Armchair Peregrinations

December 13, 1999

Until just a few minutes ago, I was relaxing in the soft embrace of a corduroy-covered recliner chair in the living room, book and magazines lying unread to either side of me as various thoughts flickered in and out of consciousness. Coming to this state of calm and relaxation was hastened by listening to my favorite CD, "After the Rain," one that never fails to bring me to some other realm of heightened awareness, for a short while anyway. Ordinary reality dissolves, and I find refuge in the piano compositions of Erik Satie as played by Pascal Roge. The Gymnopedie and Nocturnes -- I cannot describe them, of course. That music is of another time and place. It doesn't seem to belong at all in this jarring modern age of fast motion, noise and hurried lives.

A short while ago, I was also looking through a book of panoramic landscpaes of the Illinois countryside by the photographer Gary Irving. I wish you could see them. He takes you through the seasons in a land you thought you knew what to expect from, but which, as he shows, has an unanticipated beauty and clarity that sweeps the viewer up into the long distances and wide-open fields, country roads, and skies at dawn and sunset, with the exquisitely subtle colors that are revealed at first hint of day's beginning or, later, its farewell in the shadows of its ending. I see windmills and barns and winter-bare trees silhouetted against setting suns in the distance across corn fields full of stubble from the last harvest and covered with patches of snow left over from the most recent snowfall. Other scenes are lit up with bright daylight that casts shadows on small town main streets and illuminates in the brilliance of that light minute details of those streetscapes. His most recent book, "Places of Grace" take the viewer deeper into the art of the Midwest landscape as his camera roves across the central states. He visits, among other places, the Sandhills of Nebraska, where I came to know and love the cottonwoods and spring-fed rivers that traverse a land far from barren and empty, as it might at first glance appear.

So, it's been a quiet evening. I haven't attended to the bills that wait on my desk, or picked up any of the Christmas-themed home magazines that I'm hoping will get me thinking more about the holidays which are rapidly approaching. I haven't gotten to those books I plan to start reading, or the other magazines that wait patiently in their stacks. No, all I've wanted to do is lie in that comfortable chair and do nothing as I let the music float over me in gentle waves.

December 10, 1999

I found this interesting quote from the novel JR by William Gaddis, and it got me thinking about some things. The result is the probably confusing, but hopefully revealing, journal entry that follows.

Before we go any further, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding. Since you are not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized. Do you follow that? In other words, this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from outside. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos...

What is chaos, I ask? The dictionary defines it as "great disorder or confusion." And then, what is order? Some arbitrary symmetry imposed by Nature through random, utterly unpredictable and indeterminable processes?

Physicists love the word "chaos." I don't like it. It implies that something is out-of-control, anarchy reigns, cancer cells that proliferate wildly, mass panic at the end of the world. Out-of-control -- I guess those are the operable words.

Do I believe that knowlege can be organized? Go to the Internet and defy anyone to organize its 800 million pages. Browse the Encyclopedia Britannica. Search the Web. Go to the Library of Congress.

But, you say, each subject area and special branch of knowledge has been organized into a coherent body of knowledge that we can study and master. that we can control, as well assimilate and teach. Then, this assimilated knowledge can be used as building blocks to construct the grander ediface of accumulated human knowledge that will provide answers to all life's questions, eventually.

The human genetic code is yielding up its secrets. You say reality is basically chaos?

If I take information and hold it within the palm of my brain and do nothing with it, I have failed to organize it, structure it, spin off by-products from it. What I then have is unassimilated knowledge of bits and pieces of reality which I then add to my life's growing store of unused bits and pieces of information/knowledge. Maybe this is a form of chaos, and I'm not even aware of it.

In my work each day, I dispense bits of information. It's all quite random. Or is it? Maybe I should keep a log of all the questions I answer in a given day and try to impose some order on the chaos.

When I taught basic news writing and reporting, I felt that I was organizing my course within a meaningful structure so that the information could be taught in a sequential fashion. Upon reflection, I realize that the structure and sequence, while ostensibly logical and progressive, were nevertheless arbitrary. I could have taught it from the other end of the syllabus.

I read dozens of stories on the Internet each day. I stumble on things that interest me. I click on hypertext links and am transported across the world. Random? Chaos? Or, some method to this madness? I don't know.

The Smithsonian Institution collects artifacts, manuscripts, recordings, art, scupture, inventions, and all the other handiwork of humankind over the ages of recorded history, and before. Is all of this organized in some logical and coherent way, or are they just pieces of information, symbolic representations of reality, or just the bric-a-brac of civilizations, here today and gone tomorrow.

