Leaving Space for the Fire

Learning As I Go

Wherein Mike shares a metaphor from a poem and then empties his notebook of accumulated oddments of high unimportance that will make their way into your brain stem for which you may offer thanks at your convenience.

This newsletter’s images shamelessly swiped from The Public Domain Review’s article, W. W. Denslow’s Illustrations for the Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). These illustrations were as characteristic of Dorothy and her friends as was Tenniel’s for Alice in Wonderland.


I wrote to someone earlier this week describing all the activities I was doing, thinking of doing, or in some stage of doing. In trying to keep the list brief, I found it kept growing. This did not look good, even to a thickee-head like me.

By chance, I’d also come across the poem “Fire” by Judy Brown. You can read the poem here. It was the poem’s opening line that captured me.

What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.

I instantly compared a fire with too many tightly packed logs to my daily schedule with too many !!urgent!!important!! activities.

The fire needs space and oxygen between the logs to do what it’s meant to do. Likewise with my inputs and schedules — stuffing my calendar with inputs and projects did not leave enough space and quiet for my own ideas to expand and catch fire. There was no room for me in my schedule.

Although I’ve probably always had this compulsive “must-do-now” streak, I’m guessing it intensified during the years I was in graduate school while working full-time; every hour had to be optimized. A school chum at the time told me he discovered the hard way that “sleep is not downtime”. In addition to the !!urgent!!important!! we also need to schedule the fun, the restful, the space where the fire can do its work.

Bull City Commons newsletter

Last fall I took over as editor/writer of our cohousing community’s monthly newsletter. I pushed out one for November, skipped December because NO TIME (see previous item on logs and fire), and successfully published the February 2020 edition last week. BCC has occupied a large space in our hearts, minds, and schedules since we joined and it’s gratifying to be able to contribute to the effort.

Transcribing interviews with Otter

I’ve conducted and written up two long interviews for my BCC newsletters. I recorded both of them on my iPhone using the Otter app.

The Otter logo. No, I don’t get it either.

The amazing thing about Otter is that it transcribes the interview in real time — it differentiates who is speaking, optionally embeds time markers, and provides the finished transcript in several formats. There are a few burbles here and there where Otter cannot understand mumbled or rushed words, but surprisingly not that many.

I would have killed for an app like this when I was a reporter/freelancer. Instead, from the late ‘80s through the ‘90s, I used a handheld mini-tape recorder with a Radio Shack foot pedal to pause the playback as I typed. What used to take me hours of work now takes minutes. This, my friends, is progress.

The other brilliant thing is that I can upload to the Otter website an mp3 file or other sound file of a lecture or interview and it will transcribe that file also.

The other other brilliant thing is that I get all these services using Otter’s free tier of pricing.

If you have a need for transcriptions of sound files, Otter is highly recommended.

Blink security cameras

We decided it was time to see what the current DIY security systems looked like.

I spent an evening doing a deep-dive on wireless security cameras (call me if you want a copy of the gory details) and decided we should try the Blink XT2 Smart Wireless Security Camera. We bought a 3-pack of them from Best Buy in December and set them up pretty quickly.

This Youtube video review is the best 7-minute summary on the camera and its capabilities; skip to the 3-minute mark to start the interesting bit.

The features I like: suitable for indoor and outdoor use, flexible and powerful iOS app, easy to install, easy to set up, offers just the features we think we need. It’s not the top performer at any one thing, but it offers a good balance of features at an affordable price.

Screencap from Blink video of a shambling golem intruder coming up the stairs.

Recommended, if you’re looking for a lightweight remote surveillance solution. It doesn’t have the featureset of a Simplisafe but it doesn’t have the complexity, either.

It has come to this — an app reminding me to take out the trash

Liz pointed me to an app from the City of Durham that reminds you to put the trash out the night before its pickup. The reminder is especially useful during weeks when there are holidays and the usual schedule is thrown off.

Enter your address and it reminds you whether this is the week to put out the recycling, the yard bin, and bulky items for disposal.

Before I had an iPhone, I made fun of people for downloading apps like this. As Mel Brooks said in The 2,000 Year Old Man, “We mock the things we are to be.”

Coming up

Prepping 2020’s BCC newsletters. It hit me that I need to see this activity as a yearlong project that outputs 12 separate deliverables, rather than as 12 separate projects. So, based on the principle of frontloading your schedule, I want to prep a catalog of stories in the next 4-6 weeks that I can draw on throughout the year. I also need to get my hands dirty with the Mailchimp template and solve some problems I’m having there. (I hope I don’t make this sound too much like work. It’s a creative project to me and I’m enjoying solving the problems.)

Apply the frontloading mindset to my personal newsletter? As above, figure out a workflow so that each of these newsletters takes less nervous energy to compile and publish than the one before.

Leave space for the fire. Right now, an aspirational notion. Will let you know how it goes.

I’m Michael E. Brown. One of my goals with my website and this newsletter is to improve and sharpen my writing and to keep in touch with friends and correspondents. So if you have any feedback, please send it along!

This was issue #0009 of Learning As I Go for January 26, 2020. It is published on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month because that’s plenty.