How much does “pretty” matter?

By Caitlin Kelly

Cover of "Pretty Is"
Cover of Pretty Is

Loved this blog post, from dressaday, by brilliant Bay area writer and dictionary editor Erin McKean, about why women don’t have to be pretty — unless they choose to:

You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness toanyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.

I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T be pretty if you want to. (You don’t owe UN-prettiness to feminism, in other words.) Pretty is pleasant, and fun, and satisfying, and makes people smile, often even at you. But in the hierarchy of importance, pretty stands several rungs down from happy, is way below healthy, and if done as a penance, or an obligation, can be so far away from independent that you may have to squint really hard to see it in the haze.

And this essay from The Wall Street Journal by an Iranian writer, Marjan Kamali, about returning to her homeland, where every woman she meets urges her to pretty up:

The first thing we noticed as we strolled to a fancy shopping mall were the couples. Young women in bright tunics and scarves that slipped back to show their hair walked with guys in jeans and tight T-shirts. The women’s eyes were accentuated with eyeliner and shadow…Their nails were red and green and hot pink.

“I didn’t know they were allowed boyfriends here,” my daughter said. “I didn’t think they could do lipstick.”…

Later that evening, over a feast of jeweled rice and walnut and pomegranate stew at my aunt’s home, we caught up on family and politics. Suddenly my aunt said: “I can take you if you want.”

“Take me where?” I asked.

“To our best beauty salon.”

“I didn’t come here for a beauty salon.”

“As you wish,” she sniffed. “But what is this look that’s no look that you have?”

At another relative’s house, it was the housekeeper who pulled me aside. “Madam,” she whispered. “Those eyebrows. Please. You’re a mother of two. You need to be tweezed.”

My naked face stood out among a sea of lipsticked and glamorous Tehranis glowing under their hijabs. The surprise bordering on concern at my un-made-up ways was everywhere. “Why don’t you wear more makeup?” asked women whose cheeks were caked with foundation. “What do you have against lipstick?”

In Tehran, it turned out, the standards for fashion and appearance were extremely high. Women dieted and went to Pilates and yoga. Though by law they had to cover up outside their homes, many women rebelled, especially the young. They let their head scarves slip as far back as they could and wore tunics that, while not revealing any skin, were vivid and tight. And they obsessed about their faces, moisturizing and plucking and exfoliating.

And this, from Danish blog Rebelle Society, one I recently discovered:

Brace yourself, beautiful.

We’ve now entered the PhotoShop era, where a fanciful fiction of fairness leads to a fall down the rabbit hole of deception and discontent, all designed by an ad executive who will tell the world what your ass should look like in those $300.00 jeans.

It’s a dizzying effect of distortion and contortion of beautiful form without adding real function and it’s pretty damn ugly.

I’m also re-reading DV, one of my favorite books, by the late, legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, a famous jolie laide, whose style was defiantly and gloriously and confidently eccentric.

Women use their disapproval of one another’s appearance as a channel for aggression, according to this recent study. Facepalm.

While we’re heavily socialized not to appear mean, women can be sneakily vicious to those who fail to meet our standards of thin, stylish beauty.

Here’s Emily Graslie, who does videos of science from the Field Museum in Chicago, talking — with considerable and real frustration — about the haters who comment on her appearance, not her effing big brain and all the cool stuff she shares. Morons!

If you’ve got time to watch it, this new British documentary about six extraordinary women — ages 70s to 91, including an active choreographer and the oldest woman in the House of Lords — is lovely. Each is stylish in her own way, from the Baroness visiting her hair salon of 30 years to the defiantly confident Bridget, who visits Vogue to see if they’d like to hire her as a model.

They each have terrific elan and confidence, and none is Botoxed or rolling in bags of cash. The film is 47 minutes long, and worth every minute.

Pretty is as pretty does.

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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?

How can you learn to write better when all you do is write?

