At the beginning of the year, I thought it would be cool to track my reading. I set up a page for it that I maintained for a few weeks.

A couple of bad sinus infections, coupled with one of the worst oak pollen allergy seasons in recent memory sidelined me. I struggled to write and get through my workday. In the evenings, I might read for half an hour before I couldn’t focus my eyes anymore.

Then the infections cleared and I read so much, so fast that I barely realized I’d put down one book and picked up another. Before I went to the Edgar Awards, I tried to read at least one nominee in every category. And I brought back at least half a dozen more titles.

I’ve probably doubled the number of titles on the list now. Since it isn’t up to date, I’ll probably scrap it. It seems like too much work to backfill.

My recent reads have been:

Ozark Dogs by Eli Cranor. A tough, gritty noir tale of vengeance across generations. Very different than his debut novel, but if you liked Don’t Know Tough, you’ll like this one, too.

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It by Ian Leslie. An exploration of the nature of human curiosity.

The Brain: Everything You Need to Know by New Scientist. I’m still working on this one, which is a fun, fast-paced layman’s guide to neuroscience. The subtitle oversells its promise; every chapter leaves me wanting to explore more and deeper, but as an introduction to the topic, it gets the job done.

What are you reading?

What is it about longhand?

Eli Cranor, Edgar Award-winning author of Don’t Know Tough and Ozark Dogs, visited Tombolo Books in Saint Petersburg recently. While discussing his work habits, he said that he writes his first drafts by hand in the morning. He types those pages later in the day. There’s something about writing by hand that stimulates his creativity, he said. Typing is fine for transcribing, but it aligns better with editing than creation.

The same is true for me. I’ve learned that when I type, my mind isn’t engaged in the same way. I can write more words by typing, but I lose focus and the quality suffers. Longhand still produces the best writing outcomes. I wanted to know why. What’s going on in my brain when I put pen to paper?

It turned out that the answer lay in a network of neurons found in the brain stem: the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS plays a pivotal role in various aspects of human cognition and behavior, including controlling attention. Handwriting is a complex process that engages multiple cognitive and motor skills. The physical act of forming each letter requires a unique combination of fine motor coordination, muscle memory, and spatial awareness. This level of engagement stimulates the RAS, heightening attention and focus on the task at hand.

The RAS’s activation during handwriting leads to deeper processing of what I’m writing. Deeper processing enhances learning and memory. The slower pace of handwriting also allows for increased reflection and critical thinking. Those elements are key for fostering greater creativity and insight.

Typing is a more automated and streamlined process. Each keystroke requires less cognitive effort than forming a letter by hand. Lower cognitive effort means less RAS engagement. The decreased attention and focus during typing leads to shallower processing. It also reduces the amount of time for reflection and critical thinking.

Of course, typing is faster and more efficient. As a fast typist, I can capture a rapid flow of thoughts and ideas more easily than handwriting. For some people, this is a more accurate representation of their thought processes. For me, it leads to a runaway train. I need the benefit of slowing my thoughts down that longhand writing provides.

Cranor’s method combines both handwriting and typing. (He also reads his work aloud to his mom each night over the phone). By combining longhand and typing, he balances the benefits and drawbacks in terms of engaging the RAS.

Even though I know that handwriting is better for my creativity, I sometimes push myself to shift from pen to keyboard too soon. I’m going to resist that compulsion for writing first drafts. Writing the first draft slower should help me write higher-quality drafts.

Bell’s Palsy

With the clarity of hindsight, I realize that the symptoms began Saturday night.

I was reading before bed. My left eyelid started twitching. I attributed it to fatigue. I keep reading, anyway. (It was Lisa Unger’s latest: Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six. Go ahead and try to put down any of Unger’s books; I dare you.) I finished the book, went to sleep, and in the morning, my eyelid still felt a little irritated. Fatigue, I thought. I shouldn’t have stayed up so late.

Toward evening on Sunday, I noticed that my left nostril was pinched. My left eye was watering a lot. I had a little post-nasal drip, and my tongue felt coated. Things didn’t taste quite right. A-ha! A sinus infection. The inflamed sinus was pressing on the muscles in my face, giving me a mild headache and minor eye irritation.

I’d had a sinus infection earlier in the year that recurred after seeming to get better. I figured I had another one. I decided to wait it out. If I didn’t get better in a few days, I’d go see a doctor then. If I went too soon, I’d most likely be told to wait, anyway.

On Monday morning, I tried to wolf-whistle at my wife and failed. I couldn’t purse my lips right. Instead of a whistle, what came out was a sputter. This was a little distressing. I whistle at Sweetie every day. It’s tradition! Also, I’ve been able to whistle since I was about, oh, ten years old.

But I still thought it was a sinus infection. I still had pressure inside my nose, my eye still felt twitchy, and I thought it was just inflamed sinuses pressing against the muscles in my face. I’d have to tough it out.

At my first meeting of the morning, the video preview showed that one eyebrow was raised, Spock-like. I could only bring it down with great difficulty. And I couldn’t raise the other eyebrow at all. Weird, I thought and pushed on. Later in the day, I noticed that I was pronouncing “p” or “b” sounds with a little bit of a sputter. Absurd, but I was committed to my self-diagnosis of sinus infection. It will pass.

Around four o’clock, I went out to talk to a neighbor. When I explained that the one raised eyebrow didn’t mean I was sneering at her, she said, “Are you sure it isn’t Bell’s?”

I thought, Nah. Couldn’t be. I couldn’t imagine anything so out of the ordinary happening to me. But after we finished talking, I looked up the symptoms. Son of a gun. Almost all of them seemed to apply. When my wife came home, she told me to go see a doctor right away. At the walk-in clinic, they told me to go to an Emergency Room. I could be having a stroke.

I was reasonably sure I wasn’t having a stroke. Other than half of my face being non-responsive, I didn’t have the other symptoms. No cognitive impairment, no weakness, no slurring of speech. (I’d already forgotten the plosive sputter because I’d taught myself to avoid it.) However, my self-diagnosis so far didn’t have a spectacular track record. I went to the ER.

The guy at the reception desk took one look at my face and made me sit down. A swarm of medical personnel appeared and whisked me away. They performed a bunch of diagnostic tests on my vision, my strength, my knowledge of who I was, where I was, and what day it was. (I almost failed the last one because I never pay attention to the date.)

It was at this point that I began to realize I should’ve been more concerned. I sort of view myself as a kind of Superman. Although I was sick a lot as a child, I learned not to complain about my health. Unless I’m in a lot of pain, I prefer to stick it out and wait for things to get better.

More tests. I had to tell the story of my symptoms so many times I got bored and began making jokes. I started referring to my facial paralysis as “resting Spock face.” Hilarious, right? But only one nurse got it. I had a video consultation with a neurologist. Could I raise my arms and keep them steady, with my eyes closed? Yes. Could I squeeze the nurse’s fingers with both hands evenly? Yes. (I felt bad about it because she was the one who laughed at my Spock joke.) Could I feel her touching my face on both sides? Yes. Etc. I passed every test. He said it looked like textbook Bell’s. But he recommended an MRI to be sure that “nothing crazy is going on in your brain.”

My dude, there is always something crazy going on in my brain. I sensed he wouldn’t appreciate the self-deprecating humor, so I kept that one to myself. Although I texted it to my friends.

I found myself spending the night in the hospital. The next morning, the MRI was noisy and uncomfortable. I used meditation and Cognitive Behavior techniques to keep myself from panicking from being constrained in a big tube.

I am breathing in; I am breathing out. I do not have to respond to the thoughts telling me I’m trapped.

It worked so well that I started to view the experience as absurd. I even had to suppress a fit of giggles at one point. The rhythm of the MRI machine changed from one obnoxious squawking to another and I thought, “This nightclub sucks. Every song is worse than the last.

The MRI came back negative. “No brain?” I asked. No brain damage, the solemn doctor said. No sign of a stroke. Bell’s palsy. I’m to take a course of prednisone and anti-viral medication, and it should pass. Most people make a full recovery in three to four weeks. A nurse told me it had happened to her earlier this year. You couldn’t see any sign of it on her face. I’m confident the same will likely be true for me. Soon, this will be just a funny story I can tell.

