Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Lisa Harris (lrph) Tue 6 Jul 10 06:16
I'd like to welcome our very own John Schwartz to Inkwell.vue. John Schwartz is the national legal correspondent for the New York Times, which means he covers legal issues on the national desk. Before taking on that beat in January 2009, he was a science writer for the paper and covered things like shuttle launches, personal jetpacks and what it's like to wear a suit of armor while a Tesla coil sends an enormous electrical charge around your body. (It's frightening and cool, as it turns out.) He came to the Times in 2000, after 7 years at the Washington Post, where he had worked as a science reporter and a technology reporter on the business desk. He also worked at Newsweek from 1985 until 1993. His previous book, "Living Terrors," was coauthored with Michael Osterholm and deals with bioterrorism. John was born in Texas, attended the University of Texas at Austin, and is married to Jeanne Mixon. They have three kids, ranging in age from 14 to 22. Their home is in New Jersey. And leading this discussion is David Albert. David runs a computer lab half-time at a K-8 public school, where he teaches technology and research skills to children of all sizes. He also consults on statistical analysis, database design, and other technology issues for schools and educational organizations. He has never particularly noticed being on the short side, except at family party photo shoots when someone calls out "all the short people in front" and everyone in the family presses forward. He has one child who likes being short.
David Albert (aslan) Tue 6 Jul 10 07:14
Welcome, John! And thanks for a book that I expect would be easy to read for many children in the target age range. Parents might also want to read it on behalf of younger children, both to help assuage their own anxieties about their children's height and to help them frame thoughts and ideas that they can communicate to their children as questions arise. Perhaps it is because I am perfectly average in my own family milieu, but it never really occurred to me to worry about my height, despite being somewhere around the 10th or 15th percentile. I did notice when all my friends in my 10th grade class came back from the summer break 3 to 6 inches taller than I was, and stayed that way, but it wasn't a big deal. Your book, perhaps, is written primarily for people who have significant concerns about their height or that of their children. In your book, you mention your parents giving you the option of taking growth hormones. At what age do you first remember being personally concerned about your height, and was that concern true when you were among your family and similarly-sized people, or did it have more to do with your circle of friends? In your research, did short people whose family was of about the same height as they were, indicate as many concerns about their height as those who were particularly short even within their family circle?
John Schwartz (jswatz) Tue 6 Jul 10 14:38
Hi, David, and thanks for the kind words about the book. I became aware that I was the shortest kid in my class pretty early on -- it was elementary school. Not only was I small, I was slow and pretty feeble, and it all weighed on me. So it was somewhere between the age of six and eight, about the time we were all lining up to go to the cafeteria, and certainly about the time that the other kids in my class were jumping up to hit a pipe that ran across the hallway into the cafeteria. The other kids jumped up and hit it every time they passed the thing. I couldn't, no matter how hard I tried. I was also the shortest in my own family, but that didn't bother me -- even when my younger brother passed me in height, it just seemed natural by then, since I'd been so short for so long. When I realized that I was shorter than my grandfather, who had grown up in Russia, I realized that I was the smallest thing my family had produced in three generations. But nobody in my family made me feel short... So we're really talking about the other kids at school. Most of them were buddies, but being called "Short Schwartz" was inevitable. The point of the book, though, is that a little ribbing -- even some bullying -- isn't the end of the world.
David Albert (aslan) Wed 7 Jul 10 05:26
I guess I had enough OTHER things to be teased about at school that height never came into it :). I remember in college being amazed that I felt about average-height in my dormitory "house" (two floors out of eight). I have always wondered if they did it on purpose: the other houses all seemed to be populated by giants. Maybe they really did put all the short people together. John, do you find that boys are in general much more concerned with height issues than girls? It would seem that short stature can have many more advantages for girls, especially in the sports that more of them gravitate to (gymnastics, dance), and even socially perhaps girls can handle being "cute" for longer in their lives than can boys. Some small girls I know are actually very happy with their size: they enjoy being the ones who at age 10 or 11 can still sit on the shoulders of their friends, or get picked for certain types of roles in dramatic productions. But while I know some small boys who don't seem to care about their height, I don't know too many who actually prefer it that way.
Mrs. Bigby Hind (jessica) Wed 7 Jul 10 08:16
Hey John, I really enjoyed the book and think my 8 year old son, who is short AND interested in science will really get a lot out of it. I think you can look at this as a book about shortness, which of course it is, and it addresses the subject from a variety of angles, but I also think it's a great introduction to analyzing scientific studies and how they're reported, regardless of subject matter. Was curious to know more about how the people you interviewed enjoyed (or didn't enjoy) being included in a book directed at kids.
person of crevice (obizuth) Wed 7 Jul 10 08:24
i really liked the book too! here's what i said on goodreads: This isn't just a reassuring book for short kids, showing that short folks are NOT doomed to be unpopular, dateless, low-earning, Napoleon-complex-having neo maxi zoom dweebies. It's a great book about science and media literacy for ALL kids. If you read Short, you'll know what questions to ask when you see, say, a story about computer gaming causing delinquency or about vaccines causing autism. Who funded the research? How big was the research sample? How valid was the way the research was done? Can you track down the original research and see how it compares to the way the findings were reported on TV, in the paper or on a random web site? A lot of adults don't know the difference between correlation and causation, and a lot of adults swallow the latest alarmist study without looking at the body of research. This book's a great tool. It's also easy to read, mixing the science with personal anecdotes from Schwartz's childhood as a very small kid in a very large state (Texas). Big ups. *** my first questions: why did you think this book was necessary? and did you set OUT to do a science-and-media-literacy book for kids, or did it turn into that as you delved into shortness research?
John Schwartz (jswatz) Wed 7 Jul 10 08:45
David, I have found that, on the whole, girls mind being short less than boys do. For one thing, girls tend to be shorter anyway -- average height for men is about 5'10", while for women it's closer to 5'3" or 4"... but beyond that, height does seem to weigh more on boys. Part of it could be the importance of height in sports like basketball and football, and part of it could just be the body image notions that we pick up in life.
John Schwartz (jswatz) Wed 7 Jul 10 08:51
Jessica, thanks so much for seeing my sneaky goal: this really is a science book. Science is the zucchini in the muffin. I figured that some kids would read the book because they want to know why they are short, but I'm hoping that they will finish the book with a better toolkit for reading about science. I also think it's a book for any kid who feels different -- I could imagine a middle school counselor handing it to a kid who is NOT short and saying, "read this -- and come back and tell me why you think I gave it to you." I don't know if such things happen these days, but a boy can dream. As for whether people minded, or enjoyed, being in a book for kids, nobody made a big point of it either way. Sometimes they talked about stuff I couldn't use, considering the audience -- a short buddy told me about the time a woman he met in a bar, and hit it off with, refused his offer of dinner because he was too short for her. His response: "But I've got an enormous penis!" her response: "I can't believe you said that!" and he said, "I can't believe you won't go out with me because I'm short." Great story, wrong audience.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 7 Jul 10 08:58
As someone who's attracted to very tall women, I can assure you they have complexes as deep as very short men are alleged to have.
John Schwartz (jswatz) Wed 7 Jul 10 09:07
<obizuth>, I am going to pre-order a tombstone with the words "unpopular, dateless, low-earning, Napoleon-complex-having neo maxi zoom dweebie" on it. You have made my day. I just hope they don't charge by the letter. You ask: Why did I think the book was necessary? snide answer: college tuition for my kids. real answer: I was outraged by the FDA decision in 2003 to approve the use of human growth hormone for kids who are merely short, and don't have an underlying medical condition that causes them to not produce enough of the hormone themselves. It seemed to me that the government, at the urging of the pharmaceutical industry, was turning shortness into a medical condition -- a problem that needed to be addressed. I wanted to tell the kids who are short that it's okay to be little, and that even though society seemed to have ratcheted up the pressure on us, we could stand tall anyway.
John Schwartz (jswatz) Wed 7 Jul 10 09:08
<captward>, I haven't found anybody yet, male or female, without complexes...
uber-muso hipster hyperbole (pjm) Wed 7 Jul 10 09:18
"It seemed to me that the government, at the urging of the pharmaceutical industry, was turning shortness into a medical condition -- a problem that needed to be addressed." Am I correct in observing that the taller you are, the less your life expectancy? I like being 6' 1" but I also know that it is going to end my life a little sooner.
Ed Ward (captward) Wed 7 Jul 10 10:36
Sorry, I wasn't as clear as I meant to be. I meant height-related complexes which often have physical effects like backache from stooping.
John Schwartz (jswatz) Wed 7 Jul 10 12:03
do short people live longer? The answer is: maybe. or maybe not. Studies are all over the map. Anahad O'Connor of the NYT did a nice job of summarizing some of the studies in this piece: <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/10/health/10real.html> New studies come out all the time that only deepen the confusion. But I like the ones that say I will live longer. Clearly, I am so short that I WILL LIVE FOREVER.
person of crevice (obizuth) Wed 7 Jul 10 12:52
ahahaha, i am taller than average (for a lady person) but i intend to live forever by fueling myself with my own endless bile. was it hard for you to write the autobiographical stuff? how much other first-person stuff ahve you done in your career? what were your um social and family concerns, maybe? in writing this book -- were there any anecdotes you didn't want to share (either b/c they were unpleasant to think about or b/c you worried about hurting a friend or family member)?
