My Kingdom for a Kitchen Chicken Sandwich

Today is no ordinary Thursday. The date, June 23, marks two years since six companions and I returned from a road trip along South Africa’s southern coast, stretching from Mossel Bay to Storms River Village—a span of roads and towns along South Africa’s N2 known as the “Garden Route.” To where we returned was South Africa’s Mother City, Cape Town, which is now hosting First Lady Michelle Obama, an event of no particular significance to, well, probably anyone reading this.

For me however—thanks to a timely tweet from @BigIssueSA—this means a great deal, as Michelle Obama apparently stopped at The Kitchen for lunch. The Kitchen, the home of the finest chicken sandwich in Woodstock, a suburb of Cape Town. And, of course, the greatest lunch stop in Woodstock, since it is just up the block from the offices of The Big Issue: South Africa magazine, where I worked from May to August 2009.

I would remiss to not point out that, whatever your opinion of President Obama and his policies—and therefore, whatever opinion you hold of his wife—the image of the United States’ first black First Lady walking around a nation just 17 years removed from apartheid and its first democratic elections is one simultaneously striking and poignant. (Now, if we could just convince Julius Malema that arbitrarily seizing and redistributing farmers’ lands is one of many factors that led to Zimbabwe’s ruin…)

As from here on out, I’ll dedicate this post to Alex, Kuba, Whitney, Riley, Robert, and Dave.

Scram, Kid. Time for You to Get Lost

David Brooks writes that as legions of college graduates begin parading into the world (paper degrees in hand achieved with sides of seemingly insurmountable debt), we do so inauspiciously. That is, we are going about living our lives in entirely the wrong manner. Quite rightly, Brooks identifies the marching orders for each and every (relatively well off, economically) college graduate in the U.S.—the maxims by which we have been told, most likely since kindergarten, to lead our lives.

“Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself.” He calls this the “litany of expressive individualism,” something pervasive throughout American society.

Of course, this is merely his set up for the turn of the article, which comes when he writes: “Today’s graduates are also told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest. . . . Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life.”

I’m reminded of the scene from the movie Fight Club when Tyler Durden, Ed Norton’s cooler, hipper, I-don’t-give-a-damn-about-material-possessions alter ego—the in-the-flesh Facebook page of the ’90s generation—angrily relates how pissed off we all are because we’ve been told that, one day, we’ll be rock stars and movie stars. And the “tragic” (read: obvious, but oblivious to us) reality is that most of us won’t headline Bonnaroo or get hungover in Thailand.

Now, what Brooks harps on here is nothing new. The “millenial” generation has been getting a bad rap: we’re flighty, self-important, narcissistic, and more concerned with our own accomplishments versus what we may contribute to some collective project.

As it relates to journalism—and writing more generally—Brooks’s point that losing yourself in some bigger operation leads you to your strengths, and, eventually, your great contributions, is worth noting for any aspiring Jonathan Franzen. Before Black Hawk Down, there was Mark Bowden at the Baltimore News-American and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Before Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there was debt-ridden and unsuccessful Hunter S. Thompson, writing cover letters to newspapers in Canada with levels of snark that would put Esquire magazine to shame.

For most writers, the payoff comes not in a multimillion-dollar book deal, or a first feature story printed in The Atlantic. Your pitch letters, for a time, will suck. Your articles, for a time, will be heavily edited. Your story ideas, for a time, will be greatly suspect and viewed as unambitious and unworkable. You will, for a time, probably have to slog it out at lesser known publications to build a clip file and gain (valuable) experience and knowledge in writing and editing. It took me two years working at the Loyola Greyhound before I sold my first story, to Chicken Soup for the Soul; it took me nearly three years before I sold my first story to a magazine. And it took a full four years before any of that previously acquired knowledge and experience earned me any sort of external recognition.

The case for gradual improvement, for moving slowly, for being willing to admit that you don’t know it all, and that your success—however you define it—will in all likelihood require your paying your proverbial dues . . . it’s a humbling reality, and one I’m still trying to learn.

Until I’m done paying up, I’m quite alright—for a time—being lost in the shuffle.

