Do You Read As Much As You Used To?

I haven’t finished reading a book in at least a year, and I blame most of that on the drastic change in my lunch hour.

I never was a fast reader, instead poring over the words at pretty much the same pace one might speak them aloud. I always had a book going, and finished three or four a year by various authors, but not usually the latest bestsellers. Although I read mostly fiction, I occasionally threw in a collection of essays by a reporter or columnist here and there.

My time to read came mostly at the office, where I almost always ate lunch alone. I preferred not to spend money eating out, and relatively few of my co-workers brought food from home. A book was my refuge. For that one hour, while chomping on my sandwich or slurping my soup, I escaped into a world created by another person’s words.

When I wasn’t reading words, I was writing them. Sometimes I wrote blog posts. I spent several months co-writing a screenplay that, three years later, finally is seeing the start of its much-deserved revision process.

Then, in 2014, we moved and I switched positions in my company. I worked in the home office, which features a cheap and high-quality cafeteria. For very little over what I was paying to buy the ingredients, I could buy lunch, pre-tax out of my paycheck.

At first I maintained my solo lunch status and read on my Kindle. I could sit outside when the weather allowed, and did that even on hot days because I was chilled by the office’s thermostat setting. Without actual pages to turn, I enjoyed the breeze.

Then, as I got to know my co-workers within our cubicles’ confines, I started feeling the pull of socialization. Buying lunch and walking past familiar faces to go eat alone was quite different from passing through a room full of strangers.

I enjoyed my social lunches, but my reading time went to almost nothing. I was limited to brief bursts of five to 10 pages at a time at home. When my son’s daily reading time fell during my off hours, I sat and read for a half hour. If I sat still at night to read any longer or later than that, I invariably fell asleep.

Okay, I’ll come completely clean. For years I had been a sucker for the DVR, and then Netflix added compelling original series. Those two things combined with my newfound love of mountain biking to almost completely supplant my reading time. Largely because of mountain biking, my time using Facebook also has increased since our move. You know, Facebook, that entity that I blame for the death of my best personal writing outlet.

Ever since I have been working from home, I use my lunch hours to hang out with my wife or to ride a nearby local trail. As much as I love reading, those two things beat it every time.

I started reading Ysabel by favorite Guy Gavriel Kay, but its plot leaned too much on a supernatural theme that didn’t interest me, and its protagonists were teenagers. After a couple hundred pages I just wasn’t into it, so I stopped. While disappointing, that was not surprising considering Kay’s fantasy origins.

For months now I have been nursing a good and lengthy book called Carrion Comfort, by favorite Dan Simmons. He’s always top-notch at developing characters and weaving a yarn, but the chapters told from the antagonist’s point of view do not interest me. He killed off one of the most compelling characters barely half way into the book (if that far).

Despite those excuses, the decline in my reading is all my fault.

Do you read as much as you did in the past?

So What if It Doesn’t Light Up or Make Sound?

I worry that reading anything longer than a few sentences is becoming a dying art, and our increasing reliance on technology is ushering it to the graveyard. I’m just as guilty as the next person of helping it happen.

Once our son is in bed, my first thought is, “What can we watch?” If my wife turns in early for the evening, it’s, “What can I watch?”

My wife and I watch a few TV shows together, via DVR, but far fewer than we did before we had a child. After all, when your TV watching begins at 8:30 p.m. or so instead of 5:00 or 6:00 o’clock, there’s only so much you can fit in before bed time. Recording shows for viewing on our own schedule is not new to us. Before DVR, we re-used seven VHS tapes, religiously, each labeled for a day of the week, to record our shows. When the image quality got bad enough, we replaced the tapes.

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Personal Blogs Have Become Ghost Towns

To write. That was one reason I started a blog. Photography, another passion of mine, has contributed no small portion of the content, and I have posted a few videos that I hope are tolerable to those with no direct relation to my family. As a former journalist and photojournalist who missed having his work published, I enjoyed putting my work out there for others to see.

By visiting and commenting on other blogs that interested me, and ultimately adding their link to my list while they reciprocated in kind, I unwittingly morphed my blog into a small community. It spawned what I believe will be life-long friendships with folks far-flung and nearby. I even made my first trip out of the country to visit the family of one of those people, as part of a larger annual effort for three of us to visit the others’ homes. Despite our foray into meatspace relationships, the standout beauty of such bonds is that, from the start, they never depended on geography.

