Last Dispatch from Florida

Friday, 19 March 2021

It’s Friday morning at 3am. I woke about two hours ago from a dream that I was riding in the back of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Another passenger watched impassively as a large wasp was trying to sting me. I swatted at the buzzing insect, in the dark, with a hat. When I woke, by heart was beating double-time. Isn’t a wasp dream supposed to mean something? How about when it’s combined with the military images that usually appear in my dreams? Have I just revealed some terrible truth about myself? 

Wide awake, I reached over to touch Susan, not to wake her, but for the simple comfort of her presence. She’d gotten up a few minutes before and wasn’t there. After she returned and went back to sleep, I tried for over an hour to do the same. It wasn’t going to happen, so I rose quietly in the darkness, grabbed the clothes I’d dropped earlier, and tried not to step on our invisible black dog. I picked up a pen and a notebook on my way out.

Tea, I thought. I’ll make tea and write. 

I’ve had a hard time writing anything for the past year. I throw down a sentence or a paragraph now and then and feel like a failure when my weekly word count amounts to little more than my body weight. I call myself a writer? Who do I think I’m fooling.

I brewed an expensive oolong I normally save for–what, company? That’s a laugh. Including household appliance repairmen, I can count on one hand the number of visitors who have set foot inside our home in the past year. 

But you’re here with me now. Will you sit with me for a few minutes? The tea is almost ready, steeping in a cast iron pot, wrapped in a towel on the small desk in the strange little common area of the house set aside for books, musical instruments, and writing—when the words will come. 

Dexter, the dog, followed me out of the bedroom. After staring at me for several minutes, apparently confused about my moving around at such an hour, he settled under my chair to lean against my bare feet. 

Thank you for spending this short time with me. Stephen King describes writing as a kind of telepathy. Here I am encoding my thoughts into tiny black symbols made of ink, which later I’ll transcribe into what you’re reading now. These are my thoughts, transmitted from my mind to yours. There’s something—what the hell, we’re in the wee hours, so I’ll say it—there’s something magical about the reader-writer relationship that doesn’t happen in any other aspect of life, not even in face-to-face conversation. That’s why handwritten letters are such a rare gift. Am I showing my age by lamenting the dying art of sending news and telling people you love them with ink and paper? Probably.

So, this is my rambling, sleepless letter to you today. And as I write it, I’m imagining you here with me in the dim light — you, whoever you are — holding a steaming cup to your nose.

It’s fascinating—and a little frightening—to watch myself and those around me change so rapidly. Just over a year ago, Susan and I had VIP tickets to Tampa’s Gasparilla Music Festival, a well-organized event on the Hillsborough River with the University of Tampa’s gleaming minarets cutting an exotic skyline behind the stage. That concert was the last time we spent time in a crowd of strangers — just a bunch of music lovers enjoying being together and celebrating a beautiful evening. 

Since last March, so many aspects of life have been altered beyond recognition, it’s hard to fathom what “getting back to normal” means. Because it turns out that “normal” wasn’t what we thought it was at all, and I think there are a lot of us who aren’t interested in returning to the way we were. After four years of the most destructive presidential administration in American history, we’ve seen not only what our fellow Americans and elected representatives are made of, we’ve also learned a bit about the people closest to us. This has been a shattering experience for some of us. 

Despite events on the large scale, life continues on the small stage as well, including its final act. I lost an aunt and a grandmother last year, one to chronic poor health and the other to ripe old age. 

I lost an uncle as well, but not to death. He fell prey to the newly fashionable open bigotry that the Trump years coaxed out of its semi-camouflaged hiding places. It’s not that my uncle hadn’t been a lifelong racist and xenophobe. But until recently, he’d done a pretty good job of not letting it show, other than periodically blurting something embarrassing at a holiday dinner table, as certain uncles do. It was when he began to say loudly, publicly, and unapologetically that certain people shouldn’t be here, when he decided that fulminating in his own homophobic, white supremacist vitriol was preferable to continuing decades-old relationships, that I had to let him go. 

Even after all that we’ve witnessed, conspiracy theories and fear-based, data-free lunacy threaten to take others from me. I watch people I always believed were too intelligent to fall for too-easy explanations and simplistic solutions to complex problems subscribe to magical thinking. Of course everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. But there must be limits, and those limits appear when baseless theories, propaganda, and outright lies begin to hurt people.

