Tagged: michigan

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.

UMag inbox

What all is stuffed into the mailbox this week? Let’s see . . . mm-hm . . . mm-hm . . . Portland . . . looks like a food issue . . . damn you Doyle!

The winter issue of Portland flaunts editor Brian Doyle’s unparalleled ability to convince world-class writers to contribute to his magazine. This time, damn him, he has pieces from Michael Pollan, Pico Iyer, and Edward Hoagland. Pollan to Iyer to Hoagland—man, there’s an infield. To be accurate, Pollan’s long contribution, “The End of Cooking,” is an excerpted reprint of something he published in The New York Times Magazine, and Hoadland’s “The Top of the Continent” is drawn from the essayist’s new volume, Alaska Travels. But still.

By the way, there’s a lot more to a meaty issue. I especially liked the photo essay by Steve Hambuchen of Pacific Northwest farmers, bakers, vintners, and brewers.

IC View from Ithaca College sports a redesign, as well as my favorite subhead of the week: “Alumni See Trash With Fresh Eyes.” Robin Roger edits the magazine. (Below, new cover is on the left. Relative dimensions are not accurate. The new design has the same trim size.)

The 2013 record for most people smiling and facing the camera on the cover is currently held by The Baylor Line (editor Todd Copeland:

California (editor Wendy Miller) produced my favorite lead sentence of the year, so far, in David Tuller’s “Putin v. Pussy Riot“: “In a cozy, two-room apartment in a leafy Moscow neighborhood, I gathered with half a dozen local gay and lesbian activists on a mid-August evening to drink tea, munch on zakuski (snacks), and discuss the regime of creepy Russian president and former KGB thug Vladimir Putin.” Love the opening spread, too:

Good words alerts:

— Binghamton University Magazine (Diana Bean edits) has a recurring feature called “The Other Side,” and in the Fall 2012 issue devotes it to a four-question Q&A with associate professor Steven Tammariello, who at age 43 still plays football for the semi-pro Cortland Bulldogs. (I know what you’re thinking . . . another story about a PhD biologist who plays semi-pro football?) My favorite line: “I used to be the only player with a PhD, but one of our defensive linemen earned his doctorate in organic chemistry from Cornell, so I have some company.”

— My second-favorite lead sentence so far in 2013 comes from Immaculata Magazine: “When Bob Kelly’s radio station asked if he knew a football expert who could be on their morning show The Breakfast Club, he immediately said, ‘I know just the nun!'”

— Extraordinary, moving essay by Mel Livatino, “Dogged by the Dark,” in the latest Notre Dame Magazine, Kerry Temple, editor.

Finally, since I began this post with my nose out of joint—damn you, Brian Doyle!—I will end with this great spread, from the Fall 2012 Medicine at Michigan. The photo illustration is by Clint Blowers; editor of the magazine is Richard F. Krupinski.

Feed me

The University of Michigan’s College of Science, Literature, and the Arts publishes a nifty little periodical called LSA Magazine that has done good work over the last couple of years. (Probably for longer than that, but I only started seeing it upon the advent of UMagazinology.) Editor Lara Zielin devoted the Spring 2012 issue to food. “We have some hard-core foodies in the office—we’re talking underground gourmet parties in abandoned warehouses here—and many of our water cooler discussions were leading to food in an organic way, no pun intended,” Zielen told me. “So when, inevitably, someone said, ‘Let’s make the next theme of the magazine food,’ we all rolled our eyes, then realized it was kind of perfect. There were so many angles from which to come at it, we were in story idea heaven.”

I really, really want to be invited to an underground gourmet party in an abandoned warehouse. But I digress.

Among the angles pursued by LSA were alumni who have been part of the rise of farmers’ markets and their thoughts on what’s going on there, including the viewpoint of skeptics who have questioned the assumed good of locavorism; the complexities of food labeling; some of the peculiar things study-abroad students have encountered on the plate, including llama, Vegemite, kangaroo, and fermented soybeans; and alumni chefs Stephanie Izard and Rick Bayless (complete with recipes, thank you very much). Plus what the pharaohs ate as they walked like Egyptians, cannibalism (“the strange and squeamish idea of humans eating humans”), and the neuroscience of tasting food.

Theme issues are common practice at LSA. “It’s so much easier for us to organize our content that way,” Zielin explained. “With tens of thousands of students and faculty, plus 180,000 alumni on our mailing list, it’s really the only sane way we can pull something together. Otherwise we’d probably have to get a story wheel you could spin. Like at a carnival. Yeah, probably that.”

I asked her if she had any particular concerns going into this project. “Magazine concerns are a lot like having a garage sale. You think that your grandmother’s still-in-good-condition table is going to get snatched up, but then no one looks at it. Yet somehow you sell out of your warped Tupperware and used shoes. In this case, the stories we were concerned about didn’t raise any flags, but the ones we thought were safe came under fire. For example, we thought our piece on the murkiness of food labeling would really get readers fired up. Not a peep. We also thought readers might pause at our cheeky quiz asking which was more plentiful, University of Michigan regents or the number of fly eggs in your tomato juice. No response there, either. We never expected the topic, the actual theme of food, to be blasted—but it came under fire. Some people complained it was too light, not academic enough. I guess they missed our stories on how the brain processes the taste of chocolate cake, or studies on toxins in groundwater. Or our essay and stats on hunger. But I digress.”

Digressions are allowed here.

Did anything give the staff special fits as they put the issue together? “Special fits are the new black. For this issue in particular, we had some high-profile alumni that we really wanted on our pages, but initially we weren’t sure if we could get on their schedules. In other words, we budgeted pages for them, then kept our sweaty fingers crossed. Chefs Rick Bayless and Stephanie Izard and Gabrielle Hamilton, for example. Also Sanjay Gupta and filmmaker Ken Burns, the latter of whom is not technically an alumnus but he was needed for a quote or two for our story on Prohibition. Wouldn’t you know, they all came through. I like to think about this when I can’t get faculty to call me back.”

I asked her how the issue looks now that it’s out of their hard drives and on the printed page. “I love our spread on ‘How Coffee Works,’ but there’s very little in there that’s alma mater–focused. It was a fun idea to illustrate, but it could have used more institutional grounding—a faculty member to weigh in on the science of roasting, a student to talk about fair-trade beans on campus, an alum who works slinging espresso . . . something. Overall, though, I think ‘Food’ was successful. The range of topics, plus the incredible design, make it a personal favorite. I know I’m biased, but I also wouldn’t say that about all of our issues. You try, you don’t always succeed, but then you cut yourself another slice of chocolate cake and keep going.”

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.