4 things I didn’t know on graduation day

[My column for the May 20, 2015, Door County Advocate]

They say time flies, but it really doesn’t. You wake up one morning and suddenly it’s 2015, and the young man who remembers sweltering in the sun in a black robe while Sen. William Proxmire was awarded an honorary degree and a speaker who exhorted us to go forth and do great things is thinking, “Wait, wasn’t it just 1975?”

But of course it wasn’t. A day is a long time, and a year is a longer time, and today marks 14,610 days – that is to say, 40 years – since a full-of-himself, naive young man dove into the real world. For most of those days I have been what people call a journalist – a watcher of events and recorder of the first draft of history.

And what I have learned in all of those days! Here are four things I knew but didn’t fully know on my first day of work as a full-time reporter.

> There are no superheroes, just folks. I walked into a men’s room during a long city council meeting, and a U.S. senator came in and stood beside me. For some reason it was a revelation that nature also calls him during the days and nights.

They’re all just people, muddling along as best as they can, like you and me. Not big damn heroes. Not super villains. Just guys and gals who need to get through the day, feed the dog, sift the cat litter, same as everyone. It helps to remember that.

> You may not realize when you’re teaching. A reporter came in and started telling about the court sentencing she had just witnessed. She needed to share the raw emotion of the defendant, his family’s tears, the victims’ anger. Don’t spend the words speaking them out loud, I said, write them down while the moment is still fresh.

She wrote a great great story, and years later she told people what an important lesson that was. I needed to be reminded I had said that. It made me feel worthy. It also made me fear what I might be teaching on bad days.

> Success is a long-term everyday enterprise. When I ran for state Assembly, I was proudest that both the conservative governor and the leader of the city teachers union told me, “I never knew you were a Republican.”

That was because I had spent 22 years burying my personal opinion and trying simply to accurately convey what people were saying and doing. That was the job. It still is, except when the word “Opinion” appears on the top of the page.

> Every person is different. I have met good thinkers and compassionate people and rascals and scoundrels in every race, color, creed, gender, political party, ethnic origin, orientation, whatever. All of them unique. When we tuck people in a group, we lose sight of who they are.

You think you know what to expect because I’m an older white male journalist who once ran for Assembly as a Republican. Because of those assumptions you’ve done both of us a disservice.

Do yourself a favor: Stop thinking “All of those people are x” or even “Generally speaking those people are y.” Approach every person as a mystery to be solved, because most everything important about that person you cannot know based on the category you’re tempted to tuck them in.

> Oh yes, and a bonus fifth lesson: Never use a credit card. Never. Ever. Never. I’m still paying for that mistake.

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WarrenBluhm

Wordsmith, journalist and podcaster, Warren is a reporter, editor and storyteller who lives near the shores of Green Bay with his wife, two golden retrievers, and a couple of cats.