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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Creative Ink is on holiday

We're taking the next week off to enjoy the holidays with the family. Presents are bought and wrapped, baking is done and everyone is (for the moment anyway) healthy.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy New Year. We'll pick up where we left off in 2006.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The search for a Nano

As I wrapped and reviewed my gift selections over the past couple of nights Danny said, “I’ve never seen anyone get such a kick out of giving gifts.”

It’s true, particularly when I know I’ve found that perfect something. Now that my boys are getting older, they're interested in quality over quantity. I'm cool with that.

Patrick, who could very well model for Abercrombie, has wanted some clothes from this very hip (and expensive) store. Last summer when he wanted a button-down shirt for $39.50 all I could think was that he would have spaghetti stains down the front. But for Christmas I thought again. The clothes are classic, not trendy, and if at 11 he wants to look nice, I believe I'm okay with that.

Mikey is easy because his wish list still contains a smattering of toys (Army and various football-related items). Overall I’ve had pretty good luck this year—with one exception. Ryan wants an iPod Nano. It’s really all he wants (good thing because it’s $199 plus accessories).

He didn’t get a birthday present in November, partly because we threw him an all-day birthday party and his 12 friends consumed vast quantities of food, literally eating up my birthday budget. But I promised I’d make good on a gift.

After some discussion (“Why can’t we just get him the iPod Shuffle? If it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for him,” Danny said.) Danny and I agreed to get it for him.

As I explained to Danny, kids today listen to a vast collection of music. The Shuffle only holds about 120 songs (Danny’s complete repertoire). For once I don't want to get the lesser version. He's been patient and hasn't asked for anything else. It took a while to get my cash together, but this week I was finally able to purchase the iPod.

Ryan doubts he will get it. (“It’s okay if you can't get it, Mom,” he said last night.) But I am in earnest. I want to see his face on Christmas morning when he opens the thing—to show that I can still surprise him. Unfortunately, iPods seem to be a hot item this year. I’ve driven to every electronics store on the West Side (even the dreaded Great Northern) only to hear the words, “Sold out. We won’t get anymore until January.”

Sold out! What’s a last-minute shopper supposed to do with this news? It’s not as if iPods are new this year. Why the run on them?

I could drive over to the Apple Store at Legacy, but there's no time for an East Side trip. Today is their last day of school before vacation. Instead I jumped online. It’s not as if there’s a difference in price. I placed my order and am holding my breath, awaiting that very important e-mail saying the item was shipped. I’m paying $16 in shipping to get that thing here by Christmas, but the look on Ryan’s face will be well worth the extra cost.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Friendship and Mrs. J's

We all know a Mrs. Johnson, that sweet neighborhood mother who was kind enough to invite you to stay for dinner when you had been playing at her house all afternoon. Thing is, Mrs. J wasn’t exactly a disciple of Julia Child.

She meant well, you see. And she was so kind about the invite. “Jack, why don’t you stay for dinner? It’s no trouble at all.” How could you say no? I mean you’d suffer through a leather pork chop or canned soup to save your friendship, right? Never mind that at that moment your mom’s pork roast was cooking to melt-in-your-mouth perfection.

My brother-in-law, Jack, indulged Mrs. J. so often that we've dubbed that less-than-stellar evening meal: a Mrs. J’s. You may call them by some other name, but the meaning is the same.

Mrs. J’s is a euphemism for the following:

sandwich night
macaroni and cheese (out of a box)
spaghetti WITHOUT meat
overcooked anything
breakfast foods for dinner (pancakes, cereal, eggs)
grilled cheese and tomato soup
fried bologna
any combination of ground meat with ketchup
Hamburger Helper and any boxed derivative
Any combination of ground meat and a cheese-like substance the color of which is not found in the natural world

We’re known to have a Mrs. J’s every so often at the Hoke house. They tend to occur more frequently prior to payday. But that's not the only condition. Take last night, for instance. It was a typically crazy Monday night. Ryan had practice until 5 and the boys had to be at religion class at 6:30. Danny was working a little late and I had been wrapping gifts all day.

It was the perfect storm of conditions for a Mrs. J’s. Dinner was pancakes, but not the “just add water” variety. I make the Bisquick kind, complete with egg and milk. My stacks are smothered with butter and a healthy coating of Mrs. Buttersworth (Mrs. Butters as Mikey says).

I know I’m not alone in resorting to breakfast for dinner. A few weeks ago I ran into my pal, Lisa B. at Heinen’s. It was 5-ish and she was totally busted with not one but two boxes of Aunt Jemima’s under her arm. “Dan’s working late,” she offered helplessly. I held up my hand, "No need to explain. I'm with ya, sister."

