Once I had occasion to dine with Garrison Keillor. During the meal he asked me who was the writer who influenced me most. I told him it was a guy he'd never heard of—a boss I had once, named Larry Ragan.
Up to his death in 1995, Larry wrote mostly in the newsletter he founded, The Ragan Report, which was printed on paper that looked like someone had pissed on it. Before that, in the 1960s, he'd spent his literary energies on a column for Reporting, the magazine he edited for an association with the unbelievably dreary name, International Council of Industrial Editors.
Whenever he was told he ought to be writing for a larger audience on subjects broader and more gripping than organizational communication, Larry grunted and scoffed and dismissed—without quite disagreeing.
But the truth was that Larry was incapable of writing a dull sentence, on any subject, for any publication.
And so I remember much of what he wrote, some of it word for word.
And no piece of Larry's writing educated me more permanently than a little prayer that wrote in a little Catholic newsletter, sometime in the 1970s.
I came across it just in time to share it, before breaking for the holidays, with Writing Boots readers, with whom I sometimes disagree and occasionally bicker. But I know it's often simply because of a simple difference in perspective and nothing more.
As Larry wrote:
There are the insiders and the outsiders. Two kinds of people. Two ways of looking at life. Two ways of making things happen.
The outsiders raise hell. they demonstrate; they organize marches. They issue reports that excoriate the establishment, challenge the status quo, appeal to all who thirst for justice.
The insiders? Often dull. The insiders speak a different language: they know the tax tables, the zoning variations, the assessment equalizers, the square-foot cost to educate the kids. You'll find them on the school board, city government, on the village board. Ordinarily not word people, they have mastered the art of the platitude.
Outsiders are often wild. At first, they don't seem to make sense. The first black kids who sat at a lunch counter and refused to move were outsiders. The first marchers to Selma were outsiders. Surely it was an outsider who first proposed the shocking idea that the generic "he" is a sexist word. Dorothy Kay, who in the 1950s stopped Manhattan traffic to protest atom bomb tests, was an outsider.
Please God, let us always have outsiders and give me the grace, in my better momnets, to know how to be one. But I'm torn because I want to be an insider too. The insiders resist the first answer that comes to them: they have heard it before. They are offended when they see the world's complexities reduced to slogans shouted into a microphone or preached at a town hall meeting. They are saddened when they hear someone argue that God is on his or her side, and they wonder why God doesn't speak so clearly to them.
Sometimes you've got to feel sorry for the insiders. When they win, few know of their victory. When they go wrong, their mistakes are branded as evil. Often they share the goals of the outsider but continue to say, "things aren't that simple."
The world is filled with people who like to feel they are right. Insiders are not always certain they are right. They are unhappy when they must resist the simplicities of popular sloganeering. So when we tip our hats to outsiders, as so often we must, let's not do so with such vigor that we fail to give two cheers to the insider.
To the insiders, outsiders, the hotshots and those who fear they are drudges, the helpers and helped, the critics and critiqued, the afflicting and afflicted, the annoying and annoyed, the middle-of-the-roaders and outlyers, the curmudgeonly and the curmudgeonees among Writing Boots readers: Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and here's to another year of good conversation—of all kinds.
Warning: This might make your roof leak.
Scout is thinking a lot about whether there’s a God or not.
Her Aunt Susy sez there is, and takes her to church sometimes.
Her mom sez there isn’t, and won't let Susy take Scout to Sunday school.
I say I don’t know, and add that nobody ("no, honey, not even the experts") actually knows and that it’s actually impossible to know for absolute certain.
“Yeah,” she says, with the air of a girl who's getting impatient with her dithering elders. “But I really want to know.”
My onetime colleague Peter Vogt is an employee communication exec at eBay. I haven't corresponded with him in a few months, so when I sent him an e-mail the other day I was happily surprised to get this message back:
I am privileged to work for a company that gives every single employee the opportunity to take a sabbatical after five years of service. I am delighted that I am able to do so now. I will be out of the office—away from email and mobile phone—from November 1, 2010 until January 5, 2011.
Because I anticipate an inordinate amount of emails during this time, I will be deleting all emails that come in during my sabbatical. HOWEVER, if this email needs my attention, please RE-SEND the email as urgent (with an exclamation point). I will be sure to read it on my return.
It's hard to imagine taking two full months completely off like that without going into outer space, or paying a doctor to put you in a medically induced coma.
Good for eBay, and good for you, Peter.
But be sure and get back to me on the fifth, you bastard.
As you know, I occasionally consort with politicians. Elected officials meet lots of people and see lots of names. And over several years, one of those officials has been sending me, on scraps of paper and the backs of receipts and Post-It Notes, the most interesting of the names he has come across. At some point I started putting them in my desk drawer.
I present these names now as a poem. They appear in the order they came out of my drawer.
Parthenia Stegal Floyd Combs III
Laquisa S. Loggins.
Canita M. Treece
Andy L. Ruppenkamp
Mabel L. Fuse
Irma German ("say it aloud")
Shawn P. Horn
Amy M. Mings
Don W. Scattergood
Otto Toke ("maybe the winner re. the most memorable name using the fewest different letters, eh?")
Lad Smutny III
Before the advent of the goddamned Internet, it was possible to feel a feeling called "well-informed."
Back then, you read your hometown newspaper. You listened to National Public Radio. You read The Wall Street Journal. You read a trade publication. And you felt, more or less, rightly or wrongly, as if you had a handle on things.
But then the Internet, with all its nooks and crannies, its infinite capacity to contain odd points of view convincingly expressed, its oceanic ability to remind us that our stupid little place in the world is the real cranny, took that feeling away.
Permanently, I thought.
In recent months I notice that the feeling of being informed is creeping cautiously back into my head and heart. And I think I know why: It's Facebook.
Here's how it works now: I do my dilligence—I read the local and national newspapers, I keep up on the communication trade as as I always did—and then I rely on my 368 Facebook Friends to give me a heads-up on the rest of it. I reckon—rather, I passively, subconsciously assume—that if something important is happening that's not in The New York Times, one of these friends or acquaintances or who-is-that-again-half-strangers will point me to it.
A quote, a new song, a YouTube video, a new piece of architecure or writing: I've got hundreds of friends or at least like-minded acquaintances scouring the world every day in hopes of finding something to amuse or inform their like-minded friends. (That's me!)
Knowing this, I begin to feel not only informed but, dangerously, justified in the feeling. And, after all these years of forced informational humility, even deserving of it.