Killing two birds with one stone: 25 Things About Me, (with apologies to Facebook, where all this nonsense started.)

February 1, 2009

(OK, I wasn’t going to do this thing because I’m oddly shy about doing stuff like this. Helluva position for somebody who compulsively writes expository column, but there it is.)

1. I was born in Sharon, Pa., right on the Ohio line and about 60 miles north of Pittsburgh. When I lived there, as a little boy, it was the capital of The American Dream, a steel town when steel was king. The factory where my dad was an engineer employed 17,000 people. At 4:30, when he got off work, it was like watching a kicked anthill, thousands of people, mostly men, boiling out of the office and plant doors, clogging the streets of the city with cars. Today, Sharon is mostly known for its chicken wings (The Quaker Steak and Lube) and for a vocal group hall of fame.

2. My first job was as an underage laborer for a franchise of Greyhound Moving & Storage. I was 17 with pipestem arms. It was summertime in a Georgia town full of three-story Victorian houses. I got fired after a 200-pound freezer with 100 pounds of meat in it fell on me. I wasn’t hurt, but the owner was afraid I’d sue. The experience almost cured me of the desire to work. My next two jobs were as a donut glazer (and delivery driver) at a bakery, and then as an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant. I got fired from the donut job because I drove the delivery van, respectfully, down the ranks of sailors at a naval facility during the playing of reveille. The visiting admiral was really pissed off. Before I became I reporter, I had worked at 42 different places, doing some colorful things, from picking up road kill to running a garbage company to running the switchboard at a hospital and driving concrete mixers.

3. I got most of my real education on my own, through reading and living and talking to people smarter than I am, whose numbers are legion. I graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Georgia, for what it’s worth. I’m not one of those people who still gets giddy and acts stupid when the football team from the college he left decades ago plays a game. I spent little time on campus outside of classes because I was working, sometimes as many as three jobs at a time while taking 15 hours of courses. So, no, I didn’t enjoy campus life, though I enjoyed some of the classes. I made the dean’s list twice. The first time, I didn’t know what that meant and thought I was in trouble. I’m still not sure how I pulled that off. All told, I was a mediocre scholar, only exerting myself in courses that interested me.

4. I love books and reading, and I’m always battling my TV addiction to have time to indulge myself. I don’t retain what I read as well as I used to. I find that as I get more and more years as a professional writer behind me, the less patient I am with bad writing in books. Bad writing gets between me and the topic or plot. It’s like reading through a chain-link fence. I joined the Goodreads website and have found some really good books by doing that, and have had some good discussions about books. It’s sort of a virtual book-discussion group for people who don’t feel like going out.

5. Sue and I have an embarrassment of cats. They are “owned,” insofar as one can actually “own” a cat, in three layers. We have one cat, Kitten Kaboodle, who lives in the main part of the house and sleeps on my left arm when I’m working on my laptop. That is, when she’s not attacking my feet. In the big room off the deck are seven, Mr. Bit, fat Scooter (aka Rotunda), one-eyed Winkie, Daphne, Chloe, and Sootfoot. Sprite, the seventh, is actually one of the feral outside cats who slipped in one day and hides out in my office. We have  been unable to catch her and put her back outside. Outside it’s more complicated, with a loose affiliation of felines  we feed, though some of them wander up and down the creek bank, mooching off other families. This morning the count was 13.

6. I am an unapologetic atheist, but I have a spiritual nature. This is not as confusing as you might think. At one point in a piece I’ve been working on for more than a year, I remark that “God gave us minds so that we might figure out that he doesn’t exist.”  At the same time, I admire people who have strong faith, because I’ve seen people like that get through some terrible things without being broken. But I think that strength came from within them.

7. At the present, I am just six weeks from my 60th birthday. I am annoyed with myself that I’ve started referring to myself as a geezer. I have even started giving young people advice. Just shoot me. Please. Seriously, other than a few squeaky joints and stuff, I don’t FEEL old. Mostly.

8. While we’re on aging, I was a bookworm with arms like soda straws when I was in my teens, but a summer throwing beer kegs around at a beverage distributor turned that around. Most of the jobs I had until I became a journalist involved moving heavy things from point A to point B. The result of that was that I was in pretty good shape. The result of that, in addition to a couple of motorcycle accidents, falling off a moving train, and this or that, here and there, is my back in X-rays looks like a ruined amusement park. A quarter century sitting in front of computers has done nothing for my boyish figure. I work out at a gym twice a week, job permitting, but I still manage to look more like Junior Samples from the old TV show Hee-Haw than Brad Pitt. This impression is not lessened by the fact that my outfit of choice on weekends involves bib overalls, which I consider the most comfortable item of clothing ever invented.

