Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Red, Gameboy & the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Muggy, sticky summer arrived in Illinois a week ago. Apparently, it likes the Heartland, because it’s in no hurry to leave. “HELP WANTED” signs, seemingly, have gone extinct like the Dodo. My advisor at the Career Center keeps saying that the job market will “crack open” in late July. I spend these oven-like days driving around, scouting potential employers, in preparation for that time. It beats sitting at home, anyway.

During one of these scouting trips, I stumbled across a bit of Americana that was tantamount to a live Dodo sighting. On the corner of a quiet residential side street, two boys (roughly twelve years old) sat on folding chairs behind a card table. On the table sat an Igloo jug, a stack of Styrofoam cups and a metal strongbox. Taped to the front edge of the table was a hand-lettered sign: “LEMONADE 50¢”. I blinked and looked again. No, I hadn’t been watching too much Nick At Night. It was real.

As I pulled off the main road and parked along the curb, I half-expected the theme song from “The Andy Griffith Show” to kick in. I wasn’t really thirsty. Even if I had been, there was a supermarket about five minutes away, peddling everything from Red Bull to buttermilk. But how could I pass up this experience? I wouldn’t want to disappoint Aunt Bea, who was probably watching from the kitchen window.

“Hi,” I said, approaching the table. “I can’t remember the last time a saw an actual lemonade stand. How are sales today?”

One of the boys, sporting a blond crew cut, sat playing a Gameboy. “Shitty, until you came along,” he deadpanned, with his eyes glued to the screen. “I wanted to sell Kool-Aid. But El Cheapo said no.” He pointed to his associate, a lanky lad with a shock of bright red hair.

“Hey, bite me!” grunted the red-haired boy, scowling at his friend. “Lemonade is cheaper. Besides, your fatassed sister drank all the Kool-Aid. I told you, it’s this crappy location. I wanted to set up on County C, near the shopping center. But Queen Amidala here wouldn’t walk the extra block!”

“Kiss my ass!” snapped Gameboy, punching buttons.

“Blow yourself!” countered Red, wiping sweat from his brow.

“Boys, boys, hold it,” I said, playing the Hugh Beaumont role. “Never mind all that. It’s a hot day and your price can’t be beat. Give me one lemonade.”

Gameboy grabbed a cup and filled it from the jug. I fished the lone $5 bill out of my wallet and dropped it on the table. Gameboy forked over the cool, dripping cup. I took a sip.

“How’s it taste?” asked Gameboy. “My mom made it fresh this morning!”

“Yeah,” said Red, “if you can call Crystal Light fresh.”

Gameboy elbowed Red in the ribs. Red punched Gameboy in the shoulder.

“Mmm!” I said, finishing the cup. “Tangy!” Actually, it tasted like rainwater filtered through a leaf-clogged drain pipe. But one must indulge the innocence of youth, right?

I returned the cup to Gameboy. He returned the cup to the bottom of the stack of cups, and refocused his attention on the tiny screen. Red sat staring blankly at me in the mid-day sun. I wondered if I had any syrup of ipecac in the medicine cabinet at home.

“Well,” Red finally chuckled, “have a nice day.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “That’s my five bucks sitting on the table. What about my change?”

“What about it?” said Gameboy, with an electronic chirp underlining his question.

My heart soared! A Teaching Opportunity! Being unemployed can rob you of your sense of purpose. But there’s nothing like imparting knowledge, especially to the youngsters, to revive this sense of purpose. Naturally, I jumped at the chance.

“Look, guys, I realize this may be your very first job,” I said, “so let me explain something about business to you. Your sign says 50¢ a cup. I bought one cup. I gave you a $5 bill. Five dollars minus fifty cents equals four dollars and fifty cents. That means you should give me $4.50 in change.”

Red and Gameboy looked at each other and shrugged.

“That’s, like, weird,” said Red.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because no one else ever asked us for change,” said Gameboy.

“Oh, I get it,” I said. “This is a fund-raiser, right? You should write that on your sign. Who are you selling for? Boy Scouts? Little League?”

“No,” said Red.

“The 4-H Club?” I asked. “Your church?”

Gameboy looked at me like I’d just farted. “What’s the 4-H Club?”

