Friday, March 26, 2010

The Writing Life

Five years ago this October, I walked out of the Post-Dispatch for the last time. Yet just last week a well-meaning woman came up to me to say she reads my articles in the Post all the time.

“I write some travel stories for the Post now and then,” I said, “but I left that paper some time ago.”

The woman asked whether I was enjoying my retirement. I retired from the Post, but I have not retired from earning a living, I replied. She asked what I’m writing now.

Ten minutes later, I paused for a breath. Later, I realized how lucky I am. One of the reasons I always loved daily journalism was that I did something entirely different every day. Happily, that is still true, only now I find myself working on three or four different assignments in a single day.

In that regard, I am juggling oranges – and trying not to make juice.

Before I launch into a litany of current work, I want to say something about work I completed last Sunday evening. I had the privilege of writing the script for the Fifth Annual Kevin Kline Awards ceremony, which took place Monday night.

Scripts for award shows consist primarily of patter for presenters who must eventually say “And the nominees are…” Kline awards are given out in 22 categories, and most of them this year were presented in pairs, so I worked with a lot of people, generating patter, shaping patter, rewriting shaped patter and then tweaking rewritten patter. In one month, I crafted seven drafts of the script, which is typical.

I love the theater and I love theater people, so this job was a lot of fun. Even more fun was sitting in the audience on Monday night, listening to the audience laugh at lines I wrote for the presenters! What a great assignment!

Daily journalism is not part of my life anymore, but weekly journalism is. For the past year, I have been writing features and news stories for the St. Louis Jewish Light – profiles, advance pieces on special events, interviews with individuals who have achieved fitness goals or advanced medical science in some way and even a travel story about Jewish attractions in San Francisco.

“Thank you for letting me do journalism,” I said to Larry Levin, the publisher, at a luncheon late last year. I love the work. I like and respect the people I report to and I enjoy meeting the people I interview.

For the past year, I also have written for several national grocery store magazines, working with a company that publishes the magazines and the occasional calendar. I get terrific emails from my boss there: “Are you available to write 200-250 words on honey in 48 hours?” or “Can you jazz up a story from our files on soup?” or “I need 150 words on white beans – are you up for that?” I am always available, always willing, always up for that. Fun stuff!

The visitors’ association in a small town in Alaska approached me some months ago about a tourism marketing campaign. I responded to their request for proposals, and I got the job. Alaska is a favorite state of mine, and the research was as much fun as the writing. A friend who works for the Catholic Health Association has come calling three times, assignments in hand. A small arts organization calls on me for help with publicity and newsletters from time to time.

Recently, I edited a book for a doctor, and he says he’ll contact me when it’s time to put together a marketing plan. Two organizations have approached me about writing books, and I have put together a proposal for a third. And I still take great pleasure in leading writing workshops, where we all write together and surprise each other (and ourselves) with what we have to say on any given day.

So in case anyone asks, I am no longer at the Post-Dispatch. Except for rare occasions, you can’t read my writing in those pages anymore. Yet I am writing, and people are reading. Perhaps more importantly, I am earning a living writing, as I have since my first newspaper job more than 40 years ago.

Here’s what crime novelist Mickey Spillane had to say about that: “My speed depends on the state of my bank account. When it’s necessary, I can write 5,000 words a day.”


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ten Months and Counting

The day I put the condo on the market -- May 22, 2009 -- I ran into my massage therapist in the locker room at my gym. “What? What?” she said, staring at me with concern. I told her what was up. She said she had never seen my eyes so shiny, my face so animated.

Three months later, as I lay on the massage table in defeat, the therapist said, “I knew you couldn’t sustain that level of exhilaration. No one could. I’m not sure it’s healthy, and I’m glad you have calmed down.”

On Monday, nearly 10 months after listing the condo, I dragged in for my monthly massage. My mood was quiet, closed, sad – and I suspect my face reflected that. “It’s been almost a year,” I whined. Then I drifted off to that other planet where I always go when I have a massage.

Later that evening, I practiced coping with the fact that I may still be living in the condo on May 22, 2010. Here is what I came up with:

A year is a long time.

“My financial advisor says I can retire, but not for another year.”

“We’ll get that debt paid off, even if it takes a year.”

“Twelve months from now, everything may look different.”

A year is a short time.

“Just last year, I was still a junior.”

