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Friday, March 30, 2007

When selecting books...

Stanley Fish had a piece this week in the New York Times (and also discussed yesterday on NPR) about choosing books in the few minutes before boarding a plane. He mentioned that he reads the opening sentence or two of a book to make a quick selection.

I've long used this practice, in addition to reading about the author, when making any purchase though I often tend to keep reading, sometimes through the first chapter, as I stand next to the bookshelf. As a rule, I try never to rush through the purchase of books. Thought I'd share the most recent purchases from Half-Price Books based on that criteria.
"It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love." — Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Many years ago I read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and it remains high on my list of all-time favorite works of fiction. I read that first beautiful sentence (and on to the entire first chapter) and was hooked.
"In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together." — The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I'm definitely in a southern Gothic fiction mode right now, relishing the stories of southern eccentrics. I remember Frances Mayes telling me during an interview that the south "values its eccentrics." I read on and learned that one of the mutes was an "obese and dreamy Greek" and the other was simply "tall."
"The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida." — A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O'Connor

I'm nearly finished with this book and will likely finish over the weekend. As I finished a short story before bed last night I was thinking about how brief a period of time each one encompasses—mere minutes in some cases. A good writing lesson there on narrowing your focus.
"A nurse held the door open for them" — The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

Okay, so that sentence didn't sell me on this book -- Eudora Welty sold me on this book. She's a master storyteller and one of the first southern writers I connected with while still in college. Somewhere in my basement archives is a book of contemporary narrative nonfiction that contained my first taste of her writing. I can add this one to my collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction by women.

We leave for Florida next Thursday afternoon and I'm already dreaming of the sun, sea and sand. Didn't realize how much I needed the vacation until the family talked me into going. Now, on this Friday morning, it's all I can do to keep my thoughts focused on work instead of salty gulf breezes, warm sunshine on my face and white sugary sand you can bury your feet in.

I'm thinking now that I don't have enough reading material. Good thing I'm going to Columbus later today. My sister and I plan to make a trip to The Book Loft where I'll likely add to my vacation reading pile. Any recommendations? If so, please share the opening sentence.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Skunked! A new solution

We've been racing around every morning since springing ahead. The early morning darkness is lulling us into needing that extra 20 minutes of sleep that is the difference between a leisurely morning and rushed frenzy.

With the middle school bus at the corner, Ryan grabbed his shoes from the garage and yelled, "It smells like crap in the garage!" (dripping with his typical teenage hyperbole).

I opened the door for the dog and was overcome, I mean literally blown backward, by the scent of skunk. Riley (our 3-year-old lab) just looked up at me sheepishly.

Patrick almost vomited on the spot, Ryan grabbed his backpack and hauled tail to the bus stop and I, still in my PJs with only half a cup of coffee down, realized that my day would not entail any kind of creative work. So I locked Riley outside and with Patrick heaving, jumped in the car and drove him to school (with the windows down to ease his reflux).

As I got back in the door, Danny was screaming about how much work the dog is, how she's trashing our house, etc. But he had a director's meeting at 8:30 and couldn't stick around to help.

I still had to get Michael up for school and, thankfully, he listened when I told him I had a mess to deal with Riley and could he please, please, please get up quickly.

Our attached garage goes right into our family room. The odor was floating into the family room and I felt as if it was pervading the entire house. While Mikey ate breakfast, I Googled "dog sprayed by skunk" and "eliminate skunk odor."

The tomato juice recipe, I had heard, stains the dog's fur. Riley is a yellow lab (actually almost white) and so this was not an appealing solution. Instead I found a homemade recipe involving large amounts (and potentially combustible combo) of peroxide, baking soda and dish detergent. (See recipe/instructions below.)

Outside in the driveway, I grabbed my traumatized pup and began scrubbing around her neck and shoulders. It was hard to see a spot where she got hit and I'm thinking she was maybe only misted instead of receiving a direct hit. Once I used up my supply, I traipsed into Walgreen's for rubber gloves, oodles of Febreze, dog shampoo and more supplies for my deodorizing mixture.

For the next hour, I scrubbed Riley—first with more peroxide mixture and then giving her an all-over bath. She was miserable, but so was I. She kept running away, trying to hide behind the front shrubs, but somehow we managed to get her cleaned up and dry enough to finally go in the house.

