A 20,000-Euro Monument to the Spanish Tortilla

Authentic Spanish tortilla - MAGDALENA BUJAK/ ALAMY

I was fortunate to spend a couple of years in Spain, and like most people who spend any amount of time there, I found the country very agreeable, and not just because people like to eat a lot. Spaniards are passionate about the superiority of their food, sometimes to a comical degree. But they have good reason to celebrate their cuisine, as some of the country’s simplest foods make for truly incredible feasting. This article is about one of these incredible Spanish dishes.

I recently revisited Spain for the first time in far too long, and I ended up writing a story about the small town in southwestern Spain that is building a €20,000 monument to the tortilla de patatas, the country’s trademark dish and one said to foster “more cohesion than the constitution.” I spoke with representatives of the town of Villanueva de la Serena about the plans for the monument, as well as the artist who won the contest to design it. I also learned a lot of truly interesting things about the history of the potato and how people responded to seeing the tuber for the first time. I’m happy with the way this turned out in part because I got to include a bunch of this niche history.

This article was published on Gastro Obscura on February 13, 2018.

 

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Meet the Super-Serious Sasquatch Chasers of America’s Premier Bigfoot Conference

As luck would have it, one of the largest Bigfoot conferences in the United States is held thirty minutes from the town where I grew up. Each May, Marc DeWerth hosts the Ohio Bigfoot Conference, located in Salt Fork State Park in southeastern Ohio. The area is known for its high level of Bigfoot sightings, as the topography is reportedly ideal for the creature.

I found that people have many different impressions of what Bigfoot is. Some people feel Bigfoot is an alien or a government experiment, but a majority of the more rational sasquatch enthusiasts believe that Bigfoot is a holdover from premodern times, a giant biped that co-evolved with our ancestral forebears. (There is some evidence to suggest that ten foot tall humanoids did at one point walk the earth.) The OBC is like an academic conference in which these ideas can be exchanged.

One thing I found particularly interesting was the ethical debate surrounding the hunt for the creature – some people maintain killing one is the only way to prove they exist, while others strongly feel that the creatures should be respected and left alone. I touched on this in more detail in my original version of the article; a bit was taken out for brevity’s sake.

The article was published in June, 2017, on Narratively, and can be found here.

A guy from the town where I was living at the time stepped in at the last minute and took some amazing photos of the event. His name is Matthew Collins, and his work can be found here.

Info about the Ohio Bigfoot Conference can be found here.

He’s a Murderer With an Intergalactic Alibi. And She’s in Love With Him.

This article is about Jo Ann and Mark Richards, a couple with a backstory that is at first hard to comprehend. Their relationship stretches across the galaxy from a California prison, and is one that got its start with a senseless murder committed in 1984.

I first came across this story when researching micronations for a separate project. A seminal text on the subject called How to Start Your Own Country featured an index of experimental nation-states across the world. One cryptic listing was for something called Pendragon, which I shortly learned was a plot to take over Marin County, California and declare it a sovereign kingdom. The plot involved a tragic murder and gullible teens, and is in and of itself a fascinating story. I looked into writing a full story about it, and I learned that from there the story only got deeper. I learned that the man allegedly behind the Pendragon plot (who is serving a life sentence for the attendant murder) has published thousands of pages of texts detailing his family’s secret history as intergalactic diplomats working for shadowy branches of the US government. He believes he has been framed, and his wife has started a nonprofit to disseminate classified government information and advocate for her husband’s release. The story chronicles this tale, and shows how this unconventional couple continues to make it work.

This story originally appeared on Narratively, and was published in November, 2017.

A link to the full article can be found here.

 

Niche business: running a smoke shop

I started out working for another smoke shop in Fairborn about four years ago. I was into hookahs before I started I had a friend from Turkey and he was really big into hookah. He asked me to smoke with him. It was the first time I did and ever since then I’ve loved it. That’s what interested me about working there.

It was fun to go to work – I didn’t see it like a job anymore and thought it would be fun to do [professionally]. I worked my way up and ended up managing that shop for about three years. My manager there actually offered me a position running his hookah bar, which was down the street in Beavercreek. I managed the hookah bar and ended up owning it. The land the bar was on went up for sale, so it was either I stay there and ride it out until someone buys it or sell it then and take the money and run. So I sold it. With the money I made, I moved down here. I originally wanted to open a hookah bar. But due to zoning issues I couldn’t, with the building being so close to a church and a school. So I took the information I learned managing a smoke shop and said, ‘I’m going to do that instead.’ I’ve been here for a year and a half. I just turned 23 this month.

