Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Process Writing for the Thing I Wrote About Little Green Limousine

I'm actually pretty happy with how this piece turned out. I was very nervous because my two of my other story ideas didn't pan out and I was totally floundering. I was running out of time, and I decided to interview Steve because I've known him for awhile. Full disclosure: I'm friends with both of his kids, and I've chatted with him about a wide variety of subjects in the past. I think the piece still managed to be pretty impartial despite all that.

This piece was much easier to write than the other ones (perhaps because I know Steve so well). At times it degenerated into a game of "How Many Times Can Trevor Misspell the Word Limousine?" (answer: too many), but it flowed out pretty smoothly.  In reading the comments, I'm a little disappointed that I didn't articulate my theme in a clearer manner. This piece is about Steve's transformation as a businessman, and I wish I had gotten that transformation across better. Any suggestions in this area would be much appreciated.

I have done some additional reporting since Monday. I interviewed K College's Provost (a repeat customer) and I talked to one of the other drivers, a guy named Dale. Dale has two(!) master's degrees and was a big honcho in the Health Department in Kalamazoo. Fascinating guy. I plan on incorporating the stuff i got from them into my next draft.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Steve and His Little Green Limousines

 980 words
Intended for The Index

            Steve Gibson is a renaissance man whose resume is a mile long: author, podcaster, business owner, digital media freelancer, commercial pilot, and school board member. He’s an intellectual. He’s a free-thinker. He’s a seeker. And now, he’s a limo driver.
But Steve doesn’t drive just any limousine: his are smaller and have a distinctly green hue. Steve owns and operates the Little Green Limousine Company. Steve crunches numbers, books clients, picks them up in a white Prius V, and drives them wherever they need to go: Chicago, Detroit, and pretty much anywhere in between. And they ride in style, too. One might think that the term “luxury hybrid” is an oxymoron, but it’s not; a six-foot tall man can sit comfortably in the back seat with plenty of leg- and head-room to spare. The new-car smell is still there.    
            Steve runs his business from his home in Parchment, Michigan in an office down the stairs and past the water heater. It’s a large rectangular room packed with confusing-looking audio equipment from his podcasting days. Steve’s massive, CEO-appropriate desk sits to the right of the door, next to a bookshelf stuffed with books on atheism and skepticism, two of his favorite topics. He just read a book on traffic engineering. “It was fascinating,” he says. There are papers everywhere.
            Steve has the relaxed-yet-serious bearing of someone who has been self-employed for many years. He sports a shaven head with a few days worth of stubble and a green polo bearing the name of his company. He leans back in a tall black swivel chair, speaking deliberately and taking long pauses to make sure he uses the perfect words.
            Steve grew up in this house, and he moved back in when his parents passed away. Steve also inherited his first business from his parents: the financially troubled C.J. Gibson Office Supply Company. Throughout his twenties, Steve rebranded the company as C.J. Gibson Office Direct and fought his way into the black.
            During this time, Steve probably would have laughed at you if you had told him he would be running an environmentally-friendly limo service. He admits to being “late to the table” in accepting global warming. Furthermore, he had “unwavering faith that human ingenuity could outweigh any of the atrocities we commit against the Earth.” He liked Ayn Rand. He was a free-market, individualist kind of guy.
             But during the nineties, Steve began to recognize his own cognitive dissonance. He read Malcolm Gladwell. He questioned his own biases. Slowly, gradually, his worldview changed and became much more complex. Profit became less and less important. He sold Office Direct in 1998 to pursue more meaningful work.
            That meaningful work would happen at 102 North Riverview Drive, across the street from a weather-beaten Marathon Station. There, he and his then-wife Julie ran People Power Productions, a digital media company dedicated to preserving people’s memories for posterity. They made DVD slideshows of photographs for funerals, graduations, and everything in between. They helped people remember. They brought comfort to my family when my grandmother died. They helped people remember. They had a good run, ten years, from 2000 to 2010 when the growth of technology finally rendered his services obsolete. Steve knew it would happen eventually, but he didn’t particularly care. He liked the work. It was meaningful.
            After People Power Productions packed up and left 102 North Riverview vacant, Steve did some thinking and some freelance work. For two years, he kept a vigilant eye out for needs waiting to be filled. When he realized that there was no concierge service targeted towards senior citizens in Kalamazoo, he smelled opportunity. He did research and found that the market had an open spot for him. “There was nothing available besides Town Cars,” he says. “Business people and seniors didn’t feel like they needed a formal limousine.”
            Opportunity in his sight, Steve purchased his first Little Green Limousine in 2012 with an eye towards reducing carbon footprint and cutting costs. Ironically, Steve has found that the higher mile-per-gallon rating of the Prius doesn’t make that much of a difference: “It saves, literally, a couple of bucks per trip.”
            But Steve isn’t necessarily in it for the money. He says that “once you let go of ego and realize that we’re all interdependent, absolute profit is not the ultimate goal.” He views himself as a servant of other people, and he serves happily. He enjoys his customers, and they enjoy him. Many of them forego the Prius’s XM Radio to talk with Steve because, well, he’s an interesting guy. He brings his wealth of knowledge and immense curiosity to the driver’s seat, and he’s had some fantastic talks with his passengers. He learns from them constantly.
That’s not to say that the Little Green Limousine Company isn’t a profitable endeavor. Steve has a metric ton of graphs and charts stored on his computer that show a sharp increase in business over the last year. He also runs his business with an incredibly low overhead because he does everything himself: the website, the logo, and the promotions are all his handiwork. He keeps things lean, and that keeps prices low. In fact, Steve’s business model is working so well that he just added another Prius to his “fleet,” and he’s had to hire three other drivers on a part-time basis to deal with all his bookings, although he still does about eighty percent of the driving.
Steve says he chose to use Priuses because they represent a “more sensitive and practical choice in terms of global impact.” But Steve’s sensitivity and practicality are having a local impact, too; a little over fifty percent of his business comes from repeat customers. People enjoy riding in the Little Green Limousines, and Steve enjoys his customers. For a businessman interested in making a difference as well as a profit, this is success.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

