Archive for the ‘Work’ Category
Andy Rooney died yesterday. He was 92. I’ve been watching 60 Minutes as long as I can remember. My parents would always put it on every Sunday which was usually dinner time in my house and that generally meant that I watched it too.
Andy Rooney didn’t begin his show-ending monologues until 1978 when it replaced the Point/Counterpoint segment featuring Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick. I didn’t take much notice of Rooney until I was a teenager in the 1980s and had taken an interest in writing and journalism and harbored dreams of being a newspaper opinion columnist. Rooney personified the folksy, grumpy, common-sense curmudgeon and could make you roll your eyes, but sometimes could also make you wish you’d just said what he said.
In the years I watched him hold forth on subjects as varied as chairs, the Super Bowl, the job of the US Presidency, umbrellas, ice cream cones, barbers, and the random items found in people’s backpacks, I had always wanted him to do a segment on books.
It seemed an obvious Rooney segment. Always touched with a gift for making a larger point to say about something small from his own experience, I just knew that one day he would finally get around to giving TV viewers a tour of the bookshelf behind his desk. Years passed and it never came, and yet my curiosity persisted. Finally in 2007, working late one night in my office at BusinessWeek I wrote a short email to 60 Minutes with the subject line “For Andy Rooney”:
I’ve watched your segments on “60 Minutes” every Sunday since I was a very young kid. I didn’t always get what you were saying, but I got enough to know that I liked you. It probably had something to do with me getting into the media business myself.
All these years you’ve talked about the silly things that people send you, your junk mail, the mess on your desk, the stuff you find in your attic and other curiously revealing trivia. But I’ve always wanted to know more about what we see in the background behind you every week: Your bookshelf.
When I visit someone’s home I sometimes find it interesting, if I can do it politely, to peek at what’s on their bookshelf. You’ve been inviting me and millions of other people into your office for years. As someone who like you, values the written word and the simple pleasure of reading a great book, I’m curious about what’s on that bookshelf of yours and why. I doubt it’s junk, and I’m certain it would be revealing. How about a little tour?
I’m certain Rooney never read that email, and though I can’t prove it, I’m betting his producer did. Because two months later, Rooney closed the April 22, 2007 edition of 60 Minutes with a segment that included a few of his favorite books (Link goes to the video, which is not embeddable). They were: three dictionaries; a heavily used edition of Modern English Usage by Henry Watson Fowler. Walter Lippman’s A Preface To Morals; four leather-bound volumes by Charles Darwin; and the fifth edition of The Modern Researcher by Jacques Barzum and Henry Graff, also heavily used.
Over the years of watching I noticed two others, one I recognized because I own it, and one I recognized because I knew of it. The one I own, and which is plainly visible in Rooney’s final commentary is Russell Baker’s The Good Times, a memoir of Baker’s years as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun and columnist for The New York Times, often neglected in favor or his better-known personal autobiography Growing Up. The other, which I know by reputation is Words on Words by the late, legendary journalism professor John Bremner.
Two years later I got the chance to meet Rooney. The occasion was the 2009 Deadline Club Awards dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. I was a finalist in the science and technology reporting category, for a series of stories I wrote for BusinessWeek.com called “Unconnected America,” which examined how the lack of access to broadband Internet connections affected people in various walks of life and in different places. I lost out to a Time Magazine cover story, “The Clean Energy Myth.”
There was, before the banquet, a cocktail party lasting an hour or so, and Rooney happened to be there. And I noticed that my then-colleague, BusinessWeek writer David Kiley was talking to him rather enthusiastically at a set of chairs surrounding a table, as if he knew him well. It turns out he did, so ventured over to where they were sitting and waited for a chance to introduce myself.
It came. I told him about the letter I had written him and before I could get to the part of his segment on books, he cut me off.
“And I didn’t write back, right?”
“No, but I didn’t expect you to,” I said. Then I told him about the segment on books, and that I had always been curious about them because I had been watching so long. “Since I was a kid,” I said.
