Christmas was a big deal around my house when I was a kid. It was my mom’s favorite holiday by miles, and my parents always treated my sister and me to lots of gifts — usually a few big centerpiece things from Santa that we woke up to find (unwrapped) on Christmas morning and a pile of wrapped gifts from my parents. Decorating the tree was a big affair, with the old classic Christmas tunes (many of which I play for my kids now) going on the stereo, and I would “help” my dad string the lights on the tree. It was the one day (or few days) per year that we would spend in our more formal living room, which mostly went unused. Here are a few pictures from Christmases as I grew up.
A few weeks ago, my son came home from school asking if he could work on an after school project that would potentially let him send a science experiment to space. He and a couple of other kids had been selected to participate in a program wherein students from fifth grade up through high school design experiments to be performed on the International Space Station. The finalists actually get to send their experiment up to the ISS to be performed. Of course we said yes!
I attended the first after-school meeting, and one of the kids already had a long list of ideas for what kinds of experiments they might perform. My son proposed something having to do with snake venom and blood coagulation in microgravity, but I think his interests lay more in the appeal of snake venom than in scientific inquiry. It was clear to me from that meeting that his teacher was going to guide but not take over the project. This would be a student project. My son’s experiment would not likely find its way to the ISS (and, lest this come off as a build up to some neat announcement, I’ll go ahead and say: his group didn’t win).
The experiment design is very constrained because it’s expensive to send stuff up into space. Winning projects get a special sort of tube subdivided into three compartments with little gates that can be opened to expose items in the different compartments to one another. So you could put snake venom in one end, blood in the other, and instruct the astronauts to open the gates to join the two, and then observe the impact of microgravity on coagulation compared to what happens in a control setup back home. So you have to design your experiment around these physical constraints and with the understanding that pretty much all the astronauts will do is follow simple instructions and set the tube aside. They won’t take measurements or do other formal observations, and your experiment design has to factor this in.
My son and his team met one or two other times after school and came together to work on the project over lunch a few times. They wound up settling on seeing if microgravity affects the behavior in fire ants that causes them to clump together when they find themselves in water. They tested the clumping behavior locally and devised a plan for testing it in space. They wrote and submitted their experiment design and made a tri-fold display for presentation at an event one night this week. It was charmingly clear from their display that the teacher had let the kids do most of the work. There was a classic elementary school bulletin board border (with the wavy edges) around the edges of the tri-fold display, and sheets of paper were glued to the board without utmost tidiness. Other groups had much fancier (or at least much tidier) displays. It was clear that some of the other elementary school teacher sponsors had had a much bigger hand in the development of the experiments.
A fifth grade team won, beating out a high school team composed partially of some of my wife’s past brilliant students who were basically testing out like a cure for cancer. I don’t remember what the winning experiment was, but even its title sounded advanced far beyond what one tends to cover in pre-college science. Part of me was inclined to sneer about the teacher basically doing all the work for them, which was unfair to e.g. the high school teams who submitted work with a lot less teacher involvement. I imagine the winning students still learned a lot, though, and that, in the end, is what’s important about this kind of activity. It was tempting to wish that my son had had a better opportunity here with a teacher who’d set them up better for success, but I actually wound up feeling really glad that she let them do their own thing. There’s value in learning really sophisticated stuff with heavier involvement from an instructor, but I think there’s also a lot of value in being given some loose constraints and freedom to succeed or fail on your own, and where I’ve landed is that I’d rather my son have the sort of experience he had, with more ownership of the project, than that he win with the project more firmly directed by the teacher.
My son was really excited at the prospect of winning and getting to send an experiment up into space, but he also took the loss in stride (I was worried his hopes were too high), and I was proud of him.
I was clearing out some room in the fridge the other day to make room for a bunch of chili we had cooked and found this bowl of… something hiding behind some other things. I have no idea what lies beneath the mold, but I found the mold actually kind of lovely. And also revolting.
I’ve tried many task management systems over the years, both online and offline, but no matter what the virtues of any given electronic solution, I’ve always found myself going back to pen and paper for the day-to-day tasks. The sheet of chicken scratch on the desk next to me just sings out to have its items checked off, and it’s harder to ignore than even an online system that nags me with alerts.
I also take notes by hand sometimes, or work out ideas in rough outline form by hand. Sometimes I just need to write things down to figure them out. Something about getting back in an analog state of mind changes the way I think about things and helps me amble through a problem in a way that doing the same task in a digital text editor doesn’t manage.
So over the years, I’ve wound up with todo lists and notes and scribbles all mixed in together on a single page of a legal pad. It looks something like this (a fake one I worked up to illustrate the situation, but very very close to reality):
See a todo list at the top, and then the uncompleted items shifted to another list below, all mixed in with random other notes. Using this method, when I wish to take more notes and need a new sheet, I lose my todo list. And when I’m really busy and having trouble making progress on my tasks, I copy and recopy from sloppy page to sloppy page with no sense of how my tasks are moving forward (or not) through my week.
