Wednesday, September 30, 2015
Absorbed as I am in my exciting faux publishing career I'm afraid I have stinted some on what is happening at my library. As anyone who has ever gone on vacation from my library for a couple weeks knows, there is never any news to report, but if you hang around long enough, the anecdotes, the little meaningless stories, start piling up so fast you can swim in them. Whether you want to or not.
Here are a few from this afternoon:
1. Lesson learned.
If one suffers from back and neck problems and sees a patron using the worst, most bizarre computer posture you have ever seen in your life, do not hilariously demonstrate said posture for your co-workers.
2. Wrote a joke.
A man came into the library with three brace of large dogs all struggling on his many leashes. The man approached the front desk with these white and black patched dogs and tried to give them to me. I said "Hey! What are you doing? I can't take these dogs!"
To which he replied "But I called and they said you accept Dalmatians."
3. Larry Jordan
When I told a man that his due date was on the birthday of my long ago Elementary School second best friend, Larry Jordan (Oct. 5), he remembered, not particularly warmly, "Oh yeah, you're that quirky guy."
4. The mystery of the 20 DVDs
When I was a child a person could check out maybe ten books at a time from the library. Nowadays nearly all the limits have gone away. We hang on to just a few; for instance, you can check out a maximum of 20 DVDs. This is hard on the many libertines who like to visit our library. At the front desk they bring me their towering pile of DVDs.
"I can only get 20 DVDs?" They ask.
Oh but alas, they have 22.
How long, you might wonder, does it take such a person to edit out two DVDs from their pile of 22 with me waiting?
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Dear Small Publisher:
Life is hard for you, the small publisher. You operate on a dream, a delusion, a vision of the world as it should be, and a thin margin. With so many damn writers everywhere you'd think there'd be a findable amount of really good ones. But no, it's all needles in a haystack out there, tan, hay colored needles. So then you'd think with all these many, many stalk-of-hay writers there'd at least be a lot of readers among them. If all these millions of people plying you with their strangely matching manuscripts would just buy a few books every year you might even be able to publish a few of their books. They're not all terrible. Instead, apparently, between rounds of fevered manuscript writing, all these prospective writers appear to relax by watching the same damn television shows, or maybe popping onto the the Internet to "facebook" with their writer friends about what small publisher is about to lower their standards some more. And if any of these hopeful authors do buy a book it's bound to be one of the same hundred books by the same mostly cheesy, occasionally brilliant, hundred authors who will never ever publish with you. Not with some behemoth publishing conglomerate showering money and false promises on them and on their sharp-eyed, cruel agents.
If only you found that diamond in the rough, or, let's face it, if you figured out how to compress coal. To hell with that needle, you'd take a piece of hay that was a bit sharper than usual. You just need a little chance!
I am here for you.
I am here to give you that chance. Yes, it is just a chance, but it is an amazing, once in a lifetime opportunity.
It's the "Greatest Publisher in America" contest. I am offering the small publishers of America a chance to publish the finest American author. I am offering a competition. It's about time that the best publisher in the world got to publish the best author in the world!
Yes, my dear small publisher, it's time to put it on the line. It's time to set aside your small, inching struggle and instead reach out boldly in the direction of your dreams. You will probably never find that needle by grubbing endlessly in the hay. Hell, there's not even going to be a needle in there. Why would someone put a needle in a haystack anyway? The needle is right here, in my hand. I am holding it out to you. And it's not just any needle. It is a needle made of diamond. A needle made of diamond! With a bonus spool of spun golden thread! It is yours if you take the chance!
Simply fill out the application for the contest to publish below. Sign and date it, and send your application and processing fee of $40 to the contest address postmarked by the contest deadline. Answer the following questions correctly and you will have earned the opportunity to publish the best new author in fifty years. But remember, it's a contest, your answers can't just be great, they have to be better than the many fine small publishers who are reaching out for this same crazy, miraculous dream. Good luck!
(complete in full)
1. Many small publishers think it's the author's job to publicize, but the great publishers know that only they have the power and resources to create audiences. If you won this opportunity to publish a future Nobel Prize Winner who no one has ever heard of, what would you do to make sure hundreds of millions of people read all of his books?
2. How much money do you think an author who is a genius should get per copy? How much per E-book?
____ 75% of net sales
____ 50% of gross receipts
____ They should pretty much have it all. I'd just be so honored.
3. During the editing process how likely are you to say the following things:
A. Wow, this is good stuff!
___ Sounds like me
___ Not my style.
B. I think that's enough work for today. Let me buy you a fancy lunch.
___ It's possible if things are going well
___ I am already mulling over our restaurant choices
4. Besides The New York Times and Publishers Weekly, who do you see quoting on the back cover of the first book? What do you think they'll say?