“We’re just selling lemonade for us,” said Red. “We’ve both got Apple Mac’s. We’re saving up to buy ‘Doom 3’. He and I are splitting the cost fifty-fifty.”

“Right,” added Gameboy, nodding. “Everybody who buys our lemonade always tells us to keep the change, because they, uh. . .what is it they say?” He turned to Red.

“Mr. Golgovski next-door said he admired our entrepreneurial spirit,” said Red, rolling the phrase over his tongue like an exciting new flavor. “A U.P.S. driver who stopped yesterday said the same thing.”

“Yeah!” agreed Gameboy. “Don’t you?”

“Oh, uh, certainly,” I stammered. “Absolutely. That’s a rare quality in kids today.”

I stared at them and they stared at me. I stood there, sweating wordlessly in the summer heat.

“Well,” smiled Red, stashing my wrinkled $5 bill in the strongbox. “Thanks for stopping by. You’ve probably got to get back to work.”

Gameboy was shooting aliens or slaying dragons or whatever it is they do on video games these days. “Glad you liked the lemonade,” he said, without looking up. “We appreciate it.”

I retreated toward my car. “Okay, guys. Keep up the good work.”

I climbed in the car and drove back toward the main road. Just before I turned, I glanced in my rear view mirror. Red and Gameboy were high-fiving each other.

In twenty years, I thought, those kids will be corporate executives. They already knew more about business than I ever would.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Four-Thousand Dollar Roof

“We’ll just give it a try,” Unc said, with an eager look on his face. “We’ll see. We’ll see.”

In the summer of 1987, I was working my very first job. A friend had gotten me a position as an office clerk at a small, family-owned welding and machine shop in Chicago. It wasn’t the most interesting job for a 16-year old kid, but the work was steady, the office was air-conditioned and the pay was. . .okay.

It was there that I encountered one of the few genuine characters I’ve ever known. The woman who owned the business (its founder, her father, had died several years before) had a great-uncle, then in his early 70’s, who’d spend days puttering around the shop. Everyone called him “Unc”; I don’t remember anyone ever calling him by any other name. I do know that he had been retired for several years. The reason Unc came in, I think, was to keep himself from going stir-crazy. But in the process of saving his own sanity, Unc destroyed everyone else’s.

Unc would’ve stood out in any crowd. He looked like a pair of barrels, one stacked atop the other---a large one for his round burly frame, and a smaller one for his head, which was crowned by a shock of silver-white hair. To the untrained eye, Unc appeared to be a man of modest means. He drove a rusty blue 1969 AMC Rambler, with a long-deceased muffler that warned you of his approach three blocks early. His wardrobe consisted of two pairs of shabby gray workpants and two shirts, both of them plaid. I never once saw him buy his lunch; his mid-day meal, always a tuna fish sandwich on toast, was hauled from home in a plastic grocery sack. But according to the owner, this was a ruse. Unc, she claimed, had “enough money to choke a plow horse”. He was, she said, very careful with money. His money, that is.

Unc was always trying to help out. He was a hard worker, but his good intentions often worked against him. He would be sent out on short deliveries and pick-ups, and wouldn’t return for hours. He would be dispatched with a company credit card and a purchasing list for tools and material. Half a day later he’d return, with a hundred bucks’ worth of stuff he thought the shop needed. These vital supplies would then be pitched into the company supply closet, where they would rot, forgotten and unused. That famous road to hell, paved with good intentions, could have been renamed in honor of Unc.

The, there were his famous “repair jobs”. Unc once fixed a faulty electric time-buzzer. He fixed it so well, it never worked again. Then, there was the time he turned off a grinding machine one of the welders had left running. It took three days to get the machine started again. Unc tried to remove some rust from a sheet-metal plate using what he called a “weak acid solution”. I recall seeing that same plate days later, riddled with holes like a rifle-range target, lying in a trash-heap in the alley behind the shop. Yes, Unc was the Resident Pain in the Ass. Every workplace has at least one. But nobody dared mention it, because he was the boss’ flesh and blood.

