Life's like a dogsled. If you ain't the lead dog, the scenery never changes.
My assignment this week was to write the cover story. Originally, it was going to be about traffic school. I got a speeding ticket back in October, and I signed up with the specific goal of writing a story about it. I even had my headline: Highways or Dieways? Comedy gold. Hilarity would ensue, I was sure. Boy, I called that one wrong. Four hours. On a Friday night. And the only REMOTELY amusing moment came when the guy behind me asked "how come they always pick the smallest courtroom up here?" which prompted a classmate to ask just how many times he'd been, which, in turn, prompted his confession that this was his "seventh time... and it [was] beginning to get redundant." End of story.
Two thousand words to go.
Faced with a deadline, and no suitable subject matter, I decided - with great misgivings and apprehension - to write about the SECOND most significant thing that happened in my life this month (after traffic school), which was to buy this newspaper.
The misgivings mostly surround the inevitable flood of hate mail, which I can anticipate so clearly, I could write it myself. The gist of it will be that a cover story about acquiring the paper is inappropriate, self-aggrandizing, and egomaniacal. (There's more that I haven't covered, but hey: surprise me.)
I have but one word for these naysayers: Der.
I'm sure it's all those things and more.
But for five years, I built my career as a writer in this town with Reality Truck, an intensely private, confessional, first-person column that was all about my personal life. Through it, the followup book, and a later series of Southern Voices essays about my childhood and my family, I feel like I have grown up, in a very public way, in front of our readers.
I don't feel like a name on the masthead, because as a writer, it's my very nature to share way too much information. Though I've since added the title of editor, then publisher, and now owner, I don't expect I'll ever fully give that up.
Over the years, the readers have become intimately acquainted with my house, my dogs, my late cats, my friends and family, a host of ex-boyfriends, and every other slice of minutia that I could think of to commit to print.
To try to shrug off the events of the last few weeks in a 500 word editorial would feel coy and disingenuous.
Beyond that, because our readers do seem to have such a personal and loyal investment in this paper, my guess is that at least some of you would like to know more about what just happened here than you can read in an 800-word press release.
When Khruschev was forced out of power, he reportedly gave his replacement two letters. He said, when you find yourself in a situation you can't get out of and there seems to be no hope, open the first letter, and you'll be rescued. Pretty soon, just such a situation presented itself. The guy opened the letter, which said, "Blame everything on me." He blamed everything on Khruschev, and things were fine for a while. Before long though, another similar scenario arose, prompting him to open the second envelope.
The paper inside said, "Sit down. Write two letters."
I thought about Khruschev a lot as the congratulatory flowers and balloons and candy and messages started showing up here - many of which contained some variation on: Thanks for taking the paper back from the evil empire.
And based on the questions thrown at me by (mainly national) media over the last week, everyone seems anxious to uncover some underlying nastiness between me and the overlords.
Wouldn't it be easy - every time a criticism comes in the door - to simply lay it off on the prior regime.
"They made me do it," I could say.
Let me set the record straight.
They rarely made me do anything.
Our creative freedom since they took over was always absolute. The buck still stops here. Right where it always has.
If I wanted to write an editorial that was a recipe for Hoppin' John, I was certainly "allowed to."
If I wanted to write one about how downtown's prospective salvation is personified in my friend Gay's tearoom, I could. And did.
If I wanted to put a transsexual on the cover , as we did last July, certainly, no one ever suggested I shouldn't.
The closest thing I ever got to an editorial criticism was an email from a colleague (not a supervisor) within the chain who gave me a hard time for using the word "sucks" on the cover [June 2000, "Work Sucks."] He and I have always shared the exact same editorial policy toward profanity (i.e., it's the hallmark of lazy writers; it should never be employed gratuitously; and it must be faithfully represented when it occurs within the context of a legitimate quotation). We simply disagree about whether or not "sucks" qualifies. I maintain that it doesn't, and I cited (as evidence in my lengthy, overwrought rebuttal email) the fact that it appears in prime time television and in Disney movies for children (including, but not limited to, The Parent Trap, which I had just rented for one of my nieces).
But that said, I still call this guy all the time for advice (the same way I have for years). He was also the first to congratulate me, and he wrote the official corporate press release surrounding the sale, which made me sound wise and capable, yet somehow insouciant.
Our CEO then sent out a lovely memo to all corporate employees saying "We love Ace and we love the people there...." He went on to explain, in essence, that they have bigger fish to fry. There's nothing sinister about that.
In fact, the biggest, most extravagant , arrangement of flowers on my desk right now is from the CEO and his staff.
It's sitting right next to another congratulatory message from a member of the local clergy, which reads, "Thanks for liberating Ace. Try not to fuck it up."
