There’s no way past it. If you’re going to read a blog written by a journalist…
The Devil Wears Prada
I’ve seen this 2006 film so many times I know much of the dialogue off by heart and always look forward to my favorite scenes.
It follows the trajectory of Andrea Sachs, a gormless fresh graduate, who is very serious about journalism, stuck in a first job — at a NYC glossy fashion magazine — she neither wants nor respects. It’s a job.
This one always hits me!
It’s set in Manhattan, with key scenes in buildings and locations holding some great memories in my own writing life.
It’s really about what it takes to pay dues, to go along and get along in a rough and unfamiliar environment.
The price of ambition.
There are some lovely scenes in Paris as well.
Lots of arguments about whether her friends are true friends, or people who have no clue what it really takes to get ahead in this brutally competitive industry.
Plus, Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci and acres of gorgeous clothes and accessories.
It was made for $35 million — and has earned almost 10 times that since.
I know of no other film that so abundantly makes clear what it takes to do really slow, really detailed, really deep reporting work, aka investigative journalism. It won Best Picture for 2015 and richly deserved it.
It follows a real team of four reporters at the Boston Globe who dug up a rats’ nest of priest’s abuse. There are scenes that should be required viewing in every journalism class, like the one where Sacha Pfeiffer (played by Rachel McAdams) has to coax grim details from a male abuse victim.
No one who hasn’t done this work — and especially those who loathe and insult journalists — can really grasp the emotional intelligence (empathy, compassion, patience) it takes to get victims to share the stories that can, sometimes, create tremendous political and legal change.
I’ve watched this one many times and never tire of it.
It also makes very clear the tremendous pressure often placed on senior newsroom management by powers-that-be eager to shut down some unwanted attention.
And the military chain-of-command that still runs most newsrooms.
And the balls-to-the-wall determination it demands of reporters to keep chasing elusive answers.
Nominated for three Academy Awards, and written by a former newspaper editor, it addresses when, how or if a reporter should ever have a romantic relationship with someone they’re writing about it.
It also shows that speaking to “civilians” — regular people who don’t understand how journalism works — can wreak havoc on their lives.
Some of our collection of laminated press credentials….
All The President’s Men
Better known to those who love it as ATPM, this follows the Watergate scandal that brought down former U.S.President Richard Nixon, and the two Washington Post reporters — Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) — who broke the story after many months of reporting and a lot of internal and external doubt whether the story was true and verifiable.
Jason Robards is terrific as the Post’s patrician editor, Ben Bradlee, with his Gucci-clad feet on every desk.
It’s a total boy-fest, with almost no women involved in the editing or reporting, but still so worth watching.
For an entire generation of would-be journalists, Woodward and Bernstein were the ultimate role models.
Michael Keaton and Marisa Tomei — and Glenn Close — star in this send-up of New York City tabloid journalism. Having worked at the NY Daily News, I get it now!
If you want a glimpse of what newspaper tabloid life is like, this is it.
If you’re still hoping to find a partner, it can feel like an exhausting and overwhelming search.
I spent my 20s dating a lot of men, but not wanting a long-term commitment from anyone, certainly not marriage. I didn’t want children and I wanted, long-term, to get to New York, a difficult thing for most Canadians.
So after I moved to Montreal, I fell in love with an American medical student from New Jersey. I was able to obtain a “green card” allowing me to live and work permanently in the U.S.
We spent seven years together, but should never have married.
I experienced repeated collisions of misaligned values and discovered personality traits I wanted to avoid. Dates that caused me to be versions of myself I didn’t like and cost me time that I could have spent on my couch: just me, a Vicodin and a book about sadness.
To break this cycle, I decided to track it all. Make sense of the patterns and change them.
Cue the Trello board. As of today, the board has six stages and eight traits. It’s similar to the business development process of a salesperson, with each stage representing a step toward a successful deal and each trait representing a characteristic that is more likely to lead to success.
The stages are: To Vet, Vetting, Vetted, Scheduling, Scheduled and Dating. Each person is represented by a Trello card — a kind of digital sticky note.
Before I go on a date with anyone, his card progresses from left to right, passing through these stages until we’re dating. If we never get that far, I archive his card, in which case an archived card is all he will ever be.
I evaluate my potential dates based on eight traits. Five of those traits I try to learn about before the date. The remaining three I think about after the date.
Before the first date, I try to determine the following: Does he make me laugh via text? Does he live in L.A.? Does he like his job? Is he down to go backpacking? Will he get on the phone?
Years ago, after my miserable two-year marriage — he walked out barely two years to the date of our marriage, and remarried a colleague within the year — I found the acronym PEPSI, and used it think more seriously about compatibility with potential partners.
I stayed divorced and single for six years.
I had a few marriage proposals, one very serious.
But I didn’t want them, from those people, one from a man I had had a huge crush on in my 20s after I profiled him for a Toronto magazine. Oddly, later, we dated seriously for about six months, but there was a large age difference — that didn’t bother me at 24 but did at 39.
I did want to re-marry, even though my first husband was unfaithful, which broke my heart.
I have spent a lot of my life alone and, while I’m pretty independent, I much prefer having someone loyal and loving to share my life with.
I knew a few women like me who kept striking out and finally made a list of what they most wanted in a partner.
Everyone thinks: cute, smart, rich.
After a few decades in the trenches it’s a lot more like: funny, smart, kind, flexible, accomplished.
I wanted a unicorn — someone virtually impossible to find in New York City — a man who was both highly accomplished but also modest about it.
Someone able to be deeply serious and responsible about the matters of adult life (bills, savings, health issues) but able to laugh a lot.
Someone generous emotionally, able to easily express affection, something I struggle with.
I found Jose online while writing about online dating for a women’s magazine.
We would never have met otherwise — even though we had people who knew us both.
This was then part of my thinking if I met a man who seemed interesting.
So, how compatible, really, were we?
P for Professional
E for Emotional
P for Physical Attraction
S for Spiritual
I for Intellectual
There were some serious doubts on both parts.
P met the bill, both of them.
E…well, two very stubborn people!
He felt I wasn’t nearly spiritual enough for him, a devout Buddhist. I told him that seemed mighty judgmental.
I feared he wasn’t intellectual enough.
Yet here are, 21 years later!
Some of the qualities I think essential in a life partner include a phenomenal work ethic, a spirit of generosity for himself and others, awareness of the world and how it works (and doesn’t), a commitment to making others happier.
Resilience is huge. We’ve been through a lot of stuff — deep family conflicts, his turning full-time freelance, his diabetes diagnosis, my breast cancer. I wanted someone with a spine and a heart!
We each arrive to the quest with our own specific deficits and needs, our strengths and weaknesses.
But knowing who we are and what we value most is a good start.
I’ve always been proud of my vocabulary and I’ve been writing for a living since university.
But it’s humbling indeed to realize how many words I still don’t know or just don’t use.
I recently began playing the New York Times Spelling Bee and am officially addicted!
It’s shaped like a flower, with seven letters — six around a central letter that must be included in every word of four or more letters.
Its feedback as you play is so New York-ishly competitive….as you make more words and score more points (with more points for longer words) it goes from Nice to Solid (!) to Great to Amazing.
The highest level (which I have yet to attain) is Queen Bee.
And I’m such a nerd that when I come up with a word that uses all the letters — that they didn’t include — there is much gnashing of teeth. How dare they!
It teaches me a lot about how I perceive, how I think, how I see (or don’t!) see patterns.
And words I never use or have never heard before.
How could I have missed anime?
I don’t follow it as an art form, even as I know what it is. So my eyes didn’t discern it.
And let’s not forget tontine — an obscure 17th-19th century word for a kind of insurance.
It’s really interesting to work hard at it for a bit, get tired and frustrated, then go away for a while. Maybe an hour or more.
Almost without fail, the minute I see it anew — boom! –– there’s a word right in front me I hadn’t noticed.
I like that it forces me to take breaks and refresh my brain.
