Free money

My financial adviser likes to say, “I like free money and I don’t like inefficiencies.” I end up quoting this line often in my day-to-day interactions at work or wherever.

The first part of the line is kind of specific to his field. He means tax-advantaged investment accounts, mostly. The second part is relatable to anyone, especially those of us in digital news media.

But to impart the full power of the quote, I think it’s necessary to share it all. “I like free money and I don’t like inefficiencies.” The first part, when you think about it, is obvious. Who doesn’t like free money? But the second part, the phrase I actually want to share with colleagues or collaborates, isn’t so obvious. Inefficiencies? Whattaya mean? Our workflow is great! And who has time to litigate this boring-ass internal process stuff, anyway?

It’s when you set these two points together that new opportunities become clear: There’s always more free money to take advantage of in your investment portfolio, and there’s always room to be more efficient, to eliminate friction, to take control of simple processes and achieve your goals calmly and confidently. But you have to identify the inefficiencies before you can implement new efficiencies.

The free money is out there, waiting for you.

More life

February was all about two things: The Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and my new workout regime at Orangetheory.

Read about my experience reporting my first feature from East Palestine here. I’ve got a few other angles in mind, including one that seems particularly urgent to the citizens of a nearby community, so I do anticipate more reporting and more published features on this topic.

But onto the Orange.

I’ve never had a consistent gym routine. I’ve been a member at various places over the years, and mostly my workouts have involved a generic 30 minutes on the treadmill or the elliptical followed by the random whims that occur to me as a I walk through the weight machine area. I might hit the upper arms or my core, but mostly I’d just aimlessly dick around before wandering toward the sauna. There was no goal, no vision.

On Feb. 2, Bridget and I were driving down the road when we passed an Orangetheory location and I thought out loud: Maybe that would be good for me. I’d never conceived of doing some sort of workout class, but I knew enough about the Orangetheory model to know that it was cardio-heavy and, with a bit of morning dedication, it might be a good fit. I already had the community rec center membership, so, worst-case scenario, I’d just cancel Orangetheory in a few weeks and go back to where I was. But, like I just pointed out, that wasn’t really getting me anywhere.

I could easily continue not working out with any sense of mission, just say fuck it like I have for a very long time, but there are two driving forces that are practically shouting at me in my head these days, saying, “You cannot put this off any longer!”

  1. Last year, my dad had triple bypass heart surgery. (He has recovered very well, and he’s doing great. Back at the gym himself, in fact!) Long story short: The factors that pushed him into that surgery are the same factors that may one day push me into a corner like that. Genetics, plain and simple. My dad has always kept a good gym routine, heavily based in cardio workouts, and his doctors told him that it was all those years of working out that slowed the development of his heart condition and, to be blunt, saved his life. His workouts bought him time, and the surgery really helped. He’s as healthy as can be right now. But without those decades of running and working out, according to the grim implication from his doctors, there’d have been no surgery. There’d have been no more life to save. Heart trouble can bear down on you fast, and any tools to slow its terrible advance are critical to success. Now, as I watch my young daughter grow up day to day, changing so fast I can hardly believe it (nine months, wow!), I feel the blinding beauty of impermanence, and I realize how deeply important it is to protect myself—and thus to protect her and my wife.
  2. If I can improve my strength and mobility, I will play better golf.

And it’s been going great so far! I’m good at a lot of things, but I am not good at self-direction in the gym. We’ve covered that. What’s nice about a place like Orangetheory is that you get an hour to yourself, with nothing else to do but listen to a coach shout out prompts and keep you moving. The experience is similar to meditation. When I think about it like that, it becomes obvious why so many people place a good workout routine close to the center of their lives.

This could quickly turn into an unpaid ad for the place, so I’ll just leave it at this, my main point: Life is a series of choices. And I’ve come to cherish my ability to choose, to hone my sense of agency. This is something I’ll eagerly teach our daughter as she grows up, because I’ll also tell her this: It really helps to have others nudging you in the right direction from time to time as you make those choices. Doctors, coaches, loved ones, they’re all a part of that agency, too.

East Palestine

“I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.”

