Sunday, December 28, 2008

'loves me loves me not'

I've just been published in the latest online edition of R.KV.R.Y. Quarterly Literary Journal. My good friend Victoria Pynchon is editor-in-chief of the online magazine she founded four years ago and has invited me in the past to submit something nonjournalistic. So I finally, last summer, got around to writing a literary nonfiction piece I'd been toying with for years. It's not that it was too lengthy to write; it was the topic that was difficult -- dredging up the past and all. After a couple false starts, I hunkered down and finished it. And then Vickie accepted it for inclusion in her quarterly. I'm thrilled to sit on a page beside Vickie and her esteemed stable of literary writers. My contribution is titled "Loves me loves me not." Writing it was definitely cathartic (which you'll understand once you've read it), while, at the same time, quite private. I feel a bit naked, now that it's in a quarterly and on the Internet for all to see. But, life and circumstances happen, and we move on. That's what I tried to do, successfully or not. Today, for me, it feels like it happened in another lifetime. C'est la vie. You can read it here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Letter from Laura Bush

Just before Thanksgiving, I received a letter from First Lady Laura Bush, thanking me for participating in the 2008 National Book Festival. What struck me about the letter was that it spoke directly to the 30-minute speech I gave -- one of several dozen given throughout the day on the National Mall. Originally, I thought the First Lady probably didn't write it herself -- that she just signed it -- but I was told by her former personal speech writer Charlie Fern that Mrs. Bush works side-by-side with writers and takes the time to personalize correspondence herself. Her letter mentioned that the Pavilion I was in was overflowing with people who listened to my speech that September day. The story of a 12-year-old boy and a dog named Cujo brought the audience to tears at the Eighth Annual National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. Just retelling it brought me to tears as well. Cujo's is one of many stories in my book Pawprints of Katrina. I was one of 70 grateful authors, illustrators and poets invited to the weekend’s prestigious event, organized and sponsored by the Library of Congress and hosted by First Lady Laura Bush. I spent the weekend in the company of such authors, writers and poets as Salman Rushdie, Tiki Barber, Cokie Roberts, Kimberly Dozier, Jon Scieszka, Judith Viorst, Daniel Schorr, Bob Schieffer and Eleanor Clift. I spent time with Pauline Frommer, author with her father, Arthur, of Frommer's Travel Guides, because we share the same publisher -- John Wiley & Sons. We hung out in the Hospitality Pavilion with PJ Campbell and Keira Kordowski, in charge of events at Wiley, as we waited for our respective events to begin. All the writers ate breakfast in the State Dining Room in the East Wing of the White House. Afterward, Mrs. Bush went outside with us, on the White House steps, and a photographer took our photo (above; that's me, second row, fourth from the right wearing a white blouse with a Best Friends Animal Society logo). Having a book about the rescue of pets from Katrina included in the festival was special beyond words. And getting an acknowledgment, no matter our politics, from Laura Bush, who promotes reading through the Library of Congress, was the icing on the cake.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Time flies ... too fast

Time flies by, so much so that nearly 16 years passed before seeing school friend Noni McGowan's son again. Circumstances changed, and Morgan moved to Michigan when he was around 13. The last time I saw him he was 18; he was in town and showed up on a holiday, at my doorstep, to say goodbye before leaving for Michigan again. Growing up, he spent weekends at my beach house in South Mission Beach (San Diego) with my son, Raymond, and me. For a few months, he and his mom lived with me. Morgan loved hanging out at Hamel's Surf Shop, located on the boardwalk, to inline skate and skateboard just north of the lifeguard tower. Earlier this week, Morgan was in San Diego with his family, so I flew down for the day for a get-together at Sammy's Woodfired Pizza in Pt. Loma. It was great fun, reminiscing. It was as if no time at all had gone by. Morgan went on to college, graduated, moved to Kalamazoo, now works for a communications company and has a family of his own. I couldn't be more proud if he were my own son. Group photo (standing), Morgan, Emma, Drew, Cathy, Cordelia, Bob, Claire, Raymond, and (seated), Karen and Jake.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

NPR Features 'Beneath the Neon'

I stumbled across a front-page story on National Public Radio's site a couple days ago. To my pleasant surprise was a feature story and interview of my friend Matt O'Brien about his wanderings underground in Las Vegas. The story and radio interview, titled "Sucked Into The Tunnels Beneath Las Vegas," can be heard and read here.

