Monthly Archives: December 2011

Wrapping Up the Old Year

[Special holiday blog]

Helen, Georgia

Helen, Georgia

There is a wide railing around the huge deck outside the window where I’m sitting. Onto that railing my father pours sunflower seeds several times a day, to feed anything that can get there. Of course the birds come in, but at the moment I see eight squirrels contentedly having breakfast. Most people who keep bird feeders tell sagas of how they fight to keep the squirrels away from the bird seeds. My father doesn’t care and feeds them all. And if you are using your imagination just a bit, you are correctly picturing masses of sunflower seed shells littering the deck.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and today I will transition from this quiet bucolic scene in north Georgia to a party in the evening in Charlotte, North Carolina, with quantities of good food and a plentiful supply of drink. There will also be lots of people speaking Russian quickly in a noisy room, where I will sometimes understand what is being said to me and sometimes just nod and pretend that I did.

I have no profound thoughts to mark the end of the year, except “Glad that’s over, let’s do it again.” But I do have a few observations from the last couple of days.

1) Birds hold conventions. Two days ago I was standing on the deck where the squirrels now celebrate their discovery of The Place With Endless Food. The deck is rather high off the ground and surrounded by trees, and when I looked off into a brushy area below, I counted 15 male cardinals. During the winter, against a background of browns and grays, even one of those amazing red birds is a sight. To see fifteen of them gathered to conduct some bird business was astonishing.

2) I think the earth is round. When I come to Georgia from Pennsylvania, both summer and winter, I can always tell the difference in when it gets dark and light. I arrived at this cabin this morning just before 7:00 a.m., and it was still quite nightly outside. Back home it is already light at that time. I think the difference in when the light arrives has something to do with the curvature of the earth. That’s just my theory, you can take it or leave it.

3) You can create tourism out of thin air. The closest town to us here is called Helen. A hundred years ago it was a small mountain town of no particular interest, but with a sawmill, as people went about the business of stripping the hillsides of trees. Sometime around the 1960s, a local artist proposed that the town redecorate itself to look like a German alpine village, which they did, and the idea has grown and spread until such decoration is now required by code. Some of it is tacky and strange, some of it is interesting, and a little bit even has a faint “German” ambiance. The town is a big tourist attraction. Of course the beautiful setting of the mountains helps.

4) Even rednecks like tacos. Last night I went with my father and stepmother into Helen, to the alpine German Tex-Mex restaurant, operated, it appeared, by actual Mexicans. I ate more than one is supposed to eat (one of my goals at mealtime), and my father and I drank a pitcher of beer. When we left the restaurant, we passed a huge pick-up truck, the kind that is so large as to declare the anxious masculinity of the driver. This truck was also covered with bumper stickers, at least eight of them, saying things like “Redneck” and “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I don’t wanna go” and with one bumper sticker saying some stupid shit about the Confederate flag. Clearly the macho man driving this truck was not someone you could have an intellectual conversation with, but he was inside having food that his Confederate grandpappy would not have approved of.

It is time for me to stop this useless nonsense and go on to something important, like taking a nap.

Have a happy new year.

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Contemplating a Fire

Minoan snake goddessIf you are looking at a fire, it occurred to me last night, you look busy. Maybe you are doing something. I was observing a fire at the time I had this epiphany, a blaze burning in the fireplace of a house where I had gone to a party. I had been talking to a friend who went outside for a moment, and after a minute or so of staring rather blankly at a post holding up the roof, and at the wine bottles and glasses beside it, I thought that I looked a little foolish sitting there, so I turned toward the fire. Ahh, so much better. Then I looked contemplative, a true philosopher finding hidden meaning and obscure connections in the minutia of life, rather than a dork at a party.

This is what dorks at parties think about when they have a free moment.

The party was a celebration of the literary magazine Chattahoochee Review, which comes out of Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta. Years ago, more than 100, when I worked at that college, back when the school still had a name that wasn’t stupid, I was a fiction reader for the magazine. It was the first time I had ever read the fiction submissions to a literary magazine, and what I recall most about the experience was not being struck by bad writing. I don’t recall the writing quality as obviously bad. Of course I was a freshman writing instructor at the time, so maybe my standards were low. What I remember about submissions to the magazine is that most of them seemed very dull to me.