I ask all of you this question — since the vast majority of you are bloggers and some are very serious and determined producers of journalism, non-fiction and fiction.

Next week I am not writing. Next week, to borrow my favorite of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Effective People, I’m shutting down the intellectual production line to “sharpen my saw”.

Selfridges has a Krispy Kreme Doughnut shop wh...
It’s time to NOT make the doughnuts for a while! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I plan to do everything but write: sleep, watch the sky, talk to my Dad, hang out with Jose, see my high school friend Sally and pat her dog Lucy and watch the fire glow in fireplaces and attend my favorite small-town auction. We’ll eat some good food, sleep late, go for long walks through Toronto streets and along Lake Ontario.

I will also read a number of books by career writers and editors and teachers of non-fiction that I hope will help to improve my writing. I’ve been cranking copy for a living since 1978, decades before some of you were born. It is a rare and essential luxury to withdraw and really think deeply and broadly about process. About how to do it even better.

I recently finished On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, who is still teaching in Manhattan, at the age of 88. It is a truly stellar book. I cannot recommend it too highly! Don’t simply trust me — it’s sold 1.5 million copies since he wrote it in 1974 (revised many times since.)

I’m going to read this book, by New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose brief pieces are lovely, clean and graceful.

And this one, by Roy Peter Clark, whose session last September in Decatur, at the Decatur Book Festival, was sold out, a huge auditorium where they wouldn’t let me, a fellow speaker, even sit on the floor to hear him.

New Paperback Non-Fiction - Really?! 07/366/20...
New Paperback Non-Fiction – Really?! 07/366/2012 #366project (Photo credit: pgcummings)

I’m eager to read this new book, Good Prose, another guide to writing well, reviewed recently in The Wall Street Journal:

Messrs. Kidder and Todd claim that one reason their relationship remained productive for so many years was that “we shared a code common to men of our era, which meant that we didn’t expect much, or feel like offering much, in the way of intimacy or ‘sharing.’ ” Maybe so, but in a sense they were exceptionally intimate: One of the secrets of Mr. Kidder’s success is that he is not afraid of writing badly in front of his editor, which frees him from the paralysis of writer’s block. I’ve worked as a magazine editor for 20 years and done some writing on the side, and I’d say that the relationship you have with your editor should be like the one you have with your urologist—you should feel comfortable showing him unspeakable, embarrassing things and trust that he will not recoil but endeavor straightforwardly and discreetly to help. (The writer-editor relationship should also have a confidentiality akin to attorney-client privilege or, perhaps more aptly, to that of the psychiatric couch.)

One of the things I very rarely talk about here at Broadside, when I talk about writing for a living, is my relationships with my editors, without whom I would starve in a month. Unlike blogging, my writing for print and books always goes through multiple layers of editing by others, often people I will never meet and may not even speak to.

These relationships have tremendous power and weight:

— I have to retain my voice

— I have to insure my material remains factually accurate

— My stories need to retain their rhythm and tone; like a piece of musical composition, none of my word choices or sentence lengths or paragraph lengths are arbitrary

— I need to be sure the many underlying themes are carried through and clear to my readers

But, I also need

— to retain long-term relationships in a small industry where people move around a lot, but stay in the biz for decades

— be well-paid

— keep, as much as I can, a reputation as someone that agents, editors, assistants and publicists really want to work with again

This is the single greatest inherent weakness of blogging. Other than your followers, who is editing you and forcing you, on every single story, to up your game?

I recently read the post of blogger who said — and I could not tell if she was serious — that she expected an agent to find her and publishing success would follow.

Well, maybe.

Journalism and commercial book publishing is a team sport! I cannot emphasize this enough. For someone who may have zero writing training or work-shopping experience, who has never been heavily edited — which means answering a lot of questions from a lot of people who now control some or all of your career and income and reputation — it will be one hell of a shock.

When fellow blogger Mrs. Fringe and I met for coffee a while back, I learned how serious and determined she is to publish fiction. But she’s also shown it to some of the nation’s toughest editors and they were encouraging.