Please note the quotation marks.
The Art of the Deal
In some ways, the actual closing was almost an anticlimax, because the deal itself had exhausted me long past the point of any real excitement.
Eventually though, it all worked out. Papers were signed. Covenants were made. Assurances were given.
Details are all confidential, but it's possible I promised a first-born child in there somewhere. I didn't necessarily say it would be my first-born, though. So if we all want to keep little Sam Shambhu around (and he IS the light of our lives).... we'd better get to work.
After the last Fed Ex was shipped, a release was sent out saying we'd have an announcement at 4, and people could drop by for champagne, giving me plenty of time to share the news with the people here after we shipped the paper off to the printer.
Various staff members and friends weighed in with their bets as to what the news was going to be
Number 1: that my favorite ex-boyfriend had bought the paper (because he spends so much time here).
Number 2: that my favorite ex-boyfriend and I were getting engaged (because he spends so much time here).
Number 3: that I was pregnant (because he spends so much time here - and some of that time, my door is locked).
Why on earth anybody would think I would break out champagne for Number 3 is still a mystery to me.
No one had guessed the real news, so I guess I have a better poker face than I thought.
By the time the well-wishers and flowers started arriving, I was more or less shell-shocked.
By the time the well-wishers and flowers started arriving, I was more or less shell-shocked. By the time Ed McClanahan called out "speech! speech!" I realized most of my verbal capacity had shut down. For one of the few times in my life, words failed me.
Had I been less fatigued, I would've CERTAINLY taken the time to thank each staff member individually for the tremendous contribution they make - and to confirm what they already know. Which is that I didn't buy a paper: I invested in the team that makes this paper what it is.
Our sales staff (Ellen, Ginger, and Lynn) are out there on the front lines every day, spreading the gospel that is Ace. Jim Shambhu has been the visual force behind this paper for longer than I've been the editor. He was widely and frequently lauded by our corporate bosses as "the best art director in the country." I would never have survived this last year without him, and his wonderful family. His staff, Michael (Opie) Geneve and Eric (Fuj-E) Haddix, are the artistic and technical guts of this operation. Ope's mastery of PhotoShop gives me the figure I've always wanted. And many's the time I've called poor Fuj in on nights, weekends (and Christmas Eve) to reboot a crashed server. Phyllis Sargent - who's been one of my closest friends for going on 20 years now - is our Circulation Manager according to the masthead. But when I get too overwhelmed, she's the one person I trust to step in and run not just my job, but my life. Lisa Fuller runs our Classified Department almost singlehandedly, and still finds time to do 432 things a day that aren't in her job description. Eloise Campbell manages to be both a marketing assistant (running projects and promotions like the charity Bachelor Auction) and an editorial assistant (line editing every word of copy before it hits press). Unlike me, she also knew how to spell Khruschev (despite the fact that I double-majored in English AND History). Rob "Mr. Bracken" Bricken is even funnier in real life than he is on the page, which is saying something. His phone training memo alone should be enough to earn him his own HBO standup special. He's a cheeky monkey.
I can't be any more specific about how great all these people are, because I'm afraid someone will steal them.
But I should've SAID all those things and so much more, publicly. Unfortunately, all I really wanted was to lie down.
The Morning After
It would be an easy thing to let power go to your head. You have to be careful, lest anyone think you've gotten above your raisin'. You want to preserve a sense of humility and decorum at all times. You don't want to forget all the little people....
I'm reminded of the morning after the sale......
[and here, you should insert the wavy "fantasy montage" sound effects that Wayne and Garth always use to introduce their dream segments.]
Everyone was still reeling from the champagne the night before.
The phones were ringing non-stop.
I was in my bathroom, minding my own business, putting on makeup for a lunch meeting. I'd been in there all of six seconds, when there's this Rap Rap Rap on the door, followed by the dulcet baritone of Rob Bricken asking, "Uh..... Boss? You in there?"
How to respond? (He saw me go in.)
"Yessssssssssss," I answered.
He apologizes for interrupting, but wants me to know the bank lady has come to reprogram the credit card machine.
Through the closed door, I ask if he can find another manager to entertain her for about two minutes....
He goes away.
And as I rearrange my tights and finish off my lipstick, I'm thinking: I bet NO ONE at the Herald-Leader knocks on the bathroom door when Tim Kelly's in there. I bet no one knocks on Pam Luecke's bathroom door!
How do they command such respect? Such awe?
Just how DOES one wield the kind of power that allows one a modicum of privacy inside a locked bathroom?
Later that evening, I attended the first of many rubber chicken dinners I'll be going to this year. Mercifully, we were seated at a table that was half-filled with lawyers who'd at least heard of the paper. One of them was married to a Centre alum. We got along so well, in fact, halfway through the dinner I apologized to them for screwing them out of their chocolate mousse (which I'd switched out for the crappy vanilla that was on my plate when I arrived). Turns out it didn't matter, because it all tasted like Cool Whip, and they were actually very nice about it.
The guys on my left worked for a moving company and called me "Rhoda" all night.
Which I really didn't mind, except that they clearly thought this was a source of some hilarity.
As in, they'd say "Rhoda."
My dinner companion would quietly correct, "Rhonda."
And they'd retort, "That's what I said!"
When they asked what an "Ace" was, I said it was a prominent hardware chain. And that I owned it.
Midway through the meal, I was fantasizing, out loud, about what I was going to cook when I got home.
I felt sorry for the lawyer on my right who kept poking at his plate with quiet dismay (much as one might poke a badger with a spoon) and pondering the great universal question as to how anyone could ruin asparagus.
(The answer is: you can STEW it.)
I consoled him as best I could with my beverage ticket, since I don't drink - a confession that always leads to an arched eyebrow that means everyone at the table thinks I'm an alcoholic - which is always followed by my disclaimer, "not since I found heroin anyway."
For the record, I'm not an alcoholic.
And I kicked heroin years ago.
(Please. Anyone who ever read my column knows the closest I'd ever willingly get to a needle is watching Trainspotting on DVD.)
When I got home that night, I emailed a pal of mine who's a seasoned veteran of these things and told him I was considering taking up drinking, or huffing glue, to get through 'em. He advised that I couldn't possibly drink enough to survive without getting a DUI on the way home. And since I'd already been to traffic school, I knew there was no journalistic merit to be gleaned from THAT.
It Takes a Village... so to speak
As someone who's always had a fiercely independent nature, the process of buying this paper has humbled me in ways I could never have imagined.
"Relyin' on the kindness of strangers" wouldn't even begin to cover the contributions of the countless community members who stepped up to help me make this acquisition a reality.
First (and extremely prominently), there's my bank.
I call it "Greg's bank," because all the vice presidents I dealt with were conveniently named Greg, making things much less confusing for me at a time when my memory and powers of concentration were severely taxed. I'll never be able to repay them for everything they did for me.... Actually, I should rephrase that: I WILL be able to financially repay them of course (at prime plus one, I believe), but I'll never be able to repay the kindness they've shown me, and the extra mile they went to help me. When I was too overwhelmed on the day of the closing to leave the office and open up a new corporate account, one of the Gregs actually brought over all the paperwork for me to sign, and the first vice president personally delivered my new checks to my desk. While I was routinely working here till 1 a.m. on financials, it was not unusual to call up a Greg at 7 or 8 at night - and find him 1. in his office, 2. answering the phone, and 3. ready to answer every question I had. I hereby promise never to use the phrase "banker's hours" ever again.
My accountant (also conveniently named Greg) taught me more about taxes than I will ever want to know, while my stepbrother, Chuck, did ALL of the preliminary CPA work that the initial proposal required (and got paid with a six-pack and some Labrot & Graham).
Years ago, in my column, I wrote that I didn't want a husband, I wanted Hop Sing (the popular manservant from Bonanza).... So my mom finally bought me one. She ran into Steve Walton at some Episcopalian gathering and found out his errand service would become the 1950s-style wife I've always wanted. He picks up my groceries, my dog food, my dry cleaning, and it's no secret that Martha and Travis and I would starve to death without him. He's the reason I've been able to put in 12 hours a day, eight days a week. About the only thing I couldn't delegate to Steve was getting my legs waxed, and I'm sure he'd have dropped those off and picked them up too if he could've found a way.
Saving the best for last, my attorney, Mitchell Berryman, went so far above and beyond the call of duty that words fail me. First, I interrupted his blissful winter in Sarasota (where he was happily snook-fishing) to get his help in writing a proposal. Then I dragged him back here for negotiations, then contract preparation, then an entirely different contract preparation (after we all changed horses in midstream, but that's another story). He virtually moved into my office for the duration, and for two weeks, it was the rare evening we left here before 1 a.m. Through it all, I was the most cranky, disagreeable, nerve-wracked client that any attorney ever had the misfortune to run across. It's not the first time he's had to ride to my rescue, but I hope it's the last.
My Own Boss
The one question everyone keeps asking me is, "what's it like to be your own boss?" They say it in such a way as to imply this would be a good thing for me.
First, I've never had a boss who could motivate me to work any harder than I would on my own.
Second, it's not as if anything has changed around here. The only person in this building who worked for the corporate bosses was me.
