Morning with Monsters

Morning with Monsters

Fear is a funny thing. Run from it and it is always at your back, embrace it and its capacity to overwhelm you evaporates. Like darkness each morning, it can be pushed aside by the light. But as the sun rises in one place, darkness falls somewhere else. Face fear once, twice, a thousand times, and it inevitably crops up. We have a choice: keep facing our fears again and again forever, or try to run and hide from them for just as long.

This morning I got up before sunrise. My bag was already packed, tools strapped to the outside. I pulled on my Capilene, ate a small breakfast and jumped in the car. The road was coated in snow as I pulled onto Route 302.

About a month ago I soloed Standard Route at Frankenstein for the first time. It was an amazing experience, a moment where I embraced the fear of being ropeless and kept going. My brain screamed “NO” the whole way, and yet I continued upward, rejecting logic and letting trust and faith guide me.

Now, weeks later, the fear of being ropeless on Standard has dissipated. A week or two ago I ran up it again, this time before work. That time the tether anchoring me to the ground tugged but never grew taught. I was able to climb in control the entire time. The fear was gone, at least on Standard.

But there is always a bigger monster around the corner. As I drove to Frankenstein this morning I knew Standard was just the warm up. My fear, my test, was named Dracula.

The idea of soloing Dracula, the classic grade 4 at Frankenstein, first popped into my head on the descent from that first Standard solo. It wasn’t in yet, but as I walked past I knew in my heart it would go. This morning I went to Frankenstein determined to embrace that knowledge.

I got to the parking lot before the plows. It was still dark when I started walking down the railroad tracks. It was warm, above freezing, but I was dressed light enough I had to walk fast to stay warm. I followed deer prints in the fresh snow to the ice.

I got to the base of Standard and dropped my pack. The snow and ice above me glowed an eerie blue. I pulled on my harness, racked up and tethered into my tools in the pre-dawn light. I sighted the straightest, bluest line and started climbing. Standard flowed beneath my picks, an old friend accustomed to sitting together in silence. The first oranges and reds of morning sparked to the south. I snapped a few pictures as I climbed, but mostly I just cleared my head and concentrated on floating. “Breathe,” I thought time and time again. “Breathe.” In less than 10 minutes I reached the top and was walking back down.

The descent from Standard makes it easy to consider a second act. Most days I don’t have time to consider such things before work, but this morning I’d started early. Dracula looked soft, forgiving and beautiful. I walked to the base and stared up at it. I knew it would go. I took a sip of water, ate a snack, pulled on a dry pair of gloves from inside my jacket and swung a pick into the column. The ice was wet, pliable, perfect. I swung in the other tool. “This will go,” I thought, and I began climbing.

The first steep section went quick, a handful of moves up to a ramp. From there I kept going, swinging and kicking into dryer conditions. The ice was an open book as it flowed down a corner, so I stemmed my way skyward.

About halfway up, though, doubt crept in. My feet felt too wide. I was off balance, and the ice cracked more than I liked. I glanced down. A fall would break my legs and maybe my back. I’d bounce off the ramp, shoot out over the first column, hit the base and then tumble down the approach gully. I could see myself dying. “Shit,” I thought, “I don’t want that. Why am I here? This is stupid.” The terrestrial tether suddenly felt stretched to the limit. I prepared to climb down.

But I knew — KNEW — I could climb it. I’ve climbed Dracula countless times and never fallen. That doesn’t mean I never will, but I knew at that moment the thing holding me back wasn’t my strength or my skill, it was my head. The thing holding me back was me. I worked my way down, out of the corner and back to the ramp. I found a stance and buried my tools in the ice. I pulled off my gloves and tightened the laces on my right boot, took a deep breath, then another. “OK,” I thought, “you know the consequences. There is no logic to going upwards. None.” I switched feet and tightened the laces on the left boot. “Keep going and you could die.” I thought. “Just go down. The ground is safe.” I looked at my tools, drops of water glazing the orange paint, and then raised my eyes up. There were miles of steep ice above me. I looked at the sky, then down at the ground, and I felt a wall inside me crumble.

“That is wrong,” I thought, knowing in that instant I would continue climbing. “The ground isn’t safe. You think it is, but you may die there too. I might crash my car on the drive to work, or die of a heart attack at my desk, or get cancer. In fact, if I spend my entire life on the ground, it is inevitably where I’ll die. Going up isn’t about dying, going up is about living.” I swung my pick into the corner and started for the trees.

