Getting Back on the Horse

 

In the last year, and especially the last six months, I’ve drifted away from regular writing. And I miss it: fiction and blogging and just scribbling down thoughts in a journal.

Part of this is a feeling that I’m out of my depth. Blogging in general these days has skewed from what-I’m-up-to to Categorized Important Topics. In the days when I first started blogging, there were a lot more people just posting statuses and images and a few opinions, mostly for family and friends. These days, that sort of content has shifted to Facebook and other social media platforms.

So maybe this is redundant. Since (despite efforts toward the end of my last substantial blogging spurt) I am not a profound or intelligent or particularly inciteful-on-a-special-subject sort of writer, it may be that my little essays belong in those walled gardens. But there’s something to be said for shouting into the abyss, if only as a means of collecting one’s own thoughts for the purpose of shouting, even without the expectation of response.

Maybe this time, I’ll just be honest, not shaping my posts to an audience, not trying to hide bits of pieces of who and what I am: a 40 year old perpetually single slightly nerdy Catholic woman with too many hobbies, far too many pens and pencils and notebooks, and several peculiar cat-dog-things roaming around. Once upon a time I was sure sooner or later I would be a slightly nerdy Catholic wife with a slightly nerdy Catholic husband and potentially very nerdy Catholic kids, genetics being what they are, but this was apparently not meant to be.

I do have assorted amazing nieces and nephews, nerdy and not, and people I can serve. I have days when I am content to live in the moment and accept what comes, not fretting about the past or sighing about the future. I also have days when I don’t understand how I arrived at my current state.

I have days when I am caught up in my music or my messing around with art objects or my cats. I have days when they feel like selfish indulgences and I feel guilty about them.

I have days when, despite life not turning out the way I expected, I rejoice at how blessed I am, and I feel like I am right where and how I am meant to be.

I have days, especially since turning 40 in October, when a part of me is afraid I only believe because I’m terrified my life will lose any meaning if there isn’t more to it than worldly success and achievements. I’m halfway through the game of life, and there are days when it feels as though I’ve already lost and now I’m just pointlessly pushing pieces around, an endless stalemate.

I’m sure I’m not the only one in my position. It just feels that way at times.

In any case, I guess I may as well start writing about it. I’ll keep me out of trouble for a few minutes at a time, right?

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Why I’m Using Google Docs for My NaNoWriMo Project

For the last few years, most of my fiction writing has started by hand: I get up in the morning, I make coffee (or hit the coffee shop), and I scribble for awhile in fountain pen with real ink on actual paper. At some point, I transcribe that handwritten text into Scrivener to organize and edit.

But I’ve been trying to improve my thinking-on-a-computer-screen skills. I struggle with it, but some of that may be a mental block. Partly as an experiment, at the eleventh hour, I decided to do this year’s NaNoWriMo novel in Google Docs.

I live in Google world. I have for a long time. I was one of the first people to fall in love with a strange little bare-bones search engine way back when AltaVista and Yahoo ruled the world. I’ve had a Gmail account since dinosaurs walked the earth and you needed an invite to get access to Gmail beta. I tried out many if not most of Google’s primary apps before they were officially supported.

Much of my life is in Google. When I finally broke down and got a smartphone, I went with Android, since it made it easier to keep using my Google calendar, mail, documents, etc.

So I’m an early adopter of the cloud. It makes a lot of sense to use Google Docs.

1. It’s available everywhere

I love that I can stop in the middle of a sentence on my Chromebook, and when I get to my work PC or my phone or anywhere else I happen to jump on-line, there it’ll be. No manual syncing or other setup involved. This is fantastic news for absentminded dopes like me who tend to walk out the door without their laptop, or forget to grab that USB drive when stepping away from a computer. If I have access to the Internet, I have access to my documents.

I know other companies have some sync solutions, but I don’t think any others work quite as well on as many platforms as Google Docs does. I’m not restricted to Apple or PC or Android or any subset or variant thereof.

Plus, my personal dictionary travels around with me from device to device. For those of us writing fantasy or sci-fi with worlds and words of our own making, this is a pretty sweet boon.

