Daniel Flatley is a staff writer at the Watertown Daily Times covering Jefferson County government and local, state and national politics. He is a former Marine and a graduate of Columbia University.
“Across the way, I saw the hues of the islands go from green to yellow to brown to almost black, the waters from deep blue to slate gray.”
— “A Fan’s Notes” by Frederick Exley
I’ve already told a few people this. But two months before I moved to Watertown, I found a copy of “A Fan’s Notes” in the laundry room of my apartment building in New York City.
It was an ancient copy — from the second printing — and the pages had yellowed and become brittle with age. But I was intrigued and picked it up, not entirely sure why I was reading it other than it was free and in the laundry room.
For the last two and half years, it has sat on a shelf above my desk at the Watertown Daily Times. And I have consulted it from time to time on stories about the Red and Black or the Jefferson County Home for the Aged, also known as “Whispering Pines.”
“A Fan’s Notes” is the lightly fictionalized memoir of Frederick Exley, a native of Watertown and the Thousand Islands region. And his tale contains much about himself and his struggles with mental illness and substance abuse but perhaps even more about his home, a place for which he seemed to have a genuine and unceasing love.
It’s hard to remember now which came first, the job or the book. Having no exact date for the finding of the book, I can only date the provenance of the job, which began on Sept. 25, 2012, when I submitted an application to Bob Gorman, who was then the managing editor of the Times.
A few months later, in November, I arrived. It’s been a challenging and rewarding experience ever since.
This Friday will be my last day at the paper.
As some of you may know from reading this column, in late November/early December, two years after I arrived in the north country, my mother was diagnosed with a Grade IV glioblastoma, a very aggressive form of brain cancer. She is holding her own, but the situation is precarious.
After more than a decade away, it is time to go home.
I plan to continue writing and to pursue a graduate degree in journalism. For now, however, my primary duty is to my family.
The beauty of writing and reading and discovering books in the laundry room is that you learn you’re not the first person to feel or experience something. Others have gone before you and recorded their journeys with better language.
There is a line from the book “You Can’t Go Home Again” by Thomas Wolfe that has stuck with me these last few days:
“And what had he learned? A beggar would not think it much, perhaps, yet in a small simple way it was a good deal.”
What I saw in Watertown was a chance to make some small contribution to a community in the profession I had chosen.
I tried to do that with the stories I’ve written and, most of all, with this column.
And I’ve met and interviewed a man who rode his bike across the country, a bright and sprightly nonagenarian who overcame depression by volunteering, a river pilot nearing retirement, and a future “blues gypsy,” among many others.
Much has changed since I first arrived in Watertown, both in my life and in the life of the city.
Mercy Hospital has come down; the Woolworth Building has been transformed from urban blight to a new apartment building; Whispering Pines has become a grassy field at the top of Coffeen Street; politicians have come and gone in historic races that garnered national attention.
I’ve had back surgery, gotten married, turned 30 and learned “a good deal.”
It’s been a privilege to bear witness to it all, and I am incredibly grateful that I was able to live and work here.
On Sunday, a friend and I went for a kayak trip on the St. Lawrence River.
We paddled nearly 20 miles around Grindstone Island, stopping every so often to appreciate the incredible beauty around us. The sky was blue, almost cloudless, and the water was remarkably clear. We could see the shadows of our boats on the riverbed below us; the surface green and sparkling like a field of emeralds in the sun.
There is no way for a reporter, especially one who is not from the north country, to truly chronicle the life of this area. We drift along, catching glimpses of bright objects, stopping to jot down their size and shape. The mass of the experience, varied and vital, flows to the sea.
It’s been a privilege to make the attempt. Thanks for having me.
Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He wrote a column once a week for the newspaper’s editorial page. He can be reached until Friday at firstname.lastname@example.org and afterward at email@example.com.
Isaiah Cantey, 53, has assembled a diverse and impressive resume during his time in the north country.
He has been a soldier, a semiprofessional football player with the Watertown Red and Black, and a nightclub owner. When he retires in a few years from his job at National Grid, if all goes according to plan, he will add “blues gypsy” to that list.
“Maybe another three or four years, if the good Lord is willing,” he said Sunday. “Then I’m gonna do some blues. I’ll do the blues gypsy thing for awhile.”
Originally from Newport News, Va., Isaiah came to the area in 1981 with the U.S. Army. In 1987, he was sent to Hawaii for a year, returned and has been here ever since.
All told, he spent 11 years in the military — eight on active duty and three in the Reserves. Then he got a job at the power company.