David Albert (aslan) Wed 7 Jul 10 12:53
There are lots of advantages to being short. There are also advantages to being tall. And there are advantages and disadvantages to most of the differences that make us all unique. Life is, or should be, a matter of finding how to use what you've got to best advantage. So your main point for writing the book -- horror at the FDA's approval of a drug to change one's stature purely for the sake of changing it -- is well taken. But do you see this PARTICULAR medical intervention very differently from all the OTHER medical interventions people engage in when they aren't actually sick? Is growth hormone more of a risk than a nose job or breast implants, or do you see the issues as very similar? One big difference that I see is that growth hormone is often given to kids while they are kids, whereas most people wait until they are adults to get plastic surgery. But are there any other special factors that set your book's issue apart from all the others?
David Albert (aslan) Wed 7 Jul 10 12:53
John Schwartz (jswatz) Wed 7 Jul 10 14:02
<obizuth>, we all know that bile is the true serum of eternal youth. As for your questions: > was it hard for you to write the autobiographical stuff? how much other first-person stuff ahve you done in your career? what were your um social and family concerns, maybe? in writing this book -- were there any anecdotes you didn't want to share (either b/c they were unpleasant to think about or b/c you worried about hurting a friend or family member)? Writing autobiographical stuff comes pretty naturally to me. I write a fair number of first-person pieces for the paper. Most of them are humor essays for the Mutual Funds Quarterly -- my next effort appears in this Sunday's NYT. But I've also written about my kids in more serious pieces for the Week in Review, Education Life and other sections. Like this one: <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/07/education/edlife/07notebook.html?> Over the years, I've dealt with the touchy issues of writing about family by making sure that anyone I mention in a piece knows what's coming and gets to discuss it with me. When I mentioned the decline of my family's clothing store in an essay for the Washington Post, some years ago, I had a long conversation with my uncle about it. He made a case for saying that the store was down, but not out -- and I thought he made a good point. He was happy with the story that got published. It helps tremendously that I actually like my family, love my folks, and feel that my life has turned out pretty damned well. That's lousy for a memoirist these days, but it means that writing about my past and my family is a relatively happy experience. In the book, I get to write about my older brother defending me on the school bus. That's a great moment. Should I have also mentioned that the other older brother used to sit on my head and fart? Well, he didn't do it because I was short, so the answer is no. My editors cut an anecdote about Mom that she might not have liked, but I think she would have been okay with. In any case, I had her read the book when I first got the galleys, and she was very happy with it.
John Schwartz (jswatz) Wed 7 Jul 10 14:05
David writes: >> But do you see this PARTICULAR medical intervention very differently from all the OTHER medical interventions people engage in when they aren't actually sick? Is growth hormone more of a risk than a nose job or breast implants, or do you see the issues as very similar? One big difference that I see is that growth hormone is often given to kids while they are kids, whereas most people wait until they are adults to get plastic surgery. But are there any other special factors that set your book's issue apart from all the others? I don't think this medical intervention is worse than, say, breast implants, and I make the comparison in the book. But I do believe we over- medicalize things, and figured that height was a very good way to introduce the idea to a young audience. And I do think that the fact that the decision to get hormone injections is made by the parents, at a very young age, makes the medical process more problematic, especially since we don't know the long-term side effects of the use of these hormones, if any.
Science is the zucchini in the muffin (reva) Wed 7 Jul 10 16:04
Reading with interest. And thanks for the pseud, John.
person of crevice (obizuth) Wed 7 Jul 10 17:26
ohh, love taht essay about sam/poncho.
Lena M. Diethelm (lendie) Wed 7 Jul 10 17:31
So, how tall are you?
bill braasch (bbraasch) Wed 7 Jul 10 17:37
now we're getting somewhere.
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Wed 7 Jul 10 18:05
also love the essay about Sam and the poncho
Fawn Fitter (fsquared) Wed 7 Jul 10 18:23
I'm 5'2", and I'm the tallest woman in my immediate family, so I am following this topic with enormous interest!
John Schwartz (jswatz) Thu 8 Jul 10 07:37
I am 5'3", maybe a shade more. I used to be 5'4", but years of carrying two children on my shoulders and in a Snugli while tromping all over Manhattan lost me nearly an inch. This, by the way, was not a happy discovery.
Members: Enter the conference to participate