Easter in a pandemic

Mavis Staples: “Isolated and afraid / Open up this is a raid / I wanna get it through to you / You’re not alone.”

Pandemic interview with Pope Francis: “It’s not easy to be confined to your house. What comes to my mind is a verse from the Aeneid in the midst of defeat: the counsel is not to give up, but save yourself for better times, for in those times remembering what has happened will help us. Take care of yourselves for a future that will come. And remembering in that future what has happened will do you good.”

Letter from Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington: “Rather than triumph, resurrection brings quiet amazement that life can indeed be lived after something precious is lost. The grace and mercy of Christ meet us in the crucible of real life, where real things happen, not all of them easy. These are the times that resurrection faith is for.”

Chris Martin, covering Shelter from the Storm at home:

An essay from T.M. Shine, writer and grocery worker: ” I can’t fathom what each person might be going through — a roofless home, a sister with respiratory problems hibernating in the basement. So, we make our exchange in goods, and then we reinforce each other to keep going. There is something quietly precious about that and I believe all the mutual appreciation and admiration is certainly part of the cure.”

A homily from Thomas Baker, publisher of Commonweal: “But maybe even in solitude, separated from so much that we are used to, we can be given new life. We can ask God to help us experience the constant promise that love works, and to remind us that even in our pain, we have already been redeemed, and nothing can destroy us.”

Our friend Carrie and our neighbor down the block, last week playing a distanced The Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns:

The triumphant return of T.M. Shine

Here’s what I want you to do for the next 15 minutes to half an hour, depending on your speed of reading. Read “For Mr. Unemployment, a ‘nice’ epiphany” in this weekend’s Washington Post Magazine. The story comes from T.M. Shine, and how I know of the story is because a hundred people googled his name yesterday and found my old posts about loving his work. These hundred people, it appears, also love his work.

In his new story, he picks up where he left off in a previous Post Magazine cover, the one where he wrote about losing his job. He covers his life since then, his book and his eventual return to employment. None of these stages come across as easy. But even thought the story isn’t an amazing success story, even if he’s writing about his own life and no one else’s, he writes in a way that makes a hundred people wonder who he is.

So, go read the story. It applies to you even if it doesn’t, and you can’t understand why until you read the story. Here is one paragraph that, chances are, won’t apply to you. But you are going to like it and you are going to want to read more. If not, go read the story and find another paragraph. One paragraph or another is going to suit you, and you are going to end up googling for more stories from T.M. Shine. I promise.

During this early stage of my unemployment, everybody kept telling me, “You need to find a niche.” I had indeed noticed that the journalists who had mastered one subject — such as the “Medicare reform” reporter with a computer file of 200 government sources — were still holding on to their positions. It made sense. As a journalist, I never stuck to one topic for long; so the most sources I had on any subject were three on Polynesian fire dancers, two on illegal midnight snook fishing and six, no, five, on roller derby girls. My writing life had been full of variety and adventure.

The book to read whether or not you’re going to work tomorrow

If you worry about losing your job, or if you have lost your job already, you are the perfect person to read Nothing Happens Until It Happens to You, and you are everyone. The book is T.M. Shine’s debut novel, and you might say I’m a fan of his. (Previously here: “T.M. Shine is the new reason to read the Washington Post.”) The novel’s subtitle is “A Novel Without Pay, Perks, or Privileges,” and it’s all about job loss. In a way.

The book is all about job loss in the way that an “all-about” experience when applied to job loss is far closer to nothing than all. Shine has the power — a good lazy fire — to surround a scene, creating a cyclorama of nuanced observation and, more often than not, ridiculousness. One glance across his work shows he can drop a circus tent and sell tickets (he’d probably give them away, to see how people react to an offer of free, off-brand circus passes) wherever he needs to. But in Nothing, he holds back, and the book is more powerful for it. His claims are humble.

