Monday, November 16, 2009

My Anniversary

I hate to start a blog with "according," but dammit, I'm going to do it! According to a study I read today, smaller cities are losing their luster during the economic downturn. I could care less about the numbers! If I've learned anything during the past year (aside from it's bad to hit a moose with your car) it's that small cities are where's it's at. During my trips to Vermont, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, I've found the people nice, the food eclectic and the traffic not so bad. Even Burlington, the biggest city in Vermont has traffic that pales in comparison to cities like Syracuse and Rochester. I'd much rather deal with a longer commute than four lanes of traffic packed with cars driven by blokes with cell phones and Marlboro Lights. During a week in Burlington, I didn't get flipped off once.

And speaking of economic downturn, the one-year anniversary of becoming a laid-off is right around the corner.

Yup, one year.

I'm not gonna lie, but it's been a great year filled with freelancing, dangling participles, traveling, and seeing the family. and Adobe CS4. I've basically taught myself how to design newsletters and brochures and to edit pictures. My favorite has to be the one of the sea monster eating my girlfriend. It's not that I want her in Davy Jones' Locker, rather, I just wanted to see if I could create the image.

So, as I start year two, I'm confident full-time employment is right around the corner. I've made good connections, watched the necessary chick flicks and kept my skills updated. If I was more superstitious, I'd be worried about the bridge between New York and Vermont being condemned. I'd see it as a sign.

But no way. They have ferries across the lake.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Today, the Bridesmaid

Today, I received good and bad news. The bad news is that I pretty much came in second for a great job in Burlington, Vermont. The good: they really liked me but opted for the person with more experience. It's a great feeling being told "you did everything right." Basically I came in second in a height competition, and as you know, height is something you can't teach or earn.

I'm a little disappointed and actually sad, because the people there would have been great to work with and who knows what the future holds. Another great part is that I can finally exhale. Monday was filled with utter nervousness and trepidation. So much to the point, that my girlfriend encouraged me to drink a fine brew of cider and wonderful Kentucky bourbon. But as I've learned, all bourbon is from Kentucky.

On very rare occasions does the woman in my life plop down a glass of 80 percent booze and tell me to get to work. She could see my nervousness, especially after I turned down the dessert with pumpkin in it and a night out filled with baby bottles full of beer and chocolate cake.

So, does rejection sting more when you don't get a phone call or come so close to getting the job? I'm not telling.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Skill Set

In a perfect world, the wisdom of Yoda would hold true and we'd all be walking around speaking in inverted sentences. "Need breakfast I do" would be a popular saying in my domicile. The reason I respect the little green bugger so much is that he definitely had a plan, even if Luke Skywalker couldn't see it. Luke probably didn't think that wearing a blindfold and trying to slice a robotic floating orb would pay off later.

The same went for me about a decade ago while I was covering a fire in Boonville, N.Y. ruining a $100 pair of pants from the Gap because I was too close to the smoke. But instead of swatting a robot, I was learning how to talk to people and negotiate tight situations. There's a certain gross pull when you have to write a story about a shop owner who just watched his entire life go up in flames.

It all adds to your skill set, no matter what road you took to get there. Last week, I had two amazing interviews for a PR gig in Vermont, and it seemed that my skills culled from the journalism realm really meshed well with what they're looking for. I didn't realize how much I learned from being in the media for a decade. But when you're doing something every day of your life, very rarely do you stop and look around.

Maybe Ferris was right.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Up For Breakfast

Breakfast as a freelancer tastes different than being a full-time newspaper employee. When you're honed on a diet of granola and Mr. Goodbar every day for three straight years, you develop a yearning for eggs. Particularly the ones that come from chickens with large talons raised in the Northeast.

A few days ago, I decided to drive to Vermont for breakfast with my father. Not just because his mother just died, but also because Vermont is rife with great breakfast options and a flair for local products. If I learned anything from Michigan, it's not just that Pabst Blue Ribbon is still consumed in mass quantities; it's to appreciate local products. Growing up in Upstate New York, I didn't see any local products except the illegal stuff smoked by thrash metal fans standing next to bike racks.

