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One for the bucket list: Giving a TED talk

My bucket list is an eclectic — and rather lengthy — collection of things. I’ve crossed some cool stuff off of that list: competing in a rodeo, being profiled in Forbes magazine, playing guitar at a wedding, giving a guest lecture at U.C. Berkeley, getting a U.S. Patent (two, actually), getting a teaching credential. I have a few “almosts” as well. I haven’t given a commencement address at a university, but I gave one at a high school. I haven’t ridden an elephant, but I’ve ridden a camel.

Recently, I got a “close enough.” One of the items on my list is to perform standup comedy in front of a live audience. Last week, I was master of ceremonies for a comedy show raising money for a local veterans’ center. As emcee, I performed a bit between comedians. I’m crossing that one off.

In a few months, I will be achieving one of the most exciting “almosts” of my life. Giving a TED talk is on my bucket list. I will be giving a TEDx talk in March.

TEDxBozeman logo

What the heck is a TED talk?

TED started out almost 30 years ago in 1984 as a conference bringing together people to talk about Technology, Entertainment, and Design. The current format for TED talks coalesced in 2006, when the first six talks were presented. Between their website and other venues like podcasts and YouTube, TED is on the cusp of its one billionth view. TED’s current tagline is “Ideas Worth Spreading,” and it lives up to that promise very well.

TED talks are highly polished and well-produced. Each talk is limited to a maximum of 18 minutes. Some are only a few minutes long. I download TED talks to my iPad and watch them at the gym and on plane rides. I watch them on my computer. Sometimes I run them through the AppleTV so I can watch them on the big living room TV set. I’ve watched a lot of TED talks on an amazing variety of subjects — they’ve moved far beyond the original scope of tech, entertainment, and design. If you’re unfamiliar with TED, here are a few of my favorites you might like watching to get a feel for how it works:

These five videos represent things that appeal to me. They carry themes that represent big parts of my life: books, storytelling, public speaking, science, nature, technology. There are thousands more. Scan through the available TED talks and you’ll find subjects that appeal to you. I can almost guarantee it.

Look through the list of presenters, and you’ll find an impressive roster of recognizable names: Malcolm Gladwell, Arianna Huffington, Bill Gates, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Peter Gabriel, Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, Temple Grandin, David Pogue, Annie Lennox, Adam Savage, Thomas Dolby, Jeff Bezos, Tony Robbins, Al Gore, Bono. Some of these people have changed the world! Can you see why my bucket list would include walking out on the stage where they’ve spoken?

The dream begins to form

Last month, I went to work and found a message waiting for me from a gentleman named Ken Fichtler. He is a co-founder of TEDxBozeman, and dropped in to ask if I’d submit a proposal for a TEDx talk. Let me back up for a moment and explain TEDx.

TED is all about ideas worth spreading. There are far more of those ideas than can possibly be covered in the main TED events. The TED people decided that they needed to give more people an opportunity to participate, so they created TEDx, where the “x” means “Independently Organized TED Event.” On March 23, 2009, the first TEDx event was held at the University of Southern California. Since then, there have been over than 5,000 TEDx events in 148 countries and 50 languages!

If you visit the TED website, their catalog of 1,500 TED talk videos is augmented by an astonishing 30,000 TEDx videos from conferences around the world.

And Ken Fichtler was inviting me to participate. Well, to apply to participate.

I contacted him and asked if there was something in particular that led him to approach me. Was it my poop books? My work with tea? My recent talks about censorship and book banning? As it turns out, he was familiar with my work in closed captioning for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, and that’s what he had in mind.

Being the cheeky fellow that I am, I went ahead and submitted two applications. One was what I’ve been speaking about lately, and I entitled it “Does Book Banning Work?” The other, more along the lines of what he was looking for, I titled “Does Closed Captioning Still Serve Deaf People?” I sent in the applications, and I waited. For three interminably long weeks, I waited.

The decision

Three days ago, I got word that the committee had met and made a selection. It has been confirmed. They picked the captioning application.

