Snails for Dinner

Jeanette Winterson, reviewing a new biography of Patricia Highsmith in the New York Times:

She [Highsmith] collected snails, liking their portable hiding place and the impossibility of telling which was male and which was female. She traveled with snails in her luggage and kept hundreds at home. If she was bored at dinner parties, she might get a few snails out of her purse and let them loose on the tablecloth. As she didn’t eat much, she was often bored at dinner parties.

Random Quotes

After a few hours of searching around the web to decide, first, whether I wanted to do this in PHP or in Javascript, and second, which script I wanted to appropriate and modify for my purposes, and then some fiddling around with the template for my website, tweaking a line of code and re-uploading the page and seeing whether I had gotten any closer to what I had envisioned and trying again, I have gotten a random quote to appear in the sidebar of every page of my website — not this one, my blog, because won’t let you embed either PHP or Javascript into your template, but the website about my libretto writing, Juggling in Handcuffs, at

My plan is to have two random quotes displayed in the sidebar of each page that comes up, one being a random quote from my reading and the other being a random quote either from a good review of my work or from one of my librettos.

The curious part of this process is the preparing of the array of quotations. I cannot for the life of me figure out where among the many, many files for my old blog the list of my quotations was kept by the random-quote plug-in script I was using. I’ve tried to untangle the PHP script that find a pointer to where each quote was stored; I’ve tried doing searches on the files for “quote” and for the names of a few of the authors and for a few of the words from the quotes, and haven’t turned up anything. How can the data not be somewhere in the old blog files? Maybe the software was secretly storing everybody’s quotes on some server in Uzbekistan that is going to be the future home of the ultimate quotations website and all of us innocent users have been doing the work of inputting the billions of quotations that will make up its database, a collection so vast that nobody will ever bother visiting any other quotations websites again and all the Google ads revenue will be theirs alone.

However, not that long ago I had made a PDF of a browser display of a list of all my quotations, and so, not being able to figure out any more direct method of creating the array I need, I’ve been cutting and pasting from the PDF, one quotation at a time. And the result is that, as I go, I’m spending a few moments revisiting each quotation and remembering, or in a few cases trying unsuccessfully to remember, why I liked it and added it to my list.

What’s clear is that I’m not quite the same person who compiled this list. There’s overlap, of course. Some of the quotations still hit home very strongly for me. Others, though, no longer have quite the same punch for me that they once had. A few have so little punch left that I’ve deleted them from the list, though mostly I’ve leaned in the direction of letting the borderline ones stay on the list, maybe out of a feeling that I ought to preserve a feeling of friendly regard for my past selves, or maybe from the geeky desire never to throw away a piece of information that might someday be useful. Who knows, maybe in a few more years I’ll become once again the sort of person who finds this particular quotation stirring and I’ll want to find it again. Realistically, I know the odds are astronomically against it ever happening, but who knows, it might.

I carry around the illusion, of course, that I am the same person from one moment to the next, and no matter how much I understand cerebrally that this is only an illusion due to how slowly, though constantly, I am changing, it’s still always a strange and startling thing to come face to face with who I was long enough ago that the differences are very noticeable. I look at the next quotation and as I cut and paste it into my list, I remember why I jotted it down and where my head was at back then. Sometimes it’s something that used to be important to me but I hadn’t thought about in years. Sometimes it’s still important to me. Occasionally I can’t remember why I jotted the passage down at all.

And of course I’ve been continuing to jot down favorite passages from my reading, so I have new items to add to the list, too. I’ve already put a few of them in, though just a few so far. I’ll get them all in. I want to give my future selves something to think about, too.

What’s the Traditional Gift for the Eleventh Anniversary? Oh, That’s Right: Excedrin

Yesterday was the 11th anniversary of my brain surgery. I celebrated, appropriately enough, by waking up at 4:30 a.m. with a mild but persistent headache that faded in and out but never completely went away for the rest of the day. (I’m pretty sure it was due more to the approaching storm than to the anniversary, though. Over the last few years I’ve been finding that the headaches coincide more and more frequently with big changes in atmospheric pressure.)

When I got up, I took a hot bath. I’m not really sure if that actually does much good or if it just gives me somewhere pleasant and relaxing to lie down while I wait for the headache to pass. Three or four drops of lavender or rosemary in the bath water sometimes seems to help, though.

Constantine’s Bible

After five chapters, I took a break from Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God — terrific but dense with information and ideas, and not a book to try to absorb quickly, I think — and picked up David L. Dungan’s Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament. I found it both interesting and disappointing. Interesting because it clarified a lot for me about the political situation in the Roman Empire in the first few centuries, especially as to why the early Christians were so hostile toward the Jews who didn’t follow Jesus, and why the Christians wanted so strongly to distance themselves from them.

Disappointed because after four terrific chapters about the history leading up to the canonization of the New Testament, including the influence of Greek philosophy on early Christian thought, when we finally get to chapters five and six, about Eusebius and Constantine, Mr. Dungan suddenly reveals his agenda and becomes an apologist and cheerleader for the perfect scholarly correctness of Eusebius’s judgments about which books were worthy of inclusion and which were not. A whole lot of church politics, then, is being glossed over. For that matter, even by Mr. Dungan’s own account, Eusebius took the books that he knew were of dubious authorship at best, and he divided them into two groups, the ones that his branch of Christianity approved of and used (which made it into the New Testament), and the ones that only other branches of Christianity approved of and used (which didn’t). This is presented as being good scholarship rather than politics, and give me a break.

So after a long buildup, full of interesting political information, when we finally get to the actual making of the New Testament, there really isn’t much about the politics involved in it, despite the book’s subtitle.

Pre-existing Condition

From this week’s New Yorker, start of the Talk of the Town section:

“At present the United States has the unenviable distinction of being the only great industrial nation without compulsory health insurance,” the Yale economist Irving Fisher said in a speech in December. December of 1916, that is.

SOHO Notes and Notelife

I’ve been trying out the new version of SOHO Notes and the new iPhone app, Notelife, that goes with it. I had to pay $5 for the iPhone but the Mac program, SOHO Notes, has a free 30-day trial. It’ll cost me $25 to upgrade if I decide to keep it.

So far I’m pretty happy. It’s a solid note taking and organizing program with rather more bells and whistles than I’ll ever use. It doesn’t sync with my iPhone quite as effortlessly as OmniFocus does, but it’s still easier than with any other app I’ve used. (I’m not sure why Omni hasn’t created a perfect and efficient note taking program just by stripping everything away from OmniFocus except for its notes function.)

I’ve adopted and dropped a number of such programs over the years. My first one was iOrganize, which may still be my favorite in terms of simplicity and speed. You could only use it for text notes, but I can work with that. A version of iOrganize that worked with rich text files, just so I can boldface headings, would be ideal, but I can live with all caps.

However, for my work routine at the time, I really needed to be able to use the program on both my laptop and desktop machines, so that I could pass my notebook file from one machine to the other. So I paid for a second license online, but I was sent the same license number a second time. Useless — I couldn’t use the software on one machine without going through the hassle of uninstalling it on the other. Despite sending repeated email messages to the creator over a period of months, I never got a single response, never got the second license number (I mean, how hard would it be to fix that? it’s not like I was asking for tech support on some mysterious problem), never got the refund I asked for if they were unable to give me a second license number. Not like it was a huge amount of money, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. And I really needed a way to transfer my notes easily between machines or the program wouldn’t work for me.

Another early favorite was Sticky Brain. It had more bells and whistles than I needed, but I could not only use it on both machines but it would keep itself syncked via my .Mac account without my having to think about it. I could create or edit a note on my laptop and find the change made to my desktop notes 15 minutes later, without my having had to do anything (other than have the laptop be somewhere it would connect with the Internet, of course). I would have been happy to keep using it, but Sticky Brain morphed into the first version of SOHO Notes, which was a more complicated program with a lot of great features but frustratingly slow and buggy once you got a lot of notes into it. The main advantage of a program like this over, say, storing my notes in hundreds of separate files in a Finder folder called “Notes”, is that I can open, create, take, edit, and reorganize my notes at top speed. So if the program is going to pause and spin the cursor for anywhere from 15 seconds to a few minutes at unpredictable times, well, it sort of defeats the purpose.

