Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Surreal Life

There are certain times when life takes on a surreal tint, when opposite emotions co-exist and make perfect sense. A time when I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop, and everything seems meaningless -- and poignantly meaningful.

The first of my adulthood was when my mother slipped into a coma the weekend before Christmas in 1989. That one lasted three months, until she passed away on March 15 (fittingly, the Ides of March). Next up: my brother's two-week trial on bank robbery charges in June 1994 (conviction on circumstantial evidence). Then there was the two-month hell of knowing my husband wanted to leave me but he hadn't yet moved out (also June, in 1999). Followed in 2005 by my father's diagnosis (guess what month? Right) of late stage stomach/esophageal cancer.

It is this last that feels the most familiar now, with The Chronicle having been diagnosed as terminal. The question is: How long does it have?

In my dad's case, it was 16 days.

He insisted on opening the mail, paying his bills, taking his eye drops for borderline glaucoma. This aggravated one of my other brothers to no end. "Why bother with anything?" he asked my dad one day. "Why bother with anything," my dad repeated and responded.

As my father became more incapacitated and uncomfortable, I would wish for it to be over at the same time I would hate myself for thinking that and sink into denial that it ever would be.

I feel like that now: I want the layoffs to start at the same time I hate myself for thinking that, and I can't believe they will. In my dad's case, I knew who I was going to lose. Now, I look around the newsroom and think, "Will it be me? Will it be him? Her? You?"

My boss and I had lunch on Friday and he observed that all we're doing is commiserating on Facebook and talking and writing about saving The Chronicle. But the thing is, how do you have the stomach to try to save something that, in the end, might not want you to be part of it? How identity-crushing would that be?

So I go through my days in a surreal-tinted haze, trying to convince myself that my loved one has more days than the doctor said. And desperately hoping that, regardless of what state he is in after surgery, I will be welcome in the hospital room.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why Newspapers Matter, or, Where Do You Think the News on the Web Comes From?

Note: Since writing this entry, I was able to locate the original clip. My memory erred regarding several details, as follows: Adriene is spelled with one "n"; her parents were James and Teresa; Adriene was 5; and her sister was 1 1/2.

In the summer of 1988, between my junior and senior years at the University of Delaware, I was a reporting intern at the Wilmington News Journal. One day, an editor came over to my desk and said, "Have you ever done a 'dying baby' story?" I looked at her stupidly and she said, "If you're going to be a reporter, you have to learn how to do a dying baby story. Here."

She handed me a piece of paper with some names and phone numbers on it. It was a couple with a 3-year-old girl in the final stages of a rare, fatal disease. They wanted their daughter to be able to die in her bed at home, but because the father's employer had switched health insurance providers and the new one didn't want to pay for the equipment they would need in their home, they were stuck. They were reaching out to the newspaper -- and unbeknownst to them, to me -- for help.

Twenty-one years later, as I thought of that story while driving home from work at yet another newspaper, I could still remember her name: Adrienne Merganthaler. I want to say her parents were John and Marianne.

I visited the Merganthalers and Adrienne in the hospital. And I called the insurance companies. And I wrote a story about an everyday couple who could be in your family, in your neighborhood, in your church, who didn't want an insurance company to pay for extraordinary measures to keep their daughter alive. They were realistic. They were human. They were parents. They just wanted their little girl not to be scared in her last days. To be home with her family -- there was an older sister, I believe.

And guess what? The day the story was published, both of the insurance companies called the newspaper. They were fighting over which one would get to pay to bring Adrienne home. And so it was that Blue Cross paid for Adrienne to come home and die in her own bed.

I did that.

A college classmate of mine, Dino Ciliberti, said to me once that he chose to go into journalism to help people. At the time, I thought, "Then be a doctor." But I would go on to learn that he was right: newspapers (in my case The San Francisco Chronicle) can help people.

The reason I was thinking of this story was twofold: Yesterday, our editor stood before the newsroom and told us some grim news. The newspaper is losing too much money. Many of us will be laid off, and if we can't turn the situation around -- and quickly -- the paper will be put up for sale. And if no buyer can be found (keep in mind that when Hearst bought The Chronicle back in 2000, it had to pay the Fang family $66 million to take the Examiner off its hands), we would close.

I don't know if I was the only one who began to cry, but I cried longest. And I don't cry. The last time I cried like this was when my dad died in 2005.

Of course, we published a story about the news. It generated vicious comments online attacking the newspaper. And people were quoted on TV saying, "It doesn't matter because I get my news online."

Exactly who do you think gathers that news, vets it and delivers it to you online? Without The Chronicle, there is no SF Gate, one of the top 10 most visited news sites in the country.

Adrienne also came to mind because I was rushing home to edit a story by one of our most talented reporters, Carolyn Said, who covers real estate. (I was going to do it from home so I could let me dog out before her bladder burst.)

You've probably heard about that guy Obama, and his housing rescue plan? Well, it turns out that many Bay Area homeowners won't qualify for relief because our loans are so large. Carolyn, being the veteran, trusted journalist she is, outlined this in her analysis of Obama's plan. And U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier read it. And amended Obama's plan so that more homeowners in the Bay Area will be able to keep their homes.

The bill is set to be approved tomorrow. Because of a newspaper reporter.

You're welcome.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

25 Random Things About Me

OK, this is kind of cheating in the area of "orginal content," but it was a fun exercise on Facebook, so I thought I would post it here. If you're tagged, you have to write a list of 25 random facts about yourself. Here's what I wrote:

1. I am freakishly impervious to cold and often run the A/C in my car even in the winter (sorry, enviros).

2. Herel is not my "real" name.

3. At various times in my life -- and to varying degrees of seriousness -- I have wanted to be: a spelunker, airline pilot, nun, model, war correspondent, novelist, police officer, nurse, EMT, spy, lawyer, florist, fireman, FBI agent and professor -- but never an astronaut, actor or politician.

4. I am the proud mama of two cats and a dog: Vesper, 18; Stosh, 5; Lucy (a rescue Pekingese from a puppy mill), 9. They get along swimmingly.

5. I ran with the Olympic torch in 1985, and I still have it (you only pass on the flame).

6. I miss my dad, who died in 2005, more than he or I ever would have imagined.

7. If I could meet anyone, alive or dead, it would be my grandparents, who died before I was born. Second choice? Cary Grant.

8. I am infinitely curious what my mom, who died when I was 22, would think of me today. Enough about death ...

9. I have worked as a hand model, and my hands remain on some instruction booklets for small kitchen appliances. (My feet were registered with the studio, too, but I never had the occasion to work as a foot model.)

10. I have a thing for even numbers, but I have only ever lived at odd-numbered addresses.

11. I once flew to London for a blind date. London was great!

12. I love horror movies -- and classics. Dual favorites: The Thin Man and Halloween.

13. This year I will turn 42, the age my mom was when I was conceived/born. No longer will this reassuring thought be true: "I’m not as old as Mom was when she had me."

14. I feel like I should have been this age in the 1950s.

15. I still sleep with the teddy bear my brother gave me when I was 5.

16. My fashion sense and taste in music are arrested at 1989.

17. I feel incredibly fortunate that my U of Del. roommate, Victoria Lyon, and best friend from graduate school in Boston, Erica Kain, live in the Bay Area. I also am terribly excited to have found my first girlfriends ever -- Lori Shew-Jones and Sara Shostak -- on Facebook.

18. I have an abundant fondness for every city and every apartment I have lived in: Newark, Wilmington, Yorklyn and Hockessin, Del. (I love ya, Joe Biden!); Wilmington, N.C.; Boston; and S.F.

19. If I weren’t so terrified of public speaking, I would like to be a comedian. The biggest compliment you can give me is if I make you laugh.

20. I cut the tags out of all my shirts because I can’t stand how they feel (if you are a friend or colleague, there’s a fair chance that I’ve employed you to help me with this).

21. I really wish they would bring back Melrose Place, Seinfeld and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

22. Things that make me happy: anything retro, 40s music, the library, reading, crossword puzzles, flea markets, peanut butter cookies, butterscotch, buttons, cooking, my pets, friends, (some!) family, Nip/Tuck, Real Housewives of Orange County, Saw movies, Julian McMahon, David Boreanaz, Robert Downey Jr., gardening, the beach, being tan, running at Lands End, chardonnay, cowboy boots and The San Francisco Chronicle.

23. I have never been to Disneyland and really want to go there.

24. I own hundreds of Pez dispensers.

25. I snore. I dream vividly and remember my dreams. I believe in ghosts. I'm one of the happiest people I know. And I'm out of numbers.