Who wants yesterday’s papers? (Getting out of the newspaper business)

burning press card

So, a big event just happened in my life. Yesterday was my last day in the newspaper business. I’m not just leaving the newspaper I worked for, I’m getting out of the business. The future is a little scary, but I feel very free. I thought I might feel more melancholy, but I don’t. I’m mostly excited.

There should be some kind of ceremony for people who leave journalism. Something like a baptism. The closest thing I could think of was to burn my press card – just to show that I’m serious. I’m not going back. Journalism isn’t just something you do, it’s something you ARE. It’ll be great to make a bit more money and have more time for things I want to do. It’s time. To make another religious comparison, it feels like reincarnation. I’m moving to another life, becoming a different person.

I’ve worked for newspapers most of my adult life, more than 22 years. It’s been a great adventure. I made a lot of friends and a lot of memories, but I also worked hard for not very much money, had to work weekends, nights and some holidays, had periods of great stress and loneliness. It was all worth it. I feel like I did something important. I’m just ready to move on and do something different.

Some of the things that happened during my years in the business that will always stand out in my mind:

Interviewing a wily but very entertaining conman in Marlin, Texas named Big Shot Plunkett who was being charged in some kind of check kiting scheme. I was grilling him with some tough questions. “Didn’t you know there was no money in that account when you wrote the check?” His answer, “I can make a check good anytime I want to. Listen, did you ever write a check on the day before payday?” I admitted that yes, I had. “Same thing,” he said. I guess he had me on that one, lol.

Writing about Werner Seitz, the German pilot who flew an experimental aircraft at the end of WWII. He had spent years in America after the war and ended up in my town. An old B-29 pilot tracked him down and arranged for me to meet him. Interesting to see the two men together – friendly, but they didn’t really like each other, still.

Covering the ’98 flood in Gonzales, Texas, getting into water that was rising way too fast, trying to help some guys who wanted to rescue an old woman using water hoses as a rope. Luckily some guys came along with a utility truck who knew what they were doing and got her out, so I didn’t drown. Got a hell of a picture of the rescue.

Working on a story in a small Texas town and almost got evicted because I pissed off a local politician. I managed to politic my way out of it and publish my story. That was exciting.

Covering a story in Leander about a popular assistant principal who burned himself up in his house after getting caught in a compromising situation with a student. That was sooooo shocking and upsetting.

Oh yeah, the “Loch Ness monster” we pulled in Marlin for April Fool’s Day. That was a blast. With a rubber dinosaur and black-and-white darkroom and NO Photoshop because we didn’t have it yet, we managed to make half the town think there was a sea monster in the local lake. I never laughed so hard.

So many memories. Some are of mundane things, but things only old time newspaper guys would know about — developing negatives and prints in the darkroom, converting photographs into half-tones, placing and cutting border tape around pictures and ads, printing headlines and strips of copy out of a machine (It smelled like feet), waxing them and piecing them together on the blue-lined layout sheets, running the racks and counting the quarters, office high jinks – like the time our ad guy fooled the editor into thinking he had entered him in a stick horse race at Bandera Downs… I could go on forever.

Newspapers have changed a lot over the years and so has public perception. People, especially younger people, don’t read them like they once did. They (like me, to be honest) are more likely to read things they find on the Internet. Newspaper journalists don’t seem to have the clout they once did. It’s harder to make money and there have been a lot of layoffs. I think in time, newspapers will adapt to the digital age. I hope so, because journalists are always going to be important. The news we read on the Internet starts with a reporter, digging up information. We need to figure out a way to pay those folks, because governments and other organizations will get away with bloody murder if they don’t have anyone watching them.

It takes a lot of passion to be a reporter and the rewards tend to be non-material – increasingly so in fact. I know some young go-getters who still have that passion and a great work ethic. That gives me hope. Maybe by the time they get to my age, we will have found a way to pay them what they deserve.


