When I was very young, my grandfather, an ardent Christian conservative, put a lot of pressure on my parents to enroll me in a parochial school, an ironic choice given my parents were both public school educators. But, they chose to go along with the request, at least in part because the public schools near me probably weren’t the equivalent of Our Savior, where I went from kindergarten through eighth grade.
This was the 1970s and Christianity was, even in the south, somewhat different than what it became after the Moral Majority movement of the early 1980s. In many ways, it was hippy Christianity. We sung folk songs in class. We talked about water conservation and God in nature. I suspected sometime later that more than a few of the teachers and parents smoked weed.
It was still church-based. It was still in Texas. That meant the occasional fire and brimstone sermon, corporal punishment for a variety of infractions and a fairly closely guarded morality. But, it wasn’t the harsh, polarizing, political, often angry version of Christianity popularized on talk shows and in speeches today. My teachers were silk shirts and Birkenstocks, not three-piece suits and wing tips…at least not until high school, which was, to say the least, confusing for a 13-year-old who had no dog in politics and whose parents were decidedly liberal compared to most of the parents of kids my age.
This week, I read about a kid who left Lutheran High North in Houston, the high school I attended from 1983-87. According to a video he posted on YouTube, he was given an ultimatum by the school to to stop being gay or face expulsion. I didn’t find the story all that surprising.
Before I graduated in 1987, the school, already evangelically inclined, was deepening in conservative theology. Teachers who were on the fringe of those belief systems were leaving — rumors say they were being dismissed — and students were being forced into a more regimented approach to school. Long hair on boys and short skirts on girls were all but eliminated. Soon, school uniforms replaced jeans and collared shirts.
While I was there, the same institution that fostered my young Christian studies actually helped to begin my shift away from conservative, Christian beliefs, albeit inadvertently, via a viewing of Ghandi in history class (I simply couldn’t fathom that that man of peace was going to hell simply for being Hindu — nevermind the congregation of Hari Krishnas a block down the street my religion teacher referred to as “a cult”) and through long discussions about meditation and literature with various teachers who have all moved on to other schools and professions. After my time at LHN, the school began rapidly removing as many elements of secularism possible.
Of course, Lutheran High North was and is free to do whatever it wants. It is a Christian institution based on the beliefs of the church in this modern era. Lutheran is right there in the name, after all, and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is only slightly less conservative than the Southern Baptist church and not close to the folksy, quaintly liberal American Synod as caricatured in NPR’s long-running series A Prairie Home Companion. As a school and a religion, they are all welcome to discriminate whether I agree with those beliefs or not.
And this is not to say there aren’t good people working for parochial schools. There most certainly are. The education kids receive there is often superior to what they find in overcrowded and under-funded public schools, despite the reliance on sometimes dogmatic theology.
Still, that specter of evangelical conservatism is something that must be dealt with if that isn’t your cup of tea. It makes me wonder if kids are still having sex, drinking and doing drugs to the degree they did in my high school years. There were clearly some gay and lesbian students when I was in school, long before “don’t ask don’t tell” was a thing, and, to my knowledge, no one pulled them out of class to tell them to get back in the closet. I have a suspicion that that is, for the most part, true today as well. The church can be notorious for conveniently ignoring people’s private lives so long as they don’t “put it in our faces” which, I suppose, could be argued this young man did when he posted about who he is online. Lutherans, Germans in particular, don’t care for outward displays of pretty much anything, so a boy kissing his boyfriend on YouTube likely qualifies in the minds of these religious folk as “in their faces.”
For my part, I got a good education from LHN and Our Savior before it. Let’s say I was mentally advanced but socially stunted. To go from a graduating class of just over 50 to my first psychology class at the University of Texas of 500-plus was jarring. To see kids openly doing things people at my school only did behind locked, closed doors in respectfully darkened rooms was eye-opening. And to experience a liberal college campus was as liberating as it was uncomfortable.
