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Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

Where the shit-kicking gene comes from

In aging, beauty, blogging, books, children, domestic life, family, journalism, life, Media, men, movies, parenting, television, work on October 12, 2012 at 12:08 am
Français : Plaquette avec la Palme d'or.

Français : Plaquette avec la Palme d’or. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I got the coolest email this week, from the programmer for the Vancouver Film Festival it’s on today at 12:20 for those of you who live there — asking about my Dad, Ron Kelly, whose early films about that city in the 1960s are being honored. (It’s where I was born.)

One of them, about violent youths, was never broadcast by the CBC because of its content. Here’s his Wikipedia entry. He’s alive and healthy at 83, just back from Turkey and heading off to Chicago then Asia in the next month.

In 1962, he won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for “The Tearaways”, another film about misspent youth, this time British, which the BBC also refused to air. Love it!

So when I spend my career looking for tough topics others shy away from, I have a role model for it in him. (My mother also worked as a radio, TV and print reporter, once smuggling tapes of the Chicago 8 trial north to the CBC.) I grew up watching my parents make a nice living digging under intellectual rocks going “Ooooh, look!

If we have a family motto, it might be epater le bourgeoisie.

It never really occurred to me to think otherwise, that being polite and obedient and deferring to authority was normal behavior, as it is for many people. I’m hardly a 24/7 hellion, and I’m conventional enough to have a mortgage — but I’m usually most attracted to stories that will piss someone off.

My first book is about women and guns in the U.S. , my second, about low-wage labor in the U.S, which so annoyed my former employer, The North Face, that they banned it.

When someone starts yelling “There’s no story here!” as one federal flack did in 2005, I know I’m on the right track; here’s that story, which I broke nationally in the Daily News, about the 6,000 children detained annually by the Department of Homeland Security.

I think far too much “journalism” today is lightweight crap meant to please advertisers and amuse readers, instead of telling truth to power.

I think the world is filled with tough, difficult stories that need to be well-told.

I think many people are too scared to piss off the wealthy who increasingly own our democracies.

My husband, a lovely, gentle man who has worked in the same place for almost 30 years, is pretty much my polar opposite in this regard. He’s a PK, a preacher’s kid, and PKs are typically raised in a bubble of high expectations, docile/polite behavior and the need to get along with everyone. He learned it from his Dad.

But Jose has also has done his share of mixing it up, as a news and sports photographer for The New York Times, telling amazing and difficult stories, like covering the end of the Bosnian War. The way he managed to get a photo of General Manuel Noriega is so insanely inventive it makes me think he missed his calling as a spook. His sangfroid on 9/11 also helped the Times win a Pulizter.

People who go into hard news journalism tend to like poking sharp objects at things. In that respect, it’s a terrific field for a woman like me, who’s nosy, pushy and rarely satisfied with pat answers. It rewards brass-balled women, otherwise generally socialized to “be nice.”

I’d rather have front page above the fold, thanks.

Are you a shit-disturber?

Where did you learn to be one?

What’s your Plan B?

In aging, behavior, business, domestic life, family, journalism, life, Media, Money, politics, work on October 10, 2012 at 1:49 am
United (States) Parcel Service.

United (States) Parcel Service. (Photo credit: matt.hintsa)

Van Morrison — one of my faves — has a new album out, Born to Sing: No Plan B.

I’m eager to hear it, but it also made me stop and think…what’s my Plan B?

I have a few, but so far haven’t had to put them into action.

With decent French and Spanish skills, and my interior design training, I feel fairly confident I could pick up a job — albeit likely entry-level — in that field. Worst case, I have a Canadian passport and citizenship and another country in which to legally job-hunt, if necessary.

But I sure don’t want to start a whole new career, which many of my fellow journalists were forced to do after 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008; I’d love to do a story and find out where they have gone. I know one, a man in his 50s, now in culinary school in Florence — but he already owned a home there and has a high-earning spouse, both of which are damn helpful if you have to re-tool, certainly in your 50s or beyond.

As the American economy continues to eject too many people from fields they’re good at and like and pay them well, and thousands of others don’t (yet) have the requisite skills for a new career, whether as an X-ray technician or software designer, it’s a very real and pressing question.

A few days ago, I had a long, lovely breakfast with a good friend, a single woman a bit older than I who needed nine monthswith excellent skills — to land her last job in our field, journalism. In those nine months, she ran through her savings.

After she went home from breakfast, she emailed me: “Laid off.”

Holy shit.

When does this stop?

Will it ever?

If I had kids, which I do not, the only skill I’d suggest they develop to its fullest is the willingness to do whatever it takes to survive economically, pride be damned. I saw an ad this morning in another diner, hiring for waitress, delivery and hostess spots. I called my friend and told her. It’s not her dream job and it’s sure not in her field and God only knows what the pay is like.

But the key word here is hiring.

In 2007, terrified after working so hard through illness I got pneumonia and landed in the hospital for three days with a temperature of 104 and needing an IV, I gave in/up and took a part-time job, selling clothing at The North Face, an outdoor clothing company, for $11/hr. No bonus, no commission. Very few raises (like 30 cents an hour.)

I stayed 27 months, finally leaving December 18, 2009. I only left after I was able to replace that income with something else, then as a paid blogger for True/Slant, earning $400 a month without having to stand on my feet for seven hours. (That gig abruptly ended five months later when Forbes bought it and fired almost every one of us who had created the audience that made it attractive. Doncha love it?)

Plan B is never enough. We all, now, need Plans C-Z.

I was able to write a book about that experience, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, and interviewed many others nationwide in the retail industry as well. I also got some cash from CBS, who optioned it for a sitcom, which did not happen.

It looked like a Plan B might have shown up, unbidden, as a creative consultant on that show, which would have guaranteed me a  nice four figures every month. Didn’t happen. (It’s being read now by three film/TV agents and I’m pretty optimistic someone else will pick it up.)

I’ve gained some income as a paid speaker since then, but haven’t been able to win the consulting gigs I’d hoped. (Turns out the retail industry has more “consultants” than a dog has fleas, and they all guard their lucrative turf jealously.)

So the success of any Plan B, (or C-Z), hinges on a number of factors:

– Can you segue into another industry, transferring some of your skills, at anywhere near your current earning power?

– If not, how much of a hit can you take and for how long? Forever?

– How much time have you got, really, to learn an entirely new set of skills? Days, weeks, months or years?

– Who is going to pay all your bills, and those of your dependents, as you do?

– Who’s going to pay your tuition or training fees?

– How supportive of this is your partner or spouse? What if it means, as it often does now in this recession, losing 50% or more of your previous income?

– How will you fund your retirement if this is the case?

– What about age discrimination? Everyone over 40 faces it and anyone over 55 is toast.

– How much physical stamina do you have for grueling jobs like retail or waitressing? (Foodservice and retail are the two single largest sources of new jobs in America, yet both at extremely low wages.)

– Do you need to sell your home and/or move to a new area? What if you lose that job?

Have you had to move to Plan B, or beyond?

What did you do?

If you did have to, what would it look like?

Ten things I don’t want to see on Facebook

In behavior, blogging, culture, entertainment, life, Media, Technology on October 8, 2012 at 12:06 am
Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

Your medical condition(s) discussed in gory detail  – surgeries, relapses, medications and their side effects and/or (lack of) effectiveness. If you’re really, truly a friend, I already know what you’re going through and, of course, have come to visit you or spoken to you on the phone about it all. If not, why burden others? You have no idea what we’re already — privately, tight-lipped – coping with.

Photos of your medical conditions, including blood and bruises. What are you — five? Call 911!

Photos of dogs/cats with pleading, desperate eyes with a caption demanding I run to the shelter holding them rightthissecond to rescue and adopt the animal before it’s killed. These shelters are usually thousands of miles from where I live. How is such emotional manipulation “friendly” behavior?

Political rants. Nothing you say is going to suddenly change my mind. It’s just going to annoy me with your mono-maniacal boring bullshit.

Religious rants. Ditto. I’m delighted that you love Jesus. But don’t tell me this a gazillion times a day. Jesus, I swear, is just as bored with this as I am.

The same post, every day, about something your kid is doing. I get it. You’re proud and excited. I was too, the first time I read it and “liked” it. Move on!

Stupid sayings. You know the kind. Just stop.

More stupid sayings. I mean it!

What you’re making or eating for dinner. By the time I’ve read it, it’s probably long-eaten and digested.

Sexualized images of women. Keep your porn to yourself, please.

Here’s what I do want to see:

Something that will make me laugh

Something I didn’t know about and very likely want to — a gorgeous photo, a great TED talk, a cool music video

How you’re really doing, not some fake, perky, sanitized version of your life

A photo of something beautiful

A link to a great article or blog post I might really enjoy

What drives you nuts about Facebook?

Do you unfriend or block people — and what for?

For best results…

In behavior, domestic life, family, life on October 6, 2012 at 12:06 am
Toothpaste and toothbrush

Toothpaste and toothbrush (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seriously, kids, this is what I recently read on the side of my toothpaste:

For best results, squeeze from the bottom of the tube and flatten as you go.

A few thoughts on this:

Someone earned a handsome wage for conceiving of/overseeing/commissioning/writing and editing that sentence.

