Tuesday, December 22, 2009


When I was in the second grade, I memorized the first 20 verses of the second chapter of Luke and recited it before the class to win a prize. I think the prize was a bunch of Santa Claus pencils and a few pieces of candy. It’s been more than 40 years since that day, so I cannot be expected to remember that detail.
Now, all these years later, I realize that, like so many other things in life, the real prize was what I learned. In fact, to this day, I can recite the 349 words of the passage, although I will confess that I get stuck a few places and have to cheat a little.
One of the things that I’ve always wondered about is how the shepherds found the baby Jesus to begin with. All they were told is, “Ye shall find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’’
Even though Bethlehem was not a big town, they didn’t really have much to go on. It would be the equivalent of trying to find a single family in a whole subdivision.
Although the account of the Magi is found in Matthew rather than the passage I committed to memory all those long years ago, a similar conundrum arises. According to Matthew, the Magi located the Christ child by following a star, which came to rest above the town of Bethlehem. Again, it seems like pretty vague directions. I cannot imagine you would be able to figure out a specific residence based on the position of a star. It occurs to me that the star of Bethlehem was the first known use of a GPS system, although not a very precise model.
Those curiosities aside, the important fact is that both the shepherds and the Magi found the Christ child.
I think it is interesting to note that, in the accounts of the Nativity, it is just as important to note not only who found the baby Jesus, but who didn’t. That would be Herod, who sought the child with as much zeal as the shepherds or the Magi but with far different motives.
Ever since, people have been looking for him and the success or failure of those efforts, I believe, rests on the intent of the seeker.
This reminds me of when my two kids were little. One of their favorite games to play with Dad was hide-and-seek.
I was always careful to hide in such a way that I could be easily found, of course. Getting “found’’ was the fun part of the game, after all.
So I would hide behind the curtains with my shoes sticking out prominently underneath, maybe rustling the curtains a bit for good measure.
When they found me I would feign shock. “How did you find me?’’ I would ask in mock frustration, and they would laugh and shout and demand that I hide once more so they could find me all over again.
I have a feeling it’s the same way with God. He is easy to find, only because he wants to be found. I am sure His heart bursts with loving affection when his children find him, for the joy it produces.
For those who have sought and found him, Christmas is always a time that we find in our spirits the irrepressible urge to “find him all over again.’’
“Seek and ye shall find,’’ Jesus once said.
So, with the chaos and confusion and the frenzy that generally goes with Christmas, I hope that you will find the opportunity to play the game that fathers love to play with their children.
He’ll be easy to find, of course.
He always has been.
Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Me & Bobby Bowden

The plaudits that are now pouring in for Bobby Bowden in the wake of Monday’s announcement that he is resigning as the Florida State head coach come from every quarter – from Hall of Fame players and coaches and luminaries of every ilk, many well outside the arena of college football.
It would be the height of arrogance to expect that he would pay any particular attention to my compliments, of course.
But then a memory stirs of my first meeting with the legendary coach and I pause to think that my words of congratulations might indeed carry a weight beyond all proportion to my status.
It was early August of 1989 and the Seminoles were well into preparations for the season when I made arrangements to visit campus to do a story on a freshman player on the Seminoles’ roster.
At that time, I was a sports writer at the Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald and had been sent to Tallahassee to do a story on Terrell Buckley, who had been a star player on the Pascagoula High state title team of 1987.
Although Buckley was a prized prospect and would go on to win the Jim Thorpe Award at FSU in a few years, the Seminoles were such a power that little time or attention was wasted on a raw rookie.
Of course, Buckley was still a luminous star in his hometown, which is why I was dispatched to Tallahassee. Florida State was, at that time, just coming into its glory under Bowden. In fact, the ensuing decade would bring two national championships to the school, cementing Bowden’s status as a college football legend.
Mindful of the status of both the FSU program and its famous coach and equally mindful that I was just a small-town newspaper reporter doing a story on a player who wouldn’t sniff the field that season, I was hopeful that I might get two or three minutes of Bowden’s time, perhaps out by the practice field or between meetings. I was nervous. I figured I had better be ready to get the most I could in a small amount of time.
But when I arrived, I was stunned to find myself being ushered into Bowden’s office. There he was, rising up from his big desk and moving quickly toward me, thrusting out his hand and smiling broadly.
“Hello, Hello!’’ he said, pumping my hand as if I were a dear friend he hadn’t seen in ages. “How was your drive over? You thirsty?’’
Before I could answer, he was shouting out to his secretary, “Can you bring Slim here something to drink? What would you like? A Coke? Water? Boy, it’s good to see you! I appreciate you driving over! Here, please sit down!’’
This was not the reception I had anticipated.
After ushering me into a comfortable chair across from his desk, Bowden sank into his big chair, leaned back and asked what he could do for me. He seemed relaxed, like he had all the time in the world and that my arrival was a pleasing respite from his busy day.
I explained the purpose of my visit and Bowden went into another long soliloquy about what a great kid Terrell Buckley was, what a wonderful town Pascagoula was, what great coaching he had, what a wonderful mama he had, etc., etc.
I had hoped for a few minutes. After a half-hour, I began to feel a bit guilty, even though there was nothing in Bowden’s demeanor to suggest that he wouldn’t have been content to talk all afternoon, maybe even delay practice to continue the discussion.
When I rose to leave, he thanked me again for coming. “You let me know if there’s anything else you need for your story, OK? Anything at all. Boy, it was sure good to meet you, Slim! You come back and see us, all right?’’
Monday, when Bowden stepped down after 44 years as a head coach, including 34 seasons at Florida State where he transformed FSU from a joke to a power, I remember that day 20 years ago when he treated a small-town sports writer as if he were the lead columnist for The New York Times.
One need only examine his won-loss record to recognize that Bowden was a great coach.
My testimony is that he was an even better man.
So congratulations, coach Bowden.
And thanks for the hospitality.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

From the archives: The Christmas Reindeer

Folks: An old column of mine from December, 2006 that may help get you in the holiday spirit...

How the Grinch stole the reindeer - or one homeowner's decorating ploy

By Slim Smith
Tribune Columnist
This is a Christmas story and the first thing you should know is that the Geyer family of Gilbert - Steve, Renee and their children, Gabriella and Sophia - have all the qualities you would expect to find on a Hallmark greeting card.
They are all good-looking, smart, successful, responsible and, above all else, so very nice.
Last weekend found Steve doing what most everybody in his neighborhood does this time of year: Stringing up Christmas lights. In addition to the lights, Steve has a couple of those lighted metal reindeer that are all the rage these days.
Steve is a contractor and is the meticulous sort, so rest assured that his decorations are hung with precision - no detail escapes his attention.
But there is the matter of what to do with the reindeer, and this is the dramatic focal point of our story.
This is also the point where you realize that the Geyers' lives are not always as idyllic as you might assume. For as Steve considers what to do with the reindeer, he is really engaged in a battle of wills and of wits that has been a part of the family's Christmas for almost three years now.
It began when Steve bought his first reindeer and placed them on his lawn near the front door a few weeks before Christmas 2003.
Steve went to get the newspaper one morning to discover the reindeer lying on their sides near the curb. Someone had tried to steal them, he realized. The thief must have been startled and abandoned the spoils by the sidewalk. Steve gathered up his reindeer, put them back in their spot and left an outside light on to discourage would-be thieves.
So last year as he was putting up his decorations, Steve remembered that close call. He had an idea: He would anchor the reindeer about three inches deep, which would surely prevent them from being stolen.
It seemed to Steve the perfect solution. He was so confident, in fact, that he decided to enhance the display, buying a string of blue lights which he laid near the reindeer's feet to simulate water. It was a nice effect, two reindeer posed by a serene pool.
A week later, Steve, his family and another couple went for a drive to see the Christmas lights in a Gilbert neighborhood noted for extravagant displays. They were only gone for a couple of hours.
When the Geyers pulled into their driveway, it was 3-year-old Sophia who first noticed something amiss.
"Look!'' she gasped.
There in the front lawn was a solitary string of lights, still shining like a blue pool. An abandoned pool, in fact.
For a long moment, no one spoke. It was almost as if Steve was trying to remember a curse word appropriate for the situation.
Finally, 6-year-old Gabriella broke the silence.
"The reindeer ran away 'cause daddy didn't feed them," she said.
And everybody convulsed in a fit of laughter.
Everybody except Steve, who was striding toward the pathetic scene, muttering under his breath as he unplugged that pitiful string of blue lights. Somehow, his demeanor made it all the more funny and for almost a year now his buddies have teased Steve unmercifully.
"Look on the bright side," one quipped. "At least they didn't steal your water."
Someone suggested that this year he rig his new reindeer with enough voltage to give any robber a suitable electrical shock.
But Steve is simply too kind, too gentle to consider that.
So what did he do?
I will not tell you how this story turns out. For who knows? In this battle of wills and wits, this may not be the final chapter.
But if you happen to find yourself driving around Gilbert and see a home where the lights are strung in perfect symmetry, look a little closer and you will see a couple of lighted metal reindeer. . .
On the roof.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Ug, Og and Twitter

