Category Archives: Writing

No deadline on thank you

All I had to do was stick a couple of magazines in some envelopes and affix mailing labels. I’m not sure why it took me a month to do it.

I could offer the typical excuses — deadlines, conflicting demands on my time. December, after all, is a busy month. But when I face it square on, I realize the only real thing in the way was me.

Sometimes I agonize over the simplest of tasks, convinced I won’t get it right. That propensity leads to a kind of mental paralysis. The more I worry, the more I procrastinate. And when things that matter don’t get done, I pile guilt on top of the worry. It’s such a needless cycle of wasted effort — one that many writers, I suspect, would find familiar. Fear of not writing the “perfect” thing blocks most of us from writing anything at all, even when it’s something as small as a thank-you note.

Paul Giblin (on the right) with Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Chad Brandau.

I wanted to send copies of our December 2011 magazine to Phoenix journalist Paul Giblin, who is currently working as a civilian employee with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan. Paul, a longtime Valley news reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote our lead feature article for the issue, sharing insights into the challenges of “Parenting from Afghanistan” while painting a vivid picture of what life is like in a war zone. I also had an envelope ready for Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Chad Brandau of Tucson, who was quoted in the story.

I looked at the two manilla envelopes daily, feeling completely inadequate. How could I thank these guys for sharing their deepest thoughts? And besides, it was the Christmas season. I should be sending gifts! It would be really lame to simply send the magazines.

Three days before Christmas I still hadn’t sent the magazines — though I’d emailed Paul to tell him they were coming. My husband was home from work that day and had offered to run some errands for me. He had other items to take to the post office. So I finally scribbled quick notes of thanks and stuffed a couple of magazines into each labeled envelope.

I had no idea how long it would take to get mail through to Afghanistan, but it was only a few days later when I received this email from Paul:

We received hard copies of the magazine here in Kabul. Thank you very much. Your editor’s column was especially kind.

Brandau went on R&R back to Tucson just before Christmas, but before he did, he carried a copy with him to show everyone he bumped into. I also posted the entire spread in an encased bulletin board outside the dining facility. You would be amazed at how many people stand out there in sub-freezing weather to read it. Lots of people nod their heads as they read. Also, people stop me or drop by my office to talk about it, particularly newly arrived folks. I hope it was received well by your regular audience too.

Thanks for the tough assignment Karen. Have great new year. – Paul

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Father’s Day and finding my way

Where's Karen? I'm in there to the right of the tall guy in the blue shirt (my son David), in this picture I took reflecting off The Bean In Chicago earlier this month.

My husband was suffering from allergies (or a cold, we weren’t sure which) yesterday, so his Father’s Day was spent quietly. We opted out of our Sunday routine — which typically involves a hike or long bike ride — in favor of lazily lounging around. Dan’s only goal for the day was to make some progress toward finishing the third book in Edmund Morris’s Theodore Roosevelt trilogy.

Both of our sons called in — Andy from Washington, D.C. and David from his new home in Chicago — to enjoy catching up with their dad. All three of the men in my family are extremely knowledgeable about politics and government (which I am not), so I enjoy listening to Dan’s side of the conversation from my perch at the kitchen island, knowing that this is a special bond they share (along with a love of all things sports). My conversations with our sons typically take a different tack. I ask about household/daily life stuff and girlfriends. I share news about extended family members — their grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins.

Quiet Sundays give me a chance to make some small amount of progress toward catching up and getting organized for the week ahead. I spent several hours sifting through emails, writing to-do lists and tending to naggy, small tasks that always seem insurmountable when you’re in the midst of a busy work day. And with no small amount of initial hesitation, I dove back into my Ethiopia notes.

My motivation was an email I received from a mother in New Mexico. She has written a book, Finding Aster, about her own Ethiopia adoption journey. I found out about her because of all the Google alerts I have set up related to international adoption — part of my continued research for the story that began when I first met adoptive parents Brian and Keri deGuzman of Paradise Valley in the spring of 2009 and which, I hope, will find its own book form if I just keep taking small steps to make it happen.

When I found out about Dina McQueen’s book, I subscribed to her related blog. Anyone who writes a blog knows how exciting it is to find out that someone has subscribed to it. Every time I get a message that someone has subscribed to my blog, I click through to find out who that person is. Dina apparently does the same. She found me, found Raising Arizona Kids and wondered, no doubt, about my interest in her adoption story.

She called my office while I was in Chicago helping David settle into his new apartment earlier this month. So she followed up with an email:

When I called your magazine to inquire, I was told about your interest in Ethiopia, which led me to your feature article on your 2010 trip to Ethiopia. Which led me to the remarkable story you wrote about accompanying Brian and Keri to Addis Ababa as they met their two new children. What a beautiful and inspiring story. I was quite moved. Especially as I learned how much some adoptive parents are doing to support their children’s homeland. And how ‘stuck’ I sometimes feel without the resources to do more.

What I can do, however, is share my story and my platform with others who may be able to help me get out there and speak. My mission, basically, is to encourage adoption as a viable and vital way to grow a family. Concern about the environment and women’s health, as well, of course, as the massive issue of parentless children world-wide fuels my passion to keep on connecting with others.

I have ordered a copy of Dina’s book and I look forward to reading it. One of the reviews I read particularly intrigued me. The reviewer said that Finding Aster could truly be called Finding Dina, because of the magnitude of personal growth the author underwent during her journey to become a parent.

With Keri deGuzman as we checked in for our flight to Ethiopia last July. We were both wearing T-shirts promoting Acacia Village, an orphanage the deGuzmans support in Addis Ababa. Photo by Brian deGuzman.

