Thursday, May 24, 2012

On the Road


            Recently, I’ve begun reading “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac.
            Unashamedly, I’ll admit that I only began reading it because I was impressed by the trailer recently put out for the movie. Years ago, I’d thought of reading it but looked a quick summary and decided that I probably wouldn’t like that.
After seeing the trailer, I thought I should try reading it, that I was maybe missing out on something.
Two hundred-twenty pages in, I’ve found out that I was not.
 
On the Sucks
In any case, it seemed ironic that while in the midst of reading that book I found myself plodding along in the sun on the side of a road, at times seriously considering thumbing a ride.
 Like this, but not as hipster-y
Sunday, I drove in to work for my regular weekend shift and reached the Wawa where Route 100 splits with South Hanover Street in North Coventry.
Normally, on Sunday, I hit a 9 a.m. mass in West Chester, sleep for about half an hour after, then get up and dressed for my 45 minute commute to Pottstown for work at noon.
Typically, on the way, I’ll stop at Wawa to grab a lunch to eat at my desk when I come in because, hey, it’s Sunday, news rarely happens on a Sunday, and I need something to look forward to while I’m sitting at my desk working on other stories.
I call this cat, News on Sunday.
            So I grabbed my lunch and got back into my car. Turning the key, I expected to immediately be greeted by Fitz and the Tantrums.
            Instead, I was greeted by silence.
            Confused, I turned the key again.
            More silence.
            Then, I hit panic mode and turned the key, like, nine more times.
            Quickly assessing the situation, I called a few people in Pottstown looking for a jump for what I surmised was a dead battery.
            Everyone was either away or not picking up.
            After calling my parents to explain the situation, I decided, mostly influenced by a terrible anger at my car, to hoof it in to the office.
            (Though, Brandie Kessler did offer a ride if I waited for her to come back from Philly for half an hour, but my pride and silent fuming did not allow that.)
            Almost immediately on my trek, I noticed a sign that informed me that Pottstown was three miles away. Smiling grimly, I re-shouldered my bag, which now contained my lunch of two pretzels, a roast beef sandwich and an apple-watermelon Vitamin Water stuffed in next to old story clippings, and began walking.
            One thing I will say about “On the Road” is that in between his nonsense, fever-dream ramblings, Kerouac portrays how tedious and boring the act of walking along a road can be.
            So he has that going for him.
            But aside from just the tedium of walking, I didn’t mind my sojourn too much.
            Sunday was a beautiful day. The sun was shining across a relatively unclouded sky and there was a pleasant breeze that always seemed to be across my back or hair.
On top of that, North Coventry along Hanover Street is actually really pretty. There’s a lot of nice, well-kept houses that compliment some open fields or patches of woods. Driving in to work, I do notice the pretty landscape, but it’s a lot easier to notice it while you’re puttering along on your feet than when you’re zooming by at 40 mph.
What is the speed limit there? This is basically what I see when I see speed limit signs going in to work.
I’d like to thank the majority of North Coventry residents and businesses who cut their grass. That was much appreciated as I tramped through in my khakis and brown shoes not necessarily made for marching to work.
I also want to thank the municipality for the surprising amount of paved sidewalks. That’s another thing you don’t notice while driving by.
As enjoyable as the walk was, it was definitely tiring. At the beginning, after seeing I had to walk three miles, I quickly calculated how fast I could get to the office. As a freshman in high school, the last time we were forced to run the mile, I’d been the fastest in my gym class at a shade below seven minutes.
“I’ll be in town in just over half an hour,” I thought.
An hour later, I was breathing in a pungent mixture of road tar and metal as I crossed the second set of railroad tracks that cross Hanover Street, still more than a block from the office.
Once inside the newsroom, I thanked God that I’m alone there for the first few hours of my Sunday shift because I was a sweating mess and basically ripped the Vitamin Water bottle in half in my haste to drink it.
A few minutes later, while quickly reading through my article from the week before, I found a tick climbing on my pant leg.
At that point, my world of Sunday journalism had me feeling as glamorous as Cary Grant in “His Girl Friday.”
            What I don't look like every day.
            In any case, everything turned out alright. My parents got a new battery for my car and saw my office for the first time.
            But what might stick with me about my walk in was the sun turning the grass on a hillside in North Coventry almost fluorescent green and how, walking across the Hanover Street Bridge, I could actually see fish swimming in the less-than-murky water.
            They were nice little vignettes in my experience here.
            And Jack Kerouac is still terrible.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Undead


