Archive for June, 2007

Summer (Short) Writing Issue

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

brief.jpgOne of our most successful endeavors here has been the call for six-word memoirs. We launched six words as something like counter-programming to NaNoWriMo, which demands 50,000. We just wanted six (and still do—send yours in and it could be in a future book of six-word memoirs) and you sent us thousands of short, short life stories. And one of you even won an iPod.

In the spirit of brevity this summer, here are a few of our favorite short spots to read and write works of fiction and nonfiction alike.

Vestal Review, which just celebrated its seventh anniversary, is the Web’s longest running flash fiction site. All stories 500 words or less. Says founder Mark Budman, “If you don’t have time to read them, then fine literature is in trouble.”

Brevity has been producing great work, on a shoestring, for nine years. It publishes personal nonfiction works that are 750 words or less.

Ficlets is a genius, playful, collaborative short story site. Anyone can add to a thread of a story, write a prequel or sequel—offering a “choose your own adventure” vibe. We met the founder at SWSWi and blogged about it here.

400 Words is called “the literature of everyday life” and the creation of SMITH editor Katherine Sharpe, who recently wrote this moving piece about her father. Current 400 Words topic: work.

Happy writing. Happy reading. Happy summer!

The Wizard of Wiki

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

Ever wonder who those people are who leave all those reviews on Amazon? Or who seem to find time to post 25 new YouTube videos a day, or link to story after story on Digg? In a new series of interviews, SMITH unearths some of the people who have made many, many contributions to the Net, each in their own particular way, while remaining mostly under the radar. Where better to begin than the wild, unwieldy, and wonderful world of Wikipedia? Meet Richard Farmbrough, a 45-year-old technology project manager living in Stamford, England—and the man with the most Wiki entries since its launch on January 15, 2001. SMITH contacted him via email.

SMITH: What’s Stamford like?
Richard Farmbrough: Stamford is a pleasant market town in the East of England region, it is generally affluent, and near the city of Peterborough. It has good transport links and an interesting history—see the Wikipedia article of the same name.

Why the urge to write and edit so many entries?
Wikipedia is such a good resource, it seems a shame to let gaps remain unfilled, or errors go by uncorrected. This is also in keeping with a community value indicated by the neologism “sofixit”—in other words, on Wikipedia, you are empowered to resolve problems, rather than relying on someone else to do it for you. Of course, some things require collaboration through talk pages and the many wiki-projects that cover everything from specialist subjects to article clean-up and helping new editors find their feet.

How did you get involved with Wikipedia?
Like most Wikipedians, I started with a minor edit, on a “talk page” (a page where an article is discussed). In my case, I increasingly found that I was, at that time, in a position to add to, correct or create many articles. After some time, I started reading the documents about Wikipedia and how it works, and realized that we were creating good content but with lots of stylistic, spelling, grammatical and other gaffes.

Wikipedia has a Manual of Style, so I read that, and started fixing “violations” wherever I came across them—such as by effectively proofreading, and to some extent, sub-editing. I became frustrated with finding the same errors again and again, and created tools to help find and eliminate them. Round about then, I came across Wikipedia “bots,” or robots, and started using one to fix common errors. That’s under a separate account and is, I believe, the Wikipedia editor with the most edits.

What was the first entry you ever wrote or edited?
My first article edit was to Modafinil a keep-awake drug I was investigating at the time. It’s pleasing to see the short article that was there then is now a substantial overview of the drug. The first article I created (you can’t really say you “wrote” an article on Wikipedia, since they are never finished, and have many editors) was Projective frame which is about a mathematical concept that has also been improved substantially–and the same day (I must have been getting into my stride) Ohio House of Representatives with a couple of lines, that are now a reasonable article, Spaghetti House siege substantially as it is now, and Black Liberation Army which again has grown to a reasonable article from my couple of lines.

What do your mates think of how much time you spend on Wikipedia?
Actually, I don’t spend all that much time on Wikipedia. I rarely get involved in the behind-the-scenes stuff; although, as an “administrator,” I get asked to help deal with vandals and disruptive behavior. Nor am I involved, at the moment, in anything that takes extensive research. Most of my edits (but by no means all) are minor clean-ups that take a few seconds—that’s the main reason I have so many edits.

If somebody were to find out that you had the most entries and wanted to beat your record, what would you do? Would you pull all-nighters to retain your crown?
I would encourage them to make sure that their edits were adding something of value. “Editcountitis” is a well-known affliction in the Wiki community, and to try and reduce it, I would freely state that I consider many editors have made more valuable contributions to the ‘pedia than I have. Of course, it’s “nice” to be at the top of the (human) list—especially as I considered it completely out of the question to be in the top 100 when I first saw it. But really, it’s not that big a deal; I don’t mention it on my user page, and I don’t think I’ve mentioned it to my family or friends.

Do you have any other obsessions besides Wikipedia?
Well, I am not actually obsessed with Wikipedia, despite appearances! If I am obsessed with anything, it is continuous improvement. I see Wikipedia as an example of this, as well as my own personal and family development. And the charity I’m involved with, which is trying to improve the education system.

Do you think Wikipedia is a better source of information than going to the library?
In some ways. The question only makes sense if you state who is looking for what, and which library is involved. For example, if you have a university library available to you, you will get more and better information on most subjects, except, perhaps, popular culture. If you only have a small-town library, you can probably find out as much or more from Wikipedia on many subjects, but it will be “chunked” differently—it might not be easy to learn calculus, certainly not Linux or Anglo-Saxon from Wikipedia (although, there are sister wikis which address these types of needs). The Wikipedia community has a strong belief in maintaining the goal of building an encyclopedia, rather than a how-to resource, a dictionary (though there is also Wiktionary) or “an indiscriminate collection of information.”

Tell us a story about yourself that you haven’t told anybody in a long time.
When I was about eight or nine, I was given a Junior Pears Encyclopedia–a single volume of about 600 pages. Not long after that, I decided it would be extremely useful to have a “book of everything,” since there was clearly a lot of ground missed out in this one. My book would probably have to run to several volumes, perhaps five or ten. I started by preparing some re-cycled envelopes where I could collect information, “The Elements” “The Solar System” “Napoleon” and “Nelson” were a few. Realizing I knew very little about Nelson and Napoleon, I made a trip to the largest local library I could get to, took one look at the biography shelves, and realized the futility of my endeavor. Twenty something years later, the Internet in general and Wikipedia in particular have re-awakened that boyhood dream.

What’s next for you on Wikipedia?
I’d like to create a mathematical model of the trends, to investigate how we best go about keeping the vitality of the enterprise without compromising content. It seems to me that while Wikipedia may be the embryonic form of something we don’t yet understand, it may also suffer from stultification and rot; when all the “easy” articles have been written and polished, who will keep an eye on minor jazz singers dates of birth.

If you could describe your experience as a Wikipedia writer in six words, what would they be?
Cool, frustrating, satisfying, friendly, challenging, educational.

What’s your Net obsession?

Weird Museum: I guess stamps weren’t his thing

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

mutter.jpgA few years ago, my boyfriend and I were watching a Discovery Channel special about Philly’s Mutter Museum. The place is home to a lot of medical weirdness — like a five-foot colon, which held some 40 pounds of poo. Needless to say, we felt this place was reason enough to visit The City of Brotherly Love. Screw the Bell, man!

Now, as it turns out, another trip might be in order to yet another freaky museum. In London, England, The Wellcome Collection has opened its doors. According to an article in The New York Times, the museum contains “anatomical models, surgical instruments, prosthetic limbs and other examples of medical progress, as well as eye-catching objects ranging from Peruvian mummies and Chinese torture chairs to Greco-Roman phallic amulets to Japanese sex aids.” Sweet.

Oh, but there’s more. So much more.

It also presents what can only be called celebrity curiosities, like Napoleon’s toothbrush, Charles Darwin’s walking stick, Benjamin Disraeli’s death mask, Horatio Nelson’s razor, Florence Nightingale’s moccasins (worn during the Crimean War) and some locks of George III’s hair.

