A young woman from my feature writing class sat in my office and stared at me long and hard. She halted for a moment before saying something I knew to be true:
“I’ve never seen you like this before.”
We were sitting in my office during perhaps the worst stretch of my professional life, discussing how the concept of feature writing relies on both factual reporting and observation. She was probably one of the best kids I’ve had in a long time and she wasn’t off by much in what she was observing.
I looked back at her with a grimacing smile. I then said something I unfortunately knew to be true as well:
“No one has seen me like this in 20 years.”
The past month has included a seven-year battle with a jealous colleague lead to a promotion snag and a memo of reprimand being placed in my file. In addition, a group of students called for me to be fired, a series of errors blew up at the paper and a financial debacle led to threats that the newspaper I advise would be closed.
A year ago, I debated whether I should take a job offer to move south. This month, I really wondered why I hadn’t.
The truth of the matter was that almost none of things really mattered to me. I hated the guy before he wrote what was essentially a false hatchet-job on my character. I hate him now, so no real change there. The students who want me fired are idiots and have been told that their efforts will not lead to change, despite them doing everything short of walking into my building with pitchforks and torches. The errors will always happen, no matter how much you try to avoid them. I often go back to a scathing editorial my college newspaper once wrote eons before my arrival. The paper was one of the few that thundered against Joe McCarthy during his rise, but in this case the writer noted “In this country you are guilty until proven innocent.”
The financial problem at my current paper, though, was something I saw as untenable.
Debt built over the past decade and eventually a flashpoint for both the student government and the administration. Despite our best efforts to turn a profit, we couldn’t stanch the bleeding until we had amassed an almost-six-figure debt. Now, the university “bank” was calling in the loan and we lacked the funds or collateral. What started as a “You guys need to get your house in order” became a deadline with a financial ultimatum. After a month of panicked fundraising, official meetings and essentially a Cuban Missile Crisis in a basement, the staff members were reassured by administrators that the paper would live, investments would be made and that things would become “normal” at some point.
The collateral damage was the mental state of about a half-dozen editors, a top administrator being thrown under the bus and just about everyone I know having some sort of beef with me. I had managed to piss off even people who I didn’t even know knew me.
How did this happen? Why did this happen? The answers were insanely complex and yet relatively simple.
When I was 20 years old, our student newspaper closed amid a six-figure debt and financial malfeasance. Our beloved A details how this happened so brilliantly in her book that it’s not worth explaining here. Sufficient to say, when all the debts were tallied and all the assets were calculated, it would take a miracle on par with the loaves and fishes to bring it back to life.
In seven months, we did just that. In the 20-plus years since that day, the paper has continued to print, day in and day out. I poured 70-plus hour workweeks into that place. I gave up everything for the singularity of that outcome, including work, class and more. In the end, it worked but the cost was almost incalculable.
With something like this happening, most outsiders would imagine that I would have been hoisted onto shoulders. There should be a monument or a statue or at least a “There goes Roy Hobbs” discussion of who I am and why I mattered.
Instead, I have exactly two friends from that era: A and Mr. A. Beyond that, a few people still acknowledge me on Facebook.
Everyone else pretty much fucking hates me.
It took a long time, but I came to totally understand why. I was a major asshole at that point and the following years as I tried to make sure that what I built didn’t die. There was only one way to do it and it was my way.
Myopic. Brutal. Angry.
In the years that followed, I left the state behind and was able to start over. I tamped down the anger, worked on the brutality and attempted to broaden my worldview. I worried less about what I thought was right and attempted to be more of a “we’re all God’s children” kind of guy.
It didn’t always work and the internal “Wolverine” that people often associated with me flared at some of the worst times. The combination of stress and sleeplessness, coupled with massive amounts of anxiety exposed the raw nerve and rubbed it into a frenzy.
During one such bout of anxiety over something or other, I got a call from my mother at the newsroom where I was working.
“It’s grandma,” she began. “She died…”
I had long dreaded this, figuring it was my mother’s mom. The woman smoked upwards of a half-carton of cigarettes per day. She was a recovering alcoholic and a cancer survivor. I wasn’t really ready, but I understood.
I asked her something about her and grandma when she stopped me.
It wasn’t that grandmother. It was dad’s mom.
This just floored me. I never saw it coming. She wasn’t even sick.
I was going to get in the car and drive out that night. 500 miles in the dark, just to get there, to be there, for something. Mom pleaded with me to promise that I’d call and get an airline ticket the next day for later in the week. I was a wreck, but I promised.