Part of my job on weekends is to edit or type up the obituaries that funeral homes send in. Normally, during the week, our classified department handles them, but since they're not in on weekends, that falls to me.
It is easily one of the parts of the job I enjoy the least. Checking grammar doesn't really carry the excitement that running out to a building fire or a shooting has, but it's as necessary to the newspaper as both of those.
 Maybe it's that exciting for this guy.
An editor once told me what makes a newspaper the paper of record in an area is where the obituaries get sent. So, I guess I have to do my part.
Something I always think of when I read obituaries is how the person I'm reading about must have had at least one aspect of them that was interesting. Unfortunately, by and large, obituaries don't generally convey that.
There are several that have. One talked about a guy that enjoyed Italian music, played the accordion and was president of his horseshoe club or something. But that was just a few lines.
In another, I found out a local man had graduated from the University of Wisconsin like me. As such, while I wrote through his, I played our shared alma mater, "Varsity." I liked to think he would have appreciated that.
But those are just a few instances.
I understand the importance of obituaries, too. They can help remind people of each other, aid in maybe tracing family trees. 
But reading through a survivor's list is hardly a page-turner.
Not too long ago, I resolved to write my own obituary. I wanted to make it something people would want to read.
Though, I guess writing something just to get it read can be something of a sin.
After all, the quote beneath my senior picture in my high school yearbook wasn't some 311 song lyric or a Dr. Seuss passage like half of everyone else.
Instead, it read, "If you're reading this in 100 years, we're all dead." 
That was probably my most widely read work.
In any case, last Sunday, there weren't very many obituaries. Some days they come in waves, some they come in trickles.
The latter day is doubly for rejoicing, as I don't have many to edit and people are generally still alive in the world.
So Sunday was a rejoice-ful day and, as such, with some time on my hands, I decided that I might as well write my own obituary because, well, you never know what could happen.
  You never know.
 So here it is. Make sure this goes into the paper. Feel free to email my editor and give her a piece of your mind if it doesn't.
 Francis M. Otto,  of West Chester
Francis Michael Otto, (insert age), of West Chester, died suddenly and heroically (insert date). He leaves behind no spouse but several booty calls.
Frank, as he was known by friends, was a joy to everyone he was around and had few to no enemies (though some sources are probably not mourning very much).
He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he was a close, personal friend of Bucky Badger and talked to Bo Ryan that one time.
He was predeceased by Brothers Bar and Grill on Lake Street in Madison.
Cut down in the prime of his life, he surely would have gone on to win several Keystone Press Awards, two to three Pulitzer Prizes and at least a walk-on role in the next Muppet movie.
Those that knew him described him as handsome, attractive, becoming, admirable, and suave.
Those that didn’t know him described him similarly.
His funeral will be held at sunset, when his body will be pushed out into the murky, smelly Schuylkill in a flaming canoe. He will be wearing the sweat-stained, dirty Sox cap his Mom hated so very much.
He also requested that Explosion in the Sky’s entire album, “The World is Not a Cold Dead Place” be played while stories of his mighty life are recounted.
Additionally, all of the women he slept with are asked to be in attendance.
Anyone else can come, too, I guess, if they really want.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to Frank’s favorite charity, the Help, I Was Such an Idealist and Decided to Become a Journalist and Now I’m Poor Foundation. The collection point is Frank’s old desk at 24 N. Hanover St, Pottstown, Pa.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by whoever wants to get rid of a canoe.
 The world mourns

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Polka, a three-legged goat and filthy, filthy rap lyrics


          My Sly Fox Brewery Goat Race coverage began with me driving and having to turn around in a senior center’s parking lot on my quest for parking. I was blaring my latest kick, Childish Gambino’s song "Bonfire," with the windows down. Several people walking into the building slowly turned around and stared at me as they obviously heard the music coming from my car, of which the lyrics are absolutely filthy.
            I knew from that moment that this would be a good day.
            After successfully finding a parking space, I walked past the Wendy’s toward the parking lot for the shopping center that Sly Fox’s brewpub stands in.
            What immediately greeted me were tables set up for beer pong and a few games of beanbags.
            Things were definitely looking up.
            In what was quickly becoming a theme of being progressively surprised with better and better things, I happened upon a stage in the middle of the lot where four men and a woman dressed in Bavarian beer hall garb cranked out polka music.
            Coming from the University of Wisconsin with the tradition of the 5th Quarter, where polka music is featured prominently after games, I was absolutely thrilled to listen to Emil Schanta and his band for a little while.
Other traditions
            In a thoroughly good mood, I moved through the crowd to an area near the parking lot’s end that had been cordoned off for the actual racing of the goats. People were already gathered on the macadam there and on a green, wooded rise just off of the parking lot’s end.
            Because I was tasked with taking video for the event, I decided to get there before the racing started so I’d have a good position.
            That good position turned out to be standing in a bush.
If you look really hard, just a little of my elbow is visible in the one on the right.
            Firmly planted in the bush, I waited for the races to start. I’d noticed earlier while walking around that there were a lot of dogs out and about, though I’d yet to see a goat.While waiting in the bush, a fairly large dog knocked me in the back of the knee, almost causing me to fall.
            It was basically the same deal as when I, as my sisters’ older brother and rightful tormentor, will tap the back of their knee with my foot when they’re walking down the hall so that I can watch them suddenly crumple to the floor.
            Turning around to see what kind of dog it was, I found that a goat, being towed toward the starting line, was the culprit.
            It was then that I realized goats are much larger than I anticipated.
Trust me, they're big. This photo is deceptive.
            After that, the goats, generally fighting their “goat coaches” the whole way, streamed toward the line.
            It wasn’t long before the races began. I thought the goats would be sort of shooed toward the other end of the line.
            That’s not how it works.
            What I discovered is that goats do not voluntarily race.
            Instead, their “goat coaches” run ahead of them with dog leashes attached and basically lead the goats by example, prompting them to run by running themselves.
            However, some goats, maybe even most goats, still don’t want to run.
            In that case, their coaches will do everything they can to make them move, tugging on the leashes, pushing their behinds, even picking them up and running them to the line.
            One girl even tried dancing ahead of her goat.
It was slightly less sensual than this....because there was a goat there.
            As such, what I concluded is that to win a goat race, one’s goat doesn’t necessarily have to be the fastest but, actually, the most willing to run.
            Apparently, the goat most willing to run Sunday was also the most unlikely if you were to look at it.
            Peggy is missing one of her hind legs. However, Peggy was also a champion in 2011.
            Coming into the event, I figured I’d just poke around for an hour or so then leave and get done writing obituaries early for the day.
            But my enjoyment of the event as a whole deep-sixed that plan.
            And when I heard the crowd chanting Peggy’s name, I suddenly found myself invested in who was winning. Watching her green-shirted coach running in each heat, I willed him to the line, not necessarily for the goat's benefit, but because everyone around me seemed to want her to win so badly.
            For the final few races, I couldn’t even see the goats. I just watched their coaches running, the goats beneath them obscured by the crowd. I stood next to the polka stage so that I could hear the results of each heat clearly and record them.
              As such, I was standing next to the wooden case for the band’s brass instrument man. That spot smelled so much of pine wood and beer that I was transported back to the Essen Haus, a favorite bar in Madison.
             With my excitement at a pinnacle for the race and such a happy memory on my mind, I was going nowhere.
             Eventually, in a close finish, Peggy was declared the second, all-time repeat champion of the goat races. She was feted before the stage and mobbed by a crowd as if she were  Lindsay Lohan walking out of a McDonald’s.
I met her dad once. That's a different story. Back to goats...
            I didn’t stay long after the final race. I thought about buying a beer but eventually decided that if I couldn't find a manager to interview and possibly get a free one, I might as well forget it.
            All in all, I enjoyed that assignment tremendously. It seemed like a throwaway, especially since I wasn’t scheduled to write an article for it, but it was a blast. I’m already looking forward to next year.
            In the meantime, I’m hoping there’s something similar to spend a Sunday on.
            Maybe llama racing outside Craft Ale House?
            A boy can dream.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Little Talks


