My mother lives in a nursing home now, in a Canadian city a seven-hour flight from me. We haven’t spoken since May 2010 and I am not sure if or when we will, or when or if I’ll see her again. She has some dementia, how much is unclear.
Our relationship is much complicated by a woman who purports to be a dear friend of hers, who visits her daily and has been both determined and efficient at shutting me out and making sure my mother thinks the very worst of me. Lawyers and others have told me this is not uncommon between people of vastly differing wealth and in a family where estrangement between child(ren) and parent exists and and can be further exploited.
Describing this dispassionately here does not mitigate the incredibly deep hurt I feel, the impotent rage I bear toward this woman and her family or the shrugged-shoulder response of my mother’s few remaining friends and relatives, some as burned out as I by decades of my mother’s assorted issues.
I really miss the best of my mother — her laugh, her intelligence, her wit, her charm, her beauty, her range of interests. In earlier, healthier years she was an actress, model, TV host, journalist, broadcaster and lay chaplain helping hospice patients, pretty amazing to me since she had already survived multiple cancers herself.
She traveled the world alone for years on end. She settled, for a while, in unlikely places, like the Mexican desert or Roswell, NM, Bath, England and Lima, Peru. I saw the world when she’d send me a plane ticket to meet her.
We had some serious adventures together:
— sleeping with our arms and feet entwined on a freezing cold overnight train through the Andes of Peru
— snorkeling for blue starfish in Fiji
— playing endless games of Scrabble in Costa Rica
— driving through the mountains and valleys of Mexico in a camper van, Judy Collins’ eight-track of Wildflowers playing
— the fantastic birthday parties with cakes with sparklers she threw for me, one with little girls who came all the way to Montreal from Toronto for my 12th.
— laughing our asses off at almost anything
— comparing notes on the latest issue of Vanity Fair
I hate not having a mother any more, even if she is alive.
It might be someone in a different state, religious, atheist, straight, gay, in a developing country, a lawyer, a politician, struggling to pay the bills, ill, recovered, in recovery, a dedicated athlete, a computer programmer, angry at the system, an insider, an inventor, from a very different political stance, a pilot, unemployed, a millionaire, an inventor, a tax cheat, a gun owner, a rabble rowser oran adult without a driver’s license.
Can you see them? Understand them? Ask them about what it’s like to be them? Would you miss them if they were gone?
I grew up in Toronto, a city known for being diverse multi-culturally. I knew few people beyond my own circle but my life since then has exposed me to many more sorts of people.
Moving to the U.S. and living in three other countries — Mexico, France and England — has put me in situations and around others with some very different behaviors and attitudes, toward government’s role in our lives, toward women, toward the importance of work or education or family.
At 25, I spent eight months living in Paris and traveling across Europe on a journalism fellowship with 28 others from 19 countries, from Togo to New Zealand to Ireland to Brazil. It was a fascinating year, fraught with cultural misunderstanding. The four Canadians, one Irishwoman, two Britons, one New Zealander and four Americans all had quite different notions of proper spoken and written English!
The man from Togo — who worked for his government, (i.e. not even a journalist in our North American definition), was deeply offended that we did not always shake his hand hello or spend 10 minutes chatting with him. In his culture, this was very rude. In ours, haste = efficiency. Lessons learned, for both of us.
When I moved to Montreal in the mid-1980s, I found that being Anglophone was enough to make some people hate me. That was weird. Instructive, certainly. At press conferences, everything was done in French and only at the very end were Anglo journo’s allowed to ask our questions in English, (which everyone else spoke.)
I read Seth’s list and thought, yes, I do know people in 21 of his categories — but not a millionaire, inventor or politician.
One of the things I enjoy most about being a journalist is how it forces you into meeting people, on almost every assignment, who are very different from you. For me, that’s included Queen Elizabeth, a female admiral, convicted felons, two Prime Ministers, scientists, computer programmers, Olympic athletes, an Inuit village, an Italian construction worker, a French truck driver and a Dutch politician.
If you’re not insatiably curious about the world, and open to hearing other points of view, journalism is not for you! You can’t just cover your ears and go lalalalalalalalalalalala.
If you’re not working in journalism, travel helps — especially international — if you actually talk to people beyond the hotel staff and cab drivers and make a point of meeting people there beyond your conference or classrooms.
Volunteer work helps.
Jose and I negotiate multiple differences in our marriage: he’s American and I’m Canadian; he grew up the son of a Baptist minister and my family did not attend church; he is Hispanic and I’m a WASP.
It makes for some interesting moments — but we’re also alike, both workaholic career journalists who love to eat and travel and read and listen to music and laugh. So for all our differences, (which I initially thought made us unworkable as a couple), we share essential values.
As technology and growing income inequality help us tribally sub-divide into ever-narrower niches — only consuming media that echoes our political point of view, for example — we often have no idea how others think and feel, or how essential some issues are to them that we find silly or unimportant. It’s too easy to hang out in echo chambers of people who sound and look just like us.
Then what do we do about it?
Godin points out in that blog post that blogging is a great way to “meet” the other, whether that’s someone much richer or poorer materially, someone whose political views are not your own or simply someone for whom $10 is a day’s — or week’s — wage, not the price of a (cheap!) Manhattan cocktail.
When I traveled the U.S. to write my first book, about American women and guns, I ended up being a guest on NRA radio, (asked to explain those lefty-liberals in the Northeast) and on NPR (asked to explain gun-owners to the horrified lefty liberals.)
A funny position for a non-gun-owning Canadian!
I’d rather hear another viewpoint (politely!) and debate it intelligently from data (not red-faced emotion) than live in unopposed, cocooned silence. That’s easy, and has become comfortingly normal for many of us.
We’re staying with friends for a few days and exploring the area. Yesterday I drove 90 minutes to Richmond to visit the Tredegar Civil War Museum, on the site of the ironworks that supplied the Confederacy with munitions.
I didn’t know that much about the Recent Unpleasantness, as some Southerners still call it, but I learned a lot. I did know, and included in my 2004 book Blown Away: American Women and Guns, that women served in the Civil War as soldiers, being small and slight enough to pass for teenage males. I used a terrific history of this issue, They Fought Like Demons, in my research.
Interestingly, and not surprisingly, I did not see a reference to this in the museum, although it might be there — it’s interactive and highly detailed. One of the most compelling sights was the green velvet lined surgeon’s kit, complete with amputation saw, and a battered metal post he would have used to prop up a leg before a soldier was to lose it to surgery.
Another artifact was a black striped silk dress and its wearer, in a daguerrotype, with her husband and baby — four years later she was dead in childbirth. And heavy metal shackles, worn by slaves.
It is one thing to read about this in books, or see it in movies, but to read the words of soldiers and their wives was also sobering.
I ate lunch at a great old diner, Millie’s — a pulled pork sandwich on a cheddar biscuit. I skipped the grits in favor of salad. Each table had its own jukebox.
Then I visited Carytown, the funky part of Richmond, and scored a handful of antique treasures.
It’s an odd place for someone like me. Every church — and there are many, many churches here — is United Methodist or Baptist, with a few Episcopalians. I have yet to see a Catholic church or synagogue.
The highways are lined with very large trucks driven by farmers in caps. We ate dinner at a local restaurant and 14 men, most of them Hispanic farmhands, came in for $4 taco night. The fields are filled with winter wheat, and the new corn crop is just starting to show.
As I drove, I passed two dead possums and many live turkey, in the fields, on the roadside. They’re big!
The Tea Party has many large signs in bright yellow posted just outside of Richmond — past the Battlefield Elementary School — asking “Are you a Patriot?”
The legislation has proved ideologically polarizing, with many Democrats decrying the bill as an invasion of privacy aimed at shaming women out of having abortions, and Republicans heralding it as a way to provide women with as much information as possible about their pregnancies prior to having an abortion.
“This law is a victory for women and their unborn children. We thank Gov. McDonnell and Virginia’s pro-life legislators for their work to ensure that women have all the facts and will no longer be kept in the dark about their pregnancies,” said the conservative Family Research Council President Tony Perkins in a statement.
Any woman choosing an abortion is hardly “in the dark” about her pregnancy. She’s pregnant and doesn’t want to be.
I wonder where (if/when) we’ll retire — and which part of the world we’ll choose.
Our friends have chosen this part of the United States, and it is lovely to look at. But politically and religiously, not my cup of tea.
Have you ever visited a place so quiet you could hear yourself digest?
For me, it was a ranch in southern New Mexico, land owned by friends of ours, land so wild we ended up confined to quarters because a mountain lion was on the prowl nearby.
We’re now in a spot almost as quiet, the “northern neck” of Virginia, about two hours’ drive southeast of Washington, D.C., a city where the sound of airplanes seems almost constant.
I sat on the dock in the sunshine here and heard only gulls squawking, a dog barking, a distant lawn-mower and wind in the trees.
