Tag Archives: New York

Finding Healing by Editing a Book

For more than 20 years, Mike Levine was a columnist at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y. His name was as well known in the region as Jimmy Breslin’s was in New York City.

To readers, he was “Mike Levine.” To his colleagues, he was “Mike.” And to the politicians he pissed off, he was “Levine.”

In life, Mike was a short guy, but in the world of journalism and in the Times Herald-Record newsroom, he was a towering figure.

My first encounter with him was when I was a new reporter. He was hunched over his computer at a corner desk littered – emphasis on “litter” – with papers and food wrappers.

An editor working with me on a project consulted with Mike about the opening to a story. Mike offered some writing tips and returned to his work.

Mike Levine, Editor for the Times Herald Record. 11.22.05 Tara Engberg/TH-Record.

Little did I know that that fleeting encounter would be my introduction to a man who would change my life: He became a mentor and cheerleader for my work and career.

I teamed with Mike on a couple of projects while he was a columnist and later, when he became executive editor, he helped advance my career as an editor.

Few things meant as much to a reporter than having Mike praise a story. I think he was a father figure to many of us, and we always sought his approval.

Mike was an enormously talented writer whose columns championed the unsung heroes of life: the school janitor who looked out for kids, the single mom struggling to make ends meet, the hometown doctor who dedicated his life to his patients.

By the end of any column, the power of his words could make you feel humility, gratitude or outrage — or leave you laughing or in tears.

His columns were compact and not at all stuffy the way some newspaper writing can be. His writing did not read like homework.

Most of his brilliance whirred inside his head, meaning he made a passable impersonation of being semi-organized.

But by the end of the day, his tie was askew, his shoes were untied, his shirt-tail was hanging out, and his reading glasses (one of five he bought from the drugstore) were horribly smudged.

Despite his popularity and stature in journalism, he had no airs and graces. He was very much the everyman-working-class-guy he wrote about.

Mike died in 2007 at the age of 54. The great big heart that he put into his family and work gave out. It was an unimaginable loss.

Upon his death, Pete Hamill, the author, columnist and former editor of the New York Post, said, “Mike was one of the best newspapermen I ever knew, full of passion for our poor imperfect craft.”

The debut of Mike’s column in the Times Herald-Record in 1983.

In the months that followed, there were discussions in the Times Herald-Record family about picking out the best of Mike’s columns and publishing them in a book.

But, you know, life happened: Careers advanced. People moved. Seasons passed.

Then in July 2015, in a burst of inspiration (or sheer hubris and/or insanity), I told my wife, Meg McGuire, who was Mike’s managing editor, and Mike’s wife, Ellen: You know, I’d like to take a crack at this.

It took me nearly four years to go through all 2,219 of his columns to pick the best 76, find a publisher and clear endless proofing and production hurdles.

The result? “Words to Repair the World: Stories of Life, Humor and Everyday Miracles” was published last month.

The title comes from “Tikkun olam,” Hebrew for “repair of the world.”

It was a belief reflected in his columns. Mike privately talked about his moral obligation to contribute to repairing the world.

Yes, the work to make the book happen was tedious and felt never-ending but it was a labor of love. All the proceeds go to the Mike Levine Journalism Education Fund to support training for journalists.

The work was also cathartic. It gave me a chance to celebrate his writing and pay it forward.

I still miss Mike.

Nothing will ever replace the void he left behind, but the book did help me repair the part of my world that was broken by his death.

For more about Mike and this book, please go to mikelevinebook.com

In Search of Champ, the Loch Ness Monster of North America

As a kid I was captivated by the mysteries of U.F.O.s, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, ghosts and other paranormal doings.

I grew up watching the television series “In Search of…” hosted by Leonard Nimoy and read whatever books I could about unexplained phenomena.

During free reading time in 7th grade, I was the nerd always with a book about U.F.O.s, with titles like “Project Blue Book” (named after the Air Force’s investigation into unidentified flying objects) or “Chariots of the Gods.”

Yeah, I was some sort of geek/desk-bound adventurer.

My interest in those topics waned as I took on the responsibilities of career, family and the other trappings of being a grown-up. (However, I was a HUGE fan of the television series “The X-Files.”)

But somewhere deep down there remained that childlike spark of curiosity and wonder about things that do not fit our orderly understanding of the world.

That spark was fanned into a flame recently when I read a Facebook post by a former colleague at The Press-Republican, Lohr McKinstry.