            Another post, another song title.
            Talking to a college friend a few nights ago, she asked me something simple: “How do you interview people? What questions do you ask them?”
            Part of the reason why I do this blog is to allow readers a glimpse into my job, how a person like me in the media works and thinks.
            This is probably as good an opportunity as ever to explain that.
            The absolute first thing that came to mind about how I interview was one word: “importance.”
            It seems no matter what my interview is for, I’m asking “How important” something is or “What’s the importance” of that.
            Those probably seem like cheap questions, but I like leading interviews off with them. The word “importance” denotes “importance,” even if my question itself is pretty dull.
            When a person hears me ask what is “important” about what they’re doing, why they’re doing something, or where they are, they think a little harder about what they’re saying, look to add some extra pertinence to their words.
            It’s cheating.
            But I don’t mind cheating.
You do what you have to do to win strip poker.
            A tic I noticed that I have is using the phrase, “In regard to…” Whenever I try to direct an interview a certain way, it seems like those words pop out of my mouth.
It probably makes me sound like my thoughts are much more gathered than they are.
However, when interviewing people, on average, my mind is less than calm.
I’m something of a shy person, naturally. As such, walking up to or calling a person I’ve never met before in my life makes me a little nervous.
 STRANGER DANGER....and this sign is definitely a little sideways.
Because of that, when I interview someone, the words that come out of my mouth sound relatively calm, if not slightly disjointed at times.
In my mind…
...Less so.
One of the fun things about this job, though, is when you’re very knowledgeable on a subject that another knows well, too. That’s when my mind is quietest and an interview just becomes an enjoyable conversation.
Of course, however, enjoyable is not the word to describe some interviews.
There are standard questions that go with any interview certain matters, usually the types of things you’d describe as “incidents.” The list of questions takes a little while to remember, and occasionally I’ll forget to ask one or two, but the questions or their spirit change very little for “incidents.”
These usually aren’t the fun interviews, especially if you absolutely need something they absolutely don’t want to tell you.
For those cases, and many others, especially when I’m on the phone, politeness seems to go a long way.
Generally, I’m a good-natured person, I think. As such, I try to be as friendly as I can be in interviews. When you’re with someone that is smiling...
Him
...you’re going to be much more likely to speak to them than that scowling, unshaven guy.
Not him
However, I will admit, sometimes that good-naturedness runs out. I can’t stand it when a source won’t tell me something that everyone obviously already knows. I understand the people that are following the chain of command. They have to protect their jobs.
But I’m not particularly fond of those charged with spinning the news that stall or withhold information that is clear to anyone and everyone.
In one now-infamous moment, I politely thanked the P.R. person that had just blown me off, then slammed the phone and yelled something. I don’t remember exactly what I yelled, but it was completely uncensored and contained at least two f-words, one with a “mother” attached to it, and was capped with “B.S.”
Whatever it was, it was Samuel L. Jackson-esque.
Those frustrations aside, interviewing people can be fun. As I’ve already stated in an earlier blog post, people interest me. And there’s no better way to come across the idiosyncrasies of humanity than to talk with people.
I’ve talked to a fairly wide variety of people, between grieving family members of a shooting victim, lifeguards in 100 degree heat, Lindsay Lohan’s dad and national-level politicians.
My cousin’s son, Owen, who’s 8-years-old, really thinks it’s cool that I interview people for a living.
Almost every time I see him, he asks me to interview him.
I usually oblige, asking him questions like, “Why are you so short?”  and “In regard to the shirt you’re wearing, are the Phillies your favorite team?” and “What is the importance of your little brother’s birthday party?”
What made him so fascinated with my job, with interviewing people, can be traced to one moment: when I told him about the time I interviewed a handful of the Philadelphia Eagles’ cheerleaders for a feature story.
If I interviewed Ryan Howard or Jaromir Jagr, I’m not even sure if he’d be as interested.
 Maybe Spongebob, though. Maybe.
Every time I see Owen, before he asks me to interview him, he grins and asks if I’ve “talked to any cheerleaders lately.”
As such, outside of being a pro baseball player, I have an 8-year-old boy’s dream job. I don’t think that’s so bad.