Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Common Atrocity

When the teenage demons killed so many of their classmates at Columbine, the very planet quivered. Network news crews invaded the small Colorado town, draped the unthinkable in exquisite lighting and cued up their theme music’s most plaintive cut. Images of kids running from their classrooms with hands raised overhead burned their way into the collective consciousness as the universe grieved in glimmering hi-def.

Less than twenty years later, such an unthinkable act has become commonplace. The fleeing students, panicking parents and crouched cops are all part of a new palette, just another template for broadcasters to tweak. These days, when news of a classroom mass-killing breaks, the globe shrugs. Numbed citizens reach for their phones to offer ‘thoughts and prayers’ while politicians run for cover. Gun-control advocates and their well-armed foes tussle over who’s to blame and TV preachers crawl out from under their rocks to pass the plate. Back at home, most of us wish it would all just go away so we could get back to bingeing our favorite guilty pleasure.

You probably have strong opinions as to why these kind of mass shootings keep happening. I certainly have mine. But it’s not access to pistols or prayers that I’m focused on tonight. It’s passport to tragedy. I was at Virginia Tech in the hours and days that followed that senseless killing and the hollowed expressions worn by the folks I found there will never leave me. Losing a loved one in such a way is punishment enough. Being goaded by a hungry press for a bite-sized reaction is, sadly, something I’ve learned to stomach. Of course, in 2018, you don’t need a news crew to gorge on calamity. Smart phones are everywhere (and everything) these days. Before the madman’s muzzle even stopped recoiling, the sights and sounds of his evil acts are already streaming for the world to see.

I don’t pretend to have any answers. You should be wary of those who do. I just know that I never want to rush to the scene of a massacre again. I don’t want to stick my lens into any more shell-shocked faces, don’t want to pry details from people who’ve yet to process abomination, don’t want to profile grieving parents or question breathless bystanders ever again. Chances are, though, I’ll have to, and without a doubt, you’ll watch. In fact, you’ll lean into your screen and witness more than you really want to. It’s human nature, after all. But at what point do we put aside our voyeuristic vices and start asking the hard questions that may one day quell this uniquely American monstrosity?

I guess now is still not the time…

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

News Crew Winter Olympics

Like you, I’ve been cracking out on the Winter Olympics and while I’ve thrilled at the sight of young athletes pushing themselves to the extreme, I can’t help but wonder what the games would look like if they let MY PEOPLE compete…

Laptop Luge - Photog straps self onto a rickety contraption made of old TV antennas, clenches wi-fi hotspot thingie between teeth and slides down an icy embankment while editing a minute-fifteen news story on an outdated laptop. Points scored only if news story successfully uploaded by time of inevitable crash. Story coherence of no concern. Extra points awarded if antenna-sled deemed reusable.

Cross-Country Schlep - Endurance event in which a young MMJ physically carries the entire contents of a chief photog's news unit across a frozen wasteland pockmarked with old fast food bags and broken glass. Extra points awarded if MMJ manages to live tweet entire journey. Dropped gear and/or any uploaded horizontal selfies equal automatic disqualification.

Squirreling - Doubles event in which two TV News photographers scramble across semi-frozen pond while sliding 70's era camera batteries back and forth to each other. Photogs must do so while cradling cell phone between ear and shoulder as disembodied voice quizzes them on their progress. Points deducted for overt swearing. First photog to reach shore with most batteries wins. Any medals earned will be presented to anchors back at the station.

Freestyle Skating - 'Seniors' event in which aging noon anchors navigate an indoor course consisting of rotting office cubicles, bored co-workers and broken Keurig machines. Points scored by number of self-serving anecdotes shared with co-workers. Judges can reward extra points if said competitor distracts deskies long enough to miss structure fire scanner traffic.  Infighting encouraged.

News Crew Quadrathlon - Team event in which reporter and photographer are dispatched to four separate counties in a badly-neglected live truck. News Crew must produce two separate stories on two separate subjects and go live(!) a minimum of four times. Crew not allowed to consume heated food during entirety of event and must complete the course at least an hour and a half from starting point... Wait, that's no Olympic Event… that was Tuesday!  