But if there is a next, I’ll take the symptoms seriously and get my ass into an emergency room posthaste. Bell’s can look like a stroke, and you have precious little time to get treated for a stroke before the damage is permanent.

Now I await the blizzard of bills that are sure to come. I’m fortunate that I have the means to pay them. Not everybody does. I have good enough insurance to handle the rest beyond my deductible. Not everybody does. It’s a shame that in a society with so much abundance, we have decided to ration life-saving, life-changing medicine to a fraction of people. Many people defer care not because they’re convinced of their own invulnerability, but because our society only values you if you have money.

Getting the Most Out of Journaling by Dictation

Photo by Seej Nguyen on

I recently shared my experience with dictating journal entries. I prefer handwriting to any other method of journaling, but it’s not always practical. I don’t always have a notebook handy or my hands free to peck out a note on my phone. Dictation gives me the opportunity to capture thoughts that otherwise might escape. If you want to try dictation for journaling, you can maximize its benefits by paying attention to a few techniques.

Be Mindful and Focused: When dictating, it’s essential to maintain a mindful and focused state, even more than you would when writing by hand. On a page, your eyes can flick back to what you’ve already written. These regressions help ground you in what you’re writing. Dictation doesn’t offer the same luxury, so you have to focus. Take a few deep breaths before beginning to center your thoughts and enhance your concentration.

Speak Slowly and Deliberately: Speaking at a slower pace can help you engage more deeply with your thoughts, allowing you to process and analyze them as you dictate. This mindful approach to dictation can mimic the attentiveness required when handwriting. Plus, going too fast can overwhelm the software and introduce a lot of errors. Garbage output won’t help you when it comes to the next technique!

Review and Reflect: After you’ve finished dictating, read the transcribed text. It’s easier to correct transcription errors while the topic is still fresh in your mind. In addition, this technique engages the structures in your brain that filter and focus thoughts. That will help fix what you’ve written in your mind for your next session.

Dictation engages the mind differently than handwriting. Adopting mindful and intentional strategies can help you achieve cognitive and emotional benefits similar to those from writing by hand.

Dictation and Journaling

Photo by Pixabay on

Recently, I tried dictating some notes during a bout of insomnia. The results were encouraging. I was curious to see how dictation would affect my journaling practice. Capturing my thoughts and emotions via voice offered a few benefits and drawbacks that I’d like to share.

Speaking my Mind

Speech is our most natural form of communication. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that dictating journal entries felt natural. (Mostly. See “Punctuation Errors” below for the exception.) Switching from handwriting to dictating my journal entries enhanced the flow of my thoughts and emotions. Verbal expression has helped me delve deeper into introspection. There’s no physical barrier to slow the articulation of my experiences, feelings, and insights.


When I write by hand, my eyes can easily track back to check in with what I’ve already written. While dictating, I don’t look at my screen. It’s easier for my thoughts to wander away from my topic. Using dictation has encouraged me to order my thoughts more carefully as I work through a topic. After only a few voice entries, I found that my handwritten entries were also more coherent.


While multitasking is the bane of my workday, dictating my journal is different. I can dictate a journal entry while I do chores around the house and yard. Washing dishes, dusting, and watering plants takes no concentration. In fact, the tasks seem to go faster because I’m focused on journaling.

Punctuation Errors

While the iPhone’s text-to-speech tool inserts some punctuation, it’s not perfect. Sometimes, it produces run-on sentences that are difficult to parse afterward. Other times, it disrupts the sentences with extraneous punctuation. It also has no clue about when a new paragraph should start. Because of these inaccuracies, I sometimes have trouble interpreting my own thoughts when I read them afterward! To get cleaner output, I have to verbally insert punctuation and new paragraphs. That can disrupt my flow.

