In which the objective is to get more…personal

I launched my blog on December 19, 2016 with this introductory post. It is ironic (even premonitory), given that I am now writing a book exploring facets of my identity, that I debuted with two radically different versions of my life story.

On December 17, 2017 I published this post, my 52nd in 52 weeks, exactly one a week for a year. I have not posted since then, for personal and introspective reasons. Thank you for “just bearing with me” in the interim.

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Channeling Muffy Tepperman for a moment, it behooves me to wish every reader (and their family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances) Chag Chanukah, Merry Christmas, Heri za Kwanzaa and Happy New Year! As you can see, we celebrate a little of everything in our home, despite the fact that I am a Jewish-raised agnostic-turned-atheist and Nell is an Episcopalian-raised agnostic.

Among the personal reasons for this four-week hiatus, besides the crush of holidays, are the winter break for our two daughters (bringing in its wake a tidal wave of play dates, sleepovers and other assorted mayhem), a looping series of vicious parental colds, and the celebration of our younger daughter’s 8th birthday.

Plus, I have re-immersed myself in writing my book (new working title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir and My Search For Identity). While I am not nearly as far along as I had planned to be, I am happy to report that I have written 41,181 words (34,664 words of actual text, once you exclude “chapter” headings and endnotes) across parts of 13 chapters (or brief introductory/concluding sections).

The other day I was working at my computer and our older daughter came up behind my desk chair.

“Wow!” she exclaimed. “You are already up to Chapter 9?”

“No,” I explained. “I am jumping around from chapter to chapter.”

Oh, she muttered in response, intently reading the words on the screen. After a few paragraphs relating to why I chose to major in political science at Yale instead of mathematics, she voiced her approval, saying it had “sucked her in.”

Here I proudly point out that she is a voracious reader, at a level far higher than fourth grade (in understanding, if not yet in content–THOSE conversations are still a few months, or a year, away).

My ultimate goal is at least 100,000 words, so I am more than one-third of the way there. So long as I stop getting sidetracked (or “distracted” as my therapist calls it) by my research, I should have a solid first draft by the time NOIR CITY Boston begins on June 8.

Speaking of which, I will be flying back to San Francisco wicked early on the morning of January 25 for my fifth consecutive NOIR CITY film festival (looking forward to seeing 14 of these 24 films for the first time). I encourage everyone who will be in the Bay Area between January 26 and February 4 to attend at least one of the screenings. The modest price of admission is worth it for the period attire alone.

But that means it will again be radio silence for this blog while I am in California, though I anticipate posting at least one comprehensive review of my trip when I return (an example of which can be found here).

Plus you can always follow me on Twitter using the handle @drnoir33. I expect to tweet multiple times each day about my experiences (I have a fetish for getting a photograph of every Castro Theatre marquee displayed during the festival—such as this photograph from the opening night of NOIR CITY 15 in January 2017).

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As for the introspective reasons…

After one year of publishing this blog, I wanted to take some time to reflect upon how what I have written aligns with what I had intended to write, and to decide what, if anything, I wanted to change.

To that end I present a brief numerical synopsis.

I originally planned to limit posts to roughly 1,000 words, driven by the desire to tell my data-driven stories briefly. Almost immediately, however, I realized that was far too limiting, leading to the awkward splitting of two early posts into three parts: my analysis of the popularity of episodes of the television program Doctor Who following its 2005 re-launch of the show and my exploration of the links between the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films and film noir.

Lesson learned.

My posts have averaged nearly twice as many words (1,944, with a median of 1,910) as planned, using the counts provided by WordPress. And they have gotten longer over time, at a rate of 129 words per month; my October-December 2017 posts averaged 2,773 words (median=2,684), while my December 2016-February 2017 posts averaged 1,255 words (median=1,036).

Interestingly, the increasing length of my posts has not deterred readers. Overall, my posts have been viewed an average of 20 times (median=17). This number has barely changed over time, increasing by an average of less than one view per month.

