For almost 10 years, I’ve identified myself as a writer. Publicly and even privately, I’ve indicated that I’m a journalist, a writer and a reporter. I have business cards that say so. My social media profiles indicate it. I have bylines in the New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News, the Ventura County Star, The Acorn, Ventana Magazine, Christianity Today and half a dozen others. It’s who I thought I was. At the same time, I was a high school English teacher. I never kidded myself–teaching is my bread and butter. It’s how I’ve been able to buy the three homes I’ve owned, at least partially–and it’s how I have health insurance and a pension and all the things that really allow me the life I have.
In October, certain that I needed to take a break from the punishing effects of having two careers, I took a hiatus from reporting and writing. I finished up a few stories for Ventana magazine and I put aside my laptop as a work device and I turned back to my classroom, engaged in teaching, grading, lesson-planning and working with my students. I purposely avoided (and continue to avoid) committees and meetings that I can avoid and focus primarily on my job as a teacher.
When I took that break before Thanksgiving and Christmas, I told myself that surely once the holidays are over, our overseas guests, Rainer, Michaela, Conni and Vicki are gone and we are settled back into our routines, I would pick up again and begin reporting stories and writing for publications.
It hasn’t happened.
It was as much a surprise to me as it was to my family, I think. January came and I had no real compunction to jump back into the game. By the end of the month, however, I contacted one editor at the Ventura County Star, the local daily newspaper where I had done most of my work, and said I was ready to come back on a limited basis–that is, maybe one or two stories a month. Nothing fancy.
But the Star, which only a year ago had been sold, was being sold again–and the budget axe that fell this time cut deep into bone and tissue as far as I can tell and lay offs were deep and wide. People I know that had worked at the Star for more than 20 years were suddenly faced without employment. The great American corporate spirit of destroying something in order to save it was on full display. In brief, the freelance budget was one of the first things to go.
And other than the loss to the community, the First Amendment and my friends (surely a tale for another time), I found myself not caring about my place in it all. I wasn’t concerned, I didn’t panic and contact multiple other editors looking for work, though I contacted one or two locally to see if there might be a story to write, and I found none. I went from being one of the busiest freelance journalists I know to being completely out of work and, as Shakespeare would say, “cold for action.” There was nothing on the horizon.
I continue to be surprised as anyone about how nonplussed I am about it. If I scratch at the itch long enough, I admit that I do miss parts of it–but just parts–and I do not sit around thinking wistfully about the next writing gig I get or the next editor’s phone call. When I was in my 30’s, I set out to become a freelance writer, a content contributor, a journalist and a reporter. I’ve accomplished that. I’ve written for some of the greatest publications in the world (Decanter Magazine, the New York Times) and I’ve been a regular contributor to publications I’ve always wanted to write for (San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley Business Journal). I’ve met celebrities whom I’ve admired, interviewed people whose stories are so heartbreaking and beautiful that I cried with and for them, shared meals, coffee and drinks with literally hundreds of people whom I would have never before known and I’ve covered the poor who celebrate Easter with thanks and grace and I’ve covered the rich who sometimes mindlessly hoard and other times anonymously share–their abundance. I accomplished a goal I set for myself 20 years ago and, short of continuing to do more of the same, I feel like I achieved something.
I didn’t get rich in the bargain. In fact, owed to my wife’s and my colossally bad business decisions at home, I got poorer. I lost the house I owned last, I’m in debt up to my eyeballs and at 50, I’m not thinking about a nice long vacation–I’m thinking about whether I can afford a weekend away somewhere with my family and whether we can arrange to buy a slightly used car that has enough safety features for me to be comfortable with my soon-to-be 15 year old daughter behind the wheel.
But I did meet new friends, I did learn about people in ways I never have before. I stretched out into worlds I had no other business being in and learned about different lives and different eyes. My career as a journalist contributed to my ability to host foreign exchange students like Soife and Conni and now, I have friends across the world with whom I communicate regularly. I find myself looking at the world in ways I didn’t before I met these people and I realize that I got as much from them as they got from any publicity my stories brought them. I know I’m a better teacher because of my journalism career and I know I’m more open-minded and open-hearted.