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There were a lot of pleasures to working for a newspaper before the imposition of austerity that followed corporate buy-outs. The earlier parts of my career in the Features Department with The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz., came with great joys. 

Before being eaten up by Gannett, The Republic was almost a kind of loony bin of great eccentrics, not all of whom were constitutionally suited to journalism. Those days, it was fun to come to work. When Gannett took over, it imposed greater professionalism in the staff, but the paper lost a good deal of personality. Those who went through those years with me will know who I’m talking about, even without my naming names. But there was a TV writer who tried to build himself a “private sanctum” in the open office space, made out of a wall of bricks of old VHS review tapes. There was a society columnist who refused to double-check the spelling of names in his copy. A movie critic who could write a sentence as long as a city bus without ever using an actual verb. She was also famous for not wearing underwear. 

I could go on. There was the travel writer who once wrote that in Mexico City there had been a politician “assassinated next to the statue commemorating the event.” And a naive advice columnist whose world-view could make a Hallmark card seem cynical. The book editor seemed to hate the world. The history columnist was famous for tall-tales. 

And let’s not forget the copy editor who robbed a bank and tried to escape on a bicycle. 

There were quite a few solid, hardworking reporters. Not everyone was quite so out-there. But let’s just say that there was a tolerance for idiosyncrasy, without which I would never have been hired. 

The newspaper had a private park, called the “Ranch,” where employees could go for picnics and Fourth-of-July fireworks. The managing editor was best known for stopping by your desk on your birthday to offer greetings.  

What can I say? Just a few months before I was hired, the publisher of the paper resigned in disgrace when it was revealed that his fabulous military career as a Korean War pilot (he was often photographed in uniform with his medals) was, in fact, fabulous. It was a fable he made up. 

And so, this was an environment in which I could thrive. And for 25 years, I did, even through corporate de-flavorization and a raft of changing publishers, executive editors, editors-in-chief and various industry hot-shots brought in to spiffy up the joint. I was providentially lucky in always having an excellent editor immediately in charge of me, who nurtured me and helped my copy whenever it needed it. 

(It has been my experience that in almost any institution, the higher in management you climb, the less in touch you are with the actual process of your business. The mid-level people keep things functioning, while upper management keeps coming up with “great ideas” that only bollix things up. Very like the difference between sergeants and colonels.)

The staff I first worked with, with all their wonderful weirdnesses, slowly left the business, replaced with better-trained, but less colorful staffers, still interesting, still unusual by civilian standards, but not certifiable. The paper became better and more professional. And then, it became corporate. When The Republic, and the afternoon Phoenix Gazette, were family-owned by the Pulliams, we heard often of our “responsibility to our readers.” When Gannett bought the paper out, we heard instead of our “responsibility to our shareholders.” Everything changed. 

And this was before the internet killed newspapers everywhere. Now things are much worse. When I first worked for The Republic, there was a staff of more than 500. Now, 10 years after my retirement and decimated by corporate restructuring and vain attempts to figure out digital journalism, the staff is under 150. I retired just in time. 

Looking back, though, I realize that every job I’ve ever had has had its share of oddballs. 

The first job I had, in my senior year at college, was on the groundskeeping team at school. It was full of eccentrics, mostly Quakers fulfilling their alternative service as conscientious objectors during the Vietnam war. One day, Bruce Piephoff and I were trimming the hedges at the front gate and he lit up a joint and offered me one. Traffic streamed in front of us, but he didn’t seem to mind. A few years later, Piephoff robbed a restaurant, grabbing everything he could from the till and then walking up the street throwing the cash at anyone he passed. He seems to have done well since then, now a singer and recording artist. 

Later, I worked at a camera store. My manager was Bill Stanley, who looked rather like Groucho in his You Bet Your Life days. Stanley chewed on a cigar all day, turning it into a spatulate goo. He had an improvisatory relation with the English language. When an obnoxious customer began spouting stupid opinions, Stanley yelled at him, “You talk like a man with a paper asshole.” When someone asked about the big boss, Stanley told her, “He came through here like a breeze out of bats.” Every day there were new words in new orders. 

