Sunday, September 20, 2015

Once Upon A Time - On First Jobs, Leaving Home and Writing for Work

My first job out of college was as a reporter for the Northern Virginia Daily, a small, family-owned newspaper with big ambitions. It covered five counties of the Shenandoah Valley and had several little bureaus throughout Virginia.

It paid pretty well for a first job and we got all the overtime we wanted. Most of the reporters and designers were about my age, and I was 22 at the time. We were mostly all young, on first jobs and were transplants to the area. Which meant that we often spent our evenings and weekends hanging out together because, well, we were all we really had.

I made a lot friends there that I still have to this day.

My pal Andy, who was the only person I knew in Virginia when I arrived. We had worked together at the Ball State Daily News. (I felt very Holden Caulfield in my red cap with the earflaps.)

Where I Lived

The weather when I first arrived in the summer of 1998 seemed extreme. It was either ungodly hot or violently stormy. On breaks from designing newspaper pages — I spent the first few months at the Northern Virginia Daily designing (it was a small ship; I reported during the day, designed pages at night) — I would sit outside the office in Strasburg on the little porch at the side of the building and inhale big lungfuls of the pine trees that separated the newspaper's office from the neighbor's house. It smelled clean and fresh and outdoorsy.

I remember it mostly always being nighttime, because that's when newspaper pages get designed —  between 4 pm. and 2 am.

I lived on Jackson Street above the Title Division in Front Royal, Virginia. My coverage area wasn't Front Royal, but I wanted to live there because it was one of the "bigger" cities of our coverage area with 13,000 people, which was still the smallest town I'd ever lived in.

My mom and dad at the Main Street gazebo in Front Royal, Virginia. Summer 1997.  

My apartment was rumored to have been a former dentist's office, the dentist being the late husband of my elderly landlady. I believed this to be true, as there was a large florescent light recessed into my living room ceiling. I never turned it on because the light from it was so hideous.

Across the street was a small church, painted white with green trim. Every Sunday the African American congregation of the church came together dressed to the hilt — the women in large Sunday hats, the men in suits and ties — and congregated in the squat, concrete block building. It looked like it had been transported in time from 1950.

On Sunday mornings I'd hear the choir singing. There were some weekend revivals when I felt a wave of forgiveness flash over my apartment. 

The little church that was a block from my apartment, still painted white and green.

An Education 

My bedroom in the apartment above the Title Division. I had taken the Matisse "print" hanging on the wall from a book I had.

Virginia was an odd place to me. Remember, I lived on Jackson Street, which intersected with Stonewall Street just a few blocks east. The locals called me a Yankee because I am from Indiana.

In addition to covering town councils, court, education, police and fire, I spent a fair amount of my professional hours covering battlefield associations. The Shenandoah Valley is pocked with Civil War battlefields, and every lawn where a Confederate soldier stood and every tree with a bullet hole or round still in it was ferociously protected from development.

I sat in many a Battlefield Preservation Commission meeting and listened to folks passionately discuss why things should or should not be built on old battlefields.

That little paper with its wide-ranging coverage, dedicated editors and passion for journalism was great training. I learned to be resourceful and to make friends with the retired old timers of the valley. I found secretaries to be excellent allies and endlessly resourceful, and I relished giving the people I wrote about their 15 minutes of fame.

I filed my first Freedom of Information Act requests, and I racked up plenty of billable hours with the newspaper's attorney figuring out how we could get information from government agencies who didn't want to give it us.

My desk at the Northern Virginia Daily. 

The Northern Virginia Daily was small, with about 15,000 circulation at the time, but it took journalism and it's role in the community very seriously. There were no scared cows, advertisers or otherwise.

By the time I left I could easily file three stories in a day, and write most of them within 30 minutes or so. This led me to where I am today — the world's fastest typist.

I spent most of my free time, which wasn't much usually — it turns out the reason they paid overtime was because we worked so much it — hanging out with my colleagues, polishing my resume, drinking beer on weekends and having dinner at the Main Street Mill, a little restaurant and bar up the street from my apartment. I ate many a dinner in that little place, and I loved it.

On workdays and too many evenings when I needed something quick, I ordered a turkey sub from the Italian pizza joint in the strip mall up the street from my apartment. I called in the same order every time and felt sheepish going in there because I ate there so much.

Sometimes I'd call in a slice of pizza instead of my usual, just so they wouldn't know it was "me." 

