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Taking Brown University Lit Courses – For Free

29 May

At the dawn of the commercial internet, way back in ’95 or ’96, I remember turning around to one of my colleagues and saying: “Our kids are going to be so smart.”

My job, at the time, was competitive intelligence of online services. The words “online” and “search,” which had meaning to me as early as the mid-80s, were only just gaining mass understanding.

The genesis of my comment was the newly  launched Library of Congress website, and I’d been tooling around it for the last two or three hours (one of the benefits of my job was that I could waste time on the Web – and get paid for it). As one of the two largest libraries in the world, the LOC is truly a national treasure for knowledge seekers. But since it’s located in Washington, D.C., and most people aren’t able to check out books, for much of its history it has been a walled garden.

The Web changed that. Almost overnight, many of its collections were digitized and made available – for free – to anyone with a computer and dial-up connection. I was fully aware of the implications of “online” long before beginning my career in digital media in 1985, but the rollout of the National Digital Library and its contents truly astonished me.

It wasn’t the last time that I felt that way. In fact, there have been numerous occasions over the last 30 years in which technology and media have intersected to pleasantly surprise me. And it has never been the outcome, but the speed at which we reach that development that astounds me.

And last night, it happened again. The rush of adrenaline was enough to keep me awake through the night, too excited to sleep.

A few weeks ago, I began exploring MOOC’s (massive open online courses) on Udacity and Coursera. I also looked at fee-based online courses at I’ve always attended Webinars or used YouTube to pick up skills here and there, but Udacity and Coursera were different. Top universities, 6-12 week intensive courses on complicated subjects. It was too good to pass up – and yes, this is truly disruptive to the current status quo.

So, I enrolled in a couple, and yesterday I received an email for my first class to start on Monday. It’s a Brown University course taught by a well-regarded professor of comparative literature, Arnold Weinstein. It’s called “The Fiction of Relationship.”

The requirements to earn a Statement of Distinction (it’s free, so no Brown credits awarded) are still tough: read 12 works of literature, write five short papers (about 2 pages apiece), one longer paper, attend 2 hours of lectures, and grade and review three works of your peers nearly every week.

I know, right? This is going to be so much fun. And I mean that.

To have access to such amazing knowledge – for free and at my own leisure – is a slice of heaven.

The Internet: Greatest. Invention. Ever.

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Yes, I am an immigrant, but…

21 Dec

Once again, it’s time for the annual Heritage Festival at my son’s school. At the risk of sounding both like a bad mother and politically incorrect, let me say that I dread this event.

Here’s the premise: the 8th grade social studies teachers host a multi-cultural lunch, with 8th grade students each donating an ethnic dish based on his or her heritage. Oh, and they must cook the dish and supply the recipe.

Right there, we have a problem (I never cook or bake what I can buy). But this is not why I dread the festival. I dread it because I don’t have family recipes that have been handed down through the generations. Well, I mean, I do, but not dishes of my heritage. My mother gave me a fantastic chicken and rice recipe, but she got it from a can of Campbell’s soup – not her mother.

I get the lesson, I really do! But our recipes are as American as…well, as apple pie.

Let me clarify what I mean: Somewhere six or seven generations ago (around the early 1700s, perhaps even as far back as the Mayflower), our families emigrated  from Germany, Ireland, and England to America.

Where we live today, the population is very diverse, with a significant percentage of families who have immigrated to the United States in recent years. This means my son’s classmates have recent experience from which to choose. They’ll cart in dishes made from recipes that might have traveled far in miles, but not memory.

Our recipes, however, have long since been lost, both from the recipe box and from tradition. We don’t, for example, make corned beef (my Irish-American husband isn’t a fan); we do occasionally put on Oktoberfest and cook bratwurst. But this is a learned recipe from our honeymoon in Germany, not one passed down.

I’m so tempted to ask the social studies teachers (I hear an echo of my father here): What about American? Can we count American food? It’s like Ben Franklin says to John Dickinson in the musical, 1776: “We’ve spawned a new race here – rougher, simpler, more violent, more enterprising and less refined. We’re a new nationality, Mr. Dickinson – we require a new nation.” As well as new recipes of our own, too, right??

But, I get the lesson. I really do.