I wasn’t the only one whose personal blog mushroomed into a small, tight-knit online social group. Like mine, many had a loyal following comprising both silent readers and avid commenters. Unlike on political or news blogs, the discussion remained civil — sometimes serious, sometimes funny, but always civil. You didn’t have to be a member to read the content, and actively participating required nothing more than an (unpublished, never sold) e-mail address.

By either returning daily via bookmarks, subscribing to e-mail notifications, or using an RSS reader to track fresh content at our favorite sites, we kept up with the few blogs we enjoyed. We spent a few minutes reading a post, then took a moment or two to add our own thoughts on the topic. At some sites, we subscribed to the comments and returned more than once to a post to keep contributing.

I created a second blog to publish original serial fiction, and enjoyed immediate feedback on what readers loved, kind of liked, and thought was just plain awkward. It motivated me to finish writing many more stories than I had even started in the past.

Then came Facebook, and the giant sucking sound as blog readers, and subsequently personal blog writers, left for the world of five-second missives about banal daily life events, witty e-cards, and privacy-invading games. Sure, in addition to brief status updates, users sometimes post links to articles, but it is not the same as well-written commentary on everyday life found on the personal blogs I frequented. I kept up my usual blogging pace for a while, but soon the lack of involvement from all of us took its toll and I began neglecting this space.

Now I rarely visit blogs except when they show up in a Google search. Even then, most personal blogs I click over to have a final post two or three years old, with no note about leaving or quitting. They were just abandoned, without any forethought or admission of ceasing. Rather than a final post acknowledging that it was over, the last entry was more often like those that came before it — nothing to indicate anything had gone wrong or was going to change. I suspect many do not want to admit that something they worked so hard to create and maintain, sometimes for five years or more, has died.

Occasionally I see a spike in activity, and even new comments, each time BET airs a movie dedicated to a local woman whose tragic death prompted me to write a post. The comment thread, populated by those who knew her and those who just saw the movie, gets rather emotional at times.

I’m being a bit vague because Google search still seems to think my blog is relevant in at least a few isolated cases, and I don’t want to bring people to this entry and disappoint them.

My major disappointment in all this is that Americans seemed to be moving back toward reading and writing as a rewarding way to spend their time. They seemed to value quality over quantity. Then along came Facebook, with its (at first) spartan interface that spared us those eye-straining personalized themes on MySpace, and a new focus on quantity was born. We added “friends” as if we suddenly cared what Suzy from third grade was doing these days, despite having thought of her a total of never in the past 20 or 30 years.

Obviously I feel there is value in Facebook, or I wouldn’t use it. I think more than anything it’s where the eyeballs are, and as someone who once got paid for his words and images to go out to tens of thousands, when I say or display something I want at least some indication that someone, somewhere, cares.

Alert, I’m Writing About Work

Or: How I Almost Tanked My Career

There are three things you can get from a job — good pay, learning, and fun. If you’re not getting at least two of those, then it’s time to move on. — former boss

I was a web developer. I worked for the psychiatry department of the local medical school, creating a new online system of forms to be filled out by patients. Painstakingly created by researchers in the field, some of the questionnaires went well beyond the 100-question threshhold. They attempted to give a pre-diagnosis of Substance Abuse, Depression, Schizophrenia, and other afflictions.

My job was to create the web pages that presented the multiple-choice questions, accepted the answers, and then fed the answers into a database. To accomplish this I built on the web technology skills I had developed as the systems administrator/webmaster (yes, it was a legitimate job title) at the same school’s library. A carefully crafted algorithm in the background figured out whether or not the patient had a tendency toward a given condition.

Advertised as a six-month position, the job was my first full-time programming gig. My boss was a programmer who did most of the back-end code heavy lifting. We attended weekly meetings to explain our progress to various M.D.’s and Ph.D’s in the department, showing them projected images of the site, and they gave feedback on how it all looked. I was told I was faster than expected at the HTML coding, and I was particularly fond of the javascript-based help page I had written.

At about the time the product — NetOutcomes — was ready to go live, my six months were up. My boss printed out a letter saying “time’s up!” and I signed it to acknowledge same.

Perhaps I should have gone a little slower.

I often wonder what would have happened had I not signed it. I was a state employee, subject to all the protections and pitfalls that entails, and in my previous job I had seen that instead of shedding under-performers, supervisors typically added personnel to do what was not getting done. That didn’t describe me, and the job description had clearly stated the expectations. Still, I wondered just how much trouble I saved them by signing that paper.

