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.

 

 

 

For Shame!

Greetings from CocoaConf Yosemite, an exceptionally lovely conference for Mac developers taking place at a lodge inside Yosemite National Park. Conferences like this one are a relatively new development. The focus is far away from new APIs and project management. Instead, the speakers tend to spend their 45 minutes talking about how we write software, how we create things, how to pull off the modern miracle of feeling both productive and fulfilled.

I’ve been looking forward to my talk for months. I so totally want my talk to go well. Because during last year’s conference, the majority of speakers left me seriously juiced up about getting back to work and expanding my horizons. I’m grateful to them.

Jamiee Newberry finished talking this morning. Her 45 minute talk about focusing on little goals and new experiences made me think about how long it’s been since I wrote a proper blog post. Jamiee wanted to write more, so she opened an account on Medium and set herself the little goal of writing one thing every day, just thirty minutes a shot, no editing, for a month. And by Godfrey, she did it.

Jamiee is a terrific speaker, so it was Inspirational.

If my Mom or Dad had said the same thing, it would have been a little Shaming. “Why can’t you just do what that nice Newberry girl did? She maintained a long streak of blog posts and YouTube videos! And didn’t you see that stain on your shirt when you got dressed this morning?”

But no: Inspirational.

So I’m here at the back of the room, spending fifteen minutes putting out a quick blog post.

Push the button, Frank.

Are you waiting for proof that you’re really an artist? – Jessica Abel

Are you waiting for proof that you’re really an artist? – Jessica Abel:

If you’re not stretching yourself, trying to say something you’ve never said before, trying to give form to ideas that are truly new for you, writing is a breeze. It’s a walk in the park. Do you struggle to describe the ridiculous behavior of your annoying roommate? To express how you feel about what your dog did to your shoes? To recount what happened in some recent sports match? Probably not. If you were to write about these topics in an email, say, it would probably be a pretty cut-and-dried affair. But that is because the ideas you’re expressing are fairly simple, and the events are clear and on the surface.

(Via.)

I’d like to needlepoint the whole blog post on a pillow. A really, really big pillow.

Jessica Abel has been one of my favorite graphic storytellers for ages. Somewhere in the Ihnatko Archives, I have an early issue of her “Artbabe” series…printed at Kinkos and hand-stitched with red yarn.

But I discovered her blog only recently, and it’s brilliant stuff. Her series on “getting your creative work unstuck” is true, important, and inspirational. I’m so grateful that I happened to read it just before starting another long work session.

In the above piece, I love the balance between “you’re working hard and going through heck (try to stay out of hell, kids; it’s a silly place) because you’re trying to create great things” and “finish it.” It’s advice I’ve given to others, and yet it’s sometimes so hard for me to accept!

You do need to hear it from others from time to time…and I’ve never seen it expressed better than this.

Writing strong female characters

I was reading some fiction this morning and recognized another reliable tipoff that an author doesn’t know how to write a strong female character: the book’s female lead only exists to prevent the male lead from looking insane every time he delivers exposition.

For instance:

 

Carson drifted into the empty living room. He settled into its second-most-comfortable chair and fussed with a loose seam on the armrest.

Darla entered, drawn by the palpable aroma of Sulk that had been wending its way through the air conditioning system ever since she heard the front door close. “What’s wrong, honey?”

“I’m worried about Omega,” Carson said.

“Oh, no.”

“Yes: Mark’s back. And he promises, absolutely insists, that he’s either going to terminate the whole project or die trying to get credit for it.”

“Can’t you just, you know…have him killed? It’s not as though anyone at the office would ask too many questions. Particularly if it happened on a Friday morning and gave everyone an excuse to start the weekend early.”

“I can’t kill Mark.”

“Well, then, just exploit his tendencies towards idiocy. Water flows downhill. Mark sees a Reddit video of someone almost jumping over a speeding car and thinks ‘I bet that didn’t hurt nearly as much as he’s pretending it did’.”

Carson stopped fussing with the upholstery and snort-smiled. “I’m not going to kill Mark, nor indirectly get him injured.”

“Ah,” Darla said, pretending to be disappointed. She shooed the pile of unread magazines and supermarket circulars off the sofa as though it were an indifferent and entitled cat, and took a seat.

