Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Depression, Depression!

So, when I'm a bit depressed (like now), I tend to mutter the "Tradition" song from Fiddler on the Roof under my breath, replacing the refrain of "Tradition!" with "Depression!" As in, "Depression! Depression! [insert 15 na-nas] accompanied by mournful, slightly violent violin.

Try it. Especially if the drudgery of family life is part of your problem.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Maybe I was wrong, Jen

What am I going to do with you, Jen? I just don't know what to think. Maybe you're not the agent of heartbreak, or maybe your spin doctors are so fantastic you and Justin might as well be in a blender. A luv blender.  In which case, as I imagine it, your blonde locks topple out of the top of the blender as you go round round baby right round. Which is funny because didn't you promise Brad in your vows that you'd always make him banana milkshakes?

Don't ask me why I'm so obsessed with your love life, but let it be known that I've also been known to wonder what Brad and Angie actually talk about and what she's thrown at him, because you know she's thrown things at him, while I'm sure the only thing you ever threw at him were your black lace thong while he was doing an Adonis recline on your Dux bed with 600 kabillion thread count sheets.

BTW, nice touch on the black and white photos. Classy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Glass houses, Aniston, glass houses

So, word is that Jennifer Aniston has taken her wrecking balls (eh hem) to the noble house of Bivens-Theroux (no, no reason to know it, but now you will). This delights me. Not because I've ever been solidly allied with either Team A or Team J, but because I think it heralds some badly needed growth and perspective on her part (at least on her public part). Dishing out heartbreak is part of the great equation -- a bit of time on the giving end rather than the receiving end can do wonders for the complexity and overall empathic capacity of a person.

Not that I've ever met any of the individuals involved (or watched many of their movies, for that matter), and not that I'm about to say anything earthshaking here, but I think if I really had to choose teams, I would have been on Team J -- she might well be a nutter (or not), but I suspect Aniston is sweet, super funny, and, in the end, because she's probably always sweet and funny, a bit boring. (I also faintly wonder about her intelligence. Of all things to shill, she chooses BOTTLED WATER? Called "Smart Water", no less?

Hon, I'm sure I'm not the first one to break it to you, but when you're up against a woman who rescues children from a life of flies in their eyes, doing your best to maximize further contributions to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn't really furthering your cause as a) smart; or b) anything but tasty suite of terrific boobs, gorgeous hair, and really lovey eyes. (BTW, have you ever noticed how Brad goes for not just the super famous ones, but also the super famous ones with the truly spectacular racks? Gwyneth...Jen...Angie...If he'd been willing to stoop lower (or older) to the likes of Teri Hatcher or Christina Applegate or Liz Hurley, imagine how different our world would be. (A guy friend had to point it out to me years ago that Applegate made her career on her knockers. And I won't say anything about her breast cancer because that would be construed as truly mean, and I like her. I mean, I think I would if I knew her.)

But back to the matter at hand: Aniston, homewrecker. I like to imagine the conversation she and Theroux had as they decided to "turn the corner," as it were.

Theroux: C'mon, baby, it's no big thang.
Aniston: But it is! Think of my brand! I'm sweet and clear as water!
Theroux: But everyone knows you need to shake it up a bit, sugar mouse. The world is bored by you.
Aniston:  Oh, you're right. Maybe I should give Heidi some tips. Remember when I burned all of the lingerie Brad ever gave me? That was good one.
Theroux: Or the time you fooled everyone into thinking you were getting over it by decorating your beach house with a million Buddhas, like you were Jen the Zen?
Aniston: Wait, all this time, Zen has been Buddhist? I thought it was, like, Hindu or something. That's what Liz Hurley told me.
Theroux: Just cuddle up here, honey, everything will be all right.
Aniston: Too bad I can't go on Oprah anymore.
Theroux: Yeah. I'm great at couch-jumping.
Aniston: Aw, I love you, you're so edgy!

Meanwhile, Heidi Bivens is speed-dialing Isabella Boyston.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Notes on journalism for a young girl

"So you want to be a journalist?"
I'm honest with the kids from my alma mater who contact me, mistakenly thinking I actually go to work somewhere everyday as journalist: I tell them that the alumni database isn't up to date (my own fault), I haven't worked steadily since I was laid off over two years ago, and that it is a tough field. I am circumspect.

But last week a note from a nice young woman arrived in my email box, asking all the usual questions, "What's your career path been? Should I go to journalism school?", and the circumspection shattered. I told her what I really think, what my life is really like, and how my friends who still cling to journalism as their bread and butter suffer for their art.

Below isn't exactly what I said to this young woman -- this version is far more spiked with vitriol and personal details -- but it's close.  

Sure, I'd be happy to tell you about my path (such as it's been). It might even be therapeutic.

I was an English major in college but drifted for a long time before I decided to go to grad school in journalism. Went to Berkeley's j-school, won awards there for my magazine work, then worked as a web producer in public broadcasting for several different shows, projects, etc. because god knows most of us mortals can't make a living writing magazine pieces. (Case in point: I worked for several years on one piece (albeit on and off, but still), and it was hugely successful when it was published and spawned a host of documentaries, including one by The National Geographic.  I was paid $500 for it, which barely covered my out-of-pocket costs for reporting it.)

In retrospect, in 2005 when I graduated, the writing was on the wall that journalism was a dying field, but for me between the market and just plain bad luck, it's been an extra rough run. Stupidly (in one of those moments that now causes me to lie awake at night), I passed up a great job opportunity when I was still in grad school because, I said, I really needed to finish my degree. (Little did I know that I would never have a better offer and that the degree means next to nothing.)

Still, I managed to keep it together with a string of good jobs until I was laid off  in 2009, when I had a four-month-old baby (n.b. that I was one of 30 employees laid off at my company then, 27 of whom were women). If we're talking salary, the "height of my career" was a year or so after grad school, when I made $80K, but that was for a start-up that rested on a terrific idea that never saw the light of day. Now, especially since I've been out of work for two years, I'm not even competitive for jobs that pay $40-50 K and expect 60 hour work weeks. I make ends meet by taking little jobs as they come: writing scripts for corporate videos, producing on-off projects, doing research, feeding my son a lot of rice and beans. Whenever I sent out a pitch, unless I have a particularly strong and personal relationship with an editor, I hear nothing back. Even when I follow up, and follow up, and follow up.
Once in awhile people I know get a gig that pays relatively well, say $70-80K, doing business reporting for, say, Bloomberg, but that's rare. And those jobs aren't jobs where you'll ever make significantly more – you’ll be lucky if you get cost-of-living increases and never get laid off. A friend of mine from grad school is a kick-ass producer for a media outlet I won’t name. The week her work won a prestigious national journalism award, she had $100 in her bank account. To this day, she struggles to pay her rent. Another friend is a stringer for a major national newspaper that I also won’t name; he’s a phenomenally talented writer and reporter, and he told me that he makes more money per minute driving car down the road and getting mileage reimbursement than he does on the few hundred dollars he gets per story. (Not only that, but his editors have been known to praise his pitches and then assign them to staff reporters –which is the journalistic equivalent of a swift kick in the nuts.) Another friend won a Pulitzer while in journalism school for an investigative story, and he got so disgusted with the field that he quit to go to nursing school. My husband also went to Berkeley's J-school, and he chucked journalism to become a private investigator (which believe me, is not as fun as it sounds). 

The good news is that I'm writing a book, as are several of my other friends from grad school, and we agree that at this point it feels easier to sell a book than it is to sell an article. Magazine and newspaper editors are often rude, dismissive, and unimaginative, whereas if you can find a good agent to represent you, as I have, it can be the start of a great partnership that in the end will be less stressful and even if the book doesn't do that well, more lucrative and less humiliating than begging editors at magazines and newspapers to pay attention to you. But then, when I was your age, I didn't yet have a book in me.