It was one of my most enjoyable jobs, but now being a web developer entails much more than the simple HTML and reverse-engineered javascript that I employed.

I decided it was time to leave the computer geek field and try something completely different. I saw an ad for a reporter/photographer at a weekly newspaper in northwest Arkansas. Coincidentally, my wife’s family had just been laughing at the police reports in that same paper on an extended weekend vacation to the area.

I drove up and interviewed for the job and, with only a paid photojournalism internship between my freshman and sophomore years in college for formal experience, I landed it. It was scary, knowing I would be paid exactly half of what I had been earning. Finally, I would be doing for a living the two things I loved most — writing and taking pictures. And, as luck would have it, my wife got a job at a local bank, so we might actually eat a few meals here and there.

The scenery behind our rented house was breathtaking, a heavily wooded ravine that featured barred owls calling out to potential mates. A beautiful hiking trail with large bluffs and a clear stream was within a mile of the house. We finally had been delivered from a trailer home and the daily commute to Little Rock to a scenic backdrop only a three-minute drive from our respective work sites.

I quickly found that my passion for writing and photography did not translate into the mindset needed for reporting. I was assigned all the sports reporting and the property owners association (POA) meetings (it was not an incorporated city). Sure, I enjoyed the fact that satisfying my curiosity was not only encouraged but expected, and got an adrenaline rush when racing to the scene of a large structure fire or seeing evidence from a drugs and weapons bust spread out on a table. Ultimately, the columns and feature pieces were the only times I truly enjoyed the writing.

Despite my disillusionment, I stayed on and moved to the company’s nearest daily newspaper, where I was a frustrated business reporter. I say that because Wal-Mart, locally headquartered, consistently ignored my calls when David Glass stepped down as President and CEO, until after it had broken in pretty much every major news outlet in the country. I found that ironic since Jim Walton owned 51% of the paper’s publishing company.

I returned to computers in a job literally across the street, in city hall. I liked my boss, and this fast-growing city’s government was run by a bunch of hard-working people. Sadly, the pay was dismal, and within six months one of my former co-workers called to tell me she had joined a different daily paper and thought I might be interested.

We had been struggling financially, so any little bit of increased salary sounded great, and I thought I would get more satisfaction in a more general reporting job for a company not mostly owned by the world’s largest retailer. So, I left computers again for the lure of the written word. This time, photography was not an official part of the job, but neither was reporting on a privately held POA that could reveal exactly what it wanted to the press.

I quickly discovered that, yes, I would be reporting on that same POA, but there were was a small city government beat, too. Oddly enough, my former computer boss served on that city’s council. I found that I didn’t care a thing about being the one to press local figures with tough questions. I admired and learned from those who did, but it just wasn’t for me. Although I got to report on an election ultimately chosen by a coin flip, only the features truly appealed to me, and this time I didn’t have a column.

One day as I left a city council meeting, my former boss stopped me in the parking lot. “Hey, Mark, I’m about to add a Systems Administrator position. You’d get more pay and more responsibilities.”

I ended up taking the job, and it was good. Most of the PC break-and-fix and help-desk duty was being done by someone else, leaving me to concentrate on servers and network projects. My boss said, “There are three things you can get from a job — good pay, learning, and fun. If you’re not getting at least two of those, then it’s time to move on.”

That time I stayed in computers and, remembering that quote, have been in the field ever since. My job-hopping slowed considerably, and never since that first jump into journalism have I taken a job for less pay. I often wonder where I would be professionally right now had I not taken that plunge, but I also would have far fewer stories to tell, and no accompanying tightly-written narratives and professional photography to go with them.

Watch This (and this)

Above the robe hook in our bathroom is a smudge on the wall, from all the times I have perched a book or magazine there while brushing my teeth. I’m forever finishing a book or a long article, and in addition to providing my input junkie fix, it is an interesting exercise in keeping shaking to a minimum.

Lately, my input obsession has become more specific. I have become a bit of a viewing junkie. With a DVR that stores movies and television programs for later enjoyment on the TV or a portable device, and a Netflix subscription that provides content on my TV, computer, or iPod Touch, I can spend every waking leisure moment watching something that interests me.

Besides the monthly outlay, what exactly is all of this convenience costing me?

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