“Is the project really that important? How do you know this isn’t just another dead end?”

Carson rose and crossed to a table. “One, two, three, four binders,” he said, picking up each one and theatrically dropping it to the floor. “Each one represents four hundred pages of dead ends. But it’s not like we wasted our time. Three years of proving what won’t work has absolutely, categorically proven to us what will work.”

“Omega.”

“Omega. We have a completely linear path ahead of us for the first time since we launched the company.”

“You make it sound as if all you need to do is follow the dotted line and dig at the ‘X’. You’re that certain?”

“Arrrr, matey!” Carson said, hopping around on one foot.

“A real pirate would just tell Mark ‘Don’t fuss with the #3 cannon; it’s got a faulty fuse’ and then hand the problem over to Darwin.”

“A real pirate wouldn’t have any problems finding financing.” He looked at the floor, listlessly.

“True. So, really, honey…what are you going to do?”

“Ha,” Carson said. Not laughed…said.

“Thank you. I stole that line from a Mitch Hedberg video. What?”

Carson transitioned to a satisfied little chuckle as he picked one of the binders up off the floor and turned to face the chair. He patted its spine and held it with the same air of pride and promise as a new father holds his first child.

He kissed one of its corners, theatrically.

“Mark is an idiot. He’s an even worse enemy to himself than he is to any of the rest of us, if such a thing is even possible. And Lord knows he has no idea what we’ve been working on for the past four years: note the word ‘work’ in that phrase.”

He worked a finger underneath the binder’s spine and removed its label card. It read EPSILON – PHASE IV – *** FAIL ***.

He tore the card into four pieces.

“I think I’m about to mislabel my project files. I think I’m going to leave my desk unlocked tomorrow. And I think the day after that, Mark will ask to make a special presentation to the board of directors. Each of whom remembers our past failures only too well.”

Darla laughed and rose to leave. “I think that’s brilliant,” she said, making for the doorway. “And I think there’s no reason for us not to keep our 6:30 dinner reservations. And I think you’re not leaving the house in those muddy trousers. I can throw them in the load of laundry I was about to run,” she said, leaving to fetch the basket.

“And if your plan doesn’t work?” she called, from the hall.

“If it doesn’t work,” Carson said, dropping his pants, “then we use the cannon.”

 

If the woman is there just for a male protagonist to bounce exposition off of…that’s not a great character.

Spork, Sympathy, Lumia, Moto, Manifest, Vultures.

Through the interaction of a complicated array of sensors and indicators, a piece of hardware communicated an error condition that allowed me to quickly diagnose and solve a problem that would, if left unchecked, have eventually led to the failure of said hardware.

In plain English: “When the garbage disposal immediately made an unholy racket, I knew that a piece of silverware must have dropped down there.”

No harm done, in the end. In fact, the accident improved the utensil in a way that brought this geek some immediate joy:

Spork

It’s a Spock Fork. I herewith declare that the word “Spork” now applies to a conventional fork with this arrangement of tines and not any other thing. Live long and prosper, by eating lots of salads.

* * *

Shipped a review of Parallels Access yesterday. I had it ahead of the release day but couldn’t publish until Thursday. I was experiencing so many problems with it, and the price of this iOS app is so utterly insane ($80 per year!) that I knew that my review would be…dark. When one sets down the pot of honey and picks up the cruet of vinegar, he or she should be absolutely certain that they’re making the right choice.

I came home from dinner last night, still wondering if maybe I should have gone easy on this app.

Then I saw that the app had done this to my MacBook Pro while I was away:

20130830_085948

And I felt a lot better.

* * *

I’m still working hard at getting my Lumia 1020 review out the door, as well as my Moto X writeup. The hitch with the Lumia piece is that I’ve been spending too much time writing it. I now need to convert the 4500 words that I assembled over three or four weeks into the 2000 words I would have written if, when I started the piece, I had three weeks’ worth of experience with the phone.

I kind of needed to hang on to the Moto X review until I got a chance to see Motorola’s Droid Ultra, which was released about a week ago. The Moto X was designed from start to finish after Motorola was bought by Google and the company received its new sense of purpose. The Droid Ultra is a legacy phone that merely benefits from many of the great ideas that became Moto X signatures (like the Active Display). By holding off for a week or two, I can now put those features in context.

