Small Talk

I don’t like small talk and never learned the art of it.

I felt better about this when I heard that a relative of my mom’s doesn’t like small talk either, but he’s also a nurse who proudly says he works just enough shifts to subsist and used to live on a sort of commune in Oregon with his ex-girlfriend and her mother (maybe he still does…maybe I’ve got the details wrong). In other words, he’s an eccentric. A marvelous eccentric, perhaps, but still an eccentric who can’t be bothered with commenting on the weather or answering breezy questions of the “So what’s new with you?” variety, and therefore gets a hall pass. But it does make me wonder if I’m an eccentric, too, and if I’ve been one all along.

Or I could just have the labels wrong. I’ve described myself as an angry child, but maybe I was just terribly saddened and confused by most human behavior. I called myself a granola in high school (my journalism teacher said, “You’re not a granola,” and she went to college in Boulder, so she would know), but maybe I just had an acute case of senioritis, and not bothering with my hair, clothes, or make-up for a year was my last defiant act. I’ve also been a feminist (of the newly-crowned-in-college variety), a pessimist (now reformed—can’t you tell?), and more recently a Luddite. I know for certain I’m an introvert, but I’m not at all certain that being a former pessimistic feminist/current Luddite introvert/possible marvelous eccentric is the sum total of who I am.

Being an introvert, however, does explain my lack of interest in small talk, the trouble of which is that the things I want to know about can’t usually be gleaned from a surface-level conversation. They are things usually considered too forward or inquisitive to ask unless you know the person well (and it takes awhile for introverts to get to know anyone well), but they are the only things, in my mind, that matter. Not to mention that small talk for an introvert sends our circuits into overdrive. An introvert knows there is no easy answer, nor is there just one answer, nor can the answer be contained to itself without all the history involved, and as we ponder what we’ve been asked while trying to hide the pondering from our interrogator and appear reasonably normal and prepare to give the right kind of offhanded reply, they stand there puzzling over why we can’t just say what we had for lunch yesterday.

In my experience, small talk is the territory of the pathologically chatty, who have probably never listened in their lives. It’s the swampy territory of the sales pitch, where something of mine (my money, my soul) is sought in exchange for polite interest or over-dramatic concern. And the inane territory of, God help us, networking events where “And what do you do?” is asked without irony by grown adults in business casual wearing name tags.

I’m being harsh, though. I suppose there are some merits to talking about the weather and asking what’s new in that it eventually opens the door through which a genuinely interested person can be invited. Like my boyfriend, who learned to talk to absolutely everyone when he was a bartender in London, and is truly interested…in everyone. And my dad, who learned the gift of gab from his parents and peers in a bygone era when such talents were revered.

But my mom, my sister, and my brother are more like me. Small talk makes us itch and look for the nearest exit. Yet if trapped, we don’t run for the hills as looking for the nearest exit would suggest. Instead, something weird happens. We put on armor. You can see it in action. Our eyes change, our gaze penetrates, our mouths twist, we size people up. We prepare to parlay with sly comments and careful banter. We know in fifteen seconds if we have the patience for the next five minutes or the next five hours, or if we’ll cut it off immediately. And the only way we know is if something is revealed by the other person—often subtle and non-verbal—showing he or she is not interested in wading through the bullshit, either, and is, in fact, a worthy opponent.

And it’s not that I have anything against human communication. To the contrary. It’s that I hate superficiality. Which is why social media is so distasteful to me. The quip, the witticism, the airy aside…the “everything is always awesome in my world” post (juxtaposed, oddly, with the doom, gloom, and constant outrage over things of which almost no one has any real or adequate knowledge or experience).

No matter how you slice it, humans aren’t communicating anymore (which would involve some kind of actual exchange in which one person says something, and another person listens, and then that person says something back showing that they actually listened). Instead, humans are declaring with the full force of our enlarged egos. We are enamored with our declarations and our many, many opinions. We are obsessed with our followers and admirers. Mesmerized by the near-immediate responses we get, the attention and “support” from friends we don’t even know. Energized when we can call someone out—publicly—with whom we disagree. And besotted by a living logbook of our optimally posed selfies. Social media is, by design, not for those who want to listen and learn. “Join the conversation” doesn’t mean what you think it does. It should be restated: “Don’t hold back! The world is waiting for your crappy, misinformed, fluffy, puffy, putrid prattle! Do it now before someone else gets the jump on you!” Meanwhile, no one reads books anymore. No one reads anything longer than 140 characters. And no one is able to dive any deeper than fashion, pop culture, celebrity couples, professional sports, and political theatre without soon resorting to sucker-punching, name-calling, and a whole lot of hurt feelings a la fifth grade in Mrs. Hall’s class. (I promise you I’m actually an optimist these days).

