Author Matthew Parker is old for his age, but getting younger. He grew up with a mother who taught him how to sell drugs and didn't go straight until she made some counterfeit bills and discovered they were awful. His sister managed to build a good life, but one of his brothers was murdered and the other committed suicide.
Parker himself was in and out of prisons from 1987 until 2002, when he finally got clean. And then he got his MFA in creative writing from Columbia.
Larceny In My Blood follows Parker through life, through finding his way through the culture of prison, and trying and failing and trying and failing and trying and finally succeeding in kicking drugs. Parker elucidates the problems felons have finding work, enrolling in schools and earning trust.
Parker has been off drugs and out of prison since 2002, and has had quite a journey, and is off to a flying start to his writing career. Larceny is a tough book – it's about prison and drugs and sex and real life (and Parker drew his penis a lot for the book) – and while the timeline bounces around a little bit, it was a great read. It's one of those pieces of art that will always stick with me, like Benjamin Bratt's portrayal of Miguel Piñero or the first time I really took the time to look at Picasso's Guernica.
Three quick small changes you can make in everyday habits to shave some time.
1. Loop the other way when you tie your shoes.
This takes some getting used to, since you've been tying your shoes one way for decades. It took me about a month to make this automatic, but the knot definitely holds more strongly.
2. Eat more of your apple.
Do you routinely ignore apples as a snack because they leave you wanting a little more (or alternatively because you have to look for apples that have been pumped full of steroids to get bigger and so they don't taste like anything)? You're leaving too much core. I don't know what the guy in this video did with his seeds, but leaving only the seed pouch and stem, you wind up leaving a bit of apple a touch smaller than an avocado seed.
3. Peel your hard-boiled eggs by blowing on them.
This takes some practice, and the baking soda and temperature change are both important – the first time I tried, I didn't cool the eggs very much and the shells didn't pop off. Once you get the hang of it, though, you can peel a half dozen eggs in a minute or two instead of ten.
What things do you do to increase your productivity?
If you've not been to the city of Savannah, Georgia, I can't recommend it enough. It's antebellum south – that is, it was built before the Civil War, and it's progressing in the small business and craft movement. The original city was built on a grid around a series of squares – in-neighborhood parks – that range in size from a couple of live oak trees with a half dozen benches to Forsyth at the south, with a fountain and a theater space and a cafe and plenty of space to run, play some pickup soccer or what have you.
It has a river running through it (the convention center is on the opposite bank from much of the old city, and a ferry will swing you across so you don't need to drive the bridge back and forth), and most of its eastern suburbs are islands.
Literary novelist John Jakes writes a lot of historical fiction, and his Savannah is such a book. It takes place around Christmas, 1864, as Sherman is marching from Atlanta, torching cities along the way, headed for Charleston via Savannah (Charleston, S.C., is about an hour and a half up the freeway – they would have approached by water). Its protagonists are a 12-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy; he heads to the front lines, she is a rebellious sort – the kind of rebel who kicks a Yankee in the shin and runs off yelling, "I don't care if I just kicked Sherman himself!" When, in fact, she did.
The book includes some personal exploration as regards slavery, lots of Yankee-Rebel relationships and, of course, there's war, thievery and Christmas.
My favorite historical bit, though, was something about Christmas. By the 1860s, Christmas was starting to become more popular, but the most conservative people still considered a slave holiday, instead exchanging gifts on New Year's Day. Stores were non-committal, selling "holiday" gifts instead. Sound familiar?
It's a very fast, easy read, and my local library appears to have plenty of Jakes' stuff on its shelves, so I'll be reading more this year.
I read a lot. Most of the stuff I read is absolute crap, but I read it because I'm hoping it will teach me something. But no longer. I spent 2013 consuming as many words as I could, and I figured out that there are three things I could read every week that will make me smarter.
That's not to say I don't think there are other useful newsletters out there, and that I'll stop reading books and features and news and such. I'm just going to be more picky – a little more selfish with my time.
These are the three things that I read every week, that I think you should, as well.
