The future happens when people don’t wait to be asked to invent. When they don’t wait until later to take on a challenge or to make it or break it. They have today and they know it. And when it gets to be tomorrow, they have something to show for the hours they didn’t sleep, the times they didn’t splurge, and the other paths they could have taken. There are people who have come from WVUwho have had these waking visions. Their own dreams are reached. And sometimes they even change our world.
Michael Paris Vs. Zema Ion
Except for maybe his curly, poofy mane, Michael Paris does not stand out much in a classroom of college students.
He doesn’t talk much. Nor does he try to draw any attention to himself. But a transformation takes place each time Paris slithers into a pair of wrestling trunks.
Yes. Wrestling trunks.
Paris, the relatively humble advertising major from Chester, W.Va., flips a switch and morphs into Zema Ion, a trash talking villain who obsessively sprays his hair and calls himself “pretty,” in front of thousands of live wrestling fans and millions watching on national television.
Paris wrestles for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, the nation’s second largest wrestling promotion—while attending WVU. He’s on track to graduate in December 2012.
And believe it or not, the two worlds—the field of journalism and the macho, melodramatic spectacle that is professional wrestling—collide.
To make it in the world of suxplexes and steel chairs, you’ve got to market yourself as a shiny, top-shelf product, Paris says. He learned those ropes atWVU’s P.I. Reed School of Journalism.
“I got to where I’m at by selling myself,” said Paris, who signed a contract withTNA in the summer of 2011. More than a million viewers tune to Spike TV every Thursday night to see young stars like Paris and legendary household names like Hulk Hogan, Sting, and Kurt Angle on TNA’s “Impact Wrestling.” “Being an advertising major and knowing the ins and outs of the field helped me market myself to TNA Wrestling when I got an opportunity,” Paris said.
Now 26, Paris began training for pro wrestling at age 16. He grew up idolizing performers who had the entire package—not just the jacked-up brutes who knew a hold or two. He molded himself after wrestlers such as “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels and Rick “The Model” Martel, undersized grapplers who relied on speed, charisma and in-ring ability to get over with the audience.
Paris is 5’8 and weighs 170. You might miss him in a crowd.
In character, he refers to himself as a “model” and carries his trademark can of hairspray to the ring. Sometimes, the hairspray winds up being used for devious purposes, like blinding opponents.
“Zema is my arrogant, flamboyant persona,” Paris said. “I really came into my own in the Journalism School by learning to speak publicly and be confident. By the time I got to TNA, I wasn’t nervous speaking on the mic or cutting promos.”
SON OF A MAIL-ORDER BRIDE
Paris’ wrestling persona stands out in a sea of vanilla characters.
Yet the real Michael Paris has a personal backstory that is even more intriguing.
His mother is a mail-order bride.
The family isn’t ashamed. In fact, the story was told in a National Geographic documentary about pro wrestling.
Paris’ mom, a Filipino, had worked tirelessly in Singapore sweatshops. She had dreams of becoming a fashion designer and decided to register for a groom. Soon enough, she was wooed by a French-American man, about 30 years older, through romantically written letters.
She went to be with him in California and they started a family. But when Paris was five, his father died.
This forced Paris’ mom to relinquish her dream, work odd jobs, and singlehandedly raise three children. The grit, hard work, and unwavering dedication of his mom instilled in Paris character and values that carved a path to his own journey.
“This was a single mom from another country who didn’t have a clue about what was going on in America,” Paris said. “She had to make it work and raise three kids. All three made it through or are in college. She’s the strongest woman I know.
“When I think of my adult life as difficult, I think about mom. She did it against all odds.”
THE BACKUP PLAN
In his first few years as a wrestler, Paris performed for small, independent promotions throughout West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A break came in 2006, when he caught the eye of a wrestling promoter who invited him to work in Japan. Paris’ global pursuits spread elsewhere, like Mexico.
“Being an advertising major and knowing the ins and outs of the field helped me market myself to TNA Wrestling…”
He was making a name for himself. Yet he remained a realist.
What if the wrestling gig ended up a bust?
“I can’t put ‘backflips and spraying my hair’ on a job resume,” Paris said. “The chances of making it are slim. It could be over in a second. I could break my leg tomorrow.”
Paris enrolled at WVU in 2007 to study journalism—an outlet for his creativity and writing.
“I loved my advertising classes,” said Paris, who named Joel Beeson and Dana Coester as his favorite professors.
Not everyone was aware of his second life as a devious loudmouth of the squared circle. In the classroom, he was the opposite—quiet, reserved, humble, and fully clothed.
For an advertising project, Paris and some classmates filmed a yogurt commercial. The group wrote a wrestlingthemed script. For the ad, Paris suited up in his gear and staged a wrestling match. He performed a miraculous comeback after taking a bite of yogurt.
The professor, Sang Lee, didn’t know of Paris’ wrestling pursuits and said, “Mike, you could be on TV. Really, you should think about that.”
A month later, Paris debuted in TNA on Spike TV.
If balancing school and work weren’t taxing enough for Paris, it soon became nearly impossible.
As a TNA wrestler, Paris regularly travels to Orlando, FL, where the promotion hosts TV shows and payper-views.
Even with the hustle-and-bustle, Paris has managed to earn his journalism credits to graduate.
Paris could have easily dropped out of college to focus on his budding wrestling career. But giving up is unacceptable—in and out of the ring.
“Getting an education is investing in yourself,” he said. “Once you earn that degree, no one can take that away from you.”
Rouzbeh Yassini: Father of the Modern Modem
It was a futuristic life we had only dreamed of, where body sensors automatically alert physicians when your blood pressure skyrockets. College courses are completed from your living room. A webcam guards your house while you’re on vacation. And a Skype call with your grandchildren lets you see their smiles, new toys, and tiny fingers as they press the end-call button.
All of these are part of the broadband revolution we have today. Right now. And all of them trace back to Rouzbeh Yassini.
The twentieth century took us to the greatest heights of information-sharing since humanity began, and broadband has been our road as we’ve taken our biggest steps.
Yassini, known as the father of the cable modem, is a large part of why we have this keycard to the autobahn of information.
He saw the infancy of the Internet, learned how cable is delivered, and put two and two together. It took years. It took a lot of translation between industries that spoke different technical languages and had square pegs for round holes. But his vision guided him; a vision that existing technology could be used to take the world forward to a digital information future.
In the decades that followed his arrival to the United States from his native Iran, Yassini would take a path trod for centuries by new arrivals to America, but make it his own.
Arriving in Morgantown, WV, as a college student in 1977, Yassini chose electrical engineering because he couldn’t afford medical school. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University, he was recruited by General Electric.
By 1986, he had left GE for Proteon, a company that produced Local Area Network equipment. Before computers were in vogue among the general public, companies used high-speed connections to share work between computers in their buildings. That was the LAN.
Yassini had this picture in his head of something more than a local network. It would be fast, inexpensive, connective. It would use existing technology. And it was possible.
For the next decade, he gathered a team of engineers to experiment and develop. By the late 1990s, an inexpensive cable modem was available commercially.
“Our inspiration came from that fact that we knew—beyond any question—that access to broadband Internet connectivity would be an agent of tremendous empowerment for individuals,” Yassini said. “We recognized that personalized communication and telecommuting were tools in humanity’s toolbox needed to support rapid scaling of the world population.
“We were convinced we could change the fundamental ability of people to contribute to the world through telecommuting rather than burning fossil fuel and to be producers, not merely consumers, of content and ideas and innovation. That’s a powerful motivation.”
But before that was years of research and technical challenges. He says it was exhilarating and terrifying.
“For a typical technology start-up to attract capital and succeed, you really want to have only one or two serious, fundamental risks to overcome,” Yassini said. “ We had five of them.
“We had to find a way to reduce the cost of a powerful cable modem to below $50 from $18,000. We had to find a way to work within existing computing and video delivery standards. We had to invent technology that would cover an entire city. We had to move the implementation from the analog world to the digital platform. And we had to overcome challenges around testing cable modems that could have taken hours per unit per day.
