Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sprechen zie English? Road Trip Epilog

Along the lane, entering Lankow.
(Photos by Bonnie J. Schupp)

A village vanishes
on an Iron Curtain
byway of history

LANKOW, Germany – This is not a dateline anyone will be seeing as Germany celebrates, and other nations remember, Monday’s 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall heralding the end of the Cold War.

More than any other physical barrier, the Berlin Wall symbolized the division between East and West – and between Russian-dominated communism and the American-dominated Free World.

John F. Kennedy delivered one of his most dramatic speeches at the nearby city hall, five months before an assassin’s bullets ended his presidency. “Ich bin ein Berliner” is the phrase most remembered from Kennedy’s speech – but in the context of subsequent events, the speech is well worth reading in its entirety at

Twenty-four years later, delivering one of his most memorable lines, President Ronald Reagan stood at a podium on the Western side of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and implored his Russian counterpart: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (Again, the full text can be found at

But no such speeches were made at Lankow, an 800-year-old village on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain that was deemed too close to the border by its Soviet overseers.

Our German friend Maja traces her roots to Lankow, where her family owned land for six centuries -- until 1962, when the Russians gave them a few hours to pack up their stuff and leave. In the mid-1970s, the Russians bulldozed the village. Lankow was erased.

Maja was born a few years later, and grew up in a nearby town. She was about 10 when the border itself disappeared, and Germany was reunified.

During our recent visit, I had a chance to look at some of Maja’s old family photos that tell another part of the story – particularly the photos of long-deceased family members in German military uniforms. Through two world wars, the Germans were on the wrong side of history, so the pictures seemed eerie to these American (and Jewish) eyes.

The division of Germany in 1945 was a result of those wars, and how Germans fared in subsequent years was for many determined by which side of the border they called home. West Germany received vast aid from the Free World allies and was largely rebuilt, while East Germany was owned and operated by and for the benefit of the Soviet Union.

The Russians clearly felt something was owed them by Germany, for all the death and destruction meted out by the Nazi regime. And under dictator Josef Stalin, Russia served up plenty of retribution – for example, taking over the Sachsenhausen concentration camp where thousands of its captured soldiers had been executed. Over the next few years, the Russians imprisoned Nazis, suspected Nazis, political opponents and just about anyone the Stalin regime wanted to silence.

As a victor in the war, Russia naturally wanted as much of Germany as it could get.

In rural farming villages, where life before and after the war was somewhat simple, there likely was not an enormous amount of change. Our friend Maya, recalling her early years, said she had a normal childhood – and politics was not evident as part of it. Life was about friends and family, in ample supply.

But you stayed away from the border – which included among its security measures high electric fences, barbed wire, mine fields, concrete trenches, guard dogs, lookout towers and sentry posts with armed soldiers, even a well-manicured stretch of dirt for telltale footprints of anyone daring or crazy enough to attempt a crossing.

For all the normalcy of village life, East Germany itself had become a very large prison, and during the two generations after World War II the fence around it became steadily more impenetrable – while outside this prison, West Germany was a democracy growing in prosperity.

Life was a little crazier in Berlin, where the western sectors were pretty much an island of freedom entirely landlocked by East Germany. One of our friends there, who is a member of a rowing club, recalled an acquaintance who paddled too far from the shore of the river on the border between West Berlin and Russian-controlled Potsdam and was fatally shot.

The economic disparity between the two Berlins became increasingly evident over the years – including new construction that was changing the skyline of the Western side.

In the latter years of the division, Western culture was also having an impact. A photographic history of the Reichstag, which houses the German legislature, includes a 1988 Michael Jackson concert staged outside the building on the western side of the wall. It prompted increased security on the eastern side to keep crowds away. A month later, Bruce Springsteen was allowed to perform in East Berlin and his concert attracted a crowd estimated at 160,000.

When the wall figuratively came down the night of Nov. 9, 1989, and as border checkpoints across the country soon followed suit, people from the East stepped, danced, climbed and drove across to joyous greetings from their neighbors of the West. Formal reunification took nearly a year, but the physical, economic and social rebuilding of much of East Germany – and particularly the former East Berlin – continues.

Touring remains of the wall, traveling through the modern developments and restored historical buildings of the former West Berlin and seeing new construction as well as many starkly unimproved areas in the East, were a fascinating part of a monthlong trip through Germany in September.

But I remain haunted by Lankow, a ghost town whose existence in northern Germany is remembered by a sign erected along a country lane by Maja’s uncles – and by an official memorial stone placed later in what had been the village center. There’s also a display board with a map of the village, and pictures of houses with names of the families that had lived in them. The area is now a nature preserve.
Maja, holding Stella next to the memorial stone.
We visited Lankow as an ideal place for my wife Bonnie to photograph Maja, her American husband Jeremy and their toddler daughter Stella, late one afternoon. And we walked around, exploring remnants of homesteads bulldozed by the Russians – bricks and stones from walls, a chunk of metal from an old stove, bits of broken porcelain. Down the hill, near the river, Maja tells us, there’s rusty farm equipment. But it was not a place we could easily reach without heavier clothing, boots, and maybe a weed-whacker to clear a path.

I picked a few wild apples and pears from trees that had outlived the town.

Sheep were grazing in a nearby field.

It’s a very peaceful place, this village on the wrong side of history, and worth remembering.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mourning my brother

Larry was 6½ years old when I was born, and very disappointed. He really wanted a pony. And looking back, he probably would have been much happier growing up with a big four-legged pet – after all, he got blamed for nearly everything. He was the older brother.

We could not have been more unlike. I was the sickly kid, and always had my face buried in a book – the Freddy the Pig series in early elementary years, then sports books, finally science fiction. I could toss down three novels in a summer afternoon, sitting on the front porch of our rowhouse on Northwest Baltimore’s Royce Avenue.

My brother was gifted at sports, athletic and graceful. In high school, there was JV football and basketball, varsity swimming and track. He became a Baltimore public schools physical education teacher in 1962 – assigned that fall to his high school alma mater, Baltimore City College (Class of ’57). I was there, too, entering my senior year – and blessed with a doctor’s note that kept me out of the gym. I had my nose behind a book with an extra period of study hall.

Some days he’d pick me up and drive me to school -- charging 25 cents toward the gas. (“Times were a little tough back then,” he’d later explain, smiling.)

Larry – Jerome Lawrence Ettlin -- was born in June 1939, some 2½ years before Pearl Harbor. I came along in January 1946, at the leading edge of the post-war Baby Boomer era. Some of my friends were younger brothers of some of his friends. But we siblings really didn’t get along. And he stayed as far away from me as possible – and out of the line of fire of parental blame – as we grew up.

I fondly remember the year of the cranberry-carcinogen scare, the only Thanksgiving we didn’t squabble over the cranberry sauce. He urged me to eat all of it that I wanted.

I was about 15 when he married Natalie and moved out for good.

I didn’t miss him, not then. I was just beginning to figure out who I was – and teaching myself to type with two fingers down in the concrete-floor basement, on a metal table next to the oil-burner furnace, giving birth to eventual life as a writer. Four years later, I was marrying and moving out, finding my own way through myriad mistakes and misadventures.

Our paths crossed from time to time, like the day of a supposed race riot at one of my old schools, Pimlico Junior High. He was a teacher there, and I knew some of its other faculty members from my adolescent days. TV crews surrounded the school on the heels of an incorrect broadcast news report describing the “racial” fighting that broke out in Pimlico’s cafeteria. But it was, pure and simple, a food fight – one kid hit another with a dish of food, and it just erupted. And I was covering the melee in my relatively new gig as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.

His career as a teacher lasted 30 years, and included a stint at Baltimore’s William S. Baer School for the multiply disabled. The fact that he bore a strong resemblance to comic actor Jerry Lewis – and that some colleagues knew him as “Jerry” – served my brother well, as the school year opened after the annual Labor Day weekend Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon. And he truly loved the school, since the children he worked with looked forward to being there and the attention they received every day. Life doubtless looks different, growing up in a wheelchair. And even after retirement, he kept in touch as a volunteer at Special Olympics events in the city.

I can’t recall exactly how and when my brother and I began seeing each other as adults, and the gap between our differences began shrinking.

Maybe it was the open invitation in the summer months to spend time at the suburban swim club he managed – and where our daughters were getting to know each other. I spent time there through my three marriages, lounging poolside or playing a little tennis with him and then his older son, and watching my older daughter and then my younger daughter jumping off the diving board.

Maybe it was our shared genes -- particularly the bad one that ran on the male side of our family, manifesting itself as Crohn’s disease.

Then there was sharing the loss of parents – our father 20 years ago, at 78, and our mother in 2007 at the age of 92. And we’d meet up by chance now and then, visiting the nursing home where our Aunt Alice, at 102, has lived since losing a leg to a blood clot in her mid-90s.

For all the friction growing up, the bond of family was always biding its time.

I’ve learned about family through my nearly 45 years of marriage – and often joked that you have to divide by 3 to get the average. (I have learned from experience, however – as witness the current relationship with wife Bonnie nearing a 30th anniversary.)

My brother’s one marriage lasted 48 years, and if you count courtship, their relationship spanned more than half a century. You see relationships from a distance and maybe don’t appreciate their magnitude. They had two sons, Greg and Ross, and a daughter, Carol, and now a 14-year-old grandson, Jadon, but the real measure of their relationship… well, I witnessed that in recent weeks.