Northern Virginia

My new friends and I spent weekends exploring the Caverns of the area, visiting monuments in DC, which is just 60 miles away, and climbing up Woodstock Tower to see the Seven Bends of the Shenandoah River. (It seems like we climbed up an electric tower to see the vantage, but that can't be right.) When people came to visit me I took them to the vistas on the Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park.

Some of the seven bends of the Shenandoah River.

The tower to see the bends. It does sort of look like a transmission tower.

On the drive to work each day I was surrounded by mountains. On one side, the Blue Ridge, on the other, the Ridge and Valley Appalachians. They were old, worn down mountains, covered in trees. The Blue Ridge to the east and the Ridge and Valley Appalachians to the west.

Driving in to Front Royal off of Route 66 you go across a long bridge that spans a meadow, and it seems to me now there was always round hay bales dotting the horizon. It also always seems to me now that the sun was always setting on them, but that's probably because I always got home in the evening when the sun was setting when I switched from design to full-time reporting.

I think if I were driving over that bridge today I could find my way to Jackson Street again. (Turn left at the first major light in town.) But then again, I don't know if it's true anymore that I could find my old apartment. The routes and streets that once connected in my mind and created the map of the place is mostly gone. The circuits don't connect anymore. I'd probably have to look at a map to find that old apartment/former dentist's office on Jackson Street above the Title Division, but maybe not. Maybe it would all reconnect if I was driving those streets again. 

Friends For Life

Four years after I left Virginia word got around that I was having chemo and radiation. I received cards and care packages and phone calls from many of those people, and they knew me barely for a year, four years earlier. I was long gone from Virginia by then, but I still heard from most all of them.

Over fifteen years later and I am Facebook friends with most of the folks I knew from back then, and I still consider them all good friends. I check in with them on social media and see that their kids are growing up to look just like them, and occasionally one of them will post a comment to remind me of an event or memory we all shared.

All such good memories.

Me then, along with my first editor (on the left), and a fellow reporter.

Everywhere But Back

It was a great little place for a first job, but it was a long way from home. I moved to Virginia right after graduating from college, and I had lived in Indiana all my life.

Toward the end of my time in Virginia, I spent a lot of energy trying to get out of there and a lot of time worrying where I would land next. After a year and two months, I got a job at another newspaper, this time in Ohio.

I've been to Paris, to London, to Spain... down the Eastern Seaboard and back across to California and up to Seattle. I've driven countless times back home to Indiana from Cincinnati, but I've yet to go back to that little town where I first lived completely on my own.

Thanks to Google street view, I can revisit all these old places. The meadow with the hay bales is still there coming into town, though some vinyl houses have sprung up on the outskirts. The pizza place is there still in the strip mall, and still painted white and green is the church where I'd hear the singing choir drift into my bedroom window on warm Sunday mornings.

My old brick apartment building is still there but it looks like the Title Division has been replaced by a Sheriff's Office. I don't imagine they allow apartments for rent above there anymore.

The squat little brick building where I lived, continuing to bake in the sun.

It's funny that Google captured my old apartment in full sun, baking the brick and concrete, because that is exactly how I remember it.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Staycation All I Ever Wanted

My staycation mostly looked like this.

In between Nashville and our long weekend at Norris Lake, I had three days of vacation at home.  

I believe in the parlance of the time this is called a Staycation, meaning: Kicking back and relaxing somewhere near your home and sleeping in your own bed at night. In a word, magical. 

Should a future culture or alien population wonder what people did for staycation fun in 2015, I took copious notes on my three-day at-home recreational bender.

Ate lunch, plucked the dead petunias, weeded the flower box, petted the kitties, ordered a new coloring book, went to the pool, took a scooter ride, sat on the front porch swing.
Summary: As my dad would say, I don't get any rest.


Took shoes to the cobbler, drank an iced latte, went to Pilates, got a mani-pedi, got a massage. (I had to, pedicures make me anxious). My new coloring book arrived (!!!). Sat on the front porch swing. 

Summary: Massages are wonderful. So it Amazon Prime. 

Walked to get a haircut, walked to get a sandwich from Carl's Deli, walked home. Colored a picture in my new "World Traveler" coloring book. (Don't judge, it's relaxing and meditative.) Started laundry and dinner. Sat on the front porch swing.
Summary: I am a domestic and arty goddess!

Thus ended my note taking and my staycation. I can't remember what I made for dinner but it was probably perfectly delicious while being simple, creative and nutritious. (It was probably frozen cheese tortellini.)

Some staycationers will recommend being "a tourist in your own city,” and that is great. 

But I’d challenge everyone to take that a step further and be a tourist in your own home. If you play your cards right, you won't even have to leave your yard... Best vacation ever.  

