….my last confession was….well, a long time ago.

but i need to be honest here, that’s how i get forgiveness, right?

well, on Day Two of the no-TV experiment, I stumbled a little. I watched a couple of You Tube videos and was lured, I tell you, to watch a little bit of TV. How could I resist the legendary Iggy Pop as he was asked, straightfaced, by the equally legendary Tom Waits, if he wanted to go to Taco Bell in the movie “Coffee and Cigarettes.”

It was actually worth it to see Iggy (or is it Pop?) attempt to suppress a laugh and reply, “You callin’ me a Taco Bell kind of guy?”
The idea of these two walking into a Taco Bell together would have been fun to see. But, alas, it did not come to pass.

And, I caught a few moments of the trippy sci-fi film, “Sunshine,” when I was asked to take a look at the screen and guess which movie it was.

I repented by blaring “Peggy Sussed,” the incongruous, but wonderful electronica piece that opens up the closing credits..

In fact, music has been sort of a solace. When you share quarters with a TV fanatic, as I do, obeying this experiment’s rules can be difficult.

As a kid, I remember our priest, Father Dittman, telling us that if we had an impure thought, we should replace it with a good one and God will forgive us. (I think he was telling us hormone-charged seventh graders not to think about sex, but I was a late bloomer and missed the point until years later.)

So, I’ve taken the old priest’s words to heart this time and whenever I think about watching TV, I’ll soothe myself with music. In a weird way.

For instance, all this talk about “Family Guy” made me think about the funny part of an episode where Peter goes to the Sweaty Clam gym and these two Hanz-and-Franz guys talk about proper nutrition. Then they bust out into song, “Steak and Eggs and eggs and steak, that’s what we’re having for breakfast (delicious)….”
I wanted to pull up the clip and sing.

Instead, I’ve walked around the house, singing it, instead. (I’d post the clip, but that’s a violation)

And yesterday, when I was looking up some music clips to recommend to a friend, I stumbled upon a clip of Jeff Tweedy (lead singer of Wilco) and his son, on the tour bus. It’s from Sam Jones’ excellent Wilco documentary, “I am Trying to Break Your Heart.” The moment was lovely, but I had to atone — again.

So, I put on the headphones and cranked up the album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”

Today will be better as I go to school all day. The night poses a problem, but I’ll try to stay strong.

Pardon the pun, but, stay tuned.

the experiment

Posted: 02/20/2010 in teaching

I am teaching a course called Mass Communication and Society this semester. There are 52 people enrolled. It is held in a dark, semi-depressing lecture hall that smells vaguely of a wet basement. And, it is located in another college, making it sort of an unpleasant place to be when it is cold and raining, which it has been so far this semester.

But each Thursday, I summon my skills and attempt to be entertaining and funny (which I am good at) and figure out a way to engage this group. Luckily, I already know many of the people in the class. They’re sort of groupies (we all get them) who take as many courses with me as they can. Sometimes that familiarity can become a toxic stew of personalities as people jokingly heckle me or the loud ones who overwhelm the quieter ones.

Well, this past Thursday, everyone — even my quiet ones — took note when I assigned their first mini-project.

The mini-project is my way of assessing how they think, write and interpret what we’re learning. Rather than assign a 10-page research paper, I devised this way to achieve the same ends and hopefully make it better on them and me. There are four of these assignments.

The assignment?

For five consecutive days, they are not to watch TV or videos.

I knew it would be a tough sell, but the looks of shock and cries of disbelief were hard to take.

One of them said she uses TV to help her sleep at night. Another said she is a YouTube “addict.” Another complained that the Olympics are on. Still another deduced that we couldn’t have current events in next week’s quiz because they couldn’t watch TV. Nice try, but what about radio, newspapers or the Internet.

The purpose of this exercise? To see what else you can do with the time you would otherwise be spending watching TV or videos online. Would they pick up a book? Spend more time interacting with people? Or cave in?

Midway through this discussion, an idea popped in my head: as an act of solidarity, I would give up TV/video with them.

