The Beats go on

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I am fortunate enough to live in a small town that not only has the very best coffee shop in the world (seriously, people come from all over), the very best pizza place in the world (people come from all over and beyond), and the best indie bookshop in the world. Plus, I get to run in the snow in the winter, like this morning when a couple of inches of fat flakes fell from the sky just long enough so that I could take a selfie post-run, with my lashes and the bill of my cap thick with white powder.

And speaking of the best indie bookshop: I spent a lot of money there last week, scooping up presents for family, and lingering over the extensive collection of Beat literature. Not just books by Beat poets but also books about the Beat poets. For a small bookshop, they had a lot of books about the Beaterati.

I like the bookshop, and I respect and trust their taste, so after a little browsing I decided on Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums because I like Buddhism and travel and I once was kind of a bum, albeit a privileged one with a 401(k). (Yuck, that sounds so pretentious and completely unself-aware, but there it is.)

As I unloaded my haul at the register, I mentioned to Danny, the bookshop owner, that I guessed they must be big fans of Beat literature, given their extensive collection. He grinned, of course we are, and then told me about his very favorite Beat poet, and the book that changed his life. And before I could stop him he had presented me with that very book and wouldn’t let me pay for it. I did just spend a small fortune there, so I guess that’s fair? But more than that, my heart skipped a beat because how often are you gifted with a book that has changed a person’s life?

The Poynter

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Several months ago, I attended a workshop for up-and-coming journalists of color at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, on behalf of my employer, Automattic, the VIP division of which is a regular, enthusiastic supporter and financial sponsor. The VIP team was on their annual Grand Meetup, so they’d asked if I would attend on their behalf. Being a geek of all things journalism, I’m fairly sure I said yes before Steph had even had a chance to finish typing the question in Slack.

Mid-October in St. Pete is lovely. The sun burned bright yellow everyday and closed the curtain every evening with a warm glow. The first early morning I walked down the wide avenue on which Poynter is located, I was struck by how radiant the building appeared in the face of the rising sun. It seemed a good omen to the day.

One evening, the institute hosted a dinner and cocktail hour offsite, featuring the legendary Marty Baron of the Washington Post as the guest of honor. I held back during the meet-and-greet at the end, thinking that I would have the opportunity to chat with him even for just a few minutes the next day at the workshop, but as it turned out he was only in town for that one evening, and I missed my chance. I’d known about him for years, had read articles about him, and of course had seen Liev Schreiber’s portrayal of him in the movie Spotlight, so I was appropriately awestruck even just sitting in the same room with him. I’m geeky enough to have blushed and felt a momentary thrill when one of the executives from the institute, who presented Mr. Baron at the dinner, also thanked my employer and myself for attending and participating. When he sought me out in the small audience and mentioned my full name — pronouncing it correctly! — in his acknowledgments, Mr. Baron nodded and smiled in my direction and I returned the gesture with the goofiest smile on my face.

Mr. Baron’s empty chair at the workshop was right in front of mine!

But the most memorable moment of the week for me was when I took a cab to the institute my last morning. I had brought a couple of big boxes containing mugs and other branded swag for the workshop attendees, so I wasn’t about to hoof it the quarter mile to the building. The hotel concierge kindly called me a cab, and within minutes a tall, gangly man in his late fifties or so bounded out of his car and deftly hauled my boxes into the trunk while I slipped into the front seat.

He had a lively story, one of those classic only-in-Florida stories of men washing up from elsewhere on a Florida beach hoping to find both sunshine and fortune. He found plenty of both, but kept one and not the other. Now he’s driving a cab, but he retained a deep affection for St. Pete and its quirky culture and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

When we arrived at the institute, though, and he’d finished helping me bring my boxes inside the lobby, I pulled out my wallet but he waved his hand in dismissal and shook his head.

“No, no, this one’s on me.”

I stood there in confusion. This man just told me his life story and how he’d come to Florida and built a thriving business, only to lose it all through a series of misfortunes and mistakes, and now he’s driving a cab to earn a living. I was not here to dispense charity but to pay for a service he’d so ably and cheerfully rendered.

He shook his head again, then pointed a sunburnt, slender finger to the building behind me, the one that radiated in the morning sun.

“No, the Poynter does good work. You do God’s work here. I love what you do and I love that they’re here, and it’s an honor just to take you here.”

I tried to explain that I wasn’t actually part of the Poynter, that I’m not even a journalist and am part of a company that sponsors the institute, but he continued to shake his head and wave me away. He walked back to the driver’s side and winked at me before sliding back into the seat and driving away.

In this terrifying era where the powers that be expressly point angry fingers at journalists and call them the enemy; when the president of the United States regularly encourages his supporters to see the media as the opposition, even goading them to verbally abuse them, it was a moment of grace and inspiration.

Acres of time

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I’ve read this metaphor a few times in various books and blog posts. Literally and scientifically, it doesn’t make sense — “acres” is a unit for measuring the amount of land, based on what I assume is an old English tradition since the rest of the world used the metric system and words like hectares. Growing up in Texas and having spent time in the renewable energy industry barnstorming through West Texas, for me the word conjures up flat, endless expanses of dirt and scrub stretching to the horizon, sliced through by a ribbon of interstate.

It’s space, not time. If it’s smothered in grass, as in a meadow or golf course, I can lie down on it and hit Pause to my day, staying there nestled in the green and maybe dozing off a bit. (Well, assuming I don’t get driven off by a groundskeeper.)

The phrase always makes me stop reading for just a nanosecond, partly because in my mind’s ear it sounds a tiny bit awkward. There is no place in which to rest in time. It’s not a place. There is no pause. Nothing cuts across it. There is no horizon beyond.

Still, I stop partly too because I love the image it evokes. It’s as good a metaphor for eternity as any, and shimmering green grass and glowing yellow horizon makes me think that “acres of time” would be a great place to hang out for awhile.

The Meet Cute IRL

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I’ve been wanting to watch “The Mindy Project” since I caught a handful of episodes during a long-haul flight to Europe a few years ago. Since then I’d watched the same cycle of episodes on various itineraries (American really likes sitcoms) — even though I’d almost memorized the dialogue and had come to recognize the singular quirks of Mindy Kaling’s titular character and the zippy energy of its storylines, for some reason once on terra firma I would forget about it and plunge back into the usual routine of keeping ’80s-era comedies in the background during my work hours.

That’s really just a fancy way of saying that I’m too cheap to pony up the small subscriber fee to Hulu, which owns the streaming rights.

Of course, the pandemic and stay-at-home orders have been really good at upending my strict budgetary guidelines. So now I’m in the waning hours of season 2, and the funny thing about streaming and bingeing a single show all at once is that it makes it easy to see the rough edges that, in the universe of sitcoms wouldn’t stand out if you were to spread out your viewing over weeks, months, and years.

For example: why does attractive, funny, articulate, and professionally and financially successful Mindy Lahiri, she of the active social life and enviable Manhattan apartment and office, seem to mostly date guys within a 50-foot radius of said apartment and/or office? Two of her colleagues. The divorce attorney whose office is on a different floor. The midwife whose office is on yet another floor.

She meets, falls in love with, and is even at one point engaged to other guys — and I’m sure there will be others outside of her borough as I continue to watch the remaining seasons — but it reminds me of one of the terrible flaws of “Friends”, and specifically Rachel Green’s character, who I otherwise adore but can’t help but wonder why the writers felt the need to make her get involved in some way with every single one of the guys in her innermost circle. Every. Single. One. Oh, and like Mindy they all live within shouting distance of her.

In Manhattan. New York City. A sprawling metropolis of 8 million people, presumably a big chunk of whom are smart, attractive, eligible men who don’t all live in Mindy’s or Rachel’s neighborhood.

And then I remember. Oh right. The Meet Cute. The perennial rom-com trope, the origins of which can be traced much further back than that moment when Harry met Sally. Remember when Rock met Doris over a party line and spent much of their romance on a split screen phone conversation? They Met Cute virtually before the Internet was a twinkle in the Defense Department’s spying eye.

It’s a trope, but one I appreciate. The romantic in me waits for that moment in every rom com movie — a lot of us rom com fans do. That’s when the movie starts earning the money we forked over for the price of admission, the popcorn we know will add pounds to our weigh-ins.

Writers agonize over Meet Cutes because out of sheer logic it can only happen once in a story, so it’d better be good.

