Thursday, January 15, 2015

Rest in Peace, Steve Baker: The big brother I never had...

When you're an only child, your friends are as important as your family. Sometimes, more so.

When you lose one, it leaves a hole in your heart.

To call Steve Baker just a good friend would be doing him a disservice. He was more than that; a big brother who was always there for me, a truly unselfish person who made the world a better place and taught me how to do it.

Steve was a television photographer, one of many I worked with over the years. Photogs and reporters have a special bond; when you spend most of the day in a news car, you don't use all your time talking about your story. Instead, you get in these incredible life discussions, and when you connect it's almost like being married at work. A great newsroom is a second family; it's hard to describe the unique camaraderie that exists in the business filled with nothing but creative, sarcastic people who all have a no-holds-barred, nothing-is-sacred sense of humor. The news industry is like one big fraternity. When we lose a member, we all feel it.

His other fraternity was the band of brothers known as Vietnam Veterans. Steve was an Air Force photographer whose amazing pictures ended up in Life magazine. He put himself in harm's way to get the best shots, as most photogs do. He ended up taking shrapnel and was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

While writers have a pen, Steve's signature was written with a camera. Where writers have a voice, Steve had a style. If you spend enough time in a newsroom you can look at a story and immediately know who shot it simply by the way it was shot and edited. Steve could manipulate light and shadows, using the forces of nature to make beautiful pictures and make those of us on camera look our best. Steve was a paradox; a tough as nails military vet who showed viewers how beautiful the world can be. Several years older than our reporters, he was our newsroom dad. 

He was also part of the most fun newsroom I've ever worked in, always involved in some of the most elaborate practical jokes you could imagine. And he loved doling out payback. Once we were doing a live shot in New Orleans and another crew from New York kept getting in our shot, waving and acting unprofessional. A few months later Steve and I were in Orlando, and, lo and behold, saw the same crew. Steve wanted to write something on their car, but we didn't have any soap or shaving cream. What we did have was a bunch of jelly donuts. You can imagine what blistering Florida sun does to strawberry preserves when they're used to write on a windshield.

Best news crew ever. That's Steve on the floor, second from left. You can probably tell this group didn't take things too seriously.

Steve on the left, celebrating with the staff after a ratings win.

Teaching an NFL star to shoot.

I could go on forever with stories about the guy. The time we were doing a story in a dicey neighborhood: "There's a gun under the seat if you have to shoot someone." The time the video recording deck went out and he had me hold a paper clip to connect the battery: "Will you get electrocuted? Probably not." The time Steve flagged down a waiter in a New York restaurant because his coffee was ice cold. "Can I have a hot cup? I'm funny about my coffee that way." The time a former employee showed up for a visit along with his wife, who everyone despised, and someone sarcastically said, "He's here with his lovely wife." Steve's reply: "Did he get re-married?"

Along with a ton of fabulous memories Steve leaves behind an absolute gem of a wife, Linda, and one son, Kelly, who followed in his dad's footsteps and proudly serves his country as an Air Force Captain.

And a lot of friends who will miss him terribly. 

Steve was still taking pictures on his travels during retirement, a photog till the end. I have no doubt that when he arrived in Heaven and saw the spectacular landscape of paradise, he asked God for a camera.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Paperbacks make wonderful stocking stuffers

One of the cool things about being an author is being able to give out your own books for Christmas gifts.

Another cool thing is posting a photo of your paperbacks after so many people told me my ebooks would never be released in print.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The real life Bad Santa

Live television news is the journalistic equivalent of working without a net. All sorts of things can happen, most of them bad. And while reporters can cover all sorts of stories that put them in danger, nothing sends fear through the heart like a story involving alcohol.

At least you can prepare for those. If you're sent to do a story in a bar, you know you're going to be harassed by a few sloppy drunks. There's a routine. You stand on a chair and yell, "Okay, we're about to shoot some video in here, so if you called in sick or are here with someone other than your spouse, you might want to get out of the shot." This is generally followed by a horde moving out of the way. These assignments are particularly distasteful for female reporters because of the groping factor, as many could be dusted for prints after returning to the station.

But I never expected my worst encounter with a drunk would occur during a seemingly harmless live shot with a shopping mall Santa.

