Have always hoped, somehow, my journalism would make a difference to the world, to its readers, maybe even to voters or policy-makers.
In my early 20s, I tackled a grim and difficult and important story, the testing of cosmetics and other products on animals. I won’t detail what I saw, but I never forgot it, and to see that as a young person is to be changed. I wrote it for a brave editor, the late and much missed Jane Gale Hughes, whose Canadian national magazine — as small in size and apparently unsubstantial as a TV Guide — was called Homemakers.
Its name was misleading, suggesting anodyne chitchat.
Quite the opposite!
Jane, extremely rare for any editor who hopes to keep their job, had to fight the advertising department because, of course, the advertisers of the products being tested would object and pull their lucrative ads.
The ads whose revenue paid her salary and my freelance work for her.
She ran my story anyway and I’m really proud of it and grateful for her belief in me as a younger journalist to produce it.
This tension between money and truth-telling never goes away.
In 2005-6, when I was a reporter for the New York Daily News, then the nation’s sixth-largest paper, I did a huge investigation of the cruise ship industry.
What I learned persuaded me to never take a cruise.
Of course, the editor refused to run my stories — for fear of losing their ad dollars. They finally ran one-half of my work.
Every story that digs deeply.
Every press conference — pure theater! — during which smart journalists ask challenging, tough questions, even in the face of sneers, insults, pompous political lectures and hostility.
It all adds up.
Jose and I are soon at the tail end of long and challenging and satisfying careers in journalism. We remain deeply passionate about the need for intelligent, analytical, critical reporting on every aspect of life.
But both of us were cautioned — long ago — to remember that even a lifetime of our committed excellence, even for the largest and most influential outlets, and all the work of all our talented colleagues, is the equivalent of water drops on stone.
One at a time.
Each story — each image — only a drop.
How can it matter?
Drop after drop — repeated over and over and over and over — as we and others continue the work, and stone wears away.
As someone with a green card, I can’t vote — so my enthusiasm for how New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo is handling this crisis will carry no political weight.
But every morning now, at 11:30 a.m. EDT on weekdays and noon on weekends, we watch his 30-minute press conferences, live, and listen to another 30 minutes of questions from reporters and his replies.
Jose , (my husband), spent eight years in the White House Press Corps as a New York Times photographer, covering Presidents Reagan, GW Bush, Clinton. He’s heard plenty of political spin and is not easily impressed, but is a huge fan of Cuomo’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis — and New York City is the hardest-hit city in the United States.
Unlike the joke in the White House, Cuomo — another born-and-bred New Yorker — doesn’t bullshit or blather on about how great he is.
Nor does he insult the press corps, whose job it is to question every elected official and keep them accountable, as 45 does, most recently telling two veteran reporters: “Don’t be a cutie pie” and “Be nice. Don’t be threatening.”
During the conferences, Cuomo’s team also shows viewers clean, clear graphics with the numbers of infected, where, in the hospital, recovered — and dead. He explains who is most likely to die from the disease and why.
We live in a small suburban town, so density and crowding are less pressing for us than in the five boroughs of New York City.
Yet the state’s patient zero lives in a suburban town on the other side of our county. He went to synagogue (infecting many), traveled into the city by commuter train (more) and went about his business there (more again.) He’s alive and out of the hospital.
In the past few days, the National Guard equipped the enormous Javits Convention Center on the western edge of Manhattan as a hospital with 3,000 beds.
The Javits Center is an amazing facility,” said Semonite, [Gen. Todd Semonite, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers.] “Every 10 feet there’s a great big steel door in the floor, you open it up in there is all the electrical; there’s cold water, there’s hot water and there’s a place for sewers, so you can actually do things like sinks, right in the middle of a convention center to be able to make that happen.”
The hospital will be staffed by 350 medical personnel from FEMA and 600 medical personnel serving with the two Army hospitals.
Non-COVID-19 patients will be transported from hospitals in the New York City area to the convention center, just as they will be at the 1,000-bed Navy hospital ship the USNS Comfort when it is operational in New York Harbor on Tuesday.
Here’s a New York Times piece about Cuomo:
To the surprise of many who did not associate the name “Andrew Cuomo” with the word “empathy,” the governor has become a sort of national shrink, talking us through our fear, our loss and our growing stir-craziness.
“This is going be a long day, and it’s going to be a hard day, and it’s going to be an ugly day, and it’s going to be a sad day,” he told officers from the New York National Guard on Friday, charging them to fight this “invisible” and “insidious” beast and “kick coronavirus’s ass.”
