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In Your Dreams

03/11/2010

A friend at Pace referred a student to me who had some questions about a career in journalism. Here’s what I had to say to him:

Jonathan,
You asked, “Could you tell me a little bit about your job, your experience with journalism, and any advice/insights you’ve learned while figuring out what you wanted to do?” Your question, though an excellent one, proved a lot more difficult to answer than I anticipated. Just what advice does an editor who got laid off after 35 years in journalism give to a student who’s weighing the pluses and minuses of a career in journalism? Our era’s almost obligatory and, to my taste, Panglossian answer has become, “Follow your dreams. Go for it.” But being a curmudgeon and cynic from birth, I wouldn’t have given you that advice decades  ago when journalism was considered glamorous after Deep Throat spurred thousands enter the field. When I became a journalist, newspapering was, at best, marginal. “Scoop” my friends derisively called me.

I sure wasn’t following my dream when I went to work for the Winston Salem Journal in 1974. I was just  trying to find something else to do other than teaching Latin to rich, spoiled prep-school students. Joe Goodman, a Duke art-history grad who was one of the sharpest editors and best teachers I ever encountered, hired me, though I hadn’t spent a minute in a journalism class. I won’t bore you with the details of my newspaper career. Hitting the highlights, though, I started out doing weather and obits at the Journal and ended up helping the paper to win the N.C. Press Award for investigative reporting. You could do that back then. “Defend yourself,” Goodman would say, coming to each desk with his clipboard. As long as you could come up with a story idea better than the routine ones he had listed, a reporter could chase any story he or she wanted to.  At Cocoa TODAY, the prototype for USA TODAY, I covered the Space Shuttle as it tried to escape the Earth’s and technology’s grip. At the Jacksonville Times-Union, I got to watch brain and heart surgery. And I also spent Christmas in Beirut.

I loved every minute of it. I loved working with a cast of original characters – and drinking way too heavily with them night after night. I loved the juice and the feeling of being on a winning team, something I’d never experienced before. I remember someone coming into the Journal newsroom and complaining to the managing editor that I was being way too hard on them. A Lucky Strike in the corner of his mouth, the M.E. led the complainant out into the newsroom and pointed at the host of misfits out there, many typing with one finger. “You think Bailey’s bad. I got lots more like him and if you don’t get out of here, I’ll have every one of them on your case.”

I also loved the feeling of privilege being a reporter gave me, meeting everyone from film producers to presidents, and being able to ask any one of them anything I wanted, at any time. Most of all, I loved getting paid for doing things like watching shuttle engines blow up in Bay St. Louis where the  Louisiana crayfish were plentiful, cheap and delicious; riding a horse through the Mayan jungle to poke around in unexcavated pyramids;  eating lunch overlooking Beirut in a dining room which had a hole punched in the wall by the USS New Jersey. I probably should have been willing to move north and sign onto a first-rate paper, but I didn’t wanna. And back then, if you were good and in demand and winning prizes, you could have a great career and earn good money and avoid doing what you didn’t wanna do.
Looking back, I guess I worked in the golden age of American newspapering.

But what I most wanted to do was to work for magazines. A friend from Winston-Salem Journal of Marxist leaning published one in my home state, Business North Carolina, and I went to work for him, spending months on stories instead of days. I loved it even more than newspapering, loved figuring out what made companies tick — or not tick — loved writing profiles of the richest and most powerful people in the state. And I discovered that I loved fixing other people’s prose. As I moved from BNC to Sky, I realized that it was fun dispatching others to exotic places to chase their dreams — maybe not quite as much fun as paddling the Amazon River or running in the amateur Olympic games in Greece or searching for the best soft-shelled crab sandwich in Maryland. But concepting and assigning stories and ultimately coordinating  special issues, like our all-coffee issue or our all-pet issue, was exhilarating and rewarding. But what I discovered I liked more than anything else about journalism was working with a group of smart and gifted people who are passionate and totally committed to sharing stuff they really find neat with the rest of the world — and, again, drinking way too much with them.

