Tips For Adulthood: Five Political Films Worth Seeing

February 2, 2011

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

When I was back in the States over the holidays, I had an interesting dinner conversation with a friend of a friend. I can’t remember how it got started, but suddenly there I was, listing my favorite all-time movies.

And in constructing my list out loud, I realized how many of my favorite films have to do with politics in some way, shape or form.

So since it’s Oscar season — and that always gets me thinking about the kinds of movies I like and why — I thought I’d share with you five political movies worth seeing:

1. Reds. This may be my all-time favorite movie, period. It’s about a radical American journalist – Jack Reed – who becomes involved with the Communist revolution in Russia and tries to bring its ideals to the United States. (He’s also the author of Ten Days That Shook The World, if that rings a bell.) Why do I like this movie so much? I find the history of communism – especially in the United States – to be pretty interesting stuff. But this is also an epic film, told over generations, which intersperses a story of global political change with Reed’s rocky but ultimately, loving relationship with his wife, Louise Bryant. Oh and the cast? Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton and a surprisingly toned-down and moving Jack Nicholson.

2. Julia. Another film about war, this time World War Two. This play centers on a friendship between two women – American playwright Lillian Hellman and her lifelong friend, Julia. When Julia joins the anti-Facist resistance movement in Vienna, she asks her old friend Lillian to smuggle some money to the cause while travelling through Europe. This is fundamentally a movie about the love between two friends (set against a broader backdrop of Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism and Hellman’s on-again, off-again relationship with Dashiel Hammett.) Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave star, but don’t miss the five-minute scene with Maximilian Schell. Priceless.

3. All The President’s Men. Yeah, I know. Like Godfather II (which I also love), they re-broadcast this baby far too often on TV. But what a great movie. It’s goes right to the nexus of corruption, money and power in Washington. Best of all, the whole thing has a thriller-like feel. Personally? My favorite scene is the one where the Dustin Hoffman character stays up all night drinking coffee and pumping some lady for information. Makes one proud to be a journalist.

4. Nothing Personal. If, like me, you have a quiet obsession with The Troubles in Northern Ireland, I’d highly recommend a small but powerful film that flew a bit under the radar screen called Nothing Personal. It’s a very intimate portrait of a handful of people on both sides of this conflict and how their lives – political and personal – intersect in complicated and dangerous ways. Warning: the ending will kill you.

5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. So this is a pretty harrowing film all around. It’s about illegal abortion under authoritarian rule in Romania. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I realize; definitely mine. But the reason I list it here under political films is that despite the grisly subject matter, the film is a statement – and a re-enactment, of sorts – of what it’s like to live under authoritarian rule. At a political moment when we’re all trying to figure out what’s going on in Egypt, this one is worth a watch. But be sure to fasten your seatbelt first.

What am I missing? Do weigh in in the comments section with your own favorite political films…

Image: Movie Theater by jimdeane via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Cheer Up This January

January 19, 2011

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

So in case you didn’t hear, Monday January 17th was allegedly the saddest day of the year. Based on a mathematical formula, sadness is predicted to peak on the third Monday of each new year. This is usually a result of post-holiday blues/failed New Years Resolutions/bad weather and the like. Some even refer to it as Blue Monday.

If you found yourself inordinately down on Monday – or any day this month – here are five reasons to cheer up:

1. You’re not Sarah Palin. Although she can seem sometimes like America’s Princess Diana, former Alaskan Governor and ex-Vice Presidential running mate Sarah Palin is having a bad month. In the aftermath of the tragic shootings in Arizona, Palin failed to adopt a sufficiently conciliatory and empathic response. Instead, she went on a tear, aggressively defending herself from insinuations that she was to blame for the massacre and painting herself as the victim, rather than the 6 people who died and 13 who were injured. (The press also played a hand in this, mind you.) A post-Tucson Gallup poll commissioned by USA Today found that Palin’s rating is at its lowest level since she burst onto the national political scene in September 2008. She is seen in a favourable light by 38% of US voters, while 53% have an unfavourable view.

