How to Write an Inflammatory Post

They—who they, you ask? The writer people who know stuff—always say that it’s best to write as if you’re writing to a person you know. Your writing takes on a more personal tone, and you can delve into topics with some expertise.

Naturally, this can be a tricky style. There is plenty of fodder for discussion: Dear Roommate Who Keeps Stealing My Nail Polish or Three Tips for Dealing with Coworkers Who Smoke on Lunch Break, for instance. But maybe you don’t want your coworkers to be angry that you’ve had enough of their aroma. Perhaps your shaky relationship with your roommate started because she sleeps with a big knife by her bed and sometimes she sleepwalks with it (at which point you have bigger problems than the nail polish anyways).

But if you’re burning with a story that you must write, there are five ways to do so discreetly.

Change up the story based on the personality trait. A friend ignores her problems and avoids them by becoming busier and busier till she’s numb to the good and the bad. She could become your bachelor next-door neighbor who never confronts his fears of dying alone by keeping a to-do list longer than his arm, which means he never allows you to set him up on a blind date. The scenarios are different, but the basic principle remains the same: burying your problems in a full schedule doesn’t actually solve anything.

Always be gracious. If you’re telling a story about your know-it-all coworker, use terms like, “well-integrated information” and “clever synthesis of knowledge.” Be sincere rather than sarcastic. Tell the story in a way that honors your coworker, and doesn’t speak ill of them. Writing is cathartic and gracious writing helps develop a gracious perspective.

Ask the person if you can write about them. There’s no better way to diffuse a possibly explosive situation than by getting permission. Don’t ask, “I’d like to write about how you made a fool of yourself in that meeting, can I?” Remember the gracious principle—“How you handled that situation brought up some interesting talking points. May I refer to it in my writing?” If they say yes, cool. Be kind. If they say no, refer to the following.

Write about it for yourself and save it for later. Chances are that in 25 years, you won’t be working and interacting with the exact same people as you are now. An inflammatory article now is an interesting, amusing, and instructive piece when you won’t lose your job because of it (still, 25 years out, remember that gracious thing).

Go anonymous and move to an island in the pacific. And if your words are burning in your heart like a ticking time bomb, take up a pseudonym and house shop off the coast of California.

The Four Types of Laundry-Doers

A week ago my laundry experience spiraled out of control. Unamused, I wrote the following:

Tonight, laundry was a four-hour endeavor. Sharing eight washers and eight dryers with at least 260 people (closer to 350) means a few things:

  • For introverts, a trip to the laundry room is a veritable nightmare. There’s always a person there.

  • There’s only about a 15 percent chance you’ll get a machine on your first trip up—especially after five p.m.

  • Heavy machine usage dictates that at any given time, at least one of the machines is broken. Sometimes there’s a sign. Sometimes there’s not and you find out it’s broken after you load all your clothes and soap into it.

I spent most of my evening sitting in the laundry room, and observed four very distinct types of laundry doers.

1) The Bold: Because washers and dryers are such a hot commodity, there are signs all over the place asking residents to please remove laundry from machines in a timely manner. If you don’t and your full load is in the only stopped machine, The Bolds will march up, pull everything out, and dump it on the counter. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

2) The Timid: Even if the owner of the clothes in the machine left a note, “Please feel free to take my clothes out, I’m not coming back till tomorrow”, The Timids will stand there hesitantly, read and re-read the message, and discuss it with anyone in the room. Finally they’ll turn to the door, bag of clothes in tow, resigned to the reality of yet another week without clean socks.

3) The Patient: It is true that if you sit in one of the several chairs and wait, before too long you’ll get the chance to claim a washer or dryer. The Patients will camp out with a book or homework or just a suspicious glare whenever anyone else walks into the room, biding their time till there’s an opening.

4) The Angsty: Walking into the laundry room and seeing no empty washing machines may not seem like cause for stress, but for The Angsty it’s a perfectly valid reason to groan, glare, and huff and puff back into the hallway.

You’ll be please to know that I learned my lesson last week, and tonight my laundry strategy was much more successful (I define success here as low human interaction, no wait times, and not having to run the dryer three times in a row).

