Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Today's theme song: Asking Annie Out

By Willie Nile, from the album Streets of New York.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Young and drunk

When young Mr. Fitzsimmons emailed to ask me to meet him in my office on a Sunday afternoon, I was pretty sure it wasn't about his classwork. David Fitzsimmons, as I'll call him here, was 19 and so impossibly young-looking that I was sure he'd never shaved more than twice in his life. He was a charming kid--a little too smooth. When he didn't meet his deadlines on assignments, he always had original and often hilarious reasons.

"My car got stolen and then it got towed from wherever the thief left it and when I went to get it out of the city pound, it took about four hours and when I got it back, it had been completely washed and waxed! And there was a new CD in the changer! It's like I got an upgrade from the car thief! I'm pretty sure it had a lube job, too. He even threw out all the Whataburger wrappers! How great is that?" He could spin a tale like an Irishman.

He also drank like one. David was a regular customer of happy hours at the bars near campus. He drank every day, of that I was pretty sure. And it explained why he was always late to class, even though he was in the 11 a.m. section. In every story he wrote for me, drinking was a major topic. He wrote about the time he was in a wreck after driving into a tree and totaling his brand new Rabbit. He was just 16 then and already was adept at sneaking the hard stuff out of the liquor stashes of his friends' parents. He told me later that he'd started drinking before he was 12. For another story, he wrote about a cousin who'd died in a DWI crash that wasn't the cousin's fault. It was as though he was trying to convince himself of something....

By the time he got to college, David Fitzsimmons was a steady, heavy drinker. With convincing fake IDs he bought from a guy who made them in his dorm room on professional equipment, David hit the bars in the afternoons and stayed late "partying." One night he did a series of tequila shooters, how many he couldn't recall. But the aftermath of that stunt was so gruesome that he started thinking about what it might be like not to drink anymore.

"I've had a hangover every single day for the past five years," he told me that Sunday in my office. He was in bad shape that day. His eyes were pink-rimmed, his throat was raspy and his complexion looked as gray as a raw oyster. "I feel like shit all the time. If I make it to class, all I think about is when I can get to the bar. When I'm out drinking, I forget about everything else I'm supposed to be doing. I can't even eat because my stomach's so fucked up."

He was scared, he said. He'd been blacking out a lot lately. The night before he'd woken up way late in a strange apartment across town and couldn't remember how he'd gotten there. He wasn't even sure whose place it was or what had happened in the hours before he came to on a couch covered in cat hair. His car was outside with the keys still in it, so he drove back to his dorm. It was around 3 in the afternoon when we met on campus that day and he said he hadn't been to sleep yet. His hands were shaking pretty bad, like he needed a drink.

Why this incident put the fear into him and not the hundreds of others he'd experienced while drunk, I don't know. I suspect there were some details of what had happened in that apartment that he didn't want to talk about. But he was clearly shaken up and needed to talk.

"You seem like somebody I could trust," he said. "You're cool, like my mom. But I can't talk to my mom. She'd tell my dad and he'd be up here tomorrow to drag me back to rehab." (David had been in rehab once already, two summers earlier. He said he drank two six-packs within hours of his release.)

"I'm not sure what you want me to do," I said. "I'm glad you recognize that you have a problem. You do need help. But they tell us to refer students to the health center for substance abuse." I was speaking in those cold, dispassionate tones that they use in the once-yearly workshops on "troubled students" that adjuncts can attend voluntarily. I really wanted to cry with the kid. He seemed to be teetering on the edge of a breakdown.

"No, come on! They'll call my parents. I'm already such a disappointment to them." His big blue eyes were filling up and I was starting to worry that he was suicidal or something.

"I just need to ask you a favor," he said after taking a deep breath. He stood up and dug his wallet out of his back pocket and opened it. "I want you to lock up my fake IDs somewhere. Maybe if I don't have those, I won't drink tonight."

Tonight, he said. He already knew the language of the addict. One day at a time. One hour at a time.

"I'll be happy to do that, David." I took three IDs out of his hand. They were authentic-looking driver's licenses from Texas and two other states. Each one showed that David Fitzsimmons was 21 years old. "But I still think you need to see about getting professional help. Have you ever gone to meetings?"

"I just pledged a fraternity this year."

"No, I mean Alcoholics Anonymous."

