July 12, 2020

Fellowship of the Wrongs


In the second week of April, with the plague skulking through the streets of New York and everywhere else in the world, I received an email from a friend of mine, a blind writer based in Colorado, letting me know she was thinking of nominating me for some kind of fellowship. I’d never been nominated for a fellowship before, thinking such things were only handed out to academics with a knack for filling out forms. I wasn’t even sure I knew what a fellowship involved, exactly. Would I be expected to present a paper, teach anything, or participate in round-table discussions? Would there be snacks? Still, I thought it was a very kind and thoughtful gesture on her part, though there were probably at least seventy or eighty more deserving and qualified people around the globe.

            The fellowship, she told me, took place on a campus up in the Catskills somewhere. It was designed specifically for writers, documentary filmmakers, photojournalists and multimedia types at work on some kind of long form non-fiction project. She’d been a fellow there the previous year, where she worked on her soon-to-be published book about the personal and cultural aspects of blindness. Having been a fellow allowed her to nominate another future candidate, and she’d chosen me.

            Long-form non-fiction, you say? Well, let’s see. I have a folder here on the Machine containing sketches for about two dozen potential books that seemed like really, really good ideas at one time or another. Some consisted of just a couple of vague, descriptive lines jotted down drunkenly, others had been outlined in detail with a few finished chapters. There were novels and story collections and anthologies, as well as yes, a few non-fiction ideas. At this point I’d pretty much written them all off, figuring I’d never have the necessary time I’d need to devote to any of them. So let’s see. I opened the folder (which I hadn’t looked at in a very long time) to see if there were any possibilities, something that might really wow the fellowship people.

            There was that book about all the convicted felons I’d known, from the guy serving eight years for felony forgery to Jessie Lee Wise, who’d been executed in Missouri, to all those mobsters and child molesters. So many child molesters. There was my compact biography of Louis-Ferdinand Celine, that oral history of the New York Press, and a couple of memoirs, like the Beckett-inspired one about the time I was trapped in O’Hare for twenty-four hours. None of them really seemed to cut it. No, the only one there with any chance at all, I figured—and the only one that still interested me—was that big nihilism book I’ve been flapping my gums about for twenty years now.

            Maybe that was just the thing. I had extensive notes, a complete outline, and a few finished chapters. What I didn’t have was the time to sit down and write it. Maybe a stretch in the Catskills was exactly what I needed to get off my spotty ass and do it before I died.

            But that was all secondary. I liked that Catskills idea. I’d never been there before that I was aware of, and maybe if I got this thing, I’d be able to sneak off and catch Norm Crosby’s or Charlie Callas’s act some night. That’d be swell!

            Then I started getting suspicious. I always get suspicious when people offer me nice things. It was that suspicion that drove me at last to click on the link my friend had passed along.

The Wyatt Nonfiction Program offers two fellowship classes per year—one in the fall (October-December) and one in the spring (February-April).

     We welcome between 10-20 nonfiction writers, documentary filmmakers, photojournalists, podcasters and multimedia creators per class. Fellows are provided lodging, meals, workspace, professional guidance and community.

            Okay, so far it was sounding fine, Exactly what my friend had told me, so I moved on.

Fellowships range between 5-10 weeks and take place on the Kilgore Institute for Global Harmony’s historic 100-acre campus in upstate New York.

            Wait. “Institute for Global Harmony”? Suddenly I heard the distant sound of a flushing toilet echoing in my head. With a name like that, it had to be some kind of a cult. Even if it wasn’t, Global Harmony and I have never much gotten along. Still I rolled on.

Applicants must be at work on a long-form project in order to apply (e.g.: an article, book, film, collection, podcast, etc.).

     We accept applications from academics, memoirists and non-professional journalists, as long as the intended audience of the project is the general public and the work is deeply reported.

     We are particularly interested in supporting projects that examine the most pressing issues of the day, including but not limited to: conflict and security; democracy and governance; education; environment and climate change; food security; gender, race, sexual orientation, disability and intersectionality; globalization; health; inequality and exclusion; media and journalism; social justice; and sustainability and resilience.

     Fellows are selected for the program based on the quality, relevance, professional experience and promise of the applicant’s work.

     The Wyatt Nonfiction Program is committed to building a diverse and inclusive class of fellows. The Kilgore Institute does not discriminate in its programs and activities against anyone on the basis of race, creed, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity, age, sexual orientation, marital status, ancestry, physical ability or disability, HIV status or veteran status.

     The building that houses our residents is wheelchair accessible and does not have stairs. Handrails are in all resident bathrooms. The terrain is hilly and many of our buildings were built in the 1800s.

            The minute I saw words like “diversity” and “gender identity” popping up, I could smell what the deal was. Even if it wasn’t a cult, they, like everyone else, would want and expect me to be working on some deeply earnest crap about cripples. They’d even mentioned “disability and intersectionality” in their list of what they were looking for, without a peep about “funny books about nihilism.” I didn’t even know what the fuck “intersectionality” meant. Did it have something to do with crossing the street?

            Now, to be fair, one of those proposed books in my files was about my failed efforts to try and find a straight (i.e. non-writing) day job, something that would pay a steady income. Fast food drone, museum curator, whatever, I didn’t care. With writing jobs drying up everywhere, I was anxious to take a leap in some completely new direction. It had always worked for me in the past. The closest I’d come this time, though, were rejections from a mop factory and a sweatshop. That personal story was to be couched in the larger context of the failure of all the myriad blindo social agencies and the ongoing problem nationwide of a cripple unemployment rate that had wavered around the seventy-five percent mark even after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. In 2016, I’d written a long, heavily researched article about just that. It had interviews and statistics and everything.

