29 May 2012

The Brief Wondrous (and Salmon-Scented) Life of Professor Yeti

Once upon a time, I worked for an erudite yeti. Ghostwrote an advice column for him with my friends Teague and Alex. (Hard-core E5WTD fans may recognize those names as the guys with whom I did the Doughnut Quest a couple of years ago.)

Alex got married about a week ago (mazel tov, Alex & Alissa!). He asked me to tell a story at the rehearsal dinner, and the one that immediately came to mind was the tale of Professor Yeti, a web site that he, Teague, and I started shortly after we all graduated from Carleton College in 2003. The site is down--after we stopped publishing it, we accidentally let the domain name expire.* But you still can peruse the archives thanks to the borderline-creepy magic of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.

PY logo. Bear in mind that
we're writers, not artists.
The rest of this post is adapted from the piece I wrote for the rehearsal dinner.

This is the epic tale of the short but glorious life of a world-renowned publication called Professor Yeti. Motto: “The missing link in online journalism.” Alternate motto: "The online magazine of elusive news, astute views, and questionable advice."

Teague, Alex, and I had all been interested in writing and had each worked on the school newspaper at Carleton, and I think we all had that classic restlessness of the recently-graduated.

So we started an online publication. Now, I should note that this was in 2003, still the early days of the internet. Blogs weren't really a thing. Quirky essay-filled sites like The Awl or The Morning News weren't around. We had no real template, just the naive ambition of youth.

The plan was simple: one new edition every two weeks, with seven or eight articles and reviews and, the signature piece, an advice column penned by Professor Yeti himself, the world's only bigfoot with a PhD.

For purposes of this story, I want to focus on that advice column, Ask Professor Yeti.

Because, really. It is amusing and endearing but most of all amazing for me to think back to the hours that Alex, Teague and I spent sitting around their Uptown apartment—I can still see the wood floors and the orange chair—honing that voice, trying to figure out what a pedantic yeti would sound like and would want to talk about.

We settled into a groove of absurdist pompousness garnished with a healthy helping of woodland wisdom, as befits an eight-foot-tall primate who pairs a fine port with freshly uprooted juniper bush and wears a three-piece suit while ruminating on a fallen tree.

In response to a question about dealing with obnoxiously noisy coworkers, the good professor said:
I understand your plight. When I was a young yeti, I was visiting some friends in British Columbia, having a lovely champagne brunch on a tranquil beach, when a family of birds landed nearby to practice their calls. Bird songs can be melodic and charming, to be sure, but it is my experience that they offer up such sweet music only in the vicinity of humans. It’s part of a scam to keep birdwatchers enthralled — a friend of mine, a sparrow who asks that I not use his name, says that bluejays in particular are known to be major stakeholders in companies that manufacture binoculars.

In any event, birds, you should know, are less soulful in their singing in remote, wooded locals. There, they screech and rasp and chant dirty ditties. And so it was that my lovely brunch was utterly destroyed by a large group of birds squawking off-key.

I threw a stick at them, and they quickly dispersed.

Professor Yeti
 All three of us had day jobs that were not exactly our chosen fields, and doling out questionable advice couched in esoteric woodland metaphors wasn't exactly what we had gone to school for, either. But for me, at least, it was actually a good transition to the real world of collaborative projects and concrete deadlines and accountability. It gave me a sense of duty and of purpose, in an off-kilter sort of way.

And in that early-adulthood time when the world was overwhelming in its burdens and potential, and full of conflicting advice from my well-meaning elders … well, it started to feel entirely natural to dole out my own confidently-offered but not necessarily useful advice, like spicing up a Super Bowl party by hiring a marching band to play on the front lawn or trying to woo a woman by adopting a salmon for her.