Since then I have become a mere writer, submitting to magazines where other readers read my stories and think , “Ewwww!” Not long ago I had the hubris (which it has to be) to submit a humorous story to The New Yorker, knowing that I was more likely to be struck by the same asteroid that Elvis is on. They wrote back and said, “Sorry we can’t use this amusing story” and I wondered if I should feel slightly flattered—“The New Yorker rejected me but someone kind of liked it, sort of!” Or was that a standard reply? Did it really mean “Dear Dork, isn’t our slush pile high enough without your dull trash?”

Laying hubris and nonsense aside, but close by in case I need them, I was at the party because my friend is now the editor of the magazine, and I really wanted to see her. The party, as it turned out, was our best bet for running into one another while I was in the great metropolis of Georgia. It was lovely to see her, albeit briefly, and I wanted to hear more about the process of getting out the magazine. I believe an analogy to Hercules and that Barn of Endless Dung he cleaned out might be applicable.

There was also a surprise at the party, as I had the very fine fortune to see Lamar York, who started the magazine and was editor for many years at Dekalb College (when Georgia Perimeter College still had a real name). I always thought of Lamar as one of the most elegant men I knew, and he was certainly a cut above my own swinish sartorial style. Now I imitate Lamar in my pale Goodwill fashion. I also wish to add an important and pertinent fact about Lamar, that he gave me the small copy I own of the Minoan Snake Goddess. Maybe she’s not called Snake Goddess, and I’m embarrassed that I don’t remember since I used to teach this. She’s the one with bare boobs and holding snakes. Let’s assume you don’t know either, which means I’m right.

As I write this, I’m sitting in my mother’s house north of Atlanta, and she just asked me what killed the mother of a friend (years ago). I came so close to saying “Jesus” but I know my mother would not have appreciated that. And I know you’ll be proud of me to know that I resisted. So Jesus didn’t do it, but I think he was called in for questioning as a friendly witness.

And now I am out of Atlanta, on my way slowly back toward the north. It will take a while, and all the flowers that are blooming down here will recede into potential as I climb up the continent.

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Dixie Christmas With Snoopy

[Special Holiday blog]

Models of small houses

My sister-in-law Patty's village

On the radio at the moment they are playing a Christmas song I love, about Snoopy and the Red Baron. I think it’s a cool song with very catchy music and with lyrics that I like, but it’s also about Snoopy. I love Snoopy, and if you don’t, I’m taking down your stocking and eating the candy myself.

It is raining hard here in Walton County, Georgia, east of Atlanta. Since I’m sitting inside in my brother’s giant living room, looking out the wall ’o windows at a small lake mottled by the rain, I don’t care too much what the weather is. At least it ain’t snowing. We had home-made biscuits and spicy sausage gravy for breakfast, so everything is just like Santa intended. Or Jesus. I get confused. Which one is in charge? Aren’t they brothers?

Yesterday morning I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, and before I left to drive to Georgia, I went into the kitchen to find that my friend had put on Lynyrd Skynyrd rather loud, and she was dancing in the kitchen in preparation for making a chocolate pie. It seemed like a proper start to Christmas Eve.

I got lucky driving from Charlotte to Georgia, as it was beyootiful sunny weather, but today we’re having a wet Christmas, like the song says: “I’m dreaming of a gray Christmas…” This afternoon all of the immediate family who were able to come showed up, including my 78-year-old mother and her new husband as of two months ago, along with my father and stepmother, brothers, wives, and nieces. We had an Italian meal, as all good Scotch-Irish southerners would naturally do, then we exchanged gift bags, and there was much merriment, ho-ho guffawing, and careful examination of other people’s bags. Afterward I came upstairs to rest a few minutes, and as I lay on the bed, I was noting just how much laughter I heard down the stairs. We are, in all honesty, a very weird family, but a jolly one at Christmas.

