Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Christmas Production, by Danny O’Leary

When I was an adolescent we used to go Christmas caroling. If it was snowing, with large snowflakes blowing wildly, it was an even better time to do so. Back when we were about 13, a group of 10 or 12 of us would walk around Bellevue, sometimes from door to door, singing carols to raise money for charity. Some of the times the money would go to benefit Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital, where my younger brother Pete had recuperated after being hit by a car and nearly killed six years before. That fact alone might have been part of the reason why I was so easily suckered into going caroling, when I would’ve rather have been raising Cain somewhere. The other reason I was so easily convinced was that the girls were involved.
Danny O’Leary, who lived a few blocks away from me and whose mom was our Cub Scouts den mother, seemed to always be the ringleader of our caroling expeditions. Like some salesman of the art of performing, Danny would talk a bunch of us childhood friends into doing something selfless and fun for Christmas. For a time, he always succeeded in getting us to go caroling, and now I look back at the memory as sort of a quaint reminder of a bygone era—back when milk was delivered to our doorsteps in the morning, and when kids delivered the daily newspaper. Even back then, at least some of us thought that caroling was corny, but Danny could sell it.
“It’ll be fun!” Danny would say, wide-eyed and grinning, his enthusiasm reminding me of how he had led our childhood games of Planet of the Apes years before, hanging off of tree branches and acting the perfect monkey. “And we’ll raise money for charity! It’ll be great!”
Danny’s charm would invariably talk me into going, and soon I’d be singing harmony with Penny Balouris, Kim Stewart, Karen Ehlinger, Pete Sourlas and other kids I’d known since kindergarten.
We’d walk up the steps to the front porches of the old Victorian homes in Bellevue and ring the doorbells, sometimes anxiously beginning to sing just after we rang the doorbell, other times waiting for the homeowners to open the front door before we started. Bundled up in out thick wool coats and scarves with the soft snowflakes falling, we almost looked like a greeting card scene as we sang “Hark the herald angels sing” and other well known tunes. Most often, people would hear us out for our first song, then we’d tell them we were singing for charity. Usually, they’d give us a donation and we’d sing another song or two. I can still recall the kindly smiles on some of these folks’ faces as they watched us sing, noticing how our harmony was perfect and our delivery was nearly professional. For some of the old ladies, it was no doubt the first visitors they’d had all day—a sad fact that we realized as we moved from home to home, spreading our Christmas cheer.
Danny had a lot to do with the entire productions. He would warm us up and go over a song plan before we began to carol. We’d loosen up a bit as we began to sing together, hearing again how well we harmonized.
“We sound good,” Danny would coach us. “They’re going to love us.”
Danny went on to study musical theater at Point Park. Last time I heard about him, years ago, he was working as an actor in off-Broadway productions. Back when we were Christmas caroling, though, Danny was the star.

Jonathan Barnes is a Pittsburgh freelance writer.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Why do dog owners subscribe to newspapers?

Some days, the best part of the newspaper is the wrapper it comes in.
I say that because I once again judge a plastic bag through the rosy specs of dog ownership. That is, I can't look at a small plastic bag anymore without considering how well it might hold dog poop.
Until recently I was smitten by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's double-ply newspaper bags, which I found to be quite protective of my hand when I scoop up Sam's "business." The Tribune-Review's newspaper bags, which are a garish red (as opposed to the PG's clear plastic bags), are merely one-ply. Until a couple of weeks ago, the PG had two-ply bags, which they replaced with one-ply bags, though two-ply bags are an obvious advantage when picking up the dog's number two.

This is the sort of mush-brained thinking that happens to a dog lover who's been without a dog for a while and then gets another dog.
Several months back my wife, Anne, and I got a hand-me-down dog from her parents -- a scruffy-looking, gray-and-black mongrel. His prominent underbite and his slightly upturned nose make him appear scrappy, and possibly part Irish. As near as I can figure, Sam seems to be a schnauzer-chow mix, given his schnauzer-like head, his chow-like build, curly tail and spotted tongue.
He won me over fast, and now I giddily pick up his waste. Jerry Seinfeld said, and I agree, that if aliens are watching us from outer space, they definitely think dogs are the smarter species.
As Sam and I walk through the neighborhood at night, dogs bark in a cascade of woofs and yelps on down the block. The other night two chihuahuas a couple of houses behind us ran out of their front yard and down the street after us a bit, barking mightily at Sam.
"Hey! You two get back here! Mummy can't chase you out there!" the dogs' owner yelled from an open front door. The dogs slowly trailed back, letting loose a few muffled yips, feeling like they'd done their duty.

