Saturday, April 24, 2010

Do You Have Any Questions For Us?

I interviewed for a faculty/media position a few weeks back at a university that shall remain nameless. Suffice it to say that the main campus is about five hours southeast of Longview. Its fans wear lots of purple and are considered quite rabid in their devotion to their athletic teams — football in particular. And the mascot is a large feline. You can take it from there.

Anyway, I didn’t get the job. Nobody got the job, as it turned out. I was informed that the search would begin anew, that the committee elected not to choose any of the three finalists, including yours truly. I don’t know who the other two finalists were.

I suspect money woes might have had more to do with the decision, or non-decision, since the job has not been re-posted. The entire three days I was there, the newspaper was filled with dire headlines about draconian budget cuts proposed at said university — a common practice these days, sadly. Lord knows the football program won’t see any real cuts, but most other programs at universities across the country face cuts, hiring freezes and layoffs.

This is the first time in more than 20 years that I have interviewed at a university. (I didn’t get hired that time, either) My Beautiful Mystery Companion, who has experience in these matters, had warned me it would be a grueling experience. Truth be told, now that I have endured such a session, I would rather eat busted glass with a bleach chaser. And actually, there were really nice people. But after two-and-half days of non-stop smiling and talking, making nice and continually being asked one question again and again, I was ready to: well, no matter.
Here is the question:

Do you have any questions for us?

My BMC warned me this is an academic trick. What she didn’t warn me is that I would be asked this by every dadgum person with whom I spoke, and I was flopped on the griddle with about 15 different people.

Do you have any questions for us?

I did all right the first couple of times when asked because actually, I did have a couple of questions. Except the two questions I really wanted answers to can’t be asked, I was told by folks in the know. Those questions are:

How much does the job pay?
When are you people going to make a decision?

It is considered poor form to ask either of these — which to my way of thinking are pretty darned basic questions that shouldn’t even have to be asked. They should tell you up front so if it doesn’t pay enough, or they’re not going to decide, being academia — which moves typically at glacial speed — until next Christmas, you can move on to the next job listing.

Newspaper jobs are usually up front about those key details. Not academia. You just have to wait until eventually the two main items you really care about — money and timing — are revealed from upon high. It is a goofy system, in my view.

Do you have any questions for us?

Good grief, I thought at one point. If I sent out a reporter on an assignment who sat there and asked the person being interviewed, “So, do you have any questions for me?” I would be looking for a new reporter quite soon. I am the one being interviewed. These people are the ones supposed to be asking the questions, and I am supposed to be dazzling them with my brilliant answers. Instead I am having to make up questions so as not to repeat myself.

At the final dinner, with the department chair, I broke the interview rule and had a glass of wine, since he did as well. The rule, again according to those in the know, is that the applicant should never drink, even if everyone else is downing tequila shots and licking the salt off each other’s wrists. By the final night, I bent the rule and had a glass of cabernet. Sure enough, he asked me:

Do you have any questions for us?

I looked at him and said I was flat questioned out. We spent the rest of the night talking politics and sharing war stories. We got along well.

On the way home I popped the question. Exactly how much does this job pay, anyway? He told me.

Of course, it turned out to be a moot point. But I had to ask.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Packing It Up

I am preparing to leave Longview. No surprise there, because I’m unemployed and on relief, as my aged friend puts it. Job prospects are poor here, since I’m only interested in running a newspaper. That job has been taken, rather rudely I might add.

I received my first relief check the other day. Actually, now one receives a debit card with a weekly amount placed on it, which is mighty handy. This is the first time in my 40-year work history that I have received unemployment, so I have a clear conscience. What is more, it will be short-lived. It is too early to make an announcement. It is not too early to begin packing, so that is how I have spent my days lately.

In celebration of my first “relief” check, I took my debit card and went over to Harley’s, the closest package store to my house and bought two bottles of sauvignon blanc, since the weather is getting warm. I tend to switch to cold wine as the temperature rises. Besides, I wanted to make sure the PIN on the debit card worked.

It did. This is a great country.

The last move, a little more than two years ago from Lufkin to Longview, spoiled me. The company paid the full deal, packing everything and moving me 90 miles north. I insisted on unpacking so I would know where everything ended up. This time I will get to handle the boxes on both ends, though my new employer is generously financing the transport costs.

All of the other moves over the past 20 years, save for the one from Lufkin to Longview just mentioned, were cross town or across the Angelina River and self-financed. I packed sloppily, made lots of trips, paid hefty fellows to do the heavy lifting as I grew older, and stretched the move out over a week or more. I can’t do that this time, since I’m headed several hundred miles away.

