Friday, June 27, 2003

Companies Never Really Die--They Just Migrate to the Web

The recent news that Dicker & Dicker Jewelers, a prominent east-side, family-owned business, is closing occasioned a brief moment of nostalgia in me. That's because I got to know David Dicker a bit when his store was still located in a tiny little shop on Cedar Road (before later upgrading to the tony Eaton Square area along Chagrin Blvd.), next to a now-deceased pizza place (LaRich's, home of the best pepperoni pizza in the universe) where I waitered my way through a good part of college.

He was an engaging yadda-yadda kind of guy, who liked to come next door when business was slow in his place, and he was an interesting conversationalist. At the age of 19 or 20, I tended to warm up to people like Dave who gave every indication of knowing lots more about life than he could ever fit into a 10-hour disquisition. In other words, he had street smarts up the wazoo. And I sucked his brain for whatever insights he had to offer. It proved to be a great supplement to formal education, and in many cases a much better preparation for my life's work.

Anyway, as our conversations grew deeper and we bonded through good talk caught in snatches between our work duties, Dave presented me with an interesting proposition. With the price of gold and silver then at a record high during that time of Carter Administration "malaise" (these commodities always serving as a hedge during periods of inflation, as all you hundreds of readers who are economists well know), he decided he was going to go on something of a midwestern barnstorming expedition. The idea was this: he would travel across various cities and states, rent a small conference room in a hotel, and take out ads in the local paper announcing that a jeweler was buying up old silver and gold jewelry at attractive prices. Then pick up and on to the next city tomorrow. He planned to be gone for weeks at a time, then come back for a few days before heading out again. And would I think about maybe postponing college for a semester and joining him as a well-paid assistant?


He'd just raised the possibility that in a single activity, I might hit a trinity of my sweet spots: non-stop travel to new places, meals paid for, and the chance to get a Ph.D. in street smarts from a master. I had to at least consider that, as difficult as the prospect of putting off college might be. As it turned out, I never had to make that tough call: turns out he wanted me primarily for security, which would call for me to carry a piece!!!!!!!! I'm laughing again as I write this, thinking about the following mental picture: of a 19-year-old me as a gangly (6'-2", 170 lb.), gunslinging Catholic college boy (who couldn't have scared a thief with anything less than an Uzi), traveling the midwest by a big black Lincoln (not unlike the model made famous by the assasination of JFK) with a bearded, wisecracking Jewish middle-aged sharpie, with me constantly scanning the horizon for potential robbers. Why the hell didn't I take him up on it, if for no other reason than to have later gotten a book (and a movie deal) out of it????

Anyway, it turns out that Dicker & Dicker isn't entirely dying. Only the bricks & mortars presence is gone. Dave, who caught the importance of the web early, judging by his pretty snazzy retail site, has morphed into an online auction house. He thus joins fellow Cleveland merchants like Joel Turner, whose family ran a much-beloved bookstore, Under Cover Books in Shaker Hts., near the end of the RTA Van Aken line. Undercover Books was perhaps the first independent bookstore in town to succumb to the twin chain assaults of Borders and Barnes & Nobles march into town, and Joel, who now lives in New York, ended up staying in the book business via the web. I still get occasional tidbits of news about him via our mutual friend, Bill Gunlocke.

Got any more stories like those, of former local bricks & mortars types staying around by leveraging their brand name to the web? Send 'em to me, y'all...

Thursday, June 26, 2003

The New Orlean from Shaker Heights

"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity."
--Dorothy Parker

Susan Orlean is the kind of writer who slowly sneaks up on you. She's not flashy, not showy, doesn't pick subjects designed to automatically draw your attention. And yet over time, she has become something of a minor legend, a true writer's writer. It's happened so slowly that one tends not to notice it's happened. It helps, of course, that she has the platform of the New Yorker, where she's been a staff writer for years. But that hardly tells the whole story of one Susan Orlean.

In an interview she did several years ago, I think she put her finger on what it is that makes her different from most writers, far too many of which think more about their careers (seeking out a sexy beat like the White House, say, where there's almost no chance of getting anything worth getting) or about following the pack. Here's what she said:

Q: What is it about so-called ordinary people that attracts you as a writer?
A: Writing about "ordinary" people is about following my own curiosity. After doing celebrity journalism, I realized I was more interested in the things I walked past every day, the stuff people usually miss. I'm primarily interested in the tiny master--a person with a tiny domain over which they are the master. I wrote a piece about a NY City cabdriver who is also the king of the Ashanti tribe in America. After that experience, I realized--you never know. Any other cab driver I meet, any ordinary person, could be a king. It made me step lightly.

Though I had read her work for years before, I may have first noticed her in a big way about six years ago, when I read a remarkable piece she published in Esquire about the subculture of 10 year old boys, of all things. Besides being amazed at the superlative writing and the powerful observation in that piece, for which she simply hung with a small group of 10-year-old boys over several days or weeks, I was charmed by the freshness of her very story idea and unique approach. And having been all too aware of the low-brow, anti-intellectual reductionist orientation of the average magazine editor (Esquire, for instance, has since gone shockingly downmarket, sexed up and schlocky in a relatively short period), I marveled over how she could have wangled this imaginative subject into print in the first place.

Anyway, I'm glad that Susan at last is having her day in the sun. While she's been a household name among writers and close readers of the New Yorker for at least a decade, she's now broken into that far larger realm of consciousness (that of the general public) with the adaptation of one of her books, The Orchid Thief, into the movie "Adaptation," with Nicholas Cage playing the part of a frantically imbalanced writer. It's pretty good (though not as good as her writing), and I recommend that you go see it.

Susan was on NPR's Fresh Air the other night, being gently grilled by the best interviewer in America, the bookish Buffalonian (like Alice Demyanik) Terry Gross, and as always (except for her disastrous but hilarious tangle with Kiss's Gene Simmons) the conversation quickly worked its way to some fascinating themes, at a level of depth way beyond what you tend to hear or see or read in most journalism.

At some point, she said, "every writer has to struggle with the fundamental fact that you never really can arrive at the truth, and the moral responsibility you have of acknowledging that fact." She went on to recount a great war story about how a profile subject grew so comfortable with her that he volunteered information that could well have been gravely damaging to him, seemingly forgetting that this was a person who could instantly ruin his reputation with a few keystrokes (every writer has these, but this was better than most). She was writing about a major religious figure in a fairly conservative faith community, when the married man suddently volunteered to introduce her to his mistress. Besides being a little stunned, she said, she was forced to confront whether her role as a writer (responsible for unflinchingly getting at the truth on behalf of her audience) or as a feeling human being (not eager to hurt another) would take precedence. "I had to struggle with the question: 'did I really want to write a story that would tell his wife he was having an affair. As a writer, you're still a person, and you struggle with those moral questions." In the end, I'm happy (though not unconflicted) to report, she chose to keep that information to herself.

This kind of feeling and thinking and especially seeing comes from a rich lifetime of experience and connection. On her website, Susan talks about her "happy and relatively uneventful childhood" growing up in Shaker Hts. in the '60s (I think she's now in her early to mid-40s), "back when the Indians were still a lousy team." Time to update that site, Ms. Orlean. The Tribe is back to being pretty lousy...

(My thanks to my colleague Dott Schneider for graciously pointing out that the occasional extra line between paragraphs would be easier on the eyes. Thanks for noticing, Miss Independence).

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Tim Mueller and the Bus Rider Who Believed

"Goals are good, but only if they're always revised upward."
--Tim Mueller

It was appropriate that Tim Mueller yesterday came to Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra, to deliver a "lecture" that was anything but that. Instead, Cleveland's Chief Development Officer used the occasion of an annual Case Engineering School event to metaphorically (if not actually) loosen his tie, and talk from the heart about how he's orchestrating a seemingly impossible change in approach from a public office, making Cleveland City Hall run more like a business catering to the public and less like the insane asylum it has always been, especially during the 12-year reign of terror during the Mike White years.

The setting helped: an intimate, stately auditorium in the recently rehabbed Severance Hall, in the heart of Cleveland's Intellectual Belt. And the event was tied to something especially dear to his heart: awarding money to a start-up company. As always, his signature vision and inexhaustible energy were on display, but those aren't the only ingredients that set him apart and increasingly make him easily one of the most interesting and influential Clevelanders. The recently turned-40-cashed-out-millionaire Internet entrepreneur who insisted on going back to work even though he doesn't have to does tend to grab people's attention.

Think of him as Cleveland's equivalent of Dallas cashed-out wild man Mark Cuban, who was savvy enough to grab the brass ring at just the right moment, the very top of the market, and sell his for billions to Yahoo just as most of that value floated away like so much raw sewage. Only Mueller didn't buy an NBA franchise (he might have if he could) but went into the real lion's den, public office, where the Republican-leaning (to some people's horror, and utterly against the grain of Cleveland politics) guy who's an enthusiast for everyone making money gets to gently poke fun at people's horror over, say, developers who cut deals expecting to make a profit (in one of his very first interviews in office, he gently teased WCPN's reigning earnest lefty, Ichabod Crain lookalike David C. Barnett, about that very thing, but in such a mild way that Barnett probably never even noticed he was the butt of the joke).

Anyway, because he sold it at just the right moment, Mueller's Vantage One has become a kind of entrepreneurial JFK or Lady Di, seemingly forever frozen in time (as the site literally is, thanks to the incomparable Wayback Machine that gave you that archived link) with all its youthful beauty, vigor and innocence left intact as a stark memory, unsullied by the otherwise humbling aging process that affects all mere mortals, both people and organizations. Vantage One never had to really grapple with the three-year downturn--a depression, really--in the web market. It was never forced to become a truly grown-up company run by adults who think only about dollars (don't get me wrong, these guys thought plenty about dollars, but about other things, too) and not at all about energy or spirit or corporate culture.

Tim had a partner, Dan Rose, the salesman of the pair, but everyone who knew the partners and their history understood that Tim was the real emotional and spiritual center (with more than half the equity, to boot), the true founder of the company and the guy who was irreplaceable. He was the ringleader and the architect, working nonstop for a decade to build Cleveland's leading web development house, which was forever remodeling and adding space in the elegantly aging, never dowdy Caxton Building (which had the pleasingly appropriate historic role as home to much of Cleveland's old-line graphic arts industries since the turn of the century. As the company prospered, eventually their landlord, Charlie Bolton (no mean entrepreneur himself) handed over the keys to a priceless perch: the top floor, with a block-long row of windows overlooking the new Jacobs Field just as the Tribe (an early Vantage One client) was becoming a perennial contender and a national story. It was the perfect place from which to launch a Cleveland mini-revolution of cool.

As the '90s bubble roared along, fueled by the web and smart young guys with vision like Tim (who always invested in getting their story told to the media, which was never hard, especially because they came out of the media themselves, but which was ultimately responsible for getting them on the map with investors), it was only time before they'd have options. I think he always at least dimly understood that. I remember once, when I was standing at a urinal next to Mueller talking about a business owner who had cashed out for millions, Manco's Jack Kahl to be precise, how he marveled over the prospect of those kinds of numbers. "Imagine having a million dollars in the bank, with all those zeroes," he said, almost to himself.

