[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Biagi: Today we want to start with the standard questions. I want to ask you, first of all, the role that you think your parents played in your upbringing and encouraging you to follow the profession that you eventually did, if you had to separate them out, your mother and your father.
Shen: I never received any specific encouragement from them in this specific field, because it's a mystery to most people. What the hell does a journalist really do? What the hell does a publisher do? What the hell does an editor do? They didn't know anybody. They were physicians. Their world was science. They would have been thrilled if I'd gone into science, medicine, engineering, anything that they could more readily understand and also see how I could make a living. I think they would have been thrilled if I had become a lawyer. So I certainly didn't receive any specific encouragement, and I didn't really know anybody in my childhood who was involved in journalism.
There was a family friend whose last name is Shen, the same last name. I think his first name is James and his wife is named Grace. He teaches journalism at Boston University. He may only recently have retired. But I didn't even know he taught journalism until I was a teenager. This was just whatever he did. Basically, I just knew him as somebody who came over with his family for dinner once in a while and vice versa. There was never any particular encouragement at all.
What I think, when I look back on it, was important was I was an only child. The expectations were on me that basically I could do anything I wanted, and that I would succeed and that I would excel. There was a lot of pressure indirectly and directly, I suppose, put on me to perform well in school and to do really well and to get into a good college and to be an academic success. I also remember my mother telling me at some point—I remember it, although it didn't seem that pithy to me at the time—that no one was going to take care of me if I didn't know how to take care of myself.
I was on a panel in Hawaii with the American Association of University Women, the AAUW, and the panel was about women succeeding and not succeeding. I remember the moderator of it, who was some kind of a psychologist, saying that I was one of the few cases where parents really gave permission for their daughter to really succeed, because that wasn't the case, she said, in many cases for daughters; it was the case for sons. I think I was brought up very much as a son would have been brought up.
Biagi: Because you were an only child?
Shen: Because I was an only child. All my parents' expectations were on me. They were immigrants to this country, well-educated immigrants, but immigrants nonetheless. I was the first generation to be brought up in this country. Part of the reason they came here was probably for the unborn generation at the time. So there were a lot of expectations on me, and I don't know how they ever really defined success, except other than academically. I wish in some ways I had a
childhood that fostered more creativity and more contrarian thinking, actually. In fact, that's a problem I see now in Chinese parents, Asian-American and Asian parents in San Francisco, looking for schools. You don't find too many of them, certainly not in the numbers that they're representative of the population, that look toward independent schools. They tend to look toward Catholic schools. They tend to look at schools that are more rigid and more authoritarian. I think that's too bad. They emphasize computer science, all that sort of stuff.
I took a path that was actually very different from the one my parents probably would have set out for me, but I never once heard, "Why are you doing that?" or, "Why don't you do this?" I really never directly heard any comment on what I was doing. It's kind of interesting. There was a lot of comment on how well I was doing, but there wasn't a lot of comment on what it was.
Biagi: You mean interest in how well you were doing or why you could do better?
Shen: There was always pressure. They wanted me to get straight As. I got straight As one term in high school or junior high, but otherwise I got As and Bs. There was a lot of pressure to do well in the very traditional sense of doing well.
Biagi: Did you ever have a rebellious period when you rebelled against that at all?
Shen: I'm probably still in it.
Biagi: Is that right?
Shen: Only in that I really couldn't wait to get away from home. I was thrilled to go to college and live in a dorm. Once I got out of college, I very rapidly put three thousand miles between myself and where I grew up and my parents, and really have not narrowed it since. I think I was very, very glad to get out from under their expectations, frankly. I think I couldn't wait to get away.
Biagi: Do you have any idea why particularly you took a literary path and not a science path?
Shen: Because I was a hell of a lot better in humanities and English in school than I was in science and math. I attribute that actually not to any particular innate ability or disability. I attribute it to the lousy state of American education. I don't think girls were encouraged to do well in science or math. I don't think it was very well taught for anybody in those days, I really don't. I remember I started having trouble in fifth grade, when I was ten, with fractions. I remember my father getting out these charts and making me memorize the multiplication tables, and I just hated it. I really hated it. I think that experience, that whole fifth grade, or may have been the fourth grade, experience just really marked math as being something I would hate. Now I really regret it, because it's very useful. I'm real sorry about that. Still, when I look at a balance sheet, I'm much more comfortable editing a story, no matter how dense or poorly organized or whatever, than I am looking at the latest income statement, whether it's a stock or whether it's business. It's just a comfort level, frankly.
Recently I was at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern [University] for a couple of weeks in August, because I was executive-in-residence for the Institute for Journalism Education Management Training Center, which is held every year there. It's for minority journalists, although whites also attend, and it's basically business training for them. I was there for the week that was pure business. It wasn't marketing, it wasn't anything; it was pure business.
It was balance sheets, it was cost accounting, which was pretty terrible. Cost accounting is the organic chemistry of business. It's really awful.
But the other parts of it, the analysis parts, I actually found fascinating, probably because I had the most gifted professor I think I've ever had in my life. His name was Aharon Ofer, Ronnie Ofer. He's a professor at that school, and he's Israeli. He has a dual citizenship. I think he spends half the year in Israel and half the year at Northwestern. He's such a gifted professor that he can make anything interesting, and he succeeded in making business management to me one of the most fascinating topics. Profitability ratios—he made them interesting. Profitability ratios!
Biagi: That's an achievement.
Shen: Yes. I was fascinated by this. What I learned is that figures are as subjective as a novel, and that looking at a balance sheet is like reading a novel. It was a revelation. I wish I had had it when I was twenty-one.
Biagi: Do you think, too, though, that now that you need that information, there's some impetus for you to pay attention to it?
Shen: That's true, although I hardly needed Dostoyevsky at the age of sixteen, but I liked it. So need didn't really enter into it at all.
Biagi: Did you have, at sixteen, dreams about what you'd be when you grew up?
Biagi: No dreams at all?
Biagi: You had no concept that you were going to grow up?
Shen: I really actually don't recall. It is a funny vacuum, isn't it? It may be I've repressed them. It may totally be that. But honestly, if you were to ask me, "When you were sixteen, what did you want to be?" I'm sure I would have had an answer, but looking back now, I really cannot fathom what that answer would have been.
Biagi: Did you envision yourself married? Did you envision yourself single? Do you remember?
Shen: Neither one. I know that I certainly didn't think I'd get married at an early age. As it turned out, I was married at twenty-three, which now seems incredibly young. At the time, relatively, it was probably about average. Now it seems young. I had envisioned getting married at twenty-eight or thirty at the time. What I did envision was that I would work and support myself and be out in the world. I never imagined a dependence on somebody else. That I never did.
I also didn't envision children. As it was, I thought children, if I ever wanted them, and I did not like children, would be way off, way off in the future. As it was, I got pregnant almost accidentally. This wasn't a real—"Next month." I love my child, but I don't love children. I would not make a good preschool teacher. I'm not the kind of mother that wades into a bunch of
kids and yells, "Whoopee!" I'm just not. So, no, I didn't. It's funny. Coming from supposedly a culture that is stereotyped for its strong family ties, I never envisioned any strong family ties of any kind.
Biagi: And now you truly don't have any, would you say that?
Shen: I really don't. Now that my mother is older and more ailing, now that I have a child, I feel the importance of family ties, and I now actually think that family ties and friends are the most important thing in life, but I certainly would not have thought so in my twenties or thirties.
Biagi: Are there any other members of your family near you here?
Biagi: So you are truly alone.
Shen: Yes, and have been for most of my adult life. I have not had family around.
Biagi: Part of that, you described yourself as a loner.
Shen: Yes, that's right, and I wanted to get away from family. I don't think I would have gone somewhere where I had a lot of family, to tell you the truth.
Biagi: You like the ability to take care of yourself?
Shen: It wasn't until I moved to Hawaii that I saw what a supportive thing family and friends could be. That really changed my attitude, it really did. And having a child changed my attitude, but I actually think Hawaii changed my attitude more than having a child.
Biagi: In what way, do you think?
Shen: I just realized how nice it was to have a lot of friends who were Asian, in particular, and I realized what a support group a family could be. I guess I never missed it because I never had it. I do recall that one of the relationships I had with Matt Wilson, who is now managing editor of the Chronicle, he is from San Francisco, he grew up in San Francisco, and he had for a while a brother here until the brother got married and moved away, and his mother and father were still living in the city in the house he grew up in in West Portal. We used to go there sometimes for Thanksgiving, and although I grumbled about it on the outside, I actually kind of enjoyed it, because at least it was sort of a family. So I sort of did enjoy it.
But at the same time, I obviously have very ambivalent feelings about it, because with my first marriage, I remember I had a hard time getting along with his parents. I'm not sure. Maybe it was just youth. While on one side I really embrace the idea of family, on the other side I was always really put off by it. It's a real conflict I think I've always had.
Biagi: Going to today now, your arrangements for your child are what? How do you organize to get to work every day and be here?