Unc’s greatest repair job was the roof of the small, run-down garage located next-door to the shop. It was at least fifty years old and a paradise for rats and bugs. The garage’s only saving grace was that it was made out of cobblestone bricks. Back in the olden days, before they figured out quality was bad for business, they paved streets with those bricks. Cobblestone bricks, apparently, were considered valuable, even collectible in some circles. For this reason, nobody ever had the garage ripped down. Or maybe, they just didn’t care. The years can play tricks with your mind.

By the early summer, Unc had run out of odd jobs. He noticed that the garage roof was becoming ragged and shoddy. He told the boss about it and she phoned a roofing contractor. To fix the roof, it would cost an estimated $1,800.

“WHAAAATTT?!” said Unc, dollar-signs dancing in his eyes. “That’s highway robbery! Tell that shylock to go jump. I’ll fix it myself and keep us out of the county poor house.” Anything, according to Unc, that cost more than a dollar would surely bankrupt the business and send us all to debtors’ prison.

In mid-June, Unc started work on the roof. He went to Handy Andy’s and bought enough stuff to re-shingle ten roofs, plus an outhouse: shingles, tar paper, plywood, roofing nails and assorted tools. Like a man who’d found the work he was born to do, he gleefully stripped away the old shingles. “I’ll have this job knocked by the 4th of July!” he said. Everyone kept quiet, because the task would, if nothing, else, keep Unc occupied.

Every day, Unc climbed up on the roof and toiled from morning to night. The 4th of July came and went. He wasn’t finished yet. Two more weeks passed. Unc was still working.

In late July, temperatures shot up into the middle nineties and stayed there deep into August. Unc complained of fatigue and dizzy spells. He took some time off and went to his doctor. The diagnosis was heat exhaustion.

By this time, everyone hoped that Unc would, well, say “uncle” and call in a pro to finish the job. Not only was he endangering his own health, but the financial health of the business was in jeopardy as well. Fifty bucks here, seventy-five bucks there---it was really beginning to add up.

But Unc was cursed with a work ethic. Soon, he was back at it. Only now, he had two of the welders up on the roof helping him. I noticed a change in the boss’ behavior. When I first met her, she was a one-pack a day smoker. By August, she was up to two packs. Perhaps Unc’s pulling paid workers off jobs from paying customers to putter on the roof did it? Either way, bills started to appear out of nowhere.

One bright and steamy Friday, a tired and haggard-looking Unc trudged into the office. “Give me the number of that roofing contractor,” he said. I half-expected the heavens to open and angels to float down, singing. The roofing contractor was called and he promised to have the roof fixed by Monday.

Monday came. The boss and the entire staff gathered outside to see the finished roof. One half of it was beautifully, seamlessly shingled. The other half was still torn up. Wordlessly, the boss turned to Unc.

“Oh, I’m going to finish that half,” he said. “I saved us some money. It only cost $750.”

The days grew shorter and cooler. I remember sitting in the office one lunchtime, eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and leafing through “Back to School” ads in the paper. Unc strode in like Alexander the Great after he conquered Persia.

“I. . .” he announced with a flourish, “. . .am finished!”

After work, Unc took us out to see the completed roof. One half said “flawless”. The other half said “Moe, Larry and Curly were here. Blindfolded.” Unc had painted the edges of the roof gray, splattering most of the paint everywhere except where he intended it to go. The roof’s air-vents had been replaced by holes drilled directly into the wood. Shingles on his side were already curling up at the edges. “It looks great, doesn’t it?” Unc beamed.

“Sure,” I said, weakly.

“Just think, if you would’ve paid a professional to do it, it would’ve cost you at least two grand, possibly more,” said Unc. “With me, it---"

“Cost us $4,000,” said the boss. “All of your bills and little expenses totaled up to nearly four grand.”

“That’s because I used only the best materials,” countered Unc. “You’ll thank me in the long run.”

A few days later, it rained. Several shingles on Unc’s side fell off.

After that summer, I returned to the shop just once, to visit. I asked my former boss about Unc. He had, she said, gone to live with her cousin in Florida. The cousin was a mechanic who owned his own business. The mechanic’s business closed six months after Unc arrived.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Ants, Grasshoppers and the Art of Doing Nothing

“We’ll call you if or when we know anything,” the girl at Dick’s Sporting Goods said, pertly.

