Excerpts From An Interview With Major Ashpole, Distinguished Columnist And Editor,

The Five Lakes Heron (“A”), Conducted By Major Ashpole,

Distinguished Columnist And Editor, The Five Lakes Heron (“Q”)

[Major Ashpole refuses to be interviewed by anyone, but it seemed as though an interview would be a good way for readers who are unfamiliar with him and his work to get a better idea of who he is and how The Five Lakes Heron got started.  So the webmaster asked him to interview himself, and he reluctantly agreed.  What follows are excerpts one hopes are most instructive vs. other segments in which Mr. Ashpole was what might euphemistically be described as “less than cooperative.”]

Q: We’re here today with America’s Major Ashpole, a living icon, if by “living” you mean “sliding ever more quickly towards eternity” and if by “icon” you mean “someone who still recognizes himself in the mirror without a note that says, ‘Good Morning, your name is Major.’ ”  Mr. Ashpole has seen fit to publish his thoughts in a newsletter which, miraculously enough, has attracted a great deal of attention from notable persons across America.  Thank you for joining us, Mr. Ashpole.

A: Thank you for your candid introduction.  Not exactly a publicist’s dream, but I guess I got what I expected.

Q: Perhaps you’d prefer someone from “Entertainment Tonight” or “60 Minutes” or a network evening news anchor?  Better yet, how about an appearance on “The View” or the “Monday Night Football” booth? Think you could stand that for two minutes?

A: I take your point, and I’m feeling better already, if by “better already” you mean “I can see my life has reached a new low.”  In any case, I’m glad I could join you today because if I couldn’t, it would have been terribly awkward.

Q: If I may begin: How indeed does it feel to be an icon of honest discourse and plain thinking among today’s crowded stage of hacks, media opportunists, and pretenders to educated thought?

A: Frankly, I find it more than a little discouraging that matters have sunk to a depth where anyone would pay any attention to me at all.  It is a sad sign of the times that the media provides so little in the way of informed and well considered thought that I would even become noticeable. The fact that Sean Hannity is regarded as a thinker by anyone and a propagandist like David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for The Times and a featured commentator on the PBS Nightly News is like a stock market crash for intelligence and knowledge. At the same time, I myself am uniquely unqualified to be considered as anything more than a curiosity of age and a progenitor of ambiguous rambling, although, in my defense, at least I get my facts straight.

Q: Let’s talk about The Five Lakes Heron.  Why on earth did you ever start it?

A: I wasn’t getting enough attention from my wife, so I thought if I launched a neighborhood newsletter she’d be so scared to death of how I might upset the neighbors that she’d be constantly wanting to know what I was thinking and what I was planning to write.

Q: Did it work?

A: Like a charm, at the start.  But once I’d either offended or angered pretty much everyone she knew in the Five Lakes area and she realized it didn’t affect how people treated her, she stopped paying attention and things went back to normal.

Q: How does she feel about The Heron now?

A: She likes anything that keeps me from bothering her, so she’s completely supportive, if by “supportive” you mean “she pays no attention whatsoever.”

Q: That can be a blessing.

A: At times, as I’ve discovered.  But I still like getting her attention more often than I do. 

Q: Have you tried actually engaging her in conversation?

A: Who are you?  Joyce Brothers?  Maybe this interview isn’t such a good idea after all.

Q: Let’s get back to The Heron.  How did you actually get it off the ground?

A: I’d already spent years wandering aimlessly around the neighborhood, so when I took a pad and pencil with me and told people I was going to start a newsletter and asked if they had any news they wanted to put into it, the response was overwhelming to the point of distress. I had more news for the first issue than I could fit in.  I only wanted it to be four pages and now I had to decide whose information to leave out, and there is little more distressing in life than having to make a decision.

Q: A quandary indeed. Howsoever did you extricate yourself from your terrible predicament?

A: I detect a note of sarcasm.

Q: Perhaps you should adjust your hearing aid: It was a full chord, at least.

A: I don’t have a hearing aid.

Q: There’s the rub.  So how did you decide what information to use?

A: I didn’t use any of it.  I wrote about what was on my own mind instead.

Q: And what, pray tell, was on your mind?

A: I was annoyed at all the information everyone had given me so I wrote a few notes about how people should keep things to themselves and not bother other people with every bit of new information they might have.

Q: But you asked people to give you information.  How could you be upset with them when it was you who asked them for it in the first place?

A: I guess that’s just a talent I have.

Q: You are as glib as you are old.

A: Is there a question in there somewhere?