5. Do you think you'll get all choked up when you read your name in the acknowledgements?
___ I am hard boiled, but fair and dedicated
___ It could happen
___ I feel kind of weepy already
Contest deadline is FEBRUARY 22, 2016. Make check for $40 payable to "Greatest Publisher in America Contest".
Please enclose a SASE if you would like to be notified in the event that you do not win as notification costs are not included in your application fee.
Monday, September 28, 2015
It has frequently been said that public institutions are not run as well as private companies. Private companies have to compete and so must be lean, efficient, and attractive to their customers. With my morning interaction with CenturyLink fresh in my mind I resolved to test this theory out at the public institution I work at, a public library. I will transact a piece of library business on the CenturyLink model.
Though it is not possible to perfectly translate all that transpired in my call to CenturyLink to the front desk of my library, I have tried to be as faithful to it as possible. Also, because I had to jury rig the CenturyLink technology to the front desk library experience there is a small lack of fidelity there as well. But overall I do feel it is a fair representation.
But first let us take a look at the interaction that we'll be exploring exactly as it formerly would have played out in our public institution. LP will stand for "library patron", and ME, appropriately, will stand for me. Later you will see KIOSK, which will stand for speaking, interactive computer terminals.
(LP waits in line for a minute and approaches ME at the front desk)
ME: Hello. How can I help you?
LP: I'd like to check out these DVDs, but I don't have my library card with me today.
ME: I just need a picture I.D.
(LP hands ME a driver's license)
ME: (Typing briefly, placing three DVDs on a pad, and printing out a date due slip) You're all set.
LP: (taking the proffered DVDs) Thanks.
Now let us take a look at this exact interaction after we've modeled it as precisely as possible on our CenturyLink experience.
(LP, with three DVDs, approaches the line to the front desk. There is a small computer kiosk at the entrance to the line)
KIOSK: To allow us to better serve you please enter your library barcode number on the keypad followed by the pound key. Para espanol entra uno. If you do not have a library card press the star key.
KIOSK: You have pressed the star key. Please enter your birthdate.
KIOSK: Thank you. Please enter the last four numbers of your social security number.
KIOSK: Thank you. Please proceed to our line where you will be helped in the order you arrived. Did you know you can bypass the line by using our automated self check outs? You merely need to have your library card and the items you'd like to check out. If you'd rather not use the self check out simply stay in line.
(LP steps to the back of the short line)
LOUDSPEAKER: (Broadcasting locally to the people, including LP, waiting in line) Did you know you can bypass the line by using our automated self check outs? You merely need to have your library card and the items you'd like to check out. If you'd rather not use the self check out simply stay in line. Have you visited our library coffee shop? There you can buy a delicious array of mouthwatering drinks and tasty baked goods. We are now...
(LP reaches the front desk)
ME: Hello. How can I help you?
LP: I'd like to check out these DVDs, but I don't have my library card with me today.
ME: Did you know that you can save time and bypass the line by bringing your card and using our automated self check out machines.
LP: Yes, I've been told that.
ME: I'm sorry. We are trying to make the check out process as pleasant as possible for you.
LP: I understand. Thank you.
ME: I just need to verify a few things. Please enter your birth date into the keypad in front of you.
ME: Thank you.
ME: Now enter the last four of your social.
ME: Thank you. I will need a current passport now to continue.
LP: I'm sorry. I don't have my passport with me.
ME: Do you have a driver's license?
ME: I can use that.
(LP hands over license. ME briefly types in information)
ME: I see you have just three DVDs to check out today?
ME: Did you know the library also carries CDs, books on CD, videogames, magazines, and an extensive collection of books? We highly recommend these materials and there is no extra cost to check them out. We have several new books on the "New Book" kiosk and our librarians would be glad to make reading suggestions to you. Would you like to see a librarian?
LP: No, thank you. I'll just get these DVDs for today.
ME: Of course! We just wanted to make sure you were aware of all the excellent materials we have for loan here. You might want to consider trying some of our books in the future.
LP: Fine. I'll consider it. But I'd really just like these DVDs today.
ME: I'm sorry. I'll check them right out to you momentarily. I apologize for any inconvenience.
LP: It's fine. No problem. Just the DVDs today.
ME: I have three DVDs to check out here for you. Would you like to check out one of our home energy kits right here? There's no cost and they help determine the energy efficiency of your home.
LP: No. Thank you. (LP is slightly terse)
ME: I'm sorry. We will proceed with your transaction as soon as possible.