(Clearly this blog did not set any popularity records in its first year of existence, humbly grateful as I am to every single person—from the United States and 31 other nations—who has visited this blog. That may be because this is not a “blog” in the traditional sense: frequent short posts on a single subject or theme. It is more of a repository of esoteric short articles driven by the joint desire to disseminate data analyses and tell stories—a friend just referred to them, not inaccurately, as “monographs”).

No, what differentiates post readership is how “personal” posts are.

By my count, 33 of my 52 posts were purely “objective,” summarizing analyses of political (17 posts, or 52%) or other data (Charlie Chan films, Doctor Who episodes, epidemiology, baseball statistics, etc.) without explicitly revealing anything about me in the process. The remaining 19 posts partly or wholly consisted of stories from my own life (e.g., here, here, here, here, here and here).

My personal posts have been viewed an average of 28 times, while my objective posts have been viewed an average of 15 times, a difference of 13 views (95% confidence interval=6-20). That is, the posts in which I tell stories about my own life are nearly twice as popular as the posts in which I am analyzing, say, county-level election data from the 2016 presidential election.

So what does this mean for this blog going forward?

Let me answer this question by first reminding myself what I wrote about the purpose of this blog nearly 13 months ago:

This blog is devoted to telling entertaining data-driven stories, with occasional personal backstory for context. My meandering, perhaps-too-detailed storytelling style inspired the title of this blog, and it is reflected in the look on poor Louis Sorin’s face as Groucho confuses him more with each new word. Unlike Groucho, however, I do get to the point. Eventually.

From the start this blog was a jerry-rigged hybrid, inspired both by the groundbreaking data journalism of FiveThirtyEight and by my raconteur spirit. The fact that nearly one-third of my posts somehow deal with election data shows just how influenced I was by FiveThirtyEight, whose analyses of that year’s presidential and Senate elections first caught my attention in October 2008. The unexpected (though it should not have been) result of the 2016 presidential election also greatly impacted my choice of post topics.

I would strongly argue, then, that I have succeeded in the data-driven piece.

Where I am less pleased is with the “meandering storytelling” piece, the ones that capture how I tell stories verbally, with lots of asides and implied footnotes.

It may be that my training in the formal exposition of data analyses coupled with my deep admiration for the elegantly spare writing style of Dashiell Hammett has prevented me from writing these posts more in the way I had envisioned: looping and a bit rambling, but ultimately getting to the point.

This may be why I am proudest of those posts that do just that, such as this discourse on attitudes toward gun control (my single favorite post) and my argument for why pitcher Jamie Moyer absolutely belongs in the Hall of Fame.

If you just bear with me a moment, I must decry the fact that the honorable crafty left-hander—who won 269 games (203 AFTER he turned 34 years old) with a fastball that barely cracked 83 MPH in the height of the steroids era—is unlikely to get even the 22 votes (5% of ballots submitted by 10+-year members of the Baseball Writers Association of America) he needs to remain on the ballot after this year. As of this writing, Moyer’s name had been checked on only one ballot (voters can check up to 10 names), according to the “BBHOF Tracker” created by Ryan Thibodaux. Assuming a total of 424 ballots are cast, Moyer’s name would need to be checked on 8.7% (21) of the remaining 241 ballots to remain on the ballot.

It is not looking good, and here I denounce the “statheads” (yes, I have a Master’s Degree in biostatistics and I write a “data-driven” blog—the irony is not lost on me) that have taken over the way in which we think and talk about baseball.

Tilting at Hall of Fame voting windmills aside…even these more personal posts do not reveal as much as they could about, well, me. The life stories—my life stories—in them are still too often told as though they happened to some other Matt Berger. It is as though I cannot escape the voices in my head (OK, stop tittering out there) of academic advisors and others who tell me, “It’s not about you.”

