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.