broadsideblog

Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

A post about the blog

In blogging on June 12, 2012 at 12:04 am
Garden Flowers - July 2010 034-sq

Garden Flowers – July 2010 034-sq (Photo credit: Paul-W)

I began blogging in July 2009, and only because my agent told me I had to start building an audience on-line if I hoped to sell my next book(s.)

In a stroke of fantastic luck, I was offered the following month a paid opportunity to blog for a community site called True/Slant.

And starting out with a built-in community made the whole thing a lot more fun than — as most of us do — pinging into the ether with high hopes and crossed fingers. I’m still friends with several of my fellow T/S bloggers and even had a great reunion with about 10 of them when I visited Chicago.

I migrated here in July 2010 when — oh, the greed! oh, the betrayal! — True/Slant was sold to Forbes and almost all of us were summarily canned after building the very value that made it worth selling.

I know that most bloggers do it for love, not money.

When your primary income, like mine (and some of yours) also comes from writing, it’s tough to spend even more time at the computer that cuts into paid hours. I blog because I enjoy it and because, as my agent warned me, I need to prove a large and growing audience for my work.

As a professional writer exploring many topics, it’s sometimes a chance to test out an idea before I sell it as an essay or longer article.

I enjoy, most of all, your thoughtful comments and the global conversation we have here. Very cool!

How do I know what you’d like to read?

I have no idea! One of the things about Broadside (which is unusual, in my experience of blogs) is that it’s not niche at all. I don’t focus narrowly on anything. Today, Broadside has 1,502 followers, (3 to 5 joining every day now.) You are one seriously heterogeneous group!

When I write for The New York Times, I have a pretty clear idea who my readers are. Same for Marie Claire, a women’s magazine.

But the challenge of this blog — and it’s a big one — is not being fussed about the fact that readers here range from high school age to senior citizens, men and women. Two recent followers are a technical school in Mexico (!?) and a political organization in Mississippi.

The commonality is….?

So I just write what I find interesting, spin it globally whenever possible, and hope you like it.

(Feel free, any time, to email me here or directly and suggest a subject you’d like to hear about. Or more of, or less of.)

Do I know who Broadside’s readers are?

Every time a new follower signs up, I make the time to check out their profile and/or blog. Often, as you’ve seen, I’ll leave a comment or “like” there, to let you know I appreciate your attention.

I’m amazed, and challenged, by the wide differences in your interests, careers, nationalities and ages. If we threw a party, we’d need a very big room!

How much time does it take to write each post?

It depends. Some I bang out within minutes. Others I polish for days, even weeks. Some, (rarely) I never post at all.

How do I choose what to write about?

It depends, again. If there’s something big in the news, (the Queen’s Jubilee, Etan Patz’ killer confessing), I’ll jump on it, but only if I have something of a personal link to it. I try to post only on subjects I feel passionate about. But because I have so many interests — design, work, ideas, relationships — I rarely feel stumped for a topic.

Anything you don’t post on?

Religion and politics. Readers of Broadside live all over the world, so how much interest do you really have in American political battles or the endless toxicity of the religious right? I may occasionally touch on spirituality.

Although my first book is about guns, I rarely blog about it as I have no time or interest in getting into heated on-line battles.

How far ahead do I write posts?

I usually have 5 to 10 posts pre-written and ready to go, at all times. But I revise and edit them many times and will update them minutes before I post.

The only way I’ve been able to enjoy a true vacation away from the computer is to stockpile some evergreen issues and post them when it feels right. While I admire the dedication of those who blog daily, it’s not for me. I’m not that interesting and I’m just too tired!

Which blogs do you follow?

I read only about 5 or 6 blogs, most related to my work or my passions, which include France and design. One, Design Milk, offers a terrific variety of daily stories, all visual, from around the world. Another, One Quality, the Finest, (written by a fellow Canadian ex-pat in the U.S.), offers a French idiom (and some history to go with it) every day. I find this one, Freelance Folder (aimed not just at writers) consistently helpful. I also like Seth Godin’s blog, which was recommended to me by a CEO I interviewed for my retail book; he’s an American business guru/author I find smart, provocative and insightful.

How often are you blogging?

Are you meeting your own goals? How’s it going?

Going once, going twice…the allure of auctions

In antiques, art, business, life, Money, Style on June 10, 2012 at 12:09 am

Score! Total cost $110.

Just went to my first small-town auction in ages. Score! The photo above shows my loot: a folk art horse, two Victorian transferware platters, an early Oriental rug, an early mixing bowl and a handmade wooden box.

Did I need them?

Need!?

How could I resist?

I saw in the front row with my Dad, (who scored a pile of picture frames, a lovely wooden side table and a double bed — a great wooden bed-frame for $20.) There was a serious bidding war over a set of china — that went for $2,100 — but many items went for crazy-low prices, like a gorgeous Victorian wicker rocker for $5.

You can’t buy an hour of street parking where I live for$5!

The lady behind me was thrilled to nab a Victorian platter in her great grandmother’s pattern for $20. A dealer came with her 13-year-old parrot, Winston and he hopped happily onto my hand. The woman beside us beat us out for a pair of Victorian silver plate candlesticks for her daughter’s wedding gift.

I’ve scored many of my favorite things at auctions, whether in Bath, England, Toronto, Stockholm, New Hampshire or rural Nova Scotia.

In Bath, in the 1980s when my mom lived there, I got a lovely little hand-painted pottery jug, (which perfectly fit a Melitta filter holder and became my default coffeepot), for $18. In Toronto, a gorgeous brass bed. In Stockholm, a huge black metal tray with elegantly curved edges and in New Hampshire, all sorts of things, from a senneh kilim for $50 to drawings, etchings and funky objects like early wooden candleboxes or tool trays.

I still own, use and love three painted, rush-seated chairs I bought at a Nova Scotia rural auction (and shipped home to Toronto by train.) Their original paint is alligatored, their rails and stiles weathered and worn.

My most recent major auction acquisition is a lovely teal-tinted armoire, said to be 18th. century, which — including shipping from New Hampshire to my home in New York — still cost less than junk-made-in-China-on-sale from a mass market retailer. I bid on it by phone, having only seen a small-ish color photo on their website. Talk about a blind date!

It arrived with a few unexpected scratches and cracks, but I love it.

At yesterday’s auction I saw its twin, and a lady standing beside me said, “I have one just like it. It’s really old.” So maybe mine is 18th century after all…

When I lived for a while in a small town in New Hampshire I had no friends, family, job or other distractions so for amusement I began attending a local regional auction house every Friday. I learned a lot:

what’s a marriage (two pieces of different origin, materials and/or period that have been recombined)

what local dealers wanted (early American furniture) and did not (rugs and drawings)

how to make super-quick decisions

how to trust my gut (after doing my research on periods, materials and construction)

how to decide on my top price and stick to it (buyers usually pay an additional 15 percent premium, easy to forget if you get into a bidding war)

Have you ever bought at auction?

Snag anything great?

As the traveling sketchbook show heads to Melbourne, here are some of mine…

In art, beauty, cities, culture, travel, world on June 8, 2012 at 3:15 am

This is so cool!

A library in Brooklyn has amassed an enormous collection of sketchbooks – 7,500 from 130 countries — and their books are now traveling the world, currently in Chicago. They’re on a 14-city tour, ending in Melbourne.

I love every single thing about this:

sharing ideas globally

sharing one’s art with strangers

sharing the most private and intimate place to stash your drawings.

And they’re now collecting sketchbooks for the 2013 world tour. Jump in here!

I’ve sketched all over the world on my travels.

Here (gulp) are a few of what’s in one of my sketchbooks.

Les Halles, Paris

I spent the happiest year of my life, 1982-3, living and working out of Paris, on an eight-month journalism fellowship called Journalistes en Europe. We were chosen, 28 of us from 19 countries, ages 25 to 35, to live in Paris and travel all over Europe reporting. I got to know the Les Halles area, in the 1st. arondissement, well, as the CFPJ centre nearby was at Rue du Louvre. On one of my many later visits, alone on a frigid winter’s afternoon, I did this quick sketch with a sharpie. It’s still one of my favorites. (All these images are, in life,  4 by 6 inches.)

Le Loire Dans La Theiere

Here’s a pile of photos of the place to see what it’s really like! I did this one in colored pencil. This is a great tea-room in the Marais section of Paris. The name means The Dormouse in The Teapot, a reference from Alice in Wonderland. You’ll find it at 3 rue des Rosiers in the 4th. arondissement. Everywhere I travel, I seek out a cosy tearoom. Amusez-vous bien!

Freud’s Chair, London

Did you know that Sigmund Freud lived in London after fleeing the Nazis in his native Austria in 1938? And that you can visit his home, now a museum? I’ve been to London many times, and loved seeing his chair — which is battered brown leather — and the original psychoanalytic  couch, covered in an oriental rug, that his patients lay on. His family, a talented and eccentric bunch, has very much left their mark on British culture, from his grandson, legendary painter Lucian Freud to author and Financial Times columnist Susie Boyt, his great-grand-daughter who grew up desperately wanting to be Judy Garland. I did this quick sketch in pencil.

The paddock view, Castle Athenry, Co. Galway, Ireland

For a few years, my father owned a house built in 1789 in Galway, near the town of Athenry. It was one of the loveliest places I’ve ever been lucky enough to stay. This is a watercolor I did of the view from the kitchen into the stone-walled paddock behind the house. He sold it, sadly, and it’s now a nursing home.

Sydney Harbor, Australia.

In 1998 I was crazy enough to fly alone to Sydney — 20 hours from my home in New York — with the goal of writing a book about women sailors competing in a round-the-world race. It was an insane commitment of a ton of money and when I arrived they reneged on the deal! So it became a very costly, albeit lovely holiday I would never have dared embark on otherwise. I did this watercolor from the window of my hotel room. One of the things that intrigued me most about Sydney, which you can see here, were its corrugated metal roofs.

In 1994, I spent 21 days traveling Thailand, from very north to very south. This was a temple across the street (!) from the airport in the tiny, quiet, isolated town of Mae Hong Son, in the very northern corner, near near the border with Burma. The only sound you could hear after getting out of the airport — one strip — was the bells from this temple. I walked into town from the airport, a first, and felt I had arrived in heaven. This spot remains in my top five of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever visited.

Hope you enjoyed these!

That’s not a birthday — it’s a bloody speed limit!

In aging, beauty, behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, women on June 6, 2012 at 12:13 am

The one in the stripy turtleneck, messy and happy, is me.

Fifty-fecking-five.

I can hear all you young un’s stampeding for the exits.

That old fart? OMG!

But today is my bloody 55th. birthday and the hell with it. Consider the alternative!

I’ve never been happier, and am grateful indeed: loving husband, good health for us both, a new hip and a pain-free life, my Dad still alive and healthy at 83; dear friends; work (finally!) in abundance. Whew!

So, as I celebrate, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned over the past few decades, some words of wisdom,  (aka WOWs).


Love

The greatest love of my life has been the work I chose, writer and photographer. From 12 I knew this was what I wanted to do and I shaped my university studies accordingly, learning French and Spanish well enough to work in both languages, in Montreal, France and Spain. It has not been a smooth and uninterrupted ascent to fame and fortune; I could have made a hell of a lot more money doing almost anything else.

But I know my words have changed lives; one woman wrote to me after I published this medical story, and said it saved her life. No paycheck can beat that.

WOW: Invest the time to find out who you are and what you do best, and in what situations. Find workplaces that allow you to thrive, not merely survive. If you can’t, use your talents and skills as a volunteer, mentor or friend.

My second greatest love has been that of/for my second husband, someone who for years I thought, “Nah, we’ll never make it.” We’re really different! We fought ferociously at first, and, on occasion, still do. But he’s the most affectionate, expressive and loving person I’ve ever met. Lucky me!

WOW: Don’t give up too quickly on a new sweetie, even if it looks a little challenging. Maybe you need to grow into this one. Maybe s/he needs to grow (up) too!

Conflict

Many women, especially, are terrified of it. Get over it. Stand up for your principles. Speak your piece calmly, fairly and confidently. Not everyone will like you. Some people will get angry and rude and attack you. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It just means you’ve pissed them off. Big difference.

WOW: Get comfortable speaking your mind publicly, like — blogging!  You can, and must, also write letters to your elected officials, to newspapers, magazines and blogs you disagree with. Question your teachers and professors. If you never disagree with or question anyone, what’s up with that? Time to reality-check your certainties.

Deception

The first time it happens, you think it will kill you. My first husband, for whom I’d left friends, career and country behind, abandoned me two years after our wedding — and was re-married to his next wife within a year. That hurt like hell.

The first time a client cheated me in my freelance business, I was 19, and stunned. But I did then what I do now — hire a lawyer. Works every time!

WOW:  What role did I play in allowing this?

Grace

This one is huge. As 19th. century British poet Rudyard Kipling put it:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too…

WOW: Bad things will happen to every single one of us: job loss, divorce, illness and death of loved ones, financial or health struggles. A mean boss! An unfaithful lover. Whatever. Try your very best to deal with it calmly and thoughtfully.

Send for help! Hire lawyers. Get second or third medical opinions. Save money so you have breathing room in which to make smart(er) decisions. The ability to remain lucid, centered and helpful will pull you through most shit flying your way. And others you least expect, watching you handle shit gracefully, will help you because they so admire your sangfroid.

No one likes a drama queen. No one.

Money

Nope, there’s never enough — if your desires are insatiable. Save 10-25% or more of your annual income, no matter how broke you feel. Once you have a f–k-you fund and serious retirement savings, you’ve got choices. Without those, you’re toast.

If you don’t save money now, who exactly do you think is going to save your broke ass when you’re old and sick and tired and no one will hire you? It’s no joke.

WOW: That designer handbag or shiny new car won’t pay for chemo or put your kid(s) through college. What are your priorities? Fund them consistently for a life that matters to you, not just one that enriches others.

Friendship

The greatest gift in this lifetime. Nurture your pals through good times and sad. Show up for the funerals of their kids and wives and husbands and parents. Write thank-you notes. Remember their birthdays and favorite flowers or food or wine. Some of them will ditch you. Some of them you’ll outgrow. Others will appear and grow further with you where you are now.

WOW: Never take people for granted. Show them how much they matter to you!

Travel

Go! Today!

Get a passport and beat the hell out of it — only 30 percent of Americans own one, and most of their trips are to Mexico and Canada. I’ve been to 37 countries, (so far), and it’s the best investment I’ve made, even when alone and ill in Venice and Istanbul.

Even better, and tougher, live in another country, culture and language. I lived in London ages 2-5, Mexico at 14, France at 25.  I moved to New York, knowing no one, with no job in sight, when I was 30, leaving my native Canada behind.

All were life-changing, and for the better.

Only by getting out of the comfy, cozy bubble of what you know and like and think is “normal” can you truly realize that all values are relative.

WOW: Especially for women, travel alone is an essential way to gain strength and independence. There are cute boys (and girls) and kind strangers everywhere!

Belief (s)

What are your defining values?

Mine include: ethical behavior, non-stop creativity, curiosity, lots of loud laughter, fierce hugs, loyalty, doing your absolute best, under-promising and over-delivering, sincere apologies. Beauty is everywhere: a bird’s call through the silent woods, a smile from your sweetie, an ancient painting on a gallery or museum wall, the light on the lake at sunrise.

WOW: Find joy in every day. Savor it, share it and celebrate it. Make time to be alone and quiet and reflect on who you are and where you’re headed in life. If you’re unhappy, figure out why and fix it. (Yes, it can be hard.) Cherish the people who nourish, challenge and guide you, in work and play and family and community — and shed the toxic ones. You know who they are.

Health

In your teens, 20s and 30s, you just assume — most of us — that you’ll be healthy. You can work crazy hours, eat crappy food, never take breaks. After the age of 40, it starts to change. After 50, you’re fighting to stay alive to 65, after which, statistically, you’ll make it to your 80s.

WOW: Don’t take fitness for granted. Enjoy and safeguard every bit of health you have. Get your mammograms and teeth cleaned and Pap smears and annual checkups. If your behavior patterns (or others’) are destroying your mental health, find a good therapist. If you “can’t afford” health insurance, cut out every conceivable cost from your life and get some. 

Strength

I think this remains an under-rated quality, especially in young women. Physical strength and stamina will see you through extended periods of work, travel, study, care-giving. Emotional strength will see you through almost any crisis, holding it together so you can make decisions or find wise, trustworthy people to help you make them. Spiritual strength means you’re not some greedy, mean pushover.  Intellectual strength will prove its worth when you skip junk distraction for challenging material and smart companionship. It glows.

WOW: Weakness is deeply unattractive, whether you’re 16 or 66. Weakness demands others rescue you from your own (lousy) choices. Don’t choose to be weak!

Tenacity

How badly do you really want it — the job, the sweetie, that friend, the trip overseas, your Phd, losing all that weight?

Few accomplishments come quickly or easily, and those who give up and walk away too soon cede the field (bye!!!!!) to those of us who keep showing up and take your place. Both of my books, both of which have garnered reviews that made me cry with relief and gratitude, were rejected 25 times. Twenty-five! If my agents had given up….?

WOW: If your goal is too easy, what’s the point? Find coaches and cheerleaders to help you get there. After you arrive, champagne!

