These are the dying words of Kurtz, a central character in the book, whom the narrator finds deep in the heart of Africa; the 1979 film “Apocalypse Now”, starring Marlon Brando as U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Walter E. Kurtz echoes the book in its themes, setting and use of names.
The book and the film are dark, despairing, exhausting — and powerfully unforgettable.
But these two words are resonating in my head much of the time now, thanks to what often seems a global parade of incompetence, greed, conflict, misery and despair.
— The shelling/retaliation between Israel and Gaza
— The epidemic of Ebola spreading through West Africa
— The shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown (only the latest)
— The beheading of fellow freelance journalist James Foley by ISIS
— The New York Times reports that beheadings are now “routine” in Syria
— The nightly newscasts with images of yet another out-of-control wildfire consuming thousands of acres of Western U.S. forests and many people’s homes and businesses
I am also well aware — and would love some new re-definition of “news” to make misery less compelling somehow — that the mass media are utterly complicit here. By the time you, readers and and viewers, see and hear our/their versions of the world, they have been massaged, edited and sometimes bitterly debated.
The Brooklyn-based school where this week I start teaching freshman writing and a small mixed-year class on blogging, Pratt Institute.
The college, ranked in the top 20 in the Northeast U.S., occupies its own campus, a long rectangle in Clinton Hill, whose collection of handsome buildings made it, in 2011, named by Architectural Digest as one of the nation’s most attractive campuses.
When I went there for my interview, I was running through thick snow. I’d never been on campus and wasn’t sure which building it was, so I asked a passing student.
“It’s the one with the goats in front.”
And it is…a row of goat statues stands in front of the building, itself, designed in 1955 by the legendary firm of McKim, Mead and White.
If I get the enrolment we hope for, I’ll also be teaching students at the New York School of Interior Design, in Manhattan on East 70th. Street. I’m excited and honored to return to the school, where I was a student myself in the 1990s, hoping to leave journalism for a new career; my marriage ended abruptly and I decided to stop my studies.
I did very well there, learned a lot I’ve used ever since in my own home and helping others design theirs. I loved the school and its small, rigorous classes and passionate instructors. I had only happy memories of my time there.
One of their foundation classes, Historical Styles, required memorizing every element of interior design from ancient Egypt to the year 1900. What did a 16th century Italian bedroom look like? What fabric would you find on an 18th century Swedish chair? Would an English floor in the 14th century be tile? Earth? Wood?
Nor would I ever again confuse Louis IV, V or VI again! (We called it Hysterical Styles. It was tough!)
I still remember the passion of my English professors from my undergrad years at the University of Toronto, especially our Chaucer prof, who has us all reading Middle English aloud. Practical? No. Amazing and fun and a great lesson in the power of language? Yes.
It’s been an interesting challenge to find and choose readings for my syllabi, and I’ve got everyone from David Finkel (on war) to Rose George (on the shipping industry.)
I enjoy teaching and know that a terrific teacher can forever inspire a student and alter their course, just as a rude, dismissive one can crush young idea(l)s very easily. It’s a challenge to balance cracking the whip for excellence with scaring the shit out of everyone; one friend, who teaches journalism in Arizona, has been called “tough” and “difficult” in her student evaluations.
Both of which are really code for “demanding.”
If you aren’t required to produce excellence in college, it won’t magically occur to you when you’re competing to keep and get a good job. College is about much more than graduating and “getting a job”, certainly, but understanding what it means to meet high standards — to me — is as much a part of the experience as any specific subject matter.
My English degree from U of T never won me a job. No one asked for my GPA nor about Chaucer nor my understanding of 16th. century drama or Romantic poetry. But the ferocity and passion of my profs in those four years made very clear to me, from my very first freshman class, what excellence looked like, and what it takes to achieve.
That has proven valuable.
My college experience wasn’t one of partying and drunken escapades. I was far too busy freelancing every spare minute, for national newspapers and magazines after my sophomore year, to earn the money to pay my bills, living alone in a small studio apartment. So I have only a small handful of college friends, never had a college room-mate and, when my alma mater calls me for donations — as it did recently — I decline.
College was helpful to me, but it was also often a lonely time with a lot of financial stress; U of T is huge (50,000+ students) and, then, paid little to no attention to undergraduates as individuals. So I don’t have the sort of gauzy nostalgia, or deep gratitude for a lucrative later career, that would prompt me to open my checkbook.
Are you headed back into the classroom?
