Personal Pieces postsWednesday July 15, 2009
Things I Learned on Vacation in Minnesota
- Legos are insanely popular.
- What Bakugan is.
- Left to their own devices, kids will reduce the vastness of the world to Wii and Cheezits.
- When attempting to extract young, Wii-playing nephews from the basement, even to go to a place where they want to go (swimming pool, Lego Land), never begin a sentence with: “Do you want to...?”
- Losing your temper with children is way counterproductive.
- “Tin Tin” still works for eight-year-olds. Even though it has “bad words.”
- For eight year olds: If you’re writing all the bad words you know for your friend, who doesn’t read and write as well as you do, and you don’t want his parents to know who the author is, don’t sign your name.
- The best time to go to the Mall of America is just as it opens, particularly on a holiday, say the Fourth of July. It’s still relatively calm and manageable. The huge crowds, and the unrelenting din, haven’t arrived yet.
- On a weekday afternoon, you can still walk for blocks in south Minneapolis and see no one.
- Kids in south Minneapolis still put up lemonade stands.
- South Minneapolis is still a great place to grow up.
- Roseanne Cash has pipes. Her voice transcends genres. (Thanks, Jim and Jean.)
- It helps to know someone at Coastal Seafood. (Thanks, Doug.)
- Minneapolis is solving the unemployment problem with more summer road construction than is humanly possible...and yet that stretch of Hennepin between the Walker and Franklin Ave. still sucks.
- When putting helium-filled birthday balloons into a car, make sure the sun-roof is closed.
- Eight-year-old nephews can almost outrun their 46-year-old uncles now. And around a bouncy house in the backyard? In socks? The uncles have no chance.
- When unable to win at conventional warfare, everyone resorts to unconventional warfare. And by “warfare,” substitute “a game of Monster versus four kids around the bouncy house.” And by “everyone,” substitute “me.” I.e., Unable to capture all four kids in the dungeon (the hammock) without one, usually the eight-year-old nephew, freeing them, tell that nephew, currently in the dungeon, that the other kids, currently on a “water break,” are enjoying cool, refreshing water while he has none. And yet who always freed them? He did! And yet were they helping him now? No! They were enjoying cool, refreshing water.
- Caveat: Such psychological warfare won’t help you win the game but it’s still satisfying.
- The kid version of this is to call for a water break just as you’re about to be captured.
- Iphones are great for checking work e-mail. Particularly to let you know you have no important work e-mail.
- The best time for a conversation with an eight-year-old is while biking to and from tennis lessons.
- Be grateful, and almost melt, when your nephew takes to heart your comments about tennis lessons, and pays more attention to the teacher, and acts more like an eight-year-old should.
- Don’t be surprised that he’s only doing this to get back his “T for Teen” Wii game, which his mother took away from him the night before “until he acts more like an eight-year-old should.”
- The best place for kids to pick out presents for adults, that the adults don’t need but can’t possibly give or throw away, is the Minnesota store at the Mall of America.
- Any woman who agrees, on her birthday, to go to “Star Trek” for the nephews, and then, when the six-year-old balks, to go to a matinee of “Ice Age 3,” is the best woman in the world.
- The best potato chips in the world are Old Dutch Rip-L potato chips.
- The best french fries in the world are at Nick and Eddies.
- The best ice cream in the world is Sebastian Joe’s.
- The time to go on a diet is after vacation.
My Proust Questionnaire
Vanity Fair has been publishing the Proust Questionnaire on their back page for as long as I can remember. Hit-or-miss stuff but I liked Dustin Hoffman’s a few months back — probably because I agreed with him most of the time. Mine’s below. It’s tough. My own marked characteristic works against me. Plus you realize how far you are from where and what you want to be. Or maybe that's another marked characteristic.
Feel free to post your own in the comments section.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Writing into a deeper thought or connection. Hiking in the Cascades or Olympics on a sunny day.
What is your greatest fear?
Harm coming to loved ones.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
What is your greatest extravagance?
The amount of time I spend writing. Or maybe the amount of time I spend not writing.
What is your current state of mind?
Anxious. For a change.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
What is the quality you most like in a man?
Courage and calm.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“I got nuthin'.”
On what occasion do you lie?
When it seems funny. When it spares feelings. When not to do so would seem dickish.
What do you dislike most about your appearance?
The lack of a jawline.
Which living person do you most despise?
I don't know enough to say.
What do you most value in your friends?
When and where were you happiest?
