To whoever Googled “best travel memoirs by women…”

… and landed on my blog, you made my day. Thank you!

Best women’s travel memoir comin’ right up.

This photo may have been taken when I was in high school, but it's how I feel right now.

Another thing Google’s good for: a laugh

Whenever I don’t know how to do something, I ask Google.

Usually I ask little things. Like how to add a signature with live links to my Gmail. Or whether it’s possible to give my YouTube channel a cool background. Or what a baobab tree looks like (to help me describe it in my book).

So before you e-mail me asking how to do something, ASK GOOGLE! Please! (Dad, you could also try this before e-mailing me to ask what the forecast is for tomorrow.)

Google is so good that not only will she answer your question, she will anticipate your question.

Unless you start your question the way I did yesterday. In that case, Google might be wrong:

I know, I know, I’m kibitzing (as my grandmother would say) when I should be giving you blogging hints. I really should just stop when I find myself filing a blog post under “distractions.” I promise to get back to the blogging series on Monday, after tomorrow’s Writers’ Roundup. Couldn’t resist this one.

And no, I can’t remember what I was Googling… Something related to social media, maybe about putting Flickr photos on Facebook.

I leave you with this: Don’t forget to ask Google.

In defense of Helen Thomas

Note: I was editing this post when the news broke that Helen’s retiring. I debated whether to post it at all, because I’m no doubt throwing myself into the lion’s den here (and ironically writing above a post about things that are better left unblogged), but this is something I believe needs to be said.

There’s an uproar over what veteran White House correspondent told a blogger last week: that Jews should leave Israel and “go home” to Poland, Germany, or America. (Want to know exactly what she said? Watch for yourself.)

Some members of the White House Correspondents Association are calling for her press pass to be revoked. Other players in Washington want her fired. Her speakers’ bureau dropped her, and the reporter who co-authored a book with her recently said he won’t do another. MediaBistro also has a solid round-up of reaction.

Now I’m having my own little uproar at home: Doesn’t Helen have a right to her opinion?!

I’m not saying I agree with her. I’m saying that as a columnist, she should be allowed to tell us honestly what she thinks.

Pundits say ridiculous things all the time, and we don’t chastise them for it — we give them more air time. Ann Coulter said the widows of 9/11 were self-obsessed and enjoying their husbands’ deaths. Radio talkshow host G. Gordon Liddy offered advice on the best way to kill federal agents. (On the other hand, Bill Maher was fired for giving his not-so-politically-correct opinion.)

Part of the problem here is that the public confuses the role of reporter with the role of pundit slash columnist. This is our own fault. It’s the fault of the media for mixing pundits with journalists on talk shows, in the newspaper and online. We need to do a better job of differentiating who’s paid to report and who’s paid to give their opinion.

Helen was an awesome journalist for decades. An unbiased journalist. But now she’s a columnist. She gets paid to write her opinion for Hearst newspapers. So what’s so wrong with letting us know her opinion?

What’s wrong is that her statement wasn’t politically correct — and it has to do with Israel, which we all know is a touchy subject. Helen expressed her real opinion even though it’s not popular. Once again, I’m not saying I agree with her. I’m also not saying I don’t agree with her, since I’m a reporter and I don’t express my opinion on these issues. (I also don’t believe reporters don’t have opinions. We’re still people. But we work really hard to keep our biases from influences our reporting.)

Speaking of biases, I should tell you that I’m not just writing this about Helen Thomas, the journalist. I’m writing it about Helen Thomas, my friend and mentor. (And yes, I’m fully aware that plenty of people don’t like her.) In my first job out of j-school, Helen sat next to me in the Hearst Washington bureau. Well, on the other side of my cubicle. We became friends, and we stayed that way after I moved to Texas to write for the Houston Chronicle. She goes out of her way to mentor young journalists. Including me.

More than that, I give Helen Thomas some of the credit for where I am today. She was a trailblazer for female journalists, and it was partly due to her persistence that women have a place in the newsroom. (Even though we’re still not paid as much as our male counterparts. But don’t get me started on that.)

Maybe knowing her as a person, knowing that she’s not the evil witch some people make her out to be — would a man who asked hard questions be called a bitch? — helps me give her some leeway here.

Time columnist Joe Klein is one of the few people I’ve seen write sensibly about this whole thing:

It’s not unprecedented for journalists with odious views to have access to the press room. What is unprecedented is for such a journalist to have a front-row center seat. Thomas should no longer have that privilege. The front row should be occupied by working reporters, not columnists.

Fine. Take away her front-row seat. But firing her, revoking her press pass or refusing to work with her? C’mon, people. Let’s think a little harder than that.

UPDATE: Just saw the news that Helen’s retiring. It’s probably time. She’s old (almost 90). But I hate that it happened over this.

When your friends get married in Amsterdam…

You know how in your late-20s you get tons of invitations to weddings, so many that you simply have to decline some to maintain a positive bank balance?

That’s where I’m at. But one of those recent invites happened to be for a wedding in Amsterdam. No, not Amsterdam, NY, which is right up the road from me. I’m talking about the Amsterdam that’s in Europe. And when I get invited to a wedding that requires crossing an ocean, I don’t decline. It’s the perfect excuse to travel!

So I’m in Amsterdam for the week. It’s my first visit to the city! I’m spending the first half of the week with a Dutch friend, the second half celebrating the union of two good friends.

I’m also using it as an excuse to get away from the blog. That means no Writers’ Roundup this Friday.

See you next week!

The Baby-Sitters Club: Where are they now?

The release of The Baby-Sitters Club prequel got me to thinking: what are the girls doing now?

They’d be in their early 30s, I believe. But beyond that, it’s all up to our imagination.

Lots of women my age grew up reading — and, in my case, writing — because of the BSC. And I bet they would mob bookstores if author Ann M. Martin came out with a BSC reunion story, a Where Are They Now book. But Martin says she’s not interested in writing one; none of the stories I’ve read about Where Are They Now potential really explain why. (Ann, if you’re reading this, please chime in! The blogosphere is awesome like that.) Maybe she doesn’t want her characters to grow up. Maybe she’s worried a reunion book would disappoint. Or maybe she doesn’t want to write an adult book — because that’s how I envision the reunion: an adult read, a grown-up version of the series’ young-adult voice.

Hm. If that’s the case — if Martin simply doesn’t want to write the book herself — maybe she’d be cool with someone else writing it. Someone like me.

That would be fabulous, wouldn’t it? A long-time fan writes the reunion book? That would go hand-in-hand with other ways fans have kept the BSC dream alive, including blogs like Claudia’s Room, What Claudia Wore, and The Baby-Sitters Club Revisited.

Who was your favorite BSC character, and where would she be today?

I’m gonna say Claudia (who, admittedly, is the reason I want to name one of my daughters Claudia. Yes, I want to name my child after a hip fictional character) now designs and makes jewelry for a living. She’s not married (yet) and has no kids, unlike the other BSC members… Wait a minute. I’m giving away my reunion plot!

Your turn.

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Do Twitter & Facebook help or hinder your writing?

The Los Angeles Times book blog ran a post last week about a writer who went off Facebook and Twitter for the first three months of this year to focus on her project. Edan Lepucki blogged about the detox, concluding that she didn’t miss the sites as much as she thought she would.

Which begs the question: Do social-networking sites help or hinder writers?

I think the answer lies largely in how you use Facebook and Twitter. Sure, they can be fun. But they can also be incredibly useful. And I can’t help but think that people who only see them as a distraction aren’t using them in a useful way.

For me, Facebook is not a time suck. (If it is for you, maybe you should seriously consider a detox.) I use it to keep in touch with people, so much that the messages feature serves as a second e-mail. It helps me keep up with old colleagues and classmates, as well as new friends. And right now it’s helping me network for jobs.

Twitter is a different story. It offers so much information that I could easily spend my entire day refreshing my stream. But while it has the potential to be more distracting than Facebook, it also has the potential to be more useful. My stream serves as a sort of classroom, offering links to stories and blog posts, tutorials, you name it.

Then there are the people I’ve met: writers who’ve helped me with my manuscript, journalists who’ve been instrumental in my job search, and more. Twitter is not just about tweeting at these people online; it’s about bringing those connections off-line. (Credit Penelope Trunk for that insight.)

I could go on and on about how great Twitter can be when it’s used properly. But the truth is, sometimes Twitter is a distraction. Particularly for those of us who write at home all day. It takes a lot of self-discipline to focus on writing.

Unless, of course, you don’t have a connection. I was forced to experiment with this for five weeks this fall, when I was a resident at an artist’s colony in Georgia. My studio was not wired with Internet. It also didn’t have a television, cell phone service or even a phone we could use to call home. (There was a land-line for emergencies — and thank God for that, since I was in the middle of the woods by myself.) Every distraction I might’ve had at home was removed for me in this setting. In the evenings, the artists met for dinner in a common building that was about half a mile from my studio, and there we had access to Internet, so I could check my e-mail, Facebook page and whatever else was begging for my attention.

At the end of my time there, I was asked to fill out an evaluation form. (Hambidge got all high marks from me.) The board that oversaw the place was thinking of installing Internet in the studios. Did I think that was a good idea?

