Dre's Ramblings Dre's Ramblings = Home

Fifteen Years Later…

July 29th, 2020 · No Comments

This is a good representation of how I feel internally most days after fifteen years, it gets the photo of Pete in my current home office in Philadelphia out of the way early. Photo: Andre Natta.

I thought about using data for this post. Lots of it. After all, it’s something that hasn’t changed in fifteen years: most of my work still revolves around the use of data.

I spend most of my days trying to figure out how we slow things down so we get a clearer picture. I still think we can enable the data to help tell the story. Yet, it’s not about the data in this case. Fifteen years can’t be summed up with numbers and lines. It’s about the memories and lessons; I just haven’t felt like sharing them as often in recent years.

That said, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I’m attempting to shape random thoughts from the last fifteen years into something coherent after a long, hot day. There’s also a baseball game on in the background (it’s Tuesday evening as I write this), though I’m still not sure how I feel about them taking place right now.

(Maybe it’s another post?)

What’s different? When I started this, I didn’t care what people thought about what I wrote. I still don’t if I’m honest. I don’t speak only for myself anymore though. I never did.

I’m sitting in an apartment on the edge of DuBois’s Philadelphia, in Graduate Hospital. It’s not Birmingham (or the South), and it seems inevitable I’ll find my way back down there again at some point.

The hope is to still have an impact on communities, enabling them to determine what they want. It’s also important to help them amplify their voices so others might hear them. It’s not that they’re voiceless; it’s that many choose not to hear from them (and it shows).

Maps of Savannah and Birmingham on the walls of my living room still keep me somewhat focused on the task at hand. (I wonder when and if I’ll ever get ones of Stanford, Palo Alto, and Philadelphia to add to my collection?) Those two charts provide the framework of a story. They also remind me there are journeys still left to make and places to explore.

I’ve been able to do a bunch of things these past fifteen years. I grew up with a stutter yet I’ve done talks and led workshops across the country. (The sessions I got to do for the National Trust at Tuskegee still mean so much on the list of things accomplished.) I launched a regional conference (organizing three of them). I even ran my own news site for a decade and penned multiple columns elsewhere. (Luckily, I can convert those old B-Metro columns to PDFs in the near future too so they’re available.)

Looking back at the Pacific Coast Highway along the California coast in 2018. Photo: Andre Natta.
Looking back at the Pacific Coast Highway along the California coast in 2018. Photo: Andre Natta.

I lived in California after thinking I’d only ever be out to the West Coast once. I drove portions of the Pacific Coast Highway several times (and rode Amtrak’s Coast Starlight). The places in-between have been many, beautiful, and memorable. I’ve met some of the most generous people ever during those trips and experiences. I learned how important it was to treat people how you wanted to be treated. Sometimes it doesn’t matter though and they’ll do as they wish, and it hurts. Luckily, I’ve met more kind people to mitigate those bad experiences.

Did I learn to truly slow down since 2005? I think so, but I need a reminder every once in a while of why it’s necessary. I need to remember why everything doesn’t need to happen now. The perfectionist in me is aware of the need for a new look for this website. I like to put too much pressure on myself in work and life as well. A new about me page is also required. There soon may even be a weekend of replacing images once housed on Flickr’s servers with my own. I have a pile of nearly completed notepads full of quotes, thoughts, and ideas waiting to be shared. They’ve waited for a couple of years as I made my return to the Northeast. I’m hopeful I’ll enjoy the journey those words will take me on.

I want to actually talk with people and not simply debate what they think I wrote. I want the community I sought when I first started this blog on Blogger. It’s different now, with the ease of publishing an opinion, but I’m hoping it not impossible. I found so many people and continue to be grateful for those who reach out beyond the like button. (I’m guilty of that habit myself now but hope to work my way out of it soon.) It’s about what I value in the end, and I value people and the ability to find space in the pauses in life.

Here’s to what happens next. Thanks to those willing to take this ride with me along the way. Hopefully, we’ve got a few more things to explore.

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Networks as Family and Community

November 24th, 2019 · No Comments

Yours truly during a talk at SRCCON:LEAD at the Fleisher Art Memorial on November 19, 2019. Photo by Lexi Belculfine (via Instagram)

I was asked to give a talk about networks, both known and unknown, as part of SRCCON:LEAD, a “mini-conference” organized by OpenNews on November 19-20, 2019. Below is the text I prepared for the talk. There’s also a live transcript of what I actually said as the text below was used as a guide. 

I have no idea what I’m doing up here today.

