Saturday, August 31, 2013

Catch you later

There was a story in the New York Times ago that struck me as very interesting, and touching on an "issue" that I've never seen discussed in a newspaper. That is to say - it was about a certain wedding tradition.

If you are over 30 and you've been to a wedding in your life, you know that often the bride takes her bouquet of flowers and flings them at a collected mass of unmarried female guests. Supposedly the person who catches the bouquet will be the next to marry.

But the story said that the tradition is dying out for the best possible reason in our more liberated times. The stigma of being unmarried has pretty much disappeared. That means no one is particularly anxious to grab on to some ancient ritual that is said to change that status. Good.

I've got to give my sister a ton of credit on this particular issue for being ahead of her time. When she got married a few years back (ahem), there was no flower-tossing. She sent the flowers to be placed on the grave of our beloved grandmother in Massachusetts. That sort of gesture has become quite popular in one form or another.

But the article didn't get into the flip side of that tradition, one that isn't romanticized as much. Welcome to the garter toss.

In this particular tradition, a garter is taken off the leg of the bride by the groom, and then flung into a crowd of unmarried men. Yes, the one who catches it will be the next to be married.

I can state with categorical certainty that for shy guys, this was a form of torture. I've never heard it better expressed than a high school friend spoke up about this tradition. Neither of us had dates at this wedding, which was pretty much the case for practically every other social event on our calendars.

"I feel a little stupid showing up at a wedding without a date, but there's not much I can do about that," he explained. "And what do they do? Drag me out into the middle of the reception floor with a bunch of other single guys who are perceived to be a little pathetic, leaving me hoping that the garter doesn't land in my lap and call more attention to me."

And where was this conversation? In the men's room. That's where some single shy guys headed when it was time for a garter toss. Ladies, you'd never believe how crowded it was in there. I always wondered if it was that crowded in the female counterpart at the appropriate time, but never found the nerve to bring it up.

Let me emphasize that neither of us had anything against marriage. Both of us are now happily married and have been for decades. We just didn't like wearing the equivalent of a scarlet letter at that point in our lives.

I can only think of one memorable toss in my career as a single wedding guest. For some reason the groom limited the backwards flip to members of the wedding party, none of whom were close to getting married at that point. The garter was heading right into the middle of the circle, and nobody moved. At the last instant, one of the group reached down and made a shoestring catch. At some level I realized it was just a silly little tradition, but it all sure made me feel uncomfortable.

On behalf of people of both sexes who are happy with their lots in life, let's hope the story is right and the trend continues. Shy people have their rights too.

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

57 Up

Ever heard of the movie landmark series that has a number, indicating age, followed by "Up"?

It's a British idea for a documentary. The first film took a bunch of 7-year-olds and interviewed them about their lives at the time for a film called "7 Up." Then, seven years later, a second film was made called "14 Up." The series has gone through age 56 now, and it's fascinating.

Some people come and go from the series, but all travel through a variety of typical human changes as part of life's journeys. Luckily, there are frequent flashbacks to previous films in order to provide context. Go rent it, one after another, and thank me later.

Then again, there's an easier way to see the process in action. Just go to high school reunions. You'll miss the first couple of episodes, but the concept is the same.

We just had another one Saturday night, 40 years and counting, and it was a typically happy affair. The high school experience is an intense one, of course, but the typical issues of those times eventually fade away for most and high school graduating classes more or less turn into one big happy family. Well, that may not be true for those who never want to look back at their high school days for whatever reason (and I know they are out there), but usually they aren't around to infect the atmosphere.

(Note: In our case, one person did do exactly that one time in our many reunions - anyone who tried to start a conversation in a lone reunion appearance came away shaking his or her head. I took an informal vote Saturday night, and the vote was perfect - no one missed that person this time.)

I'm a good candidate to go back to these reunions. I've stayed in the area, and several high school friends are still pals today, so I know I'll have a good time in that sense. One year, I showed up when I was unemployed; this time I showed up with a book coming out within days. In that sense, this time was better. At least I had a ready answer when someone said, "What's new?" But in both cases, I came away with a smile on my face at the end of the evening.

Besides all that, there are a couple of reasons why I find this tradition to be worthwhile:

I find out how stories turned out. I tell stories for a living, mostly about people, and the twists and turns are often dramatic. People show up with new jobs, new spouses, and new stories about parents and children. The quiet kid in the corner turns out to be a huge success story, the person considered to be the most brilliant person in the group falls on hard times and disappears. There's no way to guess what happens, even now. Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong.

I make new, or at least better, friends constantly. I sometimes joke about having the longest conversation of my life with people at reunions, but it's often true. Since I only went to a high school in suburban Buffalo for the final three grades, it's not as if I had 12 years to get to know everyone. Sometimes people didn't pop up in my classes, and I missed them. But we still had some common experiences through mutual friends, classes, etc. 

