If you read what I post here on Welcome to Eclectic very often, you may be able to tell that I like columns. Not the kind that hold up buildings, the kind that appear in newspapers (and now online). Even as a teenager, when we got the daily paper at our house, I tended to browse the news but read the columns from regulars like Dave Broder, William Raspberry, Thomas Sowell, Lewis Grizzard, and Rheta Grimsley. Having no idea who was liberal or conservative, or why that mattered, I developed an unlikely affinity for George Will. As an adult, I’ve particularly liked David Brooks and EJ Dionne, and becoming an avid watcher of PBS NewsHour in more recent years has brought Mark Shields and Michael Gerson into my purview. Closer to home, I read Josh Moon in the Alabama Political Reporter, John Archibald with al.com, and Jeff Martin in the Montgomery Independent. I just like the column as a literary-journalistic form. If hard news is the cake, and pictures are the frosting, then columns are the sprinkles.
However, I don’t have the credentials to be a traditional newspaper columnist. I’ve never been a reporter, nor a news editor, and I would imagine that these columnist jobs are fairly coveted in the journalism profession. I can’t imagine a middle-aged rookie like me getting to walk right onto the Editorial Page staff and claim a seat. So, a year ago, I began doing what the internet has allowed so many of us to do: ignore formal conventions, defy accepted norms and practices, and self-start at whatever I please.
“Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige” was named after my penchant for wearing dirty boots most of the time, even as dress shoes, even in the summer heat, and pays a little homage to one of my favorite Sonic Youth songs. It has been a weekly smattering of whatever crosses my mind or my desk or both, in usually less than a thousand words. There have now been about fifty installments – I did take two weeks off last summer – and I’ve gotten some nice comments about some of the posts, particularly the pre-Lenten “Ugly Words for Ugly Thoughts,” the Alabama-centered “Our Last-ness,” and the recent “When Reading Meant Everything.”
To me, a column is about perspective. Though I’m a Catholic, not a Confucian, I think that old Chinese philosopher put it pretty well when describing how a thoughtful person ought to look at this world:
Cultivated people have nine thoughts. When they look, they think of how to see clearly. When they listen, they think of how to hear keenly. In regard to their appearance, they think of how to stay warm. In their demeanor, they think of how to be respectful. In their speech, they think of how to be truthful. In their work, they think of how to be serious. When in doubt, they think of how to pose questions. When angry, they think of trouble. When they see gain to be had, they think of justice.
In this age of division and polarization, more of the perspectives we read ought to come from notions like those than from the buttressing of partisan platforms or from efforts to sway political polling. Maybe just that’s my Generation-X, anti-corporate cynicism talking, but I don’t think so.
Nonetheless, it has been a pleasure writing these columns over the last year, and I think I’ll continue them for the time being. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll continue to.