In memory of Alan White

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Alan White, Editor in Chief of the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, passed away yesterday (January 19, 2017) at the age of 68. Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, mentor to many, Alan was my first full time editor and my introduction to what it meant to be a reporter many years ago.

He was a gentle man, a keen reporter, and a very elegant editor who didn’t need to raise his voice or affect gruff bluster to command respect and inspire good work. His passing, in these dark days of journalism when daily newspapers feel so marginalized and hanging on by the thinnest of threads when they are needed the most, comes as hard news, especially given his long run at the Eagle Tribune these past forty years.

In 1983 I joined the Eagle-Tribune through my friendship with Alan Rogers, a classmate and neighbor who’s family had founded the paper in the 19th century to serve the mill city of Lawrence on the Merrimack River close by the state line with New Hampshire. I had been a student stringer for the paper during high school, but with hopes of landing a real job with a real paper I moved east from San Francisco with my future wife, rented an apartment in Andover, and started work as a cub reporter on Alan White’s New Hampshire desk.

The Eagle-Tribune’s circulation was about 60,000 and it’s footprint covered Lawrence and Haverhill, the towns along the river, and up north into New Hampshire as far as Derry. The Eagle Tribune was an afternoon paper, an anachronism today, so our presses started running in the late morning with the goal of getting the paper on the subscriber’s doorsteps by the time they came from the mills.

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I was assigned Salem, NH. That was a big beat for a new reporter because it was a bit of a wild boom town for Massachusetts residents who wanted to bet on the horses at Rockingham Park, buy beer on Sunday, ride the roller coaster at Canobie Lake or get a new refrigerator free from sales tax. My life consisted of driving around the town, checking in on the district court, the police department, the fire department, and, in the evening: attending meetings of the board of selectmen, the school committee or whatever civic group was holding an event worth a few column inches in the next day’s paper. Some days I would turn in three stories. Never did a day go by when I didn’t write something.

My first story was about a very dry and uneventful sewer bond hearing. I sat in the town hall meeting room, very confused by things like the open meeting law and executive sessions; occasionally amused by the cranks in the audience who took to the microphone to vent their theories or take jabs at the board members. I had a Canon AE-1 loaded with black and white  film, a blue Bic pen, and a reporter’s notebook that had the exhortation: “Accuracy-Brevity-Clarity” on the cover.

I was helpless. My handwriting is unintelligible at best when I work at it, but a total waste of ink when I’m nervous and trying to transcribe what someone is saying. Worse of all: I didn’t know how the notebook actually worked and was very confused by how the damn thing was supposed to be used because I didn’t realize the spiral binding was meant to be at the top, and not the side like a notebook I used in school. So I taped the meeting on a microcassette recorder for back up, followed every boring word and motion and vote until it adjourned at 10 pm, then finally went back to the newsroom to sit down and write my first story.

I wrote. I listened to the tape. I puzzled over the notes. I wrote some more. Eventually, after hours of work I sent the story to Alan’s queue in the Hastech editing system and went home for some sleep; knowing I was expected back the next morning to answer questions and put the story to bed.

But the next morning all hell broke loose. A police captain  was shot in his bed by his wife with about 30 minutes left before the presses were supposed to run. Delaying the presses meant all the delivery trucks would have to wait, the overtime for the union drivers would pile up, and there would be hell to pay. So, with lots of urgency, the ace reporter on staff went to work while other reporters worked the phones, others radioed in on walkie talkies from the scene, and the photographers drove like mad men to snap pictures and return in time to develop them and get them onto plates. While the reporter , cigarette hanging from his lip,  the editors looked over his shoulder offering edits as he wrote, wasting no time to wait for him to finish to actually edit it.

I felt useless but kind of exhilarated. Now this is News, I thought. This was a genuine catastrophe and these poorly dressed people were making something out of  the chaos against the clock. For the first time I witnessed a deadline. I saw spinning headlines, editors shouting “STOP THE PRESSES”, newsboys shouting “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”

In the middle of it all, going placidly amidst the haste, sat Alan White, a substantial man with his wire rimmed spectacles, and he summoned me to his desk.