He writes about a man who loses his job at a South Florida alt-weekly, that man’s friends, his family, his neighbors, and varied encounters, a palette of shadows in the sunshine. Many moments light and slip away before they can be understood. After losing work, is that nothingness freedom or miasma? I’m still deciding and, like you, worrying. T.M. too. He’s written the novel during his unemployment — and nearly wrote it nonfiction. He’s now blogging at PinkSlipMyAss.com and tweeting.

Shine’s recent Times op-ed: “I’m writing to announce that I’ve officially gone beyond the usual job-loss spectrum of denial to acceptance. I’ve hit a more obscure step, No. 8 or 9, in which you to come to grips with the fact that you can’t stand anybody who is employed.” It’s a quality read. I can’t tell how much he’s joking. Which makes it a great read.

If you’re not sold yet, here’s one of my favorite Nothing passages…

Gillian is sitting cross-legged on the corner of my desk, which is not a surprise. I actually keep the one area clear for her visits, so she’ll always feel welcome. A couple of years back I put out a coffee mug full of Slim Jims in that exact spot and all the employees began coming by to say hi, and make some obligatory small talk. I eventually ran out of meat sticks and that was the end of my massive popularity, except for Gillian. She continues to stop by periodically, sitting on the end of my desk crunching on carrot sticks, guzzling Diet Coke, and basically complaining about her day.

She is so comfortable with her own beauty you almost forget about it. But our art department never does. Whenever they need a model on the cheap for a photo illustration, they turn to Gillian. I think I still have a copy of the special food issue where they have her in thigh-high waders, fly-fishing for Chilean sea bass of a diner’s plate in a crowded dockside restaurant.

“I think my head is going to explode,” she says.

As copy editor Gillian is in charge of correcting all the punctuation and grammatical errors before they go to print, so I immediately try to envision the shrapnel from the blast — commas boomeranging off the walls, asterisks hurtling through the air and cutting our throats like ninja death stars, clouds of periods bursting over our cubicles and unleashing a dark, nasty, prickly rain. And everyone covered in Diet Coke.

Go. I didn’t even quote you the Springsteen part. Go buy the book.

What happened to T.M. Shine?

This kid here was looking forward to more T.M. Shine. The most unlikely awesome writer of recent years had arrived in the Post pages, thanks to a slow influx of Miami Herald feature refugees. Then he disappeared. Last year brought no new work from Shine, and this year I got curious.

Turns out he’s writing a book. Remember the Post Magazine story about losing his job, the piece that started this blog’s miniobsession with his work? Well, there was a fantastic line in there, “Nothing happens until it happens to you.” At first thinking about writing a memoir, Shine has now turned that sentence into a such-titled novel coming this autumn, a January Times story (that only I discovered this morning) told us.

Mr. Shine said he enjoyed the freedom of writing fiction. When he originally conceived a nonfiction account, he had planned to track the post-layoff lives of colleagues who also lost their jobs. But once he began writing fiction, “I could decide their futures rather than waiting to see how it would pan out.”

Then again, his publisher “could have said ‘I want to turn it into a musical,’ and I would have said, ‘Hold on, I’ll get my harmonica,’ “ noted Mr. Shine, who has written two nonfiction books. “I was just so desperate.”

On sale: Sept. 7, 2010. I’m already excited.

T.M. Shine is the new reason to read the Washington Post

Style irritates you with mush, and you don’t recognize the names in the A section. You never know what to expect out of Metro, and aren’t you glad they’re killing the Sunday Source? For you, current Post haters (and I’m with you on some counts), I offer T.M. Shine and the paper’s Magazine. The magazine, not the Sunday Source, is the new Style.