Inside I sprayed Febreze in the entire house, unsure if it was actually in the house or just in my nose. I sprinkled the carpet with Febreze carpet deodorizer (that Riley walked through and got all over the wood floor). I started my vacuum and of course the belt blew. I had no backup belt so it was back to the store.

My sister-in-law told me that her mother-in-law recommended setting out bowls of apple cider vinegar to absorb bad odors. So I also bought a gallon jug of apple cider vinegar. Amazingly, that worked very well.

It was a long, exhausting day yesterday but today the house smells nice again -- very linen-y, which is my favorite Febreze scent. It reminds me of clothes drying on the line. Riley is slightly less traumatized, but still a little skittish.

For what it's worth, here's the recipe for de-skunking:

2 bottles of peroxide
1/4-1/2 cup of baking soda
1 T. Dawn dishwashing detergent

Mix in a large bucket and let foam. Wearing rubber gloves, use cloth to scrub affected area making sure to keep out of eyes, nose and mouth. Let stand for 10 minutes before rinsing. Apply again until odor dissipates. Bath entire animal as usual.

Don't let mixture sit since it can explode!

Monday, March 19, 2007

A pleasing thought

"When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him." — John Updike

Friday, March 16, 2007

Friday madness of varying degrees

Been a crazy, hectic week filled with deadlines, travel, parent meetings, practices and the delivery of one new dryer. That's right, the old one finally went to that great laundry junkyard after I learned that while I was gone last week it had run continuously for two days before anyone noticed. of a few minutes ago, I now have a brand-spanking new dryer that runs quieter than the old one (that can be good or bad) and a light inside to help you find those errant socks. I'll be testing its drying ability shortly since I've got a week's worth of laundry for five overflowing from the laundry room.

Press regularly and wrongly frames mommy madness
I recommend reading E.J. Graff's essay in CJR this month titled "The Opt-Out Myth." I start all such stories holding my breath and ready to rage at one turn of phrase. But then I read this:
The moms-go-home story keeps coming back, in part, because it’s based on some kernels of truth. Women do feel forced to choose between work and family. Women do face a sharp conflict between cultural expectations and economic realities. The workplace is still demonstrably more hostile to mothers than to fathers. Faced with the “choice” of feeling that they’ve failed to be either good mothers or good workers, many women wish they could—or worry that they should—abandon the struggle and stay home with the kids.

The problem is that the moms-go-home storyline presents all those issues as personal rather than public—and does so in misleading ways. The stories’ statistics are selective, their anecdotes about upper-echelon white women are misleading, and their “counterintuitive” narrative line parrots conventional ideas about gender roles. Thus they erase most American families’ real experiences and the resulting social policy needs from view.

He suggests that Joan Williams study, "Opt Out Pushed Out? How the Press Covers Work/Family Conflict," should be recommended reading on every news, business and feature editor's desk. You can download a PDF of the report here.

The reason? "If journalism repeatedly frames the wrong problem, then folks who make public policy may very well deliver the wrong solution."
If women are happily choosing to stay home with their babies, that’s a private decision. But it’s a public policy issue if most women (and men) need to work to support their families, and if the economy needs women’s skills to remain competitive. It’s a public policy issue if schools, jobs, and other American institutions are structured in ways that make it frustratingly difficult, and sometimes impossible, for parents to manage both their jobs and family responsibilities.


Jill and I have been singing this tune for several years now, but it bears repeating. The Judith Warners of the world focus their "research" on such a narrow segment of the female population — namely the less than 10 percent of white, highly educated, well-paid professional women. This includes journalists who "increasingly come from and socialize in this class."

And so we read anecdotes from their "personal rearview mirrors" in a number of influential pubs — The Atlantic, Newsweek, Time, etc.

I suppose I also am guilty of the "my-friends-and-me" approach to this subject, but I come from a lesser privileged class. I know plenty of women who stay at home because their husbands have careers that afford them that luxury. I know many more who work in some capacity to make ends meet, some who do so because they want the financial and professional security and others who simply have no choice.

But I know an increasing number of women who used to live a life of privilege, who have gone through painful divorce and who have failed to maintain their professional skills prohibiting them from entering the workplace at a professional level. It's incredibly painful to watch smart, educated women anxious about their skills and ability to do a job that may have evolved exponentially since they were last employed and yet having no choice but to dive into the waters.

