Roadside assistance

heard county deputyOn a rural Georgia road, covered by nightfall, comes a powerful beam of light that cuts through the darkness of hatred and misunderstanding.

A Heard County Sheriff’s Deputy was doing his job when he observed a young man ignoring a stop sign. In law enforcement, there’s no such thing as routine. An innocuous traffic violation performed by the wrong person, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, can cause a situation to go south in a real hurry. The deputy in this situation didn’t know if the driver he stopped was an innocent teenager who wasn’t paying attention, or an escaped convict with a taste for blood. The deputy stepped forward with his hand on his service pistol, completely unaware that he was moving toward an encounter that just might change his life forever.

Consider, for a moment, the current state of affairs for anyone wearing a badge. Officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge are dead because of the anger over shootings that had nothing to do with them. Some people, not all, but some have indicted an entire profession because of the actions of a few. It’s not fair. It’s like destroying an entire orchard because of the worms found in two apples. It is but another example of hatred run amok. Nothing good comes of hate.

That Heard County Deputy had no way of knowing if he would be the next target.

Then it happened. Another car arrived. Two people got out and walked toward the deputy. He tensed.

“I immediately start running situations through my head, and praying for the best,” the deputy wrote on his Facebook page. “I’m nervous, and praying to God that nothing is going to happen.”

One of the people approaching the deputy identified himself of the father the young man the deputy had stopped. Papa Bear had arrived to protect Baby Bear, always a potentially volatile situation.

“That’s my boy,” he told the deputy. “I just want to make sure everything’s okay.”

The deputy calmly informed the man that his son was going to get a warning for running the stop sign. What happened next came straight from all that is pure and good.

“God bless you,” the man told the deputy. “I just appreciate everything you do.”

The man went on to tell the deputy that he was on his way to the hospital to visit his father, who had just suffered a stroke. Then he reached for the deputy’s hand.

“Do you have a minute? I’d just like to say a word of prayer.”

Right there, on the side of that dark Heard County road, a man whose father had just suffered a stroke stopped to offer compassion to a complete stranger, to a deputy who’d just interrupted his trip to visit a loved one.

“Lord, keep this man and his fellow officers safe as they’re out here trying to keep us safe,” the man prayed, all of it captured on the deputy’s dashboard camera.

The prayer ended with a hug.

“As he prayed for me and my brothers in blue, my eyes filled with tears,” the deputy wrote. “This man, with all he had going on, stopped to pray for me. As I walked away, I was in total shock.”

Think of that. The deputy was in shock that someone would pause to express appreciation for his commitment to protecting others.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers leave their homes for a day’s work, unsure if they’ll make it back to their families. They’re sassed, disrespected, and cussed for doing their job. They’re not perfect. None of us are. There are a few who have allowed the power of the badge go to their heads, resulting in horrible decisions. But the overwhelming majority of officers I’ve known are good people with a genuine heart for protecting the rest of us. Still, it’s a job where they’re more likely to hear a threat than a thank you.

This doesn’t have to be about law enforcement officers. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about prayer. It’s about bringing peace to a troubled world. It’s about lifting your neighbor when they’re down.

Imagine you work for a business that’s struggling. You’ve said goodbye to co-workers forced out by layoffs. You have no idea if the next pink slip is bound for your in-box. You’re on a sales call, stressed over the added pressure, when a customer, a total stranger, offers you comfort and understanding. It might not erase all of your woes, but the pressure might not seem as overwhelming. Your outlook might not appear quite so dark.

Despite all of the marches, the protests, the pain, and the doubt, that officer in Heard County now knows at least one man cares.

On a rural road covered by darkness, there is light.

 

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Whom shall I fear?

candlelightAmericans are afraid.

I understand. Once a week, it seems, we wake to the news crawl at the bottom of our television screens telling us of 80 dead here, 49 killed there, a terrorist attack in France, gunfire in Orlando.

FBI crime statistics argue against our fear. Violent crime in the U.S. is down. In fact, there has been a steady drop in the number of murders, rapes, robberies and assaults since 1995. But we don’t meet statistics while walking down the street. Instead, we confront our impressions about a world that seems to have gone haywire.

There is nothing wrong with a little fear. Fear makes us cautious. Allowed to evolve into awareness, fear can become a means of protection.

It’s when we allow fear to transform into hatred that we run into problems.

A little hate can poison an entire nation. It clouds your focus, burns you alive and encourages others to hate you right back. Hate accomplishes nothing except to beget more hate.

Think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who woke up each morning to a frightening world. He walked in a time and place that despised him for a hue that was not of his choosing. Surely, he had to harbor some hatred for the small-minded bigots who considered themselves superior. Somehow, he molded those volatile emotions into a movement of peace.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that,” he once said. “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

Fire hoses turned on his brothers. The gnashing teeth of police dogs nipping at his throat. Threats that culminated in his death. The world encouraged Dr. King to return hate with hate, but he and his followers refused. They had to be scared as they marched down streets lined with those who wanted to lynch them. While trembling inside, they encouraged the world to dream of a day full of understanding, a day without fear.

“The chain reaction of evil, hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars, must be broken.”

Today’s fear is focused on extremists. The natural inclination is to hate ISIS, to hate the ideologues who think with a gun rather than with compassion. Dr. King, you’re thinking, didn’t have to deal with radical Islamists.

No, but he did have to deal with incredible injustice. He had to go face-to-face with the KKK, with sheriffs and police chiefs and mayors who wore robes after hours. He hated their ideology. He must have. I’m sure he was afraid. But he never acted out of hate.

“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” Dr. King warned us.

As I struggle to find the words to express my own fear of a world ruled by hate, I keep turning to Dr. King and the teachings of those who followed them. Their words are written on my heart. Among the men of that era I admire most is Ambassador Andrew Young, who is still calling for peace in our current time of turmoil.

“I don’t think I’ve sensed as much confusion among the American people in my lifetime since the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” Ambassador Young said recently, speaking of the recent police involved shootings and the protests that followed. “There’s so much bombarding us, we’re scared of the world.

“Violence grows out of frustration and emotion, leading to unintended destruction of life and property,” Ambassador Young goes on. “After it’s over, everyone is sorry.”

Easy for me to adopt this attitude. I’m not a victim of discrimination. I don’t have to deal with the growing threat of radical extremists. I do fear, however. I fear the day when hate compounds hate until it overshadows the brave men who encouraged us to dream. I’m afraid we’re on the verge of forgetting the words of those who have walked through darkness and used peace as their illumination.

Their words, their actions, can light our path through this frightening time.

Fear can fuel a movement. Hate will tear it apart.

Nice to meet you, Sen. Shealy

Screenshot 2016-07-10 at 3.01.27 PMI don’t know Katrina Frye Shealy, and she doesn’t know me.

I think it’s time we got acquainted.

In the face of the violence and discord that currently plagues our country, the state senator from South Carolina has suggested that, more than likely, members of the media are our nation’s biggest problem. People in my line of work, in Sen. Shealy’s own words, sensationalize everything. We stir the pot. We fuel a blazing fire. Silencing us for a month, she believes, might make our world a better place.

On Facebook, her supporters have referred to news reporters as “the enemy.”

I have to wonder if Sen. Shealy actually knows anyone involved in the media. I’m not talking about knowing them on a working level. I wonder if she’s familiar with the true heart and motivation of anyone who works in my business.

Sen. Shealy, let me introduce myself.

My name is Jerry Carnes. I’ve been a news reporter for more than thirty years. I am a child of the south, raised by Southern Baptists who taught me to work hard, love God, and to respect others. My father grew up in poverty, but worked hard to become an Olympic track coach. My mother had to overcome the scars of abandonment inflicted by a rather cruel father. She is the single strongest woman I’ve ever known.

Most of all, my parents taught me about humility. It is why I lean heavily on the words of the Apostle Paul:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility, consider others better than yourself.

I have witnessed more than most people ever should. I saw a man die in the electric chair. I arrived too early to a crime scene to find an infant lying in the street, shot to death by her own father. These are images that stay with you for a lifetime.

I know grief. I lost my father to cancer in 2011. It is a loss that has left a giant crater in my heart. I lost a cousin to the war in Iraq. This year alone, my church youth group has lost two of its members to tragedy. These are tender young lives who once called me their Sunday school teacher. I went on mission trips with them. Time and time again, my heart breaks.

It has made me more sympathetic to the pain of others. Over the past thirty years, I’ve talked to scores of people who have suffered from senseless tragedy. I’ve served as both reporter and counselor. There have been many times when the talking has gone on long after the camera was turned off. I do all I can do to lighten their burden rather than add to it. For thirty years, I’ve carried home the weight of second hand grief. It is the strength of God that keeps that weight from crushing me.