I’ve been thinking a lot about technology lately.
For me, technology is like laundry; it is far more agreeable to think about it than to do it.
I seem to grow less and less enthusiastic about technology as the years go by. Not that I was ever one of those folks who loved the latest gadgets to begin with. I still think the best thing the Space Program gave us was Tang.
So, no, I’m not a tech guy.
I guess I am far more my father’s child than I ever intended to be. Thanks to Dad, we were the last family on our street to get color TV. My dad never bought a refrigerator with an ice-maker, either. To Dad, those metal ice trays and black-and-white TVs were perfectly fine.
Dad’s philosophy was that technology was not to be trusted. He was convinced that every new gadget or improvement to any existing device was designed to make a product either more expensive to buy or more expensive to maintain. He did have a point, I’ll admit.
Dad’s skepticism combined with the cultural influences of my youth, instilled in me a reluctance to embrace new things. When you grow up in a small Southern town as I did, you tended to hang on to the “old ways.’’ Whenever somebody in our neighborhood came home with something really new and innovative, the gossip that circulated through the back-yard clothes lines – the jury was still out on clothes dryers - was along the lines of the person “putting on airs.’’
“Putting on airs’’ was about as bad as being Catholic in that part of the world. I guess that’s why I never met a Southern Baptist over 40 who couldn’t drive a stick shift.
That seems so silly to me now. All of us eventually embrace technology and it’s hard to imagine life without a microwave oven, a cell phone or the internet.
Everybody arrived in the 21st Century, some kicking and screaming the whole way.
I remember when the internet arrived at the newspaper I worked at back in the early 1980s. The editor of the newspaper encouraged us to take some time to explore this new technology. Ever so often, I would sit down and fool around a bit, but I never could make heads or tails of it, to be honest.
About a week after internet arrived in our newsroom, I confided in a co-worker that I was absolutely convinced that the internet was nothing more than my generation’s Citizens Band Radio. If you are over 40, you remember C.B. Radio, I’m sure. It was all the rage for about two years, then everybody lost interest. I doubt truck drivers even have C.B. Radios anymore.
Well, obviously, I was wrong about the internet. I chuckle at the irony of it: I was sitting in a newspaper office saying the internet would be soon be extinct when I was looking at the very technology that would someday make newspapers extinct.
You would think I would have fallen in love with the internet immediately. After all, I was young and the internet was really the first significant creation of my generation.
I didn’t dislike the internet because it was new; I disliked it because I failed to see its practical value.
Of course, it’s been that way since the dawn of time.
Imagine two cavemen. We’ll call them Og and Ug.
One day, Og drops by Ug’s cave in a clearly excited state.
“What’s up?’’ Ug asks.
“I’ve just invented something,’’ Og says. “Come see.’’
So the two men walk out of the cave and Og rushes over and stands next to his creation with this big smile on his face.
Ug examines Og’s object with mild curiosity.
“What is it?’’ Ug finally asks.
“It’s the wheel! Isn’t it great?’’ Og says proudly.
Ug studies the object again. I’m guessing that at some point he kicks it because men have been doing that forever.
“Hmm. Interesting,’’ Ug says. “What’s it do?’’
Og seems a little taken aback. It seems so obvious to him.
“Why, it rolls!’’ Og says. “Watch!’’
With a big push, Og sends the wheel bounding down the hillside and begins to run after it. He looks back to see Ug turning back to his cave.
“Aren’t you coming?’’ Og asks.
“Nah,’’ Ug says in a disinterested tone. “You go ahead, though. I’m going back to the cave and drag the missus around by her hair for a while.’’
So there you have it. Ug’s enthusiasm for Og’s wheel expired not because Ug didn’t like new things – if Og could have applied his invention in a way that would have made it more efficient for Ug to convey his rapidly-balding wife from Point A to Point B, Ug might have shared Og’s enthusiasm for the wheel. Who knows? Ug might have even become an investor.
But Og never made the wheel practical and Ug was a very practical man.
Of course, I doubt even Og understood the implications of his invention.
“It rolls!’’ was the beginning and end of it for Og. And that was enough.
Now, all these eons later, the invention of the wheel is lauded as one of mankind’s first great inventions.
But I always thought the wheel gets too much credit.
The guy who invented the axle was the true genius, if you ask me.
So as I think about technology, I realize that I’m a lot more Ug than Og.
That is why I am drawing a line in the sand when it comes to the latest bit of technology, which is to say I have decided not to avail myself of the great benefits of Twitter.
Twitter, for you Ugs out there, is the latest advancement in “social networking.’’ Basically, Twitter allows a person to share what he is doing throughout the day with all of his “followers’’ in 40 words or fewer.
Where to begin?
First, the idea of having “followers’’ gives me the creeps in the general “let’s move to the jungle, wear polyester and off ourselves with poisoned Kool-Aid’’ sort of way.
Second, I cannot imagine why anyone would be even mildly interested in what I am doing at any given moment. Most of what I do each day is oppressively boring, even to me.
And finally, there’s the 40-word limit. I am a writer. I can’t tell you what I had for breakfast in 40 words.
Of course, given my track record, I would not be surprised to discover that, in a few years, the whole world is Twittering its fool head off.
But I think I’ll wait a while.
Wake me up when they put an axle on that Twitter thing.
I’ll be in my cave...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Slim's Fables (Or the world's shortest childrens's book)

On day, Sally sheep was walking through a grassy meadow on the way to her grandmother's house.
Just as she was approaching a little brook that wound through the meadow, two hungry wolves jumped out from behind a bush, startling little Sally.
"Oh, please, dear wolves, don't eat me! I am on the way to my grandmother's house with medicine, for she is very sick!''
Sally's pleas stopped the wolves in their tracks.
The two wolves rubbed their chins and thought to themselves, "Since when did sheep learn to talk?''
And then they ate her.

Moral of the story: Hungry wolves don't care much for conversation.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Chapter 6: Bellevue and a captive audience

From Sarah’s Journal:
On train all day Sunday, Aug. 11th. Very dry and flat; immense white fields. Not very interesting except to note what immense ranches and homes; so far apart with no trees except a few near their house to protect them in winter from snows.
We got off train at different stops for 10 or 15 minutes. Moose Jaw was one stop After we left Calgary the scenery was then so marvelous. Such a wonderful change, that we were afraid we would miss something. We then began to climb the Canadian Rockies, getting our first view of the Bow River.

You can only look at wheat fields so long. My mid-day Sunday, the Doc and his family had given up on taking in the scenery. For Sarah, that’s saying something. The woman seems fascinated by everything we encounter.
“Did you grow up blind and only recently get your vision through some miracle?’’ I teased her.
But by now, even Sarah had given up on the scenery. She was snoozing peacefully in our little car. Margaret was reading a book that had caught her attention in the window of a Chicago bookstore.
“You have to read this,’’ she told me excitedly the next day, after she was a few chapters in.
“What is it?’’ I asked.
“It’s called “The Maltese Falcon,’ ’’ she said. “The man at the bookstore said it just came in last week. I bet it’s going to be a best-seller.’’
I laughed at her excitement over the “new’’ book.
“I’m sure it will do well,’’ I said. “I saw the movie. It was pretty good.’’
Margaret gave me an odd look.
“Oh yeah, I forgot.’’ I said. “But you are right. It’s a great book. My friend, Lowell, lists it as one of his favorites and he’s a well-read man.’’
Doc was looking absently out the window, stopping every now and then to make a notation on a big pad he held on his lap. He seemed deep in thought.
I passed a few hours poring over the edition of the Star-Tribune I had bought in St. Paul, gleaning interesting facts from even the most mundane stories. The newspaper was filled with little items that gave me an insight to what life was like in a bygone era, which for everyone but me, wasn’t bygone at all.
“Doc?’ I said.
“I was wondering how you found me.’’
Doc placed his notepad on the seat next to him.
“Well, you were sort of famous, at least in my circles,’’ he said.
Doc said that my name had come up during the cocktail hour while he was attending a psychiatry conference in Philadelphia. The wife of a colleague – I gathered she was a prominent lady in New York society – had been talking about a trip she had made to Bellevue with the Greater New York Women’s Benevolent Society. The group apparently took time to visit hospitals and orphanages from time to time.
“And that’s when she told me about you,’’ Doc said.
I did remember the ladies’ visit, mainly because the staff spent two days cleaning our quarters, fussing over the most minor of details in preparation for the visit from these important visitors.
I had been at Bellevue for about three weeks and spent much of the time being amazed at what I was being told. They were telling me it was 1930. That’s the sort of information you naturally question, especially when you weren’t even alive in 1930. It was one thing for my fellow patients to agree on the year – with the exception of Tom, of course, who was convinced it was 400 B.C. – but when doctors, nurses, staff and orderlies confirm it, you begin to wonder.
As much I was amazed at what I was being told, it’s far to say everybody else was even more fascinated by what I was telling them. Some of the patients, of course, did not see anything unusual about me talking about what would happen in the future. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, a man who believes he is a poached egg sees nothing remarkable about being a poached egg. It’s the people who know better that find it interesting.
So the people who seemed most transfixed by more stories about my stories were the ordinary workers. The doctors, as you might suspect, were more interested about what stories told them about my “condition.’’
But it wasn’t that way with the staff, the orderlies, janitors, nurses, etc. They liked me stories because they were so very interesting.
Before long, I was holding court in the day-room on an almost constant basis.
At first, I told them what I considered the important things – how the recent crash on Wall Street would usher in a decade-long depression the likes of which America had never seen. I told them about the treachery of Pearl Harbor the monstrosity of the Holocaust and Hitler; the depravity of Stalin.
They listened intently, but I sensed they were beginning to grow weary of the grim details of history.
So I began to change the nature of my glimpse into the future. I told them about Corvettes and Ferraris, of television – it’s like having a movie theater in your living room. I told them about microwave ovens and cell phones and the internet, concepts they found difficult to grasp. Of course, I told them about Neal Armstrong and the moon walk, which seemed to delight them.
I guess my best audience, though, were the black night orderlies and janitors, who sat quietly as I told about what was in store for their people.
I told them about Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and watched with satisfaction at the wonder in their eyes as I related his story.
I told them about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement. I told them how he was shot and killed in Memphis and they could believe that.
I told them about how King would open the door for a black president in 2008. That, they couldn’t believe.
“This negro president, what’s his name?’’ one of the janitors asked.
“Barack Obama,’’ I said.
The men snickered and the janitor said, “Aw, suh, now we know you is funnin’ us.’’
Before long, I had become pretty adept at tailoring my stories to the interests of the audience. Nurse Kennedy was a movie fan, so I told her about the great stars that would soon emerge on the scene – Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis. I told her of the great films that would soon mark Hollywood’s Golden Age – GoneWith the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, etc. Ditto for music. These lectures on “The future of Popular Culture’’ were always the most popular topics, even more popular than my rather grim assessments of the world-shaping events that would soon commence. Some things never change, I suppose.
In the hallways and offices, I quickly developed the reputation as a most inventive man.
The doctors, meanwhile, did not know what to make of me. I gave no indication of mental instability outside of my insistence that I belonged to another time. Nor did I fit the profile of the typical amnesiac. I knew my name, when and where I was born, the basic details of life you might expect from a middle-aged man.
But it was the time element that had them stumped.
I found out later that after telling the doctor that I was born on July 9, 1959 in Tupelo, Miss., as the sixth child of Fred and Mattie Smith, who lived at 1104 Simpson Street, that they dutifully tried to confirm my story.
What they found out was that there was, indeed, a place called Tupelo, Miss. But none of the other information could be confirmed. They couldn’t find a Fred or Mattie Smith in Lee County and there was no record of a Simpson St. in Tupelo. Obviously, I could not have been born in 1959.
But in every other conversation, the doctors reported that I seemed perfectly normal and, in fact, quite intelligent.
When Doc returned from the conference in Philadelphia, he called a friend who was an administrator at Bellevue and arranged an examination.
The Doc was apparently as mesmerized by my stories as the orderlies had been. He returned almost every day for two weeks. By the third week, he had arranged to take over my case – pro bono, he insisted. Two weeks later, he had moved me into his magnificent estate, just two blocks from Teddy Roosevelt’s childhood home.
I did not move into the basement quarters normally reserved for the housekeeping staff, either. I was moved directly into an elegant guest room.
I was part of the family, it seemed.
And that meant, I was part of the family vacation.
Sarah woke, stretched and peered out the window.
“My, just look at the wheat fields,’’ she said. “Beautiful, aren’t they? What could they possibly do with all that wheat?’’
“In a few years, most of it will be rotting in grain silos,’’ I said, ‘’while people in cities stand in line for watered-down soup.’’
Sarah’s face darkened.
“How you talk!’ she said dismissively.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Chapter 5: Running on Faith