Yes, it was the annual arrival of Santa to kick off the Christmas shopping season. The mall had coordinated things so that he would arrive exactly at 6:25 near the end of our newscast. Our anchor would toss to me and I'd do a quick live interview with Kris Kringle. Simple, fun, a nice story without the usual death and destruction.

And then Santa arrived. Well, actually the brewery emanating from his mouth got there shortly before he did. The guy started staggering through the crowd of parents and small children, dragging his sack on the floor.

You know that "things get worse" rule authors follow to keep readers on the edge of their seats? This was the real life version.

The anchor tossed to me and I had a feeling this wasn't going to go well. And then the interview with a guy who was in no condition to drive a sleigh headed down a ski slope:

Me: "Merry Christmas, Santa, I know you've got a lot of great stuff in that sack for all these children."

Santa (surrounded by parents & children): "Kids have been bad this year. They aint gettin' nuthin."


The smiles of parents who were close enough to hear disappeared. The children looked as though someone had run over their dog.

I needed damage control, quick.

Me: "Oh, Santa, you're such a kidder. I know you've got some great presents you're going to be leaving under the tree."

Santa: "Nope. I aint kiddin'. Kids aint gettin' nuthin."

I hear a quick "wrap" in my earpiece from the producer and ended the live shot. My photographer said, "We're outta here" and we quickly left the carnage behind.

Upon arriving back at the station we were greeted by the sound of holiday bells. Actually, they were the newsroom phones ringing off the hook. My boss told us we needed to stay to help answer the phone calls from angry parents. Almost every apology I made that night included, "Please don't shoot the messenger" but the damage had been done.

Now you know why it's important to put milk and cookies near the fireplace.



Monday, November 24, 2014

The hell with climate change, there's a chocolate shortage: will this be the end of enjoyable books?

The news sent chills up my spine; the kind you get when any mail from the IRS shows up in your mailbox. The kind when your doctor says, "You may feel a slight bit of discomfort," when you know it really means, "This is gonna hurt like a sonofabitch."

The planet might run out of chocolate in six years.

So when the Times Square ball drops and announces the year 2020, you may as well just shoot me.

Look, I'm all for that "save stuff for future generations" concept. I recycle, I walk rather than drive when I can, I mentor young people in journalism. But when it comes to chocolate, it's everyone for himself.

If you're a writer, you know chocolate is on the top of the food pyramid. (Propped up by wine.) If you're a reader, you need to understand that writers must take top priority in this chocolate crisis. Like women and children first off the Titanic, authors need chocolate to satisfy their muses. Otherwise, the result will be nothing but depressing books and you'll channel Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook saying WTF and throwing Hemingway through the window.

The writer's food pyramid

Let me explain how the chocolate/writer relationship works.

A few years ago I decided to give up chocolate for Lent. By dinner time on Ash Wednesday I knew this was a bad idea. But the real indicators were the words I wrote over the next two days. My rom-com had become devoid of com. My voice took a major hit. My heroine got cranky. My muse was ticked off. So I demolished a Ghirardelli bar for dinner and went to confession. My normal voice returned, my muse fat and happy.

Flash forward six years into the future. If writers are not federally subsidized with chocolate, if we're not first in line, the muses of enjoyable authors will go into vapor lock. Happily ever after will turn into divorce court. Thrillers will end up with the bad guy winning. Books will be written without any characters to root for. And, horror of horrors, I might end up writing literary fiction. (My theory is that current authors of said genre avoid chocolate and think kale is a major food group.)

The 2020 Chocolate version of Y2K

That scene with Bradley Cooper might end up playing out all over the world, like people in the movie Network opening their windows and yelling, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore."

While the concept of climate change is still up for debate (since, ya know, it's too damn cold for experts to call it "global warming" anymore), this chocolate shortage is real and could be the biggest global crisis to ever hit the planet. Imagine a world without anything enjoyable to read, with bookstores only having one section (Deep, Meaningful Literary Books That Won Awards But Will Depress The Hell Out Of You), with Halloween being a contact sport as writers forage for anything with cocoa.

So here's the solution: writers, keep eating your regular amount of chocolate. 

Readers, cut back. 

Because if you don't, the resulting literary global armageddon will make the zombie apocalypse look like a Tupperware party.

You have been warned.

As for the "future generations" thing, you're probably wondering how I can justify my stance, how I can avoid the incredible Catholic guilt when looking into the sweet, innocent face of my seven year old niece. How could I ever live with myself knowing I would deprive a child of a lifetime of chocolate?

Here's how. I told her, "Kid, you're gonna be a writer."

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

My favorite paranormal good guys & gals of all time

Since I've been invited to an online paranormal event on Thursday nite I thought I'd compile a list of my favorite characters from paranormal movies or TV series. Some you'll know, some before your time that you might wanna check out. 

-The Winchester brothers from Supernatural. The chemistry between Sam and Dean along with their many quirks sets this duo apart in my book. Dean is, of course, the brother you never had; the guy who would take a bullet for you and be happy with a cheeseburger as a reward. While he's the soul, Sam is the heart. Doesn't matter if they're taking on demons, the devil, or a rogue angel, they always have each others back.

I especially love the subtle references to stuff from the sixties and seventies for those of us of a certain age. One of the best written paranormal shows ever. Though I'm sure the male eye candy on this show accounts for some of its popularity.

-Scully & Mulder from The X-Files. Again, the terrific chemistry between the two drives the show. And what other paranormal team takes on aliens, demons, and freaks of nature while dealing with the true monster from hell, the federal government? Has there ever been a creepier fed than the cigarette smoking man?

-Carl Kolchak from The Night Stalker. Okay, we have to go back to the seventies for a thing called the "ABC Movie of the Week" and the TV movie that was the highest rated ever. (Of course the fact that Kolchak was an old school reporter made him a favorite with anyone in the news business, but I never packed a wooden stake and holy water on any of my stories.) Darren McGavin's portrayal of the vampire hunting reporter is terrific, and the movie still holds up today.

-Nick Burkhardt from Grimm. If  you haven't caught this gem on Friday nites, you're missing a very clever show. Basically a buddy cop show with a monster of the week and a dose of spells, potions, and ancient lore. Nick's relationship with Monroe (a big bad wolf who's good) is a lot of fun as they combine their special powers to take on the bad guys.

-Tangina from Poltergeist. One of the scariest movies ever, this 1982 classic features Zelda Rubenstein as a "house cleaner" and we're not talking about a woman who doesn't do windows. Even though she doesn't exactly banish the evil spirits when she says, "This house is clean" you've gotta love that voice which sounds like she inhaled helium.

Sam Wheat in Ghost. Not all paranormal movies have to be scary. One of Patrick Swayze's signature roles. And who doesn't think of this movie when you hear "Unchained Melody" on the radio?

So who did I miss? Who are your favorites?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

As writers, our words can be powerful; could mine have saved a life?

The worst thing about getting older is that friends start dying.

But you don't expect one of your close ones to take his own life.

And this has made me ask myself "what if?" a hundred times. What if my words had been able to talk him off the ledge, to comfort him enough that he would have chosen to live? I'm a writer, I might have been able to reach him. If only I'd known he was in pain.

My friendship with Dan goes all the way back to high school. We had the one thing in common that bonds a lot of teenagers; we were both hopelessly uncool. We came from very different backgrounds; Dan's father was a corporate VP of a fortune 500 company, mine ran a delicatessen. None of that made any difference to two kids who lived for Star Trek and never had a date in high school. Dan was a kind, gentle soul born with a facial deformity that required about a dozen surgeries. He once had his jaw wired for a month. To me, that made him one of the toughest kids in class.

His house was on the way home from school, so on practically every day my best friend Steve and I would end up at Dan's house, playing ball in the backyard or ping pong in the basement. We had countless dinners at his house, our second home.

College put distance in our friendship but couldn't end it. Dan went off to Georgetown, Steve to Villanova, while I ended up at the University of Connecticut. But we'd send letters during the school year to keep in touch. Every summer and every holiday we'd get together. 

Dan got married, moved to Colorado and had two sons. As is often the case with couples who have children and those who don't (neither Steve nor I have kids), friendships can take a back burner. Kids were the one thing we didn't have in common. Our meetings became less frequent but we still stayed in touch. Words, via letters or phone calls, kept us together.

Then Dan's wife was stricken with cancer and passed away. We didn't know since he didn't call. Why, I have no idea. He was obviously in great pain because a few months later he took his own life.

And my "what if?" thing started to haunt me.