Social media is simply small talk for the twenty-first century…and it’s utterly exhausting.

(My internal voice will wake me up tonight: “Retract! Retract! Nothing is all good or all bad!” I’m saying it to you now, so that I don’t have to wake up tonight and rush to the computer: good can come from bad, bad can come from good, yes, even in social media).

But wait a minute, wait a minute…I mentioned it back there, several paragraphs ago. The only things, in my mind, that matter. I know you didn’t ask (because you’re possibly an introvert, too?), but maybe you’d still like to know.

Preferably over coffee or a glass of wine at a nice shady table, during an extended dinner, a trans-Atlantic flight, a relaxing ride on the porch swing, a snowy evening indoors, or when the chips are down and you have some time to contemplate your next move, here are those things:

Have you ever experienced serendipity?

Who do you think you were in a past life? And what from that life did you carry with you today?

Why does [fill in the tragedy or perceived struggle] have to be your path? What if your path is something different?

Why did you make the choices you did?

How have you changed or grown, and how have you stayed the same?

Who or what surprised the heck out of you?

On your death bed, what will you be glad you did, said, believed? What will you know for certain didn’t matter at all?

You can try stopping a stranger on the street and asking them. If they don’t give you a dirty look and hurry away, you may get some interesting answers. Or you can ask the people who are in your inner circle. However, to get to those people, to form an inner circle, I concede that you may have to first converse about the weather or what’s new or—criminy—what you ate for lunch yesterday.

Happy small (and large) talking.

The Elevator

The man put his hands around her head and kissed her.

As the elevator dropped, a silvery rush came up from her high heels, up the backs of her legs, swirling upward through her uterus, stomach, solar plexus, where it joined the rush in her heart, and rose up to her cheeks—pink, to her eyes—heavy, and where it went after that didn’t matter.

Outside the day was dark, the skyline blazing in square fractals, a warm breeze slipping through trees.

The man dropped his hands and their mouths broke. He put one finger against her hip and stared at her right shoulder. He said something. The elevator stopped with a gentle bounce and the doors opened. He went out, white shirt, black pants, no sound.

She stood, not moving.

“What did he say?”

“He said…” She could feel the wine bitter on her tongue and torching the back of her throat. He had said, This is upside down.

Yogic Anxieties

A few years ago, my friend and I went down to Santa Fe for the weekend. My friend is a yoga enthusiast and I am a secretly reluctant participator, so while we were there, she found a yoga class for us which I (secretly reluctantly) agreed to. The studio was impressive, airy, bright, very Santa-Fe-like, with its own café and store selling yoga gear and made-to-order smoothies. The people working the counter seemed only marginally above me on the crunchy scale. I felt encouraged.

Our class was held in a room the size of a high school gymnasium, cavernous, tall ceilings, as wide as it was long, which was different than the squat, steamy, an-inch-from-your-neighbor classes I was used to. Everyone set up their mats in rows facing each other. After getting over that oddness, I was further encouraged to see that there was a nice mix of men and women, all seemingly peaceful and quiet, no loud talkers, just there to start their Saturdays off right. Then the teacher walked in.  She was tall, svelte, dressed in shades of gray, with triumphant tufts of hair sprouting from her armpits and pale skin that had never seen the sun and a turban on her head. I was accustomed to athletic, outdoorsy types in sports bras and Lycra pants and ponytails, but OK—to each their own.

