The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Generosity, Gratitude and Gonzo

Posted on | September 18, 2011 | 12 Comments

“Once they let you get away with running around for ten years like a king hoodlum, you tend to forget now and then that about half the people you meet live from one day to the next in a state of such fear and uncertainty that about half the time they honestly doubt their own sanity.
“These are not the kind of people who really need to get hung up in depressing political trips. They are not ready for it. Their boats are rocking so badly that all they want to do is to get level long enough to think straight and avoid the next nightmare.”

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72

Doing this kind of work is easy in a sense. Success is inevitable if you set the threshold low enough, and who can say that I’ve failed at doing this kind of work when this kind of work – a roving presidential campaign correspondent paying his way by begging for online PayPal contributions from blog readers – is something nobody else has ever done? And the reason it’s never been done is that you’d have to be stone crazy even to think about trying it.

Insanity as a career qualification is a topic worthy of an essay, or perhaps even a entire book, but publishers aren’t lining up to offer me contracts, so there’s no point thinking about that now. Rather I meant only to make the point that no one can deny I’m the best at what I do, because nobody else would be crazy enough to do it. And it’s a folie a deux, you see, because you — the readers and tip-jar hitters who make this madness possible — share the psychotic notion that some useful purpose is served by my vagabond troubadour act, filing dateline reports from Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida and other “key battleground states.”

Many people have asked me why I’m doing what I’m doing and I usually answer with some kind of half-joking answer. “It was either this or go back to driving a forklift,” which was what I was doing for a living before that day in 1986 when I made the ill-advised decision to become a professional journalist.

OK, it wasn’t actually a “decision” but more like a bizarre cosmic fluke that the editor of a 6,000-circulation weekly paper in Austell, Georgia, offered me $4.50 an hour to become a staff writer, covering city council meetings, Fourth of July parades, recreation-league softball and other such local doings. It was a job that wouldn’t infringe on rehearsal time with my rock band and, best of all, no heavy lifting.

For the previous 18 months — ever since August 1984, when I was fired from my gig as a deejay at an after-hours nightclub on Atlanta’s Southside — I’d done enough heavy lifting to last a lifetime, working long hours at a warehouse on Fulton Industrial Boulevard. It was honest work and the money wasn’t bad, but it was kind of hard to explain to friends why I’d spent all those years acquiring a college diploma only to take a job that any high-school dropout could get. Although the rock-and-roll dream seemed a sufficient explanation, at least in my own mind, my friends obviously were less than persuaded and so a sort of cognitive dissonance began to disturb my mood. Personally, I had no problem sweating it out in the warehouse for 10 or 12 hours a day, taking all the overtime I could get to pay for power amps, speakers, microphones and other necessary equipment. But a perception gap gradually developed between what I thought I was doing – paying the dues necessary to make it as a singer-songwriter – and what my friends and family thought I was doing, namely wasting my time and talents in pursuit of a childish fantasy. People who have seen me rock a karaoke mike are invited to attest my abilities as a performer and, while I’ve never been one to lament What Might Have Been, I raise this point only to clarify that my youthful aspirations were perhaps not so unrealistic as some of my friends at the time seemed to think.

As I’ve occasionally remarked when criticized as a blogger, just because you don’t know what I’m doing, doesn’t mean that I don’t know what I’m doing.

What may seem foolish stubbornness can prove to be admirable persistence, but only time can tell the difference. It is impossible to say, after a quarter-century, whether I gave up too soon on the rock-and-real dream or whether I chased it too long. The point is that when I had the chance to change my “day job” from forklift driver to journalist, it was a welcome blessing and an answered prayer. No longer would there be any need to make elaborate explanations when I ran into an old friend or college classmate and they asked, “What are you up to nowadays?” Now I’d just say, “Writing for a newspaper” and have done with it, rather than to explain that my job as a forklift driver was just a way to pay the bills while trying to get my rock band from the garage-and-party level to the recording-and-concert level.

The ridiculous phony prestige of journalism as a career is another one of those things that deserves to be addressed at length. Where did people get the idea that there was something glamorous about being a reporter – a phenomenally low-paying occupation – whereas there is zero prestige in being an IT geek, a job that pays three times what the typical newspaper reporter makes? But there’s no point exploring that topic here, when all I wanted was to explain that I took a job as a newspaper reporter without planning to making it my life’s work. There was no sweat and no heavy lifting, and “writing for a newspaper” was at least a respectable answer to questions from friends, as opposed to telling them I was driving a forklift in a warehouse on Fulton Industrial Boulevard, which felt a bit too much like a confession of failure.

It’s rather embarrassing to admit that this is how it all started, but embarrassing admissions are all the rage nowadays, so what the hell, huh? And why am I writing this while riding down the highway in the front passenger seat of a rental car on my way back from a gathering of my wife’s family in Ohio? The radio is playing U2’s “Beautiful Day,” the September sun is slanting in over my shoulder and I could just watch the scenery or drift off to sleep. But what began as a cosmic fluke when I got hired as a newspaper reporter in 1986 has long since become something else entirely, and probably a lot more like obsessive-compulsive disorder than I’d care to admit.

