What are you reading: Dave Askins of the Ann Arbor Chronicle
Dave Askins, the bearded, long-haired interlocutor of a blog called Teeter Talk has one of the more interesting pedigrees, in New Journalism. After completing a master's degree in German, and studying theoretical linguistics, toward a Ph.D. that never was completed, he embarked on what he describes as "a collection of odd jobs" in the Ann Arbor area. Those included work as a frozen foods clerk, a kennel keeper and a data programmer for a company that conducted public opinion surveys.
He's best known for his blog, and the question-and-answer sessions that he conducts with people of interest--while riding on one of his two handmade teeter totters. Askins has achieved equipoise with former President William Jefferson Clinton, Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje, various media personalities, and Ann Arbor District Library Director Josie Parker.
He currently is involved in two business ventures that are equally suited to his intellectually curious, peripatetic nature. One is known as H.D. Hauling and Delivery, a firm which is comprised of Askins, a bike and a two wheeled trailer. For a fee, he moves packages to local destinations; thanks to two local businesses, he makes two trips to the post office every business day, both of them with about 200 pounds of freight.
His other financial endeavor is The Ann Arbor Chronicle, which he produces along with his wife Mary Morgan. The Chronicle is an online-only daily newspaper covering the city of Ann Arbor. Askins does a good deal of the writing, in his informal and inquisitive style, even if it means being on the lookout for stories as he traverses the city with his bike and trailer. The Chronicle is supported by advertising from local businesses, and by donations from readers.
When we asked him to recommend a book, Askins naturally chose one with a depiction of a teeter totter on the cover.
"You can judge a book by its cover. The cover of Alan Zweibel's the other shulman shows a modified yellow diamond sign used for designating playgrounds -- the kind that depicts two abstract human figures on either side of a teeter totter. The modification was to fatten up one of them and skinny down the other one -- which is somehow related to the thematic content of this novel. It involves a guy who is on some level interacting -- through recollections -- with a previous, fatter, less fit version of himself as he runs a marathon. And it's funny.
But I didn't know anything about the marathon theme or the comic aspect when I bought the book. A friend of mine emailed me an image of the cover because he thought I might like it -- based on the interview website I maintain called Teeter Talk. And I bought it based purely on the novelty of the cover image. The fact that the arc of this novel traces the route of the New York City marathon as it's traversed by Shulman was a pleasant surprise. Having suffered through two marathons myself, I counted this as a second connection to the book -- in addition to the teeter tottering image. The third connection came from the book jacket, which includes this about Alan Zweibel by Merrill Markoe: "Alan Zweibel is a very funny guy. And he as written a very funny book." Merrill Markoe knows funny -- she was a writer on David Letterman's show back in the olden days. And David Letterman grew up in Indiana, just like me. I like funny books. So there's a third connection.
So this was a can't-miss read for me. That's why I can't figure out why I haven't been able to make my way past the first chapter. Maybe it's because I know how it turns out: he finishes the marathon, right? He's bound to. Otherwise there wouldn't be much of a book. Maybe it's that the humor requires a close reading to appreciate, which takes a mental effort that I haven't been able to muster in the last six months. These aren't fart jokes that Zweibel has put together here. Or maybe it's that the teeter totter cover art doesn't obey the laws of ordinary physics: the fat guy is being held aloft by the skinny guy. Maybe that was a missed indicator that something was wrong with this book.
So I've read that first chapter numerous times, because on each attempt I start the book at the beginning -- enough time passes between each attempt that I feel like I need to go back to the starting line to refresh my memory. It's by now become like a warm-up jog for the race through the rest of the book that never quite happens. And yes, I will be timing myself on how long it takes me to complete the book. There's a notion of chip-time versus clock-time for running road races in these modern times, so I will appeal to some analog of that in recording the time it takes me to get to the end of the book. I'll time it from the finish back to the last time I started."