Shen: By having no disposable income. [Laughter.] Any working mother who's honest will tell you, unless she's Cathie Black, who manages to pull down a lot of dollars, will say the same thing. I pay a nanny $375 a week. I split that with my ex-husband. I pay as much for my child now as I
would if he were going to Princeton, and I pay for his pre-school. His pre-school, this is three mornings a week, is about $3,600 a year. And $375 times fifty-two is $18,000.
Biagi: You've obviously figured that out. [Laughter.]
Shen: This doesn't count board, food, clothing, medical deductibles, toys, fun stuff, museums, anything. I'm paying $21,000 a year. This is the same as I would be paying to send my child to a prestigious private college, and he's only three and a half. And it's not going to end. This will be basically the base on which I build, and I'm not really looking forward to that expenditure of money. On the other hand, I think it's the most important thing I can give him. I mean, 100 percent cotton clothing is nothing compared to the quality of his education. You know what I mean?
Biagi: So basically a support family would help that.
Shen: It would help that, although given the age of any grandparents I would have around, if my mother lived with me, I'd probably have to hire a helper to take care of my mother, quite frankly. Talk about a sandwich generation, because my mother is eighty-four and she's just started to have physical problems. She had an angina attack a few months ago, and she's having problems in her hip. She has osteoarthritis. So she's really just starting to have mobility problems, and she did have a relative who was there on weekends, but that relative has since gone back to— [Tape interruption.]
Biagi: Let's go on and define the sandwich generation, just what you mean by sandwich. It isn't tuna fish you're talking about.
Shen: No. It means you're sort of caught in the middle between caring for young children and caring for older parents. That's my situation exactly. I'm in my early forties, my mother is in her mid-eighties, my child is three and a half. So I've often envisioned that if we actually did all live together, maybe I could make my nanny do double duties, since the child is increasingly in school more and more, but you need her for after-school time. You just sort of have them around. You're paying full-time salary anyway, and have that person also help out my mom, I suppose. That would be one way to do it. But the idea of having grandparents who could really help you take care of a child depends on grandparents who are in their sixties or fifties. With people having children later and later, and with smaller families to begin with, so there aren't all these siblings, this becomes increasingly impractical.
Biagi: What about, then, relationships between you and other women your age and men your age, your social life, in other words? Is it difficult?
Shen: What social life? [Laughter.]
Biagi: Do you have any time for a social life?
Shen: I do have a limited social life. I actually choose to limit it at this point. I could have more of a social life. For one thing, frankly, having waited until now to have a young child, I'm ready to give time to that child. I'm ready to give time to being a mother. I had a good twenty years of as much social life as I wanted. I don't need it. I don't feel the urge to go out a lot anymore, frankly. I've just sort of done it all, as far as that's concerned. I've probably eaten in every restaurant. I mean, it gets old after a while.
Actually, my ex-husband and I go out to dinner from time to time. We're going out to the opening of Ed Moose's new restaurant next Tuesday. He was for many years the proprietor of the Washington Square Bar and Grill, which I'm sure you know. He hated being out of the restaurant business so much that he's opening another one right across Washington Square Park from the old restaurant, which is now owned by somebody else. They probably had to kick him out of his old restaurant, because he kept hanging around, and the new owner got really mad at him. So there you are.
I go out to see an occasional movie. I go out in the evening to a few business events, not many. Next week, for example, my social life—and this is a busier week than normal—is going to consist of Tuesday night that dinner, Thursday night the Jewish Community Center is holding a kindergarten informational night, and I went last year and I'll go again this year, because I couldn't get all the information I needed in that limited amount of time.
Biagi: That's for Benjamin [Shen Cost]?
Shen: That's for Benjamin. Then Friday night, more unusually, I may go out to dinner again with some friends. That's really about it. Saturday, occasionally I'll try to get together with other people who have kids Benjamin's age to do stuff.
Biagi: So essentially your work week is more than forty hours, would you say?
Shen: Yes, although it's about forty-five hours now, which is probably the least it's been in the last ten years. Unfortunately, my commute is longer, so the entire day tends to stretch more. In Hawaii, where I didn't have a child, I would be in the office around maybe 8:30 a.m. at the latest, 7:30 when I first started. Then I'd be there till six, generally, or 5:30 at least.
Biagi: And here?
Shen: Whereas here, I get here a quarter of nine maybe.
Biagi: What time do you leave home?
Shen: It's a half-an-hour drive, so I have to basically leave home at a quarter past eight. So the overall day is quite long. Then I leave here at 5:30, quarter of six, so I don't really get home till about 6:30, because the commute back is longer, there's more traffic. So it really is a long day if you count from the time I leave the house to the time I get back.
Biagi: And your main help with all the domestic duties there is the nanny?
Shen: Yes, although I have a young woman who cleans on Wednesday mornings.
Biagi: Is the nanny live-in?
Shen: No. I did not want a live-in. Actually, I could have a live-in, because the bottom floor of the house is actually a separate little studio apartment, but I use it as kind of a study and a guest room.
Biagi: And you're commuting from?
Shen: San Francisco. From Russian Hill, which is a central part of San Francisco.
Biagi: Let's go back to your earliest days now. We got away from that a little bit. I want to ask you your earliest recollections of your interest in reading or writing.
Shen: Before I could read. I distinctly remember pestering my parents all the time to read to me, all the time, the funnies or whatever. I particularly remember the Sunday funnies, because—don't ask me why, because I don't like the Sunday funnies now at all and I don't read them, but I distinctly remember it seemed to take forever. My mother would be washing the dishes and she'd say, "I'll read them to you later." I just couldn't wait. I'd be pestering and pestering. It's a really distinct memory of my childhood.
Biagi: How old were you?
Shen: It's before I could read, and I learned to read fairly early. I must have been four years old, five years old. I remember I did get read to every night before bed. Chocolate milk and I was read to. Often it was a babysitter if my parents were away, if I was going to bed early. But I was always read to, which is interesting, because my parents, after all, English isn't their native language. My father's dead now. But they were always much more comfortable in Chinese than English, ever since I knew them, and yet they would read these books in English, which I find very interesting. And there was always a fair amount of reading material around the house in the form of magazines, not necessarily novels, but in the form of magazines, periodicals, which, of course, were in English. So they obviously seemed to have read a fair amount in a language that was essentially foreign to them, which I find interesting.
Biagi: The books in the home, were they in Chinese or English?
Shen: They were basically in English. I didn't come across generally Chinese books at all. I actually wish there had been more Chinese books. My parents were not literary at all. This was not an Arthur Miller household, meaning the playwright. This was not where you would find the serious writers of the day, not at all. You'd basically find things like Life magazine, Reader's Digest, Saturday Review, Look. You remember the old Look.
Shen: Not the Saturday Evening Post, thank God. I couldn't wait to read those other magazines. As a teenager in junior high, I remember rushing home from school, and I couldn't wait to see what magazines had come in the mail just so I could devour them.
Biagi: So they were by subscription, so it was a regular thing.
Shen: Yes, it was a regular thing. Time, Newsweek. My mother still—her coffee table still, when I go home now, is piled high with Boston magazine, Time, U.S. News and World Report, the Kiplinger magazine used to be there, National Geographic. She must have been getting that since I was two. That kind of stuff.
Biagi: Did you visit the library a lot?
Shen: Yes, I did visit the library.
Biagi: Did you do it on your own?
Shen: I mostly did it on my own. Well, I got my parents to take me. I was the impetus for it, and I think it was largely because of school. I had a couple of teachers who encouraged me, and I used to take out books fifteen at a time. The librarian was really taken aback. But I read extremely fast. These were things like Nancy Drew. You don't read fifteen Dostoyevsky. This is Nancy Drew. But I could read enormously, so it was just cost effective. Why would I want to keep running back and forth to the library twice a day?
Biagi: And you had to drive or you could walk?
Shen: I think my father had to drive me.
Biagi: So it was a trip.
Shen: Yes, it was a trip.
Biagi: Activities related to writing in grade or high school. Do you remember anything in particular?
Shen: I do remember trying to write a novel when I was in sixth grade, but that's really the only time. I did keep a diary as a child, for a while at least. I did keep a diary, in fact several, over a period of years when I was in elementary school, but the stuff is so dull.
Biagi: Are there any teachers you particularly remember that you liked?
Shen: Yes. I remember a third-grade teacher. I actually remember all my teachers. I remember a teacher that read a lot. Her name was Miss Pulsford. She was my second-grade teacher. The story I remember her reading most was that one—I came across it, actually because of Benjamin, again. I've rediscovered all these books that are still in print! I am so thrilled! I mean, really. The best thing about having a child is going to the bookstore. Poor Benjamin. This kid gets dragged to these bookstores, but he likes it. He sits down and he reads. He'll read by himself now and look for books.
I remember one about this rabbit. It's such a sentimental story. It's about some rabbit mother who takes this pair of golden shoes up to the top of a mountain. It's a classic story, actually, but I can't remember the name of it. I came across it again. I remember her (Miss Pulsford) distinctly reading that. She read it every year. I think it was probably for Easter. But I remember I loved to listen to teachers read. I just couldn't get enough of it. I just really couldn't get enough of it.
