Writing for LIFE magazine

I loved the last book I read, loved it so. I liked it so much I wished I’d have been born a century earlier so I too could have worked at LIFE magazine. Which was, for a few splendid decades, a work place of unparalleled opulence and adventure.

In “A Life in Writing” Charles Champlin takes his readers from his early childhood roots in a small town in the foot of New York’s Adirondacks, Camden, to the peak of his journalism career: getting asked to write a column on the arts for The Las Angeles Times. On the first page, he writes of his childhood years, “Always a hungry reader, I discovered early the joys of language, and spent my teen years running barefoot through them.” I liked that.

In-between his childhood and the pinnacle of his career he goes to Harvard—a college he can hardly believe he even gets into, something he considers somewhat of a fluke—and to war, too, where he fights overseas in France. He gets marries after the war to his wife, Peggy, after falling in love with her in a library (how appropriate, right?) and begins working for LIFE after one of his college professors recommends him, something Champlin considers a miraculous bit of luck. At LIFE, he starts out as a correspondent in the magazine’s Chicago bureau (Yes, back then, magazines had their own bureaus as newspapers do). He worked there for three years, then spent two years in the Denver, Colorado bureau. After five years as a correspondent, he’s asked to return to New York City, where LIFE takes him on, finally as a writer.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is the insider’s look at what working at the storied magazine was like. Here are some examples: Champlin has six children; the publisher pays for all their private school education. Just because he wanted to. Whenever an employee had a baby, the publisher sent a gift of a sterling silver porringer with the baby’s name engraved. Saturday night was when the paper got put “to bed,” meaning that’s when it was finished. Employees worked late into the night those days. So, every Saturday the publisher bought an extravagant catered dinner for everyone. The philosophy at the magazine was the more you could discard, the better the final product would be. Champlin says the company could easily have published a second magazine with all the discarded pictures and articles that never made the final cut, and the hypothetical magazine created from the discarded material would have been “damn good,” he says.

Of his time at LIFE, he writes, “The principal joy of working for LIFE was that so many of the stories were a pleasure to do. Whether they finally ran in the magazine or not, getting there was all the fun, sometimes amounting to a paid vacation, with scenery and even occasionally a sense of adventure.” (Not long ago my mom found a box filled with old LIFE magazines for only $20 at a used book sale. It was quite the find. One magazine online costs for more than all of them together. I want to go back through them now and look for some of Champlin’s writing.)

He misses correspondent work after becoming bored with the desk work in New York City and the long hours; he asks for a transfer to the bureau in San Francisco. It’s granted. There he gets back into the field and writes stories about the old Hollywood movie sets, now abandoned in the wake of television, something that took away from the grandeur—and advertising dollars—of movies. He writes that they’re “ghostly” now, abandoned and grim, with only whiffs of their former fabulousness. He gets the chance in the city to write about three very famous authors. These assignments were his favorite. He writes, “It follows that anyone with a passionate love of words and writers would have a special fascination about talking with writers.” I’d agree.

LIFE likes his work in California and asks him if he wants to work in London. He does. So he moves to London where he writes about the Beatles, then just a start-up band. Few knew they’d sweep the world as they did. Champlin pitches stories three times on the Beatles before the magazine finally agrees to publish something on them. Turns out Champlin was right they’d be famous. He works 10 years in London before his career enters a new phase.

The last line of the book reads, “I’d fantasized about being a professional writer all my young days. I’m not sure I ever dreamed of being a signed columnist in complete charge of my own work and my destiny, but I was about to enter than enviable, magical state.”

In his touching Afterword, he writes: “I’ve tried to capture intimations of twenty years of a life and a time remembered, hazier now that macular degeneration has dimmed my sight and made my pen stumble. But if I invoke my own special past, the scenes from a particular life, I may invoke memories in others. Memory is shot through with universals. We are all moving on the same continuum, hoping to remember our lives even as they sift through our fingers, like sand beside the sea.”

Four books down, 48 to go.

Next book: “The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life” by Marion Roach Smith.

Number of Pages: 111.

Date to be read by: Saturday, Feb. 4.

Why this book? This is a random one, I admit. I was browsing the new nonfiction shelf, my favorite, at the local library, when I spotted this one. I ran my finger along its spine and pulled it out, where I read the back. I enjoy reading memoirs—just finished one—so now, I thought, is an appropriate time to a read a how-to on the subject. Let the reading begin.


Why Humans Need Dogs, and Dogs Need Humans

I finished my weekly book, “The Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connection Between Humans and Dogs,” last night at a decent time and am happily here to report my findings.

Owning a dog means inviting a wolf into your parlor, Jon Franklin says. Bringing a dog inside a house to love and take care of was a development. It wasn’t always so. To people many years ago, this would have been a very strange custom. (Just like bringing a Christmas tree into the house wasn’t always normal.) But today dogs are not only everywhere but there are seemingly an infinite number of dog varieties: small dogs, big dogs, fierce dogs, herding dogs, friendly dogs.

So what happened? How did this partnership between the dog and the human begin and how did it evolve into what it is today? These are the questions Franklin tries to answer. As a science reporter for a newspaper, Franklin naturally gravitates toward the field of science to find his answers. He looks into archeology, into brain science and into history.

What spurred his inquiry in the first place was his wife, Lynn, who said if Franklin wanted to marry her—he proposes in a car in a trip through the mountains—then he must agree to get a dog, an animal to which Franklin up until this point is ambivalent toward at  best. Reluctantly and only because of his desire to marry his beloved, he caves. So the puppy arrives, and the predictable happens. After all, who can resist the charms of a puppy? So he grows to love the dog—a black standard poodle— and the dog loves him from the very beginning, as only dogs can do. Franklin also begins a quest to discover the origin of the man/dog relationship, unlike anything else in the natural world.

