Tuesday, December 31, 2013

You do something for 30 years, you should ask yourself why


     On Jan. 7, 1985, I visited Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, five years before the quirky palazzo was looted of a dozen paintings, one of the great unsolved art thefts of modern history. Even intact, I found the place a "weird, debilitating collection of dark, gilt baroque pieces, artlessly assembled in dim corridors and mocked by bright flowers assembled in hideous inner courtyard like Sears Garden Center."
     A hard assessment, but I was 24. The young are often unkind.
     Later that year, on May 11, 1985, I picked up my first computer, a Kaypro 2X, serial number 273997. At 29 pounds, it was considered portable.
    That fall I lost my job at the Wheaton Daily Journal, fired for something I wrote about the Rev. Billy Graham, and on Nov. 26, I visited the unemployment office at 35 S. 19th Avenue in Maywood. There were 55 people in line in front of me when I arrived at 8:25 a.m., affording me plenty of time to look around. "Plastic chairs are burnt orange, olive green, mud brown and blue. Dark brown carpeting the color of yesterday's oatmeal, walls a whitish yellow beige, as if they had never been washed."
    Never went back, never collected a dime of unemployment.
    I know this because I wrote it down, in the 1985 Waterstone's Literary Diary that my parents brought back for me as a present on a trip to London. It was a lovely gift, a rich red cover, filled with diversions -- essays, a crossword puzzle, a quiz. Every day had a noteworthy literary event (June 13, "W.B. Yeats born County Dublin 1865.") Each week had its own two-page spread, with an illustration and a notable quote or work or author highlighted.
    So began a tradition that tomorrow enters its 30th year, and, perhaps after yesterday's post on this blog's six-month anniversary, in the mood to confess what may be an alarming habitualness on my part, I am unwrapping my 30th journal. I suppose, if a person has been doing something for nearly 30 years, he should pause once and reflect upon why he is doing it.
     Why fill these books? At the time, for convenience. Appointments, interviews, birthdays, due dates. If you don't write them down, you can forget your obligations, and leave people sitting in restaurants, gazing at the door. In the back is room for phone numbers and addresses, and looking over them is a reminder of just how long relationships last. Of the dozen names on the first page of that 1985 address page, five I'm still in touch with. One I married. Otherwise, you see people come and go -- in 2006, I put Barack Obama's cell phone number down, though I can't recall ever dialing it, and it's too late now.
     But scheduling and contact information is only a fraction of what's in them. Most of the writing is from the end of the day, the basic outlines of what happened. Again, why? That's easy. Because you forget everything. All the details of your life are not only lost after you die, but before, while you're still here. I knew this even as a child, growing up, and it bothered me. I remember sitting next to someone on a plane, having a conversation, then realizing I was never going to see that person again. So I jotted down my fellow passenger's name on a piece of paper — I might have the slip still, tucked in a box somewhere. Remembering seemed important, on its own merits. I think I became a writer because I didn't want to forget stuff. Keeping a journal is a kind of control over the passing of time, a way of dipping your hand into the racing torrent of your life, scooping out a dripping meager handful of details, and saving them in a jar.
    A journal is perfect for that. You put in what was important, what is interesting, what meant something, and you tuck it away where you know you can find it. In 1985, I worked for the newspaper in Wheaton, but I had already started writing for the Sun-Times, and Chicago magazine, and other publications. The book is filled with notes to call this or that person, and lists of story ideas.
     That fall, I wrote to the Waterstone's company in London and ordered the upcoming year's literary diary, and in the years to come doing so became a Christmas treat for me. Subsequent diaries varied, they were different, having been placed into the hands of various artists and design teams, and I loved tearing open the package to see what it looked like this year.  Some I liked better than others.  At first I would write to Waterstone's, and it was always a worry, whether the diary would arrive in time for the new year. But then, one year, running late, I phoned, and after that I always phoned. It was a thrill to dial their flagship store in London and place my order, very carefully, imagining myself eccentric and wealthy, indulging this extravagance, explaining my order to the somewhat surprised clerk, who found herself shipping a diary to America. For a few years, Waterstone's had a store, just off Michigan Avenue, and I remember it was somewhat of a let-down to just clomp over there and buy it. What fun is that?  Scarcity and difficulty create value.