Of course, I didn’t tell them that I am not a big TV-watcher. In fact, I mainly just listen to it in the background while I do other things. But, I do have a few programs I watch and enjoy finding some decent movie on HBO or Showtime in the evenings. Maybe it would be harder than I thought.

I decide to start today because I knew I had to watch the season premiere of Bill Maher’s show last night.

Here I am on Day 1: No TV in the morning, no problem. But, dang, there are a LOT of videos online. Blogs, news sites, Facebook all have videos. I never realized this was such a commonplace thing. My fingers twitch. No. No. No.

I am on Facebook chat when Josh, one of the students in my class and a member of the magazine staff, sends me a message about going to New York City to track down a visiting professor here who is homeless up there. As we bandy the idea around, he sends me a link with a video interview he’d done with the writer.

I almost click on it.

Josh! We aren’t supposed to be watching videos.

He acknowledges this and apologizes.

Then, as I am perusing Facebook, I notice that a few of my students have posted videos on their profiles today, encouraging people to watch.

Ack. When do they plan to start the five-day clock? Or are they aware that this is already a violation of the rules?

I can already see this is going to be a loooong five days.

as someone who has been around the block at least once, i have ceased to care about valentine’s day. of course, it is nice when someone showers you with gifts and flowers, but the real proof is in words and actions.

i have been in love more times than i care to admit. i have been the dumpee much more often than the dumper. and while some breakups have rendered me unable to function for days, my heart managed to go on.

the worst breakup ever (and i had a half dozen viable contenders) had to have been when i was insanely in love with a guy whose ex was seeing my ex. (drama, anyone?) we had a torrid, brief affair that pretty much overshadowed anything i’d been in previously or since. yeah.

but he was tormented by the possibility that his ex, who was now conflicted about my ex, might still be The One.

i returned from 10 days in cuba to three romantic voice mails on my answering machine (this was 1996). i called him back only to find out he was conflicted about his ex.

i was devastated.

worse, he dragged me along while he vacillated between me and the ex.

finally, one thursday night, he came by after work and said he couldn’t be with me anymore. i was planning a romantic dinner and evening with him (stupidly). as he left, i could see him walking down the front path, and i dialed my friend, debbie, who lived in north miami beach. i told her i needed to see her and explained what had happened.

i packed a bag, planning to stay the night. i couldn’t BE in my house that night for the memories.

i got to her place, a high-rise condo near the bay, and she’d summoned joanne, another friend who lived in the building. i’d sheltered joanne months earlier when her live-in boyfriend fell in love with someone else while in haiti on assignment.

we sat up all night, drinking cuban rum and eating chocolate.

the next day, i called in sick. i couldn’t bear the idea of having to work. i stayed at debbie’s another night and finally mustered the wherewithall to return home.

many, many years later, the guy who shattered my heart rekindled our friendship. he has apologized again and again and i have forgiven him. he didn’t end up with his ex, either.
but it still makes my heart hurt when i think about that period of my life.
***********************************************

then, there has been great romance or something.

in 2001, i went to cuba in july, before starting grad school. i took the train across cuba to santiago de cuba.
while there, an acquaintance from the train, a british girl named paula, and i hung out at casa de la trova.

casa is a renowned club there that hosts bands all day and night.

during the day, the old people come out and dance to the classics and at night, a younger crowd inhabits its unremarkable building.

the first night we were there, we were listening to a band and i saw this man with a beautiful face and incredible brown eyes. it was like something out of the movies: we searched for each other when the group had a break. he reminded me of a young george harrison, with a fine, thin nose and high cheekbones. he was black and had short drealocks (santiago is closer to jamaica than any other country, so this cultural thing was the norm).

paula (who was tall and black and looked like a native, but spoke zero spanish) managed to attract a lot of guys. she indicated that i was interested in this guy in the band.

well, before i knew it, her admirers were dragging this poor guy over to me.

it was a little embarrassing.

still, it was something i will never forget.

his name was ednar, and his nickname was piki (short for “pequeno,” or little). he was about 5-feet-5, which was nice for me, as i am 5-feet-3.

