Tuesday, January 17, 2012

There's Only One Thing That Matters.

Today I learned that my dog has early signs of congestive heart failure, and that his health is quickly diminishing.

For anyone who knows me, you can only imagine how devastated I am. Mookie is my absolute best friend, my constant companion. The thought of losing him paralyzes me.

I always knew he had a shorter lifespan than me, and that someday I'd lose him. But he is only 9-years old. It's too soon.

If life is so fragile and unpredictable, why do some people get so angry? Why do people bother with trivial arguments, competing with people, jockeying for money and power? Why do people steal and lie and become greedy? Don't they realize that none of that matters?

All I want in life is more time with my best friend.

On proper medications, Mook may live several more years. But he could also pass away at any moment - with or without the meds.

For now, I will enjoy our time together as much as I can.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Giving Thanks to Those Who Helped Me.

I hate new year's resolutions, almost as much as I hate end of the year lists. Both are ridiculous (lists are just lazy and resolutions are for the weak). I'm also not a fan of declaring goals for yourself at the start of the new year.

Rather, I'm a fan of appreciating everything you have, at all times. And since I've been feeling pretty fortunate about my life lately, I wanted to take a minute to publicly acknowledge a few folks who've gone out of their way to help me with stuff over the years. Without them, I probably wouldn't be sitting so pretty.

I'm not talking family - they're supposed to be there for you. I'm talking about folks who believed in me enough to lend their support. Three people come to mind immediately.

1. The fellow in the snazzy hat in the above picture was my college journalism professor, Andrew Ciofalo. I was in a few of his classes at Loyola College and I enjoyed his teaching style - hands-off, relying upon experiential learning. Rather than preaching ideas or simply lecturing, he gave us goals and asked us to reach (or surpass) them. He instilled a sense of pride and ownership of the projects that made us want to do a good job.

Of course, many people skated through such classes. And a few people accused him of not actually teaching. But for me, it was effective. I didn't know what I could do and he forced us to experiment and push our boundaries.

When I was an undergrad, Ciofalo said to me, "If you go to Columbia for grad school, I'll bring you along on this study abroad program I'm planning for Rome."

So, naturally, I went to Columbia. A few years after graduating from J-school, I stopped by Ciofalo's office at Loyola. It was the first time I'd seen him in nearly a decade and I reminded him of his promise. He responded, "We just started a summer program in Italy last summer. You should do it with us next summer."

And I did. In the summer of 2003, I spent seven weeks teaching photojournalism in Cagli (right), possibly the most charming place on Earth. I returned three more summers (twice in 2006), and then taught in Ciofalo's program in Northern Ireland in 2007.

The programs were wonderful experiences - hanging in the piazza, drinking wine with students as we discussed photo ideas and journalism concepts. I bet the students didn't even realize they were learning. It was immersion in the local culture as well as immersion in education. I met so many great people who I still maintain friendships with, students and Italians alike.

Ciofalo also hired me as an adjunct at Loyola, starting in 2004. I taught all sorts of writing classes over the next three years. That experience, along with the summer abroad stuff, led me to the job I hold today.

I owe Ciofalo big time, and I would do just about anything for the guy (as well as for his ex-wife, Judy Dobler, who was also one of my favorite and most influential teachers when I was at Loyola).

2. I contacted Tim Whitaker during the fall of 2005 and told him that I wanted to write for the Philadelphia Weekly. I had not written anything longer than 1,500 words during my time at the Daily News but Tim was totally into it. He started assigning me stuff in January 2006, a few weeks after I took a buyout from the Daily News.

He gave me a chance to write long - 3,000 to 5,000 words. It was great. I experimented with style and voice, and Tim (along with editor Sara Kelly) gave me room to breath. I wrote several cover stories that year and more the next. Until Tim's time at PW ended in 2008, I wrote dozens of stories for him, including a column.

But it was more than just the freedom that he offered. He invited me to be a part of the process, something that I never experienced during nearly 12 years at the Daily News. He asked me to come speak to the young writers and interns, and he had me sit in on a few staff meetings. He actually valued my input and ideas.

When Tim launched Mighty Writers (above), a free writing program for Philly kids, during the fall of 2009, I offered my assistance. I taught a workshop that fall. I wasn't good - teaching little kids is way different and much harder than teaching college kids (which, by the way, isn't easy either). But I was invited back the following fall, and later, Tim invited me to be on the advisory board. They don't ask much of me but they seem to appreciate every little thing I can do for them.

3. I don't remember how it came about but Susan Gregg invited me to meet with her at Wilmington College back in 2001. Despite my never having taught anything, she invited me to be an adjunct at the university. She gave me a world of leeway, a little bit of advice and then sent me into the classroom. And it was amazing. I loved it from day one.

Not all of the students did. I was a rookie and I made some mistakes. But I would sit with Susan and talk about stuff and she guided me to become a better instructor.

The basics that I learned from her are really the foundation of my teaching skills. And if she had not given me an opportunity, I might not be a full-time professor today.

Speaking of teaching ... I had a few really, really great professors over the years and I've stolen from their teaching styles: Ed Ross at Loyola, Michael Shapiro at Columbia, Pete Rock and Valerie Ross at Penn, Seth Bruggeman at Temple.

I never took a class with Tom Eveslage but he asked me a question when I was speaking to one of his classes at Temple and it changed my entire pedagogy: "What is the process you use to determine whether to do the story?" Process? I had never consciously had one. Now I have a process for everything, and I preach them all to my students.

I am the person I am largely because of these people. I try to emulate their best traits - when I deal with students, when I write stories or shoot photos, when I see people out and about.

Of course there are others: Mookie. The Daily News photo gang. The 8th & Poplar baseballers. My roommates from Loyola. Russ Campbell. My Uncle Noriyuki (yeah, he's family but I don't see him that often, and there is no one else in the world whose principles I respect more).

For these folks, as well as Wendy and the rest of my family, I would do anything. I owe them so much.