Wednesday, April 30, 2008

My Favorite Writer

Every now and again someone will ask: Who is your favorite author?

I have several authors that I return to time and again--some because he/she can flat out write, others because he/she is fun to read, still others I read because of what I gain from the work. But one of my favorite authors is Bernard Malamud. I have read everthing he ever published, and all of his books stand like statues in my "favorites" shelf at home. Malamud (a Jewish writer) is probably the best American writer of the 20th century that most people simply don't know by name. He was a pulitizer and national book award winner and his writing was esteemed by readers and critics alike.

His most famous novel was "The Natural"--a book that was made into a movie staring Robert Redford. Some consider it the best baseball movie ever made. Among some of Malamud's short stories, all heavily anthologized, are: "The Jewbird", "The Magic Barrell", and "The Silver Crown". Many of his stories I have read dozens of times. They are incredible.

Malamud was also the epitome of a working writer. He taught college courses and wrote on the side.

Anyway, if you get a chance to read Malamud some time, give him a try. His work is much deeper and richer than this blog!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Successful Writer

A few months back I was expressing to my children at the dinner table how proud I was of their ability to write well. In fact, both of my kids can write and seem to have taken after their old man.

At this point, my son speaks up. "Actually, dad, when I grow up, I would love to be a writer like you, only successful."

My wife: "What do you mean? Your dad's successful. He's had fifteen books published and publishes articles every month."

Son: "I know . . . but I mean, I want to be able to make money at it."

Wife: (Silence)

Me: (Silence . . . then one solitary tear scrolling down my cheek)

Son: "Dad, can you pass those lima beans?"

Monday, April 28, 2008


Over the past two years I've read a plethora of books and articles about the crisis of seminaries in the United States. There are dozens of seminaries nearing bankrupcy, and many more are on the ropes and flaudering not only for lack of students, but from the high costs of staying afloat and keeping the doors open. In one recent issue of the Christian Century there were dozens of seminaries mentioned that we going to be closing their doors, melding into larger universities, or recasting their vision into a more informal model of pastoral training.

This last option has always interested me. What if, for example, our congregation were to become a training ground for theological students (who would learn hands-on, but also take online courses or travel a few weeks out of the year to a larger university for courses in Bible, theology, Church history, etc.)?

I could certainly see my role changing here. Why, I could be teaching these students so many things about parish life! For example:

How do you decide which color to paint the office? (Go with eggshell or opt for tangerine?)

What is the proper way to fold a stole so that it doesn't show a crease?

What is the proper method for jiggling a toilet handle in the men's room when it won't stop running?

What is the proper response when someone calls in to ask, "Do you perform exorcisms on cats?"

When the bishop calls and asks if you will serve on the Blue Ribbon Task Force For Burned Out Clergy West of Keystone Avenue, how do you gracefully decline, citing a lack of expertise and pointing out that you feel a rash of funerals coming on and that, in actuality, you are getting a rash from eating too many bananas and not drinking enough water?

A mind is a terrible thing to waste . . . and a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I should know.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Book #23 for 2008 is now shelved: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach. A great book--insightful, educational, and deliciously quirky. But mostly, this book just made me laugh. I love Mary Roach's style and really enjoyed her first book: Stiff (about cadavers, among other curiously dead objects). I now must buy her second book, Spook.

While reading Bonk, I would frequently interject some inane tidbit of sexually curious information into conversations with my wife. She loved it. And last night she asked, "Say, are you finished reading that Bonk book? I'd like to read it now."

"Yes," I said. "I'm finished. Bonk away."

Thursday, April 24, 2008


One of my son's friends made the following comment last week when he was looking at my library at the house: "Dude!" Reading into this expression, I realized that he was trying to say: "Dude...that's a lot of books" or "Holy Mother of All That is Good you've been reading too much" or "How many books do you have, anyway?"

Funny how one "Dude!" can provoke me to begin counting. So I did.

Really, I had no idea. But after tallying the shelves at home and at the church, I've got some 5000 titles strewn across the shelves. What's even sicker is that I know I've given at least half of my library away over the years (when I've moved, or when I've wanted to clean shelf space for other newer volumes). I have no idea when or how I've read all of these (but a goodly number were in college and grad school--English major!--when I was forced to read three Shakespeare plays a week and soaked up books like a street bum soaks up beer).

