The life and times of a newspaper columnist (plus a free e-book!)

Once upon a time, I was a columnist. 

I’ve written thousands and thousands of words for work and pleasure, and drawn hundred and hundreds of pages of comics. I’ve written music reviews, breaking news, feature profiles, police reports, posted tweets and edited more stories and wrote more headlines than I can bear to count in my 25+ years in the industry across several countries.

But I have to admit, my columnist days are still close to my heart. I was a newspaper columnist in the fading days of when such things mattered, in the glittering early days of the internet and long before social media was a gleam in pre-pubescent Zuckerberg’s eye. I admired the great columnists who were big in the 1990s – Leonard Pitts, Lewis Grizzard, Jon Carroll, Molly Ivins – or the ancients like Herb Caen, Mike Royko or H.L. Mencken

I wrote a newspaper column under various dire titles in various sometimes dire places for more than 10 years across several states, starting in my university newspaper in Mississippi and carrying on across California and Oregon newspapers too, until one day around 2005, I just kind of stopped. I sometimes wrote about the issues of the day, but more often, I just kind of wrote about me.

Back in 2006 I put together a little book of what I thought was the best of my column years for friends and family. I’m glad it exists, as a kind of hefty memorial to one part of my life. And hey, you can view and download the PDF of said book for free right here:

Spatula Forum Greatest Hits 1994-2004

Some of these pieces are among the best writing I’ve ever done, I think, and some of these pieces are kind of embarrassing to read now – but also, I’m glad they’re there. They are a time capsule of friends and feelings I had, of people I’ve lost touch with and people I’m still very good friends with. Your twenties are like no other time in your life, and boy, they go by fast. They’re artifacts of a time when every moment in my life seemed filled with drama and I sure wouldn’t have imagined what the world of 2021 turned out like. 

I wrote with my heart on my sleeve a lot more than I’d ever do these days – the struggles and egos of a twenty-something trying to figure out the world, slowly morphing into a thirty-something married and with a kid on the way. I admit, sadly, I think I was less angry and the world less angry then. 

Young idealistic journalist, pasting up actual pages for actual newspapers on an actual composing desk that must’ve been 200 years old.

There aren’t lot of real columnists left now. There’s a lot of what I call “outrage merchants,” who spout off political opinions aimed to get the clicks or terrible pieces complaining about sausage rolls, but the art of crafting a kind of gentle, thoughtful essay printed on an actual newspaper or its website is kind of vanished. 

The great writing has migrated online to other places, magazines and websites, and unlike when I started scribbling thoughts about old friends and familiar places almost 30 years ago, there are plenty of outlets for it. There is still a lot of wonderful writing out there, but the column as it once was is pretty much a dying art form. Hey, things change. It’s the never-ending story.

I started blogging regularly in like 2004, stopped that in 2010 or so and then picked it up again a few years back. I never stopped writing, but I started writing about different things, some for money, some for pleasure. 

Writing columns also is a finite thing for most. In previous lives, I’d hire columnists myself for various newspapers, and often people would come in with one great idea, maybe two. “And what will you write for the third column?” I’d say. I wrote a few hundred columns myself over a decade and then I knew that the well was kind of dry. 

I gave it up when I realised I didn’t have much more to say in that candid columnist’s fashion about my life and times, and I had little new to add to the debates of the day, and went on to write other things in other ways. These days, everyone shares their feelings all the time in a never-ending fashion on the internet and social media in real time, and I have to admit, like many people, I’ve kind of gone from being eager and excited by social media to loathing a great deal of it and its effect on the world. 

I’d write a column about that, but honestly, do we really need another outraged column these days, at all? 

Still, I’ll be back with more bloggery in 2022. Have yourself an excellent holidays.

So, this is 50

It’s not quite the 50th birthday I once planned – from pre-COVID plotting of having an epic holiday in Japan, to maybe going over for a weekend in Sydney. Then as countries locked down it became possibly a jaunt to Wellington or maybe just stay in Auckland for a nice restaurant dinner, to today, under ongoing Delta lockdowns that hopefully will be a thing of the past by my next birthday.