(There is a thirty second pause while ME does a few things on the computer)
ME: These are your three DVDs. I have checked them out and they are yours for a week as soon as you complete our third party verification. You simply go over to our third party verification kiosk and enter this code and your pin. The kiosk will ask you a few questions to verify your check out and that's it. At that point you'll be all checked out. If the screen turns red that means the verification process failed and you'll simply need to return here and we'll start over because your items will not be checked out to you. Do you understand?
LP: Um. I go over to that kiosk and then I'm checked out?
ME: You are checked out now. The kiosk is just a third party verification that finalizes the check out. Is there anything else I can help you with today?
LP: No, thank you. I'm all set.
ME: We hope you are satisfied with your transaction and if there is anything you further need please don't hesitate to call on us.
LP: Okay. Thanks.
ME: Have a wonderful afternoon! And I hope you will continue to think of our library in the future for all your future library needs.
LP: Okay. Thanks.
(LP walks over to the third party verification kiosk with three DVDs)
KIOSK: Please enter your code.
KIOSK: Thank you. Please enter your pin number.
KIOSK: Thank you. Have you conducted a transaction at the library front desk? Say "yes" or "no" clearly.
KIOSK: Thank you. Did you agree to consider checking out books in the future? Say "yes" or "no" clearly.
KIOSK: Thank you. Your transaction is complete.
In looking unemotionally at these two interactions I am not sure that the competitive business model is better. Clearly both have points in their favor, and in the end I think it is a matter of preference rather than absolutes.
Sunday, September 27, 2015
For billionaire eyes only!
I'll confess it right from the start, I have not been a huge fan of the Oligarchy. I may have said a few sharp things about the ultra rich. I could have used such harsh words as "greedy", "cruel", and "narcissistic". I may even, embarrassingly, have said a few spicy things about the mere very rich, those feckless people pathetically flying commercial airlines first class and never having even the hope of leaving behind a museum of their own. Let's face it, my just using the term "Oligarchy" is a kind of dead giveaway on my position.
But I can admit when I'm licked.
I'm licked, truly I am.
This is not an unprecedented recognition for me. I can't tell you just how deeply I despise CenturyLink, a giant corporation you may, for all I know, practically own, but faced with brutally truncated options I swallow the bitter pill and annually renegotiate my price for their Internet service through gritted teeth. Only the small thought of later viciously satirizing them is there to comfort me through my ordeal. That's just life down here on the streets of America.
It's like what Chief Joseph said:
Hear me, my Chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.
And I won't. It's over. I sadly must accept immutable reality.
That is why I am here, humble in your presence. That is why I am here observing the new forms of the world.
I am a writer. I am not just any writer, but I am the greatest writer on the Internet. How do I know this? Mostly I just keep telling myself so, and when I tell myself so I am in full agreement. So that's two votes already. Being such an important writer I could pursue the traditional, pre-oligarchy forms of plying my trade. I could blog. I could send work to magazines, seek agents, query publishers. I could apply for writer's grants or enter contests, I could, through the laborious, time and stamp intensive process, work my way into a tiny readership and a slow trickle of money. Perhaps my writing will spread, perhaps it won't. That would be up to a complex web of editors, academics, critics, publishers, and even the unwashed masses themselves.
But Chief Joseph surrendered, so to speak, and those days are over. Sure, everyone pretends they aren't. The game is still played. And if that makes people feel better I'm not going to condemn it. But the truth is, it's all on you. It's the billionaire's world. This, I concede, is your world. I will not hide from the truth anymore forever.
And that is why I am bypassing editors and publishers, the agents, webhosts, grant organizations, Universities, bookstore owners, critics, reviewers, casual and impassioned readers. That is why I am bypassing everything you or I would think of as normal for a writer with our old way of thinking, and I'm going directly to you, a billionaire. It is a new world.
I am submitting to you samples of my writing. No, you don't have to really do anything with them. The layers of the old world are gone. It's just you. If you enjoy them, as I'm sure you will, because they're really good, simply have your people cut me a check; a million dollars, a hundred thousand dollars, whatever you like. You're in charge. It's your world. I just write in it.
And what, you wonder, do you get out of sending me money for my writing?
I don't know. Nothing? Don't you kind of have a lot already?
With many thanks and kind regards,
Saturday, September 26, 2015
This is The New York Times Magazine backpage, or "talk" interview with legendary two-time Nobel Prize Winner Feldenstein Calypso. Mr. Calypso is read internationally mostly by spambots.
NYTM: Thank you so much for doing this interview. This will be quite a feather in my cap. I'm pretty sure that because of this I'll get a really good promotion here at New York Times Magazine.
FC: It's my pleasure.
NYTM: You describe yourself as a two-time Nobel Prize Winner, but I can find no evidence that you have won a single Nobel Prize.
