Monday, December 31, 2012

Yelling to an Empty Room Full of People

This could be any meeting room in America. Based on true events.

Before the regularly scheduled meeting even began, it was clear no one wanted to be there.

 Audience members sat grim-faced and talked quietly. A reporter flipped his pen in his fingers and checked Twitter on his phone. A board member sat with clearly gritted teeth behind a closed mouth.

A man in a power wheelchair spoke some angry, vindictive words at the board member who had the misfortune and poor judgment to arrive early to his seat at the table.

After the peeved resident wheeled back to his corner next to a filing cabinet along the wall, the board member sat, red-faced from an emotion at the corner of apprehension and anxiety, staring out at the blank wall behind the audience.

Eventually, the other board members arrived in the plain, square room just minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin, appropriately on time but late enough to avoid the ire of the restless audience filling half the chairs in the room.

As one board member sat next to the other who was already seated and stating, he murmured something about "some asshole."

The consternation came to a head just less than two minutes after the meeting started.

A man who was likely born in the 1930s, if that late, and weighed just a few more pounds as he was years old stood up when his name was called from the agenda, flicked some papers, and began.

The gentleman began by quoting from the state's constitution, something 9th grade history teachers would love in an essay but clues elected officials that they'd better start shifting in their seats a little because if they wait for the speech to end, they're going to get that pins-and-needles feeling in their ass.

Before he was a full minute into his treatise against municipal management and government, the man fired his first big gun.

"This action constitutes a fascist form of government."

In his pad, the reporter scrawled, "Fascists?"

Already, the board members checked out, staring straight ahead or into the table before them. This was a regular and they knew him well, as did most of the audience, it seemed.

Impressively, the gentleman paraphrased a Ralph Nader quote from a televised book-signing.

He then loudly cited an article in the local newspaper.

The reporter held his breath.

The gentleman read the article's title, holding it in his hand, then announced the date, indicating the article was from more than a few years ago.

The reporter breathed out quietly.

Throwing out names attached to the municipality and the company he was railing against, the gentleman spoke at a metered but slightly unpolished pace. He was no telecaster reading from a teleprompter, but he also wasn't a high school student struggling through a report in front of class.

At first it went unnoticed by most, but the gentlemen suddenly switched over to referring to himself in the third person.

"Plaintiff (X) will not relent," he said determinedly as he recounted a court case involving him and the company in question.

The board was unable to look at the man for more than a few seconds at a time, possibly from disdain but more likely from the shared embarrassment most seemed to feel as his speech, which became harder and harder to follow, churned through the 13 minute mark.

 The man who had earlier spoken heatedly with the board member from his wheelchair now stared at the blue and red speckled carpet, twiddling his thumbs.

The reading gentleman offered up a sheet from one of the court cases. He brought physical copies of everything he referenced.

"I won't read this," he said.

"Thank you," a man said in a tone above a whisper from the audience.

The older gentlemen continued past the 19th minute. Standing at the back of the room, he was out of the eyeline of most in the audience who were all perfectly content not to turn and look at him, but when he suddenly, unexpectedly paused, one person peered over their shoulder to see if he was alright.

"This case has been won by Plaintiff (X)!"

He was alright.

After declaring another public official to be "an accessory to the crime," the man turned his attention to the state courts, which he accused of intimidation.

By now, it's difficult to tell whether he actually won his case or if he's outlining why he should have won the case.

The board's chairwoman has her eyes closed. She isn't asleep. It's more as if she's trying to rid her eyes of the little colored spots that are the result of seeing a camera's flash go off.

"Now we get to the nitty gritty...." the gentleman declared 25 minutes in.

Two of the supervisors look up momentarily from their work at boring holes in the table with their eyes.

"This is nothing more than a cover-up..."

The man's speech is very hard to follow now, even if there'd been a stenographer's notes to read through, without a handbook of the state's judges and statutes, as well as detailed minutes of the municipality's meetings for the last five years or so.

