Good News

I was shocked on Christmas Day to see some of my familiar news media offering lists of events that happened in 2022 that were actually good.

What surprised me is how much there was to report. As a news junkie and part-time member of the news media, I heard so little about things that were pleasing, inspiring, optimistic and hopeful (not quite the same as optimism, and arguably more important). Some of these stories confirmed that, despite so many genuinely awful occurrences, things were improving, happy and affirmative of what I valued, as a United States citizen and human being.

That good news was featured around now is appropriate for those who celebrate Christmas, as the word “gospel”–the written accountants of the birth and deeds of Jesus–derives from an old English construction meaning glad tidings.The idea of doing things that increase happiness around this time of year goes back even further, to ceremonies observing the winter solstice, when the sun, whose hours and position overhead appeared to shrink, was now returning, bring the promise of warmth, the spring thaw, rebirth, health and sustenance.

Not all of what I read and saw warmed my heart. A few celebrities who had behaved badly in public (or whose private life was made public) lost a few fans. Politicians who disappointed us were ALMOST held accountable for failing to be the people we thought they were. Much that we were told to fear didn’t happen, hasn’t happened yet or wasn’t worth being afraid of. Pharmaceutical and medical research-and-development departments here and abroad had a shelf-load of treatments, medications, new surgical techniques and devices that will diagnose dangerous disease sooner, and, maybe, cure us of our many, many ills.

That also didn’t thrill me because, if you watch most network news programs, many commercials are for drugs that make similar promises until you hear the almost-too-fast-to-hear “fine print” with such blase’ observations like “may cause death.”

But then there was the fact that gas prices were way down from what they had been. And a tale of an environmentalist whose work with whales and harbor masters had increased the number of whales in one small part of the world. I’m not sure if more whales equals a slightly better world (it may not be great for what the whales eat) but it’s nice to think about.

After a year in which we were shown how some charities were most charitable to those who ran them, it was gratifying to know that the great majority of non-profit public service organizations were actually helping people. More kids who didn’t have the funds to go to college were seeking, and being admitted to, schools that cut their tuition fees. Affordable housing projects admitted their first residents. More people were installing and using renewable “clean” energy systems. A rocket sent from our planet tossed a satellite at an asteroid seven MILLION miles away and made the asteroid change course.

And, on Christmas morning, I could watch on a cellphone screen my three-year-old grandson play with a toy I selected and mailed to him. Way back when I was reading my first science fiction stories, video phones were ways that blaster-wielding heroes could glare in defiance at snickering interplanetary villains, but the rest of us had to make long distance calls and fret about the extra charge for dialing outside our area codes. Now I could see, and hear, someone find happiness from a toy that, way back BEFORE I began to read science fiction, was a wish come true.

Sooner than later the world will have to endure the post-New Years hangover, monstrous credit card bills, and suddenly increased fees for stuff we forgot we were paying for. We’ll have mornings when we slip on the ice from last night’s deep freeze, the car won’t start, we hear sirens and see the ruin of a house or the crumpled damage of an automobile that left its driver barely alive. An appliance we valued for years will suddenly die–just when the year-end sales have ended. The seasonal sicknesses will find us, no matter how careful we were at avoiding them. Some authority figure will insist that what we thought was fine or, at least, okay–was not. Someone will does something terrible will get away with it. A disastrous storm will blow in. Earnest news anchors will tell us of another act of rudeness that forced a passenger plane to make an emergency landing, or introduce us to a place we had never heard of until a mass shooting happened there.

Politicians will let us down. We’ll have to stop doing what we’ve been doing because if we don’t, we’ll bring about the end of the world.

The rich and famous will resume behaving badly in public. My grandchild might tire of his toy, or a new one will distract him.

Life will “get back to normal.”

But we’ll know that, on one day, at least, things were a little bit better.


The Other Mainstream Media

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.