Saturday, December 30, 2006

The year in Review

It’s not yet light out. I fell asleep on the couch watching a Leno re-run. When I woke up, it was about 3:30 a.m. I went to bed, but I haven’t really been able to get back to sleep since. It’s 6 a.m. In my head the words are swirling and I finally gave up. There will be no sleep until I get them out. I need to write a year-end reflection piece and it’s coming now. I’d much rather be in bed sleeping, but I don’t always get what I want. Sometimes I get more.

This blog, now a little more than a year old, has been a regular dumping ground for everything from commentary to introspection with occasional quotes from philosophers, politicians and others. Sprinkled in are a variety of photos, many honorably stolen from the Internet and, more recently, those from my own lens. Throughout it all, I have tried to be objective or at least open to other points of view. However, my thoughts and opinions are the result of my experience and my experience is… mine.

This past year, now nearly finished, has been a banner year for me. It is definitely one of the top-five best years of my life. In many respects, it has been the best ever, but it’s impossible to compare on a head-to-head basis the years from different periods of life. There were experiences in my teen years, for example, that cannot be duplicated now. Nonetheless, all things being equal, it was a very good year. And it was no accident. I worked for it.

I’ve worked much harder than I have ever worked for anything before. The funny thing is much of it didn’t seem like work. Oh sure, I have written of the situational pressures that have crossed my path, and I have documented many of the trials life has served up, but underlying all of those challenges was a sense of optimism. There was no whining, oh-no, no time for that. There was, however, plenty of assessing – processing out-loud, really. It was an unexpected fringe benefit, courtesy of blogging – and other bloggers.

Over the past year I have had and still do have a number of regular readers – you know who you are. Some comment regularly, some never do. However, just the knowledge that my musings are being read is encouragement enough. But to those that do leave comments and feedback, I am especially indebted. If it were not for the interactivity of this medium, I probably would not still be doing it. I write for a number of reasons – one is to be read.

I’m not going to enumerate the many milestones and accomplishments that have punctuated 2006. They are readily available in my archives – it would be an exercise in repetition. Besides, I said it best and, more importantly, most honestly in the moment. Although I could probably write each and every post “better,” I couldn’t possibly make them any more authentic. With only a few exceptions, everything written in this blog was written as a single draft. The posts developed as the words flowed – there was no plan.

In many respects, it is the way I have been living my life this past year. Although I have a couple of medium-term goals (one is now short-term), I have been letting life unfold for me one day at a time. There are a limited number of tasks I must perform in any given day. Although the nature of a specific task might vary, and often it is dictated by the events of the day or days before, the number is always limited. If I can do just those things, it’s a good day. If I do more, it’s a great day. There have been a record number of great days this year. Success has come in unexpected areas, but success itself is hardly unexpected anymore.

Ironically enough, for the past 20+ years, there has been no real plan either - no goals to speak of and no real direction. Again, I don’t want to re-hash what I have already written this past year, but the missing element seemed to always be that little, four-letter word: W-o-r-k. I was always after the short cut. I had no time for the journey; it was all about the destination. As a result, life was passing me by. If it wasn’t for the nearly life ending experience I had in October of 2000… well, I just don’t know where I’d be today. I reflect back to those miserable days in the hospital more often now than I did two or three years ago, it seems to amplify my gratitude.

So here’s to a wonderful, enlightening, healthy and prosperous New Year. Next year, some of my goals will have been realized, new ones will be set, and more than a few surprises are in store - I’m sure. I am hopeful that my country can improve its world image and in so doing, improve the world. Domestically, perhaps our new congress can make some headway on the issues we face as a nation such as health care, education, poverty and crime. Locally and personally, my wish is that everyone fulfills his or her dreams - and that you dream big. I am living proof that anything is possible.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Good Life

This is the aftermath of our Christmas morning. The point when all of the presents have been opened and the exploration of said presents begins. Someone gave the kids these “confetti poppers” and of course – they popped them! I happened to snap this one fired by my youngest, Matthew, aimed in my general direction.
This one, fired by my eldest, Anthony, while Matthew ducked, landed right on Jessica’s head. On the right edge of this shot (cut off except for his hand and hat), my middle son, Timmy, is ready to defend his lovely fiancĂ©e with a volley of his own!

Anthony returned to Santa Monica because he had to work yesterday, and Matthew left this morning for Lake Tahoe to go snowboarding with his friends for the day. Timmy is still recovering from his injuries sustained in the wreck he was in on the 4th; Jessica is by his side. All is well. It’s a good life!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Two Minute Warning

It seems like just yesterday that I was under such an enormous burden that I’d never be able to dig myself out. I had my ever-present deadlines looming at work, research papers due for school and finals to study for. Now, it’s the semester break at Sac State, I have given up my “regular” job as a staff writer at a small weekly newspaper for freelancing and I have no real pressing issues at all - for now. They’re coming, once again. And once again I’ll meet the crunch-time challenges like I always do.

Well, not exactly always. That sounds rather like a precedent is in effect – almost as if there has been a long pattern of behavior upon which I can make this prediction of future behavior with confidence. I guess it depends a little on how one defines “long.” Be that as it may, of late I have routinely met these and other challenges. Next semester will be my last before graduation… I am by now well versed in the adrenaline-charged midterm and semester end dance.

Deadlines are rather impersonal buggers. Whether my assignments were completed or not, the pressure of getting them done would now be gone. There are different types of deadlines, of course. Some are task, not time, specific. Often the task becomes greater as deadlines are missed, but regardless, the task must be completed sooner or later. Paying a traffic fine would be an example many are familiar with. However, if a story deadline is missed or a research paper is not turned in – the task becomes moot – it’s too late. Consequences? Plenty, but getting the assignment done is no longer one of them.

Deadlines drive me. Indeed, if the deadline is well out into the future, it’s a pretty safe bet that I won’t start writing until the deadline is looming. Procrastination is an old and familiar demon that I have been fighting forever, however, I think perhaps I have found a way in which to make it work for me. By accepting this characteristic, I am able to work with it. In school and even more so in my profession, deadlines come fast and regularly.

In the news business, the future is always close at hand and deadlines occur daily. I can procrastinate for minutes or hours at the most, then the deadline driven adrenaline takes me right through it. I get it done and the need to put off until the last minute is met as well – it’s always the last minute. I have always said that I do my best work under pressure; the two-minute warning is a living place for me. Feeling my heartbeat high in my chest as the pressure mounts, the wheels are turning and I can see, in real time, the output of my efforts.

"How can I help you Mike?"
Just stay out of my way.

In retrospect, I can see parts of my life where the elements of my job, or school, or life in general created this paradigm. I was generally successful in these sometimes brief, but always fleeting moments. I never stopped to think about what it was that made my life work. I never really thought that some, indeed, many of these conditions can be orchestrated. My contentment was left to the “powers that be.” And they, of course, hated me.

As I examine the last 25 years of my life, there were occasions where these very conditions made me feel like I had something to contribute to the world. It gave me satisfaction in my employment and elsewhere. I just didn’t know it. I didn’t know there was more. I didn’t know what success was. I squandered opportunity after opportunity because I didn’t have the patience to do the work. I couldn’t appreciate the value of the day, always living in next week, next month, next year. I was therefore never happy, never grateful - always left wanting more. All the while I was measuring success in dollars and cents. I didn’t know there was more.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Young at Heart

This was going to be the post where I would expose Joe Rago (WSJ, The Blog Mob) as the precocious, pompous, myopic pinhead that he is. Instead, I’ll let him use his own eloquence (and associated self-portrait?) to paint a rather complete image of the Wall Street Journal’s assistant editorial features editor. It wasn’t too hard find, but I’ll spare you the legwork – just go here. The icing on this cake? His degree is not even in journalism. He was a history major! Ok, ok, Mike, let it go…

On to more pressing issues.

As my profile indicates, I am a 44 year-old graduating senior at California State University, Sacramento – affectionately known as Sac State. Not in the same league as Dartmouth, Rago’s alma mater (I promise, that’s the last time!), but a decent school all the same. I have only nine units to complete before I make my way back into the world of professional journalism. Where that leads me I can only begin to guess.

