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Reflecting On My Dad and Journalism

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I did not think about it too much until I was watching my Dad dying, but I bet my fascination with newspapers came from him. Or, as I once put it in a column I wrote, “I have ink in my veins due to my father.”

Why is this a big deal to me?

I entered the writing field, became a liberal (a pacifist even), and protested against societal norms in my own way because I wanted to rebel against my conservative, engineer father. He wanted me to be a computer scientist. He wanted me to see why President Reagan was right and I was wrong. I wouldn’t give in to his rhetorical pushes. It wasn’t stubbornness; I just felt sure I was right and he was wrong. And he disagreed.

This scenario repeated itself for years. He would bring home the libertarian Orange County Register, the conservative Wall Street Journal, and the more liberal Los Angeles Times. He’d get home from work about seven and be asleep by nine. But during that time, we’d both pore through the newspapers. If he saw an article or column that reflected some point he wanted to make, or reinforced his argument, he’d rip it out and hand it to me. And I’d do the same to him. Many was the day when I would wake to find a stack of dog-eared newspapers on the kitchen counter waiting to be read by me so I could learn the error of my ways – about Reagan, the Star Wars initiative, etc. At night we would debate the issues over whatever food he picked up on the way home. God, I miss those conversations. Now when I pick up a newspaper each day or see a stack of unread newspapers, I think of him.

Maybe I didn’t become a Republican or enter the sciences. I worked in a profession he may not have shown respect for (many was the time he rallied against reporters for oversimplifying issues), but one he appreciated.

The first day I saw him in the hospital after he got cancer, I brought a newspaper with me. I think it was the Los Angeles Times. I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to talk to him and figured we could always discuss the articles. I quickly set the newspaper aside when I saw how dire the situation was. The cancer had advanced, and an experimental procedure had backfired. He tried hard that morning to talk. Maybe too hard. I worry he pushed himself too much to talk to me and to others when he should have been resting. He asked about the newspaper and I read a little bit to him, but he would fall asleep mid-sentence and wake with a jerk 15 minutes later. He was polite about it: “What was that you were saying? Please repeat.” But we gave up eventually.

The next morning, a new edition of the L.A. Times was lying on a table by his bed. At one point I asked if he wanted to read it and he said he couldn’t focus on it enough. I offered to read it to him but he said that wouldn’t do because he couldn’t concentrate. The papers piled up for the next two days, like so many unaddressed issues and emotions. I just stopped setting them by his bed.

I joined him for dinner in his hospital room. During the meal he suggested we watch the local television news, something totally unheard of in our past relationship. He hated local television news, even more than I do. But again, because of his health and the drugs, he kept falling asleep. Finally I turned it off. And it was the last time we watched television together.

I flashed back to the times we would watch television programs together. He would hold the L.A. Times in front of him as if he was reading it, but if there was something entertaining to him on the TV, he wouldn’t let on he was viewing it. After about five minutes, one could conclude that the Peanuts cartoon in front of him was either pretty damn fascinating or else he was indeed watching the wacky show.

Who knows what he was thinking and feeling during his last few days when he couldn’t speak because he was intubated and medicated, but I made a point of reading the newspapers just like old times, as if somehow that would help. Like him, though, I had trouble concentrating. He asked for the newspapers to be left by his side whenever I would go away for a break but they were untouched when I’d return. The last time I left a newspaper was the last time we discussed the articles.

Within a week he was dead and I flew from California back to Maryland, where I returned to work. At some point I realized I could no longer rebel against him since he was no longer there, and I found myself emulating the parts of his personality that I admired. In the months after his death, I would find myself interviewing someone and hear a reference to engineers and I’d think of him. I’ll read an article or an editorial and think, “Dad would get a kick out of this.” And then I remember he’s gone and feel like someone kicked me in the stomach. And for a minute, my world seems to slow down and I get mad at others for moving at a regular pace as if things haven’t changed so much for me. Then I resume working, knowing that he’s up there looking down on his reporter son, cranking out more stories that, one day, we can discuss and debate. I owe him that, I think.

So here, Dad, is one more to set aside for future discussion.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • Scott Butki

    I’m reviving this as I’m writing a related piece.

  • Scott Butki

    Just read this aloud at a open mike nite and it was well received.

    It reminded me of a saying I heard once about writing: It’s easy – you just put a needle in your veins and write about what comes out.

  • Scott Butki

    I put at my fotolog site a photo of my dad reading newspapers – much as I do.

  • Scott But

    I had mostly negative memories and thoughts of dad until he died and then I realized it was hard to hate and rebel a void where he had been and found myself over time remembering the good times and leeting my complaints fall away.

    Like he may not have been emotional but he did teach me good habits like reading and discussing hte news

  • I’m mostly a lurker in this community, but I felt compelled to just say that this has been a piece of reading that has made my day a bit brighter. I’m glad you were able to form such memories with your father. It’s just too bad they couldn’t go on forever. I bet he’s real proud of you, Scott, wherever he is now.

  • The death of a parent is never easy, at any age.
    You’re lucky, Scott, that you have those fond memories of your father, sharing the newspaper, discussing stories. Moments like those are immeasurable.

    I’m very sorry for your loss.

  • Scott,
    I’m sorry to hear about your father’s passing. It was very touching to hear about the way the newspaper served as a touchstone for communication in your relationship. I could see the pile of papers grow in the room as a measure of how he was slipping away.

    My dad and I used to read the same things often and I didn’t realize how much it meant to me until many years after he died.