In a Modern World

Back in the fall as I was returning to writing after being laid off from my main hustle, I had an alarming string of bad luck pitching articles. Not only did my pitches fail to sell, but their recipients couldn’t even be bothered to respond to them; and not only did they not respond, but these recipients were either editors or markets to which I had made previous sales, or at least were very friendly to me on Twitter. Follow-ups were likewise met with stony silence. Welcome, Jackson, to the newest flavor of New Media.

I told myself that everything I was doing was wrong and immediately set out to do everything — anything — completely differently. What did that mean? Well, I consciously moved away from my usual subjects, like history or politics, and targeted markets that I had only recently discovered, markets that tended to be less visible. Almost immediately I made a couple of sales, the latest being an article for Nifty Homestead about a favorite hobby of mine.

For me the takeaway of 2016 is that everybody needs to pull their shit together. I had predicted that Clinton would narrowly win Florida, allowing her to limp to a weak victory over Trump. I was very much in error. But here’s the thing: it’s not my job to watch elections. I’m someone who takes a casual interest in the news, and when he does, focuses more on local than national politics. Meanwhile the vast majority of news outlets whose content revolves around things like elections completely imploded in the months leading to November 8.

In the back of my head I always thought that if I landed a writing gig, either freelance or salaried, for a mainstream-ish publication I would be in clover. Now I look at many of them and recoil. While Trump was winning Middle America the ostensibly serious and strait-laced Atlantic published this. More recently the co-founder of The Federalist thought this was good content. Vox and Salon are parodies of themselves. None of it is news, fake or otherwise. It’s Twinkie filling.

I’ve recently discovered Medium. It’s an odd, nonintuitive place, basically a blog aggregator except a few of those aggregated are paying markets. Some of it is dreck; there’s a lot of “I fed the pigeons at the park today and have #feels about it.” But I’ve also found some gems too, like Pacific Standard, which has terrific feature writing, and the history site Timeline. It’s where I’ve been going for thoughtful analytic journalism, and with the exception of the Washington Post, nothing I’ve encountered on there could be construed as mainstream. Of course, it figures the day I write this, Medium closed two offices and laid off a third of its staff.

Do everything different. With Trump soon to be in power and media muckety-mucks falling on their asses, I feel a strange optimism entering 2017. Quoth Conan the Salaryman the morning after the election,

Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Not Beautiful

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My boys and I built our first garden behind the garage of our previous house. We never had a bumper crop of anything there; the corn cobs were tiny, the carrots shrimpy. The best we did is a couple of pumpkins one year in time for Halloween.

This spring I built three beds at our new house. Unlike our last garden, I was less laissez-faire with my investment: I watered and weeded and shooed away deer and squirrels. The results were mixed. While the tomatoes grew more than five feet high, they never produced a viable fruit; friends complained they had worms in theirs, and my pal Christina warned me that birds will eat them during drought — and we’ve been in a drought since June. I have fifty feet of pumpkin vines but no pumpkins. We harvested one solid crop of arugula and basil before the cucumber plants took over the bed and blotted out the sun.

And the cucumber themselves? I never knew cucumber plants grew so large or aggressively. The exclosure fence around the bed became a trellis which they promptly scaled and summited with their tendrils. A little research told me they are distantly related to pumpkins, which explains the similar broad leaves and steroidal growth. The fruits grow like the balloons of a balloon artist, beginning as tiny gherkins on the vine then inflating from one end to the other. We’ve been eating cucumbers in our salads all summer, minus the edible wax of the store-bought variety.

On Monday I clipped the last half-dozen from the withering plants. In each case I had left the fruit attached to mature a little longer as it had some odd disfigurement I hoped would go away: a kink in the hose here, an uninflated finger there. Finally I acknowledged I had to harvest them or they would rot on the ground. They taste as great, warts and all, as the model cukes.

But if I was selling cucumbers commercially, these ugly ducklings would have wound up in the garbage. In the European Union about 30 percent of food grown by farmers is thrown away because it looks weird, even though it is unspoiled and perfectly edible. That percentage is comparable to the amount wasted by the US and other nations around the world. Back in 2014 my friend Baylen Linnekin interviewed Maria Canelhas, a representative of the organization Fruta Feia (“Ugly Fruit”), which fights against food waste. Canelhas explained the EU regulations behind it:

These rules basically group fruits and vegetables into classes, depending on the size, colour and other appearance characteristics (such as stains on the peel). Regarding fruits, you have class “extra,” class I, and class II, and each of these classes have a minimum size, that’s determined by the calibration standards. On another hand, you have classes grouping fruits according to their coloring. Regarding vegetables, you also have classes that group them according to their size (minimum calibration) and colour.

So what happens is that consumers started to prefer fruits and vegetables from the class “extra,” class I, or class II with high calibrations. When noticing this trend, distributors and supermarkets started to buy from the farmers those classes only, leaving the others out. This explains the difficulty that farmers are facing trying to sell these fruits and vegetables, resulting in a huge amount of food waste. Nowadays, distributors and supermarkets aren’t buying the less appreciated classes, so consumers don’t have the choice to buy them, because this food isn’t even arriving on the market.