“My time came to get out, and I wasn’t inclined to leave and look for a job when was one was right here,” Isaiah said.
Now after 27 years, he’s a customer service technician — a position where his laid-back demeanor and calming presence come in handy. But the blues are his passion.
“The blues is a feeling you might have deep down in your soul. Maybe you had a bad day or a death in the family. It’s the life we live,” he said.
Isaiah’s only brother, Ervin, died unexpectedly in January. The emotions are still raw. Isaiah doesn’t seem to want to talk about it much, but he does sing about it.
“At night, I begin to cry/I don’t know deep inside/Lord, you took my only brother away from me
“I’d do anything, oh for awhile/just to see my brother smile/yeah, you took my only brother away from me
“I cry myself to sleep/I wake up baby and the Lord spoke to me/Said, ‘I got your brother, son, and he’s OK, he’s OK with me.’”
Isaiah grew up in a military family and was exposed to the blues when he was young. But he didn’t start playing the music until he joined the Army.
To hear him tell it, the blues were a source of comfort and solace when he found himself far away from home.
“It never really hit me until I was in the military and had a lot of time by myself, and I started reflecting on this strange life we all lead,” he said. “The sound of music, just putting a few chords together, takes all the words away from me. I don’t think nothing about anything but happiness when I’m playing. It just brings a joy to me.”
Isaiah lists his influences as Junior Wells and Sonny Boy Williamson. It was his love for the blues and musicians that led him to create Smokin’ Joe’s Blues Cafe, which stood on Public Square from 2006 to 2012.
Isaiah wanted to create a different kind of nightclub, one where, instead of boys chasing after girls and girls chasing after boys, musical instruments were available for use and people could jam together with his soul food providing enough sustenance to keep the sessions going.
Eventually, juggling his full-time job at National Grid and the management of the cafe proved to be too much for him, and he shut down Smokin’ Joe’s. Nautical Turtle Tavern now occupies that same space.
In the 1980s, while he was still in the military, Isaiah played football with the Red and Black, the country’s oldest semiprofessional football team. Watertown Daily Times archives from those years are filled with his exploits as wide receiver and special teams player. He still goes to games sometimes and gets jokingly prodded to put on his gear and head back out onto the field.
His gentle and artistic musical persona would get shelved during games, he said.
“Once you get onto the field, it’s a different person. You transform into someone else,” he said.
Those years of on-field heroics are over now, and Isaiah is focused on the future, when he says he hopes to tour the country playing blues festivals. This summer he will try to get his fix at a festival in Pennsylvania. That will help him hone his skills for the gypsy life.
“Hopefully, I can retire and do what I plan on doing,” he said.
To view a video of Isaiah playing some of his music, visit http://wdt.me/blues
Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the newspaper’s editorial page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In “Out in the Sort,” John McPhee writes about the UPS hub in Louisville, Ky., a place where all manner of goods from lobsters to Louisville Sluggers are loaded onto airplanes and transported across the globe.
The story begins with 14 paragraphs about lobsters, which, taken on their own, may comprise the longest treatise on the crustacean apart from David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster” from the August 2004 issue of Gourmet magazine.
Everything about the lobsters is discussed, including where they come from, where they are headed, how they are cooked and the names of the truck drivers who bring them from Maine to Kentucky. Every description, every word, is enthralling in the hands of McPhee, who still teaches journalism at Princeton University.
Here is a short passage from the story, included in a collection called “Uncommon Carriers,” which I picked up from A Second Look Bookstore on Court Street for a few dollars:
“Long-distance travel will stress a lobster and affect it physically. Among other things, it loses weight and accumulates ammonia. This can happen on a smooth highway, let alone in giddy turbulence at 30,000 feet. If a lobster succumbs, the ammonia will detonate as a shaped olfactory charge. The next time your quarterback is sacked unconscious, put a dead lobster under his nose and he’ll stand up ready for action.”
I was unaware of McPhee’s story when I first discovered there was a veterinarian working at the U.S./Canadian border while reporting on another story in January. After making this discovery, I made arrangements with Dr. Jeffrey J. Huse to spend a few hours with him, learning about his unusual job in an unusual corner of the world.
Subsequent to this, but before I spent a recent Thursday morning with Dr. Huse at his office at the Alexandria Bay Port of Entry, I began reading “Out in the Sort.”
It was some of McPhee’s effortless style I was trying to emulate when I described Dr. Huse in the story I wrote about my visit as exhibiting “a combination of bureaucratic casualness and medical efficiency.”