Every day we arrive at work on time, or make it to school, or meet a partner at the crag, we are fooling ourselves. We think because we made plans we were in control, that things worked out the way they did because we decided they would work that way. We’re wrong. We trick ourselves into believing we live in control, into believing that tomorrow will come just as today did, particularly if we avoid risk, never realizing the world can blow our plans off course at any moment. In a second we could die of a blood clot, or wind up shot dead in a movie theater. When it doesn’t happen each day we start thinking it won’t. We forget life is random, fleeting and final. We make plans for the future — a week, a month, a year, 30 years — thinking, KNOWING, we’ll be here to enjoy it. We walk through the world sure our lives will work out, wrapped in our own ignorance.

And we are wrong. I may die today. I may die as I write this, or tomorrow, or the next day. Life doesn’t wait and it isn’t guaranteed. It shows up wherever we make it, however we make it, whether on the ground or in the air. We will die someplace, that is the only guarantee. Darkness, fear may keep us from embracing LIFE, but it does nothing to stave off death. It rolls towards us nonetheless. The ground is not safety, and the route is not danger. They are simply the ground, and the route. There is risk in both, in all.

So I embraced the risk before me. “Breathe,” I thought as I moved up the final headwall. “Breathe.” It was the same thought I’d let fill my mind for the last 40 feet, the same thought I kept to the summit. It was my mantra, the thought that kept me in the moment, that pushed the fear of falling out, the fear of death out, the fear of failure and everything else out. I let the thought wash over me, let it carry me over the ice. It filled my mind, leaving my hands and feet to do the climbing they are so accustomed to. “Breathe,” I thought as I crested the ice and swung into turf. “Breathe,” I thought when I reached the trees.

I stood in the snow and let out a long, slow breath. “Today I lived,” I thought, rather than just survived. I smiled, clipped my tools to my harness and started the walk down.

Light is always looking for darkness. Allow it into one more place. And one more place. And one more place.

Diving In

Sometimes you get started on stories so big you just can’t get them rolling.

I started on one of those yesterday. I have been hearing for more than a year that some moderate Republicans are concerned the actions of more ideological members of their party could affect them come November. Then yesterday I got an email invitation to a movie that calls into question President Obama’s paternity. The email came because I am on the mailing list of the Mount Washington Valley Republicans. I got to wondering what local Republicans in positions of authority thought of this type of production, if it represented them and their party, so I started making calls.

From there things got interesting quick. The Republicans I talked to said they would rather argue policy than paternity, and they did not plan to see the film. They defended, however, people’s right to see the film.

That wasn’t really my question, but that seemed to get lost in the mix. I was more interested if any of them thought it was worth objecting to a film alleging the president is lying about who his father is. My question got a luke-warm reception.

I basically wanted to know if local Republicans consider their “big tent” approach to the party to include people making outlandish claims, such as those made by “birthers.” A Republican state house rep from Jackson championed that issue this year, and I wondered if it a.) concerned more mainstream Republicans or b.) provoked any rebuke from the party. The Republicans I talked to did not indicate they saw any real issue with it.

The thing that got me thinking about this episode from the 2008 campaign:

In this clip Sen. John McCain shows real character, standing up against inaccurate portrayals of then Sen. Obama despite possible political consequences. I wondered if any local Republicans showed similar character, whether in the face of the “birther” advocates or when it’s a discussion of the president’s paternity.

The responses I got indicated local politicians were not willing to stick their necks out particularly far to contest this rhetoric. The people I spoke to preferred policy discussions, but they weren’t about to push back on this sort of thing.

That made me wonder where they would draw the line. Was there any issue that deserved repudiation? I decided to press a little further, to ask about whether the Republican “big tent” was big enough to embrace racism. Everyone I asked that of told me no.

That begged the question, however, of how a local Republican in a leadership position was able to retain that leadership position after his use of racial epithets became public. (The Sun covered it, but the online archive of the story was eliminated when we changed computer systems.) One person told me they did not have an answer. Another told me the use of racial slurs in private did not rise to the level where the person should be rebuked. Another asked me if I thought the man was a racist just because he used the N-word. I was asked if that person be censored, to which I responded no, but shouldn’t at least some local Republicans have suggested such comments weren’t befitting someone in a leadership position? Again, my comments didn’t get much traction.

By the end of all this my head hurt. I was caught in a circular argument I couldn’t get straight. Local Republicans said they didn’t think racism fit in their “big tent,” but when examples of inappropriate use of racial slurs by a party official hit the newspaper no one made a sound. I shouldn’t connect the actions of one person to the whole of the Republican Party, I was told. But I have a hard time understanding why not one local Republican exhibited the character of Sen. McCain, not one Republican thought it was worth it to stand up and say, “I disagree with the president on policy, but there is no need to stoop to the language of racism to make our point.”

