Body Mechanic

My friend Nancy Crooks is a genius. No, seriously. She is a really gifted body mechanic who has devoted her life to learning all kinds of healing touch methods.

A while back, she asked me to do a video for her that would explain her work with Mechanical Link, a really rather esoteric and obscure technique developed by a couple of French osteopaths. She ran across it for the first time a few years ago while training with a therapist in Washington state.

Without going into the gory details, it’s a technique that attempts to unlock the body’s own healing potential by effecting changes in the fascia system, the web-like structure that extends underneath our skin and around all our organs. It’s cutting-edge stuff, and not a lot of research has been done on it, but Nancy has worked with a bunch of folks who swear by it.

This is the first time I’ve ever ventured into making a video for a “client” (funny even to think of my friend as a client), but it was a learning experience to be sure. As a journalist I can make all kinds of independent editorial decisions, but for this it was necessary to work with Nancy every step of the way, adding things she felt I’d neglected, taking things out that she felt didn’t belong. But I loved it, and I’d do it again.

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Sacred Rivers: Tashlikh on the Hudson

The Yadkin River partners — Christine, Phoebe and I — spent Rosh Hashanah on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I’ll never forget it. We set out early that morning on foot in search of people going to the banks of the Hudson River, in Riverside Park, to perform the ritual of Tashlikh. It’s such a simple ritual, involving a prayer of asking forgiveness and casting away regret. To be honest, we did kind of stalk people a little bit, looking for clues that they might be headed to the riverside for just that ritual purpose. But at heart, we’re all three reporters, and so we’re accustomed to seeking out clues and being kind of bold in approaching strangers.

In the course of the day we met fathers and sons, husbands and wives, daughters, sons, observant Jews and secular Jews. What struck us so much is that, all across the Jewish continuum, this simple ritual, of conveying ones regrets onto a piece of bread and then throwing it into the moving waters of this iconic urban river meant so much.

This audio slideshow is part of our series “Sacred Rivers.”

Stay tuned.

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Elizabeth’s Story

For the last several months, Journal reporter Laura Graff pieced together the story of Elizabeth Lentz, Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina 2011. It’s a remarkable and moving piece of serial journalism that gives readers an intimate look at the life-shattering experience of traumatic injury and the personal courage it takes to rebuild a life.

A spinal cord injury, the result of a motorcycle accident, left Elizabeth unable to walk. At first, she didn’t have any intention of following the doctors’ advice or going through the grueling ordeal of physical therapy. But at a critical moment, her daughter, Ivey, took her hand and led her onward.

Laura Graff is a terrific writer, and I’m lucky to know her. And photographer Lauren Carroll, who worked alongside Laura on the project, is one of the very best. Neither of them is a videographer, but both of them recognized that the printed word and still images just can’t convey the power of some moments. Sometimes, only a moving image will do. Sometimes, the meaning is wholly conveyed by the cadence, the intonation, the rise and fall of a person’s voice. For all the beauty of great writing and pitch-perfect photography, video conveys the emotion of a moment in a unique and powerful way.

On several of their reporting trips, Laura and Lauren took along a video camera, the kind that you might lug along to a family reunion or a trip to the beach. They brought the footage back to me, and I had the privilege of making something from it. I don’t know that I did it justice, but I tried my best. That’s all I know to do.

We produced three video pieces to accompany Laura’s nine-part series.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

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My colleague Lisa O’Donnell wrote this top-notch, and way overdue, story about guitarist Lowman “Pete” Pauling and the 5 Royales, a legendary R&B group from Winston-Salem that never got the kind of mainstream respect they deserved.

Lisa is a heckuva writer, and the story couldn’t possibly have been in better hands. Check out the first few paragraphs of her article, which ran on the front page of the Winston-Salem Journal Sunday:

“A small obituary, lost in a wash of gray newsprint appeared halfway down Page 5 of the Winston-Salem Journal on Dec. 28, 1973, announcing the death of a one-time city resident who had lived in New York for the past 10 years.

Beyond his survivors, the obit contained nothing of the man’s life, the miles he traveled, the musical masterpieces he created, the impact he made on pop culture.

More than those errors of omission, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it obituary of a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, arguably the most important musical figure to emerge from Winston-Salem, included one other egregious mistake.

His name was misspelled.

Which is all sadly emblematic of the life of Lowman “Pete” Pauling (misspelled Lawman in the obituary), a visionary guitarist and songwriter who transcended his impoverished upbringing in the coal camps of West Virginia and the streets of Winston-Salem to become one of the pillars of early rhythm and blues, only to die alone at the age of 47 while working as a custodian at a Brooklyn synagogue.

