I launched this little blog four years ago, and during that time I’ve published over 260 entries. I hope you’ve enjoyed the lion’s share of them! I’m now inviting you to follow me to the TinyLetter platform, where I’ll be writing a personal newsletter titled Y Lines starting in September.
Some of you may have noticed that I’ve decreased my posting frequency markedly over the past year. I’ve been very busy, mainly in good ways, but I’ve had to make choices on where to cut back. More substantively, I’ve felt that the format of this blog had run its course for me, and I wanted a platform that was a little more personal and informal.
I recently discovered TinyLetter, a straight-to-inbox social media tool that serves up a blend of personal newsletter, e-mail, and blog style writing. As described by Teddy Wayne for the New York Times, TinyLetter is something of a digital throwback:
We now find ourselves in the era of the personal email newsletter, an almost retro delivery system that blurs borders between the public and the private, and mashes up characteristics of the analog and digital ages.
Thanks to, among other services, TinyLetter, a division of the email marketer MailChimp, people who want to apprise a subscriber base of their thoughts and goings-on have a new, straight-to-inbox outlet.
My TinyLetter will be Y Lines (subscribe here for free), and it will mix pop culture observations, book/TV/movie recommendations, nostalgic remembrances, travel experiences, more serious reflections about life at middle age, thoughts about lifelong learning, occasional history and politics, and personal updates. (I’ll continue to save most work-related topics for my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, which is in its ninth year.) I’ll be sending missives from four to six times a month. I’ll post some of them to my Facebook page, too.
In the meantime, I’ll be keeping this blog available for those who want to look at previous entries and for that steady trickle of folks (still around 200+/month) who find it via a search engine.
I’m very grateful for your readership here. I hope you’ll follow me to Y Lines and the TinyLetter format! It’s free, easy, and you can unsubscribe without hassle.
With many thanks and best wishes,
For many years I’ve quipped that Introduction to Typing and Driver’s Education were the two most valuable courses I took in high school. Actually it’s more than a quip. If you toss my junior year American History course into the mix, I think you’d have the academic holy trinity of my high school career. (Yes, I was something of a rebellious underachiever in high school.)
Anyway, back to typing class: I really wanted to learn how to type. Even as an adolescent, I felt that typing out my thoughts and ideas would somehow render them more, well, significant. Once I learned how to type, I would use my mom’s old Royal manual typewriter to bang out term papers for school. And when I got involved in the student council, I would learn how to cut mimeograph stencils for printing out the council newsletter.
Of course, just because I enjoyed typing doesn’t mean I was good at it. I made lots of mistakes…and still do. In the ancient era before word processing programs and home computers, that usually meant using either liquid paper or Ko-rec-type to cover up one’s mistakes and then type over them. I did this a lot, and it slowed down my typing speed.
Off to college
When I went off to college at Valparaiso University, my main off-to-school present was a Smith-Corona electric typewriter. Whoa…..I was now moving up in the world! This model used ribbon cartridges instead of old-fashioned spooled ribbons. If you made a typing error, you could swap out the ribbon cartridge for a correcting cartridge that would white out the mistake. It is a miracle that I did not develop a repetitive stress injury swapping out those cartridges.
My typing life changed when I joined the staff of my college newspaper, The Torch. You see, the newspaper office had two IBM correcting Selectric typewriters. Typing on those machines was a sublime experience. During down times when folks weren’t working on stories, we were free to commandeer the typewriters for our papers and projects. The presence of those typewriters is one of the reasons why that office became our unofficial hangout, even when we weren’t working on the newspaper.
Now, those of later generations might not fully appreciate these challenges, but writing term papers and other assignments in the B.C. era (Before Computers) was a very, very different experience, especially when minimum or maximum page limits were in play. Most of us would first write out our papers in long hand, and then estimate if the cumulative sheafs of paper would, when typed up, potentially run afoul of the page limits. If you didn’t have a good sense of how your cursive writing translated into typed pages, you might be in for some unpleasant surprises, leading to late nights before papers were due.
Lugging it to NYC
I took my Smith Corona with me to law school at NYU. I cannot recall how I got that heavy, bulky machine to its destination, but I may have even checked it as part of my baggage for the flight from Chicago to New York. In some ways, these challenges have not changed; even in the digital era, there are only so many ways to move one’s belongings from here to there.
This was right before the home computer revolution, and very few of my classmates had PCs. Most of us continued to type our papers, with added challenges in terms of margins and page length when writing out practice versions of legal documents. By this time, we were overlapping with the emerging age of computers. At NYU I worked on one of our scholarly law journals and on the law school student newspaper, and we had computer word processing capabilities for both publications.
