Monday, March 29, 2010

Farewell "real sex"—hello "bleak and depressing"

In a post last February, "On getting free HBO for a month," I described the HBO program "Real Sex" and made the startling conclusion that the people featured on the show don't seem to be well-read intellectuals.

Despite my lack of graphic detail about the show's goings-on, that post became one of my most popular for awhile. I know this because Sitemeter (that little green box at the bottom of the page) lets me see the search terms people have used to get to my blog. And there were a lot of "real sex," "HBO real sex," and "dirty real sex" searches for awhile. The searches were from all over the world (Sitemeter lets you see the countries from which the searches originate), though most were from the United States.

Sitemeter also lets you know how long the reader stays on the page. Not surprisingly, those who were looking for "real sex" but found my blog instead stayed for average of "0 seconds."

I've decided to take off the "Free HBO" essays and polish them for publication elsewhere, but I don't worry that people won't still accidentally find my blog. Recently there's been a rash of searches using terms like "bleak depressing music," which has led readers to my post, What is the most depressing song ever? Fortunately, these readers tend to linger a little longer than those looking for "Real Sex."

The most surprising statistic in this is that every search originating from a European country recently (5 out of the last 100, the maximum Sitemeter tracks) were for "depressing music" or some variant. I hope that once the winter is over and the cold and the fog lifts, such yearnings will go away, even if it means less traffic to my blog.

Postscript: I just realized, by merely mentioning "HBO's Real Sex," I'm going to garner renewed traffic to this blog from people who didn't really want to get here. If you're one of those and you've read this far... oh, wait, you already left 20 seconds ago.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Back in the old days...

So, I became a reporter for a daily newspaper in North Carolina in the mid-1980s, before there were cell phones, digital cameras, high-speed modems or the Internet. Lacking such technology wouldn't have been so bad if I had been in the Winston-Salem Journal's main office—reporters there had computer monitors on their desks hooked into a mainframe computer. They could send stories with a push of a button.

But I was in a bureau office in the northwest corner of the state, 90 minutes from the main office. I was given a portable Radio Shack computer to type my stories on. It wasn't a laptop exactly since it only held three medium-sized stories at a time and its screen held only a few rows of type, yet the field reporters were wowed by its portability; it was the best thing we could use at the time.

I could slowly send a story from my bureau office via a modem, but out in the field, if I needed to get a story in before I could get back to the office, I would have to pull up to a pay phone, dial the paper's toll-free number, then attach a cup to the phone receiver to transmit the story from the laptop. The story would make long chirping noises as it went over the wire, like a fax machine on valium.

I was lucky. I saw reporters for other newspapers still calling in their stories, slowly reading them out for the intern on the other end to transcribe.

If none of the paper's photographers was available, I took pictures on my cheap, automatic 35mm camera, popping out the film when I was done. If there was no rush, I mailed it back to the Winston-Salem office. But if the story was going to run the next day, I'd drive over to the bus station in Boone (actually, it was just a local motel) and put my film on the bus; someone in Winston would pick it up.

I would check in with the main office at least once a day. But without a cell phone, I wasn't immediately available to anyone. While I was in Asheville one August day to write a feature on a New Age-y organization there, a plane packed full of cocaine landed near Boone, and became one of the largest drug busts in that part of the state. My editor frantically tried to reach me, but I was out of earshot, not knowing why everyone was so upset when I called in late that afternoon. I think they went with a wire story that day, supplemented by one of our reporters in a nearby bureau. It should have been my story. Still, my story on the New Age-y people got me my only above-the-fold front page, in that Sunday's paper.

Things are faster, easier, more accessible now, yet I'm not sure they're better or that stories are better written. My old bureau office, which covered two counties (with others, occasionally, as needed), has closed, folded into another bureau to become the Northwest Bureau office. I think that reporter must cover at least four counties now. Spread thin, is how I'd describe it. I'm not sure how you'd get to know all the people in local government or be in so many places at once. Maybe the reporter makes his rounds electronically, reading local blogs for gossip, chatting up people on Facebook, emailing interview questions. It's the only way I can imagine that he or she can be in 10 places at once—unlike when I used to walk around Boone, even in the deep snow, to visit the sheriff, the mayor's office, the Registrar, hoping to catch wind of something, to hear something I wasn't supposed to hear.

