Thursday, July 30, 2009
Broken Ribs and "Stone Crossings"
Off we went. They got me in right away -- Wednesdays aren't like weekends for an emergency room. The x-rays showed I had (have) three broken ribs, a fourth with a minor fracture, and a partially collapsed left lung. My Sunday bike crash (see previous post) was more serious than it seemed or I had thought.
It was the lung that had everyone, including me, worried. Broken ribs hurt, and hurt a lot, but the lung issue was nothing to play around with. Fortunately, it was only a small partial collapse. The ER doctor talked with my doctor (who's also a cyclist) and they agreed I could go home and come back in the morning for an x-ray, or stay the night in the hospital. The ER doctor leaned toward the "stay" option. After almost fainting and being laid in the bed in the ER examining room, I agreed with the "stay" option. They rolled me upstairs, hooked up to an IV and oxygen, about 11:20 p.m., once a room was ready.
Hospitals are no place for rest. They're designed to heal you, not give you a mini-vacation. I hadn't expected to be staying the night, but I'd brought with me Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places by L.L. Barkat, which I'd started reading. The pain medicine had kicked in, I was settled for the night, and I picked up where I'd left off.
This slender work of prose is many things -- a memoir, a devotional, a journey of faith, an invitation to join a journey of faith. It is also incredibly fine writing. Barkat shifts the normal frame of reference for a Christian, and you discover yourself looking at God, faith and yourself in an entirely different way. It's like you've been lost in a forest looking for water, holding on to the compass you've owned for years but thinking it's not doing you much good, and then suddenly you stumble into a small clearing with a spring-fed pool. Stone Crossings is that pool.
The story she tells is searing, honest and vulnerable. At several points, it brought me to tears. I could blame it on the pain meds, and in fact did that once, about 2 a.m., when the nursing assistant came in to take my blood pressure and temperature.
"Are you hurting?" she asked.
I nodded. "But it's not my back. That's OK."
She glanced at the book in my hands. "Good book?"
"No," I said. "Great book. It's ripping a hole in my heart." And I'm glad.
My x-ray this morning showed my lung is stable. I'm home now. I'm taking my meds for pain and I'm rereading parts of Stone Crossings. My ribs and my lung are mending. So is my soul.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
The Final Leg of the Bike Trip, and a Crash
At each meal, Todd led us in devotions. All of our devotions had been centered on one verse – I Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (New International Version). Sunday morning, Todd put the verse in the context of Todd Beamer, one of the heroes of United Flight 93 who brought the terrorists down in a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001. He read the eulogy given by Todd’s father at his son’s funeral. More than one of us wiped away tears as we listened.
We packed everything up and headed out for the bridge over the Missouri to return to the Katy Trail. The plan was to travel together across the bridge, and then bike as the spirit moved us on the trail. We had gone approximately 100 yards when a pedal came off one bike. Another 50 feet and BOOM – a tire blew (loud enough to bring some residents out of their houses). As we circled the street, another rider had a minor crash. We decided we were getting all the bad stuff out of the way early.
Back on the trail, we were riding toward the Treloar station, about 20 miles away and the first rest stop. This section of trail and the 10 miles after it afforded the occasional spectacular view of the Missouri River, corn field after corn field (interspersed by soybeans) and the tree-arched trailway. It was also what cyclists call a false flat – the trail looked flat, but it was actual an incline eastward, a long incline, like 16 miles of incline, rising with the bluffs of the river.
Most of the Katy Trail runs through woods and rural areas, and so the opportunity to see wildlife is ever present. One of the cyclists hit a groundhog. I sighted one deer, three very aggressive brown squirrels, scores of bluebirds, a bunch of rabbits – and Mr. Snake. Fortunately, Mr. Snake was moving faster than I was riding, and he slithered quickly about two feet in front of me across the trail. I don’t know what kind he was; I didn’t hang around long enough to find out. He was coming from some standing water on the right side of the trail. He was dark-colored. I was out of there.
We stopped for lunch at Dutzow. We were joined by a cyclist named John who was riding a recumbent bike from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia this summer. He'd already covered 2800 miles. We'd met him at the campsite Friday night in New Franklin and kept running into him. (He left Dutzow a good 30 minutes before we did; I passed him later near Augusta.)
This lunch was special -- our last meal together and our final devotion time. Todd asked each of us to give a reason for Christ’s hope in us, and it was humbling to listen to 13 men do that. Then we each prayed for the man on our right, and that was even more humbling. It was one of the best moments of a trip that was chock full of best moments.
From Dutzow, we headed to Augusta (another center of Missouri wines) and Defiance, close to the final home of Daniel Boone. The closer we got to the St. Louis metropolitan area, the more crowded the trail became. A short break in Defiance for water and a Hershey bar, and I was off – the final 17 miles.
Two miles later, I approached the bridge over the Little Femme Osage Creek and saw that it was half-closed – only one lane open and a barricade of two-by-fours on the closed side. I’d been careful to watch my handlebars the whole trip – those on my hybrid bike are wider than the handlebars on my road bike, and I’m usually on the road bike.
I biked on to the bridge, and had made it about halfway when my handlebar caught part of the barricade. It flipped me forward, and down I came on my left side. And I came down hard. With the bike on top of me. My first thought was, “I am seriously hurt.” I struggled into a sitting position, pushing the bike off of me. The bike looked okay, but the mirror was broken and the chain had popped off. I struggled to my feet and walked the bike off the bridge. I stood there shaking, determined not to throw up or faint (both were becoming distinct possibilities). Then I noticed the blood dripping down my left leg. My left shoulder hurt, and I felt like I had scraped my right arm and leg as well. “Okay,” I thought, “I need to let someone know, in case I keel over down the side of the trail.” I found my laminated card with our cell numbers, and called Todd, letting him know I'd crashed. He offered to cycle down to where I was, but I said I thought I could make it. Of course, when you’re 15 miles shy of completing a 160-mile trip, you know you’re going to finish, even if they have to pull you in on a rope. It's a guy thing. A dumb guy thing.
