Writing

Return of the Grammar Police

DownloadCivilization is nearing an end - not because of Covid, but because people are now using the word "language" as a verb, i.e. "I need to language this more clearly." No, no, no! A thousand times no!

And my son, who works in education for heaven's sake,  just texted that he was in a (remote) meeting where "dialogue" was used the same way. "We will need to dialogue this." WHAT?! You may engage in a dialogue and you may speak in a language, but please, no dialoging or languaging.

I also became completely distracted during a recent Zoom meeting - held by a highly-rated college, I might add - which used the following "marketing speak."

-"We need to do some big picture framing.

-"We need to leverage the power of alumni." Download-1

-"This project is going to need some new guard rails."

-"The presentation is a good capture of where we are."

-"We need to have stakeholder input and content coalition building."

And the WORST offender: "What are our learnings from this?" I mean, it's not enough to turn nouns into verbs. Now we're turning verbs into nouns!

Yes, the Language Curmudgeon (Anxiety Girl's alter ego) knows there are horrible things going on in this world, which is why standards must be maintained.

Oh, and I recently talked to an editor at a well-known website, and he told me that that I could potentially write for "six vertical publications." I was too embarrassed to ask what a vertical publication was. Later, I googled it. Vertical publications have content focused on a particular industry, business or profession. We used to call them "trade magazines."

Back in the day when people spoke English.


Every Day Losses

2019-05-ce-social-isolation_tcm7-255721_w1024_n"At least he lived a long life."

"At least you weren't diagnosed with a fatal disease."

"At least you have a home."

"At least you don't have to line up at the food pantry."

Brene Brown, a professor of social work who has spent years studying empathy, once said, "Rarely, if ever, does an empathetic statement begin with 'at least.'"

I've been "at least"-ing myself for a month. And my privilege is no small thing. At least I live in an area where I can take walks outside. At least I have a house. At least I can afford food. 

These are not the kind of things I would ever say to someone else, but I say them to myself constantly. And let me add, as someone who teaches in a prison, at least I'm free to protect myself from cornavirus as best I can. At least I'm free, period.

But it's important, too, to acknowledge our losses, big and small. Big - deaths of people we love from Covid-19. Inability to hold a funeral, or be with people you love who are also mourning, and to wrap your arms around them in comfort.

But Lord, the other less dramatic losses add up. Canceled weddings. Canceled trips. Canceled...every day life. I miss my (grown) children most of all - I was trying to conjure up their smell and the feel of their arms around me, and it's growing dim. I miss my friends, my work, the gym, hiking, traveling, going to the movies, restaurants, getting hair cuts, blah blah blah. 

Many of the ways that I cope with sadness and stress are also off limits  now. 

At least it's not worse. And that's true.

But it's really, really hard. 


Jane Austen to the Rescue

Download-2I just came across something I wrote after the 2016 presidential election.  It began like this:

"I’ve been riding shot gun with Jane Eyre. Everywhere I drive, she comes with me. Her voice, Gentle Reader, is a far better companion than the news of the day."

Evidently that was as far as I got. But today I realized that  among all my coping measures for these terrible times, Jane Austen has been my best comfort and my muse. Download-3Though I have read all her books multiple times, listening to them as audios as I drive, make the bed, cook, or whatever, is another experience entirely. Just last week, I finished listening to "Sense and Sensibility." If Eleanor Dashwood - smart, composed, restrained - was running for president, she'd have my vote. (But at this point even the loathsome Willoughby would do.)

This afternoon I played hooky and went with my friend and fellow Austen devotee Joanne to go see the new "Emma." Delicious movie - funny, beautiful to look at, and oh, that Austen insight.

Images-3I'd say this was an old (okay older) lady thing, but my daughter and daughter-in-law are both huge Austen fans. 

Why do we need Austen now? With all the raging and ranting and sensory overload of today's world,  Austen is  the calm voice of reason.  People rise above their baser instincts. They learn lessons. They control themselves. They have sense. And sensibility.

Okay, maybe I'm hiding in the mid-19th century. But it's a lovely place to be.


Memoir from Behind Bars

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It's really hard to describe what it's like to teach inside a prison.  Physically, it's a dreary place - huge, aging and forbidding. Last night, it was cold and raining, and my friend and co-teacher Linda and I got stuck at the very first security post for more than 30 minutes, because the officer on duty didn't have the correct clearance list.

But when we finally made it to the classroom - cement walls, windowless, everything a drab beige, with two scratched-up tables and scattered chairs - it was briefly a place of joy.

At last we had brought the books! Linda and I had taught a memoir class to about 18 men over the course of last year. Each of them selected four of their favorite pieces, and we put it together in an anthology. The project took ages - we needed releases from the men, from the non-profit we work for, from the prison, and then from Albany. Every single word had to be approved. Download

The book was self-published, but it looks professional. The guys were blown away. Seeing their names in print was overwhelming for some. This book cannot be sold and I'm not permitted to reveal any specifics in social media. But for our small band of men last night - it was as if they had all won Pulitzer Prizes.  We spent most of the evening having the men read their selections out loud. The whole class applauded after each reading.

Everyone was passing around their copies for others to sign. This morning I looked at my own copy. Here are a few things that are inscribed: "Please know that the work you've been doing is changing lives. Thank you for bringing your light to us!" "Thank you so much, Lil Sis. You will forever be in my heart and prayers." "You challenged me, guided me and inspired me. I will never forget that. Always in my heart. Thanks Mom #2."

Yeah, I'm very proud of the work and very proud of this book. And of course, I've gotten just as much out of teaching the class as the men did taking it.

Linda and I are moving to a different prison next week. But if all goes well, we'll be back to XXX  facility with a new class in the late spring. As we said goodbye to everyone, I kept repeating, "Keep writing. Keep Writing. Keep Writing." Finally, we headed down the first long hallway towards the exit, and I heard someone call, "Get home safe!"


Outsider Art

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Yesterday I visited Creedmoor, a state psychiatric hospital in Queens, N.Y. My friend Paul volunteers at "The Living Museum" there, which provides both inpatients and outpatients studio space to create paintings, prints, and sculpture.

This was a difficult trip for me. My late little brother had been an inpatient at several psychiatric hospitals. The last time I saw him alive he was on a hospital psych ward, covered with bruises after yet another involuntary commitment.

My grandmother, who I never met, died in a psych hospital. It was early days, before meds, before much understanding at all of mental illness. When the institution she was in closed down, I was able to get her medical records. Her chart notes were gothic in their horror, and I never told my father what I'd discovered about his mother's time locked up there. Download

But I wanted to support my friend Paul, so yesterday I went down to Queens. Much of the art was good. And I so admired the program, because it's not traditional art therapy, but just space for a creative outlet.

Of course, a lot of what Paul and his colleagues do at Creedmoor reminded me of the work that I do teaching memoir in prison. Soon after arriving, I was corrected after using the word "patient." "We refer to them as 'clients,'" Paul said gently. Of course. In my prison program, we are supposed to say "residents" instead of "inmates."

The creative work that come out of these massive institutions are referred to as "outsider art." I'm told that this term just means the person did not have formal training at art school. But the irony is that many of these artists are very much inside a system that can be pretty dehumanizing.

I'm glad I went. But let's not sugar coat this. Some of the work was very disturbing, reflecting the minds of the creators. So is some of my "residents" writing.

I appreciate my freedom to walk out those doors. Every. Single. Time.

 


From the Curmudgeon Desk....

Video conference I had a conference call scheduled today - with 8 of us dialing in. About 15 minutes before the call, I was struck by a horrible thought. Was this a video chat? I checked. It was.

There was just enough time to throw on a modicum of makeup  (I wasn't going for a glamour look; simply trying for a didn't-just-rise-from-the-crypt effect). Plus I changed from a wrinkled, comfy plaid shirt to a more presentable top. The worn out, velour/sweat pants and slippers stayed on, because no one would see my bottom half.

Video chats. Ugh. Not only do you have to think about how you look, but also you can't be checking your email, answering your texts, or organizing any papers during the call, because the camera is always on you. When the call went on for more than an hour, I certainly couldn't get up and stretch  because I didn't want the damn velour pants on display. 

Not all progress is good - just sayin'....

 

 


Dreaming of My College Comeback

Download-1Like many, many people, I have the classic it's-the-day-of-the-final-exam-and-I've-never-been-to-class anxiety dream. There are variations - can't find the classroom, don't know my schedule, did none of the reading, etc. 

But lately I have a new version. In this dream, I'm back on campus for another four years. But at my current age. I'm thrilled - I can't believe I was accepted and I am really excited to go through college again. Sometimes in the dream, I debate joining the school newspaper, and wonder if it's fair, given my 30+ year career in journalism.

In real life, i.e. my waking hours, I volunteer to write our class alumni notes. Recently I asked my classmates if they have this dream. A surprising amount do. And it's a happy dream - everyone is delighted to be back and marvels at the beauty of campus.

That's not to say that the anxiety dream isn't still prevalent. I heard from doctors who dream they forgot to take biology, a former basketball star who dreams he missed every practice, and one guy who reports dreams of wandering aimlessly around New England, trying to find the college.

I'm wondering if at this stage of life, many of us want a do-over. Not of our whole lives, but of some of those earlier times.

How about we have two years of college when we are 18 and the final two when we are 60? Don't you think we'd get a lot more out of it? 


Bibliotherapy

DownloadI came across the term "bibliotherapy" for the first time this week. Not surprisingly, it refers to the use of literature for mental healing. Therapy through reading. 

The concept is not new - Psychology Today reports that Egyptian King Rames II had a special chamber for books, with the words "House of Healing for the Soul" over the door. Evidently Sigmund Freud also used literature in psychoanalysis, and other doctors have "prescribed" books for their patients. Apparently now it's a thing, and some psychologists train in it.

To me, bibliotherapy seems like another one of those intuitive and obvious things that has now been turned into an industry. It reminds me of Forest Bathing, an entire science devoted to the shocking notion that spending time outside is good for you. Download-1

To be clear, bibliotherapy does not refer to self-help books. We're talking about novels which portray the human condition.

As soon as I learned to read, I stayed up late at night, under the covers with a flashlight, spending hours on adventures with Doctor Doolittle, devouring stories about families and orphans  - The Little Princess was big for me - and on and on. As my reading abilities and sophistication increased, so did the depth of my book choices. Books have always served as both an escape and a way of understanding the world. 

It makes sense that being a good reader helps develop empathy in a person, but apparently it can help with depression, anxiety and other human conditions. Who knew? Most readers. 

 


A Seamlessly Integrated Post

ImagesWhen I was writing for the New York Times, one of my editors would occasionally scribble "MEGO" next to a paragraph. MEGO was not a complement. It was short  for "My Eyes Glaze Over." The passage was too long, or too technical, or overly complicated or just plain boring.

MEGO came to mind this week as I was reviewing some documents for a long-term group project. God help me, I've been assigned to the "Marketing Committee."  I already want to shoot myself. Why can't people in this field use language normally?

Phrases that make me insane: -"Seamlessly integrated," "The view from 30,000 feet," "Baking assumptions into the numbers," "Slicing the data," "Value add," "Optimizing," "Influencer," "Brand Awareness," "Synergy"  and - worst of all - "Crystallizing our vision." 

MEGO.


Advice, please.....

DownloadThis week I interviewed a very charming, very smart and pretty famous man for a magazine profile I am writing. From my research, I also knew he could be ruthless in his work and inspired fear in those who opposed him.

Back in the day, this sort of thing made me nervous, but one advantage of being older and experienced is that much of that anxiety has dissipated. My subject was brilliant and accomplished, but in the end, a fellow human being.

Before we settled down, his flack (publicity person) had been chatting about a safari that Famous Man had taken, his wife's many accomplishments,  and also pointing out various awards and photos in his office.  We all sat, and I started my two recordings (I may not be anxious during interviews, but I'm compulsive about having technological backups) and the flack set up hers.

Suddenly and before I asked my first question, Famous Man said, "I want to show you something." He took out his iPad and showed me a photo of himself standing behind an absolutely huge African tortoise. 

"Isn't that great?" he asked. 

I responded with my usual articulateness: "Wow. That's big."

Here's what I need advice about: I keep wondering why he showed me that photo. He didn't show me any others. Although the safari had come up earlier, so had many other things. Don't you think that tortoise is a metaphor - and a message? It seemed really clear when he handed over his iPad, but now I'm struggling. A metaphor of what? Was he letting me know I will never know the true him, because he is so well protected? He'll only show me a very tiny bit of who he actually is? He has armor on his back? He's a survivor?

Or maybe I'm just pushing it. But please feel free to weigh in if you can think of any useful interpretations. Thanks!


Is "Closure" real?

Download-1Last week, we (my co-teacher and I) wrapped up our memoir writing class at the-place-that-can't-be-named. 

It has been an emotionally tough month. We were very worried about one class member's mental health.  Another class member had graphically shared so much about his past that we were worried about our mental health. The writing prompts stimulated memories and feelings that were sometimes overwhelming for students and teachers alike.

The program that sponsors our class asked us to provide "closure" at the final class. We all spent time discussing what worked and didn't work in the course. I confessed that I sometimes felt like a surgeon who opened up their chests and then left them, hearts exposed, on the operating table.

"Yeah, it sometimes feels like that," one class member told me, while others nodded in agreement.

But in the end,  it was a lovely last class. The guys surprised us by writing pieces about what they had gotten out of the course. And we surprised them by writing about what we had gotten got out of the course.  This experience was definitely a two-way street. 

Closure? I'm not so sure we achieved that. But I'm also not convinced it's that important. Or even possible.

 


Say what? Part 2 - the legal version.

Download-2Awhile back, I wrote a post about using an online transcription service to convert my mp3 interview recordings into text.  That was for this story about opioids, which involved many interviews with police. 

The technology is not yet perfected, and my transcript was full amusing goofs, like translating "some narcotics" into "summer cottage."

Today, I present the legal version. I'm profiling a famous lawyer, and went to hear him speak last week. He referenced some major cases and talked about his practice. Here are a few of my favorite transcription gaffs:

"Bush v Gore": Grocery Store

"It's now constitutionally required to enable anybody to get married, regardless of sex." : "It's now constitutionally required to enable anybody to get at the better car for us, sex."

"There was too much ferment out there." : There was too much for men out there.

"As it might have been." : A vitamin

"Posterity" : "Pasta Veggie."

Despite its limitations, I still am grateful that I no longer have to transcribe a recording word for word. Your honor, ladies and gentleman of the jury, I rest my case.

 

 


Language Abuse!


Download-4Last night, my new supervisor came to observe the writing class I co-teach at The-Place-That-Can't-Be-Named. We discussed putting together a chapbook (kind of an enhanced pamphlet) of the men's work. 

"Of course you two will curate the collection," he told us.

NO! NO! NO! We will EDIT this collection. Please can we retire the word "curate" or at least keep it for those who arrange art shows at the Met?  The photo illustrating this piece is labeled as a "curated salad." As you can see, you can curate your closet. Honest to God, I went grocery shopping at Shoprite today, and the sign over the deli department read "Curated Sandwiches."  Pah-leez. Download-5

And don't get me going on "artisanal." Artisanal cheese, artisanal coffee, artisanal beer, artisanal perfume. I guess my tooth implant is "artisanal" because it was specially crafted for my mouth. UGH.

Meanwhile, the men in class wrote some particularly heartbreaking and beautiful memoir. On the way home from teaching, a news alert popped up on my phone: Paul Manafort's less than 4-year-prison sentence. The racial injustice in this country is sickening.


Culture Clash

Download-3Media job postings arrive in my mailbox with some regularity. These two came back to back:

Email Marketing Assistant for Get The Guy - a website for women Images-1written by a man on...well, how to get the guy. You know - "Secrets to Meeting, Attracting and Keeping Your Mister Right" and how to "Attract Any Man."

This was listed just above (yes above) the listing for Executive Editor of Bitch Media, whose mission is "to provide and encourage an engaged feminist response to media and popular culture." Articles included "Why is Hollywood Still Shortchanging Women Directors? and "Feminista Jones Wants Black Women to Reclaim their space."

Ah, America. Where even job postings are polarized.


Always Professional...