Q: No, but there is here: How did you distribute the first issue?

A: I thought I’d hire a couple of neighborhood kids to put it on everyone’s front doorstep.

Q: Sounds like a great idea.

A: That’s what I thought--great mind thinks alike--but it turned out not to be a very good idea at all.

Q: Why?

A: Kids back then were looking to play video games, not earn money.  It’s the same today except they don’t care as much about games because they’re too busy sending five different kinds of instant messages to each other and watching porn on their smart phones.

Anyway, I couldn’t find a single kid willing to do it so I paid a couple of gentlemen who worked for a local landscaper instead.  Unfortunately, my Spanish was worse than their English so they didn’t leave The Heron on everyone’s front doorstep, they put it in everyone’s mail box, and I got a call from the local postmaster informing me that it is illegal to use a post box for anything other than mail delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, and he threatened to fine me $1000.

Q: What did you do?

A: I asked him not to and he agreed.

Q: Shrewd.

A: Perhaps, but I still had no way to distribute The Heron and now I had the postmaster looking to fine me if anyone else stuck one of my newsletters in a post box.

Q: You obviously found a solution.  What was it?

A: The solution was one part vermouth to eight parts Bombay Gin with a twist of lemon, and after consuming several ounces it occurred to me that if I actually paid postage and mailed the newsletters, the postmaster would be on my side.

Q: How did people respond to the first issue?

A: Sadly, they loved it.  I got calls and letters telling me it was about time someone spoke up against gossiping and self-absorbed egomaniacs, and they urged me to continue to write essays.

Q: And?

A: Being the easily flattered self-absorbed egomaniac that I am, I made the mistake of listening to them.  I kept writing essays, and when I got tired of that and stopped, people offered to pay me for subscriptions if I would commit to publishing The Heron on a regular basis.  Once again, my easily flattered ego did the talking and the biggest mistake I ever made was agreeing to do it because once I took people’s money I felt an obligation to give them something for it, and that was the beginning of the end of life as I knew it.  But the burden of writing enough to fill four pages on a regular basis was too much, so I did start to include news items and The Heron just started to grow on its own.  Ten years later, I remain the victim of my own continuing poor judgment.

Q: How long did it take before you had enough paying subscriptions to make The Heron profitable?

A: Never.  I now have more than eight thousand subscribers in the Five Lakes area and allegedly 500,000 subscribers who live in lake neighborhoods nationwide, plus a bunch of celebrity types who are apparently friends of other celebrity types who live in the Five Lakes area and seem to regard the publication as some kind of charming rural pastiche.  But I’ve lost money on every issue. 

Q: I don’t understand. 

A: You rarely do.

Q: If I may continue: Since The Heron reaches more than eight thousand homes in the Five Lakes area alone, which includes a lot of very upscale people--including many of those celebrity types to whom you’ve alluded--one should think you’d be able to sell enough advertising to turn a profit.

A: Your question notwithstanding: as you well know I don’t accept any paid advertising.  Once you depend on advertisers for income, they become a pain in the neck.  They think you owe them something, or that they have the right to dictate content.  There are advertisements in The Heron, and I run them for free if I like them because they help to fill space, but if an advertiser ever says a word to me about The Heron’s content, I never run his ad again.

Q: Well then, since your newspaper seems to have a very loyal following, have you tried raising the subscription price so you can become profitable that way?

A: Actually, it’s better this way.  If I start to turn a profit, I’ll be pestered with buyout offers from Gannett or Hearst or other chains looking for a way to keep making money in the newspaper business.  As long as I keep operating at a loss, they mostly leave me alone, although that rumor about 500,000 subscribers doesn’t help matters.

Q: A two year subscription costs more per year than a one year subscription, and a three year subscription costs more per year than a two year subscription.  Usually it’s the other way around.  Why do you charge that way?

A: If I accept a subscription, I feel ethically required to keep The Heron going for at least that long, especially since my terms state that refunds will not be given for any reason whatsoever.  And two or three years is a long commitment, and commitment equals compensation.

Q: Do most people save money and just subscribe one year at a time?

A: I hoped the pricing would do that. But 90% of subscriptions are three years, and some folks have asked me if they can get longer subscriptions.  I think my wife is behind it.  The longer I’m stuck producing The Heron, the happier she is.

Q: Speaking of producing the paper, you still write an essay for each issue of The Heron, and as I mentioned earlier, readers seem to feel that you are both funny and wise. Where do your ideas and humor come from?