The Need to Edit

Because dictation isn’t 100% accurate, I have to edit what I’ve dictated to make sure that it makes sense. Punctuation is only one factor. I find frequent errors with homophones. The tool usually gets whether I mean “to,” “two,” or “too,” but inserts “right” when I mean “write,” for example. I always check hand-written entries, too, but dictation introduces more errors than handwriting. Editing those entries takes a lot more time.

Worth a Try

I dictated at least one entry each day for the last five days. While I still prefer writing by hand, dictation has elevated my journaling practice. If you’re considering a change in your journaling routine, give voice dictation a try. You may be surprised at the new levels of insight and self-discovery that await you.

Dictation and Thought

Last night I awoke at one A.M. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I wanted to write, but I was loathe to turn the lights on. Nor did I want to stare at a screen in the dark. That would only make my sleeplessness worse.

I decided to try dictating my thoughts into an iPhone Note. I didn’t know how well it would work, but I was happy with the results. The dictation wasn’t 100% accurate. For some reason, the app transcribed “thoughts” as “farts.” When I read it in the morning, I found fun sentences like, “My farts are all over the place.”

I also found it weird to have to dictate punctuation. It sort of disrupted the flow of my thoughts. (Not my farts). When I’m typing or writing by hand, I insert punctuation as part of the flow. I don’t think about it. But while dictating, I had to verbalize periods, commas, and new paragraphs.

Punctuation and transcription errors aside, the content of what I wrote/dictated was very good. I identified a psychological hang up that I’ve never been able to get my head around before, and the line of thought was steady and coherent. Maybe I should dictate instead of writing more often.


A workbench made of unfinished pine with a hardboard top. There are two shelves on the left and six drawers on the right.
My new mobile workbench, made partially with wood salvaged from an old stationary bench.

I enjoy woodworking. For the past twenty years, I’ve enjoyed it more in theory than in practice. I’ve started many more projects than I finished. My garage workshop was disorganized and difficult to work in. This year, my father and I decided to change the way we work.

First, work on only one project at a time. Too often, we get blocked on one project, so we start another. Clutter builds up and we abandon projects because pieces get accidentally repurposed, or we make mistakes that ruin something, etc. Then we clean up a little but not enough and start the cycle again. No more of that. One project at a time until it’s done. If we get blocked, we figure out how to get un-blocked.

Second, don’t buy any new tools without knowing where we will put them. We both like gadgets. We both will buy a tool that seems cool, but isn’t useful more than a couple of times. Often, we could have accomplished its purpose with something we already have. Also, we often buy more powerful tools than we need. My compound miter saw is a monster more suited for a professional cabinet maker than a hobbyist.

Third, organize the shop better. We had a lot of surfaces that attracted clutter. Beneath them, dead space. Right now, our projects are focused on making better use of the space we have. We’ve built some shallow storage racks that make better use of wall space than plastic shelving and cabinets. Those racks made it easier to see what we have and get our hands on what we need.

After that, we rebuilt an old workbench. I wanted to add shelves and drawers. I also wanted it to be mobile. The old one couldn’t be moved. I salvaged about half the wood from the old bench and built the new one pictured above. I designed it to double as a runout surface for my table saw. Six drawers and two shelves made space for a lot of tools that had been lying around on bench tops.

Currently, I’m adding a quartet of drawers beneath my other workbench. I’ll finish them during lunch breaks this week. Then I can organize a few more things before I start another project.

Reading Update

Photo by Gülfer ERGİN on Unsplash

I have not been reading nearly as much as I want to. I’ve been having a hard time getting decent sleep for the past few weeks. By the time my work day ends, it’s all I can do to focus on not walking into things. Comprehending the written word is not easy. Melatonin and valerian root before bed are helping to re-regulate my sleep cycle, so I hope to pick up the pace on reading.

I have read a little. I finished The House in the Pines, which I didn’t enjoy. I bought The Question Omnibus, which collects the complete late 1980s run of the titular hero from DC comics. It was interesting to re-read these stories. I remembered them being better than they were. Also, no more omnibus collections for me. The book was so heavy that it was physically unpleasant to read.

