Tarantulas Or Parking Spots? Pick Your Challenge

Lycosa tarantula
Image by J. Coelho via Flickr

It’s been only three full days since we returned from two weeks in the southwest, several of those days spent in a house surrounded by 26,000 acres of mesquite, creosote, cottonwoods — and an eight-foot mountain lion barely a Manhattan block from our front door. The silence, there, was deliciously deafening, the night sky so star-studded it seemed impossible.

I drove into Manhattan today, a bit stunned by the contrast. I’ve lived north of the city for 21 years and now, after all those years, it feels manageable and familiar. I know where to find a parking garage and am not shocked when it costs me $26 to 30 for four hours. Manhattan often feels like a small child — it can be utterly charming, lulling you into a sense of deep, sighing pleasure, then, often without warning, it offers the urban equivalent of projectile vomit: a new tax (another one?), a hike in tolls (another one?), your favorite restaurant or shop shuttered and gone for good.

I’ve always been a big-city person, happy to walk fast and talk fast. But I’ve also always dreamed of a life that includes a battered old pick-up truck, the kind with a bench seat and a gearshift that sticks high out of the floor, and a horse. Only the very wealthy, here, can afford a horse. I like places where kindness and character trump glibness and gloss and was struck by the welcome we found amid friends old and new, and even from strangers, on our trip. My partner grew up and attended college in New Mexico, so it was also a homecoming for him, including a visit to his old journalism professor.

It was good to see the the world he grew up looking at, to watch storms layer the mountain-tops and appreciate how different things look when the horizon dominates and almost every building is low and earth-colored. There’s an inherent humility to it that’s also refreshing after the Trump-ishness of New York City.

We came back from the desert a little changed, our weary heads cleared, our imaginations re-charged and filled with new ideas. It was a nasty shock to see, with fresh eyes, New York’s graffiti and concrete and filthy highways, although lovely to enjoy the Hudson River view. I wonder if we could handle living in a place where a pick-up truck isn’t an affectation but a life-saving necessity, where water is, as they say, more valuable than whiskey.

I looked up at the sky tonight and could only see a half-dozen stars. It looked a little empty.

Women Lack Confidence? As If. We Just Get Punished For Showing It

Two women boxing
Image by Powerhouse Museum Collection via Flickr

Loved this thoughtful post from the blog BitchPhd about when, where and why women behave as though they lack confidence — when many of us actually don’t:

When did self-promotion, confidence, and even occasional arrogance become the exclusive domain of men? I believe that we can have a sea change in how women behave without it being a submission to the forces of patriarchy. And I firmly reject the notion that women are “naturally” inclined to be more collaborative, less arrogant, and less self-promoting than men. Zandt doesn’t say that, but it’s running as a subtext through what she wrote.

In order to answer the question of what behavior is “natural” to men or women, you need to look at girls. Pre-pubescent girls, girls who have had healthy childhoods in a loving environment and a stimulating education. They are not retiring. They do not deprecate themselves. If they are not shy (and some of them are) they will happily tell you all about the awesome things they’ve done and how great they are. They are just as arrogant as the boys, maybe even more so. They compete with each other and with boys, they try furiously to make themselves stand out.

I was one of those girls. And let me tell you, I was punished mightily for it, starting right about the time that puberty crept up. Teachers, friends, and friends’ parents repeatedly told me I was “conceited.” This was often not even for saying anything, but merely for succeeding in a given activity. I was lucky, though. These messages were never reinforced at home. My dad wasn’t a cheerleader-type parent, but he never cut me down, either. I’d tell him about how girls at school shunned me after I succeeded at something, whether it was getting a role in a school play or winning the spelling bee, and he’d tell me that I didn’t need to change my behavior. He didn’t tell me I was better than them, either, or that they were “just jealous.” He just said, you are all changing and growing up and maybe some of them will stay your friends and some of them won’t. I know it hurts, and I’m sorry. (Ps, my dad is awesome).

