Monday, November 30, 2009

Palin's Potemkin book tour

I'm a book-tour veteran. Let me tell you, those things were grueling. Today Minneapolis, tomorrow Corte Madera, the next day San Diego. Even when I was traveling by train -- my preference over airlines -- the going was tough, full of wrinkles and weariness and road-food gas.

But when the going gets tough, Sarah Palin gets jetting.

She's on a big bus tour, her book publicists claim, to get closer to the small-town voters who are her base. She travels the way they do, says the meme; she knows how Joe and Julie Six-pack feel, because she's one of them.

Yeah? The veteran investigative journalist and author Joe McGinniss (The Selling of the President, 1969) now gives us The Selling of Sarah Palin 2009 in an article revealing that far from traveling by bus, she flies in a $4,000 an hour private Gulfstream from place to place.

Palin then boards her bus at the airport for the short trip to a triumphant arrival at the target bookstore or lecture venue -- completely pressed and fresh, unlike her weary publisher's publicist, who looks as if she'd been dragged coast-to-coast on Greyhound. Because she was.

Palin's fans are completely in the dark.

Ah, dear Sarah, you paragon of grassroots authenticity.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Yossarian's Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving dinner Joseph Heller described in Catch-22 may be the rowdiest Turkey Day in modern American fiction, and today Mark Athitakis, who was a valued reviewer of mine at the Chicago Sun-Times, quotes it on his blog. Thanks, Mark!

Angell of press-box prose

Today we should give thanks for Roger Angell, the 89-year-old wunderkind of the New Yorker, whose elegant, humane and urbane baseball essays consistently belie the sandbox puerility of most sportswriters.

Let me just quote a few sentences from Angell's wrapup of the World Series in this week's New Yorker:

"I think A-Rod will always be a little beyond us. We can get used to his money more easily than his outlandish talent and his physical gifts; standing near him in the dugout at times, I've had the impression that I'm within touching distance of a new species."

Even at his advanced age, Angell still brings a small boy's awe to the battered old game.

In offering sympathies to Detroit fans for the league-leading Tigers' inexplicable choke in the last weeks of the season, Angell writes, "Many of the long-term ticket holders at Comerica Park are autoworkers, lifers on the Pontia and Chrysler and Chevy assembly lines, who experienced horrific changes in their lives in the past few months and did not expect further anguish at the games."

Now there is a rare sportswriter who looks outside the playground to the wider world around him.

"Their manager, Jim Leyland, stood in the late going with one foot up on the step of the dugout and the same gaunt Dorothea Lange expression on his face that we saw back in 1991, when his Pittsburgh Pirates team, caught up in a seven-game National League Championship Series with the Braves, scored no runs at all in their last eighteen innings of the year."

That "Dorothea Lange" image is perfect -- and no red-faced ESPN table-pounder could think of it, or even have heard of the great Depression photographer.

Of one long and tense inning in the divisional championship: "Top and bottom, that inning required forty-four minutes, and it felt like a colonoscopy."

Now that's the perfect simile from a man who's spent time on a gurney as well as in the press box.

Of Chase Utley, the Phillies second baseman: "Utley, who has slicked-back, Jake Gittes hair, possesses a quick bat and a very short home-run stroke; he looks like a man in an A.T.M. reaching for his cash."

Only a fan of classic movies could have written that.

C.C. Sabathia's "fastball-cutter-changeup assortment . . . arrives like a loaded tea tray coming down an airshaft."

That's the mark of the quintessential New York apartment dweller.

Angell also misses the the stands of the old Yankee Stadium and the "wall of noise they produced on big nights."

Speaking of giving thanks, Angell closes his essay with this lovely tribute to Hideki Matsui, who "batted .615 for the Series, with three home runs, and won the Series M.V.P. by about ten furlongs":

"I quickly needed to thank . . . Matsui -- with a bow or something, not just for tonight but for every game of his seven years of super-pro service with the Yankees. His straight-back, left-handed stance, with that almond-colored bat held still; his broad-shouldered, slashing cuts at anything up in the zone; his slightly tilted vertical style of running; the trim black hair just touching his uniform at the nape; the cracked smile -- we knew all this, certainly, but in some oddly formal and removed fashion, because he was Japanese and because he didn't speak English easily. His silence kept him old-fashioned: a ballplayer from the black-and-white newspaper-photograph days, before our heroes talked."

