BY ROBERT L. KAISER
The first person I spoke to when I arrived for work the day I began my new career as a college professor was a dead woman. Daisy Ainslie had been in the ground for sixty-one years – fourteen longer than I had been alive – but here we were sharing a private moment in the long morning shadow of a City of Buffalo utility pole.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Daisy,” I said. “Here’s hoping the kids in Room 122 are livelier than you.”
Daisy’s gravestone, a modest gray wedge barely a foot high, had caught my eye as I parked. Arriving at 8 a.m., the only space I could find was a far-flung, lonesome spot facing the wrought-iron fence that divides Canisius College’s Lyons Hall from Buffalo’s historic Forest Lawn Cemetery. Though I’m embarrassed to say so, this was profoundly disappointing. My new tenure-track job had some great perks, including free tuition for my two sons if I managed to hang on and make tenure, but the one I prized most on this, my first morning, was the little blue permit dangling from my rearview mirror; I could yank my Jeep into a real parking space on a real college campus with utter impunity; I had B-Lot privileges, yes I did, and after spending a total of six years as a bus-riding, campus-trudging college student resigned to the harsh realities of hierarchy, the principles of permit parking and the cruel whims of the weather, I was more than ready, finally, to park in the shadow of the building where I had class.
But it wasn’t to be – not that first morning, anyway. Lesson Number One for the new professor was that police don’t start enforcing campus parking restrictions until two weeks into the semester – this to indulge the contretemps of sophomores and contempt of seniors, who had conspired, it seemed, to use up all the parking spots. So I pulled my Jeep into a space that was about as far away from Lyons Hall as it could be, turned off the engine and sat staring at the vast pageant of tombstones in Forest Lawn. Like the townspeople of the stiller town arrayed so neatly in front of me, I was not breathing. My wife had told me so, over breakfast.
“Breathe, sweetie,” Laurie said. “You have to breathe. Take a deeeeep breath and s-t-r-e-t-c-h.”
Laurie smiled, holding her hands palms up in front of her chest and lifting them slowly to illustrate how I should be letting air into my lungs. She was beautiful: that bright face; those big brown eyes; the little crease in the tip of her nose. I know what I have in Laurie. I love her more now than I did ten years ago when we were married, and I was head over heels hopeless in love with her then. So I smiled back and tried to oblige her, but it was no use. I was tighter than a tick in a dog’s ear. Breathing would have to wait. This was a big day. Huge.
I had spent the past year finishing my advanced degree and finding a college teaching job, effecting a career change from doing journalism to teaching journalism in spite of a crappy economy and the sheer lack of hours in a day.
Getting out of my Jeep into the bright but fragile sunlight of a late-summer day in Western New York, I stepped toward the fence to read the words on the closest gravestone, which stood less than four feet from my front bumper. The cooling engine of my Jeep tick-tick-ticked as I read the words.
“Well, Miss Daisy,” I said, “wish me luck.”
Then I turned and walked into Lyons Hall.
What I found in Lyons Hall is reflected in the student work on this blog. The young people in my classrooms were, indeed, livelier than Daisy — most days. Their work speaks for itself.
Some of my students want to be journalists. Others don’t. But the stories they wrote and produced are every bit as compelling as the words on Daisy’s gravestone — and, also like the words on Daisy’s gravestone, they show us that everybody is a story as well as a storyteller; that the storyteller’s craft is an act of understanding and empathy; and that the words we arrange like music and leave behind for others are as transcendent of time and place and life and death as love and honor and grace and truth.
They taught me some things, these students. I hope I taught them at least as much. At any rate, it’s my pleasure to present on this site samples of student work done in my JRN322-Feature/Magazine Writing class — along with a little of my own. This site is a showcase of nonfiction storytelling, an ouevre that’s as old as mankind and as new as whatever technology will emerge tomorrow to broaden and enhance the multimedia canvas on which journalists work. The stories you’ll find here are told with old-fashioned written-word text, which has been excerpted and stitched together into sequential posts to create the effect of a rich tapestry –a tapestry of voices. The stories also are told with carefully shot and edited videos; with blogs that give the stories behind the stories; and with interactive maps and timelines.
Between the lines of all these stories is the story of storytelling itself — of its ancient traditions, its continuing evolution and its cutting-edge forms. This is the direction in which journalism and journalists are headed: to a place that engages all the senses, evoking vivid and whole the strange worlds of strangers; to a place where you can feel the wind in your hair and smell on it the brewing storms and abiding candleflames of lands and lives and loves that you’ll come to know only in stories; to a place where journalists write the first draft of history using the technologies of the future.
The challenge in this, the age of the Internet, is to continue telling stories that are rich with humanity and a sense of place. While technology, in one sense, has connected us like we’ve never been connected before, it also has introduced to our relationships a kind of distance and sterility that once were unimaginable. The Web might have given us more porn than even the loneliest and most perverse among us have time to access and, er, process, but it also has sapped our world of much of its sensuality. We text each other now instead of making the phone call that enables us to hear and savor the rich and wonderful music of each other’s voices. We plug ourselves in to headphones while seated in waiting rooms rather than looking into the eyes of strangers, seeing ourselves reflected there and beginning a conversation. We email friends and family members or communicate with them on Facebook instead of writing a letter that will get smudged in the mail and arrive smeared with invisible traces of of DNA and go into a musty box for our great-grandchildren to find in the attic. We read our news online instead of walking out into the cold and picking up the newspaper from the rainbow-colored oil slick in the driveway and feeling the heft of the rolled-up newsprint and getting ink on our hands and inhaling its pungent wet odor.
The day after Christmas 2010, I read a New York Times column Maureen Dowd had written about Patti Smith and her memoir “Just Kids.” Of the book, Dowd writes:
“It unfolds in that romantic time before we were swallowed by Facebook, flat screens, texts, tweets and Starbucks; when people still talked all night and listened to jukeboxes and LPs and read actual books and drank black coffee.”
It unfolds, in other words, when we still lived in a world that was evocatively, achingly, viscerally real. When communicating with someone meant feeling that person’s breath on your face.
I’m a journalist because I love the way ink smells. I fell in love with newspapers when I was still too young to read them by holding up to my face the front pages my father brought me back from his business trips and breathing deeply of their acrid-sweet grayness, my nose pressed against the ink on the page as if I never would be able to get close enough. I was hooked. And then — and then! — I started to read them! And my God. The power and possibility of the stories they contained knocked me over, and my infatuation grew into something deeper. I was in love.
From that rich, smudgy, smelly, wet, gritty, hefty, rollable, crushable, yellowing medium we’ve come to this. There’s nothing so sensual about a computer screen. The Internet is not the real world. The wind never blows there, the nose never smells, the hands never feel and our fingernails never collect the good, brown soil from tending the gardens or graves that speak to us through every one of our senses. And so those of us who tell stories for a living must make sure to preserve the humanity and sensuality on which the genre always has been based and from which it draws its greatest power. We must be fierce champions of the sense of place and the human contact and the rhythms of the world that inform all the best storytelling. We must evoke for our readers the metallic smell of a gunned-down cop’s blood flowing dark in the gutter. We must must give them the wind and the rain and the sun and the moon. We must not lose touch with the world we cover even as we do more and more of our reporting online or through email or text messages or Facebook or blog-comment forums.
We must not lose touch with the earth itself and all that it holds.
Miss Daisy’s counting on us, aren’t you, Miss Daisy?