Can I see some I.D.

Years ago, when his eldest child was very young, my friend John had to travel a lot for work. He spent quite a bit of time in Korea and while he was gone his wife would do the daily tasks like grocery shopping and banking. When he was in town, he would run his share of errands. As someone who has travelled a lot, I too know that the person not traveling just figures that you've been having a good old time while they've been doing all the work.

So he was on one of these errands and the person behind the counter didn't know him and was asking for some identification. He had his hands full so first he put his son down on the counter and went to reach for his wallet. "Never mind", the woman behind the counter said, "I recognize your son."

I love that image of child as I.D.

I used to have two forms of I.D. and now have one.

When Maggie was in first grade, Elena and I would often go pick her up from school. If the weather was nice we would walk to the school and sit on a bench just outside Maggie's classroom window. Mrs. Eagleton, who we didn't know then, would stop by on her way to bus duty and chat with us. She mainly talked to Elena.

Elena was one form of I.D.. She was how people knew that I was connected to  Kim. Gene, the crossing guard, saw me walk the girls to school and he saw Kim walk the girls to school. He knew that each of us belonged to the girls. I think it threw him on days that we both took the kids to school.

Growing up it seemed as if the identification worked the other way. "Oh, you're Priscilla and Ira's son." And that's who I was.

I grew up in a small town where everyone knew each other.

The government, however, doesn't think that's enough. I started teaching at Oberlin College the year that Kim and I got married. I had to fill out all sorts of paper work including proof that I am a U.S. Citizen. I stood in an office with a woman who had known my dad since I was two. She told me she needed official documentation. I had worked for the college summers since I was sixteen working in the kitchens and teaching in the Upward Bound program.

Still not good enough. Eight years before this country was attacked I had to prove to a woman who had known my family more than thirty years that I was a U.S. citizen.

Yesterday I went to get license plates for a used car we bought. The agency had issued me my Driver's license but they would not accept that as valid I.D.. They needed my social security card as well. They had big signs every where saying they could no longer legally display our social security number on our Driver's license because the number can't be used for those purposes. They needed to identify me and they used my social security number internally so they required proof of social security number to register my car.

They sent me to the social security agency. A month or so ago I would have raised a fuss but I'm still not feeling up to it. At the social security agency I filled out a form and waited for my number to be called. The woman told me she would need some sort of I.D. to prove who I am. I gave her my passport issued by the federal government. She asked me for my Ohio driver's license.

You can't always hoist your child onto the counter as I.D., but I think we've lost something.

Published in: on March 31, 2006 at 8:16 am  Comments (5)  

Purple Pancakes

Sunday, Father Gary said a Mass for Elena. I'm told that this means that at a point in the Mass when they remember the dead they include Elena's name. As with past Catholic observances – baptisms for both girls, first communion for Maggie – I didn't go but I catered the party afterwards.

The mass gave Kim a reason to go back to the church. Gary knew how hard it would be and told Kim that even if she got all the way up to the steps of the church and couldn't enter, it was o.k. not to come in.

As an outsider, I've been impressed at how the Catholic church has staged life events that encourage people who have left to come back. You come back to the church to get married. When you have children you come back to get them baptized. Half a decade later you come back to prepare them for their first communion. Other religions have similar patterns. A periodic reason for you to come back and reaffirm your faith.

After the death of a child – whether young or old – how do you come back? Do the words still comfort? Are the rituals meaningful?

Kim faced her first trip back to the church together with her sister and brother, her parents, and Maggie. I communed with Elena in our kitchen. Elena loved to make pancakes with me. Crepes, dutch pancakes, the occasional waffle, and most often ordinary pancakes.

Ordinary pancakes.

I find magic in the kitchen. Nothing really feels ordinary to me. I know there are people who buy mixes or batter in a bottle but I love the magic of mixing a few ingredients and getting something so satisfying. Sure, I've bought a mix while on vacation, but there in my own kitchen I can easily measure out a couple of cups of flour and add some baking powder, salt, and sugar. In another bowl I can crack a couple of eggs and add milk and a touch of oil. Then wet joins dry with just enough but not too much mixing.

