It’s been an interesting journey to say the least but I am officially back at work at NPR today. So far so good. My colleagues have been so very kind and welcoming. I did not wilt in the heat. I did not get hit by cars in the street. My Dr. Seuss imitation will not be beat.
It’s been 7 weeks since the big cancer surgery. It feels like it’s my very first day at school. I went through the checklist before I left the apartment in the morning. Metro card- check. Reading glasses without which I would be blind- check. Cash- check. Sharpened #2 pencils- not necessary but you know what I mean.
My son, Charlie came up from Nashville and visited me over the weekend. “So how do you feel about going back to work, Dad?” The appropriate, manly, puritan work-ethic response would be, “Can’t wait!” The reality is that it’s another transition in a series of them.
First, a day before surgery you prepare yourself as best you can for uncertainty and what will be a long period of recovery. Psychologically, it’s like you get in the fetal position, let them do what they need to do and then just deal with it. I got through my 7 days of indignity at the hospital. The nurses and docs were all great, but it is just not possible to lie in bed with a tube attached to your nose that goes into your stomach or wear flimsy little hospital gowns and maintain any sense of decorum.
Then there’s the transition home and recovery. It’s a tricky business. You need to rest and sleep. You also need to walk and stay active. Too much rest and you just turn into a tub of Jell-O and your aches and pains get worse not better. Too much activity, and you get ashen-faced and literally hope you didn’t just bust a stitch.
A big transition, frankly, is when they take those stitches out. It’s hard to feel normal when you look down and see 36 metal staples holding your stomach together. After those puppies are gone, you start feeling a little less like Frankenstein.
And what did you do with all that time off, Robert? Well, I’d like to say I did research into the mating habits of Bonobo monkees or wrote a paper that helped to further define Einstein’s theory of general relativity. But, no. I read some great books. I watched three entire seasons of the Walking Dead (because who doesn’t enjoy eviscerating zombies) and two seasons of the Sopranos (which explains why I was overly distraught about the demise of James Gandolfini last week). I walked just about every day. Took in a couple of Nats games because, really, what an honor to be able to watch the worst offense in baseball in the past 30 years. And I completed a 5K walk in memory of my late colleague, Brenda Box, and in the process, raised a little money to fight pancreatic cancer.
And mostly, I attempted to accustom myself to the new rebuilt me. I call it Garcia 3.0. They took out a whole lot of my stomach so eating is a different kind of thing now. I can pretty much consume whatever I want, just smaller quantities, more often. I’m sometimes on the edge of nausea but it never lasts long. It happens if I don’t eat enough, eat too much and this is really interesting- when people get repetitive and annoying, particularly people on cable TV.
Next week, I start taking these chemotherapy pills. Hugely better than having to get infusions. The strategy as I understand it from my doctor, is to take 2 pills in the morning, 2 pills at night, Monday through Friday and do the best you can. You get weekends off to recover. On Fridays, they tell me, I’ll be beat and worn to a nub. But this particular regimen rarely results in either nausea or hair loss. Should I be the rare exception and lose my hair however, I’m telling you right now- I’m getting an earring.
So you take as much of this as you can for a minimum of four months, preferably six. Japanese doctors have their stomach cancer patients take the pills for a year. And when completed, presto! Cancer stays gone and 5-year survivability rates increase from 50 to 70%.
Next transition- getting home from work!
I am so psyched and happy to say that I’ve signed up to participate in a 5K Walk, June 15th, benefiting Purple Stride, an organization dedicated to fighting pancreatic cancer, which claimed a much beloved colleague and friend earlier this year.
Brenda Box was the afternoon editor with NPR’s Newscast unit. A kinder, warmer, funnier, sharper, smarter journalist-human will never be found. Here is a tribute to Brenda from a few months back. Accomplishing this 5K for her and in her memory is going to be very special to me. As Brenda’s health deteriorated last year, I developed a few complications of my own. It bonded us a bit more than most, I think. The very day I had an endoscopy this year that would find the cancer in my tummy that I’ve had to deal with, was also the day of Brenda’s memorial service which I proudly, if woozily, attended (they put you out for an endoscopy).
I walk about a mile a day now. Basically, to complete a 5K you take about 4,800 to 5,000 steps. I can easily handle about 2,400 currently. But I’ve got two weeks to build up to it. I can do this. It’s one hour of walking, for Christ’s sake.
One of the reasons for 5K walks like this, of course, is to raise money for the cause. Here’s a link if you would like to sponsor my walk. The group I’m with at Purple Stride is called the Boxtops. I would be very proud to raise money for any organization dedicated to the fight against any cancer.
I’m doing this for Brenda because I will always love her. And I’m doing it for me so I can prove to myself that I can take 5,000 steps six weeks after major cancer surgery. In some silly way, I feel like I’m taking the torch from Brenda, and having been given the gift of a curable cancer, that I am literally finishing the race for her. That will be her gentle push at my back. And her prankster foot I dodge in her ill-fated attempt to trip me. I’m on to you, Brenda.
Well, NPR is moving. Most everyone except Newscast, Digital News and Technical Operations has left the old building at 635 Massachusetts Avenue for the beautiful new headquarters building at 1111 North Capital Street. We, the stragglers go last- next week.
What will become of the old building that housed NPR for some two decades? It will be destroyed in just a few weeks; demolished and turned to dust. So….what do a few hundred snarky, already cynical NPR-types do to a building they know will cease to exist in a few short weeks?
Graffiti! Big time Graffiti. On all the walls, the elevators, the CEO’s old office bathroom. You name it. The entire place has been turned into a kind of performance art canvass where features of the building itself are part of the show. We have been unleashed like 6 year-olds with finger paints.
Here’s the old, handy, 3rd floor defibrillator:
NPR’s Supreme Court/Legal correspondent, Nina Totenberg, is photographed by White House correspondent, Ari Shapiro as she leaves behind her mark…
Later, an unnamed colleague added their snarky rejoinder:
The old building had its quirks. There was only one elevator that actually took you up to the 7th floor cafeteria. All other elevators took to you to the 6th floor and you’d have to walk up a flight of stairs. But that one elevator that went all the way up was also very, very popular. It could take up to 5 minutes or longer before you’d hear the cheesy little bell that signaled its arrival.
This is one of the other elevators. It featured a special guest rider all Friday afternoon. I maintain we are the only major radio network in the world with a headphone-wearing mannequin.
And continuing with the elevator theme- some are taking the move rather philosophically:
We always wondered what this old 3rd floor valve did, exactly. And we still wonder but just to be on the safe side….
A truly loved and appreciated colleague passed away this morning. Brenda was an editor with NPR’s Newscast unit. There wasn’t a word spoken by an anchor or an NPR correspondent that didn’t get her keen eye, and eventually her approval. I was her boss. This is the note I sent to NPR staff around the world today. The outpouring of affection has been enormous. She will live in our hearts forever.
We are deeply saddened to announce that our beloved and respected colleague, Newscast Editor, Brenda Box, has passed away after a courageous four years dealing with pancreatic cancer. She was 58. Anyone who ever dealt with Brenda knows what a special and unique person she was; equal parts cynical and sensitive, outspoken and hilarious, brilliant and fun and warm and self-deprecating.
Correspondent, Carrie Kahn, who largely dealt with Brenda on the phone, but grew close to her anyway, put it this way in a recent note to Newscast staff: “Every time I called newscast and she answered the phone, no matter how stressed or busy she was she always had a few moments for a quick chat, great banter and that memorable laugh. Not that filing spots is not fun enough, but Brenda made it something special, personal and among friends.”
Newscast’s Korva Coleman has a further explanation of Brenda’s role in the unit: “Although you never heard her name on an NPR broadcast, she shaped what you heard. While you never heard her speak to you on the radio, she guided your understanding of events. Brenda Box was the editor every journalist dreams of, one who elicits the best from reporters and quietly removes the errors…Brenda often concluded her conversations with her trademark, “Cool beans.” That was the indication that her exacting eye had reviewed the reporter’s work and approved.”
There is no justice served remembering Brenda only in the context of her health issues in recent years. But it must be said that in this particular respect, she taught us all the true meaning of gentle grace under great adversity.
Brenda graduated with a journalism degree from Colorado State University, worked as Capitol Hill correspondent for USA Today Broadcasting/Gannett News Service, as an anchor for the UPI and NBC/Mutual radio networks, and as a reporter for West Virginia Public Radio and WTOP Radio before coming to NPR ten years ago. Outside of broadcasting she worked for the Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation and served as Press Secretary for the District of Columbia’s City Administrator.
She was a long-time member of the National Association of Black Journalists, winning an NABJ Excellence award for a series on Black Pioneers. The Gannett News Service honored her work for radio coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington.
Brenda is survived by her husband, Steve Johnson, her daughters, Chantel and Chanel and her son, Anthony.
By way of remembrance, the family asks that donations in Brenda’s name, be made to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Pancan.org.
Somebody called me a Nazi this week. And they questioned my journalistic integrity. Not just me, actually. Everyone I work with too. This goes way beyond issues that first arose weeks ago when the organization I work for made certain mistakes for which they have taken full responsibility. We are human.
Fox News President, Roger Ailes, later apologized for his “Nazi” references to NPR…to a Jewish organization. He did not apologize to me or any of my colleagues. In his letter of apology, he added that what he really meant to say was that we were “nasty, inflexible bigots.” And he has accused us of being leftists. Leftist Nazi’s, as if such a thing were even idealogically possible.
A momentary dose of truth, if I might. Chicago Sun-Times film critic, Roger Ebert, says it better than I think I ever could. I would respectfully ask you give his article a glance.
Here’s what reality looks like to some. At least those who actually listen to what, in my humble opinion, may be the last, great news organization in the world:
Everywhere I go, as much as I can, I listen to National Public Radio. It’s an oasis of clear-headed intelligence. Carefully, patiently, it presents programming designed to make me feel just a little better equipped to reenter the world of uproar.
And there’s this:
I’ve mentioned before that I cannot get into a taxi in Chicago where NPR is not either playing, or pre-tuned when the radio is turned on. The driver is invariably African or South Asian. I ask, “You like NPR?” I have been told, “I hear more about the rest of the world.” I’ve also been told, “I hear more about America.” More than once I’ve been told, “I want to learn.”
NPR surely is the voice of America — the voice I hope the world is listening to via the internet. It is the voice of our better nature. We are not all snarling dogs of Left and Right, feasting on shreds torn from the Body Politic. Some of us (maybe most of us, when the mood is right) are kind, curious, sane. We are interested in other peoples, other lifestyles, other choices. We do not demand that the media tell us over and over again the things we already believe. We are open to new ideas.
There’s an honest debate to be had about whether public radio should continue to receive taxpayer dollars. It will come to the fore early next year in the Congress of the United States. Since there are hundreds of communities around the country who would have no local radio at all were it not for NPR member-stations, I personally, don’t think it’s such a great idea to cut off public funding. I mean, really, if for nothing else, who else on the radio is going to activate the Emergency Broadcast System the next time swarms of tornadoes sweep across the heartland?
But that debate aside…what is not honest, is for people who never listen to us- to question our journalistic ethics and integrity. I have not spent 35 years of my life as a journalist at places like CBS and CNN and ABC, to end up at a place that doesn’t work 24 hours a day to bring all sides of a story, over the air, on the radio and into your ears.
It’s what I do. It’s what we do- here at NPR.
Trust me, one way or the other, we will survive.
I’ve been keeping this blog for almost a year now, even after I was hired by NPR and it’s because they have an enlightened social media policy that doesn’t prohibit such things. They ask that we assume personal responsibility for what we say with the understanding that we represent NPR at all times.
This is why I write about culture, occasionally media, sports, and when I delve into politics it is with a broad brush and I go out of my way NOT to divulge my personal political opinions. I do not feel that my 1st amendment rights are being violated.
I have the right to say what I want and the government can’t throw me in prison for it. I do not have a constitutional right to be employed by NPR.
I choose to abide by NPR’s ethics policies that draw a clear line between controversial opinion and objectivity because I understand that in order to maintain our credibility with the public, it is an absolute necessity.
If I and my fellow employees are asked to avoid overt political rallies, I have no issue with that. It is not a matter that I might be recognized by someone. I don’t go on the air at NPR but do run one of its broadcast units. It is a matter of journalistic ethics and I am responsible for upholding those ethics as much as any correspondent or analyst.
We in the Newscast unit and in the news magazine shows work very, very hard each and every day to be as fair as possible and broadcast all points of view. Don’t listen to me. Listen to our content.
There are communities in every nook and cranny of our country, in big cities, suburbs and rural areas that absent the presence of NPR member-stations would have no local radio at all and very little by way of objective journalism. We help provide some of that journalism and that is all NPR seeks to protect.
And that is all I choose to say.
The National Radio Hall of Fame recently set about to select its slate of inductees and retired NPR Newscast veteran, Carl Kasell was nominated for his decades of work. Since I run this unit for NPR, this made me swell with pride- though admittedly, Carl retired just before I came on board so I have absolutely nothing to do with the accolades.
I, however, cheered mightily from the sidelines for Carl- on a number of different levels. Turns out another contender for the Hall of Fame was one Howard Stern. You may have heard of him. He was once on terrestrial commercial radio before heading to XM Radio for a gazillion dollars. Howard was, of course, a lock for this Hall of Fame thing. And he said the following about Carl Kasell on his XM Radio show:
“Who’s Carl Kasell (and he mispronounced his name- it’s like Castle not Cuh-sell)? He got himself all the way to NPR. What a lucky duck….he’s got to have at LEAST four listeners.”
Gracious as always. For the record, NPR Newscasts are heard by over 24 million people a week- but more importantly- here was Carl’s response to Howard as heard on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, an NPR quiz show that airs on the weekends that Carl helps host and announce.
“Dear Mr. Stein,
My understanding is that you are featured on a satellite information service, available in some brands of cars, on which you host a show about gynecology. While I’m sure this is a useful service for medical professionals, like all of us in radio, [surely] you aspire to something greater.”
Heh heh. The record will show that Carl Kasell has just been inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame and Howard Stern was not.
All’s well that ends well.