Good Friday Austin:
Rob Hiaasen was one of five victims of the shooting at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Md., yesterday.
I did not know him, but he was a friend and former colleague of friends.
He was an editor and columnist.
His columns were rarely on the news, or about the news.
But they are the kind of columns that make a newspaper essential.
Here are five of his columns from the last couple of years.
February 16, 2016
Learning to love the bomb.
Last summer, there was an avalanche of press about Stephen Colbert taking over as host of “The Late Show.” In a profile for GQ, he talked about the plane crash on Sept. 11, 1974 that took his father’s and two older brother’s lives along with 70 others.
The Eastern Airlines flight carrying them went down in a foggy North Carolina cornfield due to pilot error. The NTSB found the flight crew engaged in unnecessary and “impertinent” conversation during approach (the crew talked about politics and used cars). The accident spurred the “Sterile Cockpit Rule,” an FAA regulation requiring pilots to refrain from non-essential activities during critical phases of flight.
Perhaps a distant consolation for a younger brother.
“You’ve got to learn to love the bomb,” Colbert told GQ. “Boy, did I have a bomb go off when I was 10.”
Learning to love the bomb might have informed his comedy — performances fueled by improvisation where loss can be converted into humor. But deconstructing comedy or tragedy is like holding water in a nervous hand; it slips through your fingers and evaporates before it hits the ground. I don’t know how Colbert came to accept and even experience gratitude for his loss. It feels like an impossible spiritual leap.
“It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you want it.”
Other interviews where he mentioned the subject included the fact his father and brothers are buried in the Annapolis National Cemetery.
Annapolis, of all places.
I went to the cemetery late last year, went there twice. I am among those drawn to cemeteries, to gingerly step among their rows, to eavesdrop on their living histories. It’s not out of sense of morbidity but out of a sense of an inexplicable comfort and connection. OK, maybe it is a bit morbid.
The groomed cemetery off West Street — one of 14 President Lincoln established to keep Civil War casualties — is lined with uniform small markers honoring veterans from a cross-section of wars. In a section toward the back of the cemetery, a large, relatively new memorial towers over the other grave sites. The inscription reads: “Colbert.” You can’t miss if you’re looking for it.
There lies the comedian’s father (James Colbert, a U.S. Army veteran) and his two sons lost when Eastern Airlines Flight 212 went down as pilots chatted about used cars: Peter, 18; Paul, 15. Their mother, Lorna Colbert, was laid to rest here in 2013.
It’s a curious, uneasy thing to want to visit another family’s grave site. I’ve yet to see Colbert’s “Late Show” since I don’t stay up late, but I’ve seen where his family members are buried. It’s a personal invasion of a public person. It’s none of my business. I didn’t want to visit, but I did. Twice.
And I read everything I could on this moment in the life of a man I feel distantly connected to.
“What punishments of God are not gifts?” Stephen Colbert also said about his loss.
Forty years ago this week, a bomb went off. My father didn’t die in a plane crash. He died in our family room, marking the birth of a new normal and family narrative. He was 50.
A gift of punishment, a bomb to love.
February 24, 2018
Editor’s note: Shortly after our column appeared, we heard from Jennifer Brianas and her family. Athena, having left home for two weeks, appeared Sunday, Feb. 11. “She just showed up at the front door,” Jennifer wrote us. (Athena and her brother, Achilles, had been gifts for Jennifer’s twin daughters for their 7th birthday.) The family wanted to give a shout-out to the nonprofit Dogs Finding Dogs, a group that helps people track and find their lost pets.
Athena, dear one, get your tale back to your Annapolis home.
I don’t know you or the people you live with. Hell, I don’t particularly even like cats.
But here’s the thing. Well, a few things.
First, leveled at me have been longstanding accusations that I’m a romantic and sentimentalist (guilty, guilty). So what if I can’t pass a missing cat/but mainly missing dog poster and not blink? So what if I always stop in my tracks and spin stories for missing cats but mainly dogs?
Haven’t we all gone missing at one time or another? Kind of in our DNA this urge to be unkenneled, yes.
Word on the Annapolis street (Southgate, Thompson, etc.) is you’ve been missing since the end of January. By the looks of your wanted poster, I imagine you are lounging and looking just like that somewhere right now. You appear wholly ignorant and unaffected by the early year’s ugly news.
Did you just need to get away and chill? A misunderstanding on the homefront? Tired of the same cat food?
