What journalists see — and you don’t

By Caitlin Kelly

photo(34)
Our aircraft from Managua to Bilwi, Nicaragua — and back!

What a fun week it’s been!

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.

IMG_20150111_134324002_HDR
The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015 (my photo)

Clarity

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.

Graphic violence

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.

Lies

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?

Self-immolation

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.

FOIAs (pronounced foy-ahs), are Freedom of Information Act requests, which winkle out crucial documents from the federal government. As the press withstands unprecedented attacks here in the U.S., journalists are creating secret and on-line national groups to plot strategy and one writer I know has switched to an encrypted email.

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.

 Proximity/celebrity/recency

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.

 

How crucial do you think a free press is?

 

Do you agree with Bannon?

A homeless man went to church, and this is what happened next…

By Caitlin Kelly

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.

English: Homeless man, Tokyo. Français : Un sa...
English: Homeless man, Tokyo. Français : Un sans abri à Tokyo. Español: Persona sin hogar, en las calles de Tokio. Türkçe: Evsiz adam, Tokyo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From NPR:

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
the program.

BISHOP DAVID MUSSELMAN: Glad to be here. Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Describe the response you got.

MUSSELMAN:
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
glasses.

“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
they did.”

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,”
she said.

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.

The population of homeless has risen by 65 percent in the eight years of New York City’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg; 21,000 New York City children have no home to go to beyond a shelter or whatever space they can beg from a friend or relative.

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 is a 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.

Could we?

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.

Please don’t.

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What did you make today?

By Caitlin Kelly

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.

Nothing new.

All familiar.

But for…a trick of the light.

Spider web
Spider web (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?

What did you make today?

Worried about global warming? Q and A with Linda Marsa, author of “Fevered”

I couldn’t put this book down.

Fevered cover image (1)

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.

Here’s my Q and A with her; her book, “Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health — and How We Can Save Ourselves” is on sale as of today.

linda.heatshot

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 pioneering model 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.

 

My Grand Canyon photos — and some stories to go with them

By Caitlin Kelly

The Grand Canyon is 277 river miles long, a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide. It was declared a national park in 1919 — and today receives five million visitors a year. You can visit the South Rim, (the most popular), which is dotted with hotels and two campgrounds, restaurants and shops, or the North Rim, which is 1,000 feet higher — and therefore even cooler. Altitude is about 7,000 feet, which can leave you breathless from even simple activities.

At the bottom lies the Colorado River, along which veteran boatmen take brave souls.

Many visitors, though, never venture below the rim, preferring only to snap a few photos or walk around the rim, which is easily done through a system of free buses allowing you to walk as little, or as much, as you like.

In 1994, I hiked down Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point — stupidly, doing the last, unshaded section, alone at noon — by then 100+ degrees. It was the first time I truly understood hyperthermia, how the body literally cooks. In desperation, I began pouring my bottles of water over my head. I sat in the creek at Indian Garden for 30 minutes, soaking my clothes completely and trying to cool my core temperature.

Then I looked up at the rim and thought, “Not possible.” Eight hours later, I emerged, the straps of my backpack crusted white with the dried salt of my sweat. I would urge every visitor to hike into the Canyon, intelligently. Nothing compares to the experience of being inside it, not just looking at it from a safe, noisy, crowded distance.

Note: all images here are mine, and copyright!

If you are afraid of heights, don’t stand close to the rim! The edges are rocky, slippery and unprotected.  People have fallen to their deaths.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

The canyon is the result of billions of years of erosion, with multiple layers of rock. The white layer is Kaibab limestone.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

This is Bright Angel Trail, on a nice, flat bit! It is the most-used trail and is also used by people riding on mules, so look out for fresh dung! Hikers must step aside when they meet a mule and give them right of way. I shot this image late afternoon, in late May, so there is some shade. Hiking in direct sun, and 100-degree temperatures — the temperature rises as you descend into the canyon — is doubly tiring. Drink a lot of water!

I didn’t take as many photos as I thought, but Jose and I like this one the best of all. Several challenges make photographing the Canyon difficult — there is often dust; the scale is enormous; it’s hard to pick a spot that includes some sense of scale (which is why I framed this with weathered, gnarled branches.) The small silvery curve on the left-hand side is the Colorado River, far below.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

This sunset image was taken from Hopi Point, one of the overlooks on the South Rim. It is one of the two most popular spots for people to congregate, and the views are excellent. But too many people are rude, noisy and distracting — if you really want to savor a sunset in solitude and silence, do not pick that spot! The sun sets around 7:30 (late May) and rises by 5:00 a.m.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

One of the most amazing and lovely aspects of the Canyon is the terrific abundance of wildlife. This shot was taken with a small Canon G7, not a telephoto lens — i.e. I was barely a few feet away from this squirrel. But — very serious warning! — the single most common injury here is squirrel attacks. If you are bitten, you will need five injections from the lovely folks staffing the GC Clinic: plague, tetanus, rabies and two others. Do not feed the damn squirrels!

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

What do we owe to those for whom we labor?

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, a profile of a Canadian engineer, (now there’s a doubly invisible category!) who designs bridges:

If his work didn’t keep him up so late, he would probably wake up in the middle of the night worrying about it. He points out that the catastrophic 2007 collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis—which he wasn’t involved in—happened during construction work.

Mr. Johnson shows off a gray ring on his right pinkie: “It’s called the iron ring,” he says. In Canada, civil engineers wear the iron ring on their drawing hand as a symbol of their oath to protect life and limb. “We have to make sure everything we do is infallible,” he says.

I love the physical reminder, worn every day after graduation, that a civil engineer has chosen to create things that millions of us rely on every day to be functional and safe.

English: A Canadian Engineer's Iron Ring, Stai...
English: A Canadian Engineer’s Iron Ring, Stainless Steel Version. This is a picture of the author’s personal iron ring, received at the University of Waterloo, Camp 15, on February 17, 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I really like this tradition of making a public (and/or) physical vow of responsibility.

My first husband was a physician. I attended his graduation from McGill medical school and watched his class, aloud, recite together the Hippocratic Oath, which begins with “First, do no harm.” It was powerful, moving and unforgettable. Every graduating physician says these words.

Even if they do do harm, and it happens to many of them in the course of a career, they all know they made a vow now to.

We seem to live now in an era of the deke, the dodge, the “I have no knowledge”, the denial, the shrug. We’re left to watch, in New York, the miserable, unending parade of elected officials being charged with fraud, theft, deception, bribery and corruption.

Wall Street? Don’t get me started.

I wish — how I wish! — there were similar public, shared, hallowed rituals for every profession and field of endeavor. Especially finance, politics and journalism, three fields whose decisions can profoundly alter the lives and fortunes of millions of others, people who depend on them for wisdom, good faith and honesty.

Here’s blogger/author Seth Godin on the need for great public design.

What do you think of this tradition?

Loneliness can be deadly

Poster for a New York showing of Children of L...
Poster for a New York showing of Children of Loneliness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Caitlin Kelly

Can loneliness kill? Apparently so.

The New Republic, in this piece, argues in favor of being more social:

Teach a lonely person to respond to others without fear and
paranoia, and over time, her body will make fewer stress hormones and
get less sick from them. Care for a pet or start believing in a
supernatural being and your score on the UCLA Loneliness
Scale will go down. Even an act as simple as joining an athletic team or
a church can lead to what Cole calls “molecular remodeling.” “One
message I take away from this is, ‘Hey, it’s not just early life that
counts,’ ” he says. “We have to choose our life well.”

The story is long and complicated, and its underlying premise argues for more government funding for parents and young children.

But the larger point is an interesting one in a time when we are so connected by technology — thousands of you have signed up to follow me but will never meet me in person — yet often so lacking in true emotional and intellectual intimacy.

It took me a long, long time to make new friends when I came to New York. I was 30, and had always had very close friends and had made new friends easily. It was puzzling and miserable that I couldn’t seem to replicate that here.

But New York is a place where many people come with the absolute goal of making a lot of money and getting ahead and becoming powerful and famous — which all leaves little time to hang out for a few hours over coffee. New Yorkers also suffer the longest commute to work of anyone in the U.S., so even if someone likes you, they’re often sprinting for the 5:14 or the 8:22 back home to their own family.

I found the place annoyingly tribal; if you hadn’t attended the same schools as others, preferably an Ivy League college, you were simply persona non grata. College and graduate school as a sorting mechanism are powerful tools here.

I was lonely for a long time. In the past three or four years, finally, I’m happily starting to enjoy an active social life again, recently fielding two invitations to visit one friend in Pennsylvania and another at her house upstate. Last night, I met one friend, in from San Francisco, for a drink and another for dinner.

(Oddly, or not, they knew one another, having worked together decades ago for the same NYC book publisher and both [!] arrived with copies of their publishers’ new books for me to read. In addition to the three I had just bought {thanks, Danielle!}, I was now coming home carrying nine books!)

It feels really good to have friends you know for sure love you and are rooting for you. We need to be liked and valued, so see someone’s face light up with pleasure when they see us and lean in for a ferocious hug.

But building friendship also requires intimacy and intimacy takes time and effort, two things many of us have difficulty mustering up after a day of hard work (or looking for work) and commuting and caring for our families and pets and ourselves. Intimacy requires trust and being vulnerable and opening yourself up to someone new.

I paid a very high price for being lonely in 1998 when I became the victim of a con man. I was isolated, struggling financially, had not had a boyfriend in two years, was divorced and feeling as low and insecure as I ever have. The vulture swooped in — I was emotional roadkill.

After I survived that ordeal, I immediately joined a small, friendly local church. Living alone in the suburbs, without kids or any emotional connection to others living near me, I desperately needed community. I needed, and found, a place where I could feel safe again, and valued, and heal.

Have you ever felt terribly lonely?

What did you do to alleviate it?

What’s your dream job?

English: Club Eifel disc jockey DJ Blaze plays...
English: Club Eifel disc jockey DJ Blaze plays music at the 2009 Air Force Ball. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Nick Wilson Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a fascinating bit of social science data — a survey of 8,000 LinkedIn members worldwide asking them to name their dream jobs.

It differs, as you’d expect, country by country; the top choice, in India, Singapore, Indonesia and Brazil was engineer, while Germans and Hong Kong residents chose scientist.

Canadians and Americans said being a teacher was theirs.

I’m surprised, certainly in the U.S., because public education has recently become such a battleground, over texts, tests, salaries, tenure. The pay is generally low and some parents’ expectations savagely and unrealistically high, if the parents are even involved at all.

The top choices also differed hugely between American men and women.

In order, men chose: professional or Olympic athlete, plane or helicopter pilot, scientist, lawyer or astronaut.

Women chose: teacher, veterinarian, writer/journalist, nurse/doctor/EMT, singer.

I’m not sure what to make of this, except to suggest that guys are hopeless fantasists and girls seem to have some really serious STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) aversion.

Let’s parse these a bit:

Guys, clearly, want: power (physical, mechanical, financial), fame/groupies, a view from high above the earth, literal or metaphorical. Each of their choices relies on individual strength and skill, even when used within a team environment. Each allows them to be a hero, to save lives and/or make history.

Girls, it seems, want: emotional connection, intellectual growth, to help and nurture others. Their choices suggest they want to relate to children or animals or other people in a helping manner — or just be famous, dammit!

The question that most intrigues me is…why? Do men and women want such utterly different lives, incomes and trajectories of influence because of their parents? What they read? See on television? Their friends and neighbors?

I wanted to be a writer since I was very small, partly because my mother was a journalist for magazines and it looked like a hell of a lot of paid fun. (It is, at its best.)

I also wanted to be, for a while, a radio DJ, an actress, a photographer and a foreign correspondent. I did a lot of acting in productions at summer camp and was good at it, but knew the odds of professional success were slim. I started out as a photographer by selling three magazine cover images when I was still in high school and did news photography for a while, but male editors and art directors refused to give me work, arguing that men with families (!) needed it more than I.

So I stuck with journalism/publishing which, in many ways, has been my dream job. It suits me emotionally, intellectually, politically and spiritually — I know, for a fact (thanks to some powerful emails over the years) — that my work has touched people. One woman said a medical story of mine had even saved her life. For me, no paycheck is large enough to compensate for work that fails to connect people to one another. I learn something new almost every single day. I know that providing accurate, timely and useful information is essential to democracy and any form of social justice, and I get to be a part of that.

The money is shitty, but occasionally better. I like working with a tremendous amount of physical and intellectual freedom and autonomy. I loathe routine. I like meeting people from every walk of life, as I have, from Prime Ministers and Queen Elizabeth and Olympic athletes to convicted felons and victims of violence.

I love being paid to have an idea and explore it in depth, sharing the result with millions of readers. It’s a huge thrill knowing that my two books are in libraries all over the world.

And I love being part of an international tribe, men and women of all ages who still get up in the morning dying to get to the next story, whether they’ll tell it through words or images or sounds, or perhaps all three. When a journalist is killed covering a story, we all feel a little ill, because it could have been us or our husband or someone we’ve worked with — or have. I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my career, which began when I was still an undergrad at University of Toronto, to find editors willing to entrust me with their pages, budgets and assignments. They’ve sent me to a tiny Arctic village, to a Club Med in Mexico (!), to dance at Lincoln Center in New York, to Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley, to Edmonton and Winnipeg and Copenhagen.