T.M. Shine rides again this weekend with “Choosing Not to Choose: How One Man Embraces Indecision and Leaves All His Decisions Up to Others.” The story is exactly what the headline says, and all you need is the Dunkin’ Donuts opening to get aboard. The goodness goes on:

Later in the day, when I asked a sandy-haired woman at Old Navy to pick out a shirt for me, she began to look me up and down as if I were trying to pass through a security checkpoint. I didn’t mind the once-over, but the twice-over and the thrice-over were a bit annoying. Her eyes were darting and zooming in on my weaknesses. Zoom: Stain on shirt he’s wearing — sloppy guy. Zoom: Right ear noticeably bigger than left — bad genes. Zoom: Scar on wrist — possible suicide attempt.

I had to fight the urge to stop her and shout: The scar’s just from punching a lamppost. It’s not even going the right direction for a suicide attempt.

Zoom: Chicken legs. They’re not really chicken legs. They’re more like free-range chicken legs, which are a little more muscular than chicken legs because they’re … you know … running free. But I stopped myself. I didn’t want her decision muddied by all the same junk in my head that muddies my decisions.

This blog last saw Shine writing the year’s best story about losing your job. This blog also meant to cover “Mr. Chair Man,” Shine’s fall quest to sit in Washington’s famous chairs, but it may have lost that link in a browser crash and forgotten. (Chrome has become inches away from the default. Any day now.) For the indecision piece, Shine’s posted a leftover in his blog, with others deciding where he should move. “Fast forward to yesterday when I took my desk globe of the earth up to the park. For some reason, I thought the globe might attract attention, like when a guy shows up with a macaw on his shoulder at a bus stop….”

The year’s best story about losing your job

I can’t say I’ve read many other articles this year about losing your job. I can’t even say they’ve been written. I can’t speak for other years either. Lots of people write about other people losing jobs. Those other people are anecdotes, trends or economic figures.

In tomorrow’s Washington Post magazine, T.M. Shine is a real person writing about himself. You can go to his blog after you read the story and find a scene he left out. You can google him and find his unnamed place of employment was South Florida’s City Link magazine, a Tribune pub once known as XS. You learn as much in a February item with word of his layoff. There’s also more on the publication’s rough road.

But back to happier things. Shine’s books have my attention, Fathers Aren’t Supposed to Die and — deep breath — Timeline: A Month in the Life of a Guy Who Won’t Have Money Taken Out of His Paycheck for United Way; a Guy Who Always Eats Lunch Alone; a Guy So Fascinated with Time That He Documents the Way He Spends It Every Day, Every Hour, Every Minute, Every Second (link). Then there are Shine’s stories. His old Cub Scout uniform. More recently in the Post, “Confessions of a Home Maintenance Moocher.” 24 hours at the Hard Rock Hotel. 24 hours at a porn convention. There’s Sam Zell meeting Sun-Sentinel staffers.

12:16 p.m.: He opens the forum to questions, and right away, someone asks what he thinks of the company’s recent Transformative Change plan and penguin mascot.

12:16:30 p.m.: “Fuck penguins,” he says, waddling around the stage. “When I took my motorcycle to Antarctica, I’d be speeding across the ice with only one thing in mind: penguin roadkill.”

At the top of this page, you see the byline came two weeks before Shine’s layoff. At the bottom, you see Shine used to post unedited columns to his blog, which now just notes the Post layoff-story. And these links, they’re all across Tribune properties, scattered fugitives from centralized content ops and the two-week archive wall.

We’ve run off the happier-things rail. Back to Google. More stories are scattered across six pages of “by T.M. Shine” results. Maybe the most rewarding ones let us trace Shine’s departed job back to its origins.

On that scout uniform piece in the Post last year, the magazine editor’s note talks about discovering Shine in ’86, as a Walgreens clerk winning a Sun-Sentinel essay contest. The editor’s note shares part of the lede of a commission that followed, “Why I Work at the Drugstore.”

“The kiddies — the big-eyed bombers who are watching you — will you be a jerk to them or an inspiration? And when they look at you, smelly and stubbled on Sunday morning, what will they see? That hole in time where their father disappears, where love seems to get chopped up? Will they understand that the grinder that crushes and digests us also gives us something in return–survival, food, a place to sleep. A place where we can stop dreaming?”