At night, or in mornings, the atmosphere often is still as Sam and I walk through Blackridge, our neighborhood. Train whistles echo up the valley through the community, reminding me of every Pittsburgh neighborhood I've lived in. The calm enables me to think great thoughts.
I consider the legacy that Sam and I are leaving when I pick up his "dump," then wrap the PG bagful in a grocery store bag (because the handles are great), and trash it to send to the landfill.
Maybe archaeologists will dig up Sam's deposits in 1,000 years, analyze the contents, and be reaffirmed in their belief that ours was a civilization that deserved to end, I ponder. I imagine a scientist coming to the revelation that we 21st-century dog lovers fed our pups food from our plates. "Free-range grass-fed filet mignon!" she'll say. "They fed their dogs as well as themselves."
The other day as Sam and I rounded one of the bends of the curving roads of our neighborhood, it came to me. I felt I knew why the PG had such sturdy newspaper bags -- it obviously was a ploy to sell more papers to dog lovers.
I checked the statistics and found a high correlation between dog ownership and newspaper subscription in families, and I thought I had the PG's latest marketing scheme all figured out.
Then the newspaper's management had to change to a one-ply newspaper bag, and kill my theory.

Jonathan Barnes is a Pittsburgh freelance writer (

This story was first published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Pittsburgh Christmas

I missed seeing “A Charlie Brown Christmas” this year, but one of its tunes has been playing in my head—“Skating.” Part of the tune has a rapid scale passage, and the tinkling of the notes sounds to me like snow falling. As I looked out my window the other day and the snowflakes fell, that tune kept playing, carrying me back to the simplicity of my childhood Christmases in Bellevue.
Our family’s Victorian home on South Bryant Avenue smelled like pumpkin, apple, blueberry and mincemeat pies and other treats from before Thanksgiving through New Years. My sisters and Mom baked the pies, cooled them, then placed a dozen or so of the delicacies on a couple of shelves in a built-in china cabinet in the dinette. We boys would proudly show our friends the variety of pies in the cabinet, making them beg for a slice.
Mixed with those sweet smells were the intoxicating aromas of dozens of different kinds of cookies, brownies, lemon bars and other crunchy deserts, all of which my four sisters and Mom baked and somehow guarded from us eight boys until the holidays. Some of these treats literally were hidden away for a bit, while others were frozen until the holiday. This meant that we boys would walk into the house and smell cookies, poke around the kitchen and the fridge and find none and then be really hungry for the treats. We’d seek out the source of the mouth-watering aromas and find nothing. Or we would find the cookies packed away in the basement freezer, with notes attached to them:
“These cookies are for Christmas! Do not touch them! –Mom”
Some of the batches of cookies were baked in the days just before the holidays and then stashed from us boys. A “batch” in our house was four-dozen cookies—Christmas cookies and gingerbread cookies, chocolate gobs and lady locks, chocolate chips and peanut butter cookies, Buckeyes and oatmeal cookies. The girls and Mom made dozens of different kinds of cookies, meaning there were hundreds of cookies to stash. A few of the cookies would be pilfered as they cooled in the kitchen, but Lisa, Leah, Jennifer, Michelle and Mom vigilantly guarded the sweets and kept most of them safe for the holiday. (In Old English, the word “holiday” meant “day to overeat.”)
After they cooled, the cookies would be carefully stacked in layers of waxed paper in department store shirt boxes, which were taped shut. Then the boxes would be hidden under the girls’ beds, or in their closets, and in Mom and Dad’s room.
On mornings during the holidays the house would smell of warm coffee cakes, which Dad bought at Barkus Bakery, up the street in Bellevue’s business district. He’d buy four or five different types of coffee cakes, carry them into the house with a big grin and be the first to have a piece of the nutty, glazed delights. Then he’d place them on the shelf under the pies in the dessert closet. Dad might make two or three trips to the bakery for the cakes during the holidays. Now, many years later and years after he died, mornings around the holidays can remind me of hot coffee, warm coffee cake and laughter. Even back when, Christmas presents were secondary.
One year, we kids got no presents. It was the year Dad lost his civil engineer job with U.S. Steel, when I was a teenager. Things were so tight that Dad sat the family down and told us we just couldn’t afford to have all the presents like years before, because we simply didn’t have the money.
“We’ll still have all the food and everything like before, just no presents,” he said.
I remember feeling sad that I wasn’t going to get anything, then I didn’t care. I felt bad for my younger siblings, some of whom were little kids. Thinking back to that Christmas, I don’t dwell on the lack of presents. I remember how we were all together—Dad stoking a fire in the fireplace, the girls playing cards with Mom in the dining room, a Christmas tree in the living-room and Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” playing on the stereo.
A while back I was talking with a friend at the gym and I mentioned that when I was growing up our family was poor. (I based that belief on the fact that we only had one full bathroom for part of my childhood, and also because if I wanted a nice pair of tennis shoes, I had to ask for them for Christmas.)
Later in my workout, an acquaintance from the gym walked into the weight room. In seeing him, an African immigrant, I was reminded of his experience—he had actually lived in a hut, in a war-torn country—and I was ashamed for calling my family poor. Remembering the holidays back when all of us were together, I realize again the gifts we had in a good meal, some sweets and each other’s company.