My third-grade teacher was Margaret Mary Carroll, and she introduced me to Dr. Seuss, whom I really loved. I couldn't get enough, because I'd go to the library and all the books were taken out, so I really had trouble getting enough of Dr. Seuss. Now I can get all of the Dr. Seuss I want!
Biagi: So much for disposable income. [Laughter.]
Shen: Yes. So now I am indulging myself by, thirty years later, buying my son every Dr. Seuss book in sight. Far beyond his grade level.
Biagi: That's good reading for you. [Laughter.]
Shen: Exactly. What a great excuse. Reading is one of the greatest joys of my life.
Biagi: Still, today?
Shen: Yes. I just read a book on peppers. It's by Ahmal Naj, just out. I read a review of it in the New York Times Book Review, which I read every week. I may skip "This Week in Review," but I always read the "Book Review." Actually, only recently.
Biagi: Are you a subscriber?
Shen: Yes. Another very expensive item in California. It's about peppers. It's not a food book; it's about peppers. That's why I was so interested in these chili peppers. I've become fascinated by peppers and so have a lot of other people, because when you go to the farmer's market these days, you can find all these exotic peppers you could never imagine just four years ago. So I read very eclectically.
I just read that book—I didn't like it, either, it's been on the bestseller list for a long time in California, but I just became aware of it—Sabine and Griffin. It's actually letters exchanged by this woman in the Solomon Islands and this postcard-maker in London. It's one of the few books that's tactile as well as a literary experience, because the letters are really letters. The envelopes are taped to the page and the letters are in the envelope. Some of them are postcards and whatever. What I found out about the damn thing was, it took me ten minutes to read, the book cost $18, and there wasn't that much there. I went through it like a shot.
Biagi: So the novelty of it was the printing of it, do you think?
Shen: Yes, and there's a sequel out now, which I refuse to buy. I'm going to stand in the bookstore and read it. I figure ten minutes! Hell! There's supposed to be a third one coming out. It's a wonderful conceit, and it has about the density of the first chapter of some novel. In content, that's what it is. Yet there you are, this complete book taking up space on your bookshelf. I think I'll just give it to a friend as a Christmas gift. It's barely paged through.
Biagi: There you go! [Laughter.]
Shen: Very frustrating.
Biagi: You're a real book-reader.
Shen: Yes, I am. I really resent how much they cost.
Biagi: Did your parents have expectations of the way you would behave because you were a girl?
Shen: No. See, I have nothing on which to base it, because I don't have a brother, and I didn't really see them with other children, so I don't know. They may have brought up a boy entirely differently, but I really don't know. I don't remember them saying to me, "Girls don't do that." I played with girls and boys about equally as a child. I think my best friends as a pre-adolescent were girls. The family friends tended to be this mixture of boys and girls of varying ages, and I remember playing with boys as happily as I did with girls. As a matter of fact, I used to play house with the boys.
Biagi: So that wasn't a factor. We've talked about you going to college. You said your parents selected the college.
Shen: They selected the range of colleges. As I told you, they got mad when I tossed out names like Grinnell or whatever. They basically wanted me to go to an Ivy League college, and I did. Their range of acceptable colleges was about eight. Stanford would have been all right. Cornell would have been all right.
Biagi: Again, go over for me how you selected the major that you had in college. What do you remember? Was it by accident?
Shen: No, I definitely decided to major in English because I simply liked it. Looking back, I wish I had selected something more useful, but, frankly, nothing else appealed to me at all. If I look back on it now, I would have chosen economics or political science or something, because the English curriculum I could have done on the side anyway. Most of it was reading. But I basically chose it for love. I remember at the time our dean, whose name was Jeannette McFerrin—she's since retired. She may be dead now. She was the dean of our class. I remember her giving us a talk about how you should select your major for love. Ha! I can't imagine her giving that talk now.
Biagi: She's retired now.
Shen: Yes, and she wasn't that young then. She was probably in her fifties then. And I did, I picked the subject that I enjoyed the most, no question about it. I remember at the time, Wellesley had a fairly extensive core curriculum. There was a lot of stuff you were required to take in different subject matters, all of which I loathed. I loathed most Bible. I had to waste two semesters on Bible. I couldn't believe it. What a waste of time. I've spent twenty years resenting it. I could have taken so many other good courses, you know. It's just a waste of time.
Biagi: Foreign language was?
Shen: I took French and was very good at it. After all, remember they tried to teach me when I was ten or something. So I took French, but I enjoyed that. What else did I take that I actually enjoyed? It's hard. I didn't enjoy college that much academically, to tell you the truth.
Biagi: Socially you did, though?
Shen: Socially I did. I enjoyed the whole experience. I don't remember really being turned on by my studies, frankly. No, I don't remember most of the topics. I took modern history, but I was a total failure in that, really awful. Biology I think I was okay in.
Biagi: That was kind of it?
Shen: I enjoyed the psychology classes. History of science I enjoyed very much.
Biagi: What grade point range would you say you were in?
Shen: Not very. They didn't do it by grade point. I was probably like a B- student.
Biagi: Extracurricular activities of note?
Shen: None, really, because I didn't pursue any. In high school I was very active in the Drama Club. I didn't pursue it. I was a deejay briefly for the college radio station.
Biagi: Rock deejay?
Shen: Opera. Classical music. That was very briefly.
Biagi: How briefly?
Shen: Probably one semester. I think it was defunct after that. The signal only reached around the campus. I didn't go out for any of the athletic activities.
Biagi: Would you say you weren't athletic or you just weren't interested? Were you athletic outside of school?
Shen: No, and I really wish I had been, partly because I wasn't very good at athletics. I tried to play tennis in high school and was so terrible at it. I wasn't good at athletics, and it wasn't particularly emphasized in my family. Now, of course, I'm telling my son how good it feels to exercise all the time, because I'm determined that he's going to exercise and enjoy it. No, I was not particularly athletic. I didn't start jogging until after my mid-twenties. No, I didn't go out for sports. I didn't go out for Glee Club or anything. I did try to go out for Glee Club, but they wanted people who could sing, not people who just wanted to be in the Glee Club. So it wasn't actually not for trying that I didn't participate in extracurricular activities. I stage-managed for junior show. I was one of two stage managers for junior show, but that's really about it. Nothing of note. I did not go out for any of the publications.
Biagi: In the summer, did you work in the summer?
Shen: My mom was a physician working in a research lab, and I worked in a neighboring lab on the same floor for two years.
Shen: Doing lab technician work, basically, as lab assistant.
Biagi: Preparing slides and things like that?
Shen: Yes. It was gastroenterology, so it dealt mostly with stools and excreta. [Laughter.] It was very interesting. You'd pull open the refrigerator. "Oh, what's in here?" [Laughter.] But I enjoyed it, actually. I enjoyed it immensely.
One summer I worked at The Window Shop, which was a gift shop in Harvard Square. One summer my parents sent me to Taiwan with a bunch of other Asian-Americans, hoping against hope that we'd come back being able to speak Mandarin and become more immersed in our native culture.
Biagi: Did that happen?
Shen: No. We all hated it.
Shen: It wasn't a very well-run program. It was the first time the program had been run, and the dormitory arrangements were really different from what we'd been used to. We were sleeping on hard beds, hard pillows, with cockroaches. This was considered average. It was summer. It was hot as hell.
Biagi: What summer is this? Which year?
Shen: I think it was between my junior and senior years. I graduated in '69, so it would have been '68. This was in Taiwan. We arrived there en masse, and we flew to Tokyo, had a whirlwind three-hour tour of Tokyo, and then flew to Taipei, and bused over to Furen University, which is just outside the city where we stayed in dorms where the food was inedible.
Biagi: For how long were you there?
Shen: It was a month. In fact, I hated it so much that I skipped the last week after the month, which was basically a tour of Taiwan. I said, "I'm just going to fly back. This is ridiculous. I hate this."
Biagi: You went home early?
Shen: Yes, I went home early. Although the people who participated said that actually the last week was probably the best part. But I remember it was very weird to me. I'm sure that the teachers thought we were just spoiled American kids, and in some ways we were, but it was also a tremendous culture shock, just tremendous. The living conditions were a bit spartan. It was so hot. It was like being in New Orleans in the summertime, which is physically different. We were always running across the street to this little store that sold watermelon juice and stuff like that, because it was just so hot. Mail call was the most—it was like being in boot camp, I guess. The cafeteria was like a fifteen-minute walk in this heat away from the dorm.
On weekends we were mostly on our own. Luckily, I had an aunt who lived in Taipei, and I used to stay with her on weekends. She was very nice. I got to walk around Taipei.
Biagi: And eat.
Shen: And eat. But it was so hot, you didn't even want to eat. It was just really hot!
Biagi: In your lifetime, how many trips have you made to Asia?
Biagi: That was the first one?
Shen: No. I went to Asia for the first time before I was in college, or just before I went to college. My mother had a convention in Sydney, Australia, and I went with her part of the way. While she was in Sydney, I was in Hong Kong. That was my first trip. My second trip was this trip. I then went, I think, another time. I really fell in love with Hong Kong. I went with my mother to China. I went on JetCapade to Asia. It's been only five or six times, actually. That's as much as friends of mine do in a year in Hawaii. Except when you tend to go to Asia, they aren't whirlwind trips. You don't go for the weekend. You tend to stay there for two weeks to a month while you're there.