I fixed the chain, got back up on the bike, and slowly pedaled to the Weldon Spring station, where I used toilet paper in the bathroom to clean up the blood. Then I biked on, and did manage to complete the last part of the trip. Dave, the assistant trip leader, checked me at the Green Bottom Station, but I was actually beginning to feel pretty good, although I did say a prayer of thanks when I rolled into the parking lot at St. Charles. I got off the bike, and immediately discovered I felt better on the bike. Everything was starting to hurt. I changed to shorts and a t-shirt in the RV, and found multiple scrapes on both legs and my left shoulder, and a nasty looking bruise on my upper thigh. And my left side still hurts today. But it's OK as long as I don't cough, hiccup, laugh, stand up, reach for anything with my left arm or pick up anything on the floor.
As serious as it could have been, it didn’t take away my enjoyment of the trip. I loved doing this trip. I liked being with other men from our church, doing something slightly crazy like this (all bikers are at least slightly crazy). I liked getting to know them in a way I never could on Sunday mornings or at deacon meetings. I think all of us felt the same way.
So Paul, Jim, Deno, Dennis, John, Ron, Nate, Bill, Bryan and Ben – thanks for a great time together.
Todd and Dave – more than anything else, you demonstrated servants’ hearts this weekend. Thank you for all you did, and thank you for the example you gave us.
This was special.
UPDATE: John Hamer, one of our number, took some photos, including Mr. Snake's identical twin brother. http://www.flickr.com/photos/hamerii/sets/
Monday, July 27, 2009
93 Miles to Hermann
Todd was right.
We left New Franklin, Missouri about 8:15 Saturday morning. Ron and Dennis drove the RV and the SUV, to give Todd and David, the assistant leader, some time on the bike. Todd and David would end up doing most of the driving, but Ron and Dennis graciously helped out.
Todd had the trip well planned out. We each were given two laminated cards to stick in our jersey pockets. One detailed each stop, the mileage between stops, the cumulative mileage, and where the RV and the SUV would be waiting. The other listed our cell phone numbers, important because we would generally not be riding as a group but extended out along the trail, riding at whatever pace worked best.
The Saturday ride would be the longest of the weekend. Starting out, we had a choice: start at New Franklin, or ride with the RV and truck and start at Rocheport 10 miles away. All it took was two or three people to say they were starting from New Franklin. All the rest of us said we’d do that, too. We’re guys.
The weather looked threatening but soon cleared up, staying overcast for almost three hours and helping keep the temperature cool. And we rode, through the tunnel at Rocheport, through stations named Huntsdale, McBaine, Providence and Easley, having a rest stop at Hartsburg (34 miles) and stopping for lunch at North Jefferson, right across the Missouri River from Jefferson City, the state capital. (It’s kind of cool to be riding along the trail and suddenly see the capital rising above the trees.)
After a rest stop at Tebbetts station, we encountered the single worst stretch of trail during the whole trip. For the six miles stretching from Steedman to Portland, large chunks of the trail were washed out, rutted, and full of holes. Because of the shadows from the overarching trees, sometimes you’d see what was coming, and sometimes you had to deal with it immediately, because it was a foot in front of you. I finally learned to follow the north side of the trail, where you at least have six or eight inches of intact ground. After the rest stop at Portland (72 miles from the start) and then Rhineland (83 miles), it was on to Hermann.
We had to leave the trail and take the spur into Hermann, across the Missouri River (there’s a great new bridge there with a dedicated biking/pedestrian lane protected by a concrete wall). We stopped at 93 miles from our start New Franklin. I've never biked that far at one time before.
We camped in Hermann City Park, took showers and then went to The Cottage for dinner – international style and home-style food in the hills above the town (we did home-style). This being Hermann, town of many wineries, I had a glass of Hermannhoff Chambourcin. With fried chicken. I'm not a wine expert. But the wine was good. So was the chicken.
Getting ready for bed, I looked at my watch – 9:23 p.m. I looked at my watch again, and it was 5:55 a.m.
NEXT: The final leg of the trip, and a crash.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
153.2 Miles on Gravel, 6 on Concrete
On Friday, we drove to Rocheport, Missouri, with a little timeout along the way to fix a blown tire on the RV, and had dinner at Les Bourgeois Vineyards. The view was spectacular from atop the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. If anything, the food was better than the view. I had trout with spoonbread, with a glass of Vidal Blanc.
If this is how they do bike retreats, I thought, I could do one every weekend.
We continued on to New Franklin, Missouri, or actually about two miles past New Franklin, to stay at the Katy Road Roundhouse Park. As in camping. And tents. My wife snickered when I said camping and tents. My wife knows me.
I got to sleep in the RV, through the kindness of Todd, the retreat leader and RV owner. When we registered for the trip, he asked me if I had a tent. Nope. A sleeping bag? Absolutely -- an old one belonging to my oldest son, who's now 29. The sleeping bag has Superman on it. Todd took pity, and said, "Well, you can sleep in the RV -- there's an extra bed." Sold, I said.
Cyclists who do these kinds of trips are used to camping. They have great camping equipment and know how to use it. Then there's me, whose idea of roughing it is staying at a Ramada.
The campground had full bathroom facilities. Two working sinks, two showers and three toilets. Except two of the three toilets were broken. And, as I discovered at 5:30 in the morning, the showers only had cold water. So me, a host of daddy longlegs and one small spider danced around the cold stream of water. It's an adventure, right?
I survived the shower and the spider, and then sat outside the RV in the growing light. The quiet was incredible, the silence broken only by an occasional bird singing. It's amazing what you can hear in the quiet, when you slow down to listen.
My normal everyday breakfast is a bowl of Cheerios and a cup of coffee. To start our trip right, we had hot oatmeal, coffee, orange juice, grapes, and granola bars. Not only does Todd fix blown out RV tires like an Indy 500 pit crew, he also cooks. And cooks well. And then we're all going to find out how well he plans and orchestrates the itinerary. It looks simple, but it's not.
NEXT: 93 miles from New Franklin to Hermann.
Friday, July 24, 2009
A Bicycling Adventure
Cycling shorts and jersey? Check. Socks? Check. Helmet? Check. Water bottle? Check. Changes of clothes if needed? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Lots of sunscreen? Check. Are you sure you have lots of sunscreen? Check; I'm swimming in the stuff. Will you remember to use the sunscreen? Of course; don't I always? Silent stare. Check.