A computer of my own
I would not own a personal computer until several years after graduating from law school, a Commodore 64 that supported a superb game library and rudimentary word processing programs. I would later move up to an IBM PC compatible machine, and at that point I transitioned from typewriter to word processing. I became enamored of the wonderful, awesome WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS program, which remains to me the best ever software package for writing productivity. In fact, ever since being more or less forced into using the tyrannical, control-freakish, and cumbersome Microsoft Word, my writing efficiency has declined.
Today, I’ve morphed over to Apple products, but I’m still stuck with Microsoft Word. Someday I’d like to give a serious tryout to Scrivener, a word processing program that has a fiercely devoted following. As for my blogs, I use the WordPress platform, which I find easy to navigate.
Changing technologies aside, it’s clear to me that my original motivation for learning how type — to share my thoughts and ideas — remains the main reason why I’m sitting before a keyboard today. And thank goodness that you, kind reader, get to read what’s on my mind with (most of) the typos cleaned up.
Those who ask me about the potential value of extracurricular activities for college students risk being on the receiving end of a verbal serenade about The Torch. Allow me to explain….
My undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University in Indiana, recently announced the creation of an online archive of past issues of The Torch, the school’s long-running weekly student newspaper. As a former Torch department editor and reporter (1979-81), the notice catapulted me into a nostalgic state. I even dug out the bound volume from my first year on the paper, photos of which you may peruse here.
I quickly lapse into soggy memories over The Torch because it was the most important extracurricular activity of my college career. The experience of writing and editing articles for publication has paid professional dividends throughout my career, and many of the friendships formed with fellow staffers have endured to this day.
I joined The Torch in my junior year, and I pored myself into working for it. I wrote dozens of articles and columns, mostly on academic affairs topics within the university. I also assigned stories to reporters in my department and edited their work.
It was a heady experience to write pieces for publication with a byline appended. Many members of the VU community read the paper, as our lively letters-to-the-editor section often reflected. (I learned that if you’re going to put your words out there for public consumption, you’d better have or grow a thick skin.)
Some articles demanded special attention to detail, thoroughness, and accuracy. For example, I wrote an investigative piece in which I was able to elicit admissions from campus administrators that a popular political science professor had been denied tenure on grounds beyond the official criteria for tenure evaluation. This meant many hours interviewing university faculty members and deans; our reporting had to be airtight on such an important matter.
I also did a series of articles covering the aftermath of a tragic student-on-student slaying that had racial overtones. Those pieces thrust me well beyond the comfort zone of reporting everyday campus events and activities. For several weeks I was regularly on the phone with sources from police departments, the county prosecutor’s office, and the local hospital, among others.
The Torch quickly became the social and intellectual hub that I didn’t previously have at Valparaiso. A former Torch colleague once wrote that it became our own college of sorts, where we wrote and edited our articles and debated issues related to academic and campus life. We spent a lot of time simply hanging out at The Torch offices, even when we didn’t have to be there. Looking back, I now realize that it was an exceptional extracurricular experience.
Our little newspaper was not free of sophomoric writings (some penned by yours truly), and at times we took ourselves too earnestly (ditto). But we produced some quality reporting and thoughtful commentary about collegiate life and academic institutions, as evidenced by multiple awards we earned from the Indiana Collegiate Press Association during those years.
The university’s Greek system was a regular focus for us, and we often took to task the behavioral excesses emerging from fraternity events. This was the age of Animal House, and along with toga parties inspired by the movie came some pretty egregious conduct. In retrospect, it’s clear that we were fully warranted in addressing these issues, many of which anticipated today’s concerns about student conduct at fraternity events.
However, we largely dismissed the positive social bonds facilitated by fraternities and sororities. Our office conversations were laced with regular putdowns of Greek organizations, to the dismay of Torch staffers who belonged to them. At a school with a largely conservative student body that embraced the Greek system, our newspaper was a liberal-ish, independent enclave, sometimes fueled by healthy doses of self-righteousness.
As a group of (mostly) liberal arts majors, we closely reported campus deliberations relating to the place of the social sciences, humanities, and general education in the university curriculum. These topics were frequently invoked in editorials and opinion columns as well. The more callow among us were guided by the work of three senior editors with strong intellectual orientations. Many of us were unaware that we were participating in an emerging national debate on the value of instruction in the liberal arts, but this troika was already marking academic trends by reading The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Only a handful of Torch staffers would build careers in journalism. One of them, Jim Hale (author of the “Insights gleaned” column pictured above), is currently a reporter for the Gettysburg Times in Pennsylvania. Previously Jim was a writer for the Gettysburg College communications office and a reporter for the Chesterton Tribune in Indiana.
As for me, I did some part-time reporting for a couple of local newspapers in northwest Indiana, and later I served as an editor of the law school newspaper at New York University. Though I did not pursue a journalism career, The Torch served as an ongoing tutorial on the importance of tight, clear, well organized writing. In terms of aspirations, at least, these qualities have manifested themselves in virtually everything I write: Scholarly articles, essays, reports, op-ed pieces, and, yes, blog posts.