“But we solved every one.”
The difference between being a visionary and getting something done is the long nights he spent solving engineering problems, maintaining a talented workforce, and staying true to an idea for years without reaching a final product.
“We also had something I think every promising idea needs: a team of talented people who believe in the greater purpose of what they’re doing,” Yassini said. “Without that it’s very difficult to persevere.”
This innovation was at the center of multiple, separate industries. It required knowledge of local area networks, cable, and fiber-optics. None of the industries were on the same page and all were charting different futures.
“I think any entrepreneur is familiar with the feeling of being completely on the outside of conventional wisdom,” he said. “The truth is, there were naysayers everywhere who were convinced our idea had no prayer.”
Understanding the role of Yassini’s work and how it affects every day lives requires going back in time to when there was no Internet as we know it.
When Yassini began his work on the cable modem in 1986, the US government’s early version of the Internet, known as ARPANET, was online, but the World Wide Web wouldn’t be invented by Tim Berners-Lee until 1989 and the Web wouldn’t become commercial until the 1990s.
“We also had something I think every promising idea needs: a team of talented people who believe in the greater purpose of what they’re doing.”
When the common folk did start using the Internet, we used dial-up to connect. With our phone lines plugged into boxes, we listened to the bouncing tones of the magical connection that let us access our e-mail and hop on Netscape or Explorer. We could look up restaurants, colleges, businesses. And that was pretty much what we did.
There was no Skype. There were no iPads. There was no Hulu or Netflix. There was no YouTube. Then, Google was an infant in the search engine world. But about the time we took our first real steps on our computers with elementary graphics and speed, the cable modem was ready. It was ready before the most active digital child—video—learned to run online.
Since then, information access has significantly increased in speed, geography, and volume. Communications company Cisco says that in 2013 the amount of data shared over the Internet will be 667 exabytes annually, with most of this traffic being video. To make sense of that, only five exabytes could store all the words of every human language ever used.
Yassini hopes learning becomes a faster process for those who come after him. It takes émigrés decades to better themselves and then pass that knowledge on to those in their home countries, he said.
“I felt that broadband could change that,” he said. “It was a passport to knowledge transfer like the world had never known. That’s why we gave away our modem technology protocols license-free not just to the cable industry but to the world.
“We wanted our innovation to be used anywhere, anytime, any way. We wanted to give everyone the toolbox so that broadband would empower them with a personalized communication connection to anywhere in the globe, much like electricity empowered individuals in the nineteenth century.”
He calls the innovation of the cable modem a beginning and an indicator of what can come from putting visions into practice.
“Entire companies, even industries, now exist because of broadband, with higher market capitalizations and contributions to gross domestic product than twentiethcentury industrial giants like General Motors and GE. Most important I think is that billions of people now have a tool kit with which they can create, produce, and contribute to an information economy that offers enormous opportunity. And we can do all this without draining away our limited resources from this planet.”
Elaine McMillion: Filling America's Hollow
The America where Elaine McMillion grew up is one we all want to remember.
It was a place where the walk from school to the doughnut shop was short. The same for the walk to the bowling alley. It’s where after school, she walked to her mother’s workplace at the jeweler’s and took her homework to the back room. It sounds peaceful, and secure.
These memories are of Logan County, WV, in the heart of coal country. Years after her graduation from West Virginia University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, McMillion went to McDowell County, just next door to the scenes of her childhood.
You may have heard of it. In truth, Mc- Dowell is talked of often. The county has the highest rate of child abuse and neglect in West Virginia. And it has high rates of other things, too. Welfare dollars. Drug use. Teen pregnancy.
Those in the wider world may know nothing else about the 22,000 people who live there.
For McMillion, that means they really don’t know them at all.
But she does. The documentary filmmaker lives in Boston now, where she is creating films and pursuing a master’s degree. She doesn’t have to learn to see beyond the stubborn Appalachian stereotypes of hillbillies with dirty feet. She saw reality a long time ago. For her, returning to Boston is more of a culture shock than visiting McDowell.