“So this story here…” He pointed at the black screen glowing green with the words I had written the night before and I tried to look eager while reading his face for some desperately needed praise. “….is about 1000 words long and I only need 150. So. I am going to do this….”

Alan did some secret Masonuc keyboard-macro-combination-thing and popped the cursor to the bottom of the story.

“.…and get rid of all of this…..” He highlighted 90 percent of my First Story and with a dismissive tap of a key, deleted it forever.. “.…then I’m going to fix the ending here….” He wrote two sentences with only his index fingers and thumbs (because no one ever was a touch typist in a newsroom), looked at them with a little pride while something withered up inside of me and died. I. Was. A. Writer. Alan read the surviving six paragraphs silently, then turned from the screen and looked at me abd through me, thought for a moment, then  turned back to the computer and wrote the headline with no indecision. He hit another key, yelled at the copydesk to let them know they had incoming and dismissed me. “There. Done. See me after lunch.”

I didn’t eat lunch. I sat at my desk while trying to look busy. I read the cheat sheet for the computer’s keyboard shortcuts trying to figure out the black art of making it do the things Alan could make it do.

The press started. The entire building rumbled and shook. All the shouting over the cop shooting vanished as if it hadn’t happened. One second the place was nuts. The next it was Alan White eating a sandwich out of a brown bag and reading the first edition with his feet on his desk.  When I saw he was finished I went back as requested.

“Look. I know you worked on that thing for hours, but you got to understand one thing this isn’t a short story about your grandmother’s funeral. Okay? Nothing personal, but when you don’t write tight then I have to spend all my time time cutting things back, looking around in there  for good quotes and I just don’t have the time. So… Tomorrow. Do better. Write less. Write fast. Write tight. Okay?”

“Yes Mister White.”

“It’s Al. Get out of here and go knock on some doors. Any questions?”

I had lots of questions, foremost was how the notebook thing worked. So I asked him. He stared balefully at me then took my notebook out of my hands and looked at my notes from the sewer bond hearing. “Whoa. Were you dropped on your head as a baby? Is this shorthand or hieroglyphics?”

I explained I wasn’t sure how to use it. His deadpan answer: “You write in it.”

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I explained I didn’t know how to hold it. It was long and thin and the spiral was on the narrow edge, not the long one. Alan squinted, genuinely puzzled by the question. He handed the notebook back and said, “Show me.”

So I demonstrated my lack of technique and tried to explain the notebook was poorly designed and maybe I should go buy a more traditional one with my own money and, well, sorry, I’d be fine. I wanted to get away from the embarrassment before I totally confirmed to him I was a cretin.

“Wait. Show me that again.” I wrote some more. Flipped a page, wrote on it to the bottom. Flipped the page again. Wrote on it.

“No. No. No. Not like that. Where did you go to college? Whatsamatta U? You’re wasting half the pages.” He grabbed it back,  folded the thing open onto itself so there was a blank sheet on either side and then demonstrated that the technique was to flip the notebook over — scribble down one side, give the whole thing a flip, keep scribbling, then turn the page over and voila, two more blank sheets. Flip it, write, turn the page. Flip it, write. Turn the page.

I was enlightened. Alan handed it back. “Want to know why it’s that way?” 

“Please,” I said.

“So you can stuff it in your back pocket.”

Three months later, while I was sitting at my desk covered with vending machine coffee cups with poker hands printed on the side (hole card was underneath the bottom), Alan came by, grabbed a waste paper basket, and cleared away my collection of carefully stacked and completed notebooks I had been saving for some future reference. I freaked out over the invasion but Alan kept grabbing stacks of notebooks and throwing them into the trash. “Um. I was saving those for….”

“For what? We don’t save notebooks.” Alan said.

“We don’t? I mean, shouldn’t I keep them just in case…..”

