Sunday, June 27, 2010

Why I Write: Los Angeles Press Club Awards, June 27, 2010

After much anticipation, the day finally came for the Los Angeles Press Club’s 52nd Annual Southern California Journalism Awards. The star-studded event in the Crystal Ballroom of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel was the scene of several Oscars ceremonies in the early days of the award's history.

The 1937 Academy Awards at the Biltmore.

While there were plenty of Hollywood luminaries in the evening's program last Sunday night - among them former actor Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger - the real stars were from the cream of Los Angeles journalism today. For once, those who deliver the news were making it.

For this writer, however, it felt strange not to have a pad, a recorder, or a camera in my hand. The dewy glass of chardonnay that I held instead did little to calm my nervousness during the cocktail hour before the dinner. I felt like a child who had left "the kids' table," about to intrude on the grown-ups.

I overheard a woman saying that LAPC is the oldest and most active press club in the United States. I watched people circle the silent auction fundraiser, perusing items like tickets to sporting events, tooth whitening, and artwork. At the back of the room, I found what I would have bid on had I been able to do so: two or three Chagall prints. I paced near the table they were displayed upon, sipping my wine and trying not to call anyone on my cell phone, which was tucked into my handbag like a security blanket. Nonetheless, I was comforted by thoughtful text messages from Larry and Daniel.

People tell me how lucky I am to be single and "free" to do the things that I love to do. But that night amid the accomplished and renowned journalists, I realized that most of them were accompanied by spouses, children, or colleagues who had joined them for this night of celebration. After the event, I spotted another finalist in the weblog category, syndicated columnist Amy Alkon, the "Advice Goddess". Wearing her signature black dress and elbow-length gloves, she was being photographed by her escort while standing in one of the Biltmore's picturesque hallways. The moral of the story: even a goddess needs backup.

I found my assigned seat at Table 34 and made the acquaintance of a charming young couple who were members of the LAPC and had turned out to support the event. Two older couples joined us; both of the husbands were finalists as well as I. We congratulated each other and fell to the task of eating dinner.

The chef was in his or her cups, literally. The salad of greens daubed with bits of goat cheese and dried fruit arrived in a shell of herb-flecked pastry. Dessert was a fluffy vanilla cream topped with glazed summer fruit in an oatmeal cookie shell. I had half-expected the roasted chicken breast to be presented in a doughy vessel, with the mashed potatoes, gravy, and asparagus spears as part of a savory sundae. Come to think of it, given the "cup" theme, a soup course would have been appropriate, but sadly, no savory broth was offered.

A few minutes after dinner began, the presenters started rattling off the considerable number of categories and winners. I was proud of the caliber of my fellow finalists, who were much more than just my peers. These were individuals who have entertained, impressed, and most of all, have inspired me as a writer.

Blurry photo of Anderson Cooper taken from my table. Not exactly rubbing elbows with famous people... at least not yet!

There were so many recipients that no one except for the key honorees - CNN's Cooper Anderson, NPR's Anne Garrels, and KCAL's Dave Bryan - made any speeches. For each category, there was a first place, second place, and honorable mention. In the fantasy acceptance speech I wrote in my head a few days before the event, I tried to figure out who to thank, or rather, who I could thank who would actually be present. The only person I could come up with was Jonathan Gold, the LA Weekly's Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic, whose work I had been reading since "Counter Intelligence" was featured in the LA Times, and to whom I credit for my love of hole-in-the-wall eateries. I also would have thanked the LA Weekly, because an ad that the paper had placed in Craigslist a few months ago for a food blogger was partially responsible for my idea to start GMS.

However, three of the key speeches said exactly what I was thinking that evening, surrounded by people who like myself, knew the thrill of researching a story, the human connection that comes from a good interview, and the painful exhilaration of meeting a deadline by a hair.

Anderson captured it best when he said that people tell stories to make sense of what happens around us. Nobody knows this more vividly than a journalist. In writing GMS, I am not only trying to share my love of cuisine but am trying to unravel human motivations and emotions. The most difficult ones I have tried to expose are usually my own.

Judea Pearl, the father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, presented Garrels with the Daniel Pearl Award for Courage and Integrity in Journalism. The award was named in memory of his son, who was murdered by Islamic extremists while on assignment in Pakistan.

Garrels, who since 9/11 has reported from highly volatile situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and throughout the Middle East, recalled a night of chilling premonition that she spent during the period that Pearl was held captive by his executioners. She also said that the manner in which his memory has been kept alive - through a foundation that supports cross-cultural understanding through journalism education, the appreciation of world music, and effective communication across borders - made her wonder what her legacy would be.

Judea Pearl, who is a professor at UCLA's Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, said that journalism is a profession whose practitioners work to illustrate the fact that we are "not alone, but in partnership" on the planet.

I received “Honorable Mention” in my category, which was phenomenal considering I had entered GMS on a whim along with my originally intended entries, stories I had written for my day job in public affairs at an urban university. But the real celebration for me has been going on from the moment I learned that I had been nominated.

The real thanks goes to my family, friends, and colleagues who have been supportive and believed in me along the way, long before GMS ever came into existence. A huge debt of gratitude also goes out to all the teachers I have had, starting with Deborah Goucher at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, who successfuly got the attention of a roomful of squirming second graders when she told us that we could influence professors, employers, and the opposite sex if we learned to write well. Kevin Post at Adams Middle School was responsible for teaching me that a thesaurus was not a dinosaur, but the best friend that a young writer could have. The legendary Jolene Combs, my journalism teacher when I wrote for the High Tide at Redondo Union High School, managed to stroke a young writer’s already-inflated ego by coining the phrase, “the Joanie Harmon lead.” And Pamela Hammond, my former boss at CSU Dominguez Hills, always nurtured my “real-world” sensibilities when I wrote for her, and worked tirelessly to elevate our publications beyond the public relations pieces that they were into masterpieces of the journalistic craft.

The little writing group that Linda and Brenda and I have formed and that has been meeting for almost a year did a great deal to get me to write regularly. Before that, my creativity was limited to quarterly outbursts that would appear on one of my old blogs or were read hesitantly at open mikes. Last but certainly not least, A huge thank you is due to all of my long-suffering dining partners who in the last few months, have learned the finer points of food photography and who end up eating lukewarm meals in order to provide the visual component for GMS.

I may have been alone that night at the Biltmore, feeling like a wallflower. GMS’s tongue-in-cheek name and demeanor may seem to imply a lonely-hearts tone, with wistful observations of the world around me. I may write alone. But I feel, see, and tell my stories with all of you at my side. Thank you.


  1. Congratulations! The real question is: what did you wear??

  2. blue halter dress from anthropologie and fabulous old shell and clay necklace from my friend Gilah... tried to stand out in a sea of black and grey!

  3. Congrats to you Joanie. You have always been so talented and intelligent. What an accomplishment.

  4. A little late, but congratulations on your various writings, your past and present occupations,and for being yourself,September 2012.