But be forewarned that the book is more about evolution than it is about dogs, per say. A hefty chunk describes human evolution from blobs into apes into what we are today and how the dog fits into all that, aiding our own evolution. I didn’t expect this heavy-on-evolution bit when I first cracked the book open, and I’m disappointed with it. I do not believe I am a big primate, as Franklin ascertains all humans are. Nor do I believe I once, not long ago, was an ape. Though I admittedly love dogs, especially my own, very much, I never consider myself like them—an animal—and frankly find the idea horrifying. If we are all animals, no different from a dog or a cat or a horse, and are only on this earth by evolutionary chance, then what is there to live for? To satisfy basic needs? Why bother being moral? As someone who follows Jesus Christ, I believe what He said about the human race, that we are made in the image of God, designed to bring Him glory and created to be in communion with Him. For those who put their faith in Him, the destination one day is a place of total, everlasting communion with God, a place not of harps and clouds and cherubs but a place where our deepest desires here on earth are finally satisfied, a place where pain is no more and love fills every longing.

Franklin goes in maddening circles—and I believe frustration even comes through in parts of the book—as he grapples with the big questions of why humans exist in their present form. But the answers are all there, if only he looked in another place. Rooted only in the material universe, in what he can feel with his hands and hear with his ears and see with his eyes, the philosophical answers elude him like sand through a clenched fist.

Franklin even speculates into the origins of religion itself. In the evolutionary timeline of the human race, there came a point—according to Franklin’s theory—when humanity became aware of its own impending death. They became aware of their own mortality, that just as they were born that so too must they die. This made them feel terrible. At this point, the humans invented God. They came up with God and religion and stories and ceremonies, all in attempt to alleviate their troubling death problem. It made them feel infinitely better to play, essentially, make-believe. (Gahhh!)

Recent archeological findings prove wrong the long-running theory that religion came after the development of early civilization and the rise of cities. Quite to the contrary, studies show that people came together, organizing to build monuments to their gods. Towns then followed. Religion was not an after-thought but the driving force behind civilization. People always believed in God or gods. This is something innate within them. Innate in humans is the desire to worship, as present as the desire is to eat or sleep. We all worship something—some God, some money, some status-symbols—we often just don’t realize it. (This was pulled from a recent National Geographic article I read.) So, my response to Franklin is that religion isn’t made up; it’s not make-believe; it’s not something to make us feel better about death. A desire for God is an innate part of humanity. The Bible tells us so. Science—particularly archeology—only recently proved it.

Though I don’t agree with Franklin one iota philosophically, that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy parts of the book, particularly the parts about the dog, Charlie. He describes Charlie’s antics: singing—woofing—when his wife, Lynn plays the piano; making sure everyone gets the chance to pet him when he visits nursing homes; comforting Franklin when he’s feeling depressed; and showing him more about the world.

Franklin also describes the crazy world of dog shows and of, as he calls them, “doggy” people. The funniest chapter was the one describing a dog show in which Charlie must do certain obedience commands, one of which is “lay down.” All the dogs must lay down for a certain number of minutes. Charlie gets so agitated and cannot take it any longer so he leaps onto his paws and begins zooming around the circle as fast as he can in gleeful and total joy, must to the embarrassment of his owner, Lynn, but Franklin just chuckled inwardly and cheers the spirited dog on.

He explains how dogs developed from one kind—a wolf—into the many varieties we have today and how dogs became status symbols. Poodles were originally intended to retrieve the kill in the water for hunters. Developed by the Germans, they were hardy, quick and extremely smart—second only to border collies—dogs. It was the French who took to the dogs and clipped them with poofs and tied ribbons in their hair. Unfortunately it’s the French legacy that remains. Some dogs have been mutated so badly by human breeders that they literally cannot function right. English bull dogs, for example, have such big heads that they cannot come through the birth canal and must be delivered through Cesarean section. It’s sad, really.

The evolutionary parts are intermingled with the actual descriptions of Franklin’s life with Charlie. I cheated, dear reader. I could only take so much of Franklin puzzling over how the primate brain developed from an ape into what it is today before exasperation set in: “We’re not animals!” So I found myself flipping through these pages fast to get to the narration on Charlie, which I loved, especially so since I also have a black standard poodle, and they act similarly.

(Beware, spoiler alert!) Charlie gets cancer and, at the end of the book, dies. Lynn wants another puppy, yet Franklin wants to wait, to mourn. But Lynn’s good sense wins him over as it always does. It will bring him out of his funk, she says. They go to look at a new batch of puppies. Franklin, feeling melancholy, goes outside to sit and think by himself. He hears the door swing open and the mother of the puppies, Jade, comes walking outside:

“Jade took a step toward me and nuzzled me with her nose. She sensed the pain and was trying to help. I’d seen Charlie act that way when he was working as a therapy dog. I petted Jade, ran my fingers through her wool, and after a few moments she moved up and sat down beside me at the top of my steps, leaning into my body. There was a time, long ago, before Charlie, I would have assumed that she wanted my attention. But no, that wasn’t it at all. She wanted to change my attention, manipulate it away from the pain. Without thinking, I threw my arm around her. She licked my hand (Page 250).”

