AI, writing books automatically

I have complicated and conflicting thoughts about AI. On one hand, everyone in my industry won’t shut up about it. On the other hand, I think it means I have between three and seven years before my profession is completely obsolete. And spinning the numbers, I think I need about ten solid years at my current salary to retire.

A few years ago, I read about how MLB was using some special software that could be fed a box score and a machine-readable database of statistics and spit out a human-readable narrative article summarizing the game. It would pepper the article with various factoids, slap in a stock photo, and you’d have a ready-for-web article to pull in traffic and SEO. When I saw this, I realized software documentation was not far behind. We’ve used tools like JavaDoc for decades to pull comments out of code and extrude a set of generated documentation. The next step is to spit out more conversational blog posts about a software product. That is either already happening or about to happen. But that’s work, and I don’t want to talk about work.

As far as self-publishing is concerned, it seems the current arguments are all about AI artwork for covers. I’ve only vaguely messed with DALL-E and nothing I’ve ever gotten out of it looked like book cover-quality, or maybe I’m too picky. There’s question about where the source material comes from, etc etc. I have no real opinion on this, except I wouldn’t use it because it looks like garbage. That said, I wouldn’t pay someone a ton of money for a cover and hope it would magically boost my book sales. Any time I’ve paid more than zero for a book cover, I haven’t recouped my costs. But my books are horrible/I’m not a good marketer/whatever. Anyway.

* * *

Three takeaways on AI, at least for the moment. Bear with me.

First, I think AI can be a useful tool for doing monotonous things, organization, or other busy work. I’ve forever wished that Scrivener had hooks to run AppleScript, or maybe had a REST API, so I could eventually write some useful tools for dumb stuff that could easily be done in AI. For example, I’d like to feed all of my writing into an LLM and then be able to write a paragraph and ask the AI “did I already write this?” because it happens constantly that I come up with some great idea and it turns out it was in a short story I published in 2006. It would also be great for things more advanced than a spell check, like looking at a story I just turned from first to third person and finding all the stuff that’s wrong. It would also be useful for things like feeding a thousand blog posts into it and having it add keywords to all of them.

All of these are good tools, but I have no time to think through how to write them. And my second point is there are a lot of tools springing up, but we’re in the gold rush era where a lot of fly-by-night businesses are popping up with the word AI in their product, and every existing product is working on how they’re going to duct-tape AI on the side. And all the usual complications come up here: tools are half-baked, and don’t exactly do what you want, and won’t output text in the right way, and steal your data, and have some scammy freemium model, and think asking for fifty bucks a month is totally fine even thought two dozen things an hour all think it’s totally fine if they also charge you fifty bucks etc etc etc. Most of these companies will vanish in six months, maybe along with your data. And the big problem with this is the same problem I have with mind map software or outline software or note-taking software: I could spend all day every day in decision paralysis with these tools that do maybe 47% of what I want but not everything I want. Or I could just write.

* * *

The third thing, which is a big one, is that there’s this debate on if these things can write fiction, and people feed things into ChatGPT and ask it to write a poem about Barbie just like Emily Dickinson or whatever. Some of these are marginally impressive, but I’m not convinced. It seems like this is more of a parlor trick, and not really effective for creative writing.

I think writing will end up seeing a reaction similar to what happened when photography was invented. Portrait painting was essentially democratized and the art form basically destroyed, as anyone could sit down for a photograph. And Romanticist and Neoclassical painting fell out of favor, styles that were dependent on highly realistic painting.

What happened was that Impressionism suddenly appeared. Painting traded fine detail for the exploration of capture or representation of movement in a scene. The idea of realistic detail was gone; instead of the capture of fixed images like any camera could do, it focused on giving up detail and looked into different representations of color or light. I’m not an art historian and I’m leaving a lot out of this description, but the gist here is that one thing Impressionists were thinking about is what they could do on canvas that a camera couldn’t do on a silver plate.

The next step beyond that was modern art, which decided to completely question what was art and what rules applied. There’s way too much history to capture this in a paragraph or two, but the general idea is that artists started finding ways to turn inward and attempt to express feelings and emotions and capture them in medium that was entirely not photorealistic. Instead of using a picture to evoke the actual details captured, it used it to evoke a mood or an idea.

The thought here is that artists at the turn of the 20th century saw that portraiture was obsolete, so they moved on to something cameras couldn’t do. Is that what’s next for writers?

* * *

So I’ve been screwing around with ChatGPT, using it to write summaries of books. It’s very good at this when it knows about the book. There’s a danger here: people write unique summaries for optimal SEO and store rankings, and pretty soon, everyone’s going to be writing absolutely identical book summaries, which is totally going to break SEO. This will become more and more weaponized, and the race to the bottom will continue on that.

Anyway, I asked ChatGPT to write a summary of my last book, The Failure Cascade. It wrote a well-formed and very convincing summary, but it was not at all for the book I wrote. However, the plot was very interesting, at least for a conventional linear “straight” book.

This made me wonder: where was it getting this plot? Did it have some cookie-cutter set of twenty book plots and it would mad-lib in a few things to make it look unique? Or was I reading a lightly retouched plot from a 1987 book by J.G. Ballard that I’d forgotten about or never read? My first thought was to steal this plot wholesale and start beating an outline and writing chunks. But I quickly decided nope, bad idea.

Fast-forward to this weekend, and I see an ad for this writing tool that offers to use AI to punch up outlines and brainstorm and make it super easy to “write” a book. (I won’t mention it by name, because I don’t want to get into it with them.)

So, I got a trial account. It started with a brain dump box, where I would enter my loose ideas. I pasted in the aforementioned book summary. It then wanted me to enter a genre, so I put “post-modern apocalyptic, bleak.”

It then wanted to determine a writing style, so I pasted in about a thousand words of the unpublished Atmospheres 2 manuscript. It chewed away for a moment, and it spit this out:

First-person, past tense. Sarcastic and cynical tone with informal vocabulary. Vivid and descriptive language, slow pacing, grotesque imagery. Reflects poverty, desperation, and decay in contemporary America.

OK, fair enough. I then had it generate a synopsis, a character list, and a chapter-by-chapter summary. The synopsis was a seven-paragraph thing and looked okay. The character list: okay, I guess.

The summary was five acts, nineteen chapters. It was radically formulaic, and each chapter was labeled something like “Rising Tension” or “All is Lost” or whatever Save the Cat-ism was needed at that point. The outline was not horrible, but it was so formulaic, it reminded me of like a Marvel movie totally written by committee.

I then told it to get started on the first chapter. It first broke out the three-sentence summary of the chapter into 19 beats. I then clicked the next button and it churned away and wrote the 3500 words of the first chapter.

The writing – the actual prose – absolutely horrific. I didn’t expect it to be like my writing, but it was amazingly bad. Stuff like:

“Jim,” Laura’s voice cracked as she stumbled over a charred piece of wood. “Do you think it’s always going to be like this?”


“Like what?” I replied, sarcasm dripping from my words like acid. “Hell on earth? Probably.”

The thing is – the writing was horrible, on like an eighth-grade level of wooden. But I think like 90% of the self-published Kindle genre page-turners I’ve read for five minutes and then deleted were about like this.

I went to generate chapter two, and I was out of coins or stars or tokens or whatever magic beans it used, and it wanted a credit card. Nope, the experiment ended for me.

I think my takeaway with this is that this tool might be good for generating a formulaic outline. And it would be great for dumping out extremely predictable Kindle dreck. Start with a good series bible, get a decent cover artist, and write your next dozen detective murder mystery books with ease. I guess this is great if you like that kind of book. Maybe not great if you spend a lot of time and make all your money writing this kind of book.

