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Still climbing out of the postal bin

Just listened to a Talkshop podcast featuring Richard Russo.  He talked about getting lost in the complexity of a novel, and how to get through that but just doing something. Even if you don’t understand how everything fits together, he said, just start working on the pieces that you understand. I think that is how it has been for me working on this story (the one from the postal bin.) It is the most information I’ve ever worked with for a news story and I was definitely lost in it all. But today, I forced myself to go through the whole piece, from beginning to end, through all the placeholders and messy sections where I’d just thrown in block quotes that I was trying to get into some kind of order, with a one-grade-finer comb. It is 17 pages. Not a news story. But it is closer. It felt good to get that much work done.

Interestingly, on this podcast, Russo was asked “how often do you get to an impasse like that and your helped by your agent or your editor or another reader or your wife?” Almost never, was his immediate answer. I was feeling that today, that really I should not go meet with my news manager yet or have a conversation with my (incredibly helpful) coworker. What needed to happen is that I needed to just keep working and it would become clearer. I have two more work days, and all weekend if I’m insane. I hope to use the weekend to just step away, I may realize something about it during that time. So I should sleep.

 

 

Pulling a story out of a postal bin full of documents

I’m working on an investigation now that did not start out with a tip. It was one of those “fishing” assignments. I was told to find out about a certain company’s environmental record. After searching around the obvious places online — EPA’s Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act compliance database — I decided to go to the DEP’s file room to sift through whatever records might be there. I had a sense that there would be something there. A physical piece of paper, tucked away within a stack of papers, that would tell me something to look into. It turns out I was right.

It was in the basement of one of the buildings of the old insane asylum, Augusta State Hospital. After entering a renovated lobby, I was directed to a door to the side of the reception desk rather than through the big lobby doors, and followed the worn green stone stairs and curved yellow brick walls to a short, narrow hallway which opened up into a cramped cafeteria. I walked between the salad bar and the steel counter, and turned left at the end of a vending machine into an atrium before a locked door. There was a phone on the wall, at about hip level, labelled with a phone number. When I called it, a woman came to the door with a look of concern. No one was scheduled to view files that day, she said. I let her know I had called and made the appointment a few days before. It had been written down for the following week, she realized, but would try to gather the files I requested.

Once the helpful staff finished bringing them all out I had a 2-1/2-foot stack. Not having any idea what any of it was, and knowing I didn’t have time to read each page, I just started  then taking pictures. I figured the time required to flip and snap each page would be less than trying to comprehend which of it I might need, not even knowing at that point what the story would be.

Remembering that where I had learned about this file room was on the Bureau of Waste Management website, I asked if there were other file rooms for other bureaus but was told that no, all DEP files were here. But at the counter where I was working, there was a sign that said only Bureau of Waste Management would be found there, and instructed researchers to contact other bureaus for their files. I tried calling the bureau of water quality, and was told it had no file room but could only leave a message with my specific requests. All messages, as all my emails had been, are forwarded to the communications director, who probably wouldn’t like my request to flip through all DEP files on Company X so I knew I wouldn’t be able to do what I was doing here anywhere else. I continued snapping pictures. Hundreds of jpegs later, I was ready to leave.

The clerk told me that there were also 14 spill reports for the company, and showed me how to find them in their online system so I could review them when I got back to my office. You could search by town, spill number, company name or other parameters. She typed in the company name and clicked Run Query. Fourteen spills came up. However, when I just typed in the first name of the company instead of the full name, I got more than 14. I realized the name was probably not entered consistently, so instead of typing in the name of the company, I entered the name of the town. That way, I figured, I’d be sure to get them all no matter how the name was entered. Sure enough, that brought up 30 pages of spill records, 125 of which were for that company.

The next day I met with a local environmental organization who let me take their files for viewing; a postal bin’s worth.

The next week I just started reading. All of it.

I wouldn’t have known which page out of all of those I took pictures of, or which spill report, or which of the environmetal groups’ documents would have clued me in to the story, and let me know what to ask for. So I am glad I used the method I did. It was an unsigned page-and-a-half memo from the DEP file room about an inspection in 2008, in which the writer actually expressed concern and uncertainty. It made me see the significance he or she saw, even more than a notice of violation, with its technical language, would. So based on that one file I started trying to answer my questions about it while reading everything else.

The documents were not chronological, nor were they organized by topic. But it didn’t matter. The answers to my questions didn’t come in expected places. They were incidental mentions in inspection reports, a mention of a particular drain in insignificant spill report — one of the many about just a few gallons of oil sopped up with rags. I began putting together a picture of how their process water and waste water was directed around the site, and then once I started getting requested files back from DEP, how the groundwater was being impacted.

This was an interesting process of how to find a story. At first all the details looked equally insignificant and equally potentially significant to me. I had no idea which of them would be relevant to a future story. But ever since that finding that 2008 memo, I knew which pieces of information within all the other reports I read were part of the story.

 

 

Unsend

So I’ve been playing this game recently, I call it Schroedinger’s mail. There’s a feature on Instagram’s direct message system where you can unsend your sent messages, as well as a feature which lets you know when the message has been seen by the recipient. Together these make up the elements of a Schroedinger’s-cat scenario, where the inbox can be in any state, messages appearing and disappearing, changing or reappearing, in a continual state of flux, until the observer opens up the inbox and views the message that happens to be there at that moment, thereby locking it in, collapsing all the endless possibilities of the conversation into that one message. (Well, not really endless, I guess, but limited by the limits of my mind). Though you can unsend seen messages, the rules of my game do not allow it.

Texting has certainly changed communication in relationships. This device we hold is a continuous line of connection to the other person. At a certain point, the communication becomes too constant and too immediate. Where we once had letters, we now have insta-grams. Where we once had built-in solitude in daily life because of physical distance from each other, or from mailboxes, land lines and computers, now we never do. Even in the recent age of email, there was not the expectation of an immediate response, that day.

A Nov. 1 Modern Love essay in the New York Times ended with, “Like lovesick girls everywhere, I hold my breath as he types back. Those three gray bubbles are infinitely vague.” Since we can see when someone has read something, and in iPhone texts, when they are typing, those things have become signifiers in themselves, and addicting ones.  ”Read,” is another gratification beyond the feeling of having sent your message, the gray bubbles, agents of anticipation. ”Seen” or “Read” can indicate that a response should be expected, as though a clock starts ticking once the receipt is recorded. The messages become something we have to attend to, among the other tasks in our life, like taking out the trash. But, when it is not being used for a purposeful conversation, they only bring in more clutter.

Even if the other person is not actually hanging on every grey bubble or counting the seconds from the appearance of the “read” indicator, the form itself creates that demand. The absence of a reply becomes another signifier, so that even without being in an emotionally needy state, the last-message sender could feel they are supposed to interpret the lack of yet another reply after a certain amount of time has gone by as a statement in itself that there is something wrong. Thus one can feel a text brings with it intense pressure to reply.

So that is one trap of texting. There were other traps with other forms. Emails could be disconnected soliloquys, phone calls could demand constant speaking without pause. Eventually any form is exhausted, and the conversation moves to on other forms.

Why Twitter?

Several people have been asking me lately why I prefer Twitter over Facebook. Thinking back to some of their replies, I realize they didn’t understand some things about how it works. So, this includes some Twitter 101.

On Twitter, you can follow people without having to know them or get their approval. That feature is the first benefit. As I’ve heard it put before: Facebook is who you know; Twitter is who you want to know.

Second, it’s public. You are not just talking to your own friends or your own followers. This allows for much broader conversations.

When I said more engaging conversations happen on Twitter, some thought I meant the individual exchanges posted as replies to particular tweets, which you’d see by clicking on the tweet. But that is pretty contained. The larger conversations happen on their own and don’t require extra clicks. You can see it happening by scrolling through your feed. It spreads organically when people are tweeting about a topic and others see it, tweet their thoughts on it for their followers to see, and some of those spread it to their followers, and so on.  More focused conversations happen through hashtags, which I’m going to assume everyone knows about because they’re everywhere.

The hashtags, and the tweets under them, are often hilarious riffs on a theme. Here are some of my favorites from last year:

#KirbyDelauter #distractinglysexy #notamosque #VanillaIsis #AskRachel

Also- and I don’t know how long this benefit is going to last for me – chances are your mom, grandmother, aunts and uncles and supervisors aren’t on it. So, even though it is more public, the tone is less crowd-pleasing and family-friendly. Where Facebook can sometimes feel like a church bake sale, my Twitter is more like a newsroom.

And, in that vein, it is an excellent source of news. You can see a lot of live tweeting of updates for breaking news stories, and for the smaller stories, tend to come up on twitter a lot earlier than they do on Facebook.

Facebook algorithms that emphasize posts with more positive, more buying-friendly feelings, the addition of the emotion tags, which must be used in  the targeted ads, make me more and more aware that I am “the product” on Facebook, whereas  on Twitter, I still feel like I am the user.

Finally, I’ve heard some people complain about the lack of response to real expression on Facebook. Some friends of mine who post creative, expressive things are surprised that no one likes those posts, but a cat video gets hundreds of likes. I think that is true and shows how Facebook limits communication. It only limits it in that medium, but people rely so heavily on it that for a lot of the connections on there it’s the only form of communication. The general mode is light, chatty, and sometimes political. When someone really creates something, developing a skill, bringing more meaning into the form, people can’t respond. It might be partly awe, and partly the feeling that if they can’t respond in kind, how could they click like? It’s out of the realm of like. The more people communicate in the lighter form, the more they can ignore inspiration and its demands. I guess the same goes for Twitter, but it is less of a problem on Instagram.

 

 

 

A poem by my grandmother, Amelia Gerardi

 

All of a Sudden

 

All of a sudden

After many years

of searching and seeking

And questioning

I find it’s nothing

Nothing at all

And life is just a game

 

And so I play the game

Of daughter very hard

And try to lose myself

In the game in order to stay alive.

But you come and strip me

Of the role and leave me dangerously

Near the brink of Nothing.

 

Quickly, I turn to another

Game and just as hard pretend

I am a Secretary

But out of nowhere

You appear and mock my game and make nothing of it.

 

But resourcefully I turn and

Try being a wife…

That game is old and

Has always been the best to play

Again you come

And with a few words

And cutting remarks

Make me less than wife

And something more than

I can’t even say

And there we are once more

Stripped and afraid

 

Somewhat desperately now

We become Mother

And we play that game

Very hard

As if it were a matter of life and

Death

Which it is

It has become almost imperative

To create a role that

Nothing will shake or crumble

But you my daughers

Slowly, by your very growth and

The demands life makes upon you

And your own needs

Turn and tear the mask

Of mother from my face

 

Now you my friend

Are all that’s left

And in your world

I busy myself and pretend

That I am most important

And most necessary

But with one small act

And with no words at all

You show me that even

Here there is

No

Sanctuary

 

Naked I stand

And wait

And no for certain

That nothing truly is

And even I am not

Only life is

 

Amelia Gerardi Nov. 18, 1920 – Nov. 24, 2008

I’ll post more of my grandmother’s writing here soon, but for now here is her obituary.

 

AMELIA MARIAN GERARDI, 88, beloved mother of Mary Taylor of Newtown and Teresa Leveille of Putnam died 11/24/08 in Danbury, Connecticut. Amelia was born November 18, 1920, in Arena, Italy, daughter of the late Pasquale Arruzza, who was knighted by King Victor Emmanuel and honored by Princess Margaret of Savoy for his services to Italy, and Teresa Giamba. Her family’s land in Italy was a grant to her great-grandfather, an aide-de-camp to Garibaldi.

She came to the United States in 1927 and had been married to the late Leonard Dominic Gerardi. As a young women she came under the guidance of with Alison Reppy, legal scholar and dean of New York Law School, and worked in a bookstore he owned with his wife. Though she never entered law school, as he desired, he sparked an interest in civil rights that was to continue throughout her life.

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Thoughts on pain scales and music

A claim of 10+ pain relayed over the scanner in the newsroom the other day led to a conversation about the pain scale’s subjectivity.  It can’t be higher than 10, that’s “pain inflation,” my coworker said.

The number doesn’t refer to a specific pain level outside of the individual. It is based on each person’s experience, the span of their greatest and least experienced pains.

This immediately brought back some of my old thoughts from college. I remembered Wittgenstien’s “beetle in a box” analogy, where everyone has a box that no one can see into, and it becomes convention that they begin referring to what is inside it as a beetle.

Similarly, level 5 pain may be considered something that is held in common.

But it is not really, and doctors have to interpret the number by asking what they experienced as 10, to get a reference point, or showing them pictures of a range of grimaces to point to.  Also, the individual’s scale shifts throughout life. So a 10+ is just the new 10.

That idea of one’s understanding of pain shifting throughout life based on experience also brought back old ideas on the experience of music. How does some music bring you to what I was calling then “musical perception”? I would describe that as seeing colors were more vividly, feeling more connected to the people around me, a kind of inspiration or mental freedom that only certain music could bring about.  I figured that it was based on each person’s prior experience of music, which defines your musical world and its boundaries, and it would happen when something breaks out of that, out of your musical expectations.

I was writing about this based on a lot of different experiences. I was trying to isolate what would cause the shift in me. I’d go to the Boston Symphony, to rock shows in the city, oh and of course the impromptu performance of Emperor Concerto by Adam Birnbaum in one of my college music classes. Once it happened at a concert/panel discussion on “What makes black music black?” (in 1998), when Branford Marsalis played a solo on alto sax, which was more rapid, with more unexpected notes, and played more skillfully than I’d seen performed right in front of me before.

It also seemed that the people on the panel who had just played music had a different relationship with language than the people who hadn’t played.

 

 

 

My concussion experience

I wrote a 3-part series on concussions for the three Courier Publications papers, which you can read here: Part 1 and sidebar, Part 2, Part 3. This came after I got one myself as a result of a minor fender-bender on our way out of the Common Ground Fair in September. I knew nothing about concussions when I got one, and then I was told not to read or look at screens during my recovery. My research afterwards cleared up a lot of the things that were so confusing about the experience.

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New Article/ Meeting Greenwald

My first real investigative piece just got published- testing wastewater discharges and comparing my results to the facilities’ monitoring reports.  (pdf here). I do see some definite ways the story could be improved. But I just took the window of opportunity, while I had pH meters and a chlorine meter at my disposal, to go for it and do what I could with it. In the first phase, finding the outfall pipes to sample, I got to check out some nice beaches and the see the remains of old ships:

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My first story

My first week working at The Republican Journal, Bangladesh factory workers were striking. One evening I started looking into the progress had been made toward improving factory safety after the fires and building collapses of the past year, and saw that Maine Senators Mitchell and Snowe were behind a second pact on Bangladesh factory worker safety that U.S. retailers had drafted in June rather than signing the binding European pact, and that many Maine organizations had opposed it, writing an open letter to the Senators in June 2013.

The next day at my first story meeting, the editor Dan said “Now, if you ever have an idea for a story, this is when you’d propose it.” I mentioned the Bangladesh protests and the Maine connection, but didn’t realize that I’d have to connect the story to our coverage area specifically. Dan said that if I could find anyone from Waldo county who had signed the open letter and talk to them, I could do the story

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