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 into 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 rhythmic 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.

Monday, April 15, 2013


My sisters and I recently went to the Titanic exhibit at the Franklin Institute.

At the end, there's a wall of lists with all the survivors and those who perished in the different classes. Later in the exhibit was a plaque talking about a mother who was constantly checking the newspapers to see if her son's name would be listed among the survivors.

I told my sisters, "That never happens anymore."

Tonight, now that we know three people have died as a result of the explosions at the Boston Marathon, I've just wrapped up updating a list of locals who were registered to run the race. Especially in the direct aftermath, it was difficult to get through and check if everyone was alright.

Through Google's people finder service or information posted on our Facebook page, I've slowly been able to add a "#" symbol beside names of those who have checked in with family or friends.

I interviewed a man who ran the race to try and get his account over the phone. He said he'd gotten 20 texts "over two minutes" after the explosion to see if he was all right.

"We can Tweet out that you're okay," I told him on an impulse. "If you want, we can do that to let anybody know who hasn't reached you yet."

"That'd be great," he replied. "Yeah, go ahead and do that."

Officially, the Titanic sank 101 years ago on April 15.

And, again, we're listing survivors' names in the paper.

How does this happen?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Losing Sleep

I wrote this about two weeks after I returned from covering the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Since that time, I've kept it buried, shown it to just one other person, someone who worked the story up there with me.

Mostly, I wrote it just because I needed to get it out of my head and I've been uneasy to put it out there for two reasons. 

1.) I've been nervous that it just comes across as me complaining about my own personal situation.
2.) I've felt a certain amount of guilt for feeling so badly when there are obviously people who were directly and significantly affected by what happened far more than I can imagine.

Additionally, I've wanted to distance myself a little from my coverage in Newtown. It's not a fun thing to talk about so I largely avoid it, though there are times when I'm drinking with buddies that things will slip out.  

But a few things made me decide to post this today. When I woke up this morning and did my customary scan of Twitter, I saw a Tweet from another journalist I worked with up there who had a nightmare about it.

And then I read Will Bunch's column today on the front of the New York Daily News on the death of the assault weapons ban in Congress.

One of the biggest fears of the reporters I worked with was that Newtown would happen again and some of us might be there to cover it, like Mike Topel, one of my editors up there who covered the Columbine shooting.

In fact, we were confident it will happen again. Seeing the assault rifle ban bill won't be voted on made me truly realize that Congress, the NRA, their friends and well-wishers, all aren't losing much sleep over that.

