Thursday, November 5, 2015

Mr. Dodge's Neighborhood

Our house in Poplarville, Mississippi came with was a freestanding basketball hoop - the heavy, tall kind on its own base that takes up valuable turning space in your driveway.

Like this.  But heavier.
The movers hadn’t even arrived yet with our furniture, and I already knew I would not have time to learn a new sport.  I didn’t have the truck with me to take it to the dump (not that I knew where the dump was), nor did I have sufficient tools to dismantle the beast.  It was about ten feet tall, with a solid base that who knows what was living under.  The grass had grown around it and the net was rotted off.  It had to go.

Newly transplanted from the friendly and familiar in Schroon Lake, I felt like a stranger in a strange land in Mississippi.  I was here by myself, and Larry wouldn't be here for another month.  But a great way to meet new neighbors is by joining local Facebook yard sale-type pages.  I joined Poplarville and Bogalusa (Louisiana) with the sole intent of getting rid of some stuff.  It has the added benefit of getting you up close with the locals.

Within minutes of posting a picture of the hoop and asking $20 for the privilege of taking it away, I had a buyer.  Bridgett was from a few towns over and when her husband got home from work they would be down to pick it up.

I heard them before I saw them.  A rough looking Dodge Ram slowly pulled into the driveway.  A sticker on the rear bumper read: 

(If you don’t know what this means, I can’t embarrass myself by explaining it here.  Go Google it.)

Bridgett was a chatty sweetheart in a sundress who was thrilled to death with getting this hoop for their son.   Her Army Reserves husband seemed just the opposite – quiet, clean cut and ramrod straight, all business and little pleasure.  I found them an odd pairing. 

Bridgett impressed me with her ability to simultaneously tell me her family history and help her husband finagle the hoop onto the bed of the truck, which was littered with tools.  The base was too heavy to lift, so they decided to just tip the whole thing, slide it on the bed let the hoop hang off the truck gate.  (I have since noticed that lots of people here drive with things dangling off the back of their vehicles, so it was not unusual.)

This meant getting the back of the truck closer to the hoop base.  Army Reserves looked at me and said, “Can you drive a standard?”  I just stared at him.  Bridgett stopped talking.  I looked at her.  “I can’t drive a stick,” she said sheepishly, then dove into the history of her lack of vehicle prowess. 

I swallowed.  “Ye—ah, I guess so,” I said, and slowly got into the driver’s seat.  This was a
Like this.  But worse.
late 80’s Dodge that had been used and abused.  It was utilitarian, nothing more.  The gear shift looked like it belonged in an 18 wheeler.  I couldn’t tell if reverse was up and to the left, or down and to the right.  I just knew I was going to humiliate myself.  My hesitation gave me away.

“Up to the left,” Army Reserves yelled.

I started the truck up, got it into gear without grinding anything, and slowly backed up until he told me to stop.  With great relief I killed the engine and got out.  Army Reserves and Bridgett were smiling at me.

“It just screams redneck, doesn’t it?” he laughed, the first time I saw him smile, and a lovely smile it was.

And just like that, I felt the ice break around me. I had made some kind of connection with residents of my new home state.  They weren’t scary, they weren’t judgmental, they were just people and they weren’t out to get me.  I laughed with them and said “Bridgett, every woman should know how to drive a stick.”  She then launched into another story about something involving her father building a swing set.

At least I now had room in the driveway for the movers.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Follow That Detour!

One of the interesting things that have come out of working for the newspaper is how an assignment can morph.

An event is about X, and I start mulling it over and thinking about what angle I’m going to take on it.  Since I have to get it written and submitted the same day, I don’t have a lot of
time to get it done, so I try to map it out in my head as much as possible.

What happens is I’ll get to where I need to go, and start chatting with people and asking questions, and a new angle will unexpectedly present itself, or someone will come up to me with “Did you know that…” and suddenly I've detoured into a whole different story.

It’s one of the things I’ve come to enjoy the most in writing for the newspaper.  It’s also happened with some of my Tractor Supply pieces.  An interviewee gave me so much good, interesting information, that I was able to glean two separate articles out of it, on two different topics.  That was a win-win. 

Experiencing this has helped me to keep more of an open mind on things.  I tend to be rigid; I like routines and expectations, and there’s a lot of good in that because stuff gets done.

But it also blocks opportunities for new experiences and things I may not have thought of before.  Now when I go to do a story, I’ll have the foundation of what I’m going to cover, as I still do my homework, but I stay much more open to let the story evolve the way it wants to.  I listen to people more, and I try to pick up on their cues as to what is really pertinent.

A story on the White Water Derby in North Creek took on the angle of the volunteers necessary to make it all happen.