It was her own exodus to elsewhere that prompted her to create Hollow, a participatory documentary that will allow McDowell residents to tell their own story and organize to reverse the decline that’s been upon them since coal left.
When she looks at McDowell, she sees potential.
“People can’t understand when I say that, when they haven’t been there and haven’t met the people,” she said. “And the reason I see potential is because I met so many people this summer that when you actually get them in the same room around a table, things are going to happen.”
No one can turn away from the truth. And the truth is that McDowell is dying. Of the ten towns in McDowell, all were listed in a WVU research report as dying, and that’s the highest rate of any county in the state.
“That’s alarming to me to think about what’s lost,” she said. “’Who are the people that still remain?’ was the question that I had. And how do they feel about the things that they’ve seen happen and the change that they’ve seen?”
There’s an outsider view that says the people inside the towns are just getting by on existing without trying to change their lot. But she’s found that this is not true.
“That was where the vision came from,” McMillion said. “It was a sense of urgency that I had to examine these ten towns in the county but also going against the stereotypes and the things that people think they know about McDowell County and southern West Virginia and sort of flipping that on its head and trying to tell a broader picture of what’s happening through the experiences of the people who live it every single day.”
She knows the county won’t be like it was at its height, but she believes the people can have a better quality of life.
Hollow has become about more than finding a way back home for McMillion. When she sent early footage to people across the country, before the project properly launched, she discovered its universality.
“All of them said something that was really interesting, which was that this could be any small town in America—which is the point,” she said.
Some of those who have taken notice are themselves often noticed. The Tribeca Film Institute awarded the project a highly selective new media grant. Morgan Spurlock, who brought us the documentary Super Size Me, wrote on Twitter, “Hollow is an idea that could change small towns across the United States!”
And regular people voted for Hollow to become a reality with their own dollars to help the project exceed its $25,000 Kickstarter goal.
McMillion had read the sociological analysis, “Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America,” and knew that when rural towns lost their young people, it was a sign that their long illness was terminal.
Hollow became a truthful marketing piece to allow everyone to see what was really happening. Google Images of McDowell show the clinical in maps; the sensational in pictures of floods; and the hackneyed—the fourth image is a dirty, half-naked child sitting on a stoop.
But McMillion’s initial photos and video show people who don’t symbolize a troubled rural America. They are living their lives. Among the rivers and forests are people working, making music, fishing, worshipping, swimming, attending the fair, finishing homework.
“All of them said something that was really interesting, which was that this could be any small town in America—which is the point.”
This image of the county is so rarely portrayed that a local playwright and poet told McMillion that the public had likely never seen pictures of the county like those captured in Hollow.
The project’s most useful aspect isn’t for outsiders. It has connected people who have been battling alone to allow them to battle together. Since Hollow began this summer, residents have started a community garden, they’re documenting their community, and they’re inspired.
“I had no clue how big of an effect myself and the project would have on people,” McMillion said. “But some people just felt so inspired by ‘Someone believes in us to live down here four months and work with us and try to tell our story, so why don’t we believe in ourselves?’
“I left valuing and seeing the smaller things that should happen that will lead to bigger things because the people of McDowell County have to prove that they’re something worth saving in order to get any help.” At the close of the summer, McMillion went back to Boston with eight terabytes of footage. Five cameras purchased as part of the project remain in McDowell until the end of the year, available to residents as they document their story.
McMillion’s artistic revolution continues to gain notice. She spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the Camden International Film Festival to share the project’s blueprints with other filmmakers.
Raising thousands of dollars, gathering a team of young professionals—many of them WVU graduates—and connecting with an entire community took a great deal of work. McMillion made calls and sent e-mails every day for weeks. Yet it wasn’t hard to believe in the project.
“Whenever people would say ‘What do you do if you don’t raise your Kickstarter money?’ I didn’t really know how to respond to that because I could not believe for one second we wouldn’t make it work,” she said.
“A lot of people and myself see McDowell County like a blank canvas,” she said. “I see all of rural America like a blank canvas. It’s just waiting for young people to come back and really make it what they want it to be.”