Introduction to Dateline: Far and Near – Collected Articles from an Unplanned Career in Journalism, 2016
APRIL 13, 2007
KANSAS CITY, MO—”What am I doing here?”
At the moment, “here” is the opulent but lonely Hotel Phillips in downtown Kansas City, and “here” is also a mere consequence of the deeper meaning of the question which more specifically asks, “How did I become a journalist in the first place?” I have never taken a journalism class in my life. I never worked on a school newspaper. I am hardly what you call a “news hound”. Yet here I am in KC, the North American Reporter/Editor/Correspondent for Animal Pharm, a bi-weekly trade publication that covers the international animal pharmaceutical industry, getting a personalized three day tour of the North American capital of said industry by a representative from the local industry promotion group called “The Kansas City Animal Health Corridor” (KCAHC) that is attempting to attract businesses to the area by touting all of the great animal health resources here in “Cow Town”.
During college I had touted myself an “artist”, a novelist honing his craft while gathering the life experience I would use as material for the great novels I would eventually write. I would be the contemporary Jack Kerouac and inspire new generations to discover what it means to be alive. Back then when I was a young student of Kerouac, this trip to Kansas City would have been yet another amazing experience to take advantage of; but now I’m married and have a nine month old back home in New York City. I no longer desire to find the dark corners of the world that make for great literary fodder. Ernest Hemingway had started his journalism career in this very city 90 years earlier with the Kansas City Star, and now I’m realizing that I’m nearing the end of mine here. My writing career has been backwards so far. I wrote my novel first and then became a journalist. But now I have to get back to who I am. This Clark Kent gig just isn’t for me. Hey, I’m probably not far from Smallville… or Oz, for that matter.
The novel took nearly a decade to write and edit, and, quite simply, it is terrible. I have matured to the point where the very thought of it embarrasses me, especially now that I am a parent and wouldn’t want my son to think his old man was some sort of wanna-be beatnik rock star. I don’t even want that thing published, as it is a glorification of things that young people do that they later don’t want their wife or kids or employers to know about. It’s like that line from Springsteen’s “The River”: Now all them things that seemed so important / Well mister they vanished right into the air…
I have no regrets about those years, but it seems silly to glorify them now. And though writing the novel was a highly valuable education of what it takes to be a real writer—the long grind of writing when you don’t always feel like it, the endless process of editing (which, to me, is much more difficult than the writing itself), the fighting to the end of the project while running on fumes, and then, after the relief of finally finishing the damn thing, being rejected over and over again by publishers and agents who say they’re not interested and suggest that I should be writing vampire romance novels because those sell—the process totally burned me out.
After the beast was finished, I decided to take a break from writing fiction and try doing some writing that would make me some money. A couple of years earlier I had read David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, an amazing collection of essays I really enjoyed (especially the title piece, which is what my early journalism efforts are pretty much modeled after), which told me that if the world’s greatest contemporary fiction writer forayed into the realm of non-fiction, then it must be okay.
When I was in college, I had planned on specifically not taking a job as a paid writer after I graduated. I didn’t want to burn myself out by spending my creative energy writing about stuff that I didn’t care about. I would take some mindless day job and write my own stuff at night. Looking back now, this foresight actually amazes me. I was exactly right about that one. Writing as a job did pretty much kill my creativity, even if journalism wasn’t exactly creative writing. The energy is drawn from the same place. I’ve tried to get back into writing fiction, but after researching and writing two or three articles a day for Animal Pharm, I am spent.
My first job after college was working the swing shift at a bowling alley. I wrote during the day and then went to work from three to eleven every night. This lasted all of three months, as working at a bowling alley really sucked, especially with a freshly minted bachelor’s degree. Now, over a decade later and with three years journalism under my belt, my well of artistic energy seems to have gone dry. I think it’s down there somewhere, deeper, but right now I am using all of my energy to do a job and get a paycheck, and there isn’t anything left at the end of the day. Hopefully I will eventually be able to wake my creative being up from its long hibernation, but in order to do so I know I need to do something else for a living. Day after day of being an animal pharmaceutical trade reporter—which pretty much consists of sorting through hundreds of emails generated by Google keyword alerts that I set up in order to find anything that at least seems newsworthy enough to write about, and then emailing the hastily written and edited articles to the main office in London so that they would be waiting in their inboxes when they get to the office the next morning—is draining every bit of whatever creative passion I have left. And every weekday I have to send them something. The daily struggle to find material always reminds me of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Saturday Night in The City”, where he was up against a deadline without a story so he had the bright idea of making a story happen by talking a female companion into getting a panther tattoo just so he could write a story about talking her into getting a panther tattoo and then rushing her to the tattoo parlor before it closed so he could get his story and meet his deadline… the genius of Dr. Gonzo!
Similar to when my fiction tank ran dry, my journalism tank is now dry as well. I am totally burnt out writing articles about the quarterly earnings and new product releases of animal pharmaceutical companies. And I’m beginning to suspect that over in London they know I’m burnt out, although this big Kansas City feature should buy me some mileage. I have been getting sloppy and making mistakes in my reporting, which is far from the meticulous process of my own writing—although I realize now that perhaps at times I was a little too meticulous with my own writing, which may be why it took me so long to finish anything. This journalism thing has now become just another job, so I don’t care as much. It feels like I’m moving down a ladder I had never planned on climbing in the first place.
I had never really even thought about being a journalist in college, and only during a single hot July night a month after graduating did I consider becoming a sportswriter. That night I drove to Shea Stadium and sat in the upper deck with notebook and pen and covered a game between the New York Mets and the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was a fun experience, and during that night I actually thought about how cool it would be to travel all over the country going to baseball games in great cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, as well as cities that I didn’t know much about like Kansas City, which had that cool looking stadium with the waterfalls behind the outfield fences. I actually imagined sitting in the early evening Midwest sun during batting practice looking at the waterfalls and watching the cars go by on Interstate 70 just beyond the stadium while preparing to cover the game that evening. What a life that would be, I thought.
Now, sitting on this hotel bed scribbling in a similar five subject spiral notebook, I am only a few minutes away from that very stadium with the waterfalls, but I have no desire to go there at the moment. I don’t even know if the Royals are in town, nor do I care. And I’m not at all interested in anything I’ve seen since I’ve been here, even when my tour guide drove me west to Manhattan—”The Little Apple”—to visit the new Biosecurity Research Institute (BRI) facility they are building on the campus of Kansas State University with the hope that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will select the adjacent site for the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) that will replace the outdated Plum Island Animal Disease Center just off the coast of Long Island. This is a big deal, and I am now one of the few outsiders who will ever see the inside of the BRI facility only because they haven’t finished construction yet (although they are very close to completion), so it is not yet operational and they agreed to show me around. When they do open the facility, it will be off limits to pretty much anyone not involved with the BRI or the DHS.
My tour guide—a very friendly young woman who made all the travel arrangements and set up this three day tour—was very excited about going inside the facility because no one she knew had been inside, and she couldn’t wait to tell everyone back at her office—but I wasn’t feeling it. I’ve been struggling to appear interested in what I have been shown over the past couple of days, but acting interested over a period of days as opposed to a period of hours has been a challenge.
And that’s just it. I never really felt “it”, the natural journalistic instinct to be curious and interested in what I had been assigned to cover in order to dig deep enough to get to the heart of the story. Top journalists often risk their lives to get to this place and find the real story—but this surely isn’t me. I have no such instinct. Even a year or so ago when I had the amazing opportunity of being a member of the White House press pool for a few hours with a front row spot behind the velvet rope and the President of the United States standing two feet in front of me, all I felt was annoyance at the Secret Service agent standing next to me telling me to knock it off with the camera, and the flight instinct of wanting to get the hell out of there.
This was at a retirement community, and George W. Bush was unveiling his “Medicare Part D” prescription plan. I was covering the event for The Erickson Tribune, a Baltimore-based publication which at the time had a circulation of over 3 million and was the largest specialized retirement newspaper in the United States (or something like that). Mr. Bush was mingling with the handpicked crowd in the conference room, while hundreds of rabid seniors outside the room were at each other’s throats trying to get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of merely catching a glimpse of the most powerful man in the world. The photographer who was with me said she once had to stand outside for ten hours just to get a photo of Monica Lewinsky, and because the opportunity for this photo would only last a few seconds, she couldn’t leave her spot even to go to the bathroom or eat or anything and risk missing it. That sounded absurd to me.
Even that morning, we had all been standing around for several hours, waiting, the press pool regulars looking tired but suddenly springing into action as soon as the signal was given. This was no way to make a living, at least not for me. After the event, the regulars went on to chase him back to the White House or whatever photo-op might be scheduled next, but fortunately I was only there for that one stop on that day’s agenda and I got to casually leave—which in itself was a surreal experience, driving out of the parking lot with Secret Service agents all over the place watching me drive and ready to shoot.
I had actually met numerous politicians before that journalistic pinnacle, but most were very local officials from when I was freelancing. I was nervous as hell the first time I interviewed a mayor during my first official assignment a couple of years ago from Frederick Magazine (a glossy magazine based in Frederick, Maryland that had already published one of the articles I had sent them, but this was the first time they assigned me something). Even though he was the mayor of a small rural town named Brunswick in Frederick County, I thought it was quite a coup considering that I had set the whole interview up myself. All I knew about Brunswick was that it was an old “railroad town”, which the publisher of Frederick who assigned me the piece had told me with a chuckle that it had once been known for its “bars, whores, and liquor stores” frequented by railroad workers in the late 19th and early 20th century. I would later find out that some current residents were sensitive to the term “railroad town” because there was a real estate building boom at the time, and Brunswick was trying to transform itself into a quaint “railroad community” (a.k.a. “bedroom community”) where people could take the train from the station in town to work in D.C., which was a big selling point for the many new real estate developments that were cropping up in Brunswick and pretty much all over exurban Maryland because prices around D.C. were so high.
That morning I arrived in Brunswick way too early, so I waited in a shopping center parking lot until it was time to head over to City Hall. After arriving at the mayor’s office and introducing myself and nervously setting up my microcassette recorder on his desk, I timidly asked him the first of a long list of questions I had prepared and quickly learned that politicians were actually the easiest people to interview because they just talked and talked forever. Especially this guy. His answer to my first question took 45 minutes, and I still had 20 more questions written down. So, I also learned that morning the importance of interrupting politicians when they start straying off topic and attempting to guide them back towards the information you are seeking. Eventually I would learn that the secret to interviewing was already knowing what you wanted them to say before you interviewed them and then figuring out the right question or series of questions to ask in order to get them to say it. After three questions were answered in an hour and 15 minutes, I figured I had enough material from the mayor, especially since that was only the first part of the article. I still had to go into town and interview a few shop owners and residents about what was happening in Brunswick from their perspective.