Rosemary bush as a Christmas tree

Rosemary bush as a Christmas tree

—A bit later in the day—

I have yet to eat desert. My heart wants it, but my head so far has remained in charge after a solid savory lunch. I believe sugarbomb time lies ahead in the future. We are down to three of us in the house now, not counting the dog Max, who seems willing to lie stupefied in true canine fashion, or leap about barking until told four or five times to shut the hell up. He’s a flexible dog.

Now that I’ve finished writing this, the rain has died down. The colored scraps of paper are picked up. The leftover lasagne is in the refrigerator. And now there is news on the radio. It must be that Christmas is drifting into the evening before tomorrow.

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Christmas Poems

Christmas treeChristmas is in four days, and tomorrow morning I’m leaving Pennsylvania to drive south, stopping in Charlotte, North Carolina, then on to Georgia, in the Atlanta area. So I am on Christmas break, and until I come back in January, I will post occasionally, but every post will be off topic. For the holiday period, I will post on whatever drifts through my mind.

This post tonight is a series of short poems I wrote last year for Christmas. It is longer than I normally put on here, because there are, you know, 12 days of Christmas. It starts cheerful, but there is realism here as well.

First Day of Christmas

Two thousand years and ten
and Christmas Day is here again.
With colored paper
and lights
and bows,
and stories to tell.
We like the one about Frosty the Snowman
who everyone knows
would laugh and play
till he melted away.
The Frosty philosophy wouldn’t hurt us.
Laugh more,
play more,
do more with colored paper.
In the meantime,
Merry Christmas,
and let that new year
be a happy one
without too much effort.

Second Day of Christmas

Santa sees you—
you know that
even if you can’t find the camera.
The fat spy
sits up there at the North Pole
in his Fortress of Merriment,
down under all that ice.
Mighty nice.
Like Superman in solitude,
only jolly.
The elves run the world’s biggest computer,
keeping track.
Santa knows what you did.
He’s looked at your Facebook page.
So you can be naughty
or you can be nice,
but if you think you’re fooling Santa,
you better think twice.

Third Day of Christmas

Take hydrogen,
take oxygen,
and mix them in a bowl.
Soon you get water.
Try not to spill it.
Take the bowl outside and throw the water into the sky,
into a cold sky, that is.
What do you see?
As your water flies up in the air
it grows lighter and whiter.
And by midafternoon,
when you are back in the house
drinking hot chocolate,
playing Scrabble,
and watching Miracle on 34th Street for the forty-fifth time,
it will start snowing.
At first the fat flakes melt,
then they stick,
then they add up.
Tomorrow morning when the sun comes out,
it will be a glittering miracle,
on your street.

Fourth Day of Christmas

The little fir trees crowded around.
Grandfather Fir Tree shook his branches,
bent just a bit,
so that they could hear the bark crack.
“You kids don’t know this,” he said,
“but I was the White House Christmas tree back in 1959.”
They did know it.
He had told them every year
since they sprouted.
But they had learned to be patient
the way most trees are,
so they just said, “Ohhh.”
“Yep,” the old fir said,
“I had lights so bright people wore sunglasses.
And colored ornaments like you never saw before,
big glass balls,
red,
green,
blue, did I say blue already?”
And the little fir trees just said, “Ahhh!”
because it did sound wonderful.

Fifth Day of Christmas

It was hot with no breeze
and up under the trees
two men were eating their lunch.
They ate cheese with black bread
then the tallest man said,
“I liked the gold swirl on that bunch.”
Then he brushed off the crumbs
and pulled out two fat plums.
“Those ornaments easily pass.”
When lunchtime was done
they walked in the hot sun
to the factory where they blew glass.

Sixth Day of Christmas

For mice
Christmas is about food,
as they patiently await the arrival
of the Prince of Cheese.
For dogs
Christmas is primarily
about random barking,
about begging for snacks,
about getting petted as much as possible…
just another day for dogs, in other words.
For deer
Christmas is a day to go out at midnight,
in cold weather,
to a clearing, perhaps a meadow,
and look up at the stars.
For monarch butterflies
Christmas is a day with friends,
millions of friends,
gathered in their home in Mexico,
waving their wings,
fluttering the news,
that snow is falling up north,
where mice are waiting,
dogs are barking,
and deer are watching.