It isn’t clear to me now what exactly I meant by that phrase, something I was forced to confront when a friend recently questioned the term “bureaucratic casualness” and what it implied.
“It’s how you act when people have to wait on you to stamp forms,” I clumsily replied, via text message.
My friend went on to point out that it was perhaps only my stereotype of “bureaucrats” that was operating in this instance and that I was incorrectly ascribing derogatory qualities to a largely hardworking and industrious group of people performing the tasks required to move life along.
A fair point.
In my defense, I must say that what I meant to convey is some of the intangible qualities of someone’s personality and the effect that being part of a much larger system has on those attributes.
To be clear, Dr. Huse was quite efficient. His manner was informal and affable and, to a certain degree, casual, though he knew his business well. In short, he was good at his job.
He was, however, a part of a system with an authority, however muted, imparted by that system. It’s interesting to observe how people interact under those artificial constrictions. We are all humans, after all, acting out roles assigned to us by the arbitrary whims of a seemingly indifferent casting director.
Reflecting on it now, I would say that “bureaucratic casualness” and its accompanying phrase “medical efficiency” were inartfully constructed and deployed. By pairing the two, I inadvertently made a judgment call — something rather verboten in the realm of journalism — and I regret it.
Accuracy in a story is a function not only of reporting and sourcing but of careful language selection, a process that is increasingly difficult in a rapid-fire world. Legion are the examples of public figures who have to issue an apology or a correction after a reactionary outburst on Twitter or an inflammatory post on Facebook.
Language has always been a tricky thing. It offers much by way of communication but cannot always truly convey the essential elements of an experience or an event, especially when wielded by inexpert or hurried hands.
Life is often like that too — inexact, incomprehensible, indescribable — which is why it is so important to try to understand and transmit what we can understand in a fair, accurate and engaging way.
In the months following the death of legendary Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, I have become inordinately fond of quoting one of his aphorisms — one he cribbed, it should be noted, from his elementary school teacher:
While I have been trying to get away from it — using such a quote too much can amount to an excuse — this seems like an appropriate place to utter it once again.
Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the newspaper’s editorial page. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Bill Main, a former science teacher at Watertown High School, walked into the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building shortly before 1 p.m. Easter Sunday wearing black shoes, black pants and a lavender, short-sleeved, collared shirt. He was carrying a Bible.
Bill will turn 72 later this month. He had driven from his home in Carthage to preach at the jail, which holds services at 1 and 5:30 p.m. every Sunday.
Inside, just beyond a security checkpoint, several male inmates were waiting in a single-file line.
They shuffled into the room, clad in the black-and-white striped clothing you might expect them to be wearing. From another side of the facility, another group of inmates trickled in, some of them wearing green uniforms with “Jefferson County Jail” stenciled on the back in faded lettering.
Some of the inmates recognized Bill; he recognized some of them. Handshakes were exchanged.
There was murmuring, some nods and calls of recognition as the second group made their way into the makeshift worship space. There was a swagger to some of the walks and a resignation to others.
When Bill asked the men to bow their heads in prayer, there was silence.
This being Easter Sunday, and Bill being a Christian, the service began with a gospel reading about the resurrection — the morning Jesus’s followers went to his tomb and found it empty.
There were other readings from other books of the Bible, and there was a message of forgiveness and hope. The service lasted 30 minutes, and the men shuffled out.
A few minutes later, a group of female inmates walked into the room. They talked to each other and joked with the guard who watched over the group. They laughed good-naturedly at some of Bill’s remarks. In 30 minutes, the second service was over.
Bill has been reading the Bible with inmates since he was in his early 20s and the jail was on Coffeen Street in a building that is now an antique store.
He said he felt called to do it after reading a passage in the Bible that talks about caring for those in prison, and he keeps coming back because he’s “never been told not to.”
Those living at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building are an itinerant population — they are inmates sentenced to less than a year in jail or defendants waiting for trial or sentencing.
One gets the impression that some of them attend the Sunday service just to break the monotony of life inside, where there is little to distinguish one day from the next.
Bill said some of what he says gets through, that the inmates he spends time with get something out of the service.
“I don’t think everyone does; I’m not that foolish. But I think some do. I hear them talking when they don’t think I’m listening. It gets through,” he said.
The Rev. Jeffrey E. Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church, has been the chaplain for the jail for more than a decade. He has 10 ministers working on a rotating schedule and runs the Sunday ministry along with several other events during the week. He is in the jail almost every day.
“We want to give them hope that they don’t have to continue in that life of crime,” Pastor Smith said on Monday. “They can change if they really want to.”
Pastor Smith said the group sometimes calls Bill “goody two shoes” because he’s never been in trouble with the law. Most of the other ministers have, and that can help them relate to the inmates.
“It shows people you can change. You don’t have to be what society labels you. That gives them hope. You don’t have to be that stigma, that label,” he said.
There’s an odd passage in the Bible that seems very contemporary. As he is being put to death, Jesus is flanked by two criminals who are also being crucified. One of the criminals mocks Jesus, the other defends him and asks for his forgiveness.
“Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he says.
That passage has particular resonance for Pastor Smith.
“‘Remember me,’ that’s the most important part,” he said. “I’ve been on both sides of it.”
Pastor Smith said he recently spoke with a teenager charged with murder for killing a 62-year-old man and setting his house on fire in early March.
“I knew nobody was going to go down there because of the nature of the crime. He just turned 18,” Pastor Smith said. “I told him, ‘I’m not going to forget you.’”
Easter dawned cold and gray. There was snow on the ground in the morning. The afternoon services completed, Bill Main put a flannel jacket over his lavender shirt and walked out of the jail.
Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the newspaper’s editorial page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Angela Newman is a librarian, but she doesn’t work at a library — not exactly. She works for the North Country Library System, a central repository and headquarters of sorts for the 65 libraries in Jefferson, Lewis, Oswego and St. Lawrence counties.
Housed in a building on outer West Main Street in Watertown, the system provides services that many of the small rural libraries spread throughout the four counties cannot provide themselves. But all that shouldn’t suggest that she doesn’t know about books, or libraries or librarians.
She has a blog, a Twitter account, a brand — “The Frozen Librarian” — and a tagline: “Public service in a very cold climate.”
She is not, however, related to Paul Newman, although the actor once received a pair of her grandfather’s swimming trunks in the mail by mistake, according to family lore.
Originally from Syracuse, Angela has been moving back and forth between the north country and Pennsylvania, where she earned two degrees, for the last few years.
In her latest incarnation as a north country denizen, she has been in Watertown for two years and has great observations about books and life in the north country, which you can read on her blog, “The Frozen Librarian.”
In the age of the Internet, which has upset nearly every media delivery model out there, libraries remain a vibrant part of the community for several reasons, she said.
Libraries take all comers: the casual lunchtime reader, the job seeker, the book-obsessed fanatics, families, children, teenagers, retirees, people who are at the doors before they open and still reading when the lights start to flicker at the end of the day.
They provide the access to the Internet to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it and are one of the few remaining public spaces where people can gather without having to pay for anything, where loitering is legal and actively encouraged.
“That is why libraries are still relevant, because we do still serve the entire public,” Angela said.
Librarians, perhaps more so than some other professionals, have been unfairly subjected to character assassination over the years.
“They get hung up on the shush,” Angela said of the bad rap she and her colleagues sometimes get. “You wear comfortable shoes because you’re on your feet all day. You wear a cardigan because the HVAC system in your building is crazy, and you wear glasses because every librarian should have good optical insurance.”
That perception of librarians, and libraries, is changing in the face of contemporary life, where libraries are no longer silent temples to the hushed worship of musty tomes. There is a quiet buzz to a modern library and certain electronic formats — including ebooks — are embraced (some are available for free).
Angela has favorite “grown up books” including “Home Cooking” by Laurie Colwin. But she is a connoisseur of children’s books and young adult literature, two genres she said could hold their own with any “adult” literature out there.
“The only books that have made me cry are children’s books,” Angela said.
She brought several examples Friday to the offices of the Watertown Daily Times. These included “The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus” by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, “Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation” by Duncan Tonatiuh, “Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands” by Katherine Roy, “Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker” by Patricia Hrudy Powell and illustrated by Christian Robinson, “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Jacqueline Woodson (autographed copy) and “The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Imperial Russia” by Candance Fleming.
Angela did not set out to be a librarian. In fact, she knew when she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in English that she specifically did not want to be a librarian. But a few years later, she changed her mind and said she can’t imagine doing anything else.
“To enter the career, you have to be willing to be constantly learning; you have to be willing to help people,” she said.
And you have to be willing to have reporters ask you about the stereotypes attached to your profession.
Though, to be fair, Angela admitted to an affinity for organizing and arranging shelves.
“I’ve been known to straighten other people’s shelves,” she said.
And that much-vaunted “book smell” we self-proclaimed lovers of paperbacks and hardcovers love to profess? To a hard-core librarian, it apparently tends to disappear over time.