Although the storied journey that my life is thus far has had it’s share of trials and tribulations, these experiences, though inspirational and miraculous in many respects, are not all that uncommon. I know of a great many who have overcome adversity comparable to my own. Recently, however, an unfamiliar twist has introduced a degree of trepidation, controversy and perhaps even a little bit of fear into what has been a pretty stable existence for the past two years.

Because I have a habit of repetitively reinventing of myself, continuity has not been my forte. Build, destroy, repeat. That was my life. Now, there is some permanence, some big things are coming down the road and I have the freedom to exploit them. It is as if I am just about to graduate college, which, of course, I am. It’s like I have my whole life in front of me. True enough. But, although in many respects I feel like one, I’m not a kid. My classmates – my peers – however, are.

And I’m single. I have been for quite a long time. It was how I wanted it. Now? Not so much. And oddly enough, I have been attracting more attention than usual from the fairer sex. At least it seems that way. Some are pretty young. So how young is too young? Ten years younger? Fifteen years? How about 20? Try 21. Yup, she’s 23 years-old. Pretty, ambitious, smart, outgoing and 21 years younger than me. To put that into perspective, she’s one year older than my eldest son. We went out on a date. It was nice – and it was over, but I’m not so sure it was because of the difference in our ages.

Once I got past the novelty and the weirdness, it was much the same as any other date. It helps that I have only known her as an adult. If I had known her since I was, say, 34 and she was 13… well, I don’t think there would have been a date. Our history however (I’ve known her for a few months) has always been on an adult level. Furthermore, there are a number of other things that we share regarding our respective positions in life. It is true of a great many women I associate with, and a number of them are substantially younger than I.

When I started reading and commenting on others’ blogs, I remember one of the first really deep issues I weighed in on was this very question – posed from the woman’s perspective. She wondered what ramifications, moral and otherwise, would she face if she dated a much older gentleman. Although I pointed out some of the hypothetical concerns I would have if I found myself in such a position (prophetic, I know!), I didn’t see it as absurd or even necessarily remotely insane.

Although this particular date ended in what appears to be just a friendship, dates with other young women are likely to come along. So here’s the question:

As adults (only, please), would you or have you dated someone much younger or older than yourself?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Blog Mob(ster)

I have oft written about writing. Whether it has been the inability to find anything to write about, the insights or revelations that my writing facilitates, the importance of writing skills, my foray into the world of professional journalism, ad infinitum, writing is among my favorite topics to write about. I once wrote a column in which I spent the first three hundred words or so explaining how I couldn’t come up with anything to write about. My boss’ boss, the editor of the Auburn Journal, told me that all writers write about having nothing to write about. My inexperience was that transparent.

The truth is that I always have something to say about something, even if it’s nothing. Some of my favorite work has been the result of a lament about not being sufficiently inspired – but the words always come. Today, I am not so challenged. I am, however, somewhat torn between two loyalties. It is an inner conflict that I have not yet processed but intend to – right now.

The Wall Street Journal today ran an opinion piece entitled “The Blog Mob” by Joseph Rago, assistant editorial features editor. In it, Rago more or less demotes the relevance of blogs, saying, “The blogs are not as significant as their self-endeared curators would like to think.” Perhaps, but I think Rago might be missing the point. For the vast majority of bloggers, their blogs are not meant for mass consumption. True, many have become major media players in their own right, but for the most part it’s still a medium for ordinary, everyday people to have a voice with some staying power. The kind that until recently has been left only to the traditionally published.

On the other hand, Rago has a point, and one that resonates with me as a professional journalist. When viewed as creations of journalism, many if not most blogs fall well short of the accepted standards of the industry. As Rago rightly points out, “Journalism requires journalists… The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage.” Also true. As a journalist who puts in the time to do the research, the interviews and the writing – who is a reporter - it irks me when disproportionate attention is paid to those who piece together the work of real journalists only to analyze, critique and otherwise reprocess our work.

So is Rago right or wrong? Do I side with my profession or my hobby? Do I even have to make a choice? I think not. Although Rago is correct in his assessment that “the larger problem with blogs… is quality,” it is not quality, journalistic or otherwise, that most bloggers aspire to. He continues, “Most of them are pretty awful. Many, even some with large followings, are downright a appalling.” Again, it all depends on what pretense they’re written under and for whom.

I have blasted what passes for writing these days and in large measure I haven’t changed that opinion, however, I have modified where I apply it. When it comes to “professionally” produced material – anything that finds its way to a press, it has to be grammatically, logically and stylistically correct – no exceptions. If it is offered for sale, caveat emptor yes, but professionalism still dictates an expected minimal level of quality – not a “lack thereof.” When it comes to the freely distributed opinions, musings, rants and ruminations offered in blogs and the Internet generally, it is futile to expect the same standards.

Therefore, although I always proof my work, take pride in the use of proper grammar and punctuation and generally endeavor to create smoothness and flow, I can’t expect the same from others. Indeed, I don’t. I also exercise my freedom to choose not to read a great deal of the rubbish that can be found without even looking for it. Having said all that, there are some bloggers that I read regularly who don’t seem to put much emphasis on things like capitalization, paragraphs or punctuation but have a uniquely appealing style that is engaging despite these significant deficits.

But that is the exception, not the rule. Good writing is good writing and it doesn’t matter where it’s published, be it “Joe’s Blog” or the Wall Street Journal. Some sources are more likely to deliver higher quality, but the occasional nugget is still worth searching for. Rago is spot on when it comes to the large, usually political blogs that masquerade as journalism. Many are poorly written and are nothing more than rhetorical rants. There are those too that are simply the humble unloading of frustration by the average person – not meant for mass consumption and often only read by a loyal few.

Rago’s straw man, “Blogs are very important these days,” has not been addressed. Although he effectively mitigates their quality and accuracy, he does not negate their impact. Although his opinion has a great deal of basis in fact and as a journalist it hits close to my heart, he is missing the point. He points to the large political/ideological/commercial blogs as the source of his criticism and then extrapolates it to all blogs. The vast majority of bloggers don’t pretend to be journalists and they aren’t deluded into thinking they will change the world; they just want to have a say. In at least this respect, blogs are very important these days.

Monday, December 18, 2006

One Year And Still Blogging Strong!

Where has the time gone? One year since I created and published my first entry. At first, this was just a vehicle to keep me writing in between semesters in my junior year at California State University, Sacramento (Sac State). I didn’t really expect too much interaction from anyone and was quite flattered when I received my first real comment on January 6, 2006. It was the trickle that would become the flood.

I currently generate around 20 hits per day and get frequent comments from regulars and strangers alike. Each has meaning – I get excited every time I get an email alert telling me there is a new comment. I don’t necessarily write for the feedback, but if my words have touched someone else, then I have done my job. My writing is generally centered on my experiences and perceptions. I don’t try to be controversial, but I don’t avoid controversy either. Above all else, I try to be as objective as possible.

Those that regularly frequent this space know that I am in the final stages of completing my bachelor’s degree. It’s something I started more than 25 years ago – hence the title, The 25 Year Plan. In this space I have documented not so much the struggles and challenges of being a mid-40s undergraduate, but rather the essence of the experience. Not just the experience of trudging through years of school, but many of the other life experiences along the way.

I should add as an editorial note, nothing here has been very much planned. The vast majority of these pieces are written in their entirety in one sitting, usually in no more than a couple of hours. However, typos and ambiguities are repaired as they’re discovered… sometimes weeks or months later.

I always knew that I could write well. Even in junior high school and high school, where math, not English, was my strong subject, my writing always scored high marks. It was, however, an unwanted art. I not only underappreciated this gift, I completely turned my back on it for years and years in pursuit of a more “suitable” image/profession/identity. As a result, I never really knew myself. I could not and would not express myself. I denied my own existence in favor of a perceived image of what I thought others expected, what I imagined society required and one I was incapable of sustaining.

