Jake LaCaze


I raised myself on post-punk.

– Spotify Wrapped 2021

A screenshot of my top music genres on Spotify Wrapped 2021

A screenshot of my top music genres on Spotify Wrapped 2021

A technical writer friend recommended I check out instructional design in addition to technical writing. He then recommended I check out Rise 360 from Articulate. So I started a free trial and converted my instructional manual for how to light charcoal using a chimney starter into an instructional presentation.

Rise is basically a more powerful PowerPoint. Creating the presentation reminded me of using drag-and-drop, WYSIWYG webpage editors.

Feel free to check out my presentation as long as my trial is valid (4 weeks!).

You’re never “keeping it real” with your lack of proofreading and punctuation, you’re keeping it unintelligible.

– from Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

Don’t let the run-on sentence/comma splice get in the way of the point.

All the electric tables at my local library were already taken.

Using GitHub to host Markdown files

Why should developers be the only ones who get to have fun with GitHub repositories? Writers can get in on the action too.

The point of this post is not to teach you how to use git and GitHub. You can find other resources to help with that. I intend only to explain why GitHub might be a good option for hosting Markdown files for cross-platform writing.

The problem

My digital writing workflow was straight forward as long as I was using only devices made by Apple (Mac mini, iPad, and iPhone) and could sync all of my Markdown files via iCloud. However, I ran into a problem whenever I re-purposed an old Asus laptop by installing Fedora 35, converting the laptop into a Linux desktop. (I call it a “Linux desktop” because the display no longer works, but the laptop projects onto an external display via the HDMI port).

I knew of no way for a Linux computer to sync with iCloud, so I had to look for a third-party syncing solution.

Failed options

Following is a snapshot of some other options I tried before settling onto GitHub.

Dropbox

Technically, Dropbox could have worked–if I were willing to pay $9.99 a month (or $11.99 a month if I didn’t pay for a year upfront) for the Plus plan. But I didn’t want to pay just for syncing Markdown files. It’s not as if I have a huge library taking up gigabytes of storage, so anything more than $2 a month feels like a waste of money.

I could have stuck with the free plan if I were willing to limit myself to only 3 devices. But I instead chose to stick with my 4:

I also considered Dropbox Paper. While Paper does respond to some Markdown, I ran into a couple issues:

I appreciate that Markdown allows flexibility for editors–I don’t want to be locked into a certain app or ecosystem. I write my Markdown files in iA writer on Mac and iOS. iA writer does not have a Linux client, so on Linux I use Typora.

Box & Google Drive

Box looked like a great option, especially since I have 50GB free due to some promotion from a few years ago.

But Box doesn’t have a Linux client. And using WebDAV has never seemed reliable to me.

Also, Google Drive no longer has a Linux client. Boo!

Obsidian

I considered going the second brain route with Obsidian, but Apple devices sync Obsidian vaults only via iCloud, unless I want to pay $8 a month for Obsidian Sync.

No, thank you.

Nextcloud

I considered using Nextcloud to host my own cloud on a VPS like DigitalOcean or at home on my own Raspberry Pi. But I’ve been down that road before and know that I don’t want to be responsible for maintaining my own server.

GitHub to the rescue

After the failures listed above, I decided to give GitHub a shot. And I’m glad I did, because the process couldn’t have been much easier.

Using GitHub to host my Markdown files has required:

Perhaps I would not have been so quick to go with GitHub if I hadn’t already paid $19.99 for the Pro version of Working Copy. But the price of the Pro license is comparable to two months of Dropbox’s Plus plan, so this solution would still make sense.

Concerns

Despite being happy with my choice of using GitHub, I would be dishonest not to mention some concerns with this solution.

Syncing is not automatic

Syncing via GitHub is not a big deal. Just execute a pull or a commit and a push, and you’re good to go. That said, I could forget to push on one machine and then jump to another machine, unable to access the latest version of a piece of writing on that original machine.

Fortunately, I’m not working on any mission critical projects. Worst case scenario, I might take my iPad to the coffee shop and be inconvenienced because I can’t access the latest file version I edited on my Mac mini or Linux desktop. That’s a risk worth taking.

No internet

This problem kind of plays into the point about syncing not being automatic.

What if I’m out of the house with my iPhone or iPad and do not have reliable internet, meaning I can’t pull and update from my GitHub repo?

Conclusion

While my concerns are valid, I am fortunate that I am hardly ever without internet or in a situation where forgetting to sync would be detrimental. Also, I am not currently working on anything critical that could not wait until a later date, even if my anxiety makes me forget that at times.

Outlining as a first draft

What if an outline weren’t a chore, but the first draft on your path to fine writing?

Recently, my technical writing class was discussing outlining, when I was surprised to discover how many of my classmates hate the practice. But I shouldn’t have been caught off guard, because I was in the same camp until only a few years ago.

Life before outlining

Sometimes you hear something enough that you can’t help wondering if there might be something to it. And so was the case when I heard that the key to good writing is rewriting.

The idea that great writers rewrite goes against our romantic visions of the wordsmiths we admire. We like to picture our favorite authors as able to sit down at the typewriter or laptop, clang their fingers on the keys for a bit, and churn out great stories with no sweat or profanity.

But no, that’s not how this writing thing works. You put some words on the page. You read over them and you scratch some out, and you move some around, and you fill in the holes in your prose until you hammer out something serviceable.

