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.” 

New Zealand: In the summertime

img_0767I’m in my 12th year as a New Zealander now, a statistic which kind of stuns me. That’s about a quarter of my life now, and I’ve been a dual citizen of two nations for several years. And I’m finally starting to think of January as summer.

One of the biggest inversions of American life to adjust to for me was Christmas no longer being the icy, sweater-wearing time of year. I grew up in the mountains of California and had many white Christmases. In New Zealand Christmases are the sparkling blue of the ocean and clear skies (or the splashes of early summer rain), the white of clouds and sun bouncing off golden sand, the red of blooming pohutukawa trees. Instead of sleigh bells it’s the growing buzz of cicadas echoing around the bush. 

In New Zealand, EVERYTHING shuts down for about two weeks from Christmas through New Year’s. Many businesses close entirely. It’s not just Christmas, it’s our summer school holidays, our big break in the year. Throughout January, I get tan, I constantly have the feel of sunblock on my skin, and sand seems to be everywhere. From our house, there’s about 10 beaches within a short drive; hundreds within an hour. 

img_4609I’ve finally noticed these last few years that my mind has shifting toward accepting January as the summertime, toward seeing Christmas as summer holidays. The heat and sun seems normal. In a way, it makes a lot more sense to roll everything together – the bustle of Christmas, the optimism of a  New Year, the languorous stretch of school holidays. By early February or so, things start to get back to normal. Most people return to work in January sometime, and by February, while it’s still summer heat for months to come, school’s back in session, the commutes and chaos of ordinary life all normal. 

It’s Christmas. It’s New Year’s. It’s summertime in New Zealand, and all’s well.