“But that’s what you told me last week,” I said, trying not to whine.

There was a slight pause. Static on the phone line. Funny, but with all of today’s whoop-de-do technology, why haven’t they been able to eliminate static on phone lines?

“We’ll call you if or when we know anything,” she repeated, with every bit of youthful sugar and spice as before, totally ignoring my last statement. She was, obviously, a Stepford Wife.

I thanked her and hung up.

I was getting a bit antsy, I tell you. It was mid-June. I had continued bombarding every viable employer within twenty miles of my parents’ house with resumes and applications. The phone was not ringing. I went back over my list of places I had applied to, and phoned them all, asking for updates on my applications. From all, I got responses similar to the one above. I continued to haunt malls and shopping centers, searching for “HELP WANTED” signs. These, which had been so plentiful in May, had disappeared. The malls and shopping centers, however, had broken out in teenybopper employees, much like these employees’ faces had broken out in zits. Yes, I know I shouldn’t resent them. I know they, too, need jobs. I came to a conclusion I’d been fighting since Memorial Day.

I will (most likely) spend this summer, my first since 1986, sitting on my ass.

Right now, I can hear you. You’re wiping away imaginary tears while bawling “Boo-hoo-HOO!” sarcastically, like Kevin Arnold’s big brother on “The Wonder Years”. No, you are, and I don’t blame you. I’m the one who put me here. I won’t deny it.

When I was in high school and college, I always seemed to have friends who, when June rolled around, decided to take a pass on the job thing that summer. My God, did I resent them. One example: circa 1994, I was toiling in the Toys & Sporting Goods department of Long-Gone Department Store. There was this one kid named Chuck, maybe 17 years old, who worked part-time in Hardlines. Chuck, who had the IQ of a tree sloth and long blond hair that he constantly fiddled with, was about as helpless as a 6-week old baby. You could ask him to do something as simple as filling an empty shelf with merchandise, and unless someone stood next to him and kept him focused on task, the bastard would either stand there sucking air, or wander aimlessly around the store until his shift ended. This earned him the nickname of “Shmuck”.

Anyway, summer came and most of the part-timers in the store, school kids all, were looking to pick up more payroll hours. I could’ve used some extra help, because summer time meant swing-set time. I was getting tired of loading Power Ranger Jungle Gyms into customers’ cars by myself. I knew Shmuck would be off school soon. One day, I approached Shmuck in the Pool Accessories aisle. The store sold thick tubes of Day-Glo-colored plastic, about three feet long, as children’s’ pool toys. In full view of passing customers, Shmuck stood holding a bright orange tube between his legs, stroking it furiously with one hand and grinning lasciviously.

“Yo, Johnny! Get me!” Shmuck guffawed. “Get it? Get it?”

“Chuck,” I said, overlooking his subtle comedy, “you out of school now?”


“Boss says there’s more hours if you want ‘em.”

Shmuck stopped fondling the plastic tube and gingerly brushed his hair out of his eyes. “Well…naw.”

“What do you mean? It’s a chance to make more money. You said you wanted to buy a car soon. I could use an extra hand.”

Much like a horse, Shmuck snapped his head back and to the side, once again adjusting his ‘do. “Um, naw.”

I was getting a bit annoyed. “Chuck, you only work 12 hours a week now. You won’t be in school. What are you going to do this summer?”

Shmuck leaned the tube against a shelf and used both hands to gather his long blond locks behind his head into a temporary ponytail. “Uh, chill.”

Now he’d done it. He’d pushed me across the border from perturbed to pissed off. “How old are you, Chuck? Can you tell me that?”

Shmuck released the hair and it cascaded to his shoulders. “Sure enough. 17, last March.”

“17 years old?” I asked. “17? You’re not in school, and you work just two days a week?”


“And you’re going to spend the next three months ‘chilling’?”

“Chillin’,” Shmuck corrected me. “Yup.”

I was so mad, I wanted to strangle him. “So, while we’re here at the store, working short-handed, you’re going to just sit at home pissing away the summer, instead of seizing the opportunity to make money and gain experience?”

Shmuck thought deeply for a minute. “Yup,” he said, with an expression as straight as an arrow.