“People always want to know about the book smell,” Angela said. “I don’t notice it. I guess it’s normal to me.”
There are people who have unusual jobs. And then there is Matthew Rush of On-Site Testing, who drives a Ford Focus ST the color of grape Gatorade around the state collecting — how can we say this delicately? — “samples.”
On-Site Testing Services, Brownville, does DNA and drug testing and can administer Breathalyzer tests to see how much alcohol a person has in his or her bloodstream.
From the sound of it, however, what Matthew does primarily is conduct urinalysis testing at business sites as far north as Malone, as far south as Hudson, as far west as Scottsville and as far east as New Lebanon.
Matthew says he loves his job.
He likes meeting people, talking to people and seeing new parts of the state.
He boasts glowing references from some of the companies for which he has worked, including school districts and beverage services.
And the map of his stops looks like a small reproduction of the night sky, with stars and constellations around Watertown, Syracuse, Utica and Albany.
But, he admits, “This is not something you think you’re going to do when you graduate high school.”
Matthew is tall, like, really tall: 6 foot 8 inches tall.
And he is skinny, like 6 foot 8 inches tall and 160 pounds skinny.
He’s 35 years old and lives in Watertown with his wife, Christine, who manages the On-Site office, and two sons.
On-site testing was started in 1997 by Matthew’s mother, who also is named Christine.
The business grew quickly as many businesses and government agencies are required to test their employees, especially drivers, for drug and alcohol use on the job.
If there is an accident, On-Site Testing often has to respond to test the driver involved.
“Sometimes it’s scary the level you’ll see somebody coming to work at,” Matthew said.
“To think that if you weren’t there, doing that test, they’d be out behind the wheel. It’s frightening. Or they’d be working with heavy machinery with their co-workers. Unfortunately, that’s why I have to do what I do,” he said.
For the most part, people understand when they’ve made a mistake or have been engaging in a pattern of making mistakes.
They don’t usually blame the tester, Matthew said.
But there can be confrontations with people who may not want to get tested on a particular day, for different reasons, Matthew said.
But Matthew, who served in the Navy during his early 20s, has a calming presence, a deep baritone that comes from somewhere inside his 6-foot 8-inch frame and a sense of humor, both about himself and about the job he gets hired to perform.
There is an inevitability to the testing — an “It’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it” kind of ethos — and Matthew calls on this idea when he’s working with a recalcitrant subject.
“Hey, I don’t know you, you don’t know me. I’m just here to do my job,” he said. “It’s gonna happen one way or another.”
Jobs, life, biological functions, career paths can be unpredictable.
There are cases of dehydration or “shy bladder” to contend with, bumps in the road and unexpected turns.
But before too long, nature takes over.
“Eventually, you have to pee,” Matthew said.
“Oui, bonjour, bon soir, merci beaucoup, non.”
— The only words I know in French
This winter, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s impossible to go any farther north than Watertown.
With some of the coldest temperatures in the nation, it’s easy to discount Alaska and even the Arctic Circle. All talk, no action, those places.
So you can imagine my surprise when I found out there’s a country above us.
Truth be told, I visited Canada in the eighth grade, so I was well aware of its existence. But it’s been a while.
Since 1999, my Canadian exposure was restricted to Dan Aykroyd comedies and Tim Horton’s coffee.
So it was with great excitement that we undertook a trip to visit Montreal, a charming international city on the St. Lawrence River, or the Fleuve Saint-Laurent.
As you may already know, they speak French in Montreal. I do not. This cultural failure on my part has the fortunate side effect of rendering French-speaking places even more exotic than they already are.
Montreal is a cool place. I would recommend going with the caveat that in two winter days, we didn’t really see all that much.
We went to Old Montreal, which was beautiful, and we visited a couple of religious sites including St. Joseph’s Oratory. But our gallivanting was somewhat hampered by the weather, though it was slightly warmer than it had been the week prior.
We rode the Metro, which was a sublime experience; I have a thing for public transportation. Interestingly, the Square Victoria entrance we used to access the subway looks like a Paris Metro station and apparently was a gift from “the city of lights.”
I also observed that people who live in Montreal tend to bundle up more than we do. I saw plenty of parkas with hoods and fur or faux-fur ruffs.
On the way out of Watertown, I saw a guy in shorts run across the street.
But the most interesting thing I did in Montreal was try absinthe for the first time. Absinthe, if you don’t know, is an anise-flavored spirit popularized in literature and art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It was strongly associated with the bohemian culture of Paris and was rumored to be a favored drink of Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Oscar Wilde.