This type of tool is currently useless for writing anything expressionist or experimental. And as I look for a direction to go with my writing, it’s evident that I should be going in the exact opposite direction of genre fiction, and do things that absolutely couldn’t be done by an AI. Right?


Sweden (2022)

[OK, so, this was a year ago. And I never finished writing it, really. This is mostly a scoop of the daily emails I sent John as it was happening. For various reasons, I never did a full write-up and I didn’t post a set of pictures. I wasn’t happy with the trip, maybe because of other stuff going on then. I wrote maybe five paragraphs about it a month after the fact, and a few pictures went to Instagram, but that’s it.

Here’s what I did finish. I’ll clean it up a bit, but it isn’t complete. This is just for completeness, and to clear out my queue. -J]

Hello from Stockholm. Actually, hello from 40,000 feet over Iceland, where I’m a couple of hours into a ten-hour flight back from a week in Sweden. I usually write these trip reports while I’m still in town, but I didn’t have time. And now I’ve got nothing but time, so here goes.

This has been a weird trip. I had to take this week off, based on my work schedule, because if I didn’t take vacation, I wouldn’t get another chance until October. Last year, the same thing happened, and I drove down to LA for a week, to try and write and to see old ghosts. Now, I’m not writing, and didn’t want the nostalgia. And I wanted to leave the country. I hit Expedia and tried to find what cities were a direct long-haul flight from SFO. I’ve already done Amsterdam and Frankfurt. London, too. Dublin was a thought. Dubai was way too expensive. Zero interest in Paris. I think Copenhagen and maybe Zurich were on the list, but neither clicked with me. Then I ran the numbers on Sweden, and gave it a think.

I’ve had some interest in Sweden forever. Back when I was writing about death metal, Sweden was pretty much the home of the genre (although there were a lot of artists from Tampa, and some in California, too). At the start of the first wave of death metal in 1991 and 1992, I interviewed a lot of bands, traded tapes through the mail, and knew maybe a half-dozen bands from Stockholm. I didn’t know if the youths into extreme metal were at all representative of the country as a whole. I guessed not; it was probably similar to the outcasts in the metal scene in the US being an example of American society as a whole, which they very much were not. So Sweden’s always been in the back of my head. And I like Germany, and Sweden seemed to have some similarities, as far as a strong economy, progressive society, and old history. So, why not visit?

I got a good deal on the flight and the hotel, then promptly forgot all about the trip, too busy with work and school to do any planning. I bought the Rick Steeves book, but didn’t even look at it. Right before the trip, I googled a few basic things, but not much more. I had a wide open plan. Famous last words.

* * *


The flight out was okay, although I slept maybe four hours the night before, woke up way too early, and worked on a paper as I waited for my 0500 departure. I drove to SFO, dumped my car there, and took a short flight to LAX. Ate some lunch at 0900 and then got in the big plane to jump across the top of the globe and back down. I can’t sleep on a plane, so I paid €25 for the spotty Wi-Fi and bothered people online during the whole flight. I ended up landing at Arlanda airport the next morning, effectively losing a day. That’s when the fun began.

First, I waited an hour for luggage. The airport is almost minimalist and has nothing in it. It’s not like there’s a Cinnabon and McDonald’s every ten feet, because the idea of making people eat five thousand calories an hour to maximize shareholder value just hasn’t come up yet. Coca-Cola is sold in a ten-ml bottle. Why would someone want a gallon of it in one sitting? Everyone smokes, though. Later that day, I saw an 80-year-old woman on a bicycle, smoking.

After I got my luggage, I took the Arlanda Express to the city. This is a bullet train that goes 125 MPH and gets you from the airport to downtown Stockholm in about 17 minutes. Everything about that was cool, and the train itself was as clean as a Disney monorail in Japan.

I got to the hotel and had six hours to kill, which was just swell because I smelled like a homeless person and felt like my face was covered in KFC. Dropped off my bags and started walking, just the camera backpack and the big gun out, the Canon 5DS with a giant L lens on it. On the surface, Stockholm’s a 16th-century Euro city that’s never seen war and has been thoroughly modernized from a good economy. But as I walked around, a few things were apparent. First, it was Sunday morning, so everything was closed. Second, the city’s been sort of locked down to stop the homeless situation. It’s not as apparent as the anti-homeless stuff you see in cities in the US, but you can’t find a public toilet anywhere, or a place to sit down for a while and relax. It feels very safe and sanitized, but cold.

The people – also a bit cold. I thought everyone spoke English here. Well they do, but not by default. Everything is in Swedish. Signs are all Swedish. Everyone speaks Swedish. Everyone speaks Swedish to me. I don’t know if it’s my looks, or that I’m not in a big pack of people so they assume I’m not a tourist, but in restaurants and such, people are just rapid-fire blasting Swedish at me and I cannot parse it at all. It sounds goofy, like the Swedish chef or some Monty Python skit, and I am just sitting there going “yeah! sure! coca-cola!” or whatever, hoping they will eventually realize I am the stupid American and switch to dumb-people language. People are somewhat cold and standoffish. Well, not somewhat – totally. I’m hoping if I go to a few record stores, the people will talk metal or jazz and calm down a bit. [They didn’t.] Otherwise, this trip is going to be just museums, long walks, and school.

The bathroom situation – there are pay toilets, but I had no coins and no money. And no banks were open. I eventually found a small urban mall and went to the Ikea (of course) which had futuristic pay toilets that took credit cards. A swipe of the plastic gave me access to a little cubicle toilet that was spotless and played bird/nature sounds. It was bizarre. It turns out everything in Sweden takes cards and the thousand bucks of US cash I brought with me was useless for the trip.

I ended up at a fake British pub in a mall, eating far too much Swedish charcuterie that tasted all salty and bizarre and took an hour to show up. Reading memes. Wondering what the fuck was going on. Went to take a piss and the bathroom was about three feet by three feet with a trio of the low-hanging pissers with no walls. A guy who looked like Jethro Tull’s roadie was in there, and immediately launched into “blorgenforgen slusvshen fiergon sclurben!” and I was like yeah I’ll wait outside.

After six hours of walking, I checked in at the joint. Hotel was okay, and I took my much-needed shower. Blacked out for an hour, had no idea what century I was in. Went walking and looked for dinner. I was in a weird area where there are a lot of offices and everything is either lunch places you go to drink and be seen, or places you grab a sandwich and go back to the office. It’s all closed by five. I walked for two hours and ended up back at the 7-Eleven and scored a pre-made salad and some ice cream. Ended up walking twelve miles for the day.

I am not awake. The time difference is fucking me. Last night I would sleep three hours, wake up, start texting people in the middle of their day, sleep two hours, etc. I probably need to get out and walk a bit after it warms up, find a museum or something.

More pictures later. I have not sorted everything. The sun is really weird at this latitude, and you’d think with the long days you would have tons of light, but what it means is you have like ten seconds of perfect light, and really long shadows for the rest of it. I’ll figure it out. Or not.

* * *


Exhausted. Can’t nap. I was up until 2 belting out a paper, then I think I woke up at about 730. I got the paper done though. If it goes through, that’s another class over.
Yesterday was a bit of a non-day. I walked to this shopping district about twenty minutes south, because there is this record store called Sound Pollution that is infamous with the death metal scene. Small place, half the size of my apartment, and I got there when it opened, so it was largely empty. The guy working there just looked like a straight older gentleman, not the long-haired metalhead I expected. Most of the stock was new and not collectible/old, but they did have a wide range of things. I’m completely out of this scene and just listen to the same dozen albums from the early 90s, and Swedish people won’t chat, so I was a bit overwhelmed shopping, Texted Ray, who was still awake, and I tried to confirm rarity on a few records. Bought a few things, but I have no way of playing them, so that’s cute.

