DIY: But Can You?

A toolbox, from Biltema)
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OK, that thing over there is a toolbox. Those things are for fixing stuff. Yourself.

There’s an X-acto knife, scissors,  a hammer, pliers, two wrenches, three screwdrivers and a tape measure. I have three red toolboxes, love them dearly, use my many tools as often as I can possibly dream up yet another project.

I loved this piece in today’s New York Post about all the ways you can DIY (do it yourself). Even Peter Gabriel, back in 1982, wrote a song about it.

I’ve designed and built bookshelves, a folding screen, tables. I’ve hammered, sawed, painted, plastered, sanded, drilled, urethaned (is that a verb?), stripped floord an What some women spend on shoes, I spend at my local hardware and lumber stores. I love working with my hands and making stuff.

Plus I’m cheap. If I can do it myself, why would I pay someone $95/hour to come and do it for me? (And, no, my Dad or brothers didn’t teach me. No one did.)

Many of us are running out of money — and those without jobs or enough work have now got a lot more time on our hands. So put a wrench in one of them and get to know your home a little better.

Mental Health Records for Virginia Tech Shooter Finally Found

One of the photographs of Seung-Hui Cho that h...
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They escaped the notice of two separate investigations, but the mental health records for Seung Hui Cho, who on April 16, 2007 shot and killed 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech, have been found. They were in the home of the former director of the university’s counseling center, and only came to light, reports today’s Washington Post thanks to pre-trial discovery for lawsuits launched by the families of several of his victims.

The Post reports:

“Lucinda Roy, a Virginia Tech English professor who encouraged Cho to get counseling, said the late and mysterious reappearance of the records adds to concern that the university has been more concerned with preserving its reputation than with providing the public with a thorough account of how Cho’s case was handled.

Roy said she had been in frequent contact with Miller about Cho’s violent writings, flat affect and disturbing behavior. “He seemed to be a caring individual and responsive to problems, even though I was very disappointed that the counseling center could not have been more proactive,” she said. “It was always puzzling to me that they couldn’t find the records and there was not a huge push to try to find them.”

Parents of his victims are understandably furious it has taken so long and wonder why.

“The words that come to mind are coverup, collusion, obstruction,” said Mike Pohle, whose son was killed in the shootings. “I’m spinning. Who knows what could be in those records? But this is just potentially more information that says: Virginia Tech, you failed to do your job.”

Pohle and Suzanne Grimes, whose son was wounded and still has a bullet in him, said the revelation might call into question the $11 million settlement that all but two families of victims signed with the university. “It just infuriates me that all of a sudden now, these records have magically appeared from a former director,” she said. “When you retire, you take the pictures off the wall. You don’t take records. It doesn’t make sense. And it raises a whole new set of questions about accountability for Virginia Tech.”

One-third of American homes contain a firearm. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 5 to 8 percent of Americans — about 14 million — are suffering from depression, which is why more than 50 percent of gun deaths are suicides, as this was after multiple murders. The correlation between mental illness, the privacy of health records and gun ownership is messy, opaque and one of the greatest challenges the U.S. faces in attempts to reduce gun-related violence and death.

Be There, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue block, 6:30 Tonight

Street hockey game in Washington, DC
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One of the toughest things about growing up, (or getting older), is how quickly you can lose the ability — time, energy, extra income, muscle mass, flexibility — to get outside and play with others. It’s easy when you share a street, cul-de-sac or nearby field to get out and toss a ball or go for a bike ride with your best friend. Once you move to a big city, how do you find other adults as passionate about softball, soccer, cricket or street hockey as you? Team sports need…teams.

So I love this story, from the Washington Post, about pickup street hockey (shinny, as it’s called in Canada) played on the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, a spot better known for a slightly different reason. For about 14 years, a group of strangers has met there year-round at noon on Saturdays and Sundays and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday night.

I’ve been playing softball on Saturday mornings since 2001 with a group of men and women, ranging in age from 20 to 70+, at a local field. We meet at 9:30 a.m. for batting practice then play for two hours. I’ve gone from being an OK player to hitting consistently to the outfield, even being the lead-off hitter, which is pretty cool for a Canadian girl who didn’t even play the game ’til she was 18. We now have our own custom-designed T-shirts and we meet afterwards at a local tavern, sitting under a tree with a great view of the Hudson River, for Stellas and Guinness and a cold pint of Blue Moon. And food, of course.

