Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sun setting

A fitting metaphor: When I stepped outdoors tonight to bring in our American flag for the evening, I noticed litter on my sidewalk. When I fetched it, I discovered it was the sort of plastic sleeve that usually holds an edition of the morning newspaper. Except this sleeve was empty.

A sad, sad day. The Baltimore Sun management laid of nearly a third of its newsroom staff today in what is already being called a massacre. Early reports suggest that security escorted editors out of the building. The Sun even laid off employees who were out covering an Orioles game.

To think this city once supported three major daily newspapers! If the laid off employees somehow start their own newspaper, I'll sign up for a subscription. Or two. We deserve their good work and they deserve better.

Monty Cook, the editor of the Sun, is a villain for overseeing these layoffs. I agree with David Simon, who created The Wire and used to work for the Sun, who reportedly wrote that Cook should have resigned before overseeing this bloodbath.

As for Sam Zell, the head of the Tribune Co. that owns the Sun, he's worse.

The Tucson Citizen publishes "day-to-day." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is online only. The Detroit papers have reduced their daily delivery. And the Rocky Mountain News has folded. This grim recitation doesn't count the many other news organizations -- from small-circulation weeklies to the New York Times -- that have reduced operations, laid off jouranlists or closed up shop.

Yes, the news industry is in trouble. Yes, advertising revenue is shrinking. But if greedy fools like Zell hadn't driven up stock prices for newspapers in the 1990s and into the 21st century by taking out loans to pay for the privilege of ownership, many newspapers would be hampered now, but surviving. The Sun's layoffs, and the collapse of daily news journalism in the United States, is less about an industry failing to adequately change its business model to suit new technology than it is the greed of people who believed that newspapers would be cash cows for decades and were willing to overpay for the chance to milk.

What is there to do? Cancel our subscription? That will only hasten the end. But how else does a reader protest that the newspaper isn't offering enough to read?

The best coverage of the Sun massacre is at the blog The Real Muck. Read the details there.

Gumbo and the Maryland Writers' Association

No, not the soupy food spiced New Orleans style.

I mean the wet, soupy, slippery clay that makes the meaniest, knobbiest, most macho truck tires spin. I'm using that sort of gumbo as a metaphor when I speak Saturday, May 9, at 9 a.m. at the Maryland Writers' Association annual conference in Linthicum Heights, Maryland. The conference is a whole day affair that will include good writing advice from folks as talented as young adult novelist Elissa Brent Weissman and screenwriter David Warfield and general all-around lit-champion Gregg Wilhelm of City Lit in Baltimore.

My talk is called "Four-Wheel Drive Writing: Overcoming Writer's Block."

Excuse me, now, while I go write the thing.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Sporting Pages

The newest issue of The Writer's Chronicle includes an essay I wrote about how sports work in literature. My examples range from "The Funeral Games of Patroclus" in The Iliad to the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa, from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to Deirdre McNamer’s lovely novel, One Sweet Quarrel. Here’s an essay excerpt:

"Beauty, danger, stress, action, character revelation. Literature and sports are natural siblings. I’m always troubled that some smart, literary people (readers and writers) don’t see that relationship and disdain sports, whether in real life or on the page. A risk writers face in choosing sports as a subject is that a reader will prejudge such work as silly or slight. Some readers, I’m sure, passed over this article the moment they noticed “sport” in the title. I have met fellow literary travelers who proclaim sports to be confusing, a waste of time, and something to deride; these are often people who resent the adulation associated with sports and the money that follows, who see sports as celebrating body over mind (“Why don’t thousands of cheering fans show up for readings?”). I’m no longer surprised by this attitude, but I still don’t understand it. There exist curious readers and writers who will delight in arcanum gathered from a Paul Theroux travelogue, or in the mysteries of glove making revealed in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, who will immediately turn from a book that has a football on the cover. Don’t they understand, I cry out to the ghosts of Shoeless Joe and Pistol Pete and the Four Horsemen (no, no, the other four horsemen), that the games we play and watch and write about are complicated dramatic works with protagonists, antagonists, rising action, climax and denouement, in which acts are periods or quarters or halves, and in which characters don’t know the script, scripts that are often tragic because athletes fail more often than they succeed?"

The Writer’s Chronicle is difficult to find on newsstands, as it is mostly a benefit of belonging to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, aka AWP. But hey, maybe you should join?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Libby, Mont., and the 27s

Recently, two fine writers and journalists who studied in classes I taught at the University of Montana have found their way onto National Public Radio Programs. Tristan Scott (Journalism 270, Beginning Reporting) is a reporter for the Missoulian newspaper in Missoula, Mont. He spoke on All Things Considered about a trial he’s covering in which prosecutors seek some form of justice for the people of Libby, Mont. More than a few people in Libby have died or suffered from exposure to asbestos that was a byproduct of a local mining operation run by an out-of-state company (Maryland’s W.R. Grace Co.).


Meanwhile, Eric Segalstad (Graduate Reporting) has co-authored a book about the 27s, the club no one wants to belong to. Its members are all music stars, mostly rockers with a bluesman or two thrown in, who died at age 27. Among the roster: Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. Segalstad was interviewed on All Things Considered about the book, which also got a mention on the Washington Post’s blog about death, “Post Mortem,” though you have to scroll down to find that one.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

HimPlus17 and the Art of Blogging

Those of you who have read this blog regularly know that there is no such thing as reading this blog regularly. My posts are irregular, sometimes frequent and sometimes not. There's neither rhyme nor reason to what I post here. I just write whatever strikes my fancy whenever my fancy is struck.

It's no way to run a blog. I know this.

I'm doing much better on a new effort over at

HimPlus17 is a blog I'm writing jointly with my wife, Sheri Venema. She's 17 years older than me. Always has been (except for a couple of months each year when she's only 16 years older). And we've been married nearly 16 years. We're trying to do a much better job with that blog than I've done with The Greatest Show. We post at least once a week, and we try to invite readers to participate now and then as good blogs do.

But mostly, we're writing about the phenomenon of the Older Woman/Younger Man dynamic, the truths and falsehoods behind the Cougar craze, and what it's like for an Older Woman/Younger Man to age together. We're revealing things we sometimes haven't even told each other. Some day, we plan to explore these ideas and scenes and experiences even more fully in essays, and maybe (no promises) put them in a book.

In the meantime, though you're invited to peek into our marriage. Follow us. Leave a message in the comments.

And don't think I'm giving up on The Greatest Show. It will remain the same idiosyncratic mix of information, musings and confusions, posted at irregular intervals ...