Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sunday Conversation

Before leaving for work Sunday, my parents sat together in the kitchen, conducting their post-church activities of eating breakfast and watching the news.

Slinging on my jacket and picking up my briefcase at the other end of the kitchen, I was getting ready to head out the door when a feature on the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination came on.

My parents watched as they sipped their Wawa coffee and spread cream cheese on their bagels.

As it ended, my dad asked my mom, “Where were you when you heard about it?”

“I was in typing class,” my mom replied.

“I was in school,” Dad said.

“Well, so was I. I was in class,” Mom reiterated. They do that sometimes.

At this point, I turned back around. I wasn’t going to get to the newsroom as early as I wanted to, but I realized I’d never asked them about this before. And, apparently, my parents, married for 26 years, hadn’t asked each other.

They’d been in their early teens at the time, my dad in a parochial school in Philadelphia, my mom in another Catholic school in a small town north of Pittsburgh, hundreds of miles apart.

“They just told us that he’d been shot,” Mom said.

“I was in class and someone came in and told us all to come to the church to pray,” Dad said.

The students were hustled to the church and prayed for a while for the country’s first-ever Catholic president. My dad didn’t say how long.

“Then someone came in and said he’d died,” Dad conlduing, only adding, “And then we stopped.”

A quiet moment passed.

Picking up a circular from the newspaper, my dad pointed to one of the colored ads promoting a sale.

“Naval oranges, $2 a pound,” he said to my mom, with a renewed cheeriness.

“Oh, we’ll have to get some,” my mom replied, taking my dad’s offering to come out of the dark past.

The television went to a commercial touting “Meet the Press.” I said goodbye, which seemed to remind my parents that I was there, and left for work.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

J Pop

Music is a crucial piece of my job.

I've rarely written about it (my outstanding piece on Carly Rae Jepsen notwithstanding), but I don't know if I could get through a day without listening to at least one song while I write an article or drive out to a spot news event.

It's nice to have something piped nto your ears to quiet your mind while you're trying to grasp a dozen streams of information.

There's a few songs that I especially associate with my job, whether it's through the lyrics, tone or just the fact that I end up playing it a lot.

Here's a quick list of tunes that I have in the "J (for Journalism) songs playlist".

- "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" by Cage the Elephant

For whatever reason, it always seems like the twangy opening guitar notes of this song always begin as soon as I jump in the car to run out to a fire or when we get a big tip just five or six minutes before my shift ends.

I do what I can to turn off when I'm not on, but anytime I feel the vibrating notification of getting an email on my phone, I can't help but check it in case it's that source I really need finally hitting me up.

It never ends.

(NOTE: The notification for emails on my phone is morse code for "S.O.S.")

- "Time is on My Side" by The Rolling Stones

This is unofficially my writing on a deadline song.

It's usually not played with any kind of optimism. But it makes me feel better about the crushing pressure.

- "Doom and Gloom" by The Rolling Stones

Any number of Rolling Stones song could make this list, honestly.

This one obviously makes its mark because, by and large, what constitutes news, like it or not, is horrible and sad or at least unpleasant. But it's news. And we deal with it day in and out.

"Paint it Black" could've also fit into this slot.

- "Black Chandelier" by Biffy Clyro

There's a very gritty feel to this song that is oddly calming on a drive home from a long or difficult day.  

Maybe it's the lyrics about being worn out, the "drip, drip, drip" refrain, or just the imagery of a black chandelier, but coming out of the "doom and gloom," the song feels oddly understanding of what we do.

- "Golden Hill" by Tristeza

I listen to a lot of post-rock while I write so I just picked the one I last listened to for this.

Post-rock, by and large, has few lyrics and has a very calming quality to it. Because of that, it's very easy to write to.

I wrote this time-consuming series almost exclusively listening to El Ten Eleven.

The songs are also generally about five to nine minutes long, so I don't have to worry about picking a new one every few paragraphs.

- "Oh my God" by Jay Z

On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes you need something to kick you in the ass when you write.

If people see my head bobbing in the back of the newsroom and hear an especially rhytmic or fast cadence to my typing, I'm listening to something like this while I pump out a meeting story that would otherwise be putting me to sleep.