Eight years ago when we had a group 50th birthday party for the class, I struck up conversations with two classmates who I never knew particularly well. You know how you exchange email addresses with such friends and say you'll keep in touch? We actually did it, and it's been very rewarding. The same thing happened to me in 2003 when I attended the reunion of the high school I would have attended had I stayed in Elmira. I got back in touch, and stayed in touch, with people I hadn't seen in 33 years.

By the way, I even signed a yearbook of someone I didn't know at all until Saturday night ... a mere 40 years and two months after publication. Haven't done that in a while - 40 years and two months, come to think of it.

I noted in one brief philosophical moment Saturday that the conversation at reunions had gradually gone from what we hope to be into what we are. The biographies are more or less written; now we're working on happy endings. Toward that end, I also noticed that the r-word, "retirement," started to pop up this time. My guess is that I'll be hearing that word a lot more in 10 years when the next installment of this personal documentary is written.

Can't wait.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Let me explain...

The other day, veteran journalist Jack Germond died. Germond was one of those old-time reporters who had seen it all, knew everybody, and could crank out stories with the best of them. You might remember him as a liberal on such panel shows as "The McLaughlin Group."

When I saw the news on Facebook - welcome to the new world  of news-gathering - I thought of his book, "Fat Man in a Middle Seat." It was more than 300 pages of Germond looking back of his career, written more than 10 years ago.

But my Facebook comment, designed to be quick and easy, had nothing to do with that in recalling the book. It was connected to the fact that Germond sure seemed to have a lot of cocktails along the way. I believe he made a few reference to missing the days when he could sit down with politicians for "a few jars," meaning drinks.

Really, that's too short of a comment to make to be fair to a fine reporter. But it does deserve a little further explanation, and I'll do it here.

I've read a variety of memoirs from journalists over the years, and enjoyed almost all of them. But alcohol seemed to play a part in the job just as much as a typewriter and notepad did. Reporters would frequently get together with the people they covered for an off-the-record cocktail or three. Some of the stories in the books about what happened after the third cocktail are designed to be humorous.

But for in many cases - and I'm not specifically pointing at Germond by any means here - those stories merely came off as sad. We've much more aware since those days about the dangers of drunk driving, not to mention the damage that drinking to excess can do to families. Obviously, times sure have changed.

And looking back, I can tell you the exact moment when I reached "a tipping point" on the issue. When I worked for the Sabres in public relations at first (1986), the cooler in the press box always had cold, free beer in it. Most people who liked an adult beverage during the game didn't abuse the situation, but there were a few people who did.

Then at the summer meetings of the NHL, someone raised the issue. What would happen if someone who had consumed several free alcoholic beverages drove home and, God forbid, killed someone? Could the team be considered partly liable? I didn't want to find out. The following fall, beer was out of the cooler. I'm sure there were some complaints about that which I never heard directly, but I think most understood the situation.

I'm hardly saying that drinking by journalists doesn't take place. As long as there are road trips and deadlines and bars, alcohol will be consumed. But my unscientific guess is that we've become quite a bit more professional in this area over the years.

Reporters like Germond were simply from a different era, with different standards. I'm sure if he had come along 50 years later, he would have scooped everyone under the new rules.

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Monday, August 12, 2013


Another major championships has come and gone in the world of professional golf, and late Sunday night, when the PGA trophy was handed to Jason Dufner, I let out a large sigh of relief.

Tiger Woods had been blanked for another year.

It's an oddly emotional reaction to me, a person who is almost clinical in looking over the sports scene and who tries to be more fair and balanced than a room full of Fox News commentators (granted, the bar isn't too high in that particular analogy).

I have all the respect in the world for Woods' individual brilliance. At his peak, he probably was the greatest golfer in the history of the sport. Four straight majors, in this day and age? I would have thought that was impossible. I would have been willing to argue that the talent pool was so strong that no one was capable of winning so many big tournaments in such a short time. In fact, there's no one in history I'd rather see putting for the United States if the Ryder Cup came down to just one 20-footer.

That doesn't mean I am predisposed to root for him. Growing up, my dad was the Jack Nicklaus fan, preferring to root for consistent brilliance and gentlemanly play. Me, I rooted for Arnold Palmer, who never seemed to take the safe way out and was something of a thrill ride. Who would have been more fun to meet?

It's been the same story lately. That's Woods in the role of Nicklaus, and Phil Mickelson playing Palmer. Lefty recently had one of the great finishes in golf history, coming from way back to win the British Open - just like Palmer did in the 1960 U.S. Open.

For years, it looked as if Mickelson would be stuck playing Avis to Woods' Hertz, but then a funny thing happened - Woods' wife took a well-placed iron to the back of Tiger's car on Thanksgiving after learning of some of his, um, exploits. Woods hasn't played as well as he used to play in majors - zero wins - and Mickelson has driven through the vacuum to ensure his legacy as one of the most beloved athletes of his generation.

