Saturday, October 29, 2011

Weekend Rambling

This has been a weekend of recovery.  The super fast trip to Russia left my mind and body feeling like it got lost in the Twilight Zone.  All the while the job search has now been ratcheted up to a new level.

By Monday my tooth with a temporary crown was back in pain mode.  It flared up about two weeks before the trip but the removal of the old crown seemed to do the trick.  Thank goodness it didn't start hurting while I was overseas.  Anyway the dentist recommended a root canal before putting in the permanent cap so that meant fun in the chair on Thursday.  The root canal wasn't nearly as painful as I expected, but tonight the temporary crown fell out.  Thank goodness I'm going back to the dentist on Monday.
A glimmer of light came earlier in the day via an email from Riga.  Some much anticipated pictures came from Masha's birthday party.  The celebration actually occurred back in September.  Masha, on the right, turned 5.  The shindig included a clown and plenty of face paint.  I think if I had gotten a clown on my 5th birthday I would have suffered nightmares for weeks.
I mean seriously, wouldn't you run the other way if you were a young child and saw this guy in the room?  But these little girls seemed to enjoy it.  The pictures brought a smile to the Czarina's face and that's what really matters after all.

By the way, did I mention that I can't wait to see Harold and Kumar's 3D Christmas?  Is that wrong?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What I've Learned in the Last Week

I've learned that flying to Russia and back in less than a week isn't an easy thing to do.  Technically I left the house at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday and returned on Friday night at 10:15 p.m.  That's about 13,000 miles of air travel or 44 hours of fun time in less than a week.

I've learned that I don't want to make another trip to Russia without the Czarina.  As we looked through the pictures and the videos that I took during my whirlwind adventure I could sense her sadness at not getting to visit a city she desperately wants to see again.  The Czarina was last in Leningrad more than two decades ago.

I've learned that despite the fact that I'm not some sterling academic with a PhD or some world renowned journalist I can deliver a clear analysis of what works and what's important when it comes to practicing the profession.  The last two trips put me before students, TV journalists from small cities in Russia and one of the up and coming local TV operations in St. Petersburg.  This time was different.

This time I had to deliver to a room full of academics, top journalists from St. Petersburg and even a couple of journalists who had flown all the way from Kazakhstan just to hear what I had to say about the state of local TV news in America, the impact of social media on it, and the growing use of multimedia journalists.  I won't lie.  I was intimidated and nervous.  Thank God I had a practice run on Monday before a group of students before I went before the pros on Tuesday.  Each day I had to stand and deliver for six hours.  The journalists were happy, the academics were happy, and the people who sponsored the event were happy.  I even got a gift from the Kazaks, two nice fellows who didn't speak a word of English.
I've learned how lucky I am to meet people like Antonia, the lovely young woman who you see at the beginning of this video.  Her mother Vera works for the consulate and is responsible for bringing me to St. Petersburg.  Antonia has worked as my interpreter for the first and third trip.  I was showing the group how my flip camera worked as part of my demonstration.  As you can see I am not the steadiest of shooters but nevertheless, the gathering enjoyed my efforts at playing photographer.
I've learned that students are becoming more precocious.  I had three students at the two different colleges approach me about getting internships in the United States.  Too bad I can't get a commission for obtaining American internships for Russian journalists.

I've learned that I've barely touched on the beautiful spots that one needs to visit in St. Petersburg.  I still haven't made it to Peterhof with its amazing fountains and gardens.  This list of museums, churches and palaces worth visiting could fill a week.  I need to make the trip when the work load isn't quite so daunting.

I've learned that Russians have the same dreams and aspirations as Americans.  They want a government that's responsive to their needs.  They want to be able to practice their profession unfettered by censorship or threats.  They want to make a fair wage for doing a good day's work.  I go list the things that make us different, but Russians are a lot more like Americans than I would have ever dared dream.  