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Digititalis – just what the doctor ordered for chilled out listening-while-working music

digitalis logo

Yesterday as I struggled to find some music to listen to that would help me get through my busy work day, I kept thinking about Robyn Hitchcock’s crazy story on Storefront Hitchcock where he’s in a lobby (and a hotel on top of it as well) with a hangover and asks the person at the desk if they can turn the Muzak down. “We can’t,” they tell him. “Why not?””Because it’s pleasing.”

Generally if I’m going to play music while I’m working, I need something mellow. Too mellow and it will just bore me and piss me off. Like Hitchcock says, there’s such a thing as “annoyingly comfortable.”

Finally I hit on something that was just what the doctor ordered: a SomaFM channel called Digitalis. It was playing music that I would place in the shoegaze category – chillwave, dream pop, glitch, etc. According to the website, the music is “Digitally-affected analog rock; laptop rock; screengaze: these are some of the names that people give this new style of indie rock that’s all about the shift of the recording studio into the laptop.”

It was just right. Not so attention grabbing that I got distracted, but not boring. I streamed it through my cellphone via Shoutcast and was able to move around the office and get a lot of work done.

In the process, I discovered several acts that I would like to hear more from:

Soley – reminds me a little of Bjork, and Lacrymosa.

Inu – really glitchy sounding stuff, melancholy vocals…

Ms John Soda – a really good indie band from Germany that I’m surprised I missed. Kind of Looper meets Ivy?

Styrofoam – really glitchy, kinda funky, a bit of  a New Order vibe…

And while I’m at it, let me recommend SomaFM as a whole. They’ve got a lot of interesting channels worth checking out. Played Groove Salad for a while and liked it.

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One dollar discoveries: Amparo Montes, awesome marimba group and lots of calypso

My musical pack rat tendencies have paid off once again. I was in the local pharmacy picking up some medicine and noticed a bin full of CDs on sale for a dollar each. Most were Latin music, which is not a deterrent for me. Especially for a dollar. What did I have to lose? Spent $5, got five CDs and three of those turned out to be awesome. The other two weren’t terrible, just not my style – one was merengue, which is way too fast and makes me nervous; the other was salsa, which I like more, but which was too slick and New York-sounding for my taste. I’m more of a Bueno Vista Social Club guy…

So, pay dirt… I discovered a great artist, a really good Latin band (that I can find very little about unfortunately) and was reminded once again how much I love Calypso.

Amparo Montes – Tesoros Mexicanos

amparo montes

I’m surprised I never heard this woman before. She is apparently one of the greats of Latin music. Hearing this album reminds me of when I discovered Edith Piaf. And in fact, her voice is a bit similar – she has a nice vibrato.

This song does a good job of showing off her gorgeous pipes:

Marimba Cuquita de los Hermanos Narvaez – Peerless 70 Anos Una Historia Musical 1933-2003

marimba cuquita

Excellent music from an ensemble I can find very little about. Nothing, in fact. I can’t even figure out where in Latin America this band was from, although I’m pretty sure it was Mexico. Lots of their music to be found, just not much information. Might help if I knew more Spanish… Anyway, the music is really fun. Not the traditional Latin marimba music I’ve heard before, this is early rock, jazz and swing.

Here’s one I liked quite a bit:

Kings of Calypso

kings of calypso

This is a collection of 28 songs from some great Calypsonians. Good songs, a lot of them very funny and risque. The standouts for me are the ones from Lord Invader and The Mighty Terror. The songs are full of social commentary and humor. I especially loved Lord Invader’s “Reincarnation (The Bed Bug)” where he says he wants to be reincarnated as a bed bug – and only bite the young ladies; and Mighty Terror’s “Patricia Gone with Milicent” – not sure when it came out, but I imagine a song about lesbians must have been a shocker at the time.

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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 13,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 3 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

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Flamenco Symphony – more than just dinner music

flamenco symphony

Flamenco Symphony don’t play the kind of music I expected to hear in a Mexican restaurant, but I’m so glad I did. Flamenco guitarist David Massey and classically-trained violinist Christopher Kranyak were performing at Morelia restaurant on Tuesday, Jan. 1 as I ate and visited with family. They weren’t overpowering, but I couldn’t help notice the skill and beauty of their music. They got a steady round of applause in the restaurant, even from people seated far away from them.

I was surprised at some of the covers they pulled off in their flamenco style. The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” Dick Dale’s “Miserlou”(made famous in Pulp Fiction) and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” to name a few (They’ve also written some original songs – that always earns my respect).

They left before I could tip them, so I figure the least i can do is give them a mention on this blog. So many times you hear groups like this and they fade into the background, or they’re just a mild annoyance as you try to carry on conversations. Not so Flamenco Symphony. Their music was beautiful, novel and memorable.

Lots of music and several videos on their website, as well as a schedule. They play regularly around Austin. Check them out if you can.

This is one of their original compositions, The Lost Tango:

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January 3, 2013 · 9:11 am

Cross in the Closet – evangelical pretends to be gay for a year, learns important lessons about tolerance

cross in the closet

As soon as I heard about Timothy Kurek’s Cross in the Closet, I knew I had to read it. Kurek, a straight evangelical from Nashville, Tennessee, spent a year pretending to be gay, “coming out” to friends and family to better understand how people are treated in America who bear the label of “gay.” His experience turned him from a bigot into an active ally of the LGBT community. I could immediately identify. I also grew up as a Southern evangelical and had to change my opinions and attitudes about gays based on my experiences.

I wasn’t exactly a bigot toward gays growing up. I certainly wasn’t toward other races – my family was unusually progressive in that regard.  I was simply ignorant. I believed the stereotypes and misinformation you get from most evangelical churches. Gays were perverts who purposely defied God. They were all promiscuous and would recruit little boys if they could. They were probably molested as children. And other such drivel. I just didn’t have any information to the contrary.

Most gay people in our small town were in the closet. Any socially awkward (like me, for instance – no girlfriend in high school) or effeminate boys were accused of being gay and if any of them were, they didn’t dare admit it. A gay person who came out in a place like that had a very strong chance of being disowned by his or her family. I wasn’t particularly down on gays, but I definitely told gay jokes and spread the occasional rumor. I’m sure I must have hurt a few people without realizing it.

If someone I liked was reputed to be gay, I would defend them by denying it. “Surely not? You can’t know that…” I was so ignorant and naive that I once tried to convince someone that Queen weren’t gay, based on the picture on the cover of The Game. “They can’t be gay, they’re wearing leather just like Fonzie!” Plus they rocked. Surely gay people couldn’t rock?

Once I got out in the world, went to college and got to know a lot of people who were different from myself, I wound up rethinking much of what I had been taught. I’m so glad I did, because it prepared me for the day that my own brother came out as gay. When the day came, I really didn’t care. He was the same awesome guy as ever, and relieved to get it out of the way. Mom was the same – her reaction was to ask if he wanted to go out to eat. It was basically a non-event.

So, what did I think of Cross in the Closet? In short: I loved it.

Kurek’s book isn’t perfect. I wasn’t sure what to think of his literary device of the “inner Pharisee” (though it makes an important point) and there were some typos that I understand will be corrected for the second edition. But Kurek is a good storyteller and I found his book genuine and moving. Kurek became a part of the Nashville “gayborhood” and got to know firsthand what it’s like to be part of a group he himself once helped persecute. He got to know the people as human beings who could be decent, loyal, and even in some cases deeply religious. He also learned about the frustration and pain of “the closet.” It was a brave thing to do and he emerged a better person.

There has been a bit of controversy about the book, particularly in the gay community. Deception is the main sticking point for some. He misled his family and his gay friends. Was it justifiable? A few have dug even deeper and questioned whether he has told the truth about his motivations. Did he REALLY conduct this experiment because he wanted to learn what it felt like to live as a second class citizen and become more empathetic, or was he just looking for a way to write a book that would sell?

