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Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

Wear a pink shirt today — and help stop bullying!

In behavior, children, Crime, culture, education, family, life, news, parenting on February 29, 2012 at 12:18 am
English: Bullying on IRFE in March 5, 2007, th...

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If you’re not Canadian, you might not be wearing a pink shirt today. You should!

Here’s why…

David Shepherd and Travis Price, two very cool guys whose names should be household words as avatars of compassion, saw a new kid at their Nova Scotia High school get bullied on his first day of school in 2007 — for daring to wear a pink polo shirt. David and Travis went right out and bought every pink shirt they could find and persuaded other kids in their school to wear one in solidarity with the victim — and to mock the bullies.

If only every person who sees someone being bullied mustered the bravery to do something equally loving and supportive. How different, and better, our world would be!

This year an estimated 13 million children will be bullied in the United States.

(That’s three times the population of Ireland. Nice.)

Pink Shirt Day — Feb. 29 — is now a national, powerful, highly visible movement in my native Canada, and a clear way to show support for, and solidarity with, those whose lives are being made a living hell by the weak and cowardly wretches who taunt them.

I was bullied mercilessly in my middle-class Toronto high school for three years. I’d arrived, halfway through Grade 10, to a cliquish place where everyone had attended the same elementary and middle schools together. A trio of boys decided to make me the object of their daily derision.

Their tactics included putting a dog biscuit on my desk, barking at me and shouting “Doglin!” down those echoing hallways. I cried (never publicly), over-ate, shouted back, felt ugly for many years afterward.

No one in authority at my school — fully aware of this behavior and its effects on me — did a thing.

I wrote about this for USA Today, an essay that still draws reaction. A few months ago, a total stranger living upstate from me in a small town called me out of the blue — to ask my advice for her young son, being bullied by a young girl (!) whose parents (of course) hold positions of authority and who knew she could keep getting away with it.

They are suing their school officials and their son has watched these adults line up to lie and cover their taxpayer-paid asses. Talk about an education.

I don’t have kids, but I do know what it feels like to be singled out for abuse, to have adults turn a blind eye, to have fellow students snicker in voyeuristic pleasure — sighing with relief it isn’t them.

Lee Hirsch, another former bullying victim, has made a new documentary,  Bully, in theatres March 30. I applaud his commitment to making this film and everyone associated with it.

If you know anyone, anywhere, being bullied, do the right thing.

Step up! Speak out!

Bullies are monsters.

Stop one today.

The bitterly disappointed reader — who’s to blame?

In books, business, culture, women, work on February 28, 2012 at 12:33 am
Popeye

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Here’s the problem:

You, the reader, want someone to write a book that resonates with you. It’s all about you!

Except, sadly, it’s not. It never will be.

Writers, certainly of non-fiction, write what they know, how they think, what they’ve studied or taught, how they were raised.

Every single one of us writes through multiple filters: race, age, gender, nationality, religion, political beliefs, income level, ethnicity.

Then we have to pass the gatekeepers of agents, editors, publishers and their sales and marketing staff. And, oh yeah, the retailers who only order our books on commission, shipping them right back within six weeks unless the merch is moving.

So when readers expect writers to write in a way they find cosy and comforting, a peculiar and somewhat infantile rage often emerges when some of them, inevitably, find our work disappointing.

“It’s not what I expected!” they wail.

Well, what did you expect?

Some readers who feel a writer has failed them not only dislike our books — they dislike us personally.

Which, while I love the passionate involvement readers can have with our books, is also a little weird — I don’t loathe Alexander Payne as a human being if I hated (which I didn’t) — his new film, “The Descendants” or his hit “Sideways.”

Separating the creative product from its producer seems a challenge these days.

I’ve seen this in four instances and I think it really bears discussion and reflection.

The first, of course, is the huge best-seller “Eat, Pray, Love” written by a childless, educated white woman who left her suburban marriage to travel the world in search of herself.

The very idea! Jowls shook worldwide in horrified indignation. How dare she…pursue…pleasure?!

If I pick up Dickens or Balzac or John Grisham or David Sedaris, I know what I’m getting into. I’m an adult making an informed choice. If I loathe the book — its tone, content, voice, pacing, dialogue, plot (or absence of same), well, tant pis! It’s the price of admission, kids. Just because it’s for sale doesn’t guarantee it’s great or that it will make me happy.

So when this blogger was chosen for Freshly Pressed, I took immediate exception to her decision to tear up the book she was reading because she disliked the author’s point of view.

Part of her objection was the privileged background of its author, Gretchen Rubin, whose father-in-law is the former secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin. Her book, “The Happiness Project,” has been a huge best-seller.

She is who she is.

I chose the cartoon of Popeye because I live and write by his motto: “I yam what I yam and that’s all I yam.”

Expecting any writer to write as if s/he were someone else you might have a beer with instead burdens even the smartest authors with an added hurdle to clear when trying to find and grow an audience.

Same criticism has followed Laura Vanderkam, a young Princeton grad whose third child’s arrival just preceded that of her third book. For a woman in her early 30s, that’s a whole pile ‘o achievement.

I know Laura personally. She’s privileged, well-educated, a driven, goal-oriented woman.

She is who she is, and whether you agree with her gogogogogogogogo mindset, her worldview inevitably colors how she thinks, the subjects that engage her and how she approaches them.

If you don’t share her worldview, you probably won’t enjoy her books either.

My memoir of working retail, “Malled”, has drawn some of the most vicious comments I have ever heard anywhere, including three years of relentless high school bullying.

“I actually started to hate her”, wrote one woman.

“Bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy,” wrote another.

These are not book reviews, dear readers.

These are character assassinations, written under the soothing cloak of anonymity, and posted forevermore on Amazon.com — the place where would-be buyers, you know, make decisions about our work.

I can assure you, if someone stood outside my store or my home, shouting how nasty my food or products or service were, I’d take direct action.

But in this virtual world, where total strangers make snap decisions about who we are (based on — hello! — a deliberately chosen and heavily edited narrative voice), the real person behind the words on the page becomes some weird, annoying ghostly abstraction.

The writer you meet, certainly in non-fiction or memoir, is but one facet of that person. Judging and dismissing them with a sneer only reflects a sad lack of sophistication about what book-writing is.

My readers no more “know me” than someone who sits beside me on the subway for 30 minutes.

The next time you loathe a book — or love it — try to remember that a real person wrote it.

With their best intentions.

It’s not really a cold shoulder

In behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, women on February 26, 2012 at 1:00 am
NASA staffperson hug

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So, who’s the cuddly one in your dyad?

Here’s an interesting advice column from one of my former employers, the national Canadian daily The Globe and Mail, on the issue of a non-cuddly husband.

Typical of Globe stories, this one has 298 (!!) comments.

I wanted to blog this because, in my marriage, I’m the dude, the one much less comfortable with emotions, expressing tender feelings, being cuddly and saying “I love you.”

When Jose and I started dating 12 years ago, I quickly noticed this, and often joked that he’s the girl and I’m the guy in this respect. He always wanted to talk about our relationship, to share his feelings, to feel validated by my listening attentively to them.

Sigh.

It’s not that I didn’t love him. But I come from a pretty frosty family, hardly unusual among educated WASPs, especially Canadians, (some of whose British stiff-upper-lip-ness affects all aspects of life, from work to medical treatment.)

It’s not easy at midlife to radically alter your emotional style, even when you know it’s a good idea.

I’m grateful Jose is as accepting of me as he is. As I’ve written about here, I spent most of my childhood at boarding school and summer camp, starting at the age of eight. I didn’t see my Dad that much as he traveled a lot and he and my mother were divorced by then.

When I hear people chirp “Love you!” into their cellphones, I wonder how it comes so easily to them.

So I learned, young, to keep my softer emotions hidden and in check. There was little reason to hug a ferocious, scolding housemother!

Jose, who is Hispanic, grew up in a loving and intact family, with a Mom who was thrilled to have him — surprise! — when she was 49. I keep a photo of him as a small baby on my computer, his Mom holding his tiny hand as he stands on their piano bench, as they both look so totally delighted with one another.

I never got a chance to meet her, as she and his Dad died decades ago. But her abundant love perfumes my every day through her loving son. At our wedding reception, in September 2011, I toasted Gregorita and thanked her for the spirit of affection that Jose so embodies and shares, with me and with others

He freely and easily says “I love you” a lot. He hugs and kisses. He holds my hand. All of which I adore and am very grateful for.

He knows I’m nuts about him, even if I’m not very skilled at expressing it.

Thank heaven!

In your relationship, who’s the huggy one?

There’s a President sitting at the corner table…

In journalism, politics, US on February 24, 2012 at 12:40 am
President Bill Clinton 2007

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If you live, as I do, near the suburban New York town of Chappaqua, and if you like the local French bistro, Jardin du Roi, the odds are good you will see former U.S. President Bill Clinton there.

It’s a little like seeing a UFO or a unicorn, something you’ve heard about for years but thought…nah…not in my lifetime.

On our last visit, a few weeks ago, he was sitting at the corner table of this quiet, unpretentious bistro, run by a mid-life career changer named Joe, with two delicious blondes, women somewhere near his age. Knowing the deal, I asked my husband — who spent eight years in the White House Press Corps as a New York Times photographer, and who has met Clinton in that capacity — where’s his security detail?

Are there Secret Service agents who look like models?

It’s the second time we’ve seen him there. The first was decidedly odd, as he stood in the very narrow doorway to the restaurant — a large, bulky agent standing visibly a few feet away that time — and held forth to a rapt audience for a long time. His zeal for conversation was legendary when he was in office, but you might expect that of a politician who, in some measure, is always campaigning.

In private life, not so much.

It is a strange, if interesting, moment when you encounter someone so iconic in the flesh. After seeing thousands of images for decades, there they are!

I followed Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip around Canada for two weeks on their 1984 Royal Tour, and the cognitive dissonance was even greater. As a Canadian, I grew up with her image on our coins and stamps and, suddenly, right in front of me, there she was.

Not only was she a living, breathing woman, she was surrounded by an eddying sea of equerries and ladies-in-waiting. Not to mention her security detail, which included a devastatingly handsome Glaswegian in tweed and her bodyguard, a quiet, small man people referred to only as The Detective.

We watched an excellent two-part documentary on Clinton this week, on PBS show, The American Experience; if you ever wanted to know more about this man, or how American politics shape a President once he’s in office, I highly recommend it.

Journalism Legend Marie Colvin Killed in Syria

In business, journalism, Media, news, politics, women, work on February 22, 2012 at 1:15 pm
English: Map of Syria from the CIA Factbook.

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Here we go again.

This time it is Marie Colvin, a woman in her 50s — both highly unusual features for a war correspondent — who has died while covering the uprising in Syria. She was killed with a French photographer, Remi Ochlik, when the house they were in, in Homs, was shelled.

Colvin lost an eye in 2001 while covering the war in Sri Lanka when she was hit by shrapnel. She saw the man who threw it at her.

Wearing a black eye patch, she went right back to work, doing a job that still — reasonably — terrifies most people.

Here are her own words, from a 2010 address, on why war reporting remains essential:

War reporting has changed greatly in just the last few years. Now we go to war with a satellite phone, laptop, video camera and a flak jacket. I point my satellite phone to South Southwest in Afghanistan, press a button and I have filed.

In an age of 24/7 rolling news, blogs and twitters, we are on constant call wherever we are. But war reporting is still essentially the same – someone has to go there and see what is happening. You can’t get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people be they government, military or the man on the street, will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen.

We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference.

Marie, an American, belonged to an international fraternity whose membership is open only to those somehow willing and able to withstand the insanity and horrors they must witness firsthand in order to tell the rest of us about it.

I lost my eye in an ambush in the Sri Lankan civil war. I had gone to the northern Tamil area from which journalists were banned and found an unreported humanitarian disaster. As I was smuggled back across the internal border, a soldier launched a grenade at me and the shrapnel sliced into my face and chest. He knew what he was doing.

Just last week, I had a coffee in Afghanistan with a photographer friend, Joao Silva. We talked about the terror one feels and must contain when patrolling on an embed with the armed forces through fields and villages in Afghanistan … putting one foot in front of the other, steeling yourself each step for the blast. The expectation of that blast is the stuff of nightmares. Two days after our meeting Joao stepped on a mine and lost both legs at the knee.

I learned abut Marie’s death a few minutes ago when my husband — a career news photographer and editor who has photographed in a war zone himself — came into the bedroom to tell me.

As I logged into Facebook, I read the tribute to her by Borzou Daragahi, another American working in the region for a British paper, the Financial Times, testifying to her generosity and friendship.

I assigned stories to Borzou in 1988, when he was just beginning his career.

When a journalist like Marie is killed, or Joao injured, their tribe — worldwide — mourns. It could have been us, or our husband or wife or son or niece. We know these people and we live in daily fear for their lives, even as we rely utterly on them to do their terrifying and dangerous jobs.

American women’s reproductive rights face relentless attack

In behavior, news, politics, US, women on February 21, 2012 at 1:26 am
Flag of Virginia

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American women are facing a barrage of attacks from the religious right and the elected officials who represent their interests.

The last time I looked, American women do have the vote. But you’d never know it.

Here’s a smart and lucid recent post about our current, increasingly embattled fight for access to contraception, with lots of helpful links.

The latest monstrosity?

A law in Virginia requiring a woman who wants an abortion to undergo a transvaginal probe.

From Dahlia Lithwick writing at Slate:

So the problem is not just that the woman and her physician (the core relationship protected in Roe) no longer matter at all in deciding whether an abortion is proper. It is that the physician is being commandeered by the state to perform a medically unnecessary procedure upon a woman, despite clear ethical directives to the contrary. (There is no evidence at all that the ultrasound is a medical necessity, and nobody attempted to defend it on those grounds.) As an editorial in the Virginian-Pilot put it recently, “Under any other circumstances, forcing an unwilling person to submit to a vaginal probing would be a violation beyond imagining. Requiring a doctor to commit such an act, especially when medically unnecessary, and to submit to an arbitrary waiting period, is to demand an abrogation of medical ethics, if not common decency.”*

Here’s a CNN story about the state’s move to declare embryos as persons with legal rights:

Women’s rights advocates say these legislative and ballot efforts around the country to establish fetal personhood are part of a move to place greater restrictions on women’s access to abortion.

“Over the past several years, we’ve seen more and more attempts to restrict abortion directly,” said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that describes itself as advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights through research and policy analysis. “These efforts around redefining ‘person’ are a little more of a back door approach, because they don’t use the term abortion. They’re not an outright abortion ban. Instead they’re using a less obvious approach in a way that does not exactly indicate exactly how far they go.”

According to the Guttmacher Institute, new laws in 24 states in 2011 restricted access to abortion services, while according to the advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America, the number of “anti-choice” measures being implemented in states has risen steadily over the past decade, from 303 in 2001 to 713 in 2011.

Let’s review….

The United States is still facing the highest unemployment since the Depression.

Income inequality is at a record high.

Millions of home-owners are in foreclosure.

And legislators are focusing their energies and animus on.…our reproductive freedoms?

The stoplight of life

In aging, behavior, family, life, women on February 19, 2012 at 1:08 am
stoplight before plugged-in

stoplight before plugged-in (Photo credit: atduskgreg)

Are you the kind of person who floors it through the yellow? Or proceeds, as is the point, with caution?

Sits, open-mouthedly day-dreaming, at the fresh green?

Do you anticipate the full stop and how long it takes to do it? (or how quickly you must?)

I’ve been seriously re-thinking my approach to work, life, love, mostly in how I react — or do not — and how slow my reaction time can be.

My new motto is: Go! Now!

I suspect many of us, behind the wheel, behave in the same ways as we do outside a vehicle. We’re decisive, or not. We focus carefully on the task at hand — or also try to text and put on mascara and eat a burger. We watch the road carefully for potential hazards or boom! we’re in an(other) accident.

I’ve wasted a lot of energy in recent years, paralyzed with indecision about which action to take, when and how — with my mother, work, books I want to write. I suspect it’s a holdover, and not a useful one, from my past, as the only child of a challenging mother with few nearby friends or relatives to help me when things got — and, boy did they — weird, out of my control and scary.

At times of utter chaos, standing very still to assess the damage while deciding what to do next is probably a smart choice.

That was then. This is now. Pedal to the metal, kids!

What color is your stoplight these days?

The terrible cost of reporting real news — Anthony Shadid, 43, dies at Syrian border

In books, journalism, Media, men, news, politics, religion, war, work on February 17, 2012 at 7:21 pm
DSC_9789.JPG

DSC_9789.JPG (Photo credit: Terissa Schor)

It is with terrible shock and sadness that journalists of all ages, working in all media worldwide, are today mourning the sudden and awful death of veteran foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, working for The New York Times, who died of an asthma attack while trying to move secretly into Syria with Times photographer Tyler Hicks.

From today’s New York Times front page story:

Mr. Shadid, 43, had been reporting inside Syria for a week, gathering information on the Free Syrian Army and other armed elements of the resistance to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, whose military forces have been engaged in a harsh repression of the political opposition in a conflict that is now nearly a year old.

The Syrian government, which tightly controls foreign journalists’ activities in the country, had not been informed of his assignment by The Times.

The exact circumstances of Mr. Shadid’s death and his precise location inside Syria when it happened were not immediately clear.

But Mr. Hicks said that Mr. Shadid, who had asthma and had carried medication with him, began to show symptoms as both of them were preparing to leave Syria on Thursday, and the symptoms escalated into what became a fatal attack. Mr. Hicks telephoned his editors at The Times, and a few hours later he was able to take Mr. Shadid’s body into Turkey.

Forgive a rant here from a writer who has worked at three major daily newspapers and whose husband covered the end of the Bosnian war.

There is a very real cost to reporting very real news.

And this is it, the terrible death — with his colleague trying CPR for 30 minutes to revive him, then carrying his dead body over the border into Turkey — of a writer many of us have revered for decades for his brilliant Mideast reporting.

Soldiers expect to see their comrades killed, instantly. They often have a medic or Medevac copter to evacuate a wounded soldier…Journalists and photographers working independently, working with local fixers in dangerous territory, do not.

The next time you gulp down what Facebook — risibly — calls a “news feed” or scan the headlines of yet another celebrity scandal, perhaps mistaking that for journalism, please say a prayer for Shadid and Hicks and all the men and women, armed only with bravery, street smarts, cameras, microphones and notebooks, committed passionately to bringing us the real stuff.

This is what news is.

This is what it can truly cost.

If you want to know more about journalists and how they are treated for trauma, visit this website, for the Dart Center, which has helped several of my colleagues heal from such work.

A new definition of love

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, Health, men, women on February 17, 2012 at 1:08 am
Love heart uidaodjsdsew

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What’s romantic?

What’s loving?

What makes you feel cherished?

The past two weeks have revealed new sides of my husband, even after 12 years together. I knew he was fun, funny, kind, affectionate.

But since coming home from major surgery, the replacement of my left hip, I’ve seen, (as has he), wholly new sides to his character.

Our days right now are so overwhelmingly focused on my health and healing, (including avoiding infection and complication), that I’ve gotten the whole bed to myself while he sleeps on the (too soft) sofa. I bought a bottle of chlorhexidine, (what surgeons use to scrub their hands with), and latex gloves and, once a day, he uses both to clean and dress my incision.

He’s been making meals, buying groceries, doing laundry, (which he normally does), helping me in and out of bed, putting on my shoes, socks and sweatpants. Helping with sponge baths, since no showers are allowed for two weeks.

The hardest part? Wrestling me in and out of my (so sexy!) surgical stockings, thick, tight white hose that go up to my thigh and which I wear 23 hours a day to help prevent clots.

He hands me the 10 pills I need every day, at the time I need them, after drawing up and taping to the wall our daily schedule that starts at 7:30 a.m. and stops at 6:00 p.m. He cranks up raucous rock and roll to boost my energy for physical therapy which I have to do two to three times a day. He brings me me a well-hammered ice pack (four times a day.)

He walks slowly and patiently with me as I do my crutch-aided circuit a few times around the garage.

As someone who prides herself on being feisty, strong, quick-moving, independent and modest, you can imagine how this has felt for me. Weird!

It’s one thing to be seen naked when you feel sexy, quite another when you’re bruised, sore, covered with surgical magic marker notations.

Instructive, to say the least.

He apologized this week for not getting me a Valentine’s Day present; I brought him shoes, socks and a sweater from one of his favorite shops, Rubenstein’s in New Orleans.

I can’t imagine a greater gift than a man willing to give up three weeks’ vacation to nurse me back to strength.

Ten reasons writers need writer friends

In behavior, books, business on February 15, 2012 at 12:34 am
Porsche

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Watching two friends recently — one selling his second book for big bucks, the other finally getting the contract for her first book —  I realized how much we rely on one another for advice, courage, insights, practical wisdom, ideas…
There are many reasons any ambitious writer of books needs a posse.
Here are ten:

You need to find an agent. Other writers know agents — and which ones might be a great fit for you.

You need to decide whether or not to fire your agent. Whatever s/he is doing that’s making you crazy, get a second opinion from someone who’s been through a few herself.

You’re trying to write a book proposal and need a second set of eyes from someone whose opinion you trust.

You’ve finished the manuscript and need a “first reader” who’ll be honest, helpful and diplomatic.

When the contract finally arrives, and it’s sitting there, in multiple copies of a thick, legally-binding document that can shape your future for years to come — they get it. You’re thrilled, but terrified.

They’ll know an experienced entertainment lawyer who can review the contract for TV or movie deals.

They’ll understand that a possible TV or film option is cool, but not life-changing until/unless the producers actually make a film or television show from your work. Other people will squeal with excitement and assume you can now rush out and buy a Porsche.

When you hit a wall and have no idea how to organize your material/find a researcher/fix that chapter/panic with self-doubt, they will know how this feels and find the right way to help you move past this obstacle. When my editor asked me to rewrite 10 (of 12!) chapters of “Malled”, my new memoir of working retail, I froze in fear until my good friend Scott said simply: “You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine.”

They’ll come to your book party and cheer, even if their book proposal didn’t sell, their novel is still in circulation or their last book got crummy reviews. It can, and does, happen to all of us. Which is why you go to theirs as well.

You attend any reading you can, to lend moral support and offer your pal a friendly face in what can be a very, very small group.

I love writing books, and hope to write and sell many more. But it’s a weird, tough industry and you need all the wise and understanding publishing veterans you can get!

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