Last jobs

My first last job was with CNN. I was 40, I’d just gotten hired as the senior Washington editor in the digital unit, I wanted to work there for the rest of my career and I was gone two years later. I thought the gig would at least last longer, but then AOL bought CNN and tried to run it like AOL, which at the time was on a “We Don’t Create Content” kick. As a result, almost all of my staff was laid off and my job existed only because someone had to maintain the website pages. I managed to get transferred into AOL proper, but I knew that never would last, and I left after another two years.

My second last job was with USA Today. I was in charge of the news section of the website and also ran the breaking news desk with another manager. It was a great job and I loved it. But after five years, parent company Gannett started swinging the layoff knife, and I could see what was coming. They had a reputation for ruthlessness when it came to making their numbers No Matter What. I knew that, eventually, the gears of that machine would grab me and I’d be ground into chunky bits. I got a new job instead.

My third last job was with NPR. Who wouldn’t want to work for NPR? But it was exhausting, day in and day out, to reconcile the enormous talent of some of that organization’s key journalists with their nearly constant and reflexive resistance to change. Eventually I accepted a voluntary buyout just to get on with my life, as did a surprising number of digitally oriented staffers at the same time. (NPR did change, though; it just took a very long time.)

I’m now on my fourth last job, this one with AARP. I’m pretty sure that if this doesn’t work out, I’ll have to rely on gig work until I retire. I really want this to be my last last job in the best way. Things are looking up so far.

About Helias

I was pasted firmly in the hump of the bell curve in high school. I had about an average number of friends and a modest personal profile, did fine but not super-fantastic in grades, played some sports early on but wasn’t good enough for Varsity Anything, got involved in a few extracurriculars but not a ton of them, and so on. I passed through, I learned a lot, and I don’t think I left any footprints.

But every year, I donate a decent chunk of money to that high school — Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City, Mo. — in hopes of one day paying back everything they gave me. I’ve been successful for a long time in a really tough profession, and I think it is my high school that deserves much of the credit.

When you tell people you went to a Catholic high school, they start to draft a certain profile: Affluent kids, somewhat protected from life’s harsher realities, whose parents have used their money to buy an education upgrade and get God in the mix, too. But that wasn’t really what life was like at Helias.

First of all, almost all of the area Catholic kids (and there were a lot of them where I grew up) went to my high school. It was surprisingly affordable — and if families couldn’t swing the costs, the school would find a way to make things work. That meant that the school looked a lot more like the area’s overall population than a lot of Catholic schools can claim. We had rich and poor kids, townies and lots of farm kids, tough kids and pushovers, jocks and geeks. It wasn’t perfect — minorities were nonexistent and of course, there was no religious diversity — but it wasn’t some hyper-sheltered private school, either.

I was sick of Catholic school when I started at Helias, but I chose to attend because all of my friends were going there. I felt suffocated and had become confrontational with the nails-tough nuns at my grade school, and I almost got tossed from there a couple of times in my last two years. I assumed Helias would be more of the same.

It wasn’t. The nuns, Christian brothers and lay teachers brought a love of learning with them that I had not seen from many of my grade school nuns, some of whom got to keep their teaching jobs by divine right. There was the moral instruction you would expect from a Catholic school, but it was more of a lead-by-example form of teaching, instead of the beat-you-over-the-head stuff I had gotten in grade school. I loved it. And along with a genuinely terrific liberal arts education, I was taught so many practical skills.

Take Coach Jeffries, to pick just one of many teachers who filled this practical role. He was the wrestling coach at a school that took that sport very seriously, but he also was a history teacher who loved his subject.

To make sure we picked up what he was laying down, he started his classes every year by teaching his students how to take notes. His method — basically a way of writing an outline on the fly — has saved my bacon as a journalist more times than I can count and probably was the greatest factor in keeping my college GPA respectable.

I doubt Coach Jeffries ever thought his note-taking method would turn up in a reporter’s notebook, or that it would be used as the foundation for hundreds (if not thousands) of news stories, or that it would help end the careers of shady congressmen or record the thoughts of presidents, but there you go.

Helias deepened my love of music and literature. It helped me to become a critical, not just skeptical, thinker. It taught me the lasting value of real friendship. It shaped my personal ethics and morals in ways that have stuck, even after I drifted away from Catholicism. 