But, it became quickly and readily apparent that this was preferable for me. The year after I left school, they instituted a hair rule that would have forced me to cut my rapidly growing locks — this was the ’80s. Naturally, many of the kids with long hair simply shaved their heads, much to the consternation of those in charge. Kids will be kids after all. Within a few years, my hair was reaching my waist and people who knew me as the good, conservative, Christian boy suddenly looked at me differently, and I couldn’t blame them although I probably did at the time. I WAS different and that was totally fine, even if it felt like a betrayal to the 20-something version of myself.
I wouldn’t necessarily trade those years in parochial school. They, as much as any other part of my life, made me who I am today and I’m ok with that guy. But, I respect the struggles others like this young man must endure. Being different is not easy, especially when everyone around you can seem, at times, almost clone-like in their similarity, like one giant, religious clique to which you are, ever so politely, uninvited.
My only advice to him would be to be glad you can move on. Being who you are is always better than bowing to the pressures of those who don’t want you. People are going to think differently than you no matter how accepting the world becomes of you or anyone else. There will always be something to argue about, always a group that sets itself apart from the rest of the world because it believes something others don’t.
Be glad you figured it out when you were still a teen. Some people go their whole lives and never do.
But, I’m back (albeit briefly) to discuss something I’ve talked alot about lately. In addition to people asking my advice on how to “become a writer” or “how to get a job in journalism,” I have also had long talks with friends and colleagues about the way young people enter into the business. It has led me to some conclusions I thought I’d share.
I’m not a journalism teacher and, to be completely honest, I don’t even consider myself a “journalist.” I feel like that term is reserved for the full-time, hard core writers, particularly those who do investigative work. I’m more of a blogger or reporter, but I’ve spent enough time talking to people about it over the last 20 years, I feel like I have maybe a smidgen of insight…though even that is debatable.
Learn to self edit.
Everyone wants to write, but no one wants to open an AP Stylebook. There is real value in learning the difference between its and it’s or the correct way to write 1 p.m. On a personal blog, who cares? I can write however and whatever I want. For a publication — particularly a print one — you better learn. It also teaches you the value of being edited. No copy is too precious that an editor won’t whack it in half or take our your overly florid language. A good editor will make it a LOT better. Help them. Help yourself. Self edit.
Write all the time.
I saw a quote recently that said, “The hardest part of writing is the writing.” Get used to it. Learn to write quickly (with accuracy) and editors will love you. You do this through practice, even if it is just writing for yourself. Any creative endeavor requires time sitting and practicing. I used to sit and play the bass for hours and hours. I’ve done the same with writing. It’s like training for a marathon. If you can’t write one story in a day, how could you possibly churn out multiple blog posts in an afternoon? That happens…frequently.
Read all the time.
I never gained a great love of reading like my fiancée and my father, to name a couple. A child of the original video game era, I preferred things I could do with more than just my eyes and brain. But, reading newspapers, blogs, publications of all kinds is hugely important. To use the musician analogy again, most of them become great through emulation of their idols. Writers grow in much the same way.
Be well rounded.
While covering the editor desk at the Houston Press, I’ve run across interns and freelancers who only want to write about one thing and in one way. That’s not how the world of writing works. To become a niche expert, you either have to BE an expert in that area (former football player writing about football, a surgeon writing about gall bladder operations, etc) or you have to have written about it nearly exclusively for a LONG time. Read the news. Understand politics. Gain some insight into healthcare and education. Follow sports. Visit museums and learn about the arts. Not only will it make you a better and more interesting writer, it will make you a better person.
Be willing to take jobs no one else will.
The way to work your way up in any organization is to be willing to do the dirty work. General managers in sports started as equipment managers. Famous producers started by sweeping the floors of recording studios. Directors got their starts as errand boys on movie sets. The grunt work of journalism is often writing boring crime stories or re-organizing press releases. But do it well, efficiently and without complaint and you’ll be in position for other opportunities. I know you might think you are above it, but you aren’t.
Learn how to research and interview people.
Probably the single most frustrating thing about journalism students is their inability and unwillingness to do real reporting. It means going out and talking to people, doing research and allowing the story to tell itself without your conclusions. Too many want to just read a story and then riff on its contents. This is not real reporting. If you become a skilled interviewer, it will not only put you ahead of your peers early on, but it will make you a better listener and basically a better human being.
