As I progressed, I went from writing fantasies and observations to more newsy opinion pieces. I was developing an interest in being a “real” reporter.

The Encyclopedia

October 6th, 2009

In case you thought I was kidding about the Do-It-Yourself Encyclopedia:

I found some volumes that were identical to my Dad’s at a secondhand store, so I bought them. I may have changed some contents for fictional purposes…

A company called RIVWorks will add video to your e-commerce Web site for as little as $79 per month. They use stock greetings taped in advance by actors. I guess the idea is that having someone greet you in person, with a voice you can hear and a body that is animated, will cause you to stay on the site longer and explore purchase options. I wonder if that is really true? What do you think?

At this point you might well ask yourself where I got the idea that I could do such unusual things, on my own, based solely on ideas that came into my head, with no prior experience in things like digging holes under the earth or talking to creatures no one else had ever seen, or writing newspaper columns, or putting together sports cars. It’s all because of the Do It Yourself principle that men have followed for generations.

My father had a shelf full of books called The Illustrated Do It Yourself Encyclopedia, Popular Science Edition, published in 1955. On the title page of each volume you read the reassuring words:

Complete How-To Series for the Entire Family

Written in simple language

With full tep-by-step instructions

And profusely illustrated

The covers were identical, with drawings of hammers and pliers and other tools on them. These books were far more dangerous than they looked. They told men they could do anything they set their minds to.

Want to build your own boat? The plans were contained in Volume 2. Unhappy with the state of your weedy lawn? Tear it up and rebuild it, as described in Volume 7. My family has always followed this principle. My father built his own picnic tables and chairs as a side business. He built a barn in our suburban backyard, and a storage building beyond that. His own father built a violin case by meticulously molding and pasting newspaper together.

After a few successes, it’s a small leap to projects that seem far more complicated, like Chucking Your Failed Marriage and Starting Over with Someone New (Volume 11) or Running Off to the Desert to Live in a Trailer and Escape the Worries and Cares of the Workday World (Volume 13) or Leaving Your Comfortable Office Job and Striking Out on Your Own (Appendix A, under Advanced Projects, Not for the Faint-Hearted). These were all delightful undertakings that were pursued by my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather.

As it says in the introduction to Volume 1 of the Encyclopedia:

Individualism is part of the American way of life. Everyone wants his home, inside and out, to be different from his neighbors’….No longer need you bewildered by some technical terms or serch for an easy-to-understand solution to any how-to problem. Just pick up the volume, then do-it-yourself!

Harold Joseph Highland

Editorial Director

When I was out in the street digging my hole and I hit a nest of roots, I ran for the Encyclopedia. I looked under R. The book said:

Roots tie trees and people together and provide nourishment for past and future generations. But occasionally roots may have to be broken for a construction project or simply to achieve the perfect green lawn that is the dream of every suburban homeowner. You will discover that, while roots take a long time to develop, they can be severed in a matter of minutes. Don’t worry: they will grow back eventually.

I grabbed a saw and an axe from the storage house my dad had built in the backyard, and headed out to the street. I wasn’t thinking about undoing the work that my little friends had done. I was possessed with the idea of finding my way back to them and leaving the world where no one was connected to anyone else, or to any tradition, or any particular place. It didn’t seem ironic. If I had looked under I in the Encyclopedia, I would have read:


The do-it-yourselfer, in his determination to create or repair or renovate something, must take care not to destroy something else. Use recycled materials whenever possible. Otherwise you will only create more work for yourself.

So It Goes, Part 28: Roothenge

October 3rd, 2009

When I got home I had to run the gauntlet. There was my sister, in the driveway, leaning against a Dodge Dart, talking to a guy. She greeted me and said, “Kurt, this is my brother, the one who writes the column in the paper. Greg, I’d like you to meet…” I hurriedly shook his hand and went inside, driven, thinking only of escaping this world and going underground.

“Can you help me open this?” mom said, rushing up to me with a can of Ragu spaghetti sauce. My brother was sitting in the chair, unmoved. I twisted the top and it opened with a satisfying “pop.”

“Thank you,” she said. “These hands of mine…”

“Uh-huh,” I said.

Then at the kitchen was my father. “I’m going out to Zayre’s. Want to take a drive?”

“Not right now,” I said. I hear the same response now from my children and I am disappointed. At that time I had no thought about my parents whatsoever except as a source of supplies.

“Could I borrow the shovel?” I asked him.

He told me where it was. “What are you going to do with…?” I heard mom say.

I got the device and went back to the site. I had not noticed this before but the orange construction vehicles were arranged in a circle, a suburban version of Stonehenge: the truck, the small bulldozer, the hole digger, and two other vehicles I did not recognize. The site had a mystical feel, an atmosphere of change, of movement. The thick gray clouds seemed to descend and the air was filled with mist. You could practically hear a chorus of druids singing in the background.

I climbed down in the hole. I started to dig. This must be against the law, I thought. Practically everything out of the ordinary was against the law. I began to hit thick obstacles: tree roots, that were woven together in a protective barrier against intruders like me trying to invade the Land Beneath.