When I first embarked on my journey into the world of higher education, I knew a few things. I knew I couldn’t draw. I knew I couldn’t sing. I knew I couldn’t paint. I knew I had no musical or artistic talent whatsoever. I knew it. I also knew that I was pretty good at math and I was kind of into computers in their very early stages of consumerism. I had a Commodore 64 and was “online” before the Internet was even available to the masses. My dad is a Ph.D. chemist. It all looked pretty clear to me. It was my destiny that I would go into the sciences.

I couldn’t get into it. It was like I was mimicking someone else. I was stumbling around the grownup world only a child in a man’s body. It didn’t last. I returned home, still not having any real direction, but found employment at a time when the tech industry was booming. I rode its coattails for a long time. I found a “her,” we had a few of “them” and all that was left was a white picket fence.

However, like so much else in my brief history up until that point, it was not to last. In the early nineties, I became the single parent of three small boys, still feeling, and in many respects acting, like a kid myself. As I grew and the boys grew with me, I changed careers several times, moved a few times and finally, on October 17, 2000, everything came to a screeching halt. I nearly died that day and because I didn’t, I had ample time to think about my life for the previous almost 38 years.

At the time, not much made sense. After I understood what had happened (and why) weeks had passed and although I didn’t yet know it, there were many more weeks to come. I was waffling between gratitude and anger: gratitude because I was still alive and anger for the same reason. It was not a happy time, but I survived and today the ill effects are minimal.

Near-death experiences are often related in spiritual terms. The out-of-body experience, the great “white light” or the speaking with the dead – I have a take on all of these very personal interpretations, but there is a much more concrete residual effect. It is an attitude. I have become me. I really didn’t plan to; I didn’t even know that I wasn’t me. I think maybe it’s because I had nothing more to lose – I almost lost it all. And it’s interesting that it didn’t hit me as some blinding flash of light. I didn’t wake up from that haze and think to myself, “Oh yea! That’s the secret to life.”

Later, in my attempt at re-education one more time, I was tested proficient enough to enroll in an English writing honors course (freshman comp.). I threw caution to the wind and took it. And I got an “A.” And I liked it. And I liked my writing. And others did too. And I had an “art.” This no-talent, stumbling, bumbling, albeit nice guy, that had no identity to hang his hat on suddenly found that he too was blessed with a talent. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing since then either, but that’s enough for now. I followed enough tangents already!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Record's Records

This is the home of the Colfax Record. The paper, established in 1908, has been living here since 1930. Yes, that’s right, I said living. Newspapers are born, live for a while – sometimes a long while – and then they die. Occasionally they come back to life, but they’re never really the same.

The Colfax Record has been in regular publication since 1908. For nearly 100 years it has been the voice of this small railroad town. Although a much larger company now owns it, it is still written locally, right here. And though it’s no longer printed in-house, the presses are close by - just down the hill at the Auburn Journal, the flagship of the local group of newspapers that includes the Record.

Gold Country Media, the parent company of the Journal, the Record and 15 other publications (about half are newspapers), is itself a smaller operating unit of a larger company, Brehm Communications. Still, the Record, the Journal and the other papers that comprise Gold Country Media are, in many respects, independent. And that is a good thing.

The local newspaper is the heartbeat of a community. It is often the repository for a town's collected history; the lives lived, the tragedies and the triumphs. This very building houses the archives of the majority of the issues dating back to 1908. They aren’t on microfiche or stored in .PDF files - there is no index. The archives are the actual print copies of the newspaper… some almost 100 years old.

The collection is amazingly complete. Not every issue is represented, and for some reason the entire year of 1956 is missing, but most are here. These fragile volumes are available for public viewing, however, we get a little nervous when the older volumes are requested… and we are very careful about how they are handled. Nevertheless, the Record not only documents the present, it also stores the past. The archives are the next best thing to a time machine.

Someday they should be scanned and filed electronically. Eventually, these fragile volumes need to be preserved and protected. One day, direct access by anyone who comes in and asks will be impossible. These and other very old archives will someday be accessible to anyone at the click of a mouse, much like other historic documents already are. For now, and like many other newspapers large and small, only the recent past is available via the Internet.

The archives, in their entirety, tell a story all their own. It’s the life story of a newspaper. How it reacted to events that shook the world as well as the local high school football team’s winning season. The procession of publishers, editors and reporters that documented these stories while imparting their own style and personality all contributed to the overall character of the paper. And for the past six months, I have left my mark as well.

I wonder sometimes who might someday be leafing through the discolored, fragile archives of 2006. I guess perhaps no one will have access to the actual copies, or maybe the preservation of the physical print version will have been replaced by more modern methods. I wonder if the experience can be the same without the soft, velvety feel of decaying newsprint. Without the oh-so delicate turning of the ancient pages, does the history still translate?

No matter, my contribution to the newspaper’s DNA will still be apparent. There are a number of very good, very personal reasons why I do what I do. That my byline will live on as long as the paper does is among them. And so too is my impact on the community I served briefly, in the early years, of the 21st century.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Back on the Horse

Ok, enough.

It’s time to take a break from the serious. The trials and tribulations, both the mundane pressures of life and the deadlines - as well as the acute moments that are often the defining bookmarks in life – all will have to sit patiently awaiting their turn in this space. It’s time for something completely useless. Yes, this space for compound reflections and whimsical insight today will yield to the inane – though perhaps no less profound.

Snaggle Tooth recently alerted me to a blog written by a journalist from Ontario. Written Inc is off-the-cuff yet professional at the same time. Carmi is a journalist who seems to have the right attitude, and a uniquely down-to-earth perspective that I admire very much. He is also a whiz with a camera – a skill I am only just beginning to develop.

In a recent post, Carmi inspired me to turn the camera on myself. Admittedly, it is an act that takes me well outside of my comfort zone. Ironically enough, I inadvertently did snap a shot of myself while waiting to do an interview. It wasn’t what I meant when I said I would give it a go, I was just screwing around with exposures and aperture while I was waiting and WHAM, there it was.And the best part? It didn’t hurt a bit! Next time I promise – I'll get a head shot!

Although I pretty much got stood up on my interview, I did find some interesting things to shoot.
And that’s about it! No injuries, no greater “truths,” no revelations and no stress.
I hope you all had a great day and thank you all for the kind words and thoughts – it meant an awful lot!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Too Close

It’s 3:30 a.m. I’ve been up now for about 20 hours… not a personal best by any measure, but a heavy stretch of awake time all the same. For the last 6 + hours, I have been at Mercy San Juan Hospital. My 19 year-old son was a passenger in a vehicle involved in a very bad accident. He’s going to live and barring any complications, he should make a full recovery. In other words, I am not on some kind of vigil… I don’t have to be here.

But I do. My boy is hurt and even though he is finally resting, albeit restlessly, I need to be here anyway – just in case he needs me. To hold his hand when the pain is unbearable; to tell him it’s going to be all right; to empathize and sympathize; to make it possible for him to rest just a little bit easier knowing his father is just on the other side of the wall. Although I knew even before I left home that he would survive, I am acutely aware that it could have been otherwise.

I saw the wreck.

Between my home and the hospital was the carnage that used to be three automobiles. My son’s friend’s car was by far the most damaged of the three. The driver’s space was about one-third its original size. I knew that there would be injuries and severe ones at that. I wish I were wrong. Timmy has myriad superficial wounds to his face and left hand… deep gashes requiring many stitches, but still superficial. He has a concussion and he has a badly broken right arm. I believe it’s the humorous bone (it’s the larger bone, between the elbow and shoulder – sorry, no Internet… you know I’d look it up), and how bad it is won’t be known until an orthopedic specialist has evaluated him. It’s at least that bad, I guess.

All four of the occupants were transported to area hospitals. Timmy’s girlfriend has already been released from another hospital; she’s sleeping on a little couch in the trauma ICU waiting area, right next to me. She suffered contusions and lacerations requiring some sutures as well as a concussion. The other passenger is spending the night here on the fifth floor for observation – he should be fine. The driver was transported to a hospital in downtown Sacramento with his own severe injuries – among them a broken femur, we’ve been told.

I know a thing or two about broken femurs.