My wife Bonnie and I last sat down socially with Larry and Nat August 31, at the reception after attending the graveside funeral in Baltimore’s Rosedale suburb for our uncle Joseph Mignogna. We had driven our cars a short distance from the synagogue cemetery of that part of the family, to a neighboring cemetery where our parents and grandparents and half a dozen uncles rest. My brother could not recall the spot where our maternal grandmother was buried after dying of influenza in 1919. I took him to the weathered headstone of Jennie Kaplan, and then he showed me to the resting spot of Jennie’s husband David, who died in 1945 exactly a year before my birth and accounted for my name.

On Sept. 3, Bonnie and I flew to Germany to begin a monthlong visit to friends in Europe.

Two days later, I received the first of what became nearly daily emails sent by my niece – her father… my brother, emergency surgery, a strangulated bowel, blood circulation to heart and lungs affected, more surgery, unresponsive for more than a week, organs failing.

I didn’t expect to see him again. I’d close my eyes at night, in Germany, and think back to our uncle’s funeral, and Larry and I standing together as the rabbi explained the gift we offer at the burial, in each of us taking the shovel in hand and sprinkling earth gently down atop the wooden casket adorned only with a carved Star of David.

My brother turned the shovel’s blade sideways, and the clay earth spilled out and down. Then I added my offering. “It is a service you offer, something they cannot do for themselves,” the rabbi said.

Uncle Joe was family, the husband of our mother’s baby sister, a World War II combat veteran, the father of our cousins Diane and Marc, a guy who played saxophone, loved jazz, a Catholic from Philadelphia who became a Jew after marrying our youngest aunt. Funny to think that way. Our mother’s baby sister, Zelda, she’s 85 years old. The years spin past so quickly, you want to reach out and reverse the clock and remember their little Christmas tree around Hanukkah time, the little round backyard swimming pool, Wiffle ball on the tiny patch of lawn. In the end, his last months in a nursing home, Uncle Joe would remember little if any of this – Alzheimer’s having taken away the treasures that should accrue with age.

Then I’d see us standing at our parents’ shared headstone, and placing a small stone atop it – a tradition, a sign of remembrance, that you’ve visited. The stones eventually vanish. I bring more. I pick them carefully, bringing back a few from every trip, every beautiful place I find… from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, Germany’s Baltic coast….

We were back home Oct. 7, and the next day arrived at Sinai Hospital to find Larry awake and alert, but still gravely ill – and machines everywhere. Dialysis. Ventilator. Feeding. Draining. Pumping. There had been a long spell, nearly two weeks into our trip, when Larry had been pretty much unconscious. And pneumonia – repeatedly. Infections – repeatedly.

He saw us, and he smiled. I told him stories about our adventures in Europe, about visiting the London foundry that cast the Liberty Bell and Big Ben, and how our friend who works there gave us a rare tour, and how we saw bells cast in the 15th century that were back in the factory for new fittings. A bronze bell can last pretty much forever, but the fittings that hold it in the steeple eventually wear out, every 150 years or so – and we touched a bell resting on the foundry floor, awaiting fittings. The bell’s still-vivid inscription had the year of its casting: 1417.

Nearly six centuries, and the bell just needs new fittings and back in the steeple it goes.

If only we held up as well, I told him. And he smiled again.

I told him about a little feature I’d read on the British Air flight home, in the Times of London, in which notable authors related their “eureka” moments of discovery that opened the way for them to write. One account was of a scientist’s explanation that we are all made of stardust from cosmic explosions.

“Recycled stardust,” I said. “We’re recycled stardust.”

He smiled, and I added: “Next time around, I do not want to come back as a frog.”

We’ve been home two weeks now, and I’ve been back to the hospital as often as possible, seen a few good days but more that were mostly bad. And at every turn, up or down, Natalie is sitting at his bedside in the intensive care unit in a sterile-blue gown, her latex-gloved hand patting his wrist, her hand in his hand. “Squeeze my hand, sweetie,” she’d whisper, and sometimes there’d be a little pressure in response – and sometimes a little stronger.

Stroking his white hair, his forehead: “Be strong. Keep on being subborn.”

“I love you,” she’d whisper.

Breathing through a tracheotomy, Larry would move his lips in a silent reply: “I love you too.”

His eyebrows were expressive. “Do you want the TV turned on?” The eyebrows reply, “Doesn’t matter.”

A nurse brings a syringe and reaches for one of the incoming tubes. The eyebrows ask, “What?”

And occasionally, the eyebrows show frustration at being helpless, at losing nearly all control of one’s life. The eyebrows are easier to read than lips.

The news from the medical team was never good. With every short upswing in being alert and communicative came deeper downswings. There was a morning one week ago when his heartbeat became erratic, and they almost lost him. And there were unanswerable questions – if his heart stops, resuscitate? Crack his chest? Use the electric paddles? Let him go?

And what about treatment – how long to fight every worsening complication? When do you, when does he, say, “Enough!” When does anyone lose the will to go on? When do you surrender? Can you surrender? Should you surrender?

Natalie sat at his bedside, fighting for every moment – and encouraging him at every turn to be strong.

“I want to go home,” he would say, and so long as there was the slightest of chances of that happening, even if it meant a year or two years of sitting at his bedside and sharing her amazing strength and love, she would not yield. “I’m taking you home. We’re going to get you home. Be stubborn. Keep fighting, Lar.”

They managed a few days ago to play an hour of poker, his hobby.

“Who won?” I asked Nat.

“He did,” she said.

“That’s good,” I smiled.

“I threw away a pair of aces. If I had a pair, I threw it away.”

She needed him to win, willed him to win.

And I tried not to cry. Two aces. A simple moment of truth, of clarity, at this small, loving sacrifice.

Natalie was beyond heroic. If there is a height of bravery, she was looking down on it… with Larry at her side.

The surgeon talked with us earlier this week, about the options: escalating treatment should more complications arise; maintaining full life support and current levels of care in hoping for a turnaround in his condition; or focusing on medication to control pain while basically de-escalating the fight.

Late Tuesday afternoon, an endoscopic examination indicated deterioration of what little remained of the intestines, but Wednesday the surgeon offered a last option – one more longshot against giving up hope – to attempt surgery that would remove the damaged section and maybe the root of the infection process. There was also the possibility he would not survive the operation.

Larry was weak, but alert – and was asked whether he wanted and would agree to the risky surgery, and told that the alternative was also very bleak. He wasn’t rushed. We waited another hour for all the pain medication to wear off, and asked if he had thought about it, if he could say whether to go ahead and try it. The reply was a weak affirmative nod to going ahead and, later, his raised thumb and forefinger formed a little circle, an “OK.”

For a few minutes, as Natalie left the room, I sat in her chair and looked into my brother’s eyes that were open just a slit.

“There’s that other operation,” I said. “How about a whole-body transplant?”

He smiled back and nodded.

With Natalie and son Greg at his side, Larry motioned that he wanted to write something, and was handed a pen – then could not control it enough to make it do his bidding on a clipboard-held sheet of paper. He pointed the pen instead to a sheet of large printed letters of the alphabet, and circled the letter J, and drew a line to the next, A. Then he pointed it to the others… D, O, N.

The anesthesiologist and a team of nurses came a few minutes past 7 p.m., and Natalie gently kissed his forehead. The entourage rolled his bed out of the room, past me at the doorway, and I could see his eyes were open. Then he was rolling down the long hallway of the hospital’s ICU wing. I saw only the white hair on the top of his head, and then he was gone.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sprechen zie English? Road Trip Part 3

A familiar slogan appears on the gate at Sachsenhausen. Below, Ernst Strnad. (Photos by Bonnie Schupp)

This place of
horror speaks
against those
who would
deny history

From Oranienburg, Germany

Among the German concentration camps of World War II, the name Sachsenhausen was unknown to me before a recent visit to the town of Oranienburg, a bit more than 20 miles northeast of Berlin.

Here, architects of the Nazi regime and the prison officers and commandants who would build, open and run the better-known places like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald worked out and practiced the best ways to dehumanize and murder their victims.

Some were Jewish, but far more were prisoners of war, opponents of the regime, gypsies, intellectuals -- all undesirable to the Hitler regime that grew in power and terror several years before the German invasion of Poland and an explosion of war that would consume more than 50 million lives.

The death toll includes soldiers and civilians alike, but those who were tortured and killed in the camps -- also in the millions -- are the numbers that people looking back on this darkest of ages more often recite.

Tens of thousands were murdered at Sachsenhausen, where more than 200,000 people were imprisoned between its opening in 1936 and the war's end in 1945. They were shot or hung in groups or individually, gassed, starved, frozen, beaten.

We were met on the visitors' parking lot by Ernst Strnad, an 81-year-old Czech-born writer and translator who checks on our nationalities (Bonnie and I from the U.S., and German friends Beate and Ellen) and engages us in a little conversation in English about his late father -- a survivor whose various camp confinements as a political prisoner included Sachsenhausen.

Strnad could recall the day his father was arrested by the Nazi invaders of Czechoslovakia – a trade unionist, he had openly spoken out against the rising tide of facism and had nowhere to hide after his country fell to the Germans.

From the inner pocket of his sportjacket, Strnad plucks a thin and worn leather wallet of papers, including the text in German of President Barack Obama's speech in his June visit to Buchenwald – and Strnad’s own Who's Who in the World biography.

And he offers to guide us through the place, for a donation of 5 euros that supports publication of his books. It was a modest sum (a tad under $7.50 at the current exchange rate), given the expertise of our guide.

He begins the walking tour along a tree-shaded lane that seemed close to a quarter-mile length of a block-and-concrete wall topped with what once was electrified wires.

We stop periodically, Strnad pointing out features like the wiring and the guard tower, with each fact of his litany preceded by the words, “You must know this….”

At first I thought he assumed we already knew what he was about to tell us, but then I realized the emphasis was on the word must – the importance that we know this and that about Sachsenhausen, which was built by prisoners on the edge of Oranienburg and was a successor to a smaller concentration camp that had stood in a more visible center-of-town location from 1933 to 1934.

At the end of the lane, we reach the entrance and see the chilling words ornamentally crafted into the metal gate: ARBEIT MACHT FREI.

The approximate translation: Work makes you free.

That same message was placed later above the gateway to the better-known Auschwitz concentration camp that opened in 1940 in Poland, and where mass killings were vastly expanded – with extermination of targeted populations the object.

The gas chamber for killing and crematorium for victim disposal had already been experimented with at Sachsenhausen, where the sign on the gate was contradicted by this grim reality for many: The only way out was “through the chimney.”

Still, many prisoners left Sachsenhausen – transferred to other camps for various purposes, probably most to eventually die or be murdered in the Nazi camps.

The Roma (gypsies) and Russian prisoners of war by the thousands may have fared the worst at Sachsenhausen, where evidence remains of their deaths – gallows, a firing squad trench, even a measuring device where prisoners were told to stand for height examination and a fatal bullet was fired into the neck through a hole in a wall.

For awhile, the Nazis produced documentation aimed at showing more legitimate causes of deaths, particularly for the Roma, who were subjected to medical experimments. The supposed proof of natural causes of death was charted in autopsy reports after cursory post-mortem examinations. The autopsy room is still there.

Strnad, our guide, points out a prison building within the prison – an oddity but not a redundancy. This little prison building was run by the Gestapo, for special guests and torment. Among them was the Rev. Martin Niemöller, a religious leader whose crime against Adolf Hitler was preaching resistance to the barbarism overtaking Germany.

On the eastern side of the border, Sachsenhauser was used by the Russians for five years after the war – housing over that time an estimated 60,000 prisoners in an odd turnabout for a place where its soldiers had been systematically lined up and shot. About a fifth of the Russians’ prisoners died, mostly of malnutrition and disease, according to a history pamphlet on the concentration camp.

Of the dozens of large barracks-style buildings that housed prisoners, only two remain – despite an arson attack by neo-Nazis in an attempt to erase even them a few years after the 1989 dismantling of the wall that had divided East and West Germany.

One is now a museum, with an unexpectedly large display space under the barracks where you could spend hours looking at every bit of documentation on the killers of Sachsenhausen and their victims. We had perhaps half an hour there, and came out to find Strnad waiting for us.

There were a few more things that “you must know,” like how prisoners were used to test boots and shoes by walking around a track, carrying heavy packs until they dropped in exhaustion. Or how an occasional prisoner would be singled out at roll call for a public beating or fatal torture. Or design features like the path inside the perimeter wall that was, in essence, a death zone for anyone foolhardy enough to attempt an escape.

Sachsenhausen was, in essence, a model prison… at least for the Nazis. It became the headquarters for the entire network of an unimaginably vast killing machine.

The visit left me wondering how, seven decades after the Nazi invasion of Poland officially ignited World War II, anyone – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad comes to mind – could deny the horror.

Coming attractions: East meets West, and a close-up look at remains of the Iron Curtain.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sprechen zie English?: Road Trip Interlude

Down at the coal mine,
then a memorial ceremony
for a few Holocaust victims

For all the readers following this blog (hopefully lots of you!), Part 3 has been delayed a bit by how busy Bonnie and I have been since leaving Berlin -- spending three days with friends in Rosbach, then moving on to visit an iStock photographer in a little town near Dortmund. We've been doing what you'd expect -- photography. Wednesday, for example, we toured an old coal mine industrial complex, Zollvererin, that is now a tourist attraction -- and I (believe it or not) modeled for photos suggestive of dying industry.

Part 3, now partly written, will focus on a concentration camp that doesn't get as much press as the big names like Auschwitz and Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. You just can't escape the horrors that emanated from Germany seven decades ago, as bits of that history turn up everywhere -- even when you are not seeking them.

Late this afternoon, for example, returning to our host Sylvia's apartment building in suburban Frondenberg, we heard music from a small park just below. It was a dedication ceremony for an improved memorial to the few Holocaust victims of the community. There were few Jewish people in this part of town in the Nazi era, but those who were here and perished are remembered.

Soon to come -- a photo of the dedication ceremony, and then Part 3 with the truly terrible story of the place near Berlin where killing techniques were designed and practiced, and future Nazi concentration camp commandants were trained.

Although this blog has slowed a bit, Bonnie has been posting pictures and short accounts in her Journeys blog. We collaborated there as I wrote the narrative captions for nearly a dozen photos from just one rainy day's adventures. Check them out at

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Sprechen zie English? Road Trip Part 2

(Photo by a Chinese guy)
David and Bonnie join hands with tourists at East Side Gallery.

Backs against The Wall:
Close encounter of the
international kind

We visited Berlin's East Side Gallery Wednesday afternoon, and found first-hand just how topsy-turvy our world has turned in a mere 20 years.

The gallery consists of murals painted on a nearly mile-long surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall that cut through the heart of the city in a division of East and West -- nation and world -- from 1961 until its astonishing fall in November 1989 that led within months to Germany's reunification.

This section of the Wall blocked access to the eastern bank of the River Spree, a killing zone for anyone managing to cross the concrete barrier embodying the Cold War era's Iron Curtain.

Now there are gaps, one of which houses a souvenir house where tourists can pay to have an East Berlin stamp added to their passports. Another leads to a beach-style restaurant and beer garden.

We strolled slowly along the sidewalk on what once was deadly territory for those daring to attempt escape from East Berlin, and took in the more than 100 works of outdoor art. Then we stopped to watch a group of tourists posing for group pictures. They joined hands in a chain, with the wall art as a backdrop.

I offered to take the camera from one man so he could pose with the rest of his group, then Bonnie and I were invited to join in the human chain of hands, and our picture was taken in the group. We raised our linked hands together, strangers smiling together.

"Where are you all from?" I asked a seeming 40-something woman in the group, speaking slowly so she might understand my English.

"Welcome to China," she replied.

So there we were, global East meeting West at what once stood as the border of ideology -- communist and so-called free world.

You wonder how to say, in German or Chinese: "We´ve come a long way, baby!"

Saturday, September 5, 2009

On the Road Again: Sprechen zie English?

(Photo by Bonnie Schupp)

Germans young and old
take to the streets
in anti-nuclear protest
No matter where we go, Bonnie and I seem to find adventures purely by chance -- and that seems to be the case for our latest road trip, this time in Germany.

Barely recovered from jet lag after a Thursday/Friday overnight flight to Berlin, we've been to a massive anti-nuclear demonstration Saturday afternoon at the base of the Brandenburg Gate, followed by the final night of an international fireworks competition at the historic Olympic Stadium where the black American track star Jesse Owens won gold in the face of Hitler's growing Nazi might.

A crowd clearly numbering in the tens of thousands, including a parade of theme-decorated tractors and trucks, stretched as far as the eye could see westward from the old border crossing of the Cold War era's divided Berlin. Opponents of nuclear energy included young and old, in a turnout showing free expression is robust in the German capital.

The demonstration came three weeks before national elections, and though the Green party is very much a minority, the activists were voicing strong opposition to incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel who is viewed as pro-nuclear and a threat to delay or block Germany's planned closure of atomic energy plants by 2020.

Many of the tractors and demonstrators came from the area of Gorleben in eastern Germany, the site of a nuclear waste dump. Among the many colorful posters and banners waved and displayed, my favorite was a simple yellow sign declaring: Gorleben ist überall.

The translation, provided by our German friends and hosts Beate and Ellen: "Gorleben is everywhere."
Nearby, two seeming teenagers stood and waved large signs atop a giant trojan horse clearly symbolic of the dangers foreseen from atomic plants and nuclear waste.
Our friends told us how once a year, a train hauling nuclear travels across Germany in a trip slowed by protesters who sit on the tracks until carried away by the police.
Peaceful protest, too, is alive and well here.
Media accounts put the number of protesters in the range of 50,000, and the tractors at about 400 -- enough to produce a bit of traffic chaos. But we got there by the Underground subway -- our first journey using the local mass transit.
I stopped at a tourist information shop near the Brandenburg gate and asked if there was a map of the transit system in English.
"Why would you want one?" asked a young man working at the counter. "All the stops and signs are in German."
But he offered a subway map with larger letters, making the German easier to read for my 2.5-magnification-assisted eyes.
After returning to our friends' apartment for dinner, we ventured out to Olympic Stadium about a mile away and stood in the occasional light drizzle and breezy chill to watch the aerial part of the fireworks show (and the glow and flashes from ground displays inside).
Some of the bursts were unlike any we've seen in Baltimore. It would have been nice if international fireworks competitions had scouts from the States to check out the latest in big bang shows.
Check back later for more of Bonnie's photos, and our continuing venture into another country where, frankly, my lack of foreign language skills makes every day a little unpredictable.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Movie review: Julie & Julia

Adams, Streep
and plenty of butter
combine in recipe
for charming film

For the second time in less than a year, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams are together again on the big screen – sort of.

The movie this time around, “Julie & Julia,” combines food, relationships and writing, all of which are close to my heart (and tummy). That, along with the appealing co-stars and an overdose of charm, accounts for why I so enjoyed it during a preview screening Thursday night courtesy of the Maryland Film Festival.

You’d also think it makes for a perfect chick flick, but wife Bonnie Schupp wasn’t as enamored and gave “J&J” a pair of downer digits. Her main complaint: Insufficient conflict.

Well, we managed to disagree with each other on the ride home – but with even less actual conflict than contained in the plot. She also felt it dragged a bit.

But since this is my blog (and I do most of the cooking in our kitchen), I get an extra vote. That’s only fair.

In parallel story lines half a century apart, Streep playfully depicts the mid-life period in which Child takes her first cooking lessons and embarks with two friends on the book project that would help make her famous, while Adams takes on the role of wannabe writer Julie Powell, who at the suggestion of her husband begins blogging on a subject near to her heart: Cooking.

And it’s not just any kind of cooking, but taking on all 524 recipes in Child and friends’ famed “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” in 365 days.

Predictably, the blog gets some notice and by the end of the story, Julie seems to be on her way toward a book deal, and Julia is last seen as a copy of her own just-published book arrives in the mail. Two women – both writers and cooks -- some 50 years apart, one channeling the other.

A few quibbles: What served for conflict between Julie and her husband seemed contrived, and the setting of the last meal from the book – on a rooftop with a magical million-dollar New York view – came a little out of nowhere, given their bland 900-square-foot apartment on the floor above a working-class neighborhood pizzaria.

Streep and Adams were last paired as nuns in the harder-hitting drama “Doubt,” focusing on suspected priestly sexual abuse of a young Catholic boy. Bonnie and I also disagreed on that film – she liked it a lot, and I was ambivalent. It was hardly a chick flick.

In their new film, written for the screen and directed by Nora Ephron, Streep was amazingly believable as Julia, and Adams an appealing and alluring 30-year-old Julie. I would have been thrilled to sit down at the dinner table with either of them, but I’ll settle for the movie. It was just charming, and the world needs a little more of that these days.

Julie & Julia opens nationwide Aug. 7. I can only hope your theater offers up some French pastries instead of the usual popcorn and butter-flavored oil that doubtless would make both characters ill.

For more about the film, check out its Web site at

Speaking of food blogs

My old pal Cheryl Tan, who formerly wrote at The Baltimore Sun and Wall Street Journal among other accomplishments, has a deal on writing a book and been blogging on food since April, so she can’t be accused of playing copycat here.

And her blog is a terrific read. Check it out at

It usually makes me hungry, but then some of the food she discovers also makes me cringe… and laugh at the same time.

Blogging vacation

I am amazed that dozens of people have visited The Real Muck each day, even though I’d taken a break through largely unintended summer laziness since my last posting on June 11 – on the Holocaust museum shooting.

Since then, the world has rolled on quite nicely – well, with a few newsy bumps in the road. Pop star Michael Jackson and football quarterback Steve McNair went belly-up, each in bizarre fashion, and there’s been unrest in Iran, American refocusing of war efforts back in the country where it first belonged, and my favorite baseball team lingers in last-place despite many new and promising players. At least in baseball, I look forward to next year with a little more optimism.

Among the subjects covered earlier by The Real Muck, a few need updates… like the last man out at The Baltimore Sun in the wake of the newsroom personnel massacre, and the season-ender for the Baltimore Burn women’s tackle football team.

At The Sun, talented reporter Gadi Dechter took a voluntary layoff last month, collecting a few weeks’ pay and saving a job slot for some other colleague at the downsizing Tribune Co.-owned newspaper. Dechter first made a name for himself locally at the weekly City Paper, where he reported on local media including The Sun – which then brought him aboard and gave him the beat on higher education, and subsequently the State House.

Unlike most others leaving the newspaper recently, Dechter had a new job already lined up – at Bloomberg News Service. He bid farewell in a heartfelt note telling of his fears of being inexperienced and inadequate when he joined The Sun, and thanking colleagues for giving him support and encouragement. He was, and remains, a class act – and from the day he arrived on the staff had far more talent than he gave himself credit for.

On the gridiron, the Burn ladies finished with a 5-3 record, according to Women’s Football Alliance league statistics -- a hair short of the playoffs as a divisional runner-up. The last game on the schedule didn’t happen as the New Jersey Titans bused in to Baltimore, where a pre-game rain had left a few muddy pools in an otherwise mowed-and-fit City College field, and refused to play. Oddly, the league Web site lists the game as a 6-0 win by the Titans. Go figure.

The Burn lost twice during the season to the undefeated Philadelphia Liberty Belles – the first time on a lopsided score of 43-8, but the second much closer at 13-10 after a late-game heart-breaker Burn fumble near the Belles’ goal line. The difference in the scoring showed just how much the Burn had improved over the course of the season.

The Burn Web site ( reports that the first tryouts for the 2010 season will take place at noon on Saturday, August 8, at Herring Run Park. If you check out the Web site’s Picture Gallery, you’ll find many of the 2009 game and team photos were taken by Bonnie, whose free efforts won her the designation “team photographer.” There’s links at the site to Bonnie’s football game photos at SmugMug, where devoted Burn fans (and staffers, players and their friends and relatives) can order prints at nominal prices.
Today's fortune cookie message
You will make a profitable investment.
Daily number: 140

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Holocaust memories

Attack in D.C. brings to mind
another sad day at the museum

The murderous attack Wednesday at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by a crazy octogenarian American nazi brought to mind my last journey there, at the behest of a houseguest who had been a child in Germany during World War II – and a victim of sorts.

Leo, our visitor, shared a few of his time-dimmed memories – the first of them being Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass in November 1938, when Hitler’s thugs began in earnest the genocide that would claim some 6 million European Jews and untold millions of others.

Among the thousands of homes and businesses ransacked as Jews were rounded up, and thousands deported to concentration camps, was a neighborhood confectionery. Leo’s memory was of his asking his parents why the candy store had been destroyed, and not getting much of an answer.

Eventually, Leo said, his family had to move to a town in Poland.

His father – a Nazi official – had been appointed as its de-facto mayor.

Leo’s next shared memory, a little more vivid, comes from late in the war: His mother hurriedly packing the car, and big guns firing in the distance that heralded a Russian advance. His family fled back to Germany, and survived. Leo said his father was sent to some sort of re-education camp, and subsequently came home – and did not speak of his role as a Nazi before dying in the 1950s.

But Leo, as he grew up, learned what happened in the war and eventually moved to America. A retired physician in his early 70s, Leo wanted to visit the Holocaust museum to see firsthand the evidence that so much cruelty and murder had left behind – walk through a rail car that had carried the victims to death camps, see the room filled with their shoes, see the pictures of people who vanished into gas chambers and ovens and mass graves, mothers, fathers, children.

Leo wept. It was the legacy of his father: Guilt and overwhelming sorrow for horrors that had surrounded his childhood.

And I, who grew up Jewish in Northwest Baltimore, put an arm around him offering consolation.

Maybe 88-year-old James W. von Brunn is also a victim. He is, after all, afflicted with a disease all too common in the United States: Hatred. And after voicing it for years, von Brunn, a convicted felon, stepped out of his car and into the museum Wednesday carrying a rifle. In the ensuing exchange of gunfire, von Brunn was critically wounded and a security guard was killed.

Accounts of the event describe von Brunn as, among other things, a white supremacist. His victim Wednesday, Stephen T. Johns, who had worked at the museum for six years, was an African American – and, with the other guards whose quick action protected a crowd of visiting schoolchildren and tourists from injury, a hero.

The slain security guard likely was on duty the day that Leo and I took our sad walk back through time.

To see a few photos from that day, check out Bonnie's Journeys blog at

Friday, June 5, 2009

Women’s tackle football

Tydesha Mayo heads for a score in Burn's May 2 victory against Binghamton. (Photo by Bonnie J. Schupp)

Baltimore Burn need
a field of their own

Team playing all over the (city) map

The Baltimore Burn take the field – but not the same field – Saturday afternoon in a women’s tackle football league season that has been up and down, and all over the Baltimore map.

Trouble is, the Burn lack a regular home field as the team has bounced from high school to high school – from the luxury of artificial turf at Mergenthaler Vo-Tech’s immaculate Art Modell Field, to the rougher grass surface at Northwestern High. The June 6 game will see yet another home field, this one at Patterson High.

“We need a field we can call our own,” says co-owner and defensive tackle Debra Miller, adding that for all the cost of renting a school field, a little consistency of place would be nice.

The team played last year in Annapolis, on what Miller says was “a beautiful field.” But it was also too far away from Baltimore for the team to grow its fan base and build up sponsorships and fund-raising. Home game attendance – in the low 100’s at best this year – is clearly not bringing in enough money to pay the bills. (Tickets are $10 for regular admission, but discounted for children, seniors and folks in public safety or the military.

Complicating the Women’s Football Alliance league team’s quest for field space is the fact that it’s not the only women’s tackle football squad in town. Its May 2 game was moved to Northwestern while the Mervo field was being used that day by the Baltimore Nighthawks playing against the Detroit Demolition, both in the Independent Women’s Football League. (According to the league Web site, the Nighthawks fielded only 14 players but managed to hold off Detroit through three scoreless quarters before losing 14-0.)

As for the up-and-down part of its season, the Burn squad won its scheduled road opener through a forfeit when the Connecticut Cyclones sent word it could not field a team. A week later, the Burn’s April 25 home opener at Mervo wasn’t very pretty: A 43-6 loss to the Philadelphia Liberty Belles.

On May 2, at Northwestern, a better-prepared Burn team whipped the Binghamton Tiger Cats 36-0, and that was the score after just half a game. The Tiger Cats’ coach took the visiting team off the field early in the third quarter, complaining about the playing surface and ending the injury-marred game as a Binghamton player lay nearly immobile on the field awaiting an ambulance. (It took nearly 20 minutes after a 911 call before the first responders arrived – a Baltimore fire truck crew – followed about 10 minutes later by a city fire ambulance.)

In a road game in Pennsylvania May 9, the Burn notched a 20-16 win over the Keystone Assault, then returned north May 30 and showed how much it had improved in a road game against the Liberty Belles, losing 13-10 (a far cry from the home-opener loss of 43-8 to the same team). Miller said the Burn had three touchdowns called back on penalties. And a Burn fumble deep in Philadelphia territory late in the game sealed the loss.

Philadelphia, which has defeated Baltimore twice this season, sits in first place undefeated in five games.

The third-place Burn, officially 3-2 on the season, take on the Assault again on Saturday. Kickoff is 4 p.m. at Patterson High, 100 Kane Street.

After that, just two games remain on the regular season schedule – June 13 at Binghamton, and the home finale June 20 against the New Jersey Titans. Exactly where that game will be played – well, we’ll let you know.

The future of newspapers

If you’ve been following The Real Muck reports on the Baltimore Sun layoffs and changes shrinking the print editions while focusing increasingly online, check out this report on a related panel discussion held Tuesday with participants who included its current editor and his predecessor:

The account above, by Joan Jacobson, links to another by panel participant Mark Potts that elaborates somewhat on what he had to say

Far more entertaining is an article by Maryland Daily Record editor Tom Linthicum, who made some remarks from the floor Tuesday. Tom, a colleague in my days at The Sun, interviewed former Sun editors Bill Marimow and John Carroll, former deputy managing editor Marty Kaiser (now heading the Milwaukee newspaper) and former Sun publisher Mike Waller. Their remarks are very interesting and occasionally amusing, like this tidbit from Waller, who was my favorite among the more than half-a-dozen publishers I outlasted at the Baltimore newspaper:

“Tribune management confuses innovation with idiocy. I could wear my underwear over my trousers and Tribune would think that’s innovation. Everybody else would think I was wacko.”

Daily Record reporter Liz Farmer also reported on the panel:

But what about The Real Muck? I’m still thinking about what to say. Some of what I heard leaves me at a loss for words. But I’ll be playing back my tinny digital recording of the event, because something… actually, a lot of things… bother me.

Daily fortune cookie message

All this stuff about newspapers has distracted me from a fun feature on this blog – although it has not kept me from eating too often at the Szechuan Café two miles up the road from my suburban Pasadena paradise.

But here’s tonight’s message of hope: You are never bitter, deceptive or petty.

Daily number: 647

Friday, May 29, 2009

Newspapers: Staff shuffles, angst at The Sun

Bumping, new layoffs,
a reporter’s job recall keep
personnel door spinning

Five reporters volunteered to leave;
others keep eye out for new pastures

A month after Tribune Co. reapers rudely dispatched nearly a third of the news and editorial staff at The Baltimore Sun, the revolving personnel door is spinning again from the after-effects.

Several laid-off employees have exercised bumping rights under the union contract, moving back to former job classifications – at the cost of jobs or assignment transfers for less-senior staffers.

And in a newsroom seething in angst and discontent, several reporters have taken voluntary layoffs – with the happier result of saving the job of colleague Nick Madigan, and protecting others.

Two weeks and three days after departing the newsroom amid the supportive applause of his friends, Madigan is scheduled to return on Monday thanks to the latest voluntary departures -- of reporters Sara Neufeld, Rona Kobell and Rona Marech. Others leaving by choice are Stephen Kiehl and Tyeesha Dixon, both of whom are taking up the study of law. Given the rapid decline of the newspaper industry, that sounds like a mighty good career move.

Neufeld, as noted in earlier postings here and on her own education blog, decided to leave in hopes of saving Madigan’s job – Sara being young and unencumbered by family responsibilities, while Nick is the sole provider for his wife and young son and has a mortgage to pay.

Kobell's farewell note

Kobell, an environmental reporter and mother of a young daughter, was completing a journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan when she made a similar decision. She posted a message about that on her former blog at the newspaper Web site. It said, in part:

This year, I wrote a screenplay. I read good books. I put more miles on my bike than I did on my car. I picked up my daughter early from school and took her out for ice cream and to the library. I went out with my husband. I cooked dinner occasionally. I traveled - to Russia and Argentina and Northern Michigan and New York. I had time - a luxury foreign to journalists and working mothers - to think about what I want. And what I want is to keep doing all of those things. The two journalists in danger of losing their jobs want to keep them; to the extent that I can make that happen, I want to do that, too.

Rona Marech was on maternity leave during the newsroom massacre. Asked about her departure, which was effective this week, she wrote in an email:

Yes, I volunteered for a lay-off…. On July 1, I'm moving to Berlin for the year with my husband and baby. Josh was awarded a fellowship and will be teaching at a university in Berlin (and is also on research leave from his job at U. of Maryland for a semester). I'm hoping to freelance and have an adventure.

In addition to Madigan, the voluntary layoffs protected the jobs of reporters James Drew and Nicole Fuller – even as multi-talented copy editor Arthur Hirsch and sports writer Childs Walker bump back to the metro news reporting staff.

Bumping back to copy desk jobs

Coming back from layoffs, according to colleagues, are copy editors Connie Knox, a longtime union officer; Mark Fleming, who worked on the newspaper’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Shipbreakers” series by former Sun reporters Will Englund and Gary Cohn; and Jeffrey Landaw, for years a late-edition rear guard for breaking global news whose incredible breadth of knowledge saved The Sun from innumerable errors. As The Sun moved toward importing all its national and world news from Tribune’s nonunion content production staff in Chicago, Landaw found himself working as a copy editor in the sports department – where arcane facts of the likes of eastern European history are pretty much irrelevant.

Unfortunately, their returns meant layoffs for colleagues Norine Schiller, who had been at The Sun for 11 years, and Helen Jones, who had been at the newspaper longer – but because earlier positions she held have been eliminated, according to a colleague, could count only her nine years as a copy editor for seniority purposes.

Norine said she had been anticipating her own layoff as she watched the personnel numbers game play out – and like others losing jobs, she had no ill feelings for those bumping back inside to remain employed: “I don’t begrudge the people coming back one bit.”

Unlike the initial firings and layoffs that sent some 61 employees out without notice in less than 24 hours at the end of April, the subsequent personnel moves – layoffs, bumping and the departure and apparently lone company recall, of Madigan – have seemed deferentially polite by comparison.

Schiller said she might have as much as a week of work remaining before her tenure ends. A month ago, colleagues getting axed arrived for their evening shift and found their computer access denied. Electronic pass cards that got employees into the staff garage would not open the gate as they were leaving. Carried out amid the presence of a beefed up security guard presence, the firings and layoffs were a virtual ambush utterly lacking in respect for dedicated professionals.

Morale: How low can it go?

Despite the company’s more mannerly demeanor in the latest reshuffling of personnel, morale in the newsroom has reached a new low, according to accounts from those still there.

They tell of extreme disorganization as the newsroom staffing reassignments announced in detail less than 24 hours after the mass firings and layoffs moved reporters from their focus on important beats toward Web contributions and blogging. New editors were assigned to oversee areas of coverage in which they lacked experience or knowledge, and some found themselves writing headlines and overseeing page layouts for the first time. Reporters who had worked in partnership with well-versed editors found themselves alone in decision-making on coverage, and their stories getting minimal editing before rolling on the press.

And they’ve seen the only employee protection from arbitrary dismissal – the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild – eviscerated by buyouts, layoffs and selective transfers to newly-created Web-oriented jobs outside union jurisdiction. The contract expires in 2011, and union-jurisdiction survivors of the Purge of 2009 will find what little job security remains to be on very shaky ground.

For the folks getting their jobs back, there is inevitably fear that the return to work may prove no better than a reprieve. And it makes for a strange atmosphere when many, if not most, of the employees are keeping an eye out for jobs elsewhere and the opportunity to escape an oppressive and depressing work environment.

No stranger to layoffs

For Norine Schiller, a layoff is not a new experience. But at least this one was better-timed.

Layoffs around 1979-1980 from her first two newspaper jobs, at the Catonsville edition of the Star and at the Carroll County Evening Sun, came a day before and a day after Christmas; and after marrying and moving to Connecticut, she was among nearly 50 people shown the exit at the New Haven Register in 1990 – in her birthday week, she said.

As Norine noted in a Facebook comment after receiving the news on her latest layoff Thursday:

I have had a month to expect and mentally prepare for this possibility, so I am not floored by it -- unlike all the others who were shown the door the same day. I have made some volunteering arrangements to broaden my experience a little bit. Also, the other three times I was laid off, it was in fall or right at Christmas, so ... hey, summer vacation!

Her husband, Don Schiller, also was a Sun copy editor and was one of several people who briefly held the job I left as night metro editor two years ago in the Buyout Class of 2007. Don missed a buyout opportunity by a month last September as he took an editing job on a private industry’s internal magazine. “Right now we’re pretty happy he did this,” Norine said said of her husband’s new job. They are the parents of two sons, ages 10 and 12.

Looking around for freelance writing opportunities, or a new job, Norine said that for herself and some others leaving the newsroom, “It feels like we’ve gone back 20 years in our careers.”

Arthur Hirsch, meanwhile, was looking forward after three years on the copy desk to his imminent return to “the ringside seat” he enjoyed as a reporter.

“I learned a lot; the copy desk was a very good experience,” said Hirsch, who since 2002 has been teaching nonfiction writing as an adjunct instructor at Johns Hopkins University. He added that he missed the role of being an observer of people’s lives and “being able to ask questions.”

Hirsch, bumping over from the copy desk, is expected to be moving into an open news beat he had inquired about as “a faith and values writer” – working with editor and former Sun religion and national reporter Matthew Hay Brown. “He knows more about the subject than I do. I can learn from him.”

He was relieved that in returning to the reporting ranks, thanks to the voluntary departures of Neufeld, Kobell, Marech, Kiehl and Dixon, “I will not be pushing someone else out the door.”

Timely symposium looks to future

"The End of Local News? If Communities Lose Newspapers, Who Will Fill the Void?" That’s the title for a symposium in Baltimore scheduled from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 2, in Westminster Hall at 519 West Fayette Street. (Not to be gloomy and doomy, but the hall is a former church built in the cemetery where Edgar Allan Poe is buried.)

Panelists include Baltimore Sun editor Monty Cook (he probably still won’t apologize for the rude manner of last month’s staff massacre); Mark Potts, former reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post, co-founder of and proponent of hyperlocal, user-generated news sites; Jayne Miller, chief investigative reporter, WBAL-TV; John J. Oliver Jr., publisher, The Afro-American newspaper; and Timothy A. Franklin, Louis A.Weil, Jr. Endowed Chair, Indiana University School of Journalism, who is Cook’s predecessor as Sun editor.
The symposium was arranged by Sandra A. Banisky, who left her job as deputy managing editor of The Sun to become the Abell Professor in Baltimore Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
Details on the event, which is open to the public :

More food for thought

If you really want another peek at the future of local journalism, check out this look at Tribune’s next big thing about to have its rollout in Chicago – and likely a model for what’s to come at The Baltimore Sun. (Personal prediction: When it comes to Baltimore, The Sun’s journalistically embarrassing free tabloid ‘b’ will be quietly rolled into the Web project and then killed.)

This comes, by the way, via the blog of symposium panelist Potts:

Yet another very worthwhile read, particularly considering that its author, James Warren, is a former Chicago Tribune managing editor (and, as my not-so-shabby friend and former colleague Bill Glauber notes, a terrific journalist):

Finally, this appears at on Saturday May 30 -- yup, I update these posts occasionally -- on the union concessions vote aimed at saving a couple of Maine newspapers. Interestingly, The Sun provided far more detail on this story than on its own recent cutbacks . But it is an interesting development in the wider story of newspaper failures:,0,2814742.story.

That should be enough to keep you off the streets and out of trouble until Tuesday.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Newspapers: Errors to regret

Fired national reporter
gets his last Sun byline
too late for the edition

David Wood moves on
with thanks for the memories

Maybe this is what happens in a newspaper world without copy editors – or without enough copy editors. Or without enough people around to talk about what’s right or wrong in a story or about a story, or how it’s played on the front page.

The case in point was on the front page of The Baltimore Sun on Monday: A Memorial Day-timed story on the growing problem of care, treatment and after-effects for war veterans physically and mentally maimed by the enemy’s almost ubiquitous weapon of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan, the improvised explosive device.

The story was terrific.

The byline wasn’t. It read, “BY A BALTIMORE SUN STAFF WRITER.”

Some readers called the city desk, praising the story and wondering at the lack of a name in the byline.

Credit goes to the newspaper staffers who, after learning of the byline omission, belatedly added the name of the author atop the story on the Web site – and a correction at the end of the story as well. Tuesday's print edition had a correction in the usual place, at the bottom of Page 2 -- but the correction had an error. It said the story had appeared on Sunday's front page when, in fact, it was in the Monday paper. But that's an easy mistake to make, seeing as how Memorial Day feels like a Sunday. Deja-vu will get you every time.

What the print edition correction lacked was the customary expression of regret for an error. It needed even more regret, though -- a public expression of regret that the author, distinguished reporter David Wood, was fired without notice nearly four weeks ago along with nearly a third of the news and editorial staff in the latest cost-cutting move ordered by The Baltimore Sun’s absentee overlords in Chicago.

And, on the Web edition, that is why even after David Wood’s byline was added, you won’t find the usual behind it. He doesn’t live there anymore.

Interestingly, his biography still lives there – or still did on Monday – at I found it using a Google search of “David Wood reporter.” It begins this way:

David Wood, 62, has been a journalist since 1970, a staff correspondent for Time Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Newhouse News Service and The Baltimore Sun. He covers military issues, foreign affairs and combat operations, and is a Pulitzer Prize finalist for national reporting. He recently won the Headliner Award for his Iraq coverage.

Actually, Wood will turn 64 next month, so the biographical sketch is a little dated. And for a little more than a week, he’s had a new job writing for AOL’s – one of the few, if not the only, recently expelled Sun staffer to land a new gig.

The Real Muck had reported his unexpected departure from The Sun in an earlier posting on the personnel massacre and its aftermath, but the newspaper’s byline omission provided an excuse to call him for some details about his brief stint there. As night metro editor, unfortunately, I had only talked to him a few times before my voluntary buyout and retirement from The Sun two years ago.

Wood had mostly good words for The Sun, which offered him a job three years ago after he had taken a buyout from Newhouse.

“I went up to Baltimore and went into the newsroom, and it was this wonderful crazy place where people were shouting at each other about stories across the newsroom and jabbering into telephones,” Wood said. “It was a wonderfully vibrant, hard-driving place…. We were going to do great journalism.”

He added: “It was a really good place to be for a couple of years.”

Wood's hiring in July 2006 was probably the last of a national reporter by The Baltimore Sun before owner Tribune Co.’s plunge into private ownership and bankruptcy, and his coverage of the Defense Department included travel to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He worked mostly out of the newspaper’s Washington Bureau, where a large national staff had operated in The Sun’s glory days – but at the end had just two people remaining, Wood and Paul West.

The weekend preceding the mass firings, Wood said, he had been “horribly sick” but managed to work that Monday and produce a story for the front page. The next day he was out sick again, and that Wednesday was coming back from a visit to his doctor when “my wife called and said there were all these layoffs at The Sun.”

Wood said he called Paul West about the situation, and was told that “it’s worse than you know – you were one of the ones fired. I was thinking of driving to your house and telling you.”

A tough week to imagine.

“I still haven’t called downtown [to The Sun] to talk about it,” Wood said, adding that he did get a call from former national and deputy managing editor Marcia Myers expressing her regret. (Myers was assigned to new duties and a lesser title under the subsequent newspaper staff reorganization; her husband, deputy opinion editor Larry Williams, lost his job in the cutbacks.)

Wood said he was not immediately aware that his last story to appear in The Sun was missing his byline – and had largely forgotten about the story itself. He had worked on it “for almost a year,” Wood said, and “turned in a version in March.” It was a longish story, and space in the newspaper was tight, so it was held – “and then it suddenly appeared,” Wood said of its front-page play on Monday.

‘‘Nobody from the copy desk ever called to check on anything… they just ran it, which is a little unnerving. I love copy editors calling and saying, ‘You said this, but did you mean to say this?' I love those people.”

Copy editors, he said, improve stories – and protect writers from mistakes. It’s an oversight role that has been substantially reduced at The Baltimore Sun and other newspapers across the nation.

The byline omission evidently was an innocent mistake, but particularly embarrassing for the newspaper under the circumstances of the massive staff reduction that sent more than 60 employees packing in a hurry.

Wood said he received a call Monday from newsroom veteran David Nitkin, recently promoted to the new job of “head of Maryland news” – a title shared with Dave Alexander, who had been the online deputy editor. He said Nitkin was calling from vacation, “horribly upset” at the mistake.

“He thought it was just a glitch,” Wood said. “Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. But he was just terrific to call.”