And! I can show off the Moto Maker custom color phone that Motorola finally sent me. They had to kibosh the first one because they didn’t like how the engraving was coming out on the samples and decided to not offer that specific feature to customers until they’ve got it right. Fair enough.

They’re solid reviews and I’ll be keen to see how they play in front of an audience. I’ll be sooooo relieved when these finally ship! My brain tends to get locked into major projects and once they’re out the door, I can free up bandwidth for other things.

I did resist the impulse to drive to the Back Bay after dinner last night and take some nighttime tripod shots with the 1020. That’s a welcome sign that I’m not gripped in an infinite loop on this project.

(Or is it a sad sign that I had the power to end this madness whenever I wanted? That’s the kind of question that has a tendency to lay there and fester.)

* * *

Meanwhile, I sent a note of praise to Jim Barraud, the designer of the Manifest WordPress theme that I’m using here. He responded with an offer to let me beta test the new edition. Manifest is one of those “labor of love” projects and those kinds of things often wind up in a holding pattern until a Twitter DM from a slightly doofy tech writer makes you remember that you’ve created something that is both lovable and loved.

I’m very much looking forward to playing with his update. I’d been diving into the theme files looking for a way to add a custom header but now that’s not necessary; the new edition will likely support WordPress’ new built-in “any dumbass can add a header without editing the theme files” resource.

That’ll be welcome! Because a neat new header has been on my hard drive for about ten months, waiting for me to make time to redesign the site. “Labors of Love” and all that. Until then, I’ve just been tweaking the layout a bit and replacing fonts. I like the new headline font and am on the fence on whether or not I should find a spiffy new body font.

* * *

Last thought of this post: if I ever meet an alien who needs to quickly understand the nature of Human society in total, I know exactly what do to. I’ll tell him/her/it the story of how I arrived at one of my favorite independent stores the other day and, within the space of about three minutes, my thoughts went from “Oh, they’re closing their doors for good on Saturday! That’s terrible! I love this place and I’m going to miss it! I sure hope the owners are going to be okay!” to “I wonder if they’re taking offers on that utility table they’ve got behind the register…”

I can’t predict what an alien would do with this information but at least it’s honest and complete.

Wisdom from “Project Runway”

I’m watching this week’s “Project Runway” on my iPad while eating lunch.

The designers are in the workroom. I’ve just heard a certain phrase that seems to come up a few times in every season.

There are days when my writing does not go well. Sometimes, the writing is going so desperately Not Well and I am so creatively frustrated that I am forced to go to Plan Z, which commences after I have made the following ceremonial declaration:

“I am completely, 100% out of ideas. The tank is bone-dry, there is no liquid in the fuel lines, and the Vehicle of Genius has rolled to a stop at the bottom of a hill. I’ve been sitting here on this bench for hours, waiting for The Next Bus To Ideaville to arrive, and now I’m starting to doubt if this town even has bus service. I am going to just move forward without any plan. I have a childlike hope that God Himself will become so exasperated with my performance and so impatient to see results that He will manifest Himself here in the office and hand me an envelope labeled ‘A Workable Concept’ sometime before my deadline. Why? Because this is, in fact, the most rational and practical plan available to me at this moment.”

From now on, I shall shorten this to

“I’m just going to drape the dress form and allow the fabric to speak to me.”

Bad Movie, Good Lesson

I tried to post something on Twitter last night and failed miserably. First, I clicked the wrong button and posted a draft instead of deleting it. Then I tried to save face by posting it in two or three hunks, and then I realized that I didn’t have a link to the thing that had inspired the whole mess.

Hi! I’m Andy! I’m a professional writer! Many people trust me for advice on how to make technical things work!

OK. So here’s what I was getting at.

We all get frustrated about our writing projects. Don’t let it set you back.

Frustration is the villain with a thousand faces. I’m bored. Or I lose focus. Or I lose faith in this idea; I think there’s something else I ought to be doing with my time. I remember a workday when the writing felt like I was just reaching down into a wishing well and pulling up fistful after fistful of quarters and today is nothing like that.

