
I’ve begun work on the second draft of Tomorrow’s Shepherd. I mentioned in my previous update how excited I am about that book and that excitement hasn’t ebbed.
You know what else I’m excited about? I recently hit a milestone with this blog. This is the 101st article I’ve published.Considering that at times I’ve struggled with what to do with this blog, that’s a big deal to me. I’m not a very social person, so it’s just not in my nature to step up to a microphone and start speaking to the world, which is basically what you do every time you publish a blog article. There’s also the simple facts that I’m a writer with a day job, and writing is a zero sum game — any time I spend writing blog articles is time I’m not spending writing my next book.
But one of my goals for 2017 is to get better at this. I’ve said it before, but it’s still very early in my career, so if you’re reading this shortly after it’s published, you’re one of My First Fans. And that means I want to stay in touch with you. I’m committed to checking in via this blog at least once a week, even if it is just to give the blog equivalent of a wave hello. Only after I do that will I allow myself to crawl back into my writing hole and get to work on my next story. Deal?
Are you a CNN viewer or a Fox News fan? Or do you prefer another news source like Huffington Post or the Drudge Report or the Daily Kos? My answer: none of the above. A couple of years ago I made the decision to stop watching TV news and stop reading online news sources, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Now you’re probably asking: Michael, why in the world would you do such a thing?
Or: just what kind of “head in the sand” ostrich are you?
I assure you, my decision had nothing to do with a desire to put coton in my ears and shout “la la la la.” It was about two things: sensitivity and productivity.
Try this exercise: look at the list of top headlines from either a major national news source or a local one and categorize them. Just now, I did this with a national news source and here are the results: politics, politics, politics, celebrity sex scandal, politics, politics, mass shooting, politics, politics, politics. Here are the results of the same exercise with a local news source: shooting, car crash death, fire, car crash death, attempted murder, charity event.
I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP). My brain processes information in a way that makes me easily overwhelmed by external stimuli. You might be annoyed by a noisy restaurant. The same restaurant will likely drive an HSP like me to a headache, an outburst of anger, or a shutdown. But more relevant to my lack of news watching is that being an HSP also makes me very emotionally reactive. Ask my wife about how I can tear up at a compliment. And please don’t even mention that old Hallmark TV commercial about the woman who mails her lonely, elderly neighbor a card. (Hang on, I have something in my eye…)
When I read news stories about murder and kidnapping and rape and torture, those stories have a profound adverse effect on me. And they should, HSP or not. But a couple of years ago, I noticed that they didn’t anymore. “Another school shooting? Twenty elementary school aged kids dead? That’s awful. Say, how about those Cubs?”
I’d become desensitized to the worst deeds of humanity. It all had become routine to me. I asked myself: Self, if I avoid the news for some length of time, can I resensitize myself to the plight of humanity?
Turns out I could, and avoiding the news for “some length of time” became “basically forever.” Today, I can’t read terrible news stories. I can’t read about a murder and keep a detached, emotionless perspective. When I read such stories, I can only imagine the plight of the victim and the feelings of his or her loved ones. And it is overwhelming.
However, there are things in this world that are both unpleasant and important to know about. I want to know if a serial killer has targeted my neighborhood, for example. By not reading the news, don’t I shelter myself from these important things?
No, because the world will make sure you don’t miss the important stuff.
Watching programmer and teacher Scott Hanselman’s one-hour productivity tips video, It’s Not What You Read, It’s What You Ignore, was life changing. His thesis is that to increase the amount of time you have available to work on and do the things you really want to do, you should flat-out ignore the things that don’t matter, like that stack of magazines you know you’ll never read, or the 100 CC emails in your inbox. And he insists that if you do this, you will you will not miss the important stuff. Why? Because if work is on fire, your boss is not going to tell you via an email you’re CC’ed on. She’s going to call on the phone! So why are you checking your email every five minutes on nights and weekends?
This principle also applies to the news. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but in the video, Hanselman says that he gets his news from the Subway sandwich artist who makes his lunch. “Whitney Houston died?” Hanselman says. “That sucks! Can I get a Diet Coke with that?”
