Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Trying to participate in the democratic process

As is true with many adult obligations, I find Annual Town Meeting to be a little tedious. But I try to show up anyway. And as is also true in quite a lot of situations I encounter day in and day out in adult life, at Town Meeting, everyone else seems smarter and more well-versed on the issues than I am, and everyone clearly has better-formed opinions.

But I try to show up anyway. And like just about everything that gets scheduled after 4 p.m. these days, when it comes time to get ready to go, I’d much rather stay home.

But much of democracy – yet again, like much of adulthood -- is about showing up and putting in your time trying to be a useful participant. The reality is that I’m not much good when it comes to influencing opinion or offering insights into complicated municipal issues, whether it’s what to do about a historic and beautiful but dysfunctional town building or whether affordable housing would be better suited to the edge of a soccer field or a quiet thickly wooded neighborhood.

So I do what I can. As a designated Town Meeting officer, I get to register people as they arrive and hand out copies of the warrant booklet. I greet them and tell them where their spouses have saved seats for them. Mostly, I thank them for taking the time to be there. Because I may not have many insights on how to best run the town, but fortunately, lots of other people do.

There’s a popular dichotomy that divides up those who lead and those who follow. I always feel there should be a third category, perhaps not as valuable as the leaders but not without value, either: those who report. My vocation, my core competency, and, I sometimes feel, my only useful skill in life, is to communicate what’s going on to other people. That’s why I’m a journalist, and that may be the best purpose I can serve at Town Meeting or just about anywhere else. 

I’m neither much of a leader nor a follower, but if I can help people to better understand what the leaders have executed and what the followers have complied with -- and if I can be present to bear witness to how it all unfolded -- I like to think I’m serving some small purpose.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Finding confidence

I was certain I didn't have the mechanical skills, the spatial relations, or the brute strength to install the bike rack on the car.

That's a Rick-job, I told myself. He's good at these endeavors. He's good at making things and fixing things. He's capable with mechanical systems and manual labor. If I do it, the bike rack will tumble off as soon as I start driving. Not only that, but the bikes we attach to it will fall into the street. I'll lose my bike rack and our bikes, and I'll humiliate myself in front of other drivers, but worst of all, I could cause a serious accident to someone behind me.

Nope, not my kind of thing. We all know what we're good at. I can write and cook and interview people. But attach a bike rack to a car and feel confident it will stay there? No way. That's the kind of thing I turn to Rick for.

Except that Rick was at work for the day, and Tim and I were home for the Monday holiday, and both of us thought it would really be great if we could get our bikes in for maintenance on this first warm sunny spring day so that the next time we have weather this beautiful and a day off, we can go for a ride.

And Tim had none of my qualms. Like most teenage boys, he's pretty confident in his ability to master the physical world, rightly or wrongly. In just the past few weeks, he has proven himself able to throw a change-up pitch and execute a three-point turn in the driveway. On Easter, shortly before dinner was served, he nonchalantly picked me up and carried me across the kitchen.

So he didn't really see why we couldn't go ahead and install the bike rack ourselves. "Because it won't stay on," I told him. "Because it's complicated. Because we won't be able to tell if we attached it correctly or not."

But Tim disagreed. "Let's just do it," he grumbled. "It will be fine."

He lifted it onto the car; I connected the belts. He tightened the cinches; I fastened the clips.

Together, we lifted the two bikes onto the rack.

Nothing fell. I tugged and shifted its various parts to see what would happen. It held fast.

"See, Mom," Tim sighed. "It wasn't that hard."

I wasn't convinced, but Tim suggested we drive down the driveway and see. Our driveway is long and somewhat pothole-ridden; it seemed like a reasonable test. At the end of the driveway, rack and bikes were still intact.

So we drove to the bike repair shop. I somehow expected more credit. "How did you get these bikes here?" I expected the bike technician to ask. "You know how to install a bike rack yourself?"

Needless to say, no marveling at our aptitude was forthcoming on his part. His job is to help people with their bikes, not to wonder how they got there. If he was happy to see me, it was because we represented new business, not because it meant I'd overcome years of assumptions that I wasn't capable of a task like this without Rick's oversight.

When I got home, I registered for my first half-marathon, something I've been vacillating on for months. I want to do it, but some days I think I can and other days I think I can't, and I didn't want to register until I was sure.

But Tim set a good example yesterday. Although there are few apparent similarities between installing a bike rack and running a half-marathon, it was Tim's confidence that stayed with me once we'd dropped off the bikes and been assured that the leaky tires would be replaced within a day or two. "We can do it ourselves, Mom," he had said. Tim wasn't amazed to think we could do this without Rick; he was slightly dismayed by my belief we couldn't. I'm not sure I can run a half-marathon. But I might as well tell myself I can, just as Tim did with the bike rack. I'll try it and find out.

Learning from one's children is always an interesting experience. In most ways, I don't particularly want to act like a 15-year-old boy. But this time it served me well. "Sure, I can probably do this," I told myself as I clicked the “pay now” button on the registration site for the half-marathon. It's still three months away, but I think I can do it. And if I'm right, I'll have Tim to credit for my confidence.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Many voices, one story

Not long ago, a friend recounted an event that happened while he was in law school. One morning during class, a professor left his laptop in its case by the open door to the classroom. Suddenly in the middle of class, someone darted from the hall through the doorway, grabbed the laptop, and ran off.

The professor asked each student to write down what had just transpired, and the students realized soon enough that what had looked like a random happening was actually staged by the professor to introduce a lesson on eyewitness reports – a lesson whose significance became obvious once the students discovered how many different narratives existed within that one class where they all witnessed the same event.

I thought about this story over the weekend as I interviewed more than a dozen members of one extended family for a memoir project. The subject of the memoir is a grandfather in his eighties; each child and each grandchild, most of whom are now adults themselves, was asked to tell me stories and anecdotes about their grandfather. The interviews were private, so no family member knew what any other one had said.

Accuracy of eyewitness accounts is important to attorneys, of course. In the case of my friend’s law class, the point was how unreliable and how widely varying a description of a happening can be. Journalists take a different approach to this: rather than exploring the varying viewpoints, they tend to keep interviewing witnesses until a consistent picture begins to emerge.

But I was following the model of neither attorney nor journalist when I did these interviews over the weekend. I welcomed differences in perspective. Many of the children’s and the grandchildren’s stories overlapped or coincided, but each time I heard the same event described, the details were different. One child remembered the grandfather taking them out for ice cream after a long day’s work; another recounted that the highlight of that excursion was a ride at a go-cart track. One sibling, describing the walk to a neighborhood candy store fifty years ago, said it was a long walk up a big hill; a younger sibling remembered it as an easy little foray, though he later admitted that as the youngest, he was usually pushed in a stroller and might not have appreciated just how steep the hill actually was.

In law or reporting, these kinds of variations are wrinkles that require ironing out, but in memoir writing, they add texture and intrigue. This was the first time I’d taken a multi-generational approach to writing a memoir; normally I focus on just one person, but this family came up with the idea of having all of them contribute their own anecdotes and recollections, and as my weekend of interviewing progressed, I realized what a great idea it actually was.

On the one hand, it generated a lot of stories. With more than a dozen different individuals recalling the same person, many different memories were excavated and many tales told. But just as much fun was hearing one or two of the same favorite stories, told over and over again, in different voices and with different interpretations. 

Accuracy matters in some fields, but in memoir writing, perspective is more important. The multi-faceted perspectives offered by one large family reflecting on their grandfather – his life, his personality, the lessons he imparted – made his story much richer than a single narrative ever could have done.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Baseball chatter

It may well be the case that “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,” as Tennyson so famously put it, but you wouldn’t know it from the conversation in the back of my car as I drive my 15-year-old and his friends home, late on a spring afternoon.

All that these young men’s thoughts seem to be turning to right now is baseball. Whether they have a chance at making the starting line-up. Which of their freshmen teammates under- or overestimates their own abilities. Who is likely to be called up to junior varsity before the season ends. Which drills were most difficult at today’s practice, and which ones most rewarding. Whether it makes sense that pitchers and catchers are required to run approximately five times more laps than their teammates representing other positions.

I know many parents believe the one upside of drawing carpool duty is getting to eavesdrop; in the commute from school to home (or from school to home to home to home, depending on the number of kids in the carpool), they furtively fill up on adolescent gossip and rumination on topics social, academic, and societal.

But not in our carpool. In our carpool it’s all baseball, all the time. At least this week. Last week too, come to think of it. Pretty much every week since baseball tryouts took place in mid-March.

And I have to admit, I think it’s adorable.

These aren’t little kids, after all. I’ve known not only my own son the pitcher but also his friend the catcher and his other friend the first baseman since T-ball days, although back then there was no need for carpooling since every parent attended every game and every practice. 

Now that they’re in high school, we’re a little more detached when it comes to sports; we’ll go to their home games when work schedules allow, and maybe the occasional away game if the distance is convenient, but certainly not practices. Instead, we make up complicated schedules for whose turn it is to drive them home on which days. (For a short time we tried leaving the carpool scheduling up to the boys, but we quickly discovered each boy was certain that his own mother was happy to drive every single day if needed. It turns out 15-year-old boys are not actually the best judges of their mothers’ time or availability.)

And now that they’re in high school, I’d understand if other interests preoccupied their thoughts once practice ended. I expected the conversation floating forward from the backseat to involve friends. Cafeteria pranks. School dances. The latest STD film screened in health class.

But all they talk about is baseball. To my surprise, once spring arrives, even now at fifteen with the baritone voices of young men and the promise of driver’s licenses less than a year away, these boys’ thoughts turn lightly not to love but to double plays and the infield fly rule.

Perhaps what makes this so endearing is the irrefutable fact of how fleeting it is. In just a year or two, even if they continue to play on the spring team, other thoughts will preoccupy their drive time: SAT scores, college applications, finding a summer job, paying for the prom. I find myself envying their absolute lack of distraction. Adulthood, it seems to me, is one big tangled forest of distractions. I want to be able to focus on anything at all with as much unadulterated concentration as these boys give to baseball.

But I also just want to appreciate the fact that they can do this, knowing in reality I can’t. Driving this carpool may get boring after a while; I don’t really know all that much about baseball myself, and the time might come when I’d welcome talk of cafeteria pranks rather than pitching signals.

Right now, though, I’m just happy to let their sports jargon fill my ears. At the moment, it’s all they care about. Soon enough, like Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s young men, their thoughts will lightly turn to love, and to all manner of other things. In reality, their thoughts already have, most of the time.

But not on weekday afternoons during baseball season. So while it lasts, I’ll cherish this.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

What I don't know how to do (but maybe can do anyway)

I’m a big believer in core competencies: figure out what you do well and focus on it.

I’m also happy with my career. I’ve found what I like to do and I have abundant opportunities to do it.

All of which is to explain why it takes such a big push sometimes to get me out of my comfort zone.

But yesterday I was pushed rather abruptly out of my comfort zone, professionally speaking, when news of an unusual and complicated crime broke in our town and my editors sent me out onto the street.

Covering breaking news is the kind of work I learned about when I studied journalism in high school, but my career path has taken me a long, long way from the life of a beat reporter. I’m an arts correspondent and a feature writer. Most of my topics are fairly low-key, whether they involve a tuba concert, a play about the Armenian genocide, a family with a long-lasting tradition of publishing a quarterly print newsletter, or the record number of twins who enrolled for kindergarten in Carlisle one particular autumn.

It could reasonably be said, therefore, that my job tends to be easy. I talk to people who want to talk to me, whether to promote an event or to explain their own passions. I never have to ambush story subjects as they walk out of their offices or ask people contentious questions.

So my first, albeit unspoken, response when my editor called yesterday afternoon to ask if I could drive across town to investigate the scene of a police shootout was “Can’t you find someone more qualified? You know I’m not that kind of reporter.”

But better judgment prevailed, and I told her I’d see what I could do.

I was resisting it every step of the way, though. I don’t how to do this, I told myself as I drove the four miles to the crime scene, which involved a shootout between local police and a carjacking suspect that took place midafternoon on a main road in Carlisle. I don’t know how to get information from people who aren’t eager to talk. I don’t know how to get a statement from the police chief. I don’t know how to dig up eye witnesses if there aren’t any standing right on the street with their hands raised.

And then it occurred to me that it’s really easy to say “I can’t” and “I don’t know how.”

Let’s just pretend you do know how, I suggested to myself. Act like a real reporter for once.

So I parked near the blockade and made my way to the police officer who was directing traffic, the imminent danger having passed once the suspect sped on to a neighboring town. And at that moment I realized something else. I wasn’t Nancy the room parent asking parents to bring in popsicles for Field Day, and I wasn’t Nancy the class fundraising officer trying to get my prep school classmates to make a yearly donation, and I wasn’t Nancy from church imploring people to join more volunteer committees.

I was a professional doing my job.

“I’m from the Globe,” I said to the officer on the scene. “Are you able to talk about this incident?”

He wasn’t, but he said I could continue past the roadblock to get closer to the crime scene and talk to the officers there.

“Really?” I was surprised. “You’ll let me go through the roadblock?”

“I have to. You’re the media,” he replied curtly. Oops. Apparently he knows the rules of my trade better than I do.

Eventually I made my way to the police station for a statement from the chief. He wasn’t talking yet, but no one at the police station told me to pipe down and go home. They told me to call back later for an official statement. They treated me like a reporter who knew how to cover a breaking crime story.

I still needed eyewitnesses. I thought about calling my editor and saying “I’m sorry, but no one was standing in the roadway offering to tell me about the shoot-out they’d just witnessed.” Then I imagined her saying “No kidding. Get the story anyway.”

So I emailed six acquaintances who live along the stretch of roadway where the incident happened. I posted on Facebook asking anyone who had witnessed the event to contact me. I stopped by our town’s only coffee shop, found the owner, who chats with everyone who walks through the door, and asked him to keep me in mind if he heard anyone talking about it.

By the time I got home, I had three messages from eye witnesses.

So that story came together. In the end, a more senior reporter actually wrote it; I was just listed as a contributor. But that’s enough for me. “I won’t get a byline from this,” I told my husband.

“But you’ll get some professional credibility, plus you gave your editors what they asked for,” he pointed out.

He was right. I’m no beat reporter and still don’t really believe I have the mettle to do this kind of story every day, but when the opportunity arose, I somehow managed to, if not exactly run with it, at least walk with it. I followed through on what needed to be done.

And for at least an hour or so, I was too busy tracking leads to tell myself “I don’t know how to do this” or “I’m not a good enough journalist to do this” or even “I’m too insecure to approach people who don’t want to talk to me.”

For one brief afternoon, I stopped telling myself what I couldn’t do. And during that time, I learn what, in fact, I could do.