We began the class seated and the teacher instructed us to blow air out of first one and then the other nostril, with the aid of thumb and forefinger. Thirty snot-nosed people dutifully began to make rude noises for at least five minutes. I couldn’t look at my friend; I was biting my lip so hard I was about to draw blood and filled with the anxiety that nervous laughter would simply burst out of me. After the nose-blowing agony, the class proceeded in a familiar way—at least I recognized most of the poses. But at one point the teacher called out serenely that if any woman in the class was menstruating, it was best not to do a particular move. I, in fact, was menstruating, and—slightly panicked about whether or not to heed her advice and what it would do to me if I didn’t—refrained from doing the pose. I was the only one. It felt like middle school again. Sixty minutes later when my patience had reached its limit and I no longer cared that there was a nice mix of peaceful men and women starting their Saturdays off right, we lay down in final savasana—ahh, the best part—while the instructor then began to bang on a giant gong at one end of the room. The ultimate pose of relaxation destroyed by my laughter barely contained for the second time in an hour and a dull ringing in my ears.

Bless the turbaned one, the gong, the clearing of the noses—but my God. I realized again that day, for the millionth time, that I am not a yogi.

I try. I like the yoga sculpt classes at our local yoga franchise which consist of poses, aerobics, and strength training in a heated room with hand weights and dance music pumping. Six-pound weights feel like 50. Sweat pours out of my body and mingles with the sweat from everyone else until there is a river on the floor. Afterwards I feel boiled, woozy, spent. I never actually feel better on the day I take yoga sculpt, probably because I’ve lost all my electrolytes, but at least I burned several hundred calories, I tell myself. And yet even yoga sculpt has its hidden pitfalls. During the last sculpt class we took, my boyfriend somehow got fluid in his inner ear and spent the rest of the weekend with horrible vertigo and nausea. My self-satisfaction at getting through such a difficult workout pales when my love is suffering. Is this yoga? Is this the suffering Buddha talked about?

Living in Denver, the epicenter of health and exercise, there is a yoga studio on every block. I see stay-at-home moms going in and out in the middle of the day, lots of young beautiful single people on the weekends eying each other in the mirror, and even a few old codgers who got hip to exercise later in life and became devoted practitioners—wrinkles, creaky joints, and all. People bike down the streets with their yoga mats on their backs. My mat is rolled up in the trunk of my car for that sudden I-need-to-take-a-yoga-class attack that I never seem to have. At any given moment, in any neighborhood in the city, at least half the people are wearing workout clothes, whether they’re on the way to the gym or not. I include myself in this. I don’t care how much the television makeover experts rant and condemn, there is a reason why we’re all wearing yoga pants and it has nothing to do with trying to look cute (although many of us do accidentally look cute in them). People I know went through a yoga teacher training at one point or another, and even if they’re not actively teaching yoga, they could be. They could have a sudden I-need-to-teach-a-yoga-class attack. Friends take up to seven classes a week—that’s once per day, or doubling up sometimes—and tell me they wouldn’t know how to get through life without it.

But I don’t get it. So all right, it’s a trend. It falls in line with the new push for mindfulness in this hyperstressed, obsessed-with-devices, close-to-dystopian society of ours. It’s meant to be both relaxing and invigorating at the same time, which delights us in its contradiction. It’s meditation lite, complete with inspiring thoughts and sincere connection. Aside from those who have actually studied it, we know almost zilch about what yoga really is (as in its origins and principles), but that’s OK because to most of us it’s just a term for a popular form of exercise that makes us all feel better about ourselves.

But what do I feel? If I’m being dead honest: boredom. Yoga classes with no music make me want to run out of the room screaming. Yoga classes with that gentle New Age stuff are only slightly less irritating (and I like New Age stuff). Yoga classes with 9,000 chaturanga push-ups make me mad. Breathing in and breathing out does not center me; it makes me hyperventilate. My body is accustomed to everything in a turned-out position (thanks to half a lifetime of ballet) and doesn’t want to be parallel and rages against parallel and starts a throbbing in my lower back that doesn’t let up when I have to do something in parallel. My upper body gets a decent workout (from all those damn push-ups), but my lower body takes a nap. I spend the whole class wondering when it will be over. And I’m pretty sure that defeats the point. Yoga sculpt aside (in which I feel like I’m truly getting a workout), I just can’t do it. I need to move. I need a rhythm. I need to dance, people. And if I’m going to meditate, I’m going to do it at home, on my couch.

These are my anxieties.

