Sunday, January 27, 2008

Like Casey, I'm now "The Old Professor"

You’ll be issued a sweet laptop and textbook, but not markers for the wipe board.

I learned this the hard way on my first day teaching a journalism course at a local university.

Yup. Like Casey Stengel, you can call me the “Old Professor.” Well technically, I’m an adjunct instructor. But I’m excited about my moonlighting opportunity.

After more than 20 years of writing about teachers, I’m going to see what it's like from their perspective.

This came out of the blue.

Journalism students were attending a Board of Education meeting as an assignment, and it just happened to be the night when frustrations boiled over and were directed at your favorite education writer.

Students apparently went back to their class, told the professor about what they saw and wondered whether that type of behavior was something reporters deal with frequently.

I know the professor, and have spoken to his students over the years. So he invited me to speak to his current crop about what transpired that night. I guess it went well, because he later asked if I’d be interested in leading a class for the spring semester.

Here’s a little secret about reporters. We sometimes wonder what it would be like to be the people we cover. After sitting in the audience for school boards or city councils or even state legislatures, we think would could do those jobs – sometimes better than the people elected to do them.

So I jumped at the chance, and got the OK from my boss. It’s an advanced news writing class one night a week, so not likely to get in the way of my main job.

And after one class, I can tell you that teaching is harder than it looks. Much harder.

I thought I was prepared, in fact, over-prepared. I went over the syllabus, I pondered over potential stories for the kids to write and had my introductory speech all planned out. I also met with the university’s IT staff and picked up my laptop, then got my ID card – which lands me a free meal a week in the dining hall – and parking pass.

As luck would have it, there was actual news to cover on the day of the first class. I sent all the students – there are only five in the class – an e-mail telling them that a hazard of having a practicing journalist teaching a journalism class is that such things might happen and to not flee if I’m a little late.

I rolled in right at 6 p.m., juggling the laptop, textbook, a folder with copies of the syllabus and other information, a batch of my famous chocolate chip cookies and copies of the day’s paper for each of them.

I like that they’ll be able to read my work every day as I’m reading their work. It’s a little extra pressure. I better not do things in a story that I deduct points for in class.

It just so happened that I had a story bannered atop the front page that day. I didn’t plan that, but I sure wasn’t bummed about it. I was pretty happy to hand out papers and show that the instructor knows his stuff.

The classroom was set up with a series of narrow tables forming a square with a lot of space in the middle. The students all sat on one side. I looked around to the wipe boards – slate blackboards are a thing of the past – and saw erasers, but no markers.

OK, I panicked. A big part of my planned lesson was to write on the board words that are banned from news stories – like “implement” – and talk about why they were bad to use. I promised to buy pizza for the next week’s class any time the kids find one of the banned words in one of my stories.

The book store is in the same building as the class, and I told the students I’d be right back.

“Relax, we’ll be OK,” one said.

She must have sensed I was tense. Maybe because I was walking around in a circle with my hands in the air saying “Why? Why? Why?”

And I made it to the store just as it was closing. The manager took pity and allowed me to buy a package of markers. Phew!
This threw me completely off track, and all the things I practiced saying somehow disappeared from my mental lesson book.

Using my markers, I wrote on the board and looked at the kids. They seemed so far away. And sitting all in a row, I felt like a lawyer making a case to a jury.

“Guys, this just isn’t working,” I confessed.

We rearranged the tables, pushing them together to get rid of the gap. This made the class seem more like co-workers sitting around a conference table, talking about stories. I don’t know about the kids, but I was a whole lot more comfortable.

After that, everything seemed to go a lot better. And, again, I don’t know about the kids, but I learned many things.

First, college has changed since I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1986.

Kids used their laptops to take notes, rather than spiral notebooks. We conducted a paperless class, sending assignments back and forth through e-mail.

Students even took turns helping me with my new Dell, which is loaded with Microsoft XP but seems to have some Vista features, especially with the Works and Outlook programs.

And, if you want to see some big smiles, release the kids five minutes before “American Idol” comes on.

The students were patient and engaged, and I think it’s going to be a fun semester. And I already have a new appreciation for the people I cover.

Another reason I was excited about this opportunity is to give back a little.

Robert Block, a professor at Nassau Community College, made a dramatic impact on my life. You can read about that here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hanging with Mitt and Huck

Political rallies are both exciting and draining to cover. Here is Mitt Romney at a "get out the vote" rally in Grand Rapids on Tuesday morning.

The week before a presidential primary week is kind of like March Madness for political junkies.

Republican presidential contenders and their friends pounced on Michigan this week, all attempting to show how much they know about Michigan and care about the things that Michiganders care about.

This lasts until the day of the election, and before the final ballot is counted they’re on their way to South Carolina to show how much they know about South Carolina and care about all things South Carolinans care about.

Democrats usually care, too, but not so much this year because their primary election didn’t count — it’s a long story — sending them right to South Carolina.

As you know, when I’m not obsessing over all things Mets I’m obsessing about presidents — from all parties.

They’re all fun. And they usually have cool things like buttons and stickers to collect. And leaves. Some people think it’s strange that I have a leaf from the White House on my desk. And they don’t even know about Mike Schmidt’s grass clippings. But that’s another story.

My bosses know about this obsession, probably because I start dropping subtle hints that I can help out with campaign coverage. Actually, I’m not very good at subtle. I go right to begging.

Happily, they assigned me to cover three Mitt Romney events on Wednesday and a dinner on Friday that included Romney, Duncan Hunter and Sen. Sam Brownback subbing for John McCain.

Then on Saturday I spent some time with Mike Huckabee, was supposed to check out the now-elusive John McCain on Monday — he changed his schedule to appear in Detroit — and finished with another Romney event on Tuesday morning.

Rallies are fun to cover regardless of which side of the aisle the candidate is from. There’s an electricity that’s kind of like seeing a concert of a band that’s peaking. And the closer to the election and larger the crowd, the greater the intensity.

Here’s how these appearances typically work.

Organizers post a time they want people to be there, knowing it’s a good half hour before anything is likely to happen. This is so the local staff and volunteers can pass out signs, stickers and other things to wave for the cameras.

All this is to create a visual image of excitement. None of this is left to chance. Most of the time even the signs that look homemade are made by volunteers and handed out, usually with a predetermined message of the day.

And the better-financed the campaign, the better the stuff. Romney got points for the coolest give-away, foam rubber baseball gloves with "Mitt ‘08" on it.

Now, as a baseball purist, I could point out that if they were going for the obvious baseball mitt connection, they should have used a catcher’s mitt or a first basemen’s mitt, both which are technically mittens because they don’t have individual finger slots. The rest are gloves.

The uninformed tend to call any leather thing on the hand of a ballplayer a mitt. I would dock points for getting that wrong, but was so happy to see any baseball-president merger that I overlooked the fault.

The candidate is usually late, because it’s easy to fall behind schedule when there is one more hand to shake and snapshot for which to pose.

In fact, the only time you know for sure that the politico has arrived is that the national media traveling with the campaign appears. They’re usually kind of tired and cranky because they’ve been on the road and have listened to the same speech over and over and are fed up with living out of a suitcase and eating fast food.

The candidate always — always — gives the national guys time to get set up because the campaign benefits by having them there to take photos of waving signs and foam rubber mitts.

After being introduced by local politicos, the candidate takes the stage, or in the case of Romney outside of a restaurant, stands on a chair, and recites lines they have honed to fit with local concerns.

People attending these are already excited and emotional, and a good speaker can grab them, taking them both high and low. Huckabee is a gifted speaker; he had people both cheering and in tears.

At some point there is a "media avail" where the candidate takes a moment to answer questions shouted by reporters.

Sometimes it’s tough to get your question heard. It’s a combination of volume and timing.

You either have to be loudest, or start yelling out your question a heartbeat before anybody else does. That means you have to guess when the candidate is wrapping up the answer to the previous question so you can beat everyone else, all of whom are trying to do the same thing.

Then, when the media avail is over, the local television guys try to throw one more question as the candidate is walking out. This is usually for appearances, because if a question happens and the station’s mic ID isn’t in the shot, it didn’t happen.

Sometimes this can be pretty funny. In 2000 I was covering an appearance by Gary Bauer, a conservative candidate hoping for the Republican nomination. He was a longshot candidate, but I was still excited because, as I said, I’m obsessive and it’s all good.

