Talking Heads

talkinghead.GIF I am, or at least I was for much of my life, an inveterate newspaper reader. Once I left my childhood home in Minneapolis and moved to New York City at 17, later to Washington D.C., and then out here in Los Angeles beginning in the late 70s, my day couldn’t start without a half pot of strong, black coffee and a thorough reading of the daily papers.

And, yes, it was often more then one. In Washington, for example, where I lived for several years on Capitol Hill in the mid 70s, tending bar at an Irish pub down near the train station and mooning over a girl who had left me for someone else, I would read the New York Times and Washington Post with great diligence, then ease into the afternoon with a quick flip-through of the Washington Star, a short-lived and irreverent rag where several of The Dubliner’s regular patrons worked when they weren’t holding up the other side of the bar perfecting their dependence on alcohol along with me.

Nowadays, it’s very different. Today, if I’ve got a newspaper in my hands – not the bits and bytes of the online edition, but the actual printed document – I know I’m in an airport. I’m still reading newspapers, of course – online articles by the score from a half dozen papers everyday – but almost never anything with page numbers, serrated edges, and those glorious black and white photos I remember from my youth.

Sometimes I miss the tactile joy of turning a newspaper’s pages, moving from section to section, feeling the grainy newsprint against my fingertips. More than that, I miss knowing that when I’ve finished the last page of the last section, I am complete for that moment, free to go about the rest of my day, as current with the day’s events as anyone I am likely to meet.

The Digital Age has ruined all that. Even if I am sitting in an airport waiting for my flight, what I usually feel in reading a newspaper is frustration. Where’s the button I can push to enlarge the print and take the strain off my 60-year-old eyes? Worse, when I finish an article and want to know more or need a different editorial perspective from the one that just finished pissing me off, where can I turn? Where’s the links to something more?

Which all of you know who aren’t my daughter’s age because you’re all trying to keep up with the ever-changing ways information comes at us the same as I am.

Twenty-Four/Seven
Information overload is very much on my mind just now, after a full week spent watching the Democratic National Convention in Denver like it was a drug. I can’t take another windup doll – David Brooks, Amy Hughes, Pat Buchanan – telling me what I just saw by piecing together the same thoughts they threw out last night and the night before that. Sure, there are exceptions – David Gergen comes to mind, with the way he brings in perspectives from different administrations, different times – but I still have to wade through all the others.

Unlike with a newspaper, I can’t stop listening and move onto something else. Oh, I can and do stop listening – just ask my wife – but I have to wait and wait and wait for the next thing which might not be any better than the original thing, otalking-heads.gifr else I can click the channel from frick to frack.

Stuck in my head is the wide-angle camera image of eight or 10 commentators lined up on a single long table after someone’s speech – maybe Hillary’s, maybe Michelle’s – each one hunched at the precise same angle over identical steel-gray CNN laptops, each one poised to give me his or her predictable 30-second take on what I just watched right along with them. Ye Gods!

Only in my youth and a few rare intervals since have I relied on the nightly news to keep me current. As a kid, I’d come home from junior high school on the outskirts of Minneapolis at about the same time my Dad would get home from the inner city high school in Minneapolis – Patrick Henry High – where he taught music and served as chief hallway enforcer. Together, after dinner, we’d watch trusty Dave Moore, the long-time WCCO anchor, who did somehow give me an understanding of what was going on in the Twin Cities. Sometimes, probably not often enough, but sometimes, Dad and I would discuss what we had seen.

But then I moved to New York for the bright lights, the girls, and, that’s right, college. From then on, my life rarely settled into a routine that regularly put me in front of the television news at 6 or 11. I preferred newspapers and books and magazines anyway, and had plenty to do in the evenings.

And when I wasn’t paying attention, newscasting changed as local stations gave up the fight to cover the news, maybe because the audience no longer wanted real news, maybe because the TV stations didn’t work hard enough to develop an audience that wanted real news, certainly because the real money lay elsewhere.

There are exceptions. Hal Fishman used to catch my attention during one of those intervals when I did catch the nightly news, and years ago I used to watch Bree Walker, who brought a harder edge to her reporting and was, well, Bree Walker. But today, have you watched? There’s no “there” there anymore, and that’s for sure.

My wife Sharon is a more earnest soul than me. She delights in spending hours watching Amy Goodman on Free Speech TV or Bill Moyers or Tavis Smiley on PBS. It’s a special occasion for her when she can spend the better part of a lazy day curled up on the bed just doing that. I hang with her for a while, but eventually I drift off to a crime show on the other television or here to our office to check out the Internet.

Where’s the Beef
Sure, I could just turn off the television or flip the channel to “The Wire” reruns, but Sharon and I have gotten waaaaay into politics with our LA Progressive and it seems that I need to keep up more that I might otherwise have done in the past.

When we started the LA Progressive this spring, we didn’t intend to cover national news. We didn’t think we could add anything worthwhile to the national discourse that paid, full-time journalists and editorial writers weren’t already providing.

More importantly, that isn’t where we saw the lack, the opportunity, the need. The hole we saw was for coverage here locally – here in downtown Los Angeles and surrounding communities. The LA Times has grown too big and bulky and otherwise occupied to cover what’s happening in our neighborhoods and the local television stations, as I’ve indicated, have given up on news coverage long ago unless it involves a brush fire in the foothills, a car chase, or Paris Hilton’s absent underpants. And the community weeklies are mostly still stuck in print and generally not geared to take on the political or social justice issues we want to cover in the LA Progressive.

But then a couple things happened. First, Obamamania swept the country and us with it. We want Barack Obama to become the next president, would quit our day jobs to work full time to get him elected if we could, and, in any case, will do what we can with our weekly newsletter and LA Progressive website to make that dream come true.

I, perhaps more than Sharon, want to go easy on the hissing at Nancy Pelosi for not working to end the war more quickly, the agitating for impeachment, however richly deserved, and the grousing that Obama and now Biden espouse an occasional centrist position in their quest to win the election.

I think—and I know Sharon joins me in this—that Obama in the White House could fulfill the truncated dream of Bobby Kennedy from my youth—and I am sick in my heart at what the administrations of Ronald “Red” Reagan and the two Bush boys—Poppy and Dubya—have done to my country. This election could really break things big, one way or the other.

Then, second, all these wonderful writers showed up to contribute articles who do have insights to share about national events. Sharon and I are amazed at how good some of the material is that comes to us. I won’t name names here for fear of slighting someone with an omission, but you really ought to check them out.

And unlike that row of eight or 10 pundits poised to opine after Hillary’s or Michelle’s or Joe’s or Barack’s speech, these folks writing on our pages aren’t barricaded inside the Beltway. As well and professionally as they write, they’ve mostly got day jobs like us, as lawyers, teachers, screenwriters, radio commentators, professors, financial analysts—people like you and me and the lady next door.

It’s pretty heady stuff, at least for us. So here we are, subjecting ourselves to at least a bit of the nightly Talking Heads parade.

Duty Calls
But not all the time. Chance has brought me a reprieve in the form of an old love.

For the 20 years before Sharon and I met six years ago through an online dating service—she says Match.com, I insist it was MatchMaker—my head was not lost in politics, but in a more direct kind of community involvement. I voted and paid attention to who was running, sure, but I spent my time volunteering at a halfway house for homeless alcoholics and drug addicts I had helped start in Torrance in 1981.

I ran the place as the onsite manager for a few years in the mid 80s—it was very much like joining the Peace Corps, in my mind—and was involved in writing grant proposals, making public appearances, and befriending the residents of the house for over 20 years. It was deeply gratifying work. It changed who I am as much as it did any of the fellows who passed through the place.

But then I stepped away from that work, met Sharon, moved with her up here north of Dodger Stadium to Mt. Washington, and transferred my spiritual base to our Neighborhood Church in Pasadena.

From time to time, I would hear about trouble the place—the Gratitude Retreat—was having, from my ex-wife or a few friends who have stayed in touch.

But I knew it was always a tough place to run. You don’t put 20 newly sober alcoholics, two to a room, in a 100-year-old hotel, invite another two dozen recent graduates who’ve moved nearby to come around—most of them fresh out of a jail cell, a mission bed, or the streets—and not expect a regular diet of excitement.

“The bottle is but the symptom of the underlying emotional problems,” we’d like to say. And with all those fellows not drinking or abusing drugs—at least for that moment—there were always problems aplenty.

True, some of the operational problems I heard about after I left were a bit more outlandish—or more than a bit—than the ones we had when the original founders and I were running the place all those years. But I figured the new board would sort it out. They were a bright crew, god-fearing business types from along the beach in the South Bay and up on the hill in Palos Verdes—a well-heeled sort, unlike the old crew who sported names like Rotten Ron, Boston John, and Handsome Jack.

So when I heard the place had closed last month, the building in Old Torrance up for sale, I figured that was the problem, or part of it—too many guys running the place who dress like they’re ready to play another round at the drop of a hat or need to get their German cars waxed, and not enough with funny monikers—mine is “Gratitude Dick”—who just want to sit down with someone way down on their luck and see if together they can use the power that’s in the room with them to chart a better course.

dick-price.gifAnd when I was called a few weeks ago to join a group of men and women who want to see if there’s a way to stop the sale, wrest control of the foundation from the business types, and operate the place the way we did for so many years, I jumped at the chance—for Gene Jones and Frank Priest and Jerry Guild and Jim Furbee and Joe Filkosky and all the others who were there with me in 1981 and have since passed on, and for the bartender who will stumble out of The Dubliner at four in the morning next month or next year, staggering down the sidewalk, trying to blame Vietnam—now it’ll be Iraq—for making him forget where he put his house, again.

For him, too, I’ll have to miss Mister Brooks and Miss Amy and all the other Talking Heads, at least part of the time, at least for a while.

by Dick Price
Editor, LA Progressive

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Published by the LA Progressive on September 2, 2008
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About Dick Price

Dick Price is Editor of the LA Progressive. With his wife Sharon, he publishes several other print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. He has worked in publishing as a writer, editor, and publisher for a quarter century. In earlier releases, he was a cab driver, bartender, construction worker, soldier, and farmhand, and for many years helped operate a nonprofit halfway house for homeless alcoholics and addicts. To contact him, please use the form on the Contact Us page.