Saw a TGI Friday, which was empty. I was tempted, because I could sit down, eat fried food, and maybe get a Coke bigger than a thimble. I went down a side street and found an OG Swedish restaurant, the kind with the antlers on the ceiling and the look of a Scandinavian hunting lodge. Lots of bizarre game meats and whatnot. When in Rome. I ordered a reindeer meatball plate, with the lingonberries and the potatoes pressed into a ring. Some kind of cream sauce, the usual. Not bad, but I also got a slice of Swedish chocolate cake, which was like 5000 calories and I barely stumbled home.

Alternated between unconsciousness and doom-scrolling on my phone. All of my ads online were turning Swedish, and so were my Google search results. Also I’m used to scheduled ads and news stories breaking during the day, Then I went to a Burger King next door, because I had to force myself to eat at 5:00 or it would suddenly be midnight with everything closed. No cash registers – just big touchscreens and card readers. I got some weird chimichurri burger. Got back here and burned the evening on that stupid paper.

Not sure what I am doing today, but I need to get out of the room now. I feel like I’ve walked too much right in this central area and need to get out. I also don’t feel like I’ve taken a decent picture yet. I should try harder today.

* * *


Trying to get rolling. I slept almost 8 hours last night, albeit in two shifts. I really can’t hack the sleep situation, and will probably get used to it the day before I have to flip back 9 hours again.

Yesterday I took the subway out to the big Westfield mall in the suburbs. The train was immaculate. You could do open-heart surgery on the floor. Perfectly clean, no distractions, no problems, and it also seems like I have a perfect five bars of 5G everywhere in this country, even when underground. Subway stations are absolutely surreal, giant caves blasted deep underground like a Star Wars base, painted up like modern art masterpieces. The mall was insane. Built in 2015. 1.1 million square feet. Three floors. Zero vacancies. Two full grocery stores. Maybe 250 stores. No anchors, but it had inline stores that were as big as a typical Macy’s in the US. Busy on a Tuesday afternoon, probably about as crowded as a Saturday at a good mall in California. So that was cool. It also involved about 15 minutes of walk each way through a suburb that was very Swedish, or reminded me of when I was in Nuremberg walking in the suburbs. Lots of very clean and modern flats in ten-story towers, mixed in with old chalet-looking houses.

Slept in the afternoon. The time difference is getting very depressing, re keeping up with friends online. I wake up, and they’re about to go to bed. I top to check my phone during lunch, and everyone’s asleep. I go to bed during their afternoon. Etc.

Went walking last night, and on a goof, I went to Pizza Hut for dinner. It was more of a sit down place like a bar or bistro, with EDM music playing and beer on tap. I got a personal pan pizza and it tasted identical to one I’d get in the US. THey had a bunch of weird stuff on the menu, but I didn’t want to fuck things up.

Meanwhile, I have been here four days and still haven’t seen a cop. No homeless encampments. No litter. No drama. Things just work. Too bad the people are so eh.

I think I’m hiking over to that Vasa ship museum if I can wake up. Everyone told me to go to it, so I guess I will.

* * *


I’m at the point in a solo trip – always happens around day 5 – when the depression becomes overwhelming. I’ve done everything and I’m sick of all of it, and looking forward to the dread of having to pack it all up and wake up at 3am for the flight back.

I went to see the Vasa yesterday. Big warship from the 1600s, where the king built it as the pride of the fleet even though everyone said it was an idiotic idea, and then the fucking thing sank before it cleared the harbor on its maiden voyage. They found it and raised it in the 60s, restored it, and now it’s indoors. It’s interesting to see, but I had no patience to walk around reading all the displays about what kind of food sailors ate in 1632 or whatever the fuck. I went next door to the viking museum, and that was even more of a bust. It’s a place not much bigger than my apartment, where you walk around looking at various plaques and timelines, with the occasional sword or hand-woven blanket. Then, gift shop. People here are ga-ga about the viking thing, the way people from South Boston are hung up about Irish heritage and won’t shut up about Guinness. Saw a few guys with their arms covered with rune tattoos pawing through all the books and fake swords in the guest shop, and realized this whole thing wasn’t for me.

Was just looking at the import from yesterday and this 5ds camera is not great. It’s too heavy, and the high-mp sensor means it’s impossible to get good shots that aren’t blurry unless you’re on a tripod. Absolutely not the camera for walking around. I am almost tempted to trade it back in when I get home, maybe get a small mirrorless for the next trip.

No idea what I am doing today, but I really need a long walk. At least I’m getting in my steps. But I’m thoroughly sick of the area right around the hotel, and I’m too lazy to take a long train ride out to nature or whatever.

That paper went through, so another class is done. I’m now at 64% completion. The remaining three classes are all ball-busters, and no more papers. And then the capstone. I am 60% confident I can finish by the end of November, but it all depends on how fast I can finish this finance class. I watched an hour of the omnibus video, and it’s all more or less stuff I know already from accounting. Famous last words.

I have that 8am flight and I just got an email from Finnair saying to get there 3.5 hours early due to them not knowing how to run an airport here. It’s a 30-minute train ride away. So Saturday is going to be fun.

* * *


More no sleep last night. I sleep like two or three hours, then wake up and spent a couple hours doom-scrolling, then maybe sleep a few more hours. I am delirious today.

Yesterday was a lot of long walks. I went to this record store district to poke around, and there were a lot of cool stores, but I don’t buy vinyl, and when I want to listen to something like Miles Davis, I usually just type “Miles Davis” into Apple Music, listen to it for five minutes, and then I’m bored of it. No need to spend $300 on some special mono-mix obscure European pressing.

I went to this mall that wasn’t really a mall – the name “Gallerian” means two things, and one is the situation where you have a dozen of stores and a grocery in the first floor of an office building. (Sorry, the “E” floor. The first floor is on the second floor.) Anyway, I bought a coke zero from a coffee place, sat down in the chairs in front of it, and two minutes later, a security guard comes up and starts yelling at me in rapid-fire Swedish. I guess you can’t drink in a mall, even though they sell drinks and have chairs and tables in front of the place selling the drinks? OK whatever. They do not fuck around here.

No museums. Sick of museums. Not sure what I want to do today. I’m so sick of this camera, and just realized new Canon gear is about 10% cheaper here, although maybe they have some insane sales tax. Part of me wants to pick up a Canon 6Dii just to get something that works more like my Rebel as far as metering and program mode. I swear the best pictures I’ve taken on this trip are with my phone.

Some big clusterfuck with checking in to my flight this morning. I had to call Finnair and get them to walk me through it. I think I’m checked in, but who the fuck knows. I fully expect them to say I forgot to file my 824794-D22 or whatever, and I’ll have to wait in line for three hours. I also forgot that I have four hours in LAX this time. And when I land, I still have to drive home from SFO, during rush hour, on no sleep.

I haven’t even started the return-to-work dread yet, but I’ll probably get to that later.

I have spent very little money on this trip. I have a thousand dollars in twenties in my computer bag, and it turns out Sweden is 100% cashless, so that was a wasted effort. And I still have cash from my early 2020 Vegas trip in my wallet, so I have no idea what to do with that when I get back.

* * *


On the plane on the big hop west. We just got our little omelette patty kit and I ate that in three seconds. I woke up hourly last night, sort of got 6 hours in, but they turned the dining room into a disco on Fridays, the most annoying hotel trend ever. So I heard the boom-boom-boom until about the time I woke up, which was 0300. Showered, packed, and got to a 0435 bullet train to the airport. About an hour of lines and nonsense and I got to the gate. We left maybe a half hour late. I’m back in the window seat, with slow internet and 9:26 remaining. Then a four hour layover (but I have to clear customs) and a short hop to SFO. I will get my car out of long term parking just in time to hit Giants traffic.

Did absolutely nothing yesterday. Walked ten miles and took a bunch of pictures, but nothing phenomenal. Ate dinner at McDonald’s and it was largely identical to what I remember a quarter pounder to be from the last time I had one. And they call them a Quarter Pounder in Europe. Sorry, Quentin Tarantino.

* * *


I’m back. What a brutal fucking trip home. No sleep, of course. When I got to LA, I cleared customs very fast. They asked if I had any food, and I said no, and they stamped my thing, next. Not even the token “welcome to America.” There was this whole clusterfuck of a maze to get through for the connecting flight, getting my checked bag and moving it out of security to another place, then going back through security again. LAX has terminals that are by letter, number, and gate number, and I don’t know the taxonomy, but you have to actually leave the building to move between them. When I got to terminal 5 with four hours to spare, I asked the TSA agent if there was food in there, and she said sure. I got in, and there was a See’s candy, a news stand that was out of water, and some salad place that had one person working and the line was immobile. Absolutely no place to sit down, and it was one of those environmental air conditioning things where it was 90 out, so they air condition down to 87.

I said fuck it, left the secure area, found a cabbie, and told him to take me to the Taco Bell by my old house in Playa. I was going to play nice and say “let’s go through the drive-through and I’ll buy you lunch” but the guy was an old russian dude who looked like Boris Yeltsin and had no idea what I was talking about. I went inside and the service was so slow, I thought I was still in Sweden. Sat in the dining room and inhaled my stuff. A guy came up to me in a winter coat – not a good sign – and asked for some money to buy chicken because he hadn’t eaten in two days. My Ugly American “go fuck yourself” system wasn’t turned on, so I gave him ten bucks. He proceeded to bolt and not get any food. Welcome to America.

Took an Uber back to the airport, and by that point, I’d completely hit the wall. I just wanted to get on the plane before I blacked out, which I did. Woke up just in time for landing, and then I forgot that SFO from the local gates to the baggage claim to the parking garage is literally a five-mile hike. I then could not find my car, even though I had a GPS-tagged photo of it with the sign number in front of it. I hit 101 just as Giants/Pirates traffic was piling up and it took an hour to get home. I think I made it until about 7:30 then blacked out. Back up at 3.

The Apple Watch measures each hour you stand every minute, with my usual goal being 12 hours a day. Yesterday, because of the time change, it registered 28 hours for the day. Nice.


Document everything

I journal. A lot. I started journaling in 1993, and I more or less journal every day. There were some times when there were gaps, but I now religiously put pen to paper every morning for at least a page.

My problem (or challenge) is that I now have probably too many different journaling systems. Just to think real quick:

  • This is a journal, of sorts. I used the term “journal” when I started this thing back in 1997, before the word “blog” was invented. It’s far from daily, but maybe I need to work on that. There is something like 1400 posts here, which is a bit excessive for a WordPress site. Just checked, and that totals up to 1,065,687 words.
  • I use Moleskine journals for the daily paper journal. I used to use spiral notebooks, but switched to the hardcover books in maybe 2010. There’s a printer paper box of the spirals in storage, and then I’ve got about 15 of them on a shelf next to my desk. There’s some thought about scanning all of these, but I don’t know an easy way of doing this aside from cutting them apart or spending my lifetime in front of a scanner.
  • I use Day One to journal on my computer or phone. I like the look and feel of Day One, and it’s nice being able to drop in a picture or a quick note when I’m in transit or at work. Part of my thing on the Iceland trip was sitting at breakfast and writing a quick summary of the day before. I also do a lot of automatic writing every day when I don’t have an active project, and I file those brain dumps in Day One. I started using it in 2013, and there are periods when I write daily, and then chunks of entire months when I completely forget about it. There are 1,312 days of entries in there, 1399 entries.
  • I started using separate Moleskines for therapy-based journaling. I’m only a few into that.
  • I used to carry a Field Notes journal in my pocket for jotting down writing ideas or for taking brief notes while at lunch or whatever. I remember first buying a three-pack at the public market in Milwaukee at a little gift/card shop across from the spice place. I think I have about a dozen of those full of scribbling. I also probably have two or three dozen in storage. I used to be on their mailing list and every time they announced some new special edition, I felt a compulsion to buy them. I also had some of their pens, which are just the standard Bic customizable Clic pen, and I would use them until they wore out, for all my writing. For some reason, you can’t easily buy like a three-pack or a dozen Clic pens, so I ended up buying them by the dozen from Japan. Japanese people love their pens.
  • I’ve used Scrivener for all my writing, and for a long time, my automatic writing was in there, so I could easily move chunks of it into my morgue file and then into books. I’m starting to question my loyalty to Scrivener, but that’s another post.
  • There was a LiveJournal for a while, but we’ll forget that era ever happened.
  • I use Obsidian at work to take meeting notes and day-to-day things. I also used Notion to take notes for school. I’m not happy with either, but that’s yet another post.

I don’t know why I document everything like this. A few reasons maybe include a need to refer back to things, to easily brainstorm ideas without self-censorship, and maybe to someday leverage my journaling into actual writing. I think I had some dumb idea that at a certain point, a university was going to show up with a moving truck, a few people in white gloves with clipboards, and a blank check to move everything to an archive. That obviously isn’t happening.

There was also this thought that I’d publish my journals at some point. This brings up the issue of public-facing journals versus private, and self-censorship. Having to keep in mind who can see things online or in print – family members, coworkers, exes, etc. -is a real wrench into the works for my writing process. A lot of the “what do I write here” is gummed up by who will see it. I know I have people who stalk me here and I have to just let that go and avoid documenting certain parts of my life. Yes, I could lock it down, or blog anonymously. Why is it important to write here? I don’t entirely know, but I’m sure if I thought about it, that’s yet another blog post. (I’m really building up a backlog here.)

Being able to write unimpeded in a notebook or in Day One is helpful to me. But it also makes those journals a huge liability, and I’m not about to waste a lot of time stepping on these old entries to get them in a book form. I published my entries here form 1997-1999 in a book, and I think two people bought it. So I’m not spending any effort on that. Maybe you’ll see them when I’m long gone, but I have a very strong feeling everything here is going to get landfilled when that happens.

* * *

All of this makes me thing of Robert Shields, a former minister and avid diarist who was written up in The Eccentropedia. (That book, by the way, is like in my top five all-star all-time books, and you absolutely need to get a copy, no questions asked. Trust me on this.) Anyway, Shields basically live-tweeted his entire life, long before that horrible site existed. He would only sleep two hours a night and then spend hours and hours typing up everything he saw, ate, shit, thought, or dreamed, from 1972 to 1997.

This ended up being 90-some boxes of journals, 37.5 million words. He would sometimes paste in food labels and even his nose hair so maybe someone in the future could study his DNA. When he left the journals to Washington State University, he stipulated that nobody could read them or generate a full word count for fifty years after his death in 2007.

A quick excerpt from his wikipedia:

July 25, 1993
7 am: “I cleaned out the tub and scraped my feet with my fingernails to remove layers of dead skin.”
7.05 am: “Passed a large, firm stool, and a pint of urine. Used five sheets of paper.”

This obsession is interesting to me for whatever reason (the journaling, not his 7:05 am procedure), but the fact that he basically couldn’t leave the house to do this makes it maybe a bit impractical. Maybe if he had Day One he could have traveled a bit.

(He was originally from Seymour, Indiana, BTW.)

* * *

Anyway – the reason I started thinking about this was that Day One has this feature I didn’t know about where you can print books of your journals. It’s just for printing one-offs, like if you have a baby journal of photos or whatever. I decided to try this out by printing my 2013-2015 entries in a single hardcover volume. It was not cheap (fifty-some bucks, I think) but it looks very nice. It puts the photos in there and made a nice cover. It also adds title pages for each month or so, which show a map of where you were, and what cities were visited. (Oh yeah, Day One keeps a lot of metadata on things like your location and the weather.)

The journal looks very cool, but because it’s all private info, there’s no way I could publish this. It’s interesting for me to read. There are a lot of book and story ideas I completely ignored or never followed through with, some stupid and some maybe useful. I would often take a selfie with my laptop camera before I started writing, and it’s interesting to see me 40 pounds lighter, still having hair, sitting in the Frankfurt airport trying to get in a thousand words after being up all night on a transatlantic flight.

I think the most compelling thing about the old entries is that in 2014 or 2015, I was struggling with a lot of the same questions about my writing and dealing with the same interpersonal drama I have now. A lot of that hasn’t been resolved, and some of the entries look like I wrote them last week. There’s a lot of work angst in there too, and I guess that’s much better now. But it makes me realize exactly what I need to be working on.

And I say all of this after publishing a two-thousand word diatribe about how I need to look forward and not be nostalgic. I think there’s some difference between introspection or investigation of the past and using it as my drug of choice. Another blog post? Looks like I have a lot of work to do here. I should take notes. Where?


The death of dead malls

Back in 2016, I wrote a giant eulogy for Concord Mall in Elkhart, when they planned on bulldozing the place to put in a strip mall. And I wrote a part two in 2018 when those plans didn’t happen. So now, a few owners and many vacancies later, there is a plan to “reimagine” the mall by building new housing around the perimeter, and turn the mall itself into light industrial space. And the natural conclusion here is that I’d write a giant part three about this. Right?

Honestly, I can’t. I can’t do any of this anymore. I need to take a big step back from this.

* * *

I’ve always been asked what my deal is with malls, why I liked going to them. Even before I worked in malls, even when we were “supposed” to go to the mall in the Eighties because that’s what the zeitgeist told us to do, people wondered why I liked malls, usually in the same tone as if I told them I enjoyed casually drinking turpentine every morning. I never really thought about it at the time, mostly because I liked a lot of things that kids in my class or my neighborhood didn’t like, and vice-versa. They could enjoy the poetry of Johnny Cougar and I could enjoy spending all Saturday at a Waldenbooks memorizing the Dungeons and Dragons manuals.

When I was in college and I no longer had the excuse of working in the mall and my contemporaries found it appalling that I’d want to go to a shopping center and buy nothing instead of going to a sports bar and listening to Johnny Cougar on a jukebox (sorry,  John Cougar Mellencamp), I tried to unravel this a bit, and I posited that a mall was calming to me. It wasn’t a social hub for me; the food wasn’t exactly compelling; and I found myself buying fewer things at the mall. My literary tastes extended past Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy, and Musicland wasn’t embracing the first wave of Swedish Death Metal, so I had to shop elsewhere for my media purchases. But there was something relaxing about walking a lap or two through the College Mall in Bloomington, even if I wasn’t shopping or hanging out with friends.

And the lens of nostalgia has a very nonlinear focal length for me, especially as I age. I started working on my first book, Summer Rain, in 1995, because I was nostalgic for the summer of 1992. Right now, the summer of 2020 feels like it happened fifteen minutes ago, and I can’t imagine being nostalgic about it. But the years between high school and the end of college felt like decades. Summers lasted years. I made a joke about my summer starting because I just finished school, then couldn’t remember what month it was, then realized kids are going back to school next week. Time has collapsed on itself. But back then, I could easily be nostalgic about a time that had only happened a matter of months before.

Anyway… so I bugged out of the midwest, and malls became more important to me, because they were a tie back to my past, my life in the middle states. When I lived in Seattle and Seattle was too much and I needed to regress and think about the past and college and how much I liked not having bills or corporate responsibilities or whatever, I would go to Northgate Mall and walk a few laps. It relaxed me. It was a neutral place, but more importantly, it was a connection to my former life. I could ignore the present and think about happier times.

And it wasn’t just malls. I would have these other ties to my Midwestern roots. Drop me in any city, and the first thing I’ll do is look for a McDonald’s, or see what’s at Taco Bell. I’ll look for the pieces of Americana that are deep-rooted in my DNA. I lived in New York at a time of exponential growth and radical change and a million unique cultural opportunities, but would take two MTA trains and a PATH train for an hour and a half to walk around a Sears in New Jersey and buy nothing. I remember one time walking an hour at night deep into Queens to go to the only 7-Eleven within the greater New York area. Me and Joel used to go to the only Taco Bell at the time on West 4th, even though it was infested with rats. I remember having a dream once that I found a secret Kroger store hidden in Fort Lee, and I could walk across the George Washington bridge to shop there. I don’t know why this stuff was so important to me. And yes, it’s all commercialized generic corporate garbage, and it’s stupid to pine over getting a Big Gulp when I could get a large vat of Coke virtually anywhere. The Coke wasn’t important. The teleportation to the past was.

* * *

Thirty-some years pass. I live in four or five different cities. I visit a half-dozen countries, and almost every state. Right around the time I start looking for places to log my daily ten thousand daily steps in the FitBit, I seek out a few malls in the area. They are my teleporters. They remind me of the past. They relax me. I like that. But… there’s something wrong with it. I ignore it. I wrote about it here about four years ago, as an aside, but still ignore it.

What is wrong?

* * *

In Greek, “nostalgia” literally means, “the pain from an old wound.” (I stole this from Mad Men, which is not only a nostalgic look at the Sixties, but aired in 2007, which itself is nostalgic for some.) I have a lot of problems with nostalgia. I burn a lot of cycles trying to remember old things, look at old pictures, dig up newspaper articles and videos. It is tranquil, soothing. It’s like a drug to me. I get that little kick of dopamine every time I see a picture of Concord Mall and imagine it’s 1987 and I’m just getting off of work and walking to my car to listen to the new Anthrax album. Flipping through a stack of photos from thirty years ago is sometimes like tucking a half-tab of Ativan under my tongue and letting it melt into my mouth. It’s chemical. It’s amazing.

But there is a pain to it. You can never go back. You can never be that person in the past anymore. You aren’t them anymore. And maybe you never were them, or at least you weren’t what you think they are now. And do you really want to go back? And what is the end goal of swallowing your own tail like this? Where does it end?

I would find myself chasing this too much. I would subscribe to newspapers dot com and become so compulsive about finding stuff, I would need to force myself to unsubscribe. I had to install software on my Mac to prevent me from looking at Zillow and eBay during my writing time, or I would spend hours looking up places I’d lived and things I used to own. Like any drug, each successive hit was just a little less potent, and the next one was just a touch harder to find.

They built an entire empire on this horrible chemical trick: social media. Facebook and Instagram are designed to make you feel bad the more you use them. They are made to pull you in. They pump you full of these images of panacea as fast as possible, but intersperse them with things that piss you off, like when junk food makers found that mixing sweet and salty made you eat ten times as much. When I would fall into these nostalgia holes and scroll and scroll and look for more, my emotions honestly got far more worse than they would be abusing any physical drug. And never mind all the stupid social situations and arguments and drama I ended up in.