The wisdom about rewriting lodged itself deeper into my brain every time I heard it. And so began my acceptance that my writing needed a bit more work, opening the door for my eventual outlining practice.

Enter outlining

I owe giving outlining a shot to a bit of writer’s block. I was stuck on a short story, unable to make the story’s events fall into place. So I put aside what I had already written and started working on a barebones outlining. By taking a step backward, I was able to move forward and finish the story.

While I don’t always start with an outline, I no longer avoid them as I once did. Outlines are the no-pressure way to start your writing project. You barf all your ideas into the outline, and you move things around or expand upon them. Or maybe you see that you don’t have enough material for your project and you move on.

No matter the result, outlining is a great exercise.

An outline is a first draft

I now see an outline as a first draft–a bland, dry first draft. The outline is a first draft focused only on the skeleton, the crucial elements.

The next draft is where you can sprinkle on the flavor. Perhaps it helps to think of the second draft as the creative draft.

Projects require no set number of drafts, but it’s a safe bet you’ll need at least one more pass for spelling, grammar, and general sense making. So that puts you at three drafts, with the outlining being the first.

What all can I outline?

What all does outlining work for? So many projects, including:

Basically, any project that benefits from clear communication is a great candidate for an outline.

Design as marketing

The following is from a discussion prompt for the class Usability and User-Centered Design, part of my technical writing certificate program via Oregon State University. I thought it was worth turning into a blog post.


For a couple months or so, I’ve been testing the Racket app via TestFlight on iOS. This is a short-form audio app (The founders often refer to it as the audio version of TikTok) that is finding its identity. As that identity changes, so does the UX. The branding (name, logo, colors) is the only thing that has been consistent over my testing.

The app has started to come together better and become more consistent as the team has latched onto an identity. This aspect is something that sometimes gets lost in the development of apps and sites: What is the identity of this service? What do we want people to feel? Also, how does our marketing affect our design?

Seth Godin often writes about how marketing is no longer isolated to one department. Now, every department of your company has a hand in marketing. Every part of your app/site/service is part of your marketing. This is something I wish more companies kept in mind. I go crazy when companies tell us they care about users and customers yet have horrible apps and sites that were obviously not developed with humans in mind.

Also, how does your company respond to criticism of its design? These days, I try to let companies know when I find errors on their sites or apps. For one, it’s good practice for technical writing and UX design. But also, I’m trying to pay it forward because as someone who’s dabbled in design, I know how easy it is to overlook little things when you’re trying to juggle so much. I feel a deeper connection to a company when it responds and acknowledges my complaints, and maybe even makes the appropriate changes.

Quitting can be a great option

LaCazes never give up.

I cringed when I heard my son once mutter those words. Some people would have you believe that I should have poked my chest out with pride and then yelled out Hell yeah! and head butted him in my excitement. Instead I told him that quitting can be a great option. He raised an eyebrow at my crazy talk, but I was sincere.

I thought back to early 2008 when I was selling cars (or at least trying to) in Ruston, Louisiana. I was a horrible fit for the job. I was too anxious and insecure when dealing with people. I don’t get excited about cars; I see them more as expensive depreciating tools rather than prized possessions. I don’t know the difference between a 5.4L engine and a 2.7L engine; hell, I don’t even know if those are actual engines.

Throw in the fact that I was selling cars in the height of the Great Recession when automotive financing was hard to come by, and it’s not hard to see why I was eating a lot of ramen and chicken nuggets during those days.

I could have stuck with it. I could have gritted my teeth and plowed through until I figured it out and became the car selling king of Ruston, then Louisiana, then THE WORLD. Or I could go another path, when someone offered me a job in oil and gas abstracting, which is what I did. In this scenario, quitting was the right option.

Some people gravitate to absolutist statements like the quote opening this blog post because such quotes are simple. They don’t require much thought once you’ve memorized the words and have gotten the rhythm down. They seemingly clarify the world and all its challenges.

If only life could be so simple as to navigate via a handful of sayings…

Perhaps this obsession is greatest on LinkedIn (or at least within my network), where I am bombarded with posts assuring me that attitude is everything and hard work always pays off. Sure, there’s some truth to these statements, but I have problems with their absolutist nature.

And then there’s my crown jewel of a pet peeve: the advice to never give up.

Barf. How short-sighted.

As I’ve already stated, quitting can be a great option, a point Seth Godin makes in his book The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick). Godin says sometimes we have to grit our teeth to get through the dip, that lull we may find ourselves in before we climb our way out to greater success. But sometimes we may find ourselves in a perpetual dip because we’re dedicating our time and effort to the wrong thing, such as getting our VCR repair business off the ground.

So often we hear stories of entrepreneurs who stuck with it despite the odds, but we forget that many of them quit other projects before their successes. They did not stick with the losing projects. Instead, they carried the lessons from their failures to new adventures. In Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein argues that variety of experience can be a great asset, and sometimes that variety is acquired through quitting and moving on to new projects.

On his various podcasts and blogs, Scott Galloway has repeated the point it’s better to fail early than late. The sooner you fail, the more time is on your side, giving you more chance to recover and find success elsewhere.

This line of thinking isn’t anything new. People knew this centuries ago, as pointed in the September 19th entry of The Daily Stoic (See below.)

