Writing When it Hurts

I hate the Hollywood stereotype reporter.

You know the one I mean. The one who goes plunging into dangerous situations, without regard for his safety or anyone else’s. The one who can justify any stupidity in the name of “the story.” And most of all, the one who will walk up to a tornado victim who’s lost her home, stick a microphone in her face and say “So, tell me how you feel!”

I’m not that guy. I’m proud to not be that guy.

But I have to confess – grudgingly – that there is one grain of truth to the image. Good reporting often requires you to guard your heart. To stick your own pain and anguish on a shelf until later, and talk to people at their worst moments, so that a story can be told. A story that your readers need to hear, that only you can tell.

Which brings me to Isla Vista.

We’ve all heard about the shootings by now. We’ve seen the pain, heard the details, tried to make sense of what happened. It’s a horrific event. And it drew journalists in droves, each with a story to tell.

With one notable exception.

The shootings happened on a Friday, right in the back yard of the University of California, Santa Barbara. The first online article by UCSB’s The Bottom Line – a student newspaper funded by the student government – appeared Monday.

That’s three days later.

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about why. At first an op-ed said the paper wanted to “minimalize the emotional harm” to its staff. A later editorial then disavowed the first one, saying the staff had been reporting all along, and even Tweeted during the incident, but wanted to take the extra time to ensure accuracy.

“We did not think it journalistically ethical to harass our community in its time of grief and shock, and decided to hold off premature publication of an article so that we did not hurt anyone through misinformation,” the second editorial said.

It sounds noble. Even good-intentioned.

But it taught precisely the wrong lesson.

Look, I know these are students, still learning. I know this was a horror no one prepared them for. And yes, this event did not exactly go uncovered.

But – and I’ll say this as gently as I can – if they want to be journalists, this is what they’ve signed up to do.

Nothing prepares you for it. Nothing. I have talked to fire victims and flood victims. I have talked to the closest friends of a murdered hiker. I have written a feature on my own pastor the day he died of cancer. Every time, I wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else.

But I had to be there. Right there. Right then. Telling the story now, not three days from now.

And I’ll tell you a secret. Most of the time, the people on the other side of the notebook wanted me there, too.

No, they don’t want to talk to Harold Hardnose, Hollywood Hack. But that’s not you. This is your town. These are your people. And if they want to share their story with anyone, it’s going to be you, because through you, they can reach their friends, their neighbors, their families.

The other student paper, the independent Daily Nexus, found this out quickly. The LA Times reported how the Nexus’s editor, Marissa Wenzke, watched the owner of the Isla Vista Deli Mart shoo away several TV news crews – and then wave her inside because he recognized a friend.

“We care a lot about each other in this town,” Wenzke told the Times. “People love this place. We’ll help each other out because we’re all in this together.”

That’s the attitude the best reporters have.

Yes, be sensitive. Yes, get it right. But remember, your readers need to hear what’s happening, as soon as possible. From you. If someone else can do that job for you, why are you doing it at all?

Tweeting is a good start. It’s the modern-day news ticker, the quick alert. But if you can Tweet, you can write, even if it’s just by stringing together posts at first.

And you need to write. It’s your job. Even when it’s painful.

Maybe especially when it’s painful.

The good news: these are students. This is still a chance to learn. But it’s a lesson that needs to stick.

Don’t go Hollywood. Please. But don’t disappear until everything is absolutely perfect, either. That’s a phantom. Do the best you can with what you have.

Then, when the copy is done and the story is in, go home. Collapse. Cry, if you need to. (I have.)

Be a human.

And then be ready to get up and do it all over again.

Growing with the Flow

There are a lot of rough jobs in this world. Street sweeper at an elephant parade. Quality control for a parachute manufacturer. Speech coach for Bob Dylan.

But the roughest job of all may be the one inaugurated this weekend in our own backyard. Commencement speaker at a Lyons High School graduation.

Think about it.

What on earth do you say?

This is the class that saw its school turned into an island and its hometown into a CNN breaking news clip. These are the kids from the town that left town, the community that water couldn’t kill, the students who will never, ever again use the phrase “God willin’ and the creek don’t rise.”

What can you possibly tell them that they don’t already know? Especially within the tried-and-true themes of a high school graduation.

“Your entire world may change tomorrow and you have to be ready to change with it.” No kidding.

“Think back to when this school year began…” Um, maybe not.

“Be part of your community and ready to give back.” Can we get back to you on that? We’re running late to a Lyons Strong event.

Let’s face it. Life lessons have not exactly been in short supply around here. Once you cross off everything that the St. Vrain Flood made redundant, you might as well just give everyone two Dr. Seuss quotes, one proverb from Mr. Rogers, and then pass the paper and toss the hats.

After all, if you can’t listen to a 20-minute speech that might change your life (see vendor for details, satisfaction not guaranteed, void where prohibited), then what’s the point of a graduation ceremony?

