The best (or worst?) angry memo from a newsroom boss

IMG_1624 I shouldn’t have been nervous.

After all, it was just a meeting of coworkers where I could get a beer, maybe play some pool, meet new people.

I wasn’t like I was headed to a ghetto to cover a riot. I was going to my first union meeting in Youngstown, Ohio.

I was curious but uneasy, having never belonged to a union before. I have a habit of talking too much in new situations and I knew it would be easy to put my foot in my mouth. To me, stalwart union members were notoriously tough. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., where steel had been the city’s lifeblood and the unions had worked hard — and fought hard — for their goals.

Youngstown was only about two hours from Pittsburgh, so I suspected the union landscape was similar. As a new reporter for The Vindicator, I figured the union expected new workers to attend the first meeting after hiring.

So there I was in the Spring of 1988, walking into the social club where Local 11 had its meetings and kicking myself for not studying up.  I didn’t know strike history. I didn’t know any current issues of debate. I didn’t even know the names and titles of the local leadership.

Turns out, I beat myself up for nothing. There was no pressure. There was no test. People were friendly and the beer was cold.

I was taken aback, though, at one point during the official meeting. I think it was the only time a reporter spoke up with any sort of problem or concern to relate.

This guy complained, but not about something you might expect. Bad equipment? Poor working conditions? Abuse by an editor? Nope. None of the above. He was upset about one particular aspect of a newsroom-wide remodeling project that cost — if I recall correctly from that many years ago — $1 million. The project brought new desks, comfy chairs, offices with glass doors and fancy cubicles. But, as this reporter related, it also brought a sophisticated secret system to allow management to eavesdrop on unionized employees.

He believed — and he wasn’t alone — that the company could now spy on reporters and photographers under the guise of a sound suppression system. I was so surprised that I’m not sure I understood all the specifics of his complaint even as he related it, let alone as I try to recount it all these years later.

But I do know the complaint was discussed, duly logged in the union meeting minutes and noted as a matter worth investigating. I know this in part because I couldn’t resist asking other reporters more about it over the next few days. While some were surprised that this particular reporter spoke up at a meeting, all had heard the rumor and no one was calling it ridiculous — at least not to a new reporter like me (they were not sure if I could be trusted).

The managing editor, Paul Jagnow, wasn’t so shy.

He penned a memo entitled “MANAGEMENT EAVESDROPPING” that came out shortly after that union meeting. It dripped sarcasm and anger.

IMG_1623He wrote that he first thought the talk of eavesdropping was a joke but then heard from a staffer that “rumors were becoming more prevalent, even bizarre.” He wrote the staffer was surprised that “presumably intelligent people would be taken in by such manure, much less wallow in it at a Guild meeting.”

Rich with criticism for those doing “counter-productive rumor-mongering,” Jagnow’s memo addressed what he mockingly called “burning concerns.” No, he said, the sound suppression system isn’t hidden in a secret room with two tape recorders and it doesn’t use its “speakers” to intercept conversations. In reality, it cost $10,000, he said, and was installed to minimize “white noise” distractions for reporters and editors.

“The system uses one-way speakers — outbound only. They’re about the same as those on a home or car stereo,” Jagnow wrote, “and I don’t know any way to get around using them. If you don’t like them, blame Marconi.”

Other concerns, Jagnow said, centered on rumors that: intercoms in the photo department were also listening devices; a special button labeled TAP on the telephone system allowed managers to listen to employees’ phone conversations; and a new computer system had the capacity to measure the amount of copy written by individual reporters.

Jagnow took special delight in addressing the TAP button. “I love this one,” he wrote. “If such a function existed, do you really think we’d engrave it on the phone cradel for all to see?” Explaining that the TAP button is used to transfer calls, and only that purpose, Jagnow included this doozy of a one-line slapdown. “The person laboring under this delusion is really too stupid to work for this news department.”

Other lines in the memo stung, too.

On the photo department intercoms: “No manager I know has the time, inclination or pain threshold required to monitor darkroom gab.” Dismissing the claim that reporters’ production would be measured, the managing editor sardonically presupposed the punishment that the guild would worry about: “Reporters who miss their quotas are presumably taken to the secret room and beaten.”

The memo, though cocky and, some would argue, threatening, contained a few lines of resignation, like it was written from a trench in a longrunning, stalemated war. “Nothing I’ve written here will, of course, deter the self-serving few who thrive on disharmony and impute ulterior movies to anthing the company does. They are, of course, beyond reason or appeal, for their purpose in life is to make the rest of us as miserable and paranoid as they. To them, I will simly mention that the door swings both ways,” Jagnow wrote.

“No one proposes to hold you captive in the secret room.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but my decision to attend that union meeting proved wise. It was unsettling to start a job knowing the rank and file — my brethren — distrusted management to the point of looking for ulterior motives in a newsroom upgrade. But, management’s decision to fire back with a Gatling gun of a memo was telling, too.

