Tagged: leslie stainton

Eight Questions for Leslie Stainton

findingsThe long-time editor of Findings, from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, responds to the UMagazinology questionnaire. Check the answer to the third question for a senior administrator we’d all kill for.

How long have you been in your job?

Seventeen years. I took the job because I was desperate to escape a corporate editorial gig, never dreaming I’d stay longer than a year or two. Despite its rather bland name, public health turns out to one of the most interesting fields there is — rarely a day goes by that it doesn’t make news somewhere. My husband says I can never quit  my job because if I did, what would he talk about at cocktail parties?

 What has proven to be the most significant thing you had to learn to do that job?

How to tease compelling stories from scientists who are inherently (and rightly) cautious about making big claims.

 What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Two things, really. More than a decade’s work with a terrific designer who’s smart, irreverent, curious, passionate, driven, deeply collaborative, and who shares my taste in scotch. The second is autonomy, of the sort few (I suspect) university magazine editors enjoy. Earlier this year I thanked my boss for the long leash she’s given me. “What leash?” she asked. It’s true.

 What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

A consistently paltry budget for freelance, coupled with no associate staff editors or writers. Our admins seem content with mostly one voice, mine.

 What part of your magazine never quite satisfies you, despite everybody’s best effort?

The absence of a wide range of other voices in the magazine. (See “biggest frustration,” above.)

 What story are you proudest to have published?

A feature about a nurse, Elenita Congco, who was viciously attacked on the job by a psychiatric patient. During our interview, Elenita spoke at great length about the terrible ongoing impact of her trauma. The day after I finished drafting the story, I learned that she had died — most likely as a result of issues related to the attack. She was maybe 50. In effect, I’d gotten her last testament. What I didn’t know was that one of Elenita’s nieces was an SPH alumna. The niece wrote to us after we’d published the story to say how grateful she and her family were. Painful as the story was, without it they would not have known what Elenita was thinking and feeling in her last days. It’s hard to imagine our work getting much more important or meaningful than that.

 If you could commission a story from any writer in the world, who would it be?

Adam Gopnik (what can’t he write brilliantly about?).  Brian Doyle (imagine his spin on cardiovascular disease). Rebecca Solnit (few are better at speaking the truth to power).

 If you weren’t an editor, what would your dream job be?

I’d still like to work in the professional theater, probably as a dramaturg. I’m guessing that’s an option you haven’t heard before.

Good work: Mary Jean Babic

The University of Michigan School of Public Health began publishing Findings 25 years ago, and editor Leslie Stainton dedicated the anniversary edition to stress. The content is the customary smorgasbord that goes into any special issue, but the piece that caught my attention was the essay “By Any Other Name,” written by free lance Mary Jean Babic. Read the opening paragraphs and then try to convince me that you’d have stopped reading:

In late June, I hastily arranged a trip to Illinois so that I could be with my mother during horrific-sounding spine surgery. The procedure involved removing sections of her neck vertebrae and filing down bone spurs growing inside her spinal column, thereby relieving pressure on the nerves. This pressure had been gradually decimating my mother for years, but in recent months she had gotten frighteningly worse. Her hands and feet had gone from tingly to numb, she could no longer walk or cook or dress herself, she required a catheter, and she was, the surgeon impressed upon us, one bad fall away from being a quadriplegic. The goal of the surgery was not so much to cure as to stabiize and prevent paralysis.

Because there is never a good time for these things, my trip fell furing a week that our babysitter had taken off, which by more bad timing coincided with the week after the school year ended but before summer camp started; I would be leaving my valiant husband to wrangle our three-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter without normal support systems. I also was under deadline for several freelance articles. Standing on the brink of a childcare-free week and an emotional three-day trip to the homeland, I had no idea, none, how I would finish my work on time, let alone with any degree of quality. Plus, it was getting hot.

To top it off, I stumbled across a news article about a study in Nature that found that the brains of city dwellers register anxiety more acutely than the brains of country folk.

Did I mention that I live in Brooklyn?

Much to like here. The clarity of the medical explanation. The sharp eye for the right details. The economy. The precise use of a semicolon in the first sentence of the second graph, and the subtle emphasis imparted by the “none” in “I had no idea, none.” The humor of the last two sentences.

Babic doesn’t start strong, then fade. In a compact three-page essay, she manages to work in the history of the term “stress,” the history of the term “nostalgia,” which proves far more interesting than I’d have imagined, and well-chosen quotations from Thomas de Quincey, Boethius, Friedrich von Schiller, a Civil War medical manual, and  Sophocles. Not to mention Pudding Pops. (Ms. Babic’s got range.) From opening lines to a conclusion that quotes de Quincey quoting Milton, the writing stays strong and emotionally engaging.

The rest of the issue acquits itself well, too, especially “The Aftermath” by Stainton, who also writes well. Applause all around.