Will you be taking a shower? Check.
Do you have soap? Uh, I have shampoo. Right. Do we have any of those hotel soaps around?
Do you have a towel? Uh, well, I guess that would be helpful.
Report coming later.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Communicating at a Funeral
Matt’s concerned that, in the midst of the greatest communication explosion in the history of humanity, we’re losing our ability to communicate – to speak to and with each other. Instead, we resort to buzzwords and clichés and think we’re communicating, while we take a break from texting, tweeting and instant messaging.
Take funerals, for example.
When a friend or colleague or relative dies, what do we say to each other and the family? “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” If we’re not particularly religious, we’ll drop the prayers and say “Our thoughts are with you.” And we’ll say “He (she) will be sorely missed.” Sorely? I’m still waiting for someone to say “He (she) will be tenderly missed.”
These statements have become clichés. They mean nothing to us or to the bereaved loved ones. We say them because we don’t know what to say or, more to the point, how to say it.
Four years ago, a business executive I’d worked for years before died. I’d worked closely with the man until he retired – I was his speechwriter, and he did some remarkable things with his speeches. I got to go along for the ride, and what a ride it was. He was a humble, quiet man, who shocked everyone, himself included, when he turned his industry upside down.
I didn’t know the family, except for a casual acquaintance with a stepson (an allergist who did a patch test on me). I’d never met his wife or other children. When I read the obituary in the newspaper, the sadness I felt for the loss was overwhelming. But the obituary, written by the family, missed what the man had accomplished, because he wasn’t the type to go home at night and say, “Honey, I revolutionized the chemical industry today.” He was the type to go home and say, “Honey, how are you doing? I’m so glad to see you.”
So I wrote the story, went to the visitation, saw the stepson and handed it to him. I said it was a tiny measure of how I felt, and a tiny indication of what he had done for his company and his industry. And then I left.
I also sent the story to the editor of the newspaper’s op-ed page, who said thanks but no thanks, we don’t publish these kinds of things. Okay, I thought, at least the family has it.
Except, at the last minute, a big hole developed on the op-ed page, and the only thing available to fill it was my story about the executive. And they did it right, with a cool graphic and photo.
Nothing I could have said would have meant more to his family than that story. No one in the family knew what he’d done. The response was extraordinary, and not just from the family. I received scores of letters and emails from his children, from people who’d worked with him, from retirees and even current employees of the company who’d never met him but were thrilled to work for a company that had had an executive like that. Strangers sent me letters saying how much they enjoyed the story.
A month or so later, his widow sent me a short, sweet note that brought tears to my eyes. She sent me another one, almost a year later, and said that nothing had given her more comfort than that tribute to her husband. I cried again.
So don’t say “Our thoughts are with you” or “He will be sorely missed.” Say or do something that means something. Or just sit with them and be there, holding their hand. Sometimes that’s the most powerful communication of all.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Shrinking the Camel and Inside Work
Yesterday on Inside Work, Bradley posted an article called “How God Saved My Life through Writing.” And he talks about how he came to start writing the Shrinking the Camel blog in 2008. It’s honest writing, writing from the heart.
How I happened across Bradley’s blog, as well as the Inside Work site, is one of those stories about how the web works. I was reading a blog post on a writing web site, and saw an interesting comment by a guy named Marcus Goodyear, an editor and poet who's actually written a poem for his wife about the Large Hadron Collider -- and had it published. I clicked on his name, and landed at his web site, Goodwordediting.com. One of the things he does is serve as an editor at a site called HighCallingBlogs.com, a collection of blogs that look at the entire world as a place to practice faith, including the culture (a shocking notion, I know). One of those links took me to Inside Work, where I found an article written by Bradley – and I clicked through to Shrinking the Camel (cool name for a blog, by the way).
And this process continues. At the High Calling site, I read a post about poetry by a writer named L.L. Barkat -- clicked through to her blogs (there are three, including Seedlings in Stone), and am now getting ready to start her book Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places.
In his latest article at Inside Work, Bradley writes about how he began writing – disillusionment with evangelical Christianity, a sudden skepticism about the Bible, angst and burnout with his career – and he discovered that God was creating a new work in him through the whole process (my words, not Bradley’s). Reading those words evoked a powerful sense of identification. I’ve gone through a long period of skepticism, not about the Bible, but about the contemporary American church. Having gone through a disastrous experience with a church that embraced every business fad found on the bestseller list, and wrecked anything in its path that might stop its quest for cultural relevance, I pulled back, and pulled back hard. And angst and burnout with my career? Yes, I've known that, too, a couple of times at least.
About three years ago, I started writing a novel, and actually finished it, along with a sequel and a plan for a series. Some of the partially completed “volumes” in the series have as many as 40,000 words or more. And I learned something, the same thing that Bradley has. Writing has been a means for me to begin coming to grips with what happened to my church, and what happened to my faith. In an odd way, writing is like having a conversation with God.
I’m still on that road. Finding the Bradley Moores of this world is like having a fellow pilgrim come alongside.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Two Novels and Their Endings
Neither book is a first novel. Both are good stories. I saw how one would end almost from the beginning. In the other, the ending was far less obvious and consequently far more intriguing. (No, I haven’t reviewed them on Amazon or mentioned them by name on this blog. And I won’t. I read a lot, and I only review and write about the books I really like. Cowardly? Yes.)
But both share a similar issue. The issue is not large enough to take away all the enjoyment of reading the stories, but it’s an issue nonetheless, and one I've run across before.
The issue is this: The ending gets in the way of the story. It’s as if the story is too long in the telling, or the author wants to keep telling the story, and suddenly the so-called word limit for the genre kicks in and resolution has to happen fast. So things get compressed. It’s like riding along at 40 miles an hour in a car, but you have to reach your destination within a certain time limit, and you’re running late, so you almost floor the accelerator. Some call it APD – accelerated plot development.
