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.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Lists

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?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Phishing for Love.

I want to take a break from the past few serious posts.

So I drew inspiration from one of the many inane lists I keep around the office.

For whatever reason, I enjoy passing the time between writing and running on spot news in the office by compiling lists of stupid things that I notice during my job.

One of those lists is all the different hold music for different organizations I've heard in the area.

For example, when I called the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, their hold music was a children's xylophone version of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" by Mozart.

The latest list I've come up with stems from the fact that I've been left out of the company's email quarantine program. As a result, I get any and every robo-email sent my way. Some inquire whether I want to sell steel to Mr (insert unpronouncable name) of (unpronouncable company, faraway land that doesn't quite match the name or the company), while others follow the standard Nigerian prince model.

Ever since I covered a bridal expo in Pottstown I've gotten offers from a mail-order bride service in Eastern Europe somewhere about once every two weeks.

But my latest list concerns the endless spam (and probably malware-ridden) offers of medicinal or herbal or technique-based ways to sex people up.

Receiving offers for that kind of stuff is nothing new in the world of spam. What entertains me and what I keep in a list at my desk is the subject lines of these emails. Obviously composed in Google translate, they combine the finest mistranslations of sensuality and Mad Men-esque pitching.

Here they are, in all their glory, with some of my initial reactions to them. 

- "Give your wife better nights of love."

- "Give to your girl happiness."
No BS, they are really leaving the gay market untapped.

- "Attack her for days."
I literally, out loud, said "Ah!" in terror at this one.

- "Don't bury your loving life."
This one could go two ways. It could be about not giving up on your sex life. Or someone is genuinely trying to keep you from burying your wife alive but needs to learn that spell check doesn't solve all problems.

- "Unbelieveable recharging on male healthiness."
According to these emails, constant banging cures any and every ailment...which I subscribe to whole-heartedly.

- "Feel the bottomless enjoyment tonight."
This was another yelp in terror moment.

- "Enlarge your gun."
Believe it or not, for a second, I wondered if this was actually related to trading in for an upgrade on your firearm, like how you get a refresh with your phone plan periodically. You know.

- "No pauses this night."

- "Keep your lady gentrified."
This might be my favorite.

- "I desire you to stay vigorous."
So do I.

- "How differ your nights from each over?"
This one feels less like a Google translate problem and more of someone unable to hide their Cockney accent even in print.

Suddenly, these emails have gone from an annoyance for which I have to mash the "Delete" key to a daily competition for the best.

Really, I'm just turning lemons into lemonade that tries to steal my money by promising me sex with broken English.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Seeing

Earlier this week, I had a break during work and renewed my love/hate relationship with Huffington Post.

I read an article about how more people are changing their attitude toward not just gay marriage, but gay people in general. The article centered around a specific family in which a man's father initially is devastated by his son coming out as gay, then becomes accepting of it (It was really much more engaging than that, but I can't find the article again to save my life, so here's one on a similar note.).

I'm one of those people whose views essentially have done a 180.


For a long time, I didn't think gay people should get married. Looking back, I'm not quite sure why. The only thing that I can come up with, as lame as it is, is that I didn't get it.

I never had anything in particular against gay people. My parents never even really talked about it one way or the other, and with the majority of my friends it just wasn't discussed. Even in church (I'm a Catholic), it wasn't really a talking point.

What my thoughts boiled down to, I think, was I was quietly afraid that the world I grew up in would change.

But sometime a few years ago, during college, I believe, something just clicked.

A radio personality here, Steve Morrison, whose morning show on WMMR I've listened to since middle school, talked about gay marriage during one of those flashpoint days when it boils to the top of the news.

All Morrison said was, "Who would it really hurt?"

I didn't immediately latch onto that, but as more came up in the news, I began to really turn that question over in my mind.

Finally, it just came down to this: "If gay people can get married, does that negatively affect me? Does that negatively affect people close to me? Does that negatively affect most people?"

The answer I came up for to all three was, "No."

Then, I asked myself who is negatively affected when gay people are denied marriage.

A lot of people, including some people I care about, I realized.

Since that thought, my views are different. Allowing gay marriage doesn't change the world, one way or another, I thought. It just allows everyone to enjoy the same rights and, importantly, the same happiness.

As a reporter, I've become very attuned to the fact that bad things happen unexpectedly and a lot. Every day.

And from what I've gathered, when those bad things happen, you need support to get through them, to see them out. A wife or a husband, a family, is a great start to that.