- "Get Like Me" by Childish Gambino

I've mentioned this before, but playing this song after a good day, when I've scooped someone or just done a decent job on a story, it's become a sort of ritual to play this before I leave the newsroom.

It's essentially like rewarding a kid with a cookie, except my cookie has an ominous horn beat.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sum-sum-summer jobs

This summer, Caroline Sweeney gets to run around in the sun, downing sugar and generally having a blast while I'm forced to stay in the office and slave over a hot keyboard on meeting stories.

Visual depiction of this summer.

(Honestly, it's a fun series. Read it. I just enjoy martyrdom.)

While we're on the topic, though, I figured I could weigh in with my summer job.

When I returned from the University of Wisconsin for the summer after classes ended, every year I got a job in the school district I attended as summertime help for the custodial staff.

Real talk, I was a janitor.

To be honest, janitoring (custodializing?) was some of the most honest work I've done in my life.

You woke up, went to work just as the sun rose, then returned home, usually physically drained, in the middle of the afternoon.

For the most part, the work was tedious. That's what I remember most about it.

During the summer, janitorial crews clean the schools, from top to bottom.

As such, the other kids hired for the summer work and I generally did some of the most repetitious and menial work a person can do. We scrubbed hundreds of lockers with chemicals and water, used razor blades to peel the gum off the bottom of desks, or, for an almost welcome change of pace, swept and mopped floors ahead of the janitors who were waxing floors.

Since I was usually the tallest, I typically was put in charge of cleaning and/or changing out the thousands of fluorescent lightbulbs in the schools.That meant opening the light diffuser, swinging it down, cleaning the inside, using a rag to remove the old tube-style bulb because it was probably pretty hot, then fitting the new one in.

Then I'd climb down the ladder, reposition it just so, climb to the top and repeat.

During those hours of constantly doing the same thing, over and over and over again, you really begin to learn how to entertain yourself. You think about sports, your friends, you dreams, women, anything.

One day, I tried to remember every regular Phillie player from every team I'd followed since I was five. I did pretty well.

Another day, I mentally sang the entire debut album of Blues Traveler.

A task that wasn't boring but could very easily have killed any one of us was the time us summer workers were assigned to move every piece of furniture from the guidance offices of a middle school up or down a level.

The office on the first floor had to go up to the third. The office on the third had to go to the second. And the second floor office's furniture had to come down to the first.

Compounding that, it was 95 degrees outside. We were inside, but it was during construction on that wing, so it was about 105 inside. And the elevator was out of service, so we had to move everything up a narrow staircase....with masks on, because the air was heavy with particles from construction work.

It took two hours and once or twice I felt myself blacking out, but we got it done.

Outside of that cruel little incident, the regular, professional janitors we worked with were generally pretty nice. They usually fell into two camps: people who took pride in their work and crafted it to the point where they could do it almost without effort or guys collecting a paycheck and constantly hiding from their superiors.

It was from the latter group that I learned that some people do not advance their skills in hide-and-go-seek from the time they were seven. One guy literally hid in his own office, the same time, every day.

It's not hiding if your name is on the door.

I also learned that janitors know more about the goings-on of the school than many of the teachers or even administrators.

They know everyone, usually don't have to be in a set place at a set time, and, because some people don't take them very seriously, have no problem talking about some slightly sensitive material around them.

As a result, a lot of these guys know which teacher is sleeping with who, what person is on the chopping block, who has a vendetta against who and so on.

There were a host of characters in the staff. There was one guy who was a 9/11 truther and, without fail, began every single spoken thought or comment with "Um."

His name wasn't Jim, but for my purposes, let's call him Jim. So, as legend had it, "Um Jim," as he came to be known, did a lot of acid in the 80s, which left him a little off.

Then, adding to that, he was changing lightbulbs in the school when he was shocked pretty badly, almost to the point of electrocution.

And, so, "Um Jim" was born.

There was another guy who I constantly seemed to get paired off with. He smelled like vomit and rum and had about as bad a temper as anyone I knew.

Repeatedly, he'd call a vacuum that had its cord stuck around a corner or the lid to a cleaning product that was stuck on a "whore."

Light-bulbs that wouldn't come out of their slots were also whores.

"Whore" was his go-to word for things like that.

