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Five reasons to freelance — and five not to

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, life, Money, work on November 29, 2012 at 12:04 am
English: The Aviation and Missile Command can ...

English: The Aviation and Missile Command can now be found on two popular social media sites, Facebook and Twitter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I lost my last staff job in 2006, at 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon, from the New York Daily News, the nation’s sixth-largest newspaper.

I decided to go back to freelancing, a way of life and generally unpredictable income stream that both terrifies and seduces many people. In the ongoing recession here in the United States, millions of people are “freelance” because they simply can’t get hired back into a full-time staff position.

I’ve been freelancing as a journalist, author, editor and writing coach since my second year in university.

I work with a wide variety of clients, writing for The New York Times, (since 1990), magazines like Marie Claire or Smithsonian, selecting and creating on-line slide-shows for HGTV. com.  to helping private individuals whose manuscripts need editing.

Luckily for me, I had role models — growing up in a family where no one counted on a paycheck or pension. My father was a film-maker, my mom a writer and broadcaster and my stepmother wrote for television shows, teaching me by example how to make the cube-free worklife enjoyable and profitable.

Slash your expenses to the bone

I think this is the single most essential element of deciding to quit a job or leave any reliable income stream. If you carry a $5,000 a month mortgage, a $400 a month car payment, private school tuitions and other enormous carrying costs for a lavish lifestyle, freelancing is likely not a choice you will enjoy or be able to sustain. You don’t have to eat ramen or wear burlap, but freelancers must fund every cost alone — including all health and dental fees, sick days, vacation days and retirement. (You will get to write off, up to 30 percent typically, many of your business expenses, whether subscriptions, dues, travel or professional fees.)

Be social media savvy

If you’re going to compete with people like me, who’ve been doing this for years, even decades, you’re entering a crowded field of experts. LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media links will keep you in the loop and let others know you’re ready for work. You must have a terrific website, (with a professional headshot), with a variety of work samples and update it frequently. A smart and helpful blog will keep driving traffic to your sites.

Be a little hungry — all the time

Freelancing is not a good fit for the lazy and undisciplined! The ability to manage your own schedule, a fantastic perk, means you have no boss, co-workers, annual review or external check on your productivity. You must work as many — or more — hours as you did in your loathed cube in an office. You must check in with past, present and future clients consistently. Go to meetings and conferences to meet influential people in your industry. Work will eventually come to you through referrals, but you’ll be chasing it a lot of the time. Remember the salesman’s ABC: Always Be Closing; i.e. you must constantly be closing deals in order to assure plenty of future income.

Think broadly and deeply

In my view, this is the most compelling reason to go freelance. The creative freedom to produce work you value, to work with people you admire and enjoy, to know your work is making a significant difference in the world is worth a great deal. It won’t pay the rent or electricity bill, but it will remind you why you’ve made this choice. With its freedom, you can travel whenever, wherever and however often you can afford — or find a client to fund it. You can attend conferences and meetings that intrigue you and may lead to totally new and different opportunities. You can visit a museum or gallery or movie in the middle of the afternoon to refresh your weary brain. You can (and should) commit to some regular volunteer activity. All of these are luxuries most employers don’t allow.

You’re 100 percent reliable

In 2007, I landed in a hospital bed with pneumonia because I just kept working as I became more ill. Never again! But I can count the number of deadlines I’ve missed in 30 years on one hand. More like two fingers. Your clients are offering their trust, time, energy, attention and limited budget. They are relying on you. If you or your dependents are in poor health, freelancing is an unwise choice, with no paid sick days and clients who expect results with no whining or excuses. Unless you’re in a coma, or a family member has died, meet your deadlines! (Your competitors are.)

Here are five reasons to keep your job or commit to another one:

You’re lousy with money

Some people just are. You have no idea what’s in your bank account. Your multiple credit card APRs are 20 percent or higher and your FICO score  — (you do know what that is?) — remains scarily low. You have a ton of student debt and/or credit card debt. You want that $3,000 vacation, dammit! Read the essential book, “Your Money or Your Life.” Then decide what matters most to you.

You’re disorganized/lazy

If your employer is putting up with it, you’re lucky. Freelancing offers no room to slack off, because no one will remind you to get back to work or work harder or more efficiently. It’s all up to you.

You have major and inflexible financial commitments

If you’re carrying enormous student debt, have a bunch of dependent kids or a non-working spouse/partner or a car/home likely to require costly repairs, freelance work — which can be feast or famine — might just add a lot more stress to your life. Having a low overhead and little or no debt, (plus three months’ savings, at least and a low-interest line of credit), makes this life choice workable. Sadly, that’s just not where many people are right now.

You’re selfish

Admit it. Some people have zero interest in sharing their skills or time with others. Freelancers who thrive long-term share their time and talent with others. You’ll suddenly need to pick up a gig — or are overwhelmed and need to sub-contract it to a reliable colleague. If you’re not someone who plays well with others, freelancing will be lonely and much tougher.

Your skills or work ethic could be stronger

The freelance life means competing with thousands of veterans offering a ferocious work ethic and fantastic skills. They invest regularly in new technology, attend conferences, take classes, network. The trade-off of working alone means you can’t fall back on tech support, your boss or staff or intern.

Here’s a recent helpful post about freelance life from Toronto writer (and friend) Patchen Barss.

Here’s one of my favorite websites, Freelance Folder.

And here’s a great blog, Dollars and Deadlines, by Chicago-based writer Kelly James-Enger.

If you’ve gone freelance, what are your thoughts?

What’s your dream job?

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, life, Media, men, news, photography, science, sports, women, work, world on November 27, 2012 at 12:36 am
English: Club Eifel disc jockey DJ Blaze plays...

