I [Heart] the Hub

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: I “graduated” recently from Harvard University, along with honorary doctorates Meryl Streep and David Souter and about two dozen new BFFs, aka Nieman Fellows. I put the verb in quotes because technically we don’t earn degrees or graduate; we audit Harvard classes and attend thrice-weekly programs and seminars at Lippman House, the program’s home base.

Monica, Audra, me and Janet at our faux graduation.

We earn “certificates,” which were handed out to us the week prior by Harvard President Drew Faust, who encouraged us to become the leaders of the new-media world. Faust spoke openly and engagingly, including about what it was like for her to travel abroad as a representative of Harvard and be “treated like a head of state.”

I can’t say we’ve been received as heads of state, but the Nieman Fellows have been feted and fed and saturated with enough intellectual fodder to last a lifetime, as I’ve tried to describe on this blog. We’ve been plucked from disparate newsrooms (and home offices) across the world and thrown into a challenging, welcoming environment that’s designed to send us back to our communities with renewed vigor and curiosity.

Among the things I’ve learned:

The Beeb (center) took me and Janet on an equally grueling hike in Quincy recently.

• How to serve a drop-ball in squash, a game I’ve become so enamored of that I’ll play even if it means re-aggravating the sciatica I pulled during my first time out last fall. (Props to my squash mentor, Martha Bebinger, who set a terrible example early on by diving for every single shot.)

• That Harvard professors were accessible not just through their lectures but also over drinks and dinner. Special thanks to Africa historian Caroline Elkins and public health professor Kathy Swartz, who were especially adept at dispelling the myth of the aloof, pinky-raised Hahvahd scahla.• That only Americans would add M&M’s into trail mix. This tidbit is courtesy of skinny South African pal Janet Heard, who also taught us our new favorite exclamation: SHAAAAAAAaaaa! It translates loosely to: Wow! Or, holy shit! Or, somebody get me a stiff gin-and-tonic! (In the realm of our dozen-plus goodbye gatherings, sending off the South Africans will be the hardest. They are the Scarecrow to my Dorothy; I’ll miss them the most.)

• That it’s possible for a municipality to spend twice as much per capita per school child than the norm, but only if it has pothole-riddled roads that would rival any Third World country. (Note to incoming Niemans: If you’re thinking of buying a new car, wait until the year is over. Our suspension is totally shot.) No wonder the Massholes are so crazed behind the wheel.

• That children continually surprise you. Max, the sullen 16-year-old, was so angry and depressed when we got here that he “quit” school on the second day. (We talked him into going after lunch.) Now, of course, he doesn’t want to leave — although we did have to bribe him with $10 bucks to participate in the year-end Nieman Kids photo. Eleven-year-old Will, on the other hand, told me at the end of the first day of school that no one talked to him at recess. “But that’s OK because that’s always how it is on the first day of school when you’re the new kid,” he added. (I covet his level of maturity, I really do.) Three days later, he was elected class rep by a bunch of kids who still like to tease him about his “country accent.” But now, he’s the one in our family who most wants to return home to Roanoke.

• That my husband happily carved out his own role as a so-called affiliate. Not only did Tom work full-time while sitting in on regular classes. He also had a mini-premiere of the film he co-produced, “A Gift for the Village,” with velvety-smooth narration by Nieman Lisa Mullins, anchor of BBC’s “The World” program. He gave his own sounding (life/work story) in May — and had everyone in the room laughing. He also initiated our buddy Steve Pike into the world of

Tom and Steve in Colorado -- or was it Vermont?

Landon Brothers: taking Steve to Vermont to snowboard with his crazy brother Mike and later to Colorado, to snowboard with his even crazier brother, Rich. He did untold favors for people here, just as he does back home — from video editing to technology training to printer-unjamming. And now he’s busy trying to figure out how we’re going to pack everything we brought up here into that 16-foot Penske truck, plus a couch we bought in the fall, plus a hutch and seven dining room chairs given to us by our Nieman pal Anita Snow. (They’re mementos from her AP days in Mexico City and Havana and, unfortunately for her/fortunately for us, they won’t fit into her tiny, ultra-expensive new apartment in New York, where she’ll be covering the United Nations for AP – but we will, when we come to visit!) Oh, and while we packed we helped the South Africans throw a braii (barbecue) to herald the opening of the South African World Cup. SHAAAAAaaa!

Gary Knight, our fearless default leader, on our winter outing in Stowe, Vt.

• And lastly, that I really, really hate goodbyes. It’s why I’ve been putting off writing my last Nieman blog entry. I’m one of those who likes to leave the party fairly early — while it’s still going strong — with a thank-you hug to the host and a quick exit out the back door. About half our buddies have already taken off for various points across the globe, from Kandahar to London to Toronto to NYC. We also miss our favorite Zimbabwean princess, MIT journalism fellow Firle Davies—known across the commonwealth for shouting “F—ing savages!” at passing cars who inadvertently splashed her and her tail-slapping Lab, Jessie, as they trudged through the cold Cambridge rain.

Will, the Zim Princess and Tom in Elkins' Africa course. "I didn't understand any of it," Will said. "But now I've been to Harvard."

We gave Firle an “I [Heart] Boston” T-shirt as a going-away gift because she so did not [Heart] Boston, especially the weather. But even she’s reported, via e-mail from her thatched-roof home in Harare, a growing fondness for the place. I think it’s us she misses the most. . . although it may also be our steady electricity. And her daily Bikram.

No ironic Boston T-shirt necessary for me; I do love the Hub (you gotta love a place that officially nicknames itself the Hub of the universe) — but not for its pomp and grandeur.

I love it because of all the great people I’ve gotten to know so well, so quickly here — a rarity in middle age. Or as our default leader Gary Knight put it the other day at maybe the seventh going-away gathering of the month: “This kind of friendship will probably never happen again in our lives.” (He’s the default leader because he and his fantastic journalist/wife, Fiona, have ended up hosting the most parties. And though I’m older than Gary by a couple of months, I’ll always see him as a kind of big brother/journalism adviser/shrink.)

Friendship like this is something to be grateful for, and to hang onto, as we leave the Hub and head back to our far-flung locales and beloved old friends, and set about realizing what a gift this year has been.

Life as the new kid

“I guess when I get back to Roanoke, I’ll be able to cross Grandin Road by myself,” the 11-year-old said as we were riding our bikes to his school.

We were dodging college students walking to class, dodging other bicyclists on the sidewalks and roads, dodging Mass Ave. traffic that makes Roanoke’s Grandin Road seem like a back street in Mayberry.

A month into our tour in Cambridge, it’s been a big Back to School adventure for all of us, with the teenager adjusting to taking public transportation to his high school, which is slightly smaller than his school in Roanoke but with a wider array of diversity and, apparently, fashion. (“Guys in tight purple jeans!”) Now in his second week of school, he seems to hate us less now than he did at the start. A little.

It’s tough being the new kid, and not just for the teenager. There are 23 Nieman fellows in my class, the vast majority of whom are hard-news hounds, including many who have reported, filmed and photographed from such far-flung and weapons-slung places as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gaza Strip.

They are not used to sitting idly or quietly on the sidelines, and sometimes I have a shy/hard/awkward time getting a word in at our meetings. I like, admire and get a chuckle out of every one of them, for they are truly hale and hearty fellows. But being a Southern newbie at Harvard reminds me of a four-way stop sign: In sweet ol’ Roanoke, everyone politely waves everyone else on, often to the point of standstill. Here, you go when you get the opening — even if it’s all at the same time. Sometimes I wish I had thought to take a course in group dynamics, along with my four other classes.

But hopefully I will learn how to strengthen my voice in a course called Public Narrative taught by Marshall Ganz, who as the architect of Camp Obama, also teaches community organization and campaign mobilization. I’m one of about 200 students taking his Kennedy School class, along with grad-student Ashley Judd, who reportedly wants to keep a low profile but is often the first to raise her hand in class.

I’m taking a music appreciation course called First Nights in the Gothic 1870s-era Memorial Hall, which looks like something out of Harry Potter. While I enjoy learning the cultural underpinnings of what went into the premiere of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, what really moves me is the comfort of sitting in that dark theatre for an hour twice a week and listening to a genuinely gifted teacher and musician. (Note to my classical-musical hound buddy, Angela: You have to come experience this class with me. Please.)

I hope to pick up a broader, deeper context for my  immigration reporting from a class that examines the history and current political climate around the question of legalizing the country’s 12 million undocumented immigrants. (Bonus: It’s taught by a professor who shared the Pulitzer with a group of Philadelphia Inquirer reporters that included our very own Mary Bishop!)

For a law school class called the Art of Social Change, we listen to world- class speakers expound upon human-rights and children’s issues. Last week, Bryan Stevenson, a MacArthur genius grantee and Harvard Law grad, talked about his exhaustive efforts to litigate his way to the Supreme Court so that (mostly black) 13- and 14-year-olds serving life sentences in prison may one day get out. Later, I was thrilled to find a Washington Post Magazine profile of him written by Walt Harrington, who is my favorite narrative journalist of all time. (Another fabulous Harrington piece I stumbled upon recently was an essay about why we write — to feel alive — from American Journalism Review.)

The Nieman events and classes are no less inspiring (OK, maybe not the part about learning HTML. . . ). We’ve heard from theater dynamo Diane Paulus one week after seeing her Shakespeare-meets-Studio 54 production of “The Donkey Show.” Tomorrow, we meet with David Gergen in a two-hour, off-the-record seminar.

At a welcoming reception last weekend, hundreds of people from the Harvard community came out to meet and greet us, including prominent journalists, authors and CEOs, former Niemans and current fellows of other Harvard programs (including Firle Davies, a heralded BBC reporter from Zimbabwe who talked about how relieved she was to have a year away from the threatening, middle-of-the-night phone calls).