A: Some writers like to talk about having a muse.  In my case, it’s a retired third grade teacher with a bad attitude who never really liked children and thought she should have been teaching in a Buddhist temple, but in reality she has the spirituality of an investment banker and doesn’t have much to say anyway and she’s more interested in eating than in ideas so she takes cheap shots with food in her mouth and pretends to have an interest in things she truly couldn’t care less about.

Q: Fascinating.  And how does this special muse of yours communicate with you?

A: It isn’t a muse.  It’s my Aunt Alfreda, and she calls about twice a week and complains.  That usually gives me the basis for an essay, or at least annoys me into thinking about one so I can forget she called.

Q: What will you do when she passes on?

A: Is she ill?

Q: Well, not that I know of, I was just being hypothetical.

A: I hope she doesn’t see this interview.  She’s very sensitive about her mortality these days.

Q: That makes three of us.  And since we’re talking about sensitivity, does writing your column help you feel better about things that bother you?

A: Yes, but only because I’m annoying other people about things that annoy me, which gives me a sense of getting even, if, unfortunately, not complete equilibrium.

Q: And I guess having to write your essays on a regular basis helps to keep your mind sharp.

A: I’m not so sure about that.  Experts say you need to exercise your brain just like it’s a muscle.  If shaking your head back and forth in wonder counts, call me Mr. Universe.

Q: And how do you feel when people negatively criticize your columns?

A: Like I’ve gotten them to read, which these days is a singular accomplishment.

Q: The Five Lakes Heron also contains stories of local interest, personal profiles, puzzles, reviews of everything from architecture to restaurants, and more, but there’s no regularity to how often the various features appear.  The Police Blotter, for example, sometimes doesn’t run for a couple of months at a time.  And Corrections only appeared three times during the last year.  Don’t readers mind the inconsistency?

A: Readers mind everything and complain constantly.  You may have noticed the “Letters” sections. So there’s no use in trying to keep them happy.  On the other hand, I find great satisfaction in keeping me happy, so I edit The Heron as I see fit.  The operating plan here is, “I write it, you read it.  Done.”

Q: I’ve indeed noticed you get all kinds of letters, including letters from some very well known people.  Do you have a system for dealing with such a high volume of correspondence?

A: I read all of the letters and after I finish each one I say out loud “I hear you” and then I move on.

Q: You must be very proud of yourself for devising such a complex scheme.

A: Has anyone ever told you that you tend be a bit of a wiseass?

Q: Not to my face. But, as you know, I have a pet Doberman trained to balance on my shoulder with all four paws while snarling viciously. 

If I may continue: How do you decide which letters to publish?

A: I won’t discuss that, because then people will try to write letters to conform to a specific set of criteria instead of just writing what they really think.  I will say that I like to publish stupid letters in the hope that the writer may be properly exposed and embarrassed enough not to write again, but those people almost never stop writing once you publish one of their letters, so I guess it’s a somewhat self defeating practice.

Q: Then why do you continue to follow it?

A: I’m not sure, but probably because I’m an idiot.

Q: You credit your wife with being responsible for the spark that lead you to start The Heron. How long have you been married?

A: I’ve been in training for marital bliss for more than three decades.

Q: You say “in training” but you are actually married.

A: Well of course.  How else would I know how to train?

Q: No need to be short with me, I’m just trying to help.

A: Sorry. I get annoyed with myself sometimes.

Q: Apparently.  Bliss or not, you have remained married for a considerable period of time.  What would you say is the secret to a successful marriage?

A: I’ve been hoping someone would tell me.

Q: That makes two of us.

Q: What is your advice to people who see this interview and are thinking of subscribing to the Five Lakes Heron?

A: Eat right, exercise and get plenty of rest.

Q: You mean they’ll need to do that to get the most out of their subscription?

A: No, I give that advice to everyone.

Q: What advice would you have just regarding a subscription to the newsletter?

A: It’s a federal crime to send a bad check through the mail.

Q: You’re a riot.  Let me be more specific: What kind of person is most likely to get the most out of reading The Heron?

A: Probably anyone who can read English without moving their lips.

Q: You cast a wide net.

A: These days, I’m not so sure. And speaking of a wide net, it seems to me we’ve covered pretty much everything worth mentioning.  I think we should let The Heron speak for itself from this point forward.

Q: In that case, perhaps it’s time for a martini.

A: That’s the first thing you’ve said worthy of consideration.

Q: Frankly, your protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, I think this interview has turned out rather well.

A: I’m at least one martini away from passing judgment on that.

Q: That makes two of us. I’ll see you on the other side of the Noilly Pratt.

A: And not a moment too soon.

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