I attended two schools of higher education, as different from one another — as the British say — as chalk and cheese.
I did four years of undergraduate work at the University of Toronto, Canada’s toughest university. Our professors were world-class scholars, some of them terrifying in their capes and bow ties, quoting in Latin or German or Greek.
We didn’t dare speak to them outside of class, and rarely during class. They had little idea who most of us were — lost in a sea of 53,000 students across a downtown campus so large it took me 20 minutes to walk from one side to the other.
I later attended the New York School of Interior Design, where I also now teach occasionally, and found a totally different experience: warm, welcoming, demanding but supportive. I love its bright red door on the north side of East 70th., ducking into Neil’s Diner down the street for a coffee before or after class.
Our classes were small, our teachers consistently insisting on our excellence. I loved it all. OK, except for drafting.
I decided not to switch careers, but don’t regret a minute of the thousands of dollars I spent there. I loved my classes and have developed a strong and solid alternate skill set.
Learning can be fun, exhilarating, inspiring.
So, too, can teaching.
Not because simply transferring skills and knowledge is pedagogically complex. People learn at different speeds, with different levels and styles of intelligence, aptitude or interest.
Last Saturday I attended and spoke at a writers’ one-day conference in Bethesda, Maryland; I was on the day’s final panel about how to turn a print career into a book.
I’ve been writing for a living for decades — why bother listening to all the others?
What’s left to learn?
Lots. If you’re open to it.
I sat beside legendary biographer Kitty Kelley at lunch and heard delicious out-takes from her book about Frank Sinatra as we ate our sandwiches.
I heard a law professor describe her solution to the exact problem I’d just faced in my own classroom and asked her if she’d advise me more in future.
I heard one biographer describe how much — after years of work — she decided she loathed her subject, Harold Ickes — and gave all her materials to another writer. What generosity!
This week I’ll teach my two college classes, as usual, on Thursday.
Then, all day Friday and Saturday, I’ll sit in stuffy hotel meeting rooms for the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ annual conference in New York City, and learn as much as I possibly can — about new markets, about how to do social media better, about how to improve my thinking and writing.
I’ll meet old friends from across the country, and make some new ones.
Learning is something we do, ideally, until the day we die.
As the blog closes in on 14,000 readers, it’s time once again to say thank you to you for making time in your busy, distracted lives to come visit, comment and join a global conversation.
The blog now has more than 1,700 posts in the archives so if you’re new here, and have the time or interest, you’ll find plenty there — especially on women, travel and writing.
I’m grateful for the variety of people who read Broadside, many of you students and educators, people de facto curious about the world.
Why do I still blog — even after almost six years?
It is, as one colleague noted, a place for me to reflect; as someone who earns her living writing for publication and teaching writing, it’s a rare pleasure to just…write. To think out loud. To not have to hit a deadline or word count.
To know there are always a few people eager to see what’s new here.
I have also had such a great time finally meeting some of you face to face, people who suddenly — as I did — went from words on a computer screen — to laughing new pals.
Jose’s father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His parish numbered about 30 — with a church large enough to hold 200. He faced many empty pews, yet kept on going.
His mother was a kindergarten teacher.
She was, he says, the epitome of faith.
Money was often tight and Jose, the sensitive, often worried baby of the family, sometimes wondered if everything would be OK.
“Have faith,” his mother told him.
We tend to talk about faith in narrow religious terms, as faith in a deity or a set of guidelines.
I’m interested, here, in the faith we place in ourselves, in one another and in the world around us.
Without it, without even a shred of it, we’re paralyzed. Too scared to move.
I started selling my creative work to strangers when I was 12. I sat on a Toronto street corner and sold bead necklaces. At 15, I sold my home-made stationery and at 18, my photos — and was gratefully stunned when one of the city’s top fashion photographers bought one.
Maybe that flickering flame of faith in myself, in my nascent skills, in my ability to connect with others who found value in my work danced a little higher then.
Without faith in ourselves we’re lost.
Without faith in our parents — to guide, teach, protect us — we feel un-moored and unsafe.
Without faith in our intelligence and stamina, we can’t accept that learning can be exhausting and difficult.
The past few weeks, for a variety of reasons, have demanded I stolidly move forward, in spite of sometimes paralyzing doubt in a few outcomes. Without the faith I’ll survive them, emotionally and physically, I’d consider staying in bed in the fetal position.
Instead, I went out this weekend to play softball with my co-ed pickup team, a posse of people, some 50 years apart in age, that I’ve known, loved and shared post-game, beneath-the-trees lunches with for a decade.
I stepped up to the plate, picked up the bat, wondered, in my first game of the season what would happen next — and hit a single.
What I found was an amiable crowd of corporate employees and artists, mostly in their 20s; they seemed appreciative of the multiple chaste offerings, including massages, pre-dancing yoga and a “Free Haikus” corner, where a pair of poets who call themselves the Haiku Guys hammered out verses on attendees’ topics of choice. At 7, the atmosphere felt a bit awkward, and the dancing was tentative, but the room soon became rowdy and enjoyable.
“You get some exercise in, you feel great physically, and it’s an incredible dance party,” said Matthew Brimer, 27, a co-founder of Daybreaker. “Dance culture and underground music tends to be boxed in to this idea that you need alcohol or drugs to enjoy. What we’re trying to say is that there’s a whole world of creative experience and dance, music and art.”
Two friends in New York — Radha Agrawal, 36, the founder of Super Sprowtz, a children’s nutrition company, and Matthew Brimer, 28, a founder of the adult-education school General Assembly — came up with the concept two years ago over late-night falafel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
“We were talking about how the morning space in general is pretty boring, people have their routines and that’s about it, and the night-life scene in New York is so dark and synthetic and not community driven,” Mr. Brimer said over the phone. “You know when you leave a nightclub and feel depleted? We wanted to turn that concept on its head.”
Daybreaker holds regular events in not only San Francisco (in places like the Yerba Buena Center and Supperclub), but also in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, London and São Paulo, Brazil. The cost: generally $20 to $40 a person, depending on whether you opt into predance party yoga or not.
This week, on a cold, gray Manhattan Wednesday morning, Jose and I — who are long past our 20s — got up at 6:30 after staying at a friend’s apartment. A bagel and some coffee and a cab ride over to the Highline Ballroom, on the far west side of the city.
We’d paid $25 per person ahead of time; you have to be on a list to know when and where the next one is being held.
I got my hand stamped with Daybreaker’s symbol — a stylized rising sun.
The cavernous space was filled with a yoga class finishing up. The floor cleared and it was our time.
Nothing makes me happier than dancing and I’ve missed it terribly.
So for the next two hours, surrounded by 700+ other happy people, I danced; I think I sat down for about 10 minutes.
The mood felt oddly innocent, joyous, free — for once — of the chronic and terminal status anxiety that infects most of us who live and work here.
Very not New York.
It felt like one big playground, the kind without bullies or cold wet cement onto which you’d probably fall.
A man playing electric violin came through the crowd.
A man played a didgeridoo from one corner of the stage.
The bravest came and danced in the middle of the stage while the female DJ, in from L.A., spun her tunes.
A pair of very large vegetables appeared — apparently a broccoli and a celery, although one looked more like okra to me — guys or women inside huge costumes.
It was sweaty and frenetic like any club scene, but, blessedly, never weird or scary.
People caught Jose’s eye, noticed his age and gray hair, and smiled. I saw perhaps a dozen people our age.
Some people wore work clothes and many began streaming out around 8:30 as they headed off to their office jobs; it ends at 9:00 a.m.
To close, a young man performed a terrific rap poem about the New York subway — and how we so studiously ignore one another, eyes safely down or staring down the tunnel waiting for the train, instead of potentially connecting.
Then it ended as we all sat on the floor and, handed this card, all read aloud a segment of this lovely poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson — written in 1833 and published in 1842.
We read it quietly, in unison, a sort of secular prayer, the 21st century sweetly colliding with the 19th, read by 20-year-olds in gold spandex shorts and rainbow platform shoes.
Then, exhausted, drenched, ablaze with endorphins, we scattered back into the city and out into our day.
As some of you know, I make my living as a full-time freelance writer, with work published many times in The New York Times, in Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, and on-line for Quartz, Rewireme.com, Investopedia and many others.
The first quarter of 2015 has been seriously weird.
While in England in early January, I reported two fun stories for Our Minutes, a website devoted to watches. I also went out to High Wycombe, a suburban town 45 minutes from London, to report on a well-established social service organization, one that their major funder considered extremely innovative. I spent a full day there and interviewed six people, plenty of data for an 1,800 word story.
