Thursday, May 28, 2009

This is probably a good indication of why I never became the next Einstein

As I'm sure was the case in many schools, my junior high science fair was pretty much the highpoint of the academic calendar when I was growing up. Curious kids competing for the right to win a blue ribbon and have a grainy picture with the school superintendent taken for the local paper.

Volcanoes made out of silly putty, baking soda, and red Jell-o. Working scale model versions of the space shuttle. Genetic DNA strands made out of paper clips and construction paper and coconut flakes, sentient robot dogs that can do the New York Times crossword puzzle, all the standard cool stuff.

And then there were my projects. I was never in any danger of having a grainy photograph taken with the superintendent.

Not only were my projects half-ass and uninspired, they also caused undue grief for my mother. Let me explain:

Seventh grade: Photosynthesis. Not a bad choice, although I think I chose it because it was the first topic that I came across in the 25-year-old science book I had been given by my uncle. Oh yeah, and because all I needed to do was take one of my Mom's African violets. And put it near a window. And forget to water it. There was also somehow a ruler involved, which I measured how much the plant grew due to the wondrous effects of the sun. Somehow, even without water, the plant managed to grow enough, or at least lean in the direction of the sun enough, for me to finish my paper and cart the thing to school on the bus.

Even though I was no where close to being a science fair winner, what with a half-dead plant plastered in front of a white poster board with the word "Photosynthesis" scrawled across it in an unsteady green marker while robot dogs were doing the New York Times crossword puzzle next to me, I did manage to score a gentleman's B for the project, largely due to the fact that, although I couldn't conduct a science experiment to same Madam Curie's life, I was more capable than most at stringing coherent thoughts together for the written portion of the project. (Wow, that was a really long sentence, sorry.)

Oh yeah, I also forgot to take the half-dead African violet home, much to my mother's chagrin. No strike that, not chagrin, more like anger. I believe my mother had to call the school and stage a rescue mission for the plant.

Which meant that my science fair project for
Eighth grade: Would not involve the use of any of my mother's possessions. Yet somehow, my mother was not all that pleased with this project, either.

Probably because my room stank like vinegar for a month. Once again, I chose a project which required little to no actual effort. Instead of watching a plant die through the magic of photosynthesis, I measured the evaporation rate of water versus the evaporation rate of vinegar.
That's right, basically, I stuck a ruler in a bowl of water and a bowl of vinegar every couple days as my bedroom began to smell more and more like a sauerkraut factory. I'm sure it was the same method Dr. Salk used to cure polio.

For this project, I'm pretty sure my mother was happy to never see or smell the offending bowl of vinegar again, even if it did mean that she lost a couple of Tupperware bowls in the bargain.

Once again, I got the gentleman's B for a project that consisted of two plastic bowls sitting in front of a poster board with the "evaporation" scrawled unevenly in blue marker.

And I never did get that scholarship to MIT.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I ain't got crap to eat for lunch

This morning, I am getting ready for work, packing up my lunch, putting my bags near the door to take out to the car, trailing behind the toddler and picking up the pieces of cinnamon bread he is leaving around the house, when I notice a certain distinctive smell emanating from said toddler’s backside.

Put down my lunch, change the toddler, throw the offending diaper in the trash, and put the trash bag to go outside, since today is trash day. The missus finishes getting the toddler ready for daycare, and I take our bags out to our cars. Mind you, I have the smelly diaper trash bag in one hand, my delicious fish and chips that the missus made in another plastic bag in the other hand.

I’m pretty sure you can now see where this story is heading ...

I’m driving to work, and I notice a certain distinctive smell emanating from the plastic bag which until recently I had assumed contained the missus’ delicious fish and chips.

I suppose the only upside to this story is that I caught this mix up before getting to work, saving me the embarrassment of carrying the said bag with the distinctive smell into the office, putting it in the refrigerator, and then opening it up at the lunch table.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Jazz Age

Even back in high school, I had been a dabbler in jazz. Had some Monk, Miles and Coltrane. Good stuff, but not enough to take up any significant percentage of my record collection. And when Mrs. Ec and I started dating, I'd usually throw on the jazz show on WGBH at night if we were just hanging out. Nice background music, but just as easily could have been classical music.
And that's about where the jazz stayed in my musical universe for about the next five or six years, an enjoyable but occasional change of pace. And then something changed. I don't know if it was the change of the millennium, turning 30, or what, but I began turning to jazz in a big way.

Miles, Monk, Mingus, Brownie, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon. It was a time in my life when I still loved music, but rock had lost some its luster and spontaneity for me. Even though the jazz I prefer is at least 40 years old, I found the same kind of excitement I that I had when I first discovered punk rock. And while punk was fast and exciting, the hard bop jazz I learned to love had those attributes with the addition of being played by musicians with incredible technical skill. Listening to the Clifford Brown/Max Roach band is to hear music that is at once incredibly powerful and played at the highest level.

Jazz, at its best, combines the thrill of improvisation within a tightly honed group. While I doubt I'll ever be someone who listens to only jazz—I just love too many types of music too much—it does take up more of my listening time. While I am happy these days to download a rock song or two here or there if I like it, jazz is now the one genre where I can still be a little obsessive about owning complete albums and knowing who played with who on what session.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

My life as a reporter - the high

I sat next to him on the couch as he slowly flipped through a yellowing scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings and black and white photographs.

He would have been a great small town paper interview subject for any number of reasons. Lifelong resident, former school committee member, respected doctor, amateur jazz musician. Hell, he was even the uncle of a famous professional wrestling champion.

But what brought me to his immaculately kept home on that day was the images in that scrapbook and his memory of the events he witnessed the day a number of those photographs were taken. December 7, 1941. He had been attending a church service when the first Japanese planes began they're deadly run. Within hours, nearly 1,500 American servicemen were dead, the American naval fleet laid in tatters, and any pretense Americans had of staying on the sidelines while war waged around the rest of the globe was gone.

And I was sitting next to a man who was there, who had seen his friends die, who had experienced what had started as a day much like any other and ended as a traumatic milestone in American history.

Honestly, I don't remember a lot of the details he told me about what happened On December 7, 1941. But there is one thing he told me that I will never forget.

"I still have trouble sleeping at night sometimes. I have nightmares about that day that wake me up," he told me.

A week later, after the story ran in my paper, I got a voicemail from the man's wife. She told me that her husband had teared up when he read the story, that of all the newspaper stories that had been written about his experience at Pearl Harbor, mine had been the one that told it the closest to the way it had actually been.

Of my several modest achievements as a reporter, that is the single one that I am proudest of. For all the countless opinions that have been bandied about lately about the importance of journalism, in my opinion, it boils down to one thing: Telling an interesting or important story, and telling it well.