2. It doesn’t get in my way

Google Docs is a relatively simple word processor. It doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles–no big grammar checker, minimal auto-formatting options. For the drafting stages, at least, I don’t need any of that. They’re just distractions. Speaking of distractions, I like that I can set Docs to full screen (View/Full Screen), clearing away everything but the text I’m working with.

(I do wish there was a single keyboard shortcut that would take me to full screen mode. If any Google dev folks happen to wander onto this post…can I have that for Christmas? Pretty please with a cherry on top? I know it’s only a few clicks as is, but I love me some keyboard shortcuts.)

3. It’s simple to add comments and track changes.

Right now, I’m just trying to get my first draft down as quickly as possible. This means there are occasionally times when I need to come up with a name for a person or place, but get stuck, or want to add a note to correct a discrepancy or plot hole when I have time. It’s very simple to jot down a quick note to self (“The window shouldn’t be broken until after the party, you knucklehead.”) so I can deal with these later, but keep plugging along without losing the flow.

Google also keeps an extensive revision history, so I can easily go back and see what I added or changed at any given time. (Click on File / Revision History, or press Ctrl-Alt-Shift-H). Constant snapshots. Me likey. I have a tendency to change important sentences, then regret changing them but forget how I’d originally worded them. This makes it simple to flip back.

4. Because it’s lightweight and runs from a browser, I don’t need anything fancy to run it.

I bought a small Chromebook about a year ago, mostly for some very specific media consumption purposes, but it’s become my primary computer the vast majority of the time. It’s cheap, it’s fast, it boots quickly, the battery runs forever, and (maybe most importantly) I don’t fret about taking it out into the world. I’m about to receive a refurbished  Dell Chromebook 13, and I’m looking forward to the bigger screen, better keyboard, and even more ridiculous battery life. Both computers together cost less than a several-years-old Macbook would. Score.

5. It functions off-line as well.

I admit, I’ve had an occasionally rocky relationship with Google Docs offline on my Chromebook. But for the most part, when it comes to working on an existing document offline for a little while, it works fine. It’s still more stable when working online, but it’s perfectly sufficient if I need to spend an hour or two typing away without wireless access.

Most of the cons of Google Docs for me come down to “it’s not Scrivener.”

In particular, I miss the binder / outline function.

1. I love the way Scrivener lets you divide documents into easily manageable chunks, yet still compile them in a single manuscript.

I tend to dash scenes down willy-nilly once I get going, rarely writing in completely chronological order. I then go back to organize and apply spackle between scenes at the end. This gets messy with novel-length works. When you’re wrestling with tens of thousands of words, it can be really tricky to remember where you left the first sentence of that scene where Juan and Steve argue about the moral implications of rhubarb, or that one really good description of Bob’s Special Sauce That Changed the World. I can use comments or bookmarks to mark off scenes to some extent, but it’s not as slick.

Having folders and a hierarchy in Scrivener also makes it easy to have separate non-manuscript text documents with character sketches, setting descriptions, notes, links to research, etc. For the time being, I just have a sort of dump document to accompany my primary manuscript, but again, it isn’t as slick or friendly.

2. Reordering scenes or chapters in Scrivener is as easy as dragging and dropping a document within the binder.

No need to painstakingly scroll and scroll to the right spot, highlight the text to be moved–all of the text and only the text–copy or cut, painstakingly scroll and scroll to where it needs to go, paste.

Granted, this method is still light years beyond redoing whole paper manuscripts by hand like they did in the bad old days and I’m ridiculously spoiled and whiny, but…you know. It’s still clunky.

3. It’s very easy to output documents from Scrivener in a variety of preferred manuscript formats.

Once you have everything set up, it will generate your cover sheet, add useful headers, remove or add smart quotes, etc., per submission guidelines, and then output in pretty much any document format known to (wo)man. I’ve not found anything to rival those features, though they can be daunting.

I’ll likely stick with Scrivener for the editing and manuscript compilation stages.

However, It’s still not quite there when it comes to device transparency and easy access. They’ve worked hard and come a long way, and I highly admire the developers. If I was the sort of person who was joined at the hip to a single laptop (many are!) the lack of cloud integration might not matter so much. If I lived more in iOS, it might not matter so much–from what I hear, Scrivener’s iOS version for iPad and iPhone is pretty excellent. But I don’t have an iPad or iPhone. And I’m cheap frugal enough I’m much more likely to lug a Chromebook around than a tablet costing twice as much, plus an expensive keyboard.

