Friday, December 14, 2007

No Joy in Mudville

Loser of the LeagueProfessional baseball is awash in chemical corruption and I cannot force myself to care. Those who know me won’t be surprised, as my reputation among the sports fans of El Ocho is that of a non-believer. I got my reasons. In fact, my disdain for the hippodrome began with the boys of summer and - at the risk of losing my Man Card - I’m prepared to explain why. To do so however, you’re gonna have to climb aboard my Way-Back Machine. Settle in, as I set the dial for the painful Summer of 1978...

At age 11, I had too much hair on my head, thick corrective lenses encased in bus-window frames and a host of other issues. By then I’d lived in the crossroad township of Saulston, North Carolina for more than seven years. My mother had moved my older brother and I there when she remarried in 1970. It was no doubt her hope that Richard and I would find friends among our new rural community, for there were many boys our age that also called eastern Wayne County home. Trouble was, the young men of Saulston weren’t looking to import any compatriots - especially some dork in Coke bottle glasses who read encyclopedias for fun. Certainly I didn’t help matters, what with my shocking lack of athleticism and penchant for polysyllables. Factor in an unfortunate stutter and you have yourself a prime candidate for ostracization. I wasn’t the only kid who ever got picked on, but I was acutely aware of my outsider status. In time, I embraced it.

But that self-realization was a good decade away on the afternoon my well-meaning Mother suggested I try out for the church youth baseball league. After all, we lived right beside the baseball diamond and every other boy my age was itchin’ to take the field. Internally, I grimaced at the notion. Donning a polyester uniform wasn’t going to increase my speed, agility or coordination. If anything, it would only make me more of a target for extended ridicule. I knew this to be true, but being eleven and unsure of most everything else, I acquiesced and suited up. It was a wholly miserable experience.

The new team forming behind the church was a source of great excitement among my peers and as I lined up to play, I feigned both enthusiasm for and knowledge of the game. I should have saved my energy, for as soon as someone tossed a ball my way, I proved my incompetence by never coming close to catching it. Meanwhile, the other boys my age made impossible saves, hurled threaded orbs to and fro, and wrung great distance out of aluminum bats. From day one, I knew I was doomed. See, no one had ever really shown me how to hold a bat, throw a ball, or look cool in those doofy socks. What little instruction I received from my new teammates were couched in scorn, laced with guffaws and swaddled in derision. For the most part I could take it; I was already learning how to deflect mockery with humor and the occasional middle finger. What I could not combat however was the highly-targeted taunts of the Coach himself - a tobacco-spitting jackass we’ll call Mr. Mike.

I’m not sure how an insufferable lout like Mr. Mike came to helm the local church’s youth baseball team, but it obviously came with strict orders to take the new team to some mythical state championship. How else do you explain Mr. Mike’s policy of playing only the athletically gifted and haranguing all others who failed to measure up. I became his favorite target. The man fancied himself a wiseacre and never passed up a chance to pinpoint my many weaknesses. When he wasn’t rolling his eyes at me, he’d send me deep into right field during practice and scoff as he hit a few my way. I returned the favor by missing even the simplest of grounders. The burning spurn of this loathsome authority added to my unease and it showed itself as I entertained the troops with my clumsiness. Miss. Suffer. Repeat

But my practice field exile was all the action I ever saw. In the entire season I suffered in uniform, I did not play a single game. Instead, I wore a steady groove at the end of the bench and learned hard and fast how not to care. My teammates saw this castaway status as clear signal to pile on and within their juvenile repudiation, I watched time stand still. I wasn’t the first kid to suffer childhood ridicule, but as I sat there dressed just like the rest of my teammates, I felt totally alone. That feeling of abandonment crested late in the season during another torturous practice - the only time I was allowed to walk on the field. Mr. Mike was at home plate, calling out players names and batting balls to their various positions. Half-joking he called my name and popped a fly ball to wherever I was daydreaming in right field. Sticking up my oversized glove, I somehow managed to catch the damn thing. Instantly, applause broke out as young and old alike pointed and jeered, stricken with mocking awe that Stewart Pittman had actually caught a ball. Standing there with the unfamiliar weight of an actual ball in my glove, the crowd’s cat-calls and laughter washing over me, I made myself a promise: If I could only get off this cursed ball-field, I would never again take part in any organized sport. Tothis day, I've kept my word.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no victim. Nor am I apparently, a born athlete. But the open hostility of the adults in charge of a bunch of eleven year olds never left me. The following season I refused to go anywhere near the team; choosing instead to spend my time lost in cheap paperbacks, fresh episodes of M*A*S*H and my beloved Steve Martin comedy albums. Today, at age forty, I’ve gotten over the summer of ‘78. I’m even a reluctant sports fan at times, faithfully watching my Carolina Panthers every Sunday - even as they insist on stinking up the joint. As for Mr. Mike, I resisted the urge to cut the brake lines on his pick-up truck and soon forgot about him altogether. Until, that is, a decade later - when I spotted my old tormenter in chief at the Emerald Isle Beach Music Festival. I was a young cameraman working weekends. He was a shirtless drunk, harassing a bikini-clad Budweiser girl easily one-third his age. It was with great precision and glee that I hoisted my lens and pointed it his way. That night, his intoxicated buffoonery dominated my coverage of the popular event. I don’t know that he even cared, but I’d like to think in some small way, it caused him some pain. Now, Play Ball!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Through the Looking Glass

WXII Guy 2 4When I first started humping lenses for a living, I figured I’d missed the revolution. After all, it was 1989. Videotape had long since replaced film as the medium of choice and even my sleepy little affiliate was cuttin’ checks for flashy new betacams. Ever so lovingly I’d place that Sony in the back of my white Ford Bronco, finger the squawk button on the oblong pager hanging off my hip and wonder if newsgathering could get any more futuristic. Convinced it simply couldn’t, I’d climb behind the wheel of that shiny logo mobile, pop in a Whitesnake cassette and drive off feeling like a freakin’ astronaut. Eighteen years later, I look back with no small amount of shame at the acid-washed jeans, the thoroughly shitty music and my naive assumption that broadcasting technology had truly peaked.

Truck EditHad you told me back then that every computer on the planet would be one day be connected, that teenagers with laptops could out perform my station’s control room, that newspaper folk would consider themselves master of the moving image, I’d have probably asked for an introduction to your dealer. No, back in the waning days of the 1980’s, I was simply incapable of grasping the ramifications of the looming techno-renaissance. Besides, I was busy. Consumed with mastering my craft, I set aside any real critical thinking for an extended lesson in street-level data-gathering. Eschewing any and all owner’s manuals, I learned just enough to be fairly dangerous with my fancycam. Like my entire generation of TV news shooters, I was soon editing tape-to-tape by feel, driving live trucks past police barricades and swaggering about the place like I was some kind of one-eyed Jedi.

Austin from FMYBut a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a hologram. Technology caught up. Suddenly college kids could crank out kinescopes on their iMacs, cell phones started sprouting eyes and clunky concepts like the information superhighway gave way to the far sleeker Blogspot-Google-YouTube paradigm. Virtually overnight my breed became dinosaurs. Velociraptors in matching logowear perhaps, but dinosaurs nonetheless. Trouble is, we’re not stumbling off to die. In my medium market alone, there are scads of multitasking action figures, many who can shoot, plot and edit better than I. Past evolution aside, it’s a treacherous landscape for my beleaguered species. Never at the top of the broadcast food-chain, we now stand a good chance of being replaced by bad actors with a fetish for emerging gadgetry. That, I suppose, is the way of things - but I can’t help but wonder what the next generation of news shooters will look like and wether or not a fossilized photog like myself will still be allowed to roam the Earth.

At least there will be no hair metal at the tar pits...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Erecting the Eclectic

