The frogs were loud.

I was in the hammock last night, in the summer we stubbornly insist is still spring. Took me a minute to worry myself into my sweet spot for the night.

When I did, I noticed the frogs. I swayed there above the creek and listened to them call out for companionship and wondered if I could sleep in it. This high crickety lonesome. Like bubble wrap that somehow needs oiling.

There was that gnawing at the back of my head that so many of us word people feel, someone knocking on the other side of the basement door and saying "I have a gift for you. An idea. Use it now, or at least store it someplace safe until you can. Who knows when I'll come back."

So I reached up to the pouch that hung on the ridgeline above me, brushing past a book of Jane Yolen short stories, and I pulled out my phone as the sentence congealed. There was something to it, I thought, so I banged it out quick in my drafts app.

"The frogs were loud."

And then I said my prayer. I receive this gift with thanks, I acknowledge its heft, and I promise you that I will write it just as soon as I can. But I hope you will understand that I must sleep now.

And I did. It was deep and dreamless. I stirred only once when it had gotten cool enough to pull the blanket over me, maybe once more to worry over a pinched nerve. When I woke, I thought about my whiteboard.

Lance taught me about whiteboard meditation. You write something on your whiteboard and linger over it, see where it leads. I did my first one last week, and this is what I wrote:


So many of my decisions, particularly the ones I've regretted, have been driven by what I believe is a fundamental need to lose myself. To be free of my own obsessions and fears and resentments and self-consciousness and, well, me.

I've found a healthy loss of me through helping others, through communing with that presence I reluctantly call "God", through immense suffering and loss. I never get it the right way when I chase it, yet chase it I have, in ways big and small. Through chemistry, through challenges to my endurance, through an addictive “faith” that was more like a dare, through women. And, I think, through stories and song too.

If you ask me to go to a party, I may say yes, but I will think no. If you ask me to be left alone with a story, to sit in a chair and read something that turns me, to sit in the dark and let a glowing screen change my feelings, I will leap at that chance.

I looked at that writing cue. The frogs were loud. And I thought about that smear of marker. You're looking to get lost. And I wondered. Should I write? Why?

Everyone who loves me will say yes, I should, because I have a gift. You have been given this, they tell me. It's a sin not to use it.

Okay, maybe, but for what?

Because what I want to do with it is get lost in it. Better if I can make you get lost too, because then you'll love me, won't you? Ask me what I wish I could do most of all, and I'd say I wish I could tell stories that delight. I want that for me, because I want that for me. That seems like a bad way to spend that gift, to feed it to my ego or use it as an escape pod.

It may be lucky that I've never really seen a story through. It may be the best thing for my health. Because the world is out there, people are out there, and if I'm going to get lost, shouldn't I get lost in them? In their stories? Shouldn't I be there to celebrate their triumphs, to hold them in their grief? Is that what the words are for?

The frogs were loud. My god, you wouldn't believe it if you haven't heard it. They knew nothing of anxiety or resentment or dread. They exulted in a natural compulsion: Tonight I must sing, because that is my nature.

And they sang, but not to me. Not for me, though it felt so. It felt as though I were in the center of it all, taking it in, letting it build in me until I could find the right means to grab your hand and tell you to listen, this matters, the frogs were loud and it changed me, it can change you too.

What is that for? Why is it?

What now?

I cannot find enlightenment or fulfillment by seeking it. I fail at the very first step because it is at odds with the very reason that I want it. I want it for me. And it isn't for me. Yet I have these words, and I am paralyzed because I don't know how to use them just for you. I don't know how to sing like the creekfrogs. They sing together. They sing to stay alive. They need not worry why because they cannot be corrupted as I am.

I want to lose that corruption. I want to lose me. I'm sick of me. And I know where to do it. I lose me in you. But I can twist even that into something it was not meant to be. So the words are a gift, yes, but they are also a burden. They put me at risk to be no longer useful to you. And without you, I go back to being something I've learned to fear.

I don't have a tidy bow for this. I have only the question of what now. I suppose it's time to shut up and listen. To find someone I can help, and trust that the words will eventually either show me what they are for, or else leave me alone.

How do we write now?

You are completely at its mercy and it is your kingdom. The apples are all the things you have ever compared to apples. The stars are all the ways you have tried to describe the stars. Paradise is not just the day when the poem pours down like Niagara with the hottest couple in the world kissing steamily behind it, it is also the day that you spend changing the word A to THE and back again. That concentration is reverence. You are passing the beads of things through your fingertips and your head is bowed and your mouth is moving and the preexisting rhythm has found its place in you.