I love the town, I loved the people, the building my shop is in is amazing. I’ve grown up around here and this was always my favorite building in town. It took me about half a year to find a new spot after I sold the hookah bar. Thankfully my parents have been very supportive. Without them, I wouldn’t be here right now. I went to my parents’ house for Christmas and one of the last gifts they handed me was this little box. I opened it up and there was a picture of this building. Best Christmas present ever.

Opening the shop went pretty smooth. The only thing you have to do [unique to a store like this] is apply for your tobacco license. That’s though the State. It takes a while for them to process your application, but once you have that, it’s legal for you to sell tobacco products in your store.

Getting the tobacco license wasn’t too difficult for me. I used a lot of advice from my boss at the old place, because I told him I had interest in opening a smoke shop. I asked him what he did and he helped guide me through. Without that advice, it probably would have been a lot more difficult because I wouldn’t have known who to go to and how to talk to them about opening it. Being able to rent from somebody who allows smoking is important too. For a lot of smoke shops, it’s kind of grandfathered in that you can smoke inside the store, but you have to make sure that it’s ok to smoke inside the building with the landlord.

There is a lot of legal terminology you have to learn to work in a smoke shop. You have to come in here knowing what to say to the workers here. It’s not a ‘bong,’ it’s a ‘water pipe.’ If someone came in here right now and used a street word for something, I legally have to tell them to leave my store. It’s that serious. (Laughs) People like to joke about having signs everywhere that say ‘for tobacco use only’ – you have to have those in front of everything, especially the glass and the papers. Some shops are really strict – you say one wrong thing and they’ll kick you out.

And IDs: you have to respect the ID policy. I have signs everywhere – if you don’t have one, I won’ sell anything to you.

Every now and then you’ll get your troublemakers. You have your groups – you have your disrespectful patrons and you have your patrons that know what it’s all about it, get what they need, and leave. It’s usually the kids that have just turned 18 that are the hardest to deal with. They think that because you work in smoke shop that you’re going to be cool with them acting stupid. They’ll joke around about smoking and ask if I know where to buy drugs, and I tell them I have no idea. They’ll have to go ask someone else that question. I’ve had to kick people out before.

The weekends are a little more difficult because you have your out-of-town crowd. I had this lady in her mid-twenties come in not that long ago. She said, can I smoke in here? I said, yeah, you can smoke cigarettes in here. She said, no, can I smoke a joint in here? I said no, you can’t do that here. She said, really? I said, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. She gets really lippy with me and she pulls it out of her purse and acts like she’s about to light it. I said, you either leave my store right now or I’m going to have to call the police. She got all mad and slammed my door and walked away.

You will get undercovers that come in every now and then. Usually you can pick them out if they ask a lot of questions but don’t really show interest in buying anything or ask you to get anything out. They try to catch you on your terminology, mainly, and they ask you about things that are difficult to describe to try to test you. I’ve never had any problem getting through it with them, nobody here has.

But one experience I really enjoyed involved these five older ladies that came in after eating in the restaurant next store and asked me what a hookah was. I explained it to them and asked if they wanted to try it. They said, yeah, I think so. It took them about ten minutes to pick out a flavor. I prepared the hookah for them and they sat out here and smoked it. They wanted me to take pictures of them to send to their grandkids, like “Look what I’m doing!” (Laughs) They bought shirts from the shop that say “Put that in your pipe and smoke it” on the back.

I was surprised, being in a small town, at how close I’ve gotten with the people I’ve met in the shop. I have a lot of regulars that I’ve become really good friends with. Because back where I worked before, I would recognize people’s faces but I’ve really gotten to build some great friendships out of running the store. I’ve made a lot of good connections with people, like glass blowers. I travel around to a lot of music festivals too and that’s where I get a lot of my local glass connections.

The weekends are a little hectic, as they are more touristy times. It get can pretty busy in there. We always have two people working in there. The street fairs are insane. We have to have at least four or five people here. We took a picture from up above during the last street fair and I think there were eighty-three people in the store. But I enjoy the busy days. It makes the time go by quicker. Bad days are rainy days. Not a lot of foot traffic. Parking’s kind of limited right now and not a lot of people are going to want to walk up here in the pouring rain. But if it’s nice like this, business is always good.