When you’re part of a band like that, making music that your audience and cohorts tell you is first-rate, life is just about as good as it gets. It’s a dream job. So what if it doesn’t last forever — what does? So what the hell. Who am I to discourage you? Follow your dream if your dream is to do journalism. Mine still is.

David

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Now and Zen

01/31/2010

I’m coming up on a year since I joined the ranks of the

unemployed, along with something like 500,000 of my fellow Tarheels. Despite a very generous and supportive chance by Dennis Quaintance and Mark File to discover whether or not my talents lie in marketing (They do not), I am still searching for a permanent job.

As I’ve commented before: I never ever realized how much hard work is involved in being unemployed.  I recently took stock of what I’ve done over the past year to see if I might find a lead or two for future work.

As a friend commented the other day — and I really hadn’t thought about it in just that way — “At least it hasn’t been boring.”

He’s got a point. Here’s some of what  I’ve done during the last 11 months:

• I cleaned up and edited, and sometimes rereported and rewrote 159 600-word-long city profiles for a prominent publlisher of guide books.

• I just completed a story — eight months in the making —  on the North Carolina wine industry for Business North Carolina magazine. It will be out later this month .

• I also edited a BNC story on TROSA, a residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in Durham. And I renewed a relationship with one of the toughest and best editors I’ve ever worked with, David Kinney. 

• I’m proofreading (It’s called a “cold read” in the industry) a novel.  The genre is Urban Fiction, and as a lifelong fan of Chester Himes, I’m loving it.

• I collected travel tips from the likes of John Peterman, of The J. Peterman Company, and Marco Coppiardi, who handmakes precise replicas of violins, violas and cellos by Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati. Also from Jane and Michael Stern, who told me how to spot a decent meat and three.

• I wrote reviews of North Carolina wineries and Triad restaurants until that gig dried up. During its dozen years of publication I ate and drank extremely and won the N.C. Press Award for criticism.

• I learned how to cut, dice, slice and saute a la francaise at Print Works Bistro and now am regarded as the king of green beans by my resident chef and roommate.

• I was able to evoke the magic of my favorite place on the planet, the Greek Islands, for AAA Traveler and work again with Britta Waller, an editor who knows how to make magazining a pleasure. She also has very good taste in writers.

• I also wrote a 1,200-word piece for AAA on why Peru ought to be on everyone’s life list, hence the photo.

• I got to factcheck Billy Baldwin’s Lowcountry Day Trips guidebook with my Lowcountry lover, driving and checking to the tenth of a mile an over 2,000 mile route of oak-arched lanes, with untold hundreds of entries in need of visiting and vetting.

• I edited a third of a book entitled 101 Reasons to Drink Coffee Without Guilt until its author was hospitalized and had to abandon the project.

• I worked on the backline at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen in the presence of the South’s most gifted chef, Jay Pierce, warming up at least 1,000 gallons of collards and more Hoppin’ John than I want to contemplate (and learned to love Benton’s bacon and ham)

• I rhapsodized about Madagascar vanilla and other extracts, emulsion and oleoresins for the flavor makers at Mother Murphy’s http://www.mothermurphys.com/index.html

• I’ve made guest appearances on Dick Gordon’s The Story and on several blogs, including my old friend Fawn Germer’s and, thanks to her, The Huffington Post

• And I wrote a raft of busines profiles on, featuring, among others:

• The largest supplier of theater curtains in the United States

• The interventional cardiologist who pioneered balloon angioplasty and coronary stenting

• Greensboro’s queen bee of apartment renovation

• Winston’s go-to guy for upfiting corporate high rises

• A personal-injury law group’s marketing genius

• The Southeast’s most successful home-health-care entrepreneur

• The Triad’s premiere resume fixer upper and job coach (Elaine Wilder and I highly recommend her)

• A scad of cancer specialists

• The Triad’s top mammographer

When my relatives complain about their hum-drum jobs and say they can’t wait to retire, I try to remember how much fun I have doing what I’m doing. Granted, I’m barely making the equivalent of minimum wage on a weekly basis, but a lot of people would gladly trade places with me.

Balls in the Air

12/04/2009

Nearly all my neighbors have put chicken-wire balls of Christmas lights up in their oaks. As the last procrastinators light their lights — like last year — it looks as if we’ll be the lone holdouts.