Kudos to everyone who has lived in an apartment and now owns their own washer and dryer. You deserve every moment of it, and all of us apartment folks would like to come live with you.

Why That Project is Taking So Long

Have a big project you haven’t finished? Garrison Keillor has crafted a perfect, absolutely watertight excuse for why it’s not done yet (disclaimer, this rings especially true for us writer-types).

Roman and Leon are brothers growing old together on their farm in Minnesota.

Roman worked, Leon said, as if he could by sheer effort pull the corn up out of the ground and make it grow. Leon said that he worked, too. On a book, though he wasn’t ready to show it to anyone, which would distill the wisdom of the ages into a single volume. This book, when finished, would change people’s minds about him, but he was in no hurry to finish it, knowing that work that lasts comes slow.

Cooking, Poetry, and Losing Friends?

I wanted to write about cooking as poetry, structured on a quote from Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, but my copy of the book (and therefore the exact quote) was nowhere to be found. In an apartment that’s circa 500 square feet, that’s a feat.

This derailed my cooking thoughts and prompted me to write about how losing a book is like losing a friend. Then I remembered Dandelion Wine is missing because I loaned it to someone: (verb) what you do when you never want to see your book again.

Now I’m stuck in the middle.

Is this a commentary on cooking as poetry, incomplete without one of my main sources?

Or is it a false disjointed narrative on losing books as losing friends—because my scenario is losing books to friends?

Perhaps I could do a bit of each, but one is like lasagna without the ricotta cheese (a sad, sad entreé) and the other evades any good analogy because it’s talking about A when B is what happened but A’s a good story but it’s not quite the truth (if you can figure out the perfect eight word picture for that, please let me know).

If you’re thoroughly confused about the whole thing, I am too. Maybe it’s just time for pie (poetry and friendship in one).

The White-Haired Guitarist: A Vignette

Experiencing fall in the midwest isn’t complete until you’ve gone to an apple orchard—so today Curtis (he’s very wonderful) and I trundled out to an orchard in northern Indiana.

Admittedly, the closer you are to Chicago, the more of a racket orchards may be. Visit for apples, and if you’re not careful you’ll end up buying the entire “fall in Indiana” experience: moo-choo train rides (train cars painted like cows), a corn maze, the pumpkin patch, a taco truck, live country music, and even a petting zoo.

Goats aside, the band is something of an experience. They perform on a small stage lined with corn stalks under a massive (think semi-trailer shipping container) banner: Barnyard Jams. At least 50 picnic tables are lined up in front of the platform, with maybe 2 dozen people total scattered around (listening and eating—but mostly eating).

Better than the setup are the band members. All men older than 50 (so, young guys—you’re welcome, dad) and exactly what you’d expect for a country bluegrass playlist. One of the lead singers, also a guitarist, had an especially arresting appearance.

Wearing baggy old-man jeans, a black zip up hoodie, tan work boots, and a black conductor hat isn't anything unusual. His main feature was an untrimmed, untamed white beard reaching almost all the way to his guitar. His white hair stuck out wildly from under his hat.

If he were in one of my stories, playing in the band would be be fulfilling his lifelong dream. But he’d also be keeping a massive secret.

Mylem Drusky had played in small bluegrass bands since he was 15. It started with his cousin Ed and a few of the neighborhood boys, continued through college, and finally became the small back porch group Mylem initiated after he bought a house with his wife Ellie. Being in a band was always interesting, which Mylem loved. His job as an accountant, though comfortable, didn’t leave much room for character or personality—people don’t usually want you to be creative with their money.

So he kept the band going over the years. Eventually they had gained enough repute in the small community that people hired them on for birthday parties and other events. The yearly gig at the community orchard was their biggest crowd of the year, and they rode on the publicity wave for months.

The other members of the band didn’t know Mylem’s secret. Actually, no one in the community did besides his wife. Years ago, when his grandfather was dying, he called Mylem into his room with an important gift.

“I’ll only give it to you if you never let anyone know you own it.” Wheeze, cough, shallow rattling breath. “You can be an anonymous help to the community. When people know you’re rich, they treat you differently.” Mylem sat quiet for a long time, holding hands with the frail old man. Finally, he agreed.

“I promise.”

So, year after year, he ran the business disguised as a middle-aged, well-groomed businessman who lived on the west coast and only flew out once or twice a season to see how things were going. No one ever suspected, even when he did his yearly summer beard shave. After all, mild-mannered accountants don’t have secrets.

Mylem gave thousands of dollars every year to charities, let at least half a dozen non-profit organizations use his facilities for free, and donated each season’s leftover products to homeless shelters in the area.

And today, a cloudy fall day, none of his fellow band members or the 30 dining guests casually ignoring the band guessed his secret. They had no idea that the scraggly looking guy with the full white beard was actually a millionaire, and the owner of the orchard.

The Ohio State Game

Curtis (he’s very wonderful) and I went to the Ohio State vs. Purdue University football game this weekend.

The temperature was in the thirties, with windchill dipping into the teens. We felt sorry for ourselves, but even sorrier for everyone on the field who didn’t have the privilege of wearing eight layers under a down coat.

We mostly watched the game, but stadium seats aren’t made for personal bubbles. When you talk to one person, you’re talking to everyone within ten feet. The gentleman behind us, married, was having a rough night. Preface: pregnant wife flying from Los Angeles to Dallas Fort Worth. Her late flight will likely make her miss her connection.

Husband gets off the phone, disgruntled. Turns to his buddy,

“I called customer service at the airport and asked them to help my wife.”

“What did they say?”

“I asked them to send over a wheelchair to hurry her to the next gate.” Pause, for dramatic effect. Then, with a slight increase in volume, “They said no!”

Buddy replies,

“Dude, what? That’s the worst.”

Husband says, “The guy goes, ‘She’s pregnant, not disabled. We can’t send her a wheelchair.’ “

I think the wife ended up getting where she needed to be—but not before most of section 114 heard about the perils of pregnancy, travel, and flying through DFW.

The game ended in a great upset—the underdog (Purdue, for those of us who aren’t avid college football followers) won. I learned that fans only like it when their team wins. By the end of the fourth quarter, when the score was Purdue 48 and OSU 13, an Ohio player accidentally stumbled into the end zone for a touch down. You could have heard a pin drop in the stadium, almost half-full of Buckeye fans.

Most of the stadium spilled onto the field as soon as the clock ran out, the guy with the pregnant wife forgot his frustration in his excitement, and the Buckeye fans filed out—shaking sorry heads and stomping icy feet.

The Boy and The Bag

There was only one noteworthy thing about today.

While I was walking home from the vegetable market, I saw a mother and her four children lollygagging down the street. The oldest child can’t have been more than eight years old, the youngest somewhere around two. They were all slowly meandering along the sidewalk, taking up all of it and some of the grass.

Mom carried a few grocery bags, and each child carried one—well, almost carried. The smallest child, a little boy with big curious eyes, had one fist clenched around his bag handle and was dragging the bag along the ground. In his other hand he tightly clutched a set of keys. He kept pausing and looking back at his bag, then turning ahead purposefully. His mother went slowly along in front of him, coaxing him along and keeping a watchful eye on all her other children.

And then I walked past them, and that’s all that happened today.

Short 06

Let me not to the marriage of true minds 
Admit impediments. Love is not love 
Which alters when it alteration finds, 
Or bends with the remover to remove. 
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 
That looks on tempests and is never shaken; 
It is the star to every wand'ring bark, 
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. 
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 
Within his bending sickle's compass come; 
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 
But bears it out even to the edge of doom. 
If this be error and upon me prov'd, 
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.

—William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

Sunday Runday

This morning, all of Chicago paused for the determination of 45,000 disciplined runners. Thousands of people trotted along in the rain, and I spectated from our apartment, warm and comfortable and eating breakfast. A perk of watched the marathon from bird’s eye view is observing the cheerers (I may have sat at the window with binoculars in hand all morning. Nah, not weird at all).

I learned that there are actually quite a few categories of marathon-watchers:

The Hard-cores: For the past 7 years of living in Chicago, I’ve always had two signs it’s marathon Sunday. First, there’s no traffic noise starting at around 5:00 a.m. Second, at 7:00 a.m. (the race starts at 7:30, two or three miles away from us), there are a few dozen people scattered over a thousand yards all talking, clapping, and ringing bells. You know, practicing for when the runners arrive 45 minutes later.