I’ve changed as well. Some of those changes are undesirable, and I’m working on self-correction. Others I see as a sort of personal evolution. I’m learning, after a half century of walking the Earth, what’s important. All I need now is the self discipline to live the way I know I should, with compassion and forgiveness and gratitude, but also with a steely vigilance for people who deliberately do harm. 

I’m not blameless. I’ve made questionable choices. I owe apologies and atonement. In my own defense, I’ve offered some. Not all have been accepted, and that’s alright. It has to be. Actions have consequences. 

I’ll keep trying to be better because I want the people I love to be proud of me, and because I’ve reached an age at which enjoying my own company is a necessity.

We’re all feeling the strain of the world in our homes, our minds, and in our souls. Lots of us are basically mental at this point. 

I think we have to focus on hope and resolve. The constant barrage of misinformation is causing the pandemic to drag on long past when we could have ended it. (Behold New Zealand.) But it won’t last forever.

We kept our democracy, despite the best efforts of the evil leading the misguided who tried to turn America into something horrifying, and when that didn’t take, tried to take it by force on January 6th. It was a close thing. As more information has come to light, we see that it was a lot closer than we’d imagined. The fight for liberty and democracy continues. (I’m looking at you, Texas and Florida.)

Those of us with a single introspective bone in our body are learning more about ourselves, what we need to stay healthy and sane, and what we need to eliminate from our lives. We’re improving, despite the deteriorating state of the world. And look at all the intelligent and determined young people coming of age every day. They’re going to save us, as soon as people my age get out of the way and stop destroying the planet. The past five years of turmoil and the worsening climate crisis can be the very things that unite us as a nation, and hopefully as a species. I know we can survive, but it’s going to take unshakeable courage, hope, and resolve.

The Buddha is quoted as saying “Your biggest mistake is thinking you have time,” or words (not in English) to that effect. So love people now. If you stumble upon a way to help, do it now. If you wake up in the middle of the night with thoughts banging against the inside of your skull, write them down. And if you’re going to make tea at 3am, brew the good stuff, while you can.

Tea Time

It’s Friday morning at 3am. I woke about two hours ago from a dream that I was riding in the back of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Another passenger watched impassively as a large wasp was trying to sting me. I swatted at the buzzing insect, in the dark, with a hat. When I woke, by heart was beating double-time. Isn’t a wasp dream supposed to mean something? How about when it’s combined with the military images that usually appear in my dreams? Have I just revealed some terrible truth about myself? 

Wide awake, I reached over to touch Susan, not to wake her, but for the simple comfort of her presence. She’d gotten up a few minutes before and wasn’t there. After she returned and went back to sleep, I tried for over an hour to do the same. It wasn’t going to happen, so I rose quietly, grabbed the clothes I’d dropped on the floor earlier, tried not to step on our black dog on my way out in the darkness. I picked up pens, paper, and my trusty iPad.

Tea, I thought. I’ll make tea and write. 

I’ve had a hard time writing anything for the past year. I throw down a sentence or a paragraph now and then and feel like a failure when my weekly word count amounts to little more than my own body weight. I call myself a writer? Just who do I think I’m fooling?

I brewed the good stuff–an expensive oolong I normally save for–what, company? That’s a laugh. Including household appliance repairmen, I can count on one hand the number of visitors who have set foot inside our home in the past year. 

But you’re here with me now, Dear Reader. Will you sit with me for a few minutes? The tea is almost ready, steeping in a cast iron pot, wrapped in a towel on the small desk in the strange little common area of the house set aside for books, musical instruments, and writing—when the words will come. 

Dexter, the black dog, followed me out of the bedroom. After staring at me for several minutes, apparently confused about my moving around at such an hour, he settled under my chair to lean against my bare heels. 

Thank you for spending this short time with me. Stephen King has described writing as a kind of telepathy. Here I am encoding my thoughts into tiny black symbols made of ink, which later I’ll transcribe into what you’re reading now. These are my thoughts, transmitted from my mind to yours. There’s something—what the hell, we’re in the wee hours, so I’ll say it—there’s something magical about the reader-writer relationship that doesn’t happen in any other aspect of life, even in face-to-face conversation. That’s why handwritten letters are such a precious gift. Am I showing my age by lamenting the dying art of sending news and telling people you love them with ink and paper? Probably.

