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Thursday, May 26, 2005

"Rhapsody in chrome"

Today’s Home & Garden section in the New York Times has the most wonderful collection of stories, audio and photographs in celebration of the Chrysler Building’s 75th birthday.

Regular readers of Creative Ink may note that the Chrysler Building is simply my most favorite in all of New York. Writer David Dunlap says, “It bubbles. It fizzes. It is 77 stories of razzmatazz and attitude, a bit of speedway and a lot of jukebox. It is knock-your-socks-off exhibitionism, with a dash of pure carny."

No kidding! I’ve had the pleasure twice in the past year of staying at the Grand Hyatt, also at 42nd and Lexington, but on the northwestern corner. I’ve marveled at the magnificent building glinting in the sunlight and seen its chrome spire rising majestically through the mist. And had I more time, I would ask to see the space that once was photographer Margaret Bourke-White’s studio.

Michael J. Lewis, a professor of art history at Williams College, says that the building’s “discordant elegance” came close to what George Gershwin achieved in music — “a rhapsody in chrome.”

The building was a reflection of the times, when more American men had been exposed to European culture through the Great War, and women were beginning to find themselves and their freedom just a tinge.

As Frederick Lewis Allen reported in his magisterial account of the Roaring Twenties, "Only Yesterday," the average amount of fabric needed to dress a woman declined from 191⁄4 yards in 1913 to a flimsy 7 yards by 1928.

Though its namesake has been long gone from the building, the structure still speaks for the inner entrepreneur. Lewis writes: The Chrysler Building is the act of an upstart, cockily challenging the supremacy of General Motors and the Ford Motor Company.

But its beautiful debut, often pooh-poohed by the critics of the time, came on the heels of the Depression and its cockiness quickly fled with the devastation that followed the Stock Market Crash. Lewis writes:

The Art Deco skyscrapers were not discredited by their fantastic mooring masts at their summits but by the bankers and the brokers leaping from their windows.

It does have a storied past and one that I first romanticized as a young reporter. Fresh from his honeymoon with Clare Booth, Henry Luce conceived of Life magazine in its once-resplendent Cloud Club restaurant. Rachel Davis, the owner of Rachel Davis Fine Arts in Larchmere, had called to tell me that someone had found in a relative’s basement boxes and boxes of Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs. Would I be interested in seeing them and writing a story about the find?

I was there in a heartbeat. Bourke-White has long been a hero of mine primarily for her fearlessness in pushing the envelope of life as a photojournalist, indeed as a woman at a time when women exercising freedom was simply not done.

My head was spinning as I thumbed through the stacks of photographs. How I coveted just one. But I was newly married, working on a weekly reporter’s salary and simply could not afford to purchase one of the photographs.

Oscar Graubner took my favorite photo of her. Though I don't own a framed copy, I have it in two books of her work. "Maggie," as she was known, is climbing out of one of the stainless-steel gargoyles outside her studio on the 62nd floor of the Chrysler Building — 800 feet above the sidewalk.

Of course, she had to do some finagling to even get studio space there at that time. Fortune magazine, for which she was working, would not rent her space on her own. Her lease was co-signed by Time Inc. She paid $387.92 per month, plus electricity.

She describes best, in her 1963 autobiography, “Portrait of Myself,” her fascination with the building and her desire to live there.

On the sixty-first floor, the workmen started building some curious structures which overhung 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue below. When I learned these structures were to be gargoyles à la Notre Dame, but made of stainless steel as more suitable for the twentieth century, I decided that here would be my new studio. There was no place in the world that I would accept as a substitute. I was ready to close my studio in Cleveland in order to be nearer Fortune, but it was the gargoyles which gave me the final spurt into New York.

It turned out that I had not one but a pair of gargoyles resplendent in stainless steel and pointing to the southeast … I loved the view so much that I often crawled out on the gargoyles, which projected over the street 800 feet below, to take pictures of the changing moods of the city.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Forest for the trees

A debt of gratitude this morning goes out to my NYC roomie and fellow scribe, Jill Miller Zimon. Several weeks ago she sent me a package with some books she felt may help me through my psychological slump.