Aside from the fact that census numbers do not support such trend stories, the basic fact is that the word "choice" in these circumstances is rarely the reality.
Williams establishes that “choice” is emphasized in eighty-eight of the 119 articles she surveyed. But keep reading. Soon you find that staying home wasn’t these women’s first choice, or even their second. Rather, every other door slammed.

Where does that leave us? With stupid bosses who ask when we reveal we are pregnant whether or not we can still handle working on an investigative series. And it gets worse because it also blocks meaningful public policy.
By offering a steady diet of common myths and ignoring the relevant facts, newspapers have helped maintain the cultural temperature for what Williams calls “the most family-hostile public policy in the Western world.” On a variety of basic policies—including parental leave, family sick leave, early childhood education, national childcare standards, afterschool programs, and health care that’s not tied to a single all-consuming job—the U.S. lags behind almost every developed nation. How far behind? Out of 168 countries surveyed by Jody Heymann, who teaches at both the Harvard School of Public Health and McGill University, the U.S. is one of only five without mandatory paid maternity leave—along with Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.

I'm still waiting for mainstream article that takes a realistic approach to this issue. Or, hell, maybe I just need to write it myself.

Bragg beauties
I had not read Rick Bragg's "All Over but the Shoutin'" until this past weekend. He signed it: "For Wendy, Here at home, Rick Bragg." I am so sorry I hadn't picked it up sooner. He is a beautiful writer and so firmly rooted in his family. This was a book I constantly read aloud to my family, to anyone within earshot, including the dog. Some of my favorite lines and phrases were:

"I had about as much business at Harvard as a hog in a cocktail dress..." on applying for a Nieman Fellowship with less than six months of college education.

"There was a young man Alex Wright, a tall, thin guitar picker from California, cool as the other side of your pillow." Writing for St. Pete Times about the homeless in Miami.

"I don't buy all of it or even most of it, what those preachers said. I don't think you have to do anything to get into heaven except to do right. If you have ever pushed a wheelchair for somebody and nobody paid you, then you might get in. If you ever peeked inside an old person's screen door and cracked open their loneliness with a simple 'hello,' you might get in. My momma will. That, I know. Even with her hands pressed to the dusty top of a dully glowing electric box, she was closer to God than most people will ever get. I take my peace from that." On how his mother was ashamed to go out to church in public, but prayed with Oral Roberts.

"I cannot fix everything that is wrong, flawed or broken in my past, in her past. I cannot recast those years in smooth, cool marble, and believe that my meddling will make things all better again. The name of the child is etched into her head, her heart, her soul." On wanting a new grave that marked the name of his baby brother who died during birth.

"I had grown up in a house in which there were only two books, the King James Bible and the spring seed catalog … He had bought most of them at a yard sale, by the box or pound, and some at a flea market. He did not even know what he was giving me, did not recognize most of the writers. 'Your momma said you still liked to read,' he said." On the gift of two boxes of books his father gave him just before he died.

"One by one, the editors of the New York Times came by to pay my mother homage, to tell her what a fine son she had raised, and how proud they were of me, and for her. Joe Lelyveld just said, 'I know who this is,' and smiled. Gene Roberts came up and talked Southern to her, and others came up to say kind things, welcoming things." With his mother at the Pulitzer luncheon.

"I had seen my mother cry from pain and grief and misery, when I was a child. I had never seen her cry from happiness until they called out my name and I walked up to get that prize, then handed it to her." On receiving his 1996 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

Where are the sports?
Chuckled at Harry Jaffe's Washingtonian column pondering the absence of Washington Post sports columnists. That Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser are missing is not so surprising. I'm sure it must take gobs of time to come up with the witticisms and criticisms they hurl daily on PTI (that's Pardon the Interruption on ESPN for the uninitiated). Last week Michael, my 8-year-old, complained that they never talk about sports on PTI. I can't stand the volume and hysteria of the show. I much prefer to READ them then listen and watch them.

My March Madness picks
I've got the Georgetown Hoyas winning it all.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Jim Amoss is Ten

Jim Amoss, pictured center with radio, with his staff after the Hurricane Katrina evacuation. Photo by Sean Gardner, New Orleans Times-Picayune

Here's a link to the latest Ten interview with New Orleans Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss. The full text is below:

Quill Magazine/ March 2007 issue
Ten: Jim Amoss, Editor, New Orleans Times-Picayune
By Wendy A. Hoke

Jim Amoss and his staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune faced one of the greatest hardships in the history of journalism after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city in 2005. But along the way, they also discovered the important role of their paper in a community that struggles to rebuild. We caught up with Amoss to measure the temperature of life in The Big Easy.