I couldn’t leave the newsroom, as I was the only night editor. Stories were still coming in. I was in a haze.
I ended up working with a master’s student that night who was, and probably still is, an arrogant, self-absorbed jerk. He had a law degree and a Porsche. For reasons past my understanding, he was coming back for a journalism degree. I had long held my tongue about him and his work: He thought he was perfect at everything, I knew better.
I sat down to edit and it wasn’t going well. I changed something, he changed it back. I questioned something, he questioned me. I forgot what he finally said that broke me, but I remember what I said back:
“This is the worst fucking thing I’ve ever seen, you stupid fucking prick. I’ve taken shits that I’d be more proud of than this story.”
He just sat there stunned.
When I got back from the funeral, I was called on the carpet about this. The guy apparently filed an open records request to find out anything ever said about him in any of my “night notes” to the boss. I didn’t get fired, but I never felt right again.
In the subsequent years, I found the balance I needed. Nothing was too hard, nothing was too easy. Nothing really ever forced me to fight that hard again.
It was a worthwhile outcome for someone who had been forced to let time and friction smooth off the rough edges.
During my last stop, I found myself, once again, battling against the financial deterioration of a publication. The previous adviser had spent the six-figure surplus into a razor-thin margin and there I was again trying to figure out how to make this work. I fended off the financial crises for about five years, each time telling people above my pay grade that the center couldn’t hold. We needed a different model. We needed more investment. We needed something.
The last year I was there, I was granted an audience with the provost or someone who could really make a difference. When I laid out the situation, discussed the flat-line investment the U had made since the 1980s and proposed something more amiable, he just glared at me.
“We give you a lot,” he said. “You have space and we keep the lights on…” At that point, I knew things weren’t going to work.
I had a choice: Go back to who I was or leave. An offer came available from a school close to home and I took it.
It was easier than the other option.
And then suddenly, decades after that first “near-death” experience, came this shit show… A meeting where I was told someone was going to close us down. That the people responsible for trying to help us really seemed to have little interest in doing so.
And this time, I couldn’t just leave. I was where I was going to have to stay, no matter what.
Rock, meet hard place.
And with that came that feeling…
That feeling that you will lose.
That feeling that you will fail people who are counting on you.
That feeling… Feeling.
You fall to one knee, gasping for air. You feel yourself reaching upward for something. All you get is a beating. You can’t curl up because you know you’re going to die if you do. You can’t unfurl because you know the beating will kill you.
You have no goddamned hope at all.
I forget where I read it but I heard about a nerve that sits way deep within each and every one of us. It’s that last life force that won’t allow us to die quietly.
It’s the flurry of fury. It’s the unleashing of whatever is left. Whatever we have in the tank.
When it’s spent, if we haven’t fought off that which would take our life, we end.
When that meeting ended and the gauntlet was thrown down, I wasn’t sure if I felt it until I looked into the eyes of those two kids who came with me. Two editors, not much older or younger than I was all those years ago, scared 20-somethings who never really realized that everything could come to an end so suddenly.
I asked them, “What did you just hear in there?”
They told me, “If we don’t have the money they want by Feb. 1, they’re shutting us down.”
I looked at them and something happened to me. The only equivalency I have been able to articulate was when my child looked at me in terror over some sort of fearful event, begging, “Please, Daddy. Don’t let it hurt me.”
The look. It was there.
But unlike when I spoke to my kid, I couldn’t guarantee that things would be OK. I couldn’t promise that bad things wouldn’t happen. I couldn’t find that answer that would tell them, “It’s OK. We’ll be fine.”
And that nearly broke me.
The last time I felt this broken and wounded and lost, things were so much different, I thought.
Many, many years ago, I was much younger and much braver. I watched too many 1980s movies. I fell in love with too many underdogs. I didn’t know that things don’t always work out because you want them to.
I was the living embodiment of the Samuel L. Jackson line from “The Great White Hype,” “You have a blind, stupid belief in yourself.”
This time around, I didn’t know what I could do or couldn’t do. I didn’t know what I had left in the tank. I didn’t even know if I remembered how I did it the first time. The odds were worse. The enemies were stronger. The general sense of who I was had faded.
I was no longer that guy. I was an old man who had given up much and lost too much. I didn’t like being unlikable. I didn’t want to cause collateral damage any more. I wanted to remain that even-keel person who everyone thought was about two good jokes from chucking this all and doing stand-up on the open road.
