Story Terrace

Late last year, I scored a gig writing for Story Terrace, a UK-based company that’s expanded into the US.

Story Terrace publishes memoirs and autobiographies ghostwritten by a stable of authors, who interview the subject at her home and then compose a finished book complete with photos and a professional layout. The company has gone through several rounds of investment, including a crowdfunding effort this past summer which raised more than £617,000.

So far I’ve written three books of varying lengths for Story Terrace: the first was a memoir of a successful lawyer about his years growing up in Queens in the 1930s and 40s, while the other two were biographies of an Italian-American couple and an Irish-American woman, all of them immigrants who left the poverty of their homelands and achieved the American dream. It’s fun and rewarding work — much more rewarding, in fact, than I had anticipated.

Initially I was reluctant to write about the gig publicly because the position was originally advertised as “ghostwriter.” Years ago, in addition to the bylined articles I wrote for them, I did some ghostwriting for Dig and Calliope, the children’s magazines about archaeology and history. That, I now realize, was ghostwriting of a very different stripe. The editor loathed having to deal with PhDs with their jargonized writing styles, outsized egos, and complete lack of respect for any form of deadline, so in a few cases she found it easier to assign the writing to me and then, after a cursory review by the academic in question, slap Professor Dumdum’s name on it. I didn’t particularly care about the byline — as long as the check clears, I’m good! — but I was also sworn to super-duper secrecy with cherries on top, lest the professor be unmasked as a fraud by his peers, ridiculed, and driven like a mangy dog from the ivy-covered halls. The editor took pains to stress how seriously I needed to keep my lips shut — because we all know how tolerant our colleges and universities are.

The work I do for Story Terrace is ghostwriting of a less stringent sort. It’s work-for-hire, so the copyright goes to the customer, but I get a small credit inside the front of the book so there’s no top-secret surreptitiousness involved.

Further, Your Most Obedient Servant actually receives a commission for referrals that lead to projects, so if anything, the company wants me blabbing about it nonstop (not to mention that they have my headshot on their front page). I’m happy to recommend them.

So — if you or someone you know has always said, “I should write a book,” but never has, Story Terrace may be able to help make it a reality. The company has three different standard packages you can buy or you can tailor a project specific to your needs. All of the projects I’ve worked on were commissioned by adult children for their parents to capture their memories and experiences before they were lost forever. If you’re interested, just drop Story Terrace a line and mention my name. If you’re local, we can even arrange for me to write the project.

Makes a great stocking stuffer!

Blue Roofs

Baptist church, San Juan.

Last month, my oldest son and I spent a week in Puerto Rico volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service.

I first heard about MDS in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I subsequently learned they have a strong reputation within the disaster-relief world, largely due to the fact that they draw upon the Mennonite community for volunteers, many of whom have hard construction skills. At the time we had a newborn so running off for a week without my family was unfeasible, but I bookmarked MDS in the back of my mind.

Fast forward to 2018, where a combination of headlines, my son turning 16 (the minimum age for MDS work), and my dad’s passing inspired me to sign up. There was something else too. Looking at the world around me I notice the two commodities in scarcest supply are health and wealth, and it’s dawned on me that maybe I need to do more to help those who don’t possess what I take for granted. A common game to play with kids is, If you could have any superpower what would it be? The usual answer is the ability to fly or turn invisible. But lately I’ve wondered if maybe some of us wake up with powers every morning but don’t even realize it.

Somewhere between Cayey and Aibonito.

MDS has ongoing projects in Aibonito and Utuado, both in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, and Ponce, on the southern coast. I had been very concerned about the heat — real-feel temperatures in Ponce can break 100 — but as luck would have it we were assigned to Aibonito, which is nicknamed “the Fridge of Puerto Rico” for its cool climate. We arrived on a Saturday and, after waiting a few hours in San Juan for the rest of our party to arrive, drove into the mountains to Aibonito, 2,400 feet above sea level.