If his speech has a clear point, which many in the room decided long ago that it didn't, he's lost everyone because they're not familiar enough with his references. It's like watching "Family Guy" with someone born in the 1880s.

"My conclusions..."

"Oh dear God," someone, maybe the man who thanked the man earlier for not reading one of his pages of evidence, said.

A woman in the very front row tapped her metal watchband against the chair in an irregular rhythm. She paused for a few seconds to look for something in her purse before letting it drop heavily onto the chair.

After again going to the fascist well and referencing Benito Mussolini, the man told someone, it was really unclear who, "The choice is yours."

Although this sounds like a conclusion, the man has more to say.

Again, he has some evidence, this one he wants to read. He starts, then suddenly stops.

"Nope, that's the wrong one..." he says before digging through his paperwork.

He speaks for another eight or nine minutes.For the last 20 minutes of the speech, people began whispering quietly to friends or playing with whatever trinkets they can, whether its a wedding ring or a phone.

After several more sentences that sound like conclusions, he actually wraps up.

"I have nothing more to say."

Without really skipping a beat, the board dives into its next agenda item. 36 minutes have passed since the man began speaking.

It's hard to tell if he watched too "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" too much or fancied himself a Watergate-style whistleblower.

But after 36 minutes of our collective lives were gone, no one considered for a second what he'd said. Granted, what the man said came out as mostly conspiracy theory with tangential, at-best, proof. But it was hard to tell which was more troubling: that the man had such concerns and poured so much of his life into an interminable rambling speech on some ill-defined problem or that not a single person there seemed willing to take him seriously before he even began to speak.

It really could've been any meeting room in America.

Friday, December 21, 2012

We Few, We Band of Brothers

           Sitting and looking out the window at the Thomas A. Edison rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike, I suddenly realized I was crying.
            I wasn’t just choked up like before. Pulling my baseball cap low over my eyes, I slid a hand up beside my face and unsuccessfully tried to finish my Coke.
I was quiet and no one seemed to notice. If they did, they were polite enough not to stare.
            A few hours earlier, I’d left the Shakespeare Room, a small conference room in a hotel near Newtown, Conn. where a satellite newsroom had been set up for coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting.