Her instincts were correct. While I didn’t much care for “Writing Down the Bones,” I found “The Forest for the Trees “ by Betsy Lerner a great, inspiring read. I’m going to Half-Price Books today to pick up a copy for myself. (J – Loved reading your notes!) Of course the title alone describes my current state. And so I plunged through yesterday and last night and realized something: I really do want to write a book.

To anyone who has ever asked (which is not many), I’ve always said that I would write a book someday without ever having a clue as to its subject. I’m under contract to write one for the Cleveland Clinic Press and I’ve written one with a marketing bent for the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. But I’m talking about something pure and inspired from my own imagination.

The thought is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. As I explained to a friend last week, the potential for white-hot spotlight scares the shit out of me. I'm the person who always has nightmares of being exposed, in my underwear, as a complete hack. But in recent conversations with my sister and given recent family events, I see something I’d like to explore. It will certainly take some convincing, but may yet prove to be possible.

More on that someday. Anyway here’s what Lerner, a former editor in NY's publishing houses, writes that sent me flying high this morning:

Every time a person writes, for the public or not, he or she is connected to all who have ever felt that magnificent charge of communication through the written word—whether carved in hieroglyphics or glowing in code across our computer. No matter how often or how vociferously writers are attacked, no matter how many hearts are broken in pursuit of publication or how many authors discouraged by their lonely work, there will always be the brilliant conspiracy between author and reader.

It’s true. In the end we write, despite all the obstacles, because we have to.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Reading and escape

I’m revving up my reading pace in anticipation of summer. On average, I’m putting away about three books a week. One a review book, one about writing as craft and one novel. Haven’t read this voraciously since I was 12.

Was telling my mom about this over the weekend and she laughed remembering how, when I was 11 and she finally gave me permission to read “Are You There God It’s Me, Margaret” (a rite of passage for pre-pubescent girls) I laid on the picnic table with my gangly legs crossed and didn’t budge until I finished the book.

Of course, I didn’t tell her that later that summer I also snuck into her top dresser drawer and clandestinely read Judy Blume’s other memorable work of female sexuality called, “Forever.” I would hide in my closet with a flashlight poring over the story that revealed how a young woman lost her virginity. Heady stuff it was and a far, far cry from “Ramona the Brave.” I’m not sure if I was remotely mature enough to handle its adult theme, but I know reading about it made me feel all tingly inside.

After I would finish reading for whatever time I could safely steal, taking care not to break the spine or dog-ear any pages, I felt guilty, dirty almost for reading something I knew I wasn’t yet supposed to. But I couldn’t help myself. And the next day I’d be tiptoeing back into my parent’s bedroom, hungry for more of that story.

And so it has always been with reading and me. When I’m hooked, the rest of my world seems to stop until I finish. Reading is my narcotic and my brain is always seeking more. “You’ve always got your nose in a book,” my hubby says. For the most part, he’s right.

Reading takes me away and brings home certain truths, it inspires and fills, soothes and stimulates. I’ve been doing a lot of it lately partly because I feel inspired to do so, a wonderful stack of books beckoning me to fall in. And partly I’ve been reading to escape what I should be doing, which is writing.

Of course, that’s not entirely true. I still write daily. But I have things I want to say and I’ve been reading so much in the interest of finding of my courage, of finding that phrase or thought that somehow seeps into my subconscious and says, “It’s okay. Go ahead and write what you want to say. Others will read it. Don’t be such a chicken shit!”

This week, I’m reading “Genuine Happiness: Meditation as the Path to Fulfillment” by B. Alan Wallace, with a foreword by HH the Dalai Lama as my review book. “The Forest for the Trees” by Betsy Lerner has turned out to be a fabulous book on writers, including their neuroses. Read 100 pages this morning in between getting the kids off to school. And I’m reading Anna Quindlen’s “Blessings” at night before bed.

Early on Saturday morning I finished reading Stephen King’s book, “On Writing.” I have never read any of his novels because sci-fi horror has never been my thing, though I’ve seen many of the movies based on his work. If I had a dime for every time some joker did his worst Jack Nicholson impression, bellowing, “Wendy, I’m home!” from The Shining, I could get a pedicure this afternoon instead of writing the queries of which I’ve been procrastinating. But I found his writing about craft an inspired work and found I like him more than expected.