He looked down at the floor and just shook his head. It grew quiet in the room. I could hear someone at the end of the hall getting a soda out of the machine and then walking back to some other office.

"I probably should," he said quietly. "But I don't know...." He moved toward the door. I gave him a hug. The kid needed a hug right then.

The fake IDs stayed in my desk drawer in a sealed envelope for the next four years. David passed my writing class--barely. We never again talked about his drinking. We never again had a conversation outside of class. He never asked for the IDs back. And after that semester, I rarely saw him. He must have changed majors. Or maybe he just felt embarrassed.

I prefer to believe that his story had the right ending. That he really did sober up. That on that Sunday he went back to his dorm and ate a good dinner and maybe watched 60 Minutes. That the night didn't end with David driving over to the Green Elephant or the Ice House for another round of disappointment.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Today's theme song

"If You Talk Too Much, My Head Will Explode" by People in Planes. From the album As Far as the Eye Can See.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

To NYT: Students send dumb emails... duh

From the February 21 New York Times, page A-1 (with my comments in brackets within).

To: Professor@University.edu Subject: Why It's All About Me

One student skipped class and then sent the professor an e-mail message asking for copies of her teaching notes. Another did not like her grade, and wrote a petulant message to the professor. Another explained that she was late for a Monday class because she was recovering from drinking too much at a wild weekend party. [I've gotten that one, too.]

Jennifer Schultens, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of California, Davis, received this e-mail message last September from a student in her calculus course: "Should I buy a binder or a subject notebook? Since I'm a freshman, I'm not sure how to shop for school supplies. Would you let me know your recommendations? Thank you!" [One email to me: "I'm running low on printing paper. Would you mind if I only printed my assignment single space?"]

At colleges and universities nationwide, e-mail has made professors much more approachable. But many say it has made them too accessible, erasing boundaries that traditionally kept students at a healthy distance. [Sigh...missing boundaries.]

These days, they say, students seem to view them as available around the clock, sending a steady stream of e-mail messages — from 10 a week to 10 after every class — that are too informal or downright inappropriate.
[Downright! Damn right downright!]

"The tone that they would take in e-mail was pretty astounding," said Michael J. Kessler, an assistant dean and a lecturer in theology at Georgetown University. " 'I need to know this and you need to tell me right now,' with a familiarity that can sometimes border on imperative."

He added: "It's a real fine balance to accommodate what they need and at the same time maintain a level of legitimacy as an instructor and someone who is institutionally authorized to make demands on them, and not the other way round."

While once professors may have expected deference, their expertise seems to have become just another service that students, as consumers, are buying.
[That's a line right out of The Phantom Prof, kids.]

So students may have no fear of giving offense, imposing on the professor's time or even of asking a question that may reflect badly on their own judgment. [What makes you think they care about imposing on a prof's time? Their tuition check buys your time. Didn't you know that?]

For junior faculty members, the barrage of e-mail has brought new tension into their work lives, some say, as they struggle with how to respond. Their tenure prospects, they realize, may rest in part on student evaluations of their accessibility. [Cue the sucking sounds!]

The stakes are different for professors today than they were even a decade ago, said Patricia Ewick, chairwoman of the sociology department at Clark University in Massachusetts, explaining that "students are constantly asked to fill out evaluations of individual faculty." Students also frequently post their own evaluations on Web sites like ratemyprofessors.com and describe their impressions of their professors on blogs. [And if we describe our impressions of them, we get fired. Remember, words hurt.]

Last fall, undergraduate students at Syracuse University set up a group in Facebook.com, an online network for students, and dedicated it to maligning one particular instructor. The students were reprimanded.

Professor Ewick said 10 students in one class e-mailed her drafts of their papers days before they were due, seeking comments. "It's all different levels of presumption," she said. "One is that I'll be able to drop everything and read 250 pages two days before I'm going to get 50 of these."

Kathleen E. Jenkins, a sociology professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, said she had even received e-mail requests from students who missed class and wanted copies of her teaching notes. [Or they just want to come to your office and have you re-teach the class one-on-one. That's pretty common. The consumer attitude again. They paid. They'll use it when they have time to pick it up.]

Alexandra Lahav, an associate professor of law at the University of Connecticut, said she felt pressured by the e-mail messages. "I feel sort of responsible, as if I ought to be on call all the time," she said.