  • Don DeLillo, White Noise

As I watched the earliest news reports of the train derailment and controlled release of vinyl chloride in East Palestine, Ohio, an hour away from my home off I-76, I felt the obvious connection to Don DeLillo’s novel, perhaps my favorite book of all time. The imagery from the small village of 4,700 was astonishing. I thought of the word “Anthropocene,” and the brutal relationship between capitalism and the natural environment. Like so many other people lately, I simply couldn’t wrap my head around the scope and violence of this disaster.

I also felt the gravity of the event itself. On Monday, realizing the local council would be meeting that night for the first time since the derailment, I decided to go there, to see the place. I made sure my wife was all right with the idea of me traveling into a recently evacuated zone replete with unknown chemical dispersions and certain antipathies toward the news media—and she quickly said yes, but please stop describing this situation in so much detail… Just go.

When I arrived in town on Feb. 13, it was nearly dark. A train rolled across Market Street, in the heart of the village, a clear reminder that the railway operator, Norfolk Southern, had no intention of slowing down its business in the wake of this disaster. As library director Tamra Hess told me later in the week, village residents often said that the trains came through town about every 20 minutes. Since the disaster, it was more like every 10 minutes.

But there were no reporters in town that night, on Monday. I attended the City Council meeting, took notes on local news items (the odd everyday business set alongside emergency response), met a few people and then drove home.

By Wednesday, the entire universe of the village had shifted.

I had a few meetings planned with folks in the area, and when I arrived in East Palestine proper I decided to drop into various small businesses along Market Street. To a person, each business owner was beset by media fatigue, unwilling to talk to yet another reporter and interested simply in just getting back to work. I congenially understood. I bought a few candles for my wife at 1820 Candle Co. and recalibrated my plan for the day.

…And the day grew very eventful very fast, thanks, in part, to the spectacle of the news media. You can read my feature for Grid right here.

But that spectacle was jarring. I’ve covered national news phenomena before, including the 2013 Seymour Avenue rescues in Cleveland and the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. There’s a certain journalistic thrill to these events. As a reporter, you feel swept along in the current of the day, threading the delicate balance between your work and the plight of those involved directly in the situation. (I guess the RNC was kind of different in that way.) But the centripetal force of these events is fascinating.

What is happening in East Palestine is unique to this decade, I think. There was little in the way of conventional national media in the village this week; rather, I saw a lot of local TV news teams, a scattering of print folks and a tsunami of independent TikTok-types, most of whom were seen aiming their phones or high-tech camera rigs at—anything. The livestream generation of citizen journalism. I’m not inherently opposed to this contingent, mind you, but there’s very little in the way of organizing principles at work (or even basic ethics). This makes me sound like a stern father interrupting a sleepover, but it’s true: This new form of journalism (and I would certainly define it under that broad umbrella) presents its own forms of hazard for communities like East Palestine. After all, that’s where these livestreamers go: to places under the national spotlight, places vulnerable to political mistranslation and abuse, places wracked with intrigue and endlessly unanswerable questions. You won’t see these people at your local zoning board meeting, is what I’m saying.

And I’m not expecting them to be there! But with the ongoing collapse of more traditional news media outlets in places like East Palestine, Ohio, the pivotal goals of journalism (e.g., to grasp an understanding of broad social concerns, to distill meaning from the complexities of daily life in a community) are not being met. Kelly Mitchell, “analyst,” according to her Twitter profile, so go figure, put it well: “The East Palestine disaster reveals the fundamental asymmetry in our media environment – very easy/quick/cheap to start monologuing about a toxic white genocide coverup. Reporting on actual health risks and the history of deregulation takes time.”

There’s an immediacy to news reporting, sure. But the act of journalism demands deeper time horizons in most cases. The questions being asked by East Palestine residents are important, and there’s even value in livestreamers broadcasting those questions to a global audience. In the absence of meaningful context from public officials, however, East Palestine residents are left with little more than their raw feelings of anxiety, paranoia, belittlement. And in the absence of meaningful context delivered by a journalist with an audience in mind, the vast world of livestream content consumers grows just that much hungrier for intellectual nourishment, even if they wouldn’t say as much.