I usually get myself out of this sort of mood by reminding myself that the words aren’t supposed to flow easily every time I sit down at the keyboard. This stuff is work. Why is this specific writing problem any different from the time a switch broke on my washing machine, and I couldn’t immediately figure out how to put it back together so that the thingy would stay engaged with the whatchamacallit? A problem can only be solved if you keep working on a solution, as the Tide-fresh Alien Skin Software tee shirt I’m wearing today attests.

Also oh-so-correct: this question that Neil Gaiman recently answered on his Tumblr:

“You being lazy and unmotivated and not writing allows another writer, who does sit down and write, to get published in your place. Magazines and publishers only have so many pages, so many annual publishing spots. You’re letting someone else who wants to do the work get published. Surely that’s a good thing…?”

Similar: that scene from “Tootsie” in which Dustin Hoffman is Teri Garr’s acting coach. She’s struggling with an audition piece. “I’m no good with confrontational characters,” she lamely apologizes. “Well, that’s too bad,” Hoffman snaps back. “Because you’re competing with hundreds of actresses who have no problem with confrontational characters. And that’s why one of them is going to get this part instead of you!”

(The takeaway from the scene and the Tumblr: it’s hard for everybody. Some people will work through it and some won’t.)

To these motivational tools I now add the tale of the hardworking screenwriter of “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.” Via Patton Oswalt’s “Werewolves and Lollipops” (NSFW language):

Oswalt is absolutely right. George Barry (the filmmaker) can definitely call himself a writer. The English professor who’s had an incomplete novel moldering in his or her desk forever can’t. The novel is bold and original and ambitious. The professor believes it’ll inspire the peoples of the world to coalesce into a single, higher being. “Death Bed” is schlocky drive-in tripe. George Barry only believed that a sufficiently lurid low-budget horror movie couldn’t fail to make money.

Aha! But George Barry finished his screenplay.

Becoming a writer isn’t like becoming a doctor or a civil engineer, or a luncheonette that serves “the best coffee in town.” You don’t have to go through a seven-year accreditation process. If you want to call yourself a writer, all you need to do is finish writing something.

Oh, and: writing about writing almost doesn’t count as writing. I suppose I should get back to work. Just remember that as a writer, you’re not a passive receptacle for some mysterious Muse. You’re a worker. The good news is that when you’ve finished something, you’ve earned something.

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS WRITERS’ BLOCK.

This morning, I came across a list of tips on how to get through ten different kinds of writers’ block.

Pro Tip: there aren’t “ten different kinds of writers’ block.” There isn’t even _one_ kind. There is no such thing as writers’ block.

Okay?

On a physical level, writing involves just sitting in a comfy chair and doing this for hours (mimes typing). This creates the entirely false impression that writing isn’t hard work. It is. Every writer seeks one of those effortless days in which it seems like you just go into a trance, and the thread keeps revealing itself as fast as you can pull it. But! That’s rare.

Every driver hopes that they’ll get to their destination in forty-three minutes, just as the GPS promises, without encountering any traffic, construction, accidents, or unclear road signs.

Every contractor hopes that the walls of this house’s kitchen were built plumb and level and according to building codes, and that the custom-cabinet maker built these units to the exact measurements provided.

Every cook who ever made a Thanksgiving dinner wants all of the parts of the turkey to be equally succulent, for the skin to be a crispy golden brown, and for the bird to be on the table on time.

Every scientist who ever tried to solve a fundamental problem of theoretical physics wants the numbers from his predicted result to be so close to the experimental result that the difference is statistically insignificant and the theory is supported.

But those things almost never happen, either. There’s no mystical, mythical obstacle in any of these physical activities. There’s a goal, and there are a bunch of unforeseen obstacles preventing someone from reaching that goal. You took a serious wrong turn somewhere; the two pieces that are supposed to fit together perfectly don’t fit together at all; it’s become very clear that you’re not going to be able to carve a food-porn-grade turkey at the table in front of your guests at 1 PM; your theory suggests that E = MC Hammer.