So, for my gala celebration, it’s takeaways with family, Skype with parents and maybe a quick ocean swim to shake off the cobwebs.

That’s good enough, really.

Kurt Vonnegut, 1990, by Yousuf Karsh

There’s a quote by another guy who was born on the same day as me, Kurt Vonnegut, that kind of sums up the vibe of being here, alive and at a half-century in a world not quite like I imagined it would be when I turned 20, or 30, or 40:  “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

I’m 50 today, and Kurt would be 99 years old.

It’s a kind of happy accident that I’m here at all, that any of us are, and in the end, you get what you get.

Again, to quote my birthday buddy Kurt:

“That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones.” 

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

I’ve had a few posts half-written but life has kind of been overtaken by events here in New Zealand this week and it’s been a bit crazy as we deal with an unfortunate outbreak of the Delta variant. It’s been the first time in more than 6 months for any lockdown here and this is the strictest one since April 2020, but it’s a persistent beast of a disease out there…

Hopefully things will improve soon and most of us haven’t forgotten for a second how incredibly fortunate/lucky/grateful we’ve been not to have it as bad here as so many other places in the world have, and so many friends and family have suffered in the past 18 months or so.

In the meantime, I’ve been busy doing a lot of work with Radio New Zealand, and in bloggable content I wrote about 10 recent (and a couple not-so-recent) shows to watch during lockdown, which is applicable in an awful lot of places in this troubled world at the moment. Go and have a read!

See my vest, see my vest, it’s me at my fashionable best

I’m not a fashion plate. In the pandemic world and comfortable middle age, I consider myself pretty flashy if I manage to wear a button-down shirt and pants that fit. 

But for a while in my wayward youth, I tried desperately, like almost everyone else does, to assemble an identity through what I wore. I loosely hung out with the theatre kids, nerds and punks and punk-adjacent in high school, and then with the leftie liberals and enviromentalists in my Mississippi college days.

There’s photos of me wearing horribly elaborate Duran Duran cosplay gear in the late ‘80s, at least one image of me in parachute pants MC Hammer-style (thankfully suppressed by court order) and several unfortunate pictures of my experiments in tie-dye. 

Portrait of a horribly pretentious college freshman trying desperately to look interesting, 1991.

Through it all, through my college years and on afterwards, I had one constant companion in my quest to define myself through fashion – See my vest. I bought a black suede vest sometime around the end of high school, and man, I wore that thing constantly for nearly a decade. 

It was my “Nik vest,” my attempt to stand out from the crowd in the strange world of the American South, where I was already the “weird California dude.” I’m not sure why I latched on to the vest, but I thought vests were cool – they seemed like something you’d see Christian Slater wear in Heathers, or maybe Stephen Malkmus in a Pavement video. 

The vest was flexible – with a t-shirt it was grunge, with a nice shirt it was passably fancy. I wore it everywhere – there’s photos of me in New York City at the World Trade Center towers with it, at comic conventions in the Midwest, at university and parties and weddings.

My friends gently mocked me for wearing it; I wore it so much that when I drew my daily college comic strip “Jip,” I made one of the characters (the cool one of course) constantly wear a vest and immediately got called out for the obvious attempt to homage myself. 

I wore that vest to pretend I was the kind of person I wanted to be, some kind of vaguely mysterious cool arty creative type. I succeeded at that mission perhaps 0.2% of the time I wore the vest, but I kept wearing it. Besides, it was comfortable and gave me extra pockets. 

I stopped wearing the vest quite so much in the mid-1990s after I graduated university and went on to start working as a journalist. It vanished entirely somewhere around the millennium – I don’t know, I imagine I was feeling vaguely embarrassed by it and it was also probably kind of worn out after nearly 10 years (suede was not easy to keep clean) and in another moment of stark self-invention, I chucked it.

