You can't not start with that box of shit. Really. I'm just sayin' ... any retrospective on my almost two-decade tenure at NUVO, the box of shit stands out.
The box was not necessarily meant for me, but when you are managing editor, stuff just comes to you to respond to. Unfortunately for my colleague Scott Shoger, he took the initiative and opened the box.
It was a box of poop, i.e. a baggie with turds, either human or canine, with specific pages pulled from recent issues of NUVO.
The sender of the box of shit had made notes on the pages about the reflexive liberal persuasion of our columnists. It's kind of touching to think how much time and effort it took to prepare the package.
This was a few years ago. Recently, the same person did the same thing, another box, presumably full of shit. I say presumably, because when I received the box, I recognized the handwriting, and put the box outside on the porch of NUVO.
A day or two later I remembered I put it there, went to get it, and sure enough it smelled of feces.
If you are reading this, oh poop-sender, I extol you with my admiration for your creativity and aplomb.
It was 20 years ago that my friend Charlie Sutphin started coaching me on how to get into NUVO. I was already freelancing for the Bloomington Voice, but I was living in Indy, so I really wanted to break into this market. Charlie had worked at NUVO -and knew the then-current editors to whom I would pitch my work — Sharon Calhoun and Steve Hammer — and so he helped shepherd my work their way.
My first theater review, if I recall correctly, was a review of a local production of Flowers for Algernon. If you're not familiar with the play, it is about a mentally challenged protagonist whose IQ is deplorably low. He becomes part of a laboratory experiment in which he's given drugs to improve his IQ, and it works, turning him into a genius before his predictable precipitous decline into a simpleton status.
I wrote the review as a fractal to the play, starting off with short, blunt sentences filled with misspellings. Gradually, the language became more complex, ultimately reaching a post-doctorate level of rhetoric before plunging once again into misspellings and brute language.
It was a theater review as well, pointing out problems and successes with the production.
I delivered the review and held my breath. This unconventional approach was either going to get attention or get me booted.
Sharon and Steve replied positively, and so my freelance gig as an arts reviewer for NUVO began.
Making things up
In those days, there was a section in the front of the paper called StreetTalk, and my first foray into that more newsy-style section was inspired when I drove past a health fitness joint on Keystone Avenue.
A statue of Atlas holding up the earth had been out front of the shop, advertising its prowess in toning bodies and whatnot, and one day it had fallen over, either through vandalism or natural gravity.
I went home and wrote a piece that — with a straight face — told a story about how the man who held up the earth had fallen down on the job.
It was not the last thing I made up for NUVO. A column I co-created with Joe Lee, called The Zeitguys, was a weekly, Onion-style faux news story that paired some goofy story I made up with one of his great illustrations.
I published dozens of these in StreetTalk, and they were always labeled "satire." Once uploaded to the web, however, the satire label wasn't always so obvious. In one such Zeitguys column, I wrote about how George W. Bush had visited Indianapolis and Photoshopped the event to make it appear African-Americans were in attendance, when they in fact were not.
I got a call soon after from a reporter from Slate.com who'd seen the story online and thought he'd found the scoop of the year. Imagine my embarrassment to have to admit to him that in fact the story was made up and mistakenly not identified as such. That mistake never happened again.
The death threat
This Slate.com call was awkward for sure, but not nearly as awkward as the day I got a death threat via voicemail.
Sure puts a box of shit in perspective, doesn't it?
It said something like "Next time I see you I am going to put a gun to your head and blow your brains out."
I was mortified, as you can imagine, but there was something odd about the message, because next, the person included his name, address and phone number.
It took but a moment for me to realize that this person who left the voicemail was not the same person as the one being named. And that in fact I was supposed to report this to the police, so that person would be confronted by the cops.
Despite realizing this, I called the cops and shared the voicemail with them. I don't know how that all turned out, but I did receive a letter from the Indianapolis Police Department offering to help me psychologically deal with the trauma of having had a death threat plied upon me.
I put that letter into the scrapbook. In fact, it was that letter that made me realize I needed to have a scrapbook.
The voices of madness
I don't know if my experiences are particularly unique, but I do know that the sheer volume of communications I've received over the years must be in the hundreds of thousands. Truly. Emails, phone calls, letters, carrier pigeons. OK, I'm kidding about the carrier pigeons part.
But it's a lot of communication. Too much to deal with elegantly or thoughtfully. But it's the way of the world these days as fewer and fewer people take on more and more work.
The handwritten letters are, by and large, the worst of the lot. The writers are often, well, I only play psychologist on TV, but I'd say some of these folks have real problems. Some are heartbreaking, like the many letters we receive from inmates.
Over the years I began to recognize a kind of pattern.
People occasionally stop by the office, and those are the people you are least likely to want to talk to. Sure, I wish I lived in a world where I could drop two or three of the 15 plates I'm spinning to sit down and listen to your story, but I just don't. Frank Capra isn't directing this current reality.
If someone sends you a letter, then, as per the above, there's a good chance they are bitching about something — usually it's a homophobic rant of some kind.
If someone calls you on the phone, well, that's a problem too. I eventually created voicemail that encouraged people to email me. I would advise my colleagues not to answer their phones, either, but they would, and then I would hear a conversation go on and on É until the editor cried out they were on deadline and needed to hang up.