Hanselman is right. I haven’t watched a cable news channel, a local news broadcast, or read any online news source for several years, yet I am aware of who won the recent Presidential election. I know that the UK voted to leave the EU. I know we lost Alan Rickman, Muhammad Ali, Prince, and too many others this year. But I didn’t learn any of this from YourFavoriteNewsSite.com.
Avoiding the news increases my productivity. I have more time to spend on things I enjoy and things that don’t bring me down, like reading or watching stories, or writing my own, or keeping up with what’s going on at Disneyland. And I don’t at all feel like Luke Skywalker standing all by his lonesome on Anch-To waiting for Rey to arrive.
I feel more meaningfully connected to people than ever before.
When I started this blog, I didn’t know what I was doing. I still don’t entirely, but I do know enough now to recognize mistakes I’ve made.
Here’s a big one: I chose to portray myself purely as a writer, with only one short line of my “About” page revealing the truth that I have a non-writing day job. Why? I felt that a writer’s website — that my writer’s website — had to project the image that the writer did nothing but write. I felt like it would be amateur and unprofessional to portray myself as a guy who works a day job but adores writing and does it on the side as often as he can.
But the truth is I am a guy who works a day job but adores writing and does it as often as I can. That’s me.
I projected this false image even though one of the things I dislike the most in life is phoniness. I crave genuineness in conversation, in emotion, in interaction with others. I spot attempts to cover reality or to put on an act a mile away, and they turn me off, big time. And I was doing just that when I wore an “I am a writer and nothing else” mask.
There was another reason I hid my true self on this blog, and it’s one I only recently realized. Unhappy with my job, I went out and got a new one last month. But upon deeper reflection, I realized I’d been unhappy at my old job for a very long time — probably well over a year. At first, the fact that I worked with some of my very best friends masked my displeasure, but as they left the company, there was nothing to dull the pain. I see now that this unhappiness led me to unconsciously deny “day job me” here on this blog because this is where I write about things that make me happy. Things like writing and stories. And breakfast cereal.
But now it’s July 2016, I’ve published my first novel, and I have a new day job with a new company I love, working with new people I already really like. With this new perspective, I need to declare myself.
There is a press conference scene at the end of Iron Man in which Tony Stark denies he was the guy seen in a high-tech suit of armor. He says he’s not a superhero, and that it’s crazy to suggest he could be one, all before his brain goes all what the hey and he tells the reporters, “The truth is: I am Iron Man.”
Well, the truth is: I am a software engineer. I’m actually a very good software engineer. And I’m not going to hide that on this blog anymore. It’s an important part of who I am.
Andy Weir, David Wroblewski, Ken Jennings… these are some of my brothers in words. Fellow writers. But each of them is (or was) also a software engineer, meaning they are also my brothers in code.
And because I shielded this part of myself for so long, I’ll reveal a little secret. Want to know how each and every engineer imagines himself or herself? We imagine ourselves like this:
I cannot do two things at once and do either one well. I try. Oh, life keeps making me try. But I am not a multitasker.
I’m a dedicated monotasker.
I can accomplish a lot of things. Give me a list, get out of my way, and I’ll conquer it. But I’ll do so one item at a time.
My preference for monotasking is evident in the activities I enjoy, like writing and reading novels, untangling and refactoring a messy bit of software code, or watching a marathon* of a great television show. If it is something I can get mentally involved in for a long time, losing all track of the outside world, blissfully sailing along in flow, count me in.
On the other hand, the days in which I have ten things to do and eight minutes in which to do them are the worst. When I find myself having to juggle multiple tasks for work, the demands of fatherhood, an unexpected incoming phone call, and do it all in a small timebox, that is the time when Cranky Mike is present.