Which really cover up an underlying layer of anxieties that have to do with this:

“Millions of people have been looking desperately for solutions to their sense of impotency, their loneliness, their frustration, their estrangement from other people, from their world, from their work, from themselves. They have been adopting new religions, joining self-help groups of all kinds. It is as if a whole nation were going through a critical point in its middle age, a life crisis of self-doubt, self-examination.” – Howard Zinn, The People’s History of the United States

And there you have it.

So yoga isn’t my thing. But it doesn’t matter because I know why I’m searching. I see the elephant.

And so, maybe, do you.

Books that Changed Everything

My friend who works for a library recently posted this question on social media: What was the book that changed your life? She included a link to an article with writers giving their answers and I skimmed through it, not recognizing most of the titles. But it got me thinking.

I’ve been reading since, well, the day I could read, and really even before that if you count all the hours I spent on the living room couch as a child with a picture book on my lap, making up the story because I couldn’t understand the actual words yet. So I’ve been ingesting information and fantasy and debate and romance and mystery and history and humor and dialogue for nearly all my life…and that’s a really tall order to sift through all those years and chapters and sentences and come up with an answer to this now seemingly trite question.

But as I said, it got me thinking.

Two answers came to mind immediately:

First, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which is a beautiful, poignant memoir I could say a lot about, but really because it introduced me to Dave Eggers, a man who would become one of my all-time favorite authors. If you’ve seen my Favorites page, I mention You Shall Know Our Velocity, but everything I’ve read by Dave has pricked my soul on some level. Why? Because he writes in this spare, crystalline way that I aspire to, for one. But for two, he writes the truth. Whether it’s the inane conversation between two friends trying to plan a trip, or the innermost thoughts of a young woman unable to think for herself, or a trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro by an under-prepared man, he writes the truth. When someone is able to tap into what is true—even if you’ve never experienced for yourself the exact thing being written about—you know it without knowing how you know it. And whenever that happens, it’s like a seam opens up in the fabric of your life and you see into the secret place wherein all the world’s wisdom lies.

My second answer is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I have a story about this. A few years ago I was at a wedding with my boyfriend. We were going through a tumultuous time, lots of ups and downs and breakthroughs in our relationship, lots of vulnerabilities and hurts and doubts, and the bottom line was that I did not want to be at that wedding. I barely knew the couple getting married, I was deeply tired on an emotional level, and that night I was so on edge I could barely speak because I was afraid we’d get into an argument as we’d been doing a lot of back then. As we were making our way around the buffet table, my boyfriend got caught in a conversation with a woman holding a baby. A man, who turned out to be the woman’s husband, turned to me to introduce himself and made a few other polite inquiries by way of small talk. I must have told him I was a writer, because he told me he was a musician. And then he asked me if I’d read The War of Art. I said no, I’d never heard of it.

And you know when you have one of those moments where everything in the room just stops…the background noise disappears…everyone else fades into a blur…and the only thing you’re conscious of is your heart beating and the face of the person in front of you who’s about to change everything? This man whose name I don’t remember, who was a struggling musician as much as I was a struggling writer, who had met me as a stranger and would forget me as a stranger but somehow understood that the vocation I had embarked upon—much like his—was fraught with self-doubt and fear, told me he’d found enlightenment in this book and I believed him. I bought the book the next day and devoured it in one sitting. As with all my favorite books, I’ve read it several more times, and every time I am slapped upside the head and humbled and vow to recommit myself to my work. It’s a book that doesn’t let anyone off the hook. It holds you accountable, in your life and your art. It asks how willing you are. It has nothing to do with bestseller lists or profit margins or six-figure deals, all the things we humans deem important.

(Note to readers: whenever you have one of those moments, pay attention. And for heaven’s sake, if it involves a book you need to read, go out and read it. Books are messages; the writing comes not from the author, but from the divine. Steven Pressfield will tell you all about it).

Many other books have left permanent impressions on me. I could try to talk about them all, but such self-indulgence might become a bore to you (and to me). So I’ll just leave you with these. And the original question. And your thoughts.

Gather Ye Roses

I don’t know who started it, who put the word out, how it spread.