Still, we’ve been here so long that we’ve developed our own, unique traditions. Often, we’ve adopted – and adapted – these from other cultures not our own. We’re definitely not strictly on a meat and potatoes diet; we like to mix and match: tacos, pasta, sushi, and stir fry are part of our regular routine.

So each time the Heritage Festival rolls around, we’re stuck with the same conundrum. We’re aces at making faijitas, but we’re not of Mexican heritage; we don’t have a Grandma with a box full of “old country” recipes. (My  grandmother was famous for her potato salad, but the recipe was her own and she had Irish and English roots.)

Our solution, unsatisfactory as it is, is to find an old Irish or German recipe online, and create it, often for the first time. This year – appropriately as it’s our last Heritage Festival – it’s Apple Strudel (or Apfelstrudel). But, I am so tempted to send in a tray of pizza bites.

Book of the Month, Week, Day?

25 May

I always tell people that reading is like breathing to me; I simply can’t live without it. Ask my sister, and she’ll tell you how unreachable I can be when I’m deep in a book. My husband has suffered through countless irritated looks as he attempts to draw me away from a news article. My boys will laugh as they describe my predilection for bringing novels to major league ballparks.

While I read every chance I get, I have a daily ritual that is absolutely sacrosanct: The last half hour of every day is set aside to read for pleasure.

Thanks to this addiction, I tend to burn through a lot of books. Here’s what I’ve read just in the last few months.

  • The Millenium series (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Girl who Played with Fire, Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) by Stieg Larsson. Yes, that’s right, I’ve read them all, even Hornet, which hit the US just today. I got lucky there, as I was able to buy it last month on a trip to the UK. What do I like best about this series? Intelligent, independent and courageous female characters. Erika Berger, Annika Giannini and Monica Figuerola should inspire legions of young women to begin careers in journalism, law and criminal justice. And what to say about Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo? Sheer ingenuity coupled with deft computer and nail gun skills. Yep, I want to be just like her.
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. OK, so the narrator is a dog and car racing is essential to plot. I’m not really interested in either. Yet…yet… I loved this book; it’s arguably my favorite of the year. Enzo’s obsessions with TV, racing, and thumbs bring this canine character to life. His watchfulness allows him to correctly assess the nuanced changes that will impact his human family. I cheered at the finish line.
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett. This was practically a thriller. Would Skeeter, Abileen and Minny get caught? And I kept wondering: what was in that pie that made Hilly so mad?
  • Every Last One by Anna Quindlen. I usually love Anna, but I’m a bit lukewarm about this one. It takes half the book to set up the story, and when the big event is dropped on us, it feels a little contrived. Quindlen’s better when she digs deep into her characters.
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. A well-drawn character will rivet me to a storyline. I simply fell in love with the sardonic Major Pettigrew. Somehow, I didn’t feel the chemistry between him and Jasmine though, which made the ending little more than a shrug.

So, there it is: the highlights of this year’s fiction reading list. I’ll leave the rest and those on the nonfiction list for another time. I’m coming up on that magical half hour of the night, and I don’t want to miss it.

Love, What I Wore and Lost

11 Feb

Let me tell you a story about a dress.

I love stories. Who doesn’t? Not only do they entertain us, but they help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Beyond that, I’m also endlessly fascinated by arranging words into a bright light of understanding.

In Nora and Delia Ephron’s play, Love, Lost and What I Wore, clothes tell the story of a woman’s life – and give it meaning. Based on Ilene Beckerman’s book, the play tells the life stories of several women through their memories of their wardrobes.

The play harnesses the power of the familiar. Shirts, dresses, boots, the color black, rules about length and season, Eileen Fisher – every woman has similar if not identical experiences as the storytellers on stage.

My story is about my wedding dress, bought straight off the rack for $100. Over the years, I’ve come to think of it as the ugliest dress ever. It’s true that it could have outdone Cinderella at the ball:  wide loop skirt, ornate bodice, BIG organza sleeves. It was as elegant as a Tiffany’s diamond bracelet. But…I was more of a silver bracelet girl – costume, that is.

Actually, I was more of a gold girl, and diamonds didn’t hold my fascination. I was too practical. Why spend all that money on a big rock? I wanted a house. So, I chose one-third of a carat, and for years, my husband has been disappointed by this frugal choice. He has promised to replace it with something larger. For reasons that will become clear, I’m holding him to that promise this year.

