Most days in the newspaper business are spent wondering why you didn't get into a more satisfying career - like perhaps the guy they send to walk through old minefields to check for leftover explosives, or the guy they get to clean up the toilets in restaurants after "jalapeno surprise night."
And then, when you least expect it, a day comes along out of nowhere and sweeps you off your feet and reminds you how freaking awesome it is to get to do what we do.
Like any field, you tend to hear the bad more than the good. Home phone rings at 5 a.m. on Saturday. "I want you to know that I don't agree with your editorial," says icy voice.
Oh, how nice. Perhaps I could get a giant bottle of White-Out and go around door-to-door to change every copy for you. Thank you so much for helping me to not waste my weekend on something so frivolous as, oh I don't know, sleep?
It's not that we don't welcome constructive criticism, in fact, we depend upon it. But, "You made me look fat in that photo, you @%&*@!," just isn't as constructive as the critic may have believed.
You're right sir, it was our photography, not your six meals a day at McDonalds. Please accept our apologies.
I've had people call at 3 a.m. wanting me to look up the movie listings for all the local theaters and read them to them. Once had a lady threaten to have a miscarriage in my office unless I pulled her shoplifting arrest report out of the paper. One gentleman calls if he gets a shopper at his house, and insists that I drive across town to his house, at night, in rain or snow, and pick it up off his doorstep, since he didn't ask for it and doesn't feel inclined to invest the labor in bending over to pick it up. It's all part of the gig, entries on that list of things they never told you in journalism school.
One thing the news industry does better than anyone except for Hollywood, is give each other awards. We've been fortunate over the years (or maybe other newspapers were just unfortunate) and we have more plaques and stuff than the walls will hold.
I don't put a lot of stock in awards. Couldn't tell you where most of the ones I've received went, except for one shiny Associated Press columnist of the year one, which is currently under the short leg of a crooked old bookshelf in a spare bedroom.
Awards mean that some other person who does the same thing you do for a living, or is some kind of bigwig of unknown livery, sitting in an office a couple of thousand miles from here, accepted what you did on a particular day, or possibly was intoxicated enough to pick your story from a pile of entries entirely at random, and then probably used it as a napkin.
What does mean something, however, is when you are visiting someone's house for some reason, and you spot a clipping of something you wrote or photographed, stuck to the refrigerator next to last year's school picture of their grandkid and the shopping list, anoited with tiny plastic magnets shaped like Hello Kitty or tropical palm trees, or possibly beer caps.
Payoff! I confess to a guilty thrill of vanity every time it happens. Someone took the time to save some words or an image that meant something to them personally. Keep your Pulitzer, give me the Frigidaire, baby. In my book, that's the ultimate gallery.
You'll never get rich or famous in community journalism, I assure you. But the beauty of the thing is this - you can make an impact, in your little town, maybe to just one person, and that's worth something.
On a given day, you can help raise a little money to put a coat on the back of a needy kid, or pay for gas to the hospital for a good guy or gal who is going through a tough stretch. Those stories aren't flashy and don't win awards, but they matter. They help hold up the short leg of the bookshelf that is your community.
You can encourage a kid who is doing a neat project in school, point out a problem that needs fixed, share the truth and get a rascal booted out of office. And suddenly, it is not such a bad job after all.
Whatever you do, if you can go home knowing that in any given day you've connected somehow, with someone, or at least tied, your day can't be all bad.
And one day this past week, I got a call from a parent in a local school district who read a tiny paragraph about the character that students had shown in a particular activity, and took the time and effort to say that it was appreciated. At lunch, I ran into someone who had been helped by our Mr. Goodfellow campaign, and wanted to say thanks. About an hour later, a lady mentioned in a Facebook post that she'd been keeping my columns in a scrapbook for years. A few minutes later, a family stopped in to ask if they could use a photo I had taken of their mother at some long-forgotten event or other, for her memorial service. It was the best smile they'd ever seen on her, and it made them happy and helped them remember good times with her, they said. That afternoon, a professor at BVU called to say that one of her students had read an quick, nothing-special article I had did about veterans in need and was inspired to start a fund drive with a student group she was in, to help out. Seriously, I started to look around for the Candid Camera crew. Days like this just do not happen.
Then late that day, I got an email from an English teacher at Storm Lake High School. She wondered if she could get a copy of a story I had written to use as a reading assignment in her class. Now that's an honor! (Though I suspect it may serve as the example of how not to write - I wasn't about to question it.) I won't remember fancy plaques, but that made my day more than the teacher will ever know.
It's a big fat beautiful Frigidaire day, just when I needed it. Thanks for that. And thanks for reading.