One night there were ten. The next night, fifteen. It grew quickly from there. Twenty or thirty of them would gather in the commons area, and seconds before the start of the game, they’d file in. Black sweatshirts, black jackets, black jeans, black shoes. Black baseball caps if they had them. They sat together in the bleachers, spreading across the rows, like a swarm of something new and different on the roses.

When they came in, the hair stood up on our arms. We got that rollercoaster feeling in our stomachs. We were fidgety, our eyes on the crowd. Were they getting it? Were they feeling it, too? We wanted to sit next to them. We weren’t wearing black, but we wanted the proximity to its quiet roar. We encouraged them. Yes, do it again. Next week, and the week after. Keep doing it. The crowd sees. They’re all mesmerized, frozen.  Behold the thrill of solidarity, we thought. The fierce love. Only they—and by association we—are clever enough and brave enough to assemble and to love like this.

It happened all season. Maybe we won because of it. And then it just stopped, the way those things do. The initial high wears off. The original reason fades. The weather turns warmer. Any old reason.

I remember that feeling in the drum circle at college. The children of ancestors, there on our campus, beating the drum, calling out with voices as rich as the earth, and those of us who had joined them spontaneously moving in slow rhythm around them. Drawn in as if by a rushing tide. Wanting to touch them, to soak into our skin something of what they knew, to hear forever their sounds. People stopped to watch for awhile. Those in a hurry hurried less, eyes on us, wondering. Someone from the school paper snapped our picture. We were a part of it. The pictures would prove it forever, even after the rhythm of the moment seeped from our bones.

I feel it now, like a small earthquake in my gut, when I see protests, movements, crowds pressing forward, the impassioned faces of those who know something that I don’t. Yes, gather, do it again, I say inside my heart. I feel it when I see whirling dervishes. When the Man burns. When universal truth brings a hush to the room. When stories are recalled of the 1960s and all that was at stake. When there is an exchange of words between open minds. When reverence emanates from the click of polished boots at a diplomat’s funeral. When the wall fell. When the square erupted. When the park filled. When, despite everything, the women and men walked on. When the brave soul stood alone. When I turn off the television and go outside and look at the horizon. When all of this happens, whether someone is there to record it or not.

Small earthquakes, again and again, when people do what they can do, when they create in singular purpose, when that purpose doesn’t come from personal motivation, but in spite of it. When the thought floats in, light as a silk thread: “We made it all up.” Small earthquakes, because no one alive can take away the agency of another. No one alive can wrestle to the floor and snuff out the light. Or call the poet a criminal. Or shut down the inner mind. Or make one to follow when there is another path.

Distractions abound. Motivations shift. Reason eludes. Emotions roil. Games get played. Humanity is trapped, caught, faced with its own hypocrisy, with the fruits of its most fearful labor. Faced with repeating history. With giving the worst it has to offer. Shamed, stunned, angry, unable to understand its own compulsions. Time and again. Time and again.

And time and again, someone dons the black shirt and walks out the door and goes forward down the street, with love, to meet the others.

May we meet again in 2016…

An Abrupt Catapulting

When I published my first novel back in 2011, I had no idea what to expect. Would strangers actually buy my book? How much work would I need to do to market it? What would any of this amount to?

Here’s what I learned: when there’s a vacuum of expectation, the ego is more than happy to step in and fill it.

I’ll give you an example.

At the time my book was published, I worked for a big newswire company. And one of their enterprise-level service offerings (that’s a sticky mouthful of jargon) was to display—for a hefty price tag—an image of your product, your company logo, your coiffed C-level executive, whatever you wanted, on a four-story jumbotron in the middle of Manhattan’s Times Square for literally millions of people to see. The end result: unbelievable publicity.

When some people at my company found out I had published a book, they offered this to me…for free. “Send us an image of the cover of your book and up it goes!”

I remember the words of one of my coworkers upon hearing the news: “You’re going to be famous!”  And with a tingle up my spine, I kinda, sorta believed him. I could see my company’s sales and marketing teams salivating over one of their own getting to be a guinea pig in the best kind of way, eventually becoming a case study, a success story they could hock, “an author who saw her sales triple overnight!”

In reality, there was a brief email exchange with a girl in New Jersey asking me for my .jpg, but it didn’t stop me from filling in all the fantastical details.

