Processing A Hoax

A few months ago, my wife was taking our daughter for a walk in her stroller and accidentally left the garage door open. When she returned, the door in the garage that led into our house was also open. She couldn’t find her house keys, car keys and wallet — which usually hung on a hook just inside that strangely ajar interior garage door. It was freaky.

She made sure no one was in the house, retraced her steps, and tore the house apart looking for the keys and wallet. Since there had been quite a few recent incidents of people stealing unlocked cars and intruding into unlocked homes in the middle of the night — even in our very safe neighborhood — we decided to file a police report. The cops recommended that, if we couldn’t find the keys, we change the locks the next day. As an added precaution, we ended up sleeping at my parents’ house that night. My wife got the locks changed the next morning, but soon after doing so, she found the keys under a random flap on my daughter’s stroller. All turned out to be OK, but not without some tense moments of losing all sense of security that we had moments earlier completely taken for granted.

This story played out on a grander scale today at Northwestern University, my beloved alma mater. The stakes were obviously much higher: Evanston police received a call from someone claiming to have killed his girlfriend in a Northwestern graduate residence building. Northwestern’s emergency communications protocol swung into action, sending texts and making calls to all students, faculty and staff to alert them of the situation and urging them to take cover in a safe place.

It was more than an hour before the official “All Clear” message was released, and the incident was revealed to be a hoax. The call had come from somewhere near Rockford and the woman referenced was unharmed and in no danger, according to police. While this is probably the best possible outcome for a harrowing situation like this, the incident still caused a university-wide panic.

While for many people following the news, this was simply a moment of relief from “what might have been,” to me it was so much more than that.

Having studied and worked at Northwestern for more than 13 years, this was the equivalent of a home invasion for me. I also spent six years working in the office tasked with handling emergency communications (and was there for some tough stuff), which made receiving the news of today’s events particularly jarring.

I had just turned my phone back on after landing in Dallas on my way back to Chicago, when it immediately blew up with text message. Several other former University Relations coworkers were trading what little details were available via text and pondering what must be happening at our former office in these moments. Another former coworker and a fellow alum were sending me several tweets related to the situation.

Most importantly, my Mom texted me to say that my youngest brother — a current junior — was not on campus when the alert went out and was safe.

Scanning my Facebook and Twitter feeds — filled with posts from students I had taught and staff and faculty I had worked with — painted a horrifying picture of the terror that gripped the place that was my home as a student for 5 years and as a staff member for 8 years. There’s a photo of 18 students huddled on the floor of a professor’s tiny office. There’s a photo of a classroom door with all of the chairs and desks stacked against the door. There are accounts of students running to closets and other hidden away areas of the student center upon receiving the emergency alerts.

While the shooting might have been a hoax, everything else that happened this afternoon was for real: the emergency texts, the police activity, the chaos, the uncertainty and the immediate coverage of little old Northwestern by national media outlets. It prompted visions of an alternate reality in which NU joined the statistics of all the other recent shootings in schools and public places.

Even though I wasn’t there to experience it in person, I feel that with today’s developments, the long shadow of gun violence in our country has finally touched me on a more personal level. I don’t pretend to have the political answers or perfect gun control policy changes, but something’s got to give. The value of human life is too sacred and our safety is too important for us to allow these kinds of things to happen so easily.

The reason that a hoax had to be taken so seriously today is because current events remind us that this is so often not a hoax. It is our sad new reality — a reality in which I can get on a plane for an hour and land to the news of violence and terror engulfing the people I love in a place that I love.

I’m praying a little bit harder tonight for all of the victims of the many violent incidents that resulted in far more than fear and false alarms. May their pain and loss be a constant reminder to us of the dignity of human life and the need to care for one another.

 


I’m trying to form a daily routine of writing at least 100 words every weekday. Subscribe here if you’d like to read them.

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Behind the Mascot: True Confessions of A Onetime Wildcat

As I have now reached the second half of my chemotherapy treatment and am on schedule to have fully vanquished Lumpy after my final chemo session on July 20, I am slowly trying to resume my pre-Lumpy way of life. That goes for my blog, too, which was decidedly not a cancer blog before 2015. As such, there are probably going to be more posts about “normal” things mixed in among my usual Lumpdates. (wish I’d thought of that phrase sooner…) Thanks for reading and for your continued prayers and support!