(The picture at the top of this post is one of the pictures I took with my cheap camera, which ran in the paper; it was for my favorite story I ever got to write for the WSJ.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Why I really became a reporter

I’d like to say that the reason I became a reporter at a daily newspaper in North Carolina was because I had a burning desire to investigate injustice, to promote knowledge, or even to see my name in print. But that’s not exactly true. I mostly became a reporter at the Winston-Salem Journal because I was sick of being a waitress at the Pizza Inn in North Wilkesboro, N.C.

It was the only job I could find after I moved back home in January 1985. Actually, there was first a one-day stint as a waitress at the Dodge House restaurant, where patrons blew smoke in my face all evening and hardly tipped me. It wouldn’t have been so bad except that I was only making two dollars an hour and, even worse, it turned out that the job also required me to clean the restaurant toilets once every shift. I balked at this and the manager, who was originally from India, said, “You think I didn’t have dreams, too?” I had no idea how he’d gotten from India to this deep-fried/fine dining restaurant in a nowhere corner of North Carolina, but I never got a chance to ask him. I quit at the end of my first shift.

Before the Pizza Inn, I also cleaned a movie theater for a few mornings with one of my mom’s co-workers, a secretary who came there before work for some extra income. It was taxing, disgusting work. We always spent the first few minutes trying to get hardened gum off the floor.

It turns out that a lot of people in Wilkes County worked extra jobs. Two of the waitresses I worked with at Pizza Inn came straight from the Tyson’s chicken factory. Legs tired, feet aching, they stood for another four hours. And yet, amazingly, they didn’t complain about it. They seemed to accept it as their lot. Or they were happy for the extra money because they were trying to build their savings or pay off debt. Most were young and energetic, but there was one woman whose feet swelled so much from standing all day that her doctor told her that she was going to have a stroke if she didn't get off of them. The grim reality is that she didn't have health insurance and her son had needed life-saving surgery, which she was still paying off, she said, when their house burned down.

We were paid the standard waitress minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, with the expectation that patrons would tip our way past the real minimum wage of $3.35 an hour. That hardly ever happened. The management pushed us to promote the buffet table, which was cheaper for them than individual orders, and most patrons took us up on the offer. That meant, however, that the waitresses were only serving them their drinks and handing them an empty plate to fill and most people didn’t think of that as service. In fact, they found it annoying when we came back to check on them once or twice after they had their plates and drinks. Begrudgingly, we’d get an occasional quarter or two when they left.

Unlike the other waitresses there, I had a way out. I started sending my resume to small town newspapers all over North Carolina, along with photocopies of my few precious clips from the Spokane Chronicle, pretending I knew what I was doing. I also started to study for the GRE, with the new thinking that school would not be a place to study whatever I wanted and to find myself, but instead a place where I would train for a career (surprisingly, this had never occurred to me in all my years as an undergraduate).

And so, when I got the call from the Winston-Salem Journal, I trotted out of there with hardly a day’s notice.

The Pizza Inn is gone. It’s been a Mexican restaurant for years. I bet the waitresses there are still paid the waitress minimum wage, which remains at $2.13 an hour. I just hope that people in my hometown have gotten a little more generous with their tipping. And that the lady with swollen feet finally paid off debts before the job killed her.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Should E.F. Blevins or EF (Beth) Blevins be my new penname?

Right away I'm going to tell you that this is a garbage post that you probably shouldn't read.

It is the first and probably only post I'm going to write specifically for an Internet search engine. I am trying to see if "E.F. Blevins" is a searchable term and how easily it is found, before I consider changing it to my penname.

As I wrote months ago, there are a lot of Beth Blevinses already floating around on the Internet. Since then, through a daily Google vanity search for "Beth Blevins" I've discovered many more, even after subtracting those I already knew about: Beth Blevins the doula, the realtor, the "gather the women" promoter. And still more pop up every day. There's a Beth Blevins who's in a graduate journalism program, using "Beth Blevins" as part of her byline. A Beth Blevins who writes diddits on movies (whatever that is). And then there are all the Facebook Beth Blevinses who come onto FB each week, and/or add new friends.