I’m not saying you’re lucky to be there. I’m saying as long as you live there you are in opposition to the powers that rule the world. You are the opposite of money. You are against presidents, oil spills, slaughterhouses, Young Sheldon. You’re the opposite of the red button under Matt Lauer’s desk. You’re the opposite of the red button that ends it all. You have never been so hard in your own name. Nobody has you.

Patricia Lockwood reminds me that the world still is, that llamas matter, that the place where I burn is always open.

I wanted to quote pretty much all of this, but I thought I’d focus on the promise, the target we forget to aim at. You are the opposite of money. You have never been so hard in your own name.

God damn.

You had one job.


This is the man who broke Black Panther’s perfect Rotten Tomatoes score. That’s a shame.

You might think it weird that a person who gets paid to have opinions about art would gig a movie for an insufficient number of jumpings and beatings, but I draw strange comfort from knowing that such unique musings came from a man named Ed Power.

The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction

I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.

One relationship among elements in the novel may well be that of conflict, but the reduction of narrative to conflict is absurd. (I have read a how-to-write manual that said, "A story should be seen as a battle," and went on about strategies, attacks, victory, etc.) Conflict, competition, stress, struggle, etc., within the narrative conceived as carrier bag/belly/box/house/medicine bundle, may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.

Finally, it's clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.

That is why I like novels: instead of heroes they have people in them.

The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction by Ursula K. Le Guin

Rest in peace.

You’ll have to come looking, I guess

I ditched active participation in Twitter several months ago. The outrage cycle was tiring. People shouting THREAD over and over again was tiring. The endless punishment of women and people of color while the Nazis were constantly given what could only absurdly be termed “free speech consideration” was exhausting.

Twitter seemed so full of promise once. It looked like it could change the world, and unfortunately, it did.

It’s like a high-speed microcosm of the Boomer generation, all promises of a new world of prosperity and ideas shared and debated, but then money and power start making demands and everything gets thrown in reverse. Such is Twitter, and such is America forever if we don't figure it out.

Though I had “left”, I kept coming to Twitter when called; I still had my blog alert my followers there when I made a post. I did that because of you, because Twitter brought a tsunami of wonderful people into my life, and I am desperate to stay in touch and remind you all how much you mean to me.

But it was also about ego. It was about “outreach”, a word that here means faves and attaboys. I hunger for that too, and it is a part of me that I would drag into an alley and kick to death if I knew how. But I can at least starve it.

I have no dreams of blogging professionally. I have a career that I like that pays me more than all but the most successful writers dream of, and that gives me options I would not otherwise have. So it wasn’t ever about money or fame. I’m just a dog whining to be petted, when you get right down to it.

I could justify that to myself before, but it's getting harder now. Not when women are being banned for criticizing men while the president* unintentionally brags about the size of his clitoris to North Korea and intentionally stokes the fires for war. I can't even distantly participate in a service that bigoted and loony. If I do, I’ve sold off the best part of me just like Jack and Biz did.

So I’m done. Facebook will never touch my new phone and I'm cutting the last remaining cord to Twitter.

I do hope you'll keep poking around here from time to time, and yes, that is still about both you and me. I'm working on it. But I hope I'm at least finally content to wonder whether anyone's listening, without seeking an answer.

The Dark Side of the That's-No-Moon

The first eight minutes of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" synced with Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon". They say the whole movie works. Of course, they also say that Slender Man is real.

This is the best one of these I've seen since they did it with "The Wizard of Oz", which is a better thematic fit if you think marijuana is great. As many Slender Man people do.

We talk about story beats, particularly in sequential art stories like movies and comics, and it's not just a metaphor. Language itself is inherently musical, regardless of whether you speak a tonal language, and stories themselves are often most satisfying when they have a musical-ish structure. On the flip side, even "Add It Up" by the Violent Femmes feels like a three-act play to me.

So while I don't think there's anything grand lurking here, there is probably something in our instinctive pull towards certain rhythms and changes in stories and conversations just like in music, the way most popular music was built on a handful of chord progressions.

If I had fuck-you money and an attention span worthy of the name, I'd start randomly pairing concept albums with movies just to see how often I get a decent hit. I bet it would be statistically significant, but then again something this subjective just screams confirmation bias.

There is crazy magic in our stupidly repetitive and predictable brains. Hell, sometimes even I think Slender Man could be real.

My Mom Once Dressed Up as Cyndi Lauper, AMA

So this week I got to nurture my inner narcissist by standing up in front of a roomful of strangers and telling them what I think about my mom.

