For more than 17 years I had a dream job. I was an editor at a top newspaper syndicate and read comic strips, features, op-ed columns, etc. Then the parent publishing company laid off 150 people, closed the distribution and production center, and canceled features after the dot.com bust and as newspapers started a long decline. I was the lone casualty in our editing department as I was a well-paid senior editor.
I took more than three years off to get to know my sons and travel. I had the great good fortune of having 37 weeks’ severance and what remained of my IRA after the stock market collapse. I returned to the job market in 2005 by taking an adjunct teaching job at a local university and by becoming a full-time medical editor. In 2007 I became a copy editor at the trade association where I work now.
In March 2015, Sandra Moran messaged me that she’d been thinking she should do a launch event because All We Lack was about to be published. She asked me my opinion, whether I thought it was worth her time, and had I ever gone to one?
I thought about my response. I finally decided to write back as follows: “I worked for a publisher (on the syndicate side) for 17 years. Even though the industry has gone through a sea change, I think meeting readers (who have reader friends) is always good. Do you know Vivien Jennings at Rainy Day Books?”
Long story short, we met to talk, and I told her all about my history with book launches and events. I also asked about her writing plans. I approached Vivien, and she gave Sandra her chair on stage on May 20, 2015, for a Rainy Day Books event to interview author George Hodgman about his memoir Bettyville, after which both authors signed their books.
I asked Sandra later why she asked me about a book launch. She said I seemed to know a lot. I told her that working with her was “recalibrating” my brain (a la Nudge) as I shook off the rust and tried to recall how to set such things up.
When we met to talk about her writing plans and how I might possibly be of help, I told her some stories about my previous career. All she knew was that I was a copy editor in a cubicle at a trucking association in rural Missouri, so she was startled to learn some of my history. I had been fortunate to attend and/or host events and travel. I was in awe of her background and experience, especially because she had been in charge of expeditions. Unlike her, I was usually traveling “with” a columnist or writer to be helpful or make arrangements.
One example. In October 2002, I was the guest of the Egyptian Information Ministry for the opening of the great library of Alexandria. The ceremony was originally scheduled for 2001, but because of the terrible events of 9-11 and the security concerns the ceremony was delayed.
I flew to JFK, met my friend, and then flew to Cairo aboard Egypt Air. In Cairo, I checked into the Sheraton, received my ID and was informed that all my meals, the ministry car, and the hotel stays were paid for. I would have to pay for any alcohol — not a problem because I don’t drink when I travel.
That first night I sat at a restaurant along the Nile, watching the feluccas drift silently by. Later I went upstairs to the hotel patio to experience a hookah with my friend. That night I opened the windows of my hotel to smell the air, and hear the traffic far below, and be mesmerized by the call to prayer from a nearby minaret. I have no words for that evening.
The next day, we went to Giza to see the Sphinx and the pyramids. I decided to ride on horseback and hired a guide who held both my reins and his. He realized partway along the route that I could ride, threw me my reins, and took off at a gallop. To race alongside the pyramids was an unbelievable experience. A security officer stopped us, and then let us go. My guide said he was complimenting me on my riding skills (I had owned a horse as a girl). I did take time to walk around the pyramids to appreciate the architecture and the history.
We were driven the next day to Alexandria, and again I checked into a Sheraton, this time on the Mediterranean.
. There were armed guards everywhere, including at the door to the hotel where I had to show my ID each time I entered or left. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was in residence at the Summer Palace across the street.
My room on the 11th floor seemed palatial to me. On the desk were three gorgeous coffee table books on the Library of Alexandria in English, French, and Arabic (I gave the Arabic one to the Islamic Center in Kansas City).
I quickly learned how to say “Turkish coffee, medium, please” in Arabic. The savory breakfasts and lunches were delicious. I swam in the Mediterranean. The hotel sent a cabana boy with towels to accompany me. I was not the only person swimming, but looked up while I was swimming to see a row of men lining the wall of the road above, which unnerved me. I swam in the hotel pool after that.
For the ceremony, world leaders and former leaders were in Alexandria, including France’s François Mitterand. When our ministry car drove down the main road beside the Mediterranean, we had a police escort in front and in back, and the road was completely closed to local traffic. It was a state event.
For the opening ceremonies at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina the press was in a media center below the plaza where the ceremony was to be held. We sat around a huge table, and there were computer stations everywhere. There was an extremely distinguished man two down from me, and I managed to see his name tag. He was Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature.
A couple of times we ink-stained wretches would make our way upstairs to see what was going on, but it was hard to tell where we were in the program. I was sent to borrow a program. I finally spotted one and asked Sinead O’Connor if I could borrow hers. She said she had to sing later, but was quite gracious when I said I would copy it and bring it right back.
There was also a ceremony in a partially built huge auditorium near the library that guests could attend. It was packed, and I learned that the harbor was full of boats from Greece as most of the attendees were Greek.
My friend came to get me and said “Come on. I found a way into the library.” I thought that was a very bad idea given the level of security, but we did enter through an open door. The head of the antiquities museum was pleased to see us and gave us a private tour of the treasures that had been pulled out of the Mediterranean, from Greek and Roman to Christian and Byzantine. Again, no words to be the only ones to see these precious artifacts.
The next morning I heard a commotion down below, and stepped out on the balcony. There were tour buses lined up and lots of people in the front of the hotel. I decided to go down and check out what was happening. It was the 70th anniversary of one of the Battles of El Alamein, and there were hundreds of elderly veterans and spouses — American, British, and other nationalities — who were going to a ceremony.
I sat down by one woman. We got to talking, and she said she was staying apart from the others until the buses left because she was German. She said most people have no idea how the ordinary Germans suffered, that she almost starved during the war. It was a moving conversation.
I never had a chance to tell Sandra about that trip. We liked to one-up each other, and I would dearly loved to have heard her stories. I thought there would be future conversations when I could discover how and why she hiked the Inka Trail in full pack, why she spent time alone in the burial chamber of Khufu’s pyramid, and when she had dinner on the rooftop of a restaurant while watching lava snake down the sides of Mt. Etna.
The truth is that most of us have compelling stories, and I enjoy reading and hearing them. I plan to retire soon and have new adventures. It’s time.