Featured Posts

<< >>

On Paper & Pen

My day gig is very much rooted in technology. Every day, I’m telling teachers why they should be using Chromebooks and smartphones in their classrooms, teaching students to make the most of their Google Apps for Education accounts, extolling the virtues of Evernote and digital textbooks in class, and finding strategies to reduce our school

Why Aren’t You Listening to The Horror Show?

When Brian launched his new podcast, The Horror Show with Brian Keene, I of course knew I’d be tuning in. Not only is he a friend and a hell of a writer, but he’s a former radio host and he’s a great reader and emcee at cons. It’s only natural that he’d find himself in

Field Notes Field Test

I’ve been working in a Field Notes notebook for a few months now, and while it’s been a solid & dependable notebook, I’m not quite sure it fits my needs. I decided to start with the Pitch Black edition, a basic black notebook with Field Notes dot-grid pages. Field Notes has a reputation for making durable notebooks,

This Was Nice to Wake Up To

@MikeOliveri brother your writing is fucking awesome! Kick ass and don't stop! — Adam W. Burke (@Thwalk) January 28, 2015 One can hardly ask for a better review than that. It surprises me, not because of the sentiment but because I’ve been so quiet on social media lately. I’ve been busy as hell with things

2015: Second Verse, Same as the First

So, 2015. I’d say it looks about the same as 2014 so far. There’s no border here for me, no difference in the days other than having to remember to change that last digit to a 5 when I’m writing or typing dates. I don’t need to look at last year’s goals to know I

On Paper & Pen

My day gig is very much rooted in technology.

Every day, I’m telling teachers why they should be using Chromebooks and smartphones in their classrooms, teaching students to make the most of their Google Apps for Education accounts, extolling the virtues of Evernote and digital textbooks in class, and finding strategies to reduce our school district’s paper and toner consumption.

It surprises my coworkers, then, when they discover I carry a paper notebook and a pencil in my pocket at all times. To some it’s almost betrayal, as if everything I’ve told them is a lie.

Technology has its place, of course, and the majority of my workflow is definitely digital. Evernote is a huge part of my productivity, both in writing and at work, and when I’m writing I’m usually strapped in to Google Docs or Apple’s Pages. Early notes and brainstorming, however, is usually done in a notebook.

Pencil and paper still flows better for me. As fast as I can type, I’m faster with a pencil. I feel more connected to the words, as pretentious as that sounds, and the ideas just keep on coming.

A small notebook is far more convenient on the go, too. It’s not uncommon for me to throw some text or photos into a note in Evernote via my smartphone, but again, for brainstorming, it’s just so much faster to use a pencil.

Yes, pencil. Mechanical, .5mm. Right now my favorite is a Papermate something-or-other (the name has rubbed off), as seen in the photo below.

I’ve long felt pens are too messy. When I was a kid I exploded a few pens while fiddling with them because I can’t sit still, which probably soured me on the whole thing. I like being able to erase my mistakes, too. Despite having hurried and jagged handwriting which even I sometimes have a hard time deciphering, I have this weird insistence on the words being right.

So I dig pencils, and I dig good notebooks. I’ve talked about Moleskines several times, and after my experience with the Field Notes Pitch Black, I decided to try the Field Notes Expedition Edition, also in the photo above. It is definitely more durable than the Pitch Black, but pencil transfers across to opposite pages.

I’ve got three Expeditions now, so I wonder, should I find a pen that transfers its ink properly to the Expedition’s pages? By coincidence today, I read A Primer on Fountain Pens at The Art of Manliness. Surely, I thought, there’s a fountain pen ink that will do the job?

This is the part where I shock my writing brethren, especially those who are notebook and pen geeks:

I’ve never used a fountain pen.

I seem to remember fiddling with one, and scratching up some paper, but never a good pen and never at length. Typewriters? Sure, I dig typewriters. Love the feel and the noise, though I don’t own one. But fountain pens just never clicked. I never felt a need for a pretty pen when my handwriting sucks, and again, there’s the issue of the mess.

I know John Urbancik uses several, as do a number of writers I’ve talked to. I’ve heard artists talk at length about the various pens and inks they use in their work. Writers and artists alike talk about quality ink and flowing lines and the feel of a good pen in hand.

Hey, I get it. I’m down. But I do like my pencil scratchings, so I’m torn. Do I find a good pen, or do I abandon the Expeditions? I don’t know that I’m ready to get all spendy on fountain pens and screw with ink refills, but if anyone can recommend a good, durable pen with ink that won’t smear all over the place, I’d be willing to give it a shot at my notebook.

Why Aren’t You Listening to The Horror Show?

When Brian launched his new podcast, The Horror Show with Brian Keene, I of course knew I’d be tuning in. Not only is he a friend and a hell of a writer, but he’s a former radio host and he’s a great reader and emcee at cons. It’s only natural that he’d find himself in front of a mic again at some point.

Let’s get a disclaimer out of the way: I’ve known Brian for 17 years. He’s one of my best friends on the planet. My biggest fear was I’d listen to an episode or two and be bored, and have to tell Brian that maybe he should reconsider his Internet radio revival.

Fortunately that hasn’t been a problem. Brian’s in good hands with Dave Thomas co-hosting and assisting on production, and they gel well in the first few episodes. The show moves along at a good pace, and they manage to avoid the awkward pauses and rambling asides that plague most rookie podcast efforts.

Brian’s also been flying solo for a few episodes, discussing the personal situations that led to writing novels like The Rising and Ghoul. His openness and honesty with fans in these episodes surprises even me, and I can see why so many people have been tuning in.

Of course Brian takes a few minutes to pick a few fights, but hey, it wouldn’t be a Brian Keene joint without poking a few trolls. That’s been part of B’s charm all along, and at times it’s stunning to see his fans step in line to march behind him. Fortunately for us, he’s one of the good guys.

My biggest reason for tuning in, however, is the way the show makes me feel. It’s made me realize how much I miss hanging out with creative people. I haven’t been to a con in ages, and The Horror Show very much feels like our conversations after hours in the bar. I find it energizes me, too. It fills me with the urge to write. Making keyboard time is tough for me these days, and the show often makes me regret the way I’ve filled up my schedule with other things. It’s something I’m working to change, but clearly I’m not working at it fast enough.

If you’re a fan of Brian’s or of horror in general and you haven’t checked out The Horror Show yet, grab yourself a podcatcher (I like Pocket Casts) and make with the clicky. If you’re a writer or someone who digs hearing about the business and process of writing, then you’ll want to tune in, too.

B, if you’re reading, good job, brother. I’m all caught up and ready for the next episode.

Field Notes Field Test

I’ve been working in a Field Notes notebook for a few months now, and while it’s been a solid & dependable notebook, I’m not quite sure it fits my needs.

This notebook has been taking a beating

This notebook has been taking a beating

I decided to start with the Pitch Black edition, a basic black notebook with Field Notes dot-grid pages. Field Notes has a reputation for making durable notebooks, which is an important feature for me. See, my notebooks live in my back pocket, and let’s face it: I’m not a small man. Any notebook I carry is going to take a beating. It comes out of the pocket at home and various destinations, but I’m often sitting on it in the car or on the motorcycle.

I’ve just about filled the first of my set of three Pitch Blacks, and so far it’s held together well. The cover has a few permanent wrinkles, it’s fraying around the staples, and the cover below the bottom staple is splitting along the spine. However, it’s still holding all of the pages just fine. The notebook stays bent out of my pocket, but I just flip it around when I return it to my pocket and it smooths out in the other direction. The pages themselves are holding up great. The first several pages inside each cover are wrinkled, but all of my pencil scratchings are perfectly legible. (As legible as my handwriting allows, anyway.)

I was concerned about the dot-grid pages at first, but I’ve come to dig it. For those unfamiliar, imagine a graph paper layout, then remove all the lines and leave a dot where the intersections were. It has the feel of a blank page, but the dots still create subtle lines for guidance. I find I can write as large as I want without feeling like a frustrated kindergartner who can’t color within the lines, yet I still have some solid guidance for longer passages and lists. It hasn’t changed my world, but I certainly won’t avoid dot-grid in the future.

As much as I like the Field Notes, however, its glaring weakness is in my own usage: I need something sturdier. These notebooks are great for working at a desk, on a table, or on a bent knee, but they don’t have the backbone for hand-held work. That’s a big problem for me in the dojo, where I’ll have to record something quickly while standing at the edge of the mat or between instruction and practice. I can get a little more oomph out of it by wrapping one side of the notebook behind the other, but it’s still just not quite steady enough for my meaty paws.

The plus side of the dojo work is the pages hold up to sweat. Whether the sweat is on my fingers or dripping off my face, the writing doesn’t smudge on the page. That wasn’t always the case with my last Moleskine, which drank the sweat right up.

While I like the Field Notes overall and would recommend them to most people for general use, I will most likely finish out the last two from this set and then try something a little more solid. If anyone has recommendations, please do drop them in the comments below.

This Was Nice to Wake Up To

One can hardly ask for a better review than that.

It surprises me, not because of the sentiment but because I’ve been so quiet on social media lately. I’ve been busy as hell with things other than writing, and I’d hate to turn my accounts into endless sources of spam shilling the same projects over and over.

So, when new people discover my stuff, and they take a moment to ping me, it makes my day.

\m/

2015: Second Verse, Same as the First

So, 2015.

I’d say it looks about the same as 2014 so far. There’s no border here for me, no difference in the days other than having to remember to change that last digit to a 5 when I’m writing or typing dates.

I don’t need to look at last year’s goals to know I screwed up, either. In fact, I didn’t even make any last year. My routine has seen a lot of turmoil over the past year, and I’ve only just managed to get things under some semblance of control. Stepping out for several days with the family has really helped to unload a lot of mental baggage; crossing an arbitrary date border is purely coincidental.

My weight lifting routine has been going well, and my dojo attendance has been solid (and is what helped maintain my sanity. Most everything else has suffered.

No more.

I see some light at the end of the tunnel as I type this, and the next few months are full of opportunity and possibility. I’ll be taking full advantage and setting up more of the same for the summer and the remainder of the year. I hope to be able to talk about some of it soon, as one contract has been signed and another project is waiting in the production pipeline.

As order returns, so too shall routine. Including keyboard time.

So, 2015. Let’s do this.

The Chromebook for Road Warrior Writing

Samsung Chromebook

The Samsung Chromebook

We’ve invested heavily in the Chromebook at my day job, and it’s given me an opportunity to evaluate several models and use them on a day-to-day basis. After using one for several months now, I’ve found they offer a lot of options for those of us looking for a simple, portable, and affordable setup for writing.

First up, consider the price: with some Chromebooks available as low as $170 these days, they’re about a third of the cost of an iPad and a decent keyboard or cover. For that price, a writer could lose or break one without too much heartbreak. Take a thousand-dollar MacBook Air to Starbucks, meanwhile, and one hesitates to leave it sitting on the table during a bathroom visit.

The ChromeOS is also simple to operate and very snappy. Power up a Chromebook and you’re ready to work in seconds, and battery life ranges from a few hours to 12-14 hours for some models. There are shortcuts to all of the major Google Apps, and you’ve got access to the Chrome Web Store and, soon, the Play Store for Android apps. Chrome browser users will also find their browser settings like bookmarks, history, and extensions automatically synced to the Chromebook.

That said, don’t go expecting to install Word, PhotoShop, the latest games (for your kids, right?), or other software. ChromeOS is a bare-bones operating system with enough juice to get you online. You’ll have a webcam, some USB ports, and sometimes an SD card slot, but this is no full-on desktop replacement. 95% of the apps run through the Chrome browser and are Internet apps; the rest are simple apps like the file manager, the camera app, or the calculator.

Chromebook with video

Of course, entertainment’s not completely out of the question

Most of your data will live in Google Drive. Chromebooks have small hard drives for local downloads and for offline file storage, but if you don’t buy into the Google ecosystem, your options are limited. The benefit to Google Drive is you have instant file sync and you’re not juggling file versions or sweating backups and lost data. Writing in Google Docs, writers can log in to any computer with a browser, or use Docs apps on most modern mobile devices, and pick up right where they left off on a Chromebook.

No Wi-Fi available? No problem. With offline file sync, a writer can create or edit a file and the changes will be merged to Google Drive the next time there’s a connection. I actually prefer to use my phone as a hotspot than go without a connection, but I’ve been able to work both ways seamlessly.

Brand-wise, there are more to choose from all the time. I’ve been happiest with Acer for the lower-end models. The Samsung units aren’t bad, but the Acer is a little more durable. Asus units are nice, but I’ve had some bad support experiences that have soured me on their brand for now.

For performance purposes, spend a little more for a unit with 4GB of RAM if you expect it to be a workhorse, otherwise the 2GB models are fine for basic surfing and productivity. There are also some variances in processor architecture, but the only one I’ve really been disappointed in is the HP Chromebook 11, which I found very sluggish with multiple browser tabs open.

Chromebook, iPod, Moleskine

Traveling companions.

There are not a lot of downsides when you consider what you’re paying for. You’re not going to have the variety of apps there are for an iPad, or for an Android tablet, but then again, that’s not why you’re buying a Chromebook. The plastic construction is more fragile than the metal iPads and MacBook Air, but is comparable to most plastic PC laptops. I’ve seen Samsung screens break with just a little flexing, but the good news is they’re very easy and inexpensive to replace, especially compared to standard laptop screens.

Again, be prepared to buy into the Google ecosystem. One could work around it by writing in Evernote or another online service, or by juggling plain text files with Dropbox via their website, but it seems to me that would get old fast. If you’re not into Google’s Terms of Service, then you’ll want to invest in an inexpensive notebook. Or maybe you just prefer the friendly confines of the Apple ecosystem? I don’t judge.

If printing is part of your workflow, don’t plan on hooking up a printer. You’ll be printing through Google Cloud Print, which will allow you to print either to another computer’s printer (with a little setup in your Google account) or a Cloud Print-enabled network printer. Or, of course, you could just print the files from Google Drive on another computer and skip Cloud Print altogether.

All in all, I’m very happy with Chromebooks. If I take one to a Starbucks or a similar joint to work, the Chromebook is up and ready to go before they finish making my drink. I’ll typically have four tabs open: Google Docs, for whatever project I’m working on; Slacker Radio, for tuning out the environment; Evernote, for referencing my notes; and Moosti, a Pomodoro timer. Paper notebook on one side, drink on the other, and I’ve got a nice, self-contained environment I can set up anywhere. It’s even perfect out on the front porch with an adult beverage and a cigar.

If an iPad is too spendy, or tablets and keyboards just aren’t going to cut it, one could certainly do a lot worse than a Chromebook. They’re inexpensive, there’s no farting around with maintenance or antivirus, and there’s no sweating backups or file management. Just travel, open it up, and go to work.

Smells like win to me.

How Our Bodies Betray Us

Too many of my friends lament their age.

I’m not even sure why. I mention some small ailment or injury, and the older guys will say, “Just wait.” They act as if there’s some demon lurking in the background, biding its time until I hit some predetermined age.

Then, it pounces! “Happy birthday! Welcome to hemorrhoids and scoliosis!”

It’s hard to blame those guys. I’ve been on and off statins already. I’ve learned I have a mild food allergy, and I just finished a prescription treatment to clean up my esophagus. I’ve also learned my thyroid has slowed down, a condition I’ve inherited, and now I have to take a pill for it every day for the rest of my life.

As I type this, I’m sitting in a dentist’s office waiting for my kids to have their teeth cleaned. An elderly couple just rolled their even-more-elderly mother in with a wheelchair. It took them five minutes to get her out of the car, and thanks to a rather loud conversation in the lobby, I learned she lives in a nursing home and the dentist is about to yank her remaining teeth.

This is how we picture old age: a slow decline into physical and mental incapacity. To hear most people tell it, this decline starts at age 40.

I haven’t quite hit that mark yet (it’s coming soon), but I just don’t feel it. Are the bumps and bruises and the joint aches from karate a little slower to heal? Sure. But I’m still on the mat doing it. I’m as strong as I’ve ever been—probably stronger—and I’ve completed the Warrior Dash twice. The key word to my statement about statins is I’m off them again because I’ve managed to get the problem under control through exercise.

I often tell my friends to chill, we’re only as old as we feel. They’ll immediately start bitching about back pain or a tricky knee or chronic heartburn or whatever is bothering them at the moment, and they need to slow down and then can’t do this or that anymore.

“Just wait, Mike. Just wait.”

In 1532, most of us would already be dead. Putting aside minor (by today’s standards) illness or infection, the things we’re surviving now as an inconvenience would probably have killed us. A close friend not much older than I has already had a heart attack. Statins, thyroid meds, and insulin? Forget it. Hell, just twenty years ago this food allergy I have would have been misdiagnosed as an ulcer or chronic reflux.

If I’ve still got half a lifetime ahead of me, I’m not going to let some inconvenience slow me down. By 1532 standards, I’m on bonus time. I’m not going to wait for it get worse, I’m going to work with what I’ve got. I plan to still be running kata when I’m 83, not confined to a wheelchair. If some major illness slows me down, then I’ll find some way to work around it, too.