Last week Steve and I took the ride up to Connecticut to visit Dan's parents. The house that had been a second home seemed so different without him. His parents were obviously devastated and told us they had no indication he would do such a thing. It was so out of character, out of the blue, for someone so peaceful and non-violent. I don't think I ever remember Dan getting mad. Before we left I took a long look at Dan's photo, studying his face like never before, wondering how in the hell someone I thought I really knew could take his own life.

Why am I sharing this? Because as writers our words have power. We often hear our words have the power to change lives, but how about the power to save them? If you know someone who is going through a tough time, someone you're concerned about, use your words. To comfort, to share, to convey love and caring. To touch a heart that needs a friend. You may save a life without ever knowing it. 

I just wish I'd had the chance.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Why men need a platonic female friend to pick out an engagement ring

Men can't shop.

Yeah, I know. Major newsflash. Alert the networks.

You gals know I'm right. Let's face it, if you sent the man in your life out to buy you some footwear for the office he'd come back with hooker shoes and thigh-high leather boots. Clothes? You might end up with hot pants and halter tops if he happened to have an NFL cheerleader fantasy. (Not that I would know about such things. I've just heard stories.)

But at some point a single guy is going to have to make the most important purchase of his life. Nope, not the mid-life crisis chick-magnet convertible, though it's high on the Y-chromosome bucket list. It's the engagement ring.

The rock. The item that not only says she's taken but makes her proud to stick out her left hand. Screw up this purchase and you've got one foot in the doghouse and she'll roll her eyes for years. Do it right and you forever get to see that faraway look when she glances at the ring.

The TV commercials have it wrong, showing the couples shopping in a jewelry store. Where's the surprise in taking your future wife to shop for her own engagement ring? You'll never get to see the look of astonishment on her face when you drop to one knee, when she lights up as the waiter delivers a glass of champagne with a ring in it, when you ask her to marry you out of the blue. (And she'll never see you break out in hives when you look at the price tags.)

Hence, the platonic female personal shopper.

My story starts in 1988, oddly enough while covering the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Another reporter and good friend named Lance was also about to propose, we had the morning off, so we hit one of the city's major department stores. A few minutes into reading the brochure about the four C's (cut, clarity, and whatever.... the only C we cared about was cost) it was clear we were babes in the woods known as diamond hunting.

And then we met Hedda.

She noticed our confused looks, came over and took my arm, then hit us with advice in an accent that was pure two-packs-a-day Brooklyn. "Honey, you don't shop for an engagement ring in a department store. You want I should rip you off?"

Hedda, our Jewish mother guardian angel who apparently didn't work on commission, explained that Atlanta was the shortest overseas flight from South Africa, home of the diamond industry, and that we should shop for loose stones with the dozens of diamond merchants in town who got their rocks hot off the plane. We would save thousands.

Still, I was the fifth C. Clueless. I didn't want my girlfriend to know I was getting a ring, but needed help. So I called Kathie, my southern belle friend who would read Brides magazine even if she wasn't dating anyone. She had impeccable taste and also knew my girlfriend.

Hedda had given me several names of dealers, so I made an appointment and a few weeks later Kathie and I went back to Atlanta. The dealer brought out several stones and Kathie scrutinized them like a pro with a jeweler's loop. She shook her head at the first one. "Nope, bad clarity. Looks like there's a snowstorm in it." The prices were literally one fifth of those in the department store, so I figured I could afford a bigger ring and pointed at a large stone. "No," she said. "Your girlfriend has long thin fingers and it wouldn't look right. You need this one." She chose an oval cut, then picked a setting and I wrote the check. The jeweler would have the ring shipped to me.

And then my surprise was killed by my answering machine.

We had just been out to dinner and when we came back to my apartment I saw the machine flashing. I hit the button and we both heard, "Your engagement ring will be delivered by FedEx tomorrow morning."

Naturally, my future wife was camped out by the door the next morning.

Bottom line, the surprise was gone but she thought the ring was perfect and really appreciated what Kathie had done. She still thinks the ring is perfect, doesn't want an "upgrade" and gets that faraway look from time to time.

So guys, don't try this by yourself. Embrace the fact that you're clueless about jewelry. Give yourself the chance at the surprise. Get the help of a platonic female friend with good taste.

And don't forget to turn off the answering machine.