Monday, February 26, 2007

Ivins' good examples


Regardless of the political side of the table you might come from, late columnist and author Molly Ivins left some good examples for her profession and the sharp idea of enjoying one's work.
Ivins is gone, but only edging away slowly into what looks like a strong, lingering place in Texas college-level journalism.
Ivins, 62, died of breast cancer on Jan. 31 in Austin. A memorial gathering was held on Feb. 4 at Austin’s Scholz’s Garten – a longtime political gathering place.
“Molly will continue to be an inspiration and outstanding role model for all journalists, especially women,” wrote University of Texas journalism professor Wanda Garner Cash in an e-mail from Austin. “Molly's unique brand of journalism and her natural ability as a storyteller helped me find my own editorial voice. She was fearless about speaking the truth, regardless of the professional or personal consequences.”
Cash said Ivins was both on the page and in person a funny, funny woman and a deadly serious one.
Recently retired Texas Observer editor Barbara Belejack said Ivins also believed journalism should be fun. “It’s hard work, but it can be fun. I’m not sure a lot people get that these days. She truly believed that,” Belejack said by phone from Austin.
Belejack hopes Ivins’ “wonderful wit, sharpness, and larger than life essence” translates into staying power in Texas college and university journalism classes.
“I think it is really important that students take a look at the way she wrote,” Belejack said. “She could get right to it. I like the way everyone has compared her to Mark Twain. I think it’s very appropriate.”
Ivins wrote six books and her syndicated columns were read in some 350 newspapers. She was also known for her work with the Texas Observer, Houston Chronicle, Minneapolis Tribune, New York Times and numerous speaking engagements.
Belejack notes that Ivins reached many people in her career through many appearances where she also spoke directly to people – not at them. Belejack says she received an e-mail from a journalist in Senegal, forwarded through a friend in Mexico, from someone who lamented not having met Ivins.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman met Ivins out on the book promotion tour circuit and ended his Feb. 2 piece, pointing to another area in which she stands as a good example to young journalists.
“Now, more than ever, we need people who will stand up against the follies and lies of the powerful. And Molly Ivins, who devoted her life to questioning authority, will be sorely missed,” Krugman wrote.
LareDOS publisher Marie Eugenia Guerra never met Ivins, but was lucky enough to be in the right class at the right time to hear a lecture at the University of Texas in the early ‘70s. Guerra remembers it well with the campus pulsating with political dissent, student protests and anti-war sentiment.
“Ivins, well into her no holds barred trajectory across the lofty heights of truth-telling journalism, was far more than Prof. Norris G. Davis, media law instructor and dean of the School of Journalism, had likely bargained for,” Guerra said. “What she was to many of us in that classroom was fresh faced, brazen, and confident, a girl just a bit older than those to whom she presented her view on journalism ethics and the Vietnam conflict. The more she spoke, the more Dr. Davis leaned away from her and to the right.
“The value she said that day 35 years ago that she placed on truth and justice resonates in everything she wrote. Time will remember her as a champion of ideals, one who held government accountable to those who pay for it. Literature will remember how good she was at her craft and that her refined style and stinging sense of humor were a gift to us.”
Ivins is also noted for referring to the Texas legislature as the best free entertainment in Austin.
Ivins was single and never married. She was a Houstonian, growing up in the River Oaks-area, constantly arguing with her oil business father on political issues, which she attributed to much of her feistiness and ability to stand up against authority.
Her father was a right-wing Republican and her politics came from the left. He was president of Tenneco, but also a cancer victim and shot himself to death.
Ivins went to Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Ivins also studied at the Institute of Political Science in Paris and gained a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York City.
She was survived by a brother and sister.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Learn more -- get on the plane

(Note: Read more about this, and other interesting stories online at, or in print in Laredo, Texas in the January edition of LareDOS.)


Asked to write about going to school overseas sounded like a harder assignment than those faced in graduate school, which included several all-nighters in the computer lab.
Writing something on my world views on health care, war, travel or relationships would be easier. Those issues involve the entire world, but my education out in the world is much more personal.
And some of it isn’t personal at all, but keeps on teaching.
Getting my master’s in international journalism at London’s City University opened up untold footpaths, avenues, highways, boat routes and flight patterns to that real, broader world I should have been discovering decades ago. The sooner the better for all the benefits one gains from getting the airplane and seeing and learning what the world is really like. Many U.S. universities like Laredo’s Texas A&M International offer semesters overseas.
Academic lessons at City centered around writing, international relations, ethics, staying alive in dangerous situations, new media, reporting specialties and several other smaller things that don’t come to mind immediately. The people come to mind more than any assignment, paper, or research topic.
Many continue to learn from each other and consult on various issues through e-mail. Several of us have attended each other’s weddings. I made one in Minnesota and another in India – so far.
Graduate school in London actually took off a few days after arriving and settling into an on campus room, which really served to make the experience affordable. Central London, where City is located, isn’t cheap, but on campus housing goes a long way to bring the expenses down.
Total costs at about $40,000 were worth it and I would love an excuse to do it all again. Even in another subject. That $40,000 covered housing, food, university costs, pubs, movies, travel, social, sporting events and those walking tours. I went a little overboard and had to borrow $10,000 toward the end, but had plenty of that leftover for post-school expenses.
As far as the economics go, I am quite sure I saved overall by going overseas, but one has to consider those so many more intangibles associated with studying in a place like London. It takes two years to get a master’s, at best, in almost all U.S. universities.
My flight from the U.S. arrived on Sept. 5, 2001 and those flights from hell arrived in New York, Washington, D.C. and the Pennsylvania countryside not even a week later. Classes didn’t begin for a few weeks, but new coursemate Anthony Mills and myself met in the campus bookstore on the 10th and got our call to this new world situation the next day after sitting in the nearby Old Jerusalem Tavern for nearly three hours discussing journalism, politics and sports. Mills was from Luxembourg, but played tennis for Brown University in Providence, R.I. where he got his bachelor’s in international relations.
“Have you blokes heard what happened in New York?” asked the bartender, no doubt having heard the American accents in our conversation. “Some planes have hit some big buildings there and another went down in Washington.”
Mills, who many have now seen reporting from Beirut, Lebanon on CNN, and I were already on our way to bigger pubs with televisions on nearby Farringdon Road before I could ask which Washington he was talking about.
Eyes were as big as basketballs as Londoners watched the infamous 9/11 attacks on the BBC and ITV in the first two pubs we found down close to the Thames. A third chain pub proved to be a disappointment when the French barmaid-in-charge cutoff the news, saying her customers were bored with it and wanted to play video games. Mills and I left as our blood pressures rose, quickly tossing a few choice words on the way out. Mills could offer more, growing up with French, which his father used to teach, and from his own tough street lessons learned when teaching English in Lyon, France.
Hearing on a U.S. TV news report that Central London was being evacuated, and being in Central London and not being evacuated, we figured that it was time to call home and let them know that we were OK in London, despite whatever they might have heard.
“Is this worse than Pearl Harbor?” I asked my mother.
“It’s worse. We didn’t know for a while how bad that was,” she said.
“Maybe I’ll join the RAF,” I said in a fleeting thought, feeling oddly far away from home for an instant, which had never occurred to me.
Conflicts were in mind and it wasn’t lost on me that the Royal Air Force had outflown and outgunned Hitler’s Luftwaffe directly overhead 61 years earlier in the Battle of Britain.
I had already started taking a large number of walking tours around Central London – most seemed to cost around 10 pounds each – so my historical perspectives were leaping and bounding all over each other, knowing that this was one of those historical moments, which this old Roman-founded city had seen so much of.
Scottish warrior William Wallace was executed not quite a quarter of a mile from my dorm room; historic St. John’s Gate, where Shakespeare previewed numerous plays for public exhibit approval was a few steps out my front door; the city’s old Roman walls were very close and many of England’s firsts were all around in short walks from where I lived at Francis Rowley Court.
Farringdon Underground Station – one of the very first constructed in the world in 1863 – was my home station and most frequent door to all that beyond the immediate area. This part of Central London, Cityside, was also in the old Irish and more recently Italian neighborhoods. Fortunately, several mostly affordable Italian restaurants were still close by and old Attilio, who managed first one and then another of these little rustic, but charming holes in the wall was patient and tolerant of university students who had too much to talk about, sometimes with too much wine, occasionally knocking over glass flower vases with energetic hand gestures describing lessons assigned by old news dogs like Colin Bickler – a New Zealander by birth who covered plenty in his time on jobs in Malaysia, the Philippines, Israel and Washington, D.C. to name a few – or the latest trip out from London on its cheap fare airlines.
“The Bickler” had a way of keep in students on their toes and fear in their eyes, but commanded terrific respect for the experience he brought from the field into class, too.
