On the Job

A year or so ago, for a yawningly routine service story I was hacking out for WebMD, I interviewed a dentist about what people do wrong when they brush their teeth.

Hey. It’s a (partial) living.

This is how it went: We all know what we mess up when it comes to brushing. We do it too quickly, we don’t pay attention to the gumline, we go side-to-side instead of up and down. We don’t brush enough.

Either out of some sort of professional responsibility or desperate boredom — maybe it was both — I was determined to uncover something a little different than that. Something a little meatier. Something I could sink … well, something that would make a service article on brushing your teeth a little more interesting to read (and to hack out).

I found it. I pass it on now, as a public service:

Once you’ve made that final stroke, once you’re about to hang up that brush at night, the key is to spit and don’t rinse. Get all the toothpaste out that you can. But leave that last coating layer of cavity-fighting fluoride in there to do its work all night (or at least until your next brushing).

You’re welcome.

This is the type of side benefit and small joy that comes with what I now do for a (partial) living. Occasionally, I get to discover something new. I learn a little.

That, as it’s been said, is not nothing.

Back when I covered sports for a full-time check, this was not the case. I asked about, and was told, how to approach an at-bat and what a good hitter’s count is and how to run a good wheel route and set a good pin-down pick and rights of first refusal and salary cap exceptions and stadium taxes and Nielsen households and different domestic violence charges and betting odds and small sample sizes and anterior cruciate ligaments. Some of that was mildly interesting, granted. None was particularly enlightening or helpful in my life.

Now, in addition to a sports story every once in a while, I do health, history, science, politics, whatever people will pay me for that sounds either interesting or worth my time (preferably both). I run into all sorts of learning opportunities.

Example: A couple of climate activists I talked to for a story had me sold on the Green New Deal, an economy-changing and ecology-saving plan proposed by, among others, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her plan isn’t perfect, of course — it is, we should remember, an idea, not a plan — but now I’m all for something along that path.

Another one: Salmon should be cooked to 145 degrees (F). I always figured that didn’t matter. Heck, people eat it raw, right? Well, the experts say you shouldn’t.

Sometimes, researching or interviewing subjects for a story makes you want to better your own life. I did something a while back on the “zen of zero waste,” in which people try to, and come close to, living without producing any trash. It was admirable, how they can cram a year’s worth of garbage into a baby food jar. I vowed to give it a run myself.

It lasted one trip to the grocery store. Forgot my reusable tote. The plastic Kroger bags in our pantry now form a small mountain, or a big-ass mole hill.

I talked to a computer expert from Southern California about online security who told me his golden rule of internet privacy: Don’t give anyone any information that you wouldn’t want to see on a billboard. But I have credit cards linked up on dozens of apps, everything from Amazon to Wendy’s. And I’m writing (most of) this on an open public network at Panera’s.

I wrote a piece about unplugging from tech, the Quit Facebook movement or, in a larger sense, what some call digital detox. I don’t use Facebook much at all. But, hard as I try, I can’t break free of my digital drugs. I still get cold sweats when my phone dips below 20 percent. I’m all over my NYT app. When I take my contact lenses out at night, in between reading with my nose brushed up against a book, I’ll watch Netflix on my phone.

Still, even if not everything I learn sticks, even if not everything relates directly to me and my confusing life, I learn. About the Mann Act and the Johnson Amendment (both of which I’d have to think about now to remember). Do you know what the biggest organ in your body is? Did you know there’s some argument about it? I didn’t either. I do now.

I’ve learned that porn addiction (hey! this was an assignment!) is not a scientifically accepted phenomenon on its own — yet — but that those who porn a lot exhibit the same brain activity as those addicted to alcohol or drugs. (That story was a little touchy to be writing at Panera’s, what with all the research involved.)

((I’ve also learned that “porn a lot,” as a phrase, is fine. Linguists call those nouns-turned-verbs denominals, and they go back centuries.  To wit: It’s raining out. There’s a verb that began as a noun.))

I recently wrote of a Portuguese diplomat who, during World War II, defied his government and granted visas to thousands of refugees fleeing Nazi troops. He may have saved the lives of some 30,000 people by doing so, including as many as 10,000 Jews. The Portuguese government drummed him from his job and basically ruined the rest of his life by blackballing him. That’s an important bit of history. I had never heard of the guy.

That led to another story for which I interviewed a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor. For about three hours, over two nights, we talked over the phone from her home in Fountain Hills, Arizona. She’s one of the most fascinating subjects I’ve ever interviewed. I’m a better person for having spoken with her. Among her gems:

Things change. Change is built in our lives. It’s never always winter or summer. We have to learn from that.

Sure, there are always deadlines in this line of work, and the lack of callbacks drive me crazy. There’s oft-times crappy pay and some periods that are so slow that I end up looking for things to vacuum. I do, in all honesty, take on assignments that are stiflingly boring. I’d like to do more pieces with some more substance to them.

Plus, you can’t do a story for WebMD — say, on bronchiecstasis — without wondering if you should bolt to the emergency room for that cough you just picked up.

But I am fortunate enough, thanks to decades of full-time hackery and a supremely understanding wife (who’s still pounding away at her full-time job), that I can work at a skill — I’d like to think it’s a skill; I know I’m still working at it — that teaches me something once in a while, that makes me think, that helps me understand, that exposes me to other viewpoints, that keeps me on my toes, that gives me something to talk about or post about.

As it’s been said; it’s a job. Someone’s got to do it.

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