Biagi: Has it helped, do you think, your interest in Asian culture?
Shen: Yes, because I had zero interest in Asian culture as a child. I actually rejected it, because it was such a white suburb I grew up in. The tendency would be to reject it, try to become more white. Going to Asia, for the first time I was surrounded by people who looked Asian, which was a great revelation to me that a lot of people actually looked like me. I just found it interesting. I've always liked to travel, anyway, but I just found it fascinating. There's a smell I associate with the Far East. It's kind of a dung smell. It's a smell of heat. I'm sure people who go to India, to where I've never been, have a smell that they associate with India. Well, there's a smell I associate with the Far East. I really like it. I find it appalling and wonderful. There is an appallingness about it, definitely, but I really like it. I like Paris, too, though. [Laughter.]
Biagi: Do you remember your first day at work in journalism?
Shen: You mean at a newspaper?
Shen: No, I don't remember the first day.
Biagi: What do you remember? What is your earliest recollection?
Shen: My first real newspaper job would have been as copy editor at the Chronicle. It was definitely something that I needed to get used to. I was certainly not a natural headline writer, so I remember a lot of headlines being rejected. Seemingly I'm never going to get this right. I remember having to sit for long periods of time, because it's a fairly sedentary occupation. I remember trying to get used to the hours, because my shift started either at one or 2:30 p.m. or at four, depending on the day, so I had to get used to that, and I had split days off, like Saturday and Wednesday. So I remember that more than I remember the quality of the work.
The work was hard. It was hard to give Bruce Colvin, who just retired (I think he lives in Larkspur and has for years), what he wanted. There's a real art to headline writing, and there's a real art to editing, although the editing I didn't find—when you're a beginning copy editor, they don't give you an investigative report story to edit. They're basically giving you jits and short wire stories, you know. So I didn't find the editing particularly onerous, and captions I could get the hang of, but headlines were tough. Headlines were tough. I enjoyed the work. I liked it.
Biagi: Do you have a feeling that you had a mentor at any time?
Shen: Yes, I've had a number of mentors, not for sustained periods of time. I've had people I've looked up to, who have guided me in little ways. I wish I had been able to hold on to them for a longer period of time. And some of them weren't that good. [Laughter.]
Bill German, who is now executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was one, simply because he gave me my first job at the Chronicle and basically gave me the chance to do a lot of stuff at the Chronicle. He's still a friend of mine. I had lunch with him a few weeks ago.
John Quinn at Gannett, he's been a mentor to a lot of people. I know people who would crawl through glass for John Quinn. He's an inspirational person. And Ron Martin, who was editor of USA Today while I was there and is now editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
No women, you'll notice, because there weren't any! When I worked in the feature section, the editor was Ruth Miller, who has since died. She was never a mentor to me. In fact, I thought she was kind of a strange woman. I think that a lot of women who were journalists back then, who were older women when I was starting out, were actually fairly strange women in some ways. I don't think they were "normal."
Biagi: Why? What do you mean by strange?
Shen: Especially for that time. Ruth Miller, I think, had been married and divorced five times or four times. She didn't seem to have a wonderful family life. They tell me that she was a real flirt and she was apparently adorable when she was younger, but she was a very attractive older woman. I think she had trouble forming intimate relationships. (I guess that says something about me.)
Carolyn Anspacher, who is now dead, was this battle axe, you know, whom I viewed as a horrific woman. I can't think of any women in early journalism whom I would even have liked, let alone admired, I mean of the ones I ran into. When I worked very briefly for the Boston Globe before going to Maine, filling in the summer before I could get a job in Maine, this was after the Chronicle, Gail Perrin, who I think is now food editor of the Boston Globe and has been for years, at that time she was assistant city editor in the mornings. She was okay.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Shen: I think there were two women on the copy desk the whole time I was on the news copy desk at the Chronicle. I don't remember women mentors at all. I actually remember disliking and being appalled by a lot of the women I met in newspapers.
Biagi: What about in Honolulu?
Shen: No. I think [John] Quinn continued to be sort of a mentor in Honolulu. No, not professionally.
Biagi: Did you socialize or were you friends with the people in the newsroom when you were in Honolulu?
Shen: No. That would have been hard, because I was their boss. I couldn't really have been an equal. I really enjoyed some of them and had good relationships with many of them. My friends were really outside the newspaper. My good friends were people who ran their own businesses or they were CEOs of other companies, but they weren't even in the newspaper business.
Biagi: Do you ever think that you have experienced being assigned or not assigned a job because you were a woman?
Shen: Yes. When John Quinn originally approached me about going to Honolulu, he decided to ask me this when I was on vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He never had a concept of what a vacation was.
Biagi: He called you?
Shen: Yes. I was assistant managing editor of the "Life" section at the time, but I happened to be on vacation in Santa Fe. I knew something was brewing. I'd talked with him briefly about it, but
then he decided he really wanted to talk about it, and I was in Santa Fe. So I called in, and they said, "Can you fly back?" So they made all the arrangements. So I flew back to Washington, D.C. Santa Fe is not the most convenient place. You can't fly direct. You have to get to Albuquerque, which is an hour away, and then you can't fly directly from Albuquerque. You have to go through Dallas. I had to get from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, then from Albuquerque to Dallas, and then get from Dallas to Washington. The planes were late, the connections weren't perfect. So I finally got there about 8:30 in the evening. It took me all day to get back.
He was down in Windows, which was the restaurant at the time on the first floor of USA Today, eating, and he left a message with my very puzzled boss, the manager of the "Life" section. "What the hell is going on?" So I ride back with my bag in my hand, and I sit down and I order a bloody Mary, and he's having oysters. It was a nice meal. He talked with me about this Honolulu thing, and I said, "Why me?" He went on with this thing about they had been impressed with me.
Then I said the equivalent of, "Bullshit. I think you want a woman for this job, knowing Gannett, and I think you want an Asian. I think the only other Asian that's remotely qualified is a copy editor. I think basically you've only got me." He kind of smiled. I don't think he was used to that amount of candor. But to me it was crystal clear. Why beat around the bush? Yeah, I'm sure if I had not been Asian, why would they have picked me after less than a year at USA Today to go to Honolulu if I had not been Asian?" And a woman was part of that.
I think that being a woman has been much harder than being a minority.
Shen: Yes, quite definitely.
Shen: Because it's so male! I'm dipping into, in odd moments, a book about the history of AP [Associated Press]. It's so male, the pictures, the stories, everything, all these white males. It hasn't really hit home to me until lately. It's also hit home to me lately, I think, how much you have to give up if you really want to get to the top or to the very high echelons in any corporation. If you're running your own business, it's a different thing, a very different thing. But if you want to do it within an existing hierarchy, minority almost has nothing to do with it unless you're black. I'm talking about Asian. I don't know what it's like to be another minority. Being a woman has everything to do with it.
Biagi: Why do you say that?
Shen: Because if you just look around, I know a lot of talented, smart women, and they're not CEOs of corporations. They're just not. I know CEOs, and I know there are women just as smart and I know they're just as political and I know they're just as good at getting along with people, but they're just not there.
Biagi: Why aren't they there, in your view?
Shen: They don't get promoted at the right times, they don't have a mentor at the right times. Al Neuharth mentored John Curley. They may not get along now, but Al Neuharth mentored John Curley. I don't know this—it's certainly the case with me—they may be less goal directed from an early age than men are.
Biagi: By goal directed, you mean professional?
Shen: Men know that they're going to have to go out and make a living. I'm not sure that women, until recently, have thought in those terms, "I am going to have to go out and make a living." With a man, there's no other option. With a woman, I suppose there always has been another option. Therefore, men have been forced to be more goal-driven. "I'm going to have to go out and make a living. I'd better start planning for how I'm going to do that."
I think the fact that physiologically women bear the children has a lot to do with it, and for the first few years of a child's life, the woman tends to be much more—not for the entire life, certainly at least for all the pre-school years—a woman is just more intimately involved in a child's life. I think that no matter how goal-driven and how success-driven you are, it makes a big difference. It's just a chunk of time, a chunk of emotional energy, and it's a chunk of physical energy.
I think a lot of those factors, I can't say this is responsible for X, this is responsible for Y, but I think a lot of those factors conspire, in this particular society, given current corporation hierarchies, to prevent women from reaching the very top. Frankly, not very many reach the very top anyway. You're talking about a very small pool of people anyway, for which a lot of people are competing, so any little thing that can possibly hold you back in any way can become significant.
Biagi: What about mobility, willingness to move?
Shen: I think that has a lot to do with children. I don't think there's a sex difference there. I think that has to do with children. Whether you're male or female, you'd have a problem there. Obviously, if a man had a non-working spouse, they are a lot more mobile. Only now is this generation coming to the fact that, "Well, I have a job, too. I can't just get up and move." So it works both ways. If you look at most of the older publishers, you look at most CEOs, they have non-working wives, and their wives are not terribly interesting people. They are really not. [Biagi laughs.] Men really tend to marry down.