Like the Washington game, ours has become a treasured and reliable oasis of fun, friends, good exercise, light competition and camaraderie, a needed breather from the absurdity of daily life, certainly in this recession. We’ve got a guy who last year had a double transplant — he’s back. I had shoulder surgery and was on the disabled list for a year, but I’m back. Eddie broke Joe’s wrist with a wicked strike — Joe’s back pitching. Joan’s gotten over Lyme disease and a broken foot. I love our raggedy gang of survivors: a literary agent, a couple of lawyers, a retired ironworker, schoolteachers, a few shrinks, a (male) pastry chef for one of Manhattan’s hottest and most expensive new restaurants. I really like it when Marty comes, because Marty not only coaches well but is an orthopedic surgeon; if something really bad happens on the field, as it has once or twice, we’ve got an expert on-site.

Loons, Lakes and Lily-Dippers: Lessons Learned at Camp

300px-wooden_canoe_sharbot_lake_ontario1I work every Tuesday night at The North Face, selling tents and sleeping bags and hiking shoes to people sometimes as passionate about the outdoors as I am.

Last night, it was a 12-year-old boy with a blond bowl haircut and his mom. The boy, just back from summer camp in New Hampshire, needed a backpack to replace the one he had shredded hiking 4,000-foot peaks. Total strangers, we chatted like old friends about camp — my memories more than 20 years old, his from last week. We had plenty to talk about: mice, bugs, bears, buying candy from the camp store twice a week, (and making sure it didn’t attract bears), how to use a signaling device when you’re lost.

You learn a lot at camp, as much about yourself as anything. I spent eight summers at sleep-away camp (a redundancy for many Canadians), at three in northern Ontario, beginning the summer I was eight. I went for eight weeks every year, trading boarding school and its bells and shared rooms and meals for a bunk bed, spiders and a fresh batch of kids.

Continue reading “Loons, Lakes and Lily-Dippers: Lessons Learned at Camp”

Life After Stitches (or Staples)

Image by Andy G via Flickr

One of the best writers at The New York Times, I think, is Dana Jennings, an editor there, who has been writing about his brutal and exhausting battle with prostate cancer. Unlike much Times’ copy, which can be polite, accurate but bloodless, Jennings’ personal essays on this subject practically jump off the page and grab you by the throat. They’re not always fun, but they remind me, anyway, what great writing is about.

In today’s Times’ column, Cases, a weekly, long-running feature about the personal experience of illness or healthcare (open to all writers, I’ve written two of them), he writes eloquently about the many scars his body now carries, from childhood mishaps to major abdominal surgery to acne scars on his back. His honesty is extraordinary, and, I think refreshing.

“For all the potential tales of woe they suggest, scars are also signposts of optimism. If your body is game enough to knit itself back together after a hard physical lesson, that means you’re still alive, means you’re on the path toward healing…The scars remind me, too, that in this vain culture our vanity needs to be punctured and deflated — and that’s not such a bad thing. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, better to be scarred and living than a dead lion.”

As someone with coconut knees (tiny indentations on the top of each, like a coconut, from one arthroscopy apiece) and two scars on the inside of each wrist — one, a half-inch souvenir of a motorbike ride in Thailand gone awry and the other from scraping against a wet wire during a gale-force wind while sailboat racing off Long Island Sound — I value my scars as well. Like Jennings reminds us, they’re the roadmap of our lives, reminding us, and those who get close enough to see them, of some of the best, and worst, places we’ve been.

Seeding the Clouds: When One Passionate Writer Begets Another

Frank McCourt
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Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize winning best-selling memoirist who died two days ago, taught at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan for 15 years. Today’s New York Times has a nice piece about the many successful writers he taught and how he inspired them.

“Frank had us sing salacious folk songs, he had us write courtroom defenses of inanimate objects and recite recipes as poetry,” said Susan Jane Gilman, a former student who has published two memoirs. She describes his English class as “intellectual freefall.”

Fortunate indeed are students who find a teacher, of English (or history or math or computer science) who so inspires them, opens their eye and may start them on a career path they might never otherwise have considered. For many of us, high school wasn’t a hotbed of innovative thinking. Kwana Jackson, who now writes romance novels, wrote on her blog that his class “was where I really started to love the written word and started to crave the writer’s life.”

Other students of his quoted in this piece, now successful non-fiction authors, include Alissa Quart and National Magazine Award winner David Lipsky, whose book about West Point, “Absolutely American,” captured the Holy Grail of criticism, a rave front page review in The New York Times Book Review. It’s a terrific book, and it took enormous talent and hard work to achieve that; a few years ago, his editor told a room full of writers attending the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors it still required multiple, detailed revisions to get it to where he, the editor, wanted it. For a would-be writer, a wild-eyed, passionate, cage-rattling kind of teacher can be your dreams’ launching pad. A great editor, or several, your booster rocket.

Who inspired your young dreams? How did they turn out?

Another Health Care Cost: Two Ways Hospitals Are Losing Money

Intensive care bed after a trauma intervention...
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A friend of mine works for a major New York City hospital, very close to someone in a very senior role. In this position, this person (whose gender I’m keeping deliberately vague) has a clear view of  some issues in the healthcare debate most of us don’t. I hadn’t seen this person in a while and asked how work was going — after all, every news report suggests that healthcare and education are booming, even in the recession, unable to find and hire all the help they need. If anyone’s job is safe and secure, this person’s must be.

Not true, they said. This year is OK, they told me, but next year might not be. As the recession drags on, this major, well-known and respected hospital is losing patients who are losing their jobs — and with them — their health insurance. The dominoes are falling in so many directions it’s hard to keep track.

As more Americans lose their jobs this hospital is losing patients, i.e. income. Without sufficient income, the hospital will likely have to cut services or staff. So this friend of mine might lose their job, too.

When patients don’t have insurance, they can go to an emergency room for care and get whatever the hospital decides it can afford to supply them. So, in two ways, the recession is draining income from hospitals: the formerly insured who can’t afford optimal care and the uninsured or indigent who take whatever they can get, a growing tab that hospitals legally must pick up. They’re getting hammered financially from two directions.

What strikes me about the healthcare “debate” is how little we still understand the minutiae, and how eager some stakeholders are that we do not. Those of us outside the system — and there are so many players, many with competing interests inside the system — can’t even ask all the tough, smart, informed questions because most of us, however intelligent or educated, don’t even know what to ask. There is a real sense of urgency to get to answers, now, as President Obama has said there will be a new healthcare plan by the end of this year, only 5.5 months away.

And how much do you even understand, or trust, the answers we’re being given?

How Much Is This Story Worth To You? The New Checkbook Journalism

Reading the newspaper: Brookgreen Gardens in P...
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Gathering information firsthand, at least anywhere beyond a few convenient blocks of your office, costs money. Today’s New York Times announces a $30,000 stipend for a semester at Harvard, where one lucky journo — and 12,000 of us have been canned in the past two years, so plenty of us might be very interested — can work on a project and teach.

It can cost millions a year if you try to maintain a consistent presence in a dangerous and complicated place like Iran or Afghanistan, where costs, beyond paying your staffers and stringers, include fixers, translators, drivers, medical care, security and international airfares. Reporters end up sitting around their offices or newsrooms, literally begging for cabfare from their bosses. It’s a lot cheaper than say…shoe-leather reporting.

Freelancers — many of whom, like me, used to have well-paid staff jobs that would pay to send us places — face a whole other set of challenges. You hear about a fantastic story and you want to report it. I’ve got a few in mind right now, one in New Mexico, one in Ghana. Who’s going to pay for it? If a major magazine is willing to pay $6,000-10,000 (and that’s rare, and certainly on the high end of the freelance pay scale these days) for a feature story that might exclusively demand two or three weeks of your time, sometimes months, how many writers can snag another $3-5,000 or more in expenses?

Two years ago, I broke a terrific medical investigative story for Chatelaine, a national Canadian women’s magazine. To sit face to face with the women, and their traumatized families,  who’d become victims of a life-altering and vicious drug side effect, meant sending me to Winnipeg, Edmonton and Toronto from New York where I live. Costs included hotel, cabs, meals, airfare, car rental, gas. Even spending only a day in each place, which is tiring when you’re working on a complicated and emotionally draining story like that one, costs money.

Newspapers, including The New York Times, are wondering if they should get foundation money to help pay for reporting. Continue reading “How Much Is This Story Worth To You? The New Checkbook Journalism”

Ba-Boom! Free AK-47 with Truck Offered in Missouri

AK-47 Assault Rifle
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Mark Muller is giving away a voucher for a $450 AK-47 to anyone who buys a truck from his car dealership in Butler, MO.

Muller even freaked out Robin Lustig, who’s been hosting BBC Newshour for 20 years, today, prompting a flood of “No, we’re not all like that” emails from horrified fellow Americans listening, as I was, from within the U.S.

“Americans love guns,”  Muller told Lustig. “All of them?” Lustig asked calmly. “Except for the Commies,” said Muller.

All terrific theater, except for those whose lives have been ripped apart by gun violence. Muller’s main argument, in a 4:56 minute (i.e. really long) CNN interview, was the need to defend your home against invasion by murderers. He lives on a 1,200-acre ranch in a part of the country now ravaged by meth dealers, a subject explored in a recent, raved-about book focusing on a small Iowa town.

Murderers will likely never burst through your door, so Muller just sounds like a paranoid freak to many people.

Except when it does happen, as it did in Beulah, FL last week to Melanie and Byrd Billings. Thus the enduring appeal, to one constituency whose faith in personal firearms deeply horrifies many others, of an AK-47 semi-automatic for home protection.

Census Work Finished in Record Time: Why You Should Hire the "Overqualified"

1900 census - John Lindstrom (small)
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I heard this last week from a friend of mine, whom Census rules strictly forbid from identifying further, as this person, like everyone in their position, had to sign confidentiality forms to get the temporary full-time job. According to the Census:  “Each worker will take a lifetime oath to keep census information confidential. By law, the Census Bureau cannot share respondents’ answers with any other government or law enforcement agency. Any violation of that oath is punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 and five years in prison.”

This person is educated, and used to work in a demanding and highly competitive industry, now utterly ravaged by the recession, that relies heavily on intellectual ability. Walking alone around unfamiliar neighborhoods in sun and rain and humidity with a hand-held device checking addresses — the crucial initial work of the 2010 census that begins in earnest next spring — wasn’t a dream job. But, in the area where we live, it paid more than $18 an hour and that’s damn good money in this recession, especially for steady work that doesn’t demand lifting or carrying. What I was told stunned me, although it shouldn’t have: people with qualifications far more senior than this person showed up in droves, grateful and eager to grab the opportunity to work, if only for a month.

As a result, Raul Cisneros, a spokesman for the Census told me, the census workers hired nationwide did indeed finish their workverifying addresses way ahead of schedule. They hired 140,000 people across the country, paying them between $10 an hour and $34/hour for the most demanding supervisory jobs. Another Census spokesman confirmed: “We did not have the turnover we’d had in the past. People were sticking around to do the job and in some places they finished that job ahead of schedule. In some places, they did finish very quickly.”

People want to work. It’s deadening and depressing to sit alone at home week after week after week sending out resumes into deep space. It doesn’t have to be a dream job or the job for the rest of your life. Ideally, even if for a while, it needs to put you in touch with other smart people whose very presence reminds you you’re not dead. That’s one of the toughest parts of being out of work. Chatting up random strangers at Starbucks or the library isn’t enough.

People with enormous amounts of talent, skill, experience and savvy are going to waste and the wise are snapping them up whenever and wherever they can. Even the smallest temporary job is worth it: people crave colleagues, somewhere to go, something smart to do and knowing they’re making a contribution. And, yes, the chance to pay some bills. Any income is better than no income!

The Census won’t be hiring again until March 2010, when, they told me, they’ll recruit 3.8 million people to fill 1.4 million jobs.

At least someone has definite job openings.