Seventh Day of Christmas

So it’s like
a couple of elves,
little dudes,
are sitting on high stools,
tiny feet dangling,
down at the Poles Apart Bar and Grill.
“Jack,” one of them says to the bartender,
“two more whiskies over here.”
Then he turns back to his buddy.
They sit quiet a minute,
the way elves will,
till he says, “Yeah,
we finished the dolls last week.
Not making as many as we used to.”
He takes a tiny drink.
“Kids want iPods these days.
Phones and stuff.
Computers.”
Little guys sit quiet for a bit.
Second elf brushes back his gray hair.
“I know,” he says.
“I don’t understand that computer stuff.”

Eighth Day of Christmas

“Manoa ahoana!” a woman shouts to a friend
as she collects vanilla beans in Madagascar.

“Good morning,” a farmer says, nodding
as the mailman passes his farm in Virginia.

“Buenos dias,” a shy girl says, waving
to sugar cane workers in the sun of Belize.

“How yall doin?” asks a farmer in Georgia
as his relatives arrive from Atlanta for Christmas.
His aunt and uncle and two cousins
go into the warm house,
exclaiming greetings,
looking at the tree,
and the aunt puts down a dish she brought.
Out of Madagascar came vanilla,
from Virginia came butter and eggs,
up from Belize came sugar and dark syrup,
to mix with pecans off that farm in Georgia.
Now standing on the counter
where the children keep walking by looking,
focusing their attention on that dark nutty circle,
is a pecan pie
that Aunt Peggy made back home in Atlanta.

Ninth Day of Christmas

i hope i get a beebee gun

i hope i get a French dictionary

i know i’m old enough now

because i really need one with more words

i promised Mom i won’t shoot songbirds

already i can read Le Petit Prince without help

just squirrels, that’s all i’ll shoot

what i want is to read Harry Potter in French

Mom says the squirrels take all the birdseed

i already read all of them in English

so i’d really be doing Mom a favor

but Harry Potter would be too hard without a better dictionary

Mom, can we open just one present?

Tenth Day of Christmas

Thanks for meeting me, Doc.
I know it’s short notice,
calling you up on Christmas Eve,
and I’ve got to work later myself,
pulling the sleigh and all.
It’s just that this day always depresses me,
so I could use somebody to talk to.
And it’s not like the other reindeer care.
Oh, look at Rudolph, he thinks he glows.
You should hear it.
Even when we were young,
they used to laugh,
call me names,
wouldn’t let me play games.
Now I hear people say the other reindeer admire me.
Seriously, Doc, who thinks that?
I got promoted over the other deer.
The worst is Blixen,
who thinks he’s God’s gift to quadrupeds.
Doc, I got promoted because I can see on foggy, foggy eves.
It was a practical matter.
And by the way, which reindeer won’t eat the dried carrots in the reindeer chow?
I’ll give you a hint—
they’re all behind me.
Well, alright, I guess I better go.
Thanks for listening, Doc.
I don’t want to be late.
Those toys don’t deliver themselves.

Eleventh Day of Christmas

Charlie Brown ♪ snowman cookies ♪ red ornaments ♪ cold day ♪ tree lights ♪ glass figurines ♪ holly-leaf cookies ♪ big package ♪ little package ♪ blue present ♪ gold present ♪ prickly holly ♪ chocolate cookies ♪ laughing mama ♪ night lights ♪ soft snow ♪ cold face ♪ frosty breath ♪ hot chocolate ♪ fuzzy cat ♪ colorful tree ♪ big hugs ♪ dark night ♪ holiday dreams ♪ morning light ♪ wide eyes ♪ sparkling tree ♪ hot chocolate ♪ present piles ♪ ripped paper ♪ scattered bows ♪ jumping cat ♪ smaller piles ♪ snowy yard ♪ ringing phone ♪ silver angel ♪ warm hugs

Twelfth Day of Christmas

Audrey was 12.
She loved her mom and dad,
but sometimes…
you know.
When she asked her dad what he wanted for Christmas,
he said, “I don’t need anything, Audrey.”
When she asked her mom,
she replied, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s really just enough to have you here, honey.”
Very helpful.
In both instances.
Not knowing what they really wanted
Audrey got her father a box of starlight
and her mother a bag of firefly flashes.
She wondered if it was enough,
but it was all she could afford.

On Christmas Day
Audrey was a little anxious
about whether her parents would like their gifts.
Her father opened his box
and a soft blue light flowed out around him.
Then her mother opened the bag
and the flashes floated all around her head, yellow and white.

Now Audrey’s father began to sing
and her mother joined in.
Audrey was surprised at what beautiful voices they had.
She had never heard them sing before.
As they sang, Audrey began to sing with them.
Later, they all agreed
that it was one of the nicest Christmas mornings they had ever known.

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Good Times Are in the Past and the Future

Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria, Egypt

Cape Verde, with its Portugese name, is a small island country off the west coast of Africa. On Saturday I read that a singer from Cape Verde, named Cesaria Evora, had died. I was sad and struck to hear it, as I’ve loved her music for years. I have three or four CDs by Evora, and I had the good luck to see her in Philadelphia about ten years ago.

I also want to tell a story that I’ve told before, and there is no one here to stop me from telling this again. When I was touring Italy with students in 1997, I was walking down a street in Rome and on the other side of the street I saw a poster for an Evora concert. I got excited and ran over to get a closer look at the poster, to see when and where the concert was, as I was definitely going. On a closer view, I saw that she had performed a few days before, so I missed her until Philadelphia. Here’s a wonderful video of Evora. If you don’t yet know any African singers, she’s the one to start with.

I’ve also just finished reading a novel by a writer from a very different African country, Egypt. The novel is Miramar by Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988 (for a different book). The novel Miramar is set in Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast, in the 1960s.

I’ve read several other novels by Mahfouz, which were all in what might be called a “realistic” style, a detailed narrative moving forward in time, focused mostly on telling the story, and only relating events that could conceivably happen, as if we were somehow standing there watching things take place. That style became very popular in the 19th century, in novel after novel, in quite a few countries, and it is probably still the basic fiction style, because it works very well to tell a story.

The novel Miramar was first published in 1967, and in this book, Mahfouz works in a variation to the “realistic” style. The novel partly tells the same story from the point of view of several characters. In order to do this, Mahfouz partially repeats the same period of time, showing how the different characters experience it. It’s an interesting technique, though the book is more complex than simply repeating an incident several times, through different eyes.

The overlap of incidents to some extent is incidental. What happens more importantly is to get a look at the lives of the different characters, all of them residents of a boarding house named Miramar. The book is written entirely in first person but with a shift to a new character for each section, so that the “I” keeps changing. The characters come from a variety of backgrounds, young and old, country peasant and city intellectual. There is also—an important point for Mahfouz—a mix of political views, and the novel makes frequent reference to the two revolutions Egypt had had before 2011.

Politics was important to Naguib Mahfouz, a more bold approach than it might seem to us, given the oppressive regimes he lived under. He also lived in a country where religious extremism was nurtured by the very political oppression that colors his books. In 1994 a group of these vile faithful attacked Mahfouz and stabbed him in the neck. Although his health was affected, he lived another twelve years.

In the west, it might be hard to see what is in his novels that could provoke such an attack (though let’s keep in mind that every country is polluted by religious fanatics, including, very visibly, America). Part of Mahfouz’s sin, perhaps, is that he wrote about real people as they were, with a willingness to describe their desires and sins, lust and greed, profaneness and lack of faith. We can see all of these things in the characters living in the Miramar boarding house.

Although we follow four characters here very closely, from inside their own heads, they are not especially sympathetic. The narrative of an old man frames the story of three young men, and while the old man seems more or less removed from life at the time of the narration, the younger men are intensely involved in life, sexually, politically, romantically, and ambitiously. Perhaps by showing all three of the younger men so flawed that it’s hard to like them, Mahfouz is saying that to be fully engaged with life forces us to make choices that compromise the soul.

