Sandy Hook: An essay, and some links that should be shared.

I’ve been trying to think of something to write here since the horrific violence that exploded in Newtown, a community only 15 minutes away from mine, on Friday. I’ve tried to think of something meaningful to add to the conversations about the tragedy that took the lives of 20 children, their educators, a mother and a violently troubled youth, but almost everything I’ve wanted to write has just seemed like an addition to the online noise that has surrounded the shootings.

Should I write about my friends who live in Newtown? I know many Newtowners; they are my fellow alums and my former teachers. They are my former students. They are my friends. Their children have lost their own friends now, and the pain of those parents as they cope with the grief of their  children is palpable.

Should I write about the media? I’ve been an education reporter, which often means covering tragedies involving the young.  If I were still in my old job, I would have been on the ground in Newtown, as some of my former co-workers are. It’s a thankless, horrible job they are doing, because as much as we thirst for information about a horror when we are nowhere near it, we resent the intrusion of the press when they are in our own backyards to supply the information demanded by the rest of the country. Don’t think the reporters aren’t affected by metabolizing and processing all the awful details so that the public can read them. My worst days were spent writing about the deaths of children, and I never covered anything as terrible as this.

Should I write about all the parents who have been answering tough questions all weekend? Now must be a hard time to be a parent. I admit that it’s selfish of me to have been grateful since Friday that I have no children, and that I’ve been spared the pain of that anxiety.

Should I write about politics? About mental health? About gun control? Surely enough noise is being made about all of that without me adding my own uninformed and unorganized opinions to the fray.

All I can do is acknowledge the tragedy and my reaction to it, and pass on to some of the things I’ve seen and read that matter:

First, a fund to donate to. I have this (indirectly) from a school administrator who recommends this as a legitimate donation site. And of course it is the United Way: Sandy Hook School Support Fund
UPDATE: Here is another fund, set up by the Sandy Hook Community members. This was shared with me by a Facebook friend who vouches for its legitimacy.
UPDATE: If you wish to make a donation in memory of a victim, the Newtown Patch today posted a list of the charities chosen by some of the victims’ families.

If you haven’t read “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” yet, you should. It’s a powerful and well-written essay about the state of mental health care in our country, and about the effect of a mentally ill child on a caregiver.

As, a follow-up, it’s helpful to read “I am Adam Lanza’s Psychiatrist.”

I haven’t organized my thoughts on gun control completely but Talking Points Memo offered a thought-provoking post on the subject a few days ago.

So that’s it, for now. Go. Live life. Grieve. Respect the grief of others. Acknowledge the validity of other people’s pain and work, and don’t take out the frustration we all feel on people who are just as stricken you are. That’s all I’ve got.

When Joan Didion noticed my dress.

I wore it last night because it reminded me of a feeling I get when I read her early work.

It’s olive green, and loose, and I wore it with sandals and a poncho and a bag with tassels on. I chose it because I’m a synesthete and I think of the world in terms of color and taste. The whole ensemble made me feel a little like one of her essays from the late ’60s, or like the sound of a Joni Mitchell album.

And when she signed my copy of Play it as it Lays, she looked up and complimented me on the dress. “I’m partial to that color,” she said.

When I was a young writer, hungry for wisdom and mentorship, that comment would have been anti-climactic for me, coming from the mouth of one of my heroes.

I first read the work of Joan Didion as a young journalist. An editor, choosing my name from the hat in our newsroom’s Secret Santa, gave me a copy of The White Album. It was exactly what I needed at a time when I was becoming jaded about my job. Didion’s essays lifted me out of the drudgery of school board meetings and graduation speeches. Her work taught me how to see the people and the pathos in my news stories. Her prose taught me how to describe them. Every essay I read was a challenge to be a better reporter.*

There are certain people who take sharp notice of the world, and who transmit their mindsets with a startling clarity.  Didion is one of these. It was a shock to discover her work. When I was a self-centered 23 year-old, she made me able to see a larger world through older eyes. I think I grew some compassion when I read her essays.