The venue was Listen to Your Mother's Little Rock show. I met a bunch of very brave people who carved off big chunks of themselves and dragged them out under stagelights.

It's the first public reading I've done in years, which had my pulse around 120. But it sounds as if I didn't suck, if audience reaction is to be believed.

Video will go up sometime this summer, if you're interested in watching a dude who looks like Voldemort wearing a summer blazer publicly work through his mommy issues. Meantime, here's the screed.

Oh, credit: One of the best lines of the piece (the one about changing the world) was shamelessly stolen from Jessamyn West with her permission. Jessamyn's pretty damned amazing, as is fitting for famous librarians. I'm proud to call her a friend and steal her bons mots.

Also, credit to my mom, who is also amazing. When she is not calling me "numbnuts".

Anyway. Here you go.

She will put Chaos into fourteen bullet points

Came the day my dad was drafted. He managed to get leave from Officer Candidate School long enough to come home and marry my mom before he flew out to war.

It was a hasty wedding in a small and indelibly Christian town, so the rumor was of course that he'd knocked her up. One family friend gave them a case of RC Cola for a wedding gift with a note: "I'll get you a real present if it lasts."

She showed me a photo of them at the reception, holding the case of soda between them. I asked if she ever got the real gift. "I did," she said, "but I didn't want it." I imagine she smiled and said thank you.

Dad's renal cancer happened 25 years ago. There were Mayo Clinic visits. Surgeries. Radiation. Walkers. Wheelchairs. Somehow he beat it.

A doctor had told her Dad would be dead in two years. She suggested to the doctor that, if he was having trouble locating his optimism, perhaps he could try looking places other than up his own ass. She didn't use those words, but I have little doubt that they lurked in her meaning. Midwestern farm girls are easily the equal of Southern women when it comes to feathering a thick layer of unassailable manners atop a sheetcake of disdain.

There were our teenage years. The time our dog ate Dad's face. My near inability to finish my first college degree. The rumors that sprang up when we shut down one of the family stores, including, remarkably, that she had died. She kept her back straight through that and more.

She has a Buddhist's understanding of the inevitability of suffering, if not their practiced detachment. She is a mother, not a Buddhist. Detachment is not an option.

So she makes lists of everything. She checks her calendar. She makes phone calls. She makes more lists.

It was those lists that got her married in record time before dad went off to war, that got him through his cancer treatment. Those lists changed Missouri law to allow deaf children into public schools. Those lists brought her to the deathbed of a woman she knew only through the window of a McDonald's drive-thru.

The lists are her handle on the world. They are her clarity and focus. The next action item. The next job. The next person who needs someone.

Those lists mean that she's going to show up. She's going to be present. And that can mean happy things, but it's almost certainly going to mean work.

As for me, I am an aficionado of sitting. Withering sarcasm is fun, too. Being pushy while a holding a checklist sounds like a special kind of hell to me. But she knows what I don't want to know, that being pushy with checklist is the only damn thing that can change the world.

It was only when she called last Thanksgiving, when she was in the middle of comforting her dying father-in-law while protecting his estate from vultures and trying to contain the pain of her bad feet, her failing digestive system, and her own recently-dead mother. It was when I suggested that I not bring the family up for the holidays, when she sobbed and thanked me for offering what she couldn't bring herself to ask, that I heard it.

Her voice shook like a newborn after a bath, and I heard more of mortality in that than in the three funerals I would attend that season. I learned another thing that I didn't want to know: that there are limits to what even she can bear.

But within a day her voice was perpendicular and smiling again. She was calling me on the phone. She was making lists for when we'd do Christmas in January.

And her joy shamed me. There was no sermon, no reminder that "life for me ain't been no crystal stair". She just let me know that she was still climbing, and that if I needed it, she could probably carry me for a bit.

I have in my possession a translucent yellow envelope. It is the kind you fasten shut by closing a flap and winding a string around a couple of plastic discs. Inside of it is a transparent plastic folder with pockets and brads for fastening hole-punched paper in the center like a binder. The center section is a crisp, three-quarter-inch-thick stack of paper interleaved with multicolored tabs.

It is unadorned but bears the mark of a string of careful choices. The whole package is assembled simply, clearly, with an eye for aesthetics and user experience. It is meant to be durable, dependable, serious but not somber, and both easy and pleasing to use.

The center tabs are carefully labeled in black gel ink in her hand, which is, like the folder, like her, a balance of professional competence and reliability against a deadpan but lighthearted flair. The feminine rise and fall of the bottom stroke of her capital L's, like a small sledding hill. The Marlo Thomas hair flip at the end of her lowercase N's.