London is the low airfare capital of the world, which its many thousands of students take advantage of, including additional travel in their personal learning plans. I was on the conservative side, taking trips to Ireland, Spain, Holland and Lebanon from London as well as a rail run north to Nottingham and Edinburgh, Scotland.
Ireland, Holland and Lebanon were pleasure trips, which always became learning trips, too.
Spain, my 11th and still most recent trip there was essentially for an interview connected to my thesis and dissertation as were the stops in Nottingham and Scotland, researching the obscure side of the big business of soccer where participation and winning sometimes overshadow serious intentions of getting an education.
I interviewed a coach with Deportivo La Coruna in La Coruna, Spain – and timed it with a cider-casting, medieval costumed festival, which was another story, too. Ex-athletes were interviewed in Nottingham and Edinburgh, but, of course, I had to see the Tales of Robin Hood permanent exhibit, Scottish Celtic fiddle music and castles, respectively, too.
Ireland, my third trip there, took me to the south coast at Cork and Kinsale for the most festive New Year’s I ever experienced, celebrating with Aussies, Canadians and locals, listening to the strongest string and vocals trio I ever heard anywhere. Holland, by winning a contest for free round trip boat transportation, led me to Rotterdam, Amsterdam and its nearby bright, colorful Floriade, the not so cheery Anne Frank House and to a personal view that lax sin laws there have allowed the Russian mob to get a firm foothold.
My only trip to the Middle East, so far, had tougher appearances, but the dangers stood there with guns and weren’t shooting anyone at the time.
Lebanon, Lebanon, Lebanon. How I pine for a free, peaceful Lebanon. I would really like to go back.
Finally making the trip, thanks to the doubtful dares of Mills and Beirut-native Rabih El Khoury, I punctuated the whole event with a trip down to the Middle East after turning in my thesis and dissertation. The food, scenery, hospitality was all fantastic as was the very ancient historical sense one can get at sites like Byblos where at least 17 civilizations have held ground on a tiny peninsula and the more photogenic Baalbek, complete with its Roman temples and structures in the Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian border.
Beirut appeared headed back to headier times it enjoyed in previous decades when it was called the Paris of the Middle East – very entertaining, fun, racy, sexy and diverse. One can sometimes scuba dive in the morning and snow ski in the evening in Lebanon’s more peaceful times. Las Vegas odds are not high on current truces holding up forever there since last year’s summertime war between Israel and Lebanon-based Hezbollah, however.
Rabih was an impressive driver to Baalbek, dazzling the many militia and Syrian checkpoint guards with questions before they could have time to worry about a camera-wielding American in this pre-Iraq War spot where roadside Ayatollah Khomeini posters reminding you to mind your manners.
I am very glad those guys dared me to go.
My world is a million times larger and at the same time much smaller since that day in 2001 when I arrived at London’s Gatwick Airport, seeking to start that new education. I count among friends, aquaintenances and former coursemates people from a long list of countries around the world. Going in, the top benefit looked like it might be that your coursework is finished in one year, whereas it is usually two – at best – in most U.S. universities, but I got more than I expected.
I interned for several months at Associated Press under European Sports Editor Steve Wilson and served as part-time web content editor for Media Diversity Institute. MDI is a non-government organization dedicated to making the press in the frequent ethnically-troubled and occasionally war-torn Balkans and Eastern Europe think and write in neutral, fairer-minded terms. No way that experience was going to happen in Laredo, or most anywhere else in the U.S., either.
City University’s International Journalism coursework probably strengthened my writing more than anything else, going through a series of instructors, despite using a hybrid English style. The English one hears in a cosmopolitan London university is another education with unique variations all challenging whatever one might have grown up with.
England is a great place to get a bearing on English and its many visitors from afar, including the U.S., help an English-speaking person know and appreciate their mother tongue much better.
As a journalist, the first time I handled a story for a class there in London I realized that I – like everyone -- has a place on the world scale, that I am very much as good, bad, lazy, industrious or energetic as anyone anywhere else, and the only thing really stopping me was me. Seeing the world in different accents prompts that student to think outside their comfortable, but self-limiting little sandbox made up of know turf, familiar places and names.
The course also introduced me to formal international relations studies and I did come through like a rookie there, but I am still way ahead of where I was. And I live an international life every minute here in Laredo.
Any time I pick up the phone it could be from Mexico, Sweden, the Middle East, England, Spain, or somewhere off Mines Road. Anyone asking what I learned out of my graduate school experience might prefer it in writing because the explanation could very outlive any one student. It can’t all come to mind in any single instant, either.