I am watching the Weather Channel at the moment since my brother has just flipped to that station. Jim Cantori, the intrepid meteorologist and adventurer who each year in August and September can be seen standing in front of the camera in the midst of hurricanes, was doing a promo piece, and he said with much ernestness, "There's one word for winter storms -- chaos."

I guess I'll stop here for now.

December 8, 1999

At the foot of this cliff a great ocean beach runs north and south unbroken, mile lengthening into mile. Solitary and elementary, unsullied and remote, visited and possessed by the outer sea, these sands might be the end or the beginning of a world. Age by age, the sea here gives battle to the land; age by age, the earth struggles for her own, calling to her defense her energies and her creations, bidding her plants steal down upon the beach, and holding the frontier sands in a net of grass and roots which the storms wash free. The great rhythms of nature, today so dully disregarded, wounded even, have here their spacious and primeval liberty; cloud and shadow of cloud; wind and tide; tremor of night and day. Journeying birds alight here and fly away again all unseen, schools of fish move beneath the waves, the surf flings its spray against the sun."

Henry Beston, The Outermost House:
A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, 1928

I read Henry Beston's classic work about the great and empty stretch of beach on a Massachusetts barrier island when I was in high school and never forgot it. I was just about that time coming to know the special beauty of Folly Beach, no longer as a child there on summer vacation, but as a sometimes moody and often solitary youth given to long walks to the Cove at the far end of that narrow sliver of barrier island we could call our own when we came to Charleston.

I love Beston's elegant and yet powerful prose as he writes about the great beach he came to love, and upon which he designed a dune cottage fronting the Atlantic. His book came from the experience of knowing that place and watching and observing it closely throughout all the seasons of the year.

When I next see the sea oats and dune grasses at Folly Beach on a winter walk, I will think of that book and his words, including these: "Lifted to the sky, the dying grasses on the dune tops' rim tremble and lean seaward in the wind, waiths of sand course flat along the beach; this hiss of sand mingles its thin stridency with the new thunder of the sea." I know what he writes about. It is very clear to me, as if I were seeing it all now as I write this.

Beston died in 1968, and his cottage lasted another ten years until it was blown away in a huge storm off the Atlantic in 1978.

That year also, a storm blew apart my foundations as I descended into the deep depression I have written about before in this journal. When it was over, I came back to South Carolina. In the summer of 1979 I visited Charleston and Folly Beach for a week or so. I had my camera and went to the ocean at dawn one day and photographed the sunrise from its beginning in a rose-pink glow on the horizon with scattered clouds to its full emergence into daylight. A transformation.

And I remember that just days before I went out to photograph that sunrise, I bought a framed photograph at a shop in the Market, the first such photographic art I had ever purchased. And I was mesmerized by the image in that frame. It was a calm scene of the ocean at Bull's Island, a pristine and undeveloped barrier island north of Charleston. Standing alone on the beach and reaching up into an opening of light in an otherwise dark and moody sky, was a dead tree, probably the remnant of a maritime oak that grew close to the shore until erosion overtook the higher ground upon which it had survived countless seasons. The tree's few remaining branches are spread out in a v-shape, the limbs reaching out to the light.

At times, I cannot be sure why, after such a dark period in my life, I chose that particular picture. There is a melancholoy aspect to it, and it doesn't have quite the meaning for me now, 20 years later. I'm puzzled as I look at it now. But that break in the clouds and the light reflected on a tranquil sea -- I don't know. It's probably late afternoon. It gave me a feeling of peace, for some reason. The tree that clung by its roots to the sand as the ocean retreated in the near distance.

December 5, 1999

We are so relentlessly mindless. Reporters like to picture themselves as independent thinkers. In truth...there is no social subspecies mroe slavish to fashion, more terrified of originality and more devoted to group-think. Every day, journalists go out into a world of confusion and chaos, and every day they are obliged to present the passing confusion in what appears to be order. In it nearly impossible to do this honestly -- to think your way fresh through each day's events, day after day. So, for survival's sake, most journalists learn to see the world through a set of standard templates into which they plug each day's events.

A modern-day critic of journalism, 1999

The public duty of journalists is to enlighten others with what his own reason or conscience, however erroneously, have dictated to him as truth. The journalist who keeps this rule or action before him as a guide, however mistaken he may be as to his facts, however fallacious his judgement may prove, however much his views may be colored by passion, can never do much harm, even if he does no immense amount of good...