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Snooze at Eleven

I've been working the early morning shift lately and there's a certain proclivity I noticed among all my colleagues...

Morning show people talk about their afternoon naps the way fitness buffs brag about going to the gym:

"I tripped over an ottoman during Judge Judy and laid there for three hours. Totally crushed it!"

"Not me, I plan my naps with military precision. Twelve thirty to four is MY time. The wife gets mad when I take the batteries out of the smoke detectors. She just doesn't understand me..."

"Yeah, well after lunch I was scraping bird crap off my driveway and just lost consciousness. Woke up in the upside down with the kids from Stranger Things circling me on bicycles. At least I think that's what happened..."

Truth is, it takes years of training and sacrifice to master the Midday Face Mash.  Whether you're changing light bulbs, lying face down in the bathtub or on the Skype machine with Aunt Hilda, when the point of collapse approaches, you HAVE to stick the landing. Of course, perfect execution of this age old feat requires silence between the synapses, a looping stupor that other folks have to linger on sketchy street corners to score.  Do it right and you can damn near time travel. Or at least feel like it when you come to hours later with two dimes and a Cheeto stuck to your face.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to wrap myself in blackout curtains and crawl into the attic.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Born to Blurt

A deep dip of the lens to UK cameraman Christian Parkinson for having me on his Image Junkies Podcast. Christian's a tour de force on his own side of the pond and no stranger to life behind the lens. As for our chat, I was sleep-deprived at the time yet happy to be asked to blather. Recent events have left me with that burning urge to write again and I'll take this interview as the kick in the ass I need to get started. Give it a listen if you will, and know that I don't sound quite as Southern inside my own head. Thanks again, Christian. Next time, I promise to know exactly what kind of camera I use. What do you expect from an absent-minded word nerd?

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Tiny Giant

Garlon Pittman was well into his thirties when he met the love of his life. The confirmed bachelor soon married Brenda and, without hesitation, gave her two young sons his last name. How his life must have changed. Richard and I were budding hellions and by the time a third son, Joseph, came along, Garlon's days were no longer his own. 

He never seemed to mind though, guiding his noisy new brood with a firm hand and a wisdom beyond his words. Way back in the 70's, when he knew Richard and I were saving money to buy sleeping bags, he told us to look in his car for a couple of bucks we could have. What we found there were two brand new sleeping bags. It sounds trivial, but to my brother and me, those sleeping bags were launching pads for our imagination, portals to adventure. Garlon understood this, and it remained unclear who took more pleasure from the purchase: us or him. 

For more than 35 years Garlon worked for Sears Roebuck as an appliance repairman. Dishwashers, refrigerators, washers and dryers - he could fix em all. I know this because people from all over Saulston would call him asking fo help on their homemade repairs. I have many memories of him cradling the phone while we ate dinner. You see that white wire, he would say, clip it and attach it to slot B... no not the red wire, the white one. Trouble was, he knew his appliances too well. He’d have that thing fixed and be off the phone before I could finish raking my butter beans into a napkin. 

Garlon believed in the value of hard work and he taught his boys to appreciate it too. We shucked corn, dug potatoes and raked acres of pine straw. I used to swear we had the cleanest ditches in town, because he was always handing me a garden hoe and telling me to go clean out that back ditch. He instilled in his sons a work ethic that benefits us to this very day. 

In the army, Garlon was diagnosed with osteo-arthritis. It would plague him the rest of life, making it painful to move and sometimes impossible to sleep. He suffered mostly in silence. In the early 80’s, alcohol nearly got the best of him. So he went to rehab - long before it was fashionable  - and beat that demon. He came home thicker, quicker and more involved in our lives than ever before.

He and my mother remained married for nearly fifty years. In that time, he herded three unruly punks through adolescence and into full adulthood. Eventually, each son repaid the favor with a gaggle of grandchildren who adored him. I can’t tell you how much fun it was watching the man who once towered over me with a garden hoe sit somewhere low and play with his grand-kids. As the number of grandkids grew, Garlon Pittman grew ever more benevolent, delighting in the family around him and treating Brenda like the blessing she is.

