Paper Trail: Common Sense in Uncommon Times


Paper Trail journeys through an era that has been golden in its advances and bleak in its disappointments. In a voice both reasoned and impassioned, Ellen Goodman makes sense of the cultural debates that have captured our attention and sometimes become national obsessions. She wrestles with the close-to-the-bone issues of abortion, working mothers and gay marriage, the struggles for civil liberties and equal rights, and the moral complexity of assisted suicide and biotech ...
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Paper Trail: Common Sense in Uncommon Times

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Paper Trail journeys through an era that has been golden in its advances and bleak in its disappointments. In a voice both reasoned and impassioned, Ellen Goodman makes sense of the cultural debates that have captured our attention and sometimes become national obsessions. She wrestles with the close-to-the-bone issues of abortion, working mothers and gay marriage, the struggles for civil liberties and equal rights, and the moral complexity of assisted suicide and biotech babies.

The lines that separate public and private life dissolve under Goodman's scrutiny as she shows us how Washington politics, Silicon Valley technology and the national media culture infiltrate our jobs, relationships and minds. With the trademark clarity that readers count on, she walks us through the dilemmas posed by new technologies that range from cloning to cell phones and makes us laugh at the vagaries of Viagra and Botox and unreality TV. And in a world that sometimes seems to be stuck on fast forward, she holds on to values as timeless as a family Thanksgiving and a summer porch in Maine.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Goodman's new anthology of columns reads like a much more personal and slightly more literary Andy Rooney script. The 25-year veteran newspaper columnist expertly breaks our complex world into digestible food for thought. Further, she treats all of her wide-ranging subjects with a refreshing sense of humility and conviction. Goodman, a writer unafraid to acknowledge the nuances involved in politics, technology and culture, doesn't write beautifully, but perhaps she does something even rarer: she writes like she means it. In this collection spanning the early 1990s to today, she addresses most of our times' seminal controversies, such as the Clintons, September 11 and Viagra. She shines when calling the media to task, revealing what she sees as exaggerations and misconceptions involved in reporting on the Middle East, child abduction, welfare and the disintegrating nuclear family. Goodman recalls a telling moment: she was "up to my elbows in Thanksgiving prep" when a reporter called and asked her to comment on the "decline and fall of the American family." She writes, "Standing in my kitchen, covered in homebaked proof of my holiday excess, I wonder if those of us who are connected by bonds of DNA, marriage, affection and above all else, commitment, can forget for awhile that we're supposed to be falling apart." Dedicated fans will find it fascinating, and a little eerie, to revisit some of Goodman's columns from the 1990s, like "The Hidden Women of Afghanistan," where she all but predicts the breakdown of that society. For those who don't know Goodman's work, here is the chance to learn. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
For over 25 years, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Goodman's thought-provoking columns have appeared in more than 400 newspapers. Now, many of these essays can be reread by her longtime fans or read for the first time by anyone curious about human nature and the times in which we live. Goodman provides insight into a variety of issues and events that have shaped the nation in recent years. With literary flair, she ponders such events as the O.J. Simpson trial, the Columbine student massacre, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the Clinton sex scandals. She puts into perspective the impact modern technological and scientific trends have had on society, and she sprinkles humor and compassion throughout her writings on such controversial issues as euthanasia, capital punishment, and domestic violence. Organizing these essays into thematic categories, the author provides a cohesive package rather than merely a chronological rehashing of the past decade's events. Recommended for all libraries.-Donna Marie Smith, Palm Beach Cty. Lib. Syst., FL Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743249195
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 3/1/2004
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.38 (d)

Meet the Author

Ellen Goodman's column appears in more than 400 newspapers. A syndicated columnist for the Boston Globe and the Washington Post Writers Group, and the coauthor of the New York Times bestselling book on female friendships I Know Just What You Mean, Goodman lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt


About halfway along this paper trail, I was invited to teach a course at Stanford on opinion writing, which I called, "Telling People What You Think."

This is the phrase my daughter came up with many years ago when a friend asked her what my job was. Katie said, "My mom is a columnist." Her friend then promptly followed up with: "What's a columnist?" At that point, Katie answered, "My mom gets paid for telling people what she thinks." I've never come up with a much better job description.

But when I arrived at Stanford and opened up the course catalog, I discovered my course had morphed into "Telling People What to Think."

After gagging a few times, I went down to the main office and explained the problem. The secretary was most apologetic and promptly sent out a campus-wide correction. When I opened up my e-mail, I discovered that I was teaching a course on "Telling People How They Think."

I had evolved from being a fascist to being a neurobiologist in one slip of the keyboard. I had gone from uttering dogma to reading minds.

Now I sit here with columns chosen from over the last decade — across a trail on which I was both a fellow traveler and an observer — and I think there was a tip in the typos.

