Monthly Archives: April 2016

Longing for the Sound of Silence

I caught a break on my most recent flight to Boston. But it was a bad one. Things started well enough. I was taking the 9:40 flight instead of my usual 7:40 one, so that meant a little extra sleep. Which, as it turned out, was a REALLY good thing since I wasn’t able to nap during the flight.

That’s because of what happened once I made it on the plane. I had one of the Row 17 aisle seats – always great for me and my slight claustrophobia. Had no trouble getting my bag in the overhead. Everything was going great.

Until he started my way. I’m not sure how old he was, nor did I care. He pointed at the two seats on the row inside mine. I got up so he and an older woman traveling with him could get in. And made the mistake of saying hello. I think it was like inviting a vampire into your home.

From that point on, I’m not sure that he ever stopped talking to – make that at – me. Not when I started reading something – anything – on my phone. Not when I closed my eyes. Not when I turned slightly away from him. Not at all.

His name was Bob

Despite the short name, he was long-winded. Which wouldn’t have been nearly as bad had he been interesting. Or believable.

He said he’d been given last rites three times. And been in a coma. And came out of it after some voodoo or another in the hospital chapel. In which two other coma patients came out of it at the same instance he did. He’d been injured, he said, when a drunken driver (drunk before 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning) hit his motorcycle head on coming out of a curve.

Which might have been plausible. If he hadn’t told me about his painting prowess. He paints without using tape or drop cloths, he says. But using both hands, he says. Which makes him faster than any other painter, he says.

Or about how he got out of the Army after being harassed “for no reason” by a captain and sergeant who told him he’d never leave boot camp in Oklahoma, where they made him stand guard duty every night and train every day. He said he’d gotten out by calling a congressman he’d worked for as a child when the congressman was first running for city office. And how the captain cried when the congressman called to dress him down. And how another sergeant shook his hand for standing up to the corrupt captain. I’m not sure that’s how discharges work. I’m not sure that’s how discharges work at all.

Or how he broke 50 for nine holes of golf within four weeks of starting to play, winning $100 from a friend – he never lost a bet, he said.

Or how he was a shop steward for a shoe plant in the Boston area – he now lived in Maine but had been on holiday (in the British sense – my words, not his) in Melbourne, FL, but was flying to Boston, where he grew up, to visit relatives.

Or how he had a perfect record in grievance cases as the shop steward because he (a) know all the workplace rules and regulations and (b) played golf regularly with the company CEO.

Or how he knew the plant was going to close months before anyone else who worked there did and was able to get a sweet school maintenance job.

Or how in his new role as a school maintenance supervisor all the children run up and jump in his arms every time they see him.

Or how he hates Donald Trump – whom he didn’t mention by name. (Hey, I never said Bob was a total idiot.)

Or how he’s going to start a movement to end the Electoral College. Because he knows people.

Envy might be a sin …

Here’s the funny part. I’d figured the woman next to him was his wife. But it was actually his sister-in-law. His wife was sitting in row 16, the one in front of us. That meant it was impossible for her to have to listen to him.

Here’s the even funnier part. She originally was sitting in the wrong seat in row 16. It was the one furthest from Bob, on the other side of the aisle. Yes, I envied her.

The one saving grace of the experience. I’ve been trying to soak up the whole Boston experience – I’ve found the people there so warm and helpful – totally opposite of the stereotype. Of course I haven’t had the beans or cream pie up there yet. And until that morning, I’d never heard any Bostonite use the word “wicked” as an adverb. Sure enough, in the millions of words Bob through my way, one of them was “wicked.” As an adverb.

Later that night, as I was unwinding at the hotel bar at least partially from my ordeal with Bob, I got my second and third wickeds of the day. From the bartender (and I’m determined NOT to drink Sam Adams, by the way – that’s a story for another day) and one of the businessman sitting a couple of barstools down. I chuckled under my breath, downed the rest of my draft and made my way to the waiting clam chowdah and lobstah roll.