The Daily Advocate,
Baton Rouge, La., July 3, 1889

One hundred years apart, these opinions of journalism critics, and I wonder how much has changed. The profession I spent so many years in -- as a reporter, editor, teacher and student in graduate school-- always seems to be disparaged by those both within and without. It's easy, if you will note, for the critics to make their sweeping generalizations because they don't have other answers. They are either burned-out former journalists themselves, or carping cynics who have no idea what it's like to work day after day on a newspaper. There are many, many exceptions to this jaundiced view of groupthink journalism, many good reporters and writers toiling on excellent large and medium-sized newspapers as well as in small, obscure newsrooms on main streets all over the country. There are those making a difference in writing for online editions of newspapers, producing what may become the newspapers of the future.

Unfortunately, mass media has dominated the news business and has the tentacles and the reach. And, the individual writers who care passionately about their work and who attempt to be honest and true to their craft are not likely to be known and recognized. But they are there, behind the scenes and they are individualists in the best sense of the word. They care about what they do, they try to use their curiosity and intelligence to report on events and people they are covering, and they care about writing. They wouldn't be doing it if they weren't. There's no great amount of money or prestige involved. Only the lure of being a journalist and a writer, and discovering whether they are and doing something to concrete and tangible about it. And, believe it or not, thinking and believing what they do makes a difference in whatever small corner of the world they live in.

There are four types of reporting, generally speaking, and most journalists concentrate on one of these areas: general assignment, investigative, beat, and human interest/feature. When I was in community journalism, I was supposed to be able to do all four kinds, although that was expecting a lot from a kid right out of college. Daily newspaper reporters often start out as general assignment reporters and then move on to beat assignments such as city government or the school board. Later, the more intensely aggressive, workaholic and feral ones who enjoy sleuthing, adversarial encounters, and confrontational journalism, go into, or are assigned, investigative reporting. Many of them later come to believe that uncovering what public officials are trying to hide is the only ultimately rewarding type of journalism, that is, until they burn out from exhaustion after a few years. After awhile, these inveterate investigative reporters may come to see their general assignment brethren as mere scribes and "reporters" rather than journalists and writers, but that view would be unfair for the most part because they themselves came up through the ranks of general assignment reporting.

Not long into my first newspaper job, I was thrown into a quite confrontational and adversarial situation wherein members of the fire department of a small city I was covering were pitted against the mayor and city council over issues of training, equipment, alleged unfair firings, and the like. It was nasty and eventually let to demonstrations and packed city council chambers. High drama and an education for a novice reporter such as myself. For the most part, however, as a weekly newspaper reporter I covered meetings, wrote feature stories and columns, and took photos (See my story "A Day in the Life of a Community Newspaper Reporter").

But no matter what kind of journalism you're in, there's always that feeling lurking beneath the pleasantries and amiability that the reporter and those they seek to write aboout are engaged in an adversarial relationship, plain and simple. The reporter doesn't fully trust the source, and the source is wary of the motivations of the reporter.

What the journalism critic I quoted at the beginning of this entry was perhaps referring to when he talked about journalists lapsing into conformism and using comfortable templates for viewing the world and reporting on it, was a kind of ceasefire zone in which everyrone tries to get along and not rock the boat too much. They come to know the game and play their parts in it. To maintain the fiction of civility and trust, officials, sources and newsmakers try to cultivate favored reporters and give them only enough news to feed the insatiable appetite for a story that a rival newspaper might not have had a chance to get first. There are all kinds of demarcation lines that are not crossed so that the flow of information and news from the official taps will not dry up or diminish. What happens when there is slavish adherence to comfortable routines and unthinking allegiance to sources who never fail to provide something newsworthy for a story? In going back time and again to the same people and sources, a certain uniformity and sameness in story angles and coverage appears again and again as well. It becomes business as usual to follow the path of least resistance. When this happens, news reporting becomes just another job and one not done too well, either. Reporters begin to ignore the other sides of stories. They don't even see the other angles because they're going with one point of view, the official view, and the result is mediocrity and one-sided stories at best, and propaganda at worst.

For those reporters, and they are everywhere, who insist on pursing a story mo matter where it leads, the perils and rewards of the professon become abundantly clear in no time at all. It can be dangerous and it can be all-consuming. It eats up some people and they lose all sense of proportion. For the ones who prosper and thrive, and who are intelligent and resourceful, their newspapers will shine because good writing and reporting are what will set it apart from all the other papers out there.

December 3, 1999

My 12/1 entry has been troubling me and will continue to do so until I at least write something explaining what is bothering me. I immediately began the piece by saying I had helped a "homeless" man yesterday. Well, first, I'm bothered by the fact that I just assumed by looking at him and sizing him up instantaneously, that he was homeless. It appeared that he was -- I feel there is a good chance that he was -- but I don't know that for a fact any more than I know anything else about that stranger who came into our midst as so many other people do seeking information.