But wait, there’s more.

Also part of that enormous service offering was the ability to send out a press release about my newly published book to a media list of my own choosing. So, giddy with my impending transformation from unknown writer to bestselling author, I got in touch with an acquaintance of mine in PR, thinking she could maybe give me the names of five or six people for a small fee. Instead, she unexpectedly and generously turned over her entire media list of publishing and entertainment reporters, editors, and publications to me—for no charge.

This wealth of free help, valued at thousands of dollars—way more than I could ever, as a single girl with an average-paying job, hope to afford—did something to me. These people were helping me and they didn’t have to. I was getting stuff handed to me when normally I’d be charged an arm and a leg. This had to mean something. It had to. This was certifiable success knocking at the door. The universe was conspiring with me. I was weepy with gratitude.

So I said yes, YES, to it all, and a few days later, there was my book…four stories tall in Times Square…with an accompanying press release whizzing over the wire to all relevant media points. I posted about it on my Facebook page. My publisher posted it on her Facebook page. My company gave me the thumbs up. Any minute now, fame and fortune! I waited by my phone. I waited by my email.

Except…there was nothing.

Silence.

Crickets.

Twenty-four hours later turned into two days, then a week, then two weeks, then three weeks.

And still nothing.

Not a single interview request from a reporter. Not a single inquiry from an editor. Not one mention from the millions of people out there whom I presumed had seen the cover of my book. Absolutely zero came out of that this-has-to-be-a-sign-from-the-universe event.

It was, as they say, an epic failure.

Especially for someone like me who had hoped to skip about a hundred steps and a few more years and hit the bulls-eye on my first try.

Without talking about it to anyone, I retreated into myself to sort out what had happened and where I had gone wrong.

Like Elizabeth Gilbert says so eloquently in her TED talk about failure, I got “lost in the hinterlands of my psyche.” And for a long time afterward I struggled to find my way out of it and back to my writing—this crazy, hare-brained, frustrating, humbling, soul-leveling thing I had embarked upon, told everyone I was doing, was arranging my life around, speaking openly about (which is always hard for me), and which, God help me, I so desperately wanted to make work.

To another of Liz’s points: like great success, great failure flings you far from your center and leaves you disoriented.

I’ve had to ask myself this question often since those days: do I love writing more than I love myself?

Many times the answer has been “I don’t know.” In fact, I would say most days it’s still “I don’t know.” And that’s because the sting of that failure lives on. The utter pompous naiveté with which I approached my novel being splashed across Times Square still lives alongside the excited little girl in me and the “what if?” hopefulness of my heart.

How do you tell that excited, hopeful little girl not to be hopeful or excited?

I’ve studied a lot of new age theories and esoteric wisdom and quantum physics and great googly-moogly. I’ve probably studied that stuff as much as I’ve spent hours writing. So I wanted to believe, with every Higgs boson particle giving material form to my cosmic self, that the gift of immeasurable publicity was a validating nod to my dreams and aspirations, and surely the very thing that was going to get me to the next level, whatever I conceived it to be.

So when it didn’t work, I took it to mean that I wasn’t meant to be a writer.

Yeah, that’s a sad thud of a thought…

(Fast-forward through the Pit of Despair months).

Since then, I have a few more years under my belt. I’ve made it through a few more of those “hundred steps.” I’ve met some really significant people who made me look at my writing and my choices in a new way, and I’ve had a few small successes that mean more to me in their tiny, twinkling purity than that screaming, lit-up jumbotron ever could.

No matter what, a writer wants to be read. A writer wants an audience. We’d all be lying if we said we didn’t want others to read our work and appreciate it. An audience is our Higgs boson: it gives form to the deeply mysterious work of hauling a story out of the ether and onto the page. That’s why an audience—any audience—is all the more sweet because we know, deep down inside, that some of us will labor all our lives without ever getting one. And the vast majority of us sure as hell will never get Times Square. Not because it’s impossible. But because those of us who are truly serious about what we’re doing don’t get serious until our creations stand tall inside of us first, rather than outside of us.

I don’t envy the Times Square miracle for someone else because it may very well be a legitimate stop on his or her journey. In fact, I’d love it to be a stop on someone’s journey because it would give me renewed faith in astonishing occurrences.