Although there is never a “good” time for something like this to occur, there are some times that are, well, less convenient than others. For a number of reasons, this would count as one of the least so. But it hardly matters. Right now, all bets are off. Work can wait. So can school. But that’s my stuff. This major pothole in the road of life comes right when Timmy finally found a job, one he likes and is excited about. He has worked two days, and he’s scheduled for today. He won’t make it. Hopefully he will still have a job when he has recovered sufficiently. But that will be weeks from now.

Me? Besides my usual weekly deadline at work, I just have a research paper due today… I was going to finish it last night. It looks like my last post came back to haunt me. The paper will be late. So what! It is rather insignificant and completely meaningless at the moment. I’ll take the deduction on my grade and life will go on. Should’ve done it when I had the time? Never know what’s around the corner? Save it! None of that philosophic “what-if” BS has any impact on me right now. Indeed, the importance of this whole quest for obtaining my degree has little meaning next to my childrens’ health and welfare.

Right now my eyelids are heavy. The muscles of my scalp are tense. I’m ready to tee-off on anyone who so much as looks at me, cross-eyed or otherwise. In my mouth is the acrid taste of adrenalin combined with the tightness only hours of clenched jaws can bring. And I am grateful, humbled and oh so tired. This was close and I now have a very good idea what this side of the equation feels like. I’ve been in Timmy’s shoes, now I’m trying on my parents’.

Let’s don’t do this again.


Timmy came home this afternoon. He looks pretty bad, but what a difference 24 hours makes. He will be rehabilitating for some time, but it looks like his arm will not need anything more than immobilization. Of course, all of this is subject to change, but the news is promising nonetheless. Tomorrow marks 44 years since my birth - I feel as though I've lived them all in a single minute.

Blessings duly noted, and counted.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

At the Library

This is a shot from the second floor landing at the Sac State library. Or is this a mezzanine? No matter. I am here to work on a research paper that is due tomorrow morning. It is not the last minute – but it’s damn close. If I had to guess, I’d say I’m about half way done with it, maybe a little less. That estimate is a little deceiving, however, because there are parts (like the citations) that are only about 10 percent done.

And I don’t like citing sources. Not because I think I should somehow be exempt or because it’s not necessary, but because I’m not good at it. It’s not familiar and I therefore resist. And I know how to attribute – I’m a journalist. It’s just that research citation is so impersonal. It’s not like journalism where I talk to some guy and then write, “he said.”

I suppose it goes deeper than that as well. What I am doing (or supposed to be doing) is just reassembling known information. I’m compiling others’ research and expertise into a new angle… and honestly, it isn’t all that new. I know; it’s about the digging, the assembling and the recompiling. It’s practice in putting together a well-supported and well thought out argument. I get that.

I just don’t like it.

Is that the only reason I procrastinate? This is an area to which I have given much thought of late, as I am in the midst of yet another procrastinatorial (it’s a word – Google it!) battle. I know that I will finish this thing today; I have to. I know that I will be relatively happy with it when it’s done and I am equally sure I’ll receive high marks for it.

And I think I know that the pretense of doing it before the last minute was simply self-deception. It wasn’t going to happen. It never does, yet I almost always get these things done and done well, in time. Why do I wait? I think I have to. I have planned and planned some more to do this, or at least bits of it on many, many occasions. I meant it, really. But almost nothing ever happened until time got so tight I had no choice.

And that is why I know it will get done – I have no choice. It’s do or die and I won’t die, it’s that simple. It’s the stress of the approaching deadline that gets me so wound up. But an interesting thing happened a day or two ago. I let go. I knew today would be the day and I knew (know) I would have the time. It’s still true and I am not worried. What's interesting is that as soon as I accepted this reality, I was ok. Yesterday and Monday were productive and, at least as far as this assignment is concerned, relatively stress-free.

So what am I doing now? Well, I'm not working on my paper. Why am I nattering away to my fellow warriors in the blogosphere? Because I only have 15 minutes left on my laptop's battery and then it’s time to go. Because if I were to finish this thing now, I won’t have pushed it to the limit.


I don’t know… because I’m built that way and it’s time I accept it and work with it. We’ll see how well that plan works, I’m not expecting much sleep tonight!

*** UPDATE***
It's done, it's good and it's not even 1 a.m. yet!!

Friday, November 24, 2006


Another year is nearly in the books. It’s been a pretty good one - perhaps one of my best. There have been no real surprises, no huge upheaval, not a lot of drama. True, my life has not been drama-free, but I must say it is in remission. Yesterday’s Thanksgiving feast at my parents’ home was pleasant. If I had my druthers, I would have had all three of my kids there, but not everything is meant to be as I would have it.

I would have put mashed potatoes on the menu as well.

Only my youngest made the trek this year. He and his friend played football and Frisbee on the same street I did so many Thanksgivings ago. My oldest went to Boston with his girlfriend this year. He approached the subject with me somewhat tentatively until I made it clear that it was all right. I always say, “Never pass up a free trip to Boston.” Ok, I’ve never said that, but it’s still sage advice.

My middle son waffled between spending time with my side of the family and his mother’s. I made it clear that it was his choice and whatever he decided was fine with me. He had to choose between spending two hours (one way) in a cramped car with his brother, their friends and me or do the same with his mother traveling to a different set of relatives’ home. In the end, he decided that he did not have to choose; neither option was too appealing and he decided to stay home with his girlfriend and another friend. Except for making sure he was ok with his decision, I didn’t try to talk him out of it.

I knew we would be driving back after dinner. It was a four-hour round trip and about a six-hour stay – 10 hours all tolled. That makes for a very long day. I always say (really, I do always say this) that the duration of a trip should be at least twice the travel time. We made an exception this time. I brought back leftovers for my middle son and company so that the traditional feast would not have to be sacrificed in the name of peace and comfort. My mother’s cooking is legendary and my son eagerly awaited his take-out order.

Although somewhat later, he and his friends enjoyed the very same meal the rest of us did earlier. The impact and the meaning and the tradition remained intact as well. He was thankful and made sure to thank everyone who had it coming. Although we didn’t share the same physical space or dining experience, we shared something deeper. We had an understanding and communicated our needs without fear of reprisal or hurt. In a metaphysical way, we shared much more than a turkey dinner.

And it is despite my vision of how it should have been. If I had to paint a picture of Thanksgiving this year, as I would like to see it – without any limitations, it wouldn’t have been this. If I were asked to paint a realistic portrait, best and worst-case scenario, I would have missed by a mile. In all cases, I would have sold myself short because the most important factor of all would have been missing – acceptance.

It is this sincere little nuance… an idea that, although not everything is necessarily planned, some things just can’t help being the way they are. Taken one step further, even if you are the type who plans everything to the nth degree, isn’t there a point where you must throw in the towel? How much simpler life is that I can recognize that time so many painful steps sooner.

I could have forced the issue. Not that I could make him come, he’s too old and too big, but I could have used the coercive and manipulative powers that I have acquired over the years to create that very reality. The reality I just got done saying I would have preferred. But that reality is contingent upon him sincerely wanting to be there, sincerely. If I “made” him come, I would have had what I wanted – physically. But I would not have had his heart and mind.

What I got was better than I could have planned. It was better than was possible to plan. Planning for sincerity is like planning for falling in love. All of the ingredients can be carefully arranged. The warm summer evening, the quiet sidewalk café and the soft music can be planned in advance, but love is unpredictable and best not meddled with. Sincerity is similar, and the best of planning cannot create it.

The connection was there. Not in time or in space, but in spirit.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Ok, I’ve written and deleted the first paragraph of this “work” two or three times now – I guess I should just say it and be done. No sense in pussyfooting around and there’s no point in beating around the bush. I am getting to the point where I need to tell it like it is.

I’m busy – far too busy for my own good. I have certain priorities in my life; peace and serenity are right up at the top. Others are up there too, and when all facets of my life are working in concert with one another, everything runs smoothly. The completion of my BA degree (government-journalism) is just around the corner, but it won’t happen on its own – it needs my attention. My job (part-time staff writer for a small weekly newspaper) is beneficial not because of the money (it ain’t much), but the work experience. Interaction with my family, in both generational directions, can also serve to compliment this hierarchy of priorities in a positive way.

However, these contributing factors can just as easily be out of sync. Indeed, instead of being the benefit and support they have been, recently all these factors and others have served to put a damper on what was a well-oiled machine. Enthusiasm, excitement and zeal have become a chore – more of a grind than anything else. Am I whining? Never! The realities are what they are – I’ll get through it and I am sure I will be grateful for the experience eventually. Today… not so much.

Work was and is supposed to be a part time gig. It is a standing 29-hour per week job that became available just as I was. Why 29 hours? Because at 30 they have to give benefits. If I had walked in off the street with no experience, I probably would not have qualified for it. I was in the right place at the right time. At the beginning of the semester, it was a blast. I was learning and earning and working a lot – a lot more than 29 hours per week. I still am, but I no longer have the time in the week to be working 35, 40, or more hours – never mind how many I am being paid for.

I thought that maybe the job was taking me more time than it pays because of my inexperience. Perhaps it took me longer because I was just learning. There is some truth in that and I'm down with paying my dues. However, I believe it should be a full-time job and whoever ends up taking my place will have trouble completing it on a part-time basis. I could be wrong; my opinion is not based in a great deal of experience – yet.

The point is that at this time in the semester, I do not have the time to work that many hours and put in the time I need for school and deal with the other things life throws at me. Fortunately, I only committed to do this job until the end of the year – five more weekly issues. I will fulfill my commitment and I will pass my classes and I might even still get the same marks I’m used to – so far so good. But the pressure is mounting and the most critical time is just ahead.

Then, as if all that wasn’t enough, a sudden lapse (or the discovery of a lapse) in communication in the family demands my attention. As usual, it just can’t wait… no, no - there is a problem and it has to be understood, mitigated and regulated – right now. It can’t wait for the semester break, or better, after I graduate and get a real job that pays real money; when I have the available non-financial resources (like time) as well. Oh, no – like when I was in the hospital, an issue in which my involvement is peripheral demands my direct attention because those directly involved find it easier to go through me.

On the other generational side, emergencies are popping up regularly – too regularly – and they often demand what little money I do have. Again, so far it is ok and I am not whining about being poor or broke or any of that. I won’t starve. I am very fortunate. However, the pressure to deal with it all is another story altogether. Again, the timing couldn’t be worse… even when I do have the time to deal with my stuff (two BIG research papers and studying for finals), I’m more motivated to take a nap.

And today that’s exactly what I did. My plan was to spend all afternoon in the library and work on schoolwork. I didn’t. I came home and slept. Can I afford to waste the time? Probably not, but I guess I’ll just lose some sleep later like countless other college students do; and I’ll get it done. My track record of late is that I always finish and finish well. However, and this is a big however, it’s not fun right now, and it used to be. School hasn’t changed, my attitude has.

There, I said it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Tourist Town

It’s that time of year again. It always catches me a little off-guard. The semester at Sac State is nearly over; the weather had turned to an absolutely bone-chilling daytime average of 64 degrees and the skies are overcast much of the time. Fog is a frequent visitor and the rain, although not due in heavy amounts just yet, has been coming through regularly.

A handful of Sierra ski resorts have opened up with the help of man-made snow. There’s not much terrain open yet, but the real stuff will soon be along and with it, the crowds. Although I miss living in the mountains, among their majesty and mystery - and I miss winter in the Sierras the most - I sure don’t miss the tourists.

And now I am one. A tourist. A flat-lander. I’ll make my weekend pilgrimage up the hill, spend my money – lots of it – and come home. I’ll be contributing to the local economy while extracting from it its serenity - adding to the traffic, the pollution and the noise. Living in a tourist town is like expecting houseguests every weekend. For one or two days out of seven, the trade-offs seem worth it.

And like houseguests, some are more respectful than others. Many pick up after themselves, wait their turn and don’t use everything up. They are gracious, appreciative and are welcome back. Others would never be invited back – but a tourist town doesn’t get to pick and choose. Therefore, we could expect the rude, the obnoxious, the filthy and the snobs. Every weekend. It’s part of the game.

Still, for five days out of seven, the slopes were ours. There are no lift lines, not much litter, plenty of parking and no traffic. When the big storms come through mid-week, dump their load of white gold and close the mountain passes, guess who gets to enjoy all that powder? Who’s out there laying first tracks while the schools and many businesses close their doors in appreciation of one of the Sierra’s most precious gifts.

It has been some years now that I have called Truckee my home. My connections for free lift tickets have all moved on. I now pay full price like all the other flat-landers. And I am respectful as much as any guest should be anywhere. I know how trying it can be. I know how just one out-of-towner waiting at an intersection while waiving me through can make my day. I take with me and dispose of that which I brought and I pick up after my inconsiderate tourist brethren as well, because if I don’t those who live there must.

And for the price of respect, I get to bask in Mother Nature’s magic. For a precious few days this winter, I will revel in the power that can be dangerous as it is exhilarating, treacherous and inviting, beautiful and stark. For this privilege, the residents of Truckee and Tahoe City, of Crystal Bay and Incline - even the more densely populated fraternal twins, Stateline and South Lake Tahoe – all feel an impact.

And to be fair, there are locals, some perhaps are long-time residents who remember a time of solitude, that do not accept this necessary evil. Some meet disrespect with disrespect – a few do so proactively. Indeed, it is not always the visitor who draws the first foul. For the most part, however, the impact left by the weekend warriors is evident on Monday morning. Every resort parking lot bears witness to the unmitigated gall of some who can’t walk ten feet – less –to the nearest garbage can. The juvenile behavior of a few can sour a whole community, leaving a nasty taste in its collective mouth.

But tolerate it they must, year after year. A tourist town’s life’s blood is the tourist dollar – and, of course, the tourist. Either by design or default, some destinations resonate with the masses. For those who have been to Truckee and Lake Tahoe, I need not explain. To those that haven’t, words can’t do it justice and even if worth a thousand words, pictures don’t either.

I remember driving on State Route 267 from Truckee to Kings Beach. Just after cresting Brockway summit at 7,179 feet, the lake in all her majesty is laid out in front of me. As often as I made that trek, it always took my breath away, be it mid summer or mid blizzard. Never mind the casinos, the resorts, the cabins or the quaint mountain towns… it’s the lake that draws us. It was inevitable.
Photo honorably stolen from Prairie Roots Photography

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Park-Like Settings, Tree-Lined Streets

It’s a beautiful day in a lovely park-like setting at California State University, Sacramento – locally and affectionately known as Sac State. It’s mid-November, a balmy 65 degrees with virtually no wind. The sun is filtering through the pines and oaks; the grass is damp and the earth below it, soft. The days of enjoying the great outdoors are numbered, but today – the noise of the traffic is barely noticeable in the distance, the birds are singing and the squirrels are scurrying about. Around here, this is about a peaceful as it gets – and it’s enough.

Sacramento is not the largest city around, but it is a major metropolitan area all the same. With a population of about a half-million in the city proper and 2.5 million in the five-county metropolitan area, it’s not even among California’s top three metroplexes – it’s number four. Be that as it may, it still has all the trappings of any big city despite its also-ran status among the state’s population centers.

As such, certain unavoidable realities that every big city faces are true for Sacramento as well. There is the obligatory traffic, crime and filth that every population center has to endure. This is not news. However, it’s the stark monotony of the landscape that has a subtle, yet persistently erosive quality to it that sometimes gets me. It wears on me… the pavement, the cement, the artificiality of it all. For the most part, it all goes unnoticed – working on my psyche in the background, as it were.

I guess I am not alone. I mean… if I were the only one, no one would ever put a park anywhere. Nobody would care about trees, or landscape strips or even houseplants. That a significant amount of money is spent on keeping a little of the “country” in the city tells me that enough of us feel at least a little longing for a more natural environment. But in the name of progress, convenience… indeed, for the sake of comfort, we forego the inefficiency of our natural world and we build. And build. And build.

The greenery we preserve or, often, recreate comes from a number of sources. There is a variety if institutions beyond local city and county governments that value some landscaping in the landscape. Schools, both public and private, have a history of providing this oasis within many a concrete jungle. Although many grade schools and, of course, high schools provide ball fields and playgrounds for themselves and the community, local colleges and universities provide a slice of nature on a scale that sometimes rivals the largest city parks.