Wherever it was, the “when” was always behind me.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would have super-powers.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Hopefully it’s ahead.
Where would you like to live?
What is your favorite occupation?
Writing. Hiking. Biking. “I”ing.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Who are your favorite writers?
Chronologically as I read them: Salinger, Irving, Vonnegut, Roth, Doctorow, Tolstoy, Baldwin, Vidal, Capote, Updike, Kundera, Mailer, Hemingway, Tobias Wolff. I’m taking offers for the next one.
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Buddy Glass. T.S. Garp. Superman.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
The reduction and mechanization of humanity in all forms. The lowest being the final solution.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Which talent would you most like to have?
To dance like Fred Astaire, to fight like Jackie Chan, to field like Omar Vizquel. Something with that kind of grace.
How would you like to die?
When it feels like falling asleep after a good day.
What is your motto?
Who has a motto?
So You Think You're Anal
Housecleaning has always reminded me of the way Leo Tolstoy wrote War and Peace. I know, sue me.
Supposedly Tolstoy meant to write about the revolutions of 1848 and researched its causes, then the causes of those causes, and then even further back, until eventually he threw up his hands and decided to write about where he was: the Napoleonic period. But he did incorporate this theme of causality and what it means for free will (i.e., do we have free will if one event inevitably follows from another?), into the novel.
Here's the correlation: I was going to vacuum my office today but decided to dust, too, and after I’d dusted my desk, my keyboard, in comparison, looked worse for wear. So I unplugged it and wiped it down, then shook it upside-down out the window to get the schmutz out. But there was a lot of schmutz — I’ve owned it for five years. It’s a Mac keyboard, clear plastic, and it looked like I could just snap the keyboard portion off and get the crud beneath. Trying this, I merely snapped off a couple of keys: shift + control. After a moment of panic, I figured I could just snap them back in place — no biggee — and then got the dustbuster, no, better, the vacuum cleaner, to vacuum up the aforementioned schmutz. Of course I vacuumed up the shift key by accident. Which meant I had to get down on my knees and take the vacuum apart to retrieve it, and by this time my original plan of a quick clean-up of my office seemed a long time past.
OK, so Tolstoy by way of Woody Allen.
My Year in a Meme
Following Tim's lead, here's a year-end meme. Feel free:
1. What did you do in 2008 that you'd never done before? Started a blog. Still haven’t figure out what it’s for. Keep going back to that “Simpsons” scene in which a destitute Krusty holds up a sign: “Will drop pants for food.” Bart and Lisa ask how it’s going and he points to a crazy old man, pants around his ankles, and complains, “Not good. That guy’s giving it away for free!” I’m that crazy old man.
2. Did you keep your new years' resolutions, and will you make more for next year? Might’ve done the usual “write an effin’ book” one, in which case: No. As for 2009, it’s a bit late.
3. Did anyone close to you give birth? Yes.
4. Did anyone close to you die? Yes.
5. What foreign countries did you visit? Vancouver, B.C. It felt like home.
6. What would you like to have in 2009 that you lacked in 2008? A greater sense of national and international stability. Plus less rain. Plus improved French. Should I go on?
7. What date from 2008 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? November 4.
8. What was your biggest achievement of the year? Enduring? I was kind of proud of the Slate and the Believer pieces. P and I also took care of a lot of kids without injuring any.
9. What was your biggest failure? They were numerous and more-or-less equal.
10. Did you suffer illness or injury? Healthy for 10 months, sick for six weeks. Plus the pulled back muscle. To quote J.T.: "You old."
11. What was the best thing you bought? Probably the HDTV. You could also say “an Obama victory” since I contributed, but...the contribution was small compared to how much I contributed to the HDTV.
12. Whose behavior merited celebration? Well, P put up with me, so that’s something. And Obama here and here. And Andy here. Too many to count, really.
13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed? Steve Schmidt? Sarah Palin? John McCain? All those who sacrificed long-term possibilities for short-term profits.
14. Where did most of your money go? Into the housing crisis.
15. What did you get really, really, really excited about? Obama. “The Wire.” Paz Vega. Jean Gabin. That hike Jim and I took near Mt. Baker on an impossible clear and warm Sunday in September.
16. What song(s) will always remind you of 2008? “Oh What a World” by Rufus Wainwright; “F**k Was I” by Jenny Owens Young; “Supernatural Superserious” by R.E.M.; “Breathless” by Dan Wilson; “Ramshackle Day Parade” by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros; “Henrietta’s Hair” by Justin Roberts.
17. Compared to this time last year, are you happier or sadder? More resigned. Also hopeful.
18. Compared to this time last year, are you thinner or fatter? Same.
19. Compared to this time last year, are you richer or poorer? About the same. If I were a stock, my shareholders would be pissed. Although I guess not this year.
20. What do you wish you'd done more of? Travel, write, study French. Should I continue?
21. What do you wish you'd done less of? Watched movies that, yes, everyone was right, weren’t that good. Surfed the net meaninglessly.
22. How will you be spending Christmas? Spent it. Nursed burgeoning bronchitis while two boys went slowly crazy with presents.
23. Did you fall in love in 2008? Every day. Or tried to.
24. How many one-night stands? No singles bars, either.
25. What was your favorite TV program? “The Wire.”
26. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year? Well, I’m still pissed that John McCain dragged Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber onto the national stage and they haven’t left yet.
27. What was the best book you read? “Dreams from my Father”? Really? I've got to read more.
28. What was your greatest musical discovery? I rely on the discoveries of friends.
29. What did you want and get? That HDTV.
30. What did you want and not get? Oh, honey. Where does one start? Some were good not to get, too.
31. What was your favorite film of this year? “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
32. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you? 45. I’ve forgotten.
33. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? Coalescing my thoughts into something that felt substantial.
34. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2008? Is this waterproof?
35. What kept you sane? P. Obama. Andrew Sullivan. Craig. Jim. Jellybean. Music. Anyone doing the hard work to articulate the trouble and see the beauty.
36. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? Paz and Penelope and Obama.
37. What political issue stirred you the most? No one issue. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. The Republicans keep tossing up figures who aren’t that smart but whose minds are closed. Obama, meanwhile, is the smartest man in almost any room he walks into...and he still wants to hear what you have to say.
38. Who do you miss the most? Sharon and Scott. Plus Jordy and Ryan everyday. Plus about a dozen people around the world I could talk to right now.
39. Who was the best new person(s) you met? I’m sure I’m forgetting someone.
40. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2008. I keep learning the same things on hopefully deeper levels.
41. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year. Twofold.
“Too far out
Too far out
This is what they said would happen
We were warned
We were warned
We were too far out”
— The Tropicals
Honey, it’s alright
Long as I know that you love me, baby,
— Sam Cooke
From the Vault: Freelance Writing 101
The following is a piece I wrote four years ago that was never published. Some of it is still relevant.
On a Tuesday morning in 2004 I received a phone call at my apartment and a male voice asked, “Do you have time to speak with Karl Rove?” A second later, the senior advisor to the President of the United States got on the line. We talked for 10 minutes.
The next morning a female voice informed me that Walter Mondale was waiting to speak with me. A second later, the former Vice President of the United States got on the line. We talked for 10 minutes.
Who am I that such powerful people contact me at home? I’m the most powerless person in the world. I’m a freelance writer.
In his novel “Waterworks,” E.L. Doctorow got the job description right. “Most freelances are nervous craven creatures,” he wrote, “it is such a tenuous living after all…” Indeed, the same week I talked to Karl Rove and Walter Mondale I drove down to the unemployment office for a seminar on how to search for a job. Maybe I should’ve just asked Karl Rove for one.
This is the most bizarre aspect of being a freelance writer: You’re poor and powerless and yet – if the gig is right – you’re constantly rubbing elbows with the most powerful people on the planet. One of my regular jobs is writing for a law magazine, “Law & Politics,” which was founded in Minnesota in 1990. Seven years later, they created a Washington state version, which is where they met me. Then they created lucrative “Super Lawyer” magazines all over the country, which is where they sent me.
Last year they flew me to Dallas and Houston and L.A. and Chicago. I interviewed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, boxer George Foreman, “Godfather” producer Robert Evans and former Microsoft general counsel Bill Neukom. While calling an acquaintance of a Houston lawyer to set up a quick interview for a quote, I Googled him and discovered he was a Forbes 500 billionaire. Yikes. His secretary answered, put me on hold, then, 30 seconds later, put me through. “Yes?” he asked. I fumbled for my notes. If I’d known I was going to talk to a billionaire that morning I might have showered. Or at least worn pants.
The entrée in that case was the Houston lawyer’s name, but generally my entrée is the pub I’m writing for that particular day, which is often no entrée at all. “Who do you write for? And that’s what kind of publication?” Yet somehow it all works, and in this manner the powerless hook up with the powerful.