Hey, Words Matter. But too many words don’t. At least not in a good way.


1 Comment

Filed under Seen and heard, work

The Reinvention of Arthur

Recently, a group of writers at Red Ventures – the company that employs me – asked me and some colleagues with newspaper experience to be part of a panel discussion about journalism and marketing copywriting. There is very little I love more than talking about myself, so I jumped at the chance.

They gave panelists the questions before the event, and I scripted my answers so I wouldn’t forget anything I really wanted to say in the heat of the moment (or in case they started playing the your-speech-has-gone-on-too-long-now-music as they do at the Oscars).

As I got to the end, I started thinking, ‘This might make a good blog post – the (partial) story of Arthur.’ Some of the answers here might be familiar to veteran Rants ‘N Raves readers, and I like to flatter myself that that’s really a thing. Anyway, here goes. Some questions – but not so much answers – have been edited for clarity and brevity:

When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?

At a very early age. It’s probably no surprise that superheroes played a big part in my career choice. See, I was a big Superman fan growing up – those were the first comic books my mom bought me. Anyway, Clark Kent worked at a newspaper as a reporter. From that time on, a newspaper career was the only thing I ever really wanted.

By the way, I often blame my mom for buying me Superman comics first and sentencing me to a life of journalism poverty. If only she’d gotten Batman instead – I think I was really much more cut out for the billionaire playboy gig …

Where did you go to school? What newspaper(s) did you write for?

I graduated from THE University of North Carolina in … well, nevermind when. Since then, I worked at a number of small papers across the state:

  • I spent 13 years at the Jacksonville (NC) Daily News, which was about 20,000 circulation or so at the time. (The truth of the matter is that I spent much too long there, but I was having too much fun – some idiot put me and my best friend at the time in charge – to leave.)
  • I worked 4 years at the Gaston Gazette – circulation around 50,000 at the time, the best I remember. Gastonia was and is The Hellmouth of Weird.
  • Then I was editor of the Henderson Daily (almost – we didn’t publish on Mondays) Dispatch for three years, which was near Raleigh but oh-so-far away.
  • I escaped newspapers but not journalism in 2000, when I returned from a vacation in the mountains and gave my two week notice at Henderson so that I could become a senior editor at a North Carolina business magazine in Charlotte with the ridiculously backward name of Business North Carolina. I stayed there nine years until they kicked me out – I got laid off like just about everyone else in journalism.

The truth is, I fell out of love with journalism (and especially the people who ran it) long before it fell out of love with me.

Describe how you got into the newspaper industry.

It must have been divine intervention. When I graduated from the University of the People, I had no clips, no experience, not even time at a student newspaper. But I managed to break out of my well-documented introvertism (I know it’s not a word – but I like it) briefly – I’m an INFJ – to talk my way into a reporter job at what had to be a very desperate Jacksonville newspaper. Here’s how desperate: Six months or so later later, I was city editor – the No. 2 position in that newsroom.

Which section did you write for?

I spent nearly all of my career on the news side, but I was the sports editor in Gastonia for a couple of years. The editor asked me to take over that section to clean up some problems (I won’t go into them) that had cropped up.

That meant I covered home Carolina Panthers games their first two years in existence – the first year of which they played at Clemson – and I attended an ACC Basketball Tournament the year dook sucked and Coach K had his “backache” – it was also the year that Dean Smith and Rick Barnes went nose-to-nose (not a winning strategy when it comes to Dean’s nose). Sadly, Randolph blanking Childress kept the Heels from winning the title that year.

Describe the story you’re most proud of.

OK, this is difficult because I spent so little time in newspapers as a reporter. Newspaper-wise, I guess I’m most proud of a series of articles I did covering the court-martial of Pfc. Robert Garwood – the last POW to return from Vietnam.

He was charged with desertion and collaborating with the enemy, among other things guarding fellow POWs and on one occasion striking one. He was convicted of communicating with the enemy and assaulting a POW (after hearing the guy’s testimony, I’m not sure I blamed Garwood). Ralph Macchio later played Garwood in a made-for-TV movie.