Pauling was the guiding light for The 5 Royales, a groundbreaking Winston-Salem band whose fusion of gospel and R&B in the 1950s laid the groundwork for soul and rock ‘n’ roll.”


Great writing can take a reader to a lot of amazing places, but when it comes to understanding Lowman Pauling’s genius, hearing is believing. Lisa came to me with a great idea — to ask guitar shopkeeper Michael Bennett to deconstruct some of Pauling’s licks while we recorded him on video.

Pauling and the 5 Royales are winning some new fans these days thanks to guitarist Steve Cropper’s recent project, “Dedicated: A Salute to the Five Royales.” Cropper cites Pauling as one of his most important early musical influences. The recording features an all-star supporting musical cast including the likes of Lucinda Williams, Bettye LaVette, Delbert McClinton, Buddy Miller and B.B. King, and it’s been getting some mighty good press in the wide world beyond our beloved Winkytown.

Take a listen and I think you’ll see why. And if you see Santa, remind him that I’ve been a very good girl this year.

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Podcast Redux

The podcast has been evolving over the last few months, and I gotta say that I’m pleasantly surprised by how much fun it’s become to produce. YouTube and our vast photo archive make for a entertaining treasure hunt each week, but the latest addition is our $6 green screen. A few weeks ago, our super-delightful colleague Lindy Bazner came into the office with a few pieces of bright green poster board tucked under her arm. We proceeded to duct tape them together and hang them on a portable rack. (Look carefully behind us and you can see a seam … but hey, cut us some slack. We’re newspaper journalists, making this stuff up as we go along.) Now though, thanks to the green screen, we can go anywhere in the world. No travel budget required!

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A Pig Tale

WInston-Salem Journal photo by Lauren Carroll

This litle Berkshire pig went on an adventure near my neighborhood last week.

As an online editor, I don’t get to write much for the daily paper anymore, but I haven’t lost my capacity for attracting stories wherever I go.

So the other day, when my friend Jeanne started telling me about the piglet who got loose in Old Salem, providing terrible distraction on the day before a big public event there, I knew that it (the story, that is) had some legs.

I got to the office and went straight to the metro editor’s desk to tell her about the prodigal pig. She loved it. “Who should write that story?” I asked her. We looked around at the newsroom, decimated by layoffs and furloughs. Three reporters hunkered in the corner, hoping we wouldn’t see them. They were busy cranking out copy for the weekend papers.

“Why don’t you make some calls?” she asked.

“Oh come on, Annette, I have work to do, ” I said, sighing. I’m rusty. It’s been about five years since I had a byline.

But once I got to my desk, my curiosity got the best of me, and I started poking around.

I found a cell phone number for the farmer. He rather sheepishly admitted that she had busted out while he was unloading the critters for a TV spot plugging Old Salem’s Harvest Day. As far as he knew, he told me, the little gal was still on the loose, rooting around in back yards and posing a potential distraction to drivers.

A little while later, though, he called to tell me that she’d found her way back to the barn.

There might once have been a time when such a story wouldn’t have made the paper, when a crusty old editor would’ve said “Who the hell cares about a missing pig?” There might’ve been a time when I would have said the same thing.

But I also had a hunch that it would be the best-read story of the day. We live in hard times, and yeah, there’s a lot of bad news rushing at us all day long. I’ve kept thinking of a line from David Whyte’s poem, “Loaves and Fishes,” which I have posted on my cubicle wall:

“People are hungry,
and one good word
is bread for a thousand.”

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Not for the faint of heart

When I started fiddling around in digital media, there was one thing I swore I’d never do: get in front of the camera. For one thing, I have a wardrobe made for radio. I mean, look up ‘the rumpled look’ in the dictionary, and you’ll probably find a picture of me. I’m usually too busy playing with the dog or reading a poem to comb my hair. Plus I talk with my hands.

But time and necessity have a way of making us do things we wouldn’t otherwise do. So watch and laugh — and maybe you’ll be inspired to get out of your comfort zone too. Come on out — life is short!

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On Turtle Island

Yesterday I escaped the newsroom and the self-imposed prison of my computer and drove up the mountain to do a tape sync for the Radio Netherlands show “Earthbeat.” I love doing tape syncs for radio shows, because I generally get to meet really cool people and get paid to eavesdrop on thoughtful conversations.