FC: They're very recent. The Swedes are notoriously slow about updating their website. Plus my name was probably misspelled as it's complicated in Swedish.
NYTM: In reading your work I have found you have a lot of ideas for improving things. Do you think you would make a good President?
FC: No. I think I would be ineffective in appealing to people, and that I would be terrible at convincing anyone of anything. Both of those skills would be essential for a good President.
NYTM: I'm surprised because...
FC: No, what I'd be extremely good at is being a god, or even the God. I should definitely be a god.
NYTM: (Laughing) I was going to say I was surprised because you seem so enormously self-regarding. Ha ha.
NYTM: You haven't really won a Nobel Prize of any kind, have you?
FC: I thought you said this was going to be a fun interview.
NYTM: How embarrassing for me and the entire staff of the New York Times Magazine.
FC: I've won loads of Nobel Prizes. I just don't go on about them all the time.
NYTM: So, um, what's your favorite cheese?
NYTM: Oh, don't be like that.
FC: I'm not! You are!
NYTM: Look, how many readers do you have?
FC: Twenty, but they're really good ones.
NYTM: Okay, so this interview is by the insanely popular and successful New York Times Magazine. It will be read by over a billion people! Don't you want to say something to a billion people?
FC: Yeah. I guess.
NYTM: Okay then. Go ahead, this is your moment.
FC: Blue d'auvergne.
Friday, September 25, 2015
Dear Editor, New York Times Magazine:
I was taking a little break from shelving books at the library I work at. I make 21 dollars an hour here, which probably seems like an awful lot to you, a simple magazine editor in NYC, but not only do I have a lot of clerking education and experience, things are much more expensive here in Minnesota than out where you live. We don't even have cabs and subways everywhere and thus end up having to have our own cars! So even though I make more money than you, my money does not go as far as yours. Take heart! I'm merely saying that despite probably seeming super rich to you I want you to understand I'm still entitled to a little break now and then. And you'll be happy to know that I used that break from shelving to pop over and read some of your magazine. I read a bit about how Serena Williams is the greatest tennis player maybe ever, and, with her semi-final loss in the U.S. Open fresh in mind, I moved on to a back page interview with Bill Bryson. This was mildly engaging but, more importantly, it gave me an idea.
You're going to love my idea so I hope you'll indulge a little background on it.
Exhausted from writing for a thankless, distasteful Internet, I decided to approach the ancient world of print publications. I started to submit my work to magazine editors like you. Sadly, I quickly encountered a recurring problem; my work, while poorly suited to the Internet, is even more unsuited to magazines. For one thing my work is mostly about me- a subject I oddly cannot seem to find represented in any magazines anywhere. And when I do find a magazine dealing with a subject I occasionally write about, like the Internet, or Bicycling or God, it turns out almost invariably I am satirizing it. And speaking of God, it has become increasingly apparent in all of this that though I have a direct line to god, it is exactly the wrong sort of god! If you know what I mean. And if you do know what I mean you are one seriously good magazine editor. They should totally pay you $21 an hour, and I'm not just trying to butter you up.
Another thing you should know about me is that I have an almost magical inability to sell or convince anyone of anything. So there I am writing the giant magazines of the nation: Catster, Rolling Stone, The Believer, Wired, The New Yorker, and so on, trying to persuade them, needing to persuade them to publish my work that mocks everything they believe in, albeit in a very loving way. And it's hopeless. I quickly became exhausted from this uphill climb. So when I thought about writing you, at New York Times Magazine, a magazine I even kind of like, I could hardly move. I just wanted to go crawl away and sleep forever.
Until I came upon your interview with Bill Bryson!
It isn't the content of the interview that stirred me, although I found it interesting enough. It was the format. That's a perfect format for me. I should be interviewed on your back page. It would be all about me, a subject I excel at. It's the length I generally work at- one page. And it's at the end of the magazine, giving me the last word on things and leaving your readers with a rosy glow. The only small hitch I can see, and it's tiny, is that interviews are usually with famous people. But since one of the main jobs of magazines is telling people who is famous we can easily bluff our way through on that until it's a sort of self fulfilling prophecy, like reality TV or Presidents.
I suspect Bill Bryson didn't interview himself, but with me you get a two for one deal and I'll take care of the whole thing, interviewer and interviewee. I have enclosed a ready to go New York Times Magazine backpage interview at the end of this letter for your consideration. (See tomorrow's post!)
I'm really looking forwarding to reading about myself in your magazine and wish you much luck with your well deserved pay raises.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Dear McKnight Foundation:
I see your name bandied about town as one who grants... things. You are clearly a granter. I'm not entirely clear on how that all works, but it seems like you are sort of like a Fairy Godmother, or a genie in a bottle. And so I come to you, a supplicant, hat in hands, humbly hoping you will grant me my one wish:
I wish for three more wishes.