And sure enough, a rollup operation out of Virginia, bankrolled by a fund from Chicago, soon stepped in, with far more dollars than brains, and made Tim and his partner an offer they couldn't refuse, at the top of the market. They took it, and the new owners, quickly learning the lay of the land, eased out his partner while giving Tim a larger, national stage upon which to work his e-commerce magic.

But eventually he found what lots of others before him learned: that it's no fun working for new owners who are running what once was your baby. So he took a breather for several months, while he got married, started a family and built a house in Pennsylvania.

And then Jane Campbell came calling. They had lots of mutual friends who suggested they meet. Eventually, she offered him the unique post of entrepreneur-in-residence, where he began trying to open the deadly city bureucracy to a customer service approach. In the first few months on the job, Mueller bordered on impolitic as he frankly described how difficult it was to open these old carotid municipal arteries to newer ways of doing business. As a community, Cleveland all but missed the entire decade of the '90s and all the wind that might have put at its back if only it had done some things differently, he has observed.

And now, as a tail-end Boomer with plentiful energy, money, connections and smarts, plus a City Hall megaphone and a budget to go with it, he's in a position to make some of those things happen, however belatedly. As his giant portfolio calls for him to be the point person on everything from luring new businesses to town to negotiating with developers, Mueller now wears the political armor of his position, always with the tie on and the wingtips buffed, always exquisitely aware of what's on the record and what's off. But his less-controlled entrepreneurial roots also peak through, sometimes more than others. Yesterday, while he of course talked much about where the city is headed, focusing on his current duties, he also looked back more than he generally does in public.

After all this time, I thought I had heard all the important stories from Vantage One, about the pre-pitch diapers sent to a prospect ("because we're going to give you some ideas that will make you pee your pants") and the surprise trips to exotic locales for lucky employees. About the nerf ball free-throw-shooting contests for $10,000 with the guys whose company they were about to buy and the early guitar-strumming troubadoring with Apple Computer.
But yesterday he told a telling, moving story I'd never heard, about a small but crucial early victory for Vantage One, born of nothing but simple confidence of success--only this wasn't his confidence but the confidence he had somehow inspired in an early employee.

It seems that one of his first employees, still riding a crosstown bus to and from work each day while the company was still located at Mueller's place in Lakewood, boldly decided to go out on a limb and buy a car. He was anxious on her behalf: what if the company didn't make it, and she couldn't pay her loan?
As he recounted it, her response was simple and calming: Relax, she told her boss, for once turning the tables. I know we're going to be successful.

Might there perhaps be some parallels there for Cleveland's current crisis of confidence? After all, as another wealthy, zestful political guy once famously put it: "All we have to fear is fear itself."

Friday, June 20, 2003

The Larry Doby Story: Sunday Night at 6:30 on WVIZ

The documentary I told you about in yesterday's post is due to air this Sunday evening at 6:30, on WVIZ, Cleveland's PBS affiliate. But don't waste a perfectly good summer weekend evening watching it, just tape (or Tivo) it for later.
Now you go have yourself a good weekend...

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Larry Doby

"Just remember that they play with a little white ball and a stick of wood up here just like they did in your league."
--Indians owner Bill Veeck to Larry Doby before his first major league game, as the first black player in the American League

"Lawrence, you are going to be part of history," said Veeck. "Part of history?" Doby later recalled. "I had no notions about that. I just wanted to play baseball."

History can be cruel to the also-rans, to those more workmanlike, less-charismatic lunch pail folk who do their job and miss out (in Larry Doby's case by just three months) on making history. Fact was, he missed out twice: just missed being the first black manager, too, to Frank Robinson (of the Tribe), just as he had 30 years earlier missed beating the iconic Jackie Robinson into the majors as a player.

Needless to say, it also didn't help that he played outside of New York, where the legend mill grinds on forever, making the Brooklyn Dodgers as real an entity to most of us today as any team that still exists.
But Doby, who died yesterday in New Jersey, was really a better story in many ways: his was a story about the forgotten second man, about race (of course), about playing outside of the media fishbowl and about the different challenges of the quiet man. And in Bill Veeck, he was blessed with an equally charismatic, legendary owner as was Robinson with Branch Rickey. Actually, Veeck beats them all--as a visionary (racial and otherwise) mensch decades ahead of his time, and of course as an enduringly wacky genius at promotion.

And so we wanted to make a modest little documentary about Larry Doby. My friend Mike Bacon was the TV guy, a genius with his craft, maybe the best pure television producer Cleveland has produced in the last generation. He began working for TV stations in Cleveland (Ch. 8 during its heyday) and elsewhere, and later grew restless and along with his wife Deb started his own production company, Classic Teleproductions in Twinsburg, the very name staking out their long-term vision.
In time, he would produce so much great programming that he won more Emmy Awards than most local TV stations, more than 50 and counting thus far.

But he was especially juiced about the twin themes of sports and race. He bore down on the Negro Leagues and related subjects for years, producing histories of the Urban League and a warmly sentimental documentary on Cleveland's Negro League team, the Buckeyes. And in Larry Doby he thought he had a great subject for a locally produced documentary that might have a national audience.

Anyway, around '96 we began talking about it, and then planning a bit. He had lots of great tape already in the can, of Jim Crow kinds of scenes, southern drinking fountains marked 'Colored Only' and the like. And he began taping some talking heads sounding off about Doby and his times. In time, he got the subject himself to reluctantly agree to begin opening up as well and tentatively talk before the camera.