Reading Roger Angell is almost enough to turn me into a baseball fan again.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Keeping it simple isn't easy

I've been working on a different kind of writing these last couple of weeks: a formal university lecture and a workshop the next day.

This is not exactly virgin ground for me. Back in the late '70s and early '80s I taught a course called "Basic Writing" to freshmen at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. I addressed them as the students they were, while at the same time using the professional syntax of journalism.

There seemed to be no need to worry that some of them might not have the vocabulary of the craft. They were, after all, students at an elite university.

The upcoming lecture will be in January at the National Technical Institute of the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology. I'll be talking to the students and faculty about the life of a deaf writer.

Will the students be as smart and savvy as those at Medill more than a quarter of a century ago? Some folks say no, that academic standards have deteriorated over the years, that college students today are comparatively naive, ignorant and unlettered.

That doesn't trouble me overmuch. We said the same thing in the 1980s. And our professors said the same of us in the 1950s. Students, by definition, are naive, ignorant and unlettered; that's why they're in college, to learn how to be sophisticated, educated and literate.

Still I fret. Many of the students and faculty at NTID are deaf-born and count American Sign Language as their first language, English as their second. Can they be expected to have the same adeptness with English, the same vocabulary, as their hearing peers?

I don't know. Should I therefore suppress my natural tendency to use a vivid and sometimes polysyllabic lexicon rather than simple Anglo-Saxon words in delivering the lecture? Would that cheat my audience of understanding?

This is not a matter of "dumbing down." Expressing complex ideas in simple, clear and unadorned English can be damnably difficult. The result may look easy to the reader, but the best writers always struggle to make their prose seem straightforward and effortless.

On the other hand, many of these deaf students may want a career in professional journalism in the hearing world. For that they need to expand their knowledge of syntax and style as well as their vocabularies.

In addressing them, I'm trying to find a happy medium between the complex and elegant on one hand and the simple and clear on the other. It's not easy. But it's good discipline for a writer who sometimes falls in love with his own colorful prose.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


What am I going to do for kicks instead of fly a little airplane?

No more ten-mile hikes in the mountains -- bad knees. No more gourmet meals -- am on a heart-healthy diet. And so on. Gettin' old, y'know.

So I've decided to expand upon an old passion, photography. With a bit of the proceeds from last week's sale of Gin Fizz, my old Cessna 150, I put together a tabletop macrophotography kit -- a 90mm Tamron macro lens for my Pentaxes, a $50 collapsible fabric light box and two $10 desk lamps from Office Depot for illumination. Hardly a professional outfit, but good enough for learning how to take pictures of small things.

Yesterday I experimented with a few three-inch-long locomotives preserved from an old hobby, model railroading. The first results are now on my photo blog. Not too shabby, I think, for a rank beginner.

Next I'm going to apply this technique to flower photography. The soft, even and diffuse illumination that light tents yield is supposed to enhance the detail of small blooms rather than hide them in harsh shadows, as flash or direct sunlight often does.

Hmm. Winter is almost here, so for experimental subjects I'll have to buy bouquets at the supermarket. After the camera session I can present them to the Lady Friend when she comes home. Two birds with one stone.

When spring comes, bugs. This means I will have to figure out how to stun them so they'll hold still for their portraits.

Life is a learning experience, as they say.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Goodbye, Gin Fizz

My last view of N5859E in flight as Dana Holladay put her through her paces yesterday morning at Westosha Airport in Wilmot, Wis.

My half-century-old Cessna 150 two-seater, the one I flew coast to coast in 1995 for the book Flight of the Gin Fizz, is going to a new home in Massachusetts.

Her new owner is Bill Sanchez, an engineer at an energy company in New Hampshire who lives on a farm, grows hay and boards horses when he's not flying. He will be basing the airplane at Lawrence Municipal Airport in Lawrence, Mass., north of Boston.

I went up to my airport yesterday to prepare N5859E for her ferry flight east -- an old comrade, Dana Holladay, a veteran certified flight instructor, will fly her out today if the weather improves.