So I managed to retain most of that childhood exuberance. But I’m still surprised by my instincts toward self-doubt.

I doubt there’s a successful woman out there, anywhere, who hasn’t struggled with this. Recently, my own Dad jibed me: “You don’t lack for confidence, do you?” My father, who won international awards for his work as a filmmaker, isn’t one to mince words. “The apple falls close to the tree,” I replied. Growing up in a family of people who never had jobs, job security, raises, promotions or pensions — all of them freelancers in film, television, radio and print — taught me that self-doubt meant loss of income.

You can’t sell yourself, or your skills, and the two become conflated, if you think you’re lousy or someone’s better than you. They probably are! But that’s not the point. Anyone selling their services into the open marketplace needs a solid sense of their value. And showing it takes confidence. No one wants to hire the chick who fiddles with her hair or says “um” or “sorry”.

Yet women are, indeed, punished for their — you should pardon the expression — ballsiness. A feisty woman who’s ready and willing to fight hard for her ideas and vision isn’t someone many other women are comfortable with. Some men, and their sons, are also happy to beat the hell out of a woman who thinks she’s something, a lesson I learned firsthand.

I arrived halfway through tenth grade at a Toronto high school filled with kids who’d known one another since elementary school and one in which, like many, the boys ruled. I’d spent all my previous life surrounded by cool, accomplished women and girls in an all-female private school and summer camp. Deferring to boys because they were male was just…weird.

A small group of them were determined to teach me a lesson, and three years of brutal, relentless, daily and very public verbal bullying were my reward for daring to be so outwardly confident. How dare I? It left scars, no question, but allowing them to define me, and destroy my sense of excitement about the world? Not an option.

When I re-kindled a friendship with my high school best friend decades later after a reunion, I asked her why they’d singled me out for such abuse. “You were confident. You scared them to death.”

One of my favorite books on the subject, one I think every woman and female teen must read as they negotiate their careers, is Women Don’t Ask, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. The authors studied a group of women and why they failed to ask for more for themselves when negotiating in a business setting — and the very real backlash from those who don’t is one of the issues.

Was Your Mom Stylish? Check Out This Blog

A group portrait depicted on glass, dating fro...
Even in 250 AD, chic moms set the tone...Image via Wikipedia

Love this, a blog with photos of stylish moms — or mums, if you’re Canadian or British.

As someone whose Manhattan-born mom was a model and actress before she worked in journalism, whose hair color (thanks to a rocking wig wardrobe) changed almost daily in the 1960s, whose glossy mink had an emerald green silk lining and who, one summer for fun, designed and made a line of sandals, it’s a mixed blessing to have a super-stylish woman as the alpha female. It’s great if she helps you develop your own style, less amusing if she’s so brutally competitive, as some moms and step-mothers are, you don’t stand a chance. A stylish mom can nurture a girl’s sense of confidence, launching her into a lifetime of sartorial pleasures — or squish it all in the bud.

Both taught me to find, care for and enjoy lovely clothing and accessories. As the French would say, elles avaient du chien.

I still gratefully remember the butter-yellow chiffon gown my step-mother found for me, after scouring most of Toronto, for my senior prom and the French wool coat my mom bought me as I started college. Both women had terrific taste, and both have influenced my eye, and wardrobe.

What style notes did you pick up from your Mom?

Turning The Tables — A Restaurant Critic Works As A (Weary, Frazzled) Waitress

City of Vancouver
Vancouver. Image via Wikipedia

Here’s what it’s like when a sniffy — oops, discerning — restaurant critic worked as a waitress for a week in one of Vancouver’s best restaurants:

My legs ache. I’m severely dehydrated. And I still have to help break down the tables in the wine room, lug the extra chairs out to the hallway and do my cash-out before I can drag myself home, crawl into bed and then come back tomorrow to start all over again.

Why did I ever think that being a waitress for a week would be fun?