This article was originally titled “Finding Brunswick” (later changed by the editor to “Deeply Rooted Future: Brunswick’s Hunger to Grow Without Outgrowing Itself”… ugh!), which was one of what became a series of articles I had written for Frederick Magazine. The first in the series was titled “Finding Emmitsburg”, which was my initial attempt at writing a journalistic article intended for publication. I don’t even remember how I got the idea beyond David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” essay he wrote about going on a cruise and noting all the absurdities that he and the other passengers had to deal with while doing something that was supposedly fun. Emmitsburg was the closest town to Taneytown (where my wife and I had moved less than a year earlier), but located in Frederick County, which was larger and more populated than Carroll County, where Taneytown was. Frederick County had its own glossy magazine that had been around for 20 years that was easily found on most newsstands in the area, while Carroll County had Carroll Magazine, which had only recently been launched and I don’t think I even knew about yet because the circulation was so low and it was so hard to find on the local newsstands (I think it was only sold at a single Walgreens in Westminster, MD).
The idea for this article was simple: I would just go to Emmitsburg and write about what I would find there from an outsider’s perspective, which would work because I had never been there and knew nothing about the town. It would have a Hunter S. Thompson gonzo element of me becoming part of the story, and a David Foster Wallace element of finding things that seemed a bit off-kilter and recording it with a keen but humorous eye. I would be a tourist in a place where tourists normally don’t go (especially this town in rural Maryland, which I would later find out had a bit of a rough reputation—I even heard that there were some old Mason-Dixon Line hardliners there who may have had ties to the KKK). There did turn out to be a really nice firefighter memorial there that actually was an attraction for firefighters from all over the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, but, beyond that, it was just a small rural town way out in the exurbs that the real estate boom hadn’t quite reached yet.
On a foggy Monday morning in October 2004, I woke at 5:00 AM and drove to Emmitsburg with my reporter pad, camera, and microcassette recorder. It was still dark when I had breakfast at McDonald’s, where I plotted my first move over a Sausage Egg McMuffin and hash browns. At daybreak I started driving around looking for anything that caught my eye, which is how I found the firefighter memorial, along with a few other quirky things that I recorded with my impressionistic humor that would piss off several residents after the article was published and prompt them to write angry letters to the Frederick Magazine editors, which happened after every article in the series… people are very sensitive in small towns. Much of the article was handwritten on the spot into my spiral notebook as it happened, which made the impressions feel fresh and vibrant and gave the reader a sense of being there with me. I also thought it would be a good idea to interview a few local shop owners, which I was totally not comfortable with doing, but I felt I had to, so I eventually worked up the nerve to walk into a flower shop and speak with the owner. She actually didn’t say anything useful except that she expected the town to grow much bigger, much like many of the other towns in the area had during the building boom of the last ten years. Little did I realize that this was a very sensitive topic in town. As she was saying this, I noticed her employee turn her head from the other side of the room, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time. An hour after I was gone, the shop owner called me and said I couldn’t use her comment about the growth, which pretty much left me with nothing. Here the lesson was learned that regular citizens are the most difficult people to interview because they’re not used to it and don’t know how to answer questions in a quotable way, and they are extremely self-conscious about what they are saying. I would eventually learn that it is much easier to look online and find town officials or business owners who had been interviewed before in articles and just interview them on the phone instead of roaming around on foot and popping in to ask questions.
And that’s how my professional journalism career started. I sent the finished article to Frederick Magazine and they totally loved it and said they wanted to publish it the March 2005 issue. And they wanted more, so they gave me a few other towns in Frederick County—Brunswick, Mount Airy, Middletown (the senior editor wanted me to do Brunswick next because he said it was an old railroad town that was once known for all of its “whores and liquor stores”… Emmitsburg apparently had a rough reputation as well, which I was not aware of, which may have been part of why they liked the article so much). I wanted the final article in the series to be a grand finale, “Finding Frederick”, the county seat and home base of Frederick Magazine. This one would be a huge Hunter Thompson-esque Fear and Loathing in Frederick article where I would stay in one of the storied local hotels for a couple of nights and totally immerse myself in the historic town, but with each article in the series they started cutting out more and more of the humorous impressionistic stuff and keeping only the stuff that was meant as background information. This cutting started with the Brunswick article, perhaps because they had received a few negative letters responding to the Emmitsburg article. I thought maybe this is why they changed the title from “Finding Brunswick” so that the Brunswick people wouldn’t think it was their turn to be ridiculed (which was totally not my intent… I was not making fun of the town or the people, although this is how some apparently perceived it), and then all the other towns in Frederick County might start to worry that they were going to have one of these articles written about them. I had the potential of becoming the most feared man in Frederick County.
The editor cut out a couple of parts of the Brunswick article, but still left in the part at the end where I had the idea of going to neighboring Middletown and asking the neighbors what they thought about Brunswick from an outside perspective. I thought this was journalistic gold, and I was right. People aren’t always so open and honest when talking about themselves or their own town, but they are certainly more open in talking about others from a distance.
After the interview with the mayor of Brunswick earlier that morning, I had started to feel more comfortable finding people to talk to and felt less nervous about approaching them. It was even easier in Middletown because I would not be asking people about themselves or their town, so they wouldn’t be so self-conscious.
And it was in Middletown where I found some dirt about Brunswick. One woman who owned a shop in Middletown said she went to high school in Brunswick in the early 1970s, and I asked her if the “railroad town” reputation Brunswick had back then was true to what she had experienced. The following is an excerpt from the article (which was written in present tense and is another way to make readers feel that they are along for the ride):
The last person I speak to graduated from Brunswick High School in the early ’70’s.
“They have a rough reputation?” she asks.
“That’s what somebody told me over there.”
“In Brunswick? Well, I’m gonna tell you something, it may have at one time been a rough town because it was a railroad town, but as far back as 1970, I don’t think it’s ever been too rough… At one time there was like at the—you know where the square corner is in Brunswick?”
“Uh-huh.” Actually I’m not really sure what she’s referring to, but I don’t want to stop her momentum.
“Down towards the commuter parking lot?”
“There was a bar on each corner!” she laughs out loud. “There were a lot of stores there, but everything closed up and everybody left. I don’t know where they went, but they just sat vacant for a long time before anybody did anything… And seeing with the C&O Canal, probably when they used that because that was a stop-off there, at some point it probably was a rough place; but I haven’t known it to be rough for a long time.”
I thought my concluding paragraph would dispel any lingering notions that Brunswick was anything like its old reputation and that the town had long ago moved on from it:
After speaking to the Middletowners, I get the impression that this lingering reputation is based on something that died a long time ago with the last of the retired railroad workers. Today Brunswick seems to be working hard but cautiously towards a bright future, trying to grow without overgrowing, trying to improve without ruining what they still have.
But I guess it wasn’t enough to satisfy the antique shop owner I had interviewed for the article, who had apparently wanted me to gloss over its former reputation and portray Brunswick only as this quaint little town that had quaint little shops on Main Street. This is the letter he wrote after the article was published, which the editor included in the “Mailbag” section of the next month’s issue:
The article about Brunswick would have been fantastic if the reporter had concentrated on his story and not tried to sensationalize the facts. If he had spent his time speaking with the fantastic shopkeepers in Brunswick, he would have learned about Brunswick and its people. Brunswick was a fast living railroad town but with more churches than bars. We are proud of our past. People who visit are town are delighted with our scenic beauty friendly people, and hospitable shopkeepers. Brunswick has a colorful past and a brilliant future.
The guy criticized me for “sensationalizing” the facts, which he apparently wanted me to downplay by suggesting that Brunswick had more churches than bars. I guess he meant that churches make the town a better place than bars do, which is not a fact but an opinion. And I did speak to numerous people in Brunswick, but I guess he just wanted me to find other shopkeepers who had the exact same opinion of the town as he did.
I felt that I had hit this article on the head. I presented multiple sides of the story and concluded that it had a “colorful” past (as Mr. Antique Shopkeeper acknowledged), but that those days were over. I was actually pretty amused that he accused me of “sensationalism”, which seemed like a sign that I was already becoming a better journalist. But it was also an indication of what people expected from a magazine like Frederick, which very rarely ever presented any type of criticism and usually only pointed out the quaint and friendly things that the county had to offer.
By the time I started working on the next article in the series, “Finding Mount Airy”, I was already bored with the concept. The only fun part of working on that article was attempting to find the exact spot where the corner borders of four different counties converged on a single point, which, according to Google Maps, was in the middle of a large pond in someone’s backyard. Perhaps my boredom stemmed from the process of storming into a town and recording my impressions having already become routine. The thrill was gone, which is usually the case after you’ve done something multiple times.
By the fourth and what turned out to be the final article in the series, “Finding Middletown”, there was little if anything of the spirit that drove the Emmitsburg and Brunswick articles. It also didn’t help that prior to beginning work on “Finding Middletown”, the senior editor at Frederick Magazine had pissed me off because he had assigned me an oddly conceived article where I would interview three of the county’s long-time local political legends who were Democrats in a predominantly Republican county, and then ask three current young county Republican politicians what they thought of these old Democrats. I suspected that the senior editor was trying to poke a hornet’s nest for his own amusement, which I think is also what he was trying to do with the Brunswick article when he told me about the whores and liquor stores (he was probably bored with the quaint and friendly stuff they usually did, but he was also responsible for providing content that would sell magazines, and pissing people off was not good for business). Despite my suspicion, he was willing to set up the interviews with the three old Democrats for me, so all I had to do was show up with my microcassette recorder and let them speak. They were politicians, so I wouldn’t even have to come up with many questions. I really had no idea where this article was going to go, but at least it was something different than the “Finding” articles.
One of the old Democrats, Galen Clagett, was still an active politician, so I drove down to the Maryland State House in Annapolis to interview him. At the time he was the only Democrat in the Frederick County district House of Delegates, and he turned out to be the most interesting politician I have ever spoken to.
After the interview was finished and the microcassette recorder turned off, he started speaking candidly about how difficult it was to be a politician now in this “24 hour news cycle” where everything gets reported instantly on the cable news networks and then gets dissected and regurgitated on talk radio. He felt that there was no longer any cooperation between the two major parties because many constituents consider this fraternizing with “the enemy”. But we’re not supposed to be enemies. This is supposed to be a system of checks and balances, not me versus you. Differences of opinion are good, diversity is good, and once upon a time there was such thing as compromise. But now compromise has become rare. When he first got to office, they were able to compromise with the other side and get things done because deals were made behind closed doors. It wasn’t always pretty, but everyone knew that things had to get done—and they did. Now being in office is like trying to work in a fishbowl. Then, with a wry grin, he smiled and said that the reason he had lasted so long as a Democrat in this otherwise heavily Republican county in rural Maryland was that the Republicans who didn’t know him really didn’t know what to make of him because he was a pro-gun business owner who opposed high taxes. But those are broad issues, he said, and they don’t need to be debated over and over again. The younger Republicans who didn’t yet know him were especially confused by him because they all stuck to the script laid out by the party agenda and just assumed that all Democrats automatically disagreed with the entire Republican agenda. The younger Democrats are like that too, but hopefully they will learn that you don’t always have to toe the party line, but you do need to know how to pick your fights without compromising your core values. The older Republicans who knew him understood that they could work with him because he didn’t follow the party agenda to the letter. Over the years, his constituents saw him as a guy who knew how to get things done. He was able to build a loyal following that kept him in office all these years.