     Beginning with that 1986 diary, I filled in the events of the day in a tiny hand that I could never manage today. But that year, the tiny notions petered out on July 2, with a single sentence that explains why, "Hectic day trying to finish work & get ready for trip." A glance at the day before gives a sense of the freelancer scramble: "Busy workday worked at finishing up Sun-Times stories, Nostalgia stories, N.S. story, got call from WLS D.J. Larry Lujack for N.S. story. Talked to Newsweek first thing in morning about last 2 profiles. Dictated over phone, took three hours out at middle of the day and wasted it -- walked to library to mail N.S. article and book to Didi--$5 to mail a paperback to Haiti. Ate a slice of pizza, looked through bookstores, didn't get home until 2, missed surprise air express delivery of photos. Mad about that."
    "N.S." was "Northshore," a now-defunct magazine. I have no memory of ever talking to radio great Larry Lujack, who coincidentally died earlier this month, nor even what the story might have been about. That seems odd—you'd think a person would remember, but that's my point. The journals are rarely literary, in themselves, rarely structured prose designed to be read by others. They're bare facts, descriptions, impressions, salted away against forgetting and, I suppose, under the notion I might need them again. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I'm writing something and need to go back to a time; occasionally I find something useful, other times, just a blank. Sometimes I just pull one down idly to see what was going on.
     In 1987, I joined the staff of the Sun-Times, having freelanced for two years, and would make notes on stories, such as Friday, April 15, 1988. "Sent to the South Side, 48th St. and Wabash, for Ald. Dorothy Tillman's birthday celebration. After I got over my initial unease it was interesting to walk around the large hall & take everybody in. Many sharp sorts in small fedoras & 3 piece suits like cast members of 'Guys & Dolls.' Lot of commerce -- people selling Harold buttons, clocks, posters, records, a very thin poet was hawking his poem about Harold for $1-- the opening line was something like, 'He was the first & he was very very far from the worst.' ... Ald. Tim Evans spoke, not saying very much. He was a long way to go if he plans on filling Harold Washington's shoes."
    In 2001, Waterstone's shrank their diary to 2/3 the size it had been, and the next year it vanished altogether. It hurt, but I shifted to Brownline Daily Diaries. They're spare, they don't have the literary trappings that Waterstone's did, but do have a pleasing utilitarian office supply vibe. They're smaller, but give each day a full page, and I've been pretty good about writing the events of the day, some years more than others. I've noticed that this year, with the blog, the entries are more telegraphic.
       The books are lined up, 29 of them now, a better record than anything technological. The coincidence of my old Kaypro's purchase being recorded in that first 1985 diary would look cheesy in fiction, but it is true. The Kaypro is in the basement, wrapped in plastic, a future antique, and if I wanted to read anything on the big floppy disks it used, I'd have to haul it out, fire it up, find the disks, assuming I still have them, and maybe I could read them  more likely I couldn't. Thirty years from now, who knows what kind of electronic devices we'll be using, or if these new systems will be compatible. We may be able to dip into the Cloud, or the Cloud could drift away. Who knows?
     But the journals will be as accessible as they are now, on a top shelf of my bookshelf, easily searchable, and if I want to wander off into the past, all I need to is pull one down. So what was New Year's Eve, 1993 like?  Memory tells me a bit: no kids, newly married, living on Pine Grove Avenue and ... that's about it. The journal however, for Dec. 31: "Up at 5:11—began reading intro. Read & printed it & first two chapters. Slow going," that must have been Complete and Utter Failure, published in 1994. Then I moved away from work. "Edie up singing, getting ready for party." That should have been parties, plural. It was quite an evening -- going with old friends downtown to see Steve Martin's first play, then back to our place for Mexican food and drinks, then to a party Richard Roeper was throwing at Mother Hubbard's, smoking Cuban cigars and drinking whiskey with radio and TV personality Roe Conn.
      Sounds fun, and it is oddly comforting, looking at my sedentary, sober life now to remember that fun was had, and reading other entries is a reminder of how much fun wasn't had, the experiences as inevitable as stepping stones, leading to right now. Tonight, as usual, we'll be watching movies at home with the boys, drinking sherbert and ginger ale punch, eating little hot dogs wrapped in dough and shrimp. I can't honestly say that I'd rather celebrate New Year's Eve 1993 than New Year's 2013.
      A journal doesn't take that much time, and it is a statement that your life might be worth recalling. I can't pretend that anybody else would be interested in them -- heck, I'm hardly interested, and it's my life, and half the time, when I do look at them, I'm rewarded with some stark barb that's painful to recall. But that's useful too — it's wrong to laud the joys of your past and ignore the woes. Both are necessary in the forging of your spirit. Tonight is a time for introspection, balanced on a peak between two years, 2013 gasping out its last minutes, 2014 taking its first gulp of air and letting out a newborn cry. Life is a very long time, or can be, and most people will use their time well and use it poorly, switching off, in fits and starts. It's good to keep track of life, if you can, so that when it's past, you'll know what happened, sort of. Happy New Year. See you in 2014.