Or does it? Can a story have multiple Meet Cutes and still retain scientific plausibility?

Apparently, yes. Hence, why Mindy and Rachel end up in multi-episode love story arcs with guys in their same zip+4 codes. When your Next Boyfriend is just an elevator ride away, the Meet Cute can happen several times in the same episode. Several times during which the romantic tension can ramp up before climaxing into the Final Meet Cute, when the protagonists finally, inexplicably decide, Hey, let’s have lunch and bump pelvises later. The universe must want us to since we keep running into each other, haha, it’s fate!

And we love it and sigh with fulfillment because although we know of no one to whom this has actually happened in real life, the mere possibility of it as dangled in front of us by these clever writers must mean there’s a chance, right?

And then I remember.

Once upon a time — the late ’90s, to be kinda exact — my then-boyfriend and I lived in Columbia, South Carolina. Columbia is no New York City, but as a historic Southern capital city and university town it had a decent population of just over 110,000.

One day I was at my dentist, checking out at the front desk, next to a man about my age who was also checking out and writing a check. (Young ‘uns, back then most folks wrote out checks for just about everything.)

I swear I wasn’t snooping. He was standing close enough that when I glanced over I happened to notice the address on his checkbook. He lived two doors down from me!

Oh, and he was adorable! I mean, I was firmly attached to my boyfriend, but I wasn’t blind.

I blurted out, “Hey, you’re my neighbor!” He was kind enough to overlook my awkward attempt at introductions and was gracious enough to remember me. Hard not to, since there were only four units on our floor.

After that I saw him only a couple more times around the building, and we’d nod and say hello, but shortly after that he moved away and then my boyfriend and I did as well.

I didn’t think of him again, though, until I had to. And I had to because a year or so later I was waiting for a flight back to Dallas to visit family when I happened to glance up while hanging out in the departure lounge at Columbia airport and saw him hurrying along right in front of me, a bulging black duffel bag slung over his shoulder. He was moving too fast for me to call out, and anyway, what would I have said? “Hey, neighbor” was no longer applicable, and I was too buried in my own thoughts and growing anguish over the slow deterioration of my relationship with the boyfriend to really care. Mystery Man — whose name I never actually learned — had vanished from my mind before my own flight was called for boarding.

Mystery Man made his final, inexplicable guest appearance in the story of my life about six months later. By then the boyfriend and I had irrevocably split, and I was left nursing some godawful wounds. The breakup was swift and — in hindsight — inevitable, but at the time it was unexpected. I needed to find a place to stay quickly, someplace familiar, so I went back to that original apartment complex and, by sheer coincidence, the only unit they had left was in the same building where the boyfriend and I had lived in two years before. It wasn’t my first choice, but at the time I didn’t think I had any, so I and my suitcase and CD player moved in.

I only stayed in that dark and mostly empty apartment for a month, after which I found a much better and more permanent place near my work. But in the last week of my tenure there, as I stepped out of my apartment one afternoon, I turned around and found Mystery Man exiting his apartment down the hall from mine. He was wearing dark scrubs and sported a hospital ID, and we both looked at each other and stopped, probably mirroring each other’s puzzled, confused expression.

We spoke for just a few minutes. He was rushing to work, and I needed to get somewhere urgently too, but we shared our quick stories. He had moved back to the building after a breakup. He remembered my boyfriend and nodded with understanding when I said I’d moved back in for the same reason. We extended “I’m sorry to hear that”-s and “It’s great to see a familiar face”-s, and then we had to rush off, goodbyes echoing in the narrow breezeway.

This is where the IRL Meet Cute diverges from the world of rom coms. I moved away a week later, and then nine months after that I moved back to Dallas. I never saw him again, and truth be told I rarely thought of him much either. My bruised and bloodied heart took months to heal, and there was no room for even the cutest of meets for a very long time. If his car were to crash into mine today, I wouldn’t recognize him.

But that’s the enduring charm of the Meet Cute, whether IRL or on the screen. Ultimately it’s not about the fulfillment of an initial promise but the idea of it, right? We have Meet Cutes all the time, sometimes during our best hair days and more often than not during our worst. We fall in love, we fall out of love, we feel hurt, we hurt others, we nurse bruised and bloodied hearts, we live happily ever after. But just as often, if not more so, we Meet Cute and there is no love to fall into or out of, no heart surrendered or broken or promised. Many times the Meet Cute is the story itself, with a beginning, middle, and end. And who’s to say that that’s any less romantic?