Someone from one of the television station didn’t do her homework. Usually I ask my questions when the TV types aren’t around because I do my own research and don’t want to give them good material. So I said nothing when one of the locals approached Bauer and asked some pretty general questions, like, "What would you do if you are elected?"

When she had enough questions on tape, she asked Bauer, "So, what are you running for again?" With as much disdain as he could muster, yet still be polite, Bauer said. "President. Of the United States."

Candidates' families usually are at these appearances, which I imagine are grueling for them after a while. Mrs. Huckabee was friendly and funny. She walked into room where the post-rally media avail was to be held, saw an open chair near where I was standing, and asked if it were sitting there.

"No, be my guest."

"No, no, that’s OK, You’re working and I’ll find a seat in the back," she said, then smiled. "Trust me, I’ve heard this before."

It’s fun to feed off the electricity of these events, but we don’t get swept up. Reporters look at these differently than most folks, looking for themes and messages. We think about what the candidate is saying and why he’s saying it — and if he is connecting with the people he wants to connect with.

Once all the people attending a rally have left, it’s OK to pick up a sticker for the collection. Huckabee’s campaign is famously on a shoe-string, so there were no stickers to be found.

But I did find the paper taped to the floor of the stage reading, "Mrs. Huckabee," where she was supposed to stand as the former governor spoke.

I suppose it’s better than the White House leaf.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Bat-chucker's rampant butt talk

Roger Clemens' butt, the source of so much attention, before he apparently worked it off and put it on the line.

Oh, not about his alleged steroid use. I don’t think too many people are surprised by those stories.

No, I’m worried about his apparent obsession with butts -- both his own, and those belonging to rodents.

I’ve worked with middle school youth groups, and I’m painfully aware that boys of a certain age develop a fascination with the hind quarters and all of its assorted functions. Backsides become a frequent source of humor a handy insult.

Now that I work with high school youth groups, I sense that the boys have outgrown ass antics and have moved on to other obsessions, mainly dodge ball.

But Clemens, for all his riches and accolades, appears to have been unable to take his attention away from butts.

Let’s look at the record.

The real fornt page of the Trentonion. You just can't make this stuff up.

Former strength and conditioning coach Brian McNamee told George Mitchell that he injected Clemens at least 16 times with steroids and human growth hormone in 1998, 2000 and 2001.

Clemens acknowledged receiving injections from McNamee, however, he said they were vitamin B-12 and the painkiller lidocaine.

Where did he get these shots? You guessed it, in the butt. I don’t know about you, but I like my vitamins in pill form. Never once did I ask to have my Flintstones chewable ground up and loaded into a syringe.

And when I get a shot, I generally try to take it in the arm. It doesn’t hurt that much.

"Dude, keep your hand off the butt. It's sore."

I would note that the list of people I would allow to inject me with anything anywhere is pretty short and limited to doctors and nurses. A strength and conditioning coach doesn’t meet that criteria. But I digress.

Then we have Clemens’ unusual press conference-meltdown show Monday evening.

Forget for a moment the surreal 17-minute phone call where Clemens called McNamee and didn’t once say something like, "Brian, why did you lie?" One could argue that would be because he knew that McNamee didn’t, but we can discuss that later.

Because the more frightening thing happened after the phone call. The topic of conversation quickly turned to, you guessed it, butts.

Silly sports writers. They wanted to talk about steroids. Clemens would have no part of it.

"Do you think I played my career because I’m worried about the damn Hall of Fame?" he said, according to a published report. "You keep your vote. I don’t need the Hall of Fame to justify that I put my butt on the line and I worked my tail off, and I defy anybody to say I did it by cheating or taking any shortcuts, OK?"

So Roger both put his butt on the line, and then worked it off? If he worked it off, where did it go? And what if he needed to put it on the line again? I realize it would be sore from all those vitamin and pain-killer injections, but to go through life buttless would be tragic.

Then the silly writers again wanted to talk about steroids, when whether the allegations would harm the legacy for which Clemens so dramatically sacrificed his butt. Having surrendered that behind, Clemens then turned his attention to varmint heinies.