Biagi: You think so?
Shen: Oh, yeah. The best thing about [Presidential Candidate] Bill Clinton is I know his wife is smarter than he is, because I know his wife a little bit, and there's no question that he is a strong enough man to marry a wife who is easily his equal, if not more so. I think that's a tremendous sign of strength. I can't tell you how many older CEOs I've met who are with these dingbats. And the worst, the absolute worst, are not the ones who have been married for twenty or thirty years, because they tend to have married when they were more or less equals, it's the men who are these sixty-five-year-olds with these thirty-five-year-olds and thirty-year-old dingbats. God, that drives me nuts! You think they'd be embarrassed, really.
Biagi: Do you think it's a disadvantage for them?
Shen: For a man? Oh, yes. Maybe not. Obviously they don't think so. Certainly if you're sixty-five and you're about to retire, they've done it all, they've had it all, they don't need the money, they don't need the prestige, they've basically accomplished what they're going to accomplish. I don't think it makes any difference. They're looking for somebody to fill an emotional and physical need in their lives, and that's fine. It's just that it makes for very boring dinner conversation. [Biagi laughs.]
Biagi: Do you see yourself getting married again?
Shen: Oh, no.
Shen: Oh, no, I really don't. I'm not philosophically opposed to it. I just think realistically it's not in the cards.
Biagi: But if you did, you would look for a relationship that was equal, do you think?
Shen: No. At this point, I think I'd look for Bill Gates. [Laughter.] He could just go off and do his own thing and just write checks. I think that's fine.
Biagi: You have to explain who he is.
Shen: Bill Gates is head of Microsoft. I think his fortune is now $6 billion. He's young enough to enjoy it. He's a thirty-six-year-old. I'm saying that somewhat in jest, but now, you know, I'm tired now. It would be great to have somebody just—I wouldn't have to worry about anything. I wouldn't even have to interact. But in reality, the most fun would be somebody who would be my equal. I certainly think an older generation age sixty-five CEO, unless they're very exceptional, would not do. It wouldn't be fun. Bill Gates, after all, is thirty-six. No, I don't know what either party is getting out of it in many of the coupled relationships I've seen.
Biagi: Do you see that different today than, say, twenty years ago, professionally? Do you see more couples who are equal or both working, or do you still see it staying the same?
Shen: No, I see more couples working simply because they can't maintain their standard of living without two incomes.
Biagi: At the executive level, do you see it changing?
Shen: Yes, but I think it's the people in their twenties and thirties now, because if you look at CEOs in their late forties and fifties, just a little older than I, most of them have non-working wives. Their wives have stopped working somewhere along the line, probably when the kids came or just at a certain point, they stopped working. Maybe it was one move too many and they just didn't want to pick up and find another job.
Biagi: So, essentially, men at executive positions—
Shen: Top positions.
Biagi: —that you might compete for the top positions, most of them have non-working wives?
Shen: I can tell you. Let's check off the ones I know.
Biagi: An inventory.
Shen: Yes. John Curley. He met his wife Ann when he was an editor and she was a feature editor at the same paper or something like that, so they met as fellow journalists, were married, have two grown children, and she stopped working somewhere along the line and sort of does
freelance, but obviously she doesn't need to work. John moved around a fair amount before he became CEO of Gannett. He works very long hours, so she basically doesn't work. She's very nice.
Doug McCorkindale is divorced. Actually, his two daughters were brought up in Mill Valley. That's where his ex-wife lives. He recently married John Curley's ex-secretary, whom he had been living with for several years. She's very nice. I'm just thinking, okay?
Brian Donnelly, who is one of the head VPs at Gannett, is in charge of the Metro newspapers, is divorced, remarried about six years ago to, I think, the personnel director at one of the papers he worked for. She may have been actually his administrative assistant, but I'm not sure which. She's actually fairly smart.
Gary Watson, his wife doesn't work. He's head of newspapers at Gannett. I don't know the background of his wife. I'm just thinking.
Madelyn Jennings, the head of personnel at Gannett, is unmarried.
Biagi: So what are you saying this means for you, do you think?
Shen: In personal terms?
Shen: Actually, I used to talk about it in speeches in Honolulu. I said that if you want to be a true success professionally in some ways nowadays, you have to reconcile yourself to being personally and professionally lonely if you're a woman, and I still believe that. I think it's very hard to find a—that's why Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton are kind of interesting, because they are a more modern couple.
Peter Horvitz, his wife is non-working. He's the publisher of the IJ. He's also independently wealthy, and his wife is into horses. His wife does not work.
Al Dolata, who was president of the Hawaii Newspaper Agency, a long-time Gannett publisher in various other places, recently had remarried, and his wife does work for AT&T. But in many cases, even if they're working wives, they're certainly not working at the same level.
Cathie Black's married to a lawyer, and she's much more the career person in that family, and it works for them. I'm trying to think.
Biagi: So from your experience—
Shen: The wives are either not working or they're working at a much more subordinate kind of level than a man would. and I don't see that changing even in the younger—well, if I look at the parents at the pre-school I send Benjamin to, granted, they're not really typical, the husbands are marketing executives and lawyers and whatever, and the wives—and these people are in their thirties—are non-working or at part-time jobs or have freelance careers out of the home or things like that. You almost never find two CEOs. You may sometimes find two physicians or two lawyers is more common, but in business, in particular, you don't find couples who are both CEOs.
Biagi: Why do you think that is?
Shen: I think it's a question of when you meet. By the time you're a CEO, usually your emotional choice has already been made. I think it would be just a total clash of hours, egos, and a lot of other things.
Biagi: And children?
Shen: Somebody's got to be willing to give. The fellow who was head of MCI, Bill McGowan, in Washington, D.C., recently died of a heart attack. He was married to an Asian woman. That's why I noticed it, because there was an article in Washingtonian magazine a few years ago about them. She had a very high-powered business on her own. She didn't work for a corporation. She had a high-powered business on her own, and, of course, he was head of MCI. They apparently had a very interesting marriage. But there are very few of those, really, really. In real life, there are very, very few. You look at your local community bank presidents. Look at the head of PG&E, Richard Clarke. The United Way board. Just look at them. You know?
Biagi: What's it going to take, then, if that is a goal for women? What's going to have to happen?
Shen: I don't know what the goal is, actually. The goal, I suppose, is to have a happy, fulfilling relationship. What you happen to do for a living doesn't necessarily have any bearing on that. Obviously these marriages work, or some of them work. My mother used to say, "You can't have two bosses." And she predicted that the marriage that I'm no longer in would have a hard time, because she always thought, actually, and she was right, I needed somebody who would be subordinate in order to have a successful marriage. My mother actually had a very clear idea, I guess, with me.
Biagi: So you don't think you could live in a relationship with another boss? Is that what you're saying?
Shen: I have a better chance of it now than in the past, but I don't see a lot of them available. [Laughter.] Not a lot of chance to try this out, you know.
Biagi: There goes your great theory. [Laughter.] Let's go back to when you first got married. Was there ever an idea that you would quit working once you got married at any point?
Shen: No. Oh, no.
Biagi: You always believed you would continue working?
Shen: Absolutely. It was never an option. It wasn't even the money aspect. That never really came into it. I just couldn't imagine not doing it.
Biagi: And even today, can you imagine?
Shen: Now I can, simply because I have a child.
Biagi: Let's continue a little bit with our list of questions. You did say that you never had the idea you'd ever stop working.
Shen: No, I never really did. Number one, if you asked a man, they'd probably have the same reaction. Until very recently, when I've actually seen what it could be like to stay home with a toddler, the joy of that, it just hasn't been part of my paradigm. What would I do? I mean, what would I do during the day? It's funny, because when I was in graduate school, I remember talking with my two roommates about it, and I remember their asking hypothetically, we were just talking, somebody asked, "What would you do if you didn't work?" I said, "I can't imagine it." One was a little older and one was my age, and both of them said it would be wonderful. They could think of lots to do. I couldn't imagine it. "What do you mean, lots to do? What are you going to do?"
Biagi: You envision yourself having a working life of at least as long as you're living, if you want to work until you retire.
Shen: Yes. I always had envisioned that. Now, having worked non-stop since then, for almost twenty-five years, on the other hand, remember, when I was in Maine, I wanted to retire at the age of thirty-two and do what I wanted to do, so it's not that I'm—
Biagi: You've changed.
Shen: I have. I think I have changed. I guess my selfish goal has always been simply to enjoy myself, whether that means working or not working. Basically I've just always wanted to do what I want to do, and very few people have that luxury. I guess in a sense rather than a work ethic, I guess it's the essence of hedonism.
Biagi: Do you think, if you didn't enjoy your work, you would quit?
Shen: Depends on how high my mortgage payment was at the time. I have done that. I actually have just pulled up and said—when I left San Francisco the first time to go back East, I didn't have a job. My husband and I basically said, "We want to live a different lifestyle. Let's pull up stakes and try something else somewhere else." I had much more security that I was leaving for the unknown, but you can do that when you're twenty-four.