            I was finally going home.
            But at the tiny table with my Burger King lunch somewhere in North Jersey, I came apart because I was now completely alone.
            I started working the long days of covering Newtown Saturday after arriving in Connecticut Friday night.
Thursday morning, after five full days of reporting, I was scheduled to finally rotate out and head home, unable to leave The Mercury short-staffed any longer.
            While covering relentlessly horrific and difficult things, I felt like I’d formed a sort of camaraderie with those covering Newtown with me. One person described it as a “brothers in arms” kind of deal.
            We didn’t, and maybe don’t, know each other very well, but those that were there for an extended stay sort of grew together.
            I was uncomfortable and harried every day, constantly nervous and pressing, but at least I had everyone around me through most of it that experienced the same thing. When the day’s work finally wrapped, we all could at least sit together in the hotel bar or lobby and talk through it all.
            Part of the coverage was the funerals. After the first days of trying to get victim profiles through anyone willing to talk (and there weren’t many), the worst jobs were covering funerals. No one wanted to go.
            In my first and only experience, something very difficult happened. I don’t know if I’ll ever really talk about what happened, but I was able to get through it.
            When my editors found out what happened, I was quietly pulled off of doing funerals because there was concern for my “psyche.”
            A few days later, I found out that one of the others I’d worked with was pulling a second or third funeral assignment. I basically begged my assignment editor to put me on instead.
            I’m fairly confident most of the people I was with would have done the same for me.
            We may have all been shell shocked, but we were all trying to look out for each other.
            We shared our grief, respectfully quieted when someone broke down, or listened calmly when someone lashed out at the stress that not only comes with covering such a tragedy but just being in the newspaper business.
            The company always afforded us with opportunities to bow out, to talk with a professional, but it didn’t seem like anyone wanted to miss an assignment and add to another’s workload. Everyone always volunteered to do more.
            Talking with one of the young reporters I’d worked with from the beginning in the  Shakespeare Room late Wednesday night, we discussed what might happen to us after being exposed to this type of coverage, nonstop, for so long.
            We quietly wondered if this is the type of thing that could give you post-traumatic stress disorder. We thought aloud about how we would describe what we did in Newtown to our family and friends. We whispered with uncertainty, “We’re going to be okay.”
            What mattered most was that we were able to be scared together.
            Because of the nature of the situation, I was never happy in Connecticut. But I did feel comfortable in a few moments.
The instance that stands out was after we’d all filed our stories one night after the hectic, soul-shaking first days.
            Around the table in Shakespeare, the usual crew gathered and ate our dinners from the hotel kitchen and waited for the conference call that would decide our assignments for the next day.
            Music was played from a laptop. Someone sang. We listened to catchy but not great pop music and joked about the assignment editor’s affinity for boy bands.
            Leaning in my chair and having the same French fries I’d already had twelve times before, I felt totally comfortable for the first time since I’d gotten to Connecticut.
Sitting in the rest stop Thursday afternoon, I suddenly didn’t have that support group of people who were there, subjected to the same things and feeling the way I did.
            In the rest stop, I could hear people behind me laughing and talking, many of them obviously taking off early to their Christmas destinations. Children laughed and played with the cardboard Burger King crowns and an older woman discussed menu options with a slightly younger woman.
            At the same time, faintly, I could hear a TV somewhere above with the news on, playing more Newtown coverage. I didn’t dare look up.
No one there knew how it had been in Newtown. No one where I was going at home would know it either.
            I thought of the funerals and knocking on doors and the terse phone calls.
            And that’s about when I realized that tears were streaming down my face.
            I’m glad I went to Newtown. The people at the New Haven Register needed help and I hope someone would come to help me if a news event of this magnitude happened near The Mercury.
            I’m glad I covered it because I did my best to be as respectful as possible to the town and the victims, like the rest of the people I worked with, and unlike some of the news agencies I witnessed. I’m still heartbroken for the people there and I hope things start winding down very soon.
            Like everything associated with Newtown and Sandy Hook, it’s definitely going to take some time for me to get right again. I already miss the group of mostly young and all incredibly talented reporters and editors I worked with.
            I don’t feel sorry for myself for a second.
But I’m nervous for those that are still up there.
            As much as I’ve grown to care for Newtown and its people, I grew to care about the people in the Shakespeare Room.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Break

Today, I finally reached a point I had hoped I might escape.

I'm still working the story on the shooting in Newtown, Conn. I just concluded my fourth full day of work, my fifth in the state.

These full days have been running, at the least, twelve hours, sometimes fifteen hours or more, while immersed in the story of what horrific things unfolded last Friday.

Each day, I've had something different to cover, none much easier than the other in terms of difficulty, in terms of skill or emotion.

Since I've had so many different tasks, I've kept my editor at home informed of what's been going on with the coverage, what I've been slated for, just to let her know what The Mercury might want to use for their own coverage of the event.

I'd kept myself together throughout this. Some hadn't. I've heard of a few people losing it a little. Some are amazed they're still okay. The mix of intense work and the intense sadness here is a formula for a breakdown.

At one point yesterday or the day before (time has ceased to exist here), me and the crew of remarkably talented and dedicated journalists in our satellite newsroom discussed when this all became "real" for them.

Some said it was hearing the reports of how many were killed. Others talked about driving into the town and seeing the makeshift memorials.

Mine came Saturday. When the authorities announced, officially, the list of names of those killed, I was sent to the park where the press briefing was held to retrieve a physical copy of the list.

I grabbed it and began driving back to our satellite newsroom with it. At a stoplight, I picked the list up and glanced down at the names on it.

The list included birth dates and I began noticing how many names had "2005" or "2006" in the DOB column. My hand suddenly felt numb and the list slipped from my fingers into the wheel well of the passenger side of my car.

