Monday, July 25, 2011

National "scandal"

I’m excited to report that my best friend, Josh Pruyn (who’s been mentioned a dozen or so times on this blog), is at the center of a national “scandal."

Let me back up and give you Josh’s story (which is, in many ways, my story).

I’ve known Josh for about 22 years. We go back to when we played in the same youth ice hockey league at the age of six. A couple years later, he moved into my suburban neighborhood where we played street hockey on an almost daily basis after school for the next ten years. (I challenge any duo in the world to beat me and Josh in a street hockey match.) I’d say we became best friends late in high school when we used the newly discovered “email” as an outlet to complain about our unremitting sexual frustrations.

We dormed together for a year at Alfred University. He stayed and I transferred, but we kept in touch via email, still mostly complaining about our unremitting sexual frustrations. But we also began to discuss other, more substantive things: nature, religion, morality, politics, goals, dreams, failures, insecurities. Everything. I don’t know how many emails we've sent to each other since our late teen years, but from 2005 until today we’ve sent a total of 1,750 emails to each other, which averages out to sending and receiving an email every 2.5 days. (I know, it’s a little weird.)

I left college with $32,000 in debt and a history and English degree. He left with $66,000 with a history and political science degree. Needless to say, we no longer complained about women anymore. Our debts were the only things on our minds.

(Me drunkenly embracing Josh on my 21st b-day.)

(Josh came up to work up in the arctic for a bit. Together we burnt and then hauled the Yukon River Camp's summer garbage down to a dump in Fairbanks.)

I got a job with Coldfoot and, later, the Park Service. Josh, too, tried to enjoy the itinerant lifestyle, jumping from job to job for a while at places like Coldfoot. But because there were huge gaps in between his seasonal employment, Josh had trouble keeping up on his loan payments, which were far more demanding than mine.

He needed something more permanent, so he moved to Denver and took a job as a “admissions representative” with an online for-profit school called Westwood. At first, Josh was excited to be working for a college. He figured he’d be inspiring young people to go to school and improve themselves. (His job, essentially, was to get prospective students to sign up for classes.) But the more he learned about Westwood, the more he found himself in a moral quandary.

Here’s the thing about most online for-profit schools… They’re mostly a scam. They often cost around $70,000 for a three-year degree. Because they’re nationally-accredited (which is very different from a regionally-accredited school), students cannot transfer their credits to normal universities. And most employers don’t take their degrees seriously, so they can’t get jobs, either. Places like University of Pheonix and Kaplan and Westwood are putting many many young people in terrible, terrible debt that they can’t get out of.

Josh, as an admissions rep (which made him little more than a glorified telemarketer), began to see what was going on around him. Many of his fellow coworkers were lying to or misleading prospective students. Those who got the most students to sign up were rewarded with vacations to Cancun, parties, bonuses… At an employee celebration, one coworker laughingly received a “Best Liar” award. Those who didn't sign up students were fired. It was cruel irony that, to pay off his debt, Josh was now in the business of putting other young people into debt.

After five months, Josh ended up quitting. This is where I come in (and where I play a very minor role in this narrative).

I moved to Denver to stay with him and his girlfriend for a couple months (right before I bought a van and enrolled at Duke). After hearing Josh’s horror stories about Westwood, I wanted to publish an exposé on the school’s unethical practices. I wanted to bring Westwood down. (It was an unrealistic goal, as I'd published just a few very minor professional articles at that point.) I spent a couple months emailing ex-professors, ex-students, and ex-administrators from Westwood. I wrote a great article, but no one wanted to publish it (which frustrates me to this day).

While researching, I discovered a law firm that was representing former Westwood students, who were suing the college. I got some info from the lawyers and told them about Josh. They began talking with Josh. Josh told the lawyers the many gory details about what happens on the Westwood sales floor.

So when Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat/Iowa), who was conducting a hearing about the crimes of for-profit trade schools, found out about Josh and his experiences at Westwood, Harkin asked Josh to testify in front of the Senate.

Josh flew to D.C and, last fall, delivered his testimony about Westwood. It was his shining hour, his redemptive moment. (To watch Josh, fast forward to minute fourteen.)

Let me fast forward to the present day. The Daily Caller a conservative online newspaper founded by journalist and dweeb Tucker Carlson, has printed an exposé on Josh and Senator Harkin, claiming that Harkin and his staff “supplied an answer” to Josh. For some delusional reason, people representing Westwood claimed that Josh was working for the law firm that was suing the school—a bullshit tactic employed to hopefully discredit whatever Josh had to say at the Senate testimony. Needless to say, Josh has no connection with the law firm. Josh merely wanted to expose Westwood’s bullshit. He wanted to do the right thing. When Harkin's aide advised Josh via email, the aide was merely reiterating what Josh had told him. (PS: I'm the "freelance journalist friend" mentioned a couple times in the exposé.)

