Page Two: Things Blow Up for No Reason
Still weekly, free, and a little stunned, we enter our 25th year
My thoughts are specific and impossible, focused and contradictory, questions and statements. Where did the time go? How did I get so old? I can tell you exactly where the time went.
The time has passed. It seems amazing; it seems dull; it seems ordinary. Day follows day; the accumulation both numbs and surprises.
None of us expected to be around this long when we started the Chronicle. Most didn't figure to stay even a year. We thought Austin needed a paper like this, so we figured we'd launch it until it was steady on its feet. Then, we almost all figured, we'd go off to do whatever it was that we were going to do with our lives.
We were living two or three or four to a place; bookshelves were plain wooden boards, concrete blocks, and heisted milk-carton crates. There was no holy vision or tremendous sense of destiny, no celestial visitation or moment of true clarity. The evolution was so mundane, so of a bunch of older slackers (in Richard Linklater's film's sense of the word) who dabbled and dawdled. As far as ambition, intention, and vision go, The Austin Chronicle was poorly served at its birth, its needs ill-considered and the events below mundane.
There was no money, which meant a lot of what we ate the Chronicle got in trade for advertising, and not uncommonly we'd visit the office at night, searching for something, almost anything, to eat.
Time passed; things changed. It was strange and it was wonderful. It was tragic and it was hard. It was noble and we had met the enemy, proving Walt Kelly's Pogo right once again.
People will often ask me what is next for the Chronicle. I give as honest an answer as I can: That, as with my 15-year-old son, I really do have minimal control, much less of any kind of a plan. The Austin Chronicle is its own entity. Truly hundreds, if not thousands, of people, events, politics, and culture as well as banging off truly random, floating social asteroids all made, and continue to make, an impact on its course. The paper is an organic and vibrant entity; there is neither one hand, nor even many different hands, on any kind of steering device.
I trust the Chronicle to hew to its course much more than I trust any individual, including not only, and perhaps especially, Nick Barbaro and me. (I have to also note that I trust Nick Barbaro and myself as well as Roland Swenson, Michael Schwarz, Carol Flagg, and other staff more than I trust anyone else.)
More than once, this column has trumpeted the Chronicle's new, interactive features and its overall commitment to interactivity with our readers. More than once, I've been mostly wrong.
On the outside of any publication/product, what you see is a sleek, coherent, almost symmetrical package. Inside it seems more like an unrelenting combination of the worlds depicted in Willy Wonka scenarios, Winsor McKay's work, and Betty Boop cartoons. Strange creatures pop in and pop out; unidentifiable objects pour down on one's head; strange chutes lead to stranger dead ends; no line is defined, no surface unmoving. Things blow up for no reason; organic objects meld into inorganic ones; work disappears or mutates into something completely different from what it was. The very fluidity makes traction hard and navigation impossible. There is rarely any quiet, any stillness, any time for distanced contemplation. There is always motion; there is constant noise both of the world and inside one's head.
The Chronicle Web site now has a click-through for readers' Forums at the top of the home page, marked by a bullhorn with the copy "Sound Off! Chronicle Forums."
This leads to the Forums page, where there are many different topics of discussion (Arts, Music, Film, Food and Drink, and a few political ones). "Postmarks" (letters to the Chronicle) are now posted there as well. In order to offer your own post or respond to someone else's and/or to respond to "Postmarks," readers no longer need register or remember a password. For consistency, you have the option of registering, or to imagine one's self a media guerilla you can remain unregistered, always using different names.
The strength and identity of the Chronicle has always been that it is a paper of and for the community of people who read it. The ease of interaction now available because of the Web insists that we must invite our readers to more aggressively and readily join the discussion/dialogue/debate. The secret ingredient here has always been, and still is, you, the readers. The more we can offer readers' thoughts, suggestions, and opinions as part of the ongoing dialogue, the better it is for the Chronicle.
We are hoping that this ease of offering your thoughts in the Forums and in the online "Postmarks" discussion proves to be just our first step into the brave new world of interactivity. This is perfect Chronicle timing: Just as interactivity becomes completely commonplace, with even preteens offering such on their sites, we decide to tackle it as if we were off on an adventure into the mysterious and unknown.
Production Manager Karen Rheudasil Barry, Webmaster Brian Barry, and Managing Editor Cindy Widner have really driven this edge of the project, though so many others have played important roles or contributed creatively that noting only a few is really inadequate.
In general, Widner does much, if not most, of the "Editor" work it is assumed I do. We go back to working at The Daily Texan together, more than 21/2 decades ago. Often, Cindy was my boss. Even then, she favored Barbaro over me. Okay, so everybody did. I didn't care, but I was afraid that it might have gone to Nick's head.
Marketing Director Erin Collier does the rest of whatever work it might be assumed I do. If only she would write "Page Two," as I've often asked her, I could disappear. I haven't asked Widner to author "Page Two" because she'd likely take me up on it.
Twenty-five years into a paper's life, the staff's lives are impacted in many ways. The longer a staffer is here, usually, the more true that proves.
"Page Two," for example, is written by the "me" I've always been (as I've also always changed), but at the same time the column's author is fictional and unreal some kind of "other" occupying too much space and stinking things up. This is for a number of reasons.
There is an authorial voice that might be close to, but is never exactly the same as, the writer's. It is the nature of columns and column writing. But mostly because of the readers' own writers, the work of writers exists as it is read and received in their heads.
A column like "Page Two," by definition, is my opinion. Nevertheless, when writing it I am often tempted to qualify ideas by writing "I think" or "in my opinion." Given my overall writerly awkwardness, the last thing I need is another annoying tic. Still, there are all kinds of variants to my opinions or positions: with some I'm more comfortable, others are more speculative, and some are just suggestions. Endless qualifiers are boring and bad writing; without them, the most tentatively offered essay sounds arrogantly dispensed with absolute certainty. I'm not asking for sympathy or understanding, but just offering up a qualifier as to why I don't regularly include even more qualifiers.
Back when the Chronicle briefly had a show on talk radio, one week I was attacked both in the paper for not using the phrase "I think" more in "Page Two" and by a caller on the radio who was annoyed that I said it so much.
But, ultimately, the reader decides. He or she can re-imagine, misunderstand, hate, inflate, distort, construe, and misconstrue the writer and the writing. Almost always, the "I" readers think is doing the writing is disassociated from the person writing. They imagine writers' lives to be exaggerated: more pathetic and craven, more exciting and enriching, more deliberate and corrupted than they actually are.
John Irving used to say that what a writer wrote should be the best part of them. You should always be a bit disappointed when meeting a writer you favor, he argued. The work of writers is almost always more clearly defined and dramatically emphasized than are their lives. This is the accident of creation, but it has little repercussion in reality.
Twenty-five years gone, I find I am often perceived in ways that emulate the distortions of funhouse mirrors. Oddly given that I express my opinions in this column on a regular basis and in a notably verbose way what I find most astonishing is how many thoughts I've never expressed that are assigned to me. Much of this is the general political stereotyping now being engaged in by all, not as an ancillary of politics but as the heart and soul of it almost completely trumping the idea that great government is some compromise reached after principled and honest disagreement and debate among citizens.
I'll write more on this topic in the weeks ahead.
But I must say there's something entertaining about all this. Cruising blogs is especially fun. Remember, "Even Hitler had friends" is offered in regard to my life. Someone states my position on global warming when I've never articulated one. There is a widespread acceptance that I'm some kind of Socialist/Communist/Marxist who hates capitalism and despises profit because I believe in a strong social safety net and government playing a major, necessary, and needed role. Forget that I'm a successful, entrepreneurial capitalist. Ignore that I passionately and completely believe in the economic, social, and political ideals upon which this country is based a democratic, constitutional republic form of government with an emphasis on checks and balances, an independent judiciary, and universal suffrage for all citizens. Yes, the reality can be very different, but the vision is profoundly noble.
The Bush administration, its right-wing base, and the hard religious right, by misrepresentation and nonchalant social brutality, are trying to violate, deconstruct, and destroy these very ideals. At one time, I would have unhesitatingly bet on the triumph of the U.S. Constitution. Instead given the extensive damage, so carelessly executed, and the Roman Coliseum-worthy, bloodthirsty verbal encouragement, approval, and urging of their supporters my heart is heavy, and I am lacking hope. Still, in a way, that is why we've produced and continue to produce this paper: open dialogue as hope, discussion as information, action as resistance. The Austin Chronicle weekly and still free.