My latest fiction read is Secret Identity, by Alex Segura. I’m enjoying that one a lot. Set in the 1970s New York City comic book publishing world, it’s right up my alley.

I’m still working my way through A New History of Western Philosophy. I’m going slow on purpose so that I can absorb it better and take side trips into referenced works. Some I’ve read before (Bentham’s Principles of Morals and Legislation, for example, and John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty), so I skimmed excerpts from them as a refresher. I had never read any of Gottlob Frege, though, so I got a copy of The Foundations of Arithmetic. I don’t think I understood it all, but I got enough to move on.

My current non-fiction read is Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber. It’s an uncomfortable read sometimes because so much of my work experience fits into the category of “bullshit job.” I’m glad I find my current work fulfilling. Can it possibly last long enough for me to retire? I hope so.

The Joy of Reading Physical Books

Photo by Gülfer ERGİN on Unsplash

Several years ago, I decided to buy fewer physical books. My bookshelves had no more room, and I didn’t have any more space to put new bookshelves. Over the years, I have repeatedly culled books to make space for new ones, but I couldn’t do that anymore. I was down to books I couldn’t part with for one reason or another.

I started buying e-books & reading them on my iPad. That gave me eye strain, so I bought a dedicated e-ink tablet. That reduced eye strain and allowed me to engage with the text, but the device was slow and I didn’t enjoy the reading experience that much. I got a new iPad with a better screen. After spending some time figuring out what settings worked for me—screen brightness, typeface choice, and font size—I was able to read more or less without straining my eyes.

But I noticed that I wasn’t absorbing what I read as well as I wanted to. There’s a ton of data out there about how reading from a screen is not as good as reading a physical book. Like so many people, I thought, “Yeah, but I’m different.”

Yeah, I’m not.

I decided to buy a physical copy for my first fiction read of the year, The House in the Pines. I didn’t care for the book (I might write a review, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it), but I enjoyed the act of reading it. The feel of the pages, the smell of them, the sound of turning them, all enhance the reading experience. Also, I found it easier to go back when I wanted to confirm a detail I thought I’d read. My fingers knew roughly where to turn to. That doesn’t happen with e-books—and the search feature isn’t as useful.

I intend to read more closely this year and to keep more careful track of what I read. I might write about what I’m reading. That means I’ll probably read fewer books this year than last. But I’ll remember them more. I’ll enjoy reading more.

Meanwhile, I’m going to have to solve the problem of where to put them all. In this case, I have a book I know I’ll never read again. What should I do with it? And it won’t be the last one, either. Even books I like rarely get a second read.

I’ve found a website that buys used books I guess when I pile up half a dozen or so books that I’m ready to get rid of, I’ll sell them… and use the money to buy more books.

What I’m Reading

Photo by Gülfer ERGİN on Unsplash

Every now and then I get a wild hair to use Goodreads to keep track of what I’m reading, but it never lasts. I hate the feel of the site. When did I start it? When did I finish it? Where should I shelve it? Did I like it? Do I want to write a review? Do I want to discuss it with others? Would I like to link to my Amazon account and import all the books I’ve bought?

Ugh. I don’t want a second job. All I want to do is enjoy reading. And maybe keep a list of what I’ve read this year, just for shits and grins. That’s why I created a Reading Log page on my site. No frills, metadata. Title and author. That’s it.

Currently, I have two books in progress. The first is A New History of Western Philosophy, by Anthony Kenny. I’m only reading Part 4: “Philosophy in the Western World.” I’ve read a lot of ancient philosophers and have a good-enough understanding of medieval and Renaissance philosophy. I don’t really know much about the moderns, so rather than start at the Dawn of Western Civ, only to get bored before I get to within a couple hundred years of the present, I decided to skip it all. I expect this one to go slowly, because I’m trying to absorb what I’m learning and connect it to other disciplines, like science, politics, and history.

My other current read is The House in the Pines, by Ana Reyes, released today. I discovered it on the “Crime Writers of Color” website. The description sounded interesting, so I pre-ordered it. I’ve only read the prologue so far, so I can’t begin to judge it yet.

What are you reading? What are you looking forward to reading this year?