About Jamie

I'm a mom and a new wife. I edit books for a living. And I travel when I can.

Critical Thinking PSA

I’ve written on this topic—how to find the truth, and why sticking to facts is so important—more than once, three longish articles about critical thinking in today’s Wild West of Journalism.

Eschew Ignorance. Pursue Truth.
I Don’t Care If You’re Partisan. I Do Care If You Perpetrate Lies
The Year in Review

            I’ve probably got another longer article about the difference between news and propaganda in me too—but for now I think I’ve got a couple down and dirty examples that should help those who still don’t get it.* The difference between straightforward journalism and the biased comes down to use of words and use of photos.

Here’s an example of word use:

On Tuesday, with respect to tearing down Confederate monuments, President Trump bravely stood before the world and asked, “Where does it end?”

That’s an example from the Daily Wire, a right-wing opinion website that looks like a news site, complete with “breaking news” headlines. But you see it in the words: “President Trump bravely stood before the world.” Really? I’m rolling my eyes. Legitimate news reportage would simply say, “Donald Trump said.”

Here’s an example of photo use from the same not-news site. In a piece** that has very little to do with Hillary Clinton (except for the fact that the far right would like it to and has been trying to connect her to it for months), the headline mentions her (words, again) and is followed by an unflattering photo of her. One sees this “ugly photo” activity over and over in the right-wing press.

There’s a third principle at play here. The legitimate press doesn’t try to make something out of a long-debunked issue (here’s what PolitiFact says about it), using the name of their favorite bête noire to draw in readers anxious to hear some dirt on someone they dislike intensely.

So there you have it: words and photos. As a last thought, John Wiley & Sons, publishers of the For Dummies series, offers these points for discernment:

  • Look for a slant. Some articles are fair and balanced, but others look more like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. If an article has only one source, beware.
  • Consider the source. Even if an article cites external sources, check out those sources to see whether they are being cited fairly and accurately—and do, in fact, reinforce the article’s points.
  • Look who’s talking. If you research the contributors themselves and find that they are experts in their fields, you can be more confident in the entry.

My BS meter goes off all the time, y’all, but I have experience in research and parsing words, and that’s why. I offer this in the hope it helps make it easier for others to spot.

* Actually I think some folks just don’t want to get it. But there comes a time in everyone’s life, I think, when you realize you really need the truth. The facts. No sugar-coating and no prevaricating either. Maybe you’ve reached that point.

** I really hate linking to this website, so I’ve made a screengrab instead.


What the Mind Does

Funny how you’ll read something and it’ll spark this whole train of thought* … but here was an interesting thing that popped up: on the night I graduated from high school in Merced, California, Charles Ogletree Jr (yes, that one) came up to me and requested a celebratory kiss, and I obliged him (because, duh, I was full of myself back then, even with my boyfriend standing right there). It mightily annoyed said boyfriend, even thought it was nothing more than a friendly—and quick—smooch. Charles was a scrawny kid, not tall, not possessed, yet, of the stature he would earn by his accomplishments.

He went on to Stanford University with a few of my classmates and from there to Harvard Law School, and subsequently a professorship at the university, where he taught, among many others, Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson (later Obama, of course). You can read more about him here; his is an impressive career, an impressive life.

I snagged this photo from Ogletree’s page at his speakers’ bureau, Collaborative Agency Group.

It was announced in July 2016 that he has early-stage Alzheimer’s, and that news broke quickly in the world, and among my old Merced crowd. None of us have seen him in decades, I should point out, but we were proud of him from a distance, and we’re all sorry to know this news. There’s been some better, hopeful news on the horizon for Alzheimer’s patients; one hopes he gets the benefit of the latest treatments and that his twilight years are exceedingly happy ones.

But what I wondered, though, that night in bed, feeling the synapses fire between the Coates and Ogletree, who sprang into my mind unbidden, was this: I wonder who else of my friends he kissed that night? Funny, how the mind works.

* It was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power, the introduction to the sixth essay, which speaks of “how black families had been cut out of the FHA loan program and thus excluded from much of the suburban housing development in the postwar years … [which] was a great source of the wealth for American families.” Including me. My first husband and I financed more than one early home with FHA loans. This train of thought really got my attention—and broke my heart.

What Language Are You Speaking?

retToday I left my appointment with a physical therapist and, since it was just after one o’clock, decided to drop by Panda Express. Call it fast food if you must—and it is, usually, fast—but they use fresh ingredients and you can taste the freshness.

There was a line. And it wasn’t fast today. Behind me, standing a little too close, two men carried on a conversation in a language that sounded vaguely Hispanic. (I say a little too close in the sense that we Americans like our personal space when we’re standing in line. But some cultures are comfortable standing closer, and I don’t believe in letting things like this bother me.)

Then one of the workers announced to those of us waiting: “We are out of to-go boxes and”—he named several of the most popular items on the menu. “I’m sorry, but our delivery didn’t arrive today.”

Several people peeled out of the line and left, but I wanted my Panda Express, dagnabbit, and another worker brought up a bunch of the little cardboard cartons you traditionally see used for Asian takeout, so we were in business. By “out of to-go boxes” they’d meant those awful Styrofoam boxes.

So I and the two gentlemen behind me fanned out in front of the buffet to see what was available, which was when I got a look at them. One of them had a full head and mustache of white hair and could have been mistaken for Omar Sharif. The other was younger, but probably not by much. They used English to speak to the restaurant worker and to commiserate with me, smiling, then turned to each other and had a conversation in …

“What language are you speaking?” I asked, putting my hand on the younger man’s arm* to politely interrupt. “I’ve traveled a little, but I’ve never heard this.” Oh! Those rolled Rs! This language was like music.

“Arabic,” he said, and they both smiled. I smiled. We were all smiling. The younger man said, “You should visit Jerusalem,” in the manner of passing on a well-kept secret. “It is beautiful.”

And that was it, just a few words, but it made me happy today.

* Later I wondered if, by touching him, I’d violated some social custom. But they are here in Tennessee, and I am a woman who touches people when she talks to them. Also, they didn’t react in any way other than to smile and keep the conversation going.

Not by appointment do we meet Delight
And Joy; they heed not our expectancy;
But round some corner in the streets of life
They, on a sudden, clasp us with a smile.
—Gerald Massey (1828–1907), The Bridegroom of Beauty


Do You Know Me?

Some years ago—back before I obsessively kept notes about these things—I read an interview with Frances Mayes (of Under the Tuscan Sun fame).

Mayes said that while she often asks about local customs when she travels outside the United States—how things are done and so forth—she is not often asked those things in return about the States. The reason, she believes, is because foreign visitors think they know us already. That is, our culture (think Hollywood) has been so vigorously exported that the rest of the world feels it already knows what our lives are like.

It’s something to think about.

Travel to the US Is Down

They call it the Trump Slump in the travel industry:

“[The travel industry is] currently drawing attention to an unintended consequence of the Trump-led efforts to stop many Muslims from coming to the U.S., pointing to a sharp drop in foreign tourism to our nation that imperils jobs and touristic income. It’s known as the ‘Trump Slump.’ And I know of no reputable travel publication to deny it.” —Arthur Frommer, Frommersdotcom, undated

European travel groups have pulled their plans, I’ve read. Flights from Australia to mainland US are the cheapest they’ve been in a decade, I’ve seen; they can’t fill the planes. Even our friends the Canadians are going elsewhere, the Washington Post says. The Toronto Metro says Canadian searches for US flights dropped 43 percent after the first trump travel ban. The state of Georgia expects the loss of tourism will have a $27 million impact. NBC notes that last year US tourism experienced a 4.6 billion dollar loss.

Four billion dollars is a lot. Forty thousand jobs lost in services and hospitality.

And it’s not just tourism: educational institutions are suffering too. Canadian CTV News reports that international applications to Canadian universities surged after the trump election. American universities are some of the most highly respected in the world, but now that children are shooting up schools with semi-automatic weapons (again), international parents are rethinking where they send their precious children for higher education. Applications to American boarding schools that court international students are down too.

After the Parkland, Florida, shooting, even Americans are staying away from Florida, which has virtually no gun laws at all.

More and more travelers are deciding to bypass the US for someplace … safer. On Twitter one reads comments like this: “As a Canadian, I will not spend my tourist dollars in US as long as the @NRA owns the lawmakers.” Or “I teach in South Korea right now. One of my students told me her family cancelled a trip to the States because they don’t feel safe travelling there. And she lives literally a one hour drive away from the North Korean border.” And “My partner lived in and loved the US before returning to UK, I’ve visited and would love to travel coast to coast. But right now, no thanks.” And “I’m Canadian. I don’t feel comfortable visiting the US anymore. I live 20 min from the border, used to shop across the line all the time. No more.”

It’s a shame, but seriously—would you come to this shithole country while the Shithole-in-Chief is in power? I sure wouldn’t. I’ve long wanted to take my immigrant husband to Washington DC to see the monuments (inspiring stuff!), but there’s no way I’m setting foot in that city until the trump stench has dissipated.

Of course, we’ve been a bit nervous about traveling abroad, at least until Gerry’s green card status becomes permanent—but as you know, last December we had no choice. (And also no hassle, thank goodness. The center continues to hold … at least for white folks. I’m not being flippant; we recognize our privilege. People of color always have it harder.)

I wasn’t raised in wealth, but my parents were big on driving trips. They wanted us kids to see things, and we did see a lot of the United States. Some of Canada and Mexico. I was a parent myself, though, before I got farther afield (England!). I’m no “elite” that the republicans delight in denigrating, and yet … I must be. Because even in my limited experience, I’ve become convinced that travel to foreign countries changes us in good ways. It opens our eyes and hearts to the notion that all of humanity is the same, no matter what color we paint our houses or what type of clothing we wear.