my spanish was miraculously good. we hung out that night, the next day and the night after.

the final night before i had to go back to havana, we went to a party with his friends. i told him i had to be home by 11 because the people i was staying with might worry.

we kissed and kissed.

then he said the most romantic thing any man has ever said to me:
quiero tenerte

to translate it into english does no good. it means “I want to have you,” but it has a deeper meaning in spanish.

i wanted him, too, but held back.

that was the last time i ever saw him.

but the memory of him still remains.

if you lurved, lurved, lurved “avatar,” then just keep going. nothing to see here.

i am among the last 10 people on the planet to finally see the damned movie today. i didn’t know really what to expect, except there were these weird-looking blue people living in some utopian other world. i had also heard how some people fell into depression after realizing that the make-believe world didn’t really exist.

ohhhhhhkayyyyy….

so, i settled in with my popcorn and soda and 3-d glasses and got sucked into the film.

the protagonist, a wheelchair-bound marine who is sent to pandora in place of his dead twin, is a likeable average dude.

and then we meet the rest of the characters: the nerdy buddy-sidekick, the tough on the outside, but warm and fuzzy broad with whom he reports to, the military commander who’s so tough he looks like he’d consume nails for extra iron and the smarmy little business dude who has no moral compass.

the problem is, none of these characters ever really grows or changes beyond their idiotic cartoony persona.

that was annoying, but not nearly as annoying as when the smarmy guy tells our soldier, with a straight face that they’re on pandora to mine for the biggest supply of “unobtainium.” i laughed aloud.

seriously, it was like that scene in “thank you for smoking” when rob lowe’s character is pitching an idea to the PR guy about how to have people smoke in space. PR guy is like, “wouldn’t they explode in space?”
and lowe’s character replies, “it’s an easy fix…thank god we invented the whatever device.”

and while the film was beautiful and fairly compelling, it just couldn’t rise above the incredibly over-simplified stereotypes.

you finally get to the point where you can figure out how it’s going to end and then it takes another drivelly hour to get there.

how this was nominated for best picture is beyond me.

for my money and time, i’ll vote for cameron’s ex-wife, kathryn bigelow’s film “hurt locker.” there is a wonderfully drawn cast of characters you can really care about and are surprised by. shit blows up in this movie, too, but it’s not gratuitous and silly as in “avatar.”

i didn’t hate this movie, but i don’t see where everyone is all lathered up about it, much less feeling depressed because they can’t exist in this fantasyland.

The France

Posted: 01/10/2010 in Uncategorized

It was the only time I took an apartment, sight unseen.

I accepted a job in Stuart, Fla. and didn’t have the resources to spend looking for a place to live. Artie, the frosted-blonde office manager in the bureau where I’d be working (in Port St. Lucie), mentioned that I should try The France because a lot of other reporters lived there. She described it as “ticky-tacky” and affordable.

This was in the days before the Internet, so I called down to Florida and found Dave, the landlord. We discussed whether he had any openings and yes, he did. Rent was like $375. He said something about it not having an elevator or air conditioning.

I had no concept of what I was agreeing to, having lived in Cincinnati all my life, up to that point. Cincinnati has wicked humid summers, but seldom did I use a/c. In fact, I didn’t even have a/c in my car, a little, black Honda CRX (it looks like a pregnant rollerskate and only came with a stick shift. I wanted the car so much I learned how to drive stick and have never gone back)

So, it was the end of July and me, my sister, her friends Adrian (from South Africa) and his friend, Josh, made the trek to Florida in one push. Laura and Josh drove the Hertz rental truck with my possessions and Adrian and I took turns driving my car because we were the only ones who could drive stick.

Saying goodbye to my mom was probably the hardest part of the trip. She didn’t want to watch as the truck pulled out, so she left before we did. We left at 11 pm on a Thursday and drove through Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. We got to the Florida state line by midday. We pressed on five hours more and took the Turnpike exit for Stuart. Dave had provided me with detailed instructions and they were perfect. We pulled onto St. Lucie Crescent (the street’s name) around 5:30 pm.