Opinion-writing and opinion-speaking over the course of these years have become something closer to a combat sport: opinion-hurling. We moved into a time when politics became polarized and political debate became more like a food fight. The Olympic sport of opinion-hurling found a stadium on talk radio and cable TV, the playing fields of certitude.

Americans have felt ambivalent about many issues of the past decade — from abortion to gay marriage, from welfare reform to globalization — but rarely heard that ambivalence in the media. On the panels and round tables that dot TV, they only see two sides of an issue when people filled with certainty and untinged with doubt are invited to duke it out.

I confess that I've resisted lining up for the opinion food fights. I only agreed once to go on the O'Reilly Factor. That afternoon, as I raced to the car that would take me to the TV station, I literally ran into the glass door of my office building — a door that had been there for as many years as I had — and ended up with a black eye. That was God's way of telling me to give Bill O'Reilly a good leaving alone.

But generally I have found a less self-destructive way to avoid the opinion-hurling circuit. When the booker asks me for a quick view on assisted suicide or the death penalty or affirmative action, all I have to say is "well, that's complicated" or "I have mixed feelings about that." I can hear the phone heading back to the cradle.

On my travels back and forth to Maine in the summer, I listen to talk radio. The voices of the anchor and the call-in audience seem linked by anger as much as politics. I am not sure why certitude is so much the rage. And rage is the right word. I have on my desk books written by folks in the Telling People What to Think business: Useful Idiots, Treason, Stupid White Men, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. You get the picture.

When I was testing out names for this collection of columns, a friend joked that to fit with the tenor of the times and baritone of the bestseller list, I should call it I'm Right, You're Wrong, or Shut Up and Listen to Me.

I've tried to stay on my own, somewhat separate trail through this increasingly noisy corridor. The columns on these pages were written for people who argue with both hands, the one and the other, and occasionally end up with them clasped together.

Most of these pieces began with curiosity rather than conclusion. I set about writing with a question for myself as well as readers: What's going on here? Do we really want to be putting human eggs for sale? What do we make of a world in which some folks hide women under chadors and others expose them on your laptop? Why, in the wake of the Columbine high school shooting or the Oklahoma City bombing or even September 11, do people talk about the need for closure? Do we really think the loss of a child or a homeland can be healed in time for dinner?

The other day after I gave a speech in Des Moines, a woman came up and said: "You're always writing what I'm thinking." I laughed and answered, "Well, we're both in trouble then." But I suspect that I write what she's thinking about. We both open up the morning paper or log on to the computer or turn on TV and say, "Oh no, now hormones cause Alzheimer's?" "Now marriage is the national anti-poverty program?" "Hillary did what?"

But of course most people then go to work or to the cleaners or to pick up the kids from school. It's my odd business to figure out the promises and dangers of, say, cloning or zero tolerance or the search for the perfect mom.

The questions that most intrigue me take time, and time is the commodity in shortest supply. In the decade reprised here, our lives have gone on fast-forward. The one thing that typified this era beyond the polarization of debate was the speed.

News became 24/7. The Internet now has a new edition out every minute. A scandal is treated like a commodity to be marketed. A story becomes all the rage and disappears as quickly as the suitor in Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire. Or for that matter Princess Di.

I labeled one part the Speed Zone, because this is the neighborhood that we moved into. Multitasking became the norm. Our attention span shrank faster than the sound bite. Our learned attention deficit disorder is now so acute that we skip from Elian Gonzalez to Elizabeth Smart, from O.J. Simpson to Kobe Bryant, from one "trial of the century" to another "trial of the century," from one superstar and reality program to the next.

The op-ed page that's been my home for more than twenty-five years is one of the few places in the media reserved for those who want to resist that trend. It's the designated thoughtful corner of the newspaper.

It's always been a challenge to reflect on deadline, let alone in 750 words. It's been tricky to write with perspective from the inside of an ongoing story, whether it's a sex scandal in the White House or war in Iraq.

But I can see how much trickier it became during the time span covered in these pages, when I often worried that speed would trump thoughtfulness and the sell-by date on a commentary seemed shorter than ever.

I have been aware of this speed zone, been affected by it and resisted it as well. As I chose the columns for this book, I revisited the stories that came and went as quickly as Wayne Bobbitt. I left many columns by the wayside, especially the ones about political flaps that seemed so important — for a day or two. I included others as souvenirs from the trail, small pieces of paper to mark the way.

There are four columns in these pages on Hillary Clinton as she evolved from first lady to wronged wife to Senator — an incredible journey for a woman who has been an icon or perhaps a Rorschach test for her generation. There are as well a handful of pieces on the Lewinsky scandal. Remember when the feminist slogan was "the personal is political." Be careful what you wish for. In this decade the political became (too) personal.

In the time I have followed the women's movement — what I think of literally as the "movement of women" — there were arguments over everything from burqas to Botox. In the welfare reform debate, the right and the left, the Republicans and the Democrats, men and women signed on to a social change so radical that no one actually acknowledged it: A mother's place is in the workforce. Or should I say, a poor mother's place is in the workforce? We completed a huge transformation without answering the question that was asked at the outset: Who will take care of the children?

Meanwhile the family-values debates that once raged around working mothers raged with all the same intensity around the issues of gay rights and especially gay marriage. Abortion remained a flashpoint, but it also became the issue behind new bioethical debates from cloning to stem cells.

I cannot retrace my steps along this trail without stopping short a few times. A column from the 2000 presidential trail, a campaign of trivia and factoids that took place while in a soaring economy and a peaceful world, was eerily prescient. I worried in print that we'd forgotten how fragile the economy could be and how dangerous the world could become.

A year later, early on September 11, 2001, after sketching out a column on Serena and Vanessa Williams, I logged on to the Internet to send the outline to my office. There on AOL was the shocking image of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. I rushed to the television in time to watch the twin towers come, incredibly, down, and then another plane hit the Pentagon and a fourth crash in the Pennsylvania soil.

I have included here the rawest of impressions from that day when I felt and wrote that "everything has changed." Did everything change? We still don't know exactly how much our world tilted. But the war on terrorism evolved into a war with Iraq in ways we are still unraveling. September 11 led all of us into a life of bag searches and homeland security alerts and the uncertain leadership of a photo op president in full gear on a flight deck.

My companions on this trail have been skepticism, the perspective that we call humor and, I guess, something in the DNA that says, "wait a minute." Did the President call it preventive war? Wait a minute. Did you say that Bill Bennett, the virtue monger, is a gambler? Wait a minute. Did you say the doctor offering to clone himself is named Seed? Whoa.

But these columns are not just about the wider world. When I first began as a columnist, I deliberately set out to write across the retaining walls that separated private life from public life. So I have written as someone on this trail as well. I've written as an insider — not to Capitol Hill battles but to everyday struggles with growing kids and aging parents, with culture wars and gender skirmishes.

At the beginning of this trail, cell phones were relatively rare, e-mail had not yet become universal, Spam was still in a can, and Google wasn't even a company, let alone a verb. Like all of us, I have been playing catch-up to technology and questioning it. Like many, I have lived on a two-trail life, fast and slow. I have felt that tension between the pace of the Internet and the natural rhythms, especially those of a tidal cove in Maine.

Some of these columns are about the American family; others are about my family. Some are as universal as Thanksgiving and others as personal as my daughter's wedding. My "true confessions" are limited to a blushing admission of golf or coffee addiction.

I actually chose Paper Trail as the title for this book after hearing someone dismissed as a potential political candidate. "He'll never make it," said a colleague. "He has a paper trail a mile long."

A paper trail was a liability? I couldn't disagree more. I think of this trail as a record, a running commentary on these times and my times. This is my path tracked through the newspaper pages, to remind us of what we've been through, where and who we are.

Finally, these ten years have been surprising ones for me. This is the time of life we optimistically call "midlife," as if we were all going to live to be a hundred. It has been richer, less settled, more questing, than I ever imagined as a young woman.

For all the events of these years, the ones that have touched me the most have happened in the last months — the birth of a grandson in Montana and the arrival of a granddaughter from China.

There must be some pheromone, some chemistry that marks the entry into grandparenthood, opening up new emotional spaces. Logan was born three weeks early into a troubled world, a small life-affirming wonder. Our Cloe arrived, at a year old, the arc of her short life transformed from being abandoned to being treasured.

They have already taught me how small the world and how wide open the future. Their trail begins here and now.

Copyright © 2004 by Ellen Goodman

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
The Self-service Generation 9
The Latest Rage 11
Class Warriors 13
The Ups and Downs of the Sex Pill 15
Hurrying Healing 17
The Gospel of Abstinence 19
A New "Modest Proposal" 21
The Supersizing of America 23
A Mixed Message on the Work Ethic 25
Tansy, Goldenrod 101 27
Betting on Diversity 29
One-upping the Preschoolers 31
A Pill for What Haunts You 33
Cloe's First Fourth 35
The Malcontent of a Content Provider 39
Rethinking the Rape Shield 41
Prince Tell-It-All 43
Trash TV Trickery 45
OJ's No Victim 47
Bobbitt Babbling 49
Elian in the Middle 51
Requiem for a Princess 53
Fearing Strangers 55
The Cough Heard Round the World 57
Talking Back 59
Mistress of Chaos 63
You're a Good Man, Charlie Schulz 65
A Death in the Family of Newspapers 67
Jackie Was a Model of Dignity to the End 69
Father Who Knew Best 71
The Spock Generation 73
The Lady with All the Answers 75
Ronald Reagan's Long Good-bye 77
Last Day in the Neighborhood 79
Zero Tolerance for Children 83
Open or Empty-Minded? 85
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" 87
When Hate Is a Crime 89
The Kaczynski Conundrum 91
The Case of the Pregnancy Police 93
On Civil Rights and Civility 95
In the Combat Zone 97
Rock of Ages 99
Portraying FDR - As He Was 101
From Outlaws to In-Laws 103
Out-of-Character Experiences 107
Mike, We Hardly Knew Ye 109
Lives Built on Lies 111
Bill, Monica & Us: Act One 113
Bill, Monica & Us: Act Two 115
Bill, Monica & Us: Act Three 117
Legislate Respect? No, Sir 119
Timothy McVeigh Is No Enigma 121
Bob Kerrey's - and Our - Long Journey Back 123
American Taliban 125
The View from Somewhere 127
Thurmond's Past Is Our Present 129
Rush & the Wimp 131
The Functional American Family 135
Meet Your Children 137
A Child Robbed of Her Childhood 139
Overwork Overwhelms 141
Strangers and Dangers on a Summer Day 143
Sins of the Sons 145
Of Jewels and Laws 147
The Answer Is Love, Not Science 149
Taking Dad's Car Keys Away 151
Chasing the Demons 153
Tick Tock Tick Tock 155
Walking on Our Mother's Bones 157
The Hidden Women of Afghanistan 161
The First Internet War 163
After the "Gotchas" 165
Awful Mission Accomplished 167
Religious Zealots There and Here 169
All in It Together 171
Religion Heals and Divides 173
Fundamental Misogyny 175
On Evil 177
Remembrance and Resilience 179
When Suicide Becomes a Weapon 181
9/11 24/7 183
Iraq: How Did We Get Here? 185
Iraq: The Home Front 187
Iraq: The Aftermath 189
Iraq: The Heroine 191
September 11 Spin 193
Blonde Ambition 197
The Abortion Art Gallery 199
Florida Fetus Fight 201
When Thin Bites Fiji 203
Blame the Working Mother 205
The End of Motherhood as We Knew It 207
The Really Mean Girls 209
Hillary 1: The Candidate's Wife 211
Hillary 2: MVP on the Defense Team 213
Hillary 3: The Candidate 215
Hillary 4: The Senator 217
History's Challenge to Laura Bush 219
The Silicone Story 221
The Raging Hormone Debate 223
Are Women Now Insiders on the War? 225
Internet Intimacy 229
Reach Out and Miss Someone 231
Brian Housekeeping 233
Me and My Palm 235
Back to Civilization? 237
Good Morning Spamarica 239
Life Before the Cameras 241
An Old-Fashioned Upgrade 243
Don't Fret, Mes Amis, About Le Hot Dog 247
The Bagel That Ate New York 249
Jackie's Junque 251
Third Reich Rhetoric 253
Forward Thinking 255
Meno-Positive 257
Caffeine Warrior 259
How Girls Read Boys 263
Sisterhood Splintered 265
Equality at 63? 267
The First Campaigns for First Gentleman 269
Attack Ads with a Woman's Touch 271
One-Size-Fits-All Education 273
A Kinder, Gentler Patriarchy 275
Lost in the Gender Gap 277
Marriage on a Sliding Scale 279
Of Life and Prolife 283
Dr. Partner to Dr. Provider 285
The Money or the Egg? 287
Hello, Dolly - And Molly and Polly and Lolly and Folly 289
The Seed Catalog 291
Clone or Clown 293
A Moral Bankruptcy 295
Mourning Medicine 297
A Kidney for the Boss 299
Dying the Dutch Way 301
Demons in a Death Penalty Case 303
Dying the Kevorkian Way 305
Getting to Know Death 307
Marrying Up? 311
How to Capture Mr. Right 313
The Name Game for Newlyweds 315
Marriage as Poverty Cure 317
A Honeymoon or Jail? 319
A New Take on Divorce 321
Battle of Sexes - and Excesses 323
What Celibacy's Got to Do With It 325
Of Sex and Silence 327
To Have and to Wager 329
The Gotta-Go Generation 333
Outliving My Father 335
The Tried and True Vacation 337
I Worked Hard for That Furrowed Brow 339
Squirrel Sense 341
The Right Course for Midlife 343
Here and Now with Auntie 345
Brave Beginning 347
He Was the Boss - and a Lot More 349
Welcome to My Grandson 351
America's Incredible Shrinking Vacation 355
A Sense of Place 357
My Left Knee 359
Putting Down Roots 361
Mindful of the Uncertainty of Life 363
After 20 Years of Cultivation, My Garden Is Growing Me 365
A Commencement Day Confession 367
Acknowledgments 369
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