Friday, March 28, 2008
The Resume (A Random Anecdote)
Job #14: Magazine Man--Year Three
Well, of course it was just TOO ironic that a building that had once housed Ebola should come to house a magazine devoted to young doctors--let's call the magazine Young Medical Expert, or Y-ME for short. On my first day at work, I was--with much unnecessary mirth, I thought--assured that the Hot Zone building was way on the other side of town. But I have to admit I never quite believed it. On the other hand, I was scarcely at the magazine long enough to get to the bottom of it.
And here we come to an interesting point. Well, it's interesting to me, anyway, and it's this:
Of everything that happened to me during my year living in the DC area, my job was almost the least of it. Getting married, expanding my freelance writing base, wondering about the whole Ebola thing, becoming a super-villain, being courted by a large publishing company, and ultimately accepting their offer to come work for them--these all took prominent roles in my life compared to that job.
Generally, I think it's because Y-ME was more or less a pure joy to work on, and so was no trouble at all to me, and so ultimately made very little impression upon my memory (with perhaps one awful moment, which I'll get to). I loved my coworkers and would come to consider them good friends--they were all invited to my wedding, and my boss, the editor-in-chief of the magazine herself, actually came out to Ohio to attend the event. Hell, even after I quit, we were such pals that I was allowed to write the want ad and even interview some of the people who would take my job (and I even became friends with the guy who took it--no, it wasn't Jeff). I got invited back for parties and even served as a contributing editor to the magazine for several years (until all my friends left and the current editorial regime realized I wasn't contributing anything to them anymore and they rather unceremoniously dropped my name from the masthead). If you've read about my life at ASS magazine, you'll understand why Y-ME was such an unusual thing to me. It therefore should have resulted in all manner of interesting stories, but it didn't.
To be honest, it was kind of like working in Stepford. I was the only male editor amongst a group of women who were all unfailingly sweet and loath to offend one another. And for reasons that escape me, they thought I was hot shit--or at least they led me to believe they thought I was hot shit, because they always laughed at my jokes and ooh-ed and ahh-ed whenever I did something they thought was impressive, like fix the printer. Plus, they let me do pretty much whatever the hell I wanted. I got to write up fun, zany stuff for the back page of interesting medical trivia. When former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop offered the magazine a chance to come interview him up at Dartmouth, it was deemed cover-story material--and I got the assignment. It was the sort of plum that should have gone to the news editor (who had been there a lot longer) or the editor in chief, but I argued that Dartmouth was 20 minutes from my parents' house, and that by staying with them and eating their food, I could save the magazine some money (we were always strapped for cash, which was odd, considering how many rich doctors had been members of the association for whom we published). So I got to go! Y-ME indeed.
But after about three months on the job, one fact was becoming more and more obvious to me: as much as I loved the work and adored the people, the truth was, the magazine didn't challenge me in any way. Say what you will about Mr. Z and life on the ASS staff, but at least that negative environment forced me to constantly look for new and different story opportunities that would allow me to travel for work and get the hell out of that toxic office. It was just the opposite at Y-ME. We had a relatively narrow field of story opportunities to cover. It could be satisfying work sometimes, but also very limiting and, in its way, strangely comforting. If I were a different kind of person back then, I might have been lulled into a deep sense of complacency and could still be there, for all I know. But I was still young and ambitious and, it must be said, a little stupid, and I was of the impression that I needed to be working in an environment that pushed me to the very edge of my limits, whatever they were. It sounds terrible to say now, and I kind of hope none of my lovely coworkers from those halcyon days are reading this, because I don't mean to insult them. But they were also really smart people, of course, so I hope if they are reading this, they are honest enough to agree with me.
The only time the job became remotely interesting--from a blogging point of view, anyway--was when I got in trouble.
This happened only once, towards the end of my tenure at Y-ME. It was during the association's annual conference--my God, it could hardly call itself a proper medical association without having an annual conference all its own. During that time, I came to meet several of the young medical experts who were leaders or members of the association's various task forces. They had a task force in charge of lobbying for Clinton's health care reform, another one devoted to better medical education, yet another devoted to financial aid. It seemed like there were dozens of these task forces, devoted to God-knows-what.
I ended up spending some time talking with a young medical expert who was on the task force for disabled medical students. There were two co-chairs: one who had cerebral palsy and one who was hearing-impaired. Although the person I met was disabled in some respects, she nevertheless shared one trait I found all too common in young doctors: She was an insufferable know-it-all. In my brief time at Y-ME I saw this trait way too often, and especially when it came to writing. I can't explain the conceit, but I had more arguments with doctors who wrote for the magazine than with absolutely any other type of writer. They just couldn't fathom that there might be anything wrong with their copy--such as the fact that it was totally incoherent and unreadable--and that I would have the temerity to edit their precious words. Who did I think I was, they demanded, supposing that all their years in chemistry and anatomy had magically granted them the ability to craft stirring prose, when all I had to my name was a master's degree in journalism--a lowly arts degree, for goodness sake? But I ramble...
In the case of this particular medical student, she was mostly interested in getting medical schools to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities who wanted to make a career in medicine, which was certainly a noble and worthwhile cause. Worthwhile enough that I suggested writing a story about it in Y-ME. This caught her quite by surprise. It had never occurred to her that this might be subject matter for a magazine article. But she consented to do an interview, right there at the conference, which I recorded on my trusty tape recorder. By the time we were finished with our interview, though, she announced that not only was my story a great idea, but she would also be the main subject of the story, and that she should be the writer of the piece. That wasn't quite what I had in mind--for a broader view, I had intended to interview two or three people with different kinds of disabilities--but I suggested she and her co-chair each write first-person essays about their experiences in medical school. I figured they'd make nice companion pieces to the main article.
Meanwhile, I proposed the whole thing to my editor, who endorsed the idea wholeheartedly, and set about interviewing subjects for my story, including disabled people who'd already graduated from med school and those who were trying to get in to med school. In the course of my research, I found a young man who'd been quadriplegic since his teens (owing to a diving accident) and who had been rejected by a medical school that had for years basked in the glow of its reputation for having admitted a blind man to its medical program years earlier. I scored a key interview with an administrator at the school who ended up giving me some rather damning quotes that made the school sound incredibly shallow and crass and served as a powerful counterpoint to the effort of groups like our association's task force. It was solid, investigative journalism--the closest I'd ever come to it, anyway--and I was exceedingly proud of the work I'd done.
I ended up making the quadriplegic man the main focus of my piece, but also included a couple of other disabled students--the hearing-impaired co-chair of the task force and a blind woman. The other co-chair of the disabilities task force submitted her essay, which was intended to run as a sidebar to the main story and gave the overall package a touching intimacy and depth. But despite repeated emails and faxes--including updates on story progress and even rough drafts of my work so far, I wasn't getting any word from the hearing-impaired co-chair, the one who had been so gung-ho about the story, to the point of deciding she should write it.
Finally, she got back in touch with me via fax, and it was then that I began to wonder if perhaps she was missing her sanity along with her eardrums. In a block of faxed text that read like one long, incoherent run-on sentence, she announced that my piece was "godawful" and it was nothing like what she had in mind when she first proposed the story to me (!!). She furthermore refused to be involved in the story unless I was prepared to start from scratch, or just let her write it, which it seemed obvious she was going to have to do since it was clear to her I had no idea what I was doing. All this, about a week before the magazine was set to ship.
Well, I'd had just about a bellyful. It was the spring of 1994 when this happened. I was 25 years old, 5 years out of college, and fairly confident of my abilities at this point. I knew as a matter of political correctness, we mere employees of the association were supposed to defer to the medical experts we worked with, but I'd been as deferential as I was prepared to be. So I faxed the woman back, reminding her that the story had been my idea, and that if she didn't want to be involved in the story, that was fine. I had one or two other sources I could use, including a medical student with a near-crippling back condition who I could put in the story in place of her. I should have let it go there, but I was young and stupid and full of beans. What was more, I had only a few days earlier received a job offer from the large publishing company I mentioned earlier. I hadn't yet officially accepted the offer nor given notice, but the secret knowledge of that escape hatch was just a little too empowering. So I added a paragraph in which I reminded this woman that, as a task force member and an official representative of the association, she ought to work a little harder on her tact and diplomacy, because if she used the same attitude on a TV reporter or someone from, say, The Washington Post, as she had been using on me, she'd find in short order that they wouldn't treat her with anywhere near the patience or courtesy that I had thus far shown her.
Well, the hearing-impaired medical expert (or, as I sometimes knew her in my private moments, "that deaf nut") flipped the fuck out. She called up my boss, who was absolutely blind-sided by the call. To make a tense situation awkward to boot, the woman, being hearing-impaired, was forced to relay her call through an interpreter. For my boss, it must have been very trying indeed, listening to a dispassionate voice reading off a screen of invective from the woman, then replying, then waiting while the interpreter typed out my boss's end of the conversation, bracing herself for yet another reading of screed.
After the call, my boss summoned me to her office and I walked her through everything that had happened. We agreed that I hadn't done anything wrong, exactly, but my boss was in a delicate position, having to play a decidedly political and diplomatic game with association members, and this incident only made her job harder. I was sorry about that, but aside from not telling the woman to tone it down, what else could I have done?
And then, of course, I did do something. I quit the next week.
It wasn't the best timing, I'll admit, but the big publishing company needed an answer, and in any case, it gave my boss an easy out. When the woman showed up at the office in person and continued to make a stink about the article, my boss told her she was running the story anyway, but left that deaf nut with the impression that I had quit--or possibly even been fired--because of the stink she had made. This placated her, but it galled me. I didn't want her to think her temper tantrum had gained her anything.
And so, about a month later, as I left a moving van and crew at my apartment to pack up the last of my stuff (the big publishing company spared no expense when it came to relocating me, a fact for which my new mountain bike was exceedingly grateful), I returned to the Y-ME offices to turn in my keys and to pick up copies of the latest issue. My boss, God love her, had run my article as the cover story. I grabbed several copies for myself, then sat down at my desk one last time and filled out an application form, attached several copies of the story to it, plopped it in an envelope and put it in the outgoing mail. Then I left.
The envelope contained a submission for the Easter Seals EDI Awards. I don't think it's something they even have any more, but back then it was a big deal, something that the big media outlets--both broadcast and print media like the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time and Newsweek--all competed for. I thought Y-ME had a better than even chance at getting an award in its category, for print media with a circulation under 50,000 readers.
And indeed, several months later, I got a call from an Easter Seals rep who'd spent a good deal of time trying to track me down. As I had hoped, Y-ME had won the EDI Award for its category. But the rep was calling because we'd done better than that.
My story--the "godawful" one that had been the cause of so much strife--had won the Grand Prize.
As I found out, the piece had in fact beat out entries from all the media I just mentioned, as well as 60 Minutes, the NBC Nightly News and many more.
I didn't win any money--not for an award from a nonprofit organization--but I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to New York to come to the Easter Seals banquet and collect the award on behalf of the magazine.
"Wow, thanks," I said, "but you know who you should invite instead?" And I gave them the fax number for that deaf nut.
I never did find out her reaction when they contacted her with the news.
But I can only hope it was something along the lines of, Why Me?!?
From Somewhere on the Masthead
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
The Resume (A Random Anecdote)
Job #14: Magazine Man--Year Three
Maybe it was because I had already been in an accident on this particular stretch of Chicago highway, or maybe I was just relaxing during the commercial break (which, if my life is indeed a TV show, is the only way I can account for my regular lapses in mental acuity). Either way, the moment my roommate Jeff rear-ended me with his car, I found myself in a complete state of muscle laxity. Which no doubt saved me from whiplash, or possibly even death from an overwound sphincter, because we were thrown violently forward, right into the rear-end of the BMW in front of us, and he in turn no doubt contacted the person in front of him, and so on, all the way to Gary, Indiana, it seemed. The "we" in this scenario, by the way, was Her Lovely Self and me. She was sound asleep in the passenger seat, but snapped wide awake the moment Jeff rammed us.
I have to tell you, the sound of the impact was incredible. It doesn't seem possible that we could have been rear-ended by a car moving at around 40 miles an hour--and carrying a good half-ton of my assorted crap in a U-Haul behind it--without sustaining more damage. But in fact, no one was harmed. Not physically anyway. The Beemer driver proved to be a remarkably even-tempered and trusting fellow, trading addresses and insurance information with Jeff and then departing--claiming lateness for an important meeting. I seem to recall Jeff had a little more trouble with the chain of motorists after Mr. Beemer, but within an hour--and without any interference whatsoever from any state trooper--we were on our way.
I know that sounds unbelievable--I mean, for most of my life in Chicago, I couldn't drive five blocks without passing at least five or six police cars. But then again, I was firmly entrenched in the belief that my life was a TV show back then, and it certainly made sense in that context that we should be extricated from our latest dramatic dilemma in fairly short order.
To be sure, there were some humorous consequences. For example, when we finally stopped at an Indiana rest area, I was a bit startled to discover that my trunk wouldn't open. I say only "a bit" because it was pretty obvious what had happened: One of the pedals of my mountain bike--which I had attached to the back of my car by means of a rack--was hammered through my license plate, and on through the trunk, where it put one hell of a dent in my suitcase. I discovered this only because I was forced to rip out one of my back-seat cushions and crawl in to the trunk that way. The bike itself, when I finally pried it loose from the trunk lid, appeared to be a total loss: both wheels were deflated, their rims hopelessly bent out of shape; one pedal had the main crank and chain wrapped around it and the handlebars were bent at a 50-degree angle from the rest of the bike. Although I swore about it quite a bit at the time, in the end I was grateful, as it has since been pointed out to me that my bike and bike rack must have acted as a shock absorber, cushioning us from the worst of the blow. Plus, Jeff assured me his insurance would pay for the replacement cost of the bike, so I really should have counted myself lucky. And I did. But not just then.
And Her Lovely Self, who normally likes to sleep on a long road trip, found herself too traumatized to doze. She did, however, manage to nod off long enough to have a waking dream involving car accidents and so could be counted on every two hours to fly up from her seat with a shrill screech and much flailing of her arms, to my general consternation, and that of any nearby motorists.
But eventually, some 10 hours after leaving my old apartment on Eastwood, we arrived at a nondescript brick apartment building in Arlington, Virginia. There were hundreds--possibly thousands--of these brick roach traps, built right after World War II, and long since passed into the hands of a handful of money-grubbing land barons who equipped these places with the barest of creature comforts.
Take my one-bedroom apartment, for example. My $495 per month (and this was a chunk of change back then) got me a flat that had been repainted so many times that its walls were perpetually tacky, and all about the place hung the miasma of cheap paint, overcooked beans, and diapers. The threadbare carpet was a loam of ingrained dirt, food particles, and insect legs. The door off the common hallway was secured only by means of the world's most uninspiringly solid deadbolt lock. There were three electrical outlets in the entire apartment--all of them two-pronged ungrounded affairs. One of these outlets was engaged by the enormous plug of a giant window-unit air conditioner. When you turned this thing on, all the lights in the building dimmed, and I had a mental picture of a fusebox somewhere in the bowels of the place crackling in a festival of sparks. But for all the pyrotechnics, the thing barely gave off a puff of tepid air. I was in Virginia in June--my landlord surely was going to have to do better than this. A lot better, as it turned out, since my list of complaints for him grew from "fix broken air conditioner" to "fix exploding gas stove," "fix leaking fridge," "fix cracked toilet tank," and "fix sagging bedroom floor before bed falls into living room of basement apartment."
Well, as you may have gathered, it was a pretty dismal place, certainly nothing like the charming 2-flat Jeff I had rented near Lincoln Square back in Chicago. So it was with a certain lack of energy that the three of us offloaded all my worldly goods into a large stack in the living room, before collapsing in a humid pile of exhaustion.
Morning did very little to improve my outlook, although a quick stroll around the neighborhood confirmed two happy facts: one was that I was within walking distance of a Metro stop, and the other was that I was just two blocks from a bike trail that connected to the C&O Towpath, which followed the Potomac River and offered me nearly 200 miles of trails. Oh, except that I had no bike to ride on them (thanks, Jeff).
By midday, we found ourselves amidst the shopping mecca of suburban Virginia and I quickly outfitted my apartment with several essentials, such as shades (my apartment windows being conspicuously absent of them), a shower curtain, and a new deadbolt lock. Back at the apartment, Her Lovely Self seemed to have grown quiet, and I got the distinct impression that she was thinking twice about this whole getting married/following MM to Washington/finding a job trifecta. I tried to get her to talk about it: In any relationship, I tend to be the one who wants to talk about the problem right away and work through it, whereas HLS tends to want to brood for a couple of weeks before announcing that she's got a problem. Which I knew two weeks earlier, but never mind. In this case, all she would say in response to my prying was, "I sure hope this job is worth it." I assured her it was, but that night, when the lights were out and we listened to the roaches in the kitchen apparently beginning auditions for an all-insect version of "Riverdance," I had to wonder myself.
Luckily, I didn't have long to wait. By late Sunday morning, Jeff and Her Lovely Self were on their way back to Chicago, and I passed the remainder of the day unpacking and installing my new lock. By late afternoon, I was feeling antsy and nervous, my Eve-of-a-New-Job jitters kicking in with full force. So I unwound myself by reviewing my recently purchased map of Washington, D.C. and the Beltway and found my route to work.
My office was out somewhere in the suburban town of Reston, Virginia, which I knew was a famous post-war planned community. I got there via the Dulles Toll Road, an on-ramp to which was literally two miles from my apartment, and which was well-marked by a series of signs, including one that enigmatically announced the route as "HOV Only," whatever that was. I thrilled at having so many new mysteries to uncover in my new home.
Fifteen minutes and 25 cents later, I found myself in the strangely empty plaza of the Reston Town Center, where it appeared only two stores were open--the bookshop and the bicycle store. As I walked by the latter, I was stunned to discover three identical versions of my old, now destroyed mountain bike, chained to a rack beneath a sign that read "OVERSTOCK! FINAL SALE! MAKE AN OFFER!" I had the combined buying power of my last paycheck from ASS and a freelance check burning a hole in my pocket, and thus it was that $199 later I was wheeling my new bike back to my car.
For want of anything better to do, I hit the bookstore and browsed a bit before chancing upon a shelf devoted to local topics. I probably wouldn't have given the shelf a second glance, but as I walked by it, I noticed a store employee clucking with disgust and saying something like, "Some joker's always putting that book here," whereupon she snatched up a book I couldn't see and walked it to the back of the store. Curiosity got the better of me, and I followed her until she came to another shelf and shoved the book into the stacks there. I pretended to be very interested in the vegetarian cookbooks until she left, at which point I dashed over to the book--I had marked it by its distinctive red binding--and took it from the shelf, which bore the legend "Nonfiction."
The book was titled The Hot Zone.
As I would soon learn, Reston was not only the birthplace of a famous planned community, but also home to its very own strain of the Ebola virus. From what I was able to gather from hasty research within the bookstore itself, the building where the outbreak was discovered was no longer housing the monkeys in whom the virus had first been detected.
Instead--and I read this point with keen interest--the building where the outbreak occurred had since been converted to a business office.
Maybe I missed it in my frantic page-turning, but none of the books I consulted had any further details that I might have found useful. Such as an address. But I didn't really need it, did I, gentle readers? Because even at that tender age, I knew--as you all must surely know by now--that my life was lived in the grip of strange, unnatural forces, forces that determined--hell, demanded--that the building in question could have only one address.
As I drove home that evening, I noticed absently that my Eve-of-a-New-Job jitters had vanished completely, replaced by an all-too-familiar feeling of dread.
Well, that's just great, I thought. I've gone from being an ASS Man to becoming an Ebola Boy…
Monday, March 24, 2008
The Resume (A Random Anecdote)
Job #14: Magazine Man--Year Three
(For other stories in the Resume series, go here.)
The summer of 1993 was positively brimming with good things. I had, after no small effort (and not a few near-fatal screw-ups that were my own damn fault) become engaged to Her Lovely Self, with a wedding date set for less than a year away. My career as a freelance writer was taking off in a way it never had before: I had a summer's worth of gear to test for Outside and had furthermore just sold my first story to Men's Health, which was (not coincidentally, I like to think) on the cusp of becoming the magazine phenom of the 1990s.
As positive and forward-looking as these developments were, I have to admit that in the moment they paled beside the pure, stark relief I felt at knowing that finally, after two long and scarring years, I had thrown off the yoke of oppression that was my first magazine job: I had been a lowly staff editor for Asset Systems and Security--the infamous ASS Magazine. Only a month earlier, I had kissed ASS goodbye. Alas, I was also saying goodbye to Chicago, a city I had come to love. Only three years earlier, I had arrived here in the middle of the night with 43 cents in my pocket, knowing not a soul and having no place to stay. Now I was leaving with a hard-won knowledge of the city, an abiding fondness for its parks and museums, a lust for Vienna Beef hot dogs smothered with tomatoes, relish and celery salt (not to mention Italian beef sandwiches with extra juice), and a forlorn admiration for the Chicago Cubs (which was not something I developed so much as transferred from my beloved Red Sox for a time). I was departing with more important things too, of course: a fiancee and a Rolodex full of dear friends and valued colleagues. Speaking of whom, Her Lovely Self had decided to come with me on the long drive east, and she wasn't coming alone. Behind us would follow my roommate, Jeff.
I had met Jeff in graduate school and had come to think of him as my doppelganger. And believe me, after the sorts of things that tended to intertwine our lives, you would too. In school we had all the same classes, which led many a casual observer to make side-by-side comparisons and wonder if we were related. Like me, Jeff had red hair (although his was thinning rather a lot more than mine). Like me, Jeff had glasses. Like me at the time, Jeff often sported a red beard. And the similarities didn't end at the cosmetic. Later, Jeff ended up getting a job at the very same company where Her Lovely Self and I worked. About this time, I decided to move out of my apartment on the edge of the city, and get a place a little closer in to Wrigleyville, where HLS lived. Guess who ended up taking over my lease?
It was around this time that I started sharing with people my theory that life was like one big situation comedy put on for the enjoyment of...who knew? Extra-dimensional beings, I guess. There were occasions when my life certainly felt like a series of episodes that built up to random punchlines, and there was no shortage of charming friends and supporting characters in my life who always seemed to have studio-audience applause following them wherever they went. Jeff fit into my scenario rather neatly as well. After all, wasn't there always a point in some long-lived sit-com where the original actor decides to leave the show and the producers, in desperation, hire an actor who looks almost exactly like the original actor, then write him into the show--often even into the same apartment set--but change a few details, such as making him the cousin of the original character? Well, I used to joke, clearly I was being written out of my own show and Jeff was moving in. All I needed to do was leave town for my own spin-off and the scenario would be complete.
And then, about a year later, I got a job offer to work for a trade magazine just outside of Washington, DC. By this time, incidentally, Jeff had moved out of my old apartment and into the apartment I currently occupied. I had decided I needed to really start saving money for an engagement ring, and Jeff was strapped for cash too, so he proposed that we become roommates, which led us to rent a second-floor apartment on Eastwood, not far from Lincoln Square. Six months later, I was leaving yet another apartment for Jeff to take over. And that wasn't all.
In a turn of events that could only happen in my life, my departure from ASS Magazine coincided with a round of layoffs at the company where I had worked. When the cuts were announced, it was determined that people should be removed using a time-honored system: last-come, first-leave. Jeff had been hired only six months earlier, and so his head was one of the first to roll. However, just two days earlier, I had turned in my resignation, and so when Jeff was brought to the human resources office, he was given a choice: He could take his miserly severance pay and seek his fortunes elsewhere, or he could take advantage of a rare opportunity, and move over to ASS where it just so happened his friend (and coworker. And roommate) had just quit. Despite what he knew about my boss (and I had spent many an evening regaling my roommate with the worst of my boss's behavior), Jeff felt anything was better than unemployment, and so he became an ASS man.
As far as I'm concerned, this event all-but-singlehandedly confirmed my sit-com theory of life.
At the rate he was going, no doubt Jeff would have gone on to date and marry Her Lovely Self, had she remained in Chicago. But as soon as she finally agreed to marry me, HLS began sending off resumes to various publishers based in the DC area. My fiancee had spent the previous three years working for an environmental trade magazine, and I felt this experience would put her very much in demand among various trade publishers and news outfits around the Beltway (and I was right. By October, HLS would get a job as a reporter for an environmental news service and would end up covering Capitol Hill--she still keeps as a souvenir her way-cool press pass that granted her access to Congress). Thus, she would be joining me in my, er, spin-off show.
My last day in Chicago, I have to say, was a real event, a very-special-episode kind of day. At the last minute, when I belatedly realized that I could not attach any kind of ball hitch to the back of my Toyota (the better to pull the U-Haul with, my dear), Jeff decided to follow me all the way to Washington. His Ford already had a trailer hitch in the back, and moreover he could drive Her Lovely Self back to Chicago (since she would be staying there another few months, until a job prospect panned out in DC), thus saving her train or plane fare. So, with a great sigh of relief, and a last round of hugs and handshakes with the few friends who had come to see me off, I hung my mountain bike on the rack on the back of my car, trundled Her Lovely Self into the passenger seat and, checking the rear-view to make sure Jeff's white Ford was in formation behind me, headed off to the expressway, beginning the long trip east.
Back then, if you had asked me if I was the kind of guy who planned ahead, I would have said no. When I began my career at ASS, I had been so grateful just to find a paying job in my field that I gave almost no thought to what the next step would be. And by the time I realized I needed a next step, I was already so desperately sick of my job that I was ready to quit and go back to being a temp, or even hauling garbage for my uncle.
Now, I realized, as I began to settle my mind into that contemplative groove that all long-distance drivers find themselves in, I had managed by a great stroke of luck to get a job at a different trade magazine, one that promised to be infinitely more enjoyable than my last job. For one thing, I'd been offered the job on the spot, something that had never happened to me. For another, I already knew the editor. I had freelanced for her for a couple of years and so we were familiar with each other's workstyle. But more than that--and again I was reminded what a sit-com my life really was--the editor was the sister-in-law of a woman I had briefly dated back when I was an intern. No, this wasn't Her Lovely Self, but another woman, someone I'd remained friends with, at least long enough for her to introduce me to her brother's wife. It turned out that I got along with this person WAY better than I got along with the girlfriend, and I was looking forward to working with her.
And yet, I thought, as I finally made it to the expressway and hit the gas, it was time to start thinking about the next step, lest I find myself in the same pickle I was at ASS. I didn't want to be in trade magazines for the rest of my life. Nor did I want to freelance full-time. I wanted a real job at a real consumer magazine. The trade magazine I was going to work for was an association publication, the official magazine of a professional association for young doctors. Much of the content was pretty dry stuff from a layman's perspective--all about taking exams and repaying loans and seeking out the right medical specialty. But there were some fun and interesting sections too: They had a strong news department, in which they covered all manner of health and medical topics. They also had a page devoted to personality profiles, both of young doctors and of well-known men and women from the world of medicine. Finally, their back page was devoted to amazing, amusing and just plain bizarre medical facts, and that was a page I had high hopes for indeed. If I could make that page fun enough, I thought it would be a nice clip, a solid foot in the door when I finally decided to break into consumer magazines. After all, most general-interest consumer magazines had at least one page devoted to health and medical tips for their reader, and a staff editor who specialized in health. And that would be my in-road: I would groom myself to be a health editor, first at this trade magazine, and then at a consumer magazine, like Men's Health.
As I was thinking my long-range thoughts, I was jolted back to the present day by a sea of red lights, which suddenly flashed to life on the road ahead of me. I wasn't quite out of Chicagoland yet, and it was only 9:30 in the morning, barely past morning rush hour. Clearly, some yahoo down the road had tapped on his brakes, causing a cascade reaction among all the cars behind him, and in front of me. Stopped traffic was such a regular feature of my commuting life in Chicago that it is scarcely worth recording here. But this particular instance was worth mentioning for a few reasons:
For starters, I had just accessed the expressway by way of the Addison St. ramp, the selfsame ramp where, nearly three years earlier, I had almost been killed in a spectacular highway accident involving me, my old car, and an enormous Mack truck. It was not lost on me that I had escaped death that night and was now using the same stretch of highway to embark on my new life.
Secondly, while I was plenty used to stop-and-go traffic in Chicago, this particular stoppage was more abrupt than usual. We had all been driving along at a good clip--somewhere above 60 miles an hour--but then somebody up ahead must have really been jumping on their brakes, because all around me, cars were almost screeching to a halt, their rear ends raised up a little higher than normal from the momentum. I myself had to almost stand on the brakes, bringing my car to a hissing (but not quite squealing) stop just behind the BMW that was in front of me.
I had a brief second to catch my breath, and to look over at Her Lovely Self, who had fallen asleep almost as soon as she buckled in. Evidently, my sudden stop hadn't even wakened her.
Thus, and thirdly, before I could congratulate myself on this, I heard another noise. Unlike my tires, which had emitted the barest hissing sound as they came to a stop, this was a loud squealing of brakes, almost exactly like the kind of standard brake-squealing sound you hear on TV. I looked into my rear-view mirror, and there behind me was a white Ford, coming on fast. I could see the driver's features clearly, his red hair (so much like mine) all wild and askew; his mouth in the wide "Oh shit" phrasing position. It was my roommate, my doppelganger, unable to check his momentum, especially since he had several hundred pounds of my crap in a U-Haul trailer behind him, pushing him forward, ever forward.
Thus it was that when he hit the back of my car at at least 40 miles an hour, waking Her Lovely Self with a screech and sending us forward uncontrollably into the traffic in front of us, I had time for one coherent thought:
Wow, I mused, if my life really were a TV show, this would make one HELL of a season-ending cliffhanger…
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
In Which I Am On the Night Shift...
I think I'd be writing more--hell, I think I'd be doing all sorts of everything more, if I was, say, SLEEPING more!!!
I'm too tired to check this for myself, but I am pretty goddamn sure that sleep deprivation is one of those tortures outlawed by the Geneva Convention, and now I can see why. For the past two weeks--or maybe it's been eight--I've been awakened at midnight, and 2 and 4 and 5 AM. By the Éclair. Who seems perfectly indifferent to me during the day, but just can't seem to get enough of me at night.
(And yes, let me say for the record that I'm pretty sure she's waking up Her Lovely Self too, but my wife is a much closer approximation of a Perfect Being and so it doesn't affect her the way it affects me. Which is to say awfully badly).
So here I am, in a state of mind that I can best describe as addled. But really it's more than that. I caught myself sleeping--with my eyes still open--in my office the other day. That has never happened to me, and I can't tell you how disconcerting it was. It was like my dream life and my reality were suddenly placed on a split-screen and I had to function in both simultaneously. It was just what I imagine going crazy will finally feel like. Who knows? Maybe I'm already there.
At least I'm not so far gone that I'm blaming the baby, or even remotely entertaining the slightest hint of a germ of an idea about doing anything harmful to her, like leaving her on the doorstep of our ultra-right-wing neighbors. Or my in-laws. Just the opposite. It's like I'm her zombie slave. I literally am unable NOT to do her bidding.
This wasn't a problem with Thomas, at least not at the end, when his nightly schedule was defined by a 43-minute-long sleeping jag, followed by 2 hours of screaming; repeat til dawn. There was always a point in that 2-hour phase where the little shit finally broke our will and one of us went and got him. This lasted months, possibly even years. And then one day, we were just so exhausted, we simply fell asleep during the screaming. And then it was the silence that woke us with dread and fear.
I can't sleep during the Éclair's screaming. I am physically incapable.
Is it because she's a girl? I suppose I know myself well enough to admit there could be some kind of sexist subtext here. (The boy? Aw hell, let the lil bastard scream! But the girl? The little pink nubbin in the crib screaming "Dada? Da-DAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!" Gotta go!) The Brownie never screamed much, so I have no basis for comparison. My God, she was as close to a perfect sleeping baby as we'll ever have. She was wise enough to save her plans for Total Daddy Manipulation until she was old enough to start angling for toys and extra cookies.
Not her sister. The Éclair is like some nascent evil genius who knows exactly how long to try any one tactic before switching gears. For the longest time, her greatest gift was her ability to modulate her scream, from a high, general, send-in-the-cops kind of cry, to a deeper mayday-mayday-we're-going-down yelp that yanked me out of bed as though my genitals were attached to fishing line. She's stuck in the slats. She's fallen out! I'd think--insofar as I'm capable of thought these days. And then I'd go to the room and there she'd be, just fine, arms out, thumping her feet on the crib the way a dog whaps his tail on the floor, barely able to hide her nefarious little grin of triumph.
Then one night, I heard a new kind of scream, one that was somehow closer in my ear. I sleep right by the door in our room, so I am physically closer to the baby's room than Her Lovely Self. In fact, I think I can firmly state that my right ear is within a 10-foot radius of the baby's crib. Maybe she finally realized this and calculated the right acoustic vector to throw her voice--I wouldn't put it past her--but all of a sudden, it sounded like she was yelling my ear. The first time it happened, I had a waking a dream that she was on the floor by my bed and awoke to find myself cradling my slippers. Eventually, I just got up and got her. Again.
We've tried alternate methods to keep the baby comforted; God knows we've tried. At the Brownie's suggestion--because her wisdom and rational judgment beggars mine these days--we gave the Éclair her very own Pink Bear to have in the crib. The Brownie has had a pink bear from a very young age and they are fast friends still--the Brownie loves her almost as much as the dog. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder what our logic was here: Did we think that we could deceive her? That giving the Éclair a bear would somehow trick her into believing she had someone in the crib to keep her company? Someone as fun to manipulate as poor ol' Daddy?
Well, whatever we were thinking, it didn't work. The first night she screamed and I tried to press the bear on her as a substitute, she took a long look at the thing, then proceeded to scream at it. Then she got it around the throat and throttled it, like it was a tiny pink husband, before casting it over the side of the crib and glaring at me with a defiant stare that seemed to say, "Now are ya gonna get me?"
And then she started sitting up. Not just once or twice by accident. But all the time.
If you're a parent, you know that sitting up is the first sign of End Times. From there, they're just a beat away from pulling themselves up on the bars of the crib and then rappelling down over the side and that's pretty much the ballgame. It puts the fear of God into me every single time every one of my children has done it.
But with the Éclair, even that's different. Now that she can sit up, she uses this new vantage point to waddle her little ass over to the side of the crib that's closest to the hallway--and therefore to me--and then she'll just hunker down and stare.
I swear to you, her staring has a weight that presses on me until I awake. Twice this week, I jolted awake. There was no crying, no nothing. Blissful silence, if you want the truth. And yet, I couldn't shake the notion that something was up.
And of course something was.
Because when I rolled over, and propped myself up and craned my neck way out of the bed to peer down the hall, those eyes were there. Not boring into me like some maniac. She just gave me A Look, complete with waggledy eyebrows and a toothless grin. And once more, I was suckered out of bed.
And now? Now she's teething.
Not just teething. Power teething. As near as we can tell, she has two coming down from the top and two coming up from the bottom. Must be hell. I can't swab her up with enough Oragel. And so right about the time when I would ordinarily be tired enough to start sleeping through the screaming and even the staring, now I feel like there's an actual reason for her to need comfort. And as I'm sure I don't have to tell you, once the kid has got you doing the job of justifying getting up, you've lost, baby.
So perhaps you can imagine my consternation when I was awakened the other night to a new sound--not any of my baby's earlier acoustic stunts--but a plaintive blubbering that almost sounded like words.
I slouched out of bed, looking for the eyes that must be boring into me from down the hall, but they were strangely absent. I belatedly poked my head in the door.
There the Éclair was, sitting up all right, but not taking the slightest notice of me. She was, instead, peering forlornly between the slats of her crib, looking down at a crumpled pink form.
She looked up at me. "Bay!" she howled. It took a second to realize she meant bear. Numbly, I picked it up and handed it to her. She greeted it with open arms, strangled it rather briskly for a moment, then, taking absolutely no more notice of me, flopped over sideways on it, eyes already closed.
Since then, things have been relatively quiet. At least, I think they have. Although I dunno. I suppose I could be dreaming the whole thing at this point and not even realize it.
From Somewhere on the Masthead
Friday, March 07, 2008
In Which We Catch Something In Time...
And so I returned to my regular life, feeling that strange glow of satisfied exhaustion.
It's a funny thing to straddle time, and that's certainly what it felt like, going back to my old university. While my head was in a place that's 20 years behind me, my body was moving through the school as it is now, still very much alive and well and filled with all manner of possibility.
In the wake of my visit, it was suggested more than a few times by more than a few people that I ought to consider teaching. I've pretty much hit my goal in magazines--I have no desire to be an editor in chief, nor to climb any higher up the masthead than I am now. I'm already too far from everyday writing and editing for my own comfort. But aside from a vague idea about writing books, I haven't really given much thought to what the next step in my working life might be. Now, I'm thinking, Maybe teaching is it.
My return home was heralded with the usual craziness and tumult. I was only gone a couple of days, but you'd have thought I'd been missing for a month, the way the kids carried on. Even the Eclair at first seemed like she didn't recognize me, but when she did, she warmed up and wanted me to carry her everywhere, patting my arm and making goo-goo eyes at me as she did.
Thomas didn't sleep well while I was gone, and said so. "I had weird dreams," he informed me my first night back, as I was tucking him into bed in his loft.
"What about?" I asked.
"Oh, weird stuff. I dreamed I was sleeping in a bunk bed with Uncle BB on the bottom and I was in the top bunk under the covers, reading." And I gave my son a funny smile as he produced a small flashlight and a stack of comics. "So I tried it."
"You've never read comics under the covers with a flashlight?" I asked, more amazed at myself than anything else that I had never introduced my son to what I consider to be one of the great joys of childhood. Hell, of adulthood.
"No," he said, shaking his head. "But in the dream, I was doing it while Uncle BB was snoring below me. And I had a little blue light instead of this one," he said, waggling his yellow flashlight.
At this I froze. "You know," I said. "I used to have a little blue penlight when I was a kid. In fact, I used it to read comics under the covers. While Uncle BB lay in the bunk below me, snoring his head off."
"Cool!" said Thomas. "Hey, maybe I was dreaming I was you, like I was back in time." The same thought had occurred to me, only I wasn't quite as enthused about the idea as Thomas seemed to be. In fact, given my recent ruminations about going back in time, the coincidence was downright eerie.
I shook it off. "Well, if you're going to read under the covers, you have to do it right. When I was your age, I spent all of my birthday money on a giant book of Superman stories which had his first appearance and a ton of cool stories from the 30s on up. And that was my favorite book to read under the covers."
Thomas raised his eyebrows. "That sounds cool. Do you know where it is?"
I did. It was sitting on my bookshelf in the Incredible Basement of CRAP, and though I hadn't read it myself in a good 22 years, I knew right where it was, so I went down to the basement to get it for him.
And as I stood in the darkened basement, my hand on the binding, I had the strangest sensation of deja vu, so similar to my recent feeling of time travel going back to my old college campus. But this was even more intense. For a second, the world seemed to swim...
...and then I was in our old house in New Jersey, the farmhouse we had owned and where so many strange things had happened growing up. We were finally moving back to New Hampshire and I was boxing up all my old books, which were sitting in my old low bookshelf in my bedroom.
I swear, it was like I was there all over again. I saw myself pulling the Superman book out of the shelf and as I was placing it in a box, I looked up and there, on the wall over my desk, was my old bulletin board. Oh hell, I thought, looking at the photos and newsclippings and county fair ribbons, I forgot to take all my stuff off the board. So I quickly unpinned everything, tossing a few things into the box. But a few things, I slipped into the pages of some of the books. And three items in particular--two yellowing index cards and a photo--I held in my hand for a long while, fretting about what to do, before deciding, Well, if I can't trust Superman to watch over these, who can I trust? I placed them inside and closed the book.
"Oh my God!" I screamed, back in the present. Hand trembling, I opened the cover of my Superman book for the first time in 20 years.
And out fell two yellowed index cards and a photo of a beaming young man.
In a Boston Red Sox cap.
Bearing the signature Carlton Fisk.
Long time readers may recall that when I was in 4th grade, I wrote to the Hall of Fame catcher as part of a school project in which we researched the lives of famous people we admired. All the boys picked sports figures, of course, but where my classmates drew their information from sports almanacs and magazines, I got the crazy idea of going to the primary source, having heard that Mr. Fisk lived in New Hampshire and knowing, since my aunt was a small-town postmaster, that when you didn’t know someone's address, you could address a letter care of the postmaster and they could almost always find the person you were looking for. So that's what I did. Four weeks later, Carlton Fisk himself replied to my letter, telling me all about himself (and yes, this is the real deal, although I couldn't resist tweaking the salutation with a quick cut-and-paste):
and including a treasure I hadn't had the guts to ask for when I wrote to him, though I SO dearly wanted one--an autographed picture.
It was a seminal moment in my life, not just because one of my heroes had deigned to respond to me, but because I came to appreciate the thrill one gets from feeling licensed to seek out a source and ask him questions. I don’t think it's overstating things at all to say that event was what made me decide to become a journalist.
The letter and photo together became one of the Great Lost Treasures of my life, though once we moved to New Hampshire, everything got scattered to a wide variety of storage sheds, including one shed where a gang of squirrels broke in and turned several boxes of my papers into so much pulp. After I first posted about my Fisk letter, I conducted the most thorough search of my home and papers, but came up empty. After my parents' death, when I was back in New Hampshire searching for all of my parents' important papers, one of the items BB and I were on high alert for was an envelope containing my Fisk letter. It never turned up, and so at last I had been forced to conclude that it was gone forever.
Until Thomas' dream about reading comics under the bedcovers.
I ran upstairs, book in one hand, letter and photo in the other, screaming my son's name, and waking the house as I went. That glow of satisfied exhaustion was gone, and in its places was a renewed sense of childlike hope and wonder.
The kind one can only feel when one has just finished a week of successful time travel.
From Somewhere on the Masthead
Thursday, March 06, 2008
In Which You Have My Attention...
"Twenty years ago, I was sitting right where you are, demanding that my magazine career begin. I had written a kick-ass story about a small-town post office Yankee Magazine should have bought. Except they didn't. Then I did an internship for a company that was in the middle of a hiring freeze, so they couldn't offer me full-time employment, just more internships. So I left, but not before getting two freelance assignments from two of their properties. About a week after handing my first assignment in, I got word that the magazine folded, JUST before printing the issue that would have contained my first clip. The other magazine simply evaporated. The staff vanished and no one could ever give me a straight answer about what happened to it. Or my story.
"But I kept plugging away, and here's your first lesson: Your great gift, your special writing talent, the thing that makes you sit there and demand that your career begin--it will not do you one lick of good, compared with simply making up your mind and deciding not to give in, ever. Perseverance will serve you in great stead in any career, of course, but especially in this one. You may absolutely rely on the fact that the vast majority of people out there in magazines are not interested in your gift or in nurturing a great new talent. That includes me, sorry to say. They are interested in one thing: getting the magazine out the door. Which is why you will need to spend a good chunk of your career first developing, then sharpening novel ways of getting their attention--"
I blinked. Professor G was trying to get my attention.
"Oh, sorry," I said. "I was going over my opening remarks in my head. What were you saying?"
Professor G smiled apologetically. "I was just saying that you won't be lecturing to a writing class after all. That professor has to give a quiz today, so you'll be teaching editing instead."
I froze. Editing! I had prepared 90 minutes of inspiring remarks mingled with stellar advice about breaking into magazines as a writer. Editing was a whole different animal.
"Uh, well, what are you working on right now in editing?" I asked, still reeling.
Professor G fished through a folder, handed me a syllabus. "Headlines, mostly. They each had a sample story they pulled from a magazine and were assigned to come up with three new headlines for them. Oh, and a deck and..."
Again, I found myself tuning him out. I remembered my editing class, and it was dull as dirt. Editing in a classroom environment was so vastly different from the real thing on staff as to almost be non-applicable. For starters, you worked alone in class whereas on staff, I was always bouncing ideas off other editors, especially when it came to headlines.
Professor G looked at his watch, then said something else that got my attention. "You've got about 10 minutes before class starts. Why don't you think about what you might like to cover? I know this is a curveball, but really, just talk about what you do every day, how you craft heads. They'll be fine with that," he said, gesturing that I should sit at his desk while he excused himself.
Oh yeah, they'll be fine, so long as they don't drown in their own drool, I thought, and I numbly sat myself in the chair. Sure, I could natter on for 90 minutes about what I did, but I was hoping to light these kids up for an hour or so, not put them to sleep. I had had some great material to share with them, about turning my dull trade-magazine career into a freelance gig as an equipment reviewer of cool gear and weird tech. I was going to tell them about the time I peed in a magazine executive's office. I was going to tell them about the magazine that made me write and report a fresh, original story as a writing test and how they didn't give me a job, but they kept the story and were planning to run it--without compensating me for it, or even running it with my byline. I found this out because after they passed on me, I sold my writing test to a competing magazine and they had a spy there who saw the story and there was quite a row about it, but in the end it led to an embarrassing moment for the original magazine--and the editor who tried to steal my article. I had all kinds of stories fresh in my head for them, but none of them worked in an editing context.
As I sat there, mind racing, I absently started rifling through my bag, pulling out various folders. I had brought a couple copies of the magazine with me, as well as a copy of one of the stories I was currently editing for the next issue. As I looked at this piece, wondering if there was some way to turn it into a lecture, I noticed another folder sticking out of my bag. It was a sheaf of layouts from the current issue, the one that was shipping next week. This was old copy, stuff I'd looked at the week before, and I'd meant to throw it out. Now I opened the folder and looked at them--dozens of pages of color printouts of stories that were ready to run. And as I looked at them, a little teensy lightbulb flickered to life over my head. Maybe I was wrong to think there would be a big difference between teaching a writing and an editing class.
All of a sudden, I thought I had something to get their attention.
Ten minutes later, as about 20 students wandered into their editing class, they stopped and looked around, perhaps wondering if they had wandered into the wrong room.
It was a small classroom and unadorned, except for a chalkboard at the front, and a teacher's desk, which had been shoved to one side, creating a sizable open space at the front of the room. And there, more or less filling each of three walls, were a series of story layouta, taped up neatly, looking something like this:
Once they found their seats, they tore their eyes away from the new, four-color decorations long enough to give me an appraising eye, and I jumped in.
"Twenty years ago, I was sitting right where you are...absolutely bored out of my skull. Because, well, let's see a show of hands: How many of you here actually had aspirations to be a magazine editor? Not a freelancer, not a staffer who writes, not a writer at all, but an editor?"
There were some awkward smiles and shared looks, but no one raised their hands.
"Well, it's an honest group," I said. "When my classmates and I were sitting there, we used to say 'Those who can, write. Those who can't, edit.'" At this, a chuckle went up. "And that's honestly how we all felt. I think most of you here came to this major and this school because you want to see your names in print. You want clips like nobody's business. You want to write, and it seems like editing is the opposite of that.
"Except...I've come to learn something I didn't know back when I was sitting there. I've come to realize that the best writers are also good editors. Ruthless editors, really. Of your own work, if nobody else's. And until you can do that, you won't be unlocking your potential as a writer. I mean, I thought I was pretty hot shit when I was a student here, but I can tell you honestly that I became a better writer only after I spent a decent chunk of time editing. Don't get me wrong: I think I still have plenty to learn, but when I write now, if I do it well, I really owe that to the time I've spent editing.
"And one of the ways I use my editing skills and keep myself sharp is by working with a group of people on my staff. Together, every month, we go into the magazine's layout room and we look at all the layouts and we rewrite the headlines and decks, looking for sharper, smarter, better ways to inspire and inform our readers, looking for tighter lids to screw onto these stories, looking for something with which to get folks' attention. We call ourselves The Head Squad."
I stood back and waved my hand at the walls. "For today, this is not your classroom. This is the layout room of a Really Big Magazine. And you are not a class of magazine majors. You each are going to divide into teams of about a half-dozen. You each are going to tackle a wall of layouts, and you each are going to be a Head Squad." I clapped my hands. "Come on, let's get up and get a closer look at these layouts."
And so it went. I rotated through each of the squads, walking them through what we looked for in a good headline--something that wasn't overtly clever, but instead made a sharp, honest, direct promise about the story. But I encouraged them to have fun, too, to write down the goofiest puns and double-entendres--there's little point in trying to write headlines until you get those out of your system. Before we knew it, my 90 minutes was up. The class was over, and it was time for me to be on my way.
"I can't believe it was over that quickly," I muttered to Professor G, as we said goodbye to the students who were packing up their bags and zippering their jackets.
"Sign of a good class, I think," Professor G said. "But you know, I never see your byline in the magazine. So what writing do you do these days, that editing helps you so much with it?"
I was about to give a lame answer--"Oh, this and that"--when I heard a woman's voice call from the door: "He writes about Blaze and the Brownie!"
Then there was a giggle and the voice was gone. I ducked my head out the door, trying to peer into the departing group of students, but they had now merged with a large hallway full of students, and there was no way to pick the student out.
Professor G gave me a look of confused amusement. "What did they yell?"
"Nothing," I said. But inside, I felt all lit up. For the first time, I'd shared a room with an actual reader of this page, but she hadn't said anything til the end.
Whoever you are out there, I wish you had introduced yourself. Because I'll tell you what: I'd gladly put you to work writing headlines for me.
God knows you got my attention.
From Somewhere on the Masthead
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
In Which We Are Ready, Wisewise...
Twenty years ago (more or less):
I straggled across the street, the icy slush running over the tops of my shoes and soaking my socks as I clomped up the steps to the plaza of the communications school. Inside the second building, I turned right and sloshed my way down about five doors, stopping at the office whose door was propped wide open, and wreathed in a cloud of blue smoke.
"JK?" I asked, tapping the doorframe.
The old man looked up from the stack of papers that he was covering with ash and a healthy smattering of red ink. He peered at me over the top of his glasses.
"MM!" he croaked, then glanced at his watch. "Christ! It's ten of eight. It's positively illegal for you to be up so early, isn't it?"
"I've got my Com Law final at 8:30," I mumbled as I fished through my backpack. "So I figured I'd drop my story off early." I handed him the story and he smiled as he read the headline.
"Ah! The post office story. Can't wait to read the goods on Aunt Bab-ra."
"I rewrote the query like you said and I'll pitch it to Yankee first."
JK nodded. "All well and good. Now, what in the name of God is wrong with your head?"
My advisor and Magazine Writing professor pointed a nicotine-stained finger at the left side of my face, which was noticeably puffed up.
"Ah, well, that was my, um, karate final last night," I muttered.
JK parted his lips and a near-silent braying laugh escaped from him. It was a rare thing to get him to laugh and despite my agony, some part of me--not my jaw, anyway--was secretly pleased. "You should have stuck to fencing, like I told you. What was it? Punch? Kick?"
"Kick," I said, cupping my jaw in the palm of my hand as I sat. "I was only supposed to match three opponents to get my purple belt, but the sensei miscounted and had me match a fourth guy, fella who was going for his green belt. Lotta wheel kicks in that crowd. Anyway, I knew what he was going to do, but I was just too goddamn tired to get my hands up in time, so...pow. Knocked me right over. Saw stars and everything. My girlfriend took me to the ER and they X-rayed me. Nothing broken, but the guy sprained my neck and my jaw. They gave me some Tylenol-3 for the pain, but I was too scared to take it--afraid I'd pass out and sleep through my final. So..."
"So instead you pulled an all-nighter and here you are, looking like bedraggled hell. You honestly think you can take the final? I'm sure Wright would give you an extension.'
"No way," I said. "I want to put Com Law out of my misery."
JK smiled at that again, then turned his attention back to a sheaf of papers. It wasn't our Mag Writing finals he was grading either, but a stapled bunch of papers with names on them. JK's class list for next semester. I suddenly found myself holding my breath.
"Well," he said, taking a long drag of his cigarette. "I suppose you came here to do more than make your deadline."
"Well," I echoed, "I guess I was wondering--"
"You were wondering if I was going to let you into my graduate-level writing class in the spring. The class that has only 9 students. The one that I never let undergrads into, unless I think they're hell on wheels. And even then, I only let in two, at most. Sometimes not even that many."
"Oh yeah, that one. Yeah, I guess I was a little curious."
"The Yankee gift for understatement. But I'm a Southron, boy. Can't think of a single reason to let a no-account New Hampshireman like you in. You who don't even have the sense to duck when someone kicks you in the head. Who couldn't even get into Toby Wolff's limp-wristed crowd of fantacists."
"Ah, but I'm excellent comic relief," I pointed out.
"That you are. But the chairman made a stink. Said your grades didn't warrant letting you in. You did earn only a C in his MAG 205 course. A frigging survey course, and you got a C. What ails you boy?"
"Aw, JK, that course was crap. We didn't even do any writing. You've read my stuff. You know what--"
The old man put a hand up and I quieted instantly. "I know. Fact is, you're one of the best undergrad writers in your year. And am I right--you're not even 21?"
"I'm legal three weeks after graduation. My parents sent me to kindergarten at 4. Not my fault."
"Jesus, not even 21. And already you're writing this book about your town, your uncle."
"Well, I'm a long way from a book--"
"I know. You're too stupid to know better. You're ready, skillwise, to write the damn thing, but you won't feel ready, wisewise, until you're 40." He exhaled a cloud of smoke at me. "But hell, maybe if we get you writing in my class next spring, we'll see if we can't prize that book out of you a little sooner."
My jaw stopped aching. "Seriously? But you said the chairman--"
"Oh yeah, him. Told him to fuck himself. One of the benefits of tenure. You may discover that yourself one day."
"Not me. I can't teach. I could never do what you do."
"Not right now. Get out there and rub some of that green off. Do some freelance. Get yourself a real job at a really big magazine. Then come back and inspire the hell out of these kids. God knows I'll be dead by then and they'll need someone else to do it."
"Luckily, you have some time to think about it. Although right now, you better get to your final."
"Oh shit, yeah!" I stood up to go, then turned back. "Hey, JK, thanks for letting me in your class I know I don't really deserve it--"
JK waved my paper at me, the way one waves away an offensive smell. "Please, stop. Spare me the false modesty. Grow yourself an ego that befits your talent. And we'll see you after the break."
With that, my friend and mentor saluted me with his cigarette, then kicked the door shut in my face.
Twenty years later (more or less):
I bounded across the street, the icy slush running over the tops of my shoes and soaking my socks. But I hardly felt it as I skipped up the steps to the plaza of the communications school. I stopped for a moment, staring in awe at the third building that had sprouted up--all shining and decorated with the words of the First Amendment--since last I was here. Then I walked in to the second building, feeling my nerves jangling as I thought about the afternoon ahead.
As I often do when I'm nervous and excited, I caught myself grinding my teeth and stopped there in the vestibule, took a moment to exhale, to unclench. I leaned my head this way, then that way, stretching my neck and working my jaw, trying to relax. As I did, I felt more than heard the dull crunching sound on one side of my jaw. I rubbed the small knot of scar tissue just down from my cheek, the souvenir of my long-ago karate final.
Then I turned right and sloshed my way down about five doors, stopping at the office whose door was propped wide open. No blue cloud wreathed the doorway--the campus buildings had long ago been declared smoke-free--but in all other respects, the atmosphere of the place was the same.
I poked my head in to the office and an older man with a beard looked up at me. I didn't expect to see JK, what with him being retired from the place for the past 18 years, and furthermore dead for the past 7. But I could feel his presence, nonetheless. I was ready, wisewise.
"Professor G?" I said, extending my hand to the unfamiliar face. "I'm the Magazine Man, and I'm here to inspire the hell out of your kids..."