An Automated Year


This year robots took over my life. It's not just my book project, which is centered around robots that explore the universe, but also in my home. We got a Roomba, a couple of Nest thermostats, and an Amazon Echo and a few Dots for different rooms. Each of these devices has had a significant, positive effect in ways I never expected. Moreover, they've become weirdly anthropomorphized and are all but members of the family now, or at least, really interesting houseguests that refuse to leave.

I knew I'd love the Roomba from the very first time I learned they existed, so maybe my expectations were simply set that I'd like it no matter what. We call her—it—Margaret, after my beloved dog who died a couple of years ago. Margaret was always—always—at my feet, and the Roomba, for whatever reason, always seems to start her vacuum cycle in the kitchen, where I'm usually to be found standing around. In other words, she would bump into my feet as if to get my attention.

The joy of the machine, though, is the way she—it—I'm just going to stick with she—can be either programmed for specific times, or activated manually when I'm away from home. It's hard to describe the Marie-Kondo-like Zen that overtakes you when you come home to very clean floors. Previously, I'd vacuum regularly, but it's never enough when you have kids and a cat. (I'm allergic to cat hair.) Our beloved Margaret, though, is always on the job, and dirt and dust and dander never has a chance to settle before being sucked away. This means that while it lacks the out-and-out power of an upright, it keeps the floors clean through sheer attrition.

Not that it isn't powerful. This model (a Roomba 990, I think) is surprisingly heavy and its suction apparently very, very robust. Moreover, its storage canister is quite large, meaning it can easily vacuum most of the first floor of the house with little difficulty. Its design is ingenious. I particularly like the propellor-like sweeping brush that reaches every little cranny of the house, along baseboards and beneath cabinets, the feet of chairs and table legs, and so on. Uprights don't do that, and uprights can't vacuum beneath the furniture. Margaret can. She gets stuck on occasion. Our sofa is high enough from the ground in front that she can get under there and do the job, but the back of the sofa is a shade too low, and angled such that she can sometimes get wedged in there. I've since blocked this danger zone with a heavy marble beam that I had lying around from a remodel. It's hidden from view, and the Roomba touches it and turns around. Problem solved.

There's not quite as much to say about the Nest thermostats. I mean, they're thermostats—let's not get crazy. Of note however is how effectively they urge the user (my household in this case) to conserve electricity. When nobody is home, the air conditioners switch into eco-mode, which basically means they do not run. When people are home, because they are so responsive and easy to manipulate with smart phones (more on this below) and even the Apple Watch, it's so convenient to just say, "Ah, no one is upstairs. I will set the air conditioner to 80, or heater to 50." I particularly like the monthly emails that not only give you an "eco rating," but compare your household with others in the area.

The thing that has most changed our lives this year is the Amazon Echo, and Alexa, the artificial intelligence within. Alexa is wonderful. Alexa is everything that Siri promised to deliver, but never did. (Number of times I accidentally trigger Siri on a given day: 5,000. Number of times I want to trigger Siri: maybe 1, previously: "Siri, set a timer for 5 minutes"—a task supplanted by Alexa.) The problem with Siri is that she's just not really good at anything. Sports scores, I guess? Apple seems really proud of Siri's ability to tell you the score of the big game. "Siri, what is the score of the Saints game?" but if I have to take my phone out anyway, I'll just call that up on an app and get all sorts of great contextual information as well. Siri in a perfect world would be able to replace the announcers at sporting events. At present? She's just a slower way of getting staid information.

Alexa is most powerful when she is ubiquitous. We started with an Echo in the living room / kitchen. (It's an open floor plan.) You just say out loud, though not loud, really—you can whisper to her—"Alexa set a timer," and she sets a timer. (We do set a lot of timers, I guess. Cooking, homework, etc.) And you say things like "Alexa play NPR" or "Alexa play Frank Sinatra," and the whole thing is just so convenient, so good, so transparent that you find yourself talking to her like she's some really smart and plucky servant. "Alexa, how do I spell Cincinnati?" Or, "Alexa, play some study music." I've written previously about my love of Christmas music, and Christmas Traditional Radio on Pandora in particular. Guess what? "Alexa, play Christmas Traditional Radio on Pandora." And she does, and it's wonderful. And she can control that too. "Alexa, I don't like this song" or "Alexa, turn up the volume."

She also controls the Nest thermostat. "Alexa, set the hallway thermostat to 75."

Alexa, what's on my calendar today? Alexa what's the high? Alexa, play Jeopardy! (really).

The real power of Alexa is the way she can interface with other applications or devices. There's the Nest thermostat, but also things like Wunderlist (which I live out of)—"Alexa, add 'Write a blog post' to my to-do list," and there it appears—or with my car's computer system. "Alexa, lock my car."

One thing I never thought I'd use, ever, ever!, but find myself using quite often is the Alexa's shopping capability on Amazon. We always run out of coffee. Now when it's low, however: "Alexa, order more vanilla biscotti flavored coffee." / "Your order history says you previously ordered Folgers Gourmet Selections Vanilla Biscotti Flavored Ground Coffee, 10 Ounce. It costs $4.73. Would you like me to order it?" / "Yes!" And she does. Two days later it's waiting for me, courtesy of Amazon Prime and FedEx.

Eventually Alexa proliferated across our home. This works really well with Amazon Music Unlimited, which I feared would only allow a single stream at time, but seems to have no limit. People in different rooms can listen to whatever they want.

Does it do everything I want? Not yet. There are some pretty obvious things that I wish would be implemented soon. "Alexa, play Christmas music on all of my Echoes." That doesn't work. The devices, as best I can tell, have no knowledge of the existence of each other, even when they're on the same wifi network.

"Alexa, find a Christmas movie and send it to my Fire TV*." She doesn't do that, either, again, because she has no knowledge of other Amazon devices.

"Alexa, set the alarm on my daughter's Dot for 6:15 a.m." Again, no dice, because she has no idea that other devices exist.

The only other shortcoming I can think of is that she's not very good at carrying on a conversation. Once you issue a command or ask her to do something that she cannot, she's done. And you have to start over. "Alexa,...", "Alexa,...", "Alexa,..." It's a little too much like talking to a distracted child. It forces you to be a little too condescending. The beauty of Alexa is that she's more like a friend or a companion. When you have to keep demanding her attention, the balance of the "relationship" is thrown a bit off.

I expect these oversights will be solved eventually. I'd also love to be able to use them as a kind of intercom system—"Alexa, call my daughter's Dot." But features are added every month, and other companies seem pretty good about writing apps for Alexa, so I suspect the wait will not be long for these abilities and others that I've not yet considered.

In total, these things have had a really positive effect on our home. The Roomba was expensive, there's no getting around that, as were the Nest thermostats, though all of their prices seem to have plummeted during the Thanksgiving shopping holiday. The Echo was $179 when I bought it, which turned out to be an absolute steal not only for the features, but because the speaker on that thing is Bose-like. Just extraordinary sound quality. The Dots were $39 over the holiday, and we picked up a couple. I intend to get more when prices fall again.

Are there privacy implications for all of this? Yes, with an asterisk. The devices do not open connections with Amazon until you say, "Alexa." And as mentioned previously, she's a little too quick to stop listening. Could she be hacked? Could be be recruited by the NSA to learn the intimate details of my life? Probably. But considering the number of computers, smart phones, video game systems, tablets—even my cable box!—that have "always listen" capabilities, the truth is if They, however you define They, want to listen, they already can and already are. Amazon has a really good track record with security, and I'm going to place my trust in them until they give me a reason to do otherwise.