Not surprisingly, perhaps, she came away humbled by how hard the job is but even fussier than before.

I get it; after working more than two years as a retail sales associate, I know what it takes, and how rarely anyone, anywhere gives even a smidgen of decent service. Much as I loathe the customers from hell, switching roles can head you down that path as you start to see what service professionalism is and how to achieve it.

At least she got tips.

Want 'Homespun Caring And Comfort'? Hire It, For $60,000+

I had few illusions that the very wealthy actually bother to raise their own kids, having known a few who spent more time with their nanny or governess than Mom or Dad, but found this story depressing on a few levels:

Even though the wealthy are cutting back, there are some things they simply can’t live without: like household staff.

Everett Collection

Yet rather than employing the high-price armies of the boom times-–the chef, maids, chauffeurs, gardeners, security guard. household managers, estate managers–the wealthy are combining the jobs. Jeeves and Mr. Belvedere are out. “Alice,” from the Brady Bunch is in.

“We’re getting a lot of requests from clients saying ‘What we want is someone who can do it all from cooking, cleaning, to paying the bills and watching the kids,” said Steven Laitmon, co-founder of The Calendar Group, a Connecticut staffing and consulting firm for wealthy households. “They want their own ‘Alice.’ ”

This may sound obvious–but who wouldn’t love an Alice in their home?

Such requests mark a big shift from the runaway growth of the past decade, when the wealthy staffed their mansions with all manner of highly trained specialists and then found themselves overwhelmed by the management headaches, huge payrolls and occasionally poor, institution-like service. “People wanted to staff their homes like boutique hotels,” said Nathalie Laitmon, Calendar’s other founder. “That’s very different from a home.”

Today’s wealthy want a much smaller staff–preferably one person–that can make life simpler, not more complicated. Some are making the shift to save money. Others are doing it to project a lower-key image at a time of status-backlash.

The Laitmon’s said a Greenwich, Conn., client recently hired a chef who also could be their cleaning person, so the family wouldn’t been seen by their peers as “the family with a private chef.”

My retail job north of Manhattan, in which I often served many of these people, was sadly instructive. Their entire world is staffed with servants, whether on their payroll or not. Their sense of entitlement knows no bounds.

If you’ve got the talent, and have honed it sufficiently to work as someone’s private chef, why the hell would you want to clean the windows as well?

Six (Of Many) Challenges Of Writing Memoir

Memory (1896). Olin Warner (completed by Herbe...
A statue of memory...Image via Wikipedia

On the long-running listserv WriterL, populated by everyone from eager fresh grads to Pulitzer winners, we’ve been chewing over the many practical challenges of writing a memoir.

I’m halfway through mine, and am finding it challenging on many levels. It’s a totally different animal from my first book, which includes 104 original interviews from 29 states, five of which I visited.

This book relies on my ability to recall, describe and make compelling my own experiences and feelings and those of others. This time, I’m living inside my head, reporting my own life and that of about 20 other people.

Anyone hoping to write a memoir faces many challenges. Here are some the ones I’m now grappling with:

1) Other, real people become your characters. Many times the writer must do this, or chooses to do this, without asking their permission, no matter how much they reveal about these people. If they are alive, you have to find a way to be truthful to your experience of/with them without — or does this matter? — destroying their affection or respect for you.

When you change their names or identifying details, do the new ones help the reader or confuse them? Which of their qualities are most germane to your narrative?

If they are dead, are you free(r) to say whatever you wish?

2) It’s your memory. Is it reliable? Walt Harrington, a terrific writer, has said he carefully re-reports his own life; if he writes that Tuesday November 13, 1973, (I’m not sure it was a Tuesday, but he would be), was cold and cloudy, raining later that afternoon, he goes back to check the weather reports. Every writer, potentially, can fact-check his or her impressions by confirming them with others — if this is part of your plan. You may not want others’ input and it may not be gettable any other way. Then you’re on your own, unless you took detailed and copious notes or (unlikely) have audio, film, video recordings or other documentation for reference.

