Sunday, June 26, 2011

New lessons on time, patience

It is amazing the things you learn when change happens.

When I was laid off in December, I could recall only a few times in my life where I had felt hurt more badly. Some involved deaths, others betrayal, still others, rejection.

But change does happen, and when in January I started working as a reporter for, after having spent 20 years as an editor, I had to relearn the reporter’s frustrations – particularly, those related to phone calls. There is waiting for someone to call back, enduring those who do not, playing phone tag with still others who are in and out while you also are out and about.

In the meantime, I have kept as busy as I could, writing for my blog, poring over job boards, composing cover letters, rewriting my resume over and over, and of course, applying for jobs.

When my daughters have complained from time to time that it seems I work more on the computer now than I did when I worked full time, I’ve told them that finding a new job is my full-time job now.

More recently, I have started part-time copy editing work for The more I have to do, the more I have to juggle, and I find myself having to relearn the idea of budgeting my time. That is not a bad thing.

What is amusing, at least in hindsight, is all the stress I put myself through trying to stick to a schedule that seems intent on taking off in different directions, sometimes at a moment’s notice.

Staying on schedule is important for a guy like me because one of my greatest strengths, an ability to focus on the task at hand with singular, almost tunnel vision, also is my greatest weakness. Essentially, I generally am not a clock-watcher – until, of course, I feel like I am running late.

That may sound odd for a guy who has worked daily under deadline pressure most of his adult life, but it generally is true. Oh, I paid attention to time for the 17 years I worked as a copy editor. It was essential – the paper had to get out on time. Deadline was everything, and ultimately, meeting it was among the attributes that made me good at what I did.

Outside work, I get to appointments early – unless traffic intrudes, which it sometimes does in a metro area. In fact, for most of my adult life, I was not comfortable even going to movies unless I knew we could sit down before the trailers began. It’s not that I wanted to see the trailers, but I felt like I was being rude to the other folks watching if I had to cut in front of them as I tried to find a seat if the trailers already were playing.

Of course, I did not want to miss a moment of the movie, either.

Over the years, I’ve learned to relax more about things like that. My wife has been a patient instructor in this and has brought me a long way. That’s not to say she runs late – but she has little patience for wasted time.

I strongly suspect she thinks I talk too much.

I believe I was in third grade when I first took an interest – and I mean a fervent interest – in reading. I’d open a book and would drift out of time and into a place somewhere in that story. I don’t think it was a fantasy world, per se, but I enjoyed drinking in the rich details the words revealed, as well as the richness of the story and its characters. A good writer can tap into the depths of the reader’s imagination, using words to paint images that elicit an imaginative splendor no mere moviemaker could hope to reproduce.

Robert Frost did that well in verse – Mending Wall, or The Road Not Taken, for example. J.R.R. Tolkien could do so at myriad levels – the rich feeling of a depth of “real” history and legend in The Lord of the Rings, the fanciful encounter of the hobbits with Old Man Willow, then Tom Bombadil and, much later, Treebeard, among many, many others. Traveling along desperate roads with the Joad clan in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is another example.

I could go on and on. By the way, Peter Jackson’s version of The Lord of the Rings trilogy were, in my opinion, the only movies I’ve ever seen after reading the book that I did not walk away from with bitter disappointment. I had fully expected to – and he did some things I flat out disagreed with: His interpretation of Faramir, I think, belittled the dignity I clearly saw in that character when I read the book. He stayed true, however, to the trilogy’s vision, if not the abundance of details, when he made the films. For that I remain grateful.

As I matured as a reader, I grew to appreciate how these authors strung words together to paint such compelling images and portraits. Over the years, particularly in high school and college, I had instructors who challenged me to read the likes of Frost, Tolkien, Langston Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, among many, many others.

When I would open the cover and begin reading a good book, time would lose all meaning. I would become some kind of invisible observer, immersing myself in the word pictures, the developing plot lines and twists and standing amid the characters themselves as events unfolded.

Eventually, I would start writing my own stories and poetry, but I never felt they were good enough to share. Most, I now regret, ended in dorm trash cans or recycle bins.

Photography had a similar effect on me. I started shooting with an old Argus C3 my Dad picked up for himself when he was in the military. I mastered the basics fairly quickly. I learned, and in several years’ time, I picked up a Canon F1 – an SLR that introduced a whole new world of creativity. I took some photography classes with John R. Grady, a very talented professional who had become an instructor at Elgin Community College, which I attended for two semesters. He taught from the heart, just like those who helped fan my passion for the word.

So when I was out shooting, a trip intended to be an hour or two in the field easily could turn into four or five – light meant everything, so you learned to make the most of it. There were tricks of the trade to learn, techniques – photography as an art form, later as a tool for recording relevant, compelling moments in everyday life, which is the basis for photojournalism.

Later I would get a Canon A1, which became my go-to camera for nearly everything, although I also picked up at one point a Graflex Speed Graphic, which originally gained fame in the 1930s as the press photographer’s camera.

One of my biggest professional regrets was setting aside my camera gear when I became an editor. Starting about that time, I had very little time between family, work and commuting for anything else.

But I still have my A1.

For most of my career, I’ve believed that a good writer is someone who paints word pictures to explain in simple terms why a budget deficit is not a good thing, why it is wrong for a public official to vote on something when he potentially has a stake in it. I had an ability as a reporter to tackle complex issues like water development and rights (a huge concern in the arid West) and utility rate hikes and explain what was going on and why it mattered in terms most readers could understand.

But in those years, I was so busy covering beats – and writing a fair amount of copy – that I had little practice using my words to paint. It would not be for another year or two that I would have an opportunity to do so, after I’d become an editor, and it would be another 17 years before I felt comfortable doing so.

Painting with words becomes critical, I think, when you are trying to set a physical sense of place or time, or when you are trying to acquaint your readers with a person, or a group of persons. The story may be compelling, it may be tragic, it may be inspirational. But if you cannot relate it in the right tone, if you cannot pull the reader into it, if you cannot generate an emotional response other than indifference from the reader toward your subject, you have failed.

Writers do fail – every one of them. Some find themselves fortunate enough to succeed from time to time, as well.

But the point I set out to make in this post was about budgeting my time. I feel at the moment as if I just sat down to write this a few minutes ago, but Microsoft Word tells me I just exceeded 1,533 words. That’s too long, as many of my posts are, but it illustrates so well what I set out to say.

When you love something, truly enjoy it, time often becomes irrelevant. The only other passion outside of my relationships with God and with family that comes close to writing is fishing, and I made myself stop that more than a year ago. I regret that, too, but I have a hard time justifying it right now. That’s a time luxury I cannot afford at the moment when so I put so much pressure on myself to find full-time work, whether as a journalist or in another profession that will make good use of my skills.

But at least for the moment I feel busy, more productive as I try to balance the needs of two part-time jobs I enjoy with the more daunting task of finding that perfect job that has remained so elusive, so indefinable for more than six months. Actually, it has been far longer – I had been looking actively for other opportunities for much of the three years before I was laid off.

So as I juggle my new tasks, extra balls are thrown in to the mix from time to time – doctor’s appointments, phone calls from prospective employers, an assignment from one of those. I have my fingers and toes crossed on that, but ultimately God will open or shut that door. I’m fine with that, even if I am feeling a little impatient these days. I cannot imagine how those who have been out of work for two years or more are coping.

So doing a better job of budgeting my time is one of the things I must revisit or relearn in all of this. Another lesson here, I think, is patience.