Years gained, years spent

The end of a year is a comforting time. When your calendar runs out of pages, when your vacation days refill themselves, when your magazine subscriptions renew, it is an excuse to take stock of everything. And when you are on a long uphill journey, a moment to look back on how far you’ve come can be a relief.

This moment, this brief feeling of accomplishment, is available to everyone. A year is 365 days, and in 365 days, it is impossible not to have come farther than you were at this point last year in some respect. Your hair will have gotten longer. You will have walked at least a few more miles. You will have experienced some things you have not experienced before. You will own some things you didn’t. You will have some friends you never had, or the friends you did have are closer - or more estranged, and good riddance to them. You fall asleep, you wake up, things happen, you do it again, 365 times. It is an easy achievement, living another year.

But a year is an arbitrary division of time. When you wake up on January 2nd, or on January 7th, or maybe even on February 1st, when it’s clear that your fiercely-made New Year’s resolutions will not keep, you’ll start to wonder if a year is really any kind of accomplishment at all. You are still unable to retire. You still live in the same apartment or house, and drive the same car to the same job. That promotion, that vacation, that goal is still out of your reach.

You start to feel differently about years. Years are not achievements. They are not gained, they do not accumulate. Years, though you don’t realize it, are spent. And everyone only gets a few.

Taking stock then, is a distraction from something that is far more difficult to think about. Wherever you want to go, and wherever you are going, the fact remains: you are not there yet.

Singers on the corner

He had a voice like the scrape of a rusty boat bottom. She sounded like poured milk.

They stood on a street corner singing, a dented bucket between them. As they sang their sounds paired, her voice sharpened, his voice softened, the effect of velvet over steel.

She was young and he was old, but he smiled like a man with no worries and she scowled like a woman who had nothing else. I wondered how they met, and why they started playing together, and especially what their faces looked like, when they first heard the sound their circumstances created. Whose bucket? Why Wednesday? What’s the song? Couldn’t they find a corner with a better crowd?

The song ended. They started another. I kept my questions. The song was enough.

Some writers discuss writing as if their brains are large, shifting weather systems that require special tools for analysis,different tactics for different times, their thought patterns seasonal, their ideas emerging profoundly from mists backlit by watery sunlight.

I would like to be famous and respected like those writers.  But my writing process is more simple.

First, become powerfully excited about something, so excited that you think about it in the car on the drive home after the reporting trip, that you wake up thinking about it, that you can’t sleep thinking about it, that you don’t eat thinking about it.

A corrollary requirement to this strategy is that you must always be writing about something that excites you, or you must have the ability to find something about your topic exciting. A good writer has to feel strongly and powerfully.

 Next, read all of your interviews and source materials. Print it out. Use a pen. Write out thoughts. Adopt an exploratory posture. Indulge whatever idea comes to mind, whatever you most find interesting.

Next, attempt to outline, feebly. This is the point at which you begin to think about how to connect all of your thoughts. It’s here, at this point, I lack development. If I were a writer who had written in multiple story forms and could hammer down the pegs of my story as I reported, if the shape of it was clear and familiar to me, than an outline would be useful. It would be simple. Instead, all of my outlines are utterly useless. Outlines, on a piece of paper, are just like a ball of yarn I give to my brain to play with until something else starts happening. Smoking cigarettes. If you have quit, of course, you must resume. I can’t figure out if this is a necessary step at all, yet I am completely unable to avoid it.

After the outlining phase, which is basically structured procrastination, sit down, and begin to write. I write in pieces, typically. Whichever part of the story that has become most clear to me, I write that out. Usually that is the top, because in daily journalism the top is really the best part. But if it’s not the top, I write whatever has risen to the surface. Once you have a certain number of pieces, you try to blaze a path in between them. You start to think about, how does this sound? Is this “good writing”? Is this writing that I want people to think I’m capable of? Is it good enough? And it’s at this point that you freeze. Because you’re expecting something magical to happen, some writerly flair to emerge that will make your story impressive. But good stories, really good stories, they cannot help but be good, and you are simply the vessel. During reporting, during writing, during pitching, the idea stays with you.

 So writing, I guess, for me, is mostly about belief. 

It’s funny - you want to break this process down and demystify it. You want to believe that it’s something you can just learn, a template you can memorize, a box of tools to acquire and carry around. But for me writing will always be this epic vision quest, some upwardly spiraling path, the outlines for which I am never fully certain. I just keep taking steps forward and hoping I’m going the right direction, knowing only where I want to end up. 

I want to be a writer. All my life I have desired that title, and for many years I’ve worn it.

At first I was just trying it on for size, a blog post here, a small essay here, a few lines of squirrely text secreted in a moleskine that the world would never see.

Then I started writing for newspapers, and that title became a part of my job description. By most metrics I was a writer, and each day, I sat at the computer, connected words into sentences, hit submit and each day, people read my work. But still I felt the title did not fit, like a hat too small for my head, or shoes I could not fill.

Soon I began to work for a big newspaper, one of the best ones, and editors took interest in my work, complimented my skill. They gave me big, long spaces in the newspaper to fill, and I filled them with stories that were widely read, that were increasingly well written, stories that inched ever closer to the visions of the stories in my head.

But no matter how much I write, the title still feels like a title, a mask I am wearing, not something I am, a part of me. For now it is enough. Someday, I will be a writer.

AAJA NYC

Some relationships are like water, requiring apparatus to give them shape and form. These are the friends at your workplace, or in your city, or apartment building, connections borne of proximity and convenience, then broken when those fade.

Other relationships are like capsules, powerful when opened, but with an effect that fades with time or distance. These are your high school relationships, your past best friends, your ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends, people you thought you’d never forget but have.

Your most powerful relationships are like seeds. They start small and stay dormant for years, life force slumbering inside. A little sun and water and they’ll grow, seemingly irresistibly, traveling great distances to find fertile ground, a place to grow. Over time they add leaves, flowers, fruits, thicken, put down roots, at each stage, a fascinating and satisfying change to observe. A little care and these relationships can become some of the most permanent things in your life, like tall trees in a forest buffeted by winds, keeping their roots.

Branna’s First Fare

He picked me up at 2nd Avenue and 49th St. at 6 am, after my second night in New York City, waving me over almost hesitantly from across four lanes of traffic.

I ran over and got in. He was excited and asked where I needed to go. I fumbled the address because I am from Los Angeles, and this was my first time in New York since a 12th grade Model United Nations field trip. I mumble some excuses and pulled up Google Maps on my phone..

"Do not worry sir, just tell me the intersection and ill get you where you need to go. Actually, sir, you are my first taxi fare.”

I told him it was an honor and said “Midtown Hilton, 53rd, and 6th.”

He tried to start the meter but it beeped, showing an incorrect fare. He pushed some buttons, made a call, exhaled air through his nose, frustrated.

I told him not to worry and that I wasn’t in a hurry. He fixed it and we headed down 2nd Avenue.

Branna moved here from Alabama four months ago. He was working in a gas station and his boss got shot. He didn’t feel safe and fled, of all places, to New York, four months ago, settling in Jamaica, Queens.

I told him I was from Tennessee and often drove to Alabama for swim meets as a kid.

"Alabama, it’s not such a good place," Branna said, shaking his head.

I thought about how our impressions are so often the products of happenstance and timing and random chance, and rotten luck, at least for Alabama. But Branna likes New York, he says, how loud and fast it is.

I asked him if he had any family.

"Actually, sir, I’m alone out here."

His family was in Bangladesh, his wife and a daughter, 11, a boy, 6. He’s working here to save money to bring them over. He wants to get his tractor trailer license - the pay is much better. As for the taxi, he rents it from a garage, sets his own hours, pays for his own gas and keeps whatever’s left.

"Taxi driving is actually a very stressful job," Branna said.

I asked him if he knew any other taxi drivers that could help him learn the ropes. He said had several friends driving taxis.

"Actually sir, The two things that help me find my way out here are my friends and my GPS," showing me the glowing screen he holds in his lap."I call my friends if I get lost or if there’s complicated intersections."

He was an excellent cab driver, though I am no authority, so polite and fresh. I am sad to think of him losing those “sirs,” and his excitement, and that a corner of slight smile which I can see from the rear view mirror, sad to think of Branna pickling in the bitterness that seems to infect every other cab driver I’ve ridden with.

The lights of the city smeared themselves across my window, a pleasant, pearlescent haze.

"Your Hilton is up there, sir. Don’t worry, I will pull over somewhere safe."

I told him I wasn’t worried. The fare was 10 dollars. I tipped him 30 percent and gave him all my cash. “Best of luck, man.” “Thank you sir.”

I got out and an Asian guy in shorts and a visor gestures furiously in my direction.

Branna’s second fare.

First, ask for the name

Last night reporting on the non-apocalypse, I met an older woman with flowing silver hair at the Griffith Observatory who came alone. I introduced myself and it was like I had snapped her out of a trance. She was reluctant to speak at first, but then she looked past me at Los Angeles shimmering beneath the hill, smiled, and started to speak. She was a surgeon who had had a long day. She came to the observatory to clear her head. Waiting in line for the telescope, she befriended a young couple. At the foot of the curving staircase leading to the telescope, the guy proposed to the girl with a few minutes to midnight, and she said yes. She took their picture and congratulated them. She said it was an event to commemorate the ending of an era, but that couple’s life was just beginning. He gave a diamond, and the stars, and the moon. She’s crying now, trails of tears framing a smile. It’s dark now, a few minutes past midnight, and we’re walking to her car. I can’t even see what I’m writing, and soon I just stop. I’ve asked for her name several times at this point and I know she won’t give it to me. She said there was something beautiful about being at the intersection of that, on such a unique day - that that there was so much beauty in Los Angeles, because the city opens its arms to everyone, especially at a place like Griffith. She stopped and threw her arms wide - I mean, just look at this place, she said. We’re at her car, a antique cream colored sports car from the 60’s. I asked for her name one more time. She smiled, shook her head and got into her car. You can have the car’s name, she said. She’s a star. Her name is Bessie.

Los Angeles: A love/hate letter

Los Angeles will surprise you.

I’m convinced that this city does that better than any place in the world. I think it’s because you expect so little from it.

A surface-level evocation of Los Angeles involves celebrities, traffic and the Lakers. Stay here for a week and you might not see anything but highways, strip malls and the backs of other cars - all through dismal blur of a windshield.

Keep looking, and you’ll find that the city is conventionally and unconventionally ugly. It’s beauty is commercial and it’s beatifically commercial. The sun shines almost daily but no one seems to feel the warmth - at least not judging by the scowls on everyone’s faces.

John Lennon denigrated it best: “Los Angeles? That’s just a big parking lot where you buy a hamburger for the trip to San Francisco.”

He’s right. Los Angeles, at first glance, is a shithole.

But that’s why it’s a great city for journalists - it rewards you for looking closely.

That smoke rising through the air isn’t smog. Follow it, and you’ll find a Brazilian restaurant whose outer walls are obscured with stacked logs. Inside, they roast delectable chicken, all day long. You are, inexplicably, in Koreatown.

Explore that nondescript skyscraper and you’ll discover that it’s a shopping mall attached to an open-air driving range with four levels. The top level is an ineffectively schwanky restaurant. Why, how - don’t ask.

Turn the corner and you’ll stumble across an Indonesian culture festival, here for the weekend, gone the next, and nowhere to be found the year following.

Take that road you haven’t used in a while and you might not recognize anything. The city is always changing.

Los Angeles is ugly, unwieldy and inconvenient. Pleasures must be excavated - and even then only after you find parking.

Thus each slice of life, of culture, of beauty that you find is like an unexpected favor. The more you find the more inflamed your curiosity becomes. And soon, exploration becomes its own end. 

I’ll admit it - Los Angeles sucks. Sometimes I hate this city too. I’ve spent an alarming proportion of my life looking for parking. Superficiality, worship of wealth and just plain old bitterness from the citizenry have ruined my day on many an occasion. And I’ve cursed the Marilyn Jorgensen Memorial Interchange with the rest of you (Who is she? Regardless, I hate her for being the namesake of LA’s biggest time-suck). 

But I’m stubborn - I love this city. I’ll be sad to leave it.

Sources

The relationship between a reporter and a source is a strange one. 

It is on its face a professional interaction. Reporters are seeking information and sources oblige them for their own reasons.

But the exchange which I’ve just described is unequal - reporters benefit unambiguously from such a trade but sources’ rewards are uncertain.

When someone allows me into their life, I try to tread with care. Push only as much as necessary and obey all the stop signs and traffic signals. Be respectful, never judge, and most of all, be professional. 

But even that demeanor seems inappropriate after a while. You share laughs and empathize with each other’s struggles. You offer advice, compare opinions and reach agreements. A source shares things with a reporter that they’ve never told anyone and a reporter, in peeling away layers of pretension and formality, has to shed at least some of his own professional armor.

Eventually, it’s not just business any more, is it?

But then, the story runs. The relationship fades, like ink on a page, over time.

And the next day, you do it again.

I just found Gene Weingarten

Fiddler in the Subway

A friend linked me to the Peekaboo Paradox the other day. I’ve been on a Weingarten-induced bender ever since. I rashly purchased this book on Sunday at 2 a.m. as I was halfway through the first article and it arrived yesterday.

I started with the Peekaboo Paradox, Pearls Before Breakfast, and Fatal Distraction, and quickly decided that they were the best three articles I’d ever read. Weingarten, writing in three movements about the tragic consequences of fast-paced modern life, spoke to me in a way I’ve really never experienced.

Edit: In this space, I was going to subject any readers of this blog to several enormous block quotes of my favorite passages, with line by line discussions of exactly why and how much I liked them. Fortunately I reconsidered, but I have to post just one:

"The Great Zucchini’s tattered loose-leaf appointment book is filled with the names and dates of his scheduled parties, months and months into the future. He keeps no backup — no other notes, nothing on a computer disk, nothing anywhere. If he were to lose that book, he’d have no idea where he was supposed to be, or when. For months of weekends, preschool children would be waiting expectantly in homes across greater Washington, and the Great Zucchini would simply never show.

Eric understands the importance of that book. Without it, the Great Zucchini would cease to exist, and all that would be left would be Eric Knaus. And so he carries it with him everywhere. He won’t leave it in a car, in case the car is stolen. When he goes out of his house, if he absolutely must leave the book behind, he hides it in a special place no burglar would think to look.

The sight that I could not get out of my head was the Great Zucchini hunched over the craps table, lost in that flagrant illusion, flinging dice with his right hand, his left hand pressing that book hard to his chest, white knuckled, like a man holding on for dear life.”

Halfway through the anthology, the high has faded slightly. I’m still enthusiastic, but I see at least a few decisions that I wouldn’t have made. I have retreated from my initial position, that I should move to D.C. and model myself after Weingarten in whatever ways possible.

I’m glad I found this though. Sometimes professional newspapering life doesn’t quite live up to a young journalist’ expectations. But the knowledge that work like this exists out there, as yet undiscovered, is vastly exciting to me. Someday, after I learn to construct better sentences than that last one, I’ll have the opportunity to do work like this.

Mostly, I am reminded that journalism doesn’t always have to be serious, that the essential job of a journalist is to make sense of the world, and that one of the primary tools for doing so is humor.