If I had met Didion at that age, I would have wanted to wring writerly wisdom from her during our five-second interaction. I would have wanted her to impart some pearl, some insight, anything that would help me to be more like her.

I’m proud that I’m over that stage.

Today I’m happy to know that she liked my dress, because it means that those eyes, which have noticed so much and which taught me how to see the world as a writer, had seen and acknowledged me, too.


*I loved that book, but I never finished it. I’d been reading it slowly, savoring it essay by essay. I’d read and re-read an essay, then put the book away and spend a few days trying to emulate Didion in the stories I wrote for my daily. One day, the book slipped away from me. I’ve been looking for it for a decade, and I refuse to buy another copy, because I’m convinced it’s around here somewhere and my editor gave it to me and that means something. That was six or seven moves ago.

Bridgeport ballot update and rant.

Oh, Bridgeport.

I’d hate to be in the Bridgeport registrar of voters’ office today. It’s a very narrow office in McLevy Hall, with just enough standing room in the waiting area for about three large would-be voters, but everyone seems to be cramming in there, thanks to Tuesday’s ballot shortage: Mayor Bill Finch, his three-businessman investigation team, CT post reporters, AP reporters, television news teams, representatives from Tom Foley’s campaign, representatives from Dan Malloy’s campaign and assorted other helpful types, including my old college classmate Tim Herbst, who is the Republican first selectman in Trumbull.

At least that’s what it looks like in my head after I read the CT Post’s coverage this morning.

UPDATE : Votes are being counted into the night here in Bridgeport. Head over to Lennie Grimaldi’s blog to check out up-to-the-minute info on that.

He even has pictures. (Points to my fellow Bantams if they can spot Tim!)

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Blogging is not the same as reporting.

For the past several years, I’ve been listening to the tired debate between bloggers and news organizations. It’s been going on for a while, and in some cases the lines have blurred so much that it isn’t an issue any more. At its most extreme, the argument ran thus: Bloggers say Big Journalism is dying and they may or may not be right. News organizations say bloggers are hacks, and they may or may not be right.

I always came down – more or less – on the side of the journalists, and after last night’s amateur foray into political blogging, I still do.

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Christmas for reporters

I will miss my job as a reporter tomorrow; it will be the first election night in a decade I have not worked.

Election night is like Christmas for journalists. Preparing for it can be stressful. A week in advance, you kind of dread it. But once the day arrives, everyone in the newsroom works together, shares a meal of fast food, and stays up all night. And, like Christmas, you never know what you’re going to get at the end of the evening. Continue reading

Classroom stage fright

I teach at the local community college. But one day a year, at my department head’s behest, I teach three workshops of high school students at the college’s high school journalism symposium. This is my fourth year of teaching the workshop, and every year I kind of dread it.

I have to get up earlier than usual, I’m not used to dealing with high school students, and I never know what kinds of kids are going to be walking into my workshop. Plus, despite the fact that I’ve been standing in front of a class twice a week for the last few years, teaching gives me a wicked case of stage fright. Even if I’m teaching kids I’ve been working with for years.

So needless to say, the high school journalism symposium gives me palpitations. Every year, I’m awake all night before the event. I worry about everything. I’m not sure if what I say will be interesting to the students, I’m not sure if I’m going to make myself look like an idiot and I don’t know if I’m going to have a disciplinary problem on my hands.

But you know, it’s never as bad as I’m afraid it’s going to be.  I think I’ve only had two belligerent high schoolers in twice as many years. For the most part, they’re respectful, cooperative and fun. I’m almost always sad to see them leave at the end of my workshop.  They ask good questions. One of the best ones I heard today came from a student who has been on her high school newspaper a month. We were talking about interviews, and she asked me if I’m ever scared when I’m about to interview someone.

Yes, I told her. I’m always scared before an interview. Without exception. I get butterflies before I make a phone call. I have to take a deep breath before I go into someone’s office to ask them a few questions. I am always, always nervous. Because you never know what that interview might turn into.

It’s kind of like teaching, actually. And usually – like teaching – the interview goes way better than I thought it would.