Unfortunately the powerless are only getting moreso. Fees are dwindling. writing contracts expanding. One place sent me a 10-page contract for a thousand-word article – three times as many words in the contract as in the piece. Another place – OK, the same place – hired a third party to create online invoices, but the process is so cumbersome and non-intuitive that your per-hour wage (which one part of your brain tries to keep track of) bleeds away as you attempt to master it. If I got paid for the hours spent trying to get paid I might actually make money.
The language in these contracts is enough to scare away the best writer in the world: “The publication [and its sublicensees] acquires exclusive worldwide rights in all languages to unrestricted use of your work in all media, existing or to be invented in the future, including in all editions of the publication.” To be invented in the future? Obviously they’re worried another Internet will take us all by storm but can a contract really lay claim to the future? Why not the past, too? Why not other dimensions? The publication [and its sublicensees] retain exclusive worldwide rights on the Bizarro planet and in The Land That Time Forgot, unless otherwise agreed.
Did I mention the dwindling pay? Two years ago, one newspaper paid me $50 less for the same work I’d done the year before. Last year they tried to cut it another $25. I balked. It’s often the puniness of the amount they’re trying to extract that’s insulting. A check arrived last week five dollars short. I searched for an explanation and found it in the invoice: “Deduction: $5.” As long as they had a good reason.
Yet it’s often editors who cause the most heartache. Let’s face it: Most freelancers aren’t in this for money or fame but for the joy of stringing a few words together, and editors often stomp on this joy. If I’ve been lucky lately with my editors, it wasn’t always so. My early editors were often uncommunicative and tin-earred. In my review of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, “Timequake,” I sketched a scene in which Kilgore Trout tries to wake people in a stupor with this call-to-arms: “You were sick, but now you are well, and there’s work to do!” I wrote: “The metaphor for our time is obvious,” but my editor changed it to, “The metaphor for our time becomes obvious.” Becomes obvious? What does that even mean? Who wrote this crap? “By Erik Lundegaard.”
That was a mere pinprick. Years ago I was working in a bookstore warehouse to make ends meet, and one Sunday morning, lugging books down to the basement in a gray metal tub, one of my co-workers, Chris, mentioned in passing, “Hey, saw your article in the paper the other day.”
I looked up, puzzled. “I didn’t have an article in the paper the other day.”
“Didn’t you? I thought it was you. Yeah, that was you.”
“What was it about?”
My jaw tightened. A week earlier I’d sent the local paper a humorous piece on postage stamps but hadn’t heard back. When I finally saw what they’d printed, my piece had been mangled beyond recognition. I felt like Brando in “The Godfather” pulling the sheet back from Sonny’s bullet-riddled corpse: “Look what they done to my boy.” Mobsters at least have the decency to send along fish.
The next day I phoned the editor. “I sent you a piece last week.”
“It was in the paper on Friday.”
“Nobody told me.”
“Oh?” A chuckle. Then nothing. In his silence was a challenge: What are you going to do about it? I brokered a deal for money when I should’ve just blasted him. Kids: Curse today, for tomorrow the prick may retire, as this one did.
I’ll say it: Freelancing is truly an awful way to live. You start out with big aspirations – a novel, a play – but one day you write a little essay and lo and behold they publish it. Sure, they chop it up, but there’s your name, and suddenly you’re addicted. Even as they change the rules on you you’re addicted. The playing field gets smaller and smaller (1000 words...no, 800 words...no, 600 words), and the rejection notices pile up. You study the pubs, because that’s what people tell you to do, but they’re either celebrity-laden and corporate, or radical and ironic, and you don’t see where you fit in. You write specific pieces for specific pubs – bending your personality to suit theirs – which makes the form rejection notices sting even more. Maybe you’re doing bad work? You’re often doing bad work (“The metaphor for our time is obvious” is a pretty bad line), but what they print is usually worse. You tell yourself your skin is thickening but you doubt it. You feel weaker, not stronger; smaller, not bigger. The silence surrounding your rare successes is deafening. And then you’re at a dinner party and the executive next to you finds out you’re a freelance writer and says, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write,” and it’s all you can do not to slug him.
My friends and family gave me metaphoric backslaps when I got an editing job this winter. It was seen as a step up and it is. Now I’ll send out the contracts with the threatening legalese, and now I’ll have final say on which words go where. But it’s not writing. The writing I’ll still do in the mornings before work. The editing? I’ve spent 15 years learning what kind of editor not to be. Hopefully some of it has sunk in.