Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine


H U M A N I T I E S    &    T H E   A R T S

Memoirs of a former newshound... a new assignment for parents... ill winds, crimescapes, and other hazards of geography... an encouraging note at Peabody

Jean McGarry
Newsroom affairs
Obituaries fascinate novelist Jean McGarry.

"The story that interests me is where people were born, where they ended up, and what they did. It's wonderful reading," McGarry says. "It's no accident that my book opens with an obit."

McGarry's fifth work of fiction, Gallagher's Travels, tells the story of Catherine Gallagher, a literary-minded waif of a reporter who goes up against the big boys at a small town newspaper and large city daily.

Rife with gnawing wit, sexual innuendo, and office intrigue, the story is part social commentary, part expose. And it's based on the three years McGarry spent as a journalist in the mid-1970s.

"The novel is a satire on the newspaper business," says McGarry, a professor in the Writing Seminars who is also the author of the novel The Courage of Girls and three short story collections.

Take, for example, her fave--obituaries. "The main thing about a newspaper is what not to say. There is a vast area that is too personal, critical, or controversial," says McGarry. "There's probably more fiction in an obit than any other writing."

Maybe there's more obit than fiction in her new book.

Gallagher's Travels, published this summer by the Johns Hopkins University Press, spins on the life and death of Catherine Gallagher's newspaper career. And many of the protaganist's experiences mirror McGarry's own. The names, though changed, mimic real-life monikers. "Do you think I could make all that stuff up?" McGarry asks.

Finding herself careerless after the finishing school of Ivy League, the young Gallagher (as she is soon to be called in macho newsroom style) is hired by the hometown paper. At first, she does wedding announcements, including the "50 Years Wed" feature.

Before long, Gallagher catches the imagination of Jack McGuire, a bourbon-guzzling, prize-winning editor who is bent on setting off tsunamis on his way out of the business. McGuire urges Gallagher to challenge the post-industrial elite in town.

So, with a penchant for oddball stories and an acquired outsider's attitude, she does a biting story on the demise of a prep school-style kindergarten. Then she rates the brews in coffee shops in Wampanoag, R.I. The townspeople--including Gallagher's own father--explode.

"The coffee story was an exercise in snobbismo," admits author McGarry, who was assigned similar stories when she worked at the Pawtucket Times in Providence, R.I. She also exposes the newsroom affairs and blatant sexism that ran unchecked in those days at the fictional Wampanoag Times and the Depointe Bullet, set in a most Detroit-like city.

"I knew when I left that I would write the book," McGarry says. "It was a matter of having the skills and distance."

The main character, a bit naive and befuddled, becomes a vehicle for McGarry's take on the news business: and how it has declined with the corporatization of newspapers and other media. "In the 1970s, there was an idealism that ended abruptly," she says. "Newspapers started to become profit-oriented."

Aside from the slash at the media, McGarry isn't likely to tell you much else about what the book means. When first asked whether it is a revenge novel, she said no. "But I'd really love for some people to read it," she later admits.

One of those who did was the editor who inspired the McGuire character. He has written his own unpublished novel with her as a character. It has rekindled a connection between the two. --JC

Putting hazards on the map
In life's daily game of risk, would you rather brave city crime or tempt the whirlwind fates of hurricanes? Do earthquakes rattle your bones or is it the threat of flooding that sets you running?

Choosing where you live may require picking your poison in a nation dotted with hazards. To get a few clues, you can now consult Cartographies of Danger: Mapping Hazards in America (Chicago, 1997) by Mark Monmonier '64.

The chapters of Monmonier's newly published book read like titles of perennial disaster movies: Lavas and Other Strangers. Subterranean Poisons. Ill Winds. Nuclear Nightmares. Crimescapes. Uncertain Shores. Death Tracks. And the more scientifically esoteric Short-Lived Daughters and ELF Fields.

People are drawn to disasters--either man-made or courtesy of Mother Nature--yet many want to avoid living within range of nuclear power plants, high-voltage wires, or flood zones. Monmonier plays off this: It's partly why he wrote the book.

