June 8th, 2007

Not Quite the Same Thing as Thoughtlessness

It’s not news to me—nor is it, I suppose, to anyone who reads this blog—that I’m not exactly cut out for hard journalism. Luckily for me, no one wants me to do hard journalism. I motor along on features; I’m happy, my editors are happy, and my interviewees generally seem pretty happy too.


But into each life a little rain must fall, right? And what makes a juicier feature than a little bit of rain? So sometimes I end up with some prickly assignments. Like once, an editor asked me to interview a couple that was about to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary, or some outrageous number. Sounds like fun, no?


Well—maybe it would have been. Only their anniversary was September 11. And sometimes I just have this problem asking the questions that need to be asked—not in my personal life, where I seem to have become an expert in terrifying people with my Amazing Ability to Cut to the Chase. But when I’m working, I just find it difficult to formulate questions like, “Hey—you guys going to celebrate this year, or stay in and mourn?”


Just last week I interviewed a really neat woman—nearly 90, she is believed to be the oldest living Marine in my fair city. But I had decided I didn’t really need to bring up that factoid during the interview; it would just be more of a profile piece. (Being the “oldest living” anything just sounds to me like a roundabout way of saying, “Well, everyone else is dead, so I guess I’ll interview you.” [In answer to your question: no, it is not at all difficult to overthink things to such an extreme. In fact, I am very, very adept at it.])


So I got this assignment last week—a plum assignment, requiring travel to a neat location and everything—to interview a kid with an interesting hobby. But what made my editor really interested in profiling him was a physical disability—and the fact that he is progressing with his interesting hobby, and life in general, despite it.


Last weekend we had a preliminary phone interview. After all, I’m supposed to spend all day with the kid later this month—the sooner we feel comfortable with each other, the better!


He was fun to talk to. Hilarious, actually. (At one point, I asked if he and his siblings have chores. He hesitated. “My mom is … really good at cleaning,” he said at last. I hope my extended bout of laughter didn’t insult him.)


We chatted about the hobby. We chatted about school. (We share the same horrific algebra experiences, and he’s studying German, which I also studied—insta-academic-bond right there.) I was feeling comfortable and he sounded like he was too. I had even come up with a good way to broach the disability, a question I hadn’t yet popped—and then he brought it up himself, simply and matter-of-factly. He waxed eloquent on medical advances and shared some details about a recent surgical procedure and its amazing results.  


I had been excited about the assignment before—my favorite editor, my best market, a trip to a beautiful part of the state I’ve never visited. But now I’m more excited about meeting the kid himself than I am about all the rest of it. And I am hopeful that, little by little, the lesson is finally sinking in: don’t think so damn much! Other people seem to manage it just fine. With a little effort, I bet I can master the art of not thinking too.


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