I subscribed to the print edition of my town's local paper last week. It was a Big Decision, one that pitted the absolute merits of free poop bags against pixels, and Thingy-ness against Green-iness.
In the end, I found the poop bags and the Thingy-ness irresistible.
So why did I feel so weird as I picked up the phone to "Subscribe now?"
I posed this question at my friend Mary C.'s house recently. Mary and I are alt-country bandmates. She sings lead and I fiddle by night. I write, and she grad-students by day.
Was it selfish to get the paper delivered? I asked Mary C. and her housemate, Nate, as they fried up some eggplant to be parmesan'd for dinner.
"Yes -- no!" Mary C. and Nate called out, respectively.
"And yet you refuse to use Christmas lights," Mary C. countered. "How is that?"
"People need to get a grip on the larger picture," Nate said. "Which is less green, reading a print paper or leaving your computer on all day so you can read it online?"
"Plus, paper feels good," I said, paging through The Atlantic. "Which makes me happy."
"There's a field of study that explores that idea, actually," Mary C. said. "It's called Thing Theory."
I took a moment to imagine what a conference of Thing Theorists and String Theorists might look like. Then I returned to issue before us.
According to Mary C., my local paper's Thingy-ness was part of the reason I felt drawn to it. I had bonded to its It-ness in a personal way. And that bond had beget passion.
It was true, that on my first morning in the house that I'm house-sitting these days, I walked to the end of my driveway and found a pale green baggie with something inside it waiting for me.
I had come out of the house to walk the dog. Now, the walk took on new meaning.
I opened the bag. Removed the newspaper. Opened it.
The first thing I saw was a letter to the editor from a resident objecting to another resident's objection to our town's 25 mile-an-hour speed limit.
The first writer had declared himself capable of piloting and stopping his car at far greater speeds.
The second writer protested that the first writer had forgotten that stopping distances should be calculated as the square as opposed to the product of the additional speed.
I was hooked immediately. Our town is recognized as a haven for engineers, PhDs and passionate, even crotchety defenders of fact. But now I was meeting them before breakfast, facts in hand, verbatim.
I kept reading as my dog and I walked to her best friend's house. Halfway through our stroll, my dog did her morning doggy thing, which I scooped into the newspaper bag.
Within days, the paper became my mini Facebook. The woman who booked our band to play at the outdoor cinema was also the paper's movie critic. Writers were friends; friends became writers.
In Brooklyn, where I used to live, The New York Times functioned like a post-collegiate yearbook-meets-the-Oscars. Old friends and older friends flew by in features and bylines. Over time, however, the folks I saw the most in print became the ones I saw the least in real life.
Here, in my new town, the paper functions like a doorbell. Columnist. Neighbor. Friend. The bylines of breakfast become the dinner buddies.
Last month, after a double-header of wildfires put my 'hood on evacuation alert, I wrote a piece about it for the paper's op-ed section.
It was my second brush with fire in a year.
Rock smashes scissor, I told myself. Scissor cuts paper. Paper trumps fire. If I could spell it out, I could put the experience behind me.
Things might have gone on this way forever -- a relationship born of happenstance, with no real commitment.
But then, on an otherwise sunny morning, my paper wasn't there. The folks who owned "my" house had put "their" subscription on hiatus.
I paused. I pondered.
Was I embracing the new, or backsliding if I got my subscription?
Quitting print the first time 'round had been harder than quitting smoking.
And I had relapsed on the smoking, before quitting for good.
I was traveling in Italy during the winter holidays. On New Year's Eve, a friend's mother offered me a smoke.
"Thanks but I don't," I said.
"But it's New Year's," she said. "You should."
The year was still pretty new when I subscribed to the print edition of my local newspaper. But my old-new print habit is healthy -- and -- practical, I've decided.
There's nothing like a Thing to kick off a day of pixels.
The free poop bags are pretty great, too.