Saturday, October 22, 2011

French Fried

I think it was the four hours I spent lounging around the airport in Paris that put did me in  I got all of about four hours sleep before I left St. Petersburg for Florida.  I tried to get a full eight but I woke up at about 2:30 a.m. and rested fitfully until 4:15 a.m. when I got up and showered.  I then enjoyed my first Skype session with the Czarina since the previous Sunday and headed downstairs and to my awaiting taxi.

The streets of St. Petersburg where deserted at that hour.  I arrived at the airport at 5:30 a.m. and faced the prospect of a two hour wait in an airport with all the charm of a gulag.  A group of Americans fresh off two weeks of cruising through Russia were there waiting for the Air France flight that would take us to Paris.  They were all in the 70 plus crowd and were thrilled with what they had experienced.

7:30 came and we flew out of St. Petersburg and began our trip to France when "it" happened.  "It" was the single worse piece of turbulence I have ever experienced.  I really thought it was over.  About 20 minutes into our flight the plane took a sudden jolt.  I opened my eyes and felt the Airbus beginning to sharply rise and then suddenly the jet shuddered again and began a quick roll to the right and a sudden descent.  I was seated in an exit row and glance out the window.  The wing was pointed straight down to the ground and it felt as the the aircraft was going to do a complete flip.

I sensed at that point the pilots finally wrested control of the jet and gently stopped the roll and slowly brought the plane level as we still veered down toward the earth.  The woman who was sitting in my row on the aisle seat looked at me in horror.  I started saying my prayers and then realized the plane had stopped descending.  I've experienced plenty of roller coaster rides through big storms but never have experienced anything like this.  The pilots never said a word.  The crew only asked us to make sure our seat belts were fastened after the incident ended.  It lasted all of about 15 to 20 seconds.

My seat mate who has probably flown more miles than I can imagine said she had never experienced anything like it.  We were both pretty shaken as were the other passengers, mostly Russians.  When we landed two and a half hours later in Paris there was scattered applause among the passengers.

Paris was a nightmare.  The line through security was monstrous.  It took forever to get through but then I had four hours plus to wait for my flight.  Had it gone quicker I might have been able to catch an earlier flight back through Atlanta but alas it wasn't in the cards.  I went up to the waiting area for our flight and finally fell to sleep for about half an hour until a baby started wailing.  That's when I realized they had changed our gate.  I went there looking forward to 90 more minutes of wait and asked the Delta employee if I could get my seat moved up closer to the front of the plane.  I was seated near the rear and much to my delight she moved me out of the middle row to a window seat closer to the front.

I then discovered at the front of the terminal an area where reclining couches were situated in the sun and cursed myself for not checking this spot sooner.  I went and laid down and waited for my 1:35 departure.  Much to my displeasure I couldn't fall back to sleep.

The rest of the journey home was much less exciting.  The plane was packed.  A young couple was flying with a howling newborn and they were seated near the rear of the plane right where my earlier seat assignment had been.  Where I was sitting I could barely hear the constant crying.  I don't know why people insist on taking babies on flights like this.  I could only imagine the torture for those sitting back there.

I managed to watch 3 movies during the 9 hour excursion.  My seatmate was a young woman just getting out of the Navy.  She was traveling to Georgia and we enjoyed some good conversation but neither one of us got much if any sleep.  Once on the ground in Atlanta I hustled through customs and arrived at my gate where a massive crowd was hoping to get aboard my flight.  Delta even switched to a larger aircraft because they had overbooked.  I landed in Fort Myers at 9:35 p.m. which technically would be 5:35 a.m. St. Petersburg time.  I was thus on the back end of 25 hours with less than two hours of sleep.

I'm fried, but the bags are unpacked and we've gone through all of the goodies, photos and videos I shot.  I don't know when or if I will ever return to St. Petersburg but if I ever do I know it won't be without the Czarina.  And I know I'm not doing it on such a compressed schedule.  It's going to take another 12 hours of sleep to get somewhere back to normal.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Time to Pack

I've got about 12 hours left in St. Petersburg.  The time has flown by.  I spent the morning speaking with a Russian journalist about American traffic laws.  The Russians are pretty serious about minor traffic violations and wondered why Americans don't get into more trouble for pulling illegal U turns.  I gave it my best try and the reporter seemed happy.

