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Always something new to learn

Author’s note: This is the first part of a unified piece that will run over the span of several weeks, composed in my usual style of meandering narrative and pointless monologue. Readers who enjoy my style might appreciate that the multipart style for this piece is a stretch for me, something breaking from the usual format of this column.

My detractors, of course, will have yet another reason to pass by.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to any regular readers of The SUN but I was never trained as a journalist or reporter.

Yeah, I know: “Thank you, Mr. McObvious.”

No attempt at ironic aporia here but the need to explain certain aspects of why my byline appears weekly, not just here but often on the front page and inside. Unwilling to speak for the rest of the readership here, it was a happy accident for me.

Like so many people who have fallen in love with Pagosa Country and made the decision to relocate here, when I first arrived here I took whatever job I could find so that I could make a life here for my children and myself. In fact, I’d had the job lined up several weeks before I made the move here from the Front Range.

My first job was in retail, an odious and low-paying affair from which I could not find a fast enough escape. Too much of a misanthrope, I found myself poorly suited for face-to-face customer service. Furthermore, I worked there just as the December 2007 storms began dumping several feet of snow on the area. I’ve worked hard to block the memories of how many hours of my shift were spent shoveling and shoveling and shoveling some more.

Finally finding my escape, I walked across the parking lot and immediately took a job working the graveyard shift in the bakery. It was a huge mistake. Yes, the work involved minimum human contact but the hours were hardly convenient for someone raising kids who needed to be at school and various activities while I was requiring sleep for the next shift. After about a month, management was kind enough to move me to the evening shift as a cashier.

The position at the paper resulted from a brief encounter while checking groceries. As the customer paid, I noticed the name on the check and asked, “Are you the same Chuck McGuire who writes for the paper?”

“That I am,” he replied and thanked me after I complimented his writing.

“I’ve been thinking about applying there,” I said, telling him that I’d done a fair amount of writing. I introduced myself and asked about prospects for getting a job at the paper.

Chuck responded that he thought a position had just opened and that I should go talk to Karl as soon as I could.

“We could use another Irishman at the paper,” he said and then wished me luck.

I made a call the next day and told Karl I was interested in writing for the paper. He told me to e-mail him some writing samples and he’d give them a look.

About a week later, he called me in for an interview.

“You can certainly put a sentence together,” he said, his subtle praise sending my spirits soaring. “But,” he added, “your writing is not journalism. Fortunately, I have two of the best journalists in the southwest working for me in this office,” and he pointed out the large picture window that separates the editor’s desk from the newsroom, where Chuck and James Robinson sat.

Karl took me out to the newsroom to tell Chuck and James that I’d be trying out for the paper and they were to help me. After thanking Chuck and introducing myself to James, Karl called me back in his office to tell me about my first assignment. I was to cover a “Community Forum” that the town had hosted and Karl told me to pay particular attention to what various developers and players were saying in light of an economy that was quickly going south. He sent me on my way and wished me luck.

In the parlance of the news biz, I was a “stringer,” a writer paid the piece. While the few assignments I’d receive would obviously not be enough to support a family (much less myself), I was fortunate enough to have simultaneously taken a position with a local drug and alcohol agency — running state-approved DUI classes and therapy groups as well as administering court-mandated breathalyzers, urinalysis and other drug test.

I was fortunate in that the agency supplemented my paltry paycheck as a stringer. Believe me, standing in a restroom watching drunk drivers, parolees and various local miscreants fill a cup with pee was not my idea of vertical career progress. Although I enjoyed counseling clients (especially running therapy groups), the tedium of collecting money, filling out paperwork, and then following someone into the bathroom for a little shy-bladder roulette was about more than I could handle.

Working for The SUN, on the other hand, continued to captivate me, excite me: I had entered into a new, somewhat exciting realm that challenged me with each passing week.

Apparently, my initial stab at journalism went over well, despite some freshman mistakes regarding that first assignment. During the meeting, as Mark Weiler stepped up to the podium to address the room (an SRO audience packed into the overflowing Senior Center) and a hush came over the audience, awaiting the wisdom of the Parelli CEO, my cell phone rang. Since my ring tone had been set to Maria Callas singing the “Habenero” aria from Bizet’s “Carmen,” it seemed oddly appropriate that Weiler would be introduced by trills and high notes (note to self: set cell phone on vibrate during meetings).