I’ve been really into business ever since I started managing the old shop. I’m going to Wright State for business management. I went through my first year of college not knowing what I wanted to do, but being able to manage the shop and then owning the hookah bar convinced me that I really like the business-side of running a store. It was probably one of the most stressful times ever, because I was doing both. I’d get two hours of sleep a day – the hookah bar was open til 4 a.m. and I’d have to open the smoke shop at 9. It sucked but it paid off. I’m very appreciative to have had those opportunities.

The hand pipes are some of our best sellers, as well as the shi-shas and hookah tobacco. We also have a cigar humidor in there too, and cigar sales have really picked up a lot. We’re actually about to expand the humidor and install another one in there because we’ve had so many requests for new cigars. My shelves are stocked completely full. That’s been nice – people who live in town say they don’t want to drive all the way to Fairborn to get their cigars. I have a list of requests that people can add to, that way I can stock cigars for them. Every day in the smoke-shop world there’s something new, something new out on the market. It’s a learning process of figuring out all the new things that are coming out. So that keeps it interesting, there’s always something new to learn.

As far as all the local artists, they’ll come here with a bunch of briefcases when you call them. I get to pick and choose what I want. Having the tobacco license is what allows you to buy everything in bulk. You can’t go through a wholesaler without your tobacco license. There’s no way I’d be able to stock my store paying full price for everything. I go through maybe four different distributors because there’s never just one that has everything you need.

I’m very open about cutting deals with people. I’ll definitely help you out. I know a lot of smoke shops can be overpriced. Now, when I go into other smoke shops, I judge them on the prices they charge, because I know what they got [their merchandise] for. I don’t want to be that person that rips you off. I do package deals and give ten percent off with any student or military ID. I’ll run sales through the weekend and stuff like that every now and then.

I take off about one day a week. Other than that I enjoy being here. Most of my employees are friends and family. My fiancée and I run it together, and the lady that just left is my mom. She works for me in the mornings. When I’m away from it for too long, I feel weird. I just got back from a week and a half-long vacation so I was eager to get back here. If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. Finding that niche makes it a lot easier to have a job. I worked guest services at a hotel for four years and then I worked at Bath and Bodyworks, which is the worst job in the world. Having that many bad experiences working for someone, I wanted to be my own boss. I’ve never had one I liked. I wanted to do everything the opposite of how they did. I can treat my employees they way I wanted to be treated in my past jobs.

This interview originally appeared in an abbreviated form at the Yellow Springs News.

The helpful work of a sexologist

Every time I say I’m a sex therapist, people think I’m in a couple’s bed with them, cheering them on. Which isn’t necessarily untrue, though I’m not actually in the room with them. I do most of my work online, video calls and phone sessions. It’s a sixty-minute session, you get homework, and there are email check-ins between sessions. After a session, I’m thinking a lot about what was talked about and will write a client to give more insight and give suggest more work they can do. I am here to help and encourage everyone to liberate their sexuality.

Sex is such a difficult subject for people to talk about – there’s so much shame and guilt, and we’re taught that we’re just supposed to know how to do it, how to ‘perform,’ how to orgasm. Sometimes its lack of experience and lack of confidence, and other times it does have to do with their past. Maybe there’s trauma. Performance anxiety is one of the biggest sexual concerns. We’re so influenced by movies and porn. People are silently struggling with their sexual experiences. We have to debunk every myth that we carry, and de-condition and critique our inner dialogue about sexuality. In listening to my clients, we listen to what happens in the act of sex from beginning to end. I listen for what is happening in the mind, emotions, body, energy and spirit of my clients, this guides me to find where the client is blocked.

Every couple is different, every person is different. It’s all relative. There are different issues in the trans community, different issues in the lesbian, gay, queer community. I can help ignite a passionate spark in a relationship that will result in deeper intimacy and pleasurable sex. For individuals and couples, sex coaching can help people wake up to the power of sexual energy and bring them into a deep intimate relationship with life. Sometimes the techniques I recommend work for everybody, but mostly I cater to an individual’s needs. I give simple solutions. I give them tools and techniques. Maybe one of the issues is that someone is not the greatest lover, but I can teach techniques to people to boost their confidence. I get to tell people what to do, and I’m really good at that. [Laughs] I give a home assignment every session, whether it’s for self-pleasure, for a couple, or for more than two people. When they go home, they have something to work on.

It saddens me to think that all around there are so many people, and so many partnerships in marriage, that end up sexless. It is very common for couples, especially after having children, to feel like they are in a relay race all day, often forgetting that they were once a romantic, sexual, and passionate couple. This is one of the most common sexual concerns people have, and why they seek out my services – there is no more sex in their partnership, or it’s rare, or one partner has a higher desire than the others. There is no typical explanation for the disparity.

For the person who has less interest, I work with them to find out why. Have they always had lesser interest? Do they want more than what they are experiencing? Some people have low desire but want to have sex more, so we’ll refer them to have their hormones checked. Hormones in food and plastics affect people and can affect sexuality. We’re finding more and more that there are lower testosterone levels in men, whereas four years ago it was reversed. We look at physical issues, medical issues. Medication is a big factor in sexuality. SSRIs are a major libido killer. You can’t just take someone off their medication, so we’ll work with them to regain their libido or help them have a satisfying sexual experience even when desire is at its lowest. Some people have naturally low desire, and that’s OK too.

I think sexuality can be terrifying. It’s a very lonely, isolating experience to grapple with whatever concern you have, especially when we are raised with parents who never talk about it, with no sex education, or abstinence only education. It is something that is not acceptable to talk about in our culture, especially in religious communities. You are not supposed to talk about sexuality or sex or orgasm, at all.

So many people are embarrassed or ashamed to talk about how they are feeling sexually. Often, we have shame around what we desire. Many people are ashamed to have particular fantasies or desire something outside of what is considered ’normal.’ I encourage my clients to embrace their sexuality, whatever what form it takes, as long as it is healthy, harmless to everyone involved, and between consensual adults. My job is to give them permission to do it. And usually, most people really need that permission. “You’re normal, your desire is OK, and if everyone is doing it in a healthy, consensual way, there’s nothing wrong with it,” even though everything else in society tells you there’s something wrong with it, or even diagnoses you with a disorder.

I always knew I wanted to be a therapist, and I was always very interested in relationships. I’ve always been fascinated with relationships because I didn’t know how to be in one. I didn’t know how to do it. I knew how to have sex but I didn’t necessarily know how to cultivate intimacy, longevity, and trust.

I did a three years master’s program at Berkeley, and that was for Marriage and Family Therapy. I saw individuals and couples when I began working. I did a depression group for years. I felt like I was just getting my big toe wet, like I was on to something but it wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. Then I started a PhD program in Los Angeles, also for Marriage and Family Therapy. In marriage and family therapy, there would be no extensive training in sexuality. We would help couples communicate and mediate in divorce, but we weren’t heavily trained in actual sexual concerns and issues. I went through two programs and there was never any talk about sex. Most psychotherapists and psychologists do not have extensive sexuality training, but when I started working as a therapist, sex was a big concern.

But it was through this program that I met my current mentor and trainer, Dr. Patty Britton, a world-renowned sexologist and sex educator. I started to train with her, and I did my certification through her in Clinical Sexology.

Dr. Britton was one of the first sex-positive doctors. She didn’t pathologize sexual problems; there were no “dysfunctions.” In the 90s there was the whole movement concerning men’s sexual dysfunction, founded and funded by the pharmaceutical company so they could promote Viagra and Cialis. And now they have a new movement for women’s sexual dysfunction, and a related drug. As a Sexologist, I am very weary of these drugs for a few reasons. For one, the Viagra-type drugs for men are simply to help sustain an erection, they do not generate erections. A man who has trouble getting an erection in the first place would not benefit from these types of drugs, but these drugs are marketed in such a way that leads men to believe otherwise.

I think with men, it’s often about performance and being able to please, and penis size. Usually with men, there’s so much performance anxiety that it causes them not to get an erection. Usually, that’s in the mind. Sexologists get to where their concern is – is it in the body? Is there low testosterone? Is there something we can do with hormone therapy? Is it in the mind, emotions, stemming from childhood? A lot of times men who come in with delayed ejaculation, it has to do with not trusting their partner. It has to do with something about the relationship outside of the bedroom. They are not comfortable entering into someone else.

I found that through the conversations I was having with women, they didn’t feel like it was their right to enjoy and receive and give as much pleasure as they wanted to. If you get married, that’s it. The women I talked to felt like, “well, you get married, then sex kind of ends, especially when you have children,” or you’d only have sex every couple of months after you have kids. But the power that women hold with their own sexuality is extremely powerful. Once a woman comes into her sexuality and has the power to give herself an orgasm and be responsible for her own orgasms, it is so liberating. We don’t want to empower women to have that ability, to be liberated.

