The Yarn Car in Reader's Digest and
Good Morning America
When I was about 13 years old, I used to read every issue of
particularly fond of the "amusing anecdotes" sections: Life in
These United States, All in a Day's Work, and Humor in
Uniform. The small print at the bottom always offered $300 for
any reader-submitted stories, of 100 words or less, that actually got
printed in the magazine. Ever the entrepreneur, I would start rubbing
my palms together anew each month at the thought of earning such a
vast sum for such a tiny amount of work. How hard could it be?
They even required that the stories be short! Surely it would
be a lot easier than mowing 15 suburban lawns in the sweltering
sun for 20 bucks each.
And so began my short-lived career as a professional writer. At first,
I adopted the strategy of keeping my eyes and ears open for any amusing
anecdotes that might arise out of events in everyday life.
Nope. Nothing magazine-worthy ever happened. No ironic twists of fate,
no comical misunderstandings, nothing. My sisters, my parents, my friends,
my teachers, the owners of the yards I was mowing, the people talking
in the pew in front of me in church -- to my young mind, all of them were
endlessly, stupefyingly boring. Apparently, life in my particular
United State was a lot more humdrum than in the other 49.
So I did what anyone would do -- I started making stuff up. Ah, now
the words were flowing! I'd put the lawnmower in neutral long enough
to jot a few notes onto a sweat-soaked sheet of paper and shove it back
into my pocket. There was the story of the
embarrassingly racy thing our minister accidentally said in church. And the
one about how a gruff admiral and his dog fell overboard during
a shipboard inspection, and my non-existent, dog-loving brother in the
Navy rescued the dog first and the admiral second, and the admiral gave
him a promotion because he was a big dog lover himself and that's what
he'd have done in that situation too. Great material, that. Totally
true-to-life, or at least I thought so.
I felt a bit guilty, since the
Reader's Digest rules said the stories were supposed to be true. But heck,
a believable story was just as good as a true one for this purpose,
right? This was entertainment, not journalism. And besides, I bet
all those other people made up their "true" stories too. Just think about the
money, man! Even if they printed only three of my anecdotes, that'd be almost
a thousand bucks! Then I could afford to pay some other, less anecdotally
talented schmuck $15 to mow each lawn, and I'd still come out $5 ahead.
I learned a couple of valuable lessons from this: (a) Unless you do
something about it, life can be really bland day after day, and
fabricating amusing anecdotes doesn't change that. And (b) it's nearly
impossible to tell an amusing anecdote in 100 words or less.
I spent hours paring down each story so as to squeeze it into that
aggravatingly tight 100-word corset. I learned to pack a paragraph's
worth of content into a few well-chosen words -- and although I've
never yet gotten paid for writing, that skill still serves me.
All told, over the course of a few summers, I mailed
about a dozen carefully crafted stories to Reader's Digest, each
exactly 100 words long, and printed neatly in pencil on 3-holed,
blue-lined notebook paper. But for some reason, those miserly
editors never accepted a single one of them. Philistines!
With the onset of adolescence, I pretty much forgot about Reader's Digest,
and thus ended my career as a writer.
Then a couple decades later, I received word from
Harrod Blank that Reader's Digest had chosen his photo of the Yarn Car
and me to be the lead picture in an upcoming spread about art cars!
Yowza! And it was with a certain satisfaction that I learned how much
my cut of the licensing fee would come to. You guessed it --
I had finally found a way to get $300 from Reader's Digest.
The pictorial was in the May 2006 issue, as a part of their annual
"America's 100 Best" section. They always round up 100 good things in
various categories such as "best street names" and "best skyscrapers".
Having somehow gotten the idea of including "best mobile art" as one of
the categories this time around, they called Harrod Blank's
Art Car Agency,
and from the collection of photos that he sent them, they chose the
ones you see here. The Yarn Car
picture is the same one that appears on
my home page,
but they extracted
the car and me from the brick background, and flipped the image
left-to-right (look closely and you'll see that the steering wheel is
on the wrong side).
Click image for full-size view
I was proud to share a page with my friend
Emily Duffy and her MondrianMobile. And two pages later, there were
my other friends Matt Slimmer and Kate Pearson.
Click image for full-size view
The Reader's Digest web site says it's
the world's largest-selling magazine,
with foreign language editions distributed all over the
planet. So at first I had grand visions of readers in distant places like
Romania looking with fresh eyes at their oxcarts and gypsy wagons (or
whatever they drive in Romania these days), rubbing their chins, and
wondering what they'd look like with yarn on them. (The oxcarts, not the
chins.) But I later learned that the contents differ in the various editions,
and the "America's 100 Best" section appeared only in the American edition.
Too bad! But copies do get sent to overseas military personnel (in fact,
my parents sponsor several such subscriptions), so at least
maybe some bored American soldiers in Afghanistan looked at their tanks,
rubbed their chins, and wondered what they'd look like with yarn on them.
Well, OK, maybe not. But Harrod says it's the biggest magazine ever
to publish art cars. And my mother, who still subscribes, got to open
up her copy and see her wack job of a son grinning out at her.
And as if that weren't enough public exposure for me, Reader's Digest arranged to
have the cast of ABC's Good Morning America do a promo for the
issue. Reader's Digest sent them some video showing various items from the
list, including some movie film footage that Harrod had contributed. The
producers decided to use two of the art cars as part of the promo, so the
Yarn Car and I were onscreen twice (for a total of about two seconds),
along with Kate's Love 23 car. I managed to get
a tape of that segment of the show, recorded in Chicago (hence the Chicago
weather forecast scrolling along the bottom). Listen carefully to hear
Diane Sawyer giggle and Charles Gibson say, "That's pretty nice!"
High praise from people who've seen everything.
Click to load and play
It was weird, being temporarily slightly famous. For about a month, whenever
I drove the Yarn Car
anywhere, strangers would tell me they saw me in Reader's Digest or on TV.
And although my web address didn't appear in the magazine, I got lots of
email messages from people who took the time to do a web search for
"yarn car". But the weirdest thing was a strange
compulsion that I discovered in myself. The whole month, every time I was
waiting in line at a grocery store or drug store, I'd look over at the
"impulse buys" rack, and there next to the fingernail clippers and
chewing gum would be a stack of Reader's Digests.
And every time, I was compelled to open one up to page 76, and try to look
at the picture and read the caption from the perspective of some random
person in some random town in, say, Idaho. What impression would my outlandish
creation and silly grin have on this ordinary Idahoan? I wonder if every
newly famous person goes through a phase like that when they start seeing their
face in print in grocery stores? Anyway, although it was a bit of a letdown
when the next month's issue hit the stands, it was kind of a relief too.
I also learned something about human nature:
The people in magazines live Somewhere Else.
Shortly after the issue
came out, I was invited to display the Yarn Car at a big festival in
Fort Worth, Texas. I spent the day tearing up and replacing a section
of the artwork that had worn out, and sometimes people would stop and
watch me work for a while. I had proudly laid out a copy of the
Reader's Digest pictorial on a table nearby. On more than one occasion
during the day, someone would watch me work, then wander
over to the table, notice the picture, and say to their friend,
"Oh, I see! He's copying this one." It reminded me of the story of
Charlie Chaplin winning third place in a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest.
Sigh... forever doomed to be a pale imitation of myself...
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