After a few hours on the road, my father and I stopped in Manchester, Vermont, an oasis in the middle of the rugged Green Mountains and throngs of moose crossing signs. My girlfriend and I have developed a fondness for anything with a moose on it from shirts to mugs and snow globes. We once drove to Vergennes to buy socks with moose on them. Hey, we're dedicated.

In Manchester, there's a place called Up For Breakfast, serving up the best in local fare with some of the best coffee I've ever had. Driving three hours is worth it when you can munch on a Brie omelet with fresh apples and bacon. Every week during my former life, I reviewed a different restaurant, but I never experienced a place with food so fresh and diverse. I’ve never seen my father eat more food in one sitting, even during Christmas Eve of ’89, when he was pumped because the Browns made the playoffs.

I should have taken a video with my phone and put it on Youtube and used tags like “eating clinic,” “eggs” and “pancake demolition.” It might not have turned up on many searches, but true seekers with a penchant for savory pancakes and syrup sweeter than a cherry Lifesaver dipped in sugar would understand.

Our trip lasted nine hours as we drove up the left “coast” of the Green Mountain State. We basically ate our way up and down Vermont, munching on huge chocolate chip cookies and donuts culled from small shops along the way. And on the way out, we stopped for a Moose postcard and sent it to my girlfriend. It said simply, “we wish you were here. We wish we were here too!”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Shootist

Death is never a fun topic. This past week, my grandmother passed away. It was an exhausting week, considering that throughout it, my grandfather threatened to shoot two people.

It's difficult to think of freelance work and the job hunt in trying family times. But when you grandfather hurls threats at family members along the lines of "if he comes to front door, I kill him," you feel a little thrown off your game. No, I didn't leave out a "the" in the last sentence. My grandfather likes to get his point across as quickly as possible.

Lets roll back the days a bit. Approximately 10 days ago, I was sitting in my girlfriend's studio apartment applying to jobs and trying to get the dog to shake with its left paw. My father called with the bad news and I raced home to a solemn house and a kitchen full of food brought by generous Italians. Three days later, I was sitting in my grandfather's kitchen with Polish relatives who like to drink shots and accuse the 7-year-old paperboy of being a meth addict. I argued to the contrary, but they heard nothing of it.

During the afternoon, my grandfather turns to his cousin Henry and after a few choice shots at his character, threatens to shoot him if he doesn't carry out my grandfather's plans to the letter. I think those plans included something about pulling weeds and reading Exodus. Then, exactly one day ago, my grandfather threatens (via long-distance phone call) to shoot his granddaughter's licentious ex-boyfriend if he ever steps foot on the family property again.

Threats of death have never sat well with me. How does one react when they witness such things? Not that any of us believe the old man can actually stand up, much less hold a gun and aim it at a moving target. Such words have become "normal" in these parts, but to my knowledge no one has ever been shot with anything except a cork on a bottle of wine.

This week, thank God everything is back to normal. The Photoshop tutorials have continued, the resume is updated and I'm looking up bullet-proof vests on Ebay just in case I don't show up for Sunday dinner on time.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Waiting on a call from you....

I'm not a huge fan of bridges. You know, the type where you can't see the bottom and you pray the maniac driving behind you listening to thrash metal has the same type of fear you do. Most of the time, as he drives his 1987 Z-28, he doesn't. And then you can feel his angry eyes fixed on your bumper as you plod along 20 miles slower than the rest of humanity. This happens to me at least on a bi-monthly basis as I drive back and forth to Michigan, via the illustrious Grand Island bridge outside of Canada. Four years ago this month, I decided to accept a great journalism job in Lansing, Michigan, and since I still have a life there (girlfriend, friends, etc.) and my family lives in New York, I must travel through Canada to see them. They might as well have put a flaming moat in between them filled with vodka and cranberries.

The road from New York to Michigan, by way of Canada is set-up with countless roadblocks to haunt you. If it's not the traffic, it's the border where grown men have been known to wait for five hours in blazing heat or abhorrent weather in vain attempts to show their passports to the customs jockeys. I've been literally pulled over for having nothing in my trunk expect a pair of swimming trunks and Hostess cupcake. Not exactly part of the terrorist tool kit.

Then you can deal with construction, black traffic cones, and wild chappies from Ontario in minivans with lead feet. The latter will get you every time, because there's a deadly game they secretly like to play. It's called, "Don't Let the Americans Merge." The winner gets four tickets to a Tuesday night Maple Leafs game.

