In addition to Hoovering up as much information from the world at large — conversations, ads, overheard remarks, keeping my eyes open, looking for trends and patterns — here’s where I get my information. Not a total list, but:
Every morning at 9:00 a.m., I listen to a full hour of BBC World News, on radio; read The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York Post, may listening to the local NPR talk shows, The Brian Lehrer Show (call-in) and Leonard Lopate (culture), Soundcheck (music) and their national shows Fresh Air and All Things Considered. On weekends, I enjoy Studio 360 and This American Life, both on PRI. Yes, I am a radio junkie! (Blame it on growing up listening to the excellent programming of the CBC, in Canada; for a good taste of it, try their version of ATC, the nightly new show “As It Happens.”)
I watch much less news television: NBC Nightly News and BBC. I check in a few times a day with mediabistro.com. which has a lot of media-related news and may scan a few other websites I like, quirky, personal ones like Shakesville or huge ones like Arts & Letters Daily and Broadsheet.
I often read British and Canadian newspapers on-line, from TheGuardian to The Globe and Mail. I speak French and Spanish, so sometimes read in those languages, in print or on-line, like Le Point or Liberation from France. I was reading the Washington Post on-line and in print for years – looks like my subscription has lapsed — and also sometimes read The Los Angeles Times.
I read a lot of non-fiction — just finished eight books as background for my own — and try to read fiction when I can squeeze it in. I just bought my first copy of Lapham’s Quarterly and look forward to reading it.
I read a lot of colleagues’ non-fiction to blog about it and support other writers. I think it’s important both to share ideas and great work, and to create a sense of community.
I read a ton of women’s magazines, mostly for amusement. I sometimes read Vanity Fair, rarely read The New Yorker (can’t stand its elitist tone and dominance of male writers, a problem for me with many magazines.)
I read all the (remaining) shelter magazines, for pleasure and inspiration. We have subscriptions to: National Geographic, Smithsonian, Fortune, Forbes, SmartMoney, Barron’s, PDN (a photography trade magazine), Bon Appetit (after Gourmet was killed). At the library, when I have time, I’ll add Maclean’s (Canadian newsweekly), New York, maybe Time or Newsweek, but only rarely.
We fight over the weekend Financial Times we love it so much.
I picked my sweetie up last night at 7:00 p.m., coming off the commuter train from Manhattan.
Unusually, he said, “I have something I need to tell you. Let’s sit for a minute.”
He had been walking through Grand Central Station, (also called Grand Central Terminal) to catch the 6:20. GCT at rush hour, if you haven’t experienced it, is a very crowded place, people rushing, running, slipping across the weathered floors, skittering crazily down the steps to get to their train on time.
It’s become a lot worse in the past year because so many people, selfishly, stare into their Blackberries or Ipods or Itouches or phones while they walk — imperiously expecting you to see them coming and, as if they were royalty, step aside.
Tonight, my sweetie, a man of medium height wearing a pale winter jacket, barely brushed a stranger’s left sleeve as he walked past. The man, a Caucasian, middle-aged, casually dressed, not visibly drunk or high — recoiled with a hugely exaggerated motion. When my partner tried to politely move past, the man leaned into his path, then stepped in very, very close and, shouting at the top of his lungs, said: “Don’t push me!!!”
My partner, a Buddhist who has been in many tense news situations as a photographer, including a war zone, said calmly but firmly, “I didn’t push you.”
The man was, he said, so close he could have spat into his gaping maw as he shouted even louder, with scared bystanders watching: “Yes, you did!” Then ran away.
After a 40-minute ride, my partner was shaken and still deafened. The event was so quick, there was no time to call police — GCT is filled with them, and with uniformed soldiers with sidearms. Where were they?
I, too have been the victim of sudden, vicious verbal violence, both in public in New York, and when I worked retail here, which sped up my decision to quit that work.
In both instances, he and I could tell that our attackers were quite probably mentally ill, Who knows the real source of his volcanic rage — his marriage ending? A terrible diagnosis? Being out of work for years?
As much as we feel compassion for people so tortured by their own demons, these encounters are truly terrifying and left us both shaken for a while afterward. Both of us were badly bullied by strangers when we were younger, which has left its own deep scars.