  1. You've inspired me to make a resolution to write more! Memories fade, but words are forever.

  2. I'm glad. I find, the more concrete, the more details, the better.

  3. When I retired in 2006, I began a list of books I read, movies, plays and ballets I saw, classes I took, just to reassure myself that I was actually doing something. After 5 years, I stopped, except for the book list. Your article today has inspired me to start again. I don't have the discipline to keep a proper journal, but I can at least record the basics.

  4. Well, you're certainly indefatigable, Neil. Columns, articles, books, journals, e-mails, Facebook, Twitter, letters - I imagine, blog, and whatever other forms of writing that I'm missing. It makes my head spin just typing out that incomplete list. Though I think it's kind of funny that yesterday you wondered "does writing every day lower the quality of my work? Am I burning out, running out of steam?" If you are (which doesn't seem at all apparent to me,) it would seem like the blog is only the tip of the iceberg!

    I'm of two minds about the journal idea, as I am about almost everything. You're definitely right about the frailty of memory -- I'm frequently disappointed at my inablity to remember even things that I would have considered very important at the time. Which is why reading that you don't recall talking to Larry Lujack is both surprising, yet understandable to me. But I don't really regret not having dozens of journals on a shelf, either, as I doubt that I'd consult them the way you evidently do, and I've never been to one of Richard Roeper's parties, anyway. ; ) Regardless, I enjoyed the very interesting ruminations and observations both yesterday and today, as usual. Happy New Year and good luck on your quest for 2,000 hits!

  5. Have you ever been back to the ISG museum and if so, have you changed your mind? We've visited there quite a bit as it is close to the MFA at which our youngest got an MFA. The museum left the spots from which the paintings were stolen empty and the plaques describing the works in place.
    Your description isn't wrong but it was the Gardeners' home first, museum second.

    1. Yes, we visited a couple years ago, when we were passing through Boston. And yes, it certainly has improved, particularly with the expansion. The way they treated the thefts was certainly poignant. And I liked all their Dante material. Plus I'm probably not so critical.

  6. I remember being awed at Royko's output (was it four times weekly?) and how he could consistently come up with fresh and insightful essays, at least until the bitter end. For me, he was the gold standard. How could anyone have something new to say, and say it so frequently and so steadily? The fact is, your writing every day has not lowered its quality; instead it has demonstrated how high it continues to be. I'm not given to writing fan letters to journalists, but, objectively speaking, you have surpassed Royko, both in productivity and depth. We readers are the better for it, and I wish you health and continued tenacity for 2014, every goddamn day.

    1. Thanks Gary, though of course I can't accept that. Royko was the man. I'm just a traveler in a shattered realm, looking under scraps of rubble, passing along what I find to the few who pause to pay attention.

  7. At least accept Gary's point that we readers are better for it. In a world of acronyms and abbreviations in word and thought you stimulate and enlighten, encouraging many to be more thoughtful in their writing. Happy New Year and thanks.

    1. Okay, bowing my head and muttering, "Aw shucks," I accept it. Thanks.

  8. Why did you delete my post asking what did you write about that anti-Semite Graham that got you fired?
    That he is an anti-Semite is absolutely true.

    1. I didn't delete it. I saw it, was thinking about it, then it just vanished I figured you deleted it.

    2. I definitely didn't delete it.

  9. Believe it or not, I used to think that my jottings would be important some day. A few years ago, I segued from indecipherable hand written musings to computer entries in reverse chronological order -- I can laugh now about worrying how someone (who?) would put the entries in the correct first-to-last order. The one saving grace of all that fruitless scribbling is that every once in a while, I look over what I've written and admire it -- ah, the vanity of it all!


  10. My wife just pointed this to me. I would like to post a PDF of it on the D2L website for my feature-writing class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (I tend to prefer PDFs to links), but I would like your permission first. (I would accompany the PDF with a link to your blog.) If you would rather a simply linked to it, I'll respect that.

    Erik Gunn
    Instructor, Feature and Magazine Writing
    Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies
    University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

  11. Sure, though if you don't mind, post half on your site, and link here for the rest. That way I get the click.

  12. We appreciate you taking the time to post something even on your vacation.


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