I'm now running out of space again, so it's time to clean house. Maybe I can take a couple thousand titles to Half Price books and get $26.95 in pocket change. Or I could just give them away. Or--hey, here's a novel thought--why don't I donate them to the Todd Outcalt memorial library. That way, some of my secrets would be preserved for all time.

Secrets recipe for grilled ham. Or my secret for making it look like I've made the bed when I really haven't. Or how to belch for twenty seconds. Somewhere, it's all there . . . hidden in the pages.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Reading Other Blogs

Recently I've been trying to review other blogs--to see what I'm doing wrong. And I've noted that some of these blogs are incredibly lengthy. Is a single blog suppossed to be five pages in length? Some read more like short stories.

I'm going to continue to keep mine brief. Sort of like other aspects of my life...including:

Eating. I eat my meals in one minute flat. No chewing. Just swallowing. Does food have taste?

Drinking. I can guzzle a gallon of milk in forty-five seconds flat. A bit more if I'm also eating a dozen donuts (but see "Eating" entry above).

Sex. Ask my wife how quickly I can do "it".

Talking. See "Sex" entry above.

Sleeping. I get seventy-five minutes of sleep a night. That's more than enough. Just ask Wilt Chamberlain. (See also "sex" entry above.)

Bragging. Enough said.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


The other day I noted that I have a copious collection of bookmarks. I have bookmarks that children have made for me in Sunday School; bookmarks that were placed inside books when I purchased them from Barnes and Noble or Borders; bookmarks that have been made out of card stock or cloth. I even have a book mark that my grandmother made more than thirty years ago.

Among the more embarrassing bookmarks I have used are:

A bookmark from Oprah's book club, in which I am invited to "become the best woman I can be" or to "nurture my inner woman." I don't go out in public with that one. Not a good beach bookmark for me.

A bookmark that is, actually, just a cereal box top . . . must have been an emergency bookmark at some point but got placed in my permanent collection.

A custom-made bookmark that someone gave me--has my name on it. Kind of cutsy, but I don't take it out in public either. I'd hate for someone to see me reading a book with a piece of paper sticking out of it that reads: "This book belongs to Todd Outcalt. If found, please return to Todd Outcalt. Signed: Todd Outcalt."

Of course, I only use bookmarks because I hate folding down the edges of the book to mark my place. (Book reading Pet Peeve #1.) I have to keep my books in pristine condition--sort of like my mind. Uncluttered, unmarked, used one time.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

At the Algonquin

A few years ago Becky and I travelled to New York city for our anniversary. There was romance, Broadway, great dinners and, of course, a stay at the Algonquin hotel. In case you don't know, the Algonquin is certainly the most famous "literary" hotel in New York. It was here--in the famed Oak Lounge--that the round table met to discuss literature and the latest literary trends.

I had always dreamed of sitting in the same chair as Harold Ross (editor of the New Yorker) or Dorothy Parker or James Thurber. The list of luminarious is awesome.

Anyway, we stayed there--right under the big top--and I read my fair share of books, imagining what it would be like to get a call from the editor of the New Yorker telling me that my latest story had been accepted for publication. The dream is still alive--though I rarely submit anything to the New Yorker anymore.

I did, however, receive one very nice handwritten rejection from Roger Angell (sports editor of the New Yorker, now retired) probably in 1989 or so, telling me that he did enjoy my humorous piece "Football Chaplain", and that he wanted to see more of my work. That little note inspired me for years and I still have it somewhere among the stacks of rejection slips I've kept on file.

Some day I hope to go back to the Algonquin and actually sit in the Oak Lounge. It was closed for repairs when I was there on our anniversary and Becky and I had to sip drinks in the greasy spoon restaurant down the block. So much for literary romance.

Friday, April 18, 2008

So Far . . .