* Regarding the Fire TV: One thing the awesome convenience and utility of Alexa has done is brought us firmly into the Amazon ecosystem. We long ago gave up on the hokey Apple TV. There were too many apps that we wanted to try, such as Sling TV, Amazon Video, or FeelIn, that were denied on the Apple TV because the system was closed. (It has since opened up, though we're too far gone to look back.) We switched to Roku—we got one for free from Sling TV for giving it a try (we didn't stay with it because it lacked a couple of the very few channels we actually watch). Roku is wonderful! But Fire TV does everything it does, and also interfaces nicely with Amazon Music Unlimited, and Photos. So we invested in one. So far I'm pleased. I'm not a big TV person in general, but the device (the Fire TV, not television in general) hasn't yet offended me, and is smooth and light compared, again, with the clunky Apple TV (version 3, the last we tried).

[image credit: Six Colors]

The Day After Tomorrow

The city of Baton Rouge and the surrounding areas have just endured the meteorologic equivalent of a zombie movie. The flood, it seemed, came from nowhere, in all directions, patiently overtaking everyone and everything. There was no hurricane, no Weather Channel Special Event. No "Megastorm Rudolph" or whatever. It was a rainy day, and then tens of thousands of people became homeless and lost everything they owned. The floods seemed to have no logic behind them—places flooded that haven't flooded in centuries, if ever—places where it was not just improbable that flooding would occur, but laughable—impossible. It was like The Day After Tomorrow, the awful movie in which one day there is sudden global freezing, or something, due to climate change. I don't doubt climate change or its human accelerant, but when it does come, I doubt I'll go to bed in a humid Louisiana summer and wake up to find Antarctica in the backyard. But the flood was exactly like that. People went to bed and woke up to a foot of water in their house, and they weren't even the least fortunate of the victims.

But a zombie movie, that's what I've thought about this week. Because the flooding just seemed to happen, and in places that, to a layman, seems to have been in random places with no concern for elevation or location—here, not there, here and here and here but not one road over. It's like Poseidon was throwing darts. It didn't seem even to be related to the intensity of rain. So there's been a general feeling of: It's coming. They're coming to get you Barbara! This threat, inexplicable. You cannot outrun it. You can't prepare for it. Stack all the sandbags you'd like—the water will not relent.

In most zombie movies you see How It All Started. Some scientist playing God, or whatever, and then doomsday. But for most characters in such a movie, that's not how it happens. For them, they're eating breakfast and down the road come the zombies, lumbering along, hungry for brains. What do you do? Where do you go? That's the flood. And like any good thriller, the first thing you have to do is get rid of cell phones, because isolation is key to scaring someone. In Baton Rouge, AT&T was able to oblige, its wireless service collapsing immediately after the flood began. No calls in or out. You're alone and whether or not your family is flooded or trapped or dead is a terrifying mystery.

My house was not flooded, though it was just dumb luck that it didn't. Our number wasn't called. But I keep thinking of the people who lost everything. Very, very few of these people had flood insurance because they didn't live in flood areas. It would have been like having blizzard insurance, The Day After Tomorrow notwithstanding. And so they've lost everything they own, have no house, still have mortgages, and will get little to none of their money back from insurance companies. How do you recover from that? It's inconceivable. And yet for thousands of people, that's their life now. But it's so much worse than that, because businesses were flooded too, and aren't likely to open tomorrow, if ever. Now you're homeless, destitute, deeply in debt, and you don't have a job or income.

In truth, I've not paid much attention to the national news because when actual news is happening the national media is at its worst, the industry having long pivoted to a tawdry form of entertainment. Had reporters parachuted in, they would have sewn only the seeds of chaos, like foreign spies inciting Third World riots. But I was mortified to find a day after the city was submerged—residents desperately working to rescue neighbors, friends, family—that no major paper condescended even to mention on its front page the tragedy, the catastrophe, the liquid apocalypse that had befallen Louisiana. It was a clarifying event. Here is how little you matter. In truth, Baton Rouge and surrounding communities—obliterated Denham Springs, 80% of its residents submerged!—probably don't matter much to the rotation of the Earth. But simply as fellow countrymen, one would expect a tip of the hat. An empty gesture. No speech by the president. Nothing from the Dorito-hued con man running for president. A single tweet from Hillary Clinton, presumably the next president. Less than 140 characters of text. We didn't even rate a Very Special Edition of her propaganda podcast. Thanks Hillary. Baton Rouge citizens who are #withher know now that it's a one way #with.

But there again, it's been amazing?—I hate to use that word, but here we are—how meaningless the national spotlight has been. It's been a deliverance to avoid the stampede of politicians posing for photographs in shelters, their best Very Concerned faces plastered on. Will this look good on my website? This is the front of my reelection brochure. They're not here, and nobody misses them, exactly. It's just a principal thing. And to see the response of the community—you hear "everyone came together" and you roll your eyes, but here, that's exactly what happened. The moment the flood started, the Celtic movie studio opened one of its massive sound stages and started a shelter. Local fishermen raced their boats into subdivisions and down highways, going house to house, rescuing strangers. The Cajun Navy. Not because they were somehow directed or coerced, but because it needed to be done, and who else was going to do it? People used Facebook to ask for help, or to ask for someone to check on a loved one (AT&T was down when it was needed most!) and strangers in their boats would see the request, and steer toward the houses in question. This improvised emergency response—a bunch of guys in fishing boats, a film studio with an empty building, shared status updates on Facebook—was exponentially better than any "managed" disaster response I've seen in my lifetime. Please don't help us—we don't want another Katrina! Donation centers have sprung up everywhere—donation centers alone could have pushed the flood water away. My daughter and I went to Walmart to buy items to donate, and it was like the whole store was doing the same. People just pushing shelves of toiletries and baby items and foodstuffs into grocery carts to give away. So many people have volunteered that volunteers have been turned back. Those same volunteers took to social media to learn where help was needed, and went there instead. Roving bands of mercy facing down the zombie menace, the overnight Antarctica.

I don't know what happens next. Nobody does. School is back in session, which is good. But even in the letter from my daughter's school announcing the reopening, a sad aside: school is reopening in part so that parents can begin recovery efforts without also having to attend to the kids. The community will survive this, but it will take so many years. At least there is some clarity as to where we rate on the national scene, and the knowledge that whatever comes next, we can handle it.

Worlds That Weren't

Some mornings I drive around absently in search of a place to work. It is a passive act, and I find myself making turns the way I imagine flocks of birds decide to veer left or right. It is a blue feeling to the extent that there is feeling at all, something to do with, perhaps, some fear that the work is transitory? The rational part of my mind prevents any of this from becoming disquieting, though. My career is fine, my health is fine, my life is fine. But it all changes. We get older. I get older. It is deeply unsettling to scroll through one's Amazon order history. I did this recently. Things bought, clothes, books, shoes, trinkets. I scrolled back a full decade. For each item I could summon some very real hope or need or intention that I felt at the time. I will wear these shoes to do something important. I will buy this camera and learn photography. A nice belt for some party I might attend. Maybe I could start wearing suits every day. A microphone to start a podcast. The lives born in my mind—lives that never came to pass. Why didn't they? Time. Practicality. Why did I buy that bandana? Did I think it would make me David Foster Wallace?

These are the tabs open in my web browser. A recipe for mini tiramisu; 5 vibrant takes on classic hummus; Operating System Development Series; The little book about OS development; Beyond Hubble: Meet the Telescopes of Tomorrow; How to Make Twitter Actually Useful; 23 Foods You Can Make in a Muffin Tin; Cake Batter Waffles; 7 Recipes You Can Make in a Coffee Mug. Why do I want to make so many foods using unorthodox cookware? And do I expect time to present itself during which I might develop a hobby operating system?

Such frivolous tabs, purchases, and coffee shop flocking do not carve much into my productivity, and they might even enhance it. A temporary workplace that sparks joy. Nice shoes that I have worn, and will wear again. The flash of whimsy that lights some tiny part of my brain when I think about making a chocolate chip cookie in a coffee mug. Perhaps the doomed little worlds we all spin into being make the one in which we actually live a little easier, a little better. We try them out, these tiny singularities, and live them out in the time it takes to finish a cup of coffee. And then they are gone, and we get back to the business of life, and trudge along on our distinct little paths.

