Monday night around 8:45 I was on my way downstairs to work on something when I passed through the living room and noticed the youngest on the couch, reading. Everyone else had retired, the results of long days at the office, at middle school. The living room was inviting, dark but for the glow of a reading lamp. Cozy. Whatever I was heading downstairs to do could wait; I grabbed the unread March Bicycling magazine off the coffee table, created another cozy reading nook in Marcy’s coveted Red Chair, and dug into the three-month-old issue for close to an hour.

A notable moment because a week earlier I would have savored the scene, then continued downstairs to a task that no doubt had a work-related deadline attached to it. That happens when you find yourself in a work situation that has turned into a 24-hour survival effort. Even if I had my print obligations under control, there was still — always — the online monster of a blog to fill. And it wasn’t just filling the blog, it was figuring out ways to promote it. Convincing the online folks that it was worthy of a home page tease. Circulating it to appropriate online user groups. Pushing it through Facebook. The paper actively promoted two or three blogs; the rest of us were on our own. If I had a broad topic and promoted it well, I could get up to 1,000 views in a 24-hour cycle. If I had other commitments, which was usually the case, and didn’t have time for marketing I might get 80. And management was very cognizant of whose blogs were getting viewed; pitty the blogger whose views dipped below 10,000 when the monthly report came out.

I eventually did make it downstairs, did what I needed to do, returned to the Red Chair, read a couple chapters of “The River Why,” went to bed.

And slept very well.

Recommended reading: By Wednesday, I had made it up to the May issue of Bicycling and “Big Fat Lies,” a feature by Fit Chick columnist/blogger Selene Yeager disputing the time-honored notion that carb loading is the end-all for fuel-conscious cyclists. In fact, it dispels seven common misconceptions about eating right for an active lifestyle: 1. A calorie is a calorie, 2. Starches are sensible fuel, 3. All fat makes you fat, 4. Food comes from a box, 5. Skipping breakfast is fine if you need to drop a few pounds (frankly, I’ve never heard this theory espoused — at least not in the past 30 years), 6. You can eat the same at age 40 as age 20 (ditto), 7. You’re never hungry or your always hungry. Some of it is common sense, some is theory that’s not exactly new. But the general premise is insightful and should get you thinking.


OK, maybe not all numbers are bad

Yesterday, I said I don’t pay a lot of attention to numbers. That’s not entirely true. There are certain numbers that rule my active life. Here are three:


2 is the minimum number of hours I like to be on the bike, road or mountain, to consider it a workout.
30 is the minimum number of miles I like to ride on a road workout.
20 is the minimum number of miles I like to ride on a mountain bike/fire road workout (Umstead and Lake Crabtree combined, for instance).
1:00:00 That’s actually 1 hour, or 60 minutes, the time I’m currently trying to break on my weekly 6.0-mile training run on Umstead’s Company Mill Trail. (The cartographically anal among you are likely thinking that Company Mill is only 5.8 miles. It is. I tack on the 0.2-mile Inspiration Trail for an even 6.)
This morning, I had no intention of beating that time. Monday, I had ridden 23.2 miles at Umstead/Crabtree, Tuesday I did a 31-mile morning road ride with Alan. My legs were worked. I just wanted a nice, easy run. 1 hour, 5 minutes would be just fine.

And that’s about the pace I was on with about a mile remaining. I was bounding down a modest ridge (after walking up its backside) when, in mid-bound, I looked down and, between splayed legs, saw a 2 1/2-foot copperhead stretched straight, catching some rays.

You know how long jumpers take multiple strides in the air to stay airborne? Or when the Flintstones start their car and their feet go like mad for a couple seconds before the car moves? That’s what I felt I was doing to avoid coming down square on the copperhead. I managed to miss him, and with the adrenaline boost managed to Jim Ryun it back to the trailhead in 1:03:46. No PR. No trip to the ER, either.

Recommended listening: Today’s the State of Things on WUNC featured Barry Popkin, a professor in the Department of Nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill and author of “The World is Fat,” a look at how not only the U.S., but much of the world, has become fat. (Fact: 50 years ago, 100 million people in the world were overweight; today, that number is 1.6 billion. The show bogs occasionally in numeric minutia, but overall it’s a fascinating listen about how we got where we are. Listen here.


Some numbers going into self-employment

I’m not big on numbers. I’m more into how things are working. That said, however, I will share a few quick numbers.

Age: 52.
Height: 5’9”. This number is periodically disputed by my wife. She believes my age-induced descent has begun, though I’ve noticed she tends to dispute the number based on the shoes she’s wearing at the time. Flats & sandals, no dispute. In her Danskos, however, the number is scrutinized.
Weight: 174. This number came as a surprise today. It should be in the 165-167 range. So my task isn’t to maintain my weight, it’s to lose a little. (Although, again, I’m not into numbers.)
Resting heart rate: 56 bpm.
Blood pressure: 118 / 80.

Now, how I feel. The pants are a little snug around the waist. That’s a recent development. Four years ago I lost about 30 pounds and my waist size dropped to 30 from 34 (it had been as high as 36). I will buy an occasional 32, depending on the brand, but one of my goals is to stick at 30. REI’s big $.83 sale is coming up, and I’m down to two pairs of shorts. (I live in shorts. Even when I was employed by The N&O I wore shorts most of the time, something you can do when you don’t work in the office and the people you interview are wearing speedos and lycra. The sale is the incentive I need to be particularly diligent over the next few days.

Until about two years ago I had a goal to exercise for two hours a day. This typically included walking the dog for 30 minutes, stretching/yoga/weights for 30 minutes and some sort of other aerobic activity — usually riding the bike — for an hour. I had a full plate at work, but managed to make the two hours stick through focused time management. With the stress of work over the past two years, there have been days in a row where I haven’t worked out. I really can’t go more than two days without aerobic activity without noticing it. Physically, I become sluggish. Mentally, I become slow. Emotionally, I’m no fun to be around. So my goal, again, is two hours a day. I’ll report regularly on how that’s going, starting with today’s 31-mile ride with my friend Alan in Chapel Hill and Orange County. Nice.

Here’s a snapshot of what being unemployed so far means. Yesterday, I was on Facebook and noticed I was at 99 friends. I decided to hold a contest to suck in Friend 100. Three people responded fairly quickly. So I decided to turn the contest into a Spring Friend Drive, complete with annoying pleas until my goal of 10 new friends was met. I told Marcy about this. She broke out laughing. “That is so funny. You’re brain is working again.”

So that’s what that peculiar sensation is.


Laid off? Here’s to our health!

Today officially begins the transition of this blog from my wife, Marcy Smith, member of The News & Observer “graduating” Class of October 2008 to me, Joe Miller, member of The News & Observer graduating Class of April 2009. (My posts begin February 19, and while written on the dates listed, were not posted until yesterday.)

This may seem like an American Tragedy, husband and wife laid off within a half year of each other, but it’s not. Far from it. For me, yes, I could have written about health, fitness and the outdoors for The News & Observer for another 20 years, retired, and been happy. I mean, this has been my job for the past dozen years or so: Work from home, set my own hours, ride my bike across the state, snowboard, backpack — do whatever, and get paid to write about it. It’s been work and it hasn’t been all fun and adventure. Still, it has been a dream job. And yet ...

Had I lived out my work life in such a manner I would have looked back and lamented the things I wanted to do — and didn’t. Write books, for instance. Now, I have written books while doing this job: “Take It Outside: A Guide to Hiking the Triangle” in 1998, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina” in 2007 and I’m currently working on a backpacking guide to the Tarheel state that’s scheduled to come out in spring 2011. But there is no small amount of irony in the fact that by day I wrote about striving for a healthy lifestyle — including getting plenty of rest and exercise — and by night, a night that on occasion lasted until 5 in the morning — I worked my second job writing books. Not a great combination, nor one that could have continued. Already, my publisher has asked if I can start on a book we casually discussed late last year.

I also find the internet to be a far superior means of portraying the outdoors experience. It’s visual (slide shows, movies), it’s audio (podcasts), it’s written, it’s got the potential to deliver exactly what people interested in exploring the outdoors are interested in. Thus, I’m in the process of starting a Web site that I hope will provide outdoors types — from cyclists to paddlers to hikers to climbers — with whatever interests them. More about that in posts to come.

