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."