Each time I travel, I bring a few new CDs to get my brain off things, but it doesn't work. I get caught in traffic and Canadians yell at me. This week, I rocked the new Dead Weather CD. Musical pundits have told me Jack White can do no wrong and at this point in my evolution, I have to agree.

There is though, only one thing that bothers me more than Canada: no return phone calls from job prospects. Between freelancing, drinking large amounts of dark roast coffee and looking for a job, I don't have time to convince the cat that peeing in my sandal is not a good idea.

I recently applied to a job about 20 miles away from my parents' house. I was qualified. I was familiar with their business. I followed up twice. You know, the basic "did you get my information" deal. Maybe leaving a message wasn't the best idea. My days as a reporter have taught me to be persistent, be nice and leave strong messages. Still, no return phone call ever came. But being a reporter taught me to never stop until you get your story. So now I approach getting a job like trying to get a scoop. Even if you don't call me, I'll call you.

And if you do call back, I'll even answer my phone on the big blue bridge to Canada with the Slayer fan on my tail.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Adobe Experience

Writers are odd birds. Some of us are snobby. Most of us need excessive amounts of coffee and cigarettes to survive. And all of us take great pride in what we do. Some of my favorite memories from my former life revolve around fighting with my editor and trying to get the man not to change my lede. It's the whole "writing for the audience" thing that took me the most time to get used to.

Even for a tried-and-true seeker like myself, I knew eight months ago I would have to change. The days of just being a writer are over and if you are, odds are you're working in some ramshackle bungalow on an island named after a great chief that liked orange soda. Sorry for the Joe vs the Volcano reference.

Anyway, in January, I decided to forgo that flat screen T.V. (not fun) and buy the entire Adobe Creative Suite, or as industry insiders like to call it, CS4. I dabbled in InDesign before and I'd heard of Photoshop, but I knew when I eventually got up for work again someday, I'd need those skills. My girlfriend hurls phrases around like "improving your skill set" and "being the total package" and when we're not arguing about which part of Vermont we'd like to visit or how chunky her marinara sauce is, I tend to think she's right.

Fast forward to today and although I am not a Jedi yet, I can design a pretty mean newsletter. It might not come close to that of the great graphic designers of Christmas past, and sure, I want to vomit pea soup at the mere mention of an "alpha channel," but it's cool. It's safe to say that when the rest of humanity was drinking low grade lager on a dock this summer, I was in a room learning how to add a color to a box and kern the letters of a headline.

I also deserve a medal for being able to hold my concentration. Picture this: you're cropping a picture and it's not working. You take a sip from your fourth cup of dark roast and your father comes through the door. He takes out his false teeth - tops and bottoms mind you - and plops them on the desk two feet away and loudly asks "what's for lunch?"

Fighter pilots ain't got nuthin' on me.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Keeping the Chin Up

Numbers don't lie. The Columbia Journalism Review says newspaper ad revenues are at 1965 levels and several newspaper companies have already reported declines of 30 percent this year.

That doesn't exactly bode well for the few friends I have left in the newsroom. And that's where part of this nasty dichotomy comes in. On one side, you have me, the laid-off journalist. My skills are updated, so I'm not on par with the common VCR repairman, and although I've been doing freelance PR, I have a dilemma. I see journalism jobs on and the deceptive come-hither eyes of features and entertainment jobs in faraway places beckon me.

Even when I was employed, I'd check out the jobs because it's amazing how certain newspapers in places like Casper, Wyoming and Truth or Consequences, New Mexico advertise themselves.
You can't beat a description like: "we are just a short seven-hour drive to Yuma, and when the sun goes down, the scorpions go away and you can go outside and walk your dog. In the early morning, you can have breakfast with Lou, the town historian, who will tell you that Wyatt Earp once hocked a loogie here on the way to Los Angeles."

I used to scoff at these descriptions. But after between six and eight nights drinking in someone's garage in one month, I start to wonder if this Lou dude is a football fan and if there are cheap apartments in that small town. Hell, seven hours to Yuma isn't bad. Right?

