My Editor

Jim Abbott

Jim Abbott

“I would follow him to Hell; and that’s no small thing to say, for I think him capable of going there.”
–Alexander Dumas, “Twenty Years After”

I thought of Jim Abbott the first time I read that quote, while I was still working for him at The Enterprise-Tocsin newspaper in Indianola.

To be sure, in the best possible way — that Jim would be willing and able to burst through the gates of Hell itself in the fulfillment of his duties as editor and publisher of the community newspaper. And if he had, I would have followed. To watch him, you would think there could be no higher calling.

Jim was my first boss after college; he hired me straight out of Ole Miss journalism school, giving a rookie reporter his first break. I spent five of the next six years working for him — when I left after a couple of years to have a badly ended adventure elsewhere, he welcomed the prodigal reporter back home with open arms.

But he was more than my editor and publisher. He was a mentor. He was a second father. He was a friend. He and his wife, Cynthia, The E-T’s office manager, took amazing care of me during some rather interesting years of my life. I was born in Huntsville and graduated from high school here, but in a lot of ways, I grew up in Indianola. And Jim and Cynthia were a big part of that.

To say Jim was one of a kind would be based on my limited experience with editors, but I can say there aren’t many like him out there anymore. To me, he was a legend from a bygone age. For Jim, there was no question which word was more important in the phrase, “newspaper business,” and that was the main way he differed from too much of the rest of the industry, in my opinion.

Jim made The E-T work financially, but he did so in a way that was completely opaque. Unlike other papers, I never heard the term EBITDA at The Enterprise-Tocsin. Ad ratio was important only because it determined how we laid out news pages. We never ever compromised coverage in the face of financial concerns.

For Jim, the newspaper was about news. Period. And, more than that, it was about serving the community. Jim Abbott was part owner of The Enterprise-Tocsin, which gave him the freedom to run the paper the way he wanted. And the way he wanted recognized a higher truth that is all but forgotten today — Jim may have owned the paper, but it belonged to the community. The E-T long predated him, and now continues without him. But it always has, and God willing always will, served the people of Indianola. And Jim understood that in a way few newspaper owners seem to.

And that focus made it a pleasure to work for him.

I can’t tell you all the ways I’m a better person for having worked for Jim Abbott. I’m a better reporter, a fact that matters little in my post-newspaper days. I’m a better writer, a fact that is still very relevant. I’m far more fearless, more willing to do what it takes to do what needs to be done. I understand that people are just people — when you’re a 21-year-old kid making chump change fresh out of college, and you’re expected to go toe-to-toe with the mayor or whoever and come out ahead, you have to understand that, ultimately, the person on one side of the desk is no better than the one on the other. I learned loyalty … what it means to give everything for something you believe in. If Jim had one fault, it was that — he was willing to give all of himself, all of Cynthia, all of his family, all of his staff, and more for the sake of the cause. But he believed in it, and he made it easy to believe in.

If Jim had two faults, it was that he could be tough to work for. Before I started, the last two people to hold my job had been there, combined, for five months. He had his style of running the paper, and that was who he was. It either worked for you, or it didn’t. And for me, it did. Oh, gracious, it did. I respected him. A lot.

Tomorrow night, I’m going to go see Jim Abbott inducted into the Mississippi Press Association Hall of Fame, a recognition that is extremely well-deserved. I don’t know if I’ll even get to talk to him, if he’ll even know I was there. But it will be an honor to be in the audience, regardless.

Stop The Presses!

“Well now, everything dies, baby that’s a fact.
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

–Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City”

I’m a firm believer that, to be nerdy for a moment, as Spock said, “There are always possibilities.”

And, more to the point, I’m loathe to believe in endings. The idea that I’ll never go back somewhere again, or that I’ll never see someone again is anathema to me, short of death or other major permanent changes. But my pastor exemplifies that for me — we’ve parted ways “for good” at least two or three times when we moved on from particular points in life, and yet God keeps bringing our paths back together. Or the friend that I spent an afternoon with last year for the first time in roughly two decades. Or …

So it’s very odd to me that it feels like Friday will be a last hurrah.