Before arriving at Hambidge, I was terrified of going without Internet and cell-phone service. So what I suggested on that evaluation form was unexpected: I wrote that they should leave the cabins without a connection. Not having those distractions created a silence, both around me and inside my head. It made room to think about things I didn’t have space for before, like, well, my manuscript. Without the Internet muddling my thoughts, my story arc became clearer. And perhaps more importantly, my life became clearer, too.

What I’m saying here is this: social networking has a place in my world. It’s not just fun; it’s essential to my growth personally and professionally. But I see the value in detoxing for a period of time, in stepping away not only from Twitter and Facebook but from other distractions in life that keep me from producing my best work.

What do you think? Would you consider a long-term social-media detox? Or a break from all Internet? Or is that online connection too vital to what you do every day?

Traveler’s delight: video of Timbuktu, Senegal and more

I’m finally getting around to uploading videos from my backpacking trip onto YouTube; I didn’t have a fast-enough Internet connection to do this while I was in Africa.

My favorite: getting caught in a sandstorm in Timbuktu. Turn on your sound!

You can browse the rest of my videos, too: hear a mosque’s call to prayer in Senegal, watch the reaction of kids in a Senegalese village when rain falls for the first time that season, feel the pulse of an outdoor market in Ghana, or ride on the back of a motorcycle toward a Cameroonian village.

None of this stuff is edited; it’s all raw video. In some cases I think that’s the coolest stuff. I’ll be adding more over the next few days.

Does this inspire you to feed your wanderlust?

The dilemma of the lucky dog, Cooper

I’m an accidental dog owner. Cooper found me six months ago in the woods of my writer’s residency in Georgia, when he was a starving, matted stray. I didn’t adopt him because I wanted a dog. I adopted him because he needed a home, and I knew what would happen to him if I didn’t. The other artists called him Lucky.

Cooper's first winter

Now, six months later, I love him. Well, really I loved him as soon as we started driving home to New York from Georgia, when he stuck his head out the back window of the car and let the cold wind hit his face for so long that his eyes watered. Cooper’s a sweet dog.

But I’m preparing to move to D.C. And I can’t decide whether to bring him with me.

Do I want to bring him? Yes. But this problem is more complicated than what I want. Having Cooper in a city, while I’m working a full-time job and living (hopefully) by myself, would seriously cramp my lifestyle and my bank account. It might cramp Cooper’s, too. (His lifestyle, not his bank account — I haven’t become that kind of dog owner.)

My parents have offered to keep Cooper here in upstate New York. (I’ve been living with them for the last year while writing my book.) Their offer is mostly to help me, and I’d feel somewhat guilty leaving my responsibility with them, but that’s another story. Here, Cooper would have a big yard to play in, a house that he’s grown accustomed to and my parents, who love him almost as much as I do. This was my original plan when I brought Cooper home; I was hoping he’d become my parents’ dog, since their golden had died a few years earlier.

Coop in his favorite spot.

But Cooper hasn’t grown attached to my parents. He’s attached to me. He’s been at my hip since the day I first fed him at the artists’ residency. Apparently this is normal for rescued dogs, especially ones as old as Cooper; the vet guessed he’s at least 10. I’ve tried repeatedly to get him to bond with my parents. When I’m out, they try to lure him into the family room to watch television with them. But he just sleeps in my room, waiting for me to come home.

This dog has already been ditched (at least) once. I don’t want him to feel ditched again! Even if I leave him in my parents’ loving home. I keep imagining him waiting in my room for me after I’ve moved. Waiting… and waiting… and waiting…

Continue reading

Can you tell I’m a fashionista?

Is it cool that I’m wearing the same clothes in all the travel photos on this site?

Yeah, when you backpack solo through Africa you get pretty close with your two red t-shirts.

My chopping-a-coconut-with-a-machete face.

One of the best things about Google alerts…

Is that they let you know when you’re the main character in a new erotic novel.

The blurb for Michelle Pillow’s new book, Opposites Attract:

Alexis Grant has everything she’s ever wanted—fashionable clothes, social standing, a New York penthouse apartment, and a mother who pays for it all. That’s until her mother is arrested for embezzlement and the government seizes everything. Now, jobless, homeless and moneyless she has only one choice—to work her way cross country with a complete stranger. Tattoo Artist Ethan James is everything she’s never wanted in a man, but he might just turn out to be everything she needs.

Rating: Contains graphic sexual content, adult language, and violence.

Google alerts, which work through an RSS feed (like Google Reader) or e-mail, can also let you know when someone writes anywhere on the Web about your blog, your book or any other less-than-erotic activities you want to track. If you’ve got a Web presence, you should sign up.