Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Year In Review (for 2005):

Our Year-End Salute To Some Remarkable People & Other Stuff
So We're A Year Late--We'd Rather Be Timeless Than Timely

Below is something I wrote at year end last year but never published/posted. Why? I kept tinkering with it, changing it, adding and subtracting to it. I kept seeing holes, things I wanted to add, others I wanted to rethink. And on and on it went. Anyway, we thought it might be fun to bring you now, a full year late. Some of the things I've mentioned here have changed a little in the year since I wrote them, and where that happened, I've pointed it out in an editor's note. So away we go:

Our Favorite Book of the Year:
(a four-way tie)

We've already mentioned, via brief excerpt (here) historian Ron Chernow's masterful biography of John D. Rockefeller, which we consider simply the finest book ever written about this region's history. It wasn't published this year, but '05 is when we read it, so here it belongs.

We haven't, however, mentioned three other astounding books, none of which is tied to this area:

Lincoln's Melancholy, a luminous study of the moods and madness that drove our 16th president. A stunningly well-executed book, from a guy (Joshua Wolf Schenk) who's neither academic historian nor a specialist on Lincoln. He pulls it off so well that it can only be considered a major victory for that hardiest of hold-out souls: the writerly generalist.

E=mc2--A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation. The book just flat out blew me away. It's a splendid example of an impossibly learned specialist (an Oxford physics don, no less) writing wonderfully for a general audience, which gives the lie to so many who say they can't translate complicated stuff into layman's English (the real reason is they can't write well). I especially love how the idea first occurred to the author. He writes in the introduction that while he was once watching an otherwise forgettable entertainment show on TV, the interviewer asked actress Cameron Diaz what was the one question she'd most like answered. "I'd like to know the meaning of E=mc2," she said. He took his marching orders, and turned it into a memorable book. God bless him.

78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published & 14 Reasons Why it Just Might. Besides some brilliant hands-on advice from a been-there/done-it book editor, written in a sardonic wise-guy-with-tender-heart-delivering-tough-love style, it also happens to be the catchiest book title of the year, I think. I'll excerpt from these final three books in coming weeks. If I forget, you'll remind me, please...

Our Favorite Regional Book

Creative Essence--Cleveland's Sense of Place. It began as a series of lectures by longtime poet and arts advocate Nina Gibans. And this year, the singularly energetic Kent State University Press helped turn it all into a fabulous book, which I reviewed favorably in the pages of Northern Ohio Live a few months ago (alas, not online). There's also a brief Q&A with the author in the current Cleveland Magazine (they're always a bit late). Anyway, I recommend it highly. It happens to be the only comprehensive history I know about of this region's art and its artists. Please give it a look, will you?

Cleveland in Prose and Poetry. A wonderful new anthology gathered by the Poets and Writers League of Greater Cleveland, and edited by the able Bonnie Jacobsen. This would make a great gift for anyone, anytime.

Our Favorite Writerly Migration

That would have to be one Steve Coll, an industrious middle-aged guy who was beginning to carve a status as a minor (though growing) legend at the Washington Post, where as managing editor he was odds-on-favorite to rise to the top job when Lakewood native Len Downie retires (soon). Earlier this year, after publishing a well-received book on Iraq, he chucked it all and went back to his first love, writing. But don't feel too bad for him, since he accepted a slot at the New Yorker, where his editor will be the former WaPo reporter David Remnick. Sure enough, he hit a home run in his first piece, in the Dec. 12th issue, a sterling mid-length piece on fugitive Osama Bin Laden's formative years in school. The piece (not online) includes a story about Osama's son's p.r. shop. We'd call it surreal.

Our Favorite New Local Blog Voice

This was a tough one, because there have been so many wonderful new writerly voices added to the regional blog environment. But in the end, we gave the nod to Tina Vance's Distracted Mind, a sometimes angry but always thoughtful and insightful writer. The fact that she's of tender years--mid-20s, I believe, and is the mother of a small child, makes her all the more interesting.

Our Favorite New Cause-Related Blog

The nod goes to my friend Marc Majercak's Leading Hands blog. Technically a group effort (though Marc is certainly the founder and main engine), this site is refreshing in how it tackles its subjects in a new way. I think we've all had it by now, in about Year 4 (or is it really 3 or 5 or 6?) with all those hundreds of me-too blogs. This one takes a fresh look at new subjects. And the design's pretty nice too (editor's note: this blog has since been discontinued, but there's an archive of sorts here). Marc has been a regular on the circuit for some years. A tech guru who spent some time at Progressive Insurance, he's now at an offshoot, But you can also catch him digitally DJing at various events (including the Web Association holiday party), armed with nothing but his Ipod. You'll not find a cooler guy in all of Northeast Ohio, nor one with more passion.

Our Favorite Re-Energized 'Local' Blog Voice

The quote marks around local are because Christine technically lives in New Jersey. But her heart continues to focus on NEOhio. And I'd say in the last year, this gen-next librarian has found her voice. The lady is a writer, and a splendid one. Check her out when you can.

