Yesterday I managed to mainline all seven episodes of S-Town, the new podcast from This American Life and Serial that were released all at once. It’s a fascinating blend of those two shows: at once an extended version of a TAL episode, complete with idiosyncratic characters and a vivid setting, and a Serial-esque mystery, with room to explore the unexpected narrative turns.
John B. McLemore, the central figure of S-town, gives incredible tape. The first episode features reporter Brian Reed’s first phone call with him, and immediately you get a sense of McLemore: sardonic, crass, hyper-articulate and smart, obsessive, and very Southern. Even when he’s not directly in the story, McLemore hovers over everything. The final episode (no spoilers) also manages to close his narrative loop with a link back to something in the first one, which I thought was a brilliant choice.
I kill with the earth, that with which I line the walls of my room. With a paint brush choked with white diatomaceous earth-powder, I dab and fluff along the crack where the walls meet the floor to discourage the passage of bedbugs into my abode. The powder floats up and down through the sunrays that beam through the window. A Latvian choir sings vespers from my speakers and scores the moment. A lively moment, indeed, killing satanic creatures with the very earth they inhabit, or rather inhabited. I wear a white mask because microscopic charred rock isn’t great for one’s health or throat, at least as great as it is at killing them silently.
Here in late October, as an Indian summer day seizes, I’m in shorts when I should be figuring out layers. This interlude makes for curious thinking; I’m thinking about the weather and how strange it is when I really should be thinking about autumn in its usual path, from green to gold and red to dead—or so it seems. Then again when is weather ever not weird here? In Chicago, in the Midwest, things are best when they are on the move, the future blocked from view with today askew and only tomorrow the chance to weather things anew. The truth is, the world isn’t dead at the end of autumn when clouds set in and the cool air cocoons us for months; it’s only hibernating. All that dies die will be back again, if not exactly as it once was. It will be close enough, and hard for us humans to tell the difference. Can you tell one year’s sunflower patch from another?
I kill preemptively with the earth, diatomaceous powder that lies in wait, white and benign, until whatever crawls through the walls slides its thin belly over it. It doesn’t strike down its victim there, but in a moment, after the pitiful, pestilential creature’s exoskeleton has been thrashed through and exposed with the microscopic shards of ground-rock. It dies not of inhalation or poisoning, but of exposure. It bleeds out, bleeding the blood of its nocturnal victims. But this gruesome death that I cheer (good riddance) is not a death, only a hibernation. That bug is dead, but the others live. Those spared a diatomaceous death can live for years dormant, biding their time in verily anywhere, the vermin. The trap that I set in this interlude of an Indian summer is an interlude for them too. Whether they climb to my room or not, or whether they’re already here and laughing at my efforts, they will bide their time like the bushes and trees, who sleep the winter dormant but not dead, and wait to show their faces again, when they must. Dust to earth to dust, and again.
The dust of fallen leaves and rock ground into the ground floats in my air now as diatomaceous earth. It speckles the sunlight and makes it known. The choral vespers hover in the air too, a lullaby to a future-timely death of pests whose time has come. Say your prayers, parasites. The dust lying in repose waits for a bedbug to cross over it, not on this faux summery day but after, after the dust has settled and the winter has arrived for another hibernation. Will the living that die live again?
Dyson: I had never really written before, but I started what I would call my first absolutely unpublishable novel just for fun, and thought how fun it was to freely write just so my wife Brooke could read some stuff and so I could throw some crazy ideas on paper. Over the span of about a year I did that every night. That was when I was in a band, too, so there was all sorts of creative stuff going on. I remember thinking this would be fun to do regularly some day, to share it with more people. I didn’t; after that I just stopped. Five years later, up in Wisconsin working at a summer camp, one winter day I started writing something else. Same thing: did it for about a year and then stopped. Shared it with a couple friends. Last fall, when I literally didn’t have anything else going on, my son Elias and I were joking around doing some stupid father/son stuff, and I just started drawing and writing. I kept writing and drawing just to see him laugh. He would throw ideas down, and we created the first Bearly Dad book together really just having fun up on the drafting table. In that moment, it was… ‘Oh, this is fun, what if we just shared this silliness with more people?’ And that’s when we looked into how you do that. How can we make this happen without making a big deal out of it?