I’m going to drive down that day to Biloxi, Miss., to attend the Mississippi Press Association. Since leaving Mississippi, I have known that, if there’s any justice at all, my former editor, Jim Abbott, would be inducted into the MPA Hall of Fame, and that, if there were any way at all for it to happen, that I would be there for his induction. And on Friday, he will be, and I will be.

I haven’t been to the MPA Convention in eight years, and have been out of the newspaper game for almost seven. But even though I’m going this time as a non-member visitor, there’s still a sense of going back into that world one more time. And, like I said, one last time.

I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t even been in a newsroom in years, so it really will be reconnecting with the past. I looked at the list of registrants, and there are a few familiar names there. But even just the cameraderie and inside jokes should bring back memories. Should remind me of who I used to be, of the world I used to live in.

But the keywords there are “used to.” That’s very much the past now; a past with which I have increasingly little connection. I’m really looking forward to it, and it should be a lot of fun. But there really is a feeling that this will be the last time I can visit that world, at least with any sort of connection to it at all.

Part of that may be the fact that this event, in a way, honors Jim Abbott’s retirement, and part of me feels like, with him gone, that world no longer exists anyway. But part of me also feels like it’s been too long, like I’ve changed too much to ever really be that again, even just temporarily. And that’s a very weird feeling for me.

But I’ll do my best to enjoy the experience while it lasts.

Everything Old Is New Again

It’s been long enough since I’ve blogged on here that my sidebar has skipped a couple of movies; I went straight from Up 3D to Wolverine, leaving out that I also saw first Night at the Museum 2 and then Terminator Salvation in the interim. The four movies, for themselves, were probably ranked in enjoyableness in chronological order, with Up, of course, with its Pixar brilliantness, being the best, and Wolverine, uh, not. (Though I’m sure it was the best at what it did.)

Wolverine, though, is the anchor for this post, and part of the inspiration for the title, which sort of played out through the evening.

Said evening started with dinner at Mellow Mushroom; an establishment to which I’d been, to the best of my recollection, once before, at the Jackson, Miss., location. (Since that once was this year, I can’t rule out the possibility that I’d been one other time, elsewhere, in the foggier past.) This, however, was my first visit to the newly opened Huntsville location, which is appointed with an interesting combination of apparently standard-issue Mellow Mushroom bohemian and a localized Rocket City flavor. Very fun. And the food was not half bad either.

On the way, I listened to a CD I’d ordered recently, Carbon Leaf’s Indian Summer. I’d heard a grand total of one song from the 2004 album, Life Less Ordinary, for which I posted the video on here about three months ago.

That song, which I love, was a rather serendipitous discovery; inherited from someone who had accidentally inherited it from someone else. So What About Everything becomes a bit more random — I bought the CD on a lark and shared it with someone who fell in love with the song and shared it back with me. And it was love at first listen; a great fun tune with good lyrics, and, frankly, something I could probably stand hearing at this particular moment in time.

I very much love coming across a song I immediately like; it makes me happy to add new five-star songs to my iTunes, and the more random, the better. When it’s a song that I never should have even heard, I really enjoy the blessing of the fact that I did. It can be a concert opening act I had no idea I was going to hear, or a tune on a radio station I normally wouldn’t listen to, or a friend’s recommendation of something that I normally would have thought wasn’t me, or a track on a CD that I bought for something else entirely, or an unlikely recommendation from iTunes or eMusic or what have you. I lost track of how many times that song was replayed yesterday until I could sing along without looking at the lyrics.

And that brings us back around to Wolverine, which was less notable for the movie itself than for the venue in which it was watched — the drive-in screen at the Cinemagic Theatre in Athens. To the best of my recollection, it’s the first time I’ve ever actually watched a movie on a drive-in screen, and it was a lot of fun. The weather was sort of iffy, and had the potential to get much worse, but the staff said they would run the movie if we wanted to watch it, so they did and we did. Apparently, lightning-filled Monday nights aren’t the peak time for drive-in movie-going in Athens, so we had the entire place to ourselves, which just added to the experience. The horizon to the left and right was filled with frequently lightning strikes, which added to the dramatic tension, but we were fortunate that we had only the slightest bit of rain during the movie. Again, just a lot of fun.

