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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.

In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. This is one, from Sept. 4, 2019, is now updated and slightly rewritten.

One of my great pleasures, when I was an art critic, was visiting artist studios. Certainly, there was usually a mess, spattered paint, cans dripping or tubes squeezed, and rags and brushes. Things taped to the walls, papers scattered and, often, music blaring. But there was also a sense of purpose, a sense that someone here knew what he or she was doing.

I had that sense again recently while visiting my brother-in-law, the painter Mel Steele. I love his work. And I can watch over time as he works and reworks his canvas, trying this or that to make it better.

Mel is a professional. And by that, I don’t just mean he sells his work, or that he is talented. That goes without saying. I mean something more particular. It is something I see in the work and work habits of many artists I have come across, from Jim Waid to James Turrell.

I have been thinking about the manifest difference between the work of an amateur and that of a professional. And I don’t mean to denigrate the work of amateurs. Indeed, there are professionals stunning mediocrity and there are amateurs hugely talented. No, I mean something about the approach to the work.

This is something that I have been cogitating about since retiring. Without making any great boast about my own writing, I can say with utter confidence that I wrote as a professional. This is not a claim about quality or greatness, but about some inner acquaintance with the nitty-gritty of the craft. It has been 10 years since I worked for The Arizona Republic and I can say with confidence that writers never really retire: They just stop getting paid. 

In 25 years with the newspaper, I wrote three-and-a-half million words. Since retiring, I have written another million-and-a-half for this blog. My fingers get itchy if they don’t pound a keyboard. 

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that the secret to achieving meaningful achievement is to repeat something 10,000 times. The book has been trashed by many critics as a kind of pop psychology, but without taking the actual number as gospel, certainly one of the things that makes a professional is that repetition. You don’t become a professional — as I mean it here — by being hired. You do it over the long haul, writing every day for years. Or painting every day for years. Or dancing, or playing violin. Or, for that matter, plumbing or dealing in the stock market.

For all that patience, what you get are several things. First, you get better at what you do. But you also become familiar with the business. By that, I don’t just mean the financial side of the work, but the daily bits of familiar habit. As a writer, that means understanding deadlines, the importance of editors and copy editors, the argot of the trade — point size, picas, inches, folios, air, heds, ledes, trims, slots, cutlines, sidebars, widows, and more than I can even now remember. But was once the lingo of my daily life.

If told I had 10 inches to fill on deadline, I could write a piece that would come in at 10 inches, give or take nary more than a line, before I even measured it. You just have the feel of it. Occasionally, I would return to the office from a concert at 10:50 p.m. to write a review and have 10 minutes to file before deadline. I could whip that sucker out: Ten inches in 10 minutes, and feel at the end like a rodeo cowboy tying the feet of a calf and throwing my arms out in triumph.

More important, you divest yourself of the bad habits of your amateur years and your novitiate. You unconsciously avoid using the same word twice in paragraph; you vary your sentence length; You know instinctively to include just the amount of background your reader needs, without burdening him or her with unnecessary detail; and you know in what order to present that background. You become aware of consistency within a piece. You know the difference between first ref and subsequent. You don’t leave readers hanging with unfamiliar and unexplained acronyms.  Do you know where commas fall? Do you abbreviate “street” or not? All this comes with familiarity and practice. And becomes second nature.

I now look with embarrassment at something I wrote when I first came to the newspaper business because I see all the stupid mistakes I made. Rookie mistakes. Over time and countless deadlines, you leave those inelegancies behind.

Most of all, you gain a comfort level: a sense that you know what you’re doing. Like a pianist who can run his spider fingers up and down the keyboard and confidently hit each B-flat as it passes. Or a painter who automatically reaches for the Hooker’s green because the Phthalo won’t give him the shade he needs.

You watch Jacques Pepin on TV slicing an onion and you can see how second-nature it has become, how quickly and accurately he does it. He knows how to make an omelet because, as he preaches, he’s done it 10,000 times. There may be more creative or innovative chefs out there, even among amateurs, but you have to admire Pepin for his confident professionalism.

Nor is a professional precious about his work. Museum curators can be fussy about white gloves and humidity levels, but the artists themselves are seldom so concerned. If they screw up, “I can always paint another one.” It is not unusual for Mel to paint over some detail he was unhappy with, even weeks or months later, to alter the work. It is only amateur writers who bitch and moan about editors changing their sacred texts. Editors (good editors — and I was lucky to have only good ones) make the writing better, cleaner, more precise. Even such things as cutting stories to fit news holes won’t perturb the professional. He may negotiate, but he won’t whine.

I’ve written about artists and journalists because that is the world I know best. But much the same could be said about professional musicians, construction foremen or career diplomats. Professionalism, as I mean it here, is not simply about being paid; it is an attitude. An approach to the work. A comfort level and familiarity, an ease, an assurance.

And any true professional can spot a navvy in an instant. You won’t necessarily feel superior, but you will feel a kind of pity for the poor beginner. There is so much to learn that is entirely beyond merely talent.