Literary late bloomers: a club I’d like to join, Part 1 — My shallow youth

Portrait of a blogger as a non-prodigy

I had never been accused of being a prodigy-of-letters, blazing across the literary firmament, my brilliant prose eliciting gasps of wonder and awe from critics and the public at large. Mmmmmno..

There were days back in my shallow youth, though, when I actually thought I had a shot at modest success, if not the pinnacle of Pulitzer-crowned fame. After all, wasn’t I covering all the right career bases? For starters, as a journalism major in college, I had worked my way up the ranks of the campus newspaper from photographer to photo chief to editor-in-chief. I was running a weekly newspaper! I wrote the editorials! Fraternities actually courted me to join!

Russell Baker, a journalist's journalist

Besides that, I was reading the columns of Russell Baker, a journalist’s journalist, a writer with a keen eye, a sharp wit, and a pen that could make any politician’s political sword fall limp and useless. I wanted to be like him, and so I read his words and tried on his wry, witty and wise writing style as if it were a warm and well-worn tweed jacket that would give me magical writing powers. Success-by-osmosis: I was certain that was possible.

And like all journalism students of my generation, I also wanted to be like Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in  All the President’s Men. Dashing, determined, brash, principled. Saving the world by slaying one corrupt administration at a time. No, wait: that was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Hoffman and Redford: journalistic role-models for a generation

Anyway, my early success in college had led to a paid summer internship at the local daily, The Orlando Sentinel. I admit that this exciting opportunity did not get off to a sterling start. On my first day, an editor sat me down at the Metro desk, in front of a computer I did not know how to operate, and told me to transcribe the story (on deadline!) of a reporter speaking on the phone. Did I mention that my typing speed was about 18 words per minute? I was petrified. But I hunted and pecked my way through this trial-by-fire as best as I could, filling the article with so many typos it looked more like Hungarian than English. I thought that once the by-now-exasperated reporter was done dictating, I could clean up my copy and my first-day reputation could remain unsullied. But no.

“I need that story now!” the editor ordered. I was mortified. After looking at my horrible typing job, I was sure there would be snickering, sighing, and tut-tutting behind my back. And perhaps my journalistic career would come to a quick and merciful end. But the editors were generous and kind and understanding. They gave the skinny college kid a second chance. And a third. And a fourth. By the ninth chance, I was doing all right. I even ended up on the front page! It was a story about a woman who gave birth in a car on the way to the hospital. I was there at the Metro desk when one of the editors took the tip for the story over the phone. “Interns awaaay!” she said.

At summer’s end, I returned to UCF to complete my studies. By this time I had finished my requirements for a journalism degree, and was taking all history courses, so I could also have a major in that subject. Why? I wanted to study history in grad school, to challenge myself intellectually, to make myself better qualified to write about the world.

As my graduation approached, I heard from the editor who had supervised my internship. She and her colleagues had thought enough of my work to offer me a job at one of the Sentinel’s exotic, far-flung bureaus — in Volusia County.  I was flattered, and feeling somewhat vindicated after my shaky start. But by that time I had already been accepted at Georgetown, where I would study Middle East history. So I walked away from my chance to start out as a cub reporter and end up who-knows-where?

But I had my sights set on bigger assignments than New Smyrna Beach City Council meetings. With my MA in hand, I thought there would be nothing between me and a bright future as Time magazine’s Cairo bureau chief. Or so I thought.

I had begun to write this blog entry after reading an obituary a couple of days ago. It was the life of a woman who was herself a late bloomer, and her life reminded me a bit of mine. But as you can see, I got sidetracked. I’ll get back on track tomorrow. Or the day after..

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More news and notes about literary non-fiction online

The story of how longer works of literary non-fiction are migrating from old-school printed media to new-school ones online continues to trend. David L. Ulin, book review editor of the Los Angeles Times, adds to the growing body of articles on the subject with this nice summary. He talks about Byliner and the Atavist, which I’ve already blogged about. But he also notes that the Virginia Quarterly Review has a fairly recent but growing online presence.

I’ve also blogged about longreads.com, and now comes a piece by Paul Farhi of the Washington Post with some more details about the site.

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No Truer Hearts blog: a Memorial Day weekend entry

Here is a long post, quoting an email Beverly sent me a few weeks before she died. It contains a detailed description of the memorials she created for Sean.

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Deep thoughts and feelings about death and life

One of the great, great things about this digital transformation we’re going through is the amazing increase in interactivity. People can be in touch with others who are literally on the other side of the globe, in a number of ways.
Which brings me, again, to Gene Weingarten. He and other people who write for the Washington Post do their part for the cause of interactivity by communicating regularly with readers and fans and others online in live chats. As one of our leading humorists, Gene usually cracks wise about the chosen topic of the day (today’s was the meaning of God, and life, and death). But as one of our best writers, he also thinks deeply and seriously about the most important and sensitive things imaginable. I had to pass on his answer to this person:

Question: Taking this poll [about life, death, and God] was interesting for me because I recently had a recurrence of the cancer I beat last year and now it turns out that it’s likely terminal. I’m 31 years old. I was never baptized, not raised in a religious home, etc. And I still don’t know what to believe, even when confronted with my impending death at a time when I was not expecting it. I used to think people who turned to religion as they were dying were copping out, but I’m starting to understand it a little better now. But I still don’t know what, if anything, to believe.

GENE WEINGARTEN : When I was 40, I was where you were: Facing likely death, and doing it as an atheist.

In my case, I tried to make myself feel better any way I could. I did research, learned that in the year 1012, the average life expectancy was 29! I was already waay ahead of the game! I started reading the obituaries, and took solace from anyone who died younger than me. It’s gruesome, but a school bus crash filled me with joy!

I noticed with amusement the fact that when your friends think you are dying, they treat you differently, like you were Socrates, as though impending death imbues a person with some sort of infinite wisdom and knowledge of the Truth, as opposed to, you know, blind panic. I abused this fact. I made shallow statements that sounded profound, then laughed until my friends did, too. Then I wrote a book about how funny death was. The final chapter was titled: “Is Death A Laughing Matter? Of Corpse Not!”

In short, I dealt with it all like a smartass. We are what we are. Don’t change who you are.

But I do have some helpful advice for you, too.

There’s some small validity in that Socrates notion. Nothing is “copping out.” It is the nature of life, and the signal strength of the human animal, to adjust our thinking as we learn new things. You are, philosophically, in a fertile place to learn. You are being forced to face great questions earlier than most of us do. Use that opportunity wisely. If it leads you to faith, that is not a bad thing, nor is it, necessarily, an accommodation with yourself — a concession to fear. It can represent a higher state of philosophical awareness.

And lastly, I want to tell you that I am still here, 20 years later. Doctors are not always right. And the philosophical contortions I went through 20 years ago have helped me better order my life since. In retrospect, I feel as though I’d been given a gift. You may be, too.

– May 24, 2011 9:21 AM
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The LA Times writer praises StoryCorps and authenticity and power of Beverly Eckert’s story

This article by James Rainey captures the power of the oral histories collected by StoryCorps, and the special drama and personal poignancy of Beverly Eckert’s story, before 9/11 and after.

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The 9/11 Memorial: How Beverly Eckert and other family members left their imprint

Ground Zero after 9/11

Ground Zero.

It is the place where nearly three thousand people perished one September morning, and many others were injured, sickened and emotionally scarred. For the loved ones left behind, the place where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center once stood so very tall became the most hallowed of grounds. To properly preserve that space, and to erect a memorial that would honor the dead and inspire the living, became a cause very close to the heart of Beverly Eckert and other 9/11 family members and friends. It was the last place on this earth where so, so many took their final breath. It was where Beverly’s husband, Sean Rooney, said his goodbyes.

There was news about Ground Zero this week, and it wasn’t just about the president’s visit. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum announced that the memorial was complete and ready for visits — at least digitally. The 9/11 Memorial web site allows visitors to search for the name of a person to see where it will appear on the real memorial. There are digital renderings of the entire memorial/museum complex, as well as illustrations showing all sections of the memorial inscribed with the names of victims. Even from this relatively cold and distant artificial perspective, the memorial is a moving place to visit. And its design was strongly influence by the concerns of Beverly and other loved ones of the departed. But at one time, there were conflicting visions about Ground Zero’s future.