So you just crack your knuckles and work on the problems. You acknowledge that you went the wrong way and you get back in the right direction; you modify one piece or the other so that they do fit; you stop mourning the loss of your original plan and embrace a new one that’s just as good; you put it aside and determine to go back to it in a week or two with fresh eyes.

As a writer, you are never “blocked.”

Here, let me say it again, with more markup tags:

As a writer, you are never “blocked.”

The fact that you’re not actually writing doesn’t mean that you’re not actually working. You’re also working when you’re thinking. Figure out what the problems are and _solve_ them. Solve them in a half-assed way if you have to; slap enough duct tape over the problem that you can proceed to the next step. Go back later and improve it in the editing process.

Or! Just put the whole thing aside. Just for now. Even in the worst, most frustrating situation, you’re not “blocked.” You just can’t make any progress on this one thing.

So write something else. One good page about anything in your line of sight will prove that you can still write, and even if it doesn’t help you with a project that’s due soon it’ll still exercise those muscles that convert synaptic misfirings into something readable.

Or, walk from the desk to the sofa and read something else. Reading something that’s very good will inspire ideas of your own. At minimum, you’ll stop thinking about the kind of writing that you hate (your own Projectus Horribilus) and start thinking about writing that you love (Wodehouse; always reliable).

Or just knock off work for the day.

But don’t say you’re “blocked,” ever. And for the love of almighty God, don’t seek answers from the sort of madmen who insist and reinforce the idea that “writer’s block” is a real thing.

Your brain is highly malleable. If you train it to believe that you need to pull over to the side of the road and stop moving forward the instant a “Writer’s Block” indicator on the dashboard turns red, then over time, that’s the only solution it’ll ever offer you.

Writing is hard. That’s why so few people stick to it and actually finish things. It’s also why you have a right to be immensely proud when you finish something.

There is no such thing as “Writers’ Block.”

Tabled for Consideration

People often do weird things when they’re chasing productivity. Alas, despite my efforts towards higher things, I am a People.

I do a lot of writing in coffeeshops and where-have-yous. Partly it’s because of the Very Writerly Thing where you get a little energized by the presence and activity of people around you. Partly it’s because I work out of a home office, and going out to write every day or two pretty much insists that I maintain a sensible and regular schedule of showering and shaving.

I’ve come to really like the tables at coffeeshops. They’re meant to take abuse and thwart theft, so they’re solid and heavy. They’re about the perfect height for sitting and typing at, and they’re the perfect size. They’re just big enough to comfortably accommodate a writer, a laptop, a beverage, a muffin, and one source of distraction, such as an iPhone or a hamster in a small cage.

(Don’t bring a hamster into a Panera Bread. You can have the quietest wheel in the world…the management will still get upset.)

So when I came across a nice 28″ coffeehouse table at a consignment shop, I gave it a couple of days’ thought and then came back for it with cash in hand. The sensible part of my brain said it was a nice, well-made table at a great price. The irrational but still useful part of my brain imagined that I might be able to get more writing done late at night if I could occasionally move from the desk in my home office to a room with a coffeehouse table, the arena where I have so frequently plucked victory from the gaping, snapping maw of unproductive defeat. Productivity is productivity, even the cargo cult kind.

But there was a third element to this buying decision. I try not to be a wuss about hot weather. If it’s hot, I turn on a fan. If it’s really hot, I’ll pack up and spend the day working in a series of public places that offer aggressive AC, free WiFi, and unlimited free refills.

If three days of possible triple-digit weather are forecast, however, it turns out that my response is to buy a table and set it up in the bedroom, so that I can work in the one place in the house that has air conditioning.

But I Won’t Crumple Them; That Would Take Effort

Suffice to say that this has been one of those heavy, frustrating workweeks in which I’ve been constantly distracted by the knowledge that there’s a valid passport in my filing cabinet and enough available credit on my Diner’s Club card to buy an air ticket to almost any friendly nation on earth.

The only hitch: I’d probably have to Expedia the tickets, and the really good deals require at least a three-week advance purchase. So I’d definitely be denied the giddy pleasure of drinking mimosas in Rio eight hours before anyone even realized I was gone. Instead, I’d be in a nondescript motor lodge in New Hampshire Delaware, where I’d be holed up for most of a month no fewer than seven weeks waiting for my departure date. I think you’ll agree there’s a lack of satisfying drama in this scenario.