I also play Scrabble with my husband, but more often now solo against the computer at the advanced level. It drives me nuts when it — often — makes obviously French words! Like quai.
I also need to memorize a lot more words using q, j, and z.
He and I play Bananagrams and he’s gotten very good!
What I like most about it, other than it’s easily portable (the tiles come in the cutest little yellow cotton sack that looks like a banana), is it forces players to move fast and be super flexible. If the word patterns you’ve made aren’t allowing for the next letters, break ’em up and move them as needed.
This is huge, this sort of instant destruction. It’s the opposite of Scrabble, where you aim for the highest possible score every time. With Bananagrams, the goal is to use up all the letters as fast as possible then shout “Bananas!” when you win.
It’s a little odd that I work with words and also play with them. But I like that they’re not only my bread and butter but a source of real pleasure and relaxation.
These games are a fun and easy way to stay mentally sharp, to grow my vocabulary, to savor a bit of competition.
There are times that a deeply personal and private experience intersects with the larger culture. In journalism, it’s called the hook or the news peg, i.e. since everyone is now talking about it or thinking about it, it’s worth discussion and an assignment.
And my primary goal, often, for writing about a topic, especially a difficult and painful one, is to be of service, to comfort and to connect people to others who know their journey and who truly understand.
To explain to those who don’t understand and might become less judgmental as a result.
My mother Cynthia died Feb. 15, 2020 in a nursing home in Victoria, B.C. a seven-hour flight from our home in suburban New York. We had not spoken in a decade and even though I sent cards every Christmas and included a newsletter, no reply.
We had had some good years and some good visits.
But we had also had some very very bad ones.
She had been through so much in her life, including divorcing my father when she was 30, traveling through Latin America alone for years, living alone in such places as London, New Mexico, Mexico, Bath, Montreal and Toronto, surviving multiple cancers. She never re-married.
I’m actually a quite private person, and choosing to discuss painful issues before millions of readers worldwide is objectively somewhat frightening.
Here’s some of it:
When the phone call came from my mother’s nursing home, I knew there could be only one reason. She had died at 85, sitting in her armchair watching television.
I was her only child, but we hadn’t spoken, or even tried to be in touch, in the previous decade. She was a Mensa member, a world traveler of independent means and a voracious reader. She was also bipolar and an alcoholic. Worn out by decades of dealing with both, which meant years of chaos and broken plans, I had finally, reluctantly, exhaustedly, just given up trying to have a relationship.
For every anguished iPad farewell made to a dying Covid patient, or during another Zoom funeral or someone dearly loved and mourned, there are many people like me, estranged from their parents, children or siblings when those family members pass away. And because of this, we may not grieve the same way people typically expect. For some, the end of an unhappy and complicated relationship just comes as a relief.
As I write this, the story has gathered 49 comments, and they are so so painful to read, as so many others share their stories.
I was stunned to see how many people — through Twitter and Facebook — praised the story’s honesty about such a difficult topic and how many people struggle with estrangement in their own families. I had no idea.
It’s very hard to be estranged from a family member, as I still am from a half-brother who is 23 years my junior and father of year-old twins, a boy and girl I may never meet.
It’s also hard because it’s really taboo to admit you don’t speak to your mother or father or siblings or any of them. The myth that “family” equals love is a strong one. Those of us who don’t have that experience seek out others who get it. Our husbands and wives and best friends know. Our therapists know.
But it tends to remain secret and private because you can never trust someone new not to gaslight you or deny your lived experience since theirs has been so happy.
There is a great deal more detail, of course, I couldn’t include in this article. There are more characters and more history.
But the gratitude readers have shared has been deeply moving.
As readers here know, this is an ongoing series, usually every six weeks or so, updating you on the joys and sorrows of life as a full-time freelancer.
It has not been dull, kids!
The good news:
I’ve gratefully had lots of work, challenging and interesting and well-paid — the trifecta!
I was asked to ghost-write for someone I knew in freshman classes at University of Toronto, someone whose own creative life kept intersecting with mine over the ensuing years — as she also moved to Montreal then to New York City. I had never ghost-written for anyone before but it was deemed excellent and didn’t even require a second draft.
Still blogging occasionally about pancreatic cancer research for the Lustgarten Foundation. I still have never met my editor, even though we don’t live that far apart — thanks to the pandemic.
Worked more on a story for The New York Times, which I’ll blog about here when it appears, probably next week. I started work on it back in December so it’s been a while.
We leased a Mazda CX0-30 last fall, our first time in that brand, and love it. While at the dealership, I picked up the glossy Mazda magazine and emailed its editor, based in England, to say, truthfully, how much we’re enjoying the car — and can I write for them? She and I did a get-to-know-you Zoom a while back. Several pitches now under consideration, and we might work together again as a team, Jose and I, since he is a professional photographer. That would be cool!
My income from some of these has been good enough I can actually just rest for a bit. We get our Johnson and Johnson one-shot COVID vaccination this Sunday and plan to take Monday and Tuesday off if we need it afterward.
I’ve been busy with coaching clients. I spoke to a PR firm in Ohio this week and next week working with a writer pal on three of his pitches.
My bloody book proposal is still not finding any success — YET!
It’s been read by five agents and one editor.
I sent it this week to a Very Big Name in our industry, someone I’ve met twice a while back, who’s published 17 (!) books on writing. He was very generous and wrote back quickly and very encouragingly.
So I’m on a steep and tiring learning curve — still trying for an agent and a trade house; starting to research potential university presses and self-publishing. It’s a lot at once to manage and it’s really hard not to just give up.
But when people who know the subject say: “This is important and timely and I can’t wait to read it” I am going to take this as sincere.
My last book was published in 2011. The publishing industry has since massively shrunk and consolidated, meaning there are fewer and fewer smaller publishers. To sell a book to one of the Big Boys now means you have to have a subject they think will sell a lot of copies.
None will look at anything without an agent….and I’ve been through five already.
But — goddamnit! — I also see what books are being commissioned and I want to throw a chair. Some are so banal I simply cannot imagine that thousands and thousands of readers are going to rush to buy them.
I try to be a good soldier and cheer on all those others but it’s hard sometimes not to succumb to bitterness and envy. My first two books quickly found good agents and they worked hard to sell them to major publishers. Many agents now are not even accepting new clients and even those I am personally referred to or know personally can’t even reply to emails. It can feel very very depressing to keep banging on every door of every gatekeeper.
Traditional con men do their work one person at a time. It’s a laborious process, earning trust and the benefit of the doubt before ultimately ripping someone off.
Toward the end of my dad’s life, shameless/shameful phone salespeople did just this and stole his trust, his time and his money.
Like most things, industrialists want to do it faster and bigger.
Scammy direct mail used to be obvious even at a distance. The labels, the stamps, the typography–it all signaled that this wasn’t personal.
And the occasional phone salesperson, calling from a boiler room–we could tell.
Now, as data acquisition continues to scale and become ever more granular, the hustle is getting more personal.
It’s in an uncanny valley–almost real, but not quite. And of course, the distance keeps getting shorter.
So the mail merge, the phone spam, the faux intimacy of a stranger. They continue to blur the lines between personal and personalized.
The end result is going to be a shrinking of our previously-widening circle of trust.
The benefit of the doubt is priceless. I have no patience for people who want to take it away from us.
I think about trust a lot.
I grew up in a family much more comfortable expressing anger, verbally, or not discussing feelings at all. I spent my childhood between boarding school and summer camp, surrounded by strangers, some of who were horrible, some of whom became dear friends.
When you’ve seen that people don’t want to listen to you, or misuse and twist what you’ve shared with them, trust isn’t something you later just quickly hand over to everyone!
I’ve learned this the hard way.
So it’s left me very wary.
In my 20s, I made the fatal error of telling a few coworkers II thought were friends something potentially damaging to me personally who, of course, used it against me. I left Toronto and never went back.
In my late 30s, divorced and lonely and my self-confidence at a very low ebb, I met a charming, handsome man through a personals ad — remember those?!
He said he was a lawyer and had a business card and personal stationery that seemed legit and spent a lot of time on the phone arguing with his “partner.”
He was just a con man who had already rooked a bunch of women in Chicago, done time for his crimes, and was now picking off fresh prey in New York and a few other states at once.
It became the most frightening experience of my life because the police laughed at me when I realized what a victim I’d become and the district attorney laughed because “no harm was done.”
The breast cancer diagnosis I got in June 2018 (early stage, no chemo) finally broke me open. I had to trust a whole new medical team to be kind and gentle and skilled — from the tiny black dot tattoos they put on your skin to guide the radiation machine to the techs who lay me face down there daily for 20 days.
Journalism is an odd business — because my role is to win trust fast from total strangers.
But I’ve learned how to do that and I’m good at it. Mostly it requires empathy. Really listening carefully without judgment.
There’s also now a very deep and widespread mistrust of journalists, which really upsets me. The monster who screamed FAKE NEWS at us for four years made sure of that.
So we’re really at a crisis point when it comes to trust.
Some binged on much older works of art, from the Iliad to old movies.
If you’d known you’d be so isolated for so long, what would you have done differently?
I would have rented a house somewhere upstate and fled our apartment. It’s been a challenge with two people home all the time working, between no privacy and noise and endless cooking and cleaning. Even fled overseas or back to Canada.
Did you find a friendship that helped you through this time?
My husband has been the best and most consistent.
What’s one thing you made this year?
My book proposal.
What’s the one moment you’ll remember most?
Two…my last gasps of non-COVID travel, seeing friends in D.C. in early March 2020, and a Degas show there. And the (thank God) defeat of Trump.
What art have you turned to?
I watch way too much television: new shows, older shows, new movies, older movies. Have tried to read books but with less success. My Insta account includes several people who highlight works of art and this has been really sustaining. Music, every day, thanks to my vinyl and global radio and Sirius XM.
What bad idea did you have?
My book proposal — so far proving impossible to sell. Very frustrating.
What do you want to achieve before things return to normal?
Lose more weight. Get really thoughtful about who I will spend time with.
Loved this story — now almost two years old — by one of my favorite fellow full-time freelance writers, AC Shilton, about how she finally came to terms with her body:
Six months ago, [in the summer of 2018,] my husband, Chris, and I bought a 46-acre farm in northeast Tennessee. Though we’re equal partners in it, the farm was my idea, and I’m the primary manager.
The impetus to buy the farm grew out of a career and identity crisis I was having. I was feeling increasingly insecure about the stability of my chosen profession—journalism. I’ve ducked and woven my way through a freelance writing career, bringing home just enough money to drive an 18-year-old truck and (sometimes) have health insurance. At the same time, I’d completely burned out on endurance sports, which I’d been doing throughout my teens and twenties. Training felt like a chore, and I was seeking a new way to use my body that didn’t require thousands of dollars in gear and entry fees.
I have another full time freelance friend in Tennessee — a state I have yet to visit — who’s also struggling with body issues at the moment.
But AC is in her late 30s and my other friend in her late 20s.
I am decades older and, past menopause, when your metabolism slows so far down it basically says fuck you.
I am worn out battling my body.
Injuries, weight gain, metabolic issues.
It feels overwhelming.
I gained 20 pounds in the year 2003 when my late mother (who survived it) was found to have a huge brain tumor (I went to Vancouver for her surgery) and I was traveling the United States researching my first book. The last thing I had time, energy or money for was fussing about calories or diligently working out to burn them off.
I gained another 25 pounds over the ensuing nine years before my left hip was replaced, and felt terrible shame at the appalling number on the scale — even though that’s about three added pounds every 12 months.
I am not someone who eats fast food or junk food or huge portions or cheesecake and cookies and ice cream and candy and drinks a lot of liquor or never works out. Dammit!
I do eat some carbs and I have dessert maybe two or three times a week. I drink alcohol maybe twice a week, a small glass of wine.
So this has been a matter of intense shame and frustration for me.
I started intermittent fasting (eat normally for 8 hours and fast for 16) daily since November 1, 2020.
I have lost five pounds.
On one hand, I am thrilled — as this is the first time in 20 years I have LOST weight at all, and not gained even more.
On the other hand, I want to scream with frustration when a friend my age loses a pound a week doing the same things.
OH NO — CARBS!!!!!!!
I have two friends who are my weight loss role models, a man who shed 30 pounds in year of IF (if my progress continues, I will lose half of that) and a woman who shed 40 pounds in two years.
I don’t need it to happen fast.
But it’s hard to stay motivated and every single person I speak to — my GP, an exercise specialist, two nutritionists — offers something different. Each, of course, costs money.
I was never someone with “body issues” — I went from a size 10 to a 12 when I left Toronto at the age of 30 and moved to Montreal. It proved much more stressful than I had imagined.
And I’ve always been athletic: skiing, skating, cycling, walking, golf, swimming, etc. But arthritis is a problem and my crappy knees have impeded me from some activities I love — like playing softball with my team of 20 years. So my anger is compounded by loneliness, as almost all my exercise activities now are done alone.
I do know walking is GREAT exercise…I don’t enjoy doing it alone.
My late mother and I…maybe 20 years ago?
In my mid 30s I took up saber fencing and was nationally ranked in it for four years. I loved it.
I miss the teamwork.
I miss having a coach — ours was a two-time recent Olympian.
I’ve since been a size 12, but not in recent years. I do hope to get back to it. I have no wish to be a size 10 or 8. I doubt my body can even do it.
Readers in England know what this post refers to — the recent horrific and shocking kidnap and murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard, who walked home alone from a friend’s house but was waylaid, of all people, by a Met policeman, now allegedly her killer.
A public vigil held in in her honor became a site of rage and chaos as London police handcuffed women protestors and dragged them away.
Not exactly what anyone wanted.
Apparently, the constant fear and hyper-vigilance that women of all ages simply take for granted, is breaking news to some men.
We spend/waste so much of our lives making sure we are safe — we hope — by choosing a well-lit street or populated subway car, checking our car back seat before we get in.
Parking lots at night? No thanks!
Underground parking garages with no one around? No thanks!
Going for a run or a walk through woods or a forest or at dawn or dusk? No thanks!
Wearing headphones while out in public, just walking? No thanks!
Refusing the attentions, always unwanted, of some random man — Smile, sweetheart! –– can lead to a barrage of shouted filth, sometimes even a vicious physical attack.
almost one in three women in the UK will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime and women are far more likely to be killed by a partner than a stranger – so it’s not like keeping men in the house after 6pm would make women safe….
We’re used to women’s freedoms and women’s bodies being up for debate, you see. We’re used to women being told to modify our behaviour as a reaction to male violence. Women may not be under a formal curfew but you only need to look at the disgusting victim-blaming that went on with Sarah Everard to see that we’re under an informal one. Why was she out at 9.30 at night? Why did she walk home instead of taking a cab? What did she expect? Our freedom of movement after dark may not be restricted by the government, but we often don’t have the freedom to fully relax. We regulate our behaviour automatically; we keep our keys in our hands, we stay on high alert, we pay extra to take a cab because we’re worried about walking home. Street harassment is so common we brush it off as “nothing”; after all, it’s not like there’s anything that we can do we about it anyway. As a recent letter to the Guardian pointed out, “you can be fined for dropping litter in the UK, but not for harassing a woman or girl in public”.
The only time I was attacked was, bizarrely, in my own apartment, in downtown Toronto, never (thank God) on the street. I was not badly hurt, just scared enough to move within a few weeks.
However quaint the notion, most Western women now believe in two words to define how we want to, intend to, spend our lives — autonomy and agency.
But, funny thing, lived in homes and on streets and using public transit and public spaces overwhelmingly designed for the comfort and safety of men.