Q: It’s been 18 months since Katrina. How are things in New Orleans, and how are things at the paper?

So much is in the eye of beholder that it’s almost impossible to give an empirical answer. We’re on a constant emotional roller coaster — one day encouraged by what we see and plunging into despair the next. It’s a very difficult, tedious, time-consuming process to put together a totally broken American city.

The devastation is so incomprehensibly vast. An economy and urban fabric are difficult to put back together, and there’s nothing commensurate in recent American history to which we can look as a model. That’s not to excuse some staggering ineptitude on the federal, state and local levels. All that incompetence and lack of direction and political infighting can overwhelm.

But then we have some unbelievably determined, forceful, indefatigable citizens, and their perseverance is something to behold. We New Orleanians were never like that. We let all the drudgery slide and paid a big price for it. There are amazing things happening in education — the whole school system being revamped — and there are legions of experts in drainage and levy reconstruction working incredibly hard.

We live this story the same as people we’re covering, and everybody in my newsroom has some story to tell and some hardship they are still living through. It seems not to end.

Q: How is your staff morale?

We’re plodding forward. (Staff writer) Coleman Warner has been living in a FEMA trailer with his wife and high-school-age daughter and dog. Everything is 10 times slower than you would think in terms of rebuilding homes. Everybody has a different ability to cope.

There are some who said, “I can’t do this anymore” and left. I don’t blame them. Others you meet and have no idea of the turmoil in their lives because they are so serene. To me that’s more heroic journalistically than in the aftermath of storm.

The adrenaline (of the storm and its aftermath) is long gone. We have a policy here: No matter what sort of high-level meeting you are in, if you get a call from a roofer, plumber or contractor, you take that call and make sure they are doing the job right.

In a way we have a built-in support system. You’re not going through a breakdown by yourself. There’s a natural support group built into any crisis. News people are stoic about these things sometimes and don’t share. Part of an editor’s job is to look people in the eye and say, “How are you really? Is everything OK?”

Q: What lessons did you learn in the struggle to put out the paper under such dire circumstances?

I learned in a visceral way just how vital newspapers are to communities. Maybe that notion would not be so big 20 years ago, but it’s a lesson being driven home daily to us. Newspapers are, in so many ways, the glue that binds communities together.

We’re (New Orleanians) a strange case and part of this one big ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder partaking collectively of a great big therapy session. We’re (the newspaper) not the therapist, but the moderator and facilitator for many different conversations.

Some are quite dry, such as the appropriate model for levy reconstruction; others are quite squishy, such as (columnist) Chris Rose’s descent into depression and how he overcame it. Physicians told him he saved lives with this piece. Yet both kinds of reporting are important.

Q: Did you discover new ideas about the newspaper’s role in the community? How has that view translated into your daily coverage?

If you go into any coffee shop, you see the paper being devoured. I’ve discovered we shouldn’t be afraid of our voice as individual writers and as a newspaper. When we have something to say, we need to speak in a distinctive, urgent way, and people will respond.

The role of the newspaper to spark community conversation cannot be undermined. Here we’ve used the newspaper online extensively to get reaction to proposals, get feedback and bring groups together.

Q: What attracted you to journalism? Where did you get your journalistic experience? What keeps you engaged?

What attracted me and what keeps me engaged are different. What attracted me was I fancied myself a writer. I needed to earn a living and thought I’ll try this. I was not all that curious about my hometown (New Orleans) and was surprised by many things.

I started out at the afternoon paper here in New Orleans writing a combination of breaking news stories, accidents, fires and eventually specializing in investigations (with Dean Baquet, newly minted Washington bureau chief for The New York Times). I was a shy person, and I hesitated to go into this profession because I thought you can’t be shy, you have to be outgoing and muscle your way into situations. I discovered that whether you’re shy or outgoing is not the measure of a good reporter. Rather, I gave curiosity free reign to drive and energize, and that’s what propelled me as reporter: wanting to find out things. Wanting to get it right.

What keeps me engaged is covering such an amazingly multidimensional community with a staff that’s such an amazing team.

Q: Tell me about the Pulitzer experience. The paper has earned several under your leadership.

