Sunday, March 25, 2012

The epic search for the coolest LEGO ever

I've decided this is the coolest LEGO ever – and pretty
elusive, too.

Caroline and I discovered its existence when we saw a display in Target. But you just can’t buy the Statue of Liberty. LEGO sells figures in sealed bags, and the sixth series has 16 figures. Some are pretty cool, like a Minotaur. Some kind of suck, like a crying little kid with a Teddy bear.

We spent more time than we cared to admit squeezing bags trying to see if we could feel the crown. We ended up with two Minotaurs and a surgeon.

We thought it might be cheaper to find the figure on eBay,but, well, it was not.
There’s a huge LEGO store in Chicago’s Water Tower Place right next to American Girl Place, no doubt to give dads and brothers a place to which to escape.

The store sells all kinds of individual blocks, so I hoped there would be some Lady Liberties there without the guesswork.

There were all kinds of sets and blocks, but nothing separating our favorite national landmark. We asked a clerk, and he pointed to a bin of the familiar little bags.

I started squeezing bags when Joshua, another clerk, came over and asked which figure we were looking for.

“That’s a popular one,” he said. “But there’s a trick to finding her.”

Two of the figures, Liberty and a flamenco dancer, have a solid, triangular shaped base instead of the usual bendable LEGO legs.

We dug into the bin, squeezing the bags. Joshua was an expert. “This is a flamenco dancer,” he said, fingers squeezing the triangular brick. “This one might be Liberty, but I can’t be sure.”

We assembled stacks of certain flamenco dancers, and possible Liberties. As with Target, this went on longer than we care to admit.

“Wait!” Joshua said, holding a bag. “This is a Liberty, I can almost guarantee it. I think I can feel the torch.”

I had to believe the fine-fingered expert, so we moved over to the register with the bag and a Star Wars stormtrooper key chain for Caroline.

After paying for our treasurers, Joshua pulled out a pair of scissors. “Ready for the reveal?”

Slicing open the bag, I reached in and pulled out a green block – confirming that the elusive Lady Liberty figure was in hand.

I was excited. I think Joshua was relieved.

Friday, March 02, 2012

'Always assume the camera is on and the mic is hot'

I bonded with my daughter over make-up. Normally I’d say that’s not a good thing for a father, but we had a pretty good reason: I needed to look my best for national television.

The political world’s spotlight was on Michigan last week. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney were campaigning hard to win the state’s Republican presidential primary and gain momentum heading into this week’s “Super Tuesday” showdown.

I’ve been part of my media group’s team covering the campaigns, specifically keeping an eye on Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator was coming off a trio of wins and was neck-and-neck with Romney as Election Day neared.

That’s about as good as it gets for a political junkie.

Our jobs at the newspaper have changed a bit in the last year, moving beyond print and even the website. We had a role in an afternoon radio program for much of the year. And the nice folks at WGVU, our local public television channel, have invited me to appear a number of times on “West Michigan Week,” a Sunday morning news talk show.

It’s been said that I have a face for radio and a voice for print, but they keep asking me back.

With focus on Michigan politics getting sharper, CNN on Friday came looking for some local expertise to appear on camera. The call was bounced to me. A CNN producer asked for some background about which issues were important in the state, and why Santorum seemed to be doing well in the state where his chief rival was born.

I was to be at the WGVU studio for make-up at 3:45 p.m. on Sunday, with a “chair time” of 4:05 and a “hit time” of 4:15. I learned all kinds of new terms.

Oh, and would I like a car to pick me up?

I decided to drive myself, and Caroline and I headed down to the studio very early, adopting her marching band mantra of “early is on time,on time is late and late is unacceptable.”

Much debate went into the outfit, and we settled on my blacksuit and red tie with little drawings of the White House that look like stripes.

Mary, a make-up artist, soon arrived and opened a bag full of all kinds of cosmetics. She must have sensed I was nervous and eased my fears by telling me how everything worked.

As she dabbed foundation and concealer on my face, Mary told me that she’s called fairly regularly to WGVU to make up people appearing on CNN and FOX. The local stations don’t like allowing the cable networks to use their facilities, but the public television station gladly allows its studios to be rented.

“It brings a lot of money into the station,” she said. “You’re helping a lot of people just by appearing, so don’t be nervous.”

Mary said most of the people who pass through are friendly, especially former GOP candidate Herman Cain, who appeared earlier in the week and impressed all with his charm and singing.

Properly made up for my first time ever, we walked down the hall to the studio. It is the same room where we film “West Michigan Week,” but set up differently. There was a bookcase on wheels that gets used as a library-like backdrop, but today the producers choose a green screen to project a photo of the Grand Rapids skyline.

There was a chair on a platform with a little table with a glass of water, set up facing a camera.

Students working in the studio set me up with an earpiece through which I’d hear the program and instructions, and a microphone clipped to my jacket with a battery pack slipped into my jacket’s pocket.

Then we waited.

There wasn’t a monitor, since live television isn’t exactly live, as there is a slight delay. So I’d be having a conversation with a camera lens.

I could hear the show in the earpiece, and then I heard a voice. “This is control in Atlanta. We’re going to do a mic check. Can you count to five?”

Finally, the moment came. I was being interviewed with a Detroit Free Press editorial writer. I’d been mentally preparing answers, but the first question was unexpected: Why did my newspaper endorse Romney? I had an idea why, and I was part of the interviews with Romney when he campaigned for the nomination in 2008. I think I pulled it off.

Caroline snapped this on a control room monitor. Grand Rapids was not really behind me.

The second question was about the top issues. The Detroit writer went first and covered the jobs issue. This time I was ready. Our “West Michigan Week” show on Friday was with a pollster who told us about how Romney’s Mormon faith could be an unspoken problem if the race is tight. I think that one went well.

Then I heard, “OK, we’re clear.”

Here’s something I learned. I assumed the camera was on me only when I was talking. What I didn’t realize was that the network was running a shot with me, the Detroit writer and the host. I licked my lips a couple times when the other people were talking because they were so dry in the studio. And, well, now everyone watching knows that.

“Always assume the camera is on and the mic is hot,” a veteran television reporter told me the next day at a Romney rally.

My Lansing Bureau colleague Brandon snapped the great screen shot that I've posted, well, everywhere.

Wall Street Journal radio called on Monday and asked for an interview. Then C-SPAN sent word it was looking for someone to talk about the race during the Santorum Election Night – and then ABC News radio also wanted someone to talk on air about the event.

Election Night parties are staged largely for the media.

Campaigns want images of their candidate giving a victory speech before an adoring crowd in a packed room beamed out around the country. What folks watching at home don’t know is that there are as many media people in the room as there are adoring supporters.

The ballroom in Grand Rapids had a decorated stage, with Santorum’s banner hanging behind the podium.

But much of the rest was set aside for the media, which platforms and lights, and lots of tables for reporters to bang out stories on laptops. There were miles of cords and cables.

I found my new friends at C-SPAN – very nice people -- early in the night and they walked me through what would happen. It would be very different from the CNN appearance.

No make-up, green screen or empty studio this time.

I was to balance on a crowded platform with my back to the podium so the adoring supporters would serve as a backdrop. Other reporters and their camera crews were out of camera range, but within an arm’s reach.
Again there would be an earpiece to hear the host, and there was a little stand with a volume control before me, waist high. One of the producers attached a small microphone to my lapel, and used duct tape to make sure the wires stayed hidden and attached to the sport jacket’s lining.
Producers were just a couple feet away, monitoring the activity on a laptop.
This session went longer, with the host asking questions about the atmosphere at the party and why Romney seemed to be struggling in his native state. We also talked about Michigan going for the Democratic candidate in past presidential elections, and the value of being a swing state.

I was careful not to lick my lips – this time.

Santorum came out around a half-hour later to give a not-quite-concession speech, and then the national media packed up and headed out to Ohio – to find other print reporters for their 15 minutes of national fame.

My awesome Cornerstone students were on hand and documented every moment of the C-SPAN appearance.