And in the meat-world, all the escape hatches were being boarded shut. Malls shuttered. Stores closed. I used to hate Sears as a kid, because I worked at Wards. Suddenly I was deeply saddened because they were all vanishing. I would feel a profound malaise every weekend when I went to Stoneridge Mall in Pleasanton to walk my laps because I would pass this big dead Sears and remember how just a couple of years ago, I’d walk a lap through there and see the Christmas stuff and the tools and the appliances and I really missed all of it. I never worked at Sears. I never shopped at Sears. Prior to the end of 2016, I’d never set foot in that mall or the Sears. Why was I so bent out of shape about this? When Hilltop Mall closed a few years ago, I was so upset about it, because it reminded me so much of the long-gone Scottsdale Mall in South Bend, even though the two don’t look anything alike, and I probably only went to Hilltop maybe a dozen times in a four-year period.

Westgate is pulling out of San Francisco. Hilltop is getting turned into a Prologis warehouse. Stoneridge has two dead anchors and just sold its JC Penney and half of its parking lot to people who want to carve out apartment buildings. Sunvalley is about one bad Macy’s quarter from losing two anchors, and the other two are Sears and a JCP that was already slated to close once. Tanforan got sold. Honestly, any Simon indoor mall is in imminent danger of being sliced up into a “lifestyle center” full of generic 5-over-1 apartments.

Why am I attaching my well-being to something that is collapsing? Why do I think I was happier in the past? Why am I defining my joy with a road to nowhere? Why? Why?

* * *

I’ve come to a realization about this. For me, nostalgia is a trauma response. It’s a form of dissociation. I don’t want to be in whatever I’m in, so I walk a lap in a mall and I’m not in my current depression. I’m in 1988 and I’m ten steps from a Karmelkorn and I can get a corn dog and a cherry coke and sit at the fountain and everything is gone. It’s a nice feeling. It’s an escape.

The problem is that I’m escaping to a time that was arguably worse than now. I grew up in an abusive, xenophobic, myopic, poverty-stricken place. When I was 17, I wasn’t thinking about how wonderful it was in Elkhart. I was thinking about how much I needed to get the fuck out of that city, that state, away from those people, my abusers, in any way possible. I knew I had to get to college, but I also fantasized that if I didn’t, I would just hitchhike to Las Vegas or LA or Seattle or somewhere, and vanish, start over. I absolutely needed to leave, and I did. So why do I want to go back to that?

I don’t mean this to be a big shit-on-the-Midwest thing. For obvious reasons I won’t go into because I don’t blog about politics, news is a big problem for my mental well-being. Dwelling on the news, reading the bad news, keeping up with politics, it’s basically the same as the nostalgia thing without the upside. And when I read the news about what’s going on in Indiana, it bothers me a lot. I don’t live in Indiana. I don’t have any need to spend time there. It’s best if I avoided reading about it. Yet… I have a coping mechanism that involves me thinking about it? I feel a need to make myself better by going back to my abusers and my trauma, because it was “a better time?” This makes no sense. Why am I doing this?

* * *

I need a new hobby. I can’t deal with this anymore. If I want to create and I want to have a life and grow and become a better person, I need to turn myself around and stop looking back. I need to be a better person, and I need to surround myself with things that make me happy. I can’t keep dwelling on a memory that didn’t even happen.

I’m done. This is over. I have to move on.



I have to admit, I have not done any reading for pleasure since I quit writing in 2021. I have completely lost the plot, so to speak. I have been reading, but it’s either books for work, school, or self-help stuff, none of which I would want to review here. (TL;DR read Measure What Matters, High Output Management, and Radical Candor for the first one.) And when I am on a trip, I usually grab the latest copy of The Economist and read it cover to cover, which might not be your cup of tea.)

Ignoring those books, here’s a rough list of what I did manage to read since the fall of 2021. This doesn’t include re-reads, of which there were a dozen or so. (A bunch were mine, and I re-read Small Town Punk every other year or so.)

Predator: A Memoir, a Movie, an Obsession by Ander Monson

I read Monson’s book Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir back in 2020, and it was the kind of book I loved because it was such a great reading experience and hated because I wish I would have thought of the idea first, and now feared I would subconsciously copy when trying to write something out. It could be classified as perfiction ala Raymond Federman, but the voice of it was nothing like Federman and was more contemporary, yet still a bit weird. Predator, which is a memoir this time, is a strange combination of a film studies book and a memoir, in a different style than the previous, but still weaving between the two, and also something I wish I would have thought of first.

The bullet is that Monson was obsessed with the movie Predator as a kid, and watched it constantly, until it bled into the fabric of his early life. I did the same thing with a few movies, most notably RoboCop, so I get it. But Monson also had a traumatic childhood, losing his mother at an early age, bopping around as a borderline truant in the upper peninsula of Michigan with friends who would later join militias, then getting in trouble for computer hacking. I think that Midwestern not-the-cool-kid thing resonates with me, which is what drew me in to this obsession.

He claimed to have watched the movie 146 times, and practically dissects it frame-by-frame. While he covers the surface themes quickly, like the general zeitgeist of 80s action movies with tough guys (who might or might not be gay) he stumbles upon several interesting angles. One is that the quickie novelization of the book was written by Paul Monette, who is better known for winning the National Book Award for his nonfiction memoir about growing up in the closet. Monette died of AIDS in 1995, and published Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir the year after the Predator novelization. The book details his own experience and the loss of his long-time partner, who passed from the disease in 1986. Most people would posit that these muscle action movies were secretly homoerotic, which juxtaposes oddly with the fact that the book was written by a gay man. That’s one of about 17 different tangents that Monson goes off on as he goes through the film, and all of them are equally as interesting.

The book is simply amazing in how it weaves these contrasting narratives together, each which is interesting, but all together made it even more engrossing. This is by far the best book I’ve read in a while.

The Nineties: A Book by Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman is another author who writes these things with incredible resonation with me, and make me upset I didn’t write the same damn thing first. I think I’ve had a 90s book sitting on my hard drive for years and can’t pull it together, but Klosterman did, so. There are a lot of rants in here that I’ve similarly covered here in the blog or on my old podcast, and I think one of the common threads is that GenX is largely forgotten because the generations before and after us won’t shut up, and we didn’t live up to our catchphrase slogan as “slackers” because we actually got jobs and did stuff.

There were a few things he undersold or theories I found to be off. Like he largely dismisses Y2K as a big nothingburger, but as a person in tech who probably sat through a cumulative year of meetings about it starting in like 1993, it was a big thing to some of us. (Aside: I think I tried explaining Y2K to one of my teachers in the late 70s and they wanted to put me in therapy.) I think one of the most frustrating things about Klosterman’s books is I always wish they were a conversation and I could add more to it. I could blog about them here, but then it would look like I’m ripping him off.

Good book, though. It does peter out towards the end, but so did the Nineties.

LaserWriter II: A Novel by Tamara Shopsin

Multiple people told me I had to read this. I did, but it didn’t click for me. As a person who lived in New York in the late 90s and spent a big chunk of time unjamming LaserWriters for a living, it seems like it should. I barely remember this book, so let’s move on.

Lago by Ron Jude

This is an incredible photo book where Jude goes back to his childhood home of the Salton Sea area in the desert of Southern California to try to do the detective work to find out who he is. The photos are absolutely mesmerizing, a contrast of tack-sharp focus and minimalist detail, wandering a palette of browns from the sand and desert vegetation. The landscape is familiar to me, but the composition and grouping resonates in amazing way. It’s like his lens for looking at the scrub brush of Salton City is captured in such a way that I can imagine looking at my own childhood landscape in the same way. This wasn’t a cheap book, but I come back to it constantly, and it was worth it.

Stephen Shore: Uncommon Places: The Complete Works by Stephen Shore

Stephen Shore was a New Yorker who had never seen the country, and decided to drive across it with a large-format camera in tow, and find beauty in the obscure and forgotten areas between the two shores. He absolutely preserved the history of this time not by taking pictures of events or famous architecture or the usual landscapes, but by wandering roadside motels and tiny towns and gas stations. In some ways, the subject matter at first glance might be the kind of thing you’d quickly shoot with your phone and forget: a plate of pancakes, a parking lot, the back side of a brick warehouse. But when you look closely, the composition is absolutely perfect, the way your eye wanders through the pieces of the puzzle. The more you examine each picture, the more details you see, the more things captured. The faded tones and the sepias play wonderfully against the old cars and wood-panel hotels. Like Jude’s book, it’s less about the content in the picture and more about the filter in Shore’s brain that put the content there and what it tells us. It’s an absolutely wonderful book, and probably my favorite photo book I come back to constantly.

Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami

I have to admit that after getting through 1Q84, I was pretty much done with Murakami. But this book is more memoir, and a very inspirational one. He details his road to writing, how he writes, his rituals and how he comes to ideas. This is a series of essays and not so much a how-to book, but there are many good ideas to be gleaned from it. I think he is pretty polarizing about certain things, and it’s definitely not “I can write and after reading my book, so can you!” But it was an interesting read.

I think one of the things he mentioned that rang true to me is that being a career writer is less about writing one or two books, but about having the endurance to keep writing books year after year. And maybe that hit me because I read this after quitting writing, and maybe I need to take his advice.

Strange Circumstances: 34 Stories by Keith Buckley

The weird thing about reading Keith’s stuff is that this is his second book, but I’ve been reading him for thirty-some years in discussion boards and internet posts, so any of his writing immediately has a decades-old familiar voice to me. Full disclosure: I helped him publish his first book, The Orphic Egg Caper, which was a surreal pulp crime novel, of which the biggest crime is that nobody read it and they really should. Strange Circumstances is a collection of shorter stories and flash fiction, ranging from pulp to absurd sci-fi to satire. This is a great introduction to the weirdness to be found in his work. The kicker is I know he’s sitting on thousands of pages of this stuff that needs to get out, and I wish he could get to a bigger audience to put some sense of urgency on him that he needs to keep editing and stop spending all day generating AI images of Cthulhu getting a high colonic and messaging them to me.



Catsup, ketchup, catch-up

I felt a need to write a catch-up on all the various things that went on in the last few months, but immediately went on a tangent about whether or not the tomato-based condiment is named catsup or ketchup. I think it’s with a k, and maybe it used to be mostly with a c in the US, until Heinz changed the name of theirs to the k spelling a century and a half ago. I guess I can remember this with the mnemonic that it’s k and my last name is k.

* * *

OK, so catch-up.

I feel like I’ve lost the first seven months of this year on stupid stuff. I wrote about the two big trips — Iceland and India — although I haven’t posted photos from either. Maybe I’ll get that done at some point, although I’m fairly convinced nobody looks at Flickr. Maybe I’ll make a book, although Blurb takes forever and just raised their prices. Charging a dollar a page for a pocket book is highway robbery. Anyway. Another big trip coming up, and I’ll write more about that later.

Working in San Francisco has been good. The bike thing didn’t really happen. I drive or Uber to the train station, and take the BART one stop, under the water and straight to the financial district. The whole thing is a relatively painless 30 minutes door to door. They feed us, so I seldom leave the building and don’t really have an idea of what’s around. If there’s not food that day, I usually end up at Super Duper, which is a block away. A couple of times I’ve walked a loop down to the ferry terminal and back, which is a decent stroll. I should get out and explore the area more, maybe take some pictures. I should do a lot of things, though.

* * *

When S worked for Smucker, she would sometimes have to travel out to their home office in Orrville, Ohio. Their HQ has a store in it, where you can get t-shirts and socks and other swag, plus the company’s products. And a weird easter egg is that the store sells Smucker’s ketchup, which isn’t available in retail stores. She brought back a jar a few times, and it’s actually really good ketchup. It has a slightly sweeter taste, and comes in a fancy wide-mouth glass jar, probably the same one they use for jelly.

They also have a thing where they will print your picture on the label of a jelly jar. It won’t let you change the slogan below it to a custom string, except to a stock set of choices like “happy birthday” or whatever. Because presentations were the bane of her existence at that job, I wanted to get a jar with the PowerPoint logo on it, and the slogan “PowerPoint is my jam!” I guess I could DIY it, but she left that job a year ago, so never mind.

* * *

In addition to that Flickr rant above, I have no idea what I’m doing with photography. I shot a bunch of film in Iceland, and was unhappy with the results. I have little motivation to go out and take more pictures of the same three things I see on a weekly basis. I bought that Sony a6400 for the India trip, and took maybe a hundred photos there, none good. I really struggled with getting good shots and exposure, and there’s something insanely unsatisfying about using a mirrorless camera. Anyway, the more pictures I take, the worse I feel I’m doing. It’s a struggle, and it’s not bringing me much joy.

Oh, and that drone I bought at the end of 2020 and haven’t touched in forever – turns out it will be illegal to fly next month, because it does not comply with the new Remote ID rules. There are rumors of a firmware update, but they are just rumors. And even if it is fixed, there is still the Karen situation that makes it hard to fly these days.

* * *

For some reason, India was obsessed with ketchup. Maybe obsessed isn’t the right word, but I went to Pizza Hut, got a personal pan pizza, and they gave me a bottle of ketchup with it. I went to a Taco Bell, got a quesadilla and nachos, and was given a bottle of ketchup. I don’t know if it’s a thing to slather ketchup on a taco in India, or just saw a big overweight white American ordering fast food and assumed I needed a quart of ketchup.

I don’t know what brand of Ketchup McDonald’s India used; it was MCD-labeled. I know in the US, they changed from Heinz to their own brand in 2013 when Heinz was acquired by a former Burger King CEO. Burger King India used a ketchup by Veeba. Taco Bell used Del Monte ketchup. Pizza Hut used a brand called “Dr. Oetker Funfoods.” I did not use the ketchup at Pizza Hut, but the food made me horrifically sick. The crust and sauce of the personal pan pizza tasted about right. The pepperoni was way off. It could have been the lack of beef; it could have been spiced differently. Anyway, I’m off Pizza Hut for a while now.

McDonald’s tasted largely identical in India, aside from the lack of beef. Chicken McNuggets were identical, but there is no sweet and sour sauce, which is my go-to. I was forced to resort to barbecue. (Or is that barbeque?) I had a veggie burger once, and it’s like the old-school bean-based veggie burger, not Incredible or whatever fake meat. Oh, and they opened at 11:00, so breakfast didn’t start until then.

Taco Bell was weird. It was closer to Chipotle in trying to be more of a sit-down restaurant. No beef, again. I was also trying to actively avoid any lettuce, so no bean tacos. I ordered nachos, and the chips were the thicker, seasoned kind, and it was served with a mix of tomatoes and uncooked onions on the top, the cheese already applied. Completely unacceptable. (I got it no vegetables the second time, but the cheese was already pre-applied, which I hate. Too much cheese on the top chips, none on the bottom.) The quesadilla was okay, but nobody could pronounce it. They say the “dill” part like the name of the herb, Napoleon Dynamite-style. The cashier tried to correct me, and I told her I worked at a Taco Bell before her father was born. Despite my white-bread Indiana upbringing, I know how to say quesadilla.

I only went to Burger King once in the morning with an uneasy stomach in search of a hash brown, a plain white potato and grease rectangle of salvation. The hash brown was actually sort of spicy, like an aloo chop. It wasn’t bad, but in the context of needing grease and blandness to absorb the rumbling of my stomach, it was slightly offputting.

I did not go to KFC. I saw a Buffalo Wild Wings, which threw me for a loop college nostalgia-wise. Didn’t go in. Not a big fan of finger food anymore.

* * *

I am back writing. Or maybe that’s a question. I am back writing? This is probably the topic of a bigger post, or a series of them. One of my tasks is to keep typing here. The other is to pull some of the other books out of retirement, maybe freshened up. Two are back, as I’ve previously mentioned. I have a few other ideas. We’ll see.

I have no idea how to sell books now. I’ll put them on KDP, but I have no idea how to tell people, and no clue on how to “brand” myself, especially because I do not want to write the kind of stuff I was writing, and I hate the persona I was trying to sell a few years ago. (No advice, please.)

There’s also a little social media rant I could go off on here, or not. I radically cut down my social media time after Iceland, and disconnected or deleted everything entirely in like May, went cold turkey for weeks. I was down to just Reddit, and then all of Reddit went dark. I’m partly back now, although Twitter is done done and deleted. I got on Threads for two seconds, and there’s not enough Xanax in the world for me to even try. I hate to be one of those people who acts like they are above social media because they have such rich social lives in real life. I’ve been online for 34 years this month, and I’m not going to pretend. But I’ve had some serious problems online in the last six months, and have no idea how to really reconcile that. Blogging might be what I need. Nobody reads this, so it’s perfect.

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I can’t think of any ketchup-related anecdotes about Iceland. I think most of the times I got french fries, they came with some esoteric mayo-based sauce, like an aioli. Oh, the one time I had a hot dog (which you have to do there at Bæjarins Beztu), it had ketchup, but it was a very sweet ketchup made with apples. The standard one-with-everything also has a remoulade and a very sweet mustard called pylsusinnep on it. The hot dogs are a mixture of lamb, pork, and beef. Very good stuff.

I had mixed feelings about Iceland when I was there, but it’s weird – now that I have some distance on it, the trip was truly profound to me, and exactly what I needed at that moment. Pardon me for being such an asshole with all these travel stories, but this was more than travel. Iceland was like an alternate universe for me, like a bizarro world. If you’re curious, go hunt down some of the work of Roni Horn, especially Island Zombie. That book is such a perfect description of how the desolation and solitude and viciousness of the island’s climate and terrain are a meditation on presence. I love that book and it makes me want to go back. And there’s no “but” in that, like “I want to go back but take two weeks” or “rent a camper” or “go when the weather is better.” Honestly, I want to go when the weather is worse.

I have such a clear memory, like one of those memories that I will have for the rest of my lifetime, of sitting at the top of Bjarnarfoss, after spending an hour climbing up there and then falling. It was way too cold and I was dressed wrong, and I honestly wasn’t sure if I broke my leg or not. And I was trying to calm myself down, and figure out how to get back down on one leg, and I sat in the mud at the top of this mountain ridge, looking out over all of Snæfellsjökull and the ocean, and being the only person there for miles and miles in every direction, completely alone, everything silent except for the melting snow and ice of this waterfall. Everything in my mind shifted, and I wish I had a word better than “profound” to describe this, but it was almost overwhelming how serene and deep the experience was. I have to go back. I will.

But that’s not the trip this month. Stay tuned on that.


MSML, what’s next

I briefly mentioned this a few months ago, but I went back to school for a second master’s degree in April. I turned in my final capstone presentation on Sunday, and got back my grade yesterday. That’s one of several reasons I haven’t been writing much, and that’s done, so here we are.

The MBA program I finished last year overlaps the school’s MS in Management and Leadership program with three classes in common. That meant I would have six classes and the capstone project to get a second degree. The basic difference between the MSML and the MBA is the MSML is more soft-skill stuff around leading teams, innovation, and strategy. The MBA is more core business school stuff like finance and accounting, plus classes on project management and a taste of the leadership stuff. I liked the MBA, but figured as a manager of people, I could probably use more leadership work in a structured way.

I’ll be honest: I learned a lot of good stuff in the MSML program, but it was nowhere near as good or as challenging as the MBA. Part of the reason I did this back-to-school thing last year was I didn’t want my brain to go to mush, and crossword puzzles only do so much. I also needed to challenge myself and do something hard that I didn’t think I could do. Taking finance and accounting with absolutely zero background in either was a really big boulder to roll uphill. Getting past that gave me a real sense of accomplishment.

The MSML? Not so much. The most challenging courses were actually deep-dives on a couple of the most tedious classes in the MBA. One of the “tough” classes, Business Acumen, was basically a junior version of accounting, finance, econ, and marketing rolled up into one course. Two of the harder classes, Strategic Management and Change Management, had so much overlap, the papers gave me a constant “didn’t I just write about this?” situation. And this degree had zero math or Excel, but it had two classes that required a recorded presentation, three that involved Powerpoint, and it had a team project.

So, there were two proctored tests, twelve papers total. That includes the capstone, which was pretty eh. In the MBA, the capstone project was really cool. You played this simulation where you ran a business, competed against other players, and then did everything from pitch for venture cap to write a shareholder report, and that was a lot of fun, to be honest. The capstone for this was an annotated bibliography of three sources per class and what we learned from them, which was mostly tedious; then a giant paper on a training plan; then a speech on that paper. A lot of the papers in this class were pure tedium. A lot of people in this program are in HR, so maybe that’s the point.

The one unusual thing about this degree is I ended up working on it in six different countries. I was either cramming for tests or working on papers in Iceland, England, Qatar, India, and the UAE. I particularly remember being up all night in Dubai, sitting in an airport lounge and downing as many free Diet Cokes as possible while pulling articles for that stupid bibliography.

I hate to sound bitter about the experience; I’m mostly exhausted by it. I did learn a lot, although I think quantifying that is a bit out of this silo and bleeding into the Work Jon silo, which I don’t care to write about here. But I did pick up some stuff that will be useful in my career. I guess it just didn’t challenge me enough. I think I really phoned it in here, and part of it was the return to office, along with the travel. I finished the degree in four months, and probably put half the effort into it that I did last year.

Another thing… So, I would not say I was in a great place last year, for various reasons I won’t go into here. And as I worked through that Situation, I also worked hard on the MBA, and the two were very intertwined. So it was surreal sometimes to be sitting in a Hilton in Bangalore which looked identical inside to the hotel I was at in Denver last June, like down to the same paintings on the walls. And I’d be staying up late alone, working on the same kind of papers in the same templates and the same online library and the same learning system, listening to the same albums, and thinking back to last summer and thinking I really don’t need to be thinking about last summer. There’s a much bigger essay about nostalgia that needs to be written in short order, but let’s just say that whole thing was disturbing. And the good news is it is probably so disturbing because I’m in a much better place now and don’t want to be in 2022, or 1992, or 2002, or whatever else.

The big question is what’s next. I feel like this degree has been a big distraction in the way of what I need to be doing. Now I need to dust off the journals and the Scrivener things and figure out what the hell I am doing. I wrote about this in March, and I guess I was really thinking about it at the start of the year, and I was thinking about it last fall. And I need to stop thinking and just type. There are a lot of things in my way, and I need to ignore them, because they are all noise.

On my birthday, I wrote in my personal journal a big, raw, insane state-of-the-union, trying to put down exactly what I wanted to do next, along with a punchlist of what needed to be done to get Atmospheres 2 done, which obviously never happened. There was a lot of confusion and sorrow and anger in that entry. But there’s one paragraph I’ll leave you with, and I think I need to listen to what I said on 1/20:

I need to write. I need to write. I need to get on here every day and push it. I need to work harder. I need to capture everything. I need to riff, and slay, and build, and exercise, and work it out. I have no goal except everything. This is my life. This is what I need to do. There is no alternative.

When Ichiro Suzuki was in little league, he wrote the word “集中” on his glove. Concentration. I need to remember that.