I nearly stepped into it when I joined a conversation of Boston Globe journos who were bemoaning the Globe’s editorial on Teddy Kennedy, which began with the line: “Ted Kennedy was not a great man.”  I defended the piece, explaining that I was in tears by the end of it, but Globe columnist Kevin Cullen said he was so pissed that he stormed into his publisher’s office the day it ran. (It’s a Massachusetts thing; I wouldn’t understand.)

Not long ago, former Nieman (and one-time Roanoke Times editor) Mike Riley told me to enjoy the all-you-can-eat buffet that is the Nieman fellowship. While I’m still trying to find my sea legs (not to mention, at times, my voice), I have to say I’m loving every minute of being here, even the neighborhood yoga class that leaves me half-crippled; even the requisite three hours it takes to go grocery shopping because there are so many good places that I can’t go to just one. (Forget Trader Joe’s; I’ve since stumbled onto Russo’s, the world’s best bakery/produce market/deli, featuring rock-bottom prices on everything from beautiful berry pies to lemongrass and yard-long beans — just don’t get in the way of the Italian ladies when they’re sifting through the clearance rack.)

Wednesday Farmer's market in Harvard Square.

Wednesday Farmer's market in Harvard Square. I miss my zinnias at home (OK, so I've pinched a few starts of neighbors' coleus plants; what's a girl without a garden to do?).

I hope I don’t jinx it by writing this, but I’m starting to think that even the teenager is coming around, a development that makes me happier than all the $9.99 homemade pies in the world. That might have something to do with the tattoo (don’t freak, Mom; it’ll be small!) we promised he could get on his 16th birthday — if he makes the honor roll.

Or it might be the Thanksgiving trip to Jamaica we just booked on account of Tom’s theory that all money spent during the Nieman year should be viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime expenditure. “Monopoly money,” he calls it.

Which is a fitting outlook, as we begin to try to make the most of this year — passing Go as often as we can and splurging, every now and then, on a Boardwalk hotel.

A recent trip to Narragansett, R.I. Some people plunge easily into new things and places and ideas while others wait on the periphery until their sea legs are found..

Throughout the moving-prep process, nary a newspaper reared its head — except when it came to packing the dishes.

Ok, so we’ve found an apartment in Cambridge and rented out our Roanoke Ugly — a giant four-square that’s twice the size of our Cambridge digs but only half the cost. We’ve even held the obligatory yard sale, ditching the ill-fitting pants, tattered Yu-Gi-Oh cards and some of Aunt Barbara’s geegaws (she let us keep the cash; oh, how I will miss the world’s best auntie!).

The big break came today, though. Due to the miracle of Facebook, it only took five hours to find a home for the 10-year-old’s hamster as well as the guinea pig the teenager’s been wanting to unload for some time — the last vestige of the little boy who used to play with her on the floor (which makes me sad, but that’s another story, one that feels even more sober than the one I’m relating now). 

No wonder the Web is killing our business. A few years ago, with a “Free to Good Home” ad in the newspaper classifieds, it would have taken days before the rodents were out of our house — and they would have gone to strangers, not a former student of mine and his wife (I’m considering this payback for writing his law school rec letter!), a young family that is thrilled to be giving their four-year-old daughter the pets for her birthday this weekend.

Using Craigslist, it took all of two hours to nab a renter for our house. We found a rental in Cambridge via a Web site called SabbaticalHomes.com; the landlord is a Columbia University professor who was residing in Berlin for the school year and, via email and just one international phone call, we hammered out a lease agreement and even talked her into letting us bring the mutt.

We used Kayak.com to score a super deal on two flights to Boston at the end of the month so Tom and the teenager can get the lay out of the land (and hopefully put some of the high schooler’s angst about the move to rest). Maybe then he’ll stop insisting that the only person this move to Cambridge is good for is ME!

Throughout the moving-prep process, nary a newspaper reared its head — except when it came to packing the dishes. While I try to remain optimistic, I really do wonder about the financial future of our business. I think there’ll still be a newspaper to return to next summer; I’m just not sure how well staffed it’ll be. 

And yet we can’t count on Craigslist, or even Twitter, to be out there making the public’s business known, as my colleague David Harrison has done so well in recent days with his school scandal coverage. Facebook can provide us with plenty opinions on the school scandal, but as for the kind of reporting Harrison does — pouring over documents, talking to investigators, sifting through both sides of the story and then relating it in a clear and understandable way — there’s no replacing a guy like Harrison, who’s as good a beat reporter as they come.

By the way, I was thrilled to note that editors advertised his position a few weeks back, shortly after he announced he was leaving us for grad school — and, sigh, another career. Another good one gone. In these attrition-heavy times, we can ill-afford one more empty newsroom desk.

The ad, in case you’re interested, is posted — online, of course — at Journalismjobs.com.