Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why I love being a reporter…
I kicked off my shoes and walked up to a mixed martial arts champion in a gym in Mesa, AZ.
When we were toe to toe, I looked him in the eyes and asked, “Have you ever wrestled a 240lb Muppet?”
This is what happened.
He had just used a move called the “strangle and sweep” and was about to crawl over my face to put me in “the crucifixion.” 
My colleague Samara Freemark (that’s her mic in the photo) tweeted my words to her in the car afterwards. Laughing hysterically at what had just happened, I told her, ”As his balls passed over my face I thought to myself, ‘I love journalism.’” 
And I do love journalism. But you know why I really love it? We spent a week in Arizona talking to veterans waiting for their disability checks to be processed (I’ll explain the connection to MMA in another post). We met some damaged and profoundly vulnerable people — the very opposite of the military’s projected image at home and abroad. Which is to say we spent a week slogging through intense and painful truths. This is why I love journalism.
If I can get beat up now and again to blow off steam on the job, all the better.
I’m working with Samara to produce a series of stories from the trip and we’re eager to share. It began here.
And if you want to do some reporting on the disability claims backlog, you could start here.


Why I love being a reporter…

I kicked off my shoes and walked up to a mixed martial arts champion in a gym in Mesa, AZ.

When we were toe to toe, I looked him in the eyes and asked, “Have you ever wrestled a 240lb Muppet?”

This is what happened.

He had just used a move called the “strangle and sweep” and was about to crawl over my face to put me in “the crucifixion.” 

My colleague Samara Freemark (that’s her mic in the photo) tweeted my words to her in the car afterwards. Laughing hysterically at what had just happened, I told her, ”As his balls passed over my face I thought to myself, ‘I love journalism.’” 

And I do love journalism. But you know why I really love it? We spent a week in Arizona talking to veterans waiting for their disability checks to be processed (I’ll explain the connection to MMA in another post). We met some damaged and profoundly vulnerable people — the very opposite of the military’s projected image at home and abroad. Which is to say we spent a week slogging through intense and painful truths. This is why I love journalism.

If I can get beat up now and again to blow off steam on the job, all the better.

I’m working with Samara to produce a series of stories from the trip and we’re eager to share. It began here.

And if you want to do some reporting on the disability claims backlog, you could start here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Be too careful and you could die. Be too aggressive and you might not be able to live with yourself. David Philipps, writing in his book “Lethal Warriors: When the new Band of Brothers came home" about what he calls the "impossible tension for soldiers patrolling a deadly stretch of road in Iraq’s so-called "Sunni Triangle" in 2005. 
The cover of WWI veteran Willard Waller’s 1944 book, “Veteran Comes Back.”
From the inside cover:

"Will he [sic] sell apples and pawn his medals, or will we assure him a job? What of the disabled — how can we restore him to usefulness? Will we make thegrim mistake of spending too much—too late—and for the wrong people? These and other questions are answered in this book—a realistic discussion of America’s gravest social problem."

The cover of WWI veteran Willard Waller’s 1944 book, “Veteran Comes Back.”

From the inside cover:

"Will he [sic] sell apples and pawn his medals, or will we assure him a job? What of the disabled — how can we restore him to usefulness? Will we make thegrim mistake of spending too much—too late—and for the wrong people? These and other questions are answered in this book—a realistic discussion of America’s gravest social problem."

There is a core of anger in the soul of almost every veteran, and we are justified in calling it bitterness, but the bitterness of one man is not the same thing as the bitterness of another. In one man it becomes a consuming flame that sears his soul and burns his body. In another it is barely traceable. It leads one man to outbursts of temper, another to social radicalism, a third to excesses of conservatism. Willard Waller, a World War I veteran, from his book “Veteran Comes Back,” published in 1944. It bears mentioning that the conditions described here touch women and men alike in today’s military.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
I’m in San Francisco all week for ONA. Which means I’ll be seeing a lot of this.

I’m in San Francisco all week for ONA. Which means I’ll be seeing a lot of this.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012
The world is not really crawling with crooked papyrologists. Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, at New York University, with the quote of the day (from A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife in the New York Times).
Still going through old photos. Here’s another one from the 2006 Palestine trip. 

Still going through old photos. Here’s another one from the 2006 Palestine trip. 

Going through old photos. Here’s one. Watching “Mystery Train” in an East Jerusalem hotel room. (2006)

Going through old photos. Here’s one. Watching “Mystery Train” in an East Jerusalem hotel room. (2006)

“I’m in the dark. I just have no idea when I’m going to hear anything.”

Army reservist Joseph Blunn came back from his first deployment to Iraq in 2004 a lost man, plagued by nightmares, frayed nerves and bouts of inexplicable anger. He tried to readjust to life at home, but couldn’t — and two years after his return, Blunn found himself sitting alone on the floor of his bedroom, playing a solo game of Russian roulette with his revolver. He called the police and asked them to take him away.

Counselors at Blunn’s local Veterans Affairs office diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. His PTSD can be crushing: At times, Blunn is leveled by guilt or sadness; loud noises send him reeling. Working and studying are difficult, and in May of this year — after a second tour in Iraq — he filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Denver asking for disability benefits. He hasn’t heard anything since.

“I’m in the dark,” he says. “I just have no idea when I’m going to hear anything.”

Like Blunn, American troops are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan only to wait in line. They’re joining a growing queue of veterans seeking compensation — payments and other support — from the Department of Veterans Affairs for service-related disabilities.

Across the country, local VA offices are having a tough time processing the backlog of more than 800,000 disability claims.

From a story I worked on with my colleague Samara Freemark (inspired by the work of Public Insight Network partner the Center for Investigative Reporting).

The (occasional) folly of reporting on the VA

So this happened: I’m reporting a story on the VA and I (finally) get a PIO on the phone. It turns out that there is another PIO that I should also contact, so the PIO on the phone gives me her number and says, “You didn’t get it from me.” 

Another PIO expresses dismay when I tell her I got her number from a Google search. 

I ask that same PIO for the name and number of their FOIA person. She hangs up to walk down the hall to ask him and then sends me an email saying it would be best if I just submitted the FOIA and waited for them to contact me with any questions.

All of this, really, says more about the VA than anything any PIO told me.

Oh, and you’ll find contact info for VA FOIA agents on these lists, which are hosted on the VA site.

So there you go. Onward.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

My new story package on medical interpreters is up…

There’s a web piece, a radio piece, and an interactive map all rolled up in one page.

It starts like this:

There are 25 million people in the United States who don’t know enough English to get them through a routine hospital or clinic visit.

That number has grown by 80 percent in just two decades. That’s big growth, but it’s nothing like what some individual states have seen.

Because of a rapid increase in the need for medical interpreters and no comprehensive national legislation governing interpreters or overseeing their work, health care providers are not always willing or able to meet the need.

Jennifer Farmer is a pediatric emergency room nurse in North Carolina, a state where the number of residents with limited English has grown by close to 400 percent since 1990.

In a typical work shift, Farmer will use a trained medical interpreter 20 times or more. The thought of working with her patients without the help of interpreters unnerves her. “It is absolutely terrifying, because that could be the difference between them just getting a medication and us observing them for a few hours and sending them home, versus us transferring them to a neurosurgeon for brain surgery,” she says. “I mean it is that vast of a difference.”

Here is the rest…

Mental health break… “Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing” by The Magnetic Fields set to… dancing.

So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read in school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place. Jeanette Winterson, from In Defense of Poetry (via beingblog)

(Source: trentgilliss)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012
I think fashion is repulsive. The whole idea that someone else can make clothing that is supposed to be in style and make other people look good is ridiculous. It sickens me to think that there is an industry that plays to the low self-esteem of the general public. I would like the fashion industry to collapse. I think it plays to the most superficial, most insecure parts of human nature. I hope GQ as a magazine fails. I hope that all of these people who make a living by looking pretty are eventually made destitute or forced to do something of substance. At least pornography has a function.

Steve Albini, in an interview with… GQ

UPDATE: My friend Paul and a bunch of my Facebook friends were annoyed by this quote. I wanted to say a little more about why I posted it — and why I posted it on a Tumblr that is usually at least a little bit related to my trade. 

The GQ interview I pulled this from was a web feature — a Q&A with recording engineer and Shellac front-fellow Steve Albini that was mostly about his area of expertise: The music business.

At the end of the interview, the interviewer asked Albini a throw away question. It was the kind of crap I can only imagine some editor told the interviewer to be sure to ask every interviewee. The question: “How would you describe your fashion?”

To Albini’s credit, he neither answered the question, nor blew it off. He gave a thoughtful answer — with his trademark wit, outrage, and references to pornography. 

He wasn’t attacking people who dress to fit their own definition of looking good. Hell, his drummer wears beautiful sparkly blouses when he performs and runs a salon.

He was hoping out loud for the destruction of the fashion industry GQ serves. And he was hoping out loud for the death of GQ itself — and all of this on a GQ interview. 

It was a rare moment of a sort of meta-candor and a rare instance of a throwaway question to fit some hollow online editorial vision actually amounting to something.

It’s remarkable in the most literal sense.

Having duly remarked, I take my leave.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Like many people that I might call ‘working wealthy,’ I really resent Mr. Obama’s lumping people at my income with the true, jaw-dropping rich. Having a housekeeper is the only part of my life that I would begin to consider extravagant, and it feels weird to be demonized by the President for what I think is a pretty unremarkable lifestyle.

- Richard Benzinger, a doctor in St. Louis who answered my questions for people earning above $250,000, responded to the question “What’s it like to be in the top 2 percent of earners?” 

It’s all about where you’re standing, right? For perspective, I posted Benzinger’s quote with the thoughts of a pizza delivery driver in rural Kentucky, who I interviewed as part of a project on hard work.