General Information for Trustee. Joint Revocable Trust Agreement. General Durable Power of Attorney. Bills of Sale/Assignment. Warranty Deed. Health Care Directive. Last Will & Testament.

Things to Remember.

It is her final set of lists, the ones she will never be able to finish. The ones she's putting into my hands to see all the way to completion. I try to tell myself that I will see it done on my own, but I suspect my back won't bear up like hers. I suspect that my wife, who is also a mother, who knows what it is to lose a mother, will see before I can that I am broken, and she will scrape me up off the floor and help me to check off those last few boxes.

Look. Up in the Sky.

That's what I remember: Hot summer nights, sweltering in my bedroom, reading comics and dreaming and drawing, while life went on outside the window.

Imagine a jail cell, yeah? A fallout shelter, where the walls are covered with so many drawings you can't tell it's a prison anymore. It's so bright and colorful: sexy girls, handsome musclemen, adventure.

You start to forget it's not real. You don't realize the world's ended for you....

The world DID end. Something happened to me, something worse than the bomb, and it all died. It's just taken me this long to catch up.

Alone in the world. Alone in my room.

Now the superheroes are as fucked-up as the fucking rejects who write about them and draw them and read about them. All the heroes are in therapy and there's no one left to care about us.

No one at all.

— Grant Morrison, Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery

I had this goofy-ass theory about the whole Edward Snowden thing. Well, not really.

The idea was this: if you were president and wanted to make good on a promise of a more open and accountable government after years of it consolidating power and rat-holing secrets, legislative haggling would get you nowhere. This would have to be a ground-up thing. The people would have to scream for it.

So one way to really get their attention? Wag the dog, orchestrate a live-action drama.

Snowden's right out of central casting for this, right? Young, good-looking kid, not highly educated, sort of an everyman. He looks like a young Gordon Freeman. His name's even a sort of slantwise portmanteau of Eddard Stark (nobleman killed by his candor and desire to find the truth) and Jon Snow (Stark's literal bastard son, exiled and trying to exist beyond the reach of civilization). Nice Easter eggs for the Nerd Century.

Then potboiler potboiler, Hong Kong China Russia Germany South America (Nazis!) Central America Russia Russia intrigue black hole Bolivia planes Spain France...Russia? Russia! Major players nearly all current or former authoritarian states famed for monitoring and controlling their own people.

So you concoct this whole thing, wait for people to get angry, let yourself take the fall as the bad guy, and grass-roots change begins. You successfully shove your nation off the path to becoming a police state. Talk about legacy.

Hell, even a spy novelist said he wished he'd written it.

Yeah, dumb. It's a wish, a fantasy. I don't believe it's real, not because I've all but abandoned hope in our government or the possibility that we can actually restore the sanctity of the rule of law, but for one simple reason: It would never work.

It's a great story, but people would have to care. That's the hard part. They'd have to care. Most've spent the last dozen or so years throwing up their hands and sighing, or worse, nodding in fervent agreement with whoever waves his flag the hardest or holds his cross the highest.

Age hardens in me the conviction that we are all of us broken in some way.

If reading about heroes doesn't inspire us to action, then why do we dream up stories about them? Is it just a balm, a way of enduring one more day under fluorescent tubes? Is it just a dream of a world we don't live in and don't know how to make? That can't be all there is to it, can it?

I love Grant Morrison because Grant Morrison believes in heroes. Not tough guys dressed in drab tones, but old-school heroes. Bright colors. Spandex. Kittens from trees. Men of Muscle Mystery. And the best part: he believes that that kind of heroism is, in its way, real.

I wrote last time of optimism. Life responded by tossing me headlong into a test of my commitment to that ideal, and I became an insufferable bastard.

None of which invalidates what I wrote before. I still believe in optimism. I still believe that it is a choice. But for me, it's a hard one.

Morrison will tell you that we are on the cusp of a new birth, that we will evolve into something more. He says it with the certainty of a man who has flipped ahead and read the last chapter.

I believe in that future too, but it's just a belief, not his certainty. To me it is only a possibility, the hope of which I sometimes cling to.

And I see that we are broken. And I wonder if we'll break that possibility too.

A young boy I love very much is being bullied. Some other boys who call themselves Christians are picking on him for being an atheist.

This boy I love has had suicidal thoughts. He recently admitted them to his parents. I think about it, and I pity his parents for the rage they have to swallow. Mine's only a fraction of theirs, and I caught myself fantasizing about terrorizing these children to get even.