I will be presenting a talk at TEDxBozeman on Friday, March 21, 2014.

I am hyped. I am thrilled. I am humbled. I’ve spoken to some pretty big audiences before — 650 people is my current record — but this will be the highest-profile talk I’ve ever given.

Soon, I’ll post some more about my talk, although I’m not going to give away any details. You’re going to have to either attend TEDxBozeman or catch the video online if you want the whole story.

Of College Degrees and Teaching Credentials

When I started college at De Anza in 1976, I was convinced that my future was entirely centered around software engineering. Since I’d been working — and playing — with computers for years, I bypassed a lot of the early classes and jumped right in to higher-level classes. I was living the computer dream, working nights in the computer lab at school and making extra money tutoring programming. I even taught a class, which is where my problems began.

Why I don’t have a degree

I proposed the class to the Dean of Data Processing, and he turned me down. Imagine that. He turned down a cocky 19-year-old who thought he was mister junior professor. In retrospect, I understand completely, but at the time it bothered me no end. I was grousing about it to my boss at the computer lab job, and he laughed.

Gary 1977 Drivers License

Come on, look at this guy! Doesn’t he look like a college professor? Wouldn’t you want to take a computer programming class from him?

“Have you ever actually looked at my business card, Gary?” he asked me.

I hadn’t, so I picked one up. His title was listed as “Director of Staff Development.” I looked at him quizzically.

“That means I am responsible for training the staff,” he explained. “The reason the Dean didn’t just set up someone else to teach that class you proposed is that none of the professors know that HP-2000 Access computer system like you and the other operators do. I can put your class in the catalog as a staff course whether he likes it or not. If it doesn’t fill up with staff, we open it to students and everybody wins.”

As it turned out, everybody didn’t win. I got my class, and the Dean got pissed. Finally, at the end of the semester, he summoned me to his office.

“I’ve been going over your transcript, Robson. It appears that you haven’t taken a lot of your prerequisite classes. I see, for example, that you took Advanced FORTRAN without taking Beginning or Intermediate FORTRAN.”

“Of course I did. I’ve been tutoring Intermediate FORTRAN since the beginning of my freshman year, and I’m tutoring Advanced now.”

“Yes, but as the Dean, I can withhold credits for courses if you haven’t completed the prerequisites. In fact, I see you never took Computers and Society or Introduction to Computing.”

Suddenly, I realized where he was going. I’d taken a pretty heavy load for two years, and I had almost three years worth of credits. He could wipe out most of those credits with a stroke of his pen, and it would take me another whole year to fill in the gaps. I was furious.

Being a snotty 19-year-old meant that I didn’t do the smart thing and negotiate with him. I blew up. He, of course, held all of the cards, and I ended up dropping out and getting a full-time job instead. End of college career for Gary.

How I ended up with a teaching credential

Fast-forward a bit over ten years. My wife and I, through the business we owned at the time, had just donated some computer software to West Valley Community College in California. The problem was, nobody there knew how to use it. They asked if we’d be willing to teach the classes for a couple of years, and the staff could attend along with the students to bring them up to speed. We agreed, as long as we didn’t have to teach more than a class or two at a time.

Shortly before the semester started, the head of the department called and asked me to come in and fill out paperwork. I went through all of the papers, filled in the blanks, dotted the i’s, crossed the t’s, and handed them to her. She scanned through everything and came to a screeching halt.

“You don’t have a degree?”

“No, I don’t. I thought you knew that.”

“I can’t get you a temporary teaching credential without a degree!”

This impending crisis ended up involving several other staff members, one of whom came up with an idea. She asked how long I’d been working in the field, and went off to look something up. As it turns out, ten years of related real-world experience could be applied in lieu of a bachelor’s degree for purposes of granting credentials.

On August 28, 1987, I was granted temporary credential #342745 by the State of California, allowing me to teach “computer and related technologies.” I immediately called my mother to tell her the news.

“Guess what, Mom! I got a teaching credential and I’m going to be teaching college classes!”

