June 22, 2010

If a tree falls in the forest, but no one hears it…


Caution: The video is really stupid but guaranteed to knock you out of writer’s block.

If you write something, but no one reads it, does it exist?

Looking at my measly blog stats (my best day has been about 40 views), I wondered what the secret to a successful blog is. What is the technique that, when appropriately employed, makes your writing irresistible? What is the skill that, when you learn it, allows you to create tantalizing pieces of literary magic that draws an addicted following of readers?

Unfortunate for a budding writer is the fact that there isn’t a formula for writer fame. If there was, someone would have figured it out, written a book and made a million dollars turning every Lucy N. O’grammar into the next Shakespeare. Then who would we young English and journalism majors look up to, when everyone knows how to write well enough to earn a loyal following? How would high school English teachers craft a list of books for the year from so many viable options?

Of course, there have been tons of articles that can give you the best shot to write well. I’ve even read articles about giving your blog the best chance to be read. But nothing is certain, and often I feel the secret ingredient is elusive luck.

I did have one glimmer of an epiphany amid my cynical musings about the hopelessness of anyone caring about my blog posts enough to make unsolicited future visits. You see, looking at the list of “referrers” on my blog stats, I determined most views came from either Facebook friends or my family. And I thought to myself that probably the only reason those people were reading was because they know me.

…Because they know me.

Hmm.

It’s easier for famous writers to maintain an audience, because people already know who they are (not to mention they’re really talented). But for the rest of us, if someone knows you and you don’t bore them to tears, they’ll read your writing, at least once. So you have that one chance to prove your stuff is worth reading. Step number one to getting and audience.

Step number two: show any strangers who wander across your carefully-constructed words who you are through that writing. Is that possible? Is it possible to display yourself well enough through writing that they care about you (at least subconsciously) and want to read more?

Maybe those are all silly questions, but this line of thinking inspired me to find ways to convey myself in everything I produce, whether a routine news story or a creative piece for an English class. After all, there are countless writers out there that have the mechanics to pound out some solid copy. And, there are almost no original ideas left. It’s all been done before. The difference is who’s writing.

I realize this idea is itself something that’s been said by writing coaches in the past, but it’s my challenge to myself — to leave a piece of who I am in whatever I do.

I’ve often described how I feel about my writing by saying my stories are like my children. But really, a more accurate description is that they are extensions of myself, left out there for the world to absorb or discard, to savor or ignore.

So in the future, when trying to make even mundane stories interesting, I’m going to do that by giving them personality — mine.

June 15, 2010

STORY — Continuing to help Haiti


http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/jun/15/continuing-to-help-haiti/

PHOTO BY CHARLIE NEUMAN/UNION-TRIBUNE

Inevitably, tragic events slip out of the mainstream spotlight as time passes. So it’s fortunate for Haiti that there are still groups out there that make it their job not to forget the needs of country destroyed by an earthquake and facing more destruction as hurricane season goes on.

This story was pretty straight forward to write. The most interesting part to me was the descriptions people gave me of what it’s like there. There are so many sick, injured and desperate people living in flimsy tents that wash away with each torrential downpour. Still, many of the Haitian people won’t go in the few still-intact buildings because they don’t trust the structures to stay strong in another earthquake.

The Jan. 12 earthquake simply exacerbated already serious circumstances. The illnesses doctors are treating are often more the result of poverty than natural disaster — though to be sure, the earthquake didn’t help in the healing process.

The most chilling story I heard was from the CEO of Scripps Health. He mentioned that in the long term, Haiti will be dealing with a lot of post-traumatic stress. And not just from the earthquake. They’ve had earthquakes before. They’ve been through hurricanes, rampant disease and extreme poverty for years.

Anyway, the CEO told me when there was an aftershock while he was in Haiti, even if it was a mild one, he would be surrounded by screaming. No doubt, these people were reliving a nightmare that had built over a lifetime.

I know there have been other tragedies around the world that are falling out of the limelight too, but I’m proud to be part of the media still reporting on Haiti. I hope maintaining awareness will somehow help ease the Haiti people’s pain.

SIDE NOTE: I was in a 5.7-magnitude earthquake last night. It only lasted a few seconds in San Diego, but it was kind of surreal. I was telling a friend that it was like walking on a trampoline, only movement is side to side, not up and down. And it’s a feeling of helplessness. You can run for cover from most things, but where are you supposed to go when it’s the ground you’re trying to run away from? I can’t imagine how scary even small ones must be after you’ve experienced something like what happened in Haiti.

June 14, 2010

“Them”


The L.A. Pride 2010 parade was going on not far from where I stayed in West Hollywood this weekend. I’ve never been to one before, so I went with a few friends.