I soon learned Aibonito is home to a substantial Mennonite community, which includes a parochial school and a hospital. Our hosts, Harry and Linda, had restored what was once the hacienda on an old sugar plantation. Linda’s father had been a leading figure in town and she had grown up in the casa. Years later, she returned to the island to learn the house had fallen into bad disrepair; one thing led to another, and the couple stayed to renovate it. I didn’t know what to expect before arriving — I guessed we might be sleeping on bunk beds in a trailer — so to me staying in a historic early 20th-century plantation house was five-star accommodations.

A closed special-education school in Aibonito.

Last year, as a result of its ongoing financial crisis, Puerto Rico closed 167 schools and another 265 are scheduled to be shut down soon. According to the PR education secretary, enrollment is declining by 20,000 students every year and more than half of the island’s schools have less than a 60-percent occupancy rate. We saw three different shuttered schools in the seven days we were on the island.

Only happy when it rains.

Because my son and I were the only ones to bring rain gear, we volunteered to work outside on Monday, which is when “hurricane remnant” Beryl hit the island. Hurricane Maria had torn the roof off the largest building at the Academia Menonita Betania, the local parochial school. Getting the Academia into functioning condition before the fall was a priority, and our project leader John was staring at a hard Tuesday deadline for a pump truck and cement mixer to arrive and pour concrete for the footing of the new roof. Unfortunately, the forms — the molds for the concrete — hadn’t been completed, so the three of us worked in Beryl’s downpour, climbing and hammering on second-floor scaffolds. We finished the following sunny morning and the concrete was poured successfully. Steel trusses will arrive in August with the roof following afterward.

Once the mad scramble to finish the forms was done, we didn’t have much to do beyond stand around and watch the concrete crew work.

The rest of the week we worked with the others in our group (there were five of us, along with John) to complete work at one house — paneling with T1-11, doing finish trim, hanging doors — and install the metal roofing on another. This second house, located in the bush far west of town, was the highlight for me as I’d always wanted to install a steel roof.

Blue roofs are an ubiquitous sight on the island; FEMA has distributed 126,000 blue tarps and the US Army Corps of Engineers has installed temporary roofing on almost 60,000 homes, though neither FEMA nor anyone else can give specific numbers on how many roofs need replacement. Bear in mind that neither FEMA nor the Corps has actually replaced any roofs — that’s been left to either homeowners or volunteers.

We installed the fascias and gutters too.

Because building codes aren’t well enforced on the island, MDS has its own engineer-designed protocols for rebuilding, many of which echo Fortified techniques. Studs are anchored to the foundation and beams are strapped to the studs; plywood is screwed (not nailed) to the beams and joists, and a weatherproof sheeting is laid over the plywood before the steel roof is screwed down with more than a thousand screws. Overkill for sure, but meant to survive any future Cat 5 storm that blows off the sea.

The homeowner was living temporarily in his parents’ house across the street, taking care of both his elderly father and his brother, who is wheelchair bound with multiple sclerosis. He and his wife cooked lunch for us everyday — following it with some of the best café con leche I’ve ever tasted — and they couldn’t have been more gracious. They struck me as good, honest people who’d been dealt some bad cards, and all of us were grateful that providence — or maybe Providence — had aligned the teeth of our cosmic gears.

The beach in San Juan. Actual color.

Strange as it might sound, by the end of the week I felt energized and refreshed, almost as if I had been on vacation and not making forms or screwing down roofing. And, in fact, one of the best ways to help Puerto Rico is for tourists simply to return. While damage from Maria is prevalent, PR is far from any sort of post-apocalyptic setting — one night, my son and I ate at the McDonalds in Aibonito — and unemployment on the island is 9.3 percent, still staggeringly high by US standards but the lowest rate for PR since 2000. MDS isn’t the only relief group active on the island; at the airport we saw Mormon volunteers as well as gaggles of teenagers belonging to various groups, and there are many opportunities for voluntourism as well.