As opposed to? The sides? The top?

Who, truly among us, does not know how to squeeze a freaking tube of toothpaste?

But then I thought some more…Wouldn’t it be awesome if life came with similarly clear and gently helpful instructions?

I began imagining a stream of them that might well have given me so much better results, had I only heard them in time…

For best results:

– That cute boyfriend who speaks Russian, with the alluringly thick mustache? Not a great choice. Although extremely skilled on the horizontal, he’s actually gay.

– That other cute boyfriend, the soulful one who became a photographer, ditto.

– When you decide to describe someone, (entirely accurately), as “a total bitch”, best to recall that your new friend has been friends with her since childhood.

– If, as you start to walk down the aisle to get married, and your final whisper to your maid of honor is “Just be my friend if this doesn’t work out”, perhaps the wiser choice is to turn around and head for the bar instead. Say, in Bolivia.

– Before taking that cool new job in another province, the one (guess!) with insane-o tax rates, best to call an accountant there to see how much of that raise you’ll actually get to keep. Before you rent an expensive apartment and up-end your entire life.

– If you’re marrying someone who makes you a little nervous, spend a few bucks on a divorce attorney to see what you’d get if he bails. Nothing, you say? Pre-nup, stat!

– Small-town life looks so alluring: flannel, boots, long walks with the dog. Complete lack of friends/family/income/sources of income? Not so much.

– If it looks like a liar, sounds like a liar yet is utterly charming, stay with your first impression. A private detective is a wonderful thing, but not someone you want on speed-dial.

– If your boss routinely stands thisclose and shouts abuse at you, that anemic fuck-you fund, if fatter, would allow you to quit with dignity, not pop another Xanax to keep the bills paid.

What words of advice, if heard ahead of time, might have saved you some excess drama?

No kids? You really don’t want kids?

In aging, behavior, children, culture, domestic life, family, life, love, women on October 4, 2012 at 12:19 am
scream and shout

scream and shout (Photo credit: mdanys)

Really.

If there’s a default expectation for women, it’s Becoming A Mom.

Surely every one of us wants kids. Don’t we?

No, some of us do not.

I don’t have kids and never wanted to. Neither do either of my younger half-brothers. So, sadly — as those of us without kids often enjoy time spent with them — there are no children anywhere in our extended family, no nieces or nephews, no grandkids.

There’s a reason some women don’t want kids, but one we rarely discuss publicly.

Like me, some childfree women were parentified at an early age, pressed into premature service as the adult, the responsible one, the person who reluctantly but efficiently dealt with doctors and teachers and bankers and realtors and lawyers far too young — often because their parent(s) was/were mentally ill, and/or alcoholic or drug users and they had no other family to turn to.

This tends to make for lousy parenting, as your caregivers are often physically or emotionally absent or careless. Worse, they’re often exhaustingly selfish, needy, demanding, immature and insatiable.

Just like a baby.

Except that babies gurgle and coo and smell delicious and are charming as well as exhausting. They grow up and their needs change.

These sorts of parents rarely do. We often spend our childhoods and teen years and early adult years — the ones falsely glorified as a time of totally selfish independence and freedom — dreading the latest email or phone call signaling the next crisis. We may spend savings we barely have to repeatedly rush out and rescue our parent(s), as their own friends and even relatives burn out, give up and turn away.

So, by the time society expects us to start cooing lovingly over our own kids — as well as everyone else’s — you’re simply worn out. The whole idea of starting another job being someone’s caregiver and protector feels, as it is, overwhelming.

Nor do these sorts of parents want to baby-sit for you. Nor might you even trust them to do so, so the sort of automatic family support and love many people assume is normal and take for granted — and which makes parenthood look a lot more affordable and appealing — is never going to happen for us.

We rarely say this publicly because:

It’s not cool. If your Mom gets cancer or your Dad has a stroke, sure. People will be kind because they can relate. There are no pink ribbons for those of us carrying the weight of an alkie or a parent who’s in and out of mental hospitals.

These burdens are ugly and painful, and often only end when that parent dies or ends up in others’ professional care.

Non-mothers are often dismissed as selfish, cold, unloving bitches. Nice!

Non-mothers are pitied, their infertility assumed. It’s almost never seen as a deliberate choice.

Non-mothers are considered people who want nothing to do with children. Wrong!  Kids are fine, and often fun. I just don’t want the lifelong responsibility for one, or several.

Here’s an excerpt from Jessica Valenti’s new book about women fed up after having had kids:

In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a “safe haven” law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off at a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.

Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here’s the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family — nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.