"This is not about records or heroes or numbers. I could give a rat’s ass about that."

All this butt talk was apparently too much, because Clemens then ended the show and huffed out.

All this gives me a new appreciation for Shawn Estes, the former Mets pitcher. Actually. I previously had no appreciation at all for Estes, considering the 4-9 record and 4.55 ERA he gave us during his one year with the team.

But Estes was on the hill when Clemens made his return to Shea in 2002. Clemens, of course, by that time had drawn the wrath of Mets fans for his beaning of St. Mike Piazza, and hurling the broken bat Piazza’s way in Game 2 of the ill-fated 2000 World Series.

Joe Torre made sure that in subsequent interleague games, Clemens only faced the Mets at Yankee Stadium, where American League rules allow pitchers to avoid facing retribution for their head-hunting.

But Clemens finally had no choice but to pitch at Shea in 2002, and Mets fans — mostly me — wanted Estes to deliver a high hard one that would knock some sense into Clemens’ dome.

Estes apparently was under orders from Bobby Valentine to do just that. He didn’t, angering all of Mets fandom.

Today I give Estes credit. He wanted to nail Clemens where it would really hurt him, the spot apparently so important to Bat-chucker that it dominates his every thought and is the target for his fortifying vitamins.

Yup, Estes threw at Clemens’ butt.

Sadly, he missed. He is, after all, Shawn Estes. Maybe he should habe taken some B-12.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Ten resolutions to start 2008

I haven't been to a game at Shea since 1991. And that was the last time I've seen the Mets win in person.

Now that 2008 is here, there are things I need to do and things I need to keep doing.

I was going to include "Finally forgive Tom Glavine for 7 runs in 1/3 of an inning in his most important start of the year," but I decided I should have resolutions I have even some chance of keeping.

Let's get these out in the open and you, gentle reader, can hold me to them throughout the year.

Resolution 1: To get to Shea Stadium in its final year. There’s no way I can let such a large part of my baseball heritage slip into history without passing through one last time. From my first game in 1971 to the emotional afternoon when Tom Seaver stood on the mound and bowed as No. 41 was forever retired, Shea has been a special place for me.

Resolution 2: To be nicer to people I don’t necessarily like. If God loves me and all my faults, then he loves them, too. And if he loves them, so should I.

Resolution 3: To stop assuming that Mets reliever Scott Schoenweis is going to give up four runs every time he enters the game. That’s just not fair to Scott. Sometimes he’s only going to give up three runs.

Resolution 4: To speak less and listen more.

Resolution 5: To not hate the Yankees so overtly.

Well, except for Derek F. Jeter. But that goes without saying.

And the Bat-Chucker, because George Mitchell says that’s completely justified.

And the confessed cheater Andy Pettitte.

And Jason Giambi, of course.

And WussRod for all the crap he pulled this fall.

And the traitor Damon, just on principle.

Resolution 6: To drink less Diet Coke and more water.

Resolution 7: To keep losing weight. December put me in kind of a holding pattern. But we’re going to be back on the reduction trail. I’m about halfway to my Big Audacious Goal.

Resolution 8: And keeping with the exercise that has helped with the goal, I want to run in at least three 5-K races this year, and even break 30 min. That’s not a fast time for most people. It's not a fast time for a slug headed uphill. I know that. But we must start somewhere. And it would be a three minute drop from my best time in years.

Resolution 9: To see the Mets win at least one game in person. My track record isn’t good. OK, I haven’t seen them win since 1991. But that shameful streak has to come to an end this year, even if it means venturing to Milwaukee or Cincinnati! Mandy will know how to get us there!

Resolution 10: To be only semi-obnoxious about the University of Missouri’s glorious football season. Like with the Mets, I’m a fish out water here in Michigan.

I’m bombarded by co-workers and their love for Michigan State and the University of Michigan. But their seasons went right in the Dumpster while Mizzou, unfairly denied its shot at the national title, dropped a beating on Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. MIZ-ZOU!

This also is the 100th year of the Journalism School, and like all good alumni it would be nice to get back to Columbia this year to show the kids the old stomping grounds and hold high a slice from glorious Shakespeare’s Pizza!

Happy new year, everyone!