I Column Like I See 'Em


Back in January, 2018, when my weekly humor column was axed by the San Jose Mercury News, I remember my immediate reaction. “Oh man,” I thought to myself, “are they going to get a bunch of angry emails,” which I immediately began writing.

But while disappointed to no longer be issuing my weekly 800-word mirth missives to the greater San Jose community, I admit to feeling a bit relieved as well. Two full years of the Trump era had rendered day-to-day reality so bizarre that I often felt I was no longer competing with the paper’s comic strips for laughs, but with the front-page headlines. Who needs satire when the nation is led by a President who believes windmills cause cancer and the American Revolution was won because the colonists enjoyed superior air power?

But beyond that I also felt that what was happening in the world around us, whether climate collapse, social unrest, skyrocketing inequality, or the rapid erosion of the few remaining vestiges of our crumbling democracy, just wasn’t - and I know this may sound crazy - all that funny. And that was BEFORE the coronavirus came around to remind us how good we had it even if we didn’t know it at the time. 

Once More, Into The Breach

So what inspired me to start writing my column again? True, it’s not like we’ve solved any of the problems enumerated above — unless one of the problems I listed was “Not enough right-wing extremists, many in comical costumes, breaking into the US Capitol Building to launch an insurrection, tacitly supported by the President.” (I went back and double-checked my list. It wasn’t there).

My first reason for relaunching is that I’ve come to miss doing the column. It turns out that writing was an important and fulfilling creative outlet, one that I missed despite my best efforts to replace it with hassling telemarketers and getting into heated arguments with strangers on social media.

And second, OK, yes, the world may be rapidly degenerating into a giant vortex of suck all around us, but is that any reason to deny readers the opportunity to enjoy a few laughs along the way? (Note: laughs not guaranteed) I don’t think so. Although maybe from now on, I’ll include a disclaimer at the top of each column indicating that my jocular tone should not be interpreted as a sign that I don’t take seriously the problem of [coronavirus/climate change/alien invasion].

Online And Off-Leash

Also helping with my decision was the discovery of this website, Substack. I can post my column here, and the app takes care of administrative tasks like layout and email updates, freeing me to focus on the actual writing (and who knows, maybe future versions will take care of that task too!).

I’ve got to tell you, after writing for a newspaper, with all the layers, filters and other restrictions that entails, self-publishing is a dream. Not writing for a newspaper means I can curse as much as I want and there’s no editor constantly badgering me about “missed deadlines” or sending peevish emails explaining that “legal” won’t let me say that Ryan Seacrest masterminded the 9-11 attacks.

And come to think of it, no editor also means no one to prevent me from being so incredibly self-indulgent that I write a column all about writing my column! It’s so liberating!

The one feature of the Substack platform that I’m ambivalent about is the “paid” subscription model, which allows users who are so inclined to voluntarily give me money in exchange for… well, nothing really. Paid subscribers don’t get anything extra compared to unpaid subscribers, although some writers apparently use a tiered system with bonus content for paid subscribers. But frankly, I don’t even know how I’d do that:

“Sure, you can register for free to receive my standard, run-of-the-mill column, but if you want to read columns that include actual funny jokes…”

My point is that I didn’t start doing this expecting anyone to actually pay me. There are literally an incalculable number of worthier recipients of your charity, and lord knows I didn’t get into writing for the financial rewards. Yet some of you have nevertheless signed on as paid subscribers, which is incredibly generous and genuinely appreciated. But I assure you that I would keep writing the column even if no new paying subscribers signed up, and all the current ones canceled at the same time (although it would be tough to interpret such an event as anything but a vote of no confidence).

Not Down With The Method

I guess what makes me a bit queasy about the idea of “monetizing” my writing this way is that it reminds me of an experience I had applying for a summer job in high school selling silverware sets. My fellow trainees and I spent a few hours learning all about the incredible opportunities open to us in silverware sales, after which I raised my hand to ask just who, exactly, we’d be selling all this fine flatware to. The trainer paused, then explained that the company utilized what he called the “F&R Method,” in which the “F” and “R” were short for “Friends” and “Relatives.”

Upon hearing this explanation an audible groan went out from, well, from me anyway. I could just imagine the uncomfortable scene as I awkwardly pitched my Aunt Libby and Uncle Bruce on helping me defray my college expenses by purchasing overpriced silverware sets they had neither need nor use for. Meanwhile they’re thinking, “Should someone even be going to college who’s not smart enough to find a summer job that doesn’t involve fleecing his own relatives?”

And honestly, isn’t it a little grandiose to describe the practice of hitting up friends and family for money as a “method?” That’s like saying you cut your food up using the “F&K” (Fork & Knife) method or you shampoo your hair with the “LR&R” (Lather, Rinse & Repeat) method. So I gave up on this prospective employer and their signature “F&R” method by deploying what I call the “L&NCB” (Leave & Never Come Back) method.

Yet here I am today, violating my own “method” by bringing back my column while also employing the F&R method I once derided. Yeah, well, I never promised consistency. That’s what editors are for.

P.S. Also of interest on Substack: my friend Kyle Thiermann, a professional big wave surfer and amateur adventurer whose life is far more interesting than mine, and that’s clearly evident in his writing. You can check him out here: https://thiermann.substack.com