It’s taken a village

| 11 May 2018 | 03:39

When we started the magazine in May of 2011, I was fueled by adrenaline. To put out the first issue, I pulled a string of three almost-all-nighters with a couple catnaps in there. That was how I used to operate; a habit I’d picked up in college, when I’d buy a bottle of wine and a box of crackers and goat cheese and try to make my Thursday night paper writing all-nighter a festive occasion.

After each issue, I felt like I’d just birthed a child: suffused with a sense of accomplishment and completely wiped out. This was survivable for my 28-year-old self – even maybe what I needed. The three-day solo kayaking trip I took down the Hudson, from Kingston to the Bear Mountain Bridge, just to write about it, was among my life’s more epic journeys, one I’d love to make again someday with my kids.

But right now, those two kids are little, and I’ve got a third in the oven, and a 36-year-old body that likes to be in bed by 10. I still feel the adrenaline pumping me up for the deadline push. I get short-tempered and secretly panicky at the specter of putting out a crappy magazine, and afterwards find I’ve bitten the hell out of the inside of my lip. But a full freak-out takes energy I no longer have, and so we’ve settled into a slightly more mellow routine, the magazine and I.

It’s been good for the mental health. My kids need their mom, after all, and I need my sanity. The migraines that started after my oldest was born have subsided. But here’s the rub. Relaxing is not necessarily a plus for the quality of the product. The same amount of work still needs to get done, but in less time, or by someone else. Ah, for an alternate universe in which I could afford a managing editor.

As if in answer to this unspoken plea, when I was pregnant with my second kid, a reader named Dolores Simon wrote me maybe my favorite note ever. It began: “Dear Dirt, You and The New Yorker are my favorite magazines.” She’s not even my mom! We had it framed – not my idea but an excellent one for morale.

Dolores included a $100 check to become a devotee, and a newspaper clipping about herself, in case we could use the photo for the devotee page. From it, I learned that she was a bona fide pro: she’d been chief cop editor for Harper, and co-authored the cookbook-writer’s bible, which won a James Beard and Julia Child award in 1993. She was retired. I called her with an impertinent question: Did she have any interest in copy editing Dirt? For no pay?

That’s how Dolores ended up on Dirt’s masthead. She was housebound, so I’d drop the dummy by her place on the way to drop my daughter at school, she’d edit it over the weekend – even when she had houseguests – and I’d pick it up on Monday. Sometimes I’d find her in her easy chair reading a book about grammar. She saved my butt so many times (for instance, in the previous paragraph I initially spelled bona fide “bonified.” Close one.) She even read the ads, and she really read the food page, jotting questions in the margin like: was this store-bought or fresh ground cinnamon?

I didn’t know how to thank her. I brought her eggs from our chickens as a token of my appreciation, but much as she enjoyed them it wasn’t exactly an even trade. She got a kick out of being the first person to see the new issue, she said, and I knew it was true: this relationship was an honor on both ends. Dolores threw her full weight behind the magazine, sending congrats when Dirt won a journalism award along with a $20 subscription check, although she got the magazine free at home. (“Dolores!” I scolded when I saw her next. She said, “I figured you could use it.” “We can,” I admitted.) We got to work together until shortly before she passed in February, at 89. So if you see more typos than usual, you know why.

A year after Dolores came onboard, Ken Mitchell dropped into my inbox from heaven above. After selling his company, Ken found himself with free time and wanted to know if I could use a assistant. We had coffee and bounced around some story ideas. Ken is a literary type who has since written a handful of pieces for Dirt, including a long, thoughtful feature on suicide after an encounter with an Appalachian Trail hiker who was on the edge. Still, there was one place I really needed help, and it didn’t offer much opportunity to flex your writerly muscles: Would Ken be interested in compiling Dirt’s calendar of events – again, for no pay? He’s been doing it ever since.

Dolores and Ken, both strangers as of a few years ago, showed up for me in a way that I can never repay. In fact, the whole community has slowly but surely taken the magazine onto its own shoulders, not only taking out ads and filling my bullpen of trusty freelancers, but also sending notes of encouragement, poetry for the poetry page, cash for the coffers (check out our devotee page), and endless story ideas. Sometimes people tell me the magazine has “grown” or “matured,” and I’ve been unsure what they meant, exactly. It’s the same number of pages it always was. But looking back at the early issues recently, I could see it clear as day. Forty-two issues in, as more voices have begun to populate the pages, as I’ve stopped trying so hard to control the process, not only have I found my own life balance, but the magazine has found its soul.