Monday, March 30, 2009

Dead Trees And Me

I've had lots of jobs.

I've been a camp counselor -- only marginally interested in kids. I've stacked boxes, delivered Chinese food and calzones, shuffled paper and procrastinated at temp jobs at Lehman Brothers and Madison Square Garden. I've been a recruiter for an ethically challenged technology consulting firm and answered the phone for a crew of truck salesmen in Secaucus, N.J. I serviced the irrational whims of pharmaceutical marketing managers and tyrannical creative managers in a Manhattan advertising company. For 10 amazing months, I taught English to children in Thailand, suffering the occasional thumb up my butt.

Few of these offered any semblance of satisfaction. For most, my greatest skill lay in the ability to foster an illusion of competence. Just enough to get a promotion or avoid getting fired. Sometimes not enough of either.

My first job, when I was 17, was helping to stock the shelves before the opening of a Linens N Things in East Hanover, N.J. What sticks out in my memory was the Top 40 radio piped in through overhead speakers. It was the year Wayne's World came out, and at least once every two hours I was forced to listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” There's only so many times a man can hear “scatamoosh, scatamoosh, can you do the fandango?” before it induces a psychotic breakdown.

My favorite job was restaurant delivery. Just me in the car with some tunes, cruising all over town, eating for free, bullshitting with the kitchen guys and other drivers, using minimal brain power to make change and calculate who stiffed me on a tip. In a busy eight hours I could make more than $150 cash.

Teaching was also great but damn hard. And it's not like I had any real idea what I was doing or any way to measure my effectiveness. For one gig, I taught the same one-hour lesson to nine different classes of 40 or more students of varying ages and skill levels each week. It was exhausting and exhilarating.

When the semester ended, four of the nine classes presented me with gifts. The least impressive of which were flowers, a plastic glowing musical desk pen holder shaped like two roses, a small wooden replica of The Mayflower, and an ultra-shiny Thai silk tie. The most impressive of which were two letters declaring in broken English how much they love and will miss Teacher Rick, how without Teacher Rick they would have no English and how now they not scared so much foreigners.

At least two girls were visibly crying. There were grateful faces and much applause. I couldn’t help but smile. The feeling I had was impressive. Stirring. Foreign. A job well done.

Go figure.

But these were all jobs, not careers.

Which brings me to my least favorite topic of conversation and the one I'm most asked about these days: The Imminent Death of Newspapers.

In case you haven't noticed (perhaps you don't read newspapers), here are only the most recent developments: The Rocky Mountain News closed after 150 years, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped printing its paper in favor of a skeleton online operation, the Tribune Co. has filed for bankruptcy, The Detroit Free Press now only delivers three days a week, The San Francisco Chronicle has threatened to close if it can't find a buyer (possibly making it the first major American city without a daily), the supposedly healthy New York Times has cut salaries by 5 percent after rounds of buyouts, and Gannett and the Newark Star-Ledger have imposed work furloughs.

That's just in the last few months.

The perfect storm of poor planning for a post-Internet world, crushing debt from stupid purchases, shrinking advertisement dollars, the global economic crisis and -- who knows, probably solar flares and cow farts -- have contributed to an unprecedented decline in a once booming and vital industry.

Add to this mess the public's inexplicably low opinion of journalism as something to be mistrusted (but free!) and you can see there doesn't seem to be a bright future here.

Solutions all appear to suffer from flaws. Internet micropayments? Nonprofit, government-subsidized status? A rise of independent bloggers suddenly blessed with the interest, know-how and funding to cover the drudgery of municipal meetings and conduct deep and possibly unfruitful investigations? All presented in an easy-to-read and easy-to-understand format? (If you have any doubt about the value behind a talented and principled group of reporters, look no further than Newsweek's seven-part, behind-the-scenes election post-mortem).

So, yeah. I'm wondering about the wisdom of choosing to join an industry akin to a rotting corpse sinking in a sea of shit. Kind of like what I imagine might be the ultimate feeling of whoever wins this year's "Rock of Love Bus with Brett Michaels."

But strangely, though the economy gets worse each day and newspapers fall all around us, though I have no backup plan nor the inclination to form one (yet) -- I'm happy. I've spent too many years working soul-sucking jobs or more-or-less unemployed in Manhattan to fritter away what might end up to be the last gasp of print journalism until the country wakes up sometime in 2021 and realizes that hey, we've got nothing to write snarky blogs about if we've got no fucking reporters reporting the fucking news.

My soon-to-be-bride writes for the longest continuously publishing daily newspaper in the country. It's also the currently bankrupt Tribune Co. property that has halved its newsroom in the last 13 months in a suicidal attempt to stay afloat.

I'm not sure how long this will last, and I'm not foolish enough to think it will. But I like what I do. Maybe its unrealistic to expect a career in which I can live a charmed life of the mind, following my curiosity wherever it leads -- basically learning for a living. Learning about people, institutions, and laws. About bio-diesel, land use law, antiques, soldiers, foster care, murdered pigs, lying politicians, gold, gays, cops and kooks.

The world is filled with people who work just to survive. People who dread their jobs or don't have the luxury to think about improving them. I'm fortunate in so many ways. I get to go places I'd have no other reason to visit and speak with people I'd have no other reason to meet.

Some day, I might get a letter from someone thanking me for a job well done (I won't hold my breath waiting). But this isn't really a job for me. It's a career and a life. And I'm not done with it yet. Even if I'm forced to take one of those job-jobs while waiting.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Deep Thought

No matter what I do or how hard I try, I simply cannot keep up with the Kardashians.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Universe Is a Hologram

It's true. Maybe. I think so. (Actually, I'm not sure what I think or why I think it, which might be the whole point). Please read, and discuss.

These and other deep thoughts on my mind after reading 370 lengthy comments and counting on Roger Ebert's discussion of "Knowing," a film I didn't plan to see, but likely will now. ("Dark City" by the same director was a great, forgotten sci-fi flick from 1998)