If I had it to do differently, I would have spent a few years in journalism in my early twenties (which would have been in the pre-dawn of the Internet) and then, if I still liked the field and felt like I could contribute to it in a meaningful way, I would have applied to j-school. Then, I would have time to either become very well-established in the field or chuck it and change courses. As it was, in journalism school I didn't focus enough on my technical skills -- I should have gotten completely fluent in FinalCut, ProTools, etc. I'm sure you've heard this before, but you have to be a one man band now: you have to write, shoot, edit (not just print, but video and audio), produce, Tweet, and wipe their editors' asses, which in my frank opinion is contortionism. Rare is the person who can do all of that and really be on their game.

So, my advice should you choose to go into this field is as follows:

- If you apply to journalism school make sure you get very clear figures on how many of the program's recent graduates are employed in journalism, and where. J-schools fudge those figures all the time, and you need to be very persistent to get an accurate picture of what is really happening with their alums. Even though the field has collapsed, Berkeley's program still accepts classes of 60 students, which I think is unconscionable. Why accept so many? Because the school still has to keep tenured faculty employed. How many of those students will ever get good jobs isn’t in the calculus.

- Forget wordsmithing and focus on technical skills. You might have those already since you're of a different generation than me, but still, be comfortable with everything and a wiz at least one thing. Also, if need be you can use those as a back up in another field (producing corporate videos, for example).

-Don't be romantic and think you're going to publish long magazine articles, or be a foreign correspondent, or win a Pulitzer. The chances of that are very, very slim, even if you're the most wonderful writer or sensitive journalist in the world, and most jobs won't give you the leeway to follow your passion.

-If you go to grad school in journalism, be realistic about your debt load. I’m $27K in student loans for Berkeley, and with every small monthly payment I make against that, I think of it as my “family tax” – the best outcome thus far of that debt is that I got to start the family I always wanted because I met my husband through grad school.

- If you're not comfortable with it already, become very adept and excited about rabid self-promotion. That's a massive part of the game now, and to be honest, it's the part I'm worst at (next to politely begging editors to get their heads out of their asses).

- If you move forward with this, in order to be successful, you're going to have to being unswervingly dedicated to your field, your conviction that you were meant to be a journalist and the notion that you are, without a doubt, hot shit.

I'm not sure I would have cornered myself by writing to make my living. When I was twenty-something, I had no idea how limiting that could be in the long run. Now, it doesn’t mean diddly squat if I’m a talented writer (which I’ve been told);  that I’m a fantastic, if exacting editor (which I’ve also been told); or even if I’m a nice person (which someone might have told me once or twice). 

In short: If you’re okay with being broke at 40, utterly dependent on your spouse’s income, unable to afford a down payment on a house or send your child to a good school, and a slave to anti-depressants to get through your days and Ambien to get through your nights because you can’t believe what a shithole your career is, by all means, go for it.



*I removed any identifying details and really let it fly in this public version. Rest assured that even I would never be this crass to some sweet kid.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A few thoughts on trying to understand WWII

Reading In the Garden of Beasts, a book about the Dodds, an American family in Berlin during the 1930s, is like watching a cruise ship capsize when the ship’s passengers have no idea that they’re sinking, much less how far below the bottom is (or so I imagine it). It’s also a haunting parade of “what if?” moments – one of the most maddening of which is, of course, what if Americans (and specifically the American government) had actually listened to Ambassador William Dodd's warnings, rather than ridiculing and dismissing him as “Ambassador Dudd.”

Beasts is of course riveting (read the NYTimes review of it here), but this post isn’t so much about  the book itself as my own musings on how anyone who wasn’t part of the “greatest generation” can wrap their minds around World War II and the Holocaust.  

My uncle’s niece

I’m not sure there was ever a time I didn’t know about Hitler and World War II. My father had a vast collection of World War II histories, to the point where he had to hide the volumes when a house guest who spotted a swastika-spined book (probably the classic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, recognized as one of the most important books of history of all time), assumed he was a Nazi. (Right. My dad the skinhead…).

