Monday, January 30, 2023

Reading Into The Dark

At least nine times a year, I start a book with zero knowledge about it. And it’s wonderful

We’re all readers here, right? How do you usually pick that next book to read? If we’re in a brick-and-mortar store, we look at the cover, we note the author, read that all-so-important description, and then maybe a few pages of chapter one. If we’re online, all of that is still present, but we get the added bonus of that preview. We can actually read the entire preview before we make that purchase decision. Oh, and then there are the reviews—from professionals as well as amateurs.

In every step of this process, we constantly build on what we think the book is going to be about, especially if you’ve got a good book description.

When’s the last time you started a book without any of that? Okay, you can throw in the author, title, and book cover because you actually have to pick it up or download it, but nothing else.

For me, three out of every four months, I get to do that.

I’m in a four-guy science fiction book club that has lasted now over twelve years. We take turns picking the book, we read it during the month, and then gather on the first Tuesday of the next month to discuss. It is at the meeting where we offer our grade and then the Picker gets to explain why he picked the book. When it’s my turn to assign a book, I’ve already gone through every step mentioned above.

Sometime in 2021 (or maybe 2020), I started going into the books picked by the other guys cold. Nearly every selection is on audio so the day the new book is picked, I download it (via Libby and my local library or Audible) and start playing. In this manner, I experience pure story. Sure, I’ve seen the cover and read the title and author, but that’s it.

I love it. With so much of our lives dictated by a myriad of decisions—including the books we read—it’s great to have that choice offload three out of every four months.

What I really love is when there’s a book by an author I don’t know. It happened with this month’s selection: Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes. Knew nothing about it and it is the book to beat for 2023. It’s a rare trick when a book’s spooky nature and a narrator’s excellent performance literally gives me chills and compels me to turn around on my nightly walks to make sure I’m alone.

I find having a book picked for me quite fun. It also happens every month with my cozy mystery subscription through Houston’s Murder by the Book. I do read those book descriptions because I think they are among the best, pun-filled descriptions out there.

With the monthly SF book and the cozy book already picked for me, it frees me up to make my own selection with more care. After all, even with audiobooks, there is only so many story hours in a month.

Note: since there are so many hours in a month to read or listen to stories, if the book is bad or isn’t capturing me, I pull the rip cord and stop. I do not feel compelled to finish. The other guys in the club used to question me and my response remained constant: Life’s too short to read bad books or books you don’t enjoy. Thus, when I give it a grade—officially an I for Incomplete—I’ll explain why the book failed me.

So, have you ever read a book without even reading the book description or reviews or anything? You should try it sometime. Get into a book club, but if that’s not an option, have a spouse or friend select your next book and just read.

Photo: Mo Eid via

Monday, January 23, 2023

The End of New Amsterdam and the Twilight of Network TV for a Gen Xer

One of my favorite TV shows ended its five-year run on Tuesday and I’m wondering if it’ll be the last great network show I watch.

New Amsterdam

Like Castle, New Amsterdam had me at the trailer. The show starred Ryan Eggold (whom I knew from The Blacklist) as Max Goodwin, the new medical director at New Amsterdam, the oldest public hospital in America (based on the real Bellevue hospital). Eggold’s performance on The Blacklist stood out, especially when he was in the same show as series star James Spader, but with Max, Eggold had a role to which he could bring his considerable charm and humanity. It didn’t hurt that he had Max’s mantra as a north star: How can I help?

If you watch the trailer, you get what the series was about: helping people despite the massive forces standing in the way. Over five years, and through a pandemic, Max and his colleagues kept running up against seemingly insurmountable odds. Sometimes they’d win, other times they’d lose, but they kept trying, striving to do what they can.

New Amsterdam ran on Tuesday nights on NBC right after the massive hit This is Us. My wife watched that show from the jump and, like many viewers, often ended episodes with tears in her eyes. I didn’t watch that show, but New Amsterdam proved to be my weekly dose of heartwarming tears.

Storytelling-wise, the writers of New Amsterdam often used a very small story—often a single patient—to tell a larger tale. Like all good TV shows, the supporting cast each had their time the spotlight. A particular favorite was Tyler Labine's Iggy Frome, a psychiatrist, who often ran up against the pillars of big medicine just as much as Max did. A season 5 recurring theme for Iggy was the crumbling of his marriage and having to come to terms with himself before reaching out to his ex-husband and asking him for a simple date, to try again.

Sandra Mae Frank's Dr. Elizabeth Wilder was the Chief of Oncology. The actress is also deaf. She became a love interest to Max in the last season and I found it wonderful not only to see how a deaf surgeon navigated the world of the hearing in the operating room but also how the writers showed a burgeoning love often in silence and sign language.

