Tom & Dori

I don’t think I ever bought one of Tom Negrino’s books. The law of averages suggests that I must have, solely due to how many of the things he wrote.

(I’ve just gone to my analog library to double-check. Sure enough: one of his introductory JavaScript books. Of course.)

I always envied that kind of skill. His books are bloody good; not a bad apple in the whole barrel. Being a productive and consistently-good tech book author requires a special kind of discipline and focus. It requires good instincts, confidence in your skills, an intuitive understanding of how to deliver the greatest amount of value to a reader, and (oh, damn it, Tom) the ability to write well and not slow down the project by being oh-so-precious.

Tom has those talents in spadefuls. I have them in…

I’m stuck for a way to express the opposite of a spadeful.

Spoonful? Or would I be better off sticking with the spade and persuing the digging angle? “Tom writes as efficiently as a man digging a trench through soft loam, while I seem to approach every page as though I’m sure I must have lost a dime somewhere in all this dirt, and I’m terrified that I’ll just re-bury it unless I proceed with the utmost care and caution”?

Well. There you have it. I imagine Tom would have written “I’m a fast writer. Andy isn’t.” and then boom…on to the next clear, well-written sentence.

Books aren’t my user interface to Tom, anyway. I’ve been lucky enough to know him personally. He’s part of a big extended family of people whom I love dearly and will miss when they’re gone. He’s among the two or three dozen people I looked forward to seeing two or three times a year at Macworld Expo and, post-Macworld, at the many other watering holes where members of our tribe of nerds tend to gather.

Honest, I feel closer to Tom than some members of my actual legal family. I wouldn’t always know ahead of time that Tom would be attending a certain conference, but I always knew it was likely. One of the other members of the family would tell me “Oh, yeah, Tom and Dori are here. I said hi to them in the press room about an hour ago.” And then the ten-year-old kid in me would shout YAYYYY!!! Tom is like the cousin whose presence (and backpack full of Star Wars action figures) makes a boring grownup’s party bearable.

I simply enjoy Tom’s presence. I enjoy catching up with him. I enjoy being at a table in a restaurant with him. I enjoy the simple mutual understanding that this life is naught but a vale of tears and that humankind was born unto trouble just as surely as sparks fly upward, doubly so if one is a book author. I enjoy the shared history and the gentle reminders of the time when Mac users were all considered a slightly odd demographic, and the mild stigma bonded us into a distinct community. If I knew you were a Mac user, I knew that you were at least 80% cool. Tom and Dori are, combined, about 280%.

I also dig “Tom and Dori.” A lot. It’s not a given that two excellent, successful  writers can maintain any kind of relationship, let alone the titanic bond of warmth and mutual admiration that those two have. The phrase “peas and carrots” comes to mind. Their bond has been obvious every time I’ve seen them together and only slightly less so when I’ve seen them separately.

Tom “went public” with his terminal cancer diagnosis in a blog post last year. That’s when I learned that he was born with spina bifida. I think he’s wise enough to have leaned on friends for help and support as needed (and Lord knows he has many friends who’d do anything for him). But part of the grind of a chronic illness, I imagine, is that it’s simply a part of one’s life…part of What Must Be Handled If One Wants To Get On With It. I have the luxury of wallowing in a three-day flu. I know it’ll be completely behind me soon. So it’s a dandy excuse to knock off work and sleep for 52 hours. A person with a chronic illness, however, learns early on to Just Deal. Spina bifida is incompatible with a fulfilling, ambitious, successful, and easy life…so, Tom just got on with it, and had a fulfilling, ambitious, successful life in which his backpack contained several extra bricks that aren’t in yours or mine.

I wonder if that sort of stamina helps him as a writer? “Yes, this sucks. Yes, this is hard. Let’s just deal with it and move forward.” Whereas (and I can’t overstress this point) I’m the sort of writer who pictures himself struggling with his Muse every single moment of every single day. In my mind, I toil away in a freezing garret, alone and unknown, my only luxury a single white lily, which reminds me of the Truth and Beauty which I must achieve with each word, certain that my genius will never be understood or appreciated within my lifetime. That’s rich. Because in reality I am on the sofa with my MacBook on my lap, a remote control in my hand, snack crackers ever at the ready, and the knowledge that the next thing I write will definitely be read by a lot of people and I’ll probably get paid for it.