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” got some terrific reviews; Booklist (which librarians read to decide what to buy) called it “groundbreaking and invaluable.” But it was very lightly edited so I had no true feeling for a hands-on editing job until I got my editors’ notes back on “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

I was alone, in a motel room in Victoria, B.C., visiting my mother. I read them and panicked. Totally panicked.

Basically, my editor — who was, of course, half my age — said “I really like Chapters 11 and 12.”

What about Chapters One through 10?

Suffice to say that 30 years, three big newspaper staff reporting jobs and thousands of freelance articles had still not prepared me, emotionally or intellectually, for this intense level of trust, revision and sheer hard work.

What are you doing these days to sharpen  and grow your writing skills?

Sobbing upon departure — when place sears our soul

This weekend I’m visiting Decatur, Georgia, speaking Sept. 2 at the literary festival about my new retail memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.” If you’re in the area, come on by!

I don’t expect to find it hard to leave, but you never know.

There are, I’ve discovered a few times, places in the world that sear your soul, where you unexpectedly feel so at home you can’t bear to leave, plotting your return even as you reluctantly pack your bags.

I rarely cry, especially not in public. But three places, (so far), left me in tears of regret and longing as departed: Corsica, northern Thailand and Ireland.

Corsica

I had one week between the end of one job and the start of another. I was single and craved something absolutely amazing.

I love France and speak French and friends had raved to me for many years about this island, known for its rugged interior — and fierce desire to separate from France.

Corse-bastia-port2
Corse-bastia-port2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I flew from New York to Nice, Nice to Bastia and rented a mo-ped at the port, while the hotel owner in Bastia helped me plot out a five-day circle tour of La Balagne, all in the north. It still remains one of the best holidays of my entire life, (and I’ve been to 37 countries, so far.)

Imagine buzzing along empty, winding country roads in brilliant sunshine, with the maquis, the island’s thick scrubby undergrowth filled with herbs, sending its rich, delicious sun-warmed fragrance into your nostrils. Meander down a series of hairpin turns to a hotel at the ocean’s edge, so close you’ll hear the surf from your bedroom window. It’s a lovely old house from the 1850s or so. You eat dinner, alone, on the terrace at dusk.

One day it poured so heavily I couldn’t wear my glasses, (which I really do need for driving), nor did my helmet have a visor. I got a black trash bag from a restaurant to cover me, and kept on going, whizzing past 1,000-foot drop-offs into the sea. People invited me into their homes for a meal. I chatted with a handsome young mason in a bar, who gave me several CDs, still some of my favorite music ever, the polyphonal a capella group I Muvrini.

The landscape is wild, untamed, primal, timeless. When my plane took off for Nice, I cried so hard the flight attendant came to comfort me and ask what was wrong. I couldn’t even speak for grief, watching the island disappear into the clouds.

I’d found, as I did in every place that has seared my soul so deeply: beauty, peace, scent, kindness, history, adventure.

Here’s the story I wrote about it for The Wall Street Journal.

Northern Thailand

I visited in January 1994 with my husband, our new marriage already in tatters and soon to blow apart.

We’d visited Bangkok and Chang Mai, both standard tourist destinations, and decided, spur of the moment, to fly further north to Mae Hong Son, which one guidebook called the most beautiful town in Thailand. I’ve only seen one other airport — in Bastia — so rural and tiny that sheep grazed a few meters from the runways. As we walked (!) into town, the only sound was that of bells from the temple across the unpaved street.

English: Mae Hong Son, a capital of the Mae Ho...
English: Mae Hong Son, a capital of the Mae Hong Son Province, Thailand Русский: Город Мэхонгсон, административный центр одноимённой провинции (Таиланд) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Guesthouses, then $15 a night, ringed a lake. We rented mo-peds, (clearly, my favorite mode of transport), for a day-trip even further north to the Burmese border. Madness! The road, quite literally, was under construction, with huge machines grading the land, their quizzical drivers gazing down at us in pity and wonder.

We went with Roy, an Englishman we’d met at our guesthouse, who’d worked in developing countries delivering vaccines. When the road forked, with a sign we couldn’t read, what next? “Follow the power lines,” Roy said.

The road dust was a thick, silky red, so deep I put my feet out on both sides and used them as pontoons to steady the bike. As we pulled into town for lunch, men wearing extremely large rifles across their chest stared at us — we were now in the Golden Triangle, then the world’s largest suppliers of opium.

We ate lunch, then turned south in the golden late afternoon light, back down the insanely steep hills we’d so eagerly climbed. On one turn, (no guardrails), I got off the bike and had my husband walk it down, too terrified of flying off the road and over the treetops to my certain death. I’d already fallen and shattered the bike’s side mirror, giving me a tiny scar on the inside of my right wrist as a permanent souvenir of the day.

When our plane took off a few days later, having witnessed the town’s legendary three mists, I cried hard. I knew I wouldn’t be back any time soon. And I knew I’d never be there again with that man.

As in Corsica, I’d been transported by the emerald-green landscapes, silence, the kindness and wisdom of strangers. Another deliriously crazy, ill-advised, adrenaline-pumping adventure.

Ireland

I’ve since returned four times, but this was my first visit — in the days just before Christmas of 1985 — visiting a friend, a fellow journalist, in Dublin.

With a surname of Kelly, you’d think I’d identify heavily as Irish, but I don’t and never had. Like me, my father was born in Canada.

But, there, everywhere, were people who looked like me. Who loved to chat, and prized witty, intelligent conversation. Who liked a good glass of beer. Who valued the ability to burst into song.

I felt at home in a way that hit me hard, that I’d never felt in my native land or my home city, Toronto.

Stores and restaurants and passing delivery vans had my name on them!

As I filed into the small aircraft that flew me to Bristol to visit my mother, I found myself blinking back tears.

And every visit back to Ireland since then seems to touch a sort of sense memory, a “me” that maybe existed 100 or 1,000 years ago. Maybe I was Grainne, the 16th. century pirate queen!

Here’s a beautiful post, recently chosen for Freshly Pressed,by a female American professor about how living in Afghanistan at the age of 10 so deeply affected her.

Has this sort of geographic coup de foudre happened to you?

When and where?

Does journalism still matter to you?

Carl Bernstein in Salt Lake City.jpg
Carl Bernstein in Salt Lake City.jpg (Photo credit: Jeremy Franklin)

Do you care about facts?

Context?

Objective truth?

As someone who’s been working in journalism for 30 years, I get up every morning assuming — hoping! — there is still an audience interested in learning something smart and thoughtful about the world they didn’t know the day before.

I say “day” because minute-to-minute “news” is often, unless it’s about a death or natural disaster, wrong, biased, misinformed.

Being the first to report something doesn’t mean being the best.

I don’t use Twitter. When I read my “news feed” on Facebook, I don’t substitute my friends’ opinions, videos and pet photos for an understanding of the world.

But many people now do. For them this is news, traditional media be damned.

Thanks to the Internet, to blogs like this and news that reifies hardened political views, too many people now turn to an echo chamber, listening and reading only those people whose shared vision of the world and its challenges — poverty, reproductive rights, defense, education, health care — comforts, soothes and reassures them that their worldview is right!

What we’re gaining — in a feeling of connectedness and community — we’re also losing by ignoring or shutting out the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, perhaps violently. If you live in the U.S. and read the liberal New York Times, it’s worth also reading the opinion and editorial page of the Wall Street Journal to see a totally different view of the same issues.

Just because you lean wayyyyyy to the left, or right, doesn’t mean your opinion is accurate because it’s shared by those who shout your tune the loudest.

No matter how much you may disagree, if you refuse to examine and consider other viewpoints, how can you learn how other people think? With a Presidential election here in a few months, it’s certainly going to play out at the ballot box.

You can’t just cover your ears and shout lalalalalalalalalalalala and hope to have a clue what’s going out there.

I read a variety of media, and try to include British and Canadian sources as often as possible. If I were less lazy, I’d also read Spanish and French media. Nor do I assume that any journalist, or media outlet, has some exclusive claim to the truth. I know better!

When it comes to “truth”, there are many different versions.

Here’s a short video interview from the Guardian newspaper with American journalist Carl Bernstein about the issue; he was one of the two Washington Post reporters whose exhaustive, dogged investigative work on former President Richard Nixon led to his resignation.

In his view, the scourge of our era is this closed-eyes/closed-ears attitude. Our unwillingness to listen to one another in order to gain some sort of consensus.

Do you seek out views other than your own?

Don’t Know Much About History…

Edith Cummings was the first woman athlete to ...
Athlete Edith Cummings, the first woman to appear on Time's cover. Image via Wikipedia

American students, it seems, are not terribly well-educated when it comes to their country’s history.

This, from the Boston Globe:

Not even a quarter of American students is proficient in US history, and the percentage declines as students grow older. Only 20 percent of 6th graders, 17 percent of 8th graders, and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrate a solid grasp on their nation’s history. In fact, American kids are weaker in history than in any of the other subjects tested by the NAEP — math, reading, science, writing, civics, geography, and economics.

And here’s historian David McCullough on the same issue, from a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal:

Another problem is method. “History is often taught in categories—women’s history, African American history, environmental history—so that many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what.”

What’s more, many textbooks have become “so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence farther back”—such as, say, Thomas Edison—”are given very little space or none at all.”

Mr. McCullough’s eyebrows leap at his final point: “And they’re so badly written. They’re boring! Historians are never required to write for people other than historians.” Yet he also adds quickly, “Most of them are doing excellent work. I draw on their excellent work. I admire some of them more than anybody I know. But, by and large, they haven’t learned to write very well.”

I really enjoy reading history, and have for years. As a geeky only child with little or no access to TV, reading was one of my pleasures, and one of my favorite books ( I can see your eyes rolling!) at the age of maybe 12 was a history of medicine. OMG!

It was soooooooo cool: Galen and Hippocrates and Semmelweiss and Harvey and Jenner….all giants who made our lives safer.

Semmelweiss is my favorite, the man who in the mid-1800s discovered that women were dying after giving birth because surgeons — !!! — were not washing their hands between patients.

Some of my favorite books in the past few years have been histories:  Roy Porter’s social history of 18th. century London; different histories of Paris (there were icebergs in the Seine once many centuries ago!); of Elizabeth I, and all the Western women’s history I read while researching my first book, about women and guns.

Did you know that entire chunks of the American West were homesteaded exclusively by women? Glenda Riley is one of my favorite historians for this topic, with 11 books (so far.)

I love Vincent Cronin’s writing; he’s a British historian who died this year at the age of 86.

And yet…I remain woefully ignorant of Canadian history (where I was born and raised) and not great either on U.S. history (although I know some of the players, like Col. Andre [captured about 200 feet from my town library!] or the Roebling family, who designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge.)

I admit it — much classic “history” — written and edited by men about men, focused on economic, military and political issues — bores the bejeezus out of me. I want to hear about women and kids and clothing and science and medicine and what they read and ate. Call it “social history” but I want to feel, smell, hear and taste what everyday life was like, not just the Treaty of This and the War of That.

What sort of history — if any — do you know best and why?

What would be a better way for American kids to learn and really care about their own history?

Since When Are Latinos “Alien”?

Percentage of Hispanic or Latino residents by ...
The percentage of Latinos by county.Image via Wikipedia

With a green card that formally and officially names me as a “resident alien”, I’m the certified foreigner in our household, not my Hispanic partner of eleven years who is first-generation American, of Mexican descent, but who is resoundingly and red-bloodedly American.

He wears khakis and polished black loafers, loves to golf, reads business magazines like Fortune and Forbes. He works at The New York Times, arguably one of the most establishment of employers, and has for decades. He drives a Subaru, drinks gimlets, takes the commuter train to Grand Central Station every weekday with legions of lawyers and media guys and non-profit executives.

He’s just one of the guys — even if he keeps a bag of pozole in the freezer and a beloved black pottery pot of his Mom’s from New Mexico, where he was born and raised.

But that’s about it. Issues of race and identity are much less compelling to either of us than the usual mid-life, mid-career questions:

When and where will we ever be able to retire? What’s for dinner? What are we doing this weekend?

Which is why I found this Wall Street Journal op-ed, by Janet Murguia, decidedly odd:

Like others who brought demographic change to America, our presence has stirred anxiety among some of our fellow Americans. A century ago, people expressed the same concerns about waves of immigrants from Italy, Ireland and Eastern Europe. It was understandable—but it also turned out to be unfounded. As the number of Latinos grows, our fellow Americans need to overcome the natural human anxiety that accompanies change and look for common ground…

It’s time for people to stop thinking about Latinos as “foreigners,” “aliens,” or “others” and start thinking of us as their fellow workers, classmates, colleagues, worshippers, neighbors, friends and family.

I’m clearly missing something here. I don’t see someone Latino and make any specific assumptions about their education or income or legal status.

We’ve attended meetings of NSHMBA, the National Society of Hispanic MBAs.

When I hit my local grocery store, in suburban New York, an aisle is devoted to Latino favorites, many made by the successful firm of GOYA, founded in 1936.

My local car wash is run by a man from Colombia,  a successful and hard-working man who employs other Latinos in his community.

Two of the most talented young recent college graduates I know are a photographer and a journalist; he’s won major national awards and she’s heading off to the Los Angeles Times soon for a job there.

When I see Hispanics and Latino(a)s, I see my in-laws, friends, neighbors and colleagues, all of them hardworking, talented, ambitious — and American.

Yet when Jose and I started dating, after he found me on-line, (under the truthful headline “Catch Me If You Can”), friends started pelting me with absurd cliches:

“Does he dance salsa?” “Does he wear a guayabera?”

Excuse me?

This is a guy whose Times colleagues dubbed “the preppy Mexican”…which left him nonplussed. Was this a compliment? Can’t Mexican men wear Brooks Brothers and Barbour and LL Bean?

I lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico for a few months when I was 14 and have been back to Mexico many times. I speak Spanish and it feels like home to me in some strange way. I have never understood why brown skin and a Hispanic surname offer license for all sorts of appalling stereotypes.

I’m aware there are millions of illegal aliens of Hispanic descent in the U.S. — while millions more, legally resident, also work hard, pay taxes and yearn for the same successes we all do.

Do you date or live with or did you marry a Hispanic or Latino(a)?

How, if at all, has this changed your life or your ideas?

How Many Irons Do You Keep In The Fire?

The various incarnations of Steel.
Image via Wikipedia

It’s one of my favorite expressions — having multiple irons in the fire. I’m not an ironworker or blacksmith, but a freelance writer and author. If I don’t have multiple income streams (21st century jargon for the same idea), I’m toast.

Now that one-third of us work permalance or as independent contractors or whatever you want to call people who leap from lily-pad to lily-pad to keep their bills paid, making small bets across a variety of disciplines, projects, clients and borders is now business-as-usual.

Even if taking risks makes us feel a little queasy emotionally (What if I fail?), we know it’s also necessary. By definition, not every project, no matter how well-planned or funded or filled with enthusiasm will succeed. Some will sag like an old balloon or blow up with  bang in our surprised faces.

But taking mini-risks remains essential to creative growth. So, every day, like so many others now do, I call and email people across the country, and across oceans, looking for ways to boost my income, add to my network of smart, hardworking, ethical people and see what shows up next.