The trick to successful use of Mrs. J's is for it not to become a chronic condition. Now I’m not a habitual Mrs. J, only the occasional. Last weekend I made vegetable lasagna and then coq au vin, both simply exquisite. But sometimes a fried egg on wheat bread sounds just right.

From my friend, Dave Potokar
Check this out from my friend, Dave’s blog. Anyone with boys will appreciate.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Didion's book is a must-read for couples

This weekend I finished Joan Didion’s book, “The Year of Magical Thinking." The book details the author's grief following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the critical illness of their only daughter, Quintana.

It all feels very unfinished, in part because as I knew from news reports, her daughter had died earlier this fall from acute pancreatitis. I want to call her up and find out how she’s doing. But this is Joan Didion, an icon of contemporary writers. One doesn’t just call up Joan Didion to see how’s she doing. And yet, there’s an overwhelming urge to do so.

Her book leaves you feeling vulnerable and raw, emotions she seems to ooze these days and maybe that explains the urge to reach out to her. Her book is hardly laced with self-pity, even as I’m sure she worried it would be perceived as such. No, this book is very real and filled with all the confusion, insanity and small gestures of grief that make the process of mourning seem very …well, real.

Danny and I sometimes chide each other: “You’ll miss me when I’m gone.” It’s all very playful in tone and meant to show the deep affection we have for each other’s idiosyncrasies, but there’s also a touch of vulnerability present. I couldn’t help thinking of that remark while reading the book.

Didion writes about the friend of a friend who remarried after being widowed. When it didn’t work out, the man simply said, “She didn’t know all the songs.” She could just as easily have written: “She/He didn’t know all the stories,” because that’s how I read that comment.

When Danny says I’ll miss him when he’s gone, he’s so dead on that I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. Of course I’ll miss his inability to sing the correct lyrics to any song, the way he can fall asleep sitting in a chair carrying on a conversation or reading the paper, the sights and sounds of his morning routine (the clearing of this throat, the ritual three sneezes in the shower, the precise spot he sits on the bed to pull his socks on or how he forgets to shut his dresser drawers).

I’ll miss his courageous cooking without the scripted recipes that I follow. I’ll miss the three empty Miller Lite bottles that rest on the counter after he’s created a feast. (He doesn’t like to drink with his meals, makes him too full.) And I’ll always laugh at the face he makes when I try to get him to sip some wine to complement a meal: “It’s too acidic, it’s gonna give me ‘burn.’(short for heartburn)”

It drives me crazy, but Danny loves to talk on the phone. He and his brother, Jack, talk about five times a day. I rarely answer the home phone because it's always for him. Makes me crazy that he leaves his cell phone at home on the weekends. It rings constantly with friends and family who mistakenly believe he carries it with him at all times. Danny has a most uproarious, contagious laugh and I can tell who he is on the phone with based on the laughter.

Then there are the many stories. We were kids when we married and we’ve basically grown up together. The first night we brought Ryan home from the hospital was a fiasco. My parents were living in Columbus and Danny’s mom was in Phoenix with his sister who was about to have her second baby. At 3 a.m., Ryan was up and screaming. We were misfits trying to console him. As I changed his diaper, Ryan peed on himself and screamed even louder.

Danny looked at me and said, “Call your mom.”

“She’s two hours away! What is she going to do?” I yelled back. “We just have to figure this out on our own.”

And we did. We’ve always figured things out on our own, partly out of stupid pride and partly out of necessity. It’s not been perfect by a long shot, but it’s us and it’s our story. And I know that as soon as I get into the car to go somewhere, the first thing I do is dial Danny’s cell.

When something good or bad happens with work or with the kids, he’s the first person I want to tell. And that’s why this paragraph in Didion’s book was like a left-hook to the jaw:

“John and I were married for forty years. During all but the first five months of our marriage, when John was still working at Time, we both worked at home…. I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death.”


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

On café life

"Café life, without question, is one of the more enjoyable benefits of civilization. You can sit at your table for half an hour or more and watch the world go by, all for the price of a cup of coffee--or tea, if that's your preference ... but the café isn't really about the coffee or tea at all. It's about the sitting there, hearing snatches of conversation, having your own thoughts, being aware of the other customers around you, watching the passersby, eavesdropping on the waiter's repartee."

-- Roger Housden, "Seven Sins for a Life Worth Living"

Monday, December 12, 2005

Wendy's world

If there's ever any doubt what makes my world go 'round, #17 in the Rockets jersey is one of four reasons...

Special thanks to Diane Rehor for sending this picture of my oldest son, Ryan, and his buddies with their Christmas card. I'm such a "boy mom."