As a parting note (because this post wouldn’t be complete without the actual footage…):

What Editing Is, What Editing Isn’t

Many thanks to those who participated in my (extremely unofficial) copy editing test last week. *At the bottom of this post I have typed out my own answers as I would have responded, along with the responder whom I dubbed the winner of two free beers.

But before we get all pretzel-and-Blue Moon-happy…

The aim of the test was in no way to demonstrate a superior understanding of the rules of grammar, or a more sophisticated method to wording sentences, or any sort of prescriptivist viewpoint.

What I’m railing against is the idea that writers don’t need editors, especially when proper names (“Franzon”) continue to be misspelled in articles and improper usage (mantel vs. mantle) continues to pop up in published stories. The rest of the mistakes I inserted, more or less, are idiosyncratic to their respective style rules (AP vs. Chicago vs. “house” publication styles), which, of course, are known best by teams of copy editors who work with them every day. (At least, in my experience, when it comes to newspapers.)

Indeed, to insist on apposition, for instance, when writing about Night Content Production Manager, John McIntyre, is idiomatic to conventional grammar rules (if you can believe conventional grammar rules ring in my ears like the soulful sounds of John Coltrane). To write out “Night Content Production Manager John McIntyre” without placing John McIntyre’s name in apposition is to follow, generally, AP Style rules (same goes with capitalizing his title, but only when it precedes the proper name).

You see what I’m getting at. The test was not designed to test anyone’s knowledge of idiosyncratic style rules, which are flexible, malleable, and specific to various publications’ standards. (I mean, for chrissakes, first AP tells me email is e-mail, and then they tell me e-mail is email.) It was designed, however, to slap around this idea that gutting copy editing staffs at newspapers will lead to better custodianship of the written word by reporters, and therefore you, the reader, will still receive a bang-up product while they, the newspaper, saves some money.

No. No. No. Might as well just bang your head against a wall instead. And while the newspaper industry continues to “experiment” with piss-poor ways of cutting costs in a dying industry, that’s about the only thing that can numb the pain. Maybe if enough brain cells are damaged, you won’t even notice the errors.

*Congratulations to Erin, who was the first to post her responses and noticed precisely the issues in need of correction. Also, congratulations to MichiganCityDDS, a responder who threw in that hyphen between “dapper” and “looking” (I’m partial to hyphenating), in addition to making the other necessary corrections. I might also point you to the responses of Not a Grammarian; I happen to know he is a professor, and I think it’s interesting to see the variability between how a journalist would correct these sentences versus how an academic corrects these sentences.

My own corrections:

1. “What are you doing?” shouted Regina. “How dare you rest your beer on the mantel without using a coaster!”

2. On a bright, sunny day in Baltimore, Michael set out on his bicycle down to Patterson Park, where he looked forward to reading Jonathan Franzen’s new novel.

3. “For shame,” said Betty. “And to think we were about to go outside to grill wieners right as Congressman Weiner was tweeting photographs of his wiener to some girl in Seattle.”

4. I will be attending the play with Sally, who is going to be dropped off by her parents John and Margaret, whom I met last Sunday.

5. The Baltimore Sun’s Night Content Production Manager John McIntyre is perhaps the most dapper-looking gentleman in Baltimore City; indeed he looks like one of the cast members of the AMC show Mad Men.

Think You’re Responsible, Huh? Well, Pony Up

John McIntyre writes on his You Don’t Say blog about the Raleigh News & Observer, which just this week chose to annihilate its entire copy editing and design team. As McIntyre rightly points out, such decisions made by newspapers today are efforts at increasing profitability at the sake of a newspaper’s quality.

Even more troubling, perhaps, is the newspaper industry’s continuing inability to understand that sacrificing the quality of your print product by firing workers to save money in the short term will not translate into long-term economic success. Indeed, eliminating the entire copy desk is little more than a sunk cost: in doing so, newspapers not only continue to shy away from innovation and creative solutions to actually increase profitability, but also catalyze their own demise by being seemingly willing to further lower the value of their product. Why, logical people will ask, should we continue paying for a newspaper with mediocre city coverage run by an editorial team that appears unabashedly complicit in riddling the paper with grammatical and spelling errors?

Naturally, reporters will be more responsible. (Though that claim is pure bunk, especially when writers on The Atlantic Wire—an Atlantic Media Company publication, for chrissakes—don’t even know how to correctly make plural people’s last names or spell the word “separate.”)

It’s time to pony up, I say. Below you will find five sentences. If you are a writer and/or journalist, I challenge you to the test. First person to correct the errors in each sentence and leave the corrections in the comments section on this blog will be treated to two complimentary beers at Mick O’Shea’s Irish Pub in Baltimore, courtesy of my bank account. However, I should disclose now that if the winner uses the opportunity to order Budweiser, Bud Light, Miller Lite, or anything “Lite,” for that matter, the rules of the competition become null and void.

The test:

  1. “What are you doing?” shouted Regina. “How dare you rest your beer on the mantle without using a coaster!”
  2. A bright, sunny day in Baltimore, Michael set out on his bicycle down to Patterson Park, where he looked forward to reading Jonathan Franzon’s new novel.
  3. “For shame,” said Betty. “And to think we were about to go outside to grill wieners right as Congressman Weiner was tweeting photographs of his weiner to some girl in Seattle.”
  4. I will be attending the play with Sally, who is going to be dropped off by her parents John and Margeret, who I met last Sunday.
  5. The Baltimore Sun’s Night Content Production Manager John McIntyre is perhaps the most dappor looking gentlemen in Baltimore City, indeed he looks like one of the cast members of the AMC show Mad Men.

Back in the Habit

For a time, this blog has been noticeably dormant, an effect largely a product of my end-of-semester schedule (which resembled more a rabid dog chasing a car tire lined with various cuts of raw meat than that of a 22-year-old, meagerly-paid writer-journalist). To document precisely why my “voice” has been for awhile soundless—a point of happiness for some, I’m sure—takes far less time from my schedule than each of these following obligations did: for one, I had to graduate college, since apparently not doing so would have been a supreme waste of capital, both human and financial; securing gainful employment was necessary to ensure my not returning to the land of my father and mother (which wouldn’t have been awful, so to speak, but rather…well, awful); and, as a pre-condition for graduation, I needed to finish writing my English Literature independent study, which started summer 2010 as a thesis paper, but gradually morphed into a smaller-scale project with a more minimal and manageable scope.

But first things first: I am pleased to announce that I was hired as the new Digital Media Editor at Baltimore’s Urbanite magazine, a monthly publication about cities and city life, as seen through the distinctive lens of Baltimore. Basically, we’re a publication of Baltimore-loving people, who know the city as a great breeding ground for the arts, theater, innovation in transportation, communication, and entrepreneurship; we firmly believe that Baltimore’s best days are ahead. My main task will be swimming through the tsunami that is digital journalism—how its flipped the journalism industry on its head, what its done for advertising dollars, and what it means for driving, and keeping, viewership and readership on a website—along with some writing for the print magazine.

Now, the paper, which I titled Novelistic Portrayals of a Post-Apartheid South Africa, uses several bellwether texts by South African novelists as points of examination to determine—as best as the literary world can—if the prospect of black and white South Africans sharing physical, geographical space in a post-apartheid South Africa is possible, or merely a fickle pipedream. By design, the paper has flaws; admittedly, recent history demonstrates that black and white South Africans can share geographical space harmoniously. But the aim here was to survey what celebrated, significant South Africans novelists thought about blacks and whites sharing space in-country, as depicted by their respective novelistic works. (If you are so bold, or a sucker for punishment, you may read the paper in its entirety by clicking the hyperlink at the beginning of this paragraph.)

For any Loyola University Maryland English majors reading, I recommend embarking on such a project your senior year, be it a full-blown thesis or a parsed down independent study. At several points throughout my writing, I realized that sentences and ideas were less so those of other scholars or writers, but wholly my own concepts and observations being brought to bear; as opposed to analyzing what other scholars have done, and then commenting back, you will find that you are adding new material to continuing conversations. In a way, writing such a paper marks your development in the major, and signals a crossing-over of sorts from writing research papers to producing original thoughts for use in a long lineage of dialogue and debate.

Oh, and, moving back home wouldn’t have been awful at all. I have fantastic parents—the very best, in my opinion (naturally)—but I’m just tired of having my mother call me “baby.” I’m 22, mom . . . always remember the second “2.”