February 2017 Status Update

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Ka-chow!

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.

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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?

Deus vobiscum.

I don’t watch the news

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Source: Muppet Wikia

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.

The Truth is: I am a Software Engineer

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.

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Photo by John Hain, licensed under CC0 1.0

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:

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Monotasking

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Photo by Karina Carvalho (https://unsplash.com/@karinacarvalho)

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.

I always knew multitasking was hazardous to my mental health, but I didn’t realize how detrimental it could be until a couple of months ago when I read about a study that found multitasking with electronic media might reduce your IQ.

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.

2015: The Year of Fatigue

Voyager-YearOfHellFor 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.

The Obsolete Man

Burgess_Meredith_The_Twilight_Zone_1961“The Obsolete Man” is a classic episode of The Twilight Zone in which a future totalitarian society puts librarian Romney Wordsworth (portrayed by Burgess Meredith) on trial for the crime of being obsolete. The State has declared books and literature to be illegal, hence his obsolescence. He also believes in God, which is punishable by death.

(Side note: if I used a pen name, I think it would be “Romney Wordsworth” because that is the coolest book-related name I’ve ever heard.)

A while back I read “21 Obsolete Household Items That We All Had 10 Years Ago” and it made me feel a little bit like Wordsworth because I still use several of the “obsolete” things on the list. Daily.

Several items on the list definitely belong there. My house doesn’t contain a single incandescent light bulb. I’ve never had a fax machine. And a Rolodex? Please. But I earn my obsolescence by possessing and using each of the following items.

Desktop Computers
I have a laptop but I use it sparingly. I much prefer my desktop PC. My laptop doesn’t have my Das Keyboard, for one. And my terrible eyes much prefer my two humungous screens instead of a single laptop one. One day I will have three screens. And then one day after that I’ll have more screens than Batman at the end of The Dark Knight when he scans every cell phone in Gotham to find the Joker.

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Home Phone
I only got a mobile phone when my day job insisted I have one. I still use and prefer a good landline to any cellular connection. Though I prefer texting or email over any kind of voice conversation because introvert.

Paper Shredder
Any piece of junk mail that comes to my house with my name and address on it doesn’t get thrown away, it gets shredded. I don’t know who’s going to pull that credit card application I never asked for out of the garbage and use it. It’s like Kurt Cobain once said, “Just because you’re paranoid / Don’t mean they’re not after you.”

China Cabinet
OK so this is a bit of a cheat because I don’t have a China cabinet. Yet. But my beloved Rose wants one and someday, we will have one. Because there is still a place in the world for fancy-schmancy dinners in which you can pretend you’re living in a Jane Austen book.

Oh, and you’ll pry my Drip Coffee Maker out of my groggy, oblivious, decaffeinated fingers.

I guess all of this means I’m pretty obsolete, like Romney Wordsworth. I can live with that. If I’m going to be one of Burgess Meredith’s Twilight Zone characters, better Romney Wordsworth than Henry Bemis. I can’t see anything without my glasses.

Tell me what makes you obsolete in the comments.

All Souls’ Day 2015

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I recently saw this cemetery. It’s for the sisters of Mount Sacred Heart in San Antonio. I loved it and thought it looked like a cemetery right out of a video RPG. It was small and every grave looked identical. It was like it wasn’t a real cemetery, just a few pixels used to represent a real one.

May the souls of those buried there and all the faithful departed rest in peace, Amen.