There was a protest and counter protest going on. I heard people (on both sides of the gay rights isssue) yell at other people that God hates them, and they’re going to hell.

I’d never witnessed that kind of exchange before, and it broke my heart. What exactly does condemning someone to hell accomplish?

“… I think I know enough of hate/ To say that for destruction ice/Is also great/And would suffice.”

—Robert Frost

On a lighter note…

I saw a lot of interesting shoes and tried to capture as many as I could while walking down Santa Monica Boulevard. Here are some of the highlights. I wish I could show you all of them.

June 6, 2010

STORY — Scientists peer into past lives


http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/jun/06/scientists-peer-into-past-lives/

This was absolutely fascinating to report on. I think the story says that better than I could. The images on the screen just looked like random chalk scribbles on a blackboard to me, but the doctors in the room deciphered them like it was nothing. I was jealous. Stories like this are like candy to me. They’re complicated to understand at first, but once you get the scientists to speak in lay terms, you learn so much that you don’t even know what do with all the information.

Side note: This little girl had her own iPad. Photo by Nelvin C. Cepeda/Union-Tribune

So to recap the cool assignments the U-T has sent me on… Already this summer I’ve gone to a shipyard where they were building Navy battleships, the memorial service for John Finn — one of the most famous Medal of Honor recipients of all time — and a hospital to watch scientists scan 500-year-old mummies in the same machine used on humans every day. I’m in reporter heaven.

June 1, 2010

Supreme Court says to be silent, you have to speak up


Court: Suspects must say they want to be silent

I could go either way on this, but I’m going to side with the majority opinion of the court.

The case: a man who was arrested on suspicion of murder told police he understood his Miranda rights (the right to an attorney and to remain silent). He then remained silent for almost three hours before answering one question — and that one-word answer basically got the prosecution a conviction.

The guy appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court. His argument was it violated his Miranda-given right to silence when they used that response to convict him. The Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote, disagreed.

The police did their job in this case. They told him his rights, and he clearly understood. Not only did he explicitly say so, but he didn’t say a word for the majority of the interview. Then he chose to say something knowing that he didn’t have to.

The dissenters, led by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said the decision should have been overturned because the police didn’t show that the defendent had explicitly waived his Miranda rights. But I think the act of speaking WAS waiving his rights.

Maybe after three hours of questioning he was worn down and wasn’t thinking straight.  I think this decision actually helps defendents in that way, because the ruling says defendents can — and have to — state that they’re going to remain silent to stop an interrogation. Perhaps it’s counter-intuitive that people have to speak in order to invoke their right to silence. But, it’s consistent with previous rulings that say if a defendent asks for a lawyer, he/she can’t be questioned until that lawyer is present.

My one hesitation on this issue is that, as Sotomayor states, this decision assumes that suspects waive their Miranda rights if they don’t explicitly invoke them. I see her point. But, suspects don’t have to invoke their Miranda rights if they don’t want to. Suspects should be advised on arrest that they must invoke their rights in order to be protected by them.

Of course, there could be something I’m missing. What do you think?

May 31, 2010

Check this out…


China aims to become supercomputer superpower

This a pretty cool story, but I was more interested in was the graphic a few paragraphs down. It’s a pretty cool way of illustrating the point that these supercomputers are really fast. Props to BBC News.

Then, a little bit more down the page, there’s a link to this graphic — http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/10187248.stm. This lets you analyze all the Top 500 supercomputers in the world by county, speed, operating system, etc.

Amazing how far graphics have come. It just goes to show you there’s any number of ways to illustrate a story. Getting good at building graphics is becoming a more valuable skill to news outlets. Not a bad skill to add to your arsenal. Maybe “building graphics for news outlets” should be a new class in the J school.

The U.S. is dominating in supercomputers, by the way. But China’s trying to catch up.

May 30, 2010

From my visit to the Grand Canyon


But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only

That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered – not a feather then he fluttered
Till I scarcely more than muttered, “other friends have flown before
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said, “Nevermore.”

from “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

From my trip to the Grand Canyon. These birds were really creepy, and they definitely wanted our food. They sat around the lunch tables and kept creeping closer. I managed to eat my lunch successfully. Side note: Poe's "The Raven" was written in trochaic octameter, a rare meter for poetry. Now you know something that not many other people do.

May 29, 2010

A missed chance


“People who are homeless are not social inadequates. They are people without homes.” —Sheila McKechnie

There was a homeless woman who just walked into Starbucks, and I really want to know her story.

At first, I wasn’t sure if she was actually homeless, because like everything else in San Diego, she looks like a contradiction. Instead of a grocery cart, she used a relatively new brown suitcase with another bag attached to the handle.

