Archive | July 2007

Something we stress to students

I’m a closet perfectionist. Although segments of my life can be cluttered, there are aspects where I hone my efforts to a razor’s edge. My studies are typically one of them.

Even though I try to play off how seriously I take college and even work, there always is this sort of inner fire that sparks my drive to put my heart and soul into things. Be it stories, speeches, publications, really anything—if I don’t reign myself in, I’ll stress and spend every waking second tweaking, doubting and making a general mess of my disposition, all for the quest of making something perfect.

Certain students here at our journalism school do the same things during their assignments. Come to think of it, I did go through some spouts of obsessiveness with my assignments, flinching and grimacing when I lost two points for something like comma use! Oh God oh God!

So I know the feeling of wanting to be great at this training. I remember wanting to write about subjects that hadn’t been covered before, or coming up with new angles. Honestly, these instructors have seen hundreds and thousands of stories, all about the same core group of subjects, finding a “new” subject isn’t the focus—writing well is the goal. All of the extra stress at being different and unique is unwarranted.

If the students spend too much time obsessing about perfecting every aspect of a story oftentimes they’ll miss the basic stuff and even fail assignments. So the instructors constantly have to get them to back off, take their time, and not try to be different, just competent. Not that the military doesn’t want creative writers, but this training is a process of teaching the basics, there is plenty of time to grow and develop as a writer afterwards.

My speech, which I’ll give regularly, once I am certified to teach, will go something like this:

Students. The time as come for you to begin the segment of your training where you’ll produce a series of feature stories. This exercise will draw from everything you have learned thus far. It will be challenging, but rewarding.

Many of you will spend hours and hours on single assignments, fretting and stressing out about how to make a singularly unique story.

Don’t.

Right now you are at the beginning of your careers. Think of it as…well, an empty meadow, surrounded by trees, representing the works of other writers and journalists before you.

You want to add as many trees as you can to your meadow, so you can have a strong…forest? To shade…your legacy?

At this point I’ll put on a confused look to get a few laughs that Staff Sgt. Salmons is off his rocker again. But, to continue:

Now, to plant a forest, you need trees, lots of trees. Think of the trees each as a story you’ve written. Most trees on the grounds surrounding the meadow are tall and strong, full of literary tension and effect. And you want to get to that point where your plot of land is full of those proud trees (representing stories…stay with me).

Some students will freak and stress over writing these upcoming features way too much, and will be like the person who plants a single tree and sits next to it, watering it, fretting over it, and spending every moment testing the soil and ensuring proper growth.

While some of this care is necessary to make a good story, if the person spends the whole day on one tree, he or she is hardly on the way to a full forest.

No, instead, a young journalist must know to focus on correctly planting many trees. Some may die—maybe from wind, or a tree disease…whatever; but as that journalist continues to plant and learn, without growing too attached to any one tree, eventually the person’s body of work will grow into the forest he or she wants.

Alright, story time over.

And thus, I will have worked a squishy, lovey dovey story about trees into my canon. Horray for hippies.

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Around the tower

Down below, in the parking lot, there’s an old gray truck—the kind you’d see with “SWAT” painted on the side, or maybe with a little window to serve out ice cream.

It has a boot on its front tire. Roommate Adrian remembered seeing the driver out there a few weeks ago, getting the boot removed the first time.

“He was a vet, and in a wheelchair. Nice guy. He saw me in uniform and talked with me for a while. He got them to take the boot off his truck.”

But the boot was back on. I hadn’t seen this guy, myself, but wondered about him every morning and afternoon I passed the truck.

In the night, the distant city lights atop our fellow high rises flicker with the heat, like ground-borne stars, millions of times dimmer, closer, and less impressive. The siren calls of police and the ambulance validate the skyline as urban and hush the concerns of us here that maybe we had slipped out of the hip metropolitan and into the wilds of rural America.

Yesterday evening I entered the elevator at the bottom-most floor and stopped one up in the lobby. In came five women, who each stopped at the door, startled at seeing a man in an Army physical fitness uniform drenched in sweat, clutching a large black plastic bin.

I’m sure things would have made more sense if I offered the information that I’d just returned from a run, remembered I had a bin of things in my car, fetched it on the way in, and was just now heading toward my 15th floor apartment. But I just smiled, squinting at the salt stinging my eyes, leaving each to take in the scene.

“What floor?” one of the ladies asked. My choice had already been selected.

Turns out we all were going to the 15th floor. Figure the odds that six people entering an elevator would all be from the same floor? We had a few chuckles about it and said we should host a social event in the elevators—serve refreshments to other residents and such, all from the friendship garnered from a chance trip upstairs. I made the obvious line about showering next time. Laughs all around.

And then came Tuesday.

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Curbing the charitable appetite

Today was shopping day—well, “Transformers” viewing and shopping day. Roommate, his girlfriend and I (we need to come up with something that summarizes the three of us), went to a local mall to see a flick and get me some clothes, as the bulk of my stuff will remain in storage until a larger apartment opens up this fall.

So, off we went to a place called Arundel Mills, a sprawling mall near Fort Meade that includes a 28-screen theater, a “Medieval Times,” a “Dave and Buster’s” and nearly every imaginable store and restaurant, all conveniently priced as high as possible to emphasize the convenience of the attractions. Nice, eh?

Movie plus refreshments equaled a tank of gas and got the day started. Afterwards, we three made our way around the interior mall loop, grabbing some lunch and stopping in to shops here and there as I spotted things I needed for my extended sleepover.

Lo and behold, there was a small table for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital parked near the food court, and several genuine, caring people stood around it, watching for anyone to make eye contact. Most didn’t, but a few did, and they were greeted with a smile. Something like St. Jude’s isn’t a hard sell. It’s a chance to give a little bit of comfort to a young person who has spent most of his or her life in pain and sickness. I had some bills in my wallet, and was fine about handing them over…but where was the box?

“Hi, there, have you heard about St. Jude’s?” The young guy nearest to me asked. He was in a Sunday Best set of clothes, with a bright red sweatshirt over top with the St. Jude’s logo in white letters.

“Yes, I know about it. Where’s your collection box?” I asked, surprised.

“Well, we’re trying to get people a little more involved that just a one-time contribution,” he explained, and went on to tell me how they were hoping for something like a $25 per-month commitment for the year, instead of just a spare-change offer. He showed me some figures and brochures on just how much it costs for all the tests and treatments these children need.

I took a brochure and told him I’d visit the website, but that I wasn’t ready to sign up just then. In all honesty, I wanted to check if I could give through the Combined Federal Campaign, which is the big charity drive the military participates in, and takes things straight out of our paychecks. It’s an easier go for us than an outside push for money, but I could see from the guy’s face that he thought it was just another “no thanks.”

He kindly wished me well and turned toward another approaching crowd. And I felt like an outright jerk. “No thanks,” to helping sick children. Yikes, I was a bastard.

And, sure enough, I went on to buy a couple of shirts and a pair of shoes, and each ratchet of $25 clicked in my head as another moment in someone’s life that could be made easier, if they just had the money, verses another shirt in my closet. And of course the inflated prices of the mall didn’t help either.

Makes you want to make a vow of poverty, sometimes.

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Submit to the power of rock

A few days ago I went to a venue in Baltimore to see a punk show.

There were four bands slated and the headliners were The Tossers and The Street Dogs.

Now, I’ve had several friends in the past who were punk fans and let me into some of the ins and outs of punk culture—not that I’m anywhere near the point where I could sit down and diagram scenes out, but where I’ve been bequeathed enough bits to not be a total moron about the process.

Right. So I travel to said bar with roommate and his girlfriend (again, someone remind me to post them so we can get to know them properly). It was called the Ottobar and was nestled into the city far enough to absorb the  B’more ambiance. The bar itself was in a nondescript building next to a small gravel parking lot—free, as it turns out.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, never actually having attended a punk show. I’ve heard the music and been a part of some gnarly non-punk concerts, but there’s always that specter of bearded, leather-clad, pierced agents of rage and pain many associate with punk.

There were some fierce-looking characters there—some outright, as in the older gent, bare chested, bald, in a denim vest and pants who looked ready to head-butt nails into the molding; and others more decorative, with the torn clothes and chains, but mild enough in disposition.

Yet, for all the coarse-throat intensity of the singing and shattering, smashing riffs from the guitars, there was hardly any outright hostility, and my prejudices were put to rest.

And that’s where most of punk gets misunderstood, I think. Most see the piercings, the tattoos, the profanity and writes the whole lot off as deviants, miscreants, or worse. But some of my punk friends from the past, for all of their “typical anti-social” language and clothes, are some of the most genuine people I’ve ever known.

Take the general etiquette of moshing, for instance, when looking farther into the punk scene. Here we have a celebration of kinetic energy—guys slamming into things and each other, flailing and raging with the roaring tides of the music. Firstly, it’s not involuntary. The crowd doesn’t throw unwitting virgins into the fires of seething humanity.

Secondly, good mosh pits practice chivalry. When someone falls, they are helped up. When someone is on the ground, people around form a ring to protect them. When something gets dropped, others will hold it up. When some hothead fratboy starts kicking people around for fun, the crowd stops, lets the drunk jerk move on, then starts up again.

Because it’s not malicious. Its sort of this limited physical tantrum—a contained, careful dance of intense energy where the audience explores the limits of controlled rage.

People sometimes get hurt, sometimes get personal, sometimes go too far; but that’s life, isn’t it? I, for one, think it’s another amazing bit of culture where I can shove and kick and charge into a group of gents and get pats on the back and a helping hand when it’s my turn to fall down.

I still can’t hear for a few days after the whole enterprise, but I’m damn glad I go.

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