I lasted seven years at the Vindicator, before moving on to a new job in Pennsylvania. But I worked in a small bureau much of that time, where we could avoid many of the tiffs and squabbles that developed between reporters and managers at the main office. The rank and file came close to striking once while I was there. As negotiations soured, we walked practice picket lines and discussed strategy. I saw workers anxious to confront management, not worried. They looked excited about striking, not afraid. You let anger and mistrust build long enough and people will do strange things.

IMG_1622It’s a shame, really, because I’m sure that everyone — or nearly everyone — at that place wanted to chase down the news, edit it well and present it with style to our customers. Every day.

That’s a lot harder without a consistently high level of trust, respect and collaboration. But, to get there, coworkers have to be willing to talk problems out, face-to-face. Instead, too often, we take the easy way out. We retreat to our cohorts, sit with only our peers. We head to the executive conference rooms or the bars or the union halls and we commiserate, exaggerate, gossip and criticize. We don’t invite the other side.

It’s ironic that my first dealings with the guild and management in Youngstown centered on complaints about secret listening.

If you ask me, that place — at least during that time — would have been better off with more listening. Not less.

Many people liked to hear themselves talk — or their memos read. They had no interest in hearing the other side at all.

Part 3: Hurt but alive, as reporters arrive

The muddy pouch quivered, as if it breathed.
Hattley turned on her iPhone’s flashlight and moved closer. But she could not tell herself she was safe.

This thing was half as big as her car, and it looked like part raft and part Army weather balloon.
Torn between inspecting it further and getting to the crash of the aircraft, Hattley decided to take a quick video with her phone, while pushing at the pouch with the ice scraper from her car.

As luck would have it, with her vision focused through the video camera, she put all her weight on a deflated, slippery part of the pouch that had been dragging through mud.
After a shriek and a tumble, she landed face-to-face with the twins.

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It was like staring at a two-headed monkey. The faces were gray-white, and the eyes didn’t blink. Frightened now, Hattley slowly tried to back away from the pouch. What were these things? Would they run? Did they bite?
Their eyes followed her as she stood. Again, trying for a video, she wiped mud from the phone but unknowingly swiped a news clip instead. It blared a report about the aircraft crashing, and Agnon awoke.
Instinctively protective, he reached his long fingers toward Hattley’s right calf and grabbed it firmly. Hattley felt no pain and found herself focused on the strange silver ring with the orange hypocycloid on his index finger. At that finger, and the others, began to glow orange, Hattley felt like she had drifted to sleep, but she sank into a dream more frightening than any she had ever experienced.

Images of fire and war and death overran her brain, and those dying were gray, like the oval faces from the pouch. All those bodies. All that life. Long, gray, contorted and slaughtered.

Tears ran down her cheeks. When Agnon heard her sob, he released her leg. She collapsed backward, her butt on the ground.
With Jadeion now also awake, the four visitors stared with big unblinking round eyes. Hattley looked away and scooched backward at the same time. No one made a noise. Hattley looked to her phone, hoping for a text, a missed call, a tweet — anything that would keep her from trying to figure out what she was going to actually do next.
The TV news truck pulling up toward her car forced her hand.
Walking without thinking, she moved toward the truck to ensure it had stopped. Standing in its headlights, she hoped the visitors would see this as their cue to flee. Somehow, she was confident the four would not hurt her. She knew they meant no harm to anyone. They were victims.
She traded meaningless bits of scanner chatter with the TV folks as Jadeion and Agnon each scooped up a twin in their long arms. Half-bounding, half-limping, they slipped off into a field of cedar and brush.

Hattley turned to look for them but was relieved they were gone. She barely heard the TV station videographer ask:  “What’s that big brown balloon-looking thingy?”

What I have in common with bastards, Hitler and a racist killer

Bastards, now those guys and gals have it tough.
Not having a dad to help you through life would be hard enough. Imagine the additional angst of not knowing your father’s name or background or, worse yet, whether he was alive or dead.
My dad was a bastard. I am the son of a bastard. I claim some expertise on the subject.
Not to confuse, my dad was a good, hard-working man and father.

David C. Iseman, a good dad who didn't happen to know his dad
David C. Iseman, a good dad who didn’t happen to know his dad

He also fits the definition of “bastard,” a child born of unmarried parents. To my generation and the one before that, a “bastard” also became commonly accepted to be a kid born after dad ran out on mom. That left mom either silent about the dad’s identity or willing to fabricate to help the kid — poor little bastard — feel better about the whole thing.

