Category Archives: Journalism

The Art of Fathering

The Art of Manliness is one of my favorite web sites. I’ve written for them before, and I like their take on the restoration of manliness from its tarnished reputation to full luster on the current lexicon. But there seems to be a bit of a debate lately on what manliness actually looks like.

After three weeks at home, some patterns have already been established in our house. We’ve been a two-income house for quite a while, and my wife’s choice to work evenings so as not to have to put Gabrielle in day care means that we’ve had a slightly different house management style than most of our friends.

On a typical week Cheryl’s only weeknight off has been Monday, which is the only day we take care of cooking, dishes and putting the kids to bed together. The rest of the week these chores are mine, even if I had a terrible day at work. My days were often 16 to 18 hours without much down time. I’m not complaining though, the value of raising our kids ourselves as opposed to paying someone else to do it has been tremendous.

Gabbers learns how to cook pasta with her dad.

I started cooking for the household back in college as a way to deal with the stress of studying. It helped me separate my school life from my home life. Cheryl is a great cook, a real meat and potatoes girl with a flare for the traditional. But my creativity with limited resources gave me the starting job as home chef.

And while I don’t like doing dishes any more than any other guy on the planet, I have a pretty firm policy about cleaning up one’s own mess. And I can’t stand starting with a messy kitchen.

I’m still not allowed to do laundry, and I believe this stems from my inability to distinguish certain fabrics and their individual temperature settings. My wife’s domain is the huge laundry pile downstairs, and I don’t think I’d trade her anything for it.

The boys clean their own toilet, as we didn’t want to send them off into the world without the knowledge and ability to clean the porcelain throne. And I’m largely responsible for outdoor projects that don’t involve design work of any kind. I cut grass and move rocks around for the most part.

These tasks have always seemed good to me, and I find joy in them. I would say the same is true for my wife, but I think she actually despises the laundry pile downstairs and secretly wishes it would just disappear one day for good.

We take a pretty split role when it comes to raising the kids. Discipline is handled by whichever parent discovered the sin, and that parent is responsible for handing down swift punishment. Though this is often discussed at some length, as it is felt that I am too lenient on one very cute little girl, whose finger I’m apparently wrapped around. I tend to disagree.
I usually get up with the boys and make sandwiches for their school lunches on weekdays, while Cheryl keeps tabs on their homework so I can focus on getting dinner ready in the afternoons. Really it’s pretty economical and fair.

Being laid off has thrown a bit of a kink in our well-oiled machine as of late. Because I’m home during the afternoon when the kids are out of school, I have been getting hit with homework questions that are quite beyond me. I will admit it freely, I’m not smarter than a 5th grader.

While standing in the kitchen with a dirty apron on stirring a pot of simmering vegetables, I was asked to solve an algebra problem. My bowels quivered momentarily as I thought back to Mr. Nordhagen’s 7th grade pre-algebra class. You’d think I was being asked to solve the question on a board for all the students to mock. I was sweating and cursing to myself while my 12-year-old, who doesn’t think he’s cooler than me, he knows he is, looked on with a raised eye brow.

No doubt looking and sounding like a mad professor straining over a calculation for some chemical concoction, I handed back the scratch paper with my answer on it. My son looked it over and checked it in the back of the book. It was wrong, of course.

My solution was that he should just ask his mother, who is much better at math than me. But I found some redemption at dinner when my 5th grader asked a question about a historical matter for which I was well prepared. You see, I excelled at history, and my sons looked on as if I was a professor of history bequeathing a veritable treasure trove of wisdom buried in the sands of time.

We’re not confused about our roles, and I’m not uncomfortable doing roles that are traditionally described as womens’ roles. I would in fact do laundry if I was allowed, and lord knows I’ve cleaned a toilet or two in my life, not to mention all the diapers I have changed from raising three kids.

This Newsweek article called “Men’s Lib,”  suggests that men need to buckle and take on more of the parenting and chores often associated with stay-at-home moms. The idea is that in the wake of disappearing manly jobs like construction worker, logger, empire builder, men need to be equal in the home and in child rearing and domestic duties as well as jobs that haven’t been traditionally associated with manliness like nursing, social work or teaching.

But what about the American business model for the middle-aged male? Well, there are a lot of us laid off right now who are deciding what to do with careers that have gone seemingly nowhere. The skies are the limit, and if what this article says is true is, well, true, then men can become nurses, social workers and teachers. Indeed, they are becoming these things.

But I would argue that the type of the career really has nothing to do with it. If becoming a nurse is important to you, then you should pursue that. But if building things with your hands and creating words and sentences on paper is important to you, then those are noble things you should pursue. Raising kids won’t change just because men are finding themselves in jobs and roles traditionally belonging to women. Neither will it make for a more reasonable and understanding generation to follow.

Being a better father simply means being a better father. It means carving time out of a busy schedule to create moments for fathering. Things like answering a history question at the dinner table or showing your son how to grill chicken are as effective as game nights and father-son camping trips. All are important, and government induced work leave benefits, as the article mentions, might encourage more of this type of behavior, but most men simply need to understand balance in their lives.

I’m no expert on this, but having the last three weeks off has shown me the importance of balancing my own desires and responsibilities when it comes to my role in the home.

I know the whole nature versus nurture argument, and I do believe men and women are gifted differently in various roles, but I also believe a lot of what we do and why we do it has been established by society for as long as we’ve been forming societies.

To recap, it’s easy to get lost in a gender argument or the imbalance of life when you’re out of work. One is inclined to become lazy or grab responsibilities from their partner as one compensates for the loss of income. But if we’re going to become better fathers, it doesn’t revolve around how much time we spend at home or what activities we do with our kids, it’s far more about finding balance between what we love to do and what we have to do.

Tim

Forcing the Dream Part II

I was six months into my first journalism job and dreaming big. Afghanistan, Iraq, I had war dreams where I wore Army issued spectacles and carried a 5D around my neck and a notepad in my hand while giving people a real picture of war.

There are few things I like more than waking up in a new country. New people to observe. New flavors to taste. Big pictures to put together.

I’d sit at my desk and try to envision the steps it would take to get to the New York Times. But the contrasting mind-numbing stories coming from the Marion County Board of Commissioners didn’t promise much of a future unless I could find a huge cover up or a sex scandal.

During the most mundane part of summer, those journalistic doldrums where you can’t reach a source to save your life, I sat at my desk trying desperately to drum up county stories. Aside from a little piece on some new natural product the county was spraying on area dirt roads, I had nothing.

My dad happened to call me that day to let me know he was going to Cuba that summer. The list of interesting places my dad travels to on a regular basis would make the Travel Channel blush.

“Do you want to come with us?”

“Does the Pope pee?”

Dreams often stand on legs we don’t recognize as our own. But they are more often than not related. You parents, your wife, your brothers and sisters.

The sun shone so bright on that first day in Havana, that I thought I was going to go blind. Caribbean blue and colors the rainbow never dreamed of made it difficult to focus on one thing.

We walked through markets and I sat on the Malecon and people watched to my heart’s content.

For five days I observed life in one of Havana’s famous neighborhoods and fulfilled a long-time desire to visit Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s Cuban home.

I remember looking up at the huge banners flying above some of Havana’s most famous buildings. They wished Fidel Castro a happy 80th birthday. Still months away of course.

But the world’s most famous dictator was holed up in one of his residences apparently in great pain and worried for his life that day. Word began to leak out that the great revolutionary was on his death bed, and by noon the following day, power was passed from Fidel to his brother Raul, the first such exchange of power in Cuba in more than 50 years.

And I was there to write about it. I wrote a story for our front page and a reporter’s notebook story that I tried to send from within Cuba. I was foiled by the nation’s tough Internet security. But an hour’s flight to Cancun and the wifi at a beach-side hotel provided the link up I needed to get my story back to my newspaper. The story eventually went out on the wires, and I received notes from people who’d seen it on the AP wires the next day.

Dreams don’t always look like you think they might. Sometimes you can force a dream out of thin air, and sometimes they come to you when you least expect it. Dreams are the result of luck, hard work and family. They don’t happen every day but even once in a lifetime can be good enough for those who learn to appreciate them.

It wasn’t the New York Times, but for a day, I was an international reporter. 

Tim

Unemployment by the numbers, or my beef with business reporting

Numbers don’t mean a lot when you’re not particularly affected by them. One key to great journalism is to be able to connect people to numbers by making it about their audience. Investors read business reports, because the numbers speak a personal language to them that others cannot necessarily follow. But a good business reporter can connect their readers to the numbers in ways that can make a deep impact on a community.

Knowing that the number of people drawing unemployment aid dipped by 27,000 to just under 4.5 million, the lowest number since late June, is pretty meaningless until you become a statistic. And I wonder how many Americans actually understand the significance.

I certainly didn’t until I read an interesting caveat at the end of this AP story titled:

Hopes rise as jobless claims fall, trade gap eases.

Yes, the numbers dropped significantly, and the reporter actually states that this could indicate that employers are unwilling to make deeper cuts in their workforce.

Yes, hope springs eternal!

But at the end of the article, we find that these numbers do not count millions of Americans receiving extended benefits from emergency programs put in place during the recession. More than five million Americans are listed on these extended benefit rolls.

That’s a meaningful number for me. Not only am I up against a lot of unemployed journalists for rare job openings in the media, but I’m up against a lot of Americans in the general job market as well.

As numbers go, statistics like these can be soul crushing.

And yet these numbers tell a story about where we’re at as an economy and a country. They tell me that I have my work cut out for me, and that I might have to look outside traditional job sources.

I always argued with editors that attracting younger readers to newspapers would mean reaching them through other means than a print paper and by making traditional news coverage more meaningful by putting them into the coverage and showing them how various issues do or will impact their lives.

The problem is that most traditional newspaper coverage is written for and to a mature audience. Most publishers are loathe to disturb the 50+ set for whom number reporting has remained unchanged since they purchased their first houses many years ago.

Two of the best show-don’t-tell journalism examples I can think of in the last two years happened on the radio. This American Life’s “Giant Pools of Money,” and “Another Frightening Show About the Economy” made for some of the most informative journalism I’ve seen, read or listened to ever. Period.

Yes, I’m a thirty something, and yes, This American Life appeals to my news delivery preferences. (I like to download episodes to my iPod Touch and listen in transit or during workouts or first thing in the morning while checking E-mail and the social networks) Still, the way the economic situation was simplified and brought to life in a full-hour show opened my eyes to the greater potential in number-related storytelling. Namely that numbers are a backdrop until you connect the impacted with the actual cause or causes. Once you’ve made this connection, the audience can follow the numbered pathway to its conclusion. Or lack thereof, as this continuing economic nightmare continues to show.

And if radio can do great show-don’t-tell journalism, newspapers ought to be able to take it to a whole new level.

Tim

Are you ready for the next adventure?

The phone call came at a little after 2 p.m. on the Monday before Labor Day. I glanced down from my computer screen to see my boss’s name flashing across my phone’s small display in large digital type.

It was at that instant I realized something was wrong. My boss often had meetings on Mondays and rarely came in. In fact, I realized she was in the office before I was that day. Like puzzle pieces falling into place or a mystery about to be revealed, I watched something flash before my eyes.

I picked up the receiver, and she said, “Can you come to my office, we want to talk to you.”

Sheer dread as I laid the receiver down.

I grabbed my notebook and a pen just for appearances, then everything went numb, the lights dimmed a little, and a sort of low-grade buzz developed in my ears. Probably high blood pressure, or so I’m told.

I didn’t hear much of the actual layoff. A few words. Your position, luxury, cutbacks, budget, sorry. Whatever.

Just tried to hold still and breathe through it like you do on the first drop on a big roller coaster.

It’s strange to just let go of everything you were working on, a load that is almost unbearable at times is now a pile of useless rubble, as there is no one else in the world who could possibly pick up where you left off. Or so you tell yourself.

Cleaned out a few things I wanted on my computer, handed over my key card and my company credit card and walked out.

A brief conversation with a former co worker in the parking lot got me thinking about this job as my past for the first time, and by the time I started the car and dialed in my wife’s phone number on the cell phone, I had a handle on the fact that I was just laid off.

Thanks God for kids, a wife and a mortgage. When you are forced out of a career that is so much more than a career, it’s good therapy to have to consider others over yourself.

My mind raced as I waited for my wife to pick up the phone. In those split seconds I was analyzing my reaction, the few questions my former employers asked and the future all at once. I saw it all go down again, but this time I was sitting on the window sill watching the boss and her layoff assistant struggle between pity and remorse. Or maybe I just thought that.

I found myself thinking about opportunities and excuses all at once. Some sort of apology I could give my wife for my failure before she would have a chance to think it.

I was beyond feeling sorry for myself and not once did I feel the embarrassment some thought I should feel. Bewildered but not surprised, I reached a conclusion that I had known this all along and that I had not planned accordingly. Whatever one needs to tell one’s self, I guess.

“Hello.”
– Hi babe, how are you?
“Fine.”
-Are you ready for the next adventure?

The Left and Leaving

“All this time lingers, undefined. Someone choose who’s left and who’s leaving. Memory will rust and erode into lists of all that you gave me: some matches, a blanket, this pain in my chest, the best parts of Lonely, duct-tape and soldered wires, new words for old desires, and every birthday card I threw away. I wait in 4/4 time. Count yellow highway lines that you’re relying on to lead you home.” ~ Jon K. Sampson of the Weakerthans

This song sums up journalism so much for me. Of course for Mr. Sampson it seems to sum up his experience playing a hometown venue or some such meaningful place. Songs are beautiful for the fact that they can produce so many different meanings and emotions for different people.

If I had to make a list of all that journalism gave me, it would look and sound an awful lot like what the soldiers had in Tim O’Brian’s “The Things They Carried.” Journalism, like few other jobs, packs an emotional wallop and leaves you both humbled and under the burden of a weight most would not choose to carry.

For the last five years I’ve watched those who left, those who are leaving and those who were given the boot reach blessed obscurity, though I know no one who’d actually call it that.

They were the best and the brightest, the innovators and the ones who would not, could not toe the line. Today they are blessing others with their prowess, their imagination and limitless ideas. I miss them.

Today I’m counting yellow highway lines and relying on them to help me find a home.

Tim