I had hoped to go see the movie about Obama’s paternity so I could tie this all into a story, but deadlines caught up with me this afternoon. My morning spent discussing ideological issues forced me to race the clock at deadline, so I didn’t make it. I didn’t realize I was getting into this morass when I made the first phone call. Now that I’m partway in I feel an obligation to keep working my way through it. Sometimes you dive in at the shallow end of the pool. Sometimes you don’t know how far down the deep end goes.

Update: I found this Economist article, which in some ways connects. I thought it was interesting considering the topic.

138 Votes

Sometimes it’s clear your work makes a difference.

This week it wasn’t my work, it was the work of my colleague Daymond Steer, that likely unseated the incumbent sheriff. Last night was the primary. The sheriff, who had served two terms, was facing a challenge from a man who had run for the office and lost several times before. This time, however, the newspaper took the time to dig into several stories that my have cost the sheriff his office.

First was a story about a lieutenant who quit after an incident where the sheriff didn’t detain someone U.S. Marshalls wanted to arrest. There are questions about what exactly happened and how it all played out, but the stories didn’t look very good for the sheriff. Then there was a story about how a plaintiff in a civil case was asking a judge to find the sheriff in contempt of court. Again, it didn’t look good for the sheriff. Then there were the opinions of the various police chiefs in the area — not one supported the incumbent. Working with him was described as “a nightmare.” All of this made it into the paper, much of it on the front page, in the weeks leading up to the election.

And then the sheriff lost the primary by 138 votes. That is with thousands of people voting. We worked hard to get accurate stories out to the public before voting day, and it looks like that coverage may have affected people’s choices at the polls. We didn’t uncover any blatant corruption, but clearly people had questions about the sheriff’s behavior. It was clear in the numbers that readers in our coverage area were less inclined to support him (although that may not be a causal relationship — his challenger is a local). I have to image those stories made a difference, and when the margin is 138 votes it doesn’t take much.

Surrealism on the Big Screen

Sometimes it’s all about the photograph, but sometimes words can paint the more complete picture.

I was in court this afternoon and happened to sit in on the arraignment of a young woman charged with stealing a credit card and using it three times. She looked to be in her early twenties, with long brown hair and glasses. She looked like she could easily have been on break from college, only the prosecutor said she isn’t. She also isn’t employed, and she was already out on bail for burglary charges. I wasn’t there for the young woman’s hearing, but the clerk would be busy until it was over so I figured I’d sit through it rather than wait in the hall.

The proceeding was different than others I’ve been to. Instead of a judge sitting at an elevated desk at the front of the room there was a large screen television mounted at the witness stand. The court was doing a video arraignment, the clerk told me, something they’d just begun within the last month. On top of the television was a cylindrical camera, roughly the size of a soft drink cup, what pointed at the defendant. In the lower right corner was a square showing what the camera was capturing. The rest of the screen was for the judge.

A judge an hour and a half away came to the screen at the push of the button, and everyone in the room rose as if he had just walked in. The judge’s clerk (there were two — one in the room the young woman, the prosecutor and I were in, and then one with the judge) read the charges the young woman was facing — one count of theft and three counts of credit card fraud. The prosecutor, a sergeant with the Conway Police Department, read an affidavit that said the woman stole the card from an associate and charged $500 on it. He also mentioned her other pending cases, and that she was after money for drugs.

This girl looked like she could have been taking classes at any university, or working in the coffee shop down the street. I’m not sure exactly when, but around the time the prosecutor asked the judge to set bail at $5,000 cash she began to cry.

She continued to cry as she stood and pleaded to the television that she did not want to go to jail. “I just want to go home,” she said, her voice broken. I wonder if she noticed the bailiff, just in front of her and to the right, sending a text message on his cell phone. “I have no one here,” she said. $5,000 would be too much.

I’ve never had to post anyone’s bail, but as I sat there watching her cry I considered it. They will eat her up in jail, I thought. The judge listened as she cried and spoke. Her back was to me, but I could see her reflection in the television screen as she wiped her eyes. I had to look away. And I wasn’t alone. There three other police officers in the room, and they all were looking at their feet, at the ceiling, anywhere but at her, embarrassed and sad for her but at the same time mad at her.

The room felt cold. I couldn’t help but envision the photo I wanted, the photo I knew would capture the inhumanity I was watching. It would take a wide angle lens, and it would be in black and white. In the foreground would be the bailiff’s phone, open in his hand, held next to his leg. Beyond him would be the young woman, slightly out of focus, her hands over her face. Beyond her, in the middle, would be the judge, just inches tall on the television screen deciding her fate.

I’m not sure what I saw in that room, what it says about humanity, the electronic age or the future of justice. But I did see something that struck me as an opportunity for art to make its social commentary. The room felt cold, the justice system felt cold, in a way it never has when there is a human sitting at the front of the room.

This young woman didn’t get that, however. She got a $5,000 cash bail. And with that she got a free ride to the house of corrections, and orange jumpsuit and shackles.

The Art of the Superfund

If you get a chance take a quick look at my story about Kearsarge Metallurgical Corp., the valve company in Conway that became a Superfund site that cost American taxpayers $5 million to clean up. It was fun to research and write. It was not intended to be the weekend feature, but my editor liked it so it got drafted. It started from the question, “Are the people who made this mess cleaning it up?” It ended with the realization that the Superfund program, originally meant to be funded by the companies that risk contamination, has become a program funded by the public. It becomes a little easier to care about policy, I think, when it’s in your back yard and it’s your money that’s cleaning it up.

The Essence of the Written Word

I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger ruled.
I came among men in a time of uprising
And I revolted with them.

I ate my food between massacres.
The shadow of murder lay upon my sleep.
And when I loved, I loved with indifference.
I looked upon nature with impatience.

In my time streets led to the quicksand.
Speech betrayed me to the slaughterer.
There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers would have been more secure. This was my hope.

– Bertold Brecht

I saw the last section of this (revised) poem on Facebook the other day when a friend posted it alongside a story about a Chinese dissident who had barricaded himself into his home to avoid persecution. I read it and immediately put it into Google to find the author.

Bertold Brecht was a German writer born around the turn of the century. He lived through both World War One and World War Two, although he got out of Germany for the second war. When I read this poem (which is only really the middle section of a longer poem, with a couple lines deleted) the words stuck in my mouth. They felt heavy, like they meant something regardless of context.

It’s so rare to see powerful writing, particularly in the everyday. It’s something I’ve been working on, hopefully with success.

I was going through emails the other day tossing out old ones and I came across one I wrote to the former editor at NHPR about the mess in Transvale Acres following the Irene flooding. Check it out:

The fact is most of the lots originally were campsites and were never supposed to be anything more. People bought them and built illegally because they knew they could never get building permits for so close to the river. The neighborhood is private, without town roads or infrastructure, so the development largely happened under the radar. They built everything without talking to the building inspector, so half the houses were shacks jacked up on cinderblock stilts. People obviously knew it was happening, but town officials going back 40 years ignored it.
It’s hard to fault the current administration for a problem they inherited. Officials don’t like to talk about it, but they tried to deal with the problem before the storm. They looked for ways to clean up the neighborhood, but without funding to compensate property owners for the homes they would have been forced out of they didn’t get anywhere.
Then the storm came. The emergency declaration gave the town the deep pockets it needed to finally address the problem. It took political will for town officials to step up and enforce regulations their predecessors ignored for four decades, but most people think it was the right thing to do. 22 people had to be rescued out of Transvale Acres on the night of the storm. The question has come up: What happens if durring the next flood a firefighter dies trying to rescue someone out of sub-standard housing that the town allowed to stand? It may seem draconian now, but over the long term it’s the right move.
The real fault here lies with the people who built houses illegally 30 years ago and the officials who ignored it then. Everyone else is a victim. Sure, illegal construction happened more recently, but by that point the problem had become too widespread: What’s the point of issuing a violation for an illegal porch if the house it’s attached to isn’t supposed to be there? The town, and the homeowners who bought from the original owners, were in an impossible situation.
So that’s the story: the situation sucks, particularly for homeowners, but the town is stepping up and doing the right thing for the first time in decades. And although it’s going to be painful, without the storm there would have been no mechanism to compensate these people.
I like to thing it’s strong writing. Her response was this should become part of the script (the script, however, never got written). I keep playing with my writing to see what I can make it. It’s nice once in a while to feel like you’re writing with weight, not just to get the basics of an idea across.

Sometimes It Just Happens

I was working on a story today about the Saco River, a story that I’d been trying for several days to pull together, and then this evening it just happened.

The gist of the story is this: a landowner on one side of the river wants to build protection systems into his embankment because he is losing land to erosion, but the landowner downstream is concerned that will push the erosion problem onto his property. The first landowner discovered the problem after a landowner upstream from them did just what they are now proposing to do. This is a simplified version, but you get the idea — every individual wants to protect their property, and as a result everyone else has to protect theirs.