We took that idea and some early tape to WVIZ, where the then-new GM Jerry Wareham was beginning to stake out his plans to put his mark on the station after the long, disastrous reign of his predecessor, the station's founder Betty Cope (whom I had mercilessly drilled in a Free Times cover story illustrated with a photo of poor Betty wearing a dunce cap). We were going to convince him that this might be of some minor national interest, this great historical subject in our back yard.

Anyway, the heavens intervened, and the Sunday before our Monday meeting with him, the New York Times happened to put a story about Doby right smack on the front page of the Sunday Times for about five million readers, which only added fuel to our suspicions that we were onto something. And we walked out of the meeting with a green light from Wareham to go ahead.

Many weeks later, after lots more interviewing--with the author of a 1988 biography on Doby and the peerless Morris Eckhouse of the Cleveland-based Society for American Baseball Research (among others)--and a day trip to Chicago's broadcast archives, where we found scads of material on Veeck (almost none of which made it in), Mike and his masterfully selected team of sound guys and tape guys and editors had rendered a great half hour of TV.

And not only did WVIZ run it locally, but Jerry Wareham (at the time president of the PBS affiliates around the country) helped pave the way for it to run on perhaps as many as a dozen stations in the county, including New York's WNET. And a year later, we all stood at a podium, in a surreal moment for me (old hat to Mike and his TV vets) and claimed our Emmy statues.

Anyway, today is Larry Doby's day. A gentle man, with sad eyes and almost a mumbling manner of talking, he grew resigned to being a less famous pioneer, but a pioneer nonetheless. "Jackie and I talked often...maybe we kept each other from giving up," Larry told the L.A. Times in 1974, shortly before he became manager of the Chicago White Sox. "The only difference was that Jackie got all of the publicity. You didn't hear much about what I was going through because the media didn't want to repeat the same story." In time, he made it into Cooperstown, though.
And that book I mentioned, "Pride Against Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby" lists on Amazon today for $64.95. What better tribute to the guy could you imagine?

By the way, our Doby program is due to air again on WVIZ soon, perhaps as early as tonight (Thursday). We'll keep you posted...

Monday, June 16, 2003

The Commencement Speech

We've just been through the season of school graduations, and with it came the ubiquitous round of commencement speeches. Mostly, these little sermons are famous for their remarkable ability to be wholly unremarkable, to cause little in the way of audience expectations and generally to deliver even less. But of course there have been exceptions. Today, I bring you word of three. One is a 34-year mini retrospective from a future famous lady, and two others from a couple of my favorite writers.

Hillary Clinton is having something of a revival, now that her new book is out. (and save yourself $25, by the way, there's not much in it--here are the Cliff Notes). Anyway, that got me to wondering what it was she said in her very first brush with fame, her infamous 1969 commencement speech to her graduating class at Wellesley College. So pointed was it that it landed her on the cover of Life Magazine, presumably as a spokesperson for her generation. And so I looked it up on the web.

Unsurprisingly, it's full of all the things we've come to expect of Hillary in the years since--all the wacky, overreaching language ("we're searching for a more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living") and the remnants of the internal struggles resulting from upbringing by a coldly conservative Republican father and a quieter liberal mother. In any event, it's interesting reading.

In May, Anne Lamott, the Bush-hating, grace-besotted, recovering-addict, Christian-mystic, Bay-area genius of a writer gave the commencement address at the Left Coast's answer to Wellesley, the University of California at Berkeley. And she didn't disappoint, giving the kind of heart-felt emotional stemwinder of a talk whose seeming nihilism tends to electrify the graduates, horrify their parents and leave the university faculty and administration feeling perhaps a little of each. I'll quote from some of it, but for the entire thing, click on Salon here (you really oughta be registered for this pub--now that you can get a free subscription each day in return for watching a single ad).

I bet I'm beginning to make your parents really nervous--here I am sort of bragging about being a dropout, and unemployable, and secretly making a pitch for you to follow your creative dreams, when what they want is for you to do well in your field, make them look good, and maybe also make a tiny fortune. But that is not your problem. Your problem is how you are going to spend this one odd and precious life you have been issued. Whether you're going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over people and circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.

It's powerful stuff, and I recommend the entire address to you.

And finally, there's the Bill Zinsser '88 commencement address at Wesleyan University.
Some years ago, he sent me the manuscript, and I remember being moved at the time by its quiet power, similar to the quiet power of its author himself. Now that I'm also reading it as a parent, it seems even richer. And since it's not online, indulge me while I reprint the majority of it here:

The sportswriter Red Smith was one of my heroes. Not long before his own death he gave the eulogy at the funeral of another writer, and he said, 'dying is no big deal. Living is the trick.' Living is the trick. that's what we're all given one chance to do well. One reason I admire Red Smith was that he wrote about sports for 55 years, with elegance and humor, without ever succumbing to the pressure, which ruined many sportswriters, that he ought to be writing about something 'serious.' Red Smith found in sportwriting exactly what he wanted to do and what he deeply loved doing. And because it was right for him he said more important things about American values than many writers who wrote about serious subjects--so seriously that nobody could read them. Another story. When I was teaching at Yale, the poet Allen Ginsberg came to talk to my students, and one of them asked him: 'was thee a point at which you consciously decided to become a poet?' And Ginsberg said: 'It's wasn't quite a choice; it was a realization. I was 28 and I had a job as a market researcher. One day I told my psychiatrist that what I really wanted to do was to quit my job and just write poetry. And the psychiatrist said, 'why not?' And I said, 'Well, what would the American Psychoanalytic Association say?' And he said, 'There's no party line.' So I did. We'll never know how bit a loss that was for the field of market research. But it was a big moment for American poetry. There's no party line. Good advice. You can be your own party line. If living is the trick, what's crucial for you is to do something that makes the best use of your own gifts and your own individuality. There's only one you. Don't ever let anyone persuade you that you're somebody else. My father was a businessman. His name was William Zinsser, and he had a business called William Zinsser & Company that had been founded by his grandfather, also named William Zinsser, who came to New York from Germany in 1849 with a formula for making shellac. He built a little house and a little factory way uptown at what is now 59th Street and Eleventh Avenue. I have an old photograph of those two buildings, all alone in an open field full of rocks that slopes down to the Hudson River. That business stayed there until 15 years ago--a 125 years. It's very rare for a business to stay in the same family on the same block in mid-Manhattan for a century, and I can assure you that it builds a sense of family continuity. One of the most vivid memories of my boyhood is how much my father loved his business. He had a passion for quality; he hated anything second-rate. Seeing how much he loved his work and how good he was at it, I learned very early what has been a guiding principal of my life: that what we want to do we will do well. The opposite, however, is also true: what we don't want to do we won't do well--and I had a different dream. I wanted to be a newspaperman. Unfortunately, my father had three daughters before he had me. I was his only son. He named me William Zinsser and looked forward to the day when I'd join him in the business.(In those Dark Ages the idea that daughters could rn a company just as well as sons, or better, was still 20 years off). It was a ready-made career for me--lifelong security--and maybe I also owed it to my mother and my sisters to carry on that hundred-year-old family tradition. But when the time came to choose, I knew that that just wasn't the right thing fo rme to do, and I went looking for a newspaper job, and got one with the New York Herald Tribune, and I loved it from the start. Of course, that was a moment of great pain for my father--and also for me. But my father never tried to change my mind. He saw that I was happy, and he wished me well in my chosen work. That was by far the best gift I ever received, beyond price or value--partly, of course, because it was an outright gift of love and confidence, but mainly because it freed me from having to fulfill somebody else's expectations, which were not the right ones for me. The Herald Tribune at that time was the best written and best edited newspaper in America.The older editors on that paper were the people who gave me the values that I've tried to apply to my work ever since, whatever that work has been. They were custodians of the best. When they made us rewrite what we had written and rewritten, it wasn't only for our own good; it was for the honorableness of the craft. But the paper began to lose money, and the owners gradually cheapened their standards in an effort to get new readers (which they therefore couldn't get), and suddenly it was no longer a paper that was fun to work for, because it was no longer the paper I had loved. So on day I just quit. By then I was married and had a one-year-old daughter, and when I came home and told my wife that I had quit she said, 'what are you going to do now?' which I thought was a
fair question. And I said, 'I guess I'm a freelance writer.' And that's what I was, for the next eleven years. It's a life full of risk: the checks don't arrive as often as the bills, or with any regularity. But those 11 years were the broadest kind of education; no other job could have exposed me to so many areas of knowledge. Also: In those eleven years I never wrote anything that I didnt' want to write. I'd like you to remember that. You don't have to do unfulliflling work, or work that diminishes you. You don't have to work for people you don't respect. You're bright enough to figure out how to do work that you do want to do, and how to work for people you do want to work for.
Near the end of the '60s my wife said she thought it might be interesting to live somewhere besides New York and see what that was like. Well, to suggest to a fourth-generation New Yorker that there's life outside New York is heresy. But I began to discuss the idea with friends, and one of them said, 'you know, change is a tonic.' I didn't know that. I was afraid of change; I think most people are. But I seized on the phrase 'change is a tonic' and it gave me the energy to go ahead. I had always wanted to teach writing: to try to give back some of the things I had learned. So I started sending letters to colleges all over the country--big colleges, small colleges, colleges nobody had ever heard of, experimental colleges tha I actually went and visited; one was in a redwood forest in California and one seemed to be in a swamp in Florida--asking if they had some kind of place for me. And they didn't, because I was not an academic--I only had a BA degree, like the one you'll have in about five minutes--and it was very discouraging. But finally one thing led to another. It always does. If you talk to enough people about your hopes and your dreams, if you poke down enough roads and keep believing in yourself, sooner or later a circle will connect. You make your own luck. Well, one thing led to another, and one day I got a call from a professor at Yale who said he would take a chance and let me teach an experimental writing course for one term (by the way, that was almost two years after I had started sending all those letters). And on that slender thread we sold our apartment in New York and moved to New Haven, a city we had never seen before, and started a new life. Yale was totally generous to me, though I was a layman from out of nowhere--a journalist, god forbid. I was allowed to initiate a nonfiction writing course, which the Yale English department later adopted, and I was also allowed to be master of one of Yale's residential colleges. So those were rich years for me--years of both teaching and learning--because they were unlike anything I had done before. Now the fact that Yale let me do all this is the reason I'm telling you the story. I didn't fit any academic pattern. But finally, being different was not a handicap. Never be afraid to be different. Don't assume that people you'd like to work for have defined their needs as narrowly as you think they have--that they know exactly who they want. What any good executive is looking for is general intelligence, breadth, originality, imagination, audacity, a sense of history, a sense of cultural context, a sense of wonder, a sense of humor, far more than he or she is looking for a precise fit. America has more than enough college graduates every year who are willing to go through life being someone else's precise fit. What we need are men and women who will dare to break the mold of tired thinking--who just won't buy somebody saying, 'we've always done it this way. This way is good enough.' Well, obviously it's not good enough or the country wouldn't be in the mess it's in. I don't have to tell yo all the areas where this wonderful country is not living up to its best dreams: Poverty. Inequality. Injustice. Debt. Illiteracy. Health care. Day care. Homelessness. Pollution. Arms-spending that milks us of the money that should be going into life-affirming work. There's no corner of American life that doesn't need radically fresh thinking. Don't shape yourself to a dumb job; shape the job to your strengths and your curiosity and your ideals. I've told you this story of my life for whatever pieces of it you may have wanted to grab as it went by... If I had to sum up why my work has been interesting it's because I changed the direction of my life every eight or nine years and never did--or continued to do--what was expected. I didn't go into the family business; I didn't stay at the Herald Tribune; I didn't stay in New York. And I didn't stay at Yale. In 1979 I made a resume, like every Yale senior (they showed me how to do it--how to make it look nice), and went job-hunting in New York, and got a job with the Book-of-the-Month Club, which was still another new field for me, and in many ways those eight years were the most interesting years of all. So don't become a prisoner of any plans and dreams except your own best plans and dreams. Don't assume that if you don't do what some people seem to be insisting that you do, in this goal-obsessed and money-obsessed and security-obsessed nation, it's the end of the world. It's not the end of the world. As my experience with my father proves, something very nourishing can happen--a blessing, a form of grace. Be ready to be surprised by grace. And be very wary of security as a goal. It may often look like life's best prize. Usually it's not....For you, I hope today will be the first of many separations that will mean the putting behind you of something you've done well and the beginning of something you'll do just as well, or better. Keep separating yourself from any project that's not up to your highest standards of what's right for you--and for the broader community where you can affect the quality of life: your home, your town, your children's schools, your state, your country, your world. If living is the trick, live usefully; nothing in your life will be as satisfying as making a difference in somebody else's life. Separate yourself from cynics and from peddlers of despair. Don't let anyone tell you it won't work. Men and women, women and me, of the Wesleyan Class of 1988: There's no party line. You make your own luck. Change is a tonic. One thing leads to another. Living is the trick. Thank you.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

The Shelf Life of Advice, or the Mentoring Boomerang

I had a wonderful opportunity this morning, thanks to my friend and blogging colleague Steve Goldberg, to publicly sound off on some interconnected subjects about which I care deeply. They include business journalism, supporting entrepreneurship, breaking through the noise and fog to find stories that matter and just generally translating between two often warring camps, company owners/founders and the media. But I get ahead of myself...

Steve has been a key force in organizing one of the latest--and dare I say most promising--additions to the regional lineup of grassroots entrepreneurial support organizations, NeoBio (website coming soon, so check back). It's designed, among other purposes, to communicate to the region and its media and other players that there are actually a whole lot of interesting companies in this space that you may not have heard about, although you should have. And the group's kickoff, a panel discussion with local business writers and editors, happened this morning in the University West building, home for well over a decade to a dense web of business incubation and other programs such as Enterprise Development that support and nurture promising start-ups.

In moderating a panel of representatives from all the major business print media (with but a single exception, more about which later), I had several pleasant surprises. But perhaps the most gratifying of all involved having some mentoring advice played back to me in public after several years.

Dustin Klein, executive editor of SBN, in talking about his approach to story selection, was kind enough to dredge up some advice I had imparted when we were staff colleagues, and which I had completely forgotten (but which nevertheless sounds like something I would have said). I apparently tossed off an observation that when you (as a writer or editor) hear about a new upstart company for a third time in a brief span, that probably means it's time to write about that person or company.

About three years ago, I had a similar but even more touching experience of boomeranging advice. My good-friend-bordering-on-third-brother Anton Zuiker--who was the very first blogger I personally knew, having figured out the technology way before any other writer of my acquaintance (with the possible exception of that human exception himself, Jack), and who's now in North Carolina pursuing the twin curricular tracks of new fatherhood and master science writer, invited me to his 30th birthday party.

Anton's an impossibly warm, sentimental and grace-struck guy, and so his brief welcoming remarks to his guests in the lovingly furnished starter apartment he and Erin had at Shaker Square were just like the guy. I was bathing, even marinating, in those words, when suddenly he veered off and hit me with the verbal equivalent of a ton of bricks. He recounted how I had told him, back when we first met and he was a stunningly successful undergraduate editor of the school paper at JCU, that would-be writers should use the decade of their 20s for intake (to live, travel, read, drink in people and events and experience) before getting serious about their output, the writing, in their 30s. And here he was, newly 30, and thus he was prepared to really write (in truth, he cheated, having written lots of splendid articles before hitting 30. To at least begin to get your hands around his entire ouevre, as the French would say, click here AND READ IT ALL).


These almost theological moments of affirmation, hitting with stunning force that the then-fledgling was not only listening to one's blathering but remembering and putting it into practice years later, are simply reminders of what every teacher has always known: be mindful of the seeds you plant and the words and examples you use. Because those bits of advice and examples and words will one day sprout into fully formed lives of wonderful people, in ways you simply can't begin to grasp. And for my part, there's simply no telling how much "generative" fulfillment (excellent word choice, Barb!) that can provide to the boomerangee.

Friday, June 06, 2003

A Few Scattered Thoughts

A debate is heating up over what exactly constitutes acceptable journalism, and just where do bloggers and blogging fit in. I've just added a few logs to the fire by responding to a posting from Chris Thompson on George Nemeth's blog. But this recent Wired article adds a few other interesting insights to the debate. "More and more I'm running into myself on Google," reports one Madrid-based blogger. A search-engine optimization guru adds a crucial insight: "The web is the great equalizer. Good content rises to the top of the Internet. It doesn't matter if the medium is a blog or a corporate Web page."

In other words, writing for the web is something of a radical meritocracy, which lots of traditional journalists have a problem with. It makes them really nervous that they might actually have to compete for readership or audience respect solely by the power of their arguments or writing style or how compelling their subject is. You can't coast on the fact that you have a staff job at a well-respected pub and then write crap.

