Always in My Pocket

I’ve carried a pocketknife since the 1980’s. I wasn’t like most people, who pick up the habit from their dad or grandfather. I think (based on no real data) that carrying a knife is more prevalent if you grew up in a mechanically-oriented family, especially from the US South or Midwest. So for a boy from California, from a white-collar family, it didn’t come “naturally.”

I carry a knife because of my friend Jim Ayres. He grew up in farm country in the Midwest, and has been, at different times in his life, a businessman, soldier (US Army, 82nd Airborne and Green Berets), importer, world traveler, fashion designer, and writer. Jim has always carried a knife, and when we met, he seemed vaguely puzzled that I didn’t, in the “doesn’t everyone?” fashion. We became friends when he came into the computer store I worked at in LA, when he bought his first Mac. Shortly after that, we started a business together, that made management software for garment manufacturers, who at the time still used the most unbelievably clunky paper spreadsheet system to order clothes from factories. It was a problem begging for a database solution, and with an additional partner, we created software we called MacRag. That business eventually went belly-up, but Jim and I remain friends, and one of the many things I’ve learned from him is the value of a pocketknife. Jim really knows knives well. He’s written books about them, such as the excellent The Tactical Knife.

[Edit, March 31, 2016: I can no longer wholeheartedly recommend this book. Recent Facebook comments made by the writer’s wife, who has been the principal photographer for his books, imply that “product reviews” were routinely and actually made on a “pay to play” basis, in exchange for some sort of compensation from product manufacturers directly to the writer. I don’t know the exact nature of this compensation, but since this is so far out of mainstream journalistic practice, it requires a reader warning. I am comfortable recommending the writer and his opinions as a subject matter expert, but this news renders the product reviews suspect.]

A knife is an incredibly useful tool to have with you all the time. I use mine constantly. Opening envelopes and packages. Cutting food (sometimes in restaurants, where sharp knives are as common as the Holy Grail). An emergency screwdriver and tool to pry things open (but do try not to break off the knife’s point, he says from practical experience!).

Something about pocketknives: a stunning amount of people, despite using knives every day of their lives at the dining table, see a knife come out of a pocket and instantly think “Weapon! Aieee!” rather than “tool.” I don’t get it. When I used to work at the community TV station I helped build here in town, I’d use my knife and would sometimes be told that just having the knife on me was a problem, because the station was on the grounds of the local high school. As if the knife would fly out of my pocket and start indiscriminately slashing people. Of course, I could have used a box cutter or scissors from the front desk with no problem. When I see those stories about children being arrested at school because they brought a butter knife from home, it pisses me off to no end. Common sense, people. Tool. Weapon. Not the same thing.

And so it begins

My first pocketknife was this lovely Al Mar Eagle Talon, which was quite expensive for a first knife. That’s what happens when you’re getting your recommendations from an expert. Versions of it are still being sold; you can get one for around $200. It’s brilliantly sharp, opens easily with one hand thanks to its thumb stud, and feels great in your hand. I keep mine in my office, always near to hand, kind of like a keepsake or memento. Or maybe even as a talisman, which is an odd thought for an essentially non-spiritual guy.
Al Mar Eagle Talon Classic
I carried the Al Mar for a few years, but eventually stopped, mainly because of its 4 inch blade length. Basically, I’d take it out of my pocket in a public place, open it, and people would freak the fuck out. When we were in business together, some weenie once asked Jim in a fearful hushed voice, “Did you know Tom carries a huge switchblade?”* It got so I’d open it under the table just so folks wouldn’t flinch when I used it to open a box, or cut some string in the office, or something. At an overall length of 9 inches and a weight of 5 ounces, it was a little too big as an everyday knife for me.

* It’s not a switchblade, of course; this guy had never seen anything other than a Boy Scout knife, so using a thumb stud to open a knife one-handed made him think it was a switchblade. And also: Me? Tom Negrino? An object of fear because I carry a weapon? Snicker.