(The part about the single perfect lily was accurate, however. O beauty! Eternal, yet so fragile! [shed single tear] Why must I be cursed with the ability to understand it in such painful detail, even as pale, tart ugliness is lauded by those around me! Et cetera. By the time I get bored with this line of thought, all of my editors have gone home for the day and there’s not even much of a point to my starting work.)

You might have read that Tom will likely no longer be with us a week from now. As he wrote on his blog, his health has been declining precipitously, with no rescue realistically in sight. He’s decided to end his life on his own terms, and he and Dori have picked a date.

My tendency to overthink things and be oh-so-precious with words is nudging me to speak of Tom’s life as his greatest creative work. “…And now, true to form, Tom is wrapping things up, ending the project when he’s sure it’s complete. He’s content to close the back cover.”

But that’s glib. He’s ending his life because after living with cancer for a long time, his health has declined past the point where the powers of determination, family support, and medical science can push back. His choice isn’t based on “quality of life.” Tom’s life will end soon no matter what he chooses.

I’m pleased for Tom, because he’s clearly made the right choice for himself. I’m grateful that he wrote that blog post; it was a generous gift to his friends and fans. Tom has made his thoughts clear.

I can only speak for myself. It feels like Tom is choosing to “be there” when he dies. Both of my parents died from terminal illnesses. I was present during that final week or two when it was clear that their life forces were slowly tapering down to zero. They were heavily medicated to keep them out of pain.

I don’t fear death as much as I fear the idea of my death being taken out of my hands. I’d hate to die before I can tell everyone I love how much they meant to me. Or without making it clear that certain tasks, goals, principles, and even specific material objects were important and might even have defined me.

(Or without secure-erasing my browser history. Okay. Yes. Fine.)

I’m even more worried about existing as a mere memento of myself…to have a pulse and an active EEG, but little else. Once I’ve lost everything that defines me, plus the potential or the interest to define myself anew, aren’t I just hanging around the fairground after the tents and rides have been packed up and trucked away?

Willy Wonka said (in the good movie) that he wasn’t going to live forever and he didn’t want to, either. This is the man who invented lickable wallpaper. Suffice to say he’s a man of great wisdom.

I seem to be fishtailing around my emotions right now. I regret that Tom won’t be popping up in my life any more. I don’t regret Tom’s decision. I’m saddened that he’s leaving us too soon. I wish I had written and posted this earlier.

But I’m tremendously grateful that I’ve had an opportunity to tell Tom that I treasure him. It’s much more pleasant than writing a eulogy that he’ll never hear.

I feel an evening of deep sighs coming on.

I will pivot this ending with a formal declaration. If I’m hit by a bus or something and my family (not just the legally-recognized ones) has gathered around my bed in the ICU and is wondering if I’m even still in there, here’s what I want you to do:

Play either “America” from the Broadway score to “West Side Story,” or “Are You Man Enough” by the Four Tops. Or, in a pinch, the theme song from “Friends.”

If I don’t even try to do the hand claps…look, I’m sorry, but clearly I’m gone and nothing can bring me back. Start divvying up my body parts and my comic books. And please, someone delete my browser history.

 

 

 

Paul Ryan 1970-20?? HOLD IN CMS

It’s no secret that people in the news game maintain an inventory of obituaries of prominent, not dead, not even sick citizens. It’s the responsible choice. Murphy’s Law dictates that if Betty White is even capable of dying, it’s sure to happen when we’re recovering from a two-day bender and are incapable of giving this fine lady the sendoff that she deserves.

So the fact that I wrote House Speaker Paul Ryan’s obituary today should in no way be taken as some sort of wishful thinking. I sincerely hope that the man lives a long, long life and expires in a state of peace, surrounded by the many people who love him.

Seriously. If anything, I’m writing this now because I’m certain that the Speaker is going to outlive me. I mean, just look at him. Even the worst photo of him ever taken indicates a man brimming with health, committed to daily exercise and a regular diet.

Whereas I, as I write this, have just eaten a carrot cake donut and am halfway through a twenty ounce bottle of Diet Dr Pepper. Continue reading “Paul Ryan 1970-20?? HOLD IN CMS”

Congress repeals access to free public school education

Of course they didn’t. But imagine it. New Congress and their first order of business is to pass legislation that dismantles the public education system. Children are no longer guaranteed access to K-12 for free. Actually, they’re not even guaranteed access to K-12. Not as a fundamental right.

