Afternoon. Cafeteria. Gnat’s having a party at school today – tomorrow’s the last day – so I must go sit on a small chair and pretend to eat Play-Doh cookies. Then it’s back to the)*$(%#@($@ eyeglass store. The new glasses are unusable. Yesterday I explained that I could see fairly well out of the corner of my eye with the old glasses, but cannot now.

“You can’t have any good peripheral vision with bifocals.”

“Perhaps, but I do. And when I look at the floor through the reading prescription, I can see the pattern in the carpet. In the new glasses, if I look down, I see a blur.”

“That’s because it’s the close-up prescription.”

“I understand that, but my point is that these are worse. Why would I trade these for something that makes me move my head instead of my eyes all the time?”

“That’s the way bifocals work.”

“I understand that, but my point is that I already have bifocals, and they do not require me to change the way I use my eyes. I’m rather set in my ways after 46 years. I got used to just flickin’ my orbs around devil may care, and I’m not about to start moving my head anymore than I have to.”

So today I go back for another exam. Grrr.

Off to the party; more later.

Home, kitchen table, midnight. The party was sweet; glad I went. Most of the other parents had already arrived – moms all, with three exceptions (one academic, two work-at-homes). Gnat lit up like a kliegl light when I appeared. Niagara pounding on a turbine for a century couldn’t produce that much wattage. The kids sang songs for the parents – silly ditties that leaned heavily on mispronunciation, repetition, and socially-sanctioned sticking out of butts and tongues. Then the kids went outside to play while the parents formed loose knots and promised to get together with playdates. One mom was talking about trying to get a niece to attend the U of W at Madison. What field of study? I inquired. Journalism.

Oh. Hmm. Well – what sort? Print? You know, I’d advise against it. Better to take English classes, learn how to write, then write a lot. It’s not a profession that requires four years of college, let alone a master’s degree.

They looked at me with a certain amount of amused confusion, so I said, apologetically, that was I was actually in the business, and degrees mattered less than clips and skill. J-school taught you how to teach J-school. How to go to think tanks and peer down your nose at the messy scrum of daily papers. Not to say it was a waste of time, heavens no. But journalism per se can be mastered quite quickly, and if it can’t, you don’t have it. If you regard “journalism” to mean “colorful writing that yearns to be recognized by awards committees for its sensitive yet tough portrayal of the life of a 14 year old meth addict,” then English is still the way to go. I look back at the classic papers of the 30s in this town, and marvel; the authors weren’t college men, I suspect, but had the requisite instincts and judgments to make the front page irresistible. You can hone judgment, but you can’t teach instinct. The first question in any J-school application ought to be “do you want to change the world?” And anyone who answers yes gets kindly turned away. Your job is to describe the way the world changes. Not pretend you’re there to nudge it along towards utopia.

Unless you’re a columnist, of course. But such power is only granted to a select few. One day I’ll describe the ritual that attends the ascension to columnist status – the pricked finger, the burning of a picture of Walter Lippman, the paddling with Ol’ Greeley, the oaken board kept in the editor’s closet. The delicate tattoo on the buttock of your choice, depending on your political persuasion.

I was discussing college with another dad - they’re new to the area, and soon to leave for a change in jobs. I pointed out the building across the road where I lived for a year, a quarter century ago. Them’s roots, son. Of course, those were dissolute college years, which is why I’d prefer that my daughter (who was over by the swingset with his kid) take a year off between high school and college.

“Travel? See the world?”

“Wait tables.” I’m serious. Your first year, you drink, you drift. If she’s sensible and level-headed and wants to go into med school off the bat, fine, but maybe a year spent crashing dishes into bus pans and scraping off slop is more instructive than sitting in a classroom with a hangover listening to someone drone on about how Kate Chopin upended the patriarchal construct.

Then another mom comes along, and we’re talking about the guilt of throwing things away. Art, lesson plans, that sort of thing. I admit that I do throw away lesson plans, because I wasn’t there and they won’t mean anything in ten years. But I save other things. For example: Gnat enjoys a Kid’s Cuisine microwave meal as a treat –

“Oh, so does (name redacted)” said another mom. “Loves ‘em.”

“Well, I saved one of the boxes. Crushed it flat, stored it away. Because in ten years that’s going to bring back more memories – the design, the commercial tie-in, the puzzle inside she figured out.”

They looked at me as though I was utterly insane. So there you have it: journalism isn’t brain surgery, a year of good physical labor is better than getting hammered nightly in a dorm room, and I save the occasional piece of flotsam from our daily life. What an odd man Natalie’s father is. I mean have you talked to him? He saves Kid’s Cuisine boxes.

Well, someone has to.

Off to Southdale to the glasses store. Another exam. The previous peeper doc had been reading a book about how the structure of the universe argued against the existence of a creator; this doc was reading a book about people’s conversations with angels. Takes all kinds, nowt as queer as, etc. He examined my new glasses, and pronounced them Defective. A bad manifestation of my new prescription. As for my prescription, well, let’s see. We ran through the lenses, and he altered the distant and near corrections. So I was right: everything was wrong. I opted for a less than superhuman reading correction, so I could look down at the floor and not see a blurry mass of wood-hued Vaseline.

Happy day. Took Gnat to tumbling class, went home, made supper, walked the dog, and spent the evening on the website. I have blown off the book this week. I just need to slack. Slack is good. I’m coming to a point where I have let go of certain concerns, because I either doubt my ability to affect them in the slightest degree, or because I regard the battle as already lost. I get exercised; I get alarmed; then I step outside to finish the cheroot and Bill Nelson comes on the Shuffle, and I decided to end the day there instead of here, where madness rules. I don't know who's more alarming - the people who believe this drivel or the educated sorts who shrug, calmly dress the sets and arrange the lighting and go out for dinner afterwards, or those in the West who huff and shift in their seats and insist that the real problem is Coca-Cola and the FCC.


A co-worker died yesterday, in the early morning.

I didn’t know him well at all. Saw him in the hall, rode in the elevator from time to time. I don’t know if he was the taciturn sort, but we never said much to one another, so I remember him as a quiet man. He communicated with the paper at large through the medium of the Morning Note on the primitive in-house network, a series of comments that discussed the paper from its makers’ perspective. God, he was funny. He was a parodist of the finest variety, and while his perspective may not have been shared by the majority of his co-workers, they had to admire his skill, his wit, his quiet bemusement, and his disinclination to bow to whatever PC deities had been erected that week. He blogged the Strib long before blogs ever came along, and did so in a way that tweaked his audience in ways no outsider ever could.

They found cancer, then they found more. From diagnosis to hospice in six months. He was about my age. His obit will cover the usual attributes: father, husband, reporter, area man, sorely missed. All true and all too common, and I can’t expect you to care. Everyone knows one. Everyone is one, eventually. But just for the wayback machine and Google caches, it should be said: he was all the things mentioned above and more. He was a miniaturist who worked in the peculiar form of the inter-office network memo, and his work was brilliant. Effortlessly funny. If I could wind back the clock ten years I’d march over to his desk in the business section and tell him he had a thrice-weekly column. Don’t care what you do with it. Just write.

Wouldn’t have kept him alive, but at least you’d know more about his genius. His name was Dan Freeborn.

Goodbye, Dan. Rest.

Perm link: here.

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