How I got my latest NYT story

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The poor kids! It poured rain all day….but they went out anyway!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

So, I have no kids and I don’t live in Brooklyn and I’ve never attended school in New York nor visited a middle school here.

Yet I found this terrific story for The New York Times about an after-school program for students who, in their classroom, build a wooden boat by hand from scratch — then set sail on an inlet of the East River, with huge boats passing and the skyscrapers of Manhattan as a backdrop.

How?

Jeopardy.

I watch the game show often and, a year or so ago, a contestant said he volunteered with Brooklyn Boatworks, a non-profit program founded by two naval architects.

As a lifelong sailor, I was immediately intrigued — when you think of Brooklyn, you don’t necessarily think first of boats or sailing.

So I did some digging and contacted the program’s executive director and asked her enough questions to pitch the idea, which was accepted. I do this a lot with my potential stories, pre-reporting them enough to create a compelling pitch — that means persuading people to talk to me even though I don’t yet have a definite assignment.

I knew I had to watch a team of students working on the boat so I visited MS (Middle School) 88 on February 14 for two hours and again for two more hours on April 18, the length of each week’s building session. I observed, listened, eavesdropped and took far more notes than I would ever be able to use — I was only allowed a maximum of 1,500 words for the story.

How would I be able to encapsulate this amazing adventure?

I took photos with my phone for later reference and interviewed several students and their two teachers. The students were friendly and easy to talk to. It was great to watch their teamwork and self-confidence easily handling tools as they built a boat together, my favorite being two young Muslim girls in hijab working with cordless drills.

 

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The boats are seven foot, six inches — those buoyancy bags help keep them afloat!

 

Few of the students had ever even been on a sailboat before and, likely, none as tiny as the Optimist, aka Opti. It all seemed like some sort of dream. Would it ever really be a boat? Was it possible? Would it sink?!

 

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Students wrapped in plastic tried to stay dry while cheering on their team-mates. That’s the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. The orange thing in the photo is a PFD, a personal flotation device every sailor needs to wear in case of capsize.

 

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Program director Marjorie Schulman was the soul of patience for the many, many emails and calls I needed to report the story. This was June 10, the day of “graduation” when every student who participated got a certificate and public recognition of their months of hard work.

 

Launch day was June 10 — a day of non-stop rain!

The event was held at Pier 2 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, with speeches beforehand and a few special guests. I met the freelance photographer there for the Times and introduced her to some of the people I needed her to focus on; typical of my freelance work, I had never met her before yet we would have to work well together quickly and under uncomfortable conditions.

That’s journalism!

 

Here’s the story, and an excerpt:

Dana Garcia, a sixth-grader, said she really enjoyed building the boat. “I sawed many pieces of it and we got to use epoxy, which my parents thought was pretty cool,” she said. “Sawing is actually pretty hard. You have to practice a lot. You have to be safety conscious and patient. We wear gloves so we don’t get cut and safety glasses so no sawdust gets into our eyes.”

Students also had the opportunity to use math and science in the workshop. “When it came to our measurements, we were always trying to get everything right and we had a lesson in the science of sailing, how to use the wind,” Dana said.

Dana, it seems, has caught the building bug. “I’d like to do a sculpture or another boat or a treehouse,” she said.

Other students felt empowered from the experience, too.

“I love learning new stuff,” Karla Miranda, a seventh-grader, said. “Before I was just doing basic girl things —- I’d watch TV, go outside, do homework. I got more comfortable using tools and how to control them,” she continued. “I didn’t know I could do all this.”

 

 

Why I’m not watching much TV these days

NBC Nightly News broadcast
NBC Nightly News broadcast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The TV listings in my local paper, The New York Times, have 106 channels, including nine premium cable.

In the past month, I’ve turned the television on maybe four or five times. I wish I could say I miss it terribly, but I don’t. My TV fast began in June when I house-sat in Vermont, with a screen that needed three remotes, none of which I understood. Instead, I went to a barbecue, a minor league baseball game and read.

You know, books.

It continued at my Dad’s house when I was house-sitting in late September. I’d light a fire — a luxury we don’t have at home — eat dinner on the coffee table and settle in with a huge stack of unread magazines. I didn’t miss TV at all.

