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. 

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