If a student, what year and what are you studying?
Just a few housekeeping notes, for followers both longtime and new (thanks!)…
For the past five years, I’ve been posting faithfully three times a week, sometimes more.
Pooped! (Hint: please spend some time poking around the archives, where you’ll find plenty of material, often on books, writing, publishing and freelancing, often titled The Writer’s Week.)
For the nex few months I’ll likely be posting once every four or five days — not every two days — as I’m now teaching three college classes and will be spending a lot of my time preparing for them, teaching and grading students’ work.
So please don’t feel neglected and/or abandoned!
I also offer six webinars on various aspects of writing, blogging and freelancing, details here. They cost $125 for 90 minutes via Skype or phone and satisfied students have come from, literally, across the world — New Zealand to Germany.
I can schedule these any time that suits you, including days, evenings and weekends.
I also coach other writers individually, answering pretty much any question you’d like to throw at me about journalism, writing, publishing non-fiction commercially, memoir. Happy to read your pitches or work-in-progress, be a “first reader”…
I charge $150/hour (with a one-hour minimum), and will be raising that rate to $200/hour in January 2015.
I’m teaching writing this fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and at the New York School of Interior Design; I have also taught writing at Pace University, New York University, Concordia University and Marymount College. As the author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, for places like The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire, I know what it takes to succeed in this highly-competitive business.
What can I do to help you? Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I don’t carry the burdens/pleasures of: 1) a huge house; 2) children; 3) pets; 4) slobby, gross room-mates.
I do have: 1) a small apartment; 2) a very tidy husband; 3) a work-at-home job.
So cleaning our home is much simpler and easier for me than those of you with dogs and cats that shed fur and/or with multiple children dropping/breaking/smushing things into your walls, furniture and flooring.
When you’re home the majority of the time (instead of fleeing to a tidy, clean office or other place of work), you tend to notice every dust bunny and mirror smudge. All of which is great for procrastination! Ooooh, time to polish the silver…
But I actually enjoy housework and usually do 15-30 minutes of it every day so I don’t end up feeling overwhelmed on weekends. My husband (who enjoys it!) does all the laundry and I do (which I enjoy) all the ironing.
Because my husband loses two hours every day commuting to his job, I’m OK doing most of the housework.
And, after we invested some very hard-earned money into two recent renovations, (our only bathroom and our galley kitchen), I also feel a much deeper pride of ownership and enjoyment than when we had a nasty old chipped Formica counter and a yucky and unreliable wall oven from the 1960s.
Why, you wonder, could I possibly enjoy housework?
— It’s our home. I like it to be clean, tidy, polished, welcoming. By nurturing our environment, I nurture myself and my husband
— If you own a few good things (and it’s great when you can afford to invest in one or two), take care of them! That means dusting, polishing, waxing
— It is a way to break up my day, get off the damn computer and get a bit of physical exercise
— It helps me take inventory of what is soon to break and needs repair or replacement
— I really notice what’s working well and what is not (i.e. use of closets and storage space) and move things around so they do
— I appreciate my objects and items more when they look their best and I know I am not damaging them through carelessness or neglect (yes, coasters!)
— It helps me see what a lovely home all our hard work and creativity have given us. Your home is not just a place to gobble some food in front of the computer or television, to crash and burn. It’s where we recharge mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally.
So, Broadside keeps growing — and thanks for stopping by!
But, even though I look at every new follower’s photo and website, if you have one, I’m always very curious who’s here and why.
If you haven’t read my About and Welcome pages, I’m a journalist living just north of New York City, in a lovely small town on the Hudson River. I start teaching writing and blogging soon at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and at the New York School of Interior Design, where I studied in the 1990s.
I write for magazines like Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire but also write on business for The New York Times and others; my husband is a photo editor at the Times. I’m also the author of two non-fiction books, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (2004) and “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (2011).
Personally, I love to travel, cook, entertain and read. I take jazz dance and choreography class and play co-ed softball, usually second base. I was born in Vancouver, Canada, raised in Toronto, Montreal, London, Mexico and moved to the U.S. in 1988; my mother was an American citizen which allowed me to have a “green card”, the legal right to live and work here indefinitely.
I speak French and Spanish and head out on foreign trips as often as I can afford to.
Please tell me a little bit about who you are!
Where do you live?
What sort of work do you do? If a student, where and what are you studying?
I assume many of you have already seen this amazing video of a seal climbing onto a surfboard in England?
If not, spare 2:04 minutes of your life for a lovely, charming reminder of something we often forget — we’re just another species.
I’m writing this on our top-floor balcony, listening to the wind in the trees and the buzzing of passing bumblebees. Birds twitter. One recent evening, at 2:40 a.m. we bolted awake to the howling of a pack of coyotes.
But we live 25 miles north of New York City, able to see the city’s skyscrapers from our street, not some Montana ranch!
Our planters are bursting with flowers and our woods are filled with deer, raccoon, squirrels, chipmunks.
I fear for our planet when so many children and teens are suffering from nature deficit disorder, because you can’t fight for legislation and other protective behaviors if “nature” remains something you’ve only seen or heard mediated through a glass screen.
You have to feel it, taste it, touch it, know it. We all need intimate, consistent, ongoing connections to the natural world, not just simulacra or a packaged bit of it in plastic at the grocery store.
I’m grateful for having spent my childhood and teen summers in the wild of northern Ontario at summer camp and on multi-day canoe trips. I love a loon call, the peel of a birch tree, the striations of granite.
We are still, as homo sapiens, only one of millions of other species in our world, some furry, some feathered, some scaled, some noisy and some mostly (to our ears anyway) silent.
A few years ago, a red-tailed hawk landed on our 6th floor balcony railing, which is only 12 feet wide. He stared at me silently, and I felt like prey. Having written about raptors, I know they can see for many miles. I wondered what he saw when he gazed into my eyes.
We don’t have any pets, so any encounter with a (non-threatening!) animal or bird is a real joy for me — especially horses and dogs; I’m the person who always stops to say hello and pat other people’s dogs (with permission.)
My young friend Molly recently fell off an elephant into the Mekong River.
I don’t envy the fall, or her ruined camera and lens, but elephants are my favorite animals of all. I rode on one myself in Thailand, sitting on his neck, and dreamed of a second career as a mahout.
I finally saw it, and it’s an amazing true story of a French woman who spent most of her life working as a nanny for wealthy Chicago families, all the while shooting film and video, as — self-described — “a sort of spy.”
She lived in a tiny French town and in New York City in earlier years, but mostly lived in her employers’ homes as a way to live more frugally and to partake in family life. She never married or had children of her own and, it seems, was not at all close to her own family.
The film traces her history and interviews many of the people who knew her, from the children she cared for (and sometimes poorly) to their parents to a few of her friends. She was intensely private, insisting that everywhere she lived there were multiple locks on the door to her room.
And it all started with an auction, when the film-maker, John Maloof, bought a box of negatives:
After John Maloof purchased his first home and pursued a career in real estate in 2005, he began to get more involved in the community where he lived. He delved heavily into historic preservation and eventually became the president of the local historical society on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Given that this part of the city is often ignored, he came to believe that by writing a book on the neighborhood, he could work to promote awareness of its often overlooked charm. It was this decision to co-author the book Portage Park that would change his life forever.
The publisher required approximately 220 high-quality vintage photos of the neighborhood for the book. To gather enough images for this project, John and his co-author, Daniel Pogorzelski, were forced to look everywhere for any old photographs good enough to make the cut. The result was a nearly year-long scavenger hunt where they followed lead after lead to compile the pictures needed for the book. It was during this process that John visited a local auction house, RPN, to see if by chance, they would have any material for the book up for auction. Sure enough, he found a box of negatives depicting Chicago in the 60’s. Unable to get a thorough look at its contents, he took a gamble and purchased the box for around $400.
As someone who began her career as a photographer, and whose husband is a career photographer and editor, this story was even more compelling to me. Her images are truly extraordinary, and also now for sale — how sad and ironic that this has happened only after her death.
But Vivian’s story also intrigues me because we know someone personally whose trajectory is somewhat similar — a single European woman who nannied for wealthy families and who is also an artist. Even her first name initial is the same.
If you haven’t watched the film or seen any of Maier’s photos, I urge you to take a look.
Powerful stuff — and a sad, mysterious and memorable story.
Those of you new to Broadside may not know that I make my living as a freelance writer and editor, with my work appearing in places like The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. I occasionally open the kimono to let you know what it’s really like — triumphs and tragedies alike — as many readers here are fellow writers, freelance creatives or students of journalism.
I start my week, as I often do, with an hour’s jazz dance class. It’s a new teacher and new routine. Feeling confident, I try some new moves. Bad idea! I hurt my left knee badly and limp home and I’ll spend the rest of the week icing and elevating it, and taking Advil. Ouch!
I have only one assignment this month, which is terrifying, disorienting and liberating. That hasn’t happened in years.
I spend so much time cranking out copy for income that to have time to sit still and really think, make calls, do some deeper story idea research is rare — and necessary,
I work up a list of pitches and have ten, all at various stages of readiness. Most of my pitches do sell, eventually, but to keep cashflow flowing means selling them as quickly as possible.
I follow up by phone and email on a pitch I sent three weeks ago. It’s a great story and one I know is a really good fit for that publication. No answer — yet!
A 40-minute phone conversation with a non-profit, a potential client with a lot of work to assign. As many of my clients now do, this one came through personal contacts. At my stage of the game, 30 years in, I have a wide network of people who trust my skills as I do theirs — she mentions a need for skill I know another friend has and, even though he’s in Argentina this week, I immediately email him to give him a heads-up.
I check in with a regular client to find out our next story is due in October. Cool. I like to be working at least two to three months ahead.
I’ve also re-set my income goal a lot higher — (like, double) — than before, so I’m hustling a lot harder for new clients and clients whose pay rate is better. They’re out there. I just have to find them!
Spending way too much time on-line! I’m a member of several new and secret women’s writing groups on Facebook and they’re both a source of tremendous intel and fun distraction.
One of them spun off a new blog, I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault, a place where women share stories of sexual assault and/or emotional manipulation, the goal to empower younger/other women and girls. It very quickly attracted a lot of media attention, like this BBC story.
I’ve finally been binge-watching the award-winning Netflix series House of Cards, which is both chilling and compelling. Its two lead characters, Francis and Claire Underwood, are absolutely ruthless in their search for, and exercise of, power. It’s well worth your time. I also love the production design. I’ve now seen more than 20 episodes and the show’s color palette is restricted to black, blue, gray, brown, cream, white. No sunny yellows, reds, purples or cheery prints here!
My husband, a fellow journalist, was a photographer in the White House Press Corps for eight years, so much of it feels familiar to him; here’s his blog, with many of those historic images. It’s also fun to see people we know, personally and professionally, playing cameo roles as journalists. I have a photo of Betty Ford on our living-room wall — taken by the official photographer at the time — standing on the Cabinet table. Love that image!
I check in with my accountant as I fill out reams of paperwork from the two New York colleges where I’ll be teaching writing this fall, The New York School of Interior Design and Pratt Institute. Looks like I will owe even more more money. Not a chance! Time to create some more deductions and figure out the maximum I can stash into my retirement savings instead.
Reading through my bookshelves choosing which books I want my students to read and discuss.
I check in with Jen, pictured below sharing a dugout canoe in rural Nicaragua on assignment, to make plans for a conference we’ll be attending together this fall. I speak to fellow writers, by phone, email or social media, pretty much every day. When you work independently, it’s the only way to survive, let alone thrive.
By 9:00 a..m. New York time, it’s 3:00 pm in Switzerland, where I need someone to help me with sourcing. I call them, ask in French for help, and send an email.
The weather this week has been delicious — sunny and clear, with no humidity and a breeze, so I’m writing this sitting at a table on our sixth-floor balcony. Enormous buzzards and red-tailed hawks wheel and dive within 30 feet of me. The only sounds are overheard aircraft, the wind in the trees and the radio station I listen to much of the time, WFUV.
I pitch a national business magazine, one new-to-me, after reading their editorial guidelines. I was introduced to the editor yesterday by a colleague, someone I met when we were both judging journalism awards. I haven’t seen or spoken to him since, but we play at the same level.
“When people are self-employed, you absolutely need to think of how you’re spending your time,” says executive coach Mike Woodward. “That said, charging for the occasional mentoring service is a slippery slope. It’s one thing to brand yourself as a consultant if that’s what you want to do, but monetizing mentoring could become a distraction from your own career goals.”
But call the concept “consulting” and all of a sudden it makes sense to charge.
‘It’s one thing to brand yourself as a consultant if that’s what you want to do, but monetizing mentoring could become a distraction from your own career goals.’
– Mike Woodward
The eponymous creator of Anne Chertoff Media, a boutique marketing agency that caters to the wedding industry, found a similar niche.
“I honestly got annoyed with people taking me to lunch and thinking that the cost of a meal could equal my contacts, expertise and advice, so I created a service called ‘Pick My Brain’ on my website. For $500, I give 90 or so minutes of whatever advice the customer needs,” she explains.
We’ve got two competing impulses — the urge to be generous and helpful to others, which reflects our better nature and realizes that other have done this for us, likely, along our own path.
But in an era of $4.05 (yes, here in NY) gallon gasoline, when my weekly grocery bill has literally doubled in the past few years — and when my industry is offering pennies on the dollar for the most skilled among us, what’s the upside?
Time is money! You take up my time, without payment in any form, you’ve cost me income.
And some skills take decades to hone and sharpen. Anyone who thinks that “picking my brain” will vault them into The New York Times is dreaming; I’ve helped one fellow writer get there because she deserved it.
So I bill my time at $150/hour for consultations and individual counseling. I’m going to raise it in 2015 to $200 an hour.
But…didn’t a lot of people help me? Frankly, not really. A few, yes.
I have mentored many other writers and am, very selectively, still happy to do so.
But when and where and to whom is my choice. In my younger and more idealistic days, I assumed that my generosity would be reciprocated, even thanked. Wrong!
Now I’m too busy funding my own basic needs, and a retirement. I can’t afford to give away hours of my time. It is what it is.
The people I choose to mentor are: bright, highly motivated, say thank you, follow through quickly, and don’t argue endlessly with my advice, (they can ignore it, but arguing feels rude to me.) They do whatever they can in return and, I trust, will share their good fortune with others as well.
On Twitter, I found this powerful blog post, by an Australian blogger. She has a tough copyright demand, so you’ll have to visit her site.
Her argument? Seeing bloody and graphic images can be deeply upsetting to many viewers.
But it’s a difficult balance for journalists and editors.
After Malaysia Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, I tweeted my outrage constantly — at major news outlets like Reuters and The Economist. I loathed the details and images they used that I found prurient and titillating.
I was shouting at the moon, as no one with authority would likely read them and certainly not re-think their editorial decisions.
As someone who has been working in the media for 30 years, I have a mixture of feelings about this.
On one hand, I think people need to understand what a crazy/violent world we live in and address that. If we censor the worst atrocities, how can we raise true awareness and spur action to resolve them?
On the other…many of these images are gratuitous, prurient and deeply disturbing.
I argued with some random woman on Twitter about the wisdom of showing pictures of luggage and toys that fell from the sky with MH 17.
They “humanize” the victims, she said.
Bullshit, I said. We know perfectly well they were human!
And yet…without truthful images of what war and famine and terrorism inflicts, do we know the full story?
I also fear, very seriously, for the journalists and editors, (my husband is a career New York Times photographer and photo editor and many of our friends work in the industry), who process these images.
Those who spend a lot of time in and around physical and emotional violence can end up with a very real form of PTSD called secondary trauma.
I suffered it, briefly, after writing my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns, which steeped me for two years in stories of death, injury, suicide, fear and violence by and against women. I spoke to 104 men, women and teens, some of whom described tremendous horror, one of whom sent me a photo of the man she had shot, lying in her front yard.
I had nightmares, and off-loaded some of that mental darkness onto two professionals.
Today — a full decade after its publication — I have a very limited appetite for images of death, horror or gore. I don’t watch vampire or zombie shows and there an entire genres of film and books and videos I just won’t face.
Reality was quite enough, thanks!
The week of MH 17, we attended a small dinner party, with seven career journalists at the table. We all had decades of experience, had worked globally, had few illusions left about our world. We talked about this and could not come to any agreement about how much is too much.
We also agreed that it has had an effect (how could it not?) on our own souls and psyches. Some people become callous. cold, bitter and cynical. Some lose all perspective because such violence is “normal.” Others (rarely), leave the business or leave that sort of work — as Kelly McEevers, NPR’s Mideast correspondent did — burned out from too much of it.
She did an hour-long radio documentary about her decision to leave; it’s here:
I have a lot of friends in this field who can push back. I wish I were one of them. Rather than argue with Anna, I crumbled. At that point in 2012 I was sleeping just a few hours a night. I had unexplained migraines. I was a bear to live with. So instead of yelling at her, I just sat down on the sidewalk and cried.
By the time you see media images, you — civilians, non-media folk — are only seeing the least-offensive/frightening/disgusting of it most of the time, no matter how rough.
We’ve sifted out the worst.
We’ve seen and heard the stuff of indelible and unforgettable nightmares.
What images should we show you — the public — and which do we withhold?