Photo from: http://historymarker.typepad.com

Just call me Scrooge. Last year as Christmas neared, I hoisted a Moravian Star as high in out tallest tree as my surf rod with a three-ounce weight on it could get it.

If I say so myself, it was a beacon of good taste and restraint — until the star filled with water and kept drooping lower and lower. I also had second thoughts about plugging it in, but decided the bulb was up in the neck of the top point of the star. And it certainly wasn’t going to catch on fire with all the points that pointed downward filled with water. Finally, a wind storm brought my gesture of the spirit of Christmas tumbling down — in pieces.
The neighborhood does look fabulous, and balls-up-in-the-trees-world does heighten the holiday cheer as long as you don’t mind a constant stream of rubberneckers clogging the streets, throwing their beer cans out on the sidewalk, walking around and looking in your windows, not the mention the constant stream of the Little Drummer Boy droning on into the wee hours of the morning when one neighbor forgets to turn off his outdoor speakers.

The neighbors have been pretty good about not pressuring us. They had a big block party last weekend and when we finally emerged on Saturday morning to walk the dog, they’d all been up for at least an hour, putting their balls up in the trees. Last year they at least had beer. We made an appearance and ate a cookie and no one asked me why I don’t put my balls up into the air.
But that’s probably because they already know.

In Praise of Hedonism

11/22/2009

Saturday Anne and I rose early to go to the Farmers Market to pick up some handmade olive-oil-and-patchouli soaps for our daughter when she comes home from Buffalo for her Thanksgiving . Of course we left the Farmers Market with baskets full of the latest and greatest produce to emerge from the soil. We also dropped in on the nearby Compare Foods (I think it’s what’s left of A&P) on Bessemer, which caters mainly to Hispanic shoppers, in order to stock up on canned octopus, anchovies, limes, cilantro, avocados and exotic chili peppers (I had to resist the several varieties of smoked African fish and the enticing slabs of Argentinian beef jerky).

On the way home, we went by the garden we rent from the Extension Service to check up on the leeks and lettuce we’d planted the week before. And what did I see in the compost heap but several banana plants, recently uprooted and their leaves still green and glistening in the morning sunlight. This, of course, immediately suggested tamales, especially since I already had some pulled pork and fresh corn and masa aplenty. We’d also got the last of the season’s tomatoes from the Farmers Market, which begged to be made into salsa. And, of course, we had avocados.

And so goes a typical hedonist’s weekend, with the menu picking up ingredients and momentum as the day advances. Anne remembered some guajillo peppers, which went into the pork sauce. I had the remnants of a jar of homemade Peruvian pepper jelly I wanted to experiment with that my friend Bill Lamar had sent (“Peruvian Aji de Mes + Tobasco + Pequin + Chittepin” says the label). I found the fresh organic garlic acquired a week earlier and began making the salsa, adding the leftovers of tomatoes I’d roasted for breakfast. A cute little winter squash (looking a little like Cinderella’s carriage — but edible) morphed into a creme brullee. Around 4, I went off to hear Lorraine Ahearn read from her new book http://www.lorraineahearn.com/ and when I came back the stovetop was almost hidden by the clouds of steam coming from the tamales and the house was cloaked in the aroma of hot chilies and garlic. I

love my wife but if I had to say whether I love her or her cooking  more, I’d plead the Fifth. It’s the little things in life that make it worth living goes a saying my mother was fond of. I never really agreed. I think it’s the little things added one by one to some bigger concept that turn a drab Saturday into a fiesta, things like tamales and a fire in the fire pit and some blonde bock ale and maybe a sip of that Basil Haydens a good friend gave me.