Because New York is at the epicenter of the epidemic in the United States, with 519 deaths and 44,635 confirmed cases, as of noon Friday, Americans have their eyes on the state. Cuomo knows this. “New York is the canary in the coal mine,” he said during one of his passionate televised pleas for the president to provide more ventilators.
It is more than passing strange that in this horror-movie moment, with 13 people dying on Tuesday at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens and a refrigerated truck parked outside to collect the bodies, the nation’s two most prominent leaders are both Queens scions. Both men grew up in the shadows of their fathers, the hard-working sons of European immigrants.
The Trump family is a model of bad nepotism — noblesse oblige in reverse. Such is their reputation as scammers that congressional Democrats felt the need to put a provision in the coronavirus rescue bill to try to prevent Trump-and-Kushner Inc. from carving out a treat of their own.
“Government, presidential elections, it was tweets, it was all one-liners, it was all personality, character, celebrity. That’s what politics had become. And all of a sudden you have changed the lens,” he said while an aide brought him a large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. “Government is about real capacity and real consequences and really knowing what you’re doing and real leadership. Elect the people who know what they’re doing, because you elect somebody because they are a celebrity, or because they have a great slogan, and then you ask them to perform. What do they say?’ ‘I never told you I could perform. I told you I was good looking. I told you I tweeted a lot. I told you I had a great slogan. I never told you I was competent.’ And by the way, it’s really serious. It’s not about celebrity and slogans. That is a stark shift. This is government at wartime.”
And, in a lighter vein, this from Michelle Collins, in Marie Claire magazine:
But the one thing I do have to look forward to every day like clockwork has been New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefings at 11 a.m. (Sometimes he’s late, and starts them at 11:30. I’ve started referring to this waiting time as “Cuomo FOMO.”) Like a velveteen gravity blanket for my soul, the second I see this man’s perfectly weathered face and tousled curls, the moment his Pacino-like accent fills my living room with its mafia-like authority, my blood pressure drops, my breasts seem to perk up on their own, and a tingly feeling of optimism washes over my imprisoned body as I think to myself… I think we’re gonna be okay.
Also: I think I’m in love with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
We need this tree’s determination to thrive. Split rock, as needed.
By Caitlin Kelly
It’s not a joke or a hoax.
It’s forcing everyone to re-think every element of our lives: work, relationships, employment, money, access to government aid, education, worship, mourning, celebrations, trust in government, the safety and reliability of medical and hospital care.
Many people have died. Some are very ill. Some wonder — without easy access to testing — if they’ve even been infected with COVID-19, its now official name.
It’s forcing Americans, especially, to behave in ways that run counter to how they’ve been socialized for decades — i.e. to behave as individuals, to behave as they please, free of most government interference, (but also government aid.)
Is that what some countries are missing? This sense of collective action and selflessness?
That is absolutely what many Americans are missing — that it’s not about you right now. My parents were in the World War II generation and there was more of a sense of, “Hey, we did something amazing; we ramped up this gigantic societal effort.” It was this sense of we’re all in this together.
We’ve got to realize that we’re all in this together and save each other’s lives. That has not penetrated yet and it needs to penetrate because we all have to cooperate.
When you grow up not giving a damn about “the other” — people unrelated to you or you’ve never met and why would you even consider universal healthcare for the “undeserving”? — a pandemic throws this thinking out the window.
The nation’s addiction to capitalism and for-profit healthcare and limited government has also led to this crisis — you can’t keep an economy centered on consumer spending alive when no one is shopping or traveling or buying a house or a car.
The wealthy? They’ve already hopped aboard their private jets, and are safely ensconced in their third or fifth home, like the guy writing to The New York Times who fled New York for his house in Rhode Island.
In a time when Americans have never been more divided racially and economically and politically, this virus doesn’t care.
Like it or not, ready or not, we’re all intertwined now
People may look, sound, earn and vote just as you do — and still be carrying and widely spreading this lethal virus.
I finally went out for a walk yesterday on our town reservoir path — lots of people (safely distant!) walking, running, biking. It felt great to be out of the apartment and moving.
It’s no fun being stuck indoors all the time.
It’s really hard not to get irritable and snappish if you share a small space with others.
Yes, people are really disappointed by cancelled parties and weddings and kids’ sports and graduations.
Stay home and be responsible.
