Thursday, December 09, 2004

Of politicians, quality teaching and aerobatics

So for two hours today, it was university politics, with a state university trustee at the front of the meeting room and the usual annoying questions from me in the peanut gallery (aka Faculty Senate). But the fun of asking annoying -- and to the point -- questions, is what makes journalism fun for me. I knew that at least half of the answers were going to make their way into stories and the other half of the information would suggest things I should be writing about.

And, boy, are there things I should be writing about.

In the late 1980s, all we talked about at journalism conventions was how the new computer technologies were taking over the profession -- and we loved the new technologies.

But we stopped talking about ethics, morals and standards and I think the price we paid is now evident on television in places like the Fox Nut Network. Oops, I mean Fox News Network. In print, it's harder to decipher, unless you read USA Today.

So in the University setting, all we hear about is money and budget, budget and money. No one asks about how it is going in the classroom, or if we can accommodate the influx of students, or, most important, if the quality of instruction in the classroom is what it was, say, even five years ago.

The question isn't asked because the quality has slipped as faculty have become overburdened with too many students, too few resources and a bureaucracy that is numbing the number of arcane rules it imposes that result in the stifling of creativity and discourage faculty from doing the teaching that's needed.

Still, it was a good day, because my questions made a few people (faculty and administrators) think about the issue of quality instruction and what we have to do to preserve it.

And, journalistically, I picked up a couple of story ideas that I will publish to keep the fires burning.

That's a good day, for a writer. And a good way to avoid thinking about going up in a small plane in 36 hours to do a few barrel rolls.

Up, up and away, soon enough.

mjf 12/0/04

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Up, up, and away!

The end of the semester is upon me — and just in time.

All the deadlines for magazine articles, the endless grading of papers, getting ready for Mexico and trying to read the tea leaves about the future, are coming together in a crescendo that’s deafening.

Add to that that I just accepted an assignment to go fly in an experimental aircraft and you can understand why there should be Grey Goose in my glass right now, instead of two-buck-Chuck Merlot. (Mas vino, por favor, amiga.)

Saturday, in a small plane that has Plexiglas doors and roof, I will go catapulting into the air over the foothills in pursuit of a story about adventuring. I love adventuring. I’m not so keen on doing it at several thousand feet over rough terrain.

Still, earlier this week I attempted to convince a good student that she has all the ‘right stuff’ to be a journalist, that journalism and writing can be a lot of fun (despite all my in-class comments about how hard the work is).

Saturday, I get to live that advice and hope that Saturday night I still get to live the advice by writing the story about how the fellow who is piloting the aircraft gets his kicks doing barrel rolls.

Perhaps if I wasn’t so tired from a long semester — or had a career-making profile on deadline for next week — the prospect might not be so daunting.

Oh well.

Up, up and away. Just like Superman…

mjf 12/8/04

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Oh! A Christmas Tree!

First, Target and Mervyn's stores banned Salvation Army bellringers from their store sidewalks. Too many people soliciting they said. (And what, pray tell, do Target and Mervyn's do when they try to sell you all that stuff you don't really need? If that's not soliciting... but, well...)

Today, however, the news came hustling across the wires that in San Francisco, several dozen schoolchildren were hustled out of the Union Square park for singing Christmas caroles.

It seems one must have a city permit to do, well, just about anything.

And people wonder why I like Mexico so much?

mjf 12/5/04

Saturday, December 04, 2004

The writing juggernaut

As the semester closes, the best students come out of the woodwork, seeking advice and earnestly wanting to talk about how to write, how to make their writing better, and how to actually make a buck or two at this business.

I wish they would come to my door when I didn't have exams to grade and my own writing crises to deal with.

But in giving them advice, I find that it helps me refocus on what I'm doing. My advice to them becomes advice to myself. And sometimes I'm even correct in what I tell them.

