Sunday, March 03, 2013

My friend and former collegue, Chris Maag

I haven't written much about my career in journalism on this blog, mainly because I wanted to keep it clean for all my passionate ramblings (and the words/websites/photos/videos of other book people) about books and readers and librarians and authors.
Just this once, however, I am going to make an exception, and write a little about working for 8 years at the Mercer Island Reporter, a weekly newspaper on Mercer Island, Washington.
The thing you need to know about Mercer Island is that, unsurprisingly, it is a wealthy enclave of doctors, lawyers, celebrities, dentists and CEOs of major Seattle companies, including Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. the other thing you need to know is that Mercer Island is full of surprises, like drug problems at the high school (one of my fellow reporters summed it up best (Jeff Gove) by saying "Where there's excess money, there's always going to be drugs and alcohol.") and eccentric children's poets like Jack Prelutsky, fantastic, generous bookstore owners like Roger Page of the wonderful Island Books, a thriving independent bookstore, and yarn-bombing, farmer's market-going, chicken-farming families with children who enjoy what is arguably the best school system in Washington.
Among all the millions of crazy stories on Mercer Island rests the Mercer Island Reporter, whose staff of 9 included native Islanders, like Joan Allen, our secretary, and current residents who were born in the Midwest, like Jane Meyer Brahm, our editor at the time, who was a brilliant and nurturing leader/den mother to our motley crew of reporters.
We were like a family of creative, often contentious, people who really cared about telling the stories of Mercer Islanders and providing some glue that held the community together, albeit briefly, as they read the news every week in our gorgeous broadsheet newspaper.
There was Jeff Gove, a city reporter and an intense young man with a wicked wit and a desire to dig deep into the underbelly of Mercer Island to unearth all the secrets and stories that some wanted to keep hidden. Following him was Chris Maag, a brilliant young man with amazing curls, an infectious laugh and more disco dancing moves than you could shake your booty at. His stories were always full of heart and warmth and something extra that made you want to read more of whatever he was writing, just for the subtle insights into human nature that he managed to prise from the people he interviewed like pearls from oysters.  Following Chris was Stephen Weigand, who, though he tried to hide it, was one of those people who seemed tough at first glance, but once you got to know him, you realized he was not only sharp as a tack, but kind, and sweet natured and tender-hearted. All three of these young city reporters were beautiful to look at, Jeff being dark, brooding and lean, Chris all wiry muscles and sunny-faced, and Steve tall, dark, slightly-Asian with a dimpled smile that was so disarming he could be telling you that the world was coming to an end and you'd accept it with good grace.
There were education reporters, Nora, Mary and lifestyle reporter, myself and lifestyle editors, from Linda to Trish to Nicole and a gal whose name started with a C, I want to say Colleen, but that wasn't it, who was partially deaf, who came and went about every 6 months to a year, with the exception of Linda, who, not unlike a cat, had to get used to you and come to you with friendship. If you tried to befriend her prior to that, you were not welcome, and were, instead, treated to withering critiques, blistering glares and often pretending that you weren't even there. She was the award-winning lifestyle editor for somewhere around 7-9 years, I believe. I feared her for several years, until she finally warmed enough to my presence to create a wary truce, oddly enough, just before she left the newspaper in favor of ParentMap, a local parenting publication.
We also had a sports editor/reporter, Ethan and Matt and someone between them whom I do not remember, and we had an ad salesman, Aiden Mahr, whose birthday was yesterday (March 2) and who is, and was, a multi-lingual Irish gentleman whose charm, wit and fantastic sense of humor kept us from imploding during tense times at the paper. He was like the charming uncle who knew just when you needed a joke, or a word of encouragement or a kindness to help you through. He even met my friend Rosemarie Larson and myself at the Dublin airport on our trip to Ireland in 2000, and drove us around to our hotel, gave us good advice and then invited us for debriefing drinks at a hotel owned by Bono Vox of the band U2 on the last day of our trip.
Ethan treated me terribly, so I'd rather not talk about him here, but I got along fairly well with Matt Phelps, who was a strong sports reporter and a no-nonsense editor. He had, and still has, a rather macho sense of humor that is by turns dark and cynical while still being hilarious. Though he's had heart trouble his whole life, many operations later he still manages to write cutting-edge stories about dangerous people and places without turning a hair. He's just naturally fearless, and though he doesn't look like Sean Connery, he's got that sexy secret agent aura that makes you think there's something going on when he's not at work that he couldn't tell you about unless he killed you afterwards, in the name of national security, of course.
Nora, who started as an education reporter, bloomed into a fantastic journalist whose stories were so intricate and honest and beautiful that they made you cry, or laugh, or see the world in a different way (which is what all good art does, really). Nora is a gorgeous gal of Irish heritage from the tough side of Chicago, whose snappy Dorothy-Parker-style wit kept us laughing and whose big heart made everyone love her. She was the first person besides myself and my husband to hold our preemie infant Nick at the Swedish Hospital NICU. She held him like he was made of spun glass, and eventually cuddled him close, and instituted a "baby time" at the MIR, when my husband would bring Nick to the MIR offices when he came to pick me up at the end of the day. Nora would shout, "Baby Time" and everyone would take a break to hold, cuddle and play with Nick, who didn't mind being passed from one person to another at all. He loved all his newspaper aunties and uncles, and now that those same people are all having babies of their own, I like to think Nick was their "experimental" baby/toddler, the one who showed them the joys and sticky sorrows of parenting for a short time.
We also had great photographers, Marta Storwick, a Mercer Island native and incredible adventurer whose journeys to Africa netted her unbelievable, grand photo spreads and stories and, eventually, a husband and a new career as a nurse. Photog Julie Pena was a sparky young lesbian who wouldn't take crap from anyone, but was still a sweetheart and a marvelous photographer, and Matt Brashears, an adorable young lion of a man whose photos always managed to capture the perfect moment at whatever event he was at. He shot some photos of Nick as a baby that to this day look more 'professional' than any studio photographer's work I've ever seen. He's just that talented.
The point is that we were a family, not just a loose collection of reporters/editors/photogs and ad salesman/secretary. We saw each other through good times and bad, through divorce, illness, unexpected pregnancy and premature baby, side jobs and bad interviews and outraged Mercer Island parents. I truly loved each of these people, though I think a couple of them hated me, for no reason I could ever discern.
So, though I've hooked up with many of these people on Facebook in the years since I've left the MIR back in 2005, (just before it was sold and turned into a ratty tabloid), I only recently found Chris Maag's wonderfully well-written blog, here:
Turns out he's moved from his native Ohio to New York, where I'd bet he still occasionally dances the night away at some disco hotspot. His blog is wonderful fun, so please stop by, read and enjoy.
I sincerely miss working at the MIR, though it was stressful, chaotic and sometimes emotionally painful. I am still proud of what a beautiful, meaningful newspaper we all produced. You just don't see those kinds of papers anymore, and journalists of my stripe are going the way of the dinosaur and the dodo. But no one can take the memory of these great human beings and our work away from me.

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