News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

What next?

After concluding three months as managing editor of the The Leader newspaper in Port Townsend, Washington, I’m confronted with an uncomfortable realization: I did the best I could, but could have done better.

Getting old offers many chances for denial. Or embarrassment, when denial doesn’t suffice. And frustration, when opportunities recede. Disappointment lurks at every staircase, doctor’s visit, encounter, and challenge.

Getting old also teaches there is value in experience, that continuity is underrated in a world that seems to tack without thought to the new direction.

Under my watch at The Leader we changed the “look and feel” of the newspaper to a more traditional format. We increased type size to make the newspaper easier to read for those who, like me, found small type a challenge. We added stories and photos to the front page to give readers more reason to look inside.

The community approved. That felt good.

But providing support for employees who felt beleaguered took more than I’d anticipated, as did “realigning” some staff. Perhaps I should have let those issues resolve themselves.

To efforts of an exceptional staff writer, we added five or so freelancers with a variety of voices, including an experienced journalist who returned to the fold and a couple of new reporters with fresh points of view.

I wrote as little as I could, not wanting the paper to depend on the editor for content. I hoped to develop a “team” that would continue easily after I was gone. Perhaps I should have written more and put more effort into design. I should have been better organized, and put more focus on local government. But we were improving every week and I had priorities.

And I was hobbled by what I first thought was age. My left eye stopped focusing with my right eye at any distance. This sudden degradation made reading difficult and proofreading almost impossible, which was frustrating and embarrassing. Words still play “hide and seek.” A third eye appointment is set for next week.

A fog of dullness suffused far too many days. Nothing sharpened my edge, from gallons of caffeine, 5K or 10K walks, nor time in the gym. I was always behind and not catching up, unable to see either forest or trees. It was like walking along a beach of dry soft sand.

Far too many inaccurate details and outright errors slopped through on my watch.

A friend who holds the managing editor job at a different paper suggested my fatigue was due to stress, but even he notices it’s getting harder to do what somewhat defines who he is.

In late November I notified the owners that I would depart by February. They found an extremely capable replacement while I was in Denmark over Christmas. The new managing editor took over in the middle of January. She brings experience, energy, intelligence, and will excel.

That’s how evolution works. New blood solves challenges that were daunting for the old, even while the old can still make a contribution. While much was left undone, work which was done still had value.

A week after I left Port Townsend, I planned to return to look at a piece of real estate that caught my interest. While shaving on the morning I was to travel, I felt dizzy, then dropped to the floor. Long story short, I was provided an ambulance ride to the emergency room, treated for atrial fibrillation, then released on my own recognizance with a couple of new medications.

It’s difficult to hear that your heart isn’t working the way it should, especially having not “felt” any symptoms like pain, shortness of breath, or pressure in the chest. But in answering doctor’s questions, I realized there was an overlap with my job. At first I was relieved: what I regarded as short comings could be blamed not on advancing age or lack of talent, but on A-Fib!

Then I realized that A-Fib was probably as clear a demonstration of advancing age as any other new infirmity. Even if it had a role in the unfinished work, A-Fib couldn’t shield me from knowing that at one time, I was better at getting that work done.

My friend the editor offered that when we can no longer do what we once did, which has long been part of who we are, it can cut pretty deep. In addition to work, I’ve lived part time on an old sailboat, which can demand my maximum physical effort. Until recently, I raced cars and planned to do so again.

Neither hobby is enhanced by a heart that flutters like a flag in a stiff breeze, though I’ve been told by a number of friends who’ve had A-Fib that it can be serious or not, with treatment options that are usually effective, and life goes on.

Which leads to what I call the “Ice Cream Dilemma:” After being informed by his doctor that his previous four or five heart attacks had destroyed more than 60 percent of his heart muscle, my father barked at the doctor: “A man can’t live with a third of a heart!”

On his way home from the hospital, he bought two quarts of ice cream. A week later my stepmother called to tell me “I think your father is in trouble.”

I heard him bellow from the couch, “Don’t tell him that! Tell him I’m just relaxing!” Those were his last words. I’ve still not decided if the ice cream was selfish, honest, or just desserts.

For now, I’ve decided to eat less ice cream. After all, I had my share, long ago. I’ve also been told not to slam my head hard while on blood thinners prescribed in case A-fib left a clot behind.

So I may postpone my next unicycle ride. Long boat voyages and car racing are open to question. But only because I’m curious about what’s next in the here and now, whenever it arrives.

For more from Erik Dolson, visit


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