From Sarah’s Journal:
Arrived St. Paul Sat. morning, Aug. 9th. Went to Hotel Lowry, had baths, relaxed, then had lunch. Then we took a ride by auto bus for four hours all over St. Paul and its twin city, Minneapolis; both cities were very beautiful, especially their parks and Minneapolis has the most wonderful number of beautiful lakes. After dinner we went to see Wm. Powell in “For The Defense.’’ Very good. We left St. Paul Sat. night at 10:40.

When we boarded the B&O for the long ride through the high plains to our first “real’’ destination – Banff Springs in the Canadian Rockies - the ladies quickly excused themselves to prepare for bed, which I gathered was a pretty elaborate process. Doc and I went to the observation car, to drink in the cool night air and, also, because Doc wanted a smoke before bed.
We stood there for almost an hour, neither of us having much to say.
Doc had smoked one of his last Havanas down to the nub and was beginning to stretch his arms, a dead give-away that he was ready for bed.
“Doc, how old are you anyhow?’’
“I’ll be 60 on the third of December,’’ he said.
“Hmmm. Let’s see, in 1959, you’ll be….heck, Doc, you’ll probably be dead by the time I’m born.’’
Doc chuckled,. He stood, stretched again, then gave my shoulder a squeeze.
“And Jesus said, ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ Doc, said, quoting the scriptures. “I’ll have to ponder that one in my dreams, At any rate, good night, Mr. Smith.’’
I was tired, too, but my head was too full of questions to consider going to bed. So I stood alone on the observation deck, looking into the void as the B&O clicked across the star-less plains.
I was wondering the same thing you are probably wondering: how it came to be that I would find myself here, on a passenger train rumbling across America in August of 1930.
Do you remember the scene in the movie “Gone With the Wind,’’ when the camera pans out over Atlanta after the battle? It is a long shot and as the camera pans out you see hundreds of wounded Confederate soldiers, strewing the landscape for what seems like acres and acres. When I first saw that scene as a boy, it really bothered me. The scale was so massive that it seemed more real than imaginary.
That’s sorta how I felt, like I was an extra is some sprawling 1930s epic movie. At every turn, I expected to bump into Jimmy Cagney or William Powell or maybe even Groucho Marx.
But this place was too far big to be a movie set. And I never saw a camera or heard a director yell, “Cut!’’ So that left only two possibilities: This was real. Or I was nuts.
As I sit here on the observation deck of this west-bound train, it has been about three months since I dropped in to 1930s America. I cannot tell you anything about the precise moment it happened.
All I remember is waking up in a white room.
Morning light streamed through the big windows, all of which were fitted with a lattice-work of iron, to keep folks from jumping out the fourth-story window, I suspect. A long row of twin beds stretched down either side of the big room.
Every where you looked, it was white - white bed linens, white walls, nurses in white uniforms with little white nurses caps, men wandering aimlessly down the long rows of beds in white gowns. Everything white, except for the orderlies, black men in, you guessed it, white jump suits.
It took some time for me to get any useful information this place. The nurses and orderlies simply went about their tasks – which consisted mainly of feeding patients handfuls of big blue pills or forcing us to drink down little cups of vile-tasking yellow liquid - while gently ignoring my questions.
My fellow patients were not of much value, either. Most were either mute or given to senseless babble. One guy, though, a fella named Tom, seemed to be able to string together a few coherent thoughts.
“Where are we?’ I asked.
“We are in the court of the Great King Xerxes, may He live forever,’’ Tom said.
“Oh,’ I said. “Thanks for clearing that up.’’
To tell you the truth, I was less curious than you might imagine for someone in my position.
The last thing that I really remember, before this white room, I mean, was riding my bicycle down Priest Ave. in Tempe, Arizona on a chilly February night, wondering for about the billionth time how my life could come to this – a middle-aged man with no real home, no real prospects. A man alone, 1,500 miles from his two kids. A man who didn’t seem to belong anywhere, or to anyone. A man who had squandered every talent, every opportunity. A felon. Who could have ever imagined it for this middle-class son of a fine, God-fearin’ family?
There is a line from an Eric Clapton song that kept running through my mind: “Lately I’ve been running on faith. What else can a poor boy do?’’
That’s me.
My friends and family all tell me to hang in there, that things would get better. You have to have faith, you know.
\ But as the weeks turn into months and months turn into years, you begin to wonder first, if things will get better and second, why should they?
We kinda like to think of America as a class-less society, but I think we are fooling ourselves. I think most of us live in a self-imposed class system. Rich people expect to be rich, cannot really imagine not being rich. Poor people imagine winning the lottery as they buy a dream for a dollar and a cold 40 for a buck-seventy-five. Middle class folks dream Lexus, buy Buick.
I’ll give you another example of what I mean. A few months after I got out of prison, I went with one of my pastor friends to visit a woman who had called to say she needed help. We drove down to her apartment, located in a dingy complex in a grimy section of central Phoenix. We stood there in her little hovel of an apartment and listened sympathetically as this 60-something woman told her pitiful story.
Her brother, her only family, had died recently. The two had shared the little apartment. He worked as a janitor, their only source of income. Now, what would she do?
We told her we would drop off some groceries and enough money to pay her rent and utilities that month. Of course, we prayed for her, too.
Do you want to know what we prayed for?
First, let me tell you what we did not ask the Good Lord to do for her. We did not pray that God would give her a good job - preferably as a newspaper columnist – with a nice home in the suburbs and a reliable, late-model car. We did not pray that she would meet that certain someone, the kind who cares about you all the time and not just whenever you happen to pop into their minds.
We did not pray, like Jabez, that He would “bless her indeed.’’
We prayed that the McDonald’s down the street would be hiring.
I guess when it comes to some people, you don’t expect Providence to get all carried away.
When I think about that day, I am ashamed. I wonder: What if God gives to you only what you ask Him to give to others - you know, sort of like a corollary to the Golden Rule? It would serve me right, I reckon. It would also explain a lot.
So, yes, I’ll admit it: For the longest time, I expected to be restored to that middle-class life that, for some silly reason, I felt entitled to. I figured I’d pay my “debt to society,’’ then I’d get my stuff back.
But that hasn’t happened. As time passes, it’s easier and easier to doubt that I’ll ever get my stuff back.
So there I was before just before I woke up in that white room. What a scene it must have been: A beat-down middle-aged man pedaling through the darkness for whom running on faith has somehow become running out of faith, which only serves to add another dimension of guilt. Losing hope seems a betrayal of all the kindness and support of those friends and family.
After you have failed yourself, you start in failing others And when that happens, you begin to guard your thoughts.
You do your best to sound optimistic.
What else can a poor boy do?

Monday, April 13, 2009

We interrupt this book...