So what will this blog be about? Losing your job is one of the 10 most stressful events in a person’s life. (This from a random sampling of Web “sources,” not including unemployed bloggers ranting in their pajamas.) Stressful events tend to take a huge toll on our health. The curious thing, though, is that now that you’ve lost your job, you have more time to exercise, more time to plan your meals and eat better. It’s a dichotomy at once perfectly understandable and at the same time without explanation. Why would we rather sit by the phone waiting to hear on a job application and eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s instead of going for a walk and taking our cell phone with us? Why do we continue to hit McDonald’s for breakfast when we no longer have to punch the clock by 7:30?

Perhaps those questions are easy for me to ask now, just a week into self-employment. (That’s my first key to eliminating post-employment stress, viewing myself as “self” employed as opposed to “un” employed.) Over the coming days, weeks and months I’ll be exploring whether it’s not only possible to maintain your health, but to improve it. To maybe even get in the best shape of your life. And not just me. I’ll be talking with other people who’ve also been given this opportunity to see how they’re making the most of it healthwise, as well as talking to health care professionals to see what they suggest.

Tomorrow : My baseline stats at the start of this venture.

The beginning of the end

Here’s my story so far ...

February 19

Shortly before noon I get an email from the head of our department: "Do you plan to come in the office today? I need to talk to you. I'm here until about 4."

You tensed up just reading that, didn't you? "I need to talk to you" — the six most dread words you can hear from a supervisor, especially when you know a big layoff is coming. Truth be told, if they ask for volunteers to take a buyout, I'm pretty sure I'll sign up. This is, after all, a newspaper. Maybe the car industry is in greater peril, then again, Congress isn't mulling billions to save this industry. Nor should it. Not only is this industry sinking fast, but this newspaper is part of a chain — McClatchy — burdened with a tremendous debt load that is sucking all available resources.

The upcoming layoffs — we've been promised that they're coming — would be the fourth in less than a year. A year ago, we had 238 newsroom employees; after this next round we're expected to have at least 100 less than that. Our news hole has shrunk dramatically (we even axed two pages of our Sunday comics!) and we've been consolidating coverage with our sister paper in Charlotte, never mind that Charlotte is a completely different market than the Triangle. It's getting increasingly difficult to do good work. At this point, a buyout would be akin to a mercy killing.

So ... do I plan to come into the office today? I believe so.

Later that day ...

Turns out my supervisor wanted to talk about problems I've been having with the photo department. When I tell her I thought she was going to lay me off, she's incredulous. "You're kidding!?" she says, jaw agape.


February 27

Once a week we have a newsroom-wide meeting in the late afternoon. It's run by the executive editor and traditionally has been about projects we're working on, changes in policy and other housekeeping stuff. For the past several months, they've been exclusively about our contraction: Cuts in news hole, new efforts to combine forces with Charlotte, layoffs. Today, we're expecting news of the impending layoffs.

The news: No news. The executive editor does, however, say that anyone interested in a voluntary buyout needs to let his or her supervisor know no later than noon Monday, March 2. He moves on to something else; I'm focused on noon Monday.

March 2

At 9:35 a.m., I send the following email to my supervisor and our department head:
"Please ask John to consider me for a voluntary buyout."

I hit the "Send" button with a little more oomph than usual.

March 5

Another weekly newsroom meeting, another report that there's no news to report. "Why do they do this? Why do they keep this hanging over us? Just let us know," our rock critic whisper-asks during the meeting.

Turns out the reason they can't say anything is because there's a law prohibiting layoffs above a certain percentage of a company's employment base within so many days of the last layoff of a certain percentage of a company's employment base.

March 9

Several other McClatchy papers announce cuts.

March 16

At 9:30 a.m. my personal cell rings. The exchange suggests it’s from the paper, but I don't answer. Moments later, the work cell rings. Same number, I answer. It's one of our assistant MEs.

"Joe, you're buyout request has been accepted. You can pick up your packet in my office."

"Thanks," I say. It's a moment that will stick. When he called, I was in the process of writing my editor an email explaining that I'll be out of the office for a week or so. My dad died in Denver over the weekend.

Later that day ...

I go into the office to pick up my packet. The first person I see, in the hallway outside our department, is my editor. "It's a blood bath," he says. All part-timers are being let go, significant in a newsroom that's become increasingly dependent on cheap, talented labor to put out a paper. And 27 fulltimers are being let go. That's in the newsroom alone.