1. James Altucher's weekly Twitter chat.James Altucher has done a few things right in his life, and a lot of things wrong. The things he's gotten right vastly outweigh the others, though, and I think he's a really smart guy (I recommend his book, Choose Yourself!, as well). He hosts an "ask me anything" Twitter chat Thursdays from 3:30-4:30 p.m. Eastern. During that hour, tweet him at @jaltucher and he'll respond.
I tend to go to his Twitter page and refresh every few minutes so that I can monitor the answers, and then I have the option to check out the question if I wish. If you can't catch it live, you can always head to his page later and scroll back through. You get not only his collected wisdom, but also you get to read what people are asking about, which might give you some ideas as well.
I think you can get just as much from lurking here as you could participating.
2. Mitch Joel, Alistair Croll and Hugh McGuire's weekly link exchange. Each week, three entrepreneurs collect one link for each of the other two, resulting in a blog post every Saturday on Mitch Joel's blog titled Six Links Worthy of Your Attention. Some weeks you'll find more interesting than others, but that will come down entirely due to personal preference. Give yourself a little time; it's worth at least reading all the explanations, and if you wind up clicking something, you might be in for 15-20 minutes of reading or watching.
The links run the gamut from entrepreneurship to education to space exploration to music, sculpture and everything else.
3. Brain Pickings weekly. Maria Popova writes long-form blog items that are really, really interesting. She writes on writing, habits, music, language, science and a variety of other topics, and she always has interesting take-aways from people who know their fields and have names like Einstein, Fitzgerald and Sontag (that is, names you've heard).
Each Sunday, she sends out a newsletter that can help you through your first pot and a half of coffee (you can't tell me I'm the only one, especially on Sunday morning).
Other newsletters I get include a daily email from Web Urbanist, which usually includes some cool photos with a little text (recent ones included a former subterranean brewery that is now a bunch of hot tubs and heated pools, and a post on large concrete arrows in the middle of the U.S. desert that appear to point nowhere but in the 1920s helped direct mail traffic by air before the use of radar), and a weekly offering from C. Hope Clark at Funds for Writers; she writes about the craft of writing, and also about marketplaces, grants and contests.
What do you read consistently that you'd like to share?
I don't have anything to lay out on the table here and say, "I did this!" But 2014 is going to be the date on the end of a lot of hard work. Mostly, I think, I've done a lot on my way toward being a better, more well-rounded human.
If I have some stuff to pass along, it's mostly in some reading and experimentation.
My favorite books for the year – and I read 38 of them in 2013 – are all ones I'd recommend reading, and with good reason.
• Choose Yourself! by James Altucher. This is a reminder that, while it's important for you to do well by others, if you don't live for yourself first, you're not doing as well by anybody else as you thought you did.
• Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman. Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was curious about everything. He drew, had a gallery show, played drums in Brazil during carnival and in general spent a lot of time thinking. He said no when he didn't want to do something, and he was curious about pretty much everything.
• Walden by Henry David Thoreau. A lesson in doing some things yourself and simplifying where you can. You have to get past some preachiness, but once you do, it's a wondrous tome.
• Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by R. Buckminster Fuller. This is the only book I read every year. It really does explain what we've done wrong and what we need to do to correct our path. It's not so much an operating manual for your soul as it is an operating manual for the physical world, and I fear we've lost touch with that.
I've been writing more of late. There's a reasonable chance we'll see some product in 2014. I'm getting married this year. I have some more tricks up my sleeve, some involving compasses and bibles and live oaks.
I'm brewing beer now. It puts me in a fairly small club, apparently, but there are a lot of beer drinkers out there, and now that I sort of understand how it works, I'm experimenting more. My fourth batch is underway; my best to date is a chocolate jalapeño porter. It's a little more peppery and yeasty than I wanted it – and has a lower alcohol content than I was looking for – but drinking a couple of cases of it is easy.
I hope your 2013 was half as amazing as mine. If it hasn't, let me know how I can help improve your 2014.
And, of course, my annual posting of Dougie McLean singing Robert Burns's "Auld Lang Syne."
And there's a hand my trusty fiere
And gi'e 's a hand o' thine
We'll tak a right guid-willy-waught
For auld lang syne