And this new story really points up how hard it's becoming for those in power to enforce the nice rules of silence which often amount to little more than censorship, as long as there are who can directly report on events of interest. Seems that a blogging lawyer and a venture capitalist had a stronger urge to communicate with their audiences than did the well-behaved "journalists" who tamely agreed to stop taking stenography when their patrons insisted, their audience be damned. Said San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor, one of the first high-profile bloggers in straight journalism, said it best: "conference organizers cannot make an event off the record only for the official journalists anymore. The rules of 'journalism,' whatever that is, are changing. This is just one more example."

Enough said about that for now. Suffice to say that we'll be hearing lots more years of self-righteous indignation from journalists who are driven to distraction by the possibility that millions of people who aren't in their profession might actually be able to write better, more compellingly, with more passion and knowledge than they. That's a scary idea for people used to thinking of their professional status as an ID card that mostly serves to keep the hordes out, but that doesn't make it any less true.

Here's a good example for you. Matt Welch is a guy some of you may have heard of. He got his start as a writer primarily on the web, in the functional equivalents of blogs or self-publishing. And yet his profile and reputation have grown incredibly, based on just one thing: the guy can write! Check out this article, for instance. Read this, and then tell me that he's not a first-rate writer and thinker.

On to other developments: Rookie blogger of note. Recently I nominated Kukral for the prize, and his last week of entries have done nothing but confirm that status. His take on Feagler was especially interesting (but in fairness, I wanted to point out that poor, lazy Dick F. could once write like a dream, back when he did some work. Try this heart-tugger, for instance, on the last days of the Cleveland Press. It's sublime. Too bad he hasn't written like this in at least 10 years. Jimmy K. also has a pretty good sense of humor. Check out this little animated head app that he put together on a page that's a take-off on Google.

Anyway, Kukral's successor as the rookie blogger to watch is none other than Bill Callahan, a name perhaps familiar to you if you've been in the neighborhoods movement. For years, he's run programs on the near west side, in something called the Stockyard Association. Bill ran a couple of interesting events around the theme of the digital divide, which he billed as Digital Vision. And he's even received funding from the man himself, Mario Morino, which is all the vote of confidence I need.

Bill's West Side Computer Community Center is even reputed to be increasingly collaborating with Dan Hanson and his Computers Assisting People, which is a welcome development that gives a nice geographic balance (near east/near west) to those related efforts. With all that as background, check out his blog when you get a moment.

And speaking of Dandy Danny Hanson, my heart dropped for him just a moment, when I learned that United Way's Community Vision Council has teamed up with Cleveland Public Library to debut an attractive, well-funded site for seniors. Called, it comes complete with eye-catching signage throughout the library (motto: "The Web Site for People Who Weren't Born Yesterday"). This will compete directly with Dan's spunky self-funded site, Clevelandseniors, which isn't the most graphically appealing thing, but contains some wonderful content if you know where to dig.
But there's enough out there for everyone. I'm just happy that Cleveland Public (which is actually the third largest public research library in the country), under its energetic, charismatic new director Andrew Venable, is fully living up to its ambitious slogan as "The People's University."

Thursday, June 05, 2003

The Perfect Storm

That's how I think of the month just gone by (technically all of May and this first week of June). I've had a handful, but only a handful, of months like this in my life. And that means months that are half blessing and half curse, with no easy way to separate the two...

Let me explain. Personally, professionally and calling-wise, this has been a month of blurs, with time racing by, projects coming so fast and furious as to take one's breath away but others having to be pushed back to within an inch of their lives or beyond (requiring me to humbly seek forgiveness from a few folks). Both of my darling boys (Michael and Patrick) had the kind of months that they--and their mom and I--will cherish forever (more about which later). I was blessed with a monster web project that fell out of the sky on little notice and dominated the month's schedule, to the near exclusion of everything else (a serious problem, but an opportunity as well, like much of life). And that came just days (or was it hours?) after having just finished up one of my favorite smaller web projects, which was unique and special both for the quality of the company and the guy, Kim, as well as for the fact that I never got to meet him (in Chicago). So I got to stretch a new muscle I didn't know I had--which is to collaborate with someone long distance in sucking from them the vision of their baby in however they articulated it, and then converting it into words that bring alive their enterprise--or at least aspire to that. And the thrill of it was how basic meat-and-potatoes was this company, and yet how excited they got about what the web could do for them. Before we finished Phase 1, he was eagerly discussing aloud Phase 2.

That merely served as a warm-up for a call that came over the transom from an old, trusted friend, informing me that a $100-billion-plus company HQ'ed right here in our favorite city was in URGENT need of a single external resource to come camp out for a month in the offices and help them write and mostly edit large portions of their site, to be relaunched sometime soon. Two days after our initial conversation, the call came to get started. Try as I might, I just couldn't turn that down. But those other dropped balls usually juggled in the air are a painful issue...

Then there was the unbelievable spectacle of the Times/Jayson Blair seismic tremor, which has just today ended in the only way it could, by expelling the phony, authoritarian bully starving for affection (always a bad combination) masquerading for too long as the editor of the NYT editor (Howell Raines) and replacing him at least temporarily with someone who has the brains, sense and temperment for an adult job. And Joe Lelyveld has some fascinating Cleveland ties, of which I'll soon write. He spent some quality time here in his youth, while his father, the late (and nationally known civil rights pioneer) Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld oversaw Fairmount Temple and then served for a few years as a faculty member guessed it: John Carroll (sorry, Steve G.). I was charmed to spend several hours over a handful of sittings with the Rabbi in the late '80s, listening to his spell-binding narratives about the similarities of seemingly opposite faith traditions (Catholic and Jewish) and compelling war stories about Freedom Summer in the south, before humbly trying to squeeze this giant life into a profile worthy of the name.
And finally, of course, there was my fifth annual? (think I skipped a year in there somewhere) journalism event, where I'm blessed to be able to mobilize a network of smart, inquisitive people to engage in a group discussion about some seminal issue in journalism and community-building and related issues. Only this year, it got larger and more complex and so much more satisfying than in past years (which is saying something). Because this year, it turned into much more than a simple event--it helped galvanize (internally) and introduce (externally) a vital subculture to the larger community and spark conversation and radical coalition-building collaboration that's only just beginning, and will lead to who knows where.