Well, as the same wise friend who described my posts as monographs (and whose terrific blog I urge you to read) just told me: it is about me. Bloggers write blogs for—and about—themselves.

So I will close with a little insight into what makes me tick (no data this time, although data analysis will remain one of this blog’s raisons d’etre).

Ever since we moved Nell’s mother from Washington, DC to the Boston area four-plus years ago, we have hosted Thanksgiving at our home. There are always at least eight of us (Nell and I, our two daughters, Nell’s mother, a cousin and a married couple friends of ours), with as many as 12 some years.

I will confess that as much as I love the company and the food and the drinking and the conversation, what I most look forward to on these Thanksgivings is…the cleanup.

Seriously.

Before Thanksgiving, I create an iPod mix carefully sequenced so that tracks “flow” into each other musically. The mix is around four hours long, because I know from experience that is how long I will need.

Once the final guests have departed, just after 11 pm, and Nell and the girls have gone to bed, I (metaphorically) roll up my sleeves, plug in my earbuds and take a (literal) deep breath.

I then go into “the zone.”

Methodically, rhythmically, efficiently, I move all of the dirty dishes and mugs and glasses and silverware into the kitchen, where I have already stacked up the platters, pots and pans. Once that is done, I rearrange all of the living/dining room furniture, then put everything back into the living/dining room we had to remove to make room for our guests (and to make our child-dwelling home look as though adults also live there).

The wooden dining room and glass coffee tables get wiped down/Windexed, and all of the dirty linen gets tossed down the stairs (our apartment has two floors) to the floor outside the laundry room (also the downstairs bathroom).

When I have gotten the living room back into shape, I begin to tackle the kitchen. First, all of the leftovers (at which I am still picking) need to be stored in the refrigerator, requiring every spatial reasoning skill at my disposal.

Here I observe that, if memory serves, my IQ (which I freely admit is a nonsensical and invalid measure of the multi-dimensional concept called “intelligence”) would have been 139 but for the spatial reasoning portion of the examination. That portion knocked my score down to “only” 129. Somehow, though, I soldier on.

And then there is the actual washing of dishes. Being a bit of a compulsive perfectionist, EVERYTHING has to be put away before I am finished. That means that I will not leave the dishwasher to be emptied in the morning. But that also means that I need to get the dishwasher running quickly because it takes a bit over three hours to run.

There is also the matter of our (relatively) small sink, one of my very few complaints about our apartment. This involves more spatial reasoning, as I need to keep moving platters strategically around the counters and stovetop (and chairs) to juggle all of the washing.

We use the good china and the silver, umm silverware on Thanksgiving; I choose to wash every one of those pieces by hand in the sink. I have actually used up all of the hot water a few times, though not for the past two or three years.

All the while, I am dancing and singing and moving to the grooving (tip of the bellbottoms to Wild Cherry)—quietly, of course, so as not to wake up my sleeping wife and daughters.

Slowly, inexorably a clean kitchen emerges from the chaos and detritus of previous evening (it is now past midnight). All of the china and silverware and fancy schmancy wine glasses, all of the platters and pots and pans, have been washed, dried and put back on their shelves, or into their cabinets, or on top of the cabinets. The dishwasher has finished running; I empty it. I set up the coffee maker for the next morning (a habit I picked up as a single working man 15 years ago).

All that is left to do is put the dirty linen into the hamper, wash the kitchen floor (I sadly cannot vacuum—too loud) and take out all of the trash and recycling. Once that is done, I wash and wipe down the counters and stove top with a sponge, paper towels and Clorox wipes.

Ohhh, do I love Clorox wipes.

Last Thanksgiving, I finished the entire process with four tracks (out of 57, totaling four hours, eight minutes of music) to spare. I was exhausted—and blissed out.

It really is my “moment of zen,” looking around at a kitchen and living/dining room that show not a single sign of the festivities they had hosted only a few hours earlier.

I should start taking “before and after” pictures.

But now I need to empty the dishwasher.

Until next time…

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