We say life is short and our average life expectancy is approaching 80 years. If we skip out on activities just because it takes a little longer to get the joints warmed up in the morning and we have to take a few pills to regulate one bodily function or another, then why pad out those bonus 40 years anyway? “I can’t run like I used to” doesn’t mean stop doing it.

Our bodies betray us. We know that. Suck it up and move on.

Get Handsy

Our school is cutting back on traditional industrial arts programs and pushing more kids into heavier math and science courses, and it bums me out.

Not because math and science aren’t important, mind, but not every kid is looking to go on to college or to become an engineer. Even if that were the case, what good is an engineer who’s never put his hands on a wrench? Would you trust an architect who hasn’t at least framed up a shed?

Adults shouldn’t be afraid to get their hands dirty. There’s satisfaction to be had in a lot of this work, and in many cases it can save a few bucks.

The Workspace Tour

Yep, I built this. It’s not a work of art, but it works well and it’s the most comfortable desk I’ve used because it’s custom-made for my height.

“I’m not good with tools” shouldn’t be an excuse. If you grew up with cartoons, you have a pretty good idea how a hammer works. I’m not saying everyone should be able to turn a beautiful table leg on a lathe (I sure can’t), but hanging a shelf on a wall should be an easy job.

I’ve changed the brake pads on one car and on my motorcycle. I happened to have the tools for those jobs, and it wasn’t bad. All it took was a manual, a YouTube video, and the guts to tackle the job. Labor for things like that? Usually around $85.00/hour.

Car oil & filter changes are so cheap these days it’s worth it to go to a mechanic, especially when they top off fluids and perform other simple services and checks at the same time. However, I think it’s a job every car owner should be able to handle in a pinch. Tire rotations are too time consuming to do on my own (and most dealerships do it for free if you buy your tires there), but I’ve put on several spares. Nobody should have to wait for a tow truck for a flat tire.

Tinkering on the motorcycle is fun. Sometimes the narrow spaces in and around the frame and engine are frustrating, but I’ve swapped the battery, installed battery minder leads, changed the oil and filter, changed the brake fluid, and changed the brake pads, all because taking it to a motorcycle mechanic is inconvenient. Soon I’ll be handling the spark plugs and maybe the spark plug wires. The only thing I’ve paid for is tire swaps and a new chain and sprocket install. I just don’t have the proper tools or environment for those, and if I get them wrong, I could be in a world of hurt.

I first learned to get handsy with a water heater. It had a leaky overflow valve, and someone put a scare into me about possibly cross-threading the new valve and having to replace the whole thing, so I called a plumber. He was at the house for less than 15 minutes. The part? About twenty bucks. The total bill? $90.00.

Never again. When the bottom finally rusted out of that water heater, I purchased and installed the replacement myself. We had a misstep with the flux when we sweated the copper pipes, but one conversation with the owner of the hardware store put us in the right direction. Years later, thanks to that experience I was able to help a friend cut an old, broken water softener out of his water line and sweat new pipe in to close the loop.

In our new place, when the thermocouple quit on the water heater (which it did repeatedly until a recall had me replace the whole burner assembly), I replaced it myself. Not difficult at all. Another friend sweated turning the gas on and off when his thermocouple quit, so he paid a plumber. Once again, small job, big bill.

I’m not saying we should take money out of some working stiff’s pocket. We once had plumbers dig up and replace a sewer line to the tune of $4K because it was too big a job. But I’ve replaced toilets and kitchen & bathroom faucets without batting an eye. I’ve helped a friend install a countertop, and I’ve wrestled with a garbage disposal for an hour until I realized the gasket was upside down. These are sometimes annoying jobs, but they are not difficult or highly technical.

In fact, I think a great number of smaller mechanical, plumbing, and electrical jobs are done simply because the car/homeowner doesn’t want to deal with it. Meanwhile, we probably saved hundreds of dollars across all of those jobs, and the sweat equity and satisfaction made them worthwhile.

I paid out to have a furnace installed and several windows & a door replaced because they’re just too big a job. However, I’ll be tackling a laminate floor and building a soffit in the near future. First time for both, but the flooring just snaps together and I’ve helped with a small drywall job, so I have a pretty good idea what I’m in for. Wish me luck.

Now I include my oldest son in all of these jobs, and sometimes his younger brother, depending upon the job. Heck, the boys installed the last two brackets of my desk because I didn’t feel well. I want them to have the confidence to do some of this stuff on their own when they move out, whether or not they have the opportunity to take a shop class in high school.