I kind of wish I’d kept it now, not that I’d wear it in public in 2021 … But it was a symbol of who I was and who I was trying to be, and it’s sometimes worth keeping hold of those things to remember yourself by. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Hello, apparently there’s an election going on somewhere or something. I’ve been keeping busy with a few freelance think pieces this week for my friends over at Radio New Zealand:

First up, what’s it like to vote in not one but two national elections just a few weeks apart? And what can the US learn from New Zealand’s election last month? Here’s my take and what I desperately hope is the last piece I ever write involving a certain 45th President of the United States:

Opinion: The one word that really matters for US Election Day

But wait! There’s more! The big story everybody was talking about a day or two before the latest several big stories was the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court. Also for Radio New Zealand, I wrote about what it all means and how it’s a worrying sign of where America’s head is at these days:

Amy Coney Barrett: It’s all about the politics

Enjoy! More pop culture content after Election Day, assuming we’re all still here…

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet….

I’ve been keeping busy with a bit of freelance writing on the side lately.

Over at Radio New Zealand, I’ve written a fond farewell to the Pop-Up Globe, where as I’ve talked about before I spent several great seasons volunteering part-time. The Globe is packing up and leaving Auckland in just a few weeks and is well worth visiting before it goes! Forsooth!

I’ve also been doing a fair amount of book reviewing. Neither of these are online just yet, but if you’re in New Zealand, pick up the latest issue of the New Zealand Listener for my review of the quite good new biography Carrie Fisher: A Life On The Edge.

Also reviewed in today’s Weekend Herald Canvas magazine is New Zealand/Indian author Rajorshi Chakraborti‘s unique spin on superhero fiction, Shakti. Go hunt down a copy!

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Time once again for a brief round-up of writing I’ve done elsewhere on the internet recently, not that I don’t love the blogging for free but someone’s got to keep the cats in cat food…

Bird of the Year is one of New Zealand’s biggest social media events, with everyone weighing in on their fave avian, whether it’s the humble kiwi, the plucky penguin or the rocking ruru. I wrote a story over at Radio New Zealand about the contest and specifically about how we can help birds year-round by doing things like volunteering for Bird Rescue:

Bird of the Year competition: Keeping the good vibe flying high

Meanwhile, back in my home state of California, everything’s on fire, which sucks, and thousands of people have been forced to have their power shut off, which sucks even more. I wrote a little about that from my perspective way the hell down here in Aotearoa for The New Zealand Herald (story paywalled):

California’s fires and why New Zealand should worry too

Lastly, we just went through a Rugby World Cup, and while NZ lost and we are a traumatised nation, it was a big event for streaming services which hosted the tournament for the first time. Here’s a story over at Stuff about it:

Spark’s first big test: How did it fare?

Happy blogiversary to me

So today marks one year since my return to blogging. It’s a “sort of anniversary,” because in another way, I’ve been blogging for about 15 years one and off since the original blog began way back in 2004, but this blog has helped revive my appetite for writing for its own sake for me. I’ve not written every day, but 67 posts in a year isn’t bad. 

I’ve written as long as I can remember, from made-up comic book empires as a kid to columns and articles and essays today. But it hasn’t always been easy. 

I’ve gotten mired in a crisis of self-confidence about my own writing for the past few years. My journalism jobs moved from involving writing to becoming more management, editing and “content curation,” more shuffling other people’s words around than attempting my own. I got away from what I got into journalism for many moons ago – telling stories, including my own. The rise of social media, web journalism and an infinite universe of hot takes and words by other people made me start to think my own voice wasn’t really important in the content blogosphere, so why bother? 

Anyway, the point is, restarting regular blogging once a week or so a year ago really helped jump-start my urge to write again. I feel better when I write something a few times a week, whatever it is. I realised that while I’m just one of a million voices on the internet, I still have something to say, and occasionally other people will read it. 

Blogging regularly again made me decide to take the leap earlier this year back into part-time freelance journalism for the first time in more than a decade, and so far I’m finding it really rewarding to do. The story of my health woes published last weekend has been shared hundreds of times on social media and dozens of people have commented and emailed sharing their own emotional stories. That’s what it’s all about, really.

This blog doesn’t get a ton of traffic compared to how my old blog did back in the golden age of bloggers circa 2008, but it’s still getting readers. It’s my little corner of the internet, and I’m pretty happy with it. Thanks for reading.