New Jersey Bullies To Face U.S.’s Toughest Laws — About Time!

Bullying on IRFE in March 5, 2007, the first c...
It doesn't have to be physical! Emotional abuse is invisible and leaves scars just as deep. Image via Wikipedia

A few cases of bullying in the U.S. have — thankfully — received national attention in the past two years.

In New Jersey, two students at Rutgers, a local college, taped their gay room-mate in order to mock and bully him. He was so terrified of exposure and derision that he, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide. Only one of the students has been criminally charged.

In Massachusetts, a 15-year-old Irish girl, Phoebe Prince, made the fatal error of dating the wrong guy, and was soon targeted by girls in her school as a slut, mercilessly hounded. She hanged herself at home.

After her suicide, I spoke out against bullying in this USA Today essay, describing my own experience in a middle-class Toronto high school in the mid-1970’s:

I was 14, and also new to public school, having attended a private single-sex school in grades four to nine, with a year at a private co-ed school in grades seven and 10. Boys were an alien species. I had no idea how to dress fashionably, having just spent the past six years wearing a school uniform. I had pimples. I was socially awkward.

I quickly became the brunt of merciless, relentless public bullying by a small group of boys. They nicknamed me “Doglin” — a “dog” being the most vile name, then, one could bestow on a young girl. They barked and howled at me whenever I walked through the hallways, their taunts echoing off the metal lockers and terrazzo floors. One brought in a dog biscuit and put it on my desk in class.

I was terrified and traumatized. Like many bullying victims I and my worried parents felt helpless to stop it. I was lucky enough to make a few good female friends and to excel intellectually, appearing on a regional high school quiz show and helping our school reach its quarter-finals for the first time in years.

But the daily, visible, audible torture continued. In desperation, at 16, I started seeing a therapist, who recommended I take medication — I refused — to handle my anxiety.

Our teachers saw and heard it every day for years and did nothing.

I knew that I was taking a risk by speaking out in a national publication with more than a million readers. Americans, especially, pride themselves on mental toughness and self-sufficiency. Wimp! Wuss! Whiner! I knew these comments were possible.

Which was my whole point. Being bullied leaves you scarred for a long, long time. I have spoken twice as a keynote at two conferences, appeared on television a few times and routinely speak publicly — all to promote my new book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

But for a long, long time I was deeply uneasy when people, boys especially, would look at me, fearing the next volley of vitriol. I’ve also been bullied several times in New York jobs, with one trade publication manager who shouted curses at everyone and stood subway-close when she threatened me. Another had a red-faced shouting fit in my very small office. Maybe it’s journalism, or New York, but some of the most toxic people I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter work in my field in this city I chose.

Maybe everyone who’s been bullied emits some sort of magnetic force field attracting even more of it!

Only by speaking out, ideally as someone who had had some professional success and had, in some measure “made it” could I make clear that one can, as so many people do, survive bullying, but not everyone has the self-confidence or resources to handle it.

The thoughtless, knee-jerk response to bullying is always the same: just put up with it. Sort it out among yourselves. Suck it up.

Kids will be kids.

And cruel fools come in all shapes and sizes.

Tacitly allowing bullying to continue creates a whole pile o’ hells for the bullied:

we lose faith and trust in adults whose authority is to care for us and protect us

we lose faith in others, who stand by idly and do nothing

we lose faith in ourselves as we find ourselves powerless to stop such abuse

we withdraw from social, athletic and professional arenas requiring exposure, competition and confidence, feeling unloved, even despised

The New York Times ran a front-page piece today raising questions about the new responsibilities recent New Jersey laws, passed post-Clementi, will impose on teachers and school administrators:

But while many parents and educators welcome the efforts to curb bullying both on campus and online, some superintendents and school board members across New Jersey say the new law, which takes effect Sept. 1, reaches much too far, and complain that they have been given no additional resources to meet its mandates.

The law, known as the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, is considered the toughest legislation against bullying in the nation. Propelled by public outcry over the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, nearly a year ago, it demands that all public schools adopt comprehensive antibullying policies (there are 18 pages of “required components”), increase staff training and adhere to tight deadlines for reporting episodes.

Each school must designate an antibullying specialist to investigate complaints; each district must, in turn, have an antibullying coordinator; and the State Education Department will evaluate every effort, posting grades on its Web site. Superintendents said that educators who failed to comply could lose their licenses.

Of course, some educators are annoyed and say it’s too much for them to handle.

Try being bullied.