About half an hour before deadline, with nothing really yet on paper, the story exploded. First I got a call from the head of a local conservation commission, who I’d been waiting to hear from for two days. Then I got a call from a longtime selectman and state rep. Then the Attorney General’s office sent out a press release about a $66,000 penalty for someone local who went ahead and protected his property without getting the proper permits. Then an attorney in that case called to explain their side of things.

All the sudden there was more of a story sitting in my lap then I had time to process. My deadline was blown, but my story was in my lap. It’s amazing how two days worth of work can flip in a moment from connecting the dots to holding back the floodgates. I still have a few calls to make to get the whole thing on paper (so to speak), but regardless it’s cool to know everything converged. Sometimes, I guess, it just happens.

New Hampshire On Fire

The last few weeks have been crazy when it comes to murders and police shootings. Dalton, Greenland, Lancaster, Keene, Springfield — too many to handle. It was a year ago this weekend that Conway had its own such incident with Krista Dittmeyer. I’m due to do an update on that for Tuesday. To date no one has been charged. It is nice, however, to not have that media storm in my back yard. The rest of the state, however, seems to be falling apart, and it’s not even summer yet.

For the latest on the handful of incidents lately, one great source is the Attorney General’s office. I check this page every day. Lately, however, it’s been a little too busy. Just look at April, which isn’t even over yet. Not cool.

Lacing Opinion into the News

I got some flack today from a selectman for a story I wrote that appeared in today’s paper. The story in question wasn’t about any action in particular, it was more an analysis piece on the first meeting of the new selectboard. There is only one new member, but a lot changed as a result of the election. The personalities on the board are not something I want to comment on as such things are hardly hard news, but sometimes the facts make impressions of personality quite clear.

One board member does not make motions. She seconds other people’s motions, but she does not make her own. I can not recall her ever making one, but I could be wrong there. I checked the minutes from the first few months of 2012, however, and in those meetings she did not offer one motion. I put that fact in the story to contrast with the newest board member, who on her first day made several motions.

I offered the fact up to show the comfort the new board member seemed to have with her new seat, but it didn’t get over well. I got two phone calls today, one from the board member and one from a sibling, raising issue with the story. The sibling understood what I was doing after a brief discussion, but the board member didn’t seem to. At one point she said I was thrusting my opinion into the story. I asked her where. Which line was she referring two? I was citing the minutes, I explained. Those numbers are fact.

Those numbers exemplified the point that the newest selectman came ready to jump into the fray in a more vocal way than the last new inductee. That analysis was backed up by the statistics. Was it me intertwining my opinion with facts? I don’t believe so. If one selectman is quiet and the other vocal is it opinion to point that out? Again, I don’t believe so.

And further, I don’t believe being vocal equals being a good elected official. It isn’t even one measure of what makes a good elected official. But it certainly is measurable, not just in opinion but in fact.

Close Call

A school board member with a long history of holding student athletes to high standards almost got wrongfully smeared in the paper today. So did his son. The close call was a good lesson on just how much you have to look into things before you put them into print.

Every day I get a copy of the police dispatch logs from the days before, which including information about what police and firefighters had to deal with over the last 24 hours. Among the call log are also the arrests, and in one from last week was the 17-year-old son of a school board member.

The son had been arrested for driving after his license was either suspended or revoked. He got handcuffed, put in the back of the police car, formally arrested and bailed. The parent is the school board member who has long said student athletes who misbehave off campus must be held accountable on campus. That had us asking all sorts of questions, since the son kept playing basketball after the arrest.

We were all set to point out the hypocrisy of the school board member’s position, since no one reported the son’s arrest. It was getting close to a banner story.

Then I called the cops, who told me the whole thing was an administrative error. The Department of Motor Vehicles incorrectly had the son’s license as suspended. The arrest will appear on his arrest record now, the police said, but it was not his fault.

I immediately took the boy’s name out of the police log and called all the people we’d contacted who were connected with the story to make sure they had the full information, but it was that close to a story. The official police records said there was an arrest, and there was no backstory on how it was essentially an erroneous arrest. Think about how that would have looked in tomorrow’s paper.

That was the second story dealing with that same school official where everything pointed in one direction but some key phone call or piece of information tipped the scales in the opposite direction. Both would have been monumental errors on the paper’s part, made someone look bad and in no way left any recourse for those hurt.

These are the dangers of three-quarters journalism. The evidence may point in one direction, but that may be only 90 percent of the evidence. The other 10 percent may make it clear that what the other 90 percent points two is inconsequential. It isn’t about what the evidence points to, it’s about the truth, and for that three-quarters (or even 90 percent) isn’t good enough.

Close calls are a reminder of why solid reporting is so important. Banner stories die because you do your job well. Sometimes it feels great to kill them.