After interviewing the Democrats, I contacted the three young Republicans on the list given to me by the senior editor and asked them to comment on what they thought of the three old Democrats. Because this was such a weird idea, it was not surprising that all three declined—at least until the senior editor called them and apparently yelled at them. Then they agreed to talk to me.
I began to wonder if this was beyond the senior editor’s personal amusement and that he was trying to exert some political influence through his magazine. The Republicans declined to comment on the three Democrats I interviewed, and all they gave me were dull impersonal statements that expressed their very basic political positions about conservative values and low taxes and so on. Yawn. But the old Democrats had given me some really interesting stuff about what Frederick was like when they first got elected in the late 1960s and how they confronted racist business owners in town and took on the “old boys club” that used to run Frederick politics. When the article was finished, I titled it “Party Crashers” because of the way they as young politicians had successfully crashed the Democrats’ “old boys club” that pretty much controlled the party in the county up until the late 60s and put them out of power. It was a compelling story, and I thought I had done some very strong journalistic work that had gotten to the root of something genuine and meaningful.
However, as the feedback from the other articles had shown, people don’t want to hear anything negative about their town, no matter how far in the past it was. So, of course, after all the work I put into this one (and it was quite a lot), Frederick Magazine didn’t run it. Although they wouldn’t admit it to me, it was way too controversial for them. What made it worse was that they kept stringing me along, saying that they were looking for the right time to publish it and that they wanted to make some changes, but they never gave me any feedback about it or anything—not even the senior editor. After a while they started ignoring me whenever I asked them about it. Maybe they weren’t expecting something so powerful. I didn’t know, but it was starting to become clear that they only wanted to publish puff pieces about how wonderful their town and county was—which made it seem surprising that they published the Emmitsburg and Brunswick articles—but I think those had more to do with the younger people working in the Frederick Magazine office liking them because they were edgy and humorous and different than the quaint sugarcoated shopkeeper fodder they typically published. Also, Emmitsburg and Brunswick weren’t strong markets for them, so slightly offending those towns didn’t matter so much. I don’t think they wanted a backlash coming from their own backyard, and this article was about Frederick.
Writing for Frederick Magazine involved more behind the scenes politics than I first realized, which made working with them even more uncomfortable—especially since I was a city kid out in the country. I had lived in New York City, Seattle, and Baltimore, so being in Frederick was a very different political atmosphere than I was accustomed to. But it wasn’t until I had submitted an article to them that I had written on my own about a “cohousing” community I had discovered just outside of Libertytown, Maryland, that I began to understand the political views lurking just beneath the surface.
Cohousing is kind of like a modern but less extreme version of commune living without the stigma of the term “commune”. Basically, the idea is to build small living spaces that subtly forced residents not to spend too much time inside by themselves so that they would go outside and socialize with each other and build a sense of community. Unlike an actual commune, you would own your own home and have a private living space, but the living spaces were small so that you would be less inclined to spend too much time in them. There was a large common house for everyone to use where people could watch movies and have meals together and have meetings and play ping pong, and every week they had a community dinner where everybody made something to bring. It was a family-friendly closed community, so kids could play outside without worrying about confronting strangers or getting hit by a car (cars were not permitted to drive within the community, but there was a parking lot near the community entrance). To me it sounded totally innocent and not much different than a family vacation resort, but I wasn’t aware of how far to the left of the political spectrum that the concept of cohousing was. I did get a sense of it after interviewing two of the senior members of this particular community, two very nice ladies who were old 1960s hippies who did live in actual communes when they were younger—but still, the concept didn’t seem that political to me.
Of course, Frederick Magazine wouldn’t touch it. They wouldn’t even respond to the emails I sent them about it. It was almost as if they didn’t want to acknowledge that such a place actually existed in their county. I repeatedly emailed them about what I great article I had written, but they never responded. Finally I started sending it to other publications and eventually sold it to Z Magazine, a publication that unabashedly promoted the far left agenda and attacked everything to its right.
“Cozy Living” was the title I gave the cohousing article, and it turned out to be my first nationally published article. Because it was national, my very conservative grandmother down in Florida was able to go to her local Barnes & Noble to buy a copy. The cover of this particular issue featured a peace symbol printed on an umbrella and the messages “STOP WAR” and “SUPPORT THE TROOPS THAT REFUSE!” printed on others. Grandma said it was a very uncomfortable experience for her to purchase this disgusting hippie magazine, but she did it because my article was in it. I appreciated the gesture.
I had written a few other freelance articles during this time, including one about the dying sport of duckpin bowling and another published in The Frederick News Post that compared the wineries of Maryland to those in Napa (my wife’s brother was a chef out in Napa at the time, and when we were out there a few months earlier he took us around to some wineries owned by people he knew and got us a couple of private tours and free tastings). These articles and the work I did with Frederick led to a full-time salaried position as the “Chief Staff Writer” at The Erickson Tribune, a monthly newspaper that marketed retirement communities built by John Erickson, a “visionary” who saw the coming retirement of the baby boomers as an enormous business opportunity and who started building his brand of retirement communities all over the country.
The Erickson Tribune, a.k.a. “The Trib“, was a wildly successful bi-monthly advertisement disguised as a newspaper that was mailed to 3 million people each month in areas where Erickson’s retirement communities were being built. I was in charge of writing the real news articles (there was also another news writer who wrote health articles), while most of the other articles in the paper were written by marketing copywriters who wrote ads about the retirement communities and interviewed residents who talked about how much they liked living in them. I also talked the editor into letting me write a sports column titled “From Left Field” (which was totally ignored by readers, especially compared to the wildly popular “Ask Joe” column that my colleague wrote each month that featured computer and tech tips to seniors who knew nothing about this stuff so that they could more easily communicate with their grandchildren).
My first day at The Trib was amazing. I got my own office, my editor brought me around the office and introduced me to everyone in the entire marketing department, and then, without any training, I sat down and went to work on my first article. I couldn’t believe I was actually getting paid to write for a living, and that I had a job where I didn’t have to be trained first. I was now a professional writer. I had truly made it, and I thought about that old expression about how happiness is doing what you love and then figuring out a way to get paid for it. The problem was, I loved writing, but I didn’t love journalism, or marketing, for that matter.
That first article was about the “Bird Flu” outbreak that was happening in China. At the time there was concern that this might cause a global health disaster. Then I wrote the first two “From Left Field” sports columns, “Whatever Happened to Bowling?” and “Has the Olympic Torch Gone Dark?” Out of three million people, not one letter arrived at the office about my articles, while Joe received a stack of mail and an inbox full of email messages each day.
Then came the reality of being a staff writer. I was somewhat pissed off the first time my editor changed one of my headlines (at the time I wasn’t aware that reporters usually don’t even write their own headlines, and that articles were constantly cut up and reorganized in order to make them fit into the print layout). Then the third installment of my sports column was dropped completely not by my editor but by the head of the marketing department for no other reason than that “It didn’t do it for me”. The column was titled “Glory and Disgrace” and was about the unlikely run of the 1949-1950 City College of New York men’s basketball team that won both the NIT and NCAA championships (the only team in history to win both the NIT and the NCAA postseason tournaments), a run that included a stunning defeat of powerhouse program Kentucky, but then the next year scandal struck both programs after it was discovered that many of the players were being paid to fix games. The head of marketing, my editor’s boss, was one of John Erickson’s uber-conservative loyalists (Erickson’s whole inner circle included his sons and those who were loyal to him and his political views; he was the billionaire owner of a retirement community empire, and one of his best buddies was Walter Cronkite, whom Erickson often took out on his giant yacht on weekends). The Erickson Tribune had been the head of marketing’s idea, and it had been very successful in bringing potential buyers to the retirement community sales offices—but otherwise this guy didn’t have a clue.
Fortunately, The Trib news team was its own little entity within the larger marketing department, and we did have fun. But it only took a couple of months to realize how much of a clown the head of marketing really was. I don’t know where he got the idea for “The Trib“, but it seemed inconsistent with most of his other ideas and revealed that he did not really understand that the whole point of marketing is to generate sales, not come up with ideas that sounded good to John Erickson, who didn’t really know what was going on beneath him because he blindly trusted his loyal people. This gave the head of marketing virtually unlimited power within the department, so he did pretty much whatever he wanted whether it made sense or not—and most of it did not.
I seriously began to wonder what I had gotten myself into, and with my commute having turned out to be longer than originally anticipated (an hour-and-a-half each way thanks to Baltimore’s rush hour traffic), I thought it might be a good idea to get away from the dysfunction of the office and focus only on the writing—which would have been much easier to do at home and would have given me more personal time since I would no longer have to spend three hours in the car each day. So I made a request to telecommute. This made sense, because there was really no reason to be in the noisy office other than to attend meetings intended to generate new marketing ideas, meetings that had nothing to do with me of which all that was ever accomplished were bad ideas that were abandoned by the next meeting. So, I was fairly angry when the head of marketing denied my request to telecommute without giving me a reason, but I later found out that he had said that my commute wasn’t his problem, which pissed me off even more.
Then I was asked to write an article about Erickson Retirement Communities being given an award by the Maryland Society for Human Resources Management: “Top Employer of Distinction in the category of companies with over 500 employees”. While Erickson Retirement Communities had been quite successful up to this point (much thanks to the current real estate boom), I was being treated like a jerk, and based on what I had heard from others within the department, I wasn’t the only one. So, the article I submitted about Erickson winning this award of distinction was titled “The Loyalty Conundrum”, with the part about Erickson winning the award only as a brief sidebar. The main part of the article focused on the importance of keeping employees happy because they are the key to the success of a company, but it was really a message to the head of marketing. With a smile, my editor told me that she couldn’t run it, and they only printed the sidebar about the award.
After this, I realized that the only way to survive in this place was to worry only about the writing and to do my best to block out the nonsense. In other words, this had to be treated like a job and a paycheck—not something that I loved to do that I was getting paid for. And the thrill of being published eventually disappeared, so it was no longer exciting to see my work in print, which actually helped me get over all the cuts and edits to my work. I pretty much stopped looking at the final print editions so that I wouldn’t find something that was cut or changed and become irritate by it. But it also began to dawn on me that this was no longer my idea of “writing”. This wasn’t my work, it was theirs. And, with the full workday and the long commute, I no longer had the time or energy to write in the evenings or on the weekends to do my own writing.
As for my work so far as a journalist with Frederick Magazine and The Trib, I also began to realize that I owned a unique perspective that only a few readers appreciated, while the larger majority didn’t. I didn’t care about the things that interested the larger audience, and the larger audience didn’t care about the things that I found unique and interesting. This was not the ideal recipe for becoming a successful national journalist. Apparently, the masses don’t like unique and interesting. They want things that they are already familiar with, not things that you have to make an effort to think about.
Despite the frustrations with the job and my writing career, I did have a few cool journalism experiences at The Trib. One of them was covering a luncheon where Arnold Palmer was the guest of honor. They sent me and The Trib video guy to the swanky Inner Harbor restaurant where the event was being held, and we stood against the back wall across the room from where Arnie was giving his speech with all the tables of diners between us. Since this was a luncheon and not a press conference, the camera guy, the diners, and Arnie himself were taken aback when I raised my hand and, without waiting to be called on, I loudly and aggressively announced like a real reporter, “Mr. Palmer, Richard Daub with The Erickson Tribune.”
“The what?” Arnie called back across the room.
“The Erickson Tribune,” I said, and then immediately broke into a question related to the next sports column I was going to write based on something he had previously said about slowing the golf ball down instead of expanding golf courses to accommodate big hitters like Tiger Woods. With a look of relief that I was not some sort of Stuttering John-like character from The Howard Stern Show, he answered my question in depth since it was a topic he had been talking about a lot lately, and when he finished his answer he asked me if that was good enough as if to tell me not to ask any more questions and to let the diners who paid good money to be there to ask the rest of the questions.
The ultimate journalistic experience for The Trib came after John Erickson, whose privately owned company was probably worth a billion or more at the time, got the attention of President George W. Bush’s inner circle and arranged to host Mr. Bush at the Erickson Retirement Community in Springfield, Virginia, just outside of D.C. The appearance was a publicity event for the launch of Mr. Bush’s “Medicare Part D” prescription plan, which made it easier for people to manage their prescriptions. Despite my lack of popularity with readers of The Trib, the head honcho John Erickson had taken a liking to me after I interviewed him in his office for an article I wrote about the launch of his “Erickson School of Aging Studies” at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (while I was at Erickson he also launched the “Retirement Living” cable TV network). This presidential appearance was a big deal to him, so he wanted The Trib‘s top writer to cover the event.
After being cleared by the Secret Service, I received an agenda and instructions about where to check in at the event, which was scheduled for a morning in December 2005. It was a brutally cold morning, and when I got to the Greenspring campus (“Greenspring was the name of this particular community… all the retirement communities had names like “Fox Run”, “Highland Springs”, etc.), I checked in at the main building and met up with the freelance photographer that my editor had hired. I had also bought my own little Fuji FinePix digital camera, which I thought was good quality until I saw the heavy gear that the other photographers were carrying. Up to that point, the FinePix had served me well as a freelance journalist; but now I was in the big leagues, and, next to the other photographers, the FinePix hanging from my neck made me look like a tourist. Even though I knew I would have a pro photographer with me, I still liked taking my own photos because it later helped in recalling specific details of a place or an event that a photographer might not notice. It is impractical and pretty much impossible to write down every little detail, and a simple photo will often help you find the specific detail you are looking for when you’re writing the story. But if you want print quality photos, you have to get one of those big heavy cameras.
After checking in and putting on the special pin I had been given (this cheap little aluminum thing that kept falling off), we waited with the White House press pool for a couple of hours in a section of the lobby that had been cordoned off by the Secret Service. Most of the reporters, photographers, and video people seemed to know each other, and one woman looked kind of familiar as if I had seen her on TV, but I couldn’t place her. There were quite a few residents crowded behind the barrier who were hoping for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of catching a glimpse of the President of the United States. When the motorcade finally pulled up in front of the building, a couple of the seniors tried to box each other out, and one of them, a lady with badly dyed black hair and giant sunglass goggles, started yelling so loudly at the person she was trying to box out that one of the Secret Service agents had to go over and tell her to quiet down or else she would have to leave. She started yelling back that she lived there and she had every right to be there, but the agent didn’t seem to care about that and repeated his warning. But it was all for naught, as the motorcade actually turned out to be a decoy. Mr. Bush had already arrived by helicopter and entered the building through a loading dock out back.
A little while later, one of the Secret Service agents made an announcement that I couldn’t hear because the press pool had already sprung into action as soon as he started speaking and were making too much noise gathering their equipment. I became worried that I had missed some important instructions and asked my photographer if she had heard what was said, but she hadn’t either. Then I noticed that my pin had fallen off and had a moment of panic, but fortunately I spotted it on the floor and put it back on. Not really sure of where we were going, we then followed the gaggle down a hallway off the lobby and into the “Crafts Room”.
And suddenly there he was, seated behind a table not more than ten feet away. I was no fan of George W. Bush, but stepping into that room and seeing him sitting right there in front of me gave me a surprising jolt. Here was a guy I had seen on TV nearly every day for six or so years, so there was this strange and powerful familiarity of seeing him in person. It almost didn’t seem real. Perhaps there really was an aura about being this close to the most powerful man in the world, and perhaps being squeezed into this small room made it feel like I was inside the TV with him.
My photographer and I had been the last ones to enter the Crafts Room, which was about the size of a small classroom. A rectangular table had been set up in the front while the press pool lined itself up against the back and side walls. Seated to Mr. Bush’s right was one of the Greenspring residents, who had already used the new Medicare Part D prescription system and was talking to him about how easy it was. To his left was Dr. Mark McClellan, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator.
The photographers were taking pictures nonstop. I noticed that every one of the them had filters covering their camera flashes in order to diffuse the brightness. My little Fuji FinePix had no such thing, so my bright flash caught the attention of the young Secret Service agent standing next to me, who looked like a young Kevin Bacon from Animal House. He bluntly told me to knock it off with the camera. I took another picture after this, and he said, “This is my last warning, knock it off with the camera”. So I stopped taking pictures. I probably looked like a rank amateur to the rest of the professionals in the room, and I certainly felt as such compared to these grizzled veterans of the circuit. But I was recording my experience for what I would write about later, while my photographer was looking for her money shots. We were looking at different things.
It only took a couple of minutes for the thrill of seeing the President of the United States up this close disappear. I’m a bit claustrophobic, so I wanted to get the hell out of there. It is difficult to breathe in such a tightly controlled atmosphere. Fortunately we were only in there for ten minutes, enough time for the photographers and TV crews to get their pictures and get out.
After filing out of the Crafts Room, we then had wait outside the main conference room downstairs, where 50 or so handpicked residents would be having a meet-and-greet with the president. While they were waiting for the main event, they were being lectured about the benefits of Medicare Part D. There were a couple of Medicare Part D signup kiosks set up, but no one was using them. Virginia Senator George Allen and Congressman Tom Davis were also there, standing off to the side listening to the lecture.
Just before Mr. Bush arrived, the press pool was herded into a little velvet rope pen that had been set up off to the side. This time the New Yorker in me who knew how to beat the crowds managed to get right up front behind the velvet rope, while some of the other press people had to stand two and three deep behind me. I was learning…
When the president came into the room, the residents forgot all about Medicare Part D. They were allowed to mingle with Mr. Bush, who seemed at ease with this crowd and was very friendly to the guests. Gone was his typical “deer in the headlights” look as he went around the room and gave a couple of minutes to each guest, including one old doofus who was wearing a T-Shirt in which he had hand written in magic marker “STAY THE COURSE”, referring to Mr. Bush’s oft-repeated phrase when speaking about the War in Iraq. Another guy had an oversized image of Mr. Bush’s head superimposed over an American flag. At one point he was standing right in front of our pen and I overheard his conversation with one of the residents, who had asked him how his father was doing (his father had recently been hospitalized). I started taking pictures, but again Kevin Bacon was standing right next to me (I began to wonder if he had specifically been assigned to me, and paranoia started to set in), and once more, he told me to knock it off with the camera or else. After passing by our pen, Mr. Bush said something to one of the Secret Service guys, and a moment later we were told that we had to leave and were herded out of the room. I wondered if I had been the reason for this expulsion, but outside we were told that the president just wanted to talk to the guests informally without all the cameras and reporters around.
And that was it. There was no press conference or questions. I still felt a bit paranoid at the thought that Kevin Bacon had been specifically assigned to me, and I kept checking my rearview mirror during the drive back up and around the D.C. beltway. My paranoia finally subsided when I reached the Baltimore beltway and our office parking lot, which was actually a busy shopping center. Our office was above a bagel shop, and next door there was Chinese food place. I don’t know if they had a kitchen on the second floor, but several times a day the Chinese food place sprayed their side of the wall with a powerful hose. Their side of the wall was covered with a metal sheet, and the spraying was so loud that I always had to stop what I was doing and wait until they were finished because I couldn’t even think straight.
Everyone at the office was anxious to hear about the president’s appearance, so I gave a detailed account to my editor and colleagues. Word had already gotten to them that everything had gone smoothly and that it was a huge success, so much so that the Bush people were already talking about doing another appearance with Erickson. I then started working on several articles I would write about the event, including an interview with the woman who was sitting next to Mr. Bush in the Crafts Room. John Erickson himself was pleased after reading the articles that were published in the next edition of The Trib, as were the Bush people. All was well in the Erickson world.
And then a couple of months later, another event was scheduled with President Bush. This one would be a “town hall” style meeting where he would answer questions from residents. This one wasn’t as big a deal as the first one simply because it had just been done, and fortunately I was not assigned to cover it (I really didn’t want to go through that experience again with the Secret Service). Instead, they assigned it to The Trib‘s head health writer, an eccentric woman in her 50s whose name I will not mention here, but she was originally from Brooklyn and spoke really loud with a whiny 1950s Mrs. McGillicuddy Brooklyn accent that you hear in old movies or an episode of The Honeymooners. She was easily the most annoying person in the office because she would trap you and then not let you go while she complained about everything you didn’t want to know about her professional and personal life. She wouldn’t stop talking on her own, so you had to come up with some excuse that would make her go away. At one point I had to start closing and locking my office door in the morning just so she wouldn’t pop in and go on one of her rants about whatever was bothering her that day.
Anyway, this woman—let’s call her Mrs. McGillicuddy—apparently had no clue as to who she was working for, or the relationship that John Erickson had with the Bush people. On the day of the event, we started getting reports back at the office that John Erickson was livid about what was going on. Apparently, Mrs. McGillicuddy thought that she was working for CNN or The New York Times because right off the bat she started asking highly critical questions of Mr. Bush. With her Brooklyn whine, she asked questions that went something like, “You know, Mr. President, my mother is on Medicare and she doesn’t have access to this plan of yours because your policy excludes her, so now she’s left to pay for her prescriptions out of pocket, which means that my husband and I have to send her money every month, and we can’t afford it. Are you going to fix this? And what do you have to say to people like her? You know, Mr. President, not everyone in her situation has people to send them money to pay for their medicine.”
By now it was long well-known that George W. Bush wasn’t very articulate when put on the spot. After being blindsided by Mrs. McGillicuddy, he broke out his “deer in the headlights” look and struggled to respond to her question. His people were surely expecting nothing but softball questions from the residents, and especially from the Erickson reporter. Needless to say, they were furious, and they were probably giving John Erickson an earful while he was giving an earful to the head of marketing, who was giving an earful to the health editor (who was not the same editor I had).