Our dad told us he never knew his father’s name. His mother kept the identity to herself. My dad and mom also acknowledge telling my siblings and I a lie when we were young. They said our grandpa died when my dad was very young, about 7.
It kept us from asking a lot of questions. But, it didn’t stop other people, like schoolmates and neighbors, from asking a lot of questions. “Where is that name Iseman from? My mom says your name sounds Jewish, is it? Why don’t you have any pictures of your grandpa? Where did he come from? How come you guys go to Catholic school if you’re Jewish?”
And on, and on.
The Jewish question did not go away with childhood. It has followed me during my 60 years of life, long after anyone knew, or gave two whits, whether I had a grandfather on my dad’s side.
It’s like I have a disappearing-reappearing skullcap. It pops onto my head at key moments … after the third beer when I was trying to get to know a new boss at the bar … while I negotiated with a cautious source to go on the record for a deep interview … just as a new acquaintance started into his racist jokes.
Of course, simply being asked about your heritage does not have to be a negative thing. When I lived as a young man in New York City, where lots of Jewish people make their home, being mistaken for a Jew usually ended pleasantly. Either I learned more about Jewish people or someone learned more about the word “bastard” and what it meant to me.
But, there have also been negatives, too, lots of misplaced prejudice, especially as I worked as a reporter and editor.
Years ago, when I was leaving one newspaper to move to another I learned that a high-powered official angry with my reporting had always presumed I was Jewish. So, for years, this guy behind my back had referred to me as “the hymie hack.” He also liked to joke about a very specific way I could end up dead, according to a photographer-friend who knew this official better than I did. (My friend waited to tell me all until I was leaving the paper, explaining he didn’t want to skew my objectivity while I still was covering the guy.)

 

Me working as a reporter in Warren, Ohio, in the late 1980s.
Me working as a reporter in Warren, Ohio, in the late 1980s.

Perhaps the most high profile time my alleged Jewishness bubbled to the surface was in 1990, when I was covering a strange legal battle over a woman’s estate.
Elderly but in control of hefty funds, the woman decided some new friends should take care of all her money, and transferred some assets to them. Her relatives cried foul, alleging these new friends, who were associated with a Catholic Church near the woman’s home, befriended the woman with misinformation and unduly influenced her using religion.
The men had brought statues into the woman’s home, including one that someone convinced the woman could shed real tears. When our paper began reporting on the case, these men came to not like me. Their lawyer, a proud Irishman known for some raucous behavior, particularly didn’t like me.
He also presumed I was Jewish. He said that explicitly in filing a $1 million lawsuit against me and the newspaper where I worked at the time. He also didn’t like Hitler. He put us in a paragraph together.
Here is that part of the suit, edited for clarity.
The defendant “has designed a plan of actual malice to ridicule the Plaintiff herein, the Roman Catholic Church and its members, with actual hatred that only a liar and propagandist against the Catholic Church” could design. The ridicule “is reminiscent of Adolph Hitler’s lunatic attacks on Mr. Iseman’s fellow Jews in the 1930s and 1940s.”
The suit (it’s reproduced lower in its entirety) didn’t go very far. However, it did succeed on one front: our paper’s policy was to remove any reporter who was named in a lawsuit from any story that was complained about in the lawsuit. The move was temporary, but it kept me from writing about the guardianship case for months.
Eventually, I had to spend some time responding to the suit, mostly to fill out and swear to an affidavit containing denials of specific points it had raised. I also had to swear that — contrary to the suit’s strong language — I was Catholic and not Jewish.
The lawyers didn’t ask if I was a lunatic or liar or a propagandist, so I was denied the fun of responding to those claims.
Looking back, I cannot recall all the mundane times the Jewish question surfaced. I do know it was routine enough that it didn’t really surprise me much. I just let the question roll off my back, like other pointed or malicious ones reporters seemed to face all the time when I was in that job.

Only me and the American flag were in attendance for this township meeting back in the early days of my reporting career.
Only me and the American flag were in attendance for this township meeting back in the early days of my reporting career.

I started in journalism in 1981 and worked as a reporter about 14 years before becoming an editor. The move up the journalistic ladder can mean an end to what some consider grunt work — gathering of facts, interviewing of newsmakers, researching documents, making those seemingly endless calls to source after source. For me, though, it never felt quite right to be totally removed from reporting.
So I tried hard to stay involved.
I helped make calls when we were under the gun. I interpreted documents to help reporters when I had the time and deadline approached. I did all — or nearly all — of my own reporting on my opinion pieces.
I enjoyed talking to people. Everyday folks were just plain fun … cranky, plucky, zany. I welcomed the challenge of public officials and bureaucrats plotting to avoid the release of information. And, politicians, well, you watched at least some of the recent GOP debates, right?
It’s interesting to see reporters fight back these days, for instance, when attacked by Donald Trump. I’m not sure journalists did enough to publicly respond back in the 1980s and ’90s when we took fire.
And we did take our share, especially from political figures. Reporters, especially print reporters, were punching bags.
Nothing outside of a direct slur or claim of racial inadequacy seemed out of bounds. Not ethnicity or age, not economic status, not even size of your belly or how long you had gone without a shave.
We played along, in part, thinking we were being tricky. So what if you were publicly lambasted by the mayor for wearing the same stained tie two days in a row? If it helped loosen hizzoner up, got him cocky enough to fire away with a quote he should have kept to himself, so be it.
Nowadays, I’m amazed how often reporters catch a politician going off the rails, and railing at the reporters. Not all of these are newsworthy. But I think journalists have gotten smarter to step out of the mindset ingrained into us years ago. I can remember many grizzled editors preaching that the public doesn’t give a damn how hard we had to work to get the news or how much grief we endured. Joe Sixpack doesn’t give a damn if you were yelled at or had your poor little feelings hurt today, Iseman. What can we tell him that he will read? Where’s the news?