The building was 1920-ish, three stories high and was surrounded by palm trees. In back, there was the St. Lucie River and bunches of sailboats. It was a world away from home. The guys hung back to unfasten the rental van while my sister and I opened the side screen door on the building.

We ran up the two flights of steep stairs, carpeted with something ancient and worn. We came to a landing and started looking for my apartment. It was way on the opposite side of this vast building and next to an old-fashioned dumbwaiter. (an elevator for heavy items)

There was a screened door and then a wooden door, which Dave had left unlocked for me. I think the key was inside somewhere. The place had hardwood floors, a huge, screened porch with French doors that opened out to it. The bathroom had a great tub and a shower with water spigots that had tremendous pressure.

It was perfect.


neighbors
I soon discovered that I lived directly across the hall from Joe, whose job I was taking because he got hired by the Palm Beach Post. The biggest dilemma was that he still had the same beat: Port St. Lucie City Hall, which was also my beat. I’d be competing against the guy I replaced. It was daunting.

There would be nights one of us would get home later than the other and immediately get paranoid about whether one of us had scooped the other. He definitely got me a few times, but I am happy to say I was able to kick his butt, too.

But, while the competition was fierce, we were able to put it behind us when not working.

Plus, The France was like an Old Reporters Home as reporters and photographers from The Miami Herald, The Post, my paper and The Fort Pierce Tribune, as well as Channel 5 and 12 lived there. Journalists easily made up the vast tenant pool.

On weekends, we became a friendly tribe, wandering to Mahoney’s, the (authentic) Irish pub that featured soups and chowders made to order in small, individual pots, or to Conchy Joe’s on Jensen Beach (arguably one of the most original seafood joints, Caribbean style) or down to West Palm Beach to dance our asses off at Respectable Street Cafe. The latter was one of my favorites because we’d leave around 10, get there by 11 and stay until 4 and get home at 5. They played the best alternative dance music and it just had a great vibe. (Those who know me now will laugh when they see I had nights that lasted til the wee hours, but it was a different time.)

On any given night, you could cross the hall or go up or down a flight and knock on a friend’s door and just hang out. It was a magical time of my life, as it was the first time I’d really lived away from home.
Transitions are tough
I would be lying if I said the move to a brand new place where I previously knew no one was easy.

There were days at work when I’d be driving around, I’d start feeling lost and lonely and start crying. I can remember pulling over on the side of the Florida Turnpike to whip out my calling card at a pay phone (this was pre-cell phones, people) to call my mom or some of my friends from back home.

There were times when I believed I’d made a mistake.

But, this is part of growing up and I persevered and became stronger because of it.

What the place really means
Since then, I have managed to stay in touch with those friends from The France. It’s funny, but all of us agree there hasn’t been anything like it before or since.

We all kind of miss it, even though if we all lived there now, as the people we became, it wouldn’t be the same.

Maybe we were all coming of age together, as peers, figuring out how to be adults and live on our own in a new world. I also think working in the same field kept us close. Journalists are weird people and most people don’t understand the joy of staying at work late and getting up early the next day because you don’t know what will be happening next. I also think it was the shared experience of living literally under the same roof that made it different.

And that shared experience forged a bond I will likely never know again.

PS, I even created a Facebook group called, “I lived at The France…or know someone who did.” You can see it here.

I blame it on my friend, Joe, an ex-competitor/friend from Florida.

We got going about the current cold snap on Facebook and he reminisced about spending the night during December 1989 in an orange grove, with a farmer who was trying to keep his grove from freezing by burning fire in a barrel.

When I got the news that the Arctic Front of Doom was swooping down upon us this week, I decided to try and document the event. I borrowed one of the cameras from my photojournalism class, along with the new zoom/macro lens.

On Friday, I drove out and found a horse in a pasture, wearing a red blanket. I pulled off to the side of the road and got out. The horse got excited about seeing a person and started toward me. I didn’t want to spook her, so I just stood there quietly, trying to frame my shot.