OK, you can stop laughing.

No, I don’t remember the speech at my graduation. I’m betting you don’t, either. Commencement speeches have been pretty much fired and forgotten ever since David addressed the Israelite class of 1020 B.C. (“In a world of giant obstacles, sometimes life really rocks!”)

They don’t stay with us. They don’t need to. Deep down, every senior knows the real theme of every graduation since the beginning of time. And it’s one that might as well be an LHS class motto.

We survived.

We survived homework, exams, pop quizzes and the worst indignities our teachers could inflict.

We survived our own stupidity, our social life, and that moment with the lasagna in 10th grade that no one would let us forget.

And now, this senior class can say, we survived a flood that would make Noah look for a nice place in the Andes.

We outlasted. We persevered. We made it.

Even in the face of the worst that nature could do.

Between you and me, I think every school in this area should have a Lyons High School grad as a commencement speaker next year. These are the masters of disaster, and if anyone knows how to take the next step into an uncertain world, it’s them.

But then, it’s not really something you can say, is it? It’s something you do. Something you pass on by sheer, stubborn example.

And that example is now on stage for everyone to see.

Congratulations, seniors.

You survived. And then some.

Good luck to all of you. And mind the elephants on the way out.

Burning for Bookstores

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. Everyone knows that.

You don’t touch Popeye’s spinach. Or swipe James Bond’s car. Or get scuff marks on Elvis’s blue suede shoes.

And if you’re a sensible human being who wants me to keep my (precarious) sanity, you don’t ever, ever mess around with my access to bookstores.

Trouble is, sensible people seem to be in short supply lately.

If you’re a book addict, too, you’ve seen the progression. First, the smaller bookstores got squeezed out, like the old City News on Main Street, where I worked my way through college. Then came the larger fish: Waldenbooks, B. Dalton, Borders.

And now? Now the bell may be tolling on the mighty shark known as Barnes & Noble. After successfully savaging all its competition, the retail book chain has been cutting stores, cutting expenses on the Nook, and most recently cutting its list of owners, as Liberty Media decided to sell its stake and run.

It’s enough to make a person think of dinosaurs and meteors.

Instead, I think of wildfires.

No, I’m not suggesting we put all of Barnes & Noble to the torch. After all, bookstores are my natural habitat. I can disappear more thoroughly there than Bilbo Baggins with a magic ring, coming up only for meal times. Maybe.

There’s a smell to bookstores you can’t get anywhere else, of paper and dust and dreams. Maybe a few other things besides; my beloved City News wrapped popcorn and pipe tobacco into every scent.

Best of all, a good bookstore is a center for serendipity. Wander the shelves and you’ll meet at least one title you’ve never noticed before. (Come to think of it, I met my wife the same way.) Amazon’s recommendations may be near-prescient at times, but it still can’t match the shuffle-the-deck surprises you get from just one hastily glimpsed cover.

Old-fashioned? Sure.

Nostalgic? Undoubtedly.

Dead? Don’t bet on it yet.

This is where the wildfires come in.

Every Coloradan who’s survived the last couple of summers knows how a wildfire works in a forest. A lot of big trees get cleared out, some of them very old and very loved, that seemed like they’d stand forever.

And once the flames die down, there’s a space cleared. And new life can come to the undergrowth.

“I see room for smaller bookstores again,” one friend said on Facebook.

“Maybe this will allow the mom-n-pop local bookstores to come back,” another agreed. “That would be a good thing.”

It would indeed. And I see some of the spaces that could do it. Sellers who pay attention to the customer, who become crucial community gathering points, who don’t have the cumbersome supply chains and monstrous overheads of the world’s Bookzillas.

The chains seemed to offer every book in the world. But Amazon can do that, and do it cheaper.

The smaller ones offer you not just a book, but a home.

They’re out there. Heck, they’re out here. And they’re ready to write the next chapter.

Maybe I’m being unduly optimistic. Maybe the big chains clear-cut the bookstore landscape so that nothing’s left. But somehow I don’t think so. Book-lovers can survive this fire, every single one of us.

Even if it is a real Barnes-burner.

Out of Tune

Dear Unexpected Visitor,

I’m sorry I couldn’t meet you face to face when you stopped by the house earlier. I know how these impulsive visits can be; no one ever seems to be available when you walk up the driveway.

Of course, considering you left the driveway with my wife’s iPod, maybe you weren’t so disappointed after all.

Your timing, I must say, was excellent. By the time I saw the glove compartment ajar and the arm rest open, you were long gone. Since that was the only item missing, I’m guessing you didn’t have a lot of time to linger; cluttered cars are such a pain to search, aren’t they?

Out of curiosity, was it the Stone Age electronics that attracted you, or the old nail polish stains? Heather and I have a bet.

It’s quite an accomplishment, you know. Thirty years ago, it would have taken at least a pickup truck to get away with a few thousand tracks worth of music. Now you can just slip the whole library in your pocket without even thinking about it.

Oh, sorry about the “Desperado” recording, by the way. That Eagles album never really transferred well.

I’ll admit, I was a bit hot when I found you’d been and gone before I could say “Hi.” Or maybe “Hey!” There’s a certain sense of violation involved. And frustration at the time needed to rebuild the collection. And of course, disappointment by Missy, our disabled ward who likes her tunes loud, constant and rapidly changing.

(You don’t know Missy? Nice young lady. Lot of people like her. No, I don’t expect to make introductions any time soon.)

But you know something? You got the raw end of the deal.

What you got was a piece of metal and plastic worth maybe $20, tops. (I mean, an iPod without a touch screen? Come on!) Maybe you got a little bit of puzzlement, too, if you fired it up and discovered meditation rhythms, medieval hymns and the theme to the cartoon “Arthur” among the more conventional tunes.

But Heather, Missy and I – we have the memories.

I still have the vision of Missy cranking the Hallelujah Chorus as far as she could – in July.

I remember the device’s seeming psychic qualities, popping up John Lennon’s “I’m So Tired” on the day after the time change, or Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” in a Graduation Day parking lot.

And since Heather was the one who loaded it all, I could always count on a surprise or two if I hit “random” – though including “Adventure Time” and the Brady Bunch in the mix was really low.

Those are the real treasures.

So yeah, if you want to just bring the iPod back where you found it and set it on the stoop, I’d love it, especially for Missy’s sake. But if your generosity doesn’t extend that far – well, I’m not going to let you hold my mind hostage over it. Just do me a favor and at least crank the tunes before hitting the pawnshop, OK?

May I suggest starting with “Folsom Prison Blues?”

Making It All Click

It was a Missy night in Chez Rochat. John Travolta would have been proud.

Anyone who knows our developmentally disabled ward Missy also knows her idea of a night well spent: loud music, strong beats and enough space for her favorite dance moves. Since she also has cerebral palsy, these tend to be fairly simple moves — including a carefully turned full-body spin — but no less heartfelt for all that.

One night the joint was jumping especially well when I noticed Missy shaking her hands back and forth. I looked more closely.

No. Not shaking.

Missy was trying to snap her fingers.

She couldn’t quite get enough friction. Sometimes it was even the wrong two fingers. But there was no doubt what she was trying to do. It was the same emphatic gesture I always used to keep the beat — and make her giggle — during a high-energy song.

“All right, Missy!”

There’s been quite a few moments like that lately. Moments with our mostly silent young lady where something just seems to … well, go “click.”

Like another dance step, one foot crossing over the other to point, despite her balance issues.

Or looking at a word list when I ask her to find “Blake” and picking out “Dog” — which he is, indeed.

Or even just the chattiness we’ve been hearing about from her day program, the stream of emphatic words, syllables and phrases that both surprise and delight the folks working with her. (One newer employee used to think she didn’t speak at all; not a surprising conclusion when you consider that Missy spends words the way Ebenezer Scrooge used to spend shillings.)

None of it is a huge spotlight moment, like Helen Keller signing “water” in The Miracle Worker. But small steps matter, too. Especially to the person on the inside.

That one, I know very well.

For me, too, it wasn’t exactly a snap. I showed signs of epilepsy as a young kid, and even after medicine brought it under control, there was still a lot to do. Physical therapy helped my balance and cross-body coordination. Games of chess in the school resource room focused my concentration and memory. But some skills took a long while.

And the one that I remember best, oddly enough, is snapping my fingers.

I couldn’t do it. Could not. I was embarrassed enough that in music class, if a song required snapping, I’d click my fingernails together so it would at least look right.

One night in fourth grade, I somehow decided I’d had it. With the door closed so no one would hear me, I sat up in bed, trying and trying and trying again, pressing and releasing my fingers until I thought they’d fall off.


I’m not sure what time it was. But I remember the relief and amazement when I finally heard that first sharp “snap.” To be honest, I almost couldn’t stop.

It was a small milestone. Maybe even more of a yardstone. But to me, it was huge.

It was an acknowledgment that I wasn’t that different.

I think most of us need that assurance at one point or another. Even those without disabilities. And the way we get it usually isn’t through brass bands and bright marquees. It’s by small gestures, even tiny ones, that affirm we’re worthwhile.

Think of it from the other direction. Most of us can still remember small wounds and humiliations we got in junior high school, tossed off without thinking. Why shouldn’t a small kindness last just as long?

Any of us can do it. More of us should. Some of us probably have without realizing how much we were doing.

Some things really are bigger on the inside.

Missy’s dance goes on. The steps look small. But each one is a celebration, a subtle triumph. Nothing flashy, true. Nothing you could lay your finger on.

But maybe someday she will.