Personal growth — and continued striving for it — is intrinsic to my ongoing connection to the deGuzman family and their continued commitment to the many children who remain orphaned in Ethiopia. It is time to stop hiding behind my fears of being inadequate to the task of telling their evolving story.

Finding Aster may well help me get back to the task of finding myself.

Affirmation — and a challenge — from colleagues in the press

Last night, the Arizona Press Club honored journalists from statewide publications large and small with awards for exceptional work in reporting, writing, photography and design. Raising Arizona Kids was among the publications honored.

Mary L. Holden. Photo by Daniel Friedman.

Writer Mary L.Holden was recognized in the Non-Metro Writing/Social Issues Reporting category for her April 2010 story, “Casting a Light on the Shadow of Abuse.”

Mary put a lot of heart and soul into this project, which involved interviews with researchers and medical professionals who work the front lines in child abuse prevention and treatment. She listened to horrific stories about the unimaginable ways some children are mistreated by adults who typically lack the tools or knowledge to deal productively with the stresses and emotional damage in their own lives. She put a personal face on the issue by sharing the story of a Surprise family whose daughter was abused by a caregiver. She provided insights into the longterm damage of abuse and how it can manifest in adulthood.

James Motz of Surprise and his daughter Lilian, who was brutally shaken by a caregiver. Photo by Daniel Friedman.

The judge, Suki Dardarian, managing editor at The Seattle Times, described her entry as “a well-crafted story about the medical and emotional toll of child abuse. While it is a well-covered story, this reporter used strong cases and compelling writing to draw the reader through her story.”

Taylor Batten, editorial page editor of The Charlotte Observer, judged entries in the Best of Arizona/Features Blog category, to which I had submitted several of the blog posts I wrote about my experience in Ethiopia last summer, when I accompanied Paradise Valley couple Brian and Keri deGuzman on their journey to welcome two orphaned babies into their family.

Observing a distribution of food to starving families in Soddo, Ethiopia. Photo by Brian deGuzman.

“Barr produces memorable storytelling from an emotional and at times dangerous trip,” Batten wrote. “She is a powerful writer who captures the emotion of her subject while also revealing a bit about herself in an authentic way. Fantastic photos.”

It’s weird to be typing those words about yourself. As an editor it is my job to make other writers look good. I have attended many Arizona Press Club Awards events in the past 21 years to joyfully support my writers as they accepted awards. But in 35 years of writing and editing (give or take a few lost to graduate school or raising small children), I never once received an award.

What I’ve decided is this: It’s great to have a piece of paper that gives you membership in a small cadre of professional journalists whose work is deemed by peers to go above and beyond. It’s even better to hear the specific feedback, which envelopes your fragile writer’s ego like a soothing, restorative  balm.

But the very best part is the spark it ignites that grabs your imagination, rekindles your hope and challenges you to go out and do something even better.

Proofreading lessons

Is it kid’s meals or kids’ meals or kids meals? That was the sticking point in November, when we published our annual “Kids Eat Free” directory.

Today, as I assembled seven proofreaders’ corrections to our June issue, there were questions about colons, capitalizations and hyphens.

One of my proofers noticed inconsistencies in how we were treating the first word following a colon. The rule is that a complete sentence following a colon requires a capitalized first word and a list (of words or phrases that are not complete sentences) does not. So this is correct:

What they found caught my attention: Men who had good memories of their relationships with their fathers while growing up better handled the stresses of adult life. (This is from a story about how dads can build good relationships with their children.)

And this is correct:

Other examples of adaptations: placing extra straps and pads on wheelchairs and walkers or re-wiring toys so a child who is unable to manipulate them can interact by touch or use a communication device… (From a story about Southwest Human Development’s new A.D.A.P.T. store.)

Moving on to our capitalization dilemma. When is a father “Dad” versus “dad”…?

Dad is capitalized only when used as a proper noun. So it’s “a dad” or “my dad” or “time spent with dad” (because you’re not talking about a specific dad but instead using the word as one would use the phrase “a dad”) … but “Dad (as in my dad, the guy I call “Dad” ) and I love fishing.”

Another capitalization catch: Our resident Francophile Mary Ann Bashaw noticed that we had used “french doors,” not “French doors” in a description of amenities at a hotel listed in our June issue’s directory of family-friendly resorts. The capitalized version is correct, as is French toast and French fries and French pedicure.

Another story in our June issue mentioned a “six-and-a-half pound baby.” It was missing a hyphen and should have been “six-and-a-half-pound baby.”

Enough for today. And by the way, it’s “kids meal.”

“Kid’s meal” means a meal that belongs to one child. “Kids’ meal” means one meal that belongs to a bunch of kids (and I would not want to negotiate that sharing lesson). “Kids meal” means a meal planned/prepared/priced (or whatever) to be appropriate for kids.

The gifts of writing

1979: Marbo Caves, Guam.

It has been a lot of years — more than 30 — since I have submitted a freelance article to an editor. The last time I did, as a senior year college student at the University of Guam, my approach was very different.

I typed my story, which was about an education program on the Northern Marianas island of Rota, on a manual typewriter. (I typed it several times, in fact, because I was unwilling to submit it with even a single typo or blot of Wite-Out.) I dropped my finished article in the mail at the campus post office. Several weeks later, when it was published in the Islander magazine section of the Pacific Daily News, I was overcome to see my words, and my name, in print.

For the past 21 years, as the editor of Raising Arizona Kids magazine, I have been on the other side of that experience. I’m the one who creates opportunities for writers, the one who makes decisions about whether something is worthy of pubication, the one who nurtures and encourages writers but also reluctantly wields the power to crush their confidence. So I approached my recent independent freelance assignment — a story about EthiopiaStudio, a design studio for sixth-year architecture students at ASU — with a great deal of reverence and care.

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