Career Day

MFA graduates and self-publishing evangelists have really poisoned the well on writers talking about being writers—not that the water was ever really potable, exactly. It's a strange job to discuss with non-writers because there are certain expectations there, both good and bad, that don't apply to "IT specialist" or "salesperson." I mention this at all because I recently participated in a career day at my daughter's school and had to describe my job to middle and high school students. My talk was not particularly inspiring for a lot of reasons. It was too process-heavy: "Here's how querying works," and such, which nobody really wants to know how to do. Not even writers. People want "writer stories"—something to fit the mysterious mold shaped by the forgotten generation. In retrospect I'm not sure how I could have better organized the talk. How do you become a writer (as opposed to a typist)? You become a servant of the written word. You read all the time. You put a straw into the largest puddle of life and literature you can find, and drink until full, and then drink some more. You spend your life trying to apply to your pages what you've learned from the pages of others. That's it, I suppose, though it feels a little grandiose to spell out.

"What do you write?" is a hard question for me to answer. I write as widely as are my interests, and deeply in select areas, but there is a lot of mercenary work in between that requires very little puddle drinking, and in my more sullen moments, I want to respond, "Of the stuff that I'm proud of, or including the shit that I also have to write to pay bills?" Still, I would never submit work to editors that I am not proud of in terms of the quality of prose. (What editors do to it is something else.) The very notion of slapdash writing is abhorrent to me, and I am perplexed by the endless army of writers who leap from bed every morning eager to grind out disposable "content"—there's no greater profanity—or write 20-lists punctuated by animated cat GIFs. This massive Internet organism chasing down clicks. The reason the Buzzfeeds and Fusions of the world have pivoted so effortlessly to video is because they never gave a damn about prose in the first place. (Buzzfeed's longform section excluded.)

I've never understood people content with just doing a job. There has to be some grand purpose and wild, far-off ambition, and when one looks back on his or her life, it has to have been about more than money. I've never not wanted to sink my hands into the planet's soil and pull madly until it spins a little faster. That is a big part of the reason that I think I get the people who work in the space industry, from janitor to scientists. A couple of years ago, there was a piece in the Washington Post about the men and women who built the A-3 test stand for NASA's Constellation rocket. (I've written about test stands here.) Welders and machinists and such—blue collar workers of the sort who built America and keep her going—and they were just in doleful disbelief that Constellation was canceled and their work discarded. They built the test stand that would take humanity to Mars! If you are a welder, is there a greater possible achievement? (Is there a greater achievement for any trade?) And they did it. And the White House shut it all down and built fences around the test stand and locked the whole thing up. The SLS, which replaced Constellation's rocket system, is incompatible with it. My heart breaks for these people. When I toured NASA Stennis, the test stand's only acknowledgement as we passed by, in fact, came from another passenger on the bus: "Poor A-3." On we drove.

Surprisingly often, when I interview people in the space program, they apologize for sounding too lofty. There is no need for such apologies. If your job is the exploration of the Jupiter system, and your goal is to unlock the mystery of life itself, you are entitled to a little loftiness, because there is no loftier calling. My own far-off ambition is simply too great to put publicly in print, but my higher purpose is the American literary tradition. To write something worthy of being included, and maybe being remembered—something to justify the privilege of having written it in the first place. Most writers have some goal. The big scoop, the definitive take, the scandal revealed, the injustice righted. Those things matter to me, but nothing matters more to me than the words themselves, and their employment and poetry in telling the story. Batman can bring justice to the world, but can he do so in well-ordered paragraphs? I probably should have talked about all this during my presentation.

** The classroom scene in City Slickers is to me the definitive representation of career day, and though I didn't collapse entirely into a midlife crisis during my talk, it did occur to me how close I now am in age to Billy Crystal in that film. He seemed impossibly old when I first saw it in grade school, and here I am. If I am totally honest, I could probably use a cattle drive to sort out things in my head.

Neal Gabler and the Hungry Writer

This month, Neal Gabler has a piece in The Atlantic wherein he discusses the perilous financial state of Americans and describes openly "his secret shame"—his personal financial woes. It's one of the more unnerving things I've read this year, if only because Gabler's biography of Walt Disney sits on my nightstand (it's a masterpiece) and as a writer, I just assume that if you can produce something like that, you can do anything, and you do so from your other apartment—the one in Montparnasse that you bought because you liked the tree out front. Gabler is a consummate writer, skilled with the pen and willing to do the hard work of research to make his journalism sing. When I think of the challenges that must come with researching Walt Disney's life, I lapse into silent awe that it's even possible. Such research involves more than the basics, or even the extraordinary. Rather, it involves a lone scribe doing battle with the most powerful media company in human history. Walt Disney isn't just a man, but a brand and an American ideal akin to Washington or Lincoln. (Disney himself recognized this, and it could be a source of anxiety and exhaustion for him.) The Walt Disney Company, which I admire greatly, has a vested interest in keeping its namesake a secular saint. I imagine that the company did not exactly meet Gabler with open arms, and yet Gabler successfully unveils Disney the man, great and good in the best ways—Walt Disney was a truly good man—but also flawed, complex, moody and sometimes selfish, searing and tyrannical.

Maybe the aura of Disney extended, as I read the biography, around Gabler, just as we see the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty and cannot help but apply that same sense of intrinsic wonder to Gustave Eiffel. Of course Gabler is a colossus! Of course he's flush, his only concern being the business end of a word processor. But we now know better. It's not like this isn't without precedent. Nobody thinks of Hemingway in Paris and recalls that he starved while there, pennies to his name, but that was the Paris he knew.

Gabler's piece has been like a wrecking ball coursing across my brain for weeks now. While I will not reveal my personal finances (unlike Gabler, who puts it all out there in heroic detail), I will submit that I'm doing OK. I write a lot—approximately 1,000 publishable words a day for a half-dozen outlets, not counting my book work, commonplace writing, or correspondence—despite my living in the middle of nowhere (a place, it must be said, where the cost of living is low, taking my income even further). Still, I worry constantly about money because my daughter attends private school and I expect of myself to be able to provide her a first-rate education now through the end of her college career. (There is a 1% and concomitant "social network," and my goal in life is to enable her to be a part of it.) Moreover, like many, I live with an acute, chronic case of imposter syndrome, ever in expectation that my house of cards will collapse and I'll have to figure out how to begin again. I want to die in front of Microsoft Word (in 40 years or so); I never want to go back to the myriad jobs I held previously (however tempting it might be to don a Starbucks apron and tell some of my younger, inexperienced editors to fuck off).

Buddhist scholar Jack Kornfield has spoken eloquently about such fears, using the example of being chased by a bear. When you are being chased by a bear, he says, you're not worried about being chased; you're worried about being caught. When the bear catches you, you're not worried about being caught; you're worried about being eaten. When the bear starts eating you, you're not worried about being eaten; you're worried about being killed.

And so when I read that Gabler would have trouble coming up with $400 in cash if asked, I wonder what my own future holds. I am not a financial wizard. I'm barely a financial street magician. Certainly, I am talented and have had extraordinarily good fortune, but what about next year? This is a high stakes business whose fortunes are ever in flux. Melville died penniless, and he's the greatest author to ever live. How fast is the bear running? Will it catch me, and what happens then?