But I think I’ve gained a lot more compassion for men as well. I don’t think I realized the emotional depth to which they thought about and worried about and had anxiety about giving pleasure and that being enough for someone. Now I feel that our society doesn’t allow men to access that emotional component. But I don’t think men are going to be able to talk about this until their penis stops working. If your penis is working, and you’re getting off, there’s no problem. They’re not going to see themselves the way they potentially could if something goes wrong. If you’re not a spiritual seeker and you aren’t trying to experience your full self, then you’re not going to look [for something that’s missing] if nothing’s going wrong. That’s the way our culture is set up.

When you can open up to sexual desires, whether you’re with a partner or by yourself, you get to know yourself in a really deep way. If you’re secure in a partnership or in a group relationship, if you can share that with others, there is a very, very deep intimacy that can arise from that kind of connection. You are giving yourself in sex. You are allowing yourself to be entered, or enter yourself into another person. There is nothing more intimate.

For me, sex was my gateway into understanding humans and human behavior and how we relate. I learned and got so much information through my sexual experiences. As a young adult, I remember learning about pleasure and sex and being completely fascinated that I could potentially contain a super power. I was able to see the connection between spirituality and sex and I was determined to incorporate sex into my spiritual path. I was able to heal myself and I uncovered a wealth of energy and knowledge around sexuality.

I have an understanding and non-judgmental view in religious communities with regards to sex and relationships. Having been raised in a Jewish community, I wanted to understand how religion, spirituality and sex fit together. I understand the complications that may arise with sex and relationships within a religion. Although there are challenges and hurdles with sex and intimacy, I can help people find pleasure and sexual fulfillment within a religious structure.

Speaking again on the spiritual side of things – I’m also a yoga teacher – it plays to the energetic systems of the body. Once you have orgasms on a regular basis or simply just cultivate sexual energy in the body, you have a tremendous amount of vitality. If you are not exercising your sexual organs, they atrophy. Once you start to re-engage in sex and orgasm – no matter what kind of sex you’re having – you regain a tremendous amount of energy, and life force. Use it or lose it!

I think when someone gains control over their sexuality, there is nothing more empowering. I focus clients to feel comfortable talking about their sexuality. Sex coaching is not sex therapy. The past will come up, but we don’t do any deep therapy work around the past. We acknowledge it and see where problems come from, but I try to stay in the present and move to the future. While sex therapy delves deep into the past, sex coaching is solution focused and result driven. Sex coaching is not just about processing feelings, it is also about finding concrete answers to keep a person moving forward and reaching their sexual and intimacy goals.  As a sex coach, I am dedicated to helping people make changes in their lives as quickly as they would like to change.

I haven’t seen a pedophile. To be quite honest, I would refer out if I saw someone with those tendencies. It’s not my area of specialty and I just don’t have the capacity for it. Bestiality, I understand, I have less judgment. I know where my boundaries are. Thoughts are different than actions. If they are acting on something illegal, I’m obligated to report them. But if they are thoughts, illegal thoughts that harm people or animals in some way, I help them not act on them. Thoughts are OK, actions are not. Violent fantasies are actually pretty common. Rape fantasies are very common, more common than you’d think. I absolutely deal with those. If someone wants to play out their fantasy in real life, I can help them do that in a safe way. I can teach them how to get the experience with someone who knows boundaries and safety. There’s a way to set up any fantasy. It may not be exactly what they are looking for, but I can help them.

From what I have gathered, there aren’t many Sexologists in Ohio. But now I feel like there are more and more people seeking this kind of help. They realize they have a choice, and that they don’t want to live the unfulfilling [sexual] life that they’re living. Perhaps there wasn’t ever passion [in someone’s relationship], and they think it’s too late to discover it. But once the conversation starts, then maybe we start to feel more empowered to look at our own lives and make those changes.

I have a lot of anxiety going to parties where I don’t know people, because I don’t really know how to start a conversation. But once someone brings up my profession, it’s the most fun thing because everyone wants to talk about sex but can’t just bring it up. I can answer questions and talk about what I do and it’s totally comfortable.

I sort of don’t care what people think of me. For personal and scientific reasons, I could think about and talk about and look at sex all day, every day for the rest of my life and I’d be the happiest person on earth. This is my path – it feels so right, I know that I’m meant to do this work. I know that I’ve helped people and helped couples and partnerships. I’m pretty straightforward and say it like it is. Some people are going to really like that, and some people are going to think I’m the devil coming to town.

