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Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

No, I don’t hate my body! Do you?

In aging, beauty, behavior, blogging, culture, Health, life, women on August 10, 2012 at 6:09 pm
"Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases - As ...

“Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases – As Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells”. U.S. Public Health ad on dangers of Spanish Flu epidemic during World War I. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s the blog post that prompted this:

  • Love my breasts/Hate my thighs
  • Love my hair except when it’s frizzy and the gray is showing/wish my nose was straighter
  • Midsection could be better/but at least I have slender ankles and calves
  • Despise my  hips but my butt isn’t bad
  • Copacetic with teeth & skin (except for the increasing number of age spots!)
  • Happy with my feet/but what happened to my hands?! They look like my grandma’s hands used to look!
  • ….and so on.
I’m putting this out there not for reassurance or to ask for compliments (an annoying habit) but to get the words down on paper, see how dumb it all looks and say: I WANT TO STOP THIS.
I find this post sad as hell. The writer has one of the best jobs in American magazine journalism, a terrific husband, and is a great-looking woman. If you have a decent income, a loving partner and health, you are blessed in ways that millions of people — Syrians fleeing Aleppo, African babies dying of malnutrition, American grads desperate for their first job — are not.
Why, seriously, would you hate your body? It’s the only one you’ve got. It’s not like “Oh, I hate those shoes!” and you can slip into another pair. This is it, kids. You can’t leave it, so you better find a way to love it.
Yes, I struggle with my weight. I weigh about 40 pounds more than I should and 60 (?!) more than one doctor insisted was ideal. I could cut off an arm or two…So I don’t look in the mirror thrilled every single day, but nor do I berate or chastise myself for being…human. I’m fighting hard to lose the weight, watching my jawline and eyelids head south (shriek!) and still in love with my strong hands and pretty feet.
Since the year 2000, when I had my first orthopedic surgery — of four since then — my relationship to my body has radically changed. I had two arthroscopies, one on each knee, within two years. In 2007, I landed in a hospital bed with pneumonia, caused from working through illness, with a 104 degree temperature and a spot on my lung X-ray so large that the ER doctor who admitted me drew a curtain around the bed and told me it might be lung cancer.
As I lay in that bed, coughing uncontrollably for hours to clear my congested lungs, drenched in fever sweat, I realized the precious fragility of my body — all our bodies. I’ve been a nationally-ranked saber fencer, so I’m hardly frail, petite or weak. But the body has limits.
And so, standing that hospital shower, I apologized aloud to my poor, sore, cough-wracked corpus. Never again would I — nor have I since — take it for granted or abuse it like some machine whose batteries are easily replaced. They are not.
In February of this year, I was given a new left hip, the ceramic head made in France, the socket made in Warsaw, Indiana. Thanks to it, I am now once more able to dance, climb stairs, cycle, walk. I hope, soon, to get into the batting cage and regain my skills enough to rejoin my co-ed softball team after a two-year absence.
Your body, no matter what its size or shape or color, is a gift.
You will not have it forever, and may not even have it tomorrow.
Love it now.

“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” now out in paperback

In blogging, books, business, journalism, life, Media, women, work on August 9, 2012 at 1:44 am

Some Broadside readers know that I’m also the author of a memoir of working retail. From September 2007 to December 2009, I worked as a part-time sales associate selling outdoor clothing and accessories for The North Face, a multi-national brand.

I never set out to write a book about this, even though several writer friends insisted from the outset that I should.

When the recession hit, I suddenly needed a steady, even small, part-time income to supplement my writing.

When a new store opened up, a 10-minute drive from my home in a suburban New York town, I applied — being athletic and a world traveler, I knew I could easily relate to North Face’s products and shoppers.

I earned $11/hour, with no bonuses or commissions.

I was 50, had been laid off from the U.S.’s 6th.-largest newspaper with a healthy salary, and had never worked a sales floor. My manager, a former military man who had served in Mogadishu, was five years younger, and the assistant manager was half my age.

It was, in every way, a whole new world.

But I proved to be good at it, and sold well. When I asked my boss for a raise, he looked embarrassed and told me he’d already given me one.

How can you get a raise you don’t notice?

When it’s 30 cents an hour.

So “Malled” — which includes many interviews with retail veterans nationwide — is also a book about working for poverty-level wages in the U.S. during the worst recession since the 1930s, in an era of growing income inequality. Our store was close to the homes of some of this country’s wealthiest people, the hedge fund managers and I-bankers who live in Greenwich, Darien and Westport, Connecticut.

From a recent piece in The New York Times:

If we’re to get people out of poverty [we need] more jobs that pay decent wages. There aren’t enough of these in our current economy…

This isn’t a problem specific to the current moment. We’ve been drowning in a flood of low-wage jobs for the last 40 years. Most of the income of people in poverty comes from work. According to the most recent data available from the Census Bureau, 104 million people — a third of the population — have annual incomes below twice the poverty line, less than $38,000 for a family of three. They struggle to make ends meet every month.

Half the jobs in the nation pay less than $34,000 a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

“Malled” has won some nice reviews: Entertainment Weekly called it “an excellent memoir” and USA Today said “a bargain, even at full price.” It’s in bookstores and for sale on amazon, where its 78 reviews are deeply divided. (If you enjoy it, please add a positive review!) It’s also available, of course, as an e-book.

Many retail veterans, both managers and associates, have since written to thank me for telling their story, saying that “Malled” echoes their experience.

Retail is the U.S.’s third-largest industry, largest source of new jobs in this recession, but typically offers only poverty-level wages for part-time work.

One of the reasons it’s so poorly paid is that the skills required — which include patience, empathy, compassion, humor, attentiveness and a good memory — are often dismissed, by shoppers amd by senior retail managers, as not being skills at all.

In fact, retail workers perform emotional labor.  Their ability to relate quickly and easily to strangers, and to convert them from browsers to shoppers, isn’t something everyone can do well. And studies have shown that great salespeople move merch, not fancy ads, celebrity spokespeople, cool store design or deafening music.

“Malled” was nominated for the Hillman Award, given annually to works of journalism “in the service of the common good,” and tells many stories, from the Foxconn workers making Apple products committing suicide in China due to terrible work conditions to the CFO of Costco explaining how his company pays some of the nation’s highest wages, typically $15 to $18/hour.

I’ll be speaking about the book, and selling copies, at 2:30 Sept. 2 at the Decatur Conference Center Auditorium, at the Decatur Literary Festival, the nation’s largest independent book festival, in Georgia and at 6:00 p.m. at Neiman-Marcus in White Plains, N. Y., on Sept. 6.

On October 30, I’m addressing a retail conference at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Here’s a radio interview I did for WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, replayed last September as one of the year’s best and here are the the first two chapters, free.  If you like what you find, I hope you’ll also “like” its Facebook page, “Malled the Book”.

If you’re a blogger, I’d love to do  a guest post or a Q and A about any aspect of book-writing/publishing, with a book giveaway!

Have you ever worked retail?

How did you like it?

Great guns! The latest arms race

In aging, beauty, behavior, culture, Health, life, Style, women, work on August 7, 2012 at 12:34 am
Concert de Madonna à Paris Bercy, Août 2006

Concert de Madonna à Paris Bercy, Août 2006 (Photo credit: johanlb) See what I mean?

“Guns”, i.e. the upper part of the arm, where the triceps and biceps, when toned, make a clearly defined curve. I’d never heard that word until a few days ago.

When Katie Couric, the first woman in the U.S. to become a network television anchor, spoke at a New York City conference I attended last week, BlogHer, the 5,000 women attending, (most in their 20s and 30s),  sent in their questions for the on-stage interviewer to ask her.

I was excited!

I expected smart stuff from these hip, young bloggers, like:

What do you think will happen in Syria?

What story has moved you the most?

What do you think of this year’s Presidential race?

What’s your best advice to a young journalist?

Silly moi!

Instead, one of them was: “Great guns! How’d you get them?”

Yes, her upper arms, for a woman of 55, were strong, smooth and toned.

But, seriously, can we not, possibly stop focusing on what a woman’s body looks like?

My favorite part of the Harry Potter films is the invisibility cloak.

If I were granted a super-power, this is absolutely the one I’d choose. I’m damn grateful my culture doesn’t force me into a chador, seeing the world only through a tiny mesh screen, but I’m so weary of the 24/7 yammering about how thin/smooth/hairless/flawless my body must be in order to be attractive to others, both men and women.

I saw a woman on the train into Manhattan that morning, like so many I see where I live, in an affluent suburb north of New York City. She wore a tight athletic vest and workout pants, lean as a whippet, defiantly hip-less. Easily in her 50s, possibly beyond, her eyes and stance had an intensity I find really unsettling.

You can smell the desperation to be better than, the angry determination to rule their flesh, to beat back the softness, roundness or dimpling that betrays their body at its true age, 55 or 62 or 47.

So their weirdly ropy guns –  Madonna has them — have created a whole new arms race, with flesh-as-metaphor: I’m fitter/better-toned/stronger/healthier/prettier/more disciplined than you.

As a 55-year-old feminist, a former nationally ranked athlete whose sport — saber fencing — left me covered in small bruises people assumed meant I was a battered wife — I find this sad, and ironic.

I’ve known elite athletes whose bodies didn’t even look like this.

Jocks of all ages, male and female, have a sort of walk I find insanely sexy — a rolling, relaxed gait that shouts, quietly, how comfortable they are in their bodies. They know they’re strong and fast and flexible. They don’t need to prove anything.

I love being strong. I can still hit to the outfield. I value my muscles and what they do for me. I’ve always had big thighs, and use them happily for hiking out of a sailboat or hiking the Grand Canyon (four hours down, eight hours up.)

But, with age, my body is changing, softening, drooping. Thanks to my new hip replacement, I now have a shiny six-inch scar on my left hip. No bathing suit can possibly cover it.

I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror for the first few months, so shocking was this new permanent part of my body. Now I bear it proudly, running and dancing and climbing stairs as I once did, with breathless ease.

I wish our minds were as valued as our bodies.

I wish our arms were valued most for their willingness to embrace, to comfort, to soothe. To wave a banner or placard of protest. To plant and hoe and paint and execute a lovely port de bras.

I wish women — and men — would cherish our bodies, above all, for their strength, flexibility and power.

(We do this for every Olympic athlete.)

Do you?

BlogHer 2012 — was it worth it?

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, women, work on August 5, 2012 at 2:02 am
English: Martha Stewart at the Vanity Fair par...

English: Martha Stewart at the Vanity Fair party celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The conference is over, with its many parties just beginning as I write this.

Three days of full-on intensity, 5,000 bloggers in one midtown Manhattan hotel, about 80 percent of whom — maybe 90 percent — were female, and under the age of 40.

It’s not a pleasant feeling to feel ancient, but this conference was very much a place for 20-year-olds and their eager enthusiasm. I’m not being fair, because I did see a few women my age or a bit younger, some of whom  are well-known in that huge on-line community.

But I quickly wearied of hearing perky 20-somethings tell me they “mommy-blog”, as I searched in vain for people writing on books, or work, or business, or politics. Had I done my homework and really searched the site and reached out to people, I know I could have made those connections.

The 2013 conference will be in Chicago, July 25-27, and registration begins in a few weeks.

The Good

– The agenda offered a lot of choices, whether super-technical information or tips on writing.

– Running into five or six very good friends, a lovely surprise and pleasure with so many attending, like Heather Greenwood-Davis, a Toronto-based travel writer who just finished an around-the-world odyssey with her husband and two young sons.

– We were told that 85 percent of speakers are new each year, so you’re not hearing the same Cool Kids at every conference.

– Katie Couric, a television legend in the U.S., and Martha Stewart, another American media titan, were interviewed live on stage. That was fun and gave us a glimpse of these famous women being a little more spontaneous and human. I enjoyed that.

– There was lots of good food and drink, so we weren’t subjected to the usual conference horrors of overpriced, lousy food and $15 glasses of wine. (They actually gave us a fistful of drink tickets. Score!)

– I loved hearing 19 bloggers, including a man, read their work from the stage. Several were deeply moving and beautiful, like Susan Goldberg, who lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario (way north) with her partner and sons.

– I liked seeing women of every size, shape and color. One panelist, Cecily Kellogg, sported fuchsia hair and was wickedly smart and helpful.

The Not-So-Good

— Way too many people! Many told me they were frustrated and really annoyed at being, literally, shut out of sessions they had paid real money to listen to, some of them flying across the country to do so.  There were simply too many bodies for the venue.

— Way too noisy. I came home shaky, headachey and exhausted from the sheer volume of too many people in too small a space. If you’re standing a foot from someone and having to shout, we have a problem.

– Nowhere (at least nowhere obvious) to just sit quietly and think, read, chill, chat with someone. No one should ever have to sit on the floor!

— No way to quickly, easily and efficiently, every day, find fellow bloggers with your interests. It would be simple, easy and helpful to simply affix a colored ribbon to everyone’s badge showing what they specialize in.

I don’t know about you, but I simply don’t have the time, energy, stamina or patience to be all perky for hours (to be polite and friendly, which is what you do at conferences) with dozens of people with whom I have zero shared intellectual interests.

My larger question, which may be rhetorical, is if there is any useful and mutually respectful dialogue to be had — which I saw no evidence of (and may have been happening) — between old media (i.e. print/broadcast) and this new world of social media.

Old media, as you know, is focused on fact, ideas, provable assertions, reliable (one hopes) sources. Biased, yes, but evidence-based.

I am still uncomfortable in an insular, ego-driven world of all-opinion-all-the-time. I’m not persuaded that it, alone, offers lasting value without some underpinning of a more objective reality.

I also have deep reservations about women toting huge bags of “swag” they got from dozens of exhibitors, all eager for attention from this demographic — women who buy stuff.

Swag. i.e. free shit, included (no kidding), vibrators (bright pink, the size of my thumb), cooked sausage, toothpaste, feminine pads for women in menopause (who are no longer menstruating?!) and soy-milk ice cream bars.

One exhibitor told me many women swaggered up demanding to be paid to mention her products, or to be given free samples. Her company makes sinks, bathtubs and faucets.

You want a fucking free bathtub?

And — what has any of this gimmegimmeegimeeeeeeeee to do with great writing?

Nothing.

Long before you focus on your blog’s financial ROI, we should be focused on writing amazing work that people might, if we are really, really lucky, even remember years from now.

Or even a few days from now.

What do you think?

Were you at BlogHer 2012?

Do you think you’ll attend in 2013?

What’s your personal brand?

In aging, behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, Media, women, work on August 3, 2012 at 12:25 am
Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969 (Photo credit: Wikipedia) I’m also a fearless explorer, minus the helmet.

I recently attended a writers’ conference and listened to a panel teaching us “Brand You.”

Not the hot metal mark seared into your butt kind.

The “I’m unique because” kind.

I’m lousy at sound-bite self-definition, which is driving American business as never before, thanks to Twitter, (which I don’t use), Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media.

And tomorrow in Manhattan I’m attending a huge blogging conference, BlogHer, where I’ll have to tout yourself in a few pithy syllables.

I was raised, culturally (Canada) and by my (accomplished but quiet about it) family and by my profession (journalism) not to toot my horn all the damn time.

Have you ever heard of “tall poppy” syndrome? In Australia, the tallest poppy — i.e. the boastful braggart — gets its pretty little head lopped off for its temerity. The Japanese and Swedes have their own expressions for this as well.

Canadians just find chest-beating socially gauche, and assume you’re a pushy American. So that whole brand-building thing, there, is often considered about as attractive as passing wind. Modesty is highly prized, so how to “be a brand” and do so in a low-key way, somehow escapes me.

(Being modest is easier in a smaller nation with tighter social and professional networks. There are more than 300 million Americans, some of them breathtakingly aggressive. Remaining invisible often means professional suicide.)

I still think (yes, I know I’m wrong!), that the quality of my body of work should speak for itself. This constant, tedious “watchmewatchmewatchmeeeeeeee!” of a three-year-old at the pool — now considered part of “building your personal brand” — remains a behavior I find a little infantile. Even after 20+ years in the U.S. and near New York City, where sharp elbows are a pre-requisite for survival.

Here are a few phrases I think define me and my work:

passionate authenticity

insatiable curiosity

nuanced investigation

I love this song, Helplessness Blues, by Fleet Foxes:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

What’s my name, what’s my station, oh, just tell me what I should do

Do you have a brand?

What is it?

How did you arrive at it?

Today’s journalism — plagiarism, scandal and other forms of editorial mayhem

In aging, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, Technology, work on August 1, 2012 at 12:44 am
English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently spent a few hours with a rising senior at a top American university who thinks he might want to become a journalist. I agreed, because he’s been interning for a good friend of mine.

He will graduate with $68,000 in debt.

But what, really, can I tell him?

I wonder if my field is still worth entering or committing to: financially terribly insecure, often poorly paid and sadly formulaic in its thinking.

The web’s ruthless drive to get news first destroys, at worst, the larger goal of being accurate. Of telling us why a story matters, not simply that it exists.

And, please God, not just telling us what another sad sack “celebrity” wore to buy a latte.

Here’s a heartening little tale, that of 31-year-old Jonah Lehrer, whose enviable trajectory of best-selling books and, (most coveted of all), a staff job at the New Yorker, recently ended with his admission of making shit up.

Dude, seriously?

If there is anything more annoying than the latest tyro being glorified, it’s finding out, (which keeps happening), they’re a lying plagiarist. Typical of these sorts of debacles is the statement from New Yorker editor David Remnick that this discovery is “terrifically sad.”

No, it’s not. When I Facebooked my feelings about this, several of my veteran journalism colleagues chimed in, agreeing with my disgust.

What it is is someone who’s gotten the sort of opportunities most of will never even get near treating them carelessly. Sort of like the Yale grad who was fired this summer from her reporting job at The Wall Street Journal.

It’s like being given the keys to a shiny new Escalade and dinging the doors because…you can.

For those of you living outside the U.S., perhaps less familiar with the narrow and slippery rungs of privilege here — getting into an Ivy League school, (Lehrer attended one as well, Columbia), is extremely difficult. Every year there costs about $40,000+. Then gilded doors swing open to you, at places like the New Yorker, many of whose staffers also attended prep schools and Ivies.

An article in the June Vanity Fair was a name-drop-fest of elite privilege and Ivy log-rolling:

Ben Bradlee, the managing editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991…hired me fresh out of college as a night police reporter the year he took the paper’s helm—we had been members of the same undergraduate club at Harvard…Harvard has been a big feeder of The New Yorker over the years, particularly the Lampoon, where I was the jester, dancing on the table in a multicolored jingling outfit at Thursday-night black-tie dinners, from 1965 to 1968.

Charm and connections offer these folks rare and much-coveted opportunities to publish in the most respected and influential of outlets, while, almost daily, dozens more journalists are being fired, their odds of getting back in at their previous level of skill or wages, slim to none; 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008.

Many of us, and many over 45, are now working at home for a fraction of our former incomes.

Freelance pay rates today are often as low as they were 30 years ago, (while the cost of living has risen tremendously), typically paying $1/word.

If you’re writing 3,500 to 5,000 words, you’re cool. But very few publications still assign at that length; more typically 500 to 1,200 words. You do the math on the volume we now need to pump out to simply get the bills paid. Pre-recession, the big mags were paying $3/word; now you’re lucky to get $2/word.

Yet the way journalists think and behave editorially hasn’t changed much, or enough.

Here’s a recent New York Times piece by their media columnist David Carr, writing on the Murdoch phone-hacking scandals:

Now would seem to be journalism’s big moment to turn that light on itself, with deeply reported investigative articles about how things went so wrong: the failures of leadership, the skewed values and the willingness of an industry to treat the public with such contempt. The Guardian correctly suggested that the arrests were unprecedented in the history of newspapers.

But because it is the news business and the company in the sights is News Corporation, the offenders are seen as outliers. The hacking scandal has mostly been treated as a malady confined to an island, rather than a signature event in a rugged stretch for journalism worldwide. Collectively, the press in the United States put more time and effort into pulling back the blankets on the indiscretions of Herman Cain.

But journalism’s ills don’t live exclusively on Fleet Street or stop at British shores. While American newspapers don’t publish in the hypercompetitive landscape that played a role in the tabloid excesses in Britain, the growing ecosystem of Web and cable news shares many of the same characteristics and, all too often, its failings. Economic pressures have increased the urgency to make news and drive traffic, even as budgets have been cut and experienced news professionals tossed overboard.

Here’s an excerpt from a new autobiography by a top American editor, describing how print fell prey to digital media.

Do you write for a living — or hope to?

What do you think of media these days?

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