Earlier this year, my task lists started getting really long (really annoying to copy and recopy as I punted items forward day to day), and I decided I needed a better solution. Enter the bullet journal, a sort of cultish analog thing-management system that uses simple notations and a dedicated task book for managing just this sort of information.
I almost didn’t look into the system because the name turned me off. It made me think of writing crummy 8th-grade prose for a participation grade about whatever my language arts teacher was forcing me to read. Or it sounded like some kind of therapeutic thing that just isn’t my style. Or it sounded like some kind of bullshitty capital-S System, which also didn’t seem like it’d be likely to be my style.
Only it is. Or, a modified version of it is. If you search the web for bullet journals, you will find a lot of really frankly impressive stuff. People devote hours and hours of their weeks to making their bullet journals lovely, and I’ll confess that I spent non-trivial amounts of time looking at examples of bullet journals and wishing I were more artistic. I bought a few different sorts of books to try bullet journaling in, and I also bought a little ruler for drawing a simple straight line at the top of each of my pages. I bought a set of colored pens (thinking to signify task types with color, which has tended to be a good signifier for me for this sort of thing) and a set of highlighters. The pens didn’t work so well, but I use the highlighters a little to help me understand task type (meetings are highlighted in blue, super high priority things in red, and that’s mostly it). I prefer checkboxes to the little dots that bullet journaling suggests, and initially I didn’t use any other of the fancy notations, though now, when I carry a task forward to another day, I do use the right-arrow to mark the task as processed (if not done). Sometimes when I’ve got a long list, I circle things that haven’t been marked as processed, to help them stand out. A sample spread for me looks something like this (also fake, but representative):
Nothing too fancy. In fact, it’s pretty sloppy. I don’t deserve to count myself among the ranks of true bullet journalers. But it works really well for me. I’ve been using the system for two or three months now, and I love it. No longer are my tasks mixed in with random notes. No more do I flip back and forth between notes and tasks I failed to complete yesterday. Tasks are in my task book; notes remain in my trusty legal pad.
Besides this separation of concerns, main features that are working well for me include load balancing my week and having a handy record of my work. When I review my prior week on Mondays to account for what I’ve been up to, I just flip back through five or six pages, and the highlights are all there. Sure, small tasks or conversations pop up throughout the day that don’t get recorded, but all the big stuff is there. Further, I have a sort of history of what I got stuck on. If I pushed the same task forward for several days, I can draw conclusions about the difficulty or importance of that task. Or, if I find myself pushing the same task forward several days, I may finally decide to highlight it in red to get the sucker off my list at last. Some people plan their weeks (or months, or even quarters or years) more carefully in advance, but I usually just try to end each day figuring out what I need to do the next day or carry forward.
This brings me to the other killer feature — load balancing. What frequently happens for me is that lots of unexpected things pop up over the course of a day or week. I’m asked to read (or write) a draft of something, or some unplanned meeting lands on my schedule, for example. Different things contend for my attention with different levels of urgency, and I push a lot of things forward. A Monday will often fill up pretty quickly, and what this system lets me do is see when I should try to get things done. If Tuesday is already getting pretty cluttered and Wednesday has one or two items but Thursday doesn’t even have a page header prepared yet, I might move a couple of lower priority Monday tasks forward to Thursday. This lets me reduce mental clutter for Monday (I mark them as processed with the handy > character) and keep working on the things that need to get done sooner without feeling overwhelmed by a long (and growing) task list.
Lots of people use bullet journaling for both work and home, for goal setting, list-keeping, event planning, etc. My home life consists mostly of hanging out with my family and reading books, so this isn’t something that has bled into my home life, but it’s been a really positive task management system for my work life.
I haven’t posted about our mangy cur in a while, so here goes. When we last had her weighed, Maisy was around 70 pounds, and I’d guess she’s a bit more now. She curls up into deceptively small spaces on the couch, especially if she can find a pillow to cuddle with. If she gets a whiff of a shot at getting her belly rubbed, she’ll roll over for it, and she’s got a smile (if you’ll forgive the anthropomorphism) both winning and goofy. She’s about 2.5 years old, has been with us for a little short of two years, and has turned into a pretty good dog (though she still doesn’t reliably know her name or do much of anything we tell her to other than sitting, which to be fair is our fault more than hers).
For the last 11 or 12 years, I’ve read aloud to some portion of my family pretty nearly every day, except when things like travel or houseguests or illness have gotten in the way. It sounds silly, but this is one of the things I’m proudest of as a parent (my kids are big readers, which I feel great about). We’re in book three of the Wheel of Time series now (an old favorite of my wife’s that I had never read and that both the kids are old enough now to follow along with), and I’ve noted that people throw up their hands a lot in these books.
I’m an inveterate punster, and I notice and relish things like potential Spoonerisms, weird usage, unintentionally funny phrases, and of course opportunities to crack Dad jokes. These books have instilled in me a new habit of stopping to say “well if she hadn’t eaten her hands in the first place, resorting to auto-cannibalism wouldn’t have made her sick and she wouldn’t have had to throw them up” and similar (usually simplified) variants. For a while, these pauses got eye-rolls and groans out of my family, but then they stopped responding at all to my interjections, which of course makes me want to escalate (because I am a troll).
Oddly, the escalation in this case turned into almost more of a de-escalation, since instead of shouting or being more dramatic and doing the verbal equivalent of an elaborate elbow-nudge or pratfall, I started just folding the observation into the prose itself as a subordinate clause (e.g. “she threw up her hands, which she shouldn’t have eaten in the first place, but Bocephus continued to smirk”) without so much as a raised eyebrow. Thankfully, the family noticed and fed me with eye-rolls and groans and commentary about how fiendish it was to adapt in this manner, which was gratifying.
Here’s another humdinger of a shelf. Riding along the top there, we’ve got yet another edition of Moby-Dick. I’ve never actually read this edition, but it was a gift and I don’t really feel great about selling or donating a gift. The last time I remember doing so, it was Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and my sister-in-law, who had purchased it for me from my wish list, busted me. I really wanted to like Lowry’s book because people whose opinions I respected liked it, but it just didn’t do the trick for me, and I was in the middle of a purge of a couple of hundred books to make room for things I did value as literature (vs. as gifts). Anyway, I’m keeping this one.
Next up we have The Decameron and Don Quixote, which I read together a few years ago during a period of reading frame tales (stories within stories). The Decameron is full of bawdy jokes and is sometimes boring and sometimes hilarious to the extent that a book about aristocrats escaping the plague by leaving the city behind to go out into the country and tell one another moralistic and sometimes bawdy tales can be. Don Quixote is also really funny (if sometimes a bit tiresome) and is one I’ll likely reread in a decade or so.
I forget where I heard about Wickersham, but I picked this book up without really knowing what to expect. I didn’t love its first story, but on the whole, the stories wound up being really good, really well done. I kept the book as a reminder to read more Wickersham later.
This shelf holds two by Nicholson Baker — The Traveling Sprinkler and The Fermata. What an off-beat character the main guy (Paul Chowder) in these novels is. He’s kind of delightful and kind of an asshole. The books give us his childlike view mixed with I guess a bit of depravity (especially in the latter book). I liked Sprinkler in part because it taught me what a traveling sprinkler is as a real thing in the world (and what a neat thing, full of possibility for metaphor). I think there’s another in the series of Chowder books, but I forget whether I’ve read it if so. I’m sort of mesmerized by Baker’s easy-seeming style. I should probably get rid of these and read them, if ever again, from the library.
I’m a bit of a Pynchon junkie. When I read Bleeding Edge, I thought of it as the most accessible long-form Pynchon to date. This of course means that it’s not really full-on Pynchon, which is sort of disappointing but also sort of a relief. I keep Pynchon, so even though this one didn’t knock my socks off and I doubt I’ll ever read it again, on the shelf it remains.
I was talking to a friend just recently about Ozick. She’s somebody whose name I learned by reading interviews with David Foster Wallace, whose talking about the stuff he read or admired has informed a lot of what I’ve read over the past two decades. I’ve read five or six books by Ozick now, and they’re almost always really good. They don’t pack much of an emotional punch for me in general, but they’re just well written and so very smart, and I read her in part because I figure that reading smart stuff will make me smarter. To my friend, I likened Ozick to Alice Munro in terms of like the simple and matter of fact correctness of the way her stories are put together and narrated, but like Munro writing in a way more informed by academia than about the lives of Canadian women. I don’t remember a lot about The Cannibal Galaxy in particular, but in general I’m keeping and will plan to reread Ozick.
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a brief biography of David Foster Wallace. I wrote a bit about it here. I keep it because I keep Wallace’s work and ephemera.
Finally, we have Richard Powers’s The Time of our Singing. I haven’t read this book in over a decade, but when I read it, I remember finding it really marvelous. This was at a time that I had been reading a fair bit of Powers and finding his work disappointing. He was regarded as sort of a wonder boy of literary fiction, but I thought his books were contrived and awkward, and it seemed often enough like he maybe hadn’t ever actually met or spoken with a real human being for long enough to be able to write one convincingly. This book was such a nice change. Looking back, it’s hard for me to say whether it was actually beautifully done or was just a relief after so much other bleh work I’d been reading by Powers (a stomped toe being a sort of relief after so many kicks in the nuts). In any case, it’s one I’d like to try again sometime.
In my next bookshelves post, we’ll transition from blacks and grays into beiges and whites, with of course a few of the usual suspects lined up.