SOHO Notes couldn’t really get its act together through a number of upgrades, so I eventually gave up on them, and in fact I’m trying this new version out with some wariness. However, reports are good. Some people are reporting problems with importing notes from an earlier version, but others are saying everything is smooth and very zippy. We’ll see how things are working for me after I’ve imported some folders full of text files.

I tried Yojimbo for a while, and I really liked it for a year or so. The problem with Yojimbo, though, is that it’s really for people who are collecting bits of information that have no strong and obvious organization, and not so much for people who are creating notes in the process of planning discreet projects so that each note goes with one and only one project. I make both kinds of notes, though, and Yojimbo is only first-rate for one of those kinds.

Yojimbo doesn’t allow you to nest folders. You can have any number of folders, mind you, but only on a single level; you can’t create even one extra level of hierarchy. You’re supposed to organize everything with tags. So I’d create a folder for a project and keep all my notes in it, and I’d start another folder for another project and keep all my notes for that project in there, and I like to keep my notes for all my past projects handy so I just precede the folder name with a symbol (I use omega, Ω, which is option-Z on the Mac) that drops it to the bottom of the list of folders so I don’t have to keep scrolling past it. And after a year or so I ended up with this ridiculously long list of folders.

If I could have had just one level of subfolders, I could have put all my completed projects into a folder called, you know, “Completed projects”, so that the only folders at the top level of my hierarchy would be that one, one folder for each current project, and my “Reference” folder for all non-project notes.

But I couldn’t do that. Nesting folders is not possible. I asked for advice on the Yojimbo forum on how to manage this, and was mocked by some Yojimbo chauvinists for wanting anything as old-fashioned and hierarchical and downright linear as a subfolder. Devoted Yojimbo users explained to me that the really modern and efficient way would be to add a tag to each of these notes with the name of its associated project. Then I could dump all these notes into a single folder. When I wanted to pick out the files associated with a completed project, I just had to search on the tag that was associated with it. Which meant keeping a new note with a list of the names of all those tags. I never could see why this was supposed to be easier than dragging a folder into a “Completed projects” folder and letting the names of the subfolders themselves take the place of the separate list of past projects.

I can see that organizing with tags can make more sense when many of your notes could have uses in many different contexts. And it was explained to me how much time I would save in the long run by setting up this tagging system whenever I had a note that was relevant to two or more projects. But in close to ten years of working on my projects in this way, I could remember only one such situation, and I handled it quickly by cutting and pasting the information from the old project note into the new project note.

So what is so wrong about a (horrors!) linear system of organization if you have data that fall naturally and clearly into groups?

Another suggestion, and a better one, was that I export my completed project notes into folders of text files and archive them in a folder in the Finder. A sensible approach, I suppose, though it irks me not to be able to use a note organizing program to keep all the old project notes at hand that I want to. I do look back at them when a new project comes up that is similar to an old one.

One genuinely great thing about Yojimbo is how effortlessly it syncs between my laptop and desktop via my MobileMe account. But at the same time, my routine has changed in the last several years, and it’s no longer particularly important if I can sync my notes between my laptop and my desktop. My current laptop is a lot more powerful than my old one used to be, and I bought a powerful one precisely so that I could use it for a lot of things I used to do only on the desktop, because I have a long commute now and want to make use of that time. So I rarely transfer project files back and forth; I use the the two machines for mostly nonoverlapping kinds of projects.

However, now that I have my iPhone, it’s very desirable to me to be able to keep my notes on both the laptop and the phone and to be edit them in either place and sync them. Over the last six months or so, I’ve been using the iPhone app Notebooks, which syncs the notes on your phone with a folder of text and RTF files that you keep on your main computer. Want to keep your notes in a hierarchy of folders and subfolders? Notebooks has no philosophical objection to your doing so. I’ve been using TextWrangler to open and edit note files on my desktop, because TW lets you have multiple text files open in one window, and makes it easy to switch among them quickly.

That’s been working well enough, and if I decide against SOHO Notes, that’s what I’ll go back to doing. However, syncking between Notebooks and the folder of notes on my desktop is still not as smooth and easy as syncking between SOHO Notes and Notelife. So that’s a point in SOHO’s favor. Another point is that in SOHO, creating and manipulating and jumping around among notes is faster and easier than using TextWrangler and the Finder, which is the whole reason I want such a program in the first place.