Then it hits me: the ax will likely fall on me again in a few years and it'll travel back through the vortex into a land of teaching Digital Cable to family members and helping my father build a shed the size of the Taj Mahal.

Survival in these tough times ain't easy. You have to stay focused. Aware. Keep networking. And when your mother's cleaning lady comes on Mondays, high-tail it to the mall. Someone needs to throw quarters in the damn fountain.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Freelancing and Grandpa

When you're laid-off, there's about three things you can do: freelance, look for a job, and catch up with all those people in your family you've lost touch with because you were covering school board meetings in places that end in "ville" or "berg."

Nothing against those chappies in the rural towns, but I've spent my fair share of summer nights in un-air-conditioned cafeterias listening to old men with more than five pens in their top pockets complain about tax levies and other buzz phrases that I've since blocked from my mind.

That said, Tuesday started like any other day. The sun came out, the cat ignored me, and my girlfriend spoke a few arcane French phrases to me (God bless 'er). But right before I was knee-deep in my freelance project, my grandfather called. Most grandfathers understand the dynamic of a man and his work, but not today.

This 87-year-old Polish juggernaut needed the plumbing under his sink replaced that very day. There was no free-lance project. There was no girlfriend speaking French. There was a man named "Roman," who liked to yell like he was still manning the gun on a tank in World War II.

When I arrived, he was at the table, head buried in hands and crying that "no one loves grandpa." Family sources have told me that now my grandmother is in the nursing home, the old man is starved for attention and will do anything to get it.

At the end of the day, the plumbing was fixed, but two things stand out in my mind. When we arrived at Lowe's to grab some supplies, he starts crying in the little motorized cart saying no one loves him. Naturally, people start looking at me with looks on their faces saying "what have you done to this poor old man?" Of course, that pales in comparison to what happened during our next stop at the grocery store. Being the unlucky bloke I am, I was stuck behind the old man at the checkout counter. Normally, this wouldn't bother me, but when someone unleashes a barrage of gas in front of you, the spot directly behind them is the last place you want to be.

Some Febreze later, we were fixing pluming under the sink, trading stories and jabbering about how the "damn washer doesn't fit."

I never did get to my project that day, something unheard of in my old circles. I was almost expecting a silver-haired editor to come up to me and say something about "dropping the ball" or "sacrificing the integrity of the publication." Nope. The only person who yelled at me that day was the old man. Something about turning left on a one-way street.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Rejection and Zucchini

There are vital parts that make-up the day of the laid-off journalist. And one of those, especially in an economy where it seems like a good idea to sell pencils in the streets, is the rejection letter. Yesterday, a new one arrived. Since December, I've had about 10 interviews around the known universe, but for every interview I get, I expect four to five letters saying my credentials are decent, but they opted for the guy with the bionic arm or the master's degree in a field I can't pronounce. It's important to keep these letters in a stack next to something that won't draw any attention. Lately, the stack sits next to the jar that keeps the Old Man's false teeth. But if someone does ask what the papers are, I say it's "fan mail." You know, from those 16 followers on Twitter. Yeah, fan mail.

The night I was laid-off, I knew I wasn't ever go to land or attempt to land another journalism job. You hear the bad news everyday, and now, the talented blokes who take photos are being scaled back even more. An article in the New York Times gives a pretty grim view about photojournalism and what exactly is going on.

You learn early on in your career, between meeting deadlines and being screamed at by your editor that "words mean things damn you!" that a few spirits do the body good. So, Tuesday night, when the working class was in bed or flossing their teeth, I was in a friend's garage watching one friend try to kill another with a zucchini.

My friend, who I'll call "Mark" for posterity, had labored since Memorial Day to grow the biggest and best zucchini of his life. He watered it daily at 6:30 a.m. Talked to it. Read it poetry by Robert Frost (who is buried in Bennington, Vermont) and drove 100 miles to get the perfect compost mix. The master gardener was in his element. Then Tuesday night happened. Mark's arch enemy and brother-in-law walks into the garage and casually announces "hey, I'm gonna take this zucchini home, okay?"

In his hand sat Mark's prize veggie. Ripped from its life-giving vine.

What happened next is something that would become a Youtube legend. Vulgarities were spoken. Threats were hurled. An innocent vegetable was waved around like a weapon.