Pancake batter.

Elena loved measuring out each ingredient. It was how I worked with Maggie on math when she was little. "What happens if we double the recipe?" or "There are three teaspoons in a tablespoon, how many teaspoons do we need if the recipe calls for two tablespoons?" Elena loved to crack the eggs and then beat them before adding the milk. But her favorite part was adding the color.

One day Elena asked if pancakes always had to be the same color. In the winter, Kim used to put food coloring into water in squirt bottles and let the girls paint pictures in the snow. Elena wanted to use the food coloring in the pancakes. She didn't just want one color of pancake. She wanted lots of colors. We settled on four.

From then on, we'd divide the batter into four bowls after it was all mixed together. She'd then use food coloring to create the colors she wanted. The brighter the better.

Sunday, while the rest of the family was in church I made the batter for green, yellow, red, and purple pancakes.

Purple pancakes.

While people returned to the house I heated up a cast iron griddle across two burners. The surface of the pancakes brown a bit and the color dulls, but the edges remain brightly colored. And when you cut into them with your fork . . . nothing beats a purple pancake.

We saved the leftover batter and Maggie and I finished cooking them for dinner on Tuesday night. Maggie ate a ton. She needed to try each color and insisted on saving room for extra purples.

Published in: on March 30, 2006 at 8:12 am  Comments (3)  

Packing Peanuts

A box is left outside the door. Maybe for me, maybe for Kim, or maybe for one of the girls.

I bring it inside. Oh, it's for me. Cool.

Before I can open it, Maggie is at my side pressing up against me looking to see who it's from, who it's for, and what might be inside.

It's a book. I'm happy and after a glance at the book and an inquisitive look at me for my approval, she's happy.

She can get busy playing with the packing material. If it's the plastic bags or little plastic strips of trapped air she starts popping them. If it's styrofoam peanuts or popcorns, she gets busy breaking them up or moving her hand back and forth through them.

She wanders off back to the computer. I leaf through the book while absent mindedly playing with the packing material left behind.

It's the same when we order something for Maggie. She loves the present we have sent to her, but she always takes the time to play with the packing material.

All that time that I wanted to grow up to be a teacher or a doctor or an astronaut – I should have set my sites on growing up to be styrofoam peanuts. Sure, there's still time. Grad school wasn't a waste – but where do you go to learn how to be packing material.

I want to be the stuff that keeps the important stuff safe and looking good. I want to be the stuff that kids look forward to, no matter what's in the box. I want to be the stuff that you get and could use – if you wanted to – when you send more stuff on to someone else. I want to be able to hang out with my other styrofoam peanut friends adapting to the different shapes and situations.

I want to be there when the shipper carefully packs the gift and sends it off. I want to be inside the box safe while traveling to a place I can't even imagine. Kept in the dark, I'd hear and feel the bumps of the road and the thump of being tossed up onto the loading dock. I'd hear the truck and feel the plane. I'd land safely and be scanned along with my buddies as I rushed to the next distribution point.

Then it will be time for delivery. The final bump as me and my buddies land on a table. Oh the light. After all that time in the dark, I would squint against the oncoming onslaught of daylight as I hear the tape being pulled from the box. For a moment I'm brushed aside as the gift is removed from the box. It's always great to see the look of delight on the recipient's face.

It's been a long trip. I'm feeling a little stiff. Would you mind cracking my back?

A hand reaches into the box and absent minded brushes by me on the way to cracking my neighbor in half. Sounds refreshing – not brutal. Oh good. I'm next. Ahhhhh.

You can study to be a lawyer or a firefighter or whatever. Me, I'm working on becoming a packing peanut. Not literally, of course.

Published in: on March 29, 2006 at 3:16 pm  Comments (2)  


Saturday, Kim and I went to a coffee tasting put on by Phoenix Coffee and sampled five Indonesian coffees. Had we tasted one of them this week and a different one next week, we may not have been able to taste all of the differences. We probably would have been able to pick out our favorite – the Sulawesi. We drink a lot of it.