As I said, the work was mind-numbing. And many days, when I finished work as a janitor, I'd only have enough time to go home, take a 45-minute nap, then get up and go out to an adult or Legion baseball game I was covering because I was also an unpaid intern at the Daily Local at the time.

It could be grueling.

But I enjoyed pieces of it.

Whenever we could, the summer workers and I would play intense games of UNO in which cheating was actually encouraged. We knew every and any fridge that had ice cream sandwiches or ice pops in it. I ran through the tunnels beneath the high school I was working returning to my work after taking a break to grab a Powerade from a broken soda machine that distributed them without money.

One of the janitors taught us how to twerk well before twerking entered the national consciousness.

The coolest part of an empty high school is it's auditorium.

If tennis courts are located within about 100 feet from a school building, the roof is likely covered by hundreds of bleaching tennis balls.

A principal's office and the library are typically the only spots in a building during the summer where the air conditioning never stops running.

I can't say my college summer job was fun. But I think it taught me a lot of the patience I use in my career.

No matter what you're BS summer job is, I think you should at least try to take something like that out of it.

Once you figure out where all the ice pops are stashed, anyway.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Don't Be That Guy

As I may have mentioned in the past, part of my job and that of many other journalists is to attend the various public meetings that you would never wish on the guy who ran over your dog just after he finished burning down your house.

These meetings include school boards, local municipal meetings, special public hearings on developments, everything you'd rather not spend a few hours of your night or life in.

They're undeniably important and where I get a good amount, if not most, of my stories from, but I can't say they're my favorite things in the world.

When these meetings aren't boring, they're tremendously uncomfortable.

Remember how you used to cringe at Steve Carrell in "The Office?" That's what those meetings are at their unboring-est moments, with the huge exception that you don't get to laugh at Dwight's beet farm afterward or further delude yourself that you are the Jim in your own office.

When the meetings lean toward being classified as uncomfortable over boring is the only time when a lot of people show up. That's because they're pissed at something. And that's my cue that I'm going to have a bad night.

Here's an example of one of those pissed-off groups.
Since I'm the one that has to suffer through this stuff, staring at the floor or my notes because I can't possibly look at the suffering of other people experiencing this with me, I figured I could impart some advice on not being "that guy" who particularly embarrasses himself or his cause at the meeting.

- Laughing at someone else's point makes you sound like a psycho.
Meetings are predicated on order. Like Robert's Rules of Order, specifically.
In those rules, there's a specific, set schedule of who can talk and when. It's that way so that everyone can make a point in a full, cogent way.

If you're attending the meeting through your own free will (unlike me), you generally disagree with what a lot of people are going to say. But you have to let them say it. You'll have your own time to talk when people will let you say what you want. But you have to let others talk.

That's the "order" part of everything.

Cackling like this while someone talks about something you disagree with is just a little disconcerting.
Believe it or not, it even hurts your side a little, because it's a little hard for someone in the public eye to say, "Yeah, I agree with the gentleman giggling in the corner."
Additionally, yelling such classics as, "No," a sarcastic, "Yeah, right," or "Put it in front of your house, then," additionally come across as childish and impatient and also hurt your cause.

In one meeting, a man who was nervously fidgeting in a corner for most of the meeting suddenly started screaming as a township official was explaining an ordinance. The man was literally screaming.
He also sounded like Christopher Walken, which made it even weirder and crazier.

His point, which was about the water authority or something that didn't seem to warrant screaming, suddenly became less attractive to support.

So shut the hell up until it's your turn.

- This isn't Lincoln-Douglas. Keep it simple.
Above: Not you.
The average person going to protest the sidewalk being put on their property isn't a great orator, and most people that do get up to speak behave accordingly.

"That guy," however, believes that he can give the speech that will bring borough council to its knees, solve racism, end global terror and get that four-way stop sign he wanted so damn bad at the end of his block, all at once.

That speech, however comes across awkwardly, circles back to the same point he's only made a borderline case for approximately seven times, and features a lot of stumbling and mispronunciation.
I know there's a lot of information that needs to be spit out and it seems like there's not a lot of time to do it. But you can shorten it up. Believe me, I do it daily.

Flowery speech doesn't help, either. Most people tune that out because you're not using it correctly or it further highlights that you don't understand what's going on.