When I worked at the Black weekly newspaper, the editor was a drunk named Mike Feeney, who had once worked at the New York Times and I would see him daily sitting at his desk surrounded by a dozen half-finished paper cups of coffee, some growing mold, and he would be filling out the Times crossword puzzle, in ink! And he would finish it before ever getting to the “down” clues. He gave me my first lessons as a reporter. “What reporting is,” he said, “is that you call up the widow and you say, ‘My condolences, I’m sorry that your husband has died, but why did you shoot him?’” 

The zoo in Seattle was also full of crazies. There was Bike Lady, Wolf Man, Gorilla Lady. And the kindly old relief keeper, Bill Cowell. One day, the place was full of kids running around screaming, spilling soda pop and popcorn, and Bill leaned over to me, “Don’tcha just wanna run them over?” 

And I finally got to be a teacher, in the art department of a two-year college. The art staff was especially close, and we had dinner together about once a week. There were some great parties. A Thanksgiving with a contest to make sculpture out of food. The winner was an outhouse made from cornbread, with a graham cracker door and a half a hard-boiled egg as a privy seat. I made a roast chicken in the form of Jackie Gleason, with a pear attached as his head. Another time the drawing teacher, Steve Wolf helped us put on a shadow-puppet show. He had us falling on the floor with the most obscene performance he called, “The Ballerina and the Dog.” 

And so, I suppose I have always worked with a class of people outside the normal order. So, when I was hired by the Features editor at The Republic and he was wearing Japanese sandals, it hardly registered with me. Mike McKay gave me my first real job in newspapers. 

 But, oh, how I loved my years there. Newspapers everywhere were profit-rich and the paper was willing to send reporters all over to cover stories. I benefited by getting to travel across the country, and even the world. 

I was primarily an art critic — and ran immediately afoul of the local cowboy artist fans when I reviewed the annual Cowboy Artists of America exhibition and sale at the Phoenix Art Museum. It was one of the major events on the social calendar, when all the Texas oil millionaires would descend on Phoenix to buy up pictures of cowboys and Indians. 

The event was an institution in the city, but I wasn’t having any of it. I wrote a fairly unfriendly review of the art and got instant pushback. I wrote, among other things, “It’s time, Phoenix, to hang up your cap pistols. It’s time to grow up and leave behind these adolescent fantasies.” And, “their work is just, well, maybe a few steps above black velvet Elvis paintings.” I was hanged in effigy by Western Horseman magazine. It was great fun. 

But my portfolio expanded, and by the end of my sojourn in the desert, I was also dance critic, classical music critic and architecture critic — one of the last things I did was complete a 40,000 word history of Phoenix architecture. I also became back-up critic for theater and film. And I wrote hundreds of travel stories. 

The paper sent me to Boston, New York, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, Reno, and almost once a year, to Los Angeles. I covered major art exhibits by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Audubon, Jackson Pollock, among others. 

Because Frank Lloyd Wright had a Scottsdale connection, I wrote about him often and got to travel to and write about many of his most famous buildings, including Taliesin in Wisconsin and Falling Water in Pennsylvania. 

Pacific Coast Highway

But the best were the travel stories, as when they let me take 10 days to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from Tijuana to Vancouver, or another time when I also drove from Mexico to Canada, but along the Hundredth Meridian in the center of the continent — and then down the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Over several different trips, I cobbled together a series of stories about the Appalachian Mountains from Alabama to the Gaspé Peninsula. 

Mississippi River near Cairo, Ill. 

I had assignments that let me cover all the national parks in Utah, and several excursions to every corner of Arizona. In 1988, I went to South Africa for the paper. 

Indian Ocean, Durban, South Africa

Of course, when Gannett took over, the travel miles shrunk to near zero. They didn’t want to pay for anything they didn’t absolutely have to. 

I left in 2012. The handwriting was on the wall. Thoughtful pieces about art and culture were no longer wanted. We were asked to provide “listicles,” such as “Top 5 things to this weekend.” After I left, I heard from former colleagues how the photography staff was let go, the copy editors were fired — how can you run a newspaper with no copy editors? They are the heart of a newspaper. They saved my butt I don’t know how many times. But no, they are all gone. 

It was a sweet spot I was lucky to have landed on, to be able to observe the old “Front Page” days in their waning glory, and leave when everything was drowning in corporatism. I have often said that if Gannett thought they could make more money running parking garages, they would turn The Republic building into one. 

When I left, a group of colleagues bought and gave me a blog site. I’ve been writing on it ever since — now just under 700 entries — and it proves what I have always said, writers never really retire, they just stop getting paid for it.