Biagi: True. When you were married, the two times that you were married, did you spend your time at all with other journalists?
Biagi: Did you spend time with people who had different jobs than you did?
Shen: We never had a lot of friends, to tell you the truth. I think that was a problem in my first marriage, because my husband was much more gregarious than I was. I was content to be a couple. No, I never sought out other journalists as friends and have never felt particularly comfortable with other journalists. I was never one of the people to go down to Hanno's, or whatever the archetypal hangout is, after work. No, I wanted to go home. I wanted to go home and read a book or do my own thing. I don't want to hang out with these other journalists. No, I can't imagine it. It goes against all my AP history. Journalists are supposed to hang out together. No.
Biagi: You didn't.
Shen: No, except that I remember I did have an eight-year relationship with a fellow journalist, but our friends weren't other journalists, and we didn't talk about journalism. We happened to meet and our schedules were similar, luckily, but aside from that it was certainly no advantage and no particular bond. No.
Biagi: How about your work involved with press associations or other associations?
Shen: I've recently been more active in AAJA, Asian-American Journalists Association, simply because there's more of a bond there that I started to feel in Hawaii, frankly.
Biagi: Is this an active group here in this area?
Shen: Yes, it is, relatively. I've never been an active member of any other organizations. I belong to the Women's Forum West, which is a branch of the International Women's Forum.
Biagi: Which is?
Shen: It's a group of professional women. It's an international group. It has a very strong national presence in all the major cities. I first joined when I was in Honolulu. They have events. The last one I went to was—there's a book that's recently out, a photo book about prominent women, somebody's definition of prominent women locally. Belva Davis is in that book. There was a reception for the photographer. There was a co-sponsorship of the Women's Forum, Alumni Resources and a bunch of other things. I went to that. They sponsor various receptions. When Anna Quindlen was in town, she gave a talk to the group. I went to that. Charlotte Mailliard Swig had a reception in her Russian Hill apartment for the architect of the library, the new San Francisco Library. That architect is a member of Women's Forum, so there was a reception. I went to that. They have an annual Christmas party that I go to. They have retreats and an annual convention, stuff like that, that I don't go to largely because of time.
Biagi: But you do enjoy it?
Shen: I do enjoy it, although there aren't a lot of people like me there. I don't see a lot of women who have very young children, and certainly not a lot of Asians. A lot of very successful women. I do enjoy them. I won't say I found any soulmates there, but I sort of enjoy it.
Biagi: What has been your relationship with unions or union organizations?
Shen: I was a member of the Newspaper Guild when I worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, because it's not really a choice. But my activity consisted of having my dues automatically deducted from my paycheck. I really was not active beyond that.
Biagi: Were you ever in a situation where there was a strike taken?
Shen: There was a threat of a strike during one of the contract negotiations, and they actually got to the point where they were putting together strike committees and gearing up a kitchen and stuff like that. They called me up and said, "Choose a picket shift." I was kind of looking forward to it, actually, since I'd never experienced anything like that. I know now how horrific
strikes are and how divisive. Back then I was kind of blithe about it, I must say, in my naivete. But it never happened, so I never got a chance to participate. I'm probably more pro-union than most management people would be, simply because I guess I don't identify with the "haves" as much as a lot of publishers I know, and I just come from a very different background. I was a child of the sixties. Look at poor Bill Clinton! All he did was go to Russia to see Red Square, you know. [Laughter.]
Biagi: And it's come back to haunt him. [Laughter.]
Shen: It's crazy, isn't it? I am a child of the sixties.
Biagi: What does that mean to you? Let's talk about that a little bit, because next on the list, of course, is the events of the sixties and how they affected your life. Do you really feel that you're a child of the sixties?
Shen: I was never political and I was never a war protester. I was very oblivious. I would not characterize this as a pro or a con. Probably more of a con. I was just oblivious.
Biagi: You never demonstrated?
Biagi: You never had a peace sticker on your car, for instance?
Shen: No. My ex-husband in Maine stuck a McGovern sticker on our car, and I was incensed, because I was a reporter at the time and I used my car for work. I just didn't want to show up with people already with these preconceived—interviews were hard enough! I mean, geez! For that reason. Also I didn't want to wear my politics on my sleeve, given the line of work I was in.
I've always been fairly liberal. I'm told this is very unusual for Asian-Americans, particularly first generation, who tend to be very conservative. I think I see that in California, but I think it's probably less typical of Asians who are from the Northeast, who come from a different background and were more isolated. Boston is a funny combination. It's very racist and very conservative, and it's also very liberal, you know. Well, I come out of that liberal tradition, so I am not anti-union, although Gannett is certainly very anti-union. I am definitely a social liberal. I'm probably the most conservative I've ever been in my life since I have a huge mortgage and I have a child, and I'm sort of tired of all these special interest groups regulating me to death. But I am still, compared to most of the country, far to the left of center in most of what I believe.
Biagi: For instance, a major belief on the political spectrum that you would put out there? Pro-choice?
Shen: Yes, I'm pro-choice, but since I've had a child, I realize how—I mean, it's very easy to be pro-choice if you've never had a child and never particularly wanted a child. Once you've had a child and you realize what a miracle that is, it's more difficult to be pro-choice. But it would be much more difficult to side with these—I can sympathize with somebody who is anti-abortion. It's not anti-abortion. It's a legitimate point of view. It's what they try to ram down your throat with that point of view that really bugs me. I will not have somebody dictating to me what my life values are. It is perfectly fair to be anti-abortion for a number of reasons, but it's this religious right that just drives me up a wall. I don't know what they think they are. The thought police? The Ayatollah Khomeini? What is it? What are they? And also I know that the worst
atrocities in the world are committed in the name of organized religion. The Spanish Inquisition, the Serbs and the Croats, the Mideast. I mean, most atrocities are committed in the name of religion. I'm very cynical. But I enjoyed Sunday school. I was brought up as a Methodist. That's one thing. What else would I consider?
Biagi: A point of view. Politically, you've already said you admire the—
Shen: I don't know Bill Clinton, and I think that what it takes to be a successful politician in this country basically strips you of your humanity. But certainly I would rather see a Clinton appointee to all the appeals and federal courts and the Supreme Court than I would a [George] Bush appointee. It's funny. I can't put my finger on a single specific issue, aside from abortion, but I can't—
Biagi: Civil rights, perhaps?
Shen: But it's not even—I mean, I don't like Jesse Jackson. His ego gets in the way of everything, I think. I'm a non-admirer of Jesse Jackson, but I can't stand Reagan.
Biagi: Were you affected in any way by the hearing last year, the Anita Hill hearing?*
Shen: I don't know if I was affected, because from the very beginning, I mean, I was convinced before the hearings ever started that she was probably telling the truth, and having listened to some of the testimony, my opinion of that has never ever wavered. Never ever wavered. She had no motive. I look to simple explanations, you know. The things that motivate human beings haven't changed. They tend to be hunger, greed, power, sex, passion. They're not that complex. When you look at it very simply, he [Clarence Thomas] had every motive in the world to cover up what he did, and she had no motive at all. If you just look at it in the simplest terms of what he had to lose and what she had to lose, to me, you don't make up details like that, and they didn't allow the testimony of other women who would have said that they also had problems with him, one of whom was an editor at one of the papers in the South, one of the North Carolina papers, I think the Raleigh paper. She was city editor there.
Biagi: Very interesting.
Shen: Yes. So it was not an isolated—I think the guy obviously had a pattern of this type of behavior that probably reached its most extreme with Anita Hill. I never wavered in thinking that she was telling the truth.
Biagi: Other political events in your life? You say you're a child of the sixties.
Shen: By that I mean that I have a deep cynicism about authority, I think. Because somebody is a CEO or a policeman or whatever, or the president, I'm not willing to take their word for it at all.
Biagi: You are authority in some cases and have been the boss. Have you been just as willing to accept that attitude among people who work for you?
Shen: I think I've been more accepting. I'll tell you an example. Certainly in thought, if not always in deed. The Stockton paper here was under threat of strike for a while. It has been off and on.
* In October 1991, Senate hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court focus on the charges by law professor Anita Hill who claims that Thomas had sexually harassed her in the past. Thomas is confirmed by the Senate 52 votes to 48.
I think it's settled now. As one of their sister papers, we send out press people to stand by in case a strike is called. One of our assistant press foremen didn't want to go, and he really didn't give a reason. I had a feeling the reason was basically because he didn't agree with it and he didn't want to be a scab. I don't know this; this is supposition. I was not directly involved in the conversations with him. But Peter Horvitz came to me and mentioned it one day, and Peter was really incensed about it. My feelings actually were that I sympathized with that assistant press foreman. It's what he believed in. His point of view was totally legitimate. I really had a very different attitude about it.
Biagi: So a little more tolerant, you think, for disagreement.
Shen: Yes, and viewpoints that are different. I have probably less tolerance of the status quo.
Biagi: More willing to change, you think?
Shen: Yes. Oh, yes. Less rigid.
Biagi: Now the general big overview questions. What would you say was the happiest, most fulfilling time of your life so far?