Another Boring Title

OK, I’ve been kind of quite lately. It’s not necessarily that life’s been that boring, it’s just that nothing’s going on that would be interesting to the mass public. So, I’ve spared you. You’re welcome.

Plus, a fair bit of the recent excitement is stuff that’s coming up, that I’ll probably blog about as it gets closer to time. I got a note that I was selected for jury duty, but not until the week after next, so I’ll have some stuff to say when that time comes. I’m going next Friday to attend the Mississippi Press Association’s annual conference for the first time in … eight years, maybe? I’m really excited about going and being in the newspaper world one more time for an evening. Should be fun. Also next Friday, it’s looking like I’ll probably be replacing my iPhone, so that’s kind of exciting. And then, the next day, I’m giving another lecture about my book.

So, yeah, the next couple of weeks should be interesting. This week, probably wouldn’t be to you.

Ups And Downs Of Blogging

Heather with a retired Weightless Wonder at Ellington Field

Heather with a retired Weightless Wonder at Ellington Field

I’ve already noted this over on my other blog, but my co-worker Heather is in Houston for a week in order to take part in a Zero-G reduced-gravity flight, and is keeping an official NASA blog about her experiences.

Forgive me rambling, but this is going to end up being at least three different blog posts in one:

Blog Post One

Heather’s trip is really an incredible opportunity for our team.

Sadly, while having the chance to fly one of our team members on a Zero-G flight is very cool, I’m actually more excited about the fact that she’s blogging about it.

Before being published, our work goes through a lengthy review process, completely unlike what it takes to get an official blog post online in a timely manner. So we’re having to do things a bit differently, and it’s a lot of fun. I get to be a very small part of the process, helping coordinate things here, and I’m enjoying getting to make even those limited contributions to doing something new for us. I’m really hoping that this experience opens up other new opportunities in the future.

Blog Post Two

As Heather mentions in her first blog post, the flight opportunity was offered to me first, and I deferred to her. I mention this not because it shows how incredibly awesome I am or because it’s one of the more selfless things I’ve done. (Particularly since it obviously would have established a pattern of post-break-up weightless flights for me, which would make for a nice consolation.)

Heather wrote: “His rationale: it is better for two writers to each have flown once than one writer to have flown two times.”

The way she put it caused me to make a connection, to a feature I’d written three years ago about an interview with Eileen Collins, the first female shuttle commander, upon her retirement from NASA.

Asked about why she was retiring, Collins explained:

I think we as a country are better off if we have more people who have been in space, even if they’ve only flown one mission. In fact, that first mission is a big one, because you have a very steep learning curve. I don’t think our country needs people who have flown five times — if I stuck around and flew another flight, it would be five times. I don’t know if that would really add that much.

It reminded me of a conversation I had quite a while back, with a friend on mine who runs the premiere space collecting Web site about the fact that our job is to put ourselves out of jobs.

In two different ways, both of us are in the space advocacy business, working to inspire greater interest in spaceflight, and thus the success and proliferation of space exploration and ultimately greater involvement in spaceflight.

I personally believe that NASA is doing work that will open the frontier of space for others; that the agency is not only reaching for new worlds, but, as a result of that, is collaterally paving the way for private citizens to have increasing access to spaceflight.

The very rich are already able to visit the International Space Station, and soon commercial flights into suborbital space will be available. I told my friend that the day is coming that when we’ll tell people, “Let me tell you about space exploration,” only to be told, “No, thanks. My neighbor showed me his pictures after he got back from space last week.”

And there’s an element of that in this situation. When I went on my Zero-G flight, they kept talking about how we were part of this “elite group” that got to experience microgravity. And even then, I just didn’t feel that “elite.” Granted, I live in a rarified environment, but I know several people who have gone on the flights.

And now, by passing on the flight, I’ll know yet another. And even more people will know someone who has done it. And it becomes a little more common. I make myself a little less elite.