The tasting was a lot of fun and side by side there were differences that would most likely have been too subtle to notice otherwise. The Phoenix staff did a great job of presenting the geographic and political background for each region. They also talked about what we should taste in the cup and why. They took us through the differences in dry and wet processing and showed us the different green beans that were roasted and brewed. They talked about the right roasts for the different beans.

Kim took careful notes on the sheet they provided. It was prestained with coffee so we didn't mind spilling a little here or there as we tasted and drank way too much coffee.

At a formal tasting, I think the coffee grounds are mixed directly with the hot water in the tasting cup. Here we had full cups of brewed coffee from Sulawesi, Java, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, and Sumatra. Water and little bits of bagel cleansed the palate in between. I wonder if tasting is something that can be learned. It seems that there are so many variables that are controlled after the bean is harvested. The depth of the roast and the style of brew all seem to change what rolls over your tongue.

The owners of the Phoenix had two daughters who were helping distribute prizes and collect donations. So cute. The eldest was nine. Side by side you could tell one from the other. There are people who are good at tasting the differences in coffees and people who are good at remembering the differences in people. I don't tend to be very good at either. I had the hardest time figuring out which of Kim's cousins were which for the longest time. It didn't matter that they didn't look that much alike. I would have to ask her "which one is that".

Even though we could easily tell Maggie from Elena – whether side by side or not – we would often call one by the other's name. I worried about that a lot after Elena died. Calling Maggie "Elena" when Elena was in the other room was no big deal. Making that mistake after Elena died was something else entirely.

It was a fairly common mistake. Many who would come visit us in the days after Elena died would look over at Maggie and quietly ask me "how's Elena doing?" Once I understood what they meant, it was a lot easier to answer.

I've wondered if each topic will lead me back to Elena. While she was alive it often did. I would see something and smile and think of one of my girls. Like calling out the wrong name, this mental path back to her feels different now that she's dead.

Something as simple as tasting five different coffees.

It could be that Elena loved helping me make coffee in the morning. If we were using the vacuum pot she would help me grind the coffee. She would turn the grinder until her arm grew tired. Then I would place my hand on top of hers and whirr it around until all of the beans were ground.

If we were using the french press she would stir the grounds and later press the plunger down slowly all the way. If we were using the espresso machine she would tamp down the coffee and turn the buttons on and off at just the right time.

The espresso machine isn't working lately. I've been shopping for a new one. I've compared prices and features and have spent way too much time on the whole process. I may be stalling. You see, I've looked everywhere and no one sells one that includes Elena as an attachment to help me brew coffee in the morning. 

Published in: on March 28, 2006 at 8:55 am  Comments (8)  

Reading Copy

When you are reading quietly to yourself, you eyes probably skip down the page fairly quickly. Now and then you may have to back up and re-read a sentence. Your emphasis was so out of kilter with the author's that the sentence just didn't make sense.

You probably don't, however, need to carefully preview each sentence and decide which words need emphasis. That is a task reserved for an actor or someone reading copy.

When you are reading a script for a radio or television commercial, you often take the time to mark it up. You think about which words you will punch and how the meaning changes. You are trying to convey the meaning that the author intended and that's not always easy. A standard exercise for budding talent is to take a sentence and consider the different meanings that can be conveyed by stressing different words. Take, for example, this sentence that has been running through Kim and my heads since Elena died:

What do I do now?

Simple question consisting of only five words. What is it really asking? That depends, in many ways, on which word is stressed.

For example, suppose I stress the word "now". Read the question as "What do I do NOW?" Now as opposed to before. Now that this has happened. Now could mean the next action or now could mean from now forward. Not only does stressing the word change the meaning but intonation can change as well. Taking a breath and pausing a beat can change the meaning. Leonard Lopate talked to Andrew Wade about some of the advice Wade provided to actors in the Royal Shakespeare Company on "How to Speak Shakespeare" (

If you restrict yourself to just examining the words you stress, there are still many meanings you can evoke. "What do I DO now?" or "What DO I do now?" or more dramatically "What DO I DO now?"

Make another simple change. Change the word "I" to "we". Now you need to communicate who is meant by "we". Is it me and Kim? Is it our immediate family? Is it our neighborhood? Other parents who have lost children? Who is this "we" and how central is it to the question.

Believe me, in the last month we have asked these questions in all of their permutations. We had been asking the same questions before Elena died. I remember when I was studying for my qualifying exams and one of the professors stopped me in the mail room to ask how it was going. I told him that I had been working through a lot of old exams and practice questions.

He smiled and said, "oh the questions are the same. It's the answers that change."

Published in: on March 27, 2006 at 10:07 am  Leave a Comment  

Mr. Raymont’s Eulogy

The following is the eulogy that Gary Raymont delivered at Elena's funeral
one month ago tomorrow. It is reprinted with his permission.

For those of you who do not know me, I am Gary Raymont and I am a member of the outstanding staff at Boulevard School. I am one of the Kindergarten teachers at Boulevard and last year I had the honor and privilege to have Elena as one of my students.

Before I start sharing my favorite memories about my little girlfriend
(which was my nickname for her), I want to say thank you to 3 special people.

First of all I want to say thank you to Maggie, Elena's big sister for being just that, her big sister. Maggie, Elena would often draw pictures of you and her during choice time and in her journal writing activities. She may not have said it often Maggie, but Elena loved having you as her big sister.

Maggie, here is a poem you wrote about Elena, when you were in Mrs. Rimedio's Kindergarten class:
"Elena, bad sometimes, but we always love her."

Maggie you are now a 4th grader at Boulevard, and all the teachers and staff want to say thank you for being that big sister to your little sister Elena.

2 other people I want to personally thank are Elena’s Mom and Dad.
It took me almost 5 months to figure out who Kim and Daniel where, because I always called them Elena's Mom and Elena's Dad. Just a few Fridays ago Elena's Mom was in my room getting ready for Girl Scouts and I said, "Hey Elena's Mom. What's Shaking?"
Kim, I want tell everyone what you told me what was shaken, that will be our little secret.

Every year when a classroom teacher receives a brand new list of students, we all hope to have parents in our room like Elena's Mom and Dad. Parents who understand the developmental stages
of young children, parents who are caring and loving to their children, parents who realize the importance of schooling, and parents who realize that their children do get themselves into trouble sometimes.

On behalf of myself and all the teachers and staff at Boulevard School we want to thank you for being wonderful and supportive parents. And thank you for allowing the Boulevard School Community to have the opportunity and privilege to educate your 2 beautiful

My first encounter with Elena and her family was when Maggie was entering Kindergarten. Maggie was assigned to Mrs. Rimedio’s. We think Elena was around 2 years old when Maggie entered school. Even back then our Elena knew what she wanted. I never saw Elena holding anyone’s hand. Elena took full control whenever she walked into Boulevard School. Whenever I saw Elena, her mom and dad or Maggie where always following her. Even at 2, Elena had full control of the halls of Boulevard. I would say to myself, who is this little spitfire.

Well I found out a few years after Maggie entered Kindergarten, because it was Elena’s turn to start school. Before school started Peg and I went to look at our class lists to check out our new kids, Boy was Peg upset when Elena’s name was not on her list, she wanted Elena really bad, but Elena was all mine.

In Shaker The Kindergarteners start school with transitional meetings for 2 days. Elena’s mom was assisting us last year as the parent volunteer making sure no one came down our wing until it was their scheduled time. She took her job very seriously. Elena’s mom has had this job for several years now.

Elena’s mom took her job very seriously and she takes no prisoners. One year we had a staff member whose child was starting Kindergarten in our building. Well this mom and child started walking down the Kindergarten wing and Elena’s mom stopped her. The staff member said it was all right because she was a teacher here. Well Elena’s mom said, Well Ms. So and so today you are a Kindergarten Mom and you must stay with me so please came back with me with me now. You go girl! Score one for Elena’s Mom.

