Sunday, January 15, 2017

Fake news

As a retired journalist, I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of "fake news."

I guess I shouldn't, though. Fake news has always been around. It's simply an old concept with a new name, and maybe a new nuance. It's sometimes known as propaganda, or yellow journalism, or bias, or perhaps spin. The nuance is how politicized the conveying of news has become.

In my 40-plus years behind a keyboard and a press credential, the idea of spin was always anathema to me. I always took my role as a journalist — specifically, a sports writer — as seriously as I could. I always tried to quote my subjects as accurately as possible so they could get their story (not mine) out to the public, trusting their confidence in my ability to do that.

It's hard work because you are constantly dealing with points of view. What my subjects saw isn't necessarily what I saw, even though we were both looking at the same thing. It doesn't mean either of us was wrong, or trying for an advantage. It just means that an element of trust is involved, and on both sides.

Nearly all the journalists I know work this way. They are professionals. They are committed to the dispensing of truth as best as they can.

Trust is journalism's incredibly thin connective tissue, linking the originator to the audience. Trust has to be strong, but flexible. Like elastic, perhaps. Otherwise, if it breaks, everything tumbles.

I never studied journalism in college, because the school I went to didn't offer it. I never worked for school newspapers because up until my junior year in college, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. At one point, I thought I might become a history teacher.

Somehow, I was steered into journalism, I guess because I loved to write and I loved sports, and so my first professional job was for a small family-owned newspaper in Quakertown, PA. Initially, I covered borough council meetings, school board meetings, car wrecks and fires, with sports coming on weekends.

This was on-the-job training for me, as I see it now but probably didn't know it at the time. I learned to listen and observe, to cover events in real time and then ask questions in detail.

Always, the goal was to be as accurate as possible, without any intentional slant.

Now comes fake news. What to believe? Thanks, in part, to the 24/7 news cycle, we are assaulted by information not only from reputable news organizations, but from Internet sources and social media as well. It's confusing. It challenges our trust.

And now, more than ever, it seems, it's up to the consumer to decide what is fake and what is real.

Sometime, it takes a little research.

And sometimes, it just takes a little common sense.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

Socialized

I had another life event this week, so run up the blue pennant.

I filed for my Social Security retirement.

This was a week ago, and I was both looking forward to filing my claim and dreading it.

I was looking forward to it because it means I finally cash in on nearly 50 years of paycheck deductions. I was dreading it because it meant I had to actually go to the SSA office to get the paperwork rolling.

I know, I know. I could have done this whole process online.

But when I called the local office last week to let them know I turn 66 next month, they suggested I come in for my interview rather than file online. I actually thought it was a good idea because I wanted a real person in front of me to answer any questions I might have.

Plus, I like to be taken by the hand when I walk through the unknown and unfamiliar territory.

So Kim and I took the day off and went to the SSA office in Salisbury.

We took the day off because I'd heard the horror stories of long lines of people waiting to file their claims, and I was preparing myself for hours of bending my patience. Indeed, when I made my phone call to set up the appointment, I was on hold for nearly 20 minutes of bad music before I finally heard a human voice. It was not a good omen.

My fears were confirmed when we walked through the door. Immediately, you walk into a waiting area that has about 50 chairs lined up in rows like in a movie theater. They were nearly all filled. There was a beefy guy standing in the corner, in a uniform, wearing a badge, with his arms crossed. Uh oh. You take a number, then you take a seat, and then you wait.

But then magic happened. Within 10 minutes, my number was called. Kim and I went to our interview cubicle where, instead of a government bureaucrat, we spoke with a pleasant professional. The first thing she told us was that she was going to ask us a series of questions, and we'd better answer truthfully or else we were liable for imprisonment.

That was a little unnerving. And curious. The only ID I needed for my fraud wall was my Social Security number, which I assumed hasn't been hacked by the Russians just yet. As far as I know.

Anyway, the interview process lasted about 15 minutes. It was, all in all, painless.

I felt like I'd crossed a threshold. My first check goes into direct deposit in March.

I'm officially old.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

La La Land by the Sea

Kim and I have been on a movie jag lately.

I mean, the kind of movie jag where you pay lots of money to sit in a theater with strangers.