In fact, I know that my affinity for the blogging medium traces back to my days at The Torch. Writing this blog is an engaging pastime for me, like being a newspaper columnist, albeit with a much smaller readership! Writing my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, requires more analytical smarts, but it, too, has roots in my collegiate newspaper experience.
The old chestnut about understanding your present by comprehending your past certainly applies here. I did not have an academic career in mind when I was a collegian. My intention was to go to law school and eventually to start a career in politics. (I also was active in student government and in political campaigns as a college student.) However, as I flipped through the pages of The Torch, I understood how reporting on the ups and downs of academe planted seeds that keep sprouting in my life today.
Equally important, I remain good friends with everyone whose byline appears in these photographs, as well as others who were part of the mix. Our paths cross regularly through periodic get-togethers, e-mails, phone calls, and social media. Many of these friendships have matured and deepened over the years. This only reinforces my belief that something good was happening at that campus newspaper office some 35 years ago.
Portions of this post were adapted from a previous piece on the importance of extracurricular activities, written for Minding the Workplace.
I just finished a terrific novel, Su Sokol’s Cycling to Asylum (2014), described by the author as “the story of a family that flees a near-future New York City and crosses the border into Québec by bicycle to demand political asylum.” I’m going to be a bit lazy and let Su’s website synopsis do the work of describing its essence:
…[T]he novel is the story of a voyage, both an actual and personal/metaphorical one. This voyage is experienced differently by each protagonist and it is for this reason that it is told in alternating chapters, using the unique voice and perspective of each of the four main characters. These characters include Laek, a history teacher with a mysterious, radical past; Janie, an activist lawyer and musician; Siri, a tomboy with secrets; and Simon, a dreamy child addicted to violent screen games.
I’m pleased to report that Cycling for Asylum has drama and suspense, compelling characters sharing deep emotions, and a thought provoking political and social context, all sprinkled with clever detail and humor. I read the book slowly, over the course of many Boston subway rides. Its short chapters and compact, memorable story were perfect for that.
Concededly, I’m not an unbiased reader or reviewer. Su is a classmate of mine from NYU Law School, and many years ago she and her husband Glenn lived down the block from me in Brooklyn. During law school and throughout her career, Su has been a strong advocate for the disenfranchised and for social justice, a quality that informs her novel.
Su and I fell out of touch when I moved to Boston, but through Facebook we reconnected. I would learn that Su and Glenn moved their family from New York to Montreal about a decade ago. Earlier this year, Su was making a swing through the Boston area, and we enjoyed a delightful lunch along with her long-time friend (and book cover artist) Lin-Lin Mao. Here’s a photo that Lin-Lin took, with plenty of snow around us:
During lunch, Su told me how important this kind of writing has become to her. That care is evident in Cycling to Asylum, her first published novel. For me, reading it was a fun little revelation. I’d long admired Su’s commitment as a public interest lawyer, a job that often requires the skills of a good story teller to put a client or cause in a favorable light. But a strong knack for advocacy doesn’t make one a novelist, as the world is besieged with wannabe writers holding law degrees! In Su’s case, however, I found myself taken by her ability to create interesting characters and to tell a story.
I’m not a literary critic; I either like a book or I don’t. I really liked this one. While riding on Boston’s Orange Line, it drew me into another world of interesting people and times, a journey for which I am very thankful.
Somewhere in my basement storage area, I have several file folders stuffed with personal letters from back in the day, the product of an inveterate saver and collector. If memory serves me well, very few of these letters contain news or sentiments of extraordinary significance, especially when weighed against events of a lifetime. Nevertheless, they harken back to when writing and receiving letters via the mail was a welcomed part of our everyday lives.
My most intense phase of letter writing ran from college through law school, covering my late teens through early twenties. It makes sense. We often take our daily lives rather seriously during those years, and the diaspora of friends and family via assorted personal milestones creates the need to keep in touch as we move around.
In the days before e-mail, Facebook, and cheap long-distance calls, letter writing was the way we did it. I recall exchanging veritable tomes at times. And while today I might be a tad embarrassed over some of the missives I wrote and mailed, sending and receiving letters was very meaningful to me.
Today, of course, technology has largely supplanted old fashioned letter writing. I sometimes wonder what records of our everyday exchanges will be available to anthropologists of the future as they search for clues of how we shared ideas, information, thoughts, and feelings from a distance. Will our digital footprints disappear with us? And even if they are available, how will someone sort through the mounds of empty chatter to get to the real stuff?
Though sentiment creeps in when I write about writing letters, I have no illusions that we will see a revival of this form of communication anytime soon. It’s too bad, though. Anticipating a personal letter from a dear friend or family member sure beats turning on the computer, awaiting the pile up in my inbox.