These people had never seen the darkness. They never saw the Wolverine. They were better for it.
And yet, sometimes, circumstances don’t allow you to dictate terms. You just become who you are. You realize that inside, you are who you always were: broken, damaged, angry, determined, vile.
The evil inside forces cracks the façade and the wickedness seeps out. The determination and grit become razors and scythes. You emit some sort of energy, fueled by rage and horror.
It’s what allows you to work twice as hard as even you thought was possible.
It’s what eliminates your ability to be undignified as you essentially do anything for anyone, just for a promise of help.
It’s what turns shame into pride, as you wear your lack of pretense as a badge of honor.
A long-time friend from another institution meant well when she said this, and for anyone else, this would have been crippling. She met me at a convention shortly after this financial gun was loaded and cocked and placed next to my head on a timer. She said, “I have something for you!” She then proudly handed me a can with a slot on the top of it, a mini-bank, something you would give to a child for storing pennies and nickels. “Now you can go fundraise for your paper!”
Think about that for a moment.
I once ran a ¾ of a million dollar publication. I pulled one other publication out of a six-figure debt with nothing but smoke and mirrors and gumption. I have a doctorate from one of the most prestigious universities in the country in my field and I have written a half-dozen books.
And here was this woman, handing me a can, offering a simple message:
“Go beg for life.”
So I did.
I put a sign on the thing and walked around a convention of my peers, begging for change. I offered services for quarters and dollars.
I was a whore.
Given the chance to do it all over again, I would do it again.
Because the one thing I learned in all my time working with these kids is that they get it. The world doesn’t owe you a Snickers bar because you showed up. You have to grind it out, every day, regardless of your circumstances.
I have kids who have to worry that their mother is in a mental institution, or should be forced to return there.
I have single mothers who will have people watch their kids so they can come down and ply their trade in hopes of getting an internship, a job and a better life.
I have kids who see their cousins get shot and then debate if they should go to the funeral or stick around for production night.
I have the kids who didn’t have a “first choice” or a “safety school.” Instead, they came here because they could afford it and they could get in and they are so goddamned stubborn that they refuse to fail.
Who the hell am I to tell these kids my mealy mouthed bullshit?
“I’m sorry, but I’m too tired.”
“I’m too old and I would risk too much.”
“I did this once before and it nearly cost me everything.”
“If I do this, you probably won’t like what you see emerge. It might damage my reputation.”
“I can’t do this because I might fail. Who would I be then?”
As Gordon Lightfoot once wrote, “Heroes often fail.”
And when they do, they have a choice:
They can apologize for their actions. They can cower in the corner. They can tell the world, “You were right. This isn’t possible. The costs are just too high. I’m sorry I offended you.”
Or they can accept their fate: That they will fall to the ground. They will take the beating, the beard-plucking, the buffets and spitting. They will realize that there will be more collateral damage and that this will become that next story of darkened lore. They cast an angry and violent shadow upon everything they encounter.
They can then get up, spit out the blood in their mouth and say, “You don’t get the best of me, even if that means you will kill me.”
It’s funny, but every time I think I’m the former, something comes along and makes me realize, I’d prefer the latter.
There are days I wish that weren’t the case. That I were smarter, more reasonable, more decent and more willing to acquiesce to the norms of polite society.
The only saving grace I have is that I’ve never had those days on the days that counted the most.
So I grit my worn teeth. I rub my grayed beard. I glare through eyes creased with crow’s feet. I become that which I have sworn to forsake because that’s who I am at the core: An angry, damaged, broken man who refused to fail because that’s just not fucking allowed here.
I reach back to that time when I was too dumb to quit and I say, “I will get you out of this. I don’t know how but I do know why and I know that this doesn’t end here and now.”
Happy Chandler, the commissioner of baseball in the late 1940s, once went against all common sentiment when he agreed to allow a man of color into the white man’s game. When he explained himself in later years, once his decision had cost him almost everything he held dear, he noted, “I’m going to have to meet my maker some day and if he asks me why I didn’t let (Jackie Robinson) play and I say ‘Because he’s black,’ well, that might not be a satisfactory answer.”
Chandler knew what I know all too well: There is a certain brevity to life and you will have to answer to a power higher than yourself for who you are and what you have done. That power knows what you are capable of and what you were set on this Earth to accomplish.
When you fail to give what you have been provided and you choose to take the easier path for the sake of simplicity, you have failed not only yourself, but also your maker.
And even though it would be so much easier to do it that way, that’s not the life I choose to live.