Monday, June 29, 2009

A thousand words

It doesn't happen that often, but sometimes, a newspaper photographer will find himself or herself in precisely the right spot and exactly the right time to capture an image that so perfectly tells a story that no words are even necessary.

So it was on Saturday morning, when Celeste Van Kirk took this photo (front page June 28) at the American Legion post in Washington. Here, Army Reserve Pfc. Donald Stark is hugged by his wife, Angela, before leaving for Fort Dix, N.J., en route to Iraq with the 619th Transportation Company.

We try to be strong, to be brave, not to give in to our emotions, but there is that moment when we can no longer hold back our feelings, when the dam breaks, and that is the moment we see in Angela's face. Can you look at this picture and not get choked up?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The morning after

I see by some of the comments on earlier posts that some of you are dying to talk about the layoffs that occurred here yesterday. Here are the facts: Observer Publishing Co. had 196 employees and now we have 184. Most of the 12 positions eliminated were in Observer-Reporter news and photo. We have not had to cut as deeply as most other newspapers, and newspapers are hardly the only industry suffering in this down economy. As newspapers in this part of the country go, we're doing much better than most. We are somewhat fortunate in that a good bit of our population in Washington and Greene counties is older, less computer-savvy than urban areas, and more dependent on the newspaper for not just local news, but regional, national and international news.

We have been around for 200 years and have no intention of going away. We have an obligation to survive, not just for ourselves as employees here, but for our readers who depend on us. In order to survive, we have to make painful decisions, and we have to keep redesigning our business model.

Our news staff will have to work even harder. Meanwhile, our advertising staff is hardly sitting on their hands. They have been working furiously for the past several weeks on a program we hope will attract new advertisers to a medium we believe is still the most effective at reaching customers for most businesses. And our circulation department has managed to hold our numbers while other papers have seen their circulation nosedive.

Some jackass from one of the Pittsburgh television stations called here yesterday and wanted to know if it was true that the Observer-Reporter was closing down.

No. We've done what we had to do to avoid that. We are not going away. Promise. - G.O.E.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Whine, whine, whine

C: It would be nice if like in the past, you provide a front page section, and a separate local section, that way 2 people could have a section to read in lieu of one person having to wait until the other person is finished. - R.B.

A: We have been printing two-section papers instead of four-section papers whenever we can these days, not to make dual reading of the paper more difficult, but for two reasons: 1) We sometimes don't have enough advertising to support four sections; and 2) to save paper. Maybe you haven't heard yet, but newspapers have been having this slight revenue problem lately. It costs a lot to produce a newspaper, and sometimes we have to sacrifice some convenience in order to keep publishing one.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Questions and complaints

C: DUI checkpoints of police should not be put in the paper. This only lets the drinkers avoid those roads. -M.S.

A: State police in Pennsylvania do not specify where the checkpoints will be, but only when they are conducting them. West Virginia's state troopers do specify the time and place of the checkpoints. We publish this information for the same reason we publish arrest and reports of crime and accidents: to inform the public what the police are doing at the expense of their tax dollars; and to distribute news, rather than rumor. If you see police stopping all cars at a road block, it is probably better to know they are fishing for drunks rather than, say, assuming they are hunting for escaped murderers.

Beyond that, the police want the public to know they are conducting checkpoints, because it discourages drivers from drinking in the first place. In West Virginia, the strategy might be to catch more drunken drivers by monitoring alternate routes around checkpoints.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Proud Dads Dept.

A few years ago, my son, Brody, as the artist in residence at Wash Arts, painted a mural off Shaffer Avenue in Washington behind Cafe Bean with the help of kids in the summer program. At the time, there were tables set in the area by the wall for outdoor coffee drinking in nice weather. Today, the area is overgrown with weeds, strewn with garbage, and graffiti has been sprayed on the mural.

Brody now lives in Ithaca, N.Y., a city that recently sponsored a competition for public art. He won the competition, and as a result three of his painting will be reproduced on massive panels and hung on the sides of buildings in the city's center. (Read the story.)

He was quoted in an article in the Ithaca newspaper about his views on public art, which I found insightful:

"There's a part of me that says, you know, 'Why should people's tax dollars go for something they don't necessarily pay attention to or value?'But at the same time, if you don't have living arts in your society, it's a pretty bleak place.
"If you look back in history, it's really the only thing people are remembered for. There's some memory or history about military conquest and trade, but it's really not much. And yet we have a very rich history of almost every culture that's ever existed through their artwork.
"Not that I necessarily think the paintings I've made are going to go down in history as being great, but maybe they'll inspire some kid somewhere to want to make something like that someday."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Whine, whine, whine

A couple of weeks ago, we published an article about Clarksville's centennial celebration. Clarksville is a little borough that straddles the Washington County-Greene County line. Not too much of note has happened there since the Yablonski murders 40 years ago.
It was a nice little story about Clarksville's history and the veterans memorial they would dedicate during the festivities. It was a cheery story about a town that rarely gets much attention, so we decided to run it on the front page. We weren't ready for the negative reaction we received from Clarksvillians.