I believe in modern-day gods and titans too, but I think they only exist if we choose to make them exist, and I can't see one here any more clearly than I can in the news. I see only that boy's fear and depression, the pathetic and damnable smugness of his tormentors, and my even more contemptible desire to heap his sufferings on their heads a hundredfold.

Professing a belief in something means doodly-shit if you abandon it in the worst case. My president believed in accountability until he saw the hard costs of it. Those kids believed in the teachings of Christ until they were confronted with someone who thought Jesus just another hero that someone made up. Me? I'm trying to remember that I don't believe in revenge or giving up.

Perhaps it's because so many things have come so easily to me that I find that last instinct as natural as breathing. It got hard; I'm going to bed.

I'm shamed by that boy, the one that I love, who has kept going in the face of torment, who had the guts to tell his parents he was thinking of ending his life. He's more of a man than I.

I'm shamed by the one Christian friend of his who has the sand to stand by him when the others threaten the same treatment. Give that boy a cape and some heat vision. Better yet, give him a church or a shelter to run.

I've never been anywhere near the brink of killing myself, but I do know what it's like to enumerate it as a possibility, to know that it's easier to be dead than you. You carry that possibility around in your back pocket, occasionally running your fingers over the bulge just to confirm that it's still there. Its presence isn't scary or sad, only a fact, reassuring in its way. An off-switch, break glass in case of emergency. Everything bad will stop. You don't need it yet, you just need to know that it's there.

It seems so reasonable to keep it there in your pocket, and it's only in your more lucid moments that you realize how alone that reasonableness is.

This boy that I love got knocked on his ass by that much loneliness, and he stood back up. While I was grumping about my bank account and my busted-ass car and compiling my list of petty grievances, while a dear friend's daughter finally and understandably grew weary of a lifetime of defeat and broke the glass, he stood up. This boy that I love.

I hope he keeps standing up. I hope life lets him keep his legs. Because if so, god damn, the hero he will become.

Memento Mori

I talk to myself. A lot. I don't feel like I've actually lived a day unless I got to spend at least 20 minutes of it talking to myself. Because I am a goddamn crazy person.

It started when I was a kid, I think mostly because I had trouble holding a coherent thought in my head unless I wrote it down or said it out loud. There was a semester or two there when I would study for philosophy exams by breaking into lecture halls and pretending to teach the course material to the empty room.

Yep, that's nuts. It's embarrassing. Doesn't seem like the sort of thing that a normal, healthy person does, right? But it's been over three decades now, and I'm not sure I know how to stop. Plus, confession time: I like doing it. Maybe it's narcissism, maybe it's my weird and contradictory relationship with quiet, I don't know. But I love talking to myself. It comforts me, grounds me.

So I'm in my car the other day and I've decided to spend my lunch break driving around and talking to myself. I'm driving around and I'm talking to myself about, I don't know, JavaScript or an ISO formatting issue or my kids or Neil Gaiman or whatever. I don't know. But it was nothing of import, just me thinking out loud. Like a crazy person.

And then a thought popped into my head, a derpily-obvious but nonetheless-there-it-is thought:

You are going to die.

It hit me as though it were going to happen sometime in the next ten minutes.

Earth-shattering, I know. But I had a french fry in my hand and form validation on my lips, and it broadsided me. I recoiled and gathered myself and said it out loud: "You are going to die." Then I said "Fuck." Then I asked myself a question.

Say you're going to die in three hours. You've already said goodbye and thanks and I love you to your friends and family. You even got to shake Grant Morrison's hand, to hug Brooks Hansen for writing The Chess Garden, to tell Tom Waits a dirty joke and join him in a round of "Goodnight, Irene". They've all been pulled away, and now you have three hours to do what you want with your time. What would you do?

You'd want to leave a marker behind, however temporary, right? I'd want to make something, and I'm better and faster with words than anything else, so: I would write.

What would I write? That's where it gets hard. But I think I would once and for all completely untether myself. Not a confession of sins, but one last stab at reaching for your hand and talking about the things we have in common and hide from one another.

Maybe it would be an essay, maybe a story. Maybe I'd do something clever and address my children while really talking to adults. Lord knows that's never been done before.

But I would write, and I would write something that mattered, if I had it in me to do so. I'd go deep purple on that motherfucker, too.

Which raises the obvious question of why I'm not doing more than dabbling infrequently with that now. Good question.

No, this isn't the typical "I'm going to quit my job and find my way as a writerly writer" revelation. I'm too smart to just shitcan what I've spent years building to pursue a life of poverty and frustration and predatory contracts. I like my job, I do, I just don't care about it all that much.