In one of the novels, resolution is developed in literally the last chapter, with no hint that it’s coming. In the other, resolution comes in the second-to-last chapter – but the last chapter is anticlimatic and superfluous. I had the distinct impression with both books that the authors loved telling the stories and wanted to keep on telling them, but their editors called a halt, and a quick rewrite created an ending. Or the original manuscripts were too long for what’s considered conventional for the genre.
This issue isn't typical of the genre, but I’ve seen it here more than in others, the others (for me) being literary and suspense. Examples of contemporary romance that I've read that avoid this problem include any novel by Charles Martin, Bonnie Grove’s Talking to the Dead, Susan Meissner’s The Shape of Mercy and Chris Fabry’s Dogwood. I don’t know if any of these authors had the ending in mind from the beginning or not, but at least at some point in the writing, the ending became clear and they began to write towards it. The writing is better for it, and it makes a better story. Martin, Grove, Meissner and Fabry know what they’re doing. (And while awards don't necessarily connote quality in any field, I would be remiss not to note that Chris Fabry’s Dogwood just won a Christy Award, a well deserved Christy Award.)
It’s caused me to go back and look at my own (unpublished) work, and make certain that there is indeed an ending I’m writing towards. Or do I want to keep telling the story?
Monday, July 20, 2009
July 20, 1969
I had more of that history surrounding me. A week earlier, three friends and I had piled into a car and driven from New Orleans to Cape Kennedy to see Apollo 11 blast off. We got to the cape a couple of days beforehand, set up the tent at a local campground (people who know me won't believe that I actually slept in a tent, but I did), and took the bus tour of Cape Kennedy. The night before the launch, we broke camp and drove to a chosen spot along the Banana River and parked, spending the night with thousands of other people sleeping in their cars. Or trying to sleep. Or actually, not sleeping at all. People had come from all over the world for this -- parked next to us were a young couple, not much older than we were, from Canada. And two cars away were visitors from France.
For all that traveling, camping and lack of sleep, we got to listen to the launch announcement on the radio and watch the flash of light aim heavenward. But the point was that we were there. And people cheered and hugged each other. Then it was all over, and we were able to participate in another historic event -- the massive traffic jam as more than one million people, including four teenagers from East Jefferson High School in Metairie, Louisiana, tried to leave the Cape Kennedy area for home.
Back in New Orleans, a whole crowd of us got together for the moon walk. All good friends, this was to be the last time we were together. Different colleges, different plans, different lives to live. But together, we watched Neil Armstrong hop down into the moon dust and say the famous words.
For a boy not quite 18 years old, it was an incredible experience, to be a tiny part of one of the most historic feats in human history.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
Night, Near a Garden
A glance behind,
We are one, teacher.
Water and wind.
Water and wind.
No. It cannot be
Water and wind.
Water and wind.
It is written, not
In words, yet. But
Water and wind.
You will speak to justice,
You will set the stone in place.
Water and wind.
Chris Coppernoll's "Providence" - A Ministry
I liked it. A lot. I called it a contemporary romance for guys, although I suspect the readership has been largely female. But it shouldn't be. Coppernoll speaks to the hunger for love in every guy's heart. Here's my plot summary from the review:
"Jack Clayton, author of a New York Times mega-best seller on helping the poor and a Time Magazine 'Man of the Year,' has been asked by his publisher to write his own personal story. Jack doesn't want to do that, for a lot of painful reasons. The most painful of all is the love he walked away from 20 years before. But the people on the staff of the ministry where he works convince him to write the book. And the writing gets complicated with a nasty, largely untrue newspaper story about Jack that goes viral. He ends up solving both problems by getting the erring reporter to work with him on the book. The book will untangle his past, but lead Jack in unexpected directions."
The novel is part of a larger ministry, called the Providence Cares Foundation, that "helps families raise money for a child facing kidney and liver transplantation." Families host an event, and Coppernoll will travel, speak and sign books -- at no charge to the family. And 100 percent of the proceeds go toward meeting the need. Check the web site and click on "Providence Cares" on the top navigation bar for more information.
Coppernoll is the host of Soul2Soul Radio, a program heard on 600 outlets in 30 countries. He's interviewed hundreds of Christians -- including names like Max Lucado, Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant -- on issues of faith. He's also a deacon at The People's Church in Franklin, Tennessee.
I learned a lesson here. I love the convenience of ordering books online. But bookstores are critically important, particularly for finding unexpected treasures. I don't think I would have found Providence by online surfing. But I saw it on the bookstore shelf, picked it up, read the back cover, selected a page at random -- and was sold, even without understanding the ministry and foundation. That writing appeared to be that good. And it was.
In 2008, Coppernoll published a second novel, A Beautiful Fall. Which I've ordered.
Friday, July 17, 2009
My First Job - Part 3
I was married in August, and my wife, also a journalist, was hired by the Beaumont Enterprise as a copy editor. That’s right – we worked together, in the same place at the same time doing the same thing – for the next six months. We were now both the kids on the copy desk. And it was extremely convenient for scheduling purposes to have us work on weekends – convenient for everyone else. So the two of us essentially put out the paper, all three editions, for Sunday and Monday. There were two other husband-and-wife teams at the paper – a copy editor and a sport editor, and two reporters – but we were the only one doing the same work side by side.
In spite of me, or really because of her, our marriage survived the experience. She was, and still is, a better editor than I was; I was the writer. But the back shop people still came to me for decisions and fixing things, primarily because I was likely the fastest person they had ever seen on the copy desk – the fastest and the one who made decisions like now. I learned that from Richard, the assistant slot man now decamped for a newspaper in Dallas.
My wife and I adored the back shop people – quiet, capable, competent, good people, with volumes of experience in dealing with lame brained journalists. A balding man name Atch ran the back shop; I can remember many, many times finding Atch quietly standing at my side while I was seated at the copy desk, holding a too-long headline or too-long story, or a page where a copy editor had placed an airplane accident story right above the ad for Delta Air Lines (classic no-no for an editor). If Atch knew the slot man had made the mistake, he’d look at me and give a little nod in the slot man’s direction. That was my clue to follow Atch to the back shop and work the problem out there.
