One memory from my earliest years in The Star’s building is a bit crude. It involves a urinal. And a round-cornered screened insert over the drain — I think it was blue — that was stamped with a proud motto: “Artistry in Plastic.”
It was always amusing to see that and to ponder the notion that an object with such a humble purpose in life could aspire to art.
It was also absurd. Yet I don’t think I ever associated the thing, until writing this just now, with Marcel Duchamp’s famous “readymade” sculpture, an off-the-shelf porcelain urinal, reoriented 90 degrees and titled “Fountain.” Duchamp’s conceptual performance of 1917 has been labeled the most influential artwork of the 20th century. So there.
Still, it’s funny what you remember. And it’s sad what you forget. And I venture to say that I’ve forgotten a lot more than I remember about the four decades I’ve spent at this newspaper. The poignancy of this is not lost on someone who is old enough to have witnessed a parent’s decline through dementia.
Nevertheless, I mostly regret losing track of many of the people who came and went and of many of the moments of learning, inspiration, brain-frying and heart-breaking hard work and, yes, absurdity that go into creating a life in the news business.
I lose patience fairly quickly with the tiresome and ill-informed comments made by friends and acquaintances who seem to assume I deserve condolences for remaining in this business when it all seems so — what? — over. Puh-leeze. Of course, we continue to experience the enormous, generational transformation, often very painful, that has beset every form of media and every corner of the communications industry over the last quarter century.
The Star, like other newspapers and media organizations, continues to change and redefine itself, in search of an equilibrium that is meaningful to both the bean counters and our customers, our readers. More evolutionary change is on the horizon as new initiatives get underway soon in our print and digital products. But the mission remains the same: To do the best we can to reflect, interpret and comment upon the life of our city, our nation and our world. And to tell unforgettable stories.
Along with the genuine humility and a real sense of grief over the collateral damage, I tend to greet change like a reasonably happy Heraclitus in the river. And every bend in the news-business river presents challenges and opportunities. A couple of years ago, after more than 25 years wearing various hats in The Star’s features operation, I joined the editorial board and the Opinion pages, where challenges and opportunities arrive just about every other minute. What’s not to like about that?
The other day, I looked at the faces of this summer’s accomplished corps of newsroom interns at The Star and realized that despite their currently uncertain futures, the future of the news business — whatever form it takes — would be in pretty good shape.
I happened to be talking to them about The Star’s most famous alum, Ernest Hemingway, whose life and work I’ve been immersed in for the last couple of decades.
“Newspaper work will not harm a young writer,” Hemingway once said late in his life, “and could help him if he gets out of it in time.”
Prodded by Gertrude Stein in Paris, a few years after his Kansas City stint, Hemingway did give up regular newspaper work to focus on becoming the great American writer. Had I known of Hemingway’s admonition in the early years of my career, I might have followed along. But here I am, 40 years to the day after my full-time career began at The Star, still engaged in the daily grind. I didn’t get out of it in time. But why wouldn’t I make the most out of my little place in the river?
It has been a long, eventful and wholly unpredictable journey from “Artistry in Plastic” to today’s political theater of the absurd.
Rounding this bend, I’m sure there are plenty of stories I will yet remember. And plenty more yet to tell.