It’s been quite sometime since I’ve penned a response to a Dear Abby. I’ve done it quite a bit in the past, but I’ve been hella busy and, alas, good old Abs has been neglected. But, not today, my good sir (or madam)!
Today (well, technically, last week), Abby is confronted with a most vexing problem. A woman, whose mother is 70, has been invited to…dear lord…a lingerie shower for mumsy. I call her mumsy because I assume she is either from the northeast, Great Britain or some weird place where everyone calls their moms mumsy. I would do that, but my mom would just laugh and laugh and I would have to tell her to stop and there would be begging and ridicule.
Anyway, mumsy is 70 and little honey boo boo child is aghast at the notion of showering her mother in ladies under garments. Let’s listen in…
DEAR ABBY: My 70-something-year-old mother is being remarried soon. I’m happy she has found love again after my father’s passing. Several of her friends are throwing her a lingerie shower to celebrate. Abby, I am uncomfortable attending this party.
I asked that she exclude me from the list, but yesterday I received an invitation. Hooray! She has a new life which involves new love. I just don’t want to think of my mother in that role. Am I wrong to not want to attend? — THEY GROW UP SO FAST
GASP! The horror. Your mother has…OMG…SEX!
Look, I know we all try to imagine our parents as celibates and our births as immaculate conceptions, but the truth is, older folks still do the nast-ay. And you should damn well hope that they do because you, my dear, will be 70 one day (God willing) and I’d like to believe you want all your lady business to still get its freak on.
Of course, my mother is a saint. I assume that sex for her is like that episode of Star Trek: Voyager where the hot female Q and the regular old Q procreated by touching fingers. My mom isn’t an omnipotent being — that I know of — but I still hold out hope that her only sex is the finger kind. Wait, that’s not what I meant.
You know what, nevermind. She’s right. Case closed.
I know, it’s been a while, but the truth is I didn’t want to write a long rant on Facebook and this seems the best place for it, even if it is so long abandoned it feels like a ghost town. Woooooooooo…
This image was posted on Facebook today by a photography group called Light Stalking. It was reposted by a friend and I added a couple of comments. It dovetails nicely into an argument I’ve had with people for the last five to ten years about the suspicion and even outright disdain many show for experts. I’ve noticed it a lot in music and photography, but it is clearly visible in science, for example, as well. The recent gaffe by Todd Akin would be a good example.
For the purposes of this particular post, I’m going to focus on photography and the idea that it isn’t the gear that makes a photographer good, but the skill of the photographer and I agree in the most simplistic sense that the logic is accurate. There is no more annoying comment to a photographer than, “That’s a beautiful photo. You must have a nice camera.” Um, yeah, dipshit, that’s what it was. It had nothing to do with my abilities, just a really expensive camera.
It reminded me of a gig years ago. After I got done playing, another musician approached me impressed with the sound of my bass. She and another person had been debating what made it sound so good. They speculated I tuned it differently or that the bass and/or amp were very expensive, none of which was true and, when I told them this, they just shrugged and said, “Yeah, we couldn’t figure it out.” I guess it’s not possible that it was THE MOTHERFUCKER PLAYING THE BASS.
My only concern with the logic in the graphic is the implication that anyone with an iPhone can be Ansel Adams. It is true that great photos can be taken with very inexpensive and technologically inferior equipment. People have been doing it for decades. There were wondrous images embossed on tin types from the 1800s that were taken with something akin to a magnifying glass attached to a cardboard box.
However, as I pointed out in the post on Facebook, NASA astronauts traveled to the moon using technology not even powerful enough to power a decent calculator today, but it doesn’t mean they would pass on using modern technology now simply because they COULD do without.
The essence of being great at anything is the ability to combine real talent with creativity, intelligence, work ethic and the right tools for the job. The best athletes to ever play sports had serious talent, competitive drive like few others, incredible awareness on the court or field and constantly evolving creativity. But, they were also blessed with real, God-given machinery in the form of musculature and reflexes that the vast majority of us simply don’t have. Their equipment was vastly superior and they spent their lives learning how to master the use of it.
In photography, the best of the best not only take great shots, they know how to replicate them and how to react quickly to changing environments. And, yes, they could probably take a substantially better photo with an iPhone than a novice could with a $3000 camera, but pros don’t show up at photo shoots with point-and-shoot cameras because they want to be able to have every tool at their disposal. You COULD build a house with a hammer and hand saw, but why wouldn’t you use power tools if they were available to you?
I guess this sort of thing tweaks me because I know how much time and effort and money is put into being great at something and it is often overlooked because technology has expanded so dramatically in the last decade. Virtually anyone can make music or shoot photos or create logos or manage a sports team using modern technology, but it doesn’t mean they can do those things well.
And even if someone produces a stunning work of art with a mobile phone, that doesn’t make him/her a great artist. A great artist could do it again and again and again. To reference sports again, it isn’t a single great performance that defines and athlete. It is the ability to duplicate and even improve on that performance over and over and over again. Photographers are no different.
This is not to discourage anyone from following their creative instincts. In fact, just the opposite. If you like to take pictures, GREAT! Welcome to the club. But bear in mind that while gear isn’t the be-all-end-all of photography, it is an essential aspect of growing both as a skilled technician and an artist. Very few true artists are able to do what they do without the benefit of good gear. Maybe you are one of those exceptions, but it is more likely your best bet is to get some good equipment and learn how to use it.
It won’t necessarily make you great, but it will make it tougher to suck.
I began to write this on the year-end “what we are thankful for” post I was editing for the Rocks Off blog on the Houston Press website, but I realized it was way too personal and probably better served for posting here.
I have come to referring to myself as the utility infielder for the Houston Press. John Nova Lomax, one of my all time favorite writers there, has graciously suggested that I have perhaps even elevated myself to the level of Bill Spiers! Truth is, I am tremendously blessed by the opportunity to work with such a wonderful group of people at a terrific publication. For that opportunity I am eternally grateful.
Over the past month, I have had the great pleasure of filling in for music editor Chris Gray, someone I not only consider a colleague, but a friend. I only wish my prolonged duties had come under better circumstances — he suffered a heart attack that has kept him out of commission for a while — but working in his stead has helped me to re-discover a love for music just as writing for the Press got me fired up about writing again. I find myself listening to more music, reading more news about it and practicing harder at the bass than I have in 20 years. I owe him a tremendous debt for this (as do the people who listen to my playing on a regular basis), but his healthy return will be thanks enough because I have no clue how he does it all. I’m seriously in awe.
And all of this reminds me of my dad. My father was a writer, a photographer and a teacher and my first real hero. He passed away almost four years ago and, as a result, never had the chance to read all I’ve written for the Press over the last two years. When I think about that, I’m not sad for what he may have missed — God knows, some of it, he’s better off — or that the man who was so supportive can’t share in it with me. Instead, I find myself grateful for what he gave me through love, jokes, wisdom and genetics. I’d like to think, of the hundreds of kids he influenced as a teacher over nearly 40 years, he would be happiest to know that his longest-tenured and, at times, most difficult student has not forgotten his influence and has made healthy use of it.
Finally, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for music this year. My long love affair with the bass was re-kindled over the past few months and it’s been surprising the discoveries I’ve made. It has restored my faith in an artform that admittedly I had nearly forgotten.
Oh, and I would be completely remiss if I didn’t mention a few other key contributors to my life. My mom is the greatest woman I know. Period. I cannot imagine who I would be without here. A very close second is my girlfriend, Cathy, who, with all deference to the Power Puff girls, is the joy and the laughter.
I also want to thank Cathy’s niece, Jade, who constantly reminds me how magical music can be and what a dramatic impact it can have on your life. She is WAY too smart and talented to be 13. It’s terrifying.
Finally, to my band — George, Chris and Joe — who have put up with my crazy for longer than most of my friends, you guys rock and I mean that literally.