Back in the late 1980s all the phones had cords. Long ones. Because you wanted to be able to walk around the entire raw concrete floored, fluourescent-lit, low-ceilinged light industrial space that was the Canadian University Press office of the day, while talking on the phone.
Which you did. A lot. Because that’s mostly all there was back then. Which is what this is about. And if you were sitting at the computer you’d scootch the chair along from desk to desk, while talking on the phone, multitasking. That was a thing back then too.
And the phone cable would wrap itself around the wheels and base of the venerable wooden rolling chair that came to Canada after a career blocking bullets in the trenches at Yprès and apparently found its way to the CUP office and was considered the best of our office furniture.
The cords made me absolutely crazy. Grimy, twisted, contorted and barely holding together. They kind of reminded me of me.
Early one morning – some time between two and four am – as I was putting out the weekly packet of news stories culled from CUP member papers, the cord got tangled around the chair again and I lost it.
I picked the chair up, raised it over my head and hurled it to the floor. The chair’s casters shattered. The bits flew everywhere. I threw myself down on the slab of springs covered by threadbare plaid fabric we called a couch and sobbed. I can’t remember if I got back up and finished the work or if that was the week where my only colleague D came in to discover me sleeping on the couch and finished the job for me.
But I was a wreck. It took its toll that life of eighteen hour days, lived mostly between noon and ten am the next morning, constant travel, isolation and the feeling that you were holding this national organization together with your teeth, a 286 and – yes – phone cable.
That year I spent in the CUP office – and it was really only ten months or so – was the most stressful experience I’ve ever had with the possible exception of the first few weeks of Mallory’s life. Also the most exhilarating.
I’m thinking about it because this week I went to CUP’s 75th anniversary “gala” in Toronto, where I hooked up with some of the people I shared that time with.
The organization has changed a lot. It’s a lot more focussed on career building and skill building. There’s no question or discussion of advocacy journalism or what role the media might play in shaping our polity. Instead, there’s fancy dress, tours of the Globe and Mail and lots of business card swapping.
I’m glad it’s still there, though. After all, CUP always was what the members want it to be and if they eventually want something more than value-free journalism, they can have it if they hold it together.
And don’t go throwing furniture.