Monday, October 30, 2006

One year blog-versary

Tomorrow, November 1, marks my one-year anniversary of starting this blog. I originally started it as a way of putting down my thoughts on what it was like to be a reporter -- and to write about things I learned along the way. I also wanted to use it to write a few short stories -- most of them from personal experience.

And I did do that. But I have also used it to occasionally write miscellaneous family information.

I have met many other bloggers since last November -- blogging about everything from everyday life to the more serious ones -- who use their site for political thoughts, actual writing activities, contests, and the craft of writing.

Anyway, in honor of my blogversary, and ...Just for fun, I thought I'd run my very first post again. Actually, my first three posts - all written on the same day, Nov. 1, 2005.


MidnightWritings.blogspot / November Archives /original entry dated Nov. 1, 2005

My first newspaper assignment -- otherwise known as -- The deer-in-the-headlights look

I will always remember my first newspaper assignment. I was so excited with my new job. It was my birthday and getting the job was the best gift I had ever received. I was going to be the next Lois Lane – in my very own hometown. I was so ready.

What I was not ready for was being asked to write about anything political. I was so proud of the fact that I always voted…but what did I know about propositions and initiatives? I rarely bothered with learning all that. (That has changed and I am now totally aware of everything on the ballot)

Anyway, Henry (my immediate supervisor and mentor) sent me to cover a speech about Proposition-54 at the local community college. I went – not really knowing what I was doing. Our paper photographer met me there. “Isn’t this cool?” he asked. Um…yea…cool. NOT!

I took notes -- lots and lots of them. I didn’t really know what to do. It was my first day on the job. I had been told it was going to be a day of in-service. Doesn’t that mean watching movies and filling out forms? I had absolutely ZERO idea what to do out there alone.

After the event, I sat in my car for half an hour (my lunch break) and talked to my best friend. I was scared to go back to work. I had no idea what to do with the information I had gathered, or worse, how to write it. Dennis assured me that I would be fine. I wasn’t sure. I finally forced myself to return to the office.

Henry must have sensed it. “What’s the matter?” he asked me as I walked in. “You have that deer-in-the-headlights look.”

I just handed him my notebook -- page after page of scribbled notes. I stood there, quiet, waiting for him to call me an idiot. But he didn’t. He looked it over and being the professional that he was, found something in my notes, circled it -- and handed it back.

“This looks like a good place to start,” he said.

I took it from there. Of course, the story took me about three hours to write and rewrite. But when I left, I left with a smile. It did not matter to me that no one knew it was my birthday or that anyone even wished me a happy birthday.
All that mattered was that I had done it. I wrote a story.

The next day, I literally screamed when I saw it on the front page. Wow. I had really done it. I had written a story for an official newspaper – and if I had to say so myself, it came out pretty good. I went out and bought like 15 newspapers. (No idea why). I decided that if I could make it through that first day – that first story -- then I could do anything at the paper.

The Problem with New Writers:

The problem with new writers is that we usually feel we have to say it all – in one story. So, we don’t know when to stop.

As a student at COS a couple of years ago, I found several of my classmates with the same problem. Our first assignment (a news story) was so long – we’re talking four to five pages long – that our instructor didn’t read it. She placed a big red mark on it, returned it and asked us to turn it in no longer than two pages long. I learned a lesson. Or did I?

When I was hired by my hometown paper, the problem resurfaced and my first stories were often so long, my mentor would either shake his head or laugh. Oh sure, make fun of my writing. That was about the equivalent of laughing at one of your children.

But that is not how he meant it. And thank goodness he taught me about the 18-inch rule.

Henry also gave me some of the best advice I ever had. OK, so he was the only one giving me advice, though Bill Furth tried but he didn’t teach me anything that I didn’t already know.

This is what Henry said:

“When you get to nine inches……STOP. Just stop. Don’t go any further. Then, read your work. And you should be about half way done."

Then all I had to do was go back in and finish it up. Um…yea...right. That was easier said than done.

But it worked. I finally learned to stop writing when I was supposed to. If I was asked for a 10-inch story, I’d stop at five inches and take it from there.

I learned other tidbits of advice from Henry ... Such as “Start with the clown.”

In other words, find the most colorful, interesting thing in your story and start with that. Simple! No further explanation needed.

He also taught me that the cow jumps over the moon – and the explanation there is simple too.

“Esther, the cow jumped over the moon.”

Mental note to self: Do not write “over 100 people” – it should read “more than 100 people”
The same holds true for less than, do not use “under 50 people” unless I have dug a trench and am crawling under them.

Excuse me, do I hear ringing?

Too bad Henry never gave me advice about where not to put my cell phone.

As a reporter, I never carry a purse when I interview people. Not a problem most of the time since my slacks usually have a small pocket.

But one day I was interviewing a minister from a local church. It was a Sunday and there was church service that day. So, I wore a dress.

There was one problem -- no pockets.

My car key I had on an elastic band around my wrist. My writing pad and pen, well...that belongs in my hand. But, what would I do with my phone?

I thought I was being clever when I placed it snugly between my breasts. I mean, my phone was pretty small. No one could see it or even tell it was there. It was well hidden.

The church service ended. I waited for the right moment to approach the minister and I was writing down a quote from him when the unexpected happened. My phone started to ring. I forgot to place it on mute.

Oh boy.

I quickly excused myself by putting up my index finger, “Excuse me a minute, please" and I turned away.

I walked a few feet from him, pulled out my phone, shut it off, quickly hid it again and walked back. It was so fast, I’m not even sure he knew where the ringing came from.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Where were we?”

And without explaining a thing, I continued the interview. I think I handled it rather well. It was a lesson I never forgot. Henry would have been proud of me!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

"You're a Republican, aren't you?"

I had lunch with a really good friend on Friday. When we got in my car, Rush Limbaugh was on the radio. Skip started laughing. "You're a Republican, aren't you?" he exclaimed.

I answered, "I am." And I laughed along, but I really had no idea why he found it so funny. Apparently to him, it was.

I suddenly remembered Roger - a friend from when I worked at the newspaper full time. We were going to lunch one day and when we got to his car, I saw he had a John Kerry for president bumper sticker. Of course, it was no surprise that he was a democrat (I seriously think I was the only Republican in my office and the only person who did not hate President Bush.) Anyway, I stopped at his car and said, "We have to take my car." and when he asked why, I pointed to the bumper sticker and said, "You can't possibly expect me to get in that car. There's no way in the world I am going to be seen in that car with that thing on there." LOL -- I was kidding, of course. He didn't take it that way. He got in his car and drove off, leaving me standing there in the parking lot. I laughed so hard, I went back inside. When he returned, he not only didn't talk to me that day, he didn't talk to me for a week!

Anyway, back to Friday -- I was also asked what kind of Republican I was -- and why was I a Republican.

What kind? No one had ever asked me that before. I found it interesting that he would ask me.

I'm conservative but I guess I am social-moderate when it comes to certain issues. For example, I have no problem with two people of the same sex wanting to marry each other. What bothers me is when they try to control everything else -- i.e. forcing churches to accept them. I'm against that. I mean, if they want to do whatever, it won't bother me -- and if they find a church who will accept them, fine. But that does not give them the right to fight and try to force all churches to accept them. Does that make sense?

Skip apparently was trying to figure out why I was a republican.

"Your parents were republican!" he said -- as if that explained it all.

No. Actually, they were democrats.

My parents grew up as democrats -- but they were the Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy democrats. The democratic party back then was nothing like the democrats of today. The democratic party back then was more like the republican party of today.

Franklin Roosevelt got us into WWII
Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
and John F. Kennedy was president during the Cuban Missile Crisis -- placing the United States on alert against Russia.

Somehow, I can't imagine any current democratic politician (Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Charlie Rangle, Howard Dean) or any other presidential candidate having the strength of their conviction to stand in the shoes of a Kennedy, Roosevelt, Truman or George W. Bush.