Covering the groundbreaking of a Habitat for Humanity build became an informative piece on how the process actually works.

The Young Eagles Weekend showed me how an aircraft group, through it's selflessness and generosity, could share its enthusiasm for the sport of flying with local kids, free of charge.  

I tend to use Larry as my gauge.  If, after reading my story in Sunday’s paper, he says “I didn’t know that,” then I know I’ve done a good job.  It doesn’t happen every time, but more often than not I’m successful.  And that’s what I should be striving for – to tell people something they didn’t know. 

My stories are on the short side, as they’re community pieces as opposed to full-blown features.  They’re supposed to be about 300-350 words, but my awesome editor Adam usually lets me go longer if there’s room.

A time when that backfired was when I covered the Fall LARAC Fair.  In trying to come up with a different angle for this long-running event, I had the brainstorm of asking numerous vendors how they got started, what they liked about doing the circuit, what they disliked, advice they would give to people wanting to get started, almost like a how-to piece.  I was pretty pleased with myself for coming up with this, and had a microcassette full of good stuff.  After I transcribed my first draft, I emailed Adam and asked how much space I could have, as I had a lot of great material.  He came back with “Keep it on the short side, we’re tight on space.”  Argh!! 

My whole format was blown out of the water.  I had to slash and burn mercilessly (which, normally, is a healthy editorial thing to do), and ended up with a fraction of what I had started out with.  Oh well.

Life morphs, too, as I’ve learned in spades the last few years.  The track you plan on isn’t necessarily the one you stay on, and that’s okay.  Sometimes you just need to listen more, and follow the unexpected detour that presents itself.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

The Industrial Revolution, which began in earnest in this country around the mid 1800’s, saw a change in our largely agrarian, handicraft-based economy to a landscape dominated by factory and machine manufacturing processes. 

International Paper was founded in 1898 with the merger of 17 paper mills, one of them being the former Lake George Paper Company in Ticonderoga.  IP has been a mainstay of the community ever since.  Whether you’re for it or against it, love it or hate it, the mill provides good paying jobs to its roughly 700 employees.  And let’s not forget that it generates a product we all use every day.  There’s no sidestepping that truth.
Jorg Borowski

On Friday there was a terrible accident at the mill which resulted in a fatality.  Jorg Borowski was a Schroon Laker, known and liked by nearly everyone in our small community.

I know that any morning when my husband leaves for work at the mill, there is the chance he may not come home, however slight.  It’s true of any of us; unfortunate events can and do happen every day.  But for those who work in manufacturing, those risks are multiplied and very real.

Our modern life comes from big, ugly, noisy, stinky, heavy things.  Power plants, fuel extraction and processing, any type of manufacturing (stuff has to get MADE, it doesn’t just APPEAR), modern day agriculture – they all use copious amounts of energy.  Industry specifics aside, manufacturing utilizes complex processes, forces, chemicals, heat, intense pressure of all kinds.  All of these things are dangerous entities.  Tremendous strides have been made in worker safety over the past half century or so, but accidents do still happen.

Machine Room, Otis Mill, Chisholm, Maine, 1909
(note bare feet on operators)
Real men and women are doing the work, sweating under hardhats and using their hands, working hard to make these things happen for the rest of us.  When you flip a switch on a wall, mentally follow that line to its source – all the way.  When you use a piece of paper, think about the starting point of that tree and what it went through to be the disposable item you have in your hand.  It didn’t happen by itself; people made that possible.

Georgetown, SC, 1946
Do some research online about processes.  Better yet, take a tour of a mill.  Both International Paper and Finch Paper in Glens Falls offer tours of their facilities.  Pretend you’re a Cub Scout if you have to so you can get on a group tour.  Ask an employee acquaintance you may know if one can be arranged.  It’s an eye opening experience.

At the end of the day, people are the ones that make any kind of production happen.  Our family, friends and neighbors are the ones running the machines and doing the work.  And sometimes, they pay the price for our modern life.

(Photos reproduced from "Generations of Pride: A Centennial History of International Paper," 1998.)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Changing Horses in Mid Life

Welcome to the inaugural post of My Freelancing Fifties, a self-indulgent blog of my terrified musings as a newly launched full-time freelance writer!

As of the end of business on December 31, 2014, I left the safety and security of my 8-year stint as a legal secretary in my small town to pursue my writing on a full-time basis.  I’ll be right back after I have an anxiety attack.

This decision wasn’t made hastily.  I liked my day job, for the most part.  It had given me the opportunity to get to know everybody in town, and to know interesting and sometimes unsavory things about them, and, as my mother said about her career as a legal secretary, “where the bodies are buried.”

