I learned to use my claws and collected some gold too


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Twenty-five years ago, Oct. 14, 1992, my life took an unplanned, unexpected, whimsically illogical turn. I left my insanely wonderful job as an employment specialist with Community Partnership Agency (a one-time Yolo County Department of Social Services employment and training program), and drove my career car out into the weeds: I took the editor position at the Winters Express because it seemed like a step toward my dream goal: screenwriting. Turns out, as evidenced by the fact that I’m sitting here writing this column 25 years later, it was not.

I remember my first day exactly because the front page had a story about plans for the new McDonald’s, which, like my screenwriting career, never materialized. It featured cheesy Western decor, so maybe it’s better that a PG&E training facility now sits in that spot instead. As for my career, well…

In 1992, and for several more years until the Express partnered with McNaughton Newspapers, which propelled us into modern times, we didn’t do things on fancy iMacs. The stories were printed out on paper, run through a waxing machine, cut up with scissors and fitted onto big paper sheets like puzzle pieces. We had rudimentary computers, with orange type that appeared on a black monitor background, and text was transferred on big flippy-floppy disks.

There was no internet back then, people. No email.

Yes, the Dark Ages.

Longevity aside, surprise, surprise — I don’t have a journalism degree. I’ve never taken a journalism class in my life. I learned everything on the job from the publisher’s mother, who’d fling my early stories back at me covered in red ink scribbles for corrections. One time (and she swore this never happened until the day she died, but it SO did), she shoved a red-splotched story at me and said, “This is (rhymes with ‘fit’)! Do it again!”

And I did.

And you’re thinking, “Wow, that seems a bit harsh.” But in context, not so much. We had a sign on the office wall that succinctly summarized our work environment: “The floggings shall continue until morale improves.”

Now, bear in mind that I came from a job where polite and professional behavior was paramount. We were expected to model this behavior to our clients, and practice it with each other. I walked into that Express office believing that everyone is intrinsically good and kind, and if there’s an issue between people, we’d sit down, talk it out, really hear what the other person was saying, and move forward with a deeper appreciation and understanding of one another.

And then I met Wallaces.

If you don’t know any Wallaces, hmm… how to explain… I was a sweet kitten wandering into a den of wolverines. Either you learn to use your little kitty claws or you’re shredded to pieces. I learned, oh yes I did. But there was blood. Some of it not mine.

Kitty learns quickly.

Kitty also gets bigger and meaner over the years, and is completely unimpressed with your nonsense. When her ears are flat and her tail is twitching, back away slowly or suffer the consequences.

The super weird part is that being in-your-face combative isn’t my nature (Roman and Viking ancestors notwithstanding), but at the Express office, it was a survival skill. That skill transferred well into my own life. Learning to stand firm and say, “Hey, A-hole — the door’s over there” rather than, “I hear what you’re saying and I understand that you’re very upset, however I feel really sad when you call me a (rhymes with bunt) and I would so appreciate it if you’d speak to me in a respectful manner,” has proven to be entirely more useful and effective.

Another thing I learned over the years: A deadline is my best friend. I have zero self-discipline. Without my leather-clad deadline mistress standing over me with a cat-o-nine-tails every week, I’d never finish anything. I’m a fantastic starter, but a terrible finisher, because — Squirrel!!! Except columns. I can finish a column, every single week, because “not writing” isn’t an option.

Yes, Mistress. Please, may I have another.

Allowing for vacations and extreme illness, I figure that I’ve written 1,250 columns over the years. At around 1,000 words per pop, that comes to about 13 novels and the same or more in screenplays. Maybe I’ll ease up on my self-flagellation about not finishing a novel or screenplay with the realization that I’ve actually done so more than a thousand times over, only in a format that ends up in the recycling bin every week rather than on a bookstore shelf or movie screen.

Another thing I learned upon my 25th anniversary at the Express: If you want to be financially successful… pick another career. Any career. Journalism is like the Peace Corps. You’re not in it for the money — you’re in it for the passion. Know what? You can’t retire on passion. Or regret. Choose carefully, 20-something. What seems noble now may turn out to be a financial disaster. Life costs money. If you want money, be an orthodontist.

All that said, while years at the Express didn’t yield as much cash as I’d hoped, or needed, it did yield pure gold: time with my kids. Because my hours were flexible, I could volunteer in the classroom, go on field trips, coach teams, and drive my kids to and from school. They both had newspaper routes when they hit middle school, and because I’m a shameless helicopter mom, I wouldn’t let them deliver the papers on bikes. I drove them on their routes every week, which provided opportunity for conversations that might not otherwise have occurred. If you’ve had teens yet, you already know the intrinsic value of holding them hostage for an hour each week.

I can put a dollar value on my paycheck, but not on time with my kids. I’d have earned more cash if I’d stayed in my cushy county job, but not nearly as much gold.

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