It’s extremely gratifying, especially when you win for something that was a team effort. And twice we’ve received the public service medal given to the whole newspaper. The way that energizes people and validates what they’ve done is something to behold.

The last one for Katrina coverage went well beyond the newsroom and became a source of pride for everyone from production to circulation to advertising, the machinery that moves this company forward and produces this newspaper. (Katrina coverage) was very much a company-wide effort. We passed the medal around and let groups of employees take pictures with this gold medal. We had pressmen, ad reps, clerks all take part.

Q: What is it about your leadership style that allows such enterprising reporting to occur?

We really value and take great care in the hiring process of this newspaper. The degree to which we talk to prospects and references and have them here for several days allows them to get to know and be known by all levels of editors, and that helps us create a great team. It’s not just about journalistic excellence but also about people who work together.

Aside from that, everybody who is a supervisor here believes the best results come from letting people achieve and reach full potential and not putting them into a straight jacket.

Q: How is the paper doing in terms of operation and staffing?

We lost and did not regain a number of staff. Before Katrina we had 265 full-time equivalents and went down to about 228-230 after the storm. For now that’s where we’re going to be. We didn’t lay off anyone after the storm but experienced gradual attrition. Beginning last June we were able to start rehiring as we lost people.

We’re a viable business again. As an advertising medium we’re very effective in this community. We’ve learned that if you’re able to open your business and find workers, you’re doing well. I sound like the publisher, but all of us in the newsroom are more acutely aware of the newspaper as a business as we stared out at the abyss.

Q: Where do you find the inspiration to push on?

Both personally and professionally, I feel caught up in the plot of some very long novel. I want to see where it goes and be part of the outcome. It feels very unnatural to break away from that.

I love the city with every fiber of my being. I was born here, and my parents are still here. I want to be part of recovery. Every journalist owes it to himself or herself to see (the city) again. It’s not as glum and depressing as The New York Times would have you believe. And it’s fascinating how it’s happening.

Certainly the Saints provided us with a transcendent experience that went beyond sports.

Q: Is there a better newspaper name than the Times-Picayune?

(Laughs) Nope!

© Copyright 2007 / Wendy A. Hoke

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"I declayah" a love for the south

I am a fish out of water in some respects, a Yankee surrounded by southerners. At our lunch table I was seated with Rick Bragg, storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham of Selma, Dr. Hardy Jackson of Jacksonville State University, John Fleming and Chris Waddle of The Anniston Star.

Their conversation was so lyrical and colorful and filled with euphemisms I don't understand but which sound lovely to the ear. Talk about kin and "my people" and being "tired" but not in the sleepy sense.

I am infatuated with the south and not only because of the sunshine and temperatures hovering around 70 degrees in early March. The people here are warm and wonderful and engaging and brilliant conversationalists and terrific listeners.

One beautiful example is Kathryn Tucker Windham who turns 89 in June. She spent 40 years as a newspaper reporter and is a storyteller in the oral tradition. For nearly an hour without a podium or microphone she mezmerized the audience over lunch, holding even the wait staff in rapture for the duration. She talked of the markers of southerners: "We eat off each othah's plate, we announce when we're going to the bathroom and we trot out our peculiah kinfolk."

She has a lovely gentrified southern accent that drops the Rs as she refers to the "suthun" tradition of sitting on the "poach" following "suppah." "I grew up in a time when we took the time to talk to each othah," she said.

Her father, for whom she spoke so lovingly, used to say that you have two ears and one mouth and they ought to be used in that proportion. She spoke of listening to the morning, listening to the sounds of the birds chirping and paper being delivered and the coffee brewing and the house coming to life. As she spoke of stories that made us laugh uproariously and touched us deeply, so many ideas from my own life began to creep into my head. Ideas for stories or essays or books or I don't really no what. The mind was open and the ideas were flowing.

Over dinner tonight at Betty's Barbecue, where they serve "home-cooked food from 4 until it's gone," a large group of us gathered at the recommendation of Rick Bragg. We enjoyed pulled pork, fried chicken, catfish, okra and fried green tomatoes. But mostly we shared stories together and laughed and laughed.

Joining us at our table was former U.S. Congressman Glenn Browder and his wife, Becky. The former congressman asked each of us at the table about our writing dreams. Not one of us hesitated and interestingly our dream writing involved some aspects of our families or ancestors.