In addition to my coverage for the Jacksonville paper, I got a byline in one of the London tabloids for writing about the case. Another factoid: A book on the case was written by Duncan Groom, who later wrote … Forrest Gump.

But the story I’m most proud of during my overall journalism career came when I was at the business magazine. It was a profile of Jim Blaine, the CEO of State Employees Credit Union, the man most hated by the banks. He’d been a banker himself until he had a conversion experience – not on the road to Damascus but on the road to Fayetteville.

It was a cover story and the cover art itself was my idea – a photo of him with devil horns drawn on as though bankers had defaced it. He absolutely loved it; so did I.

Through all that, the accomplishment I’m MOST proud of during my time at newspapers is meeting my wife.

Describe the most interesting story you wrote.

I’ll answer first by identifying some of the most interesting people I interviewed: wrestling empresario Vince McMahon, Governors Jim Hunt and Jim Martin, a slew of state lawmakers (before the idiots took over), Burley Mitchell (who later became chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court), Shaquille O’Neal (in a group interview – Shaq was incredibly soft-spoken), a ton of Carolina Panthers, and tennis star John McEnroe (as you might guess, the biggest asshole ever).

The most interesting story I ever wrote might have been for the magazine – a profile of Dr. Johnnetta Cole, at the time the president of Bennett College, an HBCU for women in Greensboro. She saved the college by putting together an unlikely coalition of Bill Clinton, Robert Dole, Oprah, and others. Interestingly enough, Dr. Cole also once accepted a $20 million check from Bill Cosby to help save another women’s HBCU, Spelman College in Atlanta.

When I worked in newspapers, the most interesting story probably was a series at Gastonia – we set up an investigative team similar to the one in the movie Spotlight, except that we had two weeks to conduct our research, do our interviews and churn out the stories where they had years. And we weren’t that good. The story was about the coming water wars – it was ahead of its time then and still is.

How did you end up at Red Ventures?

After being laid off by the magazine, I spent nearly two years freelancing – it was fun but stressful because of the uncertainty from month to month. So I applied first for a contract writer job at RV – bailed when I heard the pay. Then a recruiter called me back and asked if I wanted to interview for a contract editor’s job. I did, and I talked to a couple of folks there and took an editing test – all told, I spent a little more than an hour here that day.

I got the job. After two three-month contracts on a project that I’m not sure ever saw the light of day, RV hired a handful of us to stay as permanent employees. So I never really had to go through the standard RV interview process – literally a half-day of interviews!

What was it like to transition from reporting to marketing?

As you might expect, the big change was switching from ostensibly neutral to unabashedly biased writing. The big advantages – I knew how to write quickly and crank out a lot of stuff in a day. I also was used to researching and sourcing articles.

What is your biggest obstacle with working in marketing?

Fully believing in the product I’m pushing. I’ve been lucky in that the two main businesses I’ve worked for here, I did embrace. Keep in mind that I’ve written/edited at one time or another for nearly every business at RV. That and writing too much – as fascinating as my words are, people don’t want to read as many of them as I want to write. And – this is going to sound arrogant but why stop now? – not being able to accept good enough work as good enough.

How did your journalism background help and hurt you in terms of writing for a marketing company?

It helped me in being able to switch gears quickly. And the attention to detail I picked up at the magazine has served me well. Along the way, I also picked up skills as a manager – I like to think I know how to develop and nurture writers and treat them well.

How would you sum up your switch from journalism to marketing?

(OK, the above wasn’t actually a question for the panel, but it gives me a chance to answer with one of my favorite song lyrics – from Return of the Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons:

‘Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And they all lead me straight back home to you.’

That means I took a long, winding path to get to a destination I never saw coming. And I wouldn’t change nothing …

Leave a comment

Filed under Biography, work

Good Luck and Pulitzer Prizes

I mentioned on Facebook this morning that I possess an extraordinary amount of dumb luck – that’s the only way to explain the great stuff that happens to and for me. No, I didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize, though – my luck doesn’t go that far!