The September 19 entry of The Daily Stoic September 19 entry of The Daily Stoic

Flexibility and adaptability are just as valuable as grit and determination.

The point of this post is not to argue that we should quit at the first sign of difficulty. I do not seek to counter an absolutist statement with another absolutist statement. Only a Sith deals in absolutes, as Obi-Wan Kenobi tells us in his own absolutist words.

The point is that quitting can be a great option. But how do we know when it is a great option and when it’s not? Welcome to the fun of being human, an exercise in navigating through endless uncertainty.

Using Twitter in 2021

My strategy for using Twitter in 2021 means using twitter.com and Twitter’s official apps as little as possible. Instead, I rely on a couple third-party apps and services for a better experience: NetNewsWire and micro.blog.

If you’ve never considered using anything other than Twitter’s official offerings, you may be asking why anyone would do such a thing. I’ll give a couple reasons below.

That damn timeline

You never know what tweets Twitter’s algorithm will throw at you if you stick with the default Home option for your timeline.

Screenshot of Twitter's timeline options Screenshot of Twitter’s timeline options

Sure, you can opt to view latest tweets first for a chronological view, but I can’t help questioning the setting’s consistency when old tweets reappear in my timeline. Also, the timeline view seems to reset to the default Home option from time to time. And then there are those damn ads that pop in and confuse you.

Enter NetNewsWire, a free RSS reader for Mac and iOS.

In addition to subscribing to your favorite blog feeds, NetNewsWire can connect to your Twitter account and provide a feed of tweets from the accounts you follow. Tweets are mostly in reverse chronological order, though I have noticed some threads do get out of order. But I’ll blame that on the tweeters since any thread over three tweets long should be a blog post anyway.

How much does NetNewsWire cost?

Free. Simple as that. Though, as previously noted, this app is only for Mac and iOS.

Getting sucked into the abyss of tweets

You get on Twitter to post one thing. You glance at your timeline. You look up and three hours have passed.

This is where micro.blog comes in.

micro.blog is a Twitter alternative that allows you to microblog (and also blog longform) from your own domain.

Connect your Twitter account and you can cross-post to your Twitter timeline. I especially like that micro.blog allows you to cross-post from multiple external RSS feeds, so micro.blog is my hub for cross-posting my blogs to Twitter.

Because things tend to be slower on micro.blog, there are fewer opportunities to get sucked into a rabbit hole. So I can post, check in on micro.blog, and then go on my merry way.

How much does micro.blog cost?

micro.blog offers three tiers for individuals:

micro.blog also offers a Teams option for $20 a month.

A better Twitter experience

In short, NetNewsWire and micro.blog combine to create a Twitter experience that works for me. While I wouldn’t subscribe to micro.blog only for the option to cross-post to Twitter, I do feel that the option adds value to my subscription.

On the other hand, at the low, low cost of free, NetNewsWire is worth the cost of a download, and more.

The Rock Art Trail and 21st-century wonder

rocks welcoming you to the Rock Art Trail Rocks welcoming you to the Rock Art Trail at Grapevine’s Parr Park

If you’ve ever sought advice to combat writer’s block or to rediscover inspiration, you’ve likely stumbled upon the advice to go on a walk. And if you’re in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, I would amend that advice by recommending you take a walk on the Rock Art Tail in Grapevine’s Parr Park.

The Rock Art Trail is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a path lined with painted and decorated rocks. The rocks come in all sizes, shapes, and flavors.

Unsurprisingly, many works professed the creator’s love of the Great State.

rocks at the entrance of the Rock Art Trail Rocks at the entrance of the Rock Art Trail

A rock with major Texas cities and regions A rock with major Texas cities and regions

Some rocks celebrated alma maters or cartoon and comic book characters. Some were pieces of larger works.

Rocks forming a rainbow at the Rock Art Trail Rocks forming a rainbow at the Rock Art Trail

Some were products of their time.

A rock dedicated to someone who died of COVID-19 A rock dedicated to someone who died of COVID-19

A rock of a heart wearing a mask for COVID A rock of a heart wearing a mask for COVID

Some were intended to be inspirational.

A rock painted with "Broken is still beautiful" A rock painted with “Broken is still beautiful “

Some sought to give practical advice.

A rock painted with "don't outsmart your common sense" A rock painted with “don’t outsmart your common sense”

And some were pure silliness.

Pet rock cemetery Pet rock cemetery

But collectively, the rocks filled me with wonder. I marveled at the work that went into creating some of the rock art. The effort to paint the scenes. The time spent to find the perfect rock. How many people poked out their chests as they boasted about their participation in a Guinness record?

The trail served as a reminder of our desire to be a part of something, and a reminder that, regardless of what some people or outlets may make you believe, there are still beautiful somethings to be part of.

More pictures available in my snap.as gallery

The Cult of We and the dangers of FOMO and hubris

If you had to sum up in only a few sentences the WeWork debacle to someone unfamiliar with the situation, how would you do so? The following quote from The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion by Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell would be my candidate.

But prior to the prospectus becoming public, bankers and other advisers had continued to shower [Adam] Neumann with praise–giving him criticism too infrequently and too meekly. These advisers either ignored or danced around the company’s obvious warts and red flags.

Now, at the eleventh hour, they finally spoke up. But the IPO was already on life support.

If you have any interest in investing time reading about business train wrecks rather than investing your money into them, then pick up a copy of The Cult of We. Throughout the book, I often found myself shaking my head in disbelief, amazed at how many smart and successful people overlooked what should have been obvious red flags, such as CEO Adam Neumann’s selling too many shares too soon, Neumann’s constant power grabs, a private company buying a $63 million private jet even though it was hemorrhaging cash despite having had plenty time to find a path to profitability–the list goes on.

WeWork’s business model was simple. They leased up office buildings, prettied the spaces up to attract Millennials, and subleased the space at a premium. Their plan was hardly unique, as Regus had done the same a couple decades earlier. No matter how you cut it, WeWork was a real estate company. Yet many viewed it as a tech company, which justified the crazy valuations it had received before its IPO. WeWork would not have been valued so high if it were seen as a real estate company, since real estate companies are unable to scale as well as tech companies. It was the era of the visionary founder, and if the founder said WeWork was a tech company, then it must be a tech company.

Neumann and Masayoshi Son, the head of SoftBank, had convinced themselves that WeWork was a $10 trillion company, basically because they dared to dream so. The authors point out that, in 2018, the entire value of the U.S. stock market was $30 trillion. (Take a moment to let that sink in.)

Neumann and Son laid out a plan to reach the ambitious valuation while never acknowledging all the obstacles they would face. Neumann believed he could change the world in myriad ways: from how people work and live to how they educate their children.

Neumann and his wife Rebeka had convinced themselves they were environmentalists despite riding freely on the aforementioned private jet and even taking an abundance of WeWork’s unused couches to landfills. Rebeka had described the family as minimalists despite having at one time owned at least eight homes.

In summary, the delusions ran far and wide.

The story was a reminder of a crucial life lesson: Don’t be afraid to question the herd; just because the herd buys into the same narrative doesn’t mean they’re right. And you’re not wrong to question the herd.

The story also reminded me of similar moments I’ve experienced in thirteen years as a petroleum landman.

The first such moment came early in my career, when I was working in Dallas-Fort Worth’s Barnett Shale play. In the shadow of the Great Recession, the natural gas play was a bright spot and a boost to the local economy. Everyone involved in the industry was in high spirits, some even claiming the boom times could last 20 years. I remember raising an eyebrow at that declaration. I couldn’t make a convincing case for why the boom wouldn’t last 20 years, other than a feeling in my gut that such good times are unlikely to last so long. Within 13 months, my employer had closed its Fort Worth office and most of the former occupants were looking for jobs, as natural gas crashed from all-time highs and is only now, over a decade later, showing signs of significant recovery.

The second such moment came when I moved to West Texas in 2012. The Permian Basin is no stranger to boom-and-bust cycles, so the narrative wasn’t exactly the same as the Barnett Shale in 2008-2009. Instead, the collective wisdom was: This boom is different, whatever that meant. While the Permian Basin does not appear to be at risk of going the way of the Barnett, the area has still seen fluctuations in the near-decade since. The cycle of booms and busts is more frequent than in past decades, but the cycle still exists.

The Cult of We is not just a business book or a biography of a company that went from rising star to laughing stock in the blink of an eye. The book is also a warning: Never underestimate someone’s ability to be out of touch with reality.

Writing the puzzle

“It’s like putting together a puzzle.” That’s how my buddy explained oil and gas abstracting. “Does that sound like something you’d be interested in?”

Yeah, I told him. I’ll give it a shot. I still had no idea what “abstracting” and “chain of title” and “runsheet” and “mineral ownership report” meant, but it all sounded better than selling cars in the middle of the financial crisis.

It didn’t take long to see what he meant by saying that my new job was like putting together a puzzle. And it didn’t take long to figure out that I liked the job. And now, all these years later, I’ve found myself asking why exactly title research resonated with me, because it wasn’t something I wanted to do before February 2008, when I first moved to Texas. Before then, title research wasn’t something I realized was even an option.

With oil and gas abstracting, the desired scene of the completed puzzle is always the same: You’re trying to get to 1. No matter how many owners under one tract of land, no matter how fragmented the interest–the final report should be whole. Complete. Like a jigsaw puzzle.

Through the lens of puzzle-making is another way to look at writing. Whatever we’re writing, we’re always checking to make sure that we have all the pieces. If we ever feel as if we do have all the pieces, then we have to worry about putting them in the right places. But when we do so, maybe we discover that we’ve put together a puzzle different from the one we had in mind when we started. Maybe the final picture doesn’t match the one on the box.

Complex title and mineral ownership necessitates a flowchart. I think of flowcharts as roadmaps that show where ownership began–usually with a patent from a state agency to the original grantee of the land–and the path it took to get to its current state. Writing is a bit like a roadmap too, starting readers at one place and then leading them somewhere else at the end.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this analogy is that our writing most likely never has all the pieces to make everything whole. Something is always missing. And if something’s not missing for one reader or audience, that doesn’t mean something’s not missing for another. Our projects will never be perfect. And we may reach the point of doing more harm than good if we keep cramming in more information at the expense of the flow or of our readers’ attention spans and patience.

But still, we have to try to get enough pieces. And we have to lay down the roadmap to show the proper order in which each piece needs to be experienced.

We have to write the puzzle as best we can.

Writing's common thread

I entered college knowing only that I wanted to write for a living.