You truly hope another search surfaces the rest.

And it does. You find TropicFan.com, one Web user’s fansite/monument to the long dead Tropic Magazine. The fan quotes Gene Weingarten, who writes a weekly column and has a new Pulitzer (for the violin story) for the Post Magazine, where our writing trip began today.

Tropic Magazine was the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald. I was the editor of it from 1985 to 1990, when I arrived at The Post.

The reason it matters to you is that, basically, Tropic Magazine is The Washington Post. Its staff contained me, Tom the Butcher (who was my assistant editor and became Tropic’s editor when I left), Dave Barry, and Joel Achenbach. Frequent contributors to Tropic’s pages included David Von Drehle, Marc Fisher, Guy Gugliotta, and Jeff Leen, who is currently The Post’s investigations editor and whose back pocket is stuffed with Pulitzers. He uses them to clean the windshield of his car. We regularly ran photos by Carol Guzy and Michel DuCille, who share more Pulitzers than Leen.

Add the Post Hunt, held for the first here in town last week. You can get high on the idea this magazine existed. Back on the fansite, you can read Weingarten’s intro to the drugstore story. “The story isn’t easy reading,” it says, in part. “It’s not for everyone. It’s for people with jobs, and people with families, and people who sometimes look at themselves and ask, Is This It?”

Then there’s the story itself.

It begins: “This is for the working man whose smile says, ‘it’s too late for me.’ This is for those of you who can still remember your expectations, even if you just wanted to be a railroad conductor at 6 or a Guitar Man at 14; for those of you who shudder when you remember how old you really are.”

It continues: “That anticipation, those daydreams — have they all gone away? Or are they hidden, tucked up in your gut somewhere — trapped for good? The paycheck is our foundation. We build from that foundation, but we don’t necessarily grow from it.”

We get the kiddies next, the big-eyed bombers, and a long, beautiful narrative about what the title promises, about why he works in a drugstore. The subtitle, apparently, is “Confessions of a Company Man.” Somewhere in the middle, we find a seed.

I can be selfish. You can be selfish. But when a company takes on that characteristic, I think it is committing a crime. I know, I know, I should have known what I was getting into — retail and all. Long hours and no thanks. And, when I was on my own, I didn’t give it a second thought, but I have a family now; I have children. Tell me I’m supposed to find the situation understandable. Tell me I can’t be with my family between Thanksgiving and Christmas for the next 20 years except for a good night kiss.

What was I supposed to be? The doctor tells me I’ve only got 50, maybe 60 years to live. There are things I haven’t done, Doc. I’ve never mowed my neighbor’s lawn at 3 o’clock in the morning. I’ve never driven in a Trans Am. A Camaro, yes, but I hear, mind you, that it’s not the same. And I’ve never taken my dogs for a walk and gone to the bathroom with them. I’ve never screamed while making love. I’m working, working, working. I’ve got a stand-up routine that’s a riot. I turned the radio off on the way to work and sang a song off the top of my head. I swear I never heard it before. It’s my own personal once-in-a-lifetime hit. I could be an all-round entertainer, like Sammy. I can spin six shooters. I can do skywriting. I’m not afraid. I could run a tugboat. I could be something more than a drugstore manager. I could be a writer.

News. We get the news below the cancerous fluorescent lights. It was the souvenir salesman who told me the pope was shot. He had a large inflatable alligator in one hand and a case of Florida sunshine in the other. The salesman, that is. …

A joke and a seed. The people who carried boxes out of work last week, taking the garage elevator as I took the usual stairs, I hope they have one of the two. I can’t pretend to know them, and they don’t need to hear from me. But this week’s Timeslanguage of loss for the jobless” story is right. It’s better to say something than nothing, to make some attempt to process life and how we find it.