Broken Rhythms, New Routines

Series of air conditioners at UNC-CH.
WANT! Image via Wikipedia

So it’s 11:43 a.m. and, instead of sitting alone at home at my computer — always somewhat lonely in that respect — I’m sharing a library table with three men, all strangers. To my left, a guy is working from data on death rates in Baltimore. At the adjacent tables, the age ranges from 20s to 60s, everyone plugged in, a shared cocoon of air conditioning, electric light and power.


We’ve been warned it’s likely another four days before we get power back, at least. Clean-up crews are cutting down and collecting the dead trees and branches blocking many roads, so even my drives around the neighborhood are altered as some roads remain closed.

One of my neighbors — yay! — lugged my ice chest up six flights of stairs for me. I raced home to make spaghetti sauce while I still had enough light to see, then ate on the balcony as the sun set.

I normally hate cellphones and avoid them whenever possible. Now, it’s my lifeline, although in the middle of a crucial business meeting last night, the call kept getting dropped. I have a cell tower barely 15 feet above my head, right on the roof!

A cold shower last night felt good since the water was less frigidly cold than unheated and the night air fresh and soothing, not wintry and biting.

The sweetie comes home tonight from the city now that the trains are running again. I’ve already thrown out some of the food he bought, scared to eat it.

Pro: Silence. No hours wasted watching television.

Con: Would like to do laundry as we are all quite sweaty.

Pro: Have revived my morning routine of listening to an hour of BBC World News on the radio.

Con: I don’t need to hear 20 minutes on South African internal politics.

Pro: Immediate potential for weight loss thanks to loss of ice cubes for our nightly cocktails.

Con: I like ice!

Pro: Renewed sense of gratitude that, even with a severely damaged left hip, I have the strength and flexibility to climb six flights of stairs more than once a day.

Con: The pain wakes me up at 3:00 a.m. for Advil every night.

Pro: Having to get out to the library to get any work done using the Internet means dressing, putting on some make-up and perfume, all technically unnecessary working alone at home.

Con: A large poster at the library door (Wanted! Kidding) advertising my speech here about “Malled” next week means I can’t afford to show up looking like hell.

Pro: Having a sweetie who prepared us well for Hurricane Irene and suggested I take a power strip to the library today.

Con: Fighting for access to outlets with territorial 14-year-olds desperate to keep texting.

Powerless, Solo, Post-Irene

Two Candles
Image via Wikipedia

Well, we lost power last night at 8:00 p.m.

This morning the sweetie took a car service (company paid) the 25 miles in to his office because there are no commuter trains running. He may be back Wednesday, leaving me on my own — with a lousy hip, six flights of stairs, cold water and, luckily, lots of flashlights and batteries, candles, food and a cooler I plan to fill today with ice.

Thank heaven he is such a planner! He’ll stay the next few nights in Manhattan with friends.

We had considered ourselves — hah! — unscathed, even seeing blue sky around 4:00 p.m. Sunday. “The back end of a hurricane is always rougher,” Jose warned. And so it was, with the wind whipping much harder then on.

I’m writing this at a local library, where every chair is filled as power-less refugees sit with their laptops.

We sat on the sofa last night and talked. No TV! We went to bed and read by the combination of flashlights and candles but crashed by 9:30.

I am loving the silence: no refrigerator hum, no other people’s TVs or music, no roar of the bathroom fan. I love candlelight, although it makes me long for a few brighter kerosene lanterns instead.

My plan to shower at the Y won’t work — every local YMCA chose this week to close for renovations. I may beg a local friend to let me have a hot shower in a few days. Good thing it isn’t winter!

Trying not to open the fridge too often to keep it cold, and planning to cook all the meat in it this evening, thanks to a gas stove that still works.

It’s semi-pioneer time. To keep the cellphone charged, I plug it into the car while driving. To speak to someone, I have to use the cellphone, but have no urgent engagements until a 30-minute radio interview with a woman in Montreal this Wednesday.

We’ve been largely spared: no flooded basement or roof or car smashed in by plummeting branches. No kids or pets to worry about.

If you were in Hurricane Irene’s path, how are you doing today?

The “Go Bag” That Stayed

Detroit, Michigan. Cub Scouts with flag standa...
How prepared can you really ever be? Image via Wikipedia

Ever since 9/11, New Yorkers near the city have been urged to keep a “go bag” at the ready, packed in case we need to flee within minutes.



The roads and airports would be clogged and I have no doubt, if things were really crazy and out of control — a nuclear accident, say, from the plant a few miles upriver, the one we can see from our bedroom — that violence and mayhem would ensue, so the best thing to pack might be a gun and ammo. But, I digress.

In anticipation of Hurricane Irene and a possible need to run, fast, to shelter — hello, blue sky! — we packed a shared duffel bag. We have no kids, pets or elderly we needed to worry about, so it was just our stuff.

In my half were: a nice bar of soap, Filofax, Kindle, jewelry box, small white bear of 50 years’ vintage, passport and green card…and, oh yeah, clothes, socks, underwear.

It’s an interesting moment to think hard about you must absolutely take with you and what you must — the other 99% of your belongings — leave behind.

What would you take?

Waiting For Hurricane Irene — Still Shaky From The Earthquake

A cropped image of Hurricane Irene making land...
The last Irene, 1999....Image via Wikipedia

Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we live atop one of the highest hills in our area? That our top-floor balcony faces northwest and the hurricane heading toward us — with projected local winds on Sunday of 90 miles per hour — is coming from the southeast?

As some of you know, Hurricane Irene, heading north as I write this up the Atlantic coast of the U.S., is larger than Europe.


I wish I could make a jaunty joke about baguettes or gondolas but the very idea of something so powerful headed our way is a little scary.

So we have:

removed everything from our balcony

garaged (and gassed) our car

acquired a pile of cash in case we lose power and ATMs don’t work

stocked up on bottled water, tinned food, ice, batteries and our battery-powered radio

We’re debating taping our windows, but not sure what good, if anything, that would do. As a news photographer, Jose has covered five hurricanes, so he knows what to expect and how bad the aftermath can be. I’ve only seen them on television.

New York has had an apocalyptic week — I was at home working, on the phone with Jose at 1:51 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday, when a 4.8 magnitude earthquake in Mineral, Virginia — very far from where we live — shook my chair, desk and all the objects atop the cabinet beside me. We live on the 6th. floor of an apartment building and as I felt the room move, had a severe case of cognitive dissonance: It can’t be an earthquake. We don’t have those in New York.

But it was. This is a week of never-before-this moments.

Tomorrow — in an unprecedented move — all New York area public transit will be shut down. As some of you know, millions of commuters come into Manhattan each week driving through tunnels from the outer boroughs and New Jersey. Now they are a potential death trap, and therefore closed.

My first earthquake and hurricane in one week?

Are you kidding me?

Making A Career Out Of Curiosity

South Africa: stamps and temporary residence p...
Image by Sem Paradeiro via Flickr

I recently met a photographer who spends more than 200 days (and nights) every year traveling the world. His latest trip had been to Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Botswana. We traded notes on our impressions, but also on the sheer joy of getting paid to roam the globe on someone else’s dime, using our skills wherever we end up, whether roaming the veldt or tundra.

“I’ve made a career out of being curious,” he said gratefully.

We had never met before, but because our careers are largely predicated on our ongoing willingness to jump into whatever subject our client wants, whether an Arctic village in December (for me, while at the Montreal Gazette) or a random writer (his work shooting me last week), we had an immediate understanding of, and appreciation for, what we do professionally.

Here’s a recent Times column about Philip Leakey:

Leakey and his workers devise and build their own lathes and saws, tough enough to carve into the hard acacia wood. They’re inventing their own dyes for the Leakey Collection’s Zulugrass jewelry, planning to use Marula trees to make body lotion, designing cement beehives to foil the honey badgers. They have also started a midwife training program and a women’s health initiative.

Philip guides you like an eager kid at his own personal science fair, pausing to scratch into the earth where Iron Age settlers once built a forge. He says that about one in seven of his experiments pans out, noting there is no such thing as a free education.

Some people center their lives around money or status or community or service to God, but this seems to be a learning-centered life, where little bits of practical knowledge are the daily currency, where the main vocation is to be preoccupied with some exciting little project or maybe a dozen.

Some people specialize, and certainly the modern economy encourages that. But there are still people, even if only out in the African wilderness, with a wandering curiosity, alighting on every interesting part of their environment.

The late Richard Holbrooke used to give the essential piece of advice for a question-driven life: Know something about something. Don’t just present your wonderful self to the world. Constantly amass knowledge and offer it around.

I chose journalism for many reasons — perhaps the main one being the chance to get paid to learn and share what I find out.

My intense and unquenchable curiosity about the world remains undiminished, allowing me to explore subjects that intrigue me, tell others about them, and get paid for so doing. I know of no other work that would allow me, as journalism has, to sit and query everyone from a female Admiral to Olympic athletes to convicted felons, Prime Ministers and scientists, conducting interviews from Sicily to Salluit.

I still love that, so curiosity has also been the engine of my worklife.

What made you choose the work you do?

What aptitudes and qualities do you use in it…and are they what you wanted or hoped for?

The Next Chapter Of “Malled” — A Possible CBS Sitcom

There I was, sitting on the sofa at 10:00 p.m. watching a too-violent movie on HBO, when I read three emails congratulating me, including one from the veteran TV writer who’ll be writing a script based on my new book; if it’s accepted, the next step is to cast and film a network television pilot.


I was hired on September 25, 2007 to work for $11/hr. as a sales associate for The North Face. I quit on December 18, 2009, knowing I had a contract to write a memoir of what it’s like to really work retail. The result, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” was the result, and was published April 14, 2o11.

So, how did all this happen?

And so quickly?

My agent, the day we first met in June 2009 — months before we sold the proposal — said: “You know, this would make a terrific sitcom.” I agreed. I wasn’t surprised by her idea; growing up in family who worked in television and film I know that networks are always seeking good new material.

As the book neared publication date, I began getting emails from a variety of entertainment companies asking who my agent was. I confess, the first one I read I assumed must be a hoax. I quickly learned this interest was real and serious.

On my birthday, June 6, I got on the phone to grill my two agents about the many items in the contract I didn’t understand and which are very different from a contract for a magazine story or a non-fiction book. Then (lucky enough to have family connections in the industry) I called someone in Toronto who referred me to her experienced entertainment lawyer to review it all.

It all felt a little surreal.

I love the irony that, after eight days at a Buddhist retreat discussing and pondering the nature of the self, I was on the phone discussing which actress might play “me” in the show.

It’s a long road to that possibility, but this is the next step.

Fingers crossed!

Just Another Species

Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) in Modoc Count...
Image via Wikipedia

It’s too easy to think we’re it, we homo sapiens. The wise, rational ones.

Which is why I hunger to be in nature as often as possible. Only out there, walking, canoeing, kayaking, riding, on my bike, do I quickly and indelibly remember we’re just one of millions of species inhabiting our shared blue ball of Earth.

I was lucky enough, in my late 20s, to take two safaris in East Africa, one in Tanzania and one in Kenya. I had never before fully understood how poorly equipped the human body is for some habitats — without the necessary protection of camouflaging colors or fur or  feathers, scales, thorns or poisoned stingers.

The Equatorial sun was brilliant and harsh; I once lay directly beneath a large fallen tree trunk, desperate for the tiniest sliver of shade. Insects whirred and bit. The water was filled with all sorts of dangerous things that could burrow into our flesh or bloodstream.

The landscape was full of large, silent stalkers — how would we ever hear the lion before he arrived at our tent door? In the mornings, we opened it to discover a pile of elephant dung the size of an 18-wheeler tire. Right beside our tent.

It was a life-changing experience to be reminded how fragile and vulnerable we really are. That we are but one piece of a large ecosystem, and often its most disrespectful and destructive.

From an interesting and smart essay in today’s New York Times:

So, the conundrum: More than ever, an urban nation plagued by obesity, sloth and a surfeit of digital entertainment should encourage people to experience the wild — but does that mean nature has to be tame and lawyer-vetted?

My experience, purely anecdotal, is that the more rangers try to bring the nanny state to public lands, the more careless, and dependent, people become. There will always be steep cliffs, deep water, and ornery and unpredictable animals in that messy part of the national habitat not crossed by climate-controlled malls and processed-food emporiums. If people expect a grizzly bear to be benign, or think a glacier is just another variant of a theme park slide, it’s not the fault of the government when something goes fatally wrong.

This year, Yosemite is experiencing a surge of visitors — 730,000 in July, a record for a single month, they say…

“Many of these people aren’t used to nature,” said Kari Cobb, a Yosemite park ranger. “They don’t fully understand it. We’ve got more than 800 trails and 3,000-foot cliffs in this park. You can’t put guardrails around the whole thing.”

On this week’s bike ride, a cardinal flashed before my eyes. A deer and her fawn ambled across the trail in front of me. Hawks and eagles soared overhead.

As I walked the bike up a hill, I saw a skeleton flattened in the wet grass. A deer.

Our suburban town, from which I can see the glittering towers of Manhattan 25 miles south like Oz, is filled with wildlife: raccoons, deer, crows, wild turkeys, groundhogs, skunks, rabbits.

I love hanging out in their neighborhood, whizzing through their world.

I wonder what they think of us.

When and where do you most enjoy being outdoors?

Friendship? Who’s Got Time?

Three best friends
In the same room! Image via Wikipedia

If there is one ongoing lacuna in my life  it’s face to face time with friends.

I miss them.

I miss it.

I feel very out of step where I live, in a super-affluent suburb of New York.  People here, and in the city, seem to devote the bulk of their time to work, commuting, family and self-improvement, not to time spent among friends.

I know this likely feels tougher for me because I spend about 80 percent of my life alone at home, where I work. No office cooler jokes or chitchat leaven my days. I miss the eye-roll!

Nor do I have any family members nearby, all living far away in Canada.

I recently made a new friend while we were both attending a conference in a city far from our homes. He lives in Zurich and I live north of New York. It was one of those instant coups de foudre, an immediate meeting of the minds that I find so rarely and which is so blessedly precious. Maybe because I’m not doing most of the things women my age do: worrying about kids and grand-kids, climbing or clinging to the career ladder, racing back and forth to my country house, I rarely meet women here I can identify with.

Frankly, it also seems to be a question of money — I live happily in a one-bedroom apartment and drive a 10-year-old vehicle. The women near me here live in enormous mansions and often out-earn me by many multiples. We have little in common except our gender.

Tristan and I spent a fantastic day together, as it turned out we’d both stayed after the conference with no fixed plans or agenda. We wandered (!) the Mall of America, all 520 stores and 78 acres of it. A world traveler with sophisticated tastes, he wanted to eat lunch at…Panda Express, a fast-food Chinese joint. We went out for dinner and enjoyed one of the best white wines I’ve ever tasted, from Argentina, which he chose.

It was terribly hard to say good-bye and I realized how rarely I now spend an entire day with a friend. When you spend uninterrupted hours with someone, the conversation has time to meander, from your earliest histories to your favorite bands, from that day’s news headlines to sharing stories of a fantastic trip five years ago.

People are too busy.

I do have some friends here in New York, and am glad, but if I see them once a month, that’s a lot. If we meet for a meal, it’s hurried. No one seems to have the leisure to just hang out. Emotional intimacy is not something you can rush.

But you have to want it, and you have to make time for it.

So this past weekend, Scott came to visit, about a 90 minute drive from his home. We see one another about every three or four months, punctuated with chatty emails. We celebrated with a big lunch on the balcony and he brought a great bottle of red wine and then we sat in the pool to cool off and talked about everything from the recent London riots to our own writing careers.

I live in the U.S., a culture weirdly addicted to the overshare, the blurt, the unwanted confession. Tristan knew of the conceptual model — whose name I forget, but I learned in my cross-cultural work with Berlitz — that visually explains how Americans relate to one another. It’s the opposite of many other cultures. Within seconds of meeting you, an American will unload a ton of extremely personal detail, but later remain emotionally aloof and distant.

In Canada, and other places, people often initially appear cold and unfriendly, but they’re reserved — wisely and cautiously reserving intimacy as a precious resource.

Self-disclosure follows, but takes time. You can’t rush it.

Scott is one of my 427 Facebook friends, but we’re also quite private people and there is much that only emerges over time. There is always news so good, or so bad, you need to share it in the same room with someone, not diced into status updates. I find it depressing as hell when people I’d like to become better friends with tell me — on Facebook — they’ve just had major surgery or their partner has died.


How are your face-to-face friendships doing these days?

Two Sudden Deaths


His garage was next to mine, holding a red mid-size car. He was not a happy man, rarely smiling. His wife was frail. When we passed one another in the hallway or driveway, he almost never said hello.

Yesterday he dropped dead.

I came home just as the ambulance pulled up to our apartment building. I thought little of it, not because I’m callous,  but because our building is filled with people in their 70s, 80s and even 90s. It’s not an uncommon sight and, thankfully, the resident is usually home again within a few days.

Last week a gorgeous husky dog, always out with his blond owner for walks on our winding, hilly suburban street also died suddenly and unexpectedly.

Which explained a circle of hushed women whispering yesterday in the hallway.

Our lives are shaped by pattern, routine, the known and familiar.

Faces become visual wallpaper, the normal everyday background to our lives. The ones we take for granted. The ones we can lose, as two of my neighbors just did, without warning, in minutes.

Today, two pieces of it — a beloved pet, a valued friend and husband — are gone, ripped away, leaving behind the shocked and mourning.