Every year, a self-embellished professional here in Siberia With a View is invited to speak to the kids at the high school on Career Day — to motivate the youthful scholars, focus them on their studies, get them charged up about a rosy future —and to help them forget that the local school system is ranked near the bottom of districts in Colorado in terms of quality of education. (Everything is OK, however: our youngsters rank extremely high in the self-esteem evaluation.)
Year after year, I waited for my invitation. It did not arrive.
The school principal assured me this was the result of an oversight, a computer error, or a mistake on the part of the postal service. According to the principal, my invitation was misplaced each year by a careless minor administrator (who, I’ve been assured, will be dismissed), omitted from the system by a software malfunction, or delivered to someone else by a dyslexic postal employee.
This Career Day, said the principal, it will be different. I’m the professional du jour. The owner of a petting zoo was scheduled to appear, but had to cancel due to an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease.
So, it’s me (or, is that “I”?). Finally, a crack journalist will stun the kids with newspaper war stories, hold young minds in thrall with the glittering banter only a seasoned scribe can generate, and lure the best and brightest of the pubescent pedants into a rapidly shrinking and destitute Fourth Estate.
I’m excited. I’ve been working on my presentation for several weeks, completing outline after outline, draft after draft. Finally, I have it.
Let’s give it a preview.
Scene: The high school auditorium, Siberia With a View. The lights go down. I am poised at a lectern, center stage. I speak. The mic feeds back. Adjustments are made. I speak.
Those of you who arrived late, please come down front, and sit in the aisles. We’re all family here.
Be patient with me today and hear me out; I’m aware have some hard acts to follow.
The Chief of Police was here last year to deliver his always popular, “History and Theory of the Breathalyzer” presentation. It never fails to overwhelm the guys at the Masonic Lodge and the folks at the care center, and I am told it kept you on the edges of your seats. I heard the chief was so thrilled by your responses, he added a brief exposition regarding the key role of big game bow hunters in the maintenance of our national security. They say many of you were so enthralled by his presentation, you stopped looking at your cell phones — something that rarely happens during class time. The chief never disappoints, does he?
Two years ago Mr. Branch had your brains tingling with his contribution: “The Metaphysics of Accounting: Numerology and the Modern CPA.” I know this was exciting, since Mr. Branch is my tax accountant and he has many times explained my lack of a refund by referring to the negative effect of the number nineteen forty-six, the year of my birth. He’s compelling, isn’t he?
I’m in heady company, for sure.
The best way to introduce you to small town journalism — this most dynamic and noble of pursuits — is to put you in the shoes of an ace reporter from The Siberia With a View SUNBEAM (an award winning newspaper) and lead you through your typical day.
Take notes whenever I mention food, and hold on to your hats, kids (since no one makes you take them off when you’re in the building). Here we go!
Your day starts early — every day. There is no such thing as a “weekend” for you, or regular working hours. You perceive time differently than most people: you’ve memorized key selections from Husserl’s “Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness,” and you repeat them as a mantra when you wake. Each morning, you remind yourself that Bergson claimed everything in Being is duration, and you are braced for a big dose of duration.
Mentally ready, you prepare yourself physically for the arduous and sometimes dangerous work ahead. You do this by getting out of bed.
As a budding news writer you were taught several key things when you took college (or, as in my case, Internet) journalism courses.
The first thing you learned is that no one divulges critical information to a slob. That’s right: personal hygiene and the correct wardrobe are high on your list of priorities as you start your day. You have a standing appointment each week with your personal stylist, Ramon, to ensure your hair is perfect.
Acceptable clothing, as per the Style Manual: dark blue suit, boxer shorts, white shirt, links (no buttons), school tie (since you attended public schools, you’ll have to fake it), wingtips at a high gloss. Everything except the shoes must be freshly ironed. The beltline of your pants must stay above your ass crack, and you cannot wear sweatpants.
For women: the same, except for the shoes.
Properly attired, you leave for work.
The power breakfast.
A sleek profile is a must for reporters these days, so breakfast must complement a cheetah-like physique: bran muffin, three-quarters cup of decaf coffee at the local café. Nothing more, nothing less. Except for those occasions, generally three mornings per week, when you order the enchilada breakfast special, or a chicken fried steak smothered burrito, with a side of sausage.
You meet for breakfast with people who count: “Movers and Shakers,” the folks who lurk fairly near the centers of power in the community, the citizens who get things done, now and then. Here in Siberia With a View, there are ten of these people, give or take five or six. You listen to their rapid-fire exchange of ideas, careful not to influence the flow of things, and you take notes. You take copious notes wherever you go. You store your notebooks in a box in your garage, in anticipation of producing a ripping good memoir once you retire to Quartzite, Arizona, and open a seasonal rock polishing concession in a tent set next to your singlewide. You take notes when the café owner gives you her recipes for the enchilada breakfast, and a special she calls the “Dog Lover’s Eye Opener.”
The conversations held by these local intellectual lions are formidable.
Just the other day, the above-mentioned accountant captivated the breakfast crowd with a comparison of the Eberhard Faber No. 2 and the “Mr. Click” automatic pencil.
No sooner had others at the table caught their collective breath, than a noted land baron and developer snared them with the ethical net. Is it wrong when selling a parcel of land to simply say: “Oh sure, there’s water. Don’t worry, its right down there?” A side discussion centered on whether or not the sales agent should point down as he/she utters the line. This was followed by an energetic debate regarding the use of prayer to close a deal.
A major retailer in the area asked the brain trust if a 75-cent bag of Funions would sell as well as the 35-cent bag. There was no consensus.
Minds spinning, members of the group were catapulted into the realm of aesthetics when a renowned local artist discussed the key role of tracing paper in western art.
You stagger away from such an assembly, notebook clutched in trembling hand, emerging from the great depths like a diver with the bends.
You leave the dense atmosphere of the local cafe to make an appearance at the office. It’s time for the editorial conference. This is where and when the course is set, where the news dreadnaught is outfitted, and sets sail.
The editor is a hardboiled veteran of the news wars who sits at a gigantic oak desk, smoking his pipe in front of a set of bookcases filled with hardbound non-fiction best sellers, large type versions, barking out orders to members of his attentive staff. It is here you bandy about the story ideas that will fill the next edition. (Since the owner and publisher is a cheapskate, I am the editor as well as half the staff. The other staff writer is an intern, working free for the summer before she leaves town for a semester at a cosmetology “academy” in New Mexico. In the interest of full disclosure: there is no gigantic oak desk, and I can’t smoke a pipe due to a case of exercise-induced asthma. I have taken artistic license here, for the sake of making the point.)
The potential topics are delicious.
What about the two-headed Charolais down in Arboles?
Any line on that bear seen driving the Volkswagen van?
How soon can a person move back into a residence after a meth lab explodes, and must they wear a Mylex suit?
Is it too early to reprint county fair news?
As goes the editorial meeting, so goes community opinion. Such is the awesome power of the press.
The last batch of danish is out of the oven at the bakery. You need to make sure you have enough energy for the rest of the morning. You purchase two pastries — one filled with cheese, the other with apricot preserves — and eat them while sitting in your car in the parking lot. The flakes of crust and globs of filling that fall to your lap leave grease stains on your pants.
You visit your counselor. The stress produced by your work is nearly unbearable. You’re not afraid to seek help.
Your counselor (who asks his name be withheld) is a crackerjack practitioner. Enough to say he has a beard, and drives a sporty, red pickup. A wall in his office is covered with diplomas. A large document from Bob’s College of Psychotherapy is at the center of the array. It is framed; the rest of the documents are photocopies, stuck to the wall with brightly colored tacks.
Your counselor is convinced humanity is doomed. He occasionally giggles uncontrollably, for no discernible reason. He believes sinister maniacs work in critical government and corporate positions making plans to deprive us of our individual rights and time-honored cultural identities, and will soon force us all into a system of unprecedented wage-slavery and cruel deprivation. Everyone will be required to own a Korean-made, compact car.
If you bring your counselor candy, he cries. He hugs you, and he feels much better.
You have a brighter outlook on things after a session with your counselor. You make a note to go to the Internet and place an order for a large jar of gochujang.
You stop for a latté at your favorite coffee shop.
What good is a latté without one of those giant cookies? I recommend the ones with macadamia nuts and white chocolate chips. They make less noise when you devour them while doing business in the office restroom.
You cover a government (or pseudo-government) meeting. The members of property owner boards of directors often assume they are government officials, and must be handled with kid gloves. A master politician, you understand their problems: being a retired middle manager, or someone who made it to colonel and advanced no further, requires extensive shoring of the ego and, frequently, suspenders and adult diapers.
You gauge the importance of a meeting by counting the number of flags on the dais: two or more flags, and you’re in for serious business! If those in attendance recite the Pledge of Allegiance, be prepared for the earth to move beneath the building. If there is a salute to local veterans and “heroes,” like volunteer firefighters who go on one call every two years, the place is washed with emotion. For many of the folks who attend these meetings, the pledge, or a rousing rendition of the national anthem, functions like the Bat-Signal in Gotham City.
You know where the news is made at a typical meeting: the correction of the minutes of the last meeting. A great deal of time is spent at this task, with seemingly endless quibbles about verbs. As everyone knows, historians from a major university, from another planet, in another galaxy, will peruse the records of these meetings in two thousand years. The minutes must be accurate! Considering their importance, the minutes should be inscribed on titanium scrolls and buried in the yard, much like the plates Joseph Smith found near Palmyra.
Invariably, during the “public comments” section of the agenda, an irate member of the audience stands and says something incoherent. You write this down. You also write down the remarks of the members of the board when they thank the citizen for “participating in the democratic process,” and assure him or her that the attention of the appropriate department will be focused on the problem, post haste. When things get particularly heated at a meeting, the board members call for the assembly to rise and join in the singing of God Bless America.
You are fatigued. A submarine sandwich from a nearby deli solves the problem. Call it what you will — “sub,” blimpie,” “hoagie” — there are key elements that must be included if the sandwich is to succeed. First, and perhaps most important, is the bread: a crusty roll, resembling a small baguette, never a limp, mass produced blob of tasteless gluten gunk. Second: the finest charcuterie, sliced thin, perhaps some cappacola, mortadella, salami, a bit of prosciutto; for the daring, a sliver of paté. Third: cheese, and not something “American” or “Swiss,” pre-sliced and found in a package next to the string cheese at the grocery store. Mayo? No. Vinaigrette, or nothing at all. Don’t get the dressing on your suit coat!
Energy reserves replenished, you return to the office, and you write. You turn in your first story.
You leave the office to take a photograph.
The photo will be of a sunburned, drunken bozo who snagged a giant catfish; three or more people trying to simultaneously shake hands, cut a ribbon, and exchange proclamations; a cult member making a pilgrimage, trekking on foot across the nation, dispensing the word of the lord, lugging a huge wood cross (of course his cross, unlike the original, has a wheel fixed to its base, and a van follows him, stocked with Band-Aids, Bacteen, snacks, and bottled water); a guy receiving the Boy Howdy Award from the sexually-perplexed director of the Chamber of Commerce; or a gaggle of elementary school kids doing a clumsy version of an Iranian folk dance in lieu of learning math.
The subject is not as important as the techniques you employ while taking the photo.
First, you make sure the light is either preternaturally harsh, or tomblike dim.
If the light is abnormally bright, you orient your subject with the source of light directly behind him or her. If you pose subjects wearing baseball caps or hats with broad brims, you put the source of light directly above them, you ask them to smile, so their teeth loom ghostly in the gloom.
With poor conditions (cloudy, indoors with few bulbs overhead, in a closet or crawlspace), you ask your subjects to turn so the weak light hits only one side of the face. You ask them to close their eyes. You discuss the news value of a dramatic image, in the style of Caravaggio.
Time to stoke the furnace.
Corn dogs are the lunch fare preferred by experienced journalists. You have three, and you dip them in Ranch dressing. You save the skewers, intending to put them through the dishwasher rinse cycle so they can be used again. The corn dogs are cooked in the same fat used to cook the deep-fried burritos, and the onion rings. This imparts a je ne sais quoi to the homey treat.
You are careful not to slop grease on your suit coat, and you make a note to one day publish your recipe for corn dogs, which are far superior to those served at the gas station. Bernie, the daytime attendant at the station, is rude.
You open and read mail from your admirers.
You cover a BIG EVENT.
The nature of the big event will vary week to week, but you count on something BIG happening, and happening at just the right moment. The front page needs a lead story with pizzazz. I notice many of you sniggering as I say the word “pizzazz.” It has nothing to do with pizza and masturbation, so cut it out!
For example: you cover an almost forest fire. Local law enforcement officers direct you to a spot where you’ll have the best view of the probable conflagration. You are slurry bombed three times. You discover that fire retardant has the bouquet of a 1969 Chateau Latour, and is nearly impossible to remove from your hair once the sludge has dried.
Or, you arrive at a crime scene and are identified by the hysterical convenience store clerk as the fiend who reads the biker magazines without buying them. You are tased, then arrested by local law enforcement officers, undergo a cavity search (they find the Buffalo Nickel you lost when you were 12 years old), and are forced to post a surety bond. An adherent to a sacred journalistic code, you list your name in the Police Blotter section of the newspaper. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last.
Or, you report on the arrest of several notorious felons. You look at the mug shots, and realize the suspects were at your daughter’s birthday party the week before. Local law enforcement officers take great delight in showing you your weed eater and stereo speakers in the evidence locker at the station.
You calm your jangled nerves with a banana milkshake, despite the fact you are lactose intolerant. This will require additional time in the office restroom, where you consume another giant cookie.
You return to your desk and write. You turn in your second story of the day.
You send your sagging blood sugar on the upswing with a mess of Velveeta and corn chips. Now and then, you melt the Velveeta over the chips in the microwave oven in the break room, and pop the top on a tin of Vienna sausages.
You are careful not to spill molten Velveeta, or that strange stuff in the can with the sausages, on your suit coat. The nearest dry cleaning establishment is sixty miles distant.
You cover a big trial.
Its important to know who is who in this most dramatic of situations. If you recognize the players, your story will write itself.
The guy (or gal) wearing the goofy black outfit, and sitting way up high at the front of the room — legal experts call it the “courtroom” — is the judge. When she looks out the window and waves at the birdies on the window ledge, you know the questions and testimony you are hearing are not worth writing down. It is safe during these interludes to work on your crossword puzzle. Crossword puzzles amp up a reporter’s word power. Don’t attempt to do the puzzle from the Sunday New York Times.
The twelve folks sitting in the box seats to the side of the judge’s perch are not fans with season tickets. This is the jury. Despite the serious looks on their faces, the jury members are happy, because 1) they get to miss work, with pay, and 2) the court clerk provides a catered lunch. An effective jury deliberates through the lunch hour. For some reason, you are not allowed into the jury room.
The woman sitting at the table in front of the judge, to the left, is the prosecutor. She wears a dark-colored, plain-cut dress, and her hair is pulled up in a tight bun. Her fingernails are bitten to the quick, her credit card limits are maxed out, and she’s had a heck of a time lately with her ex-husband demanding his support payments. Her miniature poodle, Clark — her “only true friend” since the divorce — was hit by a cement truck the day before the trial. The prosecutor ate a moldy granola bar for breakfast, drives a 15 year-old Celica, and is in no mood to strike a plea bargain.
At the other table in front of the judge sits a thin man with unkempt hair. He twitches, smiles wildly, winks at everyone in the room, and wears a plaid sport coat, rumpled khaki pants, white socks, and a pair of cream-colored loafers with tassels. He flips his pencil across the table, and guffaws loudly every time the prosecutor asks a question or makes a statement, embellishing his laughter with barely muffled remarks like “fat chance,” and “in your dreams, babe.”
This is the defense attorney. You note the number of times the judge looks back from the window to glare at this man, and threaten to hold him in contempt and eject him from the courtroom.
The fellow seated next to the defense attorney, the one banging his head against the tabletop and whimpering, is the defendant. He’s the guy who will go to jail when the trial is over. Make sure you spell his name correctly, since members of his family will buy several copies of the newspaper, clip out the article about their beloved, and send it to other relatives, imprisoned in distant states.
You return to the office and write. You turn in your third story of the day.
While other employees at the newspaper drink coffee and engage in aimless chit-chat, you wolf down several chicken fingers, and hustle down to Golden Peaks Stadium to practice kicking field goals.
You make it a point to find time for personal growth.
You make a note to periodically remind yourself that chickens do not have fingers.
You interview a political candidate.
Actually, you compose most of your interview prior to meeting a candidate for public office.
Roads? A problem, for sure. Needs more attention. Not enough money. Good roads equal good communities. A tax hike might be the only answer, but taxes are bad.
Planning? Need to look to the future, create some land use controls, but we have to protect traditional values, balance growth against retaining our quality of life as free people with a limited understanding of the Constitution. Good planning equals good communities, but there’s not enough money to fund comprehensive planning.
Economic development? Infrastructure. Gotta catch up. Small businesses are great, but a big box store would be fine, too. Jobs … that’s the answer. But, you need business, and for business, you need infrastructure. Good infrastructure equals good communities, but it requires money, and there is never enough. Once we find the money, probably by raising everyone’s taxes, there will be jobs for everyone. But, then again, taxes are bad.
Education. Reform the whole darned mess. The kids today can’t even red or wreet. Back to the basics. Teach Latin. Good education equals good communities, and we need to pour more funds into the process. We need to raise taxes. But, we don’t want to do that.
Crime. Too much. Lock ’em up. More prisons. Not enough money. Whaddya gonna do with those kids, huh? Where are the parents? More programs will do the trick. Boot camps: they work, don’t they? But, we have to intervene before that. Yeah, yeah, intervene. Be proactive. That’s the word: “proactive.” The purpose of government is to be proactive. I’m proactive, ask anyone who knows me. That’s why I want to be re-elected: to be proactive.
Dinner, on the run. Ham and cheese hot pockets, four of them, a bag of Fritos Scoopers, and a can of bean dip. You make a note to someday publish your recipes for two of your favorite hot pocket-like foods: empanadas and pasties. You make a second note to remind you to remind people that the word “pastie” is pronounced “past-ee”, not “paste-ee.” Blaze Starr wore pasties (and her nipples were formidable); Cornish miners ate pasties (and their nipples were not).
You streak home between assignments. Your family life provides a solid counterpoint to the chaotic events of the workday.
You kiss the spouse, and say hello to your daughter — good old what’s-her-name. The petulant teen is on the couch, watching The Real Housewives of Beverley Hills with two marines, and she turns to you only long enough to ask for twenty-five bucks, and to make offhand remarks about a tattoo gone bad, and an infection that might require hospitalization and powerful antibiotics. Your wife informs you that she has once again set the dog on fire, and shows you the vet bill. You make a note to seek part-time employment, stocking shelves at the grocery store on the overnight shift. You make a second note, reminding you to find a connection for amphetamines.
Grab a sandwich on the way out. You make a note to someday publish your recipe for a classic meatloaf sandwich, on sourdough, with pimiento/jalapeno cheese spread.
High school sports coverage.
Sports are important: high school sports are a key thread in the fabric of small town life.
Your coverage must be precise; rabid and potentially violent parents eagerly await each week’s report on how little Biff or Suzie fared, and excelled. A junior college athletic scholarship is in the offing! Many parents carry firearms.
To do the job here, you recognize the subtleties that distinguish a sport, and you convey them with enormous skill. But knowing, for example, that a stuff block on second down in the fourth quarter counts as a three-point near-fall is not enough. You punch up your coverage with big-time sportswriter terms like, “blitzed,” “kayoed,” “rammed,” “trashed,” “demolished,” “throttled,” and “annihilated.”
As in: “The Lady Pirate set was perfect. Roxanne Ripper soared high above the key to blitz a handcuffed Farmerettes front four. With precious seconds left in the final round she annihilated her opponents with a perfectly executed cradle, and kayoed any chances the opponent had of making it to the playoffs by connecting on consecutive three-pointers from the end zone.”
You purchase a chilidog at the refreshment stand. Extra cheese. You possess a chilidog recipe that merits public attention. You make a note.
You return to the office and write. You turn in the final story of the day. It’s time to go home.
10 p.m. ish
Once home, your work is not over. You do research. You flip on the cable and watch “A Current Affair” and “Inside Edition.” These folks really know what they’re doing, and they look good, too! To end the night on a high note, you flip the channel to Fox News to watch a consummate newsman in action: Sean Hannity. You make a note to take a photo of Hannity to show to Ramon the next time you need a haircut. When it comes to appearance versus reality, you, and Sean, invariably opt for appearance.
You go to bed, an exhausted pro, confident in the knowledge you’ve performed a valuable civic duty, certain you’ve earned the big bucks that might pour into your bank account at the end of every week.
Well boys and girls — or, to rephrase that in up-to-date lingo, Dudes and Dude-ettes — that’s the end of our time together. I hope you’ve had as rich an experience today as have I. Or, is that “as I have”? Or is it “me”?
I’m sorry we weren’t able to share the graphics I brought along. The administrators place a particular kind of kid in the AV program, and we all know what kind of kid that is, don’t we? But, let’s give little Jimmy a round of applause for his efforts. After all, it’s difficult to work the media equipment with a mangled arm and a hand with only two working fingers. Nice try, Jimmy, and good luck with the upcoming surgery. Perhaps you’ve finally learned that blasting caps are not playthings.
And, hey, if you’re interested in print journalism, I heard on the office gossip hotline there’s going to be an opening soon for a reporter/editor at The SUNBEAM. Scurry down to the office, and fill out an application. Don’t forget to include your last name. If not, there’s a stump in my front yard that needs to go. We’ll stay in touch.
Listen, there’s the bell.
I’ll race you to the cafeteria.
There’s bound to be a good story there, it’s soft taco day.
Rotate your hats, and bring your cell phones!