I had accepted that I wasn’t going to support myself on the paperback royalties of novels I would never write. Technical writing sounded unimaginative, and I’m not sure my university offered such a program anyway. Therefore, journalism seemed my only option, so I stepped onto campus as a journalism major. By the end of my first quarter, I had switched to Undecided, as I then had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but journalism was not part of those future plans. Fast forward to 2021, and I doubt anyone would say with a straight face that I made the wrong decision. But I can say with the straightest of faces that I made the right decision for the wrong reasons.

I don’t remember much of my time in Journalism 101 other than I got an A for the course. In terms of writing, the most practical takeaway was to lead with a hard-hitting point and then follow with the details and backstory. I didn’t immediately realize how this method could also apply to fiction, the best example I can think of being the opening of Choke by Chuck Palahniuk:

If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.

After a couple of pages, you won’t want to be here. So forget it. Go away. Get out while you’re still in one piece.

Save yourself.

There has to be something better on television …

Those opening lines may not have given me many concrete details about the story that followed, but they gave me enough to get the feel. And I was immediately hooked.

In my journalism course, I quickly discovered I did not want to engage in strictly fact-based writing with no obvious way to inject at least a part of myself into my writing. (I never claimed to be a selfless writer.) I had not yet discovered the likes of Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, or Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, though I doubt these discoveries would have made much difference, because I also left journalism for more practical reasons.

As I’ve already stated, I don’t remember much of the lectures from Journalism 101, but I do remember something I never experienced in any other entry-level course, which highlights one of the failings of higher education.

Every couple weeks or so, Dr. Blick welcomed journalists to share with the class their experiences in the field. The topics ranged from the humorous, as in the case of a now fellow alum whose typo in the school paper made its way to Jay Leno’s Headlines segment (She referred to a play version of Lean On Me as Leon On Me), to groundbreaking, as in the case of Leesha Faulkner, who uncovered the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency dedicated to derailing the Civil Rights movement.

Despite the diversity in perspective and experience, I heard the same things repeated:

You work really hard. You have no security. You never see your family. You make no money. But it’s great.

I didn’t need to take on student loans just to be broke. After accepting I had no clues what I wanted to do, I tried my hand in computer science, only to crash and burn and then settle on a marketing degree.

In the name of being a real adult, I mostly abandoned writing, save for a handful of short-lived blogs here and there over the years. Within the last three years, I’ve started focusing on writing again, starting with dipping my toes back into fiction. I’ve studied the craft as I never had before, with a more open mind.

I’ve now read books on screenwriting and have marveled at how much a screenwriter must convey with so few words. Previously, I didn’t realize how much the writer directs certain details, holding everyone’s hand in the process.

Studying copywriting is another study in communicating efficiently. The best slogans are simple. They require no explanation. They’re like jokes: If they require explanation, then they’re not effective. You remember effective slogans because they slide off the tongue and have a certain rhythm. These are some of the reasons the most nonsensical song lyrics can lodge themselves into our brains.

From studying technical writing, I’ve learned the values of knowing when to holds readers’ hands and when to squeeze tightly. I now see that a career of explaining complex issues in oil and gas title has taught much of the same. And I’ve also learned that most people who say they don’t have the time to hold someone else’s hand through an issue most likely lack the knowledge and awareness of how to do so and also have no desire to learn how.

I’ve been asking myself recently what is the strand that ties all writing together. What is the one similarity? The unifier, other than a need to communicate?

And, as we speak, my answer is: persuasion.

The angle of persuasion is obvious for some fields, such as legal writing, in which briefs are intended to persuade a judge to rule in a client’s favor. Sales copy aims to persuade you to make a certain purchase. Business emails persuade recipients to act–or maybe they persuade that no action is needed. Even research papers should aim to persuade, as we don’t have to look too hard around us to see that facts alone are not enough. If nothing else, I have to persuade you that my facts are more accurate than your facts.

But what about fiction? Where’s the persuasion there?

In fiction, authors are trying to persuade readers that this fake world with these fake people in these fake scenarios contains some sort of truth worth their time. Authors want to convince readers that this person in this situation would act or feel a certain way.

And sometimes the persuasion takes a different angle, such as in the case of some of the best tellers of tall tales, the ones who stretch the truth–or, in some cases, discard the truth completely–and leave us doubled over, hoarse from laughing through the tears. Sometimes writers persuade us not to care about reality so much.

I know I have few–if any–original ideas, but I recently realized that the point of this post isn’t original even in regard only to my thinking, as I shared the picture below in a previous edition of Emergency Coffee, my monthly writing newsletter:

quote from Anthony Doerr

In the past, I abandoned writing because I failed to see the similarities among the separate disciplines. I also failed to see that there is no down side to being a better writer. Even if you never make a penny directly from your writing, the thought and effort required to improve as a writer likely benefit you in less obvious ways.

Now, if I read something as mundane as the back of a shampoo bottle, I no longer brush it off as an irrelevant form of writing. Instead, I wonder why certain things were done certain ways and then ask if or how my own projects could benefit from those methods. This way of thinking makes me a more open-minded writer than I was when I set foot on that university campus all those years ago.