Still, Scrivener really shines when it comes to polishing up the end product.

But for better or worse, I’m a Google girl. And Docs works well for most drafting purposes.

NaNoWriMo, My Old Friend

nanowrimo_2016_webbadge_participant

2002 was not, shall we say, a very pleasant year for me.

For starters, the country was still reeling with grief and uncertainty over 9/11, and the economy was struggling. Tensions ran high at work even early in the year. At our sister company, employees who had worked the factory floor for decades were laid off, with no real hope of finding new jobs in the local area.

In February my mother–who was truly my best friend, for better or worse–finally went to see a doctor about feeling tired and sick, and that funny feeling in her throat. By April, she’d been diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer that had already metastasized to her liver. It was too far along for chemo or surgery. It was too far along for anything but attempting to say goodbye, really. She passed away on May 22nd, my brother Ben’s 20th birthday.

The summer went by in a sort of blur. I went to World Youth Day in Toronto, with three of my siblings and a small group from our parish. There were enjoyable, enlightening moments to be sure, but I also spent a certain amount of time hiding in bathroom stalls or facing into a window on the bus, crying because I couldn’t call Mom and tell her about the places we were seeing, the people we’d met, how much I was coming to love hanging out with my little sister now that she was getting all grown up.

For years, especially when I was overseas, everywhere I went, I tucked away facts and anecdotes to discuss with Mom. Now she was out of reach of even expensive long-distance phone calls. I couldn’t even write in my journal as a substitute–writing about real life brought me face to face with too many strong feelings. It was still too raw. It would be nearly a year before I started keeping a journal again.

And in October, I lost my job. There was a company draw-down and I was one of the group that was cut.

Just to add to the stress level, I had purchased a house less than a year before, with all the expense and responsibility that goes with that. The winter heat bills were starting up. And Christmas was just around the corner. And now here I was, in a rural area with a very limited job market, jobless and broke and with who knew how many weeks to sit alone contemplating my own dark thoughts.

And that was when a friend of mine told me about this crazy challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the course of the thirty days of November. “You have to do it,” she told me. “It’ll be fun!” I wasn’t so sure, but I was intrigued, nonetheless. Could I actually pull it off? I was curious. And at least it seemed more positive than spending the month counting flowers on the wall and crying. So I agreed to join her (and other recruited friends) in the madness of NaNoWriMo.

And you know, it was a surprisingly wonderful experience. My plot that year was a sort of sci-fi / fantasy thing involving time travel and a sinister secret society bent on fixing history to their advantage. My main character that year was a guy who had recently lost his wife, and into that poor character I poured all my own sorrow and pain and guilt and anger. And I brought him through it. I gave him a happy ending. It was cathartic. The story? Eh. It was probably too big for me. It was most definitely not the Great American Novel.

But I finished the challenge. And, in a way, it pulled me through what could have been a much worse time than it was. By the end of the year, I’d had two job offers out of three interviews, I’d been able to go to a midnight opening of “The Two Towers” halfway across the state on account of not having to work the next day (coldest line party EVER at at least -20F, but we prevailed), and we’d managed to live through the first holiday season without Mom with more laughter than tears. And I could say I’d written my first novel. Life was looking up.

NaNoWriMo will never again be for me what it was that first year, but it’s largely because of that year that I keep coming back.

I really don’t know what I’m going to write about this year, but I think I’m in. I’ve signed up at the website, I have pens and notebooks ready. What I don’t have is a plot. Or a setting. Or any characters whatsoever. But hey, there are twenty one whole days left to figure that out, right?

Much of this post brazenly stolen from my past self at my old blog, Little Flower Petals.

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Hard, Soft, or Sparkly?

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I have a tendency to watch TV series after they’re long over–everyone else has moved on to new and shiny, and I’m over here SO EXCITED about something that was on “real” TV a decade or two ago. One case in point: Stargate SG-1. I finally got around to watching the first season of that in…hm, maybe 2013? It launched in 1997, so…yeah, I was a bit behind. It was kind of a shock to notice how styles had changed. Hey, wait, I had glasses a lot like Daniel Jackson’s back in 1997! Were they really that gargantuan and dorky? Holy cow.

Anyway, I enjoyed SG-1, for the most part, but I got kind of burned out on it. Didn’t finish the last few seasons. It just got to be more and more of the same things over and over, and the characters I’d first fallen for dropped out, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care anymore. I never got around to the spinoffs.

But Friday evening, I was bored, and I stumbled across Stargate SGU in the Prime free options on Amazon, and I started watching it.

So far, I like it. It’s very different in feel from the original series. That series, to me, always had a sense of being larger-than-life, like a comic book, everything just a bit skewed and exaggerated and not to be taken seriously.

SGU, on the other hand, is almost Stargate-meets-Battlestar Gallactica. It’s darker, for one. Oh, there’s a fair amount of humor. Eli’s primary role is comic relief (plus, perhaps, a that-could-be-me for all of us nerds), and there are light moments. But overall, the stakes are higher, the realism is greater.

And the threat is on-going. There is no cyclical “we go out, we face danger, we arrive home safely and triumphantly and all is well.”

But–and this is where my point finally gets thrown into this mishmash!–there is still a fair amount of what’s essentially magic.

One thing which, as a writer, I’ve always sort of envied about the Stargate universe is that you can pretty much dream up whatever sort of object with whatever sort of purpose or function you can imagine, dub it Ancient, and you don’t have to explain it. Little round stone looking things with no visible power source which somehow let you speak to someone on the other side of the universe with no time lag or distortion? Sure! How does it work? We don’t know–it’s Ancient technology, and they’re so far advanced our puny brains can’t even contain that knowledge.

It’s brilliant. You totally get to sidestep any pseudo-scientific rationalization. And you get total creative freedom.

When it comes right down to it, Stargate–like Star Wars, if you ignore (as you should) the prequels, which try to get all sciencey–is really just fantasy set in space. Oh, there’s a little bit of sci-fi, but mostly it’s jamming myths and magic into a space setting. And…I admit, I rather like that.

I do like pure sci-fi. But I admit, I tend to like the softer stuff, where technology isn’t practically a protagonist all by itself, and where aliens don’t have to have a clear evolutionary path and space travel doesn’t have to jibe with real physics. A lot of my favorites wander into this blurred territory where sci-fi and fantasy kiss. It’s kind of fun when the explanations can go by the wayside and anything goes. C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy has a lot of fantastical elements. Some Andre Norton could go here, too. I’m sure there are others that will occur to me once I’ve had a bit of time to think about it.

This year’s NaNoWriMo story may just be a sparkly sci-fi-ish fantasy-ish something. Let me let that rattle around a bit.

Are You Good Enough?

Rose 1
A rose I drew awhile back, and almost immediately hid from public
 view, because it’s…shoddy. But you know? Shoddy is OK.



This post by Stephanie of Rhodia Drive really struck a chord with me:
Art Making is Accessible to Everyone

I am afraid to mess up. More than that: I am afraid of being found inadequate. In many ways, I’ve always felt like this. While my brothers happily doodled away as kids, I would set the bar impossibly high, and give up in frustration when I couldn’t reach it.

To some extent, I’ve gotten past this in writing and music–especially music. Yes, I do have moments of frustration. I wish I’d started younger. I wish I was more consistent. I wish certain aspects came to me more intuitively. But I enjoy music within my own limitations, with full knowledge that I’m never going to reach stratospheric greatness.

Writing can be a little more challenging. There are times when I wonder why I work at it at all, because I will never be able to write in the ways some of my favorite authors write. I don’t have Vernor Vinge’s scientific mind, therefore “I can’t write.” I don’t have Ralph McInerny’s grasp of theology and knowledge of academia, therefore “I can’t write.” I’ve never suffered extreme poverty or pain, I’ve not traveled to exotic places, I’ve not done x, therefore “I can’t write.”

Getting beyond that, to find my own voice, to accept my own style…this is difficult. But, at least on an intellectual level, I know “all God’s creatures got a place in the choir.” I’m not, for example, Gene Wolfe. But neither is David McCullough. Neither is Elizabeth Berg or Terry Pratchett, or Jasper Fforde, or Elizabeth Moon, or a multitude of other authors (or bloggers) I’ve enjoyed. Some writers create extravagant and scientifically perfect worlds. Some expose, through meticulous research, a particular period in history. Some simply make you laugh. Some help you to see plain old folks just a little more clearly. Somewhere in that spectrum, there may just be room for me. It may not always be the room I’d prefer at given moments, but…there’s room.

