Overheard in the Wolfe House #323

Peggy: The Mayborn Conference is announcing a new contest, a short story in six words. Writers have been trying to do those kinds of short stories long before Twitter. I have a story like that. It kind of went viral on Twitter. It has more than 170,000 views.

Sam (laughing): Really? That’s great.

Peggy: So here’s the story. “Midnight. Wrong train platform. Shinjuku station.”

Sam (still laughing): That’s just a mishmash of words.

Community of practice

I finally moved my personal things out of my old office space, thanks to the help of a co-worker who also had to listen to me prattle on about things like how many piano makers there were before and after the Great Depression and why that might mean something to journalism now.

I have a century-old, upright grand piano. My parents got it for me when I was first learning to play. It has a big sound, especially after I had it rebuilt about ten years ago. The man who rebuilt it told me that before the Great Depression there were more than 400 piano makers in the United States. After the Great Depression, there were just two.

That seemed a stunning loss to me. Many people love music and enjoy playing, even if just for themselves. Pianos are among a handful of instruments that play both melody and harmony. However, our attention is never guaranteed, and our money usually follows wherever our attention goes.

That same drifting attention is happening to the news business now. Businesses needed your attention, so they got it by putting their advertisements next to news. Newspapers were among the original public-private partnerships. The better quality the news — a real public service at that point — the more valuable that space got. That is, until our attention started to drift.

One of the Denton newspaper’s most popular reports was the police blotter, at least before the pandemic began. It had long been a guilty pleasure for readers. Of course, now they can find even more guilty reading pleasures on Facebook, a company only too happy to hoover up the advertising revenue as people’s attention drifts over there. Probably in another year or two, there will be only a handful of news outlets left because the business model that extracted value out of our attention has changed so much.

Some people have finally figured that out, that the business model now is for people who recognize they need solid journalism to make sound business decisions and to make good public policy decisions.

Without that, we will soon have warlords squabbling for years while ticking time bombs sit in our harbors.

I’m ready to stop thinking about the business model and start thinking about the community of practice — journalists are a group of people concerned about the quality of information, how it’s gathered and vetted, and how to do it better, and the best way to do that is by debating all those values regularly among your peers — and then publishing or broadcasting.

This community of practice in journalism is also the same thing that people like to criticize as “the priesthood” or the “legacy elite” or “media bubble” or whatever other pejorative they want to hurl at the wall that might stick for the moment. But humans create communities of practice because they care about what they do and want to do it better, and scholars are beginning to recognize how much this phenomenon has helped all kinds of businesses do better and make progress in our modern world.

My first introduction to communities of practice came in the autism world, with parents sharing wisdom and such. Eventually, parents started seeing that the best therapists with the most powerful ideas kind of hung out together and fed off each other’s practice and research. No one was talking to you about a “community of practice,” but if you wanted the best for your child, you always wanted to be close to that, since chances were higher that your kid would benefit from all that supercharged brainpower and skill.

I encouraged Michael and Paige to find the equivalent as they ventured out into the working world, although I didn’t have the vocabulary for it at the time. At the University of Iowa, they organized the dorm into micro-communities that way and Paige fell right in. She’s still friends with many of her original writing community. Michael got a power introduction to the concept as a behavior tech in the autism world. He’s like a heat-seeking missile for that value where he works.

Journalists sometimes compete with each other, but we benefit from each other’s successes and critical takes on each other’s work. The successful business model(s) will depend on the rigor within our community of practice. As business models disappear and fail, that doesn’t mean the community of practice must also, but it makes it a lot harder. Until the emerging business models stabilize, our environment is ripe for propaganda disguised as news. But if our community of practice disappears, no business model will save it.

Just like the piano makers.

 

Leap and the net will appear

Early in my career, a fellow writer and sometimes mentor said that he didn’t always know what he thought until he started writing.

That was a freeing thing to hear. The fear of the blank screen vanished. I didn’t have to know exactly what I was writing before I started. I could discover what I was thinking along the way. I could re-write again and again to make it clearer, fixing any flabby thinking and respecting the reader, because what is writing if no one reads it?

We all read to better understand what others are thinking and to adjust our thinking accordingly, writers most especially included.

Which brings me to this morning’s topic, writing to better understand a hella lotta thinking that happened this week, because this week, I quit my job.

Until Tuesday night, I had a good job that has become increasingly rare — a full-time journalist for a family-owned newspaper. The job didn’t pay particularly well, but I enjoyed the work and I was fairly good at it, so it had its own reinforcement loop that didn’t have a lot to do with money (does it ever for a writer?). I felt I was serving the community I love. I’m sure some people thought it was unnecessarily tough love at times, but I hope we can just agree to disagree there. Sorry, Charlies, sometimes the truth is really tough.

So as I climbed the hill that my job was about to die on, I was surprised at my courage to keep going. Then I saw that my feet held because they kept finding the truth. I may not have uncovered everything there was to know, but what I did know to be the truth was this: who and what was important to me might die (not exaggerating) if I didn’t keep going to the logical finish.

It’s not the first time in my life that I leapt knowing in my heart that the net would appear.

To sum up the thought for the day, I grabbed a few of my favorite lines from my upcoming book with co-author Shahla Ala’i (which luxuriously now has my full attention, a good thing because we have to deliver to the publisher in about six weeks), Love and Science in the Treatment of Autism: 

Love may be the only thing that is not fragile in our material world. Love makes a great bet. Love gives our lives meaning. With love, we forge through troubles and make progress. Love makes a family. We know we will fail sometimes and that love grows in learning from those failures. Love helps us through periods of being unlovable ourselves, or of not loving others.

We keep choosing love, above all. 

 

 

Wear an Apron

This year marks my fourth year of pursuing New Year’s resolutions that are, at once, both big and little.

When I started out, I shared my first goal (not buying anything except food and to fix things, aka “No, Thank You”) with a few close friends and family members. Sharing your goals publicly usually increases your chance for success. For the second year, I straight up wrote a column in the newspaper. Honestly, that felt more like raising the stakes than getting a leg up, but it worked (“Yes, Please” to new experiences and long-held aspirations). This January, I quit Facebook in order to make 2019 the year of being more open and connected.

Over the past 12 months, I found myself being even more deliberate with treasured relationships, traveling a surprising amount in pursuit of that goal. Just like the years of “Yes, Please” and “No, Thank You,” a Facebook-free life can totally be “More Open and Connected” when it’s more deliberate.

This year’s goal is “Wear An Apron.” My son, Michael, and I talked it over on a recent Sunday together. He wanted to know what the big idea was behind the little idea.

I have two kitchen aprons. One I picked up at the farmer’s market in Sacramento because it says “California Grown” on it. The other my mother made for me out of fabric she picked up in Hawaii. They are both awesome and spark joy for me. But I nearly always forget to put them on until after I have already spilled something on myself.

My T-shirt drawer is full of shirts marked by my forgetfulness. I tell myself that they are just T-shirts, but the truth is, I am capable of better.

And that’s the thing about aprons. Some amazing person solved a common problem by inventing the apron. And other smart people figured out designs with pockets and loops and other features to help your apron serve you, whether you are in the wood shop or the kitchen or the printing press.

I told Michael when you think about the apron that way, it reminds you that most problems you experience have been solved by someone already. That wisdom, both small and large, is out there and ready to make life easier or better. It’s something your grandfather discovered long ago or is in a book or on YouTube or just one question away in a conversation with a friend.

Even when Sam was little and it seemed like no one knew anything, the wisdom was out there. I’ll forever be grateful to Kitty O. for showing me how to read articles in scientific journals. New wisdom. Right there.

All you need to do is put on that apron.

 

 

How to raise a hater

Three years ago, I saw a window into how you raise a hater. It was at, of all places, the movies.

I talked with my daughter, Paige, about it. She was there. She didn’t hear what I did, but she heard something else like it. I shared my experience and insight with Shahla. She encouraged me to blog about it, but the words got stuck. A lot.

When the world is full of haters, it’s not a good place for Sam and people like him, who need us to be our best selves. People are loving and generous for the most part, but I’ve seen the dark side, too. It’s easy to feel noble and loving and generous when it doesn’t really cost you.

After a white boy drove to El Paso in order to shoot innocent people yesterday, the words finally started to flow. We talk about preparing for mass shootings in the newsroom. We know we must. There’s nothing about our community that’s special. The haters are here.

Three years ago, I watched a father teach his son how to be a hater.

Oh, it wasn’t obvious. The boy didn’t even know he was being taught to be a hater. And the father didn’t know he was teaching it, either.

To get passed down, these things have to go slow. A father loves his son and wants to be loved by his son.

A trailer played for Hidden Figures, the movie based the early days of NASA and the first flight to the moon. I sat next to the father in the movie theater. The trailer made him uncomfortable. In between stunning images of rockets blasting through space, hints of the little-told story about the pivotal role that black women played in the program unfolded. He could bear it no longer. He leaned over to his son, who was probably 8 or 9 years old, and said, “We won’t be seeing that.”

I knew why he was uncomfortable. But his son didn’t. After all the previews played, the father said, “There are lots of good movies to see.” And the son added, “But not that space movie.”

A boy loves his father and wants to be loved by his father.

We were all there to watch Moana. Did the father not know what this Polynesian legend was about? Apparently not, Paige said, because after the movie he kept asking his wife: but where did they come from?

The father had too much discomfort. A family has to find a place for the discomfort when father is afraid. The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. To get passed down, these things have to go slow.

Our kids will do things, learn things, seek things that make us uncomfortable. We have to let them. They will still love us. They are becoming their own. They want, and can, do like we did when we were young, and make the world a little better than it was before. If we don’t let them, they won’t be resilient enough to survive all these changes. They will become a snowflake.

Or worse.

A hater.

 

Fare thee well, feline

It’s been ten days since we’ve seen our cat, Tiger, although I knew the first morning when I opened the back door and he didn’t show that he was gone for good.

Tiger came to live with us as an outdoor cat. He was one of several kittens that a co-worker’s wife found in a box on the side of the road fifteen years ago. We were living on the farm at the time and had been having trouble keeping cats, as often happens out in the countryside. But Paige was 10 years old and pining for a cat, so we picked the male orange tabby kitten for good luck.

Tiger’s cat-shaming portrait.

Tiger proved to be a survivor. Even as coyotes, owls and other predators exacted their toll on our farm, Tiger knew when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. When it was time to move into town, I was apprehensive. He’d lived on the farm for more than a decade. I got advice from other cat owners and the veterinarian. On moving day, I was ready with drugs and a crate, but as soon as the moving vans showed up in the driveway, Tiger, ever the survivor, hid out. Two days later, he got hungry enough for the new owner to catch him in the house and call me.

During the transition, he fought against the drugs so it was like having a drunk college student lumbering around the house as we unpacked boxes and filled cupboards and closets and bookshelves. After a week of supervised outdoor time, he started fighting the whole cat-on-a-leash thing. I opened the door and said, “good luck little buddy.” I don’t know what I was worried about. He was a survivor and he knew where he lived. That’s where his food dish is!

Now that he’s gone, I feel the loss, as I knew I would, even though I’ve also known I won’t get any more cats. I’m a dog person. I have been since I was a girl, obsessed with learning all the breeds of dogs and reading stories about dogs and pining for a dog myself.

While our dogs have reminded me of the rewards of loving unconditionally, I have to give props to Tiger, whose utter cat-ness provided insight into life’s more complicated doings and feelings.

He brilliantly established his personal space. Pet him just a stroke or two when he wasn’t feeling it and he bit your hand or arm or leg or foot to let you know. Even when he was willing to sit for a little cuddle time, you still got bit at the end.

He ate ritualistically: every half hour or so, he returned to the bowl to eat several bites. Ergo, we learned to always pause for a moment when we opened the door to let him in (or out) and forever keep kibble in the bowl.

He often joined the dog and I on the first block of a walk. Then he decided either we weren’t worth the effort or going into the wrong territory and he went off on his own.

When Paige went off to college, the cat expressed how distressing the empty nest was by peeing all over the pricey feather bed I bought to deal with a too-hard mattress. I didn’t even try to recover anything. The feather bed got tossed in the trash. I still sleep on that too-hard bed.

Farewell, old friend. We’re glad you came to stay.

A year to be more open and connected

Two years ago, after writing a news story about a few of our clever readers and what they learned achieving their New Year’s resolutions, I did mine differently. A year into my own experiment, I had learned so much that I shared it in a column.

That first goal to not buy anything (with reasonable exceptions for food and fixing things) reinforced a simpler, more sustainable life. My next resolution, “Yes, please,” was meant to be this year’s yang to last year’s yin of “no, thank you.”

The idea wasn’t that “yes, please” was permission to give into impulses or rationalized needs, but to push through whatever had been stopping me from trying something new. How else to see the world unless you push through to the other side? I made a list of about a dozen challenges that have been nagging for years; for example, learning to better maintain my bike, sew upholstery, broaden my computer skills, speak conversationally in another language, and make cheese. But if something new crossed my doorstep, like when my friend and brilliant textile artist Carla offered a day of indigo dyeing, I said “yes.” I said yes whenever I could.

Not only is life simpler and more sustainable, but it’s also richer and more fun.

That brought the social media expression of my life into sharp relief. For the coming year, I will co-opt Facebook’s stated mission, to be more open and connected, by quitting Facebook.

The main reason to shut down my account is one that has nagged me for a long time. Facebook’s real mission is nothing like its stated mission. For example, I’ve noticed there are people you cannot reach any other way than through Facebook. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. In Texas, we might share a lemonade on the porch and we’re cordial, but we just don’t invite everyone inside. So I would argue that when you can’t reach someone except through Facebook, then you aren’t really connected at all. Facebook is managing your relationships for you through the veneer of being “open” and “connected.”

I set up the Family Room blog as a place to explore ideas related to living with autism. It’s interesting that most readers come here via a Facebook link and will return to Facebook to comment on the topic, rather than connecting below and creating our own community–which, by the way, is not open to exploitation by a third party because I filter and delete all that garbage.

That’s Facebook’s real mission. And, they “move fast and break things.” After I watched Frontline’s two-part special, The Facebook Dilemma, I couldn’t be a part of it anymore. American newspapers are struggling because Facebook (and similar businesses) got the rules changed: they can publish with impunity while newspapers must continue to publish responsibly. It’s expensive to be a responsible company. But it’s worth it because, for one, the truth is an absolute defense. And people don’t die in Myanmar because you got so big moving fast and breaking things that you can’t clean up after yourself anymore.

It took Sam a while to accept my decision. He was worried that my exit would affect his experience. I respect that very much. People with disabilities need help living lives that are more open and connected. He finds community activities through Facebook. Because he can scroll at his own pace, he can absorb and react to more news that people share. He’s not impervious to the third-party nonsense, but he’s not going to show up at a fake rally meant to destabilize the community.

I’ll still be on Twitter because I use the platform for my job and I can’t escape it. And I know my departure from Facebook may affect my coworkers, so I will work to ameliorate that. I hope that readers who want to continue to be part of Family Room will use the green button below to bookmark the blog and come back once a month or so. This blog isn’t going away even though the Facebook teasers will.

My first objective will be to use my words to be more open and connected. Family Room will be one place to make that happen, along with all of the other ways we’ve always had to connect with each other (insert mail-telephone-plus-ruby-slippers icons here!)

My second objective will be that when I have something to share, I will share it with the person I believe would appreciate it most.

My third objective will be actively listening to others in the coming days and weeks. Because the best way to connect is to respond.

Sam taught me that.

Random thoughts running Frenchtown Road

Michael woke me today and insisted I run with him. “It’ll be the last time,” he said.

It’s a funny way to celebrate a launching, but that’s what it was. Last year was tough for him. He had started his adult life after graduating TCU in 2013 and then had to move back home last January. I got a front row seat watching what our economy is doing to the 20-somethings. At the end of one of his worst days, I found myself offering a most grown-up salve to his wounds, pointing to the barstool in the kitchen and pouring him a generous shot of Old No. 7.

In the past year that he’s lived here with Sam and me, we often ran together. His normal pace is crazy faster than mine, but he said slowing down to run with me strengthened other muscles. True or not, it was still a nice thing to say and do — slowing a 7:00 mile to run your mom’s 10:00+

Eventually, he righted himself. Today he packed up the car and drove to his new life in Austin.  Michael'sNewCar

I resisted temptation to grab the camera and document the day (this photo is from one of his good days earlier this year), remembering back to Paige’s first day of kindergarten. She was the youngest, but she was feisty and she couldn’t wait to prove she was big like her brothers. When it was her turn to hop out of the car and head to her classroom for the first day of school, she did it with confidence and determination. Who was I to turn into a blubbering idiot about all my babies gone to school and ruin her first day being big for real?

So I just watched her from behind the wheel of the old Dodge Caravan and marveled at the moment.

It was icy cold today, but it was a little like that hot August day 30 years ago I drove my un-air conditioned car across the Nevada desert to Sacramento to start my grown-up life: Michael, being big for real.