In the end, I just don't feel like denying such a large part of America their potential for happiness makes much sense.

Over the past few days, I've thought whether I'm ashamed of the way I used to think, quietly opposing gay marriage. I don't think I am. I wish I hadn't thought that way, but I think it was just because I didn't understand the issue.

I believe now that I was wrong, but I don't think I was, for lack of a better phrase, intentionally wrong.

Intentionally wrong is what I consider the stance of those that hate the gay community and are just using the marriage issue as another way to rake them over the coals.

What I mean, I guess, is I didn't just keep my eyes shut, like them. I just hadn't seen what I needed to see yet. When I did, my outlook changed accordingly.

And it's my opinion that a lot of America that remains opposed to gay marriage and related gay issues is the same.

I could be completely wrong about that, but I'll choose this moment to shed my characteristic pessimism and hope that everyone soon can see the same things I started to.

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.
            GO BACK AND GET YOUR PAD.
            WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
            WHERE’S YOUR PEN?
            YOU CAN’T LEAVE LIKE THIS.
            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 cocnrete 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.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

When a Stranger Calls

Typically, when you get an unexpected phone call in the newsroom, it's not going to be a tremendously positive experience.

Today, sitting at my desk and trying to decide if I wanted to break for lunch or continue researching an article, the editor that answers our calls transferred one over to me.

I looked over at the number as my desk phone rang.

"(Who the) fuck could this be?" I groaned.

Previous phrases I've used just prior to answering these mystery calls include, "Fuck me," "Oh no," and "What fresh hell is this?"

That last one I used when I saw the area code was from the Harrisburg/York area, part of Pennsylvania's strong Racism Belt.

Among the calls I've gotten in the past were old women trying to explain the difference between "who" and "whom," laughing and chiding us for not having a copy editor (Sidebar: the reason why we don't have a copy editor is because you stopped reading the newspaper and started throwing all the advertisers over to Fox News. That's why, Ethel.), a guy trying to pitch a story, at least five different times, about his trials and tribulations in paying taxes, and one victim's mother screaming at me for identifying her son (after I wrote an article that doesn't identify him).

Today's caller, however, started off calmly. The man sounded middle-aged and he spoke in a metered fashion.

His calm actually made me edgy.

He wanted to tell me about a story I'd recently written about some drug dealers. He said I was wrong in the story.

If anything sets me off, it's when someone tells me I'm wrong. I don't know why, maybe it's that I put so much effort into everything I write for publication, but it just bothers me to no end when someone comes after me, professionally.

The man began telling me what he thought was wrong. He said I had attributed a past charge to one of the defendants that didn't belong to him.

"Listen, who are you?" I asked before slipping, "Because, if I'm supposed to believe you, I don't know who the hell you are."

"I'm the father of (the defendant)," the man replied, still calm, almost friendly.

"Oh...okay," I replied.

After checking through the documents, I found out that the guy was right. One of the charges I attributed to the defendant actually belong to a guy with the same name but who was much older.

Seeing I had made a mistake, I thanked the man and told him I'd write a correction right away.

The defendant's father said he'd been going through paperwork from the court and that another part of my story, where I said police found a quantity of one of the drugs in the apartments, was wrong, too.

"All they found was those little, you know...roaches. You know those little things they smoke," he said.

I checked through and told him, according to the information from police, there was indeed the drug at the apartment.

Typically, this is the point where the person on the other end would get overly emotional and tell me the police were lying or incompetent or both.

"Oh, well I guess I have to read more, then," the man replied, still holding his nearly friendly tone.

I was stunned. I thanked him again for bringing my error to my attention. I couldn't think of what else to do. Then I wished him and his son "good luck," because, once again, I didn't know what to do.

"Oh, thank you," he said, his voice now actually breaking the threshold to friendliness. "Well, you know, this is one of those things. He's being a knucklehead and he's young and this is one of those things he has to work through. He'll get straight."

In that moment, the man's father sounded very much like a Cliff Huxtable talking about Theo. Except Cliff would've been talking about Theo dealing cocaine.

Cocaine was the drug by the way. Might as well say it now.

In any case, I wished him "good luck" again and hung up the phone.

A little later, I went back to the court docs window I'd opened. Looking at the names, I realized the defendent in the cocaine dealing case was a junior. The man I'd confused the charge with was a senior. Same name.

Apparently the father of the defendent, who I'd just talked to, read the paper, saw his past criminal charge listed and said, "Oh, shit, that's me. I'd better call to straighten that out."

Nice guy, though.