I recently heard a talk by Bill Dwyre, long-time sports editor of the Los Angeles Times. He is now back to his first love, reporting, and publishes a column in that paper two or three times a week. Dwyre is a stimulating spinner of sports yarns, but what really caught my attention was an off-the-cuff comment during the question period. He was asked how he got ideas for each piece. He replied, “I have learned to write with my eyes.” Since I produce these 700 word essays each week, I had to stop and ask myself how I go about it? I write with my eyes, all right, but they are probably glued to the computer screen, where most of my research originates. Dwyre held that writers must first look at persons, not at data.
So if I write about health care and get my material from some statistical analysis, how can I see any person apart from a mathematical table or a political argument? I may have information and opinions, but I have encountered no flesh and blood, and what I produce may have no pathos, no feeling, no humanity. But what if I begin by going, as I recently did late one night, to the emergency room of our local hospital? What I witnessed was a waiting area filled with families — many of Hispanic heritage — who had no medical insurance — but did have medical emergencies. Almost half of the crowd was made up of children and infants. For these families, this hospital outlet was their only option.
After a recent column on health care, I got a letter from an acquaintance who detailed the story of what recently happened in another nation where superior medical care is a human right, not an economic privilege. His was a beautiful story of the way the medical system saved the life of a tiny child. Had this trauma occurred in the United States, the outcome might have ended in tragedy. And my correspondent happens to be an intelligent conservative. So universal healthcare became visible to me through the eyes of a terribly ill child in some distant land.
I often write about poverty, and have access to all the statistical evidence and arguments I need. But I recall how I spent much of my time earlier in the year working on behalf of the homeless in our community. These were not bits of data to be analyzed, but human beings who were destitute, troubled and cold. I remembered the many hours I spent at our local food pantry where I interviewed hungry people. I recalled the many years I was forced to look at the faces of poverty in Chicago, Missouri and Washington, D C where I went eyeball to eyeball with the ravages caused by hopelessness. Affluent Paul Ryan can claim that the inner-city poor are to be blamed because they do not work. Maybe his constituency applauds that arrogance, but I wonder when was the last time he walked the streets of Milwaukee — as I once did — and was directly confronted by the desperate, and by the inescapable plight of the urban poor.
There have been times after having been face to face with incarnate poverty, that I have come away depressed because I had so much I did not deserve in a society where so many others had nothing. Talking about poverty over a fine dinner in an upscale restaurant may be intellectually stimulating, but of what real use?
While I know most of the arguments for and against increasing the minimum wage, I have become persuaded of the need to raise the lower limits by talking with a number of persons who are trying to survive on what the Wal-Marts in our society pay. It is not that they are lazy or unmotivated, but in this economy these are the only jobs open to them. The corporations for whom they work may be doing very well, but these employees can only make it by being on food stamps.
I need to thank Bill Dwyre who has helped me understand the need to write more with my eyes than with my computer screen. But I should have known this years ago from daughter, Mary, a reporter with a Twin Cities daily, who has always written with her eyes, and has been doing amazing human interest stories ever since she secured her first job in journalism writing obituaries.