About a week or so ago, after falling for the very effective television promos for "Manchester by the Sea," which pretty much promised us would be the best movie ever in the last decade, we broke down and went to see it.

I try not to read too many Internet reviews about movies before I go to see them, mostly because I'm compelled, like an addiction, to read the spoiler alerts. It's kind of like somebody telling me how a story ends before I've finished reading (or seeing) it and I can't stop myself.

It's like "SPOILER ALERT!!! DON'T READ BEYOND THIS POINT!!!

And then I do. It's a dare I can't resist.

I do check Rotten Tomatoes, though, mostly to see if the movie is getting a high percentage of favorable reviews. That way I feel like I have a decent chance of not wasting my money on a bomb, no matter what Matt Damon says.

So we watched the movie. We had to go out of town — to High Point — to see it because the flick wasn't in any theater closer to us. I couldn't figure that one out.

We liked the movie well enough, but with qualifications. It's beautifully photographed. I loved the New England ambiance. The acting was superb. There will be Oscars.

But the storyline had me wanting to slit my wrists. It's not what I wanted to see over the Christmas holidays. Or ever. It's not the date night I had in mind for my wife and myself.

Sigh.

So then it was Kim's turn to choose.

A few days later, she said she found the movie she wanted to see. We were going to "La La Land."

Two movies within 10 days qualifies as a jag for us. It's rare that we do this.

So we went to The Grand 18 in Winston-Salem. It's probably been 10 years since I've seen a flick there (maybe longer), because we usually head to Tinseltown in Salisbury. But The Grand. Oh, my.

I walked up to the box office and told the attendant, without thinking, that I wanted tickets for "two seniors for 'La La Land.'" I think he smiled, probably thought that was the most truthful thing he'd heard all day.

We walked into the theater room that was showing the movie, and it was gigantic. The screen was bigger than our house. And when we picked our seats, they turned out to be naugahyde La-Z-Boy recliners. I'm not kidding.

"This is my theater from now on," said Kim as we literally settled in for the next couple hours.

I knew the flick was going to be a musical on the scale of something like the old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers productions back in Hollywood's heydays. The opening scene took place on a traffic-jammed Los Angeles freeway ramp, with hundreds of singers and dancers cavorting around their cars.

I was hooked. The movie had me from the start.

The two leads, doe-eyed and wholesome Emma Stone and wryly handsome Ryan Gosling, were astonishing. I later found out that Gosling learned to play jazz piano in six weeks for the movie, and that all the piano playing used in the film was actually his.

There is a Gosling-Stone soft-shoe dance number on a Los Angeles hilltop at sunset. It was filmed in one continuous take in six minutes. Because, you know, it was sunset. You can't tell the sun "Cut! Let's do that again."

We were well satisfied. There will be Oscars. When the movie was over, Kim had to pull me out of my recliner.

I'm hoping the jag continues. One of the previews was for a flick called "A Dog's Purpose," of which some of the teasers had me tearing up. Then I want to see "Hidden Figures," the true untold story of female African-American mathematicians who helped the NASA space program succeed. Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar for her role in "Help," is in this one. And then there's "Gifted," another Spencer movie about a child prodigy.

This could be a good year for date movies, and it's only January.










Sunday, January 1, 2017

The great escape

Whew. That was close.

In a year seemingly filled to critical mass with celebrity deaths — first Beatles manager Allen Williams and actor William "Father Mulcahy" Christopher of MASH didn't quite clear the Dec. 31 deadline (so to speak — or maybe they did) — so I feel kinda lucky.

New Year's came and went and I tentatively set foot in 2017 — big toe first, as if testing the water —with a measure of caution. After passing through 66 of these annual demarcations, I've finally learned that the coming year isn't necessarily going to be better than the last. Or worse.

Mostly, it just is. Mostly, I guess it's up to us to make the best of what we're given, even if some things are beyond our control.

An out-of-state friend of mine wrote that she doesn't judge the worth of a year by the number of celebrities who happened to die in it. I can see her point. Still, celebrities are celebrities for a reason, leaving something of an impact on our lives for good or bad. When one passes, it can touch us, move us, shock us. When a whole bunch of them pass within a 365-day time frame, it leaves us shaking our uncomprehending heads in a kind of bewilderment. Wassup with that, bro? Let me outta here.