2. You’re not Amy Chua. Amy Chua – a.k.a. Tiger Mother – wrote a chilling oped in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks back about the draconian tactics she uses to exact perfection from her two daughters. And the blogosphere hasn’t ceased talking about it since. (Initial WSJ article has 6,800 comments and counting…) As someone who wrestles with having high expectations for her children – albeit without denying them food, drink or bathroom breaks as Chua claims to – I’m not entirely immune to Tiger Mother-like tendencies. But, boy, is she in the dog house this month, especially among Mommy Bloggers. My colleague Joanne Bamberger likened Chua’s child-reading tactics to child abuse. Ouch.

3. You’re not Ricky Gervais. British comedian Ricky Gervais hosted this year’s Golden Globe Awards in Hollywood and the consensus in the American press, at least, seems to be that he bombed. I actually thought that with one or two exceptions, Gervais was pretty funny. (Watch his opening monologue and judge for yourself.) But the rumor is that he is persona non grata at the awards ceremony next year, which – not that you asked – he has no interest in hosting anyway.

4. You’re not Robert DeNiro. If you think Gervais stunk the place up at the Golden Globes, then Robert DeNiro really tanked. As a huge fan of award shows, I was totally befuddled by his acceptance speech for the Cecil B. De Mille Lifetime Achievement Award. This man needs to stop working in the Focker franchise and go back to real acting so that he remembers show to properly thank people for recognizing his amazing career.

5. You’re not Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Not a household name? This is the now-exiled former president of Tunisia who was just tossed out as leader of his country after ruling for – oh – about 25 years. We won’t feel too sorry for Mr. Ben Ali, who fled the country with 1.5 tonnes of gold worth more than $60 million. Still, it’s fair to say that it wasn’t a great month for him, either.

*****

And speaking of having a bad month, in case you want a quick update on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s latest sexual shenanigans, here’s my post for Politics Daily.

Image: BAFTA 2008 – Ricky Gervais by claire_h via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Concrete Steps Towards Career Change

January 12, 2011

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

“I don’t want to end my life,” a friend told me recently. “I just want to exit it. Sneak out the back door when no one’s looking.”

She was talking about her job – which she hates – and her career more generally, which she’s (clearly) ready to leave.

But undertaking a major career shift can be daunting…and terrifying. And many of us – faced with the sheer enormity of it all – opt to remain where we are, rather than to embark on a project of this magnitude.

If you’d like to shift gears professionally – but can’t quite summon the energy to begin that process – here are five concrete steps to launch that process:

1. Normalize it. LifeTwo, a leading career counseling organization, reports that their prior estimate of three careers in a lifetime is now in the process of increasing to as many as seven careers. Moreover, here are some additional statistics that should make you feel at home: According to a Gallup poll, over 60% of workers are not truly engaged in what they do, and the same percentage would change careers if they could. Finally, changing jobs frequently may even be an advantage. According to career blogger Penelope Trunk, it also keeps you fresh and passionate about your career.

2. Reconceptualize it. I got a holiday card from an old friend telling me about his new career as a psycho-therapist. Prior to that, he’d been in the arts as well as the construction industries. As he put it: “I am becoming increasingly comfortable with seeing my professional life as a series of explorations rather than Wall Street Journal-worthy profiles.” I’ve written before about the concept of kaleidoscope careers, a by-product both of the dot-com economy which threw traditional career trajectories out the window, as well as the reality of women returning to the workforce after having children. Under the kaleidoscope model, having a rich, diverse professional background may be a positive in today’s economy.

3. Read a Self-Help book. If you have the resources with which to consult a professional career counsellor, by all means, do it. But if you can’t afford that, I’m a big (converted!) believer in self-help books for career change. When I moved out of academia into journalism (and beyond), I read two books that were not just useful, but essential, for my professional reinvention. And the nice thing about those transitions was that they cost me less than 20 bucks-not bad, eh?

4. Apply For A Job. This may sound counter-intuitive as most people (myself included) would counsel you to first figure out what you like and what you’re good at before thinking concretely about career categories broadly defined, let alone jobs. But once you’ve given it some thought and have narrowed down your potential career trajectories to a handful of possibilities, take a whirl at applying for a job that sounds like it might be right for you. The chances are almost zero that you’ll get it. But in putting yourself down on paper – and providing a narrative of yourself for this particular job – you’ll gain some insight into who you are professionally. Re-imagining yourself in this way will also give you more self-confidence going forward.

5. Look at job boards. One way to spark your imagination about the kinds of things you might do with your particular skill set and area of substantive interest is to skim job boards in your chosen field. You should of course do this once you’re actually doing a proper “job hunt” (as opposed to a “career hunt.”) But it’s also useful to do this on occasion early on in the process. You’ll be amazed at the kinds of real-life jobs that pop up that you’ve never even thought about but which might suit you perfectly. Two sites I’m particularly fond of are Idealist (for the non-profit sector) and Journalism Jobs. But it’s a big, wide world out there and job boards abound in all sorts of professions.

Go get em’!

Image: Job seekers destination by Newton Free Library via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.


Tips For Adulthood: Managing Re-Entry After A Vacation

January 5, 2011

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Re-entry following a vacation is trying at the best of times. You come back to “normal life” with looming deadlines, piles of unwashed laundry and all those things you really did mean to finish – but didn’t quite get to – right before you left. (Not to mention that fresh take on life you developed while travelling that you’re darn well going to start implementing…now.)

Toss in some jet lag and – if you’re me, about 10 gazillion bags worth of purchases you made at Target – and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Which is why – having just returned from a two and a half week vacation to the U.S. yesterday – I decided that this time, I’d really work consciously not to make re-entry the agonizing, adrenaline-fuelled stress-fest that it usually is in my life.

Well, I’m pleased to report that on day five of the Good Lord’s Year 2011…something I resolved to do differently in the new year actually worked.

Here are five ways to manage re-entry after a vacation:

1. Shower First. Pay no attention to that whole soap-dodging trend. It’s amazing what a shower can do to wake up the senses. Make sure you do it as soon as you get home, even if you’ve already taken a shower that day. A shower – plus a good, strong hot cup of coffee – are, I am convinced, the foundation for a successful re-entry launch.

2. Make Piles. I’m a big believer in lowering your expectations. Once you’re clean and caffeinated, the single best thing you can do for yourself upon re-entry is not to take on too much that very first day. You’ll exhaust yourself. Instead, what I’d recommend is making piles:  bills to pay…holiday cards to answer…dry-cleaning that’s accrued during your trip.You don’t have to actually *do* any of these things. But just putting them in the right piles will contribute enormously to your piece of mind knowing that they will, eventually, get done.

3. Fill In Your Calendar. Another small but not over-whelming task you can assign to yourself on that very first day back from a trip is to fill in the dates on your calendar (or “diary” as we say over here in the ‘hood.) Much like making piles, inputting your daughter’s swim class schedule, noting the next few book club meetings and (hopefully) setting aside a few date nights out with your partner can go along way towards making you feel in control of your life, before you actually step in to control it. And the beauty of this task is that it can be executed in a near-somnolent state.

4. Set In Motion One Big Thing. This may sound contradictory with points (2) and (3) but it doesn’t have to be. You know how we all have those giant, endless to-do lists that contain a small array of intractable items that never, ever make it off ground zero? While you’re wandering around your house in a bleary-eyed state after a vacation, take action on one of those babies – the really hard ones. You don’t need to resolve it that very first day. But even if it’s just about taking one small step to activate action on said item, you’ll feel so much better. In my own case, I decided yesterday that even though I’d been avoiding it for…um, like four months…I was going to defrost my refrigerator. Yes it was a pain in the neck. Yes, I had to sacrifice my favorite brand of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to the cause (Imagine Whirled Peace, in case you’re wondering.) But the prospect of opening the refrigerator in 2011 and *not* seeing an iceberg befitting March Of The Penguins? Priceless.

