Back in the River, Eye on the Banks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"So, do you miss your job?"

The baby hadn't even made her way into the world when people started asking and, in the beginning, having never spent more than three consecutive weeks in 12 years away from newspapers, I wasn't sure of the answer.

Would being home for six months leave me bored stiff and turn my brain to oatmeal?

Would I be jumping on my personal computer every time my daughter took a nap to log onto The Sun's computer system and read the Maryland wire?

After spending the better part of a year covering the Anne Arundel County elections, would I be desperate to know what the new county executive, John Gary, was up to?

It didn't take long to discover the answer to these questions.

No, no, and no.

Oh yes, in many ways it feels good to be back.

A writer who hasn't written in a while always gets pleasure out of picking up the pen (or, in this case, the computer keyboard) again.

It's nice to get back in touch with the people who make news in Anne Arundel County; in this business, you develop fondness or respect for more of them than most people would think. And once more I can enjoy that quintessential perk of working for a newspaper: the feeling of being "plugged in" to the world that comes from knowing what happens as it happens.

The day of the Oklahoma City disaster I was puttering about the house, tending to the baby and the petunias on the front porch, when a friend called and said she was watching "these horrible pictures of the bombing."

"What bombing?" I asked. Talk about feeling out of it.

Still, I wonder, after being comparatively out of touch for six months, if we all wouldn't do ourselves a favor if we unplugged every so often -- not just for the sake of relaxation, but in order to attain a more balanced perspective.

I wonder if it isn't especially important for journalists to do this, because we are so prone to distorting our view of the world through the prism of our work.

If there's one thing my hiatus from work has taught me, it's that people who spend 40 or more hours a week, year after year, covering NAFTA, state politics, local school problems or whatever can develop a skewed sense of how these matters figure in the lives of most of the people who read their stories and watch their newsreels.

We get used to dealing with the movers and shakers: elected officials, special interest activists, community leaders.

Our sources are people with at least an interest in and sometimes even a passion about whatever story we're working on. A hundred people show up for a hearing on the county budget and it becomes easy to assume that almost everybody's talking about the county budget -- and that those who aren't must be apathetic lumps not worthy of attention.

But that's not the way it is.

L Like most of you, I care about what's going on in the world.

That famous photo of the vulture hovering over the starving African child made me cry. I'm worried about the plight of the inner cities. I'm interested in questions about where government's responsibility begins and ends.

But we don't live our day-to-day lives angsting over all the pressing issues of the day.

There are bills to be paid, gardens to be tended, pets to be fed, children to be loved. Our homes, our families -- when you come right down to it these are the things that matter most.

The historian Will Durant once likened civilization to a stream with banks. The stream, he said, "is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing things historians usually record, while on the banks unnoticed people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry.

"The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians [and journalists, Durant might have added] are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river."

I believe as much as ever that each of us must know and understand what's happening in the stream.

But my six months at home have left no doubt. What we do on the banks, though not the stuff of headlines, is most important.

Here is a promise never to forget that.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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