College was valuable — I learned and honed my journalism chops there, and got a few important life lessons along the way — but Helias was transformative. Going in, I was a smart-assed kid heading in the wrong direction. Coming out, I had been shaped into an adult with a decent head on his shoulders. I owe Helias everything, and that’s a debt I plan to keep paying off.

A scare

When you get older, your chances of getting a cancer scare go up. My first one was in 2012, when I got my first colonoscopy. They found a polyp, but it was tiny and it turned out not to be cancerous, so that basically just got me a return scoping in five years instead of 10 (Colonoscopy No. 2, so to speak, turned out to be boring except for a little squabble with the insurance company).

This time: “So, a biopsy, huh?” I said to the urologist. My second PSA test had just come back, and it ran hot, so the tiny hope I had that the first test was a one-off or just straight-up inaccurate was dashed.

And so, next week, I’m getting my prostate biopsied. I’m not very freaked out about it: PSAs are a crude screen (there is no reliable screening procedure for prostate cancer), the two digital exams I’ve already undergone have turned up nothing unusual/interesting, and in 75 percent of *all* cases, no cancer is found after a biopsy. Given that, and a lack of family history of prostate cancer, I’d have to think the odds are pretty high I’m merely going to have an unpleasant afternoon (trust me: Don’t look up “prostate biopsy” if you’re squeamish) instead of something worse. But the only way to find out for sure is to do the biopsy.

Given all of the other data (and the often slow-moving nature of prostate cancer), even if anything turns up, it should be highly treatable — if I decide to treat it at all for now. I’m actually way more concerned at this point about the potential side effects of prostate cancer treatment than I am about the danger of the cancer itself (don’t look up the side effects either, Squeamish Person). But this should make for an…um, eventful start to 2019.

Update 1/11: The biopsy came back negative. Happy goddamn New Year!

Also, if you’re curious, the procedure itself is…well, it ain’t a spa treatment, but it is very tolerable, and the part where they actually get tissue samples was painless for me. It also doesn’t take long (maybe 10 minutes). I wouldn’t go out of my way to get another one but I wouldn’t be particularly bothered if I had to, either.

Eight favorites for 2018

I still resist signing up for a streaming service and buy all of my music, even though that’s basically become stupid in 2018, but I want to get the musicians paid and streaming just isn’t doing that. As a result, I still care about albums, and I still don’t listen to just anything that comes along. That’s the experience I want from my music. Here are eight of my favorites from last year, in no particular order except for my favorite at the bottom:

Soundtrack: ‘A Star is Born’: In the film, Bradley Cooper’s character is a composite of many of my favorite musicians, and Lady Gaga proved she is a fine actress (the music part already wasn’t in doubt). Cooper’s singing is a revelation, but he also gets to work with material from some of the best writers in the folkie/Americana/alt-whatever world, and that couldn’t have hurt. You know that heartbreaking “Maybe It’s Time” song in the movie? Jason Isbell’s work. I could have done without the dialogue excerpts in the soundtrack, but that’s probably just me.

Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour: I have all of her albums, but this one pushed her from Americana star to a broader audience. NPR has tied the “Roséwave” tag to her, which seems a little unfair, but it is true that she writes songs that can seem more clever than emotionally deep. But this album has a few darker turns and seems less interested in impressing you with wordplay; it’s definitely deeper and at times a little bleaker than much of her past work. Still, it also has the fun and super-poppy “High Horse,” which is perfectly at home with a really wide variety of playlists. This is her best overall effort.

Parker Millsap: Other Arrangements: Here’s yet another terrific album from this very talented, very young Oklahoman. Like Musgrave’s work, this Millsap effort pushes him out of the Americana box and into a broader audience — but he does by rocking it up harder. He’s also a very good live performer (although I missed his DC show this year because of a gig of my own). Still only 25 as of this writing, Millsap has already released a career’s worth of excellent music.

John Prine: The Tree of Forgiveness: Now we head to the other end of the age spectrum: At 72, Prine put out his finest album in decades. Throat cancer has changed his voice, but his lyrics are still as powerful as the legendary stuff he put out in the 1970s. Just listen to “Summer’s End” or “Egg and Daughter Nite” for evidence. This album made it to No. 5 on the Billboard chart — his highest album showing ever.