I like to imagine you busted out during last week’s warm burst, but you skipped home well before then. Please tell us you stayed warm and away from traffic. But how would we know?
No one knows the mind of a cat; no sense in trying, either. It’s like trying to figure out why none of our flashlights work. It’s actually nothing like that, but it’s hard to think straight when thinking about cats. They’ll do that to you.
Athena — goddess of war and wisdom, subject of the final good Who song — get your tale home.
Because we need a warm splinter of good news in these gun-riddled days. I don’t have any answers much less the right questions, so the path of least emotional resistance can beckon: A tiny win on the horizon. A safe homecoming.
Of course, a missing cat is nothing like those Broward County students dead and wounded or that fallen police officer in Prince George’s County.
A missing cat is just a missing cat.
Until our hearts and minds, in shutdown mode, take a brief recess from watching, absorbing and feeling. Then, there, a missing cat sign on a stapled telephone pole on a neighborhood street. There, a sweet-faced distraction lounging, missing.
So, Athena, dearest one, get your tale home.
No questions, recriminations or judgment from us. If you’ve gained a pound of two while you were away, no worries. If you met some kind kids or other cool cats, good for you.
Just come home to tell us your story.
April 22, 2017
I was reading my newspaper the other day when an ad headline shook me to my core. My future passed before my eyes and points lower. Whatever self-doubts and setbacks that have dogged me were erased by this:
NEW ALTERNATIVE TO ADULT DIAPERS AND CATHETERS SETS MEN FREE.
Generally, I shy away from all caps (and New Year’s Eve parties and poodles), but the news was so bold it deserved bold typography. Rather than having to wear diapers or use catheters, men can now use a skin-friendly pouch that “attaches to the tip of a man’s anatomy.” This, as my mother would say, is not dinner table talk. But by gosh, we need to talk about things that can set us free.
Believe me, I don’t need “24-hour leak-free security.” I’m not a long-haul truck driver who may or may not need an equivalent method for long-haul relief. I do have a longish commute to work, and I do like my morning coffee, but pouches have not entered into the equation. To recap: I don’t need urological care of this or any magnitude, thank you very much. Psychiatry, sure, who doesn’t? But not this really personal stuff.
How can you read such a thing and not see yourself down some long-haul, lonesome road from now?
Perhaps this cheery outlook explains a certain shortage of New Year’s Eve parties.
I was reading my newspaper the other day and saw an item about a missing 98-year-old man. Fortunately, the man was found unharmed and was returned to his relieved family. Police reported the man does not have any medical issues, but he sleepwalks from time to time.
No medical issues at 98.
Just sleepwalks away from home sometimes.
I am profoundly jealous of every fact in this story. Setting aside for the moment the worry such a missing invokes, I daydream of the day when I am 98 with no medical issues and slip away in sleep state and am returned unharmed to my loved ones.
Oh, he just walks off sometimes, they will tell police. Better check the water. He tends to wander down to City Dock to look at the water and boats.
And there they will find me. Sleepwalking and daydreaming among all the boats in all the water.
Found smiling, they will report.
I was reading my newspaper the other day about the FBI adding to its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list the man suspected of killing his wife at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Hanover two years ago. Police hope the renewed attention will produce fresh leads in the cold case.
The crime video is also back in the news with renewed views — many views. In the store video, the husband and wife are seen walking off-camera to a backroom and the husband emerging alone. For now it’s the last image we have of the fugitive; it’s forever the last image we have of his wife.
I watched the video as if vainly looking for clues. But what I was really watching was simply a woman walking with her husband to the backroom of where they worked. But she never comes back into camera range, no matter how many times I see the popular video. The story never changes.
For the people who knew and loved her, surely they must know countless strangers, such as myself, re-watched the last images of 21-year-old Palek Patel. If they could ask us why we watch, what would we say?
May 13, 2018
Sundays were born rough.
Someone called them the “Sunday scaries,” which is perfect. Others just call them the Sunday blues — that diagnosis-defying, fog-like funk that comes in on tiger feet. If you know someone who is wild about Mondays, you can bet they get the Sunday scaries. Mondays are rescue missions.
So, today, another Sunday, another Mother’s Day.
I can’t pick up the phone to call my mother anymore. Poor, selfish me. But Sunday was our day to talk on the phone. She was in Florida; me in Maryland, as was our chronic geography.
We had this running joke on Sundays. “You must have read my mind because I was thinking of you,” she would say. I’d say something back along those lines. We weren’t mind-readers. We were having the Sunday scaries.