Matt’s research is a five-year, hands-on study of a different kind for Las Vegas' underworld; this one isn't connected to the Mob. His book Beneath the Neon, released in 2007, was reviewed by local media as well as national, including And CBS weighed in too. Getting on NPR, however, was a real coup.

It's amazing what a national presence brings. Sales rankings on Amazon for Beneath the Neon rose to between 1,000 and 2,000, which is an incredible ruler for how it's doing online -- very well, in my book. A few days later, it was back down to 10,000 (which is still very much a respectable sales ranking).

Matt's a humble guy and kept the news of the story mostly to himself.

"Is it on your blog?" I asked him.

"Nah, I didn't want to look like I was bragging."

"Brag," I told him. "Post it."

Being the modest guy he is, the NPR story still isn't posted on his blog, so I'm blogging it for him by posting it to my own blog. Here's to you, Matt. Congratulations.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Not-so-distant look back at competitive news coverage

Charlie Fern, an editor in the early '90s at the now-closed Vista Press, a daily newspaper in North San Diego County, reminded me recently in a Twitter comment of the strong competitiveness we had in the newsroom in those days. The 50-year-old Vista Press was in direct competition with the San Diego Union's North County edition. The Union (this was before it merged to become the San Diego Union-Tribune) was huge by comparison. Still, Charlene, who was managing editor -- and my boss -- of the Vista Press, an Andrews McMeel Universal-owned paper, recalled that we scooped the SD Union on a regular basis. Maybe it was because the reporters all had fire in their bellies to get it first. This last weekend, she started a Twitter conversation about her view of some print reporters and their current complacency. ""Do what you say and say it in color," Charlene said, "because it matters." The Vista Press, she wrote on Twitter (quite complimentary), "was at its best (when Cathy Scott, Russell Klika, Leslie Hueholt, etc., were there), proving a small paper could run circles around a metro. We had a great, competitive staff, for the most part, and a lot of competition. That drives excellence." She also reminded me of a breaking story I wrote, on deadline and calling it in from the scene, of a garbage truck worker who, while standing behind a truck with a full load, was buried alive underneath garbage. It took an army of law enforcement -- and even medium-security California state prisoners -- 12 hours to locate his body. I remained at the scene and Charlene held the presses until the story was done. It made the first edition in the morning, beating the other papers in the area. "Holding the presses was thrilling, even if I got in trouble for it," she said. While at the Vista Press, I also covered Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, went on training missions with Marines on base and out to sea, and to Somalia to cover Operation Restore Hope. Fellow reporters and photogs at that small paper mostly moved on to bigger and better journalism jobs: Klika, for one, became a combat photographer, with two tours of duty in Iraq, and is now a civilian combat photo instructor for the National Guard; Leslie moved on to the Tulsa World; Deniene Husted to the Los Angeles Times, I went to the Las Vegas Sun, and Charlene, well, she went to work at the White House (after first going to the Texas governor's mansion) as Laura Bush's personal speechwriter. Many others who came before us have moved upward and onward too. North San Diego County was a fertile training ground for us. We worked our tails off, learned to crunch on deadline and also felt the sense of accomplishment with the occasional scoop over our seemingly giant neighbor, the SD Union. It was David and Goliath, and occasionally David won. Photo, by Russell Klika, of Cathy gearing up to board a military helicopter at Camp Pendleton to cover an exercise over the Pacific Ocean.