“In case of what? You want to frame them? Want to know why I throw away notebooks?”

“Yes. Of course…”

“Because the DA can’t subpoena a landfill.”

In six months Alan White taught me enough of the trade  that I was finally doing some real investigative reporting that made the front page on a regular basis and wasn’t six inches of deathless prose about the Salem Kiwanis luncheon buried deep inside of the New Hampshire edition along with the other little blurbs from Plaistow and Atkinson and Londonderry. In eight months he decided I was good enough to cover the 1984 New Hampshire presidential primaries and trusted me — me,  a callow 23 year old kid — to ride around the Granite State asking Jesse Jackson and Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan and George McGovern and Gary Hart questions that would wind up with their answers printed on the front page.

Alan White taught me how to push for the news. He pushed me to get the courage up to ask a dead kid’s mother for a picture to run next to the story of her son’s tragic death by a hit and run driver while she was insane with grief, but still get the goddamn photo. He taught me how to cover a fire, a car accident, how to make cops like me and let me cross the police tape. And most importantly, Alan taught me how to maintain my objectivity, always challenge everything a politician told me, and for god’s sake learn to spell a person’s name right. The man was tough. The man was fair. He made me want to be better.

He was wickedly funny, took joy in the news we couldn’t print (Alan reveled in newsroom gossip), and was always the best election predictor in the newsroom, Alan was always ready to talk about fishing, his deep abiding passion, specifically striped bass which he hunted from his home base on Plum Island in Newburyport.

I realize now, as  I do the math, that the Alan White I knew, the New Hampshire editor, was only 33 years old at the time I worked for him. His patience, his  confidence in his reporters, his unrelenting standards for accuracy, all are the things that led him to become the editor in chief of the entire paper long after I moved on to other papers and the rest of my career. But Alan loyally stayed in that newsroom, even after the Rogers family sold it to a chain and it was absorbed into the great contraction of the news business that killed off lesser papers by the hundreds over the last 20 years.

He won two Pulitzer Prizes. Two. And through it all he patiently schooled hundreds of reporters — many of whom are still my good friends to this day, a couple of whom followed me from the Tribune to PC Week and Forbes like Dan Lyons and Russell Glitman.

Alan would have wanted to be remembered as a reporter. He wasn’t a “journalist.” Alan was a reporter from Worcester and proud of it.  He knocked on doors, questioned everything, but did it with a grace and focus I can only wish I  could  begin to channel today.I bet he would have edited this post down to half its size.

What’s on your desktop? Productivity Apps I use

I figured I’d list the tools, plug-ins, and apps I use to keep my act together. Here’s a list of the more important ones.

  1. Google DocsGoogle Drive: Acquia is a Google Docs driven company (thank God). If you suffer in the land of Lotus Notes or Microsoft Outlook, there is hope. Change jobs and join a company that uses Google services and your life will be better. I’m Google-centric even though I own a Microsoft Surface. I despise Apple (long rant, but I hate Apple products). In this day and age I guess there are three choices: Google, Apple or Microsoft. I tried to be in love with Microsoft’s Office 360 and OneDrive, but Acquia is  on Google, my consulting clients are embracing it, I own an Android phone and an Android tablet so Google it is.
  2. Dropbox – long time fan. Use it for keeping my stuff synched up across devices and sharing with friends.
  3. Evernote  – paired with a Fujirsu ScanSnap scanner, I use Evernote for storing important personal documents (mooring permits, car insurance policies, etc.) and love the integration with the New York Time’s Cooking section recipe box. I use Evernote on the boat by taking pictures with my phone of oil filters, navigational lights, drive belts, etc.. so when I am at West Marine I know exactly what to get.
  4. Any.do – task and list manager. I especially love the integration with my new Amazon Echo. It makes it easy to just say, “Alexa. Add review blog post to my personal to-do list” and then have it appear on Any.do’s app on the phone or Chrome browser plug in. It’s a great reminder for everything that clutters up my “get shit done” lists.
  5. Simplenote – I take tons of notes. Simplenote, a freebie from Automattic, parent of WordPress, is a very nice tool. Microsoft One Note also fits the bill at times (see below).s1500_header2_tcm127-1195268
  6. Smart Recorder – Android app which I use to record interviews. I get a file which I then send off to a transcription service, two days later I have a transcript.
  7. Alarm Clock Pro – Android app so I won’t oversleep.
  8. Business Calendar – replacement app for the default Google calendar on my HTC 10. Worth the money.
  9. TripIt Pro – big fan of this for managing travel plans. I was tipped off to it by Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools and love how it simply works intelligently by watching my inbox for travel confirmations and then pulls them into the app..
  10. Microsoft One Note – I like OneNote and have been a fan off and on since it first appeared. The “record meeting” capability is crucial to me in some meetings at work. I use One Note across all my devices to keep track of meetings.