After 9/11, everyone agreed that the place where the towers fell was special, and that there should be a memorial built there. But in the months that followed, views diverged on how the site should look after the debris had been cleared, the remains sorted, and construction completed. The bigwigs in government and business had in their sights one of the most potentially lucrative pieces of real estate in Manhattan. Sure, they recognized the need to be sensitive to the site’s new significance, but often their vision was dominated by dollar signs. Ground Zero, after all, was hard by Wall Street, which is not noted for its sentimentality, the softness of its heart.

So when re-development of the hallowed ground began to move forward, clashes broke out between the various interests. Beverly was among those who opposed plans by the site’s developers to have a relatively small memorial, and to build on top of the bedrock upon which the towers stood, and upon which they fell. Beverly and other family members wanted to whole site to be preserved “down to the bedrock.” She felt that covering it with train stations, roads and buildings would erase the very heart of 9/11, would diminish the quiet solemnity of this final resting place for so many.

Beverly and the other opponents of the developers were small in number, but they were committed to their cause. As the second anniversary of 9/11 approached,  Beverly and others felt the situation had come to an impasse, that the developers were moving forward with their own plan to bury most of Ground Zero in buildings and transportation infrastructure.

It was time to act.

Beverly planned to lock arms with others at the main gate of the Ground Zero construction site, blocking any workers and their equipment from entering. She was dead serious, so prepared to be arrested for this act of civil disobedience that she consulted with a lawyer about how to go about the protest, and how to behave once arrested.

Beverly and other protesters arrived at the appointed place on September 3, 2003, but the gate was locked. After hearing about the planned action, the developers decided to have workers and vehicles use another entrance to the site. Still, Beverly was able to get her message out, and the story got wide coverage.

Eventually, a new plan for the redevelopment of the site was drawn up, which took into consideration the wishes of the families and friends of those lost. The footprints of the Twin Towers were preserved, becoming, in fact, the dramatic centerpiece of the memorial plaza at Ground Zero. Beverly and her allies had won another victory, and their vision of how to honor and remember those who died on 9/11 will stand for many, many years to come.

Model of the 9/11 Memorial

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As President Obama visits Ground Zero, Beverly’s voice on NPR

President Obama carries a wreath at Ground Zero

These are very busy times for  Beverly Eckert’s sister, Karen Eckert. She continues to lobby US officials and members of Congress to strengthen airline safety. But last night she took the time to give me a quick heads up. She called to say that National Public Radio’s, “Morning Edition” news program would be running a recording made by Beverly about the death of her husband, Sean Rooney.

I just listened to it on my local NPR affiliate, WAMU FM, and though I’ve heard Beverly’s recording several times, it once again brought tears to my eyes. It is a short segment of a long recording in which Beverly described her life with Sean, the horror of those final moments when they spoke on the telephone, and her life as a 9/11 activist afterward. An edited version of the complete recording can be found on the StoryCorps web site. I will be releasing excerpts from the longer transcript.

Smoke and fumes were choking Sean as he said his last words to Beverly. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” he whispered. Beverly said she wanted to crawl through the phone and be there with him as he slipped from life. But then she heard the sound of the building collapsing. And it was over.

With the killing of Osama bin Laden this week, 9/11 is once again in the news. And today President Obama is visiting Ground Zero for the first time. He will meet with family members of those who lost a loved one, and spend some quiet moments remembering the thousands who perished in that spot and elsewhere. He will also lay a wreath at a memorial that Beverly and other family members fought hard to build.

Not many people know this, but even before the wreckage of the Twin Towers was cleared, developers were making plans to raise a new edifice on the same site. Beverly and other family members strongly felt that the footprint of the two skyscrapers was hallowed ground, the final resting place of the ones they loved, and should be preserved for eternity. When the developers and the city sought to push forward with their plan to build on the footprint, Beverly was thinking about going on a hunger strike, and actually organized an act of civil disobedience on the construction site. (In the end, Beverly and the family members won, and the present 9/11 memorial is a moving testament to their determined efforts.)

Karen lost Beverly in the crash of Continental Flight 3407 outside Buffalo on February 12, 2009. Pilot error was deemed a principal cause of that accident, in which 50 people lost their lives.

So, just as Beverly became an advocate for families who lost a loved one on 9/11, Karen and other families of Flight 3407 have been pushing to make our skies safer. They thought they were close to new rules that would improve such things as pilot training, but with a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, the regional airline industry has found willing supporters in their effort to sacrifice safety for profits.

That’s why Karen and the other family members are so busy. There are still battles to be fought.

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