We have to buck up.
I wish, more than anything, we could still hear the wise and seasoned voices of those who survived WWII, who knew the kind of shared terror we’re only now beginning to feel — and who can share the mental strength and stamina they all needed to get through it.
Here’s my new theme song, from one of my favorite bands, The Talking Heads:
We were back up in Montreal last weekend where I was heartened to see this large street protest — calmly protected by multiple police officers — as students took to to the streets for their Friday school strike.
“Don’t adapt — act” …
They were inspired by a high school student far away across the ocean, Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, recently profiled by Time magazine as their cover story, extraordinary in itself.
Castigating the powerful has become routine for the 16-year-old. In December, she addressed the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Poland; in January she berated billionaires at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Her London speech was the last stop of a tour that included meeting the Pope. (“Continue to work, continue,” he told her, ending with, “Go along, go ahead.” It was an exhortation, not a dismissal.)
Just nine months ago, Thunberg had no such audiences. She was a lone figure sitting outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, carrying a sign emblazoned with Skolstrejk for Klimatet (School Strike for Climate). She was there for a reason that felt primal and personal. While Thunberg was studying climate change in school at the age of 11, she reacted in a surprisingly intense way: she suffered an episode of severe depression. After a time it lifted, only to resurface last spring.
“I felt everything was meaningless and there was no point going to school if there was no future,” Thunberg says. But this time, rather than suffer the pain, she decided to push back at its cause, channeling her sadness into action. “I promised myself I was going to do everything I could do to make a difference,” she says.
I confess to feeling daily despair over a changing climate wreaking havoc worldwide: floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, incredible heatwaves, all of which are damaging agriculture and the oceans, drying up crucial sources of water and causing millions of people living in vulnerable areas to wonder where else they might possibly live safely.
Indians recently fled a cyclone thanks to receiving in advance millions of warning text messages —- while Ottawa, Canada’s capital, recently coped with the worst flooding in 25 years.
No one is safe.
What, if anything, are you doing to deal with climate change?
Thanks to a reader here, I decided to pitch one of my earlier blog posts as a larger, reported story about medical touch — and my own experience of it — to The New York Times, and it ran today, prompting many enthusiastic and grateful tweets.
It started, as it does for thousands of women every year, with a routine mammogram, and its routine process of having my breasts — like a lump of dough — manipulated by another woman’s hands and placed, albeit gently, into tight compression. It’s never comfortable, but you get used to it because you have to.
Unlike previous years, though, my next step was a biopsy, for which I lay face down, my left breast dangling through a hole in the table. Several hands reached for what’s normally a private and hidden body part and moved it with practiced ease, compressing it again into position for the radiologist’s needles, first a local anesthetic and then the probes needed to withdraw tissue for sampling.
I was fearful of the procedure and of its result and, to my embarrassment, wept quietly during the hour. A nurse gently patted my right shoulder and the male radiologist, seated to my left and working below me, stroked my left wrist to comfort me. I was deeply grateful for their compassion, even as they performed what were for them routine procedures.
It is decidedly weird to out one’s health status — let alone discuss your breast! — in a global publication like the Times — but it also offered me, as a journalist and a current patient undergoing treatment, a tremendous platform to share a message I think really important.
I hope you’ll share it widely!
Every patient needs to be touched kindly and gently
I awoke this morning at 4:40 a.m, feeling like my chest was being crushed.
I sat up in bed, trying to focus on whether this was a heart attack, knowing that symptoms are very different for women than men, and because of that often overlooked or ignored.
I had never had one, but knew to pay close attention to my body’s signals.
shortness of breath
pain in chest, jaw, back, shoulder and arm
I felt light headed and, although there is no history of heart disease in my family, I’ve been taking a low dose of cholesterol medication daily for a few years.
We have health insurance and a very good regional hospital that I know far too well from multiple orthopedic surgeries since the year 2000, only a 10 minute drive from home.
The roads were empty at 5:00 a.m. so my husband got me there fast and the emergency room luckily, had only one other patient in their 30 rooms.
I was quickly given an EKG, X-ray and had four vials of blood taken. The nurse put in an IV line in case (as I did need) they would need to take more blood later.
The pain subsided and within a few hours, thankfully, I was pain-free, if exhausted.
I learned a lot.
