Monday, August 7, 2006

A Dream Come True

We started all this on June 23, 1992 or 722 weeks ago (not that I'm counting). Gas was 25 cents a gallon; you could get a good cup of coffee for a nickel; and you could stand in a public line without hearing the annoying chatter of somebody on a cell phone. Al asked me if I was interested in starting up and editing a weekly newsletter for the company. He wanted a 10 page newsletter to include store information, technology and competition related news, and other tidbits that employees might find useful.

This seemed a daunting challenge but a great opportunity. Al knew that I had a journalism degree and was feeling a tad frustrated that I hadn't up to that point been able to get into the only field that I wanted to get into not counting Major League Baseball. One of the things I've long admired about Al is his ability to put people into situations to take advantage of their talents and thus giving them a better chance to succeed. That's not something that those in leadership positions often do.

My mindset at the time wasn't exactly brimming with confidence and sun. I think the best way I can convey where I was at during this time occurred during the Halloween blizzard of 1991. I was working weekends at the 80 N Snelling store and living in a small efficiency on Goodrich a few blocks off of Grand Ave. in St. Paul. The day after the storm I had a 12-8 shift and I somehow managed to plow my Honda Civic through the poorly plowed streets. The snow had continued to fall all day.

By the time my shift was over my car was buried beneath the snow. I knew snow emergencies had been called and knew that I'd never find a spot close to my efficiency. So I decided to walk home. Now this would have been quite the pleasant two or three mile walk on a spring day but since few of the sidewalks were plowed and traffic was at a standstill the easiest thing to do was to walk on the streets. I was wearing my boots but my boots were not meant to handle walking though thigh high snow drifts. By the time I got to Grand and Lexington my feet were blistering. And it was too late to turn around since it was just as far back to the store as it was to my efficiency. So I trudged on.

When I eventually made it back to my efficiency and the unhappy because it was well past his dinner time, Max the Cat, my feet were torn up and burning. I was out of breath, and my fingers and toes felt beyond cold but not quite frost bit. I also realized I faced the daunting challenge of back tracking the next morning to get my car out of the Cheapo lot. I realized I had done a stupid if not dangerous thing and I felt like if I hadn't hit rock bottom I must be pretty darn close. I also realized I couldn't keep keeping on like I was. I needed to change something, accomplish something to get myself on track. And so the following June when Al offered me the newsletter job, I was if nothing else, determined to give it my best.

Al sent me to a newsletter seminar somewhere in Minneapolis- my failing memory (722 weeks!) doesn't quite remember the exact location. I remember a small group of people (around a dozen) had signed up for the seminar and the instructor went around the room and asked why we were there. Most people said they were assigned a task of doing a newsletter for their organization and either were struggling with the startup of the publication or were struggling with keeping the publication going either because of lack of contributions or just the overwhelming task of putting out a worthwhile read.

The instructor also had us share how often we were publishing and how many pages our newsletters were supposed to be. Without exception everyone in the seminar said they were doing a monthly or a quarterly newsletter and the length of most were either one or two pages. That's when I chirped in, "I'm doing a weekly 10 page newsletter." I think I heard an audible gasp or two.

When I reported back to Al, I suggested we cut back to eight pages and he agreed. And that's what we've done ever since without missing a single week (that would be 722 for those of you scoring at home).

I was quite nervous when the first edition came out. All I could think about was what happened with the ABC TV newsmagazine 20/20 whose first show was so awful that the network immediately fired the co-hosts, Harold Hayes and Robert Hughes and replaced them with veteran broadcaster Hugh Downs. I hoped Al would give me a longer rope than that.

My goal was to create an effective publication that was fun to read, in hopes this would encourage people to contribute articles. I also set a goal of printing at least 50 percent original material and not having to rely mostly on non-Cheapo generated articles. I figured I would write every now and then, as needed, since one of the major issues I was grappling with at the time was trying to figure out the role of writing in my life and how what I wrote affected my friends and family.

It wasn't very long though when I saw that I was going to have to write a lot more than I originally had hoped. Soon I settled into taking the last page of the newsletter to write a weekly column. Through the first few years though, this notion of not wanting to write unless I had to was at the front of my mind. I never began compiling the newsletter thinking that I was going to write a column. Instead I started each Saturday evening compiling all the articles for the week and then after I was done editing stuff and laying out the pages I would realize that I was going to have to write a column to approach the 50 percent quota I had set.

Since I hadn't thought about writing until that point I never really thought about what I was going to write about. For that I relied on what I had learned in my writing classes- write about what you know. Over the years I have come to know less and less so this strategy has led to many rambling columns about essentially nothing (not that any of you must have noticed...). I really have tried to keep my whining to a minimum and there have been times over the years where something I have written has cracked me up (not that I needed further cracking).

Write what you know. It's always meant a lot to me when a reader has told me how much they liked a particular column. It means just as much when someone tells me they like when I wrote about specific things I truly love like Bob Dylan's music, Max the Cat, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sandra Bullock. (OK no one has actually told me they like my Sandra pieces but didn't you all feel the love?)

Producing a newsletter for 14+ years has probably been the hardest thing I've done in my professional life. There hasn't been a Saturday all that time where I haven't had this gripping fear of "how the heck am I going to get the newsletter done?" Thus it's also my proudest professional accomplishment that we never missed a week. I realized early on that it wasn't going to be possible given the resources and time to produce a great publication. What I decided to do instead was to be consistent and reliable. Some would call that predictable and boring. I would only counter that as I move on in life I've learned it's nice to have some things in life that you can count on being there week after week. Nothing wrong with dependability.

It hasn't exactly been a secret that one of the major inspirations keeping this publication going over the years has been Dylan's "Never Ending Tour" where Bob has essentially played close to 200 shows every year since 1988. I've always loved how Bob seemed to have come to the conclusion all those years ago that the only way to get past his past was to hit the road and perform and just keep creating something in the moment every night. As Bob continues the tour he has expanded his canvass to a new venue- his delightful XM satellite radio show, "Theme Time Radio Hour." Wow. What I have learned is that to be a writer means nothing more than being willing to write something. It isn't about angst, glamour, fame or understanding. It's just as simple as putting words to paper. That's all it takes.

When Al told me of the end of my tenure as the editor I was of course a bit sad. But truthfully part of me felt some relief as well. I essentially haven't had a weekend off in fifteen or sixteen years. Writing a column week after week has probably changed not only the way I write, but the way I think since my natural way of processing feelings and thoughts used to be to ruminate over them. Now I just get them down and out and move on.

I have so many fond memories due to the newsletter and my Cheapo employment. The first couple years of publication were produced pre-PC on a typewriter with a memory. I'd retype the submitted stories on a Sunday morning in St. Paul as I'd munch on a McDonald's breakfast burrito. I'd copy it all off next to our shrink wrap machine. Then along came the Internet that eliminated the need to re-type interesting media articles and allow me the ability to search news services throughout the world for stories I thought might be interesting to all of us. I remember all those Saturday/laundry nights busy typing away as Mr. Max was in another room, in his favorite window and he'd come on by on occasion just to check up on me and let me know what he was up to. I'll go to my grave cherishing those memories.

Since my original fear was about Hayes and Hughes it also doesn't escape me that I'm leaving this job within a year of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings ending their long tenures as the most visible journalists in the country. Not that I'm exactly in their league or even in the same sport but like them I know I've been lucky to have a job for so long that I loved doing, that also made me a better person. I'm proud of my long association with Cheapo, and proud all our company has meant to this community. This job has literally taken me around the world (to Japan) and back and I know because of that I'm much better prepared for whatever it is that comes next.