Waste your mind with journalism

I was on a subway train with a fellow MIT student during my junior or senior year. I can’t remember for certain who it was. If it was you, let me know what you think of my answer after a half century.

I told them I had decided not to be an electrical engineer―a decision that was really made for me when I flunked second-term Calculus twice. Instead, I said, I loved my work at The Tech so much I wanted to be a journalist.

“How can you waste a fine mind like yours on something so trivial as journalism,” they asked me.

“It’s not trivial,” I responded. I had never considered the question but the answer tumbled out of me. “Every day, journalists do things that are every bit as challenging as engineering. We witness disordered reality. We must impose order on it. Separate the wheat from the chaff.

“Then we write it down in an inverted pyramid, a form with very strict rules requiring you to place the most important information (who, what, when, where, why) at the top, the least important at the bottom.

It needs to be brief, precise, grammatical and readable. It’s not supposed to ever be the same twice. And it has to be done under deadline pressure worse than any engineering job ever. I find it every bit as intellectually challenging as anything I’ve seen or read at MIT.”

My Grandchildren

What to write about one’s family is an issue that all personal columnists face.

I was probably too laissez faire back in the 80s and 90s when I wrote about my daughters. I guess I was lucky they didn’t know that at least one personal columnist paid their kids $5 each time their name appeared in the column.

Thinking about this recently, I realize that most of you don’t know I now have two grandchildren, a toddler boy and an infant girl. I cut a deal with their mom: cute stories: OK. Pictures or names: NOT OK.

First a cute story about the girl: I have discovered that when she fusses, I can often calm her down by doing the “royal wave.” I am an anglophile and I read years ago that the royals model their public wave after “screwing in a light bulb.”

I think she is reacting to the gesture: my daughter thinks that I am radiating joy as I do the wave, and that her baby is reacting to that.

At almost four years old, my grandson is already correcting me. He calls me Abba, and seems sorry to have to say, “O Abba, that’s not right.”

 Groundhog Day and Buddhism

As usual, I expect new material for my Groundhog Day The Movie website from my avid readers. Fire away if you have something you don't see here. It’s getting harder to find things I missed: the site has been up since 2001.

I run this item every year in conjunction with Groundhog Day (Thursday, Feb. 2 this year). The Bill Murray movie of the same name is the 34th funniest American film of all time, according to the American Film Institute. It is also my favorite movie of all times. This is the thirteenth time I've run this item!


There Are No Little Things 9: Newspaper Loses TV Station

The FCC took WHDH away from the Boston Herald-Traveler. The loss of the station killed the newspaper. I could not have imagined a decision less meaningful to me, yet it started a chain reaction which undid one engagement and launched another. One result: WBZ got the Red Sox, which caused them to hire staff, including me. Working there helped torpedo my first engagement. Charlie Ball took up teaching journalism at Simmons College after losing his Herald job; one of his students would eventually meet me through her newspaper, then end up as the second woman to whom I was engaged.

Mini Series: MIT Prof. John Donovan

Although his life has since turned out horrifying, Prof. John Donovan was a brilliant teacher and lecturer in the early 70s. He taught 6.251, Introduction to Computing, which is an electrical engineering course number, even though he was an associate professor in Course XV (management). He was clever and witty, made programming simple, and collected cards from all his students with their “permanent” address, promising to get back in touch with us someday. He never did―at least not with me.

This and That

Things I Never Mentioned
I love Gary Larson and have every The Far Side  strip in a lovely two-volume collection. I loved That 70s Show and cannot wait for the Netflix revival, That 90s Show, which at the very least features Red and Kitty. Others will do cameos.

The Accordion Segment
Because I was a TV tech, I know how local TV news ends on time. The weather segment was the “accordion,” because it could get longer or shorter to make the timing right. Which is why some nights the report was “rain tomorrow” and other times it included every high within 100 miles.

Quote about Lies
We ain’t seen nothing yet: Last years lies were “only the tip of an iceberg of mendacity, bobbing insidiously in a sea of deceit.”

The Nature of Memory

(Length warning)

A long-time friend of mine suffered a series of small strokes that shut down portions of his brain. He can no longer create visual images. He suggested “You would be surprised as to how many memories are keyed to images.”

I can empathize. In the last few years brain spasms have given me a form of temporary global amnesia.  For a period of somewhere between minutes and hours, TGA means you lose your ability to form new memories. You end up repeating yourself and asking the same questions over and over. When you come out of it (somewhere between minutes and hours if you are as lucky as I was), you remember nothing that happened during the TGA. I was in the hospital the first time, and had NO memory of getting there. I was surprised I wasn’t at home in my chair.

What he told me was amazing. In 40 years of mining my memory for writing, I had never considered the visual nature of memory. Looking back on it, my memories (painful and lovely) are based on visual recollection. I am blessed with the ability to write about them, but the words don’t capture everything, and I neither have photographs nor the artistic ability to draw them.

Some of my memories have been triggered by the written word. Recently, reading a journal from a  half-century ago, I instantly relived the emotions of a deeply painful moment. Later that same day, I realized I could see the whole thing in my mind’s eye, from beginning to end. Some parts didn’t agree with the written word, but frankly, now that I think about it, I trust the visual because it is more vivid than the textual.

I know odors are a powerful memory trigger; now I know visual images are too. I will never think of memory the same way again.

There Are No Little Things 8: The Tasting

My decision to join the World Affairs Council that day during my lunch break was a trivial one. The office was across the street and the membership was cheap. I knew I needed to get out and meet people; turns out the WAC had a wine tasting that night, which fit perfectly into my empty social calendar. I introduced myself to the three tallest women in the room, and one of them chose to date me. The rest, as they say, is history.

There Are No Little Things: Explanation

“Fun” with Language: U.S. Citizen

I am proud to be a U.S. citizen; apparently Tucker Carlson and The Right-Wing Nut Job (RWNT) media are not. They were pushed onto their fainting couches by the effort of a committee in the Computer Science department at Stanford to develop a list of suggested alternative terms. It isn’t done yet and isn’t official for all of Stanford, but you’d never know that from the conservative commentators who are suffering from the vapors, mostly over the entry suggesting U.S. citizen instead of American.

The rationale of the as-yet-uncompleted report: “This term often refers to people from the United States only, thereby insinuating that the US is the most important country in the Americas (which is actually made up of 42 countries).”

Read for yourself the proposed list of terms to be avoided. (this downloads as a PDF file). Not banned, just a suggestion they be avoided, although you’d never know that if you lived on Tucker Carson Island in Foxland.

Are some of the entries overwoke, a bit much? Yes. Is it a violation of the first amendment? No. The constitution only applies to the government, not to private institutions. (If Tucker had been in my 8th grade US History class, he’d know that) And any case, a list of suggestions isn’t compromising anyone’s free-speech right.

I recall the LA Times (or was it the Washington Post) offering such a list to its newsroom a few years ago, generating some controversy which, as far as I can tell, has been scrubbed from the Internet.  If you can find it, let me know. I remember one of the “banned” terms was “Dutch Courage.”

On  the lighter side, NPR suggests some words to be banned, starting with Irregardless and including gaslighting.