StoryCorps – 10 Years of Tales and Tears

StoryCorps image courtesy of WDET.org
StoryCorps mobile unit — image courtesy of WDET.org

If you’re a regular listener of “Morning Edition” on National Public Radio (NPR), then you’ve probably wept and laughed – but mostly wept – after listening to the weekly short segments of oral histories known as StoryCorps.

NPR marked the 10-year anniversary of StoryCorps this past week, featuring daily segments of oral histories NPR had aired in the past, including “where are they now?” updates. It was almost too much to bear.

Why?

Because I love StoryCorps, and I hate StoryCorps. Continue reading “StoryCorps – 10 Years of Tales and Tears”

National Parks Nurture Us, Let’s Nurture Them

This past Memorial Day, I enjoyed a visit with my friend, Nancy, to Arlington National Cemetery, which is part of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS). I hadn’t been to the cemetery in years, so I was excited to visit especially after I’d blogged about it the previous week as one of the most visible symbols of Memorial Day.

Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia

We spent a couple of hours that pleasant Monday morning walking among the rows of white marble gravestones that grid over 600 acres of the grassy hills and dales of a former plantation in Arlington, VA. The cemetery rises up just south of the Potomac River and offers spectacular views of Washington, DC. The grounds are grand and serene.

An Historic Home Needs a Face Lift

But my heart sank as we approached the top of the hill to visit Arlington House, the mansion and historic centerpiece of the property. The home’s history is remarkable: It dates from 1802 and was built by George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of President George Washington, and later was home to Robert E. Lee until he became commander of the rebel forces during the Civil War.

We were still many yards away from the house when it was obvious that the exterior of this Greek Revival masterpiece badly needed renovation, particularly the wooden façade of the large pediment. The dull beige paint is cracked and peeling and the whole front looks shabby.

Sequestration Won’t Help

Arlington House from below
Arlington House from below

Arlington House had undergone some interior renovation the year before, I was told later in a phone call to a park ranger. She added that there are plans to renovate the exterior next year. But it’s unclear whether that will happen, given the 8% budget cuts that the National Park Service will have to absorb due to federal sequestration.

Those are the automatic cuts to all federal government discretionary spending that took effect on March 1 of this year. They are dumb cuts that no one wanted, which do nothing to address the long-term budget deficits that cloud our country’s fiscal future.

So this is, in part, a cautionary tale of what to expect as the summer park season begins.

Funding Has Fallen Short for Years

After I returned home from Arlington National Cemetery later that day, I turned on NBC News and watched a segment called: “National Parks Show Signs of Wear and Tear.” It included a depressing litany of the consequences of budgetary woes that the park service has, in fact, suffered for several years:

  • 7 years of flat budget appropriations, despite rising costs
  • 900 jobs unfilled, including park rangers
  • 1000 seasonal jobs cut
  • park police furloughed
  • park entrances unmanned
  • a maintenance backlog of $11 billion!

About 400 sites make up the National Park system – parks, monuments, battlefields and coastlines – which over 280 million people will visit this year including millions of tourists from all over the world. The National Park Service operates on a total budget of about $2.6 billion, a pittance by federal budget standards. The massive backlog resulted from over 10 years of shifting funds away from investments like maintenance to operations.

Our Parks Bring Huge ROI

Hundreds of thousands gather on the National Mall to celebrate 4th of July
Hundreds of thousands gather on the National Mall to celebrate 4th of July, Washington, DC

Forget the value of their historical and natural assets for a moment: National parks also offer a huge return on investment (ROI) for taxpayers. In February, the National Park Service released its annual report, which includes a measure of its economic impact based on peer-reviewed research done in cooperation with Michigan State University.

In 2011, National Park visitors generated $30.1 billion in economic activity and supported 252,000 jobs nationwide. That means for every $1 spent by taxpayers to fund NPS, national parks generated more than $10 in economic activity. One third of the $30 billion total spent by visitors went directly into communities within 60 miles of a park.

Yet the entire park system is being starved of maintenance, staff, and a funding mechanism that keeps pace with costs let alone invests in its future.

Relish Your Park Experiences

Before I tell you how you can help, I’d ask that you take a quick mental inventory of all of the national park experiences in your life. Odds are you’ve had more than you realize.

Go ahead, right now. Picture those places in your mind.

Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls, California

Remember how you felt: seeing the Diorama and measuring the cost of our worst war at Gettysburg National Battlefield; reading the inscriptions of Lincoln’s speeches at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall; smelling saltwater and listening to the waves as you walked the beautiful beach at Cape Cod National Seashore.

Then turn your mind’s eye to the gigantic, muscular parks of the great American west: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Arches, Zion, White Sands, Olympic. These places are almost alien in their awesomeness, staggering in their raw majesty.

How small did you feel standing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon? How blown away were you by the roaring beauty of two-tiered Yosemite Falls?

How to Help

Here are simple steps you can take to help preserve our national parks.

The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon, Arizona

When visiting a park:

  • Don’t – move or remove anything. Not one flower, not one rock. These are public assets to be preserved. Look at them, photograph them, wax poetic over them. That’s your right for paying admission, but that’s it.
  • Don’t – touch, if a sign says not to. Why? Because the trace oils of one finger may not hurt the object, but the trace oils of thousands of fingers will. This is the same reason why museums impose that rule. Collective touching damages.
  • Don’t – feed animals. They usually don’t eat what we do, and if they lose their fear of humans, they can put their lives and yours at risk.
  • Do – stay on designated trails and walkways. The NPS barely has money to cut the grass and weed historic gardens, you think there’ll be money to re-sod the new trail you and others decided to cut through the park? No.
  • Do – visit the park’s concessions, book stores and visitor centers, and buy stuff. The food is decent, there are quality souvenirs and clothing, and the park service publishes very fine historical and coffee table books both large and small.
Ranger hike with kids at Biscayne National Park, Florida
A ranger hikes with kids at Biscayne National Park, Florida

Also:

  • Take your kid, or an “under-engaged” kid, to a national park. As baby boomers age, younger generations who didn’t grow up enjoying the outdoors will be the ones the park system must attract and count on for its sustainability.
  • Consider becoming a national park volunteer. Given all the staffing cut-backs, park administrators need volunteer help more than ever!
  • Consider donating to one of hundreds of non-profits that support national parks, including nation-wide groups – National Park Foundation, National Parks Conservation Association – and the many “friends of” individual parks that you’ve enjoyed.

My favorite writer, Wallace Stegner, said national parks were “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

In 2016, the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th birthday. By then, let’s make sure America’s “best idea” reflects stewardship at our best rather than our worst.

6 Things to Remember on Memorial Day

Memorial Day has got to be the most schizophrenic, mixed-message holiday in America.

319px-Summerfest_2008_fireworks_7096Most people will focus on the holiday parts of the holiday: enjoying a three-day weekend, fireworks, barbecue, the start of summer… fun!

Many will travel. This year, AAA predicts that 34.8 million people will travel farther than 50 miles from home over the holiday weekend.

Many will shop. Countless retailers offer holiday sales, and like other major holidays (talking about you, Halloween and Christmas!), Memorial Day sales start ever earlier, this year as early as March.

There’s a lot to look forward to.

But it’s a holiday originally conceived to remember.

According to this 2009 CNN article: “Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing a government paycheck, to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day’s pay.”

Here are six more things to remember about Memorial Day.

1) Memorial Day’s origins are rooted in the devastation of the Civil War.

Battle_of_GettysburgThe Civil War was our bloodiest war, with approximately 620,000 soldiers killed either in battle or of disease – equal to about one in four soldiers or 2% of the population.

Communities were forced to confront death like never before. As many as two dozen different cities and towns claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day beginning in the mid-1860s.

But it was Waterloo, NY, that earned Congress’s official designation as Memorial Day’s birthplace. Waterloo began its annual day of remembrance on May 5, 1866, when businesses closed and the graves of dead soldiers were decorated.

2) For years, Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day, in recognition of the custom of decorating soldiers’ graves.

Civil War gravesDecoration Day was declared on May 30, 1868 by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former soldiers and sailors. The terms Decoration Day and Memorial Day were interchanged for years as a remembrance for Civil War dead.

After the United States was drawn into World War I, what became known more often as Memorial Day was broadened to include Americans killed in service to country in all of our nation’s wars.

Federal law finally declared “Memorial Day” the official name of the holiday in 1967.

3) Decorating military graves remains important today. 

Here in northern Virginia, on every Thursday before Memorial Day, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment of the Army place American flags at each of the over 260,000 graves at Arlington National Cemetery. Throughout the weekend, members of the regiment even patrol around the clock to make sure every flag stays aloft.

Thousands gather at the cemetery on Monday to watch the President or Vice President make remarks and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

4) There is a moment of silence at 3pm local time on Memorial Day.

moment of silenceA law was passed in 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance Act, to reinforce the meaning of Memorial Day. The law asks Americans to “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.'”

5) We are still at war.

Americans are still sacrificing their lives in Afghanistan and elsewhere as we continue to fight the global war on terror. The U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan will officially end, however, in late 2014. Also, President Obama gave a significant speech yesterday arguing for an end to perpetual war in the post-9/11 era. You can read the full text of the speech here, or a good nonpartisan analysis here.

6) Veterans and military families need help.

Those Americans who survive war too often struggle disproportionately when they come home. Nearly one in seven homeless adults were veterans as of December 2011. 12.5% of veterans aged 18-34 were living in poverty in 2010, and the unemployment rate of veterans aged 18-24 still stands at over 20%.

disabled veterans playing basketballOn this Memorial Day, consider donating to non-profits that support veterans and their families, or, you can send a simple note of remembrance or thanks. Here are just three of the many well-governed non-profits helping veterans:

Operation Homefront – Focused on military families, its website features a “Current Needs” tab that lists specific needs for specific veterans; all cases are verified to ensure legitimacy.

Joining Forces – An initiative of First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, its website offers a clearinghouse of resources for veterans and their families. Its “Get Involved” link can help you find ways to help locally.

The National Gold Star Family Registry – Through this website, you can honor a “fallen hero” without spending a dime. It contains a registry of names of all who died in service to the country since the beginning of WWII. Just register and search the directory.

Have fun on Memorial Day, but also remember what it’s for.

My Rant About Spring and Selfish Wildlife

320px-Hatchling_birds_in_nest_with_eggsI know what you’re thinking: One, how could I – how could anyone – complain about spring? It’s like saying you don’t like flowers, or sunshine, or life.

Two, how could I complain about wildlife? I live in the city, although there are plenty of wild animals around, if you look.

Most of the year they’re fine. But in spring, the wildlife around here just bugs me. It’s that time of year when animals are all reproductive and emo and in your face with their needs. They’re selfish.

These are my main complaints about wildlife in spring:

Bird Gangs

Many_black_birds_on_telephone_wireThe birds on my street tick me off every spring. 

I couldn’t tell you which kind, because most of the year they’re quiet and furtive and I don’t even see them. But in spring, neighborhood birds turn hyperactive and form gangs that wake me up every morning at 4am with their infernal screeching.

These birds don’t herald a spring morning by chirping sweetly.

They scream.

I like to open my bedroom window at night to enjoy the springtime air. But that also means I have to put up with these feathered-dinosaur brutes on my block. They make such a racket that I have to get up and close my window to go back to sleep. I even run a gray-noise machine in my room to counteract city noises. But I still hear the birds.

I think they know it and they don’t care.

Trashy Bird Squatters

My beef with birds doesn’t end with noise. Every spring, birds take over my small back yard and trash it. Black birds, cardinals, sparrows, and mourning doves – they spend most of their time waging turf battles for nesting spots in my dense evergreen tree.

cardinal fighting wrenI always secretly route for the cardinals – yes, because they’re pretty and because I’m shallow – and I’m glad they won their nesting spot again this year (cardinals bring it!). But in all of the tussling, my slate patio underneath the tree gets pelted with a compound of pine sap and bird poop that maybe NASA engineers could remove but I can’t.

The bird poop problem hasn’t stopped there. Lately, some bird has made a perch of the rear-view mirror of my car, which is parked in a space behind my yard in the alley.

“Perch” is a polite word for it. I’ve walked out to find my car’s mirror caked in bird trots. The offending bird somehow projectile-poops across the car door, too, blanketing it with white rivulets of filth. This is wrong.

I spotted the perpetrator one day, a dove I think. I scared it away but by then it had already imprinted on my car: car = crapper. I reminded myself that, as a superior species, I had the capacity to thwart the bird.

I started tying plastic grocery store bags around both rear-view mirrors, to create a slippery surface that the bird wouldn’t want to land on. Like so:

Prius with bags

 

 

 

 

 

It’s working. But the irony is not lost on me that I’m protecting my environmentally-friendly Toyota Prius hybrid with disposable plastic bags.

Obnoxious Duck Families

These scofflaws are the most irresponsible breeders on the planet. Come spring, mother hens lurch in front of heavy traffic to jaywalk all over the DC metro area, leading their jerky ducklings into mayhem without a care.

ducklings-following-mother-mLook, I’ll always stop for a duck family; if necessary, I’ll even get out of my car and be their crossing guard. What chaps me is that the ducks know this and never show us commuters any consideration.

God forbid these vagrants use pedestrian walkways and signals, or listen to traffic reports and adjust their route. No. They’ll waddle across the busiest traffic arteries with their fuzz-ball babies tottering behind, wreaking havoc.

Like one morning last spring, as I drove to the mega-congested Mark Center in Alexandria during rush hour. I watched a black SUV five cars in front of me skid to the right as the rest of us slammed on our brakes. Sure enough, in-between the cars halted at odd angles ahead, I glimpsed a brood crossing six lanes of Seminary Road.

Duck families are coercive and I resent it.

Baby Animals

They’re the worst! Fuzzy, tiny, squeaky, helpless. One will appear to you one spring day under a bush, alone, just off the sidewalk as you’re rushing to catch the Metro. It twitches and bleats.

You squee and bend down for a closer look. You steady yourself as all of your emotional armor built up over a lifetime crumbles. But you don’t know how to help the baby, so you walk away distraught.

Baby animals are sneaky and manipulative.

But if the squirrel in my backyard ever produced one of these:

 

Baby Squirrel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It would be game over.

I’d probably tear out half of my shrubs to build a hutch for the mother and baby squirrel. Every day I’d leave them water and a bowl of shelled organic nuts from Trader Joe’s. No acorns for my darling.

party toothpicksI’d use my hand spade to bury some of the fancy nuts myself, so the little one would learn her life skills. But I’d mark the buried spots with party toothpicks so my precious charge could find the nuts easily.

I’d spoil my baby squirrel rotten.

Then in the evening, I’d watch the squirrel hutch from the shadows of my upstairs window. Blowing my hay-fevered nose until it bled, I’d weep tears of joy mixed with shame and tinged with fears for my sanity.

And you wonder why I’m not all woo-woo about spring?

 

[When you’re not annoyed by selfish wildlife in spring, consider donating to a local wildlife charity that helps sick and injured animals recover and return to their habitat. Find a group near you at: http://www.wildliferehabber.org/]

 

 

7 Ways to Cope With the Well-Read: A Survival Guide

Alexandria VA signThis past week, I learned that I live in America’s most well-read city, according to Amazon.com, and for the second year running.

This was surprising news to me although not completely. I do live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, after all, which is a snooty place. This is where power mongers and policy wonks rule, where people speak two and three languages – including “acronym” – and hold multiple degrees. And they make sure you know it.

So allow me to indulge that DC snootiness for a moment (“when in Rome…”) by remarking that the list of most well-read cities seems odd at first. DC is not ranked (ironically), nor are other cities you might expect like New York or Chicago or San Francisco. Alexandria ranks first followed by Knoxville, TN (a college town, ok) then Miami, FL (huh?). Fourth is Cambridge, MA (home of Harvard and MIT, back to making sense), and fifth is Orlando, FL (Disney World??).

Amazon’s rankings were based on the per capita sale of books, magazines and newspapers (both in print and electronic format) for cities with a population of 100,000 or more, so smallish cities held an advantage.

Also, Amazon ranked by quantity and attempted no subjective judgment of quality, which is fair. The best-selling book in my city was Gone Girl, a genre-bending thriller that I enjoyed. But the second best-seller was the Fifty Shades trilogy, which I won’t read because it sounds like Twilight with whips (Amazon won’t judge, but I will). My point is, us Alexandrians shouldn’t be too smug about what took us to the top.

But we will, because we’re part of metropolitan DC – again, smug and snooty are what we do. But I have a confession to make, Dear Reader: I’m not that well read, especially for a writer. Several friends of mine here and elsewhere – both writers and non-writers and at least one sibling – have read many more books than I.

books on shelf

So for my own sake as well as yours (unless you’re bookish, in which case you can stop reading this post), I’ve come up with 7 Ways to Cope With the Well-Read. Bookworms are everywhere, in your life as well as in mine. And most of them, I should add, aren’t remotely arrogant about it and don’t mean to make us feel small, they just love their books and need to talk about them. The rest is our problem. To help, consider the following:

1) Accept that well-read people are likely superior to you in several ways.

Not helpful? Sorry. But numerous studies show that reading is overwhelmingly beneficial and comprehensively so. See here, here and here. A paragraph from the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts study sums it up best:

All of the data suggest how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals—whatever their social circumstances. Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual’s academic and economic success—facts that are not especially surprising—but it also seems to awaken a person’s social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed. It is reassuring, though hardly amazing, that readers attend more concerts and theater than non-readers, but it is surprising that they exercise more and play more sports—no matter what their educational level. The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact—books change lives for the better.

Gulp. To quote that master of uplift, George Orwell: “Happiness can exist only in acceptance.” I want you to be happy, Dear Reader.

two people reading2) See what all the fuss is about by reading more.

See point #1. After all, this Survival Guide is a form of self-help, which implies self-improvement… so…

3) Read a “classic” book or two…

I haven’t done a lot of this myself, but certain books are called “classics” for a reason – they’re very good and worth your time. Among the classic book authors I’ve tried, Jane Austen is fantastic, hugely enjoyable and accessible. She’s a good one to start with. I didn’t expect to like Joseph Conrad’s work, but I do, a lot. He was a master stylist even though English was his second language. Same for Vladimir Nabokov, a genius linguist who wrote some of his best works in English rather than in his native Russian; if you’re put off by the lechery of Lolita, then read Pnin, a hilarious book about a bumbling Russian professor teaching at a midwest American college. Among the American greats I’ve read and enjoyed are John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Toni Morrison, and my favorite, Wallace Stegner, a teacher of other great writers and an often-overlooked master of everything (plot, setting, character, point of view, etc.).

4) …But focus on reading what you enjoy.

One of my well-read hometown friends in Pennsylvania inhales books and reads purely for pleasure. When I’ve asked her what she likes to read, she always replies: “everything.” She is my model well-read person because books give her so much joy; her face lights up every time you ask her what she’s reading. She is one of the most unpretentious people I know, and also one of the wisest (again, see point #1).

5) Make your reading social by joining a book club.

I’m a veteran book clubber. I helped start one that met from 1993 to 1997 – when I last lived in the DC area – and we resumed meeting in 2010 after I moved back. While I lived in Tucson, AZ, I was in two book clubs simultaneously from about 2002 to 2009. I should point out that I’ve often failed to keep up with book club assignments, and you might, too. The best book clubs – the only ones that last, really – will forgive you and will be flexible about members’ busy schedules. Book club discussions can get impassioned and animated beyond belief — one time I did a head-stand in front of my book club to make a point, another time I climbed on someone’s shoulders (don’t ask, I don’t remember, and yes, alcohol was involved both times). The point is, a book club is a worthwhile commitment that can enrich your life. Through them, I’ve discovered some great books and writers, and – most importantly – I’ve formed some of my dearest friendships.

320px-2012_BostonPublicLibrary_USA

6) Support your local library.

Books – whether in print or electronic form – don’t have to cost you, Dear Reader, as long as you have access to a lending library. As a repository of knowledge, the library concept goes back to ancient times. According to The Washington Post, the city of Alexandria – the one in Egypt – housed the ancient world’s greatest archive of information. Today’s American library system is a jewel of democracy because it offers the gift of knowledge to all Americans for free. Even if you don’t use your local public library, consider donating books or money to it (most public library systems have a non-profit fundraising arm to help support it). Like everything else, library budgets across the country have been cut.

7) Take a break from books and do other things.

Finally, it’s ok to sometimes forget about books and just live. After all, this is part of the well-read person’s m.o.: They’ve learned so friggin’ much from all that reading – point #1 again, always point #1 – that they take time to go out and do some of it. You should, too.

 

 

Transforming Terror’s Negative Space

Z010456-R01-016-6AOn this crazy, chaotic Friday, I write this as we await a conclusion to the manhunt for the Boston Marathon attack’s “suspect number two,” whose older brother was killed in a shoot-out with police last night.

It’s the end of an awful week that began at one of America’s most iconic sporting events, a celebration shattered by the terror and devastation of two bombs that killed three people and wounded close to 200.

Apart from the pain we feel for the victims and their families, what remains for all Americans is the uncertainty and fear that comes with knowing that terrorism is still a part of our reality. With that reality comes the question of what we do with terror’s “negative space.”

What do I mean by that?

Negative Space exampleThe concept of negative space is well known in several disciplines but can be hard to grasp. It’s not actually negative in connotation; it’s often meant by what is not as opposed to what is. It’s easiest to see in photography, where sometimes it refers to a predominant background that forms part of the subject (as in the photo above). Sometimes, negative space becomes the subject when that space is seen in new light (as in the images to the left). In language, it can refer to what is read between the lines, or to the spare form of a poem.

When it comes to terrorism, I see negative space as whatever our psyche confronts in the aftermath of terror’s physical destruction. We don’t have complete control over it, of course, but over time we do have choices to make, and we can reshape and redefine that negative space.

It’s hard to consider something like negative space in relation to an event like the Boston Marathon, which is such a tremendous physical as well as spiritual accomplishment.

I emphasize the spiritual because, if you’ve ever completed a marathon – I ran the Tucson Marathon in December 2000 – you realize that what you achieved physically is maybe only half the matter. Amid the challenges of training – long, lonely runs, injuries, illness – you learn that you need to get your head right.

In other words, you need to tap into your spiritual side – your soul, your consciousness, your life force – to fortify yourself mentally so that you’ll stick to your training, you’ll learn to be patient, and hopefully you’ll find a way to develop zen-like consciousness that can sometimes turn physical pain and drudgery into bliss. I was lucky enough to experience a few moments of bliss during my own marathon experience, after having overcome two major set-backs — a pesky injury and a sudden illness — during my long journey of marathon training.

Any distance runner good enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon understands the importance of spiritual development in running, and likely runs marathons for the spiritual as much as for the physical benefits.

Runners’ family and friends may not fully share in the zen-like vibe that comes with regular distance running, but what they see is inspiring, and they want to support it. So they gather to watch and wait and eventually greet their loved ones with jubilation at the finish line.

Imagine how shocking and spiritually crushing the terrorist attack was for all of the people at the  Boston Marathon there to just celebrate life.

Those injured or killed, and their families and friends, experienced a level of tragedy and loss that I do not understand and I am not attempting to express here.

But for the rest of us, the Boston Marathon attack was an assault on our spirit. We were its object as well, and we rightly see that terrorism continues to threaten our way of life.

It’s hard to fill terror’s negative space with nothing but the fear that terrorists strive to foster. In policy terms, it’s hard to resist the desire for ever tighter security measures that may ultimately infringe upon our rights and freedoms.

But so often we also find that, in the face of terror, our spirit finds strength.

In President Barack Obama’s remarks yesterday at the Interfaith Service in Boston, he quoted a scripture passage telling us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.”

The President expressed the nation’s collective grief for the victims and their families, but he also spoke of the storied Bostonian resolve as “the greatest rebuke” to those who perpetrated the attack.

In terror’s negative space, we can – and do – replace fear and uncertainty with compassion, love, and power.

And that is how our spirit endures, and finds a way to carry on.

Like 78-year-old Boston Marathon runner, Bill Iffrig, who was seen getting knocked down by the first bomb’s shock waves just yards from the finish line. Luckily, he suffered only a scraped knee. He was helped up, brushed off and he made his way to the finish line.

[If you’d like to donate to the families of those killed or injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino set up a fund called The One Fund Boston, visit their website by clicking here. For more ways to donate, go here.]

 

The Value of Blogging: Ipso Facto or Lorem Ipsum?

I really don’t know where this blogging thing will lead me.

This is my first official blog post on my first official blog. But I have been writing – as a professional non-fiction writer and fiction hobbyist – for over 20 years.

What have I been waiting for?

Ideas? Inspiration?

No, those aren’t hard to find. I once wrote an essay titled “Scratching an Itch,” a short piece on a simple, meaningless act hardly worthy of an essay.

Or is it?

The sudden urge to scratch an itch on your arm, or on your head, or other places less polite, can lead to broader questions. Is it just a little itch, or a nervous tick? Where do you draw the line in terms of what to scratch and in front of whom?

Scratching an itch can be meaningful or not — a harmless gesture, a poker player’s tell, or an affront to society.

Blogging, it appears, can also be meaningful or not. Some will ask: does blogging have inherent value?

Like scratching an itch, it depends.

If you blog to hone your writing craft, or to share something of interest to readers, or to sell a product or service, then it’s fair to say blogging has value ipso facto. But what if you find yourself writing a puff-piece blog post just to check off your must-blog-something task for the day, and bore your readers in the process?

In that case, your blog might as well be lorem ipsum, that Latin-looking gibberish you see on examples of WordPress themes whose only function is to fill text space.

I will never blog just to fill space. I may do it a little, or a lot. I’ll probably cover a few of the topics that I’ve written about professionally such as politics, healthcare, fitness and wellness, and, naturally, writing. Check back more than once.

Another thing for you to know — I enjoy writing essays, which is primarily what bloggers do, right? An essay is often the best way to explore and clarify what it is you think and feel about an issue or event in your life.

As the writer E.M. Forster once said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

Over the years, I’ve published a number of personal essays and persuasive essays otherwise known as op-eds (to read my latest op-ed published by The Christian Science Monitor, click here).

I’ve ghostwritten op-eds for business clients, and I also volunteer to help others get their views and opinions in print and online. I’m a volunteer Editor-Mentor for The Op-Ed Project, a great non-profit organization based in New York City whose mission is to promote and increase a diversity of voices in media.

Even though over half of the population are women, only about 20% of major newspaper opinion pieces are written by women. This lack of women voices creates a huge deficit in our national dialogue.

I’ve had the privilege to help several accomplished women in business, academia and advocacy craft and publish op-eds in newspapers and online media outlets throughout the country. I hope to add the links to some of my mentees’ work in the near future.

In addition, The Op-Ed Project’s website has a very helpful and public resource section on how to write an op-ed, in case you would like to share your own opinion on a topical issue in a newspaper or online news site some day.

If you are interested in learning more about the personal essay form as a beautiful exercise in critical thinking and self-discovery, let me recommend a very good book on personal essays:

The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, edited by Phillip Lopate (Doubleday, 1994).

The book is not really a how-to on essay writing, but it offers an informative introduction to the craft and is a large anthology of some of the best essays ever written, organized culturally, by theme and by form (book review, humor, list, mosaic, portrait, etc.).

If I were to recommend only one essay in this volume, it would be Virginia Woolf’s The Death of the Moth, about watching a moth die on a windowsill. It’s a tour de force on truths surrounding life and death that runs only around 1200 words in length. It is also easy to find online.

Admire it for the language and for Woolf’s ability to connect the trivial to the universal, but fair warning: it may give you a case of the sads.

Finally, one note of business about my blog. I don’t plan on posting any reader comments to my blog posts. Instead, feel free to email me about something I wrote at info@kateholder.com.

For example, do you have a personal essay (or opinion piece) to recommend, one that moved you or helped you or changed your thinking? I’d like to know.

If you do email me about a blog post, please reference that particular post in your comment. In return, I may occasionally post a reader’s email, and I will try my best to read all email comments. However – and this is important – I cannot guarantee that I will respond to any of them.

Remember, I really don’t know where this blogging thing will lead me.

Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, where I’ll alert readers of my latest blog posts and other news.