Of course, there’s always a reason why somebody chooses to collect amputation saws and mummies instead of coins or stamps. In this case, Henry Wellcome’s young bride (26 years his junior) cheated on him and became pregnant. He ditched her and devoted his life to his collection, which includes a piece of skin with a tattoo on it from an executed criminal. See, everyone has a story.

You can read the entire article here.

Rock Show Recall

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

This week’s question:

John Sellers’s Perfect From Now On tells a life as the sum of indie-rock influences. What was your first live concert like?

Next week’s question:
With Paris in the pen and Scooter Libby on the way, we’ve got to know: what was your closest brush with the law?

“I were someplace else before I were born?”

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007


How Much Is that Novel in the Window?

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

dollar.jpgWe’re always stoked when someone uses his or her wits, and the technology at their crafty fingertips, to subvert, or at least tweak, a traditional media model—especially when it’s in support of their craft. Michael Thomas Ford and his Dollar a Word project are doing just that. Ford, a published author, will write his new novel one word at a time for each buck that his fan base sends in. He intends to write 100,000 words, which sounds like a pretty sweet payday if the community coughs up the dollars, right? Could be. And ultimately, the proceeds from the project will go to help other writers in financial need. At each $20,000 milestone, he’ll dole out 10K to writers and writing projects in financial need. So is the book any good? Decide for yourself here here. Check out his compelling FAQ, and then ask yourself what he’s asking: what is art worth?

Tip of the hat to Aaron from the NY Writers Coalition, who told me about Dollar A Word this morning before the caffeine had really kicked in.

MySpace For Dead People

Monday, June 18th, 2007

cemetary.jpgCan’t you even die these days without it turning into a competition to be friended, linked to, or tweeted? The latest foray into the social networking stew is Respectance, a cross between one of the Net’s many tribute sites to the dead (many quite lovely) and a social network that hopes to capture as many (living) eyeballs as possible. Still, there’s a certain leveling factor that’s interesting in a place where a giant like Gianfranco Ferre (62, designer) and the unknown but also very loved Big Mike Castro (20, student), exist, sort of, as equals.

“My Wife Is So Hot When She Cleans…” (And other True Dad Confessions)

Saturday, June 16th, 2007

wifelcleaning.jpgOur friends at True Mom Confessions are hot on the daddy tips with their latest launch: True Dad Confessions. Hands up if you’re shocked that while the True Moms are emotive and admit to wanting things like more “me time,” the dads reveal that they just want to like the wife’s ass. Here’s a taste of what the pops are spilling a few days before Father’s Day.

“My wife is so fucking hot when she cleans. She wears nothing but a sports bra and shorts. She works in a male-dominated field and when I see her on weekends being all domestic wearing next to nothing … damn! I wish I could nail her right then, but she won’t have it when she’s trying to do something.”

“I love my daughter more deeply than anything in this world. With having said that, I don’t regret cheating on my gf. How can someone claim to love you so much but never “be in the mood” or want to be sexual with me? I think that if you don’t take care of my needs, then there’s other women who will. Sometimes I feel guilty about having done it, until she turns into the sexual wet blanket she is.”

“I remember the good ol’ days when my clothes were loose and my wife was tight….”

Sexy wife cleaning from Flickr’s Danielo Bolo.

Father’s Day Video Messages

Friday, June 15th, 2007

I wanted to bring a video in honor of Father’s Day this week. And I found a great one. OK, it’s not quite Mr. T singing about how we should respect our mothers, but it’s damn good anyway.

For this video, the people working on a film called Evolution of Dad, a documentary tentatively scheduled for 2009 about “what it means to be a nurturing, involved, contemporary American father,” went out in New York City and interviewed 150 people to get their Father’s Day messages. The results are pretty touching.

My Father and His Daughter

Friday, June 15th, 2007

Katherine Sharpe is a SMITH contributing editor, editor of a literary magazine 400 Words, as well as an editor at Seed Media Group.

During my childhood, my father was reluctant to buy himself new things. It’s not that he couldn’t afford them. We had plenty of money–not tons, but enough to pay for our own house, a bungalow with two-and-a-half bedrooms and dark bull’s-eye moldings around the windows and doors. Both of my parents had jobs: my mother as an English professor at the community college, my father as a lobbyist for an environmental group. Still, my father went around with holes in his undershirts and socks, and cardboard buffering the holes in his wingtip shoes.

I remember my father dressing for work. He wore white 50-50 undershirts with short sleeves, several of them with so many holes that they looked like cobwebs slung across his back. My father’s large and pinkie toes peeped out of his dark nylon socks. The jersey fabric hung away in baggy arcs from the band of his tighty whities. I remember these things because my mother complained about them from time to time. “Your father won’t buy himself new shirts,” she said. “And he’s starting to look like a bum.”

Nightly, at the dinner table, my father would spill something on his shirt or tie. A blot of tomato sauce or a fleck of butter would leap from plate to fabric, and then my father himself would leap up from his chair, bellow with rage, and dash to the sink to flush water over the offending morsel. Sometimes he would come back to the table with a water-darkened spot on his front. Other times he would retire to the bedroom, making loud, angry sounds as he rubbed detergent into the stain and changed his shirt. This performance seemed to repeat itself night after night, with uncanny persistence. Maybe my child-brain has distorted the memory, making something that only happened a few times seem to have been a regular occurrence, but this for me is the archetypal family dinner of the time.

Mostly what I remember from these spilling episodes is my father’s anger. It was never “Oops.” It was “God damn it. God damn it!” My father’s shouting voice is powerful and rich in bass. For a kid it can be frightening. But he always returned to the dinner table, and we always finished our meals more or less amicably. He was not angry at us. It’s not us he was angry at.

From that era I also remember my father coming home from work. It seems to me, looking back, that it was always dark outside when he came home, and always raining. It’s like this: My father wears his black wingtips and a tan trench coat. The trench coat is dappled with rainwater. I hear him come through the door, the weight of his footsteps on the pine floor. I drop the blocks and toys I am playing with in the back room, and run to throw my arms around his legs. My father is a tall man. I feel the bones in his legs and the raindrops cold on his coat, as I press my cheek into his knees.

Then my father comes into the kitchen. My mother stands near pots that bubble on the stove. The kitchen glows with the yellow-orange tones of lamplight reflecting off the dark wood floor, the brown melamine counters. The windows seem to have steamed up on the inside with condensation. We are having chuck steak with Worcestershire sauce, baked potatoes, green peas. We are having broccoli. Or chicken baked with canned tomatoes and slices from a roll of sausage. Or slender pork chops fried up with condensed cream of mushroom soup, and carrots cut into fat pennies.

In the kitchen, in the incandescent light, my mother and father embrace. He throws his arms around her. She squeezes back. They kiss on the mouth, but it is only a peck. My father’s tall frame bends down to my mother’s short one; she lifts her face up to meet his. Mostly, though, they just hold each other. My father’s height seems to take up all the vertical space in the room. “Oh Suzy,” he says. His day was hard. He’ll open a can of Black Label and, half an hour from now, he’ll spill condensed cream of mushroom down his blue oxford shirt and yell, God damn it!

In the mornings my father would sit and roll his coffee cup across his forehead, to ease his sinuses with the warmth. Simple enough: he had clogged sinuses; the heat helped. Still, there seemed to be something more to this gesture, too. As he rolled the mug across his forehead, my father gave off an aura of suffering. It wasn’t just his sinuses; he seemed to feel sluggish and blocked in a more global way, too. I see this looking back. It was inchoate then, but something I noticed, without the words to think it through.

My father was also a bather. He showered in the mornings, but sometimes he took a bath after work or on the weekends, for relaxation. He ran his baths very hot, and let the water run to the brim of the tub. He’d work the water taps with his toes, letting a trickle of straight-hot water flow constantly, to keep the temperature up as he marinated. He had cut a board to the exact width of the tub, so he’d have a surface to read in the bath or scribble on papers. Sometimes, for work, my father was called upon to go to conferences and give speeches. Even as a small child I understood that speechwriting was an ordeal for him. He fretted over it. My mother fretted over his fretting. He would retire to the bath for hours with stacks of paper, flipping them, marking lines out with a pen and adding notes in the margins. Steam on the walls and mirror again. Great gusts of humid air blowing down the hallway when he finally emerged. Post-Its with crabbed handwriting everywhere.