This is what I love about these kinds of workshops and conferences, the chance to meet with people all over the country who are as passionate about good writing, good books and good reporting as I am. We connected as people who share a desire to make their communities better by telling stories that matter.

Kathryn Tucker Windham told us that you can never truly hate someone with whom you've had a good laugh. Not that any of us would hate each other. It wasn't about hating or not, it was about friendship and camaraderie.

More from the Storytellers

When I was in Alabama last September touring the facility where I sit, Chris Waddle from the University of Alabama and The Teaching Newspaper was asking about my writing. I went through the abridged version of the bio and then mentioned KnowledgeWorks. I said to him: "They call us storytellers" and then I went on to explain our role.

He stopped me and in that wonderful smooth southern voice said, "Now that makes a good name for our conference." And so it has, especially when Chris says it: "They call us storytellers." We're nearly at the half-way point and the storytelling has been terrific.

Rick Bragg is speaking now and Gay Talese, for whom I just fetched coffee—a task only usually performed for my dad or my husband—is seated in the audience. He's staying with us through lunch, featuring Kathryn Tucker Windham, an author and storyteller in the oral tradition.

There is no substitute for being there, says Talese. You have to be in contact personally with the people about whom you're writing.

For example, he was wondering aloud why the Walter Reed story wasn't done sooner. It will probably win its reporters a Pulitzer Prize and rightly so. But what took so long?

The journalism establishment has lost touch with what's important. Thousands of Washington Press Corps journalists gather socially and spend their days as the unelected cadre providing commentary and reportage on the federal government. "They didn't know about a hospital a few blocks away called Walter Reed."

"If I could fulfill a fantasy I would break of the Washington Press Corps." In its place, he would send those reporters into the 50 states to find out what's really going on in this country. "We'd get a better sense of the nation and learn people's attitudes and thoughts about war, poverty, dreams and possibilities."

When asked what he reads for inspiration, he mentioned the usual things such as The New Yorker and short stories, but he also mentioned that he reads a lot of fiction.

I'm all over the place and rushing through my notes, but time is short and I'm trying to post regularly. Many people have asked about reporting "The Kingdom and the Power." He told, rather eloquently, of sitting in the NYT managing editor's office to interview him for the book. He looked at the photos of other MEs lining the walls and realized this story was about them, too. "I had to make the people in those photos come alive."

In my notebook I have scratched down, "Just wanted to be there." I can't remember if that was in reference to working at The New York Times or in reference to reporting. What it means to me is that there is no substitute for what you can obtain by hanging around and interviewing someone in person.

I'm planning to duck in to hear Rick Bragg in a bit (there's a lot of laughter coming from the room). I've already asked him for an interview and he's graciously agreed. How often do you get to interview a national writer in person for a $150 story that goes to 9,500 people? I'm here and I'm going with it.

A day with Gay Talese

Gay Talese has a great fondness for Alabama, home to the University of Alabama, which he claims was the only college that would accept him back in 1953. His affection for the state and its people is genuine and was first glimpsed during a luncheon yesterday.

Annually The Anniston Star has a banquet celebrating its "star" writers of letters to the editor — a positively wonderful idea. Part of the lunch program included reading of excerpts from letters this year. As Editor Bob Davis later explained to me, the letter writers who are honored have received a star by their letter based on clarity and a number of other subjective factors.

As Gay Talese got up to give the audience a little glimpse of his lecture later in the afternoon he captured the theme of his visit here and the secret to his writing genius:

"My debt to Alabama has not been stressed enough," he said. As he listened to the letters written from people in little towns all over Alabama, he was reminded of driving his old Desoto all over Alabama. And he was reminded of "the forthrightness of people who would not otherwise be in the news. Letter writers are essayists. They state their position and then go one to sign their name and put their town on these these letters."

He called them "voices of the south." But then he went on to engage those who were in attendance, asking them about their first letter that was published, what drove them to write, how many letters they get published, what they're working on now. It was a fascinating exchange and showed his skill as an interviewer. It should be noted that whenever someone stood to ask him a question, he first asked their name and where they are from.

(As an aside, I re-read "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" on the plane ride to see if it still holds up today—and it does, emphatically.)

The last letter writer talked about the need to get out of the war in Iraq. Without engaging in a political discussion, which he made clear is not his thing, Talese told a story from his arrival the day before at the Atlanta airport.