On Jury Duty

In terms of timing, this week was as good as any for jury duty. I've been attempting Will Bowen's challenge detailed in A Complaint Free World (excellent book), and so I've tried not to complain about being called. I've largely failed in this task, though the actual experience of serving on a jury was interesting and awkward and something just shy of rewarding. I was summoned to the 19th Judicial District Court in downtown Baton Rouge on Monday and did so. The initial "jury room" is more like a jury auditorium, and was filled with what seemed like hundreds of prospective jurors. That in itself amazed me, as there is no way for the court to track who did and did not receive a summons. You don't have to sign for it; it just appears in the mail like a spider. I was momentarily tempted to just toss it and take my chances, but in the end, the fear of getting pulled over for speeding and then getting hauled away in cuffs for an outstanding bench warrant seemed too high a risk to take. If I'm going to get arrested in this town I want it to be for something interesting. (I kid! I want it to be for something boring that I'm immediately acquitted of.)

Nobody in the jury auditorium was in good spirits. It was like a giant waiting room at the DMV, and the whole process seems like punishment for being on the voter rolls. (That's the list from which names are drawn, apparently.) It seemed to be a representative sample of the city with respect to race, gender, and age, which was encouraging. At the start of the day, one of the court's judges entered the room and acted as a sort of master of ceremonies. He was quite skilled as an entertainer and he did liven spirits a bit. (I didn't get his name—my spirits weren't that livened.)

After his little opening standup act, the jury administrators got down to business, asking everyone with a legitimate excuse for missing jury duty to line up around the auditorium. It was a blockbuster crowd, each person in possession of reasons to be anywhere but there. I had no such excuse and did not line up. Also, even if I did have an excuse, I feared that I'd just be rescheduled for summer or some busy time of the year. Like I wrote above, this was as good a week as it was going to get.

The next five hours involved waiting. Projection screens were lowered and we were all treated to a movie starring Kevin Bacon, in which he plays a Marine Corps officer charged with bringing home the casket of a fallen fellow Marine for burial. I didn't get the movie's name. The 30 minutes or so that I saw were surprisingly moving and compelling. Actually, I think it was the best performance I've ever seen Kevin Bacon give. But there was an adjacent quiet room, so I absconded there in hopes of getting work done, which I couldn't because there was no Internet access, and my cell phone couldn't get a signal through the stealth bomber material from which they apparently built the courthouse. So I read a book I had brought. (Moby-Dick, for the nth time. If you haven't read it, it is not the book you are expecting! Read it!)

At 1:30, if I recall correctly, my name was called and I reported to Judge William Morvant's courtroom on the eighth floor of the building.

Some thoughts:

Judge Morvant and his bailiff are an enormously charismatic duo and have a lovely repartee. He strikes me as a judge from central casting. Aged but not old, balding with graying hair—a very distinguished look—and he spoke carefully but also thoughtfully. He has the soft hint of a "river" accent suggestive of the where my mother grew up.

Note to television producers: If you need a new courtroom celebrity, this is your guy.

Approximately 30 prospective jurors were seated, and 12 at a time were brought to the jury box and were interviewed by the judge and the two lawyers. Tell us about yourself kinds of questions: name, marital status, job, and whether we had served on a jury before. I had not. Then the lawyers interviewed the jurors to weed out the ones who might work against them. "How do you feel about personal injury lawyers?" was one question asked that tipped immediately the case to come. Later, "How do you feel about insurance companies?" by the defendant's counsel, if I recall. They asked also whether any of us had pending litigation, and if we'd ever been in car accidents, and so on. Everyone eventually chosen agreed that we could be fair and impartial.

This questioning lasted a couple of hours, and I was chosen despite my questioning the concept of "sympathy," which you're not allowed to have but what I consider to be a challenging sort of rule because as human beings we make instant and enduring value decisions about everything and everyone. See this commercial:


So anyway I asked about this and the judge explained it quite well I think—something to the effect of not using a verdict as an opportunity for revenge—"We'll send a message!" or "He seems like a nice guy. Forget the evidence; he's OK to me." I may have misunderstood all of this, but it's what I took away from it. I remain convinced that lawyers are in the sympathy business and this is rule requires enormous hair-splitting when it applies to personal injury cases where there's no visible injury (e.g., a severed leg).

This was a civil case. The plaintiff was suing for medical bills and emotional distress resulting from a car accident—you get the picture based on the "feelings about personal injury lawyers" questions above. I don't want to go into much detail about the case, not because they aren't intriguing, but because I'm not really interested in relitigating it here, and because the deed is done and there's no reason for me to pile on.

I will say this, though: the defense lawyer was a genius. It's been a really long day, I'm quite tired, and I can't recall her name, but it will come to me in due course and I'll update it in the morning. [UPDATE: Valerie Bargas. If she's your opposing counsel, settle. Actually, run. Drop your case and just apologize for... everything.] She was a shark. She dismembered pretty much every witness called by the plaintiff, seemingly effortlessly, and then proceeded to remove the still-warm organs from the carcasses left behind. The plaintiff's counsel seemed to have an aw-shucks, kind-eyed "I hate to even do this to the poor defendant" pose, and it was effective at times, but overall, when Bargas spoke, it was with surgical precision—surgery performed with a steak knife, mind you—and was so compelling that you couldn't help but wonder what she'd do next.

"You're claiming losing 'joy of life.' Interesting. So we looked at your Facebook profile and..."

Again, you get the idea.

So the proceedings more or less lasted for two days, and on the third day we deliberated.

Not long after entering the deliberation room, it became Thunderdome. The comity of the previous two days vanished almost immediately when the requisite number of nine jurors discussed their opinion of the evidence and agreed right away that the injury claimed by the plaintiff was pre-existing, and that he was not entitled to $875,000 he claimed necessary to make him whole again. He was basically asking us to hand him a winning lottery ticket by ruining another man's life. That and the evidence of his previous injuries meant he didn't meet the "preponderance of the evidence" standard we were ordered by the judge to weigh.

The vote was 9-3—repeatedly taken just to be sure that nobody wished to change his or her mind—and one of the three was then infuriated at our decision that the plaintiff's injuries were preexisting, and thus the defendant was not at fault. (This was the plaintiff's third lawsuit against someone with whom he had been in a car accident, and each time he sought medical treatment, he only did so on recommendation from his lawyer, and only with doctors the law-firm preferred. I mean come on.)

There was shouting in the jury room! "I HAVE INJURIES AND MAYBE HE DOES TOO!" Incoherent shouting and tears! "I'M IN PAIN RIGHT NOW BUT I JUST TRY TO BE NICE TO ALL OF YOU!" It was a bit childish, but more like a really bad attempt at manipulation. She wrote a note to the judge, though insisted that nobody read it, so I do not know its exact contents, and nothing really came of it. Another juror shouted back something, and there was a back and forth, and the matter was already settled anyway so we just pressed on with the paperwork and alerted the bailiff. Meanwhile she (i.e. the upset juror) demanded to see the medical records (her right), but the records then provided were literally thousands of pages long, and even if someone wanted to read them, we're not doctors and no matter how hard we studied the MRIs somewhere in that paper mountain, nobody was going to point thoughtfully at it and say, "Hey guys I just noticed something. Check out the thickened ligamentium flavum here—I—I have a better diagnosis!" This isn't House. With respect to medical details, we relied on the expert testimony of physicians for the plaintiff and the defense. That's why they were there, after all. I'll add also—maybe I will re-litigate this after all—if you have a problem about which your doctor says, "I can fix this, but it'll take 10 years and half a million dollars," find a better doctor.

Not on our jury.

But the shouting. So what made it so much worse was that after the jury room went weird with this hysterical clownish shouting at the injustice of it all (even though justice was being served per the law after honest discussion by all jurors), it was lunch time and we had to sit in the jury room for an hour in awkward silence (the angry dissenter mumbling endlessly about everyone else, as she perused the medical records, not really reading, but really wanting all of us to know that she was reading—she never did produce some new evidence or even then try to persuade anyone) and eat our little salads and burgers.