In the meantime, Woods certainly has the right to make a living at his chosen profession, and he's doing that. He's the number one player in the world, and can draw people into galleries which translates into sponsorship and appearance fees. Fine. But Tiger had always set his sights on the Nicklaus record of 18 major championships - he's at 14 at holding. And Woods' personal actions, and corresponding arrogance that went with them, were so over the top that it's difficult to root for him.

The Germans have a word for it - schaudefreude, pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. I have to admit I feel some of that when someone else holds up one of those big trophies at the end of a major golf tournament. I'm not proud of that feeling, but it's there. And it's not going away.

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Monday, August 05, 2013

In the locker room

ESPN recently aired a documentary on women in sports journalism called "Let Them Wear Towels." It was very well done, as the filmmakers spoke to most of the women who fought the battles to do their jobs in the 1970s.

The reporters involved certainly were tougher than their male counterparts, which includes me, since they had go through many more hoops just to get a story. The film made me think of my own experiences as something of a bystander to the story.

Let's state the obvious first. Interviewing someone who isn't wearing any clothes is an odd experience under any circumstances. When the President of the United States is done with the State of the Union, does he go to a locker room and tell reporters while he's undressing how he thought the speech went? Thankfully, no. But, traditionally it was part of the job and everyone learned to accept it.

That could lead to the odd bizarre moment. I remember covering a Canisius basketball game at the Koessler Center with a male newspaper reporter who was on a tight deadline. He needed quotes in a hurry, and I didn't want to make the Canisius player repeat his answers. So we talked to him at the entry to the shower as he was toweling off. I'm surprised I didn't have "Could you pass the talcum powder?" in the middle of a radio sound bite about the Griffins' zone defense.

My former radio news director once told a story about how he had to fill in on Bills coverage one time at then-Rich Stadium. The game was over, and he was in the Bills locker room collecting audio tape. He told me how he had looked over in the room, and saw me talking to Fred Smerlas, the Bills' defensive tackle. We were carrying on a normal conversation, except for the fact that Smerlas was naked. To his outsider's viewpoint, this was bizarre journalism. To me, it was another day at the office.

Women were rather scarce during the time I covered Bills' games. Most of them were put lower on the totem pole when it came to assignments as they were new and had to work their way up the ladder. That meant hockey led the way. I don't recall that there were major fights over press box access by the time I was a regular at Sabre games.

That battle was an easy one; credentials were merely written. But certain teams were tougher than others when it came to locker room access back then. I remember some issues coming up in that area, and about all I could do is be supportive to the journalists involved. At some point, the Sabres used to have a public relations person come into the locker room to announce that a woman was in the night's press corps, so that they would have the option to dress appropriately or go into another room entirely to avoid potential embarrassment. Of course, the women didn't have that option.

By the time I was in public relations with the Sabres from 1986 to 1992, I don't recall any major problems since it was league policy to accept female reporters. I remember Lisa Olson, involved in a celebrated incident involving the Patriots, coming to Buffalo to cover a hockey game while her status was being sorted out. I made sure to try to make her feel welcome, figuring she'd gone through enough stuff on that job.

One local women's reporter in the Nineties, when I asked if others wanted to know if she saw the Sabres naked in her job, quickly answered, "All the time." But even the cramped Aud locker room added a small changing room along the way which helped the situation; the visiting room didn't have that luxury.

When the Sabres moved to their new arena a block away, it was a little easier for the players to gain privacy. The First Niagara Center, as it is now called, is filled with off-limits spots and hiding places. Come to think of it, after a tough loss sometimes the media members of both sexes would file into the locker room and see ... no one. I haven't covered a Bills or Sabres game for years, but I would guess players have the opportunity to dress without prying eyes of all types staring at them.

There's one other issue involved here. It's a lot easier than it used to be to get "candid" photos in a lockeer room. About fifteen years ago, we just had to make sure television and still camera were only turned on and used in interview situations. Now, everyone has a cell phone with a camera, and the potential for mischief on the Internet is ever present.

I now have been covering the Bandits for five years, and there finally is true parity there. No one, male or female, is admitted into the locker room. It's a small area, and it's fair to say that it would be difficult for anyone to move around if six people were trying to talk to the same person at one time. Therefore, players are brought to a separate room, one at a time, and interviewed by the whole group collectively.

The thought has struck me that the policy does hurt the quality of my stories a little. Every interview is put up on the Internet shortly after it is recorded. It's a little tough to get quotes that no one else has under those circumstances. I do miss the chance to bounce from interview to interview in search of the best quotes, and maybe catch someone alone who can provide original insight.

But, to be fair, the system does provide equal opportunity, something that the women journalists of the past often didn't have. Men don't go into the locker rooms in women's tennis or golf, and stories still get written or produced. It seems as if all of the major sports are headed toward that approach. We may need time to get used to it, but the end result - equal access - strikes me as being worth the effort.

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