I am a retired writer, although a writer never really retires, he just stops getting paid for it. 

In the six years since I left The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz., I have written 532 blog posts and another 35 monthly essays for the Spirit of the Senses salon group there (link here). That works out to just under two blog entries per week since I stopped getting paid. That is not many fewer than my weekly average while working. 

I have also taken and published countless photographs, usually in series, mostly in my blog. (One advantage of writing for the Web instead of for print, is that I can run as many images as I need. At the paper, I was frequently frustrated by the lack of space for photos along with my writing. Unlike most reporters, I usually took my own photographs.)

In 25 years in Phoenix, I wrote more than two-and-a-half million words and had four exhibitions of my photographs (catalog of the most recent: Link here) and produced 14 self-published books of my photographs (link here).  

I just can’t seem to stop working. Huff, puff. 

Yet, I have always had one nagging fear: that I am lazy. That I am just not doing enough. I have proof that I have been productive, but underneath, it always feels as if I’m slacking. I blame the PWE — the Protestant Work Ethic. It is something I don’t believe in, but it is so deeply buried in there, that it simply doesn’t matter if I believe in it or not. 

It is a disease, like an STD or PTSD; the dreaded PWE. It makes it a moral failing if I don’t match my self-imposed quota of productivity. Even a vacation is just another opportunity to create new stuff.

I am reminded of William Blake’s mythical deity, Los. Blake’s poetic universe is filled with mythic beings, each a projection of some psychological state. Los is a blacksmith (among other things — Blake is hardly consistent) and he is pictured as eternally forging a chain, one link after another. It is not clear there is any reason for the chain, but that doesn’t stop Los. It is his metaphorical job to produce. It is creativity unlinked to any other purpose. Make, make, make. 

So it is, during a time of Hurricane Florence, I was visiting my brother- and sister-in-law in Reidsville, in central North Carolina, and made yet another series of photographs. These.

I usually work in series. I cannot count the number of them I have made; I often think of them as “books,” that is, a group of photographs that work together as a single statement. I have photographed dozens of gardens, public and private, that way, with anywhere from a dozen to 40 images intended to be seen together. 

These are not meant to be seen as records of places I have been, but for their own esthetic pleasure. I have done clouds above Phoenix (link here), the interior of a house in Maine (link here), and the view from an airplane window seat (link here). On an earlier visit to Reidsville, I found a trove of abstract patterns in little things (link here). 

This time, I looked at the ceiling, and then, the floor. Humble subjects, without much intrinsic interest, but with shapes, shadows and subtle colors in which I found a visual tickle. 

Make no mistake, I do not present these with any pretense that they are important, or even that they might count as art. They are more like simple exercises in seeing. I believe they are of sufficient interest to award a quick gaze. 

But I didn’t make them because I wanted to add to my “ouevre” — my “corpus” — but because if I am sitting around not doing anything, I feel I am being insufficiently productive. That damned PWE infection that I can’t seem to shake. 

That is also why I keep making these blogs. Please accept my apologies. 

Click on any image to enlarge

It Stinks

Wall Street Journal writer Charles Passy recently wrote a piece describing “10 Things Movie Critics Won’t Tell You.” Some of those things were certainly true: “We’re not as powerful as we once were;” “My Top 10 List is Full of Movies Nobody’s Seen.” But one of his observations made me cringe: “We’re Not in Tune with the Public’s Taste.”

To ordinary moviegoers, critics seem often to project a snobbish attitude to movies the ticket-buyers most enjoy. Critics love to dump on Michael Bay, for instance, even as theater lines extend around the block. The public (or at least the part of the public that is the demographic for most current blockbuster movies) loves to see things blow up real good. The critics? Not so much. It seems they would much rather see a film in Hungarian shot on poorly lit video in which a lonely widow starves slowly to death in real time.

Passy is not a film critic, and he cannot possibly understand one of the basic dynamics of the career he criticizes. But I’ve seen it in action.

He complains: “How to explain this gap between critics and the public? Some filmgoers see it as elitism at its worst: ‘Most critics are trying to impress the public (and other critics) by flaunting their perceived affluent taste and intelligence,’ one movie fan wrote on a Yahoo message board about the issue.”

