Wednesday, June 17, 2015


Seen as the first draft of what Flaubert would three versions later finally call the definitive, publishable text of his ‘Sentimental Education’, the ‘Memoirs of a Relatively Sane Individual’ has long been considered as merely his “preface to a troubled teenager's rural existence.” But can a writer’s life really be said to have prefaces? I canvassed the neighborhood in search of opinions and insights. The original crowdsourcing. Feet on the ground. Solid. One fellow a few blocks over, who identified himself only as ‘Karl’, asked if we could sit down on the porch swing together for a few minutes in silence while he thought over his answer. I said sure. It was more than just a few minutes when he finally said that if his parents hadn’t named him Karl they would have probably gone with either Arl, Rl, or L. Not so much a “preface” as a “shortcut to his essence”, he assured me. After a few more minutes of silence he got up and went back inside. As I was walking back down the steps to continue my survey, I heard the door open, turned around, and saw Karl’s head sticking out. “Can one really locate the point at which the author’s real work begins?” he asked quietly. “Can the well-known oeuvre be clearly set off from the early stuff, which would henceforth serve as its simple hor d’oeuvre, so to speak?” “I don’t know,” I responded. “That’s why I’m conducting this survey.” “Come back on to the porch swing,” he said. “I think I might have a definitive answer.” “Ok,” I said, and returned.

After a couple more minutes of silently swaying back and forth in the breeze, listening to the birds and feeling a bit like a child again, partially because the porch swing was extremely high up off the ground and my feet and legs were dangling aimlessly. I almost asked Karl if he had any cookies or Kool-Aid inside. “You realize, right,” he continued, “that the Flaubert who wrote the ‘Memoirs’ was a mere sixteen year old country boy. The text is romantic to the hilt, but nevertheless sets out to attack the values and assumptions of Romanticism. Correct?” “As far as I know, Karl.” “At once naive and sophisticated, talky and declamatory, buzzing with awkwardness, intelligence, and yes, also a slight trace of relative sanity, it simultaneously disconcerts and snares readers, provoking them to also think about their own names reduced letter by letter. What’s your name, by the way?” “William.” “Ok, then, let’s hear you run through the sequence.” “Uh...ok” I said, and proceeded: “Illiam, Lliam, Liam, Iam, Am, and M.” He chuckled loudly and pointed out that one of those was very close to the name of a popular brand of pet food. “I’m not sure if you know this, William, but up until the 1940s, pet food was generally not available in stores, and animals were predominantly fed homemade food, usually table scraps. Paul Iams, an animal nutritionist who graduated from Ohio State University in 1938, founded The Iams Company in 1946 in a small feed mill near Dayton. In 1950, he developed the world’s first animal-based protein-infused dog food and called it Iams 999. In 1969, Paul formulated a new kitten food and named it Eukanuba. Prior to inventing these tasty products, he worked for a number of small family businesses, including his father’s feed store in Dayton, Ohio. I’m not boring you am I?” “Not at all, Karl. Continue.” “In 1973 during the Arab oil embargo, the costs for meat and bone meal tripled, but sale prices were frozen by a nationwide wage and price control issued by then-President Richard Nixon. Iams did not change the product formula during the price freeze mandate and the company nearly went bankrupt. The famous actor Ernest Borgnine, best known for his role as the spirit guide 'Jonathan' on Little House on the Prairie, purchased half of the company in 1975. By 1982, he became the sole owner and president. After expanding the company from $100,000 turnover in 1970 to $900 million in 1999, Ernest sold it to Proctor & Gamble in September 1999. In July 2006, P&G reorganized the Pet Health & Nutrition division into P&G Pet Care.” “Interesting.” “Indeed. In its largest divestiture in five years, Procter & Gamble announced this past April that it is selling most of its Iams, Eukanuba and Natura pet food brands to Mars, Inc. for $2.9 billion in cash. P&G said the deal will allow it to release a slow performer back into the wild and generate serious moolah to concentrate on core businesses. Does this answer your question, William?” “Pretty much. Thanks. By the way, do you have any cookies or Kool-Aid inside?” “I was hoping you’d ask that!” he said with a smile. When he went inside to get them, I bolted. I know it was a rude thing to do, but when I’m crowdsourcing I prefer to get my information from relatively sane individuals.