There was a long pause.

“Does this mean you’re never going to get a college degree?”

There’s nobody better than a mother for keeping you humble.


Over the years, my lack of college degree hasn’t impacted me much. Once that two-year stint at West Valley was over, the credential didn’t help much, either. It’s great to hang on my ego wall, but it was temporary and it expired long ago. The only other college I taught at was in Montana, and they don’t require credentials. I applied to teach at a two-year school in Wyoming, but they wouldn’t even accept the application without a Master’s degree, so neither a B.S. nor a teaching credential would have helped there.

Sometimes I wish I’d finished that degree, but I really wouldn’t give up the ride I got in early Silicon Valley. Where else — and when else — could a kid without a degree become an operating systems programmer, an integrated circuit designer, and an entrepreneur, all in a few years? Maybe after I retire I’ll go back to school and get a degree in something fun. We’ll see…

Networking at PNBA 2013

PNBA logoA couple of days ago, I wrote a bit about the PNBA (Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association) conference in Portland, Oregon. What an amazing event! I had an opportunity to meet dozens of other authors and pick up many new books for the bookstore. I also connected with some great publishers, editors, and other folks in the trade. I wasn’t the only one at the show wearing two hats, either. A number of the authors also worked as editors, consultants, or illustrators.

It would take more than one post to tell you about all of the wonderful people I met at the show, but I’d like to talk about a few of them just to emphasize the importance of networking at a show like this.

Author Marketing 101

Author Marketing 101 book cover

The cover of Therese & Morgan’s new book.

This was one of the seminars in the author track, and it was put on by two engaging and enthusiastic ladies named C. Morgan Kennedy and Therese Patrick. Right from the beginning, they engaged the audience. After giving us a bit of background for each of them — and laying out their credentials — they split us up into groups and gave us collaborative assignments.

I’ve been writing professionally for a long time. My first paid magazine article appeared 30 years ago, and my first book came out 17 years ago. Why would I attend a seminar called “Author Marketing 101”? As a friend of mine once said, “If I learn one thing at a seminar, it was worth my time.” I did indeed learn something. More than one thing, in fact.

But the most important thing about events like this is networking. Meeting new friends like Morgan and Therese was great. We’ll be able to help each other in the future. Watch their blog for a guest post by yours truly, for starters (I’ll post an announcement here when it appears). I also met an author who will hopefully be visiting my store to do a talk, a bookstore owner who will hopefully be hosting me for a talk, and several other people that were just great to chat with.

Hey, I just noticed Therese mentioned me on her blog. How about that? Networking at work!

Keith McCafferty

Gray Ghost Murders

Keith’s soon-to-be-released sequel to The Royal Wulff Murders.

Isn’t it great meeting someone and hitting it off instantly with them? Keith is a Montana author who writes small-town outdoor-oriented mysteries (which I love), yet somehow we’d never met and I’d never read his books. Even though he lives just a few hours from here, we ended up meeting each other in Portland, Oregon.

Keith and I and our wives ended up sitting together at the author luncheon on Tuesday and chatting afterward until we just had to leave. We exchanged stories about his day job at Field & Stream magazine, bookstores we’ve both visited, life as a writer, and our homes in Montana.

We don’t live in a place like Seattle or New York City where authors are as thick as flies on fresh wolf scat (sorry — I write poop books, so I can’t help phrases like that sometimes). In Montana, we’re spread out across the landscape. It’s a mighty big landscape, too. If you’re in the southeast corner of Montana, you’re closer to Texas than you are to the northwest corner of Montana.

Ask the Experts

I know. I’ve met with “experts” who knew a whole lot less than I did. Nonetheless, I have some rather complex contract issues with some of my new projects, I’m crossing genres (again), I’m having difficulty finding an agent, and I need some publisher contracts in other countries. So I went ahead and signed up for a one-on-one “ask the experts” session with a publishing consultant named Sharon Castlen. I got a lot of good advice in 15 short minutes, but there were a few questions she didn’t feel that she could answer properly.