And ladies, this applies to you, too. My wife may not have had the muscle to break the lug nuts loose on one of those tire swaps, but I’m sure she could have handled any of these other jobs with the same instructions I looked up.

We’re both looking forward to our daughter learning some of this stuff soon. If she ends up having to change a flat tire while out on a date someday, she’ll know she needs to dump his ass, won’t she?

Next time you have a small job around the house or on your vehicle, ask yourself, “Can I handle this myself?” Then dig in and get your hands dirty.

It’s worth it.

Hit the Reset Button

I’m wrapping up vacation from the day job this week. Unfortunately, I’ve spent very little of that time on myself.

Time is free, but it’s priceless. You can’t own it, but you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once you’ve lost it, you can never get it back.
—Harvey MacKay

I’m not here to dwell on the negative. Most of the problems I’ve had can be summed up by the simple bad timing of my vacation time. One goal was to relax and take time away from the day job, and that part was mostly successful. The other, which I do want to talk about, is taking another look at my creative time.

For one thing, I often spend a lot of time sweating the time I don’t have. That kind of thinking gets counterproductive fast. So rather than pressuring myself to create create create, I spent mostly-idle time thinking about, well, time.

I did a lot of driving, for example. I did a lot of manual labor, such as housework, helping people move heavy stuff, or lifting weights. I did a lot of cooking, in particular grilling and all the prep work that comes with it. It’s mostly-idle time in the sense that I’m physically engaged, and thus unable to jockey a keyboard, but my mind is free to wander. So, when I wasn’t concentrating on preventing 265 pounds of iron from crushing my sternum to powder, I considered how I could best free up other time to jockey a keyboard.

Workouts are one of the problem areas. A karate workout is constant activity, but weightlifting includes rest periods. My bench and weights are in my office, and it’s convenient to sit in front of the computer during rest. I keep a timer running, but in trying to turn those rest periods into productive time and get something done, I created a monster: I got distracted, and my rest periods were blown. Sessions that should be an hour or less ballooned into long grinds, which are counterproductive in several ways. I need to refocus and bang out the workouts so I have more uninterrupted time afterward.

Only skipped a week, but yep, I missed deadlift day.

Fitness time is important, too, and not something to feel guilty about

I decided, during that mostly-idle time, that thinking, plotting, and research is not wasted time. It’s not as productive as cranking out the word count, but it’s still important. I’ve admitted I’m not a seat-of-the-pants writer anymore. Producing a series like The Pack takes more planning. Working on comics means plotting out the beats, the page breaks, the issue/chapter breaks. Putting all those pieces together is not wasted time, so it must count as creative time. Ignoring or skipping that time is foolish.

Next I put some thought into the best uses of my time. Family time is obviously important, as is time with friends. It’s selfish to deny them—and myself—that time. I also spent a lot of time this Spring and early Summer working out with an attack team to help a pair of nidan (second-degree black belt) candidates prepare for their test. I neither regret nor resent that time, but I have to realize next time around that “a couple of extra hours in the dojo” for me also includes a long drive. I alleviated some of that time by hitting a Starbucks to write before or after practice, but the overall time commitment is still there.

In short, I will need to say “no” more often.

I realized, too, that blogging is valuable. Not so much in the sense that it drives sales or interest (it usually doesn’t, especially these days), but in the way it affects my mood. I like the journaling aspect of it, and it helps both my mood and mindset. I haven’t made near enough time for the blog these past few months, and while it hasn’t affected my page counts and other minutiae a lick, it has negatively affected my mood. Ideally, I’ll blather on like this more often in the future.

I packed this thing with notes on the road trip. Lots of good stuff coming.

When I can’t do it digitally, I can still go old school

The vacation has also allowed me take a good, hard look at my routine. In removing the day job from the equation, I can see where I spend the rest of my time.

My morning routine has become a time suck. I roll out of bed and into the computer chair, which started with productive time but lately has become idle time. My inbox and social accounts were busy following the release of Lie with the Dead, but that’s died down. I also have to take a new pill every morning (more on that in another post) and I can’t eat for an hour, which compounded things by making me to feel like my morning’s on hold. I need to revamp that shit, and I need to work with that stupid pill, not against it.