I am a natural born storyteller. That’s why I got into the business. Reporting has given me opportunities to shed light on wrongdoing, to give a voice to the voiceless. My favorite moments, however, have come when allowed to share stories of human triumph. I will never forget the uplifting bond created between a young lady who survived a plane crash, and the elderly couple who ran to her aid. The couple lived near the Carroll County cornfield where the plane erupted into a ball of fire. I met them at the hospital, where they remained at the young girl’s bedside until she’d healed enough to return home. By then, they were practically family. Out of incredible tragedy, love and compassion appeared. Good came from bad.

My years in television news have taught me that, at times, the presence of a camera can add to hostility or pain. As a veteran, I’ve learned to recognize the need to shed light on a moment, and the need to go dark.

Violence, hatred, and prejudice of any kind breaks my heart. I mourn often. I’ve mourned more this year, it seems, than ever before. I weep when I see our country torn apart in disagreement over how to end the rash of hatred. When others hurt, I hurt. I also have faith that we will rise again, stronger than ever.

I have been married for 31 years. My wife is an artist who runs her own business from our home. We have three children. Our oldest is married. He works for a non-profit and volunteers as the social media director of his church. Our middle child is a nurse. She is also married. Her husband works as an audio engineer for a church in Charlotte. Our youngest is about to leave home for college, where she plans to prepare for a career as a special education teacher. I’m immensely proud of them all.

Sen. Shealy, I’m not perfect. I’ve made mistakes during my long career in this business, and I beg your forgiveness. Working as a news reporter carries with it incredible responsibility. I know there have been times when I’ve taken that responsibility too lightly. I’m human, and that’s my point here. When you refer to the “media,” you’re not talking about a giant ogre that needs to be slain. We are individuals. Each and every one of us has a heart that has been molded by individual experiences. Each of us has our own faults and stumbles. Each of us, as individuals, deal with our own failures.

Now that you know something about me, I hope you’ll see that I would never intentionally sensationalize anything, or purposely throw fuel on a fire. Compassion is a driving force behind my work, which is why I devote so many hours warning others about the risks of prostate cancer. It’s the disease that took my father. Oh, I am not remarkable, by the way. Not by any means. There are plenty of reporters who have seen more than me, endured much worse, and learned a lot more. There are journalists who are much smarter and far more compassionate. I can introduce you to some reporters who would really impress you with the many ways that they’ve bettered the world. If you got to know them, you wouldn’t want to silence them for a half-second, much less a month.

I can get better at what I do. No question about it. We can all do better. But I think it would be a huge mistake to silence us. Yes, we do sometimes throw light on issues that make us uncomfortable. Extinguishing that light, even for a month, would leave us all in the dark. With all respect, I pray that you would consider that.

It was nice to meet you.

 

I believe

Screenshot 2016-06-16 at 4.30.11 PMI know it’s there.

Like the warm good-bye hug from a child when they leave for camp. You can still feel it even when they’re gone. You know the love is still there. It’s a part of you, even as it moves miles and miles from home.

Unity. Compassion. It’s there. I can feel it, even when it’s hidden behind a cloud of anger and blame.

Remember 911, when we were all New Yorkers? Sandy Hook? Boston strong? Do you remember how our hearts broke for Paris, and just like that, we were one with France?

I remember.

Now, in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, there has been enough finger pointing that it seems our country could use one giant manicure. Political debate has, too often, pushed caring and unity into the backseat.

And then, as mourners gathered in Atlanta to honor the victims in Orlando, I heard them sing:

I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining,

I believe in love even when I don’t feel it.

I believe in this country, even when we’re divided. So often, I’ve seen us come together, united in our hurt, in our resolve, in our purpose. When others lash out at us, we put party affiliations and petty differences aside to bond. I’ve seen it happen.

I believe.

We are the United States of America, not the Fractured States of America.

Giving up would cost me everything

So, I’ll stand in the pain and silence

And I’ll speak to the dark night.

I remember when it was my city under attack by a crazy man who marred what was an otherwise magical Olympic games. It was Atlanta’s time in the world spotlight, and Eric Rudolph brought his darkness. I remember taking it personally. It hurt, deep down, every time he placed one of his bombs in a different spot around our town. In those days, we weren’t subject to the long-time listeners, first-time callers with opinions of who failed to do what to prevent the madness. The world stood with us, denouncing the terror, urging Atlanta to heal.

It’s only logical that we want to understand the motivations behind these savage acts of terrorism. But comprehending the act means unraveling a tightly twisted mind. I was close enough to one of Eric Rudolph’s bombs that the FBI regarded me as a victim. I sat just an arm’s length from him inside a Birmingham courtroom. So close, and yet a billion miles away. I read the letters from his fictional Army of God. He justified his actions to the court by speaking of the British crown, the Pharisaical sect, by calling the Olympics a celebration of global socialism, and revealing that his goal was to “drag this monstrosity of a government down into the dust.” Read it all a thousand times. It will make sense to Eric Rudolph, and Eric Rudolph alone. Given the opportunity to question the Orlando killer, I suspect the explanation would be equally baffling. We won’t get that chance. He’s answering to a higher power.