Still, I wouldn’t want to come here either.


Nonrefundable Reservations? Maybe, Maybe Not.

PSA: Just because it says the reservation is nonrefundable doesn’t mean it’s not. Just ask and explain and be nice. Also, beware the Ping-Pong Effect.

Here’s what happened.

We made hotel reservations to go to Texas—a trip we couldn’t wait to take, as it was the wedding celebration of some good friends (and I happen to know from personal experience that Texans know how to throw a party). We used some Verizon “points” to reduce the cost. It was nonrefundable, but we are the sort of people who make plans and follow through on them. You can get great deals (on hotels in Ireland, for example) if you use the nonrefundable option—and we have, frequently.

We were a little over two months out from the event.

But after nearly all the arrangements were made, we found out that my son’s grad school commencement ceremony was the same long weekend we were going to be in the Hill Country.

(Bummer. But we’ll reschedule Texas. We were really, really looking forward to it.)

I snagged this from the Texas Hill Country website; they apparently got it from wideopencountry.com.

So … I called the customer service number for Verizon Smart Rewards on a Sunday afternoon. I was just looking for a little grace. We knew it was a nonrefundable reservation. But things happen. Oh, the humanity, etc.

The clerk repeated the this is nonrefundable mantra, but then said she’d call the hotel to see if they’d release me from the obligation “as a courtesy.” Her words. I was on hold for about five minutes. (How do I know? I always look at my watch when I’m put on hold in the middle of a customer service conversation.)

Shortly the Verizon customer service rep got back on the line and said, “I spoke with Sarah at the hotel, and they won’t release the funds. You paid us and we paid the hotel, so you see, we can’t give you the money [several hundred dollars] back if we won’t get it back from the hotel.”

Hm. It all seemed a bit quick to me. I told her I understood, but that I’d look into it further. (But not, of course, until Monday, when perhaps Sarah’s boss was in the office. We’re still going to go to Texas. It would be good customer relations for the hotel to release us from this obligation. And they’d have plenty of time to rebook the room.)

So on Monday I called back to the hotel in Texas—and guess who I spoke with? Sarah! And Sarah told me she couldn’t do anything with the reservation. She said Verizon still had the funds and the ability to cancel or change anything about the reservation. I’d have to call them, she said.

A-HA! The Ping-Pong Effect. Both sides deny the ability to effect meaningful change, and the customer/client is batted back and forth between them until she gets tired and gives up.

So I called Verizon again. The nice man I spoke with this time listened to my story (including the somewhat mystifying details about my conversation with the lovely Sarah), took notes, and then said, “I’ll refer this to our travel team. It may take them twenty-four to forty-eight hours, but they’ll get back to you.”

Good enough. I still had 1) the may-I-speak-with-your-supervisor option; 2) the will-you-look-at-your-records-and-see-how-long-I’ve-been-your-customer-[answer: since 1994]-and-do-you-really-want-to-lose-me-over-this option; 3) the I’m-going-to-talk-about-this-on-social-media-including-my-travel-blog option; and 4) the calling-our-credit-card-company-to-dispute-the-charges option. C’mon: I made these reservations three days ago, realized the mistake, and the dates were still sixty days out. This shouldn’t have been difficult.

In less than an hour (!) Verizon called back. No problem! they said. They were delighted to refund the full amount, they said. It could take up to seventy-two hours to appear on our credit card statement, they said. (And it did appear.)

Conclusion? It may be that they say no first. Why not? They could end up with our money if we give up too soon. But I believed Sarah. She’s in the hospitality business. Her hotel didn’t want to make me mad over a three-night reservation that was two months away.

It’s a big world, but so far, the humans are still in charge. 🙂

If It’s January, We Must Be Planning a Trip

Ah, it’s January, and we’re thinking about traveling. Aren’t you? We had dinner last week with a friend who is planning a trip to Ireland and wanted to run some things past the Irishman—and we had a bang-up time eating, drinking, and discussing where to look for great Irish experiences, including some “skip this, do that instead” recommendations.* Our friend has a limited amount of time—ten days from start to finish—and has to make it count.

This is always a concern, of course. Which is why I love the “36 Hours in …” series from the New York Times, a carefully-planned three-day weekend in a variety of interesting spots. They’ve been running this feature for years, and I find it perfect for travel daydreams.

For example, we’d like a little getaway later this year. Not too far, somewhere we can drive. Here’s what pops up in driving range in the archives for the last couple years:

Asheville, North Carolina

Birmingham, Alabama

Charleston, South Carolina

Cincinnati, Ohio

Indianapolis, Indiana

We’ve got some other plans, too, but it’s too soon to talk about them. In the meantime, enjoy your travel daydreams!

* Skip the Cliffs of Moher, try Slieve League instead. That’s one.

Slieve League, October 2015. It’s magnificent.