The Emotionals: An elderly couple peered into the hundreds, wearing shirts that read, “roBquick” (“Rob be quick”, for those of you who, like me, might fixate on lack of consistency rather than the meaning). After fifteen fruitless minutes, a young-ish (it’s hard to tell exact ages from eight stories up) guy ran up to them. The woman reached out to pat his arm as the white-haired man gave him a high five. When Rob ran off, the woman leaned into the man and started crying.

The Political Statement-ers: I’m no expert on spreading political opinions, but I guess an audience of 45,000 sweaty people is a good place to start. Two particularly dedicated individuals had pressing messages: THE MOON LANDING WAS FAKE and YOU’RE RUNNING BETTER THAN THE GOVERNMENT.

The General Encouragers: Many wonderful people stand on one street corner out of 26.2 miles and cheer for an hour. They don’t know every person who passes, but they’re showing support for the struggling masses of humanity grinding out 26.1 miles more than anyone ever really wants to run.

The I’m-ONLY-here-for-my-friend-s: Exact opposites of The Encouragers, these folks stand with hands shoved in their pockets until they see their special someone. After cheering like crazy for roughly 45 seconds, they push fists back into coats and set off for the next marathon-watching stop.

The Police Man: Twenty-six miles equals a) a lot of street closures, and b) a police officer at many of them to make sure all the half-asleep drivers notice the barricades. The police man at our particular corner stood for four hours, three of them drizzle and mist, one of them pouring rain, and didn’t look completely miserable. Although he also only really smiled at the people with dogs (it’s a sign, people would like me more if I had a dog).

The Extravagants: One couple had a stroller, maybe a dog (another sign), and two gigantic (probably 5 feet tall) shiny blue helium balloons—one was an ‘M’ and the other a ‘G’, presumably a runner’s initials? Or maybe they just picked them up from Party City for a birthday party in the afternoon.

The Husbands and Wives: It takes serious grit to run a marathon—but not all the participants are serious-grit, 25-marathons-later runners. There are a lot of normal people too, such as the regular-looking guy holding signs drawn on free papers from Bank of America. The one he held up said, Go Babe, Goooooo! When (presumably) his wife ran past, she stopped and gave him a huge hug and kiss, and stood with him for a moment. She ran off and he accidentally dropped his signs on the ground. He picked them up and stuffed them in his backpack, proud and happy.

Featured: The Emotionals and The Police Man and maybe a few others

Featured: The Emotionals and The Police Man and maybe a few others

The Professor's House Back Cover Copy

Based on the back cover copy of The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather, I expected a story about a man who was sad his family moved. The back cover reads,

Professor Godfrey St. Peter is a man in his fifties, who has devoted his life to his work, his wife, his garden, and his daughters, and achieved success with all of them. But when St. Peter is called on to move to a new, more comfortable house, something in him rebels. And although at first that rebellion consists of nothing more than mild resistance to his family’s wishes, it imperceptibly comes to encompass the entire order of his life. Combining profound introspection with a delightful grasp of the social and domestic rituals of a Midwestern university town, The Professor’s House is a brilliant study in emotional dislocation and renewal.

After reading the book, this isn’t the back cover copy I would have written (granted, perhaps it was written by a psychologist who’s made a study of the fictional man). From a narrative perspective, although St. Peter is troubled by his family’s move, it’s not the focal point of his concern. I’d write that back cover copy . . .

Teaching at a university and writing books for the last thirty years has worn out Professor Godfrey St. Peter—but so has being married to an intense woman, raising two daughters who hate each other, and watching his future son-in-law die. St. Peter’s uneasiness increases as his wife dictates their move to a larger, more comfortable home, and his daughter and her husband grow wealthy off her deceased fiancé’s discovery. Travel this wearying emotional journey with a lonely man who’s unwilling to leave the house that’s become closer to him than his family. You’ll learn a deeper understanding for the heart of a father, the complexities of friendship, and the soul of a man who gradually loses his will to live.