So, this is my rambling, sleepless letter to you today. And as I write it, I’m imagining you here with me in the dim light, holding a steaming cup of oolong.

It’s fascinating—and a little frightening—to watch myself and those around me change so rapidly. Just over a year ago, Susan and I had VIP tickets to Tampa’s Gasparilla Music Festival, a well-organized event on the Hillsborough River with the University of Tampa’s gleaming minarets cutting an exotic skyline behind the stage. That concert was the last time we spent time in a crowd of strangers, just a bunch of music lovers enjoying being together and celebrating a beautiful evening. 

Since last March, so many aspects of life have been altered beyond recognition, it’s hard to fathom what “getting back to normal” means. Because it turns out that “normal” wasn’t what we thought it was at all, and I think there are a lot of us who aren’t interested in returning to the way we were. After four years of the most destructive presidential administration in America’s history, we’ve seen not only what our fellow Americans and elected representatives are made of, we’ve also learned a bit about the people closest to us. This has been a shattering experience for some of us. 

Despite events on the large scale, life continues on the small stage as well, including its final act. I lost an aunt and a grandmother last year, one to chronic poor health and the other to ripe old age. 

I lost an uncle as well, but not to death. He fell prey to the newly fashionable open bigotry that the Trump years flushed out of the undergrowth. It’s not that he hadn’t been a lifelong racist and xenophobe. But until recently, he’d done a pretty good job of not letting it show, only occasionally blurting something embarrassing at a holiday dinner table. It was when he began to say loudly, publicly, and unapologetically that certain people shouldn’t exist, when he decided that fulminating in his own white supremacist vitriol was preferable to continuing decades-old relationships, that I had to let him go. 

Even after all that we’ve witnessed, conspiracy theories and fear-based, data-free lunacy threaten to take others from me. I watch people I always believed were too intelligent to fall for too-easy explanations and simplistic solutions subscribe to magical thinking. Of course everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. But there must be limits, and those limits appear when baseless theories, propaganda, and outright lies begin to hurt people.

I’ve changed as well. Some of those changes are undesirable, and I’m working on self-correction. Others I see as a sort of personal evolution. I’m learning, after a half century of walking the Earth, what’s important. All I need now is the self discipline to live the way I know I should, with compassion and forgiveness and gratitude, but also with a steely vigilance for those who would harm others to benefit themselves.

I’m far from blameless. I’ve made questionable choices. I owe apologies and atonement. In my own defense, I’ve offered some. Not all have been accepted, and that’s alright. Actions have consequences. I’ll keep trying to be better, mostly because I want the people I love to be proud of me. Time can harden a heart, or soften it; I’ll try to keep my own open and reachable.

We’re all feeling the strain in the world, in our homes, our minds, and in our souls. Lots of us are basically mental at this point. 

But I see the light. It’s just over the horizon. 

What? No, not that light. That’s just the sun coming up. (Thanks for sticking with me though. Is the tea still warm?)

The coming year will be one of hope and resolve. Covid-19 vaccinations are happening at an amazing rate, and this pandemic will soon be as hard to imagine as the 1918 Spanish flu once was for us. 

We kept our democracy, despite the best efforts of misguided people who tried to turn America into something hateful and evil, and when that didn’t take, tried to take it by force on January 6th. It was a close thing. As more information becomes available, we’re probably going to see that it was a lot closer than we imagined. 

There is hope. Better times are coming soon. We’ll meet again in groups. We’ll hug and kiss one another on the cheek. We’ll share drinks, play music, dance, hug each other coming and going. We’re all different now, and it’s not a bad thing. Our shared experience of the past five years of turmoil can be the very thing that unites us as a nation, and maybe, if you’ll forgive me for being idealistic, as a species. 

But we’re going to need resolve for the foreseeable future. People in government, and in our neighborhoods, continue to fight to set our country back a century by pushing for non-democratic and openly discriminatory policies. Even now, a certain discredited political party is rallying around a lost cause, doing its worst to maintain rule by a corrupt minority, knowing its only hope of retaining power is to prevent every citizen from casting a vote. We’ll have continue to fight for our democracy every day.