When it was Elena’s turn to attend her meeting with her mom and dad, only dad was there. That’s the first time I officially meet Elena’s dad. Elena’s mom did not attend this session because she volunteered to assist with the Kindergarten orientation. She was in the building helping other Kindergarten moms and dads dealing with their nervousness and stress. Elena’s mom is always looking out for other people. When it was Elena’s turn for her meeting, this little girl walked in my room like she was 5 feet tall. She walked in and took charge and started to play with the other children in the room.

All of last year Elena was at table 3 with 5 other children. I never had to go to that table to see if the children understood the directions because I had Elena there telling everyone what to do. I often called her my student-student teacher, because I had Mr. Philbin as my real student teacher and Elena was his back up.

Sometimes Elena was the last one to finish her work because she was organizing what everyone was going to do at choice time or recess time. I keep on saying, "Elena use your time wisely," or "Elena don’t worry what your neighbor is doing concentrate on your own work."

Elena was a talker and always said what was on her mind. What I love about 5 year olds is that they love to kiss and tell, their teachers what is happening with their brothers and sisters and their parents. Elena’s mom and dad, boy do I know a lot about what you guys do at home. My lips are sealed.

Over the course of her Kindergarten year, The Kindergarten Team had the pleasure to watch Elena blossom into a reader and writer. Elena had a heart of gold and was always telling what I should be doing or what other children should be doing. I remember one day, I asked her if Dr. Kimberly put her on the payroll and was in charge of the room. Her response was "NOT YET!!!!"

"Well until that happens I am still in charge and let me make the decisions."

"OK," she said.

I can’t tell you how many times Elena would do or say something and I would hear Elena’s mom call "ELENA," in that special way mom’s have saying "you don’t say or do that."

I loved conference time with the Steinberg’s, because mom or dad would always bring me coffee. So future moms and dads it you want to stay on Mr. Raymont’s good side I take a large coffee with 5 sugars and cream.

I have a tendency to give my kids in my room special nicknames, Last year I had Jack Be Nimble and Sophie Wophie, Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater and GIRLFRIEND. Well Elena was my little girlfriend, mom got Jealous so I told Elena that her mom was my Big Girlfriend and she was my little girlfriend.

One day after school Elena had a head scratcher where I had to sit down outside on the ledge and get my head massaged. After a few minutes Dad would say OK Elena it is time for Mr. Raymont to go, Elena’s response was no not yet he needs a few more minutes.

Elena’s mom and dad always wanted to keep Elena busy. There where many after school activities. My favorite one was when Elena was playing soccer. I just had to laugh to myself wishing I could see this little girl with a big heart running up and down on the soccer field.

A tradition that occurs when any of my former Kindergarten students come visit me as First graders is to answer these questions when they visit. "Who was your favorite Kindergarten teacher? Who taught you how to read? Who taught you how to write? Who got you ready for First grade?" The answer to these questions is "Mr.Raymont". Elena was the first, First grader to come down this year.

One day this year Elena and a few of her friends decided to go play somewhere else besides the playground. Pretty soon I saw Elena’s mom and another mom looking frantically for their kids, we did an all school call for them in the building and still could not find them. Well a few minutes later all parties where together again. When I asked what happened, Elena was the first one to say, "It wasn’t my fault" They made me do it.

Since Elena’s passing, I sit back now and laugh and cry about all the fond memories I had with her. This spunky little girl was loved by everyone she came in contact with. I talked with one Elena’s friends who was very sad about what had happened. We went for a little walk and then I held him on my lap and we just talked about how much fun we had with Elena. You know Mr. Raymont I hope I can remember Elena for a long time, I said you will honey. We will always remember Elena forever and ever. To my little GIRLFRIEND, good-bye, I love you and I will treasure the time I had with you.

Published in: on March 26, 2006 at 8:53 am  Comments (2)  

Weekend Homework

On a beautiful Saturday in March, what would you do with five or six hours to spend any way you want?

“But I can’t,” you answer, “I’ve got so much I have to do this weekend.”

No, you really don’t.

“I’ve got to get through the emails in my inbox.”

