Sunday, September 5, 2010

Facebook Me

I think I'm starting to find my way in a post-paper-newspaper world.

Ahhhhh.... it's like I can breathe again for the first time in five years. Getting out to the Ann Arbor Dancing In the Streets event really helped. Finding community outside of the computer is so important now that our newspaper communities have been fractured and broken.

It is what it is. I miss the old papers. Really, I miss those newspapers so much.

But for the first forty years of my life my sense of community -- and, in fact, my community (no bones about it) was built around paper newspapers.

You've all heard me wax about how my mother used to go outside to get the papers every morning of my childhood, moments after she'd put the coffee on to perk on the stove. Those papers just meant so much to our family. My father and I didn't communicate very directly. If we had an issue to discuss with me the problem and solution statement often started with an article he'd saved from The Detroit Free Press. It was always serious when dad cut out something for me to read. I remember once I was so mad at him because he didn't see things my way -- the right way. We'd had quite a fight -- which meant, of course, I wasn't speaking at all, just permeating every square inch of our home with a sense of injustice, entitlement and superior intelligence.

My mother was always the ambassador of peace. In the arrogance of my youth I imagined this role was delegated to her due to my father's hesitancy to express emotion. Today I see it as a stroke of genius and appreciate it's effectiveness. I was living with my parents one semester because my financial aid was cut. My Dad had lost his business and they had moved to St. Claire Shores from our home in Tawas City so that my dad could work at the General Motors Tech Center. He had been so proud of my work on the college paper that he'd taped my columns to the top of his toolbox so all the guys in the woodshop could see what a wonderful daughter he'd raised.

So anyway, during this time I was spending with my parents in St. Claire Shores, I was riding the bus to Maccomb Community College and taking a few classes. I was all stressed out. I'd learned enough at college to make me dangerous but not enough to know how to get along as an adult child with my parents very well. My mother tried to quell my nerves by lovingly sticking packs of Winston Ultra Light 100s in my book bag each day. I come from a smoking family. My mother's father used to let me smoke a pipe with him in elementary school while I sat at his side watching cowboy movies.

So I was pissed at Dad. I think it was his attitude. He just didn't understand the modern world. He was sexist. He was giving me too much stinkin' advice and he'd never even finished college so I felt he had no business.

I came home from community college and sat in the TV room where my mother was crocheting and drinking a glass of wine. We were watching something -- maybe Wheel of Fortune or the CBS Nightly News. My dad came in to sit with us. He'd been down in the basement, I suppose. My dad loved the basement. It was full of his tools and machinery. My mother always called it "the dungeon" under her breath.

Mom stepped out of the room and came back with a folded section of the Free Press.

"Your father wanted me to give this to you."

Some guy had written a long column (about 30 inches -- you know, a length about three times what you get these days in an online column or report)about his daughter and how much he didn't understand her and how much he thought she was wrong and how much he respected that he had given her everything he possibly could in the form of tutelage and how he had recently realized it was the time for her to make her own mistakes. It was her life now, the columnist had written. He said it was time for her to make her own choices. He was stepping out of the way.

I seem to recall the sound of my father's spoon clinking a dish of tapioca pudding as I read, and the soft sound of my mother crocheting and TV murmur of whatever after-dinner show we were watching at that hour, Mash or Jeopardy or the news. I was probably having a glass of wine, too. I generally did after dinner -- and I'm fairly certain my mother would have seen to it that I had wine and cigarettes before she delivered the column that served as an olive branch.

I was sobbing, of course, as I read it, snot and tears running all down my face as I pretended I wasn't crying at all, only suffering from some sudden allergy or something.

I kept pretending to read long after I'd finished the column, of course, as to appear occupied, so I wouldn't have to address the awkwardness in the room. It was a small room. My parents moved into a classic East Side bungalow when they moved back to the city. So the TV room was very likely a downstairs bedroom in another era - Small. I just kept reading the column; pretending anyway.

"Patricia," my mother said. "Your father wanted me to save that article for you because he is very proud of you."

I suppose I muttered something noncommittal.

In my family of origin newspapers often said what we were unable to say.

Then I got married and for eight years my husband and I were not very happy. But I worked full time as a journalist. And newspapers became my community and my vehicle for communication in a magnificent way. I loved every minute of every day working for the paper newspapers.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Bob Gabordi who gave me my first full-time newspaper job as the night cops reporter for the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia. My parents were so proud, they subscribed all the way from Gladwin, Michigan (my father had retired and they'd moved up there to a small lake). It was often sad and stressful being the night cops reporter -- covering murders, tragic fires, fatal car accidents. But it was always magic how we pulled it together on deadline. It was a dance -- a fantastic dance. The copy desk was relying on me each night to squeeze in the breaking news. It was remarkable. The whole building shook when the press started rolling. It was a two-story press that reminded me of a contraption from a Dr. Seuss story. I loved it. It was so magical. One night Bob stormed into the newsroom. I think he had heard something on his scanner at home. It was a story I had to rush out and get but I can't recall what it was now. We had major news break all the time late at night. I only wish I could recall which story it was. Possibly a hotel fire. I just don't know. There were big stories every week. Bank robberies, shootings, drownings -- once the city's detective captain got drunk and shot out the window of a liqueur store because he thought he'd been shorted in change. So, I just don't recall what it was. But I recall Bob's excitement when he stormed in and said, "Stop the press!"

