A Great Divide

(Note: This is a reprint of an article that first appeared in Sportsblah.com, a general sports blog I ran with my friend Greg [hi Greg!] from ’04 – ’07.)

Gone now, but this is a good representation

Rain. Just buckets of it. Back in mid-October, the Northeast had days of vicious, torrential, Judgement Day rain. Enough so that my parents’s basement, bone dry for twenty years, flooded. Lots and lots of things had to be thrown out. Among the soggy items that were subsequently tossed were my college textbooks and notes. Notes, mind you, so neat and adhering to the Cornell system that they had my now wife questioning the wisdom and sanctity of our marital bond. Don’t lie, we each have one of those questionable pseudo-serial killer traits. Mine is an overly orderly note taking tick. Greg has those creepy, dress up, paper dolls of the ’88 Yankees under his bed. Regardless, it wasn’t that box that was the true loss. It was the box next to the useless, yet expensive, college crap. No, not my 10 Nomar rookie cards or my complete ’86 Topps set. Those are kept warm and dry in a fireproof safe. The tragic loss was my early scorebooks.

Yup, I’m one of those. My name is Mike and I keep score at baseball games. It’s another of those great defining divides in our society. Chocolate or vanilla, Yankees or Red Sox, Bird or Magic, Ginger or Mary Ann, Red Shoe Diaries or Emmanuelle. It’s one or the other, there’s just no in between with some choices. Some people grow up with a security blanket or stuffed animal. My binky was a scorebook. I took it everywhere. I could blithely toss away my collection of moldering Ground Round sundae cup hats, my creased and yellowing pennants, or assorted Starting Lineup figures I can hardly identify now, but those books were a diary not just of a freakish, orderly and nerdy personality, but a testament to a fledgling baseball fan. Yes, half the notations on the first few pages make little sense or peter out after an inning or two. And yes, the glorious, tri-masted schooner on page six and the bloody stick figure battle royale on page nine probably don’t quite dictate what actually happened on any baseball field. But that’s half the point. The diary and maturation of a fan.

Those books captured my first visit to Fenway (a John Tudor start versus KC), a family vacation to Disneyland including a California Angels game (Rod Carew poster day), a youth soccer tournament in Niagra Falls with a trip to the new SkyDome (Pete Harnisch had a no-hitter into the eighth) and a PawSox extra innings affair ended by a Mike Greenwell homer in the twelfth. Flipping through the pages, you can almost see my interest in the game take root. Notations begin to make more sense. Batters no longer advance on the bases in a star-like pattern. Less ice cream is smeared over the pages. Outs no longer are recorded in the mysterious 17-8-2 fashion. Innings are tallied. Errors are meted out. Games are completed. History is recorded. A dork is born.

Keeping score in the bronx got me some respect

I suspect my Dad first taught me how to keep score as a way not to bankrupt him on hot dogs or cotton candy. Now he’d probably just package me off to the KidZone behind right field or tell me to watch the bloopers on the JumboTron. Back in the day though, Fenway barely even had any ads to distract a young kid. It was a choice between John Kiley’s organ stylings, rorschach tests of questionable seat stains or deciphering stanchion graffiti. But whatever the intentions, his ploy worked. Scoring kept me anchored to the action. It still does. Even the most ardent fans will admit baseball is not a speedy game. It may be a game of inches, but the strategy and makeup of a game unfurl slowly. Scoring in basketball is not the same and not really necessary from a fan’s perspective. In football it’s not even really possible, too much is going on. But for baseball, I find it an integral cog of attending. Pitch, hit, catch, record it. Scoring keeps me involved. It blocks out the increasing entertainment-first detritus of the modern “ballpark”; helps dull the migraine enduring the sound of another”Yankees Suck” chant and keeps me from assaulting the loud woman on the cell phone in the row behind me. For me, a mostly antiquated ritual is now a balm for the distractions of the modern game.

Unless it’s two-for-one beer night. That’s also sweet, sweet medicine.

 

Flickr  CC image attribution for photos used in this post: mwlguide, Caitlinator, terren in Virginia

Creating Your Own Will

Just fill in the blanks

Three things that make you feel old: Falling asleep halfway through Criminal Minds on a Friday night, having to shop for life insurance quotes and creating a will. The first two are easy. The last one is hard. At least I thought it was. The legal profession has a knack for sometimes obscuring the simplest tasks. Nolo’s books and software, while not a replacement for a lawyer or professional (they take pains to say that themselves), do make many situations much clearer and easier to understand.