My phone started ringing off the hook the next day, with people - including the mayor – complaining that we had published an incomplete list of all the centennial activities. We apologized, and we published a complete list of all the activities in the very next edition.
Next day, the calls started coming in again. This time, the complaint was that we hadn't placed the schedule on the front page of the paper, but rather on Page 2, and that no one would ever see it there.

This morning, we received an angry letter from Clarksville, blasting us for not sending a reporter and photographer to cover the unveiling of the memorial.

I think from now on we ought to let that sleeping dog lie.

Archie's Story, Part 4

Artyom Sergazinov (Archie) is a serious student of the English language. When he spoke to the Washington Rotary Club, members were amazed at his command of grammar and usage, with one club member commenting afterward that she had rarely encountered even an American-born student his age who had an understanding of the subjunctive mood.

Archie quickly picked up on the Western Pennsylvania dialect, and in the following post, he has a little fun with it...

Ten Things a Foreigner Will Miss After He Leaves Warshinton, Pensivania

1. Walmart
a. Lines; those people trying to check out 72 buggies with paper towels and three cupboards and 13 microwaves at the register that says "10 items or less;"
b. The cheapest and, perhaps, freshest donuts from last Christmas;
c. All of 'em Bars franks'n hot dogs for 77 cents a pack – the cheapest you can find in the whole country;
d. Turkey'n all at meat in the deli section in 'em Ziploc bags - wait in line, don't be a jagoff!
e. Buggies all over the place - with food in 'em;
f. Grannies "riding dirty;"
g. Them five-pound hoagies for $4.98 a piece;
h. The best store to go to - compared to other stores, just a few cars and people on Saturdays and Sundays;
i. the place where you can get the best job in the entire world - a greeter.

2. Shop'n'Save - Save A Lot!

3. Four Star Pizza - the place where the same people call and complain every day that we've been messing their food up for the past couple of days; then, after having had a nice try, they order again hoping we put a rubber glove or somebody's hair in their pizza.

4. WashJeff - free tuition.

5. Jynt Igel.

6. Shorty's - ispeshelly the won in dahntahn.

7. The VIP - get your knuckles ready!

8. Highland Bar - check it out with your white friends at 2 a.m. on a Friday night; lots of fun guaranteed!

9. The Outlets - watch the empty parking lot! Crisis in America!

10. The Wash Crahn Cenner.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cloud Atlas

One of my favorite recent reads is "Black Swan Green" by David Mitchell. Now I add to that list "Cloud Atlas," an earlier novel by the young British writer. (Well, to me 40 is young.)

This is a fascinating book that spans hundreds of years, from 1849 to several centuries into the future. Six characters tell their stories in six different styles of narration: a journal, letters to a friend, a murder-mystery, memoir, interview and oral history. The characters are loosely tied to one another by strands of coincidence that transcend time.

It's Mitchell's versatility as a writer that so impresses me. Like Eric Clapton wowing a crowd with his electric guitar licks, Mitchell flashes up and down the fingerboard of language in a long, inventive, improvisational riff.

I can't wait to get to "Cloud9dream" and "Ghostwritten."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Archie's Story, Part 3

More of the Archie's interview by his friend, Rinat:

Rinat: Let's talk about people. Do you think Americans are really different from our Soviet people?
Artyom: Sure! Cultures are always amazing to discover! Now I really know what rudeness and ignorant customer service all Americans who have visited Kazakhstan are talking about. I never noticed that until I came back to KZ after having spent 2 years in America.
Rinat: Lots of people in the world say Americans are fat. True?
Artyom: Well, these people can't say it that way because some of them have never been to the U.S. This is one. Two – there are fat people everywhere. There
might be more skinny people in Kazakhstan, but I can't claim the fact that all Americans are fat.
Rinat: They also make a statement that people from Uncle Sam are greedy and do things for money only. In other words, people over there are more materialistic and help people when they try to get benefits from others.
Artyom: You are right, some people do say it that way about Americans. Even when I was getting ready to leave for the States, they warned me about that. But as I was settling with my life and making friends, it became more of a myth or some kind of envious gossip to me. My American families and friends, my employer, everyone who gave me a hand when I needed their help never said 'no' to me. Never ever in my American life. This being said, I have an idea that somebody has been very jealous of Americans' wealth, and decided to call them 'greedy.' I myself, having been helped and assisted by the citizens of the United States countless times, in my mind, possess no absolute background that all my friends and both families were seeking some kind of profit from me.
Rinat: (joking) Maybe you simply had nothing that could be taken?
Artyom: (laughing) Exactly!
Rinat: Well, thank you, Art, for such an interesting conversation.
Artyom: You are welcome. Let me know if you have more questions to ask.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Archie's Story, Part 2

"Do you want to know more about me? Do you want to find information? Are you curious about something? Interested? Ask me!" is exactly what I tell my fellow-country people if some of them - at times, it is very obvious - want to tell or ask me something. And here we are - a live interview with one of my Kazakhstani friends who has known me for a long time, yet has never asked me anything about America. He questions me, I reply. I find it very interesting as many Americans are eager to hear opinions of foreigners about themselves. Enjoy.

Rinat (my friend): When was the first time you traveled to the States? How old were you?
Artyom (myself): In May of 2006. I was 18.
Rinat: Did you like it in the beginning?
Artyom: I liked it through my whole journey – very much! But life was tough at times.
Rinat: Oh, I see. What do you mean 'it was tough'?
Artyom: Well, the immigration problems are ridiculous.
Rinat: But why did you choose America? What was your goal?
Artyom: My goal was to get into an American college and receive a degree.
Rinat: Why America?
Artyom: Several reasons: Education in English and English-speaking environment which is good for my future employment, high standards, world recognition. As far as everyone over here, in Kazakhstan, knows that there isn't a single college in our country that offers a degree completely taught in English. And this is a very important factor.
Rinat: That's very true. Did your American friends ask you why you had come to their country?
Artyom: I told them absolutely the same thing – to get educated in English.
Rinat: Were they surprised?
Artyom: Well, some of them didn't understand why I hadn't wanted to study in Kazakhstan.
Rinat: And how did you explain that to them?
Artyom: It wasn't that easy. In order to truly comprehend one's situation, you have to be in his shoes. In other words, if some of my friends spent some time in Kazakhstan and saw everything with their own eyes, they would have understood me the best. That's the whole point. Americans are first-world citizens. We, on the opposite, have passports from a developing country. I put it this way: Employers all over the world, especially internationally-recognized companies, regardless of the country, are looking for people who are professionally advanced in English despite their native tongue. If we are talking about entrepreneurs, international business managers, IT developers, the very first requirement on your resume has to be your great English. And the only way to become advanced in the English language is to receive your work experience and education in an English-speaking country. In addition to that, we are also talking about the quality of education.

(More of the interview tomorrow...)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Archie's Story, Part 1

The touchdown was at 9:30 in the morning. Although my first plane was late, my second, international flight landed in Moscow 30 minutes earlier. I couldn't say I was exhausted due to the long trip, but I know for sure there was a great deal of excitement - I was waiting to see what had happened to my country for the fastest and, perhaps, the best two years in my life.

It took me almost three days of traveling from Moscow to the north of the Asian part of the former USSR, and there I was – back in Kazakhstan! Could I believe myself I was there? Was I hearing people speak Russian?

My mother gave me a great hug and lots of kisses after I rang the doorbell. My stepfather smiled at me, shook my hand, and helped me carry in my humongous, ridiculously heavy pieces of luggage which I, believe
it or not, had managed to bring home safe and clean. The dog - named Bill when President Clinton was elected – started to bark at me. Apparently, he wasn't able to recall who I was. Two years aren't that much of time, but, obviously, it was enough for him to forget the person who once bought him from a woman on the street. His amnesia didn't last that long; he nicely caught a couple of thrown pieces of meat with
his jaw, got some water, and, after having looked at me for half hour, started to wag his tale.

The next day I woke up thinking something like, “I need to call my manager and see if I can come in earlier today...” I opened my eyes, stretched a bit, and... realized that... It would take me a while, approximately 17 to 20 hours by plane, to get to work even if I flew straight from my town to Four Star Pizza in Washington, Pa. So I figured they wouldn't need me by the time I get there.

Yes, I understood I was missing my job right at that moment. It felt unusual to wake up in your parents' house and to have your breakfast ready. However, little did I understand that there were no... sandwiches on the table! My goodness! Where is my triple-mayo BLT hoagie and Ramen noodles? No way...

I tried to hurry up and eat my original Kazakhstani food, because I knew I needed to get online. All of a sudden, my mother said, “Why are you eating so fast?” I explained that I promised to write my American families and friends as soon as I would get home. She replied, “I don't know how you do that at daylight. We can only use the Net after 11 p.m. - it's impossible to dial it up when the traffic is busy.”

TV, the “Soviet” type of people on the street, buses and cars, Russian letters and names of shops everywhere. Wow! Was I really born here, or has my mind made America my permanent country of living? In psychology they call it “the cultural shock.” You are “shocked” when you go to a foreign country, mostly if the country of your visit is of higher quality of living than your native place. You see how well-developed, as in my case, America is, how high the standards are, where people live and work, what they eat, what they do, how much they get paid. “The reverse cultural shock,” as in my case again, takes place when you get back to where you originally came from.

I've been keeping my own journal practically since I landed in America for the first time in my life. It contains as much information so I would write a book or two; also do I possess a huge desire to tell others about my adventure through newspaper articles. My American families and friends deserve lots of thanks for being a great nation on the whole as well as caring about others. I wasn't lucky enough to
inherit millions of dollars, or, let's say, to be born in America, but I received a lucky life ticket to go to America, and understand how to live for others.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Questions and complaints

Q: I would like to have Greene and Washington County news in my Greene paper. Why have two editions? - J.D.

A: The Observer-Reporter publishes two editions of the newspaper Tuesday through Sunday – one for Washington County and one for Greene County. The news and advertising on the local pages are different, and sometimes the front page is different, too. We are often asked why we don't simply publish one edition, with all the news and advertising of both counties in it. That's a good question, and the answer is complicated.

An awful lot of our Greene County readers get upset when they see any news from Washington County on their local pages. They tell us they are not the least bit interested in anything happening in Washington County. But that's not the reason we have two editions.

Before 1981, we had a morning and an evening edition of the newspaper. Greene County advertisers could get a lower rate by advertising in only the morning paper, because the evening edition was not circulated in Greene County. But in 1981, the evening edition was suspended. Many Greene County advertisers could not afford to purchase ads for the entire circulation of the paper, so a vehicle for their ads had to be devised; thus, the Greene County edition. Today, there are about 6,000 papers circulated in Greene and 27,000 in Washington County. Advertisers have the option of purchasing ads in papers that go only to those 6,000 subscribers, and, of course, they pay a lower rate than ads going to 33,000 homes.

Because a newspaper survives on advertising revenue, having this option is vital. We're stuck with it.

We do try to put news from Washington County that we think might be important to Greene County readers into the Greene edition, and vice versa. But doing so seems to only increase the number of complaints we receive. Since 1981, we've been searching for a better solution but have yet to come up with one. But we're still trying.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Road Trip, Part 14

(The Virginian hotel in Medicine Bow, Wyoming)

Leaving Rawlins, we saw a sign for Medicine Bow, about 40 miles distant on Route 30. We jumped at the chance to detour from I-80.

Medicine Bow, at the time, had a population of 389. A visit to its Web site shows that fewer than 300 still live there. The novel “The Virginian” is set there, and that is the name of the hotel that is the town’s main building. We stopped there for coffee and tea, then walked upstairs and looked into rooms. From the looks of things, my guess is the guests were college kids working as ranch hands.
From that oasis, we headed southeast through the high desert, eventually rejoining the interstate at Laramie. From there, all the way home, through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, it was Super-8s and high-speed highway with no time for dawdling, fancy meals or cute B&Bs.

We arrived at home on the evening of April 5, having traveled 4,168 miles in nine days. That works out to 463 miles a day, so if you’re planning to duplicate our experience, take a little longer or don’t count on getting much rest.
As I mentioned at the start of this tale, all the B&Bs are still in operation by the same people, as is the Aspen House restaurant. Stop by and see them, and meet some genuinely nice people while experiencing the emptiness that is much of this country.


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Today's gripe

The crew from Sony Pictures is coming back today to do more filming, and as far as the outside world knows, the Observer-Reporter is still the Bank of Harlan. I just hope today's scenes don't involve any more gunfire. After yesterday, I feel as if I've just done a tour of duty in Iraq.

I am the jumpy type. Watching movies on TV at home, loud noises and sudden movements tend to lift my backside off the couch, send popcorn flying. So, you can imagine what sort of state I was in yesterday, when every 15 minutes my heart was stopped by bursts of gunfire in the street right outside our building. Hey! The first take looked pretty good to me; was it really necessary to do 12 more?

Road Trip, Part 13

The Aspen House Restaurant was just down the street from the Ferris mansion. A former doctor’s office with additions tacked on to it every which way, it was a bit of a surprise, “specializing in Singapore and American cuisine,” according to the menu.

After we ordered dessert, the owners of the restaurant, Jim and Lena Dirck, joined us at our table. They were highly interested in who we were and where we came from. They were desperate for news from the outside, they told us only half-jokingly. Lena, a Singapore native, handles most of the work at the restaurant, and Jim teaches school during the day, in the direction of Medicine Bow. He told us he had only nine students that year - in all grades. And here we thought one-room schools were a thing of the past.

The Dircks held onto us as long as they could, taking us on a tour of the kitchen and then their living quarters. They were proud of their restaurant, which they had begun just six months earlier. A glance at the Internet shows that the Dircks still own the place and are still amazing passersby with Asian food in the middle on nowhere.

The treatment we received from the Dircks made Alice and I feel so special that night. That is the charm of unpeopled places, I guess, and perhaps the curse.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Road Trip, Part 12

What really boggles the mind on a road trip like this one is how vacant much of this country is. Along most of Interstate 80 in Wyoming, there is no speed limit, only signs that ask motorists to drive safely. So, you set your cruise control at 80 or so, and speed through the moonscape, hoping that you’ll catch a glimpse of another vehicle every 20 minutes or so, just to break the monotony.
Eventually, you come to Rawlins, population 8,538. For Wyoming, that's a pretty good-sized city. It came to be that way because it once had a prison and a mining industry. The prison is closed, but the mines are not, and being situated on I-80 has helped it, too.

Most of the people in Carbon County live in Rawlins. The entire population of the county is only 15,639, and the county is huge - 7,991 square miles. That means there are slightly fewer than two people per square mile. By contrast, Washington County's population density is 240 people per square mile.

We spent the night in Rawlins at the Ferris Mansion B&B (above), run by two sisters that brought “Arsenic and Old Lace” to mind. The bedrooms were kitschy Victorian, the downstairs featured a display of the sisters’ large, antique toaster collection. We sat in our rockers, draped with doilies, and relaxed for a while. I drank a liter bottle of Fat Tire beer that I’d been hauling around in the cooler since Denver. Then we went downstairs to ask the sisters where we might find someplace to eat. They were watching the Rawlins town council meeting – live – on television.
“There’s only one restaurant in town, “ Janice Lubbers said. “But you’re going to like it.”

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Road Trip, Part 11

We didn’t hang out in Utah very long. We drove 30 miles into Salt Lake City, then north along the shore of the lake. We had lunch with Tom Laabs-Johnson (right), a classmate of mine from the high school days, a social worker who helps troubled youth.

Tom is one of those people who has never uttered an unkind word about anyone. In the three years we spent together in a dormitory at the Darrow School, I never saw him without a smile on his face. He showed up to meet us in shorts, despite the chilly March weather. “I wear shorts 365 days a year,” he said.
“You guys are perfectly welcome to stay at our place for the Winter Olympics in 2002,” Tom offered.

It was a touching invitation, but we were in rather a hurry to get back home. We had just a 9-day window to travel while our daughter was in France on a McGuffey High School French Club trip, and she was due back in a couple of days. Still, the scenery was so breathtaking around Salt Lake that I wouldn’t have minded spending the next six years at Tom’s house.

Instead, we pointed our vehicle eastward on Interstate 80, and in a few hours we were in Wyoming, headed for at least one more unforgettable experience.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Road Trip, Part 10

(Along a lonely stretch in western Colorado)

We stopped for lunch in Steamboat Springs, once a pathetic little mining hamlet and now a yuppie-fern bar-ski haven where the parking lots are packed with BMWs and Volvos. Just outside town, at exactly 1,804 miles from home, we encountered our first orange construction barrels and flag people. “You see, Pennsylvania is not the only state paralyzed by road construction,” I said to Alice. But I was wrong. There was nothing wrong with the road; the crew was just clearing a rock slide.

From the journal:
We could scarcely believe it, but western Colorado was even lonelier and more desolate than eastern Colorado. We sped along at 75 mph, hour after hour, for hundreds of miles, hardly seeing another soul.

As we passed into Utah, the landscape began to change again, and wind-eroded, red rocks erupted from the desert plain, purple with sage. We came down from the Uinta Mountains in the dark, the lights of civilization in the Great Salt Lake basin glimmering ahead of us like some distant galaxy.

Road weary, sleepy and hungry, we drove north through Heber City, looking for a comfortable place to stop. We kept driving, and then, suddenly, Route 40 came to an end, near Park City, where the road intersects with I-80. We found a motel nearby and spent the night, and when we awoke the next morning, snow was falling in huge, white flakes, and the restaurant was crowded with skiers in neon parkas.