I'm just kidding. They say humor breaks the ice, and I would like us to have a warm, friendly relationship. But don't count that as one of my wishes!
You, as a granter, are probably quite used to people coming to you to ask for money. You might even be a bit tired of people always asking for money. So when I write you, all friendly and joking, you probably think "Uh oh. I bet he's going to ask for money."
First of all, I'd like to say our friendship comes first for me. That's the important thing. Second, I'm not asking for any money at this time, and probably not ever. I'm just asking for you to be my "safety" grant organization. You see, I'm 98% sure that I have received a MacArthur Fellowship. These are commonly known as "genius" grants, but the MacArthur people hate when you call it that. Still, it's a really good grant and I'm very excited about it. But because I have yet to receive my first check from them I wanted to have a back up plan. It's super unlikely this "genius grant" thing won't work out, but I was hoping you'd be willing to fill in in case there are any problems. That way I could get started on my genius stuff right away and be sure I'm all set.
You are probably thinking "Hey, I thought we were friends. Why did you pick the MacArthur Foundation over us? Do you like them better? Is it the genius thing?"
No. I like you better. You are my hometown granting organization. And though the genius thing is very flattering, I am only going with The MacArthur Foundation to help save you money so you can give it to other Minnesotans. But if you want to be the go-to grant organization on my grant just say the word. It's $625,000. I accept cash, checks, and money orders. Send it along and I will call up MacArthur today. I will call them and say "I was moved by your generous genius grant offer, but McKnight are my hometown people, they are special, and I am going to go with them!" If I do this I will not look back. Though it would be thoughtful of you, if all this were the case, if you gave my grant a special name, for instance, "McKnight's One Time Super Genius Grant". But that's not absolutely necessary.
But other than that I am just asking, friend to friend, that you be my back up on this grant stuff. I think we'll both come out ahead in the long run that way. I'll know you were there for me, and, in a pinch, you can swoop in and be a hero, only tangentially making those MacArthur people look a bit second rate. Not that there's a competition between granting foundations.
Just let me know which way you want to go, granter or back up granter, and I will get started doing my geniusy stuff.
Thanks so much.
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Somewhere between 15 and 20 years ago, in Wisconsin, I took a solo trip down the Namekagon and St. Croix Rivers in an inflatable canoe. I want to tell you about that journey, but memory is strange, shattered, retreating, and downright squirmy. So instead of just fabricating an account of my long past journey out of a few broken shards and lots of obscuring new clay, I will start by telling you what I have to work with to reconstruct this historical event. First of all I have some general, cold facts. These aren't exactly memories but more like things I can deduce or know must be true. That the trip was in June is almost certainly true, for instance, but I don't really remember that. The 15 to 20 years ago is a process of elimination; it was before the new millennium but not very early in my marriage. That the trip was for three days and two nights is also something that seems to add up and is not a result of specific recollections of each night and day. The more vital second element I have to work with in this reconstruction are actual beating heart memories. I have four of them. That's it. Four memories for the whole tale of my epic, late nineties journey down the Namekagon and St Croix Rivers. These memories are not fluid, narrative things. They are more like four-dimensional pictures, more like something out of a dream than something out of life. These four-dimensional pictures capture discrete moments in time, but they are also described, informed and illuminated by things that happened before and after them. They are not part of a story but are whole in themselves. Yes I can weave them into a narrative, I can arrange them in historical order, but they all exist in their own right and no longer belong to time.
And so in this nod to a deeper truth I will present the story of my river journey in these four memories, in no particular order, like in Slaughterhouse Five, where our main character, Billy Pilgrim, jumps randomly about in time. I wonder now if perhaps that part of Slaughterhouse Five wasn't more about the nature of memory than of the nature of time, though, of course, they are so closely woven together they might be the same thing.
I was in my lounger-like inflatable canoe or kayak (the terms were interchangeable on my odd little ship) on the wide St. Croix River. The sky was a flat gray, and the water, surely ten times wider than the River I started out on the day before, was dark and strange, like ocean water, something deep and impenetrable. That day I had paddled more miles than I ever imagined I would, easily more than twenty, though my guess at that point was wild and scattered because I had lost count of bridges. I broke camp and began paddling early in the morning, and I went onto the land only as a last resort, to pee. Even that was done reluctantly. At all other times I remained on the water. I ate my lunch in my boat hooked up to overhanging trees. While I was terribly eager to make it as far downstream as possible that day, once it was clear I was getting very far downstream indeed I took breaks from paddling, not just for lunch and snacks, but to read. The kayak, when unsteered, tended to push off into the sidewalls of the teeming jungle of riverbank growth and hang up in a cloud of branches, leaves, and spiderwebs. At this moment I was lightly fending off the shore and reading.
I was reading Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. You will have heard of this book largely because of the glossy TV show. But only fantasy readers would have known of it then. Let's say if the book In the Name of the Wind is familiar to you now you would have known Game of Thrones then. For reasons I can't precisely trace, glowing reviews I would guess, I was so confident that Game of Thrones would be a great book that I brought little else to read. This was a mistake I would never make again. At the moment we're speaking of I had read far into the book and, sitting in my boat, was absorbed in it. I was also unhappy, unhappy on the river, with my predicament, and even in what I was doing at that moment. Somehow all the color of the world had drained out of it. Gray river, gray sky, looming night. I was thinking about how maybe, as darkness fell, I could just stay in my boat on the river. Between paragraphs I pictured how it might be to sleep in my cramped boat. I fended off the shore, I read, and the thought of sleeping in a small boat on a river scared me. I was waiting for that thought to scare me more than the thought of camping on shore. The thought of sleeping on the shore nearly terrified me. I fended off the shore again. I read the book miserably. Another person in the book died, some hope for the future of the narrative died, everyone and everything dies in Game of Thrones. I was just understanding that then, and with it came an epiphany; I hated Game of Thrones. This was a beautiful and powerful revelation. I did not have to read that book. It was an infection with a simple cure. I stopped reading it immediately. Color and happiness filled back into the world. The slate river and its primeval shore became a wild thing of wonder once again. I was terrified but thrilled to be on a river. I owned a river. I knew I would go ashore and camp there and I would live and it would all be okay.
All there is in this memory is a long slope leading up from the river. It was dirt and grass. There was a small roadside store and a payphone. I left all my array of gear and climbed the bank to the road and the store. The wall of the store was white. I felt strange to be off the river. I had managed to circumvent the pretzel logic of river trip shuttles (drop this off here, drive here, leave car, pack all this here, bike here, paddle down to car, etc. etc.) through the grace of my wife who had driven me to the start of this trip and was picking me up at the end. I had emergency coinage in my waterproof waistbelt. I put the dry coins in the payphone. I called my wife and arranged an early pick up.
I climbed into my tent. The tent was a burnt orange roomy dome tent that could sleep three. It had been many places with me. The woods were starting to get dark. I had eaten my dinner and have not even a faint guess of what it was. It was my first night of the trip, in the woods, on the edge of the river. Preparing my bedding in the tent I found a tick. I did not take this well. I flung it wildly away from me except, of course, I was in a dome tent. It bounced back. I tried to crush it. This was not easy, ticks are hard and flat by nature, but I eventually managed. I breathed a small breath of relief, but I quickly had a frightening, it turns out immensely accurate thought: where there is one tick, there may be more. I combed my person scrupulously. I found three ticks on me, then a fourth. I removed them and disposed of them, but saying so can never convey my sense of rising horror. At least an hour was spent combing minutely through every surface and thing in my tent (and finding a couple more) to establish a verified tick free environment. As I was doing this the sun outside was sinking. In the light of the dusk I looked at the walls of my tent. It showed, by shadow, that on the outside of my tent, hundreds and hundreds of ticks, an army of ticks, a thousand, slow, hungry ticks, were crawling up the side of the tent.
I did not sleep well.
My wife had driven me to the river before it was light out. Now with my inflatable kayak fully equipped and myself comfortably seated I was paddling a tiny river in the dawn. Fog curled from the water and hugged the low ground. This was bliss. The land was quiet and hopeful. There were strange areas of raw, torn up earth, beautiful red earth, that I couldn't figure out. Had logging and industry penetrated into these woods, or were there spring floods? The current was almost unnoticeable on the river, but sometimes when one first alights onto a canoe or kayak, before they get a little inured to the delights of it, paddling feels uncommonly powerful. One sticks a blade, an oar, into the perfect flat water and simply pulls it effortlessly forward to propel a whole boat into a graceful glide. And so it was for me then. I was flying through mist. Even in that moment I knew that no part of the whole of the rest of my trip could compare to this. The sun was low and scattered through young leaves and patches of fog. A deer regarded me from the shore, large and calm. It stood on red dirt. It was backed by emerald forest. It never moved in my mind again.
If I could have stayed there forever, well, I did that too.
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Dear A.E. Wright Middle School:
I attended your institution for three unremarkable years in the mid seventies. After so many years have gone by I no longer remember a great deal from my time there, and there is nothing about that time at your Middle School either so wonderful or so scarring as to make me want to do excavation of what memories do still keep a shaky hold in the far recesses of my brain.