9. I like to cook, but not if it involves reading a recipe or too many steps or pots. My favorite thing to prepare is a dish I made up years ago that involves chicken, lots of spices and veggies and pita bread or burrito shells. One pot, lots of flavor. I’m not terribly conservative in what I’ll eat, but if given my “druthers,” I’ll take a good hamburger every time. And forget sushi. Where I come from, it’s called “bait.”

10. Fortunately, Sue is an excellent cook and learned a lot of her culinary sorcery during seven years living in Paris. I never know what to expect for supper, and I say that with the most admiration possible.

11. Speaking of food, in 1995 we bought a garden with a house attached. I had never before owned a piece of real estate. I stood in the garden one day with a rock in my hand, realizing that the rock was something like 3 billion years old, give or take, but the law said I owned it. I still find the concept absurd, but it did mean that I could actually have a garden. Gardening is not as successful for me now as it was in the years when I worked out of my home office, before I had a two-hour daily commute. I confess to being a so-so gardener. I don’t deal with the heat as well as I once did. But the garden is a frequent source of columns and constant trigger for things to think about. That means, admittedly, that I spend a lot of my gardening time leaning on some implement and staring into space as the weeds grow merrily along. I try to convince my neighbor Dan that this really IS work for a writer. Dan has another word for it.

12. I grew up in the Deep South, but have no love for heat and humidity. Every year we travel to the coast of Maine for two weeks of reading and relaxing in a little wooden cottage not much bigger than our living room. We go in late September or early October. The local libraries and good restaurants are still open, and we can walk on the shore without stepping over greased tourists.

13. A friend who tagged me with her own “25 things about me” list wrote that she enjoys listening to music but is “often stumped as to who or what that was.” That confession fills me with relief. I’ve always been that way. I listen to a lot of classical music, especially on my iPod at work to drown out the hubbub of the newsroom. I think there are maybe two or three pieces I can recognize. But I’ve never thought of enjoying great music as a trivia game. It’s the music that’s important. If somebody asks me what’s playing, I’m likely to respond “Oh, that’s Dusseldorf’s Carbuncle in nothing flat.”

14. I also like many other kinds of music; though country and western is often funny when it’s not supposed to be, and rap I view as more of a symptom than an art form. And no, that’s not meant as a racist remark. Ugly is ugly. Heavy metal would be impressive if they never showed us photographs of the actual bands. Most of them seem to be skinny chinless white doofi with bad attitudes and worse skin. Drop a Southern boy raised on biscuits and fried chicken into the middle of the group and watch some ass-kicking.

15. For some reason, I can’t understand the words in a lot of music, especially rock n’ roll. Thank God for the Internet. If I want to know what the singers are saying, I can look up the lyrics. I usually avoid doing that because all too often I discover that the lyrics are totally inane or lacking sense. Sense is not always necessary (I mean, it’s rock n’ roll, after all,) but you have to draw the line somewhere.

16. On the other hand, I have a bunch of what they call “world music” on my iPod. None of the songs are in English. In fact, some of the languages I can’t name at all. You’d be surprised how very little it matters. One of the weirdest things I ever heard was somebody rapping in Italian.

17. I have a son. He doesn’t know I exist. The circumstances of his birth would have been scandalous in another time. Today nobody cares, but I’m not proud. The situation included too much rum and not enough judgment. He is 31 and lives in a nice house in a Southern state. As far as I know, he believes that the man who raised him is his father. I would love to know him, but I don’t believe I have the right to land in the middle of his life and tell him he is somebody else.

18. I have lived in a number of fairly exotic places, and all of them were east of the Mississippi. A place doesn’t have to be far away to be strange. I live now just outside of Gettysburg, a place I have often described as “Norman Rockwell on LSD.” I grew up in Athens, Ga., famous as both the home of the University of Georgia and for being to New Wave music what Detroit was to soul music. I worked blue collar jobs for the first 35 years of my life, so I knew Athens the way most of my University friends did not. I lived for a time in public housing, where it was not uncommon to be awakened in the middle of the night by gunfire. I stood at the door of my second-story apartment and watched two men slice one another up with knives.  I also lived in the Mississippi Delta, in the middle of Blues Country. I think of myself as a Southerner in many ways, and my accent comes back when I tell certain stories, when I’ve been drinking, or when I want somebody I’m interviewing to think I’m stupid. Yankees usually think Southerners are dimwits. It’s a mistake.

