Last Sunday, an old friend from graduate school published an op-ed piece in The New York Times. This woman (Lauren Grodstein, author of the new novel, A Friend of the Family), teaches creative writing at Rutgers University/Camden. She wrote about the challenges of getting her students to care about the New Jersey gubernatorial race when the World Series is going on (For news about Lauren's book, check out http://www.laurengrodstein.com.)
I have to say: I'm not all that interested in state politics or baseball as a national pastime. But my stepfather was involved in New Jersey politics for many years, so I do occasionally think about what's involved in running our small, densely populated state. And I teach news reporting to teenagers and twentysomethings at Montclair State twice a week, so I have to pay attention to the news, even when I don't feel like it.
In class yesterday, a couple of my female students talked about writing about the World Series, and one student had blogged about the fact that none of the gubernatorial candidates had bothered to come to campus to campaign. Mostly, though, they were focused on their upcoming class assignments (getting published in the college paper as quickly as possible.) I asked them if they were planning to vote. Most of them were, and though I didn't ask them who they were going to vote for, I urged them to just out there and do it. They nodded. What I’ve found is that although they are interested in news of the world, they feel passsionate about and empowered by news that they can use and/or report on. So even though there was a lot of news over the weekend---the Giants got killed by the Eagles, an American man won the New York Marathon for the first time in a while, the Yankees beat the Phillies and the New Jersey Governor’s race was heating up---we spent most of class discussing their pitches for the college paper. One student is writing about the challenge of getting blinds put up in her first floor room. Another is writing about the alleged increase in the hiring of adjunct professors over tenure-track professors. A third is writing about the chronic campus parking problem.
These are all matters of some urgency to them. Still, I try to get them to peek into the larger world. Every Wednesday morning,I quiz them on stories from the Times. For several weeks, I quizzed them on stories from the front page. A few weeks ago, I decided to give them (and me) a hard news break. Instead, I quizzed them on the front page of the Dining section. That was a disaster. The main story that day was on fried chicken, and there wasn't much news to report there (other than the fact that some ethnic restaurants in the city were making more of it). Last week, I decided to shift gears and quiz them on the editorials and op-ed pages. They had some interesting insights into Maureen Dowd's piece on how to generate income for the beleaguered newspaper and magazine industries (allow sports betting on newspaper websites/host wine clubs/start on-line dating services/hire Vegas show girls to perform in the newsroom and charge admission.) My students thought that aside from the Vegas show girls, these were pretty good ideas.
Tomorrow, we have a young twentysomething reporter coming to speak to the class. This reporter, Brian Stelter, also went to a state university and now covers television for the Times, so I figure he is going to provide both inspiration and advice to the students on how to jump-start their journalism careers. (I also try to give them advice but I am pushing 45, and I know they look at me as some kind of grandmotherly dinosaur who started out in journalism when---gasp--there was no such thing as email or digital tape recorders.) Stelter has written about Jon and Kate, David Letterman, the balloon boy fiasco, covering the war in Afghanistan, "Family Guy" and viral videos (http://www.brianstelter.com). I'm pretty sure the students will be mesmerized by what he has to say. They love it when I bring speakers in (probably because it means no quiz that day), and because these speakers give them news they can use---how to get and do a job in the real world.
After class, I drove home and made brisket. It was Monday afternoon and I should have been marking papers or writing fiction but instead, I sauted two and a half pounds of meat, sliced up sweet potatoes, carrots and onions, washed asparagus, and mixed it all up with olive oil and kosher salt. Then I picked my younger up at school and drove him to Hebrew School. By the time I got home, it was 4 p.m. My older son wasn’t due home for 40 minutes. I put the brisket and vegetables in the oven and looked around. I had a glorious half hour to myself. I could go upstairs, read about the gubernatorial candidates on line (I was pretty sure I knew who I was voting for, but was willing to think about it a little more), and edit some papers.
Instead, I was overcome by a massive desire to do nothing. The triple threat of working/cooking/carpooling had knocked the stuffing out of me. I ran to our living room, stuck my hand in the candy bowl. grabbed a handful of chocolate kisses and headed upstairs to watch “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I closed the shades in our bedroom, turned on the TV, lay down on the bed, unwrapped a couple of kisses and started popping chocolate into my mouth. (If you think I felt a bit like Philip Seymour Hoffman's character in that scene in “Before the Devil Knows You're Dead” where he goes to his heroin dealer’s apartment, lies down on the bed and gets his fix, you'd be right).
The "Curb" episode was about Larry, golf etiquette, tombstones, and the demise of a black swan. Richard Kind guest-starred as "Uncle Andy." I love Richard Kind; last Thursday, I saw him standing on Columbus Avenue, holding his son's hand, so it was very exciting to now see him tussling with Larry David on TV. I managed to watch the whole episode before the phone rang.
"This is President Obama," a voice said. "I'm sorry to bother you."
I was floored. Here he was, on the phone, calling to tell me to vote for Jon Corzine, the incumbent New Jersey governor! Though I’ve received many emails from Obama, he had never called before. His voice was soothing and mellifluous, apologetic and handsome (Can a voice be handsome? Yes, yes, yes, it can!). He also sounded sweet, and a bit self-mocking, as if he might have a sense of humor. The weird thing was that just a couple of hours earlier, I had been talking about the Obamas’ marriage with my closest friend from college. My friend is fascinated with the Obamas and since the state of their marriage was the cover story of last Sunday’s Times magazine, we had much to discuss. My friend thought the marriage stayed intact because of Michelle’s decision to find support from people outside her marriage through an urban kibbutz. I gave more credit to Obama. There was no way he was going to let his marriage fail. His own parents' marriage had failed, his father had died and his mother had left him to be raised by his grandparents. He was going to make sure Michelle stayed happy, even if that meant he had to shop for groceries at midnight.
That was my pseudo-psycho-analysis. But the point was Barack Obama was asking me to vote for Governor Jon Corzine. A few minutes later, Newark Mayor Corey Booker called. He also urged me to vote for Corzine. My head was spinning---two good-looking, high-powered politicians were calling and telling me what to do! Obama was a little more persuasive than Booker. Okay, so I decided to watch TV and not bone up on who to vote for. No matter, here was news I could use, courtesy of two prerecorded messages who were pushing me to vote for the candidate I was inclined to vote for anyway.
Today, my older son was home sick. He had no desire to go to the polls so I waited until my younger son got off the bus and together we drove up the hill to the Church where we do our voting. We went into the booth together and my younger son chatted loudly about our choices. I pointed to the names of the people we were voting for; he pushed the buttons. Probably the whole room heard who we were discussing. But my son had been watching and reading the news; he had an opinion on which candidate he liked. (Fortunately, we shared the same opinion. Unfortunately, the majority of New Jersey voters did not.) He wasn't tired or apathetic; he was paying attention. If nothing else, I was raising an eager voter.
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