Nevertheless I do have one small piece of unfinished business to take care of with Arthur E. Wright Middle School. It involves the Bicentennial.
In 1976 we in America celebrated the Bicentennial, the 200th anniversary of the U.S.A. I did not have a great deal of perspective as an 11 year old boy as to exactly how big of a deal it was in the scheme of historical observances, but it seemed to me extremely significant at the time. The U.S. mint printed up special new coins to mark the occasion, and A.E. Wright Middle School held a big Bicentennial Fair. We had booths. We made things that were vaguely colonial. The very nature of our Social Studies classes were altered by this impending event. But the event I remember above all was the balloon release. In the days before the fair every student at A.E. Wright filled out a small postcard with our name and the school address. The card said something along the lines of "If you find this card please put it in a nearby mailbox to send to A.E. Wright Middle School." We then attached each card to its own helium balloon and let it go into the sky.
Then we waited.
Some cards came back from as far away as Indio. Is that possible? Not, I mean, is it possible for a helium balloon to have traveled so far, rather, is it possible that I actually remember correctly the name of the town that the farthest venturing balloons made it to? I believe it is. The students whose cards came back from farthest away won a mint set of bicentennial coins. Cool.
I didn't win any coins.
I have never, actually, won anything notable in my life. A mint set of bicentennial coins would have been notable. A mint set of bicentennial coins is worth at this point anywhere from 12 to 15 dollars.
My card never came back.
But just the other day it occurred to me, it didn't come then. My card didn't get mailed back in 1976 or 1977, but that doesn't mean it couldn't have come later. I haven't checked in on its status for 38 years. It could have been mailed in from anywhere in the world over those past 38 years. I could still be the contest winner!
Has there been any mail for me since 1977? Also, if the postcard arrived from somewhere further east than Indio, say Chiriaco Summit or, be still my beating heart, all the way in Phoenix, do you still have any bicentennial coin mint sets to give out to your actual contest winner: me?
Thank you for your time and attention to this matter,
Monday, September 21, 2015
Dear MacArthur Foundation:
It has come to my attention that you give out grants to people for being geniuses. I have a perfect candidate for you:
Now before you shred my application here, let me say that I understand. You probably get people telling you they're geniuses all the time. But there is a difference between me and them; I can prove that I am a genius!
Go ahead, ask me any question, any question at all.
No, I mean, just think it, clearly, in your mind.
Now remember your question for a bit. You'll see.
I know this isn't a traditional application for a genius grant, but geniuses are often iconoclastic. For instance, I am highly iconoclastic. One of my iconoclastic qualities is an inability to follow proper procedures, that is, my bizarre insistence on making everything into a bespoke experience. This is what I am doing here in my pursuit of a MacArthur Fellowship. I am approaching it in an unconventional fashion. Up until now you have only awarded your genius grants (which you don't call genius grants, but you're fooling no one) to those artists, scientists and innovators who have followed the appropriate path, people who have achieved things, excelled in their field, met with critical success, reached an audience, produced a known body of work, been nominated through proper channels, been approved through sober consideration, and so on. This has allowed you to get a very particular kind of genius.
I am not that kind of a genius.
I am a different kind of genius.
What kind of genius, you wonder.
More of a Wile E. Coyote kind of genius. A super genius.
Of course, the big difference between myself and Wile E. Coyote is... well, I can't think of any at this time. But with the proper acclaim of a MacArthur Fellowship I feel we could break the cycle of blinding confidence followed by bitter disaster.
I'm just saying, wouldn't you at the MacArthur Foundation like to know what roadrunner tastes like? Metaphorically speaking, I mean. Of course you would. I alone can bring the world that metaphorical roadrunner. That's the sort of genius I can be.
What does all this mean? I don't know. Roll the dice MacArthur Foundation. Roll the dice. Papa needs new shoes.
By the way, the answer to your question is:
Only time and water.
Ah, I must disagree with you, that is the correct answer to your question. Perhaps you misremembered just what the question was.
Look, I hate to get on my high horse, and I mean no disrespect to you or your organization, but who are you going to believe on this, yourself- a grants administrator, or me- a genius?
Thank you for your time and attention to this matter. Despite our temporary disagreement around "the question" I am feeling a lot positive vibrations here from you, so I am going to go ahead and count myself as a MacArthur Fellowship Recipient and tell everyone I know about it. I look forward to receiving my button, t-shirt, bundles of cash, paperwork and everything. Nevertheless, if you decide not to go with me just let me know, and there will be no hard feelings.
Sunday, September 20, 2015
I know you think of me as the most together person you know, but
You don't think of me as the most together person you know?