Who could think of a rejection letter at a time like this?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Looking for the (possible) new home in Vermont

Journalists, or at least former ones, are naturally curious. We ask lots of questions. We take mental notes. Depending on who you ask, we're bad dates and tend to think up ways to punch holes in your story. Go ahead and tell me you dropped out of college or have been married three times before. In my head, I'm ready to ask how much drugs you took trying to emulate Nikki Sixx from Motley Crue.

Around February, the time I stopped playing Playstation and started getting real, I figured I needed to find a new home. New England always appealed to me and there's something romantic about a Colonial town with a nautical feel. Of course, most towns are better than those that surround Rome unless you're trying to start a casting call for Raging Bull 2 or Road House 3 (yes, there was a 2).

My girlfriend and I settled on New Hampshire because it was connected to the ocean, boasted the city of Portsmouth and looked cool on the Internet. On our way, we passed through Vermont and fell in love. And that's where we spend the last weekend, amid the green fields, throngs of blokes from Massachusetts trained to kill us, and of course, those cute little towns with white church steeples.

In a 52-hour span, we toured 11 towns, consumed about 600 calories an hour for 42 straight hours, and loomed ominously close to the border of passing out from all the altitude changes. We had a blast! And like a big boy, I drove the entire way and earned a free breakfast along the way. Some may tell you that's my only real motivation. But I maintain it's not.

On our way to Burlington - which we never did reach - we found the town of Brandon. In said town, we went to the Cafe Provence. Founded by a French chef who's also the former head of the New England Culinary Institute, the place served me the best breakfast I've ever had: a croissant with scrambled eggs, tomatoes, brie, ham and onions. When I was done, the waitress could have told me the machines were taking over and I wouldn't have cared.

We basically ate our way through charming Colonial-inspired towns like Middlebury, Woodstock and White River Junction. The latter reminded me a little of Silent Hill, but I'm attributing the post-Apacalyptic feel to it just being the pre-dinner hour because it is one of Budget Travel's "10 Coolest Small Towns." And who am I to argue with them? They have jobs.

Vermont is the greenest place I have ever seen and the people are nothing short of sweet. When I was laid-off, I punched my ticket to Anytown New York and got ready to fight the guy at the DMV with the glass eye and brown sweater. Now, I'm not so sure. The more I see of Vermont, I love it. I'm already starting to look at a new Subaru.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Laid-Off Journalist: Act I

Let's just cut right to the heart of this thing. My name is Christian and ever since Dec. 3, I've been on the eternal lunch break. No, my boss didn't send me out for a turkey sandwich in Bolivia. I worked as a reporter for a Gannett newspaper in Lansing, Michigan, about three clicks north of Thunderdome, when the executive editor told me that my department was being eliminated and my astute coffee making skills would no longer be needed. Remember the week after Thanksgiving? In Michigan, it was a little chilly. The football season was winding down. We had just elected a new president. That's when the lunch break started for me.

O yeah, and I'm 32.

Since then, I've broken my lease, moved back in with my parents in the bar fighting capital of the world, Rome, N.Y., and traveled the Northeast looking for a job and a new place to live. In the meantime, my Lazy Boy-ridden mother with the bad back lets me teach her the delicate intricacies of the Digital Cable remote control and my father keeps telling me that the customers are "going to start coming in droves" to the front room of the house, which now doubles as his struggling coin business. Need some coins? Don't surf the Internet or Google "coins," come to Casa De Christian, and the Old Man will sell you a quarter from the northern part of Cuba, circa. 1634.

The mind-of the laid-off journalist moves in many directions. That said, this is the weekend, my girlfriend and I invade Rutland, Vermont, a city known in some circles for its railroads and the nation's first polio outbreak. Maybe we'll get a nice breakfast out of the deal and get a few decent pictures from the Adirondack park. In typical Indiana Jones style, we're avoiding the illustrious New York State Thruway and opting for a winding trip through the Adirondacks.

I spent 10 years honing my writing and reporting skills, and I'm the type of bloke whose going to plow into Bigfoot in the Adirondacks, and that will be my claim to fame. "Yes Mr. Letterman, I hit him with my Honda Accord. I can't stay long, I have to sell his thumb on QVC in an hour."