In a time of unrelenting connectivity, through Facebook, Twitter and our smartphones, paradoxically it is too easy to stop connecting directly with those most able to help our young people. What is the way ahead?
First, we need more research into the factors that lead to suicide in this age group and how to identify those at greatest risk. Second, on our campuses, we need to forge ever more effective partnerships among students, parents, teachers, counselors and administrators in support of our students. And third, students must learn that it is smart to ask for help.
The story about the suicides has prompted 258 comments, so far.
Some of you will remember the chorus to “Eleanor Rigby” a Beatles’ tune, about “all the lonely people — where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?
I think about loneliness a lot.
I work alone all day in a suburban apartment. I can hear my neighbor’s voice through the wall that separates our living rooms — she, too, works at home, but is a deeply private person socially. I can hear the radiator hissing and the fridge humming and the wind outside. That’s it.
If I want to speak with someone, I have to pick up the phone — always reluctant to impose upon friends who are all busy parenting and/or working — or leave my apartment and set up a face to face meeting with a friend, many of whom live a 45-60 minute drive away, many of whom are already swamped with family, work, commuting. Sitting in the library or coffee shop simply surrounded by other people we don’t know isn’t the answer.
Two of my friends are, like me right now, also on medication and ordered to rest as we recover slowly from severe hip or back pain. It leaves us alone and isolated (thank God for email!) in our homes.
Whatever happened to good old-fashioned conversation?
I’m not the only one who has been struck by the eerie quiet that surrounds us nowadays. “We have all these invisible walls built by iPods and cell phones,” says Daniel Menaker, who crusades for traditional, face-to-face connection in his new book, A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation.“Not to be apocalyptic, but I’m very worried. There’s a social obligation to be available in a public space.”
Though hand-held devices now encroach on some treasured preserves of good talk—restaurant meals, an afternoon at the ballpark, the privacy of your car—Menaker’s chief villain isn’t technology per se but our work-obsessed lives. A job culture that demands always-on connectivity is flooding our days and nights with the clipped conventions and I-want-it-yesterday expectations of the work-place. The result: a nation of hyperconnected hermits, thumbs furiously working our BlackBerrys, each of us a master of an ever-smaller personal universe.
I lived alone for six years in my 30s, and those years were a period of relentless, almost savage loneliness. I ate breakfast alone, ate dinner alone, went to sleep alone, and woke to an empty apartment. On weekends, if I didn’t have anything planned, I saw no one.
Through all of this loneliness, I couldn’t shake the sense that there was something profoundly wrong with me. I’m 40, and I’ve been described as a member of the “Friends” generation. That is, even if I was living alone, I was supposed to be part of a hip, sassy gaggle of friends — a group that would make me feel as though I were part of a family, as though I weren’t, in fact, so alone.
But I wasn’t Carrie on “Sex and the City.” I had lovely friends, but they were busy with jobs and families. My real family was on the other side of town, and my sisters were raising kids. My work (I was a lawyer) wasn’t particularly social, and I didn’t belong to clubs or a church group.
The aloneness began to unravel me. I didn’t feel able, as one selfhelp writer advises, to see myself as my own companion. I didn’t want to cook dinners for myself as though I were having company. I wanted real company, and without it, my life began to fragment…My sleep fractured: I fell asleep in the living room, above my neighbors’ den, so that I could hear them talking in the evenings…
In fact, everything I went through when alone and lonely was empirically normal. I’ve spent the past five years engrossed in loneliness research, and I’ve seen all my symptoms and traits — the headaches, the wakefulness, the warped eating — evidenced among lonely individuals.
I lived alone for many years, ages 19-23, ages 26-30 and for six years after my divorce. I know how loneliness can gnaw at your soul. The more lonely you feel the more needy and grabby you can become — so uncool! so not fun! — that friends withdraw or you pull away from them, compounding the closed loop of solitude.
I don’t find it very easy to make friends. I once did, living downtown in Toronto and Montreal. I found it terrifyingly impossible in the 18 months I lived — survived, barely — in rural New Hampshire, where my then-partner was doing his medical residency, therefore gone most of the time and exhausted and mono-syllabic when home. I have never felt so disliked. We’d entertain, and no one would reciprocate. Everyone was married, pregnant or breast-feeding and we had no kids or plans to have any.
I live now 25 miles north of Manhattan. I can see the Empire State building from my street. But days, weeks, can go by without human contact unless I initiate it.
I don’t think I’m any less likeable than before. My sweetie is a lovely guy. We love to cook and entertain, (very rarely reciprocated), and are planning a party for next month.
But, here, I’m wildly unconventional — no kids, unmarried (long-partnered), low-ish income in a wealthy area, no graduate degree surrounded by doctors and corporate lawyers. People don’t know what to make of me, or find me (?) intimidating, I’ve been told.
So — I chat with neighbors in the laundry room, in the elevator, at the mailbox or garage. I chat with our local businessmen, whether Hassan who sells great cheese or Gregg, from whom I’ll be buying window caulk tomorrow or Jose, who works the counter at the dry-cleaners or Mike, the shoe repairman. I talk to my Mom and Dad more than ever before, far away in Canada.
People need face-to-face contact, warmth, humor, conversation. We need to share a laugh and a raised eyebrow. We need a sliver of free cheese (thanks, Hassan!) or a juicy bit of gossip (thanks, Aqeel, our pharmacist) or just knowing we do still belong to a larger community.
It’s a terrible taboo to even admit you’re lonely. Loser! It’s one major reason I went to work a part-time retail job, just to be around co-workers and to enjoy (as I often did) meeting customers.
Doesn’t everyone have a ton of pals eager to hang out with them?
No. Not when everyone seems to be staggering under the multiple and often competing demands of: school, grad school, family of origin, their own babies and kids, aging, ill or dying parents, often living far away, their partner, their work, their hobbies, their new side-business(es), health issues, their sports or recreational or musical commitments.
It’s a minor miracle anyone, anywhere, has time to talk.
Provocative piece in The Times of London about a new best-selling book by French writer Elisabeth Badinter, a 66-year-old mother of three:
“The baby has become a tyrant despite himself,” she says. This to the joy of men, who are able to sit back and watch the football, unconcerned by the offspring-mother battle.
So what has driven women to accept this modern form of slavery? The economic crisis is one reason, she says, with motherhood suddenly looking like a better option than the uncertainty of the workplace.
The Green movement is another, with its back-to-nature beliefs in home-made food, mother’s milk and washable nappies — all obstacles on the road to emancipation in her eyes. “Between the protection of trees and the liberty of women, my choice is clear,” she says. “It may seem derisory but powdered milk, jars of baby food and disposable nappies were all stages in the liberation of women.”
A third explanation is the contemporary American feminist movement, which, she says, has made the mistake of trying to feminise the world in the hope of turning it into more a compassionate, tolerant and peaceful place.
“These new feminists say that we have hidden and undervalued the essence of women, which is motherhood.” Badinter dismisses the theory as wrong, because “men and women resemble each other enormously”, and dangerous because “it shuts the sexes in different circles”, leaving women closed off with their children.
Warner has two points to make. The first is that, in affluent America, mothering has gone from an art to a cult, with devotees driving themselves to ever more baroque extremes to appease the goddess of perfect motherhood. Warner, who has two children, made this discovery upon her return from a stay in Paris, where, she says, mothers who benefit from state-subsidized support systems — child care, preschools, medical services — never dream of surrendering jobs or social lives to stay home 24/7 with their kids. In the absence of such calming assistance, however, American moms are turning themselves into physically and financially depleted drones….
This leads to Warner’s second point, which is more openly political than her first. Our neurotic quest to perfect the mechanics of mothering, she says, can be interpreted as an effort to do on an individual level what we’ve stopped trying to do on a society-wide one. In her view, it is the lack of family-friendly policies common in Europe that backs American mothers into the corner described above — policies that would promote ”flexible, affordable, locally available, high-quality” day care; mandate quality controls for that day care; require or enable businesses to give paid parental leave; make health insurance available for part-time workers; and so on.
Unfortunately, Warner doesn’t say how we might organize to get such policies passed in a rightward-drifting, Europe-hating America.
I don’t have kids so I watch the “mommy wars” from a safe, neutral distance. As someone who has lived in France — and seen how Frenchwomen remain, determinedly, still women after becoming a mother (no “mom” jeans there!) — I find two things about American motherhood bizarre.
If women spent one iota of their ranting, mommy-wars energy finding ways to make American motherhood more fun, healthy, relaxed and less insanely and individually competitive for all mothers, babies wouldn’t look like tyrants. But such collectivist thinking is often seen as something weird that other countries do.
The way women attack one another, focusing on individual choices as good or bad instead of getting the basic fact that employers here rule, that many other industrialized nations (yes, Canada) have paid maternity leave and those economies are doing just fine.
It’s not the babies. It’s the culture within which they are raised.
It’s rare I identify completely with a celebrity who’s made the top of the Post’s Page Six, but this item did it for me:
Anthony Haden-Guest — the legendary British journalist and bon vivant who inspired the cynical Peter Fallow character in Tom Wolfe‘s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” — has been cleaned out.
The writer is distraught over the loss of a lifetime’s worth of valuables he put into storage when he moved back to London a couple of years ago.
In January, when he returned to New York, Haden-Guest learned that Public Storage, an international chain with facilities in Long Island City, Queens, had sold everything he owned to a single buyer. “Papers, books, art, furniture, clothes, 30 years of everything,” he told Page Six.
His art collection of more than 100 works — including pieces by David Salle, Ashley Bickerton and Donald Baechler — was said to be worth more than $1 million.
“I owed them $1,350 dollars. A couple of months before, my lawyer had asked them to give me details so I could wire them monthly payments. They refused. I called them to say I would settle when I got back to New York,” said Haden-Guest, the son of an English baron and the brother-in-law of Jamie Lee Curtis.
This happened to me, and to a close friend in Manhattan — where only the wealthiest (or most ascetic) don’t have a few storage lockers thanks to tight living quarters — a few years ago. I used to get monthly statements which, of course, I paid on time. They stopped coming….I got a notice giving me…days?…to deal with it, or maybe telling me they sold my stuff. I was so in shock I still don’t remember it.
I know, I know….How important can your things really be if they are in storage for years? Very, actually. We don’t all live in 4,000 square foot houses with tons and tons and tons of room to keep your stuff close at hand. I live and work in a shared one-bedroom apartment. We have several lockers, a few small ones and one very large one: it’s filled with out of season clothing, negatives and photos dating back decades for my partner, a professional photographer, sports gear, suitcases, furniture (sigh) we haven’t been able to sell or agree to donate, books, papers.
But also…artwork by my Dad, the Kevlar vest my sweetie wore while on assignment for six weeks in Bosnia, childhood artifacts.
We’re spending all day Saturday going through it — my goal to get rid of at least half so we can put it into a smaller space and pay half as much.
They sell your stuff before you can get to it and take the %#@!@#$## hours you need to sort through it all thoughtfully?
The property of our apartment building contained many lovely old specimens — one, beside the garage, gave us a huge, veritable cloud of white blossoms each spring, a sight I look forward to every year.
Now, destroyed by the weight of so much snow from a storm a few weeks ago, it lies sheared into three parts, its already-budding branches lying on the wet pavement.
One of my favorite trees, so ethereal in every season it almost shimmers with beauty, is the Japanese maple. There was one on the grounds of a nearby college, right by the roadside, and I’ve driven past it almost daily for 20 years. I love that tree.
Now it’s a raw stump, its delicate lace-like branches lying by the side of the road, lined up with dozens of others. It’s like looking at a row of corpses.
Am I the only person who finds the loss of these gorgeous community members deeply sad? Who — if anyone, in a time of totally devastated city, town and state budgets — will even think to replace some of them? Who can afford it? Does anyone care?
Maybe, being Canadian, and having spent a lot of my time outdoors, I think about trees. Our flag is centered with a red maple leaf.
Trees are major capital assets in America’s cities and towns. Just as streets, sidewalks, sewers, public buildings and recreational facilities are a part of a community’s infrastructure, so are publicly owned trees. Trees-and, collectively, the urban forest-are important assets that require care and maintenance the same as other public property.
Trees are on the job 24 hours every day working for all of us to improve our environment and quality of life.
Without trees, the city is a sterile landscape of concrete, brick, steel and asphalt. Picture your town without trees. Would it be a place where you would like to live? Trees make communities livable for people. Trees add beauty and create an environment beneficial to our mental health. Trees:
Add natural character to our cities and towns.
Provide us with colors, flowers, and beautiful shapes, forms and textures.
Screen harsh scenery.
Soften the outline of masonry, metal and glass.
Can be used architecturally to provide space definition and landscape continuity.
Trees impact deeply on our moods and emotions, providing psychological benefits impossible to measure. A healthy forest growing in places where people live and work is an essential element of the health of the people themselves. Trees:
Create feelings of relaxation and well-being.
Provide privacy and a sense of solitude and security.
Shorten post-operative hospital stays when patients are placed in rooms with a view of trees and open spaces.
A well-managed urban forest contributes to a sense of community pride and ownership.
At least one person cares — even if they’re out in California. Write Paul and Joan Wild, to their local paper:
We have lived in this community for 54-plus years, which may tell you that we are old. I have spent my younger days shoeing horses in the small shopping area just south of the 10 freeway off of Citrus Avenue. It seems that every time I go to get my hair cut, there are more changes. The latest being the group of sycamore trees cut down to allow more parking. The only green in the shopping mall and it is cut down. I think if you stretched, you could get one space. I am more than aware we need revenue, but come on, do you need every mature green tree gone?
Those trees survived with no watering or care for years, but the trees did offer shade and a place to rest and have your lunch in your car.
A mature tree is a sight that if the developers have their way, will be a thing you can only tell your children about. This area has looked like a bomb site for more than a few months.
Right now the most common sound is the buzz of chain saws and the roar of chippers — we also lost one of our property’s oldest, tallest pine trees.
This summer, I’ll miss its shade, beauty and softness. I sure hope replanting is as important as clean-up.
This week’s New York magazine has an interesting piece by ex-Portfolio staffer Sheelah Kolhatkar asking “What if Women Ran Wall Street?”:
Despite what we’ve been led to believe, the market isn’t rational or efficient at all—it’s all about feelings. The major plot points of the crisis largely turned on emotion: Dick Fuld was too egotistical to sell Lehman Brothers when he had the chance, so his pride drove it into the ground; Bear Stearns hedge-fund managers lost huge sums of money on subprime mortgages despite the fact that they suspected the worst (“I’m fearful of these markets,” Ralph Cioffi e-mailed a colleague back in 2007); Merrill Lynch was the “fat kid,” as the investor Steve Eisman has put it, so desperate to be like Goldman Sachs that it barreled into every dumb investment imaginable and had to be bailed out by Bank of America. Almost every single bank chief doubled down on mortgage junk at exactly the wrong moment. Emotions led otherwise intelligent men—because, let’s face it, all of them were men—to make terrible decisions.
According to a new breed of researchers from the field of behavioral finance, Wall Street’s volatility is really driven by our body chemistry. It’s the chemicals pulsing through traders’ veins that propel them to place insane bets and enable bank executives to make risky decisions—and those same chemicals tend to have the same effect on everyone, turning them into a herd of overheated animals. And because the vast majority of these traders and finance executives are men, the most important chemical in question is testosterone.
Here are a few things we know about testosterone: Both men and women produce it, but men make fifteen times as much of it as women, on average… Behaviorally, it does all the things that one would expect: It is linked to increased aggression and dominance, confidence, hostility, violence, sensation-seeking… One of the most fascinating things about testosterone is the way it can be influenced by the environment.
It is for women only, speed is not the point and no prizes are awarded.
Last Wednesday, 104 teams that had paid up to 14,350 euros (about $19,500) to register embarked on the roughly 2,500-kilometer trek (about 1,550 miles) from Nejjakh to Foum-Zguid. The competitive part of the rally, which includes parts of the High Atlas mountains and the Sahara, ends Thursday…
The competitors aim to reach the five to seven daily checkpoints, marked by red flags in the sandy landscape, while covering the shortest distance. The teams of two — traveling in four-wheel-drive vehicles and trucks, as well as crossovers, motorbikes and all-terrain vehicles — have only maps from the 1950s and compasses to guide them. Global positioning systems and cellphones are prohibited.
As the field has grown, it has become more international, with 18 countries — including Germany, Congo and Cambodia — now represented.Competitors have included a top European model, college students and a 65-year-old grandmother. Annick Denoncin of France is participating for the 14th time.
But about 70 percent of the competitors are first-timers who come for the adventure and challenge.
Off-road ‘Ironwoman’ and Baja 1000 team driver Emily Miller and World Extreme Skiing Champion and U.S. Ski Team Olympian Wendy Fisher have an unlikely common denominator: The 2009 19th Rallye Aicha des Gazelles, the nine-day, all women’s off-road race in Morocco.
Miller, 42, a team driver for Rod Hall Racing, was trained by the off-road racing legend and has had multiple podium finishes as driver and navigator, in addition to being the only female to “ironman” the longest off-road race in North America. But why did the off-road truck racer decide to team up with an icon in the sport of big-mountain freeskiing?
The rally zips across Morocco, an enchanting French- and Arabic-speaking country in North Africa inhabited by friendly people, peculiar tree-climbing goats, and a spectacular desert landscape-a true wheeler’s paradise. Highlighting the arid region are enormous sand dunes; circular 3- to 8-foot tall sand traps (which Miller described as “sand cauldrons”); and unusual, rock-like mounds that resemble harmless giant broccoli crowns. Called “cauliflower plants,” these innocent-appearing obstacles are capable of seriously damaging a vehicle’s undercarriage.
However, there are no race ‘pace notes’ to warn about upcoming hazards. And participants must plot their latitude and longitudinal waypoints using Arabic and French maps dating from the 1950s and 1960s (Miller said they looked more like drawings than maps) using mathematical formulas and “dead reckoning”-the process of deducing the next location by using the course, speed, time, and distance from the last position.
GPS units were not allowed, although car-mounted compasses were; Miller and Fisher were relegated to a hand-held compass, as their vehicle didn’t have an installed unit. This made for many problems with interference due to the vehicle’s sheetmetal and electrical system. Fisher ended up working off of 26 maps, each with about nine quadrants per map that had to be measured.
The event also gives back to the people of Morocco, thanks to a medical caravan. From their website:
But access to medical care is still difficult for rural populations, where there is only 1 doctor per 3,700 people
The people living in these villages are more than 100 kilometres from the nearest clinic or hospital. In addition, a medical consultation and treatment can cost more than 15 days of salary. Heart of Gazelles, in partnership with the Moroccan Ministry for Solidarity, the Family and Social Development, decided to address an important public health issue by going to the remote regions of southern Morocco.
Since 2001, thanks to the solidarity sponsorship of TOTAL Energy Groupand the infrastructure of the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles, Heart of Gazelles has been organising an annual Medical Caravan, a traveling clinic composed of 8 doctors, 4 nurses, 2 pharmacists, 1 optician and 6 “logistics” personnel.
This centre covers general medicine, paediatrics, gynaecology, optometry and pharmacy.
A dedicated feminist, Ms. Carpenter was a founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus and joint chairwoman of ERAmerica, an organization that unsuccessfully fought for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.
Before joining the White House staff, she had covered Washington as a reporter for a news service she founded with her husband, Les Carpenter.
Widely known for her caustic and sometimes bawdy wit, Ms. Carpenter was irreverent about herself and her access to power during the Johnson years in Washington. She was also one of the few White House staff members who had no qualms about giving as good as she got, no matter the source.
“Why don’t you use your head?” Mr. Johnson once bellowed at her. She bellowed back: “I’m too busy trying to use yours!”
Feminist Gloria Steinem also recalled Carpenter with love. “She has always been a touchstone, the kind of original, irreplaceable friend about whom one thinks in good times and bad, ‘What would Liz do?’ or ‘I wish Liz were here,’ or ‘I’m going to call Liz,’ ” Steinem said. “I don’t want to think about a world in which she’s not at the other end of the phone.”
Carpenter is a member of the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, chosen by the three-campus Texas Woman’s University. One of the nation’s greatest resources, for anyone interested in women’s history, is their library in Denton, where I did some research for my book on women and guns. It was astounding, and moving, to sit in a room whose stacks were entirely devoted to books by and about women.
I wish I’d met her. She sounds like feisty, fiery fun.
It’s extremely rare that I start a book, certainly non-fiction, never about science, and can’t put it down because it reads like a thriller. Maryn’s book, “Superbug”, published today, is an astonishing read — I gulped it down in one sitting.
It’s not an easy read but it’s essential: terrifying, sad, powerful, persuasive.
Tell us a little about yourself. Why journalism? Why science and/or medical journalism?
I was born in Brooklyn, NY; raised in England where my father was working on an engineering project; high school in Texas, college in Washington, DC. At Georgetown I took an English honors degree in 16th-c theatre and 20th-c poetry, which meant I was very well educated and completely unfit for the job market.
I looked around for a graduate program that would be quick but give me a credential to make me marketable, and went to Northwestern to study journalism. After I got my degree I started the painstaking climb up the ladder of newspaper circulation. My first job was in finance journalism, but after the market crash of 1987 I was a bit burned out, and my paper offered me an open job covering science and medicine and the environment, and it was a good fit.
A bit of career history: where you worked and why you chose those places.
I had internships at the American Banker and as Washington correspondent for the Oak Ridger of Oak Ridge (TN), home of the Manhattan Project. Full-time jobs at the Rockford (IL) Register-Star (3 years), Cincinnati Enquirer (2 years), Boston Herald (5 years) and Atlanta Journal-Constitution (10 years). For the first half of my newspaper years, I was mostly an investigative reporter focusing on public health, and for the second half, I was the only U.S. reporter assigned to full-time coverage of the CDC (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
I left my last newspaper job in mid-2006 when it became clear opportunities were contracting — I kept hearing, “We don’t see you doing any projects for us” — and went freelance.
When and where did this idea for a book come to you?
About a month before I left my last job, I had the incredible good fortune to meet Sara Austin, news and health features director of Self magazine, at a conference. My first story for her, published in Feb 2007, was the genesis for “Superbug”. I’ve since done two other major features for her and am lined up to do several more. I’ve also written for Health, More, Heart-Healthy Living, and am a regular contributor to the Annals of Emergency Medicine. My first stories as a freelancer were for Susan Percy at Georgia Trend, for which I will always be grateful.
That first story for Self was on the unappreciated threat that community-strain MRSA posed to women and children — because, even in 2007, people were still talking about MRSA in the context of prisoners and athletes, groups that were mostly male. The story was published; it was picked up by the TODAY show and by Montel, which suggested it had broad demographic appeal; and my in-box exploded with notes from dozens of women and some men wanting to tell me how MRSA had changed their lives. It was clear there was a larger story there.
Where and how did you find your agent?
I’ve heard other authors describe how difficult it can be to find an agent, and every time it makes me realize how fortunate I’ve been. In the summer of 1998, I was taking a year off from my newspaper job to do a year-long fellowship at the University of Michigan, in the Knight-Wallace program (which is amazing and refreshing; I can’t recommend it enough).
A colleague, Gary Pomerantz, had been to the same program shortly before, and had come out with a book. I wanted to do a book too, and he introduced me to his agent, David Black of the David Black Literary Agency, who pointed me toward Susan Raihofer there. The book I had in mind didn’t come together, and so for the first three years of our acquaintance I didn’t have anything for her to agent.
But during the 2001 anthrax-letter attacks, I embedded with a CDC investigative team working on Capitol Hill, and that gave me the idea for my first book, BEATING BACK THE DEVIL, a narrative and history of the CDC’s “disease detectives,” the Epidemic Intelligence Service. We sold that in 2002 and it came out in 2004.
Describe selling the book.
It went very quickly. I did a 20-page proposal in about a week, and then reworked it with Susan’s guidance over a very long weekend. She sent it out to a selected group. There were some expressions of interest and then couple of bids, but the high bidder was Free Press, [an imprint of Simon and Schuster] who had published my first book. From start to sale, it was very quick, probably less than a month.
How long did it take you, start to finish?
It depends on when you start counting! Three years from the time the contract was signed; 3.5 from when I started work on that Self story, a tiny portion of which appears in the book. But I first got interested in MRSA during research for my first book in 2003, when I shadowed CDC disease detectives in Los Angeles through an investigation of MRSA infections monitoring gay men who visited sex clubs.
So it may have been gestating for twice as long as I thought.
You name so many people in your acknowledgments — tell us about building so wide a set of sources and why that mattered to you — and to other ambitious writers tackling complicated topics.
The horror of doing a book like this is that, to make the problem real to an average reader, you have to find victims who are like average readers themselves. The benefit of doing a project like this now is that, thanks to social media, you can tap networks much more reliably and reach further than I think you ever could before. I was offered a lot of contacts thanks to that Self story, and to one I did for Health magazine a year later — but still, I worked my networks relentlessly. For every victim in the book, I probably have 10 others whose stories were moving, but not exactly what I wanted.
Overall, between victims and scientists, I did about 200 interviews.
Tell us about the Dart and Kaiser fellowships and how they helped you.
I’m a big believer in fellowships, which I think are the best way — maybe the only way, in the current environment — for journalists to study up on any particular topic. I got a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation fellowship for “bridge funding” when I left newspapers; the idea was to spend a year of overnight shifts in ERs to see what the overcrowding was like. I thought I would do a book on ERs but saw so much MRSA that it fueled “Superbug” instead.
Then in 2009, I went after a fellowship with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, at Columbia, because I had collected so many stories of awful things happening to people as a result of MRSA that I realized I needed some help in processing them. I wanted to find a way to tell them that preserved the victim’s dignity and autonomy and wasn’t just disease-porn.
The Dart fellowships are a week-long immersion in both learning about the effects of trauma, and being helped through whatever processing you need to do for any traumatic events you have witnessed as a journalist. After 20 years as Scary Disease Girl, I had seen a lot of trauma, and the fellowship helped me get some distance on those events.
What did you enjoy most about writing the book?
I think people whose work has been newspaper or long-form magazine stories, but who haven’t written a book, tend to think, “Ooooh, a book, that will give me all the space I ever wanted to tell a story.” Well, no. You are still, always, making decisions about what to leave out. This book is about 85,000 words, but it could have been twice as long, and deciding what to cut was very painful — because I’m extremely detail-oriented and like to describe the smallest granular aspects of events. At the same time, I loved having that length in which to tell a braided, complex narrative.
The thing that was most challenging, though, was how time-consuming it was. I worked, without exaggeration, 12 hours most days, 6 days most weeks, for 3 years. I felt that this was a story that needed to be out soon, and that I couldn’t take the time to explore it over 5 years or more — someone else would beat me to some part of it. And to tell it with credibility, I needed to be immersed in the subject. But I made a lot of personal sacrifices to do it.
Are you now scared of doctors or hospitals? How — seriously — do you think most of us will ever challenge a doctor (if we are scared of MRSA) when we are scared or in pain or facing surgery? How scared should we be?
It is not my intention to make people paranoid, really. I don’t want to frighten people away from hospitals. But I do hold hospitals responsible for not doing better, and because they do not, I do think we have to defend ourselves.
What that means is doing due diligence before going into the hospital — if you are in a state where there is a mandatory-reporting law for hospital infections or MRSA, look up the institution’s metrics. And when you are in the hospital, try to find the courage to ask health care workers if they have washed their hands. It’s an easy thing to recommend, a very difficult thing to do, because it challenges the power differential in the relationship between health care worker and patient. But I think it’s necessary.
Next book? current projects?
One of my favorite parts of the book is tracing the detective story of the “third epidemic” of MRSA in food animals, It got me thinking about how complex and multi-national our food system is now. So I think my next project will turn in that direction, probably toward the difficulty of making food safe.