Nope. In fact, maybe you should just delete them all. If that feels too radical, just commit to a unconnected day. No email, no cell phone, no catching up on blogs – even this one.

“I need time to plan for something like this. If I’d thought ahead I could have – ”

Nope. No big plans. Nothing dramatic. Go on a walk. Roll around on the floor with your kids. Send the kids out and roll around the floor with someone else. No kids? Skip directly to step two.

Maggie and Elena and I used to love rolling down hills together. We’d stop on the way back from picking up our mail and get a couple of cookies to go. We’d roll down hills till we were dizzy and tired. We’d roll next to each other and we’d roll together. I’d wrap my arms around one or the other and use my elbows against the ground to keep my weight from crushing them as I rolled over the top.

We’d laugh in a heap at the bottom of the hill and then do it all over again. Then we’d sit and watch the ducks and eat our cookies.

How much planning did it take? None.

Maybe one of the kids would ask if instead we could go to the playground and have a picnic. We’d head over to the playground where they used to go with their great grandfather or we’d stop on the way out of the library at the playground right next to it.

Stop on your way back from somewhere and do something fun and impulsive.

“But I can’t.”

Yes. You can.

It’s Shel Silverstein in “Where the Sidewalk Ends” reminding you that you can listen to the mustn’ts and the don’ts and the impossibles and the won’ts. You can listen to all of the people in your life telling you what you can’t and shouldn’t do. It may even be your voice that you hear in your head saying what you absolutely can not do.

But Silverstein says after you listen to all of those well-meaning warnings, “then listen close to me – Anything can happen, child. ANYTHING can be.”

Published in: on March 25, 2006 at 9:25 am  Comments (4)  

A Couple of Degrees

Jill forwarded me a link to a New York Times article from March 23 titled “Adopted in China, Seeking Identity in America”. The second girl mentioned shares a first name with Maggie ( Qiu ). It was this, probably insignificant, detail that drew me into the story.

What is it that captures our attention and connects us to a story?

You can see this in people who play the lottery. After the nightly number is announced they say “oh, I had all but three of the numbers.” The degrees of separation from a winning lottery number are such that a huge number of people feel close to the winning number. Close enough that they play again and again.

We do it with our sports teams. We are moved by victories or losses by people who happen to be employed by the local franchise. These may be people who could care less about our town. These players might rush back to their real homes once the season is over and take their time coming back to their local homes when the season starts. But when they put on the local colors, their success or failure can move us and the people we interact with. The team might play somewhere near you or near where you grew up or it has a practice facility in your town or someone you know works with someone involved in the team. Just a few degrees of separation.

We read of someone who ran a red light and crashed their SUV into another car. We think, we were just over there the other day. That could have been us. Maybe it’s less of a direct connection. Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that we drive too. It could somehow have been us.

There are some who group us together based on our zodiac sign, the year we were born, the area we grew up in, the high school or college we might have graduated from. a television show or radio host we might have tuned in to, or some other shared memory. These are some of the more loosely grouped clubs that Chuck talked about us joining in a comment attached to a previous entry.

Maggie’s club goes back to 1991. According to the article there were “61 Chinese children adopted by Americans in 1991, and Qiu Meng was one of the 206 adopted the next year, when the law was fully put into effect. Last year, more than 7,900 children were adopted from China.”

I don’t remember it being quite so common when we traveled to China in 1997. Then again, I had a colleague at Oberlin who had been through the process. He and his wife helped us in many ways and introduced us to two other families who were going through the same process with different agencies.

The three girls, Maggie, Cassie, and Bethany, adopted within months of each other and  close in age, all attended the same pre-school together. There’s a bond that’s hard to explain. They’re all in the same club. Cassie’s sister Susie is also in the same club. In fact, the three families got together to celebrate Susie’s first birthday before her parents had gone to meet her in China.

Elena never really understood that she wasn’t a member of this club. In fact, my friend Stephen would always do a double take when he saw Elena because he forgot that she wasn’t Chinese. He’d see her and nod and say “oh that’s right. She’s not.” The other girls would never make fun of the fact that she wasn’t adopted and they, like Maggie’s Shen sisters, adopted her into their group.

