This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

New posts on Wednesdays. Email

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Quarter-Century Club

Slightly modified version of an essay originally posted in February 2012.)

                  When you walked through the front door of the small-town newspaper where I used to work, you came into a lobby area with the main switchboard on one side and the newsroom on the other. On one wall was a set of sepia photographs that attracted almost everyone’s attention. As a young reporter I often looked up from my typewriter to see someone gazing at the wall in rapt fascination.
                  Above the photographs was the headline “The Quarter-Century Club.” They were pictures of the men (and one woman, Virginia Peixoto) who had worked at the paper for 25 years or more. Time spent in the military, if served after being hired by the paper, counted.
                  At the time of my hiring in 1972, the newsroom was represented by editor Frank F. Orr (hired in 1938), managing editor Ward Bushee (1946) and city editor Howard Sheerin (1931). Quite a few of the photos were of printers and pressmen, guys without a college degree who became damned good at a skilled trade and made a life’s work of it: Gordon Littlefield, Hank Senini, Dick Heebner, Cy Crawshaw, Bill and Tony Brazil. Others went up on the wall later.

You Got a Watch

                  One of them was Sam Vestal, the paper’s first photographer, whose pictures proved the connection between the district attorney and a notorious gambler and helped the paper win a Pulitzer Prize. Sam went on the wall in 1975, and I remember being out with him on a story a few weeks before. At one point he reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a beat-up wristwatch with a broken band and checked the time. I asked when he was getting it fixed. “Not worth it,” he replied. “I hit 25 years in a few weeks, and I’ll be getting a new one from the company.”
                  They gave watches in those days, too.
                  In today’s economic and employment environment, where two-way loyalty is an alien concept, the idea of a quarter-century club is incomprehensible. It wasn’t always that way. A company with solid roots in the community could provide steady, long-term employment at a decent wage, obtained, to be sure, with some coaxing from labor unions representing the printers and pressmen. If you had a high school diploma and the willingness to learn some skills, you could make a career of it.

Fewer and Fewer Producers

                  What happened in the newspaper industry is typical of what happened across America to businesses that actually produced a physical product. There are no printers any more because technology wiped out their jobs; computers enabled editors and reporters to do the typesetting and produce the pages themselves. The high cost of maintaining a press, coupled with satellite capability and the internet, has decimated the ranks of pressmen. Many newspapers no longer do their own printing; in more and more cases, stories are sent to another town where a desk of editors designs pages for several newspapers printed there. One community newspaper has even tried moving its newsroom offshore, outsourcing reporting work to people in India, who cover the city council meeting by watching a community TV broadcast on the internet. The printed newspaper itself will no doubt vanish during my lifetime, replaced by images flickering across a computer screen or smart phone.
                  For a long time I assumed my picture would be on the wall some day, but the company was sold and I left after 19 years. I remain grateful for having had the experience of working in such a stable and welcoming environment, forever gone. Newsrooms will have typewriters again before the Quarter-Century Club makes a comeback.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Driving up the Market for Art

            Every once in a while something happens that just seems meant to be. If you’re lucky, it could be something really big, like marrying the right person or getting the job that launches you on the career you should have. Even when it’s not  that important, it’s still a neat thing.
            A couple of weeks ago, I had one of those karma moments, or whatever you want to call them. A woman I know was having an exhibition of her paintings. She had received a fine arts degree years ago, but life happened before her painting took off: marriage, kids, a day job.
            A while back, she decided to take up painting again and found herself getting caught up in it.  The ouvre grew to the point where she had two shows in a week, at opposite ends of the county. I went to the first to see what she was up to and as a gesture of support.

The Woman in the Scarf

            The artist and I know enough of the same people that I recognized several familiar faces when I walked into the show and was quickly put at ease. I walked around the room several times, looking at the paintings. Some of them were more fully realized than others, but the underlying talent and competence were clearly in evidence.
            From my perspective, the best painting in the show was a profile of a woman wearing a scarf over her head. Everything clicked — from the jut of her jaw to the thrust of her nose to the pattern of the scarf to the perfect shade of green in the background. Apparently the artist agreed with me, because that was the painting she had put up for silent auction, with a comparatively high starting bid.
            I was intrigued. The silent auction closed at 5 p.m., and at 3, I was getting back to the house. If I made a bid before leaving, there would be two hours for someone else to come along and bid higher, so there didn’t seem to be a point.
            And then, I remembered what I had learned about silent auctions at Rotary.

You Gotta Know When to Hold ‘Em

            It’s the same principle, really, as in poker. You raise the stakes by a higher order of magnitude, chasing away the people who aren’t serious. It often results in a win without any further back-and-forth.
            Fortunately, I am in a position where if I want to spend a few hundred dollars on a work of art, I can arrange my finances to make it happen. I did a quick mental calculation about what I could do, settled on a number I could live with, and wrote it down on the auction sheet. My bid was four times higher than the increments bid up to that point. I reasoned that even if I didn’t get it (a strong possibility), I was helping drive the price up for the artist.
            At ten minutes past five, I got a call from the woman handling paintings at the show, notifying me I’d made the high bid for the woman in the scarf. It later turned out that someone else had been planning on coming in at the last minute and making the high bid, but had gotten distracted and missed the deadline. The gods were with me on this one. Last week, I took over possession.
            Now all I have to do is decide where to hang it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

It's Terrific! It's Terrible!

            At the moment I am hip-deep in the final revisions of my third mystery novel, Not Death, But Love. This is the period in producing any book, when it is not a happy time to be an author. From a creative standpoint, the book has been let go, and all that remains is the drudgery of making sure the commas are in place, the quotes are closed, the style is consistent, and the sentences are as tight as they can be.
            Nevertheless, when shying from the task or considering making short shrift of it, I am reminded of the one-star review I read for another self-published author’s work: “Next time, he should consider spending some money on an editor so he doesn’t put out another book so full of typos to an unsuspecting world.”
            I don’t want to get a review like that, and fear can be a powerful motivator.

When Perspective Vanishes

            Something else happens to an author at this stage of the game. By now, I have been living with this book for so long that it is hard to maintain any sort of perspective toward it. Reading the manuscript yet one more time, I find myself overreacting to almost everything in it.
            If I read a paragraph that strikes me as being good, I begin to have fantasies about the ghost of Tolstoy appearing before me and tipping his hat in tribute. If I read a paragraph that strikes me as being not quite right, it can be only a matter of seconds before I’ve gone to the conclusion that the whole book is garbage and the only thing to be done with it is to hit Command-All-Delete and start all over again.
            It is not at all uncommon to encounter two such paragraphs back-to-back within the span of a minute. The mood swings are scary, and I am grateful to have the self-discipline not to act on my worst impulses.

The Power of Stet

            I have, by the way, hired an editor for this book, and she was well worth the money. What I am doing now is reading the manuscript, chapter by chapter, noting her comments and corrections, and doing additional revisions on my own initiative. Even though I’m adding, as well as subtracting, I figure the final manuscript will be a thousand words shorter by the time I’m done.
            In doing this, I am coming face-to-face with my own mental tennis match. Several times now, I’ve marked a change on the manuscript, then when I set down to enter the revisions the next day, I looked at the change and decided to leave it the way it was in the first place. I came of age in the days of manual proofreading, and one of the proof terms of the time was “stet,” which means, “ignore the correction.” I am stetting a lot as I lurch toward the final version of the book.
            Even so, the version that goes live May 27 won’t be the final one. Everything changes, and, for all the attention my editor and I have paid to detail, there will be things to be corrected after publication. I believe in the book, so I will make those changes. I want it to present as well as possible to the readers.