I enjoyed seeing Jocko Sims's chief surgeon come to terms with things he could not easily fix--like his personal life as well the relationship with mostly absent father--and how Jocko imbued Floyd Reynolds with deep grace and understanding. And Janet Montegomery's Lauren Bloom, a character who grappled with addiction and showed how the messiness in life can be dealt with, but that it's hard and it takes one day at a time, one decision at a time, and the struggle never ends.

The writers and directors brought all their resources to bear in fun way, sometimes using time-honored tropes quite effectively. They did so for the finale episode, adding a nice twist that pulled all the tears from my eyes. [I’ll add my thoughts about the finale at the bottom of this post.]

But what really got me thinking about the end of New Amsterdam is what it might signal for me as a viewer: Would this be the last network TV show I watched on a regular basis?

Network TV for Generation X

Born in 1968, I remember when there were three networks, PBS, and a local UHF station here in Houston. By the time I got to middle school, we had two more local stations, but that was it. Every fall, the three networks would roll out their Saturday morning cartoon lineup, showcasing them in specials that aired the previous night. There'd be articles in the local papers for the new fall TV shows (including a side-by-side grid) and big splashes on TV Guide. I remember scanning all those resources and then making a schedule for what I'd want to watch.

This practice pretty much continued through the publication history of Entertainment Weekly and the birth of the internet when information was much easily found. I'm always game to see what the Big 3 had planned.

With the birth and rise of streaming TV, however, things began to change. Netflix would drop every episode of a new show and you could binge them all in a weekend. Other services followed suit. It was a different way to watch TV. Not wrong, mind you, but different. Just because I grew up in the weekly format doesn't mean I don't appreciate having all episodes of a season at my fingertips. Ever since last summer, my family has been watching the entire run of Friends, an episode a day at dinner, something that would have been difficult prior to streaming. But there is something to having a week to think about and digest plot elements and revelations of any given episode. I remember when Lost was airing, the morning after, a group of us would discuss the newest episode over coffee. It was quite fun.

Things change and I change with them. That's how life is, but I will say I dug when Disney+ opted to drop episodes of its Marvel and Star Wars TV shows on a weekly basis. Sure, it meant the company would secure subscriptions for a longer time, but it was fun to think and read about what the latest revelation about Wanda (WandaVision) or The Mandalorian or Andor might mean.

As Fall 2022 approached, I did my usual thing that I've done all my life: I scanned what was returning and what new shows would debut. New Amsterdam was top of my list even though I knew going in it would be its last. And a shortened 13-episode season at that. It was, however, the only returning show I watched and cared about. The only other network show I watched live--SyFy's Resident Alien--wouldn't be returning until 2023.

That left the new shows. As I read about them and watched previews, I experienced something foreign to my experience: none of the shows appealed to me. Granted, I'm a middle-aged guy now so that might be a thing, but you'd think the shows at CBS would be in my wheelhouse. Some of them probably should be. I'm looking at NCIS or FBI, but for whatever reason, I just never started.

The Future of Network TV

So what's next? Network TV is not going away, but perhaps that majority of its viewers are. The Boomers are slowly dying and us Gen Xers are now in middle age. Millennials grew up in the 1980s and 1990s so they remember what it was like to be in front of a TV on Thursday nights (or set the VCR) but for Gen Z, the ones born in the late 1990s, I don't think network TV barely registers. My son, now twenty-one, rarely watched anything on "live" TV after he stopped watching Blue's Clues. His network is YouTube and streaming. When he moved out of the house, I made sure to load the apps of the local TV stations on his smart TV. "It's for the weather at least," I told him. He just showed me his phone. "I get the weather here."

And he gets his TV there, too.

Now that New Amsterdam is gone, network TV is now the place I watch Stephen Colbert every night. And football until the Super Bowl and then golf on Sunday afternoons without football. If you throw in ESPN, it's also the place I'll catch NBA games, but I think you're seeing the trend. Network TV might become the place for live events where scripted TV shows are things I'll catch on a streaming service.

Might network TV have lost a viewer? Unlikely. Come next fall, I'll still read about the new shows. There might be another New Amsterdam, a new This is Us, or a surprise sitcom that comes out of the blue. I will always be curious to see what network TV has to offer.

But it has been a fascinating realization that the end of New Amsterdam likely marks a point in my lifetime of TV watching.

What about you? Do you still watch network TV or are all your favorite shows on a streaming service?

The New Amsterdam Finale with Spoilers

One of the tropes the writers used in the finale was to give each character their origin story via flashbacks. We see how Max, Elizabeth, Iggy, Lauren, and Floyd each found their way into the practice of medicine. I'll add that I kind of hoped for a flashback to Anupam Kher's Dr. Vijay Kapoor but, as my wife suggested, perhaps the show and the actor didn't part well. Ditto on both accounts for Freema Agyeman as Dr. Helen Sharpe, Max's previous love interest.

