(Dis)organization

May 1, 2012

They say you can’t ever have too much of a good thing.  

I try to keep this maxim in mind when I look around my room, which has all the appearances of having survived a tornado or a bombing.  The finals binge is responsible in some part for it, but I would be a liar if I said that was all there was to my barely controlled state of chaos.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of having too much going on in my life.  I’m a grad student, a part-time cashier on the cusp of full-time hours, a student athlete and an occasional stagehand-or-actor down at the local community theater.  Oh, yes, it may sound all so very glamorous to a casual observer (at least, I’ve been told as much on more than one occasion), but the fact of the matter is I don’t know what to do with myself half the time.

On my last show, a shift at work bled into rehearsal bled into trying to cram the fifty pages a day I would need to read, at minimum, to keep myself on track to finish a given text.  I felt as if there were simply not enough hours in the day to do all of these things and get in enough sleep that I could wake up and do it all again the next day.

So, yes, my life is very full of things both academic and extracurricular.  That’s not what’s been bothering me lately.  The chaos is what’s beginning to wear at the edges of my patience.

It’s especially frustrating because I know I’m not alone in this.  However much I moan and groan about a time crunch, my life is not so unique.  I am not the only one with a schedule full of competing interests and mutually exclusive engagements.  In fact, I’m better off because I’m not trying to keep a family or a full-time career afloat.  

So where do I begin?  A rolodex might be a good place to start.  Our trips to the AAFS and AHCJ conferences have imbued me with a small catalogue of business cards I need to start storing in a place a touch more secure than my old AHCJ badge, which is hanging from my doorknob at the time of this posting.  

An important-things-go-here folder might not be so bad either.  Long before grad school, I was in the habit of picking up itineraries and memos to provide context for a given story, but those had a way of living in a small corner of my backpack until the story was written, at which point they went in the trash.

Poor form, I know.  But my entire foray into graduate education has been a display of poor form.  There are days I look at the man-child I am and wonder if going for my master’s degree was the wrong choice.  I wonder if I’m mature enough, driven enough, competent enough to make it.  That I’m surrounded by such stunningly brilliant people in any given class isn’t helping my raging sense of adequacy.

I sit in class, any given class, with wide eyes and wonder how I possibly wound up working alongside people so much smarter than I have ever been.  It almost feels like someone let the remedial student into the AP courses back in high school.

But you have better things to do than sit here and listen to me whine, and I should get back to compiling that study guide so I don’t fail my wildlife diseases course.  I’ve accumulated entirely too much debt and built up far too many expectations among my family members to tap out now.  

And the simple fact of the matter is that even though I doubt myself as a grad student right now, I don’t regret the decision to become a grad student.  Granted, I wish I may have held on this for a few years more, but that is a luxury I no longer have.  The cold, hard truth is that I don’t have a ‘later.’  I have to worry about the failing grades of the ‘now.’

So I’ll just have to start hacking my way through this overgrown jungle of haphazardly deposited school materials and habitual underperformance.  I think I’ll start by doing a little out-of-season spring cleaning.  If nothing else, putting my backpack in a proper place when I come back exhausted every night so that I don’t trip over it in the morning should put me in a slightly better mood for success.

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Some artists work in oils, others in marble.  And then there are the wordsmiths.  It’s an interesting discipline, both in the sense that it can be incredibly easy to practice and virtually impossible to master.

If we take her on sales alone, Rebecca Skloot is a modern-day Michelangelo.  With more than 30 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a critical and commercial financial juggernaut.  It has thrown open the door to an open secret hanging over the medical community that continues to use–and some might say abuse–the immortal cells unethically harvested from the poor, black Henrietta Lacks without a word of consent.

However, the title and the initial premise are a bit misleading.  The title would have you believe the book revolves around the medical marvel of Henrietta’s cells and how it affected her, and you would be half-right.  In reality, Henrietta is written out in short order, and the half of the book that doesn’t detail the odyssey and overwhelming importance of her cells is spent painting the heartbreaking picture of her bereft family, whiling away their less-than-stellar lives while Henrietta’s cells, the HeLa cells, achieve more than the lot of them put together.

The book veers dangerously close to voyeurism at times and, even more so, lionization.  Had Skloot been working in a visual medium, “Immortal Life” would have been a landscape piece that quickly became at least partially a self-portrait.  Skloot paints herself as the intrepid reporter challenging the establishment and bringing light to the darkened lives of Henrietta’s family.

Isn’t it about Henrietta?

That’s hard to say.  What makes Henrietta’s story so striking is all that followed after her.  The true breadth and depth of HeLa research did not come to a head until well after Henrietta’s passing, and the practice of observing, manipulating and tinkering with her cells continues to be common medical practice.  So perhaps it’s only natural that the story follows Henrietta’s descendants, both familial and cellular.

Perhaps that’s all that matters.  However much Skloot should or should not have been in the book, she brings a genuine sense of pathos and research to this topsy-turvy world of haves and have-nots–and how the haves have so much at the expense of those have-nots.  Though occasionally tending toward the maudlin, Skloot crafts a watercolor world that runs in ruin and maybe even a measure of redemption.  It would have been easy to make “The Immortal Life” a race play or a stab at social injustice, but Skloot takes care to suffuse the allegedly big, bad medical machine with a sense of pathos:  These are simply people at work, doing what they can with the tools they are given.

Is this to say Skloot whitewashes the history of this immortal life?  Not at all.  Skloot makes few excuses, but it’s hard not to feel as if everyone is in the same boat when Deborah, Henrietta’s now-grown daughter, finally has a chance to see her mother–if only in a test tube–and a young technician passionately voices his disapproval for all that has happened to her mother.