Our Favorite 'Newish' Print Voice

Michael Gill of the Free Times, for his ability to dig deeply, write beautifully and for his astonishing range of subjects. Mike, a frustrated poet, has found his calling with prose poetry in the form of luminous weekly journalism. Like far too few practicing the craft here, he gets Cleveland's soul. I was going to point you to some of his leading gems, but found it impossible to decide which half dozen I liked best. So just keep an eye out for that byline, and sample his earlier greatest hits by either googling him or checking the FT archives and reading away as you have time, will you?

Our Best Corporate Use of Blogs

Okay, so our parameters for this aren’t global, nor even national. We’ve narrowed our search to this region. For 2005, the award goes to Ideastar, the highly entrepreneurial web developer based in Garfield Heights. The company’s founder and still its leader, Jim Fisher, was a journalism student at Kent State University, and that background certainly shows in much of the company’s work. There are an abundance of blogs connected with this company. Fisher has one himself, as does VP Mike Wise and Suzanne the search specialist. But the company’s overall blog may be the best of the bunch. It’s full of interesting photos, lively news and commentary (including news of Ideastar’s recent Weatherhead 100 honors) and just plain makes the company sound like one anyone would want to work with or for. In other words, this is a company that has figured out how to inject its blog with personality. Hats off to Ideastar and Jim Fisher. Please, dear readers, add your thoughts about your favorite regional corporate or organizational blog(s). If we get enough good ideas via your comments, perhaps we’ll even rethink this award. Or more likely, we’ll add to it.

Most Potentially Interesting Industry Convergence

Northeast Ohio Communications Affiliates (here). The region's entire advertising, p.r., journalism, printing and communications industry is slowly coming together to explore how they might modestly collaborate in ways that make sense for all of them. In other words, to explore where they have some shared interests. The conversations are sketchy, but thus far quite interesting. Do stay tuned...(this one, I'm sad to say, hasn't really gone anywhere too interesting yet, as evidenced by its website since being restricted. But we'll keep hoping).

Most Touching Thing I Heard at a Writers' Conference

One shy, retiring 60ish woman, who drove all the way from Dayton to attend a Cleveland-area seminar, when asked why she refused to call herself a writer for the longest time, even after breaking into newspaper column-writing as a largely self-taught novice: "I figured if I used the word, I might jinx myself." She still emails her delightfully folksy columns to me regularly. If you're interested in being added to that distribution list, let me know.

Most Mind-Expanding Experience at a Writers' Conference

Listening to local folk singer Anne DeChant beautifully expound on how writing song lyrics isn't too different from writing good prose. While her presence on the program confused some initially (a songwriter talking to a bunch of prose writers?), she quickly left everyone wowed with her soulful insights and hard-bitten wisdom about the creative process and the urge to express oneself. Those subjects, you see, are full of ideas and habits of mind that apply universally across every possible creative boundary.

Our Favorite Digital Archiving Project
Nuff said about that. It includes a range of goodies, and it's growing all the time. But among our sentimental favorites on the site are the Roldo archive and the holdings dedicated to the late Cleveland Press. Just make sure you have a fast connection and lots of time when you visit, because one can get lost browsing in there for hours (editor's note: I subsequently wrote about the Press here).

Most Innovative New Media Project (editor's note: I subsequently wrote about it here).

But look for this cool digital project this year: One Cleveland's Lev Gonick is setting up a wiki to help the editors of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History reach out to the general public for ideas about possible entries as they prepare yet another update of this singularly useful volume (note to myself, check in on how that's progressing).

Most Consistently Brilliant Columnist

An easy call, really: Vanity Fair's James Woolcott. Besides starting a blog this year, with the help of his then-Newhouse empire colleague Jeff Jarvis, he also become, I think, the de facto lead columnist for VF. That's because Chris Hitchens seems to have short-circuited some mental wiring as he transforms himself from Trotskyite to right-winger. We can only hope that's temporary. But meanwhile, it gives Woolcott a chance to shine all the brighter. Do read him--he's one of those rare pens who seems constitutionally unable to write a dull sentence. As a chronicler of the foibles and outrages during this era of the Bush imperium, he's simply a man without peers.

Most Satisfying Foiling of Rovian Skullduggery

The sacking of the White House plant who absurdly chaired the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for a time, at least until the agency's Inspector General (praise Allah for these bastions of independence, a remnant of post-Watergate reforms) blew the whistle on him. Ken Tomlinson was a pathetic neanderthal right winger. Special award goes to NPR's brilliant David Folfenflick for filleting this fat phony with a series of unflinching reports that could easily have cost him and his colleagues plenty. All in all, a proud moment for the quality media this year.

Dumbest Media Replacement

CNN's pathetic decision to replace the always-interesting, sometimes-headscratch-inducing anchor, Aaron Brown. His replacement, the pouting, smoldering Anderson Cooper (aargh). Note to CNN: Sorry, but the full-page ads in the New York Times, depicting Anderson fervently scribbling notes in a reporter's pad, fool no one. Save your money in the Promoting Faux-Reporters column of the budget and instead channel it to some real reporting.

Most Innovative Media Person
Nick Denton
Henry Copeland

Freshest, Most Innovative Thinker/Writer on New Media
John Battelle
Jay Rosen

Most Hopeful New Media Pulpit

Dan Gillmor's bi-coastal quasi-academic Center for Citizen Media.

Most Innovative Academic
Sandy Piderit (here)

Most Innovative Teacher
Mary Beth Matthews (here)

Mentors Who Keep Getting Better With Wisdom & Experience
Roldo Bartimole
Bill Zinsser

Best Use of Pink
Daniella's impossibly charming blog (editor's note: alas, Daniella decided to mothball her blog earlier this year. But we choose to look on the bright side: at least she's kept her earlier work right there where we can see and re-enjoy it).

Our Favorite New Print Pub of the Year

Alas, it's an empty category this year. We're still mourning the loss of Urban Dialect, the smart and sassy brainchild of Daniel Gray-Kontar and Clarence Meriweather and their fellow former Free Times renegades. Better luck next year...

Sorry to briefly break the upbeat new year's momentum, but we feel duty-bound to briefly bring you this momentary departure into a trio of Worst of Awards:

Worst Site Redesign It may have been done (or so I surmise) to try to hide the fact that far less fresh features are running than in the past, but whatever the reason, it's simply dreadful, a complete turnoff. The superior, timely writing (kind of) keeps me going back, but does the thing have to be so damn butt-ugly? It wouldn't be so bad if the site didn't look wonderful in its last iteration.

Worst Area Restaurant Menu 'Upgrade'

Great Lakes Brewery, which in mid-year got a new upmarket makeover, with higher prices and a new chef. But what stung me like a blizzard was the untimely demise of my favorite, even revered, dish: the legendary (to me, at least) bratwurst & pierogies platter. I noticed about a $5 increase, nearly a 50% rise, and still I was prepared to pay it, since it was so good. But when I saw what came out, I freaked: far less food, done up in silly frou-frou fashion, for far higher price. In the only personal example this year of hostility to a service person (I promise) I momentarily lashed out at my waitress. "You'd sure better hope I'm not a restaurant reviewer!" I said (I know, pathetic). When she sicced the manager on me to make nice, I was still steaming, promising to tell 200 of my best friends not to come there anymore (weenie that I am, I didn't follow through, at least till now). Please, GLB, if you're reading this, bring it the hell back...

Worst Experience With a Bank

National City's abject failure to get with the times and service a new generation of auto purchase. It happened like this: We bought a slightly used minivan in mid year, from a pleasant middle-aged hippy couple in Cleveland Heights, via a free ad in Craigslist. So far, so good. The price was great, our parish credit union cheerfully drew up all the paperwork and okayed the loan, sending it along to National City for processing. And there it waited and waited and waited, and then waited some more. After a dozen calls to a branch manager there, who , referring it to it by some telling bank lingo (she called it a "casual sale") we finally got things approved, though only after we had to threaten to go to the Better Business Bureau (we had to pay insurance all the time on a car we couldn't drive). Because of that frustrating merry go-round, I got a special satisfaction out of this journalistic evisceration of the bank, by Scene editor Pete Kotz, published at about the same time we were also knocking heads with these dummies.

Okay, back to the bright and cheery side of life...

Our Favorite Article About Blogging.

Ah, there have been so many this year. But this masterful Washington Post Sunday Mag piece on two women who blog from opposite ends of the political spectrum is the cream that rises to the top. Here's a link to my earlier entry about the piece).

Our Favorite Example of Digital Media Convergence
Kent State University's School of Journalism. On a trip there in the fall, I learned from the students that the radio station is working with the student newspaper to deliver podcasts, and that the student TV station will soon be sharing a newsroom with the newspaper. Beyond that, there's a larger and even more exciting overarching initiative, called The Franklin Hall Project, which will house all student media together. Even if adults and their various media institutions are warring over assorted turf battles, student journalists seem to instinctively understand that they all have much more in common than not. A round of applause for them all.

And finally...
Our Working With Words Person of the Year

We think we'll keep this one open, at least for now, while our readers inundate us with their own ideas. Here's our criteria: the person who has done the most of anyone in 2005 to make Northeast Ohio a smart, literate, interesting place to be, a place that encourages learning, growth, innovation and reasoned debate. A place in which it feels comfortable to live, learn, love and get on with one's life work. It certainly wouldn't hurt if they've demonstrated a superior grasp of the native language, but that's not a must. Get your comments in by January 10th, and the winning recommendation will nab a complimentary copy of Creative Essence. Perhaps we'll also convene either a lunch or a modest cocktail party in honor of our person of the year, whichever they prefer (though we just might wait a full year, in a nod to our preference for timelessness over timeliness).

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Best Kind
Of Fame

'The best kind of fame is a writer’s fame. Just enough to get a good table at a restaurant and not enough for someone to interrupt you while you are eating.'

—author Fran Lebowitz

Friday, December 29, 2006

Why Smoke-Free Restaurants Remind Me
Of Switching from Catholic to Public School

As anyone who attended Catholic grade school in its heyday (the '50s and '60s) will attest, the experience leaves its lifetime mark on you. Like a youthful stint in the Marines, the experience of having survived Catholic grade school's baroque institutional rituals shapes the personality in ways that become increasingly more obvious over time. The perceived injustices that were once a source of youthful complaint and resentment progressively grow more endearing as they recede further in time.

I happened to shave a single year off the prescribed rituals. After attending St. Clare elementary from kindergarten to seventh grade (where my classmates included future stockbroker Frank Gruttadauria, now serving a term in federal prison for having perpetrated one of the biggest investment frauds in American history), I decided to leave the place for eighth grade. I wanted to play hoops, you see, and in those days there wasn't much in the way of organized sports in Catholic grade schools (hard to imagine today). And so for a brief time I found myself in one of those unspeakably bizarre places known as American public junior high schools, where there was no dress code, and the girls actually got away with smoking in the bathroom. Generally, it went well, except for one memorable twist.

In Catholic school in those days, when the teacher called on you, you stood up to deliver your answer. It wasn't so much drilled into us as it was like a form of breathing. We may have learned to do it once, but I can't for the life of me remember learning it. We just always did it on cue. Anyway, the habit proved hard to break in public school. For at least the first three or four months of eighth grade, I could never remember not to stand up when called upon. My classmates found it hilarious. It was as if I was performing a cartwheel before spitting into a jar every time the teacher called on me.

I hadn't thought of that episode for years, at least not until I walked into a downtown restaurant the other day, and asked for a no-smoking section. "Oh, you must not be from around here," the young host said. "We're all non-smoking now." Indeed, I had forgotten that the new law banning smoking in public places has now taken effect. Once again, I think it's going to take me some months to remember to break that deeply ingrained habit.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Let This Be a Lesson to You Creatives:
Schlock Sometimes Funds Better Stuff

Some good business friends of mine decided as an organization to celebrate the holidays with an unusual trek: a trip to the Near West Side for a tour of the house on W. 11th where the much-beloved movie A Christmas Story was filmed. So the other day, I checked out the website for the house, which was purchased for $150,000 on Ebay and subsequently rehabbed. And I was happy to learn something quite unexpected: this touching little tale about how the director harbored a dream to make this movie for years before finally figuring out how to get it done. Let this be a lesson to you creatives about how more prosaic work can sometimes bankroll one's dream projects:
The movie A Christmas Story might never have been made had it not been for another, decidedly less reputable comedic creature - Porky's. That's right. One of the most beloved holiday movies largely owes its existence to an infamous, unabashedly crude teen comedy.In the late 1960s, A Christmas Story director Bob Clark was driving to a date's house when he happened upon a broadcast of radio personality and writer Jean Shepherd's recollections of growing up in Indiana in the late '30s and early '40s. Clark wound up driving around the block for almost an hour, glued to the radio until the program was over."My date was not happy," Clark said, but he knew right away he wanted to make a movie out of the stories, many of which first appeared in Playboy magazine and were collected in Shepherd’s 1966 book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. Clark's adaptation, however, didn't happen overnight. At the time, he was a journeyman director who specialized in low-budget B movies. For years Clark tried to find a studio to finance the film. But none were interested. Nevertheless, Clark held on to his ambition to bring Shepherd's stories to the screen, and, in 1981, he directed Porky's. Which became a hit at the box office. Suddenly he had some clout the bargain with. In the wake of that hit the studio want a sequel to Porky’s. Clark agreed to make a sequel if the studio agreed to let him do A Christmas Story first.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

If Bush Was Our Shepard

With apologies to the 23rd Psalm, we bring you:

The 23rd Qualm

Bush is my shepherd; I dwell in want.
He maketh logs to be cut down in national forests.
He leadeth trucks into the still wilderness.
He restoreth my fears.
He leadeth me in the paths of international disgrace for his ego's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of pollution and war, I will find no exit, for thou art in office.
Thy tax cuts for the rich and thy media control, they discomfort me.
Thou preparest an agenda of deception in the presence of thy religion.
Thou anointest my head with foreign oil.
My health insurance runneth out.
Surely megalomania and false patriotism shall follow me all the days of thy term,
And my jobless child shall dwell in my basement forever.