I think that has to mean that I'm going to start doing this more, so I have built myself a system that allows me to take writing breaks from my coding. Right now I'm typing blind on a covered iPad while staring at a monitor that says this:

    xtype: 'hiddenfield',
    flex: 1,
    fieldLabel: 'Label',
    name: 'documentationIndicator'

I'm writing this while I stare at that and the whiteboard at the other end of the table, just as Chuck Palahniuk wrote Fight Club while pretending to take notes in meetings. I'm going to write blind, every day, and when things come out that are post-worthy, I'm going to post them. No promises on frequency.

I'm going to do this because I've learned this about myself in the last year: My brain does not have a stable state. It's growing or dying, and only learning makes it grow.

Every day I fertilize it or poison it. I can fertilize it with a technical challenge even if the work I'm supporting is boring and mundane, but that all goes Agent Orange when I'm pushing 200 fields around a form or debugging a validation routine.

So I must fertilize, and if I cannot find a way to make my living doing something I truly love, then I will bring my love into my work, and I will do it in secret. Don't tell anyone.

I'll do it because I may be dead in three hours, and I want my children to open my Dropbox (kids: look in the "notesy" folder after Dad croaks) and find something sublime in there when I'm gone.

I was cleaning up that folder and found this in an unnamed textfile the other day:

It should have fun
It should be funny
It should have adventure
Heroes should fall
Heroes should rise
Things should go boom
No boobs, unfortunately
Han Solo should science a mammal

Yeah, I don't know either, but any ground where I can lose and find stupid shit like that needs to be tended.

Look: None of what I'm saying here is particularly profound or daring, I know. But it's hard. It's hard not to hide from it. When I was young, I used to sleep to hide from my anxieties and fears, and though I threw away that pacifier long ago, I found other, subtler ones. Now I'm trying to rid myself of them. Only in the last year or two have I felt like I'm waking up. And wow, the stuff I missed.

So the new plan is I'm going to spend the back half of my life writing my obituary, though I'll be damned if I know what form it will take. I'll try like hell to make it an honest one and a good one. There will be overwrought and overwritten weepy time stuff, and there will be dongs. Just you wait. But it will be my obituary, my testimony.

So I'll write the opening now, and then we'll start figuring out the backstory together.

Matt Reed was born on the 110th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination and died on its bicentennial because stories are tidy like that. He died, appropriately enough, in a theater, though he was not murdered.

He was watching a stage production of Daniel Pinkwater's seminal novel The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death when the nanobots in his bloodstream malfunctioned, swarmed to his brain, and over-stimulated the neurons that housed the combination to his brother's first bicycle lock. Experts are still trying to determine why this caused him to combust.

Onlookers reported that Mr. Reed had shouted "Sic semper tyrannis" in the manner of Marcus Junius Brutus and John Wilkes Booth, but a scan of the nanobot logs indicates that he had instead shouted a slurred "six two three two", which analysis suggests was the bike lock's combination.

Mr. Reed leaves behind his beloved if overly-sassed wife Jennifer; his son Jack, inventor of tiger invisible robot technology; and his daughter Georgia, Roving Warlady Empress of the Fourth Obfuscation.

Mr. Reed died as he lived: terrified, confused, and on fire.

Rise, My Creation, Your Master Commands

You've probably figured out that tools are important to me. I spend a lot of time thinking about them, and I like to write about them too.

Problem is that most of the tools I rely on every day are, predictably enough, software, and there's already a big crowd of people who write about software and getting work done. There's Sven and there's Patrick and there's Sparky and there's Eddie and there's Drang and there's Brettsy von Terpington and there's Merlin and there's Merlin and there's Merlin and there's more besides. I don't feel like trying to duplicate their success.

I was ruminating on this the other day when I had made my third failed attempt at a post I still haven't given up on about how I use alerts and notifications to emulsify awesome sauce. I found myself slipping into doing some variation on the sort of thing I read in my RSS feeds every day, and let's face it, if I do that, there's really no point to this place.

That got me wondering what the point of this place is, and I was surprised at how difficult that question was to answer. I thought on that for days, and then a very scary career opportunity presented itself, and the answer tumbled out of my skull.

I was trying to get work done but had just finished one of those conversations that completely derails your brain with scary possibilities, and as a result, I was worse than useless. I was literally experiencing a mild fight-or-flight response thinking about it, swept up in a mix of exhilaration and the sort of terror one feels when confronted with the dead-eyed ghost of a six-year-old Japanese girl.

I had anti-focus. I knew I had to process it before I could get anything done, so I started typing, and eventually, the following came out.