“The Immortal Life” is a strange breed, a chimerical thing that is part medical history, part personal journey and even a lesson in not only refusing to let the past drag us down, but using it as a fulcrum to propel us upward and onward into some things we never thought possible.

Presentation

March 8, 2012

Before we begin, let me come right out of the starting gate with the reassurance that I do not believe it is acceptable or professional to lie to a source.  Sure, I’ve bitten my tongue and made a noncommittal sound when a source asked me if I agreed with a certain political stance I find personally abhorrent, but I didn’t take the opportunity to put on my fake face either.  I do change the way I present myself from source to source.

A band doesn’t warrant the same kind of officiality that a policeman demands.  In fact, it may even be counterproductive.  If you play it too tight, suddenly you’re a square who doesn’t ‘get’ their music.  So there is a certain amount of artifice that goes into a proper interview.

I bring this up mostly because I’ve found an approach that I had forgotten about:  Playing the student card to the hilt.

As I got on in my undergrad years and became determined to present myself as a ‘real’ journalist, I let this card slip to the bottom of the deck.  I felt like I was admitting to a weakness that would make me less likely to be taken seriously.  “Oh, he’s just a student,” the source would say with contempt in my imagined scenario.  (I spend an unhealthy amount of time playing out conversations in my head to their worst case scenario before they actually happen.  It makes job interviews and first dates especially brutal.)

On some level, I still believe that is a case.  Graduate or no, I’m still “just a student.”

But this needn’t be a bad thing.  Even as I face down the stereotype of a neophyte who doesn’t know any better, I’m gaining a tremendous advantage in that the source is now far less likely to think of me as a journalist.

I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of the stereotypes we face.  We’re sensationalists.  We’re liars.  We’re incompetent.  Just recently, one of my professors sent five minutes trashing journalists for our perceived inability to quote anyone correctly, even going so far as to imply we make up facts that sound more interesting than the truth to sell more papers.  I’ve spoken with this man at least five times.  He knows my face.  He knows my major.

But I’ve gotten used to it.  When I tell people I’m a journalist, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll be rebuffed with paranoia (you’ll quote me out of context!) or hostility (you’re trying to make me look dumb!).  Mine is such an ignoble profession.

Playing the student card takes most of that way.  Really, what’s this kid going to do about it?  He probably can’t even get published.

Speaking of, I actually have approached a few sources that way.  No, I’m not lying when I say I’m doing research for an article.  That is true.  It’s also true that I very rarely interview more sources than necessary so that I can have a wealth of information to draw upon when I finally sit down to hash something out.  It’s easier to pick and choose from too much than stretching from too little.

I simply haven’t decided yet which of my ‘research subjects’ is going to show up in the story yet.  I do like to publish when possible, and if I’m putting in the work to interview five people for a three-person story, you’ll bet I want to get something out of all the leg work.

Again, I’m not saying lie like it’s going out of style.  I pride myself on not telling sources anything that isn’t true at the time, and I make an effort not to tell a retroactive lie.  For instance, I’ll go back to someone I asked for my research once I’ve decided to use their quotes and pursue a publishing gig.

I’ll admit to a certain amount of manipulation here.  Does that make me a bad person?  It depends on who you ask.  Does that make me a better journalist?  I don’t think that’s for me to say, but I feel like it makes my life easier.

 

Intensity

February 16, 2012

I still find myself making the rookie mistake of letting the other person set the pace of the interview.

Now, there is nothing wrong with give and take.  It’s the basis of any good interview.  No, my problem is that I’m too eager to please.

If a source seems irritable or pressed for time, I too often take on a clipped, conciliatory tone.  My entire interview feels like a giant apology.  “I’m so sorry I had the audacity to call you, sir!”  This really needs to stop.  If someone agreed to an interview, I have them on the hook.  Sure, this person may wiggle off sooner than a more compliant source, but that’s not a reason to take an instant tone of supplication.

The inverse of this is my tendency to chatter when I talk to someone with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.  This is the best kind of source to have, but I tend to run dangerously close to edging this sort of person out of a conversation altogether.  It’s one thing to chip in and try to relate with a sense of ‘oh, yes, I know exactly where you’re coming from.’ Then there is the bad habit of getting so caught up in our likenesses that I go off on a tangent.  It’s related to the matter at hand, but it’s getting away from the matter at hand.

An example in short:  I was interviewing the members of a band for The Red & Black.  They were a bunch of cool, laid-back types who didn’t approach the interview with a hint of severity.  They were almost more interested in shooting the breeze than getting exposure. So someone mentioned Muse, and I went off. Sure, it’s cool that we both love that bad. No, I shouldn’t go off on a bender about how great they are live. This person knows.

Who’s the interviewee here?  NOT ME.

Admittedly, I am improving.  I used to approach every interview with that very timid, apologetic tone. The unspoken words were “OH, THANK GOODNESS YOU’RE EVEN TALKING TO ME.  PLEASE DON’T HATE ME AND HANG UP.  THIS IS GOING TO BE GRADED.”  It didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the people I’m interviewing if I’m so choppy and prone to stuttering.  One source–former Grady adjunct professor Perry Parks, in fact–had to tell me to stop and calm down because I was getting so scattered.

The trick is that I’m still edging toward an equilibrium more often than I care to admit.  There are times I reign it in and say next to nothing at all–nothing hesitant and nothing overbearing.  I give the source just enough to get going.  But I still catch myself doing this on occasion.  A source loses interest if you don’t have the nerve or the courtesy to help them.