You’d think that being at the center of a national controversy would be stressful and chaotic for someone like Josh, who now has a big, ugly, warty evil corporation breathing down his neck. But for the most part, he and I couldn't be more amused with the whole thing. Josh is still in student debt, so he really has no money or valuable assets that Westwood can take. Plus, he’s right, and Westwood (and The Daily Caller) is wrong. Plus, it's fun to think back on when we were a couple of losers in high school who've each had our fifteen minutes of fame.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Writer in residence

For a little over a month, I’ve been Coldfoot’s writer-in-residence—a title I use reluctantly because I’ve actually done very little writing on this blog in that timeframe. I’ve mostly been writing my book. And when I say “I’ve mostly been writing my book” I mean: “I’ve mostly been procrastinating writing my book.”

Confession: I am a master procrastinator. And I don’t mean that in a funny, cynical, sarcastic way. I could teach classes on how to procrastinate. A procrastinator who knows what he's doing knows how to procrastinate efficiently. When I have something important to do, I find myself unable to do the important thing, yet I am exceptionally good at getting secondary, semi-important things done.

So just exactly what have I been doing? I have indexed my whole 140-page “quote collection,” which is on a single-spaced Word file. To retain the insights and ideas from the books I’ve read these past three years, I’ve been collecting and saving quotes in this file, typing out each interesting passage that I think might be of some use to me in the future. Before I indexed them, my collection was little more than a confusing, unorganized jumble of words. I’ve taken it upon myself to, this summer, read every single quote and assign to each an index heading (i.e. “wilderness,” “travel,” “agriculture,” etc.) to be placed under its proper index heading on a separate document.

While I was working on my index on my laptop, one of my female coworkers asked me “how’s the writing’s coming?” I said I’m not writing but that—with no shortage of pride—“I’m just indexing 140 pages of wisdom,” adding that these quotes represented all the topics under the sun that are “the most important to me.” I wanted to impress her with my diligence, so I opened up the index file on my computer, and, on the top of that page—in large, emboldened, 20-point font—was the word “MASTURBATION”one of several hundred index headings. For the record, “masturbation” is not a topic that I consider of the utmost “importance” to me, but I decided to give it its own section because Jean-Jacques Rousseau has some curious opinions on the matter that I desired to preserve. (PS: If anyone wants a copy of my index, let me know via email and I’ll be happy to send you one. I’ll be done with it in about a week.)

I’ve also gone through 112 pages of my book's “scrap file” on which I've pasted hundreds and hundreds of passages of crappy writing that I wanted out of the book, but didn't have the heart to delete because it had some value to me. I’ve culled this file down to 79 pages and reorganized every passage under the appropriate chapters so I can easily reincorporate passages into the book if I choose to.

And when I ran out of things to procrastinate, I finally buckled down and edited my first seven (of twenty) chapters.

Another confession: Before I undergo an editing session, I read a chapter of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat. Pray. Love., which—I’m embarrassed to admit (as a young, straight male)—is a masterfully written travel memoir that I really, really like. And because I’m in the business of writing a travel memoir, I figured I ought to learn from the best. There are few authors who are able to come across as both sincere and self-deprecating, who make you laugh and cry. Gilbert’s one of them. It’s an incredibly difficult balance to strike—being both stupid and serious—but it’s a magical thing when a writer pulls it off. And by reading her book, I’m able to “Gilbertify” my own words, helping me express ideas colloquially without dumbing anything down.

The real reason I haven’t been writing on this blog is because I’ve been bummed out lately—I’ve been bummed out for quite a while in fact. And while sharing bummed out stuff—which is normally juicy stuff that is sometimes the most fun to write and the most enjoyable to readI’ve decided to withhold my petty troubles from you, dear reader, because my troubles, currently, aren’t of the interesting sort.

Mainly, I’ve been stressed out about the book: Is it going to happen? Am I just wasting my time? Is my story even worth telling? What am I doing sixty miles north of the Arctic Circle? And while I have tons of reasons to moan about my previous literary agent (who stopped responding to my emails), I’m just not going to go there, as complaining about your agent is just one short step away from whining about my assistant Brant who got me a soy latte when I specifically asked for a Caffe macchiatto. In other words, these are boring, privileged travails—not the sort of travails I want on a blog that I’d like to be about travel and adventure and poverty and journeying and important stuff.

And while I’m still very unsure if the book is going to happen, I am pleased to report that I’m beginning to drub up interest with literary agencies. So we’ll see. I plod on.