English: Club Eifel disc jockey DJ Blaze plays music at the 2009 Air Force Ball. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Nick Wilson Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a fascinating bit of social science data — a survey of 8,000 LinkedIn members worldwide asking them to name their dream jobs.

It differs, as you’d expect, country by country; the top choice, in India, Singapore, Indonesia and Brazil was engineer, while Germans and Hong Kong residents chose scientist.

Canadians and Americans said being a teacher was theirs.

I’m surprised, certainly in the U.S., because public education has recently become such a battleground, over texts, tests, salaries, tenure. The pay is generally low and some parents’ expectations savagely and unrealistically high, if the parents are even involved at all.

The top choices also differed hugely between American men and women.

In order, men chose: professional or Olympic athlete, plane or helicopter pilot, scientist, lawyer or astronaut.

Women chose: teacher, veterinarian, writer/journalist, nurse/doctor/EMT, singer.

I’m not sure what to make of this, except to suggest that guys are hopeless fantasists and girls seem to have some really serious STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) aversion.

Let’s parse these a bit:

Guys, clearly, want: power (physical, mechanical, financial), fame/groupies, a view from high above the earth, literal or metaphorical. Each of their choices relies on individual strength and skill, even when used within a team environment. Each allows them to be a hero, to save lives and/or make history.

Girls, it seems, want: emotional connection, intellectual growth, to help and nurture others. Their choices suggest they want to relate to children or animals or other people in a helping manner — or just be famous, dammit!

The question that most intrigues me is…why? Do men and women want such utterly different lives, incomes and trajectories of influence because of their parents? What they read? See on television? Their friends and neighbors?

I wanted to be a writer since I was very small, partly because my mother was a journalist for magazines and it looked like a hell of a lot of paid fun. (It is, at its best.)

I also wanted to be, for a while, a radio DJ, an actress, a photographer and a foreign correspondent. I did a lot of acting in productions at summer camp and was good at it, but knew the odds of professional success were slim. I started out as a photographer by selling three magazine cover images when I was still in high school and did news photography for a while, but male editors and art directors refused to give me work, arguing that men with families (!) needed it more than I.

So I stuck with journalism/publishing which, in many ways, has been my dream job. It suits me emotionally, intellectually, politically and spiritually — I know, for a fact (thanks to some powerful emails over the years) — that my work has touched people. One woman said a medical story of mine had even saved her life. For me, no paycheck is large enough to compensate for work that fails to connect people to one another. I learn something new almost every single day. I know that providing accurate, timely and useful information is essential to democracy and any form of social justice, and I get to be a part of that.

The money is shitty, but occasionally better. I like working with a tremendous amount of physical and intellectual freedom and autonomy. I loathe routine. I like meeting people from every walk of life, as I have, from Prime Ministers and Queen Elizabeth and Olympic athletes to convicted felons and victims of violence.

I love being paid to have an idea and explore it in depth, sharing the result with millions of readers. It’s a huge thrill knowing that my two books are in libraries all over the world.

And I love being part of an international tribe, men and women of all ages who still get up in the morning dying to get to the next story, whether they’ll tell it through words or images or sounds, or perhaps all three. When a journalist is killed covering a story, we all feel a little ill, because it could have been us or our husband or someone we’ve worked with — or have. I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my career, which began when I was still an undergrad at University of Toronto, to find editors willing to entrust me with their pages, budgets and assignments. They’ve sent me to a tiny Arctic village, to a Club Med in Mexico (!), to dance at Lincoln Center in New York, to Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, to Edmonton and Winnipeg and Copenhagen.

It’s not been a picnic! Some bosses have been toxic brutes, male and female bullies whose behavior rendered me physically sick with stress. One editor’s criticism of my writing actually left me in tears, (I was very young), but also forever changed my writing for the better.

Here’s a beautiful blog post by friend and fellow writer Cynthia Ramnarace — whose New York home was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy — about the extraordinary kindness her former newsroom colleagues recently showed her, eight years after she moved away. I doubt you’d ever get this in a cut-throat big-city newsroom, but there is a deeply shared set of values most journalists have in common, which I really appreciate still, after 30 years in the biz.

My alternate dream jobs? Choreographer, owner of a small housewares store, interior designer, jet pilot, conference organizer, consultant and public speaker. I think a few of them are still possible!

Are you in your dream job?

If not, why not?

If so, tell us about it!

In praise of male elegance

In beauty, behavior, business, culture, design, domestic life, Fashion, life, men, Style, urban life, US, work on November 25, 2012 at 12:12 am
English: Lithograph of Brooks Clothing Store, ...

English: Lithograph of Brooks Clothing Store, Catherine Street, New York City, in 1845 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Loved this recent story about how (some!) American men are dressing better, in The New York Times:

Men are notoriously averse to shopping…

So why do men appear to be shopping for themselves in record numbers?

Men’s wear sales are surging at double-digit rates. Suits, sports coats and outerwear, nearly all bought by men themselves, are leading the gains, according to Steve Pruitt, founder of the fashion and retail consulting firm Blacks Retail. Blacks projects that men’s suit sales will be up 10 percent this fall and holiday season, and sports jacket sales will be up 11 percent, while women’s ready-to-wear sales remain flat.

“Men are the new women,” Bret Pittman, director of J. Crew’s Ludlow Shop in TriBeCa in Manhattan, told me when I stopped in recently for a tour of the new store, the prototype for a line that will feature men’s suits and tailored clothing.

As I write this, two gift-wrapped boxes await Jose in my closet, from Paul Stuart and Brooks Brothers, with more sartorial goodies en-route for Christmas. He went to the dry cleaner’s tailor today to get three pairs of corduroy trousers altered — after I insisted. (The tailor agreed.)

A well-dressed man is a rare and lovely sight. If this is becoming a trend, I’m all for it.

Madison in the mid-40s, in Manhattan, is where you’ll find Brooks Brothers on the south end of the block and Paul Stuart — a 74-year-old shop named for the founder’s son — at the north end…keep heading north and you’ll find 111-year-old J. Press, all shops with classic, elegant, well-made clothing.

Brooks has everything from a smart black umbrella with a real bamboo handle, (a reasonable $60), to suits, shoes, pajamas, cologne, hats and leather briefcases. Their small shoe department has wonderful things, from dressy to casual. Paul Stuart, whose styles and colors are far more European, is not for the faint-of-heart or thin-of-wallet — a pair of socks is $48 and their sweaters and jackets roam to the four figures. Their cheapest shoe, a stunning black suede Italian loafer, is $562.

But some things are affordable, and fun — silk pocket squares and their knotted fabric cuff-links for $12. I love the quiet, old-school atmosphere and the jewel tones, in virtually every item, that are their trademark.

Elegance is an acquired taste.

My father, at 83 exploring Hong Kong as I write this, still dresses with great style, as he always has, which gave me a decided interest in dating — certainly marrying — a man who appreciates it as well. I still remember exactly what Jose wore on our first date 13 years ago, very much enjoying that he had bothered to dress up for the occasion; when I see guys in their 30s or beyond still schlubbing around in sneakers and caps and hoodies, like a bunch of 12-year-olds with no dough and less imagination, I sigh.

Male elegance has a few basic, classic components:

Fit

American men seem to have no idea that tailors even exist, as so many wear trousers, (even on their wedding day!), that puddle hopelessly atop their shoes. Too many clothes, certainly the cheaper ones, are laser-cut in China, with little or no attention to proper fit. Read GQ or Details or The Sartorialist for examples of how do it right.

Material

Learn the difference between cotton, polyester, nylon, wool, cashmere and rayon, calf leather, cordovan, suede. Read labels and feel the materials under your hand. Once you can tell the difference between cashmere and merino, (and your budget has no room for new cashmere), hit consignment and vintage shops for affordable options.

Color

Many men have absolutely no idea what colors look well on them, or awful. The color of your hair, (or lack of same), eyes and skin tone should all affect your choices  — including hats, scarves and eyewear. If you’re very pale, a white shirt and light gray suit are probably not the most attractive choices. Jose, being Hispanic, has a skin tone that allows him to wear some fantastically bold color choices and look terrific in them. A decent salesman or woman in a better quality men’s store can help. Men whose wives or partners have a great eye could do worse than let us help you edit your choices.

Grooming

Huge. The nicest pair of leather shoes will look like hell if you let the heels wear down, (hence the expression, well-heeled), don’t polish them frequently and forget to use heavy, solid wooden shoe trees after each wearing. Regular haircuts — including nose, ear and eyebrow trim for the over-40s — make a serious difference. Keep nails short and clean, and hands moisturized. A subtle cologne is a wonderful lagniappe.

Footwear

Financial Times columnist Peter Aspden recently described the challenge of finding weekend shoes:

By far the trickiest part of weekend dressing is footwear. Look: there is no smart casual in footwear. Smart is what you wear to work. Casual is trainers: comfortable, fashionable. A chairman of the Royal Opera House once declared that he never wanted to sit next to anyone wearing trainers. He was ridiculed. It was a seminal cultural-podiatric moment. We are the generation that invented trainers, and now we had earned the right to wear them, whenever, wherever.

Joe Ottaway, personal shopping consultant at Selfridges, grimaces. “I’m not a great trainer [note: Britspeak for sneakers, running shoes] fan,” he says. He admits that weekend footwear can be a thorny problem. “What is important is to find something that is age-appropriate.” It seems, not for the first time, that I have missed a key trend in men’s fashion. “The age of the well-dressed, well-groomed man is coming back.” And it means, beyond a certain age, no trainers. What age might that be? “25,” says Ottaway.

Accessories

Have fun! These include gorgeous silk pocket squares, (this one is $8 in jewel tones), lovely knee-high colored socks, cuff-links, a sterling belt buckle, a slim (possibly vintage) watch, great eyewear, a well-made hat, a snazzy duffel or backpack or briefcase. Frenchmen almost always add a fab scarf or muffler to their outfits, and there are many options out there; I like this striped one from Barney’s, by Paul Smith.

Take time, if being stylish appeals to you, to browse a few high-end shops, on-line or in person, to see what’s available. The king of this is British designer Paul Smith; a visit to his Fifth Avenue shop is always fun and inspiring.

Ladies, does a well-dressed man catch your eye?

Do you — gentlemen — pay attention to such matters?

Shhhhhhhh!

In beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, life, nature, travel, urban life on November 24, 2012 at 12:49 am
Green silence / Silencio verde

Green silence / Silencio verde (Photo credit: victor_nuno)

Is this a noise you make?

Is this a sound — an imprecation, really — you hear?

Or ignore?

Here’s a fervent plea for public silence:

EVER since I quit hanging out in Baltimore dive bars, the only place where I still regularly find myself in hostile confrontations with my fellow man is Amtrak’s Quiet Car. The Quiet Car, in case you don’t know, is usually the first car in Amtrak’s coach section, right behind business class. Loud talking is forbidden there — any conversations are to be conducted in whispers. Cellphones off; music and movies on headphones only. There are little signs hanging from the ceiling of the aisle that explain this, along with a finger-to-lips icon. The conductor usually makes an announcement explaining the protocol. Nevertheless I often see people who are ignorant of the Quiet Car’s rules take out their cellphones to resume their endless conversation, only to get a polite but stern talking-to from a fellow passenger.