Late last year I made an assessment of my reading list and determined that I'd read some sixty books in 2007. I'm not sure I could ever read a hundred books in a year, but I thought I'd take stock of my progress thus far in 2008. To date I have read:

1491: The Year Before Columbus Discovered America, by Charles Mann
A Lifetime of Secrets, By Frank Warren
Pigeons, by Andrew Blechman
In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan
The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches, by Jeff Yeager
The Book of Hard Choices, by James Autry and Peter Roy
Quiet Strength, by Tony Dungy (actually written by Nathan Whitaker)
The Best American Short Stories, 2007
The Best American Mystery Stories, 2007
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
How Chess Imitates Life, by Gary Kasparov
Love Me, by Garrison Keillor
Pontoon, by Garrison Keillor
Charlatan, by Pope Brock
Forward be Our Watchword, by Kevin Corn
Schulz and Peanuts, by David Michaelis
Shakespeare, by Bill Bryson
The Lost Continent, by Bill Bryson
Writers at Work, volumes 2, 5 & 7
Coach, by Andrew Blauner (ed.)

I'm sure I've forgotten a few, but that's 22 works so far. If I continue the pace, I might actually make a hundred books. No wonder my eyesight keeps getting worse. But my brain can use all the help it can get.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Great Story But . . .

A few months back I completed what I believed was my best science fiction story to date--a story entitled "The Sea and All That Is In It". It's a great tale about the last dolphin on earth and, if I do say so, a great story . . . and from the rejections I've received, the lines from the editors are all the same: "It's a great story, but . . . "

One editor wrote me back--a half page handwritten note nonetheless (very rare)--that said: "I love this, but it feels like it should be a novella rather than a short story. If you can lengthen it to 20,000 words or more, I'll buy it." No way I'm lengthening it, of course. Too much work, too little pay.

Monday I received another rejection, again handwritten, that said, "Remarkable story, very well done, but it's too sad."

There's that "but" again.

I wish I could write back and say: "I'll tell you what's sad, Mr. Editor. The price of gas, the cost of a college education, the wear and tear on a perfectly good pair of undies. I wear through a pair every night squirming in my desk chair as I write great stories like this, but . . . ."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Reading Schedules

I've been at a pastors conference for the past two days (one of those high-powered gatherings that most pastors try to avoid like the plague). But whenever I go to these conferences, I always end up reading through the printed materials and such, looking for typos and odditites.

Here are couple that I discovered:
One of the workshops was called "One New Day" (or something like that), but its accurate title was "Reaching the Younger Generation." Maybe they should have been combined to read: "One New Day We're Going to Reach the Younger Generation."

We were also scheduled to hear a speaker from 9-10:30 a.m., but were also suppossed to be on the other side of the compound at 10 a.m. Talk about omnipresence....God was there, but I wasn't. I was in the bathroom at 10:30 as I recall, then went out to get a cup of coffee.

Now, I'm not complaining about these fine points. Rather, they kept me occupied. A conference of United Methodist pastors has to be good for some entertainment, don't you think?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Tongue Twisters

I came across a little book in my library last week--a small paperback containing tongue twisters. Here were some of my favorites.

The sixth sheik's sixth sheep's sick.

I never smelled a smelt that smelled as bad as that smelt smelled.

A skunk sat on a stump and thunk the stump stunk, but the stump thunk the skunk stunk.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Got Food and Exercise

I just finished reading Michael Pollan's, In Defense of Food--a magnifent treatise about the lack of real food in the western diet. It's quite disturbing actually, how few whole foods there are available to the public, and how little most of us eat them. The majority of our nutrition is now consumed out of boxes, cans, packages, jugs, and containers, and as we know, most of what we call food isn't really very healthy.

I took stock of the real food I have eaten in the past week and here are a few of my best:
lettuce, potatoes, carrots, zuccinni, squash, and whole, unpitted olives. The rest of what I've eaten consists of various kinds of junk: frozen pizza, canned soup, boxed mac and cheese, an Arby's roast beef sandwich (what, exactly, is that sliced stuff??).

I'm not sure it's good for me, but I drink a lot of milk (always skim--that's all we've ever drank in our home and the kids don't know anything but skim and even think 1% tastes like cream). I've also had beef (which is likely filled with plenty of fat, and all the junk the cows have been fed) and a fair amount of juices. I've also had about 20 cups of coffee to stay awake (my drug of choice), but studies have shown that a little of the stuff is okay but larger amounts hurt.

Finally, this past week I did work most of Friday without eating much of anything. I drank lots of water, in addition to moving two tons of gravel, at least one ton of hewn logs, two hundred pounds of pea gravel, unloaded a ton of Pennyslvania flagstone, stacked the same ton of rock a second time, and shoveled at least ten wheel barrows full of sod. All told, as I figure it, I moved more than five tons of timber and stone in a six hour period...and today I AM VERY VERY SORE! I need real food!!!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Keillor's Shelf

As far as I know, I have all of the books that Garrison Keillor has written (the host of A Prairie Home Companion). Keillor is likely the premier humorous in America right now, and I read one of his novels--Love Me--on the flight out to San Francisco last week. Sometimes, I laughed so loudly, people turned in their seats to look at me.

As most people discover (me included) writing humor is probably one of the most difficult forms of writing to pull off. Most humor either comes across as too jokey, too slight, or too vicious to get a laugh. But Keillor does it so well, he's mastered the art.

I also have a dozen or so of Keillor's recordings on CD, which are some of my favorite monologues to listen to when I drive long distances. I keep these at hand, many of them yet unopened, so I'll have his voice as companion when I take the next long trip.

Keillor is one of my favorites, and I've got a dedicated shelf in my library devoted exculsively to his work. As far as I know, I have his entire corpus of material, and I've never read anyone who can talk about burping and passing gas with such honesty.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Geisha and Me

For some reason, I typed in my own name in a Google search this week and was astounded to get 18,500 hits on the internet containing my name. My blog, incidently, came up fourth, so it must be rising in popularity. Thanks for reading.

But I was most astounded to find my name attached to a book entitled: Sex Secrets of an American Geisha: How to Attract, Satisfy, and Keep Your Man.

Well, here's the thing, I've never been sexually attracted to men, and the only Geisha connection I could imagine was from reading Memoires of a Geisha (what, five years ago when it was on the NY Times Bestseller List?) Evidently, the Geisha book contains a quote from my book, Before You Say "I Do", but in what context, I couldn't say.

Still, I wondered how any of my writings could be interpreted in this light . . . so I asked my wife, who does a fairly good job of keeping me satisfied. Here are her secrets, ladies.

If you want to keep your man satisfied, do his laundry. Undies, particularly. I don't iron. Never have. She wants me to look nice, she's got to pick out the clothes, too. A man also needs to be worshipped by the woman he loves. My wife worships me. Always has. Ask her (no, wait! . . .) Finally, a new bar of soap really moves things along. I can't get to my armpits when I'm washing with a piece of soap the size of a tic-tac. Soap is important. If it's there, I'll even remember to shave. She thinks that's important.

That's the secret. Give and take. Mutual understanding. Geisha style.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Columbus and Me

Two weeks ago I completed reading 1491: The Year Before Columbus Discovered America, by Charles Mann. It's a massive book, with much information about the North and South American continents, the Inca and Amazonian populations in particular, before the advent of the European. Some things I didn't know:
* There were more people in the largest Incan city than any of the cities of Europe in the 14th century.
* The Incans had discovered how to use iron also, but they used it for artistic purposes, rather than warfare production.
* When small pox and the plague came with the European influx, it decreased the native populations of the two continents very quickly.

I was born on Columbus day, 1960, and for years my family celebrated my birthday on the day school was out for the holiday. Now, old Chris is just another footnote...probably a good thing. He didn't really discover America anyway. Sort of like me claiming that I disovered my wife. She was living pretty happily before I showed up on the scene and spoiled her fun.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Bryson's Small Town

It's good to be back from San Francisco...but I did take along plenty of reading material for the flights, the boat rides, and the evenings in the hotel. In fact, I read three books, all told, and several magazines. For the past four years, I've taken Mr. Bill Bryson along with me for the airplane/airport reading. This year, I finished one of his older books: The Lost Continent.

Bryson is a travel writer (so called) and this book concerned his trips through small town America. Funny stuff.

Reminded me of my home town in western Indiana where I used to play in the streets, press pennies on the train track, and otherwise create havoc for my parents and teachers. In fact, I might say that this book hit a target a little too close to home. It could have been me that Bryson was satirizing.

I've got four more Bryson books I have not read, but when I get to these, I'll have completed his entire corpus of material. So long, Bill. I'll see you on the next flight.