Friday, November 20, 2009

Plenty of Stress, Little Cash

I found out that I made a "top 15" list - but before you get too jealous, let me tell you the whole story. came out with an article called Stressful Jobs that Pay Badly, and my job, news reporter, was right up there in the top fifteen. Other lucky winners included probation officers, social workers, marriage and family therapists, substance abuse counselors, ministers, and high school teachers.

I happened to find out about this dubious honor earlier this week, arguably one of the most stressful that I have had to date at the newspaper office. Last week, I wrote a story about a survey two high school students conducted, asking junior high schoolers how they felt about cafeteria food. As you can probably guess, the food got a big thumbs down - when was the last time you met a kid who raved about school lunches? But, I was impressed with the project. The two students had ciruclated a petition, gathered 250 signatures, written up a survey, distributed it, tabulated the results, prepared a Power Point presentation, and given a report to the school board on their findings. I thought of the whole thing as a rather light piece about student initiative, giving a well-earned voice to local kids.

Late in the game, my editor read over the finished piece and said since the results were so negative, I should probably call the head of the school's food service, and offer her a chance to weigh in. I disagreed, thinking that the piece stood on its own. But, at her request, I made the phone call on deadline night. The food service director said she knew of the survey, was familiar with its results, and she chose not to comment. We went ahead and ran the story, and I went home with a clear conscience.

The day the paper came out, the food service director's husband came into the office furious with all of us, cancelling their subscription, saying we had ruined sixteen years of hard work that his wife had done in the community. I learned of the reaction over the weekend. When I got into the office on Tuesday, as much as I dreaded it, I went to the school to find the woman and apologize, for it certainly had not been my intent to harm her.

The apology was an unmitigated disaster. She did not want to talk to me, and although she listened to my explanation of how the story came about, she was completely unmoved. She said the damage was irreparable, and there was absolutely nothing I could do. Towards the end, tears came to my eyes, and mumbling a final "I'm sorry," I left.

By the time I got back to the office, the stress of the entire week came crashing down - my dog was still in surgery when all of this happened, and I was waiting for a call from the vet. While attempting to make a cup of coffee, I was suddenly overcome with sobs, and cried for a good fifteen minutes, for everything - my dog, the newspaper article, the botched apology, all of it.

The irony, of course, is that the school lunch story was one of five news stories I had written the previous week. On my way to work, stopping at the local grocery store, the director of Calistoga Beverage Company sought me out to thank me for the nice job I had done on the story about the bottling plant's impending closure. And when I got to my desk, there was a plate of home-made brownies waiting for me with a thank you card on top, from the couple who had received a U.S. flag flown in Afghanistan from their son, another piece that I had done, that one in honor of Veterans Day.

When covering contentious issues that come up before the Planning Commission, I am routinely criticized by people on both extreme sides of the issue who say I was unfairly favorable to their opponents. Obviously, I can't be giving biased weight to both the "pros" and the "cons" at the same time, but that's what travels down the grapevine. It simply comes with the job: when people are angry, when they feel their security or position is threatened in some way, it is easy to vent that frustration on the news reporter who is quoting the "bad guys."

And, of course, there's the measly paycheck.

So stress management is definitely one of the reasons I sit. But, as much as I would like it to be a direct-link fix, zazen provides a much more nebulous solution than that.

In Turning Suffering Inside Out, Darlene Cohen says, We see our stress as a problem to be overcome and eliminated, like hemorrhoids. We want to reduce stress, plain and simple, not merge with it, not study it, not hold it in meditative equipoise. We think that whatever we're going to learn to conquer our stress, it should be definite, graspable. It's difficult for us to live in the realm of not knowing, just giving everything in front of us our whole attention and suspending our worry about what comes next until it arrives. We need to cultivate a lot of faith to live that way. But this attitude may be the most intimate and satisfying connection we could ever have with our lives. Not to know exactly what's going to happen but to do, to feel, anyway.

No matter how much time I spend sitting zazen, there will still be disgruntled readers. The only thing I can hope to change is how I respond to that anger. And even when I do my best, come forward with the most direct, open heart that I have, my goodwill gestures may be spurned. And then I will try to experience that hurt completely and fully, before taking another breath and moving forward, heart open once again.

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