I did it again. I judged someone based on their appearance, mannerisms, and speech. I regret it. It's so easy to do. And, it very subtly affected the way he was treated because there were other people coming up at the same time, and I automatically wanted to put his request on the back burner, at least momentarily, while I helped others simultaneously. In fact, I found myself actually doing this and had to assure him I would be getting that information to him as soon as I tried a couple of more searches on the Internet. I should have handled his request as respectfully as he was respectful and given it my full attention without being distracted by others. Of course, in my work that happens from time to time, as everyone who has worked with the public can tell you. Each person coming up with a question is on some kind of terribly tight schedule and has to get the information and be one his or her way just as soon as possible (most everyone seems to be silently ASAPing you). So, this distraction does occur. But his very powerlessness and humility made him seem less a threat than the well-dressed and sometimes overly officious individuals there at the same time seeking help. It's like I didn't want to deal with him even though he was courteous and polite and had a simple, reasonable request.

I will try to remember what I've just written next time I'm in a similar situation.

Also, I write about those two men on the streets of Columbia and Charleston, and I wonder why they affect me so strongly. Deep down I know. I think they are symbolic of that void we fear, where we ourselves could step into some abyss and find ourselves cut off from our fellow human beings and adrift in an earthly netherworld where hope seems lost even on the sunniest of days. I feared that particularly, perhaps subliminally, when I was younger because I've been through so many times where I was hanging by a thread and feared failing in life so badly that I could actually see myself out there on the streets. That seemed to be the worst thing that could happen -- worse than terrible diseases or loss of all one's possessions.

But that was the way I looked at it then, not always connecting the fact that so many of those downtrodden-looking men were alcoholics or seriously mentally ill, for reasons, of course, unknown. It would never occur to me to think that anyone could possibly, rationally and with free will, choose a life in a plywood shack in the woods or decide to live in abandoned buildings, squatting over small fires that often burn those buildings down, amid filth and refuse. But it does occur to me that many homeless would rather take a chance freezing in some alley than staying in a shelter.

It troubles me, too, finally, that I seem to be able to write about this subject almost dispassionately, like a journalist or observer or writer transcribing his notes, or sitting down to compose a short story or journal entry at the word processor.

What does this mean? That as I get older, I am less terrified of that void into which people step, or into which they are gradually, inexorably drawn? That I have experienced such profound turbulence in my life that I am innocuated or immune to further insults to my deepest sense of self or knowledge of who I am? I wonder. I don't think I can answer these questions. But I am afraid of what happens when you are an observer of life for too long and it becomes a way of life, a way of dealing with people and problems safely. Those horrendous things happen "out there" in one's periscopic view of life. Maybe if I were immersed in someone's real, flesh-and- blood life, face-to-face, real, knowing, understanding, probing, hurting, caring and loving -- I would write something different about the homeless, or else I would not write about it at all.

December 2, 1999

Winter winds have swept in
like a cold wave should
predictably shocking and startling
us at rest in warm autumn too long
And now I take that cold
and enjoy its fresh presence
It is good and new and alive
with the northern spirits behind it

The wind rattles my windows no more
I look out to cool, blue sky ice
and a calm, fall-winter landscape
And I am in a new season
Temporarily transformed
And I see the oak tree's red leaves
Are all gone, the pecan tree is bare
But the oak tree outside my window is in full leaf.
I'm between the seasons. I know.
That dividing line is fleeting
But not too soft today.
Hard-edged and real. Cold and nice with no frost.
Maybe later. I can dream winter daydreams now.

December 1, 1999

Today at work a homeless man came up to the desk and asked me if I could help him find out where a tiny community in our state was, near Aiken, it turns out. He said he had a relative there whom he thought he'd go see, and he had a worn scrap of paper with a name, post office address, and the name of the community and the zip code which he presented to me so I could try to look up something on the computer -- a map, or something to go by.

You could see the partial story of the terrible hardship of his life on his weathered face, even though he was still young enough. But through the unshaven face, cracked and dried lips, and worn out clothes, I saw a soft-spoken man, patiently waiting on any help I could give him.

It was busy that morning. I was helping other people, and I had never even heard of the place he was trying to find on a map. Indeed, it wasn't on any map we had, and so I went to a site on the Internet, entered the name of the place, and in a few seconds, there it was, identifed on the map which showed all the nearby highways and their numbers. Another man I was helping find information about foreclosure laws, overhead me talking to the homeless man, and starting telling him the best way to get to the place he was seeking.