Dori’s got the bug

Turns out Dori has always carried a knife (see? soulmates). She beats me, in that she regularly carries two in her purse: a small Swiss Army knife for general utility and this pretty Spyderco Cricket, in stainless steel, both of which are on her separate Keychain of Useful Stuff that’s easily left behind if we’re traveling and likely to encounter TSA.

Spyderco Cricket in Stainless Steel

This knife isn’t big (blade length is less than 2 inches), but especially in stainless steel, it’s sweet-looking and is wicked sharp. Dori got it as a gift.

Spyderco Delica

I’ve had many knives over the years that I’ve rotated in and out for (as the Kool Kidz say) my EDC (Every Day Carry). For years I carried a Spyderco Delica. Between the “right” blade length (I decided that around 3 inches was my EDC sweet spot), it’s available in either straight, serrated, or combo edges.

Spyderco Delica - different edges

I’ve moved away from serrated edges over the years; I find straight edges are way easier to keep sharp, and I hardly ever need that hacking motion that goes well with a serrated edge. Straight edges are also way easier to keep clean, in case you ever want to use your pocketknife for food, as mentioned above.

The latest crop

A few years ago, Amazon offered me a good deal on this Kershaw Drone, which seemed to be discontinued shortly thereafter. It’s a great knife. Fabulously sharp, of course, has a little more heft in the hand than you would expect, which makes it easier to use.

Kershaw Drone

Kershaw Drone - Straight Edge
That point is excellent for slicing things open (like, say, Amazon packages), and besides the thumb stud near the base of the blade next to the logo for one-handed opening, see that bump on the bottom of the blade, right under the fulcrum? That’s part of Kershaw’s SpeedSafe “assisted opening” system. Press the bump (with your forefinger or thumb) to push the blade out about 30 degrees, and it overcomes the resistance of a torsion bar, making the knife snap open the rest of the way by itself. It’s super-convenient, yet virtually impossible to open accidentally (at least, I’ve never had it happen to me). I love it; certainly the best $21 knife I’ve ever bought. Utility and cheap, that’s me!

Kershaw Hawk

Last year, I bought two tiny Kershaw Hawk folding knives on sale, and gave one to a good friend. It’s in the category of “gentleman’s knife,” which makes me grin. The blade is 3 1/8″, and the overall knife is only 3 7/8″, so it slips terrifically in your pocket, especially if you take off the pocket clip.

Kershaw Scallion

Currently, I’ve fallen for this ridiculously pretty Kershaw Scallion Rainbow knife. It gets the color from a titanium oxide coating they apply.
Kershaw Scallion - Rainbow finish
The Scallion isn’t a big knife. The blade is only 2 1/4″ long, with the overall length being 3 1/2″. It has the SpeedSafe opening system, as well as the thumb stud. But because of the coating, it never fails to elicit a comment when it come out of my pocket. After a little shopping, I found it for under $70. Maybe it’s a little too garish for some, but for now, it’s the right pocketknife for me, and fun to carry.


Back in 1999, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, Dori decidedly to create this newfangled thing called a “blog.” Frankly, I was skeptical.

“So you write stuff you want, on any subject at all, and random people come and read it?”

“Yeah, that’s the way it works,” she replied.

That didn’t sound quite right, but I decided “What the hell,” and joined Dori in building Backup Brain. I’m glad I did. Even now, in the age of social media that has taken the things I may have once written about in blog posts and distilled it into 140-character sound bites, I’m still happy to have a place where I can expound at length, especially for personal subjects.

Around the start of September, I had a series of seizures that left me with a stroke. You might not be able to tell by talking to me, but it’s impaired my reading and writing. I think this is the longest thing I’ve written since the stroke. It’s good to know I can still write; the thought that that ability could have been taken from me was terrifying. Because, if I am not a writer, then who am I? I’m happy to say I’m still here, 16 years and many setbacks later. Thanks to all of you who have read and enjoyed my stuff, and my love and gratitude to Dori for getting me into this.


The initial plan when I launched this blog was that it would primarily be for links, which I could then easily find and refer to later — hence its name.

Over time, the purpose and goals of blogging and blogs in general have evolved dramatically, and this one has not been immune to those changes. OTOH, that’s true of all teenagers, right?

