Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Once an amateur journalist, there's no turning back
In the 1990s, I entered the debate on gays in the military by writing my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book. My original driving concept had been a certain parallel between the circumstances in college dorms in the early 1960s when I had been “expelled” from William and Mary, and the facile “privacy” issue about forced intimacy in military barracks. This quickly got to be elaborated to exploring the “unit cohesion” issue and seeing how it parallels the tension over hyper-individualism in larger society. The military gay ban (and 17-year “don’t ask don’t tell” policy) seemed like the rocky core of a “gas giant” of concentric issues concerning how the “different” individual should (or can) fit into and contribute to larger society.
I had originally expected my (ultimately) self-published book to get around by “word of mouth” and indeed it did (especially at first, after I had moved to Minneapolis and got on television). But I soon found that web publishing, because of free (and effortless) search engine indexing was an unexpectedly efficient (and ultimately controversial) way to be found in the old Web 1.0 world.
So over time I built up a large body of material on my websites and (after 2006) blogs that played “devil’s advocate” with just about everyone’s position on everything. My value was simply being there and a certain stability that I wasn’t going away. Over the years, I had a great record for up-time. (Even with “VirtualNetspace”, owned by a coworker, I had only about three down days in my first four years).
I think that my staying in the “publicity” game so long, so that I would be found by hundreds of thousands of visitors, was a significant factor in the eventual repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in 2011. Had I not been there all these years, it just might not have happened. One person can make that much difference, if he “does the work”. And therein – in “asymmetry” -- lies a controversy.
Again, my total focus was on “intellectual honesty”. I would not give in on a point so that one party on an issue that needs help can meet its needs. In my world, there are no “victims”; there is only success or failure, and hard fact. There is personal responsibility.
And then, sometimes there isn’t. Some people start ahead in line and don’t realize it, no matter how much “responsibility” they show. A society that says it values human life for its own sake must expect compassion from everyone.
All of this plays out in complicated, unusual ways among people who are “different” – that is, people with unusual (expressive) gifts or talents, but sometimes with certain social impediments in doing the things normally “expected of everybody”. Exploring this problem – what should people who are different expect and what should be expected of “them” – became my goal.
I could not make people money doing this. I had gone down a path of no return. Perhaps, as it turned out (as my estate settled after mother passed away at the end of 2010) I could afford to. And perhaps I could “get away with it” because I came into the self-publishing world relatively late – at age 54, when, given the times of my career, I could anticipate early “retirement” anyway and start a second career – on my terms, in my own ballpark with me setting the distances to the outfield fences.
So I was now in a position where I could never, for the rest of my life, work for or join some other party’s “partisan” (that is, biased) interest. I couldn’t “raise money” for anyone or knock on doors. By instantiating myself (with my own “constructor”) as an amateur journalist, I had taken a moral lifetime pledge of “objectivity”.
In the employment area, this could present serious practical problems. The best arrangement would be to find an I.T. contract where I would remain an “individual contributor”. But I now posed a practical risk: I could be going to work for a place in order to “report” on it in a self-published mode (aka, “spy” on it, the so-called “Food Lion Problem” that ABC experienced in the 1990s.)
I did get approached to peddle things. I have a feeling that some people who found my materials online decided to see if they could divert me. Maybe I really was a “threat”.
For example, I was contacted by both New York Life and Humana to become a life insurance agent. I actually went through a few steps of the interview process at NYL out at Tyson’s Corner in 2005. I was attractive because I had twelve years of life insurance experience in the information technology area. So isn’t it logical I ought to be able to sell it? One of the questions the screening questionnaire probes is how you feel about buying anything from a salesman. Interesting! If you get hired, you need a “fast start” and an early exercise is generating 200 leads. In fact, I still get email leads today from that adventure!
Seriously, though, could I warm up to going into somebody’s home an putting on an act that I can show someone how to take care of his family when I didn’t have one myself? Get the drift?
Another approach was from HR Block, to become a tax preparer. This interchange went on in 2008, during the crisis. You take some classes and take the test for a license. Then you can start at $8 am hour. I felt that I just didn’t have time for this.
Another time I got an unsolicited call (late on a Friday afternoon, in Feb. 2007) about managing teams of teens raising money for charities by trolling shopping malls. I was to be their mentor. Unbelievable.
The best chance might have come from becoming a teacher, which I have covered before extensively. I thought for a while I could wing this – become a calculus teacher (I actually had found that getting back up to speed on the math wasn’t too hard, and passing Praxis wouldn’t be a problem), and somehow thread through the risks of my online exposure (pre-Facebook, but just barely, based on the Web 1.0 world, which was not really aware yet of the dangers). The demand, it seemed, though, was in the other direction, particularly in the special education and low income areas. And you need real “fathering” skills to handle kids like this, and I had never been a father.
But in all of these “opportunities”, I would have had to remove all of my self-published “research”, and expropriated my own online presence (eventually in modern social media) for “professional” purposes which were, by definition, somewhat “partisan”. So after mid 2007, I have done nothing else but “publish”.
Yes, I am sometimes uncomfortable about my “know it all” status, although I didn’t see it this way when I got in originally.
What I need to finish now is several initiatives, in which I need to get good at several things, including music composition software (Sibelius), video editing (Final Cut), fiction (the novel concept), screenwriting (toward a film proposal), and non-fiction political and social material (my current books and blogs). I cannot simply select one item and “sell it” and make somebody easy money. It all has to be part of an integrated effort. (So calls to me about how to sell a 15-year-old book do fall on deaf ears.)
And to pull this off, I need to stay focused and eliminate disruptions. I need to keep an infrastructure secure and running (and I do depend on customer service from power, cable and wireless companies).
Of course, published expression (whether movies, books, or music) isn’t worth anything without an audience or customers, so at some level it must “help people”. So a natural question comes up, why don’t I enjoy “helping people” for their own sake more than I do?
For one thing, if I’m using my own skills and doing something I believe it was my “destiny” to achieve, I don’t find myself pondering what I think of the person getting “help”. The whole issue of “upward affiliation” stays on my own back Bunsen burner. “Argo”, if I help direct a chess tournament in the inner city for underprivileged kids (I did this once in 2006), I ought to be good at playing tournament chess myself; in that sense, I would feel like a good (“fatherly”) role model. If the volunteerism has something to do with music, I ought to be getting somewhere with my own music (some manuscripts exist from the time I was 13). I don’t see that if I just volunteer under someone else’s agenda and “pay my dues” that I am achieving much, and I am likely to feel critical of the “recipients”, although I understand that simple volunteerism does help build social capital to meet future calamities.
I do see that I could make a contribution to the media world (CNN, AC360, Huffington, Rock Center – I actually worked for NBC in IT once --, 20-20, or perhaps, especially, Wikipedia) but to sell myself, I would have to get all the diverse pieces of my own effort now done first! I can’t just sell one piece very easily by itself.
There are dangers out there for me, because the world of user-generated content, upon which I predicated my whole life after about 1997, is predicated on certain business models that necessarily pose certain risks to the public. Even though I don’t think I abuse anything myself, I take advantage of a system in which it is very hard to prevent piracy, cyberbullying, identity theft, reputational assault, and the like.
There’s even another wrinkle to this that no one has noticed: speaker accountability, which goes in hand with anonymity issues. I work solo. If something happens to me (death, or, for example, a long hospitalization), there’s no one else who can answer a “complaint”. As I think about this, I’m surprised that service providers and ISP’s and shared hosting services don’t have more specific requirements in this area. (I see an earlier posting on this issue July 3, 2012).
I am indeed socially isolated. If I were to experience a serious medical challenge, I might not be game for extensive treatment and lifestyle challenges that normally require, as Dr. Oz once said, “that you love someone and he or she loves you back”, regardless of helplessness or desecration. Or if some calamity or Maoist "purification" happened that made technology unusable (like EMP, or the show “Revolution”), I don’t think the world would have much use for someone like me.
When I was growing up, I picked up an impression that people’s capabilities had moral explanations. You lived a certain lifespan, but you didn’t expect extraordinary efforts at the end. The world was a dangerous place, and family members had to watch each other’s backs. At the same time, there was a certain “Darwinian” (or “Spencerian”) outlook. People of less ability (or who worked less hard) became beholden to the control of others if they lived at all. They might wind up as cannon fodder (as was the case with the Vietnam era draft and student deferments). A world like that didn’t create a lot of empathy with the poor or disadvantaged.
Yet, in the past years, after I made myself public, I found myself being approached, to make someone else in whom I never had a “stake” all right. It was a strange twist in a world that before had expected people to mind their own business and that didn’t want “people like me” responsible for their kids. And I found the approaches unwelcome. Unless I was using my own talents (and I admit there could have been some situations where I could have tried harder to do so), I would just be making some thing or someone “all right” when I didn’t believe that I should do so. After all, I had never entered the world of courtship, marriage, and parentage. Why? Partly it was because I had grown up thinking I wasn’t physically competitive enough to “deserve” children. I had bought into the artificial meritocracy of my surroundings, and then found that (with technology) I could come to terms with it, by observing it at a distance, by kibitzing, and (as in general relativity) by affecting what I observed, ironically confirming a system that at one time would have judged me a physical coward. No wonder I could generate resentment, or at least indignation.
I could see what this was all about, the idea that everyone should be able to develop interest in others based partly on real need, not just on fantasy.
First picture, Wikipedia attribution link (my last visit, Grandfather Mountain, NC, 1994). Other picture, Mt. Roger, VA (2005).