I also found it interesting that in the book, all three of the older characters continually reminisce about how good the times used to be, and now those good times are gone. The four younger characters all are looking ahead to the future, to a time that they hope will be better. No one believes the present is good.

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What The Hell Does This Mean?

A confused woman readinBecause we pretty much live in a world of ubiquitous literacy, we live in a world of ubiquitous incompetent writing. Here is one example, taken from Form 9465, sent to me this week by the IRS, along with a letter telling me to send them more money. The form contains this sentence: “I authorize the U.S. Treasury and its designated Financial Agent to initiate a monthly ACH electronic funds withdrawal entry to the financial institution account indicated for payments of my federal taxes owed, and the financial institution to debit the entry to this account.”

It’s horribly written, just as we’d expect from any government agency. The sentence is bad for human beings in general, but when you also consider that this form may be sent to any person in the country, regardless of education level, the writing is almost immorally bad.

In addition to the unexplained abbreviation ACH, the sentence has unnecessary legalistic puff like “its designated Financial Agent” and the oxymoronic sounding “withdrawal entry”. The sentence is also simply too long, and it uses language like the Latinate “initiate” instead of the common (and more easily understood) “begin”.

If we were to rewrite this hideous bureaucratic bullshit so that normal people could read it, it might be along the lines of “I authorize the IRS to begin taking automatic deductions from my bank account to pay the taxes I owe, and I also authorize my bank to make the payments.”

The impulse for such writing horrors is, in part, bad training in writing, and that isn’t going to change between now and when the world ends, because people who run educational institutions don’t care (though God knows they’ll talk until you’re deaf about much how they care). Many writers are incapable—or worse, lazy and unwilling—to think about their readers, what the readers will know, what they will care about, what they need, and so on.

There is also a deeper psychological reason for bad writing, and this affects all of us. Supposedly, the purpose of writing is to communicate a message, but what we are trying to communicate is usually more complicated than we realize. Let’s say I’m writing to tell people the purpose of filling out a form. Though my presumed purpose is to convey information about the form, I’m probably not even aware that as I write, I’m also using the language to say things about myself. I want to sound knowledgeable. I want to sound like I’m good at my job. And while we’re at it, I want to sound smart and like I went to college.

So I’m not going to use something common like “begin” when I can say “initiate”. I sometimes found students openly resistant to the idea of using language that was as simple and clear as possible, as they felt it didn’t sound professional. Notice that their point was not about how well the writing communicated. In fact, the students were wrong. Murky language and professionalism are not the same thing. The issue here is actually self confidence. As I would sometimes say, are you bold enough to be clear, or do you need to show people how smart you are instead?

I have a second example of bad writing that is less easily noticed, but also concerns thinking about the needs of the readers. A few months ago I had some dealings with Verizon, a “communications” company, as they ironically like to call themselves, the same way North Korea has the word “Democratic” in their official name.

When I got a new phone, it came with a small booklet called Tips, Hints and Shortcuts. To my thinking, the name did not bode well, as I wanted a Basic Manual before I got around to tips, hints, or shortcuts, which all sound like additions to basic knowledge. The booklet does have some basic information, but the problem is that obvious things a reader would want to know are missing.

Not providing the right information is also writing at its worst, no matter how “clearly” it is worded. As I was preparing to write this blog, I decided to test what I’m saying and use a phone feature that I was sure must exist, to add a specific ringtone for a single caller. I went to the Contents page and found a section called Changing Ringtones. What that section told me was how to change the ring for the phone in general, for all calls. Only by playing with the phone for a while did I eventually figure out how to do what I wanted. Having looked at the entire manual, I know for certain that Tips, Hints and Shortcuts gives no hint about how to do what I did.

That total lack of information is actually typical for the booklet, which is a fairly stunning example of incapacity to provide the kind of information a reader might actually want. The same booklet has seven pages on the safety of radio emissions, but not a word on several obvious functions. Keep up the good work, Verizon.