            In my first day back at The Mercury since I returned from coverage in Newtown, I walked in and flipped on the lights to the empty newsroom.
            Dropping my bag by my desk near the door, I looked down to see if there were any notes put there in the week since I’d left. There were none, surprisingly, but I was suddenly drawn to my desk itself and the contents upon it.
            It seemed frozen in time to the minutes before I literally ran out of the newsroom to pack for the trip up to Connecticut.
            Press releases from Dec. 12, 13 and 14, 2012 lay in a jumble, my trusty desk pen at its usual angle atop them. Sitting on my AP Stylebook was a newspaper from the week before that I’d meant to get my clippings out of Friday afternoon.
            Not one spot on the desktop carried any reference to Sandy Hook, Newtown, or even Connecticut.
            Slowly, I lowered myself into my chair, removed the faded baseball cap I’d worn throughout my time covering Newtown, and silently put down the week’s collection of newspapers I’d missed that I’d just grabbed downstairs.
            I was entirely alone for a few hours to begin my shift, for which I was glad. But it felt surreal to simply write up press releases or listen to the usual chatter on the police scanner. I felt almost numb, as if only my muscle memory were guiding me, like I was performing some dance I’d learned years ago.
            Later in the day, I realized I was finally hungry and decided to grab some lunch. For some reason, during my time covering Newtown and the first few days following it, hunger wasn’t something I truly felt. Of course, I got hungry, but it was dulled from the usual sensation, feeling more like someone whispered me the idea than actually feeling it in my stomach.
            Replacing the baseball cap on my head, I trotted down the stairs out of the second floor newsroom and headed for the back door of the building to where my car waited to take a quick trip to Wawa.
            As soon as I pushed open the door and the outside air hit me, a thought started in the back of my mind and charged to the forefront of my consciousness, screaming at me.
            You don’t have your notepad.
            My hand instinctively shot to my back pocket where I routinely carry it. Nothing was there.
            I suddenly was in the grip of the worst panic attack I’ve ever experienced. It didn’t last long, just eight or ten seconds, but I couldn’t breathe and I was hyperventilating all at the same time. My entire body began to shake.
            My mind was suddenly a cacophony of shrieking thoughts.
            WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
            WHERE’S YOUR PEN?
            It was mostly over before long. I was able to tell myself that I was going to grab lunch for half an hour at Wawa on the Saturday before Christmas. What would I possibly need my notepad for doing that?
            More or less back in control, I fished my keys out of my pocket and approached my car, wondering what the hell that had been.
            I soon realized that in Connecticut I’d never gone anywhere without a notepad and a pen. If I was going anywhere, I was going somewhere with an unpleasant job I was likely stressing over.
            Once I recognized that it’d probably been a strange leftover from my experience, I laughed a little to myself. But I was admittedly shaken for the rest of the day and my heart didn’t slow back to a normal rate until I left Pottstown that night.
            By some miracle, I was given both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off even before I went up to Connecticut. After working both Saturday and Sunday, I was ready for another rest.
            Each day since I came home from Connecticut, I felt myself improving. Christmas posed another opportunity to get back toward normalcy. Although it felt that much of the joy I traditionally reserved for my favorite holiday had been sapped this year, I still happily looked forward to it.
            Every Christmas Eve, my mom’s side of the family gathers at my Aunt Becky’s home to have our traditional meal which features Polish fare like handmade pierogies, stuffed cabbage and sauerkraut with butterbeans in it. It’s my favorite meal of the year, beating out even Thanksgiving.
            But outside of the food, I greatly enjoy the company of my family, which includes my cousin Denny’s two young boys, Owen and Aaron.
            For some reason, since they were toddlers, Owen and Aaron have had a special affinity for me. I think it probably has to do with the fact that I haven’t grown up in a lot of ways and am forever willing to sneak outside and play quarterback or catcher for them in their sports of choice.
            In any case, they seem to like to hang around me at family events.
            After dinner, I was sitting around the dining room table with my dad, sisters, and a few cousins, talking and grabbing Christmas cookies. Aaron came tearing over in his navy blue sweater and jumped up onto my knee.
            I held him there and listened as he told me where Santa Claus was, according to the tracker application he was checking every three seconds on my sister’s phone, burning out the battery.
            In Newtown, I covered one of the first funerals, that of Jack Pinto. It was an assignment I felt terribly uncomfortable with. At the same time, my editors asked me to do it and my conscience rarely allows me not to at least make an attempt to do something I’m asked to do.
            So I covered the funeral for the football fan who Victor Cruz declared, in writing, was his hero. It was the only one I was put on and turned out to be a very difficult, very personal assignment.
            Since that Monday, Jack Pinto has never left my mind.
            At the table after dinner Christmas Eve, I suddenly felt sick. Aaron, 6-years-old, a kid I love as much as if he were my own, was the same age as Jack Pinto.
            As he chattered away about the application showing him Santa’s travels through East Africa, he leaned his head back into my chest, where I felt my heart rate skipping up again and some of the shakiness return like I’d felt a few days earlier at The Mercury.
            With more time passing since I returned from Newtown, I do feel as if I’ve gained back a sense of normalcy.
            Nightmares are far less frequent, it’s easier to go to church and be alone with my thoughts, I have less trouble getting through a conversation with friends who ask me about my time in Connecticut.
            But, with the time that has passed, I’ve realized that Newtown may never leave me.
            When I was young, I had a lot of trouble falling asleep. I was always afraid that some skeleton or zombie or ghost might reach out and get me during the night.
            I may have been six when my dad, trying to help ease my attempts at sleep, told me about his father’s nightly ritual.
           My grandfather, who died the year before I was born, served in the South Pacific as a radar operator for a fighter squadron in World War II. According to my dad, Fourth of Julys were difficult for my grandfather because the fireworks sounded too close to the bombings and artillery he’d had to endure.
          At some point around the time he served, my grandfather, a Catholic like me, began to make the Sign of the Cross on his pillow before he went to sleep, a sort of way to protect himself.
          Since my dad told me about that, I’ve followed suit, making a Sign of the Cross every night on both the pillows in my bed.
          Every night since I returned from Connecticut, I’ve gone to bed and made the Sign of the Cross on my pillows. And, every night, I’ve made an extra, smaller one last, just where I put my head, for Jack Pinto.
          No matter how else I may get back to “normal” since I’ve come back from Newtown, I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing that.