Compassion

Without it, we’re just walking bits of meat, getting and spending until we die. In an era of stunning income inequality, of long-term and widespread unemployment, of political gridlock that threatens the very notion of democracy, we must recognize others’ humanity and connection to us and take action. Whenever you shrug and turn away, you deny your best impulses. Be a Big Brother or Sister. Find a volunteer position that feeds your soul. Commit to a life partner who shoves you back onto that path when you stray.

WOW: “I want to be happy” is not a great life’s goal. I want to help others be happy is.

Allies/Enemies

If you, like me, are a strong personality with a few too many opinions, you’re bound to create some enemies along the way. It happens. You’re fine as long as you have allies. Assertive and powerful women especially need them. Enemies aren’t worth fussing over, but don’t be naive about their envy, insecurity and determination to mess you up. (See: allies.)

WOW: In every job, class, workplace, freelance gig, nurture as many relationships as you can.  Receptionists and secretaries are the gatekeepers to power. Stay in touch. Send cards and flowers for special occasions. Write thank-you notes on your personalized stationery with a real pen. Keep a supply of stamps at hand for this purpose.

Character

Such an old-fashioned word. So essential. I decided to marry Jose when we went out to rescue my mother after she was found lying in her bed for days, immobilized by a large brain tumor. Her mattress was soiled. We had to make sense of her condition and deal with her house and dog and doctors, in a few days. Jose didn’t hesitate to leave work, pay thousands of dollars to fly us out overnight, and even scrubbed her soiled mattress.

That’s character.

WOW: You can choose your sweetie and friends because they’re funny and cute and like the same music and food. We all do, especially when we’re younger and life is still mostly fun. But when the shit hits the fan — which starts around age 45, when friends and family begin to sicken and die — character will separate the wheat from the chaff. Character will propel the right people to your side in the chemo suite and the funeral parlor and the NICU. Choose wisely.

Thanks  for being part of Broadside — we’re now 1,463 worldwide.

I’m grateful for your attention and comments.

What a gift!

Rejection hurts? Pshaw! Man up, ladies!

In behavior, blogging, books, film, journalism, Media, Money, movies, photography, women, work on June 5, 2012 at 3:36 am
Aggie pitcher Megan Gibson pitches A&M to a Bi...

Aggie pitcher Megan Gibson pitches A&M to a Big 12 sofball victory over Iowa State, March 25th, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week in Brooklyn, home to the hipster/indie/creative class, an event was held to help adult women better understand the most crucial element of their business.

Not their fancy MFA or Ivy degree(s). Not their raw talent or burning desire to Change The World.

How to pitch their ideas to those with the authority and budgets to hire them.

This is from the Poynter Institute website (which is a terrific resource for all journalists, if you don’t know of it):

Hundreds of women (and a few men) crammed into a standing-room only bar in Brooklyn to discuss ways to close the byline gap.

At “Throw Like A Girl: Pitching the Hell Out of Your Stories,” which was organized by women’s nonfiction storytelling organization Her Girl Friday, a panel of experienced journalists and editors rejected suggestions that sexism or gender bias is exclusively responsible for the gap. Instead, they emphasized the need for young female journalists to develop the confidence to let rejection roll off their backs.

“You can’t see rejection as a real reflection of your value,” said New York Times metro editor Carolyn Ryan. “Every day, seasoned reporters pitch and get told no. Practicing pitching makes you a better pitcher. Rejection is part of the process.”

New York Times reporter Amy O’Leary, who hosted the discussion, said that as a young reporter she was so afraid of rejection that she would often agonize over her pitches for weeks or even months at a time. Meanwhile, she said, her male counterparts would happily send off pitches they had written in a day.

I’m going to piss a few of you off here and I’m fine with that.

Grow a pair!

I grew up in a family of full-time freelancers. My father directed film and television documentaries and series. My step-mother wrote television drama. My mother wrote journalism. No one had a paycheck, pension, paid sick or vacation days or any form of back-up beyond our own gumption and savings.

We ate well, drank good wine, traveled widely and wore cashmere. We drove new-ish good cars.

And rejection — of our ideas and pitches and plans and goals, no matter how hard we’d worked on them — was as normal to all of us as breathing. Nor was it anything more noteworthy.

So I really don’t buy this notion of women being too afraid to pitch, pitch, pitch again.