Using Obsidian as a planner

In an attempt to find balance between the digital and analog in my life, I’ve inconsistently maintained a bullet journal for the last couple years. I initially fell in love with the analog approach to staying organized, but as time went on, I couldn’t help feeling as if something was lacking. Also, I’m accepting that, while I love the idea of writing more by hand and unplugging when possible, the practice is quite time-consuming and inefficient, especially if I plan to later type my writing to archive digitally or post online.

Recently I tried migrating my bullet journal practice to iA writer. While writer is a great app, it’s focused on one thing: writing. Unsurprisingly, this experiment didn’t work, so I found myself wanting something better. This searching is what led me to give Obsidian another shot, primarily as a planner.

I had also considered giving Notion another look but settled on Obsidian for two simple reasons:

  1. Obsidian is free.
  2. My files are saved locally, so I don’t have to worry if I need to work offline. (That said, I am using iCloud to sync between my Mac and iOS devices.)

Prerequisites

This post is not intended to serve as a tutorial for Obsidian itself, so readers are expected to have some previous knowledge:

Method

August 2021 is just around the corner, so let’s set up our planner as if we’re trying to get ahead for the new month.

I started my 2021 planner with a file I called 2021 Future Log.

Basically, I use an H2 for each month’s heading and then list things I expect to do in the appropriate months.

screenshot of future log Figure 1 - A screenshot of the future log

Next, I create another file for the week and fill it with some tasks I think I need to do in the next seven days. This one is called 2021-W32 (because 08.01.2021–08.07.2021 is the 32nd week of 2021).

Figure 2 - A screenshot of the weekly log

And then, I’ll make entries for the individual days of the week. I’ll start with Sunday with a file named 2021.08.01 Sun.

One thing I love about Obsidian is the ability to embed notes within notes. I start each daily note by embedding the monthly note and then the weekly note.

Since I put my monthly notes in one file (2021 Future Log), I want to make sure that I embed only the portion that pertains to August, as opposed to the whole future log. Once I embed my monthly note, I want to be sure to type a hashtag (#) after the title so that I get a dropdown with options for other headings to choose and embed.

screenshot of embedding tutorial Figure 3 - A screenshot showing how to embed a note within a note

I select the heading for August and then proceed with embedding the weekly note.

screenshot of embedded notes in daily note Figure 4 - A screenshot of notes embedded in another note


Note: Before we proceed with the rest of the template, let me explain why I like embedding the monthly and weekly notes into the daily notes.

With a traditional notebook bullet journal, to get the full picture, I would basically have to look at three different notes: the daily note, the weekly note, and the monthly note. I would have to search my index in the beginning of my bullet journal to locate these three notes and then read over them and combine in my head what needed to get done on these three different time spans. But, thanks to the embeddings, I have all three time frames on one page, in an order that makes sense to me.

Also, I love that, within my daily note, I can check off one of the events in my monthly or weekly note and the change will be made in the source note and in all other notes in which that note is embedded.


Now that my monthly and weekly notes have been embedded, I proceed with the rest of my template.

screenshot of complete daily note Figure 5 - A screenshot showing a complete daily note

Explanation of remaining headings

I’m using Agenda for events and tasks scheduled for a specific time. This is where I would usually put meetings.

I like breaking To-Dos into Personal and Work subcategories so that I can keep some separation between the two.

Notes is where I document things that happened that weren’t exactly planned or required.

And finally, Recap is a longer form journal entry–a reflection upon the day.

I repeat this set up for the other days of the week and then repeat the set up each week and month and, eventually, year.

Conclusion

The main reason I think this system can work for me going forward is due to the fact that Obsidian now has mobile apps, as opposed to my first run–in either late 2020 or early 2021.

Maintaining a bullet journal has meant trying to carry a notebook of some sort with me everywhere I went and then feeling lost if I didn’t have it with me. Because my cell phone is with me almost everywhere I go–the shower and swimming pools are a couple exceptions that come to mind–I don’t have to try to keep my planner with me; it already is with me, in my pocket.

During my last run with Obsidian, I tried to keep everything in the program, to grow my digital garden and my second brain. This time, I plan to keep my writing (blog posts, short stories, attempts at novels, etc.) out of Obsidian and in iA writer. In the short term, I plan to focus on making Obsidian work for me as my planner. If I can make that work, then I will consider branching out and throwing more at it and seeing what else can stick.

2021 goals mid-year review

Every once in a while you have to check in with your ambitions. At the end of last year, I made a list of goals for 2021 that included something more than simply “survive”.

How have I been doing so far? Mostly good.

Goal: Read 30 books.

I’ve read 22 books so far. I admit most of these books have been short–as in under 300 pages, though Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson was over 400 pages long, so I suppose that one is my “stretch” title.

Fun fact: Shadow Divers is also my early pick for my surprise of 2021. The book was nowhere near my radar until a colleague loaned it to me.

So what’s the book about?

In 1991, some divers find a German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. There were no records showing that this U-boat was ever in the area.

How do you go about verifying the identity of such a ship at 200 feet below the surface, when one mistake can be fatal?

Spoiler alert: Not everyone make it out of this one alive.

Goal: Take 3 writing classes.

I’ve knocked this one out of the park. I started off by wrapping up the Good with Words course on Coursera. Patrick Barry is the kind of professor I wish I’d had when I was in college–you know, paying much more for my education. The courses deal with the philosophy and nuance of good writing.