I spent the New Year's evening with my friends, and that's always a good idea. There was some interesting conversation, some food, some drink, then some glass clinking and some hugging when 12:00.01 got here. There's a sense of security and continuity in that and I was grateful for it.

Good friends are good to have. The crowd Kim and I run with ("run" is a relative term here. Kim and I usually find ourselves as the oldest ones showing up. In fact, I'm the old guy that starts yawning before anyone else does and it's only 9:30) never needs an excuse to party. They are fully equipped with fire pits, front porches, back porches, spacious living and dining rooms. It's perfect, actually. What sometimes begins as a casual conversation on the sidewalk has the potential to end up as a party.

 Why not? If nothing else, 2016 showed us that life is short. So party on.




Sunday, December 18, 2016

Wacky Wakeyleaks

A week or so into this, I'm still trying to wrap my head around a Wake Forest radio sports analyst attempting — and apparently somewhat succeeding — in forwarding details of the Deacons' football game plans to several opposing teams.

Whaaa....????

C'mon. A leak? Wake Forest football? Those two concepts don't seem to go together.

It's not as if the Deacons are a traditional national football power (they are 432-633-33 overall in their history, and 6-4 in a mere 10 bowl appearances). The team is 6-6 this year and will play in the Military Bowl against Temple in a few days. The interesting thing here is that Wake Forest actually won enough games to be bowl eligible. It doesn't happen often, and when it does, it's generally cause for celebration.

And yet, the Atlantic Coast Conference is all in a dither (and rightfully so) after it's been revealed that former Wake Forest football player and assistant coach (and Wake Forest radio sports analyst before he was fired) Tommy Elrod allegedly provided team information to opponents Louisville, Virginia Tech and (say it ain't so) Army.

Apparently, Elrod did this over a three-year span. Holy moley.

To me, the real curiosity in this whole episode is that the benefiting schools involved (so far) didn't exactly jump off fieldhouse roofs to report Elrod's betrayal of his alma mater. To me, that's worse than the leak itself. It displays a serious lack of moral integrity (if not a lack of sportsmanship). And that should be troubling in a world of sports gambling, multi-million dollar booster- and corporate-endorsed sports programs and larger-than-life coaching contracts.

The ACC is so appalled that it's fined Louisville and Virginia Tech $25,000 each. Really? $25,000? I hope that doesn't break those schools' bank accounts. I guess this slap is meant to be an immediate, mostly cosmetic punishment, pending further investigation. Like from the NCAA.

Army, by the way, is not an ACC member (at least, I don't think so. I can't keep up with super conferences anymore. Things change...), so it hasn't been fined. But they are self-investigating their involvement in this sorry tale. That's something, I guess.

So far, the teams benefiting from Elrod's perfidy have been notified by Wake Forest that it's own investigation may or may not implicate those schools' involvement. I suppose it's for the best if you don't get a Christmas card from Wake Forest this year. You know. Season's greetings.

I also find it interesting that Wake Forest still became bowl eligible despite being compromised by the leaks. As one Deacon fan suggested, after all this, maybe the team is really better than its 6-6 record would indicate.

In a different sense, it's clear the team is already better than the ones who accepted Elrod's leaks.




Sunday, December 11, 2016

Window shopping

I guess I'm still in voting mode.

The other night my wife and I walked to Uptown Lexington (we live just a few blocks away and it was a crisp night for walking) with the idea of looking at the Christmas window dressings that grace the shopping district.

In her hand, Kim held an official Uptown Lexington ballot to vote on the window display we liked the best.

Oh, my. It was an easier decision to vote for president of the United States.

Which display would you choose?
Now, I'm not going to go through each merchant's display, and I'm not going to tell you for whom we voted, but I have to say, this is a pretty nice little promotion by the 50 or so participating shop owners to bring people into the district.

Coupled with the lighted trees on Main Street, the mostly creative shop window displays make Uptown look incredibly festive.

This is a good thing. As I get older, and further away from my childhood, the Christmas season itself seems less magical.