In one of those tricks via editing, you see Max's last day at New Amsterdam with his young daughter, Luna, as they try and get out of the hospital. Max has resigned the position of Medical Director in order to spend more time with Luna. There is, of course, a major emergency that will harness the powers and abilities of all the staff and it forces Max to miss the mermaid parade yet again (it's something Luna always wants to attend but they kept missing it because of Max's job, thus the resignation).


The editing trick is where you see what is presented as the next medical director, a young woman who showed up and has to deal with whispered rumors about her. Halfway through the show, as Max's edict of "How can I help?" has been uttered more than once, I looked over to my wife and said, "If the final four words of this entire series isn't 'how can I help?', then the writers will have missed a golden opportunity."

They didn't, but they went one better. My wife figure it out first and suggested it: "I think that new medical director is Luna all grown up."

Boom! That is exACTly what it was. Some writer I am. I didn't even see it coming (although, to be fair, I rarely try and guess stories while I'm in the middle of them because in that moment, I'm a viewer/reading rather than a writer).

Turns out, Luna's origin story was Max's last day at New Amsterdam. And it is she, looking directly at the camera, who speaks those famous four words: How can I help? Cut to black and cue the tears.

Oh, and props to the writers for not showing us older versions of the same characters. I first thought I might've wanted to see a gray-haired Max, to see him be proud of his daughter, but then realized my error. And here's the veteran writer tip: you don't have to see Ryan Eggold in old person makeup to know he's proud of his daughter. If you've written characters well, stuff like that is understood and doesn't always have to be shown. Besides, New Amsterdam no longer belonged to Max. It's Luna's story now.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Intentional Reading

Do you ever feel left out of a conversation?

It’s only mid-January and while the year is still brand-new, the old year still has a few remnants lingering. The biggest me for is the various Best Of lists still readily available. I read many of them—books, TV, movies, music—and made an interesting observation about the book ones: I read few of them and could not contribute to the conversation.

I’m an avid reader I have anywhere from 2-5 books going on all at once. Well, let me clarify: I’m re-reading Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic in 2023 so I’m only reading a page a day, but it’s still active. I’m blazing through the audio of Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes (for my SF book club), I’ve started Vinyl Resting Place by Olivia Blacke (from Murder by the Book’s Cozy Mystery subscription service), I’m re-reading P.D. James’s Talking About Detective Fiction, and I’ve bought a copy of The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. The Blacke book is new and the Barnes book is just shy of a year old and the rest are older.

I have always liked my rabbit-trail way of reading. I’m easily influenced, be it from podcasts, news interviews, Twitter, or recommendations by my fellow writers at Do Some Damage. But when it came to reviewing the Best Mysteries of the Year or the Best Non-Fiction of 2022 or just about any other book list from 2022, I found myself woefully behind.

And it’s not even close.

As such, I created a resolution specific to reading and it boils down to a single phrase: Read Intentionally.

What does that mean as a practical habit? Well, it means I’ll be more aware of books that are released throughout this year and make active decisions to read more new books in 2023 than I did in 2022. I still get to made judgement calls—I’m aware that Prince Harry published a book this week but I have zero interest in it.

On the fiction side of things, this week saw the publication of Jordan Harper’s Everybody Knows. I can’t tell you how many fellow writers read this book pre-publication last fall, but it seemed like it was everyone. The praise was universal. Throw in the blurbs you see on press releases and the book cover and you’ve got yourself a contender for a Best Of list in 2023 right out of the gate.

Harper’s book was the first can’t-miss book of the year, and I didn’t. I download the audiobook on release day and am looking forward to giving it a listen.

Later, as the year goes on and more books like Harper’s are released, I plan on keeping up. Then, come December 2023, I’ll have a list of favorite books that will include newly published ones. Why the emphasis on ‘newly published’? Because I still find myself drawn to older books and I don’t want to leave them behind.

Agatha Christie

For the past few years, in light of the success of the Rian Johnson films (Knives Out; Glass Onion) and the Kenneth Branagh adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, I’ve been curious about Agatha Christie. 2020 celebrated the century mark of her first book and the yearly reading challenges started. I didn’t do very well before but I intend to change that. I plan on reading—intentionally—the books on the Read Christie 2023. This year’s theme is “Methods and Motives.”

Good news: I’m one for one. Sad Cypress is January’s book and I’ve already listened to it. Even better, if you check out the website, they’ve listened ten of the twelve books on tap for the year. That way, you and I can stay abreast with the new challenge and read at least twelve Agatha Christie books. I’m particularly looking forward to February’s book, Partners in Crime, the second book in the Tommy and Tuppence series.