The Lone Bellow: Walk Into a Storm: The band continues its consistently strong album string with this most recent effort. You really need to see them live, where they can be an absolute force, but songs like “Feather” and “Deeper in the Water” are filled with power and emotion.

Anderson East: Encore: I first heard some of his music last year, then watched him play a horribly-mixed-by-the-sound-guy set opening for Chris Stapleton in the summer of 2017. It made me wonder what all the hype was about — and then I heard this album, which came out right after the new year. The lyrics can be a little odd at times, such as when he tells a sick woman he’ll go to the liquor store for her, but there’s a method and meaning to that oddness. All of this is set to a horn-laden band that channels a really strong Stax groove. I want to see him again in a place with a working sound setup.

John Oates: Arkansas: Easily the most surprising album of the year for me; I gave this a preview when it came across my Amazon “You Might Like” suggestions and liked it immediately. Oates channels a bunch of rootsy influences in this album, from the title song to covers of Mississippi John Hurt blues chestnuts. If you just think of him as the lesser-known half of Hall & Oates, this will change your mind.

And finally, here’s my favorite album of the year:

Sister Sparrow: Gold: She drops the moniker of her band, the Dirty Birds, from this effort — although it’s obvious a lot of them play on the album. It’s more modern and less blues-influenced than her Dirty Birds efforts, but it still features Arleigh Kincheloe’s powerhouse voice that can stop you in your tracks (even more so if you see the band live; it’s hard to reconcile those belting monster vocals with the very small human from which they originate). It’s good to hear this updated sound that still is very much attached to its roots. Of all of these acts, I’d definitely go see Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds live first. Given some of the company here, that’s no small compliment.

(I put together similar lists in 2017 and 2015. Check them out.)

A few developments from Vegas 2018

Just got back from my sort-of-annual Vegas trip. This one was a 50th birthday celebration for a friend. Some developments:

1. This was my first Vegas trip during the ‘slow season’ — the time after Thanksgiving with the exception of Rodeo Week. It was REALLY slow — crazy slow, even on Friday night.

2. The niceness of some older hotels depends on the “refresh factor” — basically, how long it’s been since the hotel had carpets replaced, rooms painted, bathrooms redone, etc. It looks like the Tropicana, which I’ve stayed at for their funky garden bungalow rooms in recent trips, needs another refresh. And why do so many “nonsmoking” Vegas hotel rooms smell like smoke anyway?

3. Hotels visited this time: The Trop, MGM Grand, New York New York, Park MGM (good job with the massive remodeling, by the way), Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace, the Flamingo, the Linq, TI, the Venetian, SLS (really liked the casual Northside Cafe there), the Hard Rock, the Fremont, 4 Queens, Golden Nugget, the California and Main Street Station. Also visited O’Shea’s and the Horseshoe, which don’t have hotels.

4. Didn’t blow the gambling budget but that was in part because of a really bad couple of hours in Day 2, which is the sort of thing that always sours me and causes me to gamble less.

5. Because I usually go in big groups, most of my Vegas meals are casual. Surprises on that front this time around: the aforementioned Northside Cafe, the thought put into the menu at Culinary Dropout at the Hard Rock, the buffet at Caesar’s (I’m not a buffet person but was really surprised at the overall quality here) and a really good breakfast at Tom’s Urban at New York New York (a spin on Eggs Benedict using carnitas and chopped poblano peppers).

6. Hit up a locals’ diner for the first time in a while; walked from the Trop down to Coco’s Bakery Restaurant a couple of blocks away. Highly recommended for the breakfast and the people watching. Good prices, big portions, good quality for a breakfast diner.

7. Downtown was even weirder than usual. And the 4 Queens, of which I have many fond memories, has gone straight to the dumper; it’s no longer a good gambling locale IMHO and I’ll probably avoid it in the future. And the Las Vegas Club building disappeared. And about half of Binny’s old joint is a T-shirt shop now. And I somehow didn’t go into the Golden Gate, which I love. And the renovation at the California is fantastic! And the beers from the Triple-7 at Main Street remain as good as ever.

8. Yes, I’ve been to Vegas a lot. You can read about past trips here, here, here, and here, among other entries I’ve written over the years.