I was never meant to grow up where I grew up. Many people feel this way, I suppose, but in my case it was literally true. I was supposed to have grown up in Evanston. That was where I was born and where I spent a formative baby year. My parents wanted to buy a house there. They only needed $5000. But my grandmother wouldn’t give them a loan. All they could afford was a tiny half of a duplex in Des Plaines.

You might well ask, what’s the big difference? The two towns are both suburbs of Chicago, and they are only a few miles apart. But there is a world of difference. Evanston is a college town, a place where professors smoking pipes and wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches can be found lurking in bookstores. It is a town where there are bookstores, where the trees are huge and old, and the houses are huge and brick. It is a town with a downtown, with a lakefront, with a train line to the city.

I would walk my bare flat streets, staring at the bland beige ranch houses and the new strip malls going up, trying to understand the world where I was fated to grow up. There must be some reason for this. I checked out a book from the university library called Suburbia: Its People and Their Politics by Robert C. Wood. I read:

The most fashionable definition of suburbia today is that it is a looking glass in which the character, behavior, and culture of middle-class America is displayed…Suburbs depend upon the special technological advances of the age: the auto, rapid transit, asphalt pavement, delivery trucks, septic tanks, water mains, etc.

The thing about the septic tanks and water mains was certainly true. There seemed to be work going on all the time in my town. Just down the street, there was a hole being dug for a new sewer. One Sunday when the workers weren’t there I peered down, wondering if it would provide me with a gateway to the Rootweavers’ world. It went down deep enough that it seemed damp at the bottom. I went back to the house for my shovel.

I wrote about a company called the Chocolate Farm in my book Starting an Online Dummies in 1998. It was started by a brother and sister, Evan and Elise MacMillan, of Denver, Colorado. At the time Evan was 15 and Elise was 13. They started out selling chocolates with a farm theme, such as candy cows. The business grew steadily until they employed 50 people. They were on the Oprah show; they were featured in People Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

I contacted Evan to see how things were going, and found out that the Chocolate Farm has been acquired, for an amount he would not disclose. Evan reported that the Chocolate Farm helped he and Elise through college. Evan is apparently a born entrepreneur. He has had four startup companies and is starting a fifth. He now lives in the land of startups, Palo Alto, CA. “I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing something entrepreneurial forever,” he says.
Humans were both builders and destroyers, erasing every bit of open space they could lay their hands on. Like bees filling in every space in the honeycomb, they bought up the farms, they mowed down the cornstalks, they bulldozed the barns. The daisy print curtains, the Humpty Dumpty cookie jars, the overstuffed chairs of the farmers’ families all went to a faraway place that we loved called the Landfill. The farmers moved to Florida and were happy.
Beneath, dirt fell with the constant rumblings. Did the humans know how unstable was the foundation they built upon? Did they think of the voles and moles and worms they buried and crushed and starved? Even the carcasses of their dead were shaken by the digging of foundations for the great stone boxes. If they had been aware of the beings beneath, both dead and alive, would they have built so much? Yes, we must answer, yes.
“Shall we not go far away to the north, where there are only trees?” said young Leviticus. “It will be much safer for us.”
“But what of the trees here, that are in danger from all the building?” said old Atticus. “Our duty is to them.”
We huddled by a pile of warm coals, talking thus, while the women prepared food.
“Our duty is to ourselves,” declared Zeddicus.
“Besides, where would we find the gum, and the candy they throw out, and the toys they discard?” said the boy Ficus.
“And the steel and the wood with which we shore up the foundations? Where would we get all that?” said his friend Locus.
“But in the old days we had no need of such things,” said Atticus. “We lived quietly and the humans were just as quiet and peaceful.”
“The dark ones,” said Zeddicus. “They cared for the earth. Not like these.”
There was agreement all around. Even now a great truck hit a bump and some dirt fell upon our heads.
But there was one who befriended us, the one who brings us gum,” I reminded them. “He is different. He does care for us.”
“The Juicy Fruit!” remembered Ficus.
The women called us. Our porridge was ready. I will not describe it. You do not want to know of such things. I went to passage 3, and turned down the sixth pathway. “Come,” I called to the workers. “Your dinner is prepared, your work is done, come, rejoice, and dine with your friends.” The young ones who had been tying clambered down and hurried past me, wobbling, their stubby legs unsteady from being on their backs for so long. I felt the walls. They were not firm. The humans built only upon sand. Had they known how unsteady their foundation was…well, it would make no difference to them.
At the end of the sixth pathway was an opening to the outside. I crept toward it. A little mole squirmed on the path. “There, my friend,” I said, making an opening in a wall and placing him inside. “Cold! cold!” his tiny mole voice squealed.
I peered out into the night, hoping he would find this gateway. To discover one who was kind and respectful was rare. Something fell from above. I scrambled through the wet earth to retrieve it. It was just a box that had held the grain they set afire and put in their mouths. I sniffed it. It smelled…almost good. Then I shook my head and tossed it to the ground. What kind of beings would do such things?
I sensed that I was wanted. The warm tingling in my hands and feet was from my children, wondering where I was. To be so close is good, and yet a curse. One is never alone even when one is alone. I hurried back down the path, stretching up to weave some tiny hair roots that had come loose, and then I returned to taste the awful porridge.