She wore a dirty, torn bandana over her hair. But just above her face — which revealed her flustered emotions and the worn features common to the homeless — she wore a pure white visor, like she was expecting to play a game of tennis later. She was muttering to herself and breathing hard as she picked up an ungodly amount of napkins, but not in a way that made me nervous.

Above her nude tank top, she had a beautiful red and orange short scarf tied stylishly, though hastily, around her neck. But for her pants, she wore cutoff, dirty sweatpants. I didn’t have time to catch her shoes because she hurried out the door too quickly.

I wondered what her background was. I wondered if her stylish clothing and baggage were remains of a more fortunate past or if she’d picked them up somewhere along the way, just like the napkins. Was she from San Diego? Where was she going? Is she alone?

What were the napkins for?

Once out the door, she paced a short distance back and forth in confusion before deciding which direction she wanted to go. She tucked the napkins in her luggage before she started walking.

And now she’s gone. I have no picture.

I wish I would have talked to her.

May 29, 2010

STORY — Bronze Star, golden moment for Vietnam Vet


http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/may/29/bronze-star-golden-moment/

JACK WARREN. Photo by Peggy Peattie/Union-Tribune

This is my first published story for the U-T. The man it’s about, Jack Warren, was incredibly fascinating, with his endless stories about combat in Vietnam. But, I guess that’s the way it is for all the veterans. War is definitely not forgettable or boring.

I’m really glad I was able to convey the generational aspect of Jack’s service, because he strives to inspire his family just like his dad was his inspiration. But Jack told me a lot more in our two-hour interview than I could fit in print. He’s never been to counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder. But he said for catharsis, he listens to sound bytes from battle, looks at pictures or recounts his war stories.

Like the time, when he first arrived at Ban Me Thout, that he had to roll out of a plane in the brief period it touched down, leaving him weaponless in unfamiliar territory with no other Americans visible.

Or the time he got an aircraft save for directing a pilot to the ground when his instrument panel was struck by lightning, and he had 15 minutes of fuel left.

The rivalry for who had the most control — pilots or air traffic controllers.

The day he had to manage 27 planes trying land at Ban Me Thout almost at once, with seven of them having to make emergency landings.

JACK WARREN. Courtesy photo.

The gangs of young Vietnamese “cowboys” who would beat up GIs for something as simple as their watches.

The contrast of that with the soldiers’ relationships with grateful Ban Me Thout residents.

The near miss he had when a piece of shrapnel sliced through the tent he’d been standing in during an attack.

When he “went crazy” and stood up during one night’s attack to watch the scene like it was a movie, with soldiers and bombs and gun blasts for characters.

“There was a blanket of red on the ground (from explosions). It was pretty. Deadly, but pretty. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t watch fireworks for a while when I got back,” he said.

At war, you go through stages, he said. Stage one — numbness, associated with the feeling that there’s no way you’re going to get out of it alive. Stage two — a feeling that you’re invincible, and nothing can touch you. Stage three — fear that you’ll never get home, but a strong desire to.

“When you get to the U.S., you kiss the ground,” he said. “It’s just a beautiful place.”

Robert Cardenas, who presented Jack his medal, gave me a couple interesting quotes too, but they didn’t really fit with the story. So here they are.

“What happens in combat is even the meekest and mildest of man can become a hero in a flash. You don’t think, you just do.”

“Now, there is no enemy you can aim a tank at. The enemy is all over the world.”

Oh, and Jack met his wife on the game show “Love Connection.” I just thought that was cool.

May 28, 2010

My passage through Tornado Alley


The sky above my grandparents' house on 40-acres of land in Stillwater, Okla. There was a quarter-mile tornado headed our way, but it broke up before it got to us. My grandparents' property is a quarter mile wide. You can still see the clouds spinning in this picture.

A cloud, rumble of thunder and flicker of light
Threatening hues, grey, green and black
A wall, an anvil supercell so high
As nature prepares for its attack.

A crack of lightning cuts the sky
As hail begins to spit
Hot air meets cool, starts to turn
A sinister growl it emits

Slowly, reaching, the cloud grows down
In breaths and silent force
Twisting, turning, churning winds

A terrible roar and screaming wail
A frightening, unnerving sound
Debris kicks up in violent swirls
As the funnel touches ground

At the boundary, going in
Tornado doesn’t give
Feeding, fueling, gaining strength
Will anything live..?”

from “Tornado” by Kate Manning

From my grandparents' porch after the storm.

…I am rainbow

I saw then my Image, with the ripples of Life’s pain

spreading outward, but stopped, healed, cleansed

reflected and refracted away as Nature and nature connected

the rain still falls, still strikes, still stings

and I am wetted

but no longer drowning

and I went forth and had myself

a Bright and Shining Multicoloured Day.”

from “I Am Rainbow” by Oshumare Niji