It was the spring of 2011–almost exactly four years ago–and Northwestern University had a problem. The school year was rapidly winding down, and the University President wanted a new round of institutional commercials to air on the Big Ten Network and whatever other networks Northwestern sports teams happened to be appearing on. Plans were hastily made with an internal video production group to begin filming the new spots before the school year ended to ensure actual students could be used as extras and realistic b-roll of a crowded campus could be included.

The premise of one of the commercials cast Willie the Wildcat as a Northwestern student and would follow him through some touchstone moments of his experience at NU. The problem was that none of the students who regularly inhabited Willie’s fur would be available at the frequent and random times dictated by the shooting schedule. Never one to shy away from a golden purple opportunity, I quickly volunteered to become Willie for a few weeks and star in the commercial. The identity of Willie is supposed to remain shrouded in mystery, but since these commercials are no longer airing and I no longer work for University Relations, I think I can officially let the (wild)cat out of the bag. What follows are my memories from one of the most unique experiences I had at Northwestern.

willie1Getting the Willies

Like any actor worth his salt, I couldn’t take on this important role without doing a little research first. The week before shooting began, I reported to Ryan Field on a Sunday evening to meet Willie’s keeper and the secret students behind the mask. Since there were also a few new recruits at the meeting, I received the full Willie orientation and watched the newbies audition sans costume. The current Willies first went over the basics of channeling your inner Wildcat. They demonstrated the proper way to execute Willie’s swaggering walk and had each of us try it out. The swagger–which consists of a bouncy, jaunty walk while turning your head slightly from side to side as you go–serves both to illustrate Willie’s personality, but also to solve the problem of having no peripheral vision through the mask. You’re looking from side to side so that you’re not tripping over something or someone just out of sight. When asked to delve into Willie’s psyche a bit deeper, one of the female Willie players came up with a line that has stuck with me forever:

“Well, Willie’s kind of a badass…but nice.”

Got it.

After we finished reflecting on this psychological report, the Wannabe Willies were then introduced to Willie’s Toys–the various applause-generating gadgets Willie employs during games to get the crowd’s attention. Each one took a turn demonstrating how they would use one of the toys in a creative way. I was very happy to be excused from this exercise.

With the method acting lessons complete, Willie’s keeper took me to what is basically the athletic department’s laundry room. Shelves full of purple, N-emblazoned athletic apparel suitable for every sport lined the walls. If my Mom found her way into this room, she would never again have to go Christmas shopping for me and my brothers. We made our way down one aisle of shelves and ended up by a locker with an unmistakable head sitting on top of it. This was the giant-headed Willie of my undergrad days, before he was redesigned to his current form! Inside the locker, I found a few more pieces of Willie that I would be borrowing for the next month, including Willie’s feet (a pair of gym shoes adorned with wildcat fur that comes up around the calf), Willie’s various shirts and jerseys (he often goes around pants-less, but we picked up some basketball shorts from one of the other shelves for one scene of the commercial) and Willie’s hands (there were several pairs of fur-lined black gloves in various stages of ripping, held intact by black duct tape). While I encountered plenty of bad smells during my stint as Willie, the most foul-smelling accoutrement was by far the gloves. I guess you don’t realize how much your hands sweat, and this was one part of the costume that for some reason did not get washed. The mere memory of the smell of those gloves is almost as nausea-inducing to me as chemotherapy.

But there were two crucial pieces of Willie left to be found–the body costume and the head. These were located in a duffle bag on wheels, which looked all the more like a body bag when you unzipped it and immediately saw Willie’s lifeless head staring up at you. There was also a set of shoulder pads (which I deemed unnecessary after my first tour as Willie), a loose-fitting swimmer’s cap and a pair of tight biker shorts to wear under the suit (I guess to hold in my sweat?).

Later in the week, I returned to this room to obtain the pieces of Willie for the first shoot of the commercial and finally tried on the head. The mask itself is a lot like a catcher’s helmet, with a solid bike helmet that fits over the top of your head and fastens with a chin strap. The catcher’s helmet face mask is replaced by Willie’s face. You can see through the eye holes, but the nose and mouth block your vision of what is immediately in front of you. The mouth hole is your only source of outside air and really only provides relief when you manually hold it open with your hand–which you can’t really do when you’re swaggering around as Willie. There are also flaps of fur on the front and back of the mask that get tucked into the body suit. Consequently, these often sweaty flaps rival the gloves as the worst-smelling-and-most-unable-to-be-cleaned parts of the costume. The solution? Spraying the various parts of the mask with Fabreze. I’ll just let you think about how effective that might be.

Opening Shots

As I mentioned, the commercial’s premise had Willie the Wildcat experiencing various aspects of Northwestern life. The necessary scenes gave me a preview of what I would be asked to do in the mascot getup: Willie moves into a dorm room, Willie walking around campus, Willie in class, Willie shooting a free throw on the basketball team, Willie performing as part of a string quartet, Willie doing experiments in a lab, Willie hanging out by The Rock and Willie graduating. There was a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it.

My Willie debut came with the shooting of the basketball team scene. I had tried the full suit on the night before to make sure everything was ready for its closeup. As it turned out, my six-foot-two frame is probably the upper limit of what the bodysuit costume will allow in terms of height. Even so, I thought I made a pretty decent-looking Willie and the swagger-walk works even better when you’re wearing the suit.

I reported to Welsh-Ryan Arena, where the commercial was to be shot with actual members of the basketball team and a crowd of students cheering Willie on as he took his free throws. Well, the basketball team showed up, but even with some NU institutional social media begging and my sending a pleading e-mail to all my former students, only a handful of ‘Cats ventured to take the shuttle ride from campus to the arena to appear in our commercial. As an alum, I can’t understand why students wouldn’t want to be in their school’s commercial…You’d think there would at least be some theater majors that would see it as free face time or something, but we struggled mightily throughout the production to get students to participate. As a last ditch effort to get warm bodies in the bleachers, someone raided the nearby athletic department offices, grabbed some purple apparel (there’s no shortage of that in athletics…) and had the cube-dwellers pull “MAKE SHOTS” t-shirts on over their dress shirts and ties. The few students (including my brother Joe, who ended up appearing in almost every scene in the commercial) and staffers with young faces were ushered to the front rows of the bleachers. The rest were used as purple filler.

willie3I didn’t see any of this, however, as I was in the men’s locker room settling into the fur. As I strutted out from under the stands and onto the court, the basketball team was already shooting around and the cameras were lined up. When some of the extras caught site of me, I heard someone yell, “Hey! Willie!” With a wave of my hand to acknowledge the crowd, I knew my ruse was complete. That’s right. I AM Willie.

It’s strange how putting on the suit really does change the way people relate to you. Even those who knew it was me called me Willie and seemed to somehow talk to me differently. We also seemed to have a mutual understanding that I was incapable of speaking while wearing the suit. I communicated only through exaggerated nods and frequent thumbs up.

The director tossed me a basketball and said I should take some practice free throws while they finished lining up the shot. The basketball team lined up around the key and one of them leans toward me. “You’re tall. Who’s in there? Is that Allison?” No, I’m not Allison. How tall is Allison?

willie2At this point, I would like to state for the record that I drained three free throws in a row while dressed like a stuffed wildcat. If only I had worn this costume when I played on my junior high basketball team–my life could have gone completely differently. NU baller Juice Thompson gave me a high five and I was feeling pretty good about my athletic prowess. My luck of course changed significantly when the cameras started rolling. The director instructed the extras to go wild whether my shot went in or not and they managed to get the footage they needed. As I swaggered off the court and wrapped for the day, the cameras set up for a closeup shot of the basketball swishing. Hollywood trickery!

When I got back to the locker room and took off the head, I realized that every inch of me was covered in sweat. Fortunately, I had followed Team Willie’s advice and hydrated like crazy all day long, so I wasn’t feeling all that bad. My first Willie romp had been a success.

Science and Violins

I can’t remember the exact shooting order from here, but I’m pretty sure the science lab scene was next. We managed to get some undergrads to stick around for this one, so there was no need to raid any science offices for extras. I put on the suit again, which included a lab coat and safety goggles this time. The goal of this scene was to get a wide shot of Willie in the lab and a closeup of him swirling purple liquid in a graduated cylinder. The lab was incredibly hot–especially for a wildcat in a lab coat–and the shots seemed to be taking a lot longer to execute this time. By the time we got to the closeup, my arm was incredibly tired from holding the tube above my head and sweat was dripping into my eyes under the mask. I eventually couldn’t hold the graduated cylinder without my arm involuntarily shaking, so we had to resort to a cardinal mascot sin: I took my head off. I know. Terrible. I’m sure it scarred the undergrads in attendance for life, but we got the shot we needed and called it a day.

Another memorable scene that was ultimately cut from the final commercial was the string quartet concert. Willie was supposed to play a violin along with real stringed instrument students. For whatever reason, the students were really playing their instruments and the guy in the wildcat costume who couldn’t even see the violin resting on his shoulder was forced to pretend to play while keeping time with them. Couldn’t they have mimed along with me instead?! The best part of this was that most of my coworkers were roped into serving as the audience for this concert. They all knew that I would be playing Willie in the commercial and this unfortunate recital was their only real glimpse of my performance. After numerous uncomfortable takes and lots of resetting of the bow on the violin strings, I managed to keep my Willie head on and my wits about me, but I should have predicted that this segment would hit the cutting room floor.

The Willie Experience

willie6To film the “Willie moves into his dorm residence hall” scene, my family’s minivan was enlisted as the Willie family vehicle and is featured in the opening frames of the final commercial. Since I drove that van to NU throughout my student days, it’s only fitting.

This was another difficult scene for me to shoot, as I was carrying fake luggage in a laundry basket as I walked in and out of the residence hall and working up a pretty good sweat. The lack of air coming into the mask was also a problem, and at one point I recall just walking away and tearing the mask off to get some oxygen.

I’m not sure there are descriptive enough words in the English language to describe the smell of the Willie head. I would frequently give those pungent fur flaps a couple squirts of Fabreze just before putting it on so that I would smell the tangy chemical stench instead of the putrid odor of rotting Doritos mixed with human sweat. I’m not sure of the source of the rotting Doritos smell (wasn’t me!) and I’m not going to ask around.

The most fun scenes to shoot were those that allowed me to be around campus publicly and in the presence of lots of students. Students love Willie, and it was fun to sample that adoration and play into it a bit. The graduation scene we staged on the Norris Student Center lawn was one of the highlights, as the participating seniors were just days away from their actual graduation and many of them wanted photos with Willie in his own cap and gown.

My favorite scene to shoot was also one of the last ones we shot–Willie hangs out at the Rock with his friends. In this case, Willie’s friends were also my friends and relatives. Nathalie, a work-study student from my office, and Jasmine, one of my closest work friends, joined my brothers Chris and Joe as the lively gang of laughers who helped Willie paint the Rock. Again, it was strange how we all respected the “Willie can’t talk” rule, even though we all knew each other and no one else was really around. The best part about this scene is that every time the commercial aired, Chris, Joe or I were virtually guaranteed to get a text or Facebook message from someone saying, “Did I just see you guys on TV?!”

Wildcat Pride

And so my days in the Wildcat suit came to an end less than a month after they had begun. The whole thing was a bit of a whirlwind and a physical challenge at times, but it was also one of those bucket list experiences that I never expected and wouldn’t trade. Every time that I see Willie now, I think about the person inside (Allison, perhaps?) and the rotting Doritos and the lack of peripheral vision and the Willie Swagger. It was also cool that a couple of the members of Team Willie seemed to remember me for the rest of their tenure, so Willie sometimes gave me a more knowing high five. For a while, I liked to think about how the sweat from my brow was dried somewhere in that Willie head, but a few months after my stint as Willie, the athletic department purchased a fresh head.

While my sweat equity might be a thing of the past, I’ll always have a fun piece of trivia for those “say a fun fact about yourself” icebreakers and I’ll always be a part of Northwestern (commercial) history. Go ‘Cats.

A Professor Without A Class

Cancer has forced me to miss a lot of things. I don’t like to dwell on it, but it’s true. I’ve missed parties and dinners and weddings and concerts. I’ve missed monthly visits to Theresa’s family and southern Indiana’s warmer climate. I’ve missed making spur-of-the-moment plans.

I’ve missed going to work. I miss my moments of zen on the Metra–listening to a podcast, reading a book or even just napping. I miss having the stamina to stand on the platform in the chilly morning air and wait for the delayed train and then stand some more when the train that shows up is inevitably packed to the gills.

I miss reporting to my cube and saying good morning to my coworkers. I miss putting my lunch in the refrigerator. I really miss the days that I didn’t pack a lunch and took the elevator down to my office building’s all-too-convenient Potbelly’s location. I miss oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies. Do they cause cancer? If so, we might have found the missing link here.

Most of the things that I miss cross my mind every day, when I drag myself out of bed and fire up my Macbook on my couch or attend another work meeting remotely and stare at my coworkers through my webcam. Don’t get me wrong: As surely as I think about what I miss, I also count my blessings on a daily basis that my job can be done remotely, that my employer has been beyond understanding and supportive, and that technology has allowed my work productivity to continue almost uninterrupted. (Maybe don’t take any surveys from my colleagues…but still.)

But today I was reminded of something that I miss dearly and will definitely not be able to resume until I’ve officially dumped da lump: teaching journalism at Northwestern. The impetus for this reflection was an article coincidentally shared on Facebook by my favorite journalism professor that asks the question: What’s the point of a professor?

The article basically posits that students are more concerned with grades than having their lives and mindsets changed by a wizened professor, and that professors are more likely to give away good grades than spend adequate time challenging and engaging their students. I’m not interested in debating those arguments right now. I just want to talk about why I like to teach.

profpayoI started teaching at Medill five years ago, when I was a fresh-faced 27-year-old who wasn’t sure he really had any business doing this. But I had a master’s in journalism and enough confidence to sit in front of a computer lab of 15 freshmen and teach them how to responsibly tell stories using multimedia tools. Several years and several labs’ worth of students later, I happen upon them out in the real world producing cool content and advancing in their own careers. I can’t take credit for their talent or success, but I do take pride in knowing that I was one of their first journalism instructors and that maybe something I said is still rattling around in their heads or guiding their storytelling instincts.

As an adjunct professor who is not working full-time for the school, I exist largely outside the machinations of academia and I can concentrate solely on the class I’m teaching and the students in my class–even if they don’t always concentrate on me. (I once had two students G-chatting with each other across the table and giggling aloud as I dropped my pearls of wisdom. Thus was born the “laptops closed when I’m talking” policy.) I enjoy getting to know my students and watching their work improve over the course of the quarter and the course of their careers. I love that end-of-the-quarter moment when they are out of their minds with exhaustion but I can still see that they’re actually sorta kinda a little bit proud of the final project they just spent a couple weeks producing. I relish reunions with former students–sometimes an organized affair over pizza–but more often just a brief chat before or after class as I prepare to teach the current batch of freshmen and they rush off to whatever student publication or activity they are now in charge of. Some seek me out specifically for letters of recommendation or advice on what classes to take or the all-important “Is Medill really for me?” chat.

Being a professor has been gratifying on other levels, too. I love reading my course evaluations. My head usually increases a few sizes from the compliments, but it’s mainly rewarding because I feel like my mission has been accomplished. I am not an easy A. (even if the points system of the class ultimately means that there are a lot of A’s given at the end of the quarter…) My purple pen (who grades in red?) bleeds all over student stories–correcting typos, removing Oxford commas and enforcing AP Style. More importantly, I demand that my students respect the craft of journalism and respect the power that comes along with the privilege of telling other people’s stories. When I read the course evaluations, I can tell that they get that. The evaluations can also be very creative sometimes. (skip to 0:36)

Almost exactly a year ago, I had the tremendous honor of receiving the Medill Students’ Choice award–selected by student vote from all adjunct and full-time Medill faculty. I even got to cross something off of my bucket list by giving an acceptance speech! It felt so good to be recognized for something that I have poured so much of my extracurricular time and energy into, and to know that my former students appreciated that effort.

Teaching is a rewarding gig because many of my students are just good people, too. When I learned at the end of January that I did in fact have cancer, the winter quarter had already begun and I was just getting to know another lab of students…including a few repeat gluttons for punishment who had me for the first half of the class in the fall and signed up to take the second half with me as well. It took every fiber of my being not to tear up as I delivered the news that I would have to stop teaching and saw a room full of very concerned freshman faces staring back at me. Even though it had only been a couple weeks, several of them sent me messages of encouragement and hoped to keep in touch.  So many of my former students–whether still at Medill or already graduated–soon reached out to offer their thoughts and prayers, and many even got on the #DownWithLumpy bandwagon.

So maybe I’m just happy that my teaching career has not followed the thesis of that article. For my students, it becomes something more than just a required, weed-out class. It affords me the opportunity to share my values and expertise with some really stellar students. I give them a bucket and a shovel and tell them how cool sand can be. Eventually I get to watch them build castles. I can’t wait to get back to the beach.