Monday, April 27, 2009

I am 37 today -- 4/28/1972

A birthday is a cool day to take stock of your life, as if a reflective type like me needed an excuse. I don't know what Randi has in store for me tomorrow, but I am sure it's something delicious. I am a lucky man.

Inspired by Anne Stesney, who was inspired by Maggie Mason I wanted to write a list of all the things I would still like to do with my life. I am sure I will think of more stuff later. So here is the list for who I am today.

My List Of Things Worth Doing, or That I Really, Really Want To Do With My Life:

1. Always make time to write for myself. This can lead to great things and opportunities down the line that I could never predict. But I have to first be prepared and do the work.
2. Go back to Scotland with Randi and Stella. There's so much we didn't see on our honeymoon.
3. Strive to work harder on my marriage. Take better care of my wife.
4. Always work hard to have a strong relationship with Stella.
5. Take better care of my Mom.
6. Take better care of my sister, Barbara who has Down's Syndrome. I am her legal guardian.
7. Communicate more and better with my brother and other sister.
8. Own property some day. Not just an apartment, but a place with some land. Maybe even a vacation home.
9. Have enough to be able to do nice things for Stella like pay for summer camp.
10. Live in a place where Stella can be happy and free. Maybe this place is in Brooklyn, maybe it's not. But it's on my mind.
11. Try to not only take better care of my wife, but let her know I care about her. But show her more than tell her. So writing this doesn't really count.
12. Publish a book. Maybe even a crazy book, filled with all my old stories. Some might even be kind of racy, so inlaws, you're warned!
13. Maybe I won't write that kind of book after all, but something else entirely. Maybe something journalism based. Maybe something serious. I think about this kind of stuff.
14. Be a better friend in the next year of my life than I was in the last year. I feel sometimes that I was sucked into a tube, because having a kid is that intense. I need to manage my time better so I can see my friends more. For their sakes and my own.
15. Dance more. It sounds cliche, but it's true.
16. Sing more, and with other people. It feels good.
17. Compete in sports more. It's a lot of fun when you win, and not so bad when you lose. Drinks help both typically.
18. Take better care of my heart. Move around more.
19. Do standup comedy. At least once. I have some jokes, I think.
20. Participate in The Moth storyslam.
21. Reach out to those who can help me get to where I would like to go next with my life and career. In Yiddish there is an expression: the shy person never learns. So I need to get over myself and open myself up to professional rejection and failure more. And, also, opportunity. It's the only way to grow.
22. Someday, by god, I will own a dog. I've wanted to have a dog since I was born, and I have NEVER had one. I'm 37!
23. Learn how to relax in situations that are stressful. I take things too seriously.
24. Write more in this blog.
25. Host a TV show. I would be very good at it.
26. Find those baby pictures of me that my Dad says he has somewhere. As it is I have never actually seen baby pictures of myself other than one time when I was very young. This is because my dad put all his pictures on slides, and he took very few of me when I was young. It's a part of my history that I've missed out on.
27. My mother has letters written in Yiddish from her family in Europe from before World War II. Though they might break my heart I would like to know what these letters say.
28. Become more organized at work, so I can do more and enjoy it better.
29. Spend some more time doing actual investigative journalism. I miss it, and had been good at it.
30. Retire.
31. Consider another career other than writing someday. Maybe there is something else I am meant to do. I should consider it.
32. Live in a nice small town with my family for a little while. Maybe in Europe.
33. When there is time learn to become much better at the acoustic guitar and perform for kids. They are the best audience there is.
34. Spend more time with my sister and her family, as I love them.
35. Try to figure out how to improve my relationship with my dad.
36. See the day when Stella recognizes my mom as her bubbie.
37. Invest carefully and with discipline so we are taken care of later in life.
38. Save more on a regular basis.
39. Put more into Stella's college fund.
40. See the Northern Lights with my family.
41. Give back to nature. I have donated to environmental causes throughout my life, but I need to do more on that end. Extinction is truly forever, and if we can't take care to save magnificent animals like tigers what will we preserve?
42. Take Randi and Stella to the Swiss Alps in the summer. Maybe to Gimmelwald, where I stayed when I was 21 and travelling through Europe on my lonesome. It may be the most beautiful place I've ever seen.
43. Go to Strasbourg, France with Randi and Stella. She's talked about it so much that it sounds fantastic to me.
44. Drink real mead. Where, oh where, can I get some?
45. Let my mother in law Judy know how much I appreciate her and care for her.
46. Read more history. How did we get to where we are? I would like to learn more about Lyndon Baines Johnson, for example, and Robert Cairo wrote a three book history on him and his era. I read the first book and it changed my view on American history. I would like to read the other two next.
47. See Les Paul before he heads to the Great Gig In The Sky. He's 94, so time's running out.
48. Become much better at playing my Gibson Les Paul. As it stands I love how it plays but sound pretty bad on it.
49. Play music live again in a band, but I feel like I can wait on this one as I used to gig quite a bit.
50. Make my bed every day, exercise every day and clean my house regularly. I hate mess, flab and roaches, so this works for me.
51. Recognize when I am being neurotic and looking for reasons to be unhappy. I do this a lot. If someone doesn't call me back or email me back quickly I feel I must've have offended them. This is false 99.9% of the time. I have developed a default where I gravitate toward worry and self-criticism even when nothing's going wrong. This is not the right way to live, forever finding reasons to be down about something. It all seems so reasonable at the time, there are always things to do and worry about. But really it's just another emotional crutch disguised as "responsible" thinking. As if being calm and happy is somehow frivolous. I have finally started to recognize that I am doing this, and catching myself in the act. Now I need to become better at cutting these thoughts off. Because, really, being unhappy and neurotic really ain't all that great. You might get a little bit more done, but you'll still be miserable. It takes courage and strength to be happy. I need to get better at it. And the nice part is if I do this everybody wins.

As I read the list above I am struck by how much my goals have changed in the past decade or so. Most of these are not all that "me" focused. I could travel more, of course, but it's not worth it unless I can do it with my family. And nothing on this list really matters if things aren't working right at home. This list is kind of stodgy, I realize, but this is where I am. I hope I can do these things. I am not rich, and never lived my life just for money, but I want us to be comfortable and never be afraid of not having enough. Everyone's definition of comfortable is different, but mine is having Stella never wonder about the future with fear. A great childhood is the best gift a parent can give, not only to their child, but to themselves. I hope I can do that for Stella, Randi and for me. That would be a great birthday present!


Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Last Fact Checker Pt. 2

I sat in "the fishbowl" at my new job, across the table from Bob, the king of the fact checkers. The fishbowl was, and is, a table in a room with glass windows all around it, hence the name. Bob was a long-time employee at my well known financial magazine. Thorough, professional, Bob was who you called when you wanted to make sure a fact checking job was done absolutely to the letter. He also trained the new fish in the editorial pool.

He had brought along a sample of fact-checked copy to show me how it was done. Over here, at the magazine, there were very specific ways you had to check a fact. Knowing something, obviously, just wouldn't cut it. Finding something on the Internet was not good at all. Dictionaries and encyclopedias could be wrong. Other news sources? Forget it! Those losers didn't even fact check! There were only a few "checkable" sources, it turns out, in the whole wide world. Our own magazine being one of them. But then there were a few more.

Government documents, it turns out, are as good as gold. The Securities and Exchange Commission might be inept, but they don't lie. The IRS might make you poor, or drive our readers into fits of rage, but they are accurate with their figures. You get the picture.

Company documents were reliable, in about 99% of the cases you would find. Occasionally, of course, firms would lie about their books, but more by what they left out than by what they included. If they said they earned $10 million last quarter by jove that was something you could consider a checked fact, provided it came from their annual reports, or something else equally official. If they were Enron, however, you were SOL, but then again that's a story, right? If you are a perceptive reader by now you are probably starting to understand why financial journalism routinely is late to so many big stories. Me included. We believe the numbers in the official documents, even though we understand that the whole enterprise might be a bit, shall we say, shady? But it's hard to find what's left out.

People, as unreliable as they may be, it turns out, can be checkable sources. If you interview someone and they say they are 59 years old and grew up in Belfast -- and then they confirm these data points to the fact checker -- that's considered checked. Of course people who commit fraud, or lie about their age, or just plain get things wrong can screw this system up, but that's why we do additional reporting. Still, a verbal confirmation, in many cases, turned out to be considered good enough. Even so, I spoke to many people who just didn't understand why they had to give information as basic as their name again, they already gave it to writer!

And here was how we got all this down on paper, Bob told me. He showed me a story, in some kind of weird format. "You underline every fact in this story," he said. "You have to check every single fact in this piece, every single one." He looked at me with an unusual mixture of intensity and boredom. I was grateful for this training, but sad that he had to train me. Does that make any sense? So, here's how the drill worked. You would underline the facts to check, as stated. Then with a different colored pen you would underline each checked fact. Ideally as the process went along you would eventually identify the three or four facts that remained stubbornly unchecked. And then you would lock those down, and that would be that. You would have a story that is nothing but double lines.

I must repeat we had to fact check everything. If a guy's name was Pete Smith I would ask him, or check in some way, if his first name was short for Peter, and if his last name was spelled Smith "in the traditional way." You would be amazed how hung up people got on their nicknames. We didn't accept nicknames. If everybody called me Dave I would have to go in as David. Or, if I absolutely, positively insisted upon using Dave then it would be coupled with my middle initial, for god know's what reason. So even though 99% of the world knows me as Dave Serchuk, in my well known magazine I would become either David Serchuk or Dave A. Serchuk. If I got Attila the Hun on the phone it is likely he would have come out as Attila T. Hun.

Sometimes the checking would be largely done via a few phone calls to a few key sources. Even though I would receive reams of official documents to check a particular fact here or there even the most scrupulous journalist would have stories backed by the say-so of a few sources here or there. There was often no other way. I would get on the phone with them, after ideally receiving a carefully laid out list of whom to contact and about what. It often seemed like a silly, pointless exercise, except for one problem.

I always found facts that were wrong. I mean each and every single time, in every single story, no matter how good the writer. And some writers had a lot more mistakes than others. Ranking writers just as much as newbies. And this is where the rubber hit the road for the fact checkers. Your job was to catch these mistakes, including checking all the math. And for this yeoman's work the writer might say "good catch" to you as you showed them the problem. Sometimes these mistakes were dangerous. But you never got any real credit for finding them. But if you ever missed a mistake, watch out brother, it could count against your future at the publication.

Then once you checked you copy, which typically took two to three days for complicated stories -- and by this point my copy would have two different colored inks, highlights and lord knows what else on it -- it would go to an editor, who would often change a bunch of stuff, and introduce a whole group of new facts to check. Some editors at this stage would re-write the whole thing, and leave you scrambling, right before the story was to go to the copy desk to fill in all their blanks.

One editor -- now long gone -- was notorious for coming in, changing the whole story, making an enormous commotion and then going home, leaving the humble fact checker to pick up the pieces. Another editor, also now gone, simply introduced mistakes into stories. Over and over. He would write something new in the story, and then include a little flagged note like this: "Right?" As in: "'And then in 1987 Donald Trump bought the Empire State Building For $25 million. (Right?)'" I exaggerate with just how dumb his mistakes could get, but not by all that much.

But that was all for the future. For now Bob was looking at me, as I tried to grasp the significance of the "double line" system, and which sources could cut it. If I found ten websites that all confirmed the same basic fact could that ever work? What if sources have reason to lie? How do I file all this stuff, and what happens then? All this would be made clear to me, but that's not how he said it. He was impatient to go, and check some facts of his own, but he wanted to make sure he was not liable for me. Because fact checking, at its core, was all about covering ass. This I would learn.

"Yes, I think I get it, thank you Bob," I told him at the end of my hour long lesson. I clutched my ream of sample fact-checked stories from 1999, trying to absorb them. One story was by a writer long gone, about a technology that no one cared about anymore. This was my text and I would study it.

"Okay," he said, not seeming all that convinced, but not seeming all that bothered either. He had a job to do, or at least another job to do after this one. He got up, left the fishbowl and went back to doing what he was good at, checking facts.

I also got up. This would take a lot of precision, an understanding of the law in some cases and even some math, never my favorite subject; which you might find odd for a guy who already worked as a financial journalist, right? Right? Trust me, I wasn't the only one with this problem. You would be surprised.

But I was determined that this wouldn't screw up my new job. This was my shot and I was going to make sure I got it right.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Stella's Birthday Present To Me

My one year old little girl. Happy birthday Stella, from Daddy.

A year, or so, ago when I started this blog I planned to write in it almost every day for about, say, a year. A record, if you will, of my first year as a dad. Well, you can all see how well that worked out. I have been patchy, and not always written about what the Brooklyn Baby is doing, but tonight I will. And for those of you who eagerly await more stories about being a fact checker, worry not, for they are to come.

Stella turned one year old on Tuesday April 14, yesterday. I would've blogged about that day but in true Baby Daddy fashion I came home, ate dinner, and passed out.

But today I am profoundly grateful. Because after all the drama, all the agitation, all the fighting to get our building's management company to do the right thing we got back Stella's blood test and her lead levels were just as they had been when we moved in: too low to measure.

This is an amazing, amazing relief and the best present my girl will ever give me.

Oh, you just can't know how hard we had to fight with these bastards to get them to do the right thing. When we first moved in in November we noticed paint chipping. I had it tested, on my nickel, and it came back lead positive. Our collective needles then moved into the red zone and stayed there until about six hours ago.

There were just so many shenanigans we were subject to. First our building manager didn't want us to tell the city about the lead. We didn't. Then they wanted to send some guys to work on the chipping paint who weren't certified to work on lead. We said no way Jose, and THEN called the city. Oh, that's when the trouble began. We were told we weren't worth the trouble -- after one month living here! -- and that we should go. I was yelled at over the phone for being a pain in the ass.

Then in December we were told they would do the work with an EPA certified technician. I was reassured and stayed home as they did the work all right, but they did it all wrong, dry scraping lead paint, which you should NEVER do. Oh, this was hell. And it lead to tensions here, too, you know.

Then we talked to the city some more, and they said they would come back and test to see if there was more lead. There was. Now they said they would do the work, which we wanted, because New York might be a screwed up town, but the city knows the proper procedures for getting rid of lead paint. So they contacted our building, via letter, and said they would do the work. They showed up, starting doing the work, and then our building manager showed up and threw a fit.

Then our building never did the work.

It just went on, and on, and on. Finally, things got even uglier and words were exchanged all around. Our building manager -- his name rhymes with "geek" -- said some very bad words to Randi. I got on the phone and told that fucker to NEVER talk to my wife like that again. I swear, even now, I could break his goddamned little neck.

They sent teams of workers to do the lead removement work. Workers without any EPA certification, documentation, or even named apparently. We sent them all away. For this the building manager said we were playing games and what the hell did we think we were pulling?

Finally we had an impromptu meeting in our apartment with the building manager, moderated by Housing Preservation and Development, the city agency that handles lead paint removal. HPD told the building, in painstaking detail, how the work should be done. We weren't going to budge one inch. Either do it right or don't do it at all. Period. Then our lawyer talked to them.

And then last week the work was finally done right.

Making matters even more galling when we moved in the building management included a pamphlet saying how lead paint needs to be removed, in complete and thorough detail. But when it was time to remove our pain they ignored their own pamphlet and tried to do everything on the cheap. Like we were migrants fresh off the turnip truck. But they learned something: you don't mess with the Brooklyn Baby Momma. Or even the Daddy.

But today I learned our fight paid off: Stella is healthy and that's all that matters. The fight may have been for naught, we can't know. But it sure feels good that we stuck it out for her.

There is a slumlord mentality some people have, where they think if they have the "power" they can just do whatever they want to you. It's awefully galling for them to learn that here in America tenants have rights. And when you insist on having your rights honored it makes their blood absolutely boil. At this point I enjoy pissing these people off. But it didn't have to be this way.

So thank you Stella Rae. And thank you Randi, for being so fierce: for mopping every week, washing her toys every week, and being the best mother this little fighter could ever ask for. You both make me so proud.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Last Fact Checker

Okay, fact checking was never quite this cool.

Since I've been writing about the business news world a bit recently I thought I would talk a little bit about the job I had about two jobs ago. I was still working at my well known financial news firm at the time, but I was then at the well known financial magazine. I was a reporter by title, but by reality I was a fact checker.

Of course that wasn't how I thought of myself, usually, on most days, when I wasn't busy fact checking. Except for the fact that I fact checked, it felt like, most of the time. When I wasn't doing that I was free to write my own stuff. In fact I had to write my own stuff if I ever wanted to get promoted out of fact checking. But if I had a fact-checking assignment I had to do it first, dammit! Or is it damnit? As a fact checker I would make sure to find out.

Now the only reason I am writing about this former job is because I sense, with the way things are going in the economy, fact checkers are soon to be a bit of quaint ancient history, like men's sock garters, the Charleston and pensions. Although I was hired in 2004 and did it through about two years ago (Note: I would never be able to get away with a weasley word like "about" in fact checking land) in the grand scheme of things I am slated to be, or have been, just about The Last Fact Checker. Sure a few will come after me, but if the clock is striking midnight in financial journalism -- especially at magazines -- I became a fact checker at two minutes 'till.

Although I was already in my 30s when I was hired, and had been a journalist for about 10 years, more or less, and written some truly explosive stuff, more or less, I had never really known what it meant to "check" a fact, more or less. I had written things that were factual, yes, as a journalist that was kind of the job. And I had checked them. But I had never learned THE PROCESS of what actual fact checking was all about.

And, for honesty's sake, I must admit I had made a factual mistake or two (but only two!) in the early part of my career that could have been corrected had I known about the THE PROCESS. For example I once went to an African "auction" in Boulder, I mean Denver. If you have ever been to Boulder, you know that it would be well nigh impossible to get that much cultural diversity into one room. So in Denver. And it was a truly delightful event until I heard someone on stage talk about how the people bidding were so aggressive in their haggling it was like they had just gotten out of synagogue.

Wait ... what? I had been having a good time, but this just went too far. So I wrote it up, and called them out for it. It was honest, tough and ballsy of me. And also wrong. No, I was told on the phone by the organizers, they had said SENEGAL. Where all the jewelry they were auctioning came from. The call ended with them saying why didn't you just call us to check? But I had been there, I had heard it, you know the words sound a lot a like ... but lesson learned. Ouch, but lesson learned.

Thankfully that little event came to nothing, but I learned a valuable lesson, or a few. 1) People overly-concerned anti-Semitism will eventually find it 2) I might want to check that controversial fact twice, even if, no especially if, I heard it in person.

I continued on my job, never again making any mistakes as truly mortifying as the one mentioned above. (After all, hurting race relations is bad enough.) Eventually I became a financial reporter upon moving into New York in 1999. Scorched by the past I always double checked any facts, and made sure to triple check anything from the Internet. Like this blog! I developed a pattern, and it worked, but I didn't find out about just how hard-core it could be to truly "fact check" until the well known financial magazine put me through my paces.

Working in the business world I now understand that often we were the only ones who did check our facts, but there's more time for such musings later.

(More to come. Let's hope tomorrow!)

Some of my favorite things ...

Hi All,
It's been a little while since I put some new pics of the fam up, so I thought I would do so. It's not just Stella this time, but most of the whole mishpuchah.

My wonderful niece Samatha, four years old!

Yours truly and the Brooklyn Baby!

Sophia, sister of Samantha, and a delight! Six years old!

The Brooklyn Baby Bubbie and the BB.

Uncle Stuart and Stella: Both Have The Same Expression!

Stella In The Light. One of my better shots.

Three Wonderful Girls!

My loves: The Brooklyn Baby Momma and the BB.

Aunt Sharon and Stella-Bella.

And, of course, guitars. My old Tele, and my Gibson Firebird. I love them more than they love me.