If you have been following this blog over the past few weeks, you know that I have taken on a project that might be loosely described as a book. To this point, that has been my approach. I’ve written about 4,000 words, separating them into “chapters’’ and developing a storyline, so it at least has the basic architecture of a book.
But the truth is, I am not sure what sort of book this is or should be – or even if it is a book at all.
The idea for this project came when I stumbled across a woman’s travel journal from a family vacation taken in August and September of 1930. Because it is written by a woman who makes no literary claims, her journal does not give as many insights into the family and their times. Instead, she dutifully details each stop on their 46-day journey from the beginning of the trip on Aug. 7, 1930 until its end in New York harbor on Sept. 22.
As a result, the family remains pretty much strangers at the end of the journey. This should not be surprising; the journal was never written for an audience. Instead, its purpose was to preserve the details of the trip for a time when memories might become hazy. If that is the case, the journal achieves its purpose.
Still, I wanted to know more about this family, mainly because of the parallels that exists between now and then. In August of 1930, the country was about 10 months into the Great Depression. At that time, unemployment was at 8.5 percent – which is the same rate as it is now in the Late Depression, if you will permit me to name it.
At the time of the trip, I wondered if the family had any sense of just how bad things would get, with an unemployment rate of 25 percent and the desperate decade that had just begun.
The family stayed at the finest accommodations during the trip, which suggests that the doctor – I take him to be the author’s husband, but he is never mentioned by name – was either immune to the hard times that had fallen on the country or had greatly underestimated the severity of the times.
Maybe this family had the sort of wealth that protected them from the degradation that befell so many in that era. That's probably true today, too.
I suspect then, as now, the impact of the hard times were not evenly distributed. Back then, even in the worst of times, 75 percent of the people still had their jobs. Their hardships were of a different kind and degree from those who lost their jobs, lost their homes, lost their hope, lost their dignity.
Maybe it will be like that this time, too. I know that it's a lot easier to be optimistic when you have a good job, when you can pay your bills, when hard times means vacationing close to home and driving a four-year-old car for another couple of years.
But when you have lost your job, when you haven't been able to make a mortgage payment for several months, when you go to a job fair and find 15,000 applying for a few hundred low-paying jobs, well, you begin to wonder how in the world you are going to make it. And then you turn on the TV and some anchor-person who brings home six figures tries to feel your pain. The admit that things are likely to get worse before they get better. That's an easy assessment to make when it holds no real personal terror. So, they tell us about how to clip coupons, as if that's the magic cure. They assure us that there will be a happy ending, that everything will eventually be OK. And they are right. It will get better. For them.
I would love to have known the doctor’s assessment of the times in which he lived. The grave questions that hovered over the country then are much the same as the ones we are asking now.
And it is this parallel that I find most intriguing about this journal. Granted, to read a first-hand account of such a trip is great amusement in itself. Today, people can replicate their journey, but cannot experience it as they did. Some of the hotels they stayed at do not exist or do not exist as they did. You can still drive from Portland to Los Angeles, but it’s a profoundly different drive than it was back then, when such a drive would have been considered an adventure. Today, it’s a uneventful drive down a freeway.
I point this out to explain why I have not written another chapter in the book.
It seems to me that I need to know much more about the era if I am to recreate the trip with any degree of accuracy. That means research, and lots of it.
Second, and perhaps more important, I need to know what the story really is.
There is an excellent chance that the book that I have started, the four chapters posted on this blog, will not survive, or will survive in a much truncated form.
From the start, the journal seemed to me to be primarily a device by which I could frame the the real storyk, whatever that is.
So what is the story?
I have no idea.
Initially, I thought it would be a novel, written in first person, but only coincidentally autobiographical. Now, I am not so sure. For one thing, the whole time travel genre has been done to death. A fresh perspective has yet to emerge, although it may yet.
More recently, I’ve started to wonder if the story really is more of a personal memoir. From the moment I was arrested for felony DUI, friends have urged me to write that story.
As I mentioned, the parallels between 1930 and 2009 are obvious and therefore relevant. My circumstances hardly mirror those of this family, of course, but perhaps that contrast lends its own value to the story.
There is also the possibility that the two have nothing in common, that in trying to blend them I am not unlike a writer who wants to write a book about, say, 18th Century farming techniques and 1960s women’s fashion.
So, as you can see, I’m in a fog at the moment that I can’t write through.
If you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them. Email me at slim215980@hotmail.com.
And thanks for reading!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Chapter 4: The Diagnosis

From Sarah's Journal:
Doc and I went out for a walk. We visited Marshall Fields store - the store all Chicago people rave about - but we do not think it compares to Wannamaker’s store in Philadelphia. After our lunch, we went to see a very comical movie picture, “Rain or Shine.’ After dinner, we left at 6:30 p.m. for St. Paul.
We had spent only about 12 hours in Chicago before re-boarding the train for St. Paul, Minnesota. While Doc and Sarah were sight-seeing, I wandered out to the lake, where I watched the people and studied this odd scene. It felt to me as if I were an extra in some period-piece movie. If Al Capone had shown up and started mowing down people with a Tommy-gun, I’d have viewed it more as a curiosity than some real tragedy unfolding.
As I was waiting to cross Michigan Ave., I noted the cars - Fords, mainly, but some Chevrolets and Hudsons. All black, of course,
I pointed this out to a gentleman who, like me, was standing on the corner at Michigan Ave., waiting to cross. “Describing a car as “black’’ would be pointless, wouldn’t it?’’ I said.
The man just gave me a funny look.
Doc have given me a $5 gold piece - “for lunch, or other amusement,’’ he said.
Five bucks, I thought. I’ll have to be careful.
For lunch, I stopped at a fancy-looking restaurant - white table cloths, fine crystal, etc., etc. - and had prime rib with potatoes, a slice of apple pie with ice cream and tea. The tab: $1.12.
In fact, I discovered that $5 was more than sufficient.
A row of men were standing in line in front of a factory gate and I could not resist. A year into the Depression, unemployment has reached a record 8.5 percent, according to the Chicago Tribune I had been reading during lunch.
“A little something for you,’’ I said, handing out 50-cent pieces.
“Thank you, sir!’’
Back on the train, we pulled out of the Chicago station, heading for St. Paul. After dinner, the ladies retired while Doc and I went for a smoke.
A porter produced a wooden box containing cigars and Doc was inspecting the contents, finally pulling two cigars out of the box and handing the a 50-cent piece.
“Keep the change,’’ he said.
“Thank you, kind sir,’’ the porter said, bowing politely as he stepped away.
“Havanas,’’ Doc said, clipping the end of a cigar and offering it to me. “We’ll be sure to stock up with more when we get to Cuba. Remind me.’’
“We’re going to Cuba?’’ I said, wondering how a west-bound train to Minnesota could eventually wind up in the Caribbean.
“Why, Mr. Smith, have you forgotten the itinerary?’’
I thought for a moment.
“Yes, it’s safe to say that I have no idea where we are going, beyond St. Paul, I mean.’’
“Interesting,’’ Doc said. “Tell me, last week, we all went to a very special occasion, the mark the opening of a great addition to the city of New York. Do you recall what is was?’’
I tried to remember. Somehow, I couldn’t recall anything beyond being on the train.
“No,’’ I said. “What was it?’’
“Last week, we went down to witness the opening of the Chrysler Building, the tallest building in the world. But you don’t remember that, do you? Of course, you wouldn’t. Every day, seems to be the first day with you.’’
“The Chrysler Building?’ I tried to recall the visit, with no success. “I thought the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world or, maybe, Sears Tower in Chicago.’’
Doc stroked his chin and his eyes seemed focused on some distant object, as if he were lost in thought.
“I’ve no knowledge of either of those buildings,’’ he said. “They likely do not exists outside that remarkable head of yours.’’
I didn’t respond right away. The whole conversation was a little unnerving, to be honest.
I took a deep draw from the cigar.
“Havanas,’’ I said contentedly. “You realize, that there will be a day when smoking a Cuban cigar will be a rare treat.’’
“Yes,’’ Doc said in a tone that implied sarcasm. “Tomorrow, for example. We’ll likely be in the company of the ladies for the entire day. We’ll not have time for a smoke, I fear.’’
I turned to look at the window into the blackness of the night.
“Earlier today, you said I was your patient.’’
“That’s correct.’’
“So I was wondering…Doc, what’s wrong with me?’’
Doc turned at fixed his blue-gray eyes on me, as if he were examining some rare specimen.
“I’ve yet to determine a comprehensive diagnosis,’’ he said. “It has been just two months since we met, after all.’’
“Two months?
“Well, in two months you must have some idea, some theory, don’t you?’’
Doc’s voice seemed to change.
“At this point, I would say the patient suffers from acute and recurring amnesia with marked and frequent episodes of psychosis.’’
His cold, matter-of-fact tone threw me a little.
“Psychosis? I hardly believe that,’’ I said, feeling a little indignant. “Doc, I admit I can’t seem to remember a lot of things that have happened recently, but when have I ever head psychotic? That’s totally inaccurate.’’
Doc put a hand on my shoulder.
“See here,’’ he said in a soothing tone. “I’ve meant no offense. I’ve not accused you of anything that you should feel shame. It’s just that the only things that you seem to be able to recall are things that have never happened, are likely to never happen or will happen only many, many years hence.’’
“I’m not sure I am following you, Doc.’’
The Doc rubbed his chin, struggling to find a way to clarify his point.
"It seems that you have lost your ability to recollect,'' he said finally. Whatever in the human mind triggers memory seems, in your case, to elicit only fantasy. It's as if you were wired back-wards, somehow.''
He could tell that his answer did not satisfy me.
“OK,’’ he said, changing tactics. “Let’s try one of our little experiments, OK? Now, you’re a baseball fan. That much I know. This morning you were commenting on the story about Lefty Grove in the newspaper. So let’s talk baseball, OK?’’
“I don’t’ know what baseball has to do with anything, but, sure. Why not? You’re the doctor.’’
“OK,’’ Doc said. “Tell me: What is your most memorable World Series?’’
“Easy,’’ I said. “2001 World Series. Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees in seven games, scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 to win it, 3-2. I was there, in fact.’’
Doc laughed, then caught himself.
“I’m sorry,’’ he said, still chuckling. “But don’t you see? You are talking about a World Series that won’t be played for 71 years. And what was the team? The Arizona Diamonds? Is it your assertion that there will be a baseball team in, what, Phoenix, 70 years hence? It is beyond imagination. Really.’’
Now it was my turn to laugh.
“Call me psychotic, if it pleases you,’’ I said. ‘”Mark my words: It will happen. I know it from personal experience. You’ll see. Well, no, you probably won’t, unfortunately. But it will happen just the same.’’
Doc just shook his head.
“What’s more,” I said, “Phoenix will also have a professional hockey team.’’
Doc burst into genuine laughter.
“You are simply delightful,’’ he said, warmly. “I do not know if there is a cure for you. And I confess, at times like this, I wonder if the cure would not deprive us of something truly marvelous. You make H.G. Wells seem like a dullard.’’
I put my arm around Doc’s shoulder. So what if he thinks I’m nuts, I figured. He’s picking up the tab. I’ll just enjoy the ride.
“Maybe I should be a writer,’’ I suggested. “I think my first book will be about World War II.’’
“God forbid,’’ Doc said.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Chapter 3: Rip Van Smith

