Lessons Learned

10 Apr

     The recent flap over Florida Marlins baseball manager Ozzie Guillen’s comments about Fidel Castro got me to recalling an incident that occurred when I lived in Miami. For those unfamiliar, Guillen said in a magazine story how much he admired the Cuban dictator’s staying power, which infuriated South Florida’s Cuban-American population in the extreme.
     Though I said in my initial post on this site that, as a general rule, I would not be commenting on politics, this is really more a story about the vagaries of the writing life and the kind of interesting situations and personalities you come across as a free-lance journalist, as well as some small insight into the inner workings of Black Belt Magazine.
     In any case, way back when I was an undergraduate in college, I was caught between declaring my major in journalism or in East Asian studies (the decision was finally made when, at the end of my senior year, an advisor pointed out I had more credits in political science and history courses, hence my bachelor of arts now reads “Asian Studies”). Still unsure of my path during the second semester of that last year, I took a class in free-lance journalism. The final project involved writing an article on anything we wanted and then selling it to a professional publication of our choice.
     The choice of publication, for me, was easy. I’d been reading martial arts magazines since I was 12-years-old so I decided to try and sell a story to Black Belt. The only question left was what the focus of such a story should be.
     At this point in college, one of the pastimes I and my friends would occasionally engage in was going out in the woods on weekends and playing what was then called “The Survival Game” but is now commonly known as paintball warfare. Simply, two teams of players, armed with air guns which fired large, brightly colored balls of paint, would chase each other around like kids and try to shoot the hell out of the opposing players. One of my best friends at the time was Kevin, a karate black belt who regularly played the survival game with us and whose karate teacher home in Pennsylvania actually ran a paintball warfare business.
     Back in this period, Black Belt had published a number of articles on various “unorthodox” training methods a martial artist might use to improve his skills. So it occurred to me a story on the lessons a martial artist could learn from paintball warfare would be appealing to the magazine (I think the main lesson the story imparted was, that when somebody starts shooting at you, duck). I interviewed Kevin and his teacher and sent the story in to Black Belt. Though I didn’t hear back from them, I did, at least, manage to pass the free-lance journalism class.
     Flash forward more than four years to Miami, Florida. After finding there was not a huge, waiting job market for East Asian studies majors, I had finally decided to go to graduate school for a master’s degree in journalism and moved to Florida to attend the University of Miami’s journalism program. One day, out of the blue, a letter from Black Belt Magazine was forwarded to me from my old home. It said they wanted to run my story.
     After nearly ten minutes, I finally recalled what story they were talking about. It had been well over four years since I submitted the survival game article to them and, frankly, I hadn’t given it another thought after the first few months, assuming they just had no interest in it. And, in retrospect, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had permanently ignored the story as it was sort of a silly piece. But like I said, Black Belt, during this period, was given to running “unorthodox” stories. I happened to be training, around this time, with Bart Vale, a local Miami instructor in a style called Shootfighting – a precursor of modern MMA – and was out fishing with him one day as he complained over how Black Belt was printing garbage stories, such as a recent article on how to tie your karate belt (this was actually shortly after my survival game story had already been printed). Laughingly, he suggested we should write a story about how fishing could improve your martial arts training. Amused, I went home and wrote an article entitled “Zen and the Art of Fishing” propounding the merits of fishing for martial artists and containing a lot of satirical references to famous martial arts practitioners and their secret fishing techniques. As a joke, I actually sent it in to Black Belt. But the joke was on us when I received a letter from then editor, Jim Coleman, informing me he was interested in printing the story. I don’t think it ever actually was printed and, these days, the current editorial staff does a far better job of running information germane to serious martial arts students (How is that for shameless ass-kissing of my bosses at Black Belt?)
     Back to the main point at hand: though I had, since originally sending Black Belt my story on the survival game four years earlier, made a couple of professional sales to local, South Florida publications through the U of M journalism program, this was to be the first free-lance sale accomplished entirely on my own initiative. Moreover, it was to a magazine I had grown up reading, which meant it was particularly satisfying. But one problem remained – Black Belt wanted photos to go with the story.
     Of course, I was not a photographer nor did I even own a camera. This is something that has come up numerous times over the years in my career in journalism and I still find it baffling when a magazine not only asks but expects me to provide quality photos when they know I am a writer, not a photographer (note to anyone considering a career in free-lance journalism, buy a digital camera and take a photography class at a local community college). At the time, I didn’t even know what kind of pictures would go with a story like this.
     Fortunately, I was in the midst of a journalism school so it was not difficult to find a willing photojournalism student who would take pictures in return for receiving his name mentioned in the story’s photo credits. I also corralled a friend at the university, who was a martial artist and owned a bunch of different martial arts weapons, to participate in a photo shoot. Finally, someone put me in touch with a local martial arts instructor who also happened to own a paintball warfare supply business. This was a real break since he was willing to not just supply some paintball guns for the photo shoot but convinced several of his friends – who all happened to be of Cuban descent – to participate in the shoot as well. The following weekend, we all trudged out to a jungle-like piece of terrain on the edge of the Florida Everglades to take some pictures contrasting paintball warfare and martial arts.
     My friend from the University of Miami had brought along a huge Chinese broadsword, which looked like a meat cleaver on steroids, to pose with vs. a paintball gun wielding opponent. As we were setting up the photo shoot, one of the Cuban-American paintball afficionados picked up the broadsword and started swiping at the local foliage with it.
     Turning to his friends, he gestured violently with the sword and said in a heavy Spanish accent, “Man, I like to catch Fidel out in the sugar cane with one of these!” to which his friends all heartily agreed.
     I stood there thinking to myself, “Boy, these guys really don’t like Fidel.”
     Anyway, the photo shoot came off fine and the story ran a few months later, which is how I got my first published piece in Black Belt Magazine. It’s also how I learned, unlike Ozzie Guillen, to never say anything nice about Fidel Castro in South Florida.


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