What did I take away from this. First, I hope I'm never again in a car accident, because I'm one litigious party and a one bad jury away from losing everything I own and then some. $875,000 is total financial ruin. After the woman lost her mind, a collective "southern mentality" kicked in, and everybody wanted her to know that, no, we really do think you're a nice person (she said nobody liked her, which we did, an hour earlier) and that no please, tell us again everything you just shouted fifteen times. I began to worry that people would just start to agree with her simply to make her feel better, which really would have been a miscarriage of justice. (Again: let's ruin this guy's life because an unhinged person didn't take her lithium this morning.) If we wrongly went down the injury road simply to console this person, I cannot imagine how many weeks we would have been in there debating over how much "Loss of Joy" money the guy was now entitled. ("FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS? I'M IN PAIN! YOU CANNOT PUT A PRICE ON MY PAIN! But it's closer to three hundred thousand.")

Second, the jury experience is not horrible, but not something I'd like to repeat. How I feel for the jurors on six-week murder trials! (To be clear: everyone on the jury had a chance to speak their feelings and thoughts without interruption. It was all carefully considered, but the defense just had a much stronger case.) Third, at least in the case of Judge Morvant, the courts really seem to be run by men and women who care about justice and who want the system to work, and want us to leave believing that. And I think we did. But I don't think it always work, and I think that personal injury lawyers are very good at their jobs, which gives me pause when I consider how predatory some of them have reputations for being. The good news is that I can't be called for jury duty for the next two years. And I have the name of a good lawyer if some guy tries to sue me over a minor accident.

Parenthood and Checkmates

This weekend my daughter participated in her first chess tournament. More accurately, she participated in our first chess tournament, as my chess tournament experience is non-existent. The whole thing was a bit tornadic for me, my emotional winds driven primarily by pride and love and fear. I loved chess in middle school, and especially as a high school student, but the idea of participating in a chess tournament was somehow beyond my reach. I knew they existed, and where they happened, and when they happened, but my insecurities were (and are) too great, and the whole thing seemed like something other people do. This was despite my membership in U.S. Chess and enthusiastic participation in the Internet Chess Club. I desperately wanted to be a part of the chess community, but taking the leap required some inner strength or certainty that I lacked entirely.

(Playing online was no problem, though it wasn't really possible until I was in high school, when Internet service providers proliferated. I wonder about millennials, who always had the Internet [and at high speeds!]—whether a nontrivial percentage of that generation wasn't marred by growing up entirely in a secure, antiseptic online environment. The monstrous behavior of online gamers is perhaps a result of this; children playing with friends without ever leaving their bedrooms, or even meeting them face-to-face. It is play without the risk of rejection and free of consequence for words and deeds. My daughter's generation is therefore suffering a kind of overreaction to this. We're foisting our own insecurities on them—insecurities about ourselves, and about the causes of what we see as a lost generation.)

My daughter somehow discovered chess at school, and asked to join the school chess club, and the whole thing caught me off guard and I am thrilled by this turn of events, of course. I bought her a regulation chess mat and weighted pieces, and an obnoxiously pink chess bag because she likes pink, and on some level, I guess, to make some kind of political statement that she's too young to make. I fought wars on my own mat in my youth, and I hope hers lasts as long. (My chess clock wasn't so sturdy and I replaced it with a $20 job I found on Amazon.)

I've tried to remain cool about all this, but it's hard because she's surprisingly good and really seems into the game. She pesters me constantly to play, and I always do when asked. For the last couple of months, a board has remained unfurled on our kitchen island, and we sneak quick games in before school or between homework assignments. When her chess coach informed the team of a tournament, I asked him (when she was out of earshot) if she would embarrass herself by participating (I had no idea how kids her age played or how experienced they were) and he said no, that she was more than ready. I later asked her if she wanted to play, and she said "Of course!" and that was that. We were on our way.

It was held at a local middle school*. Honestly, the setup was just like you see on TV: a giant auditorium (in this case a gymnasium), tables as far as the eye can see, and thousands of chess pieces arranged neatly and ready for battle. (Her age group didn't use a clock, though she's become quite adept at managing time and would have done fine with one.) Here is how a tournament works, logistically, from the point of view of a parent. We arrived 30 minutes before the tournament began and signed in. (We had pre-registered.) She was given a name tag of the Hᴇʟʟᴏ ᴍʏ ɴᴀᴍᴇ ɪs variety. Everyone—parents and players—gathered in the gymnasium bleachers and waited for the official start. The tournament director—an enormously charismatic man with a deeply held belief of chess as a force for social change—spoke briefly, thanking the volunteers and sponsors for making the event happen. He also explained the rules of the tournament to a room of nervous young people from grades first through twelfth. Kids asked questions and he graciously answered them. (Note: I didn't get his name to my great regret; if you happen to stumble upon this page and know, please contact me.) He then explained the rules for parents. Basically, there was only one: no talking. At all. No—taking—at—all in the tournament hall. In previous years, parents weren't welcome in the playing hall, but this year was a bit of an experiment. For what it's worth, I would prefer, for sake of the players, that parents again be expelled from the room at the tournament's open. By and large, everyone remained quiet over the course of the day, but frequent trips in and out of the auditorium meant the opening and closing of doors, which sounded like cannon-fire amid the silence.

After the Q&A, kids were assigned to tables based on their ages and skill levels. My daughter was at the "K-2" table for the youngest children eligible to play. (I cannot figure out what K means, exactly. Kindergarten is the obvious guess, but the other tables were K-5 and K-10 and so on. So I have no idea.) The kids were called by group (with groups being labeled on their name tags), and where they might sit was determined by staff at the tables themselves. I couldn't hear anything going on, and could only scarcely see, so far were we from the kids. (A line on the floor became a demarkation point: no parents could cross, to prevent us from distracting our kids. This was a very smart decision, though like every parent with a smartphone, I wanted desperately to get a picture of a games in progress.

An exterior room was set up for parents to play games of our own, or eat or read or work or whatever. We were all encouraged to leave. I did not. I couldn't see my daughter, and on her behalf, I stood (I was too anxious to sit) and willed her to have fun and hoped that she would do well. (Before we arrived, I didn't know what to expect, and told her that even losing every game wouldn't be something to be embarrassed about. That she was young and many had been playing games much longer than her, and that our real job was to just learn what tournaments are like. When she expressed nervousness, I asked her if she knew how to play chess, and she said yes, and if she had fun playing chess, and she said yes, and said that there was nothing to be nervous about, then. She would get to spend the day playing a game that she enjoys! She seemed to like this argument, and expressed no further anxiety.)

Once the games began, I remained largely in the dark. The first game was a total mystery, as was the second. On her third game, she had moved to a different seat at the table, and while I couldn't make out the game or the position of pieces, I could see her hands and the confidence with which they moved, and knew right away that she was in command on the board. She handed some little boy his ass. Her chess coach had a better view of things, and said that it appeared she was doing very well. He pointed out that she was no longer sitting. She was on her feet and "in the zone," moving pieces decisively and, for the most part, effectively. When I saw her face and the way she leaned into the board ready to pounce—a four-foot Garry Kasparov—I could see that she was happy. She was having fun. She was having a great time playing in a chess tournament!

Meanwhile, on the sidelines, I attempted to maintain a poker face and hide any anxiety I might be feeling. I'm not sure what I was nervous about, exactly, or even what my feelings really were. While I tried to work through this, I felt immense pride at how effortlessly she settled into the tournament. The games were played in a round-robin format, and she played 6 games in addition to others for fun while waiting for the next game to begin. She seemed to be in her element. Two and half hours of chess concentration is an exhausting business. I was moved by how smart she is, how old she's getting, and how few years remain before she goes off to make a mark on the world. In a way, the tournament was like a little glimpse of the future. Parents couldn't go anywhere near the players, and that was fine, because they didn't need us! That was a hard reality to consider: adulthood, and her leaving the nest.

