At ASJA Today, Professional Development Day — See You Tomorrow

Today is the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, whose board meeting was yesterday — I’m on its board, along with a dozen others from all over the country, from a New York Times’ best-selling author from Virginia to an environmental writer from Florida to our president, who’s leading our good, endless fight against Google scanning our books — with no pay to us.

I’ll meet three new-to-me editors today, in a sort of speed dating kind of way, hoping to win assignments from them: two are from big national magazines and one website. Our group has almost 1400 members and I look forward every year to seeing old friends, some of whom I’ve featured here, whether Greg Breining, who writes about the outdoors in Minnesota or Maryn McKenna, whose terrifying new book Superbug is about MRSA. This year Greg was in charge of our mentoring program — for $50 you get 30 minutes with an accomplished writer to ask them anything you want; one of my former mentees, Lisa Palmer, is now too busy with work to attend!

If you’re ever looking for a place to make new friends, meet smart colleagues and learn a ton, consider joining us in Manhattan tomorrow at the Roosevelt Hotel or find us on-line.

Herring Does It For Her — What's Your Comfort Food?

A fun story from The Guardian about one woman’s return to her native Norway, where she indulged in herring, a childhood favorite:

Herring are hard to come by in contemporary Oslo. At every meal during our gourmet weekend return to my birthplace I’d enquire hopefully “Any chance of a herring”? but the reply was always no. Back when I was a child they were 10 a penny, you could barely walk 10 yards through the city without being offered a sild of one sort or another. Pickled sweet or sour, grilled with butter, they even used them as a garnish but nowadays the love affair seems to have ended.

These days you can walk the length and breadth of the city, eat in modern new restaurants or old-style cafés and in every one people will look at you when you mention the H-word as though you’ve had the audacity to order crack cocaine. The level of unease when herring came up reminded me of a trip I once made to Iowa, landing between hundreds of miles of cornfields but when I asked about the possibility of ordering a cob or two at a local restaurant the staff were aghast. “Corn?” they responded, a look of bemusement on their faces as though nowhere on earth were less likely a place for it. The scorning of the humble herring was an easy absence to identify, while more fundamental changes to the city I left when my family emigrated to Ireland in 1969 were harder to identify.

Scientists will argue it’s nonsense but as soon as I set foot in Scandinavia, and Norway more precisely, I am overcome by an inexplicable wash of familiarity. Not in a proprietorial, “the blood of this land flows through my veins” sort of way, nor by any compulsion to slip into a Puffa jacket to embrace my latent Scandi fashion sense but more a contented relaxing of the shoulders, a feeling that I’m somewhere I belong.

I ate out tonight with fellow members of the ASJA board, after our semi-annual all-day meeting, in midtown Manhattan. Still on my loathed diet, I watched everyone tackling huge slabs of cheesecake, each the size of North Dakota. I ate…strawberries.

My comfort foods are not sensible things like celery or rice cakes — but creamy rice pudding with cinnamon, a great homemade spaghetti sauce (also with a dash of cinnamon) and fresh, chewy bread, like a sourdough. And, sue me, a ripe wedge of Brie so gooey you really just have to lick your fingers.

What about you?

Her Daughter Dead Of An Eating Disorder, A Suburban Mom Makes A Film About It

252/365: Anorexia Nervosa
Image by by Janine via Flickr

Even a “suburban mom”, as she calls herself, can make a film when it’s as personal and passionate as this — about her own daughter, who died at 19 of bulimia, an eating disorder.

Today’s New York Times has the story:

The film, called “Someday Melissa” and now in the editing stages, has become for Ms. Avrin salve, distraction and cause — a way to get the word out to other families grappling with eating disorders that they are not alone; to sound the alarm that eating disordershave the highest mortality rate of any mental illness; to help make sense of the senseless event that was losing her teenage daughter.

“I kept saying, ‘This is an amazing way for me to channel my grief,’ ” Ms. Avrin said. “But it also allowed me to put off grieving.”

Ms. Avrin, 56, got the idea for the film from one of Melissa’s therapists, Danna Markson, who introduced her to Jeffrey Cobelli, 27, a filmmaker. Over the last several months of working on the project, Ms. Avrin has come to know more than she ever intended to about eating disorders — how their seriousness has been underestimated, their treatment underinsured, their deaths underreported.

The process hasn’t been easy, and some, like her ex-husband, initially questioned the impulse to do it at all. Melissa’s best friend since first grade, Nicole Kendrick, who also suffers from an eating disorder, said she was incredulous when she first learned that Ms. Avrin was making the film. “I thought she was crazy,” Ms. Kendrick said. “I guess I didn’t realize how deep a mother’s love can run.”

Wary Workers Now Prefer Self-Employment, Stats Say

Interior of an Office
Image by Galt Museum & Archives on The Commons via Flickr

Interesting story in The New York Times about people who have been so burned by the recession, the vicious not-so-merry-go-round of hiring and firing they prefer not to have a full-time job:

What is known as “contingent work,” or “flexible” and “alternative” staffing arrangements, has proliferated, although exact figures are hard to come by because of difficulties in tracking such workers. Many people are apparently looking at multiple temporary jobs as the equivalent of a diversified investment portfolio.

The notion that the nature of work is changing — becoming more temporary and project-based, with workers increasingly functioning as free agents and no longer being governed by traditional long-term employer-employee relationships — first gained momentum in the 1990s. But it has acquired new currency in this recession, especially among white-collar job seekers, as they cast about for work of any kind and companies remain cautious about permanent hiring.

In just one snapshot of what is going on, the number of people who describe themselves as self-employed but working less than 35 hours a week because they cannot find full-time work has more than doubled since the recession began, reaching 1.2 million in December 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economists who study flexible work arrangements believe that the increase has been driven in large part by independent contractors like Mr. Sinclair and other contingent workers, struggling to cobble together whatever work they can find.

As the economy continues its halting recovery and employers’ confidence remains shaky, economists believe that it is likely that the ranks of these kinds of workers will continue to grow.

I recently spoke to a class of journalism students at Emerson College in Boston. The night’s final question, technically off the topic of my visit (ethics) was striking: “Aren’t you freaked out by not having a job? Being freelance all the time?”

No.

Like these people in the Times piece, I’ve been laid off from a few jobs, instantly and, a few times without clear warning, severed from well-paid work I enjoyed in my field. For me to sign up again, willingly and with a real sense of excitement, I’m not sure which employer would be The One. Loyalty doesn’t matter. Seniority, nope. Multiple graduate degrees? Not those either. The only protection against being canned, and falling deep into poverty, is saving the biggest amount of cash you possibly can and keeping your overhead as low as you and your loved ones can tolerate.

I was lucky in growing up in a household where no one ever had a “real” job — i.e. a steady, solid paycheck, a pension, paid sick days or vacation. Everyone worked as a creative freelancer: film, journalism, television. You live check to check. You get to know a really good accountant and try very hard not to get behind on your tax payments since it’s pay as you go. We drove (good) used cars, bought art and cashmere and plane tickets overseas in better years and enjoyed them in lean ones.

I learned young that even the best ideas you try to sell freelance can be ignored or stolen or shot down by people collecting paychecks because…they feel like it. They owed us no allegiance and we all knew the deal. It’s a painful and expensive lesson to learn instead mid-life and mid-career, as millions now have in the recession. Like a wave of bitter divorce(e)s, some of us aren’t eager to trot back up to the altar of full-time work. It’s too dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket.

Are you still in a full-time job? How secure — if at all — do you feel?

If you work for yourself, how’s that going? Do you feel more secure knowing it’s all up to you?

Immigrants Smarter Than Ever, Census Shows — Time To Revise Old Prejudices

Statue of Liberty (more formally, Liberty Enli...
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As someone who’s technically, after 21 years in the U.S., an immigrant, I’ve long known that thousands of people living here and born elsewhere are smart as hell: lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, entrepreneurs, professors and then people like me who only have a bachelor’s degree but are still doing fine, making our mark professionally, contributing skills to our communities.

We’re not all bedraggled day laborers with six kids!

Yet if you listen to (God help you) conservative talk shows and focus only on what the mass media show us are “typical” immigrants, we’re an undifferentiated mass of low-wage workers forced by useless foreign degrees or poor language skills, whether legally or not, into doing the nastiest of jobs, whether slitting cow’s throats in midwestern abbatoirs or delivering Chinese food in Manhattan for $2/hour.

From that depressing inaccurate snapshot, it’s a quick, simple, racist progression to conflate immigrant with poor/struggling/uneducated/send ’em back!

Now the Census is revealing a sharp spike in immigrants with doctorates, reports The New York Times:

For the first time, fully 1 in 10 adults had an education beyond a bachelor’s degree. Among adults in their late 20s, 35 percent of women and 27 percent of men had a bachelor’s degree, an eight percentage point gender gap, compared with three percentage points in 1999.

Many immigrants don’t fit the tidy — and politically useful — working-class stereotype, such as the professional Haitians, like doctors and nurses living in the U.S., who rushed back to help their countrymen, profiled here by the Times.

This is a sensitive topic for me for two reasons — it’s ignorant and it’s rude. I’d say simply racist, but there are plenty of pale-skinned immigrants underestimated along with those whose skin contains  more melanin.

The U.S. was built by, and continues to thrive thanks to, the skills, ideas, drive and creativity of millions of educated, ambitious workers who choose to come and stay here, not merely those whose lowest hourly wage in the U.S. equals a day’s — or week’s — wage in their homeland. I interviewed such a man yesterday for my book, the funny, forthright, passionate CEO of Reflexis, an IT company working with retail giants like Staples; he and most of his management team are from India.

My partner, who is of Hispanic origin but an American citizen, born and raised here, has been the object of such casual racism it has shocked me to my roots. One sunny fall afternoon, wearing clean, quality casual clothing, he was looking up at the fall foliage on our building’s property, admiring the colors and said “What a view!”

A resident of our co-op, assuming he must, of course, be a day laborer who worked on the building’s brick re-pointing, responded: “You guys did a great job!”

My sweetie, which is his blessedly gentle nature, said nothing to correct this insulting assumption. The man has a Pulitzer.

People with dark skin, an accent and/or a foreign passport aren’t always struggling to climb the social and professional ladder, no matter how comforting that belief.

Some are seriously kicking ass.

Skip Flying (Even Without Volcano Fears) And Really See The World

Train entering a Circum-Baikal tunnel west of ...
Image via Wikipedia

Loved this op-ed in The New York Times:

Airplanes are a means of ignoring the spaces in between your point of origin and your destination. By contrast, a surface journey allows you to look out on those spaces — at eye level and on a human scale, not peering down through breaks in the clouds from 35,000 feet above — from the observation car of a rolling train or the deck of a gently bobbing ship. Surface transport can be contemplative, picturesque and even enchanting in a way that air travel never will be.

My girlfriend and I recently set out to circumnavigate the globe without the aid of any aircraft. Along the way, we took the Trans-Siberian Railway across the wilds of Russia from Moscow to Vladivostok, and drove a car through the empty doomlands of the Australian outback. These journeys take less than half a day if you go by plane. Each lasts nearly a week when you stick to the ground. But taking to the air means simply boarding, enduring the flight and getting off at another airport. Going our way meant sharing bread and cheese with kindly Russians in a shared train cabin, and drinking beers with Australian jackaroos (we’d call them cowboys) at a lonely desert roadhouse. These are warm, vivid memories that will stay with us forever.

Think of the trans-Atlantic flights you may have taken. Do you remember anything about them? (Turbulence, bad in-flight movies and screaming children don’t count.) Because flying is an empty, soulless way to traverse the planet, the best flights are in fact the ones you forget immediately after hitting the tarmac.

Now, imagine floating across the Atlantic on a ship. Do you think you might enjoy those days of transit — the joys of a starry night in the middle of the ocean, or a round of drinks with new friends as you look out across the stern railing at the glimmering water — and hold them in your memories well after your vessel made landfall?

Fellow True Slant writer D.D. Cook wrote, back in January, about  his cross-country train trip.

I’m pretty evangelical about travel — my Mom and I share the fantasy of true wealth being a deep drawer filled with pre-chosen tickets to places we haven’t even thought of into which you’d dip your bored hand, then go! — and especially about non-airplane locomotion. I love trains. My Dad loves buses. I once dragged my horrified high-end sweetie onto a series of buses in Mexico (we all know how horrid much bus service is in the U.S.) and showed him the deluxe travel, complete with movies and clean comfortable seats, first-class carriers offer there.

(Although, and we have a the photo to prove it, we were less amused when each bus showed a video, sort of like pre-flight announcements on a plane, showed a bus rolling over and crashing and telling us what to do. Hmmm, pray?!)

I recall most of my non-flying moments vividly:

A 2.5 hours bobbing under a blazing sun traveling by boat from southern Thailand to Ko Phi Phi, tropical paradise.

Five fragrant days traveling across northern Corsica on a mo-ped — inhaling the smells of sun-warmed maquis — which I wrote about for The Wall Street Journal.

Gabi and me jumping into the back of a pickup truck in Jaji, Venezuela to attend a local dance, so high in the mountains we were literally shrouded by the occasional cloud.

Eight days in a truck with Pierre, the French trucker who spoke no English and let me share his cab from Perpignan to Istanbul, no showers along the way; cops confiscated my film in Bulgaria and thieves siphoned gas from the tank while we slept in the cab in (what was then still) Yugoslavia.

What has been your best non-airplane journey?

Capturing The World May 2 Unites Photographers Worldwide

Allowed to copy and distribute
Image via Wikipedia

Capture a moment in time, Sunday May 2, and join thousands of photographers around the world, a project created by The New York Times‘ Lens blog, one of my favorites:

These were among the responses to our initial invitation, “A Timely Global Mosaic, Created by All of Us,” in which we asked everyone, everywhere, to join in making this worldwide photographic mosaic, with each photographer submitting their one best picture. As guidance, we suggested a few broad topics like arts and entertainment, community, family, money and the economy, nature and the environment, play, religion, social issues and work. And we also suggested that you might find the experience even more rewarding if you do some planning in advance, taking into account how best to represent yourself, and your community, with a single image.

You asked how long you’d have to submit your picture. | The answer: up to five days from the time you took it. The submission form will be live and usable from 15:00 (U.T.C.) on Sunday, May 2, until 15:00 (U.T.C.) on Friday, May 7.

If I had to capture my community in one image, what would it be? A woman getting a manicure? A tug towing a barge up the Hudson River? A day laborer waiting on the corner for work? It’s a cool exercise in forcing us to think hard about what we see every day (or don’t) and how much we take it for granted.

What’s unique about your community? What might you photograph?

Are You Paying Attention? No, Really

Handshake
Image by Aidan Jones via Flickr

It’s been said we now live in an age of CPA — “continuous partial attention” — as everyone texts and tweets and IMs and scans their Blackberry in the middle of a first date or a funeral. Writes tech expert Linda Stone, who says she created the phrase:

Continuous partial attention is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that creates an artificial sense of crisis. We are always in high alert.  We are demanding multiple cognitively complex actions from ourselves.  We are reaching to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities.  If we are, our very fickle attention shifts focus.  What’s ringing? Who is it?  How many emails? What’s on my list?  What time is it in Bangalore?

In this state of always-on crisis, our adrenalized “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in.  This is great when we’re being chased by tigers. How many of those 500 emails a day is a TIGER?  How many are flies? Is everything an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is.

Over the last twenty years, we have become expert at continuous partial attention and we have pushed ourselves to an extreme that I call, continuous continuous partial attention.  There are times when cpa is the best attention strategy for what we’re doing; and, in small doses, continuous partial attention serves us well.  There are times when cpa and ccpa compromises us.

The “shadow side” of cpa is over-stimulation and lack of fulfillment. The latest, greatest powerful technologies are now contributing to our feeling increasingly powerless. Researchers are beginning to tell us that we may actually be doing tasks more slowly and poorly.

To look someone in the eye and give them our undivided attention for minutes, maybe hours, at a time seems now as quaint, and wearying and unlikely, as chopping wood to heat your house or hauling water from a well for every bath.

Attention is our most valuable resource. That you are taking, making, the time to read this sentence is — for me — an honor. I know there is no greater gift than that of attention.

A mother, nursing her baby. The hospice worker, adjusting an oxygen line or morphine drip. Great sex. Helping your kid learn to play piano or bunt or make an omelette. That’s one on one time. Focused attention. It builds trust. It’s intimate.

Here’s my question.

When someone blogs clearly to get a lot of attention, millions of hits and shrieking arguments and name-calling and links and fist-waving, what do you, the reader, perceive as their goal? What is its value?

From my side of the computer screen — however fun it all is for you and me and all those other bloggers and their readers — the attention of thousands of strangers (unless you’re supporting yourself, as some do, exclusively through blogging) will not pay your mortgage or student loan or drive you to the hospital or make your dinner or laugh at your jokes.

Is it simply the ego thrill that people are actually listening to you? Talking to you and about you to one another?

What real, essential difference does this make, to the blogger and to their readers? Is it the creation — or consolidation of — (new) community?

Or (fogey that I am) is the whole point simply to be watched/listened to/admired/quoted/linked?

Are we so starved now for anyone’s undivided attention in any form? (Clearly, yes, as reality television seems to prove. Do you really want to be known and remembered and memorialized for appearing on “Wife Swap”?)

And why are we, then, unwilling to give it?

I value connection more than attention. To sit across a table or sofa or bedside with someone I know well and who knows me or who’s taking the time to get there, a deeper relationship a valuable destination, as I am.

It takes a long time, if you are in fact at all private, as some of us  (even bloggers) still are, to slowly and respectfully unpeel the onion of someone’s personality and character. It took two friends of mine many years to confess, tearfully and fearfully, that each had been sexually abused as a child, or another, to tell me he is gay. It takes time and trust. A pearl is created slowly by accretion, layer upon layer of nacre finally producing something lovely and gleaming and precious.

I fear we’re becoming diamonds — or worse cubic zirconia — all hard and shiny, glittery things merely reflecting back to one another the shiny, polished side(s) we deem more marketable or publicly appealing. More eyeballs!

Without deeper connection, which only attention can spark and nurture, (think of a really great date), what are we doing? Or is ongoing, attentive connection now simply too…tedious?

Fencing Blind — A Boston Coach Achieves A First

BEIJING - AUGUST 13:  Benjamin Philipp Kleibri...
Image by Bongarts/Getty Images via Daylife

As a former nationally ranked saber fencer, I loved this story, about two schools for the blind holding a first — a fencing competition. Fencing is the best sport!

A Cuban-born coach is teaching blind students how to fence, reports the Boston Globe:

NEWTON — In the final moments of the fencing match, the young men in white sat in folding chairs and shouted, “Ty-ler, Ty-ler.’’ The object of their cheers, Tyler Terrasi, looked nervous as he pulled on his black mask and picked up his weapon, a slender metal foil. His opponent, Collier Sims, stood tall and perfectly still, ready to duel.

“A lot of the fencing actions that we do, we can apply them to everyday life,’’ Morales said. “When they are going to cross the street, the goal is to get to the other side. When they fence, the goal is to advance and to hit the other person.’’

The cheers quieted and once the referee signaled the match could begin, the air filled with the sound of metal sliding against metal. Twice, Sims’ foil made contact with the white protective jacket covering Terrasi’s torso. And then a third time, the slender blade arched as it hit Terrasi’s chest. “Halt,’’ shouted the referee, fencing coach Cesar Morales. “Attack for Collier is good!’’

And with that, the first known fencing competition among blind students ended yesterday with Sims, 24, from The Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, the champion. Terrasi, a 20-year-old student at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, won the second-place trophy.

From the Boston Herald:

The match was the brainchild of Perkins fencing instructor Cesar Morales, founder of the International Fencing Club in suburban Boston and also a teacher at the Newton school. Morales said the students got bored fencing against the same people week after week and needed outside challenges.

Fencing teaches the balance, agility, mobility, timing, listening and navigational skills that the blind need to make their way in the sight-oriented world, said Peggy Balmaseda, a physical education teacher at Perkins for 25 years.

“This helps with orientation,” said Kadlik, who lives on his own in an apartment on the Perkins Watertown campus. “When you’re walking along, and you come to a crosswalk, you need to stay in a straight line to cross the street, and learning to stay straight in fencing reinforces that feeling.”

The Carroll Center has been teaching fencing to its students for exactly those reasons since 1954, said vice president Arthur O’Neill. But to his knowledge, this is the first time there has been a fencing match with another school.

Kill Off The Girl Babies And This Is What Happens — China's 'Gendercide'

People in imperial China - Qing dynasty
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Chilling,  powerful report from Peter Hitchens, (brother of fellow journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, better known in the U.S.) in The Mail on Sunday. (Try to ignore his conservative, off-message digs at feminism and homosexuality because the rest of the piece is worth it):

By the year 2020, there will be 30 million more men than women of marriageable age in this giant empire, so large and so different (its current population is 1,336,410,000) that it often feels more like a separate planet than just another country. Nothing like this has ever happened to any civilisation before.

The nearest we can come to it is the sad shortage of men after the First World War in Britain, France, Russia and Germany, and the many women denied the chance of family life and motherhood as a result…

I visited several state comprehensive schools, primary and secondary, in Danzhou and in the nearby countryside.

These were not official visits, nothing had been prearranged, and European foreigners are so rare in this part of China that the children (and often their friendly teachers too) were enthralled to see that the Europeans they call ‘long-noses’ really do live up to the name.

But as the children stared and chattered and giggled  –  and pulled at their own little noses to make fun of my enormous one  –  I quietly counted them, while my colleague Richard photographed them.

And in every cheerful classroom there was a slightly sinister shortage of girls, as if we had wandered into some sort of science fiction fantasy.

We had come to this region because of rumours that it has the most startling ratio of boys to girls in the country. One academic source has suggested there could be a ratio of 168 males for every 100 girls in Danzhou.

Something is clearly out of kilter. In one class of ten-year-olds, only 20 out of 80 were girls. In another classroom, it was 25 out of 63.

It is possible that some girls were being kept away from school because their parents did not think it worth sending them, but even so, the inequality was enormous and perplexing…

What lingers in the mind, in the midst of this surging economic and political titan with its dozens of vast, ultra-modern cities, its advanced plans to land men on the Moon, its utopian schemes to control population and its unstoppable power over the rest of the world, is the inconsolable misery of the bereft parents, the pinched squalor of the places where they must try to live a happy life, the jaunty wickedness of the cheap abortion clinics and the classrooms full of the ghosts of all those girls who were never born.

I found this piece, and the cultural disposability of girls, of future women, nauseating and heartbreaking.

If you live in the United States, almost everything you buy was made in China. They own our debt. They own our future.

These are their values.

From Wikipedia:

These practices arise in areas where cultural norms value male children over female children.[1] Societies that practice sex selection in favor of males are quite common, especially in countries like the People’s Republic of China, Korea, Taiwan, and India.[1][2]

In 2005, 90 million women were estimated to be “missing” in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan alone, apparently due to sex-selective abortion.[2][3] The existence of the practice appears to be determined by culture, rather than by economic conditions, because such deviations in sex ratios do not exist in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.[2]

Sex-selective abortion was rare before the late 20th century, because of the difficulty of determining the sex of the fetus before birth, but ultrasound has made such selection easier. However, prior to this, parents would alter family sex compositions through infanticide. It is believed to be responsible for at least part of the skewed birth statistics[2] in favor of males in mainland China, India, Taiwan, and South Korea. Even today, there are no scientifically proven and commercialized practices that allow gender detection during the first trimester, and ultrasound is fairly unreliable until approximately the 20th week of pregnancy. Consequently, sex selection often requires late term abortion of a fetus close to the limit of viability, making the practice frowned-upon even within the pro-choice community.