He points out that Rotten Tomatoes, a film website that gives scores to movies based on a survey of reviews from as many as 200 critics, gives Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman a 15 percent approval rating, while in the audience rating section of the website, Diary received an 88 percent approval. How can critics and audiences be at such odds?

Passy quotes Leslie Gray Streeter, a film writer with The Palm Beach Post, who observed: “The most objectionable reviews are disturbingly dismissive of the movie’s audience and its presumably simplistic religious or cultural attitudes. They read like ‘Who is this Tyler Perry fellow and who does he think he is?’”

Surely, the movie audience reacts, the critics must be snobs, showing off their “superior” taste and cinematic knowledge. Cries of elitism abound.

Yet, as I say, I have seen the true dynamic at work. It has nothing to do with showing off, or any feeling of cultural superiority (except perhaps for John Simon: There is no excuse for John Simon).

When I wrote for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz., the old movie critic moved on to greener pastures, and the paper’s management decided to replace him with an “Everyman” reviewer. Exactly the kind of critic who would see movies through the eyes of the ordinary film goer. They fixed on  Bill Muller, an award-winning former investigative and political reporter, full of extroverted bonhomie and a regular guy if ever there was one. Not only was he someone you would like to have a beer with, he was someone you, in fact, did have a beer with.

Muller

When Muller arrived in the Features department, he professed to having no knowledge of movies at all. He didn’t know a DP from a grip from a Foley artist. It wasn’t that he was proud of his ignorance; in fact, he immediately set to learning his new field. He asked questions constantly of those around him who were movie buffs. Muller was ignorant of movies, but he was incredibly intelligent. Hungrily curious.

His first reviews were just what his bosses were looking for: true appreciation of movies in which things blew up real good. For the first year of his tenure, he continued to be the voice of the common man.

The problem is, that if you see one movie where things blow up real good, you can really enjoy the fireworks. If you see 10 such movies, you begin to rate which of them does the blowing up better than the others. If you see 100 of them, you really cannot avoid developing what can only be called “taste.” The more movies you see, the higher rises your taste level. It is inevitable. Critics see a lot of movies.

The monotony of fireballs and car crashes eventually become wearing. At some point, you have simply seen enough.

When Muller first began writing about movies, he avoided Foreign Films. Like most Americans, he hated subtitles. I was the beneficiary of his aversion: He passed on most foreign language films to me to review. I got to see scores of great films that he just wasn’t interested in. I was in pig heaven.

The result, for me, was that seeing so many French films, made me realize that not all foreign films are masterpieces. I began to recognize the dross (at a lower percentage than Muller and Hollywood: Americans get to see only a preselected group of foreign films. Most French films never see the light of Dayton, Ohio).

But, as I say, Muller’s taste level unavoidably began to rise as he realized one blowing-up movie was pretty much like another. And after a few years, he began looking forward to the so-called “art films” he had once tossed aside.

He never became a hoity-toity snob. There was nothing preventing him from enjoying a popular movie that was well made and original. It wasn’t a movie’s popularity that interested him. But having seen thousands of movies over that time made him able to distinguish between movies that tackled something real and worthy, and those that just fed fodder into the studio machine and spit out unimaginative clones.

And so, some readers began to complain about Muller, calling him an elitist and a snob. It was unfortunate. If you see only a few movies a year, like most people, most of them seem exciting; if you see hundreds, like a professional movie critic, the dreck stands out by contrast. I’m talking to you, Michael Bay.

By the time of his untimely death, in 2007, Bill Muller had become one of the best movie critics in the country. Nobody was less elitist than Muller, but he could never be less than honest about his judgement.

This is an affliction that visits anyone, like Muller, who sees that many films.

The solution, obviously, is for newspapers to change film critics at least once a year. That way, the critic is always in the unlearned state of the beginner. We should pluck him out of his desk the moment he begins to say nice things about Pedro Almodovar or has his first qualms about “Spiderman 5: The Regurgitation.”

Of course, this has already happened, in its way. As newspapers spiral down the drain of historical insignificance, their place is taken by an infinite number of bloggers (mea culpa) who cannot afford to see a film a day, sometimes two, and have their tastes involuntarily elevated.

These happy many, writing online, can pour forth panegyrics about the latest Adam Sandler film, or find the virtues in Tyler Perry, or conversely, complain about the casting of the latest Star Trek feature.

Every man his own critic. And nothing rises to converge.

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