This trip to Ohio wasn’t my idea, and yet there was no way to avoid it, even though it completely disrupted my plan for September. What I originally had in mind was to fly down for the Tampa debate and then spend two weeks covering the campaign in Florida, all the way through the Orlando debate, the Florida GOP straw poll and CPAC Florida. While that was the schedule I conceived in August after returning from Iowa, I had forgotten that my wife and her sisters had been planning their parents’ 50th wedding anniversary for this weekend. They’d set the date and booked the venue in Galion, Ohio, many months ago. And there was no possible way I could miss it, no matter what was happening on the presidential campaign trail. So . . .

Instead of staying in Florida after the Tampa debate, I flew back home Tuesday. Then Saturday morning my wife woke me up at 5 a.m. so we could make the seven-hour drive to her Ohio hometown, and now on Sunday afternoon I’m riding back home. (It’s exactly 4:58 p.m. as I type this sentence, although there won’t be a chance to post this to the blog for a few more hours.) And I’m writing this post en route simply because every waking minute that I don’t spend writing seems like a complete waste of time.

You see the obsessive-compulsive nature of the problem. If I’m not writing, I’m thinking about what I’m going to write, and when I don’t have access to the Internet — to check the blog traffic, monitor the latest news or write, write, write – a weird sort of mania grips my mind. Why else do I drive so fast when I’m on the road doing campaign coverage, except for this frantic desire to get to the nearest WiFi connection and get back online? It’s clearly one of those Blogger Mood Disorder things that Professor Jacobson has described and yet, however crazy it might seem, it is in fact a necessary condition of my self-defined career. Because if I wasn’t insanely obsessed with it, I couldn’t possibly succeed at it, even by the most minimal threshold definition of “success.” This strange circumstance — insanity as an occupational prerequisite — is what Hunter S. Thompson was describing four decades ago when he coined the famous maxim, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

And I want to thank you for it, dear reader.

Without readers, there’s no point in writing. And without tip-jar hitters, I’d probably either be doing anonymous work as a P.R. flack or more likely driving a forklift. At least there is some dignity to driving a forklift, whereas there is nothing but endless shame when a journalist becomes a P.R. flack, as in the pathetic case of Jay Carney.

In the past month, I’ve fallen drastically behind in writing thank-you e-mails to tip-jar hitters. Honest, it’s not that I’m ungrateful, rather that things got so hectic – Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida – I couldn’t keep up. My own fault, but if you’ll accept this one long post as a collective belated “thank you,” it would ease my conscience considerably.

And if you’d kindly hit the tip jar again, maybe I could shake these feelings of doomed failure.

But I haven’t completely failed. Not yet.

Because if I’d completely failed, I’d be driving a forklift or doing P.R.


12 Responses to “Generosity, Gratitude and Gonzo”

  1. JeffS
    September 19th, 2011 @ 3:32 am

    Done, sir. 

    And no explanations are needed.  At least, not for people who made similar decisions, even if for different reasons.

  2. Anonymous
    September 19th, 2011 @ 3:45 am

    With the possible exception of people who graduate law or medical school I think most people just sorta fall into their careers. A lot of the guys I hung out with in high school and after were musicians. All had dreams of the big time and some of them were actually very talented and worked hard. I can’t think of any who made it. Got girl friends, then got married had kids, bills that had to be paid.

    I started working as a laborer for a concrete construction company in 73. I had a GED and $3.50 an hour was the most money I could make right then, wasn’t looking for a career just needed a paycheck, after all beer and marijuana ain’t free. Up until winter 09 I’d done well enough, went from laborer to carpenter to carpenter foreman and then superintendent. It had it’s ups and downs, work gets tight, you get laid off, but then I was looking for a job when I got there. When I got riffed in 09 I was making 135k, truck, free health and life insurance for me and the family. Don’t know what I’ll do now, something will come along after all I was looking for a job when I got here.

  3. Garym
    September 19th, 2011 @ 4:01 am

    Done. You do a great service which i enjoy. Just wish I could send more.

  4. JeffS
    September 19th, 2011 @ 4:34 am

    While off thread, it is relevant to earlier but urgent posts, and to the Basic Charter of The Other McCain:

    Christina Hendricks at the 2011 Emmy Awards.

  5. Adjoran
    September 19th, 2011 @ 6:41 am

    I certainly hope you weren’t behind the wheel as you composed this, it would be a terrible example to the young folks.

    Besides, I think you just cribbed Ted Baxter’s fictional life story and made it newspapers instead of radio . . . “It all started at a 5000 watt radio station . . . ”

    But we should all hit the tip jar and/or use the buy-through for Amazon to support Stacy’s efforts to provide on-the-ground reporting while running down wildlife.  It’s a shame a man with six children has to work at all – time they stepped up and started taking care of the old man. 

  6. Zilla of the Resistance
    September 19th, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    You have helped me far more than you’ll ever know. Hopefully the tiny bit I was able to scrape together while you were in Iowa and the few cents you have gotten from my itty bitty Amazon orders came in handy, I only regret that it could not have been more.  I do not need an email for my small efforts, I just need you to keep on doing what you do.
    I do not intend to be broke forever. I live for the day when I can be a better tip jar hitter, especially when it comes to supporting The Last REAL American Journalist & the Best Damned Player that we have on Our Team. god Bless you, Stacy, thank you for all that you do.

  7. richard mcenroe
    September 19th, 2011 @ 4:06 pm

    Well, you’re just gonna have to succeed because you can’t go back to driving a forklift.  All the dashboard instructions are in Spanish now.

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