In many ways my daughter and I are alike, but she differs from me in one big way: she can fit in with any group of people. She knows how to say hello and get invited to do what they are doing. It's a beautiful thing to see.

At last the tournament ended, and she met me for lunch. (We brown bagged it, though there was jambalaya for sale from the gym snack bar.) She told me about the games she played, and that she had fun, and that she won some and lost some. She was in great spirits, though a bit fatigued from the play. We ate—I even grabbed her a box of Girl Scout cookies that we're selling. After lunch and before the awards ceremony where we would get the results, the tournament had set up a craft station for the young players, and they were able to decorate little paper crowns with jewels and such. She enjoyed that as well.

Parents packed the ceremony. When the director got to her section, I stopped breathing, I think. Then they called her name. She had earned Third Place, which came with a lovely trophy topped by a knight. I was over the moon. She was thrilled, too, but not entirely. After pictures were taken of all the winners (she was one of the only girls to place in the tournament), she told me what was bothering her. She had seen a beautiful marble buried in the dirt along a sidewalk, and wanted desperately to get to that buried marble before someone else dug it up. To the marble we went. We used a twig to excavate it, and when she finally had her trophy and marble, she beamed. She has greater perspective on the "importance" of these things than I can ever hope to have. And she's still my seven-year-old, with a few years left before she's off to college. We celebrated with ice cream.

Amelia with chess trophy and marble

(*About this middle school. It was Scotlandville Magnet Middle School, and was very clean and nice—the kind of school any parent would be thrilled to find when moving to a new area. [We are not changing schools; we're all-in for Baton Rouge International School through 12th grade. As a taxpayer, however, the quality of schools in the area matter to me more, perhaps, than they should. When I see terrible schools, I want to know why, and why my money and those children's time—present and future!—are being squandered by mediocre adults.] The classrooms impressed me most. Lessons were still on the boards of a couple of the rooms, and the things kids are learning today, at least at this particular school, are extraordinary. Video game development—I don't know the details but would be curious to learn—, and serious science and engineering topics that escape me but are far beyond what we learned when I was in middle school. The granularity of the topics under discussion blew me away. I'm assuming a lot, but the way the notes were organized and written on the board suggested that the topics weren't passing references in a simplified lesson, but rather, were actually the lessons themselves. It was inspiring. I only had an available sample of three classrooms to gather this information, but it seems unlikely that I encountered three outliers in a row. Based only on what I saw, this school is the real deal.)

Scenes from a Coffee Shop

Most of my work is done from coffee shops. This blog post is being written from a local CC's, which is a Louisiana coffee chain. (I live in Louisiana.) As a rule, I rotate the places from which I work. There are three Starbucks and four CC's reasonably close to my house. There's no real method in choosing where I work on a given day, but morning-time traffic is often a consideration, and the simple need for a change of scenery (staring out the window at Airline Highway traffic versus staring out the window at Perkins Road traffic). I have an office at home, and I do a lot of work there, too, but this business can get pretty lonely, especially when you're deep into a project and despairing over the impossibility of it all. It helps to have people around, even though my actual interaction with other people is limited to "I'd like a grande medium roast." I've mentioned previously my love for the Relax Melodies app, which allows you to choose from a variety of sounds, mixing together up to 12 in order to create the most soothing white noise possible. (Presently I have Rain, Winds, Thunder, Train, Wind Chimes, Storm, Wind Surge, Heavy Rain, Rainstorm (do you see a pattern here?), Thunderstorm, City Ambiance, and Crowd playing. If this were actually a storm, I'd likely be swept to Oz.) This is my default mix, though I add various sounds depending on how loud neighboring tables are. I look for a sound effect that matches his (it's always a man) voice, thus canceling it out.

I'm always curious about the people around me, though I never ask them why they're not at work doing an actual job. To the best of my knowledge, none of them are writers. (I'm not sure I've ever seen another professional scribe in the wilds of the town.)

Some are easy to identify: business types—consultants or salespeople—usually use an iPad with some sort of leather case that also holds a large notepad. Occasionally, salespeople actually meet clients, and those are the worst because the whole thing is so phony. (That is to say, it's usually some sort of pyramid scheme at work. Actual salespeople with million dollar contracts at stake, I suspect, meet in their offices downtown, and take prospective clients to an expensive lunch.) Students are frequently to be found. They're the ones wearing hoodies and using high-end Macbooks they shouldn't be able to afford. They drink trenta-sized fraps (or Mochassippis, as they're called at CC's).

Occasionally, I see groups of really old men gather. They usually sit in the leather chairs, and are very loud but generally in high spirits. They discuss politics, but distantly. They've seen it all and are in agreement about which candidates are good and which are not. Debates never ensue. Whatever their party is, they don't seem particularly loyal.

Occasionally, two people who are friends with each other might meet for a quick cup. They are usually women, and they tend to be in their late 40's or early 50's. I almost never see couples (in the romantic sense) who meet to just have coffee. I suspect the reason for this is that drinks everywhere are now served in paper cups, which basically scream, "Take this and please leave." There's nothing relaxing about it. (Because I have no intention of leaving, they don't really bother me, though I'd kill for coffee served in a proper cup and saucer.)

When I'm not wearing headphones, the conversations I overhear are almost always the same. Friends who meet almost always discuss family problems: recent deaths, aging parents, children adrift—that sort of thing. There are occasional religious discussions. (When there are, that's usually the whole purpose of this visit.) They swap Bible website addresses and talk about what the Lord says about forgiveness. (Forgiveness is invariably the topic of discussion.) One or both bring those Bibles with the zipper on the side. It's serious business, the religious meetings.

After almost 10 years of this, I've only overheard one fight, ever, and it was between two middle aged sisters over money. Not even big money—inheritance-level money—but over a 100 dollars or something. They didn't seem impoverished or anything where 100 would change someone's life. Between the two of them, they probably had 25 dollars worth of specialty drinks and bakery items. I guess it was a principle thing, but the discussion got out of hand, and in the end one of them left in a huff and that was it. Starbucks got boring again.

I never order the pastries at Starbucks. Baked goods are my weakness. Bread, croissants, muffins, cookies, cakes—I'll eat any and all of them. But when Starbucks foisted their La Boulange atrocities on the world, baristas, still learning the ropes, tended to open the plastic wraps (think: Twinkie wrappers) in front of customers, and then microwave the pastries before serving them in a paper bag soon sodden with grease. In the worst way possible, this destroyed the illusion of an actual bakery somewhere in the back. If I wanted a microwaved Little Debbie, I could go to Dollar Tree and buy a box of six for a buck. Anyway, Starbucks baked goods have always bothered me because of their uniformity of appearance. If ever you've baked anything, you know what I mean. You bake a tray of muffins, and some are bigger than others. Some are smoother on the surface, and some come bursting forth as shown on the cookbook photo (or the picture on the box). There's a certain inevitable variety in the results. But Starbucks pastries all look precisely identical, as though they were 3D printed, frozen, and shipped to shops across the country. It's unnatural and kind of disgusting.

(Likewise, I never order the specialty drinks, though my reason involves the high calorie counts. I can't imagine drinking more calories than I would burn in a five-mile run. The drinks themselves are delicious and wholly appealing, however.)

The only people who really bother me at coffee shops are the ones who come alone and spend an hour talking on their cell phones. The human brain evolved, I guess, to filter out (when necessary) two people carrying on a conversation. One person on a cell phone though, and it's triply distracting because 1. He or she speaks louder than two people having a normal discussion; 2. Anyone with such a gross lack of self-awareness is also likely to be overly animated, and emote and use theatrical hand gestures; 3. The human brain goes crazy wondering what in the hell is going on with the loud half-conversation. The brain hears a person posing and answering questions and wonders instinctively, "Am I the one who should be answering this person?" Or maybe it's a matter of evolution-driven self-preservation: the caveman who talked loudly to himself was the one likely to bash you over the head with a club. Be wary.