There are now fifty-five thousand children adopted from China. Fifty-five thousand people that Maggie has a connection to.

Published in: on March 24, 2006 at 12:07 pm  Comments (1)  


There I am in the newspaper again. This time, however, there were no surprises.

The authors or the article had called up to ask if they could come over and interview me a little over a month ago. Actually one of their dad’s called and asked. There was no school that day and Kim was out with the girls somewhere so I said sure.

They arrived, took off their shoes, and we quickly configured the dad’s computer so that the boys could print out the questions they wanted to ask me about podcasting. The two boys asked the questions while the dad took notes on his 12″ Apple laptop. Once they were satisfied with their answers they put their shoes back on, shook my hand, and left.

A few weeks later, the dad emailed me a draft of the article and asked me if it was ok. Wait a minute, you say, real journalists wouldn’t do that.

I’m not so sure. I used to call myself a real journalist and, when possible, I always sent my articles to the people I wrote about before publishing. I had editors here or there who didn’t like the practice. I wasn’t letting the people I was writing about dictate what would be said about them but I often benefited from additions or corrections that they suggested. If I got a piece of technology wrong or mis-described a detail of how a technology worked, I was grateful to get more information.

I never had someone tell me that they didn’t say something that I quoted them as saying. I had people ask for a chance to further explain what I quoted them as saying. Sometimes I was able to meet their needs and sometimes they were just trying to find a way to soften something they wish they had said a bit differently. In a dozen years of articles I’ve only twice had people ask that I not print a quote. In both cases the subjects were Apple employees and in both cases they admitted to saying exactly what I was quoting them as saying. In both cases, they were nice juicy quotes. What do you do when someone says, “look, I did say that and you can print it, but I’m going to get fired for that.”

For me, real life always wins. Real life in this case is a basically good guy who is going to get fired for saying something in the heat of the moment – something that is true but not something he should have said – something he said to help a customer with a problem that I happened to be present to hear. I’m ok not printing it. I’m glad I ran it past him.

Real journalists know that every step of the process is subjective. From deciding what story to cover to what angle to take when covering it to knowing where to begin and end the story to knowing what quotes to include – these are all subjective. You can hide behind the facts and say “but they really said this” or “it was said in a public forum I’m legally entitled to print this”. What is legal and what is right are two different matters.

The good news is that it’s not just third graders writing for the Boulevard Times who know this.

We were contacted a couple of weeks ago by Channel 3, an NBC affiliate. The sister of Elena’s first grade teacher passed on a message through the teacher to us that Channel three would be interested in doing a story about this blog and the sharing that many of you have done in your comments. I called the name I was given and talked to a very kind and thoughtful man who explained the angle he would like to see taken in the story and why he thought it would be helpful to other people. I talked to Kim and we agreed and were told that reporter Mike O’Mara would follow up with us the next day.

Mike called as we were heading out to meet my parents somewhere. We talked briefly about the story and what he wanted to accomplish. I told him that we did not want pictures of Elena shown on the television. He politely pushed a bit and asked why. In addition to the reasons I’ve given on the blog, I wouldn’t want people to be moved because she was a cute little girl with a ton of energy. If we wanted to, we could release the home movies we have of Elena which really show her personality. But, for me, a lot of the value of the blog has been that people have been able to communicate their own losses. I also don’t want to exploit Elena’s memory.

Mike thought for a moment. He said that he understood but that television is a visual medium. He thought he would get push back from his producers who would want a shot or two of Elena to help set up the story. I thanked him and told him to let us know. I told him that we didn’t much care whether or not this story was on t.v. but that we did feel strongly about pictures of Elena. Although I didn’t tell him, I’ve seen myself on t.v. – it’s not a pretty sight. I was happy to do the story if it would help other families but it wasn’t that important to me that I was willing to compromise on privacy issues.

