So much for one game plan

As I’ve been revisiting my earlier planning for retirement, I started to scold myself for not looking more carefully at finances. Then I remembered something I had anticipated but never noted: adding an overtime shift or two each month during my final five years of employment.

For years, management always seemed to have those openings, and the pay was good – time-and-a-half, often with a nighttime or weekend differential.

In the last five years, the kids would be on their own, for one thing. We would really build up our savings – by 25 to 50 percent, as I’m now calculating.

What happened instead was that the newspaper found itself increasingly financially strapped, to the point our pay was actually being cut. Officially, I was the copy desk chief, except that in the end there were no longer copy editors. They were all wearing other hats as positions consolidated. As for those overtime hours? We agreed to allow the hiring of part-timers.

So much for the big plan.

At least the stock market hadn’t crashed when my wife and I closed out our IRA to purchase the house in Maine.

I might as well get out of bed

Once again, another disturbing dream pushed me out of a restful sleep. It kept returning, with new twists.

It’s been nearly a decade since I last designed and paginated a newspaper page or faced its deadline pressure or even dealt with kinks in the paper’s latest computer system, but the game keeps popping up in my slumber – a game I’m also always on the verge of losing.

Why that and not, say, invading armies or insects or storms when it comes to anything verging on nightmares?

What are your repeated dreams?

What happens when a journalist attempts a novel

It used to be said that every newspaperman had a novel inside him, waiting for release. (Yes, male. Women reporters and editors were a definite minority. My, how times have changed!)

Frankly, I rarely saw any literary ambition around me. Few in the business read fiction of a serious sort, much less poetry. There were, though, a couple of playwrights. More recently, however, I know of two colleagues who have self-published – one a mystery, the other a political intrigue.

Yes, we’ve had notable exceptions, with Edna Buchanan, Ernest Hebert, Carl Hiassen, and Tony Hillerman topping my list. (Hemingway wasn’t considered much of a reporter in his six-month stint in Kansas City, and earlier giants often cited reflect a much different kind of journalism than what’s been practiced from the rise of the last century.) The crush of daily deadlines is exhausting, and fiction requires an entirely different approach and sensibility to the telling of a story. Journalists are conditioned to put facts first, usually without any concern for feeling, and to be professionally neutral, reflecting the quest of objectivity. These stances place the reporter at a distance from the subject, no matter how fascinating. Journalists also tend to put action ahead of the actors. Most of the resulting novels leaned toward the crusading reformer slant of the Front Page tradition – Down with corruption! – or maybe sports, either way, with the emphasis on the game more than the inner mindset of the players.

Well, there was also one editor-in-chief who took a popular genre novel and did a paint-by-numbers kind of rewrite over it. I think it was a Western, but I’m no longer sure. His connections got it published, and his success led to a half-dozen more. He was sheepish about the whole thing, though. It was more like a game, I suppose.

I wasn’t typical. My first love was the fine arts beat, for one thing. Since jobs there were scarce, I wound up on the copy desk. No matter how much I love politics, I find meetings boring. Press conferences, even more so. My most satisfying post was heading up lifestyles sections. Long story, as you’ll see in Hometown News. Maybe I was mostly a misfit who happened to do some things extremely well.

News writing, for the most part, is supposed to sound anonymous. Short sentences, limited vocabulary, a structure with the most important details at the top and the rest in descending order. As a writer or editor, your craft can soon become dulled. As an editor, one of my skills went to headlines, trying to relate a story in as few as four or five words. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of them, and I can see the distillation as an element of poetry. In my personal writing, I often reacted against the broader restrictions – I wanted a richer range of diction, more accurate language, more varied sentence structure (yes, I love long threads that work), and often more background on the story itself.

Turning to fiction, I’ve learned the importance of withholding details until later in the tale, things like not including first name, middle initial, and last name when introducing a character, much less his or her age and address. As for my poetry, I’ve preferred experimental and edgy, where the image or fractured expression might open into its own ambiguity and potential.

I do remember the first time a poetry publisher reacted to my submission by saying how delighted he was that my work wasn’t what he expected from a journalist. He had received enough to develop a negative opinion, one I fortunately didn’t fit.

My novel “Hometown News” was drafted during my third break from the news biz, when I was approaching 40 and gave myself a sabbatical after two years calling on editors in 14 Northeastern states as field salesman for a major newspaper syndicate. Driving between my calls on the local papers and seeing their newsrooms from the other side of the desk, so to speak, gave me plenty of time to reflect on the industry and then augment what I had collected in my own career. At many papers, as I saw, the managing editor or his equivalent was gone in a year, and with each one, I’d have to start grooming a new connection all over again. Many of them had telling histories of their own. Many of their towns looked like bombed out shells after World War II, their industrial might boarded up or rusting. I kept notes. Many of their skirmishes reflected my own.

Later, developing my novel in a series of routine days set months apart, “Hometown News” gave me an opportunity to see what I could do with creating a computer-generated novel. I set a framework for the day and randomly inserted 80 to 120 markers I could hit with search-and-replace items for each round. There were many other places that had to be manipulated manually, but it the attempt was fascinating, the way working a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle is.

The result was something like a Jackson Pollock painting, a theme-and-variations curiosity but not compelling reading. Through a series of revisions, I kept the bones but layer by layer added flesh and muscle to bring certain characters to the fore while the dystopian theme deepened.

Thirty-four years after starting out on the work, and seven years after its publication, I am struck by the story’s prescient warning of the collapse of a once very profitable business for the dominant voices, not that our salaries reflected that. What I saw was entire communities under attack, and they still are – not just their daily mirror.

The newsroom I present is a blend of five I’ve worked in over the years – another one was much smaller, and the remaining one was simply different. When you get a group of news folk together and we start talking what one spouse called Bodoni-Bodoni, after the typeface used for many headlines, we all have insider war stories. I hope “Hometown News” gives you an idea how ours translate.

Just before taking the unanticipated buyout

Hard to think that it was right around this time ten years ago when my newspaper career took the big turn.

The atmosphere at the office was tense, with contract negotiations approaching a deadlock. Actually, there was little back-and-forth but rather a take-it-leave-it set of ultimatums from the front office.

As much as I loved journalism, I had long dreamed of being liberated from the daily workplace grind to pursue my bigger passions fulltime – writing serious works that would stand as a legacy, plus more time for Quaker endeavors and activities of personal renewal. I envisioned a bigger studio at home and had several book manuscripts that looked promising, if only I could get them in motion faster. When you had an interested book publisher, as I tentatively did, you had to act fast, something that’s difficult when you’re actively engaged elsewhere. My big break, all the same, hadn’t happened, even if I was being published widely in the small-press literary scene. You had to build a name, after all, as well as connections.

The job itself had long ago turned into a production-line mentality, rather than a more deliberate craft. Gone were the big projects that allowed enough space for deep research, reflection, and revision. Even at the prestigious big dailies, the clout that came with having a byline had largely evaporated. I began joking, with a degree of factual backup, that I really earned my wages in a one-hour span every Saturday night, when our biggest paper of the week in terms of circulation, heft, content, and income, was about to hit the press. Missing that deadline by even a few minutes was costly and had consequences. In that hour, and the two that followed as we made corrections and updated editions, everything funneled down through me, carrying with it blame for any big errors.

Well, I was a pro. Suck it up.

The possibility of buyouts had been floated by the union but required a certain number of members to step forward as interested candidates – tell us more – before that possibility was soundly yanked away from the table by management. I felt left like a pawn in that high-stakes game. For me, the pension and Medicare were both still a year off, and a steady income between here and there was looking more and more imperiled. I’d stuck my neck out, after all, and could now be seen as disloyal – if the paper was still running at all.

A few weeks later, brusquely, I was called into HR and essentially told I had an hour or so to commit to a decision. What, it’s back on the table? Maybe I had a little longer to confer with my spouse, I don’t recall, but in the whirlwind, the closure still came down like a hammer.

And that was it – a bonus that included extended health coverage, plus opportunities for part-time employment, if I wished. No guarantees there, but good luck. Even so, I was giddy. This is it?

A few nights later, there was a cake in the newsroom in recognition of us who had walked the plank. Some of our younger colleagues, I suspect, wished they had the option, though part of our decision came in hoping what we did kept them employed duly, some even supporting families. These calculations get tangled.

~*~

My first month of liberation came as a welcome period of decompression. I loved sitting in our front parlor and reading in winter sunlight, for one thing. A favored new routine with my wife was strolling downtown every Wednesday around dusk, when a small pub featured a fine jazz guitarist. How civilized! I could even go to bed before midnight.

The paper soon found itself short-staffed, however, and I began receiving calls wondering about my availability. Enjoying the flexibility of picking-and-choosing, I soon found myself working three or four shifts a week, the max allowed under the agreement. The feeling was entirely different, free of the weight of internal politics and big responsibilities. My floating shifts liberated me to attend concerts and films and a host of other events not previously open on my schedule. I didn’t have to weave around others’ vacation time off, either, when looking ahead to conferences or travel.

But ten years ago already? It really does feel more like five.

Ten things about water-powered grist mills

In my book The Secret Side of Jaya, her sojourn in the Ozarks introduces her to a magical vale in the woods just beyond their house. It’s also the site of a water-powered grist mill she begins to frequent in her free time.

Here are ten facts about the historic industry.

  1. The technology of arranging grinding stones goes way back in antiquity and across cultures. It could make for a Tendril in its own right.
  2. While the image of a big water wheel remains popular, driven either by current pouring from an aqueduct above or running in a millstream below, turbines ultimately proved more efficient, often placed in the cellar of the building.
  3. Mills have been powered both by water and wind, and more recently electricity, steam, and petroleum fuels.
  4. Grist refers to the grain that’s been separated from its chaff. Flour from wheat, rye, and barley, as well as cornmeal are major milled products, though far from the only ones. Chicken feed, anyone?
  5. Traditional milling, with slower grinding than today’s industrial “roller” output, produces what’s considered a coarser, nuttier, even “softer” flour.
  6. There were 5,624 grist mills in England in 1086, or about one for every 300 people. The proportion seems to hold across other times and places, including the experiences in Jaya’s story, until the late 1800s.
  7. Granite and sandstone millstones from Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and France were especially valued in American water-powered mills.
  8. The stones required frequent “dressing,” meaning removal for sharpening. It was laborious and time-consuming, demanding a deft touch.
  9. The miller was usually paid in a “toll” set by authorities – one-eighth for corn, one-sixth for wheat, typically – otherwise known as “the miller’s take.”
  10. Quakers were the leading millers and flour merchants in early America, despite British restrictions on innovations or improvements. It was hard, labor-intensive work. I do wonder if these Friends cursed, and how.

The realities of women in management

When Cassia ventures out into the executive ranks of high-stakes corporate intrigue, as she does in What’s Left, she sometimes resembles Jaya in my tale Nearly Canaan.

What does it mean to be a woman in the world of management? Are there any advantages?

~*~

My novels are vailable at the Apple Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Scribd, Smashwords, Sony’s Kobo, and other fine ebook distributors and at Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.

Within a daughter’s own living Greek drama

Venturing out on her own

In my novel, What’s Left, Cassia becomes a rising executive with half of the country as her territory. The experience of growing up in the family restaurant gives her a head start over her colleagues, but she’s also much more vulnerable in a highly competitive, often hostile, financial world, than she’d ever been back home.

What are the biggest threats in being a woman in management? How would you avoid them?

~*~

Maybe she’s playing her own tune.

What if there were a sequel?

Let me repeat, What’s Left is my final novel, even though it’s appeared before several earlier ones — or their later revisions. That doesn’t mean I might not rework some more of my earlier books, but I have no intention (at this point, ahem) of undertaking such an ambitious project.

Still, if it’s ever successful, there can be a demand for a sequel. There are many possibilities that point to further development.

One plot twist I considered was this:

A handful of the Erinyes’ grandchildren rebel by returning to attend college across the street from Carmichael’s. Perhaps it’s inevitable that they apply for jobs in the restaurant.

Can they work? We’ll let them decide about becoming cousins.

This could have opened considerations about rebalancing the ownership, for one thing. Or more dimensions to our understanding of what it means to be a family. Or even their own reasons that parallel those of Cassia’s father in moving way back in the early ’70s.

~*~

It’s a big book, admittedly. But it could be a lot bigger.

Where would you take the story of What’s Left from what’s already there? What would you like to have answered?

~*~

I wonder where Cassia’s generation of her extended family or even their children go from here as they face today’s big challenges.

How tightly are they bound together?

Cassia and her brothers and cousins face a crucial decision. Do they continue to jointly hold the family business as a resource for future generations, requiring them to keep working for a living, or do they divvy up their shares and then live independently wherever and however they desire?

Put yourself in Cassia’s shoes.

How would your life be different if you didn’t have to worry about how you’d make ends meet? What would you dream of doing?

~*~

The family enterprise extends beyond the restaurant itself, as they demonstrate when they buy an old church something like this and convert it into a late-night hotspot.

An aside for karma yoga

In one of the early drafts of my novel What’s Left, I tried this perspective — which I removed from the final version of the book, feeling it was too preachy:

If our workroom was where we could act honorably under the eye of God, it was still no substitute for times of celebration and worship! No, we need to take time every day for prayer and the study of scripture. Just remember: work spent in activities that help our neighbors and enable us to come together for periods of common delight is quite different from anything I see in the realm of time cards or the Harvard Business School.

~*~

Whew! Let’s try to bring this back to everyday experience.

Is there somebody you encounter someplace during the day who makes you feel special? A coworker, cafe wait person, bus driver, teacher, friend? Do tell us!

Karma yoga, by the way, is explained in my novel Yoga Bootcamp. Work itself gets complicated, no?

~*~

The old church Cassia’s family buys in my novel might have looked like this … before the wild rock concerts begin.