A note before we dig in: Please pardon the grandiosity (and random perspective-shifting). I tend to tinge purple when I'm brain-dumping and I hadn't intended it for public consumption, but I don't think I should edit it too heavily, for honesty's sake.

This is what I wrote:

The thing is that you are meant to do something on this earth. You are meant to change things in some small way. That is why you were given hands and a mind and a heart and legs. You were meant to do things that make people's lives better. You certainly were meant to always be working to make yourself better. This [opportunity] is the devil you don't know, sure. But would you rather be impotent and underused?

This thing in me that wants to live, I want to let it, and I'm not sure of how. I worry about the costs. But I desperately want it to live. Sometimes it seems I can physically feel it burning in my chest, and I don't know if that's real or not, but I damn near don't care because it feels alive.

The job's not going to give me that. No job is, unless it's a very special one. I'm not sure that even necromancing my old dream of being a decently-paid writer would do it for me, not really. Once you're doing what you love, the trick is to keep loving what you're doing. And how many people get paid to write what they want?

That sense of being alive, I've found it in music and art and books and women and movies and funerals and Jennifer and the birth of my children and I'm hungry for more of it. I want to find it in me, in my life.

"Your life is coming to you," I hear that thing say, and I think, it's here. I'm living it. What else is there?

To build something, for starters. To feed and amplify wonder. To make others feel a hunger and longing for that feeling and to be lost in it.

You can write about OmniFocus. You can write about notifications. You can write about clutter and focus and tools and tricks, but it should always be connected to your heart and your fear and your life and your longing for something you're not sure exists. That is your blog. The intersection of tools and dreams, usefulness and impracticality, fear and longing and love and sex and giving and meaning and failure. A glorious Kurt Vonnegut butthole-shaped crossroads of life.

That is The Tool Shed. Looking for a way to build dreams and change out of the things of this earth. Talking about the stuff we all know but don't say. Finding a way to help that thing live. Not a whole lot of blogging about that.

Now look at notifications and OmniFocus and tools and your job in THAT light, fucker. Where are the angels and goblins in your contexts?

Woof. Is that Bill Shakespeare? I don't have my glasses on.

But I hope the gist is clear: that thing at the center of me lies mostly beyond my comprehension, but I'm pretty sure it is at least partly a call to do work. Not necessarily my job, not even necessarily an avocation like this place, but something that matters, something that changes things in some small way. I can't quite shake that loose.

I'm only now starting to get comfortable with the idea that all life is searching, that when you feel like you've arrived, it's pretty much all over. So if this site really does last and is to be anything, it is to be a chronicle of that searching, with a keen eye on keeping it bullshit-free.

I'm encouraged by the surprising level of reaction I've gotten from people who have read this site and the new friends I've made because of it, but the real reason I know this place is on the right track is that every time I write something like this, I'm choking down panic. That means it's worthwhile, because it means I'm selling my heart.

Now I think I'll call my shot: Spinning the Wheel of Topics, the next post will be about trying to spend more time acting and less time reacting.

Happy Birthday, Brett.

A very happy birthday to Brett Terpstra.

Who is Brett Terpstra?

I'm just delighted you asked.

This is a list of stuff Brett Terpstra has made.. Most of it he has given away for free. Don't know what that stuff is? That's okay. It's nerdy stuff, but it's important nerdy stuff. Stuff that has changed my workflow and vastly improved my life. Stuff that is so important for my writing that I actually lug my MacBook to work so I can write on it, then transfer the files to my Windows work laptop so I can give them to my bosses so they can be all oh, mct, you're so talented and handsome, and just look at your document formatting, can we do the sex now?

Brett's stuff is mostly related to plaintext writing and Markdown, which I've written about here before. Just as weaning myself off of fast food has decreased my tolerance of it, so has abandoning word processors for plaintext nerdery made me apoplectic with rage after five minutes in Word. Brett is basically the Whole Foods of dorks.

More accurately, he's a mad scientist. A really, really nerdy mad scientist who makes awesome things that help people. He's a toolmaker, and so he has my love. Personally, I can't imagine writing without Marked, I use his OS X services to clean up my work, and since I discovered his tools for my favorite text editor, things have gotten even better.

I use his tools every day. That's what she said. Where's the beef?

Brett, happy birthday. Congratulations on your work and your new podcast. You make the internet and my life better.

I mean this in the nicest way imaginable, Brett: you are my Tool of the Week.

Plain is Sexy

An earlier iteration of my blog featured a “tool of the week” bit that I abandoned after cracking under the pressure of coming up with one every single week. But I loved writing those posts and have never given up my fondness for tools, so I figure I’ll keep doing them sporadically here. If for no other reason than that all posts can’t be as navel-gazey as the last one.

