Friday, 25 September 2015

Another Dateline Time...

Hi Friends,

It’s been awhile since I’ve written, but with good reason: nothing happened. I mean, I bought some orthopedic shoes and finally got around to Breaking Bad (comforting and discomforting, respectively), but that was it. And every time I sat down to blog anew, I repeated myself. I wrote a piece about how everyone’s offended all the time, and realized I’ve made the exact same point several times over, and so scrapped it. I wrote about how a friend has a crush on a slightly younger colleague and keeps referring to her as his “prototype”, when I think he means his “protégé” (he’s training her at work, he didn’t build her in a lab). But that’s kind of a thin premise. So I thought I wouldn’t write anything until something cool happened.

Then something cool happened.

About a month ago, I got an invitation emailed to me, though not addressed to me specifically. It was an invitation to a Season Premiere Party for my favourite show, Dateline NBC. It looked a bit spammy and again, was generic and not addressed to me. Plus it was in New York. I nearly deleted it, but then wondered how Dateline had gotten my email address in the first place. I remembered applying for an internship about a year ago, but was neither an American nor a journalism student, thereby surely disqualified (but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?). I never did hear back about the job, but that is perhaps how my email address ended up in their database. Maybe, I thought, they were simply casting a wide net, sending a generic invitation to everyone their address book for a big, Today Show-style block party with a free concert by Keith Morrison. So I sent back a rather starchy reply. Something like, “Sounds fun, but I’m not in New York and it’s a really expensive trip. Did you mean to send this to me?” And then I didn’t hear anything.

A week or so later, an email addressed just to me pinged in my inbox from a producer at Dateline. She said the invitation was not spam, but meant specifically for me, James Ostime of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and would I please join them in New York for the party? The show would fly me up there on their dime, she said. I did that thing dogs do where you stand up and turn in a circle and sit down again because you can’t believe what’s going on. I could barely focus as I read on. “You came to be invited,” she continued, “because of this.” And this was a picture of this blog entry, framed in a glass case, and held by a woman in an office, captioned: “Executive Producer Liz Cole this past Friday holding your ode to Dateline that normally is on her wall but she took down this one time as a proof-of-life commitment to you.”

Now, my Friends, come on. Come ON! Whose life is this? If you notice, that particular blog entry was written two years ago. I’m no less of a fan today, of course, but I couldn’t believe that this silly missive from June of 2013 has been hanging on the wall of the Executive Producer of, I hasten to remind you, my favourite program.

The next few weeks were a blur of arrangement-making and pretending to care about anything else in my life. Luckily, Dr. Jon wasn’t teaching on the days we were to be away, and we arranged for him to come too. With our flights completely taken care of by Rachel and Chandler, or whomever finances NBC these days, Jon and I found a good deal on a hotel and took our first trip ever to New York City.

The City itself deserves its own blog entry, but briefly, I don’t know what kind of nerve I had calling this blog Big City James when the Big City I was originally writing from was Toronto. Toronto is a big city, but New York is a BIG CITY. It’s as if FOMO was its own town (FOMO is Fear Of Missing Out—the idea that something awesome is always going on without you, which is basically New York City). Anyway, the non-Dateline aspects of our visit were also lovely. A very quick three day excursion allowed us to eat well, see some sights, and try out Jon’s completely healed legs on US soil once again.

Now, the party. Remember when I theorized it was to be a huge “block party” style gathering? It wasn’t that. Nor was it a red carpet-style affair where we all packed a theatre to watch the season premiere of Dateline. Instead, it was like the fanciest prom or office Christmas party you’ve ever been to. There were maybe 150 people there, and most of them were staff of the show! Jon and I arrived so early that we went down the block to a park to watch kids play for an hour, sitting on a bench in our full suits, like two Diane Keatons in a Woody Allen movie. So we were plenty amped up when we arrived at the small gallery space. There was a bar, and high standing tables, and a photo booth area, and screens silently playing Dateline promos interspersed with tweets about the show (including my own!). Doc and I clutched out Alibi’s nervously (all the cocktails had Dateline-themed names). Keith Morrison showed up and found a cluster of colleagues, as did Dennis Murphy, Andrea Canning, and Josh Mankiewicz. It was extremely cool to see these TV people in the flesh, but again, this was a staff party that we had (inexplicably) been invited to. I didn’t want to horn in a crew of work friends, even if they were famous. Maybe they were making fun of Marlene in Payroll, how do I know?

Then a woman approached us and introduced herself as a producer from the show. She asked who we were and I mumbled something about being a blogger and a huge fan and her eyes went wide and she said, “Are you Big City James??!” I nodded dumbly like a puppet or a bigmouth bass and she said, “Oh it’s a pleasure! You know our show so well!” Dazed, I found my voice and told her how much I liked the show. I asked her how they found their stories, what working on them was like, how long did it take to make an episode, etc. She opened up completely, describing a great deal of process, then pulled Keith Morrison into our huddle and said, “Keith! This is Big City James!” And, just like in my dreams, he said, “So YOU’RE James!” He knew who I was! And he, too, joined the conversation and was equally as forthcoming and chatty. I mentioned that Jon and I were Canadian and so is he, and we had that thing I assume all Canadians experience in foreign countries when they meet each other where one says, “So you’re Canadian too!” And the other one says, “Yep.” But that’s kind of it? I don’t know what we could have expanded upon, although maybe he knows what Dini Petty is up to these days.

Dennis Murphy and Andrea Canning drifted over next, in this fever dream come to life. I mentioned how affecting a recent episode was where Andrea had been the correspondent, a story about a long separated then reunited father and daughter and she said, “Oh yes, I worked on that with (Producer whose name I forget). That turned out nice.” Like she had nothing to do with it! Like the people just interview themselves. It was incredibly humble and just one example that Jon and I both noticed throughout the evening. Dennis Murphy provided maybe the most profound insight when he said, “These stories aren’t about the murder; they’re about the marriage.” I mean, RIGHT? How often have you watched a Dateline where you’ve thought, “Really? These people couldn’t just get divorced? They had to poison each other and frame the coworker?”

Then I overheard someone say, “Big City James is HERE?!” and Josh Mankiewicz literally bounded over. At this point, my departing flight could have crashed into the mountains—I mean, how do you top that? And Josh, too, patiently answered a barrage of questions on my own version of The Chris Farley Show. “Remember… when that guy Larry… when he, when he murdered his wife… he said it was a homeless guy named Barry?” That was a real episode, by the way, where the husband Larry panicked after he was fingered for killing his wife and said, “It wasn’t me, it was a homeless guy!” And they said, “What was the homeless guy’s name?” And Larry said, “Uh… Barry!” Rich Larry accused Homeless “Barry.” I watched this episode with my friend Steph, who commented, “Why didn’t he just say his name was Bomeless?” Anyway, Josh answered all my Farley questions and provided even further insights and, like the other correspondents I had spoken to, was quick to credit his producers and staff, as if he wasn’t travelling hither and yon across the country, keeping crazy hours, to give probing, insightful interviews with people on the worst day of their lives that somehow never feel exploitative nor too soft. I marvel at that.

Jon and I met countless other producers and staff from the show. Social media staff who had helped coordinate the particulars of the visit were warm and friendly, a snazzy production coordinator gave us the ins and outs of his crazy schedule, and told us what bars we had to check out before we left. Everyone, across the board, was incredibly gracious and kind, and all of them deflected praise, or at least insisted upon shared credit for their work. This was the truly unexpected takeaway from the entire surreal experience. Like most people, I separate TV folks from the rest of us and assume that behind the scenes lie incredible displays of ego, power-hungry backstabbing, and bowls of all blue M&Ms or else Lester Holt just LOSES it! But instead, all I met were incredibly passionate people. This team truly seems to be working towards the common goal of compelling and empathetic storytelling, and everything else is just gravy. Shouldn’t we all be like that?

Dream: Do everything with more passion.

Goal: Achievable. I sort of inwardly chafe at the concept of “Do what you love”, or “Find out where you passion lies and get paid for it!” because these are First World conceits and someone has to flip burgers and clean toilets (hopefully not the same guy). It’s unfair to link passion with income, but that’s not what I mean here. I mean, paid or not, I have to stop waiting around for something to be passionate about, and instead cultivate that side of myself that is passionate and bring it out. Because what else are we doing here? Y’know?

Plan: Work harder. I got the sense that these Dateline people don’t spend a lot of time sitting around, waiting for pies to cool on windowsills. These are all successful, presumably rich (at least by layperson standards) men and women, and even at a party celebrating their continued success, there was nary a rested-upon laurel. So who am I to fritter away time on the couch (except for when Dateline is on)?

I don’t know everything that triggers passion within me (except Dateline and maybe jeans that flatter my back porch), but I gotta start searching. Incredibly cool things like this past weekend don’t just happen, except when they do. The rest of the time, I guess it’s up to me.