18. I met Sue on Memorial Day in 1985. I was covering a hot-air balloon race for The Gettysburg Times. From a balloon, no less. We landed in her back yard. We didn’t really get to know one another until years later, but that’s when we met. You can’t make this stuff up.

19. I couldn’t say which season is my favorite. It’s not summer, though there is a lot to like about summer. It’s the other three I can’t make up my mind about. The colors of winter are my favorites. Winter is really the most colorful season, though the colors are all muted and subtle. Maybe that’s what I like about them. Autumn foliage is gorgeous, of course, if bordering on cheesy, and breathtaking. But my favorite thing about autumn is that sense of the world rushing to get everything put away before winter strikes. Leaves off the trees: check. Acorns hidden by squirrels: check. Spring, is maybe the most magical, when everything comes back from the dead, and no matter how many springs I see, each one really is brand-new.

20. Almost every word I write nowadays is on a computer, either on the desktop at work or, more likely, on my own laptop. I have said many times that if reporters still had to use typewriters, I’d still be driving a truck. I make too many mistakes to be a great typist, though I can go pretty fast when inspired. Truth be told, I really like to write, by hand, in a journal. My preference for a writing instrument is a fountain or cartridge pen. I can’t say why, but my penmanship is better with that kind of pen, and for some odd reason, I feel smarter when I use one. Reading back over my journal entries, I can tell you that there is no empirical evidence to support that feeling. Oh, well.

21. I love where I live. We bought the cottage in ’95, when it was almost 75 years old. I don’t know exactly who built it, but the people who have worked on it assure me that the builder was no carpenter. The house sits along Marsh Creek above a dam, so the water is about 100 feet across at this point. The creek has carp the size of torpedoes, all sorts of waterfowl, including blue herons and night herons, the occasional osprey, and every so often, a bald eagle or two. There is also a snapping turtle the size of a TV tray. I think about it when I’m in the creek. Actually I try NOT to think about it when I’m in the creek.

22. We had the house remodeled five years ago. We went a little overboard, but this was The Dream House. Whole weekends can go by and we will scarcely leave the property. Some days it really is hard to peel myself away from here to go sit in a big gray box and write stories. Coming home feels like solid ground under my feet after a long swim.

23. I work for the third largest newspaper in Pennsylvania. Most days I love the job, which is about as good a thing you can say about any job. Some days I’m better at it than others. Some days, I think I should have stuck with driving trucks. Some days, I think my boss does, too.

24. This year I’m celebrating my birthday at the Greenmount Community Fire Co. No. 23. The fire hall is about a quarter mile from my house. No, the fire company is not throwing a party for me; they’re having one of their fund-raising feeds, featuring roast beef and stuff. The tickets are 20 bucks and along with the meal you get a chance to win a gun. I think it’s a high-powered rifle. I was touched to discover that 20 of my friends have asked me to reserve tickets for them. I prefer to think it’s not because they hope to win the gun.

25. I had a pep talk with one of my young colleagues the other day. She’s one of those more recent hires, all of whom are younger than some of my ties. I told her I wished I was 30 again, and not just for the obvious “wait! I was having a good time” reasons. Newspapers are going through a lot of crap lately, and none of them is going to come out of this uproar unscathed. The next five years are going to be ugly. On the upside, I believe that there will always be a need for people who do what we do. All this talk about relying on “citizen journalists” is fine, but the bottom line is that reporters, most of us, anyway, really do have a code of ethics and rules for how we do things, and nobody is harder on us when we slip up than we are ourselves. Once everything settles down and news-reporting catches up to news-gathering, things are going to be interesting and exciting and we can all stop eating so many antidepressants. I really believe that.
==============================.
© 2009 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:
https://burger2go.wordpress.com/
http://burger2goclassics.wordpress.com/

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3 Responses to “Killing two birds with one stone: 25 Things About Me, (with apologies to Facebook, where all this nonsense started.)”

  1. Frances said

    How long did you live in Sharon before your family moved south?

    I was raised in Mercer County, not too far from Sharon. So I feel compelled to tell you (and the blog-reading world) that Sharon is also home to: James Winner, entrepreneur extraordinaire (he invented The Club); Philadelphia Candies, makers of the best milk-chocolate-covered cherry cordials in the western world; Kraynak’s garden center, home of the famous Kraynak’s Christmas Lane; and several nationally ranked public golf courses.

    Please don’t sell Sharon short!

  2. I just filled one of these on FB too…

  3. sauer kraut said

    After reading you all these years on pennlive, I would never have guessed that you are an atheist. Guess I know which side you were on during the Dover mess.

    Haven’t seen you byline for some time; where you “early retired” like some of my other favorite PN reporters?

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