Sharon set me up with another “ask the experts” volunteer, Cynthia Frank. Cynthia is the president of Cypress House, a publishing services company in California. She was able to answer some questions and also suggest some agents and illustrators for future projects.

It’s tempting to spend all of your time at a show like PNBA just wandering the exhibit floor, attending the cocktail parties, and trying to pick up as much free stuff as you can. In the long run, though, the contacts you make are far more important than swag or free books.

A new book, and a state-by-state look at the series

NOTE: The information in this post is obsolete, but it’s all been brought up to date in a new post from 2017.

My 23rd book — 18th in the Who Pooped? series — is now officially out. In the beginning, each book in the series was for a specific national park, and most of those national parks were tucked securely in a single state (Yellowstone does span three states, however). As the series progressed, the books covered more ecosystems than specific parks, and sometimes those covered multiple states. That got me thinking: what states does this series cover?

Who Pooped Map 2013

So far, the series covers 18 states in 18 books — a coincidence, since some books cover multiple states and some states have multiple books. The number of national parks, national conservation areas, national monuments, national recreation areas, and national forests is significantly larger than that. I haven’t compiled that list lately. A project for another day!









New Mexico



South Dakota







So, given that my publisher is most interested in covering well-traveled areas, what do you think should come next? The next one is pretty well decided, although we’re not announcing it until a contract is signed. What should the 20th book be? I’d love to hear some feedback?

Gary and the Wild Horses

I just searched through my blog to find something I wrote about my rodeo experience ten years ago and realized it wasn’t a blog post, it was a newspaper article. I did mention this in a blog post (Rodeos, beer, and cancer), and even included the picture below, but I’d like to share it here on my blog today. This was first printed in the July 2008 issue of The Local Rag newspaper.

Like any PRCA-sanctioned event, the Home of Champions Rodeo in Red Lodge, Montana draws contestants from all over the U.S. and Canada. There are two events, though, that are all about the locals: mutton busting and the wild horse race. A few years ago, a fellow came into the bookstore and asked me if I’d be interested in joining his team.

The wild horse race uses a team of three. The horses are assigned by random draw, and the team is allowed to put a halter and a long rope on the horse before the event. The rope is threaded through the gap on the latch side of the gate to the chute, and one of the team members is assigned to stop the horse when the gate opens, so the others can get hold of the animal and put a saddle on it. This person, known as the anchor, is generally a big guy. Size alone isn’t enough to stop a mustang, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Since I was 6’5″ and 260 pounds, he figured I’d be perfect for the job.

It was long before the event, and I had plenty of time to think over the offer. I was–how shall I say this?–a few years past my prime, and had never done a wild horse race before. The other team members assured me that all I needed was strength and persistence: there really wasn’t that much agility or technique involved. I agreed to do it.

Now, we fast-forward a few months. I had an odd lump in my chest, which puzzled my doctor. The dermatologist, equally puzzled, had taken a biopsy. I received a phone call with the results when I was on a business trip in Las Vegas. “Come home now,” he told me. “You have an appointment with an oncologist tomorrow morning.”



Yes, indeed. I had been diagnosed with lymphoma, and they needed to start me on chemotherapy and monoclonal antibodies right away. Obviously, a lot went through my mind those first few days, and my plans for the summer were changed dramatically. At first, I forgot all about the wild horse race.

Then, the doctor began explaining the effects chemo would have on me. It would destroy my immune system, meaning that seemingly minor cuts and scrapes could develop into nasty–possibly even fatal–infections. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked the oncologist. “My ranch is a small one, but I still have two miles of barbed-wire fence and a bunch of critters with horns and hooves. Someone has to take care of things, and my wife can’t do all of it.”

He assured me that I could go about my business, except for the days right after a treatment, which would knock me flat. If I got a cut, scrape, or scratch, I just needed to clean out the wound and watch for signs of infection. He said I could do anything I felt up to.