“Damn it, Chuck,” I said, pointing at him. “How can you waste your life that way? You’re a young man. You’re just too damn old to be spending so much time sitting on your ass! Tell me, what will you do while you’re ‘chillin’’?”

Shmuck ran a hand through his hair. “Thinkin’.”

“About what?”


I was too upset to continue. “See you later, Chuck,” I said, walking away.

Shmuck picked up the orange tube and resumed stroking. “Cool.”

I’m a living fossil. When I was young, my parents taught me a work ethic and it’s brought me nothing but aggravation ever since. My whole working life, it seems, has been plagued by Shmucks of some kind or another. I have always loathed lazy people, especially young lazy people, because it is they who are most physically able to tackle the tough, physical jobs. It is they, I felt,who needed to be out making their bones, learning the standards and practices that will serve them well later in life. The qualities of a good worker are the same, whether you’re standing behind a counter at Wal-Mart or sitting behind a desk at a Fortune 500 company. It’s like that old story about the ant and the grasshopper. I’ve always prided myself on being an ant and I’ve always hated grasshoppers.

But this summer, it seems, I’m a grasshopper. I was despising this fact, hating the fact that I’ll be wasting three months of my life. Until I picked up a book called Zen In the Martial Arts (Bantam, 1979) by Joe Hyams. The book chronicles Hyams’ 25 years experience studying various martial disciplines, such as karate and aikido, and his efforts to apply the “Zen principles” he learned through these disciplines to his everyday life.

There is one chapter in the book called “Active Inactivity”. Here, Hyams recounts how he learned the “art of doing nothing” from a European “saber” champion, Bronislaw Kaper. Kaper, wrote Hyams, advocated doing nothing as “ an activity and an exercise”, similar to a brief break in a piece of music. This “meaningful pause”, claimed Kaper, “allowed one to take stock of where one was.” Hyams goes on to write that he mentioned this to none other than Bruce Lee, who readily agreed. Lee, claims Hyams, said he “include[d] pause and silence along with activity, thus allowing [him]self time to sense [his] own internal processes as well as [his] opponent’s.” Wow. And here, I thought of it as sitting on your ass.

I never would’ve put Shmuck in the same class with Bruce Lee, but I guess the dunce was onto something. So I guess I’ll be spending the summer studying the art of active inactivity, plotting my next career move.

But I still hate grasshoppers.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

On Cheeseburgers and Dairy Queen Nights

The good job-hunter is also a good waiter. I’m not talking about food service; I’m referring to one who is proficient at watching time pass. With all these applications and resumes out, waiting is something I’ve been doing a lot of lately, and it hasn’t been easy. I’ve always been a do-it-and-get-it-over-with type of guy.

It helps if I have something constructive to occupy my mind. Books help. When I’m reading, I’m not obsessing over the second hand that’s running laps around the clock, running away with the time that I’m not using. Most often, I find myself turning to the books of Bob Greene.

You probably recognize the name, especially if you’ve spent any time in the Midwest. For about 30 years, Bob Greene was a Chicago newspaper columnist, first for the Chicago Sun-Times and later, for the Chicago Tribune. His work was syndicated in over a hundred newspapers nationally. He also authored a monthly column for Esquire magazine, as well as twenty-one books. Many of those were national bestsellers.

If you don’t recognize the name, I encourage you to seek out his work. “Cut the crap, Left,” you may say upon opening your first Greene book. “A million reporters are writing this kind of stuff. Big deal!” That’s right, and damn near all of them are imitating Greene. Poorly, I might add. This man pioneered the “human interest” column. Before him, most stories of this kind were relegated to the back pages of the Sunday supplement, away from the “real” news. Greene made “human interest” his stock-in-trade and showed us all the real news we were missing.

His 1985 collection of columns, Cheeseburgers, is my favorite Greene book. Look into “Western Reunion”, about an annual gathering of that fast-disappearing breed, retired Western Union telegraph operators. Try “Strangers on a Plane”, the story of the young widow of an airline employee who, using “spouse passes”, flies randomly around the country, at once fleeing and seeking something she can’t quite put into words. Sample “Nixon on Nixon”, which is probably the most in-depth interview Tricky Dick ever gave to any reporter. See pages and pages of seemingly ordinary subjects, made extraordinary through Greene’s transforming lens. Then think about that old saying regarding truth, strangeness and fiction and wonder why so few reporters before this guy bothered to write these types of stories down.

Later in his career, Greene became something of an advocate for abused and neglected children, devoting many columns to this cause. Some of the best examples of these are contained in his 1997 book, Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights. “Why Weren’t You His Friends?” describes the aftermath of the suicide of a brutally picked-on junior high school student in a small town in Iowa. “The Children’s Voices” recounts the often wrenching experiences of senior citizen volunteers at a Chicago call center for latchkey kids. “Please. . .Don’t Send Me Away” is one of Greene’s most famous columns. In it, he records the anguished final minutes that Richard, a 4-year old boy, spends with his beloved adopted family before being taken away—by order of the Illinois Supreme Court—to live with the biological parents who freely gave him up three years before. In my opinion, it’s some of the best news writing of the late 20th Century.

For three decades, Bob Greene was a star journalist in Chicago, if not nationally. But a shock wave—should I call it karma?—ended his star run in 2002. Greene resigned from his job with the Chicago Tribune, following a complaint the paper received from a woman who claimed that she and the married journalist had had an affair several years before. The reason behind her belated complaint remains speculative. At the time of the alleged liaison, Greene was in his mid-30’s. The woman was 18 years old.

A media furor of the kind Americans have grown so accustomed to followed this revelation. Greene, in his columns of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, had championed a return to the morality and temperament of the pre-Vietnam War America. Evidently, he didn’t practice what he preached. Once the story broke, many women came forth with accounts of their supposed relationships with the columnist, some dating back to the beginning of his career. Greene, for his part, made no attempt to deny the accusations. I refer interested parties to Marcia F. Coburn and Steve Rhodes’ Chicago Magazine article (February, 2003) and Bill Zehme’s Esquire feature (April, 2003) for further information.

I won’t defend Greene. Obviously, what he did was wrong and he deserved to lose his job—years ago. Since the scandal, aside from his input on the above-mentioned Zehme article, Greene has virtually disappeared from the Chicago media scene he once dominated. He did publish a new book, Fraternity: a Journey in Search of Five Presidents (Crown, 2004), which collects his musings on and interviews with Presidents Nixon through George H.W. Bush. I haven’t read it. The reviews I’ve seen were polite at best, indifferent at worst. If Greene decides to continue his career in journalism, it’s certain that he’ll be playing to a much smaller audience than he previously enjoyed.

I will admit to having very mixed feelings. Greene’s transgressions disgusted me. Like millions of other readers, I believed in what he wrote and believed that the writings reflected the writer. If I had the chance to shake his hand, I wouldn’t. Still, Bob Greene was one of my literary role-models and remains one of my favorite authors. By all means, look into his books. Just not too far. I guess this is where I trot out that old English Department warhorse about having to separate the man from his work.

All I know is, his books still bring me comfort. When I open the paper each day, I miss reading his column. And I feel wrong for doing so.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Seeking Normalcy on Oblivious Lane

My surprise “vacation” has given me the time to do many interesting and exciting things. Like reading my local newspaper. It’s a small tabloid weekly about 30 pages long, including ads. While my parents have faithfully subscribed to this paper since yours truly was in Pampers, I haven’t taken a sideways glance at it since I moved out into the “real world” over a decade ago. My community and I had been out of touch since then.

This is irony with a capital “I”, because for the longest time, I looked down my nose at people who weren’t “news-conscious”. I got into arguments with friends and co-workers who didn’t keep up on headline events. How zoned out could a person be, I declared, and still have his or her eyes open? You have to consciously try to be Hip to the Jive. Even when I was working, I read the Chicago Tribune’s editorial section every day. CNN and The Week, a magazine that boils national and international issues down into digest form, fill in the rest of the blanks for me. You don’t have to be a PhD to be tuned in to the world, but you do have to make an effort. Yes, have to, because the failure to do so strands you on the same intellectual desert island populated by Paris Hilton, Mr. Britney Spears and everyone who has appeared on MTV’s “The Real World” since 1997.