So I’ll lighten the mood a little and bore you instead by talking about writing workflows and software. Six of you will care, but this is where I spend most of my day, and I feel like talking about it.

Still around? Hokay.

I’m rapidly becoming convinced that John Gruber’s excellent Markdown syntax is one of the greatest things that ever happened to writing on computers. He developed it as an easier way of writing and reading HTML documents by stripping out all the tags and extra cruft and replacing them with simple symbols. Write up a simplified plain-text document, run it through a script to convert it to HTML, and blammo, web page made with considerably less work.

John’s a very smart guy, but I’m not sure he realized what he’d done there, not at first. By abstracting the details of writing HTML, he hadn’t just created a shorthand. He’d damn near created a meta-language, something that could be run through any number of different programs to create any number of different types of documents. With the right set of tools, you could easily turn a Markdown document into an RTF document, a PDF, theoretically anything.

Enter Fletcher Penney and MultiMarkdown, which has utterly changed the way I do business. It takes Gruber’s original syntax and adds very little (I believe Penney only added syntax for creating tables and footnotes), but allows you to process it into a number of formats: HTML, LaTeX (and thence to PDF), OPML, and Open Document Format (which from there can be converted to RTF, Word, or Pages formats).

Gruber’s creation kicked off a minor revolution in writing and developing for the web, and it’s now leaking into offices and writer’s workflows as well. An pornographic amount of software has sprung up around it, particularly for OS X, but really everywhere.

Why use it? Well, partly because you hate Microsoft Office. Yes, you do.

I’m what some might term a “power user” of Office, as I’ve gone so far as to create Excel spreadsheets embedded with hand-written VBA code that creates and emails Word documents on the fly. I’ll be the first to praise Office’s power, as it is indeed as powerful as Satan’s own broccoli farts, but actually using it is about as pleasant as inhaling said farts. It’s the word processing equivalent of going to Walmart.

So there’s that. There’s also the question of portability. I’m writing this right now in Markdown on an iPad, but I could open it on any computer from any decade since punch cards went out. You don’t have to worry about what happens if your favorite software dies out or starts sucking. You don’t have to worry about operating systems or versions.

So on. I’d be willing to bet a lot of you are nerdy enough to be familiar, so I won’t go on. But I love it. I take all my meeting and conference notes in Markdown. I write up reports and quality control plans in Markdown. I rub Markdown all over my chest before bedtime every night. It gets out of my way and lets me work.

But the most amusing effect of Markdown’s growing adoption is seeing a surge in popularity of that nerdiest of tools: the humble text editor.

No frills, no buttons (well, hopefully not), no “ribbon”, no bullshit. A window, a blinking cursor, and what you want to write. Like Markdown itself, a good text editor gets out of your way.

Me, I started with Emacs, the (almost literal) 800-pound gorilla of text editors. I got into it partly for efficiency, partly for nerd cred, but also partly for the glorious wonderment that is org-mode. I left org and Emacs only with a great wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Why? Early signs of repetitive strain injury. Emacs relies on key combinations that require a certain amount of manual acrobatics, and they took their toll on my forearms. So I left for the dark side and learned Vim.

I quickly learned that I loved Vim’s commands, but loathed Vim itself. I began to despair. I found a way to use Emacs with vim’s keybindings, but that was starting to feel like a Rube Goldberg contraption, so I reached out to my fellow nerds. They introduced me to Sublime Text.

Hoo boy, is it aptly named. Runs on all three major operating systems, is easily configurable, and it can even be set up to use (some) vim keybindings. For a guy like me, this is like being given a bisexual Christina Hendricks covered in heroin and bearing a large bag of cash. And then learning that the Star Wars prequels never happened. Something something LEGO.

That’s where I’ve been ever since, Markdowning my happy ass away in Sublime (and Nebulous Notes on my iPad). I could probably count how many times I use Word each month without having to take my shoes off. And let me tell you, brethren and sisteren, that is when you can stop farting around and start building giant killer robots.

Is it for everyone? No. Converting to your preferred document format isn’t hard, but it was built for nerds. If you don’t get a product with built-in MultiMarkdown support, you either need to be able to use a command line without panicking or have a nerd on hand to simplify using it. So there’s a learning curve, but it’s worth it. The reward is the sheer simplicity of writing and formatting text.

So to Mr. Gruber and Mr. Penney, you have my eternal gratitude. You’ve made how I work so much better.

Apps with Markdown/MultiMarkdown Support