It just wasn’t mine.

Mine was an abrupt catapulting into a hell of my own self-doubt.

Then a soft, kind, encouraging walk back to where I needed to be.

The way I see it, that failure may not have been a failure at all. A particle can be in two places at once. I just observed the silence after the hoopla and called it defeat. The other particle was alive and well the whole time, in another place, setting up the band and the confetti for the “You’ve Arrived” celebration. I don’t even need that celebration anymore. I’ll take peace in my heart and courage to go on any day.

Because the Times Square miracle pales in comparison to the miracle of simply getting up every morning and trying to do what you really want to do and trying to love it as hard as you can. If you don’t believe me, Liz has something to say about that, too—only she calls it magic.

It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed. – Ram Dass

Newswriting 101

I was a college sophomore when I took Newswriting 101.

Our professor—I’ll call him Mr. C—was old and pale and grizzled from years of working the beats as a newspaper reporter. He liked to wear khaki pants belted around his chest and red plaid shirts that matched the distressing spray of broken capillaries on his face. He spoke to us in a nasally voice so filled with irritation that it was often hard to understand what he was saying.

We found out soon enough. “You guys are idiots.” In fairness, we were.

The class worked like this:

He’d give us a make-believe event—a fire broke out in an apartment building around 8 p.m., two people injured, one cat missing (and a host of other facts)—and then we’d get 20 minutes to put together a news story following the holy dictates of the who, what, when, where, and why news pyramid. While we sweated and scribbled, erased and squirmed, he’d stand—hunched and troll-like—at the front of the room, leafing through The Denver Post, muttering his dissatisfaction. Then one by one, we’d go to the podium and present our work to him.

He had a big red Sharpie and would swipe it across the page, circling this, slashing through that, shaking his head. In his nasally voice, he’d admonish us. Why did you put the why before the what? Where is the where in the lede? How did you miss all the pertinent facts and only talk about the secondary ones? (All of this punctuated by a high-pitched laugh that told us our ineptitude was making him insane). And worst and most damnable of all, why did you use that word? Couldn’t you see that you were introducing bias?!?

So back to our desks we’d go to sweat and scribble some more, and this process would repeat itself until we had produced a competent story. None of us was spared the red Sharpie. All of us had to make at least two trips to the podium, and for many, three or four trips, before our work was accepted.

I got a B in that class. For an A student, it was the end of the world as I knew it. But since no one else got an A, I quickly got over the insult. I had to.

Because as it turns out, I didn’t know anything at all. None of us did. The simple fact was that Newswriting was hard, the hardest of all the core classes in my major, the hardest because teaching the basic principles upon which journalism was built is like teaching a toddler to walk. We staggered around drunkenly until we got the hang of it, which took weeks and sometimes even months, and even then we’d occasionally crash into a wall or stumble down the stairs. Funny how much we take the basics for granted. Funny how above it all we think we are.

I bet you’re guessing what I’m going to say next:

That crotchety, curmudgeonly Mr. C taught me everything I know and I owe all my successes to him.

The truth, of course, is a little less tidy. The truth is that he frustrated me. He didn’t want to be there, that was obvious. He hated teaching with every breath in his body. Teaching for him was nothing more than a way to make a living in his post-newspaper-reporter twilight years and the minute he got home every evening, he probably poured a tall whiskey and sniveled over some mangy cat in his lap and reminisced about the good ol’ days when he and his compadres cracked open that bank robbery story. His disdain for us—a bunch of know-it-all kids barely out of our teens, thinking we were going to save the world—was palpable.

But at the end of the long, weary day, no matter how little regard he had for us, he still tried to do his job right. Which meant teaching us how to be responsible journalists. Which meant imparting something sacred to us that he feared was going to be lost: the art of thorough reporting, free of emotional bias, with “just the facts.”

Here’s where I grudgingly tip my hat to Mr. C.

As far as I’m concerned, he was right: that sacredness is lost. And though he was one of my least favorite professors and I do not look back on his red Sharpie or his plaid shirts with fond memories, I do think about him on the rare occurrence when I skim a newspaper article or click through the nightly news.