Mrs. McGillicuddy apparently thought that she was only doing her job as a reporter, asking the tough questions that a true journalist would. Amazingly, she was totally unaware of the bombs she had set off. When she got back to the office, she cheerfully told everyone that the event had gone well. Her editor then called her into the office and informed her that she was suspended indefinitely. John Erickson wanted to fire her, but apparently his legal team advised against it until they could figure out how it could be done without the company being put at risk of a lawsuit.
As time went on, things just got weirder at Erickson. They started asking me more often to write marketing articles, which I was less than thrilled with. And then the clueless head of marketing hired this 70 year old guy who looked like Leslie Nielsen (the white-haired actor from the Airplane and Naked Gun movies). This guy, let’s call him “Les”, had lied through his teeth about how he had been a journalist for forty years and that he was retired but now wanted “to get back in the game”. After discovering that this guy did not how to type or send an email or use a computer or even write complete sentences, it was clear that he was not properly vetted by the head of marketing. Rumors quickly started swirling that Les had spent much of his life in a mental institution and was completely delusional. He didn’t seem dangerous, but he quickly became a major headache for my editor, who had to find things for him to do that would not cause him to interfere with everyone else getting their work done (he didn’t know how to do anything and wasn’t shy about asking, even if it was something as simple as using a mouse), and to keep him out of the way so that he would not be a distraction to those who couldn’t resist a good practical joke.
Weeks went by without Les producing a single article. I quickly became adept at avoiding him and appearing busy whenever he started looking for me, which he did often because I was the “Chief Staff Writer”. But then he started working on a project of his own and became very busy. No one knew what he was doing, but he stopped bothering everyone, so it didn’t matter—at least until we found it out that he was trying to land interviews with celebrities. He did actually manage to set up a phone interview with one quasi-celebrity, Jack Hanna, the zookeeper who often brought exotic animals on The Late Show with David Letterman. My editor, alarmed at this turn of events, asked me to supervise the interview.
Not surprisingly, Les had no idea how to record a phone interview (which basically involved putting the person on speaker phone and recording the conversation). By now I had invested in a digital micro-recorder that didn’t need microcassettes, which absolutely fascinated Les to the point of obsession. He started constantly asking me questions about how it worked and where I got it and told me that he was looking into getting one of his own because he was obviously going to need one to do his job.
On the morning of the Jack Hanna interview, I called Les into my office about ten minutes prior to the scheduled time and closed the door. I explained how we were going to record the interview on the speaker phone and that I would be sitting right next to him the whole time, but he was already distracted by my digital recorder and had stopped listening. He marveled about the miracles of modern technology while I tried to get him to focus on the task at hand. When I asked to see the list of questions he had prepared, he said he didn’t know that he was supposed to prepare questions—he thought he would just talk to the guy casually like Johnny Carson did (and if you know anything about Jack Hanna, he gets annoyed when you mention Johnny Carson because he was never actually on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson even though everyone thinks he was—he was often on Letterman and some other shows, but not Carson).
At this point I was so annoyed that I asked him if he was ready and dialed the number. When Jack got on the phone, Les said hello and I introduced myself and said I would be sitting in on the call. Right off the bat, Les started talking about how he enjoyed watching Jack during his appearances on the Johnny Carson show. Jack politely responded that everyone thinks he was on the Johnny Carson show, but it was actually the David Letterman show.
“No, I’m pretty sure that it was The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” Les said. “In fact, I’m sure of it.”
There was a long silence. Finally Jack asked, “What publication is this again?”
I was already so embarrassed that I quickly jumped in and said that this was for The Erickson Tribune, which had a monthly circulation of 3 million, and then asked him about the charity he was promoting at the time, which is why he agreed to come on in the first place. While Jack was talking about his charity, I could tell that Les was about to interrupt, so I hit the mute button on the phone and sternly ordered him not to say another word.
When Jack was finished, I unmuted the phone and thanked him for his time. He said “Okay” as if he was confused that we didn’t have more questions, but he was probably also relieved that the interview was over. After hanging up, I told Les I would upload the audio file to his computer so that he could transcribe it.
Of course, Les had no idea how to transcribe an interview—or, for that matter, write an article. So my editor apologetically asked me to transcribe it, and then eventually asked me to write something after Les couldn’t do it himself. I hastily wrote something that was eventually published under Les’s name. After it was published, the clueless head of marketing was pleased with the article and said, “See? I told you he could write!”
I was at The Trib for almost a year when life intervened. The birth of our first son and my wife’s decision to attend law school prompted us to move away from the exurbs of Maryland to New York City. Taneytown was too far from Baltimore and D.C., and there were virtually no employment opportunities for lawyers in these places beyond private practice. And my mother still lived on Long Island, which would be a help for us with the baby.
While at The Trib, my two most popular articles turned out to be ones that I didn’t think were so interesting—one titled “Medical Tourism on the Rise”, and the other “Is the Electoral College Obsolete?”. Big media outlets such as NPR and the Washington Post actually contacted me as a source about these two, which seemed odd because I didn’t spend much time on either of them (I had interviewed a few experts on these topics for the articles, so maybe the original quotes got their attention—but I’m not sure that they ever quoted my articles). My next job was Animal Pharm, which is where I’m stuck now in this hotel room. It’s funny to look back and think about how at first the job seemed like it would be exciting. I would be working in an office in Manhattan right next to Grand Central Station; I would get to travel to London a couple of times a year to meet with my boss and the rest of the Animal Pharm team; I would be covering the animal pharmaceutical industry on the entire North American continent as part of a major international publishing company, and perhaps I would have a foot in the door that would lead to new and exciting opportunities.
However, I quickly discovered how utterly boring and uncreative covering a specific industry was—especially the smaller part of a larger industry. Writing about earnings reports for the animal pharmaceutical divisions of huge drug companies like Pfizer and Merck, writing about new product launches for cattle vaccines, writing about new outbreaks of mad cow disease—this wasn’t anything close to “writing”. This wasn’t the thing I loved—this was hell. Writing a story is only one way a “journalist” reports. A journalist can also go on television or on the radio and report a story without writing at all. Writing is just one of several vehicles for reporting a news story. I am a writer, not a journalist.
Until now, my other journalism ventures had introduced me to a wide variety of new things. I accumulated knowledge. When I was done with one article, I would go right on to the next one and it would be an entirely new subject to learn about. But this trade reporting is a nightmare. It is tedious and exhausting scouring the Internet and my Google alerts for story leads and having to come up with two or 3 short articles of about 400 or so words per day just to keep the content flowing on the Animal Pharm website and the bi-weekly print edition. I have no idea how reporters in this industry came up with material before the Internet became prominent. Were press releases faxed to them? Did they have to cold call their sources until they found something? Did they get leaks from anonymous sources? Did they just make stuff up?
I also had to get used to writing my articles using the company’s British style guide and British spellings—”colour” instead of “color”; not putting periods (known as “stops” in the UK) after Mr or Mrs or Dr; “realise” instead of “realize” (“stop using the zed!”, my boss says); not capitalizing all the words in titles and headings; etc. The only good thing is that my boss and the rest of the team is five hours ahead on the other side of the Atlantic, so by my lunchtime in New York, they are gone for the day and don’t bother me for the rest of the afternoon.
When I started at Animal Pharm, we were staying at my mother’s house on Long Island with the baby, so I had a long train commute each way. Like Erickson, they denied my request to telecommute, so I have to go to the office. But we recently moved to an apartment in West Harlem, so now I just have to take a subway to the office, which has significantly reduced my commuting time from close to an hour-and-a-half each way to less than thirty minutes door to door.
After the first couple of months, I became more efficient at finding stories, but I was not good at developing sources within these large companies who could give me scoops on exciting breaking news. My editor actually gave me a source at Pfizer that he had when he wrote articles about the US market, so I sent the guy an email introducing myself (there was no U.S. based Animal Pharm reporter before me, and since Pfizer is the big player in the industry that Animal Pharm pays close attention to, this was the only U.S. source he had). He responded by inviting me to lunch. Pfizer headquarters is actually right on 42nd Street a couple of blocks from the office, so we met at a restaurant nearby.
Right off the bat I could tell that this guy was a creep. He started off by telling me what a joke of a publication Animal Pharm is and how Pfizer doesn’t need publicity from us. But he liked my boss, so he was willing to deal with me. Then he told me how he was getting out of the PR business for good next year to focus more on books he writes about U.S. government conspiracies. The hour I sat with him seemed like three or four. But he must have liked me well enough because he did set me up to interview the new president of Pfizer’s animal health division, a man from Spain named Juan Ramón Alaix, who I interviewed at their headquarters a couple of weeks ago.
Going through security at the Pfizer building is more rigorous than going to the airport in this post 9/11 world we now live in. When I finally got through security, I started looking for signs of what I had heard from a couple of the regular pharmaceutical industry reporters back at the office about the Pfizer building—that the employees are not allowed to talk, and that when they walk through the office they have to walk single file six inches from the wall, and that they routinely administer lie detector tests to make sure their employees aren’t feeding secrets to the competition.
Upstairs I was greeted at the elevator by Mr. Alaix’s personal assistant, who seemed to know which elevator I was on because he was standing right in front of the doors when they opened and said “Mr. Daub?” Right off the bat I could tell that this guy was a tool who thought he had better things to do than deal with a hack like me. This guy had zero personality and seemed to think he could intimidate me. He didn’t realize that I had already dealt with the Secret Service, and that to me, this was all a bad joke.
I followed him down a corridor with a wall on one side and a tall cubicle wall on the other. Everything was white and the place was brightly lit, giving the place an impression of sterility. It was quiet, but I heard little noises like keyboard typing and mouse clicking, so I knew that there had to be people working in there somewhere even though I couldn’t see them.
Just outside of Mr. Alaix’s office suite, the lackey informed me that I was not to take any photos, but that he could email me one of Mr. Alaix for the article if I wished. He also said I had exactly thirteen minutes and instructed me not to ask about any products that were not already on the market. I explained that the article was going to be more of a profile about the new head of Pfizer Animal Health, and he said okay as long as I didn’t ask any personal questions.
Mr. Alaix seemed like a nice man with smooth and quiet European manners, but he was clearly suspicious of my motives as a reporter. This amused me since I consider myself one of the most non-threatening journalists in the world. I don’t know anything about anyone, and I have no intention of digging through the dirt to make someone look bad. But I guess he couldn’t have know that. So I asked my questions, and he gave me brief and polite responses. A couple of times he ended his answer with, “Is that good enough?” He had a Spanish accent but spoke English very well, so his brevity was not due to a language barrier. After I had asked all my questions, I smiled and said to him, “You see, that wasn’t so bad.” But he did not smile back.
“We will not know that until we see what appears in your newspaper,” he said.
The lackey followed me back to the elevator. I didn’t bother to thank him, and he asked that I send him an email informing him when the article came out. “Yeah, I’ll do that,” I said. But I never did. Screw Pfizer.