"I got on the train and road six stops to baggage claim. And while I was on the train to baggage claim—that sounds like a musical—I saw a young soldier, hanging on to a pole. He was deep in thought. An elderly man got up and said, 'I just want to shake your hand.' He did so and went back to his seat and I went on to baggage claim."

He guessed the elderly man was probably a World War II vet and that he's probably remembering a time when everyone cared about the war and there was so much support on the homefront as well as the battlefront.

Talese is a master of observation, but he is also able to take what he sees and write about it in a way that puts you on the train to baggage claim or in a smokey bar in LA.

He was referred to as a dandy, and he is impeccably dressed in a gray three-piece suit. His double-vented jacket is cut beautifully and he later reveals that all his clothes are made in Paris by his cousins. He is the son of an immigrant tailor. The suit he was wearing is 28 years old. "It still looks great, doesn't it?"

While his fashion sense was honed by his father, Talese learned about talking to people through hanging around his mother's very successful dress shop in Ocean City, N.J. "She was selling herself as much as her dresses. She had a way of asking questions without being intrusive or nosey. She was seriously curious. As a boy of 10, 11 and 12, during World War II, I would hear my mother talking to the women who ran the society of our town."

He regaled us with the story of his first visit to The New York Times, a bold yet naive move suggested by one Jimmy Pinkston, who claimed to be related to the managing editor. And of his job as an office boy that allowed him to get a visual sense of the paper, shuttling information from foreign correspondents to the foreign editor, managing editor, Sunday editor, Week in Review editor, publisher and ad manager.

"Why is this important? I wrote a book in 1969 called 'The Kingdom and the Power' about the New York Times. I would not have been able to write it unless I had the picture of how it all works," he said.

During Bloody Sunday in Selma (March 7, 1965), Talese spoke about realizing that television was telling this story to the world in a way that print journalists could not. "Those cameramen who caught that clobbering of demonstrators brought to the whole of America the pervasive, powerful injustice of America. Selma was only the scene. In the aftermath I wrote more about who was not hurt, not who was hurt. I went to Selma Country Club and talked to those on the putting green."

It was one of the last stories he wrote as a journalist. "I wanted to write more deeply and my books are grounded in journalism. I'm an old-fashioned reporter who loves to write and to get to know people. I thank you for being so nice to me when I was first a student here and for being so nice to me now at 75."

Monday, March 05, 2007

Storytelling in Alabama

I'm on the road again this week, flying out early tomorrow morning to Atlanta and then driving over to Anniston, Ala., for a narrative writing workshop.

The Call Us Storytellers: A Celebration of Narrative Writing is a joint program of The Anniston Star, The Teaching Newspaper, University of Alabama and Society of Professional Journalists.

The event begins tomorrow afternoon with a lecture by Gay Talese, who is a graduate of the University of Alabama.

Wednesday and Thursday programming will feature Rick Bragg and Gay Talese on narrative writing. In addition, we'll have breakout sessions that include:

Rick Bragg on "Writing in Color"
Wilson Lowrey "Is Digital Journalism Community Journalism?"
Andrew Grace on "Documentary Storytelling"
Butler Cain on "Telling Stories with Audio: Small Ways to Make a Big Impression"
Hardy Jackson, head of the history department at Jacksonville State University and other of "Inside Alabama: A Personal History of My State."

I'm equipped with the iPod digital recorder and will be recording audio of programs to post to SPJ Web site.

I'll try to do some live blogging, if time permits; otherwise I'll do some nightly roundups.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Friday round up – good stories

Lucky sevens
I didn't realize the significance of July 7, 2007, other than it's the date that our very good friend and long-time bachelor Big Mike is getting married. According to today's New York Times, the date 7/7/07 is considered lucky enough to cause resorts to fill up, Vegas to go bizerk and couples to be financially exploited by the increased demand for the date.

Teaching love
Katherine Boo wrote this incredible story about The Nurse- Family Partnership, which helps new parents particularly in poor areas to succeed. Boo paints an amazing picture of a young Cajun mother's trepidation and hopes at being a good mother.

"How he doing?" Alexis asked uneasily, as Luwana's fingers explored Daigan's soft spot.

"You're the mama," Luwana responded. "You tell me."