Next I need to do another culling of my RSS feeds. Reading and researching is great when I’m waiting for a software install or virus scan or hard rive restore at work, but there’s no reason to keep up with all that crap the rest of the time. I’ve developed this weird anxiety over unread feeds, and it’s stupid. I’d get home from an event with the kids and look for some relaxing downtime, but what should be at most ten to fifteen minutes of surfing quickly becomes a major time sink. My delete button is my sword to battle the Feedly demons.

The good news is I resisted the television trap this week. Those new episodes of Hemlock Grove aren’t going anywhere. I finally have access to the HBO back catalog thanks to Amazon Prime, but I don’t feel the need to shotgun seasons at a time of Oz or The Sopranos. Cutting the cord continues to be one of the better decisions I’ve made in recent years.

Last but far from least, I’ve dumped the guilt. I still love writing, but I’m extremely busy. Yes, it’s damned difficult to make time to write, but it’s also not doing me any good to hate myself for not doing it. It’s even worse to hate the act of writing for my lack of time. This revelation (decision?) alone may be the most important difference moving forward.

I started my vacation in a foul mood, but in the end I was able to accomplish exactly what a vacation is meant for: I hit the reset button. I didn’t take a trip, I didn’t do anything fancy, I just used the vacation to reflect and analyze my time.

If you’re having the same problems, I suggest you take your own vacation. It will pay off.

Smoke Blog: Foundry Uranium

It’s been a while since a cigar kicked my ass, and the Uranium from Foundry’s Compounds, Elements, & Musings line came pretty close.

The CE&M line is Foundry’s small batch, a mix of blends that will even vary within the same box. My guess is the names are all about the size and shape of the cigars first, and then the design of their boxes and bands. There were a few different Foundry options in the humidor I shopped, and I opted for the Uranium mostly because it was a large cigar (7×70) at a very reasonable price ($7 and change).

Uranium on a keyboard

The Uranium is a big one

Because the blend changes, I can’t be sure what I had in my hand. Near as I can tell from a Google search, it was probably some mix of Honduran, Nicaraguan, or Costa Rican tobaccos. It lit up easy and had a very smooth draw given the size. Whatever the mix, I enjoyed it.

Two-and-a-half hours later, the cigar was still going strong. I finished up my work on the laptop (wrapping the second short story in the The Pack series started with “Bravo Four”), got up, and walked around for a moment. The buzz hit me pretty good, then, and I realized I was flushed and sweating despite a cool breeze outside.

Well done, Foundry. Next time I’ll know to save this one for after a meal. At seven bucks, I’d say this cigar is a steal. I’ve also tried a cigar from their main line, the one that comes with a metal cog around the band, and I thought it was pretty great, too.

Foundry is going to be a line I need to explore in a little more depth before the Compounds, Elements & Musings line disappears. I can’t recommend the Uranium to a rookie, but for experienced smokers looking for some variety, give it a shot.

I’m Done Being a Tech Guy

At least, I’m done identifying as one.

When people ask me what I do, my response is automatic: “I’m the tech director for a school district.” This typically demands explanation, and I tell them, “I run the network and fix the computers.”

Without fail, this leads them to say, “You know, I’m having this problem with my computer…” Then they want to know how to fix their problem. I just don’t have the time, the energy, or the desire to deal with it, even if they wanted to pay me (which they don’t, especially after I tell them my rates). The conversation then ends in disappointment and frustration on both sides.

Instead, I’m going to go with one of two responses, depending upon the situation or the person: “I’m a karate instructor” or “I’m a writer.”

For starters, both are more interesting conversation topics and I can chat about them with a little more passion. Nobody wants to hear about my squashing a bug in our network configuration, but people are more attentive to the martial arts or what I write. On very rare occasions someone will turn their nose up at the mention of horror, but it still trumps their irritation if I assure them it will take a lot longer than five minutes to fix all the problems with their five-year-old Windows laptop that junior loaded with viruses.

I’m also hoping it will be better for my sanity and self image. In karate, I’m not as athletic as some of the teen-aged and twenty-something students at the dojo, and my skills aren’t as polished as those of the black belts with more experience, but it’s been good for me and I know I’ve had a positive influence on a lot of our students. In writing, it will be a good reminder that I need to hit the keyboard that night.

Finally, both conversations have a better shot at putting money in my pocket, especially over time. If I tell them I write, then maybe, just maybe, they’ll actually buy something (at the very least I can point them to a freebie). If I tell them I’m a martial arts instructor, then maybe, just maybe, they want to do something to improve their own fitness or learn self defense, or they have kids or know someone with kids they can send my way.