Source building doesn’t seem to matter much in the North American animal pharmaceutical world. There is almost never any huge breaking news. Beyond a catastrophic outbreak of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy—ha ha, I can spell that without looking now!) or foot-and-mouth disease, there doesn’t seem to be much that can happen. This is straight business reporting. Almost everything is done through press releases with ready-made quotes. Occasionally I will find an existing article and track down the source from that article so that I can write my own version of the story with a different angle, but, beyond that, there isn’t much happening on a day-to-day basis. The animal pharmaceutical industry actually seems to be a much bigger deal in Europe, but it almost seemed invisible in the States until the Kansas City Animal Health Corridor people found me.
They didn’t even know about the KCAHC back at the home office in London, nor did they seem to know that Kansas City is fast becoming the animal pharmaceutical capital of the United States—and perhaps the universe. Companies large and small are migrating from all over the country to Kansas City in order to pool their resources and be close to the nearby universities that do industrial animal research. Kansas State University and the University of Missouri are two big ones, and Kansas State is building a huge facility called the Biosecurity Research Institute (BRI) that I just visited earlier today. The land next door to BRI is in the running to be selected as the site of the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) slated to replace the outdated Plum Island Animal Disease Center just off the coast of Long Island, New York. Even Bayer—yes, that Bayer, the big aspirin company based in Germany—has opened an animal pharmaceutical office in Kansas City. One guy I interviewed is moving his company from San Diego to Kansas City to be closer to the research facilities, and also to significantly reduce his operating costs in the more economically friendly Midwest. He also said he was tired of dealing with a labor force that would cut out of work if word got out that the surf was up. I asked him if he was joking about that, but he said no, this is a real issue for employers in San Diego. I have actually been to San Diego, and I can believe it because just being there did make me feel lazy, and while I was there I really did wonder how people were able to motivate themselves to go to work instead of going to the beach.
Anyway, when the KCAHC found me, they invited me for an all-expense paid trip to check it out. They must view me as the key to unlocking the door to the larger European market, and that the huge feature I will write about them will show the world that they are a serious player in the industry, especially since a European company (Bayer) is already here. Back in London there is already talk of hosting the Animal Pharm awards show here next year. Ugh. I really need to get out before they start planning for that nightmare.
Getting a private tour of the inside of the still-under-construction BRI facility at Kansas State was cool, but otherwise I have spent the last couple of days in a state exhaustion trying to feign interest at the whirlwind of stuff that my tour guide has scheduled for me. She is very nice and has been driving me everywhere, and I like Kansas—it is a beautiful state, I drove across it back in 2000 when I was moving back to New York from California—but at the moment it feels like hell (or maybe that is just the feeling being in a hotel that is located in Kansas City, Missouri, and not the beautiful state of Kansas).
Yesterday, my first morning here, the very first thing scheduled was a roundtable discussion at the Bayer office in Overland Park. It was a miserable dark rainy morning, and I found myself on one side of an enormous conference room table facing a select group of executives staring back at me, including the Bayer guy and the San Diego guy. These executives were waiting for me to start this conference, and once again I had another “What am I doing here? / How did this happen?” moment. Fortunately, by now, I know how to conduct myself like a real reporter, so I was able to pull it off like a professional—but that right there is part of the problem. I don’t see myself as a real reporter, and I’m not really interested in what these people have to say, yet I have to make them think I’m interested. This isn’t me speaking to them, it is someone else—and I’m not really sure who that other person is.
After the big conference, my tour guide drove me in the rain over to the University of Missouri, where a conference and a tour of their research facilities was scheduled. This part of campus was actually a farm with a lab building and offices on it, and I did not get to see the main part of the campus or any actual students. There I interviewed a small group of researchers over lunch, which was the most disgusting chicken salad sandwich you could imagine. They just ordered a bunch of chicken salad sandwiches for everyone from a nearby deli. As a New Yorker, I am always skeptical of deli food outside of the New York metropolitan area, and I don’t like chicken salad to begin with. I was starving, but after one bite I felt nauseous, which actually helped chase my hunger away. We then watched an old VHS video about their facilities and the work they are doing, which was a total waste of time and nearly put me to sleep, and then I asked a few more general questions about the work they are doing there. But after the chicken salad sandwich fiasco, I lost the ability to even pretend that I was paying attention or that I was interested in anything they had to say. Fortunately my tour guide noticed the disconnect and suggested that we tour the facilities, so we headed out into the mud and walked around the farm-lab and saw virtually nothing I could use for the article. Later on our way back to the hotel, she apologized for scheduling this and said she wasn’t sure if it would be a worthwhile trip, but she put it on the agenda just in case.
After a long afternoon, she dropped me off at the hotel at around 4:30. I was starving. Since the hotel is downtown, I figured I would have plenty of dining choices, but I was dead wrong. Downtown Kansas City is one of those places where people work but don’t live. Finally I found a mini-mall that had a McDonald’s in it, but I just missed the last meal because the whole place was shutting down. How can a McDonald’s shut down at 5:00, just before dinnertime? I was livid. I headed back out and wandered the streets until I finally found a gas station with a mini-mart that had a Quizno’s Subs counter in it. Earlier today, the people at Kansas State served a nice “Lunch in a Box” with a fresh turkey sandwich, chips, and a Diet Coke. It was bright and sunny spring day and I was better rested, so my focus was stronger than it had been the day before. And the researchers here seemed much more professional and interesting. And the plains west of Kansas City were much more scenic than the mud of Missouri to the east.
The inside of the huge biosecurity lab that they are building for the BRI was pretty cool, and my tour guide was ecstatic about being allowed to go inside. This 34,000 sq ft $54 million building is a big deal for the University and the KCAHC, and it was a rare opportunity to see the inside of a facility that few outsiders will ever get to see after it opens because it will have the second highest biosafety level in the US (“Level 3”). Yet they are presently at a stage of construction where everything is almost done but not yet operational, so they were able to show us pretty much everything (except for a couple of areas that were off-limits). We even got to see them testing some of the equipment. This place will be so airtight after it opens that people will have to take a special shower to sterilize themselves before entering the secure areas and will have to put on those suits like nuclear scientists wear to protect themselves from radiation.
It was all very interesting, and this is by far the biggest story of my animal health reporting career, but all I want to do right now is go back to New York City to be with my wife and kid. Yet I have to endure one more day here, including a cocktail hour tomorrow evening at the Skies Restaurant (one of those rotating restaurants like the Space Needle), where I will meet one of the most respected animal health consultants in the country. That will be my finish line, spinning around in circles with panoramic views in every direction of the greater Kansas City metropolitan area.
This journalism thing has been a crazy run. Starting from that first day only a couple of years ago wandering into little Emmitsburg not knowing what the hell I was doing, and then a little more than a year later getting a taste of the presidential press pool. But it has been pretty much downhill since then, and now it is time to get out. Over at the London office they have been talking about when my next trip over there will be, and as cool as the first one was, I don’t want to go back. The next time I go to London, I want it to be a vacation with my family.
That first trip was only a few months ago in January, and it was a long one. I was there for a full week. I had never been to London before, and it was a strange feeling traveling there by myself to meet a bunch of people I’d never met (except my editor, who had come to New York for my initial interview), and then have to go to work at the office.
Flying over the UK at night was interesting compared to the many cross-country flights I had taken over the States. Instead of lit up baseball diamonds and football fields down below, there were lit up fútbol pitches. And then after landing at Heathrow, I had to walk nearly a mile to get from the gate to the main terminal. Then I had to get on a train that would take me to the main part of London, and then finally I had to take the Underground a few stops to the Old Street station.
Having traveled alone before to new cities, I didn’t have too much difficulty. When I finally found the hotel, I didn’t realize how much I had lucked out because my boss had booked me in this really cool ultra-modern hotel called the Hoxton. I would later find out that this was a mistake by my boss, who had never had to book a hotel for someone from the New York office because I was the first ever U.S.-based Animal Pharm correspondent. He was unaware that the Americans traveling over were usually booked at the supposedly dumpy Holiday Inn across the street.
To my surprise, there was a gift basket waiting for me at the front desk with a card signed by the Animal Pharm team welcoming me to London, along with a London travel guide and a few little souvenirs. That was nice, but now, at 11:00 PM local time, I had to go right up to bed because I had to be at the office early the next morning. At least it would be Thursday, so I just had to make it through to the end of the company party Friday evening before I could relax over the weekend and do some sightseeing. I would then have to work a couple of more days the following week before heading back home on Wednesday.
The walls and floors of the corridors were black and so dimly lit that I had difficulty walking because I couldn’t see where the floor met the wall. The room numbers were dimly illuminated on little panels next to each door, which made it look futuristic and very Stanley Kubrick, like something right off the set of A Clockwork Orange. I felt like I was walking in a maze in the dark. Finally I found my room, which was also ultra-modern and the nicest, most unique hotel room I had ever seen and conjured up images of another Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I thought I was going to have trouble falling asleep, but surprisingly I didn’t and woke up the next morning with plenty of time to shower and get dressed. I put on my shirt and tie, which I thought was probably overdoing it a bit since I never saw anyone back at the New York office wear ties, including the Brits who worked there. I made some coffee and then headed out about fifteen minutes before I was supposed to be there, which left me plenty of time since the office was right down the street.
Seeing London in daylight for the first time while actually heading to work with all the other people on the street going to work was surreal. I also didn’t know if I would be expected to actually work when I got there, which would be difficult given that I was so far removed from my own world. I checked in at the front desk and they called my boss, who came down and got me. Upstairs he introduced me to all the Animal Pharm people, several of whom I knew by name and voice but had no idea what they looked like, then gave me a tour of their floor of the building, of which the company occupied several. I encountered several people from the New York office who were there for the company party the next night. This event was apparently a black-tie Christmas party, which they scheduled for January instead of December in order to make it easier for the New York people to attend since they would be less busy and more available to travel.
Why this party was a black-tie affair, I have no idea. This company seemed to like having these black-tie events. They always had some kind of awards shows going on for the different industries they covered. Both the main pharmaceutical publication and Animal Pharm had very expensive Academy-award-like shows that were apparently a big deal (“The Best New Cattle Vaccination Drug goes to—”… “The award for Animal Pharmaceutical Executive of the Year goes to—”…). I thought this must be a British thing because I had never heard of corporate awards shows like this back in the States. Maybe they just liked to get dressed up like they were going to the royal ball to gossip over drinks and cigarettes. It was a far cry from the Erickson holiday party at Dave & Buster’s.
After my tour of the office, my boss asked if I had brought my tuxedo as if he actually expected me to own one. The only time I had ever even worn a tux was my wedding, and that was a rental from the Men’s Wearhouse. He actually became a bit alarmed that I didn’t bring one, so he led me right out of the building and we walked through a series of narrow zig-zagging streets until we arrived at a shop where I could rent one.