“Twelve months ago, we were planning the wedding, and now we’re just three months from our first anniversary!”

“Twelve months from now, everything may look different.”

A year is a long time if you count minutes and hours while looking ahead.

A year is a short time if you count seasons while looking back.

All years bring some good, some bad -- and then we characterize them.

Annus mirabilis means “year of wonders” or “wonderful year.” You remember – Frank Sinatra sang about one (“It was a very good year…”) and collected the Best Vocal Performance (Male) award in 1966.

Annus horribilis is year of a different sort. You hear people speak of those kinds of years. “Last year was terrible…”

So what defines my past year? Much mirabilis: Joel and Patricia got married. Joel and Patricia bought a house. I got to spend Christmas with them, in the house. I have been inundated with work -- wonderful work, fun projects, unexpected assignments, much glorious work.

A bit of horribilis: The Cancer Fairy blasted me again – but (mirabilis) it was tiny, it was contained and lopping off the body part did the trick, requiring no further treatment.

Also, Lee Enterprises, which owns the Post-Dispatch, decided that they didn’t mean it when they agreed to provide the free health insurance I was promised when I retired. Soon I will be asked to find $7,000 a year to pay for health insurance that was promised as free. That just about wipes out my Moving to San Francisco Fund, but thank goodness I’ve been working hard. (See mirabilis.)

Of course, this is horribilis for all 150 people who retired under the yellow contract and also has sideswiped the people who retired under the previous contract and a lot of top management retirees, as well.

Like everybody else, I had a year that offered some good and some bad. Here are the words I am hanging onto:

“You need to stop worrying about selling the condo. You have a terrific agent, and you need to let her do her job,” counseled my massage therapist. “Besides, it hasn’t been a year yet.”

Friday, March 5, 2010

Tease Now, Play Later

Today – March 5, 2010 – is a tease.

Look at the sunshine. Consider that sky. Feel the hint of warmth in the day. Listen to the birds chirping. Wait – is that a crocus peeking out? Is it possible that spring really will come again?

Or maybe today is not a tease, but a belated valentine for my friend Joe Hanrahan, who said earlier this week in an email: “We need to break the 50-degree mark and get Spring Training going!”

And then we did. That’s what today is all about. Good thing, too.

“I apologize for being crabby,” said my friend Carol. I was mystified. I was sitting next to her at lunch yesterday. I was crabby too, and it had not occurred to me to apologize. The cold weather, the Party of No, the earthquake victims in Haiti and now Chile, the news from the war fronts, and a betrayal heading my way (and aimed at 149 other Post-Dispatch retirees, as well) from Lee Enterprises regarding our health insurance costs all have conspired to upset me and a lot of people around me.

One friend, stressed about juggling two high-pressure jobs, said on the phone just this morning: “It’s amazing how clear the connection is here on the Titanic – I can hear you perfectly.”

All the gloom and doom swirling around so many friends right now reminds me – though admittedly few others – of part of the opening paragraph of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Here it is:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos [anxieties] get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

We all know that damp, drizzly Novembers of the soul can occur even in February (maybe especially) or in March, and that last bit gets to the heart of one reason I am crabby.

Remember the reason for this blog? Last May, I put the condo on the market so I could start a whole new life in San Francisco by my son and his bride and the sea. I called the blog Late to the Haight because I missed being there for the Summer of Love by four decades and then some. But 10 months after listing the condo, here I still sit in Creve Coeur. The new issue of San Francisco magazine arrived yesterday, but otherwise I am no closer to living in the City by the Bay.

With that in mind, today is a tease in another sense. Today I signed a contract with a new realtor, my third. New realtor, new price, new forms to fill out – all that somehow encourages me, makes me think that maybe my dream of moving to San Francisco is not just a wild fantasy after all.

Ten months ago, I read a list of sure-fire ways to sell your home. One of the items on the list was “work with a third realtor.” The tongue-in-cheek reasoning was that by the time you sign with a third realtor, your place has probably been on the market long enough to actually sell. Ha. Ha.

We all know that today's weather is a tease, that more cold, dreary weather is on the way. That’s inevitable – it’s March. And I know that it’s highly unlikely that suddenly hoards of condo-seekers will rush to my place and fight over who gets to buy it.

But hey -- spring will come, and eventually, the condo will sell. I know this because sometimes a tease really is a promise of what's next.