Rookie Mistake (April 6, 2009)

I bet this photo grabbed your attention, eh? Fear not! No baseball players were harmed in the writing of this post. I stole the image from The Onion.

Most of those familiar with my life know by now that I recently accepted an opportunity to be a volunteer feature writer for StreetWise, a non for profit publication sold on the crosswalks of Chicago, benefitting the City’s homeless with direct employment, as well as through social programs designed to educate and empower. I would be gratified to be affiliated with this organization in any way, even were I not to be published in its pages very shortly:

My article hits the stands on April 22nd as part of StreetWise‘s annual “Green Issue,” typically published close to Earth Day. I was assigned a story by Suzanne, the Editor-in-chief, covering Ken Dunn and the Chicago Resource Center on Chicago’s South Side. Ken was selected as Tempo’s (Tribune) “Greenest Person” in Fall 2008. Now bear in mind that I have NEVER written for a newspaper, unless you count the one time my best friend Christian and I submitted a point/counterpoint review of the awful Linda Fiorentino movie Jade in 1995 to the Lincoln Park High School student press. Even though this was a high school publication, I still look down upon them for accepting this swill (yes, I said swill) as news. I will not even acquit myself on the grounds that I was on the right side of the debate (con). Jadenever warranted press of any kind. Wait! I have done it again. D’oh!

Anywhoo, Suzanne obviously mistook my enthusiasm for actual, you know, media experience, because right out of the bag, she throws me a prize feature. The last words I remember her saying to me over the phone were, “You can do breakouts if you want, but I leave that to you.” Luckily, there appears to be a weigh station between my brain and my mouth because the first thing I thought was, “What’s a breakout?” Wisely I concluded that this question would not add to my aura of cracker jack reporter girl extraordinare.

Ken Dunn has received quite a bit of local media attention over the years, so I went about some Internet research and reading prior to the interview I scheduled with him for last Thursday morning. As the idea that I was about to write my first bonafide scoop began to take root, so too did the inevitable feelings of incompetence and unworthiness (the unfortunate bane of any writer). But like any good Obama disciple, I repeated “Yes, we can” to myself mantra-style, and it was at that moment that a brilliant, no a genius idea, entered my mind. About 15 minutes prior to our scheduled call time, I pulled out my notes, opened Microsoft Word and wrote out five multi-part questions that were at once thoughtful, incisive and would demonstrate my new mastery of the subject of Chicago’s ecological development. My thinking was that if I had a script, I would be less likely to freeze Ralph Kramden style muttering, “Hamana, hamana, hamana.” Does Barbara Walters stutter when she puts the hot lights over Fidel Castro? I think not! So with my beautifully phrased conversation starters, I had just a moment to daydream about the Pulitzer that would surely come my way later this year. Since it’s a “Green Issue,” with my clearly excellent investigative reporting, I might even net myself a Nobel Peace Prize, no? If Al Gore, why not I, I thought to myself?

I settled into my conversation with Ken, expertly balancing my cell phone between my left shoulder and ear, as I typed away with both hands. I was able to keep up with Ken almost word for word (spellcheck be damned!) and he was giving me good stuff. At one point, Mr. Dunn even complemented me on tying the state of the economy to a possible citizen readiness to “go green.” Good so far.

We were on the last question, me furiously typing away and lauding myself on writing my material beforehand, when that pesky Office Assistant appeared on the right hand side of the screen. You know, that paper clip shaped asshole who ALWAYS assumes you need help writing a friggin’ letter when you are in fact on your way to media superstardom? I swatted that little piece of crap away with a right click. Of course the presumptuous and arrogant icon asked me if I were sure, and on my confirmation that I did indeed want him to go away, I watched with horror as everything disappeared.

And that’s when it hit me. I. Never. Hit. Save. Not even when I started to write my questions, never gave it a name. Nada. I grabbed frantically for a piece of paper and scribbled down Ken’s last few words as internally, I felt my journalistic career end before it ever began.

As we ended the call, I did a nonchalant job of holding it together. Mr. Dunn generously offered himself for follow-up questions once I began to piece the article together. I slipped into good manners on auto pilot, “Why thank you Mr. Dunn. So kind and thoughtful of you. I would be simply delighted to touch base with you again (clearly in a panic, my manners become one and the same with Jane Austen’s).” I gingerly hung up the phone and then lapsed into full hysteria. I called my husband, by this time foaming at the mouth. He’s in IT right, and what are IT guys good for if not to help salvage your documents? To Eddie’s everlasting credit, he resisted the obvious urge to laugh at me and snipe that what was never saved could thus never be recovered. He even gamely opened Microsoft Word and played along as I unleashed a string of curse words on mineself I am embarassed to repeat in mixed company.

Ok then, I had to regroup. Fortunately, I have a good memory. I am 30 years old and have not yet required even one ginko biloba tablet in order to retain the copious information I ingest daily. I took a few deep breaths, and started by recreating my questions. I did not get them exactly word for word, but these were not being printed anyway. No matter. To my surprise, my instant recall allowed me to remember more of what Mr. Dunn said verbatim than I dared hope. I tried to tell myself that what I had lost was probably the chaff anyway, but we’ll see how I feel after I start to get feedback on the piece.

I would be remiss if I did not point out the irony of a woman who has spent nearly all her life typing: grade school, high school, undergrad and graduate school. From the early days of Word Perfect up until today’s MS Office 2007, I have word processed, Control C’d and written essays ad nauseum. And yet, when my biggest authorial opportunity presented itself, I never hit Save? Are you kidding me? How Kate Hudson rom-com cliche is that? So now (if you happen to do me the honor of reading my article later this month) you know, as Paul Harvey might have said, “the rest of the story.”


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