(Of course Larry David addressed this very problem on Curb Your Enthusiasm.)

I have no idea what people think of me. "When will this guy get a job?" or "Why is he always here?" or "What is he typing?" I don't know. Maybe they think I'm a non-traditional (read: old) student. It doesn't really matter, and by rotating coffee shops just often enough, nobody ever gets the chance to ask.

Beginners Are Not Welcome Here

Last year, my daughter got a betta fish. Let me back up for a moment. Twenty years ago, I got a betta fish. It came in a vase, maybe eight inches tall and five inches at the roundest, with a narrow mouth at the top. The vase was filled with water. Some sort of plant plugged the mouth of the vase, and its roots derived their nutrients from the fish who lived down below, and the fish ate the plant's roots. It was basically a little ecosystem. Every couple of months, I would replace the water, and in the meantime the fish would hide in the plant's roots, and swim around, and do pretty much what you expect a fish to do, which is not much, and the fish and the plant lived in harmony for about two years, which is pretty good for a little fish. The fish died and then the plant died, and that was that.

So last year my daughter got a betta fish. We bought it from PetCo. It came in a clear plastic container the size of a butter dish. I looked up online what food would be best for the fish, because there are about six thousand fish foods at PetCo, and my previous betta experience involved a plant.

I soon had my eyes opened to an extremely depressing, and I would suggest, new part of American life. There are, apparently, some serious betta fish enthusiasts out there, and they all have very strong opinions about how to care for a betta. (That's not the depressing part. I'm totally OK with people being interested in whatever.) On more than one betta discussion board (there is more than one betta discussion board), some would-be fish owner would ask for advice for buying a fish, and the response would be so heated that even Jonathan Edwards would step back and say, "Whoa, fellas, let's take it down a bit." Make sure you get a certain kind of water pump that doesn't disturb the water, because bettas are sensitive to noise. (There are stern warnings to affix some sort of sponge to the filter as a makeshift noise dampener.) Aquarium sizes—my god the aquarium sizes. Forget the betta tanks you buy off the shelf at pet stores—you need serious water volume for the fish. At least 2.5 gallons—or maybe 5 gallons! (For a single fish!) Then there are the plants, and decorations, and a certain kind of rock where special vacuums to clean the bottom can do the best job, and a heater—don't forget the heater, you monster!

Now I'm not saying that betta fish today are softer than when I was young, but based on my Internet research, there is no way these fish are presently able to survive in the wild.

I get that we want to be humane to our pets, and I agree that we should do whatever is reasonably possible to make their lives worth living. But the Internet breeds enthusiasts and experts each trying to out-enthuse the other, and what you end up with are beginners turned off of the whole process. I felt bad for the poor beginners wanting to know which betta tank is best—there is no "best betta tank." You can get the 30 gallon shark tank or you can get the hell out of here.

There have always been judgmental know-it-alls in all areas of life, but rarely have they been so angry at the prospect of someone new entering their little kingdom, and so angry that someone might enter their kingdom with insufficient zeal. You like Parcheesi? Well unless you're prepared to study for grandmaster-level Parcheesi play, beat it loser. We got no time for fun around here.

(For the record, we opted for the 1.5 gallon tank with the photograph of a betta on the box. Whatever pump it came with is what we use. I sprung for the heater because it was cheap, and because nobody wants to be cold all of the time.)

For a while, I thought it was just the fish community that had lost its collective mind. Last month, though, my daughter and I decided to get a bat box for the backyard. I had never heard of such a thing; we learned about them at Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Basically, a bat box is about the size of a pizza box with a slot on the bottom for bats to get inside. The box is a little shelter for them, and once they get in there, they know what to do. They're bats. They're dry. They're happy. Apparently they eat lots of mosquitoes, and everyone wins.

So our project, in theory, looked something like this: 1. Get a bat house; 2. Paint it; 3. Hang it on the back fence. Like an idiot, though, I googled "bat box" and was once again sucked into the world of angry enthusiasts. (Bat enthusiasts, specifically.) The general format of online discussion followed the betta fish one almost to the letter. On some discussion forum, someone would post something like, "I'd like to get a bat house. I saw one at Home Depot. What do you recommend?"

The responses: "Are you kidding? Home Depot? You're wasting your time. Your best bet is to build your own. Here is a 375-step instructional website with blueprints and directions for how to run electricity to your bat house so that they can have a tiny television set to watch during the day. You'll need an extra iPhone. My bat house has about 500 bats in it, and..." And so on.

I can't imagine that anyone would read this and say, "Oh, well I'll whip out my bandsaw and get to work." Rather, he or she will read it and say, "Well, I guess my bats are going to be homeless."

Ultimately, we bought a $25 bat box at Ace Hardware. We painted it and hung it on the fence. Maybe bats will move in. Maybe they won't. Maybe they'll opt for some Bat McMansion down the street. I don't know what will happen. (Apparently it could take up to two years for bats to find and move into the house.) What I do know is that my daughter and me got a cool experience out of the deal, and that we have a bat house. Maybe it's subpar. Maybe it's a bat shanty. But if a bat moves in, that would be pretty cool. And if not, we're out $25 dollars and a couple of hours. I can tell you with certainty that if I had to build a bat house ("It's easy! All you need is—") it never would have happened, because I am a normal human being.

I wouldn't have mentioned any of this except that I ran across it again today while reading about fitness. I love running, and do five miles a day, six days a week. The run plus warmup, and just pulling my running gear on, takes about an hour total, start to finish. (I've been neglecting my long runs because it's basically become impossible to cordon off three solid hours of my day for anything that doesn't have a paycheck at the end.) Even for five-milers, because my schedule is a little weird lately, and because it's freezing in the mornings, it's become really difficult to get a good run mid-day without spending the day fretting over it, and trying to figure out when and how I'll do it. So I have a membership to Planet Fitness, and until things settle, I figured that on hectic days, I'd just plan to go very early in the morning and do the stationary bike or treadmill.

On a whim, I decided to look into the little "30 minute fitness circuit" they have in the back of the gym. I thought I could throw that in alongside my cardio. I wonder what people think of it? I stupidly wondered. So I went to google, and that was that. Same format as the betta fish and bat box. Multiple someones posted in various places a question to the effect of:

"I'm a beginner. What do you think about the 30-minute circuit at Planet Fitness?"

And the responses are all the same: "It's garbage! You'd be wasting your time. What you need to do is plan a MWF workout working alternate groups. So on Mondays you're going to start with single leg hamstring curls and dumbbell neutral grip bench presses..." and you know the rest. These enormously overwhelming and confusing exercise plans that no normal human being will ever do, because no normal human being wants to pick up a car (or house 500 bats, or have an ocean-like aquarium for a single fish). Why not let the beginner just be a beginner? Hey guy, go to Planet Fitness and do your 30 minute circuit, and eat right. When you're ready, branch out.

The thing is: I know that these experts and enthusiasts know their advice will go unheeded. It's never about helping the beginner. It's about feeling superior in your godliness at that one tiny thing in the world you are great at. What I don't understand (aside from the anger) is how someone could love a hobby so jealously that they sabotage the efforts of others. Our wired world has made loners of all of us. We don't know the names of our neighbors, and don't want to know. It seems like common interests would be a great way to bring people together in the real world. "You want to get a fish? That's awesome!" Instead, somehow the Internet has made doing anything new a little lonelier and a lot scarier. "You want to get a fish? You're not ready."

