Jelly Donuts and Electric Fences: Sort Of Like Blogging

Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone National Park Ursu...
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In 1970, my Dad made a feature film for Disney called “King of the Grizzlies”, which featured, naturally, a grizzly bear. While he’d been a celebrated film director for years, my Dad found directing a large wild animal presented entirely new challenges — how exactly do you direct a grizzly? Jelly donuts and electric fences, he told me. To entice his furry star to walk in the right direction, a crew member would hold out jelly donuts. An additional guide were the low-voltage, low-level electrical wires installed along the desired walkways, out of camera range. (Having literally run into one of these wires, designed to contain cattle, in a pitch-dark Irish field, I can tell you they work.)

That’s sort of what blogging — for an old-media old-fart like me new to this medium (a big ho-hum for some of you) — feels like. I’ve been writing professionally since my freshman year of college (no, I never studied journalism, instead English lit. at the University of Toronto) and quickly grew accustomed to, and enjoying the fact of, millions of readers reading my stuff.  Sometimes they took the time to write to me or the magazine or newspaper to say so, sometimes sent a clip of it by mail (paper, postage, that old-media thing) to someone they thought might enjoy it. Only once  did my writing elicit a wild reaction, and that unmediated, overwhelming, unanticipated international attention was both, to a young and ambitious journo, exciting and terrifying. I wrote a front-page story about Queen Elizabeth, after spending two weeks following her tour through three provinces, that examined the nature of celebrity. You don’t mess with the Queen, certainly in Canada, and hate mail poured in from Canada and Britain. One writer demanded I be hung, drawn and quartered. It was one of the few times so many readers at once made themselves, and their ire, fully heard.

This is my first crack at blogging for a large audience; I also blog about firearms, crime, violence and women at, but less frequently. For anyone who’s ever worked for a large, serious, old-media news organization — which I feel lucky to have done — it’s a distinctly disorienting sensation to…just write. Post. Publish. Not to worry if I’m treading on the toes of the city hall or education or media or health reporter; newsrooms can be insanely territorial places, where who’ll take your call and pass along a scoop can make or break your career. Not to have to wheedle and whine for days, sometimes weeks, to an editor why we really need to run this story. For better or worse, many of those filters disappear through the medium of  blogging.

What old-school journo’s also know, (and some of us miss), is that producing a newspaper or magazine or radio or television newscast is an industrial process. Whatever’s happening out there in the world has traditionally become “news” non-journos hear about only after much selection, sawing and carving and polishing and buffing. The finished product, as shiny and alluring as a new table, can sometimes no more resemble the “truth” than the trees-to-lumber-to consumer product it became along the way.

It also reconfigures the very shape of what you read here and how we choose to present it to you. Autoworkers on the assembly line know it’s their specific job to instal windshields, or seats, or dashboards, and maybe all of these. They don’t make the whole car, nor are they expected to — which we do here. Journalists still working within structured news environments, whether Time or CNN or The New York Times, are similarly chosen and hired to focus on, ideally deeply understand and produce one small piece of the puzzle, never the whole thing.

Here, for example, we write our own make-or-break headlines, even if we’ve never done it in our lives and are bumbling along, bear-like; writers never do, not for magazines or newspapers, anyway, whether  staff or freelance. Nor, typically, have reporters shot our own photos or chosen, all the time, whenever it suits us, what we want to write about or get you to think about. There is always an editorial hand, frequently many and sometimes competing, lying heavily on our shoulders. That’s not such a bad thing.

Freedom feels…odd. You’d think it feels great, right? Well, of course on some levels it does. But who’s there, other than your profound uninterest and single-digit pageviews, to let us know, “Sweetheart, this sucks!”? Popular opinion, which essentially rules this medium, isn’t always the best judge of taste or quality. One old-media artifact, whose use lives on as a verb, was a tall, sharp metal spike that sat on the desk of your editor(s). If your story was appalling, and, then, it was written and read in the newsroom on a piece of paper, it got spiked. Killed. Boom! Go do something better, a lot better. Or else. Here, we can post again seconds later, if we dare, optimistic enough to think we’ll get another grab for that most valuable commodity in the world — attention.