Not long ago a couple across the aisle from me in a Quiet Car talked all the way from New York City to Boston, after two people had asked them to stop. After each reproach they would lower their voices for a while, but like a grade-school cafeteria after the lunch monitor has yelled for silence, the volume crept inexorably up again. It was soft but incessant, and against the background silence, as maddening as a dripping faucet at 3 a.m. All the way to Boston I debated whether it was bothering me enough to say something. As we approached our destination a professorial-looking man who’d spoken to them twice got up, walked back and stood over them. He turned out to be quite tall. He told them that they’d been extremely inconsiderate, and he’d had a much harder time getting his work done because of them.

“Sir,” the girl said, “I really don’t think we were bothering anyone else.”

“No,” I said, “you were really annoying.”

“Yes,” said the woman behind them.

My husband won’t go to the movies anymore, at least not in the evening, and the reason is twofold — other people attending are so rude and noisy, and I spend too much time hissing at them or saying, loudly, “Shut up!”

Which is, yes, very rude of me.

I admit it, I lost it last week.

I was sitting, reading a book and savoring a coffee, enjoying the luxury of leisure in Manhattan before meeting a friend for dinner. A woman right beside me — with lots of room to sit further away — shouted into her cellphone in Portuguese.

“Can you please lower your voice!?” I finally asked, fearing a nasty fight. To my surprise, she moved immediately and came back to apologize, explaining she’d been speaking to her son, via Skype, in Brazil.

Silence is healing, soothing, calming. It lowers our heart rate and speed of respiration. It allows us to focus on our other senses. It offers us a deep, refreshed sleep. It allows us to focus and concentrate our attention, whether on work, reading or a spectacular work of art in a museum or gallery.

In this post, from July 2011, you’ll read all the sounds I became newly aware of on an eight-day silent retreat Jose and I took. I posted several short essays that week, as peeling away the cocoon of noise/music/conversation/traffic laid bare a fresh set of insights and appreciations that were simply unattainable within the noisy distractions of everyday life.

Here’s the essay I wrote about it for Marie Claire magazine — and what I learned about love expressed through action, not mere words.

When Jose and I re-emerged, reluctantly and nervously, into “real life” I immediately noticed how edgy and anxious noise renders me. I eat more, more often and more quickly. My mood alters, and rarely for the better.

I treasure silence, an increasingly rare commodity.

Do you savor silence?

Where, in your daily life, do you find or create it?

Giving thanks for…

In beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, family, Health, immigration, journalism, life, love, world on November 22, 2012 at 12:48 am
English: 1 North Grove Street, Tarrytown, NY, ...

English: 1 North Grove Street, Tarrytown, NY, USA, a contributing property to the North Grove Street Historic District (Photo credit: Wikipedia). This is one of my favorite places in Tarrytown!

Today is American Thanksgiving, a day for eating too much, family squabbles and friends’ doors lovingly opened to “orphans” and “strays”, those of us whose families are too far away or dead or don’t like us very much.t

It’s my favorite American holiday, and it took me a few years living here to figure out why. It’s the one day no one argues over, the one day that everyone — Muslim, Jew, Christian, atheist, Hindu — celebrates with relief that we all made it, relatively unscathed, through another crazy year.

I love how it begins the holiday season, at least for those of us who celebrate Christmas; Canadian Thanksgiving is in early October, which always felt a little early to me.

Every year, newspaper and magazine editors offer a gazillion ways to prepare side dishes. Brine the turkey or roast it? Host, guest or skip the whole shebang? The decisions are all comfortingly familiar.

Jose and I are heading next door to a lovely hotel, in a castle, for our 4:00 meal. No shopping, cooking or cleaning!

Here are some things I’m thankful for this year:

You! Broadside is growing every day, with an array of readers that astonishes me, men and women of all ages and ethnicities, from Australia (hi Charlene and Nigel!) to Vancouver, my birthplace (hi, Rian!) to India, Indonesia, Spain (hola, JPP!) and dozens of other places. I know your time and attention is a rare resource and I’m honored.

My husband, Jose. We’re heading into our 13th. year together. We met online, when I was researching a magazine story about on-line dating and he saw my ad and profile, with the headline “Catch Me If You Can.” We’re very different people in many ways, but we laugh our bums off and work like dogs and I’m lucky to have gotten a good husband on my second try.

The view from our top-floor apartment. We overlook the Hudson River, facing northwest, with a clear blue sky full of jet contrails and military helicopters thudding home to West Point and soaring red-tailed hawks. We see snow and rainstorms sliding across the water and, if we’re up early enough, glittering pink and gold jewels on the opposite riverbank as the rising sun reflects in the windows there. Huge barges glide past every day. On July 4, we can watch six towns’ fireworks at once.

Our town. Tarrytown, NY, named one of the nation’s ten prettiest recently by a major magazine. I love the 127-year-old Tarrytown Music Hall, its oft-filmed Main Street and Goldberg Hardware, still owned and run by the grand-son of its founder. I’ve lived here since 1989, and now run into friends and neighbors everywhere, from my former physical therapist at the grocery store to my dentist at the gourmet shop to my dance teacher at the cafe.

– My work. Journalism has been my world since I was an undergrad at the University of Toronto, so eager to get started, in my first year there, that I showed up at the weekly campus newspaper before classes even began. Through my work, I’ve had the most extraordinary adventures: I spent eight days in a truck with a French-speaking driver going from Perpignan to Istanbul, met Queen Elizabeth, climbed the rigging of a Tall Ship 100 feet to work on a footrope, visited an Arctic village and a remote Quebec commune, and have interviewed everyone from a female admiral to convicted felons, Olympic athletes and the female cop who kept New York’s mayor alive on 9/11. I have been privileged with others’ trust in order to share powerful, compelling stories.

– Supportive editors and agents. I may finally have found my next agent, and this week will finish up my fourth major feature for The New York Times Sunday business section. I need talented people who believe in my skill, willing to tether their own reputation and limited attention to me, to keep moving forward in this competitive and rapidly-changing industry.

– Good health. My mother, at 76, lives in a distant nursing home in extremely poor health. My father just arrived in Hong Kong, after a 16 hour flight, at 83, ready for his latest adventure. I’m fortunate to live in a safe, clean place with easy access to lovely spots in which to walk, hike, bike, golf, kayak, sail, canoe. I have strength and flexibility and my full faculties. I take none of this for granted.

– A new left hip. On Feb. 6, 2012, I had a new artificial hip implanted, a procedure that still awes and amazes me, and which gave me back my life and mobility after 2.5 years of extreme pain. Thanks to Jose’s job we have excellent health insurance and I found a young surgeon I like and trust.

– Friends. Funny, smart, wise, their love and intelligence sustain me.

What are you thankful for this day?

What do we owe one another?

In aging, behavior, culture, domestic life, family, Money, news, politics, religion, urban life, US on November 19, 2012 at 3:28 am
Donations

Donations (Photo credit: Matthew Burpee)

In 1984, Canadian writer, academic — and later politician — Michael Ignatieff wrote a book, “The Needs of Strangers”. In it, he says:

“A decent and humane society requires a shared language of the good. The one our society lives by — a language of rights — has no terms for those dimensions of the human good which require acts of virture unspecifiable as a legal or civil obligation.”

In the United States, those who give money to charity, it turns out, are least likely to give it to those most in financial need, writes columnist Eduardo Porter in The New York Times:

Religious organizations receive about one-third of the nation’s total charitable contributions, not including donations to religious hospitals, schools and social charities. Donations to human services charities, by contrast, which work to ease poverty, feed the hungry and the like, amount to less than 12 percent of the total.

It’s a question I ask myself frequently – what, if anything beyond our taxes, do we owe to others in our world, whether that’s in our town, county, province/state, country, hemisphere?

Others’ needs for help are boundless and our individual resources with which to alleviate them — unless we are very wealthy or have no need, ourselves, to earn a living — extremely limited.

In the same edition of the Times containing Porter’s column is the full-page ad announcement of a multi-million gift to a college, bearing, of course, the generous donor’s name.

Asks Porter:

As the government grapples with how to address the nation’s deficits over coming decades, Americans have an opportunity to reassess the role of philanthropy in addressing the nation’s problems. Should we continue to provide lavish tax breaks? Should we demand that in return for preferential tax treatment, programs target more clearly the needs of the poor?

Many Americans might think that keeping tax breaks for donations to build, say, a new university football stadium when so many poor students can barely afford college, is not the best way to spend scarce resources.

Those on the right end of the political spectrum scoff at the notion of handing money to the poor and indigent, arguing that it merely enables them to continue their shiftless, lazy behaviors. Those on the left feel it’s immoral to let needy people starve, suffer and die from restricted or non-existent access to the basics of human dignity: food, shelter, medical care.

Last week my church, a small Episcopal parish in a wealthy town north of New York City, held its annual clothing sale, in which we donate our own clothes and shoes, for adults and children, sell them for low prices, then distribute the money earned to local charities. I worked a few days at the sale, and a few people asked when prices would drop to half-off, when they could better afford a wool hat at $2.50 instead of $5, or a pair of leather shoes for $7 instead of $14.

We raised more than $50,000, far more than if we’d been asked to open our wallets individually.

It’s humbling and sobering to see what sale shoppers need and can afford, and somehow ironic that the sale depends on volunteer labor — all the stay-at-home mothers with high-earning husbands flee at 2pm to pick up their children — and the only people who can offer their time are retired, unemployed or, in my case, who work freelance and may have a flexible schedule.

Those who came to shop included parents buying children’s clothes, teens snapping up fun stuff and a nun in her habit who, after I folded and bagged her sweater, asked with a smile: “Do you do closets?”

For many of us, the world has become a place where we rarely encounter, touch or speak to people whose lives are circumstances are unlike our own, whether richer or poorer. We attend different schools and colleges — if at all — travel by different conveyances, shop in different stores.

The clothing sale brings us together in a week-long fellowship. Like many people in this economy, I’m liquidity-poor, but time-rich.

I also serve on the board of a 30-year-old volunteer group that offers aid to non-fiction writers who have hit a financial crisis. We can mail a check for up to $4,000 within a week of getting an application. Usually, they have suffered the “triple whammy” — they’ve lost work, lost their health and lost the financial support of a spouse or partner.

Every letter we receive is a “there but for the grace of God” experience.

If I didn’t have a generous, loving husband with a steady job and excellent health insurance — which so many people do not — I might be writing one of those letters myself.

Few of us will escape our lives financially unscathed, without a crisis in which we desperately and suddenly need help from people who do not know, or owe, us — a dying parent, an ill child, a lost job (or several), a hurricane or flood — or both.

Poverty, misery and physical devastation are frightening. They smell bad. Storm-ravaged houses, crying children, old people huddled around a trash can fire. No one wants to be that person.

It’s easier to pretend they don’t exist than meet them face to face, seeing in their weary eyes and lined faces the existential terror that, one day, might be ours.

Blaming the poor and indigent is an easy out. There are few quick, simple solutions, as the miserable and angry survivors of Hurricane Sandy are still learning.

What do you think we owe one another?

Are taxes the only way to re-distribute funds from the better-off?

Do you do volunteer work and/or give money to charity?

Why everyone, including very large football players, needs a stuffed animal

In aging, animals, behavior, children, domestic life, parenting on November 17, 2012 at 1:19 am

I love this story!

Turns out even very large, powerful men appreciate the power of a stuffed animal. This is about the New York Giants football team.

From The New York Times:

Everyone knows about Tom Coughlin’s intensity. Everyone knows about Eli Manning’s arm. But, several Giants players say, a little-known key to the team’s success in recent years stands about two feet high. It is covered in fur, pleasant but not precocious, and goes by the endearingly simple name Little Bear.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

James Brewer, a rookie last season, was Little Bear’s custodian when the Giants won the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

His value cannot be overstated, they say. Yes, preparation matters to the Giants. So do practice repetitions, strength training and film study. But along with other mainstays, like Manning, one of the few constants in the Giants’ run to two Super Bowl titles in the past five years has been the presence of Little Bear, the offensive line’s prized stuffed animal.

“Let’s be honest,” guard Chris Snee said, gesturing reverently in Little Bear’s direction. “He’s critical to what we do. He’s an inspiration.”

Hell, yeah!

Here’s a photo of my own line-up, who hang out atop the shelf beside my bed, yes, the one I share with my husband.

Left to right, a monkey Jose bought for me, who makes a shrieking monkey noise. The brown bear was a post-surgical gift from Jose. The small white bear I’ve had since I was very small, probably given to me when we lived in England, ages two to five. He’s been all over the world with me, from Ireland to Vegas. The bunny was a gift after one of my four orthopedic surgeries, from Jose. He, too, travels well and is often in my suitcase or carry-on. In the closet, in such tatters I can’t reconstitute him is Bunny, given to me one Easter by my maternal grandmother, who carried me through my roughest moments of childhood into my late 20s.

And here is Jose’s line-up, some less cuddly than others.

Left to right: The lovely wool Arctic hare was a Christmas present to me from Jose, a Canadian icon. The whalebone Inuit sculpture was a gift from me to him; ditto. The wooden walrus, which opens up to offer a hiding spot, was a gift from him to me. The loon, which emits one of my favorite and most Canadian of sounds — a loon call — was bought on one of our many cross-border gift shop stops on a trip north to Canada.

And I’m fine with it.

My husband, Jose, a career news photographer and editor, has photographed war and riots and dead bodies. In my work as a journalist, I’ve seen car windows sheeted with blood, confronted extreme poverty and listened carefully to tales of rape and nightmarish violence.

When I wrote my first book about women and guns, in which I heard extremely upsetting and graphic stories of homicide, suicide and life-altering injury, I ended with up with secondary trauma, a normal consequence of immersing oneself in dark and frightening material, as happens to journalists and photographers. Jose and I each have enough darkness and misery jammed into our heads from decades in news journalism that some friendly, inanimate and portable pals are a very welcome addition to our world.

(And, with no kids or young nieces or nephews, the only way we get near toys is if we buy them ourselves!)

I was in boarding school at eight, and summer camp for eight weeks at the same age. I had no brothers and sisters growing up, so my stuffed animals were often my playmates. I hated dolls — hard, stiff, unyielding — but treasured my cuddly menagerie.

Here’s the small white bear in Banff, Alberta in March 2010, hanging out with his Canadian pals, Mountie bears; the Mounties are the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, our national police force.

Here are some links to lovely stuffed toys for sale:

Here’s a teddy bear.

And another.

And a zebra.

And, from the legendary New York toy store F.A.O. Schwarz, for the child who has seen it all…a woolly mammoth cub.

And, for all you fans of Babar and Celeste, a new stuffed Babar! Babar, created 80 years ago, is an elephant who normally wears a handsome emerald green suit — French, bien sur!

Did you have stuffed animals growing up?

Do you still?

How to give a great speech (Hint: be authentic)

In behavior, books, business, education, entertainment, journalism, life, Media, work on November 15, 2012 at 4:01 am
Audience

Audience (Photo credit: thinkmedialabs)

Here’s a great post recently featured on Freshly Pressed, from Nancy Duarte:

The number one thing, I think, is to be audience-centric…Develop all your material from a place of empathy toward them. You’re asking them to adopt your idea, which means they may have to abandon a belief they hold as true — and that’s hard. So, know your audience — take a walk in their shoes. What keeps them up at night? How are they wired to resist your message?

Understand your role in the presentation…that of a mentor — you should be giving the audience a magical gift or a special tool, or helping them get unstuck in some way. You have to defer to your audience. When you put your idea out there for an audience to contend with — if they reject your idea, your idea will die. You have to think of it as, “The speaker needs the audience more than the audience needs the speaker.”

And then the third thing — wrap your content in story.

I recently gave a speech to 200 people, the largest I’ve had so far, students of retail at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, and about 20 retailers. It went very well, and I stayed an additional 90 minutes to talk to students, sign books and answer more questions. They were folding up the tables and chairs by the time we were done.

If you’re curious, here’s the link; I’m not suggesting I was great! It’s 1 hour and 22 minutes, the final 22 minutes are Q and A.

In the past two years since Malled was published, I’ve done a lot of public speaking: at public libraries, to college students, to retailers at conferences.

Do I get nervous? Speaking to a group of regular folks at a local library? No. To a room filled with fairly senior executives from major retailers, (some of whom I hope will hire me to address their own companies or conferences), who have paid me well to be there, yes.

Especially if it’s being videotaped!

Writers write.

But if you really want to sell books, you also have to be consistently public, visible, audible and articulate, even if we don’t know how to structure a speech or presentation. We may not own the right clothes or haircut or haircolor or glasses or manicure. We may have a horrible voice or stutter or pure stage fright. We often earn a small fraction of the incomes of those listening to us, who assume (wrongly) we must be making good money because (hah!) we have been interviewed on NPR or CBS and our books are in stores.

In 2011, I hired a speaking coach, DC-based Christine Clapp, who taught me how to structure a speech and get calm before delivering it; I did this the day before I did an hour, live, with call-ins, on The Diane Rehm Show, which has two million listeners and is NPR’s largest show. This is a link to the audio.

“Be emotionally naked,” Clapp advised.

I’ve watched many experienced speakers at conferences and some are awful, no matter how much they got paid. They use PowerPoint (zzzzzzz), they use slides and video (unless their content is visual, why?), they drone onandonandon, they say really boring shit  and some wear all black in some tired attempt to look edgy and cool.

One, who is very famous and should know better, strode onto a Manhattan stage in 2010 carrying a rubber chicken and wearing an overcoat.

I stand still. I use some notes and no visual aids.

(Obviously, some of these tips are not useful if your presentation is purely academic, scientific or technical.)

Tips:

– Are the references you’re making going to be familiar with your audience? I learned this the hard way when I referred to an airline, (an example of amazing customer service, Open Skies) to an audience of American business executives, forgetting that an airline with only one route (NY-Paris) wasn’t something many of them would know.

– Remember how differently others feel about some issues. I learned this the hard way with the same audience, telling them, proudly, how a former customer had asked me for referral to a therapist (everyone goes to therapists in NY!), which provoked guffaws from brawny macho Midwesterners. In Minnesota, knowing this is a NY thing, I prefaced that same story with a local reference, and it worked fine.

– Read the news, up until minutes or hours before you speak, to allow for including something timely and relevant to your subject.

– Humor is tough. If it’s safe enough to not offend anyone, it’s probably really dull.

– Dress stylishly. If you’re sitting behind a table or standing at a podium, people only see you from the waist or chest up. If you’re female, get a blow-out so your hair looks fab and you feel fully confident. No jewelry that clanks or might flash distractingly under bright lights.

– Make sure you have a watch or cellphone with you on the podium. Some podiums have a built-in timer, others do not. Do not lose track of time!

– Chill out, alone, for at least an hour before your presentation. Don’t waste your time and energy on anything but your sole reason for being there. Presenting well requires a lot of emotional, physical and intellectual energy.

– Always make sure you have 20-30 minutes for audience comments and questions.

– Anticipate questions and prepare your answers.

– Write out your remarks. Practice! Time it carefully so you don’t run out of time, or run out of things to say.

– Smile!

– If someone asks you a really tough or challenging question, stay cool. Take a breath, smile, say: “I’m glad you asked that question.” It shows you’re confident, not rattled, ready to answer thoughtfully. The audience is watching you handle yourself and your questioners.

– Always have water at hand, in a glass or cup, with no ice. Slugging from a water bottle looks tacky, and ice will slide into your face and make you look like a wet fool. I once completely lost the ability to speak, in front of a room full of people paying to be there. I had to wait for someone to run and bring me a cup of tea. Not good!

– No dairy products (milk, cheese) or hot/cold drinks beforehand. They’ll screw up your speaking voice.

– No matter how nervous you are, eat a small high-protein meal beforehand to fuel you through.

Do you do public speaking?

How’s it working for you?

Who’s the best — or worst — public speaker you’ve ever heard?

Actually, this is the reporter’s job

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, war, work on November 13, 2012 at 12:50 am
Red Hook

Red Hook (Photo credit: mercurialn)

The New York Times’ new public editor’s last column praised the paper’s reporters and photographers for climbing stairs in the dark to find and interview and photograph victims of Hurricane Sandy:

That’s just one example among many in which Times reporters went to extraordinary lengths to get the stories of ordinary people’s suffering. I was equally struck by Cara Buckley’s and Michael Wilson’s’s front-page article about life without power in New York’s public housing projects.

It included this passage: “As light drained from the skies above the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn on Thursday, Sharlyn Marin, 18, huffed her way up 140 steps to visit her godmother, Judith Rodriguez, on the 10th floor. Blind and in a wheelchair, Ms. Rodriguez, 62, relied on Ms. Marin as her sole conduit to the outside world.”

Such articles, involving shoe-leather reporting at its best, are not easy to get. The only way to get those scenes is to be there — in this case, to climb the stairs in a dark and dangerous housing project.

Ms. Buckley told me about her experience in an e-mail: “It’s actually a 14-story building, and the photographer, Ruth Fremson, and I went to the top twice and then worked our way down. No matter the time of day, the stairways were pitch black, windowless and without power.”

That’s their job.

These days, the expression “shoe leather” journalism seems unfamiliar to many reporters, especially those who came into the field assuming that Google has the answer to everything. Instead it means leaving the cozy, familiar newsroom and building and neighborhood. It means walking/climbing/hiking — doing whatever is necessary on foot (and by plane/car/bus/donkey/boat) — to get on-scene to witness and report the gritty details of a story.

It demands guts, street smarts, preparation — knowing what to wear and what to carry, finding and hiring fixers and drivers and interpreters.

Great reporters tells us what the air smells like, what the baby was eating, the color of the walls and the size of the windows. They capture tone, light, anecdote, vernacular, nuance. They bring us into that place and make us feel what those in that place are feeling, whether joy or terror. They smell the blood, sometimes even slipping in it.

They do not phone it in. They do not Google it or look at a Google map to see what the devastation looks like or watch it on TV or read it out of someone else’s story.

Great reporting on tough stories like this one mean getting, literally, down and dirty, joining the story where and when it’s happening. It means that reporters and photographers will indeed also end up hungry, thirsty, tired, sore and worn out  – like the people whose lives they’re there to describe to readers many miles away, safe and warm and dry.

Great journalism is fueled by compassion. Not every story requires it, obviously, but when reporting on war, poverty, violence, crime, natural disaster or medical mishap, a reporter unwilling to live it firsthand is only going to report a dessicated, sanitized version of the facts.

My husband and I have both done this sort of reporting work, I as a writer and he as a photographer. In winter, he spent six weeks covering the end of the Bosnian war. He had to sleep in an unheated metal cargo container and his Christmas meal was a small packet of dried soup. He and the reporter and their interpreter, their car car stuck, were towed out of a snowbank at dusk because Jose had thought to pack a carabiner in his luggage.

I’ve seen car windows sheeted with blood after a head-on collision, and — nauseated and terrified — walked toward the vehicle to see what make and model it was. I’ve walked across frozen fields, climbed muddy embankments, knelt on dirty floors.  I flew to Winnipeg, Edmonton and Toronto on a medical investigative story, and watched the women  I interviewed shake and cry as they related their misery to me. It was exhausting and emotionally draining for all of us.

That’s the point.

Shoe-leather reporting can also be lethal, killing legendary New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid last year, when he suffered a fatal asthma attack from the horses carrying him and his photographer across the Syrian border; the photographer, Tyler Hicks, carried his dead body into Turkey.

It killed photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros last year in Libya and it killed Marie Colvin, the American-born journalist working for the London Sunday Times. She had already been blinded in one eye by shrapnel while working in Sri Lanka.
Here’s a great profile of this amazing woman, in the August 2012 issue of Vanity Fair.

Stony Brook University, on Long Island, NY, is raising $1 million in her memory to fund its Journalism Without Walls program, which sends young reporters into the field.

Boots-on-the-ground detail-gathering is what readers need and deserve.

It’s necessary for us to truly understand our world.

It’s what we should expect.

Petraeus and Broadwell — and the moral is?

In beauty, behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, news, the military, US, women on November 11, 2012 at 1:54 am
Portrait photo

Portrait photo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here we go again.

A high-ranking alpha male, CIA director David Petraeus — considered “the most respected and decorated soldier of his generation”, according to the front page of the Financial Times — has resigned after having an affair. Not just any affair, but one with a jock/soldier/Harvard grad/author/hottie with whom he was doing six-minute runs in Afghanistan.

His wife of 37 years? Toast.

Take it from someone whose arguably semi-alpha husband was poached: a clarinet-playing, tall, handsome, funny MD who now earns in a month what I make in a (lousy) year.

Like Petraeus, he was gone a lot, working long days and many “on call” overnight shifts at the hospital, long before cellphones, emails or texts could have given me a way to reach out easily. And medical culture, like military, can be damn hard to penetrate, highly protective of its members. When they say people “close ranks”, they mean it.

Petraeus was hotly pursued by Paula Broadwell, a fine-looking high-achieving woman with plenty of determinationdespite her own marriage and two children.

Let’s be clear. I’m not defending infidelity. Petraeus was a fool to throw away a stellar career.

His marriage? Who knows?

That’s the dirty secret of the adulterer.

For every shocked, stunned wife (or husband), there is one more honest with herself, who knew things were crappy in their marriage — or knows they chose to marry and have kids with and stay with someone with a weak ego, a man/woman who needs to cat around to feel strong and sexy and desirable.

And a husband physically distant from his wife for long periods of time, a man spending a lot of private time with  a woman whose behaviors push all the right buttons, let alone a wife who’s given up on her skills and/or appearance?

Sound the sirens!

The woman my ex-husband is now married to was clearly going to become his second wife. I met her twice, spoke to her once, and felt it. Many of the issues — a la Petraeus/Broadwell — were similar:

 – They worked together

 – She saw him every single day, well-dressed and well-spoken and high-earning and authoritative, all catnip

– She flattered him deeply

– She was intensely competitive

 –They spent a lot of time together away from work; she was a single mother

And, in my case

 – She makes three times my income

– She’s highly educated and flatters his intellectual ego

I was financially dependent on him, which left me essentially powerless to act decisively

My ex made clear to me from the start of our seven-year relationship he wanted to marry a high earner. Not only was I a journalist — a field in which $100K is a lot, (peanuts in medicine) — but I also had to re-boot my career when I left Canada and moved to the U.S., just in time for the 1990 recession, severely curtailing my earning power.

His second wife, with whom he had two more children, is fat, not pretty and dresses, apparently, in the dark. I saw her in my retail job three years ago and she still looked like hell. So it’s not all about looks.

Every marriage has its frayed, weakened bits. Every marriage hits rough spots, some of which last months, or longer.

Which is why, in my second marriage, (13 years together now), Jose and I are very aware that marriage is not forever, that people can and will lose interest, carry toxic secrets or private resentments and stray. Addressing the issues, whatever they are, can be messy and painful — and may well lead to divorce court if both people admit these are utterly un-resolvable.

I spent a lot of years examining which of my own behaviors had allowed my marriage to end so quickly. One of them was simply having married the wrong man, which I knew at the time. I also painfully examined what I might do if I re-married, and I do treat my second husband very differently. An affair, or divorce, is a miserable, frightening wake-up call.

A woman who loses her man to a poacher — and they are poached, as surely as a hunter sights his prey — needs to do a little self-examination as well. Who did she marry? What’s not working between them? Or in the rest of his life?

It’s too easy to call him names and cut his clothes into shreds and call a divorce lawyer.

No matter what happens after an affair comes to light, the cuckold has ask what their role in it was as well.

What say you?

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