If it had been (thank heaven it was not!) a heart attack, specific proteins like troponin-1 are released into the bloodstream as heart cells die. The first blood test showed I was probably fine, but the second one needed to be taken six hours after my symptoms — i.e. I arrived at the hospital by 5:00 a.m. but had to wait there til 11:00 for the second set of blood samples to be taken and results read and shared with me.
I also learned that if it had been a heart attack, I would have been sent to another larger hospital for the insertion of a stent.
I also learned that many people present at the ER thinking, like I did, they were having a heart attack but it was — as we think it was for me — a very bad case of acid reflux, an esophageal spasm. (Very unusually, I had eaten a very small snack at 11:15 the night before. Normally, I know better, and don’t eat anything later than 8:00 p.m. now.)
We are very lucky:
— we have good health insurance, so few fear of surprise huge bills for this treatment; we’ll see
— it’s a very good hospital, created by the Rockefellers who live a 10-minute drive east
— we didn’t need the cost of an ambulance (which, we hope, would have been covered); our town has a volunteer ambulance squad as well.
— my treatment was quick, respectful and detailed.
— the hospital was recently renovated so the ER, which we knew too well from a few broken fingers and my husband’s biking concussion, was very different from a few years ago. Now it’s attractive and very comfortable; I was a bit stunned to have a TV screen in the room with me. Each room had an internal privacy curtain and a sliding glass door and an overhead light that didn’t glare into my eyes.
It was so American — each room had a glass plaque by the door with the name(s) of the donors who gave the funds for it.
But I’m grateful as hell for their generosity.
If you’re female, please memorize these symptoms — and make sure your partner/spouse and/or family know them as well.
Now we’ve got a Trump senior advisor telling the American media to “keep its mouth shut” and that we are the “opposition party.”
So, in the interests of media literacy, some inside dope.
If you retain some faith in the veracity of media reporting, (and many don’t), it’s also useful to remember — or know — that what you read, see and listen to is heavily filtered, edited and condensed.
Maybe you knew that.
But if you ever work in a newsroom, or as a reporter or editor or photographer, you very quickly appreciate how much of it ends up on the cutting-room floor.
It is not, despite everything you may hear about the “crooked media” and our putative dishonesty, about partisanship.
It can be, but most often is for very different reasons, like:
Length and space
Less an issue with digital stories, where there’s no lack of room, although a shortened attention span from many digital audiences.
In print, whether magazines or newspapers, many stories compete every day for space.
Every newspaper editor has a “budget”, in addition to their monetary one, and daily “budget meetings”, in which every competing story tries to win its spot in that day’s report and what prominence it will get.
Then a talented team of photo editors, art directors, layout experts and graphics editors works to make each page, ideally, look terrific and draw you into each story.
This is my most recent NYT story, which got great play, (on the front page [aka the dress page] of the paper’s very well-read real estate section), the gift of a gorgeous illustration (by someone else from Toronto!) — and even netted me fan mail! It’s about how people, when renovating, sometimes find very weird things in their walls and floors, or place items themselves.
Short is often better — get to the point!
But complex issues demand complex and nuanced reporting for the audience to understand them and why they matter to us, like the NPR report I heard this morning on the Congressional Review Act, which I’d never heard of before.
Probably the biggest ongoing challenge every news journalist faces, especially those who work with images: war, natural disaster, terrorism, murder scenes, airline, train or car crashes. They have to process it emotionally, (or shut it out somehow.) Over the years, let alone decades, it takes a toll.
The day before I took my driving test (!), while a reporter at the Montreal Gazette, I covered a head-on collision between a city bus and a small car. I’ll spare you the details, but — 26 years later — I remember it all too well.
Secondary trauma is a real issue for many of us, and in a business where macho behavior is rewarded and emotional reactions in that moment can hinder our work. My husband covered New Mexico’s worst ever prison riot as a photographer when he was still a college student and spent a month in Bosnia at the end of the war in 1995. Both seared his soul.
I’ve reported stories with gory details I knew, but omitted. They informed my understanding of the issues and the reality of the event, (like a murder trial or 9/11), but civilians — i.e. non-journalists — just aren’t prepared to handle it.
By the time you see or hear it, it’s often heavily sanitized.
This is a big one, especially now.
If you can’t trust media coverage to be factual — and checked before publication or broadcast with multiple, reliable sources — you’re toast.
It doesn’t even matter what the story is, really, because the underlying principles remain the same: when in doubt, leave it out.
We have to make sure we know who’s talking to us, why now and their agenda(s).
Who’s funding them? Who pays their bills? Who do they owe favors to?
Many sources just end up sounding or looking really stupid.
It’s up to us to decide, as gatekeepers, what to reveal.
We’re all human and we all mis-speak.
That question changes when we’re covering a public figure like a politician, who’s chosen to be in the public eye and who has significant responsibility to voters. That’s why they hire spokesmen (and women) to spin everything.
It’s our job to untangle it all.
Far too many press releases!
I get several every day, and delete 99.9% of them unread, unopened and annoyed at the laziness of the people being well paid to send them.
There are three writers in New York City (!) with my name, one of whom covers beauty for a major magazine, so of course I get her email all the time.
Some press releases are useful, but are often full of jargon and of no interest at all.
Most of the best stories you’ll read and hear come from reporters and editors’ own ideas and research, tips from sources and observations of the world and its patterns.
Documents, leaks and FOIAs
If you saw the film Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, you’ll know that poring over reams of documents can create the most powerful and damning stories of all.
The editor, then, of the Boston Globe, Marty Barron, is now at the Washington Post, which is kicking ass and taking names in covering the Trump administration.
The more Trump shuts down federal agencies and staffers, the more they’re leaking what we need to know.
You need a free press more than ever now.
The big three of news determinants.
The closer an event is to readers, listeners and viewers, the more likely it will get coverage — which is why Americans, certainly, hear just about nothing, ever, from entire parts of the globe: most of Asia and the MidEast, Latin and Central America, Eastern and Southern Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
Unless it’s seen to have a direct impact on American lives or economic/political interests…crickets.
Which is crazy.
Because the less you know about how the rest of the world operates and behaves, (i.e. differing histories, cultural values and resulting wars, unrest and public policies), the less you understand or care.
(Have you noticed the rise of Marine LePen, running for France’s Presidency? Nice.)
Don’t, please, get me started on celebrity — and how every day someone “reveals” a “secret” and media drool over first dibs on it.
If something happened even a week ago, let alone a few days, it might not be deemed “news” because, no matter how important, it’s not “new.” It’s a lousy way to make decisions, and very common.
The only way to make sense of the “news” is to absorb and process a wide range of it. If all you ever read or pay attention to is American (or your own country’s), the Internet offers you all of it, most of it free — radio, videos, newspapers, blogs, magazines…
I read the Financial Times every day and listen often to BBC. I get French and Canadian news through my Twitter feed.
This is an extraordinary story, from a place that normally wouldn’t make the national news, and from the Mormon church, a faith that usually also receives little mainstream press.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Finally, this hour, a Mormon bishop in
Taylorsville, Utah, went to great lengths last Sunday to teach his
congregation a lesson. David Musselman disguised himself as a homeless
person with the help of a professional makeup artist friend. After
getting mutton-chops, a ski hat and thick glasses, the bishop waited
outside his church and wished congregants a happy Thanksgiving. To
describe what happened next, I’m joined by Bishop Musselman, welcome to
BISHOP DAVID MUSSELMAN: Glad to be here. Thanks, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Describe the response you got.
Well, I got several types of responses. I had some people that went out
of their way to let me know that this was not a place to ask for
charity and that I was not welcome and that I needed to leave the
property. I should also state that I had a number of people come and
were very kind to me. But I was most impressed with the children. The
children definitely were very eager to want to reach out and try to help
me in some way
From the AP:
Musselman, who told only his second counselor that he would be
disguised as a homeless man, walked to the pulpit during the service. He
finally revealed his true identity and took off his wig, fake beard and
“It had a shock value that I did not anticipate,” he said. “I really
did not have any idea that the members of my ward would gasp as big as
Ward member Jaimi Larsen was among those surprised it was her bishop.
“I started feeling ashamed because I didn’t say hello to this man …
He was dirty. He was crippled. He was old. He was mumbling to himself,”
It wasn’t Musselman’s goal to embarrass ward members or make them
feel ashamed, he said. Instead, he wanted to remind them to be kind to
people from all walks of life not just at the holidays, but all year
long, he said.
“To be Christ-like, just acknowledge them,” he said
Musselman made the invisible visble.
Here is a powerful blog, written by a television cameraman who himself was once homeless, his effort to make this population of the poor, struggling and suffering visible and audible.
Here is one Manhattan shelter I’ve contributed to.
