“The Questions I Regret Not Asking”

A short thing I wrote called “The Questions I Regret Not Asking” is up as of yesterday at Monkeybicycle, which I think publishes a new thing every week (or thereabouts), and which is always hilarious, and has a hugely impressive list of previous contributors (I mean, just look at it, Charlie Anders, Patton Oswalt, David Ohle, Magdalen Powers, Davy Rothbart, Stephen Elliott, J. Robert Lennon, Kevin Sampsell, et al.? whoa!).

The piece is hallucinatory, and is intended as humor, but I actually wrote it with a very real and specific regret in mind—although it might not be an exact reflection of the questions I wish I’d asked, I wrote it thinking about the two fiction classes I taught last summer, and my regret that I didn’t try harder to push more of my students beyond the tiny hothouse (snow globe?) worlds too many of them were writing about. It would have helped, I suspect, if the classes hadn’t been for no credit, and hadn’t gone through August, past Labor Day, and into September, and hadn’t had the worst attrition rates I’ve ever seen; but I guess that’s one answer to the tired old question of whether or not writing can be taught—it can indeed!—but only to those who show up.

Exempli Gratia (A Blogger Labels, Google Maps, and Mac Stickies Improvisation)

It was fall, and I was on vacation in Kansas City, riding my scooters around town. I own more than one scooter, and when I go on vacation I like to bring them all. Comparing the relative merits of different conveyances in new places is one of life’s great pleasures.

As I buzzed about, I searched my electronic map for a good place to get pizza. The town was new to me; how was I supposed to know where to find a decent pie? Perhaps I could have asked one of the many locals I kept wheeling past, but I prefer computers—the anonymity of a screen, the honesty of cold data—to actual human interaction. This is my way. I like to think that it’s the way of the future.

I hadn’t had an acceptable slice since my last vacation, when I was in San Francisco, staying in a hotel down on Market Street. There’s a fantastic pizzeria there—at 10 Market St., specifically, if you ever happen to be in town, and the place still exists, whenever it might be that you read this. Isn’t that one of the funny things about writing, that it can outlive its subject? Just ask any of those Greek and Roman guys, or other historians from other empires that no longer exist that you learned about once, either in school or on the Internet.

Anyway, all I wanted to do was find a business, some business that sold pizza to its customers, but this was proving somewhat difficult as I whizzed up and down the narrow roads and twisting alleys of the fine Midwestern city in which I found myself on this particular vacation, even more difficult than the proverbially onerous task of finding a good hotel near LAX—which is, really, the needle in the haystack of the online generation. I know one—I mean, I know a really, really excellent place to stay near the Los Angeles airport—but I don’t hand out free advice to just anyone; I like to play my cards close to the vest.

My trouble in Kansas City was, in part, logistical. I had to keep one hand on the scooter’s handlebars, hold in my other hand the digital map device on which I was performing my search, and, on top of all that, keep the widget in my ear from falling out, the widget connected to the telephone I was using to call Lou. Lou is my friend with the answers. He also happens to have the most unmemorable telephone number ever: 555-7361. It’s a number I always have to jot down, no matter what. Lou is my answer guy, when the non-human networks fail me. He’s the guy I call when I need to connect the dots—like, say, when I want to understand why Seattle and ZIP code 98109 are not perfectly coterminous, and how exactly to get from one to another—if it’s even possible to get directions from some place to a place inside it—or when I need to figure out what JFK was doing at 350 5th Ave. in New York City the day before he was assassinated. That sort of thing.

Lou, I said on my portable telephone, what does a modern, digital, scooter-driving fellow like myself need to do to get some repectable pizza on his fall vacation in Kansas City?

You need ingredients—e.g., eggs, maybe milk, Lou said.

And then? I asked.

And then you need to figure it out from there, said Lou. That’s as far as I can take you. Or as far as I want to take you, he said.

Eggs and milk, I said. Very helpful examples! You’re a good friend, Lou, I said, in so many ways; e.g., your always dependable advice.

No problem, said Lou. Anytime. You know the number.

Eggs, milk—good stuff, I said. I’ll write myself a note.