Turning Over Rocks

Courage is stupidity.

Turning Over Rocks

I was congratulating myself a couple of weeks ago on living an investigation-free life.

No grabbing my computer in the middle of the night to look up some additional line of inquiry that had just occurred to me.

No shrieking about how full of gas some evidentiary claim had turned out to be.

None of that weighty worry that I was going to make miserable some well-intended, perfectly decent persons by pointing to the errors of their ways.

Yeah. That didn’t last.

Back in January, a few months after retiring from ELi, I started a new publication called Local News Blues. With this newsletter, I was looking to accomplish several things at once, chief among them to test out some ideas for the book I’m writing about the nobility and the madness of bringing local news and to support friends and colleagues still in the trenches. It would give local news producers a place to externalize the grumpy, thoughtful conversations we were havingonly in private.

From before it even went live, my friend Amos Gelb kept egging me on to use Local News Blues to do investigative work on our industry. But I kept saying I’m not qualified to do that. Amos knows so much more about the news industry than I do, when he tells me what he’s seeing, his experience and insight leaves me feeling lost and in awe. Totally unqualified.

But of course I started poking at things that didn’t look right. Turning over rocks, calling Amos….

You know, rehabbing the house next door was supposed to be a way to transition out of doing investigations. And it has definitely kept me busy since we bought the place in late January.

I’ve demo’ed and hauled out about three thousand pounds of lathe, plaster, and other rubble. I’ve cleaned up after the plumber, the electricians, the HVAC guys, the drywallers, and now the tiler. (Doing clean-up for them saves a lot of money.) I’ve filled three dumpsters. And I’ve worked the garden to the point where it looks charming.

But through it all, I've kept thinking about whether this transition would work. Whether it would be an effective path to just writing instead of pushing and pushing (and then writing).

I have now spent many a run (and one entire novel) trying to understand why I have this urge to poke at things. And why I am trying to stop.

The latter feels easier to ascertain.

The apparently coordinated prenatal dex attack by the pathetic bioethicists at the FDA and AJOB, the one that broke my brain, still haunts me the way a torn Achilles will make you forever afraid of your own feet. It’s impossible not to recall that I nearly killed myself the day they struck, and that if that had happened, my son would have been without a mother.

Then there was the defamation lawsuit from the real estate developer, the guy now in Club Fed for a stay of thirty eight months. It’s certainly fun when a Michigan Court of Appeals judge jokes around with your fancy lawyer, letting you know you’ve won. But that experience was like a prolonged removal of all of my toenails, no nerve-block. And one of these days, he's going to be out of prison.

A couple of months ago, my friend the politico and lawyer Mark Grebner – a windmill jouster if ever there was one – let me interview him at my dinner table for the new book project. There, he said the thing it felt like no one else had ever understood:

“I’ve come to realize there is absolutely no difference between courage and stupidity. Absolutely no goddamned difference.”

Mark was bitterly referring to the time in his youth he took down the county sheriff for corruption. Just before he made this observation about courage and stupidity, Mark was recounting how one guy kept trying to warn him that the sheriff had a lot of deputies, and they all had guns.

Mark is simply right. To poke and poke may look like courage to some. But eventually you realize you are just motherfucking stupid.

The older woman who most recently owned the house next door loved to collect rocks. The garden is full of them, and when they lived there, the house was full of them, too. During the pandemic, she and her husband moved to California and took the possessions they needed, but they left behind, of course, many of her rocks.

The house being rehabbed (left) next to my house (right).

After we bought it, and there were still collected rocks in the house here and there, this was one I found in the laundry room, near the Pushmatic electrical panel that had to be replaced:

So silly, that a little old piece of marked concrete could make me feel all that it did.

But the Big Bank Building was the largest structure at the heart of the blighted area that formed the subject of the defamation lawsuit. It was the building we all waited and waited for a decade to have demolished, the building whose end everyone cheered when it finally came down, a year or so after the developer who later sued me lost the property to foreclosure.

How funny that my old friend had grabbed this rock at the demolition and marked it. How funny that she had left it behind without any idea I would be the person to find it.

