Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Lost Page News & Courier Article

There are three major sections in the Page News and Courier. News, sports, and Local Life. It's a feature section. Whoever writes one those articles is decided on a rotating basis. My first one was back in November, when a local man's daughter who can't walk or speak helped choreograph a play. Sometimes it's feel-good stuff like that. I did one about the bike races in town and the controversy surrounding that. People really reacted to that one. Sometimes we cover parades, or do interviews with veterans about war stuff. Sometimes it's a little cheesy. Sometimes it's very cheesy.

I was assigned back in March or April of 2016 to cover an annual event in the town of Stanley - a local vineyard has sheep and they turn shearing them into an event. Yeah. Not exactly my idea of a good time, but to each their own.

One mantra has been metaphorically beaten into my head with these local life articles: tell a story. Make it something interesting and make people want to read it. The news aspect of that isn't too big - "We're shearing the sheep and making some blankets out of it."

So, I went and observed and talked to people and took pictures. It was really early in the morning, it was really cold out, and I was very much out of my element. 

As I was driving home, I was thinking to myself, "What is the story?" What could I get out of that event that was unique and offered something more interesting than just "Sheep were sheared." Then it hit me - I was the story.

An interesting, unique take that had never been done before in the newspaper would be a story about a man who had never been on a farm or touched a sheep to go there and experience everything that was happening.

I wrote it. I turned it in. And, it was rejected. I was given a compliment, though: "It's good, it's entertaining, and this is the direction that long-form narrative magazine writing is going. But, it's not what the Page News and Courier does."

So, it's below. 

* * *

I stare at my phone. I need more information. A sheep-shearing event? At Wisteria Farm and Vineyard? What happens? What is this? I call the number and hear the voice of Wisteria co-owner Sue Ishak on the other end. I need to get to the bottom of this. "I'm new to the area," I begin. "I'm going to be attending your event on Saturday and I'm curious about what exactly will be going on." All I know is that they'll be shearing sheep. 

"We're going to be shearing the sheep," Ishak said. 

I ponder how to probe further. I go for it. "Is anything else gonna happen?" 

"We'll have coffee and snacks," Ishak adds. 

Works for me. "Alright. I'll see you then." 

The next big question in my head: "There's a vineyard in Stanley?" I think about it and realize that I pass the Wisteria sign every time I drive into town. 

Saturday morning, I pull up to the vineyard. It's cold. It had snowed earlier that day, but nothing stuck to the ground. I can think of at least 12 things I would rather be doing right now - 10 of which involve laying in bed. My body gradually gets used to the temperature and I wind up enjoying myself, but that first moment of cold hitting me was misery.

I see a crowd of people and walk toward them, navigating my way through two gates. The first thing notice is the large amount of animal "pellets" under my feet. I stop, momentarily startled, as I see chickens. I have never been this close to farm animals before. One chicken approaches and stops before me, staring me down. I let him assert dominance as I break our stare and walk over to the sound of electric clippers. 

My eyes are darting between a man - Ashley Craun - holding down a sheep and making quick work of shaving off the wool, and a freshly-shorn sheep off to the side. I'm still taking in the surroundings as Sue Ishak walks toward me. We had never met in person before, but I guess when you show up holding a notepad and with a camera around your neck, people can figure out who you are. She extends her hand. "You must be," she says, pausing to remember my name. "Chip?" 

I am not Chip, but I am curious about how everything works here. She is happy to explain the process to me. She points out that most people do not even question where the wool in their sweaters comes from, and that this is a nice event for people to participate in and learn something. 

"This is one of those old skill sets that gets lost in modernization," Ishak says. "This is a dying art." 

She also assures me that it is usually a little warmer when they hold this event. 

"We've been doing this since we bought the sheep in 2001," Ishak says. "This has been a public event since we opened in 2009. This is good to let people be a part of it because they usually don't get to see things like this." 

I spy a husband and wife watching the shearing. Their two young children are running around chasing the chickens. I strike up a conversation with the wife, Consuelo Scott. 

"We came here for this," Scott says. "We live in Northern Virginia. We came out for some wine and a good experience." 

The two kids have left the chickens alone and wander over. Knowing people eat up adorable quotes from cute kids, I ask them what their favorite part of today has been. The boy, who cannot seem to keep his eyes on any one thing for more than a second, excitedly blurts out "watching movies in my dad's van!" as his mom rolls her eyes and smiles at me. "I won't use that one," I tell her. 

I lean down and ask little 8-year-old Marisol what is her favorite thing to watch here. Her face tilts to the left, lips pursed, as she contemplates it in her head. "My favorite part is when they shear the sheep and put it on the table." 

