• I stayed up late last night listening to Diary of a Bad Year: A War Correspondent’s Dilemma. The piece, produced with Jay Allison and Transom.org, is NPR reporter Kelly McEvers’s remarkable, hour-long audio documentary about her struggle to justify covering deadly war zones while raising a toddler.

    McEvers’s choice – and her agony over her choice – is specific and universal.  Not many of us civilians are in lines of work where a tenth of our colleagues have been murdered or killed in crossfire the past year.   But most of us struggle with the complex emotions of wanting to succeed professionally in jobs we love and also wanting to be with our spouses and kids.

    An avowed gung-ho thrill seeker, McEvers came to parenting late.  As best I can figure, she gave birth to a daughter at about 40, the peak of her journalistic career.  NPR assigned her to cover the Middle East.  Her job got dramatically more dangerous when the conflict in Syria heated up.  As the roll call of fallen journalists in and around Syria lengthened – Tim Hetherington, Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik, Rami el-Sayid, Anthony Shadid, Ferzat Jarban, Gilles Jacquier, Mazhar Tayyara, Mika Yamamoto — McEvers found herself increasingly unhinged.  She sought the counsel of a former war correspondent turned psychotherapist.  He suggested she examine her motives and begin to imagine what life after covering war might be like.

    McEvers shared her turmoil in 2011 with Cape Cod-based radio wizard Jay Allison, who encouraged her to keep a diary. The resulting piece is emotionally and intellectually profound.  It’s also a masterful example of audio storytelling.  McEvers used her phone to record her musings.  She taped interviews with other war correspondents as well as a Canadian researcher running a study on journalists who cover foreign conflicts (*more on this last below).  Ambient noise of shelling and machine gun fire, sotto voce comments about the disgustingness of tear gas, the chatter of McEvers’s daughter all provide an evocative sound bed for the heart of McEvers’s dilemma.  “Should I quit my job?” she asks the likes of Sebastian Junger and Christiane Amanpour.  McEvers knows, even as she asks, that the only person who can really answer is she, herself.

    McEvers admits that the most difficult conversation she had was with Anna Blundy, the grown daughter of British war correspondent David Blundy, who was killed in 1989 at 44 by sniper fire in El Salvador.  McEvers writes that she felt she was interviewing an “adult version of [her] own child.”  Anna Blundy, 43, speaks as a grieving child whose father chose work over family.  Blundy’s words defeat and deflate McEvers, until, somewhere around 26:30, she claims her right to follow her path.  The decision, McEvers asserts, isn’t about her daughter.  “It’s about me.”

    And don’t we all – all of us women who want kids and career – find ourselves trying to figure out how much to give to “them” and how much to give to ourselves?  Men may ask themselves such questions, but I don’t know many who would allow others to listen in so publicly.  By the time McEvers reads the letter she’s written to her husband and daughter in case she is killed on the job, she has me in tears.  Spend an hour with this documentary, and you will weep for all parents who have fallen in the line of duty as well as all who, day in and out, struggle to find the best way to do right by themselves and their kids.

    *A NOTE on the explanation McEvers offers about the role dopamine plays in war correspondents’ career choices.  She interviews Toronto academic and medical doctor Anthony Feinstein.  Here is the summary of Dr. Feinstein’s work on his website: “Finally, Dr. Feinstein is involved in a series of studies unrelated to Neuropsychiatry but nevertheless of relevance to current issues within our society.  The questions being addressed are: How are journalists affected emotionally by their work in war zones and what motivates them to pursue such dangerous occupations?”  He presents his findings in Journalists Under Fire: The Psychological Hazards of Covering War (Johns Hopkins Press, 2006).

    I haven’t read the book and am not familiar with Dr. Feinstein’s work, so I don’t know if McEvers reports his findings accurately.  She says that Dr. Feinstein believes journalists who take extraordinary risks have higher levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine than the rest of the population.

    McEvers is correct in describing dopamine as a substance that conveys a sense of wellbeing, but she’s off a little bit in her understanding of what high levels of dopamine may suggest.  Most researchers have concluded that those who seek out risk and thrill crave more dopamine.  That is, for physiological reasons, their bodies either don’t produce enough or don’t use well enough the dopamine they create.

    If it’s true that war correspondents have more dopamine than the rest of us, it may be that their dopamine receptors are inadequate and that their bodies produce more dopamine to flood dopamine-hungry receptors.  They may therefore gravitate towards putting themselves in the middle of battlefields to produce the dopamine they need to feel OK.  Some of the best research on this topic comes out of studies on families that have high numbers of members with Attention Deficit Disorder. See especially the work of Russell Barkley, Ph.D. here and here.

  • Today, I did the second stupidest thing I’ve done in my entire life.  I’m 51.  That’s a lot of time to do stupid things.  I am not going to tell you about the first stupidest thing.

    I decided to run a few errands before sitting down to work at my desk this morning.  I needed to get a move on it in part because I wanted to mail my sister-in-law the cake I made her yesterday.  She had surgery last week.  She’s going to be fine.

    I don’t live out here in Wellfleet year-round.  I’m lucky to be here for a few weeks at a time, and this year, I’m on the Cape for most of June.  Unlike in Boston, where I mostly live, here in Wellfleet if I don’t get to my post office by noon, I miss express pickup for the day. My plan was to mail the cake and then zip out Route Six to the Transfer Station to drop off my garbage.

    The Transfer Station is the fancy name for the dump. The Town of Wellfleet doesn’t provide garbage pickup.  Some people pay for a private service to haul their garbage away, but most people just pay for a permit so they can make a trip or two a week to get rid of their stuff.  I eat a lot of seafood when I’m here, plus I’ve got a dog, so my trash gets smelly fast.  More, perhaps, than you wanted to know.

    It’s a world class dump, so I don’t mind going.  There are recycling receptacles for cardboard, glass, plastics, rigid plastics, and newspapers.  There’s an area where you can drop trees to get turned into mulch – and you can buy the mulch, cheap.  There’s a drum for used oil, tables for hazardous materials, spots to put old fridges, freezers, TVs, mattresses, and computer monitors.  You have to pay to leave some of that stuff, but, really, it’s a terrific place because it gives everyone a chance to use and re-use thoughtfully.  There’s even a Swap Shop, where people leave and pick up things like old fans, kitchen utensils, lawn furniture, you name it.

    So, I mailed my cake, I got to the Transfer Station at about 11:30, and I put my plastics and bottles and newspapers in their rightful spots. I hopped behind the wheel of my car and backed towards the actual dump, a long, rectangular abyss where non-reusable, non-recyclables go.  When things are hopping at the dump, a dozen or more vehicles could probably park side-by-side – that’s how long the trash trough is.  I popped the trunk, ran around to get my bag, and heaved it in the air. And just as I saw the bag moving up and away from me in an arc, I realized that I had been holding my car key in my hand.  Past tense.

    No matter how much you want to, you cannot stop time.  You can stand in horror and watch the consequences of an action unfold, but you cannot undo what you have set in motion.  And so I stood there by the edge of the dump, my hands clutching the yellow metal fencing, and saw my garbage bag and my car key disappear.  I did not cry.  I did not shout.  I just stood there, mind racing.

    You won’t be surprised that the folks running such a world class dump did what they could to help me.  “It’s Wednesday,” the woman who sits in the entrance booth to the dump told me.  “Wednesday is anything can happen day.”  She called a guy who fetched an extension ladder.  The two of them called the bosses, who arrived speedily in their forest green Town trucks.  A very nice man named Kevin climbed down the ladder and searched for my key in the vicinity of where I thought it might have landed.  He could not have been nicer, but he didn’t find my key.  Along with another Transfer Station Honcho, he pushed my car out of the way while I steered.

    I was out of options.  I couldn’t say the key was lost, because I knew where it was.  But I couldn’t get the key, and I didn’t have a spare.  The service guy at the dealership in Yarmouth told me he could order me a new key for $100, but it wouldn’t arrive until Friday, and even then, he couldn’t squeeze me in until next Tuesday.  My car windows were open, as was the sunroof.  It was threatening to rain.  Again.

    You know in a preindustrial society, farmers had lots of children so they’d have extra hands to help in the fields?  I have three children.  Though I have wished all were fully employed this summer, I got very lucky that one was home mid-day playing video games with his friend Nigel.  My son Sam understood I was truly stranded.  He did not make fun of me.  He began driving the spare key from Boston to me in Wellfleet.

    What to do for the two hours it would take Sam to reach me? I listened to other people talking:

    “What’s goin’ on?” one man said. “Nothin’,” another replied.  “Same, here,” the first guy said.

    and

    “Need a hand?” a guy asked another guy unloading nine milk crates filled with wine and liquor bottles.  “Nah,” said the other guy, climbing around in the back of his blue pickup.  He gestured towards his crates. “That’s what they call a standard load.  It’s a shitload.”

    The sky darkened.  I worried it would rain, and the car interior would get soaked.  And then, at 3 PM, I saw Sam at the wheel of the van, pulling in at the entrance booth.  I could just imagine the conversation.  “Where is my very stupid mother, the one who threw her key in the dump?” Sam would say.  “Oh, that lady?  She’s just been sitting over there in her car for two hours, trying not to throw away anything else important.”  Yes, that would be me.

    Sam unfolded himself from the van, all 6′ 2″ of him.  He delivered the key, stretched, then let me take him out for a vanilla soft serve cone.  I heard a bit about his internship at the radio station – the one he has to be to by 4:45 AM two days a week — maybe more than he’s told me all summer.  And then he went on his way.  He needed to get back to watch the Bruins.

    It’s only the middle of June.  I know it’s going to get hot at some point.  The greenheads will hatch.  We might even have a hurricane or two.  And I will probably do more stupid things, but I hope none as stupid as the one I did today.  Time will pass in enormous and miniscule increments, and I will not be able to do one single thing about it.

     

     

     

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