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Nashville: In Photos

Up until the long July 4th weekend, neither Ray nor I had ever been to Nashville. (Crazy. Like the Willie Nelson song, rendered perfectly by Patsy Cline.)

We hit Music City with tickets to see Morrissey at Ryman along with a long list of things we wanted to see and do - The Nashville Cats Dylan and Cash exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Grand Ole Opry, Jack White's studio and record store, the strip of honky tonks on Broadway. (Mostly I just liked saying honky tonks.)

Though Morrissey could perhaps be nominated for artist least likely to find a home in Nashville, seeing him at Ryman was phenomenal. His voice was as smooth as it was when I first discovered him in high school (be still my angsty teen-age heart) and the acoustics at Ryman really are what everyone says they are - spectacular.

The show was tremendous. We loved every second of it. 

And at the end he ripped his shirt off and threw it into the crowd. We were maybe 15 rows back. No fair.

That night we hit the Broadway strip of bars and restaurants. I was surprised at how touristy it was. I don't know why, I guess it makes sense, but I was expecting it to be a more authentic Nashville of hungry, up-and-coming musicians looking to make names for themselves. But there were a few spots on the strip that were less touristy.

Regardless, there was a lot to see and a lot going on, like in this photo of me with three of my new best friends... and those girls sobbing in the left of the frame.

Even cowgirls get the blues, ok, y'all?

I'm pretty hard core with my drinks too. Water is not for the weak of heart.

We spent the next morning at the Country Music Hall of Fame, mostly because I wanted to check out the Dylan and Cash exhibit. It was ok. Nothing to write a country and western song about.

I did enjoy this quote from Bob on his comrade though.

The Country Music Hall of Fame is mostly a bunch of sequined performance outfits from myriad country stars. It's not all that interesting unless you like that sort of thing. It certainly doesn't capture the heart and soul of a good ol' heartbreaker or good timin' tune.

The museum did have that sweet angel Dolly Parton's hand-written lyrics to Jolene though.

The museum would go a long way to guide visitors through country music hall of fame with, well, actual music, instead of outfits. The message would be more true.

But in another part of the Country Music Hall of Fame building is Hatch Show Print, the letterpress poster shop that's been in Nashville since 1879, creating, carving and inking posters one at a time since then. It's pretty remarkable.

Between me being a type/design lover and Ray being a woodworker (many of the letters and designs are carved into wood before inking), we were in heaven.

If you want to see what a modern day letterpress inker looks like, look no further. This is me after inking my poster. After the tour they give you a Hatch Show Print flyer to ink. It pretty fun and was definitely a highlight of Nashville for us.

Hatch Show Print also has a cat on the premises. He's orange. He was sleeping in a chair when we were there, probably because he had a hard day of guarding the old equipment and knocking wood letters off shelves.

Before we headed out of town we hit up Third Man Records, Jack White's recording label, studio and record store.

You probably already know this part because you've already bought our single, but Ray and I recorded a 45 while we were there. It's huge in Europe and about to take Japan.

For $15 you can slip into the recording booth (it was about the size of a phone booth), and lay down some tracks. I snuck around behind Ray's back to buy us a recording session thinking Ray would be super pumped about it. (He likes to sing in the car, so I assumed he'd be pretty pumped to capture that on a 45.)

Instead he was like, "What? What am I supposed to sing? I don't want to."

Not exactly the excited reaction I had anticipated. No matter. We decided to do a duet instead and sang "Friends in Low Places," since that is the only song we both know the words to and it's a pretty fun karaoke country jam.

I figured Jack White would come out from behind a closed door somewhere and ask us if we have a record deal or maybe see if we wanted to jam with him in the studio, but never came out. He's probably on tour. I'm sure when he gets back he'll hear our record and give us a call. (Call me, Jack, I love you.)

Here's our record. If you come over to our house I'll play it over and over again for you. I know you are excited.

Listening pleasure of our record, naturally.

Our final night we went to the Grand Ole Opry. Meh. It's definitely old but not very grand. And it's way out in the 'burbs and shares a parking lot with a big mall. I thought it'd be this rollicking good time of myriad country singers - banjos! fiddles! harmonicas! maybe some hay! Nope. It was pretty much a snoozefest.

That's about it from Nashville. I'd recommend the Ryman, Hatch Show Print, Third Man Records and a night or two on Broadway. If I were you I'd skip the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry and instead spend that time at Layla's Bluegrass Inn.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

When In Doubt

Be the Golden Retriever.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Shock and Awe

Tomcat looks like he just saw a ghost. But what he is actually reacting to is The Corrections.