The Buddha is quoted as saying “Your biggest mistake is thinking you have time,” or words (not in English) to that effect. So love people now. If you wake up in the middle of the night with thoughts banging against the inside of your skull, write them down. And if you’re going to make tea at 3am, brew the good stuff.

A Typical Morning

The wake-up alarm I’ve chosen for my phone is the sound of various bird songs, as though in the forest. There’s a bird call on the phone that sounds identical to a species of bird I hear each morning outside my bedroom window. Sometimes I hear the live bird before my alarm goes off, and I think it’s the alarm. I open my eyes and realize it’s the bird outside in the tree, not the one in my phone, and I try to go back to sleep. Sometimes I can. Other times my mind starts to work on things. It starts to work on problems and tasks and events coming up. I lie in bed thinking, taking advantage of the time before full wakefulness when it feels like I’m made of mind only and can think without distractions. It’s the only time of day when that’s possible.

The dog hears the alarm and knows what it means and leaps onto the bed. If I don’t protect myself, he’ll lick my face and stomp all over me. I grab him and hug him, and he wags his tail. Most dogs would just as soon avoid being hugged by a human, but he likes it. I ask him if he wants to go outside, and he flies off the bed, crouches, wags, and waits for me to go out and open the back door. Then he launches himself on a high-speed yard patrol, in case a cat or a squirrel has infiltrated.

FullSizeRender

While the dog is tearing through the yard making his 45 pounds sound like a charging rhinoceros, I like to put my fingers on the keyboard and see what they do. I keep a Freewrite on the tall breakfast table, so I can go to it right out of bed, before my brain is fully awake. Look–I’m doing that now, looking into a literary mirror.

The nights are sometimes long and difficult. Everything is better when the sun is up and I’m moving again. The dog is no conversationalist, but he’s my friend, and he never says anything foolish or ignorant. His points of view are well known to me on a wide range of subjects, many of which I agree with. Raw carrots are tasty. A quick run through the neighborhood in the morning before the sun rises above the treetops is good. Walking in the evening is good. Yowling cats in heat on the fence outside the window at night are bad.

He and I disagree on minor points such as how one should behave in the presence of another dog’s excrement, whether it’s alright to hang one’s entire body out the window of a moving automobile, and the degree of sexual attractiveness of the human leg.

Each morning, by 8:30am, a murder of crows has occupied the top of the pine tree. They drop things into the yard. Chicken bones, egg shells, aluminum foil. The dog is interested, but seems to smell crow on these things and doesn’t try to eat them. The crows’ calls are less pleasant than the bird songs I hear before daybreak. They seem to be arguing among themselves or taunting the dog and me. I stand on the back patio, watching them watch me. I sip coffee. They turn their heads sideways and direct one shiny black eye on me at a time, as though their left eye provides one type of information, and the right another. Infrared, perhaps. I am slightly fascinated by crows, but I don’t imagine that they’re my friends. If I lie still long enough, I know one of them will eventually try to take one of my eyes.

pine crow

Six Weeks with the Astrohaus Freewrite

I’ve now had my Freewrite for about six weeks. I’ve avoided writing a review until I had time to absorb all that this gadget is and does. Since it arrived, I’ve written about 5,000 words on it, so I’ve now had time to form some opinions.

Yes, it’s expensive. That’s why I dithered around for several months despite lusting after the device from the days of the Hemingwrite Kickstarter campaign.

At this point, it’s a simple matter to list pros and cons. The cons are few, so I’ll offer them first. There are three.

Con #1: I’m a bit embarrassed to mention the expense of the Freewrite because I’m not a wealthy man, and people I know may judge me for having bought one. But that’s neither here nor there. So, onward.
Ok, Astrohaus. I get it that a Cherry MX brown keyboard is worth at least $100, and I’ll give you another hundred for the bitchin’ aluminum case, and another hundred for the guts of the thing, which seem to me about the equivalent of an Amazon Kindle. So, $300-350 seems reasonable to me. $500 isn’t, and aside from weirdos like me who are willing to spend a lot on something because it’s beautiful (And the Freewrite is.), I don’t see you folks selling a lot of these things for half a grand apiece, plus another $30 for shipping within the United States.