I just told someone the other day that “I love being unemployed.” It’s not exactly true that I’m unemployed, as I work about eight hours a week, and last week—because a guide had gone on vacation—I worked close to thirty, allowing me to bring in about $500 between salary and tips—but, for the most part, yes, I am unemployed, and goddamn, do I love being unemployed.

“Unemployed” is probably not the best way to describe my current status because I most definitely am employed with book-writing (when I’m not procrastinating it), so I suppose I mean: I love being self-employed. I love working on projects of my own creation; on a schedule that I've devised. When work is fun (which the book is for the most part) work is no longer work. Work and leisure become one and the same thing.

As much as Ken the wannabe scholar likes writing, Ken the wannabe wildman feels ignored. Truth is, I’ve spent most of the past three years sitting on my ass in front of a computer. And while I'd rangered for a couple summers and farmed a little bit, I was, for the great majority of that time, sitting on my ass, too. (My ass, as I type this, is quite literally sore from being planted on a chair for so long.)

I’m convinced that 18-year-old Ken (who played on his varsity hockey and football teams) could kick 28-year-old Ken’s ass. Which is kind of sad to think about because I could easily be at my physical peak today if I wished to be. And I guess I’m starting to think that I ought to take advantage of my youth, and go on some once-and-for-all limit-testing physical adventure and use my body to do things I know I won’t be able to do in twenty years. In other words, I want to get off my ass and do something. I want to finish this damn book.

Plus, I find that the whole memoir-making process is kind of fucking with my memory. Let me explain… In order to write a memoir, you must first take actual, real-world experiences (like hitchhiking with a driver in Virginia) and then translate that experience into words that are arranged on a page. (This is the first time you tinker with your memories.) What goes onto page, of course, will never be a perfectly accurate rendition of the original experience because the event that actually happened and your memory of that event are two very different things. Then you have to rearrange those experiences—which are now on page—so that they make sense and are interesting to your reader. For instance, I’ve had to cut important people in my life out of the book because they don’t contribute to the central narrative, or I’ll have to play around with dates a little bit so as to create moments of suspense. (This is the second time you tinker.) Here's the F'd-up part: I find that now, when I think of my actual experiences, I no longer think of the actual experience; rather, I think about how I’ve rearranged it in my book. I am disfiguring my memories. I suppose this stinks because I no longer see things the way in which they actually happened, but in a weird sort of way, I think I am restructuring my memories in such a way that makes my “story” make more sense. I once heard that all we are are our stories. While my story may no longer be real (and remember no one’s story is perfectly real because all memories are imperfect), my story, now that it’s been disfigured, is better than ever.

All in all, I feel like I’m living in the past. I’ve been writing my story for, off and on, eleven months, and I feel like I can’t move on and can't create new memories until the book is published. It’s not that simple: I am meeting new people and seeing new stuff up here and having new experiences, but I am far from fully living. After this book, I think I’ll be emptied of stories, yet more than eager to fill up on new ones.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hike on the continental divide

I recently went on a two-day hike with my friend Sarah on the North Slope of the Brooks Range, about 30 miles north of the northernmost tree. It amazes me how such a desolate, barren, and empty place can still be appetizing for the eyes. You'd think that an endless vista of 7,000-foot rock piles--bearing only the most resilient patches of moss and lichen--would produce sensations of disgust and repulsion. But oh no. While the wavy green grass of a well-cared-for pasture entices us with fertility, and the jungle, biodiversity, the desolation of the Brooks bedazzles us with a different kind of beauty; the kind that--through awe and wonder--sets our imaginations astir.

We drove up the Dalton Highway in a truck my friend Chad lent us, before parking atop Atigun Pass--which is a mountain pass that's also along the continental divide. (If a water droplet split on the pass, half of it would head north to the Arctic Ocean, while the other half would wiggle south to the Yukon River before being poured into the Pacific.)

We came across a grizzly crossing the road near a place called Chandalar Shelf. It walked into the grass and began scraping off layers of tundra either with hopes of pulling out an edible root or a ground squirrel to snack on.

The mountains we climbed were around 6,500 feet, though we started at a relatively high base: something like 4,500 feet. From the picture below, you can see the Dalton Highway snaking across the valley.

A band of Dall sheep choose to inspect us from above. The stared at us curiously and motionlessly. They seem to have rather stoic dispositions, despite their keen curiosities.

On the trip back, I slipped on some ice and fell into a small creek. For the rest of the way back, I had a small stone stuck in my finger, which I didn't want to pull out until I had my first aid kit supplies at hand. (Finger was fine.) Much to my disappointment, though, my camera, which was in my back pocket, has been severely damaged, so I regret to say that my pictures will be severely reduced in quality until I buy a new one. (Which is atop my materialist desire list.)