Thursday, May 29, 2008

Stocking up on late-night reading

I'm finally restocking my nightstand with crime novels, after a long hiatus I can't fully explain. Last night I was reminded of what I've been missing. In Michael Dibden's And Then You Die, detective Aurelio Zen, assaying a bogus identity, is talking to a beautiful woman he has met on the beach:

"So where are you from?"
"Venice," he answered without thinking.
"Really? But no one's from Venice any more."
"I am that no one."

That's a nice bit of dialog, and I intend to steal it if I can figure out a method more subtle than outright plagiarism. Meanwhile, I'll reveal myself for the crime-fiction dilettante I am by admitting that this is the first Dibden book I've read. My friend Peter Rozovsky was recommending him years ago. With good reason, it seems.

I have a couple others on stack: Thirty-Three Teeth, featuring Colin Cotterill's Laotian coronor Siri Paiboun; and What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman. Based on previous experience, I have high hopes for both.

A new spin on the obvious

I don't give a damn about Scott McClellan's memoir, wherein the former White House press secretary makes the shocking revelation that Bush isn't such a great president. Thanks for the news flash, Scott. This is something we'd never have guessed, since things have gone so well over the past eight years.

I understand why disgruntled employees write books like this, but I can't understand why anyone buys them. Twenty-some bucks seems a little steep for a too-thick tome that confines itself to the obvious. Also, this is a book about liars written by a guy who earned his living telling them for three solid years. When Scott McClellan writes that the president "convinces himself to believe what suits his needs at the moment," it sounds like a pretty apt description of Scott McClellan.

Not to preach, but the time to act on moral qualms is when it matters, not when the ink is dry on the book contract. I'm reminded of Robert McNamara's confessional In Retrospect: Yeah, we all knew Vietnam was a mistake, but what's a defense secretary to do?

Here's what you do: You keep your trap shut and make a lot of money further down the road. You get on the talk shows again before everybody forgets your name. And you trust the credulous to pay again for information they already learned the hard way.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A breakfast of pancakes in Liberal


With my many business interests in western Kansas (see above photo), I can justify traversing the vast empty plains to get to a town like Liberal. It's all tax deductible. So I set the bar a little lower than your average tourist, who might might want a water slide or Wizard of Oz theme park to make the drive worthwhile. All I require is a good breakfast joint.

First the bad news: There is no water slide. Neither is there a Wizard of Oz theme park, unless you count Dorothy's House, which isn't so different from Dave Knadler's House except for the oversized sunflower cutouts and the crudely wrought figures suggesting the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. People often ask if this is the real Dorothy's house, but the bitter truth is that Dorothy is a fictional character and it's absurd to suppose that she would own real property.

The good news is that there is a pretty good breakfast joint. I congratulate myself for being savvy enough to find it. There was a guy in a shirt and tie pumping gas into a Buick hearse when we stopped at the outskirts of Liberal. When I asked about a place to get breakfast, he first mentioned Applebee's, which was just across the highway. Maybe I looked stricken; he then suggested the Pancake House -- cautioning me that it was not an IHOP.

The Pancake House is definitely not an IHOP. It looks like hell from the outside and is not all that elegant on the inside, with cheap veneer paneling and lack of windows and particularly well-worn carpet. But the place was packed on a Sunday morning and a squad of trim waitresses, dressed for comfort, radiated positive attitude and brisk efficiency. The food was pretty good too, highlighted, as you might expect, by a dozen or more varieties of pancakes. I appreciated that nothing on the menu had a tie-in with The Wizard of Oz. Just good food, good service, good prices. Dave Bob says check it out, next time you get to Liberal.

Which you will probably never do. Look, it's easy to be snide about little towns in Kansas that try to market themselves to tourists. But I'm not going to do that again. I'm just going to point out that in Liberal, like all towns in America above a certain size, the first thing you encounter is a Wal-Mart. Then you proceed down the Avenue of Franchises, past the obligatory Wendy's, and Arby's, and KFC and McDonald's and Burger King, past slapdash tanning salons and H&R Block storefronts, until you finally arrive at what the town used to be: a wide Main Street lined with handsome brick structures where the windows are now as vacant as the parking spaces. You could fire a shotgun down Liberal's Main Street at midday and never hit a soul. You could rent or buy any of this space for a song, but nobody's going to do that either. Those with big dreams about hawking antiques or used clothing quickly discovered that it was a buyer's market.

This isn't really an anti-Wal-Mart rant. If I lived in Liberal or Dodge City, I'd probably be heading out to Wal-Mart too. One-stop shopping, baby, and always the lowest price. But driving down all these dead Main Streets populated only by the ghosts of better decades, there does seem something wrong with an economic model that systematically eliminates anything about a town that makes it a town.

That's why I like a place like the Pancake House, with its dusty parking lot and ancient postcards and Kiwanis Club banner and pictures of the happy owners on a ski vacation some years back. You go up against the corporations and still pack a place on a Sunday morning, that deserves some respect.

The trip to Dodge City

Greetings from the Silver Spur Travelodge in Dodge City, Kansas, which commands a nice view of the O'Reilly Auto Parts store across the street. We traveled here yesterday because it is the Memorial Day weekend, and as Americans it is unthinkable that we should remain in our relatively comfortable home during the high holy day for road trips. We have come here because we felt like being someplace we'd never been before. In the case of Dodge City, apparently we are the only ones to have felt this way. We expected a line going out the door at the Teachers Hall of Fame, but in fact it was eerily empty, save for a shadowy figure behind the counter. We decided to catch it another day.

Dodge City looks nothing like the town I grew to love on Gunsmoke, although the city has made a game effort in one fenced-off city block that is lined with false-fronted buildings, all facing one direction. This is the city's frontier past, relocated and reimagined and rebuilt to the standards of the modern half-assed tourist draw. Inside, there are as many people dressed in Western regalia as there are tourists -- which is to say, about eight. From outside the fence separating those who wish to fork over $7 and those who don't, there isn't a lot to see.

About Dodge City, I can say this: It is a town, smaller than Wichita. And less flat, somehow. The people seem friendly enough. There are feedlots around here, and grain elevators, and more taquerias and Hispanic-themed discos than you can shake a stick at. There is a Long John Silver's, in keeping with the city's nautical heritage, and a Wal-Mart, and a La Quinta Inn, and new Burger King going in. There's a nice fitness trail out by the community college. If you come here during Memorial Day weekend, you'll not lack for fast food, nor be troubled by holiday crowds.

This morning we travel on to Liberal, home of the International Pancake Race. Which is scheduled about nine months from now.

Friday, May 23, 2008

In it to win it -- by default, if necessary

Look, we've all thought it, watching the young, energetic Barack Obama work the crowds in that charismatic way of his. But it took Hillary Clinton to say it: The last young, energetic, charismatic guy who was this close to the presidency got assassinated. Hillary raised the specter of Robert Kennedy during another explanation of why she should stay in a race that is well and truly lost.

Of all her tortured excuses, this is the one that probably comes closest to the truth. Hillary is finally laying her cards on the table: She's waiting for lightning to strike, and she's going to wait as long as it takes. Because, God forbid, her opponent could get killed -- either figuratively, by another Jeremiah Wright episode, or literally, by an assassin's bullet.

Well, a woman can dream. But this should give Obama pause in the unlikely event he's considering Hillary as a running mate. With talk like that, I'm not sure I'd want her within security perimeter, much less the office next door.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

You are now free
to get the hell off the plane

I curse the airlines' draconian ban on weapons every time I see some idiot blocking the aisle while trying to hoist a steamer trunk into or out of the overhead bins. If there's ever a time the use of deadly force is fully justified, this is it. I mean, when it doesn't cost anything to check a freaking bag, except for maybe 10 minutes at the end of the trip, why try to cram everything you own into a soft-sided footlocker and pretend it's not a major inconvenience for the rest of us? I guarantee, the few minutes you save by skirting baggage claim will be borne by everyone else forced to wait while you assess the various angles, pressure points and contortions necessary to get your overfilled bag and your lard ass out of the way. Oh, and don't forget your precious iBook, briefcase, James Patterson novel and cloth carryall filled with crap you couldn't do without at the duty-free shop. Why not bring an inflatable kayak too? It's just one more maddening obstacle between me and the blessed sanctuary of Concourse A.

This is why I would rather duck-walk than fly to most destinations. That goes double when the carrier is American Airlines, where the suits at have taken a long look at their troubled industry and concluded that the experience of air travel is not quite hellish enough. Deciding that passengers need additional incentive for boorish behavior, American has decided to charge $15 for the first checked bag.

Ingenious. People already routinely flout the carry-on restrictions, so let's make damn sure everyone brings more useless crap onto the plane. Let's increase the demand for overhead-bin space, secure in the knowledge that the supply is forever fixed. Let's arrange it so bellicose business travelers end up fist-fighting in the aisles: That will speed the boarding process and ensure an on-time departure.

Somewhere, at some airline, there is undoubtedly a plan to install coin slots on every seat recliner, tray table and toilet on the plane. I'm OK with that last one -- anything that deters people from stinking up the rear of the aircraft can't hurt -- but someday, I think, we may reach a point where the mental, physical and financial cost of flying will outweigh whatever convenience remains. Or we may return to the days when air travel was for the wealthy, those able to pay for limitless bags of stale pretzels and exclusive rights to their own overhead bin. That's when the rest of us get back to Greyhound, I guess. Or, God willing, the train.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Give me liberty, and give me dinner

Consumers cut driving but not eating, a new Reuters/Zogby poll shows. This is hardly surprising; forced to choose between feeding their SUVs or themselves, most sane people are going to choose their own pie holes, right? What gets me is the poll's assumption that the most obvious way to compensate for high gas prices is by stinting at supper.

Not this consumer. I've got a whole other tier of stupid consuming to eliminate before I start skipping meals, a lengthy list of things to do without at Best Buy, Netflix, Eddie Bauer, Land's End, Barnes & Noble and Lowes. I predict further shrinkage in the retail sector, but not, sadly, in my waistline. Pass the potatoes. I'll make up for it by biking to work -- at such time as I get another job.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Next on 'Meet The Press': Sean Penn

Turning now to politics, can we agree that actors are, by and large, wasting their talents by focusing mostly on acting and cosmetic surgery? How will we ever know the truth unless actors are brave enough to speak out?

Consider Hollywood sage Sean Penn, swaggering around Cannes this week and dispensing political wisdom like a retired newspaper columnist on crank. Speaking of Barack Obama, Penn had this to say:

"I hope that he will understand, if he is the nominee, the degree of disillusionment that will happen if he doesn't become a greater man than he will ever be.”

Hmm. Food for thought. I fear what will happen if I don't become a greater man than I will ever be, but thought of the same fate befalling the presumptive Democratic nominee -- well, that's scary. It was courageous of Mr. Penn to point it out. None of us, including him, should ever not become greater men than we will ever be.

Another Penn insight: "I'm certainly interested and excited by the hope that Barack Obama is inspiring.” Which is no small thing, considering Penn's citation, a few minutes later, of the candidate's “phenomenally inhuman and unconstitutional” voting record.

Inhuman? Unconstitutional? Since Obama voted with the majority of his inhuman Democratic colleagues 97 percent of the time during the current session, this could be a game-changer, as we pundits like to say. Nice catch, Sean. An October surprise in May! The Republican Party thanks you.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Same old content, new higher price

As much as I liked The Man From U.N.C.L.E as a kid, I don't recall ever lusting to see any particular episode more than once. In fact, we'd usually scorn the summer reruns as being beneath our dignity. Same with Bonanza, or Mannix, or Petticoat Junction. You'd fight for a place in front of the Zenith when they first aired; months later those same shows were of interest only to old farts and invalids who couldn't be bothered to turn off the TV after watching Hollywood Squares.

So it's interesting to note the success of various networks selling people stuff they've already seen, and, in the case of Showtime and HBO, already paid for. Apple made waves today by leaking word that it plans to sell HBO shows on iTunes -- for a higher price than its other dog-eared reruns, like The Office. The news is supposed to be the concept of variable pricing, but to me the real shocker is how many millions of people will pony up again and again for the same content.

Is there really anyone out there who has not seen every Sex and The City episode seven times? Anyone who can't recite Sopranos dialog from sheer rote learning? Is it worth another three or four bucks an episode to have these retreads on your hard drive?

Never mind. I know the answer. It's just that every time I visit a library or Barnes & Noble, I see thousands of books I haven't read. All new content; buy a title once and it's yours. Period. Pick up a book, people. In these uncertain economic times, it's a great way to economize.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Money for nothing, and Cialis for cheap

Let's go now to the mail bag. Here's a recent message from Kingsley Dominic, Chief Auditor to the President of Nigeria:
SENATE COMMITEE ON APPROPRIATION

Attn: Beneficiary, Congratulations,the senate house federal Repuplic of Nigeria has chosen you by the board committe on appropriation and finance as one of it's final ATM recipients Your ATM card of $5,500,000.00 has been issued out. For claim provide personal information Name,Country,Phone Number,and Address which you want the parcel to be deliverd
TO DR. EZE AYOGU
ATM PAYMENT DEPARTMENT
Dear Dr. Ayogu: I think we see why the people of Nigeria are in such financial straits, with their government handing out ATM cards willy-nilly. Sending $5.5 million to me, even as deserving as I am, seems an overly extravagant gesture and out of concern for Third World hunger, I cannot accept the dough at this time. Perhaps you and the others on the Senate Commitee on Appropriation can use it to purchase new SUVs for yourselves and your families.

One of the great things about blogging is the lasting e-mail relationships you form. Longtime correspondent Easy Google Profit writes to inquire:

IS YOUR COMPUTER MAKING YOU MONEY?
LEARN TO MAKE EASY GOOGLE PROFIT. CLICK HERE.

Dear Easy: No, my computer is not making me money. I've tried restarting it and updating the video drivers. I think it's a bug in Vista.

Perhaps reflecting the national zeitgeist, a number of readers have written this week to offer their services in the unlikely event that I might suffer from erectile dysfunction. Alvin English, Denis Darling, Gretchen Bryant, Gilbert Barnhart and 551 others were all inspired to notify me thusly:

Dear!!,

Do you have problems with good p/h/a/r/m/a/c/y store at your country? Don't know good place to buy pills?
There won't be any such problem anymore if you'll visit LegalRxMeDS d/r/u/g/ store.
B.u.y any m/e/d/i/c/a/t/i/o/n that you need here and get them shipped worldwide instantly.
Go v/i/s/i/t http://lopxhayo.net

nrgyq

Dear Alvin, Denis, et. al.: Thanks for the heads up. By the way, don't know good place to buy keyboard? Yours put slash in odd area and make salutation as gibberish. Go v/i/s/i/t http://logitech .com. They make you good deal and there won't be any such problem anymore.

Finally, Policelink Scholarships always offers helpful advice on the blog. The most recent:

David Knadler:

CLICK HERE TO SEE HOW EASY IT IS TO BECOME A POLICE OFFICER

Dear Policelink: Why do I have to click? Shouldn't it be easier than that? Yes, I've enjoyed the video of the Philly cops beating the hell out those guys and I might be interested in more information on this rewarding career. But clicking is just kind of inconvenient right now.

Well, I see we've run out of space once again. But do keep those e-mails coming. They give meaning to my day.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Marley and he are back.


It's one thing to leave the newspaper business and struggle on through reduced circumstances -- for example, writing a lame blog like this one without compensation. It's quite another to leave the newspaper business and make several million dollars writing about a deceased dog. Perhaps this is why John Grogan, the author of Marley and Me and numerous other books on the same subject, is not universally revered at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where we both used to work. I never met the man and I'm sure he's a great guy, but when you leave the hallowed halls of journalism it's considered bad form to rub journalists' noses in it by becoming a millionaire.

And it's considered really bad form to have a film crew descend on the newsroom (pictured above) where one's former coworkers still toil, making their work a bit more hellish for the day by the addition of 250 movie folk to record a few seconds of Owen Wilson striding purposefully through the newsroom. I never saw the real John Grogan do that, incidentally, but doubtless it's because we worked different shifts.

Most places, the arrival of a film crew would create breathless excitement. At the Inquirer, I'm guessing it will trigger slightly more bitching than a new round of downsizing. The thing is, you're asking people to sit at a different computer, for God's sake, where there is probably a weird trackball instead of a mouse, and a split keyboard and a monitor on a milk crate and a ratty chair adjusted so you're practically sitting on the floor. You're forcing them to box up their inflatable palm trees and Tom Toles cartoons and hip figurines so they won't be crushed underfoot by the Hollywood crowd.

In an era of serial indignities for newspaper people, this is just another one -- but it's all the greater for the fact that the disruption is necessary to create the illusion that a writer of dog books was somehow the Jimmy Breslin of North Broad Street. It's like Fox commandeering the Louvre for a day to make a movie about Thomas Kinkade.

The movie's out in December. But I think this Marley business has gone far enough. My boycott starts now.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The contestant who just won't quit

It's farewell night at American Idol, and Ryan Seacrest is standing there with Jason and Syesha, who are holding hands and biting their lower lips.

"America voted," Ryan intones. "And Jason ... (38 second pause for dramatic effect) ... your journey ends here." The audience goes wild. Jason just grins. They cut to the montage showing Jason's finest moments from the show and then he sings "Mr. Tambourine Man" again, this time forgetting the melody instead of just a verse.

"Good luck in your future endeavors," Ryan says. "That's all for tonight. Next week, it's Vanilla Ice night on American Idol and ... " He notices Jason is still standing beside him, still grinning. "Uh, Jason. Sweetheart. You lost, man. The exit is over there."

Jason shakes his head ruefully. "I'm a fighter, Ryan. I'm staying in this race until there is an American Idol, and obviously I'm going to work as hard as I can to become that American Idol."

Ryan just stares. "The thing is, Jason, you got the least amount of votes. Did you not hear me say that? You're out. Gone. Finito. Hasta la vista. Catch you on the flip side."

Jason shrugs. "Whatever, man. But I'm staying in the race because the polls show I'm the only one who speaks to the concerns of libidinous white middle-aged moms who have been known to smoke a little weed themselves."

Ryan: "What the hell are you talking about? Once more: America. Voted. You need to lay off the bong, man."

Jason: "I believe that I'm the stronger candidate against David Archuleta. And I believe I would be the best Idol among the four of us running."

Ryan: "You mean three. Can we get security in here?"

Jason: "If we had the rules Dancing with the Stars had, I'd be the winner. We have a much more complicated process."

Ryan: "So you're really not leaving? Even though your lifelong mentor Bob Marley has spoken from beyond the grave and endorsed your rival, whom many of us refer to as The Boy From the Planet Zontar?"

Jason: "No. I'm not. "

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Why does no one pander to me?

You know, Hillary Clinton's probably going to win this thing. It doesn't even matter what happens in North Carolina or Indiana today. Like the lower half of her pantsuits, her campaign is finally approaching critical mass. The woman from Wellesley has morphed into the Okie from Muskogee. She's schmoozing losers in greasy diners. She's bellowing from the backs of pickup trucks. She'd be chewing tobacco and driving a mule if she thought it would get three more votes in Lincoln County. Obama, on the other hand, is starting to look like a seventh-grade civics teacher, weary of explaining to dim adolescents why the government can't make people richer by printing more money.

Memo to Obama: See what is possible when you shrug off the tiresome rules of physics? You can promise all things to all people without shame. Your strength becomes greater than 10 CNN analysts. Your hair regains its youthful luster. Your sense of direction becomes exquisite: It coincides precisely with the way the wind is blowing.

Not that I'm for or against shameless pandering. I just wish both candidates would pander more to me, personally: a newly unemployed person who would prefer not to tell pollsters that he watches American Idol and owns a pit bull. I don't eat in crappy diners and I never saw anyone shouting in the back of a pickup who wasn't involved in a fistfight later that night. I've never drawn unemployment, but I wouldn't mind getting some money in the mail. My house was affordable and my payments aren't bad, but hey: if you can make them go away, I'm all for it. And as long as you're promising cheaper gas, why not make it free? Throw me a bone here. If you can't change my life in meaningful ways, at least extend the courtesy of an empty promise.

Actually, I have the TV on now and it appears that Hillary has just promised all of the above. Alrighty then. Eighteen months ago I bet a coworker dinner that however the Democratic race ended up, Obama would finish ahead of Clinton. I see I shall now have to renege. Obama may talk about change, but Hillary talks about pocket change. Dave's Fiction Warehouse now projects that she's winning it all.