Many professors said they were often uncertain how to react. Professor Schultens, who was asked about buying the notebook, said she debated whether to tell the student that this was not a query that should be directed to her, but worried that "such a message could be pretty scary."
"I decided not to respond at all," she said.

Christopher J. Dede, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied technology in education, said these e-mail messages showed how students no longer deferred to their professors, perhaps because they realized that professors' expertise could rapidly become outdated.

"The deference was probably driven more by the notion that professors were infallible sources of deep knowledge," Professor Dede said, and that notion has weakened.

Meanwhile, students seem unaware that what they write in e-mail could adversely affect them, Professor Lahav said. She recalled an e-mail message from a student saying that he planned to miss class so he could play with his son. Professor Lahav did not respond.

"It's graduate school, he's an adult human being, he's obviously a parent, and it's not my place to tell him how to run his life," she said.

But such e-mail messages can have consequences, she added. "Students don't understand that what they say in e-mail can make them seem very unprofessional, and could result in a bad recommendation."

Still, every professor interviewed emphasized that instant feedback could be invaluable. A question about a lecture or discussion "is for me an indication of a blind spot, that the student didn't get it," said Austin D. Sarat, a professor of political science at Amherst College.

College students say that e-mail makes it easier to ask questions and helps them to learn. "If the only way I could communicate with my professors was by going to their office or calling them, there would be some sort of ranking or prioritization taking place," said Cory Merrill, 19, a sophomore at Amherst. "Is this question worth going over to the office?"

But student e-mail can go too far, said Robert B. Ahdieh, an associate professor at Emory Law School in Atlanta. He paraphrased some of the comments he had received: "I think you're covering the material too fast, or I don't think we're using the reading as much as we could in class, or I think it would be helpful if you would summarize what we've covered at the end of class in case we missed anything."

Students also use e-mail to criticize one another, Professor Ahdieh said. He paraphrased this comment: "You're spending too much time with my moron classmates and you ought to be focusing on those of us who are getting the material."

Michael Greenstone, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he once received an e-mail message late one evening from a student who had recently come to the realization that he was gay and was struggling to cope.

Professor Greenstone said he eventually helped the student get an appointment with a counselor. "I don't think we would have had the opportunity to discuss his realization and accompanying feelings without e-mail as an icebreaker," he said.

A few professors said they had rules for e-mail and told their students how quickly they would respond, how messages should be drafted and what types of messages they would answer.

Meg Worley, an assistant professor of English at Pomona College in California, said she told students that they must say thank you after receiving a professor's response to an e-mail message.

"One of the rules that I teach my students is, the less powerful person always has to write back," Professor Worley said. [But my question is, haven't we become the less powerful half of the equation? Add your comments below. Feel free to vent.]

Monday, February 20, 2006

The "Opt-Out" Idea in Arizona

From Mesa, Ariz., comes this. According to today's story from the AP, the Arizona State Senate Committee on Higher Education last week approved a bill that would force college instructors to offer alternative coursework for students who deem certain assignments offensive to their sexuality, morality or religion.

Think about that for a sec. "Offensive to their sexuality, morality or religion." Who decides what that is? Well, according to the bill, the student decides.

The bill was intro'd by Arizona State Senator Thayer Verschoor (Republican) after a community college student complained to him that he was assigned Rick Moody's The Ice Storm. The "offensive" scenes included sexual acts and drug use. (I've only seen the Ang Lee movie version, which depicted rather mild pot-smoking and pill-popping--the movie's set in the 1970s--and one grown-up party featuring a "key party" for wife-swapping.)

The bill would allow college students to "opt out" of assignments. It would require profs to come up with non-offensive assignments that carry equal weight.

Welcome to a new and treacherous slippery slope.

Quoted in the story is a teacher of poli-sci at Scottsdale Community College: "You couldn't have a college if students could simply veto the assignment. They could simply say, `Give me something else to read,' and it would make my job impossible."

You said it, brutha.

Imagine writing exams for students who've opted out of certain sections of the syllabus. Try coming up with alternative reading and viewing for those students who think In Cold Blood is too violent--and besides, it was written by a homo--or who object to the incestuous plot elements of Psycho or Chinatown (I mention those because I use them both in the film criticism course I teach). What are the opt-out options for those? Bambi? Nope, Mom dies in that one and it's anti-hunting. Citizen Kane? Hmmm, might offend someone's morality because Charles Foster Kane has an extramarital affair. The Sound of Music? That one casts Nazis in a poor light and it's pretty pro-Catholic.