In the modern era, Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee, rapper Eminem and members of OutKast also have been known to imbibe the “green fairy,” according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Absinthe is purported to cause hallucinations and was banned in most places until 2007. So, naturally, with an absinthe-themed bar in the lobby of our hotel, I endeavored to put this reputation to the test.
Absinthe, which has a high alcohol content, is traditionally served using a specialized ritual.
The green-colored liquor, in this case, Mythe Absinthe from France, is served in a glass along with a large jar of ice water outfitted with spigots. A slotted spoon is placed over the glass with a sugar cube on top. Ice water is then allowed to drip over the sugar cube and into the glass with the absinthe, diluting and sweetening the spirit.
Absinthe tastes a lot like liquorice, and I can’t imagine drinking more than one glass in a sitting. It’s a bittersweet mixture and has a somewhat thick consistency. Our bartender, the very helpful David, said the drink is often used now as an aperitif or digestif, either before or after dinner.
The hallucinogenic qualities of absinthe are in serious doubt, but a few glasses of the European varietals can have a marked effect, David said.
Go to the Czech Republic, drink some absinthe, “Then you gonna trip,” he said.
To view a video of David preparing absinthe, visit: http://wdt.me/absinthe
“In my family, we were taught to be of service. Middle-pew Catholic stuff.”
— “The Night of the Gun” by David Carr
Long before I ever wanted to write about David Carr, I wanted to write like David Carr.
“The onset of adulthood is an organic, creeping process. No one wakes up one day and decides, ‘Lo, on this day I shall forever put away childish things and begin clipping coupons to go to Walmart.’ But in his or her own time, the person who was preoccupied by beer pong and doobie cruises begins to notice that life has other aspects — careers, families, homes — serious matters in need of tending. But being an addict means that you never stipulate to being an adult. You may, as the occasion requires, adopt the trade dress of a grown-up, showing responsibility and gravitas in spurts to get by, but the rest of the time, you do what you want when you want,” Mr. Carr wrote in his 2008 memoir “The Night of the Gun.”
That was David Carr as I knew him from a distance: funny, engaging, erudite, full of pop culture references and deep suspicion about narrative convention. A man with his own voice and viewpoint, unafraid to express himself.
Like a lot of people, I first came to know Mr. Carr courtesy of the 2011 documentary “Page One: Inside the New York Times.” His raspy voice, unusual posture and journalistic bravado caught my attention; his stories about his past as an addict held it; and his hard-won expertise on the frontiers of new media captivated it.
A year or so after first becoming aware of him, I finished reading “The Night of the Gun” in the Best Western hotel room across the street from the Watertown Daily Times. I was interviewing for a job at the time and was scouring the text for advice. I came for the journalism; I stayed for the story.
Still, I confess to being a casual reader of Mr. Carr’s Media Equation column, and his presence fell out of my circle of influence as I tried to learn about the finer points of county governance and keep up with my duties as a daily newspaper reporter.
Thus, it was only recently, upon Mr. Carr’s death — he collapsed at 58 in the New York Times newsroom Thursday night — that I discovered, or perhaps rediscovered, that he was a Roman Catholic.
I’m not exactly sure why this struck me as a significant detail except for the fact that I’m a Catholic, by default rather than design, and am always on the lookout for other Catholics, in particular those who nurse doubt.
Among my books at home are tomes recommended to me by my devout Catholic English teacher and those written by devout atheist Christopher Hitchens.
But I still believe, in spite of myself. I can’t help but believe, it seems.
And in that respect, I shared something with Mr. Carr other than just the pages of his writing.
In 2011, Terri Gross, host of “Fresh Air” on NPR, asked Mr. Carr about the role his faith played in his recovery from addiction.
Mr. Carr talked about the things he did while he was under the influence of alcohol and drugs, some of them difficult to reconcile with the behavior he evinced when he became sober. And he talked about where he found God, which was not in church, but through the kindness of family, friends and total strangers.
He called it a “jerry-rigged” kind of faith, and I can appreciate that.
This is part of what he said:
“So am I, underneath all things, just a really wonderful, giving person, or is there a force greater than myself that is leading me to act in ways that are altruistic and not self-interested and lead to the greater good? And so that’s sort of as far as I’ve gotten with the higher power thing, as is I’m — you know, I’m kind of a pirate, kind of a thug. I mean, I’ve done a bunch of terrible things. And yet, I’m able to, for the most part, be a decent person. How is that? Do I have some inner strength of character? I think not. I think something else is working on me.”