My assignment entailed driving into the deep green heart of the Appalachian highlands, far from the four-lane version of U.S. 421 that allows easy access to Boone, with its brewpubs and coffee shops, its powerhouse football teams and fancy wilderness outfitters. I was headed for the Turtle Island Preserve to sit with Eustace Conway, the founder and architect of the preserve. Since the 1980s Eustace has been carving out a place where the natural world, as much as possible, sustains all activity. That means generating their own power, raising (or hunting) their own food, milling the lumber for every building on the place. You might have heard of Eustace, by way of a book called “The Last American Man.”

Ted Richardson took this iconic photo of Eustace for the Winston-Salem Journal in 2003. It's now the cover photo of the latest edition of "The Last American Man."

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote it in 2002, long before she ate, prayed and loved her way onto the best-seller list and into the theaters with a film adaptation of her own spiritual journey.

I got turned on to Eustace when my former newspaper colleagues went out to do a story about him, probably tied in some way to Gilbert’s book. Eustace was on yesterday. He had many great things to say, but one spoke particularly to me, as I grapple with my own mortality and my own questions about communication technology and how to use it for good.

“I’ve tried to distill the many, many interwoven problems that our societies have and it’s come down to, after years of searching for a one-word answer … it comes under the umbrella of ‘disconnect,'” he told host Marnie Chesterton. “The healing would be ‘connect.’ To be connected with the natural world. To put your hands on it.”

He went on to talk about communication technology like cell phones, and about the advertisements that tout how the technology promotes connection. “We’re very species-centric,” he said. “The world is a lot bigger than a human being. The human being is like one drop in an ocean. It’s foolish to imagine that it’s all about being connected to human beings. You need to be connected with the rest of the planet. We’re not even allowing in our verbiage or our thought process that it goes way, way, way beyond the human beings.”

I think we would do well to internalize this idea and make it an essential part of our work, whatever is our work.

OCTOBER 21 UPDATE: “Back to the Land” aired this week on Radio Netherlands. It’s worth a listen!

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The life and death of Zahra Baker

When my friends at the Hickory Daily Record asked me a couple of months ago to help them with a video project about the Zahra Baker case, I said an enthusiastic “yes” right away, despite the fact that a) I’d never really worked on a documentary video script before and b) it was a tragic and complicated story I didn’t really know much about. Baker is the 10-year-old disabled girl who moved to Western North Carolina from Australia after her father married a North Carolina woman he met online. By all accounts, Zahra’s life was pretty miserable here, and when she disappeared last fall, her stepmother, Elisa Baker, was the early and prime suspect. (Elisa pleaded guilty Thursday to second-degree murder and was sentenced to up to 18 years in prison. Read more about the case.)

Editor Lee Buchanan and videographer Jeremy Detter deserve a lot of credit for tackling such a project, and I think they did a whale of a job collecting video footage and tracking down family photos of Zahra that add so much to the story. It was not an easy story to tell, but it was a necessary one. We produced the piece in three segments:

Part One: The Girl from Down Under

Part Two: New Life in North Carolina

Part Three: Murder and Mourning

March 23, 2012 update: We learned this week that “Zahra’s Story” won the 2011 D. Tennant Bryan award for multimedia journalism. I’m very proud of Lee and Jeremy for their great work, and I’m honored to have been a part of it.

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Sacred Rivers



The Yadkin River partners — Christine Rucker, Phoebe Zerwick and I — are at work on a new project, one we’re calling, for now, “Sacred Rivers.” Over the coming months we’ll be visiting with communities of faith and others for whom rivers provide context, setting and meaning for ritual. In August, we spent time in Buffalo, New York, getting to know a community of Hindus who mark the holy month of Shraaven by wading into the waters of the Niagara River. At Rosh Hashanah we’ll be in New York City for Tashlich, a ritual that involves casting bread into the waters of the Hudson. And in May, we were with Joy Truluck and Matt Scheidt when they conducted a blessing ceremony for their 13-month-old son, William.

We especially appreciate the shout-out on the “Being Blog” of American Public Media’s beautiful show, On Being, with host Krista Tippett.

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The fabric of story

I love this. Joan M.E. Gaither, a Maryland-based documentary fabric artist and retired educator, spent two years documenting the National Black Theatre Festival in quilt form. It has sweep and exquisite attention to detail. Spread on a king-size bed, its edges would spill to the floor. We talked with her a few days ago at the Rhodes Center for the Arts in Winston-Salem.

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The ghosts of urban renewal

“Most Forsyth County residents don’t know it,” wrote Journal reporter Annette Fuller in today’s front-page story, “but when they travel Business 40 at U.S. 52 — the county’s busiest intersection by far — they are driving right on top of the old Belews Street neighborhood.”