I understand how important it is to have a healthy sex life, whether you’re alone or with other people. I want people to know there is no normal, or that everything’s normal. Everybody has sexual concerns. Everybody. So let’s just start the conversation. Everybody’s got their issues. It’s beautiful to watch people come into their sexuality. Healthy sexuality makes for a healthy human being!

This post originally appeared in an abbreviated form at the Yellow Springs News.

I am a professional book indexer

Index-art-590x332

If you go to a history book and you just want to read about the Gettysburg Address, go to the index and look up “Gettysburg Address.” That’s what an index is. I make that. I read the book and pull out the things that go into the index, and I write the index.

I read a book about indexing years and years ago, and the author said an index is a map to the information. It’s a matter of thinking about what the subject is. I read the introduction before I get started, if the book has one, where the author will give you the scope of the book, why they wrote about the subject and some of the big ideas, highlighting the key concepts that come up. I try to get these concepts into my head. A brief look at the table of contents helps. And then I put it aside and begin indexing the first chapter.

One thing you have to be able to do when things get complicated is to shove away a lot of the ancillary arguments and conversations the author gets into. You’ve got to really be able to focus on the key concepts. In some ways, you’re purposefully ignoring a lot of what the author is saying, cause you can’t index every little nuance. That’s not your job – you’re not recreating the book, not getting into the nitty-gritty.

It’s almost like you’re reading for an exam. You’re getting the concepts and you’re processing a whole lot of information without having to understand all the ins and outs. A good indexer can index books they don’t understand thoroughly. I’ve done books like that before, like chemistry books, which can get pretty tricky. Some philosophy is really hard to wrap your mind around. You don’t have to quite understand it all. You have to know they’re talking about “being” and “truth,” or note when they reference [it conjunction with] Kierkegaard or something like that, but the relationship between being and truth is not something you have to explain to someone.

Folks are always really curious about it, I gotta say. When I tell people about it, the universal reaction almost always is, “Wow, I never thought about that before, that someone’s got to do that.” The other thing people ask is, “Can’t computers do that? Is there a software program you use?” And they’re thinking that I use a program where I type in a few words or concepts and then the program scans the text. It doesn’t work like that. I have to put all of that information in by hand. But there is an indexing computer program that I’ve been using for years. I originally got it when it was DOS back in the 90s. It’s a very specialized word processing software that’s specifically designed to create an index. But there’s no text scanning – I type everything in. I make the decision what references go in. Every line, every page reference has to go in by hand.

I type in a main term, “Lincoln, Abraham” and then “Birth of” and the page reference. Then I type in another one. The program puts all that together automatically into alphabetical order. It interleaves everything, but I can manipulate that index with a few keystrokes. I can go back and edit, change things around if I decide I don’t like a certain term, etc. It’s an ongoing process of building and refining as you go through the book. But I don’t go back through the book unless it’s incredibly complicated. I read as I index, and I index as I read.

When you’re done with the index, you have an extremely rough draft. Your own spelling mistakes all over the place, concepts might be differently worded or listed under different headings. So I begin the editing process, which takes a day or two, or three, depending on the size of the index, modifying and tightening up, or adding sub-entries if things aren’t in enough detail. That’s how the process goes.

Does the editor or author indicate what they are looking for in an index, or how it should look?

Almost never. Maybe once a year. Maybe once a year someone will give me a list of terms or say they want these concepts in the index.

So it’s essentially left up to your expertise how to phrase or format the index?

Right.

Is there any kind of standard or thorough it has to be? Or does reading through the book inform what the ultimate index is supposed to look like?

A little bit of both. There’s a section of the Chicago manual that’s devoted to indexes. If you have an entry, “Lincoln, Abraham,” you don’t want to see that term and then 34 page references. In some indexes you’ll see that – no sub-entries. That’s a really bad index. You see that often, even in big-name books. Maybe the editor did it, an author did it. Or the author had a grad student or is paying someone in the family to do it, or something like that. No professional indexer would do that.

An entry without any subentries should have a maximum of six page references, or twelve numbers indicating six spans of pages. Anything more than that and you’ll have to start building subentries. And to build subentries, you want to build subentries that make sense and include all the things pertinent to that person, name, or concept. That’s what makes a good index.