"He's got a big head like his father," Alexis said under her breath. Then she rallied: "He's not as cranky as he was. And one thing I learned already is how he cries different when he's hungry than when he's wet." Luwana bestowed on Alexis a dazzling smile that she had thus far reserved for Daigan. "Making that distinction is important," she said. "You're listening to him, and in his own way he's explaining what he needs. Pretty soon now he'll be making other sounds, and when he does you'll want to make that noise right back. He'll babble, and then you'll talk to him, and that's how you'll develop his language. Now, what you may also find, around five to eight weeks, is that he'll be crying even more -- it's a normal part of his development, but it can also stress out the mom, so we'll want to be prepared for it. The main thing will be keeping calm. And if you just can't keep calm -- if you find yourself getting all worked up and frustrated -- well, then what?"

"Put him down? So I don't hurt him, shake him, make him brain-dead?"

"Put him down and . . . ?" Luwana drilled her girls hard on this particular point.

"Call someone who isn't upset? Let the baby be, and get help."

Luwana turned to Daigan and clapped. "See, your mama is getting it," she said, using the high-frequency tones that babies hear best. "She's surely going to figure you out."

There was a trick that Luwana relied on to stave off dejection: imagining how a given scene would unfold if she weren't in it. In Alexis's case -- one that, in terms of degree of difficulty, fell roughly in the middle of her caseload -- she knew that slight improvements had already been made. At Luwana's urging, Alexis had stopped drinking and smoking when she was pregnant and had kept her prenatal appointments. So she wasn't incapable of changing her life on Daigan's behalf; the odds were just long.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor now, Luwana sang "Clementine" and made faces at Daigan, and for a moment Alexis studied this demonstration of engagement with her child. But then her gaze drifted over to her sister and the ex-con, who had emerged from the bedroom to chop the rest of the chicken. The young man, whose tattoos included white supremacist ones, put on mirrored sunglasses for this task, a fashion choice that made Alexis giggle. Luwana's primary subject that day was infant attachment, a topic she tailored to fit Alexis's limited attention span. "A funny thing about the axe murderers," she said casually. "Usually something missing in the love link." And, indeed, axe-murdering seemed to register with both Alexis and the former prisoner, who set down his knife and came over. "I need to hear, too -- mines is horrible," he said. "We whup him but since he turned two he don't do nothing we say, probably 'cause his mama on drugs and sleeping around and getting locked up -- well, she's a whore."

"You hit a two-year-old?" Luwana asked, her eyes narrowing. "You teach him how to fight and are surprised when he turns around, starts fighting you?" She then fixed her stare on Alexis, who began examining the brown linoleum floor.

"The love link," Luwana began again. Now the room was still. "It's a cycle. When there's no safe base for the baby -- when you're not meeting his basic needs, satisfying his hunger, keeping him out of harm's way -- there will be no trust, no foundation for love. And that's when you might just get the axe murderer. Maybe sometimes we have a baby and expect that baby to comfort us? Well, sorry, it works the other way around. It's on you now to comfort him, earn his trust, because that's how Daigan is going to learn how to love."

Rebuilding a school system
In the March issue of Quill magazine, I interviewed Jim Amoss, editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. One of the things he talked about is the extraordinary complexity of rebuilding a city infrastructure from the ground up. While it may seem an impossible task, Amoss says there are some extraordinary New Orleanians who are doing amazing things with education, persevering in ways that weren't natural to the New Orleans way of life. "We New Orleanians were never like that (before Katrina). We let all the drudgery slide and paid a big price for it," he says.

Amy Waldman explores the school rebuilding effort in the January/February issue of Atlantic Monthly
The schools that were taking shape would bear, far more than those in a traditional system, the imprimaturs of their creators: each school’s driving force sought to apply his or her own beliefs, experiences, and ideas of how to make public education work. Some were outsiders who thought they could save New Orleans not just from Katrina but from itself. Others were locals, with personal or ideological investments in the city’s education system. Their success or failure would not be known for several years, but the decisions being made in the summer and fall of 2006 would long reverberate. So would a still-unanswered question: Can you rebuild a school system when you haven’t decided whether to rebuild a city?

Arrggh! What is this?

So I'm flipping through this morning's Plain Dealer when I turn to the op-ed page and one line screams out at me in flashing neon. A sentence in the lead editorial on Mayor Frank Jackson's State of the City address begins:"It has got assets...". Ugh! At the very least this is clumsy language. Didn't anyone read this aloud before printing?