3) Our memories are clouded by emotion. One of the arguments made about recall is that traumatic events are more clearly embedded in our brains than others more banal. Can you remember last Wednesday’s lunch? How about your wedding day? The day your first child was born or the death of a loved one? What emotions are clouding or coloring these memories? Are they accurate? How would you know for sure?

4) Describing and conveying emotion is difficult. Maybe not for some, but as a certified WASPy Canadian (i.e. not someone who’s wild about emotional displays or drama), I find this especially challenging. A memoir without emotion is a meal without cutlery — you can get get through it, but it’ll be hard work and not terribly enjoyable. I wonder if writing memoir, then, comes more easily to more confessional cultures or generations; Americans, much to the consternation of more buttoned-up natives, often seem very at ease telling total strangers a lot of very personal detail.

Perhaps today’s teens and 20-somethings, sexting and posting on-line videos and details of their most intimate lives, would find this “challenge” absurd.

Yet, no one wants to read 75,000 or 100,000 words of pure confessional. It’s not a race to emotional nudity, stripping bare to the goriest and most salacious details reallyfast. Which are the most powerful? Says who? Like any great story, yours must also contain suspense, structure, conflict, resolution. It’s not just a matter of publishing your raw, unedited diary or a big pile of blog posts.

5) Which bits of this life you’re telling are most compelling, not to you, but to your readers? Why? After I’d written what I thought was a really great chapter, I shared it with my partner, who is not a writer but a fellow journalist and someone whose opinion I trust. “You can do better,” he said. Ouch.

It may have sliced you to your core the day your French or math professor laughed at you in front of your 7th-grade classmates — or whatever — but this moment, like every single one, must pass the “Who cares?” test. If it isn’t making a powerful or larger point, include it at your peril.

6) Which “you” is telling this story? I heard someone on NPR recently make a great point: once you’ve got the tone for your memoir, you’re good to go. Without it, you’re wandering aimlessly, no matter how great your raw material. I think of every memoirist, now myself as well, as simply one more character within the narrative, albeit the narrator. But we all have many facets and colors to our personality or character. None of us is 100% funny or calm or outraged or sad all the time, while the reader needs a consistent, persuasive voice in order to enter and follow your path.

I was one of those who really enjoyed “Eat, Pray, Love”, the much-lauded memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert of her global journey. I liked her authorial “voice” and trusted she would tell me a good story, and she did. For every reader who loved it, there are many who found her whiny or tedious or self-involved.

It is memoir. It is about you and what you’ve seen, heard and felt; that’s an inherent risk every author must take. It demands rigorous self-editing and fantastic help from your first readers and your editor.

Two of my favorite memoirs, oddly perhaps, are both of their African lives by British writers: “When A Crocodile Eats The Sun”, by Peter Godwin and “Let’s Not Go To The Dogs Tonight“, by Alexandra Fuller. Both are filled with sensual details — one smells Africa in their sentences — but also limn powerful, dark stuff. Godwin opens with a description of cremating his father and talks about his sister’s murder; Fuller’s life was spent in the care of a somewhat crazed mother in a foreign place, far from any possible rescue.

From this week’s New Yorker, by Daniel Mendelsohn:

This awkward blurring of the real and the artificial both parallels and feeds off another dramatic confusion: that between private and public life. The advent of cell phones has forced millions of people sitting in restaurants, reading on commuter trains, idling in waiting rooms, and attending the theatre to become party to the most intimate details of other people’s lives—their breakups, the health of their portfolios, their psychotherapeutic progress, their arguments with their bosses or boyfriends or parents. This experience of being constantly exposed to other people’s life stories is matched only by the inexhaustible eagerness of people to tell their life stories—and not just on the phone. The Internet bears crucial witness to a factor that Yagoda discusses in the context of the explosion of memoirs in the seventeenth century (when changes in printing technology and paper production made publication possible on a greater scale than before): the way that advances in media and means of distribution can affect the evolution of the personal narrative. The greatest outpouring of personal narratives in the history of the planet has occurred on the Internet; as soon as there was a cheap and convenient means to do so, people enthusiastically paid to disseminate their autobiographies, commentaries, opinions, and reviews, happily assuming the roles of both author and publisher.

So if we’re feeling assaulted or overwhelmed by a proliferation of personal narratives, it’s because we are; but the greatest profusion of these life stories isn’t to be found in bookstores. If anything, it’s hard not to think that a lot of the outrage directed at writers and publishers lately represents a displacement of a large and genuinely new anxiety, about our ability to filter or control the plethora of unreliable narratives coming at us from all directions. In the street or in the blogosphere, there are no editors, no proofreaders, and no fact-checkers—the people at whom we can at least point an accusing finger when the old-fashioned kind of memoir betrays us.


$9,000 A Day? Nice Work, Babe!

Stephanie Seymour for Valentino.jpg
Madame Seymour...Image by Tammy Manet via Flickr

Here’s a story for you — $9,000 a day from your soon-to-be ex.

In a profile of billionaire businessman Peter Brant, today’s New York Times suggests the guy still had a large, costly soft spot for his second wife, soon to be ex, Stephanie Seymour, a former Victoria’s Secret model:

That’s still enough to underwrite not just his own extravagant lifestyle, but his soon-to-be former wife’s, too. The court ordered him to pay her $270,000 a month in temporary alimony and child support — or about $9,000 a day. Mr. Brant has appealed that decision but he may have only himself to blame. Breaking the cardinal second-marriage rule in the multimillionaire’s handbook, he wed without a prenuptial agreement.

“He was basically head over heels in love with her,” said a person close to Mr. Brant, who requested anonymity because he didn’t want to be publicly linked to the divorce case. “He’s more of a romantic than one would give him credit for at first glance, and it was very much a function of that. There was no discussion of a prenup. He thought this would last forever.”

It might be the most costly error of Mr. Brant’s life. And it has at least one close friend scratching his head in consternation.

“It’s called sign on the dotted line,” says Donald Trump, a classmate and childhood buddy of Peter Brant, having grown up with him in the Jamaica Estates section of Queens. “Being the king of prenups, I’m pretty good at that stuff. You have to have it. You’re dealing with huge finances and you need some certainty in your life and a prenup will hold up 100 percent if it’s properly drawn.”

All of which leaves Mr. Trump a tad puzzled about his old pal. “I’m surprised at Peter. But women can do things to men that are very unusual.”

Female Diplomats' Challenge — The 'Trailing Spouse': One, Who Left The NYT, Speaks Out From Mozambique

View of a market in Maputo, Mozambique
A Maputo marketplace. Image via Wikipedia

One of my fantasy careers — until I totally flunked Canada’s Foreign Service Exam — was working overseas as a diplomat. I love to travel and explore new cultures, but it quickly became clear to me that the life demands tremendous commitment to a larger set of goals, not your own agenda of seeing the world.

One of the many challenges, especially for women serving in these essential roles, is that of finding a partner both willing and able to table or shelve his own career ambitions to follow the demands of your new employer. So I read with interest this great piece in the Financial Times what life was like for Britain’s first female foreign service employees.

Then I remembered I actually know a “trailing spouse” and asked if he’d be willing to share some of his life with us. I’m delighted that he agreed; his answers to my many questions are below.

Michael Barrientos started out as a photo editor for The New York Times, which is how I know him. He and his wife are heading back to D.C. soon for two years, awaiting their next posting. I have always wondered what it’s like to be(come) the trailing spouse and know that many ambitious women with global careers and ambitions face these issues as well.

As you might imagine, it requires tremendous flexibility and grace to manage a marriage, two careers and kids while moving from one unfamiliar nation and culture to the next. Thank heaven for such men!

Many thanks to Michael for his time and candor…

I’m a professional photographer and photo editor, age 41, born in Compton, California and grew up in Paramount (Long Beach area in Los Angeles County.)  I graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in communications.  I became interested in photography late in college and did a photo internship at the Pasadena Star-News in my final year of college.  In 1993 I took my first newspaper job as a staff writer at the Porterville Recorder, a small daily newspaper in the San Joaquin Valley.  I was asked to be a full-time photographer by the executive editor after I did a number of photo essays.  A new position was added for me.

I was drawn to photography in my first photojournalism class which I admittedly took as what I thought would be an easy elective.  The turning point came during a class trip to the National Press Photographer Association’s flying short course when I saw Donna Ferrato and several other documentary photographers.  I changed my concentration.

After my time in Central California, I moved to the U.S./Mexico border to take a job in McAllen, Texas.  I worked as a staff photographer for the Monitor newspaper.  I left the paper to study Spanish in Guanajuato, Mexico.  I began freelancing for the AP and moved to San Antonio where I worked for the San Antonio Express-News.  After that, I took a job at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in Florida, a New York Times newspaper.  I spent six years there:  three as a staff photographer and three as deputy director of photography.  I then went to The New York Times.

Neither my family nor I had any foreign service family or background.  My parents were blue-collar:  my father is a retired truck driver and union activist, and my mother continues working as a hair dresser, an admission clerk at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles, and a longshoreman.  My only preparation was occasional family trip to Tijuana.   The transient lifestyle of journalism, however, made it a good fit.  My background moving around the country working at newspapers or on assignment, particularly during my time on the U.S./Mexico border, along with personal travel helped.

This is my wife, Sarah’s, third posting.  She served her first post in Algiers when I was still at the Times. Her second post was Lisbon, where I first joined her after our first child Thomas,  4, was born in Washington, D.C.  Our second son, Charles, 2, was born in Lisbon.

Preparation is not required for spouses but there is training, classes and other resources available for any family member interested.  I learned Portuguese and took other university-level courses at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia.  You are given security briefings about the countries you go to in preparation for a posting.  The State Department makes an effort to make trailing spouses satisfied with jobs and activities.  The training I have received was invaluable.  The State Department’s Foreign Service Institute was an invaluable experience with their famous language training.

The toughest challenge has been leaving my job and career.  I really loved working at The New York Times. I had the highest regard for the newspaper, what we did, the people I worked with, and hated to step away.

We had a lot of conflict early on.  I was resentful about leaving a job that I deeply enjoyed and was very satisfied in.  It was a hard transition to becoming an instant stay-at-home father and trailing spouse.  Gradually, I have adapted and gotten used to it.  I had been in newspapers for so long that it was tough to get used to being out of the industry.   There were a number of issues at play, such as Mexican-American family pressure and lack of full support of my decision to step away from my career.

I had told my wife that I would open to joining her at some point overseas, but I honestly never expected that we would come to that point and especially not so soon or abruptly.  Cultural differences were at play.  My experience with my own mother, my three sisters and extended family was that women left their jobs especially when a baby came along.  Yet, I have been a big supporter of women’s rights and have been a mentor to women photojournalists.  I was active in recruiting and hiring female photographers.

My newspaper in Sarasota, Florida was hailed in the industry while I was there for having a female publisher, executive editor, managing editor and AME/Visuals who were all women.  I admired them; they were great teachers and mentors.  I had pushed my own sisters to advance themselves.  It would be have been hypocritical of me and sent a bad message to a lot of people, especially my wife, if I would have pounded my chest and rescinded my agreement.

Oddly enough, during the 2008 presidential campaign, I got a lot of comfort seeing Todd Palin and Bill Clinton standing back and supporting their wives.  If anything, it shows how the Foreign Service is changing and, more broadly, the workplace.   It was amusing watching the film Julie & Julia about Julia Child.  Much of it revolves around her staying busy as a trailing diplomatic spouse, which is actually instrumental in her ultimately becoming who she became. It is an arcane look at what the foreign service used to be and shows how far women have come in the modern diplomatic corps.  There is a growing number of male trailing spouses which in the grand scheme of things is a good thing.

I have adapted to the life and just finished a Master’s program through University of the Arts, London.  I have started a new life as a freelance photographer and have changed my outlook on photography where I used to be entirely focused on newspaper photography.  I just had my first two consecutive solo photography exhibitions ever in Maputo.   Advantages for a photographer in diplomatic life are becoming clearer.

Maputo has been a good post for us.  I’ve adapted to the Foreign Service lifestyle and being a trailing spouse.  I am a freelance photographer and am represented by Polaris Images and do stock photography for Corbis and Alamy.  I also do contract work for the embassy producing their newsletter and other occasional projects, have spoken and presented workshops, and taught classes here on freelance work.   I’ll now be focusing on a new use of my background and education looking at the potential of the Internet, news agencies and the rapidly changing journalism field.

Advising a Foreign Service spouse would be difficult.  It’s an individual decision and not everybody is cut out for it.  I have seen a number of spouses and foreign service officers who could not handle the changes in lifestyle, culture and being away from family and friends.  I had grown accustomed to it over my career despite growing up in a tight-knit family.

Work, weather and culture took getting used to.  Maputo is what is known as a hardship post.  The weather is hot and humid like Florida and South Texas.  Culturally, my only comparison is Mexico with a huge disparity of wealth with extremes of wealth and severe poverty, endemic corruption, infrastructure problems, crime, pollution, and other problems.

Maputo is a former Portuguese colony that gained its independence in 1975, suffered through years of civil war which ended in 1993 and is still one of the poorest countries in the world.

I have made local friends.  My closest friend, Carlos Litulo, is a Mozambican photojournalist.  My wife and I have become good friends with a Mozambican businessman married to a former British diplomat.  Our family travels to the U.S. once a year during our mandatory “R&R” which is paid for to our home city there,  but many families return more often on their own dime.  We try to do leisure travel but it can be difficult with small children.  We take regular trips to South Africa to take a break from the harsh aspects of Mozambique.  Being able to drive on a pot hole-free road or walk through a mall can be a great relief.

Mozambique is not known for its cuisine outside of the availability of fresh seafood.  The Portuguese did not leave cuisine behind like the French did in their former colonies, however, they did leave their café culture.  You can’t drink the water (we are issued a water distiller), and we do most of our shopping on monthly trips to South Africa.

Our income has been affected.  I was paid well at the Times and it was tough giving up two incomes to become a dependent while contributing with my supplementary freelance money.  Our marriage has had tough challenges.  Not having support of family and friends is tough.  The Internet helps tremendously with Skype, social media like Facebook and Twitter, blogs and e-mail.  We stay involved in the diplomatic community and established a daily family routine.  Families in the Foreign Service are often close because of its nomadic nature.

As far as the places we live, I do have a say in her choice of postings.  In the past, diplomatic spouses used to be part of an officer’s evaluation.  It wasn’t long ago that how well you entertained and presented yourself to the diplomatic community were points taken into consideration for promotions.  Family still has influence on whether one gets a posting.  We discuss it intensely taking a number of factors into consideration.  Posting lengths vary but generally they are between two to three years.  On occasion they can be extended or for a non-accompanied hardship post like Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan, they can be only a year.

Time To Surgically Detach Your Kids From The Screen? Study Finds They Spend 7.5 Hours A Day There

A river snakes in the Niger Delta mangrove for...
You gotta be in it to care about it...Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

Thank God I don’t have kids. Reports the Washington Post:

Youth are spending more time with nearly every form of media than ever, according to a report released Wednesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation. They spend more hours on the computer, in front of television, playing video games, texting and listening to music than an adult spends full-time at work.

The only media young people aren’t soaking up, the study says, are newspapers, magazines and other print publications.

Youth spend more than 7 1/2 hours a day using electronic media, or more than 53 hours a week, the 10-year study says. “And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into those 7½ hours.”

The only cheerful news, from this writer’s very selfish perspective, is that they devote 38 minutes a day to print reading — a decrease of only five minutes from a decade earlier.

Here are a few reasons I find this depressing as hell:

1) Stunted social skills. I hear this from parents and teachers and even college professors — kids who relate to others primarily or exclusively through media, and not face to face, lack the basic and essential education in how to behave socially and professionally. I see it. They don’t look you in the eye, can’t be bothered observing your body language or tone, don’t get the importance of tact, diplomacy or charm. Good luck to ’em.

2) The natural or physical world is becoming an abstraction. The phenomenon isn’t new, but what a joke — as we’re all supposed to be freaking out about global warming and saving the planet, we’re raising kids who never go outdoors! Or at least, never without their digital pacifiers, unable to trade the tiny plastic screen for the real and real-time (i.e. slow and demanding of focused attention) beauties of a sunset or a flock of birds in flight or the sight of a distant mountain or river.

Many kids are raised to be terrified of the outdoors, not seeing the woods and ravines and beaches as something cool and intriguing to be explored but to be ignored. There’s even a name for this — Nature Deficit Disorder. How can anyone care deeply about “the environment” if they don’t know a thing about it firsthand?

3) Obesity and poor health. Texting for hours every day might strengthen your thumbs, but not much else.

Does this trend bother you? What, if anything, are you doing about it? What, if anything, should we do as a society?

The Dilemma Of The Half-Finished Book

Water for Elephants
Image via Wikipedia

It sits there, accusingly — half-read, unfinished. Is it worth even more of your time, as they say, a sunk cost, or should you just abandon it?

I just flew home today with two half-finished non-fiction books in my carry-on. And, like some faithless lover, I stood before the racks filled with their shiny, new, uncracked competitors this morning in Tucson, pondering which new books, if any, I’d buy. Wretched woman! How could I so heartlessly dump the two I’d already spent real money one, one even a new, full-priced hardcover? Had I lost my reading stamina?

I could practically feel my unread ones whimpering: “What about me?’

There’s a few of these stacked near my desk at home, too, equally accusatory in their physical presence, their dog-eared pages, their unconcluded arguments. I felt so much better recently when a poll of a bunch of famous authors, asked which books they never finished, included “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth, a bloody doorstop of a book I really wanted to love (a Christmas gift from someone in my family), but just couldn’t and gave up on.

Question is: if you stop reading a book, whose fault is it? You got bored? Fed up? It just wasn’t engaging enough? Badly written? Over-hyped? Is this the writer’s fault? The editor’s?

Or, in the age of CPA, continual partial attention, are we losing the ability to actually focus for several unbroken hours on the written word, whether on a Kindle or paper? I think not: I raced through “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen on vacation and couldn’t put it down. Three women on my flight from Atlanta were glued to their Kindles for most of the two-hour journey.

Now I’m also halfway through writing my own book, a memoir of working retail, and trying not to balk, like a horse at a jump, at finishing it. Partly, it’s fear. Being such an avid reader myself, who opens every new book with a sigh of anticipatory pleasure, ready to be charmed and bitter when I am not thusly rewarded, I hear a chorus of bored imaginary sighs from the worst possible readers, those who paid full price for my book and found it…wanting. Leaving it half-read.

Like every author, it’s my job to grab them all by the lapels, so to speak, happily dragging them into a narrative and writing style so alluring they just can’t bear to leave.

Gulp. No pressure.

What book could you never get around to finishing? What book kept you up all night turning the pages til you’d devoured it in one go?