Thinking Cap

Why LinkedIn needs to adapt to user needs

Wow. Here I am again, writing about my old friend LinkedIn.

I wrote about LinkedIn when I was a staff writer at CareerBuilder (when I wasn’t writing about CB’s own network, BrightFuse), and again when I was pounding the cold, unfriendly pavement in a long, post-layoff hell.

In 2014, after taking a few years to return to the halls of higher education, I’m a few months into a new job search. And while LinkedIn still has some amazing networking components and a healthy database of job listings, I don’t think it’s evolved to be all that it could be.

I’m talking about two main points here: industry, and location.

INDUSTRY: It’s been drilled into many of us that we must respond to the job skills market, that we should be agile and flexible in terms of our skill set, our experience and our interests. And many of us are starting second or even third careers, in clusters of competency that don’t always obviously relate to one another, or that may speak to different strengths we have.

This is certainly true for me. I’ve long had a dual career path. I have amazing organizational and administrative skills, and I’ve been really good at leading projects and processes in my corporate jobs. I seldom learn a job by repetition, preferring instead to be analytical and to understand how different parts of a system interact and relate to one another.

I also have years of experience in a distinctly different area, as a writer and journalist, working in both social media and print. I’ve written feature stories, annual reports and PR content. I’d say that’s pretty flexible.

linkedin_logoAnd yet, LinkedIn has a limited number of industry labels, of which you can only pick one. Have a “slash” career with multiple clusters of experience? Too bad.

LOCATION: The days of working the same job for 40 or 50 years is a thing of the past. For many of us, it also means that living in the same area for 40 or 50 years is also an outdated concept. Since 2000, the launch of my professional career, I’ve lived in three different cities.

I wasn’t being flighty or undependable – each job lasted for several years and I achieved a lot in each one of them. But I responded to opportunity, as well as changes in my personal life, when I moved to a new town.

In a tight job market, it would be a godsend to be able to indicate more than one potential location on your LinkedIn profile.

Yes, there are ways to work around this; joining a LinkedIn group in cities of interest is a obvious way to build visibility. But it seems like having multiple choices for city/region would help us job seekers be more visible to potential employers — or at least tell a clearer story about our long term intentions.

PLAN OF ACTION: I do understand LinkedIn’s perspective, and the perspective of the companies who are searching for candidates. The system should be straightforward and simple.

And clearly, opening these fields to a free-for-all would be an absolute nightmare.

For all the benefits of CareerBuilder and Monster, its ease of use invites a lot of candidates who, despite good intentions, are just not qualified for the jobs for which they are applying. It becomes very easy in the dark pit of a long, arduous job search to just apply for every damn thing you see. I’ve been there, wrote the book and saw the movie — it’s sorely tempting to start flinging your resume at as many walls as you can in the hopes that it will stick.

One idea would be that LinkedIn industry and location fields would still requires a single primary selection, but allows a secondary selection field where additional industries and/or additional cities could be entered — a searchable field, of course, that hiring managers and HR people could see in a search for candidates. (Obviously, one that would also be visible and easy to understand if the job seeker used LinkedIn to apply online.)

I would be completely OK with LinkedIn including these benefits as part of their Premium package. I think that would minimize the risk of the free-for-all scenario playing out, but would still allow people who really need to use those fields the capability to add them to their profiles.

Regardless of my own personal preferences as a user, it seems to me that LinkedIn needs to become more agile and flexible, and respond to the needs of its users. It’s the 21st century workforce marketplace, after all. Time to get on board!

Making a mark on the world

A few weeks ago, my partner and I watched Paris Is Burning on Netflix.

It’s a documentary movie that was released over 20 years ago, but somehow, I hadn’t seen it until now.

It’s a story about young adults and teenagers living in several of New York City’s subculture: gay kids, some in drag, intersecting with entrenched racism and abject poverty.

The result is fascinating, to see how they see the world and how they view power and privilege (and, sadly, how little that’s changed since the movie was made).

I can’t claim this movie is my story; I am not a person of color and I’ve never experienced that level of exclusion.

(There are some interesting discussions online about the process of making the documentary, and about accusations that Jennie Livingston, a white documentarian, was exploiting the movie’s subjects.)

But it brought back a whole lot of memories for me.

I came out at age 21. This was several years after the era (1986-1990) this movie captures.

My family didn’t disown me, but coming out confirmed my status as a strange, unknown factor in their midst, much as I had always been throughout my life.

At that time, their reactions varied from unconditional if confused support to a cool politeness about the whole business.

I needed to connect with someone or something, and while I loved my family, we were speaking two different languages.

For a whole lot of reasons (some of my own doing, and some detailed here) my initial attempts at college crashed like a lead balloon.

My first stop on the Reality Is About To Kick You In The Ass Express landed me in the Rust Belt town of Erie, a few hours away from home.

I spent big chunks of the next five years there, living a life that I recognized bits and pieces of in Paris is Burning.

It was a radical change. I went from a comfortable suburban upbringing to a day-to-day existence where nothing was certain. I was never homeless, but for several years had “housing insecurity.”

I moved around from place to place, sometimes sharing a place as an official roommate, other times scoring a couch for a week here or there until someone got fed up with me.

In the course of four years, I moved at least twenty times. It was probably more, but to be honest, I lost count.

A few times, I tried to get out – heading to Cleveland, or Pittsburgh. But something would crack — the job, the apartment lease, something — and back I’d go.

Even then, Erie put the “Rust” in “Rust Belt.” It was a midsize town of about a hundred thousand people, and the bottom was falling out.

My generation’s parents were losing their jobs as the factories shut down, like dominoes falling. There was little available for us, a fast food job here, a woefully underpaid gig in a retail store there. Some went to cosmetology school to learn a trade, and fared a little better in one of the chain “chop shops.”

My parents came through in emergencies with help, with food, with money. They were weary, too, just hoping I would catch a break, that I would land on my feet.

There were two conflicting forces that ruled my life at this time. There was hardship, and one shitty, minimum wage job after another. There were many moves, brought on by fights with roommates or a loss of income. Twice I was fired from a job for being gay. Once, I was asked nicely to find another place to live (read: evicted) when the landlord learned I was gay.

But there was also a fascinating community that felt like a world I could conquer. It was not a place filled with unconditional love, or with sunshine, kittens and roses. Those that entered had to fight and claw their way into the ring. This is part of what’s shown in Paris Is Burning, and it completely rings true to me.

On the one hand, we fought hard and rough and often with each other. It was do unto others before they do unto you. It was also easier to just always be in fight mode. We were fighting to survive in our small space, fighting the larger culture that didn’t want us around.

But if an outsider came into one of our local hangout spots to mess with one of us? We pulled together and fought them off. Drunk straight guys cruising for a fight would always be outnumbered by sixty or seventy of us, and would scurry away, tail between legs.

One of the things that rang most true about Paris Is Burning for me was the thievery. Few of us wanted to hurt anyone, but as the saying goes, “A girl’s gotta eat.”

Most of us were just hungry and between paychecks, and would sneak food at our menial jobs at restaurants and convenience stores. The bolder ones might slip a few dollars into their pocket here or there.

Some were far more outrageous or desperate. I remember hearing the story of one guy who showed up to the club on a Saturday night looking dapper in a new designer suit. There was no way in hell he could afford it. How did he get it?

The story slowly came to light: apparently, he’d gone to the high-end men’s retailer in question, tried the suit on….and then, after rolling the fabric into a tight ball, shoved it into his anal cavity and walked out of the store.  (How much was that dry cleaning bill?)

Another story involved several friends seeking new outfits for a drag performance, and running, Thelma-and-Louise style, from a stodgy old dress store in the outfits themselves.

I’m not condoning stealing, or laughing at it to minimize what it was. But it seemed so natural at the time. People do desperate things when your rent is due, or you’re hungry, or your kid needs to see a doctor. It’s something I’ve always remembered.

And we were just starting out, trying to figure out both the world at large and our little underground community.  (Erie was also the place where I first fell, head over heels, in love.)

We had to know two languages, two sets of signals and signs. It got really tiresome after a while, unless you were at the ends of the gender expression spectrum, where hiding simply wasn’t an option.

I always had such respect for the drag performers. Many of the clubgoers considered drag shows an irritant, something that took time away from dancing on a weekend night. But for me, I was always interested in the theatrical aspects, the aesthetics of it all, the ability to put on a show, to reinvent oneself.

One of my dearest friends in Erie was a quiet, mild-mannered man. But when he assumed his drag alter ego, the personality change was amazing. The shyness was gone, and in its place was a bold, bawdy creature who flirted with everyone in sight.

It briefly inspired me to try drag for myself . I was the ugliest drag queen in the world, but I definitely had fun. It cemented my appreciation for it as an art form, and I loved coming up with stage and song ideas.

It really got me thinking about the ways we all wear masks.  This is not a new idea – RuPaul’s talked about how everything we all do is ‘drag,’ is all performance of an identity.

While Erie didn’t have any “houses” like Paris is Burning, we did develop our own families, so to speak, ones that filled in the spaces that our own families could not. We walked through fire together, had fun together, drank together, and fought like cats and dogs.

It’s been almost thirty years since the mid-80’s era, when Paris Is Burning took place. It was sobering to learn that almost all the key performers in the movie have since died, and many of them died at a young age — some from HIV/AIDS, some from other illnesses, some from the residual effects of a lifetime of poverty. And a few died from the violence visited upon gay and transgender people then (and now).

It reminded me of the faces of people in our own Paris, the ones who died young at the hands of those same villains — watching a young friend, only 24, waste away from the effects of HIV/AIDS, watching a dear friend succumb to the ravages of mental illness and alcoholism. I wish I had the resources to help them. I do now, but I didn’t know then, and I didn’t have the voice to speak up and ask for help on their behalf.

My life today is so radically different than it was then. Sometimes, it feels like it all happened to someone else. I’m at a point of consistency, of having achieved a certain amount of success.

The funny thing is, though: I’ve lived in Chicago for half a decade, now. I’ve met some nice people, and yet, every last one of them has slipped through my fingers. I don’t know if it’s them, or me, or some other factor, but the friends I’ve made here are here today, gone tomorrow.

I live hours away from those old friends, and yet, we remain close. We’ve survived geographical divides and the occasional falling out, and stayed in touch with each other. They remain on a very short list of people I could call for advice, for help or for bail money.

Paris Is Burning’s Dorian said you’re lucky if you’ve made a mark on the world.

I’ve made a small mark, but it’s a mark. And we have been there to bear witness for each other, to record that we have made our marks.

for Destiny Divine, royalty and a true titleholder; for Theresa Jean, a generous soul and ‘the big noise’; and for Mama Puccini, who knew where to find the boys AND the booze.

And for the late Deatrice, who loved the nightlife, and is sorely missed. 

A tale of two Union Stations

This week, plans were announced to make what the Chicago Tribune called “enhancements” to Chicago’s Union Station.

Rethinking Union Station is a good thing (for reasons I’ll unpack in a minute), but it’s also made me think about another Union Station.

Denver just reopened its Union Station after a substantial renovation. The site, which has been an Amtrak station for years, was redesigned to be several things in addition to an Amtrak station. It’s now a larger hub for many of Denver’s transit lines, both rail and bus.

It’s also been designed to be a meeting place for people. When my partner and I visited Denver a few weeks ago, we stayed at that hotel (The Crawford).

Denver's Union Station before its recent remodel. (Internet photo)

Denver’s Union Station before its recent remodel. (Internet photo)

The new Union Station featured a wide array of restaurants, cafes and stores. A few coffeehouses, a bookstore and a great breakfast spot were among the choices. It was great to have those choices at a hotel (versus the usual drab hotel fare), but it’s all adds to the larger idea that this is a gathering spot – a public space that’s filled with activity.

The furniture in the station lobby reflected that – some tables and chairs, some sofas, a few benches, even a shuffleboard. And still plenty of room for the official Amtrak waiting area at one end of the station.

And the fountain on the outside of the station, where so many people were eating al fresco, also underscored that element.

Adjacent to the station itself was access to several transit lines and hundreds of buses, all through a weather-protected transit station. The rail lines sit above ground while buses arrive and depart through a long series of gates below ground. Despite the underground factor, the station was filled with light, clean, and well-organized (no clusters of traffic).

My partner and I took a bus from that spot to return to the airport. It was easy and convenient — and a third of the price of the cab we took from the airport to the hotel. And even that will be made simpler in a year or so, when a new transit line from the station to the airport opens.

Of course, Denver is building its light rail capacities and starting from square one in some of these areas, so it’s much easier to plan (and plan well) from the start. Chicago’s Union Station has been a victim of the years, of different plans and different ideas that don’t play well together.

Both the Amtrak and Metra areas are in long corridors that can become human sardine cans if trains are late or cancelled. There’s no flow to either area — Amtrak’s main gate area, waiting rooms and ticket area is, in particular, an odd series of segmented boxes with no rhyme or reason).

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s a huge great room of wasted space. It’s ostensibly a waiting room, but it seems to be wasted. (It’s also often rented for entertainment and events – a lovely idea, but something that shouldn’t be a main driving force of a space like the station.)

And that’s just in the station itself. One of the biggest headaches about Chicago’s Union Station is how to get there, and how people flow around the building above ground.

The new Denver station. Amtrak waiting area is out of frame on the left; the remaining spaces are retail spaces and central social areas in the middle. (Internet photo)

The new Denver station. Amtrak waiting area is out of frame on the left; the remaining spaces are retail spaces and central social areas in the middle. (Internet photo)

The entrances may be familiar for people who take the Metra every day, but there is no real “front door” of the station.

Car traffic clutters the streets around the station, often blocking intersections, and the Megabus stop a block away has added to that confusion.

While two transit lines (the CTA Blue and Green Clinton stops) are not far away, there’s no clear sign, markings or pathway on how to connect between the station and the CTA stops.

So what can Chicago do? It may not be able to start from scratch and really rethink the entire station (or can it?) but a few ideas might help:

(1) Outside, plans should designate a few streets around the station to be buses and cabs only. (One is now, but it’s poorly enforced.) Nabbing a space to create a car passenger drop off area – complete with actual space to pull off of the street – would be ideal. This space could be combined with the curb where Megabus stops, so that traffic flows more sensibly. Mark all of those things very clearly, so drivers understand where to go.

(2) Develop a more clear marking system at entrances for what sits where, and what can be accessed from that entrance. As it stands now, it appears that Amtrak and Metra have put up signs of their own in haphazard places. A general Union Station signage plan should mark entrances, the services inside, and other things (like ATMs, ticketing services, and so on).

(3) Think of a better use for the great room area. How can this be used to alleviate crowding? Are the retail outlets currently in Union Station a good mix, or can they be updated?

The Tribune article talks about some aspects of these ideas, mainly about CTA buses around the station. That’s a great start, but Megabus is a part of the everyday experience at the station, and ignoring the cut-rate bus company won’t help with crowding.

The same article suggests no change to the great room, which I think is unfortunate. Perhaps they should fly to Denver and see that Union Station’s great room – a room full of people talking, laughing, eating, a room full of life. Chicago’s great room may have historical value, but it only vaguely flickers with the kind of life that a public space like this should host on a daily basis.

Even Amtrak's own media person calls the station "warren of obscure passageways with no natural light." (Internet photo)

Even Amtrak’s own media person calls the station “warren of obscure passageways with no natural light.” (Internet photo)

Making the message make sense

Something very cool happened last weekend.

I finally earned a college degree — a little later than planned, but it happened. I’m incredibly proud of that accomplishment.

The days before graduation and the day itself were filled with speeches and talking – a whole lot of communication goin’ on.

I wasn’t part of the traditional group of graduates, so I was able to shift my focus and observe what was happening. (That’s also the journalist in me emerging and taking notes!)

I noticed a few interesting things about the ways that people communicated — what worked, what didn’t, and why.

AUTHENTICITY RULES: Several students spoke at the Saturday morning baccalaureate service, and while everyone was thoughtful and prepared to speak, I found the response from students fascinasting. The speakers that elicited the strongest response weren’t necessarily the smoothest speakers. But they were the ones who were willing to be vulnerable and real in front of a crowd, and they got a lot of respect from the audience.

I was stunned by one student. I’d been in a class with him and he always seemed nervous when he spoke. But that day, he stood in front of 500 other people and delivered an amazing set of remarks. It was all authentic, all him, and all heart.

SELECTING THE RIGHT MESSAGE: On the other hand….well, how do I say this diplomatically? Our commencement speaker, for all his accomplishments and good intentions, missed the mark.

I suppose I could be thankful that he didn’t launch into a flood of Commencement Clichés, but….I’m not sure WHAT it was that he said to us. I think it would be best described as a speech for a Kiwanis Club meeting, or maybe something you’d deliver at an industry conference or a job interview.

After a promising beginning with a few jokes, the speaker essentially recapped the minutiae of his career for what seemed like forever — in front of 500 graduates roasting in the sun, all waiting for That Guy To Stop Speaking. (Heck, I knew a bit about his line of business and *I* was praying for a strong wind to carry the stage away.)

That can’t in any way be called a success.

Anyone on the speaker circuit probably has a core speech they give to everyone, with alterations here and there based on the audience. But it’s important to remember that whether it’s a commencement address, an annual shareholders meeting or a town hall debate, the message has to fit the event. Too often, we try to plug a one-size-fits-all set of remarks into an event that needs to have its own story told.

SIMPLICITY IS BEAUTY:  Students often take the same approach to a speech that they do to writing a term paper: more is more. But the simplest communication can be the most effective.

The graduating class always collects money to start a scholarship fund, and this year’s seniors had been hounded via e-mail to make a contribution. Those efforts were falling short.

A class leader who had the mic at an event asked everyone who had received scholarship money to stand. It was ninety percent of the attendees.

THAT made an impact, and the senior class ended up collecting well beyond its goal.

Sometimes, the simplest message is the strongest one, and the one that can make the biggest impact.

Questions run too deep

I’m a person who lives in the current moment and cherishes it. After a lot of work and a lot of patience, I’m as content as I’ve ever been in my present day life – ridiculously, joyously head over heels in love, a secure home, a happy life.

But there’s always a bit of an interesting tension playing out between past, present and future.

You can’t hit middle age without the presence of memory making its way, swimming its way back to you. Sometimes it’s just a hint of something, a smell of fire evoking fall bonfires, or a song on the radio taking you back to a specific place and time.

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.

At other times, memory comes rushing back in an overwhelming flood.

Last week, a student at my alma mater, my former high school, stabbed almost two dozen people. No one seems to know or understand why.

I don’t know any of the people affected. I don’t know any of the teachers in those buildings – my teachers retired long ago. I don’t even know the area that well anymore – it’s been over 20 years since I last lived there, and it’s been almost two years since my last visit “home.”

But watching those familiar buildings on national TV was surreal. And it brought back some intense memory for me.

I’ve talked about this before in this blog, here and here. I won’t repeat the details in depth here, but my experience at that school was, to be diplomatic, less than ideal. I was physically attacked for four years, several times a week if not every day. It was a war zone for me.

Aside from one amazing fourth grade teacher who was always in my corner, I had precious few advocates who would speak for me. In my last year of school, the people who were accountable and could make changes were among the people joining in the teasing, taunting and bullying.

But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible
Logical, responsible, practical.

I’ve got a great career now – a multi-faceted one. And in my work as a journalist, I always want to examine the whole story, to look for relationships and causes.

It’s been so damn frustrating to watch this story and not have any real voice to ask questions, to wonder if everyone’s voice is being heard. It’s a huge lesson on how important the work of journalism is to the people whose stories are being told, one that I’ll never forget.

The news organizations are not doing a bad job – not necessarily. They did wonderful work with the breaking news elements.

But the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an article this past Sundaypainting the town of Murrysville as a near-Garden of Eden, with Franklin a Shangri-La fouled seemingly for the first time by a dissenter, a bad seed emerging from the flock. They even used the term “near-perfect” in their headline.

Franklin_regional_middle_schoolThere is one brief mention of Delmont and Export as two other towns “that contribute to Franklin Regional.”

But no mention of the conflict that’s always existed between affluent Murrysville, middle-class Delmont, and working class (and sometimes quite poor) Export, where coal mines were operating a century ago. That’s fueled at least some of the conflict that’s happened here over the years. 

I know my personal story is just that – personal. It’s not enough to build a narrative around. I’m just one person, after all, and though my perspective is valid, one person’s experience does not make a trend, or a pathology.

One of my most consistent faculty tormentors is nearing ninety on the beaches of Florida. Another is long dead. There is no one to interview. And quite frankly, I don’t want to be the story. (The reflex of a journalist kicking in, I suppose – rule number one: never be part of the story.)

But news outlets have also missed a more recent case of conflict, one with perhaps a more viable source of verification. ABC’s “20/20” visited Franklin Regional in the late 1990s (1997, I believe) and featured a story where four young female students were having a fight. The two victims were suspended, while the two instigators remained in school.

Even a decade after I’d left, the ability to resolve conflict and mediate those kinds of issues within the walls of that institution were called into question.

They showed me a world where I could be so dependable
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.

Last week’s event is SO not about me. I know that. But it’s impossible to wipe my own experience out of my head, and look at it through any other eyes but my own, my perceptions shaded by experience.

I’ve shared my concerns about school safety with every horrifying, sad event that has happened here in our country, ever since Columbine. I’ve had the same reaction each time.

What drove this kid to do what he did? Mental health issues? Bullying? No one seems to know.

And while I am deeply sad and horrified for everyone that he injured, and agree he needs to be held responsible for his actions and answer for what he did, I can’t help but wonder about him.

We may know very little about him, other than the fact that he’s been described as ‘quiet.’ But the obvious piece that leapt out at me was that no one stepped forward to say, “Hey, I was his friend.” He was likely navigating those halls on his own, with no advocate, no guidance. Those are rough roads to walk.

Now watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical, a liberal, fanatical, criminal.

Sometimes, trying to have a conversation about the complexities of an event like this does earn you a label. These events always bring the conflict over gun rights and criminal law to the forefront, dividing lines between liberal and conservative.

We’re living in a world that is far more politically volatile than when I was in high school. The growth and plenty we enjoyed as kids has shrunk in size and magnitude. My whole hometown region shed its primary industry.

The late Harold Lasswell once said that politics is “who gets what, when, and how.”  And when things get less plentiful, people make lists, and divide into camps. I’m sure I fall into the liberal camp on many issues, while much of western Pennsylvania is a conservative area.

But the mental health of teenagers, the importance of teaching them how to resolve conflict, to speak up for help? This transcends political beliefs and divides. It’s a complex issue and will require a complex set of responses. And one of the first ones will be parents deciding not to model those simple label “us vs them” reactions, and instead teaching children to allow the humanity of everyone around them to exist, rather than trying to make people disappear.

At night, when all the world’s asleep
The questions run so deep, for such a simple man.

I’m an oddball. I’ve always been the salmon swimming upstream. I suppose it’s more socially acceptable, more righteous for my public face and career, to steal a term from Malcolm Gladwell and say that I’m an ‘outlier.’  I always have a perspective that seems to be in radical opposition to the thing everyone else is seeing.

That might serve me better as an adult than it did as a child, but still, my eyes are elsewhere.

Last week my fellow alumnus proudly displayed solidarity with our alma mater, changing their Facebook photos to our school logo, stating their class year in a status update, echoing the chant of “WE ARE FR!”

I couldn’t do it. Not because I don’t support the school, or mourn the injured, or respect these fellow alumni and their pride. They’re all good people, with kind hearts.

It’s my curse to think – perhaps overthink – these sorts of things. But I couldn’t do it.

I was never really FR, you see. It was never really mine to call home. I could not raise the flag to celebrate a house that never welcomed me.

And it’s the remaining question nagging at me about this young man, the one who picked up two knives and wanted to harm so many others, the one whose motives are a mystery.

A line has forever been drawn by those knives, one of no return. And now his name, Alex Hribal, will be writ in history books. His name will be whispered in the prescription pickup line at Ferri’s Pharmacy, at the Cozy Inn between the clinking of draft beer glasses, at Pat Catan’s by housewives helping their sons and daughters with a school project.

Those people all know they’re loved and supported, as a town, as a school – they’ve seen it in image after image on TV and in print. They are FR. The breach in the circle is closing as we speak, soon to be healed.

But the question I can’t get out of my head: Was Alex Hribal ever FR? Is he FR now? Or has the transgressor been erased from memory? Was he ever one of us?

Then again, what can you expect from an outlier like me? It’s a legitimate question to pose from out here, outside looking in.

Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd – please tell me who I am.

(Lyrics from Supertramp’s “Logical Song” – no copyright infringement intended.) 

Finding joy

NOTE: Thanks to everyone who’s checked out Elegy and Irony; this is my hundredth post! 

For many people (including me), today marks the end of summer. Kids are back in school. I’m starting my last year for my degree work.

Summer was supposed to be a rest and respite, a time for relaxation.

For me, it was anything but.

My summer was a big shit sandwich.

I had a health issue that required surgery, and for a brief period, the diagnosis was even worse than it thankfully, ultimately, turned out to be.

Let me be clear: in the big scheme of things, all of this was manageable. There are people who have far bigger challenges than me in this department.

But it was scary. It was a wake up call.

I’ve been working this summer on balance in my life, in my work, in how I approach everything.

When I was ill, I read several books to pass the time. Two of them – Life Happens, by Connie Schultz, and Life Itself, by Roger Ebert – had “life” in their very titles, and through all their pages. (I took those to the hospital with me.)

The story of Roger Ebert’s last few years is one of suffering, but also of great life, and great contentment and joy.

The words of a man who has been through a long, arduous journey but understood the value of embracing that journey at every step:  “I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

I’ve thought about Ebert’s wife Chaz several times since his passing. She’s coped with his passing, led the efforts to keep Ebert’s writing voice and platform for commentary alive, and explored her own voice in her own works.

But in the midst of all that, a few weeks after Roger’s passing, this happened.

This makes me smile every time I see it. And by ‘smile’ I also mean ‘bawl like a baby.’

In the midst of a season of pain, it’s beautiful to see Chaz Ebert (and the other people there) celebrating life, living in a moment of joy.

The balance of joy and pain, of celebration and suffering.

I, too, did not always know this, but am happy that my eyes are opened and that my awareness and appreciation is wide awake.

Here’s to good grades and good health for you and yours.

(P.S.: Tilda Swinton is a goddess. That is all.)

The Heart Of The Matter: Adding insult to injury for transgender murder victim

news_leadLast week, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper ran a story about a person who had been murdered. A body had been found in a pond in Olmstead Township, a small southwestern suburb of Cleveland.

What made the coverage of this story stand out was that the body found was of a transgender woman, Cemia “Ce Ce” Acoff.

I’m a member of the LGBT community. I’m also a journalist.

I’ve got a few fistfuls of bylines, and I’m also in the unique position of being back in college.

I’ve been studying the art of journalism – an art I’ve already practiced. I’m digging deeper into the finer points of reporting and writing.

And I can say, unequivocally, that the Plain Dealer has repeatedly dropped the ball on its coverage of Acoff’s death.


Defending the press

In the eyes of the public, being a journalist used to be cool. Rumpled fedoras, lots of vodka, foreign excursions and living on the edge. Not every kid wanted to be Edward R. Murrow, but to some of us, it looked like a very cool job.

These days, the reputation of journalists is reminding me of that old joke about lawyers. You know the one: “What do you call ten lawyers at the bottom of a lake? A good start.”

I get it – like bad ambulance-chasing lawyers, there are newspapers and TV networks who do an abysmal job practicing the art of journalism.

And even a journalist with the best of intention can make a bad call. Since Friday’s horrific school shootings, we’ve heard a great deal of criticism about the media covering the story.

That criticism includes some very valid comments. Several journalists showed questionable judgement interviewing young children.

A few recent events have driven home that public sentiment for me. Last week, I saw an article about a Navy SEAL from my hometown who was killed in Afghanistan. The comments on the article expressed dismay and disgust that “the media” had contacted the dead Navy SEAL’s family.

I am here today not to bury journalism, but to praise it.

I’m admittedly biased – I’m a journalist, for one, and I’ve been a news nerd since I was a kid. I was watching Watergate hearings when I was four or five.

In fourth grade, our class had a project where we wrote about ourselves. The other boys in the class wrote about their bikes or model airplanes. I wrote that I was following the news about the Jonestown massacre. (One of many reasons that my teachers thought I was odd!)

For me, knowledge has always meant reassurance. I was never good at fighting with my fists, but as they say, knowledge is power. I fight, when needed, with words.

And I’ve always found comfort in knowing all that I could. I also looked up to and respected the people who told the stories of other people.

Younger people might be mystified by the hero worship of journalists like Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings, but there was a calmness in their presence that announced to the audience: This is happening. And this, too, shall pass.

What I can tell you is this: As imperfect as our press might be, it is a free press. It may be clogged with the sediment of public relations fluff and infotainment tripe, but its heart still beats.

Just today, news that NBC News reporter Richard Engel was free from being captured in Syria was made public. People are still working on your behalf, putting their lives on the line to find out what’s happening in the world.

I understand in the case of the Navy SEAL from my hometown that his family didn’t want to speak to the press, and certainly their wishes (and anyone’s wishes in that situation) should be respected.

A friend of mine has faced the media recently as a result of the Connecticut shootings, and I’m reminded that it’s an intense spotlight to be in, particularly at a time of such loss and sorrow.

But in the case of war casualties, for example, many families WANT to tell the story of their loved one, and talk about a loss in a war that, to them, feels like it’s been vastly underreported. Many families want all of us to know what their loved one lost, or what they lost, and want us to clearly understand the cost.

news_leadWhat a private person might see as hounding, though, is a habit of persistence that we developed in the face of a lot of closed doors in political chambers, legal chambers and corporate boardrooms. We dig deeper to try to keep you as informed as possible.

I know a lot of the things we dig up aren’t pleasant. They don’t fit simply into neat piles. They don’t end like a sitcom, with all the loose ends tied up in twenty-three minutes.

They defy simplification, and while some opinion-based news programs will try to make the news black or white, us versus them…very little in news, and in life, breaks down that way.

And when your own life is filled with challenges, or work, or drudgery, or sadness, or is packed wall to wall with life itself that keeps you too busy to stop and take a breath, absorbing bad news is the last thing in the world many of us want to do.

We’d collectively rather read Us Weekly, or watch Honey Boo Boo, or something equally ridiculous that lets us hang up our brain, and breathe, and laugh.

I understand that. I totally get it.

But I’m here to tell you we shouldn’t lose sight of the value of our press.

It is a right spelled out for us in the FIRST Amendment, after all. There’s been a great deal of rhetoric in recent years about our Constitution, and freedom of the press is a cornerstone of the rights we so clearly value as Americans.

And if you’ve been taking that right for granted, understand that in many places, we’re in danger of losing the voices that make a free press.

Technology and the Web has brought massive changes to the ways information is shared, and while it’s made access more immediate in some ways, it’s also devastated some media platforms – especially the ones who do long-form, deep, thorough and thoughtful journalism.

The list of cities that have lost a daily newspaper includes some substantial U.S. cities: Baltimore, Cincinnati, Albuquerque, Honolulu and Denver, to name a few.

Detroit and New Orleans have newspapers that print less frequently. The Plain Dealer, long Cleveland’s voice of the people, is potentially facing the same reduction in publication.

You may think that it’s the nature of our corporate world today, that mergers lead to those exciting buzzwords like “synergy” and “economies of scale,” and hey, if it means a couple of jobs are lost, then journalists are just like the next guy (or woman) and have to suck it up.

Except that when you lose reporters, you lose the eyes and ears that can find out that your city council spent your taxpayer money on trips to the Bahamas.

You lose the experienced researchers who can tell you not only that something IS happening, but provide the context of WHY it is happening.

And what you have in its absence is something like The Huffington Post – a collection of language without any real structure. You end up with a snippet of a story that tells readers only the basic facts, and leaves the readers to fill in the blanks by themselves.

That isn’t really news – it’s a big vat of misinformation, and it feeds on itself.

Journalists have a responsibility to the public, and we have an ethical responsibility to do our jobs in the best, kindest, most transparent way we can. I agree with that, and I know some of my fellow journalists need to do a better job.

But I’d argue that all of us need to value the work that journalists do for our readers and viewers — and our country. If you’re finding the fluff, the opinion channels, and the tabloids lacking, then dig around for more news sources.

Find a newspaper that has longer, more in-depth articles. Listen to NPR or any TV or radio source that takes more than 30 seconds to explore an issue. If you want better journalism, value the great work that’s being done.

As a journalism (and a recent returning student), I have a dog-eared copy of a book called The Elements of Journalism in my library. It’s a fantastic book that talks not so much about the work of doing journalism – the editing and the arrangement – as it does the reasons WHY we do what we do.

There are ten commandments, so to speak, about what journalists are obligated to do. We are bound to truth. Our obligation is to citizens and our readers. We are disciplined to be objective researchers, avoiding conflicts of interest with those we cover and verifying all we see and say.

The last “commandment” is important to the work that we do, too. It says, “Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.”

And the biggest one is to decide, as a culture, whether we collectively value truth, value information and value the fine art of journalism – even when the results make us angry, challenges norms, or makes us feel uncomfortable.

We are in an age where corporate interests drive newspapers, and television, and the Internet. And it’s up to the public to be clear about what you value. As with politics and politicians, involvement is crucial, and it’s quite frankly what all of us owe our democracy.

We will collectively end up, as they say, with the journalism we ask for — and the journalism we deserve.

Music Monday: Faith, God and rock and roll

Music speaks to a wide range of human passions and human experiences – whether it’s rock and roll, country twang, rap music or a symphony. And people who are passionate about faith and about God have used music to express that passion.

Let’s be honest, though: the genre known as “Christian rock” has produced some profoundly awful music – particularly back in the 80s and 90s, when the attempt to merge those two ideas was executed quite poorly by some major record labels.

But there’s been some really great, thoughtful music in the last five to ten years from artists that we’d consider ‘mainstream rock artists, and that music has come forth in a very organic way. They explore their faith and their God in their songs. I think by avoiding that “Christian Music” label  (which is, as all sales of music are, 98% about PR and where the music fits in a sales environment), it allows people to just hear the songs and experience them.

A few of the mainstream artists that have mentioned faith in their music:

Sufjan Stevens is one of my favorite artists. He’s got some inventive takes on rock and folk and I love his arrangements. His faith was a subject in a lot of the initial interviews he gave, and he was reluctant to speak about it. His attitude was that his music said it all. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is one of the more heartfelt songs where Stevens tackles a religious theme.

The Innocence Mission has been around for over twenty years, and their music has always referred to their faith, in ways both subtle and obvious. Without directly mentioning God, lead singer Keren Paris draws from religious imagery in the song “Now In This Hush.”

Prefab Sprout has been around for even longer – about 30 years – and band leader and lead singer Paddy McAloon is critically acclaimed for being the Irving Berlin/Cole Porter of contemporary pop music. But McAloon has always worn his faith on his sleeve. The band’s most famous album, Jordan: The Comeback is about God. Or Jesus. Or Elvis. Possibly all three. McAloon’s output has been diminished significantly in recent years as he’s lost a significant amount of vision and hearing from health ailments (including severe tinnitus), but a few years ago the band released Let’s Change The World With Music, which has several songs with vivid religious imagery.

I can think of no pop song as deeply vested with Biblical imagery than Prefab Sprout’s song “One Of The Broken,” one of my favorite songs of all time.

And perhaps the most controversial person I’ll mention here: Sinead O’Connor.

I know people remember her ripping the photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live – a topic I addressed in an earlier post – but this is a person who is still actively exploring and  questioning her faith and the meaning of it in her life. Which I think makes for some very compelling music. And no one in contemporary pop music is exploring faith in their music as often and as thoroughly as O’Connor.

“I Don’t Know How to Love Him” may be a number from a Broadway song, but it takes on many more layers when O’Connor, who’s herself been a clergywoman, sings it.

Her latest album ends with the stunning “VIP,” which questions crass commercialism and celebrity culture and designates God as her VIP.

Sinead’s songs always make me really think about matters of faith and about how she examines those ideas. She’s a controversial figure and has a very messy public narrative, with her comments on religion and sexuality and her open struggles with mental health issues. It’s interesting that she’s often judged so harshly for her imperfections. What, I wonder, would Jesus say?

The great Madison debate

Don’t you have the feeling sometimes that all the fun stuff happens after you leave a party? I swear, my timing is off.

I lived in Madison, Wisconsin for five years. It was peaceful and tranquil – but once I leave? All hell broke loose!

First, the election of Scott Walker and the subsequent political controversy shakes Madison to its core and brings thousands of people to the Capitol grounds for months. I’m not sure it that was really “fun,” but it was certainly eventful.

More recently, there’s been a spirited debate happening about the pros and cons of life in Madison.

The catalyst was an article in a newly launched magazine (with a primary focus on Minneapolis and the surrounding region). Writer Frank Bures, a Madison expat, wrote an article for the magazine Thirty Two, about Professor Richard Florida’s ideas about the “creative class” and how that new cultural class is reshaping our economy and our cities.

Before I go any farther, let me be clear about a few things: Madison is an acquired taste, and I definitely acquired it in my time there. There is much I like about the city. The people can be ridiculously kind and polite to each other. Clerks in the grocery stores and shops were so warm and friendly I was half-convinced they were flirting with me. The outdoor spaces in the area are magnificent.

Professor Florida included Madison in his list of creative class strongholds. And that’s what much of Bures’ article is about – that while conceptually Madison should have had a vibrant economic and artistic culture, attracting new people and new energy, the reality of Madison was quite different.

A new flow of students and newly elected politicians may bring energy to the polar ends of State Street, but much of the rest of Madison is a very traditional town and a very insular one. Many of the people I worked with had grown up in and around Madison, attended high school and college there, met and married their spouses there, and were raising children there – and so had their parents and grandparents. Those are great things, but substantially different than what Bures expected – and what I’d expected, too.

How insular of a town? Hell, I’m a self-confessed introvert and I had connections to almost everyone mentioned in Bures’ article. Including Bures himself.

  • I was in a class Bures taught about how to market your freelance work. (It was part of the University of Wisconsin’s continuing education class offerings and ran for two weeks.)
  • One of the first people I ever interviewed as a freelance writer in Madison? Penelope Trunk. I talked to her by phone on an article about Madison. My editor killed her comments as she was, at that time, a contributing writer to a competitor’s site. She was a memorable interview.
  • I’d even – for a whole two seconds – met Jamie Peck, the former UW professor mentioned in the article. (A friend of mine was a professor as well and had a neighboring office in the science hall.)
  • Look to the left of this post – see the blogroll? You’ll see two names – Bures and Trunk – that have been part of this blogroll pretty much since I launched this back in 2009 (though I haven’t spoken with or corresponded with either in years).

One of the best things about Madison – the Farmer’s Market

Those are not unusual connections in Madison. It’s a tightly knit community and that’s true for all professions.

All the artists and writers know each other. Before a lot of outside money and outside influence came into Wisconsin politics, those folks also  had known each other for years.

I never felt unwelcome in Madison, but I was also never part of the inner circle, and never spoke the shorthand that everyone already knew. And that does make a difference. It made it very challenging to make friends. Bures’ descriptions of some of the people he met in Madison are very accurate.

Madison claims to appreciate diversity on paper, but in many cases it’s less a true appreciation of differences and more of a celebration (but not necessarily acceptance) of eccentricity. There are many colorful street people and musicians in Madison and people acknowledge them – but they’re not quite welcoming them into their homes, or breaking bread with, say, the Piccolo Man.

And for a town that celebrates diversity on paper, it’s unwelcoming to many African-Americans; I’ve seen the body language of people on State Street when an African-American is present and it speaks volumes. The segregation in Madison is just as vivid as it is in Chicago.

One of the biggest challenges for me when I lived there was that Madison was not a very fun place to be single. As a member of the LGBT community, it was even more challenging, but the reasons that Madison’s single scene was such an uphill battle are pretty universal – the dating pool is remarkably small and many good candidates in any age range are usually married and raising a family. Those strong family ties also meant that many people are caring for – and living with – their parents, which doesn’t always make for a positive in the dating world!

Bures makes a number of points in his essay (worth a read at the link above) but in essence, he says Florida’s theory about cause and effect of the creative class being the economic engine of any city (including Madison) just isn’t so.

I’m just starting to explore urban studies as a field, so I can’t speak to theory with any authority. And I found a great deal of thought provoking content when I read Professor Florida’s book Rise of the Creative Class several years ago. I look forward to exploring these ideas much more in my studies this years. (NOTE: Florida responded to this article in an in-depth letter, which prompted a counter response by Bures.)

Yeah…I don’t quite get it, either.

There’s a whole other realm of discussion about Madison in the context of urban studies – and I could fill a whole separate blog post with that debate.

There’s much to discuss about Madison’s growing suburban sprawl, as well as the lack of sensible public transit options and the utter failure that happened when previous attempts were made to have a discussion about those options.

Transit planning isn’t happening when a major artery in and out of the city still has an active and busy rail crossing running on it, blocking traffic for up to a half an hour some mornings. (They’ve redone and rebuilt the road a number of times but apparently never thought to put a bridge or tunnel on the road or the tracks so that the east side didn’t come to a complete halt.)

And while the height limit for buildings close to the Capitol is appreciated to maintain a view of the Square, density is desperately needed, particularly as the east side of Madison starts to evolve.

But I will say that I believe Bures’ essay is spot on in many ways. One of his more stinging comments is that Madison is a “giant suburb with a university in the middle.” I’d say that Madison’s biggest strength is State Street, bordered by Capitol Square to the east and the university to the west.

Both the university and the state jobs bring in college-educated workers, many with PhD’s, and an economic engine that attracts new infusions of capital – monetary capital and human capital – all the time. The influx of students and their energy and enthusiasm in pursuing a degree and a profession add fuel to that formula. Much of the rest of Madison is, in many ways, a cluster of suburbs sprouting up around the isthmus.

The reaction to Bures’ essay has been mixed. I never saw it as an indictment of Madison as a place or of its people – more as a critique of Florida’s theory vs. the reality of the city – but nonetheless some Madisonians are taking it personally.

When I first read the response of Brennan Nardi, an editor at Madison Magazine, I felt that her narrative came across as patronizing, and her knee-jerk response was utterly predictable, topped off by the dismissive comment, “Unless you are extraordinary, you have to actively pursue the good life, not passively expect it to find you.” Thanks, Mom!

But Nardi makes some solid points in her rebuttal, and the main one is one that has been overlooked by just about everyone: Madison isn’t that flush economically. It’s still a mid-sized town in a state that, like every other state, is facing budget shortfalls. Madison is an affordable place, but many of the best neighborhoods to live in thrive on their offbeat charm and old housing stock. Fresh financial investment is more rare than people think in Madison.

Overestimating the wealth, the need and the growth potential of Madison is a pitfall that the city’s fallen into twice now, with the building of Monona Terrace and the Overture Center. They’re great buildings in great spaces, but questions exist about their sustainability and whether Madison will ever have enough need to fill the cavernous space of those halls – or enough business to sustain them for the long run.

And the local job market can, at times, be as tranquil and sedate as the city itself. Nardi notes (correctly) that many in cultural fields can max out on opportunities or salary. Jobs are just not that plentiful in Madison, for any industry. State jobs and university jobs are rare and it’s a super-competitive process to land one. And if a professor is hired at UW, their spouse has to find a job in Madison too, and so on.

Madison is an interesting, unique space, and I still cherish my time living there. But it’s not Nirvana. Then again, there are pros and cons about every city I’ve ever lived in. Textbook theory may be a useful tool, but in the end you have to dig deeper to find out what place works for you.

EDITED TO ADD: Bures wrote another related essay here. To me, this relates in many ways to much of what I’ve posted about recently, including the career and job searching posts I’ve written and the recent debate about the value of music and downloading, and how musicians make a sustainable living. There’s a definite change and evolution happening in how we look at where we live and how we make a living.