How many of you have had a mentor in your career? What did it do for you? I ask because I got through another box in my long-term basement-cleaning project Saturday, and ran across some stories I did way back in the day and had almost entirely forgotten.
One brought back memories of the last few years in Fort Wayne, when the paper was starting its ruinous cycle of cut-cut-cut, which eventually led to its humiliating and ignominious death. I’d heard there was a newspaper war going on in North Manchester, a small town two counties away. The owner of the long-standing weekly had sold it as part of his midlife crisis (he’d decided he really wanted to be a teacher), then was horrified to realize, too late, that the buyer was a fire-breathing Christian ignoramus, who used his new mouthpiece to run syndicated crap from the know-nothing right. (One editorial pooh-poohed the crazy idea of evolution, as I recall.) The former editor retaliated by starting his own weekly, and the war was on, all played out in a town of about 1,700 households, so it was shot through with small-town drama and amusing detail, and was fun to report and read.
And as I recall, it was a struggle to even get it published. The managing editor at the time hated Features (he came from Sports) and liked to offer sparkling criticisms like, “I don’t know why we spend so much ink covering the symphony, when tractor pulls get bigger crowds.” Anyway, there was a fair bit of why-are-we-doing-this-story and who-cares-about-this-stuff from the higher-ups, and it was only the latest in a long, long string of incidents that convinced me I’d way overstayed at that place, but the alternatives were not great either; the whole industry was contracting, and I had a husband and young child, mortgage and all the rest of it. And the market for stories like that one — quirky, offbeat, low-stakes features that are just good yarns — was drying up everywhere.
In looking for someone else to blame for my bad choices, it occurred to me that if I’d had a mentor earlier in my career, I might have made better ones. But I didn’t. When I asked for it, from editors I respected, I inevitably got some version of this: “You know, I have eight reporters to oversee, half of whom struggle with subject-verb agreement. You aren’t one of my problems. Keep doing what you’re doing.” At a bigger paper, it would have been easier, but in a contracting small one, it just couldn’t happen.
If this sounds like self-pity to you, it probably is. I don’t spend much time looking back, but digging through your old clips will do that to you.
I threw out that story, and all the rest of them. Saved the loose photographs. Shook off the resentment and watched that water go right on under the bridge.
Then I vacuumed and we went sailing in a nice breeze. So there’s that.
Just one piece of bloggage today, a lovely story for Pride and you LGBTQ folks: Looking for Uncle Allan, written by a former colleague of my Alan, at the Detroit News. It’s about being gay and finding out you had a gay ancestor:
I know Uncle Allan ditched Detroit for Manhattan lights as soon as he was able, sometime around 1912, but other than that, for all intents and purposes, I know almost nothing about him. When you’re the notorious family homosexual, poor at the end to boot, nobody collects and preserves your papers and treasures. They’re scattered, auctioned off, left in boxes on the porch for the Goodwill. Unknowing fingers pop photos out of frames for resale, smudging black and white portraits on their way to the trash. My parents, as it happened, played a small but significant role in this obliteration.
Mostly what I do know are stories from the war years — we’re talking World War II here — when a then-elderly Uncle Allan would blow into our little dairy farm north of Detroit a couple times a year to drink up all my parents’ liquor rations. Most of the family wouldn’t receive him. But Mom and Dad — young and, I suppose, a little daring — did, and he’d settle in for a week at a time. He was tall and garrulous, with a full head of bright white hair and a theatrical voice and manner my grandfather always called “fruity,” but which the women adored. At the slightest prompting, Uncle Allan would act out little bits, “mere snippets,” he called them, from the classics on Broadway, shows that had debuted some 30 years before.
A lovely read. And now, I must tackle Monday.