There goes all of Shakespeare, too. I can't begin to count how many morally, sexually and religiously offensive elements there are in Will's works. And most every other great book, poem, play, opera, film, painting...you name it. What's left? The Complete Works of Charles Schulz? Will that be a lower- or upper-level course?

We're entering real 1984 territory with this. (As if we haven't already been living under the burning gaze of Big Brother and his Ministry of Love for the past six years.)

If this sort of law starts to spread to the other 49 states, we might as well turn off the lights and lock all the doors and stay home. Teaching at a university will be like working in a rather strict asylum--with the inmates in charge.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Flexing the flirt muscles

Boy, am I out of practice. There's a really nice man I've been having some long lunches with recently. He's brilliant. A professor for many years. Attractive. Funny. Loves the same old movies I do (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, To Kill a Mockingbird, Spartacus, Casablanca, The Apartment) and can discuss vintage Twilight Zone in intense detail. He knows which episodes were written by Rod Serling and which were written by Buck Houghton. You have no idea the effect that this has on a TV-head. To me it's foreplay.

He's age-appropriate, warm, witty. He opens doors like a gentleman. His politics are right--meaning way, way left. Where it counts, he's the right stuff through and through.

And I'm like a blind pig who's suddenly found an acorn. Men like this are so rare that it scares me that I actually know one. I keep waiting for him to say, "Can you drop me off at my girlfriend's house?" or "Would you like to see my collection of Japanese enema porn?" or any of those other killer phrases that men seem to utter at the exact moment you've decided he's a good guy.

I don't care what age you are, it's nerve-jangling. In this man's company, I feel 17. OK, in my head, I feel 17. My lower back still feels 95.

He seems to be tolerating my various and numerous quirks, like my tendency to blather nervously while driving (I almost turned the wrong way on a one-way street yesterday...Jeez). He puts me at ease and asks me interesting questions that nobody ever has before. And then he listens to the answers. I find him endlessly fascinating. And he keeps asking me out to lunch (we did dinner once, but our schedules make afternoon assignations much better to manage).

Girls, you know what I'm talking about. Guys, listen and learn.

Be gentle with us and we're putty. Seem interested, be attentive, kind, generous and open-hearted--we'll be your purring kittens. Niceness goes a long way.

It's been a long time since I've flexed my flirt muscles. I thought they'd atrophied altogether, like the flabby stuff under my arms. In this writing life, I spend a lot of time solo, just staring at the screen, waiting for the right words to appear. Except for going to the theater (my other job) and writing at Starbucks (where the baristas know me so well, they tell me when I'm having a good hair day and ask me to read their blogs), I don't get out a whole lot. And by getting out I mean putting on a skirt that reveals some leg, slapping on some mascara and acting like a girly girl.

There's nothing quite so nice as lunch in a neighborhood cafe on a winter afternoon, sitting across from a lovely man in a cozy booth, thinking, "This is gooooood."

I'm a little giddy perhaps. The humble acorn is an aphrodisiac.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Republican homeowners fighting back Bush library

Saw this first on D Magazine's fun FrontBurner blog. Here's a link to a New York Sun story about the Republican homeowners in this neighborhood objecting to the heavy-footing of the university in "eminent domaining" their land for the Bush library. The official announcement has yet to be made about which school actually is awarded the white elephant, er, library. But it's long been assumed that it would be here. But not if these homeowners have their say.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Decoding those letters of recommendation

It's that time of year again. Students looking to score scholarships or admittance to grad school ask profs for letters of recommendation. It's a chore we do willingly but under some stress. One semester I wrote more than 25 of the things. Exhausting.

Sometimes, thank god, there's simply a form to fill out with questions such as "How well do you think this student will cope with the challenges of living in an unfamiliar environment?" (That one's for the study-abroad program and means "Will she have a nervous breakdown when she finds out the dorms aren't air-conditioned?") Or "In your opinion, what are the student's primary weaknesses?" Hmmm, knuckle-cracking during my lectures? The ability to sleep sitting up? (Perhaps that actually falls under the heading of "Special talents.")