Monday, March 11, 2013

I Guess This is Growing Up

A few things lately have made me realize that I became an adult.

My buddy's first girlfriend got married over the weekend and posted pictures to Facebook. My first girlfriend from high school has been married for probably a year now. I'm constantly referred to as "Mr. Otto." More than a few friends are talking about buying houses. The list goes on.

But what really struck home happened in the past couple of days.

In my job, I'm constantly dealing with adults or, at their youngest, kids in high school. Unfortunately, when I'm dealing with children, elementary school or younger, they're usually very sick with something like cancer or worse.

However, Sunday, during my customary time alone in the empty newsroom, I took a walk to the back where a wall of windows overlooks a private parking lot. That lot, at its east side, has a concrete block wall that starts low but ends up going pretty high. It continues around so that it basically forms the perimeter of a rectangle with one open end.

Occasionally, when I need time to think about how to do an article or just need some fresh air, I'll go outside and play wall ball with the tennis ball I keep in my desk there. As such, I know very intimiately that, at points, that wall can be a little high. Not gigantic, but six or seven feet, maybe more.

So, while standing in the back of the room, I noticed four boys, the youngest probably nine or so, the oldest 11, at most, alternating between carefully balancing and sprinting along the top of the wall.

I watched through the window blinds as they ran, arms pumping, or tip-toed, wings spread, along the wall. It seemed as if the tallest points were their favorite spots to run.

Watching, I waited for one of them to fall. It seemed inevitable. I thought about dialing up the Pottstown Police and letting them know they might want to come chase the kids off.

Then, I thought, "Why?"

I thought about playing with my buddies when I was their age, running through the branches of a 15-foot high treehouse, using a hatchet to cut down tall trees in my backyard, having long-range rock fights.

Watching the local boys running along the concrete walls, I realized that I would have loved doing that as a kid. Yes, it was dangerous, but it was probably some of the best fun they had all weekend. If they fell or got hurt, they'd be just as fine as me and my friends usually were (though, there was that one time I accidentally threw a stick [essentially a spear] into Scott's skull. That was a lot of blood.)

So I stayed and watched a little while longer before returning to my desk. After that, I made it a point to shuffle back and look out the window every ten minutes or so until they left, just to make sure they were fine.

Then, today, I stepped outside to just get a breath of air and cool down a little from the sometimes uncomfortably warm newsroom.

Checking my phone, I heard a couple of little boys, who turned out to be about six-years-old and eight, rounding the corner of the building. I glanced up, saw the pair coming, then looked back down at the texts on my phone.

They passed behind me, then I suddenly realized I needed to look up again.

The younger boy's face was turned skyward, blood, red like a Coca-Cola label, flowing from his nose. The older boy had a hand placed behind the boy's head, near his neck, gently guiding him as he walked.

"Are you alright?" I asked.

"Yeah, he's fine," the older boy said. The younger one tried to nod and grunted, "Uh-huh."

"He wasn't looking where he was going," the older boy explained, in a caring, scolding voice. "And he just ran into a pole. He's fine, though."

"Uh-huh," the little boy grunted again, louder, since they'd continued walking across the parking lot while they talked to me.

"Okay," I called back.

I pretended to keep checking my phone but kept watch out of the corner of my eye as they made their way through the parking lot and toward a home nearby. The older boy left the younger one as they neared the door so he could hold it open. Gently helping the younger boy inside, the older one closed the door behind them.

My cousin has two little boys about the age of the pair I saw today. I see them a lot and although I'm three times their age, my status with them is never quite "adult." It's mostly just "big kid."

Dealing with the two groups of kids over the last two days outside The Mercury and feeling the inkling of responsibility toward them really cemented that I'm somehow now an adult far more than having a career, a paycheck, a car, or debts has.