At a recent meeting, a man told a person sitting at the meeting table that he "sat on the throne of authority" and could stop the ordinance change he didn't want.
The man he was speaking to was the mayor and, while his opinion matters, he does not vote on ordinances.
All a person needs to do is quickly explain what's up, what they want, include an example or two of why they want it and why others would benefit, then get off the microphone. That's more effective than any JFK-esque performance they might dial up. It really is.
- This is not the crowd for your conspiracy theories.
Accusing a zoning board or school board of corruption, out of the blue, with your time at the microphone isn't going to get it done.

You have three minutes to talk. They have as long as they feel like. Generally, if they don't just ignore you, which is pretty effective in itself, they're going to rip you a new one with the two hours left in that meeting.

I've seen it done. I once sat through a PRESENTATION put together doing just that. There was a Powerpoint and video.
All because some lady decided to snipe in public comment with no actual grasp of what was going on.

If something happened, if there's a wrong to right, you need evidence, up to and including real paperwork or like 15 witnesses, because, otherwise, when you yell that a municipal representative is intimidating someone, people are going to wait till you sit down, say, "Well, that was weird," or "Did you see his hair?" move on, and hope you never approach the microphone again.
In summary, be respectful, follow the rules, remain concise and have some kind of proof of your point.
Don't talk shit and keep your shit together.
I'm not trying to discourage anyone from making public comment. There are a bunch of people who I've seen do it the right way who got the result they were looking for.
It's actually impressive when it's done right.
What I'm saying is make it less painful for everyone involved, because I'm the one who's usually involved.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Fool-proof tips to win friends and swim fast

My commutes for work run from between 45 minutes to an hour long, depending on traffic and such.

Typically, I either sing along to music, listen to NPR or start thinking really deeply about my life.

The last one of those options is usually not very fun. But, hey, you gotta fill that time somehow, and I sure as hell can't sleep it away.

Occasionally, I'll think about inconsequential things. Such was the case the other night.

My sister, Kristie, is on the Temple University club swim team and will be going to Nationals this weekend.

While in the car the other night, I thought, "I better text her before she leaves to wish her good luck."

Then, I thought, "I can do better than that."

So, as follows, my fool-proof, secret tips for swimming really fast. And proof that my commute is a little too long.

- Begin drinking copious amounts of water. Water in front of you creates a great amount of drag. Have you considered drinking that water as it comes at you? It'll (most certainly) reduce drag and create a little wave effect pulling you forward. You'll be like a human jet engine.

You're gonna really have to expand your stomach, though, in preparation. Try drinking something heavy, like hot chocolate that's more in its Hershey bar state than the hot drink state. Water will seem easy after that.

- Genetically splice yourself with a frog.
Frogs swim fast, right? It's never too late to gain a little genetic edge. There's nothing in the rules against it.

I'm not exactly sure how you go about altering your DNA with a ribbet-maker, but I'm gonna prescribe rubbing it all up under your tongue once at night, once in the morning, and 20 to 30 times when you're drunk.

You may be asking, "Why not splice with a fish?" To that I say, "GET OUT OF HERE WITH THAT SHIT. THIS AIN'T NO GAME."

- Secretly coat opposing swimmers in drag-inducing substances.
It's all about drag. So you gotta add some to those around you.

You'll need to use something they won't notice and won't easily come off. The perfect combination of that is, of course, glitter. Grab a handful, distract them by pointing out that weirdo putting a frog in their mouth, then hhhgghhghoooo (that's the phonetic spelling of blowing a handful of something) and *bam* they got drag all in their business.

- Pre-soak yourself Before you hit the water, you want yourself already soaked to dull the shock of the transition from dry to wet. Pour out a few buckets of water on yourself.

Get those hard-to-reach places by crying, pissing yourself, and having friends spit on you.

- Rage swimYou need to want to beat everyone else in the pool. Although frog genetics are not against the rules, killing your opponents is. Them's the rules since, like, 50 B.C.

But anger can be channeled into taking, I am not exaggerating, minutes off your time in the 50 meter freestyle. So get your anger on.
Know who ate the last of those cookies you wanted? Other than Dad? That bitch in lane 2. Who made (our sister) Kaitie's dog have to sit on your chest every time you take a nap? The hooker in the yellow cap.
Good luck and use any and every tip I've given you.