But I have been lucky enough to be introduced to (and shake hands with) at least three Pulitzer Prize winners during my life. I’ve written previously about meeting Bob Woodward and Katherine Graham on a Saturday morning at the Washington Post, thanks to a friend’s dad. Here’s a short snippet from that post:

Both publisher Katharine Graham and Bob Woodward were working that day. That should have scared me off journalism right there. … Mrs. G, as she was known around the office, was warm and seemed interested in us. (This is the same person of whom Nixon henchthug John Mitchell once said, during Watergate: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” Yes, that was our attorney general in those days.) Woodward, on the other hand, could hardly have been more disinterested. He gave us a limp handshake and not much else. 

The dumb luck part comes in how I met the third Pulitzer winner. Here goes:

I’m fortunate that my employer, Red Ventures, allows us to work from home pretty much any time we feel the urge. Much of my team, at this point, works in Boston, so it doesn’t really make a lot of difference most days whether I work at RV in Fort Mill, SC, or from my house. This week, most of the rest of my colleagues who normally work in Charlotte were in Boston, too.

That’s the reason I’d been contemplating working from home today, though I’d been waffling because the main thing I’m working on right now might – and I stress the word might – go faster and easier working on my dual monitor setup at the office.

I was still going back and forth with myself – I’d even sent an email to two coworkers telling them I planned on working at home – when Garrett came downstairs and declared he had an upset stomach. Well, that cinched it.

One reason I wanted to stay at home was because I wanted to, while I was working, listen to music without wearing headphones. Now I couldn’t do that. Plus, I didn’t want to be distracted. Plus, I didn’t want to get infected with whatever ailment Garrett had. (And yes, I realize what a crappy father I am for making this decision.)

So I showered and threw on some jeans and a T-shirt. Not just any tee, but one of my Golden Door Scholars T-shirts. Golden Door Scholars is a program started by RV CEO Ric Elias – we provide full-ride college scholarships for undocumented high-performing students. I believe passionately in the program and in the two scholars I mentor, Maria and Vanessa.

Anyway, I got a bit of a late start and wound up getting to work about 10 minutes or so later than normal. Which is not a big deal at RV.

What was a big deal …

So as I was walking from the parking deck to my desk – entering one building, trudging up three flights of steps, and entering the second building of our campus (yes, I could park closer to my desk, but I tell myself I’m at least getting a little exercise by taking the path I do), I spied Ric and another man walking toward me.

Ric greeted me warmly, as he nearly always does, and asked me about one of my scholars – I’d mentioned to him earlier this week that I’d gotten an email update from her and that it was spectacular. He wanted details – I told him about her summer research internship at the VA Hospital in Portland, and how she’d won two other scholarships, and been elected chair of the student senate at her college, and met a recruiter for an important Research Triangle Park biotech, and had all A’s so far this semester (again) except for one B in inorganic chemistry. You get the idea – to say she’s a high-achiever is to undersell her. (My other scholar is similarly outstanding – she has a research internship this summer at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.)

Then Ric introduces me to the guy – his name is Jose Vargas. He’s speaking tonight at Davidson. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist (part of a Washington Post team that covered the Virginia Tech shootings). He’s written for The New York Times magazine and been on the cover of Time. He also wrote, produced and directed a film, Documented.

His speech tonight is about immigration and HB2, two issues I care deeply about. (In case you don’t know, I’m passionately for immigration and I’m adamantly opposed to HB2 – in its entirety.)

So I met this a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. In town to speak about immigration. With me wearing a Golden Door T-shirt. And got to schmooze with the boss. Because I got to work late. And because I decided to go to the office today. Because my son didn’t feel good.

Luck? Destiny? You decide …

But wait, there’s more …

Here’s the post-credits scene to the tale above. A little later this morning, I had to go to the bathroom – Karen says I shouldn’t have mentioned that fact, but I think it’s vital to show just how random life can be. For some reason, I didn’t go to the restroom that’s closest to me.