In reality, the grizzled editor needed smacked down himself. His advice has been debunked, to some degree. Technology today allows us to track who clicks on Internet news. That gives a reporter ammunition to use data to challenge that editor. We can now show how thousands of people watched the video of the governor arguing with reporters, threatening to douse them all with Flint River water, while nobody clicked on the editor’s favorite story about the $3 million lead pipeline study.
Of course, it helps today’s reporters to have more tools than we had. A smart phone that can capture footage of a source going ballistic and get it to the office in minutes can be a powerful weapon, and a deterrent.
Looking back, I wish I had a recording of the latest time the Jewish question surfaced in my life as a journalist. It was several years ago at the News-Leader in Springfield where I live now.
I was in charge of the editorial page then, with the specific title of Voices Editor. The idea was to get lots of voices in print and online. But not all the voices, I came to learn quickly.
There were a couple folks, my predecessor warned, that were essentially banned from the page for hate speech. I was told that one, avowed white supremacist Frazier Glenn Miller, had kept his head down for years but might rear back up anytime soon.
Glenn Miller called me after he decided to run for the Senate in 2010, pushing for us to run a pretty rough letter from him. Gruff-voiced and direct, he demanded an explanation. I introduced myself, began to explain a little of my background but he interrupted:
“Iseman. Is that Jewish?”
I actually giggled a bit as I said, “No.” I was thinking back to so many similar questions from the past. Then, before he could speak again, I launched into a speech I had prepared about specifics in the letter, why we were not running it.
He argued for a bit before interrupting himself to ask again, loudly:
“What’s your name again?”
“Iseman.”
“You sure that’s not Jewish?” He spoke slowly, like he was spitting his words into the phone.
I considered launching into my mini family history, my spiel about bastards, but I didn’t. He wasn’t worth it. Becoming a bit angry now, I kept my answers short, while letting him ramble. I read over other things while he blew off steam. He eventually hung up.
His Senate bid went nowhere but, as you probably realize by now, Frazier Glenn Miller was not done making news. He became a racist killer.

Frazier Glenn Miller as shot in court by the AP.
Frazier Glenn Miller as shot in court by the AP.

I read closely as the information began to flow from the shootings he was accused of doing in April 2014, how he had murdered three in cold blood, how he planned to shoot Jews at two Jewish sites in Overland Park, Kansas, how he meant to kill more, his smug pronouncement of Heil Hitler when caught.
I remember being surprised that this deluded creep had actually failed miserably in his mission. He couldn’t even find the right kind of people to shoot. He killed no Jews. He killed Christians. One was only 14.

Glenn Miller. Hey. Look. There they are. Over there by the Jewish center. Must make them Jewish, right? But, better think now Frazier.

Are they Jewish?

You sure they’re Jewish?
By media accounts, Glenn Miller had children but they distanced themselves from him in later years, probably as soon as they could. Speaking about them in past interviews, long before his botched Aryan mission, he lamented causing them hardship through his outspoken racism. Of course, that didn’t stop him.
I tried but could not find any stories in which his children tried to defend — or even explain — their notorious father. One son was killed several years ago in a shootout with police. Others, have for the most part stayed quiet, out of the limelight.
Probably better that way. Pretend like he never existed, like they never really knew him, like he was never actually in their lives.
I feel bad for them.
It’s tough enough to be a bastard. Tougher yet to wish you had been.

The three-page lawsuit filed against me when I covered a case in a way the lawyer involved did not like. I was accused of attacking the Catholic Church and raving like Hitler.
The three-page lawsuit filed against me when I covered a case in a way the lawyer involved did not like. I was accused of attacking the Catholic Church and raving like Hitler.

suithitler2 001 suithitler3 001

Part 2: Crashed near Branson. The visitors in the glowing ship.

table2The police scanner crackled with reports from all around Moonshine Beach. Hattley had started driving there as soon as she heard “aircraft down.”
Dispatchers from the 911 center spoke with even more urgency once they learned the craft was “in the water.”

Hattley had been a reporter long enough that she knew the lake’s geography, knew where she was headed. She texted her editor that she was pretty damn sure this was no drill and she would tweet out information as soon as she could get eyes on an actual scene.
Tweets were already flying.

“Rescue crews cautious as glowing aircraft bobs in lake near Branson. @rescuebranson first at scene.” 

“Gray, tall people apparently floating, not moving. @chiefbranson says “We save lives. If we see someone moving, we’re going in.”  

“Crashed aircraft not from USA, experts say.” … “Nothing like it in database, says @exNasaboss”

“FEMA. NTSB. FBI. If the feds have an acronymn, it’s headed to aircraft crash @emergencymgtbranson”

“FORGET SYRIA! REFUGEES in USA! CRAFT CRASHES IN MISSOURI LAKE!!!! @UFOsarereal”

Hattley had done well to avoid texting while driving the interstate south toward Branson. But she needed to check her phone for new information. She screeched to a stop at the end of the exit ramp and looked down anxiously to check tweets. Adjusting her iPhone’s ap that gave her access to the police scanner, she peeled out along the two-lane, snake of a road toward Moonshine Beach.

She never saw the round, brown figure trudging along the side of the road until it lurched and fell toward her car. Without thinking, she jerked her wheel left and slammed on the brakes. She wasn’t sure if she hit the thing or not.
Agnon had listened to his father well. The strong pouch of webbingfronds had inflated as planned, enveloped his family and saved them from the ship’s crash, as well as the cold lake.

But now, after rising through the lake’s waters and getting to the shore, Agnon could only trudge, inside the pouch carrying his family with him. Jadeion hadn’t awoke and Agnon was hurt. He knew the small, noxious vehicle had almost hit him, and he tried to move further up the small hill to his left, but he could not. He saw the slight pale figure exit the vehicle as he lost consciousness. He prayed to all of the Gods of Calshinnyon that the stranger was kind.

…to be continued 

Finally … learn why we had a giant box in front of our house and, about that toilet in the tree…

IMG_1611 (2)

My wife doesn’t ask for much. She’s usually content in a comfy chair with the latest novel she’s borrowed from the library. She’s a far cry from spoiled.
That might have something to do with all those years she spent pinching pennies to care for our five kids. Lots of coupons, scrimping and thrift-store bargains.
So now, with kids grown, as we settle in to easier times, when she asks for something, I jump. Well, I would jump if I didn’t have a fake knee and an arthritic spine.
Still, I try to make it happen.
Her request seemed totally reasonable. “I wish we could have one of those little libraries,” she said. “You know where people walking by can just take a book, or leave a book.”
Why not? I thought. Sure, I said, mostly because it was around her birthday and I didn’t have a present yet. I also thought it was a cool idea.

I even drew a little picture of how I hoped it would look, put that in a card and promised to build it when we celebrated her birthday. How hard could it be? A little weatherproof box on a pole or a foundation. A hinged door. A sign.
That was 4 1/2 months ago.

Good start. But it stayed this way for -- well -- longer than Noah worked on that much bigger box, I think.
Good start. But it stayed this way for — well — longer than Noah worked on that much bigger box, I think.

The project developed —  how do contractors and project managers say this? — a rash of totally unavoidable but impossible-to-predict overruns and delays. At least one could be characterized as Act of God.

Halloween came and went, and the library stalled.
Halloween came and went, and the library stalled.

Factors that contributed to the delay included “optimism bias” and “scope creep.” The phrase “escalation of commitment” might also apply here.
In simple words, I started with rose-colored glasses instead of my construction goggles and I kept adding bells and whistles in terms of the scope. For example, I recycled as much as possible, including supplies I wanted to reuse that I had on hand. I also reconfigured elements from very-difficult-to-deconstruct pallets.
I also, respectfully, bring God to my defense. I have been sick and been able to work only intermittently, at diminished strength. I’ve gotten so antsy to finish that I’ve resorted to seeking help from Alex, the foreign student from Norway staying with us. But, without actual blueprints or a plan, I tried explaining to Alex the library as I saw it in my mind.

My mind, mind you. Not your typical mind on a good day. Imagine in your mind, my mind, mind you, muddled by painkilling, controlled substances. That previous sentence is an example of what Alex had to try to deal with, in a second language yet.
But, enough with the excuses. The birthday present is coming to fruition. The finishing touches are all that’s left. The library is actually ready to open.
In a matter of hours, we’ll be accepting and giving away books.
All that’s required is for you to meander down East Linwood Street, find the brown box that looks like a log cabin hanging from the tree in front of our house, do your library business, taking a minimal amount of care to close those finely crafted oak-and-ash-and-pine-and-Plexiglas doors in the correct order.

That correct order will be intuitive, I’m sure. Left door first. Then right door. Everyone will get it. I should definitely stop worrying that I’ll be out in front of the house before bed every night in the snow in March in my robe doing a last-minute library check. At least Alex will still be living with us. What’s one more chore for a nice, strong, healthy, stoic Norwegian?
What’s that I hear you saying? Hold on. You need me to back up a sec?

I get it. I figured as such. You have a question. It’s that “hanging in the tree” phrase from a couple sentences ago, right?
No, it’s not a typographical error. Part of that “scope creep” I mentioned earlier was my bright — dare I say brilliant? — and aggressive idea to bring a pun into the project, better yet, “hang” the project on a pun. Get it?
I’ll explain.
Many of these types of libraries across the nation are called “Free Little Libraries.” Ours is a “Tree Little Library,” a little tree-house for books. It might be the only one of its kind. I figured someone might have thought of the pun before me and built a library in a tree but I couldn’t find one on Google. Nope, not Advanced Google either.

OK. Question for millennials out there. Does that mean it’s a really good idea? Or, a really dumb one?

"Tree Little Library" get it?
“Tree Little Library” get it?

Hold on again. I need to stop here. I need to explain something else about this pun. But, first I have to shoo away my wife. I need to share this in private.
OK, she’s back in the comfy chair with her book. Here’s the deal: I wanted to make the sign say “Free Little Library” but then literally cross out the “F” and insert a “T” above it. You know, so the “Free-Tree” pun is more obvious. That works better, right? That’s cool, right?