Given that I’m climbing the ladder towards 40 and have a small child dependent on me providing fresh Mac N Cheese and sparkly clothes, I figured it was time to make some arrangements. You know, just in case. Fate never liked a betting man. So I did what anyone of my generation would do. I googled it. Turns out even the simplest will would cost anywhere from two thousand (an actual lawyer) to at least a couple hundred (an online will mill). Turns out there was a third alternative: Nolo and the public library.

Think of Nolo’s Simple Will Book and Software as sort of like TurboTax for wills.

“Over 40% of Americans over age 45 do not have a will. Presidents Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and US Grant died without wills.”

Chapter One: Making Your Own Will
An introduction to the book, as well as the what you can and cannot do with a will. It also discusses the situations that go beyond the scope of the book, where you may need a lawyer. Finally it walks through a typical standard will and explains each section.

Chapter Two: An Overview of Wills
This chapter goes through the the process of making a will and includes discussion on: How to Make a Valid Will, Types of Wills, Explanatory Letters and What Happens to Your Property After You Die (sequence of events).

Chapter Three: Special Property Rules for Married People
Did you know your spouse may already own a part of that restored Mustang or that mint Ken Griffey Jr. Donruss Rated Rookie (blech, she can have it)? This chapter talks about the impact of marriage on property law. Found it rather interesting reading to be honest. It looks at same sex laws, common misconceptions about common law marriages, community property, and common law states.

Chapter Four: Taking Inventory of Your Property
If creating a will for you means deciding who gets what. This chapter is about the what. The main point is to be clear about what property you own. The CD included with the book includes a property worksheet to help you organize what you have (this isn’t a legal document, just an aid to get you moving). Along with a description of the property, the worksheet includes columns for: ownership, percentage owned, and estimate of net value. There is also a section on the type of property you can and can’t leave.

Chapter Five: Your Beneficiaries

Since '71 Nolo has worked to demystify the legal system

This is the who part of the will equation. For many people, myself included, the beneficiaries are pretty clear, but the book includes sections and examples where the beneficiaries aren’t so clear. This book is about simple wills, so most of this chapter talks about what you can’t accomplish with the book (just as important as what you can do). After talking about who you can leave it to, this chapter also talks about how including gifts, organizations, minors, pets, alternate beneficiaries and a host of other situations.

“Heinrich Heine left his property to his wife with the condition that she remarry so there would be one man to mourn his death.”

Chapter Six: Choosing Your Executor
It’s not enough to have a will, you need an executor, a person to oversee the probate process and make sure the property in the will gets distributed as you desire. This chapter goes through the expected duties of the executor, factors to consider in choosing one and specific state requirements.

Chapter Seven: Children
Having minor children was the primary impetus for me to get my act together and create a will (same with additional life insurance). This chapter is divided into two sections: providing personal care (who will raise the minor) and providing financial care (providing financial support). The bulk of this chapter talks about Uniform Transfer to Minors Act and creating a trust or family pot for children.

Chapter Eight: Debts & Taxes
You’re not quite done with bills and taxes just because your dead. Typically this isn’t a big deal and if you’re doing your own will, I’m guessing you can breeze through this chapter. If you read it, you’ll find a discussion on debt responsibility after you die and how to choose specific assets to pay debts along with everyone’s favorite estate taxes.

Chapter Nine: Choosing the Right Form
Till this point the book has been background information on the process and gathering the necessary information. Chapter nine moves into the actual preparation by discussing the available will forms. Nolo offers seven basic will forms along with an extensive selection of clauses to pick and choose from to make a customized will.

I chose form 1: will for a married person leaving all or bulk of property to a spouse with the children as equal alternate beneficiaries. With this type of will, each spouse needs to prepare his own will.

Fancy pen not required

Chapter Ten: Using the Fill-in-the-Blank Wills
This is essentially the user manual for the will templates provided on the CD-ROM.

If you have the most recent version of Microsoft Word 2007, you’ll need to convert the Word files provided on the CD (I’m using Nolo’s 7th Edition from 2007) to a Rich Text Format to open it. I was also able to open the forms with OpenOffice with little trouble.

