Thursday, November 26, 2009

Welcome to My World (on the Interstate)...

So I stepped out at 3 am to a wet, thick, chilly fog, smelling of wood fires. I was on my way to the early shift, editing for the 5:30 morning news.

Usually, these days bring a quiet drive on the highway -- 45 minutes on Interstate 81 from Lexington to Roanoke -- plunging through the darkness pretty much alone. This is nice, soothing in its way, because I need only to worry about myself. The occasional roadkill, especially the dramatic scene of a deer recently obliterated by a semi, warns me to stay alert, but the whole thing often takes on a sort of Zen peace about it.

Not today.

Today, it's Thanksgiving, and the road was filled with dozens of frantic drivers, pressing on through the night to their holiday destinations, north and south. That thick fog unnerved many, already undoubtedly sleep-deprived and uncertain of their surroundings, making their speed erratic and uncertain. Others rushed toward the destination, crowding the cars in front of them in the blinding whiteness. I hung back at those clumps of cars, fearing the knot of crumpled steel a simple error (blissfully avoided during my trip) could bring.

The license plates seemed mostly from New York, though I do recall one from Massachusetts. It is only my adopted status as a Virginian (marked by the faint Canadian accent to my speech) that prevented me from grumbling about damn Yankees.

And so, I think, I am thankful first and foremost that my Thanksgiving is at home. My commute may be longish, but I am not caroming down an interstate, eight hours out and God knows how far to go, with red rimmed eyes and discontented kids in the back, white-knuckling my way through fog in an alien state, surrounded by drivers in worse shape and with less competence (at least, based on their behavior) than me.

Welcome to my world...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

America, the deadbeat cousin...

The opening skit to SNL this week. I thought about putting it on Facebook, but it is (of course) rude, so decided that the hilarity should reside here.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Welcome to My (Election Day) World...

So the off-year election this year in Virginia -- involving the races for several state legislature seats and, most importantly, the governor -- got some national attention, as it as seen as a bellweather of everything from President Obama's popularity to the future of the Republican Party. At any rate, what it meant for me was getting up at 4 a.m. to drive to Millboro, Virginia, a small town in Bath County that happened to be the home of Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate for governor.

Deeds was to start his day by voting ... at 6:30 a.m. It was the first time he would be seen for a whirlwind day of appearances, the next not until 11 a.m. in Charlottesville, so as cable news and networks spoke about the election, the only footage available would be that early morning voting imagery. My imagery. Cool.

But that's not my story here. To jump to the end of the story of my experience, I got the pictures, drove back to WDBJ an hour and a half away (stopping to pick up additional footage of people voting in Lexington as I passed through) and sent it out on the feed. I owned the airwaves ... for a couple hours. Then the Charlottesville stuff came in, and then the final Richmond appearance, where Deeds again made himself available for a final round of interviews. My stuff disappeared, without so much as the last greasy bubble of a sinking ship, never to be seen again. "Remember," the slave would whisper into the victorious Roman general's ear, "All glory is fleeting."

No, the focus this story from my world that day is not me, but a young reporter/photographer from another local TV station who came skidding into the parking lot shortly before Deeds voted. He climbed out and began pulling equipment out of his aged, dark red hatchback, all arms and legs and and elbows and knees and lenses and wires. It looked like Roberto Begnini had been hired to do a comedy routine on a TV photographer. Nothing was in bags, the spindly tripod legs went in three different directions while his legs went in two others, his knees barely supporting what his hands couldn't hold. Microphone cables trailed out in tangled loops as he struggled over to me and the two still photographers (from AP and Getty) who waited outside the voting station. "Am I late?" He breathlessly asked. "Did I miss it?" We assured him all was well. There was plenty of time.

Off he went, and I heard the clatter and click as he struggled to pull everything together. There was a pause, and then he was at my shoulder. "Are you shooting P2?" He said, sotto voce.