Jonathan Barnes is a Pittsburgh freelance writer.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Why I quit Barnestormin (and why I’m back)

I recently received a note from a reader of this blog, who asked if I was still blogging. It’s a good question, and lately, it’s also a question I have been pondering. The answer is, I am resuming work on Barnestormin, after a sabbatical of many months. You might still wonder why I quit for so long, though. While I don’t think I owe anyone an explanation, some of you have been very kind readers, and I want you to know, if you give a rat’s hind.
I’ve been meaning to get back to Barnestormin, to again pontificate for the truth-hungry masses, but I’ve had other things to do. I’ve also had something of an aversion for blogging, and so I’ve avoided it and worked on other things.
Lately I’ve been thinking about blogging a lot more than I’ve been doing it, for several different reasons, including:
Blog burnout. For a while, I spent a fair amount of time (almost every day) composing essays and some investigative stories for Barnestormin. I got so busy I was able to compile nearly 200 pieces on this blog before I deleted some essays and quit writing for a long while. But I was a bit underwhelmed by the response to Barnestormin, though I confess I didn’t know what to expect when I began to blog. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of really nice people showed up to read my writing and to support my effort. But a virtual pat on the back doesn’t buy milk and bread.
Escaping the weenies. Unlike some bloggers, I got too personally involved with my blog. Some bloggers rarely comment on their blogs, which I find strange. Others don’t allow comments, which is even stranger, since doing so makes such blogs technically not blogs. I took the opposite approach, trying to “engage” my readers.
I found that a lot of people in this little old blogosphere are petty and vindictive, with questionable opinions and motives. That, and other things, made me angry, and my anger crept into my writing. I began to feel icky just being involved with this whole blog thing and I even expressed those feelings in a Q/A I was interviewed for a while back that was done for Carnegie Mellon’s Creative Writing newsletter.
No blog for you. It annoyed me (and it still does) that some people prowl around trying to anonymously anger bloggers, and also that some bloggers have so many axes to grind that you’d think they’re lumberjacks. But I can’t let the weenies keep me down, so I decided recently that I would get back to blogging on my own terms.
Maybe I’ll become a Comment Nazi and destroy comments that I deem offensive, or maybe every once in a while I’ll just delete a post and all of its comments because I wish I hadn’t published the post. You may think that’s not playing by the rules of the blogosphere, but I don’t care. I am the dictator and sole proprietor of this blog and I’ll rule it as I please. If you don’t like it, you can cancel your subscription to Barnestormin at any time. It will cost you exactly what you paid to read my stories—nothing.
A tough line to pen. Though my cavalier attitude might suggest otherwise, freelancing is not simply lying on the sofa and eating nachos and drinking beer while the inspiration comes to you. Freelancing, that is, full-time freelance writing, is about a daily grind of calling people who don’t call you back and trying to meet deadlines, some of which are ridiculously short deadlines. Freelancing is also about keeping the hopper full of stories. Not only must you have to stories to work on now and for the next few weeks, but you’ve also got to have stories set up for months ahead, as well as possible quickly done stories that you might do in the next few weeks. You have to constantly be sending out pitches for possible stories to editors. You also have to stay in close contact with the editors with whom you work the most, and you have to stay on good terms with them, however tough they may be or regardless of how late their publication is in getting your paycheck to you.