This past week, I had a young man come in who wants to be the next Hunter S. Thompson, sans the drugs and alcohol. I pointed out that the myth of the drugs and alcohol is what makes Hunter S. Thompson so appealing. A lot of his writing is mindless drivel. Some of it brilliant. But I'll pick up anything he writes because it might be brilliant and the wild man personna is irrestible.

Writing is risky business, even for the pros because every time you stick your head up out of the trench and send a piece off for an editor to review you risk failure, embarrassment and a blow to the ego. But, as I told my student this past week, the beauty of writing is that you get to go to bat again, every day. You have to keep swinging.

Here's a quote from Andrew Sullivan, now a blogger, formerly editor of The New Republic:

"The dirty little secret of journalism is that it isn't really a profession. It's a craft. All you need is a telephone and conscience, and you're all set. You get better at it by merely doing it — which is why fancy journalism schools are, to my mind, such a waste of time." (From TIME magazine, Sept. 27, 2004)

Fire up the keyboards, time to get better.

mjf 12/04/04

Thursday, December 02, 2004

A writer's warm-up pitch

So this morning, after two hours of reading and researching, I'm about to start the first draft of a 3,500-word profile of a law professor (who is also the Chief Information Officer of the State of California) and a lot of other complicated things. I have pages of notes, a file folder of articles about him and sore eyeballs from reading.

But I'm using this blog to do what I tell my students -- limber up your fingers and your mind with other writing before you take on a big project (like a draft of an article that not only is long and complex, but which will be vetted by attorneys for the magazine, California Lawyer). If you get your fingers working and your brain in gear, sometimes the words flow faster.

One of Tom Wolfe's most famous dispatches was actually a letter he wrote to his editor, explaining why it was so hard to write the story. The editor took the letter, did some magic, and Voila! ... Tom Wolfe had a hit.

First drafts, for me, are a lot like when you take a multiple choice test: your first inclination is almost always the correct answer. So I rarely stress too much over the product of the first draft -- just getting those first few paragraphs down so that the story is interesting enough to drag readers along.

I've dragged you enough. On to J. Clark Kelso.

mjf 12/2/04

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Intelligent design

The San Francisco Chronicle carried a story today about the new movement to undermine the teaching of evolution theory by requiring teaching something called 'intelligent design.'

I've always agreed with the idea that the cosmos didn't just happen, but I'm uneasy to take the Bible literally (6,000 years ago God said 'Voila!'). I prefer the line of reasoning that shot down Clarence Darrow in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. The notion was that God may have created the world in seven days, but, at the time, how long was seven days? God hadn't created the 'day' yet. Perhaps she took her time and by our current reckoning, well, it was a little longer -- maybe 6 or 7 million years?

The infusion of religious beliefs into our schools isn't as troubling to me as the lack of respect that such infusion usually carries with it. In this case, if you have doubts about creationism you are branded a heretic, not a skeptic. With our current prez, that means trouble my friends, right here in River City and certainly in the small towns where evangelical Christianity is gaining momentum.

Watch your mail for literature from the Flat Earth Society.

mjf 11/30/04

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Entering "The Funnel"

It's that time of the semester I call "The Funnel."

Suddenly all the projects, papers to grade, stories to write, year-end wrap-up kind of things begin swirling around faster and faster and the time available to do them gets smaller and smaller.

The endless vista of the semester turns to a frenetic race to the finish line.

Perhaps a better analogy would be what the pioneers faced when they came west and first started over the Rockies. When it became obvious that the pipe organ couldn't be hauled over, or the furniture, or, or, or, they started simply discarding things one by one, littering the trails. People behind them in wagons picked up the furniture, but not for long. Too heavy, and the trails were too steep.

This semester, jettisoning anything seems nearly impossible: the stack of papers to grade is four inches tall, two story deadlines loom, and at least a first cut at finding all those income tax records has to be accomplished before we leave for Mexico just before Christmas.

The Funnel. Someday I'll figure out how to avoid it.

Oh, wait. I'll retire! Then it will get easier.


When I leave the university in three years or less(i.e. retire from state service), I'm sure I'll create another funnel for myself with writing and movie making.

But first I have to survive this one.

mjf 11/16/04

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The anonymous website

So, after waxing poetic about my newly launched website yesterday, I neglected to post where it is, exactly.

Not that Andrew Sullivan or any other notable bloggers are likely to flock to it for wisdom, but is certainly needs some note for anyone to find it.

So, here's the url:

And with any luck at all, it will actually work.

(I remain more than a little suspicious of technology...)

mjf 11/14/04

Saturday, November 13, 2004

The pace of change

I admit to being a late adopter of new things. I admire innovation, I'm just slow to grab ahold of it.
I fought the cell phone for years, refusing to get one, then refusing to carry the one I had, then refusing to turn on the one I carried with me.
Of course NOW I never leave the house without my phone. And if I do by mistake, I feel a little naked.
But today was another milestone.
Today I have a web page.
It's not a fancy thing. Just a photo and couple of links (one to this page), but after several years of being urged to do a web page by Admiral Fox (my commander in chief), well, it's there, thanks to her actually putting it together.
It's kind of neat, seeing your picture on the Internet, joining the world of information and electro-babble that goes on.
It wasn't that long ago that I started this blog -- not too many weeks before the election (ooooh don't think about the election..). The blogging has been hit and miss, based on how much other writing I'm doing -- and I'm doing a lot of writing for several different outfits: education stories, a legal opus, the business of bed and breakfast.
And the movies?
Well, 21st Century Fox-Fitzgerald studios has been off-line for most of the fall, except for two short flicks about granddaughter Samantha. Both were rockumentaries, of course, with lots of pounding music.
But school only has another month to go. Then maybe it's time to finish the Seneca Lake feature movie, or a new one on the storyboard titled "He's a Rebel."
More on that in the next posting.

mjf 11/13/2004

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The Omen this morning

After NOT watching late returns last night, I awoke to the sound of rain this morning, a hard rain (global warming?) that was not predicted. A very gloomy, rainy morning which told me that I didn't need to look at the computer to see if the nation would suffer through four more years of Bush & Company.

I was reminded of Nixon's re-election in 1972 over George McGovern -- another apparent triumph of the immoral over the moral. Yet it was only two years later that Nixon left the White House in disgrace and spent the rest of his life trying to regain his dignity.

So there is hope.

But for the draft-age, the poor, the gay, the elderly, well, it's going to be a tough 20 years because four more years of the current administration likely means decades of wars and inflation and maybe an end to social security as we know it.

Still, 55 million Americans wanted to throw the Bush administration out of office. Maybe they will rally and toss him out before he does too much more damage.

We can hope... We can hope...

mjf 11/3/04

Saturday, October 23, 2004

The battle of the wits is over

While GW might win the election, it's clear that the battle of the wit -- those clever enough to retain a sense of humor through all this -- is on the side of those supporting John Kerry.

There has been such an outpouring of clever web sites (see that as painful as it is to consider another four years of George W. Bush, the laughs have been good.

The polarization has been bad in some ways, but good in others. How can you possibly compromise with Halliburton? How can you compromise on Iraq? A colleague predicted that we are about to enter 20 very hard years of social unrest, with the left finally ready to take on the conservative lunatic fringe that has taken us so far down the right-leaning road.

I keep hearing people on the right talking about fighting the totalitatian regimes in the world and installing democracy.

Maybe we should start with that in Washington.

mjf 10/23/2004

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The battle of the films

So this morning's newspaper featured a story about a right wing movie which sets out to somehow counter Michael Moore's Fahrenheit. I wish in one of these flicks, they would address the business about the relatives of Osama Bid Laden being allowed to fly out of the U.S., when most of us were sitting on the ground stuck solidly.

Some of the Fahrenheit film probably could be challenged, but that part, well, I just want a reasonable explanation.