No dark can consume light,

No death greater than this life,

We are not forgotten.

I believe in the compassion of this country, even as it waits its turn behind the heat of a political season. There is a time and place to discuss the difficult issues swirling around the latest act of incomprehensible violence. We can have those talks remembering that WE are not the enemy. We are the UNITED States of America. Together we stand. Divided, we fall to those who wish to harm us.

I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining,

I believe in love even when I don’t feel it,

And I believe in God even when He is silent.

Maybe it’s time we are silent for a moment, silent as a country, so that God can speak. Let’s be silent for a moment and breathe, giving the families and friends of the lost room to cry. Perhaps if our hands weren’t shaped around our opinions like bullhorns, it would free us to wrap our arms around one another, and unite.

Though I can’t see my stories ending,

That doesn’t mean the dark night has no end.

It’s only here that I find faith,

And learn to trust the one who writes my days.

Screenshot 2016-06-15 at 4.49.48 PM

 

The shadow of death

psalm 23There’s a saying that claims bad news comes in threes.

It’s baloney. Bad news comes in threes, or nines, or nineteens, or fifty-sixes. It comes whenever and however it wants. It can be unrelenting. It can be overwhelming. It can cover you in a dark shadow surrounded by fear.

This was supposed to be a year of celebration for my family. A wedding in March, a high school graduation in May. Two of my children are writing new chapters, and I know I should focus on these wonderful blessings. But 2016 has decided to sprinkle my ice cream sundae with broken glass. It’s been delicious and painful. One day is soothing and sweet. The next day, I’m bleeding inside.

Life’s toxic temptations have spilled into my inner-circle. It has taken a relative I love dearly to the brink of death. It’s been going on quite a while, and I thought she was getting better. I was fooling myself. Instead, she’s found a new rock bottom. A major downturn happened the night of my daughter’s wedding, right under my nose, with me blissfully unaware. The peaks and valleys were blending together.

So my heart was already heavy when we lost Halle Scott, a member of my church youth group whose parents worship in my Sunday school class. It was jolting and tragic. Her loss had nothing to do with those toxic temptations, but was instead the result of an innocent adventure. It reminded us all that we do not know what will happen tomorrow. Love your children. Hug your wife. Love your neighbors. Put pettiness aside. Don’t put it off.

It would not be 2016’s last jolt to my church, to our youth group, to our Sunday school class. Far from it.

Those toxic temptations I spoke about have buried their teeth in the child of dear friends, also members of our Sunday school class. It has sent them spiraling into heartbreak, and when they hurt, I hurt. These people are like family to me. I consider their children to be my own. Their son is smart, talented, and full of potential. His future is now in serious jeopardy. His parents have raised him much they way I’ve raised my kids. The struggle they face could just as easily take place under my roof.

“Enough,” I told my wife and friends over dinner this past Saturday. “This year has been difficult enough. No more.”

Eight hours later, I would wake to another low blow.

While I slept, a young man I had not seen in two or three years took his last breath. I’d joined him and his sister on youth mission trips, but he’d stopped coming to church. His sister confided that he’d chosen a dangerous path, and I came to understand that those toxic temptations lured him there. On Saturday night, he was on the back of a motorcycle when a car veered in front of him. He was 17-years-old.

I hurt immensely for this family. The departure of this teenager leaves a mom who is legally blind, and a 19-year-old sister who has faced more challenges than some people do in a lifetime. She lost her father just five years ago, and I clearly remember her tearful struggle. It’s encouraging to see how much she’s grown since then. She’s handling the loss of her brother with incredible strength that is emboldened by the friends and church family that has surrounded her. She is not alone, and she knows it.

So much darkness in such a short period of time.

This past Sunday, as we gathered in that Sunday school class that’s been rocked by 2016, we looked to a Bible verse that speaks of darkness:

 

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. — Psalms 23

 

There is light in every situation. Somewhere. I’m trying to find it. I’m working hard not to miss those opportunities to comfort, support, and love. I’m afraid there have been opportunities that I’ve missed in the past. I’m more awake to them now.

I’m committed to taking every opportunity to provide appreciation, acknowledgement, compassion, and care.