We live in a town 25 miles north of New York City where two specific, unwanted and frequent sounds drive me mad — the leaf-blowers and the constant buzz and roar of helicopters and airplanes taking off from a nearby airport. They’re constant, the routes changed since I bought our place, making our top-floor balcony less restful than it once was.
I’ve lived in much noisier places — downtown Toronto, (constant sirens from a nearby fire-hall), the edge of Paris (right on the peripherique, ring road, constant traffic) and Montreal (snow-plows in winter.) Then I moved to small-town New Hampshire and enjoyed the change from non-stop noise.
My appreciation for silence really blossomed after an eight-day silent retreat that Jose and I took two summers ago. Like everyone there, some 75 people of all ages from around the world, we were forbidden from speaking, and only occasionally whispered a bit in our room. Mostly we wrote on Post-It notes to one another and shut our traps.
It was a very powerful way to realize how exhausting it is to be chatty and charming and social, (even civil), with the many people we typically encounter every day in normal life. Here’s my post about the sounds I heard there when everything else was still.
The retreat also showed me how pleasant it is to remain silent while surrounded by others equally committed to a break from wasted words. Try it for a day and you quickly realize how much we speak, yet how little we really say, (some of us), that we truly feel or need to communicate from the depths of our heart.
When Tchae Measroch leaves work, his hands usually bear a fresh cut or bruise. He works, often on his knees, in a small room crowded with an odd mix of items: a dried-grass hula skirt, a car door, baseball bats, swords and knives of varying length, a camouflage net typically used to disguise military equipment from enemy eyes.
Mr. Measroch, a lively 36-year-old sound-effects artist, spends his days figuring out how to make noises he’s never heard — like that of an 18th-century musket being loaded or the thump of someone’s skull hitting the deck of a warship. A selection of wooden flooring samples also helps him create the sounds of each character’s footfalls, no matter in what location, or century, they appear. “A big part of the job is footsteps,” he explains.
I came up with this idea many months ago and pitched it to my editor at the Sunday business section, who had already bought four previous stories from me, so I felt confident he’d be ready for more. (Tip: Repeat business from someone who knows and likes your work is the best!)
I know the Times doesn’t do much on Canada, where I grew up, and not much on business there (Tip: Look for something unusual, less covered by your outlet.)
I knew this story had a number of really interesting elements: it’s based in Montreal, uses a huge, multinational workforce and is based in France. I wanted to focus on a sort of story, and industry that gets relatively very little coverage in the mainstream press.
I had never played a video game in my life! (Tip: Don’t be scared to venture into a subject you know nothing about. You will be sure to ask a lot of questions that an expert overlooks, but which your readers might wonder as well.)
I reached out to the PR contact to set up a day of face to face interviews in early February. During our very first (of many) conversations, he warned me not to even ask about video games and violence. (Tip: I did anyway, with him in the room after I’d interviewed the writer of Far Cry Three. They may tell you to behave a certain way, but that’s not your job.)
He chose a few people to speak with me and I started reading as much about the industry and this company and their games as I could. I speak fluent French so could also read articles in French, (and do some of my interviews there) if need be. (Tip: You have to have some context for every story, no matter how short. Why does it matter and why now and to whom?)
I planned to do a basic company profile, but the challenge with focusing on only one company is not producing a puff piece — uncritical blather. A major company literally choosing to open its doors to a Times reporter is nervous as hell and tightly controls what we can see or hear. (Tip: Be sure to find people who are not pre-selected by the PR staff and talk to as many sources as possible, including former employees, to get the best-rounded picture you can.)
So it’s something of a battle of (polite) wills from start to finish, as they hope to put everything in the best light possible — naturally — and I look for a compelling narrative or drama or conflict.
By the time I found it, the loss of one of their most talented writers, no one would discuss it! I spoke to a few people who knew all the details but they wouldn’t tell me anything much and certainly not on the record. (Tip: Do it anyway):
There was much industry speculation when Patrice Désilets, who created Assassin’s Creed, left Ubisoft in 2010 to work for THQ, a rival in Montreal. Had his bonus been insufficient? His pay too low? Neither Mr. Désilets nor his Los Angeles agent would discuss the matter; after Ubisoft acquired THQ Montreal in an auction of THQ assets in January, he returned to work for his former employer.
One of the books I was reading at the time, for pleasure, was book of reporting tips, one of which was “Go early, stay late.” So I got to the Ubisoft studio 15 minutes early — in seriously frigid weather — and stood on the street corner to watch staff arrive…almost all of whom were young men, a fact I could easily have overlooked in my rushed and controlled tour of the place.
While freezing my butt off, I noticed that the next door neighbors were a gas station and an upholstery shop; the latter detail made it into the story, contextualizing the neighborhood and Ubi’s choice of low-cost real estate. (Tip: Notice everything — and select later. Use your cellphone for reference photos and all the interesting visual details you will forget or get wrong or not notice in the moment. Your writing should be visual and auditory, taking readers into that place with you.)
Interestingly, and not unusually, the two most compelling elements of the story came about unplanned and by accident. The man in the lede was someone I met for perhaps 10 minutes of an entire day, but knew immediately his piece of it would be cool and unusual.
The second was discovering that the game’s writer Jeffrey Yohalem, is American and a graduate of Yale. Perfect for the Times audience, so I added another spontaneous meeting with him to my agenda in Montreal; I did more than 13 interviews, most 30 to 60 minutes, for this story, many of which are not in this version (Tip: Over-reporting means you’re likely to much better understand and explain the nuances of your story, even if you cannot use the quotes or details as you or your source might have hoped. Better to know more than less!)
Writing this story became much more challenging than I’d hoped; as a freelancer, I know my fee in advance and have to budget my research, reporting, writing, revising and editing (with editors) time into all of that before I begin. This story became too big and too unmanageable. I had a ton of information but no clear story line.
I was also between editors, a perilous spot for everyone as my new editor and I had never before worked together and she had not commissioned the story and it was changing shape under her direction. It worked out, but needed yet another 10 hours’ reporting (much of which ended up on the cutting room floor.)
I’m happy with the final product, and received a nice note from one of the players in the piece, which was pleasant. It also became the third most emailed and fifth most read of the entire day’s paper — something I do with almost every business story I’ve written for the Times.
I’ll be starting work on my sixth piece for this section in June and hoping to do many more. Who knows business writing could be so enjoyable? (Tip: You never know what sort of writing will most engage you.)
The stack of books I’ve brought with me for a week’s rural vacation is nine high, from Joseph Stiglitz’ The Price of Inequality to Michel de Montaigne’s Travel Journal, from September 1580, during which the Pope greets him warmly and helps him become a Roman citizen.
I recently decided to finally read the Patrick Melrose novels by British writer Edward St. Aubyn. I’d heard and read so much about them and thought they just couldn’t be that great. But acerbic, cold-eyed, tart-tongued — they absolutely are.
They are not books for everyone! If you like shiny, happy stories about people deeply in love, optimistic and fulfilled, move on! His main character — a heroin-addicted hero, if you will in one of the novellas — is Patrick Melrose, wealthy, aristocratic, caustic. Sounds horrible. But so not.
I also saw The English Patient, from 1996, on television again and felt in love once more with its creator, Canadian-Sri Lankan author Michael Ondaatje. His writing is exquisite, like entering a dream, so that when you put down the book again you almost have to shake yourself back into the room, here and now. I’ve so far only read two of his books, but loved both, In The Skin of a Lion, set in my home city of Toronto, and Divisadero, set in rural California. He has also written many books of poetry.
I liked Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, (hated the next one), and Monica Ali‘s Brick Lane and Claire Messud‘s first book, The Last Life, (loathed The Emperor’s Children.)
If you have never read Alexandra Fuller, run! Don’t Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight is a beautifully written account of her growing up in Zimbabwe — as is Peter Godwin‘s When A Crocodile Eats The Sun.
I realize my list is already heavily loaded with writers who are either British or partly educated there; many years ago, I loved the novels of Margaret Drabble and Nadine Gordimer as well.
I usually prefer non-fiction, and some of my favorites include the brutal but incredible war accounts, The Good Soldiers, by Pulitzer Prize winning American writer David Finkel and My War Gone By, I Miss It So, by Anthony Loyd; from amazon:
It is the story of the unspeakable terror and the visceral, ecstatic thrill of combat, and the lives and dreams laid to waste by the bloodiest conflict that Europe has witnessed since the Second World War.
Born into a distinguished military family, Loyd was raised on the stories of his ancestors’ exploits and grew up fascinated with war. Unsatisfied by a brief career in the British Army, he set out for the killing fields in Bosnia. It was there–in the midst of the roar of battle and the life-and-death struggle among the Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnian Muslims–that he would discover humanity at its worst and best. Profoundly shocking, poetic, and ultimately redemptive, this is an uncompromising look at the brutality of war and its terrifyingly seductive power.
I don’t read chick lit, celebrity stuff, romance, horror or science fiction but am always on the hunt for great, lesser-known fiction, memoir, biography, history and belles lettres — maybe from 50 or 150 years ago.
I’ve been spoiled here at Broadside by readers who are — thank you! — a lively, funny, smart group, from Danielle and Matthew and Cecile in New Zealand to Leah in Iowa to Rami in Ohio to Maddy in Lusaka to David and Elizabeth in England.
I’d name more, but there are (!) so many of you, which is unlikely but also lovely.
I want to pause our regularly scheduled programming to go a little meta for a moment.
The whole point of blogging, which I do in addition to writing for a living full-time, is to create a community where we can talk to one another frankly about the stuff that matters to us: work, love, the challenge of making a decent living while living our values, friends, family, heath, feminism, public policy, art, creativity, beauty, travel, home, design, ethics, writing, journalism — frankly, whatever seems interesting.
If it’s not fun, why bother?
Every day, five to 10 new people sign up to follow Broadside, which is crazy but flattering; we’re now at 4,600+ readers worldwide, of all ages and nationalities, from Haiti to Ghana to Malaysia to India to rural Australia.
So I was a little shaken recently to get a comment, which I trashed, (which I’ve done maybe twice in almost four years of blogging three times a week.)
I debated whether or not to trash it, or reply publicly or reply to them privately.
But I did trash it. Life is too short to argue with or absorb toxicity from people I don’t know, and for whom I work without a paycheck.
The commenter called me “weak” and a “fucking hypocrite.”
Everyone is entitled an opinion and I want to hear yours.
I’ve been called on the carpet a few times here by readers, for my short-sighted or stupid or unkind thinking. It’s useful and interesting, as long as everyone remains civil and respectful, even in the middle of a hotly contested argument.
But no one is entitled to ad hominem attacks here, on me or on anyone else who makes the time to come here, read and comment.
So I welcome your ideas and insights, your advice and stories. I am very eager to hear comments, especially from more of you.
But nasty behavior not only scares and annoys me, it creates a tone I don’t want here and inhibits others from speaking out.
This whole talking-to-total-strangers thing requires a level of trust and candor that is highly counter-intuitive, to me anyway.
When I write journalism, the comments flooding in to The New York Times in reply to my stories there,(258 came in worldwide on one recent story about workers over 50), are very rarely directed at me personally. I’m shielded both by the nature of those stories — far less personal than these posts — and by the institution that chooses to publish my work. Nor am I required, (as a freelancer), to reply to anyone.
I did read every single of those 258 NYT comments, in full. But the rules of engagement here are very different. I do answer almost every comment here.
This evening, in D.C., I’ll be receiving an award for my cover story — ooooh, glamorous! — in Arthritis Today, about what it was like to stay active and athletic, despite 2.5 years of constant left hip pain, before I had it replaced in February 2012. Here it is, if you’re interested.
We’ll stay with friends in the area and I have a business meeting and then we drive to coastal Virginia to stay with friends of my husband, from when he was a photographer in the White House Press Corps for eight years. Jose is the photo editor of the New York Times business section, with six meetings every day, responsible for finding photographers all over the world to shoot assignments for the section’s stories. So he, too, is very ready for a break.
Eat, sleep, read, repeat! The only writing I plan to do is blogging and working (a bit) on my book proposal, hoping to finish the damn thing so I can send it to my agent.
It’s been an insane few months, and while I’m grateful indeed for a steady freelance income, I’m fried. Last week I had four stories due in four days and attended two all-day conferences, where I learned a lot, especially about social media.
In addition to which, I’m pitching ideas to people almost every single day and following up those pitches — and chasing payments that are always late.
I did get a terrific email from someone I met recently, introducing me to a potentially hungry new market, the BBC’s website, which actually pays well. Yay! So I have that to look forward to when we get back.
The challenge of working for yourself is that no one ever gives you a raise or a bonus. They almost never say “Good job. Thanks!” because they’re too busy and our business just isn’t one for a lot of back-slapping. So I asked one regular client for a raise, and she’s giving me a 20% boost. It’s only an extra $200 per story, but I’m damn glad to have it, since so many places simply refuse — even after decades at the same rates — to offer more.
The good part of working for myself is that I can take off whenever and wherever I choose, as long as the bills are paid. So I’ll have these 10 days, come back to New York for a week, then head to Tucson, Arizona for two weeks, where Jose is teaching The New York Times Student Journalism Institute. If you’re a college student studying journalism, join the Hispanic Journalists Association, stat! You do not have to be Hispanic…if you are chosen for the Institute, you’ll get two weeks’ working with NYT staff, a stipend and an all expense paid trip to Tucson.