I was overruled. The only real explanation I got was “That’s stupid.”

Ah well, whaddyagonnado? It’s her present.

Actually, I hope it’s the neighborhood’s present. We live on a street with a physical makeup that does not encourage a lot of neighbor interaction. Garage doors go up. People drive in. Fences surround backyards, and there’s no common, natural gathering place in front of our homes, near the street, except for Oak Grove Park that’s several blocks away.
I’ve met and talked to more neighbors in the past few weeks than in the seven-or-so years we’ve lived on the block. Of course, that could have something to do with that big ol’ box in the tree for months for no apparent reason.
Folks have been stopping by to ask, nicely, what the heck I’m building. Almost to a person, they also ask about an incident a couple months back, when the pre-library box suddenly and rudely became a display case for a full-sized toilet.

(Brothers-in-law visited. What can I say? They saw an opportunity.)

Before building the library, my wife and I didn’t tell our kids or my coworkers at the News-Leader our specific goal. But I sent them some photos early on in construction, asking if anyone  could guess what I was building.

Owl house.

Outhouse.

Bizarre, year-round Christmas decoration? Rabbit hutch?

One of the stranger kid guesses: A monument where we would store our old family dog’s ashes. Another guess was a house for the Norwegian if he misbehaves.

Alex, from Bergen, Norway, could not wait to help with such a cool project.
Alex, from Bergen, Norway, could not wait to help with such a cool project.

A guillotine for nasty squirrels? “Wait,” one kid said. “I know. I know. Mom and dad are going to start raising rabbits and sell them for food in front of the house, right?”

No, no, and more no. None of the above.

Just a punny library.

Why? some asked upon hearing the actual plan. In the words of my wife, who is always more succinct than I: “Because I love books, everybody should love books.”
Springfield’s sixth free outdoor little library is soon open for business in the friendly, tree-graced Oak Grove neighborhood, in front of the Iseman house at 2907 E. Linwood.

There are few rules for these neighborhood libraries. Basically, the honor system rules.
There are few rules for these neighborhood libraries. Take a book. Or, leave a book. Just enjoy sharing and reading.

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Part 1: Forced to seek refuge, but where?

Agnon looked for the two berths the smuggler had promised. He was not worried for himself. He knew he could muscle his sinewy gray body into the crowd and, with the help of his silverstaff, sleep standing, at least during the darkest, coldest time of the journey.
He needed the berths for Jadeion, his breedlove, and their young twins. Born only two months before the firewar that had sent them on this journey, the twins were still shedding gossamer. They were fragile. They needed a safe place to sleep.
But, of course, this was a time of desperation and fear. Many, like the smugglers, were quick-to-lie.
Asked about the berths, the short-horned, stammering Morfron who had gotten them on the ship, did not answer with words. He motioned toward a dank corner of the ship. Then, he slipped away. He had their payment; he would not be back.
In that corner, wrinkled husks of once-giant jargunfruit were bound into what looked like a hanging chair. It still dripped some sort of liquid from whoever slept there last.

Jadeion did her best to sop up some of the mess with her skirt, holding the twins close. At them, she smiled and hummed a riddlesong, but to Agnon her face showed only fear.
He knew he would not sleep. Not until they reached their new land, a new home, new hope.
But, for how many of those fleeing? Hundreds of others had crowded with them into this rattling ship. For weeks, transports had been running three times every night, careful to be back before dawn. Thousands had already fled. Would there be room? Could they find food? Would it be safe?

The ship shifted herky-jerky into warpspeed, bringing cries of pain, both muffled and sharp, from passengers on the bloated lower level. Agnon instinctively looked toward the twins but Jadeion had them secured, their egg-shaped faces buried in their mother’s cape.
Agnon fingered the thin rubbery pouch that hung from his neck. His father had been so careful in constructing it. The old man, an elderpriest on their planet, had broken down in paletears as he hugged Agnon goodbye, shaking as he made his son repeat the instructions for the pouch, demanding that Agnon promise to secure it exactly as told.

In that dank corner, Jadeion closed her eyes and dreamed — but only in scatterings. They flipped through her mind like playing cards through her grandmother’s long, leathery fingers when she used the cards to bring news from the future. In fact, Jadeion dreamed of her grandmother … at their hearthtable … showing again and again the beautiful, green and blue images she had been able to conjure of this faraway place that was to be their new land, their new home, their new hope.
But Jadeion’s dreams flew by too disjointedly to reassure. She twitched so violently that both twins tossed, squirmed and traded places on her lap, unaware of what their mother was seeing. The giant green ladygod appeared again and again in those dreams … wearing what looked like a war crown … her green robes flowing … the fire in her hand … her plaque with the words that Jadeion could only hope were not lies:

“Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand … Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand, glows world-wide welcome … her mild eyes command … Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.”

Focusing on the promise of those words, Jadeion forced herself to breathe deeply, relaxing her long, lithe torso into real, full sleep.

No dreams. A moment’s peace. A mother at rest, her children safe.
She woke as the ship slammed, portside, into the green-blue waters of Table Rock Lake.