I wrote an essay about how well and carefully my husband cared for me after my hip replacement this year. So far, it’s been rejected by The New York Times, More and O magazine. I’ll sell it, or some version of it, to someone. Just not yet.

What makes me so sure?

Well, the essay I wrote about my divorce and pitched to Woman’s Day, which soundly rejected it, was bought by another women’s magazine — and won me a Canadian National Magazine Award for humor. Sweet!

But what if I’d curled up in a little sad ball, held a pity party — and never pitched it again? Rejection to a writer (any artist likely) is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and inevitable part of every workday.

If you can’t handle rejection, you’re not ready to make a living as a creative/independent person. Even people with cube jobs — especially people with cube jobs — have to pich their ideas, (if not for their day-to-day living) for buy-in to get their projects approved, funded or green-lighted, to their colleagues and bosses.

Do you find it difficult or terrifying to sell your ideas?

What are you doing to get over it?

What’s Queen Elizabeth really like? I spent two weeks with her

In behavior, culture, History, journalism, Media, news, women, work on June 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm
Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Au...

Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Australia, and other Commonwealth realms) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As millions of cheering loyal subjects (and the deeply curious) this weekend celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, some of you must wonder — what’s that life really like?

As Queen Elizabeth celebrates 60 years on the throne — and 1,000 boats are floating down the Thames today to celebrate —  here are my personal memories of an unforgettable two weeks spent chasing her.

In 1984, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip took a two-week tour of Canada, from New Brunswick to Ontario to Manitoba. I was 26, a brand-new reporter at The Globe and Mail, with six months’ daily newspaper experience.

This would be front-page news every day, and the paper has five daily editions, so I would have to meet multiple deadlines for my editors in Toronto — whether I was an hour ahead or behind in time zone. No pressure!

The Queen, as you would expect, travels with a large entourage of ladies-in-waiting and equerries. Not to mention a serious and determined contingent of security. In charge on that tour was a dapper Glaswegian, in a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches. He was tiny but ferocious, yet managed to keep a sense of humor as he tried to keep dozens of annoying reporters and photographers at bay. One day, as we all pressed forward behind the Queen on walkabout, he walked backward, his arms outstretched toward us.

“You need a whip and a chair!” I joked.

“I could use the whip,” he said. My. (I later bought him one and gave it to him as a going-away gift at our final party.)

The two weeks were an insane and exhausting blur of 14 to 16-hour days. It was also the first time the press corps — men and women of all ages from every outlet, from the CBC to Time -- was, at each event, literally penned into a very small space with cords around it.

This was also long before cellphones or the Internet and an era when the fastest possible laptop showed (!!) barely 4 sentences at a time, attached to a telephone handset with clips and took forever to download.

Not to mention trying to find a phone on deadline…I raced into a hotel lobby once and commandeered the phone in the news-stand. Another time I ran frantically to the nearest private home, banged on the door, begged for a table to write on and a phone from which to transmit, in the middle of which the man of the house (a judge) came home and wondered why a crazed blond stranger had taken over his phone line and kitchen table.

Or the house at which I banged on the door and promptly fell flat on my face as they opened it.

Good times!

Every day, the Queen’s staff gave us a little printed piece of paper with the exact words to describe her clothing; not “light green” but “eau de Nil.”

The greatest challenge of covering a Royal Tour? There is no news. Cutting ribbons. Smiling. Accepting bouquets.

So every reporter at home reading my stuff was inwardly sneering at how mundane it had to be while every one of us on the tour were desperate to find a scrap of information that no one else in the huge pack, all traveling on the same buses or planes, could access. (When the Queen’s aircraft takes off, yours must leave a few minutes behind….it’s called the “purple corridor.”)

So when I reported that a government minister touched her on the back and shoulder (you never touch Her Majesty!) it made front-page news in Britain and created a huge ruckus.

Then I wrote a later story about the oddness of being feet from a reigning sovereign whose face was on the stamps and currency I’d been using since birth — and how she is really just another human being. On that one, (having said [yes] that she had visible veins in her legs, i.e. she’s human, too), I got plenty of hate mail and calls.

One man suggested I be drawn and quartered.

In Toronto’s harbor, the press corps was invited to drinks aboard Britannia, then her yacht. I still have the engraved invitation, on thick white gold-edged card: “The Master of the Household invites…”

We were all nervous and excited. The equerries were drop-dead gorgeous in their uniforms and poured very strong G & Ts. Then we were all formed into little semi-circles into which the Queen was guided to say hello. When I was introduced, she looked past me and said “Pity we haven’t had time to read the newspapers.”