National security and the defense of the United States should not be a political issue. It is a necessity. The problem with the democratic leadership is that they believe that if we are nice to our enemies - they have to be nice to us. But when you're dealing with leaders and regimes, whose first intention is the death and destruction of the West, there is no room for compromise. The only compromise they see, is our annihilation -- total destruction and complete obliteration.

I can not imagine what John Kerry would have done after 9/11. I really can't. I see him as beholden to the radical, liberal, 5-percent of his party.

That is why I can never imagine myself -- ever -- voting for a democrat.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Frank "Buck" Shaffer

photo by Esther Avila, 10/17/2006

It seemed like lately, every time I was in Porterville, I would run into Buck Shaffer -- at the grocery store, the post office, the pharmacy and even at the AAA automobile club. Each time, he would always smile and extend his hand and say, "Well, Esther Avila. What are you doing here?" -- always in his same voice. I would say the same thing, "Well, Buck Shaffer. It is so good to see you." We always talked for a few minutes and he'd tell me how proud he was of me. And I'd tell him how much I admired him.

I love Buck Shaffer. I always have.
I have known Buck since I was 10. (But he talked to me for the first time when I was 7. I lived near the corner of Orange and G Streets, just down the street from the PHS bandroom and I often ran outside to see the band march by. He'd always say hello to me and I will always remember how he took the time to talk to me.) I marched in his Porterville Panther Band 1972-1976 and considered him a hero in my life. I adore the man.

I've also had the privilege of writing some wonderful stories about him over the past several years. Early this year, I had the honor of writing the story when he was the recipient of the Freedom of Spirit Award. If you have not seen the story, I highly recommend it -- the things that this one man has done are amazing.

After his retirement, he kept teaching music.
This man has done more for music in Porterville than anyone else I've ever known.

I interviewed him last week (10/17) about a trip he was planning for Saturday -- a day dubbed "Buck Shaffer Day" in his original hometown of Shinnston, W. VA. He was going to play a concert there and assist in the opening of a music wing of their new museum.

When he returned, we planned on getting together next Tuesday to continue another interview that he requested. So imagine my shock when I got the call that he had suffered a stroke on Sunday. I cried for a few minutes and then got myself together and went to work on writing a story about it.

I was touched to see the outpouring of love and support from across the nation. Buck Shaffer is certainly loved by many.

my dear friend died on Dec. 1, 2006 -- please go to for stories.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Miss Porterville - Katie Lopez

Porterville Recorder photo by Chieko Hara

Something beautiful happened this weekend. My friends' daughter, Katie Lopez, was crowned Veterans Day "Miss Porterville" last night. I was there covering the story. When they called her name, I cried.

I was excited for her but that is not why it was so beautiful.

It was beautiful because it was a dream come true for her.

For the past 17 years (ok, maybe only 15) Katie has attended the annual pageant. Her father, (I went to school with both her parents and we all work on the reunion committees together) has worked at the auditorium where it is held for the past 32 years, and every year Katie watched, waiting patiently to be old enough to participate. She always knew she wanted to represent our Veterans by being their homecoming queen.

I believe that it would be such an honor to be the Veterans Homecoming Queen. I never tried for it. The closest I go was in college when I was named homecoming princess during football season. But that was not anything like this. That was a pure popularity contest and since I was a cheerleader, in the nursing program and a member of the track and cross country teams, I had plenty of people voting for me.

This is different. These young ladies were judged on a written essay, judges' interviews, talent, and the way they presented themselves in public.

It is also not associated with a football game, but with our Veterans -- which I admire tremondously. I am a very patriotic person and love the way Porterville treats Veterans Day.