Looking back on his not-quite three years at The Sun, Wood said, “I got a good ride, a chance to travel a lot. The Sun got a lot of good stuff from me and I got a good ride from them. I was fortunate to be able to accept that kind of opportunity.”

And now he’s moved on, to a job at that Wood calls “a terrific honor and responsibility.”

“I was very lucky to get a job like that,” he said. “There’s a lot of reporters out there who I wish were working, because we need them.”

More grief to come

Crunch day at The Baltimore Sun is Wednesday – the deadline for eligible layoff victims to claim rights under the union contract to “bump” back into job classifications they formerly held, which will determine whether some of the least senior surviving newsroom employees lose their jobs.

Several reporters have volunteered for severance -- notable among them education writer Sara Neufeld, who decided to leave in order to save a colleague’s job.

Since Neufeld’s gesture, I hear at least two others have requested layoffs – Rona Marech and Rona Kobell.

The Sun might well have been the only U.S. newspaper with two reporters named Rona.

Now it’s apparently going to be Ronaless.

Kobell, a longtime friend who has a young daughter and just completed a journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan, posted her farewell at her Baltimore Sun blog and it is well worth reading at

Sadly, it seems obvious this won’t be the last farewell at the newspaper.

Another Memorial Day tale

Bonnie and I took a cruise Saturday aboard the S.S. John W. Brown, the last World War II Liberty Ship in operation -- thanks to its restoration by the Baltimore-based nonprofit Project Liberty Ship. We joined more than 400 paying passengers for the six-hour jaunt on the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay, including one old soldier who last sailed on the Brown on his journey to the war zone in 1943.

You can check out the story, and some of Bonnie's photos, at

Monday, May 18, 2009

Newspapers: A very unmerry birthday

Little cause to celebrate
as Baltimore Sun turns 172,
a shadow of its storied past

The Baltimore Sun turned 172 on Sunday, but the birthday was not much cause for celebration as the pain and uncertainty from its mass firings/layoffs of nearly a third of the news and editorial staff continues.

Latest to go appears to be reporter Nick Madigan, but unlike many others at the newspaper in recent weeks, Nick saw his layoff coming – in painfully slow motion.

Even an act of amazing generosity by a colleague, aimed at saving his job at the cost of her own, could not save Nick because of the seniority numbers game that determined who is in line for the personnel axe.

Jobs started rolling like severed heads at The Sun at the end of April, in two days of instant layoffs that targeted news and editorial managers and then union-jurisdiction staffers. The bloodbath, carried out amid extra security in the newspaper building, claimed at least 61 jobs.

But because of a union contract – a rarity in the anti-union Tribune empire – seniority protected some longtime employees initially given layoffs, enabling them to bump into job classifications they had previously held. Longtime copy editors, for example, could go back to being reporters.

Who was vulnerable to being bumped? Some of the younger staffers were protected by the company with moves into newly-created jobs that were outside union jurisdiction – enabling the company to zero in for firing on older, and higher-paid, employees. Some others with only a few years at The Sun stayed in jobs they loved and hunkered down as best they could in these uncertain times for the print newspaper industry.

The night of May 8, when the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild held a party – a wake, really – to honor both the union and nonunion victims of the purge, it was apparent that job bumping was imminent and some still-employed colleagues like Nick Madigan were on shaky ground. No one was comfortable with the prospect of staffers wanting to keep their jobs having to bump others out the door. It was just another ugly reality of life under the Tribune Company.

That’s when veteran education reporter Sara Neufeld told Nick that, to save his job, she was going to volunteer for a layoff. She’s young, and hasn’t started a family, while Nick is married, the father of a four-year-old son, and faced with a mortgage on the house he and his wife bought after moving from Los Angeles to Baltimore four years ago.

Nick said he didn’t want Sara to quit her job if the only reason was to save his, but that she assured him she had wanted to pursue other opportunities and suddenly found herself with a reason to do so. As it turned out, Sara’s act didn’t help Nick directly, but rather another employee further up the seniority chain.

Still, Nick was stunned at what he called Sara’s “amazingly selfless” offer, a far cry from the manner in which many of their colleagues were driven out of the newspaper they loved.

“I was very touched by what Sara did, and it proves that there are some very fine people at the paper,” said Nick, who left the newsroom Friday to a round of applause from colleagues. “I’m sad to leave The Sun, not only because I'll miss the crew of characters who put it out every day – some of them good friends and all of them very dedicated – but also because its newsroom is probably the last one I'll work for, and after a 29-year career in newspapers and wire services, that's hard to take.”

Nick has written from around the United States and more than 20 other countries, including France, Morocco, Britain, Mexico, Haiti and Cuba. For The New York Times, he covered the Columbia shuttle disaster, the trials of Michael Jackson and Winona Ryder, the William Kennedy Smith rape case and other stories in California, Texas, North Carolina, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. He also worked on the staffs of the Palm Beach Post, Variety and United Press International, for which he covered the Invasion of Grenada among other stories throughout the Caribbean.

He left his position as a contract writer for The New York Times’ Los Angeles bureau in 2005 to take the job as national media writer for The Sun. But after two years, The Sun, which had begun cutting its personnel and narrowing the scope of its staff’s coverage, eliminated Nick’s beat. He was assigned to the “Sun Rising” team, which was tasked with beefing up coverage of breaking news for the Web site and expanding stories for subsequent print editions. More recently, he’s been covering criminal justice stories, notably the case of Nicholas Browning, who murdered his parents and brothers, and the Rodgers Forge parents who starved their infant son.

On one of my increasingly rare visits to the newsroom a few months ago, I found Nick working a police story and expressed hope that he hadn’t been thrust into a beat he didn’t want or enjoy. But Nick said, enthusiastically, that he was doing the job he always loved – news reporter. He had no complaint about the role.

Not that it much matters now, but Nick said he received his last “performance evaluation” from the company Wednesday, and it was, he said, “pretty damn good.”

(The company went to enormous lengths to create its performance-evaluation system and force a change in the union contract so that annual raises could be based on merit – although it proved to be grossly arbitrary in determining the winners and losers, and was more demoralizing than constructive. And now that The Sun is simply firing people – many of them among the most talented and experienced – it proves the evaluation system to have been an irrelevant waste of time and resources.)

As for Sara, a Sun staffer since 2003 and earlier an education reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, she emailed a note to friends about her decision, in addition to announcing her imminent departure on her education-beat blog at (The responses from readers are telling about how highly her work was regarded by the community that The Sun ostensibly wants to reach online.)

In her note to friends, Sara wrote of the reporters with low seniority about to lose their jobs through bumping:

“One is a friend who is the sole provider of his family of three and stands to lose his house. As he was telling me about his plight last week, I found myself blurting out that I'd like to give my job to save his.

“I was shocked by my words as soon as they were out of my mouth, but ever since then, it's been increasingly clear to me that leaving now will be the right thing for me as well as for whatever reporter whose job I save (unfortunately, I don't think it will be his, but it depends on how the bumping situation plays out over the next few days).

“I'll get five months of severance and vacation time, and I am confident from some job inquiries I've made recently that something will come through during that period. And, though I'm really sad to leave some wonderful colleagues and a great beat, I'll get out of what has become an increasingly unhappy environment. I would also be incredibly sad to leave my adopted home of Baltimore, but so far most of my prospects are in New York City, which would put me with my sister and a quick train ride from the rest of my family.

“So, I don't know what's next, except that 16 years after I fell in love with newspaper reporting as a high school sophomore, it's time to try something new, likely in education. I'm lucky that I've developed a second passion for the subject I've covered for nearly a decade, and public schools aren't going away nearly as quickly as newspapers are.”

Today, Monday, will be Sara’s last day at The Sun.

Nick said his treatment by top Sun editors was at least humane, given the advance notice a week earlier from Sam Davis, the newsroom’s assistant managing editor for administration who has found himself in the unfortunate role of a messenger with bad news for so many employees. Nick said he was advised to hang on to the possibility of a call-back until the bumping deadline of May 27 should others ahead of him in seniority rankings decide not to come back or, like Sara, volunteer for a layoff.

But even if he manages a return, there is no certainty of a future for anyone at The Baltimore Sun these days.

Sunday, as noted earlier, was the venerable newspaper’s 172nd birthday. When an institution is that old, such occasions rarely get notice – except maybe at numbers divisible by 25, when the marketing folks take advantage of it as a sales pitch.

The last such occasion included a specially fat commemorative Sunday edition of The Sun and this slogan: “The Story of Our Lives for 150 Years.”

I have that slogan sitting in front of me, emblazoned on a white commemorative mug produced for the 150th birthday. The metallic gold lettering is beginning to chip away with the passage of time and the mug’s delivery of an occasional dose of caffeine.

The Sun will turn 175 on May 17, 2012 – if it lives.

A lot of people have their doubts.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Saving The Baltimore Sun

Could a nonprofit
ride to the rescue
of its own creator?

I've been watching my blog Statcounter reports of late, fascinated with the flow of visitors to The Real Muck since its public flogging of The Baltimore Sun began two weeks ago over the insulting treatment of dedicated employees in the firing of nearly a third of the newsroom staff.

The links to my accounts of the newspaper’s death spiral from more than a dozen blogs and Web sites brought readers by the thousands – so many that I could hardly keep up with watching where the visitors came from, the links that brought them, and which of my links they followed to other information and opinion sources.