Tomorrow, I could wake up to more bad news.

I don’t want it to arrive with regret.

The loudest whisper

Whisper-of-GodI know the sound of God’s voice.

He sounds like a car engine struggling to start.

I begin every morning letting God hear my voice. It’s 2 a.m., dark and quiet, no distractions. Most of the time, I’m throwing myself on the mercy of the court. I’ve spent too much time in anger, or resentment, or not enough time serving others. Many a morning, I end my prayer with a request.

On gritty Pleasantdale Road, one wish was granted.

It was a situation that could have easily guided me into a pothole of anger. I was supposed to meet a man to discuss his unpleasant ride on Pleasantdale. He was a no show. No phone call. No apology. Just me, my camera, and sweat rolling down my back as big rigs rambled by my toes.

Right in front of me, God cleared his throat.

My prayer request was for an opportunity to serve someone in need. That opportunity came in the form of a woman, her two children, and a car that decided it wanted nothing more to do with Atlanta traffic. She was from Gambia. Her English was as broken as the engine of her Honda. I had a difficult time understanding where she was from, and I never understood where she was trying to go. It was clear that her children, one of them an infant, were miserable and needed to get away from the sun. Her car blocked the I-85 ramp to Pleasantdale that filled with prickly commuters and their horns.

Part of my brain was occupied by the man who’d summoned me to Pleasantdale Road only to waste my time. After a failed effort to push the stubborn Honda off of the ramp, I tried to reach the man by phone to find out if perhaps I’d misunderstood the time of our meeting. No answer. No return call. There was no misunderstanding, only a gaping hole in my work load that I would have to scramble to fill. There was a moment of mild panic. My job was to produce news stories, and one had just slipped away.

Then I realized my time was not wasted at all. It simply had another purpose. After all, I’d asked for this.

The Bible says that God communicates not with an earthquake, or a fire, but with a gentle whisper. Just last week, the whisper came as I loitered beside my locked news vehicle with the keys in the ignition. That’s right. I locked the keys in the car, along with my phone. In an area of town teeming with homelessness and despair, all I could do was sit on my bumper and wait for a co-worker to arrive with a spare key. God’s whisper arrived first.

A young man with a backpack and distant eyes approached with a story about the neighborhood violence that had taken his sister. It seemed he just wanted to vent, and I let him. It was an opportunity to offer compassion to a stranger, one placed in my path because of keys dangling behind a locked door. After a few minutes, my new friend made a request.

“Hey, can I have a dollar?”

He specifically requested one dollar. Not two. Not five. One. It just so happened that the previous Sunday, our pastor had passed out crisp new one dollar bills to the entire congregation. We were sent forth with a mission of generosity, to find a way to use that dollar in an act of generosity.

Here was my opportunity.

I handed that young man the dollar and the story of it’s purpose. I told him God was watching over him. He accepted the gift with grace, but seemed doubtful that I’d given him anything more than just an ordinary piece of currency. God’s whisper told me something more.

On Pleasantdale Road, I struggled to help the family stranded by a faulty automobile. I summoned a police officer to help me push the woman’s car out of the road. I bought bottled water to keep the family cool, but my phone calls failed to summon the help they really needed. Eventually, the mom left to negotiate with a tow truck driver at a nearby gas station. I returned to my work day convinced I’d done all I could, but nagged by the feeling that it wasn’t enough.

Twice, my plans were disrupted. Twice, God whispered that something better was afoot.

God might whisper. He might growl like a failing car engine, or ding like the alarm of a car with the keys locked inside.

All you have to do is listen.

The shrapnel of grief

uga sadIt’s not supposed to happen this way.

In my line of work, it’s inevitable that you will confront tragedy. Grieving strangers suddenly aren’t strangers anymore. They pour out their hearts. You offer compassion and a sympathetic ear. Often, when I’m present, the interview ends with a hug. Some may see that as inappropriate, a violation of some journalistic canon. I don’t care. When I see suffering, I hug.

It’s not easy to walk away. You carry some of that second-hand grief home.

That’s the way it goes. Most of the time.

It’s not supposed to go like this.

At 2 a.m., as I was rising for another day of chasing news, a police officer was knocking at the front door of a friend’s house just a couple of miles away. A car crash was sending waves of sadness across my community, into my church, and deep into my heart. I didn’t learn for another five hours that I knew one of the victims. Word reached me as I was standing on the side of an Atlanta street, reporting on a series of car crashes impacting people I’d just met.

Halle Scott was 19-years-old. Her parents are in my Sunday school class. We’ve socialized together, worshiped together, prayed together. Hundreds of times, we’ve joined each other in prayer over others encountering hardship. It was only a few months ago that Halle attended a Sunday school class I helped teach for students home from college. My mind won’t let go of her peaceful face as I did my best to impart what little spiritual wisdom I possess.

After learning details of the crash, I tried to keep reporter Jerry separate from grieving Jerry. For a few hours, I struggled to focus on the remaining tasks of the day. Thankfully, my assignments did not involve coverage of the wreck that took Halle and three other University of Georgia students. That would have forced reporter Jerry and grieving Jerry to collide.

It’s not supposed to happen that way.

At noon, I was done with reporter Jerry. I broke away from work and headed to church. There, I found an entire room injured by the widespread shrapnel of grief. The entire building wept. I bowed. I asked God to bestow peace upon a family in desperate need of strength. I held my daughter’s hand and watched her weep. She and Halle were on the high school cheerleading squad together. Rachel was supposed to visit Halle in Athens on Saturday.

It’s my job to confront grief, not my daughter’s.

It’s not supposed to happen like this.

Life isn’t fair. Halle was a wonderful child of powerful faith. In the name of the Lord, she traveled to faraway places to worship and serve others less fortunate. She was bold in her faith, unafraid to let you know her devotion to God. Her parents are equally strong in their convictions, and I’m comforted in knowing they can lean on Christ. They have a Sunday school class, a church, an entire community for support. They have me, if they need me.

So many times, I’ve reported on tragic losses that just aren’t fair.

It’s never involved anyone I know.

The car wreck that has impacted an entire college campus and well beyond will be in the news for awhile. I can’t bring myself to watch the coverage. I’m a newsman who can’t watch the news. When I see pictures of Halle, I think of her mom, her dad, and her brother, and I have the same thoughts as parents across the entire state. That could have my my child. The next time, that police officer might not be two miles away. Is my faith strong enough?

As a news reporter, there really is no exit strategy when it comes to tragic events. At some point, you need to detach from the grief, but you can’t. It lingers, even when it isn’t yours. After a few years, it gets pretty weighty.

It isn’t reporter Jerry who comes to the Scott family, ready to carry as much weight as they need. This is Jerry, a brother in Christ, a friend ready to listen, cry, celebrate, mourn, fetch, hug, and hug again. I can pray. I can ask God to wrap sweet Halle in his loving arms. I can ask Him to fill the hearts of all who are hurting with the assurance that Halle is in an amazing place. I can pray that it brings her family comfort.

Perhaps, in the face of incredible tragedy, that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.

 

As Luck would have it

luckI suffer from a very strange affliction that has no medical cure, and yet is nothing that should cause worry for my friends, family, or anyone at the Mayo Clinic.

It’s called FoMO.

Fear of Missing Out.

FoMO means you can’t take a hike through the north Georgia mountains without checking your inbox. There’s no enjoying an afternoon on the front porch swing without pondering the trending hashtags on Twitter. Your wife is in the midst of providing detail of Uncle Henry’s appendectomy, when you hear Facebook calling.

FoMO.

Imagine arriving at work to find your co-workers discussing the wildly popular video of Bigfoot chasing a DUI suspect on Georgia 400. You search your rancid breakroom coffee for a way to contribute. You spent the previous night organizing your collection of flavored dental floss. You’re a newsman who is out of the loop, a virtual sasquatch in a viral video world.

There’s nothing wrong with staying up-to-date, but my affliction goes above and beyond. I work the morning shift, which means I typically get home around 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon. The work day is over. Supposedly. Not for my brain. The rest of the world continues to work, and I need to know what the world is doing. I continue to check my emails. I check Twitter. Then my email. Then Twitter. Finally, I force myself to unplug by going on a long walk. Hey, iPhones need exercise, too. Step, step, Facebook. Step, step, email.

All day long, I’m stimulated by a bombardment of information. It’s more powerful than caffeine. I come home with a buzz that’s difficult to calm. I want more. I have to have more.

I’m reading a book written by a man who attempts one year adhering literally to the rules of the Bible. When he gets to the part about setting aside one day of the week for rest, he struggles. He makes his own rules. He decides it’s okay to check email, as long as he’s just reading the topic line. He knows that’s not following the Bible literally, but…he simply can’t help himself. One day away from the stimulation is like leaving a child on a deserted island.

There’s a reason why our brains have an off switch. No one can go full speed every moment of every day. You need to recharge. I’m not sure why I have to work so hard at not working.

I like the Chick-fil-A approach to the problem. The restaurant chain encourages diners to place their iphones in a “coop” during their meal. And leave it there. No Instagram checks. No looking at a text. Imagine. Your attention is free to have an actual conversation with your dining partner. Finish your meal without a single swipe of the screen, and you get a free ice cream.

Me? I’m lactose intolerant. Of course.

My brother owns a cabin that we visit on occasion where there is no cell service. None. It’s in a place called Luck, North Carolina, which isn’t a town as much as it is, well, my brother’s cabin. We spend peaceful days there going on hikes along the nearby Appalachian Trail. We sit by the fire pit and read. Conversations are filled with laughter rather than stress. With a little Luck, you’re forced to unplug.

I need bring a little Luck to my home. Maybe I’ll create a little coop where my urge-to-know can take a timeout for a few hours a day. I know my brain could use the rest.

There. I finished this blog without once pausing to check email or Twitter.

Now I need to work on my honesty.

The TK76 factor

tk76The times, they are a changin’.

On August 23, 1982, I walked into the newsroom of WRBL-TV, and entered the world of professional journalism. With one hand, the news director gave me a hearty pat on the back, and with the other, he handed me a camera as big as an armored car. With an RCA TK76 digging into my bony shoulder and sweat gushing from every pore, I shot my first news story.

The TK76 is now an extra-large part of television history. During my 34 years in the business, we’ve switched from hefty ¾” tape, to Beta, to digital video tape, to digital cards. Broadcast cameras, once large enough to break you in two, are now the size of the handheld version you cart to Disney World. The equipment has gotten smaller as our responsibilities have grown. We’re now asked to feed not just a newscast or two, but our website and several social media platforms. We can do live shots with our phones.

Change in television news is constant and inevitable. Sometimes, it’s downright sad.

I am lucky enough to have worked with some of Atlanta’s television legends. John Pruitt is a cherished mentor. There was Guy Sharpe, Chuck Moore, Johnny Beckman, Joe Washington, Randy Waters, and Bruce Erion. I once thought of them as irreplaceable. They’ve all been replaced.

The look of my television station is changing again by way of a mass retirement. Donna Lowry. Keith Whitney. Kevin Rowson. They are among a group of vastly experienced journalists who are saying good-bye to WXIA-TV. If you know these people only through their on-screen work, trust me, you’re missing out. They are much more than a one minute blip on the tube. These are loving parents, good friends, hard workers. They care about you. They do. If you happened upon them at the grocery store or a dinner party, you would like them. You would understand immediately why they’ve lasted so long in a challenging business.

None of these people got into television news for the money or the notoriety. Young journalists motivated by wealth and fame don’t last. Donna, Keith, Kevin, photographers Mike Zakel, Steve Flood, and Ron Nakfoor, they lasted decades in this business because of much more. They all got into it because of a hunger to tell good stories, a passion to find the truth, and their ability to relate to people. They all spent time working in snow, or with the sting of a hurricane against their cheek, or with the miserable feel of a TK76 on their shoulder. And they kept coming back. Because they love it.

Good journalism doesn’t come from a can of hairspray. Passion always outweighs discomfort.

Times change. People retire. I’ve witnessed a lot of departures during my 27-years with WXIA. This time, we’re talking about people who are close to my age.

Their exit brings reflection.

I wear a lot of gray now, but I don’t really notice because my vision isn’t so sharp. I don’t bounce back from long work days the way I once did. The passion is still there, but the body is struggling to keep pace.

More than once, I’ve contemplated the end of my broadcast career. It will happen one of several ways. I could leave on my own terms, when the body and the bank account agree there’s a nice comfortable chair waiting for me at the beach. It may require encouragement from bosses who feel I’ve outlived my usefulness. There are a few of my snarkier friends who may tell you that time has already arrived. I’m looking at you, Randy Waters.

I remember a conversation many years ago with affable weatherman Guy Sharpe. If Atlanta television had a Mt. Rushmore, Guy’s face would be on it. He was nearing the end of his television career, and he knew it. He accepted Father Time’s command with grace, refusing to grow bitter toward a business that often demands younger, faster, and better looking.

For now, I still have some good years left in me, and I get to work with journalism’s next generation. My desk is surrounded with energetic young reporters eager to dig, to work, to inform. They are not burdened with ego. They are the Donna Lowry, Kevin Rowson, and Keith Whitney of thirty years ago.

And they never had to work with that blasted TK76.

Right now, my heart is as heavy as that burdensome camera my boss dropped on my shoulder so long ago. Our newsroom is about to experience a void. We’re losing some classy people. Solid journalists. Treasured companions.

So long, friends. We will miss you.

See you on the late news, alligator

me and the gatorI’m fascinated with alligators.

Gators don’t worry. They take what the swamp gives them with slow confidence. They don’t bother you unless you mess with them, and why would you mess with a prehistoric creature wearing fangs? They don’t complain.

They have a thick skin.

While I lack the chops of an alligator, I find a thick skin comes in handy. It seems there are a great many people who have lost respect for my line of work, and aren’t afraid to tell you. Emphatically.

For example.

This past winter, I was stationed on an icy Cobb Parkway preparing to warn unknowing motorist of the slick hazards. A truck in bad need of a new muffler rolled by, driven by a man who was even louder than his faulty exhaust.

“Leave us alone you #@*% liberal commie.”

It’s not the first time I have been the target of drive-by insults, and it won’t be the last. Assumptions about my character based on my job confuses me a bit. It always has. I’d rather someone get to know me before deciding to dislike me.

There was actually a time when my profession wasn’t lumped together with carjackers and telemarketers. I remember the days when people viewed me as somewhat of an authority figure. It was a little weird. They felt an obligation to grant an interview, even when circumstance should have told them to steer clear. Now, it’s more likely I’ll find a lawyer, a pitbull, or a locked door standing between me and my quarry.

There are many who see journalists as biased. We have an agenda. Some of my own neighbors, even some members of my Sunday school class, believe journalists to be Godless, manipulative liars. Never referring to me specifically, they proclaim their displeasure with members of the dreaded media.

No one in my business is perfect. Some of us are hard to like. Many of us have inflated egos. Most are really good people trying to earn a living under circumstances that are often quite difficult and quite often downright depressing. That’s not a complaint or an excuse. That’s my job. I have seen death, grief, celebration, inspiration, confusion, anger, hatred, love, compassion…just about everything. It has molded me. It has helped make me who I am.

I’m willing to give you a glimpse into who I am so the next time you see me on television, you can render judgement based on my actual character rather something perceived.

I am a Christian. That means it is most important for me to love God and love others. All others. I often fail to do that. It doesn’t make me a hypocrite, it makes me human. I need forgiveness for the times I fail, so it is imperative that I extend grace to others. If I don’t forgive, that does make me a hypocrite.

I am a husband. I married my best friend, and I cherish my life with her. We were practically kids when we met. We’ve grown and changed a lot since then. She has put up with my weird hours and the second hand stress from my job. She deserves a Nobel Prize for tolerance. The longer we’re married, the more I appreciate her.

I am a father. I have three amazing children. My wife and I have tried very hard to let our children know how much we love them. Cady gave up her career to stay home and nurture them. I give her all the credit for raising three smart, compassionate children. We are very, very lucky.

I am a son. I lost my father to cancer, and the grief is still with me. He taught me the value of working hard and giving your best, and that stays with me, too. My mother taught me that adversity and pain can make you stronger and better. She’s faced challenges that would have toppled most people, and yet she’s 80-years-old and standing tall. My parents are a blessing to me.

I talk too much. I got in a lot of trouble during my formative years for opening my mouth when I should have kept it closed. Too often, I was loud and disruptive. There were teachers who tried, without much success, to stifle me. There were a few who channeled my verbal energy into something productive. From that, a career was born. I have grown to know the value of curbing your tongue, and I do struggle at times to control myself. I’m a work in progress. At the age of 57. Go figure.

Let me touch on the issue of bias. Journalists are biased. Of course we are. We are human beings. We are not automatons who lack feeling and emotion. We are shaped by our upbringing and experiences, just like you. Our job is to keep our bias from influencing our reporting. This can be tough. Take, for example, the issue of cancer. I’m a survivor. I lost my father to cancer. Now, ask me to report on the amount of money going toward cancer research, or the need for exams that might detect cancer. Clearly, I’m going to have a bias. Not everyone is going to view the issue the way I see it. My job, however, is to remain open minded. Hear all sides. Present all sides impartially. You try it. Try leaving your deep seeded emotions out of a conversation. That’s my job, and I take it quite seriously.

Here’s a little more insight into this particular journalist. I’m not going to try to claim I do everything just right. I can always do a better job. Always. I am open to hearing your critiques, criticisms, opinions, and recommendations. I may not share your opinion of my work, but I’d be foolish not to listen. You can even drive by and yell at me when I’m knee deep in snow. That’s fine. I prefer that you keep it clean, but that’s up to you. Whatever you say, I’ve likely heard it before.

This old alligator has been around a long time.