The Nebraska state government, realizing the tremendous mistake it had made, held a special session of the legislature to rewrite the law in order to add an age limitation. Governor Dave Heineman said the change would “put the focus back on the original intent of these laws, which is saving newborn babies and exempting a parent from prosecution for child abandonment. It should also prevent those outside the state from bringing their children to Nebraska in an attempt to secure services.”

One father dropped off his entire family.

On November 21, 2008, the last day that the safe haven law was in effect for children of all ages, a mother from Yolo County, California, drove over 1,200 miles to the Kimball County Hospital in Nebraska where she left her 14-year-old son.

What happened in Nebraska raises the question: If there were no consequences, how many of us would give up our kids?

How do you feel about having kids?

Do you feel pressured to become a parent?

Got mad skillz?

In art, beauty, behavior, culture, design, domestic life, food, life, work on October 2, 2012 at 12:01 am
Logs for use as firewood, stacked to dry.

Logs for use as firewood, stacked to dry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people possess certain skills that leave me gobsmacked, thinking they’re simply not possible — when, clearly, they are.

Just not by me. 

While house-sitting, I  needed firewood. I didn’t dare try splitting logs without supervision, so asked my friend Sally’s husband Rick to do it. Which he did. (They live at the edge of a lake, in the woods, year-round, and have for many years.)

Sally designed (!) their house and adjacent studio and Rick, a professional carpenter, built it. Every time I step foot in their cosy, lovely, light-filled home I’m in awe of this fact. How pioneer-esuqe to be able to design and build your own home!

In my Dad’s fridge were some gorgeous jams and jellies made by his 80-year-old neighbor.

Being surrounded by all this self-sufficiency made me think about my own skills, few of which would allow me to survive without electricity, running water or heat — all things that many of us in the more developed world take totally for granted.

The new American television season offers the weekly drama post-apocalyptic Revolution,  set 15 years into the future after every form of technology has died, shoving the world back into an eat-or-be-eaten set of warring tribes. It’s a popular fantasy and one I think about as something quite likely to happen. People know how to use axes and arrows, a skill set fairly unusual in suburban New York where I live.

The city-dwellers I know consider “skills” as being able to steal a cab from someone at rush hour on 42d. Street or snagging a reservation at the hot new bistro or making sure your new book gets a decent review in the right places.

Not exactly life-saving.

I took a class last year, and wrote about it for The New York Times, that was — like my silent retreat a few months earlier — life-changing, this one in how it made me relate to the natural world and wonder much more deeply about my place in it. It’s taught by Shane Hobel, whose skills left me open-mouthed:

The day’s class began with a lesson in cordage: turning virtually anything, from a cocktail napkin to the soft and pliable inner bark of some trees, into a length of rope useful for lashing branches together to build a shelter, to make a fishing line, or to string a bow. Mr. Hobel patiently showed everyone how to make cord by twisting raffia that he brought in lieu of cutting open a tree, and how to double or triple it in strength and length.

Within minutes his students happily saw the fruits of their labor. “This feels familiar,” said Ms. Browning, a knitter.

“These are time-tested skills,” Mr. Hobel said. “Many years ago we all used to know them, and now we’re bringing them back.”

The key to surviving in the wilderness, he explained, is conserving precious time and energy by remaining calm and aware. “The more skills we have, the more capable we are,” he said.

Spending a few hours in the woods reminds me that I’m simply one species among many, and one extremely ill-equipped to survive, or thrive, without the trappings of domesticity. In the woods, I observe more carefully. I can usually tell the time within 20 to 30 minutes by the quality of the sunlight. I notice things like mushrooms, and if I really knew my stuff, I’d be able to forage some safely for dinner.

I wish!

Some of the things I know how to do well, some well enough I’ve been paid for:

Teach writing

Edit others’ writing

Translate French

Shoot a gun, whether rifle, shotgun or handgun (best with a Glock 9mm); yes, I’ve had professional training while writing my first book, about women and guns

Sell on a retail floor, the subject of my second book

Translate and interpret Spanish

Take photographs

Draw and paint

Cook

Design an interior

Trim a jib for a sailboat race

Build a fire

Sail, canoe, row, kayak

Ride a horse

Buy 20th, 19th and 18th century antiques fairly knowledgably, having studied the field

Ski, downhill and cross-country

Ice skate, (fast and backwards)

Play acoustic guitar

Orient myself quickly in unfamiliar territory

Speak publicly

Organize a public event

Some I long to acquire:

More sophisticated cooking

Making pottery

Speaking a new language, or several — (but which ones?!)

Use a sewing machine

Knit

What sorts of mad skillz do you, or people you know personally, have?

Which ones would you like to acquire?

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