A much larger study … found a significant negative correlation between media-multitasking and brain density in one part of the brain–the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved with impulse control, reward anticipation, and decision-making. What does that mean? A negative correlation means higher amounts of one variable (e.g. minutes of multitasking behavior) are strongly linked with lower amounts of another (e.g. brain density). Significant means the findings are unlikely to be explained by chance. Correlational studies like this don’t prove that one variable’s changes cause the other’s, by the way, but they’re important in the same way circumstantial evidence is important to a detective; following their trail can lead to stronger, causal evidence.
I knew I felt stupid when multitasking. I didn’t realize it may have been the multitasking itself that was making me stupid.
But as much as I want to, I can’t stop the world and melt with you. I’ve found a few coping mechanisms that work well for me.
Eliminate distractions. My work area is my garden of zen. Indirect but natural sunlight illuminates it. My wife planted flowers just outside the window. A small fountain of serenity and a natural scent air freshener provide a light kiss of nature (yes, there’s a window, but for much of the summer in South Texas, no, it is not open). But most important is my noise-cancelling headphones on which I’m usually listening to pink noise. Everything in the world except my task — my beautiful, lone task — disappears in this oasis.
Make a schedule. Part of me hates this. I can tolerate confinement to a room better than confinement to a time box. But it is also the only effective way I’ve found to ensure I get everything done in a day that I must. It helps that I look at my schedule as a very strong guideline, but only a guideline. If I’m in flow, and I don’t want to stop working a task when its time is up, I sometimes choose to keep working and figure out how to catch up later. And when I do have to toss something out of my agenda, undone? Well… I cherish those moments.
Declare yourself. I make it clear to others, firmly but politely, that I will only do one thing at a time. My children know the phrase, “Yes, I will do that for you, but you’ll have to wait. You’re on my list.” The same is true at work. “Yes, but not right now” is an OK answer to a request for your time. (Hint: it is also a good idea, especially at work, to set an expectation on when, if not now.)
Ferris Bueller said life moves pretty fast, and that if you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it. And he said it 30 years ago! Life is far faster today — Ferrari fast. Monotasking is an effective way to not miss life. You still live it to its absolute fullest. You just do it one thing at a time.
* The newfangled term for this is “binge watching,” but in my day, we called it a “marathon” and enjoyed the irony of applying the name of an incredible test of physical fitness and endurance to a couch potato activity.
For a while, I called last year “The Year of Hell” in a nod to the classic Star Trek: Voyager two-parter. I stopped using this moniker for a few reasons. First, it was pathetically dramatic. Second, it was wildly inappropriate when there are Syrian refugees and parents with missing children and victims of senseless gun violence in the world. Finally, it was wrong because pretty much everything that happened to me in 2015 was not just good but great.
But there was so much stuff going on at the same time, it left me drained and exhausted. Constantly. Hence: the Year of Fatigue.
We went on one of our best vacations ever (Disneyland, Los Angeles, and the San Diego Zoo – ah, California). We welcomed the arrival of our latest baby girl. We cleaned up and packed up our old house, sold it at a good profit, and used the proceeds to buy the newly-built house of our dreams. Rod Serling returned from the dead and wrote seventeen new Twilight Zone scripts. (OK, so that last one didn’t happen.)
The only problem is: all of this happened at the same time. Case in point: Rose and I signed the initial acceptance of the offer on our old house in her hospital room, hours after she had just given birth. I wish I was kidding.
It all started to take more of a toll on me than I at first realized. I even had two genuinely scary moments. There was the day I said to myself, “Nice weather for this time of year” only to realize I couldn’t remember what time of year it was. December? June? For about thirty seconds, I had no idea. At last, I walked to the wall calendar and learned it was April.
Just recently, in the midst of unpacking boxes at our new house, I had to call Rose out to the driveway to remind me how to release the parking brake from our car. I’d stared at the console for some time trying to remember how to do this thing I had done a hundred times before, and I simply couldn’t.
The Year of Fatigue. The wonderful, amazing, but oh so tiring Year of Fatigue.
Despite all of that, I managed to get a fair bit of work done, too. In my next “reflections on 2015” post, I’ll go into that. But for now… I’m tired.