Or here's my personal favorite, from April 2004:

Dear Professor Yeti,
Doctor Seuss would have been a hundred this year. In honor of the occasion, I have been trying to find mathematical messages in his work; in fact, I am writing my master’s thesis about this. I’m convinced there’s some sort of algorithm that explains all the rhymes and explains all the allegorical themes that run throughout the Seuss canon. So far, though, I’m stuck on “one fish, two fish.” Have you given this any thought?
Horton Sneech, San Diego
Dear Horton:

Of course I’ve thought about it. Here’s the formula:
The theme you can gauge
From the third-to-last page
Just add your age
Invert your wage
Subtract a finger
Add a toe
(Or two point five
if your cousin’s named Joe)
Divide by the eye
Of a scrambling newt
Double the sine
Of the size of Beirut
Does he use the word “wry”?
If yes, give a toot,
And then you must try
With all might to compute
The log of the number’s
Inverted square root
Now return to that page
(The third from the back)
Tally the Ts
And each comical yak
Add two for all drawings
Of fleas in mid-sneeze
Subtract every adverb
And all anxious young bees
A prumvid means war
A blooznit means peace
A grimble means famine
A trinkle means feast
Compare all the numbers
Observe every word
Now get out your slide rule
(I assume you’re a nerd)
Count it all up
Write it all down
All will be clear
Sure as my fur’s brown
If you’re still stuck
Perplexed with a frown,
Just send it to me
With Prince William’s Crown,
The key to the town,
A ham of renown
Plus a parrot named Prout
… And I’ll figure it out
Professor Yeti

Eventually, of course, actual adulthood set in, which broke up our band. But we had a good run of it: fifty issues, more than two years, and something like a hundred fifty queries for the good professor. Sometimes other people even wrote us letters. One was in Latin. Professor Yeti also responded in Latin (and man was that a pain for his ghostwriters).

Over the last few days, I've been going back through my Professor Yeti files. And I have to confess that more than once, I teared up. Because I never would have guessed it, but it turns out that I really miss channeling the spirit of a haughty, erudite, three-piece-suit attired yeti.

* THIS JUST IN: Just checked to see if the domain name was available again, and it was--so I bought it. Which means someday soon, I hope, we'll put the site back in full public view, where it belongs. 

24 May 2012

Poop Strong: Goofy Name, Great Cause

*UPDATE: It is with the heaviest of hearts that I update this post to say that Arijit Guha died on March 22, 2013. I miss him so much. But please keep reading to see why he was such a wonderful guy.*

This is my friend Arijit (pictured with his wife, Heather). He's one of the funniest, kindest, flat-out coolest people I know, the type of person for whom the term "full of life" was invented. We went to school together at Carleton College (hail the maize and blue!).

You know that guy (or woman) at your college who organized all the class activities and served on the student government and always seemed to be involved the coolest organizations on campus--and might even help found an organization if there was a void? For the Carleton class of 2003, that was Ari. (And that much-needed organization was the Gender Neutral Cheer Boys, an absurdist take on cheerleading, about which much more in Note 1.)

But what's most impressive to me--and this part is most important and just truly, incredibly rare--was that Ari filled that role without having any ego about it. Big man on campus, sure, but also big-hearted. He was simply nice to everyone, even the socially inept among us (hey, the world would be boring without some of us around, right? RIGHT??)--and, therefore, beloved by everyone, too.

He's awesomely goofy in all the right ways. After college, he grew his hair out and then subjected himself to the most ridiculous haircut possible for charity, raising nearly $4,000 for Doctors Without Borders and other worthy causes, and ending up with a Krusty the Klown hairdo.

Now, Ari needs some help from the rest of us. At the ripe old age of 31, he's battling Stage IV colon cancer and, due to the high costs of treatment, potential medical bankruptcy. 

This is the point in the post at which three-quarters of you are about to tune out. Don't. Please, please. Don't. This is not gonna be some Hallmark Channel sob story. 'Round these parts, we use humor to fight the crappy parts of life.

Case in point: Ari has set up a web site about said battle with colon cancer, a web site titled Poop Strong. Among the various items you can purchase there are brown "Poop Strong" bracelets (you know, like those yellow bracelets some guy named Lance made popular a while back) and various incredibly fashionable and deliciously offbeat t-shirts.

The man's been ravaged by cancer, blasted with radiation, had his abdomen sliced open and his colon yanked out, at the ripe old age of just 31 ... and he's laughing in the face of it all. That's bad-ass. (Um, no pun intended there.)