For once I’m too humbled to have any grand takeaways about the experience, though it warmed this shaggy steppenwolf’s heart to be surrounded by folks acting upon their faith to help others in very tangible ways. I truly believe you make the world you live in — if thoughts become actions, then our shared reality is an expression of our individual minds. The implications of this can be both disturbing and hopeful, and while I’m by nature inclined to dwell upon the former, I make it a point to focus on the good.

The Privateers of Black Rock Harbor

On Wednesday, May 30 I’ll be giving a presentation at the Fairfield Museum and History Center on the privateers that sailed in and out of Black Rock Harbor.

There’s a fine line between a pirate and a privateer — and it’s as thin as a piece of paper issued by the government. Come hear how such Fairfield luminaries as Thaddeus Burr, Samuel Smedley, and Caleb Brewster as well as many other “gentlemen of fortune” banded together to attack the British on the high seas during the Revolutionary War.

I’ll talk about the differences between privateers, pirates, and traditional navies; how the booty from captured ships was divided not only between the owners and the crew but between the officers and sailors themselves (a scheme that relates back to the Golden Age of Piracy); and how many of the privateers in Black Rock didn’t sail aboard large ships but rather hunted in wolf packs of armed whaleboats.

The lunchtime presentation starts at 12:30pm. Full details here.

The Dead: Now Riding Even Faster!

The Dead Ride Fast is now available on Smashwords and through a number of e-book retailers, including the iTunes bookstore.

I was reluctant to list The Dead Ride Fast with Smashwords and didn’t include it in my original marketing plan for the book, instead choosing to upload directly to each individual site. The price for maximum control was convenience, but as previously noted, control has been my overriding goal from the start.

Smashwords markets itself toward the, shall we say, less technically skilled e-book publisher. Their process uses a Word doc as the basis of an e-book, which it then transmutes into an epub via proprietary software called Meatgrinder before distributing it to retailers. As there is no way on God’s green earth you can produce a svelte, 100-percent functional ebook from a Word doc, I initially refused to consider Smashwords as a venue.

However, upon failing to list The Dead Ride Fast on the iTunes store, I reconsidered Smashwords as an end-run around Apple’s cumbersome process, and after some snooping I discovered you can upload a finished epub of your own making to Smashwords, thereby bypassing the Word/Meatgrinder channel. The only downside is that homemade epubs have to pass a manual inspection for compliance, which (I think) the Meatgrinder products don’t have to endure. That inspection delayed availability for a few days but was hardly a dealbreaker.

Once an e-book is accepted by Smashwords they blast it to practically every e-book retailer on the planet, so if you prefer some other store beyond Amazon, it’s probably available. For a full listing, head over to The Dead Ride Fast page on Goodreads and shop away. Don’t forget to leave a review there or anywhere else! Five stars are a writer’s bread.

You may also notice some shiny updates around this site, including a fresh author photo and a brand new contact page. Too shy to leave a public comment? Feel free to reach out in a non-creepy way by sending a DM! Or even reach out in a creepy way. ‘Tis the season, after all.

My Twin Peaks Summer

Meanwhile
Meanwhile.

For someone who alleges he doesn’t watch a lot of television, I sure do post about it often. Such is life with a degree of OCD; the same logistical deftness and attention to detail is also the curse by which I cannot simply watch a TV show — I can only be obsessed by it. Thus much like the winter of 2013–2014 when True Detective‘s first season kept me sane while purchasing and renovating our current home, the revival of Twin Peaks has been a welcome distraction during what has been without a doubt the most fucked-up summer of my life.

I will answer your first and most pressing question immediately: Why has this summer been fucked up, Jackson? Well, my father died of cancer in late April, and as my mother predeceased him in 2009, it has been left to my brother and me to sell his multiple properties and close his estate. This task, however, has been impeded by the facts that (a) because of a deep denial regarding his condition my father refused to put his estate in order before he died and in some instances actually went out of his way to make our jobs more difficult; and (b) my father also had mental illness, the extent of which was unknown to me in his lifetime and only became more evident the deeper we dug his grave.