It skipped to a stop, tottered and begin to sink near Moonshine Beach, a smoothstone’s throw from Branson, Missouri.

…to be continued 

Confession: I took my kids to the mall adult novelty store

Taking five kids out in public without my wife required me to turn into a drill sergeant, at times
Taking five kids out in public without my wife unfortunately turned me into a drill sergeant, at times

Our five kids were little all at once.

With twins the third- and fourth-born, only about six years separated the oldest from the youngest. So, taking them into public places demanded discipline.
I sometimes felt like a drill sergeant, barking to them to keep moving, pay attention, stay put … OK, at ease.

But, I had little choice, especially when my wife wasn’t along with us, especially in a busy place with lots of distractions and lots of people.
The mall was one of those places.

I have to admit disdain for the American rite of mall walking. Give me a playground, the woods, even a quasi-dangerous creek or waterfall and I could keep all five kids and the dog happy — and usually safe. But the mall befuddled me. First of all, we usually were not there to buy something the kids wanted. So, we were behind the eight ball right off the bat.

We usually went to make some emergency purchase such as a new microwave; to meet mom; to buy something for mom without her knowing; or to scout out some new gadget or toy that one of the kids with a birthday on the horizon really, really — really — wanted. Of course, as you might expect, that was quite thrilling for the other four.

To do the mall promenade for the sake of looking seemed unwise: a waste of time and such a tease. We were a family of seven making do on a newspaper reporter’s salary. Why parade these kids around in front of ads and toys designed to instill greed? Why invite frustration?

All this is part of the reason I sought and found a place of reprieve in every mall we ever frequented, in every town we lived. It was lucky but there turned out to be a store where I knew I could take the kids that had something they didn’t beg to buy but still cool enough to distract — even delight.

You know this kind of store. Here’s the modern-day ad for the one we visited way back then (Spencer’s Gifts):

“From fart machines to lava lamps, blacklights, beer pong and bachelorette party stuff, Spencer’s has funny stuff, cool stuff and a whole lot more.”
Of course, there is also far more risque “stuff,” too, especially nowadays.
Back when, stores like this had a bit more restraint; the “adult” stuff was not advertised as blatantly and kept — at least for the most part — on shelves in the back, or near the back.
Problem was, the Isemans needed to go to the “adult” section for this little mall diversion to be effective. That’s where they kept Aunt Maureen.
Yes, Aunt Maureen. My baby sister.

There she lounged, prostrate, wine glass in hand. There she lie, in the back aisle of every gag-gift store in America, on the cover of “The Loving Game.”

A nice clean cover showing the game is still for sale online.
This game featuring my baby sister as a model years ago is still for sale online.

“Is that her?” the kids would ask. “Who’s that guy with her?”
“Why is it called ‘The Loving Game?’ ” asked an older kid with reading skills.
“What’s Penthouse mean?” was often the followup question.
I didn’t say this diversion was without challenges.

As the drill sergeant, I had to move slowly enough to give each kid a chance to actually look closely and realize (or remember from last visit) that, yes, this was indeed Aunt Maureen’s face. I also had to move them quickly enough to avoid the row of stuff for sale that, even back then, took every conceivable play on words involving slang for male and female genitalia and made all those puns into gifts — often with cartoon drawings that could easily catch a kid’s eye.
“The Loving Game” actually had a relatively tame cover. Just a couple hanging out in front of a roaring fire, with glasses of wine and the board of the actual Loving Game splayed on the carpet alongside my baby sister, in her negligee.
She stares into the eyes of her slim, handsome partner who looms above her, shirtless.
“Is that her pajamas?” one of the kids would invariably ask. And from another: “What are they doing?”
What they were pretending to be doing could not be easily explained to little kids. So I usually answered by talking about the job of modeling. Once they realized it was play acting, and that Aunt Maureen got paid to let companies use her photos to sell stuff, they usually stopped asking questions.
Like I said, we didn’t have a lot of money, so the kids understood needing it.

We drew some odd stares from clerks. After visiting the same Spencer’s too many times, the kids would parade back in unison to the adult aisle pleading to find “Aunt Maureen. Aunt Maureen.” But, hey, that was part of the reason I liked this little oasis in the mall.
Maureen didn’t actually earn much during the mid-80’s shoot, she told me recently. Only about $200 for four hours work.
“I remember it was in Bear Mountain, N.Y. at a ski lodge,” she said. She had answered a “models call” designed to produce work for a couple possible uses but she did not recall any language about a sex game, or a mention of “Penthouse.”
“I did not know what they would be used for – or if I did I know they never used the word ‘Penthouse.’ We also did some standard ‘ski lodge’ shots in sweaters and etcetera.” She was anxious for work in a very competitive field, she said, adding, “I’m sure I signed a release saying they could do whatever with it, a standard agency release.”
She also didn’t really know where her photos might end up. She discovered about a year after the shoot that she was on the cover of the game.
How’d she find out? Walking through a Spencer’s Gifts in Pittsburgh, Pa.
I teased her for years about the photo shoot. I hung the box top for “The Loving Game” in our various garages over the years. The kids, as they got older, would point out Aunt Maureen to their friends and tell elaborate fibs about her line of work, sometimes pretending it was the “oldest profession.” We’d show the neighbors the game cover for shock value. And, when Maureen, nicknamed “Mo,” would visit for a party or celebration, I would wait for a prime opportunity and point across the room and shout:
“Yes, that’s Aunt Mo everyone. She’s the one on the sex game in the garage.”

The cover, with "Penthouse" clearly visible, after hanging in my garages for years.
The cover, with “Penthouse” clearly visible, after hanging in my garages for years.

My teasing was actually very overblown. The ‘Penthouse’ on the game’s cover misleads, that is if you know anything about the men’s magazine by that name. The game’s cover also has the more accurate slogan “A romantic experience for two.” The game is much more lovey-dovey than X-rated. Here’s how it is described in a current ad on Amazon:
“This is not an erotic or dirty game per say but is instead designed to promote communication by making the couple answer intimate questions about each other and themselves or promote caressing, kissing or otherwise non-sexual intimate contact.”
Still, the phrase “sex game” is fair game in teasing a little sister, eh?
It helped that about the time she ended up on the game’s cover, she also modeled underwear. Yup. Underwear.

model pix for dave

She described that work as dressing up in newly designed lingerie for shows in various cities a few weeks a year, to show off the new lines to buyers.
It was called “showroom modeling” back then, she says, calling it “pretty much the lowest level of modeling. Sometimes, cigar-munching, panty salesmen lurked licentiously nearby.
Some of Maureen’s other recollections:
“We wore ittle satin robes over our lingerie (also pantyhose tucked under the panties, etcetera, and little beige high heels (pumps). When we did a showing we would walk into the office with our robes and then open them and pretty much just stand there and turn around and smile for the buyers ( who were mostly women).
“The salesmen were all men though ( and most of the bra designers too – go figure!) Sometimes the salesman would ask our opinion of the new bras. … I remember one particularly short and obnoxious salesman who always said ‘Mo – you put the D in Decollate’ when I wore a push-up bra.”

As you might imagine, the lingerie gig offered some fodder for me to do some gentle, well, ribbing, as in a gentle poking in Mo’s ribs — made all the more easy when those ribs are exposed.
Of course, to be fair, Maureen deserves the last laugh. She got paid lots more per hour than me during her artistic career, which has also enabled her to earn cash for what she loves, dancing. That career took her to ballet stages, operas, dance halls and a giant cruise ship. She has performed on film, for TV, in revues and in cabaret.
She still teaches ballet and belly dancing and takes great pride in what her kids learn and perform.

Maureens headshot for modeling and acting.
Maureen’s head shot in her earlier career for modeling and acting.
She still dancing, even if sometimes alone, like at this recent wedding.
She still loves dancing, even if sometimes alone, like at this recent wedding.

All that said, I have tried over the years to claim the last laugh.
Not too long ago at work — I do not recall how this coversation started — I was trying to prove to some coworkers that my sister actually appears on a sex game. So, I googled “The Loving Game.”

But, wha? Huh? Lo and lament! A different woman appeared on my phone. And a different man!
The cover had been reshot, with the couple in a much more, well, intimate, pose. Fewer clothes, too.
I immediately thought — and plotted the best way to rub this in with Maureen — that her cover had grown too old! She was out of date! She was too tame! She wasn’t sexy enough for a sex game anymore!
She had been voted off that very intimate island known as The Loving Game!

Oh now. My baby sister has been voted off the sex game!
Oh now. My baby sister has been voted off the sex game!

The tease didn’t work very well. She just shrugged it off. I think she changed the subject by asking me about one of my several ailments and surgeries of the last decade. She might have asked, nicely but effectively, “Can you still walk?”
One thing in my favor is that I still have that old game cover. I bet with some help from someone who knows how to alter photographs, I can do something clever.
Maybe replace the negligee with a mustard-splattered old lady smock. Ditch the wine and put an Ensure protein drink in her hand. The dude will have to go. Maybe replace him with a mean-looking orderly from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I will need a clever title, though. Maybe “The Aging Game?”
No. Wait. I got a better idea.
I’ll just add some wrinkles to her face, put her and the guy in a couple Depends adult diapers and bring my baby sister back to the the board game biz and lingerie-selling biz in one fell swoop.
Strip-poker with a twist for the senior crowd. You win the round and tell players whether they need to add clothes or Depends products — careful with those Velcro tabs! — or take ’em off.
I’ve already got the fake TV ad campaign conjured.

I’ll get my oldest daughter to let us add some wrinkles and makeup, hold the altered game cover up for the camera, stare at it lovingly and speak in the a sultry voice mimicking Aunt Maureen:
You remember me? You remember fun? Bored with yoga and pilates? Got friends who can still frolic?
This is for you. The Late-life Loving Game.

It’s specifically designed for older, active people to offer maximum fun — with maximum protection and guaranteed, 100 percent maximum absorbency.

C’mon. You’re not dead yet. Buy the game. What’s life without a couple risks?

Don’t worry. We got you covered. Just keep in mind our sponsor’s slogan:

Ready for whatever comes next?

Depends.