I didn’t realize what my father was like until he changed. Only after the change was I able to look back and identify the feeling that he gave off as anything other than an inevitability concerning either my father or fathers in general. There was a heaviness to his movements then, the way he came in the door after work, removed his cold, rain-flecked trench coat and hung it on top of the lumpy, over-full coat rack in the corner. A heaviness to the way he sat in his morning chair, rolling coffee across his forehead, or in his bath, shifting humid papers with worried concentration into piles.


PERHAPS I AM BEING UNFAIR TO MY FATHER. He was like this. But people are complicated, of course, and he was like many other ways too. There is a picture in the family album. It’s a black and white eight-by-ten, which my mother snapped on her old Minolta. In the picture, I am three. My sister has just been born, and on this night, as the four of us are relaxing together in the living room, I am enjoying a respite from my new, big-sisterly jealousy. Someone has given us a package of novelty sponges shaped like the letters of the alphabet. My mother sits on the salt-and-pepper tweed sofa, my father and I on the hideous piebald shag rug on the floor. Everyone feels fine, even silly. Dad and I begin to play with the sponges. The letter ‘C’ fits on my nose, like a soft clamp. ‘G’ fits, with a little more stretching, on Dad’s. I laugh, and he laughs, crinkling his nose, the pores stretching and changing shape with his smile. We add letters to our fingers, toes, and ears, collapsing in the photo in laughter and delight.

I can’t remember when my dad changed, how old I was at the time. He changed because he went to a doctor and the doctor prescribed a pill for him to take. This wasn’t therapy, just a pharmaceutical affair. After go-rounds with several medications, my father and his doctor settled on an old-fashioned antidepressant that worked well for him, and my father changed, and that was that.

I don’t know how much of all this I understood at the time. But I do remember the change, how it was at once vivid and gentle. I remember the sense of the end of one era and the beginning of another: I turned into a sullen twelve-year-old and then a teenager. My father wasn’t cool anymore. We didn’t play blocks. I became too large and too old to ride on his shoulders and sit on his knees. He got a better job and, instead of returning home rumpled and splashed with rain, he began to stride confidently down the brick walk of our new house, past the rhododendrons, in to dinner. One day a sensory memory hit me, of the way that my father used to come home, moving as though someone had sewn gravel into his coat, and I remembered that those days had once existed and that they now were gone, the gleam on the dark wood floor, the steam on the windows, the games, my childhood, that era in my father’s life and the life of our family.

People who take antidepressants are fond of saying that their medication makes them feel “more like myself.” I suspect that this is, in part, a way of lessening the fear that taking a drug might make one less authentic. But I also think that it is an attempt to state a true feeling that people who take antidepressants have.

We said it. I remember my mother saying it at the time: he seems more like himself, somehow, now. And I understood instantly and intuitively what she meant. He seemed more like the man captured on film horsing around with his wife and daughters, clamping foam letters to his nose.

I don’t know if it’s really that simple to “feel more like oneself.” The statement that antidepressants make one more like oneself is a partial but not a whole truth. Both men were my father, himself: the warm, happy young dad with the alphabet sponges, and the sad man with the constellation of holes riddling the back of his thoroughly expired undershirt. Medicine allowed us to experience more of one version and less of another. It didn’t make my father a different person; it made him spend more time in a particular register of his personality.

Three weeks ago, I visited my parents at home. I spent a couple of hours in the car with my Dad, and our conversation ranged over many things: my attempts to become an adult without qualifiers, his new-retiree’s reflections on working and family life. He’s radiant these days, enjoying freedom, teaching himself how to make fine wood furniture. He says that he feels good about the work he did, his marriage, his children. He has not been making himself feel bad, as he has done in the past, by telling himself about the things he ought to have done or the contributions he ought to have made. Anything he would have changed? I asked, tensing for the answer. “I do regret having spent so many years being depressed,” he said, in his distinctive slow, deliberate way. We looked at each other, with love and a sudden bit of sheepishness, and then we both returned our eyes to the road.

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