Catcher in the Sky

It is late Friday, just after 10 p.m., and I turn off the news and walk toward the bright red bullseye on the front of the plain brick building. The news reverberates in my mind as I walk through the glass doors, a rush of cold air greeting me, a sterilizing splash that neutralizes the world still spinning out there.

Virginia Beach, 11 dead, 6 injured, suspect dead.

My daughter reminds me why we are here, in Target, and we march along the silent aisles, just like I did on that clear night nearly 18 years ago.

Planes into buildings, thousands dead, suspects sought.

I feel embarrassed, out of place, a fool for going about my business picking up cream for tomorrow’s morning coffee while families are being notified that their loved ones are dead; their lives will never be the same.

And yet, here I am, seeking normal, craving sterilizing silence, desperate for a task to keep me busy, occupied, distracted from what awaits outside those smooth sliding doors that seem so protective, comforting.

Isolating.

I continue about my shopping while the weeping of mayors seeps through my veins.

Cream. We have come here for cream.

I stand in some random aisle and listen to the swelling silence around me. There’s a hint of a page over stereophonic walkies. It only adds to the dystopian nature of my time here in the wake of tragedies that cry out for anything but the normal response.

Thoughts and prayers, more gun control, we demand action.

I remember a shot-less victim’s voice on the news telling me through tears that all she thought about was getting home to her 11-month-old baby.

The lives of many change in the hours after such a tragedy.

And yet,

yet

We say our prayers. We take to the streets. We demand change while the next suspect is loading up another cartridge and sets his sights on the ones who have made him feel this way.

I walk up to the cashier and a man half my age with the name tag “MR. BILL” helps me navigate the transaction. I am more flustered than I had originally believed. But of course, I’m also looking out for pickpockets, thieves, and gun-slinging disgruntles that make me want to know what the afterlife is really all about, if it is about anything at all. 

I think about other-worlds up there with the victims all together, gathered for some purpose or energy that they hope we can hear. They are the wise ones, after all. The whispers of first graders gunned down, of college kids and grandmothers, of high school seniors, all part of a club clamoring for some kind of voice, some way to break through the stratospheres of chaos and rain some wisdom upon us.

My daughter tells me it’s time to head home, and she leads the way through the double doors that slide open. The air out there is heavy, and yet

yet

I step through and slug through the night, heavy boots heading home to busy routines that mute the madness out here.

The next day I stay off the news, walk to the beach, and fill my head with jazz blues and the sounds of Miles Davis. I allow the notes to resonate, marinate within, a certain swirl of temporary healing until the next tragedy that breaks through my feeds, trumpeting fear, madness, and that same heavy weight of helplessness, searching for that bullseye target of sterility to get me through.

In my Miles Davis-infused meditation, I slip into a dream of weightlessness, and I become the Catcher in the Sky, building an out-of-sight high rise to reach the victims. Help them. Apologize for our ineptness at fixing this fixation with guns and violence and death. If I can’t save them here on this gravity-soaked America, I might as well grab my hammer and nails and climb high, leave behind the memories of senseless deaths and join them at their common-place space, an exclusive club they never wanted to join.

How do we stop it, I ask, hammer still in hand. How do we mend fences and rest weapons in weightless bins, send them beyond this common-place space? How do we dissolve the membrane between us and allow zero-gravity wisdom to rain upon us, teach us, save us?

They smile resolutely with unwanted experiences, but offer no words. Instead, I feel their wish in the aether around me. I absorb their wisdom and close my eyes, desperately holding on to the wistful permeations all around – and in – me.

I understand, I nod, as I feel myself being pulled down, hammer first, through the membrane that separates us, down and down and down, past the thin pieces of pine at the top of my high rise, past the three floors already built, and on to the sandy ground.

Terra firma.

The waves encourage me, and I turn back to my house and emerge with new wood and tools. My daughter joins me.

Maybe this will make a difference, she whispers.

