Rough drafts (Or, why it’s good for your stories to get peed on every now and then)

When I saw this photo, posted on Washington Post ace feature writer Hank Steuver’s blog, I had this feeling of nervous excitement, not unlike falling in love — or, maybe better, hate. It was there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I mixed with existential dread mixed with, “Damn straight; somebody really cares!”

The hands in this photo are President Obama’s. Those scratched-out and arrow-riddled words of type belong to his speechwriter, Jon Favreau. Obama’s been criticized in the press for being overly reliant on his Teleprompter — something you’d never know, judging from the smooth way he uses it — but I think this photographic window into his thinking, writing and editing says a lot more about his passion for, and his reliance on, just the right word.

I’ve been a teacher and a reporter for many years, though never a paid editor. I don’t have the temperament for the politics of it, I go crazy if I sit for 10 consecutive hours in stale office air, and I’m often more comfortable talking to strangers than to people I know.

I’m a firm believer in writing and rewriting and then rewriting some more. Very often I take print-outs of my stories to my backyard chaise lounge, with something like my sixth cup of coffee, and try to pretend like I’m scribbling on someone else’s work.

I have to admit, though, I’m not as eager to get those scribbles from someone else. One friend describes the editing process as having your work urinated on. The first time I had a major project returned to me from Carole Tarrant, our newspaper’s top editor, it was all I could do to shake my head, promise to go over the edits one at a time, and run from her office — before I burst into tears. I think it was the long row of ZZZZZZZZZs that did me in. In red ink. Snaking down a section I had spent literally two days crafting.

It was an eight-graph summary of immigration history in Roanoke — you try pulling that off! — culled from scads of yellowed clippings and a thorough reading of a 500-plus page city history.

I thought it sang, frankly. I thought it gave the piece heft and context.

But it put Carole to sleep, as many of our so-called babies do.

It’s taken me 20-plus years to figure this out, but I’ve learned to train myself to respond to red pen edits by taking a deep breath and, deadline permitting, saying nothing at all. The truth is, I’m not equipped to digest that much negative feedback on a project until I’ve had time to let it sink in and simmer — ideally, in private and overnight. Then I pick the edits off methodically, one at a time, working from the easiest fixes to the teeth-gnashers.

If it’s something I’m dead-set on stetting — stet is ancient copy editor-speak for “let it stand” — I try to get my arguments in line before we meet again. I write better than I talk, so I draft my stet arguments out ahead of time, carefully and with the utmost respect. If I really, really care about a line, I’m not above groveling. But I definitely pick my battles. No one likes a reporter who fights over every little nit.

I’m proud to say I have never shouted in anger, “Well, then, take my name off that story!” or threatened to quit (as others have, back when newspapers could afford to tolerate such behavior). I haven’t ever kicked an office trash can a la Bucky Martin, though I once threw a couple of pens at a page designer (sorry, Tim), and I have certainly cursed and groaned, which I consider my constitutional right. As Jeff DeBell is my witness, I have sometimes acted quite immature.

But many a time my butt has been saved by a quick-thinking editor. Brian’s a whiz at helping me ground my stories in data — a weakness of mine — and Carole drills down so deeply with questions that when she lands on the one I can’t answer, I know that’s where my next round of reporting has to begin. Edit sessions with my first editor, Wendy Zomparelli — whose “Zomp-Stompings” were legend — were so loud, long and full of fencing jabs that we sometimes had to close the door so as not to disturb the rest of the newsroom. She drove me crazy with her relentless drive for precision, but we laughed a lot, too, and I have to concede that she’s usually the editor in my head, and I’m better for it.

All of which is to say: Being edited can be angst-ridden and enlightening, challenging and sometimes even fun. The best editors put their criticism in a bun, as my teacher-husband calls it — that is, they find something good to say before and after the moment they throttle you with their red pens.

The tonic of garlic, the NYT and ‘a bit more’

Today I had one of those headaches, probably weather-related. It started at the base of my left ear and circumnavigated the span of my frizzy-from-the-rain hair. I took two Tylenol. Then a third. Then an Ibuprofen. The frizzies might as well have been daggers.

Sleep, my husband ordered when I returned home about to fall to my knees. Then he told me about Joe Biden and his unintentionally broadcast, off-color, high-fiver of a remark to the president during the signing of the health care bill. I took my laptop to bed and rushed to the New York Times Web site for the up-to-the-minute scoop (forgetting that the Gray Lady would never, ever print what Biden actually said).

There it was in the right-hand column, one of the best-read stories of the day, and it had nothing to do with health care or bad language. But it was a great tonic for my raging headache. A recipe for garlic soup, exactly one bowl of garlic soup.

(By the way, not long ago a Times reporter talked to the Niemans about an award-winning project he’d written and casually dropped into his talk the importance of those “Most Popular” story links on the side of their home page — and not just to readers. One reporter is so worried about job security that every time she writes a story, she e-mails a link to all her relatives and friends, asking them to e-mail it to someone else.)

But who wants to worry about job security when you have a headache, so back to the soup. I tinkered, as is my wont. And while I can’t say it was the cause of my current pain-free state, it sure didn’t hurt. Were I smart and more enterprising, I’d have had a slice of toast with it, using Penny Wright’s knead-free bread recipe. Were I rich, I’d have ordered the coolest toaster on the planet to help — a lovely appliance I got to use when I stayed at Penny’s sister’s house in Southampton last week. It’s a brand called Breville that features such functions as a “lift up and look” button and “A bit more.” I love that: A bit more!

Garlic Soup

(inspired by Martha Rose Shulman’s version in today’s New York Times)

2 cups chicken broth (Shulman’s recipe calls for water)

2 garlic cloves (big ones), minced

Splash of olive oil

Salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste

Handful of pasta (I used rotini)

Two big handfuls of fresh spinach (or any other green or favorite vegetable), chopped

1 egg

Handful of shaved Parmesan cheese

In a small soup pot, pour chicken broth and throw in garlic and cook on medium for about 15 minutes. Then toss in pasta and seasoning. Cook till almost al dente.

Add spinach, stirring for one minute or so, then turn the burner off. Crack egg into a cup; to that add a ladle full of the hot soup and stir. (You’re trying to avoid the egg turning into scrambled bits in your soup.) Return to soup, stir and let sit for another minute or two, and enjoy the buttery color it becomes. Adjust with more salt to taste.

Serve topped with Parmesan or copious amounts of any good cheese. (Next time I cook this up, I’ll start off by sauteing some garlic and bread crumbs in olive oil and then add the broth etc. I might also use arugula instead of spinach, but I’ll only let it simmer 30 seconds or so.)

When it’s all gone and your headache history, ask somebody to make you a bit more.

60 hours in New York: 4 feet, 3 ferries, 1 train, 3 buses, 6 subways and a taxi ride or 2

In order to understand your place as well as your people, sometimes it’s good to get away for a few days.

Last week I spoke about my work to a group of library patrons in Southampton, N.Y. (a topic I’ll save for my next posting). To get to the tony Long Island community, my fantastic South African traveling companion Janet Heard and I took an Amtrak train, followed by a cross-sound ferry, followed by a car ride that took us on two more ferries — including through Sag Harbor, where we looked longingly, without success, for hometown studboy Alec Baldwin.

The next day, we toured New York City, by way of the Hampton Jitney bus (complementary muffins and New York Times), several subway rides, a city bus and a carriage ride through Central Park, guided by a nursing student named Mamet, a cheerful Georgian immigrant who mistakenly thought we were gay. “Sorry to disappoint you,” I said.

Not that our feet didn’t share the burden of transport. We figured we put in 60 city blocks in as many hours. On St. Patrick’s Day morning, I found myself in total heaven: standing elbow-to-elbow  amid a cacophony of kilted Irishmen, Smithwicks in hand. The bar was called Molly’s Pub and Shebeen, and we chose it from the throngs of standing-room-only Irish pubs because my Capetown buddy swore that Shebeen was a South African word for an after-hours bar. Turns out it is, not unlike a Southern nipjoint, only the word is Gaelic in origin. (Where matters of drinking are concerned, I defer — always — to the Irish.)

At a trendier-than-thou restaurant on Broome Street (where our Barbie maitre d’ wore runner-laden black pantyhose under the tightest, shortest black skirt on the lower East side), we met our writer pal Ashton Applewhite, who was fresh off her six-week stint as an “interpreter” in the Tino Sehgal show at the Guggenheim — and still high with excitement. “The only time in my life I’ll ever be in The New Yorker and The New York Times in the same week.” It’s the only time in my life I’ll ever know someone who’s been in The New Yorker and The New York Times in the same week!

After a night showing of “Fela!” — a jamming musical/dance tribute about Fela Kuti, a kind of Nigerian Bob Marley — we capped our trip off with a woefully short two-hour visit to MoMA, where South African artist William Kentridge’s haunting drawings and multimedia works chronicled Apartheid and its aftereffects. (Note to MoMA visitors about to hop on a bus: You’re not allowed to check your suitcase at the museum, but a nice lady at the museum may encourage you to pretend you’re a guest at the nearby Hilton so you can stash your bags there with the Egyptian bellman . . . who may also inquire if you are gay. [Whattup? Was it the newsboy hat?])

For a while it felt like we’d gone to New York to learn about . . . Africa. Which is fine and good. But I did have to smile when I spotted this photo in another MoMA exhibit with a dateline of Radford, Va, circa 1930s.

I asked my buddy Ralph Berrier, font of all Radford knowledge, if he’d ever seen the photo before, and he said no. But his characteristically Ralphy reply made me miss my hometown all the more: “We ain’t got no MoMA in Bigg Lik, but we got a lotta Hot Momas!”

By the way, Ralph’s book, “If Trouble Don’t Kill Me,” will be published by Crown this summer. It’s the wild, true tale of his musician-grandfather who was within a mosquito wing’s width of reaching fame and acclaim. So New Yorkers, get ready to pull out your fancy pantyhose and break out the Smithwicks: Big Lick’s coming to town.

Butterfly privates, Nabokov-style

Nabokov, in an out-of-the way corner of Harvard's Natural History Museum

Last week I lucked into a private tour of Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly collection, housed at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History. The acclaimed Russian novelist was a curator of the collection from 1941 to 1945, during the time he was writing “Lolita.”

I went out of curiosity and also to see if I could get a juicy nugget or two for my friend Andrea Pitzer, who’s doing some pretty cool, groundbreaking research on the author. But when the eight of us arrived, it was obvious that we weren’t going to be privy to many details of the writer’s favorite pastime. The Zoologist-in-charge, an amiable Australian, explained that he’d love to say more about Nabokov but that higher-ups frowned on it.

Humbert Humbert was nowhere to be found amid the boxes of straight-pinned butterflies, but we did get to see gorgeous butterflies collected from all over the world for the past century-and-a-half, including some anomalies that were half-male and half-female. He explained how some varieties of butterflies and moths mimicked the colors and patterns of poisonous varieties to confuse birds so they wouldn’t be eaten in the wild, a phenomenon known as “protective resemblance.”

Paradise Birdwing

There were other great non-Nabokov nuggets, like the story of one particular Paradise Birdwing, a butterfly collected 140 years ago in the wilds of Papua New Guinea. In the tiny handwritten note underneath the specimen, it was noted  that the collector was eaten by the Papuans shortly after he nabbed the insect. This detail was mentioned parenthetically at the end of the label — talking about burying the lede! How it came to be in Harvard’s hands after that, I have no idea — but if this isn’t evidence that the university’s connections truly run deep, I don’t know what is.

After most of the undergrads left, a few of us stayed behind, and I tried to gently nudge the zoologist for a few more details. In the bowels of the fifth-floor storage facility, sandwiched amid several rows of cabinets, he finally unlocked cabinet No. 13, labeled “Nabokovia,” for the blue butterfly Nabokov discovered in upstate New York. As I turned my camera back on, he cut me off with a curt, “No pictures.” Then he pulled out exactly one drawer so we could glimpse a few of the butterflies Nabokov personally sorted and labeled as well his penciled signature: “V. Nabokov.”

Past curators had organized the cabinet according the novels in which the butterflies were mentioned, so drawers were organized not by variety but by categories such as “Speak, Memory” and “Lolita.” We saw the iconic Lycaenidae butterfly he drew under his signature but weren’t, alas, privy to the writer’s storied butterfly genitalia collection. Apparently, Nabokov spent many eye-draining hours of his time in this out-of-the-way corner of Harvard, hand-slicing the genitalia of butterflies and placing them in small vials where he would draw pictures from them, study them and let his imagination roam.

The view from Nabokov's dissecting desk

Really? Butterfly genitalia as a metaphor for one of literature’s finest observers? Believe it.

Only at Harvard. . . .

Reform on the backs of the elderly

Cheryl Jones prepares Margaret Bass ("Mother Bass") for breakfast. Photo by Josh Meltzer

A home-care aide I know once scrubbed an elderly client’s toilet with balls of used tinfoil and denture tablets — because the old woman was too poor to afford cleaning supplies and too feeble to do the cleaning herself.

Many aides do less rigorous, but no less important, activities. They cook meals, check blood sugars and bathe people who can no longer bathe themselves. What they do — some for just a few hours a day — makes the absolute difference between a person staying home and a person going into that most-feared institution: the American nursing home.

Which isn’t just sad, it’s expensive. At an annual cost of $77,000 per person, prolonged nursing home stays force most middle-class elderly end up on Medicaid — just like two-thirds of all nursing home residents in America.

Among the many cuts to the state’s MassHealth program proposed recently by Gov. Deval Patrick, the most myopic is the one that calls for the administration to stop paying for personal-care or home-care attendants who serve patients fewer than 15 hours a week.

Sounds reasonable, at first glance, to remove the benefit from the least needy of the recipients. But anyone who has spent time in the company of a home-care aide will attest that those few hours a day are absolutely critical to the client who needs an insulin shot or her therapeutic socks changed or his invoices sorted so the light bill gets paid.

In fact, researchers working at Boston’s Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for Aged found that when screening to see who was at the greatest risk of institutional placement, seniors who could no longer take out their own trash ranked near the very top.

“Taking out the trash is a relatively time-limited task,” said Elise Bolda, health policy professor at the University of Southern Maine. “And yet without it you really can’t continue living in your own home.”

Paying a home-care agency $19 an hour for part-time chores and companion care seems like a steal compared to the $219 per day it costs to fund a semi-private room in a nursing home.

Medicare-funded home health programs have also come under attack in Congress, with reform proposals calling for millions of dollars in cuts that seem at odds with the Obama administration’s stated cost-savings goals of reducing hospital re-admissions.

Sure, it’ll cost four times as much to put aunt Agnes in a nursing home, the logic goes, but if that money is coming out of a different taxpayer pot, we still get to claim the home-care savings, right?

Right now 76 million American baby boomers are slouching toward retirement, a demographic shift that’s unprecedented in the history of the world. When Medicaid and Medicare were designed in the mid-‘60s, family members lived closer to each other, not as many women worked and people with chronic illnesses didn’t live as long as they do today.

Forty-five years later, we’re left with a confusing array of home-care offerings with different payment requirements, eligibility criteria and reimbursement systems, not to mention coverage limitations that make for huge gaps in services.

I know a 60-year-old woman, an executive secretary for a hospital president, who was too young to retire, and yet she couldn’t afford to pay a home-care aide to watch after her 69-year-old demented husband while she worked.

Veterans Affairs benefits paid most of his adult-day care bill for several months, but when his dementia worsened and he could no longer stay at the center, a social worker told her there was nothing else the VA could do to help her keep her husband at home. “We’re sorry, there’s no program for that.”

Who’s going to take care of us baby boomers when we’re old and frail? Who’s going to help us take care of ourselves?

The politicians need to be asking these questions rather than masking them with disingenuous talk of cost-savings and so-called reform.

Separate and unequal

An interesting Q and A in today’s Boston Globe traced social decay in the United States to the widening gap between the poorest and the richest. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, authors of “The Spirit Level,” posit that economic inequality is the root cause of problems like teen pregnancy, obesity, mental illness and crime — all of it fostered by divisive prejudice and rampant tension between the classes.

Wilkinson told the interviewer: “The quality of social relations seems to deteriorate in more unequal societies. People trust each other much less….In Sweden, people don’t bother to check your tickets on the train or bus. And it just feels so much nicer.”

People have asked what I’ve found most striking about the privileged enclave of Cambridge compared to my Roanoke, Va., hometown, a culturally and environmentally interesting place that also happens to be one of the most segregated places in the South, with 68 percent of the city schools’ children qualifying for free or reduced lunch (compared to the stage average of 29 percent).

The Globe piece made me zero in on an intangible difference that’s been gnawing at me these past several months. I’ve noticed a surprisingly greater level of trust among strangers here in Yankeeland (with the huge exception of Boston-area drivers, who you can never, ever trust to stop for a red light or stop sign; note that I’m talking about trust, not necessarily manners). Maybe it’s because we’re in insulated Cambridge, the intellectual capital of the East Coast . There’s a great deal of diversity here, yes, but the diversity is more ethnically and more economically diverse.

The lack of bureaucracy at Cambridge public schools is comparably stunning. For instance, when you check your kid out early from school, they don’t make you sign out at a computer. In fact, Donna — most of the secretaries are named Donna, for some reason — doesn’t even ask you to sign out. She just calls your kid down and waves you along.

At my son’s elementary in Roanoke, you sign your child out on a computer, which actually takes your picture — at the least-flattering angle possible, typically resulting in several chins beyond my normal two. You feel like your photo just might turn up on a Most Wanted poster. (And don’t get me started on the local pediatrician factory, where the surliest front-desk clerks in history treat all who walk in the door as if they’re trying to pull something over on them or, worse, they’re uninsured.)

The high schools offer startling contrasts, too. Students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin may leave campus to eat at nearby restaurants (sorry to say, it’s my teenager’s favorite thing about school this year). Whereas when the new Patrick Henry High School opened a few years back, administrators decided to literally lock the students inside the cafeteria, known by staff and students alike as “the cage.”

Comparing Roanoke to Cambridge schools isn’t fair, I know, especially considering that wealthy Cambridge spends almost twice as much per pupil as Roanoke does. That gap is about to widen, with the potential layoff of 200 teachers because of state budget cuts proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell. (Here’s a thoughtful column by my colleague, Dan Casey, on the topic.)

A friend and civic leader predicted recently that we’ll be surprised by the uptick in cultural happenings in the ‘Noke. There’s so much interesting stuff going on now, it’s impossible to get to it all, he said, noting expanding offerings in theater, music, film and more. He also praised The Big Read, the valley’s collective effort to encourage reading, soon to kick off with a discussion of Ernest Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying.”

I loved that book, and I love that Roanoke’s undercurrent of groovyness seems to be widening by the minute. I just wish we could harness the same kind of excitement around improving our schools. Perhaps the No. 2 book on Roanoke’s Big Read list could be “The Spirit Level,” a book that could foster dialogue about the complex social inequities and poor educational opportunities that lie at the heart of our region’s slow growth and high dropout rate.

Because the Roanoke I know and love is surely two cities, a place where the twain rarely meet — except on the inside of a cafeteria cage.

Breakfast with Jon Lee Anderson (Hold the eggs, Boris)

Fresh from his 14-day trip to cover the devastation in Port-au-Prince, New Yorker staff writer and man-about-the-world Jon Lee Anderson was in no mood for the likes of the uptight waiter who served us breakfast at the Harvard Faculty Club.


He’d just witnessed people with missing limbs, the charred corpse of an alleged thief who’d been murdered on the spot by executive order, a presidential palace smashed “like some monster had jumped on it 1,000 times.” He’d even helped Nadia Francois, the woman he profiled in the Feb. 8 New Yorker, get food for the wounded and starving in her small community, located perilously in a hillside ravine.

When Nieman fellow Boris Munoz dared to change his breakfast order, Anderson bristled at our waiter’s grumpy response. I wondered if he wasn’t being a bit hard on the waiter, but when Anderson described his time in Haiti, I understood the annoyance: There are so many more important things in the world to grumble about. Scrambled eggs or starvation in Port-au-Prince?

Anderson, 53, is based in Britain but travels the world covering devastation in places like Uganda, El Salvador, Iraq, Afghanistan and post-Katrina New Orleans. He came to the Lippman House Monday night to attend a presentation by his longtime pal, Munoz, a journalist based out of Caracas, Venezuela. As a bonus, Boris arranged for him to talk to our group about his work over breakfast the next day. Humble and intensely thoughtful — and man, can a job get any cooler than his? — Anderson was one of our best speakers yet.

When someone questioned whether he’d crossed the line in helping his Haitian story subject get food, he described a gaffe he’d made earlier in his career while covering the Mexico City earthquake: He was trying to interview a grieving mother when she snapped, “Get away, you vulture.” The incident has haunted him ever since. Guided him, too.

“You have to help if you can. I couldn’t leave someone with a gunshot dying on the sidewalk,” he said, adding that he’s seen young photographers do just that.

It’s something not often talked about in journalism — the relationships we make with the people whose lives we chronicle. I’ve wrestled with it myself, having been accused of getting too close. As long as you’re excavating your way toward the truth, I believe there’s nothing wrong with being friendly with the people we write about, or caring, or acting accordingly, within reason. In other words: To do honest journalism, be a person first.

Last year I read Pulitzer winner Anne Hull, someone I greatly admire, describe her refusal to translate street signs for some Hispanic immigrants she was following — because it might have slightly changed what happened in the story. I wondered: If she hadn’t been writing about the women, wouldn’t she have done them that favor? Would that small courtesy really have changed the way her piece came out — other than them not being furious at her for hours afterward (which, ultimately, may have changed the outcome even more)?

In Anderson’s view, his favor was justified because he knew Nadia wasn’t “playing me,” or otherwise trying to manipulate what he wrote or did. He also included the fact that he’d helped her in the story. I would argue that his deed helped him get closer to an honest portrayal of Nadia because it strengthened their mutual trust.

“Journalistic mistakes are not as important as moral and ethical mistakes,” Anderson said. “It’s not about how I feel about myself or some code that was enacted in a hallowed chamber.”

Messy, complicated stories like Nadia’s should leave readers feeling “ragged, sore, raw. Because that’s the way life is,” he added. “Everybody should feel a little bad afterwards.”

The genius stroke of the Nadia profile was that it offered a slice of the chaos from the viewpoint of someone who didn’t represent the worst of Haiti’s devastation but nonetheless offered a powerful window into it. Nadia’s story was more nuanced than most of the staggering profiles of people in grief we’ve been reading in the newspapers. She had been deported from the United States for armed robbery, forgery and, later, re-entering the country illegally. And yet when Anderson first spotted her, she was walking the streets trying to find food for her community, an unlikely hero with a row of children trailing “behind her as if she were some kind of Pied Piper,” he wrote.

When I asked him to articulate how he came to settle on Nadia as his main character, he described a process familiar to many reporters who try to explain complex issues through the lens of a single person. The challenge is in choosing the right person, someone whose story allows for context and intimacy.

“I didn’t immediately know she was my story. At first it felt a little off-the-wall, too peripheral,” he said. But gradually over the next several days Nadia’s truths came tumbling out, and Anderson realized she was emblematic of Haiti itself: the country’s complicated link to America, the way she and her desperate enclave underscored its poverty. “I have always thought Haiti was a shame with a capital S,” he said. Telling her story was a “simple way of re-explaining what poverty is to people.”

It was also a way of conveying his own long-held feelings for the place — something he thankfully seems to manage everywhere he goes, including the Harvard Faculty Club.

Our hometown hero in Haiti

Here’s an update on Vanessa “Mama V” Carpenter, the Roanoke County missionary who has “a whole country to mother” in Haiti: She flew to Port-au-Prince on Jan. 18 and has since then been helping the USNS Comfort coordinate surgeries. Judging from her frenetic blog postings, she’s on a souped-up version of her usual overdrive — too busy to document what she sees around her, but eager for people to know all the needs.

Rescue workers are sending the worst cases to the Comfort, a Naval ship Mama V has long been affiliated with. Its commanding officer told me last spring that she was “like some character out of a movie,” able to navigate the bureaucracy in Haiti while bridging the cultural gap between the Haitians and the Americans who man the boat.

But as Mama V posted on her blog last week: “Working in Haiti was hard before the devastation. Now it is next to impossible.”

“I know you are seeing bad things on the news and reports of looting. We are seeing none of this. Just adults and children in shock,” she added.

Mama V’s helpers in Roanoke are busy trying to find host families who are willing to temporarily foster a child when Angel Missions resumes flying them back to Roanoke for surgeries too complex to perform on the ship — missions she’s been coordinating for several years now, as documented in my Mother’s Day story last year. For more information on that, or to donate to Angel Missions, check out her blog.

There’s also a great tale about Vanessa’s efforts to work with American Airlines flight attendants who fly in and out of Haiti, resulting in another project to help the devastated country. This, from a woman who once talked a stranger sitting next to her on the airplane to Port-au-Prince to fund a clinic there.

Apocalyptic Haiti

The numbers are not yet tallied, but the deaths could top 200,000. Dominican novelist Junot Diaz called the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti nothing short of an apocalypse. “The numbers are abstractions to us,” he said at a Harvard symposium last week. “The U.S. lost 60,000 soldiers in Vietnam, and yet that war haunts this nation still.”

The Pulitzer-winning author’s point: That we can’t imagine the unspeakable pain in Haiti. He spoke at a symposium co-sponsored by Harvard’s Committee on African Studies and the DuBois Institute, part of a panel that also included doctors Marie-Louise Jean-Baptiste and Jennifer Leaning, and public-health crisis experts Gregg Greenough and Patrick Sylvain. The Barker Center meeting hall was packed with students, activists and scholars alike. Some nuggets from the talk:

• That the Dominican Republic’s aid and solidarity on behalf of Haiti surprised people like Diaz, who recalled the 1937 genocide of Haitians by Dominicans and the complicated, racist history between them that existed for most of the past century.

• Diaz: “We belong to a civilization that seems quite happy having a nation of people so close living in such misery that an earthquake could put the entire nation — not just the bodies — at risk.” When the audience burst into applause at this comment, he chided, “There’s too much work to be done for clapping.”

• 40 percent of Haitians have never had any health care whatsoever, and only half of the country’s children have been immunized against measles, Greenough reported. Among the biggest risks he foresees is the spread of measles, malaria and Denghe amid the 450 camps set up for the displaced.

• Leaning said she was particularly worried about children who are orphaned and/or separated from their parents. “They’re very vulnerable to slavery, abuse, precipitous adoption. . . . . As well-meaning as adoptive parents think they are, we need to help adults in Haiti take care of the children there.” She said this within hours of the arrest of several members of an Idaho Baptist church for trafficking as they tried to take 33 Haitian children out of the country.

• Jean-Baptiste, a Haitian-born Cambridge physician, described a a 56-year-old Haitian woman who can’t sleep or concentrate to work since the earthquake (Boston has the third largest Haitian population in the United States). The woman lost one of her three children to the earthquake, and a second child has been displaced. “There’s nobody I know from Haiti who hasn’t lost a family member, a close friend or neighbor,” Jean-Baptiste added.

Haitian immigrants are always thinking about Haiti and going back, many of them building houses with remittances they send home rather than saving up for retirement here, panelists explained. Many of those houses have been destroyed, so “this is a human tragedy with physical and mental health losses and financial losses,” Jean-Baptiste said, adding that Haitians have a strong stigma against seeking counseling or psychiatric care. “Remember, PTSD doesn’t only last a year; this is something that will be with people for a very long time.”

Sylvain fears that by March people will be so hungry and destitute they might resort to taking food by force in the countryside. “You’re seeing a reverse migration with some people returning to the countryside but without the necessary support there or kinship established.” He fears the country’s renewed friendship with the D.R. could be jeopardized by so many Haitians’ moving closer to the border. “There are just so many waves of potential for people getting even more distressed,” he said.

As Paul Farmer put it in his recent Miami Herald editorial: “A plane full of requested personnel and supplies circling overhead while people die is the right metaphor for the challenges facing us.”

Global education (Candy Store, part II)

I crashed my South African pal Janet’s favorite course on the study of Africa and its problems, taught by the Pulitzer-winning scholar Caroline Elkins. We were walking toward the classroom building with another Nieman, Zimbabwean Hopewell Chin’ono, when photographer Gary Knight swept up to join us in his wonderfully British way (is bescarfed a word)?

BTW: This is the first time I have ever seen Gary Knight holding a camera.

“You two together in a course on Africa?” he said to Janet and Hopewell, eyebrows raised, his usual grin its usual huge. “You two examining how her European ancestors decimated your African ancestors? …  Fantastic!

My favorite thing about being tossed into the intellectual/multicultural stew that is the Nieman Fellowship is making friends with journalists who have covered extraordinary events all over the world — the end of Apartheid, drug wars in Mexico, conflict in Kosovo, gunfire in a Fallujah mosque and just about every other modern-day big event you can think of. (When one Nieman said she was itching to go cover the Haiti earthquake, our curator was said to chortle something about “golden handcuffs” — the pledge we signed not to work during the Nieman year. To which I respond: Cuff away.)

My second favorite thing is the range of brain candy available to us as class auditors at Harvard. Courses this week have ranged from Pentecostalism in Liberia and Robert Oppenheimer’s guilt (a sampling of Harvey Cox’s Religion in America) to the new “paleo” movement of New York hipsters who restrict their diets to meat and other foods of the caveman era (Food and Culture, taught by Ted Bestor).

Henry Louis Gates led his second Af-Am studies lecture with a rap song by G-Mike that went, “Read a book. Read a book. Read a Book, Mu-tha-fuck-a, Read a book,” then segued to a talk on Enlightenment-period philosophers’ belief  that blacks were closer to apes than humans. (Gates had a great piece on earlier in the week about the “real curse on Haiti,” which he traced back to Thomas Jefferson.)

Just for kicks — and because I heard you don’t want to spend a year at Harvard and not see this guy in action — I sat in on Rory Stewart’s human rights class. This is the British chap who spent two years walking across Afghanistan, ran a province in Iraq and will leave Harvard in March to run for British Parliament, where he’s favored to win the Conservative seat (“When I told the dean I was leaving early, I explained that it’s like running as a Democrat in Massachusetts”). He talked about Nietzsche, Bentham and Mill and their criticisms of human rights legislation. The introductory material didn’t quite move me, but it was interesting to get a glimpse of the charming, eloquent Big Brain at work.

Sri Lanka Tsunami, Joachim Ladefoged, 2005

Last night a bunch of us braved snow and a wind so bitter that our car doors froze shut to get to Tufts University for the opening of a photo show called Questions Without Answers, a truly stunning (though sometimes hard-to-stomach) exhibition from VII, the photo agency started in 1999 by our favorite bescarfed Brit and his mates.  This massive show depicts the defining events of the post-Cold War period — the fall of the Berlin Wall,  Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11, Congo. … These are some of the most heartrending, intimate photographs I’ve ever seen — or not seen (because editors deemed them too graphic or politically unpalatable), as was sometimes the case.

This morning I get to return to Drawing with Anne McGhee, who is post-retirement but still teaching, making art and — get this — learning how to figure-skate. Last month she came to class with a purple hand, after a bad fall on the ice. Many her age might worry about breaking a hip, but Anne shrugged the bum hand off and, sure enough, the following week she was good to go, fearless and full of sass. Her favorite move is the sit-spin, “which I like to do really fast,” she explained. She’s a fabulous teacher, especially for beginners, because she wanders around the studio looking at your work, cracking jokes and making suggestions. Just when you’re feeling too clumsy to advance beyond Charcoal for Dummies, she asks: “Are you sure you’ve never drawn before? I don’t believe it.”

I guess that’s what I hope to take away from our year in Cambridge — the desire to keep exploring new possibilities, no matter how remote or improbable they seem. I may never walk across a continent or report from a war zone, but I know now with certainty: If you believe there are many journeys still ahead, well then, damn straight there are.

Sans model for this January drawing class, Anne arranged a still life of Niemans instead: Marcela Valdes, Alysia Abbott and Beatriz Oropeza.