She moved toward a hay bale and looked at me. I focused and shot.

The camera told me I needed a new battery pack.
Thwarted!

I went home and along the way, encountered some sleet. Great.

Charged the battery and forged back out later. Looked for the horse, but she was gone. Drove further through orange grove country and decided I should turn around. I was hoping for dudes flanking fire barrels, but there was nothing of the sort.

I turned down a road to turn around and the truck behind me stopped. I saw a window roll down. Great. I turned around and rolled down my window.

“Hi. Can I help you?” I asked.

“Just wanted to know if you are lost,” the guy said.

“Nah, I know where I am,” I replied confidently.

And then I drove off, remembering the time when I rode my bike through the black neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale. Unemployed men drinking beer and hanging out on their front porches jeered at me, “You lost, GAL?”

I smiled and laughed and assured them I knew where I was.

Damn, so much for transparency.

This morning, I got up around 7ish and drove out east, in hopes of finding people saving their crops. It was 25 degrees. I didn’t see much, so I returned home, only to find a patch of ice on my driveway that I photographed.

Later today, bored and wanting to see what else was going on (we journalists like to be on the pulse of society.), I took the camera and drove out to Mission, which is on the Mexican border.

I found a spot that overlooked the Rio Grande. For some reason, I am fascinated by looking at Mexico from here. It was a drawing card when I got here and still intrigues me.

So, I parked at the bottom of this levee that overlooked the river. I found a great vantage point and the light was sweet.

I clicked.

The camera told me there was no card.

Fuck.

I felt like the World’s Biggest Idiot. First, going out without a charged battery and then without a card.

I have committed the biggest sins of photojournalism.

At least I’ll be able to warn my students about what not to do.

whining about winter

Posted: 01/07/2010 in Uncategorized

You see, there are four seasons: winter, spring, summer and fall. Unless you live in Way South Texas and then we have Hotter than Hell and Slightly Less Hotter Than Hell.

So, after The Hottest Summer Ever, we are embarking on the Winter From Hell…wait…The Arctic.

And yes, you climate change naysayers, global warming is marked by wildly disparate changes in temperature.

So, today when a pretty serious cold front barged through these parts, you would have thought it was the end of the world. Actually, it started a couple of days ago when people were stocking up on food as if a hurricane were coming.

To be fair, we in South Texas are woefully unprepared for any sort of Weather Situation. When it rains, giant potholes open. When the heat gets to be too much, roads crack. And who knows what would happen if it really did get icy or snowy. Unlike in the northern climes, there is no supply of “grit” (as the British call it), so we’d be left to our own wits to navigate overpasses and country roads.

But what’s really weird is how people up north overreact when weather gets bad.

I grew up in the Midwest, where you trudged around in snow and cold and dealt with it without complaining. I walked to school in below zero weather, went door-to-door, selling Girl Scout cookies in weather that froze my nostrils. When it snowed a lot, our dad would take us to this bigass hill where we’d slide down in an orange plastic saucer sled.

When I was in high school, we got a couple of blizzards that closed school for almost a month, required people to put chains on their tires — all while we were in an energy crisis that required us to keep our thermostats below 68.

Years passed and winters became milder and the memories of those severe winters somehow turned the people back home into a bunch of weather wussies.

Today, they’re getting six inches of snow and before a snowflake fell, schools were closed and events canceled. In the old days, we’d usually go to school until the weather got so bad that we were sent home early.

I blame most of this on the 24-hour news cycle.

Up until the advent of cable news and the Internet, we usually found out about heavy weather via the newspaper, radio or the 6 o’clock news.

Today, even though there are thousands of stories out there, TV fixates on anything with pictures. And what better shooting-fish-in-a-barrel story than the Weather Story? By constantly talking about the Arctic Blast of Doom and some footage of people stocking up on supplies, it turns into a chicken and egg problem where people see this stuff and feel like if they don’t buy into the hype, they’ll be screwed.

I guess if we stepped away from the news cycle and stepped outside and looked at the sky more often, we might be all the better for it.