As if. She had been furious with some of my work and this was the most British diss of all. “Stories? What stories?”

Her jewelry was astonishing. Her tiara…oh, yeah, those diamonds are real!

Her detective, who I met only at the final party, had remained invisible. When we met, I’d had no idea he had, of course, been there the whole time. Short, quiet, modest, James Beaton had in March 1974 saved Princess Anne from a would-be kidnapper and taken a bullet to his body for her.

Good heavens! I’d never met a real hero before.

My favorite memory of all?

Starved for any scrap of color or detail my competitors couldn’t match, I peeked into the rear seat of the parked car in which Her Majesty had been driven to an event.

There sat a small suitcase with a very large red cardboard baggage tag.

In large black block type, it simply read: The Queen.

Where does a New York Times story come from? Idea to print…

In blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, Uncategorized, work on June 3, 2012 at 1:15 am

My notebook

For those who don’t work in the media, it can be a bit of mystery how a story, (short of politics or a natural disaster),  becomes a piece in a magazine, newspaper or broadcast.

I’ve been writing, freelance and staff, for national publications since college, so the process of:

1) coming up with an idea; 2) selling to an editor; 3) reporting it; 4) writing it; 5) revising it; 6) arranging art is pretty routine.

Here’s how my latest story for The New York Times Sunday business section came about and took shape.

Here’s the story.

The idea

I sit on the board of an American writers’ group, WEAF, that makes emergency grants to writers of non-fiction so I’m aware that freelancers, too, need financial aid they cannot get from unemployment insurance, paid sick days or any other form of standard financial help — and have access to resources others might find useful. I had never read a story about this. The U.S. still has millions of people struggling financially, many of them self-employed artists, who rarely receive coverage as the businesspeople we are.

Selling it to the editor

I’ve written only two stories for this specific editor at the Times, but I’d also written for 20 years for 10 other editors at the paper so he could easily check my credentials and personal reputation before relying on me. It takes trust to hand an assignment to a new writer.

Reporting 

This is the part I love: deciding who to talk to, how to find them and trying to do it efficiently. I don’t have weeks or months to produce a story of 1,800 words. I have, at most a week, and that’s a five-day week of about four or five hours a day as I juggle other work.  So I need to find sources offering me all of these story elements: anecdotes, color, a great story or two to illustrate my point, data points and statistics or surveys or polls. It’s like making a movie: I need tight and medium close-ups and long establishing shots; i.e. I need at least two sources with the wisdom and experience to give me an overview of the issue.

On this story, I found several of my best sources just by reading my Facebook news feed; I have 552 friends there, not thousands.

I never use a tape recorder because I can’t spend additional time transcribing.  I take good notes — that’s my notebook in the photo above with some of the notes for this story.

Writing

I write very fast. I can write 1,000 words in an hour and have written as much as 3,000 within two days — while a 3,000-word story is a very different animal (structure, pacing, tone, etc.) than even one of 1,200 words. This piece was assigned at 1,200 to 1,800 words. I get paid by the word, (weird, but still a common journalism practice in the U.S. and Canada), so of course I’m happier if it runs longer.

Art

It might be a chart or map, photo or illustration or combination of these. From the start of this story, like everything I work on, I’m also thinking about its visual components and suggesting these to the photo editor. (In this section — my husband!)

The better the art, often the better play (i.e. story placement and more space) I can get. I began my career as a photographer, and have sold my images to places like Time and the Times, so this is an easy and fun piece of it for me.

I also considered age/racial/income/geographic diversity? The Times is a national publication, (international, really) so ideally my story sources and images reflect the diversity of our readers.

Revising

Stories for the Times typically go through several revisions. Every question they ask of me must be answered to the editors’ satisfaction, whether the wording or placement of a quote, an unclear phrase, questionable numbers.

Each new version of the story is sent back to me as a playback to read, review and make sure it is still accurate. If I hate a change they’ve made, this is my time to fight for it, and I sometimes do. While time-consuming, it insures the copy is clean. Copy editors, by nature and profession, are extremely methodical and insanely nit-picky. I think of them, gratefully, as airplane maintenance crew — tightening every screw and bolt to make sure the thing can fly safely.

I’ve had more than 100 pieces in the paper and not one has needed a printed, public correction.

(When editors don’t do this, your final version of the piece can have errors edited in -- like the story in which my stepmother became my stepfather instead.)

And, yes, even after 100 stories in the paper, and decades of doing this for a living, I still get excited and a little nervous when it hits print and goes up on the web. Showtime!

I don’t (only) want to do more faster. Do you?

In behavior, business, culture, domestic life, life, Medicine, Money, urban life, US, work on June 1, 2012 at 12:16 am
productivity

productivity (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Since my wedding in September 2011, (when we took a week off locally afterward), I haven’t taken more than four days off in a row. My last extended vacation was in May 2005, three weeks in Mexico.

I’m taking a month off, starting today — but will still blog here three times a week. I’ll also be working on a book proposal and one or two short articles, but only after the first 12 days of rest, relaxation, seeing friends and family, recharging my spent battery.

In the past 12 months, I’ve:

published my second book; done dozens of media interviews and speaking engagements to promote it; written a new afterword for the paperback, which is out July 31; hired an assistant to help me with all of this; negotiated more speaking engagements; addressed two retail conferences in Minneapolis and New Orleans; gotten married in Toronto; helped my husband deal with kidney stones; had my left hip replaced and done 3x week physical therapy for two months; served on two volunteer boards, and additionally visited Chicago and Toronto for work.

Oh, and blogging here three times a week, working with a screenwriter on the television pilot script for Malled (not picked up), and writing for a living.

Kids, I’m fried!

Time to not be productive, which leads me to this essay raises an important question, and one especially germane to any economy premised on “productivity”:

But there are sectors of the economy where chasing productivity growth doesn’t make sense at all. Certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people’s time and attention. The caring professions are a good example: medicine, social work, education. Expanding our economies in these directions has all sorts of advantages.

In the first place, the time spent by these professions directly improves the quality of our lives. Making them more and more efficient is not, after a certain point, actually desirable. What sense does it make to ask our teachers to teach ever bigger classes? Our doctors to treat more and more patients per hour? The Royal College of Nursing in Britain warned recently that front-line staff members in the National Health Service are now being “stretched to breaking point,” in the wake of staffing cuts, while a study earlier this year in the Journal of Professional Nursing revealed a worrying decline in empathy among student nurses coping with time targets and efficiency pressures. Instead of imposing meaningless productivity targets, we should be aiming to enhance and protect not only the value of the care but also the experience of the caregiver.

The care and concern of one human being for another is a peculiar “commodity.” It can’t be stockpiled. It becomes degraded through trade. It isn’t delivered by machines. Its quality rests entirely on the attention paid by one person to another. Even to speak of reducing the time involved is to misunderstand its value.

The only thing this industrial mindset — speed the production line! -- produces in me is frustration and annoyance.

I also attach value to the production of:

deep friendships; a happy and thriving marriage, my own physical and mental health, daily, and weekly, periods of rest and reflection.

I recently asked a friend, who out-earns me by a factor of 2.5, how she does it. The answer was to quadruple my workload, and at a speed I think probably, for me, unmanageable.

My book “Malled”, which describes my 27 months working as a part-time retail sales associate — supplemented by dozens of original interviews with others in the industry — has brought me paid invitations to address several conferences of senior retail executives. I suggest to them every time that focusing solely on UPTs (units per transaction — i.e. why they try to sell you more shit unasked for, than you want) and sales per hour is not the best or only way to go.

But numbers are safe and comforting. When corporate players hit their numbers, they keep their jobs and get their promotions/bonuses. Metrics rule.

Except when they don’t.

I once spent an hour talking to a female shopper in our store. Turns out we had a lot in common. She spent $800, which remained the single largest sale I ever had there. She also asked if I knew a good local psychotherapist. Not many people would have asked that question of a minimum-wage clothing clerk, but she’d clearly decided to trust me. I did know one and recommended him.

A year later she returned, glowing, with one of her teenage daughters, to thank me for helping her survive a very tough transition in her life.

That “transaction” is completely meaningless in any economic sense.

Yet:

— it enriched the therapist, who well deserved a new client.

– it enriched my customer’s soul, which needed solace.

– it enriched her three daughters’ lives as their mother found help she needed.

– it enriched my heart to know I’d been able to make a good match and help her.

But these powerful emotional connections are routinely dismissed as valueless behavior on any corporate balance sheet — because they can’t be quantified, measured and compared to other metrics.

Which is why I have such a deeply conflicted relationship with capitalism.

How about you?

Do you think working harder and faster is our wisest  or only choice?

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