When I was done with Bearly Dad, we looked at it and Brooke and I were like, ‘Well, this is probably the most unprofessional artwork I’ve ever seen.’ The next day, she called to see if AbsolutelyUnprofessional.com was taken, and it wasn’t. And even the guy on the phone at GoDaddy or something was like, ‘Wow, nobody’s taken that? That’s incredible.’ And that was it. It was because my artwork is so unprofessional—I’m so untrained—we thought we should call it what it is. Set the bar low and have fun with it.
So for the first book, it’s just Elias and you throwing things back and forth. After that came together and you wanted to share it with more people, what was the process for taking the next step?
The book was really just an excuse to put ridiculous ideas into a solid, tangible form. Displaying digital stuff is fun—putting it together and passing it around—but it feels so much more personal to be able to hand Elias a compilation of ideas we put together, that we laughed at while putting together. Showing him online is funny; handing him a book made his eyes open wide. He was like, ‘Dad, can we put some of my stories in books like this too?’ ‘Yeah, we can put together some Elias books.’ To him, then, it was real. It was a simple process to research how to do it. It was easy; everything’s accessible these days. But the main thrust of it was sharing it with others but also being able to hand it to my kids.
For Bearly Dad, how much of what became the book was pulled directly from your life versus stuff you imagined?
I think throughout the book there are ten different wrestling moves that happen—“rumblings” they’re called. I’d say about eight of those come from real life, just stuff Elias and I do. One of my favorites in the book is called “dead rabbit.” I’ve used that one on him for years, where I’d get him on the ground and flop over top of him and pretend to be dead, and he’s suffocating and can’t move and trying to wriggle to get out. Most of the moves in the book are like that. They’re stupid. Really just dumb stuff we’ve done, and then a couple ones I would probably not do in my house. But it’s fun to throw in there. All the names are just silly things that we laugh at. And now that the book is done, he actually has names for some of them that we didn’t have a name for. Now he’ll jump on my back and call it out.
Did you have a sense putting it together that it would be greater than the sum of its parts, with a larger purpose you wanted to have with the book, or is it just a collection of silly stuff you wanted to put together?
It’s really difficult for me to put my time and energy into something that doesn’t have some flavor of greater purpose behind it, no matter what that is. It doesn’t have to be overt. In fact, it can be incredibly subversive in its meaning and purpose. But it has to be there. So one of the ways I look at art is as an overflow of creation. We’re created by a creator God, so whether the art is silly or serious or portrays the Gospel in some way I think is irrelevant, because art itself displays the nature of God. So a stupid, silly book like Bearly Dad, even if there was no other purpose to it, is already displaying God’s creative nature, which is enough, you know? And I love that. That’s tucked into everything. One of the other books I’m working on now, it’s even more stupid. It’s even slightly morbid for a kid’s book, and I love it. But even in the stupidity and the morbidness, there’s a hidden purpose of responsibility. What does it look like for a kid to take responsibility? With Bearly Dad, one of the themes behind it was healthy interaction between a father and son: what does it look like to engage your kids in playful fun? We know that physical touch between parents and kids is important, so if it’s mean and rough and aggressive, that lasts. That impacts the kids forever. If it’s playful and gentle and intentional, that also lasts and impacts forever.
So some of that was going into Bearly Dad while I was writing, just wanting to foster the family dynamic. Also, I love holding books. Just tonight we read two books before bed. He actually read the new book I just made: You Are: A Lump’s Tale About Image. The first print came in the mail today, so he read it and then we read another Dr. Seuss book. And there’s something about sitting there holding a silly book together that just fosters family time. So those two ideas were in Bearly Dad when I wrote it, knowing that we’d print it off and sit around as a family and laugh at the silly ideas we put together.
How much research did you do with other children’s literature before writing the book?