My Show and Tell: "Can I get in the Van?" by Erick Lyle

This is easily my favorite piece of journalism that I've read in the past few months. Basically, the writer is assigned to write a piece on the two reunited versions of the famed punk rock/experimental/psychedelic band Black Flag. The writer, a musician, hears that Black Flag is auditioning bassists and decides to hitchhike his way across the country to Texas where the auditions are held. He melts the faces of the guys in the band, and he practices with them for a week. They offer him a spot in the band. He turns them down and goes back to New York, bass in hand.

I think this is such a fascinating piece because the writer put himself completely into the story. He showed a Hunter S. Thompson-esque disregard for his original assignment (write about a reunited band) and decided to dive into the story completely. In doing so, he is able to provide a perspective no other journalist will ever get: one from inside the band. We can see the criteria guitar player Greg Ginn has in mind for players (Do you smoke weed?") and it gives the reader an amazing insight into the musical process of how this band jams, man. Furthermore, it's fascinating from a narrative standpoint. It's a damn good story.

It also raises some interesting questions. Did Erick Lyle violate journalistic ethics? Is there too much of him in the piece? Does his involvement render the piece ineffective. I don't think so, but I'd like to hear other opinions.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Church in the Basement

1,828 Words 
Kalamazoo Gazette Faith Section
The Church in the Basement
            About a quarter of a mile down Winchell Avenue, there is a large brown-brick church with a wooden cross in the yard facing all who drive by. Inside the door, there is a grandfatherly greeter named Richard handing out bulletins and hugs. To the right of the foyer, there is an imposing sanctuary with rows of hard wooden pews and another cross standing behind a raised pulpit. The sanctuary is completely empty, and this often confuses first-time visitors, until they are directed downstairs by Richard.
            Travelling down the two flights of stairs reveals a basement lit by fluorescent lights where thirty or so gray-haired men and women are milling around and finding seats as a younger man with an immaculately-trimmed beard plays guitar, fingerpicking his way through one of today’s hymns one last time before the service. There are plenty of battered, mint-colored chairs arranged two-deep in a half-circle, flanked on both sides by large white banners painted in a wide array of colors with people, rainbows and all manners of LGBTQ pride symbols. At the center of this explosion of color is a table covered with a pristine white cloth holding two candles with a tasteful bronze cross in the center. Off to the side, there is a miniature statue of a rainbow-colored phoenix rising from the flames.
            There’s a man behind the altar, about fifty, bald, with glasses. He’s clad in a dark-blue shirt with a blue-striped tie and grey pants, and he would look like a well-dressed accountant were it not for the fact that he is standing behind an altar wearing a rainbow-colored stole emblazoned prominently with custom gay pride symbols.
            That man is Ken Arthur, pastor of Phoenix Community Church. He is gay, and so are about eighty percent of his parishioners. Most members of his flock are between fifty and seventy, and they are a delightful cast of characters.
            On the left side of this semicircle of chairs is Marvel, a retired woman after left behind her Bible Baptist upbringing because she “hated getting in trouble for thinking” and came to Phoenix twenty-five years ago.
            Mark is sitting behind Marvel. Mark is a gay man in his forties and a former Catholic who left the church in disgust one Sunday after the priest gave a gay-bashing sermon from the book of Leviticus. The experience soured him on faith, and he considers himself an agnostic now, but that hasn’t stopped him from coming to Phoenix for twenty years. He still sings hymns and asks for prayers during the service despite his agnosticism.
           Myrna walks in five minutes before the service begins. Myrna is an older woman in her seventies with laugh lines that testify to her readiness to smile. She came here years ago to learn more about gay people, and, in the process, learned that she was a lesbian herself when she fell in love with another member of the congregation.  
            At six o’clock every Sunday night, they meet in this basement, a space they rent from the Kalamazoo Church of Disciples, a faith community brave enough and liberal enough to accept Phoenix’s community with open arms. No one seems to mind meeting in the basement; after all, a basement beats a closet every time.
            Besides, basements are nothing new to Phoenix’s parishioners. In fact, they started out in a basement. On Ash Wednesday in February of 1988, eighteen people met in Pastor Cyril Stevenson’s basement for Phoenix’s inaugural service. Cyril had been dismissed from the United Church of Christ for being gay, and he decided to start Phoenix with co-Pastor Melanie Morrison in order to provide a safe place for LGBTQ men and women to worship. For a long time, theirs was the only church that accepted LGBTQ people.
            After that initial meeting, the church bounced from basement to rented room to basement, staying on the margins of the faith community until acceptance began to prevail in the mid-nineties, and Phoenix was accepted back into the United Church of Christ after a long process of accreditation. After the leadership of other UCC churches in the area examined Phoenix under a microscope, there was a vote, and Phoenix was welcomed back into the fold with open arms.    
            Despite finding a degree of acceptance, they continued to stay in rented spaces for financial reasons. Small churches always live on the edge when it comes to making rent and paying salaries, and Phoenix is no exception. Even at their height of membership, the community never numbered more than sixty, so it was always a struggle to make rent. Inevitably, disputes over money began to arise, and a gulf that was too wide to be bridged grew between two groups within the church. In 2007, a third of the congregation left to form another church.
            But it’s a difficult to kill a phoenix, and the church clung to life, continuing to provide community to those who had been ostracized for the sexual orientation. One person who sought out that community was current Pastor, Ken Arthur. Ken left his faith behind when he went to college because he was unable to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the idea of hellfire and damnation. After coming out at age thirty, he came to Phoenix in 1996 seeking a support system to aid him in his self-discovery. Over the course of four or five years, Ken’s skepticism gradually melted away, and he came to affirm the divinity of Jesus Christ.
            To further explore his newfound spirituality, Ken decided to enroll in the Chicago Theological Seminary in 2007. While he was there, he received a Master’s in Religious Studies rather than a Divinity degree, because he “definitely didn’t want to be a pastor.”
Within a year, Ken became Phoenix’s pastor.  Because of the split, Phoenix needed an interim pastor, and Ken was asked to step because of his time at the Seminary. His congregation liked him so much that they made him the full-time pastor in 2010. Because Ken was a member for so long, there isn’t much of a hierarchy between pastor and flock. The congregants are quick to mention this, often excitedly. “Feel free to talk to Ken. He was one of us for a long time.” There are no divisions here. He might be the head, but he is still a part of the body.  
            Because of this, Ken doesn’t appear perturbed when the clock reads 6:00 and people are still chatting and making their rounds. He waits patiently, going over notes until people find their seats. When things settle down, he motions to Frank, an elderly gentleman wearing a conservative blue dress shirt, and Frank uses a candle at the end of a long golden handle to light the candles on the altar, signifying that it is time to begin.