Karl also pointed out that my line, “Weiss’ claim that PAWSD fees were fair and necessary went over about as well as a vegan plate at an NRA banquet,” crossed the line in editorializing in the story (although he let it stay, saying, “It was too good to leave out”).

Needless to say, I still get hammered for editorializing. It’s not unheard of to see that the closing paragraph has been cut (because I’ve added in my own two cents, plus a dime) or that Karl calls me in his office to ask, “Is this really what happened or is this your take on it?”

As my time as a stringer wore on, more and more assignments hit my desk, requiring more time in meetings (and at the computer), taking time away from the agency.

Karl was correct: Chuck and James were exemplary mentors. While Chuck helped me tighten up my writing style and prose, moving me farther and farther away from the free-form, stream-of-consciousness form that had characterized my previous writing, James showed me the ropes of being a journalist, teaching me to doubt what public officials had told me, imbuing a new skepticism in me.

For his part, Karl gave me a crash course in AP style and overall journalistic conventions. Hardly a story crossed his desk in those days when I’d stand over Karl’s shoulder, peering at my story on his computer screen, him highlighting portions he’d highlighted and then change to what was the correct way to state, capitalize or otherwise spell out.

While The SUN appeared to be more and more pleased with my coverage of local issues, putting me on assignments to cover various meetings (and handing me the Town Council beat), the drug and alcohol agency was growing frustrated with my heightened (and obvious) displeasure with collecting urine samples as well as my increasing need to have substitute counselors run my groups due to my desire to get to meetings and write a story.

This portion of the story culminates with a happy convergence: the agency asking me to make a decision regarding where I wanted to be at the same time The SUN offered me a desk in the newsroom and a permanent position with the paper, moving up from my stringer status.

“Hmmmmm,” I said to the agency boss (with no undue sarcasm) after he asked me what I’d rather do.

“What do you think?” I said as I held out my arms, placing palms up in an attempt to represent a scale. “Making my living as a writer, for a couple dollars an hour more than you’re paying me, or spending my days in a small bathroom, watching guys pee into a cup?”

That was almost three years ago and I have never regretted my decision.

Some people have the dedication, ambition and empathy required to be an effective drug and alcohol counselor; that person is not yours truly, by any stretch of the imagination. Even if the agency no longer asked me to conduct several dozen urinalyses a day, I felt as though I had entered an intellectual cul-de-sac, that I had gone as far as I could as a counselor and a therapist. Although each client brought their own unique circumstances and issues into my office, and although each outcome (several of them gratifying) was dependent on how well the client responded to my methods, at the end of the day it felt like a treadmill to me: the faces changed but the train ride was always on the same track, always took the same route and the destination station, while arrived at during different times and greeted with different faces, felt as though it was nothing more than a mundane daily commute.

I could read a different book with each trip but there was nothing on the ride sufficiently interesting enough to convince me that I learned anything new.

Not so, my career as a reporter. As much as I might gripe about the next boring meeting and how ineffectual government has led me to become a shameless futilitarian, there is often the chance that I’ll uncover something fishy or stupid or corrupt. The days I sit in the office with nothing to write about (and the subject of the next Random Shuffle column) are far outweighed by the days when I’m feverishly making phone calls, doing research, making trips to Town Hall or the County Courthouse.

More importantly, as I continue on with this vocation, I continue learning something new. As James used to say, “One of the cool things about being a journalist is that it forces you to become an instant expert on whatever you’re writing about.”

I’d add to that that when a big story hits my desk and I’ve uncovered some malfeasance on the part of local government, I learn something new about human frailty, about our capacity to, while interacting in this huge family, act without seemingly giving any thought to consequences or how what we do affects those around us. Add to that my own sympathy to a subject (usually the focus of a particularly critical piece) and I also gain some insight into my own psyche, how I interact in this family, considering the consequences of what it is I write.

Four years pursuing a psychology degree and three years working as a counselor and therapist never got me even close to that. As I said, I reached a point in the counseling field where I felt as though there was nothing new to learn, that there were no new stories to here.

In over three years working in a newsroom I’ve learned that there is always a new story to hear (and write).

And always, always, something new to learn.

jim@pagosasun.com

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