"People moving to an area who are concerned about certain hazards can see what's out there," says Monmonier, a geography professor at Syracuse University. "In the case of tornadoes, hazard maps can identify areas where building shelters would be considerably more rational."

On a promotional Internet web page, Monmonier lists the top "Ten Risky Places" he found when researching his fourth book. "Almost anyplace in California" is his endorsement of the state famous for earthquakes, wildfires, landslides, smog, freeway snipers, and urban riots. Also on the list: the hurricane alleys of the Outer Banks of North Carolina and South Florida (which is also home to crime-addled Miami); the floodplains of the Mississippi and other flood-prone areas; and coastal areas in Alaska and Hawaii, which are subject to nightmare tsunamis.

So, what about the safest place in America? "I don't think there is any ultimately safe place," he demurs, though he points out that Syracuse--where he lives--is rather danger-free, despite an isolated landslide to the south and some minor flooding.

In his book, Monmonier explores the political nature of maps, and the history of hazards in cartography. He urges readers to consider the source and understand that maps can be skewed to support an argument.

Take federal flood insurance maps. "It's difficult [for forecasters] to anticipate future flood disasters, so they're really trying to hit a moving target," he says. "Yet banks concerned with risk may not lend money to someone who wants to build a house because they don't want to be exposed to disaster."

His best advice to homeowners has a cartographical bent: "If you are looking at living in an area, look up old maps to see if there were any hazards that could cause problems."

What about hazards you've never even heard of? Short-lived daughters and ELF Fields? When radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, decays, it creates "offspring" that can release potentially carcinogenic subatomic particles. The hazards of extremely low frequencies (magnetic fields around high-voltage transmission lines) are still being debated. --JC

Making homework a family project
Parents who consider schoolwork ancient history are getting a new assignment under an interactive homework program set up to involve families in their children's education.

And it's not meant to be a chore. "Interactive homework," a phrase newly coined by Hopkins researcher Joyce L. Epstein, is simply a '90s take on an old-fashioned custom: family chats about literature or math.

"There's a myth flying around that the only parents who try to get involved are those with formal educations, and that others don't care," says the sociology professor. "But most parents care about their kids and want them to do well." She points to federally funded studies showing that up to 75 percent of parents want to be more involved.

Epstein is director of Hopkins's Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships, which last year launched a nationwide program to encourage schools, parents, and communities to work together to help children learn better. Called Partnership-2000 Schools, the network gives strategic guidelines, including manuals on how to increase parent volunteerism in schools, create business mentorships and--in especially high demand--homework assignments that involve families.

One assignment, for example, instructs a student to sit in the kitchen and describe all the nouns in the room, writing down appropriate--or creative--adjectives. A parent or family member, who is listed on the homework sheet, joins in. It teaches language and observation. For example: Crunchy cookie. Avocado-tinted refrigerator. Dirty dishes.

In another assignment, titled "Hairy Tales," students are asked to interview a member of their family. "Question 1: In what decade were you born?" "Question 2: What types of hairstyles were popular when you were my age?" Students then ask the family member to dig up a photo of that former hairstyle so that they can sketch it. Just imagine the interaction.

Epstein points out that parental involvement tends to heighten student success: "One way to encourage youngsters is to share their work. If their schoolwork is being recognized and appreciated by parents, it's a motivational force to do better."

School systems apparently agree, and are signing up in huge numbers. For the 1996-97 school year, 234 schools (mostly in Maryland, California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) joined the partnership. This fall, the number of schools has jumped to 670 spanning 24 states, says Epstein.

In the mid-1980s, the Hopkins center, which is part of the larger Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS), began drafting the program--mostly take-home assignments in math and science-- for elementary school students. More difficult assignments now go home with middle school students and there's even a prototype for high schoolers. --JC

An encouraging note
At the
Peabody Institute, attendance at the conservatory's 60 major concerts increased by 40 percent last year. "People have stopped complaining that nobody's coming to our concerts," says Director Robert Sirota. "Now they're complaining that there's not enough parking."

Written by Joanne P. Cavanaugh