He can't believe what a terrible book it is.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Summa Summa Summa-time

Porch sitting has commenced in earnest.

Next up for summer 2015:
• Grill-outs and the Mt. Adams pool
• Picnics and scooter rides
• Helmet sundaes and crunch coat
• Nashville and Norris Lake
• Iced-tea and lemonade, together 
Time to sit back and unwind

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Constantly (Angry) Gardener

Ray sowing tomato plants in our enormous garden.

It's easy to buy pricey tomatoes - just go to the Hyde Park Farmer’s Market, where a pound of bruised tomatoes is more expensive than a Jeff Ruby’s dry-aged steak. 

But to grow expensive tomatoes, that takes skill.

Fortunately, Ray and I got ‘em. We have consistently grown the most expensive tomatoes in Hamilton County going on two years. Let us show you how it's done.

First, get some $4.99 tomato plants from Home Depot.

We prefer Home Depot over Lowe’s because the Wendy's is right there, so you can get a spicy chicken sandwich and a large Diet Coke on your way. And you're going to need that sustenance because shopping at Home Depot takes like nine hours, even if you're just going for some tomato plants.

Second, over-buy. Get all of the tomatoes!  

We usually buy 5-7 tomato plants; I have no idea why since our garden is about the size of a dining room table.

So take a guess at how big your garden is and buy triple the tomatoes that will actually fit into it. You want make sure that when they start to get big, they take over the entire plot, then the yard, then the neighbor's yard.

Third, notice that your green tomatoes are being eaten.

Realize too late that the squirrels and chipmunks are gorging themselves on your fruit. Be sure to realize this a) when the plants are gigantic and b) when half of your ripening tomatoes have been eaten or left with hunks out of them on the fence. (Squirrels are really proud of this and will leave your half-eaten tomatoes on the property line fence for you to admire their work.)

Fourth, scour the internet for weird pest control suggestions. Buy all the pest control!

Nothing is too strange or too expensive to try for your new war on squirrels and chipmunks. Buy loads of cinnamon, wolf urine and horrific smelling pest spray to keep the animals out. When that fails (it will), buy some talismans from a shaman and try that. (Specifically, bags and bags of peanuts. Maybe if you leave out gobs of peanuts in the shell for them to eat they will choose that over your tomatoes.) (They won't; they'll eat both.)

Fifth, search for fencing.

Now that the plants are enormous and there is no easy way to install a fence, definitely start looking for fencing. Search the Internet for "easy solutions."

When that fails (it will), go back to Home Depot and buy a bunch of garden/landscape aluminum fencing at $20 a panel. Wrestle with your 12 panels of fencing until they are (relatively) connected together (with zip ties) and fencing in the (dining table-sized) garden.

Stand back and admire your ingenuity in the face of overgrown plants, uneven ground and impossible fencing. Spending an entire Saturday afternoon in the heat of July to protect your tomatoes is going to be so worth it.  

Sixth, realize the fence doesn’t work.

As you are sitting on the deck drinking coffee one morning, notice another half-eaten, ripening tomato on your steps. Take back all those thoughts of you being an ingenious fence engineer as you realize that the squirrels can walk right through your elaborate fencing.

Go back to Home Depot for plastic fencing to line the inside of the aluminum fencing. Get the biggest roll of this stuff they have. Sure, your garden is small, but those squirrels are crafty and THIS IS WAR.

Make sure to get the kind of plastic fencing that cuts your hands when you maneuver it or try to reach for a tomato anywhere near it.

Use the entire roll to line the fence of your tiny garden. Next, use another big sheet of it to create a top. Use zip ties to lock the 'roof' on. When you run out of zip ties, use the spool of wire ties you found in the junk drawer... Because you are not freaking going back to Home Depot.

Seventh, realize you can no longer really access your tomatoes.

Hooray, you see a red ripened tomato that is ready for eating. (!!!!!) Now turn that excitement into disappointment when you realize that you've made it only slightly more difficult for the squirrels but nearly impossible for humans to access the tomatoes. No matter. When your hand gets cut on the plastic fencing and zip tied roof, proudly consider it a hard-fought battle wound.

Eighth, harvest your bounty!

We estimate that our "bounty" was about four tomatoes in 2014, which cost us about $200 a tomato, roughly.

Ninth, become fully aware of your failure.

Slowly realize what a bargain those $5 tomatoes were at the Hyde Park Farmer’s Market.