We still have the kind of office where dogs and babies are welcome, but then, we've had that for years. Blue jeans are still forbidden in the office. By me. People still wear them. I still complain. Everybody ignores me.
It's a good system. It works for us.
In fact, the only time I've really lost my temper, as publisher, was the one time I was racing to get back to the office to meet an out-of-town client - and I had called ahead to ask that somebody make coffee for him (not for ME, but for him; I'm not exactly Marie Antoinette over here). I showed up. No coffee. Of COURSE, I didn't find this out until I had already OFFERED him some, and then got to the kitchen only to be told, "no filters..."
Well, I guess that's the end of things.
Forget the fact that there are large shopping establishments within two minutes of this office that SELL filters. Forget the fact that there are probably another half dozen coffee SHOPS who would've, for a small fee, provided us with steaming hot cups of joe. Forget the fact that this was guest who was SPENDING a LARGE sum of money with us, and that even if he wasn't, he still deserved our HOSPITALITY in the form of a WARM DRINK.
I felt exactly like Chris Rock at the end of Bigger and Blacker when he goes off on a rant about how is it too much to ask for the BIG. PIECE. OF. CHICKEN.
I nearly blew a headpipe.
So what did I do??
What the hell do you think I did?
FIRST, I looked through the trash for a USED filter I could RINSE OFF. (Obviously.)
And when I couldn't find one, I started looking for a substitute - and here I'm not recommending this, and I would, in fact, suggest that you NOT try this at home - but it turns out that Northern bathroom tissue (unscented) makes a PERFECTLY acceptable coffee filter. (Acceptable to me, particularly, because I don't drink coffee.)
I should add, for the benefit of future drop-in clients, that we have filters now. In bulk.
Also, for the benefit of any clients who are reading this now: it wasn't YOU. It was somebody else.
What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.
As for what the future holds, we all firmly believe that Lexington wants and needs an alternative newsweekly - editorially speaking.
We celebrate diversity. We encourage great writing from many voices. We champion the downtrodden. We eat the doughnuts.
As a publisher, I have no intention of whoring out content, because I know that it's the quickest way to destroy your readership (and thus, your business).
I'm confident in the research which suggests that this form of media has historically thrived in every economic downturn (we don't use the R word in this building), because it's suddenly the most affordable game in town, at a time when everyone must beat the bushes for business, just to survive.
It was easy to make money over the past few years - but that was just the rooster taking credit for the sun coming up. The next few will separate the men from the boys.
Ace plans to be around for a long time. We pay our taxes. We support a lot of charities. We patronize our advertisers -many of whom are locally owned and operated, just like us. We make a special effort to do business with people and entities who we know will keep money in this community, and we try to be a positive force downtown, and in the community.
Editorially, Pulitzer had it right when he said a newspaper can afford no friends. But hey, that doesn't apply to us personally.
Personally, you'll find us very easy to get along with.
Unless you owe us money, of course.
In which case, bear in mind that it's my dog who graces our cover this week. And she accompanies me on all collection calls.
And you wouldn't like her when she's hungry.
The bitch is back.
|l||Party? Did someone say Party?
Several readers have asked when we will officially celebrate Aces return to local ownership. (Were either honored... or thinking theyre just hoping for an Open Bar.)
Of course we want to share our good times with all of you, so the Ace staff and I would like to invite all of our readers, friends, and advertisers, to join us 7-9 pm for the Bluegrass Bachelor Auction for charity.
Friday, February 9 at the Loudon House
In addition to food, drink, music, and eligible bachelors/bachelorettes, remember: Nude 2001 will still be on exhibit.
Polly at the Art League also tells us that there will be puppies onsite (and maybe even a three-legged dog).
Were pulling out all the stops here folks.
For more info, contact Eloise Campbell at 225-4889, ext 223 or email
Hope to see you there!!
I would love nothing better than to sit down and write a lovely Thank You note to each and every reader, advertiser, advertising agency, friend, relative, and arts group that has sent congratulatory flowers, balloons, plants, cards, and emails.
I once broke off an engagement when I didnt get flowers on Valentines Day (ok, there were other problems, but the flowers were the LAST straw), so believe me when I say I know how to appreciate and revel in a thoughtful gesture.
My office smells like a funeral home right now, and I couldnt be happier.
Your Thank You note IS coming. Someday.
Eating is optional. Showering is not. Ive found it helps to prioritize.
I cant even return phone calls from home because the dialpad on my phone stopped working about two weeks ago, and I havent had time to buy a new phone. Actually, its only the 7 and the 1 that dont work, so if your number has either of those digits in it, I apologize for not calling you back.
I will try to make it up to you all by repaying your faith in me with a great newspaper that does great work in this community.
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