By quarter to noon, I was on story idea number 42. Okay, maybe not 42, but after h-o-u-r-s of phone tag, two Krispy Kremes lifted from the break room and heaps of derision from my assistant news director, I’d pretty much lost count. In the parlance of the newsroom, my assignments ‘fell through’. Instantaneous investigations, gauzy feel goods, an early angle on last minute shopping; every notion I tried to shore up with a few phone calls collapsed under the scantest of inspections. Few things are more demoralizing - especially when giddy superiors are taking side bets on what urban myth I’d eventually be forced to televise. Scrunching down in my news cube, I worked the horn like a sinking sailor, but every story idea drifted just out of reach, Dead in the Water. Other terms I learned in the Navy drifted through my mind as Bateson ambled by. “What up, Stew? No band camps to cover?” Smiling weakly, I shot the Canadian an international digit as yet another PR flack told me my producers were high on paint fumes. I didn’t doubt that, but if I couldn’t conjure up something to point a camera at, I might find myself part of that scrum at the City’s insipid crime meeting later in the day. Debriefed, beaten and nearly defeated, I slumped in my chair and pulled up the Led Zeppelin clip on YouTube. Page and Plant were just getting sweaty when, for probably the twenty-fifth time this morning, the cell phone on my hip began to vibrate. Never taking my eyes off the Hammer of the Gods, I flipped open the phone without much thought.

"Yeah, hi - this is Lisa over at Glenwood. I know this is last minute, but the art students are putting up sculptures in the park ---"

"Sculptures in the park? SCULPTURES IN THE PARK? Hells bells, lady - why didn’t you say so?"

At that point I lost track of all dialogue as familiar convulsions racked my body. Scribbling down the address, I thanked my savior and hung up on her in mid-sentence. Bounding from my desk, I couldn’t resist a victory lap, so I ran up and down the aisles of el Ocho’s newsroom like a jacked up housewife on the Price is Right.

Of course it didn’t really get weird until I lost my tube-top.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Reflections On Ice

Dirty News(Via Ed Cone) Though its hard to fathom on this oddly balmy evening, the Great Ice Storm of Aught-Two was five years ago today. I’ve not the words to express how much it sucked. Neither do I possess total recall of how much ice fell, how long whole towns went without power or how many insipid live shots I personally thrust upon this unplugged populace. What I do remember is a dull throb, an unending ache caused by marathon shifts, unmatched frozen socks and a wife who wanted to strangle me for not being Paul Bunyan. It was not my finest hour. But then again, what would you expect from some joker from the coastal plains? Besides the hallucination that was boot camp, I’d never seen an ice storm do what it do. How was I supposed to know frozen water weighs down tree branches until they snap power lines and erase civilization as we know it? Hell, where I come from the quarter inch of snow that spawns all that mass insanity is pretty much a puddle by noon. Here in the Piedmont, that crap can stick around for days - weeks even! You’d think by age 35, I’d have been better versed on the whims of Mother Nature, but that crazy bitch nearly froze me solid sixty months ago and I ain’t forgot about it yet.

Being a proud Southerner and all, I got no business driving on ice - but since there’s a logo on my soul I didn’t have much choice. No sooner had dawn broke over the frigid moonscape that was my neighborhood did my cell phone begin to overheat. Thus began my indoctrination into the driving arts; a crash-free course in keeping all manners of two-wheel drive news vehicles betwixt the ditches. I’m not saying I could last up North, but after slinging nasties across the tri-county region without breaking any glass, I feel pretty good about my intrinsic skidability - even if I do insist on yahooing like Bo and Luke Duke anytime the back tires lose traction. Man, reporters hate that.

Speaking of reporters, they got it doubly rough during winter weather. After all, they have to appear coiffed and capable during all that team smotherage - whether they’re kicking at the icy sidewalk on cue or trotting out one of those oversized thermometers. All I gotta do is get the two of us to said remote location, find a spot where drooping power lines won’t zap us both, throw juice to the retractable mast, drag all manners of gadgets onto the tundra, plug ’em in, establish a signal, toss some light onto the subject and try not to cough up any bile when the anchors gush all over my partner for toughing it out there on the ice. I knew I should have studied harder in school!

Still, no amount of education will help when the only thing between you and home is extended live coverage from the most blizzard-stricken spot a building full of warm housecats could come up with. Worse yet, my own home was among the power-free; a condition not unnoticed by my lovely bride. When I did drop by the house that first afternoon, I found her tacking up blankets across doorways, shoving logs into the fireplace and cursing yours truly for allowing the children to freeze while I cavorted with my camera God knows where. Glancing out the window, I noted that if the kids were cold it was because frozen slush was getting in their snowsuits as they and their sleds sped downhill. Yeah, we laugh about it now, but I can assure you the passing housecat enjoyed more wifely body warmth that night than your badly shivering lenslinger.