The difficulty of witnessing some things and talking to some people is something I'll probably never encounter again. But I've kept it together.

This morning, as I was filling in my editor on the day's "budget" of stories, she told me about a story involving one victim that was local to our coverage area. She mentioned the child's name.

I replied that I remembered the name, began to say that I thought I'd been assigned the student at one point, then realized it wasn't one of the six or so I'd been assigned to do over the first few days.

I thought I remembered another person doing the profile.

"He did that person," I said. "I think he did. I think, but I'm not sure because there..."

Suddenly, it felt like all the breath had been sucked from my lungs and I physically couldn't speak.

I was going to say, "I'm not sure because there were so many." And in that moment, just hearing my mind say it and trying to speak those words, I suddenly felt paralyzed by grief.

I'd been afraid of reaching the breaking point for days. We've been immersed in such terrible sorrow day in and out that it was always a threat and, suddenly, on the phone with my home paper's editor, I was completely ambushed.

She thought she'd been cut off from my line, or that I'd broken up.

"I said we just each worked a lot," I finished lamely.

There is a lot of backlash to us being in Newtown right now. I can't put myself in the shoes of the people here, but from what I've gathered from the criticisms and anger vocalized at us, many think we're just trying to capitalize on a sensational news story, that each painful interview is just a feather in our cap.

But from what I've witnessed from others with me who have worked so hard and from what I felt myself this morning when I finally ran into a wall, we're here because we feel telling what happened is indescribably important. In the same breath, I can say we all are affected very deeply by this, we care very much for those it touched, and we truly wish that this all never happened.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Our Hearts Are Broken

For those of you that don't know, I'm currently up in Connecticut covering the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Friday, I'd been following the news from the Pottstown Mercury's newsroom relatively closely.

I went out for lunch, came back, and was told my company was looking for volunteers to help out our sister paper in New Haven, the Register. I considered it for a few second,s then agreed to go because I knew I'd regret it if I didn't.

After running home, grabbing clothes for three days with no idea how long I'd really be there, I drove five hours and got to New Haven after 10 p.m.

For the entirety of Saturday and Sunday, I've been working non-stop, catching 5 hours of sleep at most, trying to catch up with victims' stories, running on tasks to help create articles, gathering data and contacts and whatever I can.

It's been difficult. It's been gut-wrenching at times, forcing yourself to call and look for someone that might share a story about the worst thing they've ever experienced.

This hasn't been fun, by any means. It hasn't been an adventure for me.

There have been times when I've been faced with a task that I've been almost terrified to take. But each time, doing it, I told myself, "Tomorrow, you'll have already done this. Get it done and it will be over tomorrow."

But what is really terrifying, what I almost cannot handle, is that there are people in the town I've been through a few times that can't tell themselves that, that, tomorrow, things will be exactly as they were today, they'll never be "done."

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Why I Write

 I guess I'll continue my trend of Whys.

Over the past month, the blogs featured by The Mercury have focused on literacy and reading. I meant to do one. I’ve been on a John O’Hara kick lately and I’m sure I could whipped one up regarding him and how I’d literally spent three or four unbroken hours laying on my bed each night reading “From the Terrace” the last few weeks in October but, oh well, for another time.

Instead, I guess I’ll take a crack at an intimately related topic: writing and its importance to me.

I’ve written since before I knew how to spell words. In kindergarten, I wrote “newspaper articles” for my mother to read. They weren’t articles so much as combining as many random letters as I could into different patterns on a page, but I still spent a few hours on each "story."

As I learned a new letter in class, I added that into the rotation.

(Sidenote: I’ve always wondered if I ever accidentally spelled a word. I’m sure I did, given the monkeys and a typewriter Shakespeare theory.)
 Pictured: Frank at 5-years-old

Growing older, I actually learned how to spell words and began expanding my writing horizon.

In first grade, I wrote a book on the history of baseball. Illustrated it, too. The pages were pounded out on an old DOS computer, with every “is” spelled “iz” and every capital letter the result of tapping Caps Lock because I didn’t know how the Shift key worked back then.