Thursday, December 08, 2005

They say...

I've always wondered who "they" was whenever someone says or writes, "they say..."

A friend of mine says that whenever her mom says, "They say..." she is referring to Matt and Katie (as in Lauer and Couric).

Any other insights?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Can newsroom sabbatical drive content improvement?

I consider myself a good observer. While I enjoy most of the articles I write, there are times when I am completely bewildered by the process of getting them published. Sometimes you have to fight to keep your angle or you have to fight to not have to resort to the fallback sources. Or the "tone" isn't right for the publication. And it struck me recently that one big problem is that mainstream media today is trying too hard to write for everyone.

Maybe more people will read if MSM takes a few lessons from personal and narrative writing, namely—KEEP IT SMALL. I’ve been learning how to write personal essays. It’s more or less trial-and-error, but all the successful writers will tell you to focus on small details and find what’s universal in those small details. That's what moves and speaks to readers.

It works. Think about a memory from grade school and be specific. What can you remember about the smell of the cafeteria? Or can you describe the feeling of swinging on the swings? How about the first time you sled down a big hill? Is there a particular Christmas morning that stands out in your memory? Describe the tree, the wrappings, the smell in the house, your PJs. That’s what I mean about small. Very focused events. Because chances are when you write about finding the doll stroller you coveted nestled on the green shag carpet before the chubby tinsel-laden tree, there are enough cues in that description to send readers off into their own memory. Maybe they’re reminded of green shag, or a treasured gift or the look of tinsel on a tree. Try it in your own writing or on your blog and see what happens.

I think the same can be said for many journalism stories. There’s a tendency to talk too much and to want to prove how much we know about a subject (I am guilty of this at times). Part of the reporting process, in addition to asking questions, is the ability to melt away in the background and to truly observe without interference.

It takes a little more time, particularly for investigative stories. But it can be done in smaller stories as well. Next time you’re out reporting, take notes of things you see and smell and hear and that strike you as odd or ironic or comforting or sweet or uncomfortable. It means trying just a little harder than the formula currently demands.

I think it's worth at least a 10 percent effort because frankly, some of the formulas no longer work and can be a detriment to readership.

Take, for example, the trend story. Time was when the journalistic buzzwords were “look for the trends.” But with so many people publishing on the Internet, trend stories don’t work. There’s always a backlash of people proclaiming, “That’s not my experience or reality.” Why here on Creative Ink, I’ve picked apart trend stories about mommies and female leaders.

Those stories, just like those that seek to play up generational labels, make sweeping generalizations that tend to turn off readers. I challenge you to compare a 1945 Baby Boomer with a 1965 Baby Boomer. That’s a 20-year span! Are we sure they all fit so neatly under the Boomer aegis? Methinks not.

I’m not alone in my disdain for the formula. Tim Porter of the blog First Draft spent many years as an editor at the San Francisco Examiner.

His site contains what he calls “The Quality Manifesto.” Here’s an excerpt:

Newspapers are not the victims of homicide but of suicide. They are not dying at the hands of demographic changes or emergent technologies. They are killing themselves with clichéd writing, formulaic stories, hackneyed photographs and adherence to a self-destructive, journalistic form that emphasizes breadth of news coverage over depth.

Newspapers don’t have a societal problem; they have a quality problem.

In an age of increasing public sophistication – and diversification – about media consumption, newspapers, for the most part, continue to produce a bland mixture of agenda and event coverage, he-said-she-said government news and an established array of feature stories focused on predictable characters who no longer elicit sympathy nor surprise from readers.

Whether editors plaster this daily spackle on paper or spread it on the Internet, the public is not buying. It is no longer good enough.

That’s some pretty strong language, but it seems as if nothing less than strong language is needed to shake the industry out of its stupor.

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard just hosted its annual Narrative Journalism conference. This may be one I have to attend next year. There was a lot of hand wringing about the future of newspapers from the likes of Tom Wolfe, the father of narrative journalism and others in the industry. Former LA Times editor John Carroll talked about the need for narrative journalism in this wrap-up by Bill Kirtz on Poynter.

He termed narrative's attraction "eternal," from the days when primitive people sat around campfires and told stories. The genre is "never needed more than today, when we're bombarded with facts with no context," he said. "We need to gratify the reader's emotions and intelligence (to help them) make sense of the world."

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Tom French, the Pulitzer-winning St. Petersburg Times serial narrative specialist, offered many tips for immersion reporting, including these:

•When deciding whom to follow, "look for texture, vulnerability, contradiction, a clear line of action that will engage the reader and reveal character and theme."