I then returned to the college in the heart of the city where I made my first visit more than three years ago.  I sat in front of about three dozen fresh faced Russian students.  It was wonderful to see more boys among the group of mostly female journalists in training.  After I gave them a ten minute sermon about why they are in the midst of a wonderful revolution in which a new form of journalism is being born.  I told them the Internet is taking over and that they needed the skills of a print and television reporter along with a lot of technical ability to survive.

The students then delivered more than 90 minutes of non-stop questions.  They wanted to know all about American journalism.  I was particularly impressed with one young man who asked me what I thought about the journalism practiced by Hunter Thompson.  After the session he proudly came up to me and exclaimed that he wanted to be a Gonzo Journalist.  I couldn't have been more pleased.

The real fun started after the class.  Vera, my Russian friend who works for the U.S. Consulate, and her lovely daughter Toni, who acts as my interpreter, were driving me back to the center part of the city so I could do a little sightseeing.  Traffic is beyond chaotic in old part of St. Petersburg.  Poor Toni got caught between traffic signals right in front of a police officer.  The officer calmly waived her over and began to ask her for every piece of paperwork imaginable.  I felt horrible.  Vera looked at me smiled and said, "this will take some time, you might as well get out and walk."  So I took this farewell snapshot, Toni in her red Ford Fusion with the police officer patiently waiting for her to find the right papers.  The cop didn't give me a second thought. 
Directly across the street from where we were stopped sits the Hermitage.  It was about 3 p.m. in the afternoon and I had a tough choice to make.  Do I tour the Hermitage again or do I check out another site that I wanted to see plus pick up some souvenirs. 

I opted for the Church of the Spilled Blood.  It was an inexpensive option and it was a moving experience.  The church is built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated.  It's domes are one of the most famous sites in the city.  Inside it's just as spectacular.  While the church is not as massive as St. Isaac's Cathedral, the beauty inside is something else.  The marble and the Icons are very impressive. 
Spot where Czar was murdered

Once I had spent a half hour or so inside I headed outside to the tourist market which sits just across the street.  I spent another half hour there finding the right items.  There was a painting I wanted to buy.  It was a unique collage of the city skyline but it was priced just beyond what I wanted to pay.  My guess is that it would have been worth it and it is probably a work that will only grow in value.

I then made the two mile hike back to my hotel and stopped for a quick meal along the way.  The weather while overcast and cool wasn't as biting as the previous day.  I watched tourists along the Neva take delight in a trained bear.  I'll post many of my pictures on Facebook.  But I've got to pack now and get some sleep.  5 a.m. will come way too soon.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hello Russian Winter

Tuesday's sunshine was swept away by an arctic blast on Wednesday as snow flurries accompanied my walk to the seminar which I took part in along the Neva River.  The snow really got going once I was inside and I was too busy to grab my camera to take a snapshot.  One thing Russians believe in is decent heating so despite my Florida blood the cold temperatures really weren't a bother.

I somehow managed to survive the second day of my lectures in one piece.  I was worried today because I discussed a topic that I really wasn't qualified to discuss.  They wanted to know why Americans are so loathe to follow world news.  I delivered my gut instincts about the lack of international news on American television.  First, we are an isolated country, protected by two oceans and with two neighboring countries with stable governments.  Second,  Americans are self-absorbed.  They care about their neighbors and their community but our interests don't go much farther than that.  Most Americans are worried about making their house and car payments and making sure they can feed their families.

Later in the day I was joined by some other Russian journalists who discussed the current state of affairs in their country.  The government has become more and more heavy handed in its censorship of the media.  And much to my relief, Andrei Radin, the gentleman on the right, backed up my assertions about Americans lack of interest in world affairs.  I've met Andrei in my two previous trips to St. Petersburg.  He is one of the nation's top broadcast journalists, certainly on a level as Ted Koppel or maybe a younger version of Bob Schieffer.  Andrei's love of journalism led him to a difficult decision to leave  this job running the newsroom of one of St. Petersburg's fast rising local news channels.