I knew my father had some eccentricities and obsessions, but in short order emptying out his house — it took four dumpsters and a shredding truck just to reach normal — melted into a never-ending stumble through the canyons of his diseased brain folds. Add to this a few lucid dreams and a handful of experiences that bordered on the supernatural and you can perhaps understand why during these past summer months David Lynch spoke to my soul.

I spent all summer shoveling my way out.

The original Twin Peaks ran in 1990–1991 when I was an underclassman in college. As I initially went to school as a film major, naturally a production by one of the gods of cinema meant I watched every episode — often more than once — allowing its mysteries and intrigues, surely and steadily, to bewitch me.

It was certainly a show of disappointments. I remember being disappointed by the revelation that Laura Palmer’s killer was a spirit named Bob, which I felt absolved the human agent of his evil — her father Leland — and blunted the crime’s seriousness. I was disappointed by how the series ended with Cooper trapped in the Black Lodge, which seemed like a massive Fuck You to the fans’ loyalty. I recall being disappointed by the redundancy of Fire Walk With Me, which failed to resolve Cooper’s story or even enlarge upon it,.

And yet I loved Twin Peaks. I loved its quirky characters and dialogue and especially its deepening mythology, a particularly American mythology which Lynch and Frost cranked up a thousand-fold in the latest series. Of course the other-world dimensions of Twin Peaks resemble gas stations and run-down motels and art-deco theaters — what else would American Hells and Heavens resemble? Of course there are numerous shots of headlights beaming down black roads, almost as if you were night driving to New Jersey to plunge once again into a ghost’s sickness. Of course there are monsters in the desert wastes of the southwest or the forests north of them; of course a road accident along a lonely stretch will be haunted by shadows and spirits. What else is out there in America except monsters? Of course evil travels through electricity and phone calls and radio waves.

As an aside, consider just a single facet of the show. Throughout the series, Evil Cooper utilized an inexplicable witchcraft with numbers, using them to confuse tracking devices or short-circuit prison alarm systems. Philip Jeffries spouted them from his teapot. Numbers affixed to telephone poles begged the viewer to ask if they were relevant.

Numbers in Twin Peaks are a kind of sorcery, just as they are in our world. Take, for example, two-factor authentication. I want to log-in to a website. I enter my password. The website sends a number to my phone number. I then enter this number into the website — which is just an IP address composed of more numbers. If I’ve performed the spell correctly, I can pass through the gate to conduct some new magic within. The machine and I parrot numbers back and forth, teapot to tulpa, to work mischief.

“You think this shit is weird, look at that guy. I know, right?”

Girded by this history of disappointment, I was prepared for last night’s finale and although like many others I did not receive the conclusion I wanted, neither do I feel much of the frustration of 1991. A doubt that nagged me all summer was whether the Good Cooper could ever return to his rightful identity; after all, over the past quarter century the Evil Cooper had committed so many murders and rapes and other crimes that it would be impossible for Good Cooper to publicly assume the persona of Dale Cooper ever again.

Lynch seems to have asked the same question. After deciding to reset the timeline so that Laura is never murdered — which Cooper obliquely announces after Bob is finally defeated — Cooper’s face overlays the screen, implying that everything from that point onward occurs only in Cooper’s head. This makes a sort of sense. By altering the past, current events will have never happened, suggesting that only the meddler himself will remember them. The experiences of the other characters will effectively become a dream — they exist solely inside the mind of he who stepped upon the butterfly.

Cooper goes ahead and changes the past, though he loses Laura in the process. Later, upon exiting the Waiting Room (or does he?), Cooper meets Diane, who perhaps due to her long hiatus outside our world is also able to remember the train of events we’ve just watched. The pair decides to start a new life together by driving into — what? A new timeline? Yet another dimension? — via Cooper’s newfound ability to move between worlds. But as he says to Diane, things might be different after they cross over. He’s right. In the new world Diane no longer feels any connection to Cooper. She leaves him and perhaps even forgets their past lives entirely to inhabit her new identity as Linda. Meanwhile Cooper — or maybe now Richard — continues his search for the Laura he lost in the woods. He too seems different after the crossing, displaying a combination of his good and evil selves. Gone is the old special agent ecstatic over a cup of coffee. This Cooper is laconic and humorless, helping waitresses in distress by shooting assholes in their feet.