“Even including a rodeo?” I asked him. I could almost hear my wife thinking, “Tell him no! Tell him no!” but the doctor said if I thought I could do it, then more power to me. The Wild Horse Race became my goal in the battle against the lymphoma. If I could compete between cancer treatments, I could do anything.

I explained everything to my teammates. The Home of Champions Rodeo would be right before a chemo treatment, so I’d have maximum recovery time from the previous treatment. I’d be shaky and have little endurance, but I thought I could do it if they’d still have me. They said yes, and we were on.

Gary in the Wild Horse Race

Day 1: July 2nd

Day one of the rodeo arrived. There were only four teams signed up, so we actually had a shot at this. We met the other teams, and drew our horse. A spunky little mustang filly. I had a case of butterflies in my stomach like I’ve never had before. As the bullriders took their rides, we got ready. We were up next.

They got the horses in the chutes and marked the finish line across the arena. It looked miles away. We haltered the horse and ran the rope out to the arena. I stood there with my partners, holding the rope. What did I think I was doing? Thousands of people crowded the stands, and I was about to get knocked silly by a horse. I braced myself. The chutes opened…

The horse didn’t know what was going on, but she knew she wanted out of there. She charged straight at me, and I got a good grip on the rope. She stopped, unsure of which way to go, and one of my teammates stepped in and grabbed her halter. He pulled her head down and looked her right in the eye. She reared up, kicked him in the head, and charged me. My partner went down like a sack of grain, the horse pulled me off my feet, and I lost the rope.

We managed to catch the horse again, and this time two of us (I and the poor fellow with a big bruise on his forehead) managed to hold her still while teammate #3 got the saddle on. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the latigo and we couldn’t get the saddle cinched securely. He hung on valiantly, but by the time we hazed our horse to the other side of the arena, it was too late. The 90-second timer went off.

We lost, but I still felt good as I walked out of the arena. All PRCA-sanctioned rodeos must have a doctor on site at all times. As it turned out, my regular family doctor–who specializes in sports medicine–was on that day. As I approached the gate, I saw him standing next to my wife. She turned to him and said, “is this the kind of therapy you recommend for all of your cancer patients?” He just shook his head. “Yeah, I thought that looked like Gary out there.”

Day 2: July 3rd

We’re down one team member. His forehead contusion turned out to be a mild concussion and the doc said, “Don’t compete.” Our fearless leader, however, had come up with a substitution. He found a wiry little bullrider ready to step in and join us. Like many bullriders, he was small, but full of muscle and spunk.

This time, since we had only four teams, the rodeo committee decided to make things a bit more exciting by putting horses in the empty chutes, too. When the gates opened, I was focused on holding our horse. When one of the “extra” mustangs ran into me, I lost the rope. Our bullrider buddy had a good grip, but didn’t have the sheer mass to stop the horse (he was probably half my weight). The horse took off for parts unknown, and our new teammate held onto the rope and got dragged along behind like a water-skiier. He stayed upright the full length of the arena, and then went down and got dragged on the ground.

I caught up to them and grabbed the horse again. I got a deathgrip on the rope, and held on even when another horse bumped my back. I took a step, and found myself standing on another team’s rope (see picture). It was a scary moment–getting tangled in that rope would not have been a good thing–but I held on this time.

Our team leader arrived toting the saddle, and threw his arm over the mustang’s neck. She took a jump sideways, right into the fence. His arm was caught between the horse and the pipe, and I could tell it hurt. He’d already taken a blow to the face and he was spitting blood, but he was determined to get on the horse. Alas, by the time we got the saddle on, our 90 seconds was up again.

One fractured arm and one concussion. Two days, and two teammates out. We hadn’t even made it across the finish line. But I felt good. We pulled our team from competition on July 4th, and I watched from another team’s chute.

I didn’t win a buckle, but we bought one as a souvenir. Two treatments later, my chemo was done, and this summer will mark five years cancer-free. I doubt that I’ll ever compete again, but I’ll treasure the memory of that 2003 Wild Horse Race forever.

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