Andrei is leading the first effort in St. Petersburg to create an Internet television news operation.  I believe this is the website.  What I love about him is his brutal honesty.  He's disgusting by the dumbing down of Russian media.  Andrei and his friend sitting in the middle are both heart-broken by the crassness that permeates much of Russian television.   He wants to create a place where intelligent and critical reporting can thrive.  Andrei's the first to admit that he has no idea where this bold experiment will go and whether or not it will survive.  But I agree with Andrei on this one thing, Internet will kill the television business much as it is doing newspapers.  It only makes economic sense.  Why pay for an expensive transmitter and tower when you go accomplish the same thing on the web.  Once the technical issues are overcome in the next decade or so Internet television will rule all media.

It was an honor to be sitting at the same table as three important figures in St. Petersburg.  I sometimes feel inadequate when it comes to the intellectual prowess that these men and women bring to our profession but I make up for it with my passion and for my ability to draw from my gut instincts about basic human wants and desires when it comes to journalism.

Tomorrow I wrap up my visit to a local television and film college, my favorite stop in this wonderful city.  My host has promised me that I will have a chance to do a little sight seeing in the afternoon.  Today confirmed something in my heart in light of all of my professional trials and travails of the last six months.  I am good at what I do.  I understand what I do.  Unfortunately I don't have the ruthless nature that most TV news operations mandate of their managers in this day and age.

I say this because today I learned that one of my all-time favorite co-workers was essentially forced out of her job at KVLY TV.  Robin Huebner was quite simply one of the best broadcast journalists I ever worked with.  She was North Dakota television news.  Smart, compassionate, insightful, a leader, and just a wonderful person to work with.  KVLY sent her packing, the latest in a dozen or so high profile departures in the last year or so from KVLY.  It's another instance of a media company with absolutely no ties to the community it is licensed to serve completely ignoring its customers.  Hoak Media represents the egregious corporate mentality that is destroying broadcasting.  They're not alone.  Even once great corporate companies that once espoused the very best that journalism had to offer, Gannett to name one, has fallen victim to this and is charting its own path to irrelevancy.

Good luck Robin, you deserve the very best, I am so thankful that I had a chance to work with you, Charley, Tom, Daron, Dave, Julie, Mick, Jerimiah, Pam, Petey, Sean, Lynn, Doug, Dave Erickson, Dan, Andrea, Tracy, Carol, Heather, Sarah and Roxana in one of the best teams I've ever had the privilege to work with.  Fargo deserves better.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Big Show

Slowly but surely they filed in.  Russian journalists and academics who had come from across the country to listen to what I had to say about American television news.  I didn't paint a pretty picture.  Let's face it, the economy has really hurt the business.  No, television isn't dying like newspapers but anyone working in TV knows to get by these days you have to learn to do more with less.

The message rang true with my Russian colleagues.  I could tell that the American way of doing things is beginning to infiltrate their lives.  They see that the practices being introduced in American news, MMJ's and the like will one day come to their country.  These professionals want to know how to adapt and survive. 

It was a long day.  I spent about six hours talking and answering questions.  It's a draining experience.  It makes me appreciate the hard work American teachers put in every day dealing with a bunch of crazy kids.  I don't know how they find the energy to do it.

I finally got away after the lecture to enjoy a decent meal at a decent restaurant.  This is the view a mere two blocks from my hotel room and about two blocks from the restaurant.  This city is one picture postcard after another.  The setting sun glistened across the city.  I took more pictures, a few which I will post to Facebook later.  St. Petersburg never ceases to amaze.

I ended my day holding forth with a Russian Facebook friend of mine, Anastasia Tulchinskaya and two of her work colleagues from Channel 5.  It was a more intimate version of the seminar that I had conducted earlier in the day.  I can't help but admire the honest desire on the part of Russian journalists to learn all they can about the news business.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Silence of the Lambs

It took 12 hours of sleeping but I left the jet lag behind ready for business in St. Petersburg.  Anyone that knows me at all knows that I am a picky eater.  The free breakfast at my hotel offered some culinary challenges.  I'm not much on carrot juice or eggs or the weird hash that was waiting me.  But I did manage something resembling scrambled eggs, some toast and believe or not cucumbers.  It was the first real food I had enjoyed in 24 hours.