Mr. C’s ideals of journalism are nearly impossible to find in practice anymore, though there are some people making a real and valiant effort. And of course this is not the first period in history when the rabid “reporting” of news with divisive effect as the goal has become the status quo, although the speed of rabid reporting happens faster than ever before as news organizations clamor to dish the details first, whether those details have actually been verified or not. It’s not the first time in history where editorializing is mistaken as reporting or even its intellectual cousin—investigative journalism—and is revered above all else. Everyone’s a pundit; everyone is a narcissist with an opinion that must be shared.

But it may be the first time in history when “bias” is no longer an alarm bell.

Ah, what the hell do I know, anyway? I’ve never earned a living as a reporter. I’ve never had to see what reporters are up against, or feel first-hand the sordid business of news. And it’s been a long time since I was in journalism school, so I don’t even know what they teach the kids anymore. For all I know, there are a hundred incarnations of Mr. C out there, trying to whip students into shape.

But despite teachers like him who held aloft the candles of Standards and Idealism, you can always count on the great fuel of human emotion to spin out the siren song of the news story and crash us all on the rocks. As long as there is something to be afraid of, outraged about, or titillated by, human beings will sell their souls to the media in the name of “wanting to stay informed”…and then in the very same breath call the media the devil.

On the other hand, a lot of people are smart enough to know what’s really going on. They know about the amygdala and Edward Bernays. They know what independence truly is.

I propose this:

If you want a good story, go write it yourself—not for the consumption of others, but for the betterment of your own understanding. Put yourself in the middle of the action, touch the wall, look into someone’s eyes, walk the street, swim the river, sit down with the tribe. Try not to use the word “victim” for one whole day. Try to understand what the color of the pond means, what the houses without roofs imply, what the solar panels are capturing. Mourn the loved one, listen to the stories, dance with the children, eat the food, drink and be merry. Go observe war if you have to, but don’t upset your family needlessly. While you’re at it, be curious, be moved, be angry—but not reactive. Be challenged, and then be open to changing your mind.

Your own experience is all you need. When you can derive from direct, personal experience, you’re less likely to be manipulated. You won’t need someone else to tell you what’s real or what isn’t, what’s important or not. You won’t hungrily consume approved information in all its many guises. You won’t be a consumer at all. You won’t let yourself be used.

I realize this all sounds lofty. It is. I have no plans to observe war myself; I don’t have the means to travel the globe for a year. But I think you get the point, which is that the stories out there are just stories until you live them yourself. This means something. It means perception is in the eye of the beholder. It means there are a lot more shades of gray than there are black and white. It means there are a lot more professionals earning a paycheck from your unchecked emotions and not your actual knowledge of events.

But we also know this: that rational humans don’t really exist, not in the way we’d like to believe. It’s why the earning of profit from our primary anxieties is too tempting. It’s why bias is ubiquitous. So we have to go out in the field. We have to start traveling. We have to do our own information-gathering and write our own stories, as much as we can.

Here’s one for the class: Go visit a farm. Or a glacier. Or the border—our border, anyone’s border. How about a place of worship you know nothing about. Another country is a given. A country you’ve never heard of is even better. Take part in someone’s most sacred ritual and see what it brings up for you. Read the books and lengthy investigations of those who have gone before you and done the same thing with the same purity of intention. At the very least, have a gathering with your Republican and Democrat friends and make a rule that you will not talk politics, but instead will find out something about them you never knew before. Dive deep.

Afraid of what you’ll uncover? I know, me too. Who would we be without our tightly held, partisan-approved, socially sanctioned ideas? We’ll uncover anyway. We’ll write about what we saw and what we learned.

Here’s the part where I go soft:

Mr. C, wherever you are, don’t give up hope. Intelligent life still walks on this earth and not all Newswriting students are idiots (OK, well even if they are, they at least mean well). I’m certain you were a good reporter in your day. I’m sure you took your job seriously and were rewarded for it. I think they still try to use the news pyramid somewhere, so all is not lost. Above all, you believed in the sanctity and integrity of news-gathering as both a duty to the public and a civil right, and I thank you for that. Wow, am I thanking you for something?

I’m sure you understand, though, that it’s up to us now. You taught me that. It’s up to me to be a responsible journalist.