Dog owners cannot read that passage and not be touched by it. We all, in one way or another, have felt the comfort only a dog can give. His conclusion? Dogs evolved because people needed them, and dogs needed people, too; each fulfills something the other lacks. Though I felt the book was primarily one about the dog’s evolution which is invariably tied to humanity’s own, it also celebrates the special bond between humans and their canine friends, a bond that brings joy. And sometimes saves lives. The new puppy, named Sam, alerts Franklin and Lynn in the middle of the night, grabbing Lynn’s sleeve and tugging at it. The house was on fire.  If it weren’t for Sam, for that wolf that was brought into the parlor, Franklin wouldn’t have lived to write the story.

Three books down, 49 to go!

Fourth book: “A Life in Writing: The Story of an American Journalist” by Charles Champlin.

Pages to read: 200.

Date to be finished: Saturday, Jan. 28

Why this book? I don’t have a good reason other than I like reading about the lives of journalists who lived and worked back the glory days of newspapers. “Charles Champlin is best known as a columnist and film critic for the Los Angeles Times. His career as a journalist, however, has spanned decades, first as a writer for Life and later as a London-based correspondent for Time magazine,” the book jacket reads. Like a little kid picking out books at the library, I also judged this book by its cover: a photograph of Champlin at a desk, fingers punching a typewriter, with a flurry of pages all around and a pencil down to its stub, with a cigarette jauntily hanging from his lips. I couldn’t help but imagine the old newsrooms, in a haze of smoke, with editors barking and typewriters clacking and copy boys running back and forth. So, if only for nostalgia’s sake, I am all set and excited to dip into this next book.

Stay tuned for next week’s post.

Read Once More

The wall held it all this time. The years slipped by one after another, and as they turned into decades, new house owners came and old ones left. They painted the bathroom walls, put decorative tiling on them and nailed up pictures. It stayed hidden within.

Then, in 2012, a pipe leaked, leaked so bad water dripped from the bathroom through the ceiling into the living room below, drip, drip, dripping on the wooden floor. This would not do. It was decided all the plumbing had to be replaced, the old pipes torn out and new ones put in. The whole bathroom, everything but the wooden beams holding it in place had to go, too.

One of the house-owner’s sons spends a whole day smashing the bathroom apart with a sledgehammer, gashing holes in the walls as he stands knee-deep in rubble. He hauls the debris downstairs and then outside, where he piles it near the curb. Nothing’s left of the bathtub, sink, floor or even the walls.

The newspaper saw light for the first time in many years that day. But mixed with the rubble, it was indistinguishable among the concrete, dust and dirt. The tattered yellow pages crumpled for wall insulation waited for transport, and certain destruction, into the dumpster.

Another one of the house-owner’s sons finishing the job a few days later sees something outside sticking oddly through the rest of the debris. He lifts it from the pile and brushes away the dirt. He studies the large pages, the fine print, the narrow columns, the year—1929—and thinks his older sister, a newspaper editor, might like to see it. I do.

I wonder how two pages from The Pittsburgh Press found their way from Pennsylvania to Northwood Drive in the Town of Tonawanda. I wonder how they passed into the hands of a builder and, more than 80 years later, into my own.

I learned through reading what I could of them that along with many other people from Pittsburgh, Thomas J. McConnell died on Sept. 5, 1929. It was a good time to die. One month later the stock market would crash, and the Great Depression would follow.

I learned that roller skates sold for just $1.59; a phonograph for $5.95; and a car tire for $4.95 (6,000 miles guaranteed). I learned through the job ads that women were mostly wanted for house-cleaning, babysitting and book-keeping. For the better jobs employers sought men.

I learned through the Lost and Found section that people had lost all kinds of things: a crystal and emerald bracelet; a box with a dress in it; a boy’s cap “with a badge”; and a coin purse, quilt and pin. Dogs were lost, too. An Irish terrier, a Boston bull and a “rabbit hound.”

I learned through reading the snippet of an article printed in full on a page I didn’t have that the writer disliked one of the Ringling brothers, of the circus, and called him a “swashbuckling old showman.” He writes: “Many of Mr. Ringling’s most noted exhibits do little more than roam about in cages, eat uncooked food and sniff contemptuously at the customers.”

I learned also that sports-fan need not be alarmed by the new football rules decided by the “rules committee.” The headline reads: “New Rules Simple: Attacking side can still pick up fumble and run with it.” The article quotes Knute Rockne, a Notre Dame football coach.

All these items made the news in 1929, the year they were placed in the bathroom wall on Northwood Drive. Eighty-three years later, the news came tumbling back out, and it got lucky.

It was read one last time.

Franklin offers invaluable writing lessons

Last night I turned the final page of Jon Franklin’s book “Writing for Story” and took a deep breath—“Wow”—I thought. The book is extremely useful, in the same way, say, a carpenter might find a book on how to build sturdy shelving useful. As a writer, you know sometimes that something works in writing, but you’re not sure exactly why. You’re moved deeply by a story, maybe even to tears, but you haven’t the slightest clue why.  Franklin breaks stories down, showing readers what makes good stories and how to write them. And it’s not written like an instructional manual. It’s entertaining, a delight to read from beginning to end. Some of the parts get technical, very technical, and can be hard to follow. But Franklin encourages readers at the beginning of the book to read through not once but twice, first to get a general feel for what he’s teaching and then a second time to really understand it. I would like to read it again relatively soon, but I’m going to wait a couple weeks and let what I did learn get absorbed.

One of the biggest lessons I leave the book with is this: Without structure, story collapses. Structure is the most important element in a good story. Structure is unfortunately often forgotten in the wake of the much-more-talked about polish or “style,” which is the tinsel on the Christmas tree, not the tree itself. Structure, many beginning writers bemoan, comes at sacrifice to what’s really behind good writing: Art.  But to Franklin—and many other professional writers—that’s a bunch of baloney. Sound structure requires thinking your story through first—what is it you really want to say, where are you going?—and creating an outline to anchor you down when you’re in the throes of writing and the winds of inspiration toss you to and fro.  It will keep you locked into your narrative, into the story you’re ultimately trying to tell.

Imagine a house-builder painting and decorating the house before he builds the beams. We’d think it ridiculous. Yet writers think they should polish and pretty and stylize their sentences before planning out the story’s basic structure—the most important part, the part that will uphold all the rest. He writes, “The best polish can’t correct structural defects no matter how much elbow grease we apply.” You can sometimes squeeze by with no structure, for stories of a few hundred words or so, but get into the thousand-word range, and you’ll wobble and, eventually, after sensing something’s not quite right, crumble.

He includes in the book two complete stories of his that each won him a Pulitzer Prize. Afterward, he describes in details, sometimes dizzying, how he wrote them, why he wrote them and, most importantly, the structure underlying each. In short, the reasons they won him the most esteemed journalism prize twice, in addition to a tidy bundle of cash and fame. I found this break-down fascinating. As I read happily immersed in each of his stories—as a reader ideally should be—he, meanwhile, had a specific purpose and plan for each sentence, each paragraph, each of my orchestrated reactions. Nothing’s random. Nothing’s meaningless. Everything’s planned by the story-teller.

Can writing be learned? To Franklin, it absolutely can. If beginning writers think of themselves not as inspired artists out to stamp their individuality on the world but as writing apprentices learning a craft, then he believes they can learn steadily the “Secret” of writing. When Franklin first started writing, he scoured books in the library, hoping to uncover authors’ inner and ultimate “Secret,” withheld from all the rest of the writing hacks. But, at the end of the book, he reveals that the Secret to writing is that there is no secret but this: knowledge and experience.

He writes:

“The secret of the professional writer, then, is an elegant fusion of craftsmanship with artistic vision—of not only having the tools but also understanding the purpose for which each is intended. The successful writer is one who grasps the separate components of his story, and, at the same time, sees how those components work together to produce a compelling and dramatic tale. … Writing is no different than conducting an orchestra, performing a surgery, flying an airplane, or climbing a mountain. It is a human endeavor and the skilled professional in any field, including writing, is one who has first mastered the techniques and then accumulated the experience necessary to know when, and to what purpose, each technique is used. (Page 187).”

Toward the end of the book, he says something that I couldn’t underline because, well, it’s a library book, but I did put a neon yellow sticky note on the page to mark it for this very post: “Language is more like mathematics than magic.” I liked the flow of the sentence, its elegance and alliteration, but its meaning? I found it hard to swallow. I’m not a fan of math, never was, but the more I read of Franklin the more the truth of this began to sink in: Beauty is in fact logical and harmonious, in a way, how some people describe math. To the unschooled person, writing is magic—something that pops into existence as magicians pulling rabbits out of hats —but real writers know better. They know that underlying language are certain principals of structure and grammar and usage that, if broken, result in chaos. Like math. I’d never before heard an author compare language to math, so after I got over my initial dismay over my favorite thing being compared to my least favorite thing, I knew it was true, I begrudgingly admitted. (And, maybe I am willing to admit now that math can be, dare I say, not just appealing but, in its own way, even beautiful?)

I’ve saved the best for last. The biggest “lesson” I left the book with is this: “What kind of reporter am I?” Someone already wrote about the man featured in one of Franklin’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning stories. Franklin wasn’t the first to get to him. But the one reporter’s story was merely “nice.” It was okay. It faded soon from the national consciousness. Franklin’s didn’t. It not only won him a Pulitzer but it was reprinted countless times in newspapers, magazines and books. So what’s the difference? Franklin asked his story subject—John Wilks, in his 80s—about his motivations, about the reasons “why.” He focused not just on the resolution—the end of Wilks life—but on his beginnings, the complications and development that led to the resolution. He told a full narrative. He did that by getting the whole story. It is incredibly powerful to read. And Franklin was, as he says, “lavishly” rewarded for that story in the end.

He writes:

“I was also fascinated by Wilk’s good works, but I approached the problem differently. What, I asked, motivated this black sharecropper’s son to learn six languages? … ‘Well, shucks,’ Wilk said. He was just interested in languages. The earlier reporter had been satisfied with that answer. I wasn’t. Mere interest is simply not sufficient to explain heroic effort. So I sat Wilk down for an in-depth interview; he held me off for better than an hour with his modesty routine before he finally got tired and told me what really happened. The story, as I suspected would be the case, was not about the certificate at all, or even about Wilk’s volunteer work. The story was about a young man, born in a shack in Texas, who was smart enough to be terrified of his own ignorance and who was driven to overcome it. (Page 79)”

“Writing for Story” is a gem, and every serious writer should read it, at least once.

Two books down, 50 more to go!

(This a newer edition than the one I'm reading. Thus it has a slightly different title.)

Third book: “The Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connection Between Humans and Dogs” by Jon Franklin.

Pages to read: 274

Date to be finished: Saturday, Jan. 21

Time left to read: 7 days

Why this book? After finishing Franklin’s “how-to” book on writing, I am curious to read something else of his. Admittedly, I’m also a dog-lover—I have two of my own—and, after reading the book jacket, saw the dog he fell in love with was a black standard poodle, the very kind of dog I also have.

Let the reading commence.

Saying goodbye to Marge

One day she doesn’t come to work. The month is September, and we think nothing of it. Everyone takes a day off on occasion. But Monday turns into Tuesday which turns into Friday, and she still doesn’t show. Words spreads she’s sick, has some kind of flu, but she’ll be back soon. She’s often out sick, but she always comes back. The days turn into weeks, and rumor has it she calls early every morning leaving a message on the phone before anyone’s even in the office: She cannot come in. No reason why, she just can’t. We all wonder, “Where is she?”

Before I ever became an editor, before I became a reporter and before I even had any job out of college, there was someone I’ll call, for the sake of this story, Marge. I started out at the newspaper as a scared, confused intern with an English degree to my name and not much more. I had this passion for writing but wasn’t much good at it and meanwhile everyone telling me newspapers were dying. Great. My first day interning, I walked in the front door, and there she was at the place I would soon learn was her permanent post: the front office. Marge hurries out from behind her post at the receptionist desk and over to me, smiling, and starts talking. I’m relieved I don’t have to. She shows me the place to put the mail, where to sit, where to sign in and sign out. She’s one of the few people back then who said “Hi” to me when I came in and “Bye” to me when I left, each time genuinely enthusiastic. It made me—the scared, confused and utterly clueless intern—feel less invisible.

My last day interning, in May of 2009, I left the office for what I thought would be my last time. I walk past the other reporters and editors, a few of whom lift their heads up from their work long enough to inquire whether I was leaving for good and to wish me well on my endeavors—whatever they were—before snapping them back down. I carry with me the few awful clips I managed to produce and my purse slung over my shoulder. I pass Marge’s desk on my way to the front door, but she’s not there to fill it. The front office feels like a different place without her. “Where could she be?” I wonder. I continue walking but hesitate. I turn back. I grab a blank little notebook stacked on her desk and spare pen. I need to say goodbye. “Goodbye Marge,” I write. “Thanks for being so nice to me.” I sign, “Naomi.” I flip it around so it’s facing her direction for when she returns.

The weeks turn into months. September fades into October seamlessly except for that unanswered question: “Where’s Marge?” I—who am now an editor at the newspaper— walk often past her desk, and everything’s preserved: Her picture frame with her beloved puppy, Earnhardt in it; her pictures of NASCAR racers; her little trinkets and pens and notebooks; and her potted plant. Everything, but her. Every time I go to the mail room to check my mail box, I pass her empty chair, and I imagine her saying hello or goodbye to someone who once, not long ago, was the intern. Everyone’s tried calling her, but she doesn’t return calls. Two people even went to her house, but she doesn’t answer the knocking.

About a year prior to when she disappeared, she came to my desk with a little note in her hand, and tears in her eyes: “Remember this?” she asked. I looked at the note in her hand and saw the faded note I wrote to her before I left: “Thanks for being so nice to me.” She said, “I kept it all this time. It just meant so much to me.” I never imagined it’d mean so much, that she would have kept it for so long. “You were so sweet to do that,” she said. I looked at her, with her gray-colored skin—she smoked a lot—her body so thin you could see her bones and the thin, shapeless dresses she always wore and her wispy hair and her purple mascara, and I felt sad that most people, when they saw Marge, would only think of her outside. But I saw her inside.

Eventually a note got posted at the sign in sheet: “Marge wishes for people to stop calling her.” I was one of those people who tried calling, leaving futile voicemail messages. Marge worked at the newspaper for 30 years, which is why leaving so suddenly and unannounced is so strange and unexpected. Walking away from a chunk of your life without so much as a backward glance is, to many, unimaginable. Someone eventually cleaned out her desk, packing all her belongings into a cardboard box. She stopped leaving voicemail messages every morning.

We all have our theories: she had some kind of mental breakdown, that she got physically sick and a hundred other things. But, until anyone hears from her, they’ll remain just that: theories. A mystery. In the meantime, it feels to everyone who knew her—which was the entire company—like she died. To have a person in your life one day, a person you see every single day save Saturday and Sunday, and out the next, is hard to understand. Unlike death, where you go through rituals that helps you cope, there’s no closure to what happened with Marge. She’s just gone.

The company hired a pretty young receptionist, who looks the part far better than Marge did. But the new receptionist isn’t quite right. Every time I walk into the front office, I miss Marge and her barrage of friendly questions about where I was going and when I’d come back and her commentary on how Earnhardt was doing and a zillion other things. I miss her quick steps zinging back and forth through the office, stopping every few minutes to chat with people about the latest television shows she watched. I miss her telling me that I should write a book someday and that she’d be the first person to read it; she often came to my desk with tears streaming down her face—(she cried really, really easily)—after reading my latest column in the newspaper.

I don’t know how to say goodbye to her since she won’t return phone calls and apparently doesn’t want anyone to call anymore. People eventually stopped talking after a few months about how strange her disappearance was, and still is. There’s only so much one can talk about something before you have to just accept it and move on, letting it remain one of life’s weird mysteries. So I say my goodbye differently. I remember Marge by saying hello and goodbye to the interns who pass in and out of the office every spring and summer. I see in them the person I used to be: scared and near terrible and writing. I remember how I used to feel back then and how Marge made me feel—like I existed and, even more, that I was wanted.

Dear 16-year-old self

Dear 16-year-old self,

If I were to tell you things will get better, would you believe me? Probably not, but that’s okay. I’ll tell you anyways. In a few years, you will look in the mirror, and you’ll see someone you want to see, exactly how she should be, no different. You will not need to stay at a certain weight to be happy, and you will see food as nourishment. Looks, in fact, will not matter half so much as they do now. In nine years, you’ll spend just a few minutes in the morning fixing your hair before you go to work. Right now you get up in the morning half an hour early to blow dry, straighten and curl your hair. But it won’t last. You look really fashionable right now; that won’t last either. Oh don’t worry. You won’t be frumpy in a few years, but you also won’t care half so much as you do now about the latest fashion trends, nor will you spend so much hard-earned money on them.

I am sad to report that those math and science classes you dislike so much really are a waste of time. You’ll never need them, never need to do math or that dreaded science, and for those rare occasions when you need math, they’ve got this handy tool: a calculator. So don’t fret about poor grades in the subjects. I do wish you’d study harder, though. Just because you don’t like something isn’t an excuse not to try your best. Right now you like your history classes and especially your English ones. The thought never crossed your mind before, but in just a few years, you’ll be writing for a newspaper. Surprised? Yeah, I thought so. Really you’re perfectly suited for it though. You observe everything, listen well, prefer working alone and enjoy writing. I know you’re thinking about teaching, inspired by that certain teacher of yours, but you’ve got to consider your introverted personality. Trust me on this one. It would completely drain you, all that nonstop talking.

You’re probably still reeling from the revelation on the career choice. But the surprises don’t end there. You will not meet a handsome boy in college to marry. I’m sorry to spoil your dreams. One boy will, however, break your heart. A few months before you graduate from college. You will think of him often and will feel like you cannot go on living without something so precious. But you can. As Anne Lamott writes, you will learn to dance even with a limp. And you will be stronger for it.

I wish I could tell you so much more, about loving yourself, about following your dreams and about not being afraid of what other people think. I wish I could tell you to love and laugh more than you do. I wish I could tell you how precious your friends are, because as you grow older, they fade quickly in and out of your life as they begin working and get married and have children. But then, if I told you everything, you wouldn’t have anything to discover on your own.


~ Yourself at 24.

(What would you tell your 16-year-old self?)

One down, 51 more to go

I did it. I finished Harry Potter. I stayed up until 1 p.m. last night to do it, zipping through the last few hundred pages. I read the book to see if it’s okay for my little sister Victoria, 12. Also because my younger brother Jeffrey, 17, wanted me to read it.

Throughout the first few chapters, every time I read the word “witchcraft” I winced. It goes against everything in my faith, as it’s something God particularly despises. I got this same sick feeling every time I read the word. Here’s why: Never before had the word been associated in my life with something positive, such as a really, really good story—which is what Harry Potter is. I found as I continued reading, and my associations changed, I got this feeling less and less until, by the end, it was barely noticeable. A good thing? To be desensitized to witchcraft? Not sure.

My main issue with Harry Potter—and one that I’ve heard from other people before, too—was that, for children, there’s no clear difference between the good and bad. In the Lord of the Rings Triology, for example, there’s a dark side and a light same. Same with the Chronicles of Narnia and a host of other children’s books. But with Harry Potter, there’s good within the dark—which gets things muddled. Aka: How could there be “good” within the practice of witchcraft?

Here’s what I say to that, after having read the first book: Wait until children are old enough to know that the witchcraft of the Potter world doesn’t translate into the witchcraft of the real world. Wait until kids are old enough to read the store for what it is: a story, and not get confused by it. This age varies from child to child naturally, but I think middle school is a good age for most. By seventh or eighth grade most kids can think abstractly and separate the real world from the fake one without difficulty. In Harry Potter, Rowling constructs a different world. Good exists. So does evil. But they coexist within the world of witches and wizards. (And, if you haven’t figured by now, I write about this from the perspective of a Christian.) In the real world, Christians draw power only from God. Anything not from Him can only be bad. Kids have to be old enough to realize the two different worlds: one fake, depicted with both good and evil within the practices witchcraft and wizardry, and the other real, where God despises those things. As long as children can separate the two, they’ll see there is definitive good in Harry Potter and definitive evil.

I’ve concluded my little sister—who is very well read—can not only handle reading the books but will enjoy them immensely. She is grounded, strong in her faith and, I believe, will read the books for pure story. Note: Kids who aren’t so grounded and who are younger I could see becoming intrigued by witchcraft and wanting to learn more about it in the real world.

A couple parts in the book particularly moved me. Themes throughout the story include bravery, friendship, self-sacrifice and love. When Harry’s fighting a bad guy at the end—Voldemort, who has inhabited a Hogwart’s professor—Harry discovers the professor cannot touch him. He wonders, later, why he couldn’t. Albus Dumbledore, the head of Hogwart’s—Harry’s school—explains it this way: “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you to leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign…to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.”

I love that part—was my favorite in the whole book—and wanted to share it. For Christians, Christ within us—who sacrificed himself because of his love for us—means his Spirit is with us always, especially when we face battles such as Harry did. Darkness has but one choice in the face of light, and that is to flee. Which brings me to my last point: Another reason why I like Harry Potter is for its parallels to the spiritual world. Two worlds co-exist with each other in the books: one of normal people going about their business (called “Muggles”) and the other of magic, with witches and wizards. In this world, too, two worlds co-exist: This earthly, temporal world that will one day fade away and the spiritual, eternal world that will last forever.

One book down, 51 to go.

Second book: “Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pultizer Prize-Winner.” (author: Jon Franklin)

Date to be finished: Saturday, Jan. 14

Pages to read: 214

Time left to read: 7 days

Big switch from Harry Potter to this one, right? I plan to mix the genres, subjects and authors I read for fun, to get a little taste of everything this year. I picked this next book after reading about it in several other books. Jon Franklin’s name kept popping up, getting referenced as one of the founding fathers of the nonfiction genre. The book I’m about to read is considered a ground-breaking one on the craft of nonfiction writing; no one really had written a “how-to” book on the subject before Franklin. So I’m pretty excited to delve into it. This week will be especially busy for me, as I have night meeting coverage Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (Village Board Monday, School Tuesday and Town Wednesday), but I’m resourceful. I’ll find a way to get it read, even if it means staying up until 1 p.m., like I did for Potter.

Let the reading begin!

Mission: 52 books in 52 weeks

I’m starting with Harry Potter. Fifty-two books in 52 weeks—a year—that’s my mission. A Google search reveals many people have this same mission, so I’m not alone. At first, when I came up with the idea, I thought it was really great and really unique. Then I went online where I saw that thousands of people already are blogging their way through one book per week. I still think it’s cool, and, well, the more the merrier. I’m not alone in my quest. Through this year, I aim to discover new authors I like and, through them, learn more about this thing called life.

Here are my rules:

1.)    The book must be finished every week by Saturday.

2.)    A post will follow the book’s conclusion, on the weekend.

3.)    I will post my book lists, including why I chose each to read.

4.)    I am not allowed, even under extraordinary circumstances, to break the rules.

It won’t be easy. That I know. I work a lot—sometimes as many as 60 hours per week—and in-between that time I’ll be squeezing in the reading. But I draw inspiration from such figures as Julie Powell from the wonderful movie (and book) who cooked her way through Julia Child’s cook book and from the myriad of other courageous, creative people who similarly embarked on new adventures. Mine will be through books. And I’m looking forward to the challenge.

“Real stories from Real Life” How does this fit in with the Blog theme? Though I am allowing myself to read fiction—see first book I chose—I do plan to post about the books. The posts will include my thoughts/feelings/reactions to the books. These will include stories from my own life.

First book: Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone

Date to be finished: Saturday, Jan. 7.

Pages yet to be read: roughly 200. (yikes!)

Time left to read them: Two days.

Why Harry Potter, you ask? My little brother Jeffrey’s been asking me to read the series for some time now, because he wants my opinion on them. He loves them, like millions of other readers. They’re somewhat controversial in Christian circles, what with the witchcraft throughout them and everything, so he is curious what I think of them. I told him I’ll let him know when I finish, which will be on Saturday.

Memories from an obituary writer

“You and the rest of the people there can BURN IN HEEELL!” I heard the loud clatter of a phone slammed down, and then the line went still. I felt my heart thumping hugely within my chest and my bottom lip quivering. My ears rung and my palms felt sweaty. I was only three weeks on the job as the paper’s new obituary writer. I only half knew what I was doing—I was still learning, after all—but was working very hard at it. I felt mostly like I swam in paper work, with all the faxes, emails and paper that came through the mail. The deaths piled up on my desk, and I tried to keep swimming and keep my head above them all.

The old, nasty woman didn’t like the headline on her husband’s obituary. It read “Herbert B. Jones, philanthropist, insurance salesman.”

I hear the women’s words in my head: “He ooowned his own insurance company. He didn’t just sell insurance. Don’t you people there know the difference?!” She was livid, enraged, had blown a bona fide gasket, and she downright frightened me. I was so frightened that I couldn’t rightly remember whether it was me who wrote the headline or someone else. After the call mercifully ended, I turned bewildered to the copy editor, who helped sort out the tangled situation. It was discovered that one of the editors rewrote the headline to fit the space on the page. It was not, in fact, my fault, but that doesn’t mean I still didn’t feel like it was.

I’ll never forget that woman. She was the first nasty phone call I got as a reporter. Many would follow but never were any as awful as hers. I felt utterly unworthy to live after that call. She made absolute sure of that. It was, as my colleagues would say, “baptism by fire.” I’m glad, now looking back on it, that I got the worst of it over at first. Afterward, I felt I could handle nearly anything, because if I could get through the angry widow ordeal tear-free, then I could get through whatever I was facing okay, too. And I did.

I wrote the obituaries for a year and six months. They bothered me at first. Each death that crossed my desk saddened me. I felt it personally somehow. The copy editor told me that would soon end, and it did. It wasn’t that I was any less respectful but rather that I also came to accept it as a regular part of life. Just as many people give birth as people die. Everyone knows this, but few really feel it in the way obituary writers do, when deaths sail across their desks every day, mounting into a pile. I got to know a lot of people through doing them. Or at least I imagined I did. Most just came in little paragraph fragments, death notices. So and so lived to 90 years, had 23 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren and retired in the Cayman Islands. She enjoyed water skiing, snorkeling and spending time with her family. Etc.

Some were longer, stretching to the paper’s general limit of 10 newspaper inches. These I put more time into, arranging the information in an orderly, flowing kind of way. These people I got to know better. The weirdest were the people my own age: in the twenties. A few were suicides—which were always conspicuous because the cause of death was never listed—and I wished they would have just waited it out, because so much of life lay stretched before them; anything could, and would have, happened. A few were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. I looked long and sad at their handsome faces in uniform on my desk, and I sent up a prayer for their families and imagined thanking them for their service.

Obituaries are sensitive things to write, and you better be sure you get them right. I triple checked my work, looking from the computer screen to the paper of information and back again, repeatedly. But not matter how much you check, unless you’re a machine, you’re bound to eventually get something wrong. But for the most part, I got the facts straight. People imagine obituaries as a legacy, the last thing the deceased’s family and friends read about him or her. I always thought this was silly: How could someone’s life fit neatly into a few inches? It doesn’t. It never will. Nevertheless, that’s how people often feel, silly as it is.

Although the obituary information often came through fax, email and mail, people also came directly to the newspaper office to hand the information to me in person. When these people did come in, I shook their hands and looked into their eyes in the warmest way I could. Sometimes we sat down at the front table in the office, where they explained what they wished for the write-up: “Could you list her aunt?” one elderly woman asked. “I know you don’t typically, but it’d mean so much to her.”

I saw the tear trickle down her wrinkled cheek, and I told her that I absolutely could list her aunt, and even her uncle, too, if she wished. I tried to be for people a spot of comfort in an otherwise difficult death ritual: Arrange with the funeral home, organize the obituary, order the flowers. There was so much to do, so much people just didn’t feel like doing but had to do. I tried to do some good even in what often felt like mundane work.

Sometimes obituary writing could be exasperating. Death can bring out the best and worst in people, as evidenced in the woman who told me to go to hell. I like to think she really didn’t want me to burn forever in fiery torment. I like to think she was mourning deeply and took her grief out on whoever crossed her, which happened that day to be myself. She lashed out. But who knows? Maybe she is just a crotchety old lady, the kind who yells at sales clerks just because there’s a line at check-out. I’ll never know, and I’m okay with that. After all, it makes a good story.

Lemon cookies and more

(First off, I want to thank everyone who read and commented on my last post. I couldn’t believe how many people stopped by. So thank you! Thanks especially to Hilary (http://thesmittenimage.blogspot.com/) for putting me in her “Post of the week” and to Grayquill (www.grayquillmusings.com) for recommending me. I am excited to share another story I wrote today about someone very special to me. I could have written much more, but this is just one little bit. I hope you enjoy it, and have a very happy New Year!)

I roll the lemon cookie dough into balls and place them on the waxed cookie sheet. I really don’t want to make cookies, but it’s someone’s birthday at work the next day, and I volunteered a few days earlier to make them. Now, at 7 p.m. after a long day, the earlier baking enthusiasm has long worn off and it just feels like more work. I also made them the day before, for a cookie exchange, so this is the second cookie-making-episode within a 48 period. The faster the better, I think, and then I can do what I really want: read the book on Alaska I picked up at the library the day before.  I make them as quick as possible, mixing together the boxed flour, eggs and oil, and setting the oven for 375 degrees. As the oven heats, I finish rolling the dough.

Janet walks into the room, and asks about what I’m doing. I explain. Janet wears a rumpled sweat shirt too large for her and khaki pants that no longer zip, so she frequently pulls down the shirt over the broken zipper. She wears her brown hair short and doesn’t style it. She does, however, often comb her fingers through it, which leaves it looking wild afterward. Janet, nearing 60, has almost no money. Whatever money she does have comes from the government. Recently it informed her she’d get $100 less dollars per month—a huge sum to her—meaning she’ll eat less and must live on less than she already does, which isn’t a lot. The government cut back on some of her support programs. Once she lived on the street, homeless. She found food where she could, at stores, like Value Home Centers, that gives away free popcorn. That was before she met Jesus Christ in her early twenties. He changed her. He brought order and clarity to her mind. As she grew in her relationship with Him, she began working, got and apartment and started going to church every week.

“You know,” Janet says, “Some people really struggle with jealousy.”

A long time ago I came to expect Janet’s abrupt shifts in conversation, her laughing at silly things and her special view on nearly everything. I appreciated her there with me, keeping me company as I swipe a spatula underneath the done lemon cookies and transfer them onto cooking racks. The cookies would have taken much longer without her. I wait for her to continue.

“But I never did. Because, the way I see it, it doesn’t do any good. Sometimes I think, I would like to have a house like most people and nice things, but that isn’t for me to decide.”

When Janet was not yet even born, her mother drank alcohol heavily. It affected the baby inside her. When Janet finally came into the world, she wasn’t quite right. Her eyes slanted upwards. Her bones were especially slender, noticeable at the wrists and in the feet. She was slower than other kids, too. High functioning, but still slow. She would have been born perfect but for the alcohol that warped and changed the baby. But what is perfection, anyway? I believe once we set  standards for perfection, we begin excluding other people, begin excluding life. One time I did a story on a baby with spina bifida—Emily—and doctors advised her parents to kill Emily before she was even born. Why? Because her spine didn’t go down all the way. She wasn’t the ideal baby. But they chose not to. And I believe that in their arms, love has made her more whole than most people will ever be. They are happy because they’re together.

I think about all this as I listen to Janet talk. She’s often glad to just to have someone listen.

“I don’t know why some people have a lot of nice things, and I don’t,” she says, “but, like I said, that’s not for me to know. God chooses that. If He blesses me with something, then okay, but if not, then I’m okay, too. And, really, I have everything I need.”

She continues, “Would I like to have my own car and drive places? Sure. But I know I cannot.”

The most Janet can do is ride a bicycle. To get anywhere she bundles herself in many layers and walks, even in the winter.  Everything for her is harder than it is for other people. I feel a lump growing in my throat, and I set my spatula down on the counter. How often have I been jealous of other people? Wished for nicer things, for something different than the things I’ve been given in life. Here is someone who, in the world’s eyes, has absolutely nothing—not money, not a job, nor a car or even a family—nothing of status. But she has a better grasp than almost anyone I know on being content—and thankful even—for the few things she has been given. She knows what she has is a gift. I glimpsed, there in that kitchen that evening, as I grumbled about making cookies for someone’s birthday, something incredible. And I thanked her.