In Sacramento, there are some magnificent parks. The state capital, right downtown, is surrounded by a very large park with all the attendant accoutrements. A rose garden, war memorial and numerous works of art abound. And there are others. However, Sac State, though not a park per se, serves the same purpose – and I’m not sure many even stop to think about it. Other big and not so big schools share this quality as well.

Although the effect may not be as pronounced at more suburban schools like nearby UC Davis, or, further west, Stanford and UC Santa Cruz; at San Jose State, San Francisco State and even UC Berkeley, the contrast is unavoidable. It’s more than just a relaxing and peaceful environment to pursue a higher education; it’s peaceful and relaxing for anyone. It’s a break in the monotony, a needed oasis in the desert of freeways, parking lots and traffic. And it’s there for anyone. Grab a book, get a cup of coffee, kick your shoes off and relax -

The Bare Necessities

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
Old Mother Nature's recipes
That brings the bare necessities of life

Wherever I wander, wherever I roam
I couldn't be fonder of my big home
The bees are buzzin' in the tree
To make some honey just for me
When you look under the rocks and plants
And take a glance at the fancy ants
Then maybe try a few

The bare necessities of life will come to you
They'll come to you!

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
That's why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life

Now when you pick a pawpaw
Or a prickly pear
And you prick a raw paw
Next time beware
Don't pick the prickly pear by the paw
When you pick a pear
Try to use the claw
But you don't need to use the claw
When you pick a pear of the big pawpaw
Have I given you a clue ?

The bare necessities of life will come to you
They'll come to you!

So just try and relax, yeah cool it
Fall apart in my backyard
'Cause let me tell you something little britches
If you act like that bee acts, uh uh
You're working too hard

And don't spend your time lookin' around
For something you want that can't be found
When you find out you can live without it
And go along not thinkin' about it
I'll tell you something true

The bare necessities of life will come to you

-Terry Gilkyson

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Time and Change

Another day just came to an end. It was a good day. Most are lately. Yesterday I visited a friend who is currently residing in the same hospital that I called home for several weeks six years ago. Although my experience there was miraculous, insightful, enlightening, transforming and a host of other equally profound adjectives, there were no good days. Not a single one, not even the day I left. It took some time and a lot of pain before the days got to be even close to good, but here I am today nonetheless better – a lot better than I’ve ever been.

In many respects, my friend is in the same boat I was in. The specific nature of the medical condition that led to her hospitalization is different; so too is the magnitude of her condition. However, the fear, the uncertainty and the helplessness are no different. I’ve been there. It was hard for me to walk back into that institution. It always is. I never particularly took to hospitals in the first place and my extended stay in one sure didn’t change that. Much had changed in just the 18 months or so since I had last been there, visiting a different friend.

I have always made it a point to visit the ER/ICU when I’m in the area. Although my memory is fuzzy, there are a few nurses there that I remember and they remember me. They see a lot of patients come and go and many that go… well they go permanently. It’s the nature of a trauma center; you don’t end up there if you’re not in pretty bad shape. I was expected to be one of those that left in a permanent fashion. That I didn’t, and have since been back, willingly and under my own power, is (or was 18 months ago) still a source of amazement to my caregivers.

Like many hospitals, Washoe Medical Center, in Reno, is expanding. Indeed it seems it always is. There has been construction going on every time I’ve been there, whether my stay was a few hours or a few weeks. The floor my friend is on is the same floor I was on after they moved me out of ICU. It’s also where my other friend was 18 months ago. It used to be called the “step-down” unit and it was on the third floor. Now that ward – with my old room - is the oncology unit. I’m not quite sure why my friend is in that unit, she hasn’t got cancer – my other friend did, and he has since passed.

This time, however, there has been much more extensive activity than just the rearrangement of furniture. Everything is different, including the ER/ICU. They even changed the name of the whole hospital. New graphics, slogans, color scheme… and, it would appear, new personnel. At least that is what I was told by the administrator behind the “admitting” desk in what used to be an old, “throw-back” style ER waiting room. There used to be a door under the TV with a phone hanging next to it. In the past I would simply pick up the receiver and wait for an answer.

“ER, can I help you?”

“Yes,” I would say. “My name is Mike Althouse and I was a patient here for a few weeks back in October of 2000.”

“What can I do for you?” the friendly voice on the other side would ask.

“I was just wondering if there is anyone working today that was here during that period of time?” was my typical response.

Usually I wouldn’t even get put on hold, “Hang on just a sec… Peggy? You were here at the end of 2000, weren’t you? Do you remember a Mike… what was your last name? Althouse. Mike Althouse?”

By this time there is some kind of surprised exclamation followed by the door being buzzed open.

“Come on back!” And I hang up the phone and push the door open.

That door is no longer there. And according to the sentinel guarding the gateway from behind her desk, all dressed in her hospital garb, “Oh, there wouldn’t be anyone working here from that long ago.”

“Really?” But 18 months ago there would be - was. I suppose she was just doing her job. I asked if I could just walk back and see if I recognized any of the nurses. She asked me if I had a name of someone– I didn’t, and no she wasn’t going to just let me walk back there. There was not much else I could do. I am relatively sure there were some still there from when I was, but the admitting “nurse” (she isn’t a nurse, but they all dress like one), was equally sure there weren’t. It was a losing battle and perhaps the finality I needed.

That place was special. My stay was short, but in terms of hospitalizations, pretty lengthy. Considering my days there were 24 hours long, it felt much longer. I have made this informal and irregular pilgrimage since I left the mountains four years ago. I can’t really explain any better than to say that it was a part of me. I wanted to express my gratitude again and tell those who took care of me that their efforts were not in vain – that it was worth it and that I care a great deal.

Maybe that administrative assistant was right. Maybe all from that era are gone. Perhaps it’s time now to close that chapter in my book. Time and change are constant. Thanks in large part to the efforts of those kind and caring professionals, I am living proof.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Happy Birthday Dad!

*** Due to Blogger's technical difficulties, the following post originally appeared on "Been Some Places, Seen Some Things" yesterday. It's an important post and as such enjoys prominence here - a day late perhaps, but no dollars short.

Today is my Dad’s birthday. He’s 70-something. I can never remember exactly. It’s not like it’s a big secret or that it’s not polite to ask… I could, it just doesn’t much matter. It’s the same with my mom. Her birthday is in February and she’s my dad’s age minus a few years. No, I don’t know how many – a few. Again, it’s no big secret, she wouldn’t have any problem telling me – again.

What’s important about November eighth is not how many times it has rolled around in his lifetime. What is important is how much he has accomplished in that time. If memory serves, he was born in 1933 – I could be wrong but at least it’s close. That would put him smack-dab in the middle of the Great Depression. Although they were hard times for many, it was doubly hard for my paternal grandparents and their only child.

My father is a first generation American. Both of his parents came to this country from Russia and/or the Ukraine in the early 1900s. They met and married in New York City and worked very hard. When they arrived, they didn’t know the language or the culture; all they had to build upon was an ability and willingness to work and work hard. They never made a lot of money, but they earned every penny. They were among the most honorable people I’ll ever know.

It is apparent that the work ethic my grandparents relied upon to survive was transmitted to my father. As I said, they didn’t have much, but they made do. My dad excelled in school and graduated high school at 16. A remarkable achievement in its own right but even more so when you take into account a complete transplant from New York to Miami midway through his high school years. He would be the first to tell you, however, that he wasn’t any smarter; he just worked twice as hard.

As hard as my grandparents worked, there was not much chance of them seeing my dad through college. He found a way to do it himself. He viewed education as the antidote to fiscal uncertainty. Through a combination of means (such as the GI Bill and… that’s right, work), he managed to graduate from UCLA with a chemistry degree before putting himself through Stanford for his PhD. (For those that do not know – a PhD is a BIG deal… a PhD from Stanford is a REALLY BIG deal). Not bad for a poor depression era kid.