I mean, I outgrew Santa Claus at least a couple years ago. Necessary diets limit the number of Christmas cookies I should eat (I can't remember the last time I had a real tollhouse cookie, and Kim hasn't baked a Moravian sugar cake in years). And I swear I'm going to strangle the next singing chipmunk I hear.

Don't get me wrong. I'm still moved by the Christmas message, especially when I'm tearing up in a meaningful candlelight service. Maybe it's just that I've become jaded over the years knowing that the Christmas message is usually just a distant memory by Dec. 26.

Anyway, I think the window displays help me unjade some of that cynicism. So as we walked through town, I marveled at the lighted wine bottles pyramided like Christmas trees at Sophie's Cork & Ale; I oooohhed at the tandem bicycle at Lanier's, and I awwwwed at Snapshot the cat resting in her basket (don't tap the window, Kim) at Travels Unlimited.

I chuckled at the neat Lexington-opoly display at High Rock Outfitters and laughed out loud at the vase-making Santa at Missions Pottery. I truly enjoyed the beautiful simplicity of The Travel Center, Conrad and Hinkle, and the Davidson County Museum.

The Candy Factory and The Backyard Retreat are always special. Those two businesses constantly provide us with wonderful windows all year long, always seasonal, always creative. They could put big city windows to shame.

So Kim and I finished our window inspection. We went to the Square, where we marked our ballot and dropped it in the "mailbox" there for tallying.

It was a good feeling. It was fun. It felt a whole lot like Christmas.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The hugs and tears tour

The last thing I wanted to do was drive 500 miles to Allentown, Pennsylvania, over the Thanksgiving weekend for a memorial service.

But the service was for my Aunt Bea, who passed away last month at the age of 102. I figured it was the least I could do because she was a really cool aunt. Besides, I thought this would be an opportunity to see some cousins I haven't seen in half a century — if ever.

So we went.

The evening we arrived I called Joann, one of Bea's daughters, to tell her we just pulled in. Our hotel was just 10 minutes away from her place, and she had a standing invitation for us to come to dinner when we got into town. But I hesitated, knowing that she's 82 years old and I didn't want to put her out.

Bea's daughters: (from left) Joann, Mary Lou and Kay.
 That fear ended with the phone call. I expected to hear a feeble voice saying "Huh?" or "What?" every other word, but instead I got on-point conversation sprinkled with hearty chuckles and guffaws.

The same thing happened when we got there. She was flitting about her wonderful kitchen in her 100-plus-year-old Pennsylvania Dutch farmhouse, preparing hors d'oeuvres while her husband, Curt, fixed us drinks. This is what 82 looks like? Helping her out with the pot roast meal was another cousin, Karin, who is an ordained Lutheran or Methodist or Moon Child minister (not quite sure which). Karin, it turns out, babysat me when I was, well, a baby. I had no memory of her. But I won't forget her now. I like a minister who doesn't make me feel like I'm constantly in the presence of a minister. By the same token, it's somewhat comforting to have someone who is ordained hanging around to perform a sacrament of the church, just in case. You just never know.

(From left) Cousins Mary Lou, Joann, Karin, Kay, me, Charmayne and Darcy.
 Anyway, we ended up spending four hours there, reveling in memories and stories, before Kim and I returned to our hotel room.

The next day, we gathered at an historic restaurant for the luncheon/service. About 30 or so family members showed up. Each time I spotted a cousin I hadn't seen in decades, my eyes welled up and my throat clenched and we hugged. There were Kay and Mary Lou, who are Joann's sisters; Karin, who was Aunt Myrtle's daughter; Darcy, who was Uncle Donald's daughter; and Charmayne, who was Uncle Eugene's daughter.

Even Kim was tearing up, and she's not even related to these people.

Then we started meeting some of my cousins' adult children, like Erin and Jody, whose names I remembered hearing from Aunt Bea.

Karin conducted an informal memorial service, we sang a hymn or a facsimile thereof, and we traded several fond memories of Bea.

For a while, I thought the only blood family I had left were my two brothers and their children, but it turns out the maternal family tree is strong and thriving, even if it is somewhat weighted by an overabundance of estrogen. But that's OK, too. I think it's why the tree is thriving.

Turns out, 500 miles is nothing. Not when family is calling.