As proud as I was of that dress at the time, I did take a pair of scissors to it. I snipped off the large bow from the back of the dress. It was a little too much for me, even in my love-struck state. I’d forgotten completely about the bow, until I saw it again.

No, I didn’t find it tucked into a corner of some lost box of wedding memorabilia. I saw it on the big screen. It was worn by the bride in the wedding scene (post-credits) in the comedy, Napoleon Dynamite. Yep, that’s how awful my dress was. It was meant to be a prop in a comedy movie and laughed at.

We laugh a lot in this house; we manage to find the humor in a lot of things. Some of my favorite vacation photos are of the boys, on top of the Dublin Tour bus, laughing and goofing around with each other. These shots were taken right after we’d sat in a Dublin police station. Which was right after we’d searched through bushes around the Dublin Writer’s Museum. Which was right after we’d gotten on the Dublin Tour bus and gotten right off. Which was right after I discovered my wallet was missing. Along with my cash. And my credit cards. And my airport lounge pass. And my wedding rings.

Which was a real bummer.

The truth is that I wasn’t all that upset. My jokes that “Now I’ll get a bigger rock,” have led people to say I planned this. (I didn’t; the rings were in my wallet by mistake. Really.)

This photo of my boys is the heart of it all. We’re together, safe, unharmed, happy. All that stuff – the ugliest wedding dress, the tiny diamond, the missing wedding band – it’s all just stuff. And we’ve survived it all.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Lost on language

28 Sep

I’m feeling quite lost today, linguistically speaking. For those of us obsessed by words, their origin, and their proper usage, yesterday was a sad day. Our favorite language maven, William Safire, passed away from pancreatic cancer.

I’m not sure I can summon the words that best capture how I feel. So, please, forgive me if my words are dull, without verve, and minus any clever alliterations. Frankly, I’m not up to it. Not that I ever expected to be up to his standards, but I’m disappointed that I can’t coax something more profound from my lexicon to memorialise him.

But I can share a few simple stories.

There was a deliberate pattern to my Saturday morning. Gym, coffee, New York Times (newsprint edition). Real estate section, the Lives column, the Ethicist, On Language, then random articles throughout the Saturday and Sunday editions. In essence, I saved Safire for last, so that I could savor the anticipation of his column.

Once, we were having breakfast at the diner, and I began exclaiming, “oh my god,” over and over.  I can’t fault my husband for looking alarmed. But it was only Safire, who had mentioned that my company, Factiva, “sometimes outgoogled Google.” I headed up PR for Factiva at the time and really felt that this time, he’d chosen the wrong word. Always would have been more accurate.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve noticed other bylines adorning On Language, but I was busy with the end of vacation, the beginning of a new season of work and a new year of school. I assumed Safire was on vacation (wasn’t he always off for a couple of weeks in August?). I didn’t know he was battling cancer. The news made me feel guilty.  I should’ve known. Friends pay attention, right?

Isn’t it funny that a writer can make you feel this way? I felt as close to him as any friend, a regular in the bar, a colleague at work. I’m convinced I knew him because I read his columns. Of course, I didn’t; but like his friends, I’ll now need to learn how to move on without him. Saturday mornings will be different.

It seems appropriate to let him have the last word, even in this blog post. Here’s the farewell column he wrote when he retired from the NYT Op-Ed pages. Watch out for the traps.

Reinventing Brand You

20 May

A few years ago, feeling warmed by the home-baked gingerbread house ambiance of our local elementary school, I told the principal that I wished I too could work there. Pause. A couple of beats. “If only I liked kids.”

It’s not the last alternative career considered and destroyed in a moment. I’m fascinated by medical science and would jump at the chance to solve medical mysteries as a doctor. Except for those body parts and fluids. Also, I’m not the nurturing type (just ask my kids!).

Currently, novelist is at the top of my alt career list.  Second is managing my own small business. Coffee shop? Running store? Hmmm.

Everyone has an alternative career list, yet our collective fortune up until now hasn’t really forced us to seriously consider it.  But there are now laid-off investment bankers becoming math teachers, and reporters becoming nurses – people are reinventing themselves.