I was beginning to worry about Margaret.
It was mid-afternoon on Thursday and the stifling heat was beginning to take its toll on all of the passengers, especially Margaret.
“You don’t look so good,’’ I said to her. It must be better than 90 degrees now and riding in a poorly-ventilated railroad passenger car offered no respite from the heat. The little top windows were open, but the air that entered the car was no comfort, a stale hot breeze, like what you get when you turn a blow-dryer on high.
“Maybe you should go lie down for a while,‘’ I suggested.
“Margaret nodded. “It’s just so very hot,’’ she said. “What I wouldn’t give for a cool bath. I’d be fine if I could just get cool.’’
‘Come,’’ Sarah said, rising abruptly from her seat. “We’ll go the observation car. Perhaps we’ll get a little breeze.’’
Margaret rose unsteadily to her feet, smoothed her dress and leaned on her mother as the women left the car.
Doc and I sat silently for a few minutes, staring vacantly across the farmland that dominates the Ohio landscape.
“How long till we get to Chicago?’’ I asked.
“Probably another 12, 14 hours,’’ Doc said. “The schedule says we’ll be there by 6 in the morning.’’
“Tomorrow morning, huh? We’ll, we’ve got some time on your hands then…I wonder if this train has a bar car.’’
Doc gave me a strange look. In fact, he often looked at me with a puzzled expression.
He laughed,.
“A bar car, huh? ‘’ he said. “Well, that would be a nice treat indeed.’’
“What’s so funny? Trains usually have bar cars don't they?’’
“Not in the last 10 years, they haven’t,’’ he said.
“Oh yeah,’’ I said. “Prohibition. When does Prohibition end? I can’t remember.’’
Doc laughed again.
“I love how you are always seeing the future in past tense,’’ he said. “Very interesting.’’
We sat quietly for an hour.
“I think I’ll go to the wash room,’’ I said, excusing myself.
And it was there that I made a unsettling discovery: I didn’t have a wallet.
As I was contemplating that disturbing fact, I surveyed myself in the wash room’s small mirror and I had to chuckle. There I was in a light gray seer-sucker suit, a stray hat - the kind guys in a barbershop quartet wear, I thought - pushed down firmly on my head.
“Who am I?’’ I asked the mirror. “How did this happen? What the hell am I gonna do?’’
It was as if I had gone to sleep and woke up and the time had backed up a couple of generations, as if I were Rip Van Winkle in reverse.
All I knew is I’m on the train with Doc, Sarah and Margaret. They seemed to know me quite well. Somehow, I was their guest. Am I a relative, maybe? I couldn’t say.
When the train stopped in Washington, the Doc and I left the train to get a cup of coffee and a newspaper, the women deciding to stay on the train during its short stop. The Doc bought a copy of the Washington Post from a newsboy at the station - for a nickel.
In the diner, Doc pushed the paper over to me.
The news I was looking for was found near the masthead - Aug. 7, 1930.
“Is this a joke?’’ I said aloud.
“How’s that?’’’ Doc said.
“Is this the right date?’’
Doc peered over from his side of the small table.
“Yes. It is August 7.’’
"I'll be damned,'' I muttered.
So there I was, standing in the wash room of a train heading to Chicago, taking a quick personal inventory. Let’s see: One suit, one sweat-stained cotton shirt, shoes, a ridiculous carnival barker’s hat. No wallet. No money. No ID. I didn’t even seem to have a train ticket. What if the porter comes around asking for tickets? And if I don't get thrown off the train, what happens when we get to Chicago?
I went back to the passenger car pondering these questions.
Doc was still staring out the window.
“Uh, Doc?’’
“Well, I’m sorta in a tight spot here,’’ I said sheepishly. “I can’t seem to find my wallet. I’m afraid it’s lost, which means I'm broke.’’
Doc did not seem at all distressed with this news.
“Not to worry,’’ he said. “It’s not as though you’ll need any money, but if you should, I have funds available. Just let me know.’’
“I can’t accept that,’’ I protested.
But Doc just waved off my protests.
“It’s all taken care of,’’ he said. “Part of the arrangement.’’
“Yes,’’ Doc said. “After all, you are my patient. You are going to make me famous, I suspect.’’
I didn't have an answer for that.
Journal Entry:
Arrived in Chicago early Friday morning, Aug. 8th. Registered at “The Sherman House.’’ Had nice cleansing and refreshing baths. Entirely too hot to take any sight-seeing trips so as Margaret was ill from the heat that she spent the day in bed.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Chapter 2: Ridin' the B&O

“We left Wilmington, Delaware Thursday noon. Aug. 7, 1930 over the Baltimore & Ohio R.R. to enjoy our marvelous trip,’’ writes Sarah in her travel journal.
For me, the trip begins in a different place - in the warehouse of the Savers thrift store on Elliott Road in Tempe.
I work in the “Operations Department’’ at Savers as a sales clerk. Savers has two departments - Operations is the sales floor. “Production’’ is where the merchandise is delivered, inspected, sorted, priced and prepared for the sales floor.
It is about 8 p.m. on a Tuesday and I am going through the Production Dept., en route to the break room for my 15-minute break. Because of the hour, Eddie is the only person in the Production Department. His job is to be available to help customers with heavy items, received donations that are dropped off after hours and, when time permits, sort and price items that will soon be sent to the sales floor.
“S’up?‘’ I ask as I walk through Production.
Eddie is leaning against a shelf. In front of him is a big cardboard box full of books.
He holds up a book that has a red checker-board pattern on its cover. There is no title or print of any kind on either cover. It is bound by what appears to be a brown shoestring looped through two holes that look as though they have been made by one of those punches you often see in an office.
The book seems a little swollen, as it has survived some sort of water damage.
“I’m not sure what to make of this,’’ Eddie said. “It looks like some sort of diary or something. It’s about these people who took a trip. There are pictures and stuff pasted in and the writing is hand-written. It’s not really a book, you know?’’
“Hmm,’’ I said. “You never know what you’re going to come across here, I guess.’’
“Yeah,’’ Eddie. “But it’s pretty cool because they went on this trip in, like, 1930.’’
“Really?’’ I asked, my curiosity aroused.
“Let me know when you price it,” I said. “I’ll buy it.’’
I often marvel at how the Production workers at Savers determine how to price the items that come into the store. You see all kinds of products, all kinds of brands. As a salesclerk, I’ve seen Seven and Lucky brand jeans, which normally sell for more than $100 priced at $10 or $12. I think that’s why so many people enjoy shopping at the store. If you are patient, you can find some absolutely smoking’ deals.
Some things are harder to fix a price for than other things, of course.
And this book was a good example: What is a travel journal of a trip made almost 80 years ago really worth? Tucked into that same book were a few pristine postcards from China Town in Los Angeles. You would be surprised what some postcards sell for on eBay these days. There were other photos of landmark hotels and venues which no longer exist pasted onto its yellowed pages. The photos are in remarkably good shape. They are not yellowed or faded like the pages onto which they are posted, for some odd reason.
What is something like that worth?
An hour later, Eddie slid the book across the table in front of my cash register. It has a price sticker on it: 99 cents.
With my 50 percent discount, I paid 53 cents, tax included.
And so the vacation begins.
The Canadian Rockies. The Pacific Coast. A 5,000-mile ocean cruise through the Panama Canal followed by a stop in Havana.
Fifty-three cents.
A vacation even I can afford.
Suddenly, I am in a passenger car on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and it is here that I am meeting my traveling companions - the doctor, Sarah and Margaret, a woman of about 20 who I assume is their daughter. She is a tall, pale, thin girl with big dark eyes. She is wearing a long print dress that falls just below her knees, a short form-fitting jacket, white gloves and a black cloche hat over her short-cropped, flapper-style haircut.
We are south-bound from New York, traveling through Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., before turning west for Chicago.
“Terribly hot and unpleasant for two days,’’ Sarah confides in her journal.
Sarah isn’t exaggerating.
“What’s the deal with the air-conditioning?’’ I ask, mopping the sweat off my head with a silk handkerchief while wondering why it is that I am dressed in a blue sear-sucker suit with a stiff white shirt, even stiffer collar and necktie.
The doctor fixes me with a curious gaze.
“The what?’’ he asks.
“Oh,’’ I say. “Well, never mind. On to Chicago, right?’’

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Vacation: Chapter 1

I was riding my bicycle home from the grocery store when I crossed the intersection of Priest Drive and Auto Mall Parkway. I was riding in the crosswalk, with the light, when a lady in a SUV speed up to the light and into the crosswalk. I saw her at the last moment; she was trying to the adjust the rear-view mirror, which is probably why she didn’t see me. I locked my brakes and swerved, but I knew that if she didn’t brake, I’d be hit.
Fortunately, she saw me just in time and came to a skidding stop just inches from impact.
She rolled down her window and began to apologize profusely. I smiled, held up my hand and assured her it was OK. “Truth is, even if you had run me over it wouldn’t have mattered much,’’ I said.
As you might imagine, the lady didn’t have an answer for that.
“I’m sorry,’’ she said as I pedaled away.
When a bicycle is your primary mode of transportation, you sort of get used to close calls and you learn not to take it personally. When I first lost my license and began to ride a bike, I would get pretty miffed if someone pulled out in front of me or cut me off. Now, it hardly elicits a response.
But what did disturb me is my reaction to almost getting run over.
“It wouldn’t matter much…”
What kind of outlook on life is that?
I’d be less than honest if I said that life is good for me at this point. It's been a long time since I was genuinely happy, to be honest. The prospects don’t seem any brighter, either. I try to tell myself that things will get better, although there is little to confirmeven that feeble optimism. These days, coping is a triumph of hope over experience, to borrow a phrase from old Samuel Johnson.
Truth is, most days I spend looking into the abyss and deciding to take a step back instead of a step forward. Every day, I take the right step, or at least I have to this point. Tomorrow, who knows?
So that’s what I was thinking about as I rode away from my near collision. Then, I had another thought:
“Man, I need a vacation.’’
So that’s exactly what I did. I took a vacation.
And it wasn’t just a few days of car rides and sleeping at a Best Western, either. No, this was a real vacation - the kind wealthy people or celebrities take; a trip from the East Coast, stops in Chicago and the Twin Cities, though the Canadian Rockies, down the Pacific Coast, hitting all the top destinations - Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Carmel, Santa Barbara, two weeks in L.A., followed by a Pacific Ocean cruise through the Panama Canal with a stop in Havana en route to New York. As for the accommodations, well, I stayed at some hotels that you just can’t get in to.
The vacation lasted 46 days and covered close to 10,000 miles.
Now, that’s a vacation.
Oh, I did not travel alone, either. What fun would that be?
My traveling companions were a doctor, his wife, Sarah, and their young, beautiful daughter, Margaret. Funny, though I spent the entire 46 days as their constant companion, I didn’t even get their last name. In fact, you might appalled at how little I actually know about them. Some reporter I am, huh?
At first, I thought I should get to know them, to hear their stories, find out about their background, their hopes, their dreams.
But I made the decision early on to actively avoid discovering even the most basic facts about them. It is better that way, I think, for it allows me to the freedom to invent the facts and circumstances of their lives.
I like it better this way because, when you get right down to it, I’d rather be a writer than a reporter.
Those familiar with my circumstance will be quick to dismiss this vacation as a fantasy. I am, after all, virtually penniless and perilously close to being homeless. Remember, too, that the abyss still yawns before me each day.
Yet this trip is real. It really did happen. I have an account of it, written in Sarah’s own hand, as well as indisputable photographic evidence, to vouch for it.
So join me on the trip of a lifetime.
It begins in Wilmington, Del., on Aug. 7...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

What do elephants have to remember anyhow?