Not so coincidentally Baylen has a new book out tomorrow about how smarter government regulations would reduce this kind of waste and encourage sustainability.

Biting the Hand That Feeds UsBiting the Hands that Feed Us introduces readers to the perverse consequences of many food rules. Some of these rules constrain the sale of “ugly” fruits and vegetables, relegating bushels of tasty but misshapen carrots and strawberries to food waste. Other rules have threatened to treat manure—the lifeblood of organic fertilization—as a toxin. Still other rules prevent sharing food with the homeless and others in need. There are even rules that prohibit people from growing fruits and vegetables in their own yards.

Blurb writers John Mackey and Joel Salatin can’t both be wrong! I’ve already pre-ordered my copy, which I can’t wait to read while munching a gnarled-cucumber sandwich. Have you? UNSUBTLE HINT: CLICK HERE.

Update: Baylen goes into detail about ugly vegetables and American food waste in an interview with HuffPost, stressing the need for both laws and consumers’ expectations to change:

The regulations the USDA and EPA have established make wasting the “ugly” fruits and vegetables often times easier than actually picking them at the farm and trying to sell them. The government’s at fault there, full stop. But it’s also incumbent upon consumers to change their behavior and recognize that.

The Loss Leader of Life

Seems to be growing well.

Every New Year I vow to attack this blog with great vigor, resolving to update it at least once a week with reports of my adventures and successes which I assure myself are many and sundry. And for a while this goes as planned. Then summer arrives and I am reminded of the projects and endeavors I swore to do as I peered at the yard through rime-laced windows and it all goes out the door. Figuratively. Literally.

Which is how it should be. There are only so many days in a year, only so many of which are warm and pleasant, and I am less grasshopper than ant. Over at UncMo my friend Christina, who is a thousand times more articulate than I am, has recently embraced the freelancer lifestyle in which “every hour has to be accounted for.”

The upshot is, every hour is billable to something. Your livelihood. Your loved ones. Your sanity. Your soul. Remember that’s always true, whether you’re freelance or not: Every hour is billable.

So running and paddleboarding and building and maintaining gardens and manufacturing tiki bars with the sons and performing various minor household upgrades and binge-watching Jessica Jones and working for money and sometimes — sometimes! — actually writing something for submission has not left much time for dear old bloggy. And yet at odd moments I have tightened a few gaskets. I reorganized the Clips page to highlight the good stuff. I truncated my biography on the About page. (True story: more than one venue has identified me as an “archaeologist” even though I haven’t performed practical archaeology in 14 years. I prefer short one- or two-sentence bios to accompany my byline, and always justified my longish About page for those who took the trouble to click over to learn more about me. Alas, this seems to have confused some people who think studying archaeology as an aid to one’s historically themed writing is the same as doing it as a profession — so out went the education along with other superfluous details). I still don’t know what to do with the Genericons in the lower right corner; I don’t like them but haven’t found a substitute.

The garden smells of basil, the arugula is as light and sweet as cotton candy, and the pumpkin vines are already out of control. I PRed a 5K last month. The garage sports a fresh coat of paint. The Sound is warm and perfect for swimming.

 

Schemes of the Blackest Dye

Next Thursday I’ll be a panelist at the Fairfield Museum for a discussion of espionage in Connecticut during the Rev War. I’ll be joined by UConn’s Rachel Smith, who dissects the show TURN at her blog, TURN to a Historian, and Black Rock historian Robert Foley.

From Nathan Hale to the Culper spy ring to conspiracies big and small, Connecticut and the coast of Long Island seethed with skulduggery in large part because only about two-thirds of the population felt the red, white, and blue — the rest still pledged fidelity to the House of Hanover. Smedley and friends once caught some Loyalists on the Sound who, upon interrogation, confessed a “Scheme of the blackest dye”:

John McKey of Norwalk later testified that on April 15, a Charles McNeill of Redding approached him saying that a colonel in the British army had in his possession lieutenant’s commissions for each of them. The British were galvanizing the loyalists into a fifth column to be called the Royal Americans. Their first job was to construct an intelligence network that would relay information about Continental troops to the British.

Plots! Treachery! Whaleboat battles! Next Thursday, April 7, at the museum. It’s free! modestly priced!

Domo Arigato Mister Paychecko

Maria points the way.
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A few weeks ago I received the news that my role at my bread-and-butter freelance gig has been automated. The job — which is a mishmash of coding, editing, and technical writing — has increasingly been my work focus over the past five years, and yet by the end of 2016 it will be performed by computers overseen, presumably, by interns.

Recently while ruminating over robot apocalypses — and I’ll give you one guess why — I questioned the assumption that AIs would necessarily want to kill humans. After all, we haven’t shared the Earth with another intelligent species for about 40,000 years so we shouldn’t assume that two of them couldn’t coexist. Then I recalled that any program is only as smart as its programmers, which is why computers are great for playing chess and winning trivia game shows but immediately out themselves as Nazi nymphos the moment a single degree of emotional intelligence is required. Anything crafted by the hands of shaved chimpanzees will naturally be obsessed with murder and fucking.

I’ve worked in the Internet since 1997 and while I will miss the gig’s sweet, sweet income, I’ve found that layoffs/contract expirations can be blessings in disguise. There’s always the possibility that the automation will be less promising than expected and the work will still require a human touch (again: it’s only going to be as good as its architects), but I choose to believe this is the kick in the pants I need to get back to neglected ideas and projects, primarily long-form nonfiction. Like it or not, the robots are shoving me into a brighter future.

Questionable Advice to Underage Minors

Last Saturday I was invited to participate in History Day, wherein students put together historical projects — papers, documentaries, museum exhibits, websites, you name it — based on extensive research and interviews. The projects are then judged and the winners are awarded something — what, I’m not sure. Towards that goal, the Fairfield Museum and History Center collected a bunch of historians and invited kids from around southwest Connecticut to ask us, one-on-one, for advice and direction.

I’m flattered to have been asked to help out, especially because I was only one of two historians present who didn’t have a PhD after his or her name. Most of the kids were middle-school aged and I was amazed at how deeply some of them had leapt into their subjects, but after the original shock — this was my first experience with History Day — I realized I could provide something the other historians probably couldn’t, namely guidance on finding interviewees and resources like images and how to structure their narratives.

I’ve been asked before to write articles or columns on writing advice. I always decline, mainly because I feel every writer’s methods and path are too particular to be much use to anybody else, and also because I often feel too lost at sea myself to advise others how to navigate. That said, as I sat and talked with the students there were four recurring suggestions that popped up over and over, and maybe it’s helpful to repeat them here in case you, my noble reader, find yourself or your offspring working on something similar.

Make it personal. I felt afterwards that my experience as a parent played a bigger part than my work as a writer or historian. You know how it is: your kid comes home with some grandiose idea for a school project, but when it comes time to sit and do the project with him, the ellipsis between Point A and Point Z becomes abundantly clear. Many of the attendees at History Day simply needed help drilling down to what their end product would be and how they would present it. To that end I recommended identifying a specific person or point in time — or, if the project was biographical, an episode in the person’s life — that is illustrative of the overall history or arc. One young woman was doing her project on the Radium Girls and I advised her to highlight one of the girls in particular. Readers or viewers naturally empathize with individuals and by showcasing one girl’s experience, the student could communicate the broader phenomenon.

Prioritize your content. In research, you always wind up with more information than is germane to your project. All projects have limits, whether it’s a word count or a maximum running time for a documentary or skit, and limits are good because they help structure your narrative. For example, in Smedley I left out a lot of info about Smedley’s post-war merchant trade. To the internal completist it seems a shame to leave stuff out but throwing in everything will get you, and your reader, lost in the weeds. You have to prioritize what to include, and in doing so you give the project an architecture. A zillion biographies have been written about what made Hitler be Hitler. They all work from the same pool of facts but each historian places emphasis on a different aspect: one thinks Hitler was the way he was because he was a failed art student, while the next thinks Hitler was Hitler because of his experiences in World War I, and so on. Each writer arrives at her conclusions by emphasizing or prioritizing episodes or sets of facts over others. Use the scissors. The good news is that the stuff you cut often shows up in other projects. Especially blog posts.

Pick up the phone. Free lunch was included in History Day, which was certainly an inducement for me to attend. As we sat munching, the grown-ups chuckled over how reluctant the kids were *to call* someone on the phone. One young man I spoke to was researching early Fords and how they changed American culture; another pair was doing a project on the Black Sox scandal; and still another couple of students was making a doc about cannibalism at Jamestown. Yet none of them had actually contacted Ford or the White Sox or Historic Jamestowne. I told them that big longstanding companies or franchises like Ford and the White Sox will often have dedicated historians and archives, and places like Historic Jamestowne, whose whole mission is public outreach, will likewise have staff happy to answer questions (especially from kids). It’s always worthwhile to contact a company or group directly to see what they have. Go to their website and look for their media or PR office. Or, worst case, just call their direct number and ask the voice on the other end.

Use your network. The line between history and journalism thins the closer the horizon reaches the present. There are no ancient Egyptians left to interview but if you’re writing about the Beatles as one group of girls was, then you’re in luck — as I told them, not only are there fifty years of interviews they can mine, there are still people around who’ve met the Beatles (including a couple of actual Beatles). Journalists use their contacts and networks to find and write stories — stories that others can’t write because they have different networks. Mrs. Kuhl’s dad and uncles, who sell sailboats, once sold a boat to John Lennon and even accompanied him on his 1980 cruise to Bermuda, making for some of the best stories I’ve ever heard around a Thanksgiving dinner table. If you’re writing about something that happened within the recent past, ask your family and your network about it. Even if they don’t have any direct contact with the person or event in question, they may be able to direct you toward someone or someplace that does.