Must Have

11/20/2009

What must you have on the table at Thanksgiving?
Sophie Dembling, a first-rate Texas writer, says pecans. I, of course, say corned ham. Sophie’s friend says canned cranberry sauce:
http://readflyoveramerica.com/2009/11/20/thanksgiving-different-tastes-for-different-states/

Rana Loco and Bethania

10/10/2009

I’ve got a review of the fiery food served at the Crazy Frog (Rana Loco) in Winston in the new issue of Winston-Salem Living:
http://www.winstonsalemliving.com/Articles/html/Archives/2009/0911October/ranalocal.html

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My favorite story, though, is the review I wrote of a new book on Bethania, the black sheep of Moravian communities:

http://www.winstonsalemliving.com/Articles/html/Archives/2009/0911October/bethania.html

Of Graves and Gravy Matters

10/08/2009

I just took my granddaddy out to supper.

Never mind that he’s been dead for more than 50 years. Or that even if I could somehow miraculously resurrect him, the very idea of paying the equivalent of $50 for a meal would put him right back down into his grave.

Still, Walter Bailey was with me tonight, the man I remember distinctly from my youth. In his dotage, he would root around his plate like a pig after acorns–and grunting with pure delight when he found something he really liked. Then, he’d look up and smile, flashing his few remaining teeth and say, “Now that’s really good.”
jay
Jay Pierce, the New Orleans-born chef of Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, a friend who’s become a co-conspirator in getting skinny-old-me to overindulge, says that he won’t put anything on his menu that your Piedmont North Carolina granddaddy wouldn’t recognize and relish.

OK, I thought when Jay asked me to a tasting of Lucky 32’s new Fall menu, let’s put that premise to the test.

For starters, Jay brought us fried chicken livers with a Texas Pete glaze. My momma said granddaddy would eat sawdust if you fried it and put gravy over it; for me, change that to Jay’s Texas Pete glaze. Next came something I bet Walter Bailey never had much familiarity with: an appetizer. Hoeing tobacco and plowing with a mule was all the appetizer he needed, but I guarantee he would have dug into the Benton’s smoked bacon combined with caramelized onions, cream cheese and, yes, lots of mayonnaise — smoky, rich and addictive as only bacon can be. Our very efficient waitress kept offering to take it away to make room on our table, and I kept moving it back to where she couldn’t reach it . . . but where I could.

My granddaddy was all about salad–or “salet” as in creasy greens or mustard — and he might have eaten a lettuce salad or two out of courtesy, but romaine lettuce was not on Piedmont tables 50 years ago. Even so, he sure would have known what to do with the country ham on the salad — again from Benton’s, smoked and aged for a couple of years and then shaved paper thin. Pair it with shrimp and Jay’s 32-thousand-island dressing and I bet he would have become a salad convert.

A plate of turnip greens came next. They would have slid right down granda’s gullet. Then, he would have tipped the plate and spooned up the pot liquor. I frankly don’t know what he would have thought about duck. The fact that it was brined and marinated in fat, turning it into confit, and then deep-fat fried, would have gotten his attention and I can’t imagine him not liking the cherry-cider glaze. I sucked the bones. The accompanying boiled peanut succotash made with yellow squash and corn might have given him pause — until he tasted it. I just wouldn’t tell him it’s succotash.

What I do know would have had him grunting in pure delight was the bone-in hog shank, knee-deep in pinto beans, topped with something he’d know all about: green-tomato chow chow. Falling apart, Jay’s shank was a tower of pig power, meat by the slab, simmered in red-eye gravy.

Miss. Take that bacon dip away. I surrender.

But what I surrendered to was the fried sweet-potato pie. My neighbor’s cook and maid, Sudie, made fried pies and brought them to our house whenever someone died in our family. It was with terrible pangs of guilt that I realized that the first thing that popped into my mind when I heard we had a death in the family was Sudie’s fried pies — and Walter, I apologize. But listen, if there’s anything that might bring you back to life, it’s Jay’s fried pie served with Homeland ice cream. Hey, you can serve it at my wake.

Daddy Needs a New Pair of Shoes

09/02/2009

“You need some decent shoes,” she said in that tone of voice I’ve learned not to argue with.

OLDSHOES No use pointing out that the wingtips I’d been wearing for months had only some superficial nicks. And who would notice that one sole was melted from standing atop an eight-burner industrial stovetop to wash down the stainless-steel hood above it.

