One of the first things CNN cameraman Mark Biello did when he walked in my daughter’s house on Thursday was introduce himself to Sadie the dog (who barked and ran away) and to Moose the cat. Then he asked me if there was a milk or orange juice container in the refrigerator.
Being the good hostess I am, I asked him which he preferred and went to the cupboard for a glass.
“No,” he explained, “I need the plastic ring from the lid and about three feet of dental floss. Oh, and a knife or scissor.
Curious, I handed him the orange juice, dug out dental floss from my purse, and handed him a steak knife. He cut one side of the ring and then tied on the dental floss.
“I invented this when I was living in Germany. You want to cut the ring so their paw doesn’t get caught,” was all the explanation I got.
With a confident grin and hanging on to the other end of the dental floss, Mark flung the ring at the cat and began running around the house with Moose in hot pursuit.
CNN producer Chris Hrubesh stood in the kitchen with me, smiling, his arms crossed and casual. Chris looks a little like David Caruso. He’s Czech, I found out later, and he likes canolis. He’s two years younger than me and has covered stories all over the world, mostly the West Bank, Kuwait and Israel, where he witnessed a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. A few days before coming to Pittsburgh, both men were on the campaign trail in New Hampshire talking to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Now they were in my daughter’s home in a Pittsburgh suburb interviewing me because I lost a few pounds and I work out. Not worldly stuff and hardly unique. Heck, it’s hardly even interesting. But they were there nonetheless, doing their job, or at least preparing to do their job. Mark was still running around with the cat.
Nothing about that moment in the kitchen was what I expected when I agreed to be part of CNN’s Fit Nation. I guess I really didn’t know what to expect, but a cameraman being chased around the house by a large orange tabby was definitely not part of my anticipation. I understand now that I was unwittingly being put at ease and it worked.
The hours that followed were filled with easy, thoughtful and comical conversation, and I gave the easiest interview to-date because Chris and Mark coax calm. I suspect they don’t hear “no” very often. Mark and Chris are smooth – not a devious, lying, get-a-girl-in-bed smooth – but intellectually smooth. They are experientially rich, but their experiences still fascinate themselves in almost a naïve way. I’ve met some interesting people in the last few months, but these two guys from CNN are by far the most fascinating.
After scoping out the best place to set up (and commenting on the Gumby cookie jar in the kitchen), Mark and Chris hauled in their equipment. Cassie was sitting on the couch, holding Claire, and we all talked about politics (or the record, they accurately predicted the outcome of the South Carolina primary), native foods and alcohol of various foreign countries, the blight of the British Empire, and the time Mark came to Clarion in the mid ‘80s for a friend’s wedding, a large Slovakian event with lots of vodka and potatoes and cabbage. As they set up, we discussed our love of Chris Farley. CNN Chris said his favorite Farley SNL character was Matt Foley, motivational speaker (“I live in a van down by the river!”). This led us to sing a few lines from Lunch Lady Land, too (“Sloppy joes, sloppy, sloppy joes…hoagies and grinders, hoagies and grinders…navy beans navy beans…”).
While setting up a tall light next to my chair, Mark said “Sixteen years ago today I was filming the bombs dropping on Baghdad.”
I thought for a second. “Wait,” I said. “Wasn’t that 17 years ago?”
“Huh,” laughed Mark. “It’s 2008, isn’t it?”
Mark (a.k.a. Mad Dog) was one of a small group of CNN reporters who were in Baghdad covering Desert Storm in 1991. I remember that night vividly, watching CNN, scared, wondering when it would end. How astonishing to think that the man shooting the video that night in Baghdad was now turning his camera on little old me. Whether it’s fate or coincidence or quantum physics, the world was very small and very simple at that moment.
Mark and his colleagues’ experience was turned into an HBO film “Live From Baghdad” starring Michael Keaton, Helena Bonham Carter and Joshua Leonard, who played Mark. Mark was an advisor on the set during filming. It was fun, he said matter of factly. Then he told me about the time he had dinner with Saddam Hussein at his palace and how complicated eating was for the dictator because people were always trying to poison him. I wondered if Saddam had a cat and if Mark made it a plastic ring-dental floss toy. Then it hit me: I was two degrees of separation from Saddam Hussein. And I thought meeting Oprah was mind-blowing.
Mark and Chris were in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina. Chris reported from Slidell (click here to read a portion of his report) and Mark was in New Orleans where, as he was working, saved more than a dozen lives. He said it as though he does that kind of thing every day. (Click here to read an interview with Mark after the hurricane.)
When Chris first arrived at the house, he said the guy he interviewed the day before had lost more than 190 pounds and that he’d cried during the interview. I told Chris that nothing he said would make me cry. Weight loss made me happy. Then he found the photo of Cassie and me from the day she graduated from basic training in 2002. It was in a frame on the bookshelf. I started telling him how I weighed about 280 pounds and Cassie was 117 and how last Friday I put on the pants Cassie was wearing in the photo and they fit perfectly. I told him how hard that summer was, saying goodbye to Cassie, waiting weeks before she could call, and when she did, how we spent the entire five minutes crying, barely saying a word. I teared up. Chris smiled.
“I knew I could get you to cry,” he said.
I’m glad that wasn’t on tape.
During the actual interview, the phone rang once, Claire squawked for a second, but otherwise it was quiet. I looked at Chris the whole time, fighting my natural impulse to look away when someone looks me in the eyes for longer than a few seconds. A lot of what I said will not make it in to the actual segment, which will only be about 90 seconds long, but the experience of sorting out my answers to the questions he asked me was yet another exercise in understanding who I was at 300 pounds and who I am now.
When we were done with the interview, they filmed me walking up and down the stairs and walking the dog in the snow. Mark gained Sadie’s trust and he threw her Giggly-Wiggly ball over and over again. Chris and I stood by their van. That’s when he told me about Tel Aviv. He also told me how he collects the little bottles of shampoo and soap from the hotels he stays at and donates them to women’s shelters. I told you our conversation was varied.
As they packed up to leave, I noticed they used a particularly large case that they stuffed with most of the things that had been in the living room a few minutes before.
“It’s called the Widow Maker,” said Chris. I could see why. It weighs 80 pounds, and while it’s on wheels, it still needs to be lifted in and out of vehicles and up and down stairs. I said it’s probably a hernia maker, too. Chris said that was a concern for many of the guys who haul the Widow Maker around.
Mark gave Cassie and me CNN caps and Claire got a little News Hound stuffed dog. (That’s Mark with Sadie behind him.) They said they were going to Station Square that evening and Cassie recommended Bar Louis.
“Martinis, eh?” said Mark with a grin. Chris rolled his eyes and said he wanted to work out in the hotel gym first. We hugged goodbye and they said if we were ever in Atlanta that they’d give us a tour of the CNN empire.
I didn’t think to ask them why they do what they do. Is it the adventure? To seek truth? Most of the time they have no idea what they’ll encounter when they get wherever they’re going. I couldn’t work that way. I get hives just getting on an airplane, let alone knowing I might be blown up in some restaurant in Tel Aviv or a hotel in Baghdad.
Who knows? Maybe one day our paths will cross again and we’ll drink an Imp and an Iron and I’ll ask them why they do what they do. In the meantime, I have their email addresses and I’ll look for their names on the credits when I watch CNN and live vicariously through them.
Here’s a few photos of us. Mark’s the one with the camera and Chris is in the red shirt.