I could go on and on about what he has done since then. He and my mom have been married for almost 45 years, he has traveled all over the world, he has been a successful business owner, an employer and… for almost 44 years he has been a father. My father.

And what was that like?

Well, if all’s well that ends well, then all’s well. Ok, the truth – Mostly pretty good. Yes there have been more than a few rough patches, but the good times have more than made up for them. There is one glaring incident when my dad and mom literally put their lives on hold for several months to help me. In my book, that is the kind of sacrifice that defines parenthood and perhaps even more so, fatherhood.

Happy Birthday Pops!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Word of the Week - DICHOTOMETRIC

Life is an amazingly complex thing. I’m not referring to the biological, electro-physical, machine that is our physical housing. Nor do I intend to enter a debate (with myself or others) regarding whether or not there is a spiritual being contained within. No, it’s much less philosophical than all that. I have again been faced with the unsettling realization that what I perceive, though perhaps real and true, is not universally so.

Last night, I found myself in a situation in which I saw and heard certain “realities.” I believed the evidence of what I witnessed to be universal – if I had a videotape to show you, you would see what I saw. At least in theory, it would be so. But as any cop will tell you, witnesses to an identical crime will often recount details so starkly different as to make the officer wonder if they were describing the same event.

I was treated to a tale of struggle and perseverance… of failure and triumph, of adventures so grand that surely it couldn’t be true. And it wasn’t. There were other factors as well. I happen to know this gentleman and some of his history. But my prior knowledge was not what sent me over the edge… I’ve sat through his story before. There was more to the display and I thought it was obvious. At least I was not alone… although all did not share my perception, at least some did. So I’m not crazy… not yet.

And, no his name is not James Frye, but it’s a good guess!

This is not the first time this dichotometric reality has reared its ugly head. Indeed, it is present all around us. From the innocent “he said/she said” lover’s tiffs to the huge chasms apparent in the body politic, it is no surprise when contradictory statements are made under the guise of truth, but both can’t be. However, and this is the hard part for me, both parties often believe their version is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.

The problem is not that there are bald-faced liars – there are and they know it. I believe I witnessed one in all his glory last night. I can deal with that. What is at issue is simply what is reality? Is it real or perception? For me, I saw a sham and a charlatan last night. I don’t believe he was after my money; it was not that sort of setting… he had nothing to gain but the solicitation of kudos from an audience that was largely taken in by his BS. And he got that.

Nor do I believe that I was in any way jealous or envious – and those who shared my experience weren’t either. Maybe it’s just the shock that I knew it was so obviously false and it was taken at full face value – plus interest – by others, some of whom I know to be of at least average intelligence. Were they taken in by the hype? Maybe it was an infectious phenomenon – a bandwagon effect of sorts. It’s almost eerie.

I didn’t say anything, not for fear of retribution… those who know me know that wouldn’t have stopped me. It was due to an open-mindedness of a type I didn’t know even existed. It’s not because I think my perception may be off in the ozone… oh no, I’m dead on in my assessment. Rather, it’s due to the fact that whatever that 2/3s of the audience saw and heard (about 15 all tolled), it did something for them.

Their perception was that they saw some kind of hope. I didn’t see it, but who am I to tell them they didn’t. There was no foul, no scam, and no crime. Nobody was being taken for anything other than their trust. There is nothing I can do to rectify that. If there were a clear and present danger, sure, I’d be compelled to do something. As it was, all I could do was bite my tongue.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Revelations - Reprise

Here I am, sitting in front of a blank monitor and a quiet keyboard, minutes before the start of a new week… Saturday night. I want to write something, but all I’ve got is this - a writer writing about not having anything to write about. According to my editor’s editor, it’s the most natural thing in the world for a writer to write about. I never quite paid any attention before he said it, but so it is true.

Nevertheless, if I can’t come up with anything else, this will suffice. Writing about nothing… it’s been my experience that something will materialize, all I have to do is just keep pushing the buttons and something will scurry out…

There it is!

I was catching up with a friend that I haven’t seen in several days and lamenting about how busy I’ve been. I tried to be clear that I wasn’t complaining – indeed, I am so grateful to have such demands on my time. As I was running through my schedule with him, and while he elaborated on his equally busy life, it hit me. I interrupted him and said,

“It’s success.”

That surprised me. It was a revelation and it surprised me. It is success; that is what I’m experiencing. Success. I’m busy… my time is in demand because I am succeeding. It’s not nearly as burdensome when viewed in the proper perspective. I am busy being successful.

I’ve been busy doing nothing and I know what that feels like. I’ve also been busy doing things that were something, but no one seemed to care too much. Once in a great while, I’ve kept busy with important stuff, but never felt important. The bottom line is that I may have been busier at other points in my life, but I never felt “busy.” Hassled? Yes. Haggard? For sure. Stressed? Unbearably. But not busy like this.

Today and for some time now, I have felt great demand on my time. Very little of my time is ever wasted anymore. When it is “wasted,” it’s by design – it’s a needed, albeit short break. I can’t ever remember feeling particularly successful before, not for any length of time anyway.

Apparently it’s not so much the specific output, but rather the big picture; the sustained forward progression. It’s about the realization of long-term goals materialized by short-term strategies. One day at a time. All of a sudden that frenzied feeling of meeting deadline after deadline – only to be followed by yet another deadline has turned to accomplishment, commitment, perseverance, patience… success. Busy is good.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Soul of a Writer

Last week, one of my journalism professors called me a “writer.” But she didn’t stop there. She accused me of having “the soul of a writer.” That was all very nice and I was, of course, flattered and humbled. I happen to have a great deal of admiration and respect for her… she has been (journalistically) where I have yet to travel. Although I know, based on my grades in her class, I am able to competently write news; it was not my news writing that she was talking about.

Through a series of events that are not all that important, she recently became aware of my blog and has had occasion to stop by here and read some of my “free-form” writing. It is decidedly not news writing. Indeed, I’m not quite sure how I would categorize it. Be that as it may, her observation wasn’t exactly all that surprising. In all humility - and I have written about this before – I know that I am a writer, and a pretty good one at that. But the soul of a writer? Ok, I’ll take it.

What was surprising is that she said it was a quality that she did not possess. Huh? She said in class once that she has wanted to be a journalist since she was a kid. She’s been writing – for money – for many years. She is a writer! How is it that I could have the “soul of a writer” when she didn’t?

So this all has been bouncing around in my head for about a week now. It’s making me think – something I already do far too much of. I began to compare the different kinds of writing and what it is that makes good writing in the various genres stand out.

Is it “soul?” Do some forms of writing need it while others don’t? Is there a difference between an author and a writer? How about a journalist and a reporter? What distinguishes an essayist from a columnist? These and other sorts of writing are vastly different from each other – but the bottom line is that a writer writes. I am better at some forms of writing than others… and yes, some forms require something special.

In news writing, there are a number of rules. Some, like spelling and grammar, are applied pretty much across the board. Other rules or “style” are no less rigid but may vary depending on the publication one is writing for. Most use the Associated Press (AP) style. Furthermore, news writing doesn’t allow for bias, ambiguity and opinion. There is no use of the first-person – ever. The writer can’t be in the story. I know, I know – save it. No one is perfect, especially Fox News.

The point is that given the facts, the quotes, the attribution and the research, the “art” of news writing is much more mechanical than that of, say, a column or an essay. The flow is top-down. We give it all up in the lead - who, what, why, where, when and how. It’s called a reverse pyramid, the detail becomes less and less important towards the end of the story. There is no room for flair, build-up or suspense. Leave your profundity at the door - this is news.

Profile and feature articles have a little less rigidity, but they too are dictated by rules. Although I enjoy writing them slightly more than straight news – it is still not among my preferred genres. I like news for reasons other than the writing. I like the discovery, the curiosity and, of course, the power. The writing, others’ and mine, represents a vehicle. The beauty is in the accurate, efficient, coherent and responsible transmission information.

News writing doesn’t allow for self-expression, that is not its purpose. Clever vocabulary, grammatically complicated - but correct 100-word sentences have no place in news writing. News writing comes off the street, not out of my head. Is there “soul” in news writing? Maybe not, but the passion of getting the story and getting it right – the soul of the journalist certainly does exist.