[Image credit: h080]

Thoughts on Walt Disney and Parenthood

If Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination were about anyone else, it probably wouldn't have been as fascinating a read as it was. (If it were about anyone else, it would also have a pretty misleading title.) But Disney is such a compelling person, his story so unlikely and extraordinary and American that every little morsel of information about him somehow becomes hyper-interesting. In the end, of course, one feels like the reporter trying to figure out Charles Foster Kane: it's impossible, and the more you learn about Disney, the more enigmatic he becomes. On that point, I greatly admire his serious biographers for the sheer will that must be necessary to peel back the steel layers of "Uncle Walt" forged by the Walt Disney Company, and tease out a fallible human being inside. That can't be easy, and it can't be fun. (On that point, an aside: Of late, Apple seems eager to borrow the Disney mold, and shamelessly rewrite Steve Jobs into a kind of sagacious, enlightened Uncle Steve. The most visible, laughable example I can think of involves the covers of Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography: Before and after. Meanwhile, poor Isaacson has been pilloried for what is very likely an accurate depiction of Jobs—one that's consistent with every other pre-cancer biography out there. Jobs was a horrible man who happened also to be a visionary. He could be monstrous to those under his employ, and was profoundly selfish with his personal fortune. He wasn't Yoda, and he sure as hell wasn't Walt Disney, who was a genuinely good person. That doesn't mean Jobs wasn't a great businessman or genius, but let's not pretend he was anything other than what he was: a powerful, miserly asshole.)

I think a lot about Walt Disney and how he might fare today. Lately, I think about what his childhood would be like in 2016. Disney wasn't a great student, and dropped out of high school in order to join the Navy during World War I. (The Navy turned him away because he was 16, and so he lied about his age and managed to get into the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. He would eventually drive ambulances in France.) Today, I suspect that Disney would have been given a prescription for Concerta at a young age, and would have gone on to earn an MFA in studio art. I doubt he would have forged his birthday to go to Afghanistan. He would have listened to his father, and I believe he would have gone on to be the best foreman at the O-Zell jelly factory.

It raises the question of how important were the wrinkles in Walt Disney's character. Had Elias succeeded in ironing them out, would Walt have conformed thoroughly? Or beneath the surface of any young person, is there something more durable than that, and consequently, is it a parent's job simply to get out of the way? (This makes psychoactive drugs an even more terrifying enterprise: if I make some catastrophic parenting decision, I might create a problem but I won't likely rewrite my child's makeup. But medicine acts at a chemical level—it is changing someone's brain, and by design. So which are the defects and which are the blessings in disguise? Choose wisely and good luck!)

Elias wasn't exactly Ward Cleaver, and he certainly wasn't trying to create Walt Disney the Entertainment Colossus. So is it all dumb luck, genes, and disposition? As a parent, I wonder which is the more unsettling prospect: that I'm invaluable, or that I'm irrelevant? Am I one bad decision away from quashing the next Walt Disney, or was the die cast at childbirth? Alternatively, is it going to come down to how the wheels align, and either they do or they don't?

After 100,000 years, how has our species not yet determined the proper and foolproof rearing of children? How have we not at least answered the big questions? (E.g.: If you do this your child will become a drug addict.) Parenting on some level is an almost laughable endeavor—"After 100,000 years, I've figured it out." As a father, I operate under the assumption that I should give my daughter enough guidance for her to find her own path, and that I should help correct her worse impulses, but not all of them, because some friction with society is essential if she's going to move ahead. A strong work ethic is imperative, and instilling that ethic is fraught with peril.

Here I would consider such childhood hardships as Walt Disney was forced by his father to endure: the newspaper route, most notably and notoriously, foisted upon an 8-year-old in the sub-zero Missouri winter. It haunted Disney through adulthood—but you can't argue with the results. I couldn't intentionally traumatize my child even knowing it would lead her to greatness. Is that a moral failure? Sacrificing immortality, essentially, for her joy today? Again, this is something to which I'll never know the answer, which is a small comfort. I'll labor under the assumption that I am right, though, which has taken me this far in all other pursuits. Ultimately, the variables of personality are just so wild and plentiful that to even consider them is to stare into the abyss.

"It's too late, Peter."

"Life and money both behave like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks. When they're gone you can't tell where, or what the devil you did with them." (The Magnificent Ambersons)

Today I turned 37 years old, which, by my reckoning, means that this year I will cross into middle age. Everyone who is dealt a reasonably playable hand, health-wise, seems to get 75 years on Earth. (After that, you're on bonus time and shouldn't really complain much.) If my math is correct, 75 ÷ 2 = 37.5, so here I am, a few steps from the summit of life and looking down on the other side of the mountain.

This will not be a soul-bearing post in which I share the things I've learned along the way (a lot), and lament the mistakes I've made (a lot). This isn't blogging-as-therapy; I'll leave that to the Tumblr people. The truth is I don't do well on birthdays in general. They do depress me, and I do take measure of my life and see where I've fallen short, and I do compare myself with my heroes when they were my age. I think everyone does this, to some extent, so I'm not special in that regard.

If there is one good quality about me, it is that I enjoy learning new things. One of my New Years resolutions was to learn, for fun, the C# programming language, and to that end I've re-immersed myself in a phenomenal course on Udemy called "Learn To Code by Making Games," which is taught by Ben Tristem. I've very familiar with coding of course; C is my "native language" from my computer science years. I've always been fascinated by video game development and thought that alone might motivate me to finish. (I'd started the course previously, but had to step away one-third of the way into it due to my publishing workload. I've started over this go-round because I really, really want to understand the subject, both in terms of language and the techniques necessary to complete a project.

Programming is nice in that it lights up a totally different part of my brain than my job, and I can roll into my real-life writing assignments without feeling mentally drained. (Just the opposite, in fact.) I mention all this in the context of my age because there's no hope of this turning into a career or side-job or whatever. The process of learning, here, is its own reward. I think often of a haunting scene at the end of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, in which Peter Keating, who in his youth longed to be an artist but ended up a parasitic, second-rate architect, returns to painting in middle age. He shows his work to Howard Roark, who studies the canvases, puts them away, and says, simply, "It's too late, Peter."

The process of aging, I've felt so far, is like the trimming of branches from some great tree. When you are born, anything is possible. I believe that. As you age, branches fall away based on your decisions and your circumstances. You chose not to study in high school, and all the good colleges (and the attendant opportunities) are cut away. You reach 35, and if you've never run for elected office, you'll never be president. That branch, gone. If you're 40 and going back for your MBA, you might get a promotion at your job, or a new one, but you'll never be the CEO of Microsoft. That branch fell away two decades earlier.

In other words, I will never be an astronaut.

This isn't an assertion that we lack free will, but just the opposite—it is one's free will fully expressed. If I devoted myself today to becoming a concert pianist, and spent the second half of my life doing nothing but practicing the piano, by 70 I might be one hell of a player, but I'll never play Carnegie Hall because of the other factors that go into such things: a lifetime of self-promotion, playing for symphonies across the country and around the world, networking with other musicians, etc. There's more to greatness than technical proficiency, and those branches were long severed from the tree.

Nor is this an assertion that life is futile and that (for example) if you're not published by 40, you never will be, and should give up the dream and just die already. Again, it depends on your actions and circumstances. If you've been writing for 20 years and just never quite got around to finding an editor, or never managed to snag an agent, you've still been writing for 20 years. It's not too late for you. The branch is there, and healthy. But if you first pick up a pen at 50, don't expect to become Stephen King in 5 years. It's possible, but it's one hell of a hard climb and beyond the abilities of most mortal men and women.

It is on some level a relief to cultivate my new little hobby of software development without that voice in the back of my mind saying, "You could make this your life's work! You could be famous! You could be the next John Carmack." When I was much younger, all of that might have been true. But there's simply not enough time left for that to happen, now, and I accept that. Thankfully, I didn't need Howard Roark to tell me that, but in a way, he did.