He told me he’d get back to me. That night he called to say that he wouldn’t be coming over the next day to shoot the story. He’d talked to his producers and they had been convinced that the story would not be compelling enough without the pictures and so he’d told them there was no point in doing the story. I was so impressed. He wasn’t calling to pressure me or to see if I might have changed my mind. This was a courtesy call to let us know he’d heard our reservations about the story and respected our wishes.

After our dealings with the Sun newspapers, our faith in the media had certainly wavered. Not only had the Sun done the wrong thing in print, they had responded inadequately to people who had complained to them about their story.

We still get emails from people in the publishing business who read this blog. My sister has forwarded notes she’s gotten from editors she’s worked with. In addition, a professional photographer friend of mine answered an inquiry I made about whether or not the reprinting of the picture from Elena’s funeral program was legal, “Generally speaking, you can’t republish a photograph not taken by you unless you have permission from the photographer. […] Not only is this incredibly bad taste, it could be a copyright violation. This is not a legal opinion […], but it is the common guideline that we follow in the publishing business.”

Bad taste. The inability to see that real life and real people should always be foremost in your mind.

Mike O’Mara and a pair of third grade reporters for the Boulevard Times (not named because of their age) have shown us that there can be responsible journalists at all levels.

Published in: on March 23, 2006 at 8:33 am  Comments (3)  

Thoughts from the Backseat

You can learn a surprising amount just by listening to children while they talk. Every other Monday I drove Elena and her friend Jack to soccer practice. Coach Paul controlled thirty kids with a calmness and a sense of humor that I hope for. Me, I had just two of them in the back seat and no whistle.

We’d pull up to Jack’s house. He often brought a snack for him and Elena to share on the way to soccer. After getting him settled in the car seat I’d get back in the car and have barely closed the door when they’d start on that day’s conversation.

Elena fired the opening round in a recent exchange.

“Jack, can you do the splits?”

“No, I have a penis.”

I considered stopping things at this point but let it go. Elena didn’t.

“That has nothing to do with it. I can do the splits.”

“That’s ’cause girls don’t have penises.”

“No, women are just more flexible than boys. Women can do the splits.”

“That’s not why. Coach Kangas is flexible but he can’t do the splits because he has a penis.”

Clearly it was time to move them to a different subject and I did. Kim and Jack’s mother Patti always said that Jack and Elena argued like an old married couple. There were times that they would travel together in silence, but more often than not, they would be trying to top each other’s story or fighting about things that only matter to six year olds.

As we headed for home one day, Elena told Jack that she and Zachary were the only two Jewish kids in her classroom.

“But,” said Jack, “I thought you believed in Jesus.”

“I do,” answered Elena, “I’m Catholic too.” She hadn’t seen the problem with this that Maggie had identified by her age. She was completely comfortable believing in Jesus during those moments that she was being Catholic and not worrying about the issues during those moments that she was being Jewish.

“You’re Catholic?” Jack questioned. “I’m not.”

This puzzled me. His parents are Catholic. They go to a Catholic church. They send him for Catholic religious instruction.

“I’m a Christ – asist.” I’m actually not sure what he said because he didn’t repeat it but it wasn’t Christian. It was ‘Christ’ something where this was pronounced with a long ‘i’.

“What does that mean?” asked Elena.

“Well we believe in Jesus, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy and you don’t. You’re Jewish.”

“I believe in Jesus, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy.”

“You couldn’t. You just couldn’t.”

I interrupted to point out that we were at Jack’s house and they could stop arguing.

“You’re interructing,” Elena said.

“Interrupting,” I agreed.

I’ve been thinking about belief this week in the wake of the funeral. I’ve asked Kim before about kids who are taught about Jesus, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy. At some point they discover the truth about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Why doesn’t that shake their faith in Jesus?

Why doesn’t that set them up to wonder at what age they will be told that this too is a set of stories told to them to make their life more orderly and easier as a young person? I’m not arguing whether or not you should believe in Jesus – I think that is a personal decision that is none of my business. I’m asking how these other icons of childhood can fall away without shaking your faith in the other things you were raised to believe in?

That’s why it’s easier to let six year olds argue about why boys can’t do the splits.

Published in: on March 22, 2006 at 8:02 am  Comments (9)