See what I almost did there? I nearly gave away my plans. You members of the Platinum Double-Diamond Executive Rewards Club get to see the edits. Normal readers, including my enemies, shall remain completely in the dark. I’m adding this secret note so that you folks can help me out with the disinformation campaign. You know who didn’t have Platinum Double-Diamond Executive Rewards Club Readers? Whitey Bulger and Osama Bin Laden, just to name two. I’m confident that you people will pull through for me where their blog readers failed.

Yup, work on my upcoming iPad and iPhone books is now in the “frenetic” phase. Early knowledge that iOS 5 would contain truly transformative elements forced me to write in “LEGO brick” fashion, where I do all of the research and then write big hunks, without a firm knowledge of the final form of the book and saddled with a nagging worry that I’d have to spend ages on new material and fixing up existing stuff. iCloud is just part of the problem, and it’s problem enough: I can hardly find a chapter of the original outline that wasn’t fundamentally affected by Apple’s new cloud service.

Hence my dreamy fantasies about a new life in South Korea and a new job selling straw hats at a beach resort or something. I’ve spent the past week and a half rewriting the book’s outline and pounding chapters into shape. It’ll all come out well in the end, I know, but a quality product only comes after you spend a long time at the forge, pounding, pounding, pounding away at the steel until the object that you see in front of you looks like the gorgeously deadly weapon of truth, beauty and wisdom that you’ve been picturing in your mind all this time.

I’m taking a break today to work on some Sun-Times columns and also (yeesh) tidy up a bit. For decades, when a movie or a TV show wanted to communicate “A writer has been writing hard for hours, days, or weeks” via a single, instantly-understood visual, it would simply show an office strewn with hundreds of crumpled-up sheets of typing paper.

Alas, even when I was a kid, a typewriter was that funny thing way back in a basement closet that your Mom or Dad kept from their college days. This old trope is destined for the dustbin of history.

But as I look around my office…

…And the TV room…

…And the bedroom…

…And the room I use as a podcast studio…

I realize that a new trope has stepped in to fill the void: the half-drunk can of diet cola. Yes, if it’s possible for me to write for an extended period in any specific spot in my house, then at this moment that spot is surrounded by at least $1.80 in deposit cans containing probably about six ounces of backspit, total.

It’s a perfect modern adaptation of a familiar visual. It acknowledges the obsolescence of written pages, it reflects the fact that laptops and WiFi have made “the place where I work” into an almost uselessly-fluid concept, and most importantly it opens up whole new opportunities for commercial product placement.

“Fast Eddie…let’s play some pool.”

Minnesota Fats (played by Jackie Gleason) is on the ropes. He’s been shooting high-stakes pool against Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) all through the night and into the morning. He’s been beaten and everyone in the pool hall knows it. The only reason why Fast Eddie hasn’t collected the victory and the stakes is the fact that when you play against a legend like Fats, “The game isn’t over until Fats says it’s over.”

That’s fine by Eddie. He came here to prove something. He wants the money but just as strongly, he wants the concession that he’s the better player.

Fats is slumped in the chair, disheveled, sweaty, exhausted. The cue rests against his open hand.

He excuses himself. He sends a kid out to buy a bottle of top-drawer booze. He goes into the washroom and washes his face and hands carefully, and then he powders both. He combs his hair. He changes into a fresh shirt. He puts his jacket back on and fixes his boutonniére.

He emerges a new man. “Fast Eddie,” he says, adjusting his cuffs and smiling, “Let’s play some pool.” From that point on, the ending is inevitable.

When I’m having a bad workday — when it’s X o’clock and I’ve only accomplished Y of the Z things I’d hoped to finish by now, where Y divided by Z is heartbreakingly closer to 0 than to 1 — I think of this scene and reflect upon its lessons:

  1. It’s not over until you say it’s over. In most situations, you didn’t lose because you got beat. You lost because you accepted the loss while there was still time left on the clock, when instead you should have focused on the ways you could still win. And maybe you actually can’t win…but at minimum, you can do a better job of losing.
  2. Sometimes the stink of failure is a physical thing. Wash it off. No kidding. Brush your teeth, wash your face, change into a clean shirt. Move to a different workspace. Once you’ve left behind all of the sights and smells of your Ungodly Unproductive Morning, your brain restarts and reboots.
  3. The good news is, the whiskey works. Yes. Pour yourself a drink. Have a cookie. Slice yourself a bit of that nice Y Fenni cheese you bought a few days ago. And don’t just gobble it down. Nibble, sip, savor. It’ll help put some sensory distance between now and the time when you were having such a horribly unproductive day and doing such terrible work.

Then I sit back down, rub my hands together, and say “Fast Eddie…let’s play some pool.” Because nothing counts if you don’t keep trying.

Logitech diNovo Keyboards

The diNovo Mac keyboard from Logitech: my fave keyboard.

Over on Twitter, @JeffCGD asked me what I thought about the Logitech diNovo Mac Edition wireless keyboard, which got name-checked in my previous post. I started to say “It’s fab.” But I soon realized that it was too fab to really talk about in just 140 characters. I headed to Logitech to grab an image for a blog post and that’s when I discovered that my favorite keyboard had been discontinued.

It’s still widely available but that’s still stinks. The diNovo features my definition of the perfect keyswitch design. Fifteen years ago, I might have preferred big, chonky noisy keys with lots and lots of travel. That was back when “my main computer” was a desktop that I sat down behind, as opposed to a notebook that I drag into bed off the nightstand.

Today, a classic keyboard leaves my fingers a little confused and out of sorts. I’ve trained them to tap the keys instead of pushing. The diNovo feels like the sort of keyboard you’d get on a notebook if the designers didn’t care about a keyboard’s size, depth, and cost. The keyboard you get with the Mac is the same keyboard you’d get on a notebook…which seems to miss the point.

The diNovo looks great, too. And even though it takes up very little room on my desk, its size comes only at the expense of wasted bits of casing and plastic that served no purpose anyway.

So why did Logitech can this product? I haven’t a clue. They still sell the super-duper edition: the diNovo Edge, which is a Bluetooth keyboard that integrates a trackpad and other little bells and whistles. But cripes, it’s another hunnert bucks!

There seem to be two options. You can just buy a diNovo Mac online — stocks still appear to be plentiful at Amazon and elsewhere — or you can buy Logitech’s Illuminated Keyboard. The keys are backlit, it’s corded, and I’ve never used it…but it’s still an active product. It uses the same keyswitch technology as my beloved diNovo Mac, so hopefully it’ll have that same great feel.

The Logitech Illuminated Keyboard. It's lighty-lighty and it isn't wireless, but it uses the same kind of keys as the diNovo.

I try not to be too fussy about keyboards. It’s easy to become just as precious and annoying about your favorite keyboard as some writers are about The Perfect Pen and…

(Hang on…I need to channel the Great Spirit of Creative Twitbaggery…)

“The creamy perfection of the classic Moleskine; the smell of the leather and the slight crackling sound as I spread it flat on a table at my favorite coffeeshop. The way it accepts the ink, which, when I am truly in connection with my Muse, flows not from the pen, but from the mysterious wellspring from which all stories are spun…”

(Note: you are not a Creative Twitbag if you use a Moleskine and are fond of pens. You are undoubtedly a Creative Twitbag if you’ve ever described your writing tools in that way. If your writing tools inspire you only to write about how you feel about writing, you should probably switch to something that costs less than a dollar per unit at the drugstore.)

I do love my diNovo, though. And this new knowledge makes me wonder if I shouldn’t, you know, stockpile one or two of these for a rainy day.

Foolishness

Now that the 1 has flipped over to 2 on my novelty “Numbers In Strict Numerical Sequence-A-Day Calendar” I can call your attention to a couple of goofs I had going. It was an unusually active April Fool’s Day for me…so much so that my Hand-Blackening Soap (“Indistinguishable from the genuine article…guaranteed ice-breaker”) remained in its original packaging and will be stored away for another year.

First, my pal Jason iChatted me with a preview of what he had planned for his TV site, TeeVee.net. On April 1, TeeVee would become Radeeo, the blog that would have existed in its place if television had never been invented and radio had remained the single dominant form of entertainment and information throughout the 20th century.

I thought it was a fabulous wheeze, and it immediately inspired a brilliantly funny idea. And when I completely and spectacularly failed to figure out how to make that idea work, I went with my second idea.

This Radeeo piece really was going to be it for April Fool’s Day. But at a little after midnight on April 1, I impulsively typed something into my Twitter window and clicked “Update”:

Tweet start of April Fool

A few seconds later, I saw that message in my Twitter feed. I immediately thought “Oh. Oh, dear…I seem to have started an April Fool’s prank that might inconvenience me for most of the whole rest of the day.”

Well, Twitter seemed to be a neat medium for perpetrating an ongoing April Fool’s gag. Fortunately, the timing worked out so that by the time I had to “leave for the airport,” it was time for me to go to bed, and my flight wouldn’t “touch down” until after I’d woken up.

So I spent the day publishing a nice, tidy little serial adventure, in about four dozen 140-character chapters. The first post starts right about here. Twitter posts appear in stack order, so start at the bottom of the page and click the “Newer” button to get to the next installments.

I prolly ought to archive them here in proper order…but it’s late and I still need to finish a Sun-Times column.

Fab WordPress Theme Tutorial

A note to Future Andy:

When you do decide to create your own WordPress theme from the ground up, this tutorial is absolutely fab. If it were a book, I’d buy it.

Actually, it explains the strength of printed books over webpages, in certain situations. Writing a theme is somewhere in the same category as writing an entire piece of software. It’s not a simple trick or tip that you can skim through and then use. You need to sit, read, focus, think, and assimilate.

That doesn’t really work so good when the medium forces you to sift the actual content from amongst all the crap that competes for attention on a webpage, makes you click a link to move from page to page and article to article.

If I ever threw out my copy of Danny Goodman‘s seminal “Complete HyperCard Handbook,” then I’m a damned fool. I don’t do a whole lot of HyperCard development these days (seeing as we’re nearing the tenth anniversary of HC’s death, and the fourth anniversary of Apple finally getting around to burying the body). But my copy was a wonderful artifact of an important time in my life. It was probably identical to every other copy of this book ever sold: dog-eared, scuffed to hell, tape keeping the spine together, fingerprints and food stains on every other page…in short, it was a book that bore the proud battle scars of an awesomely useful reference that got used every day and which was read everywhere. I remember taking it with me to my summer job every day. I read it on the bus over, I read it during my lunch break, and I read it on the bus back home.

Natcherly, this was mostly due to Danny’s God-given gifts. The HyperCard Bible is still a standard of excellence that few tech books have attained since. It took you from the fundamentals all the way through advanced techniques, and did so in a way that was always clear and enjoyable to read.

Mad props to Danny, as always. The point is that I don’t know if I and other HyperCard developers would have gained such a broad, deep and holistic understanding of such a beefy topic if we could only consume the knowledge in isolated, individually-wrapped bites…and had to dodge animated offers to punch monkeys and slap sumo wrestlers while doing so.

Possibly (Hopefully) The Low Point

5 days until final book deadline. There’s a certain amount of shaving and showering that should be happening but isn’t.

The true sign that I’ve reached the end game (as well as the low reserves of my mental faculties) is when I must resort to lab rat methods of motivation.

Witness (metaphorically only, unless you’re that kind person who sent me the vintage moose head and the 802.11g antenna that appears to be sticking up behind its left ear is transmitting video from an embedded camera) the small dish to the left of my keyboard. This morning, it contained eight peanut M&M’s. It now contains three. Each candy represents a specific item on today’s punchlist that must be completed before I’m allowed to close my eyes and adopt any posture that invites or even risks sleep.

Yes, I both need a tangible reward for each goal met, as well as a visible indicator of progress and a clear marker of when it’s time to walk away from the keyboard and follow the orange pixies into their magic gumdrop forest.

It is very appropriate that I’ll be boarding a plane and fleeing this whole half of the USA on the day I submit the last bits of this book. I think I’m going to desperately need to spend 48 hours forgetting everything about my office and cocooning myself in a world apart where there’s a king-sized bed, maid service, and cheerful Texans eager to ply me with barbecue.