As we gather with friends, family and loved ones to celebrate the holidays — those of us fortunate enough to have a warm, clean, dry place in which to safely sleep — remember those who don’t. They can be, for some people, a terrifying sight, slumped on the pavement or dragging enormous overstuffed metal carts. Their utter desperation reminds us what the bottom of the ladder looks like — that there very much isa bottom — the place we work so hard and save so hard and cling to our jobs to stay clear of.
We could never ever become them.
So much easier, then, to avoid their gaze or studiously ignore their outstretched hands or cups or their signs, scrawled on cardboard.
I have, and it shames me when I make that choice.
ONLY TWO WEBINARS REMAINING:
WRITING FOR A-LIST CLIENTS, DEC. 7, 4;00 P.M EST. AND YOU, INC: THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING, DEC. 14 AT 4:00 P.M. EST
It was the end of the day, time to go for my walk along our town’s reservoir.
It’s a walk I’ve made dozens of times, in every season, for many years, along an asphalt path shaded by towering trees, the reservoir on one side, filled with ducks and swans and turtles. People come there to fish, or sit, or jog.
Cyclists whiz past.
But for…a trick of the light.
If you’re in the right place at just the right moment, and you’re paying attention — not yammering on your cellphone or texting or racing past — you’ll see stuff.
A deer. A small black turtle. Some ripe raspberries.
And there, shimmering in the early evening sunshine, was a huge spiderweb, as big — I measured — as the entire size of my hand, from base of my palm to the end of my middle finger, seven inches.
It was spectacular!
It was attached, with multiple strands, to the thick bark of a tree, as if, like some bivouacking mountain-climber, s/he’d decided to latch on and dangle. There were multiple attachment points, and then the web itself, with so many concentric circles I couldn’t count them all — 20?
In the center sat a very small brown spider, (probably exhausted!), perhaps half the size of my smallest fingernail. Even better, there were about five other, smaller webs nearby, sort of a spider condominium, each with its own spider. (Relatives? Tenants? Guests?)
I stood there for a few minutes, awestruck by the skill, artistry and the spontaneous beauty it brought to the end of my day.
What on earth could I possibly make of such delicate strength?
Initially, I decided to blog about it because I know Linda professionally and I like her — I try whenever it feels right to support other authors. I know what it takes to get a book commercially published!
But when this book arrived, I started reading it dutifully, prepared to be bored or overwhelmed.
Instead, I found myself touring the world, from the outback of Australia to my birth city of Vancouver, from the condo towers of Miami to Manhattan’s High Line, from Amsterdam to New Orleans. Linda found great interviews everywhere, with people whose eloquent passion for this issue make this potentially grim and tedious topic completely compelling.
This book is really a tour de force and I urge every one of you to read it, today.
She’s done something truly remarkable and damned difficult — taking one of the most complex issues facing the planet today and making it completely relatable, from little kids in L.A. whose asthma is out of control due to dusty, dirty air to victims of “Valley fever”, a disease now spreading through the U.S. Southwest.
You’ll also learn a whole new vocabulary: fierce winds such as derechos and haboobs and diseases like dengue fever and cocolitzli. You may have heard of El Nino — meet the Indian Ocean Dipole, and why it’s hurting Australian farmers and threatening its cities.
Tell us a little bit about you: where you live, how you got into writing/journalism and what sorts of things you typically cover.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles since the 1970s, after growing up and attending college and graduate school in NY and Pennsylvania. I became a journalist after stints as a labor organizer, inner city school teacher and waitress. Not happy with any of these jobs, I took night school writing classes and found my bliss and began my career at a scrappy local city magazine in LA’s beach cities. I stumbled into science and medical writing in the mid-1980s, and discovered I had an unexpected knack for science. I like to rake the muck—and the heavily research driven stories are ones that galvanize me–but writing about scientific discovery is a welcome palate cleanser from digging up dirt.
Where did you get the idea for this book and when?
My “beat” for a long time was the pharmaceutical industry. But I had gotten pretty burned out writing about bad drugs and Big Pharma malfeasance. I thought hard about where I could focus my energy in a productive way that would also be intellectually satisfying and I realized that climate change was the most important science of story of our times. So much had already been written on the topic but when I saw a study in the Lancet in 2009 about how our health will be affected by climate change, that fell directly in my wheelhouse and I thought there might be a book there. I did a cover story for Discover on the spread of vector borne diseases in a warming planet which won some awards and became the springboard for the book.
Was it a difficult book to sell to an agent or publisher?
I already had an agent, who was on board with the idea. So after doing the Discover story, I spent much of the summer of 2009 writing the proposal. After some revisions, the proposal went out right after Thanksgiving and the book was sold in January of 2010. I think what sold the book was that this was a fresh take on the climate change story.
What were the most challenging aspects of reporting or researching the book?
The most challenging aspect of writing the book was taking an abstract idea—climate change—and breathing life into it in a meaningful way. I searched long and hard to find compelling stories to illuminate key points and to drive home the point that climate change is affecting our health right here in the U.S. and right now.
Tell us a bit about your research for the book – where you went, who you spoke to, how you found sources.
I did tons of reading to bring myself up to speed on what had already been written, and started talking with the usual suspects—i.e., scientists who are doing research on climate change and public health doctors who are witnessing the effects of a warming planet. But I realized about halfway through my research that I needed to get beyond the science and talk to real people whose health is already being harmed by a changing climate.
I went to places where we’re starting to feel the effects of hotter temperatures. In California’s Central Valley, for example, outbreaks of Valley Fever have become endemic because of hotter temperatures and the air has worsened due to the increased heat that’s cooking particulates, creating that smog which contributes to skyrocketing rates of asthma, allergies and respiratory ills. I spent over a week in New Orleans to see what happens to the public health system in the aftermath of extreme weather events like Hurricane Katrina. I was in Australia—which is on the front lines of climate change–for nearly a month to see the effects of wild weather in an advanced, industrialized democracy. Aside from the cities, the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rain Forest, the world’s most ancient rain forest (one of the high points of my career), I drove about 1,500 miles in the bush– on the “wrong” side of the road–visiting rural communities that have been flattened by floods, fires and droughts. And I visited New York and Vancouver, which are way on their way to becoming sustainable cities, and are pioneeringmodel programs that will smooth the transition to a cleaner, greener future.
How I found people to interview was where the hard work came in—scouring newspaper stories, talking to people like the PR person at the Rural Doctors Association in Australia—who was a tremendous help; signing up for ex-patriate blogs to find Americans living in Moscow during the heat wave in 2010; querying friends and social networks for personal contacts, (how I found many of the real people anecdotes for the New Orleans chapter). Journalist pals helped a lot, too, and generously shared sources and contacts.
How long did it take you, from signed contract to delivered manuscript? Three years.
Was this faster or slower than you anticipated?
Much slower for a number of reasons, mainly family issues that required my attention.
What did you enjoy most about working on the book?
Hitting the road and interviewing real people—although the prep work for research trips often took many weeks. When I’m talking to regular folks, I’m always reminded of why I became a journalist—to give voice to the voiceless and to bear witness to human suffering. And the writing itself was a sheer pleasure—taking all the pieces I had gathered, distilling them down to their essence, and assembling them into a seamless and engaging narrative.
What was the least fun part?
Sorting out the complicated science—sometimes my head hurt. I had to come up to speed on ocean currents, atmospheric physics, water management, insect life cycles, farming techniques and on and on. It was challenging and difficult, and because climate change remains controversial here in the U.S., I was careful to make sure everything I wrote was based on solid science.
Who do you see as readers for this book?
Everyone. Climate change threatens the very underpinnings of our civilization. The fate of humanity hinges upon the steps we take in the next decade. This is not a fight any of us can sit out.
Initially, when I began my research, climate change wasn’t on most people’s radar screens and I despaired that we were heedlessly careening into the abyss. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that civic leaders across the country take climate change very seriously and many cities were implementing innovative programs. We can fix this—and preparing for climate change may be a catalyst for creating a better, more livable society–but we must start now. That’s the message I want to get across.
If you have written other books, how is this one different – in tone, content, approach?
The other book I wrote, Prescription for Profits, was about how the commercialization of academic research threatened public health. While interesting, I think that book was too “inside baseball” for the general reader. The timing wasn’t good either as a spate of books on the subject came out soon after.
Fevered is targeted much more towards a general audience and is about a subject that has an immediate impact on their lives. And the timing, unfortunately, could not be better.
What advice would you offer a would-be non-fiction author?
Books take a long time to write. Consequently, you’ve got to find a topic that will hold your interest for—literally–years. Plus, you need to determine if your topic is worthy of a book, or is simply a long magazine article. You also need to immerse yourself on what’s been written on a subject to see if you have something fresh to say and if it will be relevant in three years—which is the normal time lag from idea to publication. And finally, you need to find an agent who not only believes in your idea but believes in you.