Setting all that aside, there is a mountain of public health information to first obtain and then understand in this story. Authorities in Ohio have been either tight-lipped or overly vague/confused in their language. Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, in an MSNBC op-ed wrote, “In any crisis, whether a pandemic, a hurricane or an economic crash, there are a few hard and fast rules emergency managers live by: communication, coordination, leadership and trust. If you don’t have these, your response won’t be effective.” Those tenets are missing from the East Palestine situation. That much is obvious. And who can say how long it will take for answers to emerge, for clarity to issue forth into this village-under-the-microscope? Acts of journalism can help us get there, but the ascendant nature of the 21st century—segmenting public officials from the public, segmenting corporate power from consumer demand, segmenting individuals from other individuals, all while at the same time it feels like we’re more connected than ever—is hard at work itself, changing the very rules of the game and pushing us further from the truth each day.

This is probably why I read a lot of novels.

‘The bigger, the smaller’

We can all become better writers. As the world moves further into AI/chat/text/emoji/email-based communications (i.e., further away from actual in-person dialogue, if you can even remember such a thing), clear writing sure makes life a hell of lot easier!

Roy Peter Clark is my favorite writerly guru, and he’s got another book coming out soon. This is cause for celebration where I come from. Same for writer Paul Khanna, apparently, who sent some snail mail to Clark and asked for a few hand-written pearls of wisdom. He did send $25 in cash money.

And Clark wrote back! He shared those 34 pearls with the wider world, and a few of these ideas can help even the most self-important writers among us get just a little bit better at what we’re all trying to do: share something meaningful with other people.

Here’s a good one (and they’re all good): “The bigger, the smaller. Find objects with stories hiding inside of them.”

Find the universal themes in your own personal experiences.

‘Man finds decades-old message inside bottle’

Let’s be honest: This is an intriguing human interest story. But once you buy in, all you get is a terribly written, horribly unsatisfying narrative arc. The reader is left with a barrel of questions that should have been answered along the way, plain and simple: Who is David? What did he actually write in the letter? (We can see the news station has a photo! Why leave this out of the story?) What did his wife think about all this? And what about Jeremy? What drives him?

That’s just for starters. What you have here is garbage, and a good editor would have laughed this first draft out of the office. “You don’t have it, kid!” (Never mind that what we have here is a Carriere, Miss., dateline running on a Cleveland news site. Never mind that the body copy on TV news stories is simply the stilted transcript of the video package.) I understand that the whole point of TV news is to get in and get out with a tidy, low-stakes family yarn that you can sandwich between violent crime and the weather, but you just can’t ship bullshit like this—at a time when local journalism could use all the joy and care and craftsmanship it can get!

Note to misguided youth considering a career in journalism: When you come across an antique-collecting retiree who’s found a mysterious, decades-old message in a bottle, share the message with your audience. For god’s sake, have fun with it!

18 days

I haven’t had a drink in the past 18 days, and that’s the longest I’ve gone as an adult without alcohol. There are several reasons I’m doing this “Dry January” thing; the rationale can be summed up simply as, I need to take a break.

For too long, I’ve been a fairly heavy drinker. I mean to say that I’m capable of blotto-level drinking, 12+ beverages in a single run. Whole bottles, if need be. I’ve developed a high-enough tolerance that I don’t often blackout anymore, but a certain lack of awareness grows in those drinks, and I take on a surge of false confidence that leads me to drink more.

By day, I’m pretty high-functioning. I have a stable (and tenderly nurtured) marriage, career, social circle and diverse array of hobbies. I think often about self-improvement. I read Epictetus. I dislike when obstacles hold me back, and I work hard to mitigate them.

In the past few years, I’ve noticed an increasingly obvious and basic fact about my life: that anything negative or frustrating or energy-sapping or depressing can be traced almost immediately back to alcohol. I lead a very happy life, thanks to my wife and young daughter, thanks to my creative outlets, thanks to music and golf, etc., etc., but, like everyone else, I’ve got highs and lows riding the length of my days. Some of those lows are natural; most are due to alcohol. Long story short, I need to take a break.

This has become non-negotiable. If I want to continue improving myself (my dedication as a father, my writing, my golf game, my guitar playing, etc., etc.), then alcohol is an easy thing to remove. I think I’ve known this for several years, but the fact that it’s been so hard to commit to even a few days on the wagon has revealed to me the depth of this bad habit.

And now, on Day 19, I feel terrific! This attempt has been easier than any before it, mostly because of that stark realization. There’s a deeper self-honesty occurring now. I sense that there’s less time to waste. I am 34 years old, and I continue to wrestle with how to live the way I want to live. My point is that I know what I want (thus I know who I am), and I’m learning again and again how to get there.


I can’t remember which class it was: Column writing? News writing, or something like that? Tom Suddes was the professor, and he was the greatest influence on my journalistic work at that time (and for many years after college). He gave our class several key pieces of advice, if we were willing to listen, and one of them was about the importance of continually developing new ideas for your editor. At its most basic, that was the job if you were going to work in a newsroom: Always have your next idea ready to roll. And make it a good one.

I’m 34 now, and I try to impart this wisdom to younger writers as often as possible. Yes, of course, you need to act on your ideas. You need to meet people and immerse yourself in stories and find information and write the goddamned thing, but the idea is your currency. There’s nothing worse than not having a good idea when your team needs you to deliver. Without a good idea, you’ve got nothing.

But an idea is different from a topic, and this is where I think a lot of writers get mixed up. I know I’ve made this mistake countless times, delivering some vague notion to an editor in the form of a “story idea.”

A topic is inert. A topic may be a helpful starting point, a framework for narrowing down your interests, but a topic is not an idea.

An idea is active. A good idea pulses with energy. A good idea comes complete with early answers to early questions. There’s a structure in a good idea, and often the idea itself will demonstrate how to get from beginning to end, how to shepherd this energy into a story structure. You’ll know it’s a good idea if you can see a path forward, a clear (open-ended) path for the work to pursue.

Independent journalist Kamala Thiagarajan put it this way in an interview with the Freedom With Writing team: “Often, the best story ideas begin with simple questions. Why does this happen? What is going on? What’s so special about this? The process of finding answers can often lead you to the most intriguing people and stories.”

This is great advice. Those questions can draw out the energy of an idea (if there’s energy to draw). Those questions are critical to ask before delivering an otherwise inert topic to your team.

Three songs I’ve loved in the past week and a half

Each year, I build a playlist that chronicles the songs that capture my attention. Real earworms. As time goes on, this list helps me sort out where I’ve been throughout the year. Prior to 2019, I did this seasonally, which certainly had similar benefits, but I like the big annual list these days.

So far, in 2023, I’ve added three songs.

  • “Rattled by the Rush” by Pavement. I’m reading the 2022 Best American Essays, edited by Alexander Chee, and one of the finest offerings in this collection is “Baby Yeah” by the late Anthony Vaesna So. It’s a sad personal essay, foregrounded by the author’s death not long after he wrote it, but it’s also a terrific example of memoir. Anthony threads his love of Pavement into his own emotional response to a good friend’s suicide. As I was reading the piece, I put Slanted and Enchanted on and then began moving around Pavement’s discography. I’ve always liked them, but I’ve perhaps never given them the time needed to appreciate their spirit. In 2019, I was driving to Pittsburgh with a friend to see Phish, and he told me that of course I’d love Pavement and all of Stephen Malkmus’ solo stuff; Malkmus is a genius wordsmith, he told me. “Rattled by the Rush” is probably not the band’s song, but it caught me off-guard at the right moment. In each of these annual lists, the first song added at the top of the year ends up being a highly visible, oft-listened-to anthem as the year rolls onward.


  • “Charleston Girl” by Tyler Childers. I was talking with my cousin at a recent holiday party about Billy Strings (and about getting tickets to Billy Strings), and he pointed me toward Tyler Childers (and to the similar headache of getting tickets to Tyler Childers). He specifically mentioned Live on Red Barn Radio, so I went home and checked it out. Listen: The live album is fantastic. This song, in particular, has gotten stuck in my head. I’m not drinking now, at least for the month of January, so it’s desperate yearning for some far-off sobriety is relatable. But it’s the banjo melody that does it for me.


  • “Feed the Tree” by Belly. “The single Feed The Tree was released on this date 30 years ago…..” So tweeted @bellytheband on Jan. 11. Some local jam band guy I follow on Twitter RT’d the notice and wrote something along the lines of this being the “perfect” alternative song from that early-90s era. Well, I pay attention when someone says something like that. I don’t know much about Belly, to be honest, but this is a great song. Every piece of the band works well together; Tanya Donelly’s vocals are dreamy, Gail Greenwood’s bass is mysterious and lurking, Thomas Gorman’s guitar lifts the mood and Chris Gorman’s drums stitch the pattern into place.

RIP Jeremiah Green

Jeremiah Green died on New Year’s Eve, and he was my favorite drummer of all time. The man could build a house with just a 3/4 time signature. I first heard “Dramamine” in 2004, and then the song crawled into my head and dressed itself in personal overtones that it wore for many years. It’s one of the very best songs I’ve ever discovered, an uneven mantra for uneven times, a hypnagogic elegy for night owls. Not for nothing, it’s a heartbreaking song, if you let it be, which means it’s as close to a “perfect” song as you’ll find, like so many others we each hold dear.

Isaac Brock’s spaghetti Western harmonics get the accolades (and, yes, of course, they’re unbelievably cool), but it’s Jeremiah’s percussion that knits the song together. If you listen to his voice on the drums in that song, you can actually feel the landscape drift past your eyes just outside the window, low-slung American cities fading into the middle distance; you end up somewhere else by song’s end, and, even today, to borrow a phrase, I believe that a car with the gas needle on empty will get you a few more miles down the road if you let Jeremiah’s hi-hat guide the way.

His style was kaleidoscopic. He could be bombastic and rowdy (“Truckers Atlas,” “Exit Does Not Exist,” “Tundra/Desert”) and then he could be coffee-shop chill, all eight-armed bongo jazz (“It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright,” “Sunspots in the House of the Late Scapegoat,” “Trailer Trash”). Jeremiah’s performance, his imprint, is the key to those songs. Style, so says Susan Sontag, is a means of insisting on something. Style is everything. When you find it in an artist, you treasure that connection. Let the music teach you something about yourself.

Even when “Dramamine” comes to an end, structurally, Jeremiah’s drumming somehow continues. Just incredible stuff. The moment ends, as we all know (it has to), but at the same time the moment never ends.

Bow your heads. One of the good guys has passed.

Five years of books

Beginning in January 2018, with inspiration from Sam Allard’s #bookstack, I started recording every book I read. Before long, I realized that this is critical for anyone with a serious reading habit. Books are such an integral part of life that you must develop some sort of anchor for what you’ve read, some sort of foothold in the past that may inform your present. By finally tracking where I’d been, I think I have a better sense of how I went about building the last few chapters of my life. I can see, very clearly, how American Pastoral shaped the way I understand myself in part. (N.B.: I was in a hotel room at the Palmer House in Chicago when I finished American Pastoral, and I was so caught up in Roth’s work that I ran out into the Loop and found a bookstore and bought The Human Stain. This was a pivotal moment.)

Alongside time spent with my family, time spent playing guitar and listening to music and going to shows, time spent writing, time spent playing golf, all of this time spent reading ranks among the most important and meaningful activities in my life. Not only does all this reading inform my own writing, but it tends to shape my own capacities for empathy, patience and generosity. Imagine the level of dedication you need to project a world within a book! It’s a profound source of joy to inhabit an author’s mind while I’m reading a book, and I think there’s a lot to be said about the learned skill of stepping into someone else’s shoes for a while.

It’s also just a great, simple way to unwind. Life is plenty full of distractions and hazards. Sitting down to read at your own pace is something you can control and relish. This is a major lesson I’m hoping to teach our daughter as she grows up. I think the 21st century is already turning out to be relatively more totalitarian in nature, thanks to rising nationalism and the development of artificial intelligence / mass surveillance / digital biometric data tracking / centralized financial instruments / factory farming / CIA psy ops posing as friendly social media / you name it. They can try to burn books (and they are! look around!), but they cannot steal your mind if you don’t let them in.

Anyway, it’s been fun jotting all this stuff down over the years. If you’re not already charting your own reading habit, I highly recommend it.

Looking back, you can see I went pretty heavy on Roth/DeLillo/Pynchon early on. This set a particular tone for me, and I had a habit for a few years of reading a Pynchon novel every December; that fell off in 2021 when I got caught up with Karl Ove Knausgaard and then in 2022 with Denis Johnson. I feel confident that I’ll get around to Gravity’s Rainbow in 2023.

Read the full list after the jump. Asterisks denote personal favorites.

Continue reading “Five years of books”