I'm OK with being EF Blevins or E.F. Blevins (despite the fact that someone told me it sounds too much like JK Rowling). I like not being so easily identified as one gender or another. I'm not so sure I like the way some people will pronounce it: "Eff Blevins!"

I suppose I could eventually be known as "the writer formerly known as Beth Blevins."

Oh, wait, I forgot to see if anyone else is going by E.F. Blevins. I'll know in a few minutes, after this is posted, and after I start to search for it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The problem with reading two books at once

As mentioned in a previous post (The writer, reading/listening), almost since our kids were old enough to understand one sentence following another, we've listened to books on tape during family car trips.

At first, we reserved them only for long journeys—I often remember past trips by the stories we heard along the way (our drive to Canada and back took as long as Fellowship of the Rings; now, when I think of traveling Montreal, I also sometimes think of Frodo traveling to Rivendell). But then we found it was nice to have a story to look forward to whenever we got into the car, even when we were just going to the grocery store.

We were able to keep the narrative going somehow, perhaps because it was such a defined space and we were a truly captive audience. The seatbelts click and the story starts again. Only occasionally did we need to back up a bit to catch up.

We've also always read to our kids aloud at night, from toddler to almost-teenage. This has never been a conflict before, listening to one story in the car, another at night. Until recently, when E-girl and I listened to City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau and read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Both are mysteries written for children, presenting puzzles for the reader to figure out.

One night, about a week into both narratives, E-girl said, "I keep getting them confused." It was hard to remember sometimes which story had the man under the mailbox, which had the confused grandma. So we stopped listening to Ember until we finished the other book. Perhaps what made it even more difficult is that When You Reach Me keeps referencing A Wrinkle in Time, so we were having to keep three books separate in our minds, reminding ourselves that Linah and Doone couldn't time travel.

Today I went to the library and checked out two books on CD: Treasure Island and The People of Sparks (the sequel to Ember). I also checked out The People of Sparks on paper; we have a paper copy of Treasure Island already. I guess this is the way it will have to be for awhile, as long as we're listening to suspenseful or exciting books. The only problem for me, now, is that I will be competing with professional voice/actors when I read aloud at night.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pandora's box of songs: music to write by

Lucky is the person who can write a short story while listening to the Rolling Stones or a Bach fugue. Or who, like my spouse, can write at the computer while listening to rock music and watching TV sports from the corner of his eye.

I've never been able to listen to music and also do anything that involves a computer or a pen. Apparently my brain doesn't multi-task that way. I write best in a quiet house.

Yet sometimes the quiet gets to me. I think of all the songs that I'll never hear because the part of my brain that writes or types is too demanding of my full attention. So, I've been searching for music that would provide a pleasant sonic background my brain won't rebel against.

It was easy to eliminate disco/techno, folk songs, and any music with lyrics. But even slow, sweeping orchestral music was too demanding.

Finally, through trial and error, I've discovered that I can write to piano music. As long as the piano is the main instrument, and there are not a lot of other sounds alongside it, my brain doesn't get distracted. I don't know if this is true for other writers, or just me. Perhaps only the sound of the clarinet will do for someone else, the french horn for another.

Maybe it's because the motion of fingers traveling across a computer keyboard and a piano keyboard are kind-of the same?

I have created a "Piano Music" station on Pandora Radio. When Pandora asked for a "seed" artist or song, I typed "Keith Jarrett" and "Glenn Gould." It has since persuaded me to add Bill Evans and other jazz pianists, as well as Chopin and Erik Satie, and it is still trying to steer me toward Philip Glass. Miraculously, I've mostly heard piano music on this station, having only to occasionally say no to the rare symphony. (I moved Beethoven to his own station, since it hurt to give him a thumbs down).

If you'd like to hear my station, (I think this will work) you can go to: . If this doesn't work, you can create your own station, with similar parameters. Happy listening!