Mr. Carr apparently recommended against ending a story with a quote from someone else and so, out of deference to him, I will say that his approach resonates with me: enough space for the skeptic, enough space for the miraculous.
Here we go. Another essay, column, think piece, op-ed about “American Sniper.” Haven’t we had enough of these?
Let me be clear: I haven’t actually seen the movie. Nor do I intend to see it.
My interest, never high to begin with, has only waned as the controversy has grown. Quite frankly, I’m tired of hearing people talk about it.
But I do want to make a couple of observations and tell one quick story. It won’t take long, I promise.
For those who don’t know or may have been dwelling quite comfortably under the shady side of a particularly mossy rock, “American Sniper” tells the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (one of the deadliest snipers in American military history), his exploits on the battlefield, his struggles on the homefront and his ultimately tragic end. Mr. Kyle was killed by a former Marine suffering from post traumatic stress disorder who he was trying to help. The story is told in careful detail in Nicholas Schmidle’s thoughtful piece for the New Yorker in June 2013.
As of this writing, the movie has taken in more than $250 million at the box office and has become a cultural juggernaut, generating controversy from all quarters and padding the pockets of the director, Clint Eastwood, and the star, Bradley Cooper.
This brings me to my first observation.
Among my friends with whom I served in the military, there seem to be few who have not seen the movie. Their reactions have been mixed.
Some of them have expressed their admiration for Mr. Kyle and his skill and their appreciation for the American lives he is reported to have saved. Others have pointed out that in order to save American lives, he had to take the lives of foreign fighters in a war that stands on politically shaky territory, with consequences that will likely never be fully resolved. Still others have pointed out that the movie gets important details like the uniforms and Arabic dialect wrong and ignores the many complicated aspects of Mr. Kyle’s personality and legacy.
And while I did not serve with him, poet, essayist, professor and Iraq war veteran Brian Turner, author of “My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir,” wrote a piece for vulture.com comparing his own experience in Iraq to the story told by the film.
“I served in Iraq, and ‘American Sniper’ gets it right. But it’s still not the war film we need,” is the title of the essay. Mr. Turner points out that the film fails to consider the world through the eyes of the very people we purportedly went to Iraq to liberate.
“If we saw Iraqis as humans, we’d have to learn how to live in a world far, far more complicated and painful than the difficult, painful one we currently live in. Messy, trauma-filled, beautiful and altogether human; all of us breathing the oxygen of our time,” Mr. Turner writes, beautifully, poignantly and truthfully.
My second observation is this:
As others have also pointed out, it is a mistake to pin the entire narrative for American experience of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan on any one person.
The best pieces of writing or art or journalism that have come out of the last 14 years have focused not on individuals but on units. The book “The Good Soldiers” by David Finkel, the documentary “Restrepo” by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, and, if you like your war stories with a bit of verve and spice, “Generation Kill” by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright dwelled on the unit, the relationships within the unit and with higher command, often a source of tension. They also did a decent job at providing context, of talking about the larger implications of the wars, not only home but also abroad.
They also capture the reality of life in a combat zone, including the boredom and the stupid rules imposed by higher echelons to improve “morale.”
They may be harder to digest than the racy Hollywood treatment and less satifying than the catharsis of the theater, but they are true and that counts for something.
And finally, a story.
Toward the end of my first deployment, which was spent aboard the U.S.S. Iwo Jima (an amphibious assault ship), in the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, the commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit sent a team of scout snipers, along with a few other Marines, to Iraq.
After years of sending MEUs directly to Iraq or Afghanistan, the Marine Corps was working on restoring its traditional role of being an operational force in readiness, positioned throughout the world to respond to emergencies at a moment’s notice. Thus, our deployment had been a mostly calm one until that point, mostly spent training and going on liberty calls at some of the world’s great port cities.
The team of which I was a member sometimes worked closely with the scout snipers, though I had come to the unit later to replace an injured member and I didn’t know any of them well.
Shortly after being sent to Iraq, one of the scout snipers was killed.
Regrettably, I can’t remember his name now, but his picture is placed in the front of our “float book” — a yearbook of sorts for those who deployed with the MEU. It’s buried somewhere on a shelf in my parents’ house.
If I remember correctly, he is pictured standing with his teammates and, on the opposing page, there is a shot of him from that picture, blown up to create a portrait. As a member of a team, they didn’t even really have an individual picture of him.
He was an American sniper, too.
Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering politics for the Watertown Daily Times and a former Marine. He writes a column once a week for the newspaper’s editorial page. He can be reached at email@example.com.
WATERTOWN — Steve Buscemi, star of stage and screen, famous for his bug-eyed gaze and snaggle-tooth smile, was a firefighter.
As far as personal inclinations go, I was always more likely to admire Steve Buscemi the actor and artist than Steve Buscemi the public servant. A lot of kids want to be firefighters; I wasn’t one of them.
But I’ve developed a late obsession with the fire service, perhaps brought on by my now much more regular interaction with its members.
Turns out I’m not alone in my late blooming. Battalion Chief James R. Holland, municipal training officer for the Watertown Fire Department, told me that despite the fact that his father was a firefighter, he never really entertained the notion of a career for himself along those lines.
It wasn’t until he came home from college that his father put a firefighter application in his hands and sent him off to take the test. Now, many years later, Mr. Holland says he couldn’t imagine a better career.
His brother, Jeffrey M. Holland, was one of several firefighters who went through the “Mayday and Firefighter Survival Drill” last week at the city’s Emma Flower Taylor station on Massey Street.
The drill, designed to test your composure by exposing you to stressful situations, is physically and mentally demanding. It’s meant to simulate the experience of being trapped in a burning building.
“It’s definitely challenging,” the younger Mr. Holland said. “The basic principle behind all the training we did that day was basically for you to keep your composure in a stressful environment. ... Your mindset has to be there, or else you’re useless to everybody.”
To get a better sense of what the training actually entailed, I asked Chief Holland to let me run, or, more accurately, crawl through the same drill his brother experienced.
I donned the boots, helmet and the rest of the “turnout gear,” along with an airpack and a radio — about 60 pounds, all told — and proceeded through a series of obstacles with my vision partially obscured by a fogged-out face shield. A ceiling fell on me and I got trapped in a closet, which I had to breach with an ax before climbing up a set of steps only to have the floor collapse.
And though all these obstacles were challenging, the aptly named “freakout box” — a simple yet devious device — was so difficult as to deserve its own paragraph. A long rectangular crate filled with wires that snarl and catch on every piece of gear, the “freakout box” has apparently claimed the composure of many a better man than I.
Even Jeffrey said it was hard.
“It is exhausting,” Mr. Holland said. “You go two inches, you get caught, you go two inches, you get caught, and it’s constantly trying to manipulate your body, manipulate your air pack to get through the wires and the obstacles in the course. Plus, being in that confined space is a little unnerving to some guys ... It tests you to keep calm and work your way out of it, to keep moving.”
I have a sneaking suspicion the trainers took it easy on me while I was making my way through, though the amount of sweat accumulating in my clothes and grunting emanating from my throat greatly increased as I struggled to free myself from the trap.
I’ve done some challenging training in the past, and the “freakout box” ranks right up there. The entire evolution was physically demanding, but not impossible. It was, dare I say, fun.
Granted, I had some advantages: I was not wearing the respirator mask, which restricts breathing and visibility, I could see a little bit through the bottom of the face shield and, as a grizzled veteran pointedly observed after I finished the training, “It wasn’t 500 degrees in there.”
At 61, Captain Mark W. Kellar is the oldest firefighter. “But not the most senior,” he said.
“Most of the fires come at night,” Capt. Kellar said. “I don’t know why, I guess people do things and then go to bed... you can’t see six inches in front of your face. That’s when your training comes in handy, so you don’t panic.”
I have a copy of the application to take the firefighter exam on my desk (they are available through the city of Watertown and must be turned in by Feb. 18, for those who are interested). I probably won’t do anything with it, but it feels good to have it there — another possibility, another life.
But I’m not a firefighter, nor would I ever pretend to be. I spent 15 minutes getting a small taste of what these guys do every day. It was a great experience, but I’m glad I didn’t have to do it for real.
A point driven home by Chief Holland after the training was over.
“It’s vitally important that we do these drills,” he said. “The end goal is that every day, when a guy comes to work, that they go home to their families. That’s our end goal and we work every day to make sure that happens.”
And though Jeffrey Holland said he’s never been trapped in a house or a building during a fire, he said going through the drill made him feel prepared for it, if it ever did happen.
“I wouldn’t wish that on any firefighter,” Jeffrey said about the reality behind the mayday drill. “Do we want to go to a fire, some of us, yeah, but we don’t want anybody to lose their life or property, you know? And we’re ready to go in there and put our lives on the line for somebody we’ve never even met.”
Video of the training can be found at http://wdt.me/fireman-dan.