Also bad-ass and amazing (and, yes, more than a bit heartbreaking) is the fact that he's doing all of this large-scale fundraising and event coordination--not a small task for anyone--while he's battling really seriously major cancer and also, you know, trying to live a normal life and do normal-life things. Seriously, ponder that. (2)

If you want to know more about his story, keep reading. But here's the point:

(Here, we'll make this brown, in honor of Poop Strong):

1. Arijit Guha is awesome human being. He is precisely the sort of person the world needs more of.

2. He needs our help to continue being awesome. Because, man, FUCK CANCER. And medical bankruptcy, too.

3. You can help him AND get some sweet stuff at the same time by buying said sweet stuff on PoopStrong.org: a goofy t-shirt, a brown bracelet, a poopstrong.org email address (and you know you want that). Or ...

Another thing you can get to support Ari is to buy a raffle ticket. You can win some fantastic books, courtesy of Hill's Kitchen, signed and adorned with the Poop Strong rally cry by authors like celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Spike Mendelsohn--or you can get a copy of a Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day signed by yours truly. Or a signed Hold Steady album. Or lots of other cool stuff.

Ahem: http://store.poopstrong.org/products

Oh, and, in about a week, there'll be another item added to the raffle: an hour of my time to provide travel or writing consultation by phone/Skype (or in-person if you're in the Twin Cities area). Going on a trip? Let me help you plan--especially if you're heading to Europe. I know that place. Wrote a book about it. But I've got plenty of general travel tips and tricks up my sleeve, too. Or I'd love to help you with your writing/blogging project. Need someone to look over your short story or to give you tips on the process of finding an agent? I can help with that, too. In short: travel writer available for consultation regarding both parts of that job title.

But the only way to get it, aside from giving me a round-trip plane ticket to Paris and a private car to Gerard Mulot, is to enter the raffle. Buy a ticket over at PoopStrong.org, once it's posted on June 1st.; and for now buy a ticket for other cool stuff.

Thanks! And ... Poop Strong!


Okay, you want more of Arijit's story? Here, check this out. Further proof of his stellar sense of humor and all-around excellence as a human being:

And now, let's turn things over to the man himself
Last January, my wife and I returned from a trip to India and soon after our return, I was beset with intense pain in my abdomen. After numerous visits to the ASU student health clinic failed to uncover what was going on, I eventually headed to a gastroenterologist, who did a colonoscopy and discovered I had a 6-cm-wide growth in my colon that was nearly completely obstructive. I soon learned the tumor was malignant and then, when in surgery to remove the cancerous growth, my surgeon discovered that the cancer had spread well beyond the colon and small tumors had metastasized throughout my abdominal cavity. The extent of the disease meant my colon could not be re-connected and I emerged from surgery with a colostomy. In a matter of weeks, I went from thinking I had a bad stomach bug to learning I had metastatic colorectal cancer.
Fortunately, in part due to my young age and the extraordinary care I have received at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, I’ve been able to cope quite well so far despite the difficulties of treatment. Unfortunately, cancer treatment is quite expensive, and recently the ASU student insurance plan stopped covering my cost of care. The Aetna student health insurance plan provided by ASU caps the lifetime insurance benefit paid out at $300,000, which the high cost of treatment used up in less than one year.

(1) The Gender Neutral Cheerboys filled the role of absurdist pep band and athletic boosters for our liberal-arts college's endearingly inept football team. Listen to the story on NPR's "Only a Game" back in 2002 (skip to about 15:00 for the story). Ari's comments to the reporter: "The first word I'd use [to describe us] is 'incompetent.' ... Pretty much, we make sure that the Carleton fans are louder than the opposing teams' fans, because a lot of the time ... the Carleton fans will actually be outnumbered by the visitors, so we still want to make that Carleton presence felt. At a school this size, it's not just these random football players you don't know, but your friends, your classmates, the people who live down the hall from you. So as incompetent as we are and as ridiculous as we may seem out there, the real reason we're out here is just to cheer on our friends and show support."

(2) I'll spare you my own rant about how how messed-up the American health care system is, but if you really want my two cents, you can read my post "The American Dream and the freelance writer." Obamacare really can't get here fast enough.