Shen: Probably two. One was the time I was in Hawaii, even at the time I would have told you, "I have to get off this island!" Whatever you're in always never seems—you know what I mean? It's human nature. But in many ways, the work was the most fulfilling. The other was one of my first jobs, which was as an art editor for Harcourt Brace Publishing in San Francisco. I really enjoyed my work and I enjoyed the people I worked with. I really felt that when I came to work every day, I got a great feeling of accomplishment out of it. I think those were the two times.
Biagi: The other side of that, the most unhappy time?
Shen: I was really unhappy at USA Today, largely because I was acclimating. I was at USA Today for less than a year, and I'd been in the Bay Area for fourteen, fifteen years, and I suddenly moved to Washington, D.C., leaving everybody I knew behind. I didn't know a soul in Washington, although I made a couple of friends there, surprisingly enough. The culture at USA Today was so different from the culture at the Chronicle. It was like night and day. I didn't talk to anybody about this for a while. I'm sorry I didn't, because they would have told me, "You're right. It is really different."
Biagi: In what way was it different?
Shen: One of the first things was the hours were a lot longer. People were accustomed at USA Today, because it was USA Today and because it was a Gannett newspaper, to working ten to twelve hours a day every day, and working Saturday mornings or whatever the weekend morning was. Friday and Saturday were actually the weekends. I wasn't used to that at all. I thought those hours were too long. I still do.
The other was there just seemed to be a sophomoric—in the "Life" section—and remember, USA Today, especially in its early years, was populated by people who were largely in their twenties and early thirties. There was just a shallow youthfulness about it that really bothered me. I never watched TV; I still don't. I watched it as a child. This is what makes USA Today a success. It is very tuned into the popular culture. I am not tuned into the popular culture, so I really felt like a fish out of water there the first few months I was there.
People would come in talking about the latest rock singers and country singers and TV programs and stuff like that. I would just be totally in the dark. The first week I arrived, there was some special cover story about some Farm Aid thing. I didn't know if it was political. It turned out to be some kind of concert, some Willie Nelson benefit concert. Stupidest thing in the world. You know. I just really couldn't—I really did not feel comfortable at all. And yet some of the people in that department were people who, if anything, were more literary than I. They were really members of the intelligentsia and they managed to function well in that environment.
Biagi: They separated their job from—
Shen: Yes, or they were able to integrate it better. For example, the woman who was—I think she was TV editor then, she's now managing editor for the "Life" section, Susan, she's married to a lawyer and she had a toddler. She now has two or three. She's very smart, a very wonderful woman. I really liked her. She managed to edit TV. You know what I mean? Mike Clark is the movie critic for USA Today, a wonderful, literate man, wonderful to talk to. The same with Sharon Peters, who at the time was one of the food/entertainment topics editors. She married a diplomat, went to Bogota and Beijing, divorced that diplomat, came back to USA Today, and is now in her same job. This is all in the last six years. Also a very literate, very, very thoughtful, very, very smart woman.
The people who work at USA Today are extremely smart and very varied, and some of them are very bookish, and they manage to put out this product that is this deep [measures an inch with her fingers], but very informative. I think if I'd stayed another six months, I think that would have gone away, but I was just thrown there and it took a long while. I was really, really unhappy.
Biagi: If you had to reflect on the changing role of women in your lifetime, what would you say about it? How has it changed, and do you think there's more evolution to come?
Shen: That's a hard question for me to answer, because my mom worked full time my entire life with her. Frankly, most of my mother's friends, the families we knew who were Asian, and those were our good friends, the wives also worked in at least half the cases. So my role models really were of working mothers. The ones that didn't work, I didn't notice any big difference. I really didn't. I was not really aware of these agonies that women seem to be going through now. I'm sure people felt them, but they weren't as overt. People are always agonizing now. I didn't see it at all, and yet it must have existed.
I don't think women's roles have changed all that much. I think most women are working because they need the money. I don't think they particularly enjoy their work. I think they'd probably rather stay home. This is the majority of women I'm talking about. I think a lot of career women would rather do things differently or work fewer hours, and can't. I don't think the role of women has changed a hell of a lot. I think the women are still buying the diapers, and even if the men are cooking, the women still have to make sure the refrigerator is stocked. I think in a family the person who's responsible for hiring the people to clean the house, it's the woman. I don't think those roles have changed that much except in a few cases. In those few cases, it's people without children. Once you have a child, I think almost every family that I know falls back into more or less the old pattern. The difference is that neither of them is home most of the time. But the pattern of who is responsible for what remains the same.
I don't think there has been a huge change. I don't think there really will be. I don't see it in society. It's very surprising to me, a great polarization and a great conflict in the country about
working mothers, and the conflict is among the mothers themselves, not just mothers who work versus the mothers who don't work. I don't see a big change, really. I think it's easier on women who work whose children are grown up, and I think for women who have no children, I think there are more choices and a lot more ways to fulfill yourself, but I think for women with children less than twelve years old, let's say, I don't think things are going to change. I really don't.
Biagi: So how do you think women should accommodate to that reality?
Shen: I think they need to decide what's important to them and pick it, because I don't think they can have it both ways.
Biagi: Do you think it's a great fraud, we've been telling these young women that they can?
Shen: I think those young women are smart enough to know that they can't. They're saying, "You know, I'm in my early thirties now." They're talking about it in terms of choice, not that they wouldn't work, but that they can't drive to the very top at the same pace and have a child and be thirty-three years old.
Biagi: And be married, maybe?
Shen: And be married. Yes.
Biagi: Moving back through the sixties and into the seventies, did the Vietnam War itself have any effect on you? You were totally oblivious, as you say?
Shen: I felt a kind of grief at two points during the Vietnam War. One was when the boyfriend of a Wellesley classmate, actually she's younger than I, it wasn't even her boyfriend, it was just an old, good friend, was killed two weeks before he was due to come home. He was killed in an accident; he wasn't killed by the enemy, so to speak. He stepped on a land mine. I knew him. He'd been around the dorm. The other was when I heard that they had bombed Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Those were the only two times I actually felt—
Biagi: Why the last?
Shen: Number one, it was, like, 1970. It was after the real vehement protests. It was like the last straw. It was just really like the last straw that something that had lasted for so long and was such a monument to a former civilization, that they should bomb it. I remember. Those were the two times. I did not watch the evening news. I did not watch news on TV during my college years. I barely had time or interest in TV, so for me, the Vietnam War was not something that came home to me on the evening news every night. I did not watch the Vietnam War. I did not follow the coverage of it.
Biagi: The three assassinations in the sixties, were you affected by those, do you think?
Shen: You mean beyond the initial emotionalism?
Shen: No. I barely knew who Martin Luther King [Jr.] was, to tell you the truth, but I do remember what I was doing. I was standing in the hallway of my dorm in college when a white student,
I think her name was Kathy, actually, from Atlanta, came running down the stairs and said, "They've shot Martin Luther King," and ran to turn on the TV set. She, being from Atlanta, of course, was very interested. That is my experience of the King assassination.
[John F.] Kennedy, I was a junior in high school and I was in French class. The news came on over the school loudspeaker system, and they canceled the senior play that I was scheduled to go see that night. Robert Kennedy, I was in my summer job at the gift shop in Harvard Square. I was about to leave for it, and my mother had morning TV news on, the "Today Show," or something, and that's how I heard about it. But aside from the first shock and the first feelings, no, it did not galvanize me into anything in particular.
Biagi: If there were any pivotal political events in your life, what would they be?
Shen: No, I can't—political events.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Biagi: Continue with your thoughts about politics.
Shen: I've only recently begun to actually follow and read political coverage in depth. Part of the reason is that I was so disgusted during the [Ronald] Reagan years, it would incense me so much that I couldn't bear to read it. I literally could not bear to read it. I still have somewhat of that same feeling, but it's not as bad. So it's only fairly recently that I've become much more aware of specific legislation, specific candidates. Ever since I've been eligible to vote, I have voted, and I've made sure I was a reasonably well-informed voter. But I have not at all been interested in politics, and I have not followed it and not followed legislation, no. I really can't think of anything.
Biagi: Outside of the realm of politics, then, pivotal events, if you had to enumerate two or three?
Shen: That did what, though?
Biagi: That changed your direction or your ideas, whether they be books or people, experiences that you could pinpoint.
Shen: Boy, I'd really have to think about it. I can't think of these seminal events. I don't think of my life in those terms. I can remember specific books I've liked and loved. I can't remember a single event or a single person making a huge difference in my life. I really can't. No.
Biagi: Over the years, is there a writer or reporter whose work you've most admired? Or several writers whose work you have most admired?
Shen: That's an easier question for me, but I have to winnow it down a little bit. I mentioned Paul Theroux. There are not a lot of reporters I've actually admired on an extremely consistent basis. I've been intrigued by Edna Buchanan, but I don't read the Miami Herald.
Biagi: Are you a mystery fan?
Shen: Yes, I am. But from what I have read about her, I read the first book she wrote and I read the long profile of her in the New Yorker and a shorter interview she'd done in connection with
the books, and I find her to be an interesting woman. I don't find her book to be terribly well written, frankly. I think it's intriguing. Most journalists, I find, are certainly not good novelists. It's a different thing. You don't expect them to be.