Two other back shop people stand out in my mind. Penny was a thin woman who seemed to move at the speed of light, and spoke at the speed of light. She could also paste up pages at the speed of light. She was wonderful. And then there was Shirley, the methodical and painstaking counterpart to Penny and her speed. Shirley was a man, and Shirley was his first name. His parents should have been arrested for that. He was like that stern, disapproving teacher you had back in third grade, the one who struck fear in everyone, including the good kids.
Everyone on the copy desk feared Shirley. Except my wife. Shirley loved my wife, and he tolerated me because I'd had the good sense to marry her. I don’t know if it was simply personal affinity or she might have been the daughter he never had, but whatever the reason, he’d do anything for her.
It was at the Enterprise that I first encountered the problem that I’ve faced my entire working career: decisions, especially decisions about people, get made too often for the wrong reasons. Decisions about people often have little to do with competence, creativity, performance or potential; too often, they have everything to do with how much someone likes you. I saw it in spades at the newspaper. I was also learning that newspapers were (are) first and foremost a business – which is what they don’t teach you in journalism school. And businesses do things that can shock idealistic young journalists, until they know better.
So when the call came from Shell Oil, thanks to the person I had talked to right before I graduated, I accepted the invitation to interview and later accepted the job. Then and now, some people in journalism consider a move to PR “crossing over to the dark side.” I didn’t. The dark side exists everywhere.
In late February of 1974, at the height of the long, long lines at gas stations, I moved to Houston, followed a couple of weeks later by my wife. But Houston is another story.
I don’t regret a minute of the nine months I spent at the Beaumont Enterprise.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
My First Job - Part 2
I walked in the door and took the elevator to the second floor. The doors opened, and there I was, face to face with the receptionist with the 18-inch high hair, go-go boots and mini-skirt. She glared at me. I explained I was the new copy editor, and she pointed toward the copy desk.
I approached the desk, and the slot man told me to sit at the vacant place. Introductions to the other editors could come later; there was a newspaper to get out. He passed down some typed sheets, told me to edit and write the headlines, specifying the type size. I looked at the copy handed to me by the editor next to me, and realized they were stories for publication in the next day’s East Texas edition. Deadline was 8 p.m. for the East Texas edition, 9 p.m. for the Louisiana edition and 10 p.m. for the home edition. The stories for East Texas and Louisiana were sent in by “stringers,” a group of both professional and amateur reporters.
I got the copy from the amateurs. I think this was my official training for the job. I had to rewrite everything and then track down the stringers to verify the spelling of names and facts and fill holes in the stories. The stringers loved getting calls like that from someone two days out of college.
There wasn’t much conversation at the copy desk, except for the snickers as more stories were passed to me. The slot man sat on one side of a square-shaped configuration. He didn’t talk so much as grunt. Every so often he would erupt into a story about the days when he worked at a real newspaper. There was also an editor for the news from the Austin (state capital) bureau; one who handled obituaries and memorials; one for the second front page; and three general copy editors. A copy girl or boy (local journalism students) would run edited copy and headlines from the copy desk to the back shop, where stories were typed on a rather large computer and then printed for paste-up.
The copy desk staff was, well, colorful. One editor always wore a black velvet cape, even while sitting at the desk. I wondered how he could stand it in the Texas heat, but I don’t think I ever saw him without it. Another usually showed up late, with bloodshot eyes and an unsteady gait. Well, actually two or three might show up that way. Bud’s Bar was right across the street from the newspaper, just down the block from the gay bar that had drag shows on Saturday nights. I discovered that my first Saturday night in town. I came out of the newspaper’s front door about 10:30 to go home, and the street in front of me was filled with what looked like people celebrating Mardi Gras.
Facing the slot man on the other side of the copy desk was the assistant slot man. My spot was next to him. His name was Richard, probably 10 years older than I was. He took me under his wing. It didn’t take long for me to see who really ran the copy desk. The clue was the people from the back shop. They were smart people. Whenever they had a question or needed a decision, they went to Richard.
He was a restless type. He was known for almost annual job changes between the paper in Beaumont and the Port Arthur News, about 30 miles south. One year it was the Enterprise; the next it was the News. And then back again. I caught him for his final two months in the area, though, because he left for Dallas two months after I arrived. But I was grateful for those two months; if there was anyone who trained me, it was Richard. And he did more than that – he took me with him to dinner or we’d sit together in what passed for the newspaper cafeteria. He told me stories about the paper and the staff. He checked my work and showed me how to improve it. And then he left.
Because of the high turnover rate on the copy desk, two months after I’d arrived, I'd taken Richard’s place. The back shop people were coming to me. If a story was too long to fit a page, they'd come to me to trim it. If a headline didn't fit, they brought it to me to rewrite it. I was the kid, but no one seemed to mind. From my first week at the paper until the time I left nine months later, I worked every weekend except the one I got married. There was supposed to be another editor working with me, but it rarely worked out that way that summer. So I had to edit, package and manage three editions of the newspaper on Saturdays and Sundays, with someone to help write obituaries when they were called in.
To recognize my additional responsibilities, I got a $15 a week raise. It was still near-poverty level.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
My First Job - Part 1
I dropped off resumes and actually interviewed at a couple of television stations in Baton Rouge, and my father suggested I talk to the people at Shell Oil in New Orleans. He did a considerable amount of their printing and mailing work, and I knew most of the people in the PR department from making deliveries and picking up mailing labels. So I did, and actually got to talk with an institution there, a woman named Carolyn Sonnier. Other people might have had better sounding titles, but she ruled PR in New Orleans. There were no openings, but she said she'd send my resume on to headquarters in Houston. (Ten months later, Shell in Houston called; they had a job and the recommendation by Ms. Sonnier clinched it.)
Things were now looking desperate. It wasn't just a job for me; there was this girl I'd met and we had started talking about getting married (we did, almost four months later). One afternoon, as I walked past the bulletin board in the J-School, I saw a job posting. Things being what they were, I took it down. No, I tore it down and hid it in my books so no one else would see it.