(tip of the hat to the estimable Richard Andrews for sending this along)

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Solutions, Not Slogans

'Our major obligation is not to mistake slogans for solutions.'
--Edward R. Murrow

Friday, December 22, 2006

Breaking the Fourth Dimension of Greed

It's become worse than a cliche to complain about the overcommercialization of everything in America. After awhile, you can begin to sound a little like NYU prof
Mark Crispin Miller, the hyperarticulate if sometimes humorless scold who long ago became an all-purpose media go-to guy on the subject. But I found myself in particular agreement with a recent column by Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly, who knows a tipping point when he sees one.

It happened when I was halfway through my Raisin Bran. My spoon plopped into my bowl and my forehead clunked down hard on the table and my arms hung like Hebrew Nationals at my side. And what was I reading when the end came? This: The Chicago White Sox will start their home games next season at 7:11 p.m. And do you know why they're going to start their games at 7:11 p.m? Because they signed a three-year deal with 7-Eleven for a half-million dollars a season. Yes, the Chicago White Sox found a way to sell their game time. That was it. That broke it. My switch toggled over to I Give Up. There was no fighting it anymore. For years now, I've slobbered and screamed against selling our sense of place (Mile High Stadium is now Invesco Field. Yeeesh), our history (remember the Suzuki Heisman Trophy? Yikes!) and even our sacred moments of utter jubilation ("I'm going to Disneyland!" Yuck). But now we're through the looking glass, people. These evil geniuses have found a way to sell time. They've broken the dreaded fourth dimension of greed.

For an archive of Reilly's always-thoughtful columns, go here (unfortunately, it's subscriber-only. On the other hand, if you're a sports fan and an admirer of good writing, you could make a lot worse investment this holiday season for yourself or a loved one than a subscription to SI, which continues to fight the good fight for quality, serious, long-form narrative journalism).

UPDATE: The incomparable Seth Godin explains why one advertiser (Verizon) is tremendously short-sighted to scratch for the last dollar in ad revenue while simultaneously pissing away its customers' precious goodwill.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

One Man's Take on Blogs: They Traffic
In Pronouncements, Not Persuasion

From a piece in yesterday's Wall Street Journal editorial page, by assistant editorial features editor Joseph Rago:
Blogs are very important these days. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has one. The invention of the Web log, we are told, is as transformative as Gutenberg's press, and has shoved journalism into a reformation, perhaps a revolution...Every conceivable belief is on the scene, but the collective prose, by and large, is homogeneous: A tone of careless informality prevails; posts oscillate between the uselessly brief and the uselessly logorrheic; complexity and complication are eschewed; the humor is cringe-making, with irony present only in its conspicuous absence; arguments are solipsistic; writers traffic more in pronouncement than persuasion.

You can read the entire piece here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Even Republican Pollsters Occasionally
Say Things That Have the Ring of Truth

'You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and pre-existing beliefs. It's not enough to be correct or reasonable or even brilliant. The key to successful communication is to take the imaginative leap of stuffing yourself right into your listener's shoes to know what they are thinking and feeling in the deepest recesses of their mind and heart. How that person perceives what you say is even more real, at least in the practical sense, than how you perceive yourself.'

--Pollster Frank Luntz, who's famous for teaching Republicans how to use phrases such as "death tax" (otherwise known as the estate tax) to skew political debate, from his new book, Words that Work--It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Memories of a Phantom University?

The winter '07 issue of the always-interesting American Scholar magazine (published by the Phi Beta Kapa Society, it's not online) contains a fascinating memoir by Cleveland native James McConkey, now a literature professor at Cornell, about his stint in college. Headlined "Fear of Falling--Working in the Mop-and-Bucket Brigade in College Created the Perspectives of a Lifetime," it describes how his stint on the school's janitorial staff during his term as a student nicely prepared him for life.

Like most college graduates, I am fond of my alma mater, though it exists only in historical records and the memories of those who attended it. In 1939, when I entered Cleveland College on a working scholarship, it seemed solid enough to last for centuries: a stone seven-storied building on Public Square (the center of downtown Cleveland) with stout Roman goddesses supporting the balconies on its facade. And its hallways, elevators and classrooms were crowded with students, especially in the evening. Most of these evening students were adults, enrolled less for a degree than for courses to abet their knowledge of culture or to provide skillls necessary for employment or a better job. Each year, 20 students from the Cleveland area were granted scholarships like mine, and we made up the majority of full-time students. The Depression had not yet lifted, and without these scholarships, few if any of us could have attended college.
Only one problem: I'm not so sure there ever was a "Cleveland College." I scratched my head when I first read it, because I knew of no such institution. Then I checked the generally authoritative Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, and didn't find it there, either. What I did find in this entry on higher education is something that sounds more like Fenn College (note that like the school he mentions, it too was located on Public Square). Could the good professor be confused, or is there some other error? Stay tuned: I'll try to clear up this mystery sometime soon.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Here's What Paul Krugman Can Do
When He Gets A Little More Space

I don't know about you, but I'm often left with one chief thought after reading another Paul Krugman New York Times op-ed essay: I wish he had more space to develop his thought. From the start of the Bush II presidency, he's easily been the most prophetic and relentless critic of this empty-suited presidency, one of the few who was never snowed by the giant White House hype machine nor cowed by its many supporters. Like Maureen Dowd during the Clinton presidency, Krugman and George W. are the perfect mirror matches of a leader and his Boswell. Because he's among the world's most eminent economists, he sees through their sham economic arguments like few others. And because he's famously lacking in social graces and has a tenured position on both the Princeton and the Times faculties, he seems to care not at all that his relentless and devastating critiques keep him an outsider looking in on this Oval Office.