Ya know, I think I’d prefer working a couple of hurricanes to a single ice event. And considering this, that’s saying something.

Hippie McLensquint

The Mullet and the Squint I cant remember the last time I dug up a mullet photo for you all to enjoy, but since the humiliation of hockey hair knows no season, it still feels like yesterday. However after viewing the God like follicles of the now cleanly shorn Rick Portier, I felt it was time again to join the big-haired fray. Thus, I submit the above offending frame, suitable for your Monday morning mockery. Laugh all you want; I was free back then. Sure, I don’t remember everything from way back then, but I clearly recall the milieu of said photo-op. It was a chilly spring afternoon in 1990. I’d just gotten off from my nifty new job at the TV station and was kicking back with some fellow slackers at Greenville’s Town Common. Frisbees were in the air, Jane’s Addiction was blaring from someone’s boom box and I was late for an afternoon of downing pitchers at Sub Station Two. I’d yet to leave ny studio gig, hadn’t so much as pointed a news-cam this way or that and wasn’t sure I even wanted to. As for the mullet, it hadn’t reached its full mobile home glory just yet, but I could already pass for a young Dog the Bounty Hunter (minus the pepper spray and racial slurs, of course) Still, for one brief shiny moment in the Emerald City, I was blissfully aware of but a few things. (1): A round of disc golf could cure any ailment. (2): Working in TV would always be a stone-cold blast and (3): This is one bitchin’ haircut that will never go out of style…

Looks like I’m 0 for 3.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

In The Mix

Eddie and WhiteySorry for the lapse of missives, but I been in the mix. In The Mix: that’s el Ocho speak for working with a reporter - a normal enough status for most photogs. But when you’re a wordy burnout with A/V skills and antisocial tendencies, In The Mix ain’t where you want to be. Still, the ratio demanded it, for no sooner had the November book ended than certain rogue news shooters went on something called ‘vacation‘. Before I knew it, I’d been pressed into service; ripped unceremoniously from my soft news foxhole and reassigned to the front. There I slogged through a series of stories deemed worthy of a two-person crew; packages that made loud splashes at the top of their newscasts, only to ripple into oblivion by the second commercial break. A homicidal babysitter, a waffling college coach and a pulled-over van full of illegal aliens; just a few of the kooky cast of newsmakers I put on tee-vee during a weeklong stint I‘ve already mentally erased. But that‘s the secret, right?

Brad Ingram Zeroes InPierce the leathery hide of a streetwise photog and you’ll find a thick layer of insouciance. That ability not to care is accrued over time. Once, I couldn’t abide the sight of fluttering crime tape without widened eyes and a quickened pulse. Now, I can sleepwalk past midnight collisions with little more than unadulterated slumber on my mind. I’m not particularly proud of my cynicism, even if it burnished to a high sheen. How I might act had I chosen a dairy route over deadline slaying I do not know, but something tells me I’d daydream about lighter fare. Instead, my head is full of half-eaten soundbites, deadpan faces with silly microphone flags under their chins and pictures of victims frozen in mid-dissolve. Sure, cops have even darker portfolios, but for the paltry bank I bring down, ther margins of my mental ledger are smudged enough. Melodramatic? Perhaps, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned feeding the beast is to keep moving, lest you get any on you.

Petty, Brenner, WrennTruly, I spent much of last week trying to keep up with the other news brutes out there. Fussy bluster aside, I’ve grown a bit soft in the first year of my forties. Whereas every other photog I know logs serious time behind the wheel of a parked live truck, I cruise around in Unit 4 while sorting through clichés. No wonder my fellow camera-ops scoff when they see me roll up in some single-masted vessel. ’Dude may talk a mean game on-line, but he sure cranks out a lot of fluff, I don’t hear them say. I smile anyway, knowing they’d all talk smack if I covered nothing but clans of amorous cannibals - for wit and spittle is to be expected from anyone with one eye closed and a tiny speaker wedged in their ear. It’s not unlike the outlook of a veteran street cop, who winces at the sound of glass crashing and tries to look the other way. It rarely works, but you kid yourself there’s an end somewhere in sight. Until then, you sift through grim bits of silliness one shift at a time and hope something redeeming will soon wander before your lens.

Just don’t hold your breath.