Calvin Demmon tells all

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Sunday, January 22, 2006
The book as technology:
its life span is about up

"The printed book is a beautiful object, 'elegant' in both the aesthetic and mathematical senses of the word, and its invention was a pivotal moment in the history of American culture. But it is also a technology -- a means, not an end. Like all technologies, it has a finite life span, and its time is almost up." -- Terry Teachout, "A Hundred Books in Your Pocket: The e-book will tranform reading -- and writing," in The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 21, 2006

Friday, September 30, 2005
Christian History Project
ends sadly, but not badly

I got a sad letter in the mail this week:

"Dear Calvin,

"This letter is to inform you that the Christian History Project is in the process of winding up its business operations. This has been a difficult decision to come to, and was arrived at only after considering all alternative options.

"As many of you know, at the end of December 2004, the Christian History Project was broken into. Their server, which contained all their customer records and business processes, was stolen. It took them five weeks to get back to where they could resume operations, but the damage mortally affected their already fragile business. Despite untiring efforts by the staff and significant financial input from some directors, they have not been able to re-build the business to a self-sustaining status.

"The directors have engaged my services to wind up the Christian History Project, and I am in the process of selling off equipment. After meeting the normal operating expenses, any monies remaining from the proceeds, as well as funds from receivables recovered by the partnership, will be used to pay off creditors. . . . "

Until I got the letter (from Brian Lehr, with whom I once rode the killer roller coaster in the West Edmonton Mall), I wasn't aware of the break-in. But I knew the project was in deep trouble.

Its problems began long before the computer snafu. All or nearly all the editorial staff was dismissed from the project in about March 2004; I'd left three months earlier, having become both unaffordable and unhelpful. I hadn't heard much since then, except that Ted Byfield, the editor, was working with his wife at his home, trying to produce copy for more books.

The series had been well received by those who actually saw the books, but it never achieved the level of sales required by the expenses, and it was just one long money-bleed. I believe the investors sunk more than $5 million into the project, and they've pretty much lost it all.

What happened is that the business plan, drawn up maybe five years ago, was predicated upon making telephone sales to pre-selected prospects on purchased lists. Time-Life Books had amassed a fortune that way, and some of the CHP principals had successfully used the same research/production/sales system for a multi-volume publication covering the history of Alberta, Canada. All the early projections said the CHP would work just as well.

Then, about three years ago, the whole telemarketing thing went up in smoke, with consumer protests leading to creation of the "do not call" list by the U.S. federal gov't. CHP's sales-callers (I met some of them in Edmonton and they were fine folks, not your typical boiler-room bunch) had to make umpty-umpty calls before even reaching anybody, using lists that had to be repeatedly vetted through cumbersome, expensive computer filters that deleted the names on the "do not call" list. Even without the don't-call list, everybody had gotten fed up with sales calls and would hang up without listening -- as I would do myself.

They just couldn't make enough sales over the phone with all these difficulties, and there wasn't any workable alternate plan. Volume I was actually a loss-leader; it cost more to produce than it brought in from a customer. The hoped-for money was in subscriptions to subsequent volumes. That meant, for one thing, that selling the first volume by itself in a bookstore wouldn't work, nor could you package two or three of the volumes at a retail price low enough for the stores to be interested. They also tried marketing the thing through churches, libraries, and schools, but they hadn't planned to do that and it couldn't have been done on the necessary scale anyway, in the short time that remained.

Financially, the project was a failure, but it was a success on other fronts. It produced at least five volumes (maybe six -- this is one of the little details I'm not certain about) of wonderfully assembled words and pictures about a crucially important passage of history. It started with the death of Christ and ended up (by running out of money) somewhere in the 9th or 10th century (I guess), after astonishing sidetrips into such currently important matters as the history and intent of Islam.

I need to admit that my own efforts in the editorial department in the period before I left weren't really up to snuff, for a variety of reasons. My problems certainly didn't sink the magazine, but I couldn't help it very much.

They still owe me $3,000. I don't expect to see any of it, and I won't be upset if I don't. I'd rather that whatever cash they scrape together in liquidation go back to those poor guys who sunk all their retirement money into the thing. I know some of them very well. I grieve for them. And for the readers of those beautiful first volumes, who will have to piece together the subsequent 1,000 years of Christianity on their own.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Me and p.e.

(from a letter to Bob Demmon)

Since I started substitute-teaching in the local high schools I have avoided physical education classes, having had an awful time in p.e. in high school myself. (Because I was clumsy and slow, I was in the equivalent of p.e. special education for most of high school.) I got tricked last Friday, though. The machine that calls to give me sub assignments said I'd be in a driver ed class, and I've done those before -- the kids take practice tests and you wait around a lot, just like at the DMV, but they all want their licenses so they pretty much behave. I told the machine I'd take the job.

But when I got to the school I found that the teacher had p.e. classes all that day. No DMV. I considered walking out, and then I thought, what the heck, might as well face this thing and take p.e. again after 45 years.

And I had a fine time. The kids were wonderfully rowdy and rude, and they seemed to appreciate my sense of humor, which often gets me into trouble in academic classes. When I pretended to miscount the number of laps they'd taken they laughed at me good naturedly. I'm oversized and impulsive myself, just like these teenagers, and I actually heard two of them telling others, "He's cool" -- I never hear that in sit-down classrooms.

I felt right at home. Their kind of behavior, loopy and energetic, drives me nuts in the classroom, but out on the grass (Astroturf, actually) it worked just fine. And I'm old; they can forgive me for stumbling around.