“But Jooohhhnnnn, everybody’s busy!!” Okay, I heard you and that is true (for everyone except, uh, me). Life in our jet set world, right? And somehow, we still find time for so many superfluous things---video games, internet chat rooms, porno, “reality” TV. But when it comes to learning about world issues, we don’t have a minute to spare.

How I loved wearing my cloak of self-righteousness, available in three canting colors from the Tim Robbins Collection at Kmart! Yet, I had to learn that there are levels of news-consciousness. I might’ve been up on happenings in Washington and Baghdad. But what about my own neck of the woods? This is the ironic part. When it came to local issues, I was sitting right next to Paris in that pink convertible, cruising down Oblivious Lane.

My whole argument for being an Informed Person always was that you had to focus on the Big Issues, because the Big Issues drive our world and determine the course it follows. Problem is, this noble-sounding argument is a bitter pill to swallow. The Big Issues are usually messy and often ugly. Daily life is already a raging fire of negativity---lousy boss, hectic schedule, mortgage, bills, etc. Worrying about what happens in Washington, Seoul or Baghdad will only add fuel to that fire. Why, countered my blissfully ignorant friends, be a glutton for punishment?

The news isn’t any better at the local level. Big city troubles, like gangs, drugs and common violence, have infected even the so-called “good” areas, the tidy suburbs and Mayberry-like provinces. More negativity, more logs on the fire. How can anyone stand so much bleakness without cracking up? If anything, Hilton-style haziness would seem to be a calming tonic for our super-stressed, self-immolating society. Why not just circle the wagons and muddle through? Flip on “American Idol,” log onto and buy more stuff you don’t need. If you don’t know, you won’t care.

Modern demands and conveniences have driven us into the far corners of our heads. The communities in which we live have, for many of us, become little more than staging areas in between traveling to the job and traveling home from the job, where we eat, surf the Web, watch Jessica Simpson and sleep so we can get up and do it again. We know no more about these “hometowns” of ours than we do about those exotic locales that keep cropping up on “Nightline”. And honestly, why would you want to? I was beginning to think that Paris Hilton was a sort of visionary, not exiled to an island of mental deficiency, but rather, lounging on a sliver of sanity at the center of an insane sea.

Sometimes, thoughts are like paintings. You have to step back and take a hard look to see what they truly are. Only then did it come to me. Yes, you had to choose to be informed, had to actively seek out information. You had to seek out negativity, in order to come to terms with it. But you also had to seek out normalcy, to remind yourself that it’s still there.

I realized this when I picked up a recent issue of my local paper. The front page story detailed how a guy nearly beat his wife to death. One whole page was devoted to crime reports, infractions too varied to list here. Another page carried obituaries. All tragic events and all tragically part of life. But it wasn’t anything written that stuck in my mind. Two photos, printed deep within that edition, did. One photo was taken in the gymnasium of the local grammar school. A bunch of 5-year olds sat mugging for the camera at their kindergarten “graduation”. You could tell the types by their expressions---the clown, the serious one, the quiet one. Those personalities that somehow regenerate themselves with every generation. In the background, you could see a few parents, inflated with pride. On another page, another picture, taken outside a local banquet hall. A group of high school seniors were lined up and grinning, dressed in their prom finery. They looked happy and hopeful, as well they should at that time of their lives. Nothing special about the photo; it was just like a dozen before it, just like a dozen to come. The same thing every June.

Only then did I learn what it meant to be truly news-conscious. This is a sad and twisted time we’re living in, that’s easy to see. It’s these sad and twisted events that grab the lion’s share of headlines and the lion’s share of our attention. But at the same time, right under our noses, normalcy is happening. Positive, reassuring things that happen every year, in the towns we live in. In spite of a war, a failing economy, in spite of the continuing social erosion we’ve been talking about since, well, forever. Somehow, without fanfare, in the face of whatever horror we’re confronted with, these things happen as well. And somehow, we easily forget that.

You aren’t, I learned, informed for grappling with the Big Issues. You’re informed for acknowledging those things, large or small, that deserve acknowledgment. In remote outposts or right up the street. To do so, you must deliberately choose to seek them out. And often, that’s as easy as opening your local paper.