Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Why writing is like riding a bike

Mountain, racing, motocross, tandem, unicycle. Whichever you prefer, it boils down to riding a bike. Writing is the same -- no matter the genre, it's all rooted in the same components. Let's break it down, bicycle-style.

Pick the right vehicle.

Mountain bikes are terrible commuting bikes. And you wouldn't want to tackle the Appalachian Trail with a banana-seat. In the same way, you need to know who the piece is reaching and what it's expected to accomplish before you take another step. To that end, you *must* define your audience before doing anything else. Who's reading it? What's the goal? What should the main takeaways be? Where will the piece appear? Identify these fundamentals, and you increase your chances of success on earlier tries.

Find the right fit.

Test ride, test ride, test ride. You'd never buy a style or brand that didn't resonate with you. So why subject your audience to an uncomfortable ride? Just as the bike shop measures you sit bones, height, and leg length, you too need to know what works for your audience. Corporate, fluffy, informative, informal -- find the tone that hit home on the first read. Don't know what your audience wants? Then research it. Read other notable publications your audience is reading. Watch what they watch. Investigate what makes them tick and turns them off. Then take your copy for a spin.

Determine your destination.

As romantic as it sounds to set off for a Sunday bike ride with no agenda in mind, you run the risk of exceeding your energy level, running out of water, or plain old getting lost. So imagine starting to write without any idea where you're headed; it carries equal threat of wasted energy. Here, outlines are invaluable for pieces of any length. Be they 400, 2000, or 10,000 words, jotting down the idea skeleton will help you frame the story, craft the flow, and build a cohesive piece. It will also identify snags early on and help you avoid writing around in circles. Talk about smoother roads!

Aim for quality.

Not all bikes are the sum of their parts. The quality of a bike is determined by its mechanics and components, so you can add certain details to maximize performance. Writing is no different. You don't want flashy gimmicks so much as you want appropriate style. Pick the techniques that will make your copy sing, whether it's a strong statistic, telling anecdote, or even a visual. Remember, a mediocre bike will eventually have to be replaced. But a high-quality one will be worth the initial investment -- which is exactly how you want your readers to feel when they take the time to read your piece and glean value from it.

Gear up for excitement!

You're more likely to stick to your exercise resolutions if you're excited about riding on your bike. And your audience is more likely to stick with your writing if they get a sense of your enthusiasm. Sure, some pieces will need drier tones, but that doesn't mean you need to make it boring. If you're not having fun writing it, chances are your readers won't enjoy reading it. So flex your creative muscles, revel in the exercise of crafting a quality piece, and watch your work flow from there.

Hat tip to Susannah for her helpful bike tips and inadvertant inspiration for this post :-)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Prayer #37: Dow, Dow, Down

NEW YORK, Sept 29 (Reuters) - The Dow industrials plunged on Monday in their biggest decline ever after U.S. lawmakers unexpectedly rejected a $700 billion financial bailout, spooking investors who fear for the future of global markets and the U.S. economy.

The Dow lost 778 points, its largest point decline in history, and posted its biggest daily percentage slide since the 1987 stock market crash.

Prayer #37: Dow, Dow, Down

It's a great day to be a moth. Because within a few hours, there will be many more empty wallets and pockets to populate.

Lord, I know you don't deal with fiscal policy. Day trading and stock markets aren't your thing. You couldn't care less about a person's FICA score. But these financial entities are mighty important to us penny-pinching mortals, and we'll need your mighty assistance as the deflating economy pushes our tight fists tighter.

Grant us the cents to make ends meet, and the sense to be frugal. Endow in us a generous spirit to help those who suffer the most -- people losing homes, jobs, health insurance, hope. Guide our spirits toward optimism, and direct our sight to a more stable future when our free market rights itself.

Above all, help us maintain the invaluable assets that never show up in a 401(k) -- perseverance, creativity, work ethic, good humor, and even better stick-to-it-iveness.

Recession = billions lost. But your grace ... priceless.

Amen.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Happy Single Americans Week!

To all the single and unmarried folks livin' la vida sola out there -- this federally designated week is for you.

I myself on away on vacation this week (hence the paucity of blog posts), but I couldn't pass up an opportunity to shout out to my fellow Singletons and share some of our more exciting statistics:

92 million

Number of unmarried Americans 18 and older in 2006. This group comprised 42 percent of all U.S. residents 18 and older. (Almost a majority! Start planning the bloodless coup!)

54%
Percentage of unmarried Americans 18 and older who are women. (That IS a majority! Woohoo!)

60%
Percentage of unmarried Americans 18 and older who have never been married. (So why do I have the perception that everyone is married except me?)

15 million
Number of unmarried Americans 65 and older. These older Americans comprise 16 percent of all unmarried and single people 18 and older. (Old men = untapped resource.)

86
Number of unmarried men 18 and older for every 100 unmarried women in the United States. (Two words: NOT. FAIR.)

50.7 million
Number of households maintained by unmarried men or women. These households comprise 44 percent of households nationwide. (And we all shop at Target to furnish those households, thereby single-handedly keeping the economy afloat.)

30.5 million
Number of people who live alone. They comprise 27 percent of all households, up from 17 percent in 1970. (In a related statistic, 42.8 million cats live with them.)

24%
Percentage of unmarried people 25 and older in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree or more education. (Why isn't this higher? I'm really asking.)

And my personal favorite ...

904
The number of dating service establishments nationwide as of 2002. These establishments, which include Internet dating services, employed nearly 4,300 people and generated $489 million in revenues. (Indicating that 92 million single and unmarried Americans don't want to stay that way.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

College ain't cheap ... but it can be

I love learning. I love school. I love money. Too bad all three didn't come together as neatly as I had hoped with my college tuition.

So to help everybody else avoid the bank account-crushing weight of private university debt, I give you the "College Ain't Cheap" $50,000 Tuition Giveaway from mental_floss.

No, you don't get $50,000 every year for all four years. But you DO get $10,000 for books and other important incidentals ... provided you can convince them you deserve it in that inimitable mental_floss style.

Hell, even their consolation prize is cool -- dinner with a mental_floss co-founder (Will Pearson or Mangesh Hattikudur) and your best pals. So hurry your little college-bound self along, and write what may be the most lucrative essay of your career.

P.S. Kudos to mental_floss for the viral savvy behind this promotion -- love the blogger quid pro quo they're offering to increase promotion. And hat tip to Nemo for passing it along!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Prayer #36: Veni, Vidi, No Visa

Prayer #36: Veni, Vidi, No Visa

Visas. They can be nowhere you want to be. At least for those who want to be in the United States.

Lord, tonight I pray for our immigrants -- the students, the spouses, the workers, the asylum seekers.

I pray for those navigating red tape in a foreign tongue.

I pray for those who can't go back home until their passports exit purgatory.

I pray for the lonely, the confused, the homesick, and the stressed.

I pray for those who wonder if they made a mistake, and those who are certain they're better off.

And for all those determined to make a new life, no matter the reason, I pray for expediency of documents and adjustments, so that they can experience every joy of this immigrant land.

The signoff that needs no translation -- Amen.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Word on the street: How the sustainable West was mothered

The scene: An IM conversation between me and a coworker that spanned three different topics in as many minutes.

Julia: So, do you have any idea what we're intended to contribute in this meeting?
Julia: oh never mind.

Coworker: I think it's just a brainstorm.

Julia: I read the email more closely, lol.

Coworker: Ha!

Julia: who knew? Reading helps you understand!! brilliant!

Coworker: Reading instructions is unamerican.
Coworker: A friend of mine told me this.

Julia: it's too dependent
Julia: i'd rather blaze a trail
Julia: and settle a new frontier

Coworker: He says it destroys the challenge.
Coworker: I say sometimes it destroys the equipment.
Coworker: Go West, young man, go West?

Julia: that's the idea, lol

Coworker: It's amazing how the conquest of the West became so idealized.
Coworker: It must have been awful at the time to actually go there.

Julia: it just seems so lonely
Julia: but I think that was also part of the appeal
Julia: it's a wonder people didn't die by 50 all the time
Julia: it was such a hard life

Coworker: The loneliness doesn't scare me. But the lack of electricity and hot showers do.
Coworker: No internet!

Julia: well, find consolation in the fact they didn't know what they were missing

Coworker: I would be dead quickly there. I would be one of those characters in Westerns who hide behind the barn at the first shot.

Julia: I'd be a schoolmarm
Julia: and would protect all the children

Coworker: You really have a strong maternal instinct.

Julia: I do
Julia: but I don't want my own kids yet
Julia: I just want to protect everyone else's

Coworker: That's funny.
Coworker: I have no paternal instinct at all. Never wanted kids.

Julia: yeah, I see that

Coworker: I like them, just don't want my own.

Julia: fair enough
Julia: much easier and less expensive

Coworker: This way I remain a kid forever in some manner.

Julia: see, now I think having kids can help you do that too
Julia: so maybe it's just how a person is wired
Julia: and not related to their parenting urges
Julia: as in, you could have 6 kids, but if you're no fun or have no imagination, you'll be old before your time

Coworker: Could be. Also the fact that I'm an only child, so I'm used to be by myself.

Julia: good point as well

Coworker: http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC31/ToBreed.htm

Julia: takeaway: if I recycle more, I can have babies

Coworker: Or you could do baby recycling. That's what Brad and Angelina do.

Julia: mmm, sustainable baby making. nice.

End scene.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

ServiceNation: The mornings after

Sorry for the five-day delay here -- a little movement called ServiceNation interrupted mah flow. (And mah sleep patterns, and mah back alignment, and mah work schedule ...)

I live-Tweeted about 300 posts that day, conducted man-on-street interviews, took a ton of pictures and a smidge of video, and live blogged over at Social Citizens about what I was seeing (with more posts to come now that I've had time to reflect), all for work. So rather than rehash here, I'd like to report on what it was like to take part in service history from a social media perspective.

Realization #1: Twitter and I are now in a committed relationship. The ability to live Tweet the whole event was flame to a fuse I didn't know I had. I went hog-wild. Every good quote, every thought, every moment could be distilled into 140 characters. It challenged my writing skill to be pithy and meaningful; my reporting skills to be fast and accurate; and my listening skills to absorb every idea presented. And I loved every minute of it.

Plus, I picked up a slew of new followers, most of whom were connected to the nonprofit or social action space. That means I'm growing my audience in a meaningful way, and building a qualified online sounding board for ideas that the foundation wants to refine and test. Of course, that runs the risk of becoming an echo chamber, so I want to have a wide array of sector representation so ideas take root, not ricochet.

Realization #2: I'm a terrible reporter-slash-stalker. The celebrities were so thick at the event you could walk on them: Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton (my personal fave), Usher, Alicia Keys (my other personal fave), Toby Maguire, Jon Bon Jovi, Caroline Kennedy, Laura Bush, Orrin Hatch, Chris Dodd, Melinda Doolittle, Mehmet Oz, Admiral Michael Mullen, Michael Bloomberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was a stitch), and Judy Woodruff.

Then there were the quietly famous: Rick Stengel, editor-in-chief of TIME; Ann Moore, Chairman and CEO of TIME; Jean Case (my boss), Laurie Tisch, Alma Powell, Vartan Gregorian, Alan Khazei, Wendy Kopp, and other rock stars in the nonprofit/foundation sector.

And then there were the unsung heroes: Leon McClain, City Year alumnus, a Philly teen who survived two gunshot wounds to go on and commit himself to helping other youth change their lives; Bri O'Brien, Disaster Relief Volunteers; Walter Atwood, CCC alumnus; Antonio Ramirez, YouthBuild Alumnus; Armando Jimenez, Bank of America Young Leader, and more.

I didn't get an interview with any of them. I was too busy tweeting. Next time, I know better, and will hunt them all down. (P.S. You can watch videos of the Summit here. It's like being there, except not. I recommend Keys, Clinton, McClain, and the candidates' forum.)

Realization #3: It's too easy to drink the Kool-Aid. Everything was "service service service we're changing the world this is great let's all join hands it's up to us call on the youth we can make a difference change is gonna come support public sector jobs sing kumbayah service service service." I was feeling so patriotic I almost turned into a flag.

Good thing I sat next to a young Llibertarian blogger who went on at great length about how compulsory service was a violation of taxpayer rights, hurt the economy, and violated the very idea of volunteering. I didn't agree with all of his points, but I saw their value, and he brought me back to earth with much-needed counterpoints. Huzzah for balanced evaluation!

Realization #4: Bloggers really do live and love in their own little world. Talk about instant family. The press room for the candidates' forum on Thursday night was a social media love fest. I met the authors behind the blogs I read for work (like Britt Bravo), as well as a few new ones (shout out to CK's Blog!). The networking potential was huge. I feel much more prepared for the next big event to put myself out there more and swap info.

Realization #5: I never want to live in NYC. This realization has nothing to do with social media. I just want to vent about lugging my suitcase 15 blocks and up and down the escalator-less subway because I couldn't hail a cab in Times Square, of all places. And I felt dirty and sweaty and claustrophobic and overstimulated. It confirmed my decision to live in DC -- much more my scene.

Realization #6: There's a lot more work to be done. A LOT. I am at the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding and using social media. I need to read more, comment more, cross-reference more, ask questions more, experiment more ... on top of my other job responsibilities. ::experiences dizzying sense of leaning over a chasm::

And let me tell you, it was tough being a one-woman press team. I was spread too thin for an event of this size. So that means more help, more training, more efficiency with equally excited and energetic writers/reporters who can help shoulder the load. Which brings me to ...

Realization #7: Because with a little bit of luck and a lot of elbow grease, we can make this work. I'm sure of it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Is it service? Or self-serving?

The best part of road trips with friends you haven't seen in awhile is the chance to dive into topics you usually don't have time to discuss. That was the case over Labor Day with my friend Michael, when we passed the miles between Sodus Bay and Buffalo discussing the nature of community service.

(This was after stopping for ice cream and before using the GPS to find out if every state had a town named "Mumford." For the record, it does not.)

Michael's question kicked it off: "In your experience, are the people you meet while volunteering doing it because it makes a difference, or because it makes them feel good?"

Ah, my experience. I started to review the "volunt-eras" of my life:

1. Childhood. Little Julia has a sense of right and wrong. Love your neighbor as yourself. And don't say mean things.

2. Tweenhood. Julia is expected to put in 50 hours of community service to receive Confirmation. She briefly links service to mild torture.

3. Adolescence. Julia learns about social justice, specifically the Catholic Church's themes. The consistent ethic of life and the firm belief in all human dignity stick with her as a grown-up version of "love your neighbor as yourself." She occasionally says mean things, but tries to compensate by visiting the elderly ... until play practice takes over.

4. College. Big girl Julia now gets to make her own choices. So she keeps going to church. She also joins Habitat, which takes over her life for the next 3.5 years. In that time, Julia goes on four alternative spring breaks to four states, builds several complete houses, and raises enough money to build another in Syracuse. She then collapses from exhaustion -- but not before recognizing the visible impact her work can have on a human life, and by extension the world.

5. Young adulthood, Philly edition. Julia gets her IMS on by coordinating monthly meals at Manna on Main St. She gets a serious kick from planning healthy, well-balanced menus, and resigns herself to eternal dorkhood.

6. Young adulthood, DC edition. Julia tutors ESL classes through her parish 1) because it's near work, 2) it's a great way to meet people, 3) it's a new skill to learn, and 4) she gets to yammer on for 45 minutes every Tuesday to a captive audience.

And that was just my personal arc. I then thought of the hundreds of fellow servers I had met over the years. Many I knew came because of religious or humanist convictions. Others came for the fun. Quite a few saw it only as resume-building. And several didn't want to be there at all.

But a funny thing happened with these disparate origins. Soon, most of these people's stories threaded together and became a new narrative, one which chronicled a common purpose and mission. No matter what they came for, people stayed for the social justice (my words, not theirs). They stayed because their effort and time grew to something greater -- a difference. This was service at its purest.

And looking back, I finally saw what separated successful, lasting volunteer opportunities from the DOAs. When people felt under-utilized, when their work was 18 steps removed from the visible impact, when they couldn't see how any of it mattered, the entire operation faltered. Folks grew disillusioned. Their intentions narrowed, and volunteering became a superficial tic on a checklist of what's expected, not what's chosen. This was only self-serving.

"Both," I said to Michael. "Most people I had the privilege of meeting did it because it made a difference. They believed in social justice. But when done right, it made them feel good too. And that's what made the behavior -- and the lessons -- stick."

At the very least, my answer jived with altruism's roots in evolutionary biology. Essentially, these studies say, we care to survive -- hence why a positive volunteering effect would have a Pavlovian response.

The idea that we're hard-wired to care, and don't choose to care, can be difficult to reconcile with the religious concept of free will. In a way, it takes the moral fun out of volunteering (for those who are inclined to discern moral fun), since much of the "feel good" quotient comes from a sense of following a higher calling, rather than a primordial drive to ensure our species continues.

But does it really matter how we get there, as long as we GET there? Be it instinctual or God-given -- or both -- the outcome is the same: By doing good for each other, we all do well together.

This concept is at the root of ServiceNation, a nascent movement poised to hit the big time this Thursday and Friday. (FYI: I'll be live-blogging it over at Social Citizens if you care to follow, and will post my personal reflections here later.) It's the reason I chose to reroute my career path to the nonprofit sector. And it's why I continue to serve -- not because I'm told it's right, but because I believe it's right.

So what would you have answered Michael?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Word on the street: Teat width

The scene: The tailor shop in the Ballston Mall. I have dropped in on my way back from the metro to get my bridesmaid dress measurements for Sue's wedding. I approach the counter where, predictably, two middle-aged Asian women are working.

Julia: Hi there. Can you take my measurements for a bridesmaid gown?

Saleslady: Yes. It cost you five dollar.

Julia: That's fine.

I drop my bags on a nearby chair and stand to attention. One of the ladies measures me while the other writes the numbers.

Lady: Waist, 29".

Julia: (congratulates herself on not gaining weight)

Lady: Hip, 42".

Julia: (rescinds congratulations)

Lady: Bust, 35 1/4".

Julia: (curses the gods)

Lady: Arm hole, 17 1/2 inches.

Julia: Whoa, what? My waist was 29", how can my arm hole be nearly the size of my waist??

Frantic hand gestures ensue. It is soon determined that the armhole is NOT the circumference of my upper arm, as I thought, but the span around my shoulder.

Lady: Upper bust, 34".

Julia: (re-curses the gods)

Lady: Teat width ...

Julia: Teat width? (Inner monologue: "Am I livestock?")

Lady: Teat width. (confused silence. Then, jabbering with coworker in language I don't know. She looks back at me.) Um, what is teat?

Julia: Um, well ... you know, it's ... well ... (drops voice) it's the nipple.

Ladies: (blank stares)

I point to said body parts. Right on cue, a cute young guy walks in. He sees me poking myself, and quickly turns heel to walk out. I resign myself to always wearing bridesmaid dresses and never a bridal gown.

Ladies: (ecstatic) Ohhh. The TEAT!

They excitedly measure from one point to the other. I have a sudden urge to buy a Madonna cone bra and throw the whole thing off.

Lady: Neck to teat ...

Julia: (sneaks a glance at the sheet to see how many more times the lady has to say this word)

Lady: All done!

Julia: Thank you, ladies! I appreciate it.

I pay the money and run. End scene.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Prayer #35: Alpha & Omegabet Soup

Emily (on coaching track for my old parish): You can tell the kids go to Catholic school. Last night I corrected someone for not being kind and she was like, "I know, I know ... it's not what Jesus would say."

Prayer #35: Alpha & Omegabet Soup

WWJD = What Would Jesus Do?

WWJS = What Would Jesus Say?

WKOHWJOIHWAT = What Kind of Hamburger Would Jesus Order If He Were Alive Today?

Hmm. That one doesn't fit on a T-shirt. Shame, because I think it's one of the most pressing questions of our time. Well, not about the hamburger. But rather why we presume to ask at every juncture how Jesus would react to a given situation. Because frankly, I have no idea how the real Jesus would react.

The Jesus of beatific Sunday school pictures would raise his two fingers in peace, with that slightly blank, slightly bored look on his face, and reach whatever decision he had in front of him with a direct inward call to the Almighty.

I am not capable of that.

The Jesus of holy cards stuck in my grandmother's hall mirror would have the right words for every occasion, and never have to stoop to cross or frustrated exchanges.

I am not capable of that.

The Jesus hanging broken on all the crosses in every church around the world would never question what he had to do. WWID = What Would I Do? Try INRI instead.

I am not capable of that.

Then I think of the Jesus who became so angry when the temple was turned into a market. And I remember how aloof he was with the woman who was begging for her daughter to be healed.

And I am capable of that ... but in all the backward ways. I'm never righteously angry. I'm never aloof in an effort to teach or to deepen faith. Instead, I'm just nitpicky and grouchy and frustrated and whiny, all of which amounts to a big pile of heartache and sorrow and not a shred of clarity about what Jesus -- fully divine AND fully human -- would really do.

So let's put aside all the things I'm not capable of, Lord, and look at what I can do. Can I practice loving? Yes. Can I try forgiveness? Yes. Can I attempt patience? Yes. And will you help me out me out every step of the way?

Yes.

Ah.

So that's what Jesus would do.

Amen.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Ursine presidential race relations

Buttons. Bumper stickers. Baby-kissing. And now, bears. Vermont Teddy Bears to be exact, in the "likeness" of each candidate.

Here's the Obama bear ("a bear you can believe in"):

And here's the McCain bear ("a courageous bear at your service"):

Is anyone else seeing what I'm seeing?

Now, there are several positions I could see people taking to these bears.

1) What a cute idea! Let's buy one. They're WAY better than those kissy Hallmark bears. And it will help teach the kids about election cycles, too!

2) McCain rolls his sleeves up too, and Obama often wears suits. This supports my theory that Vermont Teddy Bear Co. is a Commie liberal bastion pursuing a hidden agenda by making the Obama bear seem much more hip and relaxed.

3) Who approved this?? Who in their right mind thought producing a dark brown bear and snow white bear would do anything to improve the potentially damaging undercurrent of racial tensions and debates in this campaign?

4) Wow. Gutsy move, Vermont Teddy Bear Co. Very post-civil rights and civic-minded of you. Rock on, I'm buying one.

5) Where's the Nader bear?

So, where do you fall?