I've been a social outcast most of my life because I became a reporter.

Don't interpret this as self-pity or regret that I made Brenda Starr my heroine at age 6.

Who knows? A clone of her mysteriously handsome lover, who wore a black patch over one eye and grew black orchids in a jungle lab in search of a cure for his mystery disease, could come along while I'm strolling in Thornwald Park.

See, journalists can dabble in fantasy… and even do it in print. Maybe that makes us even scarier to people outside the business.

All of this, however, is purely an observation on the way things are for someone who's made a lifetime commitment to ferreting out scraps of news and scurrying for facts to dish out to people who want the news but, on the other hand, don't.

"I go to a charity dinner and someone says, "Did you hear what happened to Joe and Ellen …?"

She then backs off a step and adds in a whisper: "This is off the record?"

I nod "yes" because I suspect what she's about to say isn't even printable. Hey, we're not the Globe or National Inquirer.

Besides, I don't have a notebook, a photographic memory or a miniature tape recorder in my locket.

And she divulges, "Well, Joe and Ellen Doakes are getting a divorce because Joe's cheating on her with Jane … But don't tell anybody I told you."

It's bad enough when mere acquaintances do this. But my own kids sometimes have confided in me only to add, "Don't you dare write anything about that."

On the other hand, people seem especially eager to spill the gossip beans to me, even as they tremble at the prospect I might do my job and pass it on.

No journalism professor ever so much as hinted to me that "journalist" equates to "pariah."

"Like and be liked" - we try so hard to teach this to kids that someone ought to cross-stitch it on samplers to hang up in every school and home in the nation, perhaps even on the flag.

Of course, some take longer than others to get the idea. Remember how little Hal got punished for dipping Jennifer's braids in the school inkwell? Whoops, those inkwells were even before my time in school. But it all goes to show socially acceptable behavior has always had to be drummed into each younger generation.

Finally, most get the no-nos right. Then some grow up and get notorious jobs like mine.

I, in my innocence, thought upholding the First Amendment was honorable. Again, no journalism professor ever told me a free people could ever think a free press was too free, or that people who didn't like the news would take it out on the messenger.

But I long ago lost count of the calls I've taken from angry people who put the blame on the newspaper by saying, "You said…"

"No, no, I didn't say it, the reporter didn't say it, the paper didn't say it…" The mayor, the supervisor, the man down the street, the president or whoever said it.

Aha, but who printed it? Who forced it on people's attentions? That's the crux.

I once worked for an editor who put the following motto on the editorial page: "What you don't know will hurt you."

That was supposed to make people realize that good or bad, the news must go on for the benefit of all. The only reaction I ever heard from the public, however, was in a letter from a retired teacher who pronounced the saying: "poor grammar."

Don't get me wrong. People do call and say, "I had to tell you I really enjoyed" some story, column, editorial or photo layout.

Most also mention the downside by adding, "I know you hear far more in the way of complaints than praise." But I dismiss that, becoming almost maudlin in my appreciation because somebody likes us - at least for today.

It happened twice this week. And I basked in the sunlight of their positive opinions.

Ah, bliss. I could learn to love having everybody be happy with what we do.

"Down, down, don't get carried away," I tell my Id. "If everybody likes what you're doing, you're not doing your job."

That's a hard thing to swallow in a "wanna-be-liked" world.

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