It’s worth noting  I like some of these things so much I will actually pay for premium levels from Dropbox, Evernote, Any.do., TripIt, and other stuff.  I also keep a subscription to the Microsoft Office suite — there are times when I need to really get detailed and nothing but the real thing — Word, Powerpoint, Excel — will do.

There’s a lot of stuff I’ve tried and rejected. Example: Nuance’s  Dragon NaturallySpeaking paired with a little Sony IC voice recorder never worked as hoped and I’ve never seen a more obnoxious spammy company like Nuance.

Some men want to see the world burn

I love Gmail because of the Exclamation Point button. This is an icon that I push a few times every day when some email marketer hounds me to “please point me to the person in your company who handles Account Based Marketing” or wants to find some time to talk about my “content management attribution challenges in the coming year.”

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I know these emails have code embedded in them that tells the sender when I’ve opened them. I know that I will never respond to them. Never take their phone call. Have no guilt over ignoring them.

But the Exclamation Point — well it’s basically the email marketing equivalent of dumping the Alien Monster out of the airlock into the vacuum of space where no one can hear them scream. Not only does a quick click of the button block the sender from ever landing in my inbox again, it reports them to some unseen power as a spammer.

Aww.Poor email marketers with their “lovable marketing content.” Try it. It’s fun.

 

Peter Matthiessen

He died on Saturday. He wrote my favorite novel: the Mister Watson trilogy that culminated in Shadow Country. He lived a remarkable life. The first striped bass of 2014 will go back with a kiss and an ave atque vale for Peter, who thankfully has one more novel at the publisher, his final words.

Here is the remarkable New York Times Sunday Magazine profile, published the day before he died.

I’ve blogged here about Shadow Country and I am very proud that my Amazon review of the novel is ranked #1 by other readers. I have pressed more copies of Killing Mister Watson into more friends’ hands than any other book with the possible exception of Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex.

Here’s what I wrote on Amazon:

“For nearly twenty years I’ve been obsessed by Edgar Watson, the Everglades Planter known as “Bloody Watson” and “Emperor Watson” for the 50-odd murders attributed to him by a century of legend and myth.

Peter Matthiessen was way more obsessed than me, writing four novels about Watson. I read the first in 1990. The last just this past December. It, Shadow Country, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2008. It is Matthiessen’s masterpiece, and I have no qualms saying it is among the top novels in all of American literature, a book I would stack against Moby Dick, Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Gravity’s Rainbow, White Noise ….

Matthiessen does several important things that won my admiration. First, his voice, his writing, is a very spare, zen language that is short on embellishment but poetic in its nature. Second, the structure that he brings to the narrative is very inventive. The first part of the novel is the tale of Watson’s death at the hands of more than two dozen of his neighbors who gun him down after a hurricane in the fall of 1910, hitting him with 33 bullets. That part, which formed the basis of Killing Mister Watson, is an succession of reminiscences by those on that Chokoloskee beach, a backwater Rashomon that bring some amazing vernacular, history, and drama. The book starts with the killing — and what follows is an utter mind-twister of why Watson was killed.

