One of my first editors told me to take a good look around at the newsroom on my first day, because my future would look a lot like the people sitting there.
I looked around, and they represented well. Divorced, committed bachelors, DINKs, DINKWADs, DEWKs, DINKYANDEs and a plethora of modern acronyms that would seemingly define my relationship status if not my economic status.
Journalism is often likened to a mistress or master, occupying the journalists' time and attention, which over the course of a career can wreak havoc on relationships. And not just intimate relationships.
Journalism can interrupt most any relationship, be it with your dog, your child, your goldfish or even your office plant.
Just walk through a newsroom sometime and look for a healthy looking plant.
The view from where I stood was pretty bleak.
I had already been married 10 years and had two of my three kids at this point.
“Are you sure this is what you want in life?” the editor asked me.
Now, 10 years later, having dragged my kids all over the country for the sake of this mistress or master, to jobs in Oregon, Montana, Alaska and Illinois, I’m happy to say my acronym hasn’t changed.
This is mostly due to the fact that my wife has an amazing tolerance for me and my chosen career (some might call that love). It’s also due to whatever random roll of the dice decides what personalities your kids are going to get.
I also like to attribute it to Saturday Night Dinner and a Movie.
Anchorage, Alaska in November is a bit of a nightmare. It’s dark for longer than it’s light outside. The termination dust, which creeps down the Chugach Range in October like a dreadful shadow descending on the city, turns finally to snow on the ground at sea level. But it has not yet transformed the city into the icy jewel of the north that it is in December.
It’s a strange, in-between season. No longer fall, because fall lasts like 10 seconds in Alaska, but not quite winter either.
With my wife working nights at a local restaurant, the kids and I would fend for ourselves on weekends. I tried to do intentional things that would help them talk about how they felt about moving several thousand miles from everyone they ever loved.
We visited museums together and drove to trailheads that we couldn’t explore until the next summer. We checked out restaurants and the local Costco for $1.50 hot dogs.
But we all felt pretty down and out, missing our friends and the house we just bought a year before. None of us wanted to talk about it much.
I was laid off from my job at a newspaper, so the move to Alaska was not exactly something we saw coming. It took us a while to get used to the reality of life .
It was also easy to get lost in my work. Alaska is the best assignment a reporter could ever have. Every day is an adventure that you’re not always sure you’ll come back from. It was as close to my dream of war reporting as I’ve managed to get so far. The danger and exhilaration of such an extreme place can be a little addictive.
It wasn’t as good for the kids. They sat at home on cold days, while I was flying around the state covering dog sled races and chasing pirate ships.
They had their gaming systems, and I bought them iPods so they could FaceTime with their friends from Montana. They had school and Netflix and mom’s undivided attention during the day.
To add to tall that, we left almost everything behind, because the cost of a storage container to Alaska is prohibitive.
We started adding some furniture, one piece at a time. One of the first pieces we bought was a tall table and put it in the living room so we could entertain people and because the kids were getting bigger and we didn’t fit around the little kitchen table anymore.
And in spite of my disdain for television at dinner time, I hung our television on a wall mount that would swivel and allow us to do just that.
The first ever Saturday Night Dinner and a Movie happened after watching the Pixar movie Ratatouille. My boys thought it would be fun to watch the movie and eat the famous French country food at the same time. I couldn’t make the dish for lack of fresh vegetables in Alaska, so I opened my new copy of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and found a recipe for roast chicken with buttered skin and dried herbs substituted for the fresh herbs I could not procure.
The kids and I sat down at the table, and we angled the television out and away from the wall and put on Planet 51. We broke bread together and mangled a beautifully browned chicken that night. And it was more fun than I think we all remembered having a in a long time.
I didn’t really have a strategy for all of this. I was just trying to build an anchor point into their lives. Something each week that they could look forward to that wasn’t the constant change of life on the edge of a frontier.
At first, I just picked something fun to make that would infuse the house with good smells and which wouldn’t require a lot of attention during the movie. Then we’d watch whatever was new and good for ages 5-36.
Eventually I started planning themes around movies. It all happened when we decided to watch a bunch of old Jackie Chan movies from his Hong Kong days.
The kids loved the almost slapstick humor of early Jackie flicks, and I loved making stir fry with whatever I could scrounge up from a really great local Asian food store.
For a while we watched documentaries about India, and I made curry. We went through a South American period too, and I tried to recreate a friend’s recipe for empanadas.
We’ve been doing Saturday Dinner and a Movie for four years now. The boys sometimes ask me if they can go hang out with friends at the mall or do movie nights somewhere else. But they almost always ask me what movie I’m making food for every Saturday, regardless of their plans.
My wife still works Saturday nights, so it’s often just my daughter and I now. She’s eight, so there are more choices available to us.
Just this last week I made grilled sourdough sandwiches with gruyere cheese served with homemade tomato soup, and we watched Ernest and Celestine together. My oldest got home from a track meet just in time to join us, and when I asked him if he was hanging out with friends tonight, he asked me what I made for dinner and what movie we were watching.
He smiled and bellied up to the table with his sister. We laughed and ate and talked about life together.
I look down the road a little ways, and I see my boys heading off to college and their sister going to high school. In five years I don’t know where they’ll be or where I’ll be for that matter.
But every weekend, whether we can be together or not, there will always be Saturday Night Dinner and a Movie.
Some of our favorite Saturday Dinner and a Movie Pairings:
1. Ernest & Celestine – Grilled cheese and tomato soup
2. A Cat in Paris – 40 Garlic chicken
3. Goonies – Chicken paprikash
4. The Nightmare Before Christmas – White bean chicken chili with jalapeño corn bread
5. The Princess Bride – Pork chops with spaetzle
6. Star Wars – Teriyaki chicken with garlic-fried rice
7. Toy Story – Homemade pizzas, Pepperoni and olive & grilled chicken with artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes
8. It’s a Wonderful Life – Potato leek soup with crusty bread
9. The Lord of the Rings – Deluxe bison & beef meatloaf
10. Raiders of the Lost Ark – Pork kabobs with Greek salad