So I pack and pack, and pack some more, in the course of which I find dumb stuff that it is time to shed. There is the Carlos n’ Charlie gimme cap from Cozumel that I never wore. I am too old to wear a Carlos n’ Charlie’s cap. Heck, I was too old to wear it when I bought it, since I would be trying to look hip when I decidedly am not.

I chunk the massive wine opener that came as a gift for joining some wine of the season club. It never worked and mainly served as a fur-gathering place for Maggie the cat, who has since has moved on to other quarters. Gone is the odd collection of book bags gathered at conventions and never used. Tossed are too-tight sweatshirts one hoped to shrink back into. Tattered jeans that simply shouldn’t be worn in public anymore head out the door. And so forth.

When you are either letting other folks pack you or are only moving across town, you get lazy about moving stuff that isn’t needed. At least I did. This move, I am ruthless. The Goodwill store folks are seeing a lot of me. I have made at least a half-dozen trips thus far, once the back of the hybrid SUV is filled. You get more tax-deduction receipts that way. (Only kidding, IRS people who might happen along this column.)

I still haven’t tackled packing up the woodshop. Not long after this is posted, I’ll finish staining my desk, the last piece I will build here. It matches three other mission-style pieces I’ve built over the years: a sofa, a Morris chair and ottoman, and a side table. When I get to where I am heading, that is where I will sit most nights — writing these missives and other pieces, at that desk.

Soon I will start packing up the shop. Most of the large power tools will go into the care of my son-in-law (it is weird to think I have one of those — makes me feel old) who does woodworking and has the space, until I again have time and a shop of my own. I will take to where I am going hand tools and enough stuff to putter around. More on all that later.

Meanwhile, it is back to packing. Who ever knew one middle-aged guy living by himself could acquire so much stuff? A few more trips to Goodwill are definitely on the agenda.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Swapping Stories, Sipping Whiskey

OUTSIDE OF WACO — We sat swapping stories and sipping whiskey on the back porch — five newspapermen with plenty of mileage on us — as March blew out through a haze of pollen. I calculate together we have logged somewhere around 180 years in this business. All those years working at newspapers guaranteed some fine tales to tell. But first we feasted on ribs, grilled shrimp, Uncle Dan’s famous white potato salad, and beans — all washed down with ice-cold beer. The whiskey came later. As Texas songwriter Radney Foster put it, “Good whiskey never done me wrong.”

Our host retired as a publisher a few years back, unretired last year for a temporary stint, and unvoluntarily re-retired the day after my association ended with the Longview paper. It’s a bit complicated. He did all the cooking — though he confessed heading down to Uncle Dan’s Barbecue to buy the potato salad. I eat beef and pork only rarely, since I battle high cholesterol and would rather not risk a second heart attack. The first one, albeit minor, gained my attention a few years back.

But that night I chomped on those ribs as if I were 19 years old with arteries as free-flowing as a sewer pipe once Roto-Rooter has made a pass. It was time to celebrate the five of us being together again — an event that may never recur, so my arteries were on their own.

We used to work for the same newspaper company and loved it. Two of the five grizzled guys are retired. The youngest of the bunch is still gainfully employed with a regular paycheck. Another is doing quite well with Web-site contracting work, after having been cut loose in one of those waves of layoffs that sweep through metro newspapers far too often these days. Then there’s me — recently unemployed but itching for work. It lurks just around the corner.

Two of the guys told a rather convoluted tale about a fellow at the paper where they worked who killed his lover and stuck her body in a barrel in the closet at the paper. The stench finally found him out. At the paper also worked a grumpy maintenance fellow, who one of the guys used to regularly visit when he was in a bad mood, because it always cheered him up. “No matter how bad my day was, I could always count on his day having been worse,” my buddy said. “He was just that kind of guy.”
“Dave did it,” the maintenance man said “He killed that woman.” Turns out he was dead-on. The killer spent 16 years in prison.

I had a hard time topping that story, as one might imagine. I think I told them about the sports editor at the Round Rock paper who tossed his manual typewriter out of our second-story newsroom, then walked in and handed the publisher 50 bucks in reparation. If I didn’t tell it, I meant to.

Three big dogs lay at our feet, as the wind shook the magnificent live oaks out back. Earlier, I had admired the longhorn cattle hanging back at a distance, and the burros waiting for someone to feed them. Someday I want a place with critters to feed.
The stories continued into the night — crotchety bosses, the time one of the buddies, for whom I was working at the time, was picketed in Nacogdoches by a wacko cult as he attended church. He’s a Methodist. Who pickets Methodists?