5. Open Your Mail Last. While it can be awfully tempting when you’ve been away from home for a while to open up all of your mail right away, it’s a terrible idea. Mail – whether it’s personal, business or just a doctor’s appointment – is deeply distracting. You get caught up in the photo of someone else’s cute kids. You learn that you didn’t get that job you applied for. You start reading all about the latest changes to your retirement plan. Do yourself a favor and get the small stuff done first. And then reward yourself by reading your mail last when you can really concentrate. Ditto Email. Trust me.

Happy re-entry.

And Happy 2011.

Image: – Mail Day!! – by Warm n’ Fuzzy via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five “Comfort Activities” When You’re Sick

December 15, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I spent most of last week in bed, shaking off a flu.

I really fight against being ill. On some fundamental level, I don’t want to accept that my defenses are down and that I can’t accomplish what I normally do in a day. So I spend a lot of time feeling frustrated when I’m sick, which is, of course, not only pointless but counter-productive.

But then I read this great post over on Daily Plate of Crazy about how Big Little Wolf woke up one day feeling really lousy and decided that even though it meant tossing out her “interminable checklist,” she accepted that she was ill and had a really nice day in, reading magazines and watching chick flicks.

And that made me realize that if you re-frame it, being sick can actually be a nice excuse to relax and engage “comfort activities” that you might not allow yourself during your normal routine. And I vowed that the next time I’m ill, I’m going to approach it with a whole new outlook. Here are five things to do when you’re sick:

1. Play Board Games. I’m a huge fan of board games. And, once again this year, I have used Hanukkah as an excuse to replenish our supply. (This year’s additions include Backgammon, Risk and Battleship.) The drawback (and advantage) of board games like these is that they can take several hours to play. And so you really need to clear an entire afternoon or evening, which can be tough to manage during “normal times.” But when you’re sick, you’ve got nothing better to do. So assuming you can actually sit up, playing a board game is an excellent way to spend a sick day.

2. Watch Old Movies. I’m not sure why, exactly, but watching old movies is another great comfort activity when you’re not feeling your best. In theory, any film should do, right? But there’s something particularly soothing about old movies. My daughter’s school is performing Oliver! for the Christmas play this year so we happened to have a copy of the film lying around last weekend. And so all four of us snuggled up in our bed and watched Oliver! as a family. Lovely.

3. Drink Tea. I don’t drink much tea these days. I’m more of an espresso-brewing gal. But when I’m sick, I take a hiatus from coffee and drink only tea. And I *always* enjoy that. There’s nothing that screams relaxation quite as much as a large mug of tea. Preferably with sugar and milk. Yum.

4.Take a nap. This has got to be the classic comfort activity that I routinely deny myself during my “normal life.” Despite all the research showing that taking a 30 minute nap every afternoon is really conducive to productivity, I never, ever nap unless I’m feeling ill. But when I’m sick, I allow myself this luxury and boy, is it worth it every time.

5. Read a guilty pleasure. This will vary from person to person. I don’t read women’s magazines so that’s never going to be a comfort activity for me. But I did find my eye straying to the pile of “to be read” books by my bedside table – you know, the ones that you really want to read but always feel you *should* be reading something else? So after, like, I don’t know…8 years?, I finally picked up Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker and plunged in. Just like that. So glad I did.

OK, so you know where I’m going with this, right? If these things are all so fantastic, then why don’t I incorporate them into my regular routine?

I’m working on it, folks. Really I am.

*****

For those who are interested, here’s my latest piece in Politics Daily on the woman in Iran sentenced to death by stoning.

Image: Nightime tea pot by racineur via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Prep A TV Interview

December 1, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve done two TV interviews in the past month. The first was with the Russian Television News Network about the United States trade embargo against Cuba. The second – which airs later this week – was with Al Jazeera (English) on The Listening Post, a program about the media. (We talked about Tony Blair and George W. Bush’s memoirs – watch it here – the segment begins around 12:20.)

After just two brief TV appearances – (and by brief, I mean brief…if you blink, you’ll miss me on the Russian one), I would hardly call myself an expert on media appearances. I should also note that both of these interviews were done in my own home – one on Skype, and one in my living room – so they were less anxiety-inducing than the full-on studio interview.