“Well how old are you?” I was 38 at the time, but my answer was “I’m not quite 40.”
At this he got a little indignant. He called across the table to a female friend he referred to by her last name — I didn’t catch it. “You’re really 39? Hey, do you believe this guy is 39?” he said to her.
“If he is he’s very lucky,” she said to him and grinned at me.
Then he looked back at me. “Well you look older.”
I couldn’t argue with that. And I couldn’t help but smile at having been insulted by Andy Rooney.
One of the reasons I switched to WordPress was for its ability to easily create static, non-blog pages within the context of a blog-like site. My one unending project has been to collect as much of my published work in one place as as I can, if nothing else so that I have a place where I can find each story. After publishing for the better part of two decades, the job of finding and organizing everything, then building a Web page to house it all, is rather large.
This weekend I built two pages comprised of old stuff. The first will be interesting really only to those who care about the long slow demise of the newspaper industry and its various early flirtations with the Web. During 1997 and 1998, my first job out of grad school was at New Century Networks, a joint venture of nine newspaper companies to combine forces and content on the Web. The company briefly produced a site called NewsWorks that is barely remembered except for its unspectacular shuttering in the cold March of 98. On my last day in the office I salvaged the files of a few packages I had worked on to a Zip disk and have since preserved them in their original format. You can see the results, along with my own reflections on the experience here.
The second page I produced is basically a republishing of my old 1990 Bungee Jumping story written in my last term as a community college student. The realization that I wrote it 18 years ago gave me a bit of a shiver.
I did go on to Bungee jump a few more times. There was one more trip to Blue River Dam in the fall of 1991, and another to a privately owned bridge in 1992, where myself and a friend had organized a film crew to shoot some footage of the group of University of Oregon students we took with us. One of my great regrets in life is that I lost my copy of that tape. If you were on that trip and have a copy, please contact me, because I am desperate to transfer it to DVD and from there to the Web. I jumped one more time in Las Vegas in 2002. It wasn’t quite as fun as jumping in the great outdoors. I had a tape made of that jump but lost it as well.
A few months ago I was in Waterloo, Canada. Anyone who knows anything about me and knows anything about Waterloo can probably guess I was there to visit Research In Motion, the company behind the iconic Blackberry. It was an interesting visit, and an interesting town. One of RIM’s founders, Mike Lazaridis, with whom I met, poured some of his personal fortune into launching The Perimeter Institute For Theoretical Physics, which I also visited. It’s a place where some of the world’s smartest people gather to try to decode what are literally the very secrets of the universe.
The day of my visit happened to coincide with a public lecture by Brian Greene, a professor of mathematics and physics at Columbia University. He’s the author of “The Elegant Universe” which was adapted into a PBS TV series of the same name. I was invited to attend the lecture and since I had nothing else to do other than return to my hotel room, I accepted. I was warned however to arrive early as seats would fill up soon.
The lecture was given not at the Perimeter Institute itself, but rather at a local high school auditorium. I arrived, was surprised at the turnout. It seemed the entire town had turned up on a beautiful late summer evening to sit in a stuffy un-air conditioned auditorium to hear a physics lecture. I wondered how often this sort of thing happens in the U.S. It was indeed, standing room only.
I hadn’t thought much about the lecture since then. It was certainly fascinating. Greene spoke about, and focused mostly on the finer points of black holes. He relied for some of the lecture on material from his latest book, “Icarus At The Edge Of Time” to illustrate complicated points. I had mostly forgotten about it, until I read the news that Stephen Hawking is The Perimeter Institute’s new distinguished research chair, which means he’ll be visiting Waterloo a few times a year beginning in the summer of 2009, and hopefully giving some public lectures, for which, I’m sure the entire city of Waterloo will turn out.
What I had also forgotten since that night was the fact that I had recorded the lecture. Today I ran across the file by chance, and thought I’d share the audio here. It’s about 68 minutes long (I didn’t edit out the introductions) but you can now hear Brian Greene’s lecture on black holes too. It is, I think, worth the time, even if you have absolutely no interest in theoretical physics.