I normally watch NBC Nightly News every evening at 6:30, fully aware that it’s a narrow, slick, over-produced reduction of what’s happening in the world. Foreign news is almost unheard of in the United States, except for wars affecting U.S. interests and huge natural disasters. If you want a clue that the world beyond the U.S. exists, you need to follow  BBC and consume on-line media from other countries.

I often follow the news with Jeopardy, (a quiz show in the U.S., for which I qualified in 2006, but was never called to appear.) My granny used to watch it, so it’s something of a tradition. I also want to stay in trim as I plan to try out again on my next visit to L.A. The host is Alex Trebek, a fellow Canadian, who once hosted a Canadian quiz show for high school students called Reach For The Top. I was on our school’s team two years in a row and helped take us to the quarter finals.

I enjoy What Not To Wear (which helps you figure out how to dress better) and Project Runway. I avoid all talk shows and political coverage, as I get plenty of that from my print and on-line sources already. How many opinions do I want to hear every day?
The TV stays dark most of the time right now because I’m burned out on the hyper-stimulation, the silliness, the repetition and its incredible time-suck.

I do watch movies, often, and eagerly await the January start, here in the U.S., of the third season of Downton Abbey.

I recently discovered “Wallander”, the original series in Swedish, shot in a town of 18,000 in southern Sweden, and loved it. I was so struck, in one episode, by the dominance of a very specific color, a deep teal — in clothing, wall colors, the evening sky, upholstery. I love the differences in every detail: the cars, the light, the landscape, even the electrical outlets. (I think I need to do some overseas travel soon!)

I had seen the British version, starring Kenneth Branagh, but much prefer the Swedish one.

But here’s a sampling of shows on offer — and why I’m able to resist:

The American Bible Challenge

Jersey Shore

Shocking Hip Hop Moments

High School football

Death Row

Annoying

The Real Housewives of Miami

I’m reading a lot more books. Talking to my husband and friends. Calmer and less distracted.

One friend, whose boys are two and six, limits their entire weekly screen time — including anything with a screen — to one hour every Friday night. Imagine.

Inspired by her discipline, I’m also trying to severely reduce the time I spend staring into any screen, whether phone, Ipad, computer or TV.

In the past few weeks, I’ve re-discovered a lost pleasure, that of diving into a book and disappearing in it for uninterrupted hours. I read, and loved two novels, “The Expats”, by Chris Pavone and Richard Ford’s newest, “Canada.”

Here’s a review of the season’s hottest three new shows, according to New York magazine. I haven’t seen any of them.

Do you watch much TV?

What are you watching these days?

Men Won't Shut Up — Women Hesitate To Speak Up — Why Men Blog More

Causerie / something to talk about
Maybe we're just talking to one another? Image by prakhar via Flickr

Are women less likely to blog than men?

So says Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente — hardly someone known amongst her colleagues in Canada for faint-heartedness:

People often ask me why I don’t start a blog. After all, it seems almost everyone else has. Thousands of new blogs spring up in cyberspace every day. All the mainstream media have added bloggers to their websites. Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, can get 20 million hits a month, and has made him one of the most popular opinion-mongers in the world.

The answer is pretty much the same as why I don’t get a souped-up snowmobile and drive it straight up a mountain at 120 kilometres an hour into a well-known avalanche zone. It’s more of a guy thing.

Guys seek thrills and speed. They go for the adrenalin rush. They get pumped by going higher, faster, farther than anyone else. They want lots of action and instant gratification. That’s also why guys like blogging – instant opinions, and lots of them.

Wente thinks many/most women lack the confidence to speak out publicly — is this true? Really? Still?

There are many female bloggers. I don’t read many of them, because so many blog about mothering (I have no kids), marriage and/or relationships (not terribly interesting to me, compared to other topics), politics (not my thing.)

At True/Slant I have indeed noticed that the most frequent bloggers are always men, except, usually, me and Sara Libby. I can’t possibly keep up with the men’s verbal Niagara, and don’t even try; I do follow a few T/S men, and they tend, for whatever reason, to post infrequently. They’re more modest? Busier? More thoughtful?

I don’t think it’s because they lack confidence, at all.

Even my Dad (not a compliment, it’s OK) has noted my lack of fear about speaking my mind, and wonders where I get it. Three places.

The first, and — hello, Hillary! — not unsurprising, was attending single-sex schools, as she did in college. From Grade 4 to Grade 9, I was surrounded by smart, competitive girls and taught by smart women. Smart, verbal and articulate counted — n0t being skinny or pretty or popular. We all wore uniforms, so  clothing was comfortable camouflage.

I also attended, ages eight to 16, all-girl camps every summer all summer. Same thing: the leaders were women, the cool kids were female and no one worried about speaking up or out. The counselor who could get us across a wide, windy lake in a rainstorm, motivating weary teens to keep paddling hour after hour, had the right stuff. The girls who were fun and brave and led the rest of us won respect.

The second — smart, confident and  accomplished female relatives. One flies a Cessna. One imports Moroccan rugs after living there for years. One was leading a local environmental movement, and organizing protests, back in the 1960s. My granny was always up for a good rousing argument and my Mom, a journalist and film-maker, covered some tough and scary stories.

I also grew up the only child in a family of professional communicators: film-maker, television and radio stars, television writer, TV host, magazine editor and writer. We made our livelihoods, and good ones, by taking the risks to share our ideas with millions of people. Seemed fun and cool to me.

Our family is so verbally ferocious and competitive — high-volume, too — my quiet, modest sweetie, during his first Christmas dinner with us all (I have two younger step-brothers) 10 years ago, bamboozled by the table-pounding and chest-beating, shouted — “Quiet! Everyone speak in turn.”

Our jaws dropped open. It was like turning the hose on fighting dogs. Shock! It worked for….ten minutes.

So, you know, I’m fine being a mouthy broad. I’ve traveled widely, speak two other languages, consume a pile of other media (and ideas) daily, am fascinated by the world and how it works, or doesn’t.

Since January, 10,000+ unique visitors/month are stopping by this site, none of them related to me, so someone’s finding it worth their time. I’ve even been asked to write for a new Australian blog, plucked from amid the gazillions of bloggers out there to join a small group of 12, all of us without kids.

Women have plenty to say!

But, if you read the letters pages of most newspapers and magazines, let alone the comments boxes of most blogs — they’re staying quiet.

I don’t think they lack confidence. I think most of them are too damn busy.

What do you think?

Geek History — Jeopardy Replays Ken's Legendary Loss

Ken Jennings (up close)
Image via Wikipedia

If you’re a Jeopardy geek — guilty! — you know who Ken Jennings is, the guy who won $2,520,700 playing 75 games. Poor old Alex Trebek (who I met when I was a competitor and, pre-Jeopardy, he hosted “Reach For The Top”, an Ontario-based high school TV show based on general knowledge) practically ran out of things to ask him during the show’s chitchat segment night after night after night. It was something else, watching Jennings mow down opponent after opponent in his polite, Utah computer programmer way.

And then, he lost. I missed it! They replayed it tonight, and I got to see Jeopardy history — when realtor Nancy Zerg answered final Jeopardy with the right answer (H & R Block) and he said Fed Ex. Ba-boom! Ken Jennings, de-throned.

He’s a nice guy, (and his daughter has the same name as mine); I interviewed him earlier this year for The New York Times business section:

“For a long time, I was paralyzed. I didn’t know what to do. I was depositing a $1.5 million check into an account that had never had more than $5,000 in it. Even if it was FDIC insured, it was only insured up to $100,000. That was the fun part for me, seeing my face with some seven-figure number below it. It was like playing Pac-man. It never felt real, but when Alex Trebek pulled a seven-figure check from his pocket, I almost fainted. It wasn’t a videogame score. I was now ‘the millionaire guy.’”

Jennings quit his job, moving his family to a larger home in the more expensive city of Seattle, bought a wide-screen television, and has become an author and developer of board games.

I qualified for Jeopardy in March 2006, at the Javits Center in Manhattan, an absurdly thrilling moment for someone who’d dreamed of that chance for years. You answer 10 qualifying questions, then another 60 more, with barely a minute for each one. Then you stand up and compete against other people, holding a buzzer, so producers can see, and decide, if you’re camera-ready. Some really smart people, we saw that day, make for really lousy TV. If they don’t call you back within 12 months (they didn’t, sob), you can try again.

In the meantime, I’ve got my souvenir cap and pen, and Ken’s home number. I’m set.