I liked those p.e. classes better than any English class I've ever taught. I like "The Contender," too. Look! I'm a jock!

King of the Demmons

My son, Casson, is the current King of the Demmons: I typed "Demmon" into the Google search engine today and he showed up at the top of the list of 10,400 entries.

Thursday, August 05, 2004
"Defining the blues is itself a vexed question, given the historic conundrum of race and sex that has long distorted white reactions to Afro-American music in general, and to the blues in particular. The task is further complicated by the fact that generations of folklorists have evaluated blues forms in ideological, as opposed to musical terms." -- Martha Bayles, "Hollow Rock & The Lost Blues Connection," in the Wilson Quarterly

Wednesday, April 21, 2004
(To Thom Akeman:) Substitute teaching is hard. Yesterday's classes (English 130 at a local high school) gave me a particularly rough time. (Not yesterday, but once a kid hollered at me from the back of the room, "Why don't you retire?" I didn't laugh out loud but I almost did.) Today, though, staying home to catch up on some stuff, I miss the kids. I really do like even the minimal level of teaching we subs get to do. I've had a couple of Teaching Moments, when I've seen the light go on above a kid's head because of the way I explained something. I'm seriously thinking of taking the classes I need to get a Real Credential.

Friday, April 09, 2004
I'm sitting on one end of an engorged sofa in the church office. I'm there to see a priest about a matter of details. A middle-aged woman waits quietly behind the front desk to greet visitors and answer the phone. Through the open door comes a man with sun-baked skin and matted hair, wearing dark trousers and a coat that he has slept in.

After talking softly to the receptionist, he sits down at the other end of the big sofa.
I can smell the dew and grass toasted into his clothing by the sun.

Through a door to the hallway, a boy of about 10 runs in. He has more energy than both of us old guys on the sofa put together. He zooms around the room and stops at the desk. The volunteer is his mother or grandmother or aunt. He plays with the stapler and pushes the buttons on the phone.

We watch him from the sofa as we wait.

The woman tolerates the boy's behavior, which seems to have reasonable limits -- he's not breaking or chewing on anything.

As he riffles the calendar pages on the receptionist's desk, the boy sings a tune. He doesn't know the words, if there are any, so he fills in the notes with "Duh duh, duh duh, duh-duh-duh." The receptionist says, "I know that song. It's from a TV show or something."

A young woman comes in from the hall with a brown paper shopping bag full of food -- items in cans and boxes, it looks like. She brings it over and puts it on the floor by the man at the other end of the sofa, who thanks her, waits until she's gone, and begins inventorying the contents of the bag. I'm guessing that if he finds a heavy can in there that he doesn't want, he'll ditch it when he gets outside so he won't have to carry it with him all day.

The boy is singing the tune, a simple one that repeats over and over again.

"I know I recognize it," the receptionist says, sorting a stack of message slips.

The homeless man, rearranging the cans and boxes in the bag, half-whispers a word without looking up: "Jeopardy."

Thursday, March 18, 2004
The art of quoting

I can assure you that once you get rid of the notion of art you acquire a great many wonderful new freedoms. -- Jean Tinguely, Swiss sculptor of self-destructing "kinetic" pieces

Art as religion -- it's not even as good as God. -- Marcel Duchamp, French Dadaist, painter of "Nude Descending a Staircase"

Tuesday, March 02, 2004
The low orange sun

. . . the low orange sun peering over the heavy mist which was spilling . . . onto the winding road through Plumpton.
-- from "Four Days in France 2003", Dave Galle, Arun-Adur Cyclists' Touring Club

Through windshield glass he sees the children tilt onto Killingsworth and spin, knees pumping, into the low orange sun.
-- from "Youths in training for life's cycles," Spencer Heinz, Portland Sun, 9-21-98

. . . Low orange sun
frazzles in naked trees. The cold
seems unbreakably plastic . . .
-- from "An Owl Pellet", poem by William Doreski

Despite the low orange sun, still wet from its dawning, crescents of mist like the webs of tent caterpillars adhered in the crotches of the hills.
-- from "The Poorhouse Fair," John Updike

Sunday, January 11, 2004
Seize the op

Said Rabbi Bunam: "If by chance an opportunity comes to you to better yourself, do not hesitate to seize hold of it. It is so decreed in Heaven. Cling to it until another opportunity comes to you." -- quoted in Hasidic Anthology, compiled by Louis I. Newman, Schocken Books, 1963

Thursday, December 18, 2003
Poor Isaac Newton:
A writer disembodied

"I've often been struck by the fact that philosopy students read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, political science majors read the U.S. Constitution, and literature classes read Shakespeare, but students of science rarely read the works of Mendeleev or Lavoisier or Einstein. The widely used college textbook from which I learned mechanics, the area of physics whose foundations were laid largely by Isaac Newton, contains a beautiful exposition of classical mechanics but only a handful of mentions of Newton, no excerpts from his Principia, and no pages at all on the history of the subject. From this one observation an intelligent creature from outer space could determine that there exists a profound difference between the disciplines we call natural science and those we call humanities or art or social science. Modern textbooks on science give no sense that scientific ideas come out of the minds of human beings. Instead science is portrayed as a set of current laws and results, incribed like the Ten Commandments by some immediate but disembodied authority." -- Alan Lightman, "A Cataclysm of Thought," review of "Einstein's Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics," Atlantic Monthly.


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