Thursday, August 27, 2009

Look what I've become


“At the age of 50, I began to take stock of myself and ask what I really was as a person.”—W.E.B. DuBois

I half know what I’m doing, looking for a job in an uncertain market scarce with openings for writers and editors old enough to remember how it feels to have ink smeared all over their hands and fingers.

I’ve updated my resume and posted it on numerous websites, including LinkedIn.com where supposedly only those with bona fide business interests will check my stuff out.

So far, I’ve received only job spams, emails claiming that openings exist for work at home, part-time gigs, no money down, no cold calls. All I gotta do is send some personal data to get started.

I’ve reviewed my resume a few times more, tweaked it here and there, and tossed it back out again, into the wide-open space of the Web, a frontier that remains as foreign and new to me as civility in discourse is to the young who seem to have already conquered it.

Still, I’ve had no action. It could be the simple fact that my resume sucks. I don’t know html or how to use the tools that make the digital world effective. At 51, I’m a generational handicap, a displaced worker, a digital illiterate.

For now, I’m working mostly as a volunteer with a recent June ’09 launch of OCWeedly.com, a regional Orange County publication (not to be confused with the alternative OC Weekly) devoted to the hemp lifestyle, including casual and medical marijuana use. A print version of the magazine appeared on racks in selected locations this summer and surprised some readers with its slick artsy appearance, a bold move in an economy where print of all types, slick or not, is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

The all-volunteer editorial staff is supported by a paid art director and a couple of energetic visionaries/investors who want to give the magazine a “rootsie” appeal for users of marijuana plants and products. It’s an odd market, though, given that Orange County remains one of the most conservative, least “rootsie”—albeit wealthiest—counties in the U.S.

If there’s money to be made in the eventual legalization of marijuana, I suppose it could be here, with or without roots. After all, the county’s flagship daily newspaper, The Orange County Register, upholds the Libertarian principles of small government and features regular columnist Alan Bock, author of Waiting to Inhale: the Politics of Medical Marijuana, who argues in favor of legalizing marijuana.

Although working for free, I’ve had a good time at OCWeedly and I’m glad for the opportunity. I like the people who work there. I like their energy and enthusiasm. There’s plenty of room for improvement, just as there is with my own life.

The jobless rate in Orange County climbed last month to 9.5 percent, the highest in many years. In fact, it’s not uncommon when reading or watching the news to see statements about fearsome economic figures—unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies—“not seen since the Great Depression.”

But, we’re not calling it a Depression. I call it the Great Recession. Associated Press calls it a "brutal recession."

Meanwhile, an army of naysayers has turned to calling Obama's health plan a disguise for Nazi policy. Soon, the government will begin its euthanasia program for useless elderly people. Already the prisons are so full we need an emergency release plan in California to turn out 40,000 inmates.

"No way, José! Not in my backyard!"

The state could probably release about half the prison population if it just cut loose all nonviolent offenders. Of course, with minimum mandatory sentences, started by previous Nazi administrations, the state and federal governments have kept more people in prison than they can hold.

America's a get-tough nation, and we'll figure something out. We'll get through this brutal recession somehow, even if it means brutalizing the democratic process (and each other) along the way.

The wildly exaggerated fears about the government's health plan hasn't got me up in arms yet, but they will if assholes keep bringing their firearms to town hall meetings where we're supposed to be discussing a solution for our serious healthcare ills.

Ask anyone who opposes or criticizes the plan to offer something better and he'll give you a confused stare or look at you like you're crazy. The only answer is to bear arms. This is another one of those confusions about what democracy is.

"If I carry a gun, I'm exercising my Constitutional rights as a citizen," the reasoning goes. "If you want to exercise your right to peaceably assemble and try to resolve a critical national issue, you go right ahead. I'll stay here with my gun."

Imagine exercising your right as a citizen to bear a handgun at a townhall meeting under the previous administration, which used to arrest demonstrators simply for wearing T-shirts with the president's face crossed out.

I support the Second Amendment and would never argue against a citizen's right to bear arms but fail to understand the logic of exercising that right just to make a statement at an assembly designed to solve a national healthcare problem.

I'm confused as to why we haven't reviewed the Great Depression in more detail, not just so we can compare the fearsome similarities between failing numbers and increasing crime, but to review the solutions that began to move the country forward.