Cooper finds Laura only to discover she too has a new identity, then takes her to Twin Peaks, where everything looks the same but is different. Is this the story of the little girl down the lane? Doesn’t seem to be. Rather Cooper has jumped narratives into some fresh story involving a woman named Carrie Page who may or may not have killed a guy. Diane is now Linda, Laura is now Carrie. The faces are the same but the names have been changed, the actors reassigned.

None of this bothers me. Cooper is no longer trapped; he is still out there, somewhere, driven by his goodness to right wrongs. My interpretation is that he (and maybe Diane too) has become one of the Lodge spirits we’ve seen over the years, performing actions inscrutable to observers while moving through infinity. He seems to know where the doorways between worlds lie; upon exiting the Waiting Room, his hand waving causes the red curtains to shake, allowing him egress — a trick he didn’t know 25 years ago. Cooper simply may not yet realize his new status, his new transcendence. He’s become like Philip Jeffries and Mrs. Chalfont and Mike, beings who were once people but have now become something more. Maybe this season, in the end, was an explanation of where the Lodge spirits come from.

Did I mention my mom made and collected owl artwork?

Twin Peaks fans will never receive the explanations they want just as I will never receive the explanations I want about my dad. We are left only with our interpretations of events and how we act upon them. I don’t feel like the same person I was over a year ago, before my dad’s diagnosis. Like some Biblical patriarch I’ve returned from the desert transformed, my flesh mortified, aware of a greater cosmos, of layers previously unknown. I turn around to see T-shirts discarded on the bedroom floor, I look ahead to note others, clean and unworn, still in the dresser drawer. Like Cooper I am some alloy of multiple histories.

There’s still much to do regarding my dad’s estate but I can see the end now, something that was obscured back in June and July. A major goal was to have his house — the house I grew up in — empty and listed by Labor Day, an achievement we unlocked on Saturday.

This weekend is a bookend, a closing door. The people in my life who’ve helped me through already know who they are — I’ve thanked them effusively and will continue to do so. But there’s pixels to spare for a few more. So thank you, David Lynch and Mark Frost. Thank you, Kyle MacLachlan and the hundreds of cast and crew members. Thank you Twin Peaks soundtrack. Thank you for giving me a frame of reference, for being both a book of crossword puzzles and a dictionary, for being an entertainment and an Oracle at Delphi. Thank you all for playing a part in this very strange episode of my life.

Switch Back

Here’s a boring update: I’ve changed the redirect for jacksonkuhl.com back to this here blog.

When I altered the redirect in February to point to my Contently profile, my goal was to help editors lay eyes on my clips; but I was also curious to see what the change did to my overall traffic. How are people discovering this blog? Do they type my name into the address bar or arrive here some other way?

As I’m not pitching a lot of editors these days — my focus has been on life, with occasional work on long-form stuff — I thought I’d switch the URL again. Turns out changing the redirect had no discernible effect on unique visitors and only slightly subtracted from overall hits. In fact, the placement of both jacksonkuhl.com and jacksonkuhl.com/blog/ on the site’s top-25 list jumped around so much that I can’t derive any meaningful insights from the chicken bones — which I suspect is the problem with most big data. The greatest takeaway is that a lot of folks arrive here via RSS so it doesn’t make any difference where I point the URL.

I’m not one of those types who endlessly scrutinizes traffic stats or wrings his hands over SEO but it’s fun nonetheless to sometimes pop open the hood and see what’s happening underneath. On a related note, I’m sure all of the Russian and Ukrainian traffic this site receives is well intentioned.