Harvard Med School puts out these great newsletters and special reports on health. This one, on the connection between stress and heart problems, is worth reading. Anyone who’s ever struggled with chronic stress, have a look:
November 2, 2013
Check your stress (and negative thoughts) at the door
A growing body of evidence suggests that psychological factors are — literally — heartfelt, and can contribute to cardiac risk. Stress from all sorts of challenging situations and events plays a significant role in cardiovascular symptoms and outcome, particularly heart attack risk. The same is true for depression, anxiety, anger, hostility, and social isolation. Acting alone, each of these factors heightens your chances of developing heart problems. But these issues often occur together, for example, psychological stress often leads to anxiety, depression can lead to social isolation, and so on.
Does reducing stress, or changing how you respond to it, actually reduce your chances of developing heart disease or having a heart attack? It isn’t entirely clear, but many studies suggest the answer is “yes.” There is much to learn about exactly how. Research indicates that constant stress contributes biologically to heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure and the formation of artery-clogging deposits. Other research finds that chronic stress may make it harder to sleep, eat well, quit smoking, and exercise.
Fortunately, you can learn healthier ways to respond to stress that may help your heart and improve your quality of life. These include relaxation exercises (deep breathing, guided imagery), physical activity (walking, yoga), and staying connected with friends, co-workers, family members.
For more on taking control of coronary artery disease and protecting yourself from a heart attack, buy Diagnosis: Coronary Artery Disease, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.
2 ways to protect your heart — improve sleep and manage stress
If you have heart disease, you’re probably all too familiar with tenets of a heart-healthy lifestyle; eat wisely, get regular physical activity, keep weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar on target; and if you smoke, quit. What you might not know is that sufficient, good-quality sleep and stress control also offer genuine benefits to your heart.
Two sleep-related problems that plague many people — sleep deprivation and sleep apnea — have been linked to a higher risk of heart disease.
• Sleep deprivation. Over time, inadequate or poor quality sleep can increase the risk for a number of chronic health problems, including heart disease. Studies have linked short-term sleep deprivation with several well-known contributors to heart disease, including high cholesterol, high triglycerides, and high blood pressure.
• Sleep apnea. This common cause of loud, disruptive snoring makes people temporarily stop breathing many times during the night. Up to 83% of people with heart disease also have sleep apnea, according to some estimates.
In the most common form, obstructive sleep apnea, soft tissue in the upper part of the mouth or back of the throat completely blocks the airway. Oxygen levels dip and the brain sends an urgent “Breathe now!” signal. That signal briefly wakes the sleeper and makes him or her gasp for air. That signal also jolts the same stress hormone and nerve pathways that are stimulated when you are angry or frightened. As a result, the heart beats faster and blood pressure rises — along with other things that can threaten heart health such as inflammation and an increase in blood clotting ability.
If you snore often and loudly — especially if you find yourself tired during the day — talk with your doctor about an evaluation for sleep apnea.
Get your copy of Diagnosis: Coronary Artery Disease
Most people fear heart disease — and with good reason: it’s the leading cause of death for both men and women. But something that people may not realize is that preventing this disease is often within their control. Most people who develop heart disease have one or more major risk factors that are within their power to change. These include lack of exercise, high blood pressure, and abnormal cholesterol levels. There are surefire ways to tackle these risk factors that you can include in your daily life.
Harvard Medical School offers special reports on over 50 health topics.
Visit our website at http://www.health.harvard.edu to find reports of interest to you and your family.
“To say that democracy has been awakened by the events of the last few weeks is not enough. Any person will awaken when the house is burning down. What we need is an armed guard that will wake up when the fire starts, or, better yet, one that will not permit a fire to start at all. We should profit by the lesson of England and make our democracy work. We must make it work right now. Any system of government will work when everything is going well. It is the system that functions in the pinches that survives.”— JFK, senior thesis, Harvard; published 1940 [this passage quoted from the Washington Post]
“The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas … brought home to me a lesson without which it is almost impossible to become a professional writer: from it I first learned that the writers who wrote books, the writers who created published works, brilliant works, exciting works, were people. They had bodies. They lived in actual houses. They ate meals. They liked certain of their acquaintances and disliked others. They had personalities. They were neither gods nor primal forces—voices alone, moving, bodiless, through space and time. Their day-to-day humanity ceded them the material for their art.” — Samuel R. Delaney, About Writing
When writing, “the writer must accustom him- or herself to thinking about structure—and to thinking about it constantly. … While writing, you must constantly be thinking such thoughts as: As I write this section of my story, is there another section that must be more or less the same length (or much shorter; or much longer) in order to balance it? Given the feel of this section, is there another section that, for the story to be satisfying, should have the same feel? Is there a section that must have a markedly different feel? How does this section differ in feel from the previous section? How should the next section differ in feel from this one? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how does a previous occurrence cause the reader to regard the one I’m currently writing about?”
The writer must absorb “the range of structures…from the possible play of sounds in sentences, to the necessary structures for a variety of scenic resonances, to the structures for the interplay of texts and countertexts in tension with another that make the novel into the richest of symphonic art forms.” — Samuel R. Delaney, on structure; from About Writing
Samuel R. Delaney, on the difference between good writing and talented writing:
Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic.
Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind—vividly, forcefully—that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.
Talent appears in many forms. Some forms are diametric to each other, even mutually exclusive. (In The Dyer’s Hand, W.H. Auden says most successful writers overestimate their intelligence and underestimate their talent. Often they have to do this to preserve sanity; they still do it. The talented writer often uses specifics and avoids generalities—generalities that his or her specifics suggest. Because they are suggested, rather than stated, they may register with the reader far more forcefully than if they were articulated. Using specifics to imply generalities—whether they are general emotions we all know or ideas we have all vaguely sensed—is dramatic writing. A trickier proposition that takes just as much talent requires the writer carefully to arrange generalities for a page or five pages, followed by a specific that makes the generalities open up and take on new resonance. Henry James calls the use of such specifics “the revelatory gesture,” but it is just as great a part of Marcel Proust’s art. Indeed, it might be called the opposite of “dramatic” writing, but it can be just as strong—if not, sometimes stronger. …
The talented writer often uses rhetorically interesting, musical, or lyrical phrases that are briefer than the pedestrian way of saying “the same thing.”
The talented writer can explode, as with a verbal microscope, some fleeting sensation or action, tease out insights, and describe subsensations that we all recognize, even if we have rarely considered them before; that is, he or she describes them at greater length and tells more about them than other writers.
In complex sentences with multiple clauses that relate in complex ways, the talented writer will organize those clauses in the chronological order in which the referents occur, despite the logical relation grammar imposes.
Published 1933 by Grosset & Dunlap. Contributions by Dos Passos, Lawrence, Steinbeck, Havelock Ellis, Langston Hughes, Erskine Caldwell, my guy Ben Hecht, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dreiser, Lardner. The women are listed under the byline “Anonymous.” A few spectacularly hilarious and timeless ledes and lines:
"That, taking one with another, women’s minds are less clean than men’s is a fact which, while sufficiently recognized by men in the mass, has yet strangely, so far as I know, not found its commentator and analyst on paper. We have had a few general epigrams on the subject, and we have thought, now and again, that we were about to read some sharp and penetrating statement on the matter, but in both cases delicate evasion and polite half-statement have been the only reward of our curiosity. In the interests of lovely truth, therefore, let us make bold to pursue the inquiry a bit further." - from “Sweet Faces and Foul Minds,” by George Jean Nathan (George needed (a) an editor, (b) a clue, not necessarily in that order.)
"Too long have they suffered under adversity’s rod." - from “Latins Are Lousy Lovers,” by Anonymous (Not sure the research bears out but nice line. Well done, chica. Well. Done.)
"Any girl, if the body she possesses isn’t actually deformed and the face badly moth-bitten, is going to become acquainted with the gentle art of seduction fairly early in life. As for myself, I’ve had what I now recognize as more than my share of experience." - from “The Wench Is Not Amused,” by Anonymous (There follows what may have been among the first lists of the kind, men’s seven fundamental approaches to wooing women, including “The Crudest,” “The Cheapest,” and “The Outright Purchase.”)
"Spring is here, the girls have emerged from their winter cocoons of cloth and fur and the jiggle is once more abroad in the land. All winter long the jiggle, that gayest decoration of the public scene, that champagne of movement which can be accomplished only by the human female, has been obscured from the public gaze by heavy fabrics and voluminous draperies." - from “Essay on Jiggling,” (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP), by George A. McNamara
"Gentlemen who flip through pages of trade papers in the male-trapping industry, such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, are deterred in this casual practice by the shockingly frank advertising illustrations of intimate items of feminine merchandise. A true gentleman would no more tarry in deliberate inspection of such gems of commercial art than he would pause after blundering accidentally upon an alarmed female stranger partially immersed in a bathtub off the guest room." - from “A Breast of the Times,” by Herb Graffis (Oh you tarried, Herb. You tarried.)
"The marvelous thing is that it’s painless," he said. "That’s how you know when it starts." - from “The Snows of Kilimanjaro, by Ernest Hemingway
"The great surge of emotion, the milling and shouting of the people fell gradually to silence in the town park. A crowd of people still stood under the elm trees, vaguely lighted by a blue street light two blocks away. A tired quiet settled on the people; some members of the mob began to sneak away into the darkness. The park lawn was cut to pieces by the feet of the crowd." - from “The Lonesome Vigilante,” by John Steinbeck
"First it was that the driver was late, then he had to go to the garage to get a mechanic to tinker with the gasoline pump, then that he had to go somewhere else to wait in line for gasoline; and so, in pacing round the hotel, in running up and down stairs, in scraps of conversation in the lobby, the Madrid morning dribbled numbly away in delay after delay. At last we were off. As we passed the Cibeles fountain two shells exploded far up the sunny Sastillana. Stonedust mixed with pale smoke of high explosives suddenly blurred the ranks of budding trees, under which a few men and women were strolling because it was Sunday and because they were in the habit of strolling there on Sunday. The shells hit too far away for us to see if anyone were hit. Our driver speeded up a little." - from “The Villages Are the Heart of Spain,” by John Dos Passos (Yes. Yes.)
Someone should build a graduate psychology of journalism master class around the works cited in this Janet Malcolm passage alone (from The Paris Review). What to call such a course? Needs a sexy title.
Interesting. I do wonder, though, if psychoanalysis might be somehow involved in your unearthing of the hidden aggressions involved in the writing process. One of the most striking elements of your work is the preoccupation with the relationship between the writer and her subject. In a recent New Yorker piece, you say of journalism that “malice remains its animating impulse.” This type of motive searching seems to me to be somehow connected to the habits of mind we associate with psychoanalysis.
I think you are asking me, in the most tactful way possible, about my own aggression and malice. What can I do but plead guilty? I don’t know whether journalists are more aggressive and malicious than people in other professions. We are certainly not a “helping profession.” If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take. I am hardly the first writer to have noticed the not-niceness of journalists. Tocqueville wrote about the despicableness of American journalists in Democracy in America. In Henry James’s satiric novel The Reverberator, a wonderful rascally journalist named George M. Flack appears. I am only one of many contributors to this critique. I am also not the only journalist contributor. Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, for instance, have written on the subject. Of course, being aware of your rascality doesn’t excuse it.
Yesterday this thing about death moved on the wire (okay, it moved on Facebook), via the “I f***ing love science” page—
You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.
And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.
And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.
It’s a cool and comforting thought, kind of. I wondered if it’s a true one. I’m teaching a narrative seminar this semester to fellows of M.I.T.’s Knight Science Journalism program, and one of the great pleasures of the experience is watching how this enormously talented crew handles complex explanations. When the death thing appeared I sent it to the class and said, “Can I get a Gefter fact check?”
"Gefter" is Amanda Gefter, whose book about physics and the nature of reality will be published in January by Random House. It’s called Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, and you should buy it. Anyway, here’s what she said:
Well, *technically* it’s all true — conservation of mass/energy is an inviolable principle of nature, and quantum physics shows that every particle that interacts with your body carries a trace memory of that interaction forever. Whether that’s really so comforting … I don’t know. The most telling bit is the end: “Not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.” The problem is that what makes you “you” is not the mass/energy in your body but the orderliness of it. I mean, no one at your funeral is crying over the loss of your mass/energy - presumably, that’s still sitting in the coffin. What are they crying about? (What makes you “you”?) For that, you probably need a neuroscientist on the pulpit. But certainly it is something about the orderly pattern of activity in your body (brain), and not the matter itself. (Maybe there’s some way to download that pattern into a computer…. *that* would be comforting!) Also I cringe at the phrase “your energy”. Energy is energy is energy — there’s not “my energy” or “your dead cat’s energy” etc.
However, in the genre of comfort-by-physics, I happen to like what Albert Einstein wrote to the family of his close friend Michele Besso when Besso passed away: “Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
The most mesmerizing details about Eric Moskowitz’s Globeexclusive on “Danny,” the young Chinese entrepreneur who spent 90 minutes with the Tsarnaev brothers in his carjacked Mercedes, and lived to tell about it:
1) He went to his college adviser and a criminology professor for help.
2) He devalued himself by aging his car and lying about his car payments.
3) His ATM code = a friend’s birthdate. Aw.
4) The brothers asked if the car could be “driven out of state.” Huh.
5) Danny kept visualizing himself in action: bolting from the car, a roll-away escape, etc.
6) The satellite system that tracked Danny’s car is called “mbrace.”
“And then one day last spring he was playing golf on a course in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean in the north of Spain. He had weathered the scandal at N.C. State. He had won an ACE for excellence in cable-television sports analysis. He had turned down an offer to coach at Wichita State and signed contract extensions with ABC and ESPN. He had time, finally, for long dinners with his wife, for poetry readings and movies with his 12-, 20- and 23-year-old daughters. He had an assignment to do sideline commentary on a World League football game in Barcelona; he had a tee time on the course just north of the city. “How beautiful it was that day,” he would remember. “How happy I was….” And then he felt an ache in his testicles. That’s how death comes. A pang in the crotch when a man’s standing in the sun gazing across the green hills and the bluest goddam sea in the world, deciding between a three-wood and an iron.”—As Time Runs Out, by Gary Smith, Sports Illustrated
“It’s okay to be a ghost. It has its pleasures. You’re light. You float. You slip in and out, unseen. There’s no love to lose. Or burden to be. You have so little to hold you down. You are free. Some pearls are never found. They hide under the sand on the ocean floor. No one knows they’re there. But the pearl knows. Maybe there was a time he wanted to be found, to be seen, and to be held. But now only hope hurts. I am my own secret. A secret kept by me.”—”Tyler,” in the opening of Enlightened, 2/10
An upside of purging: Agee, Dylan, Kapuscinski, Lawrence, New Orleans, Baldwin and the U.S. Army
Found in files, a packet of reading materials, provenance unknown. Included:
James Agee’s “Tennessee Valley Authority” (Fortune magazine, October 1934), from James Agee: Selected Journalism. The next story in the collection: “Cockfighting,” a piece most decidedly of its time. The opening:
You are a gentleman. You have a taste for sport (most likely horses), leisure to indulge it, and an estate. One quiet morning you walk down to your stables. As you come around the side of the barn, you hear a soft but violent fluttering of wings, an agitated hissing, a passionate exclaiming of low voices. You look down, and there are your Negroes (if you happen to be a southern gentleman) crouched in a wide circle on the ground, leaning on bent knuckles, peering into the center of the ring. They are watching two birds, large and brightly colored, that cling together beak to beak with arched necks, dancing up and down, while their wings whir and they slash at each other viciously, rapidly, with their spurs. The birds are gamecocks, most ferocious of all domestic creatures, and their dance is fatal—it can end only in death. And you are present at one of the many new births of man’s most ancient sport, legally extinct in at least forty of the United States, frowned on in all, minor and surreptitious pleasure of the rich, secret passion of the poor, purpose of the Hell Tap Club, most exclusive in the world: cockfighting.
"Grapes," by D.H. Lawrence (…For we are on the brink of re-remembrance/Which, I suppose, is why America has gone dry…)
Pages 180 and 181 of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles (Volume 1), with the following lines underlined and the second entry triple-starred:
There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better. … The city is one very long poem.
Everything in New Orleans is a good idea.
Chronic melancholia hanging from the trees. You never get tired of it.
One of Napoleon’s generals, Lallemand, was said to have come here to check it out, looking for a place for his commander to seek refuge after Waterloo. He scouted around and left, said that here the devil is damned, just like everybody else, only worse. The devil comes here and sighs.
Somebody puts something in front of you here and you might as well drink it.
>"The Emperor," by Ryszard Kapuscinski (“In the evenings I listened to those who had known the Emperor’s court…”)
Anna Akhmatova’s “The Three Autumns” (I don’t understand summer smiles at all/and winter holds no charm for me/Yet as for autumn, almost without fail/I’ve noticed every year has three.
An excerpt of James Baldwin’s uncollected writings, The Cross of Redemption, with a passage starred:
And an excerpt of the U.S. Army Survival Manual, an amazing document. Starred: the section on personal qualities (“Being able to make up your mind; being able to improvise; being able to live with yourself…”), along with “Size up the situation,” “Remember where you are,” and:
“The struggle to become an artist is an old and powerful theme. And Jack London makes it persuasive partly because he is in his own territory — it is really the Horatio Alger story of his childhood, about the poor boy making good — and partly because he focuses on a writer’s work, and London almost always writes brilliantly about work. All the detail is wonderful to read: the hours at the typewriter, the zigzag course from the door to the head of the bed, the Spartan meals of rice and dried fruit, and the incessant trips to the pawnshop. But more impressive than the account of Martin Eden’s work is the story of the growth of his mind, the great theme of romantic poetry. And this is also convincing, not, certainly, in the set-piece speeches, but in the passages about Martin’s solitary study.”— the magnificent Robert Hass, What Light Can Do
The awesome lede of article headlined “The Bee Business”:
"There are in the U.S. some 250,000,000,000 honeybees, practically all of which are sedulously working themselves to death. Predominantly female, they spend their lives on an aromatic assembly line, supporting lazy males from which they get no pleasure and ravenous young from which they get no affection. Their quarters are as congested as a tenement, and their queen is solely interested in propagation. In their rare moments of elation they dance around the hive to inform their fellow workers that they have discovered a new source of food. Which leads them right back to work again. Their social setup has been variously interpreted as a monarchy, a democracy (English style), and a dictatorship of the proletariat. In reality it is a confusion of all of them. And the honeybees have been conditioned to that setup by the ages. Compared with them, the citizens of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are brazenly individualistic. But it is this unrelenting devotion to a humdrum tradition of duty that makes the honeybee invaluable to man. For in gathering pollen for the larvae in the hive, the honeybee does more to spread fertility among plants and trees than anything else save the wind. And in gathering nectar for adults in the hive, the honeybee not only effects pollination but prepares a foodstuff man has been using since time began."
Not a barbecue grill:
Kinda cool little infografic, showing location of Wall Street companies:
"I will try to keep this from becoming gamy, but it is going to be hard. This is an article about the feminine-hygiene spray, and how it was developed and sold. I will try to keep it witty and charming, but inevitably something is going to sneak in to remind you what this product is really about. This product is really about vaginal odor. There are a lot of advertisements on television for the product that are so subtle on this point that some people—maybe not you, but some people—might not even know what the product does. There are a lot of men who manufacture the product who are so reluctant to talk straight about it that you can spend hours with them and not hear one anatomical phrase. They speak of “the problem.” They speak of “the area where the problem exists.” They speak of “the need to solve the problem.” Every so often, a hard-core word slides into the conversation. Vagina, maybe. … Here, for example, are the words of Larry Foster, a public-relations man for Johnson & Johnson, manufacturers of Vespre and Naturally Feminine. He is speaking here of feminine-hygiene spray and cunnilingus; I tell you this for the simple reason that he does not.
“’What we are talking about here,’ said Foster, ‘is first, sex, and second, that segment of sex and how you react to it.’”
—Nora Ephron, 1973, from the essay “Dealing with the, uh, problem,” in Crazy Salad
When I started my Nieman f’ship, my favorite journalism professor—Tommy Miller was his name but we just called him Miller—gave me two books as a going-away gift. One was The Old Man and Lesser Mortals, by Larry King (no, not that Larry King; the better one, in Texas), and a first edition of Crazy Salad, by Nora Ephron. Miller, an old UPI and Houston Chronicle reporter and editor, loved Ephron. He thought she was tough and brilliant and funny, and she was, and I hate knowing she’s no longer in the world.
Crazy Salad contains 25 of her 1970s essays from New York magazine, Esquire and others. Here’s the opening of “Dorothy Parker,” from 1973:
Eleven years ago, shortly after I came to New York, I met a young man named Victor Navasky. Victor was trying relentlessly at that point to start a small humor magazine called Monocle, and there were a lot of meetings. Some of them were business meetings, I suppose; I don’t remember them. The ones I do remember were pure social occasions, and most of them took place at the Algonquin Hotel. Every Tuesday at 6 p.m., we would meet for drinks there and sit around pretending to be the Algonquin Round Table. I had it all worked out: Victor got to be Harold Ross, Bud Trillin and C.D.B. Bryan alternated as Benchley, whoever was fattest and grumpiest got to be Alexander Wollcott. I, of course, got to be Dorothy Parker. It was all very heady, and very silly, and very self-conscious. It was also very boring, which disturbed me. then Dorothy Parker, who was living in Los Angeles, gave a seventieth-birthday interview to the Associated Press, an interview I have always thought of as the beginning of the Revisionist School of Thinking on the Algonquin Round Table, and she said that it, too, had been boring. Which made me feel a whole lot better.
In that same essay she wrote, “I have spent a great deal of my life discovering that my ambitions and fantasies—which I once thought of as totally unique—turn out to be cliches.”
“There is the happiness which comes from creative effort. The joy of dreaming, creating, building, whether in painting a picture, writing an epic, singing a song, composing a symphony, devising new invention, creating a vast industry.”—~ Henry Miller, via Dinty Moore
"Who wants a Papa Doble? Papa Doble: two and a half jiggers Bacardi white-label rum, juice of two limes, half a grapefruit, plus six drops of maraschino, pour the whole mess with shaved ice in an electric mixer and you’re ready to rumba. I invented the damn drink and I hold the house record in drinkin’ ‘em: seventeen."
—Fake Hemingway to fake Gellhorn et al., Hemingway and Gellhorn
Received giddily by mail today: A Treasury of Great Reporting: “Literature Under Pressure” from the Sixteenth Century to Our Own Time, by Louis L. Snyder and Richard B. Morris
There’s work in here by London, Twain, Greeley, Hugo, Liebling, Hersey, Pyle, Hemingway, Winchell — and hey, a woman! West! — and it’s so big and heavy it’ll someday need its own moving box.
Here’s a passage from Dickens, 1840s, covering the beheading of a highwayman in Rome:
He had refused to confess, it seemed, without first having his wife brought to see him; and they had sent an escort for her, which had occasioned the delay.
He immediately kneeled down, below the knife. His neck fitting into a hole, made for the purpose, in a cross plank, was shut down, by another plank above; exactly like the pillory. Immediately below him was a leathern bag. And into it his head rolled instantly.
The executioner was holding it by the hair, and walking with it round the scaffold, showing it to the people, before one quite knew that the knife had fallen heavily, and with a rattling sound.
When it had traveled round the four sides of the scaffold, it was set upon a pole in front—a little patch of black and white, for the long street to stare at, and the flies to settle on. The eyes were turned upward, as if he had avoided the sight of the leathern bag, and looked to the crucifix. Every tinge and hue of life had left it in that instant. It was dull, cold, livid, wax. The body also.
There was a great deal of blood. When we left the window, and went close up to the scaffold, it was very dirty; one of the two men who were throwing water over it, turning to help the other lift the body into a shell, picked his way as through mire. A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close, that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear; and the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder.
Nobody cared or was at all affected. There was no manifestation of disgust, or pity, or indignation, or sorrow. My empty pockets were tried, several times, in the crowd immediately below the scaffold, as the corpse was being put into its coffin. It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle; meaning nothing but butchery, beyond the momentary interest, to the one wretched actor. Yes! Such a sight has one meaning and one warning. Let me not forget it. The speculators in the lottery station themselves at favorable points for counting the gouts of blood that spurt out, here or there; and buy that number. It is pretty sure to have a run upon it.
The body was carted away in due time, the knife cleansed, the scaffold taken down, and all the hideous apparatus removed. The executioner: an outlaw ex officio (what a satire on the punishment!) who dare not, for his life, cross the Bridge of St. Angelo but to do his work: retreated to his lair and the show was over.
“When morning came, I was surprised to find a treeless, undulating grassland stretching for miles under a bright blue sky. Huge bales of hay sat on the camel-colored hills and herds of cattle, horses, and heavy-shouldered buffalo grazed the land on either side of the main road that crosses the reservation from north to south. The Missouri River was up and running again after eight years of drought, and it wound along the eastern edge of the reservation with a lazy luxury, the lacy tops of trees that had sprouted up during the long dry spell just visible in the center of the wide river, waving as they drowned.”—A bit of loveliness from Katie Dobie’s Harper’s piece on sexual assault in Indian country, an ASME finalist.
At the sentence level alone, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo’s unsettlingly gorgeous epic about life in a Mumbai slum, already distinguishes itself as a teaching resource. And these lines are just from the prologue, people!
"He had deep-set eyes and sunken cheeks, a body work-hunched and wiry—the type that claimed less than its fair share of space when threading through people-choked slumlanes."
"A modest, missable presence was a useful thing in Annawadi, the sumpy plug of slum in which he lived."
"More cranes for making more buildings, the tallest of which interfered with the landing of more and more planes: It was a smogged-out, prosperity-driven obstacle course up there in the over-city, from which wads of possibility had tumbled down to the slums."
"Each evening, they returned down the slum road with gunny sacks of garbage on their backs, like a procession of broken-toothed, profit-minded Santas."
"Abdul’s mother was the haggler in the family, raining vibrant abuse upon scavengers who asked too much for their trash."
"Abdul didn’t dare voice the great flaw of his father, Karam Husain: too sick to sort much garbage, not sick enough to stay off his wife."
"To Abdul’s right, disconcertingly, came quiet snores: a laconic cousin newly arrived from a rural village, who probably assumed that women burned in the city every day."
"Some days the lips were orange, other days purple-red, as if she’d climbed the jamun-fruit tree by the Hotel Leela and mouthed it clean."
"But most of them would gladly blow their noses in your last piece of bread."
"Zahrunisa Husain was a tear-factory even on good days; it was one of her chief ways of starting conversations."
My friend @JeffGordinier emails a poem a day by a range of poets. These often save me. I open the inbox and there waits a perfect moment of clarity or beauty or humor. Here’s today’s. It appeals on all levels but especially, maybe, to creative types. Enjoy.
You are just beginning to live.
You are original and creative.
You have a yearning for perfection.
Your winsome smile will be your protection.
You are contemplative and analytical by nature.
You will take a chance in the near future.
You have an active mind and a keen imagination.
Listening is half of a conversation.
You love sports, horses and gambling but not to excess.
From now on your kindness will lead to success.
Your luck has been completely changed today.
Be direct, one can accomplish more that way.
You will get what you want through your charm and personality.
You will enjoy good health, you will be surrounded by luxury.
Someone is speaking well of you.
Now is the time to try something new.
The great war reporter Ernie Pyle supposedly rarely took notes. Truman Capote professed to have a memory so flawless he could recall entire conversations whole. (Sorry, TC, not buying it, and neither does Joshua Foer.) Even in intense, fast-moving situations some journalists take zero notes because they believe they can remember everything: the precise sequence of actions, who said what, what people looked like or were wearing. (Again, not buying it.)
Cops can tell you about the fallibility of human memory. Ask 10 witnesses to describe the same event, or even the same person, and most of the time those witnesses will say 10 different things. Even those of us trained in observation and detail get it wrong, especially under pressure. I recently ran a surprise observation/scene exercise in a class full of world-class journalists and not a single person remembered everything correctly. Nor did I. In this exercise some students have been known to get even a participant’s race wrong.
I use this checklist with students but it’s solid for all of us who are in the business of telling true stories. We’re all students of the craft, no matter how long we’ve been in the game.
>Don’t assume your memory is perfect, even if you’re highly decorated and have been in the field a bajillion years (and maybe especially if you’ve been in the field a bajillion years).
>Cross-check sources’ recollections, if possible—via other sources, video/audio footage, personal observation. (Remember the scene in Shattered Glass where Chuck Lane makes Stephen Glass take him to the site of the alleged hacker convention and learns first hand that the space was closed on the day the convention supposedly happened. You can thank @penenberg for that one; he’s the one who busted Glass.)
>Document: Write it down, film it, record it—whatever you have to do to freeze it accurately in time.
>Look for paper trails—and be skeptical of them. Witnesses to the same event may recall the details differently but consensus leads—if nine of 10 witnesses said the suspect was 5-8 and one said 6-3, you’re going with the 5-8. And if you have the pleasure of a solid paper trail, read everything. What if you stopped w/the witness who reported 6-3?
>Practice better observation/focus/recall techniques. There’s books about this stuff.
>Review the facts as soon as you’ve experienced them. The 19th century German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus found what “has become one of the few certainties of neuroscience: namely, that all memories grow continuously weaker, but that the rate of ‘decay’ lessens each time you review the information,” according to the above-linked Guardian piece.
>Make no excuses. “Oh but that’s more or less what happened”—not good enough. “Fact checking will fix it”—a dangerous and sloppy journalistic work ethic.
You, as the reporter, are the first line of defense. Your goal should be for fact checkers—should you be lucky enough to work with them—to find little to nothing to correct. (Never happens but still, a worthy ideal.) If you’re doing your job you won’t be missing the larger substance of the story by paying attention to the details.
how many writers does it take to change a lightbulb?
If you use this at your next party, and don’t lie, you know you will, you may thank this dude, Mike Pope, a technical editor at Microsoft in Seattle.
Q. How many writers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. Ten. One to change it; nine to think they could have done it better.
Q: How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: But why do we have to change it?
Q. How many editors does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. Only one; but first they have to rewire the entire building.
Q: How many editors does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: I can’t tell whether you mean “change a lightbulb” or “have sex in a lightbulb.” Can we reword it to remove ambiguity?
Q: If you want to change a lightbulb, how many editors do you need?
A: The way this is worded does not conform to our style guide.
Q: How many senior editors does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: You were supposed to have changed that lightbulb last week!
Q. How many copy editors does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. The last time this question was asked, it involved senior editors. Is the difference intentional? Should one or the other instance be changed? It seems inconsistent.
Q: How many copy editors does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Copy editors aren’t supposed to change lightbulbs. They should just query them.
Q: How many programmers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: File a bug on that and we’ll triage it.
Q: How many localization program managers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Sorry, we already handed the lightbulb off, so we can’t change it.
Q: How many copy editors does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Just one, but it takes at least three passes.
Q: How many copy editors does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Depends on just how married the author is to the old lightbulb.
"Cook your chicken. Everybody says it’s better to do a hen than a chicken. You get it at the grocery store; you don’t have to go out and wring its neck or anything. Put it in a big pot and cover it with water and cut you up at least one onion and boil it till it’s done. If it’s a hen you’ll know it’s done when you can take the leg and wiggle it and pull it away from the hen. If it’s chicken it’s got to boil an hour and a half, and a hen a couple of hours.
"Cook it in a big pot—you’ve got to have lots of that broth, see. Put in your salt and your pepper and at least one onion; two wouldn’t hurt.
"Then you gotta cook your cornbread. You know how to cook cornbread. You’ll have to have that black skillet almost to the top to be sure you have enough. You’re gonna crumble up that cornbread in your pan, ever’ bit of it, and get two pieces of loaf bread—if you don’t have loaf bread, don’t go out and buy it, but if you have any get a couple of slices and mix it in with the cornbread. Then cut up two large onions and about eight eggs—everybody says the more eggs and onions, the better it’ll taste.
"Mix all of it up and pull all the chicken off the bone and put it in there.
"Put your chicken in there and then get the broth and put it in there. Throw all that in the pan with sage and butter. You get the sage at the grocery store. It’s in the spice column.
"So: cornbread, loaf bread, cut up those two big ol’ onions, you’re gonna pull the chicken off the bone, you’re gonna pour that broth in there, you’re gonna put two sticks of butter and then sprinkle that sage. This is where it gets to be tricky: I don’t know how much. Just dump it all in there and stir it with a big ol’ spoon. I sometimes mix it up right in the pan I’m gonna put it in, or I have one of these big Tupperware bowls. But it really doesn’t matter.
"Put it in the oven at the top, not way down low or you’ll burn the bottom. 350 degrees. Shake your pan, and when it don’t move, it’s done."
Sweet Potato Casserole
“Get you three cups of cooked potatoes, mashed up. One cup of sugar. A half-cup of butter. Two eggs. One TABLESPOON vanilla. Put all these in a mixing bowl and mix it with a mixer. You’ve already scrunched up your potatoes with a fork. Then you put all that in and beat ‘em. Two or three minutes. Then pour ‘em in a casserole dish.
"The topping is one cup of brown sugar, one cup of pecans, half a cup of flour and one-third cup butter. Now DON’T MELT YOUR BUTTER. Put the butter in a bowl with your flour and brown sugar and cut it. Cut it with a fork. Soften it by letting it lay out where it won’t be so hard to scrunch up. But mash it up and stir it and cut it back and forth with a fork. I even use a knife sometimes and cut it all together that way. It ought to be something you can take and crumble with your hand. If you melt that butter, it changes the texture and then you get into a spoon deal.
"Just mix it all up with a fork and put it on top of the casserole and bake it for 20 minutes at 350 degrees."
He described his disappointment after reading National Magazine Award entries as one of the preliminary judges: “The collective reaction to those pieces reinforced what I had come to see as a disquieting trend in the magazine trade: a dullness, a numbing predictability, a growing sense of stories crafted less with a desire for greatness than with an eye for avoiding mistakes.
"Over the years I had heard the same complaint from others, and not just from my over-forty crowd: magazines were a bore. At the end of the day, at the grown-up version of "story time," people found themselves reaching not for a magazine, but for a book. The reaction was more one of disappointment than anger, as is often the case when change occurs so gradually that it is difficult to recall a particular moment when things began to shift."
The piece ran nearly 10 years ago. We can think of obvious exceptions but does the essence of the argument stand?
Sunday Sermon! Jack Hart on what's in your notebook
"When writers come to me for coaching, I always spend the first couple of sessions learning how they operate. I quiz them about how the organize their material, find structures, and write drafts. One of the most revealing exercises is a look in their reporting notebooks. If they’re newsies, the chances are that I’ll find page after page of direct quotations.
“The quote-filled notebook promises dull writing for conventional news stories, and it’s death for narrative. How can you tell a real story if you lack the raw material you need to build character, create scenes, describe action, or develop themes? A narrative writer’s notebook—or even the notebook for a good features writer—should be filled with visual details, anecdotes, action sequences, smells, and the like. The best even include reporting on the reporter, noting any questions, emotions, or other internal reactions that occurred during observation. All those can help guide the writing.” ~ from Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, by the great former Oregonian writing coach/editor Jack Hart.