As a former member of “the media,” I still consume the news.
It wasn’t always that way. As a child, I devoured science fiction and fantasy, quickly exhausting the local library’s supply and then going on to raid the town bookstore’s wizard-and-space-ship encrusted paperbacks.
This horrified my parents, who considered themselves tethered to reality by numerous newspapers, news magazines, news radio on the car, and evening news broadcasts on TV.
Though I would eventually write news, features and arts reviews for more than 40 publications, I looked down on all journalism. Who reads yesterday’s newspaper when you can be thrilled by Jules Verne’s and H.G. Wells’ tales of submarines and time machines?
I took science fiction and fantasy so seriously that I began to write it. I sent my work to science fiction and fantasy magazines. To this day, I don’t know why every story was rejected. I worked long and hard on them.
After college I moved to Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, where I pocketed minimal wages working in restaurants, retail shops and at the popcorn counter at a local movie theater. I wanted to be published, just to prove to myself that what I pounded out on a portable typewriter early mornings and late at night might be worth reading.
I “broke into print” with an assignment from a local “shopper” (a free publication supported by advertisements) to interview homeless people. The editor hated them and wanted me to urge residents not to put spare change in their hands. I felt differently after sitting with them, speaking with them, making dinners for them in my tiny apartment and giving away some of my clothes.
Each of the dozen or so I spoke with had a different story to tell. The stories had only one thing in common, that, when you get to know a person, no matter if that person isn’t well groomed, dresses in old clothes, hasn’t bathed recently and tells you things you may not understand–that person isn’t so different from you.
By the grace of God we go…
Was that new? Was that news? I wrote my article, showing how, despite physical appearances, we shared a common humanity with the homeless. To my surprise, the editor accepted and printed it. “All this will lead you to someplace great one day,” he assured me. Over the years I’d hear this from every publisher and editor–some of whom worked for the most prestigious publications in the world. I wasn’t merely exploited by an industry that depends on cheap, idealistic, highly motivated labor. I was gaining valuable experience, they insisted, that would “pay off” later.
It did, but not where, or how, I thought.
I got a clue when, toward the end of long day of making sandwiches, I glanced through curtains of the window of the row house next to the one that housed my apartment. An old woman in a wheel chair stared right back at me and motioned me to come to her door.
If I hadn’t interviewed those homeless people, if I wasn’t reminded of how so much of what results in success or tragedy defies easy explanation, I would have turned the key, rushed up the steps to my apartment and tried to forget about how hard I’d worked that day.
Or I would have turned to my typewriter and created another science fiction story that would never see print.
Instead I opened the woma’s front door and smelled old dust and older perfume. The wheelchair was a throne giving her a full view of the bay window. She turned her chair toward me. “Did you see the sunset?”
I recalled the undersides of the clouds turning gold and vermillion. “I think so,” I replied awkwardly. She hadn’t asked me who I was or introduced herself.
“But did you see it?” she repeated.
I was confused. “I saw some colors. I look at it some nights.”
She raised a thin arm ending in an arthritic finger pointed at the heavens and said as if it was her God-given right. “I see it every night!”
Then she smiled. I smiled back. After a few seconds of silence I mumbled nice-meeting-you and scurried out. I went up to my apartment and put a sheet of paper in the typewriter.
I didn’t make much progress because I couldn’t let go of that woman’s message: that watching the sun set is a gift that everyone deserves, and how important it is to accept that gift. Life overflows with such gifts–the sounds of birds in a tree, the giggle of a child on a playground swing, the warmth of a cup of tea held in our hands on cold day, the famous cherry blossoms that briefly transform Washington into a happy place, the sigh of wind playing with the trees at Dumbarton Oaks (a spectacular landscaped garden a few blocks from where I lived), the aroma of roasting beans wafting out of Georgetown coffee and spice shop, the sudden chill of water encircling our feet when we first reach the tideline at a beach…
These gifts are not merely sensory. Sometimes it’s the knowledge that someone we know and love is happy, or that a terrible accident has been averted. Sometimes it’s a sign that a painful wound has begun to heal.
These are the gifts that hold us together, keep us going and, perhaps, create for us a place of peace and contentment, especially when so much else around us seems to be falling apart.
I became a news consumer (to my parents’ delight) because it was a business I was in. Because I had excellent history professors in college, I became fond of history finding out with where things came from, and how our values change.
But nobody ever asked me to write about a sunset.
While waiting for my writing to take me someplace, I interviewed many famous people who were experiencing career highs. They agreed that they deserved their good fortune, having started out at the proverbial bottom, and had faith that so much hard work would take them to the top.
You hear about people getting what they deserve in the mainstream media. You also hear about people not getting what they deserve. People die in accidents, terrible storms. They come down with horrible illnesses. They’re shot by crazy people with guns. Or they’ll say something or do something wicked and seem to get away with it.
In saying this, I don’t mean to belittle or trivialize the suffering and loss that good journalists show us happens all-to-frequently where we don’t expect it. Nor am I reducing the importance of the work most journalists do, and the consequences some reporters suffer for shining a hard, bright light on injustice, malfeasance, corruption and other brutal deeds around the world. What we call the news has made vital differences throughout history. We need responsible reporting now than we ever did, with so many liars, frauds, propagandists and scammers vieing for our attention on our screens.
But sometimes, even the most attentive, concerned and compassionate media consumer needs a break. We have to turn away from the screen and seek the other mainstream media.
Which brings me to the place all that hard work took me to.
I’m lucky enough to have an outdoor deck, though you can do the same thing in front of a window, or by pausing for a moment in your daily routine to find out what else might be happening around you. Give it time. The more you sit and just watch, the more you begin to notice.
My wife puts bird seed on the deck’s railing, so we can see the family of finches, as well as pigeons, cardinals, blue birds, redwing black birds and the occasional crow, swoop in for free treats.
Over the years my wife and I have planted many different roses. It is an event when they bloom! We can smell the astonishing scent when our lillies open up, and the magnolias flower.
Beyond our fence and a line of trees is the street that, despite numerous stop signs, is used as a cheat for those who want to beat a nearby traffic light. I see big cars and small cars and trucks going so fast on that road, sometimes with the windows down and that hard driving music coming out.
The street arcs through our neighborhood of townhomes and single family pallazzos. I mow my own lawn when the neighbor’s kid forgets. The other lawns are carefully tended by guys in hats steering mowers that scuttle like black crabs. When the crabs are sent back to their trailors, the guys in hats swagger around with roaring leaf blowers so loud that it’s a wonder that the birds aren’t deaf.
The doggie parade begins on the sidewalks and trails at around 7 a.m. and continues through most of the morning, up until around 10. I can see so many different people, some with kids in strollers, some with cell phones pressed to their head, and the dogs whose slow trot signifies that all is well, especially if they can stop and sniff and…
The parade resumes from 4 p.m. to 5:30, and again from 7 to 8. Our dog has a crush on three local dogs, and makes cooing sounds for them. The rest she barks at as if the dogs are members of another political party AND THEY JUST DON’T GET IT! She has to let the world know that she’s in control of the world behind our fence.
Then come the two-legged types, the runners, the walkers and kids on bikes, skateboards and scooters. Every so often a big passenger jet climbs into the sky, or slows into a graceful glide toward the nearby airport. I’ve been on a plane flying over my neighbood, and others and I know hat’s the one thing you always think about when you’re up there looking down: who would ever want to live down there, so close to the jet that I can see who is in your swimming pool?
Sitting on my deck, I remind myself that I have arrived. In fact, I can think about the travel journalism I did and be grateful that I don’t have to put up with a zillion minor discomforts, indignities and international snark in order to write about somebody else’s idea of a great place.
I can just sit here and take in a view that changes all the time, especially at night, when tfireflies dance and he moon bathes the clouds and pine trees in a silver light. Or during the day, when I see a big thunderhead rushing in, with a gray skirt of rain below, and a gusty, angry wind turning the landscape into a square dance where you can’t hear the caller saying step this way and that, but you marvel at how everyone seems to know what to do.
All that hard work I did as a journalist has taken me to this place, where the sun will soon set,
But I won’t write about it.
Seeing it is news enough.