I did some writing in high school, interning for The Saratogian Newspaper in high school and learning some hard lessons in the summer of my junior year at The Spa City Spectator, a little weekly independent.  I idolized my older cousin Marianne, a bona fide writer who went to college and everything, who wrote for NBC’s kid’s program Hot Hero Sandwich in the late 70’s.  She sent me a press kit, and I felt like I had entered the inner sanctum.

But life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, especially if you’re not paying attention.  I got married, had a baby, got divorced, then played that trifecta again.  During that time and beyond, I worked primarily in the secretarial and its peripheral fields.  I was good at these jobs.  I was organized, efficient, a self-starter.  Some of these jobs sucked and a couple were wonderful, with coworkers who were and continue to be blessings in my life.  I did interesting things like work in strategic planning, domestic violence and a very brief stint in a veterinary office. 

All the while, I dabbled with my writing, doing a stray article here and there.  I finally met a wonderful man who thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread AND wasn’t a flake.  He encouraged me to keep writing.  I had my arsenal of excuses – no time, no college, no internet, no talent – and didn’t hesitate to use them to keep myself down.

Then a couple of years ago, two friends (one a life coach, the other a yoga instructor) approached me about doing a writing component at a women’s retreat they were organizing.  In my brain, this smacked of validation, even though I kept asking myself why they thought I of all people had anything to offer.  (Thankfully, self deprecation gets old, and eventually you stop.) 

Planning for the retreat, and working with these awesome people, got me thinking in different directions.  It was empowering and fun.  But it wasn’t something I could pay my bills by doing.

I sent out some letters of inquiry to publications I liked and thought I could contribute to, kinda knowing what I was doing.  Almost a year after sending one out to a national quarterly I admired, the editor called me out of the blue, asking if I’d be interested in an assignment.  I was on cloud nine, then realized I had to actually write the thing.
Bella, my Gray Muse

I hammered out the article, angst ridden, completely unsure of my capabilities.  My husband walked in the door and cheerfully asked “How’s it going?”  I went into a tirade of “I don’t know what I’m doing!  I’m never going to get this done in time!  Why did I think I could do this?  I suck!!”

But I did get it done, and submitted on time.  I bit my nails waiting to hear back from the editor, expecting her to berate me on my crappy writing until I peed myself like a puppy backed into a corner.

Instead, she wrote back with “Very nice job on the story.  I appreciate it when a writer delivers exactly what I’ve asked for.”

I suddenly had some traction. 

In February I contacted a small local weekly newspaper about doing some freelance work for them.  I excitedly read their reply about how sure, we’d love to have you do freelance work for us, here are our guidelines, yadda yadda.  Oh, and we don’t pay freelancers, thanks!

That was a turning point for me.  Yes, I’ve read where it’s good karma to write for organizations, especially nonprofits, for free; it helps them and it helps you, professionally and cosmically.  But I made a decision that day that, unless it was my idea, I didn’t work for nothing.  What I did, what I offered had value.  Plus I had bills to pay.  I wasn’t going to give away the store.

Two weeks later, I responded to an ad in a daily newspaper with a sizeable circulation that was looking for freelancers.  They called, I interviewed, I left with my first paying assignment.

There’s your karma.  Now I had momentum, too.

I suddenly had tight deadlines.  I didn’t have the luxury of a couple of weeks or more to put a story together, massaging it until it was just right.  It was more like a couple of hours.  And it made me a better writer. 

When I had another magazine article assignment a couple of months after starting the newspaper work, I completed it in half the time of the first one, with fewer revisions.  My hourly rate suddenly jumped exponentially.

It’s true that once you put your nose to the grindstone, the universe will start to open up.  Yeah, you have to make your intentions known and all that stuff, but it’s doing that work that brings in the real opportunities. 

In September, I made the conscious decision to leave my day job and try to support myself from my writing.  I’ve done my best to set myself up for success:  I’ve bankrolled some cash to get me through the first couple of months of bills, I’ve reduced my expenses as much as possible, I’ve established a strong network of professional colleagues, and I’ve put myself in the mindset that I will make this work.  I’m not adverse to working part-time somewhere if I need to at some point. 

At 51 years of age, I’m finally making my career move.  I’m not some kid fresh out of college.  I’ve got some miles on me, some – let’s say – perspective.

Through this blog, I’m inviting you to join me as I continue to figure things out.  There will be a fair amount of blood, sweat and tears along the way, and laughs as well. 

Welcome to My Freelancing Fifties!

Getting gutsy is all about stepping outside your comfort zone to reach your goals and live a life that makes you truly happy. This post is my entry for Jessica Lawlor’s Get Gutsy Essay Contest. To get involved and share your own gutsy story, check out this post for contest details and download a free copy of the inspiring Get Gutsy ebook.