Then it was off to St. Petersburg State which is a very prestigious institution of higher education in Russian.  This lecture had not been included on my original list so the State Department was getting a freebee out of me.  I was told the class understood English so no translator would be needed.  That left me a little worried that I would be short on material because having to translate everything helps fill the time.

I stumbled my way through 45 minutes talking about why Americans aren't big consumers of international news and the students stared back blankly.  I tried getting them to ask questions and I was met mostly by silence until finally a couple of students, both Germans started asking very good and pointed questions.  I made it through the first 90 minutes wondering what in the heck I would do for the last 90.

I went with the tried and true and showed them videos of some very good television stories.  That finally got the questions coming.  I think they were mostly stunned by the quick, tight shots and the frequent use of natural sound.  Most Russian television news is completely lacking in pace and energy.  The storytelling is lethargic.

My host Vera Savko later explained to me that Russian students are usually reluctant to ask questions in class.  These two were Germans who want to come to tomorrow's lectures.  I guess they are gluttons for punishment.  Russian students apparently like to wait until after class and ask any questions in private, which did happen.  It was three hours of what I thought felt like sheer boredom but Vera and the school's dean liked it in fact the dean asked that I come back on Thursday.  Fortunately I am going to another school that I have been before and where the professor there always makes me feel like a superstar.

I declined a drive from Vera and her driver back to the hotel and took the one mile or so walk back to my hotel.  Vera's directions really didn't help a lot but as soon as I got across the river I began to recognize landmarks and found my way back to the hotel with nary a problem.  After I refreshed myself I went on another long walk, about two miles, to The Hermitage.  It was too late in the afternoon to bother paying to tour the place but it felt good to see this beautiful city again.
Right now I'm watching some weird Russian MTV show that is a combination of the Dating Game and stripping.  I'm not sure what to think.  Tomorrow I'm going to make it over to one of the tourists markets and go through one of the historic churches.  I'm just glad I don't feel completely crapped out from the lack of sleep.  Besides, I just have three more days to enjoy this wonderful adventure.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Major Road Trip that is Flying from Fort Myers

The major road trip that is flying from Fort Myers, Florida to St. Petersburg Russia, got off to a spectacular on Saturday.  Our 12:45 p.m. flight carried me and a couple of hundred other souls to the city of Cincinnati where the airport bars close at 5 p.m. on Saturday.

Our scheduled departure for 5:50 seemed in doubt when none of the pilots were on hand for general boarding at 5:05. I spent an hour so with a young man headed to Vegas and working over his iPAD like a dog with a bone.  Man this those things must be fun.

The Pilots stated strolling in about 15 minutes late and boarding began.  It all made me a little nervous because I had 90 minutes to run the gauntlet this customs and made it on to my next flight.

The trip from Cincinnati to Paris was uneventful.  The six foot three inch Frenchman jammed in our middle for a better spot where he could stretch out.  That left an FAA inspector and me with plenty of room for the seven hour plus the food was decent. This plane didn't have the individual monitors where you get to pick and choose what you want, but I degree.  The highlight of the entertainment evening was X-Men First Class and it went pretty much downhill from there.  The      problems involved a epic fat guy snorer and an old Chinese man who spoke in a very loud voice at very early hour. 

Coming off the flight that arrived on time I was worried about my checked bag.  I was reassured twice over my bag would make.  The Paris Charles DeGaulle Airports had some interesting smells which I won't dwell but I do want to say that the customs, security folks, and gate agents were all super nice and super helpful an made this American feel good about his trip.

Loading the plane for St. Petersburg was something of an adventure. It was first come first serve so it triggered a mild case of pandemonium which actually led a rather quick loading of the aircraft.  The Air France crew had to keep tabs on the rather rowdy Russian passengers who don't like following rules.  They served an interesting breakfast, cold chicken, which down right decent.  The gentleman next to me drank red wine with his, the flight attendants seemed shock at my lack of interest in alcohol.