The IRS and Verizon are certainly not alone. Incompetent, unclear writing is everywhere you look. It is as if literacy comes with a built-in, incurable disease.

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Write Like the Wind

Uncertain brideI’m sure I had something to say here, but until it comes to me, I’ll comment on the writing life. Now that I’ve escaped from academia (if you’re pushed off a cliff and live, it’s still a sort of escape), I’ve moved increasingly in the direction of a writing life. My current career plan…hmm, let’s make that “career plan” is looking for work in three different fields, none of them involving hammers or boots.

One field, which seems to have taller weeds at the moment than the others, is copy editing. This is a job in which you look at someone else’s text, already written, and you fix what’s wrong, hopefully just things like a little spelling, punctuation, and so on. I can understand if you think that sounds like a hair-raising horrible job, except I think I could be good at it, and even enjoy it.

It seems Penn State Press did not agree with me on the “being good at it” idea. I took a copywriting test, and while they said I had caught some errors they didn’t realize were there, including a sentence fragment, in the morass of markings that eventually covered the page, I also missed errors that they already knew about, so I failed. (When I used the phrase “morass of markings” just now, I was trying to make it sound like I had an excuse to miss things. Maybe I didn’t really have an excuse.)

I’ve had a little more luck with the second area I’m pursuing, creating websites. I mean it’s not actually much yet (notice the tremulous optimism of that little adverb “yet”), but I’m working now on the third site I’ve been asked to do for a local business. And in terms of financial advancement, my price shows a miraculous rate of growth, going from free to $500 to $800. I really find this kind of work fascinating. It might be done with someone else doing the writing, (more on that below) but I’m willing to do the writing as well, and I have.

Part of why I like designing and creating websites, or maybe entirely why I like it, is that it can combine tremendous creativity, which is appealing, with high-geek attention to mind-numbing details. I not only have a high tolerance for minutia and details, I like them. I used to sit and read Russian dictionaries for pleasure. I’m not making that up.

I don’t know where the website development will go. There are people out there who are way better than I will ever be, but then again, only a year ago I could not have imagined anyone actually paying me to do this, and frankly I’ve worked hard and learned a great deal. No one is lining up asking for sites, however.

The third area I’m pursuing is the one I’m pretending to do this blog entry on, writing. At the moment, I actually have temporary work as a writer, ironically creating the copy for websites being built by other people. I’ve been given a project by a company making websites for large hotels around the country. They tell me what they want written about, and I somehow figure out how to do it.

I do much research on the web, gathering all the information I need, because otherwise, what the hell do I know about Monkey Jungle (just outside Miami, open daily 9:30 to 5:00)? Now, thanks to the internet, I know to wear a hat if I go to Monkey Jungle and walk under the monkeys. So I write it up, in a clever and interesting way (I added that requirement), with text that is informative and tries to be persuasive (I believe that’s what my employer wants). The pay is OK, $45 an hour, except from lack of experience I estimated this job taking half as long as it takes, and I drastically undercharged. Alright, live and learn.

I do a lot of writing about hotels, why you should definitely stay there, and so on. After a while it’s a little boring, but I’m getting better at turning it out. So in a section, let’s say, that wants to persuade people to hold their wedding at the hotel, I might write something like this: “Your wedding should be a day for creating memories, and with the careful help of our trained wedding planners and catering staff, your only worry will be whether or not to actually marry that guy who seems a little bored when you talk to him.”

Something like that. Monkey Jungle is more fun. So far I have persuaded myself that I want to go to Muscatine, Iowa; Paramus, New Jersey; Homestead, Florida; Durham, North Carolina; Shreveport, Louisiana; and now Des Moines, Iowa. Who knew these places had so much cool stuff going on?

Here’s a point about the writing life. I get up early, get to work by 8:00, and travel all over the country all day long, sitting in restaurants, going down water slides, looking at old buildings, and rising up from the computer only long enough to have lunch or take breaks. It’s an odd life. So was teaching an odd life. I think all life is odd.

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