I burst out laughing when King spoke of watching his wife read his first draft, waiting for her reaction to a scene in which he knew she’d laugh. His wife, sensing his watchful eye finally shouts, “Stop being some goddam needy!”

I’m going to stop being so needy and neurotic—at least I'm going to try. This week the first of the essays is going out to the national mags. I’m going to get past my fear of rejection and embrace its anticipated result with gusto. After all, it’s all grist for the mill — even the rejections.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Posted in comments on today's Achenblog

Hell, I'm an editor myself, and I wish my writers would put as much effort into their articles as they did in their blogs. The writing there is so much more alive and interesting.

Posted by: Frustrated Editor | May 19, 2005 03:17 PM

Read more here.

I shoulda gone to law school

Oy! What the heck day is it? This week has been something of a blur. I’m not really sure what I’ve done this week. Feels like nothing, but it can’t be because I’ve been awfully busy doing nothing. Oh wait, I think I can reconstruct.

Earlier this week my time was spent making heads and tails out of an $18 million settlement between major publishers and databases and freelance writers whose work they posted without permission or compensation.

So after interviewing a past president of ASJA (a party to the suit) and wending my way through the 90-page legal document, I crafted a column for the June/July issue of Quill magazine.

As if that weren’t enough legal mumbo-jumbo for one week, I then received an e-mail asking for my opinion on language that would expand the definition of “covered persons” to include freelancers and bloggers though the use of a “function” test in the proposed federal shield law legislation.

I now know that there are two such bills currently introduced in Congress. But there’s no question that giving carte blanche protection to bloggers will not occur in this administration. Hell, we’ll be lucky if one of these darned things passes at all. And if it does, I wouldn’t be surprised to find something heinous attached, such as a national security provision. We’ll shield you from revealing your sources except in the matter of national security, which shall be evoked by the administration at will.

On June 10, I’ll be returning to the Ted Scripps Leadership Retreat in Indianapolis where I’ll be discussing chapter programming, funding and leadership continuity with many SPJ leaders. Along with my co-presenter, I worked up an outline for our presentations and shipped it off to national HQ.

Got a call from a frantic freelancer in south Florida who had an ethical question about work he was doing for an online magazine. When he told the publisher he needed more time on a series of articles about prisoners with disabilities in Florida’s penal system, she apparently had decided it was time enough and demanded his notes and research. Talked him through with the proviso that I’m not an attorney and nothing I say can be substituted for legal advice.

As immediate past president of the Cleveland Pro Chapter, it was my job to find replacement board member for an outgoing member. And so I’ve just completed my nominations report in time to go out with our weekly newsletter, Writer’s Week.

Somewhere during this week I managed to read yet another religion book for review (I can’t even recall the subject), and I’ve done some researching for magazine pitches, but need about 80 hours of time to send out queries that actually make some sense.

(Danny, close your eyes here.) In terms of my week’s end balance sheet—this week belongs to SPJ and therefore no income, save my book review.

That’ll change soon because in between the madness, I’ve managed to begin assembling a labor of love project on Thomas Merton. It’s one of those pieces without a deadline. “Just send it in when you get it done.” It’s clear to me that I do not function well without deadlines. Just give me a drop-dead date and I’m all set. Open-ended deadlines are the kiss of death.

Over the summer, I’ll be working on a book project about pain management with the Cleveland Clinic Press. The outline is finished and I’m waiting for final changes from the doctor with whom I’m collaborating.

The manuscript is due at the end of July, so there’s a good chance that for the next two months I’ll be largely out of sight. And then I’ll be on vacation, which is worth dreaming about. The Outer Banks, a beach house, feet in the sand, no books I have to read, no laptop, plenty of fresh seafood, daily cocktails on the deck at 5 and lots of laughs with the fam. Ahhh, I can smell the saltwater already.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

King on reading and writing

You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you. — Stephen King, "On Writing"

Friday, May 13, 2005

She missed a lot

Love is not a zero-sum game. And yet we often act as if we have a finite capacity to love, holding back, controlling, doling it out little by little as if we were paying off a large debt.

Yesterday morning my paternal grandmother died in her sleep. She had been diagnosed with cancer in several places a few months ago (though we learned of it last week) and was just beginning her chemotherapy. I wish I could say that she touched me in some way, but I would be insincere if I did.

