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Jewish World Review Jan. 8, 2002 / 24 Teves 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Important lessons arrive out of the past

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- BECAUSE so many of us live at an unnatural pace, we don't take enough time to understand our context, to plot where we've been and where we're going, to imagine our future by gazing at our past.

Instead, we rocket through our minutes, our hours, shoved and dragged by unrelenting forces - family, economic, social, even spiritual - that we often do not and cannot control. We do not - in the bleak but oddly comforting words of T.S. Eliot's character J. Alfred Prufrock - measure out our lives in coffee spoons.

In the past year, however, I've had several opportunities to look behind me and gauge my life's journey. And I can tell you, it's an exercise worth whatever time you can steal to make it happen.

One chance for a retrospective came when I put together my first book, "A Gift of Meaning.". To prepare it, I had to read back through more than 10 years' worth of my more-serious columns.

To look at how you've spent a large slice of a career can be both humbling and affirming. Naturally, I found columns I wish I'd never written. But, on the whole, not so many that I wanted to hang my head in shame. Indeed, I was rather surprised to realize that quite a few of the columns I'd written in the last decade or so seemed to be standing the test of time.

One quite unexpected result of this work was the realization of how often I had written columns from the road. This has helped me to recognize and even celebrate a certain wanderlust in my own character that I'm not sure I had fully acknowledged before.

I made a list of datelines - those cities, towns and villages from which I've written columns. The list isn't yet complete and doesn't cover my 35-plus years in this business, but it already includes more than 100 places, from Abiquiu, N.M., to Durham, N.C., from Jamestown, Va., to Louisville, Ky., and from Paris to Washington, D.C., to Vail, Colo., and Woodstock, Vt. A few of those datelines - and many others - show up in my book.

It is wise to know yourself well enough to be able to sense when you are feeling stuck emotionally, physically and spiritually. It's much clearer to me now that I am healthier and closer to being whole when I change locations from time to time, when I give myself permission to move about and experience life from different vistas. New horizons yield new insights.

I know I would be unhappy if I were on the road constantly. I value - even yearn for - stability, routine, predictability. But several times a year, I feel the road calling my name. We all would do well to listen for what is calling to us in a constructive way and respond to it as best we can.

Another chance I had recently to stop and look back at my life also had to do with a book, but not one by me. Rather, it's a book by Garret Mathews, a prize-winning columnist at the Courier & Press in Evansville, Ind.

Garret decided to ask people who work in print, radio and TV, including me, to recount stories from when they were just starting out in this strange, wonderful business. The collection he put together, " Past Deadlines, Past Lives", is a remarkable read.

It includes stories from such folks as Art Linkletter, Christiane Amanpour, Tom Becka, Bruce Morton, Kevin Harlan, Kathleen Parker, Richard Reeves, Marvin Kalb, Tom Tiede and many others.

I told of a ruse I'd sometimes use to get my stories better play in the now-defunct Times-Union of Rochester, N.Y., an afternoon paper where I first worked after college. I'd write stories the day before but not turn them in until nearly deadline - after most inside space in the local news section already had been filled with whatever was available. That left open the best space on the section cover.

"The result," I pointed out, "was that for several years, housing and urban development stories seemed to become pretty important news in Rochester."

It was fun to remember the tricks of one's youth - but also sobering because I was reminded that journalists strive to reach their own goals and advance their own careers, sometimes at the expense of good news judgment.

It's possible to wallow in the past and never move forward. But the larger danger is that we will ignore our pasts and not take time to learn from them. And we can't afford such inattention.


JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.


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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved