Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Covering stories about things I don't like

I can’t remember the last time I wrote about a subject toward which I felt conscious antipathy.          
Until yesterday, that is.

Usually I write about things that fascinate or engage or amuse me: societal trends, parenting, the arts. Occasionally I write about things I don’t really know anything about, like cybersecurity or liposuction. And sometimes I write about things I didn’t know I was interested in until I started researching the story, like NFL quarterbacks.

But it’s typical of me that as soon as I dig my hands into the topic, I fall in love with it.

So it was strange yesterday morning to be doing an interview about something to which I have a genuine aversion. The Framingham History Center is running a special exhibit for the next several months about Shopper’s World, or to be more specific the original Shopper’s World, the indoor mall built in the early 1950s that forty years later was razed and replaced with an outdoor shopping plaza which is also called Shopper’s World.

The woman from the Framingham History Center sounded downright joyful as she told me how meaningful it had been to her to put together this exhibit of old photos of Shopper’s World, memorabilia from the stores, interviews with the structure’s earliest employees and shoppers.

But all I could think of, even as I asked questions and noted down her responses, was how much I dislike Shopper’s World.

It was effectively the country’s first shopping mall, though technically another one, in Seattle, beat it to opening day by a hair. And as I see it, that makes Shopper’s World the precursor to so many undesirable things that followed. Big box shopping. Automobile culture, in which errands are done by car. The demise of the downtown, and the crumbling of small local businesses. In fact, just last week I was working on an assignment about a last-ditch effort by community members in West Concord to salvage the West Concord 5&10, one of the area’s last remaining decades-old locally owned small businesses. Shopper’s World is, to my mind, emblematic of what ruined modern commerce: first shopping malls, then big box stores, then outdoor plazas, all of which fostered the movement toward shopping by car in big shopping centers rather than in the pedestrian-friendly downtown areas that preceded them.

But the article I was writing wasn’t really about what’s wrong or right with modern retail; it was about this particular exhibit. And so I suppressed my antipathy and tried instead to focus on what the woman from the historical society was telling me about the exhibit.

And eventually, just like with almost every story I work on, I began to feel more warmly toward it. This woman loved the exhibit she had put together, loved the response it was getting from visitors who told her about their first job or the first excursion they ever remember taking or their first date at Shopper’s World. She enthused about the Jordan Marsh blueberry muffins she served at a round-table discussion about Shopper’s World as they were putting the exhibit together, and she told me about the posters and memorabilia from the advertising campaign that brought 200,000 shoppers to opening day at Shopper’s World back in 1954.

I’m not sure whether this tendency to get drawn in by every subject I write about ultimately makes me a better or worse journalist. To some extent, I think it shows an unfortunate predilection for subjectivity. How effective a journalist can I be if I lose all cynicism as soon as I hear someone start talking about a subject they love?

And yet if I didn’t have this tendency, I’m not sure I’d be able to sustain a career as a journalist at all. What I love, and what I’ve always loved, is listening to people talk about their passions. It doesn’t matter, in the end, whether that’s a passion for building boats or playing football or performing vein surgery or mentoring underprivileged children or putting together an exhibit about a shopping mall. When people talk about what interests them, it interests me.

I still don’t like Shopper’s World, and I honestly still think society would be better off had it never been built and subsequently touched off the shopping mall movement. But even feeling that way, I think I can write an article that does justice to the historical society’s hard work on this exhibit. Creating it was someone’s passion, and telling the story of other people’s passions is my passion. And somehow amidst that paradox is where I’ve found my career.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Other people having fun

I’ve been looking at pictures all week. Pictures of New York City, pictures of Vermont and Vancouver, pictures of Boston’s Freedom Trail, pictures of a Caribbean cruise (not the one that lost power and had no working bathrooms!), pictures of the Arizona desert.

It’s public school vacation week here, and our friends are madly posting their vacation snapshots on Facebook. Not only do I know where they all went; I know what they did while they were there, how crowded it was or wasn’t, what the snow or surf conditions were like, and even what they wore throughout their vacation.

And I have to say I’m thoroughly enjoying it. So I was surprised to hear a segment on NPR’s Morning Edition earlier this week about how therapists are reporting increased business from unhappy patients who are overwhelmed with feelings of envy and insecurity because of what they see their friends doing on Facebook: the clothes, the vacations, the parties, the fun.

We didn’t go far this vacation week – we went to Portland last weekend, which was great, but other than that the big excursions have been to a nearby museum and a frozen yogurt parlor – but I don’t feel envious or insecure; I feel happily entertained by my friends’ photos. Here’s one of Holly’s friends posing next to a horse in Central Park, and here are our former neighbors at a Diamondbacks spring training game. Jody and her daughter got caught in a blizzard but ultimately reached their destination; Diane waited in the airport for a long time after her flight was cancelled, but now she’s with her new grandchild. I think it’s great fun to see where people are and what they’re doing, and I’m happy for them that they can take interesting trips.

I have a recurrent memory from childhood of sitting in long backups at the toll gates on the Maine Turnpike on a summer weekend, waiting seemingly forever for our turn to get through and continue making our way home. All around us were other cars with other sunburned, tired vacationers like us. “Isn’t it nice to see that so many people have been vacationing and having fun?” my parents used to say as the car inched forward fractionally.

No, I would think to myself. What would be nice would be to hit some open highway and get home. I wish none of these other people was here vacationing and having fun. They are all in our way and I want to get home.

But now I understand what my parents meant, and I’m glad their words have stayed in my mind. Maybe I’m just older than the people referred to on Morning Edition who feel envious and insecure about their friends’ photos; maybe I’ve just lived long enough to feel grateful any time anyone anywhere is having fun, and if it’s someone I know, all the better. I don’t feel bad that we didn’t go far this week, but I think it’s wonderful so many of them did. 

I don’t think this suggests that I’m a particularly selfless person, just that it’s so clear to me that plenty can go wrong in life at any time, and seeing pictures of people enjoying themselves, even if it’s very far away from where I am right now, is a pleasurable experience for me. I wish them safe travels and a wonderful time. And yes, to be truthful, I look forward to posting some enviable vacation photos of my own next time a vacation week rolls around.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Reading about writing

Because I was dusting yesterday, I happened to notice the slim paperback lying facedown on my nighttable. The author’s face looked up at me a little plaintively, and I stopped to contemplate her head shot for a moment. She was pretty, pleasant-looking, probably my age or a little younger. And I had every reason to think I’d enjoy her book when I ordered it. But I’ve barely touched it since it arrived.

The book is called “Writing Toward Home,” and seeing it lying there, almost entirely unread, made me stop dusting for a moment to think about why I buy books about writing but don’t read them. This one came highly recommended by a woman at church who is taking an adult ed class in creative writing, and because she said it had helped her write, I thought it might help me too.

And maybe it would, if I could discipline myself to read it. But I’ve gradually had to acknowledge over the past several years that I don’t learn that much from books about writing.

It’s not that there aren’t thousands of authors who know far more about writing than I do and could teach me a lot about the craft. When I was younger, in those first few years out of college, I read lots of books on writing. One after another.

But I wasn’t doing a lot of writing in those years. I was looking for inspiration, but I would later come to realize I was looking in all the wrong places. In more recent years, I’ve done lots of writing – hundreds of personal essays, articles, profiles, and blog entries. But as far as I can remember, none of them stemmed from any inspiration I found in a book about writing. They came from experiences I had, or stories people told me about themselves, or conversations I overheard.

Not long ago, an essayist whose work I admire wrote about how she learned far more about how to cope with romantic problems from reading Edith Wharton than from reading self-help nonfiction – she’d apparently consumed plenty of both – and her words reminded me of my feeling about writing. Instructional books may inspire some, but I should know better than to buy yet another one that will just sit there until I dust it. The truth is, I’m more likely to chance across an essay idea in the act of dusting than in reading the very same book I’m dusting. Inspiration lies all around me – in friends, in strangers, in nature, in conversations, in housework – but not really in books about writing. So I’ll skip the book and just keep cleaning the house and hope that by the time the day ends, I’ll have a new essay under way. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Makin' coffee

“I’m proud of our coffee maker,” I commented a few days ago to my husband.

He is accustomed by now to my anthropomorphic tendencies. Knowing as he does that I apologize to dishes I drop and thank the car when I pull into the garage at the end of a long drive, he wasn’t particularly surprised to hear that I was proud of the coffee maker. But, lacking my inclination to imbue household objects with souls, he also didn’t really care why I was feeling so warmly toward this particular appliance.

And in fact there was no particular reason. It was just that earlier that same morning, I’d been thinking about how I’ve had the same coffee maker for so long that I can’t even remember when or where I bought it, which is unusual for me. I tend to have a good memory for purchases, and the fact that I have no memory of the coffee maker’s genesis means we’ve probably had it for a decade or more. 

But it still functions beautifully, and the reason is that it’s such a simple machine. Compared to other coffee makers on the market, it’s absolutely bare bones. You put grounds in the filter and water in the canister; you press a button; coffee soon comes out. It’s remarkable, in the way that all electric appliances are remarkable to me – meaning that if stranded on a desert island with an entire General Electric factory at my disposal, I couldn’t make one myself – but it’s also unremarkable in that it lacks built-in grinders, timers, steamers, and the many other options with which fancier coffee makers come equipped.

I’d like to say I’m someone who always appreciates the simplest models, but that’s not true. I’m definitely attracted to gadgets. Normally I like new and fancy and multi-featured, especially when it comes to kitchen appliances or electronics. I’m not at all a noble adherent to the Shaker motto of “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” I’m often guilty of consumerism, and find myself all too eager to move on from one big chunk of metal and plastic and batteries to another as soon as the newest model comes out.

But not with the coffee maker. It’s not that I’m indifferent on the topic. I’m fussy about coffee: I brew a pot or two every day and take great pains to make it just the way I like it. And I’ve had the opportunity to try out the more complicated kinds of coffee makers at other people’s houses. But I don’t need timers and frothers and steamers and programmed delays. (Confession: when my in-laws gave us that trendy brand of one-cup coffeemaker as a gift, we returned it, because the idea of pre-measured coffee grounds in little packets disturbed me too much – how could anyone else know the exact strength I liked my coffee, when I myself change the amount of grounds from day to day?)

I may wish I had simpler tastes when it comes to computers, phones, food processors and toasters, but coffee is perhaps the one thing in which I live up to the otherwise elusive ideal of believing simplest is best. Our coffee maker is old, but the only part on it required to function is the on/off switch, and that part still works. I’m proud of it, for having hung in there so effectively. And I’m somewhat proud of myself that there’s one line of gadgets in which I’m not seduced by ever-improving technology. I wish I were like that about more things. But at least there’s coffee, and my wonderful decade-old coffee maker.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sibling harmony

“We have a great plan for early release day tomorrow,” says my 14-year-old son Tim on the phone as I’m driving home late yesterday afternoon. He describes the plan, which involves him, his sister Holly and Tim’s best friend Will going out for lunch together and then coming back to our house for the afternoon.
“Of course, that’s fine,” I say, smiling to myself as we hang up.

I couldn’t have anticipated this particular bonus; it’s been a remarkable and unanticipated highlight of this school year. Specifically, that both my kids really enjoy spending time together after school, and that both of them have friends who are happy to accommodate the other sibling.

For years, whenever the topic of sibling rivalry came up, I’d find myself saying the same thing: “There’s very little that my kids argue about. But it’s because they’re different sexes and four years apart in age. What really would they argue about?” At the same time, I’ve often shared the other side of the coin: being different sexes and four years apart in age, they’ve never really had any interests in common, which didn’t matter much around home but could make it challenging to choose a vacation destination or even agree on a cultural excursion they both wanted to do.

Four years apart in age, yes, but only three years apart in school. Which means that once every four years or so, they end up on the same school schedule. This year was one of those years: with Tim in eighth grade and Holly in fifth, they are both middle schoolers.

And sometime during the fall, they fell into the habit of going to the baseball field once or twice a week after school for Frisbee games with groups of kids – groups that included friends of both of theirs. I certainly didn’t expect eighth grade boys and fifth grade girls to enjoy spending time together, but it proved to work out really well.

What’s pleasing to me is that I never had to ask them to make this work. I never had to say to Tim, “Yes, you can go to Ferns for a sandwich with Will after early dismissal, but only if you bring Holly along.” Tim just expected to bring Holly along, and neither of the boys had any problems accommodating her. Sometimes she brings a friend too. Everyone gets along.

This unexpectedly ideal situation only compounds my usual sense of time passing by too quickly, though. Their perfect harmony will likely be disrupted by the fall; Tim will be off to high school and Holly still in middle school for three more years. They’ll be on different schedules and attending schools in different towns. Moreover, Tim will probably make new friends who might not find it quite so natural to have a very small and much younger girl and her friends hanging out with them. Or Holly might not find it quite such a novelty to be part of Tim’s group.

So it’s yet another thing that I’ll just have to appreciate as long as it lasts while also being aware it won’t last long. Today is a monthly early dismissal day; the two of them will go out to lunch with a couple of Tim’s friends and maybe one or two of Holly’s friends. It might not happen many more times; it might even not ever happen again. And of course, they have no sense of the rapid passing of time at all; they’ll find this particular ritual noteworthy only when they look back on it after these excursions are no longer happening. So it’s up to me to appreciate it right now, and be happy the two of them and Tim’s friends and Holly’s friends all enjoy each other’s company. They might appreciate it only in retrospect, but I appreciate it right now, in real time.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Another kind of streak

For the last third of 2012, it seemed that a streak of misfortune permeated the air like a vapor cloud.

I use the simile of a cloud because the misfortunes weren’t really mine: they were close to me, but not exactly touching me. There were three deaths in three months. None of them was a family member or close friend, but all were upsetting. One was a woman who became a friend during the five years we were next door neighbors. One was the husband of a friend I’ve known ever since our daughters were first in playgroup together at the age of three; since then we’ve periodically caught up at school events and kids’ birthday parties. And the third was a high school friend who had moved far away but whom I saw almost every summer over the past decade when she was home for an annual visit.

And then after three funeral services in three months came the Connecticut school shootings. A tragedy a month seemed to be the rule last fall.

Eventually, I told myself, this unhappy streak will end. Not to say more bad things won’t happen – I’m afraid I have to acknowledge that statistically, losses will become less and less of an anomaly as my peers and I plow onward through middle age – but not with this kind of monthly regularity. This is just bad luck. This is just unhappy coincidence.

Even as I said it, though, I knew there was one problem with my thinking: it’s easier to notice the improbability of a stretch marked by losses than a stretch marked by no losses. It’s not like there had been other four-month periods in my life when I’d looked around and said “Yay, no awful news lately.”

In part, that’s because it always seems a little solipsistic to claim nothing bad has happened. Something bad is always happening somewhere. The Sandy Hook shootings felt like part of my streak of unhappy news, but didn’t I owe the same respect to the victims of the Algerian gas plant attack? It seems there’s always someone I know undergoing cancer treatment. And, of course, disease and famine never take a break. There’s never a time when it really feels appropriate to look around and say “Hey, everything is great right now!’ It may be true for me, but that means only that I’m casting a very narrow gaze.

Still, I told myself that when a month passed without a significant loss, I would remember to observe it. And so as February begins, that’s what I’m doing. For all of January, nothing terrible happened, no awful news arrived by text or email or word of mouth or newscast. Bad things were happening somewhere, to be sure, but for me the month was marked by serenity.

Whether this is something to feel gratitude for or merely a sign of obtuseness is hard to say. Things are never perfect; if all seemed well last month, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention or caring enough. But whatever the reason, January was a good month without bad news. And since during the previous months I promised I wouldn’t let it go unremarked when that happened, I’m observing and celebrating it and expressing gratitude. Right now, in this new month of February. Which, so far, has also been pretty good. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

All new to me

Since fall of 2004, I’ve been receiving emails addressed to “Class of 2013.” This is my 14-year-old son’s official designation at the Carlisle Public School: class of 2013. So when I received an email last month addressed to “Class of 2017,” I was momentarily puzzled. 2017 – where did that come from? I wondered. A misprint?

Oh, right. We’re halfway through Tim’s eighth grade year. This is our first official correspondence from the high school he’ll attend next year – where he will, in fact, be part of the class of 2017.

The email was an invitation to eighth grade parents to attend tonight’s tour and presentation at the high school. And at first, I avoided putting it on my calendar. The whole idea of high school fills me with mild anxiety. It doesn’t seem to bother Tim a whit, but it is certainly bringing out my insecurities.

At some point recently, it occurred to me why this was. Tim started attending the Carlisle Public School in kindergarten and is now in his ninth year there. As such, he is following the same course I did. I graduated from the same K-8 school he’ll soon graduate from, but I did not attend the public high school, as he will. So next fall, for the first time in nine years – and effectively for the first time in his life, if we don’t count preschool – I’ll be sending him off to a school that wasn’t once my school. A campus with which I’m almost entirely unfamiliar. A cafeteria in which I’ve never sat down to lunch. An auditorium within which I’ve never attended an assembly. Hallways whose smells aren’t a part of my earliest memories. This will all be new to me – and within his first day or two there, Tim will know the school better than I do.

But when I finally took the time to read through the email and realize that tonight’s presentation was truly the first signal that Tim would soon be off to high school, I had to confront the fact that the anxieties were all mine, not Tim’s. He doesn’t talk about high school much, but when he does, he’s sanguine. He’s looking forward to a bigger campus, the possibility of playing freshman football, and having classes with some of the Concord kids he’s met through regional baseball teams over the years. And he’s not apprehensive at all that he’ll be off to a place with which his mother is unfamiliar – that’s my issue, not his. In fact, he seems to know more about it already than I do. A few days ago, for reasons I can’t remember, Holly asked him where high school kids go for Spanish class. “The L building,” he replied nonchalantly. 

“The L building?” I repeated nervously. The campus is that huge – they have Buildings A through L? Or even more?

“L for language, Mom,” Tim said. How he knew that I don’t know, but it turned out he was right. Foreign language classes are in fact in the L building.

By the time my younger child is graduating from eighth grade and getting ready for high school, it will all feel familiar to me. Maybe it will even feel familiar to her, as a second child. So tonight I’ll head off to the high school for the first time as a prospective high school parent, and maybe then I’ll feel less apprehensive. Last time Tim entered a new school, he was five years old and following in the same footsteps I’d set 32 years earlier. This time it’s all new. But he’s not concerned, and so I will try not to be either. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Goodnight Moon (and goodnight Victor Hugo and Ralph Waldo Emerson)

When you have laboriously accomplished your daily tasks, go to sleep in peace. God is awake. 
- Victor Hugo

I’m not sure when I first read this quotation – I don’t think it was more than about six months ago – but it’s one of those quotations that made less of an impression on me upon first reading than it has in the time since with its sticking power. I didn’t dwell on it or commit it to memory when I first came across it, but recently I think of it almost every night as I get ready to go to bed. It reminds me of the sense of serenity from acknowledging that the day is done and it is time for closure on all that the day involved.

Sometimes, too, I find myself thinking about the other ways that this idea has been expressed in the common vernacular. I think of taps: “Day is done. Gone the sun. ….All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.” And I think of Goodnight Moon, when I’m shutting down my computer, only I like to rephrase it as “Goodnight email. Goodnight calendar. Goodnight Facebook friends everywhere.”

All of these examples convey the same idea: there is a time to acknowledge that the day’s work is done. In the past, I’ve so often found it easier to rebuke myself for all that didn’t get done as the day ends than to accept it. Housework left incomplete. Interviews for the following day that I haven’t prepared for all that well. Emails I haven’t yet returned. Errands I’m procrastinating on for yet another day.

And it’s so easy to get entrenched in these negative thoughts of what didn’t happen that you overlook what did: another day brought to an ultimately successful conclusion.

But somehow these words make it easier for me. Goodnight to this day, I tell myself now with Victor Hugo’s lines in mind. I’ve done what I can and it’s someone else’s turn to keep watch now that it’s nighttime.

But, interestingly, once I decided I wanted to try to write a blog post about this half-remembered quote, I couldn’t recall who wrote it, and I had the idea that it was by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Finally I found it, and saw that it was not Emerson but Hugo, but then realized there was another Emerson quote with which I was confusing it:

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

Emerson, Unitarian minister that he is, doesn’t bring God into it; he simply gives us the responsibility for finding closure on the day ourselves. Never mind God keeping watch, Emerson seems to say; the point is still that your work is done and you are ready to begin again tomorrow.

I like both quotes. I like the text of Goodnight Moon too. I like the idea that it is all right to just walk away from undone or half-done tasks at the end of the day. Because as both writers say, there’s time enough tomorrow to try it all again.