Recently, I had an opportunity to interview Punxsutawney Phil, the iconic poster mammal for Groundhog Day and veteran weather predictor. To avoid the paparazzi that typically follow him, we met in a back booth of a Waffle House franchise off the Pennsylvania turnpike.
JA: So Phil, this is your big season. How exactly did you get this job?
Bob: Well, first of all, I’m not Phil. I’m Bob, Phil’s backup.
JA: You told me you were Phil.
Bob: I had to tell you that or you wouldn’t meet with me. Nobody imagines that Phil has a backup who has been warming the bench, so to speak, for more than 120 years.
JA: You’re over 120 years old?
Bob: Yeah. I know. I don’t look it, do I? I owe it all to keeping my head down and never having the stress of being in the media spotlight, even one day a year. And to my healthy lifestyle.
JA: Well, what exactly is your role as backup?
Bob: It’s very simple. If Phil ever makes a mistake in his prediction, I get to step in the following year. The thing is, Phil has been right 100% of the time since his rookie season. So I’ve been taking it easy and collecting a nice little retainer.
JA: Well, what exactly do you do with all your time, then?
Bob: I sleep a lot. But when I’m up I listen to music and go online. Oh, and I read, too.
Bob: Yeah. I have a totally tricked out den with all the comforts. In the 70s, I picked up some great stereo gear that’s still going strong. You know, a Marantz receiver that glows blue in the dark, English-made speakers, and a belt-driven turntable. And now with all the WiFi signals out there, I can stay hooked up to the Internet and browse my favorite sites, keep up with the news, watch streaming movies, and even order food to go.
JA: But you say you read a lot?
Bob: Yeah, there’s just so much electronic media I can take. Sometimes, I just like to dig into a good book. I started out with underground newspapers and then I gravitated toward underground novels. Then, when underground comics came out, I really got into those. Now I tend to go for very mainstream printed media. The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and the Economist when I can get it.
JA: What is your book by the bed right now?
Bob: I just bought George Saunders’s newest short story collection Tenth of December. He’s an amazing writer. I find the short story form very appetizing. A lot happens in a limited number of pages, so the language tends to be really vibrant and arresting. Ray Carver’s work I know and love, of course. I once had the entire Chekhov short story collection. Delicious stuff. But I’m not so high brow I haven’t snubbed my nose at S.J. Perelman and his heir, Woody Allen. At my age, I tend to nap a lot and need a lot of bathroom breaks, so the short story is ideal for me. Saunders has a great gift. Plus, one of his teachers at the Syracuse University MFA writing program was Doug Unger. I like Unger’s work, and I see a lot of Unger’s humanity in Saunders. Plus, Saunders is funny as well as very original. It’s good to laugh out loud. Even when you’re by yourself.
JA: Have you read any of Saunders’s earlier collections?
Bob: No, but the reviews of Saunders have been all five-star. And I watched him being interviewed by Charlie Rose on TV this week. I’ll start rooting around for his older books after I chew on the new collection.
JA: You don’t mean that literally, do you?
Bob: Sadly, I do. It’s a bad habit, I admit it. But, you know how hard it is to break old habits. Could you hand me some of those paper napkins, please? I’ll save them for later.
Any recommendations for Bob? . . . Or Phil?