Before Mr. Eisenhower’s audacious interstate system came to town, Belews Street was a small but thriving black neighborhood. The story that unfolded in Winston-Salem — the razing of a community in the way of modernization and urbanization — is a familiar one that played itself out in black neighborhoods all around the country.

“Urban renewal means Negro removal,” writer James Baldwin famously said.

What was to become Interstate 40 started in 1958 as the Downtown Expressway. It was one of the earliest stretches of I-40 (now Business 40).

The Belews Street families scattered, but they stayed in touch over the years, gathering mostly at funerals. Eventually some of them decided to start an annual reunion, and now they’re lobbying for a historical marker.

Journal photographer David Rolfe spent some time with Barbara Morris, one of the main organizers of the reunion. She showed him the spot from where her grandmother’s house was moved, and she shared some remarkable old photos. David turned them over to me for this little video.

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A Labor of Love


As an editor, I’ve learned to love living vicariously. Other people, reporters and photographers, go out and collect material and then they bring it back to my desk and say, “Here, can you do something with this?”

Photographer David Rolfe is a born storyteller, and he’s one of the few journalists I know who’s as good with words as he is with images. When I heard he was working on this story about a group of volunteers restoring a Piedmont Airlines DC-3 — many of whom have deep personal ties to the company — I knew it was going to be exceptional. “Did you shoot any video?” I asked. “Did you record any audio?” He didn’t really have time to deal with it, so he gave it to me, and I built this little piece.

I’m not really very happy with the audio (recorded on an inexpensive Olympus; I’m pretty sure David just intended to use it for note-taking), and the video was shot in a small frame format so that it pixilates a bit in the movie — but such is the nature of our print media-centric experimentation with video on the web.

I want to believe in being ‘platform agnostic’, as they say in the business, but I keep seeing such a wide gap between what we imagine as possible and what we are able to achieve given the constraints of time, training, and technology. So I keep working to close that gap, one baby step at a time.

All that aside, this is a terrific story, and I admire David’s eye for detail, his ear for story, and his willingness to leap into the multimedia unknown.

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The Poems Department

It’s pretty unusual these days to get a hand-addressed envelope delivered to the newsroom. (And much of the time, such letters are what we call “jail mail”, long entreaties from inmates who have nothing but time on their hands to write rambling letters about their cases.) But this is certainly the first letter I’ve seen that is addressed to the Poems Department.
Now, I’m incredibly charmed by this for lots of reasons. One, that there is someone out there who believes that such a department might exist at the newspaper. (I happen to believe quite strongly that we’d all be better off if one did.) And two, that someone cared enough to share his poems with us, written in neat blocky handwriting, on lined notebook paper. At the bottom, he wrote “This is a sample of my poetry, have lots more if you are interested … Would like to write poems for you.”

For the most part, in the age of diminishing column inches and brutal choices about what to put in them, poetry gets left in the dust. There have been some attempts to nurture the relationship. For example, when he was poet laureate, Ted Kooser established the American Life in Poetry project, in which he provides publications with a free weekly commentary and poem. At its inception, about 70 newspapers carried the columns.

In a similar spirit, the Iowa City Press-Citizen embraced poetry as the people’s art form by establishing a regular feature called Poetic License. (As if I needed yet another reason to love Iowa City!)

And how would the news be different if poets wrote the news? That’s a question that the editor of Haaretz asked a couple of years ago, when he invited a group of Israel’s literary stars to report and write the news for one day.

I’m deeply biased toward poetry. It’s long been my practice to read and study poetry, every single day. It offers me an essential counterweight to the soul-numbing grind of the daily news machine, and I try always to keep in mind the words of poet David Tucker (who’s also a top editor at the Newark Star-Ledger): “Journalism is about what the facts tell us. Poetry’s about what the facts don’t tell us.” I’ve been known to stand up in the newsroom and read poems aloud, and distribute photocopied poems on “Poem in Your Pocket” day. (This one.) But perhaps I should also lobby for the creation of a “poems department” at the Journal. Because who says you cannot learn the news from poetry?

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Every year around this time, our little tobacco town puts on the RiverRun International Film Festival. It’s a big deal, and it’s one of the best things about living in Winston-Salem, but I never seem to have enough time to see all the movies I want to see. My own plight inspired me to make this simple project, using stills from the 100+ films at this year’s festival.

See all of our award-winning coverage of the 2011 festival!

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