I picked another one, for no particular reason. And barely beat one of the IT guys to the single stall. When I came out to wash my hands, I came face to face with Ric again. We chatted again, and I mentioned that I’d looked Jose up and thanked him for introducing me to him.

He didn’t miss a beat when he spoke:

“No, Arthur, he was lucky to meet you!”


Filed under Biography, work

A Bad Moment Turns Good

(Editor’s note: Some readers of an earlier version of this post may have come away with the impression that I attended Syracuse. I did not and would not.)

It was excruciating. When that Villanova guy hit the three-pointer to beat my Heels in the national championship game, I was – you guessed it – pretty devastated.

I was angry about the refereeing. (When did the NCAA hire notoriously clueless WCW refs Tommy Young, Teddy Long and Earl Hebner – how else to explain the obvious foul on Justin Jackson at the end of the first half on the ‘block’ they never replayed? I’m not sure JJ wasn’t hit with an international object or a steel chair.) I was angry about our failure to guard the most dangerous outside shooter on the Villanova team. I was angry about our foul shooting.

I stayed angry about a day. Then I got over it. Because of my old friend Andy Jasner’s post on Facebook

Andy and I knew each other from our days at the newspaper in Gastonia, the Hellmouth of Weird. Andy was a sports reporter, the son of a famous Philadelphia sports reporter, Phil Jasner, and grew up near Philly. And this is important to this tale.

I’d actually been a fan of Phil’s even before I met Andy – in those days before the internet (it still pains me not to capitalize internet), his work was syndicated and accessible to those of us who lived outside Philly.

Anyway, Andy and I became friends even before I moved over to sports (and technically became his boss). He was a Syracuse grad, though, and we went back and forth on the Orange and UNC – always good-natured, though. In fact, it was actually refreshing to have non-Wolfpack fans on the sports staff.

So I knew Andy would have been cheering for Villanova in the finals. His Philly love notwithstanding, he would have been angry at the Heels for stomping – there, I said it – Syracuse three times this season, including in the national semifinals.

The day after the game, I mostly stayed off the internet in general and Facebook in particular. But at some point during the day, probably during lunch, I checked out my feed, and I saw the following post from Andy:

So much of life is about memories. I remember 1985 like it was yesterday watching the Villanova game with my dad. Last night, I sat with Jordana (his daughter) and we watched the whole game together. Sacrificing one night’s sleep will now give us another memory forever. This is making me well up now. Great game. Great memories.

Frankly, it made me well up, too. And I lost the anger I’d felt since that fateful shot went in. If you know me well at all, you know I have great trouble letting things go. As in, I NEVER let things go. But this time I could. And I did. (I’m ashamed that it took me this long to write this.)

I reflected that day (and later) about just how right Andy was. As the great songwriter Townes Van Zandt says in To Live is to Fly, ‘Everything is not enough; And nothing is too much to bear; Where you’ve been is good and gone; All you keep’s the getting there.’

Which to me says this: Take care of the moments. One of the great things about being a grandparent is that I have the time and energy to enjoy and cherish the moments I spend with Sam. I had another one yesterday.

I was going outside to light the grill to cook some chicken (turned out excellent, if I say so myself). Sam wasn’t crazy about the idea. ‘Play with me first, Pop!’ he begged. We play with cars, build Legos and work with flash cards regularly on Sundays, and he didn’t like his time getting interrupted.

We compromised – he came outside with me and blew some bubbles, drew with chalk and played with cars. He stayed a comfortable distance from the grill, and Austin and Grace came out and spent some time with us, too.

‘Play with me first, Pop’ is one of those great moments, though. It was private as heck (until now), but I thought I’d share it. Andy’s moments separately with his Dad and Jordana certainly lifted my spirits on what was a ridiculously dark day.

My mantra is a simple one. Look for those moments. Live for those moments.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized