Easy to Swallow

Into the Bowels
of Bowels
with Mary Roach

MOUTHIf someone took a notion to ask author Mary Roach to perform, say, stomach surgery, she would probably also remove much of the large intestine, the gall bladder and at least one kidney, all with the excuse that it was just so interesting.

That’s the kind of crazy logic that holds together Roach’s newest book, “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” as it comfortably slides from a meditation on cat food tasters (“The average rating, I am gobsmacked to report, fell between ‘liked mildly’ and ‘neither like nor dislike’ “) to accounts of explosive colonoscopies, to a discourse on cow farts (they don’t), to a product that keeps flatulence from smelling, which somehow also manages to include the story of how the photograph of a friend’s 1980s band reemerged on a greeting card years later with the heading, “Greetings from the Dork Club.”

Like the perfect dinner guest full of entertaining conversation — or wait, given the subject, lets delay this until dinner is over — Roach rolls out one surprising story after another. She matches the dinner wit’s great timing with her impressive mastery of the comic footnote. Take a discussion of megacolons, a phenomenon caused by something called Hirschsprung’s disease. Hirschsprung’s robs the lower digestive tract of its ability to keep things moving, forcing the organ to distend to painful proportions. The megacolon of a man named J.W. grew so large that, upon seeing it at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, Roach thinks, “It wears the same size jeans as me.” It left poor J.W. looking like “the bastard offspring of Humpty Dumpty and Olive Oyl,” she says.Roach tells us J.W. spent part of his life as “The Balloon Man” in a freak show exhibit in Philadelphia’s old Ninth & Arch Museum, alongside such oddities as the “Minnesota Wooly Baby.” Then this footnote: “Oddly, the exhibit chosen for billboarding on the building’s exterior was ‘Young Women Basketball Players.'”

 Here’s the rest of the review.

The Tao of Poodle


Tula was a black standard poodle who embodied the notion of irrational exuberance.

For her, everything was exciting and worthy of comment. A ride in the car was the most fun thing in the whole world. A walk in the neighborhood was the most fun thing in the whole world. The chance to catch a tennis ball was the most fun thing in the whole world.

You get the picture.

If I had her out for a walk, and she saw someone she knew, it was pointless to try to hang onto her. I’d let go of her leash and she would race to her friend and greet them like the last time she saw them they were dying and she had not expected them to make it. She loved our neighbors.

She knew our names and if I said, “Go get Joey,” she knew to run to my husband. “Go get Gramma” sent her to my mother-in-law.

We took her on trips and she would spend five, six hours or more standing in the back of the SUV, looking out the window to see what was coming next. She greeted cows with a lowing sound. Horses too brought an excited moo.

She loved to make noise. No salesman ever remained on our front stoop when she answered the door with her deep bark and long white canines. Had the visitor simply stepped inside, she would have brought him a tennis ball. But she looked intimidating.

Her only enemy was UPS, and she would sound the alarm not only when the brown van came to the house, but when we passed a UPS van in the car.

Near the end of July I noticed a funny wheeze in her breathing. I figured I was over-reacting when I took her to the vet.  I was not. He sent us straight to the animal hospital. There Tula stayed, the victim of a hole in her lung that allowed air to leak into her chest cavity. Trapped there, the air compressed her lungs to the size of paperback novels. The vets put in chest tubes so the air could escape, and we waited for her to heal. Every day they would measure the air in her chest cavity. Each day there was a little less. She was getting better. I was glad she was in good hands, but leaving her in the hospital was wrenching.

She wanted the family together at all times. I called her our Family Values Dog. If I left her food bowl in the living room, and Joey and I were in our offices, she would run out to the living room, grab a mouthful of food, and pick an office to chew in. She didn’t like the separate offices.

I am an early riser, and my husband sleeps later. So she’d get up with me, and when she heard sounds of stirring from the bedroom, she’d stand at the bedroom door to be let in to see Joey. If I didn’t go in with her, she’d stand in the bedroom and stare back at me in my office until I got the message.

A week into her hospital stay, the air stopped escaping. When no air accumulated two days in a row, they let us take Tula home. I had to keep her quiet, so I kept her in the office was me, where she couldn’t see out the window. One day she started barking and growling, begging to get out. Puzzled, we walked to the front door together. Parked two doors down? The UPS truck. She had heard her enemy approaching. No question, I thought, she’s getting better.

But by the end of the week, she was wheezing again. This time our vet withdrew the air with a syringe. “Take her home,” he said. “Maybe this will do the trick.” In a day, I could tell it wasn’t working. The next morning, when I didn’t follow her into the bedroom to wake Joey, she came back to my office, grabbed me by the wrist, and led me to the bedroom. We should be together, she said.

Two days later, the wheeze was back.

That evening we took her for a ride in the country to see the horses and cows. At bed time we put couch cushions on the floor and slept beside her. I called the vet in the morning, but before we took her in, we went to the park where she and I spent so many Saturdays and played a little fetch. She still wanted to play. Nothing could stop her. Then we took her to the vet and said goodbye. She would have been eight in October. We are still grieving.

But I’m also conscious of the lessons this large-hearted dog taught me with her unmatched joie di vive. I want to share them with you.

The Tao of Tula

1. Everything is funner when everyone is together.

2. Making someone else very happy is the best way to make yourself very happy.

3. Each morning, remind everyone around you how special they are to you.

4. Greet all friends with great enthusiasm.

5. Sometimes, when everyone else is busy, it’s nice to just sit and feel the sun on your back.

6. Drop everything if you might catch a bunny.

7. When you love someone, you can say anything with just a few gestures and sounds.

8. When choosing between toys, always select the one that makes the most noise. Everyone will want to hear you enjoy yourself.

9. Running is better than walking. Walking is better than sitting.

10. Don’t miss an opportunity to play.

11. Now is everything.

On September 7 we adopted four-year-old Phoebe from Carolina Poodle Rescue. Like Tula, she’s a black standard, but a good fifteen pounds smaller. Unlike Tula, she is quiet, and loves to wind her body around my legs like a cat. She has her own spirit, her own rules for living, her own lessons to teach us.

I just hope we’re smart enough to learn them quickly. We’re working on it. I’ll let you know.

(photos by Joey Harrison)

Man Booker Predictions

Here’s a link to the story I wrote for the Chicago Tribune with my Man Booker predictions. I’ll know in a few minutes how wildly off-base I was.

By Jenni Laidman10:28 a.m. CDT, October 16, 2012

Some literary awards are like Christmas presents. They simply appear under the tree. We’re all thrilled by the surprise — or in the case of the 2012 Pulitzer for fiction, not so thrilled by the missing present. The Man Booker Prize — for books written by citizens of the U.K. Commonwealth, Ireland or Zimbabwe — is different. No one need run downstairs on Tuesday when the winner is announced to see what’s waiting and hope it fits and isn’t hideous. It’s more like the Oscars. The judges announce the dozen or so books considered prize contenders in July. A month before the award, the Man Booker folks release a short list of finalists, the half-dozen books from which the winner will be selected. It’s a reader-participation opportunity. I could use another month to read them all, but if I’m diligent, I can be part of the process. I don’t get a vote. God help us, we do not need a People’s Choice Award for literature. (We already have one — the best-sellers list.) But I do earn debating rights and the smug satisfaction of being in the literary know. In England. Where they have those smart accents.

(the rest of the story:  http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/books/ct-prj-1014-man-booker-20121016,0,5097917.story?page=1 )

Start with Narcopolis

Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis, a Man Booker longlister

OK, I need to quit moping about the low number of Man Booker longlist books available in the United States and start reading.

Here’s what we’ve decided to read thus far, and the order in which we will read them:

1. Narcopolis
2. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
3) Skios

Not providing a longer list is a stall tactic, while we anticipate the MASSIVE CLOUT of my MIGHTY BLOG will SHAME THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY into setting these books free in the United States. We are also arguing about whether we will buy the few physical books one can quaintly send away for, but which are unavailable for download.

You’ll notice Bring Up the Bodies is not yet on our list. Expect it to show up as late as we can push it. Dan Campbell and I have both read it already, so I want to wait until the last possible minute before rereading it.

Now onto …

NARCOPOLIS by Jeet Thayil
Is there a trend here? Aren’t there a growing number of books about India? I can easily think of a half dozen I’ve read in recent years, most recently the nonfiction narrative by Katherine BooBehind the Beautiful Forevers. And did you notice the number of Man Booker winners with Indian themes or about India, including the Best Man Booker Winner of All Time as Decided by a Prestigious Panel of Judges?

Not that the winner’s list of past years predicts anything …  but I had to laugh when Jake Goretzki tweeted yesterday, “My tip for a dead cert #ManBookerPrize victory? Call your novel ‘The Sea, the Sea, the Sea.”

It would complete the trifecta, like Pluto completed the solar system for awhile there. There was John Banville’s The Sea in 2005, and Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea in 1978.


I think Goretzki is onto something.


Anyway, here’s are a very few thoughts on Narcopolis so far.
Don’t worry, no spoilers here:


Me: Dan, did you feel breathless after reading the prologue?
Dan: I did….talk about breakneck pacing!! I kept looking for a period, whilst gulping for air.


So, we’re waiting. Read the book, tell us what you think. Really. We want to listen.

8 Reasons Why Reporters Should Think Twice About PR

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who had left journalism for public relations scolded me when I said I wouldn’t apply for a PR job she knew about.

“Journalism isn’t a holy calling, Jenni.”

“Sure, sure,” I responded, but I was thinking, “You just didn’t get the call.”

So when I read the recent blog post by Dave Parro, director of communications for Aurora University, in Aurora, Illinois, suggesting that journalists should get over their aversion to public relations and join his happy crew, well, I had to respond.

Sure, the skills are almost the same. But I would argue that public relations might not be a journalist’s best choice.

Let me start with the standard disclaimer:  I have some dear friends in public relations. I love them and respect them. But, I’m sorry, what they do is not what I do, although they have at times made my job much easier. When I work with them, I forget all the PR people who obstruct, disassemble and, well, drink whatever Kool-Aid their employer is serving.  (Forgive the cliché. It seemed fitting here.)

Further disclosure: since becoming a freelancer, I’ve done some writing for public relations shops  because, let’s be honest, the pay is way better. Way way better. And I’m trying to keep a roof over my head. But is it journalism? Is it what I love to do? Is it something I’m comfortable with? Will you be comfortable with it?

I think my answer to Parro’s blog will answer those questions:

Parro wrote: “As someone who came over to the dark side, I’d like to give my noble-minded friends eight reasons why they should consider selling out.

“You still get to tell great stories. Sure, you have to abandon objectivity, but that doesn’t mean clients don’t have compelling stories. Discovering and articulating a brand’s story can be every bit as challenging and rewarding as penning that 100-inch masterpiece.”

Laidman answers: Make sure you only have clients you respect, or face spinning stories in ways stories should not be spun. Hope you are comfortable with leaving out the unflattering bits. Feeling good about that will be “every bit as challenging” as reporting and writing. In fact, it will be more challenging. And how about making up quotes? Will you be comfortable with that?

Parro: “You get to shape the story. It’s like a game of chess trying to anticipate what reporters need and which direction a story will head next. And seeing your pitch turn into a placement is every bit as satisfying as seeing your byline in print.”

Laidman: Please compare the above to, “You’ll get to tell people what really happened, and if you work hard at it, you’ll tell it in a nuanced fashion that helps people live better lives and make wiser choices.”

Parro: “You get to be an advocate. Though you might occasionally have to smile and make the BPs of the world seem like good corporate citizens, quite often you’re helping advance the agendas of reputable companies and organizations with missions you can embrace.”

Laidman: Does this really need a response? I guess if you can smile and make a careless company seem like a good corporate citizen, then, well, ick. Let’s return to my first point: Make sure you work for someone you can respect. Otherwise, money better be very very important to you, which suggests you probably made a wrong turn in life when you landed in a newsroom.

Parro: “You still get to regularly learn something new. I might not get to dig for mastodon bones as I did when I was a reporter, but public relations does require becoming an expert in clients’ industries and products.”

Laidman: I’ll grant this is often true, and the very smart PR people I’ve met prove it. I even know a few who have done the equivalent of digging up mastodon bones. They usually cover research for universities.

Parro: “You don’t have the emotional baggage. When I left journalism, one of the things I soon realized was how jaded I had become. There were days when I came home emotionally exhausted, perhaps after visiting a mother who just lost her teenage son to a gang war. Like cops, reporters often make light of tragedy as a coping mechanism. The unfortunate result can be a loss of compassion.”

Laidman: If you’ve lost compassion, it is definitely time to go. Somewhere. Into counseling would be best. If you are no longer emotionally accessible, your writing reflects it. Without empathy, you can’t tell anyone’s story well. So, yes, if that’s you, it’s time to move on. PR may be be too demanding for you.

Parro: “You get to be optimistic. This one goes hand in hand with No. 5. Instead of being an eternal pessimist, PR pros get to focus on the positive. Journalists will call that spin, but it’s an overall healthier worldview.”

Laidman: Eternal pessimists, like eternal optimists, make lousy reporters. The job requires skepticism, not cynicism.

Parro: “You still have constant deadlines. Let’s face it: Journalists thrive on them. Don’t worry; PR people still have them. We just don’t have a hole to fill in tomorrow’s paper.”

Laidman: Whatever. I’m not sure how this is an argument for anything. Most jobs have deadlines.

Parro: “You understand what makes a great story. Developing solid news judgment comes from experience. So you can help us prevent those awful PR pitches that result in newsroom laughter once you hang up the phone.”

Laidman: I guess if you feel called to save the profession of public relations from itself, have at it. But I bet you will still make a few pitches you think are stupid if your boss wants you to. Everyone works for someone, and perfect agreement isn’t possible.

So, PR is not evil. Its practitioners are not wicked. But let’s not kid ourselves, it’s not journalism, and it may not be the best choice for a second career if you’re at all in love with reporting.

Derby Diary #5

Well, they broke a record — 165, 307 people, and all of them were in my way.

The big race is coming and I still haven’t seen a single one. I need to fix that.

I’m in the funereal press room. Mary J. Blige just sang the Star Spangle Banner. Surreal. Lots of feedback, which makes the performance even more remarkable. Singing without accompaniment is not for the timid. I’ve come to expect a few missed notes. But she killed it, feedback and all.

The guy next to me starts talking about the Teleram. I have not heard that word in  years, but my legs immediately started to ache. They were the first “portable” computers to show up in a newsroom. About the size of a sewing machine case, they weighed 40 pounds if they weighed 5. I remember carrying two to the Medina County Board of Elections and ending the night with huge bruises on both legs.

Anyway, a guy down the aisle used one to fend off a mugger in the parking lot after a ballgame. Wonder he didn’t kill the guy.

OK, I must go.

BTW, I got a drink. They’re free up here. No wonder they limit access.



Derby Diary #4

OK, this is how the other half lives.

After sweating my way through the hoi polloi — and they’re thick enough to spread out there — I finally found my editor for the day and he performed the necessary miracle, involving several types of arm waving and incantation, and produced not just one, but two special stickers that get me wherever the hell I  need to go. And where I needed to go was the Jockey Club Suites to meet Gary Knapp.

It was cooler, instantly cooler, when I walked through the door. A sign said something about proper attire, and I hoped I would make the grade. I am sure few people on these floors bought their dresses at a consignment shop, or sewed their roses to the hat brim last night. But they might have. I shouldn’t judge.

Someone came racing after me, calling the “Hey! Hey!” I knew wasn’t meant for the very funky looking hipster standing next to me. He was not a “hey.” He was a someone. I, however, am not the type of person who can tell one someone from another.

Can they tell this is a consignment dress? But no. The “hey” person was the woman who had refused me entry earlier. She recognized me and guessed I had hoodwinked her staff into letting me in. I flashed my new purple sticker. She was all smiles.  And they let me pass. I belonged.

Here are my observations.

1. Everything is beige. Some shade of beige.

2. The elevator operator wished everyone “Happy Derby.” When a man completed elaborate introductions of his wife and himself to another couple, the elevator introduced herself as well.

3. The biggest hats are here. I am looking at a woman whose purple hat has a two-foot-tall feature.

4. There is a woman with a hat made out of paper scraps. I admire it.

5. Kentucky has an abnormal number of people who find it acceptable to look like Col. Sanders. What did I expect?

6. There are more beautiful dresses in a single room than is probably acceptable by the laws of physics.

7. What is it with beige?

8. Do you think I could walk up to that bar and get a drink?

9. Would you believe I haven’t had a drink all day?

10. That would be true.

11. A man in a lime green suit with a diamond pattern — sort of like Picasso’s Harlequin clown outfits — just walked past. I am so glad I am not married to him.

12. I must look like the help. Someone just asked me where the restrooms were. I told her to sod off. I’m not sure what that means.

13. I am sure there is a 13th point, but I have to run.

More anon.

Derby Diary No. 3

11:30 a.m.

Maybe you heard me whimper.

1. As I near the track, I get a call from Joey. Our credit card number was stolen — I think this makes time No. 4. Somebody tried to use it in India. Our cards are now out of commission. Thank goodness for ATMs.

2. Get to the track, head to Jockey Suites, where I am supposed to meet Gary Knapp, who I had hoped to base a story around. I can’t get in. I had been told I had full access with this press pass. Turns out, I have full access to everything but the Jockey Club Suites.  Kind of robs me of my whole reason for being here.

3. But at least I look good.

4. And I have cute shoes.

5. Any moment of feeling silly with my big rose-covered hat vanished in the tumult of Derby. My outfit is so tame.

6. I probably could have made a day of just wandering around outside the track looking at the costumes and crazies and people concerned for the immortal souls of gamblers. Am half thinking I should just head right out there and see what I can dig up.

7. An official of the track just approached my table and told everyone to leave. We do not have proper credentials. I am totally irritated with the source of my information about press access. That will teach me to trust someone else to make these arrangements for me.

8. I am going to leave now.

9. More to come. WTH. Adversity keeps things interesting. And, on the scale of adversity, this ranks just above hangnail.



2 Derby Diary

9:15 a.m.

So, scarf or no scarf?

Wait, this is about horse racing, right? People go to gamble, right? Why am I doing this fussing?

But seriously, scarf or no scarf?

The idea was, I’d have all these yellow highlights with my black-and-white theme. You can’t see it, but even my fingernails and toenails are yellow.

But, it’s already muggy. The scarf is already sticking to my neck. Is it worth it?

Finally, notice, no hose. I was actually going to break down and buy a pair — the first in more than a decade. But then I found cute shoes, and the guy at Macy’s said, don’t wear hose with these shoes. You’ll kill yourself. They will fly off.

I don’t know about you, but I always listen to advice from men selling clothing. The self-tanning stuff is the best I can do. However, due to careless application earlier this week, my legs were striped. I think I fixed that. If I haven’t, we’ll call it a fashion statement. Striped legs. Polka dot dress. But my shoes are cute.

Derby Diary

8 a.m.

I’m getting dolled up for the Kentucky Derby, and I feel ridiculously anxious about it, as though I will later be called to  trot around the track. As I try to apply eyeliner, I  notice my hemifacial spasm is back. In spades.

Oh YEAH! I already feel self-conscious because I have a hat with enough roses to make presidents look around for a bill to sign, and now my face scrunches at irregular intervals.

All day long I will sneer like Elvis. My lip curling in just that Elvis way, a way I cannot do without the help of a misbehaving facial nerve.

I do not have a seat. I am going by myself. I am not sure if the people I have arranged to talk to will be willing to talk to me. I don’t know where to park. I

It’s ridiculous! Oh, someone get me a drink.

Then I can sneer and slur.