Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wee Windy City Guest Post

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who have done guest posts on other blogs and those who have not. Check out my first guest post on Wee Windy City, part of Chicago Now.

The Wee Windy City blog was started by a fellow author from the Chicago Moms Blog, Caitlin Giles. In addition to being a brave mother of three raising her children in the city, Caitlin is a wonderful writer (check out her blog, A Hen and Two Three Chicks). In fact, hers was the first "mommy blog" ever recommended to me.

In addition to her blog writing, Caitlin is a frequent contributor to Chicago Parent Magazine and other publications, such as Mindful Metropolis. Her goal at Wee Windy City is to help other families find "the best family friendly activities and destinations in and around Chicago."

As I prepared my guest post, I marveled at how the Internet has changed parenting. Even when my twins were young (not that long ago), parenting small children could be a very isolating experience. One of the best things that ever happened to me as a parent was when my neighbor dragged me to a Mothers of Multiples (MOMs) meeting— a support group for mothers raising twins, triplets or higher order multiples. My preemie babies were still in the hospital, being cared for by many dedicated professionals, but not by their mother. The women in my MOMs group made me feel like a real mom for the first time.

If I were starting that journey today, I could connect with others moms just like me on the Web in a thousand different ways. Just on Facebook alone, there are 117 groups for parents of preemies, dozens and dozens for parents of twins, and 79 groups relating to high risk pregnancies. That doesn't begin to touch the number of articles, Websites and blogs on these and similar issues. I could even start a blog or Twitter about the experience, keeping friends and family up to date without having to rely on the phone tree we used 17 years ago.

As a consumer, I'm fascinated (my husband says addicted) to the ways the Web is unfolding before me. As a writer, I know I must become evermore Internet savvy to remain viable, but I'm torn. On the one hand, people argue that posting and distributing your work for free undermines the value, the skill, the experience and the craft that a professional writer brings to his or her writing. The online version of the American Heritage Dictionary defines "professional" as:
"engaging in a given activity as a 
source of livelihood or as a career: 
a professional writer."
So, as a writer, if you are giving away your work for free, are you in fact a professional?

On the other hand, many others argue that to become a published author, you must build your writer's platform, and that some of the key components of this platform are: starting a blog, creating a Website, blogging or writing for established Websites, and actively participating in online communities and forums. Almost all of this means writing for free.

What's a writer to do? Or a photographer? Or a musician? In fact, what is any artist whose work can be distributed over the Internet (and potentially plagiarized or pirated) to do?

Here's what I know: I don't know. And I know something else: nobody else knows either. Conventional writing — be it for newspapers, magazines, books, or any other traditional format — is in complete flux (which is to say, leaking money faster than a rotten dinghy leaks water). 

And in just the short time (18 months or so) that I've been writing seriously on the Web, things have changed and grown, expanded and contracted, and changed and grown again right before my eyes. 

Writing on the Internet reminds me of a condition suffered by my twins as a result of their premature birth. Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP, sometimes called retrolental fibroplasia), is a potentially blinding eye disorder found most often in preemies weighing less than 3 pounds. In these very small babies, the blood vessels of the eye can stop developing normally, so the retina sends out growth signals, sometimes causing the development of new, abnormal vessels, which can lead to bleeding, scarring and, potentially, retinal detachment resulting in severe vision impairment or even blindness.

There are treatments for ROP, such as laser surgery or cryotherapy, but the curious thing about ROP is that it can resolve on its own, often with as good or better results than with intervention. Our twins were lucky. Although their ROP progressed to grade 3+, both cases resolved without treatment. 

To me, writing on the Internet is growing in that same frenzied, haphazard, potentially risky way as do blood vessels in ROP, and I believe there will be victims who don't have successful outcomes. But the curious thing about the Web is that I'm not sure we will get any better results if we intervene than if we just wait and let technology take its course. 

For now, you can continue to read me, for free, here at Two Kinds of People and on the Chicago Moms Blog, as well as on a few (strategically chosen) guest posts. If you like what you read and want to pay me cash money for all this talented word smithing, email me here. For the rest of you, you can pay me back by leaving a comment. A little Digg or a Stumble wouldn't hurt, either.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Summer's Bounty — CMB Post

This was originally posted on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not much of a gardener (OK, huge understatement). But this summer, everywhere I look, I see growth.

It's true. Each time I walk into my kitchen, a new crop of dishes has sprouted. Bowls and cups are especially plentiful this season, but the silverware must also be pruned regularly, lest it overrun the countertops.

Summer is only half over, and already the piles of laundry are as high as an elephant's eye. In theory, shorts and t-shirts are smaller than sweatshirts and jeans, and therefore should mean less laundry. In reality, sweaty play results in more changes of clothes, not to mention the trips to the pool and the beach, so the harvest of summer laundry has actually outpaced the winter crop.

Towels, which here-to-fore have restricted their growth to the bathroom floor, are proliferating throughout the house like colorful ground cover. Bath towels, hand towels and especially beach towels are the creeping phlox of my indoor garden.

I shouldn't really be surprised by the fecundity of my summer garden. After all, since the first thaw, the entire family has tracked in layer after layer of top soil each time they traipse through the house.

With all six of us home this summer, our grocery bills have more than doubled their yield compared to the previous three seasons, and show no signs of stopping. While mild temperatures have limited the amount of beverages required for irrigation, the increased feed for the livestock has more than taken up any surplus.

Outside, in addition to the huge assortment of perennial summer toys and equipment that began to emerge along with the daffodils, this year's annuals include one new bike, several balls, a frisbee, and a new hammock. No matter how often we weed, they continue to mushroom across the lawn.

Yes, it's been a bountiful summer season, and with August just around the corner, I predict bumper crops of school supplies, doctor bills and new shoes. We are truly blessed.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan Bearman isn't tending her family garden plot, she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Facing Up to Facebook

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who use online social networking tools and those who don't. Yet. 

Social networking is exactly what it sounds like: communicating among a group of people with common interests — and it is not new. Plato's Academy, way back BCE, was a social network. The writers, editors, actors and agents who frequented the Algonquin Roundtable after WWI practically defined social networking. Heck, talking over the back fence with your neighbor an act of social networking.

So, what's all the fuss? Do we really need Twitter? Has LinkedIn changed the way we link up? Are people really being served by listserves?

Just as it has altered everything else it has touched, the Internet has changed the very nature of social networking — allowing people from all over the world to make instant connections. Sometimes these connections are nameless or pseudonymous, many times they are faceless. Some "require" you to post your real name and picture, but who's really checking the millions of users involved in these lawless social networks, often referred to as the wild west of the 21st century.

A few weeks ago, I ran across SheWrites, a brand spankin' new Web-based community of (primarily) women writers. I was attracted to the idea of a place online that was all about writing all the time. Since the site went live sometime mid-June, it has grown to more than 2,500 members. But Facebook boasts 100,000 times that amount, claiming to have 250 million members.

When I mentioned SheWrites in my last post, I heard from my friend Marcy, who said: "Why are you not on Facebook, woman? I just posted a link to your blog, you silly gal."

Why wasn't I on Facebook? Here was someone else promoting my blog on the world's largest social networking site, so why wasn't I? I guess it seemed a little crass — all those horror stories of people posting pictures of themselves in compromising positions and then losing their jobs over it. I guess it seemed a little scary — 250 million people! I guess it seemed like a black hole ready to suck even more of my time and creative writing juices (read this hysterical review). 

But, as of July 14, Facebook can now boast 250,000,001, because I finally caved and joined. Facebook is the crack cocaine of social networking. Highly addictive, it sucks you in with the ability to make more friends in 10 minutes than you have in your entire life. With its online food fights and rounds of simulated drinks, if you're not careful, you could find yourself suffering one wicked virtual hangover. 

On the other hand, you can talk to people you never see or hear from except around the holidays. You can reconnect, promote your business and (one day) your book, and even learn a thing or two. You aren't promising your life away by posting a few lines here and there. When you're done, you're done. You don't have to comment. You don't have to post your status. You don't have to check your wall. (Well, maybe you don't have to check your wall … hang on, I'll be right back.)

The cure for boredom is curiosity.
There is no cure for curiosity.
Dorothy Parker (1893 - 1967)

Ok, I'm back. With the passing of Walter Cronkite, I have been thinking a lot about the new media. Is this instant communication anything more than curiosity run amok — our escalating narcissism and voyeurism spun into the ultimate exercise in navel gazing? Is unedited, unvetted, user-generated content the literature of our time? Is this how our words will be judged?

In a well-crafted post, Merlin Mann argues that we need to do better:  "What worries me are the consequences of a diet comprised mostly of fake-connectedness, make believe insight, and unedited first drafts of everything. I think it's making us small … All I know right now is that I want to do all of it better."

Here's to doing better. I hope you'll keep me on my toes here at Two Kinds of People. Use your right to comment and call me on typos, spurious arguments and run-on sentences. All you have to do is click here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Harry Potter in Chicago — CMB Post

This was originally posted on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

After my mini-bash of Chicago events in my last Chicago Moms Blog Post, I'm happy to do a little Windy City ass kissing boostering for the Harry Potter exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. We recently reupped our membership for the sole purpose of seeing it. I wasn't that excited, even though the Stars Wars exhibit a few years ago was a lot of fun, but my kids could could hardly wait for the Hogwarts Express to come rumbling into town.

Moms everywhere should be Harry Potter fans. First, the books got kids reading. Then the movies came along to keep them entertained. Now, there's an exhibit to lure them to the museum — a place where actual learning may occur. So, some of the marketing and product pimping has gone a little overboard — OK, a lot overboard. What mom among us wouldn't love to use a few of the spells found in the pages of Harry Potter?

How about Accio binky — when the baby is screaming and you don't have a free hand to pick up the pacifier; or Episky leg, to heal that skinned knee after a bike-riding mishap; or maybe Geminio, the duplication charm, for those times when two kids want to play with the same toy at the same time.

I admit it — I have loved the films almost as much as the books, and not just because they are fun to watch. Three of the first four Harry Potter movies were released in November, within days of my boy/girl twins' birthday, and they helped avoid a great deal of birthday party angst. Thank you, Warner Bros.

I think the casting directors and set/costume designers did an amazing job of recreating Rowling's world. Could anyone else except Rupert Grint have played Ron? (BTW, the actor is apparently recovering nicely from his bout of H1N1 flu). Every detail seems to have been carefully observed, and many of those same detailed props and costumes comprise the museum exhibit.

If you are a fan of the books or the movies, don't miss the chance to see a life-sized Buckbeak, sit in Hagrid's giant chair and even, if you're as lucky as my son, have the sorting hat confirm whether you are a Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or Slytherin (he was a Ravenclaw). If you haven't read the books or seen the movies, however, maybe you should skip it and hang out by the model trains. I'm not sure the exhibit would mean much to you.

We also got our tickets for the latest movie, Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, which will be shown in the museum's Omnimax theater between the July 15 release date and the conclusion of the museum's HP exhibit on September 27. Fair warning — these movies are really scary. If your children are too young for the books, they are definitely too young for the film. I'm not even sure I want to see He-who-must-not-be-named in the huge IMAX format. Hmmm, maybe I should wait for the DVD.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan Bearman isn't haunting the halls of the Museum of Science and Industry, she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Doing Work You Love

"Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work."
Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC)

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love the work they do and those who work to make a living.

In today's economy, it seems greedy and idealistic to talk about finding work you love when so many people are not able to find work at all. This recession has given me a whole new perspective on the importance of work — not just as a source of funding for our leisure activities, but as the basis of self-worth and the true strength behind a healthy family.

In case I haven't made it clear, the work I love is writing. I love everything about writing — reading about it, doing it, talking about it, working at it, teaching it. I'm energized by the burst of creativity that springs from a new idea or connection. Discovering new words makes me unreasonably happy (especially if I can remember them). Editing and rewriting are not burdensome chores, but a joyful honing and polishing of rough beginnings. 

I used to divide writing into that which I did for work and that which I did for fun. As a professional writer since college, for more than 20 years I've done all kinds of business writing. That was work. Then, several years ago I found myself thinking about a children's story. That was fun. When I started listening to the stories within me, it opened the floodgates to a reservoir of creativity that I didn't even know existed. It has completely changed the way I feel about all my writing. 

Now, each new assignment is divine challenge, a chance to practice my craft, to apply a new technique, to draw from my own deep well of inspiration to make the writing at hand the best it can be. My head spins with ideas — snippets of dialogue, themes for an essay, visions of characters. A writer friend and I recently discussed our dismay at the discovery that not everyone walks around with stories and characters buzzing in his or her ears, clamoring to be realized on the page. 

The two halves of me — the professional craftsperson and the creative artisan — are beginning to integrate into a productive whole. My husband wishes this merger would result in a little better return on our investment, but that's coming. I feel it. Or maybe it's just the caffeine.

If there is one rule of writing, it's that thou shalt not plagiarize, but you know what they say about rules. I have broken this commandment by stealing both the title and idea for this post from a new friend, Carolyn Brandt Broughton, who has started an entire blog called Doing Work You Love. For years, Carolyn has interviewed practitioners of all manner of work, the only connection among them being that they love what they do. It's an inspired idea and an inspiring series that she plans to share with us through her blog.

Carolyn and I connected through Off Campus Writers' Workshop, a group of Chicago-area writers who meet weekly during the school year to learn all about writing. Joining a community of people who share your passion is a great way to find inspiration. In real life, I have Off Campus and my critique group. Online, I've been lucky to join the Silicon Valley Moms Group, which operates 11 regional blogs featuring the words, wisdom and experiences of more than 350 writers. I have found gracious professionals in the notoriously stingy world of publishing — people like Lisa RomeoNathan Bransford and J.A. Konrath — who freely and willing share their hard-won wisdom with other writers.

Just today, I joined an exciting new online community called She Writes. It's literally emerging before my eyes, garnering 145 new members since I joined earlier today. It's a fascinating social networking experiment and I've already discovered some generous, dedicated writers. 

While doing work you love for a wage-earning living may be a luxury, you can still do work you love even if it isn't your job. This is a lesson I'm trying to teach my oldest boy, who will turn 18 in November. I truly believe if he could find his passion, he would be set and happy for life. Which leads me to my second plagiarism infraction of the day, stealing this cool video from Laura Didyk's blog, outloud. I found Laura over at She Writes, and we both found inspiration in The Beckoning of Lovely video. I hope you do, too.

What lovely have you beckoned into your life? What is the thing you most love to do and do you do it? Click here to let us in on your work loves (or hates).

"My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition."
Indira Gandhi (1917-1984)

Monday, July 6, 2009

I am a Bad Chicagoan — CMB Post

This was originally posted on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

I've lived in Chicago or its immediate surrounds since I graduated from college, more than 20 years ago. Chicago is, by far, the best big city in the world (with no apologies to the Big Apple). We have a vibrant arts community, from richly endowed museums, to wonderful public art to a whole panoply of street artists. The city is clean, welcoming and accessible by public transportation. And, we're nice.

Chicago proffers a steady flow of activities, from pricey season tickets for the Lyric or the Cubs, to the graciously free beaches, parks and gardens of our unsullied, unparalleled lake front. The architecture alone stimulates peace, wonder and lively debate (hate the spaceship on top of Soldier Field; the Sears Tower will always be the Sears Tower; and there's still no consensus, at least in my family, as to whether Trump belongs here). We have celebrations every 10 minutes and the melodrama of Chicago politics provides daily (pardon the pun) entertainment.

Even though we live in Evanston, the first suburb north of Chicago, I consider us a part of the City of Big Shoulders, more like the sleeve than one of the collar counties. I admit I've lost some of my urban edge since drifting north. It takes me a while to pick up the rhythms of both foot and car traffic when I venture downtown, but the muscle memory kicks in pretty quickly. I love taking the Metra — it's fast and efficient, a sophisticated mode of transportation. I love taking the El — it's young and alive, a little gritty, a little sweaty, a little slower, but you get to see the city from the inside out. I love the museums and concerts, the restaurants and street scenes. And though I'm happy with our chosen community, I'm occasionally rueful that I was too practical (or too chicken) to raise my family right in the city.

Here comes the confession:

I find myself a little afraid of the city these days. It started when my twins were in kindergarten and a classmate of theirs was shot in a drive-by while visiting his grandmother on the south side. I had never been afraid of the city before, and I know that shootings happen everywhere, but the story of this little boy (who thankfully survived) really shook me up.

Then, last year, we were sitting on the lawn of the Museum of Science and Industry, waiting for the fabulous laser light show that celebrated the museum's 75th anniversary. It was a festive occasion, with hot dog and ice cream vendors hawking their wares as our family sprawled across a blanket, waiting for the skies to darken. At one point, I heard my husband say to some passing children: "Hey, kids be careful. Watch where you're stepping." It was a gentle admonition, said without rancor. He simply did not want them to step on him or one of us. Suddenly, their dad turned around and kicked my husband with the toe of his boot — hard! — in the arm. Had my husband's arm not been there, the boot would have landed right in his kidney. As it was, he sported a bruise the size of a small pancake for weeks. My youngest son was hysterical and begged to go home, but we stayed and enjoyed the show. The guy, whose dinner had obviously been 80 proof, did apologize at his wife's insistence.

It's these huge public gatherings that truly terrify me. One of Chicago's most venerated traditions is the Taste of Chicago, held annually the week prior to and through the Fourth of July weekend. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I hate The Taste. It's crowded, it's expensive and it's invariably too hot. Years ago, the last time I went, we were standing amid the crowd when there was a sudden surge, like the seiches that are sometimes found in Lake Michigan. People pressed in on me from all sides. I lost my husband's hand. I couldn't move. I could barely breathe. All I could think about was that there are a lot better ways to die than being crushed by a mob. I've never been back.

This year, The Taste ran from June 26 through July 5. On the morning of the 4th, my kids woke up and asked if we could go. I made up several lame excuses: it's too late to go now; the fireworks were yesterday; it looks like it might rain. The truth is, I really didn't want to go, and I really didn't want to have to worry about keeping track of four kids in that crowd. I feel like a wuss, like I'm depriving them of a vital Chicago experience, something that is their birthright. But I won and we didn't go. If that makes me a bad Chicagoan, so be it.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan isn't avoiding crowds (other than her crowded family), she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.