Wasn't there a works program? Didn't the arts, sad as things were, begin to flourish? Wasn't Prohibition eliminated?

We've let the smoke and mirror tactics of gun toters and naysayers blind us to the solutions that helped us out of that bleak era of soup lines stacked by a workforce that was 25 percent unemployed.

Today’s official stats, which don’t include the uncounted scores of individuals who no longer qualify for aid, aren’t quite that high. There are weak signs, "experts" say—just as they said during the Depression—of a recovery. Opportunities on the Internet may be a factor. Opportunities we haven't even considered may be a factor.

How about a serious budget review? Put Congress on the same healthcare plan as the rest of us? Or put us on their healthcare plan. Stop the war on drugs. Let the CIA do its job and bring our troops home. Cut the defense budget, take care of our vets.

Sure, there’s probably a lot more that I could be doing, making more calls, more actively plugging into my social networks, knocking on the doors of department stores, grocers and garden centers, much of which I’ve already done. Kohls is hiring. They need “loss prevention personnel.” Why not? America loves cops.

Mom tells me not to worry. The economy’s so bad any way. What can you really do about it?

I’m doing what I know how, which, as I say, is about half of what I need to get a job. I’m working the emergent online social networks, experimenting with connecting with real people with real opportunities through cyberspace, blogging, commenting, and reading and writing, wherever possible, getting my name out there.

A writer is supposed to do this. Writers write, right? As print slowly fades, and digital gets brighter by the day, I don’t know what else to do but put up what I can online, say three “Hail Mary’s,” and cross myself. I’m not even Catholic. That’s just how it feels to put oneself out into the wide, unknown world of the web. When I post anything online, it feels like a prayer: “God, I hope this works.”

What I’ve found, though, is the digital scene—while intimidating to readers like me who grew up with print—fascinates. It allures with the promise of the Siren of Everything at Your Fingertips. Jobs, hookups, deals, and scams. It's a trove of unlimited potential, endless doors of opportunity, rewards aplenty and elusive. Friends you never knew you had, an endless chain of data that blows the mind, and the same excesses you find anywhere—lies, cheats, and worthless information.

Enemies, too. More than you would think possible. Just take a look at Emily Gould, a New York City blogger who grew an audience in leaps and bounds and soon found herself the subject of vitriol and wishes for her to jump in front of a speeding vehicle. At 27, she was about to have a breakdown after getting spanked by commenters who compared her to a popularity tramp, and on Larry King Live by host Jimmy Kimmel for defending a “Stalker” feature at Gawker.com, where she was then blogging. Stalker allows users to track where their favorite stars have been most recently sighted.

To have that kind of influence at such a young age nearly ruined her. Thanks to the Internet and the wild popularity of blogging, she skipped the slow mentoring process that the traditional path to publishing power usually requires. At 24, she found herself catapulted to a position of influence she thought possible only after years of paying her dues. Heady stuff.

In a way, she did pay her dues and quickly learned that not everything you write (especially intimacies about people close to you) will be received well. Nasty comments were made about her wherever her name could be found on the Internet. Even her previous employer, Gawker.com, went after her with a New York City vengeance.

Yet, foolish and immature as she appeared defending herself on television, the attractive young blogger also had her share of support. One commenter responded: “She’s so fucking hot, dude!”

Another: “She rocks! The world’s changing.”

It sure is. In other words: "Get used to having your life splayed all over the Internet, dude. This is the New World everyone's been talkin' about. We're going to Google Earth your ass and show everyone where you live. It's a techno-whiz's game, a digitally cool person's paradise. We're making the rules now!"

Which means, if you’re older and dumber like me, don’t expect civility in your discourse with others; it's OK to be mean as long as you don't really know the person (and you're getting a lot of hits on your website), and more than half of the readers who comment say they like you.

The emerging digital culture—fueled by youth who spend hours texting and thumbing the information highway (at dinner, on the train, anywhere you go)—justifies almost any intrusion into your life that you can imagine.

This, as young writers have discovered, creates audiences. What can be more satisfying and economically rewarding than that?

Gould, for example, was reportedly offered an annual salary of $80,000 to $90,000 if she stayed with Gawker.com.

Like any writer, I dream of an audience too, and of earning a living.