“And get some shirts too while you’re at it,” she went on. “I’m going to burn those nasty pants.” Not very subtle advice. Not the dress-for-success tips a man who’s moving up in the world wants to hear. After all, I’m working in a position that requires me to wear a tie and worry over the creases of my suit trousers.

I’ll admit that the kitchen dress code was easy to comply with: t-shirts, white sox, black pants and black shoes. The shoes were a trifle irksome, though. One pair admittedly looked a little worse for wear — and leaked, especially when you stood at an industrial dishwasher for eight hours or when you waded around in a pool of duck fat that you had just helped to spill. (I threw the socks away before I even entered the house, and the shoes never smelled, or as you can see, looked the same. I had to polish them every day before going to work.)

Why spring for an expensive pair of chef shoes, I wondered. Instead I switched to my venerable dress wingtips, witnesses to any number of funerals and weddings. In a way it was a gesture of optimism. After all, I might not get my money’s worth out of those pricey chef shoes. And that might just be the case since I’m once again in front of a keyboard rather than a tilt skillet or a steam jacket. But do I really need a fancy pair of shoes to write press releases and content for Quaintance-Weaver’s Web site? Marketing involves burnishing an image, not shiny shoes, I told myself. Putting heads in beds and butts in bistros is not about footwear, it’s about strategy.

What’s more, I’ve never done this sort of thing before, and I might be back washing dishes and firing green beans, and then why would I need shiny new oxfords?

NEWSHOES

But as soon as I wedged my feet into my new shoes and laced them up, I knew that Anne was right. If the shoe fits, wear it. And my new pair of shoes fits me to a T.

And Anne . . .

07/31/2009

There’s something I’ve wanted to say but I’ve had trouble, as a writer and as a husband, figuring out how to frame it. After any number of false starts, I think simple and direct is best. So here goes.

“Thank you, Anne:
Anne • for seeing something in me 45 years ago that no one else in Reidsville—or on the planet—saw
• for thinking  that eloping, getting married in the woods behind our professor’s cabin, and spending our     honeymoon camping on the beach at Cape Hatteras was not only neat but romantic
• for choosing to live like a pauper with me through six years of undergraduate and graduate education and     yet splurge all our savings on five months hitchhiking around Europe
• for leaving your graduate program in art history at Chapel Hill to become a hippy farmer with me almost a     year, until we were both bored out of our gourds
• for following me all over creation, moving 17 times in 14 years, while I chased a career in newspapers
• for being an incredible mother to both my girls—and to me
• for becoming a Latin teacher and finally finding what you wanted to do in life
• for standing by me the last few months and believing in my talents and worth
• for discouraging me from taking an expedient route that wouldn’t have helped me to grow
• for maintaining an upbeat and optimistic demeanor when you must have often felt doubt and despair
• for preparing carbonade, ribs, soft-shelled crabs, daube, fried okra, lots of gravy, duck, lemon chess pie, fresh-corn tamales, pisaladiere and all the other home-made goodies that have sustained and buoyed me these last few months
• for hearing the padre when he said for better and for worse. Yes, we’ve had it better, but we’ve certainly      experienced worse
•  for being willing to pick up and move, even to become a beachcomber, to accommodate my plans, or     lack thereof
• for turning our house, wherever it was, into a home surrounded by flowers, thyme, basil and lots of birds
• for getting the Winnie dog after 30-some dogless yearswinniwhacked
• for reminding me of how lucky we both are to have our health, our family and each other.

What I Really Want

06/16/2009

francisI’ve moaned and I’ve groaned about being unemployed but it’s about time I came clean with a little bit about the flip side. For instance, it’s around 10:30 and I just finished a brunch of stone-ground grits, amplified with pimento cheese and Iberian ham, sprinkled with Hungarian bacon and topped with a lightly poached egg. Texas Pete found a place at the table, of course, and there were some fresh tomatoes topped with mayo.And, oh yes, of course, a double espresso made with my beloved Francis Francis (this is actually my old model, which is visually more interesting)

(One of the reasons I fixed myself a fab breakfast is the weight I’ve lost working at the restaurant. My belt is now secured three holes from where it was when I last ate three meals a day. I go to work at 4 and I’m not hungry for supper and there’s simply no time at work to eat. I have a snack and beer when I get home, but the physical labor is burning up the carbs.

