I was thinking about what it meant to find and follow a path to happiness when a cool breeze came up off the bay, ruffling the blue-and-gold tassel of my mortarboard cap. Sunlight was bouncing off the sculptures in irregular patterns and I was graduating from Cal in the garden of the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. It was a Saturday in 1981.
Two days later, with my art and psychology degree in one hand and my Canon AE-1 in the other, I began my first official career as a photojournalist and staff writer at the Concord Transcript, a then-110-year-old newspaper in Contra Costa County, where I grew up.
Following my father’s advice, I took to heart his mantra that work was meant to be fun. And there I was, a new junior Lois Lane, interning with the news department, the society pages, the sports section, the quirky chief photographer and a wonderful assortment of offbeat writers who welcomed me into the news world.
I couldn’t have been happier. No two days were alike.
One day, I was covering fundraisers for the society editor, Dora, a lovely and well-respected matron who made us laugh with stories about how she had been abandoned by her husband many years earlier, with four children to support, so the first job she got was as a burlesque dancer going by the stage name of Helen Bed. She said she found journalism infinitely easier and the hours more regular.
Another day, I was running around a high school football field shooting for the sports chief, Mike — and inadvertently forgot to properly advance my black-and-white Kodak Tri-X Pan 35mm film. Yikes! Oh no! So he sent me out again, to TWO other games, just as insurance.
Ed, the photographer who taught me how to shoot news and load raw film onto developing spools in the total darkness of our 3-foot-by-3-foot darkroom, kept the police radio in his office. With IBM Selectric typewriters banging away, we wrote on deadline amidst those crackling dispatches and shrill phones ringing at every desk in the hectic newsroom.
Occasionally, Ed would run out with a camera or two in hand, yelling something like, “Hey, there’s a refinery fire in Richmond, who wants to ride shotgun?” Someone always went, notebook in hand.
I started writing a humor column and really found my voice as a writer.
From the beginning, I felt at home, totally at ease talking to people, shooting their photos. Questions flowed effortlessly and a fellow reporter, Tim, dubbed me The Grand Inquisitor.
I was on the path. Everything was going great — or so I thought.
Managing Editor Marlene had welcomed me aboard with a hug and by the end of my first week, handed me a single, typed sheet of information with the comment, “These are the 50 things you are doing wrong. You’re writing for news now, not your professors. Here’s an AP Stylebook. Read it and I know you’ll never do those things again.”
Gulping, I slid the paper and the Associated Press manual across the desk and took them home. I loved Marlene. I’d been babysitting her terrific children, Molly and Charlie, since I was 15. She was a great writer and a good friend of my mother, my hero, Judy.
How could this be?
I was an A-student and went all through Cal on scholarships, working two jobs, so you know what that means. You try not to make many mistakes — at least, you try not to KEEP making mistakes.
But I knew at the time that Marlene was doing me a huge favor.
That experience with the stylebook came in handy 20 years later when my own angelic daughter, Tierney, and I were sitting at our dining room table and she was completely dissolved in tears. Before her lay her first paper from ninth-grade Honors English. Red marks littered the margins and my little straight-A-er, who dreamed of becoming a filmmaker and novelist, could not believe she had done so many things wrong. She was — and is today — an amazing writer.
I looked at the teacher’s comments and said, “See, sweetheart, these are just mechanical things she wants you to correct. It’s all MLA style stuff for college-prep (Modern Language Association). There is not one criticism of your writing or your style to be found. It’s just the nuts-and-bolts of sentence structure and punctuation. She loves your work; she just needs you to fix a few things that matter. Let me tell you about my first editor, Marlene …”
Those milestones on the road to becoming a writer are blessings, no matter what they feel like at the time. And I’m sure that’s true of any career that becomes a calling — whether we choose it or the career chooses us.
But with so many forks in the road and so many options, how do you know you’re on the right path?
Well, once in a while, if you’re lucky, life comes full circle and history repeats itself.
Today, typewriters sit on museum shelves and — not being quite ready for the shelf myself — I am delighted to have come back home to the news business.
On Aug. 2, I came out of retirement from my other, second-really-fun career of publicity and media relations for various State of California agencies in Sacramento and joined the amazing team at Feather Publishing. Now, as a new staff writer and photographer for Quincy’s Feather River Bulletin, I get to read your stories and help tell some of them.
I confess I’ve got a soft spot for Plumas County — it’s a place that feels right on many levels.
I’d been visiting Quincy since the late 1980s, making the breathtaking drive up here to see family. When I went through a divorce in 1998, winding through the Feather River Canyon by moonlight was a healing part of my journey. The mountains kept me company as I dreamed of moving here and mom always had the kettle on for midnight tea, a Java tradition in our tribe of insomniacs.
I miss mom, but I know she’s smiling down from heaven as I repeat history in another way. Judy Java, a Pulitzer-nominated investigative journalist who won many Associated Press awards, retired from the Bay Area and then wrote for the Feather River Bulletin in 1988-89. How about that? I wonder if she sat at this desk?
To close this column and start our fresh new chapter, let me say thank you for welcoming me into your stories. I’ve noticed that there are many long-time Sierra residents with great history here, a lot of Bay Area people and some San Diego refugees, too, plus a whole lot of Cal folks. And nice, everyone is so nice!
I feel honored to be serving the Plumas County community, and if Managing Editor Debra Moore ever wants to hand me a list, I’ll be glad to have it.
In the meantime, if you have story ideas, please feel free to share them. My beats include the:
– Central Plumas Recreation and Parks District,
– Chamber of Commerce news,
– Feather River College,
– Plumas County Museum,
– PUSD and local school events,
– Service clubs and philanthropic organizations,
– Travel, tourism and more.
So don’t be shy. It’s nice to share the path with you. I’m at 283-0800, ext. 30, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.