And I find I’m having conversations a lot more frequently about what people can do in this environment. Not just to keep their current job, but steps they can take to stand out, be different, create their own brand.  And this reminds me of a story I read in Fast Company 12 years ago (don’t ask me why – with my notoriously bad memory – but a few things do just stick with me, including useless movie trivia).

The Brand Called You is still relevant today – maybe more so. The current work environment is more competitive and more cutthroat than ever.  Think management knows what distinctive qualities make you invaluable? Can you articulate the link between what you do and the bottom line? If you can, you’ve got to say so loudly and frequently. Like that frankly frightening eTrade baby.  You need a brand.

Your career isn’t unlike trying to cross a wide, rushing stream. You’ve got to choose the right stepping stones, withstand the force of the water, and keep an eye out for slippery moss.

Here are three ways to develop Brand You and survive the downturn.

1) Cross train. It doesn’t matter if you’re just out of college or have 30 years on the job. Look for ways to improve your current game with continuous learning. But also shake things up. Every now and then, try another sport. If you’ve always been in product development, take a chance to learn another part of the business. Move to sales.

2) Get a crystal ball. You should always have a six-month line of sight into your organization’s future. And yes, it is possible to develop highly plausible scenarios based on information available today. Review sales, OI and economic trend data. Know your organization’s goals and strategy for achieving them. Find the insiders and ask questions.  Then, put yourself in management’s shoes and be honest: will they need your group six months from now if revenues continue to decline? Which areas are they investing in? Do you have skills that would be valuable to these areas?

5) Then…Reinvent yourself. My favorite piece of advice. You – Brand You – stands for a distinctive combination of core qualities, skills and personality. Knowing your essential value prop and your strengths will also help you recognize when they can be rescrambled into something new.

I’ve always joked that I’m only good at one thing: writing. But I’ve cross-trained over the years, picking up business development, research, crisis management, public relations, and marketing skills along the way.  And, I’ve been pretty adept at sizing up the stepping stones and recognizing that the seemingly logical path might leave me stranded in the middle of the stream – or worse, knock me downstream.

Reinvention doesn’t mean swapping one set of responsibilities for an entirely new set.  It means recognizing that you have multiple strengths that can open up a range of vastly different career choices.  When I came out of college, I thought writing was the only way I would ever make a living.  But, today, I know that I can easily package up my math, critical thinking, and leadership skills and trade my PR job for a marketing one. Or as owner of my new coffee shop.

Latte, anyone?

All Along Broad Street: Volunteers

3 May

At Wachovia Spectrum: people directing traffic. SEPTA: express trains. Mile 2.1: Gatorade. Mile 4: Water. Traffic light: Philly cop keeping cars at bay. Mile 6.5: EMT caring for a runner on a stretcher.  Mile 8: Cheery and cheering woman handing out more Gatorade. All along route: bands, gospel singers, drummers. Finish line: kids with bottles of water.

It wasn’t until I hit the 6 mile marker of the Broad Street Run this morning that I began to consider what it takes to organize a race of 26,500 runners.  As the web site says: hundreds of volunteers.

I know that we don’t say it as we run past, but we runners really appreciate the people who spend a day – or months – doing the tasks that make the run possible.

It may seem a simple thing, to fill cups with water and offer them to passing runners.  I know from my own experience that I never really see the outstretched arm or the smiling face. I’m just focused on the cup. Get. Cup. Drink. Run.

So, I’m sure that while volunteers may sense that their work is appreciated, they may not know how much. Let me tell you: I may not look beyond the cup, but I do see you, and I’m extremely glad you’re there.

This was my first time at the Broad Street Run, and I really enjoyed it. It’s one of the best organized races I’ve been to. Everything was simple, despite the rain and a field of more than 23K.  It was a breeze to register and pick up our packets on the day before the race. I thought parking and getting to the start line would be a nightmare with so many people. It wasn’t. Frequent, free express SEPTA trains made it easier. The corral system worked because runners were started in waves, which avoided the bunching up of the field at the start. There were plenty of water stops. And everyone working along the route supported the runners with great enthusiasm.

This is what makes the race fun – but it’s also what makes it possible. Thank you, Broad Street Run volunteers, for sharing your city with us and helping to make this a successful run.

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