He was planning to hitchhike. It was about 100 miles away. The other man just shook his head in amazement that he was going to try to hitchhike to this rural community. I was surprised, too. It was cold out. It seems no one hitchhikes anymore. In decades past, it was kind of an adventure for young people. They did it often. Today, it's the homeless or mentally ill who hitchhike, it appears, and most people are afraid of them. I imagined this same man, on that cold November day, not long after Thanksgiving, hitchhiking on I-26, and streams of cars and trucks passing him by. What could that possibly be like? Horrible, I would think and equally horrible to imagine the fear and repulsion he would engender in motorists speeding along the Interstate, the lone figure an unwelcome presence in their consciousness, momentarily.

Yet he seemed stoic and resigned to his fate. He had that complete demeanor of someone who has been dependent on the kindness of strangers for a long time. The beaten-down-by-life deference he showed to a stranger like me.

He left a short while after I had printed out the maps for him from the computer, thanking me profusely. I hadn't done much, but to him the map and the knowlege of where this place was, where some of his family resided, were like discovering a hidden treasure of some sort. He was suddenly hopeful. He had a destination. What awaited him there is anyone's guess.

I just read an article in titled, "Increasingly, Homeless Seen as Blight," and the first paragraph said this: "Being homeless in America in 1999 means fighting for space in the nation's crowded shelters, being forced out of urban neighborhoods that are undergoing gentrification, and battling politicans who, more and more, are taking a hard line against a group of people they see as a public menace." In New York City, the article goes on to say, there are an estimated 23,000 homeless on the streets, and now there's a get-tough policy requiring homeless who stay in shelters to work in exchange for a bed. The mayor of that city, Rudolph Guiliani, said this, "Streets do not exist in civilized societies for the purpose of people sleeping there...If you're sleeping on the streets, you are indicatting that you have a very serious problem. It makes no sense for a city to ignore that..."

But the Coaltion for the Homeless says his policies will mean a revolving door for the homeless, from the shelters into the streets, and into jails.

The governor of New York has announced a different approach. He has released an additional $125 million in state funding for supervised housing and services for the mentally ill to prevent their release prematurely from hospitals where they end up on the streets to fend for themselves.

That homeless man in Charleston who we tried to help, probably stayed a while at the Crisis Ministries Shelter here, and had enough and wanted to move on. An endless cycle, it seems. I can hardly conceive of what it must be like to never know where you're going to eat or sleep or when. The homeless haunted me for years in New Orleans when as a teenager I saw them lined up for meals on Camp Street at the Ozanam Inn run by a Catholic religious order. I think it was the only place in the city where they could go for a meal. I felt compelled to watch them from my passing car or bus window. It was grimly fascinating to my adolescent sensibilities. Here were denizens from an underworld above ground, exposed to view, raw sores on the urban body. I was very sad and repelled at the same time.

I never forgot those scenes along Camp Street and the picture in my mind of people passed out on the sidewalk or sleeping in doorways in the middle of the morning.

Perhaps the most wrenching and tragic example of homelessness I ever saw was years ago when I lived in Columbia. There was a tall, gaunt, spectral man who wore an overcoat all year long, and could be seen trudging with agonizing slowness along the downtown streets, head down, lost to the world. I always wondered how he crossed the streets and was not hit by a car. It was slow motion death, vacant, a man essentially gone from the society of others, or so it seemed to me, living in a world in which he passed slowly, unknowably down the street to a fast food place to get a cup of coffee. You could see him on occasion coming out of those places with that cup of coffee, and, truly, you could not bear to look at him. It was painful beyond words. It depressed me terribly. You could not understand how he was living, much less walking.

I remember seeing that man off an on for several years downtown because I was there often for classes at USC. He was in that area a lot. Then, he just disappeared.

There is a man here in Charleston who seems just as strange and perhaps as tragic, if just because he is, I envision, becoming that old homeless man I saw in Columbia. He walks steadily, has long, white hair, must be in his 40s, white stetson hat. I've seen him on the streets of Charleston for the past five years. Sometimes it will be months before I spot him. But unexpectedly, he is there, slowly making his way toward the waterfront, walking down the street talking to himself, or sitting by himself whittling or carving something. I have never seen him with anyone before. He seems completely isolated, cut-off from humanity. If he survives, I can see him like that old, gaunt man in Columbia, only this time the streets will be those of Charleston, and he, too, will eventually disappear. He will be seen no more.

I'm in my comfortable room writing this. It's about 35 degrees out. Cold, but cozy where I am. And I try to picture that man yesterday who asked to see a map which showed where that obscure little community was. I see him walking down the highway, trying to get a ride, holding a small plastic bag with a few belongings, walking and walking, then disappearing into the countryside.

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