I always tell students that when they need a letter of rec to ask profs (well in advance) if they would be willing to write a positive letter. This accomplishes two things: It gives the prof a diplomatic out ("I think you might benefit more from asking another professor to write it"--meaning, I can't think of that many nice things to write about you); and if the prof says yes, the student is assured of a letter that will actually help get the scholarship/grad school admittance.

Few profs will turn down a blanket request outright. We simply write the non-committal sort of letter that the receiver can easily decode. "This student was enrolled in my class last fall" means "I barely remember him and he didn't do all that well." Whereas, "This student earned top grades and showed extraordinary academic achievement in my class...etc." If a teacher writes "This student certainly would benefit from a scholarship," it might mean "She's not only financially strapped but really needs some impetus for making more than C's and D's in the basic courses."

"She is intellectually curious" is code for "she asks a lot of questions." "He shows great potential" might mean "He's not as dumb as he looks." Using the word "academic honesty" in the letter lets the receiver know the kid isn't one of the serial plagiarizer/fabricators.

It's hard to come up with adjectives for these things. And we really do want to help most students by writing a letter that will convince the committee to make a favorable decision.

Remember, ask if the prof is willing to write a positive letter. If you don't, you might end up being described only as "capable, friendly and studious." That translates to "barely a face in the crowd."

OK, fellow instructors, tell me your strategies for writing letters of recommendation--good, bland or indifferent.

Dumb...with honors

Here's an interesting conundrum for you to consider. A study finds that college graduates these days lack basic quantitative skills--how to figure out if there's enough gas in the tank to make it to the station for a refill, for example. And there's another report that says literacy rates are dipping among even the best college students.

One expert cites “sobering” data about the amount of time students spend on their studies. One study at Illinois State found that honors students were assigned an average of fewer than 50 pages of reading a week, and that two of five students acknowledged completing less than half of that work. “Students seem to spend a lot of time on Facebook, and when you think about the literate practices involved in Facebook, that’s probably not contributing a lot to the scores on something like this literacy test,” he said.

Charles Miller, the head of the federal higher education commission, said it was impossible to know for sure whether the damning data in the literacy report necessarily mean that colleges are doing too little to prepare their graduates to think for themselves. But what seems evident, he said, is that colleges need to be able to measure how much they are contributing to students’ knowledge — which they can do only by more consistently testing what their graduates know and have learned.

“We don’t have a clue what they’re really learning if you don’t measure it,” he said.

Lack of basic skills, a drop in literacy -- that doesn't stop one Ivy League behemoth from inflating grades. Here's that story.

There's a strange message here in these reports. Dumbth reigns. And it comes Summa Cum Laude.

Monday, February 13, 2006

See me, hear me...

...touch me, feel me. OK, don't actually touch me or feel me. But you are invited to see the Phantom Prof in the rosy flesh when she and other women bloggers appear on a panel March 11 at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival at the Convention Center in Austin, Texas. Title of our session is "We Got Naked...Now What?"

We'll be talking about what it's like to reveal yourself--and get revealed by others--for blogging about things other people don't want you spilling to the world. Some of my fellow panelists write tell-all blogs based on their personal lives, real diary-type stuff. Since my writing is mostly about stories of other people and not myself so much, I'm there for balance--and to talk about what it's like when the press suddenly discovers you. Should be lively.

I'd love to meet Phantom Prof readers from Austin, if you want to make the scene. More about this event as we get closer to it. The whole fest is really packed with juicy stuff, not just about blogging, but web design, marketing, wireless technologies and new media entrepreneurship. Oh, there's also this film festival thing going on. Think there'll be any Sundance-stype swag?

On that subject, a friend of mine, an indie filmmaker and screenwriter, called from L.A. over the weekend. "I had lunch last week with Joe Fines," he says.

"Joe Fines? Who's that?"

"You don't know Joseph Fiennes? Shakespeare in Love? Ralph's brother?"

"OH! HIM!"

"He just got back from Sundance. He said the swag was unbelievable. He came home with about 30,000 bucks' worth of stuff--phones, cameras, clothes, boots. He said he'd be on the ski slopes and somebody would come up and hand him a card that says `Free weekend' at so-and-so spa or resort. It was ridiculous! It's all about the swag now. The films sucked, he said."

My friend had a film at Sundance in the days before the swag parties. "What did you get at Sundance?" I asked him.

"A Writers Guild coffee mug," he said, not without a little bitterness.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

So you want to major in PR or journalism?

It's both encouraging and terribly depressing to see how many college students head for majors in PR and journalism. They don't really know what they're getting into. They just see jobs that seem fun, exciting, somewhat glamorous and with a tinge of the show biz. For the young journos, curiosity and maybe a desire to see the world are part of the allure. Being a reporter allows you to explore just about any subject you're interested in--as an observer, if not a full-on participant. You're allowed to ask questions of the rich and powerful, the beautiful and the damned. And then you get to see your name on the byline or the magazine cover. Feels good, yes, it does.

I won't get into what draws people to PR. I've never understood it. Like many on the journalism side, I figure they think it pays better and requires fewer hours and less work than reporting. That would be wrong, but you can't convince a college PR major of that.

What nobody ever tells students in either major is that their career will have a time stamp on it. I've written about this rather ugly aspect of media before. But it's come back this week in two sickening examples from friends of mine who are facing the reality that at age 50, they're starting to age out of their profession.

Both of my friends work for major daily newspapers in large cities. Their papers are extremely profitable (one turned a whopping 40 percent return on investment last year, double the projected profit of most dailies). And both of my friends are real pros at what they do. Both write feature columns. Both are also in management, having put in enough years on the job to earn the seniority and the higher paycheck of that tier of employment. One of these columnists also edits extra sections of his paper, writes a number of arts reviews every week, mentors new reporters and designs special pages--when he's not attending meetings and weekend "retreats" to hear the higher-ups talk about how he should be "taking ownership of the paper" and working "as if you owned the product."

These guys work like dogs. Willingly. Professionally. They win awards. They are respected by their peers at other papers.

And both guys have recently had to fight for their jobs. One says he was called in for a meeting with his new section editors, all of whom are a decade younger than he, and told he had to re-audition for the writing job he's held for the past 15 years. Despite never missing a deadline, never being sued for libel, never having to run a correction, he just wasn't doing what they were looking for. The editors now want him to get an OK for every column idea, every interview--and, oh yeah, there are earlier deadlines in place. Columns are now to be finished at least a week ahead of publication. So much for timeliness.

My other friend, who spends many off-hours hosting charity functions in his city, serving on arts boards and visiting high schools to talk up the paper, was informed by his editor/publisher that his salary was being cut by several thousand dollars per year. They'd decided he was making too much money. And even though he doesn't earn overtime (that's why they make you management), they didn't think he was earning his salary.

These are guys who've spent more than 20 years in their jobs. They're the consummate professionals. But they're also right at the dangerous age--50--when newspaper owners start looking at older, well-paid employees as drags on the profit margin. "They could hire two new reporters for what they're paying me and they know that," said one of the guys. "They don't take into consideration how much it costs to train new employees or that guys like me do our jobs so well that maybe we make it look too easy."

Hearing that his salary was being cut, my friend worried about making his mortgage, about continuing to help his ailing mother and a sibling who's battling a serious illness. My other pal, the one dealing with editors who want to babysit him through every column now, is putting children through college.

"I'd love to quit but I can't even look for another job. Nobody in the newspaper business will consider hiring a 50-year-old man anymore. I never thought I'd get to a place in my career where I'm not marketable. They know they have me by the short hairs. I'm trapped," says the friend.

This is the reality, kids. In your 20s, you're fresh meat in the eyes of the media outlets. They want young, fresh, cheap talent that will make their products look vital and cutting edge in the eyes of the young consumers they so slavishly court (to little effect). By the time you're 30, you're either on your way up or you get drummed out. You either start to feel like a star or you realize you're forever going to be one of those drones behind the scenes (not a bad place to be, actually) who earns a salary and doesn't move much farther up the food chain. At 40 you're either there or you're not--you're a columnist with your picture above the headline; you're an editor or designer or junior executive with stock options.

At 50 you're a liability. You're starting to use more of those health benefits. You get a lot of vacation time that they make it hard for you to take in more than three-day chunks. Your editors and supervisors suddenly start looking very young. They want to hire their friends and to do that they have to figure out how to get you out of the way.

I saw this play out again and again in newsrooms. I saw one group of editors reassign a longtime columnist to a new job--as a receptionist. A TV critic suddenly found himself back on the county news beat, asked to drive hundreds of miles a week gathering farm reports and rural school news. They shame you out of the job you've earned and done well, hoping you'll just quit and go away.

Certainly they try their hardest not to let you make it to retirement and a full pension. The massive layoffs at the Dallas Morning News in 2004 cut loose dozens of writers and editors with as many as 30 years on the job. Some severance. No pension. They're out.

And who'll hire a 57-year-old who was making $65K or more, with four weeks vacation? Nobody, that's who.

I'm a freelancer. I'm lucky enough to work for editors who don't care how old I am. Several publications that I write for are based in other cities so I've never even met the editors I'm writing for. I was assigned stories based on my experience and my good pitching abilities. They haven't seen my gray hair and crow's feet. They have no idea that even though I can write like a 24-year-old, I haven't been one in a very long time.

Know what? You're young now, but 50 comes fast. And you don't suddenly get stupid at 50. If you're good in your 20s and 30s, you're even better in your 50s. This is the time of life when you actually believe you know what you're doing -- and just when you get the kind of confidence in your abilities that you only wish you'd had 20 years earlier, BAM! The business wants to shove you aside. (On-air journalism does it even earlier. With women, it's when they start to show those first signs of age in their 30s...with men, it's when the hairline recedes and the jowls start to droop.)

So you've been warned, young media majors. The sooner you know the truth, the better. You have a time stamp on your ass in this business.

Fifty and over need not apply.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Random acts

If you think being an adjunct is a stinky job, check out this blog, New York Hack. Today the driver shares the story of Billy, the randomly urinating driver. Ewwww.

And on a lighter note, as Katie says to Matt on The Today Show, here's a snatch of something I overheard at Starbucks a few hours ago:

Chubby Man, around 40, in business suit, turns to Balding/Bearded Man behind him in line and says: "Have you heard this Barbra Streisand CD? [He holds up the CD from the rack on the counter.] It's fantastic. She's singing with one of the brothers Gibb. If you want it, I'd buy it for you just so you can hear it."

Balding/Bearded Man: "I've never heard it."

Chubby Man: "Oh, you have to hear it."

Barista at register: "It really is pretty good."

Chubby Man: "I'm going to buy it for you."

Balding/Bearded: "If you want me to have it, I won't say no."

The purchase is made. Chubby Man hands Streisand/Gibb CD to Balding/Bearded, picks up his coffee order and heads out the door. Balding/Bearded steps up to place his order.

Barista: "Weren't you guys together?"

Balding/Bearded: "No. I've never seen that guy before. Never met him."

Barista: "And he bought you that CD?"

Balding/Bearded: "Yeah, I guess it was just a random act of kindness."

Barista: "Huh."

I prefer to think of it as a random act of Streisandness.

One girl's experience at the campus health center

She goes in with symptoms and they send her home with 7 Up. Here's how the student recounted her experience with the campus health center. In an email the other day, she also promised to send more details of the story as it develops. Here's her story from The Daily Campus:

There are some misconceptions about Toxic Shock Syndrome — like you can’t get it if you don’t leave your tampon in too long, or that only women get it. Toxic Shock Syndrome happens when an open wound gets a certain type of bacteria that everyone has inside of it, and starts to poison your entire body and shut down your organs.

That is what happened to me over the summer. I was taking summer courses when I came down with what I could tell was a pretty high fever. I then became so weak that I couldn’t even climb into my bed in Snider Hall. I ended up spending that night on the floor in the bathroom. The next morning I decided to go to the Memorial Health Center. The problem was, I was too weak to get there on my own.

I called the SMU Police Department, because they will help you get places on campus when you are injured or don’t feel safe. After first being told that they couldn’t help me get to the health center, I finally convinced someone to come escort me there. I tried getting someone from the health center to come help me first, but they never answered the phone.

When I got to the health center they took my temperature — 104 — and blood pressure — 60/44. They didn’t tell me how high my fever was or that my blood pressure was so low it was possible I wasn’t getting oxygen to my brain. They just gave me Tylenol for my fever and some 7 Up and had me lay in the health center until they closed, while they had three doctors, including the director of the health center, and two nurses unsuccessfully try to give me an IV eight times. When they closed, they put me in a wheelchair [and] left me in my empty dorm room, even though I had every symptom of Toxic Shock Syndrome in extremity. They should have sent me to the hospital upon first arriving there that day.

Later that night, I called the University Park Paramedics, because I was having difficulty breathing. I told them what I knew — that I had a fever, that I had been throwing up and had diarrhea, and that I had been drinking lots of ginger ale and juice since I got back from the health center. They gave me an IV and asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. Since I had no insurance or money, I asked them if I needed to go. They told me no, that the hospital would only give me another IV and that I would be fine if I just drank a lot of water, and I signed the paper they gave me. I later found out that they claimed I refused transport against medical advice. I may be poor, but I’m smart, and if I were told I needed to go to the hospital, I would have gone instantly.

The next afternoon, I went to Lake Point Hospital, and thanks to the amazing doctors who treated me and figured out what was wrong in time, I survived. But, they told me that if I had gotten there 30 minutes later, I would have died. If I had been sent to the hospital 24 hours later I would not have had such a horrible case — one of the worst ever in North Texas. I missed the rest of summer classes, and if I hadn’t recovered so quickly I wouldn’t have been able to return to school in the fall.

The administration claims to have had the health center change their policies, but neither my parents nor I have been given any proof of this. There needs to be a major change in their policies (for example: not almost killing a student) and there should be an awareness program for Toxic Shock on campus — the health center doesn’t even have information about the syndrome.

I’m trying to work with the Women’s Center and Senate to help advocate that the Health Center to change their policies and to get an awareness program started. I never want this to happen to another student, and the only way to prevent that is by getting this information out there.

This week's winners are...

Congratulations to the winners of last week's "10-Line Theater" contest. The winning entries are: Hillary's "Every Heard the Talking Muffin Joke?"; Logical Professor's "Moronic Security"; and MadHat for "To Impeach or Not to Impeach." The latter wins for even attempting angry agitprop in so little time and space. (To read these, go to the comments area on the Word Nerd Challenge below.)

If you will email your real names and snailmail addresses to ThePhantomProf@aol.com, I will dispatch your blank books in the next post. Thanks again for your valiant efforts to amuse.

If you have suggestions for more writing contests, I'd love some ideas. I think more blogs should offer swag and I like emptying my prize closet of all the stuff I've accumulated that other people might want. Frankly, eBay scares me. I'd rather give it away.

More later, writerlings. Mwah!

Friday, February 03, 2006

Arguing the truth

All of the attention to James Frey and his Million Little Pieces sent me back to the diaries of composer Ned Rorem. He published his first diary in the 1960s and it made him a literary darling of much renown. Gay, handsome and gossipy, Rorem made his diaries into highly readable chronicles of the glitterati of New York, Paris and beyond. Even as a teenager, I found his musings on the rich and talented every bit as entertaining--and probably more truthful--than Truman Capote's.

So the other day I happened upon a book I hadn't seen before: A Ned Rorem Reader, a sort of extended conversation by Rorem about the art of the diarist. Here's an excerpt that reminded me of the Frey debacle and added a new spin on the controversy about whether a memoir has to be fact-checkable:

My work is my truth. Insofar as that work is also art it is also true for you. That that art may lie makes it no less true. A symbol posing as the real thing betrays itself, yet the betrayal can't disqualify the symbol's status as symbol.

That painting there's not true to life, it's scarcely true to paint. That tune's not natural, not birdsong, not wind's sough, it's false to outdoors. It sounds like nothing else. It lies.

According to who's listening we all are liars. Artists' fables are worth attending. Lies of art ring true.

...Those who say, "Look out, he'll quote you in that diary," are the very ones I never notice. The others, they're safe, they can't win, I don't quote, I misquote. Lurking behind the exquisite monster, I'm capable of guidance--that is, of guiding him. The matriarch's mother.

Who most loathe the diary are those depicted within. What they most loathe is not precious archness, not opinions stated as facts nor the urbane reflections posing as pastorale pensees, but seeing their life reduced to anecdote, however crass or laudatory. Of course there's no such thing as THE truth, there is only ONE'S truth, and even that fluxes with each passing hour. ...It never occurred to me that friends would feel hurt from my passing verities.

A book's a book, not real life. Yet when offered for real, as a diary, the book must be arranged to seem real. the very arranging teaches an author artifices of life itself, outgrowths which in the telling become more natural than in their larval stage of mere being.Rorem goes on. He's worth reading on the topic if only to remind readers that words on a page represent ONE'S truth, not always THE truth. As he says, when Picasso paints a goat, what you see isn't an actual goat; it's the artist's version of a goat.

My blog is and always has been my version of the goat.