At any rate, it was pouring rain at 6:30 when Anne got up to go to school and this was one of the rare mornings that, when asked whether I wanted to sleep in, I replied in the affirmative. I was up past midnight, as I often am after I get off of work zinging with adrenalin. Sleeping until 8 was a luxury. My reading material with breakfast was an article on Lambrusco from the Oxford Companion to Wine. I’m reviewing six bottles of Duplin Wine and am going to compare their Black River Red Table Wine to the Lambrusco we guzzled in the late 1960s and early 70s. I also “tasted” their Hatteras Red with breakfast (“a nose tease, loaded with muscat and floral notes, with a sting of pepper in the background that keeps its sweet notes from being cloying or overbearing”)

No, I don’t have wine with breakfast on a regular basis. In fact, I am adamant about the 5 o’clock rule. But this was work. So was touring a flavor factory to revamp a web site the other day. So was eating out at Mozelle’s in Winston the other night to review it, where I had their tomato pie (“. . . my, what a pie. Take the traditional, flaky crust –as good as my grandmother used to make. Add three kinds of cheese, San Marzanno tomatoes and a generous dollop of butter along the way to the oven, and you have something uniquely Southern—and one you’re not likely to find anywhere else that I know of.”)

Friday, Anne and I are headed to McClellanville to factcheck a tour book of the Lowcountry written by Billy Baldwin. It’s 11 daytrips, each beginning in downtown Charleston and we’ve driven four or five so far, checking the mileage to the 10th of a mile, noting where intersections have changed or stoplights have gone up and making sure nothing’s burnt down or closed. We’ll tour Georgetown and Murrell’s Inlet and environs on this trip.

I’m also providing About.com’s coffee web site with some content in hopes that they’ll take me on as their guide (“Try Allegro Coffee’s Kenyan Grand Cru (http://www.allegrocoffee.com) . . . a coffee that awakens the taste buds with lively, flowery acidity with notes of oranges and lemon.”) That entails my trying out recipes for the site. So far, Anne helped me bake an espresso chocolate cake that was problematic because I substituted liquid espresso for instant, and I’ve turned in a recipe for a shakerato, an espresso with a little sugar shaken to a heavenly froth with ice in a shaker. I’ll have one of those as soon as I finish here.

{NOTE: About.com decided to  do without  this coffee geek}

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Winnie, my dog, and my Illy X1 espresso machine have been my constant and faithful companions during the day, never disappointing me. Just so you don’t think my life’s a continual picnic, last night I cleaned two industrial ovens that hadn’t been cleaned in a long while. Chunk removal was required before I could even begin to see what was under the build up. My fingernails are split and you can see bruises beneath the nails. After that, I did the nightly washing of the hoods—the stainless-steel enclosures over the stoves that need wiping down each and every night. This requires perilously balancing yourself atop the stoves, ovens and counters and reaching as high as you can and giving the stainless steel all the elbow grease you can find at 10:30 in the evening. In a word, it’s backbreaking. If I don’t take aspirin before going to bed I wake up in the middle of the night needing them.

On the other hand, I’ve really learned where things are in the kitchen, how to cook or finish off a number of new dishes and occasionally have moments of actually feeling competent. And I keep telling myself that I’m really lucky—to have the opportunities that I have, to be making enough to pay the mortgage, to be living a life that many would envy and that I’m obviously enjoying when I can stop worrying about money.

I realize that what I really yearn for is security, something I had for six decades without interruption. As I’ve said before, I don’t buy the song and dance that people keep giving me about how my losing my job is a great opportunity, a door opening, something I’ll look back on and one day say what a good thing it was. Maybe that will be the case, but it’s not what anyone wants to hear when they’ve lost one of the best jobs on the planet and they might lose their house. I reply that I’ll be glad to trade my opportunity for their job—and that usually shuts them up. I don’t believe in destiny or that things are meant to be. I believe in having lots of options and acting on them. In my case and given my interests, those options haven’t been boring. And for that, I’ve been thankful.