Our rock critic walks up to join the conversation. The look in his eyes is curious. Usually, the still-employed can't help but portray a look of sympathy, a look of pity when encountering the soon-to-be-departed. That's not the look in David's eyes. I know this look. It's envy.

March 18

I often go to the Eva Perry Library in Apex to write. It’s quite, I can stay focused.

Guy behind me gets a call. "And this is about the sales job?" he inquires in a non-library voice.

"Graham?” he continues on. “I have no idea where that is. And let me just make sure this is about the sales job in Cary?

"Well, great,” he says in a lifeless monotone. “It sounds like an interesting position. I'm looking forward to meeting with you guys."

He hangs up, then makes a fluttery sound of exasperation with his lips.

March 27

Today, I get this email from my very wonderful editor at The Mountaineers, who helped shepherd my “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina” into print:

“Dear Joe,

“I wanted to let you know that today is my last day at the Mountaineers. Due
to the difficult economy, my position has been eliminated. As you can
imagine, this news has been hard to take. It was a pleasure working with you! ... I hope our paths cross again.”

And there was this memo from the front office, sent from the publisher:

“The McClatchy Company has issued a cell phone policy for use by all its papers to take effect this year. At The N&O, company-paid cell phones will be phased out, and employees who use personal cell phones for company business will be eligible for a set monthly reimbursement. The majority of N&O contracts for company-owned cell phones expire on May 31, 2009. The new policy takes effect June 1, 2009.

“N&O reimbursement rates will be $20 a month for regular cell phones and $30 a month for BlackBerry-type devices. The use of BlackBerry-type phones must be preapproved by the department VP. Only BlackBerry, iPhone or Treo brand devices will be eligible for reimbursement.

“Each month, employees eligible for reimbursement will complete a Cell Phone Reimbursement Form and provide a copy of their bill showing the total due. Both forms will be submitted through the T&E system.”

On it goes.

April 2

Today was another Plan B seminar — as in, if this doesn’t work out, what next? — at work. It was put together by one of the reporters who is staying, not management.

There were four panelists all of whom had to pursue a Plan B: A former lawyer now working in corporate development for Kerr Drug who is starting up a business on the side (Food Tours of the Carolinas); another former lawyer who has "reinvented" himself four, five times; a woman who opened a children's clothing store in Cameron Village; and Greg Hatem, the anti-developer who started saving and renovating old downtown properties as a hobby and now has an Empire — Empire Properties.

Their message was encouraging: If you have an idea you're passionate about and you work hard and smart at it, you can make it happen. Also: you people, you reporters, have such a vast and varied set of skills you should have no trouble finding something challenging and rewarding, even in this economy.

The reporters weren't buying.

One, a very adept and savvy reporter was baffled by this whole "networking" thing. How does it work? The panelists looked baffled: You're ... reporters. That's what your whole survival is about — about networking, about finding the perfect person, the perfect source, about finding the perfect person for the information you need.

Greg told a cautionary tale about a recent MBA who he had just hired for a three-month assignment. If that went well, there well could be a full-time position. What would that salary be, for the full-time position? the MBA wanted to know. Because it'll have to be more than you're paying me for this contract. Greg was baffled and irritated, in part because this fellow was a failed lawyer and hadn't been too successful at the other things he'd tried. "Look," he told the MBA, "you haven't done a thing for me yet. I have no idea how good you are. Show me what you can do, then we'll talk." The message completely eluded a business reporter, who grilled Greg on how much he was paying the MBA and how much the MBA wanted.

Later, after the panel had discussed the sacrifice required of going out on your own, the same business reporter complained, "But I've already sacrificed. I feel like I've been sacrificing for the last 20 years."

April 3

I keep getting ahead on work in hopes of carving out time to work on takeitoutsidenc.com. When I do manage to clear space, it seems that more work pours in. And I end up doing it because ... well, because that’s what I’ve always done, I reckon.

April 11

Sign of the times: Typically, people leaving the newsroom get a page made in their honor (see April 16). With 31 people leaving — and with not a whole lot more than that staying — it didn’t seem likely that that tradition would continue. So one of our top outgoing editors suggested we do our own page, all submissions welcome. My contribution was the next three email memos that we won’t get to read (ala the cell phone memo of March 27):

Subject line: Office upgrades
If you're feeling cramped in your workspace, we are now offering various workspace upgrades, ranging from taking over your departed neighbor's space to corner window offices — doh! Sorry, those are all still occupied by top management. Reasonable rates, payroll deduction available.