Publishers have a rule of thumb that five percent of the book is the index. If it’s a 100 page book, there are five pages of index. If it’s a whole lot more than that, you’re doing too much, or if it’s a page and a half, you’re missing something. Five percent should be enough to get all of the information into the index.

You can pretty much tell if it was a professional indexer, an editor, or an author. It’s certain that each indexer will create their own index. They’ll be just as good, but it will be different [from those made by other indexers.]. You see things in different ways, phrase things slightly differently. There should be a great deal of overlap, but no two indexers will create the same index. And that’s not a bad thing.

How would the index of a history text differ from that of a science or philosophy text, if at all?

In terms of the index, probably not much. I go about them the same way. If there’s going to be a lot of information around any concept, whether its “mitosis” or the “Battle of Antietam,” you have to make those entries and subentries meaningful and useful. You apply that same strategy and thinking to any subject you’re reading. You read science differently than you read history, but you’re still trying to produce an index that’s competent for both.

Publishers will contact me, often they have the book in hand or will have it in a week or two. What I get are the final proofs. It’s the very last stage. Once the author approves it, it can go to press.

Once I get the book, I’ll usually have a month to index it. That’s for a book that’s 300 pages or less; your average history book or biography. That’s what most of my projects are. If the book is larger than that, the publishers will give me a little more heads up or give me a little more time to index it. Depending on the complexity and size, it will take me around a week to index a book. I can pretty much average a book a week. I do about forty or fifty books a year – that’s a little more than a week for each project.

It was an absolute non-sequitur getting into indexing. It was total serendipity. I have a degree in botany. I was working in a managing plant research labs at University of Massachusetts Amherst for about five years. There was no place to go, and if I wanted to do anything interesting I was going to have to get a PhD.

I had a friend who I’d gone to school with who was in the same position as me. He loved botany, he was waiting tables, and he lived in Amherst. He mentioned that he knew someone who was a freelance indexer and editor, and he was thinking about learning about indexing as a way to make some extra money. A lightbulb went off – that sounded really interesting. I talked with his friend and taught myself how to do indexes using index cards. They were small projects but I took that work to her for comment and review. She gave me some feedback and said, “Look, I’m going to go out on a limb and ask a guy I know at an academic press if you can index a science text for him.” This was in 1996, and then I just pushed it.

I just networked on my own. I got a digest that lists every publisher in the US and Canada, and I’ve gone through that two or three times in my career, writing every single publisher that produces let’s say 100 nonfiction books per year. I wrote hundreds of letters and emails, and in 1997 I went out on my own. It took me a year to build up enough experience to realize I could do this. With a lot of work and little luck, I realized, I can do this. And it worked out.

I’ve never met another person who does this. Occasionally I’ll meet someone that says they know an indexer. There is a American Society of Indexers that has chapters in lots of states. But I’ve never been a part of it. When I was just starting off, I went to a chapter meeting of ASI in Massachusetts. There were like fifty or sixty people there, but I didn’t feel connected to any of them. We didn’t have much in common. But I think one thing that attracts a lot of people to the job is the independence, and so you don’t get a whole lot of folks that are interested in meeting other indexers. The one meeting I went to, most of the indexers were women, most were middle-aged or older, and most were doing it as a part-time thing. I didn’t have the sense that there were many folks that were doing it full time. They were retired, or their spouse was making enough money, or they had an interest in literature. There are a lot of indexers, but full-time indexers, there probably aren’t that many at all.

The publishing world relies heavily on freelancers. There used to be in-house indexers, in-house designers, in-house copyeditors, but there aren’t anymore. That stuff is all outsourced. It’s cheaper not to have someone in house. There are freelancers everywhere doing this in publishing, and it’s the personal relationships that keep it together. The editor knows that if he’s used this proofreader and this indexer and this copyeditor for years, he can keep going back to the pool of people he’s developed relationships with. I’ve built up a clientele that I’ve worked with for years. Some editors I’ve worked with for close to twenty years at this point.

I’ve met a few editors from a large biology text publisher, but those are the only editors I’ve ever met. Everyone else, I have no idea who they are. There are people I’ve worked with for years and years at the University of Kentucky but I’ve never met any of the editors. But they send me pictures of their kids because I’ve known them for years. There’s a woman at a press in New York City who I’ve worked with since the late 90s – I know about her daughter going to college, but I’ve never met her. It’s gets to be a really personal relationship after all those years.