Still, I did learn a lot from these two experiences, and while those lessons are fresh, I thought that I’d share them:

1. Pick your outfit out beforehand. One of the great joys of being a freelance writer is that you can – should you choose – sit around all days in your pajamas. But that turns out to be a bit of a liability when you need to sound like an authority on something. Before moving to London four years ago, I either tossed out or placed in storage most of my proper, authority-conferring work suits. So when it came time for the interview in my living room, I really didn’t have much to go on. As a result, I spent a lot of last-minute energy – when I should have been thinking Big Thoughts (capital B, capital T) – trying to see if I could still squeeze into a slate grey jacket I bought on impulse last year (thinking that some day I might be called upon to have Big Thoughts.) Turns out that I could – and I threw on a set of pearls to add that je ne sais quoi element of gravitas. But the point is that I could have saved myself a lot of angst if I’d done all of this the night before.

2. Have some sound bites ready, but don’t try to memorize. Or, as Urban Muse puts it, prepare, but don’t over-prepare. I learned this lesson during the Cuba interview. Earlier in the summer – (which is presumably why Russian Television contacted me to do this) – I’d written a piece for Politics Daily about why it was time to lift the Cuba embargo. The piece contained all sorts of data, which was a terrific way to back up my arguments. But in preparing for the interview, I felt like I needed to have mastered ALL of that data, rather than just selectively picking out a few key sound bites to back up my points. Turns out, you don’t. Trying to remember obscure pieces of data just makes you nervous, and you don’t want to look nervous on camera. It’s much better to just choose a few big ideas and go with those. People can look up the data themselves.

3. Be sure to give them your title before you start. If you are working for a publication/news outlet/company/university and want that affiliation to be mentioned on air, be sure that you do this up front. Never assume that whoever is interviewing you will know how to identify you, especially if you publish under multiple names. They won’t. This is such an easy thing to fix and yet, so easy to miss. Let it be the very first thing you utter.

4. Remind yourself to slow down. I actually learned this when I worked in radio. The very, very last thing I’d do before I read a commentary on air was to remind myself to slow down. In fact, I’d write the words “SLOW” at the top of the script, just in case I forgot. The same goes for television. When you’re nervous, you tend naturally to speed up. So unless you have unnaturally slow speech (and some people do), be sure to take a deep breath right before you begin and slow down. Among other things, it will help you to relax.

5. Remember that it’s OK not to know something. This is an addendum to (2). In the middle of the Tony Blair interview, the presenter asked me a question about something I hadn’t been aware of. I tried to answer it to the best of my ability, but had to confess, ultimately, that I really didn’t know the answer. Turns out, that was perfectly fine. The piece was edited, so they just left that bit out and focused elsewhere. Of course, had this been a live talk show, that might have been problematic. But even then, I think you look far better admitting when you don’t know something (and showing what you do know) than faking it. Tough lesson for a control freak, but there it is.

How about you? Have you ever been on television and if so, what did you learn?

Image: NTV7’s The Breakfast Show – Attentive by The Instant Classic via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: How To Edit Productively

November 17, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve got writing on the brain these days. I’ve recently joined a writing group and I’m about to turn back to my own manuscript in a few days. (Drumroll, please…)

So I’m thinking again, about the craft of writing. Not the initial creative burst that yields a blog post…an article…a novel. But that potentially stomach-churning, roll-up-your-sleeves and stare-the-beast-in-the-face process commonly known as editing. (I think Ernest Hemingway summed up the distinction between these two phases best when he said: “Write drunk. Edit sober.”)

Fortunately for me, many of the blogs and e-zines I regularly peruse are devoted to precisely this topic: the craft of writing. So I’m constantly being bombarded with new ideas about the writing process, which I dutifully file away for when the time comes.

Accordingly, this week’s tips list goes out to all of you fellow travellers who have something you need to edit – it could be a poem…a short story…heck, an office memo…and, like me, you need to find your mojo.

Here are five things to keep in mind when you edit:

1. Take time off after the first draft. This crucial piece of advice comes from Stephen King in his fabulous, incredibly useful, not-to-be-missed book, On Writing. (Did I tell you how much I liked it?) King recommends that novelists take 4-6 weeks off after finishing a manuscript so that they can come back to it fresh. But I’d say that – if you can manage it, subject to deadlines, etc. – take even longer than that. The reason for waiting to begin the re-writing process is that you want to be able to open your ms. up and read it like anyone else would. You don’t want to be able to recite it line by line. And there’s another reason to let your story sit. As a friend of mine who’s a screenwriter once told me, “You’ll surprise yourself. There will be things that will be better than you thought they were and things that will be worse.” And that’s exactly the point:  to be surprised. Because that’s the only way you’ll figure out what works, what needs fixing and what should be tossed in the bin.

2. Find ways to make the material new. If you’re like me, you find writing the first draft of anything far more fun than slogging your way through the edit. That’s natural. The first draft is all about throwing stuff out there, while the second (and third…and fourth…) drafts are about refinement. (See again, Hemingway.) So when you’re in re-write mode, it’s really important to come up with devices that help you make the old draft feel new. If you’re writing fiction, you might decide to write a biography of all of your characters to make them come alive…again. One of my favorite writer/bloggers, Christina Baker Kline, has a host of suggestions for how to jumpstart a revision. My favorite? Write three new openings. In each opening, start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end. Wow! What a great idea!

3. Trim excess words. One of the best writing assignments I ever got was in a high school English class. We were told to write an essay of 1,000 words on a given topic. The next week, we came in and the teacher told us to write the same essay, this time in 500 words. But while we all *know* that cutting excess verbiage is one of the cardinal tasks of the second draft, how to wield the axe is another story entirely. In a guest post on the amazing Write To Done blog (a must for all you writers out there), Fekket Cantenel offers very specific advice for how to clean up your narration. Under trimming excess words, she offers the following remedy: Start with the first sentence. Take out the first word and read the sentence. Does it still make sense and carry the same idea across? Yes? Then leave it out. Repeat. Skeptical? Try it. I just went up to the intro of this blog and cut out several words.

4. Read your writing out loud. This tip is brought to you by none other than David Sedaris, whose views on the writing process were generously shared by another great writer/blogger, Lisa Romeo Writes. On the topic of reading your work aloud, Sedaris says: “When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don’t hear when I read (silently) to myself. When I read aloud, I always have a pencil in hand. If I feel I’m trying too hard, or I’m being repetitive, I make a mark.” Another reason to read your writing aloud is that it also helps with voice. You not only hear the repetition and the over-writing. You can also hear whether or not you sound too stilted, too casual, too funny or too sharp. I think this is why I like Sandra Tsing Loh so much as a writer. (Not incidentally, both she and Sedaris frequently perform their work on radio.) They are writers who have really honed their voice. And I’m sure that it took a lot of re-writing to get there.

5. Don’t send it off too soon. Stephen King has a great metaphor for the writing process. He talks about writing “with the door open” vs. writing “with the door closed.” I think what he’s getting at is that the first draft is really for you, the writer, to get your thoughts down on the page however they come out. But at a certain point, you need to bring in other people to read what you’ve got and offer feedback. One of the biggest mistakes writers make (Lord knows I’m guilty of this) is to spend endless amounts of time on the “closed door” phase of writing, but fail to spend enough time on the “open door” phase. And this can be catastrophic. Here’s the blogger/writer/editor, Victoria A. Mixon, with a cautionary tale on what happens when you send your draft out too soon, taken from her own life. Read it and weep (I’ve set it apart because it made that much of an impact on me):

You know what my first agent said about the draft I sent her of my first novel?

“I love this paragraph.”

Months later, after the manuscript had cooled off, I re-read the whole thing and was absolutely horrified.

I called her to apologize, and she responded (rather callously, I must say), “See what I had to wade through?”

 

Yikes.

What works for you when you’re editing something?

*****

I’m over on http://www.PoliticsDaily.com today talking about the British Government’s latest initiative: measuring citizens’ happiness.

 

Image: How well I could write if I were not here! by Madampsychosis via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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