All schools in America have the right to refuse to accept any child for any reason. All schools in America can expel any child for any reason. And all of these schools will be sharing information between themselves freely, so if Billy or Jane got kicked out of third grade because their school didn’t feel like accommodating their food allergy or their disability, that could disqualify them from ever getting educated anywhere. Continue reading “Congress repeals access to free public school education”

‘Soda Politics’ and ‘Saving Gotham’ – The New York Times

‘Soda Politics’ and ‘Saving Gotham‘:

“Research has linked unbalanced soda consumption to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, stroke, dental disease, bone disease, depression, gout, asthma, cancer and premature death. These links, as Nestle clearly points out, are more correlative than causative. But all those correlations add up. To Big Soda’s ‘just one won’t hurt’ head fake, Nestle counters with a frightening totality of evidence. A study she cites estimates that sugar-sweetened beverages are responsible for 184,000 obesity-related deaths per year.”

(Via NYT.)

This review got me to buy the book, because the writer praised the thing for putting science and fact above activism. It already seems obvious that drinking lots of sweetened sodas is Medically-Contraindicated regardless of your personal or family health industry; I’ve been more curious to find out if the beverage industries have operated in as shady a fashion as the tobacco industry did.

I made “no sweetened soda inside the house” a Mission Rule way back in my late Twenties, when I realized that it probably wasn’t in my longterm best interests to reach for a Coke Classic every time I took a break from writing. Lately, I’ve been transitioning to flavored seltzers, though diet sodas are still a staple grocery item.

I wish one of these books would analyze the arguments against artificially-sweetened drinks. I’ve read articles that “sound good” but most of them appear to have the same factual credibility as someone saying “Even in its purest laboratory form, every molecule of water consists of almost seventy percent hydrogen. Hydrogen is a primary component in rocket fuel and is also used in the industrial production of petroleum products. It’s also highly corrosive to metals.”

As-is, the only really strong argument I’ve read against diet sodas came from Alton Brown:


That is, drinking Diet Dr. Pepper isn’t dangerous in and of itself, but it programs your brain to want other things that taste sweet. It’s an interesting suggestion.

The Soda Protocols

(One of the greatest culinary experiences of my entire life: drinking bottles of real-sugar Coke in Belize after two or three hours of hiking around.)

 

“Daddy’s magic thinking juice.” This is how I often describe the bottles and cans in my fridge, much to the confusion of friends and family.

“I didn’t know you even had kids,” they reply, cautiously. “Nor that your shame over your escalating drinking problem is so great that you choose to conceal its scale behind a code phrase.”

Well, neither thing is true. Alcohol consumption is often linked to parenthood (particularly during one’s frolicky teen years) but I only have a nodding relationship to both concepts. No, I describe my onhand inventory of soda that way because over the course of a long writing day, a glass of something fizzy and tasty helps to grease the gears of productivity. In fact, when the final deadline of a book project is less than two weeks away, my blood is about 20% phosphoric acid.

Is this a healthy habit? Oh, absolutely. I have zero back problems and have never been killed by one of those deep-vein thrombosis deals. I fix my doctor with a steely gaze and insist that it’s all thanks to my compulsive need to get up out of my chair every 45 minutes and walking to the kitchen to fix another drink.

But my powers of creativity and self-deception have limits. Back in my Twenties, I foresaw that drinking a couple of 12-packs of Coke every week was a career-limiting strategy. I instituted a new mission rule: no sugared sodas inside the house. I switched to Diet.

That was the only change I made to my Soda Protocols until recently, when I started to feel like it was time to tinker with them. Chalk it up to my entering my “long haul” years. Due to poor planning, I didn’t die in my youth with the final pages of my unpublished but soon-to-be-universally-acknowledged masterpiece crumpled in my cold hands. Onward to Plan B, then: start making choices with my longterm health in mind.

What’s the problem with my soda consumption? Is there a problem?

I’m not sure, so I’ve been playing with the variables. I switched to ginger ales and citrus flavors for a month because I was curious to see if the caffeine in my sodas was screwing me up in some way. I suffered no withdrawal symptoms (despite what years sitcom evidence predicted) and mmmmaybe I was falling asleep faster. It was an interesting data point if not a eureka result.

Okay, but what are those artificial sweeteners doing to me? “There’s no sound scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems,” says the Mayo Clinic. Okey-doke! That’s good enough for me. But I was intrigued by something Alton Brown said in his podcast: he thinks artificial sweeteners are the devil because even if they have no primary ill effects on your health, they reinforce the brain’s desire for sweet-tasting things.

In any event, it was worth giving up artificial sweeteners for a while, too. As with the caffeine thing, it was as much an experiment in self-control as anything else. I try to be on guard against compulsive behavior. Am I drinking this Diet Dr. Pepper because I genuinely enjoy it, or is it just something I’ve programmed myself to pour into a glass a few times a day?

In the end, all of this experimentation has left me disappointed. I had hoped that a month after eliminating this thing or that thing, my typing speed would increase by 20% and/or I’d finally get the hang of the “wet on wet” painting techniques of your leading TV art instructors. Nope! All I got out of any of this is the reassurance that I’m not chemically or psychologically addicted to any of this stuff (okay, that’s a win) and the knowledge that in some vague way, I might be making better longterm health choices. Even if that’s true, I won’t be able to blow out the candles on my 80th birthday cake and claim that it was because I kicked Coke to the curb in all of its hoary forms.

That’s the disappointing thing about most healthy living decisions. At least when you play a video game, you shoot open a chest, a first aid kit tumbles out, you walk over it and presto! The dingus in the corner of the screen tells you that you can now afford to get shot four more times. I suspect that this is why people would rather spend hours drinking orange soda in front of a video game instead of exercising. We need a system of scorekeeping for real life, don’t we? Unless God hands me a numerical score at the end of my life to show me what I “won” by changing my drinking habits, all I have to go on is faith.

(I know: He’s a big fan of Faith. It strengthens character and also saves Him a crapload of bookkeeping.)

Well, the experiment phase is over. I’ve made three sweeping changes to my Soda Protocols:

  1. The default home beverage is now “seltzer.” Either flavored, or enhanced through the manual addition of natural lemon or lime juice. It has no caffeine and no artificial sweeteners. I actually prefer the clean taste to the vague chemical-ey notes present in even a good cola-war-battle-hardened diet soda.
  2. I have lifted the household ban on sweetened soda. The Experiment Phase proved that I’m not a compulsive drinker, so I trust myself. But! Sweetened soda is to be consumed as though it were alcohol. One small glass, perhaps once a day.
  3. Soda should be sweetened with real sugar, if at all possible. I’m letting sugared soda back into my life so that I can savor and enjoy it as a rare (-ish) treat, instead of guzzling it like water. I don’t know what to make about all of the anti-corn-syrup fuss out there. But I do know that I prefer the taste of natural sugar (it adds a peppery snap). If this it going to be a treat, let’s make it a treat, yes? I’m swapping out the diet stuff because it doesn’t taste as good as this, and I’m agreeing to drink far less of it as a tradeoff.

We seem to be living in a new Enlightened Age of real sugar colas. Pepsi seems to have made the “Throwback” flavor a regular item; on top of that, they’re promoting three new “real sugar” flavors as a summer promotion. Why the holy hell doesn’t Coke jump on the bandwagon, too? We love cane sugar-sweetened Coke so much that we’re willing to import the stuff from exotic foreign nations, such as Mexico and Costco! The fact that there isn’t a domestic variant trademarked as “Coke Refresco” proves that The Coca-Cola Company is a society in a state of chaos. The company should be annexed by a neighbor and run by a colonial governor until such time as they are once again capable of self-rule.

(It’s the humanitarian thing to do. Blackberry watched the iPhone sweep in and take over the phone market, and yet they still refuse to make phones out of real cane sugar. I’d hate to see that same sad fate befall Coca-Cola.)

On the subject of Pepsi Throwback: it was a one-off summer promotion that was so successful that Pepsi just decided to keep it around. The first time I encountered it, I bought the one remaining 12-pack of cane-sugar Dr Pepper in the store display and holy mother of God, it was some of the tastiest stuff I ever drank. This was years ago and I swear to you that every time – every time – I see a 12-pack of Throwback Pepsi, I instinctively check to see if there’s any Heritage Dr Pepper. Make it a regular damn product!

We’re Americans! The only thing we like better than sugar is a super special kind of sugar that lets us congratulate ourselves for our discerning taste and superiority!