How waving a sword changed my life

English: Marines with Special Marine Ground Ta...
English: Marines with Special Marine Ground Task Force demonstrated the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program as well as displayed weaponry in support of Fleet Week 2010. More than 3,000 Marines, Sailors and Coast Guardsmen will be in the area participating in community outreach events and equipment demonstrations. This is the 26th year New York City has hosted the sea services for Fleet Week. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I moved to New York in June 1989, I arrived just in time for the worst, (of two since!), recession in my industry, journalism. I knew not a soul, had no job and had not attended university in the U.S., which, I belatedly realized, makes a huge difference in getting ahead here.

I wanted a fresh, fun challenge unrelated to work, and decided to take up fencing, through night classes offered at New York University. They’d supply the equipment. I just needed to bring energy, commitment and a pair of sneakers.

I’d taken ballet for years, and loved its grace, French terminology and history. But I wanted something ferocious and competitive, not endless plies and tendues going nowhere. Classes were taught by the NYU coach, Steve Mormando, a former Navy guy and two-time Olympian.

It was deeply, quickly humbling, as new muscles announced themselves with aches and pains. I was too slow and clumsy for foil and didn’t like epee. So Steve decided to make a small group of 30-something women into saber fencers, an unheard-of ambition in the early 1990s, when women had yet to compete nationally in that weapon.

I and my team-mates would make history by doing so.

The lessons I learned in the salle have stayed with me, helping me in work and private life. (NB: An epee, foil or saber is actually called a weapon, not a sword. But using the word “weapon” in my headline seemed unwise!)

Here is some of what fencing taught me:


Fencing bouts have only five touches. I was once down 4-0 and once would have simply thought “Fuck it” but Steve taught us that every point is a new bout. I won that bout, which changed how I see life’s possibilities. If I assume I’m defeated, I will be.


In sabre, the weapon’s style is based on cavalry fighting, with only the body above the hips as target, including the head. Getting hit on the head is always a bit of a shock, even wearing a metal helmet, and I always came home with bruises on my arms and legs. No biggie. If you’re scared to get into the game, how can you compete effectively?


Fencing has been called “chess at the speed of boxing.” Like chess, the sport is very much a mental one, a matching of wits and temperament and the ability to look multiple moves ahead in order to win. This skill is essential to any sort of professional success.


The only way to win in fencing is to observe each opponent carefully, before and during the bout, in order to pinpoint and penetrate their weaknesses. Everyone has one, and likely several; I once had to fence a much larger man but used my smaller size and greater speed to my advantage.


Fencing often hurts and, like many athletes competing in a sport they take seriously, pain becomes a mere distraction. The end goal is to stay focused and win. 


Of all the lessons fencing taught me, this was by far the most valuable. I learned to stand back, to wait for an opening, to pull distance, to not react. Becoming emotional  — often a default female choice — is self-indulgent and useless, as anger and frustration simply impede the ability to fight (and win) with a clear head.

Here’s a fun story from The Globe and Mail about a Toronto businessman who fences extremely well with all three weapons.

American designer Vera Wang, best known for her wedding dress business, was a former competitive figure skater and ballet student, both of which shaped her drive as well. She told Allure magazine:

It was my life. I think the training and the discipline, the loneliness — you have to develop a core of strength — helped me in my career. And I danced at the American School of Ballet. That is is intense, intense shit. You know, feet bleeding, Black Swan.

Ralph Dopping, a Toronto designer, blogged about how his sport, martial arts, has shaped his perspective as well.

What does it take to get to the black belt level?


What else?

Those are just words.

But they convey a mindset toward learning. The martial arts are centered in lifelong learning whether you practice consistently or not. The principles that are taught behind the study of the art is what stays with you.

For life.

What sport or physical activity has shaped you?

Is journalism something you need to study?

The Six Ws of Journalism and Police Investigations
The Six Ws of Journalism and Police Investigations (Photo credit: Image Editor)

Does anyone really need to study journalism?

No, says one lifer, Bill Cotterell:

NPR reported early this year that there are more journalism students than there are jobs – not just vacancies, all jobs – in newsrooms across America. It’s not that we don’t need more j-school grads today, though we don’t. It’s that we need more reporters with knowledge of economics, politics, science, business, history and the liberal arts. And they need to love reading.

Far too many of the young reporters I’ve worked with over the past 20 years seem to get their vocabularies from TV and their spelling from text messages. Many regard reading as a chore, maybe even an infringement on their First Amendment rights as j-school grads.

Journalism education is nice, but beyond the basics, not necessary. Anyone who’s smart, cares about news and works hard can learn the five Ws – who what, when, where and why – in a couple weeks. Then, if they learn from their mistakes, they can get good at telling you what’s really going on.

And yet, we still need to agree on a few ground rules — for sources, readers and reporters.

The New York Times has just instituted a  “quote approval” ban, which now means if you speak to a Times reporter, you’re done. No after-the-fact tidying things up or, worst case, denying what you said in the first place.

It’s become normal for powerful people to insist that the only way a reporter can speak to them is if they get to approve their remarks after they have said them.

They have other choices, like:

Get media training, which anyone that powerful can afford to pay for.

Keep a flack in the room or on the phone during the interview.

Tape the interview.

Watch your mouth!

I’ve been working as a journalist since 1978 and it’s been depressing as hell to see how things have changed. I was recently interviewed, by email, by an NYU journalism student and I did insist for the first time on quote approval.

Because…I don’t know her, I don’t know anything about her ethics or values and because too many younger reporters have a very different idea what’s fair game.

And plagiarism seems to be rampant, for reasons every working journalist knows all too well. The latest accusations are against Globe & Mail columnist Margaret Wente, a powerful figure with a sharp tongue.

This comment is from the Toronto Standard:

I bet many an overworked journalist is panicking right now over the thought that, perhaps, in a rush to meet the deadlines that come sooner and sooner, he or she has forgotten an attribution here or there. For too many people these days, being a journalist means a perpetual Please God, don’t let me get laid off next freefall to the bottom of what was once their journalistic integrity.

So, tell me, who in their right mind is going to publicly question Wente and the Globe and Mail when, for all they know, their publication could be guilty of just the same sort of negligence?

I never studied journalism anywhere. I’ve attended many conferences, but they focused on craft or how and where to best sell my writing. I’ve taught journalism, at Concordia in Montreal and Pace University in New York, as well as to adult night classes at NYU.

I have mixed feelings about studying journalism.

I think it’s probably best done as a graduate degree, preferably after a few years in the real world after doing an undergraduate degree (in politics, economics, history, sociology, anything but journalism) or not attending college at all.

I think the most essential ingredient of being a terrific journalist — for print, broadcast, online, books — is a clear understanding of your role as impartial story-teller (for hard news) and well-informed commenter for anything that requires or allows for a point of view.

Attribution — giving full and clear credit to others for their original work — is imperative.

Here’s my list of “what it takes”, which I hand out to my journalism students.

Among the 24 qualities and skills I think every journalist needs are being:






I know some of Broadside’s readers are studying journalism, or have.

What do you think?

Painful Memories? Take This Drug

Overview Memory
Image via Wikipedia

Would life be better if we could erase our most painful memories?

I can think of many I’d be — literally — happier without: two horrible Christmas Eves; the night my ex-husband walked out for good; a few really terrifying and unsuccessful job interviews.

We’ve all got some, scarred for life and sometimes truly hampered by their lingering effects.

It may become possible, says one American scientist, who may have found a way to do it.

Reports Bloomberg BusinessWeek:

The experiment proved that [certain] proteins are essential to building the brain circuitry that forms a memory, and to recalling the memory later. “It’s a huge step forward,” says Joseph E. LeDoux, a professor at New York University and an authority on memory and emotions.

Huganir and Clem are now experimenting with a drug that removes AMPARs and could prevent memories from forming in the first place. They hope to publish the results next year, and Huganir says that in as little as a decade the research could lead to drugs that help people forget painful experiences. Blocking AMPARs won’t erase the entire memory of an event, says Huganir, but it would eliminate the strong emotions attached to it. That could be a game-changer for the nearly 8 million American adults with post-traumatic stress disorder. Huganir says he regularly gets e-mails from PTSD sufferers asking to be part of human drug trials if and when he holds them. His research may also lead to drugs that aid memory retention by stimulating AMPARs, a potential boon for test takers and Alzheimer’s patients.

Would we all be better off without our sad or traumatic memories?

What if we did get rid of them?

How would we behave differently?

Show Me Your License, Ma'am! Michigan Senator Only Wants Legit Journalists

Reporter's Notebook from  Jim Higgins Milwauke...
Image by gruntzooki via Flickr

Good luck with that! Michigan state senator Bruce Patterson thinks we should have a piece of paper to prove our bona fides.


The law would require license applicants to possess, among other things: 1) “Good moral character”; 2) a degree in journalism; and 3) three writing samples. In our experience, those first two “qualifications” are in no way preconditions to quality reporting. The third may be necessary, but is by no means sufficient.

In any case, Patterson has said that the existence of a license would not preclude unlicensed writers from reporting the news; sounds like he’s more interested in putting a state seal of approval on certain organizations/individuals instead. His bill is a response to certain instances of reporting in which the writer has demonstrated a lack of understanding of the issues at hand.

For starters, many journos I’ve met wouldn’t pass the “good moral character” test. Define “good”, “moral” and “character.” Some of the very best are asocial, driven and weird.

A degree in journalism? See y’all later! I’ve never studied it, but have taught it at New York University and others.

As for dumb-ass reporters lacking understanding of the issues at hand, twas ever thus.

The good news and the bad news of becoming a journalist is that the barriers to entry — certainly freelance — are so low. If you’ve got a phone, a writing instrument, access to editors and a reliable way to transmit copy/images/video, you’re pretty much good to go. It’s up to the editors and producers to be the gatekeepers, deciding who’s good or good enough to make the cut.

I never attended J-school because I knew it would spook me to sit in a room facing all my would-be competitors. I didn’t attend because I was accepted at Canada’s best school, the University of Toronto, and studied English, French and Spanish so I could write well and work in other languages. I never went to grad J-school because, by the age of 19, I was writing for the largest national magazines and didn’t need to. I got paid to learn the craft.

The best journalists are, sadly for many politicians and corporate types, annoyingly unaware of — or uncaring about — social norms. We get paid (yay!) to break social rules: don’t bug people, don’t ask nosy questions, don’t call 35,087 times, don’t call at night or on weekends.

It’s the most fun being a female journo because women are still expected to make nice, be polite, defer to men. As if!

I’m finishing my book on the retail industry, the third largest employer in the U.S. I’ve sat in rooms with highly-paid experts and asked them the one word that journalists — whatever their background, education and training — must ask, always.


People in power hate having their authority challenged. They’ve got money and clout and allies and fund-raisers and flacks. You, oh annoying journo, must fly in the face of all of this. Such temporal power is merely a distraction, the Bentleys and polo ponies and minions merely the latest version of the court of the Sun King.

It’s our job to push, to be smart, to be ethical and accurate — not to carry a piece of paper “proving” it.

Buy It, Show It Off, Attract 200,000 Views: Welcome to 'Haul' Videos

NEW YORK - JULY 09:  A shopper carries an Aber...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Here’s a sad little commentary on what young women care about, memorialized (where else?) in today’s Times Styles section:

The majority of haul videos are made by women in their teens and early 20s, and their favorite stores are the ones you might expect for that age: Abercrombie & Fitch, H&M, Forever 21. In the two dozen videos I watched, there was hardly any mention of upscale brands, except perhaps a perfume bought at a discounter, and indeed girls are called out by followers if they seem to brag.

Alice Marwick, a doctoral candidate in culture and media studies at New York University, has been looking at haul videos as part of a research project, and she admits that watching a teenager show off six new T-shirts can be mind-numbing. “But most of the videos have 200,000 views,” she said. “And the girls all comment on them. That’s a fascinating idea of consumption.”

Among the most popular channels are allthatglitters21, by Elle Fowler, and juicystar07, by her younger sister, Blair. One of their joint videos had more than 500,000 views.

Gotta love it all. The blond chick with the glittery pale blue eyeshadow in her sterile white suburban bedroom with the — bien sur! — requisite taste-signifier, a giclee print of Paris over her bed. The camera zooming in. Her Chiclet teeth. Her preternatural comfort with the camera. Her utter conviction that boasting about all the crap she’s just bought is really interesting.

Am I alone in finding this really depressing?

NYU's Suicides — Nine, As Of Yesterday

bobst library
Interior of Bobst Library, NYU. Image by davidsilver via Flickr

What is it about NYU? Or being a student there? Or living in New York? Or is NYU just really unlucky among the many colleges filled with stressed-out or clinically depressed students?

Tuesday, a 20-year-old student Andrew Williamson-Noble, whose family lives in Irvington, NY, a wealthy suburban town north of the city, jumped to his death from the same place so many others have favored, a high floor of the Bobst Library on Washington Square Park. After two students jumped to their deaths at the library a month apart in 2003, the school installed plexiglass barriers to the open sections overlooking the atrium.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students and the third leading cause of death among all youth 15–24 years old. In the U.S., only accidents and homicides claim more young lives.

NYU says it will now block elevator access to the upper floors after hours. The student jumped from the 10th floor around 4:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Here’s the piece of the story that puzzles me: Toronto has had a public library since the 1970s with a similar atrium and floors high enough to jump from. I’ve never heard of someone committing suicide there — there are likely many other facilities with similar physical designs and layouts. Is NYU’s latest tragedy a horrible combination of relatively easy access to a lethal option and a vulnerable population?  If so, what’s the solution? Is there one?

Here’s The Times’ story.