When Garlon passed away Monday, it brought to an end seven years of living with Alzheimer's. It was tough watching him go through that. Our only solace was knowing that Garlon, or as we knew him, Dad, understood just how much he meant to us. He knew because we told him. What went unexpressed was the way in which he somehow made three very different boys grow up to be better men. 

Just like him.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Flirtin' with Irma

If you've ever balanced your microwave oven off one shoulder while stumbling through a two-day car wash, then you know a little of what it feels like to televise a tropical storm. Did I mention the microwave can't get wet? It's a small detail, but one you'll come to dwell on when you're forced to cover a national story with a soaking wet Etch-A-Sketch.

Don't get me wrong. My thirty six hours of discomfort don't even register on the same scale as those truly suffering the cruelties of Hurricane Irma. Whole livelihoods were swept away in South Florida, a region my wife's family calls home. But the suits sent me to Charleston, where what was left of an unfathomable maelstrom took a great big runny dump on The Holy City.

Ace reporter Mark Boyle and I pulled into town 24 hours before Irma did. The hotel was on the waterfront, teeming with fleeing Floridians, but otherwise fine. We laid low, looked at our phones and wrapped my camera in several layers of customized rain covers and uncustomized trash bags. Several bungee cords and half a roll of duct tape later, we were ready for the Great Suckening to come. 

Boy, did it. Monday morning brought with it forty mile an hour winds and the kind of rain they wrote about in The Old Testament. Sure, forty mile an hour winds is but a breeze compared to the Category 5 storm that turned parts of the Caribbean into splinters, but when you're slopping through waist deep water while God sprays a garden hose up your nose, rote comparisons lose their luster.

So too does news-gathering. There's a lingering moment in the car after you've found some high piece of ground to park on and before you dare to open the door. You sit there dreading what's to come, knowing that before you can even get around back to pop the tailgate, every fiber of your being will be soaking wet, your camera lens will fog over and an insidious chafing will threaten to push all thoughts of journalism to the periphery.

But then water bullets pepper your flesh, the wind pins your ears back and the reporter beside you  starts gesturing with his microphone. You can't hear him, but you shoulder your rig anyway, fight your way past all that plastic and sink into the eyepiece. There you find the tiny screen playing back some close-up of a shower door, then you realize your lens is so fogged up you may as well turn the viewfinder off for the duration of your stay.

Not that it matters much. Composition and clarity takes a hit when stop signs threaten to take flight, Sequencing and flair fall by the wayside when utility pole transformers explode overhead. Even focus can falter when that flash flood you're wading through begins to lap at your loins. Me, I go into survival mode, hunching low in the deluge and cursing myself for not paying more attention to all those teachers who told me I could do so much better if only I tried.

But even that fades away as my fingers pucker and my soul threatens to do the same. But who am I kidding? Had you told the eleven year me all the things I would one day do in the name of news, I would have coughed up my favorite Ray Bradbury paperback to go ahead and get started. Now, looking back at age 50, I wonder for not the first time what all those head-long rushes into dirty weather will ever add up to...

I'm guessing trench foot and, quite possibly, a hernia.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Optical Prime

Long before the Apple iLid brought "cornea-cam" to the masses, journalism entities forced underlings to trundle cumbersome equipment from scene to scene. Known for their penchant for pockets and devotion to focus, these "photogs", as they were known, moved surprisingly fast for the 'gear' they carried with them. Comically concerned with such antiquated concepts as color temperature and composition, these rough and tumble types employed a sequential style of editing that today's eye-dart harvesters would find quite confining. What's more, these unsung brutes of the 'evening news' roamed their respective regions in automobiles slathered in slogans so often cited as the broken promises of the pre-Trump Free Information Epoch. 

Though little of their footage survived the Great American Media Purge of 2020, dramatizations of these plugged-in ruffians' plights are suddenly back in vogue. On what's left of Broadway, a new hologram is opening based on these turn of the century journey-persons. Leathery and profane with a freakish reach, these oddballs were said to embody the best and worse of the now forbidden "Fourth Estate". The main character is a particularly pathetic sort who went by that quaintest of nicknames: "Lenslinger".  

We've never heard of him either, but the whole thing is already trending on liver-vision, so good luck avoiding it...