Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Now Skeeter, he ain't hurting nobody...

As a journalist, my emotions climb high and sink low on a daily basis. Some days I'll be assigned a happy little event with happy people and happy friends and all sorts of sources who just can't wait to talk to me (perfect example).

But today was not one of those days.

Today I covered my first murder trial. Well, I covered the arraignment that will eventually lead to a trial, but you get the idea.

The story is that yesterday, a 19-year-old guy stabbed a 21-year-old guy who was later found dead on the scene. Pretty big news for Nashua, certainly. And I was the lucky one picked to cover his subsequent arraignment this morning when the usual morning cops reporter had an ill-timed dentist appointment.

So I woke up before 7, scooped up a hearty bowl of Wheaties and made my down to the courthouse. And if Nashua is any indication, the smaller courts of America are understaffed, overworked and cranky. They zip through arraignments and have little sympathy for people who show up late or want to give "their side of the story." I can't imagine being a clerk at one of these places right now. No wonder they want reporters to drive down to the courthouse to make copies of a document instead of finding it for them and reading the information over the phone.

The arraignments start at 8:15 sharp. Amidst all the craziness to find the right courtroom, meet up with my photographer and figure out who I should be talking to, I manage to find the father of the accused. He doesn't want to talk to me, but he's not angry. He manages to squeak out a offering of condolence to the victim's family but couldn't comment on more. His sullen face looked like he'd been up all night, worried for his son and terrified for his future.

I moved into the courtroom to wait for the judge. My photographer and I moved up to the front row and sat next to a couple guys from WMUR. We heard whispers in the pew behind us. I turned around slightly and began to speak with the man behind me. He turned out to be the victim's best friend since the two were five years old. The victim was this guy's best man at his wedding. He couldn't say much either, but his face told the story. Shocked, angry, depressed. Completely overcome with emotion. He did an amazing job to stay composed, but the three girls he sat with were in tears for much of the two hours I sat there.

I asked how old this guy was. He said 22. I'm 22. Same age, except this guy just found out 12 hours ago that the best friend he's ever known was murdered. I can't begin to explain what a chilling realization that was.

Our conversation came to a slow stop. There was no "See ya later," no "Thanks, have a good one." It just came to an eventual end. He told me what he could and how he was feeling, but after that the words dissipated.

Arraignment after arraignment came through. A woman who didn't speak English pleading for something. A young guy and a costly speeding ticket. Two women fighting for a restraining order against the other. One by one for at least an hour.

I looked to my left. The father, the guy I spoke to outside for a moment, had his head on his hands, resting against the pew in front of him. Totally lost. The only expression that comes to mind is sheer disbelief. Shock and awe that the kid brought out in handcuffs with his.

This is all pure observation. The room is silent, save for a few sobs and sniffles from the family behind us. When the accused appears through the doorway and walks to his seat, there's no dramatic hush or shouts of fury. There's not much sound at all. The scuffling of feet and the clink of metal. A photographer's shutter cl-cl-click-clicking away. He doesn't say anything. Just a whip of his long black hair and a stone cold look that hints he might not have had much sleep this night.

The two sides in suits say very little. No details are released of the night's events. The only question here is what bail to set. And, since a court so small cannot set a bail so big, the judge lands on "held without." A probable cause hearing is scheduled for Sept. 1. The court sealed the affidavit and thus kept all important details from surfacing until the matter goes to trial.

Done. Next case. Just like that.

No one else could muster the energy to fling a few words at me and trust that I'd protect them, so I went on my way. Back to the newsroom, sinking low on a Tuesday of mixed emotions. But as the job has taught me already, tomorrow's a new day and today's behind me. Only thing to do from here is climb.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Snap, Crackle, You're Dead.

I'm not the first to complain about this, but after a single experience with it I knew I had a story to tell.

It started with a health kick at the grocery store. None of my favorite Double Stuf Oreos, no candy, no sweets of any kind (I'm not ridding the delights from my diet, just trying to stop paying for them). So I picked out some fruit, a box of Kashi cereal and filled my cart with a boatload of goodies. At some point in the trip, I made my way down the chips aisle for some Chex Mix.

Now, Doritos were the tasty choice, but I felt like something else. I wanted something crunchy and delicious but with some sort of health tinge to it. Hello Peppercorn Ranch Sun Chips. Bingo. Thirty percent less fat than regular potato chips was all the false advertising I needed to hear. But when I reached for them, a thunderstorm erupted throughout the store.

The deafening, crackling sound shook my very core. What in God's name could make such a horrible sound?

A bag. Yes, a bag for potato chips. That's the root of the sound that popped my eardrums, rattled dentures at the nearby IHOP and probably killed six kids in Asia somehow. Seriously, listen to it:

No exaggeration, I would rather have a South African follow me around with a Vuvuzela all day than grab a new bag of Sun Chips. The sound is ridiculous. It's even worse in person. I thought people were freaking out way too much about it when the bag first emerged, but now that my left ear is useless I can empathize.

The saddest part is that I still bought the chips. I brushed off my first grab-and-touch as an opening bang to scare away little kids. But when I sat on the couch and gripped the bag with both hands to tear open the top and consume the Peppery Ranch goodness, I swear to God I could hear Liam Neeson in his beard yelling, "RE-LEASE THE CRACKLE!" Before I knew it, I was naked on the couch with singed hair and clothes scattered everywhere. My apartment looks like Crater Lake Park without the water.* (UPDATE: That picture apparently isn't Oregon's Crater Lake. This is. I think.)

It's scary how loud the bag is. It might be even scarier that my last two topics of writing have been Legos and Sun Chips. But I guess they're not all winners.

*I've never been to Crater Lake Park. I've heard it's nice.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The star himself.

On the mound throwin' heat against Portland on Wednesday. Jeff threw 79 pitches over seven scoreless innings, scattered three hits, struck out eight, walked one, and got the win. What a performance. Mobbed by reporters after the game and smashed with a shaving cream pie in the face. Great to see him do so well. Way to go bud, keep it up.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I'm thinking about getting metal legs...

A survey came out and said Legos was the most popular toy ever made. And, since I was a master of Legos as a child, I thought I would point out how pathetic this survey actually was.

Now, I will not argue with the winning choice. Legos are awesome. You can build all sorts of shit with them and, as you can see from the graph here, you don't always have to follow the rules of construction.

The different kits you can buy allow kids to build ships, castles, cars, boats, alien planets, and whatever else they can imagine. The people who invented this little toy not only saw a financial opportunity, but the potential for giving kids a toy that encourages creativity and do-it-yourself skills.

The problem I have with this survey is that the group surveyed was 20-40 year olds.

I guess I understand why they chose this particular group, and that's to figure out the best toy including both the old and the new. People around age 20, like me, knew exactly what it was like to grow up playing with traditional toys like Legos but also played with modern toys like Gameboys. Adults up to the age of 40 most likely played with some sort of primitive modern toy and have a good grasp of the older toys. So, in theory, this group of 3,000 adults seems like a good choice.

But I would argue that the headline claiming Lego as the top toy in the world is completely misleading.

Kids don't play with Legos anymore. At least not like they used to. From 2003-2005, the Lego Group faced deficits up to $200 million and laid off thousands of workers in Europe. The toy has been climbing again in recent years, but thanks mostly to a booming video game franchise and the construction of popular LegoLand amusement parks.

So, in my opinion, Legos is no longer the most popular toy among kids today. It was, but has since been replaced by video games and more modern technology. And if you've been wondering why the hell I would Wikipedia the Lego Group or do any sort of research on something as trivial as fucking toys, here is your answer:

Video games have sapped so much life of out today's youth that I almost wish I never had them in the first place. I've been sitting on this idea for a while now, watching my roommate spend hours in his room on his XBox 360, but the deceiving Lego survey finally exploded the opinion out of me.

I really can't stand them anymore. The only games I would play and actually enjoy right now are of the sports variety, and even then I get completely bored after half an hour of playtime. I feel like every button I press kills a brain cell. Seriously. I so much more inclined to go outside, pick up a book, relax with some music, or even build some Legos, if it were more age appropriate.

I mean just look at the options kids have now:
If I had the tools to build my own basketball court with Legos at age 10, and the little men had springy footholds with which to actually shoot a tiny basketball toward my toy hoop, I would've gone fucking nuts.

Cam, age 10: "You're telling me I can spend five hours of my afternoon trying to get a tiny plastic ball into a tiny plastic hoop by flicking little plastic men over and over and over again? Talk about best day EVER!"

Seriously, you couldn't drag me away from something like that. I'd be occupied for days. But instead, children today are too caught up with graphics and special moves and other things that do nothing but cause early-onset carpal tunnel.

These kids are at the prime stages for developing their minds and so many of them are wasting their time, and a ridiculous amount of money, on video games.

I don't think games should be banned, but they need to be controlled. One of the reasons I think I care so little about them today is because my parents imposed limits: one hour a day. That's more than enough time to spend melting your brain.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Just living the dream

At age 22, Jeff Locke is 1-0 with a 1.96 ERA in four starts with the Altoona Curve, the double-A affiliate of Major League Baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates. He's got 22 strikeouts and has allowed just four walks in 23 innings pitched. He's a professional baseball player, and he's on the rise. He's even got his own signed baseball cards.

But that's August 2010. I met Jeff in January 1997.

I plopped down between him and Brant Sanborn and took my seat at one of those old brown desks with the metal cubby underneath. I had just moved to New Hampshire from Michigan and was jumping into Mrs. Garland's third-grade class halfway through the year. I left many friends behind at Tonda Elementary in Canton, and I was nervous about my first day at John Fuller.

But at that beat-up desk in the back of the room, Jeff and Brant became my first friends.

I remember little of the rest of that third-grade year, but memories of Jeff pop up all over from the rest of elementary school. And many of them are tied to baseball.

He was the star pitcher on the Royals in little league. I remember one game where our North Conway Rotary team played against him, and on the bench we were cheering and slappin' fives when someone foul tipped one of his pitches. I remember when he hit 60-plus on the radar gun the summer after fourth grade. I'd never seen anything move that fast.

And he wasn't just the best pitcher anywhere, he was the best batter too. When he came over to my house for home-run derby contests in the driveway, he had his own imaginary fence to clear. It was twice as far back as mine, and he still whooped my ass by double digits.

I was too young to understand the drive and the passion for the game he loved. I felt the same passion, but it was spread out. I loved hockey most, but I also loved golf and football and tennis and basketball and baseball. I loved everything in competition.

And I was always good at sports, some days even great. I had a rocket slapshot by my high school years. I could always make incredible trick shots in basketball or connect on a hot serve for an ace down the T in tennis. I can still play golf well and I like to toss the pigskin with my friends. I was never the kid picked last. I've always been a natural athlete, but I never had the patience to hone my raw talent.

Not like Jeff did.

Jeff played baseball. He didn't play anything else. He could throw a football further than anyone in my grade, but he never tried out for quarterback. He could sink foul shot after foul shot, but he never joined the basketball team. He had the same raw talent and athletic ability I did, the same as so many of my friends. But he had discipline. He'd play a pickup game of anything, but in competition, it was all baseball.

He worked at it. He threw hundreds of pitches on hot summer days. He baked in the sun and stayed on the mound until it fell dark. He would even pitch frozen cow pies and snowballs whenever I visited his house in the winter. I remember because one of them hit me square in the nuts. You'd remember something like that too if you caught a Locke fastball to the groin.

Jeff lived and loved baseball. He fought for his right to play the game after high school while so many of us were busy dreaming about it on the couch at home.

And that's why he made it. All the hours of practice, all the time spent on that mound. That's the effort it takes to be a professional athlete. My parents told me that, too. They didn't shove it down my throat, but I remember my dad telling me to spend more hours at the driving range in high school to get better, and I refused. I didn't want to practice. It wasn't as much fun as playing the course and hoping to get better, seeing sparks of brilliance and assuming they'd soon become the norm. But it takes buckets of balls and swing after swing to make the PGA Tour. And if you don't put in the time, if you don't put in the effort, you won't make it. It's that simple.

I don't write this to bemoan my failures as an athlete, or to whine about my efforts to make a career writing about sports ever since playing them for a living has become a virtual impossibility. No, I write because I'm proud to call him my friend.

And not because he's on his way to millions. Not because I could claim to know a pro athlete. I'm proud because I know he's earned it every step of the way. I'm proud because after he was drafted in 2006 and received an eye-popping $675,000 signing bonus, he bought his Mom a new refrigerator. I'm proud because I know all of this couldn't happen to a nicer kid.

I remember back in sixth grade, the two of us would joke that when Jeff made it to the majors, I'd be his agent. I had the math background and the sports passion, and he had the dream. It didn't work out that way, but I like to think someday I'll walk down from the press box, head into the locker room, pull out my tape recorder, and see the same smiling kid meet the press after a perfect game. I already know exactly what I'd say.

"Hey Jeff. How's it feel to be livin' the dream?"

(Jeff showed me this song in middle school. Still one of my favorites to this day. Weird video though.)