I think he said it a few times. I believe we were all giddy. This is what we lived for. This is what we'd dreamed of our whole lives.

"Stop the Press!" Bob Gabordi said.

And then, reflectively impressed with himself, "I've always wanted to say that."

I was only in Huntington a little more than a year. My mother became terminally ill and I wanted to be with my family in Michigan. There were other newspaper jobs after that and I loved each one in its own way.

There aren't really jobs like that anymore. I doubt there are two-story presses and editors who run their newsrooms like families. Maybe there's a job like that somewhere over the rainbow (sorry, I just couldn't help myself... many of you know one of my very best friends in the Universe is the great-grandson of Yip Harburg who wrote that song... it creeps into my narrative now and then).

But what a life I have lived. What an honor it's been. I feel so much gratitude toward everyone who I worked with at the paper newspapers. I don't have any grandchildren to tell my stories from the trenches. But we did start that Michigan Newspaper Writers group last winter. Maybe we'll actually meet sometime. Maybe we'll make a collection of stories -- our stories. That would be so wonderful.

I still feel sad quite often about the state of journalism in our country. But I must admit I'm also delighted with Facebook. You know I had a hard time adjusting to it at first and I've thought sometimes that I spent too much time on it. It feels very much to me like a brew pub. On holiday weekends such as this it reminds me of a small-town homecoming. I love seeing photos of Matt Bach's 90-something grandmother and Jo Mathis' newly decorated living room. I love that place, Facebook. It does a great deal to keep me from missing everybody so much. I love seeing the photo updates. Susan Oppat's hair sure looks good these days, doesn't it?

Since about a third of my Facebook buddies are journalists (mostly now retired or transitioned into public relations careers), I feel fairly caught up on the news just from reading Facebook. It's much more interesting to me than any online news site. I get a wide variety of stories in my newsfeed each day. Many are blog articles from my writer buddies. Those stories feel like the old The Way We Live section from the Free Press. I'm definitely adjusting to Facebook and many things about online communication and media.

One of my biggest concerns has always been that the death of paper newspapers is the death of the mass media. I loved writing for a publication that served the masses. I've always had compassion for the underdog. My parents taught me that. It doesn't sit well with me to think that many poor people and technology challenged or inhibited people wouldn't have access to my stories if I were to go to an online publication. Those publications are not mass media. I don't like that they are pretending to be. They are a class media. Let's be loud and clear about that.

The rules have changed.

And I'm just not willing to play this game today.

Maybe someday I will be ready to play again. Maybe I'll go back to school and get some more journalism degrees. But for today I'm just watching. I do respect my former colleagues who are working for online publications and in public relations.

I love you so much; you know that. You've touched my life in immeasurable ways. And I'm so happy to read and see all about your lives on Facebook. It lifts my heart each day. You know that. True, I've never had all that much of a social life, I suppose. I'd rather just sit around and read and write much of the time. Most of you are off with families and other priorities.

Work had always been my priority. I loved it. I used to joke to people, "my stories are like my children. I always want what's best for them." Now that I'm forty-four with no family and no newspaper job and no opportunity to work in the field I'd loved so dearly, that statement feels sort of chilling.

But I'll keep on keeping on. The Washtenaw Recreation Center opens back up on Tuesday so I should be able to start paying more attention to fitness. I've been talking to recent college graduates about how to hunt for a job these days and I've got some good ideas.

I've decided to narrow my search down to looking for a job in fundraising and development. My friends are on board with this. They think it's going to be a great fit for me. I think so, too. I want to help some really cool organization build up its resources. That feels to me like a great way to spend my post-paper-newspaper years. I'll never rule out the possibility of jumping back into journalism as a career. But I just can't right now. I need to watch it. I need to understand it better. It feels so shallow and mean spirited to me. I don't like it. Facebook is way better. I like Facebook and my former journalist friends who I meet in there.

Goodness I've rambled for an hour. I suppose I just needed to.

Happy Labor Day my darlings. I'll say a little prayer for better days ahead for all of us who are underemployed.

Oh -- and don't get the idea that I'm quitting Clean Water Action anytime soon. I respect CWA so much and appreciate the hard work the year-round canvassers and office staff devote. I'm just looking for something before winter. And if I don't find it, I'll keep knocking on doors to save the Great Lakes.

It's all good.

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