Tighten your fingers around a teaspoon, feel its metal pulse, its mistrustful warning. How it hurts to refuse a spoon, to say no to a door, to deny everything that habit has licked to a suitable smoothness. — Julio Cortazar, Cronopios and Famos
I was running to reach the post office before closing time. I hurtled a mound of snow to get around a slow-walking elderly gent on a narrow pathway in South Philly. The old gent, all in black and hooded, looked like Woody Allen spoofing the Grim Reaper in The Seventh Seal. He chuckled when I landed and continued running — heh-heh-heh — as if to ask “What’s your hurry?”
Good question. I’m not much younger the old gent, and will catch up with him soon enough on the road to oblivion. In fact, I run not so much to beat deadlines as out of habit, because it’s the mode of transport that best suits me. I run, or bike when I can, because these habits make me feel less anxious than driving, which I avoid as much as possible.
I thought of the comfort of habits when I read Steve Volk’s thoughtful piece in Philadelphia magazine about Greg Osberg, the new CEO of Philly’s two daily newspapers. Osberg seems smart and amiable, not at all like one of those managers who tries to make up for lack of talent by lopping off heads or other body parts. (A former managing editor at the Inquirer said saving the papers will necessitate desperate measures, “something equivalent to cutting off a limb.”)
Osberg has good ideas and might do a better job of trying to salvage the papers and Philly.com than his predecessor, the pudgy propagandist Brian Tierney. But he’s still a CEO whose main responsibility is to promote the bottom-line interests of corporate owners, and that means more heads will roll as the bean counters continue to press for a revenue source to replace the advertisers who are jumping ship as sales of the papers’ print editions plummet.
More and more writers and editors will have to do without those smoothly worn habits — the drive to the office, the mug and spoon and coffee, the gossip with fellow cube rats — and without paychecks, as we move further into the brave new world of online publications, which often make do with skeleton crews. Lurking behind the questions posed by Volk’s article is a bigger question — what will happen to all the people made redundant, as the British say, by workplace innovations and changing reading habits?
No one knows the answer, except maybe the man in the black hood.