I have been thinking lately of something that we are probably all guilty of, namely how often we say things that are quite silly without even realizing it. I suspect there is hardly a day that passes that we don’t say something that would falter upon even the most cursory examination.
What prompted me along this line of thought was a conversation I overheard at Starbucks the other day.
A young woman was sitting at the table next to me when a group of several young people came in. One of the people, also a young woman, noticed her and approached.
“Aren’t you Christina?’’ she said. “I met you at Jamie’s wedding.’’
“Yes, but that was over a year ago,’’ the young woman replied. “You’ve got a great memory!’’
“Yeah, I’ve got a memory like an elephant.’’
The memory of an elephant, eh? Really? People have been lauding elephants for their ability to recollect for decades now, but I am not at all convinced that elephants have earned the reputation.
Admittedly, I don’t know any elephants personally, so I don’t have any anecdotal evidence to support my skepticism. But I strongly suspect that the elephant’s reputation for memory relies largely on the fact that there are really only a few things that an elephant is expected to remember in the first place.
Elephants are generally not held accountable for remembering birth dates, anniversaries, pin numbers, where the car is parked at the mall or to put the lid down on the toilet. It is true that an elephant never forgets where he put the TV remote, but only for the obvious reason that he never had the TV remote in the first place.
Until an elephant demonstrates that he can help an 10th-grader with his algebra homework 25 years after finishing high school, I am not inclined to imbue the pachyderm with any remarkable faculties for memory.
It also makes me wonder what other qualities are ascribed to animals that could not bear serious scrutiny.
For example, dogs are loyal. This is very often true. But not always. When I was a kid, I had a Boston terrier named Buddy who was my loyal friend through thick and thin or until somebody showed up with food. At that point, Buddy was very much inclined – like, say, France - to change his allegiance. He had no pangs of conscience about it, either.
On the other hand, I don’t think anyone will question that the cat has a great sense of hearing. I know this from several cat-sitting jobs with my friend Geri’s cats – Halle and Jade. Jade, quite social for a cat, was always around. Halle only showed up at meal-time. We met at the feed dish and then she would simply disappear for the next 10 hours or so. I had no idea where she went, but I quickly discovered I could find Halle simply by opening the refrigerator door. Before the fridge light came on, she would be sitting there by the fridge.
To be honest, it was sorta unnerving. Halle seemed to just materialize out of nowhere when I touched the refrigerator door handle.
My experience tells me that cats hear well and listen, not at all. Try calling a cat and you’ll see what I mean.
I suspect there are a whole range of qualities assigned to animals that are either not true at all or are greatly overstated.
I could probably come up quite a few of them, but I’d rather open it up for reader participation. (This means you!!)
Besides, I’m busy at the moment.
Where DID I put that TV remote?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The original Homer

I was sitting on my bike at the corner of Priest Drive and Elliott Road in Tempe on Monday, waiting for the turn signal so that I could pedal the remaining quarter-mile to my work when I noticed a car waiting for the light. What I noticed was not the car, but what was on top of the car: It looked like a brief case of some sort.
Before I proceed, I’m going to give a little back-story for new readers of the blog. That I was on my bike is not uncommon. My bike has been my primary mode of transportation since January of 2007. So if you are of the mind that Americans are too dependant on foreign oil, don’t look at me. Of course, it wasn’t really my idea to swear off driving. The state of Arizona sorta insisted on it after sending me to state prison for four months for DUI.
That’s old news to most of you, I realize.
The most recent development is my job. Since Feb. 12, I’ve been working as a sales clerk at a thrift store which - as you all know - has been my life’s ambition. The $8-per-hour is just gravy.
So that’s what I was doing on my bike at the intersection of Priest and Elliott on Monday.
Aware that the light would soon turn and that the brief case would not likely stay on top of the car until the driver reached her destination, I motioned to the woman in the car.
She looked at me, then looked away very quickly. So I moved closer and tapped on her passenger-side window, trying to get her attention.
It worked. She looked at me with an expression of fear and confusion that I had seen only once before - a long, long time ago. And that’s the crux of this story.
I should note that the woman cracked her window just enough to allow me to tell her about the brief case. She hopped out of her car, grabbed the brief case and said, “Thanks!’’
But as she sped off, I remembered the expression on her face and where I had encountered it so long ago.
It was the same kind of look women in East Tupelo used to give Homer back in the late 1960s.
If you lived in East Tupelo back then, you knew Homer. He was probably that part of town’s most recognizable character.
I don’t recall ever hearing his last name. He didn’t need a last name, really. Like Cher or Madonna, Homer was enough.
Truth is, most of what folks knew about Homer was second-hand. While adults generally viewed Homer as a sad case and somewhat of an embarrassment, he was a figure of great interest to the kids of East Tupelo. Kids are always fascinated with the unusual, whereas adults generally like to pretend it doesn't exist.
By the mid-60s, Homer was in his 40s, by most estimations. He was rumored to live in the housing projects with his elderly mother. The story was that he was “shell-shocked’’ from being in combat, perhaps during World War II or, possibly, Korea.
This condition was used as the explanation for the one thing that truly set Homer apart.
Homer did not drive, perhaps could not drive. Homer’s mother didn’t drive, either.
But those two facts did nothing to deter Homer from the one thing he liked to do best: Homer, not unlike many a family pet, absolutely loved to go for car rides.
Ultimately, it was his passion for car rides that made him famous - or infamous - on the streets of East Tupelo.
Homer did not ask for rides. He simply stood on a street corner, waited for a car to pull up to the light and promptly opened the passenger side door and plopped down in the seat, all without a word.
It did not seem to matter to Homer where the driver was headed. He was just along for the ride.
Now, for most of the men of East Tupelo, Homer was not an unwelcomed guest. I can remember on many, many occasions when my dad and I be running some errand and find ourselves having Homer as an uninvited guest.
Homer would open the door to dad’s pick-up truck and I’d scrunch over to the middle to make room for our companion.
“How you doin’ this morning?’’ Dad would ask as he pulled away from the intersection.
“Um. All right, All right.’’ Homer would mumble.
“We’re going down to the feed store,’’ Dad would inform our guest.
“OK then,’’ Homer would say.
Sometimes, Homer would make the entire round trip and we’d drop him off at the intersection where we picked him up. Other times he would simply get out of the truck when it stopped at the next light. You could never tell with Homer.
But it was sure bet that Homer spent most all of the daylight hours hopping rides indiscriminately before finding his way back to his mother’s little house in the projects.
To the men of East Tupelo, Homer was a harmless figure, a gentle character who never meant any harm.
But the women of East Tupelo did not view Homer in the same light.
I am not sure if their reactions to Homer were born out of fear or the sense of impropriety. Back then, there was sort of a Victorian attitude between the genders.
For example, I remember when I was about 12 years old and I was riding with my dad somewhere. We passed the house of Ms. Swords and I saw her out on her front lawn.
Ms. Swords ran a beauty shop out of her home. She did my mom’s hair. Hers was one of the many lawns I cut to make my spending money. We attended the same church.
“Dad, there’s Ms. Swords. Blow the horn!’’ I said.
But my dad didn’t blow the horn.
“You don’t do that sort of thing,’’ he said.
Ms. Swords was a divorced woman. My dad was a married deacon. Blowing the truck horn and waving would not be proper. Who knows what people might think, after all.
So, even though Homer was as harmless as a child, the sight of a grown man getting into the car with a woman…well, it just didn’t look right.
Of course, to a child that sort of thing is a mystery.
Turns out, it was a mystery to Homer, too.
So, when a woman would pull up and stop at the light where Homer happened to be waiting for his next ride, there was nothing to deter Homer from hopping into the car. He made no distinction when it came to car rides.
The women of East Tupelo soon realized as much, and it was not uncommon to see a woman, having spotted Homer at the corner just ahead, brake a hundred feet short of the light in order to reach over and lock the passenger side doors.
Homer tried ever door handle. If the door happened to be locked, he simply waited for his next opportunity.
Ever now and then, new people moved into the neighborhood, though.
And on those occasions, an unsuspecting woman would pull up to a light and soon have Homer sitting in the seat next to them.
And that was the sort of look I got from that lady on the corner of Priest and Elliott when I tapped on that woman‘s window.
“Lord,’’ I thought. “I’ve become Homer.’’
You may be wondering whatever happened to Homer.
Well, I can only offer the rumored explanation. All I know for certain is that, at some point in the early 1970s, Homer just wasn't around anymore. The word was that he had been hit and killed by a semi-truck on Highway 78. The thinking was that Homer had tried to hop a ride in a fast-moving 18-wheeler. And that was the end of Homer.
Again, though, it’s just a rumor.
The Homer I knew was mostly rumor, I realize now. But he sure loved car rides.
That much I know for a fact.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Second-hand Slim