The template forms themselves do a good job of leading you through the choices, but if you run into trouble, the book walks through the specifics of each clause and how to handle any special situations. Any tricky situations were usually covered in more detail in a prior chapter. There is also a sample will included that can also serve as a guide.

Chapter Eleven: Making a Customized Will
Given that I used the fill-in-the-blank version in chapter ten, I skipped this chapter, but it appears to walk you through the various clauses you can cherry pick to make up your own, non-boiler plate will.

Chapter Twelve: Making it Legal
This chapter walks through signing, witnessing and use of a notary public to make things all nice and legal.

Chapter Thirteen: Changing or Revoking Your Will
Skipped this one. Guess I’ll check the book out again if I need to.

Chapter Fourteen: Estate Planning
While making a will is the first step, there is a lot more to estate planning. At least a whole chapter’s worth on probate, estate taxes, property, and “final arrangements.”

Chapter Fifteen: Working with a Lawyer
The last chapter talks about working with a lawyer or seeking advice online.

The rest of the book is a glossary and tear out worksheets and wills if you don’t want to use the CD ROM versions.

Conclusion
For or a younger person with a straight forward financial and beneficiary situation, this is a no brainer. I found this book really helpful and worth the time both for the money saved and the knowledge and insight gained into the will and probate process. I wouldn’t recommend it for people who were straying much beyond the fill-in-the-blank templates as it can get pretty complicated very quickly.

Notes on the ’86 Finals

Best Bird Celtics Team

We bought a treadmill earlier this year. Treadmills were one of the only reasons we paid for a gym membership. With the snow and general drudgery, it’s nearly impossible to run year round in New Englad. When the (admittedly) low rent gym we belonged to continued to let equipment wear out or remain broken, there seemed little incentive to renew. So we just bought our own. A pretty low rent, budget model itself, but we only plan to use it for these extreme winter months (which seem never ending this year). And we would actually fix it if it broke.

After the first session of jogging and staring at the side of our old yellow refrigerator, it became clear a better distraction was necessary to get through the hamster sessions. There was no cable in the basement, but we did have a DVD player and an old dorm television.

The rather stunning selection of sports DVDs at the library provided ample distraction and the whole point of this post (two long paragraphs later). Here are some random notes after watching a number of 1986 NBA Finals games.

Tommy Heinsohn
This one might not make sense to non-Celtics fans, but holy crap. Actual analysis. Balanced analysis. Intelligent and articulate comments. I can actually see how Tommy was a coach now. I much prefer this Tommy to the homer-ism and caricature he’s become now as the part time C’s color man.

Less graphics on screen at once for better or worse
Some clues in the broadcast lead me to believe that this one was more due to the feed they used for the DVDs than the actual production of the telecast. Still, at first, I found the clutter free screen refreshing, but I soon started to miss some of the information 21st century viewers are accustomed to seeing. Not the constant ticker across the bottom or big ESPN logo, but at the very least having the score visible along with the game and shot clocks.

Less time just dribbling
Not that the shot clock was all the necessary. There were only a handful of occasions were the shot clock ran down to single digits, never mind hit zero. While each team worked to get their players the ball in plum post spots, there seemed to be a lot less clear outs and dribble isolation. At times it felt like a college game with each point guard actually calling out plays each time up the floor.

Less threes
A lot, lot, lot less three pointers taken. Dick Stockton almost sounded shocked when someone had the audacity (usually Bird) to actually shoot one. I’m not sure the Rockets even took one. The rule was six seasons old by this point. I was surprised at the lack of outside shooting.

It's Fantastic

Less talking to the refs
This likely had to do with the number of available cameras because I’m sure there was woofing going on. DJ gets annoyed or frustrated a few times on camera, but it seemed more the exception than the rule today where every drive results in hand gestures and incredulous facial expressions if a whistle blows (or doesn’t blow).

More coordinated fast breaks
Again, this felt more like a college mentality with each guy filling a lane and a concentrated effort to push the ball off crisp outlet passes (this becomes more evident watching the Celtic/Lakers DVDs). Much more evident with the Rockets. The Celtics had little interest in fast breaking.

Less athletic
The game always look slower on television, but I’m pretty sure I’m not imagining this one. The hyper-tuned athlete we know today was a definite exception in the league in the mid-eighties. With Jordan’s emergence (this was the year he went for 63 against the Celts in the first round) this was probably the start of a transition period, but the game seemed more sedate and played much more below the rim. Maybe it was just the constricting shorts.

Can Your Reformat and Revise at the Same Time?

I am about a third of the way through the next set of revisions for Bottom of the World. I started this process right after finishing the Kindle formatting process for Shaking the Tree and I wondered if I couldn’t combine the two so that I was revising and reformatting the manuscript in the same pass. Was it possible? Would it save time? Check out my six lessons learned.

The short answer is no. I gave up after the first chapter. Revising and rewriting, at least the way I do it, need a flow. I like to read each scene out loud, then rewrite or revise, read again, hunt down typos and then make any necessary notes or continuity checks. Lather, rinse, repeat with the next chapter. Reformatting and layout threw a wrench in there. The whole process engages the old systems analyst side of my brain and just clogs up the creative narrative engine. So I chucked the idea. Mostly. Given the Kindle requirements I learned and the tips laid out in the Smashwords style guide, there are a number of things you can do while you’re in the manuscript to streamline the epub process later.

  1. Use Microsoft Word – While it does not throw out great HTML code for the Kindle, the .doc extension does play best with the Smashwords engine. With a few simple tweaks and a little arm twisting you can get Word to heel and behave.
  2. Use a clean template – It’s hard to get Word to stop sticking its nose into your document. Most of the time you won’t notice what it’s doing till you try to output it and you find Word has been messing with things under the hood. The best thing you can do is try to manage these tendencies.  Use a blank, fresh document. Use one font (see #3). Use two styles: normal for all text and heading 1 for chapter titles. Use only bold and italics. That’s it. Don’t touch anything else. Don’t insert header or footers. Don’t use drop caps. Just keep it simple.
  3. Stick with one simple font – The truth is you have little control over how the text will be displayed in any given e-reader. Why worry about it. Stick with one of the tried and trued fonts (Times, Courier, serif, etc). It may not look pretty. It may be boring. But it won’t cause you headaches later.
  4. Forget pages – This one was surprisingly hard for me. I liked to write in page preview mode. Watching the pages pile up in my rearview gave me some sense of accomplishment and kept the writing momentum going. Switching to Web Layout felt awkward, but if you’re joining the brave world of self-epub, then it’s best to get completely out of legacy page mode.
  5. Pull the tab key off your keyboard – Tabs are like termites, they worm their way into the wood of your manuscript and are a royal pain to get rid of later. When you set up your Normal style (see #2), set the left line indent to .5″ and let the style handle it. Resist the urge to hit the tab key for indents. This is actually the part you can do while you are revising/rewriting. Once you’ve completed a scene, before you move on, turn on Word’s Show/Hide function (CTRL + *) and look for any stray tabs.
  6. Be wary of carriage returns – While you are looking for stray tabs, cull any extra carriage returns you may have thrown into your manuscript to try to fudge spacing. Remember in this brave new world, layout is less a priority. Smashwords recommends not more than four consecutive carriage returns to be on the same side. Otherwise you may find certain e-readers throwing in blank pages. I insert a page break where necessary (personal preference), then 4 returns, then the next chapter (styled with headline 1).

Following those steps during the revision process will help any e-format conversion you undertake to go a lot smoother. It’s rarely seamless and each format carries some additional specific headaches (I’m looking at your NCX file) but these simple switches can cut down your turnaround time.

Blatant self-promotion: Don’t want to try formatting it yourself? I offer affordable conversion services at picolibro.com

 

Flickr CC attribution for photos used in this post: John Blyberg & Corsairstw

11 Popcorn Variations

I blame the microwave for our breakup. Before she waltzed into our kitchen and flaunted her buttons and quick reheat capabilities, popcorn and I were fine. More than fine. We had a little thing. A hot, crispy salty snack affair. She was the perfect accompaniment to a rainy Saturday afternoon with the Goonies or the Journey of Natty Gann on the VCR. When the microwave appeared, she changed. Started showing up in bags covered in chemical sliminess and tasting like packaging filler. We had a falling out and she soon faded from memory. As with bread baking, I can point Bittman for rekindling my love of popcorn. Real popcorn. No tri fold bags in sight. It’s good to have popcorn back in my life. Continue Reading

5 Tips for a Meat Free Month

We’ve been back on our regular diet for a month now, so it seems like a good time to look back on our little January family experiment of going meat and alcohol free for the first month of the new year.

To start, it wasn’t all that hard. After the excess of the holidays, a couple weeks of cleansing almost felt necessary. I wonder if it would be more difficult in July? The second half the month we had to fight some cravings and some meal ruts, but overall, it was success and brought some lasting changes to our diet. Continue Reading

7 Garden Goals for 2011

The frozen garden gate

I’m sitting in the office writing this while the snow outside still sits just inches below the nearby window sill and my poor garden beds are shivering under at least three feet of snow and ice. Last year I planted the first peas the weekend after St. Patrick’s Day on March 20/21st. It seems hard to believe that I’ll be able to see bare ground let alone get a spade blade into the earth in less than a month. Still, the garden catalogs are pouring into the mailbox, so it’s probably time to take stock and plan out what I want to accomplish (or at least attempt) this year.

This will be year four of, while maybe not serious, a bit more intense than a few patio pots, gardening. A quick recap of the lessons learned from the past three years.

Year 1: Built the semi-raised beds and filled them with gloriously organic, virgin soil. Plants and yields were great.

Year 2: Turns out in addition to the great soil, I think we had great weather for the most part as well. Year 2 was marked with a very cool, rainy start that knocked down a vast majority of the tomato plants with blight. I took solace in the fact that most other gardeners were suffering along with me and it wasn’t something I did.

Year 3: If year 2 was the year of wet and blight, year 3 was depleted soil and bugs. I had added some additional compost and soil goodies, but it must not have been enough. The yields were generally meager at best. After three years, beetles, horn worms and other pests have discovered my plots in earnest.

With those things in mind, here are my goals for year 4:

Last year's peas

1. Pump up the soil
It all starts with the dirt. I’m going to re-dig the beds with a lot more compost and manure than I have in the past two years. If that doesn’t work this year, I’ll send samples off to UMass again to analyze to see if it’s a specific deficiency. Along those lines, we’ve been home composting in a bin for the last three years. I think it’s time to see if we have anything usable in there to add to the beds. I’ll build a simple screen and see if the compost effort is paying off at all.

2. Add more upside down hangers
While the upside down experiment didn’t work out too well on the larger varieties last year, they did work gang busters on the sweet 100’s and the other cherry varieties. I’d like to add three more hangers along the garage eaves. Two for additional cherries (Cece’s favorite) and one for pickling cukes.

Looked ok, didn't taste ok

3. Try pickling cukes again
The problem hasn’t really been growing them, it’s been using them. Along with everything else, we had bumper crops in year one and decent yields in two, but each year was an unmitigated disaster in the actually pickling process. I think I’ve found a good, fool proof method this year, so despite Chelle’s reservations, I’m trying again!

4. Harvest winter garlic
One of last year’s goals was trying to overwinter some crops. I chose garlic mainly on co-worker recommendations and its general infallibility. This spring it’s time to put that to the test and see if we can harvest, dry and use the two different varieties we planted last November. Trying to stay positive, but that garlic has to be chilly, despite the blanket of salt hay, under all that snow. Fingers crossed.

5. Better Pea and zucchini yields
I’m hoping this is largely related to the soil issues (see #1 above) but last year was crushingly disappointing in terms of good peas and zucchini, two of our top 3 favorite veggies to grow.

6. Plant (at least) one fruit bush
We inherited a blueberry bush with the house and have kept an ever bearing strawberry plant going, but we’d like to clear out space near the garage, a nice warm sunny protected spot to plant some raspberry bushes.

7. Healthier Pumpkins
Finally, I’d like to focus on pumpkins more this year. We’ve grown them in the neighbor’s larger plot the last two years and both times eked out at least one decent gourd, but they have mainly been an afterthought. It seems the long growing time and the ambling nature of the plant leave vulnerable to all sorts of fungi and pests. This year I’ll try to see if I can’t even the odds a bit and give the pumpkin patch a little more TLC.

Seven seems like a good lucky number and more than enough to keep me busy.

 

Deferred till next year (and beyond):

  • Better watermelons – while we got a number of sugar melons last year, on the whole the entire patch was an abject failure. I’ll take a year off and try again next year
  • Potatoes- I think Cecilia would like digging around to harvest the potatoes. I’ll try this next year when she’s a little older and can do more from start to finish.
  • Creating a new raised bed for a dedicated kitchen herb garden
  • Starting tomatoes from seedlings
  • A more concerted canning/preservers effort
  • Add a (dwarf) apple tree
Almost tropical lushness with the first year's soil