In this excellent piece in the current Rolling Stone magazine, Krugman gets some more room to lay out his case for how this presidency has quickened the pace of our becoming a two-tier society. He nicely shatters some reigning myths about the economy which have arisen, he says, as a result of "a systematic campaign of disinformation" by the administration. Welcome to the second Gilded Age.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Why Orwell's Warnings
Haven't Lost Any Punch

'A man may take a drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and innacurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to us to have foolish thoughts.'
--George Orwell, writing 60 years ago in his justly celebrated essay Politics and the English Language.

'Don Rumsfeld is the finest Secretary of Defense the nation has ever had.'
--Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking yesterday at Rumsfeld's going-away ceremony.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Quick-Take Friday

Too much to do today, and not enough time to write. So I'll let some links do my talking for me. It's a mish-mash round-up of stuff I've stumbled over lately and found interesting. Hope you will too.

A Document to Consider. Here's a legal document customized especially for writers--
a will that protects your copyright for the benefit of your heirs after you've become worm food. I think I'll run this language past a good attorney or two and see if it's worthwhile executing myself. If I get the green light, I'll let you know, in case the writers among you might want to do the same.

Roldo and Jay: The Human Encyclopedias. My pals Roldo Bartimole and Jay Miller were part of a four-member panel that recently helped WCPN's Dan Moulthroup assess Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson's first year in office. The pair, with something like a combined 70 years of closely observing and writing about the town, are marvels to watch and listen to. They're both sublime amalgamations of journalist, historian, teacher, witness, institutional memory and more. Along with former Cleveland Mag editor Mike Roberts, they form a trio of journalistic elder statesmen who are nothing less than a collective civic treasure. Listening to the show, you almost had to feel sorry for PD City Hall beat writer Susan Vinella and some poor young Call & Post junior writer whose name I don't recall. They were both more than a little overwhelmed by R&J's immense knowledge and sense of historical context on the subject, all served up in pithy fashion (no small trick). If you missed it, you can listen to the podcast

Wolcott Carves Up the Pajama Brigade. Vanity Fair's James Wolcott, owner of one of the most wicked pens or set of typing fingers known to the English language, is always worth reading, whether it's his column in the magazine, his book or on his blog. Here, he memorably shreds Pajamas Media, a bizarre confederation of mostly right-wing blogs. His devastating conclusion: "Pajamas Media it is a vanity plate for the upwardly servile, a patsy that thinks it's a player." Ouch.

Hold These Dates! And finally, don't forget to keep next March 1-3 open on your calendar. You'll not want to miss this year's installment of the
Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the annual lovefest of the loony political right. After the results of the last election, this one should be quite a doozy. Get your reservation in now.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Reading & Living, Bound Together at the Hip

'In a very real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read...It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.'
--S.I. Hayakawa (We think he got it mostly right. We'd simply replace the fussy and fatally imprecise word "literature" with the far more useful words "good writing").

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Slow Metabolism of a Great Magazine

The former and unlamented editor of the New York Times, Howell Raines, said on several occasions that among his chief goals was to increase the "competitive metabolism" of the paper. That came as something of a shock not only to members of his staff, most of whom thought they were already working about as hard and as fast as humanly possible, but also to competitors and especially to readers of the paper. While there will always be some naysayers, the consensus nonetheless among both of those latter categories of Times-watchers was and is that our leading newspaper is operating at a pretty high metabolism already. Even now, the paper is struggling with how to merge its 24-hour news desk, driven by the web, into its traditional newsgathering operation, geared to daily rather than hourly or minute-by-minute deadlines. It's increasingly being forced to work at the speed of a wire service, only better, deeper and with more personality.

Magazines are a different story, though. With the general increase in the velocity of the news cycle and of life in general, monthlies in recent years have had to recast themselves to remain relevant. Weeklies have perhaps an even tougher challenge: they appear frequently enough to try to remain timely, though they can easily be overwhelmed by rapidly moving events. They're mostly stuck in the middle, where it's easy to become road kill.

written before about why the New Yorker remains our best magazine, even in the face of formidable competition from Vanity Fair and The Atlantic Monthly. In part, that's because British-expat Tina Brown took a then-dusty old relic and sped up its metabolism in the '90s. It wasn't pretty, and I was as angry about some of her more outrageous stunts (including, famously, asking the boorish Roseanne Barr to guest-edit an issue devoted to women) as anyone. But when she left in a cloud of buzz to pursue loftier ambitions during the boom years of the late '90s, owner S.I. Newhouse did something as startling and wonderful as it was unexpected: he turned the editorship over to the sublimely gifted writer David Remnick. Besides producing a lifetime of remarkable writing himself, he will be remembered (and he's still a young guy) for taking the best of the magazine's old and new elements and blending it all into something even better, richer and more meaningful, forever disproving the conventional wisdom that writers can't really be good editors. The current New Yorker may be better than it has ever been in its long and storied history. He's even presided over turning it into a modestly profitable enterprise after decades of red ink.
After a famously late start, the magazine has even become an innovator on the web. The latest overhaul/enhancement of its website is said to be due in February.

The latest reminder of his wonderful balancing act between old and new arrived in the mailbox only a couple of weeks ago, with the last edition of November. There, buried among the more timely pieces on various subjects was the traditional annual Roger Angell wrap-up of the World Series, delivered up more than a month after the last game was played, at a time when even hardened baseball nuts had mostly begun to forget about it. But this gentlemanly craftsman, now in his 80s, and with a half century of service under his belt, works at his own pace. And he gets the benefit of the doubt, since not only is he a fine writer with a wide following, but also an important link to the magazine's past (his stepfather was E.B. White, still the most illustrious name in the history of a magazine full of illustrious names). And so we have the charming World Series wrap-up, weeks late.

No real fan of the magazine, I think, would have it any other way.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Things I Never Knew...

...At least not until I read them online. Now, dear reader, you can know them too! (note to those lacking a sense of irony: exclamation point used only in mock irony).

If Hillary were to be elected in '08 and re-elected four years later, either a Bush or Clinton would have appeared on every presidential ticket from 1980 to 2016.
Read all about it from Newsweek's always-astute Jonathan Alter.

Vanity Fair columnist and Slate contributor Christopher Hitchens
is four-square against deceased tyrants in Chile. Those still alive and in office in his own adopted country of America--well, he isn't so unequivocal about them.

All the Craigslist local websites collectively get twice as much traffic as online retail giant,
according to the self-proclaimed Capitalist Tool. Wow--no wonder the newspaper industry is hurting. But then, I did buy a family van that way not so long ago (thus eviscerating the need to deal with smarmy car salesmen), and the mag that publishes my parenting column is now advertising for a new editor by placing a free ad on Craigslist, and advertising nowhere else.

There's been a slight two-year decline in public radio's national audience.
This comes despite the staff enhancements made possible by burger heiress Joan Krok's giant bequest and the utter collapse of any real radio alternatives for people with an IQ above 60 (radio giant Clear Channel, which effectively controls at least one-third of the commercial dial, recently agreed to sell itself to a couple of soulless Wall Street buyout firms. You can expect them to dumb down and milk these stations for ever last dollar even more than Clear Channel ever did, which is saying something). Audience erosion to the web is no doubt the leading suspect. But I think lefty NPR's odd age hangups (a la the Bob Edwards fiasco) and discomfort with race (the Tavis Smiley episode) also play a part. NPR's ombudsman does his level best to deal with lingering criticisms about both situations here. What he doesn't discuss is perhaps NPR's biggest emerging problem: its ever-increasing corporate ethos.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Finding the Roadmap
To Your Life in a Book

'I knew the day I read The Only Dance There Is that this was what I was going to do with my life: pursue spiritual truth and try to help people laugh as part of their healing path. Finding that book taught me a lesson about how truth comes to us in such quirky, unexpected packages, because it was one of the worst days of my life. It was Easter Sunday, probably in 1974, and I was lying in my adorable hippie boyfriend's bed with a stomach flu, and he had gone to be with his other girlfriend, what with us being so hip and all, and me not being much of a date for Easter dinner. When he left, I really felt like I would die from being so sick and alone and jealous. Then I picked up this book he'd been reading, and I felt like it was worth any price to feel so guided, understood, trusted and entertained, all at once. My soul was so hungry and thristy for Ram Dass's voice that I read the book in one sitting--or rather, in one lying, because I was sick in bed. I remember drinking this disgusting herbal tea all day--chaparral tea, which tastes like couch stuffing--because there wasn't anything else in his house. When I was done, I washed my face, brushed my teeth, put the book down by the side of the bed, and left. It was a great day.'

--Anne Lamott, from The Book That Changed My Life--71 Writers Celebrate the Books that Matter Most to Them. Earlier, I mentioned Lamott here and here. You can read an interview with her here, and read a sample of her essays here.

