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Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

Losing My Neighbor — Sigh

In behavior, business, cities, culture, entertainment, urban life, women on September 12, 2010 at 3:17 pm
Neighbors (1920 film)
Image via Wikipedia

Last night we had everyone on our end of the hallway in for dinner, nine of us in all. (Four couldn’t make it.)

The event? My next-door neighbor — who moved into her apartment weeks before I moved into mine in 1989 — is moving. Sob.

She’s low-key, friendly, down-to-earth. Her laughter peals through the walls. She’s let me crawl across the balcony several times over the years after I locked myself out. Last winter, I went onto the balcony in thick snow — barefoot (don’t ask) — and the terrace door slammed shut, locking me out. The windows were firmly shut.

Thank God she works at home, was home and let me in through her terrace door. With not a word of “What on earth were you doing in snow barefoot?”

Anyone who has shared walls or a floor with others for decades knows wayyyyy too much about their neighbors. The man downstairs begins every single day with coughing and spitting so loud you’d think an ambulance was iminent.

Diana has heard many “discussions”, as she discreetly termed them last night, from our home. Yesterday morning required 15 firefighters from four towns to pry open the elevator doors and let out one of our floor’s eldest residents, trapped for an hour. Two of her neighbors stayed with her the whole time shouting encouragement.

So we toasted her and gave her a card and reminisced about all the comings and goings over the years. Our new neighbors, a couple with a young daughter moving from Queens  — as Emily said sternly to her new colleague in “The Devil Wears Prada” — have some mighty big shoes to fill.

Luckily, she’s only moving a 10-minute drive north.

Here’s a fun piece in yesterday’s New York Times about some of the city’s friendliest apartment buildings.

Do you like your neighbors?

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Our 9/11: Two Journalists, Two Cities

In behavior, business, cities, Crime, education, History, Media, parenting, photography, politics, religion, work, world on September 11, 2010 at 12:37 pm
The Twin Towers in New York City viewed from below
Image via Wikipedia

I was in Maryland, attending a journalism fellowship, excited to be a in room filled with smart, talented peers. Within minutes of the attacks, three of them left immediately, heading to New York to cover the biggest story imaginable. A Canadian newspaper I was stringing for regularly had already called my home in New York: “Get down there!” I stayed in Maryland; others would do it better, faster.

I didn’t want to do that story.  I know my limits.

That was the day my sweetie, a photo editor for a major New York newspaper, was to move into my apartment, 25 miles north of his home in Brooklyn. Everything he owned was packed, ready to go. The movers pulled up at 9:00. “We can’t go. All the bridges and tunnels are closed.” He packed a shirt, a bottle of water, fruit and ran to the Brooklyn Bridge, ready to start walking to work in Manhattan.

Overhead, he saw and heard a lone F-15 Eagle, a fighter jet, its roar so loud that the ground shook beneath his feet. “We’re at war,” he thought. He’d traveled with the military. This was a sound he knew. Afterburners are loud, frighteningly so.

Lots of traffic noise. At the bridge, a sea of vehicles awaited, every radio tuned to the same station. A wave of people staggered across the bridge, some running, some walking, every single one covered in gray dust, the pulverized concrete of the towers’ collapse.

He backed up, bumped into someone, apologized — and recognized a shooter’s vest, the sort with a dozen pockets, and three camera bodies. One of his female colleagues. He took off her glasses and cleaned them with his bottle of water. “How much film have you shot? How much digital? Give me your film.”

He ran to the nearest mom-and-pop photo store — he didn’t know where it was, had never used them, just recalled there was one nearby. “I work for (a NYC daily). I have three or four rolls of film. I need them processed right away.” An hour later, he had the negatives, and back at his apartment unpacked everything he would need: film scanner, computer, telephone and a television — a newsroom recreated in his otherwise empty Brooklyn apartment. Prior moves had taught him not to cut off the power until he’d moved into the next space.

The coffee table became his desk, the floor his chair. He called his editor in midtown: I have (the shooter’s) photos. I have her film. I’ll be transmitting as soon as possible. If anyone else is in the area, tell them they can come to my apartment.” The editor was calm. “Thanks.”

He had a light table, and might have used it to read the negatives, or maybe the window. He doesn’t remember. Within three hours, he had transmitted about a dozen images to his editors in midtown. The shooter headed out from his basement apartment, took more pictures, came back with digital images he transmitted.

By the end of the day, at sunset, the two of them returned to the bridge together — the sunset, with all the smoke and city lights — would make a good picture. “We joined a cast of thousands.” In silence. “People were whispering, so quietly you could hear helicopters overhead, landing in Manhattan on the docks.” A few had hand-held radios.

The two of them walked home to their individual apartments. Stores and restaurants were closed. Pieces of singed paper — “like a snowstorm” — floated through the air, office memos carried across the East River from the towers. They blanketed the grass of his backyard, their company letterheads still legible.

I called him many times that day. I didn’t have a cellphone and he had no number to reach me. But the phones didn’t work and I could not reach him. I knew he was supposed to be near the Towers at 9:00 that morning and had no idea if he was alive, injured or dead. Fellow journalists, with me in Maryland, were kind: “Your boyfriend is missing? Are you OK?” I wasn’t, but had to be. By 4:00 p.m. I finally got through.

I drove north three days after 9/11, knowing the exact spot on I-95 where I would be able to see the city’s southern tip, terrified. At 65 mph on a crowded expressway, I cried so hard I could barely see. It was like seeing someone you love punched black and blue.

A Paris agency wanted a story, right away, on DNA testing of bodies and body parts. The country, the city, was still focused on finding survivors, when these editors, overeas already knew there were likely to be none. Editors in London, Paris and New Zealand, who bought three different versions of my story were ahead of the game. They knew, and wanted details.

I knew no one in authority near New York or D.C. would make the time to speak to me. How could I report the world’s biggest story, one that every reporter in the world was working on at the same time?

What was the most analogous story to this one, a story none of us could even grasp emotionally, even as we were living it? A San Francisco earthquake and the Oklahoma bombing. I interviewed scientists and crime scene experts in San Francisco (using the three-hour lag between CA and NY to my advantage) and in Toronto, my hometown, where I had great sources and a decent reputation even 20 years after leaving.

I researched and wrote 2,500 words between 9:00 a.m. and midnight — 6:00 a.m. Paris time. My editors there needed the copy asap to offer to their clients. Versions of my piece ran in the London Sunday Telegraph, the French weekly VSD and the New Zealand Herald.

I found and interviewed a corrections officer doing volunteer work at the site for Glamour asking what she’d seen. I still have those notes.

Then I made the mistake of calling an acquaintance to tell her, needing to offload the horror. She is not a journalist and called me back, weeping, hysterical, raging. “Why did you tell me this?” We have barely spoken since.  I finished the interview and cried for 30 minutes, shaking with the intimate, hideous details of what had happened there, details I still have never read elsewhere.

There are things that journalists hear and see and know — as photographers and their editors do as well — that are beyond nightmares. You, the reader/viewer, are spared. These are things that sear and stain our souls.

Today, if you pray for the victims and their families, please remember with gratitude the very real bravery of the men and women, the journalists and photographers and video cameramen who covered this terrible story.

We, too, were witnesses.

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But I Deserve It!

In behavior, business, culture, design, Media, Money, work on September 10, 2010 at 11:47 am
TN Fernando Trophy Royal Thomian Regatta Overa...
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It’s that time of year again — applying to the two writing grants I keep hoping to win, one worth $10,000, the other either $17,000 or $35,000. They are given to writers of non-fiction and journalism and, with the recession driving 24,000 print writers out of work in the past few years, the line-up is getting longer and longer and longer.

The first grant is given to only 15 percent of applicants. Nice odds!

It’ll be my fourth time reaching for that specific brass ring and, because there is someone official at the organization to discuss it, I called her to ask how, if at all, I could increase my chances.

“You don’t deserve it just because you’ve applied four times!” she huffed.

“The work has to be excellent. It has to be art!

So the question arises.

Do I deserve it? I think so! Why else would I even bother applying if I didn’t?

Someone is going to win. Maybe one of these years it will be my turn.

A jury of only three people make those decisions. The official let slip that some writers are deemed so terrific they just keep winning year after year.

Oh, the gnashing of teeth and the rending of garments. They deserve it more than I do?

Sad truth is, when creative people in a specific field who’ve been plugging away at their game compete directly for limited goodies, it gets ugly fast. Among professional writers within each genre, we all know (of) one another — attending the same schools, MFA programs, workshops, conferences.

We may even share agents or editors or friends or teach in the same college just down the hallway.

I serve on the board of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and at last fall’s board meeting was walking to dinner with two fellow members, both terrific women I really like. Turns out we had all applied for the same fellowship!

(None of us won.)

And when “art” and its value is deeply, hopelessly subjectively relative, who — really — does deserve any specific grant, fellowship or prize?

I don’t have kids, but kids today are being given prizes and ribbons and trophies for breathing. This is unwise.

As one disgusted Mom recently wrote in The New York Times:

My son’s trophy named him the 2010 East Brunswick, N.J., Baseball League Instructional 7’s “Most Valuable Player.” I was stunned. Had my skinny but baseball-addicted son really surpassed all his teammates? As the rest of the boys received their awards, the truth came out: The inscription was the same on every trophy.

Welcome to parenting in the 21st century. As Garrison Keillor says, all the children are above average. But is this really what we want to teach our kids?

I swear I’ve heard kids sneeze and a Mom coo: “Good job!”

It’s mighty tough out there once you start competing hard for the very small tip of the pyramid. Knowing — which some organized athletic competition often still does teach effectively — that someone is going to win and someone is going to lose is useful preparation for a lifetime of not winning.

No one is eager to lose.

But winning doesn’t define you permanently as a “winner” any more than losing means you’re a “loser.”

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Dancing At The White House — Finally!

In art, culture, entertainment, music, women, work on September 8, 2010 at 3:12 pm
Cover of "Billy Elliot"
Cover of Billy Elliot

Great story about Michelle Obama yesterday inviting a disparate group of professional dancers — and students — to perform at The White House:

Dancers of all types — ballet, modern, hip hop and Broadway — take over the room, first for an afternoon workshop, during which students from around the country will have the chance to work with some of the biggest names in dance.

Then, after a short break, the students return to see their mentors perform in an hour-long, star-studded show. Even Broadway’s young “Billy Elliot” will be there — four Billys actually, from the show’s rotating cast.

But the main attraction is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and that’s because its celebrated artistic director, Judith Jamison, soon to retire after two decades in the job, is the honoree of the event.

“What a rare opportunity, to be invited by your country’s first lady to be honored like this,” Jamison said in a weekend interview. “I’ve been to the White House a couple of times before, but this event is totally unique. It’s so terribly important to recognize this art form and to understand how important it is to the fabric of this country.”

I’ve been studying dance — ballet and jazz — for decades. Right now, class is off-limits because of my arthritic hip, and I miss it terribly. Once you have studied dance, the world looks different. You carry yourself with grace and strength. You learn the amazing things your body can do, and its limitations. You hear a piece of music and wonder how you might choreograph it.

I once performed in Sleeping Beauty at Lincoln Center, a production by the National Ballet of Canada, as an extra. It was one of my life’s greatest thrills, not to mention being able to use the stage entrance!

Unlike music, easily and cheaply downloaded on iTunes and available free on any radio or Internet stream, dance remains less visible, less understood and, sadly, less appreciated for the skill, stamina, artistry and dedication it requires.

Watch La Danse, a great new documentary by Frederick Wiseman, a portrait of the Paris Opera ballet company, and you’ll get a great primer in this complex, challenging world.

I loved this recent piece in The Wall Street Journal about one of my favorite ballets, ever, Balanchine’s Serenade:

As the heavy gold curtain rises at the start of “Serenade,” 17 girl dancers in long, pale-blue gowns are arranged in two adjoining diamonds, tethered estrogen. We do not move, grip gravity, feet parallel, pointe shoes suctioned together side by side, head tilted to the right. The right arm is lifted to the side in a soft diagonal, palm facing outward, fingers extending separately, upwardly, shielding as if from some lunar light. This is the first diagonal in “Serenade,” a ballet brimming with that merging line: This is female terrain.

From this opening choir of sloping arms flows an infinite number of such lines, some small, some huge. There is the “peel,” where 15 dancers form a full-stage diagonal, each body in profile, slightly in front of the last, and then, one by one, each ripples off into the wings, creating a thrilling wave of whirling space. In later sections, there are off-center arabesque lunges, drags and upside-down leaps, a double diagonal crisscrossing of kneeling, pushing and turning, and then finally the closing procession heading to high upstage. Ballet is live geometry, a Euclidean art, and “Serenade” illustrates a dancer’s trajectory, a woman’s inclined ascent.

If you have never watched a live dance performance, go! Try modern, tap, ballet, hip-hop. Anything. It will — I hope — change your life as well.

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My Ten Favorite Things

In antiques, business, design, Style, travel on September 7, 2010 at 8:10 pm
Closeup of silk-upolstered gilt Louis XVI Rhin...
Image by mharrsch via Flickr

In no particular order:

My Canadian passport. It’s nice to have a whole other country with quality, affordable healthcare and education.

My green card. Which is now, in fact, green. It allows me the freedom to live and work in the U.S., affording me wider opportunities than my beloved, albeit much smaller country of origin.

French-made crutches. For the first time in nine months, I am pain-free while using these, because I am not placing pressure on my arthritic hip. These crutches are everything you could possibly want: light, comfortable, waterproof, thickly padded. If you ever need to buy a pair, here’s where I found them.

Viactiv calcium chews. Any woman who has to gulp down fistfuls of calcium pills every day knows what a pain they are. These chocolate-flavored cubes give you all the calcium and Vitamin D you need in a quick, easy, tasty bite.

Braun juicer. Perfection. Mine is more than 20 years old and I can’t imagine a better design: place the half-fruit you want to juice, press down. Done!

Louis XVI reproduction dining chairs from my favorite catalog, Wisteria. Simple, elegant, comfortable. The style and color mix easily with a wide range of other designs.

Maja soap. Created in 1921, these round, olive-green bars of Spanish soap last forever, and smell divine as they do.

Hesperides soap, made by Fresh, and sold at Sephora stores. The scent is crisp, clean, citrusy. The Cote d’Azur in your hand.

Marvis toothpaste. Tart, strong, not slimy or sweet. Made in Italy, with a gorgeous package.

Open Skies. I rarely evangelize for any airline, (who could?)  but you have to treat yourself to this one, just once. Take a 777 that seats 300 — and reconfigure it for about 80. Now add seats so wide you can easily tuck your leg beneath you. This all-business-class carrier offers real food served on china. Good wine in a glass. To die for!

What are some of yours?

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Women Too Busy To Die?

In behavior, business, culture, Media, news, women, work, world on September 5, 2010 at 1:05 pm
New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York T...
Image via Wikipedia

If you read The New York Times obituary page — which I do daily as it’s my hometown paper — you’ll soon notice (maybe) an odd detail.

Women never die!

Here’s a post from nytpick.com, which delights in poking at the Gray Lady:

And for the year 2010 to date, the NYT has chronicled the deaths of 606 men, and only 92 women.

Bear in mind that the population of women in the U.S. exceeds that of men, and is nearly neck and neck worldwide.

This disparity in coverage has gone on for years, virtually unnoticed in a society that decades ago granted full equality to women, and has seen huge strides in the prominence of women in virtually all fields of endeavor.

And not only does it show no signs of getting better — it’s actually getting worse.

In a September 2006 “Talk To The Newsroom” interview, NYT obituaries editor Bill McDonald (pictured above) was asked about the lack of what a concerned reader referred to as “gender parity” in the section. His stunning response somehow slipped by unnoticed.

“Ask me in another generation,” McDonald replied. “Really. The people whose obits are appearing in our pages now largely shaped the world of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, and the movers and shakers in those eras were predominantly white men.”

If you’re  a Lithuanian lute-maker (no offense meant, specifically, to either category) — and male — hang in there. Your time for posthumous glory will come. Men doing the most unlikely and obscure things end up in the Times obit pages every day.

I know for a fact that women do die, women who have achieved extraordinary success and influence in business, the arts, science, medicine, public service, education. But you’ll never hear about them in the Times. (Or The Wall Street Journal or USA Today or The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times. You know the “papers of record.”)

I think it’s a toxic combination of two issues: male editors who don’t see women’s achievements as worth this level of honor  — and women, and their families, colleagues and employers who don’t make a (big enough) fuss about them and their value to the larger world, either when they’re alive or after they have died.

Women who vaunt themselves and seek public attention are often derided for their egos and glory-seeking, while men who do so are considered…normal.

Every single obits column that ignores women ignores half the nation’s population.

And newspapers wonder why they’re dying?

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$22.50 Per Pill? Now I’m In Pain

In behavior, business, Health, Medicine, Money, news on September 3, 2010 at 7:11 pm
May_30_Health_Care_Rally_NP (667)
Image by seiuhealthcare775nw via Flickr

Just as today’s New York Times reports that businesses are shoving their health care costs onto workers (and Robert Reich bemoans the nation’s appalling growing income inequality), it’s time to re-up a prescription I’m on for three months, one pill a week.

Luckily, my pharmacist knows I’m no millionaire and called to warn me the pills would cost $90 for four. Wow. I could just go knock back two decent martinis and kill my pain that way. But no, this is a drug that builds bone and I need some more of it, so generic might be my only choice.

I grew up in Canada, whose regulatory environment, and healthcare system, is not run entirely for profit but to minimize costs and maximize patient care. I was younger and healthier so almost never needed a prescription for anything.

Drug prices in the U.S. leave me open-mouthed. I know my pills are dirt cheap compared to many others.

But what a charming whack on the kneecaps! I need those pills to help my hip, to avoid a $50,000 surgery that will demand a 4 to six-week recovery and rehab, another challenge for someone self-employed who doesn’t get paid sick days.

I work, I get paid. I don’t work, I don’t.

Millions of Americans fear and loathe any medical system that doesn’t offer the choice of a supermarket and the speed of a Concorde. But when you’re faced with a stagnant, falling or no income — and rising medical costs — it’s no time to have your wallet’s contents surgically removed by corporate greed.

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The Oval Office Makeover — Shriek!

In antiques, business, design, news on September 1, 2010 at 12:16 pm
White House Oval Office during the administrat...
The Oval I visited, Pres. Clinton’s.Image via Wikipedia

Whose idea was this exactly?

The Oval Office has been re-done. Maybe by a blind person?

I’ve been there. Yes, I have, thanks to a friend of the sweetie who got us in when President Clinton was still in office and his vision of beauty was done by an Arkansas decorator who also trashed the joint.

It’s the Oval, people!

In the before photos, linked above, the walls are a soft butter yellow that matches the elegant damask-patterned sofas, and the pale rug complemented the gleaming wooden side tables. The lamp bases were porcelain, the coffee table (albeit underscale) also polished wood, formal and elegant.

OK, it was all a little Granny’s parlour for some, perhaps, but the new version is hideous:

upholstery so poorly done it puckers

sofa fabric so bland and neutral it adds no design elements

throw pillows so ugly they look like Home Sense rejects

a new rug that loses the subtle beauty of the earlier version, whose colors and forms echo others in the space

brutally plain lamp bases

a coffee table that looks like something suburban, 1983

the sofa’s shape is bizarre

hideous reddish leather on the armchairs

The space is formal in its design, proportion, scale, flooring, curtains, window shapes and materials. There are still 18th-century porcelain dishes on the tables (or replicas of same). The new look in no way relates to the shell that contains it. Nor to anything else in the room.

It’s the office of the President of the United States — not a suburban living room! Why does it now look like one?

I get to be this opinionated because I studied interior design at the New York School of Interior Design, where I learned — humbly — that creating a room that really works beautifully requires far more skill than simply slapping on new slipcovers and some striped (!) wallpaper.

What were they thinking?

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