Last year I took a technical writing course online with Oregon State University. Earlier this month, I started a technical writing certification with the same school, so I guess I was a bit conservative with my original goal.

Goal: Finished watching Kids in the Hall

Count this one dead. Long story short, I screwed up my video library. Moving on…

Goal: No more blue jeans

This goal is still alive, though I do worry whether I’ll be able to finish strong. But at this point, maybe I’ve made it long enough that I don’t have to worry about relapsing back into denim hell.

Other critiques

I recently posted that I had converted my old blog to a new site–Turkey House Publishing. That post is already outdated, as I’ve converted my old blog to blog.jakelacaze.com.

Turkey House Publishing will remain my site for creative writing–short stories, vignettes, and other shenanigans.

So, on my unofficial goal of being more decisive in general, I have failed and still have much work to do.

I hope 2021 has been good to you so far and will continue to do so for the rest of the year and beyond.

2021 goals

I no longer see goals as pending accomplishments but as immediate motivators. Little happens without movement, and movement is easier with a rough outline. Instead of plotting your trip down to the last tenth of a mile, maybe just head north for a while and don’t feel bad if you take an alternate path when you find a boulder in your way.

But if you possess enough dynamite to remove the obstacle, by all means let ‘er blow and carry on your merry way. Just remember: Cool guys don’t look at explosions. They blow things up and then walk away.

Writerly goals

Read 30 books

I’m not sure how many books I read in any given year because I’ve never kept a list, even though I’ve said I was going to numerous times. I want to set a reading goal, but the fashionable “50 books in a year” seems a bit much for me. For one, I’m a slow reader. And life happens and more important things get in the way. 30 seems like a reasonable goal for nearly anyone, so I’m going to give it a shot in 2021.

Take 3 writing classes

Writing is my hobby, one I want to invest more into. Last year I took a technical writing class. This year I want to take three writing classes. I don’t care whether the classes pertain to professional writing or creative writing, and I can get them on the cheap with Coursera.

Entertainment

Finish watching Kids in the Hall

I bought the series DVD collection for Kids in the Hall two years ago. I’m pretty sure one of my unofficial goals for 2020 was to finish watching the series. I can’t believe I didn’t do it, since I, like most other people, spent more time at home in 2020.

As it stands, I’m about halfway through Season 2. That leaves about 75 episodes. Gotta get busy planting myself in front of the idiot box.

And while we’re at it I might as well finish rewatching Chappelle’s Show.

Fashion

No more blue jeans

Look, blue jeans suck. They’re heavy and uncomfortable. Ugh. There are better options: khakis, chinos, going nude.

Everyone knows that these days, real activism needs a hashtag, so join me in making #nodenimin2021 a reality.

Onward to 2021

I thought I could come up with more goals, but seeing how the universe threw a curveball and wrecked all my plans for 2020, maybe it’s best to keep things simple this year.

Happy New Year, y’all

Places that once were

Landmen have an interesting relationship with history. Some will harken back to the good old days of driving out to a rancher’s property and discussing business among prospect maps spread over the hood of a pickup truck and closing deals with handshakes. If you stick around long enough in this field–I’m nearing my thirteenth year–you likely develop at least a passing interest in the history of the land and the minerals underneath. And the history of the owners, sometimes leading to revelations of betrayal and the accompanying family feuds. When researching title, you may become more familiar with other people’s family trees than you are of your own. And don’t let anyone tell you that wills, probate proceedings, and affidavits can’t be exciting–sometimes you find some four-letter words and some spicy accusations in those documents.

A desire to advance my career led to a five-year stint in Midland, Texas, a place not known as a hotspot for things to do. Desperate times call for desperate pleasures, as Bill Ryder-Jones said, so in the land of oil, even your escapes may be related to petroleum in some way. At some point, I spent a day driving across Reagan County, starting with a town called Stiles, once the county seat until it was bypassed by the railroad and oil was discovered in Big Lake. These days little remains in Stiles, other than the remains of the former courthouse.

The old Reagan County courthouse in Stiles, TXThe old Reagan County courthouse in Stiles, TX

A former neighbor told me that the chainlink fence surrounding the old courthouse was erected after someone tried to burn it down a few times. I do not condone trespassing, but the fence had been cut when I visited, so I couldn’t resist the temptation to step inside.

Inside the old Reagan County courthouseInside the courthouse

Next my adventures saw me going to the settlement once called Best. I was surprised Best had a sign announcing its border, since I saw nothing else to suggest anyone ever lived within its limits. I doubt much worth remembering ever happened there since it was said that Best had the worst residents.

The last leg of my Reagan County world tour took me to Texon, the home of the Santa Rita No. 1, the well which gave birth to decades of drilling in the Permian Basin. Aside from a monument to the well named after the patron saint of foolish endeavors–an appropriate name since crews sought oil for two years before finding reliable production–I saw an old scout shack with some used tires and a decaying goat.

The old scout shack in Texon, TX The old scout shack in Texon, TX

Each of these towns, which would be considered dead by modern measures, had its day and its history. These towns were once functioning communities with schools, banks, markets, churches, and post offices. These were places where people built lives. Places where people dreamed of a bright future. But these places in Reagan County are hardly alone, as the same goes for Thurber, Texas (way over in Erath County), a former company coal mining town, which was at one time the largest settlement between Fort Worth and El Paso, and which now boasts a population of five, along with two restaurants and an old smokestack as an homage to its past. Who would have thought that the first electrified city in Texas would someday be reduced to a footnote in the history books.