You see my grandmother was the master of love as a zero-sum game. She held back, kept us all, including my dad at arm’s length. And now she has passed and from all accounts it was peaceful. I suppose that’s the least we can hope for someone who led such a miserable existence.

When my dad told me the news I didn’t really react one way or another. She was a mystery to me, a stranger. He seemed to understand, saying that she kept us away by her own choice. She doesn’t know my children at all, and she certainly doesn’t know me. I’m not sure what she ever thought of me or of my two brothers and sister. I’m not sure if she bragged of us to her friends at the VFW.

But I do know that she missed an awful lot. And that makes me sad, for her, my grandfather (always such a sweet and kind man) and especially for my dad. For most of his adult life, my father has been trying to please a woman who could not be pleased.

When my dad was 13, he found his younger brother, Dick, dead, facedown in a ditch of water after he had been hit by a car while riding his bike. I don’t pretend to know what agony losing a child brings and, God willing, I never will. But I do know that at that moment, my grandmother lost any joy and verve she ever had in life. In essence she, too, died that day.

From then on, she was bound and determined not to allow anyone to get close to her. Aside from grandfather, she succeeded. I’m sure in some way it was her own form of self-preservation. But what she missed was a lot. She missed my dad, one of the most creative, intelligent, convivial people I know. And loyal to her, despite her coldness toward him. She missed my mom, who has been a dutiful daughter-in-law, taking her lumps and keeping her mouth shut. She was willing to be so much more for her. Earlier this week, my mom — herself a cancer survivor — had offered to take my grandma to the wig shop to help her select a wig.

I wish I could solve the mystery of her. There’s a photograph of my grandmother from her early twenties that always sat in their house. She was a beautiful, fiery redhead. An Appalachian Maureen O’Hara. When my sister and I were admiring it once, my grandfather explained that she was a model then, and I pictured her full of moxie and mischief, smoking her Pall Malls and throwing her head back with uproarious laughter.

From time to time, her fun-loving side would emerge, quite unexpectedly. As her grandchildren, we knew to just go along for the ride and enjoy it while it lasted. She was a Rosie Riveter during World War II, a single mother supporting her two (and later three) boys. And in recent years she would tell us stories (especially after a few drinks) of her early days. The writer in me was so hungry to learn more, to understand that side of my family’s life. But the stories would only go so far and then they would abruptly stop.

There are two days that stand out for me as especially beautiful. And now that she's gone, I choose to remember those. One was my dad’s 40th birthday party. I was 14 and joined both my grandmothers, my mom and some aunts around the kitchen table. Grandma was pretty tipsy (she even bummed a smoke off my aunt) and had us laughing so hard that our sides and face hurt. She was recalling stories about my dad as a little (very mischievous) boy and those stories were filled with love and joy.

Three years ago my dad turned 60. We had somehow orchestrated a surprise dinner and later came back to my house for cake and ice cream and presents so that all the grandkids could also celebrate with grandpa. Dad was flying high and would literally be later because we bought him flying lessons as a gift. Then he opened my grandparent’s card and read it aloud. He was crying (Charlie’s a very emotional guy, something we all absolutely LOVE about him.) and I realized that so was my grandma. They hugged for a very long time and I heard her say she loved him.

In that one moment and with those three little words, she held the power to heal so many years of love withheld.

I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved ‘em all. If I’d a knowed more, I woulda loved more. — Toni Morrison

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Mental health breaks

Last Friday I woke up and decided I needed a mental health day. You'd think that being self-employed I would do so more often. Sadly, that's rarely the case. Though I'm thinking I must change that in the next several months.

After having a delightful coffee break and conversation with fellow scribe, Kristen Hampshire, I decided against rushing back to e-mail, voicemail and deadlines. After picking up a wrap for my cursed iliotibial band (the source of my knee pain) at Second Sole, I decided to grab my mail and head up to Crocker Park.

Perhaps it's my west side bias, but I find as "lifestyle centers" go, Crocker Park is far more conducive to hanging out than Legacy Village. So with nothing except my latest New Yorker, Atlantic and Quill magazines and my review book, I parked myself on a bench and sat soaking up the sun and the words.

It was heavenly, decadent almost. And much needed. The little break was great, but I'm even more excited about a long break in the form of a summer vacation. Last night we booked our beach house for the first week of August in the Outer Banks. I've already decided against bringing the laptop and anything I HAVE to read. What I crave is the ocean and some R & R.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Einstein and dreams

How smart was Albert Einstein? That’s a question David Kestenbaum of NPR’s Morning Edition was asking yesterday. I’ve been fascinated with the whole Einstein Centennial this year. While at a traffic light at Carnegie and E. 55th, I scribbled into my notebook a beautiful image he shared.

When Einstein was 16 years old he wondered what it would be like to ride alongside a ray of light. I'm reminded of an image from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince" of the title character traveling from planet to planet. Anyway, that early image later developed into his Theory of Special Relativity. But it all began with a young boy who wanted to know what light looked like to a moving observer.

Though he often admitted that words failed him (during a Rorschach test instead of describing a bird with words, he flapped his arms while hopping around the room), Einstein found the poetic in his visual imagery. He let his visions and dreams wander far enough to take him — and the world — to places we couldn't possibly have imagined.

2005 is dubbed World Year of Physics and the American Institute of Physics has some terrific information about Einstein’s theories and his impact on science and the world. There are some remarkable parallels between science and creativity that I am only now beginning to understand. It was a relationship Einstein knew existed, as evidenced in his essay ”The World As I See It”:

”The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”

I was never a strong math or science student. Physics was, for me, the most understandable fields of science. Of course it could also have been that Mr. Brown was an exceptional teacher. But I think it was more that my very visual mind could more easily grasp the concepts that I could see occurring before me. Besides there’s a bit of the dreamer in the physicist, something very close to my own sometimes-faraway sensibilities.

One afternoon, about 10 years ago, I flew through a wonderful little novel called, “Einstein’s Dreams,” written by Alan Lightman, a professor of physics and writing at MIT. I’ve been intrigued with Einstein ever since, specifically with his ability to dream of possibilities never imagined. Now to ensure we as adults don't quash that wild abandon and the extraordinary imaginative powers in our children…

Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: "What does his voice sound like? What games does he like best? Does he collect butterflies?" They ask: "How old is he? How many brothers does he have? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?" Only then do they think they know him. If you tell grown-ups, "I saw a beautiful red brick house, with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof…," they won't be able to imagine such a house. You have to tell them, "I saw a house worth a hundred thousand francs." Then they exclaims, "What a pretty house!" — "The Little Prince," Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Writing toward vulnerability

First, let me take a moment to point you to this op-ed in today’s Plain Dealer. It’s written by my good pal and NYC roomie, Jill Miller Zimon. She and I have had many e-mail, lunch and late-night conversations about the great divide that exists between being mothers and having a career. She writes powerfully about motherhood not being a win-lose proposition. I second her notion. Way to go, Jill!

As you may have noticed from recent blog entries (or perhaps not), I’ve been stuck in a creative quagmire. I refuse to call what I have writer’s block. That’s not the correct term, because I’m still producing, just not inspired or pleased with the result or format.

I’m encouraged after reading Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” She puts into words, with searing wit and honesty, exactly what many experienced writers feel. I can’t speak for new writers, but I’m guessing she taps into their psyche as well. With apologies for cannibalizing her material, I’d like to share excerpts from her chapter on writer’s block. You really need to read or re-read the entire book.

There are few experiences as depressing as that anxious barren state known as writer’s block, where you sit staring at your blank page like a cadaver, feeling you mind congeal, feeling your talent run down your leg and into your sock.

Writer’s block is going to happen to you. You will read what little you’ve written lately and see with absolute clarity that it is total dog shit.
This is where I am of late. And it suggests that I need to step away from what I’ve been doing, get some distance, a wider perspective if you will.

I hadn’t consider myself blocked, but then I read these words and realized, Anne Lamott knows exactly what I’m feeling. I would like to know Anne Lamott:

The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty … this emptiness can destroy some writers. Her suggestion is to continue to write a little every day about anything — your childhood, your family, your dog, your blog. But then you need to get outdoors, go see a movie, read for pleasure, take lots of walks and wait for your unconscious to open a door and beckon you inside. She swears it will happen.

It finally did … it was like catching amoebic dysentery. I was just sitting there minding my business, and then the next minute I rushed to my desk with an urgency I had not believed possible.

Writers have to find a way to trust in the process, to trust their instincts. It’s so hard when you’re feeling empty, spent. But if we tap into our memory, into our unconscious, we start to see, feel and hear things that may yet begin to inspire.

Everything you need is in your head and memories, in all that your senses provide, in all that you’ve seen and thought and absorbed. There in your unconscious, where the real creation goes on, is the little kid or the Dr. Seuss creature in the cellar, arranging and stitching things together.

On a notepad sitting next to my stack of books, I began scribbling down phrases and fragments and words that may or may not turn into something. But reading her book jogged my memory loose of its stupor. The list would make little sense to anyone but me (and maybe my sister) — butterscotch pants, grape ice cream, counting change, fat Crayolas, hammock, deep woods off, baby oil, talks over the kitchen sink, being shut out, mean girls.

When I talked to Danny about wanting to pursue essays, he grimaced a little. I know he’s worried about my exposing too much, but I told him these were themes from my childhood. He asked how I would know what to write. I’ll let Anne explain.

If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight to the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Boys, boys, boys

To all my friends and colleagues with boys, I offer up this rip-roaring screed on being the mother of three boys, especially to my fellow mothers of three (or more!) boys — Patty B, Lisa B, Susan, Barb, Terri, Kathy, Mona, Chris, Maggie, Sue and Mary (for having triplet boys!).

Most of us have older boys now, but I think we can certainly relate to this on many levels.

They close in around you and gawk and gasp and gape as you slip off your night drawers. There you are -- naked, nude, undone. And there they are -- staring at your dicklessness. You try to change the scenery by swiftly slipping into your rather stylish and mentally uplifting boy-short undies and matching halter bra, and saying, "Isn't this a pretty color?" But no amount of pastel can distract them from the fact that you are clearly, physically, not one of them.

You are certain the baby is eyeing this new halter bra and thinking, "Why has she kept that one from me?" The other two remain in pure boyhood shock, with their hands down their pants and that ten-thousand-mile-away stare you've seen thousands of times on boys and grown men alike. "Do you have to go to the bathroom?" you ask, and they quickly remove their hands from their pants. Sure, they see you like this nearly every day, but today they ask you, "What is that?"

And to my sister, Jen, who come September will find out what it means to be a boy mom though she’s had plenty of hands-on experience as most-favorite aunt, I leave you with this. When you’re in the midst just remember what dad always says: “This, too, shall pass.” :)

It's a pooping party, and you're the star. You are the star who is needed right now because this is a crucial moment in these boys' daily psycho-emotional lives. After boys poop, they hate to flush it down. They want to study their accomplishment. They need Mom to approve of it too, Mom to admire it, Mom to wave it good-bye, bye-bye boom, as it swirls down the whirlpool pot. And after it is all gone, they are terrified to wash it off their hands. They want to keep it with them all day long -- just like men who will keep the after-sex musk on them all day as a kind of secret they share with their bodies, themselves.

Women's mags = sensory overload

Last week, still high on the inspiration found at the ASJA conference, I decided to spend a few hours at the library becoming familiar with an assortment of women's magazines.

The plug, from the many editors and contributors at the conference, was that there's gold in them thar magazines, if only we had your incredible pitches. I figure, I'm a woman, I'm a writer, I have ideas, I can do this.

I literally jumped back in my chair when I began perusing the feature well of some of these mags. It's an exercise in sensory overload with obnoxiously screaming graphics, scripty fonts and headlines that scream Miracle This and How I Survived That and 5 Ways to Improve This and 15 Ways to Talk to Your Kids About That. (As an aside, magazines always use odd numbers in headlines. Sells better for some reason.)_

Some of the articles scared the shit out of me. But most of them began to blend together in a melange of disease of the week, miracle-worker of the month or how to keep our children from becoming ax-murderers stories.

I took a few notes, had a few private giggles at the expense of others and then packed up to head home. I've mentioned here that I'm hoping to stretch my writing into personal essays. Most of the women's magazines offer a space for personal essays (typically the back page) so that will be my focus for the next several months.

However, what I found somewhat disturbing was the amount of first-person writing in "reported" stories. Many of the magazines read as one giant estrogen-charged essay. I'll admit I've never been a reader of those magazines. I much prefer the cleaner aesethic and content of Health magazine or Real Simple or Country Living.

So I was thinking about how the information is packaged in these publications. As a former magazine editor, I tend to do those things. Mostly I fantasize about what I would do with some of their budgets. I wonder what consultant or market resesarcher told them that women prefer to be blasted with content in an ADHD way? Maybe I'm the oddball here, but I don't need anymore visual stimuli or chaos in my life. When I sit down with a pleasure magazine, I want the experience to be relaxing and inspiring. I want to look at my life and see possibilities. Quite frankly, that's what made Martha Stewart Living so appealing.

More than anything else, I was disappointed that so much of the content among the big three — Family Circle, Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal — was the same, over and over again. Don't the editors want something different? Don't they crave something different? Don't readers want something different?

I saw the bylines of many ASJA panelists, some of whom did the big push for six-figure freelance careers. Writing for me has never been about making gobs of money, so I skipped those sessions. It has always been about telling stories, primarily about people or issues that move me. I'm sure in some of their eyes, I will always be a failure as a writer, a less-than writer.

But when I do finally break into the national pubs, I want it to be work I'm proud of, not work capitulated to fit the sensation of the month. So I think I'll stick with pitching short essay pieces to start. Now I know it's easy to sit back and criticize when I've not worked on staff at that level or written at that level. But I'm hoping that breaking in on the back end will give me a better feel for working with editors and, hopefully, give me an entree to pitch quality stories for the feature well.

Creative Ink has been my laboratory for exploring different issues, different writing styles and for honing my voice. After more than a year, it's now time to muster the courage to take my personalized worldview wider. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Remember what mama said…

… choose your friends wisely and don’t forget where you come from.

And that’s the advice offered in this op-ed in today’s The State in Columbia, S.C. Written by Ernest L. Wiggins, a mass comm professor at USC, he claims that the problem with some of today’s high-profile journalists (and probably those not so visible) and their tendency to lapse ethically is that they are too removed from the people for whom they write — the readers.

It’s not that the Alboms, Braggs, Barnicles and Blairs of the news world are preternaturally unethical or lazy. I believe it’s more that they are removed — and not just by physical distance — from the people they are paid to serve. They might be distanced by worldview or lifestyle, background or disposition — as removed, I might add, as many of our elected leaders are from their constituents. And that’s not where the similarity ends.

Wiggins cites all manner of problems stemming from that distance:
• loss of interest, connection and respect for readers
• desire to craft stories for their own amusement or to impress equally removed colleagues, or (worst of all) to curry favor with the newsmakers they cover
• tendency to succumb to the smarmier practices of those they cover, relying on innuendo, rumor and sound bites, rather than solid reporting
• tendency to be seduced by wealth or power

Let's hope this is the rare exception and not the rule. But perhaps it also means taking a gut-check to ask ourselves who—and what—we are writing for.

A pause in life's marathon

Last Friday I made my last payment to day care — ever. I'm still in a bit of shock, though I'm sure I'll easily find another use for that monthly expenditure. Perhaps on the boys' never-ending need for shoes. The weight of this didn't hit me until my cell rang and it was my sister calling to tell me the results of her ultrasound. (It's a boy!) She was clearly very excited about the news and then I blurted out, "I just made my last day care payment." Stopped her for a sec.

As it did me. After 12-1/2 years of paying for someone to care for my children while I worked, I'm done. In August, Michael will be in first grade and Ryan and Patrick will be in middle school. Everyone is coming home on the bus — and to mom.

We've been fortunate to have good care for our children. And my work has been flexible enough to allow us to go for stretches without paying for help. Of course, that decision at times took its toll on all of us. But somehow we managed.

Got me to thinking about all those things that were such a part of our lives for so long — strollers, cribs, changing tables, car seats, training wheels, potty seats, diaper bags. There's not a trace of that left in our house, except that I use the changing table to hold laundry supplies in the basement.

Those were the days when parenting was physical. It was easier to drop your baby off to be cared for while you work then to try to negotiate the twilight zone of after school and adolesence. Now, of course, I spend my days trying to mentally stay one step ahead of the boys. For the most part, they are great kids and I enjoy being around them. I'm glad I'm here after school since, as all the parenting magazines and talk shows declare, that's the danger hour. But sometimes, they still play me like a fiddle.

For example, every year the kindergarten students at Michael's after-school care put on a circus for the other children and parents. It's a very big deal. Of course I was, as always, in a hurry leaving the house (it started at 4 and it was five till) and I tried to shoo the boys into the car to come with me.

They balked long enough for me to say, "Fine, you can stay home, but don't cause trouble." On the short drive to Glenview I began to stew. They took advantage of my being in a hurry to get their way. I didn't much appreciate that. I'd been outfoxed, outmaneuvered by my own flesh and blood.

Mikey performed wonderfully as a circus clown, serving as the foil in the perennial favorite knock-knock joke about bananas. I had barely pulled into the driveway with him when he slid the van door open to go sprinting to play with all the big boys, of which there were about a dozen playing basketball in the drive.

I shot Ryan the "get in the house" look and informed him that under no circumstances was the entire neighborhood to be at our house while I'm gone. And then I told him he and Patrick took advantage of my being in a hurry and I didn't appreciate being played. And if it happened again, I was going to find some after-school babysitting help.

I always throw that out there. Between you and me, it'll never happen. But it surely gives them a moment's pause. And that's my point. Always keep 'em guessing.

Monday, May 02, 2005

We need a handyman

I pulled my van into the garage on Saturday after the weekly trip to Target and found Danny sitting in a lawn chair looking beat.

"Hey, what's the matter?" I asked. He was in his lawn-mowing clothes (known in these parts as his Driveway Clothes) so I knew he was doing yardwork and thinking about all the stuff that needs to be done around the house.

"I'm overwhelmed," he said, asking if I happened to notice how nice the lawn looks. I didn't, and he was crushed, but we marched right back out to walk the grounds, a habitual ritual he and I have.

We're having our house painted this month after much back and forth, should we hire it out or do it ourselves. (Danny, who has his own lingo for many things calls that process of indecision, yo-yo-ing.) Fortunately, we decided that our time was worth the price of having it done by professionals in the space of two or three days. I'm excited about it, and I know he is, too. But getting the house painted points out all the other imperfections that need tending.

The list includes:
• new outdoor lighting to replace icky tarnished brass fixtures filled with corpus delecti of last year's midges (I'm going with black wrought iron to complement the taupe, cream and black colors we'll be painting the house.)
• mailbox to replace the icky one that previous owners painted teal (over brass) (again, black wrough iron)
• replace bent downspout that's been that way for the eight years we've been here
• new interior garage door since Riley can push it open with one gentle swipe of her paw
• new interior back door since it leaks all manner of heating and air conditioning to great outdoors
• replace wood shutters on downstairs windows that lose slats whenever the wind blows
• cut down pine and evergreen that have threatened to overtake my front garden
• paint the picket fence around front garden (though Danny, ever the wheeler and dealer, tells me he talked the painter into doing the fence for a case of beer)
• replace screens damaged by kids, dog and a failed attempt at hanging Christmas decorations

Phew! No wonder he was beat. Somewhere in there we need to cart kids to soccer and baseball and, God forbid, enjoy a little weekend R&R.

We're at the do-over stage of home ownership. We've been in our house for eight years and all the paint jobs and carpeting and landscaping is looking a little tired (kinda like its owners). Fortunately, he and I seem to take turns being overwhelmed by it all. The outside is fun for me, it's the inside that I find overwhelming. But that's probably a function of the outside being Danny's primary domain and the inside being mine.

The inside list is as follows:
• paint the boys' room and replace bent blinds with unbendable wooden blinds so house doesn't resemble a tenement from the street
• replace carpet up the steps and throughout the entire upstairs
• that means we also need to repaint the downstairs hallway, steps and upstairs hallway (ugh!)
• replace the toilet in the boys' bathroom, which has been nonfunctioning since Christmas
• resolve the leaky pipe problem that has left paint peeling on the ceiling of my kitchen (which was extensively remodeled in 2002) and now threatens a portion of the family room

A few weeks ago, little Mikey was sitting at the breakfast bar eating his Wheaties and eyeballing the peeling ceiling when he said, "Mom, we need Mr. Carney. He can fix anything. He even cleaned up Daniel's throw up."

Mr. Carney is the custodian at Normandy Elementary. And Mikey's right. We need a handyman.