The tailor started taking my measurements. As he was doing so, my boss said he had to get back to the office and left me there. He had also said that I would have to pay for the tux rental out of my meal stipend. The rental cost £60, which was two days worth of meals. I then had to find my way back to the office, and of course I got lost. I had no idea where I was in relation to the office, and all the streets were narrow and curved and nothing like the nice easy grid of Manhattan. It took me over an hour to get back even though I was actually only a few blocks away.
We had an editorial meeting later that afternoon, and the rest of the day was spent filling out paperwork that the human resources person back at the New York office forgot to have me fill out—so I didn’t have to write any articles. Then on Friday morning they sent me to a “Grammar and Proofreading” class that all company writers had to take. As boring as this sounded, I didn’t mind because it meant that I wouldn’t have to write any articles, which I knew I would have difficulty with at the office.
I took the Underground to the Pentonville neighborhood on the northern fringe of London, which was a bit outside the busy part of the city where the office was and apparently near the neighborhood where Dickens’ Oliver Twist was set. It was raining, which made it feel really British, and there didn’t seem to be anything there that would attract tourists, which was cool because I liked to stay away from the touristy stuff when I traveled. In fact, one of the biggest attractions in London for me, a lifelong train and subway enthusiast, was the Underground, which is probably the coolest subway system in the world behind the New York City subways.
The class was held in an old building of which I had to go through a pair of tall iron gates to get inside. After checking in, I was sent to a very small classroom upstairs where about fifteen or other so students were already seated in old wooden classroom desks and waiting for the class to begin.
This felt really strange, but in a cool way. I felt like I was in a grade school classroom in London. Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” was going through my head—No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Teachers leave us kids alone… This was a snapshot into what school could have been like if I had been born in a different time and a different place.
The class lasted a few hours, and, of course, I was the only American, as everyone would learn when the teacher asked us each to say our name and why we were taking the course. The class itself was pretty boring, but it was here, at the source of the very language I speak, during the Q&A at the end of the class, where I decided to ask about something that had been bothering me since fourth grade. Back then I had been taught that you were supposed to put a comma before the final item in a list so that the last two items don’t appear like they are part of a single item.
This is the way I wrote it:
For lunch I had a sandwich, cheese, milk, and grapes.
This is the way just about everyone else wrote it:
For lunch I had a sandwich, cheese, milk and grapes.
To me, the comma signifies a pause after each item. Without the comma, it looks like you wouldn’t pause between the last two items and you would read it like “milk-and-grapes” without a pause as if “milk and grapes” were some sort of weird concoction. (If it was just two items, the pace of the sentence would be automatic, so you wouldn’t need something to indicate a longer pause like you would on a longer list, but it also doesn’t look like two items are being combined: For lunch I had milk and grapes.).
“So, which is it?” I asked. “I need to know if I can go back to the States and yell at anyone who doesn’t use that comma before the last item in a list.”
The class laughed, and the teacher smiled. “You are referring to the Oxford comma. Yes, you should use it. I do.”
That evening, adorned in my tux, I met everyone down at the office building, where two coach buses were waiting to drive everyone to the large catering hall where the party was taking place just outside of London. Along the way we passed Big Ben and Parliament, but beyond that I didn’t see anything else along the way because it was already dark outside.
The catering hall was huge, and there was an open bar that was serving cans of Budweiser and Boddingtons, the latter of which I had once in a bar back home in the Village and was probably the flattest most disgusting beer I had ever tasted. I had always heard that they like to drink warm beer in London, so I asked the bartender if the beer was cold. He gave me an annoyed look and said something with such a heavy British accent that I couldn’t understand him, which I think he did purposely because he thought I was a stupid American. Without responding further to whatever he said, I asked for a Budweiser, which was cold (warm beer is actually not a common thing in the UK, nor is tipping bartenders).
So I had a couple cold Buds, but after an hour I started to get a headache from all the cigarette smoke in the room. Even though I used to smoke cigarettes and had spent my college years living in smoke-filled dorm rooms and houses and bars, I was now not used to it because of the smoking bans in most public places back in the States and hadn’t been in a smoke-filled room for five years or so. And I was exhausted. I also felt a little ridiculous wearing the tux even though all the other guys were wearing them and the women were wearing formal dresses. I also didn’t want to drink too much and make an ass of myself.
When I heard that the first bus back to town was about to leave, I followed a small group of five or so people who were heading out. I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving because I didn’t want anyone to try talking me into staying. The bus was quiet, and it was nice to be away from the smoke and noise. I was exhausted. The driver made several stops, and when I was the only passenger left, he asked which stop I wanted. I told him the one near the office, but he didn’t seem to know the office by name, and I couldn’t remember the address. He wasn’t familiar with the Hoxton Hotel either. So I asked what my choices were, and one of them sounded familiar, so I got off at that one.
I was close to the hotel, but I was off by about half a mile and wound up in a place where there were a lot of intoxicated young people out and about. I started walking in the direction where I thought the hotel would be, and while I was walking I heard a couple of drunk blokes behind me saying, “Look at this guy in the tux! Yes, he’s actually wearing a tuxedo!” They were laughing and continued to make fun of me along the same vein. I eventually tried to diffuse the situation by turning around and smiling, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want them to know I was an American, which I thought might make it worse. But they were relentless. Someone wearing a tuxedo was apparently the funniest thing they had ever seen. Eventually I ducked into a shopping mall to lose them and waited a few minutes until I was sure they were gone, then finally made it the rest of the way to the hotel and went right to bed.
The company had not scheduled anything for me to do over the weekend, so I was free for a couple of days. I woke up early on Saturday morning and did some sightseeing, including trips to the new Globe Theatre, walking along the Thames near London Bridge, and traveling to Abbey Road Studios and walking barefoot across the cold intersection like Paul McCartney had done on the cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album (which is one of my favorite albums of all time). I also took a ride on a double decker bus through Piccadilly Circus and had a hearty meal of fish and chips at a pub near Buckingham Palace.
Back at the office on Monday morning, there was nothing scheduled for me to do, which meant that I actually had to attempt writing an article. This was extremely difficult because the office was a huge wide open newsroom style space without cubicles where everyone could see each other, and there many other reporters and editors from various other publications (the company had dozens of trade journals, as well as textbook divisions, technical writers, and all sorts of other stuff). The room was very noisy and distracting compared to the cubicles us Americans like to hide in. For some reason, my boss asked me to write an article about something based in France, and he wanted me to call some guy there about it, and of course they didn’t speak English. After spending an hour struggling to get started, I told my boss that I was having trouble with it, but he told me to forget about it because something else had just come up. He asked me to attend an event being hosted by Pfizer at the Hilton near Heathrow Airport that night and to wear my tie (I was relieved he didn’t say “tux” because I was supposed to return it after work and would have had to pay more to extend it). They were re-launching a product that had initially flopped, a medication that was supposed to reduce mastitis in European Union dairy cows. My boss had been the one invited since this was his beat, but he couldn’t make it. Since Animal Pharm had a good relationship with Pfizer UK, someone from the office had to be there. I was fine with it because it would get me out of the office and it would give me an easy article to write.
This was actually an important product to Pfizer since they had high hopes for it and were expecting better returns. They had flown in reporters from all over Europe and set up this fancy dinner, and they were even paying for a hotel room for me, which seemed kind of silly since I already had a hotel room in London—but what the hell.
The event commenced with cocktails at the hotel bar, and the Pfizer rep who knew my boss introduced me around. Several people raised their eyebrows when they learned that I was an American, and I wondered if they were thinking that maybe this was a bigger deal than they originally thought if Pfizer was bringing in reporters from the States. Then we headed into the grand ballroom, which was set up with table dressings like you would see at a wedding reception. The main course was filet mignon, and I had been seated between a Welsh dairy farmer who doubled as an animal health reporter, and an animal health reporter from Italy who spoke almost no English but who seemed very friendly. The Welsh guy started asking me why I thought this Pfizer product failed to do well the first time because it was a good product, and I told him that I didn’t know because I’m an American. He said, “I see,” and then went on about how he had treated his cows with this product and that it was superior to everything else he had tried and how his butter production actually got better and so on. And then he didn’t stop talking. I thought it was pretty obvious that I was no longer listening, but that didn’t seem to matter. It was almost as if he was talking to his filet mignon, as there was no one else sitting directly on the other side of him.
After a while I thought my head was going to explode. I eventually turned to the Italian guy and tried talking to him in an attempt to drown out the Welsh guy’s voice.
“Soccer,” I said. “I mean fútbol—World Cup.”
Italy had just won the World Cup last year, and this put a smile on his face. He nodded and said, “Sì, sì.”
“Olympics?” I said, referring to the Winter Games that had been held in Italy last year. “Turin?”
Again he smiled and nodded. He knew a few basic English words, so I started talking to him and we were able to have somewhat of a conversation. He was much younger than the Welsh guy, and I knew he wasn’t going to talk my head off about bovine mastitis. I was able to determine that Pfizer had flown him in from Italy, and then after dinner he was going to get on another plane and fly right back—which didn’t make sense because they were giving me a hotel room even though I was already in London. Maybe it was his choice to fly right back, but I wasn’t able to get to the bottom of it. At one break in the conversation, I noticed that the Welsh guy was still talking, only now his eyes were closed as if he was now speaking to someone in his head.
A few tables over there was a table full of reporters from Spain, including a couple of women speaking loudly who sounded drunk. The room was filled with cigarette smoke—these Europeans actually smoked while they were still eating. The Pfizer guy then tried to talk about the product re-launch, and a few of the more serious reporters asked some questions, but I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. It didn’t matter because all of us had been given a full press packet that contained a press release full of quotes and pamphlets about the product, so I had more than enough to whip up 600 words at the office the next day.
At one point while the Pfizer guy was speaking, I began to feel dizzy and had a moment of heightened self-consciousness. What am I doing here? How did this happen? This was the very same feeling I kept having, including yesterday morning with the animal health executives staring back at me from across the conference table in Overland Park. It almost felt like I kept visiting someone else’s life. This wasn’t me. I’m an artist, damn it! I shouldn’t be wasting my words on industrial cattle medicine!
An artist. Damn it. That’s what I told myself a couple of weeks ago when I was at the Daily News building back home for a job interview. I had seen a job listing a few weeks earlier that looked interesting, so I sent them a resume. A few weeks later they called me in. During those few weeks, my interest in continuing my journalism career had deteriorated to the point where I had signed up for classes to get a real estate license. This idea had potential since real estate is flexible, and you are your own boss (although you do have to be sponsored by a real estate brokerage company until you achieve independent broker status). Most important, I would get away from writing as a job, which would hopefully wake up my creative self from hibernation.
So, at this point, with my mind already mostly made up about getting into real estate, I wasn’t really that interested in the job at this point. But this was the New York Daily News, one of the legendary tabloids of this great city, so I decided to go just to hear what they had to say. At the very least, it was something to do to get out of the office for a couple of hours.