Con #2*: You may think I’m going to mention the lack of arrow keys, but I’m not. Con #2, for me, is that Freewrite doesn’t dump my shitty first drafts directly into the word processor of my choice. Instead, text must be copied from Postbox , the Astrohaus cloud service, and pasted into a separate application such as Word or Scrivener. Mind you, this isn’t a big deal. But…why? Take the extra step, Astrohaus, of integrating the software into popular word processing applications. Why force the cut-and-paste drill? Give us a better option.

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Con #3: Battery life and charging level indicator. The battery life isn’t great. My Kindle Paperwhite’s battery can last for weeks with the Wi-Fi on. Why shouldn’t the Freewrite’s battery last as long? There’s a lot of space inside this gadget for a bigger battery, so I suppose weight was a consideration, but couldn’t a software update eke a few more hours out of my battery?

I’d also like the ability to monitor the charge level. As it is, the device issues the warning, “Low battery. Please plug in charger.” I have no clue at this point how much operating time may remain. A minute? Another hour? It would be helpful to see a standard battery graph or charge percentage displayed, perhaps as one of the “special” key options to keep it out of sight until needed.

The pros are many. By far, the best thing about the Freewrite is the Cherry MX keyboard. It’s the best thing I’ve ever typed on, and I’m addicted to the sound and feel of it. I love it so much that I recently replaced my Apple keyboard, which I’ve always enjoyed using, with a Rosewill Cherry MX brown mechanical keyboard, because I want to have the same tactile experience while editing that I get while hammering out a draft on the Freewrite. The Freewrite’s keyboard has ruined me, and I expect to use mechanical keyboards for the rest of my life. This discovery alone, and the improvement in the experience of typing, makes the purchase worthwhile.

This thing is, as I’ve mentioned, a beautiful device. The retro look, combined with the sturdy (4 pounds) aluminum case, make it an instant conversation piece, which may be a good thing, or not. In my case, maybe ironically, an old Alphasmart Neo case when I’m carrying the Freewrite in public to avoid such attention. I don’t sit around in coffee shops with this thing, though if that’s where one writes, so be it. (It’s a bit flashy for me, and the keyboard might be noisy enough to irritate certain people.) Anyway, I like how it looks on my desk when I’m not using it.

Overall, the acquisition of a Freewrite has been a boon to my writing life, and if I accidentally dropped the thing into the bay today, I’d order another immediately.

*The inability to stop and edit is integral to the concept of the Freewrite, and it works. I’ve just about doubled my daily word count using this clunky, gorgeous monstrosity, and I’m thrilled. If I were constantly going back to edit myself, as I’ve had the bad habit of doing for so very long, I’d still be trundling along at the glacial pace at which I’ve always worked. This device enforces a damn-the-torpedoes approach that has increased my word count and the inability to delete ideas as I type them. It’s all there to edit later, and some of the  ideas I would otherwise delete have turned out to be keepers.

20 January 2017 Update:

freewrite

Adam from Astrohaus responded to this post on January 18th with the following thoughtful message. It addresses everything except the battery life, and he’s right. I may just love the Freewrite more now. I do hope Astrohaus can do something about the power management. Meanwhile, I’ll keep the power cable handy. Thanks, Adam.

Hey Steven!

From the review you just published, it sounds like you are loving the Freewrite! That’s awesome. But I may be able to get you to like it even more :)

Con 2 mentions that you have to copy and paste. May I suggest that you use Dropbox? It’s free and works extremely well. You will also find that once you connect it and have it running on your computer, there will be native word documents saved directly into the dropbox folder, i.e. no more copy and pasting. You can go from writing on the Freewrite to opening a docx file on your computer! You should also look into markdown formatting because it is an ultra simple way to get basic formatting into your document. http://support.getfreewrite.com/article/42-using-markdown-syntax-on-your-freewrite.

Regarding con 3, hold the spacebar to show the battery indicator (and alternate keyboard layout if you are using one). We don’t put this on the console screen because we don’t want people fixated on the battery life. Admittedly, we have still have work to do to optimize the power management.

Hope this helps!!


Adam
hello@astrohaus.com