It was an opening for a copy editor at the Beaumont, Texas, Enterprise, a daily newspaper with three editions (East Texas, Southwest Louisiana and Home). There was also an afternoon paper, the Beaumont Journal, that operated out of the same building but had separate ownership. I called the contact name, the managing editor, and got an interview right away. I should have wondered at the speed at which that happened, but I didn't. I thought he sounded anxious, but I was exceedingly thankful.
My girlfriend/fiancee and I drove over to Beaumont from Baton Rouge, and she waited outside (in the heat) while I did my interview. Downtown Beaumont then looked nothing like downtown Beaumont today. Then, it was still living off the dreams of the 1901 oil gusher at Spindletop, and the dreams had played out about 30 years earlier. Downtown was in serious need of major urban renewal.
I remember three things from my interview.
First was the smell of the place -- like ink and newsprint and glue from paste-up. I never forgot the smell. It's universal to all newspapers, I think. It was the same smell at the Houston Chronicle where my wife worked after we moved there, and the same smell at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Washington Post, and several other newspapers I've visited.
Second was the receptionist. She was likely somewhere in her early to mid-40s. Her jet black hair was teased at least 18 inches above her head (the copy desk would often break out in a stirring rendition of "Stand By Your Man" whenever she was out of earshot). She wore white go-go boots. And a mini-skirt. Always a mini-skirt. Every day a mini-skirt. And she shouldn't have.
The third thing I remember was, after offering me the sumptuous salary of $125 a week, near poverty-level even for the early 1970s, the managing editor walked me to the copy desk to introduce me to the people I would be working with. They were polite. And in their eyes I saw pity.
Yep, another desperate sucker.
But I had a job. Before we drove back to Baton Rouge, I found an apartment, which I always referred to as the posh Northway-Gaylynn Luxury Apartments. There was nothing posh or luxury about them. Their chief selling point was that they were furnished, or mostly furnished. My apartment shared a building with three other units, and sat amidst scores of other identical buildings. Think of the complex as incipient slum. Mine was upstairs. My neighbor was a young woman named Kitt; I remember her last name, too. She worked at a nearby bank, and she was far more respectable than anyone who worked at a newspaper, including me. I remember she had a white Westmoreland terrier. We were both engaged, but I got married first. She was as nice a neighbor as you might find.
I graduated a couple of weeks later and drove to Beaumont the next day, a Sunday. I drove straight to the apartment office to get my key -- and naturally, the office was closed. This was when most places of business, including grocery stores, shopping malls and apartment complexes, closed on Sundays. I had a car packed with stuff, a rented apartment, and no key to open the door. And I had to start work the next day.
After a few hours, I managed to find the handyman for the complex (he often had to work on Sundays; broken air conditioners and hot water heaters didn't care a fig about the Blue Laws). He let me in. I had no key and no food, but I did manage to find an open convenience store.
But life didn't get better than that for an almost 22-year-old soon-to-be a copy editor -- my own place to sleep, some awful food on my stomach, and all of the books I'd brought with me. In fact, after I ate the food (a TV dinner, if I recall correctly), the first thing I did was set up my pine board and cinder block bookshelves. Then I worried about the sheets for the bed.
The next day promptly at 3 p.m., I walked in the door of my first job.
The awakening would be abrupt and rude.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Reading for the Rest of the Summer
My mother-in-law loves the bookstore as much as I do, and the two of us wandered around for a good hour or more. She picked up a cookbook; I found half a dozen novels or so, and decided to stop there. So with what I already had waiting to be read at home, here's the list of what I'll be tackling over the next few weeks:
Providence, a novel by Chris Coppernoll.
Faces in the Fire, a novel by T.L. Hines.
The Passion of Mary-Margaret, a novel by Lisa Samson.
Where the River Ends, a novel by Charles Martin.
The Shadow of the Wind, a novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
Yesterday's Embers, a novel by Deborah Raney.
Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende.
Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season by Peter Dunne.
Housekeeping, a novel by Marilynne Robinson.
River Rising, a novel by Athol Dickson.
Parting the Waters: Finding Beauty in Brokenness by Jeanne Damoff.
The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman.
Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places by L.L. Barkat.
Return Policy, a novel by Michael Snyder.
It's an eclectic list -- a little romance, a little suspense, some non-fiction, some essays, a couple of environmental treatises. And I've ordered Chris Fabry's June Bug, which publishes Aug. 1, and will be receiving Robin Parrish's Offworld, which I won in a contest.
I'll be busy, no?
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Brandilyn Collins' "Exposure"
Within the first 20 pages or so, a woman is either immobilized by paranoia or being tracked by the most technologically clever stalker ever; a bank is robbed; and a nine-year-old girl runs away from home -- and is kidnapped. The woman, Kaycee Raye, arrives home one night to experience a digital camera taking her picture -- and the photo of a dead man loaded on the camera as well, a photo that will keep returning throughout the story. The bank robbery has some inside help -- but it goes awry and someone has to die. The little girl Hannah is running from an unhappy home, but falls into the clutches of, well, a key character.
And the pace never lets up. This is a story that starts at the top of the roller coaster ride and then -- terror. It is no mean achievement to sustain suspense without a break -- but Collins does exactly that. I kept waiting for a break in the tension, but it didn't happen. Once you're in the roller coaster car, you're in it for the duration, so hang on.
Good thing I didn't read this by the pool or at the beach -- I would have been so absorbed that I would have ignored the sun and been turned lobster red.
Friday, July 10, 2009
Social Media and Me
Twenty-five years. It sounds like a confession that I was there at the dawn of time. I have people working for me who weren't even born 25 years ago.
I don't know why I connected so easily to electronic communication, but I did. In 1993, a colleague attended a PR conference and heard about AT&T's email newsletter for employees. We talked about it and said, why not here, too? We had just reached critical mass for the number of employees on email distribution, and we said let's do it. It took three months to try to convince IT it was a good idea. And they still said no. Then I realized I didn't need their permission. That's a story by itself and the subject of another blog post soon, but I learned that experts invariably are the people who stand in the way of innovation, including in my own organization, where Public Affairs people told me no one cared what went on in different parts of the corporation.
IT and Public affairs were both wrong.
We launched the email newsletter with a list of 100 people, covering all global regions and an extraordinary array of computers and operating systems (this was in the days before the business world was ruled from Redmond, Washington). Within a week, the list had grown to 1,500. Within two weeks, we had saturated the entire email distribution. Our little email newsletter had actually gone viral all on its own, forwarded and publicized by word-of-mouth, before anyone had even heard of the idea of "going viral." Remember, this was 1993.
For a long time, we flew under the radar of Law and Human Resources, which turned out to be a good thing. We didn't ask or seek approval for anything we published. We just did it, but checked all quotes with sources. Then employees figured out we weren't censoring letters to the editor. Before long, we were moderating internal debates and extensive discussions on business issues and getting answers for some of the inanities that pass for corporate policies. By the time we got discoverd by Law and HR, even the CEO was hooked. And he told them to leave us alone, because something extraordinary was happening -- the corporation was treating its employees like they had fully functioning brains. Like adults.
No one was more shocked by this than me, the instigator of it all. I spent the next year trying to understand what had happened, including why I of all people, the speechwriting guy, for goodness sakes, the word guy, had fallen so fast and so hard for electronic communication.
I finally understood what had happened. I was so comfortable moving across different communication media in speeechwriting (see the blog post below this one) that electronic stuff was almost a no-brainer. If you can create communication using word, mouth, eye and ear, you can do the electronic stuff. There's even a theory about it -- Walter Ong's secondary orality.
From email we moved to the web, and created the company's first web site. And there's another story -- one of the most visionary IT people I knew told me at the time to ignore the web because it was just a fad, like eight-track tapes back in the 1970s. He insisted that the future was -- drumroll, please -- Lotus Notes. And he was serious.
A whole series of corporate reorganizations intervened after that; I went off and did my own thing for a while and eventually ended up back in a corporate Public Affairs department. In the meantime, I'd stayed familiar with electronic communication, even through the great internet business implosion in 2000 and 2001. I was hired to do good old-fashioned issues management, but I brought my electronic luggage with me. And the day came when someone in a staff meeting asked, "What's a blog?"
From that question, it eventually became this. Even some of the people who don't like my company took notice, and reprinted this on their own web site.
So that's why I tweet what I tweet on Twitter. It's electronic, to be sure, but it's really about people -- connecting with them, building relationships with them, and creating something new with them.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Writing by Walking Around
Most people in public relations, and most freelance writers, will all claim to be able to write speeches, but the fact is that is mastered by only a handful. A lot of people do it; only a very few do it well.
Even fewer like doing it. Writing for a CEO and other executives is frustrating on a good day. You’re typically dealing with a considerable ego, a number of gatekeepers, others who think you can find a way to slip their pet project or theme into the CEO’s speech, your own set of management who think they know how to do it better than you, and your own set of disadvantages and inferiority complexes (all writers have at least one). Writing speeches is not for the fainthearted.
I’ve written speeches for 12 CEOs and dozens of other executives. The CEOs were all different. But the process of writing a speech is generally the same, and it’s not easy. You have to write a speech to be read by a CEO so that he or she can say what it is they need to say. Three different communications media are involved in producing a speech – writing, reading and speaking – and a fourth, listening, is added when the speech is given. You write for the eye to see, the mind to understand and assimilate, the mouth to speak and the ear to hear. It’s complicated, and it’s why so few people are really good at it.
In 1990, I found myself writing for a CEO who was demanding of his speechwriters, to say the least. He ran through them at the rate of one every two months – either he didn’t like them or they quit. I was put into the position to “fix” this situation (which is a good part of the history of my career, come to think of it – fixing messes).
I don’t recall how this started, but I found myself writing his speeches by walking around. I likely got stuck in a place, and the draft wasn’t working. But one day I found myself walking the halls and the underground tunnels of corporate headquarters, oblivious to just about everything except the speech in my head.
And even worse was that I would speak sentences and sections out loud, to hear how they sounded. People passing me as I walked by thought I was the proverbial village idiot. And I admit I must have looked like that – walking slowly, mouthing words, phrases and sentences, shaking my head, occasionally writing a note on the pad in my hand, ignoring everything around me. Sometimes I would be stopped and asked if I was okay, and I would give such a look of befuddled confusion that it must have been obvious I was anything but okay.
Gradually, thanks to preemptive communications by my secretary, people understood, smiled and left me alone. “Ah, writing another speech?” they’d say. “Huh?” I’d respond, and walk on.
I write few executives speeches these days, but I’ve found myself doing exactly the same thing with the fiction I’ve been working on. Except I do it while walking and biking. (Imagine it: the village idiot on a road bike.)
Early this morning, I walked for an hour in my mother-in-law’s neighborhood in Shreveport, La., working through how to layer a sub-plot into the story I’ve been working on. It was early enough that few people were on the streets, so I didn’t embarrass myself too badly. And I’ve gotten adept at disguising what I’m really doing by waving at passing vehicles (drivers wave at you in neighborhoods here) and not losing my train of thought.
Yeah, I look like an idiot, but it worked. I figured out what I needed to do.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
An 80th Birthday
Less than four months after her birth, the stock market crashed. The Great Depression started and looked like it would never end, and it kept coming back all through the 1930s. She was 12 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States officially into World War II. She was 16 when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war.
For the first 16 years of her life, hard economic times and then war were what she knew as normal. But back then you didn’t complain and whine about normal; you just got on with it. And she did. She got married in 1948 to a career Navy guy who thought he was retired after World War II but then got rediscovered by Uncle Sam for the Korean War. Their first child, a daughter, was born after he was sent to the Navy base in San Diego. Two sons would follow. I married her daughter.
Give my mother-in-law a choice of doing something outside or inside, and she’ll pick outside every time. She loves outside. She still cuts her own grass (and it’s a BIG yard) and the neighbor’s grass. She grows flowers and vegetables. Her azaleas are gigantic. She fights moles and squirrels. Especially squirrels. Her battles with the squirrels are legendary. Yesterday she went chasing the blackbirds from her fig tree. They haven’t come back.
She’s athletic and, I suspect, the source of the athletic genes that permeate my two sons. I still remember playing a game of H-O-R-S-E with her at the backyard basketball hoop. She beat my oldest son, who was mortified to be beaten by his grandmother. And she beat me, but I wasn't the competitive challenger my son was. I expected to be beaten.
