catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 22 :: 2012.12.07 — 2012.12.20


Birth announcements

During my sophomore year of high school, my family made the unusual decision to travel to Florida for Christmas vacation and stay in my grandparents’ condo.  It was a season of big decisions, in fact.  I asked my aunt, who lives in south Florida, for a salon recommendation and cut off all of my hair.  I returned to Indiana quite shorn to find a stack of letters from the boy I’d been sorta “dating,” in our quirky, non-traditional way — exclusive “hanging out,” more like, with copious amounts of handholding and music-sharing.  Each letter, one for every day I was away, was chicken-scratched on notebook paper and mailed in an envelope that had been handmade out of the Sunday comics.

Over the next few years, I’d come to learn that this boy’s family didn’t subscribe to the paper, but his dad went out to the local grocery store each Saturday night to pick up the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune, fat with the weekly circulars, and, of course, the color comics.  Rob’s Christmas presents, recognizable each year for their newspaper wrapping, became Rob and Kirstin’s presents as our lives slowly merged toward collaborative gift-giving, and then marriage.

But newspaper as giftwrap and envelopes represents just a very small portion of the role that print journalism played in our lives as we grew up together.  Toward the end of our junior year, our very brave and perhaps prescient journalism teacher asked us to be co-editors of the student paper, and we continued to fall in love and break each other’s hearts over deadlines and headlines and Adobe Pagemaker.  The Chicago Tribune came to mean more to both of us, as we delved into assigned stories and learned to savor the writing of Mike Royko in his twilight years as an iconic columnist.  In college, we dabbled in official publications, but found our true passion in resurrecting an underground magazine that proved to be less prophetic critique than it was a goof-off platform and financial sinkhole.

15 years later, I think we’ve finally paid off the debt for that ill-advised laser printer, and we’ve learned to be staunch defenders not just of edgy, truth-telling journalism, but of the ordinary stuff, too — the smudgy, daily chronicles of book clubs and new fire trucks, of vintage tennis rackets for sale and Mr. Griggs’ third grade class mural project.  We subscribe to the New York Times, which gets delivered to our small town door every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as well as the local daily, which takes considerably less time to read, but helps us know our place in a way the NYT never could.

For me, the current trends of newspaper conglomeration and disintegration cause no small amount of anxiety.  Perhaps I worry about how a new generation of bookish rebels will ever manage to fall in love with a person or with a place without the newspaper.  In “Final Edition: Twilight of the American newspaper” (Harper’s, 2009), Richard Rodriguez writes,

It was the pride and the function of the American newspaper in the nineteenth century to declare the forming congregation of buildings and services a city — a place busy enough or populated enough to have news…  The new country imagined it could read and write itself into existence.

So what happens as one newspaper after another disintegrates in favor of virtual information?  Will our places Benjamin-Button themselves back to infancy and then simply disappear?  Does the process Rodriguez describes reverse itself, unmaking places as newspapers are unmade, or are we experiencing a collective re-birth with new conventions that will define our places as worthy of attention and public record?  Perhaps the new forms describe more accurately and with similar tenacity as the papers of old where many of us really live: an on-demand cyberworld increasingly customized to predict our next consumer choice, one to which we can’t quite remember subscribing.

Advent, with all of its emphasis on the Word incarnate, provokes me to consider more than just the newspaper.  We’ve come a long way from the day when the latest news was announced by angelic beings in the sky and notable exceptions to star patterns, and yet we’re asked to consider how such an ancient birth announcement might shape our reality two thousand years later.  Does this Word, like the newspaper of an emerging nation, make us who we are?  Does it legitimate our very existence, taking the best and worst of us into itself, becoming greater than the sum of its parts?

From where I sit, surrounded by magazines and books and newspapers, and yet with a computer balanced on my lap to write an editorial for an online magazine, I can only hope that both the Word incarnate and the word in print continue to play formative roles in my life, whether the news is as ordinary as whose turn it is to wash the dishes, or as sensational as a virgin birth.

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