I think in another life my dad could have been a historian, but his fascination with WWII, while he’s never expressly said it, must originate with his beloved brother’s death in the Battle for Brest after D-Day. I think that for most of his life, my dad has been trying to make sense of his brother’s death through reading, as if understanding the historical backdrop – why and how Hitler came to power and stayed there – will explain the most unnatural loss of his life.

The Battle for Brest, where my uncle was killed in combat.
My father was 14 in 1944, and his brother was 19, maybe 20, when he was drafted while at Cornell. I have never had the heart to ask my father to recount how his family found out that their oldest son was dead, but I find one family photo from the summer of ’44 particularly poignant: my mother and father (childhood friends), stand poolside; my mother smiles shyly at the camera, and her new hips peek from her wool bathing suit; my father, with his corrugated farm boy abs, beams. Judging by the undiluted joy on my father’s face, that photo must have been snapped early that summer, weeks or even days before his brother was killed in action.

But back to Hitler in my household. Like my father, my older brother was obsessed with WWII, and in the same way that I adopted his revulsion to baked beans and zucchini, I adopted the fascination in my own way, mainly by poring over books that had huge gory illustrations of battles. (I also remember asking my brother, when I was about six, which war was his “favorite”: World War I, World War II, or World War III? Needless to say, I got an earful about how World War III hadn’t even happened yet, dummy…). 

An education

But while I knew roughly about Hitler and World War II, it wasn’t until I was about eight that my brother enlightened me about the Holocaust with a paperback history that featured photographs of stacked cords of bodies, skeletal living humans on bunkers, sunken eyes and tattered prison garb, ovens. Then I remember my parents preparing us for some family friends who were going to visit: Don’t ask about the numbers on his arm (which meant, of course, that I spent the duration of the visit staring at his arm). In our household, “childlike fascination” wasn’t so much about bugs or trains or volcanoes, but rather how the horrors of war, and those of European arena of WWII in particular, happened.

Now, I’ve often wondered Auschwitz and Dachau were things I really needed to know about at eight years old, but I think it was okay: it accustomed me to the notion that history as simultaneously vital and scary; it forced me to wonder at an early age about whether or not I thought “evil” existed, and if it did, what form it took; and it made me at least somewhat conscious of how power in the hands of one person – just one!– could unleash completely disproportionate horror. 

Those of us who have never experienced war are prisoners of abstraction – we can never fully “get it.” And while “greatest generation” talk puts my feathers in faint disarray, I do fuss that as time passes, the capacity to even remotely “get it” recedes, hazier and hazier. Massive tragedy is confined to black and white text, black and white photographs. I hope when I explain to my son the back story to the image of his grandparents by the pool in 1944 he can absorb the magnitude of what he can never fully understand. That he will at least know what he will (one hopes) never know.

A few years ago, I was helping a high school senior with a college admissions essay. Imagine my consternation when I read, “Hitler was a selfish man who didn’t take advice from the people around him. He would only do things he felt was right regardless of what others said to him. His poor decision-making led Germany to lose the war and ultimately his own death. Hitler’s faults in life helped me to better understand how to handle things in my own life.”
Needless to say, I never heard back from this particular fellow after I returned to him his draft, complete with my marginal rants, but his version of Hitler stuck with me. How on earth could anyone wind up with that as their “takeaway” about Hitler and World War II? Did his parents have that light an attitude about it? His teachers? Was this sloppy and frankly offensive interpretation of World War II and the Third Reich typical of today’s teenager?

As a teenager, I remember reading the Keats line, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' -- that is all ye know on eart, and all ye need to know," immediately thinking of the Holocaust, and then deciding Keats was full of shit. As for the existence of "evil", I'm agnostic, but I try to not use the term casually.

It’s not like I have anything particularly new or insightful to share in this post – this bit of turf has been ploughed endlessly (and should be). But I did need to get my thoughts on it out, if just for a moment. Even if it's in black and white.