Anyway, I’m giving SOHO a spin for a month and we’ll see how it holds up when I start piling it up with notes.

Well, That Certainly Explains Why He Didn’t Answer My Last Two Emails

Oh, man. Just got off the phone with one of my authors, who has been through a really awful month. An attack of kidney stones while traveling in the Third World, requiring an emergency flight to the United States. Barely a week after he was out of the hospital from that, a bad accident while bicycling that put him right back in. And family issues that are causing upheaval in his home life.

I’m still a little shaky from talking with him. I’m at Peet’s now, and I could use something stronger, but we’re not supposed to drink on our lunch hours so I’m sublimating my need for a brandy into an eggnog latte.

Down With Holidays

This time of year is usually rocky for me. This year is maybe harder than usual because it was only a year ago in late November that my mother died, and that brings up old memories that feed too well into the persistent feelings of worthlessness that I’ve struggled against my whole life and that I find myself struggling against again now.

But the holidays are always difficult for me anyway. It would be easier if I could just go about my business without being constantly taunted with it, but of course our whole damn economy is organized around reminding us all at every opportunity that we’ve got Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up. Starting the day after Thanksgiving, every freaking store everywhere turns the canned music up and plays the same fifteen novelty songs over and over again. In December I find myself wondering over and over again whether I really need to make this trip to the market, or can I make the rest of the laundry detergent stretch until after the new year?

When I was a child, the very blackest days of the year were Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Those were not the only three days of the year when my family — the portion that ever saw each other at all, anyway — would get together to try to hurt each other. But those three days were especially horrible because instead of a family visit lasting a mere hour or so, the visit on one of these agonizing days would last ten to twelve hours. By the time I was nine or ten, I had learned to dread these days weeks in advance.

One thing that made these holidays difficult is that they included a meal, and my mother’s mother used food as a weapon. Once, for example, when I was maybe ten or so, for some inexplicable reason my parents and my grandparents decided it would be a good idea to take a week’s vacation together, along with my brother and me, to a cabin in the mountains that my grandfather owned. On the second afternoon I was eating a plate of potato salad that my mother had made, when my grandmother snatched the plate out of my hand, scraped the contents back into the bowl, and added several more ingredients while making a big haughty fuss about how I shouldn’t have to eat that and how she would show my mother the way to make potato salad properly. Once she had corrected the defects of the potato salad, she put some back on my plate, handed it back to me, and demanded that I taste it and announce in front of the entire family which one I liked better. I was mortified and the only thing I could think to do was to say that I couldn’t tell the difference, and the result was a bitter quarrel and a sulk that lasted several days until finally some of us left early (I don’t remember now whether it was my parents and brother and me or my grandparents who left).

I learned early in life for incidents like this, then, that it was a very dangerous idea to have food preferences, or at least to express them. Or indeed to express any preferences at all.

For Thanksgiving dinner, Dave and I made ourselves a rotisseried turkey and mashed yams and steamed broccoli and cranberry tangerine sauce and mushroom gravy, and a pear cranberry crisp for dessert, which was very good and all in all not that difficult. Though part of me would have rather made, oh, grilled cheese sandwiches for Thanksgiving dinner and done the big meal on a non-Thanksgiving evening, just to give the finger more emphatically to my childhood memories.

We don’t haul out the countertop rotisserie as often as we ought to, because it’s not really any more difficult than roasting and the results are consistently delicious.

Then in the last decade there’s been the additional factor that another week and a half marks the eleventh anniversary of my brain surgery, and that always sets me to brooding on whether I’ve really done anything since then to justify the truly staggering amount of time and expertise and trouble and money that went into saving my life, and the long period of chronic pain I went through. I know rationally that this is nonsense, that nobody and nothing needs to do anything to justify its mere existence, and that it’s impossible to do such a thing anyway because none of us will ever learn anything about 99% of the effect, for good or for ill, that we have on the world. And yet around this time of year, when I get tired or stressed out, that’s the direction my thoughts take me in, and I find it very easy to talk myself out of valuing anything positive that I’ve done and into magnifying the awfulness of all the negatives.