But throughout all those changes, there’s been one — completely unexpected — result I truly appreciate, and that’s the people I’ve met as a result of blogging. I’m not going to call out names; there’s far too many, and I’m sure I’d forget several (if you’re reading this, you’re likely one of them).

That community of fellow bloggers, and later, commenters, are what I cherish most about this blog. That includes those of you I’ve only met virtually; back in ’99, it was considered bizarre to have friends you’d never met in person, and now, it’s common. But electronic or face to face, I deeply appreciate the friendship you’ve all shared with us over the years.

Mac 1984 T-shirtI bought this T-shirt recently from Thinkgeek. It’s an homage to the original Macintosh television ad, aired during the 1984 SuperBowl, which I of course was watching live (I didn’t yet have a DVR, due to their not-yet-invention). The ad was directed by Ridley Scott, who had previously directed tiny art films like Alien and Blade Runner. I distinctly remember sitting in the room with my jaw hanging open, and said to nobody in particular, “What the hell was that?” Those 60 seconds literally changed my life. I can’t say that about any other TV commercial.

That ad led me, in October 1984, to buy my second personal computer (my first was a Commodore 64, which, because of my lack of serious interest in programming, never made a significant impact). That original 128K Mac helped me start a business as a freelance video editor; I used Microsoft Multiplan (the forerunner to Excel) to prepare bids for jobs. In 1985, the film business went into one of its perennial slumps, and the few regular clients I had all dried up. After about six months of unemployment, I thought, “Crap, I gotta get a job.”

I’d spent lots of those six months learning to use my new Mac and had attended the very first Macworld Expo in San Francisco in January 1985. I’d become a chapter leader for the MacHollywood branch of the Los Angeles Macintosh Group, which met at SOS Computer, on La Brea in LA. As a result, I got hired as the store’s in-house Mac support guy (yes, that used to be a thing, back before Apple Stores and Genius Bars).

Sometime in 1985, a friend asked if I would be interested in writing some product reviews for a startup magazine, MacGuide. I said sure (“Free software? Getting paid for my opinions? Sign me up!”). I went on to write several feature and cover stories for MacGuide. In 1986, I wrote my first product review for Macworld, and was a Contributing Editor there from 1990 to 2004. I wrote my first solo book, Upgrading Your Mac Illustrated, for Que, in 1994. It tanked. But since then, I’ve completed a total of 48 books (I count the books where my name appears on the cover as author or co-author).

I left SOS Computer and went freelance again, this time as a Mac consultant in the LA area and secondarily as a writer. When JavaScript: Visual QuickStart Guide (written with my then-girlfriend, now wife, Dori Smith) became a hit, I announced to Dori I wanted to quit consulting and move the hell out of Los Angeles, a place where the “Hate” side of my “Love/Hate” relationship had become ascendant. She very reluctantly agreed to move, and we moved to Healdsburg, in the middle of the Sonoma wine country, in late 1999.

So, looking back 31 years later: yes, those 60 seconds completely changed my life. The actress who tossed that fateful sledgehammer through the video screen shattered my life, too—in a way for which I will always be forever grateful.

Chinese Rug Story

We have two new additions to our home: two Oriental rugs that were originally owned by my grandparents. When my dad died in 2013, it took my siblings about a year to clear out and divide all the contents of two houses. One was the house in which we grew up, in Southern California. The other was a townhouse in Las Vegas. It was bought by my grandparents in 1980, when they decided to leave New York City and retire to Vegas. Las Vegas was closer to the rest of the family in California, yet had its own attractions (Grandma loved the one-armed bandits).

When my grandmother died in late 2000, my dad inherited the Vegas townhouse, with all of its contents. And there were a lot of contents. My grandmother, while they were still in New York, used to buy and sell all kinds of goods to make extra money. For example, when we went through the townhouse, we found a tremendous variety of stuff, and good quality stuff, too. Mink coats. Designer dresses. Steiff teddy bears. Unopened bottles of Chanel perfume, bought in 1950. Plus a ridiculous amount of housewares, like sheet sets, dishtowels, and the like. Not to mention lots of furniture, and the two Oriental rugs.

My dad inherited it all, and he kept the Vegas townhouse, using it as a place to stay when he took trips to Vegas (his main recreational activity, plus he had a girlfriend there). But in terms of the stuff in the house, rather than deal with it, he chose to leave it all intact for us to handle. He did exactly the same thing with the California house after our mom died in 1989; some of the closets in the house literally had not been opened since then. And the garage was a black hole of More Stuff. In the exact mischievous words of one of his notes to us: “Good luck going through all this stuff in both houses!”

Thanks, dad.

As an aside: when my sister, brother-in-law, and brother dug into the California garage, way at the back they found a vintage refrigerator, still plugged in and running, containing cans of dog food meant for a pet that died when I was in college. Like I said, a black hole of stuff.

We picked up one of the rugs when we visited my sister and brother-in-law in Las Vegas right after Thanksgiving, and drove it back home. We found a local guy who specializes in cleaning and repair of fine rugs, and he did a great (not cheap, but it needs an expert) job cleaning that rug, which ended up in our dining room. Given that the rug had almost certainly never been cleaned, it needed decades of dirt and the Grandma’s House smell removed. Here’s what it looks like in our dining room. It’s 9 by 12 feet, and nice and thick.

Dining room rug

Looking under the (rug’s) skirt

The rug still had a stock tag pinned to it, and I wanted to know more about its provenance. I Googled the seller, Pande-Cameron, wondering if they were still in business. Turns out that they are; I called them and spoke to the owner in Seattle. He’s the third-generation owner of the business. He told me that the branch of their company in New York that sold the rugs to Grandma closed in the 1990’s, but after I sent him some pictures of the dining room rug, he was able to tell me that it was made in China in the 1920’s or 1930’s, by a man named Walter Nichols. Further searching found this history of Nichols. Our rugs have the stencilled HAND MADE IN CHINA BY NICHOLS legend on the back of their skirts, which is the key imprimatur.

Based on that article, which talks about how designs on the Nichols deco rugs became simplified over time (losing borders and such), I’m guessing that the rugs we have were made prior to that simplification reaching its apex. Our rugs have fringes and intricate borders. So they were made in maybe the late 20’s or early 30’s. I’m guessing my grandparents probably bought them shortly after the rugs were imported to New York from China.

The second rug has recently arrived, and it’s still being cleaned. It’ll go in our living room in the next week or so.

It’s nice to be able to give a home to some of these things that have been in my family for more than 80 years. We’ll be their steward for a while, then they’ll go on, I hope, to people who will love and enjoy them as much as we do.

One year ago today, I was sitting in the back bedroom of my sister and brother-in-law’s home in Las Vegas. I was holding my father’s hand. And I saw his breathing stop.

I ran out into the hall and called Marie and Phil to join us as my dad finished the journey he had been making for months. We gathered around his bed as he peacefully slipped away, his pain ending, his body shutting down after its long battle with kidney cancer. Of course I was sad he died, but I’d spoken with him when I got to Las Vegas the night before, and I could tell he was ready for it all to be over. I was happy to have been there for him at the end, and I know he took comfort by being surrounded by family. I held one hand, my sister the other, as Phil stood at the foot of the bed. I remember thinking that Phil was standing like an honor guard, which was so appropriate, as I know that he loved our dad as much as any of the rest of us.

In the year since my dad’s death, we’ve had other challenges to face, and there are more serious ones to come. But today is a day when all I and my family need to do is to remember and honor our father. I wrote and gave the eulogy at his funeral, which tells a little about the man who affected my life so profoundly. It did not honor him nearly enough, but it was the best I could do.

I have two photos I’d like to share of my dad. This is the earliest picture I could find of me and my dad together; I was around a year old.

Me and Dad, 1957

This next picture is my dad witnessing the wedding licence at my wedding to Dori:


That was a happy day. I’m glad he was there to share it with us.

I miss you, Dad.

August 10 is the anniversary of my mother’s death. I’ve written about her twice before, once on the 20th anniversary, and again just last year. I don’t have much to add to those posts, except that because of my father’s death last year due to cancer, and other challenges in my own life since then, I’m thinking that it really is a good idea for the rest of us to live as much for today as you can, because you never know when you’re going to get bad news that knocks you for a loop. I’ll have more to say about that at a later date. But for now, let me just say again how much I miss my mom, and how sad it makes me that she never got to see the man I became, and the family I built.

The 20th anniversary post: I miss you, mom.

Last year’s remembrance: Remembering my mom

Part 2

Date: Thursday, July 21 1994
Place: Burbank Hilton
Event: LAMG’s monthly meeting, featuring Adobe FrameMaker

After the events in Part 2, Tom and I exchanged a few emails.

For reasons relating to the messy disintegration of my marriage, I had ended up with duplicates of almost everything a household could need: two beds, two couches, two kitchen tables, two sets of kitchen equipment, etc.

I realized that my superfluity could solve Tom’s problem of having none of these things, so I sent him an email offering him his choice of whatever he needed. He wrote back, gratefully accepting the kitchen equipment, and ended the email saying he owed me a hug.

As LAMG’s VP in charge of meetings, Tom was the organizer and stage manager of the monthly events, and July 1994’s Adobe FrameMaker meeting started off as no exception. Early on, though, he left the backstage area, found me in the audience, and said we should talk outside. We wandered around the Hilton and ended up by the pool, where we continued our talk from Sunday. We talked more about our lives, and he thanked me profusely for the offer of stuff.

After we’d chatted for a little while, he said he needed to get back, and as we stood I reminded him he owed me a hug. He was happy to deliver.

There are awkward hugs and one-sided hugs and hugs where you just don’t mesh together. This one wasn’t any of those things; it turned out that we were a perfect fit.

Given that the hug felt so good, I tilted my head back to look at Tom and found him looking down at me.

Cue the first kiss music

I thought we’d felt good hugging; kissing each other turned out to be a discovery of an entirely new level of right.

I never did end up learning anything about FrameMaker, and we missed the entire presentation.

That night wasn’t our first date (that was a week later), but we still count that night twenty years ago as the start of our relationship. Tonight, we’re going to a fabulous restaurant, where we’ll toast the past and look forward to the future.

Part 1

In 1994, July 17 was a Sunday. And on that Sunday, the Los Angeles Macintosh Group held its annual off-site Board meeting at the Burbank Hilton. As usual, not much was getting accomplished, but that wasn’t out of the ordinary given that several board members had run for their positions on a platform of, “I’ll keep a close eye on those darn board members who want to change things” (or modernize in any way).

During a break, Tom and I commiserated, both about the leadership inertia and our messy personal lives. He knew I’d just gotten out of a disastrous marriage, and he shared with me that he and his then-wife had recently split.

My recollection is that we sympathized with each other, and offered the other a friendly ear and a warm shoulder. I told him about my experiences as a single mom, and he told me how his ex had emptied their condo of pretty much everything but his computer and his clothes, including all the furniture and kitchen stuff (basically, she got the assets and he got the debts, including the lease).

Tom recalls two things from that chat: that he enjoyed talking to me—in no small part because I was wearing a low-cut tanktop—and that, as he says, “The minute I told her I was getting a divorce, I could see the shark fin go up, and it seemed as though I could hear the theme from Jaws begin to play.”

I was thinking about how much I’d enjoyed talking to Tom later that evening. I called up a mutual acquaintance and asked for her opinion on whether I should make a play for him. “I think he’s cute, smart, and funny. We’re both recently out of failed relationships, and we’re both too screwed up to even be thinking about starting new ones. I figure that we can be friends-with-benefits, and after we both heal and get our heads straight, we can go back to just being friends.” She thought that was a pretty good idea and told me to go for it.

Twenty years later, it’s possible that we’re still too screwed up to be in “real” relationships, or maybe we just healed at the same rate and simultaneously decided to stick with a good thing when we had it. Time will tell.

Right now, I’m writing this on a flight from San Francisco to New York City, where we’ll spend 12 days playing tourist, seeing shows, and celebrating twenty years together.

Part 3

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