Subject line: Earn extra cash in your spare time
Got a few minutes between interviews? Suffering from writer's block and need a break? Earn extra cash by replacing light bulbs, cleaning restrooms, emptying trash bins. See your supervisor for details.

Subject: Training on new system
Training on our newest system, Selectric, will begin next week. Sessions should take about 15 minutes. Staff members over 55 are exempt. Bring your own typing paper.

April 14

Today, most of the 31 of us who are leaving were marched to the roof of The News & Observer, taken to the edge of the building, and — had our “class” picture taken just above the “The News & Observer” sign. Lots of waves goodbye, not a bird to be seen (in the official photo, at least) and no one jumped. Pretty successful outing.

April 16

We have a tradition when someone leaves the Features Department that we do a pot luck at noon, say some things about the person leaving, eat a lot of good food and give them a “page.” The going-away page is a tradition at newspapers. It’s usually a mock-up of the cover of the paper (or the section you work for), with incriminating pictures (Michael Phelps is not alone) and stories about the outgoing that are generally irreverent, occasionally over-the-top. Writers who crank out a lede story in 15 minutes will spend days agonizing over just the right phrasing for a sentence in a going-away page. Staffers will check out laptops so they can work on a going-away page late into the night. People who moved on years ago and hear about an old colleague leaving will audition for the opportunity to appear on that person’s going-away page. Going-away pages are some of the best work a paper puts out. There should be a Pulitzer category.

But when you have 31 people leaving at once putting together such a work is a challenge. I knew of only one produced for the Class of April 2009, and that was because the person insisted on it. (She may have even passed on her severance in exchange for a page.)

A year ago in the industry, we did pages. Today, we do books.

April 21

Last day. I went into the office early afternoon. “Weird day,” my editor observed. Indeed, by my estimation roughly one in five people you passed in the newsroom would be gone by day’s end. Like seeing ghosts passing through the halls. Or chalk outlines, like at a crime scene. It was, surprisingly, business as usual, with a couple of exceptions. Late in the afternoon, when people were leaving, they hugged. Even people who didn’t seem to have gotten along over the years hugged.

The other anomaly: Departure emails. It’s tradition, too, that people leaving the newsroom send a farewell email. Here’s a sampling of today’s:

From an editor who started at the paper in the 1980s
Subject line: Heading for the exit
Text: “When I heard about the layoff last month, I figured the next five weeks would be the slowest slog of my life. Instead, the time passed too quickly. Thanks for all of the supportive comments and good wishes.
“I've always been proud to work at The News & Observer, and you should continue to be, too.
“Write on! Fight on!”

From a woman in newsroom support (the people who keep the place running)
Subject line: One last thing ...
Text: “Well at this point all of my ‘co-exiters’ have just about said it all. This place has been so much to me. As have all of you. It has truly been an honor. ... This is my hometown paper and people like you make it what it is.”

From a top-level editor
Subject line: see ya
Text: Stay in touch. Keep the faith.

From another top-level editor
Subject line: adios
Text: “It’s been a great run.”

From a long-time night editor
Subject line: Keep in touch
Text: “Everything’s been said. I will miss you.”

From the biotech and pharmaceuticals business reporter
Subject line: Farewell
Text: “Should you feel lonely, you can reach me at (her personal phone, email). If it involves biotech, pharma or health care, you're on your own.
“Good luck to all of us, laid-off or not.”

From a photographer
Subject line: departing
Text: “Over the last 20 years I have read so many different departure notes & when my time came I thought I would really have this grand speech honed. Well, I don't & I'll just leave you with a sincere thanks for 20 years of working with wonderful talented people.”

From a graphic designer working the lonesome late shift
Subject line: Graphics will depart the premises at 11 p.m.
Text: “And will not return.”

That evening a top-level editor and his wife, a copy editor, who were both laid off, had a pot luck for the departing. No bitterness. No anger. No tears. We were the most upbeat people in the newsroom, perhaps because we could now see a future.

April 22

Day One: I got up and went for a long bike ride.

April 23

Day Two: I got up and went for a long bike ride ...