The lone smoke stack in Thurber, TX The lone smokestack remaining in Thurber, TX

And the same goes for the Baker Hotel, located in Mineral Wells and formerly a resort for the elites who thought the town’s spring waters had therapeutic qualities. According to Wikipedia, “the star-studded guest list included Glenn Miller, Lawrence Welk, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, future U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, and even The Three Stooges. It is even rumored by local historians that legendary outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow may have spent a night or two at the Baker.” An investment company had purchased the Baker and had broken ground on renovations before the pandemic, so maybe there’s a chance that the old hotel will be once again be somewhere new memories are made.

The Baker Hotel circa 2015 The Baker Hotel circa 2015

At one time, people would have imagined these locations would last forever, and now these places are little more than distant memories. If such places have come and gone, why should we expect any of our comforts to be immune to such possibility? Why would we expect our jobs to be invulnerable? Our industries? Whole swaths of an economy? The pandemic has shown the flaws in many of our collective assumptions, and history echoes some of those callouts.

More often than not, we should live through the lens of probability: If x then y; what do the statistics say? Yet there is utility in entertaining possibility, if only to be slightly more prepared for it. History can be a great tool for learning possibility, because while history may not repeat itself, it does often rhyme. And sometimes it features rhymes accompanied by 808s and heartbreak.

Americans are horrible at accepting impermanence. Look no further than how hard some will fight for that extra year of life, often an extra year of pain and suffering. Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone…

Yet my life has improved as I’ve learned to accept that all I hold dear will be forgotten after the earth makes a few more passes around the sun. That is more than possibility or probability. It is inevitability.

When I visit ghost towns and abandoned places–places that once were–I can’t help daydreaming about the stories forgotten in time. These days, I think about the stories that have been lost through those dear to me who have passed. How many stories will be lost because of my reluctance to share? These thoughts and questions, which once seemed silly, became more important once I had kids.

I have a habit of living anywhere other than the present. I replay the past in my head and beat myself up for things I cannot change. I look ahead to catastrophes that may never materialize and work myself up over nothing. But with the help of meditation and Stoicism, I’ve become better at living in the moment, though like an addict, I relapse. Reminding myself of impermanence also helps. If precious moments are destined to be forgotten, then they should be enjoyed in their time.

Perhaps you’ve heard certain mantras that help to keep this in perspective for you:

Nothing lasts forever.

This too shall pass. (This mantra applies to the good times too).

Things come, things go.

But for me, seeing is believing.

The happening in Aurora, Texas

When you hear about Texas, a few things may come to mind:

You likely don’t think of the state as possibly being home to America’s first UFO crash, which took place 50 years before the better-known Roswell incident. From my experience, most people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are unaware of the Aurora, Texas, UFO incident, even though it happened practically in their back yard.

Long story short, way back in 1897–before the Wright brothers blasted their fly rides into the sky and made it cry–a cigar-shaped spaceship wrecked into a windmill on the judge’s property. The pilot, some tiny human-like creature, was buried in the local cemetery.

Of course, any good alien story has to have some additional layers to it.

Supposedly, some metal from the wreckage was thrown into the property’s water well and a future owner would claim that the well water gave him gout and so he closed the well in.

When the locals buried the little alien man, they left a grave marker, which was supposedly later retrieved by the army. Truth ears have replaced the marker numerous times with some sort of rock or object over the decades. The cemetery will not allow anyone to exhume the alien, but according to the History Channel’s UFO Hunters, there is a collapsed and deteriorated grave at the alien’s plot.

Perhaps this story isn’t better known because it has been nearly unanimously accepted as legend and was most likely a PR stunt by a local journalist to stir up interest in the dying town. But it’s one I like to tell when I get the chance.

I do not believe in aliens insofar as little green men flying around in bubbly spaceships with strange lights and looking for people to abduct for the sake of a little probing action, but I do love the story behind the Aurora, Texas, UFO incident, so from time to time I go to visit the alien grave. And that’s what the LaCaze family did this past weekend, while following proper social distancing etiquette, of course.

I’ve visited the grave a handful of times over the years, and I never know what to expect before arriving. Before my first visit, someone had stolen the marker for the grave, so I had to rely on blogs and other resources to locate the grave on my own. I would not be surprised if I wrongly identified the spot during my first visit.

For my last few visits, rocks have served as a marker. People often leave little trinkets for the alien, and this past visit featured the most absurd collection I’ve yet to see.

During my latest visit to the alien grave, I regretted not visiting Roswell during the five years I lived in West Texas. The drive would not have been terribly long, and I had plenty of free weekends to cross state lines and gawk at some hokey alien stuff and listen to “The Happening” by Pixies on repeat. I was also reminded of why I enjoy investigating local abandoned places and local ghost stories and such–the stories, man. The stories, which can often entertain while also revealing something deeper about us: our anxieties, our hopes, our pains, our desperation.

My son was weirded out by the idea of an alien being buried in the Aurora cemetery. Even after I asked him how he could doubt it after seeing the grave, he held on to his skepticism. I was proud that he was not so easily swayed even by parental pressure, but I hope he was still able to enjoy the lore–the story– of it all.



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