And that’s just the journalism side of freelance writing—doing professional writing for corporations or PR and advertising agencies is another thing altogether. Some of those businesses don’t pay you for your work until after the client pays them for the project. That can mean delays in payment that are a few months long. It’s kind of like working for some monthly magazines, which work six or ten months in advance, and only pay you after your story is published. You can grow old waiting for such paychecks.
I also have been doing some freelance writing for a couple of PR agencies in Pittsburgh. I’ve done some writing of presentations and speeches for a government contract for one agency. I’ve also done mostly media training and related writing for another agency.
In the past several months I’ve done a fair amount of writing for a new Pittsburgh monthly publication, Pittsburgh Professional Magazine. I’ve enjoyed doing a number of profiles on people and stories on companies in and around Pittsburgh. In November, I did the cover story on Judge Dwayne Woodruff. I’m hoping the magazine succeeds, because owners Mike and Barb Yablonski are great people, with a great idea and a passion for that vision which will help to enhance life in Pittsburgh. PPM’s stories are not online, but I urge you to read it if you get a chance. And please advertise in Pittsburgh Professional Magazine if you have the need.
Within the past year I’ve been doing a fair amount of stories for a publication that I’d never heard of a couple years ago. The Cooperator is one of a group of publications owned by Yale Robbins, a Manhattan-based publisher that also owns Office Buildings magazine and other real estate-related publications. I’ve been writing stories on the state of the office space market in Pittsburgh for several years for Office Buildings, which is a publication that focuses on market reports and forecasts for various markets. One version of the mag covers Pittsburgh, another covers midtown Manhattan, another covers Boston, etc. I have written stories on the Pittsburgh market, the Cleveland market, and the Manhattan markets. My work with OB led to work with The Cooperator.
The Cooperator is a monthly publication that has editions in New York City, New Jersey and Boston. The publication covers issues and information of interest to those living in or working with co-ops and condominiums. I have never lived in a co-op or condo (though I have lived in apartments), nor have I ever been a resident of NYC, NJ or Beantown. But I’m writing about issues of interest to folks in those places, and I’m learning a lot about managing condos and co-ops.
Back to the book. For several years I have been working on a book that I refer to as a sort of primer to print journalism. I have spent a lot more time in the past couple years working on the book. I started the book out of the excitement I felt at learning the craft, jotting down notes on tips and different tactics to use in reporting and writing newspaper and magazine stories. The “primer” has ballooned into a pretty large manuscript, which includes quotes from numerous local and national journalists and a nice essay by Dennis Roddy . A little bit of what will be in the book has been on this site, for those readers who have paid attention to my stories on writing.
While I have been advised that the best way to sell a nonfiction book is to query the idea and get the publisher to essentially pay you to write the book, rather than writing it first and hoping a publisher will buy it, it’s too late for me to take that approach. Besides, other people, like this guy have managed to sell a book that they wrote first. I hope to be in such good company.
In the meantime, I’ll be posting my thoughts here more frequently, because I’ve missed doing the Barnestormin thing. I don’t know how frequently I’ll post, but I have a feeling I’ll be weighing in a lot in the upcoming weeks. I hope my old regular readers, and maybe a few new readers, too, will be checking out this blog. And if you have an interest in writing, specifically print journalism, feel free to make a comment or send me a question, if you have one about the craft. I promise to respond.

Jonathan Barnes is a Pittsburgh freelance writer. Email him at