The downside to that [personal relationship] is when they retire or move on. This has happened numerous times. I’ve had a good relationship with an editor, she leaves, and I’ve lost that press. The person that comes in has their own stable [of indexers]. It’s so personal that if someone leaves, gets sick, retires, there’s no guarantee I’ll keep working for that publisher. On the other hand, I’ve worked for years with the University of Nevada Press, with three different editors, and they keep passing me on.

I get up and usually try to start working immediately. By 7 or 7:30 in the morning I’m at the computer reading. I take multiple breaks during the day and stop by early afternoon. That’s my usual day. I own my own time, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Of course, I have no benefits, no insurance, no vacation. And I rarely know more than a month out if I have work or not. I’ve got a couple of large projects right now, science books, that will go on for two months. That’s some stability, but when I don’t have those, which is fairly frequently, then I often don’t know what I’ll be doing in a month or six weeks. Editors aren’t thinking that far ahead. There’s always that uncertainty. When work comes, you take it. The consequence of that is, you’re overworked, you don’t get enough time off, and there’s a real danger of fatigue, burning yourself out. You’re loathe to say no because you don’t know what else will come up. The other thing is that the relationship you have is with a few presses. I can’t work for twelve presses. You can’t do too much because you’re only one person. But there’s always the concern is that if you say no, or say no a couple of times, they’ll start going with someone else. You want to keep your name up there and active, and the way to do that is to say yes and not no.

I’ll tell you one thing it does – indexing makes you realize how much really bad writing is out there, and what a really good writer is like. I read tens of thousands of pages a year – you get sensitized to what good, clear writing is. It’s such a pleasure [to read writing like that].

A dull book is hard to index. Or a really abstruse book, where the thinking’s really confused or the author is particularly invested in academic language. When the author doesn’t have that kind of clarity, the indexing job is hard.

I get really bored with a lot of books because they just aren’t that well-written. I read a lot of books and I get impatient with murky writing. There are some books out there that are just absolutely horrible. Just because it’s published doesn’t mean the writer’s very good, or that it’s well-edited. Some of it is really sharp and some of its really sloppy. Sometimes the more prestigious the university press, the more pretentious the prose is going to be. If something’s being published by Harvard University Press, then it had better be very dense and filled with lots of jargon and academese and “subtle” points. Just cut through it! The real meat of the book would be the Cliffs Notes version of it.

A well-written book is really easy to index. A well-written history or biography is a joy to index. Because the concepts make sense, they’re logical, the story is clear. What the author is doing, he or she makes really clear, and that makes the indexing really easy. You know PG Wodehouse? I read PG Wodehouse almost exclusively. I read some poetry, I love Raymond Chandler, Wodehouse – anything but something serious. I do that all day long; I’ve no interest in reading something serious. I can’t take a history book. I occasionally read a biography, but it has to be something really special.

Plowing through pedestrian prose – I don’t need to do that. That’s why I love Wodehouse – he’s a genius with writing, a genius as a writer. It’s comedy and it’s silly, but boy, you pay attention to what he’s doing with sentences and words, and it’s imaginative beyond belief. He’s creative at the highest level. Chandler – his prose is his own. That’s why I read now, for the skill of the writer.

This was originally published as a blog post at the Yellow Springs News.

About the Missives from America project

The culture of work and the nature of jobs has always fascinated me. Surrounding every job is its own lingo, lore, and unique set of experiences, and ever since coming across Studs Terkel’s Working in high school, I’ve wanted to see what these worlds were like for myself. And so, my working life thus far has primarily been defined by me taking jobs for curiosity’s sake. Sometimes this strategy has worked out well, as I’ve seen and learned a lot of cool things, but it has also landed me in jobs that have been, to say the least, extremely trying.

But seeing these jobs firsthand wasn’t enough to satisfy my curiosity. I love being taken through the ins-and-outs of someone’s everyday world, and so I started recording interviews with people about their jobs and unique hobbies. My aim is to compile the interviews for a book in the vein of Terkel’s oral histories, and so far I’ve recorded and transcribed a few dozen of these conversations.

The pieces in this section have been transcribed and rearranged for clarity and organization, but are 100 percent the interviewee’s own words (except where obviously indicated). Some focus on the minutia of day-to-day life at X job, while others explore the emotional ramifications of a job or the life circumstances that led them to it. Most do both.

I am interested in speaking with anyone in practically any field for this book. Please feel free to get in touch and we can go from there!