I enjoy Maureen Dowd's stuff, but that's because she's such a wise-ass, I think, and the New York Times lets her be one. I enjoyed Anna Quindlen when she first started; I don't enjoy her as much now.
Biagi: Did you read her novel?
Shen: Yes. I thought it was terrible. It was very amateurish. If she hadn't been Anna Quindlen, it would never have been published. I couldn't believe the people who gave it a good review. It was kind of a nothing thing.
I do like Paul Theroux. I can't think of anybody whose oeuvre that I've consistently—I can think of isolated—and they tend to be kind of weird books. There's a war reminiscence that came out years ago called Naples. It was very interesting to me. I don't usually like war—it was sort of fictionalized. I thought that was interesting.
I like Richard Selzer, his early books. He's that physician from Yale who's written books; they're essays, really. The starting point is patients and incidents that have happened in his medical career, but they're really essays about mortality and life and death. Confessions of a Knife, I think, was his first book, and the interesting thing is I first became aware of it because the Chronicle excerpted it. I was editing these excerpts, and I thought, "This is wonderful!" I got the book. It's a fantastic book. He's since written several more, none of them as good as his first one. In fact, apparently he's written a book now that's been totally panned, which is about his early life, kind of an autobiography. It's supposed to be terrible. That's a book I remember.
What did I read recently? I read Fannie Flagg's book, Fried Green Tomatoes. I really enjoyed it.
Biagi: But you haven't seen the movie?
Shen: No. I don't really have an urge to see the movie. Often when I hear a movie's popular, I go out to read the book. I'll probably read A River Runs Through It, but I have no urge to see the movie at all. Movies, to me, are an inferior form of entertainment. Not that they're not enjoyable. If you can read the book instead, I know the written material is going to be better. I've never come across a movie that was as good as the written matter, because the movie is somebody else's visualization; it's not your own. It can't be as good.
Biagi: Fannie Flagg helped to write "Fried Green Tomatoes," the movie.
Shen: Yes, she did. That's true. But still.
Biagi: Maybe there's something there to see. I would recommend it.
Shen: All right. Maybe. I just got a VCR, a new one, so maybe I'll rent it. No, I can't think of any author, except for Paul Theroux. If something's out there, I will go. P.D. James, maybe, but that's because I like mysteries.
Biagi: The last question may take a little thought, and that is the question of ethics, because journalists tend to be concerned about ethics these days a lot. Have there been any landmark ethical decisions that you've had to make professionally about whether to run a story, whether to edit a story, how to edit a story, whether a story or series should run or not that you can remember?
Shen: No. The ones that are more recent tend to be the ones that come to mind, and they have to do with fairly, at this point, common newsroom dilemmas, which is naming of rape victims, naming of other kinds of victims in certain circumstances. It's interesting, because I was at API [American Press Institute] in mid-September. They have an annual Curtis Memorial Invitational Seminar, and this one was about privacy. They had a panel that originally was going to include Arthur Ashe, but he had a heart attack three days before. So the panel was down to Marla Hanson, who was the model who was slashed in New York, and Patricia Bowman, the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of rape. They talked about victims' rights and about what they went through. I think it's made me a more compassionate editor, to tell you the truth.
Biagi: What was your point of view before that?
Shen: A little more cynical. I generally would always come down on the right to publish, and it's a judgment call. There is no right or wrong. Journalists basically operate in a kind of gray area; certainly editors do. It is a judgment call. I missed the Maria Shriver/Michael Gartner program last night. Now I think I would think twice about some photographs, some accident photographs, some funeral photographs. The news value is not in question. If there was no news value, there would be no debate. [Laughter.] Of course they have news value. Of course they have circulation. Of course! But that's not it.
The question is, do you weight a victim's feelings and rights at all? And if you do, where does it end? Because it can lead you into impossible situations. Remember that case—this is in Gay Talese's New York Times history also, which is also about that Nazi who was revealed as being Jewish and who committed suicide the day before or the day after the story came out. He had threatened to. There's the far end of the spectrum. I don't know. People have different opinions. Many papers will not routinely use pictures of funerals, period, or photos of accidents. A lot of readers have called us about a photograph we ran of a car accident where there was a body bag on the ground and maybe a foot sticking out of it. A lot of calls about that. Child victims. Well, you do run their names when their parents are famous or they're celebrities in their own right.
Biagi: Is there any situation you've found yourself in where you've had to make a decision on these issues?
Shen: No, and if there has been, it's not difficult. I haven't faced a sticky decision about unnamed sources. I have not faced a sticky decision where I felt that somebody's livelihood or safety would be in jeopardy. No. Mostly there are decisions you make where you know somebody's going to get pissed off, and that's a different kind of decision. No. I may be missing something entirely, but I really can't think of any.
Biagi: The last question. What's your overall opinion of journalism as a profession for women?
Shen: It depends on the specific jobs you're talking about, I think. My feeling about journalism as a profession is that it demands a lot for relatively little payback, except for some people. And you weight that. I think you really have to like what you're doing, and then it's a wonderful profession.
If you're only halfway committed to it, it's not that much fun. That's my feeling about it. You have to get your "bennies" in this profession from the work that you're actually doing, because there aren't a lot of outside perks, there really aren't. The hours are long; the pay is certainly low by professional standards; you tend to be on the job twenty-four hours because you always have to think about it; you really can never leave your work behind, because your work is life, it's what's happening everywhere.
I don't know if I would recommend it to anybody unless they were really convinced that they loved it. I wouldn't recommend it to somebody who goes into it to change the world. If that's your reason for going into journalism, I'd say forget it.
Shen: Be a lawyer. Because although I think it may be indeed a very laudable thing, I think your chances of being extremely frustrated and becoming disillusioned fast are very, very, very, very high. I think journalism can change the world, but I think that cases where it does tend not to be where most people find themselves, or they tend to be the hundredth monkey theory. When the hundredth newspaper jumps on the story, it then changes the world. Meanwhile, the one through ninety-nine who have been struggling along are not getting much payback in that area. So I think you would really have to like it. I would say this to a male or female, it doesn't matter. For a woman, I don't see any difference except in the case of hours. If you happen to be of childbearing years and you want to have a child, then hours could be a problem. But in most cases, you can work out the hours, you really can. You'd be surprised.
Biagi: Has this been a good job for you, do you think, a good profession for you?
Shen: Yes, so far it has. So far it is. But I don't look at it as the only thing I could have done. In four or five professions, this one is fine. The other four may also have been fine. I don't feel as if this is what I was born to do and that this was the only thing I could have done or that I even did the best I could at it. I think it's been all right for me. I don't think it's been wonderful for me, but then I have nothing to compare it to. So there you are.
I'm not very idealistic at this point in my life, I guess. I'm sure that comes across. I'm rather cynical, because I just think there are so many tradeoffs trying to put together a full life.
Biagi: If Benjamin were a girl—
Shen: Oh, I'm so glad Benjamin is a boy.
Biagi: But if he were a girl and he came to you and was eighteen and wanted to be a journalist, would you tell him it was a good idea?
Shen: If he really wanted to do it, I'd tell him to go for it. But there are very few things that I would not say to him. If he wanted to be an actor, really wanted it, I'd say, "Go for it." I don't have built-in prejudices against most professions, and probably less idea of what is a prestige profession probably than my parents did. I'd be thrilled if he became a physician, but I mostly want him to be happy and fulfilled in what he does. If that means something that his grandmother is going to say, "What?" so be it.
Biagi: What would you think this mythical daughter we've created should know about that profession?
Shen: In eighteen years, I think it's going to be an entirely different profession. In eighteen years, it is going to be different, Shirley, and I don't know what I'd tell her. I think it's going to be much more electronic than it is now. The act of gathering stories, of analysis, whatever, is going to be the same, but how you do it and how it's disseminated will be very different. I think a reporter's job will basically stay the same. I think everybody else's job will change radically, just radically.
I was thinking last night about something you asked me. You asked, what will newspapers be or do for people? I said they'll do analysis. The other thing—and I feel really strongly about this—that they will do, and if they don't, they really won't survive, is to create a sense of community. I think nothing else can do that. If anything, TV does the opposite. Or maybe it creates a global community; it doesn't create a community of Marin or a community of Oakland or North Berkeley or whatever.
I think newspapers have the ability to bring together a very local common shared experience, which is very difficult to come by these days in the kinds of households we live in, because you don't go to town meetings, you don't spend the hours from seven to nine in the evening at communal events. We're much more isolated in our households. So in a way, the only shared community event a lot of us have is opening a local paper. To the extent that people want and need that feeling of community, and I think they do need it, I think that's why people join the Moonies or whatever, newspapers will have a very important place. That has almost nothing to do with analysis or fact-gathering or anything of that. It has to do with saying, "The people of Fairfax today are going to have to deal with a sewer problem," and, "The school lunches at the Ross schools today are going to be turkey on toast." It has to do with stuff the New York Times couldn't be bothered with. But I think that's important.
Biagi: Let's stop.
© 1993, Washington Press Club Foundation.
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