It is interesting that I can rattle off these 800-odd words and be relatively happy with their arrangement, their flow and their purpose in one sitting - in just about one hour. But when I have to follow the rules of news writing, I struggle and re-write… I throw my hands up and come back to it… it just plain doesn’t come easy – and that’s after the “reporting” part is finished. It could take hours to write 800 little words. I might be good at it – someday, but I’m still learning.

I usually don’t title these posts until I’m all done and staring at the blank title field. I knew what title of this one was going in...

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Self Help

Not too long ago I wrote a post entitled “Magic Words.” It was about the power of language, specifically, the written word. In it, I attempted to portray both the power and the beauty, the mystery and the logic… indeed, the profound as well as the mundane nature of the art. It is the art of the wordsmith. It was one of my deeper pieces and one that I still like – unusual for me, my worse critic.

The point of all this is another interpretation of the phrase. Magic words… I alluded to the supernatural parallels between words and hocus pocus, insinuating that the power might be alternate manifestations of the same perception. But I didn’t go that way, not really. More accurately, it didn’t go that way – my influence on these things – in this type of writing is more that of the caretaker. But I digress…

I have always looked for the secret formula, the one special phrase, those magic words that would snap my life to attention. It didn’t have to be in the form of the ever-popular “self-help” book, but that was, for a long time, where I sought them. It didn’t even have to be in the form of motivational or inspirational prose. If a special arch support or some B complex vitamin that had somehow eluded me was the answer, then I was all in. Oh yes, believe it, my head went there.

Although a dietary supplement or some organic soap was within the realm of possible hiding places, I suspected the answer to my motivational deficiency was in the written word. I searched and I read. “Life 101” and “Do It” by Peter McWilliams were among the first I stumbled across in the early 90s. I read Dr. Wayne Dyer and Dr. Phil. Even the classic self-help book by Dale Carnegie, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” followed by “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living,” had some powerful advice for those in search of “it,” whatever it is.

My quest took me though a variety of manuals and rendered unto me some of the wisest advice of our time - all valid, all reasonable and all completely useless. Well, not quite useless, but nothing made any difference, save increasing my vocabulary, until I realized there is no magic. However, sinking those words into my brain – adding more tools to an unused toolbox was not helping. In fact, it made my dilemma, my dearth of motivational energy, seem all the more hopeless.

But it all made so much sense. Action/reaction. Effort/reward. Foul/consequence. What else could I possibly need to get that fire lit? I couldn’t follow through on anything. I knew I was smart enough. I had the capability. The knowledge that I could “do anything if I just set my mind to it” was real. I just could never set my mind to it for any significant length of time – I just didn’t get it.

Today I get it. I know the secret, and magic has nothing to do with it. Three little words formed the key and the action dictated by them opened the door.

It seems to me that there are an awful lot of different kinds of people in the world. I want to focus for a moment on a particular segment. It is a much smaller slice than I imagined, but for me it was a visible one. They are the achievers. Those that are at the top of their fields – the ones who always are working on something and are always busy. They are the ones who get things done and it has become my opinion that there are only a few who fit that mold.

I don’t know if the characteristic is taught, passed down genetically or is an environmental phenomenon. I guess it doesn’t much matter. It’s easy to identify them, however. They work until the job is done. They only know one speed – all out. They get to work early and never pad their time. They don’t complain, don’t pass the buck and will always volunteer for the tough job. And they succeed not because of some monetary reward, but one that pays in much more valuable currency.

Those three words? Do the work. There is nothing magic about the words themselves. The magic comes from the work. Do the work. That’s how I did it. I did the work. I’m doing the work. I continue to do the work. If I don’t want to, I do the work anyway. That is how it works. That is where the magic is. That is why successful people are. Those that are like I used to be and aren’t anymore did what I did – the work.

Simple, no?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Six Years

Today represents an ominous anniversary for me. It’s a rather dramatic, and traumatic experience – so if that’s not your bag, don’t go here.

Six Years - The Link

October 17, 2006. It’s just another day – nothing too special about it, nothing special at all. Six years ago, October 17 was a day just like today. Not that it started just like today, or any other day for the past couple of years, but it was like any other day six years ago. Chaotic, hectic, rambling and haphazard were among the adjectives one might have used to describe my life at the time. No matter what it may appear in retrospect, in the moment, it was a day like any other; a perfectly normal Sierra autumn day.

It would not remain so for long. Before the crisp morning chill even had time to be tempered by the autumn sun, my world drastically changed. My life nearly ended that day; it hung precariously by a thread in the days that followed. I was 37 years old in what should have been the prime of my life when, in a split second, everything changed.

I was on my way to Squaw Valley Academy to drop my then 13 year-old son off at school. The school, as its name implies, is in Squaw Valley, Calif., near Lake Tahoe’s North Shore. His little brother stayed home that day… he did not feel well. Although it was not the stay-home-from-school variety of illness, well, what can I say? It was part of the insanity my life was at the time - his gain, as it turned out. Just about a mile or so from Squaw Valley…

My lifestyle in those days, as I alluded to earlier, was busy. It didn’t need to be, but it was. I was tired that morning – really tired. I wanted both of my younger sons (my oldest was 16 at the time and living with his mother) to be sick that day. I was tired and I knew it. I knew from experience that all I needed was a couple of hour’s sleep and I’d be ok. Although I don’t recall for sure, I’m pretty sure I suggested to my kids that they might not be feeling well that day.

My kids have not experienced a great deal of stability growing up. A single father brought them up for most of their formative years. We moved frequently. They have all had difficulty with school, maybe as a result, maybe not. The point is that when a day off of school is thrown their way, it is readily accepted. My 11 year-old took the gift without reservation. His brother however, threw me a curve.

It was an ongoing battle with the kids and school. I had a sort of “911 proactivity,” meaning that when the school brought the kids’ performance (or lack thereof) to my attention, I got proactive, albeit reactively. My middle son must have recently felt the sting of that proactivity, because when I suggested that he might not be feeling well, he granted that he wasn’t but then said something that surprised me, “But I’m not too sick to go to school.”

He went on to explain that he was behind and couldn’t afford to miss a day at school. I guess that last round of reactive proactivity was effective. I had no choice; I had to get him to school. It wasn’t as though I thought I couldn’t make it, it was that I didn’t want to. My inspired parenting left me little choice, and I couldn’t even be angry with him – he was the responsible one. Of course, once my little one was sick, he wasn’t planning on getting better right away!

It was cool that morning. The snow was going to be coming in just a few weeks and the Sierra was preparing herself. We were looking forward to an early and long winter – the snowboard equipment was already prepped. On State Route 89, there is a long, sweeping, right-hand turn; the Truckee River was to my left and the mountainside on my right. The police report and the truck driver said that I was asleep. I never turned when the road did. I went straight into the path of an on coming, fully loaded logging truck. The truck driver went as far to his right as he could, but he was not able to avoid me.

I wasn’t expected to survive. I lost most of my blood due to internal injuries and massive bone trauma. They say I was in and out, I really don’t know. I remember some sketchy bits and pieces, but I can’t say what was real and what was not. Everything that I know is second hand. Since this is not intended to be a thriller, I’ll say right now that my boy walked away with relatively minor injuries – physically.

Six years later, it’s almost like it was a dream. I was “revived” (I had no head injuries; but I was very heavily sedated) about five weeks later. I was confused to say the least. I had all kinds of machines and tubes and hardware sticking out of me. I discovered later some new little scars that were from the minor injuries I had sustained. By the time I came to, the stitches and the scabs were gone – just new scars were left behind. I had a full beard… and I couldn’t talk because of the tracheotomy they had to perform. I was constantly thirsty.

I slept through those five weeks, but my family lived a very real nightmare. I was blissfully unaware – my nightmare began after I realized exactly what had happened – and why. Although there is a whole lot more to this story, this brief “readers digest” version is only the beginning; it is one that has no ending. It could have been the end, but for reasons I can’t even begin to explain, it was just the beginning. It sure didn’t seem like it at the time – six years ago today.