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The liberal arts factor

Some stereotypes are true. Most journalists, for example, possess thick skins, feel less empathy than the average person, don’t beat around the bush and enjoy the challenge of digging for well-hidden information.

Journalists are also notorious workaholics: their jobs follow them home, on vacation, to the gym, wherever they go. Reporters will pick up their phones in the middle of the night, on their wedding days and at funerals if the newsroom calls. Over the last few years, I’ve seen my peers and coworkers drop everything for a scoop. They’ve bailed on dates, classes, exams and parties to meet deadline or go the extra mile on a story. And although I believe hard work pays off–anyone who knows me can attest to that– I haven’t always supported their decision to skip out on everything else.

phi beta kappa key pin

I’m proud of my PBK key!

It’s true that getting good at one’s chosen profession requires focus, especially in journalism. But must focus translate to tunnel vision?

I remember some fellow students who pulled 50, 60, 70 hour weeks at the student newspaper. The work they did was incredible and invaluable. But their choice to work overtime for no extra pay was also a choice to skip classes, skim important reading and earn a degree with barely passing grades and nothing but minimum graduation requirements. Many of them told me they believed years of hands-on work experience was the most important (or the only) thing future employers wanted to see on resumes.

Like them, I made time for real-world experience. I had five summer internships, three of which were unpaid. I spent most of my college years working full time at the student newspaper, though my stipend covered less than half my rent. I always answered calls from my sources, even when they came at inappropriate times while I was in inopportune locations. I arrived at work too early and stayed too late. I put my life in danger to drive to work during a snowstorm. I left my own birthday party to investigate a mysterious death. (I don’t regret these decisions, but I don’t think I would make the same ones if I were to repeat my four years of school.)

I made all these sacrifices, but most of the time, I maintained much-needed separations between work, play and academics. While I took tens of electives outside my journalism classes, learned another language, contemplated a second minor and had the time of my life writing a thesis, my student newspaper colleagues were crashing on the newsroom couch and plotting how they might avoid their foreign language requirements. When we were all off the clock, my coworkers went home, reviewed notes on their steno pads and listened to the police scanner over a beer; I went to choir rehearsal, attended a play or read a novel. When I shared my hobbies and weekend plans with them, they stared with blank faces and went right back to their work.

I was, and still am, shocked at journalists’ blasé attitude toward non-news pursuits I consider important: a liberal arts education, cultural enrichment, a variety of personal relationships. I was relieved to leave the world of newspaper journalism and find a new company full of people with quirky hobbies, unique passions and different perspectives. These days, I have coworkers who appreciate my ongoing efforts to learn more and stay well rounded.

But these days, a well-rounded resume seems to be undervalued–and I think that’s a mistake on the part of employers. When I consider the leg up I had in stories that required a fundamental knowledge of history, literature or science, I wonder whether my laser-focused journalism colleagues were able to cover the story as thoroughly without a liberal arts education. I think about the friendships and relationships I maintain and wonder, when I’m having fun at a festival or a picnic, whether my old coworkers are still slaving away in the newsroom. When I absorb myself in choir rehearsal and forget about bills, task lists and arguments, I can’t believe underpaid cub reporters my age can cope without a hobby that provides an emotional escape from the stresses of adult life.

Perhaps the decision to broaden my knowledge base communicated a lack of pure journalistic commitment to some of the newspaper editors who saw my resume. But if a love for many things at once is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

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Writer’s Block

I’ve always been quite an enthusiastic writer. From a very young age, I kept journals that I sometimes updated multiple times in a day. I wrote about everything: things I learned in school, classmates I liked and disliked, life in after-school daycare, friends’ deep dark secrets I promised never to reveal, and of course my own deep dark secrets–usually involving a crush on a boy.

My motivation to write back then was a desire to resolve issues in my mind. Once things had been written down in a semi-coherent manner, I felt I knew where I stood and could move past whatever lingering anger, sadness or confusion I felt. There were times when I felt extraordinary euphoria and found immense satisfaction in successfully translating the feeling into words.

Beyond childhood, there were ever more motivations to keep writing well–to get good grades, to get admitted into high-quality colleges, to win debates, to stand out in the job applicant pool. Even though I still found emotional clarity after writing down my personal thoughts, I wrote increasingly less for purposes of personal growth as I wrote increasingly more in the name of professional growth.

As a result, I started experiencing something I once thought I was immune to: writer’s block. In college, I spent hours staring at a blank Word document struggling to find the words to start my term papers, even after I’d done extensive research and found a good thesis. Writing each sentence was as difficult as pulling frozen taffy.