Friday, December 08, 2006

To Do as Grace Commands

'I know nothing except what everyone knows--if there when grace dances, I should dance.'
--W.H. Auden. You can learn more about the great poet
here, at the Auden Society. To read his famous poem in memory of W.B. Yeats, go here.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Waxing Poetically About Rappers

I don't care a bit for rap music. But I do recognize and enjoy great storytelling. And I love it when a writer can get me to care about the people behind the story, even if the narrower subject matter isn't something I thought I cared about. My friend Clarence the designer does a beautiful job of making me care about the people with
this wonderful piece in this week's Free Times. Clarence is prominent in certain circles for a number of reasons: as a kid from Cleveland's projects who grew into a seriously accomplished professional, as a popular onetime coffeehouse poet, and as the design genius behind the sorely missed and beautifully rendered (though now-defunct) publication Urban Dialect (Columbia Journalism Review mentioned it here). He's designed handsome logos for such local mainstays as Talkies coffeehouse and the nonprofit juggernaut Computers Assisting People. More recently, he designed a whole bunch of beautiful Gray & Co. book covers , including the one you see nearby, in which his own likeness can be seen (that's him with his head propped against his palm).

And yet for all that design genius, he has somehow also found a way to develop a serious devotion to arranging words in pleasing combinations (very different talents rarely found in the same body). But I think this riff is easily the most eloquent, knowing bit of prose he's yet written. Listen in if you will:
While hip-hop is a young man's game, both emcees try to bring a different perspective to it, one that's steeped in the reality that comes from the poverty and despair running rampant in the country's poorest city. The Ill Disciples' music contains more than a heaping dose of optimism and enthusiasm for the future. 'We want to write about a lot of stuff and show you a wide range of experiences,' explains Dap. With image being clearly more important in the rap game and the debate on the validity between rap versus hip-hop raging on, both emcees remain well-grounded with their work with children in their 'everyday' lives: Dap works as a youth mentor, and Khaz is a special education teacher. They understand first hand hip-hop's influence on the young.

How We Went From World's Beat Cop
To Widely Ignored Substitute Teacher

'We used to be the world's beat cop. Today, we're like the global substitute teacher--nobody listens to us...It's only Great Britain that even pretends to care what we say.'
--Chicago humorist Aaron Freeman, making a serious if unfortunate point recently on NPR.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Assorted Stuff

Now That You Mention It... As I've observed many times before, permission marketing guru Seth Godin has made a good career out of smart takes on the most ordinary subjects. He's one part brilliant marketing guy and one part superb cultural critic. He makes another good point
here. I'll never look at another "Under New Management" sign quite the same way.

The Future of Journalism? Maybe, maybe not. But either way, I still think
this is an interesting example of the highest form of citizen journalism, so-called networked journalism, a pro-am combination that gets people collaborating in intelligent ways. I hope we have lots more of it in our future. If you're interested in this subject, please consider helping out a good cause by taking this survey.

Who Says Middle-Aged Terrorists Can't Have Fun? I got a kick out of
this story. I especially enjoyed the odd detail about how the lady was actually observed smiling her way through the experience. Obviously, these randy folks aren't the sort to sit around and get depressed over the likes of this.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

We Are All Kissinger-like Realists Now

'We are all realists now. Iraq has turned conservatives and liberals alike into cold-eyed believers in a foreign policy that narrowly calculates national interest without much concern with what goes on inside other countries. The Republicans had their neoconservative spree and emerged this month from its smoking wreckage in Iraq and at the polls, with nothing to steady them except the hope that two aging condottieri from the first Bush presidency, James A. Baker III and James Gates, can lead the way out. These are the same men who, fifteen years ago, abandoned Afghanistan to a civil war and Al Queda, allowed Saddam to massacre his own people and concluded that genocide in the Balkans was none of America's business. They are not the guardians of all wisdom. At some point, events will remind Americans that currently discredited concepts such as humanitarian intervention and nation-building have a lot to do with national security--that they originated as necessary evils to prevent greater evils. But for now, Kissingerism is king.'

--George Packer, writing recently in the New Yorker.

Monday, December 04, 2006

No Problem: Just Let it Occur

'Writing is no trouble: You just jot down the ideas as they occur to you. The jotting is simplicity itself. It is the occurring which is difficult.'
-- British-Canadian economist and writer Stephen Leacock

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Our Two Favorite Bush Jokes

We couldn't decide which was better, so we simply decided to call it a draw:
David Letterman, shortly after the recent election: "Bush was in Asia, where, due to the metric system, his approval rating is 62." NPR's Michael Feldman, some months ago on GWB's difficulties with pronouncing the word nuclear: "Mr. Bush is willing to go to war over something he can't pronounce. You don't see me going to war over foi gras."

Meanwhile, historians are beginning to debate whether Bush will be considered the worst American president ever. This fellow thinks he'll only be considered fifth worst.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Our Favorite Book Title, Part III

Who, I ask you, could pass up a book with the following title: Before the Mortgage: Real Stories of Brazen Loves, Broken Leases, and the Perplexing Pursuit of Adulthood? We even like the simple, low-concept cover art, which coyly provides further inducement to flip through it to see what it's all about. To see our earlier favorite book titles, click here.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Even the Pre-MTV Romantic Poets
Knew How Hard it is Being a Teen

'The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted. Thence proceeds a mawkishness.'
--John Keats