Oh, and you don’t have to read the books they suggest. They have a particular method of murder or a motive and you are free to pick any of her books. But as a Christie newbie, I’m just going with the flow.

Monday, January 9, 2023

When Life Throws Curve Balls at Your Resolutions

How are those resolutions coming along?

It’s Day 7 of January 2023, a full week after many of us toasted the new year at midnight and resolved to make changes in our lives. Back in December, I wrote about making resolutions—or habit changes—with the guiding principle of “just try.” Most of us want to change something about ourselves—to become a better version of ourselves—so the first step is to decide to try. The next (and the next and the next) is to follow through.

Depending on where you get your data, a large percentage of folks who make new year’s resolutions fail by February. One statistic I found was 80%. That means 80% of people who want to change decide to renege [yeah that’s spelled correctly; I actually had to look it up] on their promises to themselves. January 19 seems to be the date most associated with throwing in the towel on resolutions. One fact I read claimed that 23% quit their resolutions in the first week. Hopefully you are not in that number.

So far, neither am I.

Most of the changes I want to implement are habits. I fell out of taking a multi-vitamin in the latter half of the year so I’m starting to take them again. Six for six as of this writing. Ditto for consuming a daily dose of apple cider vinegar, performing daily push-ups, getting up and moving [either walking or the rowing machine; walking won this week], and daily readings [Psalms, Proverbs, and the Daily Stoic]. The principles found in James Clear’s Atomic Habits provided me the tools necessary to maintain the habits I want to implement.

And, inspired by fellow writer Bryon Quertermous, I bought a weekly planner to keep track of everything. I make daily notes when I perform the habit. I don’t anticipate having 365 days of check marks saying I took a vitamin because after a certain number of days, the habit becomes ingrained. It’s how I started and maintained my flossing habit.

But here’s the key metric for any new habit: inevitably, one day you’ll miss or forget or somehow not do the new task. Let that roll off your shoulders and stay focused on the overall goal. Adjust if you have to and try not to miss two in a row. It was a lesson I applied yesterday.

The Writing Resolution

The year 2022 was not a good one for me writing-wise. As such, a major resolution for me was to get back in the habit of writing. Taking a cue from key message from author Mary Robinette Kowal at her book signing here in Houston back in November, I’m starting the year off with a brand-new story. Yes, I have multiple unfinished stories, but am channeling Kowal’s theory of why NaNoWriMo works for her: the writing is Novel, Interesting, Challenging, and Urgent.

So, for me, the new book is novel (as in brand-new). I’m interested in the story I’m telling. I find it challenging in that I’m starting from a story pitch and a general sense of what kind of story it is and how I want to tell it. As for urgency, I would love to finish the story by 31 January, but I’m allowing myself a goal of six weeks. I’ll grant myself until 28 February if things get complicated.

Crucially, I don’t have a set writing goal in terms of word count. All that matters is forward progress. I started the year with 1,028 words, a great start considering I haven’t written fiction in months. I topped 1,600 words twice this week, both on days in which I went into the office (Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays). By the time yesterday rolled around, my first work-from-home day of the year, I was excited: with no commute, I could wake at the same time and get a substantial chunk of writing done before I logged into my work computer.

That was the plan. Didn’t work out that way.

The Friday Curveball

I had Alexa set to sound the alarm at 5:30am. As a bit of background, the Christmas break was not as restful as I wanted and I’ve been trying to catch up on sleep. I’ve been tired this week and, despite my attempt to get up at the alarm, I was still catching up. “Alexa,” I said yesterday morning into the dark, “set an alarm for 5:45.” With those words, I rolled over for an extra fifteen minutes.

Forty-seven minutes later, I woke. Still in the dark. I smiled at myself for thinking I was so excited and ready to get to writing that I had beaten the alarm. I checked my digital watch. 6:17am. What the heck? Did the power go out? Nope, the ceiling fan was spinning. Puzzled, I asked Alexa what the alarm was set for. “5:45pm.”

That brought a huge sigh from me. Sure, I needed the sleep, but I had slept through my writing time. I only had time to get up, take out the dogs, shower, eat breakfast, and get to work. What would become of my new daily writing habit?

I adjusted.

I worked really hard on all my day job activities, got them all complete, and, late in the afternoon, I opened up my writing computer and picked up where I left off during my Thursday lunch hour. To be honest, it was weird writing so late in the day. I became a morning writer ten years ago—lunch hour writer when I have to go into the office—so it’s been a long time since I wrote fiction so late in the day.

But you know what? It worked. I made forward progress, clocked in 1,694 new words, and my writing resolution remained intact. All is good.

The key takeaway: Life will throw curve balls at your resolutions. Take the hits if you can and adjust accordingly. Just stay focused on the end goal: becoming a better you.