            The service begins with a call to worship based on Psalm 148. Pastor Ken exhorts his congregation to “Praise the Great Spirit from the Heavens” and they respond “Praise the Holy One from the skies above.”
            It’s the Sunday after Arbor Day, so Ken invites Jim up to read the poem “Let the trees be consulted” by John Wright. Jim, a former paramedic in his forties, reads beautifully. With passion evident in his voice, he recites “Let lumber be treasured like gold/let chainsaws be played like saxophones,” setting the tone for the environmentally-focused service. Everyone raises their voice to sing a few hymns that celebrate the divine beauty of nature.  
            After a few songs, the hymnals are set on the floor and the members of the congregation share their joys and concerns for the week. This week, the joys outnumber the concerns. There is celebration of retirement, of children being born, and flowers budding. Though there are fewer concerns, they are heavy. The piano player, Linda, had to kick her alcoholic brother out of her house because he recently fell off the wagon. People are hurting and dying, and the members of Phoenix share their grief freely with one another. There is no filter, no effort to put up a front and disguise hurt here. As Myrna later puts it, “The prayers are so much more real here.”
            Once the sharing ends, the prayers commence. Everyone closes their eyes and joins hands, giving thanks to God for their joys and entreating God for help with their sorrows. This prayer can last for a hand-crampingly long time, but no one minds. Cramped hands are just a side-effect of caring.
            Once every joy and concern has been addressed, the Phoenicians recite a gender-neutral adaptation of the Disciples Prayer. Their voices are strong, though people read at different speeds, giving the prayer an off-kilter feel.
            Ken calls up Katy and Mona to sing a song, and they give a spirited rendition of the Indigo Girls tune “A Hammer and a Nail,” accompanied by Jonathan, the guitarist. Such rapid switchbacks between religious and secular happen often at Phoenix, often rapidly enough to give an unaccustomed visitor whiplash.
            As the last note dies out, Ken walks up to begin his message. Ken doesn’t have the prototypical preacher’s voice. His is a wispy tenor, not a booming baritone, and he speaks without amplification because the soundboard has been acting up lately. His is a voice that is easily drowned out by anyone with a microphone, or even just a determined, loud man holding a sign on a street corner. He is not loud enough to compete with the Pat Robertson of the world. Yet when he preaches the Gospel, he still grabs you. The quiet passion in his voice is palpable, like a cup running over quietly.
            In fact, overflowing is the subject of Ken’s message. He reads from the Book of John, emphasizing Jesus’s call for his disciples to “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Let love overflow. Work to realize the Kingdom of God here on Earth. Work for peace and hope and justice. It is stirring. People are moved, in spirit as well as body: a construction paper poster with a crude tree glued on it boasts 254 hours of community service, 11 trees planted, and 4 letters written as a part of the church’s Arbor Day campaign for environmental stewardship. This is a place of dirty fingernails and grass stains.
            Ken closes his remarks, and Frank extinguishes the flame on the altar candles as everyone sings one more song, a hymn penned by a former member that reminds the members of Phoenix to be the light in the world even as the ceremony ends.
            Ken gives his benediction, and everyone passes the peace. There are no awkward handshakes and mumbled peaceofChristbewithyous here; only hugs and conversation. People linger a little, chatting for twenty or thirty minutes until it’s time trickle out, ascending the steps out of the basement back into the world.    

The Events of October Reading Response

This book was fascinating to me both as a reader and as someone looking to perfect their craft.  I found myself unable to put The Events of October down and I read it in two marathon sessions even though I was a little sick to my stomach. It's pretty easy to alienate the reader when writing about something as awful as a murder-suicide, but Gail managed to tell the story in a manner that demanded my attention. Perhaps this is because the voice of the book is so passionate that it practically forces the reader to pay attention.

One reason I found this book so compelling is it's Middlemarch-like qualities. Gail gives George Eliot/Marian Evans a shout-out early-on, and her influence is pretty easy to see. Kalamazoo College is a lot like the town Middlemarch, in a way: it's a small, cloistered community where everyone knows everyone. And, like Middlemarch, The Events of October is chiefly concerned with the idea of community as a group that changes through constant interaction.

Furthermore, both books are careful to depict the members of their respective communities with great sympathy. Just as Eliot dives into the motives of every character in order to present them in a sympathetic light, Gail eschews judgment in favor of understanding, preferring to explain each subject's motivations. For instance, it would have been very easy to demonize Neenef's friends for their insistence upon a memorial for Neenef. However, the narration makes it clear that this is simply a natural by-product of their grief and trauma. Similarly, it would be easy to ridicule those who preferred to think of the murder-suicide as an isolated incident rather than a femicide indicative of a greater trend of male violence. Instead, Gail tells the reader that compartmentalizing such a traumatic event makes coping easier. Thus, we do not judge these people, even their viewpoint is somewhat pernicious.

This level of sympathy and empathy is quite impressive, and it's indicative of an immense amount of time spent getting to know subjects. We get the sense that the author really knows these people; thus, all of her assertions about motives seem completely valid because they stem from such a deep understanding of the subject. This is a journalistic standard to live up to.

I also thought of Nicholas Lemann's piece in Telling True Stories regarding the "idea track" of a piece of nonfiction. This book's idea track is apparent throughout, and there are lots of excellent "marriage moments." It really serves as a model for lining ideas up with experience.

Long-overdue reading response to Telling True Stories That Was Supposed to be Done 7th Week

Better late than never? Right?

As usual, Telling True Stories proved to be an illuminating read. There were a lot of little "a-ha" moments interspersed throughout the text that were unique to their authors. But, I noticed one common theme popping up: the use of cinematic metaphors to describe good nonfiction writing. Whether explicit (like Ephron's "What Journalists Can Learn from Screenwriters") or using a phrase like "he also pulls the camera back, away from the tight shots of the road grader," they seem to permeate the discourse on narrative journalism.

Of course, this makes sense in the context of 20th- and 21st-century literature, as Adam Hochschild shows in his contrast between Middlemarch and The Great Gastby. Literature has become rooted in concrete images rather than reflection. This forces me to ask myself some unpleasant questions: do I focus too much on reflection? Is this what's bogging down my profile?

I tend to mix reflection and scene pretty evenly, which is great for personal essays but maybe not the best idea for writing journalism. Point taken: I need to focus more on scene and allow my journalistic endeavors to become more cinematic while maintaining some of my trademark reflection. 

I was amazed at the way Hochschild rendered his scene in the printer's shop so artfully and vividly despite the seemingly-small amount of information available. Also, Louise Kiernan's paragraph about broken glass that required two professors and an expert speaks to the depth of research that is necessary for effective reporting. Clearly, I need to step up my research game as well.

Once again, sorry this is so late.