I will cut him some slack for a couple of reasons 1) He was an evangelical Christian and as a former evangelical Christian myself I remember how complicated the concept of motivation could be. When you feel like you should do something, is it God telling you to do that thing or are you just listening to your own thoughts? It is also possible to want more than one thing at the same time. He was already an aspiring writer when he started this, so of course he was going to think of turning this into a book. 2) He’s young. He’s changing, trying to figure out what’s true and where he fits in the world. His religion wasn’t satisfying him and he decided a shock to the system was in order. He wanted to deprogram himself. And I think he has, at least to a large degree. He figured out the impulse to judge people was his indoctrination talking and not God talking. He did it one year, which is pretty impressive. It took me until well into my 30s to realize it. Some never figure it out.

And face it. If Kurek had written this book in some “more ethical way” as  a lot of his critics suggest — interviewing LGBT people for example — none of us ever would have heard about it. Like it or not, the one-year experiment and reverse “coming out” gave Kurek a compelling story to tell, one that had bestseller potential. It’s hard to predict when something will become viral, why people go crazy over one idea or book or song while ignoring another that might be just as worthy. But when it happens, it happens. If it has a good outcome and I think this does, be thankful for it.

I see Kurek as part of a movement made up of former evangelicals who remain passionate about their faith, but are standing up and calling attention to some of the grievous damage the Religious Right has caused. Others include Jay Bakker (son of Jim Bakker), Frank Schaefer (son of Francis Schaefer), and David Blankenhorn (founder and president of the Institute for American Values and former gay marriage opponent).

I think Kurek is a natural rebel, something I can identify with. I went through a stage where I wanted to cure Christianity, make it a more tolerant, kinder and gentler religion. I took pride in the label of heretic and thought of myself as a reformer. Eventually I came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t true at all and couldn’t really be fixed, but I didn’t get there overnight and it wasn’t easy. Maybe Tim will get to that point in his life one day, maybe he won’t. (If he does become an atheist, he’ll have yet another lesson about closets.)

Despite my feelings about religion, I’m realistic. I know America will probably always be largely Christian. That being the case, I think it’s great that there are people like Kurek who see tolerance and kindness as a Christian duty. The more Christians like him, the better. And hopefully Cross in the Closet will give us a lot more of them.

And since this is a music blog, let me add the following reminder:

freddie mercury vs justin bieber

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Doomsday – at least it’s fun to sing about

doomsdayHere we go again. A bunch of people are freaking out over another doomsday. I guess I shouldn’t make too much fun. Way back in the ’80s when I was a Baptist I got hyped up because some radio preacher or other had me convinced the end was nigh.

I remember how let down I was when I didn’t get raptured at the stroke of midnight at the church New Year’s Eve party. Luckily I never actually told anyone what I was thinking, so my embarrassment was minimal.

Since then I’ve lost count of the “doomsdays” that have come and gone. The Y2K scare was a big one, but there have been others. Since there are plenty of real and serious problems in the world, and since nothing lasts forever, I imagine the day will come – though I have a feeling we’ll go out with more of a whimper than a bang – but in the meantime I’ve got too much short term trouble to deal with to freak out over what New Agers or Mayans or TV preachers say.

One thing about it though… The idea of doomsday is a hell of an inspiration for musicians. Some of my favorite songs are end of the world songs. I don’t know if we’re supposed to disappear at midnight or if whatever it is takes place sometime during the day, but if you’re still here and our technology still works, check out some of these songs:

Daniel Knox – Armageddonsong

Jill Tracy – Doomsday Serenade

Michael Schenker Group – Cry for the Nations

The Handsome Family – When that Helicopter Comes

The Legendary Pink Dots – This Could Be the End

Chris Cornell – Preaching the End of the World

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