Saying goodbye was not easy.

Half the time during the 15 years I owned Gin Fizz, I thought of her as an assemblage of fragile and expensive aluminum parts flying in loose formation. (She is named in honor of Vin Fiz, the historic Wright Model EX that Cal Rodgers -- also a deaf pilot -- flew from Brooklyn to Long Beach, Calif., in 1911.)

The other half the time I considered her a living, breathing being full of affectionate idiosyncrasies, a good friend who took as much joy as I did cavorting in the air and going places low and slow. She is so light and responsive on the controls that sometimes it seemed that she had a soul.

But now it is time to cast off sentimentality and face reality, after a heart attack last August and consequent bypass surgery. My aviation days are not necessarily over -- I can still fly under the FAA's Light Sport Aircraft rules -- but owning an airplane is no longer practical.

Bill Sanchez and his son Bill Barker, who soloed on his 16th birthday last Sept. 24, will keep old N5859E warm, well fed and content.

That's good enough for me.

TUESDAY: Dana delivered N5859E to Bill at Lawrence Municipal last night at 7:30 p.m. after a 9.5 hour flight, with three pit stops. All is well.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Langewiesche flies again

William Langewiesche is one of our very best journalists (as well as a superb prose stylist), especially on matters of aviation. He knows whereof he writes; he was for a long time a "freight dog," flying cargo in drafty, crapped-out, barely airworthy airplanes from one godforsaken airfield to another, and the experience leached the treacly romance of aviation out of him. He sees blind hero-worship of pilots for what it is.

Today in the New York Times, Dwight Garner reviews Langewiesche's newest book, Fly By Wire, a revisitation of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger's storied landing of that Airbus 320 in the Hudson without loss of life.

It was a professional performance by a superb pilot, Langewiesche declares, but he also argues that the Frenchman Bernard Ziegler, who long ago devised the fly-by-wire system that really guided the Airbus to the river, may have been the greater hero -- if "hero" is the proper term for someone who executes the job he was painstakingly trained to do.

Garner sums up the book as "prickly and uneven but plainspoken."

That's good enough for me. I'm off to Barnes & Noble to get a copy.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Omt ndlss vwls

Away back in the 1960s when I was a journalism student, I had to learn the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, the little booklet beloved of city and copy desks that dealt with stuff like capitalization, numbers, punctuation, hyphenization, proper terms of address, grammatical rules and other housekeeping tasks without which a newspaper would have looked like the town dump.

I hated it. I never could remember the difference between "that" and "which" and how to mention the Queen on second reference. ("Her Majesty," I think it was. Or not. It's been a long time.)

But after wrestling with the stylebook for months, I knew where to look things up quickly while batting out a news story or editing one.

The journalism students I taught hated it, too, but eventually came to see its value as a kind of Army field manual for the news infantry, a statement of principles and standards. When they got jobs they were ready to go out and report or stay in and edit, perhaps after mastering their new employer's stylebook, almost always based on the AP version but reflecting local conditions and idiosyncrasies.

Sometimes a newspaper's stylebook difference reflected nothing but an individual's whims. The Chicago Sun-Times, my former employer, had an editor-in-chief from Australia, one of Rupert Murdoch's minions, who forbade the word "gay" in reference to same-sex orientation long after it had passed into common usage. "Call them homosexuals, for that's what they are!" he thundered.

We also had a copy desk chief, a staunch atheist, who changed the manual to stipulate that the deity be called "god," in lower case. His argument was that god was a figment of the human imagination, not a real entity, so did not deserve capitalization. Neither was tom sawyer, I said, or huckleberry finn, but they were proper names, just as God was. The chief was adamant. After he either quit or was fired (I can't remember which), the rule was immediately thrown out.

The style manual is so ingrained in the American journalist's hide that when some enterprising newsies started batting around imaginary AP Stylebook rules on Twitter in the last month or so, there was such a huge explosion of interest that the perpetrators are close to landing a book contract for their "Fake AP Stylebook." The story is here.

Some examples:

While it's tempting to call them "baristi" because of the Italian roots, the plural of "barista" is "journalism majors."

