Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Stu Ditzen: Passion Without Payback

Stuart Ditzen: Finding "immense enjoyment"
The words of Stu Ditzen were ringing in my ears as my husband and I toured the house we would buy within an hour. We had been looking for several months and Stu had told us we would know when we had found the right one.

"It will say 'Hello!' to you when you walk in," he had said.
That was more than 35 years ago. Back then, Stu and I were  reporters at the Philadelphia Bulletin (as in In Philadelphia, Nearly Everyone Reads The Bulletin.)
Luckily,  after The Bulletin folded in 1981, we were both hired by the Philadelphia Inquirer and our careers continued.
Now, in the 'unretiring' stage of our lives,  we caught up with each recently other over lunch.
I was surprised to learn that since leaving paid journalism a few years ago, Stu has written 30 short stories and is deep into his second novel. 
He's doing what he always wanted to do, he told me, following his passion, even though he has yet to get any of his creative work published.
What are his days like? I asked.
"I get up in the morning and I write for about 3 hours," he said. "Recently I’ve been writing short stories. I generally try to write a story in a month but that doesn’t always work out. And then between noon and one I hang it up, have lunch. My dogs are sitting there looking at me very expectantly so my next job is to take them for a walk,  a nice long walk. After that on a very good day – fortunately I have a lot of good days –I come home, get a good book, sit down in a very comfortable leather chair and start reading,  And probably take a nice nap. That’s the day.  I love it. Wonderful routine."
I remember the care that Stu would put into his writing, and his ability to elegantly prune stories to their essence -- and the time he bailed me out of a difficult editing situation. I'd been asked to edit a complicated legal story written by someone whose reporting skills far exceeded his ability to write. The verbiage was out of control, the point buried in boredom.  I couldn't see my way through the thicket and asked Stu to rescue me and rewrite it. As I knew he would, he came back with a story about one-fourth as long. From the clutter, he had pulled the diamond out of the rough.
But whereas Stu's reportorial gems regularly made their way into the newspaper, his current  work --the culmination of his career -- now remains hidden from public view. His literary agent, while loving his stories, hasn't been able to land him a publisher. The rejections keep coming.
Why, at a time of life when you can simply feel good about yourself, would you want to hold your work up to such hurt? 
The pleasures, for Stu, far outweigh the disappointments.
"You have to try to keep working at trying to get published and dealing with the frustration of being rejected and not getting published and trying to set the disappointments and sometimes the depression of that issue aside and just keep focusing on the pleasure of writing. Because there’s immense enjoyment and fulfillment in writing when you do it successfully, when you’re satisfied with what you’ve done --a good story, a well-written story," he explained. 
"You feel that intrinsic internal sense that you’ve really done the best you can do with a wonderful story. But of course you’d like to get it published.  You want somebody else to read it.
Tonight, I read one of his pieces.  A couple unable to find closure after a terrible and mysterious loss, years before. A sister's disappearance. A child's dementia. And a couple left searching. Wondering. Trying to find a way back to each other. An endless loop.
Like my house that said "Hello!" to me, the story and its telling spoke to me, stuck with me.
Another story involves a bizarre wedding crasher and a deeply personal conversation that you might only have with strangers -- another tale that stays with me.
Stu can't share his stories on line until the contract with his agent expires in a few months. 
Let me know, though, if you'd like to read one. 
Email me at

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Monika Tuerk: Ambassador of Great Ideas

Monika Tuerk: Bringing innovation across the sea

What do you do with a law degree and a lot of  energy when you are the wife of an ambassador?
Monika Tuerk figured it out: Soak up the best ideas from the country you are in --  then make those ideas happen at home. And vice versa.
From 1993 to 1999, her husband, Helmut Tuerk, was Austria's Ambassador to the United States. Monika was fascinated by the way hospice care had taken off here.  She made it a point, as she and her husband traveled around the United States, to visit various hospice programs. She was moved by what she saw. There was nothing like that in Austria, she said. So when an American couple who were entrenched in the  hospice movement here visited Vienna, she made sure they met with with influential Austrians and got the idea rolling there.
"I tried to encourage people and it has really found good soil in Austria," she told me.  "We have good hospice care now, both in places where people can go to live but also mobile hospice. And in the last two years we've opened children's hospice. I just spread the idea."
She was equally enthusiastic about bringing to America the SOS Children's Villages program, which was started in Vienna after World War II and is now, according to their website, in 133 countries, including the United States. The idea is to give children who have been orphaned, neglected or abandoned a loving home  and an "SOS mother" to care for them. About 7 to 10 children live in each home, attending  public school and being part of their community, she said, and visiting with their parents, if they have them and choose to do so.  The SOS Village is there for them to age 18, with additional supports, or the chance to move back after that. "It really works well," she said.
Now, on its international website, SOS says it's in war-torn countries such as Syria, trying to help children who have been orphaned there.
But in the United States, the program had difficulty launching, despite interest in several states,  because of the complexities of foster care laws, Monika said. Fast-forward to today: the legal challenges haven't stopped the organization from making its mark in the United States. In Illinois and Florida, SOS is now working to provide vulnerable children with stable homes, education and quality healthcare to help them thrive.
Some would see Monika's career as one of having to compromise her own ambitions as she followed her husband to posts around the world. (Most recently, Helmut has served as a judge on the International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas in Hamburg, Germany.) During one stretch, in Vienna, she found work as a lawyer but her boss, she said, would pass off to her all the unpleasant cases he didn't want to deal with. During another stint, she plunged into a medical writing job, knowing little about science -- or writing, for that matter.
"I was afraid and nervous but I just did it and I succeeded with it," she said.
Helmut Tuerk will step down from his Law of the Sea judgeship next spring and the couple will then look to new challenges.  For sure, though, Monika  --like a Johnny Appleseed of ideas -- will be spreading wisdom.  Unretiring.