In third grade, I wrote a “Jurassic Park” meets “At the Mountains of Madness” kind of thriller. There were dinosaurs and Antarctica and people got eaten. Seven hand-scrawled, 8x11 lined sheets of paper. One of my finest works.

For whatever reason, I fell off of writing for a while after that. It just sort of got lost in the shuffle of baseball and being a young boy. I continued to write but not very prolifically and not very creatively.

One very profound event in my life turned me back to writing.

In the latter half of seventh grade, I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. This diagnosis came after what were some of the most difficult and traumatizing months I’ve ever experienced.

I can actually remember the night when everything seemed to abruptly hit the fan, all at once. It was like the worst panic attack you can imagine. I started thinking about something that scared me a little and suddenly found I could not stop thinking about it and was suddenly not just a little scared but terrified.

I didn’t sleep, I couldn’t concentrate on anything to distract myself, and I just sat and suffered. And although I quietly thought that it might just blow over soon, that optimism quickly faded as this continued for days, weeks, and then months with only short periods of respite.

During that time, I said to myself, privately, of course, with all the belief in the world, “Oh my God, I’m insane now.”

A glimpse into the madness
What you see here are some of my "Good numbers."

Eventually, I got some help. I worked through some of it and gained some control over the racing thoughts in my head.

But what I think helped me more than anything was my return to writing.

It’s a cliché, but for whatever reason, turning back to writing became therapeutic. Even during my worst moments, I could turn to that and at least clear my head for a moment and concentrate on the story I was writing.

For a few years, I just crafted stories that revolved around what I felt. Because of struggling and dealing every day with the obsessive compulsive disorder, after feeling like I was clinically insane, all I did was pour my anger, frustration, exhaustion and, at times, sadness into the stories.

I once told a friend that my goal in many of those stories, which a lot of my friends ended up reading and (they say) liking, was to draw the reader in, get them to like the main character, and then to destroy that character in some abrupt, horrible way. The characters in those stories blew up, were run over by cars, committed suicide, whatever terrible things you can think of.

I think someone even got eaten by a monster.

If you know what this is from, isn't it an underrated movie?
Years later, I realized I was using those characters, subconciously re-enacting what I felt had happened to myself. I believed the person I had been before I was hit by OCD was violently gone and, without telling my friends or readers (because I told almost no one what happened with me), I was getting them to share my sorrow, even if it lasted only as long as it took for them to read my story’s final page.

Eventually, my stories evolved. They still weren’t exactly happy, but I began stretching my legs, playing around with plot and writing them longer, with more purpose. I was feeling more comfortable, no longer exhausted with what had happened.

I wrote four novels in high school, all at least 140 typed pages, the longest somewhere around 330. 

I can't bring myself to read them again, I’m sure they’re over-dramatic, long-winded and terrible. 
But probably still better than this.

I probably should have taken more of a cue from my favorite author, Ernest Hemingway, who I discovered around the time of my second or third book.

Almost every night throughout high school, from 10 p.m. to as late as 4 a.m., I hammered out pages on the PC in our basement.

College rolled around and I entered intending to go to J-school and become a reporter.

I frequently tell people the reason why I became a writer was because “I can’t do anything else.”

There may be some truth to that, but that’s not it. I became a writer because it was one of a select few things in my life that I incessantly challenge myself at, that I’m never satisfied with my proficiency in.

In many other things, though I’ve worked hard, I’ve always just figured that I have a certain level of ability that I’ll reach and I can comfortably leave it at that. Math and science were like that. I was happy with my Cs.

Writing has never been that for me. It has been the one thing in my life that I’ve actually really enjoyed being challenged at. I relish trying to come up with new and different ways to tell an audience a story, to make them feel a certain emotion about something, or to present information in a way that unclouds it from the usual distractions. It’s difficult, it’s time-consuming, but I really, really enjoy it.