I loved working with editors who sat in the same room with me,  some of them — OK, many of them — eccentrics who, thank God, wouldn’t last a day in a more formal environment. One kept an enormous cardboard cutout of comedian Mike Myers in the window of his office. Another strode through the newsroom every afternoon, bow-tied, carrying his teapot. Several loved the freedom to shout out whenever they wanted you, their command audible the entire length of an open newsroom. By example, it gave us explicit permission to be unconventional, even weird, sometimes deeply weird, (which is where some of the smartest thinking comes from), and sometimes so anti-social we’re almost feral and forget to wear clothes that match. Working alone at home can do that to you.

Great editors, and they are rare, are intellectual anatomists, able to discern the bones of the best stuff you may not have even imagined in your own work, even when your notebooks and tapes are full. On the really tough, frightening, high-stakes stories — the ones that matter most — they’re our cut-men, taping us back together when we stagger back, bloodied and scared, into our corners, wiping us down and sending us right back in there to finish the job. I firmly believe the very best and bravest journalism will always demand cut-men, whatever the new-media equivalent is.

Here, I’m a grizzly bear, looking out for the donuts.  As all of us do, I’ll also keep running into the wires. It’s a fascinating, odd, sometimes confusing way to communicate. Please feel free to email me with ideas for stories, comments, people you think worth looking into.

Istanbul Cleans Up Its Act, Threatening to Close Famed Street of Brothels

Istanbul Birds in Flight
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You might have missed Giraffe Street if you’ve ever visited Istanbul, shut behind a thick metal door in the city’s historic center. If you were a tourist, your ID would have forbidden entry into one of the city’s most famous streets, reports Le Monde in tomorrow’s edition, housing about 40 brothels. Now, mayor Kadir Topbas says it’s time to renovate the city center, close the street and turn it into a public garden with small artists’s studios. The 150 prostitutes who live and work there will have to move.

The announcement, reports Le Monde, has reignited a debate about prostitution, which is legal in Turkey, and even provides sex workers with health care, access to social security and retirement benefits. Belgin Celik, a transsexual spokesman for the sex workers, asked “What will become of them? If you throw them into the street, they’ll face violence and illness.” The street has long been notorious, run in the 1990s by Mathilde Manoukian, a well-known local figure who was one of Turkey’s wealthiest businesswomen. After her 2001 death, business there declined.

At least one woman interviewed by reporter Guillaume Perrier was delighted by the closing. Ayse Tukrukcu, a former sex worker who retired in 1996, and one of the few to break silence on the issue, said she’d been raped by a policeman for a week.”If I’d complained, they would have killed me and you would have found my body underneath a bridge. In the brothels, there’s drugs and AIDS. I’ve seen decapitated bodies and forced late-term abortions. The closing of the brothels is great news. These girls must be given the choice to live another life.”

Julie in the Sky With Braids: A Canadian Woman Returns to Space Aboard Endeavour

Julie Payette

In the photos before yesterday’s space shuttle launch, the only woman in the crew suited up in those bright orange spacesuits looked relaxed and tanned, with a big maple leaf on her uniform, her thick, dirty blond hair twisted into a braid. That’s my kind of astronaut! As a fellow Canadian living in the U.S., I’m incredibly proud of her and her role in this mission.

It’s been ten years since her last trip into space, and the Montreal-born native, now 45, left behind a husband and two kids, five and 15. She’s the flight engineer and robotics specialist, responsible for operating three different space arms during this mission.

According to her NASA profile: “In June 1992, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) selected Ms. Payette from 5,330 applicants to become one of four astronauts. After her basic training in Canada, she worked as a technical advisor for the Mobile Servicing System ( MSS), an advanced robotics system contributed by Canada to the International Space Station. In preparation for a space mission assignment, Ms. Payette obtained her commercial pilot license, studied Russian and logged 120 hours as a research operator on board reduced gravity aircraft. In April 1996, Ms. Payette was certified as a one-atmosphere, deep-sea diving suit operator. Ms. Payette obtained her military pilot captaincy on the CT-114 “Tutor” jet at the Canadian Air Force Base in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in February 1996. She obtained her military instrument rating in 1997. She has logged more than 1,300 hours of flight time. Ms. Payette was Chief Astronaut for the Canadian Space Agency (2000-2007).”

And, if all that wasn’t quite enough, she has even sung with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Piacere Vocale in Basel, Switzerland, and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in Toronto.

The Montreal Gazette story said it well: “Propelled by half-a-million gallons of fuel and a ton of Canadian pride.”

Parlez-Vous? Habla Usted? How a Second Language Makes You Smarter

What is this language?
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It’s easier if you grow up in a country where English is not the mother tongue. Or a country with several official languages. In Canada, it’s English and French, so everything you buy across the country is labeled in two languages. Kids there simply grow up with French (or English) right in their face on cereal boxes and aspirin bottles.  If one or both of your parents speaks a second or third language, you may have grown up switching languages as easily as changing your shoes.  There are so many subtle and interesting concepts for which English has no word or even a direct translation and very few foreign-language authors end up translated into English.

Toggling between worlds and the words they express jump-starts the brain in many ways. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Studies at the University of Washington,  was interviewed today on one of my favorite shows, the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, and had some fascinating things to say about why it’s worth learning another language. These included “cognitive flexibility” and “attentional switching” — the ease with which your brain can click from one mode to another and back again, values that seem to be in growing demand in our knowledge-based economy that increasingly demands great skill at multi-tasking. That’s not just remembering pain means bread, but having the brainpower to zap back and forth conceptually.

“Kids and adults get into the habit of deciding what language to be using,” she told Brian. They learn that “everything has two different names.” (Well, maybve even 4 or 8 names if you acquire that many additional languages. You’re an ignorant boob in Europe if you only speak two or three.) That’s a mighty powerful choice as it means being able to listen to, and as a result culturally comprehend, a much wider world than English alone can offer.

As a result of mastering a second language, Kuhl says, “kids are faster and more accurate at inventing a solution” to problems. And two of the fastest-growing fields in this sagging economy — health care and education — really need workers who can speak more than English. The U.S. may be a melting pot, but many immigrants just don’t know all the English words they need, certainly in medical emergencies. Continue reading “Parlez-Vous? Habla Usted? How a Second Language Makes You Smarter”

You Cheer for Goldman Sachs, I'm Cheering for Bill, My Mechanic

Lewis Hine, 1920. Power house mechanic working...
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While Goldman Sachs bankers are once more raking in the big bucks — and whole desperate chunks of the labor force slither deeper into unemployment — I’m grateful as hell, instead, for a kind of worker we rarely seem to celebrate or openly acknowledge we simply can’t function without.

Manual labor. Blue-collar. You know who they are when you shake their strong hands, hands as hard and calloused as a turtle’s shell from working for decades with tools and metal and oil and fire and grease, the primal elements of the machinery every single one of us rely on every single day. Whatever vehicle conveyed you to work today required skilled, experienced labor to make sure it was functioning, efficient and safe (not to mention, when they don’t crash, the airplanes millions of us will board today around the world.) Same for the escalator or elevator that whisked you to your AC-ed cubicle — some HVAC guys easily outearn a Phd.

In this economy, many people can’t afford a new/used vehicle and need to keep their current one(s) going as long as possible. They don’t have money for a downpayment, can’t access credit, don’t want a 48-month car loan. Mechanics rule. Bill tells me that business, lousy for the past year, is finally picking up as people do the least possible which is the most they can afford, piece by piece, to keep their wheels on the road. I care less what GM is up to than knowing Bill’s judgement and skills are right around the corner.

Yet, in the rush to fetishize the knowledge economy, the people who do these jobs are often dismissed as uneducated, lacking sophistication, people who just couldn’t cut it in college. As if.

Matthew Crawford, whose best-selling book Shop Class As Soulcraft, examines this dichotomy of our respect for collars white or blue, first explored the idea in 2006 in The New Atlantis. Continue reading “You Cheer for Goldman Sachs, I'm Cheering for Bill, My Mechanic”

When Playing Sports Backfires; $55,000 in Medical Debt at 20

Sports from childhood. Football (soccer) shown...
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I’m surprised to see little interest — according to the most e-mailed list for today’s New York Times — in Kristina Peterson’s front-page story on how some U.S. college athletes are getting stuck with some enormous and unexpected bills as a result of their sports participation.

It’s a little ironic. The country seems split between the sinewy hard-bodied we love to idolize and sometimes lavishly reward: college athletes, triathletes, marathoners, Ironmen and million-dollar pro’s — and the rank-and-file rest of us, the obese and overweight, the junk-food-addicted fatties forever being exhorted to get out there and exercise, dammit!

Wii just ain’t gonna do it. Continue reading “When Playing Sports Backfires; $55,000 in Medical Debt at 20”

110 Years Before Rosa Parks, She Made History Today

New York bus
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Wherever you travel today by public transit, remember this name, one you’ve probably never heard before — Elizabeth Jennings.

On July 16, 1854, this 24-year-old African-American young woman was running late for church with a friend and jumped aboard a horse-drawn New York City streetcar, one designated for whites only. Not only was she late, she was the church organist. The conductor tried to eject her and she shouted, grabbed the windowsill, even grabbed at his coat, determined she had a right to stay. Unheard of behavior for a woman, and a black woman, in those days. The conductor tossed her off, certain he was through with her. “You shall sweat for this,” he said.

The fight had just begun.  As Katharine Greider wrote in The New York Times, “Like Mrs. Parks a century later, Elizabeth Jennings had her own backup. She had grown up among a small cadre of black abolitionist ministers, journalists, educators and businessmen who stood up for their community as whites harshly reasserted the color line in the decades after New York had abolished slavery in 1827. Her father, Thomas L. Jennings, was a prominent tailor who helped found both a society that provided benefits for black people and the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which later moved to Harlem.”

Her father hired a lawyer, wet behind the ears — Chester Arthur. He fought on Jennings’ behalf and won, starting the integration of the New York City transit system, a century before Rosa took her stand.

We’ve all heard of Rosa Parks, and thank God for her bravery. But we also need to know, and thank,  Elizabeth Jennings, a woman much less visible, but every bit as bold.

Yeah, Forget J-School. You'll Learn on The Job. What Job?

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Journalism school, says freelancer Richard Sine in today’s Huffington Post, is an expensive waste of time.

“You can pick up most media skills on the job, or with a few hours of instruction. If you screw up, nobody dies, and nothing collapses. This is why so many — perhaps most — journalism pros have built successful careers without touching J-school, and why many of them considered a J-degree a dubious credential even in the field’s heyday,” he argues.

I agree with some of what he says in the piece, but then I never went to J-school, like many of my co-horts. We studied English or history or politics or economics and went straight into writing for a living, whether staff or freelance, confident we’d made a cool, fun, challenging career choice. We would, as Sine points out, learn on the job, and we did.

That’s because there was a job. Continue reading “Yeah, Forget J-School. You'll Learn on The Job. What Job?”

This is The Sound of Recession…Salvation Army Bells in July


I heard the sound tonight in the food court of The Westchester, an upscale mall in White Plains, NY, where manicured shoppers browse costly stores like Neiman-Marcus, Barney’s, Tiffany and Gucci, cruising the usual suspects of conspicuous consumption. It costs $9 to park for five hours at this mall. The parking lot is always jammed with Mercedes, Lexuses, Range Rovers and Escalades, many of them with the license plates from nearby Connecticut, where the still-wealthy enjoy a 20 minute drive from enclaves like Greenwich, Darien and Westport.

Bells. Bells in…July?

Two older women were sitting there, volunteers ringing the Salvation Army bells, a sound we’re used to Christmas but I’ve never heard out of season. It’s never been done out of season in 35 years.

Turns out, no surprise to anyone who lives in the New York City area, where subway and train fares and tolls recently went up yet again and where the maximum weekly unemployment payment is a fat $405, this is the first time in three decades that the Sally Ann — as it’s known in Canada — has put out their kettles mid-summer.

It’s a week-long drive, and one they hope will alleviate the double whammy of huge demand for their services and a drop-off in donations.

I watched a squealing gang of eight-year-olds holding a birthday party a few tables away from the kettle and those jingling bells. Squeals of joy, bells of despair. That’s the sound of recession.

"Roe", Now Anti-Abortion, Ejected from Sotomayor Hearings

Albert Wynn and Gloria Feldt on the steps of t...
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There aren’t many court decisions as familiar to us as our own names. For many women, and perhaps as many men, Roe v. Wade is one, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing women the right to abortion.

“Roe” was Norma McCorvey, who became active in the pro-life movement in 1995. Yesterday, she was one of four protesters ejected from confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor after disrupting the proceedings shouting about her cause.

Enormous attention is paid to winning and safeguarding our “rights”, much less on our responsibilities to use those rights thoughtfully. McCorvey grew disgusted by women who chose to use abortion as a form of birth control, not a carefully weighed, life-altering decision.

She’s interviewed here by The Guardian.

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