Photo by Rosie Ann from Pexels.

Optimize Your Business Website

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I’m biased since I helped organize this, but regardless, if you’re a small business owner, freelancer, or would-be entrepreneur, you’ll benefit from the quick and easy tips offered by my colleagues Steve and Kathryn on how to optimize your small business website.

Kathryn Presner

Two weeks ago, my colleague Marjorie asked if I’d be interested in helping run a webinar for small businesses, with tips on getting the most out of their website. She knew I’d done a lot of public speaking and thought I might be interested. Even though we wouldn’t have a lot of time to prepare, it took me all of three seconds to accept.

Fast forward to yesterday, when my colleague Steve Dixon and I presented a one-hour online workshop called Optimize Your Business Website: Secrets from Web Design Pros. Topics included essential pages for business sites, layout templates, the WordPress block editor, and what it takes to optimize a site so it’s both easy to find in search engines – and easy for visitors to use. We also looked at how to make sure your site is both accessible and mobile-friendly, along with a few different ways to…

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Grounded

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My employer announced early this month that all business travel was canceled for March, and then yesterday HR announced that the travel restriction would be extended through April.

The first announcement was a little surprising, but the second — given the chaos of the last week and the president’s not-so-reassuring Oval Office address on Wednesday that resulted in a strict ban on Schengen travelers to the US — was widely anticipated.

I’d been traveling so much the past year, mostly for business with a couple of personal trips thrown in there for good measure, including one to Asia in December, that it’s a little jarring to suddenly find myself with a long, long stretch of being homebound ahead of me. I’d just come back from a trip to Singapore when our first internal travel ban was announced, and I’m not going to lie: I was relieved that the ban only came down after I’d already returned. I love Singapore and especially loved the chance to go there on my employer’s dime, evangelizing WordPress.com and establishing friendships and relationships that I hope will result in some exciting opportunities for us. When the current pandemic dies down, that is. Did I mention that I absolutely adore my job?

Still, now that I’ve had some time to re-establish a regular routine at home, there’s something to be said for being unexpectedly grounded for an indefinite period of time. There’s no running commentary in the back of my mind, keeping track of what travel size toiletries I need to stock up on before my next trip, checking the American Airlines seating charts to see if I can move myself to a better positioned seat, opening up LinkedIn to see if there is someone else with whom I should connect at my next destination, scanning my local library’s Kindle collection for new titles to add to my device.

I can walk my pups.

I can make doctor’s appointments…and not have to reschedule them.

I can run without having to make the mental calculations of where and when I can run next week, plotting out tentative running routes in unknown cities, translating km to mi and wondering how much I can trust local reviews on popular running routes. (Pro-tip: running in Manila’s Luneta Park is only fun on Saturday mornings if you enjoy dodging and weaving hundreds of kids, dogs, vendors, cleaning crews, and other runners.The upside? A kiosk selling cold bottled water for less than 50 cents every few feet.)

I can let the dry cleaning pile up.

I can bake bread and pastries and cookies and know that I can actually eat some of them before giving them away. (And who am I kidding — given that the world is going to hell, there’s a lot of stress baking going on in my house right now.)

My latest baking experiment: forgetting to incorporate M&Ms into a traditional sugar cookie recipe, and to make up for it I just studded the outside with them. Still yummy. M&Ms can only ever improve a recipe.

I can — and this is what I’m really excited about — plan my new garden for spring, knowing that I’ll actually be here to work on the soil, plant the seedlings, and watch them grow, at least the first few weeks.

My office is starting to look less like I just moved in, and more like a warm and inviting place in which I’d like to hang around all day.

I can get used to this.

For now. My job requires establishing and cementing relationships with potential partners, and it’s hard to do that over even frequent Zoom hangouts and phone calls. Great connections happen over coffee, over meals, over cocktails, over handshakes and laughs and new jokes said in voices without the echo of VoIP. There’s a magic and psychic energy in personal connections that is almost impossible to replicate over video conference, no matter how advanced the technology.

I need to get back on the road and in the air.

But for now, though, I relish the peace and stillness of being home. To everything there is a season.