But now that the shock value has worn off and the numbers are dropping into the very low hundreds, my eye caught an interesting digital footprint this week – of a visitor from the Abell Foundation. And Statcounter reported three previous visits from the same computer there.

I hope for another – for today’s entry – because of the Abell Foundation’s history, and a longshot hope in some quarters that it could factor in an eventual purchase of The Baltimore Sun that would return the nearly 172-year-old newspaper to local ownership, perhaps even a nonprofit.

You’d have to think that the price for buying The Sun is dropping, seeing as how its owner – Chicago-based Tribune Co. – is in bankruptcy and, while supposedly reorganizing under protection from creditors, is running its print media properties across the country into the ground.

What would it take to save this newspaper, here in Baltimore? Once upon a time (1986), Times Mirror Corp. valued it at about $400 million – paying some $600 million to the A.S. Abell Co. for The Sun and related properties, then selling off WMAR-TV for $200 million to comply with federal regulations on media cross-ownership.

The privately-held Abell company, largely owned by a small core of families, had created the A.S. Abell Co. Foundation in 1953 – launching it with an initial company contribution of $100,000. It grew, of course, but the sale of the company in 1986 had an enormous impact on the scope of what was renamed the Abell Foundation --- its assets multiplying tenfold to about $112 million, according to its own history (

What could be more appropriate than the Abell Foundation reclaiming the company that gave it birth, or at least playing a supporting role in its rescue from midwestern marauders.

And as I said in a radio panel discussion last week, if the Abell Foundation is looking around for donors to such a cause, I pledge $1,000 (from my personal ‘fortune’ as a Tribune retiree) – and would work for the newspaper six months for free to help out in the transition. (Then it's back to my seven-day weekends.)

The Sun was acquired by Tribune in its multibillion-dollar Times Mirror merger/takeover nine years ago, and then investor Sam Zell took the company private in an $8.2 billion deal a year and a half ago with a resulting debt burden that figured in the bankruptcy.

So, Sam – what would it take for a buyer to acquire The Baltimore Sun from Tribune? Clearly it’s worth a lot less than $400 million, now that Tribune has overseen substantial reductions in revenue and circulation through a combination of bad management, rapid growth of the Internet as an information source, industry-wide failures to adapt to that digital revolution, and now a global recession.

And you can hardly add ‘goodwill’ to the price – that’s pretty much been squandered. You and your yes-men flunkies treat its employees like chattel, and disserve readers by eliminating from the daily newspaper reason after reason why anyone would want to buy it.

Stock tables? Who needs them? And kill the business section while you’re at it.

National and world news? Who cares. Bury it inside. Makes it easier to import it all from Chicago in news modules, and run whatever fits.

Maryland section? Kill it. Put local news on the front page – only local news, unless you can find a Chicago module if anything really important happens like another war, or Mount Hood erupting.

Sports? Shrink it to a tabloid with half the space. Oops. That didn’t work. Must have had too many complaints. So make the section look larger, but still have half the space.

TV schedules? Kill the magazine, and create an unreadable Sunday section for the listings. Comics? Kill most of them. Sunday comics? Shrink what’s left, and make them unreadable in the back of the TV section.

Features section? Shrink it, eliminate it whenever possible.

Typefaces? Design style? Throw them out, and make The Sun look like all the other Tribune newspapers. And say the reason you did it was to improve readability. Not true? Who cares. Tell them anyway.

Oh, and don’t forget -- fire the writers, fire the columnists, fire the editors, fire the photographers, fire the page designers, fire the artists, fire the editorial writers, fire the infrastructure… fire the… fire… fire… fire… who?

Hmmm. Surely they can find someone who’s really to blame.

A reporter with real heart

My friend and former colleague, Sara Neufeld, who covered the Baltimore schools beat with distinction and reached out to the community through blogging about city education at, announced on her blog today she is volunteering to leave -- in order to save the job of a less senior colleague.

Her blog entry begins:

This is a hard post to write, but as a reporter (for the next five days, at least), I mustn't bury the lead: I volunteered today to be laid off by The Sun.

After the 61 layoffs in our newsroom two weeks ago, former reporters laid off from other job classifications (i.e., columnists, copy editors) have the option of going back into the reporting lineup. As a result of that "bumping," some of the reporters with low seniority are being laid off this week, including a friend with many more personal responsibilities than I have. That friend's situation inspired me to offer my job, but I think it will also be the right move for me personally, sorry as I am to leave the Baltimore schools beat that I've come to care so much about.

And this blog...

Read the full account at:

Noted in passing

Tribune Co. received permission Tuesday from a federal bankruptcy judge to pay more than $13 million in bonuses to almost 700 employees for their work last year – but because of constraints in the law, not to pay more than $2 million in severance payments to more than 60 employees laid off shortly before the company filed for bankruptcy protection, Associated Press reported.

“Judge Kevin Carey authorized the bonus payments after Tribune chief financial officer Chandler Bigelow III testified that the bonuses are critical to keeping key managers motivated as Tribune tries to adjust to a tough economic climate for media companies,” AP reported.

“We need to motivate and incentivize the key people who will implement change," Bigelow said. "These are really good people we're talking about. They're the best and the brightest of the company."

If anyone finds a list of Tribune’s “best” and “ brightest" needing that additional monetary motivation and incentives to do their jobs, please send me the link. I have a list of many of the real best and brightest at The Baltimore Sun, and their reward: Fired without notice, with extra security guards called in to make sure they didn’t steal anything on their way out the door.

Open Letter to Tim Ryan

A friend and former colleague, Arnold R. “Skip” Isaacs, emailed a letter Wednesday to triple-threat Sun publisher/president/CEO Timothy E. Ryan and top editor J. Montgomery Cook, and gave permission to The Real Muck to share it:

Dear Mr. Ryan and Mr. Cook --

I am writing this letter with more sadness and regret than you can probably imagine.

I was a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Sun for nearly 19 years, during which I had various adventures, many enjoyable, some not, some fairly dangerous. I did not agree with every decision the Sun's management made in those years. But there was not a day or a moment that I was not grateful to be working for an honorable newspaper, whose owners recognized their responsibility to readers and their community as well as to their own profit and who expected me and my colleagues and our editors to do our jobs honestly and thoroughly with no agenda except to find and tell the truth in whatever story we were covering.

In our worst nightmares none of us could have imagined how badly the present owners and managers have damaged that tradition. Nor could we have conceived that any Sun executives would treat any employees the way you and those under your direction treated the men and women whose jobs you eliminated last month.

No doubt you will blame business conditions for the drastic shrinkage of the paper and loss of journalistic quality. That can be debated elsewhere. But business conditions didn't require canning people without notice in the middle of covering or editing a story, or letting them find out when they couldn't log onto their computers, then shoving them out the door under the eyes of security guards without time to absorb the event or for an appropriate goodby to colleagues. There is no possible business reason for those practices. The only reason is a thuggish indifference to common decency and human dignity.

The wrecking crew in Chicago and your leadership have bankrupted the Sun in more than the legal and financial sense. You are also intellectually bankrupt and morally bankrupt, bankrupt of principles, bankrupt of social conscience, bankrupt of basic decency. Not to mention bankrupt of any idea of what good journalism is and why it matters. I am sure that nearly all present and former employees share my feeling that only new ownership, as soon as possible, has any hope of restoring the serious purpose and public responsibility the Sun once had. If and when there is a change, no doubt many would be happy to see you booted out of the building with the same contempt you showed those you terminated earlier this month. But that will not really even the score, for this reason: You will deserve that contempt. The good journalists you kicked out the door did not.


Arnold R. Isaacs

Thanks for all the comments

Responses at this site and through emails to Muck postings continue to amaze and delight.

From Tim Windsor, on the newspaper’s explanation for its typeface changes:

Not to minimize the pain and suffering of the 61 newly-former Sun employees, but to me the low point of the past several weeks was the obvious dissembling of the reader's note you quote above. There were many ways to acknowledge the change; saying it was for readability was an unnecessary lie. All a news organization has is its reputation for truth. Beyond that clear line lies Pravda and the house organs of a dozen Banana Republics.

From ‘anonymous’:

Didn't The Sun pay a bazillion dollars to have someone create the "Mencken" font used "exclusively" by the paper? Seems to me at that time the Mencken font was praised for it's "readability."

From Len Lazarick, of the recently defunct Baltimore Examiner, who wrote just before the ‘Sun lies’ posting here:

This was much like the explanation when they trimmed the page size and told readers something like "this will make the paper easier to carry."

How can you have any credibility as a newspaper when you can't speak the truth to your own readers?

TV worth watching

Friends Laura Lippman and David Simon are heading to Los Angeles for television appearances later this week.

Laura, a former Sun reporter who has produced some 17 books of fiction (most of them in the mystery genre), is scheduled for an appearance Thursday night on CBS’ Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Not familiar with her? Visit Not familiar with Ferguson? You go to bed too early.

David, a writer, TV producer and former Sun reporter best known as creator of the HBO series ‘The Wire,’ is among the guests Friday night on HBO’s ‘Real Time With Bill Maher.’ David testified last week at a Senate committee hearing on “The Future of Journalism.” If you haven’t seen the transcript already, here’s a link: