50 thoughts on turning 50: #27 We are the sum of our ancestors, at least when it comes to fear

Turns out that if you scare the bejeesus out of a mouse, its offspring will be afraid of the same things.

Turns out that if you scare the bejeesus out of a lab mouse, its offspring will be afraid of the same things.

I remember, many years ago, watching an episode of “Touched By An Angel” in which the angel Monica is counseling a young girl brought up in difficult circumstances who is fearful that she’ll go on to live the same life her parents led. Monica assures the girl that just because her parents before her made bad choices in life, it doesn’t mean she has to follow in their footsteps.

“We are not the sum of our ancestors,” says the soft spoken Monica.

I wrote that quote down (as you know, I’m a quote junkie) and have mused on it often over the years. We are not the sum of our ancestors. Or are we?

According to a study out of Emory University, researchers have used olfactory conditioning to study whether or not fear can be passed on genetically to offspring. In other words, if your great grandmother had the bejeesus scared out of her by spiders, does that explain your own spider phobia? Continue reading

Caledonia Jane Doe identified, and the next chapter of her story begins

In 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a cornfield in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot in the head and in the back. She remained unidentified for more than 30 years. Today, she was identified as Tammy Jo Alexander.

In 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a cornfield in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot in the head and in the back. She remained unidentified for more than 30 years. Today, she was identified as Tammy Jo Alexander.

In November 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a field in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot and dragged into the field, and then shot again. For more than 30 years, she remained unidentified and her case unsolved.

Until today. Her case is still unsolved, but we now know that the girl is Tammy Jo Alexander, a teenager from Brooksville, Florida who was last seen in 1977.

For three decades, the Livingston County Sheriff Department has followed thousands and thousands and thousands of leads, never giving up in their attempt to identify the young woman and track down her killer.

According to news reports, a girl who went to high school with Tammy Jo contacted Florida authorities to ask if anyone had ever reported her missing. Apparently, no one had. Ever. With that new missing person report, police in New York were able to heat up their investigation and, using DNA from Tammy Jo’s sister, identify their Jane Doe.

With a name, I can search for information. Here’s Tammy Jo Alexander, c. 1977, the year she went missing and two years before her body was found in Caledonia. She was 13 years old when she disappeared from Florida.

Tammy Jo Alexander, c. 1977, the year she went missing and two years before her body was found in Caledonia. She was 13 years old when she disappeared from Florida.

I mused about the case of Caledonia Jane Doe back in 2010 on my blog, when I was reflecting on my own life, my own wasted opportunities, my own sense of going through the motions of life rather than living them. Her story haunted me; Who was she? Where did she come from? Were her parents looking for her? And what would she be doing right now if she hadn’t met with such a tragic end?

My goal, at the time, was to research and then write about her story. I didn’t have any hope of solving a case or even shedding light on it. I just felt like there was  story to tell and I should tell it. Over the almost two decades I’ve spent writing, I’ve done countless feature stories for magazines and newspapers. I’ve interviewed celebrities and regular folks. I tell stories, often stories people can’t tell themselves.

But when I started researching Jane Doe, I quickly realized that I was out of my element. No person to interview. No name to Google. Almost no place to begin and, if I’m being totally honest, no idea where to start. I’d never researched a police case before, and I wasn’t familiar with places to even begin, or what to do with the information once I found it.

So rather than charging full steam ahead – which is what I felt like I should do – I put the folder on the desk and moved on to other things. But I never forgot about her.

Over the last few years, I’ve got more savvy about researching local history and genealogy, developed better techniques for managing mountains of information, newspaper clippings and notes (I love paper, so my filing system involves lots of folders and boxes). I dove headfirst into stories about women in the Rochester area in the 19th century (Emma Moore and Sarah Bardwell being chief), and while I never forgot about her, Caledonia Jane Doe stayed on the desk.

But I confess that as I watched the press conference today in which the Livingston County Sheriff announced that they had identified Caledonia Jane Joe as Tammy Jo Alexander, I felt a twinge of regret that five years ago I didn’t stick with my own research.

The important thing is that the unidentified body found in the cornfield thirty five years ago now has a name. Her headstone will have a name and my folder labeled “Caledonia Jane Doe” will be replaced with a new one labeled “Tammy Jo Alexander”. My curiosity is piqued again. Why did her family not report her disappearance? Where was she in the two years from when she was last seen in Florida to the time she was found in Caledonia? Her story is still waiting to be told.

2015 Book Club selection for January: “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis

We’re nearing the end of 2014, and one of the things I had been thinking about doing was reading the Bible in 2015. I’ve done it before and thought it would be fun to do with my readers. You know, read and then discuss the things that make your head spin or your heart swell, things that affect you on both ends of the spectrum.

Then I remembered that I’m terrible at following through with things (remember the “let’s be nice in 2014!” idea?).

So instead, I suggest … a book club! Rather than read the Bible, let’s read some inspiring books and get together to chat about them. Or eat and drink coffee. Or wine.

The book I picked for January is “Mere Christianity”, by C.S. Lewis. It was adapted from a series of BBC radio talks Lewis made between 1942 and 1944. I read it years ago and enjoyed it as a thought provoking discussion on morality, faith and God, and I like that Lewis approaches the topic from an intellectual basis, allowing readers to use their own brains to formulate their own thoughts on God and faith.

This is not a ploy to shove Christianity down anyone’s throat. In fact, I’d like to stay as far away from preaching as humanly possible, especially seeing as how the last few years I’ve been exploring God outside of religion. Far outside of religion. Instead, let’s get together and explore faith and spirituality and love and morality and God and the universe and endless possibilities and infinite questions that we’ll never get answered in this life.

“Mere Christianity” is considered a Christian classic, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something in there for everyone – especially since Lewis approaches faith as a former atheist. That’s the fun with something like this. We’ll have a lot of different people with different thoughts, and we’ll get together to talk about them like intellectual, civilized humans.  In fact, I think we should meet at the Old Toad English pub and talk about God over a pint. It would make Lewis proud.

So here’s the deal: get a copy of the book and start reading. You can get it just about anywhere – from the local big chain store to online retailers to almost every used bookstore to the library; in ebook format; and in audiobook format. We’ll be using this reading guide for discussion questions:
http://www.readinggroupguides.com/reviews/mere-christianity/guide

I’ll set up a date for us to get together at the end of January. Stay tuned for details!

UPDATE 1/21/15: As many of you will not be surprised to learn, I haven’t read the book yet. Here’s why. But we can still get together if you want and talk about my procrastination problem.

50 thoughts on turning 50 #27: Writing for free

I'm many things, but a doormat isn't one of them.

I’m many things, but a doormat isn’t one of them.

I was contacted recently by a website looking for someone to write three, 500 word articles a week, for $20 an article.

I considered it. Sixty dollars a week – or $240 a month – would be helpful right now, especially since after taking a long creative break my monthly writing income is smaller than the weekly allowance for most American teenagers.

In the end, I decided that it wasn’t enough money to justify the time I would need to spend writing the articles. And while I would retain the copyrights and could resell the articles, I’m not writing in that genre any more so I wouldn’t have a ready market for reprints.

Too much work, not enough money.

This was on my mind this morning when I read this great piece by Revolva and her offer from the Oprah Winfrey folks to perform at Oprah’s “The Life You Want” tour - for free. (Really, Oprah?)

Back when I was covering entertainment for Christian and community publications, my writing income ran the gamut from several hundred dollars an article to next to nothing. And sometimes nothing.

I hear a lot from people who criticize writers who write for free. It devalues your talents, they tell me, and they’re right. But every once in a while, I’d have a legitimate reason to give away a reprint or pen a new piece for no financial compensation. I considered it a sort of tithe, a sacrificing of my gifts for the benefit of someone else.

The key was that I made the decision to offer my services – often to a local band that needed a press kit bio, and always when it was someone I respected, believed in and wanted to see achieve their goals.

When it came to publications? Almost never. I wrote for cheap – and I mean super cheap – for publications that had almost no budget. And I wrote for lovely compensation from publications that had the budget to pay and me happily did so. But when it came to publications with lots of money who offered me nothing? No way. Continue reading

Jimmy Kimmel’s Halloween candy YouTube challenge – and some thoughts on bad parenting

Halloween was only a few days ago, and late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel issued his annual challenge to viewers: take a video of the reactions your kids give when you tell them you ate all of their Halloween candy.

I admit that it’s pretty funny to see the look of disbelief on the faces of these kids. But as I watched kid after kid after kid throw temper tantrums, I was left with one thought.

What the hell is wrong with parents? Continue reading

50 thoughts on turning 50: #26 What is Christian music and why do you care?

I amassed quite the collection of CDs over my years covering Christian music, most of which just collects dust.

I amassed quite the collection of CDs over my years covering Christian music, most of which just collects dust

I was contacted recently by a new Christian music magazine about maybe doing some writing for them. I admit I was tempted enough to ask for more information. I miss my artist friends. I miss my publicist friends. I miss my fellow music writing friends. I need the money.

But then I saw this post today about TobyMac, and it reminded me of the reasons why I stopped writing about music and entertainment.

I don’t miss the bullshit.

Is TobyMac singing about the Illuminati? Who knows. Who cares. Do you like his music? Then listen. If not, then don’t. If listening to a song that may or may not be about the Illuminati is dangerous to your faith, then the problem isn’t TobyMac. The problem is that your beliefs are so shaky that they can be wavered by a guy wearing a t-shirt with an eyeball on it.

I wrote the following post back in 2009 for a website called Wrecked For The Ordinary. I share it as part of my 50 Thoughts On Turning 50 series because I learned a lot of lessons in my years covering Christian music. Mostly that there’s no such thing as Christian music, because music can’t be Christian. It’s music.

Or maybe I’m just an idiot. I certainly heard that often enough.

But what I learned, at least by the time I got to writing the essay that follows, is that my faith is not a commercial product, and when you strip away all of the extraneous bullshit, you get … well, God. Faith. The wonder of Creation. No Jesus fish stickers required.

In the end, I didn’t pursue the offer to write for this new magazine, in no small part because every time I asked what the assignment paid, they avoided the question. That’s because in the Christian genre, writers are often expected to write for free, because, you know, it’s about Jesus and all, and you should just do it for the Lord.

But that’s another story for another day.

* * * * * * **

What Is Christian Music And Why Do You Care?
(This originally ran in 2009 on the website Wrecked For The Ordinary.)

I once wrote a post on my blog at Beliefnet.com in which I threw out this joke:

“You might be a Christian music fan if you didn’t let your kids listen to the Jonas Brothers until you found out they were Christians. But you did let your kids listen to David Archuleta until you found out he was Mormon.” Continue reading

Introducing Rochester Night & Day

rochester day and night header

I love blogging, but sometimes it gets lonely blogging alone. I do blog as part of a team at Patheos, but I don’t actually see other bloggers or even interact with them in person. I prefer to write alone, but I work best when I have human contact every once in a while.

So I’m really happy to announce a project that I’ve been working on with local writer Rachel Leavy: Rochester Day & Night, a blog about the city where we live and write.

Yay!

We’re not fancy web designers and right now we’re working out the kinks in the blog, but we’re both excited to write about the things we love and the places that inspire us – and even rant about some of the stuff that just ticks us off. We’ve got a great guest blogger, who goes by the pseudonym Ms. Red, who’ll take you on an underground trek through the city’s bar bathrooms, complete with lots of sass and snark.

I hope you’ll take some time to check out intro blog posts from both me and Rachel. Leave a comment, share a thought, or suggest a story. If it has to do with Rochester, we’re interested!