A large table is set off to the side. After the wool is removed from the sheep, it is brought to the table. It is all in one piece and looks like a large blanket. A group of six ladies is gathered around. I walk over and ask what they are doing. Sue tells me this is part of the cleaning process. "We shake it to remove any excess dirt, then we pull out the dung tags." She asks if I want to help. Realizing what a "dung tag" is, I politely decline. 

"It's a fun thing," Ishak says. "We have to do it anyway, we might as well make a party out of it." 

One lady making a party out of the event is Debbie Forrest. Between sharing stories about her new grandson and gleefully cracking jokes about her age, she explains to me why she is enjoying today so much. 

"This is up there with Christmas morning to me," Forrest said. "I like the whole process, and the history behind it. I love the feel, the smell of the wool. I like to spin it, and make things out of it. The process is close to my heart." 

She wants to see more people get involved with events of this nature, especially children. 

"This is good for the community to see because it will give them a better respect for natural resources and the process of farming," Forrest said.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Chris Slater interviews United States Senator Tim Kaine

Back in April, I had a pretty cool opportunity in front of me when I got to travel to Shenandoah National Park to attend a luncheon with United States Senator Tim Kaine as the guest speaker. The reason for the event was to celebrate 100 years of the National Park Service.

It was a fun event. I talked to his assistant lady; not sure what her actual job was. But she was the one telling him when and where to go. She was really cool. I'm assuming more of an assistant as opposed to somebody with some actual power because of how young she was.

I got a couple minutes with him outside after the event and talked to him about why the national parks are important. Yeah, I know, not the most riveting of conversations, but you've gotta take what you can get.

The ride back from the event was really nice. I took the long route (unintentionally) and spent the time reflecting on how far my life had come in such a short time. I thought about what I did - interview a US Senator for a newspaper article and what I had been doing before that, which was basically the opposite of that.

I didn't know much about Tim Kaine at the time. My editor was describing who he was and what he had done in Virginia before that, and then added "And, it's possible he might be our next Vice President."

I hadn't heard any rumors about who was the VP nominee of who at that point, and it still wasn't even 100 percent sure that Clinton was going to be the nominee... even though the mainstream media's effort to help her secure the nomination was in full swing. So, I wasn't too surprised a few months later when I heard his name announced.

I think it's kind of cool that I got to chat with him, no matter how inane the topic was, for a few minutes back before he became really popular and huge.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Norm Macdonald Clip of the Week: sort of a book review

My favorite comedian for years, Norm Macdonald, is making the media rounds for his "memoir." That's in quotes because it's titled "Based On A True Story," and it's basically a novel loosely based on his life. I read it in three days - and that's only because I was busy and couldn't finish it in one sitting (and setting, since I read it in the same place).

It's amazing. If you like Norm Macdonald, you will love this book. If you love interesting stories, you'll love it. It's so weird. I don't know how to describe it. It tells his life story between parts from the present where he's making a trip to Las Vegas. He's a notorious gambler. Or, was. Maybe.

The reason it's a novel based on his life, as opposed to an actual autobiography, is because so much of it is made up. The part in the present isn't real; the trip to Vegas with "my trusty sidekick" Adam Eget (and co-host of his amazing YouTube podcast) is totally made up.

The parts about his life... Ummmm... I'm not sure what to believe. This is where "based on a true story" comes into play. He was one of the few hired on Saturday Night Live who didn't actually audition. But, Norm likely did not actually get his SNL job by becoming the morphine hookup of Lorne Michaels. And while he likely did have a crush on Sarah Silverman - because who doesn't? - he probably didn't attempt to hire a hitman to kill Dave Attell because she was dating him.

He has said that the first chapter was true - the reason why he decided to write the book. His manager called and woke him up in a hotel room to say that somebody hacked his Wikipedia page and said that he was dead. It said he died in a hotel room. He looked around his hotel room, to the lady asleep in his bed whose name he didn't remember, to the empty liquor bottles ("such tiny bottles that made me feel so big") and realized that the hacker wasn't so far off.

And the parts about his childhood, if true, are so sad and heartbreaking. If it's just "based on a true story," then it's great narrative writing. Norm didn't use a ghostwriter. It has a "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas" vibe to it, if that's your thing.

* * *

The clip above is Norm on Conan's TBS show. As are all of his appearances on any late-night talk show, it's hilarious. He's best in an environment where he can riff and say random stories. And, that's the case here. Conan is a comedy writer at heart; he wrote for The Simpsons and SNL before getting a talk show - so he knows how to interact with Norm when he's "in character" and they work well together.