You're concerned, for instance, when I respond to things that you didn't actually say?
Er, well, I thought you said it.
Perhaps you just coughed or something. It is very hard for a writer to make out what his reader might be saying. It all gets a bit muffled, and sometimes when you're just, for instance, taking a sip of coffee, it sounds a lot like you're asking an important question.
So pardon my interruption.
I guess then this means that you do, actually, think of me as the most together person you know. I mean, since there were no interruptions on your part. But I'm not sure how you can think that. Perhaps you don't know any other people? Or maybe you have found that the bar for people being "together" is low.
It is, I guess. The bar for people being "together" is ever so low. I have always been impressed by how no matter how "together" any person has seemed to me, if I do a little digging, or if I just spend some time with them, I will come to some huge part of them that's unraveled. Being able to see to the worn holes in people is a dangerous toy, and a wicked tool, unless you use it to crank open your heart.
Here we are, seeing everything, right now, to the center of the universe. Here I am, the most together person in the world, and I am mostly stitching. Every break in us lets the light in.
Saturday, September 19, 2015
Dear Editor, Outside Magazine:
As I was assembling my exhaustive list of magazines for whom my work was entirely unsuited I quickly found there is not a single magazine I could omit. My work, while perfectly enchanting, clever, gracefully written, and, well, you get the picture, has a certain je ne sais quoi, a rare unpublishability, an almost magical resistance to both appropriate forms and popularity.
No, don't demur. How would you know? If you knew the sorts of things people did and didn't like to read you'd be a magazine editor.
How embarrassing, but you probably get that all the time.
But the fact that my work is equally unsuited to all existing magazines does not mean that it isn't unsuited to each magazine in its own individual way. It's like that Tolstoy quote about unhappy families that we've all quoted so many times we need merely now nod vaguely in its direction. My point is that my work is ill-suited to Glamour Magazine and Outside Magazine, but in very different, important ways.
At this point you may be asking yourself "Why am I receiving a letter from someone telling me in detail why their work is unsuited for my publication?"
I am perplexed too, but what say we follow these breadcrumbs as far as they go? After all, we've come this far already, a loaf can only produce so many crumbs, and the birds will get them soon enough, and then we'll never know.
I have taken a look at your magazine. It is full of devoted outdoor adventurers, places to go, interesting things to do, and news of the outdoor life. Fitness! Outdoor sports stars! Gear! Destinations! Fascinating people. None of these are my bailiwick. What is my bailiwick? I, myself, am my bailiwick, well, me and, apparently, using the word "bailiwick" as often as possible. Most of your articles are writers writing about other people and events, something I like to keep to an absolute minimum in my own writing.
However, sometimes someone in your magazine writes about the very interesting things they personally have done on a grand scale. This is the closest place of meeting between me and the contents of your magazine. I am not averse to the outdoors. I have gone on a lot of outdoor adventures. Unfortunately the word "grand" does not come into any of them. I prefer the phrase "faintly ridiculous".
I am not stumbling across a lot of faintly ridiculous adventures in your magazine. Sadly, for our collaborative future, faintly ridiculous is all I've got.
But it does suddenly strike me that I need not give up all hope of our working together. What if you have become exhausted by all this serious journalism, all these square jawed, jutting chin superheroes who climb mountains as warm ups and can not only cross the arctic in some unique, compelling way (amazing to me), but can also procure the funding for it (an almost godlike ability to me). What if you feel your magazine needs someone to leaven all the harsh envy and sense of jealousy and inadequacy so many of your readers must resist feeling in every issue that they get?
I could help those readers!
Here is a series of epic outdoor adventures I could share with your magazine if this is a new direction you'd like to explore:
The solo navigation of the upper St Croix/Namekagon rivers in a cheap, inflatable canoe, while pursued by swarms of ticks. (Trip cut short due to willies).
The 8000th dual descent of the Escalante river in more cheap inflatable boats that slowly split apart as we scraped downstream (cut short due to vinyl glue supplies running low).
The journey into the mosquito heartland in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area that involved me and my friend Grape mostly hiding in our tent playing Gin Rummy. (Trip not cut short because it wasn't very long to begin with, and the gin games were diverting).
My first backpacking trip, with my psychopathic older brother to The Grand Canyon, where I learned that canned oysters are not particularly good eating, I am not fit and never will be, and memorizing The Cremation of Sam McGee is my destiny and I, like the ancient mariner, must recite it to everyone I meet. Would you like to hear it now?
So, why don't you pick one of these and I'll write it up for your magazine. You can suggest a word count and I will wildly overshoot it or undershoot it.
Thank you for your attention to this matter. What fun we're going to have working together!