The second part of the novel is the story of one of Watson’s sons, Lucius, who tries to reassemble the facts and seperate them from the myths about his father, who, among other legends, was the reputed murderer of outlaw queen Belle Starr. Lucius compiles a list of those on that beach, a list which makes him a very suspicious figure to the survivors and their descendants, back-water plume and gator poachers who would prefer that Lucius not be asking so many questions. The detective work, the sheer genealogical complexity of Lucius’ quest is a reminder to the reader — this is a true story. Matthiessen’s research and attention to detail would shame a historian.

And finally, the true masterpiece in the three tales is the first person account by Watson himself, a story that begins with his childhood in the post-Civil War Reconstruction of South Carolina (in the most violent county of the state), and his subsequent abuse at the hands of a drunken white trash father, his flight to north Florida and from there a descent into the American frontier, and Watson’s lonely home on Chatham Bend, the only house between Chokoloskee and Key West, literally the end of America.

Read it. Matthiessen won my respect decades ago with Far Tortuga, The Snow Leopard, Men’s Lives, but Shadow Country is my candidate for the Great American Novel.”

Cool Tools

If you want hours of fascinating, informative fun, buy a copy of Kevin Kelly’s massive tome, Cool Tools.

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Most everyone over 50 remembers the  Whole Earth Catalogue of the late 60s and early 70s. A big bible on counter-cultural tools that covered everything from yurt construction to VW engine repair,the Whole Earth Catalogue was the book to have hanging around for hours of stoned obsessing. I can remember hanging out at my hippie cousin’s shack in Cotuit and spending hours going through that book (I was 12 and was not stoned!).

Kelly, one of the original editors of the WEC along with Stewart Brand, went on to co-found Wired and has been a leader of the DIY – Maker movement. His passion for the best in tools and gadgets has come together brilliantly in this lavishly illustrated, well designed, brilliant compendium of the best stuff in the world. Best vest? Filson Mackinaw (I own one). Best tweezers, best chainsaw, best book on chickens, best productivity applications ….

I Guano Kill Em All

There’s this bird called the cormorant, also known as the “shag”, which has been a part of the local wildlife for the last decade or more, arriving from the south and taking up residence along with the gulls, terns and ospreys. They are big black birds with long necks and cape-like wings they hold open to let the breeze dry them off. They feed on the bottom on mussels and crabs, popping to the surface to shake their heads and paddle along until spooked, at which point they windmill and run over the surface until they achieve escape velocity and can get airborne.

I want them all dead.

Cormorants exist to shit on my boat. I have strung up old CDs on strings like the rearview mirror of a teenager’s first car to scare them away. I have spent a hundred dollars on bird spikes for the spreaders on my mast. I have festooned my boom with old plastic grocery bags until the poor boat looks like a tree on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens.

But they shit and they continue to shit. And then they shit some more. They deposit prodigious amounts of fish-imbued filth all over the decks, the wheel, the cleats, lines, seats, dodger, windows, spars, winches and lifelines, coating the boat with a thick coat of white guano mixed with undigested mollusks, pebbles, and some sort of toxic waste that is impossible to remove. Flies love the stuff and the whole affair is just an invitation to salmonella, shigella, giardia, diarrhea, MRSA and whatever other flesh-eating bacteria you care to contract.

Yesterday was pull-the-boat day, so Sunday I put-putted out in the motorboat with my son to get things ready for the pulling of the mast at Town Dock. My buddy Tom K. was standing on the shore and bore the bad news. “Good luck with the guano” he said. Sure, I knew they had found a little gap in the bird spikes on the lower starboard spreader and one had managed to spackle the dodger with a blast of ass vomit, but that was okay, I saw that mess the weekend before as I returned triumphant with a bucket o’tautog, but like an idiot I didn’t clean it up. Leaving it there was tantamount to declaring the Bald Eagle was now a designated cormorant port-a-potti and they took advantage of the invitation. It’s a matter of dwindling opportunities, sort of like musical toilets where as the days go by the music stops and they take away another boat to poop on. Stay in past Columbus Day and the ratio of bird butts to available boat toilets get worse and worse until the last boat standing is a heaping, stinking mess of avian fertilizer.