Do not change weight of gorilla in phrase, “800-lb gorilla in the room.” Correct weight is 800 lbs. DO NOT CHANGE GORILLA'S WEIGHT!

Dr Pepper doesn't have a period in it. An easy way to remember this is "Doctors are dudes and dudes don't get periods."

Breasts should not be referred to as "jugs" unless you need it to rhyme with something else in the article. See also: cans, sweater puppies.

Always capitalize Satan. You don't want to get dead goats from those people.

It almost makes me want to un-retire. (Or is that unretire? Where did I put that Stylebook?)

With thanks to Jim Romenesko for the heads-up.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The wisdom of Stanley Walker

As the Lady Friend worked on cleaning out the attic today, she found in the boxes of my accumulated crap a brittle, yellowed sheet of copy paper punctured at the top by a dozen tack holes. On it was neatly typed:

What makes a good newspaperman? The answer is easy. He knows everything. He is aware not only of what goes on in the world today, but his brain is a repository of the accumulated wisdom of the ages.

He is not only handsome, but he has the physical strength which enables him to perform great feats of energy. He can go for nights on end without sleep. He dresses well and talks with charm. Men admire him; women adore him; tycoons and statesmen are willing to share their secrets with him.

He hates lies and meanness and sham but keeps his temper. He is loyal to his paper and to what he looks upon as his profession; whether it is a profession or merely a craft, he resents attempts to debase it.

When he dies, a lot of people are sorry, and some of them remember him for several days.

-- Stanley Walker, "The City Editor"
Walker (1898-1962) was the celebrated city editor of that old writer's newspaper, the New York Herald Tribune, from the 1920s to the 1940s, and was a culture hero to two generations of journalists, including mine. In that passage he captures what newspapering once was, in all its humor and pride and ego -- and nails its reality.

Today Walker, too, is forgotten. There isn't even a Wikipedia entry on him. Only one of his famous books remains alive, The Night Club Era (1933), in a ten-year-old Johns Hopkins University Press reprint.

There is, however, a roadside historical memorial outside Lampasas, Texas, his birthplace.

Sic transit gloria scriptor.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Another for the bucket list

A shot from the front porch of the Station Inn at Cresson, Pa., by the noted railroad photographer J. Alex Lang, taken from the hotel's web site. Click for larger view.

One of my enduring passions is staying at old railroad hotels by the side of the tracks where one can sit on the front porch with a camera and long lens and watch the trains go by while debating the relative merits of this locomotive model and that with fellow rail buffs all the livelong day.

This is generally a pastime for old-guy trainiacs, but spouses often come along and discuss choo-choo widowhood among themselves. Trainwatching ("trainspotting" in Britain) is a hobby for a certain kind of person, one who is not exactly a Luddite but perhaps an aficionado of a historic old technology kept alive with modern innovation.

In my particular case railroad hotels are a fine place to get some writing done -- I'm actually more productive in a small room by the tracks that I can leave from time to time to watch a fast freight go by. The thunder of locomotives and the aroma of diesel exhaust somehow inspires me. (Don't ask how.)

My preferred railroad hostelry is the Izaak Walton Inn at Essex, Montana, on the transcontinental High Line of the old Great Northern Railway (now Burlington Northern Santa Fe), reachable on Amtrak's Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle. (See here, here and here).

I've also taken the Southwest Chief to the newish Depot Inn at La Plata, Missouri, on the Burlington main from Chicago to Los Angeles. (See here.)

Last weekend the New York Times' travel section reported favorably (although with barely suppressed amusement) on another rail buff's favorite, the Station Inn Bed & Breakfast at Cresson, Pennsylvania, on the old Pennsylvania Railroad (now Norfolk Southern) main line from Pittsburgh to New York City.

One can get there from Chicago by taking Amtrak's Capitol Limited to Pittsburgh, laying over for a couple of hours, then boarding the Pittsburgh-to-New York Pennsylvanian and debarking at Altoona, where one can rent a car for the 18-mile, 21-minute drive back down the line to Cresson. Alternatively, the time-challenged can fly to Pittsburgh and rent a car for the 100-mile, 2-hour drive to the hotel.

Gonna do it next spring. The Lady Friend wants to go, too.