AUSTIN (KXAN) - Thirty-six years. Thirty-six days. Some 7,623 stories, give or take a few hundred. Suddenly, it’s over.
I set the date for my retirement from KXAN three years ago. I knew then that when my just-renewed contract was over, I would be ready. At the end of September, 2013, I would be ready to “Proceed as the way opens.”
I had first heard that bit of wisdom back in 2002 over in Bastrop County. I had dropped in at Ed and Sue Steinbring’s place in the then green piney woods. Immigrants from the chaotic pandemonium of Houston, in their retirement they had purchased a bit of property, moved into a house there and rented out three other homes on the place.
Out front, by the then still dirt road, they had constructed a small village, populated by little gnomes Ed carved from wood. For $5 you could take a gnome home, along with a warning from the creator that if the gnome disappeared at some point, it would be because he just didn’t like it at your place, at which point, you have to get just get over being out five bucks.
The gnomes, it should be noted, had a motto: Proceed as the way opens. It was an instruction lifted from the writings of William Least Heat-Moon. It was also, for me, a key to the door of a well-lived life.
I thought of the Steinbrings and their gnomes often over the years and sometime after the 2011 wildfires, I put in a call to them. I was saddened to hear the hurt in Ed’s voice. The flames had engulfed the Steinbring land. Not a single splinter escaped.
In the aftermath of that terrible blaze, the couple had tried to move East, but everything was charred in that direction. They looked West, but everything there had already been scooped up by other survivors. So, they settled on a junked-out dilapidated mess of a former military barracks that had been moved into the city of Bastrop from nearby Camp Swift.
Sue Steinbring was living with advance Alzheimer’s Disease and Ed was her caregiver. So his first step was to build a wooden fence to keep, “Mama from wandering.”
Then he went to work on the house and the property, and one step at a time, transformed both into a warm, welcoming home, adorned with his art.
Last May, I paid the Steinbrings a visit for a follow-up story and marveled at this aging man’s grit, compassion and optimism. As we talked, we realized that in the wake of their terrible suffering, he and is wife had followed the gnomes through the way that had opened. They were safe and at peace.
The way that was
In the days and weeks that followed, as I approached my own retirement and wondered what it would bring, I realized I had no idea. But I did not fret. I knew the way would open just as it did when I first got my job at what was then KTVV in the late summer of 1977.
I knew the way would open just as it did when an assistant news director stopped by my desk one day back in the early '90s with a suggestion that I turn the human interest stories I had been pursuing into a regular feature.
I knew the way would open just as it did when a news director told me I would have to come up with a name for that feature and we settled on “On the Porch.”
I knew the way would open just as it did when another news director told me a dozen years later that the “Porch” was coming to an end and that I would be returned to regular beat reporting.
I knew the way would open just as it did a year later when still another news director gave me the okay to return to a human interest focus, albeit without the “On the Porch” moniker.
I knew the way would open just as it did when current news director Chad Cross suggested we start using the name again.
The way to come
Now I know the way will open once more. I don’t how but it doesn’t matter. I am in the town that I love, surrounded by the people I love, awash in the power of memory, alive in the promise of peace.
Still, I worry. What will happen to our newscasts when I’m gone? What I tried to do for the past 36 years was to dig beneath the surface of our community, below the collection of people, who for better or for worse, found themselves in the cross-hairs of our coverage.
I went looking for the anonymous, those “regular” folks, people who lived their lives in ways that truly matter, but who otherwise would never get the acknowledgement of a community too busy being busy to ever notice. What I tried to do was shine a light on them and allow them to touch us, thrill us, move us in unexpected ways.
It was my way of saying that beyond the pain, the violence, the argument and the disappointment of life that is daily chronicled in the news, not just at KXAN, but in all our news-providing alternatives, lies the simple assurance that we are still OK. We are still a community of people capable of celebrating our shared unique, joyful, thoughtful human spirit.
Lately, some people told me that no one has time for that sort of “yarn-spinning” anymore. Their thumbs are too busy punching buttons on little boxes and never looking up for any longer than it takes to say, “Gotta go! Gotta go! Quick, quick, quick, what happened today? Too late, gotta go!”
I knew better. I knew better because so many of you told me so. You told me so in bars and music venues and restaurants. You told me so in line at the grocery store, in the aisle at the opera. You told me so and I believed you then. I believe you still.
And yet, I know not everyone agrees. Some people view such journalism as a colossal waste of time. They even have a name for it: "Fluff."
Their point of view is thoroughly valid and I accept it at face value. I just see things differently. So I worry about what will happen after I’m gone. Here at KXAN, the management and staff are committed to digging down in every story, no matter what it is, for the human element, the impact on people in general and on persons in particular.
That is great. That is crucially important and it’s a far cry from the way we often did things in the past. But I say it is not enough. I say someone needs to be in charge of going deeper into our life as a community, seeking out the hard to find yet powerful nuggets of humanity that would otherwise slip us by.
I don’t know who will do that now. I don’t know if anyone will. It’s not that no one cares. It’s just that there is enormous pressure in modern journalism to pump up ratings, to produce profit, to satisfy investors. So we gravitate to what we think you want to see. To find out what that is, we conduct surveys and focus groups and we ask questions.
I have never been privy to the content of those investigations, but I suspect that nowhere in the questions is the one that asks, “How important is it to you to be reduced, in the news you watch, to tears or elevated to uproarious joy by the quiet, beautiful, sublime, creative genius of the least of these our brethren?”
If I’m right about all this, it is up to us to say so. It is up to all of us who agree to contact the management of not just this television station, but of all the news outlets, here and around the country. It’s up to us to tell them what we want. That’s what I’m doing right now. I hope you will, too, not just this week and next, but from time to time, over and over again.
Then they will know. Then they will be more likely to stand their ground in the face of the bean counters and number crunchers. Then they will be armed with what they need to give us what we want.
If, on the other hand, I am wrong, and I grant that I might be, we will still survive and thrive. Charles Kuralt, the great CBS human interest correspondent at CBS News in the days of Walter Cronkite, came and went and many of us who were here at the time missed him terribly. But life went on, as it always does. So we will be fine now, as well.
Still, I think we will feel a hole in our hearts, a hole we can fill if we try. For the “Porch,” it turns out, is not so much a place as it is a state of mind. We can go there whenever we want. All we have to do is stop, pull up a chair, tell our stories and listen carefully to each other.
Meanwhile, I now walk through a door into a new and thrilling time of my own life, confident and happy. I am ready once again to proceed as the way opens.
But as Ed Steinbring reminded me last spring, that is not a passive activity. You don’t just sit back and look for opening doors. You get up there; you dig in; you pry and push; you test and probe. So when the way does open, you are there. You are ready. You are keenly alive.
The Porch is dead. Long live the Porch. Adios, mis amigos.
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