Reading Books For Pleasure. Radical Idea!

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Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read. — Groucho Marx

Can you live a day — a week, a month, a year — without reading a book? Whether on a Kindle, borrowed from a friend or the library (i.e. depriving us authors of our desperately needed royalties), bought for 50 cents at a yard sale or thrift store, or, maybe, purchased at full price in hardcover, are you still reading books at all?

Gotta love the irony that the film (which, of course, began with a blog) “Julie and Julia” has now turned Julia Child’s cookbook into a best-seller. “This was a secret dream,” Nora Ephron, the film’s writer and director, recently told The New York Times, “that the movie would sell a lot of books. I’m completely delighted that people are walking out of the multiplex and into the bookstore.”

The Wall Street Journal recently ran this essay on why so many of us turned away from modernist novels — with all the allure of eating overcooked vegetables in their pitiless difficulty — and started reading fun stuff about vampires instead. The New York Times, in a front-page story this weekend, focused on a schoolteacher taking the radical (?) step of letting her students read what they prefer, albeit nudging some of them toward tougher and more challenging material, instead of the same-old “To Kill A Mockingbird” and its reading-list equivalents. I don’t have kids, but if they did, they’d have grown up as I did, in a home where every shelf is filled with books, from reference works on art, design and architecture to cookbooks, travel guides and fiction. A life without books is, for me, a life without oxygen. Continue reading “Reading Books For Pleasure. Radical Idea!”

"Goin' To The Chapel"; Ellie Greenwich, Its Songwriter, Dead at 68

Love with all your Heart
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It’s a song almost anyone can croon by heart, but its female composer, Ellie Greenwich, “was widely heard and little known” writes Jim Dwyer in The New York Times. Like other prolific women writers of some of the best-loved 1960s pop songs, like Carole King and Cynthia Weill, she learned her craft at the legendary Brill Building, a 1619 Broadway near 50th Street, still standing.

Her other songs include “Be My Baby”, “Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Leader of the Pack” (with its corny, fun motorcycle revving in the background) and “River Deep, Mountain High.”

A terrific introduction to these women and their lives, domestic and professional, is “Girls Like Us”, Sheila Weller’s recent triple biography of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon.

Off to The Islands — a 10 Minute Ferry Ride Away

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One of the pleasures of living in, or visiting Toronto, a city whose dense waterfront on Lake Ontario sprouts new glass condo towers every month, is visiting the Toronto Islands: Ward’s Island, Centre Island and Hanlan’s Point. The islands, originally a peninsula that split off completely from the city in 1858, were originally surveyed in 1792 and have been welcoming day-trippers for centuries; the three islands combined see 1,225,000 visitors a year. You can rent a bike there or just sleep on the sand and listen to the wind in the trees. Safe, clean, cosy, they’re a cheap and blessed respite for anyone who can’t afford to travel any further on a hot, humid afternoon.

A $6.50 (round-trip fare), 10-minute ferry ride delivers you from the concrete jungle of downtown to the grassy lawns, tall weeping willows, white sandy beaches, yacht clubs and tree-canopied walkways of Ward’s Island, my choice yesterday, even on a gray, windy day.  I took photos of the cottages, a crazy riot of color and style, from the quite literally condemned, the plastic-sheeted-window crowd, the house with the paper bag marked “mail” hung on a nail on its front door to the chi-chi olive-painted elegance of the newly-renovated, their glossy ceramic tile kitchens easily visible through the bungalow windows.

Owning a house on the Island has long been an insanely coveted privilege fought for for 30 years with the city’s Parks Department which owns the land. The Purchasers’ List opens again this November with 30 vacancies on it — anyone fortunate enough to win the right to buy a house will pay $45,000 for the lease to the land on Ward’s and an average of $100,000 to $160,000 for a tiny wooden house, many of which are barely 1,000 square feet, with postage-stamp-sized lots. Then you have to commit to living in it full-time, a joy in summer and fall with regular ferry service — and a totally different game in winter when the ferries are slower and fewer and the wind howls off the water. Transporting everything you need from the city means living a less-spontaneous life, albeit one with a spectacular sunset view of the  city’s office towers gleaming gold and pink.

Island living, for its many charms, can be a little tough in a emergency, as I discovered many years ago while briefly dating a boy whose father owned a house there. Home for the weekend from college, he woke up at 2:00 a.m. with a nasal hemmorhage; no exaggeration, this was blood enough to fill the plastic bowl I held beneath his nose — a week-old soccer injury had somehow started up again. To reach the nearest hospital meant calling the Harbies — the Harbor Police — who sent out a boat, the equivalent of a marine ambulance. A cop awaited us at the dock, took one look at Peter’s condition, noted my short hair, leather jacket and pissed-off/scared demeanor and asked if I’d done this to him. Um, no.

Yesterday’s visit was a little calmer, just a quick two hours’ wander down the silent, narrow streets, filled only with cats. Two young men walked past me with a rifle (very un-Canadian sight, that, in Toronto anyway) and some empty beer bottles — perhaps heading off for a little plinking. Another young man walked past dragging one of the enormous carts that make life there workable, this one loaded high with driftwood, perhaps for his cottage’s woodstove. I took lots of photos, ate a great hot dog and chatted with a lively 10-year-old named Flynn who let me share his cafe table to get out of the rain.

It was Flynn’as last day there, after a perfect summer in a rented cottage. It’s not every day you find common ground with a 10-year-old boy you’ve just met, but our love for the Islands did it.

It's J-Day: Former LA Times' Bill Lobdell and Newsweek's Michael Hastings On The Story That Broke Their Hearts

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Any journalist working on emotionally harrowing stories — war, corruption, violence, death, poverty — faces a specific and deeply personal challenge. In order to witness this material, which can be terrifying, confusing and anxiety-provoking to us as well as those we cover, we have to be present, both physically and emotionally. As a result, many of us later suffer PTSD or secondary trauma, the price of admission to these searing stories, as James Rainey wrote recently in The Los Angeles Times. That can bring anxiety, depression, nightmares or insomnia.

A new feature film, The Bang-Bang Club, recently finished shooting in South Africa. The name was given to a group of  young news photographers that included one who still shoots for The New York Times, Joao Silva, and South African photographer Kevin Carter. Carter is best-known, to some of us, as the photographer who captured an image of a tiny, emaciated Sudanese child lying on the ground, a vulture waiting mere feet away. The image won the 1994 Pultizer Prize. Two months later, at 33, Carter committed suicide.

I experienced secondary trauma while writing my own book, during which I spent two years interviewing, and writing about, women and girls. some of whom had experienced gun-related violence, including a woman shot point-blank in her California driveway while her husband was shot and killed beside her during a robbery, women who’d shot and killed, women who’d been shot themselves, women whose husbands and sons had committed suicide. Sometimes this was just exhausting and overwhelming.

The Dart Center is a terrific resource for helping journalists deal with this issue; last week’s J-Day featured medical author Maryn McKenna, whose new book about MRSA required much wearying, important reporting. She’ll be one of their fellows this fall at Columbia University, a sort of post-traumatic de-briefing.

I asked two brave, respected journalists whose work I admire to talk about this difficult issue. I met Bill Lobdell when we both participated in a religion writing fellowship at The Poynter Institute. I was stunned by the story he told us then, which later became his book, and never forgot it. I did not know Michael Hastings before coming to T/S but his raw, passionate candor here is also generous and extraordinary.

William Lobdell, former religion writer for The Los Angeles Times, author of “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace.”

Michael Hastings, fellow T/S contributor, former Newsweek Baghdad correspondent, whose 2008 book, “I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story,” is about his fiancee’s murder.

Tell us a little about how and why you chose journalism.

Michael: I’ll start with a cliché—from about the age of 12 I knew I wanted to write. (Or join the Marines, win a congressional medal of honor, and run for president.) As a teenager, I discovered guys like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, and had a serious Beat literature phase. I brilliantly deduced that to be a great writer, you had to ingest great amounts of illegal substances. That didn’t work out so well. I wrote a column at my school paper, called “Fear and Loathing at LCC.” (Lower Canada College, the name of the high school I attended in Montreal.) Then I moved to Burlington, Vermont, where I went to a Catholic school. I was promptly banned from writing for the school newspaper there. The principal was a rather large man named Brother Roger. He didn’t take kindly to an essay where I compared him, perhaps unfavorably, to Jabba the Hutt.

Anyway, after bouncing around at a few colleges, I ended up at New York University. During my last semester, I got an unpaid internship at Newsweek International. I probably was the only one who applied, as the work at first was primarily on Friday and Saturday nights. But I’d been chastened enough by life at that point to realize that I’d managed to get my foot in the door, so to speak, and I wasn’t going take it out. So I more or less lived at the Newsweek offices, and the internship turned to a full time position. I guess I was 22 at the time. I loved it, and I learned how to write an edit there…. I never refused an assignment or anything an editor asked me to do, which helped my cause.. But after about three years, I started asking to be sent to Iraq. By that time, America was already suffering from its first bout of Iraq fatigue—circa 2005. It wasn’t a hot story. Not many people were banging down the door to go. So my bosses finally sent me in August 2005. Six months or so later, the civil war broke out, and all of sudden, Iraq was a really big story again.. I was named the magazine’s Baghdad correspondent a few months after that. That meant I was now going to move to Baghdad permanently

William: I went to Stanford and the University of California, Irvine and majored in political science. As my senior year approached, I still didn’t have a clue what I’d do for a living upon graduation. A mentor gave me some obvious advice that had eluded me: find what you love and get a job in that field. Well, I loved reading newspapers and magazines. I was a news junkie. I thought, maybe I could be a reporter. I went to the college newspaper and the minute I walked into that newsroom, I was hooked.

My career path began traditionally—an internship at the Los Angeles Times and then a job at a small daily in Fullerton. But then it took a turn. I became editor and later president of a local magazine chain. After that seven-year detour, I returned to daily journalism as editor of the Newport Beach/Costa Mesa Daily Pilot. I eventually oversaw the LA Times’ community news division before becoming a Times reporter. I spent eight years on the religion beat and two more years as a city editor. I left the paper last year and am running two Internet-based businesses: and I also wrote a critically acclaimed memoir of my experiences on the religion beat called “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace.”

A little background on this story and how you came to cover it: Continue reading “It's J-Day: Former LA Times' Bill Lobdell and Newsweek's Michael Hastings On The Story That Broke Their Hearts”

Riding the Red Rocket

Toronto streetcar
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That’s the fond nickname Torontonians (some mouthful, that) have for their transit system. Riding the Queen Street West streetcar — which takes all of 17 non-rush-hour minutes from its western terminus into downtown — takes me past some of my history. There’s the street where I met and gave my heart away, hastily and foolishly, in my final year of college to the ski bum living in Austria most of the year. We met at a party where my best friend met his best friend who broke her heart too. There’s now an empty space where the Army Navy store sat for decades, where I bought a leather bullwhip and gave it — natch — to the head of security for Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Tour. (He used to walk backward trying to pacify the press pack when she did walkabouts and I suggested he needed, like a liontamer, a whip and a chair.) The bookstore with a rack for books by or about “iconoclasts and activists” right by the door, Pages, a Queen Street indie institution for 30 years closes in seven days.

Sat at the Black Bull — founded 1833 — and savored a cold beer, watching the world go by. Dropped into Roots and chatted with two terrific girls, Kristi and Jamie, best friends from first grade in Sudbury who both work there, and we traded horror stories about retail life.

Tonight — yay! — Dad and I will head to The Ex, an ancient annual summer Toronto (pronounced Tronna by natives) tradition of rides and farm animals and butter sculptures and cotton candy and overpriced rigged carnie games. Can’t wait.

Over the Niagara River, Suspended Between Two Countries

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Today I’m heading north by train, arriving in Toronto 12 hours later. And the day began, at 6:20, with an enormous rainbow over the Hudson River.

There are few journeys, certainly planned that way in North America, that still take 12 hours — usually what you expect in developing nations in small, crowded rattling buses filled with chickens. I’ll settle in with a huge stack of unread magazines, some music, a book. I love traveling by train, even unloved Amtrak. I like watching the landscape change, feeling all those miles.

We always lose at least one hour, and sometimes more, waiting at the border, where uniformed guards with sniffer dogs and latex gloves board the train, deadly serious in their pursuit — on whatever side of the border it is — of those they deem sufficiently suspicious, or insufficiently documented, to interrogate and possibly toss off. I once saw a young-ish woman with her small child removed from the seat right in front of me.

There’s a point in this journey, one I’ve made many times, that always leaves me a little torn, suspended between my two countries, as the train crosses the bridge spanning the Niagara River, its spray visible off to one side. I can see Canada beckoning, the red and white maple leaf flag and the bilingual signs, and the Stars and Stripes receding. Or vice versa. Which one is home? To which do I owe my deepest allegiance? Canadians who leave the country lose the right to vote there and, unlike Americans, don’t pay taxes when non-resident citizens. Once you’re gone, you’re gone.

Having lived in the U.S. since January 1988, where I’ve had many jobs, published a book, married and divorced and own property, it’s now home. But so, still, is Canada, in fundamental and blessedly unchanging ways, from boring-to-Americans shared cultural references to the comfort of my ancient history — my former homes and favorite shops, college boyfriends and camp room-mates and my high school best friend Sally who I see almost every time. I go to visit my Dad, now 80, meet some editors, wander the gorgeous downtown campus of my alma mater, the University of Toronto, catch up with friends of 20, even 30 years’ standing. I’ll re-stock the necessities like 222s (not a gun but a powerful headache remedy with codeine in it) and Canadian candy, truly the best. I’ll savor a butter tart (nope, they’re not made of butter!) and maybe indulge in a peameal bacon sandwich at the St. Lawrence Market, one of the world’s best indoor markets.

Deep sigh of pleasure.

Don’t forget: J-Day is Thursday, a powerful, emotional interview with two best-selling journalists/authors, former Los Angeles Times religion writer William Lobdell and T/S contributor, GQ writer and former Newsweek reporter Michael Hastings.

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast…

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Simon and Garfunkel sang it on Bookends, their classic 1968 album. However deeply unfashionable, it’s worth trying, especially now there are so many harried, frenzied ways to save time — often leaving us too depleted to to enjoy it.

This year, we re-did the bathroom, our only one, after 20 years of putting up with a nasty, shallow tub that always left my knees cold. Now our tub is 21 inches deep, the deepest you can buy. When it’s full, the water completely covers my shoulders. The challenge is filling it, a process that takes at least 20 minutes. It’s so slow. It takes so much time. That’s exactly one of the reasons I like it so much, the anticipation of that pleasure equal to the pleasure itself.

I don’t own a microwave oven and never have. I know all the reasons it’s a great thing, but there’s no room for one in my tiny galley kitchen. I don’t miss its artificial haste a bit; you can re-heat or cook many foods in 10 to 20 minutes using a cooktop or oven. As important to me as the additional space is the additional time this forces into my day and my thinking. It slows me down. Experience has taught me that getting so hungry I can’t wait to eat is unhealthy and likely to provoke me into shoving whatever’s closest into my mouth. Eating should be something you enjoy, not just re-filling the fuel tank.

I hate rushing. I hate being rushed. I’m not a slowpoke, have almost never missed even the most difficult work-related deadline, even with pneumonia, and can get dressed and out the door within minutes. But time constantly compressed into false urgency makes me crazy. I attended a boarding school where our every day was set to bells — 6:55 wake-up, 7:05 walk around the block, 7:25 breakfast. Living by their pre-set clock meant hurrying through the potentially pleasurable activities of waking slowly and calmly, dressing leisurely, walking mindfully and appreciatively. The need for speed was audible, relentless, daily. Horrible!

It’s how most of us live without — literally — hesitation.  Continue reading “Slow Down, You Move Too Fast…”

Martha's Skeleton — $149. Such a Deal!

Portrait of an articulated skeleton on a bentw...
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If you think that 9.4 percent unemployment and foreclosures popping up like mushrooms after the rain can slow for a nanosecond the production and distribution of those all-American porn-machines — catalogs filled with things you really do not need — please take a minute for Grandin Road, (Frontgate is the runner-up), a glossy book touting some arguably useful items like a dog-door or an inflatable bed but mostly filled with unnecessary items that cost a fortune.

Please check out their glitter-covered Martha Stewart-branded skeleton, which comes in green, white or black for $149. It’s 5″ high, 13″ wide and 8″ deep, and weighs five pounds. Irony-free, it even made the cover. Skeleton as mid-recession cover girl. Perfect!

The latest catalog, which arrived this week (I get a lot of catalogs, but I rarely buy), has 47 pages — 47 pages — of Hallowe’en related stuff, guaranteed to terrify the kiddies. There’s a skull and bones set, $34 for both; three fake pumpkins for $49, a fake 18″ vulture for $89; , even polyresin and stone powder fake gravestones for $59 to $79.

I have to confess I’m a little bit tempted by the 20-inch high pre-lit BEWARE sign I could stick into my lawn, if I had one, only $149.  I can think of many places this sign would fit right in: at the door of deadbeat clients, lyin’ sweethearts, maybe your local bank or credit card company charging you big fat fees for every breath you take.

Hell, if I want to scare myself to death, I can just sneak a between-my-fingers peek at my bank balance.

Freud's Great-Grand-Daughter Adores Judy Garland. Who Inspires You?

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For me, it’s always been Auntie Mame, a fictional grande dame with a collapsible foot-long cigarette holder, a houseboy/chauffeur named Ito and the habit of getting up at “the crack of noon.”  Patrick Dennis wrote the original book in 1955, based on his aunt, and it went on to become two films, (the 1958 version won Rosalind Russell an Oscar nomination for best actress) and a musical — whose feisty, fun songs I belt out whenever I feel blue.

“Open a new window, open a new door”, was one of Mame’s mottoes. When she loses much of her money in the 1929 stock market crash, she urges her family to open their gifts early, singing “Haul out the holly…we need a little Christmas, right this very minute!” She loves her dear friend, the actress Vera Charles, but not so much she sheathes her rapier wit: “If I wore my hair natural like yours, I’d be bald.” Mame’s indomitable cheer, insatiable appetite for fun and adventure and open-armed embrace of the unconventional make her my heroine. Here’s a design website with some images of Mame’s apartment, after dozens of its impossibly glamorous changes throughout the 1958 film.

For British journalist and author — great-grand-daughter of Sigmund Freud, and daughter of painter Lucian Freud — Susie Boyt, Judy Garland has been her lifelong touchstone, an avatar of glamour and hard work, of doing whatever it takes and, for this self-admittedly stiff-upper-lipped Briton, an open vein of accessible emotion. “They say once Judy has you she has got you for life, and it’s true,” she writes”, and her memoir is “My Judy Garland Life”, which she describes thus:

“It is  a project I’ve been dreaming about for at least twenty five years and it’s one part memoir, two parts hero-worship and three parts biography with a dash of sequin studded self help thrown in.” Continue reading “Freud's Great-Grand-Daughter Adores Judy Garland. Who Inspires You?”

It's J-Day: A NYT Photographer, A Foreign Correspondent and A Medical Writer On Trusting Your Instincts

Jules Verne Pocketwatch (compass)
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While we drown in a sea of information, smart, thoughtful new books like “Rapt” and “Distracted” carefully examine how little focused attention we have left. The pro’s have mastered the art of finding the good stuff, often by relying on their instincts, a skill developed over time. As this terrific New York Times story about soldiers reminds us, hunches save lives.

Three veterans, friends and colleagues of mine, share how and when they rely on their instincts:

Stephen Crowley, a staff photographer for The New York Times since 1993, (at the Washington Times, Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post before that), is a member of the White House Press Corps. His focus is national politics, including covering John McCain’s presidential campaign.

Patti McCracken, a former obituary writer at the St. Petersburg Times, production editor at U.S . News and World Report and assistant editor, foreign/national at the Chicago Tribune, has taught journalism in Eastern Europe and Vietnam. She writes freelance from Austria for Smithsonian, The Wall Street Journal Europe, The Guardian and others.

Maryn McKenna, a medical writer and author based in Minneapolis. Former reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, Boston Herald and a medical writer for 11 years at the Atlanta Constitution-Journal. For the past three, she’s been a magazine and Web freelancer and has written two nonfiction books: “Beating Back the Devil”, about the Centers for Disease Control, in 2004, and “Superbug”, about the international epidemic of methicillin-resistant staph, which comes out in early 2010. She also blogs at

Q:  What were your toughest stories and why?

SC: Political campaigns are my Olympics. There’s no better way to see this wonderful country than in a motorcade where you coast, above the speed limit and above the law, through some of our most beautiful cities and countryside. Every candidate I’ve covered has been unique. Bob Dole was always warm, funny and friendly on Capitol Hill, a man who knew that to lead you must compromise. Candidate George W. Bush was very accessible in 2000, but President Bush buttoned up the White House within a few months. John Edwards — whose plane had a faux putting green embedded in its carpet — usually disappeared into his private cabin and avoided any direct interaction with the press. With John Kerry, access was non-existent and reporters struck an X on the campaign’s plane calendar to track a six-week run where he went without speaking to the reporters following him.

PM: One of the toughest and most compelling stories was a school shooting that I covered from the newsroom. We were desperately trying to get the layout for the interior of the school and I ended up talking to a secretary who was still in the school as things were still going on. Time felt like it stood still.

Another was interviewing Zeljko Kopanja, a Bosnian newspaper editor who had been looking into some mass killings by Bosnian Serbs, tracking down war criminals. He was also a Bosnian Serb and doing that kind of investigation is taboo if you’re of the same ethnic background. He had several death threats, which were ignored. On the morning of his 45th birthday, he turned the ignition in his car, which set off the bomb which had been placed beneath it. It blew off both his legs. The interview took place about a year after the attack and after I’d gotten to know him well and consider him a dear friend. He talked at length and went deeply into the personal repercussions…I kept my composure and then went back to my hotel and just wept.

MM: Currently I’m finishing a book for which I interviewed dozens of victims of MRSA, methicillin-resistant staph, or their families if the victims did not survive. Some of the stories are horrific: children dead in 12 hours; women noticing a small pimple and several weeks later losing all their leg muscles; men going into the hospital for minor surgery and struggling with infections — and bankruptcy — for years afterward. Because I believe in deep face-to-face reporting, I’ve spent a lot of time with these people (as many as five interviews). They’ve had a profound effect on me; it’s difficult to enter into people’s trauma without experiencing some trauma yourself. This is the dark side of my recommendation to get out and engage with people: You may witness some very dark things, and they may stay with you for a long time.

The victims are struggling to make some meaning out of their experience, so that they don’t feel only like victims. In a parallel way, I am struggling with how to best convey their stories in a way that honors their disclosure and makes their stories something more than disease porn. In the end, I decided I needed professional help, a kind of journalism equivalent of traumatic-incident debriefing. I applied for a fall fellowship with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. It’s a project, now based at Columbia University, that teaches journalists how to report on and also to endure and make meaning out of trauma. Based on the description, I probably should have done it years ago.

Atlanta is the home of the CDC, and for most of the 11 years I was at that paper, that was what I covered. It was pretty much the epidemics and disasters beat; my colleagues called me “Scary Disease Girl.” I embedded in a CDC team during the investigation of the anthrax attacks in 2001, and in a World Health Organization polio-eradication team in India; I covered the arrival of West Nile virus and the Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Q: Where and how did you learn to trust your instincts? Continue reading “It's J-Day: A NYT Photographer, A Foreign Correspondent and A Medical Writer On Trusting Your Instincts”