It didn’t help that Gmail, Facebook and myriad news sites were just a click away, and so I assumed the presence of campus-wide Wi-fi was to blame for the writer’s block. I found I was slightly more productive when I moved from the library to a cafe, where I found a pleasant buzzing of white noise rather than crushing silence; when I took short breaks about once an hour for coffee or a New York Times article; or when I was running on an extra-tight deadline and had no choice but to work without stopping.

Still, I’ve wondered for years why I, the person to whom others turn for help with writing and editing, experience these extensive mental blackouts when in childhood I could write unceasingly for hours.

Today, I realized the answer could be as simple as this: In childhood I wrote on paper; now, I write on a keyboard.

It sounds like an oversimplification, I know…but something crazy happened to me today at lunch. Before I left, I opened up a document full of scripts I’ve been writing for KING FM’s next on-air fund drive. I got out my yellow legal pad to consult the informal list of script ideas I’d made for myself, found where I’d left off, and started typing. No more than two sentences came out…in a half hour.

So I tried something else: when I left to grab a quick lunch, I took the legal pad and a pen with me, thinking a little lunchtime brainstorming couldn’t hurt. I ended up scribbling furiously with my pen as I scarfed a sandwich. Thoughts came to me two at a time and my hand nearly cramped up as it tried to get everything down. In about 20 minutes, I had written three full pages of scripts.

legalpad

For no good reason, I find it less inhibiting to write on paper than to write on a computer screen. It makes no sense, because when I write something down in pen, it’s there forever, and editing is messy. On a keyboard, the backspace bar is a no-fuss editor. So it must have something to do with the fact that I associate personal writing, which no one but me can judge, with paper and pen, while I associate professional writing, which many highly influential people have judged over the years, with computers and typing. The content is irrelevant; the medium is what alters my productivity. For all I know, I could have started my first-grade diary in Word and never gotten past Page One; similarly, I could have started writing my thesis in a spiral notebook and finished within a week.

This revelation has motivated me to try using good old pen and paper whenever I get into a staring contest with my computer monitor at work. It has also illustrated the importance personal writing once had on my personal well-being, and has offered a completely free and relatively easy stress-relieving method I’ve dismissed for years. I know I always say I want to write more, but this time I really mean write–not type.

Winter blues

…sure beats the winter greys!

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No one REALLY enjoys constant rain, so it’s easy to believe Seasonal Affective Disorder is something we’ve all invented in our minds. But when the sun comes out in February, like it has today, I feel a huge sense of possibility and empowerment. I start getting excited about all the projects I started enthusiastically last summer but have since let fall by the wayside. If this great weather sticks around or at least shows itself a little more often, I have a feeling I’ll finally plant those indoor herb jars, seek out a collapsible, Farmer’s Market-friendly basket for my bike, and pay more visits to local parks with good walking trails.

In Defense of Pinterest–or, Upcycling

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In elementary school, we learned the three phrases of sustainability–before “sustainability” was even a buzzword.

Recycle, Reduce, Reuse.

A couple of decades later, we on the West Coast don’t think of sorting our waste into three or more categories as a chore. It’s just what we do to make the world a bit greener.

And in the last decade, we’ve gotten much better at reducing our consumption and energy use, leaving as small a carbon footprint as possible.

In other words, we’ve long embraced the first two words in the mantra we learned a while back…but we’re still ruminating on that third word. Reuse.

It takes a little bit of creativity and extra thought to realize that lots of things we’ve finished using for one purpose don’t have to be thrown out–they can be reborn for another purpose.

Take food containers, for example. Old cream cheese and yogurt tubs make great Tupperware after they’re cleaned thoroughly–I’ve got a container of “strawberry yogurt” with yesterday’s dinner leftovers sitting in my refrigerator as we speak!Image

On my lunch break this afternoon, I walked by an apartment window ledge lined with reused pasta sauce jars. The apartment’s residents had cleaned the jars, filled them with soil and planted various herbs for cooking–basil, cilantro, thyme and oregano. Then they brushed the jar fronts with a little bit of chalkboard paint and labeled the jars with chalk–an urban inspiration!

Last week, I came across a blog where an Australian couple had created a similarly pint-sized ecosystem with cut-up milk cartons. They lopped off the carton tops, covered the rest with glued-on strips of their favorite fabrics, and stuck a dirt-filled can inside, ready to be filled with their favorite flower or herb plants.

The practice of taking something simple and seemingly useless and turning it into something fabulous, new and useful is called upcycling. At least that’s what it’s called on Etsy, Pinterest and countless blogs from creative types all over the world.

