When Is Help Worth Paying For? The Creatives' Dilemma

A chimpanzee brain at the Science Museum London
Pick it, but for a price...Image via Wikipedia

Correct me, please, if I am wrong, but I suspect that engineers or dentists or plumbers or dry-cleaners, when meeting someone socially, don’t get: “Oh, can I ask your advice?” Do you actually show a DDS your molars or point to a stubborn spot on your sleeve? I doubt it. It would be weird and rude and intrusive.

Writers do get this question. All the time. Maybe because, y’know, it’s just writing.

People email me, and perhaps also to many others, out of the blue to “pick my brain” as though that were an activity I might enjoy and find satisfying. Yes, it’s flattering that people think you have something useful to offer them. Sure, one works hard to acquire some level of visibility and credibility. But I’m not emailing random Big Name Person to ask them for their help, free. I know it took them years of hard work and experience, perhaps costly travel and education and internships and apprenticeships, to acquire the very knowledge I wish I had. Why should they just hand it over to me gratis?

I also studied interior design for a few years, planning to leave journalism for that field. One of our classes was  focused on the legal issues designers face. Like being sued. We were warned, in all seriousness, not to hand out advice on anything too substantive lest the suggested curtains catch on fire or someone slips on that sisal or their kid got caught their thumb caught in the Knole sofa and they’d come after us for it. I also liked the basic message — we were experts and would bill for that time and expertise. Clients will ask for anything they think can get away with.

I’ve spent many years mentoring, helping, advising dozens of strangers, free. Not so much any more. I plan to retire and in order to do so need to retain control of my time, which, in addition to my skills, is all I have to offer in the intellectual marketplace.

Here’s the challenge. I’ve already committed to serve on two volunteer boards, for several years, that take up a fair bit of unpaid time and attention. I enjoy giving back.

If you’re someone who really likes to help others succeed, as I genuinely do, and you like to be liked, as many of us do, yet you must carve out a decent freelance income from your well-developed, otherwise uncompensated skills, when and where do you draw that line?

Do you think, or find, that women have a harder time saying “no” to such requests? Do you feel any hesitation asking such questions?

'Reality' Check For Young Women Readers, A New Magazine Edited By An Undergrad

Daniel Boone sculpture on the campus of Appala...
Daniel Boone, Appalachian State U. campus. Image via Wikipedia

In the world of most magazine journalism aimed at young women — All-sex-all-the-time! 45,869,797 ways to lose weight! How to make sure he’s really unto you! — here’s a new idea, an on-line magazine with a Christian focus.

Don’t focus on the religious thing. It’s a decent effort. The EIC is Nikki Roberti, who’s 20.

I read a few of the stories and: 1) she needs a copy editor; 2) some of the pieces are wayyyyy too long 3) the writing needs to be a lot stronger. But…

The 2007 Cocoa Beach Jr./Sr. High grad launched the online magazine “REALITY Check Girl” in September. Roberti is a former writer for The Verge, FLORIDA TODAY’s now-defunct teen section, and 2007 winner of the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Journalism Award.

“REALITY Check Girl” is Christian-based, but not a “Christian” magazine, Roberti said. It features stories aimed at girls ages 15 to 25, covering topics from beauty to current affairs.

REALITY is an acronym for each of the magazine’s sections — Respect, Elegance, Ambition, Love, Intellect, Taste and Youthfulness.

“I’ve always wanted to have a magazine that I felt could touch a wide range of people and could really dig deep,” Roberti said. “Growing up, reading magazines, I would read Seventeen, but my parents wanted me to read Christian magazines. But I felt like Christian magazines didn’t have anything that was really of substance, it was all pretty sheltering, and, at the same time, Seventeen was a little too shocking. So I felt like I could put the two together and get a happy balance and maybe the two demographics could learn something from each other.”

Roberti is a junior journalism major at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., where she has worked as the online editor for The Appalachian, the university’s student newspaper. In January, she’ll move to Washington, D.C., where she’ll intern for the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire, a newswire service.

Good for her. I admire a young female journo trying to offer smart, helpful, non-sexual, snark-free material. So, she’s earnest. There are worse positions from which to operate, like endless cynicism or paid-for “reviews”.

Even if they’re a little clunky, I like the categories that make up the title of her magazine, especially respect.

Respect is something so many young women still (sigh) struggle hard to win — whether from their families of origin, their in-laws (she has an interview with a new 18-year-old bride), their co-workers, employers, professors. Just about everyone. As all feminists know, recognizing and naming explicitly what you need is half the battle in starting to fight for it.

Here’s an interesting first-person story on her site about a young American woman who volunteered to join the Israeli Army.

Women Soldiers Fight Another Enemy — Sexual Harrassment By Fellow GI's

050616-A-5930C-013 Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, vehi...
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It’s not a new story, although not an easy one to report with names and photos of women wiling to speak out publicly on the record. Female soldiers say they face significant sexual harrassment, let alone rape, according to today’s New York Times front-page story.

Here’s a two-year-old story from website DissidentVoice. And here’s an AP piece:

Of the women veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have walked into a VA facility, 15 percent have screened positive for military sexual trauma, The Associated Press has learned. That means they indicated that while on active duty they were sexually assaulted, raped, or were sexually harassed, receiving repeated unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature.

In January, the VA opened its 16th inpatient ward specializing in treating victims of military sexual trauma, this one in New Jersey. In response to complaints that it is too male-focused in its care, the VA is making changes such as adding keyless entry locks on hospital room doors so women patients feel safer.

Depression, anxiety, problem drinking, sexually transmitted diseases and domestic abuse are all problems that have been linked to sexual abuse, according to the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides support to victims of violence associated with the military. Since 2002, the foundation says it has received more than 1,000 reports of assault and rape in the U.S. Central Command areas of operation, which include Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Miles Foundation, based in Newtown, CT, focuses on helping women facing these issues.

How ugly and abusive that women brave and patriotic enough to fight in war face enemies within their own ranks.

Will The New York Times Wrist-Slap Another Freelancer, A Harvard Professor?

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 14:  The New York Times he...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Here’s the latest New York Times freelancer who might get sent to the woodshed for ethical lapses — Mary Tripsas, a Harvard professor — reports Gawker.

In today’s column, Tripsas waxes ecstatic about about the 3M Company’s “innovation center,” which helps their customers provide input in the design process. Cool! Except NYTPicker has learned that Tripsas and other “innovation researchers” were flown to the center last month—airfare and accommodations gratis. Imagine the infamous Thrillist junket with less booze and more whiteboards.

This is not kosher with Times freelancer rules, which state:

In connection with their work for us, freelancers will not accept free transportation, free lodging, gifts, junkets, commissions or assignments from current or potential news sources.

Clearly, 3M was a “potential news source” at the time they flew Tripsas out to their Innovation Chocolate Factory, since they became a current news source in today’s column. But Tripsas, who is a professor at the Harvard Business School, is trying to work the “In connection with their work for us” clause into a loophole, according to NYTPicker:

“I am a professor who does research on innovation and, in fact 3M was not aware of my recent NYT affiliation when they invited me,” Prof. Tripsas told The NYTPicker via email. “As a professor, I am sometimes invited to speak to companies about innovation, and it is not unusual for the company to reimburse travel expenses, so 3M did pay for my hotel and airfare. I did not inform the New York Times of that since I viewed the visit as a speaking engagement that was part of my broader academic research.”

As schadenfreudian New York City writers all know, freelance Mike Albo, who wrote a long-running twice-monthly shopping column in the Styles section, lost his gig after accepting a free trip to Jamaica on assignment for someone else.

It’s an interesting game the Times plays, this ethical squeeze play with the talented freelancers whose copy fills almost every single section — national and metro generally excepted. I agree entirely with the spirit of it, and as a Times freelancer, have abided by it for years. But the definition of “freelance” usually means “I sell my skills to the highest bidder”, not “You own me and get to dictate my behavior.”

The very spirit of this code violates the way freelancers run their businesses, using their own standards and definitions of what is fair and ethical, the trade-off we make for the financial insecurity of a life free of corporate shackles, and rules. But we’ve all known or heard of writers who stuff anything they can get into their suitcase or handbag or apartment, which makes the rest of us who don’t do so, whether Times’-constrained or not — look stupid — and, depending on your ethics, these people brain-dead, greedy and up for grabs.

Does it matter to you, dear readers, if a freelancer has their airfare or meals or lodging paid for (as is completely standard in most travel writing) by a source? What do you think of the Times‘ ethics code?

OK, Nervous Flyers — With The Newest Security Rules, How Will We Handle Plane Landings?

Airforce firemen cover an airplane in foam fro...
Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

Oy. Just my luck. I’ll be flying January 9, twice, domestically. Thanks to the new security rules, we’ll now have no access to the toilets, no standing up and nothing in your lap the entire final hour before landing.

A few challenges here arise:

1) What If I’m asleep and forgot to use the bathroom in time?

2) What if I really need to pee, defecate or throw up? Pregnant women, little kids, those with bladder infections or weak stomachs or the flu are now toast.

3) How will I soothe my frazzled nerves as the plane lands, often when it’s most buffeted by wind and statistically, most likely to suffer mishap? Without a book, Ipod, magazine, stuffed animal — anything to keep my sweaty fingers engaged and my mind distracted — it’s not fun.

4) Does the list of forbidden “personal belongings” include a rosary? No, I’m not kidding. My mother and I once endured a landing in Cuzco, aboard Faucett Air, that had all us so scared we were praying aloud and I bruised the hand of the young woman sitting beside me I gripped it so tightly.

I see a big jump in Prozac ‘scrips starting Monday…

The Ex-Pat's Dilemma: Where Exactly Are You From?

The national flag of Canada.
Image via Wikipedia

Home again in New York after Christmas in Toronto, back in my native Canada. It was fascinating at the border — we drove — watching all the homesick Canucks about to cross the line stocking up on exotica like liquorice allsorts and shortbread (recently put on the markdown rack — why? — at my local Stop ‘n Shop) and all things maple. The sweetie, always in some vague military mode, bought a pile of teeny tiny maple leaf decals to stick along the side of the vehicle, like some battered WWII bomber, to mark every trip north.

License plates around us, two on two Virginia plates, read “CDN MADE” and “CDN QT.” Clearly, I’m not the only ex-pat Canadian living in the U.S. who is as proud of where I come from as grateful, mostly, for the legal chance to live and work in the U.S.

Then the border guard, uncharacteristically said “Caitlin!”

“Um, yes sir?”

“Are you still Canadian?”

“Yeah!” I answered, with a vehemence that shocked my partner. Sort of like asking. “So, are you breathing?”

What on earth prompted the question? And phrased so oddly? Not “a Canadian?” Meaning…?

Did he really mean to ask, which isn’t pertinent legally: “Why aren’t you a U.S. citizen yet?” He could see my green card.

It’s every ex-patriate’s dilemma. When are you no longer an ex-pat and when are you, officially, an immigrant? When you assume the citizenship of your adopted land? Does it matter? To whom and why?

I carry a Canadian passport, have the legal right to apply for an American one, after “naturalizing” but can also, I believe, still claim an Irish passport as well, thanks to my Irish-born great-grandfather. How James Bond-ian it would be to have three, legally; Canadians do not have to give up their citizenship if they become American citizens. As someone who loves to travel and hopes to retire, at least part-time, in France, all this would be helpful.

For all of you who now live somewhere you were not born, nor have not (yet?) assumed a second (or third) citizenship, where does your loyalty lie? What, if anything, would change it?

Greetings From The Frozen North — Merry Christmas!

A group of Santa Clauses walks through snowy w...
Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

We’re home with my Dad in Toronto, staying as warm as possible. You know it’s a Canadian Christmas when:

Your friend  wants the cold to be so bitter that her front lawn will freeze so the moving truck can pull right up to her front door.

Her sister is marrying on Boxing Day, but because they are Sikhs, it’s a three-day affair.

You eat the traditional French-Canadian Christmas meal of tourtiere, a meat pie, sort of hamburger in pastry. The cook, my old friend Marcia, is the grand-daughter of Nellie McClung, who is featured on the $50 bill for helping to win Canadian women the vote.

You try to prepare the turkey and — like so many in Canada — it keeps leaning to the left.

Your Dad buys the oysters for Christmas dinner unshucked. Talk about an ER visit waiting to happen. That’s what free healthcare will do — give you that delicious sense of abandon.

You buy Chinese food from a dive-y joint in a shady neighborhood, called Yummy Food, and it’s some of the best Chinese we’ve ever eaten anywhere.

You lie awake, barely able to sleep with anticipation. No, not Santa Claus — Boxing Day sales! The Canuck equivalent of Black Friday, but even more so, because there are many fewer stores and their profit margins typically higher than in the U.S. You think a hockey scrum is fierce? Hah!

You find out the secret to getting someone helpful when dealing with voicemail hell. When they ask if you want English or French, hit the button for “French” — because operators in Montreal speak English, but those in Bangalore don’t speak French.

You can re-stock the most essential of supplies: Big Turk, Crispy Crunch, Crunchie and all the Canadian candy bars unavailable south of the border.

Hoping your holiday is filled with warmth and fun.

Happy-Merry-Politically-Correct-Whatever! On Hiatus For A Few Days

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New Y...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ll be off duty here from the 22nd to the 27th., heading north to Canada for Christmas.

Thanks to all of you regulars for being there and the rest for stopping by to visit. I was perhaps the most dubious of bloggers when I first posted here on July 1, 2009, Canada Day, but it’s been fun. I’ve learned a lot, made some new friends and am enjoying the challenge of trying to be lucid and interesting with some regularity. This month, I achieved, in 21 days, almost 6,000 unique visitors. And none of them are my Mom!

While we finish out 2009, and the decade, I’m deeply thankful for the gifts that don’t come wrapped in shiny paper:

your time, attention and thoughts; healthy parents; a lovely partner who’s even managed to keep his journalism job; loyal friends, both old and new; wise colleagues; good health; a cool book to write and a smart young editor, thanks to my tough new agent — and a smart place to hang my hat in the blogosphere.

For someone in a dying industry, I feel oddly optimistic.

May your holidays, and 2010, be filled with joy, friendship, work you value, hope, solvency, health and love.

I offer you a favorite poem by one of my favorite poets, Willam Butler Yeats, written in 1899:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Gun Owners Include Moderates — This Is News?

Heston at a rally for the National Rifle Assoc...
No, they're not all like this Image via Wikipedia

Today’s New York Times, which consistently maintains an embattled institutional posture on private gun ownership, today includes a highly unusual editorial astonished at the fact — well-known to anyone who knows the gun world — that people who own firearms aren’t all mouth-breathing knuckle-draggers.

People who own guns are as heterogenous as people who own cars or frying pans or hair dryers. Some are deeply passionate about the Second Amendment and its putative sanctity, the sort, like ex-NRA president Charlton Heston once famously said, would only see their firearms pried from their cold, dead hands.

Others, many others, are as deeply horrified by gun violence, even while they own firearms, as anyone who’s never even touched a Glock. I learned this firsthand after spending a few years focused on Americans and their guns, for my book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (Pocket Books, 2004). I spoke to 104 men, women and teens from 29 states, ages 13 to 70.

I’ve never owned a gun nor felt the desire to do so, but, after those many long thoughtful conversations — with everyone from legislators like Carolyn McCarthy to Olympic shooters to victims of gun violence — I understand why it’s appealing to the many Americans who feel that way — 30 percent of American homes contain a gun.

Writes the Times:

Now along comes Frank Luntz, a conservative Republican pollster who, Toto-like, has snatched back Oz’s curtain to reveal that gun owners favor much more reasonable gun controls than the gun lobby would ever allow the public to imagine.

Mr. Luntz queried 832 gun owners, including 401 card-carrying N.R.A. members, in a survey commissioned by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the alliance of hundreds of executives seeking stronger gun laws. In flat rebuttal of N.R.A. propaganda, the findings showed that 69 percent of N.R.A. members supported closing the notorious gun-show loophole that invites laissez-faire arms dealing outside registration requirements.

Even more members, 82 percent, favored banning gun purchases to suspects on terrorist watch lists who are now free to arm. And 69 percent disagreed with Congressionally imposed rules against sharing federal gun-trace information with state and local police agencies.

These findings strike at some of the N.R.A.’s most sacred shibboleths. The survey questionnaire, devoid of boilerplate alarums about threatened gun rights, found some plain reason at work. It is clear that most members still oppose policies like a national gun registry. But 86 percent of gun owners also agreed that more could be done to “stop criminals from getting guns while also protecting the rights of citizens to freely own them.” And 78 percent of N.R.A. members said they should be required to report stolen guns to the police — to combat another source of underground arms dealing.

Not everyone who owns a firearm, contrary to the Times’ position, is a “gun nut.” But moderates remain, sadly and problematically, invisible, which is why the editorial is worth doing and reading. There are few issues more politically divisive. But both sides’ leaders told me privately — off the record — they feel there’s much to discuss and many concerns they share. Budging from their stances publicly, though, would alienate their constituencies. Many gun-owners feel passionately they are losing their rights and fear future legislation, while those who represent the concerns of those affected by gun violence, whether survivors of a loved one’s suicide or death in a crime, know their membership looks to them with equal fervor to do the right thing.

Legislators are caught in the middle. One of the challenges of anyone opposing the NRA is the complexity of nuance. There are many anti-violence groups, each of which have slightly different views and stances. As a result, their voices are often lost in the shouting match whenever legislators try to enact new, powerful laws.

Moderation wins no votes, doesn’t make for tidy bumper stickers, rarely prompts people to whip out their checkbooks and write four or five-figure donations to the organization of their choice — whether the National Rifle Association or the Brady Campaign.

Subtlety doesn’t sell.

Chocolate Wars Heat Up As Cadbury Faces Takeover Bid From Hershey

Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars are pictured...
Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

If you’re a chocolate lover, read this as Kraft’s bid for Cadbury has got Britons’ knickers in a twist. It’s as though someone from their side of the pond had decided to re-make KFC or New York bagels or  whatever beloved, all-American food icon works best for you. Chocolate, for many Britons, is one of the major food groups.

Sure, you can take refuge here in pricey choices like Godiva, but Americans still eat only half the amount of chocolate — about 12 pounds a year — as Britons. If you’ve ever lived in Britain, or traveled there and eaten some of its candy bars, you understand. What Hershey calls chocolate is an abomination. So says the mayor of London, Boris Johnson (and I agree):

But for many Brits, the business impact is beside the point. The prospect of Americans taking over production of their beloved Dairy Milk and Flake bars has sent the country into an emotional tailspin.

“When it comes to protecting our chocolate — the taste of British childhood — then we turn and fight,” wrote Mayor Boris Johnson of London in The Telegraph this month.

“We face an appalling choice of succumbing either to Kraft, makers of the plastic flaps of orange cheese, or to Hershey, whose Hershey bars have been likened in flavor — by independent experts — to a mixture of soap powder and baby vomit.”

Whenever I go home to Canada, I stock up on the candy bars of my youth, made with a British version of chocolate, both tangier and smoother than anything I’ve ever eaten made by a mass-market American manufacturer. I just don’t eat American chocolate.

Instead, the treasures I stockpile there and keep safely hidden at the back of the fridge are Big Turk, Crunchie, Aero Bars, Crispy Crunch. I can barely explain the allure of the first two brands as their contents, sponge toffee and Turkish delight, are also little-known to most Americans as well. On my worst days, a bite of Big Turk, with its chewy, sweet, translucent reddish center, can soothe just about anything.

Try them once, and you’ll understand too.