One of the reasons I’m loath to leave this business are the stories, the people you meet, knowing every day likely will be an adventure. If you find the right folks to work for, even in these uncertain times, running a newspaper is the most fun I know how to have with my clothes on. The trick is finding the right folks to work for, I’m learning.

So if things go well, that is what I will be doing again soon — newspapering. All five of us got in this business because we wake up every morning and can’t wait to pick up that daily miracle, praying to God there isn’t a misspelled headline or other egregious error. Even the guys who are out of the day-to-day still read their hometown paper as if it were their own.

Hanging out with longtime newspaper friends on a breezy spring night, swapping stories and petting dogs — heck, it doesn’t have to get any better than that. I told them I would stay in touch, urged them to do the same. By then any more whiskey would have laid lie to Radney’s sentiments about the stuff never doing one wrong, so we all wisely shuffled off to our separate beds at a reasonable hour.

I wish I had left them with my favorite farewell: See y’all in the funny papers.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Fooled By The Lovely Cover

A few months ago I received a postcard. Its cover displayed a photograph of a magenta camellia blossom, a raindrop about to slide off the lowest petal. How lovely, I thought. Fan mail.

The canceled stamp featured legendary black baseball pitcher Satchel Paige, who pitched three shutout innings at the estimated age of 60 (nobody, apparently including him, knew his actual birthday) for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965. Paige was a legend in the Negro Leagues, a showboat who backed up his boasting with his deeds, a precursor to Muhammad Ali. Paige finally got his chance in the Major Leagues at the age of 42, where he pitched sporadically for another two decades.

Paige was eminently quotable. One of my favorites lines is: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Excellent advice.

Anyway, I didn’t at first recall what I wrote that prompted this postcard from a fellow named George. It was an editorial, not a column, the difference being that the editorial purports to represent the newspaper’s viewpoint and not just mine. Also, an editorial is unsigned for that reason. That’s a bit of inside baseball. Whatever I published set off George, who wrote:

You should read David Duke’s book — “MY AWAKENING” and Evans’ book — “BLACKLISTED BY HISTORY.” You seem to be educationally disadvantaged about Americanism and truth. And Racist.
All you bleeding heart liberals & socialists are useful idiots for Zionists and Communists. America is doomed. Read & learn — See the Truth. Love — Don’t hate!

When I recently found the postcard, I again tried to remember what set George off in mid-January when I received this postcard. Looking up what “Blacklisted by History” is about reminded me. It is a revisionist biography of Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator who ruined hundreds of people’s lives by falsely accusing them of being Communists. McCarthy eventually was censured by the Senate for his ham-handed tactics and died as a result of alcoholism before reaching his 50th birthday.

Far as I’m concerned, Joseph McCarthy is one of the villains in American history.

That’s why I wrote an editorial in January blasting some members of the State Board of Education, who wanted to rewrite history and praise McCarthy for fighting Communism.

Right. While we’re at it, let’s praise George Wallace and Lester Maddox for their racial tolerance. I believe I will pass on reading “Blacklisted by History.” I put it in the same genre as those Holocaust denial books.

As for David Duke, I don’t plan on reading his autobiography either. Duke was just another run-of-the-mill racist white supremacist until he scared the pants off everyone in 1991 by nearly capturing the governorship of Louisiana. Folks over there were forced to elect Edwin Edwards for a third time. I remember seeing “Vote for the Crook” bumper stickers in Shreveport. That referred to Edwards, who is still serving time in a federal prison for taking kickbacks.

Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the KKK, now claims to have a doctorate as he peddles his book and other merchandise online. I didn’t know one could get a PhD in racism.
The contradictions in this postcard abound, curving around each other like a Satchel Paige screwball headed toward the plate. A camellia blossom on the front, one of my favorite flowers because it blooms all winter. I will soon be leaving this old house. One of the things I will miss most is the camellia tree on the south. It reaches the roofline and boasts hundreds of pink blooms until early April.

There’s that stamp of Satchel Paige, the famed black pitcher, and a recommendation to read David Duke’s autobiography. Duke says, according to his Web site, “belief in racial equality is the modern scientific equivalent of believing that the earth is flat.”

There is the implication that I am a bleeding heart liberal and a socialist, as if they are the same. As if those labels even mean anything. And that makes us tools of the Zionists and Communists.

And then there is the final admonition on the card: Love. Don’t hate!
I wish I could believe George was sincere when he wrote that last line. But I can’t.