I'm not sure, however, I'd want the Gould variety of notoriety. My skin, old as I am, isn't thick enough. I liked the audience we had at The Rogue Voice: A Literary Magazine with an Edge: devoted, intelligent, and vocal. We kept our spats civil, even when biting. Our satire was intelligent and informed, not self-absorbed. It was easy to manage commenters who came from left field. (My former business partner still thinks the U.S. is doomed. "We're a nation of idiots," he says.)

Our failing, I guess, aside from the usual ignorance that goes into running a new business, was not having a strong enough online presence, where left-fielders are more than abundant. We were too addicted to ink. We limped along on our blog, posting content in a simple format that allowed newcomers to check us out. It wasn’t pretty but gave us a false sense of moving forward.

Founding publisher, Dell Franklin, one of the best writers I've known and worked with, grew to hate the Internet and would only write on a manual typewriter.

"Jesus, Dell," I used to say in frustration, angry that he always turned in typewritten compositions, "even Bukowski used a fucking computer before he died."

Slowly, we began to build an audience—online and in print. The best part of publishing the magazine, as opposed to a personal blog like this was that it wasn’t just my audience. It belonged to all of our contributors. I miss that most of all because our contributors were authentic voices in a sea of public relations hacks, phony news sources and popularity tramps.

We found our way into City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, the West Coast pubs of Rogue Ales, and into the hands of Thrasher Magazine’s publisher, Ed Riggins.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. We weren’t smart or quick enough to make the transition to online publishing.

As we scrambled to adjust during W.’s lame duck tenure, the U.S. economy took a turn for the worse, and banks and CEOs came to Washington, D.C., hats in hand, begging and eventually getting $1.6 trillion in taxpayer money.

Ad revenues dropped steeply in print publications everywhere. Bankers, breathing a huge sigh of relief for their bailouts, thumbed their noses at those who needed money most, and financing turned scarce.

My demise, of course, had as much to do with more than I could handle as it did with declining revenues and a lack of cash or business savvy. After Dell quit, I learned within months that running a magazine, print or online, takes more than one person. "You're more of a fool than I thought," a friend told me.

It wasn’t long before the magazine collapsed, even with last-ditch attempts from generous readers sending money and holding a fundraiser.

“She’s comatose,” I tell readers and contributors who still call to ask: “What’s going on with The Rogue Voice?” I'm waiting for my bailout, I used to say, but gave up that idea long ago.

Meanwhile, layoffs in publishing continue to flourish as newspapers and magazines scale back to make up for their lost revenues. The Orange County Register, for example, recently announced that it’s going to lay off 62 employees. “We’re just waiting, riding things out,” publishers say, “until a new economic model emerges.”

The old model, heavy reliance on classified and print ads, just isn’t doing it anymore. Publishers are finding their financial base in more than one sector, thanks to the Internet, including a combination of online ads, print ads, increased circulation fueled by the Web, book deals, sponsored events and other incidentals like shirts and hats (which we tried at The Rogue Voice). The future of digital advertising looks great, the potential revenue streams endless. Who knows what lies beyond that?

It’s a great unknown.

The print layoffs have eliminated opportunities for seasoned writers to earn a living. The tremendous shift in information dissemination, another revolution not unlike that of the printing press more than 500 years ago, has swept untold numbers of producers like me into a vacuum of displaced workers. We're stuck, grasping at straws, working $8-an-hour jobs.

More savvy friends tell me there's nothing to worry about, but I fear the disappearance of independent news outlets and those who manage them isn't just about lost jobs; it's creating an information black hole. Where have all the skilled journalists gone? Will citizen journalists like Emily Gould keep us duly informed and protect us against the incursions of government?

The promise of Internet commerce has yet to be fully tested; nor has it delivered a viable work option for journalists, artists and writers. It seems better suited to people with a hunger for things that don't matter.

A high percentage of the pros who used to keep us informed, if they haven’t already turned to advertising and public relations, are most likely working for free, or have moved to another career, or they're volunteering as I am, to get a foot in the door, if not to keep from going crazy for lack of opportunities.

For now, it appears online entrepreneurs and authors can do whatever they want; they don't need to worry about harboring reservations over blurring the lines between the personal and the public, between the civil and the mean-spirited, between the sublime and the profane. §

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