And don't talk to me about superdelegates. Yeah, Obama may still have the lead. But the rest know that if they don't play along, one morning they'll get out of a nice hot shower and open up the medicine cabinet, and when they close it there will be Hillary in the mirror, smiling unpleasantly. "Remember me? Losers lose, friend-o." That's one campaign promise she'll definitely keep.

Monday, May 5, 2008

A movie no one should have to see


I always appreciate the New York Times' roundup of summer movies, where we learn that once again Batman, the Hulk and Adam Sandler will be headlining at the Hell Dodecaplex until Labor Day. How much more warning does one need not to get within eight miles of a theater this summer?

Except I'll probably have to, at some point. I admit I'm kind of excited about seeing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Solid Gold Sequel. Also, and I'm not proud of this, I made a vague promise to the wife that I'd go see some future movie of her choosing if she didn't get too restive during The Bourne Ultimatum last year. She upheld her end of the bargain; now I must pay the dreadful price.

Yes, Sex and the City. This is what comes of not thinking things through. If there were ever a movie that is not The Bourne Ultimatum, this is it. If there were ever a movie I'd rather be waterboarded than see, ditto. But a promise is a promise. Unless I can think of some way out of it.

The Times devotes about 4,000 inches to Sex and the City -- about the same space Manohla Dargis uses in the same section to resurrect the tired case that you never see women in movies these days. Uh, right. But maybe the aging tarts of Sex and the City do not count as real women, having been caricatures of gay men for lo these many years.

Anyway, I'll be there. Spoiler alert: In the Times story, director Michael Patrick King appears to rule out killing one or all of the main characters. Sigh. I'll just have to make the best of it.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

A farewell to copy

On Friday I walked out of a newspaper building as an employee for the last time. During the stroll to the far end of the parking lot, I did a brief review of my career. Here's the high point: I've worked at newspapers that have won Pulitzer prizes. And the low point: None of those Pulitzers were won while I was working at the newspapers in question. Hey, I'm sure that's just bad timing.

Of the half dozen papers I worked for, the best was the Philadelphia Inquirer. The worst was the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Mont.

When you enter the cavernous newsroom of the Inquirer, you pass by a wall festooned with pictures of reporters and editors who have won Pulitzers. It is a measure of my love of journalism that when I looked at these pictures, I usually reflected not on the prize-winning stories they reported, but on the clothes they were wearing. Look at them: All these gifted journalists, photographed at the very apex of their careers, and most of them are dressed like the goofy husbands on “The Brady Brides.” It makes you think. Not just about the vagaries of fashion, but about the impermanence of glory. And yes, these days, the impermanence of newspapers.

Clothes were my first concern when I got into the newspaper business. On the day The Daily Inter Lake called and offered me $125 a week to be a reporter, I went to the Kalispell Mercantile and picked out a corduroy jacket the color of burley tobacco. I also bought a fat knit tie, maroon. I already owned a pair of flared polyester slacks. The resulting ensemble became my work uniform. After working the previous two years at a camper manufacturing plant, it felt good to get up in the morning and put on a tie. I would ride my bike to work and after getting a cup of coffee I would pull the knot of my tie down to about the middle of my chest. I wanted to look as though I'd been meeting anonymous sources in parking garages, then working late into the night crafting historic leads in clouds of cigarette smoke.

Not that I ever experienced such a thing. My main job at the newspaper involved cultivating my amiable sources at the county extension office. At other times I would wander through the courthouse and wonder if I shouldn’t be more brash. Mornings I would walk down to the police station to see if there were any scoops to be had. There never were.

At no time in three years of this did an editor pull me aside and mention that all my stuff was crap. There was no need, really. At a small-town newspaper, an editor has bigger fish to fry: hobnobbing with the Rotary, the Kiwanis, the Chamber of Commerce guys, trying to bolster fair attendance with feature stories that were identical from one year to the next.

You'd think the lack of supervision would have made me a real self-starter, the kind of hard-charging reporter they’re always talking about in the Editor & Publisher recruiting ads. But it didn’t really. It just made me more lazy. In between my City Council meeting stories and court briefs and rewrites of Forest Service press releases, I would usually spend hours working on my column.

At that time at the Daily Inter Lake, anybody who wanted a column could write one. At most newspapers, if you had a policy like that you’d end up with a lot of meandering, self-indulgent blather, and readers would phone to ask why they were paying for this crap. That was the situation at the Daily Inter Lake, too, but no one running the newspaper seemed to care. My column, like those of my peers, was sarcastic and uninformed and not very funny when it tried to be. It ran with my picture: a callow guy in need of a haircut, with a frozen expression that suggested world-weary cynicism, and just a touch of constipation.

I guess that is another difference between me and the prize-winners at the Inquirer, aside from the actual prize: they have a look of almost fanatical integrity, thin tenacious smiles that seem faintly accusatory. No matter where you stand they always seem to be looking at you. It’s disconcerting. In each of two or three column photos I had taken, I appear to be looking elsewhere, shifty eyed. No wonder: I was a fraud and I knew it. I couldn’t report my way out of a paper sack. If the authorities told me there was no story, I would believe them. If free stuff came to the paper I would keep it. Sure, it was a heady time elsewhere in the industry. History was being made. Injustice was being exposed. A president was being driven from office. But in Kalispell, Mont., chicken dinners were being covered.


That was my first assignment for the Daily Inter Lake: Covering the annual banquet of the Future Farmers of America in a high school cafeteria. I was assigned a Yashica 124D with an enormous Honeywell strobe attached to it. With such a strobe, you could stand at the back of a gymnasium and illuminate the whole interior. Anyone unfortunate enough to be looking at the camera would be seeing spots for days afterward.

Part of my assignment that night was to photograph the winner of a prestigious FFA award, the Silver Swine or something. The problem was, I was seated at a table roughly 30 yards from the lectern. I was kind of shy, unsure of protocol -- what if I approached and was tackled by security? So at the moment the winner was announced I jumped up and snapped off a couple shots at my quarry, barely visible in the viewfinder. I sat right back down again, face burning, hoping no one had noticed.

I saw the contact prints later: two tiny figures in the distance across a sea of banquet tables, the few blurry heads in the foreground glowing like suns. The Inter Lake actually used the picture, enlarging it about 800 percent and power cropping to produce a two-column image that resembled a frame from the Zapruder film. No matter: Somewhere in there a kid was getting his trophy. Mission accomplished.

The first byline story I ever wrote was about a city council meeting. I forget what was on the agenda; something about sewer improvement districts, I imagine. I sat at the back for four hours, resplendent in my corduroy jacket, and came away with no idea what any of it meant. Back at the darkened newspaper, I sat down at my desk, spooled paper into my Royal typewriter and stared at it. I knew a feeling of total despair. I could not leave until the story was finished, and yet as far as my memory served, absolutely nothing had occurred.

Fortunately, I had kept meticulous notes. Since I was a new reporter, no remark or digression had been too inane to record. Using the agenda they handed out at the start of the meeting, I was able to determine, roughly, which quotes went with which item of business. I went to work, faithfully transcribing the contents of my notebook into a chronological narrative that was, if anything, more tedious than the meeting itself. I know it took longer to write.

I left the whole mess on the editor's desk and got the hell out of there. It was long past midnight. The next afternoon I was afraid to look at the paper. But there was my story, on the bottom of page one. Except it wasn't my story. The beginning was different. Also the middle, and the end. And it was very short. I reread it and it dawned on me that a long-suffering editor had done with my horrible story what the darkroom technician had earlier done with my wretched photo at the banquet: pared away the worst of the crap to arrive at something at least marginally useful.

You hear about prima donna reporters standing over their editors debating the deletions of single words, engaging in eloquent arguments over the placement of transitions and the aptness of metaphors. I've met reporters like that. But I wasn’t one of them. I could never forget that moment looking at the newspaper, supremely grateful, like a hit-and-run driver discovering someone else was suspected of the crime. I reread the story and thought: that editor knew better than I what happened, and he wasn’t even there.

The rest, as they say, is history. I became a copy editor and a news editor and have passed the intervening decades fixing the work of others, excising cliches like "The rest, as they say, is history." Sometimes I've helped save reporters from catastrophic mistakes; at no time, I hope, have I ever made anything worse or harder to understand.

Does that constitute a rewarding career? From this side of it, no. I have a lot of amusing stories about headline gaffes and reporting errors, but my picture hangs in no newsrooms. Then again, I remember that corduroy sport coat and terrible tie. Maybe I should be thankful.