Porterville is really big on Veterans Day. We have the parade, several services, a Veterans Day tea - which I have covered for the local paper for four years, and of course, my favorite -- the annual Band-A-Rama: something started by Buck Shaffer to honor our veterans. Hundreds of young musicians, from all of the local marching bands, come together to play patriotic music. It is not a competition, but a showcase of bands. Each band parades around the stadium individually before taking their place on the field. When all of the bands are on the field, they all play the same music simultaneously -- without ever practicing together as a group. It is the most amazing thing and they sound awesome.

But, back to Katie. My heart was filled with joy -- and with the thought that yes, dreams really do come true. Just ask Katie.

Congratulations again, Katie. I know you'll represent Porterville and the Porterville veterans well.

To read the story, go to (story up 10/23 only, then moved to onlinearchives)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Breakfast in The Netherlands

The Netherlands - February/March 1995

I will forever remember my first breakfast in The Netherlands. Yes, it was exciting --visiting a foreign country for the first time and living with a Dutch family for two weeks.
But that is not why I remember it. My first Dutch breakfast was actually embarrassing. There is no other word for to describe it.
After a 22-hour flight, and almost no sleep, I finally arrived in Amsterdam, Holland.
My friend Edward met me at the airport and then whisked me away. We arrived in Velp two hours later, where he had two bicycles ready for us. I was pretty tired but Edward was so excited about the afternoon he had planned, that I decided I’d keep quiet. And, in all of his excitement, Edward forgot about dinner. My jet arrived at 2 p.m. and I was too shy to mention that I was starving. I had been too nervous to eat on the plane. We finally stopped to share a bag of French fries -- with mayonnaise. Mayonnaise? How very odd, I thought. Where’s the ketchup? He also picked up a bag of little whole fishes, but I refused to eat them.
After riding through the countryside and into Germany and back – he lived near the border and I wanted to say that I had been there – we finally headed home in time for what they called “8 o’clock coffee.”
The Dutch are famous for their coffee drinking. And 8 o’clock coffee in the parlour was mandatory in the Van Drissen family. You simply did not miss it. Ever! In my situation, I was glad and I was more than ready for a little coffee. Because that also meant that we would get a cookie with it.
Before retiring to my room, on the fifth floor, Edward’s mother reminded me that breakfast would be served at 8 a.m.
There was a university not far from the home and Edward’s family ran a boarding home for college girls. I had been invited to stay in their home as their guest during the duration of my trip. That night I slept like a baby.
The next morning, I came down to find everyone sitting at the table, waiting.
“Good morning,” I said but only Edward answered. His parents looked at the clock. It was 8:03 a.m. It was awkward. I apologized and they nodded but I could tell they were not pleased.
Note to self – “Do not be late again.”
I was starving and wondered what we might have. But it turned out that breakfast consisted of a piece of toast and a piece of cheese. Nothing more.
I really was famished. I took my toast, buttered it, and bit into it with gusto, the good ol’ American way -- with butter touching my fingers and crumbs falling everywhere.
It was only then that I noticed everyone else cutting their toast into small squares – using a fork and knife and eating one square at a time with the fork. It was then that I noticed the silverware next to my plate.
“Oh my God,” I thought. “What must they think of me? They must think I am some sort of savage! I’ve only been here one night and already I am showing poor table manners."
It was at this point that I noticed that there were no napkins at the table. Not knowing what else to do, I swallowed quickly.
That is when I noticed something else – there were no drinks at the table. What kind of family was this? Certainly I would choke to death soon.
Fortunately I spotted some paper towels on the far wall, next to their sink. I realized I had two choices, get up and get one or stay seated and look messy for the rest of the meal.
I decided to quietly stand, retrieve the paper towel and return to my seat. Yes, the family noticed but it was better this way.
I learned several things that first morning in The Netherlands and I made several notes to self – always be on time, carry a small napkin in pocket, remember to use cutlery for everything and oh yes, never swallow anything too quickly.
[I also never realized, until after I left, that the family never talked at the dinner table. They always ate in silence. While I was there, I was bubbly and talked about home and asked lots of questions. Edward said he liked the change I made for them. So, at least I introduced a little California sunshine into their lives.]