Upcycling takes a million different forms. Some people show off a project that turned an old pair of Levis into a handy denim purse. Others document their efforts to turn a horrible Coke bottlecap hoarding habit into a lovely windchime. Ever-resourceful girlfriends found that their significant others’ discarded button-down shirts made excellent pillowcases in a pinch.

While the artistic aspect of upcycling interests me greatly–mostly when it comes to ModPodged furniture–I’m most inspired by the way people in urban environments can easily and safely keep entire herb gardens inside, or just outside, their rented apartments by upcycling things they already have and would otherwise throw into their recycling bins. It demonstrates to this twentysomething urban girl that you don’t need a huge backyard equipped with a chicken coop, a compost bin and rows of handmade planter boxes to live greener.

But don’t get me wrong–someday, I hope I have a huge backyard with all those things, plus a couple of cats!

Snow

When snow is forecast in Seattle, everybody steels themselves for what’s to come. The kind of snowfall that other major cities expect–nay, scoff at–is enough to turn this entire city upside down. Seattle’s total transformation only after a couple inches of snow accumulation is partly because snow and ice make for treacherous walks, drives and bus rides up and down its steep hills, and partly because we can’t justify the cost of studded tires or salted roads round the clock.

So when it snows in Seatown, you can expect a lot of rogue behavior on the roads. Pedestrians opt to simply wait until the roads are clear to cross rather than to press buttons at crosswalks; lane dividers on major highways cease to exist; cars don’t stop at intersections unless it’s an overt safety hazard not to; and buses seldom take passengers exactly where they want to go.

(Don’t believe me? This morning I tried to follow the rules at a crosswalk, pushing the button and waiting patiently. A driver nearby leaned out his window and shouted, “Don’t you think we’ve moved past formalities by now?”)

Snow

Things went surprisingly smoothly earlier in the week, when everybody in the city knew exactly when and where to watch for snow. Everyone ran errands early, left work at the appropriate time, and settled in for the long haul at home. The roads were a mess, as usual, but most people seemed to stay safe.

But in the last 24 hours, when the flakes were expected to turn to light nighttime showers and daytime rain–when the snow was, in fact, expected to wash away–we got the opposite. The flakes fell more persistently than ever, and our white blanket grew thicker. School districts gave up for the remainder of the week, local shops stayed shuttered, and almost no one dared to drive.

I thought this would be a tame one-day snow event, nothing too crazy. But as evidenced by tonight’s Twitter posts, which tell of icy commutes, mass power outages and tree-splintered carports, there’s plenty of crazy to go around…


2011

Another year…gone already?!

It never quite dawns on me that a year is about to end until the neighborhood Christmas lights go out, all the New Year’s Eve-themed sequined dresses are on sale at downtown department stores, and I’m flipping through Time magazine’s annual “Person of the Year” feature.

But here I am, watching the neighborhood gradually darken, avoiding shopping malls as if my life depended on it and reading about the collective power of protesters in the Middle East, Africa and the U.S. I guess we’ll soon see if the Ancient Mayans were right!

A lot happened this year. It started in Santa Cruz, Calif., my hometown, where I rang in the new year. For months, I sustained two full-time jobs, and my life was my work. Then summer came, and with it came glorious sun, a new apartment near Lake Union and a greater understanding of this vast city. (Try lunch at Irwin’s in Wallingford, become an REI member and take free classes at the flagship store, and check out this iron horse sculpture in Ballard!) Fall brought a lovely Celtic concert season, kittens, a driving trip spanning the whole West Coast, and a whole lot of soul-searching.

I kept most of my (Chinese) New Year resolutions, focusing on just one job at a time and allotting needed time for sleep, friends and music. Next year, I hope I can maintain a good work-life balance and continue to discover more about this amazing city.

This year, Seattle Pro Musica’s annual auction was “Casino Royale”-themed.

Watching Fourth of July fireworks on Lake Union from our balcony.

The coastline along treacherous Highway 1 near Big Sur, Calif.

Clarity

Someone once challenged Ernest Hemingway to write a story in six words. Here’s what he wrote:

For sale: baby shoes, never used.

On Valentine’s Day, The New York Times posed a similar challenge to its readers: tell your own love story in six words. (I’m not clear on whether the challenge was Hemingway-inspired.) Not all were as tragic, but some were just as evocative:

Love hurts. Choose vodka or valium.

But our domestic partnership was notarized….

Note to self: avoid head cases.

It’s clear that few words are needed to tell a memorable story. In fact, some–maybe even most–stories are best told with clarity and brevity in mind.

This isn’t news to my fellow journalism school graduates, I know. But sometimes it seems like corporate America skipped that ever-important introductory college writing course.

William Zinsser, in his book “On Writing Well,” says it best: “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unneccessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon…But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

It’s weird for me, a noted Hemingway hater and a notorious lover of flowery prose, to sit here preaching clarity in writing. Let it be known, though, that I practice what I preach, even if my reading tastes don’t reflect it. I’m the biggest Charles Dickens fan the world has ever seen, but that doesn’t mean I want all the profiles I write to sound like Dickens’ study of the fictional Tommy Traddles.

Practicing clarity is important in journalism for a number of reasons. For one, it ensures that a wide variety of readers, viewers and listeners can understand what’s going on. For another, it minimizes confusion in a story–the kind of confusion that can lead to lawsuits against reporters or angry backlash from readers, viewers and listeners. But most importantly, clarity leaves no room for passive statements, reiteration of the same phrase using different wording or “beating around the bush”–the kinds of devices politicians use in writing and speeches to drive weak arguments.

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” George Orwell wrote in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” The “our time” to which he refers is 1946, but today, his statement rings just as true. He continues:

“Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.”

People can use passive voice and vague phrases to defend all manner of cruel acts. Switching to active voice eliminates someone’s ability to beat around the bush. In active voice, the population isn’t just “transferred”; a person or entity has to be named in connection with the transfer. And in journalism, the vague word “transfer” doesn’t fly.

Why must we live in a world where tax forms, employment documents and healthcare pamphlets require multiple read-throughs and double-takes to understand? Journalists, especially those covering the business beat, regularly act as translators for the general public. But why should we need translators?

I ask you–or rather, Orwell asks you–do you understand this sentence?

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

That’s Orwell’s slightly exaggerated modern-day translation of this verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here’s my own translation, as clear and concise as I could muster. “Life is all about luck and timing. Even the strongest, smartest and fastest aren’t immune.”

Oh, the agony

Like many twentysomethings living in the Northwest, I am a proud Apple devotee. Ever since the Dell laptop I’d had since high school crashed for the millionth and final time in 2008, my aluminum MacBook and I have been inseparable. I’ve laughed at my PC-owning peers whose machines regularly contract viruses; I’ve marveled at the seamless way each laptop, iPhone and tablet in this apartment syncs with my roommate’s Apple TV; and, I admit it, I’ve watched a handful of Steve Jobs presentations in awe.

Yet until recently, I never stopped to wonder why the back of each Apple product I own proudly bears the statement “designed by Apple in California” but fails to disclose where the electronics are manufactured. Now, thanks to monologist and author Mike Daisey, I know why–and part of me wishes I didn’t.

Daisey’s one-man show at Seattle Repertory Theatre, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” describes the daily lives of 450,000 workers at Foxconn, the manufacturing plant where most Apple products are made. The plant is in Shenzhen, China, a city whose name most Americans have never heard even though more than 14 million people live there. Defying others’ advice, Daisey visited the plant even after several journalists and an Associated Press photographer attempted the same and were escorted off the premises; he successfully managed to talk to hundreds of workers in their teens and 20s who were made to pull 12- to 16-hour shifts performing just one task over and over again for years on end. He heard from 20-year-olds who were crippled for life from the repetitive labor. He described how these young workers–the kind of intelligent people who here in the U.S. would go on to be doctors, lawyers and respected academics–lived in quarters nearly as cramped as those I saw at a concentration camp in Terezín. One young worker told Daisey she spent her workdays wiping thousands of iPhone screens clean; when Daisey asked her age, she said she was 13.

Most harrowing of all is the knowledge that dozens of the plant’s employees–perhaps more–have committed suicide from the top of the Foxconn building. While both Apple and Foxconn have acknowledged at least one of these deaths, neither seems to have investigated this deeply tragic trend.

Daisey’s stories left me in a temporary state of shock. That afternoon, I sat in my apartment building for a while, staring around, unable to open my laptop or turn on my cellphone. To think that my consumer tendencies were to blame for the unfair treatment of workers, many of them 10 years my junior, was heartbreaking and nauseating. How did I trick myself into believing I needed all these whirring, blinking machines? How did I live so long in blissful ignorance, not knowing the origins of my most prized electronics?

And here’s the big question everyone came out of the theater asking: If Steve Jobs knows about the working conditions at Foxconn–and he must–why hasn’t he done anything about it?

I’m now aware of and informed about workers’ horrendous treatment in Shenzhen, which Daisey says is half the battle. I’ve also spread the word, something he hoped we would all do. But still I feel I haven’t done enough. Though I’ve often felt compelled to do so in the last few days, I know throwing out every electronic device I own isn’t the answer; as a 21st-century aspiring journalist, I can’t quit blogging, Tweeting and keeping abreast of news online. Someday, I may be one of the reporters who helps expose injustices like these and forces corporations to take a harder look at their outsourcing practices.

But for now, the knowledge that I’ve informed just a few more people of Foxconn’s heinous crimes against humanity will have to sate me.

What’s a goat-choker? Weird news terms 101

GRIP-AND-GRIN (n.) A photograph of no inherent interest in which a notable and an obscure person shake hands at an occasion of supposed significance.

Today I was CQing (fact-checking) a story I wrote…and I suddenly wondered what the heck CQ stood for.

It took some pretty ruthless Googling to find the history of this term, universally known in newsrooms as the short way to say “I’ve confirmed this name/date/fact is correct.” Turns out it’s the acronym for the Latin term “cadit quaestio,” literally translated “the question falls.”

But according to a commenter on an online journalists’ forum, “cq” is also an abbreviation for “correct” that Associated Press telegraph operator Walter P. Phillips created before the turn of the 20th century. It isn’t clear whether he created it out of thin air or knew about the Latin term.

Other forum commenters thought the acronym might stand for “correct as quoted,” “can’t question” or, my personal favorite, “correct but queer.”

In other words, everyone’s got a theory, but no one’s got a real, honest, CQed answer. You’d think in a profession such as journalism, where everyone feels compelled to look things up and actually enjoys doing in-depth research, we would know more about this ubiquitous acronym’s origins.

Funny thing is, the newspaper world is full of such terms. A suffocatingly long article whose purpose is to satisfy a reporter’s vanity and win the newspaper prestigious awards rather than to gratify readers is called a “goat-choker.” Why? Nobody knows. A “slug” is a short, one- or two-word temporary title we have for story files as they go through the editing process. While there are lots of theories on the origin of this word–some say it comes from the Middle English “slugge,” which turned into the word “sluggard,” describing a lazy person–none of the theories explain why we use the term in journalism.

It took the reporter four paragraphs to get to the point: “Titanic sank at 2:20 a.m. Monday.” This newspaper is still famous for its buried leads.

Granted, most journalism terms are easily explained. Copy editors, for example, were once called “rim editors” because they sat at a horseshoe-shaped table, at the head of which was the copy chief or “slot editor.” The slot sat in such a position that he could easily hand out to-be-edited stories to everyone at the table. A “budget” meeting, though it has nothing to do with money, is aptly named because it’s a meeting in which editors decide how and with which stories they’ll fill the space in tomorrow’s paper. And editors accuse reporters of “burying a lead” when their introductory paragraphs take too long to reach the story’s thesis.

Still more terms need no explanation at all: “lead” (intro to a story), “flag” (the paper’s logo at the top of page A1) and “jump” (an instruction to follow a front-page story to an inside page) are a few of these.

My favorite phrases are the old-fashioned terms we’ve adapted for use in the 21st century. Only editors in budget meetings use the term “above the fold” to describe the stories, headlines and photos readers will see the moment they pick up a print newspaper. But nearly everyone here at The Times tosses around that phrase to describe the headlines online and mobile readers can see without using the scroll-down function on their browsers. Copy editors also use the phrase “off the floor” to describe a page or section that is officially ready for print, even though pages are never “on the floor” to begin with these days. And some of the small papers where I’ve interned use the word “pasteup” to describe the process of designing the news pages before they’re printed, even though the process no longer involves actual paste.

The question is, is all this strange lingo creating a wall between newspapers and their readers? I can hardly talk about my day at work around non-journalists without getting some head scratches, but I don’t think that’s unique to journalism. My roommate’s employer, the U.S. Coast Guard, might be the worst offender when it comes to confusing workplace terms; while the newspaper language is made up of real words or at least abbreviations of words, the military’s is nothing more than a series of acronyms, something we journalists disdainfully call “alphabet soup.” My dad speaks programming language at work, using terms such as “Delphi” and “JBuilder” offhandedly as if they’re common. My uncle, a retired ER doctor, had to memorize definitions of phrases such as “pulmonary thromboembolism” in medical school.

And most of the country speaks in corporate-ese at work, spending their days discussing “synergy,” looking for “accelerated emergence of high maturity behaviors” and “utilizing” just about everything.

So even though my line of work comes with a huge handful of obscure phrases with unknown origins, I’d say we’ve done comparatively well in simplifying things. But I can’t CQ that.