Well, that’s not completely true. I took a phone call from Ryan Pitts while I was sitting on the Pennsylvanian heading toward New York City less than two weeks before starting this new job of mine at Resolve Philadelphia and my mind wasn’t exactly focused on what he was asking me when I said, “Yes.”

It was focused on taking care of my mother for the weekend up in the Bronx. I was trying to get myself prepared for the one-liners the former neonatal intensive care nurse was going to give me while there.

We serve others first and foremost when we lead, providing an example of how to be human above the need to be superior. This is what I find myself thinking when I start to ponder what it means to be in a position of influence, a position where I can spark change – and journalism is in need of change.

For me, it means remembering “I didn’t get here on my own and I can’t stay here on my own.”

I think about my dad in these instances. I don’t talk to my dad very often nowadays, but I remember what it was like growing up and seeing how he was with his friends and family. They served as a backbone, a support network. It didn’t matter a lot growing up, but they were so representative of what I saw as possible as a leader, even though they didn’t wear their titles on their sleeves.

Despite finding myself looking for comfort and confidence in a position, I’ve also found myself unconsciously looking for those things elsewhere as I’ve moved through life. It’s resulted in both personal and professional communities where I’ve been given space to learn how to lead by remembering it’s about how you do.

We spend a lot of time trying to figure things out on our own instead of getting a better understanding of what it takes to lead. It’s not popular to ask for help, but it’s more important to recognize you’re not supposed to be doing this on your own. It’s OK to lean on other people and take in lessons.

It means figuring out what you bring to the table and finding the confidence to lean into those experiences, even when others will want to put you in a place where they see fit. It means leaning into those countless Wednesday evenings when a band of digital journalists continued to produce a weekly miracle to serve their industry.

It means being vulnerable – something we often don’t like to talk about in leadership. One of the most powerful phrases a leader can say is, “I don’t know.” It’s hard to find a space where you can say those words and not feel judged.

There is never a time where you can’t ask for help, especially if you’ve let yourself get to know people and vice versa. The members of my various cohorts are an extended family. It is not always the picture of perfection, but it is a space from which you can find strength and confidence to tackle the challenges ahead, both personal and professional.

What happens when I don’t remember these life lessons in community?

November 5, 2015.

It wasn’t the most debilitating of my string of chest pains, they just happened to be the ones occurring just before I was scheduled to work my first public event for WBHM manning their digital accounts. I remember my news director Rachel Lindley seeing me slumped over on a table, putting me into a chair with wheels, rolling me through the halls of WorkPlay past event attendees, the end of happy hour, and concertgoers to a waiting car where my girlfriend was told I was going to the emergency room, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Looking back, I now know why I was experiencing anxiety attacks. I’d spent nearly two hours a few weeks earlier having an extended and exhausting conversation with representatives at Advance Digital’s Alabama Media Group in my role as president of the Birmingham Association of Black Journalists after they’d let their last Black beat reporter go in their latest round of layoffs. Yet another occurred on the plane as I flew to Austin for a conference thinking about a trademark case that didn’t involve me, but froze any opportunity to liquidate the t-shirts associated with my hyperlocal site, The Terminal, knowing I’d had a rough time of things in recent month. I didn’t know who to turn toward for help.

I pushed out a tweet… and then I pushed out a photo on Instagram. Then, I got a message from Kim Bui. We spent the better part of the next two hours talking via text as she attempted to help me stay calm before they told me it was one of the worst cases of anxiety they’d seen in some time.

These relationships cannot be only transactional or extractive. I’ve had conversations with those who are focused on why journalism’s role is to preserve democracy, making it a case of an “us versus them” battle. The greater battle is remembering the importance of our role in providing an infrastructure for society and communities to function. If we remember our role in leading – in whatever way it manifests itself in our field – is to help direct and support others instead of dictating from on high and isolating. May we not become so wedded to performing for others that we forget the reason and purpose behind what we do in the first place.

If you can lean into the networks and communities you’re a part of to remember what it means to lead, it might you remember how to be more empathetic – both inside and outside of the newsroom. I’d argue those students at Northwestern taught us a lot about what we should be considering and not just what is “supposed to happen.”

It also becomes easier to live out some words a friend of mine from college wrote a few years ago:

So when the world knocks at your front door
Clutch the knob tightly and open on up
And run forward and far into its widespread, greeting arms
With your hands outstretched before you
Fingertips trembling, though they may be.

What will you let yourself learn from your networks? Your communities? It’s more important than ever for us to try.

Thank you.

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Time flies… Embracing the challenge of the last twelve months

November 7th, 2016 · No Comments

The first photo I took laying in the emergency room on November 5, 2015, was a textbook example of how not to be photogenic. I really didn’t care how I looked, but it was suggested I try to show some hope. The result was a photo that was only seen on Instagram. I didn’t have a lot of hope when I took it, but it looked good.

If I have to wait, I can at least pretend to smile for a second…

A photo posted by Andre Natta (@acnatta) on

I spent a significant portion of that evening exchanging messages with the husband of one of my best friends from college. He probably did more to help calm me down that evening than he realized. I’d been wheeled out of a room via an office chair moments before a public meeting was set to begin and told to go to the emergency room.

I’d just spent the last year doing everything I was supposed to do. I’d taken up yoga; returned to mindfulness meditation; and ate as healthy as one can when living in the midst of central Alabama and all the barbecue and hot dog options contained within. I’d just played my first baseball game in more than a decade at the oldest ballpark in America. I was doing contract work with meaning.

I’d also found myself unable to breathe while doing 60 m.p.h. on Red Mountain Expressway shortly after my birthday and just before a trip to Austin, TX (which I still need to write about) seemed to delay the inevitable hospital trip. Luckily, Betsy was in the car with me when I wasn’t able to maintain control of the car.

I learned while lying in that emergency room why there were nights I couldn’t move my arms and legs in bed (or open my mouth).

I’d learned I’d suffered several severe panic and anxiety attacks over a two-month period. Based on what the doctors would tell me in the coming months, I’d in fact suffered through them for years. At one point I was prescribed muscle relaxers that wore off within 20 minutes of taking effect. As a result, I couldn’t walk a city block without chest pains.

I didn’t tell anybody. It’s not like I wasn’t aware of the cause, but it wasn’t enough to just know. This is probably going to be the first time many people find out what happened and why I disappeared for a while. I didn’t think anybody would care. When I did tell some folks early on, they kind of said, “Well…” I stopped telling people what happened for a while.

I didn’t want to go out. Work was important, but I went from being able to juggle several things at once to just lying frozen on the couch.

It’s been a long, slow road back. I still don’t like to go out most evenings. I justify flying with knowing it’s an opportunity to escape the routine and check in with people I haven’t seen in a while.

I learned it’s not something we talk about in journalism or in general, the anxiety and the stress, but it’s needed as we move forward. People talk about pushing through and just doing. It’s tough to do without some feedback. This time, I learned it was time to find my tribe — and to accept it may be elsewhere. The resulting adventures and conversations have helped me function closer to normal than I have for some time. (The next journey begins Wednesday.) Pushing the reset button helped me remember the difference between acquaintances and friends. I need friends to survive, so recognizing and honoring the difference is important.

Some of those friends can only be contacted digitally, and I’m grateful for those connections. I recognize some will never understand how and why digital helps in this regard. This is one of those platforms I use to reach out and connect, and it’s one I hope to not neglect as much moving forward. We’ll see what happens, though. I hope haven’t monkeyed with my swing too much over the years.

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Why the Cubs? 1989, the Yankees, & the Shawon-o-Meter

October 30th, 2016 · No Comments

The Chicago Cubs vs. the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field on September 16, 2012.

The Chicago Cubs vs. the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field on September 16, 2012.

When Game 5 of the 2016 World Series begins on Sunday evening, this Yankees fan will be rooting for the Chicago Cubs to win one for the Wrigley faithful. It’s not as far-fetched as it seems either.

The days before cable in the Bronx

A perk of growing up on the top floor of a building atop the highest naturally-occurring point in New York City was the view. I tell people I never knew what the official Yankees home schedule looked like until after attending my first game in 1990. I’d just go to my parents’ bedroom window and see if the lights were on. If they were, I’d turn on WPIX and listen to Phil Rizzuto and Bill White tell me what I needed to know. On a clear day, one could also see the neon lights on Shea or watch planes take off and land from LaGuardia. (You’d think I’d like flying…)

The 1988 off-season changed things. That’s when Yankees fans learned we’d be getting fewer games shown on “free TV” and more shown on MSG. Cable was still a relatively new thing in New York, and the Bronx wasn’t scheduled to get cable for a few more years. Fordham Hill enjoyed access to satellite television service since 1984, but MSG was not an option offered. It was owned by the local cable company, Cablevision. This meant Bronxites couldn’t watch as many games as they once could. The introduction of John Sterling as the primary voice of the team on radio lessened the blow, but it did make it tough for the fans in the team’s home borough to truly embrace them as their own. This is despite excessive attempts to get us into the ballpark. It meant many Yankees fans had to look elsewhere for their visual fix – and it normally meant one not including the Mets.

Learning to love Chicago

I’d already been “cheating” on my hometown team because of our ability to receive WGN. Prior to 1988, it meant seeing Harry Caray and Steve Stone calling Cubs games on sunny afternoons from the Friendly Confines via Chicago’s former superstation. The installation of lights atop Wrigley simply made it harder to decide which team to watch on some nights. The Cubs starting shortstop, Shawon Dunston, is a Brooklyn native and a former number one draft pick. His presence on the team didn’t hurt either.

The 1989 Yankees weren’t that good. They were terrible. The 1989 Cubs, on the other hand, were just plain fun to watch. They also had a legitimate chance to win a pennant. Watching how Cubs fans would react to each game was a stark contrast to the Bronx Zoo and the idea of a team needing to win every single day. The pressure of winning it every day just didn’t seem to be there like it was in the Bronx (or even in Queens). They were not happy when they lost, but Cubs fans loved their team.There was some joy watching Cubs fans cheer the rise and fall of the Shawon-o-Meter and wondering if Mark Grace could dig out one of those cannon-like throws he’d launch from across the diamond on occasion.

They lost out on representing the National League to the San Francisco Giants, but not before endearing themselves to many of the same people openly “hopping on the bandwagon” this time. It’s led some of us to want to visit Chicago and the ballpark if only to see the continuing effort to please and believe in next year first hand.

Making the pilgrimage

I’ve only seen one Cubs game in person, but I’ve been to Wrigley Field twice. My first visit found me watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” from just under the historic scoreboard in center field (leading to my ability to claim participation in and partial ownership of a Guinness World Record). The game I finally attended found them playing the Pirates near the end of the 2012 season. They were down 6-1 by the fifth inning. They won the game 13-9. Anthony Rizzo hit two monster home runs in the victory — including his first career grand slam.

I sat next to a couple holding season tickets since just before they’d married. The game was fun to watch, but so were their stories about Chicago and the Cubs. I got to see a friend from high school in uniform as the interim hitting coach for the Cubs. He ended up getting the job for the following season. It was his birthday weekend. I saw the emotional roller coaster of “we’re going to find a way to lose” to”I can’t believe we won.” It hadn’t been a great season for them, but there was still an excitement surrounding this team. It was still fun to be at the ballpark.

Watching the Cubs while growing up helped me learn to just love baseball. I’d rather watch the game critically, saving the smack talk for others. The pressure of winning it every day just didn’t seem to be there like it was in the Bronx (or even in Queens). There’s a patience I associate with them that’s not about blind acceptance but the possibility resulting from embracing it former commissioner Giamatti once eloquently described.

It’s probably why I’ll be celebrating what this team did in Chicago this season regardless of the final outcome of the series. I’m content seeing them on my television screen in late October knowing that “wait ’till next year” has taken on new meaning at Clark and Addison.

Plus, now we’ve got a Schwarb-O-Meter to check in on from time to time.

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Thoughts and Lessons from XOXO 2016

October 19th, 2016 · 1 Comment

The view from my window on our final approach into Portland, OR in early September 2016.

The view from my window on our final approach into Portland, OR in early September 2016.

It’s been a month since I returned from my long ten-day road trip. I enjoyed seeing the tips of mountains flying past from above and below; pockets of color punctuated sections of the Rockies as fall announced its arrival. Thanks to my first stop in Portland, I found a way to rediscover what I needed to function while meeting some incredible people and reconnecting with others.

There are probably other, more in-depth recaps elsewhere about XOXO. Here’s one of the efforts to collect links to most of them and one of the best explanations about why it’s so important for (and to) creatives. I’m sure I can do a better job of answering specific questions as the come up via the comments. This will cover what stood out to me while there, but probably more so what I took away from it.

I’d intended to redesign this website while traveling, though staying as disconnected as needed. My laptop’s motherboard and LCD display stopped working shortly after I checked into my room in Portland, OR. This made it easier to disconnect but harder to work on this digital outpost. I don’t think I savor my experience as much if the laptop issues don’t happen.

I hadn’t been to my second stop, the Online News Association (ONA) conference, since Atlanta in 2013. It was beneficial and enjoyable. It was insane to see how much Denver had changed in eight years. It was a reminder to continue finding ways to connect with journalism as a profession. My thoughts on how to do so moving forward though were shaped and tempered by my first stop.

The pilgrimage

My attendee badges for ONA16 and XOXO.

My attendee badges for ONA16 and XOXO.

The first leg was an add-on. It enabled my doing a few things I’d had on the personal “it’d be nice” list for some time. This included finally getting a chance to attend XOXO.

I’d known of the experimental festival since its first iteration was announced via Kickstarter. I never thought I’d have a chance to attend.

I knew several people who’d attended before who’d always encouraged me to try to attend. I didn’t. When I saw there were no plans to hold one in 2017, I decided to apply for a subsidized slot. I remembered what it was like to take chances and not be afraid of the outcome. Luckily for me, it was a good one and I altered my travel plans accordingly.

I’ll echo what many seem to have said: it’s difficult to describe what XOXO is and what it means. That said, I can try.

I ate incredible food. I used Portland’s bike share service (and some of the crazier Biketown rides in the process). There were chances to talk with people I don’t see often even though they don’t live that far away. I had conversations without pretense or expectation, things hard to avoid in current society. I saw a live interview conducted while the participants were in a virtual world also visible to us. I fell in love with new (to me) podcasts, shows, and video games while wanting to see more from their creators.

Most important for me, I was told it was OK to dream again. It was OK to be real with yourself and others, even if it wasn’t what others were seeing (or wanted to see). It was when Sammus (recently featured by the fine folks at NPR) started dropping knowledge and planting seeds for courage. Lucy Bellwood did so when she reminded us “the Internet will not give you what you want” (more on that below). Esra’a Al-Shafei inspired as she described her accomplishments while displaying courage and conviction. for the first time since she attended our WordCamp in Birmingham. All of them reminded me why more often than not I enjoy the journey more than the destination.

Needless to say, there was a lot to sort through after three days. Recurring themes for me included dealing with fickle and finding a truly supportive community. There were no winners or losers, there was a community. No one tried to pick things apart; they reached out to say hello.

Letting it wash over me

I tried to make sense of what I’d experienced while sitting on the California Zephyr. Traveling along one of the most picturesque train routes in the United States en route to Denver, I looked about the window and started to write:

Mountain ranges

Peaks look majestic

A lot of stress and force have them looking the way they do now

Tough to get to the peak

They look perfect but have jagged edges tucked away

How do you rebuild your life so you’re content instead of trying to be perfect?

We seem to be forced into the idea of perfection every day, spending life in an American middle class with accouterments previously associated with the upper crust. We’re always trying to keep up with our neighbors or our friends – or at least the lives we’ve constructed for them in our own heads.

What will it take to realize our desire to live better is also the desire driving the need to always need more in our lives?

I remember the worlds available to me when I first hopped online. I know what platforms like Plurk, Facebook, and Twitter gave me as places to connect with people. I’m aware of how hard it’s become to find those types of places now and how the joy of exploration seems to have faded.

I remember living with frozen pipes for several mornings in a row because of not being able to pay for heat years ago. There’s a sense of joy whenever I pull up in the driveway nowadays because I cherish and respect the privilege. I know how fast it can all go away.

It’s nice to know I can dip into the well of support that is XOXO’s Slack group. It helps to be able to talk with people doing while encouraging each other and lifting each other up. It also helps when you’re reminded of those opportunities that already existed.

The family (& community) you choose

The Honeycomb Hideout reunion - September 2016. L to R: Ryan Hill, yours truly, Ric Lanciotti, Jon Siruno, and Les McClaine.

L to R: Ryan Hill, yours truly, Ric Lanciotti, Jon Siruno, and Les McClaine.

This photo captures a lot. I hadn’t seen most of these guys in person in more than a decade. We’d gather at the house they shared in Savannah’s Victorian District on Sunday evenings. We’d spend hours talking about anything and everything. They all ended up in Portland. I stayed in the Southeast, thinking I’d just spend two or three more years there and then I’d be somewhere else. (The first day of XOXO marked 23 years since I’d arrived in Savannah and twelve since I’d relocated to Birmingham.)

I told them I was going to be in town, They told me I was going to meet up with them for lunch. Taking into account the time zone change, we sat down at our table for lunch at the same time I’d normally be ringing their doorbell in the Coastal Empire. It was as though we’d never stopped having those Sunday conversations.

When Jon tagged the photo to share via Facebook, he said he was “eating dinner with beloved family.” We often see people talk about the family you get to choose. It’s rare to get a chance to take stock of how those choices and those people have helped shape your life. It wasn’t the only time it happened during my trip, but it was the most poignant of them. It was a chance to be grateful for generosity and sincerity. Technology enabled me to have a human experience — one without the trolls, negativity, or the expectation of something in return.

I know how grateful I was for the chance to attend and for how it’s helped me think about what’s next. It’s now easier to remind myself to block out the noise and to focus on what I can control. I’m less likely to get worked up over how intense people can be over somewhat minor items. I hope there’s another opportunity to gather and explore together in person soon.

I think it’s what we need more than ever.

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