I was sitting in a chair near the front entrance of the second-hand store, waiting for one of the managers to return from running an errand. It was 3:05 p.m., and I was there for a job interview.
The night before, I had watched President Obama’s press conference as he made his case for the $800 million stimulus plan, hoping that he would say something that would give me reason to be optimistic.
The best I can tell, I’ll get a $500 tax credit and an extra $20 in my paycheck. Somehow, I don’t think that is going to materially improve my prospects. After listening to the president, I quickly came to the conclusion that if I’m going to get back on my feet, I’ll be doing it pretty much on my own. This is no knock on the president, by the way. It’s just that when you are almost 50 years old and all of your experience is derived from a dying industry, there’s very little the government can do about it.
The new jobs the president touts as the expected result of the stimulus plan are young men’s jobs. And, when the current recession abates, the white collar jobs that once belonged to the suddenly displaced middle aged workers who have lost their jobs will go to the bright young college graduates of tomorrow.
I suspect this was true during the Great Depression, too. I figure half a generation never recovered. I suspect the same will be true of the youngest half of the baby boomers.
And that’s the spot I found myself in Tuesday afternoon, as I waited for the store manager to return from her errand.
A few minutes later, she trudged into the store and was walking past me, when I spoke to her.
“Are you Meg?’’ I asked.
“Yes,’’ she said. “Are you the person who is here for the interview?’’
“Yes,’’ I said.
“OK,’’ she said.
She was a tall, heavy-set woman in her mid-50s who seemed to be constantly out of breath. “Follow me,’’ she said.
As we walked down the aisles of clothes, she turned and looked at me over her shoulder.
She had my job application in her hand.
“Why would you want to come here after making the big bucks you made at the newspaper?’’ she asked.
“Well, it’s not really like a have that as an option anymore,’’ I said. “The newspaper industry is in a free fall and, well, you can see on my job application that I've got some grass stains on my jersey, you know?’’
She seemed satisfied.
I followed her back to a tiny office in the back of the store where she proceeded to ask me a series of questions, mostly about what I would do under certain circumstances, like what I would do if I saw an employee stealing something.
I gathered this was not an altogether hypothetical scenario.
Of course, she also wanted to know about how it was that I came to be a convicted felon.
So, for what seemed like the thousandth time, I found myself trying to explain it. You would think that by now I’d have that story down pat. But it is still a difficult thing to put into words, mainly because anything I can say in my own defense is certain to come off as a pitiful rationalization.
At the end of my story, I paused.
“You know, if somebody had asked me 30 years ago if I thought I could manage to get through life without becoming a felon, I would have liked my chances,’’ I told her.
The interview went pretty well, all things considered.
She told me she had three positions to fill and that she would call me later in the evening.
A few hours later, she called. “Can you come in tomorrow and fill out your paperwork?’’ she asked.
So, tomorrow I’ll start my new career in retail sales, as clerk/floor person at a second-hand store. The pay is $8 per hour, which was what I made during my summer job in Nashville back in 1976. That was good pay in those days. Now, well, it’s better than nothing.
I am a journalist mainly in retrospect now, but I intend to write about my experiences here. Second-hand stores, after all, are booming in times like these. Maybe working at the store will give me some insight into this dark chapter of American life and maybe my observations will be of some value to readers.
I’d like to tell you that I am excited about the job.
I need to be excited about it, I realize.
But I am not there yet.
And I wonder if there’s much left for me to look forward to.
I suspect I’m not the only one who’s wondering about things like that.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Them Old Cotton Fields Back Home

Ever since Barack Obama defeated John McCain for the presidential election in November, much has been made - and rightly so - of what Obama’s election represents in the African-American Community.
It is perfectly right and proper that all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity, acknowledge this milestone. But in the innocent telling of the story, there have been some omissions that warrant some attention.
The primary misconception, at least among the current generation, is that only African slaves picked cotton in the Deep South.
This would have been news to a lot of folks of an earlier generation. My folks, Fred and Mattie Jewel, would have been greatly surprised to know this, in fact.
Both grew up in the cotton fields of Tippah County, Mississippi. My mother, in particular, remembered those days - and not with affection.
“People talk about the good old days,’’ she once told me. “Well, they weren’t good old days to me. We worked like dogs We had to.’’
My maternal grandmother died in 1929, leaving my grandfather to raise six daughters and a cotton crop even as The Great Depression descended to knock the bottom out of the cotton market.
Decades later, my mother marveled at how they managed to survive.
Among her earliest memories was the day she went with her father to the cotton gin. My mother was 5 years old at the time, and when their mule-drawn wagon arrived with its crop, my mother proudly informed the cotton gin manager, “I picked 50 whole pounds of cotton, all by myself.’’
The manager brought her into his little office, pretended to study her small, wiry frame and pronounced, ‘’I reckon you don't weigh no more than 50 pounds yourself,’’ he said. “Well, we have a rule here that any child who picks her weight in cotton gets this.’’
He held out his hand and opened his palm to reveal a small gold bracelet.
It was the first piece of jewelry my mother ever owned.
“I couldn’t wear it from taking it off and looking at it,’’ my mother recalled more than 70 years later. “I’d hold it up to the light and just look at it and look at it.’’
Granted, the hardships my mother endured pall in comparison to the plight of the African-American slaves. But the hardships of people like my mother - poor white cotton farmers - should not be forgotten.
During the past 15 years of living first in northern California and now in Arizona, the picture of the Antebellum South I often encounter is the notion that there were just two kinds of people there - wealthy, pampered white plantation owners who devoted themselves to the pursuit of pleasure and poor Black slaves, who did all the work.
But the truth reveals that the vast majority of Southern whites were poor farmers. In fact, the slave economy of the South effectively prevented the emergence of a meaningful white middle class.
The “slave-ocracy’’ of the South oppressed the slave and poor white farmer alike, if not to the same degree.
One of the many tragedies of the Civil War was that it was those poor white farmers who paid most dearly in the wrong and failed cause of the Confederacy. Duped and incited by the small, elite and politically powerful Southern leaders, it was these poor white men who fought and died for a cause that only served to confine them to poverty.
So it is worth noting, I think, to acknowledge that the grim realities of the cotton field was not limited to the slave. Just one full generation removed from the cotton fields, I have a far more direct and personal connection to that part of American history than our 44th president.
With all due respect, the heritage of the cotton field is not reserved exclusively for African-Americans.
It is my heritage, too, and I see no good reason to give it up.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Party

By Saturday afternoon, I still wasn’t sure of my plans for later that evening.
I figured I had two options: I could do what I always do - hang around the ranch here, watch some TV, read, rummage through the fridge for dinner. Or I could go to a party at the home of Craig and Tara Morgan.
Scott Bordow, the sports columnist at the EV Tribune, had offered to give me a ride and I was waiting for him to call and confirm when he would pick me up. I was also trying to decide if I was going to beg off going to the party.
Nothing against the Morgans. I love their company and their parties are always a pleasure. They have a natural gift for entertaining and always assemble a group of lively, intelligent, fun guests - present company somewhat excluded.
No doubt, it would be a wonderful party. The Morgans’ parties always are.
Why, then, my ambivalence? Well, it’s a personal thing. I’ve seen the Morgans probably a half-dozen times since I headed off to prison in disgrace on March 2, 2007. When I got out of prison 18 months ago, I was certain that, by now, I would be well on the way toward rebuilding my life. I naturally assumed that I’d find a writing position at a newspaper or magazine, that I’d be well on my way to rebuilding my life.
But it hasn’t turned out that way at all. I am still in pretty much the same situation I found myself in when I walked through the gates at Florence West prison on July 2, 2007. And I feel a sense of shame, a pervasive sense of failure, when I encounter old friends who are eager to know how I am doing.
My attitude was similar to that held by people who chose not to attend a class reunion. It’s not that they don’t want to see their old classmates; it’s more a matter of assuming that those classmates have gone on to achieve some manner of success while they themselves have not done much of anything worthwhile.
Scott called at 2 p.m.
“I’ll pick you up around 6:15,’’ he said.
“I’ll be ready,’’ I said.
The previous Morgan parties I have attended have usually been small, intimate affairs - eight to 10 guests - so I was surprised to see the street out front of their home near Queen Creek lined with cars.
There must have been 50 or more guests, and as many of half of them were my former colleagues at the Tribune. Some I had seen from time to time- Scott, Craig, Bob Romantic, all who worked directly with me when I was the sports editor at the Tribune.
Many others, I had not seen since my abrupt, awkward exit in 2007, people like Michael Grady, the gifted features writer; Jerry Brown, whose clever writing and dour personality I have always found endearing; Carrie White, another feature writer who escaped the Tribune well before the onset of the Tribune’s decline; and Amanda Young, the sweet, idealistic features writer who I viewed as sort of a surrogate daughter.
It was an delight to see them and my previous preoccupation with my sorry state seemed not to matter so very much.
After all, most of my old colleagues are in the same boat, I‘m just a little farther from the shore.
The Tribune is dying, there is little question about it. Earlier this month, the paper became a free publication. It now has limited home delivery and publishes a print edition just four days a week. It’s a disaster and it gives me no pleasure to say it.
Many of the Trib people at the party were let go when the paper converted to its truncated semi-daily product. When I left as sports editor, I had 18 full-time employees in my department. Now, there are five - Bob, who succeeded me as sports editor, Scott and three high school writers. That’s it.
Amanda Young is the features department.
As the evening progressed, I told someone it seemed as though everyone at the party had stepped into a Time Machine and had been transported back to the 1930s. The first words out of every guest’s mouth seemed to be, “Are you working?’’ or “What are you going to do?’’
Even the handful of Tribune people who are still employed find themselves uneasy about the future.
“I’ve discovered two things,’’ Amanda said. “I hate my job and I’m not good at it.’’
But Amanda is only half right. I have no doubt she hates her job. And, to me, that is tragic. I had never seen a young reporter who loved working at a newspaper more than Amanda. And now, she hates it and the experience has robbed her of both her passion and her self-confidence. That’s a shame.
Grady, whose talent I esteem above all others, was part of that group of recently fired employees. He’s trying to finish up his novel about the civil war while he looks around for work.
“The novel is longer than the actual war,’’ he said. “I’m using this time to try get some control over it and get it finished.’’
I suggested that he have the South win the war in his novel; it would be an unexpected twist on an old story. As a Southerner, I’d read it, for sure.
Craig is staying at home with his two young daughters, while Tara goes off to work each day. He is also trying to pursue a career as a free-lance writer. “It’s hard getting a business off the ground,’’ he confessed.
Most of the writers who have been displaced are hopeful that they can survive, maybe even flourish, as free-lance writers. If any succeed, it will be Craig, I suspect. He had the right make-up for it.
Another of my former sports employees (I’ll refrain from using his name so as not to appear insensitive), stood stoically in the center of the room, had little to say and disappeared without goodbyes.
“Where did he go?’’ someone asked.
“I don’t know,’’ another said. “He was here and then he wasn’t.’’
“How is he doing?’’ I asked Jerry.
“Not good,’’ he said. “You know, all of us have talked about how we loved what we did at the Tribune, that it was our passion. But for him, it really was everything. He worked his way up the ranks to the job that was all he ever wanted. And then, he was out the door. Of all the people who lost their jobs, he has taken it the hardest, I think.’’
Of all the people there, those who had lost their jobs and those who were certain they faced a similar plight in the not-too-distant future, no one seemed to have a firm footing.
That didn’t make me feel any better about my situation. But it didn’t make me feel any worse, either. And I found that I didn’t really have to put up a brave, confident front. I am worried. And these old colleagues understood. Many can sympathize; they can empathize. I can tell them how frustrated and fearful I am. They get it.
Among the group, there were no bold assertions of future success, only a stubborn sense of hope, buoyed by a unquenchable sense of humor.
It was after 11 p.m. when I left the party to go home. As we said our goodbyes, the hugs were longer, a little tighter, perhaps to convey feelings of support and sympathy that words seemed hard to capture, even for a bunch of people who made their careers out of words.
Tara locked her arm in mine as I stood in the driveway of her home and I think we both had trouble finding the words to say. I’ll see the Morgans again, of course, but somehow this was different.
The future is clouded. Prospects are uncertain. Desperate thoughts encroach on hope.
We wished each other well and encouraged each other. We laughed. We said goodbye and promised to do a better job of staying in touch.
It was a great party.
I’m glad I went.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lessons from a Shabby Man

Wednesday morning, as I was taking the light-rail train back from Phoenix to Tempe, a man stood up and began walking down the aisles, yelling “stop, stop!’’
He was a shabby fellow, dressed in a stained white T-shirt, soiled and wrinkled work pants and worn sneakers. I judged him to be in his 60s, although his sallow cheeks and hollow eyes may have been more a testament to a self-destructive lifestyle that can make a man appear much older than he is.
Light-rail has only been up and running for about a month now, so my first impression upon hearing the man pleading for the train to stop was that he must have thought the light-rail operates on the same principle as a city bus. On a bus, you can summon the bus to stop at any intersection.
Of course, I don’t know if this was what “Shabby Man’’was thinking. All I know is that he was quite sincere in his desire for the train to stop and real quick, at that.
“Look!’’ he told one of the passengers, who had made the mistake of making eye contact with him.
In his right hand, he held one of those lottery “scratcher’’ tickets. “I just won $250! Didn’t I? Look!’’ The man thrust the ticket in the face of the poor passenger, pointing to the winning combination.
The passenger did not respond, but the man seemed satisfied that he had, indeed, won $250. And I gathered it was no small sum for him, given his appearance and the reaction it provoked in him.
“Stop!’’ he said again, as the train began to slow as it approached its next stop.
“I wonder where I can get my money?’’ he said to no one in particular. “I gotta get my money.’’
The train stopped a moment later and the man stepped off. “I just won $250,’’ I heard him say again as left the train.
Now, for most people, this incident would simply pass as a rather odd happenstance. Most folks would attach no greater significance to it.
Well, you know me better than that. I have a hard time with the concept of randomness, which is one of the reasons why I’d be a terrible atheist.
So I have been thinking about this incident ever since, wondering what it could mean. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to connect it with a couple of other things that have been on my mind.
How I came to be on the train in the first place seems to fit in there somehow.
For my monthly column in the Times, I had decided to take up the topic of the woeful state of journalism by taking an impromptu tour of Arizona State’s opulent new journalism school in downtown Phoenix. For someone who doesn’t drive, the light-rail was the ideal mode of transportation.
When I arrived, I ran into an old acquaintance, Steve Elliott. He was the Associated Press bureau chief in Phoenix back when I was at the Tribune. Steve now runs the school’s new service, which gives students hands-on experience by producing stories for the area media. The money-strapped media love it because it’s free content.
I asked Steve if his students were having second thoughts about pursuing a career that, from all appearances, seems to be mortally wounded.
He said most recognized that there probably won’t be conventional jobs in the newspaper, TV or radio fields waiting for them when they graduate. The competition for those jobs is already thick with thousands of talented, experienced journalists who have lost their jobs over the past couple of years.
“There will always be a need for journalists,’’ Steve said. “But what I tell the students is that, more than likely, you’re going to have to invent your own job.’’
That stuck with me. In fact, that is what I was thinking about on the train when Shabby Man began to insist, rather loudly, that the train be stopped.
Now, these two things may seem hopelessly unrelated. At least they appeared that way to me until I sat down for coffee and began reading a book I bought about a month ago. The book - “Outliers, The Story of Success’’ by Malcolm Gladwell - examines the topic of why some people succeed more than others. It points out that the secret of success may not be as simple as we have been led to believe. Since I’ve only read a few chapters, I am not prepared to render a verdict on his ultimate conclusion.
But there was one thing in the book that did capture my attention and led me to make a connection between the two seemingly disparate incidents from Wednesday. The book begins by examining some of the long-held ingredients for success, one of them being intelligence.
On that subject, he pointed out two very different types of questions that are used on I.Q. tests. One is called Raven’s Progressive Matrices. You are probably familiar with it. The question is presented as a series of images, each one different from the previous, which suggest a pattern. You observe several images and then are asked to pick the image that should follow in the sequence.
In other words, you are being tested for your conclusive abilities. Given a number of possible choices, you are asked to select the one right answer, based largely on facts that you have been exposed to.
I think this is a good test for those fields where precision is a great priority - science, medicine, engineering, etc.
The other test rates another kind of intelligence. You are given a fact and asked to arrive at as many possibilities as you can. For example, a question might be to come up with as many uses as you can think of for the following objects: 1. A brick; 2. A blanket.
This kind of test is rates intelligence on a different perspective: creativity. Those who come up with the most diverse group of answers are generally graded the highest. There is a value in that sort of intelligence.
When I read this, I put the book down and began to think again about Wednesday’s experiences. Slowly I began to see the connection, the “big picture’’ that these events brought together.
If you have read this far, I commend you for your patience and realize that I must soon begin to connect all the dots or risk losing you altogether.
This is really a story about our struggling economy - and a possible solution for it.
I do not pretend to be an economist - and one look at my bank account would confirm why I make no such claim. But I do think that I am a reasonably bright person, one whose own economic crisis over the past couple of years has prompted me to give this subject long and careful thought.
Here is how I see it.
The newspaper industry is certainly not the only field that is facing a bleak and uncertain future. Aside from health care, I don’t know any field that isn’t suffering these days.
What might surprise you to know is that newspapers did not suddenly become unprofitable. In fact, most papers - even those who are employing the most draconian measures to cut costs - remain profitable. I think that may well be true of other industries, too, although the auto industry appears to be an exception.
So what is the problem?
It’s the Shabby Man, otherwise known as the stock-holder.
Not long ago, newspapers did not have much contact with Shabby Man. Most were privately held companies and, as such, newspaper owners often plowed money back into their product and, as a consequence, were able to sacrifice short-term profit for greater long-term stability.
When most newspapers were privately held, you could generally expect slow, but reliable growth.
But that began to change over the past 30 years when more and more newspapers were bought by big publicly-held chains. You can scarcely find a privately-held newspaper these days.
The arrival of Shabby Man, and his huge infusion of cash, meant some papers could become far more ambitious in their plans.
But there was a trade-off. In some cases, they grew more than was prudent. And there was also the matter of expectations. Shabby Man expected to see a regular return on his investment, and he expected it sooner rather than later and he expected it no matter what. He further expected that his return would grow each quarter or heads were going to roll.
Every quarter, like clockwork, Shabby Man stands up and insists that the train be stopped. “I gotta get my money,’’ he demands.
As a result, there is no re-investment. Long-term security is sacrificed on the alter of short-term dividends. Vision begins and ends with each quarter.
And there is another grave aspect of the dominant presence of Shabby Man: It created an atmosphere that greatly stifled creativity and diversity.
When Abraham Lincoln left Springfield, Ill., the town’s population was about 10,000. Yet there were seven newspapers in Springfield.
Today, 150 years later, Chicago has a population of 9.7 million and may very soon be down to one newspaper.
That’s true in many other industries as well. Somehow, getting bigger has made us smaller. It has also made us more vulnerable, less creative and less compassionate.
To a family-owned drug store one good employee is a precious asset. The owner will exhaust almost every option to keep him. To a mega-chain drug store, one employee is simply a cost unit or “FTE’’ (full-time equivalent), something that can be disposed of quite easily and without any pangs of conscience.
The ubiquitous Shabby Man is bad for consumers, too.
If you have a dozen small, family-owned deli shops, you’ll get a dozen unique and varied options. At Subway, you get one basic idea.
Shabby Man ultimately forces everyone to reach a single, “right’’ answer. But in these dark days, we all need to think the other way: We need to think about possibilities, the more the better.
Main Street has always been about that sort of thinking. Wall Street is not set up that way. It constricts, confines and consumes to appease the insatiable appetite of Shabby Man.
There is no question that Wall Street is important for our economy. But in my mind, it is Main Street that holds the key.
Wall Street looks a person like me and slams the door. Main Street says give it a shot and see what you come up with. “Invent your own job,’’ is the way Steve Elliott put it to those J-School students.
Each of us, no matter his circumstance, has some say in his future on Main Street. On Wall Street, we are at the mercy of entities who see us merely as consumers. To a small store, you are a person. I like that and I wonder what would happen if we began to invest in each other.
There will always been a place in our economy for Shabby Man, maybe even a large place. But I don’t want him on my train.
If I am going to make it, I’m going to make it on Main Street.