But, you know, I’m totally OK with that.

Blog Post Three

This trip also feels like a bit of a passing on of a torch for me, in a way.

I’m not going anywhere, but I’ve always been the member of the team that’s done the really “space-y” trips. I travel less than the other team members, since they, being educators, go make presentations for educators, and I, not, don’t. But that’s meant that I get the trips that provide opportunities to learn more about the things we write about. I’ve had the opportunity, for example, to visit four NASA centers other than the one at which I work.

I’ve traveled with people, including Heather, on those trips before, but this may be the first time someone’s gone on a trip like this without me being involved. I explained the reasons above for her to go instead, and I would have been extraneous. So I’ll be at my desk while she’s doing cool NASA stuff, including some I’ve never done before.

I’ve always been the space geek of the team, and Heather came to us almost completely foreign to the space world, save a handful of stories she did during her newspaper days. She’s come a very long way since then, and, while I probably have the edge in knowledge of NASA’s history, she’s about caught up, and may even have the edge, with current projects. And it’s just very cool for me to be an observer reading the blog of a very capable NASA writer.

Godspeed, Heather!

Living The Dream

We were very lucky this week at Face2Face to have a visit from one of our former members about whom we’ll very possibly be able to say, “I knew him when…”

Dave Stripling was a F2F member from near the beginning, and about a year ago packed his bags for Chicago to try and make it in the improv capital of the world. Dave was always one of the most cerebral members of the troupe; I always respected just how much he thinks about the art and the craft of what we do — how and why things work the way they do.

But the insight and analysis of the guy I worked with a year ago was nothing compared to the guy that came back this week. Dave talked to us at rehearsal Monday for almost the entire time — nearly a three-hour lecture about things he had learned during his time taking classes from the masters in Chicago. (People whose former students include the casually mentioned Mike and Chris, among many many others. And for those that need last names, that would be Myers and Farley.)

To be perfectly honest, even though he was incredibly interesting and the material was brilliant, I couldn’t keep up. Three hours of drinking from the firehose was just too much for me. I’ll be processing things he said Monday for quite a while to come. But I imagine it will almost certainly make us all better players.

Last night was also fun, for a different reason. It was great getting time with Chicago-trained improv artist Dave Stripling on Monday, but it was also wonderful getting time over dinner with our friend Dave Stripling on Tuesday. The fact that it takes a special occassion for the troupe to get together socially is really rather unfortunate.

It was also just very cool to see how well Dave is doing. He’s got a long way to go still, but he’s gradually working his way up through the same programs, with the same instructors, that have produced some of the most famous improv/sketch/sitcom/etc. comedians. If he sticks with it, he could very possibly be somebody, you know?

And it’s all because he actually did it. Dave had been in Huntsville for years, and last year got laid off from yet another radio job. He realized that he had nothing keeping him here, and that he could either wait tables again looking to try to get yet another yet another radio position, or he could actually do what he wanted to. He had the complete freedom to pursue his dream, and he did.

People like that are a challenge to me. The people who risk everything to gain everything. Because the truth is, I’m pretty comfortable. Yeah, it would be cool to do some of these things, but not enough to give up what I have to pursue them. I still think my plan to start five newspapers in Huntsville is amazing brilliant. But not brilliant enough that I’m willing to give up my current job.

To be fair, I love what I do. It’s the best job I’ve had, and don’t know of anything that I know would be better. So it’s not really a case of settling. But it’s odd being content, being comfortable. Never something I planned on. And, also to be fair, there are still areas where I do stretch, do aspire. I’m not dead yet, by a long shot.

So I think it’s very cool that Dave is doing this. I’ll never be famous for my improv. In part, for that very reason — I wouldn’t give up what I have to pursue it. Which is probably wise, because the other half is, I’m just not that good. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not half bad. But I doubt I could ever have what it takes to pay the bills with acting.

Which means, you’ll never see me on Saturday Night Live. But you might very well see Dave Stripling. And when you do, rest assured that I’ll brag ad nauseum about how I used to act with him, back when.