The attendents fill out our visa paperwork on the plane which saved a major hazzle for customs.  I flew through there in record time and my bag rolled out on the carousel not five minutes later and my driver Sergey and I renewed our acquaintance for began in 2008.  Gone was the Amercan Ford beater that he had been driving for a much nicer Sonota.  I was toast so the sites of the city whiz but one can't stop to help think about the massive parks between the airport and downtown that hold the mass graves of the siege of the city of Leningrad in World War II.

They've highjacked my day off, Monday, and I was talk to a group of University students.  I'm going to try to be entertaining as possible.  You know me, I can spin yarns about newsroom activities all day.  Time for some more sleep so I'm human in the morning.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Monsoon City

The beautiful thing about Florida weather is that it rarely rains all day.  You can almost always count on an appearance from the sun.  But as fate would have it the rains came and never dissipated this weekend in Orlando.  We made the trip to catch up with Mike and Katherine Bloemker.  Mike brought his cross country teams from Johnson County Community College hoping his squads could catch some good weather and run some fast times.

Mother nature did not cooperate.  First I want to take a well-deserved shot at Disney.  They charged $14.50 to get into the venue to watch the meet.  I could see charging 5 dollars to get into the meet but this kind of price gouging is embarrassing.  When we arrived at 7 a.m. it was overcast with a hint of rain.  By the time the gun sounded at 7:45 a.m. for the men's race a steady downpour was underway.  At times it rained buckets.  The course quickly turned to slop.

Mike's men did a remarkable job considering the conditions and finished 3rd in the team race.  Poor Mike had to scramble around in the nasty conditions while the Czarina and I hid out in some nearby stands.  By the time the women's race got going the rain started to ease up as the course got muddier and muddier.  JCCC's women executed some nice pack running and beat their main junior college competitors.

The drier conditions allowed us to get a good look at the finish.  The wet conditions slowed down the men's and women's winner by a good minute at least.  But the main purpose was to catch up with Mike, Katherine, and their bruising son Griffin.  The precocious 30-month-old was in his element, rain and all.  He enjoyed running like a wild child around the Disney complex.  It's a wonder Mike and Katherine can keep up with him.

Within 30 minutes of the women's race ending the skies opened up again and it poured non-stop.  That put a crimp in our plans to check out Sea World and it shortened our shopping expedition to Downtown Disney and a nearby outlet mall.  We were relieved to return to Fort Myers on Sunday where the sun was putting in an appearance.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Where Has the Year Gone

The blog has been ignored with a mountain of writing and preparation.  I've always done okay with Power Point but the whole video thing has been a pain in the backside.  The workload kept me from writing about the year that has passed since the 2010 St. George Marathon.  Last year the Czarina and I ventured to Utah to join my friend Craig Davidson as he ran his 200th marathon.

St. George was my 20th marathon and I'm guessing my last.  I detailed the race last year in my blog.  Breaking four hours isn't my idea of running a good marathon but one never knows.

I've only run one race since then participating in a team marathon relay last December running an 8 mile leg in Sacramento's California International Marathon.  Without race goals to motivate me my training really went slack after St. George.  I really didn't get back into the swing of running more than 20 miles a week until April of this year.

Returning to Fort Myers certainly helped in terms of running almost everyday.  But I haven't done anything fast and not a single run of more than 8 miles.  With the soreness in my right hip speed and mileage just don't seem very inviting right now.  Regardless, I'm looking forward to doing some fall racing even if it means barely running under 8 minute mile pace.

The joy of running remains with me.  The weather finally turned in the last week and the humidity suddenly vanished making it even more inviting to lace up the shoes.  I'm sure Craig would have liked to have had some of our weather last weekend when he ran St. George completing his 207th marathon.  It was another hot year at St. George which is unusual.  Craig made it to the finish line in 4:27 and change.  That's more than a half hour slower than last year's run.  Needless to say, there are things about getting older that stink!