Even with her on crutches at the time.
Her refrigerator is crowded with photographs of children, grandchildren and some of the children she’s cared for over the years. Children love her. And she loves children.
She flies an American flag in her front yard. And she’s proud to do that. She's a good neighbor, generous to a fault, and likely something of an institution in the neighborhood. She’s the stuff that made America a force to be reckoned with.
Once you get past the scores of framed photographs of children and grandchildren, you see that the inside of her house resembles a Christian book store – Bibles of every kind, meditations, commentaries and Christian novels. She loves reading Christian novels, and she reads them voraciously. Authors like Beverly Lewis, Jan Karon, Olive Ann Burns, Tracie Peterson, Terri Blackstock and Beverly LaHaye. And Jerry Jenkins. She loves a good story told well.
Today she’s 80, moves like 50 and is as much fun as a totally mischievous 10-year-old. And she just spied another squirrel up to no good out in the yard.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
I've been spending some time exploring a web site called Inside Work. Here's what it says in the site's "About Us" section: "InsideWork® infuses business innovation with biblical insight to stimulate change in our work, organizations and marketplace." The articles are thoughtful and thought-provoking, challenging and sometimes provocative -- and never dull. I'm so used to experiencing business beliefs flooding the church that it's actually refreshing to read about biblical beliefs addressing the workplace.
Right now the current articles featured on the site are about corporate strategic vision (it's not about technology or change; it's about character); defending one's self in the workplace (David and Psalm 69); what it means to really love the customer (a short treatise about Starbuck's); why God love commerce; and the idea of a mission statement.
One regular contributor is a business executive named Bradley Moore, who works in the northeast U.S. and has a blog always worth reading called "Shrinking the Camel." (The name of the blog alone speaks volumes about its content.) (If you're not biblically inclined, it has to do with the statement in the New Testament that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven.) Brad writes about the practice of faith in the workplace -- not so much talking about it as doing it. He's written the current article on Inside Work on loving the customer at Starbuck's.
Inside Work has become one of my favorite web sites about work. Take a look.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
Sally Wright's Mysteries
There, in the bottom shelf of the last row, I saw a book called Publish and Perish by Sally Wright. It was a mystery, with a historian named Ben Reese for a detective, set at an Ohio college. It was published by Ballantine, a mainstream publishing house, and nothing about it suggested a reason for it being found in a Christian bookstore. I read the first page or two, was impressed with the writing, and bought it. What I found remarkable about it was that it reflected a Christian faith without hitting the reader over the head with it.
It was also a great story.
The bookstore later closed, I went through a major career change and lost track of Sally Wright. That is, until I wandered into Big Sleep Books in St. Louis' Central West End about three weeks ago. It's a bookshop devoted exclusively to mysteries and suspense. My wife and I wandered around, I gravitated to the end of the alphabet (seriously, this is like Pavlov's dog) and I found Sally Wright again. I picked up Pride and Predator and Pursuit and Persuasion, and learned there were at least two more in the Ben Reese series. I'm well into Pride and Predator now, and it's delightful -- well written, well plotted and containing a subtle theme of faith throughout.
I also bought Carlos Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind and Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Painter of Battles. I wanted to reread the Zafon book before tackling his latest work translated into English, The Angel's Game, and I'm a huge fan of Perez-Reverte. But those are stories for another day.
It's a great pleasure to rediscover Sally Wright.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
And so I faced a dilemma: go home and rest and let the painkiller wear off, or go home and take advantage of the outstandingly wonderful weather that's descended upon St. Louis for the last three days and go biking.
Like it was a dilemma. Or even a question.
Novocain mouth and all, off I pedaled. Two hours later, I was back home. And happy.
I have two standard rides -- a two-hour ride and a one-hour ride. The two-hour ride takes me from my home in inner suburban St. Louis east to a small sliver of a St. Louis city park that overlooks the Mississippi River. The view atop the river bluff is spectacular. I can see for miles in three directions. Round trip is about 28 miles. The one-hour ride, about a 19-mile round trip, is a straight shot south from my house to Grant's Trail, an old rail line converted to a walking/biking/rollerblading trail.
I started biking five years ago. It was something I always wanted to do, and had reached an age where it was time to put up or shut up. So I put up and bought a hybrid bike. Some dealers call them leisure bikes now. Yuck.
My first ride lasted all of three blocks. I got off the bike and laid down in the grass of the house where the St. Louis County prosecutor lives. I thought I was going to die. In my defense, it was August and hot. Yeah, I know, lousy defense for being out of shape.
I stuck at it, and kept lengthening my rides. I subscribed to two biking magazines. I started following the racing circuit. I bought biking shorts and a jersey. And gloves; gotta have gloves. Got up to 72 miles one day. Two years later, I bought a road bike and discovered speed. I bought more jerseys. I did some biking on our vacations. Montreal is a great city for cyclists, and Phoenix has the Arizona Canal Trail. At Williamsburg, I biked to Jamestown one day and Yorktown the next. I did part of the Missouri MS 150 last fall, and I'm signed up again to do it this fall. I've gots lots of boring stories about hills. Every cyclist has boring stories about hills. And we all want to tell you the exact route we took on our ride.
Later this month, I'm going with a group of men from church on a bike retreat. We'll start off in Rocheport, Missouri, have dinner at a winery, ride 80 miles the next day, have dinner at another winery, and then a 62-mile ride into St. Charles, Missouri, a western suburb of the metropolitan area. There's something about a church retreat that includes dinner at two wineries that I find irresistible. Dinner and devotions with the Norton or the Vidal Blanc.
We'll be riding the Katy Trail, the world's longest, narrowest state park and an all-gravel trail that stretches across most of Missouri. I've ridden the Katy Trail before, but never for this distance. Some enthusiasts insist you can ride a road bike on it, and you can, if you like changing lots of flat tires. I'll be riding my hybrid, and leaving the road bike at home.
I'll come home tired, cramps in my legs, cranky -- and deeply satisfied.
Yep, a biking fool.