I pull a thick black marker from my pocket and pick up a fresh piece of pine, two inches by ten inches by twenty-four inches. With quick precision, I pen the letters as big and as bold as I can. When finished, I pull six four-inch nails from my other pocket. She holds the handmade sign centered atop the front door, and I pound the six nails into the wood – bullseye strikes on each nail – securing the sign to the frame.

I step back, envision the Miles-high high rise climbing in the sky, the open pine planks, so skeletonesque, transparent. Welcoming. My eyes fall floor by imaginary floor: three, two, one, and settle on the black letters etched across the just-nailed plank.

I smile, resolutely, and raise my hammer to the letters as my daughter raises her hand, effortlessly as in zero gravity. We tap the pine as we walk through the gateway, and the passers-by stop, read the sign, and approach.

There is hope, they think.

There is hope.

When Fire Reigns: Season 1, Episode 1 Published

On January 1, I set out to develop and publish an 11-episode podcast called, “When Fire Reigns.” It’s about the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 and the mayor who died just three months later, reportedly by his own doing. Today, I published the first episode, just one day before the 115-year anniversary of the great conflagration.

You can listen to it on Podomatic HERE. Or, you can check it out now on Spotify or (fingers crossed) on Apple’s Podcasts very soon.

It wasn’t easy to do this. Venturing into the world of podcasting is all very new to me, and I wanted to just throw in the towel more than a few times. I pushed on, though, thanks to my daughter’s pep talk and the support of my around-the-world friends.

Here’s what made it so challenging.

I’ve got all of the equipment (Blue Yeti mic, laptop), but I just don’t have the sound-proof space to do the actual recording. I ended up turning my car into a makeshift studio. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it got the job done.

When I started editing, I wasn’t terribly happy with the quality of sound, but I decided to go forward with it anyway. I know I need to solve this little dilemma before I record next week’s episode. I’m committed to doing it, so I will find a place to record.

The other challenge was that I know how I want it to sound, much like a beginning guitarist knows how she wants a particular riff to sound, but just can’t seem to get there yet. That’s me. I could spend a full year trying to get each note just exactly perfect. But then I hold back a year’s worth of content that I could have shared with my community. What’s the sense in that? Get it out there, learn, and do it better the next time.

Anyway, enjoy. I plan on publishing an episode every week or two. I want to establish a routine and try to build up a little following. We’ll see. Right now, I’m just having a blast doing this.

So: Thanks for listening, if you get the chance. I do appreciate it.

Building a Podcast: The Baltimore Fire of 1904

Now that Fossil Five is in the hands of my editors, I have decided to devote the month of January to building a podcast series on the Baltimore Fire of 1904. It was my thesis project in grad school, and after listening to a bunch of podcasts this past week, I think it is the perfect story to tell over 6-8 episodes.

The only challenge is that I’ve never done a podcast before. I had to dive in and decide what I wanted to do, and how to share it with the world.

The Plan

The first step, for me, was to figure out how many words each episode should be. I did a timed reading from the manuscript, and I read about 700 words every 5 minutes. I want my podcasts to be between 20 and 30 minutes each, so I subtract about 5 minutes for front and end chatter (ncluding intro and outro music), and I am left with anywhere between 2100 and 2800 words per episode.

A little more simple math: My script is already over 30,000 words. so 6-8 episodes is not going to cut it. I’m going to need about 10-12 episodes, even with a good edit of my script.

The Structure

Now that I know I’m going to be working with about a dozen episodes, I divide my manuscript into rough episodes. I look for the cliffhangers, the teasers, the time shifts — all the things essential to a complete episode. I decide that I’m going to have to trim it back an episode or two, and I see plenty of places where I can edit out some superfluous material. Not a big deal. I can add it in later if I need to.

The Music

One of the coolest discoveries I made last year while teaching speech was copyright-free music. I went to my favorite site, Epidemic Sound, and searched through their huge database to find the exact track I was looking for. You need to establish a free account, but it is simple and fast to download the audio track to use for your intro, interlude, and outro segments. And, because it is copyright-free, you have no worries at all about having your podcasts blocked for copyright infringement.

The Web Host

I did a quick search through the various podcast hosting sites, and I fell in love with Podomatic. They have several kinds of accounts (including a free one, which I opted for in the early stages of podcasting). Upgrading to their pro account seems seamless and simple, and you have the option to pay monthly or annually. These are the kinds of options I’m looking for as a novice. Your podcast gets pushed to all of the most popular sites, and you don’t have to spend a penny to get it up and running.

The Podcast

I am building my podcast episodes on GarageBand, another free software program with Apple. It’s intuitive, easy to use, and exports your file to an MP3 format. I’ve used GarageBand for other projects, and it’s never let me down. I use a Blue Yeti microphone to record the audio in any low-sound area I can find (no air conditioners or heating units, no refrigerators, no external announcements or interruptions). I break up the episode into 3-5-minute chunks and record each sub-segment, knowing that I will be placing short clips of interlude music between them. And, because I am not trying to record the whole episode in one block, I usually need just one or two recordings for each sub-segment. For a 30-minute episode, I’m usually done in under 90 minutes.

The Edits

Good audio recorded in one setting means clean editing. It’s really more of a splicing of music, introductions, and segues with the main story. It takes another 90 minutes to 2 hours to edit, and then I export the file and upload to the podcast server.

I plan on launching my first episode by January 15, and then release new episodes every week (this includes through the anniversary of the Great Fire in Baltimore that started on February 7, 1904).

Stay tuned! I’ll be announcing its launch soon.

In the meantime, don’t be intimidated by the how’s of podcasting. Just jump in and start recording. It’s the only way to push through the full process and create a publishable product!


It’s Not About You: Throwing the Red Flag on Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Campus Cabana swim team members celebrate a narrow home-meet victory against a rival pool. photo: Steve Killian, Towson, MD, July 2011

A string of penalties and punishments associated with unsportsmanlike behavior, both locally and nationally, has crossed our news feeds recently, sparking spirited debates in backyards, school parking lots, and online forums. The point of discussion: Are school systems and professional sports organizations going too far in penalizing individuals and teams for showing emotional expressions of pride and elation?

Let’s get one thing straight right away. It’s not about you, Opponent. The fist pumps, the Bernie dances, the high fives — They have absolutely nothing to do with any of you. The winning team (have we forgotten that there will be a winner and a loser in such games?) is excited because they succeeded in a tackle, a score, a win. It’s not about you. It’s all about them.

This is yet another case of the establishment of a rule losing its original focus and purpose and falling into the hazy, gray area of interpretation, largely swayed by emotional parents and community members of opposing teams at the local level, and by over-controlling, power-hungry officials at the professional level.

A Little History Lesson on Unsportsmanlike Conduct in the NFL

  • 1984: A rule was established in the NFL to curb individual or group celebrations that were “prolonged, excessive, or premeditated.” This was often referred to as the “Mark Gastineau Rule,” as it was believed by many that the rule was created to stop him from performing his signature “Sack Dance” every time after he sacked an opposing quarterback.
  • 2004: NFL owners agree to institute an excessive celebration penalty in an attempt to eliminate premeditated celebrations. The excessive celebration infraction, considered unsportsmanlike conduct, carries a 15-yard penalty. Such choreographed performances like Terrell Owens pulling a Sharpie marker out of his sock or Joe Horn uncovering a planted cell phone are the target of the new rule. Any infraction ruled flagrant will constitute immediate ejection from the contest.
  • 2006: Individual players are prohibited from using foreign objects or the football while celebrating. They are also prohibited from engaging in any celebrations while on the ground. A celebration shall be deemed excessive or prolonged if a player continues to celebrate after a warning from an official. Previously, players were not prohibited from using props or celebrating on the ground. Reason for the change: Promotes sportsmanship. [New NFL Rules for 2006]
  • According to the NFL Digest of Rules, rule no. 32 defines unsportsmanlike conduct as any act contrary to the generally understood principles of sportsmanship.
See, this is where it gets very sticky. When we start using phrases like, “Generally understood principles of sportsmanship,” we open ourselves up for referees and officials bringing their prejudices and opinions on the field and usurping their power in dangerous ways. How do we define “excessive” in such a way that referees and officials don’t ruin the spirit of the game and kill the passion of the athletes by deeming any emotional reaction as unsportsmanlike?
In 2007, Sedrick Ellis (now a Defensive Tackle of the New Orleans Saints), was slapped with an unsportsmanlike call and a 15-yard penalty for flexing his muscles after a sack:


Just last week, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens was tagged with the same penalty for flexing his muscles after a spectacular run against the Arizona Cardinals. Apparently, the refs believe such acts are excessive taunts that are antithetical to the “generally understood principles of sportsmanship.”

So let me get this right: In the game of football, it is sportsmanlike to talk smack on the front line, grind my opponent into the turf with full force, push and shove after an intense tackle, and go helmet-to-helmet spewing insults and threats, but it is unsportsmanlike to flex my muscles after I did something I’m proud of?

At the local level, it is even worse. Earlier this week, the Perry Hall High School boys soccer team (Baltimore, MD) celebrated at the end of the game after scoring a winning goal. Parents of the opposing team (Dulaney High School) complained that the celebration was both “lewd” and “inappropriate.” The principal agreed with the parents of the opposing school and suspended the team from playing in any more games for the season — including playoff and championship matches. (Read/view the complete report HERE from the Perry Hall Patch.com site.) He announced yesterday at a press conference that he decided to reverse his decision about forfeiting the rest of the season (the team plays the semifinal championship game today against Blake at 2 p.m.), but he stands behind his original statement regarding disciplinary action against the team for “inappropriate behavior.”

Now, the Baltimore County Public Schools website provides the following statement from the Office of Athletics regarding sportsmanlike behavior:

The Baltimore County Public School Interscholastic Athletic Program is committed to promoting the proper ideals of sportsmanship, ethical conduct and fair play at all athletic contests. We oppose instances and activities which run counter to the best values of athletic competition in order to insure the well-being of all individual student-athletes. We support high standards of good citizenship and propriety, along with regard for the rights of others.

I agree with this statement. I hardly think anyone can find fault with such a general statement that promotes sportsmanship and strong athletic competition. Nowhere in this statement does it suggest or infer that players cannot be excited about the successes they experience on the field.

As a father of a child who has played team sports, however, I have seen winning teams making it personal, thrusting their arrogance into the faces of their 9-year-old opponents and focusing on the losing team’s weaknesses and challenges. Any act that is directed toward an opponent in a derogatory manner or that is focused on the failures of an individual player or team is, in all ways, unsportsmanlike and should be called as such.

But we’re not talking about such acts here. This is about end-of-game joy, personal-best celebrations, and emotional shouts of YES! for a job well done — none of which have anything to do with the opponent. Not a single one.

In our everyday lives, we celebrate personal accomplishments all the time, don’t we? A promotion, a personal best for a 5K, even answering the right question in a trivia game. We recognize and encourage demonstrations of pride and elation as strong contributors to personal wellness, self-confidence, self-esteem, and overall happiness.

Our cheerleaders promote and encourage emotional outbursts from our fans. Million-dollar scoreboards and video displays in our larger stadiums rally us to chant, cheer, and get involved. Even in other sports, like golf and baseball, fist pumps are expected, anticipated, and enjoyed by their fans. Yet, the very players for other sports who are on the field making the plays are restricted from doing anything that even resembles a fraction of such elation. It just doesn’t make any sense.

We are sending the wrong message to our sports teams, both professional and at the local level. Instead of discouraging and penalizing pride and celebration, we should be telling the refs and the parents on the losing side of the field to realize that this is part of the game. This is what you sign up for when your child plays a sport where there are winners and losers.

It’s not about you, folks. Leave the winners alone and let them celebrate their successes. Your time will come soon enough, and when it does, I hope you celebrate with the same pride and elation.

 

Tragedy in a high school, through this teacher’s eyes

As reported in CNN tonight (click here to read the article), a tragic scene unfolded today as a lone gunman took several students hostage. After he had released all but two of the teenage girls, SWAT teams stormed the school to rescue them. The gunman, however, was too quick for them, and he was able to kill one of the hostages before killing himself.

As a human being hearing this story for the first time, I wonder what would have happened had they not stormed the school….

As a teacher, I view every student in a positive light. But I am also on edge in the classroom, from the beginning to the end of each class, simply because I know that these tragedies that have struck Colorado high schools (Columbine is just 40 miles away from today’s attack) can happen anywhere, at any time.

One of the stories that came out of today was that the gunman accidentally took one boy for hostage with the six girls. When told he could leave, be free, the boy turned and said, “I’d rather stay here with the girls and protect them.”

The gunman allegedly put the gun to the boy’s head and told him to leave for good. The boy had no choice, and he was soon off.

Today’s shooting brings to light my sub-conscious role as protector of the classroom at all times. I try to keep it concealed from them as much as possible, but I don’t want anything happening to my kids, not to mention the rest of the students at our high school. And so I keep these tragedies in the back of my mind and err on the side of caution whenever necessary.

As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to protect these students.

As a human being, it is my responsibility to love these individuals and allow them the chance to reach their potentials….whatever they may be.

Love to all,

Rus

One Only Needs To Listen

I think that one of the greatest skills we can learn as writers is how to be good listeners.

In the last week alone, I have closed my mouth and opened my heart to hear more stories of love, tragedy, revenge, and sacrifice than any one human being can rightly claim to hear in a lifetime. The key for me has been simply listening without interrupting.

Talkers love to find good listeners, as most others are telling them to shut up or, at the very least, give it a break. But talkers have much to share, and when they are given space to really let go and dive into a subject that they’re passionate about–well, look out.

I write this not because I’m necessarily proud of my sudden ability to shut up; I write this because Nano is coming up, and I hope you might join us and write a book in the month of November. I’m going to be spending a great deal of time on this site writing about nano, how we prepare, what strategies are out there to do such a task, and tips and words of motivation that will keep all of us in a place where we can muster out just a few more strokes on the keyboard.

The stories I have heard are all gellin’ nicely for my story: a psychological thriller that is similar to my other works in this genre.

More on the story line later.

Who’s thinking about doing this? Nano’s great! You should consider joining us….Much fun, that’s for sure!

The Passing of Steve Irwin: A Death in the Family?

The phone calls have been heavy this morning, as friends and family members wake to the news that the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, was killed early Monday by a sting ray. Normally, this would probably be like the death of any other celebrity, where we’re all in a bit of shock over the news, and we all feel a certain sense of loss for the tragedy.

But the calls have been from moms and dads of kids who have spent the past few years, much like ours, growing up with Australia’s own Wiggles, a wacky fab-four kind-of act that has replaced Barney and other such shows. Maybe three or four years ago, they did an hour-long special with Steve Irwin, and that video has been their favorite hands down. They know all the songs by heart, the dances, the narration by Irwin–they’ve taken to him as they have any other childhood icon.

So when the news spread early this morning, we all felt as if we had lost somebody more than just a regular celebrity.

And maybe we have. It’s hard enough for us as adults to cope with the shock of his death, but for the millions of children all over the world who have come to love Irwin for his entertaining antics with dangerous creatures, it will be even harder for them to comprehend how something like this could happen.

I nearly broke down this morning when I broke the news to my oldest daughter; it was as if I had to tell her that a family member had died.

To her as much as to us, maybe one has.