In 1983 John Syrgemaki shot a 400 pound black bear while hunting near his home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Still wearing a blaze-orange vest with the words DON’T SHOOT, I AM A MAN stamped across his back, John described his kill to a reporter from the region’s lone television station.

“I was walkeen an hunteen deer when I come up on a gully-like and I stop to take a leak. Nature call, you know. So derit was . . . on a hill. And I thought what da hell is dat black one der? He start to move, so I move too, you know. In case like dat, you have’n got time to teenk. You do naturally what you supposed to.”

“Well, that was pretty good luck, eh?” the reporter asked.

Squinting through dusty horn-rimmed bifocals, with his right hand loosely cupped beneath his unshaven chin, John grinned as he tilted his head in the direction of the dead bear hanging from the aluminum ladder behind him.

“Not so good for dis one.”

Indeed. Speaking in negatives is a feature of the language in John’s part of the country. Rugged immigrants from northern Europe and Scandinavia developed a dialect characterized by its accent on the first syllable and its tendency toward leading with the negative. Pauli breaks the pin on his snow blower and his day is not so good. Pasi scores four goals in the hockey league’s championship game and his night is not so bad.

Even when introduced by a negative, though, good and bad are relative terms. Just like slow and fast. You stand motionless, knee-deep in a rushing river, yet you are hurtling through space at 67,000 miles per hour. It all depends on your frame of reference.

And so it is with good and bad. I string several words into a sentence, several sentences into a paragraph, several paragraphs into a story, and a few people tell me they like it. Not so bad, I think. Then, while rereading the Coast of Nowhere, I am blown away:

What it is, is this: after decades of fishing you come to realize that you live in a house made entirely of desire.

Bang. Michael Delp describes my feelings more perfectly with a single sentence than I’ve explained with countless paragraphs. A few days later I read A Daybreak Handbook and—wham—Jerry Dennis masterfully unearths my deepest fears and regrets about parenting:

I must have thought there would be plenty of time, some other time, to see waves, sandpiper, boy as they really are, but twenty years later I wonder, what other time?

I go back to the words I’ve written, and I sigh. Not so good. These guys—and other writers like them—write prose and poems that bruise and bleed, eat and drink, laugh and cry. They create life with letters.

These are the things I thought about when I read that my new friend Mike Sepelak has asked St. Nicholas to help him get his writing Mojo back. From my perspective, the magic power Mike seeks is simply a slight adjustment to his frame of reference. He may feel like he’s standing still, unable to run in a dream; but we readers see a vibrant flow of insight and passion. From our point of view, Mike has tons of Mojo.

And Mike may have overlooked a few important facts about Christmas. Christmas, you see, is a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and Santa is a Yooper who—like John Syrgemaki—wears a Stormy Kromer and a blaze-orange vest with the words DON’T SHOOT, I AM A MAN printed across the back. So when the Jolly Man checks his list to see if Mike’s writing has been bad or good, I am certain he will squint through dusty bifocals, stroke his long gray beard, and shout an emphatic response.

Not so bad for dis one.



Categories: Fish Tales


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