It reminds me of the islands off the coast of South America in the Pacific Ocean that were so coated in bird shit that fortunes were made mining the stuff and shipping it back to the world as fertilizer. Guano was big bucks. But not my guano. No, my guano is my cross to bear.

So I get the boat into the town dock and start calling around for a power washer in the belief that I can use the dock’s faucet and some high pressure blasting to tidy things up before the kibbutzers and bored amateur wharfingers of Cotuit can point out the obvious and tell me it looks like birds have taken a massive dump (why are all dumps “massive?) on my yacht. I tie up. Test the faucet. Dry. The powers-that-be in the Town of Barnstable evidently believe the world stops on Columbus Day and have disconnected the pipes for the winter. Another boat arrives, also frosted with a nice layer, the owner asks me “Is the water on?” Nope. The term “shit out of luck” is invoked and I tie the end of a poo-covered jib sheet to the handle of a bucket and start hauling five gallons of sea water aboard every thirty seconds to try to soften it up and sluice it over the side.

The first helpful rocket scientist arrives with a cock-a-poo or a labra-dump on a leash and says, “Hey, someone got hit hard.” Ha ha. Very funny. Really? No fooling? You think? Scrub, scrub, scrub. Flies going up my nose. Backsplash in my mouth. The other boat owner has rubber gloves on. Not me. I just start rolling in the stuff and compose my obituary: he died a coprolagniac.

Six hours later and the sails are off, the turnbuckles on the rigging are loose, the neutral stop-switch in the throttle is fixed and the engine is running but the boat is still smeared with stalagmites of cormorant. I have been told to use lime remover, Comet, warm soapy water, screw-it-let-the-rain-wash-it-off, and to-hell-with-it–just-shrink-wrap the whole mess and pretend it didn’t happen. Being a nice day the dock was busy with spandexed cyclists, panting joggers, shoulder season tourists, local wise guys and friends and neighbors. Every single one of them expressed some rueful condolences over my messy boat.

Only one said anything that made any sense. I salute him.

“Next time put out mousetraps. All it takes is one and they get the word and won’t come back and if you’re lucky, you might see one trying to shake a trap off it’s claw.”

Thank you. I shall have my revenge.

The Car Plane

Texas. 1963. I was five years old, wore cowboy shirts with  pearl snap buttons, cowboy boots and a red cowboy hat.  The big kids in the subdivision tried to feed me cat turds because I was a “Yankee” and they were “Rebels.” JFK was shot in Dallas but we lived in Houston in a house with a checkerboard linoleum floor and a treehouse built on top of a phone pole because there weren’t any trees and my father decided his sons needed a tree house. The Mercury program was putting men into space and Houston had a NASA space center which made me obsessed with John Glenn. I played in a rocket ship at a playground near the Houston Ship Canal. My little brother rubbed a beached Portugese Man-O-War on his chest, went into shock and was placed in a bathtub full of ice at a Corpus Christi emergency room.

 

 

There were snakes in the back yard. We owned two Siamese cats. We had art on the walls that I have seen on the walls of rooms in Mad Men.

I was given a Kenner Car Plane because I learned how to read from Dr. Seuss and traffic signs.

I loved my Car Plane. It was installed in the back seat of the Ford station wagon to keep me occupied during the long trip from Houston to Cape Cod when it was time to leave Texas and return to Massachusetts where my father was going to take over the family business. I flew it through Mississippi which scared me from the television news. I flew the plane past the Iwo Jima monument in Washington DC at five in the morning. And I flew it down the Mid-Cape highway, fighting for the right to play with it with my brother Tom.

It was the coolest thing I owned. I loved it. I mean I really, really loved my Kenner Car Plane. It was my Rosebud. The toy I’ve never forgotten.

And then it got smashed by an over-exuberant cousin whom I have never really forgiven.