Zoom in. Find a simple frame. Follow one love struck teen, not the whole seventh grade.

Get the details: the dog's name, the song title, the brand of the beer.

Keep asking: for their diary, for the contents of their purse. "Never assume your subject will say no. Time and again, you'll find that people are more generous and brave than you would imagine."

(Bold is mine.)

We’re in need of drastic measures in order to make ourselves relevant. Here’s a radical thought: Perhaps every staffer should be forced out on his or her own for a while to see how hard it is to set yourselves apart from the pack. Or even to experience the thrill and challenge of managing multiple stories for multiple markets. I'm not calling for a mass exodus, but I think some MSM journalists are too comfortable and haven't had that hunger that drives independent journalists to push themselves and the envelope.

Maybe we trade places for a while and send in the independents to find out if it's possible to sustain the level of creativity for which we strive under the pressure of daily deadlines.

Perhaps outside the confines, safety and security of a newsroom, journalists could discover or redisover how stimulating it is to set aside the stringent rules of inverted pyramid and begin to think like we talk. To simply tell a story as we hear it and see it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

My Judith Miller story online

The December Quill issue is online. Just got my hard copy in the mail today. Here are links to my stories:

Here is what Judith Miller had to say.

Here is what I had to say about Judith Miller and, more specifically, The New York Times. Special nod to Jill for helping me finesse my lede and get that thought right. And thanks for being on the scene while all this was percolating.

Here’s a profile of new SPJ President Dave Carlson. Some of you may have seen his writing in E-Media Tidbits, published by Poynter Online.

And finally, here, is the latest Freelance column, announcing plans for 2006.

It’s been a busy month.

Monday, December 05, 2005

15 Things About Books

Jill tagged me and Lori is already on it, so here’s my list.

15. Reading is my drug. It takes me to places outside of myself and introduces me to people I want to meet. I’ve been mesmerized for as long as I can remember. My mother was always frustrated by my singular focus on reading. My husband’s suffering is much the same and he is forever saying, “You’ve got your nose buried in a book again.” Most days I fret that my life will slip away before I can read all that interests me.

14. When my sister and I were visiting a Georgetown bookstore in 1998, she found a shirt with the illustration of a woman with very big hair surrounded by books. It said “Book Woman.” Jen was laughing hysterically and said, “Oh my God, this is you, Wen!” It showed up as a Christmas gift for me later that year. I wear it proudly as a nightshirt.

13. I thought I knew good fiction until I was introduced to the grand dame, Edith Wharton. My dad brought me the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of her after visiting her home at The Mount I couldn’t put the book down and instantly fell in love with her as a woman and a writer. She wrote about complicated relationship in which there are no happy endings. And her writing touched my soul. Someone (and you know who you are) still has one of my Edith books in their possession.

12. In 1997, I spent six hours at Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter. The entire time was spent talking about literature with the owner Joe DeSalvo and one of his best patrons, a surgeon from Baton Rouge. It was such a memorable day that when my husband visited a few months later, Joe remembered me. He sent Danny home with some fabulous reads – great southern fiction, which is a great favorite of mine. As Frances Mayes said, the south embraces and celebrates its eccentrics.

11. I decorate my house with books. And I have a rule that I don’t decorate with them unless I’ve first read them. The only exception is that I’ve not read all of “Herodotus.” Every time I watch Ralph Feinnes in “The English Patient,” I read another section of “Herodotus.” (As an aside, that is one HOT movie. Another favorite, based on a book is Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Age of Innocence." Phew!)

10. I own one first edition: Edith Wharton’s “The Children,” published in 1928.

9. “Anna Karenina,” “Portrait of a Lady” and “A Farewell to Arms,” made me weep for several days after I finished reading them.

8. “The Sun Also Rises” is one of my most favorite books of all time. Others include, “The House of Mirth,” “Possession,” “Little Women,” “Jane Eyre,” “The Red Tent,” “Cold Mountain,” “Memoirs of Geisha,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “The Alchemist,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “A Lost Lady.”

7. The first Faulkner book I read was “The Sound and Fury.” I don’t get the entire story, but I liked it and would love to discuss with someone who better understands the story.

6. The summer before my senior year in college I was working as a receptionist at a construction company and I read oodles of books to kill time. My favorite from that time and one I’ve read three times since is “Lady of Hay,” by Barbara Erskine. It’s about a skeptical British magazine journalist who gets hypnotized through past-life regression and learns she was a 13th-century noblewoman living in Wales. Not sure what that says about me.

5. Best novel to screenplay adaptation: “Pride and Prejudice” The BBC version broadcast on A&E in the mid-’90s was a nearly word-for-word script. And yes, I had my book in hand one of the several times I’ve watched that mini-series to compare. I’m sorry, but Jennifer Ehle is the quintessential Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth the sexiest of all Mr. Darcys. I’m reluctant to see the new film version for just that reason. Though I’ll make a concession to see what happens cinematically to “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

4. I’m known for doing some pretty great voices when I read to the kids (and in their classes). “James and Giant Peach” is one of my best. Before the movies came out I did some wicked-good Harry Potter voices.

3. Just finished reading “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which was an amazing book. It’s 600+ pages, but a great read. Also top-notch this year was “The Kite Runner.”

2. I read an average of two books per week – one is usually a review book, the other for pleasure. Usually my pleasure reading is reserved for just before bed.

1. Currently on my “to read” stack are:

“The Year of Magical Thinking,” by Joan Didion
“The Fourth Hand,” by John Irving
“Ernest Hemingway: The Short Stories”
“Dr. Zhivago,” by Boris Pasternak
“Engaging with Merton: A Year in Tom’s Hermitage,” by M. Basil Pennington
“Opus Dei,” by John Allen (review book)


“How’s business?” my favorite bank teller asked me today.

“Business is great, now if only I can get paid for my work,” I sighed.

Because of the erratic nature of how and when I get paid, I’ve been near breakdown for the past few months from the sheer stress of working nonstop while trying to make enough money to pay my current and past bills and, God forbid, attempt to get ahead financially. The words of a dear friend who used to encourage me to work smarter not harder are ringing in my head and I want to ask: “How?” Can't seem to see the forest for the trees.

I’m sickened when I think of all the late charges and service fees I’m paying because I can’t ever seem to get ahead or get checks in the mail in time to avoid late charges. And my credit? I can’t even go there without surpressing the urge to vomit.

My stress, which manifests itself in a sharp pain in my left shoulder blade, reached a pinnacle Saturday afternoon as I sat sobbing, physically and emotionally drained from working nonstop and finding another weekend without a much-needed and anticipated check in the mail. Can there be anything worse than putting in major time and waiting another 30-45 days to get paid?

Danny was heartsick about my distress and doing a fair job of hiding his panic (because we need my income). He let me sob on and throw my hands up on the air, wondering aloud whether being on my own is worth the struggle, and how I’m so damned tired and just once I’d like to get a good night’s sleep, how Christmas is coming and I’d love to get started Christmas shopping if only I had some money and how Danny’s birthday is today and how I’d love nothing more than to take him to a nice dinner and how I feel as if I’m spread so thin with my work that the quality of the product is suffering and yet I’m just trying to get ahead financially and so I take on whatever comes my way no matter how unrealistic and ….

Well, anyway, that’s the thread running on continuous mental loop. You get the picture. Wish I could change the channel.

I have no answers because to not be on my own means I have to find a job. And that opens up so many other questions and unknowns. What would that job look like? Is there anything decent available? Would we consider relocating? What do I even want to do? I’m a pretty autonomous person and I’m not very good at tolerating office or newsroom politics. I like variety in my work and that’s something I can be fairly assured of as an independent. I'm a big-picture thinker and prefer not to be another member of the rank and file. So where does that leave me? Am I being too cynical in not thinking about possibilities? I do miss being around people. (Admittedly some of my despair is because I’ve been with myself too much, but I’ve not had the time to do the social stuff because deadlines are invading like the Allied Forces on D-Day -- there’s no break in the action.)

But working outside of my home opens up a whole host of other questions:

What do we do with the kids after school? With two kids in middle school, it’s a blessing to be home after school. (After all, educators and researchers keep telling parents that after-school hours are when middle school mischief occurs.) Everyone is doing well academically, but that’s because I’m here to answer homework questions and listen to Michael read and teach Patrick skills to help him with matching tests and to make sure Ryan tries to complete the math extra credit.

I worked outside the home with kids in school and I never got home before 6. At the time Danny worked five minutes from our house and would get home earlier to make dinner. But we don’t have that now.

What about summers and school vacations?

My car is not running well and I’ll either need to sink some serious cash into repairs or get a new one. Where are gas prices headed? Why are hybrid cars so much more expensive? I’d buy one in a heartbeat if the price point were $10,000 lower.

And then there’s this committee I head for SPJ, seeking to make things easier for other freelancers. Sometimes I feel like such a hypocrite, unable to implement my own suggestions to others. I keep preaching balance and yet I feel so unbalanced, teetering on the brink and desperately hoping there’s a safety net (preferably cash) below.

Alas, as I read this over, I’m whining. I hate to sound like a whiner. Time to suck it up. I’m sure a few paychecks will cure me of my malaise.