It was raining heavily outside during the block-and-a-half walk from the subway to the Daily News building on 33rd Street, and even though I sprinted all the way, I still got soaked and was dripping wet while waiting for my visitor’s pass at the front desk. When I got to the waiting area, I did my best to dry my head off with my shirt sleeves, but it was pretty much hopeless.
The place was quiet, and I was the only person waiting to be seen. I couldn’t see the newsroom or any other part of the office. People were coming and going, and I wondered if I was going to see Mike Lupica walk by. Except for the bombastic headlines you see on the newsstands, I actually hadn’t looked at the Daily News in years, so he’s the only one of their journalists that I know.
I had applied for an online reporter/editor position, so I had sent them a few of my articles from The Trib since they were the most like regular newspaper articles. After twenty minutes or so, a man appeared in the waiting area and said my name.
Now, I generally try not to comment on someone’s appearance, but if you’re going to wear a bad toupee, you’re fair game—and this was one of the worst rugs I had ever seen, especially since the stark black toupee didn’t come close to matching the color of the brown hair that was visible around the back and on the sides.
When we arrived at his office, I was surprised to see that he had printed out a bunch of my articles that had been posted on my website. These were not the ones I had sent him; these were some of the more adventurous works from my early freelance days and my blog, r-daub-a-blog.
“These are fantastic!” he said, pointing to the printed articles on his desk, among which included “Finding Emmitsburg”, “The Taneytown Ten Dollar Taxi Tour”, “The Caveman Prophet” (an essay from my collection Pork Chops and Subway Cars), and “The Melancholy of Denny’s” (from my blog r-daub-a-blog).
“This stuff that you did down in Maryland is gold,” he continued. “Gold! My mind just exploded with stuff like this you could do in New York! Here, I wrote down some ideas!”
He showed me a notepad on which he had scribbled modified titles of some of my works: “Finding Roosevelt Island”, “The A Train Prophet”, “The Melancholy of Tom’s Restaurant”.
“I know you’ll have ideas of your own,” he said, “but I would love to take what you did and do New York versions of them.”
While these were the most fun kinds of articles I had written—especially compared to extracting highlights from the quarterly earnings reports of pharmaceutical corporations—I could not fathom doing stuff like this again. Even though this kind of work would be more creative than both The Trib and Animal Pharm, it would still be subject to the approval of the Daily News editors, who might not know what to make of stuff like this (and newspapers weren’t always so kind to longer pieces such as mine would be).
Most of all, though, I just no longer had it in me to run around doing such off-the-wall things to get a story. I had felt this way even when I was still at The Trib, when a new Baltimore-based sports publication called The Press Box had offered me a regular gig doing stuff like this in a section that would be called “The Wanderer”, which I agreed to do but backed out at the last minute (one idea was to go to Williamsport, PA and find out what the town was like during the rest of the year when the Little League World Series wasn’t being played, and another was to experience firsthand the quirks of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Half Marathon). I just couldn’t do it. The appeal for this kind of work had sunk to a watery grave at the bottom of a backyard pond in Mount Airy, Maryland.
Besides, I wanted to take back ownership of my creative energy. I didn’t want it poisoned by one of New York City’s most notorious tabloids. If it was The New York Times, maybe… but not the Daily News.
The interview didn’t last long. At the end of it, Mr. Toupee asked what I thought. I said it sounded “pretty cool”, so he said he was going to speak to his bosses and that he would be in touch in a few days, and that I should send him any new ideas I might have. I could tell that he wanted to hire me, which was normally a good feeling during a job interview. But not this time.
Dripping wet on the A train, I realized what I now have to do. I have to get out of journalism completely and go back to my original post-college plan of having a non-writing job by day and writing my own stuff at night. That is the only way I will be able to control my own destiny and get some real writing done. I will get my real estate license, make some serious money selling Manhattan real estate, and write on the side whenever I can. Maybe I will eventually make enough money in real estate to retire early and do all the writing I want. Selling real estate seems crazy since it is something completely outside of my comfort zone, but being a journalist and interviewing politicians had at one point sounded just as crazy. But I overcame that fear of approaching shop owners and politicians and corporate executives by simply going through the motions and figuring it out as I was doing it. “Fake it until you make it,” as the saying goes. Now they are more afraid of me than I am of them.
After returning to the office from the Daily News interview, I spent the rest of the afternoon reading blogs and discussion boards of people sharing their experiences about getting their real estate licenses and joining up with brokers. It was a bit discouraging. Most people fail, and those who do eventually succeed have to struggle for years before finally making it. I started having second thoughts.
But now, this evening, sitting in this Kansas City hotel room, I realize that I have to give it a shot because I just can’t keep doing this. Even if selling real estate is a great struggle, at least at would be a different struggle. This animal pharmaceutical thing is destroying my creative being, and is perhaps even starting to nibble at my sanity.
That being said, it has been a pretty amazing ride for someone with absolutely no formal training as a journalist. I’ve now had many unique experiences in places far and near that I never would have had if on that fateful foggy morning several years ago I had given in to my fear of failure and stayed in bed rather than wandering into the great unknown of Emmitsburg, Maryland. It is amazing to think that before then, my only journalism experience had been a single night at Shea Stadium in 1995 pretending to be a sports reporter. But now, three years after Emmitsburg, I have had held two salaried journalism positions; I have been inside the White House press pool; I was considered for a job at the New York Daily News; and just this past week, a reporter at Newsweek who is writing an article about the booming industry of pet health care contacted me to be a source. One of the top news media brands in the world has recognized me as a bona fide journalist.
If I had said “screw it” and not gone to Emmitsburg that morning, I really have no idea what I would be doing right now. It would probably be some awful corporate job like being a pork and beef buyer for a food service company or some mid-level customer service manager or some other such job that I would have hated even more. If one of those had been the case, perhaps I would have been back into the post-college writing plan by now. But I don’t think that would have been ideal. I feel that learning how to write as a journalist will greatly benefit my writing in general. Not only has it given me a new perspective, but stylistically it should help my writing become tighter and more precise (which is what my writing professors in college were always telling me… “read Hemingway!” one of them told me constantly).
Most of all, though, having deadlines has taught me how to finish a piece. For years I would write a short story or the first chapter of a book and be satisfied that I had accomplished something that I would be able to go back to and finish later. The problem was that I never went back, and the result was a large collection of unedited, unfinished, forgotten short stories and novels written during a time when I had a less mature perspective. Over time, I moved further and further from the person I was when I originally wrote them, which made it less and less likely that I would ever go back and finish them. If I had completed them then, perhaps I could now appreciate the perspective I had at the time by simply reading them as finished works. But I cannot creatively go back to the time and place I had been when I initially wrote them and simply pick up where I left off. I am not the same person and writer now as I was back then. The only thing I really can do is take the original idea and start from scratch, but ideas from so long ago and from such a different phase of my life are not as appealing now as they were back then.
Writing a first draft is the fun part—the free flow of creativity streaming from your mind and through your fingertips hammering away on the keyboard while a work of art begins to take shape on the screen in front of you. It is very similar to playing music, where the creative process is taking place in your mind and traveling through you to the instrument you are playing, and your mind gets the enjoyment of hearing the music it is creating as it happens. Unlike music, though, writing a first draft is not much of an accomplishment. At most it is a first step, but the real work is still ahead of you. First drafts by themselves are worthless. It is like baking a cake but stopping after you mixed the flour and eggs together and then put it in the fridge to finish later.
The key to completing a work is to not stop working on it until it is finished. As soon as you finish the first draft, go back to the beginning and start editing it right away. Don’t let it sit around and get cold. If it is a longer work like a book, finish the first draft all the way through and then go right back to the first chapter and start editing (don’t edit each chapter after writing it… keep going until you have a completed first draft, then start editing). Also keep in mind that editing is the hard part. Editing will test your resolve and your endurance. Over time, you will become better at it, and it will also help you become more efficient with your first drafts so that the editing will eventually become a little less strenuous.
No part of the editing process is easy. In fact, it is quite a brutal grind at times and extremely frustrating. But you will never become a writer until you learn this part of the craft. Now, because of journalism, I know how to do it. Now I start editing something immediately after the first draft and keep editing it over and over again until I am satisfied that it is finished (you also have to accept that no work will ever be 100% perfect… once you start tinkering with tiny little things that the reader wouldn’t even notice, it is a good sign that you are probably finished). Don’t put it down and start working on something else. Write, edit, move on.
As for real estate, I already know it will be a struggle, but most worthwhile things in life are achieved through struggle—and not all struggles are bad. If you struggle at doing something you haven’t done before, the experience will make you stronger and help you build confidence in other areas of life. If you struggle but eventually start to succeed, you will begin growing much stronger and more confident. If you struggle and fail, you will still have acquired knowledge that will help you later—even if it is as simple as knowing what not to do or checking one more thing off the list of things you thought you should someday try—and you will become more confident to try new things because you know that failure isn’t as bad as you thought it would be and that, no matter the result, you will acquire knowledge and experience from the process. Either way, going outside of your comfort zone and trying new things will help build confidence, and confidence is the key to everything. Without it, your hidden talents will never come out of hiding, and your surface talents will remain stagnant.
I do feel stronger now after having all these experiences as a journalist that I never expected to have. Where I was nervous about interviewing people when I started, that has become old hat. Because I overcame that fear, I am much more confident now, and that confidence has led me to think that I can be successful in one of the most competitive real estate markets in the world. Had I not become comfortable interviewing people, I probably wouldn’t even be considering selling real estate right now given the heavy amount of human interaction and negotiation that will be involved.
I am facing a tremendous challenge, one that when I was younger and less experienced I would not have had the courage to accept. But the accumulation of different experiences, no matter what they happen to be, start to chip away at your fear of trying new things. This alone builds strength and confidence and starts to erode your fear of failure. There is a very real possibility that I will fail at real estate, but failure in itself, while frustrating, can be valuable. The more you fail, the less afraid you are to fail, and, unless you are a defeatist, the greater your willingness to try something else after you have failed. Eventually something will stick.
Even though I don’t know what is going to happen in real estate or how it is going to play out, I know that I have to do this in order to keep moving forward. There is no more forward for me in journalism, so I have to make a sharp turn in a new direction. With this choosing of a new general direction (and not a specific destination—I am just going to go in and see what happens like I did in Emmitsburg), my soul has been freed from the burden of uncertainty. I am stuck at the moment but will begin moving forward again shortly.
When you don’t know what to do, you become stuck and cannot move forward. But when you pick a direction, even if you’re not sure if it is the right one, you will begin to move forward again. And it is okay, perhaps even better, if you don’t have a specific destination in mind so that it will be easier to make adjustments along the way (blindly heading towards a specific destination may cause you to overlook unforeseen opportunities along the way). And even if you eventually reach a destination that turns out not to be a place you want to be (like Kansas City), you will be richer for the experiences you just had, and they will help you during the next journey you take. Perhaps your journeys will ultimately lead you to the perfect destination, but even if not, you will be closer to finding that place than you were before.
13 April 2007
Kansas City, MO