The world brims with lousy talkers and lousier listeners. My mother was neither.
Like a neutral biographer, she stowed the chapters of my life in all their messy hope. She logged my job changes, relationship changes, address changes, mood changes, hair color changes — her youngest getting gray at 28?! Well, dear, it looks good on you, she would say.
Why do fibs from mothers sound like Valentines? And because youngest children prefer the camera stay on them, I’d lament my gray-then-white hair through the decades.
If she ever got tired of my whining, she never let on. Took some nerve to complain about hair color to a woman in a wheelchair who needed help in the bathroom. Even then she listened.
I’d like to think she taught me to listen, but I have a long way to go on that front. Without her knowing, she did teach me how to ask questions. Hers were personal but somehow never prying — at least they didn’t feel that way after I left home. In middle and high school, I wanted no part of her questions.
Because of her, I came to believe the only questions worth asking are personal. What a gift for someone to lay low in silence just to hear your answer. It’s how people begin to trust one another. It’s how people fall in love, you know. Might be how we stay in love.
If you’re lucky, you don’t wait too damn long to grow up and appreciate your parents. (She would not have used damn and would have questioned my use of it. So, in her honor, a redo.)
If you’re lucky, you don’t wait too long to grow up and appreciate your parents.
So, she and I talked on the phone Sundays about personal things. As the years ticked off, our conversations dwindled. Then what happened — along with every awful thing that happens with an aging parent — is our talks ended. Too tiring, too much, too hard by the end.
Before that, though, in all those years of talking and listening on those scary Sundays, she was there.
In our make-believe meeting of the minds, I would call, and she would know exactly when I’d be calling. I’d wait to hear that opening invitation, that most personal of questions:
“How are you, son?”
August 21, 2016
‘I’m not running against crooked Hillary, I’m running against the crooked media’ Donald Trump
Finally, I agree with Trump.
With poll numbers somewhere between concerning and catastrophic, Trump’s campaign last week labeled the media his true opponent. The corrupt and crooked media.
Unlike with every other occupation, I can speak on the subject of journalism. I’ve worked in newsrooms for some 35 years and have accumulated enough wealth to have to work another 35 years in newsrooms. But I digress into a vat of self-pity.
My point is I find myself agreeing with Donald J. Trump.
Why the other day in our newsroom a reporter returned from covering a meeting of local officials. The un-edited article was accurate, fair and balanced. Horrified, I took the reporter aside to mentor her in the revered journalistic tradition of crooked reporting. Rather than punishment, the incident proved a teachable moment:
Reporter: “You wanted to see me? Did I do something wrong?”
Me (in dulcet editor’s voice): “I just wanted to talk a little about your story.”
“Was there anything wrong with it?”
“I’m just a little disappointed.”
(At this point, young reporter tears are flowing.)
“Did I get a fact wrong? I triple checked everything in the story. Did I misspell someone’s name? Don’t you think the story was fair? I got both sides to talk to me…”
(Young shamed reporter now in fetal position under desk.)
“We talked about this when you interviewed with us. I don’t know what they taught you in journalism school, but the real world of journalism is crooked, and we expect you to act and work accordingly. Frankly, your story failed. By being fair and balanced, you failed me, our readers and our industry.”
“But I thought…”
“You thought? You thought? Don’t think. Just be crooked.”
“I’m sorry. I won’t let it happen again. I won’t let my training, values and professionalism tarnish another story.”
As I helped her crawl out from under her desk, I felt it was yet another victory for my communication skills. (Note: the next story she filed was exceptionally crooked thus earning her a coffee gift card.)
Sometimes we slip up, though. Sometimes a thorough and thoughtful story slips through our rigid crooked standards. It’s embarrassing. And, as long as I’m being honest, sometimes we run community listings, obituaries, box scores, legal notices, honor rolls and “Alley Oop” comic strips that fail to achieve crookedness. Be assured that when this happens, we have business practices to deal with the issue.
First, we convene a series of mandatory newsroom meetings — usually early Saturday mornings or on holidays (mindful of any inconvenience, the meetings are never longer than 4 hours). After my opening remarks, we have break-out re-educational sessions. Three reporters are selected to role play by wearing T-shirts that say FAIR, BALANCED and ACCURATE. The others take turns mocking their colleagues until all participating reporters are reduced to weeping under their desks. Then we break for lunch.
None of us are perfectly crooked, even journalists. All we can do is try our best every day.