This was to have been my first piece for a major international magazine. A big deal. A chance to impress a new client.
The editor, as is typical, had a few questions after reading my story, which I sent along to my sources. They failed to answer two of them — so I persisted.
Multiple emails and phone calls went un-returned. This was a bizarre first for me in 30 years of journalism.
I finally emailed their funder, reluctant to embarrass the group, but stymied.
They had shut down.
That would have been difficult and unlikely enough, had a similar thing not happened a month earlier with a different story, a long (3,500 word) feature for a major American women’s magazine. I’d spent weeks on it, eight hours alone with the profile’s subject, a woman with a long and impressive track record in her field. I’d spent more hours interviewing a dozen of her family, friends and colleagues.
The editor liked my first draft and we were set to start on revisions when I saw a story about the woman in The New York Times — being investigated by the mayor for an ethical breach.
Boom! That story?
Dead — in magazine parlance, literally, killed.
I was, as is only fair, paid in full for my work; I can’t control the ethics or behaviors of the people I cover. I choose people and groups with a proven track record. I’m neither naive nor gullible.
But this? Two stories exploding in two months, both before (thank heaven!) publication?
Now I wonder how much tougher I’ll need to be with every single person, company and organization I think is worth covering.
For someone who — like Scheherezade — stays alive only by telling story after story — this is a daunting prospect.
I’m not sure what’s happening these days, but wrangling sources — i.e. finding real people to talk to me and be quoted and/or photographed for a story — is getting tougher. Even those who agree tend to disappear on deadline. Failure is not an option! Without sources, I have nothing to write, sell and get paid for.
People who fantasize about freelance writing full-time picture a life of ease — up at the crack of noon, Auntie Mame-style, noodle about, make some calls, write something the editor loves, prints and promptly pays for.
I enjoy what I do, but it is, always, a hustle: for new clients, for more work from existing clients, finding interesting stories to tell, finding sources willing to speak on the record.
The Times, for years an anchor client of mine, recently severely slashed its freelance budgets, cutting loose several people with columns that had run there for years.
So I’ve been sending out LOIs — letters of introduction — letting editors who don’t know me or my work know that I’d love to work for them.
Pay rates can be laughably low for even the most august and putatively well-off, so when they write back, (if they do), you discover, for example, that Harvard’s alumni magazine offers — wait for it! — 50 cents a word.
That’s $500 for 1,000 words, a story that would pay $2,500 from a Conde Nast publication, possibly even more.
Harvard’s current endowment? $36.4 billion — as of June 2014.
You have to laugh, really.
Then move on.
One of the interesting challenges of writing journalism is that of playing man-in-the-middle — finding and wrangling good sources while also pleasing your editor(s.) Writing skills matter, of course, but terrific people skills, the willingness and ability to negotiate diplomatically for everything from contract terms to whether someone is on or off the record, are also paramount.
When these two stories headed for the delete pile, I kept my editors in the loop every step of the way to let them know this might happen.
Personally, I was deeply embarrassed, worried, stupefied by my hard work simply going to waste through no fault of my own. But I couldn’t just focus only on my many feelings — these editors have magazines to fill, deadlines to meet and demanding bosses of their own to please.
When you work alone at home, year after year, often never even meeting your clients face to face, it’s too easy to forget that you’re part of a team, only one link in the editorial supply chain.
Writing journalism means remembering that you’re one domino in a long line — and if one falls, others will as well.
— that they (if you’re interviewing by email) are in fact the people you think they are
— that you, the writer, have done your due diligence and aren’t handing over a pack of lies to your unwitting editor.
It’s a big responsibility and one I never take lightly. At lunch a few years ago with a fellow veteran, we discussed the very few times we had made an error in our work — and how physically ill it made us feel. If you’re not a perfectionist, this isn’t the job for you.
“Our son is in Tikrit!,” Jose announced last weekend.
Of course he was. Perpetually adventurous, Alex couldn’t have lingered — sensibly and safely for his final semester of college — in Istanbul.
He’s actually not our biological or even adopted son.
He’s one of a small group of talented young people we call our “freelance kids” — who happily call us their freelance Mom and Dad.
We can answer all the questions their parents generally cannot — like, how does an ambitious couple in our industry, (littered with divorce), keep their relationship thriving? How do we handle crazy schedules and work-imposed separations?
How do we handle burnout?
And what do you do when you fall off an elephant into the Mekong River and ruin all your costly camera equipment?
I didn’t want to have children, and nor did Jose. We’re giving, generous, fun people, quick with a hug. We love to hear our young friends’ stories, happy or sad, and have given much advice on matters both personal and professional. They know we’re there for them.
It gives us great pleasure and satisfaction to have become trusted friends, often even older than their parents.
But we didn’t change their diapers or rush them to the emergency room or coach them for their college essays.
I now teach two college classes and have so far had 26 students, whom I regularly refer to (not to them!) as “my kids”, and, for many of them, I feel affection, glad to sit down and chat with them at length outside of class. I worry about some of them and how they’ll turn out — as parents do.
But when the vast majority of men and women still do become parents, those of us who don’t seem weird.
People assume we “hate kids” — not true — or are selfish; (like all parents, de facto, are not?)
Jose and I each chose to make our careers within news journalism, a volatile and insecure field that at the very top still pays its award-winning veterans less than a first-year corporate lawyer. So we both knew, long before we met in our early 40s, that whatever money we earned there was it, and having children would be costly both to our ambitions and our savings.
Today we’re financially far ahead of anyone we know, (short of the truly wealthy) with our retirement savings, not having had to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to raise children or to buy/rent a larger home, (or live, cramped in too small a space for years), or to pay for college. That’s a huge relief in an era when most Americans — even after decades of hard and/or decently-paid work –– still barely have $100,000 saved to fund 20+ years of retirement.
And my own childhood just wasn’t much fun; an only child, I spent ages eight through 13 at boarding school and summer camp, living at home for only two years of that.
Parenthood looked like an overwhelming amount of work and I knew I would never be able to count on anyone in my family to offer help of any kind.
As her only child, my mother’s own emotional and medical needs sucked me dry; by the time I was getting marriage proposals, I was busy carving out a career for myself in journalism, one so competitive — and poorly paid and with lousy schedules — I still couldn’t imagine adding the many enormous responsibilities of parenthood to that mix.
Let alone a husband!
I now teach freshman writing at a private college in Brooklyn and have a mix of sophomore, junior and senior students in my blogging class there.
I love the interaction with my students and have gotten to know a few of them personally. I really enjoy our conversations and am happy to offer advice when asked. It feels good to share wisdom with younger people.
But I don’t regret my choice.
It is painful to know that no one will visit my grave, (if I even have one), or retain much memory of me once all my friends and family die.
There are days I’ve envied the pride and pleasure others feel in their children and grand-children.
But it is what it is.
I’ve realized how much I love emotional connection and nurturing others — with the freedom to stop if and when I feel depleted.
But utter and total dependency scares me to death.
People with children have told me that it is virtually impossible to put into words what they gain from their children. “I would be at a loss to describe it in any way other than clichés,” a friend told me. “You can’t know what you are missing until you are on the other side.” Well, I don’t know what it feels like to bungee jump either, yet people don’t try to convince me to hurl myself into a canyon. Besides, I might be able to jump once and then decide that it isn’t for me. With having children this obviously isn’t an option.
I attended an event in Manhattan this week with Daum and three of her authors, fascinated to see a SRO crowd of probably 75 people. That’s a big turnout for any reading, and especially in NYC where there’s probably 10 a night.
And here’s an excerpt from an interview with her about this most personal of choices in The New Yorker:
One reason I feel it’s important to talk about choosing not to have kids (as opposed to not being able to have them when you want them, which is a whole other story) is that, so often, the discussion is reduced to glib remarks or punch lines like “I’d rather have expensive shoes!” or “Instead of having kids, I bought a Porsche!” That stuff drives me crazy. First of all, it diminishes the serious thought that so many people who make this choice put into their decision. Secondly, it perpetuates the “selfish” chestnut by assuming that people who opt out of parenthood are therefore choosing to live self-absorbed, materialistic lives. As a mentor and an advocate, I’ve seen no end to the ways that childless people can contribute to the lives and well-being of kids—and adults, for that matter. Those stereotypes are tiresome and counterproductive.
What’s been — or likely will be — your decision whether or not to have children?