Art–as in visual art–has been more challenging still. And I think it may well be key to overcoming what is really a false sort of pride: this fear not even of complete failure, but mere inadequacy. Because it’s OK to create art for fun. It’s OK to create art imperfectly. It’s OK to create art with no larger purpose than simply creating art: for the joy and childlike wonder of exploring artistic expression.

I like this quote from the post on Rhodia Drive. “…they learn to be OK with the quality of their expressions and do it anyway. This was my path. I wanted to make art and so I did.”

This post was originally posted on my old blog on 6/8/13.

Dad, Dust, Ditz

GOOD: Dreamed I was on a road trip with Dad and some of my siblings.

BAD: As we were driving, the clouds behind us turned black, then billowed orange, and ash fell from the sky. (Yes, I did just finish reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn.)

GOOD: Dad drove as fast as he could, and we at least got ahead of the main thrust of the blast, and though we had to pull off the road when the ash cloud hit, we were able to dash into a temporary office building. It wasn’t much more than a metal box on a concrete slab, but enough that the air inside was breathable. AND it had wi-fi.

ALSO GOOD: Thanks to the wi-fi, I checked my e-mail, and found I had a response to a short story I’d submitted recently.

BAD: It was a rejection.

GOOD: It wasn’t a form rejection. There was a good amount of constructive criticism.

BAD: It wasn’t a story I’ve actually written, so the criticism wouldn’t do me much good even if it was from someone smarter than I am, which (being as how it came from my own subconscious) it wasn’t. Also, the only part of it I remember was about a character named Tanya, who was supposed to be a totally ditzy bimbo, but apparently I don’t fully understand the bimbo mindset.

GOOD: The editor provided some helpful tips for improving future bimbos.

BAD: I don’t remember the tips, except that there was something vague about nails and matching purses, neither of which I would take my own advice on. So.

Anyway, I can’t help but feel this dream sums up much about my writer brain and my limitations as a writer. Other sci-fi and fantasy writing friends would have dreamed they led an intrepid band of volcanologists, spelunking deep into a cave on the outskirts of the seismic ring, there to battle past Bigfoot and set charges to release pressure and end the eruptions and save the Pacific Northwest.

Or they’d be an up and coming ice mage destined to defeat the flame mage who has turned a green and fertile kingdom to fiery desolation.

Instead, I dreamed I was alternately whining about slow Internet, yelling at Dad for going outside without covering his mouth with something to keep from breathing dust and ash, and hunkered over the screen trying to understand why Tanya was insufficiently bimbo-esque.

Sigh.

I’m a Social Being! Ish.

I’ve been pretty withdrawn lately: stopped going to Wednesday night Irish sessions and other jams, didn’t manage even the social aspects of NaNoWriMo, which honestly was what I was most looking forward to. My story crashed and burned this year, so I felt like I’d be an impostor, but I really should have just gotten out there.

As a result of all this, I’ve been feeling…lonely.

Despite my dislike of small talk and my tendency to portray myself as an antisocial people-hater, I really make a lousy hermit. It really isn’t people I hate. It’s crowds. People, I like, so long as I’m not forced to interact heavily and on-the-spot. People, I start to miss, especially living alone as I do.

So I want to start writing at my favorite coffee shop again in the mornings before The Day Job.

True, part of that is because I need to get back into a regular writing habit, which has kind of gone by the wayside in the midst of my recent move. I have one novel in the editing stages and a few short stories that need polishing before I send them out again.

But also, I miss being part of a world outside of work and home.

I’ve referred to coffee shops as bars for introverted morning people. You’ve got your regulars, your bartenders (though they have a fahncier name–baristas), the comfort of familiar background noise, conversations you can take part in, but don’t have to. They’re a great place to be alone, but not. And I need more of that in my life, especially around the holidays.

BONUS! Great coffee. Who doesn’t need a little more of that in their life?

Good Things, Random Thanksgiving Week Edition

1. I don’t do well in crowds. Never have. Trying to shop when there are lots of people around is an exercise in frustration as well as anxiety–if I feel like I can’t move, I get more and more panicky, and list or no, I forget to buy stuff, or buy stuff that makes no sense. For example, one fine day years ago, I went into a Wal-mart in search of some sort of groceries, and came out with nothing but a flamingo pink fleece hat that matches nothing I own, because somehow it made sense at the time. (I admit, it’s grown on me, and I love that stupid hat. But I digress…)

So I’m thankful that it occurred to me on Wednesday to go to Jay’s Farmstand for the onions and other vegetables and groceries I needed. At eight o’clock in the morning, I was one of only two shoppers, and shopping was a peaceful affair.

For the next month, if there’s anything I can’t get at Jay’s or the feed store or via Amazon, I don’t need it. I hope.

2. On the way home from work on Wednesday, while I was once again avoiding crowds, I took a route home that gave me a momentary but spectacular view of the nearly-full moon rising through the sunset: a gorgeous orange red ball in a darkening sky. It was brief, but fulfilling.

3. We had Thanksgiving at my siblings’ restaurant (Arista in Puyallup, WA–check it out if you live nearby!), which was cool. A highlight for me, aside from the great food, was getting to play music with my sister for a few minutes, she on fiddle and me on mandolin. There was a certain amount of “what do we both know?” as it’s been awhile since we spent much time playing together, but still…so good, though bittersweet in that it really made me miss other siblings back east. Someday, we’ll have to get the band back together, if only for a few minutes…

4. I’m thankful for warm fireplaces and warm cats on cold days, and the ability to obtain library books from the comfort of the couch.

5. One final good thing: I spent some time today doing a bit of polishing on a sort of historical fiction short story that was rejected this spring. This is the closest I’ve come to “real” writing in awhile, and I actually feel pretty OK about the story at this point. I need to find a new home for it.

What’s Up

I have a hard time just posting here. For years, I slapped down thoughts every which way on my original dipping-my-toes-in-the-Interwebs blog (Little Flower Petals), but this place intimidates me.

It was easier, hiding under a pseudonym, and not worrying that people I knew in real life might find out about things like my pen and pencil obsession, the fact that I possess far more than my share of expensive notebooks, and that (she whispered) I write stories.

Also, this site is sleeker, less lived in. Throwing things down here is kind of like writing on the first few pages of those fancy notebooks. I feel like I should be writing profundity, but (though I do have some profound thoughts, really I do), my default mode is more along the lines of stupid pet stories and geekery. I don’t know if I should save this site for my brief moments of profundity and stick the other junk elsewhere, or if it’d be better to just be honest, and mix it all up.

This is a reoccurring struggle I had at the original blog, too. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know what I should be. And in any communication, there’s always a question of voice: do you choose to portray yourself as only that one little serious corner of your mind, pretending the rest doesn’t exist? Do you speak as openly and as bluntly and as goofily (is that a word?) as you might with your oldest and closest friends and family? Do you strictly aim to entertain, shutting off any topics that might cause disagreement?

To add to the complexity, I’ve spent the last four or five months feeling like it’d be a lot simpler to just give up any attempts to write seriously. I suppose we all go through phases where we struggle with the fact that we just aren’t good enough to write the stories we want to write or clever enough to write the sort of articles we could respect. And yet, I get…itchy when I don’t write at all. Hence this.

At the end of the day, I guess I just want to write. About…stuff. And it’ll have to be at my own level and in my own way.

Maybe that’s enough.

Time Unwise

 

Red Clock
I am a totally hardwired morning person. Even on the weekends without an alarm clock, it’s rare that I wake up after seven at the very latest. I remember being a kid, staying overnight with friends, and both liking and dreading the mornings–because I was generally up well before anyone else in the household, which gave me both time to myself and an awkward social situation. Am I allowed to get up and prowl the house? Or do I have to wait for a grownup to tell me it’s OK? Maybe I’d better just hide here and read.

Back on topic: mornings are when I find it easiest to get things done, when I can make habits and routines and keep to them. I have more willpower when I’m just getting started with the day.

Therein lies a problem: I start my day job at 8:30AM, and it takes about half an hour to get there (a paltry commute by many standards, I realize). Which means, getting up at my normal hour of 6AM, I have about two hours of free time to work with. Continue reading