It was a curious question. I was indeed shooting P2, Panasonic's digital video system that records the "footage" onto a largish memory card (available only from Panasonic at a fairly substantial cost) rather than onto tape or (as Sony's system does) a DVD. It's one of several systems currently in use, and one well suited to news gathering, but the question is one usually asked while standing, bored, after exhausting subjects like the weather and mutual acquaintances. "Uh," I said. "Yeah."

"Can I borrow a card?" I looked down at his camera. The little bay, which can hold up to five cards, was empty. He had left his office -- some two hours away -- without any media to record events. Put simply, he had just arrived after a long drive to a news event with the world's largest, heaviest, most complicated and expensive doorstop.

I had a dozen thoughts at once. This guy, I realized, was totally screwed. There was no time to go back and get a card, but without a card, he could do nothing. He might as well have not shown up. I knew well the feeling of sinking panic he was surely experiencing. But he was also the competition, and a moment from "The Apprentice" (of all things) flashed into my head. One of the competitors had won immunity, but was so confident of his later work on the show that he told Donald Trump he would wave the immunity. Trump fired him on the spot, explaining that passing up an advantage like that was just stupid. Cutthroat, but he had a point. If I refused, mine would be the only TV pictures of this event. How would the people back at the station feel about that? Were my bosses as cutthroat as Trump? And how would they feel about my blithely handing over a not inexpensive item to what in truth was a total stranger? Furthermore, what if I needed the card later? Sure, with the three cards I had in my camera, I had over two hours of available recording time, but it wasn't impossible that, between this event and my return to the station, something massive would happen. I could be trapped out in the field, frantically recording events and ... run out of memory because I had given a card away. Then I'd look as stupid as this guy, and over something far more important.

I looked at my card bay, its three cards nestled in their slots, and back at his, gaping and empty with its sliding door open ... and relented. I pulled out a card and handed it to him. Someday, I'd be trapped somewhere, hopeless and needing help (though hopefully not because I did something that stupid). At least, that's what I told myself as I pushed back all those questions and fears.

And so Creigh Deeds cast his vote. AP and Getty made stills. The other guy and I recorded it for TV. Deeds paused outside to talk with us, first interviewed by me, then the other guy, then chatted with his friends and supporters gathered in the parking lot before climbing into the limo (driven by state troopers, assigned that day to both candidates so as to be in place to protect the future governor) and leaving. After every news event like that, there is a pause, a moment to catch your breath, gather your equipment, perhaps socialize a moment with your colleagues, and head out.

The young reporter came to me. "I really appreciate your helping me out," he said, his camera still on its tripod about a dozen feet back. "You really saved my life..." And as he spoke, I saw the leg brake -- the thing you tighten on the extended tripod leg to keep it up -- begin to slip. I started to speak, but it was gone. The leg slid closed and his camera fell forward onto the ground, landing lens first.

Small pieces flew away on impact. The lens snapped away from its mounting, hanging from the camera only by the cable which connects the zoom control to the camera's power. We rushed to it and gently turned it over, like paramedics at an accident scene. I detached the lens cable, thinking it would do more damage for the lens to pull at the plug, and picked up the loose parts I had seen fly away. The lens mounting ring was sheared, the front plate of the camera pushed back by the impact. "Can it be fixed," He asked fearfully. "Yep," I answered. "But your day is over."

I flipped the body onto its side, revealing the card bay. As I expected (from my own camera falling experience) the card had been popped out of its slot by the impact, requiring me to force the door open. I removed the card and handed it to him. "Your footage should be fine, but you'll want to take care of this."

It was the icing on his bitter cake, simply the Worst Day Ever for a news cameraman. He mailed the card back to me in a couple of days, and my bosses were understanding. One colleague was actually quite supportive. "Good for you," he said when I told of handing over the card. "Pay it forward, man." But I shall always be thankful it wasn't me, while simultaneously dreading my Worst Day Ever. Welcome to my world...