He posted that he was donating a trove of his articles about Champ, the often-reported, sometimes-documented but never-authenticated mystery creature of Lake Champlain, known as the Loch Ness Monster of North America.

That led me in June to spend some time in Vermont with Katy Elizabeth, the lead researcher and founder of Champ Search, which is dedicated to proving the existence of Champ and protecting it.

Katy Elizabeth unpacks equipment from her car, preparing for a day’s searching on the lake.

From my time working at The Press-Republican, I was aware of the legend. Sightings of Champ stretch back centuries to when Indian tribes populated the area and continue to present day.

Some early accounts described it as serpent more than 100 feet long though Elizabeth believes it might be an amphibian/reptile hybrid that is between 15 and 30 feet long, with knobs on its back, a long, slender snake-like neck and head shaped like a horse.

Skeptics believe the sightings can be attributed to gar, sturgeon, schools of fish or even logs.

Me? I was just excited to shadow Elizabeth in her work.

Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate people who see the world differently because they open up new horizons.

Plus, I have all the admiration and respect for anyone who is passionate about their work!

It was like going on a ghost hunt with all the spectrometers and other paranormal-measuring equipment except instead of looking for spirits in the basement of an abandoned hotel, I’d be outdoors on the shore of Lake Champlain.

Elizabeth, 33, who is known among locals as the “Champ Lady” or the “Lake Monster Queen,” got turned onto Champ when she was 7.

She was watching an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries,” which featured an episode about the creature.

She got hooked and has been ever since.

She will get up before sunrise and spend two to four hours staking out the lake and then return at sunset, the theory being that Champ is nocturnal.

The trunk of her car is filled with hard plastic containers with hydrophones with a recorder and underwater microphone, binoculars, camera and tripod.

Among the assorted equipment she relies on in her search efforts.

“You are not going to see something every day, but when you do, it’s an amazing experience,” she said, adding that patience and staying open to possibilities are critical.

Elizabeth, who grew up in Rhode Island near water, said she is a trained observer of lakes and seas and can readily distinguish logs, fish and boats from other objects on the water’s surface that are not readily explained.

Some of the things she told me about Champ were a surprise.

For instance, though “Champ” is often referred to in the singular, it really is “Champs,” as in a whole school of them.

She described the creatures as “a very tough species of animals” given how they have survived the sewage and other pollution that has gone into the lake over the years.

The other thing that surprised me was that there have been reported sightings of Champ on land!

She regularly scours the shoreline searching for teeth, bones or other physical traces of Champ. In one case she found a bone of an ancient bison, a conclusion she said was backed up by a natural history museum in Ohio that examined the relic.

“It’s really cool to find stuff like that to remind you how ancient this area is,” she said.

Tripod and camera at the ready, Katy Elizabeth regularly scours the lake on the search for Champ.

As for the dearth of physical evidence of Champ, such as scat, a skeleton or carcass, Elizabeth is quick to ask: “How many times do you find a dead turtle? You think about whales and dolphins. How many times do you see a carcass of these animals?”

She said some species know when their death is imminent and seek hidden places to die. And with Lake Champlain being 120 miles long, there are a lot of places of hide.

Elizabeth herself has had more than a dozen encounters with Champ, garnering her five different videos and four or five audio recordings. Some of the sounds might be territorial calls, she said.

She attributes her extraordinary number of sightings to a heightened sensitivity to paranormal elements.

“I am not Ms. Cleo,” she said, referring to the psychic best known for her television commercials pitching a psychic pay-per-call service. “I pick up on things.”

Elizabeth hopes to earn degrees in marine biology and marine bioacoustics but in the meantime relies on her own self-taught methods and research.

While some “armchair researchers” will either merely talk about the search for Champ or put in a perfunctory effort, Elizabeth said she is dedicated full time to finding proof of its existence.

But her work will not stop there.

Protecting the creature is vital, she said. “People think that once Champ is discovered, that’s the end but it’s really the beginning.”

Such a discovery would open up Champ to study similar to tagging sharks or whales and learning more about their behaviors and characteristics.

“I think the most important thing for people who are skeptical is to keep an open mind,” she said. “To think we are the only beings on this planet is selfish.”

On the day of my visit, we were at Arnold Bay on the Vermont side, looking across the lake at Westport and Port Henry in New York. Apart from a father and daughter fishing, I didn’t see any activity on the lake.

I’m a skeptic by nature (and training) but it’s difficult, after talking at length to Elizabeth and hearing her passion and enthusiasm for her work, not to discount the possibility that something unexplained lurks beneath the surface in Lake Champlain.

I want to believe…