Thursday, March 31, 2005

On Pain

Terri Schiavo died this morning. But what I wanted to write about is Schiavo's problems with bulimia, which I have not really seen expounded upon by anyone. Did find this AP piece that states, "It is a cruel twist lost on no one close to the case: A woman who is said to have struggled with an eating disorder is now in the middle of a court battle over whether her feeding tube should be removed so that she can starve to death."

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

On Pain and Death

A friend turned me on to the blog No Milk Please. Hilarious. I wish I could write as wittily as the author.

So coming upon the following quote makes me feel that I can actually improve as a writer, despite all the edits on the latest draft of an article:

There have now been many studies of elite performers -- concert violinists, chess grand masters, professional ice-skaters, mathematicians, and so forth -- and the biggest difference researchers find between them and lesser performers is the amount of deliberate practice they've accumulated. Indeed, the most important talent may be the talent for practice itself. K. Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist and an expert on performance, notes that the most important role that innate factors play may be in a person's willingness to engage in sustained training. He has found, for example, that top performers dislike practicing just as much as others do. (That's why, for example, athletes and musicians usually quit practicing when they retire.) But, more than others, they have the will to keep at it anyway.
--Atul Gawande, "The Learning Curve," The New Yorker, Jan. 28, 2002
In addition to writing for the New Yorker, Gawande has a book out called Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science. I haven't read it yet, but from what I've read in the New Yorker, Gawande is an excellent writer. He really makes the field of medicine accessible to lay readers.

[Later in the day]

Was listening to the Brian Lehrer Show today and heard the tail end of a discussion on "whether doctors work for profit or for the benefit of their patients." Apparently an article by Gawande in this week's New Yorker prompted the discussion. So that might be worth checking out.

And then on the Leonard Lopate Show, Garret Keizer spoke about issues surrounding the Terri Schiavo case. He made really good points, which I'll try to post here later. But Keizer's article, "Life Everlasting," published in the Feb. 2005 issue of Harper's magazine, can be read here. In the article, he makes such points as the following:

  • "But the alarms raised in America’s ongoing right-to-die debate have always been characterized by a curious selectivity. You will notice, for example, how the fear of playing God operates exclusively on one side of the medical playground. Thus to help a patient end his or her life 'prematurely' is playing God, while extending it in ways and under conditions that no God lacking horns and a cloven hoof could ever have intended is the mandate of 'our Judeo-Christian heritage' and the Hippocratic oath."
  • "The right talks about protecting life and tradition, but on some level ... it is mostly interested in protecting pain. For two reasons. The first is theological: the belief that pain holds the meaning of life. Supposedly, and demonstrably, this is a Christian idea. ... The second reason, which can always be counted on to exploit the first, is political: the belief that pain is fundamental to justice"
  • "What I find especially interesting is the way in which the cold-blooded calculation that launches an invasion in which thousands of children suffer and die is imaginatively transferred to decisions seldom undertaken without struggle and seldom concluded without remorse. The woman who deliberates, procrastinates, and prays late into the night over discontinuing her comatose grandmother’s life support is reconceived as an inheritance-mongering opportunist, rubbing her fly-like hands together in the expectation of getting granny’s insurance policy five minutes and a potential lawsuit sooner."

    The article is long, but I would suggest at least listening to Keizer's interview on the Leonard Lopate Show here.

    As for Terri Schiavo case, I find it difficult to make a judgment. I sympathize with her parents, but I also sympathize with her husband. And as Keizer wrote, I believe some people demonize Schiavo's husband, trying to cast the situation as simply a case of devoted parents vs. disloyal husband.

    [Even later in the day]

    More food for thought: an article on Slate titled "Deathbed Conversion: The Lesson of Tom DeLay's Mortal Hypocrisy," about how DeLay (and his family) chose to let his father die after he suffered brain damage and went into a coma.

  • Monday, March 28, 2005

    Women in Media Pt. 2

    I'm writing a short article on Robert Boynton, the director of the graduate magazine journalism program at my school and author of The New New Journalism: Conversations with America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft. I've read some of the book, and it's very handy for someone who's still trying to feel her way around journalism. Instead of discussing journalism's literary qualities, Boynton asks questions about the nuts-and-bolts of journalism: How do these journalists get their ideas? Do they tape record interviews? Where do they conduct interviews? When do they do their research? What are their writing routines? etc.

    The book is reviewed in the Columbia Journalism Review. At the end of her article, reviewer Julia M. Klein asks, "Which brings us to one final, important matter: Why is it that just three of the nineteen writers in this book -- [Adrian Nicole] LeBlanc, Susan Orlean, and Jane Kramer -- are women? ... Is the culprit rank sexism? Male editors hiring their male buddies? Or else the magazine’s preference for subjects such as war and politics that draw more male writers? Do women writers, facing rejection, discourage more easily? (I’ve heard that thesis proposed.) Or, as devoted mothers and daughters and wives, are they simply unavailable to devote the months and years of zealous, almost superhuman effort required by immersion journalism? There is surely no single, and no easy, answer. But it would have been nice if Boynton, in this otherwise probing book, had thought to raise the question." You can read the entire article here.

    I'd forgotten to mention something that some of my female classmates said about LeBlanc, whom I wrote about in an earlier post after she came to speak to my class. Basically, they thought it was pretty incredible that LeBlanc did what she did, spent 10 or so years with this family so she could write about them for her book. My classmates thought that would not have been possible if LeBlanc had been married (I believe LeBlanc said she had a boyfriend though) or children.

    I guess with any art or passion, journalism can take over one's life. With immersion reporting, one can't work a 9 to 5 shift and then go home at the end of the day. The reporting is constant: the journalist has to experience life as his or her interviewee experiences it. (I couldn't help but think of the movie Almost Famous while LeBlanc was talking about how she'd spend inordinate amounts of time with her subjects.)

    Anyway, I don't think women have reached the point where it's socially acceptable for them to pursue their craft while the children are at home with just their father. There's still this expectation that a woman's love for her children must trump everything else. I'm sure some women would rather be with their children than do anything else. But I suspect there are other women who, while they love their children, would rather be out doing their own thing and pursuing their own interests.

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    Saturday, March 26, 2005

    The Psychology of Space

    In an article in The New York Times Style Magazine Spring 2005 issue from last Sunday, Karen Moline wrote, "I have always written in other people's houses: a flat in London, a cattle station in Australia, a ramshackle guesthouse in Izmir, Turkey. ... My rationale is simple: I need the disorientation of someone else's property, furniture, sheets and gewgaws to escape from mundane reality, to make it easier to inhabit my characters' imaginary worlds." Later in the article, she quotes some other authors, including novelist Francine Prose, who said, "'When I'm surrounded by my things, I can ignore them, but when I'm surrounded by other people's things, they take on a maddening presence.'"

    I've been thinking about space a lot and how I seem to write better in some than in others. I'm sure some people would argue that it's all about discipline, that a good writer can write anywhere. But as for finding inspiration or being able to feel more motivated than usual, I'm a writer along Moline's lines. I find it almost impossible to concentrate on work at home. Part of it is that I don't have a good work space, only a small, short desk that can accommodate at most my laptop and a single pen. The TV's blank eye always stares at me. I'm also sort of a neat freak, so I'll find any excuse to sweep, mop, and dust before I have to sit down to work. I've also realized that having high-speed Internet access at home is a mixed blessing.

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    Thursday, March 24, 2005

    "I am Aslan, and I'm a symbol for God!"

    "I am Aslan, and I'm a symbol for God!"

    I still remember that's what one of the troupe members said at a performance of Improv Olympics. Over Spring Break, I had the chance to reread some of the Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis. I first read the books when I was young and in love with fantasy, before I knew that Aslan the lion was a symbol for God. This time around, I was able to catch some of Lewis's allusions. (And would I be correct in saying that Aslan is actually a symbol for Christ? I don't know enough about Christianity to say for certain.) From the way Aslan willingly gave himself up to be killed in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (as in the Crucifixion), to the way he allowed only the good creatures to enter the real Narnia before the old one was destroyed in The Last Battle (as in the Apocalypse), I appreciated what Lewis had accomplished because I had a deeper understanding of his stories.

    Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, spoke in my long-form nonfiction class last night. I haven't read Random Family yet but have read her piece, "Falling," about the boy who was dropped out of an upper-story window at a Chicago public housing complex.

    LeBlanc spent 10 years writing Random Family, supporting herself by borrowing money and basically going into debt. She originally conceived of the book as being a profile of a drug dealer and his empire, and she got an advance from a publisher for that book idea. But she decided to shift the book's focus to some other characters, and several publishers rejected that. Now that the book's been published (by Scribner), it's received a lot of praise and won rewards.

    "Really trust what interests you," she said.

    It was also nice to hear from someone who has written about topics that are not mainstream. For once, someone was not telling us budding journalists that we had to choose timely topics of interest to a specific audience. By following her instincts as to what would make a good story, LeBlanc was able to, as my teacher Ron Rosenbaum put it, set the peg for what the media would cover.

    The class also asked her about the danger of over-reporting. LeBlanc made this comment: "When I sense the possibility of all these disparate things that I've been carrying around ... it [writing] becomes a pleasure." It was nice to know that an established writer could still feel reluctance about starting to write! (That's what I'm experiencing right now as I struggle with two papers I have to write for this class.)

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    Tuesday, March 22, 2005

    Stock People and the Fastest Way from A to B

    Noticed this picture in an online ad for a dating service. Too bad for those interested because I could have sworn I saw "Heather" shilling for GoDaddy on the company's Web site a few months ago.

    [Later in the day] Another Reason Why I Hate the MTA
    I've always loved the Travel Information Center, which will give you the fastest route or the route with the least number of connections when using public transportation in the Chicago area. The center's database includes information not only for the CTA but for Metra and Pace, which are operated separately.

    However, there is no such online system for public transportation in New York City. If I want to get from point A to point B, I have to refer to the paper subway map and a separate paper bus map. The online maps are useless, at least at home, because the PDF files are so large and noticeably slow down my computer. And then I have no way of knowing which route would be fastest. A route might look fast, but if I've never been to a section of the city, I won't know what the traffic situation is like there.

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    Wednesday, March 16, 2005

    The Fate of WHFS

    Editor and Publisher has an article about how The New York Times is considering charging for more of its online content. Though the Wall Street Journal already charges online readers a yearly rate to access its content, other papers are studying what rates they can charge before readers turn to other sources.

    Tuned into 99.1 in the car yesterday and was surprised to hear Spanish music. Later a friend informed me that the conversion had happened awhile ago, back in January, something about how alternative music was no longer profitable. The Washington Post covered it in an article here. Marc Fisher, Washington Post Metro Columnist, also wrote about it in an article titled "In a Way, WHFS Was Already Gone."

    "What's going to happen to the HFStival?" I asked my friend. I still remember going, the day after senior prom, just a few days before graduation from high school. It was the first time I'd gone to an arena-size concert, and I still marvel that I heard some of the acts that I did. [Okay, this is where I would have named some of the bands that I saw, but I can't seem to find a lineup online, and the only band I remember seeing, without a doubt, was Goldfinger because its single was on rotation on WHFS at the time of the festival. Apparently No Doubt also performed at HFStival in '96 (according to a photo I found online), maybe Primus? maybe the Smashing Pumpkins? maybe Cypress Hill?]

    Anyway, even back then, when alternative seemed to be at its height, I sensed that WHFS wasn't where it was at. I knew, even without being really familiar with the music, that DC101 was the station that played "authentic" rock, like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, stuff that was too "hard" (and out of date) for WHFS and many of the other stations people my age were listening to. Maybe it shouldn't be suprising then that WHFS ultimately crashed, not just because of the music but also because the station was too attuned to what was popular at the time and not what was enduring.

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    Saturday, March 12, 2005

    Superpowers for the Contemporary Citizen

    Geekman, Bossman, and MoneyMan. Did He-Man ever possess the power of schmoozing? Could GI Joe ever boast of having the power of a less than ideal personal hygiene routine? I think not.

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    Friday, March 11, 2005

    Tavis Smiley Show No Longer on NPR

    I have to admit, I was a little hesitant when WBEZ shuffled its lineup, and Tavis Smiley was inserted into the afternoon programming. Part of it was my perception that his show was going to focus exclusively on "black" issues. But I came to appreciate the topics that he covered and his on-air style kept me awake at work after lunch. He was definitely one of the more dynamic hosts that I've ever heard on NPR, and I was disappointed to hear that he'd left back in December. Here's a TIME article with Smiley, in which he said: "Our show is the most multiracial in NPR's entire history, it has the youngest demographic of any show in NPR's history, so progress was being made. My concern was the pace the network was moving at -- it wasn't fast enough."

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    Thursday, March 10, 2005

    Women in Media

    Attended a lunch talk called "Making It in Media" on Tuesday. The topic was women and minorities in the media. Though there were four scheduled speakers, only two made it to the event: Pamela Newkirk, who teaches at my school, and journalist Elena Romero.

    Newkirk spoke of how there are so few minorities in the newsroom. Even when there are minorities, the pressure to conform may be so great that it makes little difference.

    It's depressing to think of how much power editors have, or ultimately, how much power advertisers have. It's depressing to think of how writers have to be careful about which battles they choose because they fear for their jobs.

    For example, Newkirk said that the portrayal of women in the media is still disdainful, even though there are greater numbers of women in the newsroom. Even if writers don't want to write about J.Lo's butt (or Hilary Clinton's haircut), they feel pressured to do so just so their story gets better placement. Unfortunately, gossip sells. I think it's mostly detrimental to women, and it puts writers in the position of having to perpetuate the stink that they complain about.

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    Wednesday, March 09, 2005

    The Nature of Pain

    I haven't been posting as much as I would've liked because I've been feeling lousy, physically, for the past few days. I finally got some over-the-counter meds to treat my symptoms because they were starting to interfere with my daily life. I've gone to work but ignored my writing, and now I've got deadlines coming up.

    Pain is a strange thing. I never used to take OTC drugs for anything, not even for the migraines that would completely incapacitate me as a kid. When I go online and read these health sites though, they always reassure us that we don't have to live with pain, that there is medication for (almost) everything. It worries me that we should treat the symptoms and not the causes. Some sites do say that regular exercise and a healthy diet will prevent many ailments, but how many people actually follow those guidelines?

    I was really taken with two quotes from Pope John Paul II that appeared in a recent issue of Newsweek: "The pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering ..." and "Suffering seems to belong to man's transcendence. It is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense 'destined' to go beyond himself." Although I do not consider myself particularly religious, I still admire the way the pope has handled his pain.

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    Monday, March 07, 2005

    Women in Iraq

    I finally got around to reading last week's issue of Newsweek and found the article "Iraq's Hidden War" discouraging and depressing. The article is about violence that has been perpretrated against Iraqi women as Islamist extremists struggle for control of the country. Women activists have been murdered. Women who appear in public without veils have been attacked. I find it hard to believe that this sort of violence didn't occur during Saddam's reign, but the article claims that prewar Iraq "had a good record on women's rights, at least by the standards of the region."

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    Friday, March 04, 2005

    Some Recommendations

    Encylopedia Neurotica, by Jon Winokur, looks promisingly funny with definitions like the ones below:
  • "Bad choices-Psychobabble for 'dumb mistakes.'"
  • "Quiet desperation-Mute resignation to a life blighted by the grinding conformity of postindustrial society." (The book was excerpted in the March/April issue of Utne magazine.)

    I also have to plug two DVDs that came out recently: Nausicaa and Porco Rosso, both by the Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki and released in the United States by Disney. Most Americans might know Miyazaki from his films Spirited Away (currently at number 11 on's DVD/video list!) and Princess Mononoke.

    Nausicaa originally came out in 1984 and Porco Rosso followed in 1992. I was lucky enough to have seen both as fan translations several years ago. Both movies have the reassuring optimism and beautiful colors characteristic of Miyazaki's other films. I particularly like Nausicaa because of its young female protagonist. I think stories rarely feature young girls as heroes, at least not without lots of male support, and the fact that this story is by a man makes it all the more remarkable to me. I highly recommend both movies and for the love of God, watch the subtitled versions because I have never found the English voices in the dubbed versions to be as good as the original Japanese voices.

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  • Cliches

    I was trying to figure out if I was guilty of using a cliche in an article I'm writing when I came across a cute site,

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    Thursday, March 03, 2005

    Revolution in Lebanon

    Don't know much about Lebanon? Me neither. Read about the "cedar revolution"--also referred to as the "Gucci revolution"--that's occurring in the country right now on the BBC Web site.

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    Wednesday, March 02, 2005

    The Right to Remain Private

    Here's an article from the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section about erosion of privacy and stolen information. This article follows two things that recently happened: someone hacking into Paris Hilton's Sidekick and criminals purchasing personal financial data from ChoicePoint.

    If you really want to be freaked out, read Adam Peneberg's "The End of Privacy" (written for Forbes back in 1999! but still relevant today) located on his Web site here.

    Tuesday, March 01, 2005

    When the Grass Seems Greener

    I can see a dog run from where I'm studying on the top floor of the school library. There's something so uninhibited about those dogs, the way they all seem to just live for chasing each other around or going after a tossed frisbee. I think in New York City especially, people have a hard time accepting a limit to what they need in order to be happy.

    [An hour later...] There was an article in the New York Times this past Sunday titled "Six Figures? Not Enough!", about how people used to aim for a yearly salary of $100,000. Nowadays, however, some people find that $100,000 just doesn't have the cache that it used too. More people are earning $100,000 per year and it doesn't support the lifestyle that they want. Economist Robert H. Frank is cited in the article as saying, "A lot of people think this is about spoiled people who can't keep up with the Joneses, but it's really deeper than that. There's a consumption standard that every group has. If you ask, 'How am I doing?,' it's always, 'Compared to what?' And people hardly ever look down." I wonder though if for many people, they will never feel that they have enough.

    I'm thinking here about a term that I learned in college, "anomic suicide," from the book Suicide by Emile Durkheim. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, anomic--in the social sciences--means "a condition of social instability or personal unrest resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals."

    The way I understood it, people who committed suicide due to anomie did so because they did not think they could ever be happy. For example, and this is my own example so I might be wrong, homeless people might think they'd achieve happiness if only they had an apartment. For someone living in an apartment, owning a home would mean happiness. Someone with a one-story house might want a two-story house. Someone with a two-story house might want a mansion. Someone with a mansion might think happiness would come with having that second home in Aspen. Etc. In this way, a person might never be happy because there's always something else to want, just out of reach. But the fact is that one cannot have everything.

    Back to my point, I envy dogs because they're happy just being who they are and being in their pack. They might "have" toys or fluffy beds, but they're not devastated (as far as I know) if they lose something. I wish I could also be happy if I was stripped of everything that I own.

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