Saturday, November 26, 2011

Workday companion

Working at a newspaper is not what I thought it would be, based on the impression the movies give. In movies, a newsroom is non-stop action. It's fifteen or twenty or fifty different conversations all going on at once (depending on how large a staff the movie newsroom has). It's the hum of a wire, the clacking of keyboards, the constant ringing of phones, the buzz of interviews, and the beeping of the scanner. It's people screaming at each other because they don't have the time to be civil, running around, yelling things like "Page One!" or "Stop the presses!"

My newsroom is generally not like that. I used the generic "hum" to describe a newswire, because I don't know what one sounds like, or if they even make a sound anymore. The scanner is going constantly because my boss is a volunteer fireman, but for the most part, people are pleasant, and if people are yelling, it's usually because there was a super-exciting episode of "Survivor" last night.

But it's definitely not constant activity. What the movies don't show is how much time you spend waiting around. On an average morning, my to-do list may look like this: check e-mail, check voice mail, check regular mail, call mayor about random rumor, call high school drama director to set date to interview musical actors, call owner of new jewelry store down the street regarding business story, call school to arrange interview with the 8th grader who got invited to the White House, set press releases that may have come in. Yikes, huh?

Well, the results often go like this: e-mail, one message from the publisher alerting everyone that the copier won't work between 2 and 3 p.m. and two press releases for things we don't cover, regular mail, a press release from the secretary of a local church regarding an event which you already interviewed the pastor about and wrote a story on, voicemail, someone going "Oh, I think I have the wrong number," after four minutes of silence. Mayor is in meetings all morning, not for the village government, but for his day job. The high school secretary is totally befuddled when you ask about the musical and transfers you to the music department office, where you leave a message.

Jewelry store is so new that its phone is not yet in service. Middle school tells you that they can't just let you talk to a student because after all, you may be one of those phone pedophiles they heard about on CSI, but they'll contact his parents for you. Now you've been at your desk for nearly 20 minutes, and it's time to set those press releases, but there aren't any. Go to your email and refresh. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. Go check you mailbox in case a fax came in the last 10 minutes. It didn't. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.

I love my job, I try to bring energy and ambition to it every day, but the reality is, there is some downtime. It's during these times that I turn to one of my newest favorite websites:

I stumbled on it by accident, but there is so much great stuff on there. It's essentially a collection of essays and columns written by a great variety of people. Some of it's funny. Some of it's sad. Some of it is thought-provoking. You kind of never know what you're going to get. "Notes from an amateur spectator at an amateur mixed-martial arts fight" by Rory Douglas is so funny it should come with a warning label. It describes the fights, fighters, spectators, and ring girls at his brother's MMA fights in the Pacific Northwest. The same with "Sarah Walker Shows You How," where she provides detailed explanations on accomplishing some of life's basic tasks. I especially reccommend "How to Train Your Dragon."

Others have the ability to make you think and expose the hidden worlds around you. In "Total Loss," Stef Willen takes literary snapshots of days in her life inventorying charred remains of people's homes. When there's a house or business fire, they call her to sit with the victim and find out what was in the structure so they can make an insurance determination. It's far and away my favorite column on there, so much so that I actually wrote to her to tell her and received a very nice email in return. Some of the columns are funny, and most have at least a little humor in it. But she's dealing with sad situations, and often with very sad people, so there are quite a few tragic columns, too.

Bianca is living every underemployed college graduate's worst fear as a high-class hooker, in "Bianca, the Covert Toronto Escort with a Day Job." That column is also often funny and sad. The funniest parts are when she's comparing and contrasting her day and night jobs, and determines that her madam boss has more credibility than her daytime boss (because she knows what it's like to hold Bianca's position and has a very clear understanding of what she does), and that her night-time co-workers are friendlier, often more professional, and have a better sense of camraderie (unlike the girl who sits next to her all day, never has a longer conversation with Bianca than "Can you hand me that" as is the custom of her daytime workplace, yet maintained a secret Twitter feed entirely devoted to how awful Bianca was). Of all of the columns on there, Bianca's has the strongest arc from start to finish, and she's a heroine you truly root for.

In this year's new column contest, I voted for "History's a Bitch: A Dog Walk through Time" by Robb Fritz to win the extra $1000. His column focuses on dogs' roles in history. Each one must have taken a great deal of research, but he also injects a lot of humor into it, making them a truly enjoyable read. "The Chorus Boy Chronicles" by Brian Spitulnik wasn't an option on the column contest, but it's also very good and entertaining. "Dendrophilia and Other Social Taboos," on New Age living by Dani Burlison, and "Assimilate or Go Home: Dispatches from the Stateless Wanderers" by someone credited only as D.L.M., have both gotten better as they go. "Assimilate" is about young Fundamentalist Christian woman and her work with recent Somalian immigrants in the Pacific Northwest.

I sincerely hope that all of this has convinced you to check out the website for yourself. I'm planning to enter next year's column contest, so someday, you may even see me on there!

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