And Goldberg, we will have to soon find that back office for the revolution (direct all questions about that item to our colleague SG...
In any event, this frenzied, crazed, fulfilling, maddening, emotionally overloaded month came to something of a culmination last night, in a church on the east side, within a stone's throw of JCU, and again the Jesuits played a central role.

As my oldest, Miguel as I called him, waited in line in the back of the church to file into the Church of the Gesu (or Jesus in Latin) to receive their diplomas signifying their 8th grade graduation, I quietly slipped back with a camera to drink in the sight. As I saw that boy-man standing confident and erect in his smart blue blazer that his mom found at rock bottom rates (but looking for all the world like it came off the rack from Brooks Brothers), wearing my own borrowed yellowish tie, I was nearly overcome with joy and pride and awe. For a moment, I almost had to gasp for air as I tried to choke back welling tears so I wouldn't even put a dent in his sublime enjoyment of the moment, written all over his face. And a moment later, learning that he and a classmate were chosen to say a quick word of welcome to the giant audience, I did lose it.

And as Fr. Snow--the young Jesuit priest who always reaches out and touches the kids and compells their attention with his deft blend of personal storytelling and narrative flair, using stock characters from his childhood or even G.I. Joe dolls for show and tell as the situation requires--began his sermon, the audience grew quiet and leaned in to listen.
"Go out into the world, as the best that Gesu has to offer, and be men and women for others," he said.
And in that moment of pride and power and possibility, I felt humbled by the rushing force of the realization that this month full of highs and lows, joys and exciting new ventures, had just ended on the highest, most appropriate note possible.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003


It took a few days to come back down to earth after that phenomenal blogger ball last Thursday evening at Flannery's. More than 80 writers, bloggers, techies "and random smart people" as one blogger brilliantly put it, showed up to investigate all the noise and/or commune with like-minded folks. Here's what we know for sure:
--Eric Olsen is fast becoming a folk hero for his manic, jazz-like riff, a briliant piece of performance art that electrified anyone who witnessed it. Had it had been taped, it would have had a months-long afterlife bouncing around the web like that infamous minute-long clip of Steve Ballmer madly exhorting fellow Microsofties to eat their young at a company sales event (briefly earning him the nickname Monkey Man). Only Olsen's Ode was perhaps even more calculated--I think he wanted to wake up what was becoming perhaps a too-earnest evening with a visible, palpable reminder of what the energy of the web and blogging--and the writing life--is all about, or at least should be. And like every good writer, he simply ignored, hell, he obliterated, the silly boundaries that had been put before him and got to the heart of the matter at hand. Forget trying to do this in 5-7 minutes, he figured, I'm just going to get up here and give them the 12-gauge shotgun and see what happens. And what happened was magic.

--Jim Kukral gets rookie of the year, for his reconstituted blog. But actually, that's cheating, cause the guy is as experienced as they come, and he'll be welcomed back to the scene, embraced by his peers for his dashing, slashing style and his dead-on observations. We're especially awaiting his observations about business blogging, which is where this is all heading, especially for those of us who subscribe to the principal that our only goal in life is to make it unclear about whether we're working or playing.

--The legend of G will continue to grow, as well as his role as network hub, fed by his manic caffeinated work ethic (he does have a fulltime job, allegedly) and ease of networking with geek and non-geek alike.
--Like a good performer who leaves the stage too soon rather than too late, Don coquetishly (and humbly) raised his skirt just enough to leave us all hungering for more insight on his thinking and his approach. We'll need a night with him alone in order to pull it all out of him.
--Schumann's Toastmaster training was on display, with the clunky opening joke and all. But that only served to endear him all the more to an audience that's long-overdue to hear from him.
--Jim Miller took the unprecedented but welcomed step for an old leftie organizer: he actually did some marketing, preparing a one-sheet backgrounder on his listserv, What's Up in Northeast Ohio.
Here's some WSC (woulda, shoulda, coulda) regrets, the kind one gets as they replay an event tape, and begin thinking about the things that were missed (though there'll be plenty more chances to make it up):
--How could we have overlooked shining the spotlight on the national-class eminence among us, Kenn Louis?
--Or on the ever-quotable Jack R., two of whose books, on collaborative creativity and accidental conversations, serve as something of a theoretical underpinning for the movement in these parts (remember how the old Communist parties had a minister of theory)?

Still, these are relatively minor quibbles, all things considered. Thursday night's real enduring contribution is at least two-fold: it brought together smart, curious people from different industries (that ordinarily don't much talk to each other) into a new kind of network community. Chris Thompson, in attendance that night, may well have been thinking about this when he wrote (or at least posted) the next morning about how Cleveland's various business networks "are comparable to proprietary computer networks with no ability to communicate with other networks...We can complain until the end of time about the closed, conservative nature of Cleveland's business community. Or we can work to reshape and revolutionize it." And as Don Iannone wrote in his stunning new Conscious Living blog, the event helped all of us "to see more clearly the complex web of people in the Cleveland area who search for connectivity with themselves and others."

After last week, I feel hyperconnected just now. How about you?