If they press and ask me what actually pays the bills (this usually happens at the dojo), then I can say I work for a school district. What do I do? “I teach the students to use Google Apps” (true) or “I help the teachers integrate technology into their classrooms” (also true). They can assume fixing the computers is someone else’s problem.

So goodbye, Mike the Tech Guy, long live Mike the Writer slash Martial Artist.

Keeping Productivity Honest with Todoist

I’ve tinkered with several productivity apps and task managers, but none of them have been as simple and convenient as Todoist. As an added bonus, Todoist has a tracker they call Karma which tells me at a glance when I’ve been slacking or when I’ve been productive.

Looks like I'm trending in the right direction

Looks like I’m trending in the right direction

My initial needs were simple: speed and convenience. As much as I love Evernote, its to-do list functionality is a little clunky. A note can include checkboxes and reminders, but there are few layout options, different projects have to be maintained on different notes, and opening and searching those notes takes some time.

Remember the Milk, Producteev, Google Keep, and a few other apps for manipulating Google Tasks didn’t quite cut it, either. They were simple but still a little clunky, especially for managing future tasks, deadlines, or tasks in different projects (or some combination of those).

Todoist, meanwhile, hooked me quick. First and foremost, it has a clean, simple design accessible with a single click of an app or as soon as I fire up the website. I can see all of the day’s tasks at a glance, as well as those for the next seven days and anything already overdue. There’s a daily digest email available for planning, and every day at 9am I get a summary of the day’s tasks pushed to my phone.

Adding a task is streamlined over other apps, too. While some of the task managers require filling out a form and saving it, in Todoist it’s just click, type, hit enter. Done. Changing the deadline (which can be as simple as “tomorrow” or “Friday”) or assigning the task to a project is still right there if you don’t want the defaults, of course, but just this simple tweak saves a lot of time, especially while adding tasks on the fly on my smartphone. It’s the first to-do app that really felt mobile for me, rather than just presenting a mobile portal to my data.

Todoist also gives me ubiquitous access. I have the Todoist website open in a browser tab at all times, and it’s always in sync with the Todoist apps on my Android phone and my iPad. There are checkboxes in both locations for completed apps, but a simple swipe completes a task in a mobile app.

Todoist has a more intuitive and flexible way of organizing tasks. Creating Project categories is a snap, labels can be applied with a click, and there are color codes for both. Adding a subtask is as simple as indenting it, almost like an outline or just tabbing over in a document. On the website, tasks can be reorganized by drag and drop.

Need to postpone something? Done with a click. Need to delete a task? Yup, just a click. I can also add notes or upload files for tasks. I’ve not uploaded anything, but notes have been helpful from time to time, such as when I need a task that follows up on a conversation or involves a website. I’ve even punched in a line or two of dialog into writing-related tasks.

The only feature I don’t take advantage of is sharing tasks or collaborating with others. It didn’t take me long to throw some money at Todoist for Premium, as it has been especially helpful at the day job.

Which brings me back to Karma. When I complete a task, I get karma points. When I miss a deadline, I start losing karma. Other actions, such as postponing a task, seem to influence karma as well, but the deadlines are the most obvious influence.

Karma and deadlines keep me honest. When I blow a deadline, I know where I’ve been slacking. When my karma graph flatlines—or worse, it drops—I know I’ve been really slacking. And when a task says 83 days overdue (which one of my two overdue tasks says), I know I’ve just completely dropped the ball.

This has been a huge benefit at the day job. I have all of my own day-to-day tasks, but I’m also helpdesk so I juggle a lot of other tasks for a lot of other people. Add to that my tendency to see something shiny and go off-task, or to procrastinate and forget about things, and a good to-do manager is a must.

I also use it for daily reminders at home or for family, for things I have to do for karate (whether for myself or for the class I run now), for a side job I have teaching technology to elementary students, and, yes, for writing projects.

On the writing side, it’s been a huge help in prioritizing and planning. It motivates me when I see those looming deadlines. The karma hit is a nice kick in the ass if I blow a deadline, but it also helps me reassess things when I know I’m getting too ambitious in scheduling things. I can leave deadlines open-ended for non-critical tasks, and bump things up after conversations with editors.

Overall it’s been a very helpful tool, and among the first apps I loaded when I changed phones. I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a to-do manager.

And now I can tick writing this blog post off my task list.