Monday, April 26, 2010
Sometimes I feel that my life is destined to be a chapter out of The Joy Luck Club. For better or worse, Amy Tan's most well-known exemplar of Asian American literature was also my coming of age novel growing up. So it's not hard for me to imagine years down the line taking credit for my daughter's prodigious chess talents, marrying a well-meaning—but culturally-nescient—woman who insists that all household expenses be divided equally, or somehow becoming haunted by the ghost of a long-deceased relative. Thankfully, the only glimpse I've gotten so far is the off-handed wisdom mined from either Waverly or Lena that “trouble always comes in threes.” In 5th grade, it happened during playground recess after lunch, and by the time I finally read the novel in 8th grade, it started cropping up in almost every other aspect of my life. Fights with parents, bad test grades, disputes with friends—nearly every trouble landing within a week's span of two others, so that I always knew to brace myself before the worst was over. Even in the greater world at large, things like celebrity deaths and natural disasters (just to name a few) seem to echo this “trouble in threes” sentiment. I've realized that the same can also be said of disappointments over the last few weeks in Taigu.
In the wide world of competitive journalism, timing is everything. From getting a lead on a good story to tracking down the perfect interview, or networking with the right person to get your foot in the door, everything seems to be a matter of chance. Everything, perhaps, except for experience. The way I see it, experience in journalism can be boiled down to three factors: publications, references, and clips. Publications are the number and relative diversity of magazines, newspapers, websites, etc. you've worked for and references are what your old bosses say about your work ethic. Clips come in all shapes and sizes, and quality cannot be understated—a clip that generates sizable buzz can single-handedly put a website on the map. But when a lack of experience doesn't dictate enough cracks at quality pieces, sometimes quantity is all you've got. As a bottom-feeding intern for four years on the magazine editorial staff totem pole, I know just how valuable such clips can be.
When I first started out in publishing, I was mostly given the sorts of work reserved for, well, interns. That included no shortage of copying, scanning, fact-checking, researching, transcribing, and other “character-building” grunt work. When I became a little more established in the organization I was given the opportunity to contribute my own ideas and do some writing for front of the book pieces (FOB for short). These are usually the short “quick hits” that draw the reader in and offer a snapshot of some aspect of the world at large, depending on the target niche of the publication. During my latest gig at Popular Mechanics, I was especially fortunate to have been given a weekly feature to write that appeared on the front page of the website. The advent of blogs and 24-hour news wires on the internet opened up a whole new world of clip-writing possibilities, and I jumped at the chance. I cherished these opportunities more than most earthly pleasures. On one instance, when an assignment of mine was given to another intern because of a time crunch, I nearly had a break down. It was only after a long, rambling letter to my boss and a smoothing-over at the local Starbucks that I was able to feel positive about the publishing industry again.
One of the weekly "Time Machine" pieces I wrote for Popular Mechanics last summer. For one glorious week during the summer, it was the most-viewed article on the website.
Thus, you can probably imagine my feelings as rather less of shock and more of grievous disappointment when I received this email message not too long ago:
Hi Daniel -
Some not-so-great news. PM is doing a big site relaunch in two weeks, and a lot of stories from the past couple of years are going to up and disappear (I know, that is terrible and bad Internet protocol, but I am not in charge of [...]'s attitude towards the Internet). Most of your stories will almost certainly not be preserved--we're migrating stories based on volume of traffic over time.
Sorry about this! I thought we were migrating everything from the past two years, and was horrified to discover yesterday that that's not the case.
Hope you're well -
As if it weren't bad enough that my stories would be disappearing, I wasn't able to speculate on those of my cohorts at the time—the fellow interns who worked alongside me during the summer. Had their stories garnered enough page-views to be spared in this thoroughly modern form of layoff or was it unique to me? My competitive side, which really only comes out during clip-grubbing, playing basketball, and picking up females, was in full force. I've always felt that journalism on the whole represents this weird balancing act—of being supportive of your coworkers for the greater well-being of the industry, while all the while looking out for your own self interests. I suppose the same can be said of winning an Oscar. Luckily, the sender of the email (who shall remain anonymous) gave me some good leads on screen capture programs that allowed me to take still images of scrolling web pages and save them as picture files. Using the program, I was able to save copies of every article I wrote for the magazine on my computer with a surprising degree of ease. Sure, it won't be as impressive as sending over a link to prospective news agencies in the future, but at least it won't look half as bad as forking over that crinkled sheet of paper torn from my only copy of the magazine.
After returning to Taigu from two months of winter vacation, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my computer was still intact, exhibiting no signs of the wear and tear that I had subjected it to by lugging it looped around my shoulder for hundreds of miles over three countries. God knows that my computer has had its share of problems over its five-year lifespan in my care, but in the usual vain of not appreciating technology until the moment it stops working, it came as an utter shock to me when a completely new issue emerged. Much to my dismay, about a week after I returned home, my computer would not connect to the internet. The Ethernet capacity on campus, though admittedly quite unstable and the go-to scapegoat for most problems in the past, was not the culprit, nor was a cable issue to blame. Pretty soon, my USB ports stopped working too. At first I thought it was a software issue, but after doses of trial-and-error, I decided it must have something to do with the hardware—an over-heated fan that burned through to the port, surely a result of old age. Needless to say, I know very little about the internal anatomy of a computer, but what I did know (or at least thought I knew) was that the most important machine to my day-to-day livelihood was ready for its last rites.
But before the messy ceremony of disposal and the reluctant inquiry into a possible replacement, I thought the best thing to do was to get it checked out, to be sure that there was no possible way of salvaging what was otherwise a fully-functional piece of machinery. After backing-up my data to an external hard drive, I took a trip to Sai Ge, a computer and electronics mega-store located about an hour away in the capital city of Taiyuan. It was the same place that previous Shansi Fellow Beth went to take her computer two years earlier when the USB ports on hers stopped working (apparently Taigu has a reputation for destroying electronics, to which I blame the excessive amount of dust in the air). Once there, I was shuttled to one of a dozen repair counters and set about trying to explain what exactly the problem was, armed with only my broken Chinese and an electronic dictionary at my disposal. Eventually, I was able to get my meaning across, but in spite of my relentless probing as to whether it was truly not a hardware issue, the man behind the counter waved me off, assuring me that it was a software problem. However, inherent in his assertion lay a greater dilemma. My computer was in English, and the man, like every other employee in the complex, was unable to read it. These guys are virtual wizards when it comes to fixing electronics but the language barrier was enough to test their mettle. The only solution he could muster was reformatting the computer's hard drive.
(More on pirated software, Pocahontas, Stevie Wonder, Oberlin's Litoff Building, parallel universes, the thrilling conclusion, and, well, disappointments in Pt. II of this post).