It’s not been a picnic! Some bosses have been toxic brutes, male and female bullies whose behavior rendered me physically sick with stress. One editor’s criticism of my writing actually left me in tears, (I was very young), but also forever changed my writing for the better.

Here’s a beautiful blog post by friend and fellow writer Cynthia Ramnarace — whose New York home was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy — about the extraordinary kindness her former newsroom colleagues recently showed her, eight years after she moved away. I doubt you’d ever get this in a cut-throat big-city newsroom, but there is a deeply shared set of values most journalists have in common, which I really appreciate still, after 30 years in the biz.

My alternate dream jobs? Choreographer, owner of a small housewares store, interior designer, jet pilot, conference organizer, consultant and public speaker. I think a few of them are still possible!

Are you in your dream job?

If not, why not?

If so, tell us about it!

Honoring brave journalists with the annual Dart Center Awards

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journalists_guide_to_firearms_ak47_glock1 (Photo credit: gnotalex)

It’s a fact easily overlooked — the news we read and hear and watch is brought to us by human beings with hearts.

Some of the stories they gather, and some of the very best in my view, are the ones we skip over because they’re dark, disturbing and deeply painful.

Journalists who gather this material often end up suffering from a condition known as “secondary trauma” which can cause insomnia, nightmares, anxiety and depression. It’s a form of PTSD, which soldiers experience after the violence and brutality of war. I experienced it myself after writing my first book about American women and guns, after steeping myself in reports and interviews of violence, suicide and homicide for months.

A female friend who returned from Haiti after reporting there for weeks began telling her Facebook friends she couldn’t sleep, night after night. I suggested her insomnia was quite likely the result of secondary trauma. Another female friend wrote a searing book about MRSA, the flesh-eating infection, and she too experienced the aftereffects of recounting terrible stories, receiving a Dart Center fellowship to deal with it.

Most journalists aren’t trained in any way to know that this even exists. They work in, or return to, newsrooms filled with colleagues who have no experience or understanding of the horrors they may have seen, smelled, heard or survived, and few bosses with training to recognize or handle it either.

The very compassion and empathy that leads journalists into this tough work can also leave them shattered by it.

The Dart Center is an American non-profit organization whose focus is helping journalists prepare for, and recover from, reporting stories of this nature. I admire them and the men and women who do this work.

A panel discussion is being held tonight from 6 to 8pm at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York City honoring this year’s winners.

From the Dart Center website:

The New York Times received the Dart Award for “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.” (John Branch, reporter; Marcus Yam, photographer; Shayla Harris, videojournalist; Josh Williams, multimedia producer.) This searing three-part investigative series tells the story of Derek Boogaard, one of the N.H.L.’s most feared “enforcers,” who died with massive brain injuries at age 28. The series reveals the consequences – physical, psychological and social – of the adulation of violence surrounding the sport.

Judges called “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer” a “groundbreaking” and “exemplary piece of accountability journalism.” They praised Branch for his “masterful storytelling” and “tender objectivity,” and for focusing on “human beings, science and anguish instead of thrill, agony and defeat.” They commended the series for “taking on the sports page” and “drawing attention to sanctioned violence of fans.” Judges also recognized the far-reaching, and wide-ranging impact of the series that has made it nearly impossible for those most vested in hockey to turn a blind eye to its cruel reality and disastrous impact.

WNYC received the Dart Award for “Living 9/11,” which was presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange (Marianne McCune, reporter and producer; Emily Botein, producer; Karen Frillman, editor; Fred Mogul and Beth Fertig, reporters; Eric Leinung, Jillian Suarez, Erin Reeg, Norhan Basuni, Radio Rookies; Courtney Stein, Sanda Htyte, Radio Rookies producers; Kaari Pitkin, Radio Rookies senior producer; Chris Bannon, executive producer; Andy Lanset, original 9/11 recordings; John Ellis, composer; Paul Schneider and Jim Briggs III, mix engineers.) This hour-long documentary guides listeners through the stories of people who were deeply affected by the September 11, 2001 attacks and who are still struggling to make sense of the events.  The documentary is built around a diverse range of viewpoints, capturing visceral and immediate emotional reactions to the attacks while also illuminating universal truths about 9/11’s lasting impact.

Judges called “Living 9/11” “insightful,” “hard-hitting” and “deeply sensitive,” going far beyond more conventional anniversary programs in its integration of history, science and narrative.

Waiting For Hurricane Irene — Still Shaky From The Earthquake

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

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

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

Yup.

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

So we have:

removed everything from our balcony

garaged (and gassed) our car

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first earthquake and hurricane in one week?

Are you kidding me?