For that reason, I turned down the offer to take a chance at a new job this week. I was contacted about a position reporting somewhere else and invited to take a look at the job specs.

After surveying the description of what I’d do for a couple of minutes, I immediately emailed the person that contacted me, thanking them, but letting them know I wasn’t interested.

Other than being very comfortable where I am right now at The Mercury, there was a huge reason why I wasn’t even interested in the new job: there was no challenge.

I already knew how I’d approach it, what I’d do, and exactly how far I could go with it. I’d be able to do the job, probably well, and I wouldn’t have to exert much effort doing it.

That’s not why I write. Obviously, you can’t tell every story in a new, creative or insightful way. But there’s always a chance. There’s usually a way to make yourself better.

I didn’t feel that new job offered nearly as much of an opportunity to consistently improve as where I am now.

Challenges give life freshness and a purpose. After doing it for many years in many different ways, I’ve finally realized that that is why I write.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why I Worked Thanksgiving

I’ve mentioned a few times in this blog and elsewhere that despite liking what I do, I do often feel a grind on my job. I won’t belabor that point further. I think you probably get it if you’re one of my faithful blog readers (all four of you).

I worked Thanksgiving this year. When you’re a reporter, you really can’t count on having the day off for every holiday. Since I haven’t put much time in (I’m actually just through my first year at the Mercury, no longer a rookie as of a week ago) I really don’t count on having off for more than half the holidays that a traditional 9-5 guy in an office might expect.

This year, I made sure to volunteer to work over Thanksgiving.

The reason for that was two of my best friends were getting married the weekend of Thanksgiving in their hometown in southern Minnesota. Everyone from our usual crew at the University of Wisconsin was getting back together.

 Sadly, we can never get back together at this bar, though. Why, oh why, did you have to go, Brothers?

I’ve lived in the Philadelphia area my whole life. I’m very tight with my parents and my two sisters. My grandmother lived with us and functioned as an extra mother for the first half of  my life. 

I’ve always had a very strong sense of family.

I chose to go to the University of Wisconsin for many reasons, but two stood out as deciding factors: one was the fact that it has a top-level journalism school and the other was that I wanted to try something different, to try a grand new adventure and see if I could make it starting from scratch.

Heading to Madison was the first time in my life that I was completely alone. I knew no one. After spending approximately 18 years with it, I had distanced myself about 900 miles from my support network that not only included my family but friends I’d known as long as kindergarten in some cases.

As things progressed, the core group of friends I made at Wisconsin became a new family. Of course, we did the things any college kid does: partied together, drank together, took compromising photos of each other.

 The night this was taken is also known as "The Night Sondra Can't Be President Anymore" 
because of one or two of those aforementioned pictures.

Really, though, the things that made my close friends in Wisconsin my family were the parts that really seem so insignificant but, looking back, make you smile or laugh or tear up (from laughing or otherwise), just like the family I was raised by and with. 

Those moments were things like watching Sunday football at the girls’ place while I waited for my clothes to finish drying at the laundromat, having a catch on the first, nice days of spring with the guys, helping cook a homemade pizza on a random weeknight, or sitting and smiling at a restaurant long after we’d finished our meals.

They became a group of people I would never have gotten through school without.

For that reason, I volunteered to work Thanksgviing, including the seven straight days that led up to it, including filming a playoff football game in which my hands got so cold I couldn’t feel the iPhone in my hands, including three late meeting nights.

It was a grind. Wednesday night, sitting in a bar, I realized I still had one day left to go after finishing my seventh and literally wimpered over my beer. It was pathetic. You should have heard it.

I was exhausted, spent, as tired as I’ve been in a long time.

But I would have worked 22 days straight, worked Christmas, New Year’s, Easter and the 4th of July because I was going to Greg and Rachel’s wedding so I could see them, Paz, Katie, Sondra, Steph, Maria, Leslie and the Joes. And I was going because they’re my family and it was worth every second I spent on the clock to see them again.

 Thanksgiving 2010. I'm the bald guy.
 Thanks for the break, guys.