I wiped my eyes on my sleeves, took the trinket home, and put it with my odd collection of yields of the hunt: the 19th century German Chang and Eng Bunker figurine from Eng’s great-great-something granddaughter; the Yanomamo basket and spear tips from Nap Chagnon; the Courage Award from the Heterodox Academy, which I now call my Stupidity Award. (It makes me feel so much better to call it what it is.)

The funny thing about hanging out with a whole cabal of dogged local journalists is how it is like being in a House of Mirrors after a few sips of happy juice. In every direction you look, they are presenting with the malady Amos calls “the psychosis.” They are poking, prodding, turning over stones. And what can you do but feel in the Most Excellent company.

And you have to help them out by poking. Right?

So I started out my work at Local News Blues by pushing on the map that supposedly represents us all, the Medill Local News Initiative map. Cited all over, it allegedly shows where news is dying, surviving, and being reborn.

I began by pointing out problems I had noted with the map and called on the owners of the “proprietary” map at Northwestern (yes, Northwestern) to release the data, to show us who they have located where.

To my surprise, a few months later, they had hit the button that revealed which local news operations are supposedly still alive in which U.S. counties.

And oh my word, so, so, so many mistakes. Omissions, duplications, mis-locations, mis-categorizations, and ultimately evidence that their big claims about local news cannot be said to be supported by the data, because they’ve left out whole swaths of old community newspapers and new start-ups.

Now I will have to shift back into scholarly mode proper, I suppose, and explain in academic prose why this mapping project is best described as “troubled.” How it needs to be fixed....

And here I am, grabbing my computer in the middle of the night to look up some additional line of inquiry that has just occurred to me. Shrieking about how full of gas some evidentiary claim has turned out to be. Feeling the weighty worry that I am making miserable a whole bunch of well-intended, perfectly decent persons by pointing to the errors of their ways.

And the house next door is not even ready for sale yet.

There was a time when the investigations gave me a very pointed sense of purpose. But I think that must have been when I was young, when I had in me the tribal fire young people feel?

Now it all feels like gentle tragedy. The flopping around of our species before we exterminate ourselves with our clever inventions.

“Why not work on a house renovation instead?” I’ve asked myself rhetorically so many times, picking up our snow shovel to scrape up another load of demoed plaster. It is just as stupid as any other endeavor!

How I did laugh, covered in mentally-liberating 1923 dust, when the old kitchen cabinet revealed a cough syrup ad from my youth, speaking to how I felt about all this physical labor: Relief in a hurry!

Just as stupid as any hard human endeavor.

But last night, just before midnight, we drove north of East Lansing to see if we could see the light from the sun’s stormy mood. And there, up on Chandler Road, where normally you pass a car every five minutes or so, there was traffic. All these people trying to get up to the darkness in the hopes of seeing the light.

The clouds were being uncooperative, but it turned out that phone cameras could help us see what we could not easily see with our own orbs. All these people had traveled up to the dark soybean farms in their air-bagged clever inventions to point their small, rectangular clever inventions at the sky, to see together what we could not otherwise see.

And I was reminded what I said to my journalism colleagues a couple of weeks ago:

I’ve spent some time puzzling over the question of why such a personality type [as ours] would exist. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is what evolutionary biologists call “prosocial” – that it’s a type of personality that ultimately benefits the group. As a consequence of our managing to show our worth sometimes, people haven’t killed off our type (though some political regimes have tried).

Even though people like this haven't always ended up in what we call journalism, they seem to exist in every culture. I think it's because, to survive long-term, every society needs people who will question and doubt everybody else, who will throw themselves at the fan blades until they figure out what’s really going on, who will share the truth with others even when it’s dangerous to do so. Who will remind everyone that someone is getting hurt, and someone could be doing better.

I tell myself this as, impulsively, I turn over another rock – that perhaps this utter stupidity does some good?

Still, as I get closer to the other end of life, I find I would rather simply pile these rocks in cairns and watch the night sky. (Would it be too selfish, mother?)