An email was a great way to hear from people, and a Facebook notice, for me, was a bit of a nightmare. Best of all was a tweet, as that was the shortest and sweetest communication portal of all.
See how all that lays out? The more archaic the form of communication, the less responsive I was. This is not the humane system. But it was the one I created to be able to handle the massive amounts of queries.
But it must be said as well that every single day, we — editors, writers, photographers — put our work out there with our bylines, making ourselves vulnerable to criticism from people who can be anonymous.
"The Lord rebuke you," said one recent email. I am not sure what I did to receive that response.
I've lived through a lot
I certainly don't feel rebuked by the Lord. In fact, I feel absolutely grateful for all the opportunities I had because of NUVO.
Twenty years is a long time to work somewhere, and I am grateful to NUVO Editor and Publisher Kevin McKinney not only for gainful employment, but for a job that put me in the center of the life of the city. It was my job to learn about you, your organization, your brewery, your initiative, your deli, your bicycle advocacy group, your É you get the idea.
It was my job to know what was going on in the city, and I tried my best to keep up. Impossible, but I tried.
I lived through the transition of Harrison Ullmann — first the transition of him from NUVO editor to staff writer and second, quite quickly after the first, the tragic transition of him from living to dead. My appreciation for Harrison, already high during the time I knew him, has only grown over time, as I realize his combination of passion, courage, intelligence, history, wisdom and writing prowess was a rare thing indeed.
There are other colleagues now dead with whom I had the privilege to work: Chuck Workman and David Lesh.
The friendships that emerge from workplaces can be profound, as you all have experienced. It's impossible to name them all in this little article, so I will simply note we became a family.
There are the boxes of shit and the death threats and a thousand other stories, but what will remain for me are the people I got to meet, the stories we told, and the every day laughter rippling through the office.
The path unfolds
This decision to leave NUVO came about quite naturally, growing organically, so to speak, from my increasing concern about our climate crisis.
First there was the bicycle I got just under 10 years ago, thanks to NUVO, when I received it from some promotions effort I can no longer remember.
I only remember getting the bike, and the joy I felt riding it. Five years ago, I embraced it as a year-round means of transportation.
Then there was what I learned from all of you in my capacity as an editor and a writer: your activism, your commitment, your urban gardening effort, your eco-organization's efforts, your growing consciousness, your leadership.
Two years ago, Kevin purchased Indiana Living Green from Lynn Jenkins, and that put my immersion in all-things-eco into hyperdrive. A year and a half ago, I stumbled on a story online about a 14 year-old girl suing the governor for not protecting her and her generation from dangerous pollutants, specifically fossil fuel emissions.
This blew my mind. I looked into the story and discovered that the organization of origin for this initiative was Our Children's Trust, an Oregon-based group helping young people get engaged in climate advocacy.
Soon, I found some local allies in talking about this. First, Mike Blackwell, a law student at IUPUI, then Rosemary Spalding, an environmental lawyer.
By the beginning of this year, Rosemary proposed that an effort to get youth engaged could fit nicely with her organization's mission.
That organization: Earth Charter Indiana.
I thought it was a great idea, and attended some meetings. I knew a number of people associated with this group, most notably John Gibson, whose commitment to a clean, safe environment for future generations has earned him tremendous respect, as well as numerous accolades, including a NUVO Cultural Vision Award for Lifetime Achievement.
In early July, at a morning meeting for this youth initiative, John turned to me and asked me if I'd quit my job to work for Earth Charter Indiana.
Without a pause I said, "Yes."
I was not thinking about leaving NUVO. I love this job, love this publication and love Indiana Living Green.
My "yes" came from somewhere deep, from my overwhelming desire to raise awareness and action regarding our climate crisis. While I have been able to grow as a citizen of the planet working with NUVO all these years, this opportunity to focus on climate issues full time was irresistible.
Three weeks after that "Yes," I walked into Kevin's office and told him of my desire to transition to Earth Charter. His response? "It's perfect, Jim." He immediately understood the great fit it was for me to lead the Indiana chapter.
I can't thank him — or my NUVO family — for understanding my need for departure.
So what's next? Someone wonderful will replace me and enjoy the sweetest job in the land. NUVO will continue its great work of giving voice to the voiceless.
We'll cease the monthly stand-alone publication of Indiana Living Green, opting instead to find a NUVO placement for it. Look for that XXX.
Me? I will be needing help with this new endeavor at Earth Charter Indiana: I'll need youth, aged 12-20, who understand our predicament, and are pining to become climate leaders learning how to be better stewards of the earth and motivating others to do so. My firstname.lastname@example.org email will be active for awhile longer.
I have talked with so many people this year who are making profound changes in their lives. Not all of them are quitting their jobs so they can work full time for Mother Earth.
No, they are making changes to focus more fully on what they love. Simple as that.
We have little time left to enjoy our lives, our world, and each other, because soon we will be constantly doing battle with the weather — the wild, woolly weather that we have created with our consumerism and waste.
Let's use this time to build coalitions, partnerships, friends — across all the aisles.
We have one planet and we are screwing it up, especially for our youth. Let's get on the cleanup crew.
And if you're thinking of sending me a box of shit, please keep it, use it to fertilize the soil.
See you out there.