And I suppose the Saudi-Bush business dealings could use a little clarification, too.

One thing is clear, movies are about to become the new political battleground. And maybe it will mean a resurgence in movie attendance. I've seen Fahrenheit, Silver City, and Going Upriver in the last three weeks. And they were all excellent films, politics aside. Going upriver is so good, I'm going to use it in a class eventually to explain about Vietnam.

It's that good.

mjf 10/19/2004

Monday, October 18, 2004

Hold the election soon, please

Like sports teams that have peaked, the electorate is really ready to vote and only getting increasingly angry and frustrated as we close in on election day.

It's almost as if everyone just wants to get it over and get on with whatever occupied our lives before we lived through this mess of a campaign season.

Of course, if the election goes to Shrub, well, we will be able to get back to watching the unemployment lines grow (until the benefits run out) Halliburton making even more profits (but perhaps in the next soverign nation the U.S. decides to liberate) and a return to inflation (oh, it's out there, it's out there).

Hurry November, hurry.

mjf 10/18/2004

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Life in Crawford, Texas

I just read that the good people of Crawford, Texas are taking their newspaper to task for having the termerity to endorse John Kerry for President, instead of their hometown boy.

It reminded me of all the editorials I had to write in which the owner/publisher of the newspaper had one opinion and I had another. Guess whose opinion the newspaper published?

But with the force of the Internet -- even this blogging stuff -- that kind of power has diminished, certainly. Right now thousands of bloggers are probably having a good Internet laugh at the 740 people in Crawford, Texas who are hopping mad at their newspaper.

I guess they haven't lost anyone in Iraq yet.

mjf 10/1/204

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Failing schools, failing media?

As I was reading some reports on the No Child Left Behind Act — and the labeling of schools as 'failing' because they missed the national mark on one of 37 indicators — it occurred to me that perhaps the U.S. media might be ranked similarly.

For example, a matrix could be devised that would measure whether a network (say, Fox) used language that was non-objective in its newscast. If it did, then a national panel created by a No Media Left Unjudged Act, could declare the network biased.

For the schools labelled failing, it means they get less funds. (Hmmm, give less money to schools that need help. There's a program.)

For media, it could signal that fewer advertisers should give money to the newscasts.

Oh wait, I forgot, the advertisers WANT some bias in the news. It just has to be their biases. (Look up what's going on with Sinclair TV stations to get some idea about that...)

mjf 10/10/04

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Legislative disadvantage

In the debate last night between Kerry and Bush, it occurred to me why John Kerry seems unable to speak freely — and it's not the flip-flop issue.

On the Patriot Act, on No Child Left Behind, he can't be too critical because he voted for both measures. Our culture allows for people to divorce and remarry a half-dozen times, it allows people to move from one apartment to another each year, it encourages shifting alliances on what you buy from moment to moment, but God forbid you can change your mind about taking away Constitutional rights or an education act that's a disaster for children.

Howard Dean would have been able to speak much more freely.

mjf 10/0/2004

Friday, October 08, 2004

Can't stop thinking about the draft

Since watching Fahrenheit 9/11 two nights ago, I can't stop thinking about the draft — the one that every politician in Washington swears is not going to happen. They are as sure of that as they are sure that Saddam Hussein has weapons of... Oh wait! they changed their minds on that. No weapons of mass destruction after all. People of Iraq who have been bombed, well... Whoops!

I guess I shouldn't worry, then about either of my two draft-age sons, or my soon-to-be 7-year-old granddaughter. This country will always have an all-volunteer army, just ask any National Guardsman serving in Iraq.

Maybe I'll be able to think about something else after tonight's debate between Kerry and Bush.

Maybe not.

mjf 10/8/04

Thursday, October 07, 2004

First Contact

This is the first 'blog' I've ever posted and it will be short because of my sincere skepticism about technology.

Still, given what blogging did to Dan Rather, well, it's a powerful force.

mjf 10/7/04