AmbulanceToday I went on a "ride-along" with a paramedic as part of the story I'm writing on opioids. I can't say I was looking forward to it - I'm anxious in cars, faint in the face of blood and guts and on top of that, am nursing a bad head cold.

Well, we didn't get any overdoses, though I did observe the aftermath of a nasty car accident (two victims, both lucid, put in neck braces, strapped onto gurneys and taken to the hospital), one fainting woman (reported that she had headache, smoked marijuana in the morning and promplty began puking in the ambulance) and a case of respiratory distress at a shopping center. Gettyimages-860180296-612x612

Mostly, the paramedic and I just hung out -monitoring what was coming over the radio and talking about life. But I must say these were not my fineness few hours of reporting.

I think I was suffering from a NyQuil hangover from the night before. (And I took 1/4th of the suggested dose!)  How appropriate for a story on drug abuse. I dropped my gloves about four times, left my digital recorder at the headquarters, misplaced my phone once, and littered the front of the "bus" (as they call the EMS vehicles) with damp little crumpled up tissues. 

I apologized to the paramedic, who replied, "Are you kidding? Do you know what I see every day?"

Then she offered to show me the photo of a guy she rescued who had been hit by a train. I declined.


Say what?!

ImagesI use a digital tape recorder when I'm doing interviews. Then, I send the mp3 recording to an online service which transcribes it. In minutes.

This, in my opinion, is up there with the discovery of penicillin and the first moon landing. For most of my career, I spent countless hours transcribing tapes, hitting stop and rewind and stop and rewind as I tried to capture the exact quotes. (Yes, I take notes, but not shorthand, and you need to get it exactly right.)

That said, voice recognition is not yet a perfect science. Earlier this week, I had a long interview with several members of the Yonkers police force. I'm working on an article on opioid addiction. Now I am reviewing the transcript. For your amusement (Lord knows it cracked me up) here are a few of the boo-boos: 

"Some narcotics..."  = "Summer cottage"

"A paramedic..."   = "Apparent nada" 

"Narcan" = "Archive"

"They need to get their fix somewhere" = "they need to get that fixed summer"

"Cartel" ="car town."

"Westchester" = "what chefs are"

And MY FAVORITE:

"I could attest to that, having run Narcotics" [dept.] = I could test that bed and bring narcotics."

 


Reorganizing Under The Influence

Images-1A good chunk of my publishing career, God help me, was pre-Internet. Yes, the New York Times has digital archives of the hundreds of articles I've written for the paper, dating back to the 1980s, but if you looked at my home office, you'd never know it. 

Back in the olden days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, when I published an article in the NYT, my husband would painstakingly cut and paste the paper on to one or two sheets and then make two dozen copies. I sent some to out-of-town family and friends (I'm talking envelopes and stamps -no email back then) and then saved the other copies in a file cabinet. 

Okay, I just checked and I published 443 articles in the paper before 2003. A search for articles after 2002 comes up with 844 results. Now picture all those articles, multiply by 20 copies or so, and picture the state of my office. Download-1

Slowly, I've been sorting through them - keeping one original and recycling the rest. I'm struck by a couple of things:

  1. My God, I was prolific! Some days I had two and even three articles in a Sunday section. I wrote much more for Metro than I remembered. I really worked hard and rarely took a week off.
  2. I don't remember writing most of these articles.
  3. Many of them are painfully dated, particularly the health stories (the new concept of managed care!) and the many pieces about the development of the Internet - how it was influencing medical care, college searches, etc.                

As to filing under the influence, I have had some sort of flu this week (yes, I had the flu shot) and  keeping things in chronological order between sneezing, coughing and low-grade fever is a challenge. Yes, 1994 came before 1995. I'm almost sure of it.

Anyway, time marches on, and I'm doing all this cleaning and sorting to make room for my office to double as an extra guest room. I expect grown children and their loved ones - those very kids who I used to bark at with, "Don't bother me now! I'm on a deadline."  I need to be done by Christmas. Onward.

 


Our Separate Selves

ImagesMost of us wear many hats, seamlessly transitioning from professional to mother to volunteer to cook to spouse to that woman at the gym that used to be in much better shape. (That's was me this morning.)

But there are days when these worlds seems to collide instead of blend. 

I cannot be specific on social media, but here's a major hint about my new gig: the image above is one of many things I pass by on my way into teaching my memoir class. The classroom is a world unto itself. For me, it's been like discovering an entirely new universe. Not just the millions of Americans who are locked up at any given day. I had a vague sense of that. But the humanity inside those walls has been a revelation. It shouldn't have been. But it was. 

I don't romanticize this population. Most have done horrible things. And I received a lot of training about boundaries, which I scrupulously respect. But once you've spent time there, you feel differently about your own life. The food on your table. Your movement. Your home. Download

I was just texting with my daughter, who this year will be preparing her first Thanksgiving dinner.  I'm sad she won't be home, but also excited to be walking her through the process. What a gift this is. What a gift our freedom is. 

I'm struggling to shake off the hours I spend inside those walls each week. But maybe I shouldn't try. Maybe they can help put my life into sharper focus.

 


Ghost Writing

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I'm reading "Sing Unburied Sing" by Jesmyn Ward and two of her main characters are ghosts. One appears regularly but remains silent, disapproval registering on his face. The other is less physically solid, but he speaks - in fact he narrates a few chapters.

In the last year, I've lost my beloved father, my little brother and one of my best friends. I have no visions, unless you count dreams. But it amazes me how often the three of them pop up in my writing now. They show up in pieces that seem utterly unrelated to any of them.

One writing prompt - kind of a complicated assignment involving old photograph negatives - brought up a scene of trying on maternity bathing suits while my friend Missy watched. She  laughed and laughed as I struggled to shove my ungainly body into the spandex. The dressing room was hot and crowded and I felt faint.

Missy gave me most of her maternity clothes. Today I'm having lunch with her daughter, who looks so much like her that I catch myself staring at the curve of her cheek.

When Dad and my brother Bill come in dreams, they are always healthy and well. And every time, while I'm dreaming, I think, "How did Dad get so much better? I can't believe how well he's doing." I'm confused and delighted with his come back.

 

 


Block by Block

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This 3 inch x 3 inch book contains 786 writing prompts. With a nod to Julie Powell, who plowed her way through Julia Child's "Joy of Cooking" (and walked off with a book contract and a movie deal),  I am thinking of working my way through "The Writer's Block" book, one prompt a day. But with no illusions of doing anything with it other than exercising my writing muscles.

I began on page one yesterday, with the prompt, "Describe Your First Brush With Danger." This led to a short piece on having scarlet fever as a baby. Of course this is a story I was told, not one I remember. The version I've heard is that no one noticed I was sick, until the pediatrician came by to attend to my older brother, who had a cold. The doctor brushed by me (I liked the double meaning of "brush" with danger and the doctor "brushing" by me) stopped, and say said, "This baby is hot. She has a fever."

Anyway, the story was always told as evidence of my sunny disposition - I was pretty ill, but too sweet-natured to bother anyone. (Those of you who know me now - please hold back your snorts.)

One more thing - though I am committed to this one-prompt-a-day exercise, I won't write about it here every day. I promise. And thank God, because I just turned the page, and the next prompt is the word "Diet." 

 


Ch ch ch ch Changes!

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It's been so long since I've posted on this blog, that I couldn't remember where it was hosted, let alone the password. Found it!

Next, I googled "Writers Block" to see if the name was taken as a website. (It is - owned by a company that produces wooden blocks that say...guess what? Yup. Writer's Block.) It's a cliche, I know, but Holy Cow, am I struggling. 

My last bunch of posts were all about promoting my book. It's been 5 years. Okay six. Since then, full disclosure, I have started and abandoned 3 book projects - a novel, a non-fiction book and a memoir. I'm wondering if public confession will help motivate me. Right now, it just feels shameful.

To any new readers, I am a writer. Really. I wrote for The New York Times for more than 20 years. I published a book with a division of Penguin. I had six days of fame, if you count fame as appearing on NPR's "All Things Considered" and "Fox & Friends" (God help me on that that last one.) 

And now...now my lovely daughter has told me to stop wallowing (my words) and get writing again (hers). I'm going to start every day with a writing prompt. And I am jump starting my blog again. And I am NOT naming it "Writer's Block." Encouragement and reality checks are welcome.