I think just being a dad I have natural research going every day. And we have a library of kids books. We’re always challenging Elias to read one he has not read yet, or in a while. We have a lot of books from the 1950s and 60s, that old-style illustration and storytelling. Those are some of my favorites. So there’s a natural element of research, and then there’s just tapping into what Elias enjoys reading. What do the characters look like? How does the story flow? But as I started doing the art and writing it out, I realized I really do write a certain way. It’s not smooth and it doesn’t flow poetically. It’s very jerky and almost frustrating. I realized that so much of my personality came out while I was writing. I didn’t want to change that, because it really is me. Even Brooke, after reading the newest one, she’s like, ‘Man, it really is just an overflow of your personality.’ Part of that is frustrating and part of that is exciting, because you want your art to be an overflow of you.
How does your daughter Ada fit into all of this? Do you have her in mind for future stories, or do you want to focus on the father/son aspect?
I focused on the father/son dynamic for Bearly Dad. For A Lump’s Tale, I actually had her in mind. Image is such a huge topic in our culture today, and media plays a role in that. It’s everywhere, and it’s not usually healthy if we’re honest and look at the serious eating disorders that exist and the amount of money we spend on clothes, to reshape ourselves, tattoos to change how we look permanently. I have tattoos and I pierced my ears at one point, so I understand wanting to modify yourself to look a certain way. So I think about Ada: she’s two and she’s innocent to the degree that she doesn’t think about any of that yet. She has this natural giddiness about her. She wants to look cute and pretty, and part of that is because we tell her that all the time, and part of it is that she’s naturally wired to think that way as a girl. Now she’s leaning into the positive side, but very soon she’s going to hear conversations about weight. She’s going to see girls dressing five or six years older than they ought to. So as I was writing this book, I wanted to preempt that conversation with her at a very young age, where image plays a role in her life. It’s an issue for boys as well, to be the right kind of masculine and all these things. But she was in my mind for this one, so Brooke and I could use a kids book to foster a conversation very early on with who she really is.
How has Brooke been involved in the process of putting all these books together?
She’s awesome. A big part of it is just encouraging me to go ahead and do it. On an emotional, mental, and spiritual level she does that. On a tangible level, I would say she is the overall editor of just about everything that happens. She reads through everything, she goes through a couple drafts. I’m a pretty hard guy to work with, so she has to make notes on the computer and email them back to me. If she tells me in person I’m emotional and I get offended or defensive unnecessarily, so we have this system worked out. The first time she sends it to me, it’s ‘Hey, change this, maybe the character is a little too this’ or whatever. If I’m sitting clear-minded I can take it. She’s always right. Always. So I’ll draw it all up and write it out and hand her a copy to flip through. She’ll mark that up and we’ll talk about it, and I won’t be a petulant child at that point.
And she’s great with Adobe programs. I’m learning some of it to save her the time and energy, but she scans and crops everything and formats the pages and shows me the fonts. I’m pretty picky, so she’ll usually put a draft together and then I’ll come back and usually end up rearranging each page and changing fonts and sizes and all that. Then we let it sit for a week or two, then come back and make more changes. She publishes it, does all the copyright work. Pretty much if it’s technical she does it. She’s brilliant at all that. It’s a lot of fun. She and I have had a lot of time working together. We’ve been in ministry together. Even as a married couple we’ve spent a lot of time together, so it’s fun to do a silly project with her. It wouldn’t happen if she wasn’t doing it. I wouldn’t take the time to learn Adobe and all that stuff.
What are you working on now?
I finished the illustrations of a script I put together about two months ago. I have a mental idea of trying to put something out every two to three months. I probably have three or four developing story lines in the works now. I started one about four months ago and did about three-quarters of it before putting it down, just to put some distance between it. I have projects laying around all over the place. I have one kids book that will come out probably in another two months. It’s funny, I was describing it to Brooke and thought that this is one that if I ever had a chance of being picked up by a major publisher, this is the idea they would look at and say, ‘Dear God—what were you thinking?’ So I’m excited to put that one out.
There’s another one that’s been brewing for some time, and it clicked the other day. It’s an overflow of the word oikos, which is Greek for ‘extended family.’ It’s this concept of doing life together with a larger community than just the immediate family. I wondered if I could put something together that would help foster movement in living that out. I won’t say much more than that, other than it’s not a kids book. It’s not a novel. It’s a book of ideas that you can use either as a family or missional community to spur on movement. I got to spend a chunk of the afternoon today at a cafe writing out fifty percent of the first draft, just because it was so fresh. I wanted to get it all down while it was still there. It’s so important because it’s important to my family, and it’s important for living on purpose. I’m realizing that while it’s a new idea, so much of it is already in me and in what we’ve already done as a family. I’ve talked about it for years so putting it on paper is crazy easy. I’m excited about it.
When I was in Colombia during the fall of 2010, I listened to the album All Those I Know by the Milwaukee indie-pop band Eric & Magill a lot. I was particularly fond of the song “Old Man Winter,” which to me embodied the album’s ethereal, melancholic style. I was so inspired, in fact, that I wrote a very short story/script based on that song about an unnamed couple that reconnects for the first time after a falling-out.
I wanted eventually to turn it into a short film, with “Old Man Winter” serving as the short’s bookends (I copped the story’s title from the song lyrics). The short film never happened, but the story remained buried in my personal files – until now. Maybe the short film will happen one day. But until then, here is the story in its script form.
Winter Has Come For The Young
Midday. Overcast. Snow. The woman sits inside, holding her book on the stairs near the door, aloof. The man comes out of the stairwell and walks toward the door. He sees her and pauses for a moment, then continues out the door.
She sees him as he walks outside. As he walks down the front steps she packs up quickly and follows him out. He’s gearing up outside when she approaches. He’s cold to her.
WOMAN: I hate the cold.
MAN: I know. Once you’re outside, there’s no escape. Some people don’t like that feeling. … But I’ve learned to live with it.
WOMAN: I’ve seen you around.
MAN: Just trying to crowd the hours.
She wants to say what she wants to say but holds back.
WOMAN: Would you want to get a coffee with me?
He thinks about it. What does she want? Is this a good idea? Better than the status quo.
They start walking. Cut to walking out of a coffeehouse with their drinks.
MAN: Where to?
WOMAN: I know a place.
They walk around the corner. He keeps his distance. They arrive at the river. They stand in silence, looking at the snow and the river.
MAN: Why did we come here?
WOMAN: It’s beautiful.
MAN: Why did we really come here?
WOMAN: I want to talk to you.
MAN: So talk.
WOMAN: How are you?
MAN: As good as can be expected.
WOMAN: I love you.
MAN: (coldly) As much as can be expected.
WOMAN: I said I love you.
MAN: I heard you.
WOMAN: I mean it.
MAN: Actions speak louder than words.
WOMAN: I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It makes me sick and ashamed and cold. I can’t work. I can’t sleep. … God, I hate the cold.
MAN: I know. There’s no escape, is there?
WOMAN: What can I do? I’ll do it. What can I do?
She looks at him. He looks at the river. Is it worth it? Is she worth it? She gently takes hold of his face. They’re eye to eye. He makes his decision.
He breaks her grasp and turns around and walks away, leaving a trail of his fogged breath. She’s surprised and her face drops. As he walks away, she blurts it out.
WOMAN: You left your jacket at my place. I sleep with it every night just so I can feel close to you. It smells like summer at the cabin.
MAN: We were in love then.
He turns around to look at her. She approaches.
WOMAN: I’m no saint. And neither are you. I made a mistake that I’ll regret as long as I live. But it taught me that real love is about crawling through all the shit together, no matter how dirty it gets.
The sky is clear and the air is clear and the air smells clean. So clean. The wilderness of northern Wisconsin is still very wild. Evergreens clog the air. It’s perfect, this time of summer. Glory defined, with a high of 75. And it’s a perfect time to ride the Brule River, which snakes through the thick woods all the way to Lake Superior.
I’m in a yellow kayak, the kayak eroded by age and water, sliding smoothly down the river. It was so clear I could see the bottom. If only there were mountains peeking over those tall evergreens. My paddle takes another dip, leaving a tiny tornado in its wake. I round another wide bend, avoiding a felled tree protruding from the shrub-choked shore. The steady current gently pushes me along, like a raindrop on a window. I lean back in my kayak and close my eyes and smell the air ambling by. Surely there is nothing better than this.
I open my eyes and the treetops are looking back at me. A lone cloud follows me down the river. I sit up and paddle some more. Another bend approaches. On my right in an opening to the woods, a doe’s head shoots up. Her ears twitch. I pass slowly, admiring her grace, as two fawns emerge from the woods and flank their mom. The family’s out for a walk.
The bend nears. I maneuver around a portly boulder. From farther away it seemed slight, but now I see how deep it extends. My very own summer iceberg. The rocks closer to the surface scrape the bottom of my kayak. Around the bend, a cliff of rocks and weeds looms over a sandy shore. Two ducks meander, nibbling just below the surface for snacks. Past the sand, the river straightened back out into a crystalline path.
I think of Colorado. On vacation with my family two years before, we had rafted down the Colorado River, where the whitewaters made you work hard to stay afloat. We had drifted through a serene sandstone canyon and fought through feral rapids. We had driven ATVs deep into the Great Divide, a vast stretch of mountains and plains that unites a continent. And I had ridden bicycles with my dad down a mountain, zipping back and forth across its face, trying not to careen off the path. I saw the views at the end of each of those adventures. Views I told myself I would see again someday.
A small rapid beckons me ahead. Only a few turns. I paddle hard. Approaching the brink, I start paddling one way but the rapid pulls me the other. My kayak slams one rock and bounces over another. I stab my paddle into the cold water between two rocks and pull myself past the boulders. My kayak continues on, steady and smooth. The battle over, I rest my paddle across my lap, smile and lay back.
I think about life on the river. Taking one of those week-long canoe trips where survival means a good paddle and the need for adventure. I could do something like that. I need to do something like that. It’s a test, really. A test of the limits of your courage. A lot of people take it. Kayaking rivers, biking down mountains, hiking hidden paths—conquering the unconquerable. When you venture miles into untamed land you feel untamed yourself. When you risk death to take on a raging river you feel alive. When you finally flee civilization and safety and risk losing something, you return to the best of yourself. Nature is funny that way.
I round another bend and see the rest of my group gathering at the load-in dock. Some are wading in the shallows, waiting for the stragglers. A girl jumps off a wood ledge and floats downstream for a few seconds before pulling herself back up. For those few seconds she had floated on her back and saw the same treetops I had seen. She was a dreamer.
Tim rocked my world and nabbed some killer free tickets to the final night of the Jeopardy taping at the Kohl Center in Madison. It was the final two tapings of the College Tournament of Champions, episodes that will air May 15 and 16. Here’s what I learned:
– Alex Trebek answers attendees’ questions during the commercial time. He has the same persona on screen and off.
– If Alex screws up reading an answer, like mispronouncing a name, they rerecord him reading it during the commercial and replace the flub with the rerecording. The answer that has Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is a rerecording.
– I know who wins the tournament but I won’t tell.
– The final Final Jeopardy we will see on TV was not the original. One of the contestants did something disruptive as Alex revealed the final money totals, so after they finished they rerecorded the revealing of the Final Jeopardy answers. It was madness.
– It was so weird to see Alex do the things I’ve seen him do on TV so many times.
– If what was shown on the big screen as they taped the show is the final product, I will be on TV twice; once each episode. On May 15, I’m in the bottom left corner of the screen for a few seconds. On May 16, I’m on for much longer, making strange movements and cheering. We were right in front of the UW band, so look for them and you’ll see me. I’m in a gray t-shirt.
Henry Winkler came to North Central on a promotional tour for his newest children’s book. Along with the admission price, you get a free copy of the book. I purchased the deal with hopes of getting my Arrested Development DVD signed by Barry Zuckercorn (He’s very good!). So I go to the show and he gives a motivational speech to the kids in the audience, explains his struggle with dyslexia, then reads a little from his book. The show ends and the lady in charge announces that Mr. Winkler will not be signing any memorabilia other than his books.
I have to reformulate my plan. There soon forms a long line for the signing table, so my chances of a quick sneak attack with the DVD is impossible. I’m currently number 200 in line, so I wait. And wait. Then listen to some parents talk about “the Fonz” and wait some more. The clock is ticking. LOST is on at 9PM, which is approaching ever so quickly. I can now see the table and hear his deep, animated voice. I’m reciting exactly what I’ll say when the moment comes. I’m going to be suave, collected, intelligent, and cool…with any luck.
5 people ahead of me, now 4, now 3. The lady arranging the books for the Fonz to sign repeats to many patrons that “Mr. Winkler will not be signing anything other than his books.” Screw you lady, I’m getting my DVD signed.
The moment comes. He says hello and starts signing the book.
(This is exactly what happened)
“Hey, I’m a huge fan of Arrested Development.”
“Yeah, that was a shame, wasn’t it?” he says.
“Yeah, I would be honored,” I said, as I pulled out the concealed disc, “if you would sign my Arrested Development DVD.”
The book Nazi woman attempts to thwart my plan.
“No, you can’t–”
But it was too late. He signed it with a smile, saying: “Ha, if you tell anyone, I’ll break your knees.”
This is a story from a children’s book I read as a bedtime story to some kids my sister babysits. It rocked my world:
Once upon a mountain top, three little trees stood and dreamed of what they wanted to become when they grew up. The first little tree looked up at the stars and said: “I want to hold treasure. I want to be covered with gold and filled with precious stones. I’ll be the most beautiful treasure chest in the world!” The second little tree looked out at the small stream trickling by on its way to the ocean. “I want to be traveling mighty waters and carrying powerful kings. I’ll be the strongest ship in the world!” The third little tree looked down into the valley below where busy men and women worked in a busy town. “I don’t want to leave the mountain top at all. I want to grow so tall that when people stop to look at me, they’ll raise their eyes to heaven and think of God. I will be the tallest tree in the world.”
Years passed and the little trees grew tall. One day three woodcutters climbed the mountain. The first woodcutter looked at the first tree and said, “This tree is beautiful. It is perfect for me.” With a swoop of his shining ax, the first tree fell. “Now I shall be made into a beautiful chest, I shall hold wonderful treasure!” the first tree said. The second woodcutter looked at the second tree and said, “This tree is strong. It is perfect for me.” With a swoop of his shining ax, the second tree fell. “Now I shall sail mighty waters!” thought the second tree. “I shall be a strong ship for mighty kings!” The third tree felt her heart sink when the last woodcutter looked her way. She stood straight and tall and pointed bravely to heaven. But the woodcutter never even looked up. “Any kind of tree will do for me.” He muttered. With a swoop of his shining ax the third tree fell.
The first tree rejoiced when the woodcutter brought her to a carpenter’s shop. But the carpenter fashioned the tree into a feed box for animals. The once beautiful tree was not covered with gold, nor with treasure. She was coated with sawdust and filled with hay for hungry farm animals. The second tree smiled when the woodcutter took her to a shipyard, but no mighty ship was made that day. Instead, the once strong tree was hammered and sawed into a simple fishing boat. She was too small and too weak to sail to an ocean, or even a river. Instead she was taken to a little lake. The third tree was confused when the woodcutter cut her into strong beams and left her in a lumberyard. “What happened?” The once tall tree wondered. “All I ever wanted was to stay on the mountain top and point to God…”
Many days and nights passed. The three trees nearly forgot their dreams. But one night, golden starlight poured over the first tree as a young woman placed her newborn baby in the feed box. “I wish I could make a cradle for him,” her husband whispered. The mother squeezed his hand and smiled as the starlight shone on the smooth and the sturdy wood. “This manger is beautiful,” she said. And suddenly the first tree knew he was holding the greatest treasure in the world.
One evening a tired traveler and his friends crowded into the old fishing boat. The traveler fell asleep as the second tree quietly sailed out into the lake. Soon a thundering and thrashing storm arose. The little tree shuddered. She knew she did not have the strength to carry so many passengers safely through the wind and the rain. The tired man awakened. He stood up, stretched out his hand and said, “Peace.” The storm stopped as quickly as it had begun. And suddenly the second tree knew he was carrying the King of heaven and earth.
One Friday morning, the third tree was startled when her beams were yanked from the forgotten woodpile. She flinched as she was carried through an angry jeering crowd. She shuddered when soldiers nailed a man’s hands to her. She felt ugly and harsh and cruel. But on Sunday morning, when the sun rose and the earth trembled with joy beneath her, the third tree knew that God’s love had changed everything. It had made the third tree strong. And every time people thought of the third tree, they would think of God. That was better than being the tallest tree in the world.