BOXED SET -- A novel by Bernie Kohn & Gina M. Smith

An unemployed Chicago sports writer quickly finds himself broke and homeless, but he uses his gift with words and some inspiration from Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac to turn his life around, help his fellow homeless and to get the girl, a perky tech at the local plasma clinic who thinks a boob job will solve everything.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Friends in a No-Friends World

It was the first class of the first day of the first year of college at Ball State University, minds more open than our eyes as our group of 20-some aspiring Woodwards and Bernsteins scanned the room for any sign of familiarity or reassurance. Journalism 110 professor Ken Atwell was having none of this babes-in-the-wood thing. A crusty police reporter who'd moved into academia after a long career at the Kokomo, Indiana, Tribune, Atwell was as Joe Friday as the people he'd covered.  No actor had ever played Ken Atwell in a movie; that wasn't the journalism he knew, and if we were looking for  glamour, he was going to disabuse us of that right away.

"A good journalist," Atwell began, straightening his 6-3 frame and pausing for effect, "has no friends."

Eyes darted about the room. As I panned left, doing my best not to appear to be turning away from Professor Atwell's gaze toward the first row, there she was, panning right, toward me.

Not that I hadn't noticed on the way in. Blond pigtails, Love's Baby Soft T-shirt, ripped jeans, and a smile that caused temporary breathing stoppage - the stuff of a hundred teen-geek movies playing out in front of Ken Atwell. Our eyes met. And we fought not to crack up.

So was the nature of the casual friendship between Gina Spradlin and me in the mere 2 1/2 years before -- in her earnestness to move on with life  -- she graduated cum laude after just five semesters, got married to the fiance as planned, a week after receiving her diploma, had two kids, and displayed the good sense to understand there was something to all that stuff Atwell had loaded on us about the thankless, lonely life of a journalist. I could never understand why she was so doggone serious, why she was in so much of a damned hurry; why she had to be, well, too smart and too pretty to be attainable. We were always friendly, but never close.

I caught a brief glimpse of her almost two years later when I arrived for an interview at the newspaper in Warsaw, Indiana, where she worked. We hadn't stayed in touch - there was no reason to - so seeing her was a surprise. We didn't have time for anything more than a passing hello as she ran off to cover a story.  I was offered the job, but turned it down after being offered $20 a week more by another paper 30 miles away.

I wouldn't see Gina Spradlin again for 28 years.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

We just wanted to write

We joke about having been nerds in school, but maybe we were just good kids given great opportunities by our parents and teachers. Being born in 1960 on the tail end of the Baby Boom generation allowed us to be both disproportionately indulged and constantly challenged to realize every potential.
Being an oldest son or a first girl/baby-of-the-family daughter brought its own indulgences and the mantle of our parents' dreams for us. I remember being told quite often that I was going to be Miss America as well as the first female president of the United States. Not a casual pat on the head, this was routine reinforcement on almost a weekly basis from parents, grandparents and teachers. I don't know if I ever believed it, because I wasn't much interested in either title. Oh, the beauty pageant crown might have meant I wasn't as nerdy as I felt, but it would have required a talent. And not being able to carry a tune, dance with any rhythm despite years of lessons, or play a musical instrument after four years with a hateful clarinet kept me from the sash and sceptor. Besides, who could go on stage and demonstrate writing a story?
Writing really was what I wanted to do. I told myself I would write a book some day. I made up assignments for myself over summer breaks (nerd). While other kids were raking in the cash from babysitting, I collected 30 cents an inch through high school writing for the local daily. I wrote really long features. Truly. Often I was given an entire page in the newspaper, since none of the other youth correspondents turned in any copy.
Besides news and feature writing, I got interested in poetry when a visiting writer came to my sophomore honors English class. Margaret K. Woodworth from the Artists in Residence program through Indiana University inspired my creative side and selected one of my poems to be published in a book she was doing. I've never forgotten that and still have the book, called Indiana Writes. My poetry was later published in the daily newspaper and helped me earn the Rylan Harris Memorial Scholarship to the Midwest Writers Workshop in 2009.
I was also encouraged to write fiction and turned out plenty of short stories as well as an epic poem combining styles of John Milton and Alexander Pope. The subject matter concerned sylphs (fairies) helping princesses maintain lovely fingernails. By then people had stopped predicting I would be the first female POTUS.
Although newspaper was my first love during college and immediately after, I kept up my poetry and my creative writing efforts. And while serving as an associate editor for The Warsaw Times-Union, I was also a stringer for The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel and an occasional correspondent for The South Bend Tribune.
While working in Warsaw I was forced to improve my photojournalism skills above the 'C' I earned in college. Reporters at small-town dailies were expected to be one-man bands. We covered the story, shot accompanying pictures, typed up our copy, and in some cases, broadcasted a radio version of the news ourselves. Somehow I had managed to get through both high school and college, as a journalism major, without ever touching a computer or taking a typing class. Computers -- the first Macintoshes -- arrived at Ball State University's journalism department just after I graduated in the fall of 1980. Keyboarding proficiency testing was also implemented after I left. As for cameras, by the time I got my first full-time newspaper gig in Warsaw, I had advanced from a cheap used 35mm SLR to the company's exotic and large Hasselblad camera, which I wore around my neck with pride. Yes, that is camera singular. The newspaper owned one camera.
When I moved into public relations in 1985 as a director for the local school system, there was plenty of writing to be done: news releases hand carried to the newspaper I had just left, annual reports, brochures; I created a corporation newsletter for our several hundred employees. From there it was a similar job and similar writing for the local hospital for three years, before a one-year stint at an advertising agency - the single year in my 32-year career where I worked for a for-profit company.
A turn from PR and marketing into non-profit healthcare group purchasing meant less writing so I replaced news releases with blogging, beginning in 2007. While creating three different blogs myself, I also edited or contributed to several different national blogs. I edited a poetry blog and managed an ongoing daily group poem effort with contributors from around the world. At the same time I also wrote book reviews and travel articles for the still-highly regarded Vintage Indie blog, founded by Gabreial Wyatt.
I also managed to squeeze in a little poetry and short story writing as well as non-fiction, having an article about Fiestaware published in Romantic Homes magazine. By then my partner-in-writing, Bernie Kohn, served as my unofficial editor before I submitted the article. And although my other creative outlet became making art (jewelry, painting, drawing, mixed media collage, assemblage and more), I had -- mostly in secret -- never once given up the idea of writing a book. In 2007-08 I dabbled with some proposals for how-to art books while artist friends were getting published. While I did manage to get some of my artwork published, I never followed through on the book proposals. But I held onto the dream of a fiction novel, writing ever longer short stories as a warm-up of sorts.
When I encountered my Journalism 110 classmate again, 28 years after that first day of college, it wasn't very long until we started talking about not only our careers but our work left to be done: hopes and dreams. Seems we had a little intersection at "always wanted to write a book" and off we went.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Bernie's path to the pen

I decided to change the world in seventh grade by ending the Vietnam War. I knew I had all the answers and those clueless adults didn't. This was an attitude that had made me a semi-regular in the office of James Bowen, the principal of Van Antwerp Junior High School in Schenectady, New York, as he would remind me years later when I encountered him by happenstance. Mr. Bowen had little patience for seventh-grade lawyer wannabes. Fortunately, my English teacher, Dorothy Meyer, either believed in my own self-importance or was willing to let me make a fool of myself trying to show it.

The day before our three-page writing assigments were to be returned, Mrs. Meyer asked me to stay after class. I couldn't imagine what I'd done to piss Mr. Bowen off this time. Instead, she told me it was one of the best assignments she'd seen in her teaching career. I showed great promise as a writer, she said, and that she wanted to encourage me in that direction. Whether Mrs. Meyer really saw something in me or was merely displaying a bias - years later, I learned she was my aunt's college roommate - didn't and doesn't matter. Before long, I was spending my "draw-off" period in the school library reading coverage of the war and of a certain break-in at a Washington office building that seemed to involve the President of the United States in ways I couldn't yet grasp.

My parents, sister, brother and I listened to President Nixon's resignation speech on a handheld radio while eating Kentucky Fried Chicken on the floor of an unfurnished house the day we moved from Schenectady to the eastern Ohio town of Coshocton. I was hours away from leaving my mentor, Mrs. Meyer, not to see her again until my wedding 13 years later, and yet my life's course was set. Woodward and Bernstein had brought down a president, and it was the coolest thing in the world. On my first day at Coshocton High School three weeks later, a strange kid in a strange town sought out the one place that seemed familiar - the journalism/school newspaper room of Mr. Jeffrey Watson.

Thirty-four years later, the craft still calls. With the exception of a single year, when I took a government communication job out of desperation following a layoff, I've been a journalist since the day I walked into Mr. Watson's room in the fall of 1974. Reporting and writing has been my way of exploring the world and finding my place in it.

Mrs. Meyer, thanks for not sending me to the principal's office.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A writer is born and wrapped in newsprint (but so are fish)

My first real memory of wanting to be a writer or journalist is from eighth grade. Oh sure, I'd always loved literature, grammar, even spelling -- from the first day of kindergarten. And no one would dispute I was an A+ teacher's pet (a.k.a. Suck-Up). That sucking up paid off when my eighth grade art teacher took me under her wing and directed me to the school newspaper, which she sponsored.
I don't even think I displaced any freshmen when, within a few days after volunteering, I was not only writing but typing the entire thing. We used some kind of multi-part legal-size blue tissue "thingy" to type on, the kind that required a special liquid to repair the tissue in the event of a typo. Having never had a typing lesson (as it was called then, as opposed to keyboarding), I ruined many an expensive master with globs of correction fluid. The paper was run off on a Gestetner machine and hand-stapled. I was in love immediately, although I felt more like I was playing teacher than a 13-year-old Lois Lane, since I got to hang out in the teachers' work room to copy and assemble my new baby.
Two junior high years of newspaper staff pointed me directly to journalism classes in high school, even with a healthy dose of drama club and lead roles that might have lead me elsewhere. I was smitten with covering and reporting the news! I also didn't mind editorializing- awarding "Onions or Orchids" to anyone and anything around the school I deemed worthy.
In high school I was lucky enough to be able to take a journalism class every semester for three years and to have a journalism teacher who took me under his wing. I owe my college choice, academic scholarship and early career to the late Mr. Lee Pursley, an Ernie Pyle sort who also taught me to play euchre in our spare time. And he taught me everything very well.
At the same time I studied journalism and ascended the ranks of our school newsletter, The X-Ray, I also wrote for the literary magazine, The Little Chief, and worked on the News Bureau. I had a wonderful creative writing teacher, Toni Shoemaker, and a masterful honors English teacher, Dr. Susan Mullarkey, both of whom still cheer me on today.
While serving as editor-in-chief of both the school newspaper and literary magazine at the same time, I didn't have enough high school periods left to both run the News Bureau and take all the classes I wanted (not needed), so I convinced the school system to let me take two classes during the same period with the blessing of both teachers. Told ya, first class suck-up!
I also managed to find time in my school day to go across town to the vocational school, where The X-Ray was printed so I could generally bug the daylights out of the print shop teacher, a grouchy old cuss who somehow found the patience to teach me about printing and finishing in his spare time. I'm very young, but old enough to have seen both hot and cold type being set! Egads, my kids would think I went to school with Gutenberg, and no, not Steve.
My fondest memory of that adventure was driving the student teacher's very hot and very new red Firebird to the print shop and ending up in a snow bank facing a fence. No harm done to the car, and the student teacher went on to become managing editor of the local daily, the Anderson Herald, now Herald-Bulletin, where I was a youth correspondent for three years, working with the likes of Holly Miller, a future author and editor for The Saturday Evening Post.
One of my fellow editors-in-chief two years ahead of me at The X-Ray went on to become Washington DC Bureau Chief for Bloomberg News, where he recently worked with my co-author before moving on to The New York Times. If I was a geek back in the day, so were you, Mike Tackett!
All this writing stuff did get me the Emens Scholarship, a nearly full-ride academic scholarship to Ball State University in Muncie, IN and the Sharley B. DeMotte (not Shirley) honorary journalism scholarship. (Honorary scholarship = oxymoron). On a sunny fall day in September 1978 looking as I did pictured here, I drove my metallic turquoise Mustang hatchback (geek) 20 minutes east to college, having decided to commute for the first quarter (who knows why?).
I am sure I parked my car plenty early to get a front row seat for my 8 a.m. Journalism 110 (newswriting) class with legendary professor Ken Atwell. Although the class was taught by a memorable graduate assistant, Fred Blevens, it was Atwell who kept me on my newspaper course, cheering on my dream of being the next Woodward or Bernstein.
Atwell helped me get my first paying internship at The Warsaw Times-Union, a daily which has touched my life every day since. A second summer there allowed me not only more experience, pay and college credit, but also counted towards a separate diploma from the Honors College  as an independent class and allowed me to test out of feature writing for still more credit. I'm seeing my own pattern here: not much patience for sitting still or spending four years locked away at high school or college when I could be out beating the streets for news!
While at BSU two other professors had lasting impact. Lois Breiner sponsored the literary magazine and put me to work on it. Gerry Chaney instilled in me a lifetime love of hyper-correct grammar, punctuation and copy-editing. I probably would have pursued that direction had I not loved to write so very much.
With college diploma firmly in hand, I returned to the Warsaw newspaper just a couple weeks after early graduation in 1980, where I remained until 1985 when I moved into public relations. As the first person in my family or on either parent's side as far back as known to graduate from college, you could have popped my puffed up little head with a ballpoint. I was justifiably proud, but at the same time pretty sure I knew absolutely everything about everything -- and that the world was just waiting for me to write about it.
But back to Newswriting 110....first day of college, 8 a.m. class, front row, shiny new No. 2 pencils, groovy hippy sophisticated college student threads...I took the far left seat. A tall, tan, curly-permed guy with those very 1970s, very short shorts sat beside me. Piercing blue, sparkling, lively eyes, friendly smile, he was chatty and had tennis legs to go with the short shorts. I remember this much well.
Bernie Kohn and I went on to have all three quarters of our freshman year together in Newswriting, Copyediting and Photojournalism. We both trotted over to the Ball State Daily News early on to become reporters. I was busy zooming through college; Bernie took the proper route and became editor-in-chief of our college newspaper.
Our paths crossed a lot our first year, and I am quite sure there was friendly flirting. But nothing more. We only saw each other once a few years after college when Bernie came up from The Wabash Plain Dealer to interview at The Times-Union. Lucky for him on two counts: he didn't take the Warsaw job, and he quickly left Wabash and the Midwest. We wouldn't meet again until July 2008, when we both drove to central Ohio-- he from the Baltimore area and I from the same Midwest locale where I had been for 30 years.
The collaboration that became our novel, Boxed Set, and our entertwined lives began that hot and humid summer day during a mosquito-infested canal boat ride, some Pad Thai at sunset and a convertible ride in the dark with malfunctioning headlights. It was all perhaps indicative of our path these last few years. But we still completed our first fiction work together without fatalities.