A new book, “Little Bets”, by Peter Sims, addresses the reality every creative self-employed person must face: you’ve got to keep a pile of irons in the fire at all times. Some will be red-hot, others stone-cold. But as long as you have a dozen or so, (call it Plans A-L), you’ll be fine.

Some of these low-level risks, the little bets, won’t turn into anything. But, with luck, persistence, re-tooling, timing…a few will.

In my decades as a writer, several of them self-employed, I’ve seen this firsthand. I rarely panic about where the money will come from to pay my bills — and my monthly nut is four figures — because I am always exploring new avenues, making new connections and sealing a deal or two.

I’m not wealthy. It would be nice to worry much less and much less often, about money. But I have to be honest enough to admit — I enjoy taking (small, measured) risks.

It’s ironic as hell to me that, by taking a low-wage, low-status job working as a retail sales associate in a suburban mall, a desperation move to shore up my income, I may have opened more and better and much more lucrative doors than anything I’ve ever done in my life. By taking the risk of losing my clutch on middle-class life, wearing a plastic badge and folding T-shirts, I began to see many things more clearly, and wrote a book about what I saw.

Here’s The Wall Street Journal review of Sims’ book.

Tell me about the mini-risks you’re taking, your own little bets…

What’s A Museum For?

Sir John Soane's Museum
Sir John Soanes Museum in London. Treasure trove!!! Go! Image by Mal Booth via Flickr

Do museums still matter?

In an era where we can now (which is fantastically democratic) access almost any image at our fingertips on-line, is it worth the time, energy and money to actually enter a building and spend a few hours looking at the real things?

I think so. Some of my happiest and most powerful memories are of museums in which I’ve whiled away hours. I inevitably come away awed and humbled, refreshed and inspired by the collective creativity of the millennia, all those ideas and fantasies and skill and global commerce — 16th. century porcelain! 12th. century jewelry! shields and armor and paintings and chairs used by those now long-gone….who were they?

Mine include:

— the amazing pietra dura (inlaid stonework) tables at The Prado in Madrid

— a room swathed in olive green raw silk, filled with exquisite Art Nouveau jewelry at the Gulbenkian in Lisbon

— Odilon Redon’s paintings at the Met

— the Venetian palazzo that is Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (and the subject of the largest unsolved art theft in history, covered in this terrific book)

— the impossibly fast Blackbird SR-71 jet, (Mach 3.5!) at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson

— a gorgeous room-sized painting of Joan of Arc at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

— the funky leather chair that was Sigmund Freud’s at the museum that is his former home in London

— the small, perfect Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto (my hometown)

Here’s an interesting recent interview in The Wall Street Journal with Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum:

In any case, Mr. Lehman has moved on to his next idea, which involves something many museums should be doing: focusing more on their permanent collections. “I have spent a lot of time,” he says, “looking at how this collection should be seen in the 21st century by 21st-century visitors, all of whom have a lot more access to information than even the most respected curators did 75 years ago.”

In part, this is pragmatic: With money tight, museums have had to cut back on expensive loan exhibitions. But in part, this is visionary. For decades, museums trained visitors to come for their changing exhibitions, all but ignoring the treasures they actually own. Frequently, permanent-collection galleries are virtually empty, left to the dwindling pool of committed art-lovers. “We will make the permanent collection the primary attraction of the Brooklyn Museum,” Mr. Lehman promises. “I don’t want to see our visitation going up and down because of exhibitions.”

And a profile of another one of my favorites, Sir John Soane’s Museum, in London by FT columnist Harry Eyres:

The Sir John Soane’s Museum is a museum like no other. I remember going to see it when I was still at school and immediately liking it, though I would not have been able to say quite why, or to pin my enthusiasm on any particular object. According to the dapper and smart new director, Tim Knox, the museum has a strong appeal for the elusive 16-30-year-old bracket, the kind of young people you imagine would rather be on Facebook than going to some fusty old house in a lawyers’ district of London.

Now I’m a bit older I still like the Soane, and can come up with a theory about why it might appeal to the young. It is a place liberatingly free of cant: the educational cant that tells you that you should be learning about the history of western painting; the scientific cant that will fill you with facts and explanations; above all, the cant of good taste…Soane committed a terrible sin by being eclectic; by filling his house with an unclassifiable collection of occasional masterpieces – paintings by Hogarth, Watteau and Canaletto – and odd plaster casts, a huge model of Pompeii, the tomb of his dog and, in the basement, the magnificent alabaster sarcophagus of the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I.

What are some of your favorite museums?

Can you tip us off to an object or work of art in one that you especially love?

I’m Boooooored! (Thank Heaven)

Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom, Walt D...
I have to wait to be happy? Really????? Image via Wikipedia

As reported in The Wall Street Journal, a recent conference was designed to be dull:

Boring 2010 is the handiwork of James Ward, 29 years old, who works for a DVD distribution and production company. In his other life, as the envoy of ennui, Mr. Ward edits a blog called “I Like Boring Things.” He is also co-founder of the Stationery Club, whose 45 members meet occasionally to discuss pens, paper clips and Post-it Notes.

For another of his projects, Mr. Ward over the past 18 months has visited 160 London convenience stores and made careful notes about a popular chocolate bar called Twirl, including the product’s availability, price and storage conditions. He publishes the details online.

Boredom has become a serious subject for scientific inquiry. For example, a 25-year study of British civil servants published earlier this year found that some people really can be bored to death: People who complain about “high levels” of boredom in their lives are at double the risk of dying from a stroke or heart disease, the study concluded.

The “Boring Institute,” in South Orange, N.J., started as a spoof. Its website says it now plays a more serious role describing “the dangers that are associated with too much boredom and offers advice on how to avoid it.”

Contrast this European lassitude with the go-go-gotta-keep-’em-happy machinations at Disney World, as reported in The New York Times:

To handle over 30 million annual visitors — many of them during this busiest time of year for the megaresort — Disney World long ago turned the art of crowd control into a science. But the putative Happiest Place on Earth has decided it must figure out how to quicken the pace even more. A cultural shift toward impatience — fed by video games and smartphones — is demanding it, park managers say. To stay relevant to the entertain-me-right-this-second generation, Disney must evolve.

And so it has spent the last year outfitting an underground, nerve center to address that most low-tech of problems, the wait. Located under Cinderella Castle, the new center uses video cameras, computer programs, digital park maps and other whiz-bang tools to spot gridlock before it forms and deploy countermeasures in real time.

Give. Me. A. Break.

Seriously. Once you have passed the age of, say, five or maybe seven, it’s not the world’s job to entertain us 24/7. No, really, it’s not!

I do not have children so have been blessedly spared the arms race to keep the little ones perpetually stimulated with DVDs in the car, in their laps, anywhere they might actually have to sit still, alone, in silence for a while. Horrors!

I grew up an only child and, like many of my ilk, learned very young to play on my own, to amuse myself without technology or TV or the endless distractions of other people’s attention and interaction.

This is a Very Good Thing.

I feel nothing but pity now for anyone at any level of the educational system who must cope with children, and the adults they grow into, who are now chronically incapable of silence, solitude, patience and unaided thought.

Ideas come when we have the time, space and — yes — boredom — to think, to ruminate, to reflect and make connections.

One of my favorite recent books is this one, “Distracted” by Maggie Jackson. She makes, I think, a cogent and compelling argument against hyperactivity, multi-tasking and CPA, the scourge of our age. Continuous Partial Attention was named back in 1998, long before life meant all-interaction-all-the-time.

I love allowing myself to get bored.

When I say “I’m bored” it almost always really means I’m frustrated. Then I go figure out why.

How about you?