            No doubt that would be right up their alley, exactly the sort of thing the Institute for Global Harmony would be looking for. But given how the ADA’s been gutted in the years following the 2016 election, pretty much everything I wrote back then would now be grossly outdated, conditions having grown far worse. I’d have to start over from scratch. But you know what? I had no fucking interest in starting over from scratch. I was bored with that idea, as I was with most cripple issues. I wanted to write my goddamn nihilism book.

            Looking at a few more related pages about the program, I found things like this:

The Wyatt Nonfiction Program believes that an informed, educated and engaged citizenry is essential to the functioning of democratic society. We rely on journalists to filter misinformation, ensure transparency and provide accurate and unbiased content. Yet journalists are required to work with fewer resources, tighter deadlines and more pressure than ever before. With support from the Harrison Wyatt Family Foundation, the Wyatt Nonfiction Program aims to fill the growing gap in the media landscape between the resources a news outlet, book publisher or film distributor can devote to long-form narratives, and the resources a journalist, author or documentary filmmaker needs.

            Okay. You can pretty much kiss off any tenuous rosy dreams you may harbor about a well-informed citizenry, unbiased journalists who don’t spread misinformation, and the virtues of a democratic society. Ain’t gonna happen. Apart from that, there was nothing ostensibly wrong with what they’d written here, but I could smell straightaway that a fifteen hundred page book touting nihilism as the hot new self-help trend, in fact the only viable self-help trend of the twenty-first century, was simply not going to fly with these buzzards. They’d want that blindo book or nothing at all.

            I had to stop on several occasions to remind myself that, considering that darn pandemic, all this was a moot point. That program scheduled to start in October was never going to happen. But I kept thinking about it nonetheless. There hadn’t been any mention of presenting papers or teaching anything, which was good. So the general idea was that I’d be put up in some kind of dorm room upstate where I could work for two months without the day-to-day distractions of feeding the cats, doing laundry and buying groceries? That was it? Just go up there and write? Didn’t sound like too bad a deal, except it meant I’d have to pack my whole desktop computer set-up and drag it along, as that’s where all my notes were, and my screen reader is already up and running and customized. That’s kind of a pain. And nobody said anything about liquor stores in the area or a smoking policy. As a few friends noted, why didn’t this foundation just send out a few whopping checks to allow journalists to work at home instead of insisting they come up to the Catskills to live in a fucking dorm?

            Again I had to stop myself from thinking about this too seriously. Beyond the plague, I knew full well they’d never go for that nihilism book once they found out I was blind.

            As Helen Keller and Erving Goffman noted (and as I’ve been experiencing for years), if you’re a blindo, or cripple of any kind, who accomplishes anything at all—writing a book, making the Olympic curling team, going to the bakery to pick up some cookies—you immediately and forever not only become a global spokesperson for everyone with your specific disability, no one will ever want to hear anything you have to say about anything else. I’ve published eleven books, nine of which never even mention blindness, but to most everyone nowadays, I’m simply a Professional Blind Man. Back in Bay Ridge, no one ever asked what I did for a living, assuming I lived on disability, leeched off my wife, and that was that. If I made the mistake of mentioning I was a journalist and novelist, they’d nod sadly and politely then keep asking blindo questions.

            But what the hell, right? Maybe I’d submit the application without once mentioning I was a feeb, pitch the nihilism book anyway, and see what happened. If they rejected me, so what? And if they accepted me, well, a spell upstate would be something new, anyway, something that would knock me out of my routine, and I desperately needed something like that to come along and smack me in the head every year or two. Plus I’d finally be able to stop talking about the nihilism book that wasn’t. Best of all, I might be able to catch Shecky Greene’s show!

            The day after my friend in Colorado told me she was going to nominate me for the fellowship, I received a note from the head of the program, someone with the unlikely name Ogg Vorbis.

            Okay, so it wasn’t really “Ogg Vorbis,” but trust me, it was close enough. So close in fact I immediately added it to my long list of unlikely character names, tucked in there beside Frinky Duvall, Benny Calamine, and Sonny Underfoot. The name was so unlikely I started to get suspicious again.

            Things got even creepier when other people, upon hearing the name, noted how strangely close it was to my own, as if someone had taken my name, turned it into a word puzzle, then sent it to me to see if I was clever enough to notice. What the fuck was going on here?

            I couldn’t tell if Ogg was male, female, or something in-between. Whatever he/she/it was informing me I’d been officially nominated, described the program again, and sent along some application links.

            The weirdness rolled on. It wasn’t that the application links Ogg sent were broken. They weren’t. They all went someplace, just not someplace that had anything to do with applications or the program. One sent me to Apple News, while another spun in circles for a few minutes before confessing it couldn’t display anything because there were too many redirections and it was confused. Not a single link on the site operated as intended.

            Beyond that, it struck me this thing wasn’t associated with any kind of college or university, it was just The Institute. “Institutes,” by nature, are always sinister. Just look at any early David Cronenberg or Larry Cohen picture. Also, look as I might, I could find no reference to an exact town where The Institute was located. It was merely “upstate” someplace. Well, “upstate” is pretty big. And heavily wooded.

            Things started feeling a little hinky. Was it some kind of elaborate scam? I did a general online search for the program, but every single result that came up was a page from that same website. No one outside the program had uttered an independent peep about it. I hated to think my friend was in on it, too, but who knows?

            That it was a cult of some sort, as I originally suspected, became the clear answer. Maybe they accepted everyone who applied, and when the unwitting fellows showed up at that “institute” “upstate,” they were brainwashed for two months, then sent out to recruit more unwitting suckers. Christ, a day after arriving in the Catskills, I’d probably be eaten as part of some kind of pagan festival.

            Well, as I’ve thought before in other situations, there are less interesting ways to die. Discounting for a moment the plague and the simple fact the fall program was never going to happen, I nevertheless went back and continued searching for that application.


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